A tale of two defectors – Part 1 – Sun-sil Lee

As delegates met in the no man’s land of Panmunjom yesterday, raising anew the prospect of reunification for families separated by the Korean War, two North Kor­ean defectors — one fearful of reunification, the other desperate to return — illustrate the deep ­divisions that scar the peninsula.

Last month, Sun-sil Lee moved into a new apartment outside of Seoul — a landmark moment for the 50-year-old who 12 years ago was starving on the streets of a North Korean border town, ­begging for food for herself and her three-year-old daughter.

The former army nurse, who gave birth on the streets after fleeing an abusive marriage, tried eight times to defect before succeeding at a terrible cost in 2005. Ms Lee had been determined to give her daughter a life without hunger but says human traffickers pounced soon after she stepped into China, carrying her child in a rucksack on her back. Over her own screams, and the little girl’s frightened pleas to her mother, they auctioned her off to the highest bidders among a group of people gathered for the sale.

“My daughter was grabbing hold of my hand as they took her away. She kept saying to me; ‘Mummy, I will never say I am hungry again. Please take me with you,’ ” she recalls.

Ms Lee herself was sold to a local Chinese wheat farm but escaped and eventually made her way into South Korea with help from a well-established defection ­network. She has never found her daughter, despite years of searching.

“People here [in South Korea] live in so much abundance and happiness, that they just cannot imagine the horrors that millions endure daily just two hours away by car,” she said.  [Continue story]

A tale of two defectors – Part 2 – Kwon Chol-nam

For Kwon Chol-nam, yesterday’s talks were the best news he has had in years. The 44-year-old North Korean made the risky crossing through China in 2014 after his marriage disintegrated, but says after years of discrimin­ation and loneliness in the south, he just wants to go home to his wife and son.

“I came because I thought I could build a better life here but one has to ride a horse to know whether it’s a good one or not,” he said.

“You go to work, you remain ­silent all day and then you come home. Defectors can’t speak of their feelings here because you never know who might report you as a North Korean spy. People here think we are ignorant fools.”

Like all defectors, Mr Kwon has been granted South Korean citizenship but the country’s national security act prohibits all citizens from making any contact with the North without permission. Mr Kwon has managed to do so, paying hefty commissions to brokers to funnel money to his wife and connect them by telephone. He believes there is an “80 to 90 per cent chance” of reviving his marriage if he returns.

But there is no legal way to do so and last June he was jailed for two months after intelligence agents got wind of his plans to ­reverse-defect. He reckons at least 60 per cent of defectors feel as he does but are scared to speak up.

“It feels unfair that I can’t go back,” he says. “Why stop me from going back to the place I was born and raised, where I want to be?”

[The Australian]

North Korean defector numbers slumped in 2017

Fewer than 100 North Koreans a month defected to the South last year, the lowest for 15 years as Pyongyang and Beijing both tighten controls on movement. A total of 1,127 North Koreans came to the South last year, down 21 per cent from 2016, according to data from the unification ministry. It was the lowest figure since 2001.

The vast majority of defectors from the impoverished North go first to China. They sometimes stay there for several years before making their way to the South, often via a third country.

Defections across the heavily guarded Demilitarized Zone that divides the Korean peninsula are very rare, but this year there have been four.

Pyongyang has been bolstering border controls since the second half of 2015, putting up more guards and setting up high-tension wires to prevent its citizens from fleeing to its giant neighbor.

“On top of that, China has drastically strengthened crackdowns on North Korean escapees, repatriating them recklessly whenever they find them”, Seo Jae-Pyong, an official of the Association of North Korean Defectors, told AFP.

[AFP]

The nuclear war tweet heard around the world

The U.S. President ignited a stunning new showdown with North Korea late Tuesday, as Donald Trump boasted to volatile leader Kim Jong Un that he had a “much bigger & more powerful” nuclear weapon.

Trump’s flippant comments about his nuclear prowess — akin to “mine is bigger than yours” schoolyard taunts — raise new questions about whether the President has thought deeply about the awesome destructive power at his command.

His outburst also elevates Kim, leader of an impoverished autocracy using a nuclear program to ensure its survival, to a tit-for-tat confrontation alongside the President of the United States.

“Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” Trump tweeted. The tweet was remarkable not just for its content but for the fact it was generated by a President, the holder of the office that for decades has been the effective guarantor of a US-enforced 70-year era of global peace. Before Trump, no US President has made such public and cavalier threats.

Trump’s gambit is all the more risky since it is likely to alienate US allies, anger key world powers like Russia and China that Washington needs to resolve the standoff and because no one knows how the unpredictable Kim will respond.

“To call it juvenile would be an insult to children,” retired Adm. John Kirby, a former State Department and Pentagon spokesman told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday. “I do think in the halls of the Pentagon and the State Department, there has got to be a lot of concern over this, because he is the President of the United States. His tweets are going to be taken as official policy,” said Kirby, now a CNN analyst. “There is no question they are going to lead to miscalculation and confusion over there.”

[CNN]

US and China joint plan on North Korea

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson let slip last week a few tantalizing details about one of the nation’s most secret military contingency plans: how the United States would try to race inside North Korea to seize its nuclear weapons if it ever saw evidence that Kim Jong-un’s government was collapsing.

For years, American diplomats have been trying to engage their Chinese counterparts in a discussion of this scenario, hoping to avoid a conflict between arriving American Special Forces — who have been practicing this operation for years — and the Chinese military, which would almost certainly pour over the border in a parallel effort.

And for years the Chinese have resisted the conversation, according to several former American officials who tried to engage them in joint planning. The Chinese feared that if news of a conversation leaked, Beijing would be seen as conspiring with the United States over plans for an eventual North Korean collapse, eroding any leverage that Beijing still held over Kim Jong Un.

So it was surprising to Mr. Tillerson’s colleagues when, in a talk to the Atlantic Council last week, he revealed that the Trump administration had already provided assurances to China’s leadership that if American forces landed in North Korea to search for and deactivate nuclear weapons, the troops would do their work and then retreat.

North Korea has defied past predictions of collapse, and one does not appear imminent. But if a collapse were to occur, the aftermath could present grave dangers. American officials have envisioned that North Korean officers, fearing the end of Kim’s government, might lob a nuclear weapon at South Korea or Japan as a last, desperate act — or detonate it on North Korean territory to make occupation impossible.

Mr. Tillerson said at a conference on the Korea crisis that the United States and China “have had conversations about in the event that something happened — it could happen internal to North Korea; it might be nothing that we from the outside initiate — that if that unleashed some kind of instability, the most important thing to us would be securing those nuclear weapons they’ve already developed and ensuring that they — that nothing falls into the hands of people we would not want to have it.”

[New York Times]

Another North Korean soldier defects through DMZ

A North Korean soldier defected to South Korea on Thursday through the heavily guarded demilitarized zone separating the two countries, leading to gunfire on both sides of the border, the South Korean military said.

The “low ranking” soldier was manning a guard post along the DMZ when he fled through thick fog, the South Korean military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

The escape follows a similar one last month, in which another North Korean soldier was shot by his colleagues as he successfully fled his DMZ posting.  In that case, South Korean border guards who heard the gunshots found the soldier 55 yards from the border line that bisects Panmunjom, the so-called truce village in the Joint Security Area, and carried him to safety.

Officials said the soldier who fled Thursday was not fired upon. South Korean soldiers later fired 20 warning shots at North Korean border guards who were searching for the defector, which was followed 40 minutes later by gunfire in the North, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

It is extremely rare for people to flee across the demilitarized zone. The 2.5-mile-wide DMZ, considered the most heavily fortified border in the world, is guarded by minefields, sentry posts and tall fences topped with barbed wire, some electrified.

In a possible sign of worsening conditions in the North, the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said that 15 North Koreans, including the four soldiers, had fled directly to South Korea this year, compared with five people, including one soldier, last year. Most defectors avoid such a perilous crossing to the South, instead fleeing through China.

[New York Times]

THAAD tensions impede China passage for North Korean defectors

Strained relations between Beijing and Seoul over the deployment of a US missile defense system have made it “more difficult” for North Korean refugees or defectors to pass through China before reaching South Korea, a former US special envoy said.

