Dispute boils over Seoul court hearing on North Korean defectors

About two months after fleeing their oppressive homeland, 12 former workers of a North Korean restaurant in China face a legal debate over the legitimacy of their stay in South Korea under Seoul’s protection.

The Seoul Central District Court opened a hearing to review a request by the Lawyers for a Democratic Society, better known as Minbyun, to determine whether the 12 had defected on their own free will and thus whether the government’s current holding of them is lawful.

The Unification Ministry’s unprecedented announcement of the defection, made just days ahead of the April 13 general election, stoked rumors that the National Intelligence Service had orchestrated the escape with a political intention.

Controversy is simmering as the court issued a summons to the 12 defectors, fueling concerns over their safety and that of their family members left behind in the North.

In another development, the NIS has decided to have the group remain in their current residence instead of sending them to Hanawon resettlement center, citing the special nature of their situation including Pyongyang’s ongoing propaganda offensive against them.

[The Korea Herald]

UN sanctions usually fail

To rein in countries like North Korea … global powers are boosting their reliance on United Nations sanctions aimed at forcing recalcitrant a government to drop weapons programs, stop attacking their civilians or respect the results of elections. They usually fail.

Countries should be wary of seeing sanctions as a magic bullet, US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew recently said in a speech. “We must guard against the impulse to reach for sanctions too lightly or in situations where they will have negligible impact,” Lew said.

“Sanctions have failed to achieve their objectives, and even the success stories have a mixed record,” said Daniel Wagner, author of the Political Risk Insurance Guide. “Countries have found ways around the sanctions and can counter them.”

“Sanctions are applied to the most complex, intractable problems where the military option is not the solution,” said Thomas Biersteker, a professor at the Graduate Institute of Geneva, who has written extensively on sanctions.

[South China Morning Post]

US Treasury further cracks down on North Korea’s money laundering

North Korea has been accused of using state-owned corporations and front companies to pay for its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. And the U.S. Treasury Department has announced new steps it’s taking to “further isolate North Korea.”

Treasury officials want to prohibit American banks from doing business with North Korean financial institutions. To accomplish that, they’ve designated North Korea a “primary money laundering concern” under the Patriot Act. That designation will require U.S. banks to “implement additional due diligence measures” to make sure North Korean banks don’t get access.

In a statement, Treasury pointed out that, unlike most banks, North Korea’s financial institutions operate with little or no international supervision — making it easier for them to shift money for illicit purposes.

[CNN]

Kim Jong Un still smoking

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been spotted smoking in public for the first time in around two months, despite the country being in the middle of an official anti-smoking campaign.

State media this week showed the country’s Supreme Leader with a cigarette in his right hand during a visit to a children’s camp in Pyongyang. Until now, news reports on Kim’s activities have shown him without his habitual cigarette and an ashtray on a nearby table. He’s known to be a heavy smoker, and BBC analysts say he may have just stopped smoking on official duties for the sake of the cameras.

The sight of Kim smoking comes as a surprise, as the country is in the midst of what state newspaper Rodong Sinmun calls a “brisk” anti-tobacco campaign in a country which has a large smoking population. According to the World Health Organisation, over half of North Korean men were smokers in 2012, South Korean news agency Yonhap says, one of the highest rates in Asia.

[BBC]

Details on latest North Korean defectors to have made it to Seoul

The North Korean propaganda website Uriminzokkiri on Tuesday alleged that three North Korean women who fled from China to South Korea were “abducted” by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. The website also published the photos, identities and passport numbers of two South Koreans and a Korean-Chinese man it accuses of “luring and abducting” the women at the orders of the South Korean “National Intelligence Service” (NIS).

But Yoon Jae-hong, one of the men in the photos who helps North Korean defectors in China, denied the claims. “They were anything but kidnapped,” he told the Chosun Ilbo. “They were the ones who asked us to rescue them.The NIS has nothing to do with this.”

According to Yoon, two of the women worked in a restaurant in Shanghai for two years until late 2015. They were senior employees and had their own cell phones and were allowed to leave the restaurant freely. They became friends with two South Korean businessmen in Shanghai and exchanged phone numbers.

But the restaurant closed down late last year due to financial difficulties and the women were moved to another restaurant in Weinan, Shaanxi Province. From there they continued to exchange text messages with the two South Koreans in Shanghai.

Hearing of the defections of 13 North Korean women from another restaurant strengthened the resolve of the two women in Weinan to also [defect]. They contacted the two South Korean men to ask for their help in getting to South Korea. One of the South Koreans contacted Kim Yong-hwa of the North Korea Refugees Human Rights Association in Seoul to ask for help. Kim arranged for Yoon to help them.

“Originally, three restaurant workers intended to defect, but one changed her mind at the last minute,” Yoon said. “On April 15, they left the restaurant and got in a taxi to a prearranged spot, and from there they traveled for two days by bus to Yunnan Province.”

