Young North Korean defectors find new life in the South

Five years ago, as young boys, they crossed a frozen river in the dark of winter. As they passed from North Korea into China, they didn’t yet understand that they were leaving their homes for good. More than 6,000 miles later, Park Kwon’s and Ju Cheol Kwang’s separate trek to freedom brought them to South Korea, where they met as roommates in a group home for other young North Korean defectors.

“It is more comfortable [in South Korea],” Cheol Kwang said through a translator, “but sometimes I think of my hometown. That can be difficult.” Their childhoods have been on their minds lately, with the announcement earlier this month of unprecedented summits between North and South Korean leaders, and President Donald Trump that could happen this spring. For the teenagers, the talks raise long-buried hopes of someday being reunited with their families.

The friends, now 16, have worked hard to adjust to their new lives in Seoul. Like other recent defectors, they face a more difficult reality than those who arrived to the South even one or two decades earlier. They must contend with rapidly evolving technology and a highly competitive labor market that requires them to match their peers in one of the most wired countries on the planet.

“South Korea is a completely different society,” said Ji Cheol-ho, a 32-year-old North Korean defector. If you don’t study, you won’t understand this society, and if you don’t understand South Korean society, you’ll never become part of it.”

Cheol Kwang and Kwon live with several other boys in the group home they share in suburban Seoul. Adapting to school has been difficult. “What a North Korean sixth-grader learned in math or languages is the equivalent for a South Korean fourth-grader”, says Kwon. “My teachers and tutors have been saying, ‘Now is the time you have to really start studying,'” he said.

Ki-won Chun, a pastor whose faith-based Durihana Mission has rescued more than 1,100 North Korean refugees from China since 1999, said “It can only be difficult for these children, because they were born into a completely different culture.”   Read more

Teen-age defectors adapt to life in Seoul

What binds Park Kwon’s and Ju Cheol Kwang together are their stories. Cheol Kwang spent his childhood in North Korea laboring in the fields of Ryanggang Province to help support his family, so he didn’t go to school. His father died when he was 8. Four years later, in 2013, he and an older sister were told by their mother that they had to leave North Korea. He doesn’t remember much of the odyssey and is careful to protect the details of his family and escape, but he said he crossed into China on a frozen river. He stayed for about two weeks before being smuggled into Laos and was then granted safe passage into South Korea.

Kwon’s path to the South started from the mountainous mining region of North Hamgyong Province. In the winter of 2013, when he was 11, his family told him he would be going to his cousins’ home nearby. He saw his parents for what he didn’t know was the final time. With his older cousins, he snuck into China on the narrow Tumen River at night.  After a month in China, he was smuggled to Thailand, where police detained him. When they asked where he wanted to go, he gave only one answer: South Korea.

As required of all defectors, even children, the boys spent three months at a resettlement center outside of Seoul that teaches basics about South Korea and its history, as well as how to use its currency and transportation. The center also provides medical treatment and psychological counseling. They met at the group home in June 2014.

It felt like a dream. “The quality of food, clothing and shelter is so good. It’s the complete opposite of North Korea in that way, which was a pleasant surprise,” Cheol Kwang said. He was amazed to see most people in the South had cars, carried cellphones and lived in tall, modern buildings with electricity that didn’t flicker out in a storm. On television, the choice of channels was endless. In North Korea, there was only one — and it showed state propaganda.

[NBC News]

North Korea defector: I would never go back home

24-year-old artist An Su-min, who fled North Korea as a teenager in 2011, starts off: “In North Korea, you don’t have any freedom of movement. There is almost no electricity. The culture is very restrictive. You have no freedom to wear what you want. It’s also a dictatorship, but I only learned about the concept of dictatorship after I came to South Korea.

“Coming to South Korea was the easy bit. Adjusting to life here wasn’t easy. …But now I’m used to it, the language, the culture and the level of stress. I reached puberty after coming to South Korea, so that added a lot of stress in my life.

“Right now, I’m studying at college. After I graduate, I’ll be in a position to do stuff that I want to do. …We really need a degree to do well in life. That’s why I’m focusing my efforts on my studies right now.

“Afterwards, given my skills as an artist, I could also teach North Korean refugees in Europe and help them out. That’s my plan.

“People outside North Korea have this fascination about life in my country. But if you’re living in the North, and you spend your entire life there, it’s just a way of life. You know of no other way. …You don’t think seriously about dictatorship. Even if you know what that is, you consider it a natural part of your life.

“Would I ever go back? … I’m stressed out here in South Korea but, no matter how much stress I’m under, I wouldn’t ever go back to North Korea.”

North and South Korean leaders to meet for historic summit on April 27

The leaders of North and South Korea will meet on April 27 for the first time since 2007, the two countries announced Thursday after high-level talks. The landmark meeting between President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un will be held at Freedom House on the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), according to the joint statement issued after the talks.

