The religious motive for travel to North Korea

Religion has provided a powerful impulse for some to cross the North Korean border.

North Korea officially guarantees freedom of religion, but outside analysts and defectors describe the country as militantly anti-religious. The distribution of Bibles and secret prayer services can mean imprisonment or execution, defectors have said. “It is one of the last frontiers to spread the Christian faith, so there are people who would take unimaginable risks” to evangelize there, John Delury, an Asia expert at Yonsei University in Seoul said.

A Bible in his hand, American missionary Robert Park walked into North Korea on Christmas Day 2009 to draw attention to human rights abuses and to call for the resignation of then-leader Kim Jong Il. Park, who was deported from the country in February 2010, has said he was tortured by interrogators.

In 2010, ex-President Jimmy Carter visited North Korea to win the release of imprisoned American Aijalon Gomes, who had been sentenced to eight years of hard labor for crossing illegally into the North from China.

Gomes … may have been emulating Park, said Jo Sung-rae, a South Korean human rights advocate who met with Gomes. Gomes attended rallies in Seoul calling for Park’s release before he was arrested.

Park later said he didn’t want others to repeat his actions. “I don’t want others to do this. I just hoped that this could galvanize people to action. Because this is a society that needs change now,” he told The Washington Post in February 2011.

[AP]

North Korean officials publicly executed

North Korea has reportedly publicly executed up at least 50 people this year, including several party officials for watching soap operas.

According to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), Pyongyang has purged about 10 officials from Kim Jong-Un’s Workers’ Party for watching South Korean soaps. It is not known whether the most recent group of officials executed include six reported missing earlier this month.

The officials, who also faced charges of bribery and womanizing, were thought to be close to Kim’s executed uncle, Jang Song-thaek, Yonhap news agency reported.

In the eastern port of Wonsan, the authorities gathered 10,000 people in a sports stadium to watch the execution of eight people by firing squad, JoongAng Ilbo reported.

All television and media is under strict state control and access to the internet is limited but despite a harsh crackdown, banned foreign shows and films have been gaining popularity in recent years. Some are believed to be secretly streamed over the internet, while others are smuggled into the country on DVDs, video cassettes of memory sticks sold on the black market.

[The Independent]

UN’s Special Rapporteur to brief United Nations General Assembly

This year, a scathing U.N. Commission of Inquiry report was published, cataloging North Korea’s abuses that the authors said amounted to crimes against humanity. It recommended prosecuting North Korea’s leaders at the ICC for such crimes including torture and extensive political prison camps.

A former security officer at one of North Korea’s political prison camps has described how detainees, suspected of disloyalty to North Korea, would have long needles driven underneath their fingernails and a pot of water and hot chili pepper poured into their noses to extract confessions.

Former prisoners talked about being beaten on their chest repeatedly until they vomited blood or being tortured while hung upside down in a report that detailed abuses by the regime.

Pyongyang will come under scrutiny again when the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, gives a briefing at the United Nations General Assembly today.

[CNN]

Kim Jong Un had ankle surgery

South Korea’s spy agency said Tuesday it has solved the mystery of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s 6-week public absence.

The National Intelligence Service told legislators that a foreign doctor operated on Kim to remove a cyst from his right ankle, according to Park Byeong-seok, an aide for opposition lawmaker Shin Kyung-min. The aide said the spy agency also told lawmakers in a closed-door briefing that the cyst could recur because of Kim’s obesity, smoking and heavy public schedule.

The agency also said North Korea has expanded five of its political prisoner camps, including the Yodok camp, which was relocated to the northwest city of Kilchu, according to Lim Dae-seong, an aide to ruling party lawmaker Lee Cheol-woo, who also attended the briefing. The spy agency believes the camps hold about 100,000 prisoners, Lim said.

He said the agency also believes that North Korea recently used a firing squad to execute several people who had been close to Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who was considered the country’s No. 2 power before his sudden purge and execution in December 2013.

South Korea’s spy agency had correctly predicted that Jang had been dismissed from his posts before North Korea officially announced his arrest.

[Newsmax]

North Korean prison camps “without any parallel in the contemporary world”

The gulags of North Korea exist in a strange world between secret and unsecret. No one knows for sure how many thousands or millions are locked away in the camps, which officially do not exist, and information about what goes on there can be sparse. But we can watch the camps grow and contract from satellites, where they’re so plainly and publicly visible they’re labeled on Google Maps, and we are learning more all the time from the trickle of defectors and escapees who make it out of the Hermit Kingdom.

