Red Cross tackles humanitarian needs in North Korea

The Red Cross is one of few humanitarian organizations working in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as North Korea is formally called. Their work is based on its seven fundamental principles: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality.

One of the challenges the country is facing is access to clean water. Many people fetch water in the river or struggle with shallow wells. Overall, there are six million people who suffer from a lack of clean water and improved sanitation.

“The humanitarian situation is worrying with over ten million people in need of humanitarian assistance. As political processes continue, we hope there is space for discussions to include the importance of improved humanitarian cooperation,” says Åsa Sandberg, Head of Desk at the Swedish Red Cross.

Åsa was moved by the kindness extended to her wherever she went. “I sat down with people in the villages to better understand their needs. They get by with very few means, but possess such resilience and dignity. … An elderly couple that I met had difficulty getting access to safe water from the well near their home, and for years they struggled with buckets, sometimes finding only a few drops of water. Now we have installed a water management system in their house, and they won’t have to worry about clean drinking water anymore. It was a joy to hear how well it works,” adds Åsa.

Another challenge for people living in the country is food insecurity and lack of a varied diet. “The Red Cross is keen to help in a long-term and sustainable way. That is why we support greenhouses where both vegetables and tree plants are cultivated. The vegetables are nutritious and will make the diet more varied for the vulnerable groups that we support. The tree plants will be used to build up protection of land, reduce soil erosion and prevent floods.”

[International Federation of Red Cross And Red Crescent Societies]

Running afoul of the North Korean state

For many years, Heo Yeong-hui and her husband, Choi Seong-ga, and their son, Choi Gyeong-hak, lived in relative comfort in Hyesan near the Chinese border. Heo, a talented singer, was a professor at the city’s University of Arts. Her husband played trombone in the Ryanggang musical performance group.

Heo recalls: “To others it probably seemed like I was living a comfortable life while there were people starving around me,” she said. Her life took a sharp turn five years ago. The Ministry of State Security asked her to monitor one of her students, a young woman who came under suspicion. Heo balked.

“They tried to scare me,” Heo said. “They said, ‘Is your son more important than a student?’’’

Heo was shaken. She pulled the student aside and suggested she try to flee North Korea, that it was only a matter of time before authorities arrested her. Security agents found out, and Heo and the student were sent to a detention facility.

When Heo was released, her mind was made up. “Even after I made the decision to defect, I thought it over a lot,” she said. “I couldn’t tell my son and I couldn’t tell my husband. That’s the type of country that North Korea is . . . So I thought, ‘Let me do it first. Let me go through the dangerous journey first and, if South Korea is a place that is worth it, I will bring them over.’”

Heo and the student jailed with her waded across the Yalu River on Sept. 26, 2014, into China. They managed to reach Thailand and boarded flights for Seoul, arriving on December 18, 2014.

Heo’s planning to bring her husband and son began at once. Brokers wanted $20,000 each to bring her husband and son out of North Korea, and another $12,000 to get them to Thailand. Friends agreed to lend her the money. Read more

A North Korean defector paid smugglers to get her family out. China sent them back.

Heo Yeong-hui, who fled North Korea in 2014, paid smugglers to try to bring her husband and son through China to reunite in South Korea.

Her husband was a trombone player in North Korea who liked to whistle the Irish ballad “Danny Boy” as a private serenade for his wife. His son gained a medical degree in Pyongyang and wanted to become a professor.

Sometime late last year, the two men disappeared into the North Korean gulags that hold a special place of punishment for defectors caught by Chinese authorities and who are then sent back over the border.

Now Heo has agreed to tell her story to The Washington Post, abandoning the normal cloak of anonymity used by defectors worried that speaking openly could endanger relatives back home. She is taking a chance. Her voice and others like hers, she believes, are needed to shape the debate over North Korea’s future and efforts to hold the regime accountable.

It’s impossible to put a precise number on North Korean defectors sent back by China. Most groups, including the Database Center, say it could be in the hundreds of thousands since the 1990s. China has resisted international calls to end the repatriations despite international pressure.

A 2014 U.N. report said those returned could face being “forcibly ‘disappeared’ into political prison camps, imprisoned in ordinary prisons or even summarily executed.”

[Washington Post]

North Korea systematically tortures North Koreans sent back by China

Even as diplomacy moves at a dizzying pace with North Korea, many human rights activists and others take issue with what’s missing. So far, the talks have cautiously avoided a direct spotlight on the North’s staggering record of abuses and political repression in apparent attempts to keep the outreach with Kim Jong Un from unraveling.

