American Jeffrey Fowle describes his North Korean detention

After learning about the 1990s famine and the country’s brutal persecution of Christians, Jeffrey Fowle decided to make the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) his next vacation destination. He inscribed his name and phone number in a Korean Bible, which he would “accidentally” leave behind, trusting that God would get it into the right hands.

Fowle thought the identifying information would make his plan more credible: “After all, what kind of idiot would leave a Bible with his name and phone number in it on purpose?” But somewhere along the way he changed course—a decision he still can’t explain.

Instead, Fowle hid the Bible under a waste bin, an obviously intentional act. The Bible fell into the hands of government officials who detained Fowle on the 36th floor of a high-rise hotel and kept him in an “information black-out” for six weeks. Fowle didn’t know if his family knew what had happened to him.

Fowle said he wasn’t concerned about his own safety: “I knew I was in God’s hands and that was a big comfort to me. God was in charge of the events.” His situation improved after six weeks, when the North Koreans allowed him to receive letters from his children and a pound of milk chocolate from his wife.

Fowle said his captors treated him well, letting him see a doctor and giving him ample food and water. His room had a television with three channels broadcasting government activities for four or five hours a day. After two weeks, his captors let him walk 30 to 40 minutes a day with his interpreter.

He underwent repeated interrogations, during which his captors required him to wear his best clothes—a pair of blue trousers and a striped, button down shirt. He came to call it his “Sunday-go-to-interrogation wardrobe.”

They also encouraged Foyle to “write letters to get media attention,” so he wrote to family, friends, and government officials, including President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. When his letters failed to convey enough distress, the officials made him rewrite them: “They thought if I sounded desperate people would rally to my cause and protest.”

After nearly six months—and without explanation—his captivity ended, and Fowle found himself on a plane headed home.

About three weeks after his release, the North Koreans released two other American detainees, Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller. Fowle wonders whether his situation somehow helped them: “Things did not unfold like I had planned. But maybe this was God’s way to get Bae and Miller out as well. I’ll let God be the judge of whether this was a good or a bad idea.”

[Excerpts of a WORLD article, by Julie Borg]

Aunt of North Korean leader, and wife to Jang Song Thaek, had fatal stroke after her husband was executed

When Kim Jong Il ruled North Korea, his sister Kim Kyung Hee took a powerful role as a personal assistant with high-ranking military and party jobs. She was not seen after her husband, Jang Song Thaek, once regarded as the No.2 leader in Pyongyang, was purged and executed late last year.

According to a North Korean defector, the aunt of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un suffered a fatal stroke while she was on the phone with him, arguing about her husband’s execution.

Her husband, Jang Song Thaek, was executed in December, shocking many observers around the world. Jang, the younger leader’s uncle by marriage, was considered instrumental in his rise to power. Before his execution, he was described as the second-most powerful figure in North Korea.

But the young leader turned his back on Jang in spectacular fashion late last year, having him executed on charges that he tried to overthrow the government. “In the seething period of the effort for building a thriving country last year, we took the resolute measure of removing the factionalists,” the North Korean leader said in a New Year’s address shortly after the execution.

Days after the execution, Jang’s wife suffered her third stroke, according to Kang Myung-do, a defector who was son-in-law to North Korea’s ex-Prime Minister, Kang Sun San.

The death was not announced because she died a few days after her husband and the government did not want people to link her death to his, according to the defector.

Korean media reported that she committed suicide five days after her husband’s execution.

[CNN/Business Insider]

Meet Kim Yo Jong North Korean ‘princess’ moving closer to the center of power

Kim Yo Jong North KoreaIn her slim-fitting trouser suits and black-heeled shoes, Kim Yo Jong (see circled in photo) cuts a contrasting figure to her pudgy older brother, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

On Thursday, state media said the younger Kim, 27, had taken a senior position in the ruling Workers’ Party, confirming speculation she had moved closer to the center of power in the secretive state. It named her as a vice director alongside the head of the Propaganda and Agitation Department, which handles ideological messaging through the media, arts and culture.

Kim Yo Jong’s power has been likened to that of a prime minister, an unnamed South Korean intelligence source told the Seoul-based JoongAng Ilbo newspaper in April. “All roads lead to Comrade Yo Jong,” the source said.

Kim Yo Jong first appeared in state propaganda in 2012, as state TV showed Kim Jong Un arriving at the opening of an amusement park in Pyongyang. Kim Yo Jong ran from one position to another between ranks of applauding party cadres and generals as if she was orchestrating the event for the new North Korean dictator.

Since then, the smartly-dressed Kim, her hair usually pulled back in a ponytail, has made several appearances with her brother, giggling at state concerts, presenting awards to fighter pilots or riding a white horse.