The women crossed the border into Laos and traveled to Thailand to board a flight to Seoul.

[Chosun Ilbo]

South Korean Defense Minister on Kim Jong Un

Young, rash and impulsive.

A frank assessment of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by South Korean Defense Minister Han Minkoo. Speaking exclusively to CNN on the sidelines of a defense forum in Singapore, Han says it’s a combination that concerns him greatly.

“Kim Jong Un was just 27 when he came to power with very little time to prepare. Add to that, he is very young, he lacks experience.”

Kim certainly seems to be in a rush to perfect his nuclear and missile capabilities, the intensity of testing this year alone is unusual even for North Korea. “If you look at his father, Kim Jong Il, during his 18 year reign, there were about 18 missile tests. During Kim Jong Un’s four year reign there (have been) 25 missile tests,” says Han.

[CNN]

China and US reaffirm enforcement of sanctions against North Korea

China pledged yesterday to work with the US to enforce sanctions against North Korea.

The pledge was made as China and the United States wrapped up their two-day annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue, labelled by officials as most productive in years despite many divisions.

But they disagreed on how to rid the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons. The US favors putting more pressure on Pyongyang, while China insists on reviving talks and strongly opposes US deployment of an anti-missile system in South Korea.

US Secretary of State John Kerry also voiced concern over China’s crackdown on lawyers and religious freedom, and a new law’s restrictions on non-governmental organizations.

[South China Morning Post]

Selling sausages to save North Korean defectors

Youngae Ma, 53, is a North Korean defector who joined the North Korean army at 17, serving in the country’s State Security Department as an intelligence agent near the Chinese border.

She was responsible for gathering information about South Korea through collecting documents. Based in China, she was exposed to what she called “the outer world,” with radios, a wide variety of cuisine, and Christian churches. When she was found eating the free food offered at a church, she was arrested right away, she said.

Knowing that she would be sentenced to death, Ma decided to escape. She waited for the police car transporting her to slow, and when it did, she threw herself out and ran for her life in the blistering cold.

“I couldn’t feel my toes, I remember three of my toenails falling out while I was running,” Ma said. “I didn’t notice it until I realized that I was leaving a bloody track.”

Ma eventually made it safely to the South Korean Consulate General in Shanghai, where she was given a passport and was escorted to Seoul.

Ma made it to the U.S. and sells Pyongyang sausages to fund her mission to rescue North Korean defectors. She now runs The Kun Jip, in Palisades Park, New Jersey.

Ma is a U.S. permanent resident with a South Korean passport — one that she claims to have fought for more than five years to receive, citing political persecution in South Korea.  Read more

North Korean defector standing up for her faith

Youngae Ma, who defected from North Korea in 2000, said a meal in the church that she found in China was a life-changing experience. In North Korea, Christianity is considered the equivalent to espionage, she said.

“That’s when I first saw the Bible, and I felt affection from this church community that I’ve never felt before,” she said. “It’s such an abundance I wouldn’t have even imagined existed.”

Ma now leads NK Refugee Mission, working to rescue North Korean defectors that have been detained in various parts of China and Southeast Asia during their journey to escape North Korea.  Currently, Ma’s mission is to rescue two women from China, whose identities she declined to reveal.

“I’m more than willing to be sacrificed while protesting for North Korea’s human rights. … They call me a tick, or a mite when I protest outside the North Korean office,” Ma said, recalling her experiences encountering Pyongyang officials outside North Korea’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York City. She said she would receive phone calls from a blocked or unknown number. She would pick up, she said, and there would be silence for more than three seconds. She knew what was coming next.

“I have a hunch that it’s from the North Korean diplomats, because I can hear a heavy accent. They threatened to chop my head off with an ax, take out all my teeth with a wrench, and endlessly shout in foul [North] Korean language to tell me they’re going to take my life someday,” she said.

She said that the most recent call she had received to stop her activities as a missionary was in early May.

[NBC News]

North Korea mending fences with China

A high level North Korean delegation turned up in Beijing unannounced this week and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping — the first time a North Korean official has met China’s leader since 2013.

The meeting between top North Korean diplomat Ri Su Yong and Xi caught North Korea watchers by surprise.

On paper, China is North Korea’s closest and most powerful ally but it’s is no secret that relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have been at a low point in recent years.

According to official media reports, the Workers’ Party of Korea delegation headed by Ri Su Yong, delivered a message from North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un. It expressed “the hope to strengthen and develop bilateral friendship and to maintain peace and stability in the region.”

Ri reaffirmed that North Korea would continue its ‘two front lines policy” of developing nuclear weaponry in tandem with reinvigorating its isolated and stagnating economy.

Xinhua, China’s official news agency gave few details, but the landmark meeting can be interpreted as a slight thawing in the frosty relations between historical and ideological friends.

Beijing is also sending a message to the U.S. and South Korea that, despite misgivings, it is not abandoning its old ally and all parties are going to have to get used to that.

[CNN]