Blaine Harden of the Washington Postwrites that up to 300,000 North Korean refugees currently live in China, and 80% of recent arrivals are women. Most of them leave North Korea not because of the oppressive regime, but because of hunger and poverty. In China, many wind up being sold to farmers as brides. As the wives of Chinese men, North Korean women usually have much better food and shelter than they did back home, and are protected from the Chinese police. However, since China refuses to recognize them as refugees, they have no legal status and may be deported if they offend their husbands. Any children they have frequently lack residency papers and thus have trouble attending school. Essentially, women who flee North Korea leave behind crushing famine for a "stateless limbo" in which they are forced into marriage and may be sent back home if they don't behave.
Those who are deported are considered criminals by the North Korean government, and often sent to labor camps. Bang Mi Sun, a former actress, was permanently disabled by a beating after Chinese police returned her to North Korea. Of her time in a labor camp, Bang (who subsequently escaped to South Korea) says,
I had to live the life of an animal. If I had a chance to meet with President Obama, I would first like to tell him how North Korean women are being sold like livestock in China and, second, to know that North Korean labor camps are hell on earth.
Experts have speculated that because Ling and Lee are American and "bargaining chips" for North Korea to gain concessions, they won't actually be sent to the infamous labor camps. Terrible as their ordeal is in itself, it may also bring attention to the horrors faced by thousands of other women. At least Ling and Lee have people fighting for them — hopefully, their efforts will bring them home. But women like Bang Mi Sun have no political power and no one to advocate for them — perhaps, now that their hardships are gaining exposure, that will change.
N. Korean Women Who Flee to China Suffer in Stateless Limbo [Washington Post]