North Korean defector’s reflections on the Olympics

Last week, Park Ui-Song, a thirty-year-old, took a break from his university classes in Seoul to travel to the Gangneung Ice Arena to watch some Olympic competitions. Park, who asked that his name be changed to protect the identity of his family that remains in North Korea, shared the following reaction:

I was hoping that [the outcome might be] starting a dialogue, that sort of humanizing theme would come through. Practically, the North Korean leaders have the power to improve the North-South relationship. I hate them, but they can bring change. So I also kept a close eye on the North Korean leaders like Kim Yo Jong [Kim Jong-Un’s sister] and South Korea President Moon Jae-in. I had a lot of hope and expectation when they showed each other what I thought looked like respect. I want reunification, even though many in the generation below me do not. Of course, I have a family that I’d like to see.

But watching the cheerleaders in particular—actually, watching the media watching the cheerleaders—and seeing how much attention the media gave them and how they were received was disappointing. Their actions weren’t natural. They looked like dolls. Or like actors in a play. And yes, they were very much playing their roles, but I struggled with how the rest of the world was so enamored with them and their looking like robots. At the hockey game [between North Korea and Switzerland], they yelled slogans about unity and sang old Korean folk tunes. They chanted We are one! There might be a desire to unify but it’s not their real intention. The chanting is an order. I do feel sorry for them because they are victims of a dictatorship. They are being used as a tool.

I wish the global audience could separate the North Korean regime and the North Korean people, which I know is very hard to do. But I wish people could try to have that perspective. In many ways, the North Korean people are just like other people—they fall in love, they have their own culture. Once you remove the regime, they’re not so different.

There’s some nostalgia. I’ve been in South Korea for three years, and seeing [North Korean Olympic attendees] on TV, there is an element of homesickness. I still think North Korea is in some ways a beautiful place, and I still identify myself closer to North Korean than South Korean because I spent 26 years of my life in the North. I don’t know if that will gradually change, sometimes I ask myself if it needs to.

I left to go back to Seoul feeling conflicted about it all. Kim [Jong-Un] clearly tried to create an environment for dialogue and also brighten up the world’s perception of the North at these Games, I don’t know if he was successful. Maybe it’s fifty-fifty.

[Esquire]

US imposes yet more North Korea sanctions

The United States said on Friday it was imposing its largest package of sanctions to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear missile program, and President Donald Trump warned of a “phase two” that could be “very, very unfortunate for the world” if the steps did not work.

The U.S. Treasury sanctions’ targets include a Taiwanese passport holder, as well as shipping and energy firms in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. The actions block assets held by the firms and individuals in the United States and prohibit U.S. citizens from dealing with them. The U.S. Treasury said the sanctions were designed to disrupt North Korean shipping and trading companies and vessels and further isolate Pyongyang.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the new sanctions would help prevent North Korea from skirting restrictions on trade in coal and other fuel through “evasive maritime activities.” Last month three Western European intelligence sources told Reuters that North Korea shipped coal to Russia last year and that it was then delivered to South Korea and Japan in a likely violation of U.N. sanctions.

Mnuchin said the number of sanctions steps taken by the United States against Pyongyang since 2005 was now 450, with approximately half imposed in the last year.

“The only thing missing here today is action against Chinese banks,” Jonathan Shanzer of the Washington think tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies said. “We know they continue to undermine our efforts to isolate North Korea.”

[Reuters]

North Korea’s propaganda victory at the Winter Olympics

The Olympics has been a PR dream come true for the murderous Kim Jong Un dictatorship. South Korea’s Moon administration claims to be using the games to foster goodwill, but the reality is that the Hermit Kingdom has taken this opportunity to stage one of history’s great whitewashing operations, where the breathless focus is on the fashion style of the Dear Leader’s sister instead of his forced labor camps and police state.

North Korea is the worst human rights violator on our planet. Its leaders — including the smiling Kim Yo Jong — are active participants in a totalitarian state that starves, abuses and brainwashes millions of people. The Kim regime keeps tight control over its population through outright violent oppression, but also relies heavily on an elaborate system of censorship, propaganda and indoctrination. North Koreans grow up hearing creation myths about their godlike rulers alongside a warped version of history that places North Korea as both the strongest and most noble nation in the world, and as a victim of “American bastards.” According to Jieun Baek, author of “North Korea’s Hidden Revolution,” “children learn to add and subtract by counting dead American soldiers” and learn to use rifles “in case the ‘Yankee imperialists’ attack.”

The brainwashing works. As defector and human rights activist Yeonmi Park explains, before she decided to defect, she “was not aware, like a fish is not aware of water. North Koreans are abducted at birth, so they do not know the concept of freedom or human rights. They do not know that they are slaves.”