Also little discussed in the high-level dialogue is Beijing’s role in shipping back defectors snared by Chinese security forces.

Any comprehensive peace deal with Kim must deeply involve China, the political and economic big brother of the North. But a full reckoning on rights abuses will also touch on China’s practice of declaring the defectors to be economic migrants rather than people fleeing oppression — and deporting them.

“Sadly, through thick and thin in the bilateral relationship, one of the things Pyongyang and Beijing continually agree on is they don’t want North Koreans seeking freedom by fleeing across China,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “There is no sugarcoating the fact North Korea systematically tortures every North Korean sent back by China.”

[Washington Post]

North Korea skips its annual anti-US rally

In another sign of detente following the summit between leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, North Korea has decided to skip one of the most symbolic and politically charged events of its calendar: the annual “anti-U.S. imperialism” rally marking the start of the Korean War.

Fist-pumping, flag-waving and slogan-shouting masses of Pyongyang residents normally assemble each year, culminating on July 27, for the rally to kick off a month of anti-U.S., Korean War-focused events designed to strengthen nationalism and unity. Last year’s event was attended by a reported 100,000 people. North Korea even issued special anti-U.S. postage stamps.

Associated Press staff in the North Korean capital confirmed Monday that it would not be held this year.

North Korea has noticeably toned down its anti-Washington rhetoric over the past several months to create a more conciliatory atmosphere. Then North Korea’s state media were filled with reports, photos and video of the June 12 meeting between Trump and Kim in Singapore.

A 42-minute documentary-style news special was aired on the state television network two days after the summit and has been repeated frequently since, meaning that by now there are probably few North Koreans who are unaware of the changes in the air.

North Korea’s decidedly less strident posture these days underscores the delicate position it finds itself in after decades of touting the United States as its archenemy. The 1950-53 Korean War, and the devastation the country suffered at the hands of the U.S. and its allies, remain a major part of every North Korean’s education.

[Yahoo News]

US-based group sowed seeds of peace in North Korea through agricultural assistance

President Donald Trump’s historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un produced a thaw in relations between the two countries but the communist regime continues to face international sanctions and food shortage problems.

However, one U.S.-based non-profit organization that has been partnering for 20 years with North Korean farmers to help them increase food production is starting to see results.

“Production has been increasing over the last five years because of changes in agriculture,” said Linda Lewis, country director for DPRK at American Friends Service Committee, a Philadelphia-based Quaker organization that has worked with and in North Korea on agricultural and economic issues for several decades.

North Korea’s agriculture is centrally managed and based mostly on cooperative farms while a smaller portion are state industrial farms operated as government enterprises. The average farm in the country has nearly 3,000 people and gets its marching orders of what will be grown usually from the government.

Lewis said there have been reforms by North Korea in the past several years that have allowed farmers “more local discretion and individual control over decisions on allocated pieces of land.” The government also allows farmers to sell or barter food when there’s a surplus beyond certain production targets. At the same time, changes in the management of agriculture by the government in the last five years have produced what Lewis calls “more resilience in the face of droughts.”

Lewis said AFSC has operated a program on the ground in North Korea continuously since 1998 focused on increasing agricultural production. Specifically, the group’s goal is greater production of corn and boosting the productivity of rice farming.

[CNBC]

Some North Korean defectors hopeful after Trump-Kim Jong Un summit

Two prominent North Korean defectors told CBS News they were “disappointed” by President Trump’s summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Singapore, but expressed hope in the American president’s efforts to usher in peace on the Korean Peninsula. With pageantry surrounding the historic meeting but scant mention of the regime’s brutal human rights record, activist Park Sang-hak wondered what had changed.

“Maybe he was thinking about America’s national interests first, or forgot the contents of his address before the National Assembly in Seoul last year. I was very sad,” said Park, founder of Fighters for a Free North Korea. The son of a former North Korean spy who defected with his family to the South in 2000, Park is known for his work launching balloons with USB drives, transistor radios and pro-democracy literature into North Korea. He has been the target of two foiled assassination attempts by North Korean spies.

Lee Ae-ran, founder of the Center for Liberty and Unification and the first defector to run for the South Korean National Assembly, wondered if Mr. Trump had been “fooled again like previous presidents.” But upon digesting Mr. Trump’s press conference post-summit, where he told reporters he had “discussed” the human rights abuses of the dynastic Kim regime “strongly” but “relatively briefly compared to denuclearization,” Lee said she became more understanding of the circumstances.

