The rise of North Korean smartphones

2018 marks the tenth year that cellphones have been legally available in North Korea, but overall use remains low: according to the country’s state-run Sogwang outlet in January, more than 3.5 million – out of a population of 25 million – have mobile subscriptions.

Some experts believe that the number of mobile subscription has increased closer to 5 million, with approximately 40% of the population using smartphones.

North Korean mobile users cannot access the worldwide internet: use is limited to the country’s state-run intranet. Since the majority of smartphone users do not have access to the internet, according to one expert, users have to go to a technology service center where technicians install apps to their cell phone.

State media suggests that North Koreans are playing games, reading books, listening to music, doing karaoke, learning to cook, and even increasing crop output on smartphones. One of the most popular apps is “My Companion,” which can be described as a combination of Netflix and an ebook reader.

Choi Sung Jin, who defected from the DPRK in 2017, from Hoeryong – in the country’s north-west – said that he mainly used his smartphone to play games.

But some North Koreans are also using their phones for business: checking currency rates and transferring money, reported South Korea’s MTN in June. An app makes it possible for users to transfer money to other mobile users: users purchase a gift card, add funds, then register the card to the app to send the money through the receiver’s phone number. Amazon-style e-commerce is another rising smartphone feature in North Korea.

Despite all the progress, however, North Korea still lags years behind its southern neighbor, which leads the world in smartphone ownership (94 percent). North Korean phones do not come cheap: costing as high as $800, a huge price in a country with a GDP per capita of $1800.

[NKNews]

South Korean human rights commission to probe whether North Korean waitresses tricked into defecting

A South Korean human rights commission said on Monday it will investigate whether a dozen North Korean restaurant workers who defected to the South two years ago came of their own free will or were tricked or coerced by an intelligence agent.

In April 2016, the 12 waitresses and their manager left a North Korean state-run restaurant in China to come via Malaysia to South Korea.  The Seoul government promptly announced their defection, but North Korea says they were abducted by South Korean agents and demands their repatriation.

The restaurant manager has previously told South Korean news agency Yonhap and other media that an agent from South Korea’s spy agency National Intelligence Service (NIS) used persuasion and threats to get him to enter the South with the workers.  Some of the workers say they were unaware they were entering South Korea until they arrived at the South Korean embassy in Malaysia.

The independent National Human Rights Commission of Korea has mounted a first state probe into the case in the wake of calls by a liberal interest group of lawyers and from Tomas Ojea Quintana, the United Nations’ Human Rights Special Rappoteur on North Korea.

[Reuters]

North Korean defector speaks out against indifference to persecution

A North Korean defector said the world cannot “just sit and keep watching” as North Korea persecutes Christians and others. Ji Hyeona spoke at the U.S. State Department’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom event at the Harry S. Truman Building this week, telling her story of abuse and torture while trying to escape North Korea.

“I have escaped from the North a total of four times and got repatriated to the North three times until I finally came to South Korea in 2007,” Ji said, “In between, I fell victim to human trafficking and I was also subjected to abortion violently forced on me even with no anesthesia.”

She said she was interrogated about her Christian beliefs each of the time she was repatriated. “Just like Peter denied Jesus three times, I lied each of those times that I got interrogated,” she said.

“We can not just sit and keep watching what they are doing because indifference is the most tragic tool that puts people to death and kills them,” she said, “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: ‘The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.’”

Ji first tried to escape with her family in 1998. Her father was arrested and she never saw him again. She was then arrested and sent back to North Korea.

That same year, Ji was arrested for trying to leave North Korea. She was sent to North Korea’s Jeungsan Camp No. 11 and held at the camp for more than a year.

Then, in 2000, she escaped a third time, but was repatriated back to the country in 2002. She escaped for the last time in 2007 to South Korea.

[ChristianHeadlines.com]

The determined story of a North Korean defector caught trying to escape Part 1

Scott Kim first escaped North Korea at the age of 17 in 2001. At the time, he and his mother only wanted to get across the border to China so they could eat hot meals. Kim had spent much of his childhood starving.