For Kim Yo Jong, it is her family name and proximity to Kim Jong Un that supersedes any cultural norms. “People who are nominally her superiors most likely defer to her,” said Michael Madden, an expert on the North Korean leadership.

Writing in his 2003 memoir about his 13 years as Kim Jong Il’s sushi chef, Kenji Fujimoto said the late Kim Jong Il had a trusting relationship with his fourth partner (Ko Yong Hui), with whom he had three children: Kim Jong Un, Kim Yo Jong, and their elder brother Kim Jong Chol.

Kim Yo Jong has featured in state propaganda since her brother took over the nuclear-capable country upon the death of their father, in late 2011.

Not much is known about the elder brother, Kim Jong Chol, who was once photographed at the Swiss boarding school all three children reportedly attended.

[Business Insider] 

Kim Jong Un sister named to senior government role

The sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been named as a senior government official by state media.

Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jung, was mentioned in an article posted by KCNA on Thursday, referring to her as a vice department director of the Central Committee of the governing Worker’s Party of Korea.

Kim Yo Jung, who is believed to be 27, is the only other member of the ruling Kim family known to have an official job within the North Korean government.

[CNN]

Highlights of UN action on North Korean human rights atrocities

Under a UN mandate, former Australian High Court Justice Michael Kirby chaired a year-long inquiry into human rights abuses in the North Korean dictatorship, which has been repressing its people brutally and systematically under all three generations of the Kim family dynasty. (Believe it or not, this was the first time the UN has taken the problem seriously enough to order an official inquiry.)

Pyongyang refused to co-operate so the former High Court judge and his two fellow commissioners, one from Indonesia and the other from Serbia, traveled to various countries and took evidence from about 80 North Korean escapees and expert witnesses.

Their findings were published in February in a massive, 400-page report detailing North Korean atrocities. “The commission finds that the body of testimony and other information it received establishes that crimes against humanity have been committed” in North Korea, said the report.

“These crimes against humanity entail extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”

They specifically named as a “main perpetrator” the supreme leader himself, Kim Jong Un. Kim, aged approximately 30, has done everything possible to stop Kirby’s report and to avoid its consequences.

When the UN committee for human rights decided to put the Kirby report to a vote so it could go to the UN General Assembly, and then to the UN Security Council for possible referral to the International Criminal Court, North Korea launched into the next phase. It went on a charm offensive. In an effort to head off the vote, the Kim regime freed three American citizens it had had been holding in jail. It signaled that it was open to discussing its nuclear program with the US.

But last week the UN human rights committee cast a strong vote to refer the Kirby report to the UN general assembly, by 111 votes to 19 with 55 abstentions.

This sent Pyongyang into its fury phase. It said the vote compelled it to conduct another nuclear weapons test, which would be its fourth, and threatened nuclear attack on the US and its allies.

[Sydney Morning Herald]

North Korea goes nuclear after UN presses for criminal court

How has North Korea reacted to a historic United Nations vote to begin the process to refer its leadership to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity?

By threatening nuclear strikes on the US, Japan, South Korea and all US “followers”. In other words, by offering to commit further crimes against humanity.

“It would be funny if it were not so serious,” says the man who gathered the evidence for the case, Australia’s Michael Kirby. “You should always take seriously threats by someone in charge of a nation state, especially if they have possession of a reported 20 nuclear weapons.”

But, tellingly, North Korea seems more frightened by Kirby’s report and the consequences than any of its target countries are by its threat of “unimaginable and catastrophic consequences.”

Pyongyang had furiously denounced the report itself as a “fraud” and a tactic of “the frantic human rights racket” and labelled the witnesses who had come forth as “human scum.” But all the testimony, given in public, is now on the public record, on the UN website, for all to see.

Why is Pyongyang so afraid? Even if the report goes to the UN Security Council, even if North Korea’s traditional protectors China and Russia decide not to exercise their veto, even if it is referred to the International Criminal Court, the chance of ever getting Kim into the dock at the Hague must be a very small one. The country already labors under a raft of international sanctions.

“I think the regime is genuinely shocked,” says Kirby. “North Korea is not used to being the issue, and sailing under the radar. Those days are over. The international community has had enough.”

As the matter goes to the full General Assembly and then the Security Council in the days ahead, we will find out whether that it true.

[Sydney Morning Herald]

The North Korean defector news network – Part 1

News about North Korea often originate from people in North Korea, through networks of defectors determined to get out information on the authoritarian, highly insular country they left behind.

Their words and images are snapped up with enthusiasm, and often credulously, by South Korean and international media desperate for news from the poorly understood country. The sources may not be particularly well informed: They could be ruling-party officials or factory workers. Or smugglers, professors or soldiers.

Generally, they are in it for the money, not a desire to force change in their homeland, according to the defectors they communicate with.