For decades, the regime has tried to maintain a strict censorship of all foreign news, books, movies, TV shows and more, and imposes severe punishments on anyone found consuming forbidden media. Individuals found consuming outside media can face long stints in the country’s reeducation centers, where they are worked nearly to death, tortured and abused by guards and underfed to the point of eating locusts and rats found on prison floors. In some cases, those caught with prohibited media are executed and, typically, such events are done in broad daylight with the local population forced to attend.

[From Washington Post Opinion piece by Garry Kasparov]

Secret meeting between US and North Korea canceled

When US Vice President Pence departed for a five-day, two-country swing through Asia earlier this month an agreement was in place for a secret meeting with North Korean officials, while in South Korea at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

But on Feb. 10, less than two hours before Pence and his team were to meet with Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and Kim Yong Nam, North Korea’s nominal head of state, the North Koreans pulled out of the scheduled meeting, according to Pence’s office.

The North Korean decision to withdraw from the meeting came after Pence used his trip to denounce the North’s nuclear ambitions and announce the “toughest and most aggressive” sanctions yet against the regime, while also taking steps to further solidify the U.S. alliance with Japan and South Korea.

The cancellation also came as Kim Jong Un, through his sister, invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang to begin talks “soon” — a development that would be likely to cause consternation in Washington.

The vice president’s office promoted his trip as an effort to combat what it said was North Korea’s plan to use the Winter Games for propaganda purposes and portrayed the cancellation of the meeting as evidence his mission was a success.

The meeting — which Pence had coyly teased en route to Asia, saying, “We’ll see what happens” — had been two weeks in the making. It began to take shape when the CIA got word that the North Koreans wanted to meet with Pence when he was on the Korean Peninsula, according to a senior White House official. A second official said the initiative for the meeting came from South Korea, which acted as an intermediary to set up the meeting.

[The Washington Post]

North Korean defector in the South arrested for sending 130 tons of grain north

South Korean authorities have arrested a North Korean defector who fled the country in 2011 …for sending 130 tons of rice back to Pyongyang.

The 49-year-old defector was indicted on suspicion of violating the country’s National Security Law and attempting to return to North Korea, which is illegal under South Korean law. According to the authorities, the woman arranged to send two deliveries of 65 tons of rice each to North Korea’s State Security Ministry with the help of a Chinese broker, worth a total of 105 million won ($98,700).

The woman is also accused of sending an additional 80 million won ($75,200) to the broker in preparation for new rice deliveries shortly before she was arrested by the authorities in Suwon, a city in northwestern South Korea approximately 20 miles south of the capital, Seoul.

The defector told the authorities she made contact with the regime because she wanted to go back home to her son and was sending the rice as a sign of loyalty to North Korea in order to avoid being punished for defecting. The woman ran a private business in South Korea but sold her house and personal belongings in preparation for her return to the North, local media reported.

North Korean defector Kim Ryen Hui has staged various public demonstrations of her wish to return to Pyongyang, disrupting a U.N. press conference organized in Seoul in December to accuse South Korea of violating her human rights. The 47-year-old appeared at a border crossing last week as the North Korean art troupe that performed in the South for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics was heading back. She waved a united Korean Peninsula flag and told the puzzled performers of her desire to go home as government officials blocked her from their view.

[Newsweek]

What will be next for North Korean athletes who attended Winter Olympics?

For North Korean athletes, the prospect of failure on the big stage carries a punishment far worse than a damaged ego. Having failed to land a single medal in South Korea so far, its Winter Olympic team could suffer the same fate as previous under-performing athletes – imprisonment in one of the country’s gulags.

The most infamous case is that of the North Korean football team which made history for reaching the second round of the 1966 World Cup. Former leader Kim Il-Sung is widely believed to have ordered them to be arrested and sent to prison after they lost to 5-3 Portugal days after they were seen drinking with local women in public.

North Korean defector Kang Chol-Hwan claims he met some of the team while they were being held in Yodok prison, or Camp 15, usually reserved for political prisoners. In his tell-all book The Aquariums of Pyongyang, he asserts that footballer Pak Seung-Zin became infamous for his ability to endure torture.

After the 2010 World Cup, FIFA was forced to investigate claims another North Korean football team were “punished” after being thrashed 7-0 by Portugal.

North Korea expert Toshimitsu Shigemura said of the North Korean Olympic team who traveled to Rio 2016 and came back with just two gold medals: “Those who won medals will be rewarded with better housing allocations, better rations… and maybe other gifts from the regime,” adding that athletes who “disappointed” the leader would likely be punished with a downgrade in housing, reduced rations and even “being sent to the coal mines”.

