Popular online cartoons portraying North Korean defectors

With a few strokes on a computer tablet, the wide-eyed look of Yong-chul takes shape. In his late 20s, the cartoon character is the face of a young North Korean defector, who has recently arrived in South Korea and is bewildered by his new home.

Yong-chul is the alter ego of Choi Seong-guk, “but better looking and more expressive,” says Choi. Choi himself arrived in Seoul seven years ago, surviving a journey through four countries that took months to complete. He’s been able to turn his creative skills to his advantage, not only to support himself, but also to convey what being a defector from North Korea means. (In the North, he was an animator at Pyongyang’s leading SEK studio when he was arrested and jailed for selling DVDs of banned South Korean movies.)

He escaped north through China, following a route of more than 8,000 kilometers to end up living on the outskirts of Seoul, only 80 kilometers from the heavily fortified and impassable North Korean border.

Today, Choi communicates his impressions of life in the North — and the challenges of defecting to the South — in a series of popular online cartoons. Some are in the dark style of graphic novels, showing the risks of getting shot while crossing the border, being tortured if caught and dragged off to your execution.

“You will often be victimized by louder and stronger people,” he writes in one of his cartoons, above a drawing of a young man being bullied by a bigger character who looks a lot like North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Aside from chronicling the experiences of the newcomers, Choi also helps those who want to leave North Korea. He says he passes along contacts, advice and sometimes money to three to five defectors a month who are determined to make the dicey journey.

[CBC]

Leaving North Korea for South Korea

The defector’s trip usually starts with bribes to officials and payments to brokers who help them leave North Korea. They take their chances crossing rivers and mountains by foot. There’s even an underground railway — a network of safe houses through China — designed to dodge authorities. The lucky ones make it to Laos, Myanmar or Thailand and on to Seoul with the help of NGOs, Christian groups and South Korean diplomats abroad.

The government in the South offers help once they arrive. There is a modest allowance of about $1,000 a month as well as grants of up to $20,000 for things like a down payment on a house.

Defectors go through several months of socialization at government centers, and often they need classes to reach South Korean levels of education. NGOs like the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights offer tutoring in English, math and other skills needed in a competitive market economy.

But no matter how much they feel at home in the South, most still worry about the people they left behind, especially when there are threats of “total destruction” flying between Pyongyang and Washington every day and news of missile tests and underground nuclear explosions.

[CBC]

North Korea may not last a year under present sanctions, says former regime official

A former money man for the Kim regime, who served as a dedicated civil servant for more than 30 years before becoming disillusioned, suggests the North Korean economy is on the ropes.

“I don’t know if North Korea will survive a year [under] sanctions. Many people will die,” Ri Jong Ho, a former official in charge of securing funds for the regime, revealed at his first public speaking event in the U.S. at the Asia Society in New York, according to CNBC. “There is not enough to eat there” and the sanctions have “completely blocked” trade, he asserted.

The UN has imposed strict sanctions on the rogue regime, cutting off 90 percent of its exports, restricting key imports, and shutting down illicit trading and smuggling networks. The U.S. has also imposed unilateral sanctions to increase the pressure on North Korea and its supporters. “The sanctions that the White House has imposed on North Korea are of a historic level,” Ri explained. “Never before has the country faced such tough sanctions.”

He added that the rogue regime desires a functional relationship with the U.S., especially as ties with China hit “the very worst point of their relationship,” he stressed. There is reportedly a great deal of distrust and contempt between Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Kim called Xi a “son of a bitch” during a meeting with senior North Korean officials, Ri revealed.

It is unclear exactly what type of relationship North Korea desires with the U.S., but evidence suggests the North wants recognition as a nuclear-armed state and a peace treaty effectively ending America’s so-called “hostile policy” towards the regime. The North’s provocative behavior is, according to Ri, an attempt to force the U.S. to engage North Korea diplomatically on the regime’s terms.

Ri served the Kim regime as a dedicated civil servant for more than 30 years before becoming disillusioned. He decided to flee the country with his family after Kim began purging senior officials by the hundreds.

[Daily Caller]

North Korean Fulbright Scholar’s first experiences in South Korea

Defector Kim Seong Ryeol remembers his experience at school. “My classmates in South Korea didn’t want to include me in teamwork projects because they thought I really lacked understanding of technology, how to write, and the knowledge of classics and history,” he says. He said this made him angry, but added: “It actually motivated me to go further and try to become more like what South Koreans expected.”

Later, when it came to finding a job, his resume would be accepted time and again, but he claims that when it came to the interview stage employees would reject him when they learned he was North Korean.

