Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Human smugglers roundtable: Kyunghee Kook

Kyunghee Kook
26 March 2016


Provided by author

Question 1 – the rhetoric surrounding smugglers is packed with graphic images of violence and exploitation. What does your research indicate? Are smugglers really parasites profiting on human desperation, or, at the end of the day, do they provide a service to those on the move?  How do we move the conversation forward?

 ‘Smugglers’ are often demonised as on a par with, or indistinguishable from, traffickers in academic and international non-governmental writings. They are also stereotyped as unscrupulous individuals willing to deceive innocent migrants, luring them into exploitative situations for their own personal gain. My ethnographic work on North Korean mobility through smuggling networks, and on the multiple roles, motivations and identities of smugglers, challenges these ideas in many ways.

Smuggling operations that move North Korean women into China function using small-scale brokerage through transnational networks. The women’s migration process is operated through layered stages of brokerage primarily involving three different groups or networks of smugglers/brokers: first, informal smugglers who facilitate undocumented border-crossing; second, relatively professionally organised brokers or smugglers who link North Korean women’s mobility with marriage; and third, small-scale brokers based in China who generally recruit Chinese grooms and help North Korean women settle down in China.

The interviews I have conducted with North Korean migrant women suggest that they view smugglers and brokers as absolutely vital service providers – they cannot move and act directly in China because they are illegalised, and therefore someone has to broker all arrangements that make life possible, including moving and marriage. My empirical research draws attention to the fact that 'brokerage' and 'smugglers' are important but insufficiently discussed in the literature.

Question 2 – media, academic and policy circles suggest that human smuggling is a gateway into human trafficking. Many times both terms are used interchangeably. Does your work provide any insight into these phenomena and what does that say about migration?

North Korean smuggling to China is extremely perilous, and escapees are not safe once across the border. In China, they are vulnerable to arrest and repatriation because of their illegal status. This vulnerability often leads them into conditions and relations that are associated with what is typically described as ‘trafficking’. North Korean migrant women are frequently depicted as ‘victims of trafficking’ into forced marriage and prostitution through professional traffickers involved in transnational criminal groups, evidence for which has been amply supplied by media, academic research, and the reports of humanitarian groups.

However, discourse on ‘human trafficking’ arguably over-generalises North Koreans’ migration. My empirical research data reveals that their experiences of exploitation and abuse ranges along a continuum, with some North Korean escapees living in poor but not violent conditions while managing to reside in China and remit money home. Importantly, the majority of North Korean women I interviewed drew a distinction between ‘traffickers’, who they viewed as dishonest, and ‘smugglers’ or ‘brokers’, whom they saw as honest or trustworthy.

The distinction between what is termed human ‘smuggling’ and what is termed ‘trafficking’ is ambiguous and does not help us challenge the human rights violations faced by many North Korean women escapees: being ‘smuggled’ (voluntary contract, relationship with smuggler ends on arrival) does not necessarily mean the absence of victimisation. A smuggled woman can end up trapped in violent exploitative relationship. So the focus on smuggling/trafficking distinction is only really any use and interest to states looking to determine whom they shall punish, ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ (smuggling), or just the ‘perpetrator’ (trafficking).

Question 3 – another myth connected to smuggling is the one pertaining to its organisation. We hear of smugglers organised into cartels, networks or transnational groups, but also of small-scale operations. What does your work suggest, and what does that say about irregular migration?

North Korean irregular migration is often depicted in the media, academic research articles, and NGO reports as operated by large-scale and transnational trafficking organisations.

However, there is a good deal of evidence to show that North Korean smugglers generally rely on small-scale operations. My empirical research data on the experience of migratory North Koreans who have managed to escape to South Korea shows that the majority of the North Koreans move illegally across the border into China, independently, with no assistance of a smuggler. They then offer smuggling services themselves to other North Koreans. Some North Koreans moonlight as informal smugglers, working only through their personal networks with family, cousins, friends, neighbours and acquaintances, whereas other informal smugglers have extended networks that draw in the North Korean military and border guards as well as professional brokers in China. It is those who have connections with the military and border guards who are most successful in their smuggling ventures, and it is therefore unsurprising to find that many informal smugglers are men who have previously served in the military.

In spite of small-scale operations, it is revealed in my ethnographic findings that North Korean smugglers have a divergent range of interests. Some have an interest in ‘smuggling’ for simple greed, but others have a purely altruistic interest and seek to assist those wanting to escape from North Korea. My ethnographic research on North Korean ‘smuggling’ suggests that the dominant discourses and policies have failed to grasp the complex realities of North Korean irregular migration. It also reveals that the differences between trafficking, smuggling, and migration are constructed rather than essential, which contributes to disturbing forced/voluntary dyads.

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