Life for a free North Korean defector isn’t always what you expect

Both the mother and brother of North Korean activist Hyeonseo Lee –who she helped to escape from the country in 2009– have had trouble adjusting to modern life in neighboring South Korea.

“It’s a completely different system in South Korea … [North Koreans] have never tasted freedom — and they can’t enjoy freedom. The system is not familiar so my mom prefers the ordinary life they used to have. When I see that, I understand her but sometimes I feel so sad.”

Lee’s mother still has seven brothers and sisters living in North Korea who she can’t see. Her only form of contact is through occasional phone calls made illegally using mobile phones that can connect to Chinese networks close to the border. Recently one of her mother’s brothers died and she was devastated she couldn’t be there.

“My mom was crying, she realized everyone will die like that. It’s hard to see unification (happening) in her lifetime. Family is the most important thing, you can’t buy that with money.”

Life in South Korea is also complicated by the fact that many view defectors as an economic burden, something that Lee hopes to change. ”We left everything behind and gave up everything, we risked our own lives … there’s a lot of prejudice … but we are showing that we can do very well,” she said.

Lee is one of those successful North Koreans, studying and working as an activist for others like her. Looking back at her experiences, she thinks they made her stronger. “At that moment I thought it was a tragedy, …but I look back now, I think it kind of helped me in my mentality (to have) that braveness … I became a strong woman.”

[News.com.au]

North Korean refugees settled in America

Former North Korean refugees are scattered throughout the US in more than three dozen cities, from Los Angeles and Chicago to smaller towns in Idaho, Virginia, and Kentucky.

Daniel. a pseudonym he chose to protect the family he left in North Korea, is one of the 186 refugees who have settled in cities across the US since the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, which established a path for people fleeing the country to gain asylum in America.

Going from the isolated Hermit Kingdom to the land of fast food, consumer culture, and individual freedom is about as close to falling into an alternate universe as reality allows. Yet Daniel can’t help but wax nostalgic about his old life. He lives alone, and it’s been more than five years since he spoke to his family. “I miss everything,” he says in Korean. “The smell of the ground. The dirt. Everything. I didn’t really see how precious it was to be able to live with my family. I don’t have that now.”

Daniel spent time in China at an underground Christian church, where he came in contact with a Christian missionary who was knowledgeable about helping refugees escape to South Korea and the United States. The missionary connected Daniel with a representative of Liberty in North Korea (LINK), a Los Angeles-based NGO that works with North Korean refugees. LINK arranged for him to take trains and buses through China — a journey of some 3,000 miles — to a country in Southeast Asia that he does not name in order to protect LINK’s staff and other defectors still using the same route.

Daniel first found work in the most American of places: a shopping mall, where he worked in a restaurant bakery from 6am until noon, then served as a busboy at another food court eatery from 12:30pm to 5pm. He then found work in the kitchen at the Korean-owned sushi restaurant where he now works as a chef. He clearly takes pride in his craft, describing how the rice has to be “perfect” and the fish must be cut to just the right thickness, but it’s also clear his life is missing something. When asked what he does for fun, he says, “Clean the house.”

“Financial stability, I used to think that was the most important thing, but not anymore, Relationships, I think that’s the most important thing in your life. … I had to become self-sufficient, and I did it,” he says. “Sometimes I do feel miserable, but when I look back, I survived. I made it.”

[Vice News]

Tales from North Koreans working abroad

After landing an enviable job outside North Korea as a waitress, Lee Soung Hee said she was given only one day off per month and had to work even when she learned her mother had died. She said secret police agents monitored waitresses and beat them for hiding tips.

“There were customers who were touching our bodies, but we must not refuse that because our mission was to curry favor with them as much as possible to make them spend all their money,” she said. “When customers poured drinks for us, we had to drink them all. But we could not get intoxicated or we would have been criticized for failing to be loyal to the party.”

She said colleagues who failed to earn target incomes had to go to motels to have sex with customers who would pay about 650 yuan ($100).

Lim, a novelist, was a carpenter for several months in Kuwait. He said he never received his promised $120-a-month salary, though he worked from dawn to midnight at a site surrounded by wire fences. He said he was frustrated when he learned Bangladesh and Indonesian workers nearby earned at least $450 per month. Lim said he was allowed to moonlight at other construction sites after promising North Korean officials a cut of the extra income.

Lee Yong-ho, a defector who was a truck driver at a Russian logging camp, said he often worked 12 to 14 hours per day but never thought about his working conditions. “Slaves? Well, I didn’t actually think about something like that. I only thought how much I could earn each month,” said Lee, now a manual laborer in South Korea.

Kim, who worked at a different Siberian logging camp with about 900 other North Koreans, said dozens of workers died during his stay, many after being hit by falling trees. He said dead workers were stored for months in some vacant houses, with their entire bodies except their heads wrapped by blankets. “It was so cold there that they hadn’t decomposed. Their faces looked just the same as before,” he said. “I once touched some of their faces and it was like touching ice.”

[ABC News]

North Korean defector speaks out … in Beijing!

