North Korean soldier defects crossing border into South Korea

A North Korean soldier defected Thursday after crossing the border and entering South Korea, according to a press release from the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The South Korean military says the soldier crossed the mid-eastern portion of the Military Demarcation Line — which is located inside the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two countries — at 10 a.m. local time.

It’s not clear how or why he defected, but the South Korean military said it will investigate.

The defection comes amid a particularly tense time in North-South relations.

[CNN]

No indicators of North Korea releasing two American hostages

North Korea is holding two U.S. citizens as “prisoners of war,” regime officials have told Americans lobbying for their release, as the months drag on with no word about the pair.

During this period of Kim Jong Un’s military launching a stream of increasingly longer-range and more reliable missiles and conducted its fifth nuclear test, there has been no word on Otto Warmbier, a business student at the University of Virginia, and Kim Dong-chul, a South Korean-born naturalized American citizen, since they were separately sentenced to years of hard labor in North Korean prisons in March and April respectively.

“I am certain that North Koreans will keep Otto Warmbier and Kim Dong-chul until after the U.S. election,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former North Korea analyst for the CIA who is now at Bower Group Asia, a consultancy.

“American prisoners are one of the few bargaining chips North Koreans has,” she said, and there is “zero incentive” for the North Koreans to release these Americans at this point. “Why waste it now with the Obama administration when there appears to be little progress that can be made in terms of either returning to talks or easing of the sanctions in place?”

In recent years, the regime has made a habit of detaining U.S. citizens and using them as bargaining chips. This has followed a familiar pattern: arrest and harsh sentence, then release after a high-profile American flies to Pyongyang to get them out.

These visits are portrayed in North Korea’s media as signs of the isolated state’s strength–a weak Washington coming begging to Pyongyang.

Because the United States does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea, the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang represents American interests there. Swedish diplomats have not been granted access to Warmbier since March 2, John Kirby, spokesman for the State Department, said.  Kirby declined to comment on whether the Swedish diplomats had seen Kim Dong-chul since his arrest and conviction.

[Washington Post]

The generation of semi-legal North Korean jangmadang markets

As the United States and other nations grasp for new ways to sanction Pyongyang in response to its latest nuclear test, some North Korean defectors see investment in its rudimentary market economy as a way to foment gradual change from within.

South Korea forbids its citizens from trading with anyone in North Korea but turns a blind eye to remittances estimated at $10 million a year sent to relatives by many of the nearly 30,000 defectors in the South.

Surveys of defectors by Seoul National University found that the biggest challenge for North Koreans doing business was funding, followed by bribes paid to authorities and occasional crackdowns on market activity.

One young defector, Seoul-based activist Ji Seong-ho, has been sending funds of $300 to $500 at a time for North Koreans to open food stalls and crop-lending businesses in rural areas.

“The bigger markets grow, the weaker the regime gets, so we need to support North Korean entrepreneurs,” said Ji, 34, who heads Now, Action and Unity for Human Rights (NAUH), which tries to help North Korean refugees in China to defect.  Read more

[Reuters]

Shaping North Korea’s new capitalists

One defector living in South Korea, who escaped through China in the early 2000s, uses a clandestine funding channel to send hundreds of thousands of dollars to help dozens of North Koreans open small businesses, such as noodle shops and grocery stores.

Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea has allowed a growing number of semi-legal markets known as jangmadang, where individuals and wholesalers buy and sell goods they have produced themselves or imported from China. The markets have improved the quality of life for many but also makes them less reliant on the Soviet-style planned economy, undermining the power of the state.

“The North Korean business owners I am helping can be an alternative group to build sound capitalism,” said the defector, who is in his 40s and declined to be named fearing for his safety and that of his partners in the North.

He uses a clandestine money channel typically works with middlemen who wire money to banks in China, where it is collected by agents and carried across the border. He vets prospects through his relatives and acquaintances.His brokers on the ground send photographs to him of businesses the defector has funded, using cellphones connected to China’s mobile network.