“Seventy companies I applied to, all rejected … all at the interview level,” he says. “You have interviewers saying, ‘Explain about your high school and middle-school life,’ but we don’t have that kind of experience in North Korea. So you have to say, ‘I come from North Korea and I want to contribute to your company.’ At that level, interviewers are very confused.”

Kim has been left frustrated and disappointed by his treatment in South Korea but it would be inaccurate to say his time in the country has been all bad. In 2015, after completing his undergraduate studies, he won a scholarship from the Open Society Foundation, a New York-based grant-making organization, to do a master’s degree in unification studies at a South Korean university.

This August he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study a Ph.D. in the U.S. starting next year.

Kim says he wants President Trump — and the American public in general — to see beyond the North Korean regime and realize most of the country’s 25 million people are blameless civilians. “The people, they’re really kind and just… normal,” he says. “They try every day to only focus on their life. That’s all.”

[NBC]

North Korean defector becomes Fulbright Scholar

Kim Seong Ryeol was 10 when he witnessed his first public execution. He recalls it being a monthly event in his North Korean hometown, with police gathering crowds near a local market where they would shoot or hang people accused of criticizing the regime.

More than two decades later, Kim finds himself in a different world — sitting in a futuristic, glass-clad skyscraper in the heart of Seoul, the capital of neighboring South Korea.

Kim is one of around 30,000 North Koreans who have escaped their totalitarian regime by fleeing south.

In 2015, after completing his undergraduate studies, he won a scholarship from the Open Society Foundation, a New York-based grant-making organization, to do a master’s degree in unification studies at a South Korean university.

The 32-year-old was recently awarded a Fulbright scholarship to do a Ph.D. in the U.S. As a boy he used to dream of killing American soldiers, but no more. “When I was little, every book, every curriculum, they always mentioned that America is the enemy.”

He’s also become a Christian, a religion he knew next to nothing about before leaving his homeland. In 2009, he attended a school run by Youth With a Mission, a Texas-based Christian missionary organization. “It broadened my perspective, when I met my American friends, and made me think differently, to see that the world is global,” he says.

[NBC]

Hacking is an almost perfect weapon for Pyongyang

North Korea’s army of more than 6,000 hackers is undeniably persistent, and undeniably improving, according to American and British security officials who have been tracing their attacks. And unlike its nuclear weapons tests, which have led to international sanctions, the North’s cyberstrikes have faced almost no pushback or punishment, even as the regime is already using its hacking capabilities for actual attacks against its adversaries in the West.

And just as Western analysts once scoffed at the potential of the North’s nuclear program, so did experts dismiss its cyberpotential — only to now acknowledge that hacking is an almost perfect weapon for a Pyongyang that is isolated and has little to lose.

“Cyber is a tailor-made instrument of power for them,” said Chris Inglis, a former deputy director of the National Security Agency, who now directs cyberstudies at the United States Naval Academy. “There’s a low cost of entry, it’s largely asymmetrical, there’s some degree of anonymity and stealth in its use. It can hold large swaths of nation state infrastructure and private-sector infrastructure at risk. It’s a source of income.”

Mr. Inglis added: “You could argue that they have one of the most successful cyberprograms on the planet, not because it’s technically sophisticated, but because it has achieved all of their aims at very low cost.”

North Korea’s primitive infrastructure is also far less vulnerable to cyberretaliation, and North Korean hackers operate outside the country, anyway.

Both the United States and South Korea have placed digital “implants” in the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the North Korean equivalent of the Central Intelligence Agency, according to documents that Edward J. Snowden released several years ago. Indeed, both sides see cyber as the way to gain tactical advantage in their nuclear and missile standoff.

“Everyone is focused on mushroom clouds,” said Robert P. Silvers, the former assistant secretary for cyberpolicy at the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration, “but there is far more potential for another kind of disastrous escalation.”

[New York Times]                                                                              Read more

North Korean cyberpower threat

Last week, a South Korean lawmaker revealed that North Korea had successfully broken into the South’s military networks to steal war plans, including for the “decapitation” of the North Korean leadership in the opening hours of a new Korean war.

North Korea is not motivated solely by politics: A chief political objective of the cyberprogram is to preserve the image of the North’s 33-year-old leader, Kim Jong-un. Its most famous cyberattack came in 2014, against Sony Pictures Entertainment, in a largely successful effort to block the release of a movie that satirized Mr. Kim, “The Interview.”

What has not been disclosed, until now, is that North Korea had also hacked into a British television network a few weeks earlier to stop it from broadcasting a drama about a nuclear scientist kidnapped in Pyongyang.