Whatever their motives, the risks they face are the same. Defectors say some of their sources are now dead because of their work.

In the months after the North’s December 2013 execution of Jang Song Thaek — an uncle of Kim Jong Un who had been widely regarded as the country’s No. 2 official — a defector’s organization reported on its website that another top official, Choe Ryong Hae, had been detained for unclear reasons. Those reports, cited by many news outlets, appeared doubtful days later when state TV aired photos of Choe accompanying Kim on an inspection trip.

Kim Seong-Min, a well-known defector who heads the organization involved, Free North Korea Radio, said he now believes Choe was least investigated, if not detained. There have been varying reports about Choe’s political fortunes, but on Friday, state media reported that he will travel to Russia as Kim Jong Un’s special envoy.

Kim Seong-Min is unperturbed as long as the information helps expose North Korean wrongdoing. And he has worked to help North Koreans bolster their reports by smuggling in illegal cellphones and camcorders for them.

[Excerpts from Associated Press article by writer Hyung-Jin Kim]

Read more

The North Korean defector news network – Part 2

Most of the North Korean defectors’ groups in Seoul specializing in sneaking news out of North Korea have no more than 10 North Korean sources. They regularly call their South Korean contacts at dawn or late at night, when North Korean security officials are less likely to be out with mobile equipment to detect cellphone signals.

Defectors’ organizations say they don’t tell their sources exactly who they are or how their information will be used, so the sources will more freely share information and will face less danger. The organizations usually release no details about a source except the province he or she reported from.

“They’d face espionage charges if they’re arrested” and owned up to a connection with an anti-Pyongyang organization in South Korea, said Kim Heung Kwang, a North Korean defector who heads the North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity organization. “I just tell them I’m writing something and need some information.”

His organization got a legitimate big scoop about the North, one of the few reports by defectors’ groups to be independently confirmed: the news of the country’s botched currency revaluation in 2009. South Korean officials confirmed the details days later.

Defectors say their sources often include their own relatives, friends and acquaintances. In return for information, they often get cash or gifts.

Kim Heung Kwang says he gives $50 to $100 to ordinary sources when they give him useful information, with more money for “ace” informants.

Ahn Kyung-su, a North Korea researcher at a Seoul-based nongovernmental organization, says he suspects that sources are mostly ordinary citizens who pick up rumors circulated in North Korean border markets. That can be useful in getting a picture of life in many North Korean communities, but much less so when it comes to high-level government decisions.

[Excerpts from Associated Press article by writer Hyung-Jin Kim]

Korean-American Christian aid worker detained in China near North Korean border

A Korean-American living on the border of China and North Korea has been detained by Chinese authorities, US officials have confirmed.

Peter HahnPeter Hahn, a 73-year-old naturalized American citizen who left North Korea as a child, was taken in for questioning by local police on Tuesday and placed under detention after a six-hour interrogation, his lawyer told reporters earlier.

According to Hahn’s lawyer, Shanghai-based Zhang Peihong, the aid worker is accused of embezzlement and possession of fraudulent receipts. Zhang described the allegations as “groundless” and “impossible to stand up.”

Hahn has run a Christian aid agency in Tumen, Jilin province for the past two decades, which provides education and supplies to the poor in North Korea. Two other staff members, including a South Korean national, were detained earlier this month.

Hahn’s detention comes three months after Chinese authorities detained Canadians Kevin and Julie Garratt, who had lived in Dandong, Liaoning province – also on the North Korean border – since 1984. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the couple was “under investigation for suspected theft of state secrets about China’s military and national defence research.”

Pastor Simon Suh told reporters that around 1,000 South Korean missionaries have been forced out of China, and many churches in the region had closed. “Obviously, the screw is tightening all along the border,” a South Korean Christian activist told Reuters.

[South China Morning Post]

North Korea threatens more nuclear tests

North Korea responded harshly to a United Nations draft resolution referring the reclusive regime to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, promising that such a move would prompt it to conduct more nuclear tests.

A committee of the U.N. General Assembly Tuesday voted in favor of the draft resolution condemning the country’s human rights record and calling for “targeted sanctions.”

Before the vote, Choe Myong Nam, North Korea’s representative at the U.N., issued a familiar warning, saying that seeking to punish the country on human rights “is compelling us not to refrain any further from conducting nuclear tests.” The North Korean representative told the U.N. gathering Tuesday that the resolution “provoked confrontation” and “failed to reflect the reality on the ground.”

China is likely to use its veto against the resolution. Chinese officials have repeatedly said efforts to send North Korea’s leadership to the ICC “won’t help improve a country’s human rights condition.” North Korea’s longtime ally has never wavered in its support for Pyongyang.

The regime in Pyongyang is known to have conducted three previous tests, all of them believed to be based on plutonium. The most recent one took place in February 2013.

[CNN]