A United Nations report called the camps a human rights abuse “without any parallel in the contemporary world.”

North Korea operates four enormous labor camps for political prisoners — sprawling, city-sized facilities in the country’s frigid and mountainous north. Most inmates are sent for life as punishment for minor slights, or because a relative committed some offense. They are subjected to backbreaking labor, routine torture and starvation, constant fear of arbitrary execution, and conditions so squalid most do not survive past age 45.

These gulags — which are separate from the country’s more conventional prison systems — are thought to house 100,000 or more people, including many women and children. Often, entire families are sent away for one member’s offense, through two or three generations. Sometimes inmates will have no idea why they’re there, or will have never met the relative for whom they are punished with a life of torture and malnutrition.

Inmates are given not quite enough food to survive, forcing them to turn against one another — or curry favor somehow with the guards — to secure enough to eat. They are assigned brutally punishing work, such as coal mining without proper equipment or ventilation. Women and girls are subject to rape and molestation by guards.

Because the generations-long sentences mean that something to akin to families often form in the camps, inmates live with the fear that they will be tortured or killed for a family member’s crime — and are often forced to betray their own family to survive.

[Vox]

North Korea officials disappear from public view

Last year Kim Jong Un executed his uncle and other officials. And now the JoongAng Daily reports that a number of key officials within Kim’s
cabinet have not attended important events for several weeks, and rumors abound that these six minister-level officials may have been executed.

Sim Chol-ho, the telecommunication minister, is among the six
 officials currently missing from public view.

Also not seen for some time is Ma Won-chun, a prominent
 architect and construction official, who is director of the National Defense Commission Design Department
and was appointed to deputy director of the Workers’ Party in May 2012.

General Ri Pyong-chol, the commanding officer of North Korea’s air force, has not been seen at any public events since
 the end of September when he was elected to the National Defense
 Commission at the Supreme People’s Assembly.

Rumor is also growing that sports official Chang Ung, a member of
 the International Olympic Committee, has been purged due to his
 prolonged absence in state media over the past few weeks.

Ri Yong-gil, chief of the General Staff of the North Korean People’s Army, did not attend a meeting with gold medalists, an event where military leaders are expected to be present as many athletes are also
 soldiers.

Aidan Foster-Carter, an Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology
and Modern Korea at Leeds University, said JoongAng Ilbo is a reputable daily paper, making reports of a purge more
 credible. He added: “At this stage I am reluctant to go further. Two months is not long
 to be absent – remember Kim Jong-un disappeared himself recently. North Korea elites do go in and out of the limelight.”

The alleged purge follows what Kim described as the removal of
 “Factionalist filth” in December when he executed his own uncle Jang 
Song Thaek and other prominent figures in the capital Pyongyang.

[Daily Mirror]

North Korean defectors describe life in prison camps

Kim Hye-Sook, a defector from North Korea, was 13 when she was incarcerated in a prison camp together with her family. Over the years, her parents, brother, husband and children died of starvation or were involved in accidents.

Kim recounted to the UN the sufferings she and other prisoners suffered in the hands of their captors, including years of starvation, hard labor and torture. To indicate how bad food shortage is, Kim revealed that some women detainees had to eat babies to alleviate their hunger.

She shared that a family of 7 was allocated 7.5 kilograms of corn monthly, which when dried shrunk to 4.5 kilograms. Most of the time they ate only once a day, forcing them to eat mountain grass.

Another defector, Jung Kwang-Il, was quoted as saying, “I was starving so much so I said, ‘If you feed me well, I will confess my crime.’ As a result, I confessed and had a great meal.”

Upon hearing the harrowing experience of the North Korean detainees, Michael Kirbey, chairman of the UN Commission of Inquiry Report, which held a hearing at the UN headquarters in New York on Wednesday, recommended for the Security Council to bring the North Korean government to the International Criminal Court and face charges of crime against humanity.

He stressed, “We stand for the principles of the United Nations and we expect accountability for great crimes before justice. And that is the right of people of North Korea.”

[International Business Times]

Anti-North Korean leaflets launched from S.Korea amid concerns from locals

South Korean activists launched balloons on Saturday to send leaflets to North Korea with messages critical of its leader, ignoring threats of military action from Pyongyang and a plea by Seoul not to jeopardize efforts to improve ties with the North.