Defector Kim Hyeong-Soo, who fled the country in 2009, has also said both athletes and coaches were punished to months of hard labor if they did not live up to expectations.

[The Sun – UK]

South Korea puts brakes on hopes for quick talks with North Korea

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Saturday it was too early to talk about hosting a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, hinting he would not rush the matter.

“There are high expectations and our hearts seem to be getting impatient. It is like the old saying, seeking a scorched-rice water from a well,” Moon told journalists in Pyeongchang after being asked whether he planned to hold a summit with North Korea. The proverb translates to rushing into something without fully understanding the consequences.

South Korean President Moon receives Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

At the time of the Olympic invitation, Moon hailed the progress that had already been made in advancing inter-Korean talks. “I hope that this will lead to an improvement in inter-Korean relations — not only inter-Korean relations, but we also believe that there has been slowly, but gradually, a growing consensus on the need for dialogue between the United States and North Korea,” he said.

[CNN]

How to cope with a North Korean refugee crisis

In the event of conflict breaking out in North Korea, analysts expect a large human toll. With a 1,670 kilometre shared border with North Korea, there would undoubtedly be a mass refugee spillover. To be prepared, both China and South Korea need to learn from other refugee emergencies by making three key policy decisions.

1. Adopting a temporary protection regime – Since 2011, the Turkish government has been providing asylum to Syrian nationals under a temporary protection scheme, which provides them with a set of rights, including the right to protection from forcible return, until a solution to their situation is reached. To benefit from this regulatory scheme, Syrian nationals must register themselves with the authorities within a designated time, and are issued identity cards, without which they cannot access vital services such as health care.

2. Allowing them choice of settlement – China and South Korea can emulate the Jordanian model, where Syrian refugees were given a choice to self-settle or stay in one of the designated refugee camps.

3. Including them in the formal economy – While needs in the early emergency phase mainly revolve around relief assistance, as time goes by refugees’ needs change. When refugees do not have a source of livelihood, they resort to negative coping mechanisms, such as child labor and street begging. China and South Korea can get inspiration from the Ugandan model if a refugee influx occurs. In this model, refugees work, pay taxes, and use their entrepreneurial skills to boost the formal economy.

[Read full article at The Conversation]

The North Korean defector’s Hanawon experience

Most defectors from North Korea undergo security questioning by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service for a few days up to several months in extreme cases, before being moved to the Hanawon resettlement center. At Hanawon, they then receive a mandatory three-month education on life in the capitalist South, from taking public transportation to opening a bank account to creating an email address.

“It’s where you would get to see the outside world for the first time, as they take you out to meet people on the streets and learn how to access the social service network. These days, you can also do a home stay with an ordinary South Korean family,” said Ji Seong-ho, a 35-year-old defector who heads Now, Action and Unity for Human Rights (NAUH), a group that rescues and resettles North Korean refugees.

Such training can be more useful for some people than others, said Kim Jin-soo, a 29-year-old former member of the North Korean secret police who defected to the South in 2011. “Looking back, it would’ve been really useful if they taught …how to prepare for a job fair and find a suitable workplace and why it’s important to lose the North Korean accent,” he said. “Fresh off Hanawon, you’re like a one-year-old baby. But those are the things that would pose a real obstacle when you actually go out there on your own,” said Kim, who now works at a advertising firm in Seoul.

After leaving Hanawon, central and local governments provide defectors 7 million won ($6,450) in cash over a year – barely a fifth of South Korea’s annual average income – as well as support in housing, education and job training. Police officers are assigned to each of the defectors to ensure their security.

[Business Insider]

South Korea halves the time it will interrogate North Korean defectors

South Korea will cut the time it spends interrogating North Korean defectors in half. The country’s Ministry of Unification confirmed to Business Insider it will shorten the questioning period — from up to 180 days down to 90 — for all defectors who arrive to South Korea.

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) leads the screening process into defectors’ backgrounds and motivations, partly to ensure they are not North Korean agents. There were no limits on screening periods before 2010, when the 180 day window was introduced. A “joint interrogation center” was opened by NIS in 2008 but after claims of mistreatment the name was changed to a “refugee protection center” and open-door interrogations are now required.

The questioning process usually takes a few weeks, though some escapees are held for several months. Defectors are then sent to Hanawon, a center south of Seoul that provides a three-month mandatory education on life in South Korea. New arrivals learn how to take public transport, open bank accounts and can even do a homestay with a local family. Democracy and capitalism can be the hardest topics for defectors to grasp.

Once they enter society, defectors are provided with $6,450 a year and help with housing and employment. The new limit on interrogations was announced as part of a restructure to help more North Korean arrivals find work.

[Business Insider]