The defector, who does not seek a profit, tells the North Koreans he helps “not to be greedy, help other poor North Koreans and gain respect,” he said. “This is [effective] because it directly supports livelihoods.”

[Reuters]

New report on treatment of Christians in North Korea

Christian Solidarity Worldwide has issued a harrowing report of religious persecution inside North Korea, including allegations that authorities there ran over confessing Christians with a steamroller.

The report, Total Denial: Violations of Freedom of Religion or Belief in North Korea, was issued September 23, “Save North Koreans Day”,  and claims liberty with respect to religion – or any belief contrary to the state’s communist ideology – is “largely non-existent.”

“Documented incidents include Christians being hung on a cross over a fire, crushed under a steamroller, herded off bridges and trampled under-foot,” the report claims.

Christians, who are forced to practice their faith in secret, are often the targets of persecution. Those discovered are sent to concentration camps where they take part in forced labor. They are also subjected to sexual violence, torture and “extra-judicial” killings.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also said in its report that Christians considered to have participated in acts of worship, of having studied the Bible or having possessed a church hymnal “are typically jailed, or worse.”

“In prison, Christians reportedly endure harsher treatment than other prisoners. It is estimated that tens of thousands of Christians in North Korea are currently in prison camps facing hard labor or execution,” the USCIRF report said.

The CSW report also documents China’s deportation of North Korean refugees who are able to escape the country. The country immediately returns the refuges in violation of its obligations under the United Nations Convention on Refugees Treaty of 1951.

[Christian Examiner]

24 Chinese Embassies face protests for repatriating North Korean defectors

Human rights activists in 24 cities around the world protested outside Chinese embassies on Friday and delivered petitions calling on the Chinese government to stop killing North Korean defectors by repatriating them back to their home country.

It is an offense punishable by death or imprisonment for North Korean citizens to defect from the country and the oppressive Kim regime, and the Chinese government helps facilitate North Korea’s crimes against humanity by refusing to grant North Korean defectors refugee status. By sending thousands of them back to North Korea, China knows full well that they will be tortured, forced to do hard labor and even killed in political prison camps.

In 2014, a 400-page United Nations report extensively detailed the widespread torture and abuse that North Korea is responsible for and found that China is violating its responsibility under international human rights and refugee laws.

Organized by the North Korea Freedom Coalition, demonstrations and candlelight vigils to honor those defectors who have been killed or imprisoned were held outside Chinese embassies in two dozen cities around the world including Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto, Berlin, Paris, Seoul, London, Helsinki and others as a part of the annual Save North Koreans Day.

Activists urged China to “stop killing North Koreans, and accused China’s president, Xi Jinping, of standing “side by side” with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in “genocide.” Along with the demonstrations, activists delivered petitions calling on the Chinese government to stand with the persecuted North Korean families.

“It is not becoming of a big country that China claims itself to be,” Jai Poong Ryu, a professor at Loyola University of Maryland and CEO of One Korea Foundation, said. “It’s odd that China is going against the United Nations resolution that it led others to sign. It’s violating its own principles instead,” Ryu added.

[Read full Christian Post article]

South Korea reveals it has a plan to assassinate Kim Jong Un

South Korea has elite troops on standby ready to assassinate Kim Jong Un if the country feels threatened by North Korean nuclear weapons, the country’s defense minister revealed this week.

Asked in parliament Wednesday if there was a special forces unit already assembled that could eliminate North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, Han Min-koo said: “Yes, we do have such a plan.”

“South Korea has a general idea and plan to use precision missile capabilities to target the enemy’s facilities in major areas as well as eliminating the enemy’s leadership,” he added.

It has long been suspected that such a plan was in place but the minister’s candid answer surprised some.

