North Korean math whiz who defected in Hong Kong

The North Korean defector who mysteriously snuck away during an international mathematics contest in Hong Kong is believed to be Jong Yol Ri, a three-time silver medalist at the annual competition, the South China Morning Post has learnt.

A photo of Jong was sent to a Whatsapp chat group of some 100 university students helping at the 57th International Mathematical Olympiad a day after the team of six North Korean students were last seen at the event’s closing ceremony. They were asked to look for the math whiz. No one responded to the message, the source said.

CCTV footage from the university is understood to show a student leaving the campus alone.

It is believed that subsequently, a defector sought refuge at the local South Korean Consulate General, more than 20km away.The Consulate General remained tight-lipped, saying it was the South Korean government’s position that it would not confirm anything about the defector.

The North Korean delegation left with one member short and flew back to Pyongyang via the mainland on July 19.

[South China Morning Post]

5 points of tension between North Korea and US

Five points of tensions between North Korea and the U.S. as shared by Pyongyang’s top diplomat for U.S. affairs, in an AP interview on Thursday:

  • Kim Jong Un on a list of sanctioned individuals – Han Song Ryol, director-general of the U.S. affairs department at North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, emphasized the authoritarian country’s anger over Washington’s July 6 announcement putting leader Kim Jong Un on a list of sanctioned individuals in connection with alleged human rights abuses documented by the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Pyongyang denies the allegations. “The United States has crossed the red line in our showdown,” he said. “We regard this thrice-cursed crime as a declaration of war.”
  • War Games – Han warned against planned U.S.-South Korean war games next month. “By doing these kinds of vicious and hostile acts toward the DPRK, the U.S. has already declared war against the DPRK. So it is our self-defensive right and justifiable action to respond in a very hard way,” he said.
  • US Diplomat’s flight – Han castigated Mark Lippert, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, for a July 12 flight on a U.S. Air Force F-16 based in South Korea. He called it an action “unfit for a diplomat.”
  • Differences in stance on nuclear weapons – North Korea has been hit with several rounds of international sanctions over its continued development of nuclear weapons and missiles, but Han contended the U.S. is to blame. “It is the United States that first developed nuclear weapons, who first deployed them and who first used them against humankind,” he said.
  • North Korea won’t give up nukes – As North Korea has many times before, Han dismissed calls for Pyongyang to defuse tensions by agreeing to abandon its nuclear program. “We … are very proud of the fact, that we have very strong nuclear deterrent forces not only to cope with the United States’ nuclear blackmail but also to neutralize the nuclear blackmail of the United States,” Han said.

[Associated Press]

Vetted North Korean student defects in Hong Kong

A North Korean student in Hong Kong is seeking asylum in the city. A 18-year-old male student, who was not identified, took refuge at the South Korean consulate in Hong Kong, according to local newspaper Ming Pao.

The student was part of an official delegation in Hong Kong this month for the International Mathematical Olympiad at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST).

Walk-in defections are relatively common at South Korean missions in South-East Asian countries which are the target destination for North Koreans escaping their country through China.

But defections by members of official delegations travelling abroad are rare, because they are carefully vetted before being granted exit visas and closely monitored during their stay overseas.


A rough life as a North Korean refugee

North Korean defectors who make it across the border to China find they have no rights and cannot legally find jobs in China, so they must scrape by on the margins of society — which is still less risky than trying to get out of China. Some estimates suggest that there are hundreds of thousands of North Koreans living this way in China.

Most defectors simply want to pass through China and start a new life in South Korea or another country that will provide them with legal protection.

For those defectors from North Korea who reach South Korea, they automatically become South Korean citizens after a mandatory three-month transition that is part debriefing, part re-education.

On the positive side, refugees received a few thousand dollars to start their new lives and learned skills most people take for granted: grocery shopping or using an ATM.

On the flip side, most North Korean defectors in the South stand out. They have distinct accents, and are often shorter and slighter with darker, sallow skin from years of malnutrition. It’s hard to avoid South Koreans’ prejudice and suspicions that North Koreans are spies.

North Korean refugees speak at Seoul University

A conference hosted at the Seoul University of Foreign Studies will feature North Korean refugees who will share their stories at a panel event with scholars, activists and volunteers.

“We have three different aims: to raise awareness about North Korean issues, given an opportunity for refugees to practice their speech skills in front of a live audience, and inspire people to get involved,” Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR} co-founder Casey Lartigue said. “We have been doing this for a little more than three years and we have matched 250 refugees with about 440 volunteers,” Lartigue said.

There are two aspects to the program. Track one focuses on teaching English and track two is for refugees who want to engage in public speaking.

[The Korea Herald]

China expected to renege on sanctions against North Korea

International cooperation on sanctions against North Korea is showing signs of a rift as China has become reluctant to push North Korea as it protests the planned deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery in South Korea, analysts said Monday.

