Flower Girls: Prostitution in Hyesan, North Korea

A fall 2009 dispatch from the Daily NK in Chinese (and its English translation) indicated that a prostitution scandal was breaking in Hyesan, North Korea’s fourth largest city, a gray metropolis which sprawls along the banks of the shallow Yalu river across from the Chinese city of Changbai.

[Google Map of Hyesan/Changbai available here.]

I spent a few days in Changbai in July 2009 to gather impressions of North Korean-Chinese interactions. From talking to locals, I collected a fair amount of anecdotal information about cross-border trade, social interactions in Changbai-Hyesan, and the impacts of the 150-day speed campaign in the DRPK. Just for the record, Hyesan appears to have quite a few more lights on at night (I counted more than forty) than more-wealthy Sinuiju. I also found some nice healthy Jilin marijuana plants all along the Chinese side of the river.

Apart from the occasional Daily NK article or intrepid Western photojournalist (like this in April 2009) who plays chicken with KPA border guards (“I point my camera, you point your rifle, we both get what we want”), it is an area not frequently traveled by Western journalists or academics.

As to the prostitution story: the energetic human-rights blogger Joshua Stanton picked up the story, necessitating another post-facto translation job on the part of your friendly author.

In any case, my task is to clean up and expand upon one Daily NK translation. Let’s get to it.

My modified format has the original Chinese followed by my modified English version. Blue indicates data that does not show up at all in the Daily NK’s original English version, but that is unquestionably part of the Chinese version of the same article. Orange indicates a significant change in interpretation more faithful to the Daily NK’s original version.

Citation: 李成进 [中国长春特派员], 惠山查处有组织卖淫案件: 公然在干部专用住宿设施中交易 … “皮条客”拿走收入的一半, Daily NK, 31 August 2009 Lee Sung Jin [Special Reporter in Changchun, PRC], Hyesan Investigation Reveals Incident of Organized Prostitution: In Boarding Facilities Expressly for [Workers’ Party] Cadre, ‘Pimps’ Openly Walk Away With Half the Money, ” Daily NK, 31 August 2009.

Article text [Blue=new data previously untranslated by Daily NK; Orange=improved translation]:

[1] 有消息称,两江道惠山市近日查处了一起有组织卖淫案件,道党委派出的“非社会主义因素审查团”正在对主要住宿设施及青年惠山站附近的民居进行审查。According to information, Ryangang Province, Hyesan City recently investigated an incident of organized prostitution. The provincial Party dispatched an “Group for the Investigation of Unsocialist Elements” which is currently investigating the principal hotels and activities of residents near the Hyesan Youth Station.

[2] 两江道内部消息人士25日透露:“上月20日‘惠明旅馆卖淫案’被查出后,旅馆负责人和客房负责人、会计等被关进了道检察所。”“不仅是铁道旅馆、站前旅馆、惠山饭店,青年惠山站附近的民居也都被列为审查对象.” According to a leak from a Yangang Province source on [August] 25th, “After the ‘Hyemyung Inn prostitution incident’ blew up on the 20th of last month, the person responsible for the inn, the manager in charge of the rooms, the cashier and others were all locked up by the provincial prosecution office.Not only the Station Inn, but the inn behind the station [Wiyeon Rail Inn?], the Hyesan Hotel, and residential areas near the Hyesan Youth Station are the target of a series of inspections.

[3] 位于惠山市惠明洞的惠明旅馆是一所中央党干部们经常入住的国营住宿设施。但是旅馆的李某负责人和白某负责人从2005年开始组织惠山地区的女性从事卖淫。他们以1万 – 1万5千(朝元)的价格在干部专用客房留宿嫖客,以4千(朝)元的价格在普通客房留宿嫖客。 The Hyemyung Inn is located in Hyesan’s Hyemyung-dong district. It is a state-owned and -operated inn where central party cadre often stay. But from 2005, the superintendant, Mr. Lee and the manager Mr. Baek began to organize women in Hyesan areas to sell sex. They charged a price of 10,000 to 15,000 North Korean won per room for rooms only used by cadre, and 4,000 won per room to average customers.

[4] 据消息人士称,惠明旅馆的卖淫活动暗语叫做“卖花”。负责人根据嫖客的要求介绍不同价格的“花”。他们甚至召募刚刚初中毕业的女孩子从事卖淫。According to the source, prostitution activities at the Hyemyung Inn were spoken of in code as “flower sales.” The managers connected male customers to variously-priced “flowers” according to their demands. They even summoned girls who had just graduated from middle school to engage in selling sex at the inns.