The summit will be seen as a victory for Moon, who has long been pushing hard for diplomatic relations with North Korea. He said at his swearing-in ceremony in 2017 “for peace on the Korean Peninsula, I will do everything that I can do.”

Footnotes:

  • The last Inter-Korean summit was held in October 2007, when then President Roh Moo-hyun met Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il.
  • In January, the North Korean government unexpectedly resumed communications with South Korea and agreed to talks, sending a team to South Korea’s Winter Olympics.
  • When Kim Jong Un’s sister joined the Pyongyang delegation to the games in February, she was the first member of her family to step onto South Korean soil since the Korean War in the 1950s.
  • The Kim-Moon summit will precede a bombshell encounter between the young North Korean leader and US President Donald Trump — the first time a sitting US leader has met with a member of the Kim dynasty.

[CNN]

China throws Trump a curveball ahead of his meeting with Kim Jong Un

When President Donald Trump finally meets North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, the specter of China will also be in the room, a potent signal to the American President that Kim Jong Un has support for his cause from the region’s most formidable presence.

Kim Jong Un, his wife Ri Sol Ju, Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan pose together in Beijing

Along with shoring up a rocky alliance, Kim’s two-day visit to Beijing was also designed to show Washington and Seoul that Kim wasn’t without his own diplomatic arsenal as he attempts to push for sanctions relief and recognition of North Korea as a legitimate nuclear power.

“The very fact of this meeting alone, and certainly the tenor of the Chinese statement about it, really does increase Kim Jong Un’s leverage in the upcoming talks. It shows that Kim has a friend in Beijing,” said Adam Mount, a senior fellow and director of the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists, where he covers US nuclear strategy, deterrence and North Korea. “It means the Trump team is going to be navigating really narrow straits here. It’s hard to overstate how dramatic this development is,” Mount said.

Now that ties between Pyongyang and Beijing are seemingly mended, that bodes ill for the White House, said Mount. “The division between Beijing and Pyongyang was really our greatest asset with respect to North Korea,” he told CNN. “If that narrows even slightly, that’s a sea change. It changes the outlook for negotiations that we have to adjust for very rapidly. It’s clear both Pyongyang and Beijing won’t be dictated to by Seoul and Washington, but also develop their own agenda. We should be aware that it might be a coordinated agenda,” Mount said.

The messages out of both Beijing and Pyongyang following the visit are meant to emphasize to all parties that there can be no deal with North Korea without China’s involvement. The “situation on the Peninsula” refers to not only the tension over North Korea’s nuclear program, but the presence of US troops to the south and the outlying waters where US and South Korean militaries regularly conduct naval exercises.
More on the subject

The politics dictating denuclearization on the Korean peninsula

“To the US, denuclearization is denuclearization of North Korea. To Kim Jong Un, denuclearisation applies to the whole peninsula, which includes the South,” said David Maxwell, retired US Army Special Forces Colonel and a fellow at the Institute of Korean American Studies.

“When [North Korea] talks denuclearization, they require the South Korea-US alliance to be ended, US troops removed from the peninsula and an end to extended deterrence and the nuclear umbrella. Once that condition is met, then the North will begin the process of denuclearization,” he said.

The notion North Korea was prepared to meet with Trump and put “nukes” on the table is no longer the case, said Mike Chinoy, a former CNN correspondent and author of “Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis,” who has made regular visits to North Korea in the past.

“This didn’t look to me like a browbeating summit, that is not the dynamic at all,” Chinoy remarked. Rather, it appears that Kim has been shoring up his alliances in anticipation of the meeting with Trump.

Russia also signaled its approval of the Xi-Kim dialogue in Beijing. The Foreign Ministry added that Russia aimed to continue close cooperation with China to resolve tensions on the peninsula by “purely diplomatic means.”

[CNN]

The politics of Kim Jong Un’s secret trip to China

A surprise visit by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to China may indicate Pyongyang’s need for support from its closest ally ahead of upcoming summits with South Korea and the US. Observers say it would be highly unusual for Kim to meet US President Donald Trump without seeing Chinese President Xi Jinping first. China is North Korea’s number one trading and economic partner, and is Pyongyang’s only major military ally.

Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are due to meet next month, and a proposed meeting with Trump is due to take place by May.

Since North and South Korea reopened diplomatic ties in February, Pyongyang has been pushing for a Korean solution to the ongoing crisis on the peninsula, which analysts say is a way of driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington.

But recent moves have also left China, North Korea’s most important ally, somewhat marginalized.

The two countries have been allies since the Korean War, when Mao Zedong sent troops to support Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung, and still maintain a mutual defense treaty, under which they pledge to “immediately render military and other assistance by all means at its disposal” in the event of war or foreign attack.

Since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011 however, the relationship has become increasingly strained. Kim purged several key officials with close ties to Beijing, including his uncle, Jang Song Thaek. He also angered China by pursuing missile and nuclear testing against Beijing’s stated goal of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

“The North Korean Chinese relationship has not been very good in recent years, particularly over China’s acceptance of international sanctions and degree of implementing them,” said James Hoare, an associate fellow at Chatham House and former UK diplomat in North Korea. “These will be subjects the North Koreans are keen to talk about.”