Earlier this month, Leem Ho Young, Chief Director of Strategic Planning at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described a new system called the Korea Massive Punishment & Retaliation (KMPR) just hours after North Korea claimed it had tested a nuclear warhead. It would involve surgical missile attacks, exclusive special warfare units and an ability to strike North Korea’s leadership if South Korea feels threatened by nuclear attack.

[CNN]

Americans and North Koreans quietly meet in Track 2 talks

Officially, the United States and North Korea barely speak to each other, their communications often limited to public exchanges of insults.

But out of the limelight, and sometimes in secret, a small corps of former U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials, often working with academic specialists, meet regularly with high-ranking North Koreans. If it’s not quite diplomacy, it sometimes gets pretty close.

“The North Koreans understand that we’re in no way representing the United States government. So sometimes, we can raise things that the U.S. government isn’t able to,” said Leon V. Sigal, a former State Department policy official and long a key player in what are commonly called Track 2 talks. These North Korean discussions are often seen as a key part of Washington-Pyongyang relations.

John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, said that with communication between North Korea and the U.S. almost non-existent, Track 2 talks have become a placeholder for government-to-government discussions. Informal talks are “a way for the North Koreans to send indirect messages,” he said, and try out ideas they may be hesitant to suggest in official channels.

What has emerged recently from Track 2 discussions? “Even now, as bad as things are, it’s clear” that North Korea is ready to talk, Sigal said. A series of slow, reciprocal steps by both sides — “they would suspend certain activities, the U.S. would take certain steps” — could lead back to official negotiations.

“Most people in Washington have an assumption that the North Koreans are bad guys — which is true enough — but also that you can’t deal with them. I say that assumption is fundamentally wrong,” Sigal said. “I think you have to be talking to them. And that’s the purpose of Track 2.”

[AP]

Treatment of North Korean women in Chinese detention center

North Korean defector Jo Jin Hye, who was granted political asylum in the United States in 2008, looks back on the dark days of her incarceration in a detention center in the Chinese border city of Tumen:

A Chinese prison guard came in and said there was an inspection. He was a man in his 30s, and he had been sent to do body searches of women.

In the detention center, the staff refused to give us sanitary products, so we had nothing to use when our menstruation came around. We would use whatever we had to hand; bits of blanket, ripped off. Then, if they discovered it, they would force us to eat it. If we didn’t, they would hit us really hard, until our faces swelled up and we were spitting blood, and couldn’t walk.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

There was a woman who was five months’ pregnant, and she was sitting down, leaning against a wall. A prison guard came in and started beating us all with a baton. He beat an old lady nearly half to death, and the pregnant woman as well. The pregnant woman bled for several days after that.

I was afraid she would lose the child, because she had been trying for a child for three years. I knew that child was very important to her. So I ran over there and grabbed the guard’s leg, saying “Don’t beat her. She’s five months pregnant and not in good health, and she bleeds all the time. If you carry on, she’ll lose the baby.”

He replied: “Who cares? It’s not mine, anyway.” That’s what he said.

[Radio Free Asia]

South Korea says it’s unlikely to help with North Korean flood relief

South Korea said that it was unlikely to provide humanitarian aid to tens of thousands of flood survivors in North Korea even if the country asked for help, reaffirming its hard-line stance after the North’s fifth nuclear test.

North Korea has mobilized soldiers and workers in internal relief efforts for an estimated 140,000 victims in its northern provinces after torrential rains last month caused what it has described as some of the worst flooding in its history.

“North Korea has not asked for help, and we don’t expect it to,” Jeong Joon-hee, a spokesman for the South’s Unification Ministry, said during a news briefing. “Even if it does, I think, given the present situation, that the possibility of providing aid is low.”

“It should have spent the massive expenses not in a nuclear test but in helping its people recover from the flood damage,” Mr. Jeong said.

Despite North Korea’s frequent military provocations and its pursuit of nuclear weapons, the suffering of ordinary citizens often elicits sympathy in the South. The South’s Constitution includes North Korea in its territory and calls for “national unity” through “humanitarianism and brotherly love.”

[New York Times]