The Chinese government doesn’t take well to those who criticize its complicity in North Korea’s human-rights abuses. So it took some courage for native North Korean Hyeonseo Lee to take the stage at a recent public event in Beijing and blast China for sending thousands of refugees back into the grip of the Kim regime, where they face prison or worse.

Ms. Lee knows the risks well. After escaping North Korea in 1997, she spent 11 years on the run in China, hiding from authorities and using multiple aliases, before making it to freedom in South Korea.

“I want to tell the very basic things about what is happening to North Koreans here,” Ms. Lee told the Beijing audience. “China is the place we have to cross .. There are many evils living in China, human traffickers, but at the same time many good people. I’m grateful to those good people, but not the Chinese government.”

China has signed the international Refugee Convention banning “refoulement” of refugees to countries where they face persecution. Yet it denies North Korean refugees access to consulates and embassies, detains them in abusive conditions and repatriates them. Such conduct “could amount to aiding and abetting” North Korean “crimes against humanity,” a United Nations panel found in 2014.

Beijing tried to stymie the U.N. inquiry at every turn, but its report makes for bracing reading. Investigators found that when refugees “are apprehended or forcibly repatriated,” North Korean authorities “systematically subject them to persecution, torture, prolonged arbitrary detention and, in some cases, sexual violence.” Refugees “found to have been in contact with officials or nationals from [South Korea] or with Christian churches may be forcibly ‘disappeared’ into political prison camps, imprisoned in ordinary prisons or even summarily executed.”

Escape has been particularly perilous since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011 and issued shoot-to-kill orders to border guards. Successful defections are down more than half from their peak in 2009. Brokers along the underground railroad demand up to $12,000 per passage, while Chinese authorities offer rewards for turning in North Koreans on the run.

Chinese policy toward North Korea clearly still prioritizes “stability” and repression above all, motivated especially by the fear of heavy refugee flows. But doing the Kim regime’s dirty work hurts Beijing’s reputation overseas and at home, where many young Chinese see ties with North Korea as a shameful relic of Maoism.

Part of Ms. Lee’s motivation to speak out in Beijing, she says, was knowing that an earlier speech of hers was viewed more than 110,000 times on Chinese video sites. Here’s hoping her latest message earns wide notice.

[Wall Street Journal]

Disaffection growing among North Korea’s elite

Disaffection is spreading among the North Korean elite who are unsettled by the capricious decisions of current leader Kim Jong-un.

Under former leader Kim Jong-il, defections were common among ordinary people, but Kim Jong-un’s father kept the elite sweet with gifts of cars, watches and other privileges. But since Kim Jong-un stepped into power, he has cracked down on the defection routes of ordinary people but scared the elite as well.

A string of defections of relatively senior officials followed the brutal execution of Jang Song-taek in late 2013. Over the last two years alone, around 20 senior Workers Party, state and military officials have defected to South Korea.

Sources say members of the elite are so scared they are inventing excuses to decline promotions and clamor to be posted overseas to avoid the brutal purges Kim has implemented since he came to power five years ago. An estimated 130 mid-to-high-ranking officials have been purged. Workers Party secretary Choe Ryong-hae, once touted as the North’s No. 2 official, was sent to a reeducation camp with his wife late last year after complaining about Kim.

Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee told reporters Monday that the defection of a senior spy may be “a sign” of disaffection among the elite.  The man was a colonel in the General Bureau of Reconnaissance, which was launched in 2009 by combining three military and Workers Party departments and reports directly to Kim Jong-un.

“The higher the rank, the greater the stress from possibly being purged,” a source said. Another intelligence source said, “North Korean generals have become expendable. Officials are probably afraid to serve the fickle Kim Jong-un.”

One researcher at a state-run think tank said, “Rising dissent among the elite could lead to a crisis for Kim Jong-un.”

[Chosun Ilbo]

Brutal work abroad better than life in North Korea

One North Korean who worked abroad says that as a waitress in China, she was forced to put up with male customers who groped her and tried to get her drunk. Two others recall the frozen bodies of their countrymen stored in Russian logging camps. Another says he toiled for up to 16 hours a day at a Kuwaiti construction site surrounded by wire fences.

As difficult as those lives were, the four workers told The Associated Press, it beat staying in North Korea. The jobs actually conveyed status back home, and were so coveted that people used bribes and family connections to get them.

Defectors who had worked overseas from the 1990s until the early 2000s said they had to submit much of their salaries to Pyongyang authorities and never received some of their promised wages. But they said the money they did receive, sometimes earned through moonlighting, still greatly exceeded what they had earned at home. (The average monthly wage for ordinary North Korean workers is less than $1, according to defectors, though many North Korean families now make money via businesses in unauthorized markets.)

Their monthly average income while abroad is estimated at $120 to $150, according to the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies. They said they were also fed relatively well, placed under less strict surveillance and given a rare chance to see the world and learn truths about their homeland.

