Sung-min (not his real name) was well-off and a college graduate in North Korea. But he was disenchanted with his country and decided to leave. In January 2007, he crossed the Tumen River into China.
“The border guards told me to go to a church where I could get help but I refused because I was an atheist. At first, I hid out in an apartment in China. A Chinese man I got to know during the river-crossing ended up bringing over a preacher to me who I had refused to meet him at first. He said he understood my hardships and told me that Jesus died on the cross to give me eternal life.
“I cried, knelt down and prayed with him and made the decision to become a Christian.”
Today, Sung-min works on a Christian radio program in South Korea, which promotes unity among North and South Koreans in preparation for reunification. He says, ” I believe around 10 million North Koreans are listening to our program on mobile devices.”
Sung-min believes many of the North Koreans who have defected and become Christians have returned to their country in order to share the Gospel. He estimates 30,000 of them belong to the underground churches in North Korea.
Sung-min adds, “I believe God has a plan for us and will reunite Korea in his time and in his way. Our program aims to embrace the differences and restore common identity of the people of two Koreas.”
The number of North Korean defectors arriving in South Korea during the first half of 2018 fell by 17.7% compared to the same period in 2017, according to official statistics recently released by the South’s Ministry of Unification (MOU).
If the trend continues through to December, this year could become the first time since prior to 2001 where fewer than 1000 defectors enter the South in one calendar year – just one-third of the peak recorded in 2009.
Of the defectors arriving in South Korea, 88%, were women – representing a small rise in the female-to-male ratio compared with the same period in 2017. This ratio has slowly risen in recent years, first reaching 80% of the total in 2015 and 83% for the full year in 2017.
Women currently make up 72% of all recorded defectors, which, according to the MOU, now stands at 31,827, having passed the 30,000 mark in November 2016.
But numbers have been dropping since Kim Jong Un assumed power at the end of 2011, due to a range of new and varied proactive measures by North Korean authorities.
Before settling in South Korean society, all newly arriving North Koreans are required to undergo three months of “training for social adaptation” inside the MOU-operated Settlement Support Center for North Korean Defectors, also known as Hanawon.
Jae-un is the lone survivor in a family of five siblings. Her father was taken to a labor camp in North Korea when she was 2 years old, and never heard of again. During the Great Famine in the mid-1990’s, her only brother died of malnutrition. Her mother died on the road while trying to find food to bring back to her starving family.
Jae-un, vividly recalled in tears, the hardship they went through. “During the famine, we only got rice once in three days. When my mother died, we did not have the strength to bury her. My older sister went to China to earn a living for the family. She sent money once to buy rice but I never heard of her after that. I learned that she was sold as a slave. My other sister engaged in smuggling, got caught, and was sent to a labor camp where she also died.”
Out of desperation, Jae-un decided to escape from North Korea. One night in December of 1999, she crossed the Yalu River and swam for the Chinese border. The water was freezing and the current was so strong but she was determined to survive.
After arriving in China, she was sold to a man who she ran away from because he did not treat her well.
It was then that Jae-un joined a Bible study group in China. She remembered the woman she met prior to her escape who spoke to her about God. Jae-un said she was impressed with the woman’s kindness. “She gave me money to buy three months’ worth of rice and she told me that God is alive and is with me since He is the Father to the fatherless and the defender of the widows. I had heard of God in North Korea but I was also aware that believers are taken to prison.”
Jae-un married a North Korean man she met in church and they eventually made it to South Korea.
Recent negotiations between North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump have provided a glimmer of hope for the hermit kingdom’s economic outlook. Markets are now watching to see whether the North Korean leader follows through with his pledge to denuclearize.
The next step will be policy reforms, which will open North Korea’s economy to foreign investors. Credit Suisse analyst Trang Thuy Le estimates North Korea could become a $100 billion economy within 10 years if it takes a path towards modernization.
And Le cited another interesting fact about North Korea: some industry experts speculate that it may be sitting on a vast amount of untapped natural resources. “South Korea’s state-owned mining company Korea Resources estimates that North Korea’s mineral reserves — coal, iron ore, zinc, lead, copper and rare minerals — could be worth in excess of $6 trillion,” Le said.