[5] “卖花”的女性被分为四种:“红花”(10多岁到20岁刚出头)、“蓝花”(20多岁的未婚者)、“黄花”(有夫之妇)、“紫花”(寡妇)。由专门的‘皮条客’给负责人提供卖淫女。“皮条客”还以4:6、5:5的比率拿走卖淫女的收入。Girls “selling flowers” were divided into four classifications: “red flowers” (girls over ten years old through those just over 20), “blue flowers” (unmarried women over 2o), “yellow flowers” (married women) and “purple flowers” (widows). A specialized “pimp” provided the superintendant with the women through another supplier. The “pimp” and the prostitutes divided payments for their services with the suppliers at a 40:60 or 50:50 ratio.

[6] 消息人士称:“最贵的‘红花’的收费是2小时2万(朝)元,一夜4万元。”“这些”皮条客”与中国方面也有联系,卖淫女们甚至跨越国境到中国的长白县卖淫。The source said: “The most expensive ‘red flower’ costs 20,000 won for two hours and 40,000 won for the entire night….This pimp has connections on the Chinese side, so some prostitutes even crossed the border and went to Changbai county to work.”

[7] 旅馆负责人与厨房负责人的矛盾导致事件暴露. “惠明旅馆卖淫案”是因为旅馆负责人和厨房负责人的矛盾才得以大白于天下。厨房负责人被旅馆解聘后怀恨在心,把旅馆组织卖淫的真相给捅了出来。Contradictions between the inn superintendant and the kitchen manager caused the incident to be exposed. The “Hyemyung Hotel Prostitution Incident” happened because contradictions between the inn superintendant and the kitchen manager brought the incident out into the open. After being dismissed, the kitchen manager’s heart was full of hatred, and the painful truth came out [lit. “the truth was given out in jabs”].

[8] 道党委认识到事态的严重性,立即组织道检察所、道保卫部干部组成的审查团,将审查对象扩大到了两江道内所有住宿设施。道保安局和惠山市保安署还对青年惠山站附近及惠山市场周边等地的民宅进行了住宿审查。The provincial committee of the Party recognized the gravity of the situation, and organized the provincial prosecutor’s office and provincial Security Agency cadre into an inspection group to expand investigation of hotel facilities across Ryangkang Province. Furthermore, the provincial People’s Safety Agency [Pao-an] and the Hyesan city PSA agents were still carrying out inspection in the vicinity of Hyesan Youth Station and Hyesan Market and other areas to investigate lodging activities in people’s homes.

[9] 此次审查目的在于扫荡有组织卖淫和个人卖淫。This purpose of this investigation was to cleanse [the area of] organized prostitution and individual prostitution.

[10] 在审查过程中查出,惠山饭店和站前旅馆也经常性地组织过卖淫活动。As a result of the investigation, it was revealed that “Hyesan Hotel” and the inn behind the station had also been regularly engaging in prostitution activities.

[11] 站前旅馆是一所位于青年惠山站附近惠场洞的11层楼的普通住宿设施。它虽然是主要面向利用青年惠山站的列车旅客的住宿设施,但是据悉主要利用者更多的是嫖宿者。The inn behind the station is a common 11-floor facility located in Hyejang-dong near the Hyesan Youth Station. Although its primary aspect as a facility is to house rail passengers passing through the Youth Station, it is reported there are many more customers who arrive instead to spend the night patronizing prostitutes.

[12] 惠山饭店是外国人专用设施,只有中央党干部以上的本国人才能利用。这里主要向来自中国的商人们提供卖淫。Hyesan Hotel is used especially [exclusively] by foreigners, and is thus a is a place which, for Koreans, can only be accessed by central Party cadre and higher levels. Most people who come here are Chinese businessmen who use the prostitutes.

[13] 朝鲜的国营住宿设施实施有组织卖淫的事实早已从90年代末开始就在居民们当中流传。随着“苦难行军”的开始,粮食、用电、区南等问题导致住宿设施的运营面临困境。部分住宿设施就开始给卖淫人员或“皮条客”们提供客房。The fact that organized commercial sexual activity has been taking place in state-owned hotels has been circulating among the citizens since the late 1990s. Shortages of food, electricity, heating and other problems during the “March of Tribulation” period led to great difficulties in the operation of such facilities. [In this period,] a portion of the rooms began being given to prostitutes or “pimps” to use.

[14] 据消息人士讲,收押在两江道检察局的惠明旅馆负责人为自己辩解称:“为了旅馆的运营不得已而为之。”惠山饭店的负责人也诉称自己是为了筹措饭店的重装费用才以这种方式赚取外汇,并要求从宽处理。According to a source in Hyesan, when being put in the Ryanggang Provincial Investigative Office, the manager of the Hyemyung Inn told the policeIf I wanted to keep my inn in business, I could not do otherwise.” The Hyesan Hotel manager also begged for leniency, claiming that he had no choice but to engage in foreign-currency earning activities in this way to generate the necessary funds for re-modeling.

