North Korean defectors say unification requires closing a huge cultural chasm

When Ken Eom first arrived in South Korea, he had to get used to hearing a lot of stupid questions. “Is there alcohol in North Korea?” people would ask the former North Korean soldier, who defected in 2010, aged 29. “If people were so malnourished, and couldn’t get rice, why didn’t they just eat ramen?”

The experience was alienating. It was “like they thought I was from an Amazon tribe,” he told CNN.

Now, a historic meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in has brought the Peninsula closer together than it has been in years. While many South Koreans welcome warming ties between the two countries, deep suspicion of Pyongyang’s intentions and hostility to the Kim regime remains, not least among the small but substantial community of defectors living in the South.

The chasm Eom feels with his southern compatriots, almost nine years after making his hazardous journey, shows that the matter of unification, and what it means for people on both sides of a border far stronger and less permeable than the Berlin Wall ever was, remains unclear.

Travis Jeppesen, a longtime North Korea watcher, said “(There needs to be) an acknowledgment of the vast differences that have emerged in the two societies since the division began in 1945…” he said.

[CNN]

North Korean defectors urge President Trump to raise human rights with Kim Jong-un

For ten unbearable months, Jung Gwang Il was hung upside down or waterboarded until he confessed to being a spy. He was then forced into hard labor at North Korea’s notorious Yodok detention camp for another three years.

“In that first ten months, I dropped from 75kg to 36kg,” he said. “In camp 15 I worked from 4am to 8pm every day, either logging or farming maize. We were given daily three lumps of corn mixed with beans, and slept on the floors of tiny cells crammed with 40 prisoners.”

Jung survived and escaped to South Korea in 2004. On Saturday he, and other North Korean defectors, expressed sorrow that their homeland’s ongoing dire human rights situation was ignored in an unprecedented summit between Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Jung plans to appeal personally to US President Donald Trump to raise human rights violations at his own summit with Kim in May or June.  Jung, who represents the Association of North Korean Political Victims and their Families, once smuggled flashdrives of a Trump speech denouncing North Korean “tyranny” into the reclusive state. The president thanked him for doing so when the two men met in the White House in February.

A second meeting is slated for May. Mr Jung will give the president the names of ten North Korean prisoners, urging him to ask Kim for their release.

[The Telegraph]

North Korean defectors watch Kim Jong-un’s visit to South Korea with skepticism

On the eve of a historic summit of the leaders of North and South Korea, the prospect of a diplomatic thaw and improved relations vexes many of North Korean defectors who have made new lives in South Korea.

The skepticism comes amid a wave of more general optimism.

Choi Jung-hoon, a former North Korean army officer, who defected to the South in 2006 and who survived a North-driven assassination attempt in 2013, insists the Moon-Kim meeting will to do little to change his mind about the country he fled. “No matter the outcome of these summits, our goal will still ultimately be regime change,” Mr. Choi said in an interview recently.

Mr. Choi grew up never thinking of himself as an opponent of the regime but his views changed in 2006 after unintentionally running afoul of the government when he sought money in exchange for helping a South Korean family locate a kidnapped relative in the North.

[Washington Times]

Korean leaders hold historic summit

The leaders of North and South Korea embraced on Friday and pledged to work for the “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” on a day of smiles and handshakes at the first inter-Korean summit in more than a decade.

The two Koreas announced they would work with the United States and China this year to declare an official end to the 1950s Korean War and establish a permanent peace agreement, removing an important vestige of the conflict.

“The two leaders declare before our people of 80 million and the entire world there will be no more war on the Korean peninsula and a new age of peace has begun,” the two sides said.

But their commitments were short on specifics and failed to clear up key questions about Pyongyang’s intentions over its nuclear arsenal ahead of an even more critical summit, with U.S. President Donald Trump, that is expected in coming weeks.

[Reuters]

From brink of war to hopes of peace: Kim Jong Un heads south for summit

For the first time in over a decade, the leaders of a divided Korea will sit down to negotiate an end to a decades-long rivalry which has threatened at times to plunge the world into nuclear war.

In a meeting heavy with history and symbolism, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will hold talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Peace House on the southern side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ).

Moon and Kim will meet for the first time at 9.30 a.m. local time on Friday (8.30 p.m. Thursday ET), with cameras from around the world fixed on the moment Kim steps across the demarcation line that runs through the demilitarized zone between the two countries.

It is the third summit between the leaders of North and South Korea — the last was in 2007 when then-South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun met Kim’s father Kim Jong Il. (At the time, President Moon was Roh’s chief of staff and a close personal friend.) Both previous meetings were held in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

[CNN]

Even educated North Korean refugees face new challenges in the South

When elite North Korean soldier Joo Seung-hyeon made his way through the Demilitarized Zone in 2002, avoiding minefields and watchtowers to defect to the South, he thought he was going to a prosperous new life. Joo was partly lured by the promise of a “free and prosperous life” blasted from giant loudspeakers set up by the South’s army along the border. Abandoning his guard post, it took him just 30 minutes to cross the DMZ, crawling under electric barbed wire fences and walking across minefields.

The reality was more complicated than that. South Korea’s pressure-cooker society was a shock. “I was suddenly thrown into this ultra-competitive world ruled by the survival of the fittest,” he wrote. “I realized that I … may never be able to remove this scarlet letter of ‘North Korean defector’.”

Ostracized by Southerners who he says see their Northern cousins as “poor, uncivilized barbarians”, he was dismissed at countless interviews for menial jobs as soon as he revealed his thick accent. One restaurant he found work at paid him half the wages of fellow South Koreans.

But he persevered, eliminating his original tones by repeating radio broadcasts, earning a degree in his spare time, and following up with a PhD in unification studies – the first such doctorate ever earned by a North Korean defector.

