Kang Min the Entrepreneur

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA – MAY 17: Kang Min poses for a photograph outside of his co-working space in Seoul, South Korea on May 17, 2018. (Photo by Jean Chung/For The Washington Post)

Kang Min, 31, left Bukchong, North Korea in 2007:

During the famine, my mother and I were traveling together, and I was about 10, and we got separated and I never saw her again. From that time on, I had to fend for myself. At first I was so hungry I would eat anything I found on the ground. I started begging, but people weren’t offering food to me. So I learned to steal.

When I was about 15 years old, I began selling apricots on trains. Then I sold cigarettes, and moved onto plastic Chinese kitchen goods like lunchboxes and utensils, and at the end I was selling bicycle tires.

When I first got to South Korea, I could see that smartphones were big business, so I started an online store. Later, I would buy aronia berries, a popular health food, close to their expiration date, then sell them on the Internet. Then I started growing wild roses for making soap and room fragrance and tea. Working on online shopping platforms had opened my eyes to IT opportunities. So in 2016, I also started a website design business. That’s my main business now.

When people realize I’m from North Korea, they say: Do you even know anything about business or capitalism? But I had faith in my business acumen and my abilities, and now I’m getting inquiries about franchising my tofu rice business. I’m going to the United States to learn about entrepreneurship.

In the future, I want to be in a business related to North Korea so I can help children who had a difficult childhood like me.

[Washington Post]

A new generation of North Koreans thriving in Seoul

When waves of North Koreans began arriving in the South during a devastating famine 20 years ago, many encountered a world that might as well have been on another planet. They had to learn to use credit cards and smartphones, to withstand the noise and the bustle and the neon lights, to hold down jobs that actually required them to show up. They had to cope with disparaging remarks or insistent queries when South Koreans heard their accents or marveled if they couldn’t use a computer.

But many of the young men and women coming out of the North today? They’re thriving.

Entrepreneurial spirit, artistic expression and a will to compete are blossoming as they move abruptly from a country dedicated to a brutally enforced totalitarian personality cult to the tumult of South Korean capitalism. And even as they lose their northern accents and embrace southern fashions, they don’t hide their roots.

“I’m proud of the fact that I’m North Korean. It’s a big part of my identity,” said Park Su-hyang, a 27-year-old who helped found Woorion, a network that helps escapees settle in the South, and is one of a crop of video bloggers trying to change stereotypes.

“We often think of refugees as victims, and North Koreans, as they adjust to a very different society in South Korea, inevitably do face challenges,” said Sokeel Park, South Korea country director for Liberty in North Korea, an organization that helps escapees from the North. “But in my work with hundreds of North Koreans who have settled here, I’ve been very impressed not just with their resilience but also with their creativity and ambition and their spirit for really making the most of their lives.”

These young and determined people, activists say, will be the ones who bridge the gap between the two Koreas if the countries are reunified. They are the test lab for reunification.

[Washington Post]

1 in 10 North Koreans are forced into modern day slavery

One in every 10 people living in North Korea are forced into forms of slavery, used to prop up the repressive regime and keep the country’s population under tight control, according to a new report, The 2018 Global Slavery Index, compiled by the Walk Free Foundation.

According to the report, more than 2.6 million out of North Korea’s 25 million inhabitants are subjected to modern slavery, the highest proportion of a single country’s population worldwide. Most were forced to work with no guarantee of compensation.

The Walk Free Foundation is an Australia-based organization dedicated to monitoring and ending various forms of slavery worldwide and spurring global action to that effect. It was founded by the billionaire Australian mining mogul Andrew Forrest.

The regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un uses several different methods to impose slavery on its people. From interviews with 50 North Korean defectors, all described work in North Korea as centrally organized by the ruling party, and many indicated they had either not been paid, or their pay was subjected to state-held deductions. Read more

More on North Koreans forced into modern day slavery

North Korean interviewees reported that children and adults were forced to work unpaid through “communal labor” in agriculture or construction. Adults were sometimes forced to work 70 to 100 days in a row and faced punishment or decreased food rations if they disobeyed orders.

Defectors also described labor training camps — essentially state-run prisons — where citizens who were unemployed for more than 15 days were sent to perform hard labor, usually for a minimum of six months.

Even absence from work is not permitted and could result in harsh punishment. “If you are absent without an excuse, you are detained in a labor training camp,” a male defector said, according to the report.

Two defectors spoke of “shock brigades” also known as “storm troopers” — groups of typically very poor men and women who were forced to perform heavy labor, often in construction, for years at a time.

One female defector said her monthly work salary was used to fund forced labor. “I did not receive compensation,” she said. “From my workplace, they were taking money to support shock brigades and as a result of deducting such an amount from our salaries we did not receive any money.”

[Business Insider]

Defector says Jang Song Thaek a tyrant who wrecked North Korea’s economy

According to a defector who once claimed membership in the Korean Workers’ Party, and served in the North Korean air force before he resettled in the South, important features of Pyongyang’s planned economy are gravely misunderstood as are incidents like the execution of Kim Jong Un’s uncle-in-law Jang Song Thaek.

The defector, identified only as Kim, said drastic actions from powerful members of the North Korean regime, including Jang, were responsible for the shutdown of North Korean industry when millions starved.

When North Korea publicly disclosed the execution of Kim Jong Un’s uncle-in-law in 2013, the news sent shock waves around the world. North Koreans may also have been surprised, but not shocked, when Jang was sentenced to death by his nephew.

But according to defector Kim, Jang was a “bad person” who enriched himself during North Korea’s notorious 1994-98 Great Famine, when idle machines in factories were torn apart and sold. Jang was responsible for selling North Korean coal to China, even though the energy source was needed domestically.

Jang, who secretly controlled the levers of power in the North for decades, also ordered the rounding up of citizens with spinal disorders that cause dwarfism, Kim said. The victims were sent to concentration camps because Jang believed their presence in society was “bad for socialism.” The men and women were “secretly kidnapped,” and families would find them unexpectedly missing when they returned home.

North Korea’s economy may also baffle outsiders. Profits are the least of economic priorities in North Korea, the defector said, where a pair of shoes that costs 60 cents to produce would be supplied to the population at 3 cents. The notion of an economy that benefits people in this way also means Kim Jong Un is not the kind of dictator outsiders have assumed him to be.

[UPI]

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]