Public executions in North Korea

An NGO researching atrocities under the Kim John Un regime has confirmed that public executions still happen in North Korea and how these are intended to instill fear of the North Korean government, and to be witnessed by as many people as possible.

The Transitional Justice Working Group‘s executive director Hubert Youngwhan Lee told Sky News: “There are certain types of locations that are frequently used for the public killings. The most commonly used locations are river banks, under bridges, markets, or even on school grounds, or public stadiums.”

Asked to clarify whether school grounds were being used for public executions, he replied: “Yes, school grounds, because North Korea uses this as a tool for instilling public fear of being punished by their government.”

He said public killings continue to be carried out under Mr Kim’s leadership, with testimony as recently as 2015, three years into his rule.

His colleague, researcher Sehyek Oh, who is from North Korea, has carried out 375 interviews so far with fellow defectors, including former officials, as they gather evidence ultimately intended to be used in court, to bring those responsible to justice.

[Sky News]

North Korean defector reveals why enthusiastic crowds for Kim Jong Un

A North Korean defector has revealed why many people still seem to follow Kim Jong Un despite the country being in a terrible economic state and their leader possibly taking them to nuclear war.

The man, who didn’t want to be identified to protect his daughter who still lives in the country, said North Koreans are forced to show loyalty or they will be punished. He added the crowds were manufactured and the people turned out because they feared the consequences.

“These civilians, if the government tells them to come, … they’re forced to come, they don’t have the freedom not to,’ he told Sky News after being shown footage of thousands of people at a pro-regime rally in capital Pyongyang. He added: ‘People are scared. On the surface they look thankful, but none of it is genuine.’

He said criticism of the regime could result in being taken to a prison camp or even being publicly executed.

Venues for executions included river banks, stadiums and school property. The defector said: ‘Yes, school grounds, because North Korea uses this as a tool for instilling public fear of being punished by their government.’

[Metro UK]

Kim Jong-un ‘no longer seen as God’, as more Koreans turn to God

The North Korean regime continues to persecute anyone practicing religion within its borders, according to a new US State Department study, although reports from within the country suggest that more people are turning to religion.

The US State Department annual report on global religious freedoms again singled out North Korea. “The government continued to deal harshly with those who engaged in almost any religious practices through executions, torture, beatings and arrests”, the report states. … An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, some imprisoned for religious reasons, were believed to be held in the political prison camp system in remote areas under horrific conditions”, it adds.

Those claims were backed up by a North Korean defector who is now a member of the Seoul-based Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocide in North Korea. “Officially sanctioned persecution of people for religious reasons is still there and, I would say, even stronger than before”, the defector told The Telegraph.

But subtle changes are slowly becoming visible, said the defector, who declined to be named as he is active in assisting underground churches operating in the North. “In the past, the people were told to worship the Kim family as their god, but many North Koreans no longer respect Kim Jong-un”, he said. “That means they are looking for something else to sustain their faith. In some places, that has led to the emergence of shamens, but the Christian church is also growing and deepening its roots there”, he said.

“Even though people know they could be sent to prison – or worse – they are still choosing to worship, and that means that more cracks are appearing in the regime and the system”, he added.

[The Telegraph]

Kim Jong Un briefed on Guam plan but opts to wait

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reviewed plans to fire missiles towards the US Pacific territory of Guam but will hold off, state media said. Although prepared for “the enveloping fire at Guam”, the North said it would watch what “the foolish Yankees” do before taking a decision.

Crucially, indications are that Mr Kim would watch the US before making any decision, signaling an apparent deceleration in the provocative rhetoric. Correspondents say that after days of menacing threats it might seem that Kim Jong-un could be in the mood to finally hit the pause button – but in a nation as secretive as North Korea, one can never be sure. Analysts say it could simply mean Pyongyang is not fully ready to launch an attack on Guam, so it could just be buying more time.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in meanwhile has urged the US not to launch an attack on the Korean peninsula without its consent. The two countries’ defence agreement states that they must “consult together” when either is threatened.

South Korea and China – North Korea’s closest ally – have been urging calm and a renewed push for diplomatic resolutions.