That amounts to 190 times North Korea’s 2016 GDP of around $32 billion.
To gauge how North Korea’s growth projections would look if it opens its economy, Le compared it to three other countries that went through a similar modernization process. “We take the experiences of South Korea in the 1970’s, China in the early 1990’s and Vietnam in the late 1990’s as guides to the potential for North Korean growth to rise,” she said.
Based on the experiences of those countries, Le said North Korea could generate real GDP growth of 7-8% per year in local currency terms. At that rate, the economy would grow to around $100 billion in size, which would see per capita income would rise from $1,258 to around $4,000.
President Trump released a letter he recently received from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The letter is dated July 6 and was given to Secretary of State Pompeo delegation to deliver to Trump while the group was in Pyongyang last week to continue talks on denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, senior administration officials tell CNN.
“A very nice note from Chairman Kim of North Korea. Great progress being made,” Trump said in a tweet that also included a copy of the correspondence from Kim.
While lacking in specifics about the status of diplomatic talks between the US and North Korea, Kim’s letter lavishes praise on Trump, repeatedly referring to the President as “Your Excellency.”
“I firmly believe that the strong will, sincere efforts and unique approach of myself and Your Excellency Mr. President aimed at opening up a new future between the DPRK and the US will surely come to fruition,” Kim writes. Kim says the Singapore summit and the letter both leaders signed during that meeting are “indeed the start of a meaningful journey.”
Trump also touted his meeting with the Kim Jong Un while at NATO, calling it “an amazing meeting” and saying the two “established very good relations.”
Trump’s release of the letter comes amid growing skepticism around Pyongyang’s willingness to denuclearize as North Korean officials continue to use typical tactics to stymie talks following Pompeo’s overnight visit to Pyongyang last week. Although the top US diplomat was promised a meeting with the Korean leader, Kim did not meet with Pompeo.
North Koreans also did not show up to a meeting planned for Thursday to discuss the return of remains of US service members killed during the Korean War. Trump had held the return up as one of the successes of his June 12 summit in Singapore with Kim.
The Trump message to Kim Jong Un was direct and blunt: You, your father, and your grandfather have all touted your nuclear program as a guarantee of regime security. Policies of previous U.S. administrations allowed you to persist in that delusion. Not this one.
President Trump used a two-track approach to drive the threat home. First, his “fire and fury” rhetoric was accompanied by credible, calibrated leaks of administration preparations for kinetic action that, depending on Pyongyang’s response, could readily escalate to destruction of the Kim government.
At the same time, the president seized on an even more plausible and readily available instrument of regime change: North Korea’s internationally-condemned crimes against the humanity of its own population. With the proper mix of covert action, strategic communications, and coordination with North Korean defectors, the despised Kim machine could be effectively dismantled without the massive carnage inherent in major military conflict.
To China’s Xi Jinping, Trump was equally clear: You will no longer be able to garner undeserved international prestige as a responsible and moderating force while duplicitously enabling and protecting North Korea’s mounting existential threat to South Korea, Japan and the United States. Chinese entities, both official and commercial, which subvert international sanctions against North Korea, will pay an increasingly heavy price.
These indicators of Trump’s seriousness brought Kim Jong Un to agree to meet with President Trump in Singapore.
Presently, It is clear there is now a test of political will between Washington and Beijing on trade, Taiwan, the South China Sea and North Korea.
A United Nations official called for an investigation into the defection of North Korean restaurant workers to the South in 2016, saying at least some of the group appeared to have been deceived into leaving and hinting that Seoul officials were responsible. The fate of the waitresses has become a source of tension between North and South Korea, threatening to strain the cross-border detente that has blossomed over recent months. Pyongyang says the women were abducted by Seoul’s spy agency and has demanded their return.
On Tuesday, Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, said that his interviews with some of the women revealed concerns about how they ended up in the South. He has urged the South Korean government to repatriate any who wished to return to North Korea.
Seoul says the 12 women and their male manager defected willingly from the restaurant in China where they worked. North Korea has long sent workers abroad to earn money for the regime; as part of that effort, Pyongyang operated dozens of restaurants in numerous countries employing North Koreans.