Today, Kim owns a business trading automobile and railway parts in South Korea. But it was a long and dangerous six years in and out of China and North Korea before he got to Seoul.

Paying a broker was far out of reach for Kim and his mother the first time they crossed the river into China. Instead, he and his mother lived as undocumented immigrants and worked as farm laborers. But one year after escaping North Korea, Kim’s neighbor reported his status to the police, who brought him and his mother back to North Korea. Kim was taken to a detention center, where authorities determine where to send defectors next.

Kim was put in a cell with 20 other defectors. There was one toilet in the corner and no space to lie down. Day and night, the defectors sat on the ground. When he or other defectors were told to down the corridor to the warden’s office, they were made to crawl on their hands and feet. Officers beat them with gloves and sticks as they went.

Despite the fact that one of North Korea’s biggest reeducation camps is in Chongori, near his hometown in Musan, Kim was sent to a center further south. Because no one knew him — and internet and phone service was nonexistent at the time — he was able to lie about his age. He told the guards he was only 15 years old and had been in China looking for his mother.

Rather than send him to one of the country’s brutal labor camps or political camps, he was sent to a medical center for orphaned children. Shortly after arriving, he escaped and went back to China, where he got work as a farm laborer near Helong, a city in northeastern China. Read more

The determined story of a North Korean defector caught trying to escape Part 2

When Scott Kim was in China he looked for his mother, and was caught a second time, when a neighbor again reported him to the police. He was sent back to North Korea, to a concentration camp near his hometown. From there he was sent to a labor camp, where he chopped down trees on a mountain for months. He escaped one day when he realized that all his fellow laborers were at the top of the mountain chopping while he was at the bottom.

He ran away as fast as he could until he found a train that he could take him north to cross the border with China again. After some time in China, he was caught a third time and sent to a camp for political prisoners — the worst place to be sent, as imprisonment there is interminable. He escaped the camp by bribing the authorities through a broker, who helped him make it across the border with China a final time.

In China, he went back to work to pay off his debt to the broker. One day, he got a call from a North Korean woman who told him that his mother was dying of cancer. For the first time in many years, the two saw each other.

“When I opened the door of my mother’s house, I froze, and couldn’t say anything, because my mother looked incredibly different,” he said. “There was no fat on her …. I just went outside and cried for a long time and came back again, and I embraced my mother and we cried together.”

Several days later, a friend of his mother offered his mother the opportunity to escape to South Korea via Laos and Cambodia. A broker was taking a group through; they had an extra space. Unable to walk, Kim’s mother told Kim he should go instead.

The long journey began. The night before Kim and the group of defectors were to cross the border into Laos, he received a call telling him that his mother had died.

In 2007, Kim finally made it to South Korea, six years after he first escaped.

[Business Insider]

Remains of Americans who died in the Korean War returned by North Korea

A U.S. Air Force plane carrying what are thought to be the remains of 55 Americans killed during the Korean War arrived at Osan Air Base in South Korea on Friday morning, the 65th anniversary of the armistice that ended the fighting.

The exchange means that one part of the agreement reached between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12 has been partially fulfilled — albeit more slowly than many had anticipated.

Trump said: “I want to thank Chairman Kim for keeping his word. We have many others coming. But I want to thank Chairman Kim in front of the media for fulfilling a promise that he made to me, and I’m sure that he will continue to fulfill that promise as they search and search and search.”

Earlier, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement: “Today’s actions represent a significant first step to recommence the repatriation of remains from North Korea and to resume field operations in North Korea to search for the estimated 5,300 Americans who have not yet returned home.”

The return of the remains now would come after commercial satellite imagery appeared to show that North Korea had destroyed part of a satellite-testing facility that was part of the country’s missile-development program. Trump, who told reporters in June that North Korea had agreed to destroy that facility, said Tuesday that the United States appreciated the move.

[The Washington Post]

A ‘life of hell’ for Christians in North Korea

North Korea is ranked the most oppressive place for Christians in the world and has had that ignominious status for years, according to Open Doors USA.

