Trump honors North Korean defector in his State of the Union speech

During last night’s State of the Union address, President Trump highlighted the inspiring stories of several individuals, one of whom was a man who defected from North Korea, Ji Seong-ho.

As a boy, Ji was run over by train as he tried to collect coal for his struggling family. He endured multiple amputations, and his siblings ate dirt so that he could have their allotment of food as he recovered.

Later, after a brief trip to China, Ji was tortured by North Korean authorities wanting to know if he had met any Christians. “He had,” Trump said, “and he resolved, after that, to be free.”

Ji traveled thousands of miles on crutches, across China and southeast Asia, to freedom. Ji now lives in Seoul, where he works to rescue other defectors. “Today, he has a new leg,” the president added. “But Seong-ho, I understand you still keep those old crutches, as a reminder of how far you’ve come.”

[National Review]

North Korea’s Olympic charm offensive

North Korean defectors, who fled their impoverished and repressive homeland, are voicing concern that the North’s Olympic delegation featuring its “army of beauties” will score deceptive propaganda points, but they also hold out hope that inter-Korean cooperation can create an opportunity for peaceful progress.

A 230 member all female cheerleading squad, often called the “army of beauties,” will be among the large North Korean Olympic delegation planning to visit South Korea for the PyeongChang Olympics in February.

“It will garner the spotlight, and as each of its actions can become an opportunity to promote North Korea, I consider this as a political move,” said Kim Chul-woong, who was a pianist with Pyongyang University of Music and Dance, before defecting in 2002.

The cheering squad is made up of attractive and relatively tall women (over 160cm,) who were selected from elite universities and have no relatives living abroad. Perhaps the most famous former cheering squad member is Ri Sol Ju, the wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. At the age of 16 she participated in the 2005 Asian Athletic Championships in South Korea.

The women cheerleaders also undergo extensive ideological education to ensure loyalty to the state and to the leadership of the Kim family. “Leaving North Korea and visiting overseas is like going to fight in the heart of the enemy,” said North Korean defector Han Seo-hee. Han can also testify that the state’s ideological training is not always effective, as she was actually a North Korean cheerleader for the 2002 Asian Games held in Busan, South Korea, before she defected.

[VoA]

North Korea increasing executions as sanctions strain its military, top U.S. General says

North Korea is increasing executions, the top commander of U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula said Monday, as the state has been decreasing military exercises under strain from economic sanctions.

“We’re seeing some increase in executions, mostly against political officers who are in military units, for corruption,” General Vincent K. Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces in Korea, told The Wall Street Journal. Brooks described the executions as attempts to “clamp down as much as possible on something that might be deteriorating and keeping it from deteriorating too quickly.”

Brooks said that defections had been occurring “in areas where we don’t generally see them,” such as crossings through the heavily guarded Demilitarized Zone separating the North and South.

[Newsweek]

North Koreans can’t escape human rights abuses even after fleeing to China

The majority of North Koreans who attempt to escape the repressive regime cross the Yalu River from Korea into either Jilin or Liaoning provinces in Northeast China. From there, they commence an arduous 3000-mile journey south ― commonly known as the “underground railway” ― through China, Vietnam and Laos until they “safely” arrive in Thailand. Sadly, throughout their whole journey in China, these refugees are considered by the Chinese government to be “illegal economic migrants,” and if caught, are arrested and routinely forcibly repatriated to North Korea.

Over the years there have been thousands of documented accounts of refugees being arrested by Chinese authorities and being sent back to North Korea, a country that is widely recognized as being devoid of basic rights and freedoms. Upon return, they face serious human rights abuses including jail, internment in re-education facilities and even death ― tactics used by the Kim government to intimidate other North Korean citizens from attempting their own escape.

In addition to the unknown number of refugees that are caught by Chinese authorities each year, it is estimated that there are a further 50,000 to 200,000 North Koreans residing in China. Forced to live in the shadows, they have no social or legal protections, no support, no rights and no hope. This population includes a large number of women who face heightened vulnerabilities, including being trafficked into the sex trade or sold as wives to local Chinese men.

The decision by the Chinese government to continuously return refugees to North Korea seriously calls into question China’s credibility as a member of the international human rights community. While it might not be common knowledge, China did in 1982 sign the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. This treaty contains a series of international legal obligations, including the fundamental tenet of non-refoulement: not sending someone back to a country where their life or liberty may be threatened. Despite this, China continues to proclaim that its national asylum legislation is “under development.” As 36 years have passed since its original signing of the Convention, it is safe to say that refugee protection is not a government priority.