North Korea has used the issue to try to extract concessions from the South, presenting the Moon administration with a dilemma: Risk hurting the current detente by refusing, or set a precedent of returning defectors to North Korea, which could discourage future defections.
[Wall Street Journal]
South Korea’s blueprint for railroad links through North Korea to China and Russia falls well short of Kim Jong Un’s vision for developing his impoverished nation, according to a defector who provides economic research to the government in Seoul.
Defector Kim Byeong-uk, 55, teaches North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul and runs a small private economic research firm. Kim’s research firm interviews defectors to gather information about facilities ranging from factories to schools and hospitals. Kim said: “What South Korea wants is to connect the Korean Peninsula to reach out directly to Russia and China, but what the North primarily wants is to shore up its own economy by bringing in more money from overseas to its special economic zones.”
Kim Jong Un has increased the number of special economic zones more than fivefold to 27 since succeeding his father as North Korea’s leader in 2011. While the regime in Pyongyang has focused on military and nuclear deterrence to ensure its survival, the time may have arrived for boosting the economy.
Kim’s wife, Kim Young-hui, who is a specialist on the North at the Korea Development Bank in Seoul, concurs with his view that most of economic zones in the North remain severely underdeveloped. “North Korea is dying to see an inflow of multinational and U.S. companies to its economic zones,” she said. “If Americans go to North Korea and start living there, then there’s virtually no chance that the U.S. would attack it or start lobbing bombs there. What could be a better security guarantee than having U.S. citizens in the country?”
She and her husband made their way to Mongolia before defecting to South Korea with their two sons.
[The Japan Times]
Growing up in North Korea, Gim Gyu Min listened to banned radio broadcasts from the South that turned him against his own country. “I was born in a normal worker family,” he said. “My father was a weapons technician, and my mother worked at the local state-owned market.”
As a student, he turned to activism. He destroyed several symbolic sites of the state, including a local polling station. He was arrested and while in prison awaiting trial, Gim realized he would be sentenced to a prison camp. In order to be sent to a hospital instead, he swallowed a nail, causing enough injury to require surgery. After the operation, he took advantage of lax security during a public holiday to escape and flee across the border into China, where he was arrested and returned to North Korea.
This time he was imprisoned at the Chongjin Detention Center, a political prison in the mountainous northeast corner of North Korea, relatively near the Chinese border. From there, he escaped a second time, again taking advantage of the public confusion during a holiday. Crossing parts of China and Mongolia on foot, he was finally rescued by the South Korean government.
Gim had good reason to flee a North Korean concentration camp. Political prisoners in the camps have been ordered to dispose of corpses and women have been forced to kill their own babies, according to a 2014 UN report. Some escapees have described watching the mortal remains of prisoners being “burnt like rubbish” and their ashes used as fertilizer.
It is not unusual for entire families, including young children, to have been incarcerated as a form of collective punishment against a single malcontent who committed the same sort of anti-state activities as Gim. As for his own family, Gim has heard they’re all dead.
Gim Gyu Min is a filmmaker dedicated to making movies that expose the human-rights abuses in his native North Korea.
His movies are based on events that he witnessed during the North Korean famine. In the late 1990s, he watched a woman being arrested for cannibalism after she resorted to eating her own son. Gim’s 2015 movie “Winter Butterfly” was sparked by her story.
Today Gim is openly decrying South Korea and the US for not publicly condemning North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s human-rights abuses. “It is wrong not to make North Korean human-rights abuses an issue,” Gim emailed from his office in Seoul shortly after the June 12 summit. “Peace that excludes the human rights of North Koreans cannot be a genuine peace.”
“Since the June 12 summit, we know the North’s propaganda machine has been working flat out to portray it as a success for their ‘Great Leader.’” The harsh realism of Gim’s films contrasts sharply with the glitzy meeting in Singapore, where the dictator posed for selfies and was generally feted like a rock star. Is it any wonder that defectors are worried their concerns will be lost in the diplomatic shuffle?
“It may be nostalgia and revenge for my family that’s driving me to make films about human rights,” Gim said.
[New York Post]