The investigation, by the London-based Korea Future Initiative (KFI), includes shocking first-hand reports of girls as young as 12 being raped and women being forced to participate in cybersex for days without eating.
Though female defectors have long been targets of human traffickers, the problem has been exacerbated in recent years due to what the reports claims is a spike in demand inside of China.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
There are no official statistics on the number of North Koreans that leave the country and settle outside South Korea. Aid groups have reported that tens of thousands of North Koreans live in China as refugees, according to a 2014 United Nations report. The KFI claims the number could be as high as 200,000.
KFI — a nonprofit that focuses on North Korean women, children and minorities who are the victims of human rights abuses — estimates that as many as 60% of female North Korean refugees in China are trafficked into the sex trade.
“At a time when significant global capital is invested in China and, more recently, political capital expended on North Korea, it is a damning indictment that North Korean women and girls are left languishing in the sex trade,” the organization said.
“Condemnation is insufficient. Only tangible acts can dismantle China’s sex trade, confront a North Korean regime that abhors women, and rescue sex slaves scattered across brothels, remote townships, and cybersex dens in mainland China.”
CNN has not been able to independently verify the report’s claims.
A 98-page report from Human Rights Watch published in November reached similar conclusions as the Korea Future Initiative regarding the risks female defectors face. The US State Department also acknowledged reports of violence against women defectors in its 2018 report on human rights practices in North Korea.
The Korea Future Initiative’s report took two years to compile, the group said. The authors said they interviewed more than 45 survivors and victims of sexual violence whose testimony pieced together a “complex and interconnected illicit industry that accrues vast profits from trafficked women and girls.”
North Koreans who flee across the border into China risk their lives to do so. They are not free to leave their country and are severely punished if they do so without permission. The country is separated from China and Russia by a river and armed guards.
If defectors manage to make it into China but are then caught, they are forcibly repatriated, as China considers them economic migrants rather than refugees fleeing persecution. North Koreans who are returned face severe punishment, torture and even execution, according to defectors and rights organizations.
Within China, many North Koreans who avoid the authorities are still not safe, especially women. China’s one-child policy, which was relaxed in 2016, has led to a demographic gender imbalance in which men far outnumber women.
Human traffickers have been reported to fill the demand for more women by selling North Korean defectors to Chinese men as wives.
Human Rights Watch said traffickers promise to help defectors make it to South Korea, but then sell the women as brides or into the commercial sex trade.