Intelligence officials estimate that North Korea also reaps hundreds of millions a dollars a year from ransomware, digital bank heists, online video game cracking, and more recently, hacks of South Korean Bitcoin exchanges. One former British intelligence chief estimates the take from its cyberheists may bring the North as much as $1 billion a year, or a third of the value of the nation’s exports.

A recent analysis by the cybersecurity firm Recorded Future found heavy North Korean internet activity in India, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nepal, Kenya, Mozambique, and Indonesia. In some cases, like that of New Zealand, North Korean hackers were simply routing their attacks through the country’s computers from abroad. In others, researchers believe they are now physically stationed in countries like India, where nearly one-fifth of Pyongyang’s cyberattacks now originate.

[New York Times]

75% of all North Korean defectors are from just two provinces

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification publishes yearly statistics on the provinces of origin of North Korean defectors settled in South Korea. According to the figures, as of the year 2016, over 75% (23,138) of all North Korean defectors hailed from just two provinces: North Hamgyong Province and Ryanggang Province, with the former accounting for over 60% of all defections.

Even given that both provinces straddle the border with China, 75% is still a significant portion given that the DPRK has nine other provinces. Two other provinces which also straddle the border, and which are actually larger in population, Jagang and North Pyongan … only account for 3.3% of North Korean defectors.

While there are a number of possible explanations for this discrepancy, perhaps one of the simplest relates to geography. While both sections straddle the Chinese border and are, as a result, exposed to an overflow of Chinese/foreign sounds, culture, ideas, and lights, one section presents a considerably more formidable land obstacle.

North Pyongan and Jagang provinces straddle the Yalu river portion of the border. The Yalu is wider, deeper, stronger, and is more densely populated on the Chinese side, making it more difficult to cross safely and unnoticed.

On the other hand, North Hamgyong and part of Ryanggang province sit on the Tumen river, which is, by comparison, more narrow, shallow, and calmer than the Yalu – making it easier to cross. In addition, the area along the Chinese side of the Tumen river … has a large ethnic Korean population. In addition to being easier to access, this side of the border is, likely, culturally more approachable for defectors as well.

Despite its location and reputation as a city for the elite class, Pyongyang itself also produced more defectors (695) than a number of other North Korean provinces, and more than triple that of Jagang province, which sits on the border with China.

Altogether, almost 90% of all defectors come from just four North Korean provinces, and these provinces account for only 40% (10 million of 25 million) of North Korea’s population in total.

[Source: Shaquille James, Co-Founder of the North Korea Network]

Celebrity defector women of North Korea changing stereotype

South Korean entertainment is awash in fads that come and go. Here’s one with staying power: celebrity defectors from North Korea.

In recent years, North Koreans have populated a new wave of talk shows, reality TV programs and dramas — each of them promising viewers a thrilling glimpse of life north of them. Often enlightening, sometimes tawdry (and occasionally both), these programs have proved highly popular.

It also sharply inverts the typical image of fly-nibbled refugees, replacing it with a new stereotype: celebrity defectors who are invariably young, female and attractive. For decades, North Korean defectors have been regarded by their southern siblings as sad, backwards and possibly still brainwashed. That is now changing.

One such talk show called “Now On My Way To Meet You” is propelled by a rotating cast of North Korean defectors — almost all of them glamorously dressed young women with perfect skin. These “northern beauties,” as they’re called by the show, are quizzed by upbeat hosts about life beyond the border. The success of that show inspired a new spate of defector-themed shows.

One celebrity North Korean defector Kim Ah-ra says, “They’re starting to see that the story of our people is much bigger than Kim Jong-un and nuclear bombs. … Now we have shows that present us in a lighter, more human way.”

[USAToday]

Celebrity North Korean defector Kim Ah-ra

Among rising stars of celebrity North Korean defectors is a 25-year-old actress named Kim Ah-ra. Her hipster leggings and elaborately painted toenails give little indication that she grew up amid famine, eating grass soup to survive.

Kim was only 12 when she slipped away from her home province, in a mountainous corner of North Korea, to the hinterlands of China. After a long spell in the Chinese countryside, she finally defected to South Korea around 2009.

Both Kim and her mother were aided by an underground railroad run by Christians. This daring network illegally traffics North Koreans out of China and into countries that will link them up with South Korean authorities. From there, they’re given a free plane ticket to Seoul and a new life in one of the most technologically advanced societies on Earth.

Almost all of Kim’s early memories revolve around food — or rather its scarcity. “When we had food, we ate it immediately. We’d take one or two spoons of rice, add some grass and pour in a lot of water to make a dark porridge. That had to feed four people.”

“I remember wandering the village, looking at the ground, hoping to spot a stray noodle or chicken head,” Kim says. “My dad would cook rats and tell us it was rabbit meat.”

[USAToday]