“China would like to be seen as the ultimate peacemaker in the region,” said Adam Cathcart, an expert on Sino-Korean relations at the University of Leeds.

Tong Zhao, a North Korea expert at the Carnegie Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, adds, “A stable and positive relationship with China would prevent the US from launching a military strike.”

[CNN]

Kim Jong Un makes surprise visit to China

Kim Jong Un has made a surprise visit to Beijing on his first known trip outside North Korea since taking power in 2011, three people with knowledge of the visit told Bloomberg News.

Further details of the visit, including how long Kim would stay and who he would meet, were not immediately available. The people asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the information.

A special train may have carried Kim through the northeastern Chinese border city of Dandong under heavy security, Japan’s Kyodo News reported earlier. Nippon TV showed footage of a green and yellow train arriving today in Beijing that looked similar to one used by Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, to visit the Chinese capital shortly before his death in 2011.

The unannounced move follows U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision this month to grant an unprecedented meeting to Kim, after South Korean officials said Kim was willing to discuss giving up his nuclear weapons program. Diplomats from the U.S., North Korea and its neighbors have since been shuttling across the globe to prepare for the summit.

There has been no word of Kim planning a summit with Beijing. China has been one of North Korea’s most important allies, but relations have grown chilly because of Kim’s development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

Heavy security was reported at the Friendship Bridge before the train passed from North Korea to China, and there were reports of it passing through several stations on the way from North Korea to Beijing.

A video that aired on NTV also showed a motorcade of black limousines waiting at the train station and rows of Chinese soldiers marching on what appeared to be a train platform. The video did not show anyone getting off the train.

[Bloomberg News & Associated Press]

The last Americans in North Korea: Christian missionaries

The work of humanitarian groups has resurrected tough questions about giving aid to despot nations, a debate centered on whether assistance to the needy frees up state resources for corrupt purposes. In North Korea, the question is whether the help allows the regime to spend more money on nuclear arms that threaten the U.S. and its allies.

U.N. aid to North Korea has shrunk to $39 million, around a tenth of its 2001 total. A handful of U.S. Christian groups provide roughly $10 million in aid a year, public documents show. The groups navigate international sanctions and a U.S. travel ban to serve as one of the last channels of help for North Korea’s many poor, particularly its children, elderly and sick.

When Chris Rice 57, a Christian aid worker from North Carolina, arrived in Pyongyang, he found some of his peers staying at the same hotel. One was Stephen Linton, 67 years old, from the Eugene Bell Foundation, named for his great grandfather, a Presbyterian who began Korean missionary work in 1895. Rice, 57, runs a South Korea-based humanitarian program for the Mennonite Central Committee.

These humanitarians, eligible for exemptions to the U.S. travel ban, are among the last Americans who engage in face-to-face work between people of the two nations, which over the past year have swung between brinkmanship and, of late, the possibility of talks between the country’s two leaders.

The U.S. travel ban allows humanitarian workers to apply for permission on a case-by-case basis. In practice, the sanctions have made aid work more difficult: Wary of running afoul of sanctions, transport companies are leery of taking goods to the North Korea border, and banks turn down requests to transfer money there, humanitarian workers said. Read more

What makes Christian aid workers tick?

Christian aid workers say they are motivated by such biblical admonitions as “love your enemies.” Many say their work can foster peace through cooperation and trust-building. Groups hail from many denominations, including the Quaker-founded American Friends Service Committee, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mennonite Central Committee and the interdenominational World Vision.

Stephen Linton and Chris Rice, sons of missionaries in postwar South Korea, are  among those who believe that humanitarian aid, delivering food and medicine, builds goodwill.

Mr. Linton has traveled to North Korea more than 80 times since the 1970s. He runs a program to treat multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, a widespread problem. Late last year, North Korea asked him to double the scope of the program’s work in the country, he said.

Other Christian humanitarians have turned away from North Korea. “This money is all going straight into the pockets of the regime,” said Nancy Purcell, a Philadelphia-area native who first traveled to North Korea with a Christian nonprofit in 2000. She helped distribute food produced there until concluding in 2004 that the military siphoned off donations. Aid was “prolonging the regime,” said Ms. Purcell, 68.

Tim Peters, of Michigan, said he first traveled to North Korea to deliver food during the 1990s famine, inspired by a verse in the Book of Romans: “If your enemy hungers, feed him.” Today, Mr. Peters, 67, runs a Christian group, Helping Hands Korea, that assists North Korean defectors.

North Korea badly needs food and medicine, experts said. At least 40% of North Korea’s population is undernourished, and such diseases as tuberculosis and hepatitis are rampant, according to U.N. reports. In January, UNICEF said a slowdown in aid could lead to starvation for some 60,000 children. Read more