Choi Kwanghyuk is one of the lucky ones. The 55-year-old managed to escape from the work camp where he was sent after being targeted and persecuted for his Christian faith by the North Korean government.

While hiding his faith in plain sight while living in North Hamgyong province, Choi still felt compelled to bring religion to others when he started an underground church.

In 2008, North Korean authorities caught up to Choi and arrested him. He was held in prison by the state security department where he says he was interrogated about his faith. “I was tortured there,” he said.

“Choi’s statements describing oppression, as well as his report of imprisonment for owning a Bible or practicing faith, align with everything we know about North Korea,” Open Doors President David Curry told Fox News.

“Rated the worst place for the persecution of Christians, North Korea treats Christians horrendously and registers them as ‘enemies of the state’ for their faith.”

[Fox News]

North Korea is in no hurry to do what the US wants

Meeting in Singapore last month, US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un captured the world’s attention and promised to work towards “new relations”. So, why has there been a lack of clear progress?

North Korea’s notoriety and ability to capture global headlines may have led to its power being overestimated. It appears Pyongyang has sought to disguise a position of relative weakness as one of unqualified strength. It framed the summit as one between equal nuclear powers. In fact, North Korea is a misfit power. Despite its new-found confidence as a nuclear-armed country, it remains a weak state preoccupied by its very survival.

North Korea’s economy, when local prices are taken into account, is roughly the same size as that of Laos, one of the poorest countries in south-east Asia, which has just a quarter of the population. The productivity of North Korea’s workers is the lowest in Asia and it suffers from an unusually low share of natural resources.

By drawing the US president into talks – and partially normalizing ties – Kim Jong Un appears to have played a weak hand well. And he not agree to a timeframe for denuclearization.

[BBC]

North Korea starts dismantling key missile facilities

North Korea has started dismantling a missile-engine test site, as President Trump said the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, promised he would during their historic summit meeting in Singapore in June, according to an analysis of satellite imagery of the location.

The North Koreans have started taking apart the engine test stand at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, said Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., an expert on North Korea’s weapons programs, in a report published on Monday on the website 38 North. The dismantling work probably began sometime within the last two weeks, he said.

North Korea has also started dismantling a rail-mounted building at the Sohae station where workers used to assemble space launch vehicles before moving them to the launchpad, Mr. Bermudez said.

Mr. Bermudez compared satellite photos of the Sohae facilities taken on Friday and Sunday to conclude that North Korea had begun taking “an important first step toward fulfilling a commitment made by Kim Jong-un.”

North Korea has used the Sohae facilities to launch its satellite-carrying rockets. Washington called the satellite program a front for developing intercontinental ballistic missiles.

[The New York Times]

North Korean defector claims South Korean Intelligence blackmailed him

Ho Kang Il, a North Korean restaurant manager and his staff of 12 women who defected to South Korea now claims he was blackmailed into doing so after the National Intelligence Service (NIS) coerced them.

“Originally, I was a cooperator of the NIS and brought information to them,” Ho told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency. “They threatened that unless I come to the South with the employees, they would divulge to the North Korean Embassy that I had cooperated with the NIS until then.”

The intelligence agency allegedly first lured Ho into defecting, promising him that he and his staff would be allowed to open a restaurant in South Korea’s capital, Seoul. However, when Ho appeared reluctant to leave North Korea permanently, he claims agents threatened him.

“I had no choice but to do what they told me to,” Ho said. He also explained that his employees did not know their fate until they had boarded the plane, believing they were headed to a restaurant in southeast Asia.

Questions about the North Korean defectors were first raised two months ago after a South Korean television channel aired interviews with Ho and three of his staff members. Ho said they had been coerced into leaving North Korea.

Last week, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana, said that a thorough and independent investigation into the case is needed, calling for a formal inquiry.”There is a need to respect their rights as victims. When I say victims, I am implying that they were subject to some kind of deceit in regard to where they were going,” Quintana said, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported.

The South Korean government offers defectors $860,000 if they cross into the country and provide intelligence that improves the country’s security. The amount was previously just over $200,000, but was quadrupled last year.

[Newsweek]