Robert King, former US special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, told a US House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that Beijing at times has allowed North Korean refugees to travel into the South via China when the Chinese capital has maintained good relations with Seoul. But after South Korea decided to install an American-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, system on the Korean Peninsula earlier this year, triggering a year-long diplomatic stand-off between Seoul and Beijing, North Korean refugees could hardly pass through China, King said.

King’s comments coincide with the beginning of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s official visit to China and his third meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two neighboring countries agreed to resume relations last month after tensions flared over THAAD.

“I am hopeful that the recent indications of better ties between Beijing and Seoul will lead to easier conditions for defectors to pass through China,” King said in his testimony to the foreign affairs panel. “Virtually all” North Korean refugees flee the North through China, the ex-special envoy said.

The number of refugees leaving the North annually has declined recently owing to tighter border control by Pyongyang, King said. After peaking at nearly 3,000 in 2011, the number fell to fewer than 1,500 in 2016. “Numbers thus far this year look to be even lower,” he said.

[South China Morning Post]

China prepares for North Korea crisis by building refugee camps on border

China has started construction on a network of refugee camps along its 880-mile border with North Korea, quietly preparing for the mass exodus of refugees that the collapse of Kim Jong Un’s regime could potentially cause.

Detailed plans for the camps, intended to house thousands of migrants who might flee a crisis on the Korean Peninsula, emerged after internal documents from a state-run telecom giant went viral on the Chinese social media site Weibo. The telecom company appeared to be tasked with providing the camps with internet services, and the document stated that camps were planned in three villages in Changbai County and two cities in the northeastern province of Jilin, on the border, on state-owned land.

The document, which Newsweek could not independently verify, said: “Due to cross-border tensions…the [Communist] party committee and government of Changbai County has proposed setting up five refugee camps in the county.”

In addition, The New York Times reported that centers for refugees were also planned in the cities of Tumen and Hunchun, citing a local businessman, who remained anonymous.

The secret construction of the camps reflects growing concern in China about the potential for political instability—or even regime collapse—in North Korea.

[Newsweek]

Why the majority of North Korean defectors are women

About 70% of the more than 31,000 defectors who have made it to South Korea since the end of the Korean War are women, according to the government’s Ministry of Unification. That figure has climbed in recent years, reaching about 80% from 2014-2016, and 85% this year.

Accurate information from North Korea is difficult to obtain to understand why women defect in higher numbers, but experts point to several factors:
-One key reason is a strong demand for North Korean women in neighboring China as arranged brides in a country where men outnumber women by more than 33 million, and for the sex industry.
-Sokeel Park, the Seoul-based director of research and strategy for Liberty in North Korea, an organization that helps rescue North Korean refugees hiding in China, said North Korean women also may have a better chance of staying under the radar and working informally in China in restaurants and factories.
-Women also have a significantly lower social status than men in North Korea, which allows them to remain further out of sight from authorities, said Heather Barr, a senior researcher in the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch.
-Women are key movers of an informal market that sprang up after the near collapse of North Korea’s economy in the 1990s. Barr said this gives women greater access to the networks of brokers who can arrange passage to China.
-Also motivating some women to escape has been access to information about the world outside North Korea. Many popular South Korean programs that make their way into North Korea are known as K-dramas — glamorous soap operas targeted to female audiences.

[USA Today]

North Korean defector working on Parliament Hill Ottawa – Part 2

Ellie Cha’s father, once a respected vice-president in a North Korean mining company, lost his job. An aunt had fled to China and the family was now regarded as potentially disloyal to the Kim regime.

So in 2012, Cha’s family made the decision to leave North Korea. It was the start of an arduous three-month journey across China and Southeast Asia to reach asylum in South Korea. Much of it was spent in prison cells.

Almost no North Korean defectors cross directly from North Korea into South Korea. The border is too well-guarded and it can be hard for ordinary North Koreans to travel around within their own country. So most people, especially those like Cha’s family who live near the border, cross into China.

But it’s hard for them to stay there. Because China has a relationship with North Korea, fleeing North Koreans are often caught by Chinese authorities and sent back home to face terrible punishments, including work camps or prison.

Instead, North Koreans typically head through China into Southeast Asia to find a South Korean embassy, where they can claim asylum and apply for South Korean citizenship. Read more