[15] 消息人士表示:“‘150天战斗’开始后,卖淫女的数量呈几何数地增加。”各种农村支援和建设劳动的动员次数增加,市场运营时间限制在下午4时以后,原本以做买卖营生的城市人口的收入随之大幅降低,最终增加了很多迫于生计卖淫的“生计型”卖淫女。The source also explained, “Since the 150-Day Battle began, the number of prostitutes has progressively increased.” As households are also beingmobilized in increasing numbers for farm aid and construction labor, markets are opening at past 4pm, the income of households in the cities has dramatically decreased. Ultimately this has resulted in an increase of women compelled into prostitution, or “survival prostitutes.”

[16] 朝鲜当局在8月8日实施的“关于贯彻党的群众路线,清除一切不正腐败现象”的讲演会上列举了具体事例对近来成为社会问题的卖淫活动做出了强烈的批判。The North Korean authorities, at an August 8 lecture meeting called “Regarding Implementing the Party Mass Line, Eliminating All Unjust Corruption” which took place on August 8th, strong criticism was made of prostitution activities among a list of specific examples of recent social problems.

[17] 但是朝鲜当局能否可以通过此类政治教育和审查及时查处和根除卖淫活动还是未知数。因为近来出了有组织卖淫,“生计型”的个人卖淫也开始在居民区扩散。 However, it is difficult to assess whether or not the North Korean authorities can really reduce prostitution activities via such political education and harsh inspections. Because with the recent revelation of organized prostitution, “survival-type” of individual prostitution has also begun to spread among the people.

Commentary (Numbers refer to paragraph numbers in original article.)

1. One aspect that gets underplayed in the translation is the extent to which much of the prostitution activity in North Korea is actually not organized; the article describes subtly how state pressure drives the sex trade into new places. In this sense, the very entropy of the North Korean sex trade forms a very different structural picture, than, say, the comfort women system which some persuasive writers like Joshua Stanton have drawn in with reference to this story.

3.  A minor point of fact emerges here which may shed some light on the marketization of North Korea: the Chinese version implies that “customers” could pay more for a room used by officials/cadre. In other words, “customers” other than North Korean officials may also be using the rooms designated for officials and paying the higher prices for sex. After all, as we learn later in the piece, Chinese businessmen are involved in paying for these services as well, and, having some familiarity with the culture of Chinese high rollers born in the 1950s, it seems likely they would be both willing and interested in paying whatever price to have the “prestige” of experiencing the high (and rather corrupt) life of a North Korean party cadre.

In the same paragraph, the phrase “ran a prostitution ring” comes up, and while it can be translated this waythe Chinese basically says “organized women in the Hyesan area to sell sex.” To me anyway, the very matter-of-fact way this source from Hyesan describes it implies less “human trafficking” than the possiblity of a rational choice made by the prostitutes, or, at a minimum, the lack of horror of the Daily NK’s source in talking about the matter.

4. Zhaomu [召募], the operative verb, to my knowledge, means “to summon,” not “to coerce.” I’m open to other interpretations, but it again the word choice of the translator leans one toward the idea that these women were forced into the work, when the Chinese source is more ambivalent if not opposite in its meaning.

Same thing with “as young as”; this appears to be translator editorializing, or “didactic translation.” I think the point is clear enough in the original version. Obviously if they just graduated from middle school, they are very young.

5. Although numerical data isn’t a strength of this article, one gets the sense that this is a big operation.

6. The bad thing about this article being written from Changchun is that sometimes people forget to consult their maps. The original version of the article says some of the prostitutes “went as far as Changbai to work.” Hello! Changbai is directly across the river from Hyesan.  For the record, Changbai itself is not a very big city (e.g., low demand for prostitutes), and is likely more of a gateway to the interior for human trafficking, not a destination.

7. The discussion of “contradictions” in true communist style among this kitchen manager and his ostensible boss must have been intense. It doesn’t appear that either one of them was getting incredibly wealthy from the enterprise. This notion of built-up resentments, the culture of vendetta, is one that I’ll leave for others to analyze.

8. Again, the new translation sheds further light on the throughgoing marketization of North Korean society and the state’s efforts to roll it back wherever it crops up. The cops are there not just to discover prostitution activities, but to figure out if private citizens (as happens in China) are renting out their dwellings to take a cut of the proceeds from various illicit liaisons.