A lack of action by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is spurring speculation that China may be refusing to cooperate, angered by the planned deployment of the U.S. missile shield. China has long opposed the THAAD deployment on South Korean soil, claiming that its radar system could be used to penetrate Chinese territory.

The North Korean military has increased military drills that require the consumption of large amounts of aviation fuel, indicating that China, its main provider of oil, may be supplying the North with fuel for military use despite the embargo on it.

Analysts said that following the THAAD decision, sanctions on North Korea may not gain any momentum due to China’s non-cooperation.

[The Korea Times]

China warns THAAD will destabilize regional security

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has criticized South Korea’s move to deploy THAAD, an advanced U.S. anti-missile defense system to counter threats from North Korea, saying it harmed the foundation of their mutual trust, news reports said on Monday.

The announcement by South Korea and the United States this month that they would deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense unit has already drawn protests from Beijing that it would destabilize regional security.

The decision to deploy THAAD is the latest move to squeeze the increasingly isolated North Korea, but China worries the system’s radar will be able to track its military capabilities. Russia also opposes the deployment.

South Korea and the United States have said THAAD would only be used in defense against North Korean ballistic missiles.


Kim Jong Un has his generals in stitches

North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un seemed a world away from worry as he visited a fish food factory, amid reports of a shrinking economy and a UN ban on the import of luxury goods.

The autocratic leader laughed and joked with his generals as he was taken around the factory, at an undisclosed location, earlier this week. His inspection of the food manufacturing plant is just the latest in a series of factory visits, which are used as propaganda to portray the communist leader’s interest in state industry, according to the BBC.

Despite Kim’s jocularity however, the leader has been dealt a huge blow as the Swiss government imposed a ban on the export of luxury watches to North Korea, according to the US-backed Radio Free Asia. The Supreme Leader has long been fan of the country’s expensive timepieces.

[Daily Mail]

South Korean law professor encouraging engagement with North Korea

On April 29, 1992, South Korea’s top intelligence agency arrested dozens of activists for plotting to overthrow the government by building underground socialist organizations. One of those arrested was Baik Tae-ung, the then 29-year-old activist sentenced to life in prison, a sentence which was later reduced to 15 years. Baik was designated as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and released in 1999 through a special pardon from former President Kim Dae-jung. He flew to the United States, where he earned a doctoral degree on international human rights law and passed the bar exam in the State of New York.

Now the activist-turned-professor has returned to South Korea with a new mission – to bring home people abducted by North Korea. In 2015, his activities won him the membership of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, representing Asia-Pacific states. The U.N. human rights expert said that his agency’s role is to act as a bridge between the families of the abductees and their government.  “The organization fosters communication between the victims and their state by constantly monitoring the case until final closure,” Baik said.

To date, North Korea has refused to discuss the disappearances issue since the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Right reported back in 2014 that the regime was responsible for the disappearances of more than 200,000 people.

Baik suggests there are possibilities that the North may open up toward international organizations, indicating some changes that it made home and abroad amid international pressure on its human right condition. “I think North Korea is and has been making changes. Whether the changes are active or passive ones, they can no longer ignore the pressure from the international community. What we should do is to steer such changes in the right direction,” he said.

“I don’t think that the U.S. has a clear blueprint about how to improve the North’s human rights condition,” he said, noting that the sanction on the leader Kim is more of a security measure to curb nuclear development rather than a human rights approach.

[The Korea Herald]

North Korean defectors have never even heard of human rights

After graduating from middle school in 1979, I entered the North Korean military and after training I served for 11 years, and later became a farmer. In the early 1990s, life in rural areas was much better for workers than in the city. They had access to food distribution from farms, small plots of land and vegetable gardens. By 1995 though the food shortage started to affect us.

From 1996, the amount of food being distributed halved. It decreased by another 30% by 1997, and many died of hunger in rural areas. The food shortage hit my family in 1997. My mother, my wife, and my son died of hunger that winter. Everyone but one son.

I decided to escape North Korea so that he could live. I set off for the Tumen River with my young son in April 1998. There were police officers everywhere, sentries checking every road, but I found a way to cross over to China.  Finding work was hard because I had a young child. I would work but only for food.

Despite the hardships, I tried to listen to South Korean broadcasts every night.  The presenters were knowledgeable about the reality of North Korea. This is when I realized South Korea was not what I thought it would be. I decided to try to get there. I felt that both of us would die if we got caught, so I decided to try and get to South Korea first and left my son in the hands of a Korean Chinese person. I said goodbye to my son in May 1999.

The winter journey through the Mongolian desert was so tough that it amazes me even now that I was able to cross it. I had to survive in order to see my son again. I was determined.

I settled in South Korea in 2000. The government gave me $9,300 as a settlement fee and I used it to look for my child. I found him in March 2001 and planned to bring him to South Korea.

A group of people traveled with my son, but the guide was caught by a Chinese officer and the group dispersed. My son got left by himself in the desert and died on my birthday. I always feel guilty for not giving him a better life.

[Excerpts of an article in The Guardian, by Ryu Ki-ho]