WESTERN LIAONING PROVINCE, China — The North Korean woman drives a motorbike slowly down a narrow lane shaded by tall corn to the farmhouse where she lives with the disabled Chinese man who bought her.
It's been 11 years since she was lured across the border by the prospect of work and instead trafficked into a life of hardship. In those years, she's lived with the dread that Chinese police will arrest her and send her back to be jailed and tortured in North Korea. She's struggled with the scorn of neighbors who see her as an outsider.
But most of all, she's been haunted by grief and regret over the children she had to leave behind.
“When I first came here, I spent all day drinking because I worried a lot about my kids in North Korea,” said the woman, who asked to be identified only as S.Y. due to safety concerns. “I was quite out of my mind.”
Experts estimate that thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands, of North Korean women have been trafficked across the border and sold as brides since a crippling famine in North Korea killed hundreds of thousands of people in the mid-1990s. Brokers tell the women they can find jobs in China, but instead sell them to Chinese men, mostly poor farmers in three border provinces who struggle to find brides in part because Beijing's one-child policy led to the abortion of many female fetuses.
Like S.Y., many of the women have children still in their homeland.
Their plight is largely ignored, partly because the women almost never agree to interviews. The Associated Press spoke with seven trafficked North Korean women and three Chinese husbands.
Because the women have been trafficked to China, they are living in the country illegally and have never officially married their husbands.
Some of the North Koreans get along with their new families and are satisfied with their new life in China. Others are abused by their husbands or ignored or mocked by their new relatives and neighbors. Others have risked the perilous journey to South Korea — with some having to make the heart-wrenching choice to leave children behind again, this time in China.
The brides who stay
The first years were the hardest were for S.Y.
A widow from a city near Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, she didn't even give her two sons a proper goodbye when she left for China, thinking she would be able to quickly return home after making some money. Instead a broker sold her to her new husband for 14,000 yuan ($2,100).
Though the now 53-year-old said she was treated well by her Chinese husband — and the two have a daughter together — she was never able to forget her North Korean children who she last saw in 2006.
One day, saddened and frustrated, she swallowed a box of sleeping pills in a suicide attempt. When she was revived she said she began to realize that her half-Chinese daughter needed her.
She's passed on the chance to flee to South Korea, saying she worries about leaving her daughter and husband, a poor farmer with polio.
“I'm living here because of my family ... and because I feel grateful to my husband,” S.Y. said. “What matters is not breaking up our family.”
Her 55-year-old husband and his relatives sold hogs and corn to pay brokers to check on S.Y.'s children in North Korea. They found that her brother was raising her sons and S.Y.'s husband sent 15,000 yuan ($2,260) to help support them.
“I felt really, really good when I first met her,” S.Y.'s sun-bronzed husband said, his crutch by his side. “But I'm a disabled man and I thought it was unfair to her. She could have met a better husband.”
Two other North Korean women interviewed in western Liaoning province said their husbands treated them well, but others described abuse. One former bride who fled to South Korea said her Chinese husband tied her to a post for hours after she once tried to escape.
The women who stay live with the worry of being arrested and repatriated to North Korea. They avoid traveling because they say authorities in recent years require citizens to show their ID cards before leaving the area. They speak little Chinese, have few local friends and don't enjoy the same social and medical benefits that ordinary Chinese have.
They stay because of their half-Chinese children.
“My 10-year-old son knows his friends’ (North Korean) mothers have all fled, so he's very obedient to me because he worries I could leave him too,” said another North Korean woman from a village near where S.Y. lives. She asked to be identified by only her surname, Kim.
Chinese authorities, including the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing and police in the three provinces closest to North Korea where most of the women end up, did not respond to requests to comment on the plight of the trafficked brides.
A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry said in a written response that China has worked to fight the trafficking of women and children in recent years by strengthening laws, efforts that “have had noticeable results.”
The brides who flee
For North Korean brides who want out of Chinese towns, South Korea is a tempting option because of the promise of citizenship, resettlement money, almost-free apartments and no language problems.
But reaching South Korea requires a long, treacherous journey and once again putting trust in brokers. Some lie to their husbands and say they'll return after making money in South Korea. Some flee in the middle of the night. Often they have to leave their children behind.
After living in a village in China's northeastern Liaoning province for 2 1/2 years, Kim Jungah could no longer bear the possibility of her daughter seeing her dragged away by Chinese authorities.
“I slept badly every night,” the 41-year-old said. “Whenever I heard the sound of cars, I was afraid they might be the police.”
So in 2009 she left, thinking that later she could persuade her husband to come to South Korea with her daughter if she made enough money. She eventually made such an offer, but her husband rejected it.
Kim hasn't spoken to her daughter since early 2013, when her husband changed his phone number after finding that she had gotten married in South Korea.
She said her daughter's biological father is actually North Korean and that she didn't know she was pregnant when she was sold to her Chinese husband in 2006 for 19,000 yuan ($2,860).
During a recent visit to the man's house, Kim's daughter, now 10, looked cheerful and healthy as she ran around her yard. Her Chinese father said he treats the girl like his biological daughter and that she's doing well at school.
Kim said she would give her former husband 50,000 yuan ($7,530) if he sends her daughter to her and if he refuses she will sue him. He said he won't allow the girl to reunite with Kim until she becomes an adult.
The man, who asked that his name not be revealed in order to protect the girl, called himself a victim of “marriage fraud.”
“She came here, bore a child and left,” the 50-year-old said. “She had food and a place to live. I don't understand why she left.”
Others have been able to reunite.
North Korean defector Kim Sun-hee, 38, who came to South Korea in 2008, lives in a small apartment near Seoul with her Korean-Chinese husband, Chang Kil-dong, 48, who bought her for 8,000 yuan ($1,200) when she was 18.
Chang, now a manual laborer in the South, said he was delighted when his wife called him to come to South Korea because he thought she might abandon him. Still the two don't like to talk about how their relationship started.
Chang said he wishes he could go back and instead of paying a broker, give money to his wife's family in a traditional marriage contract.
“It was human trafficking,” he said.
All three of the North Korean women interviewed in China left children behind in their homeland, thinking their trip across the border would be temporary.
S.Y. wants to raise hogs to make money to hire brokers again so she can find out how her sons in North Korea are doing. Kim, the woman with the 10-year-old half-Chinese son, said she is too poor to hire someone to search for her 12-year-old son who she left back home in 2007.
“I cry whenever I think about my child in the North,” the 46-year-old said.
So many North Korean women have run away — 13 out of 15 in one of the women's village — that those who stay are looked down on.
“People call us ‘hens.’” S.Y. said. “They say we aren't real mothers because we lay eggs and then flee to somewhere else.”
The children of North Korean women left behind in China also face a stigma. One of the North Korean women said her daughter's high school classmate, whose mother fled soon after he was born, is often teased at school.
Some of the women who fled to South Korea are conflicted — torn between the life they have made for themselves and the life they were sold into. A woman who fled to South Korea in 2006 has not contacted her Chinese family even though she has a son there because she was treated poorly.
She asked to be identified only as Y because of worries that publicity about her past could destroy her new life, adding that the South Korean father of her newest child left them when he found out about her life in China.
“Some might say I am cold-hearted, but I left that house determined never to go back,” she said with tears in her eyes. “Now I sometimes feel like going there because I'm curious about how my boy has grown up. But I can't do that.”