China’s foreign ministry on Monday reiterated its “suspension for suspension proposal”, where North Korea stops its missile tests in exchange for a freeze on military exercises by the US and South Korea.

US Defense Secretary James Mattis earlier warned that any attack could quickly escalate into war, and if Pyongyang fired a missile towards Guam, “then it’s game on”. He also sought to reassure residents of Guam, home to US military bases and about 160,000 people, that they were well-protected and if a missile was fired, “we’ll take it out”.

Some quick facts about Guam:

  • The 209 sq mile volcanic and coral island in the Pacific between the Philippines and Hawaii.
  • It is a “non-incorporated” US territory, with a population of about 163,000.
  • That means people born in Guam are US citizens, have an elected governor and House Representative, but cannot vote for a president in US national elections.
  • US military bases cover about a quarter of the island. About 6,000 personnel are based there and there are plans to move in thousands more.
  • It was a key US base in World War Two, and remains a vital staging post for US operations.

[BBC]

North Korean defector: “North Korean life is slavery, mentally and physically”

Dr. Lee Min-bok lives on the South Korean side of the world’s tensest border, along with his weather-tracking data, and his leaflets. Whenever the wind is right, he rushes out to blow up an enormous helium balloon, tied to hundreds of leaflets that combat the propaganda machine of North Korea. With facts about how wealthy and advanced South Korea is compared to the North, Lee’s leaflets encourage North Koreans to think for themselves, reconsider their circumstances, and rise up.

But how can Lee be so sure that plastic sheets of paper could possibly change hearts and minds? Because one saved his life.

Born and raised in North Korea, he worked in agriculture as a professor. Like all North Koreans are taught, he revered the Kim family. But he first grew disenchanted in the late 1980’s after his attempts to innovate the farming techniques were denied, despite the reprieve it would have brought from famine and starvation.

Then, while in the fields one day, he discovered a small leaflet that simply described how North Korea invaded South Korea and began the Korean War -– a reality that defied the regime’s propaganda. “After reading the leaflet, I knew that the North Korean regime was all false, so I decided to flee to the South,” he said.

Staring across the river now, nearly three decades later, Lee says he feels like he’s looking at his hometown, looking at the family he left behind. “I want to rescue these people out of the country,” he said, noting he still has family on the other side of the border.

To do that, he now tells his story in leaflets — how the truth fell from the sky and saved his life. He wants to arm North Koreans with that same knowledge so that they will defy the regime — a mission so dangerous that he travels with government minders at all times, four stone-faced South Korean men who move in a ring around him.

When asked what life is life in North Korea, Lee said: “It is slavery, mentally and physically.”

[ABC News]

North Korean defector: “I think Kim Jong-un would do it”

Following President Trump’s new warnings to Kim Jong Un’s nuclear threats, a woman who escaped North Korea 17 years ago is speaking out. Youngae Ma, who has been living in New Jersey for the past decade, once worked as an intelligence agent for North Korea’s security department. She was a military member stationed in China when she managed to escape the grasp of the rogue state.

Ma believes the recent threats of nuclear war from her native country’s leader should be taken seriously. “To boost his image and show strength, I think (Kim Jong-un) would do it,” she said.

She says that the U.S. or U.N. may need to show force first to prove they won’t take the threats lightly. “Someone like that has to be taken out because he will not listen to anyone—not the U.S. or U.N.,” she said.

Ma told a translator, “During my time in North Korea, I realized the government really messed up. Watching the government starve and kill innocent people is what drove me to escape.”

Ma is now well known in her Palisades Park community for selling homemade traditional North Korean dishes and sausages at local markets. In 10 years, she has used her profits to help more than 1,000 people escape North Korea to China, Russia, or the U.S. like she did. She has also helped them find jobs in their new countries.

Though she has assisted many, Ma has been unable to get her own family to the U.S. She believes her sister in North Korea was killed by the government for passing information to her in New Jersey.