“From our viewpoint, it’s labor exploitation. But for them, going abroad is a special benefit. They view it as a chance to get away from abysmal lives at home,” said Go Myong-Hyun of the Asan Institute, co-author of a 2014 research paper on North Korean workers. Read more

North Koreans vie and bribe for a job abroad

North Korea has sent tens of thousands of workers abroad with a mission to bring in foreign currency. Human-rights organizations have called those workers modern-day slaves, while also decrying human-rights abuses North Koreans face back home. To the workers themselves, there is little debate about which plight is more favorable.

“People’s views of jobs in North Korea are totally different from [South Korea],” said Lee Soung Hee, 42, who worked at a North Korean-run restaurant in the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian in the early 2000s. “Women in North Korea have a fantasy about an overseas waitress job.”

The North usually sends relatively affluent, loyal citizens who it believes can be less affected by foreign cultures. The vast majority are married men whose families must stay home, discouraging would-be defectors, analysts and activists specializing in North Korea said.

“I had seen people who had returned home after foreign service smoking good cigarettes and going out for a beer,” said Lim Il, who worked at a Kuwait City construction site in the late 1990s. “For ordinary people, things like those were ‘rice cake in a picture,'” a Korean expression equivalent to “pie in the sky.”

[ABC News]

Further mass North Korean defections to follow – Part 1

Individual defections from the North Korea are common. Mass defections, however, are not.

13 North Koreans—one male and 12 females—recently defected en masse. The arrival of so many North Koreans in Seoul is stunning. First, they had all worked at the same location, and this fact indicates a breakdown in Pyongyang’s overlapping system of controls on its workers. Moreover, the defections hint at the effectiveness of the U.N. sanctions imposed at the beginning of last month. And, most strikingly, Beijing did not stop the North Koreans from escaping.

The defectors had all worked in one of the 100 or so restaurants Pyongyang operates in China, this one in the eastern port city of Ningbo, just south of Shanghai. The North has opened about 130 eateries in China and a couple dozen other countries. The establishments are money spinners for the regime, producing about $10 million annually in cash according to a recent estimate.

The South Korean government hinted, in Yonhap’s words, that “defectors were fearful that they would be punished if they were unable to send back money to North Korea.” The concern is real. “The latest defections are probably related to this kind of pressure felt by the workers,” a source told the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s most popular news source.

The new UN sanctions look like they already have had some effect. Some restaurants have been forced to close due to a recent drop in business, and there are indications that now about half of them are not breaking even. Another reason: the South Korean government has been urging its citizens, a main source of revenue, to stay away.     
Read more

More on further mass North Korean defections to follow – Part 2

And what has to be of special concern to Chairman Kim, however, is that Beijing did not stop the defections. The workers did not smuggle themselves out of China, as many had done in the past. On the contrary, they openly left the People’s Republic with their passports, traveling to Thailand before arriving in South Korea.

In the past, Pyongyang could count on Beijing to do almost anything to capture defectors and hand them over to North Korean border guards. This time, however, Chinese customs officials just waved the fleeing workers across the Thai border, a clear indication China was sending an unfriendly message to the Kim regime.

And there is another wrinkle. Offshore restaurant workers generally come from the higher classes and are chosen for their loyalty, so the mass defection from the Ningbo restaurant must now be having a psychological impact on regime elements back home.

Perhaps more escapes are on the way. Seoul expects additional mass defections from the 50,000 to 100,000 North Koreans working outside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

North Korea appears very far from regime collapse at the moment, but the defection of a senior colonel, a diplomat, and the Restaurant 13 are tremors that could foreshadow quakes to come.

[Read full article at The Daily Beast]

Should we expect more large-scale North Korean defections?

In the wake of last week’s mass defection of 13 North Koreans, additional exoduses may come about among North Koreans working overseas as the impact of U.N. resolutions and unilateral sanctions takes shape, top Seoul officials said Sunday.

A male restaurant manager in his 30s and 12 female employees in their early 20s who had served at a North Korean restaurant arrived in Seoul on Thursday, the Unification Ministry announced late Friday. South Korean media reported that the restaurant is located in the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo. and they travelled  via a Southeast Asian nation.

Contrary to earlier news reports, the 13 were “a sizable portion” of the restaurant’s staff, but “not everyone,” a senior ministry official said, indicating that some others left there may be hoping to follow suit — or already be on their way to Seoul.

According to the ministry, one female server said during questioning, “I’ve come to escape to Seoul where there is hope, as sanctions intensified recently and I lost hope for the North Korean system.” Another defector also said, “I’d developed a desire to live as a South Korean after gaining knowledge about South Korea’s democracy while watching TV shows and dramas overseas.”

About half of the approximately 130 North Korean restaurants, which would collectively deposit around $10 million a year in state coffers, are believed to be struggling to meet their quota, some resorting to illicit sex services and supplementary food sales to court more customers and boost revenues, the ministry official noted.

The official also said, “We have made our position clear to relevant countries that the defectors must come to South Korea according to their free will, and not be repatriated to the North against their will. But there is a need for stronger cooperation with those countries, as we can’t rule out the possibility for further group defections as the sanctions and pressure drive kicks into high gear.”

[The Korea Herald]