The failure of China’s international commitments was again highlighted in the 2014 U.N. Commission of Inquiry report on the human rights situation in North Korea, which condemned Beijing for not only repatriating North Koreans but also for failing to protect them from falling into the hands of human traffickers. [However, China] dogmatically continues to arrest and deport North Koreans, citing them exclusively as “illegal economic migrants.”

[Excerpts from Opinion by Evan Jones, program coordinator at the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network]

Despite sanctions, North Korea exported coal via Russia

North Korea shipped coal to Russia last year which was then delivered to South Korea and Japan in a likely violation of U.N. sanctions, three Western European intelligence sources said.

The U.N. Security Council banned North Korean exports of coal last Aug. 5 under sanctions intended to cut off an important source of the foreign currency Pyongyang needs to fund its nuclear weapon and missile programs.

But the secretive Communist state has at least three times since then shipped coal to the Russian ports of Nakhodka and Kholmsk, where it was unloaded at docks and reloaded onto ships that took it to South Korea or Japan, the sources said.

A Western shipping source said separately that some of the cargoes reached Japan and South Korea in October last year. A U.S. security source also confirmed the coal trade via Russia and said it was continuing.

Asked to respond to the report, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that Russia abided by international law.

[Reuters]

A nuclear bomb survivor with a message for President Trump and Kim Jong-Un

Toshiharu Kano, 71, was born seven months after the United States dropped the bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. His mother, pregnant with Kano, miraculously survived and took her two children to a nearby military base. His brother, just 18 months old at the time, died within 60 days of the bombing.

As a survivor, Kano endured a variety of physical challenges. His immune system was impaired and among other things he got mumps seven times. Labeled by society as defective, Kano and his family were spurned. By age ten, he felt so rejected from repeatedly being told he was damaged goods that he seriously contemplated suicide.

Kano notes that the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was a mere “toy” compared with modern nuclear weapons. Still, the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed about 100,000 people.

That bomb packed the punch of 15 kilotons of TNT.

By comparison, the largest bomb ever detonated to date (built by the USSR) had the equivalent of 50,000 kilotons or 50 megatons of TNT, about 3,000 times more powerful than Little Boy.

In his book, Passport to Hiroshima, Kano says, “I have a message from God to tell all of the world leaders that we cannot use the nuclear weapons to settle their differences ever again.”

North Korean singer’s visit to Seoul a propaganda coup

Koreans on both halves of the divided peninsula are fond of the phrase “Nam nam buk nyeo,” literally “Southern man, Northern woman.” South Korean men use it to assert that they are the most handsome, while North Koreans claim that their women are the most beautiful. (South Korean women and North Korean men are, understandably, less fond of the phrase.)

South Koreans are now in the midst of a North Korean beauty blitz–and, well, they’re gaga.
A frenzied media posse has been chasing Hyon Song Wol, a singer in North Korea’s all-female Moranbong Band and a rising political star in Kim Jong Un’s regime, on her two-day visit to the South. She has been leading a seven-member delegation to inspect facilities in the South where the North’s Samjiyon Orchestra will play on its visit during the Winter Olympics next month, in which 22 North Korean athletes will compete.

Television networks carried live coverage of the delegation’s arrival in the South and camera teams were in hot pursuit every step of the way from then on. Hyon’s face graced the front pages of almost every newspaper in South Korea on Monday morning.

Hyon, who is 35, is the focus of so much curiosity partly because of her role at the center of one of North Korea’s biggest cultural exports, the Moranbong Band. The band was established on Kim’s orders in 2012 and was like nothing North Korea had seen before. Instead of women in tent-like traditional dresses with a repertoire made up entirely of songs about revolutionary fervor, Hyon and her fellow singers made their debut in sparkly short dresses and performed the theme from Rocky, and Disney’s “It’s a Small World.”

The glamorous singer represents a very different side of North Korea from the one with the rampant starvation and human rights abuses–the one that is reality for the vast majority of North Koreans. In that way, Hyon’s visit is a propaganda coup for North Korea.

“North Koreans are very proud,” said Tatiana Gabroussenko, an expert on North Korean culture who teaches at Korea University in Seoul. “They are saying, ‘We may be a communist state, but our girls are the most beautiful, they’re not like those plastic girls in the South,’” she said, in a reference to the extensive use of cosmetic surgery in South Korea.