Even after graduating, more than 100 job applications in which he identified himself as a defector were rejected. But as soon as he hid that piece of information he started securing interviews and even a few job offers. Now 37, he teaches at several universities in what he described a “rare, lucky case”.

Now he has written a book detailing the challenges faced by Northern defectors in what has become a radically different society. His book tells many heartbreaking stories – including one refugee who committed suicide after struggling to earn a college diploma but still being unable to secure a job. Some South Koreans see the refugees as “untouchables” and another emigrated after South Korean parents at his child’s school publicly protested that their offspring should not mix with his.

Joblessness among defectors is 7 per cent, nearly twice the overall figure in the South, while their monthly income is about half the national average. About 20 per cent of them fall victim to fraud, theft and other crimes, a study showed, noting many then lose a state cash subsidy intended to help them resettle.

[Channel NewsAsia]

Kim Jong Un’s latest play for peace actually a declaration

North Korea’s recent promise to halt nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests looks like an overture for peace, but a careful reading reveals that it could indicate Kim Jong Un is ready for nuclear war.

“This is very good news for North Korea and the World – big progress!” President Donald Trump tweeted of the announcement.

But look at Kim’s stated reason for pausing tests. North Korean media quoted Kim as saying: “No nuclear test and intermediate-range and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire are necessary for the DPRK now, given that the work for mounting nuclear warheads on ballistic rockets was finished…the development of delivery and strike means was also made.”

Basically, Kim says North Korea has stopped testing because it’s done testing.

While North Korea has never fired an ICBM at range, and only fired its Hwasong-15 ICBM twice, Hanham and other experts think it’s already achieved sufficient capability to threaten the US.

On the issue of nuclear testing, Robert Manning, a North Korea expert at the Atlantic Council, told Business Insider there’s a “fair amount of evidence” that suggests if they tried to test another nuclear device in the same location, they would destroy the entire site and possibly collapse a mountain. According to Manning, Kim is “making a virtue of necessity and hoping we’re stupid enough to think it’s a concession.”

Of the upcoming Trump-Kim talks: “I think the fear among a lot of Korea watchers is when you have a summit between two leaders, if things do not go well, there’s little to fall back on,” Jung Pak, a senior fellow and the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies at Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies, told MSNBC on Saturday.

So while Trump and much of the world cheer North Korea’s decision to stop testing while talks are going on, something that almost certainly does help the peace process, it’s important to remember what Kim’s nuclear weapons mean to him.

[Business Insider]

North Korea suspends nuclear missile testing, aims to focus on economic development

North Korea says its quest for nuclear weapons is “complete” and it “no longer needs” to test its weapons capability, a significant development ahead of diplomatic engagement with South Korea and the United States.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said Saturday that “under the proven condition of complete nuclear weapons, we no longer need any nuclear tests, mid-range and intercontinental ballistic rocket tests, and that the nuclear test site in northern area has also completed its mission,” as quoted by the state-run Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA.

The announcement appears to signify a remarkable change in policy for Kim, following a relentless pursuit of nuclear and ballistic weapons as a means to ensure his regime’s survival — although some analysts remain skeptical, pointing out that Kim hasn’t tested a missile since November.

The news comes six days before a meeting between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a precursor to a much-anticipated planned encounter between Kim and President Donald Trump expected to take place in late May or early June.

Vipin Narang, an associate political science professor and nuclear proliferation expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said, “The aim of this, in my view, is to make it exceedingly difficult for Trump to say the North is uninterested in talks and walk away,” he said. “Kim is doing everything he can now – in a reversible way, mind you – to ensure the summit happens.

Kim stressed at the party meeting his desire to shift the national focus to improving the country’s economy, which has been hit hard by international sanctions and the “maximum pressure” strategy pushed by Trump.

[CNN/India Express]

North Koreans face chronic food shortages

A North Korean defector activist who requested anonymity told JoongAng Ilbo reporter Lee Young-jong a chronic food shortage is spreading throughout North Korea and ordinary people are “suffering” because in some areas the public distribution system has been suspended.

“There are stories the distribution network has virtually collapsed, not only in Pyongyang but also in regional cities,” the source said, adding worries about price instability are hampering the proper distribution of groceries in informal markets.

North Koreans are fearful of a second Great Famine, when as many as 3 million North Koreans may have died.

Seoul’s unification ministry and national intelligence service are not alarmed, however. Both agencies have said sanctions have hit North Korea but the state has not reached a stage where it needs emergency relief, according to Lee.

That position contradicts statements from the Food and Agriculture Organization, which stated in its Global Report on Food Crises that 41 percent of the population, or 10.5 million people, are undernourished in North Korea.

[UPI]

North Korea drops withdrawal of US forces as condition of denuclearization

North Korea has dropped its long-held demand that the United States withdraw forces from South Korea in exchange for denuclearization, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Thursday.

“North Korea has expressed willingness to give up its nuclear program without making (a) demand that the (US Forces Korea) forces withdraw from the Korean Peninsula,” Moon said in a meeting with the press, adding that any proposed troop withdrawal would be a “condition that the US cannot accept.”

The concession comes as President Donald Trump insisted Wednesday he’d be willing to leave a highly anticipated summit meeting with Kim Jong-un should it fall short of his expectations.

In a similar vein, Kim signaled in March that he would not oppose joint US-South Korean military exercises. The annual war games have been a sore point for the North Korean leader, who sees them as a direct provocation to his country’s security. US military leaders have refused to put the drills on the table as a negotiating chip.

The South Korean leader, President Moon Jae-in, is due to meet Kim Jong-un next week for a historic summit in the Demilitarized Zone.

[CNN]