[NBC New York]

North Korean refugees escape to Thailand via Christian underground railroad

At a glance, Thailand seems an unlikely destination for North Koreans seeking to defect from their abusive state. For starters, the two nations are separated by about 3,000 miles. Most of that distance is consumed by China, which tends to scoop up intruding North Korean refugees and ship them back home, where they face grim retaliation in gulags.

Yet each year, hundreds and sometimes thousands of North Koreans make this grueling overland journey from their frigid homeland to the tropics of Southeast Asia. Despite its distance, Thailand is actually one of the closest reachable nations where North Koreans can reasonably expect that the government will deliver them to South Korean officials. That is the goal: defecting to South Korea, their estranged and far more prosperous sibling nation.

All of those who undertake this journey are desperate almost by definition. Many trials await them, especially during the overland route to China.

These journeys are typically managed by either rogue people smugglers, who charge several thousand dollars, or secretive Christian networks operating out of Seoul. Among Christian smugglers, this route is known as the “underground railroad”.

The clandestine leader of one of these Christian networks previously told PRI that “when [the defectors] first get out of North Korea, they look really shabby and skinny. We usually make them stay at a church member’s house [in China] for a month, just to eat.”

That’s how long it takes to put substantial meat on their bones. Painfully thin North Koreans, he said, are easily spotted by China’s surveillance network. Eventually, the refugees have to evade the eye of China’s officialdom as they travel on public trains and buses down to the border of Laos, a small communist nation in thrall to China.

Via trekking, river boats or more buses, the defectors must push through Laos to reach the Mekong River, which marks the border with Thailand. There, they can find the nearest police officer and ask to be arrested. South Korea will typically negotiate their release, fly them to Seoul, debrief and interrogate them and, finally, release the weary refugees into society.

[PRI]

North Korea releases Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim

Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim, North Korea’s longest-held western prisoner in decades, was “released on sick bail” Wednesday by the country’s top court for “humanitarian” reasons after two and a half years in detention, state-run news agency KCNA said.

Lim’s son, James Lim, received word over the weekend that a plane carrying senior Canadian officials, a medical doctor, and a letter to North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un was dispatched to Pyongyang “at the last minute,” according to family spokeswoman Lisa Pak. The plane landed in the North Korean capital Monday.

Lim was serving a life sentence of hard labor after being convicted of crimes against the state in December 2015. The 62-year-old’s health has deteriorated while in North Korean custody and the pastor has experienced “dramatic” weight loss, Pak said.

His family has not been allowed to see him during his imprisonment, but have been able to send him letters and blood pressure medication via the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, which often serves as an intermediary for prisoners from nations with no formal diplomatic ties to North Korea.

Lim detained in February 2015 while on a humanitarian mission in Rajin, North Korea, a family spokesperson said at the time. He was acting on behalf of the Light Korean Presbyterian Church, which he had led since 1986. According to his family, Lim has made more than 100 trips to North Korea since 1997, and his humanitarian efforts have included the founding by his church of a nursery, orphanage, and nursing home in the northeastern city of Rajin.

In a January 2016 interview with CNN in Pyongyang — his first conversation with foreign media — the Canadian said he was the sole prisoner in a labor camp, digging holes for eight hours a day, six days a week. At the time, he said he received regular medical care and three meals per day.

[CNN]

North Korea vs the US: Opinions on how likely conflict?

The war of words between the US and North Korea has escalated, with Donald Trump warning any threats would be met with “fire and fury” and Pyongyang promptly announcing it was “carefully examining” a plan to attack an American military base in the western Pacific.

But despite two unpredictable nuclear-armed leaders trading barbs, most observers believe the possibility of conflict remains remote, with the North Korean leadership using its nuclear program as a bargaining chip rather than an offensive weapon.

Jean Lee, former AP Pyongyang bureau chief, says: “No one in the region, not even North Korea, wants another war. But Kim Jong-un is going to push it as far as he can to get what he wants: recognition from the United States that North Korea is a nuclear power, and legitimacy at home as a ruler who can defend his people against the big, bad US. In some ways, Trump’s threats play into the North Korean calculus: Kim Jong-un wants his people to believe that the United States continues to threaten the very existence of North Korea. That fearmongering brings the North Korean people together, and justifies the regime’s diversion of precious resources into building nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles. What I’m concerned about is a miscalculation or mishap that could force troops in the region to take military action.”