Anti-North activists clashed with residents of the border area and leftist group members advocating engagement with North Korea. Local people tried to block the balloon launch, saying it threatened peace. A string of incidents appear to have turned many in the South against the leaflet campaign.

But a small group of mostly North Korean defectors broke away and launched balloons carrying about 20,000 leaflets from the nearby city of Gimpo after nightfall. Speaking to Reuters by telephone, the leader of the group, Pak Sang-hak, confirmed the launch.

“Things like this will trigger artillery firing at us,” said Kwon Soon-wan, 63, who said he was born and raised in Munsan, the northern-most area of Paju. “Safety is top priority because it’s our lives that are hanging in the balance,” he added.

On Saturday, the North’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper repeated a warning that inter-Korea ties will forever collapse if the South Korean government continued to allow the leaflet campaign, which it called “an act of war.”

The propaganda printed on the leaflets infuriates Pyongyang. The messages often single out the North’s young leader Kim Jong Un, questioning his legitimacy to rule a country where people struggle with poverty while his family lives in luxury and scarce resources are channeled to arms programs.

[Reuters]

Canadian couple held in near isolation in China

A Canadian couple accused of spying near China’s sensitive border with North Korea have been kept separately in near isolation for more than 80 days and denied access to legal counsel, their son said on Friday.

Treatment of the couple, who are being held without charge at a remote facility in the border city of Dandong, has seriously strained China’s ties with Canada ahead of a planned visit by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper for a multilateral summit next month in Beijing.

Kevin and Julia Garratt were allowed to meet briefly for breakfast last week – the first contact they had with each other during their detention. “It’s not their physical health I’m concerned about, it’s more their mental health,” their son, Simeon Garratt, told Reuters by phone. “You put anybody in a situation like that for 80 days, where you can’t talk to anybody else and with no outside contact, and you don’t know what could happen. It’s not about food or water.”

Both Kevin and Julia were under 24-hour surveillance by two guards. Canadian consular officials visited every two weeks, Simeon Garratt said. They were frequently interrogated, he said, though the subject of the questions is unknown. Chinese authorities have repeatedly denied the family’s requests for access to legal counsel since the Garratts were detained August 4, according to a source with direct knowledge of the matter.

The Vancouver couple had opened a cafe called Peter’s Coffee House in Dandong in 2008. State media has reported they are suspected of stealing national security secrets, but no formal charges have been laid and it is unclear what exactly they are accused of. It is unusual for foreigners to be charged with violating China’s state secrets law – a serious crime that is punishable by life in prison or death in the most severe cases.

Kevin Garratt told a congregation in Canada last year that he ran a prayer and training facility frequented by North Koreans, many of whom became Christians before returning to the isolated country.

[Reuters]

North Korean diplomats get an earful at the UN

North Korean official Choe Yong-nam flew in to New York from Pyongyang to protest attempts by “hostile” elements, including America and Australia, to defame his country, but he was also forced to hear an earful about his country’s human rights record Wednesday.

In an extraordinary session at the United Nations, Choe and the UN ambassador from the Democratic Republic of North Korea (DPRK), Ja Song-nam, sat through a long session where the horrific human rights conditions in the repressive country were painstakingly detailed.

The most engaging speaker at the Wednesday session was Michael Kirby, a retired Australian High Court Justice who has led a UN-commissioned investigation into North Korea’s labor camps, its kidnappings and torture of dissidents and the policies that led to mass starvation in the country.

Last year Kirby was so shocked after hearing hundreds of testimonies from victims of the North Korean regime, that he proposed referring Pyongyang’s leaders, through the Security Council, to the International Criminal Court, where they could be tried for crimes against humanity.

For now, Australia, Botswana and Panama merely tabled a condemnation resolution at the Third Committee, which deals with human rights. But the Australian ambassador to the UN, Gary Quinlan [said] the Security Council path is still being considered as well.

But the most unusual feature of Wednesday’s UN session was that Pyongyang, often described as the seat of a “hermit kingdom,” decided to fully engage with the proceedings, answering criticism with verbal attacks on the critics.

Ambassador Ja gave a long formal answer to Kirby’s allegations, the North distributed a compact disc of materials to support his answers, and Ja and Choe patiently answered reporters’ questions afterward, speaking freely in fluent, plain English.

Choe said that his country has sent a letter of protest to the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, who happened to also be a former foreign minister of South Korea, which is still officially at war with its northern neighbor.

[Newsweek]