Mr. Trump drew criticism when he continued his praise for Kim. “He’s a funny guy, he’s very smart, he’s a great negotiator. He loves his people, not that I’m surprised by that, but he loves his people,” he told Voice of America. Lee said she was “dumbfounded” by the statement, but took it as diplomatic rhetoric. “I felt like [President Trump] was pacifying a child. Could President Trump actually think Kim Jong Un ‘loves’ the North Korean people? If he loved them, that child would never act the way he does.

Park said he hopes Mr. Trump will stand on the side of tens of millions of North Koreans who are “victims,” rather than with Kim Jong Un. Only if Kim dismantles his country’s notorious political prison camps will Park believe he can be trusted on promises to work toward the U.S. goal of complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization.

[CBS News]

Why the food insecurity of North Korea?

28 percent of North Korean children are stunted — abnormally short for their age, a condition that the World Health Organization calls the “largely irreversible outcome of inadequate nutrition and repeated bouts of infection during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life.”

The roots of what is known as “food insecurity” lie partly in the geography and climate of the country. Mountains cover most of the nation, leaving few places to farm. North Korea is also beset by widespread erosion and frequent drought. In addition, many of the country’s farmers do not have access to modern agricultural machinery like tractors and combines.

Around 30 percent of the country’s food comes from external sources. Foreign aid provides a good portion of that 30 percent, but funding for aid programs has been getting scarce. A report released this month by the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP), which relies on donations from the governments of member nations, reveals it only has $15 million to address the $50 million yearly need in North Korea.

Current sanctions allow exemptions for humanitarian food aid, but Lewis says the process of getting a humanitarian exemption is cumbersome and intimidating. “It’s really hard to be sure you’re in compliance, particularly with the U.S. Treasury regulations,” C. Jerry Nelson, professor emeritus of plant sciences at the University of Missouri in Columbia explains. “Donors are put off, vendors are put off by these restrictions. It’s just easier not to get involved.”

David Orr, communications officer for the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP), agrees that donors are leery. In an emailed statement to NPR, Orr wrote that “the legal and political consequences of the sanctions have resulted in UN member states, private companies and individuals exercising greater caution, or reluctance, when engaging with WFP and the UN system in general.”

Up to 195,000 kindergarten-aged schoolchildren will lose food aid this year after WFP suspended a program offering “supplemental nutrition” in November 2017 due to lack of funding.

“It’s impossible to talk about food security in North Korea without talking about their odious songbun system, the social control mechanism by which they stratify the nation into different social classes,” Eberstadt Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist at the American Enterprise Institute argues.

Songbun refers to a longstanding system of state-sponsored discrimination. Large numbers of people in North Korea — mostly urban citizens who can’t grow their own food — consistently rely on government-issued rations. How much you get is determined by your family’s perceived loyalty to the state. If your grandfather fought the Japanese in the 1940s or worked in a factory, your rations are likely to be relatively generous. But if your grandfather was a lawyer or a merchant, your rations are comparatively meager. Given this system, “it’s hardly surprising that there should be rampant malnutrition in North Korea,” Eberstadt says.

[NPR]

Kim Jong Un ends visit to China with a message for the US

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended a celebratory visit to China’s President Xi Jinping on Wednesday with tea, praise, handshakes — and a message for the US. Kim’s trip reinforced the idea that Beijing remains a key player — a variable that President Donald Trump needs and yet one that remains outside his control.

Administration officials have said that they will maintain sanctions on North Korea even as talks continue, and stand ready to intensify that economic pressure should Pyongyang fail to cooperate. But China, North Korea’s biggest trading partner, ultimately has power over whether sanctions on Pyongyang truly bite.

With tensions climbing between Beijing and Washington over trade, some analysts point to the warmth on display during Kim’s visit to Beijing as a warning from Xi that Trump’s moves on trade could undermine the most ambitious goal — peace with North Korea — on his foreign policy agenda.

“I think China is sending a message to Trump: You want to put trade tariffs on us and have our cooperation with North Korea? You can’t have both,” Bill Richardson, the former US energy secretary, ambassador and repeat US envoy to North Korea, told CNN.

[CNN]

North Korean defectors vow to fight on against Kim Jong-un government

Some North Korean defectors who have made new lives in the South vow they will never stop fighting for the removal of the government in Pyongyang even if  Kim Jong Un agrees to give up his nuclear weapons.

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.

He spoke inside a discreet office in the South Korean capital, where he and handful of other defectors run Free North Korea Radio, a nonprofit that has piped subversive shortwave news broadcasts into the North since 2006.

Mr. Choi told The Washington Times the harrowing story of his own escape from North Korea, where he grew up never thinking of himself as an opponent of the regime. 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]