Not everyone in South Korea is so wild about North Korea’s soft-power efforts. The JoongAng Ilbo, one of South Korea’s top three newspapers, on Monday warned the government not to be seduced by North Korea.

[Washington Post]

Seoul tells North Korean defectors to take low profile during Olympics

South Korea’s government is telling high-profile North Korean defectors such as Thae Yong-ho to “cool it” by not engaging in public criticism of Pyongyang during February’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

The Chosun Ilbo reports that the South Korean government’s efforts to set a “festive mood of rapprochement” with the North contrasts with a huge military parade that Pyongyang plans to hold just before the Games begin – “suggesting that the appeasement is all one way.”

On the advice conveyed to North Korean defectors, one South Korean government source reportedly said: “The request was ostensibly made out of concern for their safety, but it sounded like a warning not to pour cold water on the event.”

A military source was also cited as saying that Seoul had also nixed plans to send out “a congratulatory message marking the handover of the next-generation F-35A fighter jet in Texas in late March.”

The aforementioned Thae Yong-ho has been described as one of the highest-ranking North Korean officials ever to defect.

[Asia Times]

Concerns over US launching ‘limited’ strike or ‘preventive’ action against North Korea after the Olympics

Despite peace gestures tied to next month’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, officials in South Korea are worried the U.S. may be preparing for military action against North Korea.

Bruce Klingner, former chief of the CIA Korea division and now senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Washington-based conservative think Heritage Foundation, just returned from Korea, where he heard firsthand the concerns of senior South Korean officials. He said the unanimous view is that even a limited strike would certainly trigger a response from the North Koreans.

Some proponents of the Trump administration’s limited-strike option contend that the North Koreans might actually hold back from any military response out of fear that the risks of doing so are too great because it could produce a massive response from Washington and perhaps be fatal to the Kim regime. Yet others disagree, saying the North Korea leader would look bad if he didn’t respond since the regime has blamed the U.S. for crippling international sanctions and its other problems. They also contend that a faction of the military could act on its own if Kim failed to order a military response.

“Kim would have no choice but to respond back or he’d face the possibility of a coup,” said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, a U.S. think tank. “And maybe even respond more ferociously than we attack him.”

Any retaliation could potentially pose a threat to the greater Seoul area, where about half of the South Korean population lives. North Koreans are known to have thousands of hardened artillery sites, including some dug into mountains, along the Korean DMZ and within range of Seoul.

Another wildcard is what China would do if the U.S. were to conduct a strike against North Korea. An editorial last year in China’s semi-official Global Times newspaper suggested Beijing might help North Korea if Washington launched a pre-emptive attack. China was noticeably absent last week when diplomats from 20 countries met in Vancouver, British Columbia, to discuss the North Korean nuclear threat and international sanctions.

The upcoming war games known as Foal Eagle and Key Resolve are set to get underway after the Olympics and involve American and South Korean ships, tanks and aircraft as well as live-fire exercises and more than 230,000 combined troops.

[CNBC]

Report says North Korean defector killed someone before he escaped

A North Korean soldier who made a desperate dash across the border in November escaped after causing a person’s death, a South Korean newspaper reported Tuesday, quoting an unidentified intelligence official.

According to the report in newspaper Dong-A, the confession came from Oh Chung Sung—or Oh Chong Song, depending on the translation—over the course of a routine interrogation led by the South Korean spy agency.

The South Korean Ministry of Unification did not confirm the reports. “The investigation has not been completed yet,” a ministry spokesperson told reporters at a press conference, quoted in South Korean news agency Yonhap. “We cannot confirm specific details of the incident.”

Should investigators find that Oh, who was identified as the son of a high-ranking military official, was involved in a crime such as murder or manslaughter, he may lose some of the privileges and the protections usually awarded to North Korean defectors. But as there is no extradition agreement between the two countries, he’ll likely be allowed to stay in South Korea.

Oh crossed the border area between North and South Korea on November 13, surviving several gunshot wounds inflicted by his former comrades who chased him across the Joint Security Area, firing at him. He was rescued and airlifted to the private Ajou University Hospital, where he underwent two rounds of surgeries and blood transfusions. Doctors also diagnosed him with a parasitic infection and hepatitis B.

[Newsweek]