12. Anti-Chinese sentiment in North Korea, anyone?

16. Paradoxically, a return to the ethos of the late 1950s and adherence to Kim’s writings of that era, minus the war shadows, would probably be welcomed by many North Koreans, that is, if the DPRK hadn’t already let the capitalist genie out of the bottle. Given what has been showing up in recent Good Friends reports, it seems quite likely that corruption, prostitution, etc., would indeed be the subject of Party meetings.

17. Here, for the first time, is your actual last sentence of the article. And like a “secret track” on some obscure death-metal band’s 33 1/3 record, it is damned ominous. In other words, the author seems to imply that now that the state has cracked down on brothels in Hyesan, the sex trade is simply going to metastasize into the general population. This is a cruel world people are living in.

A Final Note on Cultural Resonance and Regime Legitimacy

There is on last bit of tragedy in this story that may not be apparent to some. The hotel’s signification for the prostitutes as “flower girls” trods directly upon a major trope in socialist film in the DPRK; “flower girl” is also shorthand for a very popular film of the 1960s in the DPRK which features a pure girl who ultimately takes a tragic path in colonial Korea. (Film footage of the film “The Flower-Selling Girl,” or 卖花姑娘, can be viewed in the link; see also UC Santa Barbara scholar Kim Suk-Young, [who has already made a major contribution via her work in North Korean refugee memoir genre] in Illusive Utopia: Theater, Film, and Everyday Performance in North Korea, forthcoming with U. Michigan Press in 2010.) If it’s true — and I certainly don’t doubt it — this story of prostitution in Hyesan, as it spreads through the population, further alienates the Party from the people, because it raises all kinds of additional tropes for the Workers’ Party.

In some ways this is where the DPRK gets snared again in its own propaganda. The more the Workers’ Party appears to be acting like the Japanese occupiers, the greater the chance that their already tenuous legitimacy outside of Pyongyang and the KPA will evaporate forever. Yet, finally, in both these novels and in the fisticuffs of the two men running the prostitution ring in Hyesan, we are reminded of the impulse for vengeance. It is a powerful idea in North Korean art, of angry brothers vowing death to the defiler, the stories of families enraged by the choices they face. If the Hyesan prostitution story holds true, there are some very angry and ashamed brothers, fathers, and husbands walking around the northern edge of Ryanggang province. If in fact the relevant inn managers are still alive in two years’ time, I would be very surprised.

Here, in closing, is the plot synopsis for “The Flower Girl,” via a DPRK press release (via Koryo Tours) and NK Econwatch. It is definitely something to think about:


As it teaches the truth that the exploited and oppressed should turn out on the road of struggle and revolution in order to carve out their destiny, the revolutionary opera has gripped the hearts of the people for its ever-increasing attraction and vitality.

The opera is based on the profound seed theory that a flower girl selling flowers out of sorrow and filial piety eventually emerges in a struggle and revolution. It raises the serious socio-political point that any amount of devotion and sympathy can’t save the destiny of the poor in a society where exploitation and oppression prevail.

Watching the opera, the audience grasps the truth that the people of a stateless nation who have been deprived of sovereignty [food] are more dead than alive, and only when they set out on the road of revolution to fight can they defend the sovereignty of the nation [their wombs and their dignity] and enjoy a genuine life as an independent people.



  1. Re-translating these Daily NK pieces is, I think, actually really valuable. I first came across the articles in Chinese and noticed a slightly different tone in the English translations– or maybe not a different tone, but at least some omissions.

    I’ve always heard, just anecdotes here and there, that Chinese women were brought to NK to work as prostitutes, but mostly in the various hotels that serve foreign guests. The Yanggakdo International Hotel sorta openly runs a massage parlor, for instance.

    1. Dylan, thanks for the comment and glad to hear you found the translation useful. I wish I had more time to crank one of these out well, “daily,” but for now I’m hoping to make it at least a sporadic feature of this blog.

      I should add that I very much enjoyed your essay on Sept. 6 and the translation of “90后,喝狼奶长大的一代?” (“Were the children of the 90s raised by wolves?”)

      Along the lines of your recent essay, I can never finish the Ding Ling novel! DPRK’s anonymous revolutionary novel Sea of Blood (血海), I can do, but I couldn’t even get through William Hinton’s 翻身。 They feel anachronistic somehow, and neither novel feeds my own interest in transnational interactions (admittedly a trend in my field). But verismo trends in literature are certainly worth watching.

  2. Thank you, I envy you your energy in writing and translating.

    There are some good, good revolutionary Chinese novels about China running up against imperialist evil in Korea. 《春天》 is the one that comes to mind first, Chinese volunteer soldier saves Korean mother and child, mother ends up blowing herself up with a grenade.

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