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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM VLADIVOSTOK: Marriage as a Survival Tool

When Eun-byol crossed the Tuman River from North Korea into China three years ago, she was nearly bald from malnutrition after subsisting on a diet of grass and shredded bark mixed with an occasional spoonful of rice.

The 27-year-old woman had nowhere to go in a land where the Chinese police arrest and send home North Korean refugees. So she allowed a marriage broker to sell her to Young-shik, an ethnic Korean farmer in China's Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. For 3,000 yuan - nearly a year's wages - he bought a wife.

Though her hair has since grown back and she bore a child who rides around tied to her back with a blanket, she is haunted by the memories of the Stalinist North. The couple have moved four times to evade the Chinese police.

"But I had no other choice," said Eun-byol (her name and her husband's are pseudonyms). "If I continued to stay there, I would have died."

I interviewed the couple during a recent trip to Yanji, China, not far from the Russian and North Korean borders. While the story I came away with - the sale of women as "sexual slaves" in China - is as old as Chinese history, this latest manifestation stirred up troubling thoughts about North Korea, fewer than 100 kilometers south of Vladivostok.

Up to 3 million people died in the famine of the late 1990s, and North Korea has sold much of its industry as scrap metal in China. Now it is selling its women and girls. Of the estimated 28,472 North Koreans in three northern provinces, some 75.5 percent are females who were sold as wives or prostitutes, Good Friends, Inc. a Seoul humanitarian organization, reported last fall.

Demographics drives the traffic in women. Yanbian's rural women are fleeing the villages, heading for Yanji to work in restaurants and karaoke bars. This leaves ethnic Korean farmers struggling to find brides.

In the case of Young-shik, he saved for years to buy a wife. "The first time we met, the broker said, 'Do you think she's OK?' And I said, 'Yes.' If you don't like her, they will find you someone else," Young-shik said.

As Eun-byol tells it, North Korea is a land that is divided by a huge rift between rich senior Party members and destitute ordinary citizens. The train stations are crowded with homeless people, who sleep in the waiting room seats or on the floors that are crawling with vermin. At the time she left, malnourished children sometimes stopped in their tracks and lay down in the streets to die. She once saw a wealthy man beat to death a child who had stolen a piece of cake.

Places like North Korea force policy-makers to confront questions that most of us would rather not face. Do you let people starve because of their government? (In the case of Iraq, the United States has decided the answer is yes.) Or do you provide aid that props up paranoid, brutal regimes, as foreign countries are now doing in North Korea? But that itself raises further dilemmas: Eun-byol told me the government of Kim Jong Il enriches itself reselling the rice donated by Japan, South Korea and the United States. A kilogram costs 150 won, the equivalent of two months' wages.

Russia, too, faces difficult choices with North Korea, and lately it seems to be flubbing them. How can Russia, with its wisdom accumulated through surviving Stalin and Brezhnev, countenance returning a family of refugees to imprisonment in North Korea, as happened last fall in Khasan? And what about the Vladivostok employers who import North Korean construction workers and hand over their wages to their government? Some have accused Russia, by permitting the practice, of condoning slavery on its territory.

Eun-byol's all-consuming struggle is to stay in China. Prisoners in North Korea do not live long, she said. In a country where there is insufficient food for civilians, prisoners are fed nothing at all.

Eun-byol's son is not registered and therefore will not be able to attend school when he grows older. Her own life is at risk, as is her younger sister's, for the girl, too, has been sold to another Korean-Chinese farmer.

Yet despite the unhappiness of their circumstances that joined them, Eun-byol and Young-shik have found a degree of peace together. After an hour of talking while kneeling on the floor of their home, the couple fell silent, gazing timidly at each other. It was clear I should leave. Before long it would be dark out. Young-shik and Eun-byol were afraid.