Andrei Lankov, professor at Kookmin University, Seoul, says: “The US president is employing both rhetoric and tactics which for decades have been used only by the North Korean side of the conflict. On the North Korean side, it is business as usual, of course: they repeat their promise to transform Seoul into the “sea of fire” every few years….Once North Korea finishes development and deployment of a nuclear force capable of hitting the continental US, they might be ready to talk about a nuclear and missile freeze. The US should accept this option.”

Robert Kelly, associate professor, Pusan National University: “There are two ways to think about what Trump said. The optimistic way – if you’re a Trump supporter – is that he’s trying to be unpredictable. What this is really intended to do is pressure the Chinese, to signal to them that strategic patience is over. The less optimistic, and probably more accurate, reading is that this is Trump shooting his mouth off. There’s rhetoric on both sides – it’s like two bullies in the playground yelling at each other. … We’re not used to unpredictability and anxiety coming from the American side of this relationship. That’s why people are so unnerved – we’re not used to Potus talking like this.
“The North Koreans are not going to offensively strike an American base or the American homeland unilaterally without any provocation – to do that would bring crushing American retaliation. The North Koreans aren’t stupid. Their nuclear weapons are intended for defense, not offence. The North Koreans are worried about what happened to Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, they’re worried about the Americans leveraging change and they know that nuclear weapons are guaranteed to prevent that from happening. That’s what this is really all about.”

John Delury, North Korea expert, Yonsei University, Seoul: “The North Koreans love the verbal hostilities. They will do this ad nauseam. They are happy to do daily threat battles with the White House. That is actually quite wonderful for them. They like the attention and it all underlines their point that they are under siege by the Americans. … But an outbreak of military conflict is not impossible.”

Jiyoung Song, senior lecturer in Korean studies, University of Melbourne: “North Korea wants to be recognized as a legitimate nuclear state by the US and establish diplomatic relations with the US. Constantly reminding the world and especially the US of their nuclear and missile capabilities is part of their regime survival calculations. … If Trump doesn’t want Kim to further develop his nuclear ambition, he has to sit down and talk with Kim.”

[The Guardian]

Will latest sanctions impact North Korean leadership in the desired way?

Experts express doubt over how strictly the latest attempt to slash North Korea’s earnings from coal, iron ore and seafood will be enforced.

And even if the new sanctions do cut export revenues by more than a third — as the U.S. expects — will that be enough to make Kim change course on developing nuclear missiles?  “Probably not,” said John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in South Korea. “Because one thing [North Korea is] good at is taking pain.”

The U.N. Security Council has hit North Korea with layer after layer of sanctions since 2006, but the moves have failed to thwart the country’s nuclear ambitions. North Korea has “an impressive track record over its whole history, going back to the 1940s when it was founded, of being able to … weather virtually any kind of economic pressure,” Delury told CNN. “This is not the kind of regime that is easy to bring to its knees.”

The new U.N. resolution goes further than previous sanctions by aiming to cut deeper into the wider North Korean economy. It received the backing of China, North Korea’s main ally and economic partner, but some analysts are skeptical Beijing will fully comply in practice.

“The $1 billion number depends on China implementing the U.N. sanctions, we … have 11 years of evidence they will not do so,” tweeted Anthony Ruggiero, a former official at the U.S. State and Treasury departments.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged the problem of enforcement on Monday, telling reporters that the U.S. would be “monitoring that carefully and certainly having conversations with any and all that we see who may not be fully embracing not just the spirit of those sanctions but the operational execution of those sanctions.”

Beijing has found itself caught between Trump’s demands to put greater pressure on Kim’s regime and its own desire to keep North Korea as a strategic buffer against U.S. influence in the region.  By supporting the latest U.N. resolution, Beijing may have dodged — for the time being — U.S. sanctions against Chinese companies that are suspected of doing business with the North Korean regime.

However, any breathing room China has gained isn’t likely to last long, according to Tong Zhao, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.

[CNN Money]