Teen-age defectors adapt to life in Seoul

What binds Park Kwon’s and Ju Cheol Kwang together are their stories. Cheol Kwang spent his childhood in North Korea laboring in the fields of Ryanggang Province to help support his family, so he didn’t go to school. His father died when he was 8. Four years later, in 2013, he and an older sister were told by their mother that they had to leave North Korea. He doesn’t remember much of the odyssey and is careful to protect the details of his family and escape, but he said he crossed into China on a frozen river. He stayed for about two weeks before being smuggled into Laos and was then granted safe passage into South Korea.

Kwon’s path to the South started from the mountainous mining region of North Hamgyong Province. In the winter of 2013, when he was 11, his family told him he would be going to his cousins’ home nearby. He saw his parents for what he didn’t know was the final time. With his older cousins, he snuck into China on the narrow Tumen River at night.  After a month in China, he was smuggled to Thailand, where police detained him. When they asked where he wanted to go, he gave only one answer: South Korea.

As required of all defectors, even children, the boys spent three months at a resettlement center outside of Seoul that teaches basics about South Korea and its history, as well as how to use its currency and transportation. The center also provides medical treatment and psychological counseling. They met at the group home in June 2014.

It felt like a dream. “The quality of food, clothing and shelter is so good. It’s the complete opposite of North Korea in that way, which was a pleasant surprise,” Cheol Kwang said. He was amazed to see most people in the South had cars, carried cellphones and lived in tall, modern buildings with electricity that didn’t flicker out in a storm. On television, the choice of channels was endless. In North Korea, there was only one — and it showed state propaganda.

[NBC News]

China throws Trump a curveball ahead of his meeting with Kim Jong Un

When President Donald Trump finally meets North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, the specter of China will also be in the room, a potent signal to the American President that Kim Jong Un has support for his cause from the region’s most formidable presence.

Kim Jong Un, his wife Ri Sol Ju, Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan pose together in Beijing

Along with shoring up a rocky alliance, Kim’s two-day visit to Beijing was also designed to show Washington and Seoul that Kim wasn’t without his own diplomatic arsenal as he attempts to push for sanctions relief and recognition of North Korea as a legitimate nuclear power.

“The very fact of this meeting alone, and certainly the tenor of the Chinese statement about it, really does increase Kim Jong Un’s leverage in the upcoming talks. It shows that Kim has a friend in Beijing,” said Adam Mount, a senior fellow and director of the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists, where he covers US nuclear strategy, deterrence and North Korea. “It means the Trump team is going to be navigating really narrow straits here. It’s hard to overstate how dramatic this development is,” Mount said.

Now that ties between Pyongyang and Beijing are seemingly mended, that bodes ill for the White House, said Mount. “The division between Beijing and Pyongyang was really our greatest asset with respect to North Korea,” he told CNN. “If that narrows even slightly, that’s a sea change. It changes the outlook for negotiations that we have to adjust for very rapidly. It’s clear both Pyongyang and Beijing won’t be dictated to by Seoul and Washington, but also develop their own agenda. We should be aware that it might be a coordinated agenda,” Mount said.

The messages out of both Beijing and Pyongyang following the visit are meant to emphasize to all parties that there can be no deal with North Korea without China’s involvement. The “situation on the Peninsula” refers to not only the tension over North Korea’s nuclear program, but the presence of US troops to the south and the outlying waters where US and South Korean militaries regularly conduct naval exercises.
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The politics dictating denuclearization on the Korean peninsula

“To the US, denuclearization is denuclearization of North Korea. To Kim Jong Un, denuclearisation applies to the whole peninsula, which includes the South,” said David Maxwell, retired US Army Special Forces Colonel and a fellow at the Institute of Korean American Studies.

“When [North Korea] talks denuclearization, they require the South Korea-US alliance to be ended, US troops removed from the peninsula and an end to extended deterrence and the nuclear umbrella. Once that condition is met, then the North will begin the process of denuclearization,” he said.

The notion North Korea was prepared to meet with Trump and put “nukes” on the table is no longer the case, said Mike Chinoy, a former CNN correspondent and author of “Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis,” who has made regular visits to North Korea in the past.

“This didn’t look to me like a browbeating summit, that is not the dynamic at all,” Chinoy remarked. Rather, it appears that Kim has been shoring up his alliances in anticipation of the meeting with Trump.

Russia also signaled its approval of the Xi-Kim dialogue in Beijing. The Foreign Ministry added that Russia aimed to continue close cooperation with China to resolve tensions on the peninsula by “purely diplomatic means.”

[CNN]

The politics of Kim Jong Un’s secret trip to China

A surprise visit by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to China may indicate Pyongyang’s need for support from its closest ally ahead of upcoming summits with South Korea and the US. Observers say it would be highly unusual for Kim to meet US President Donald Trump without seeing Chinese President Xi Jinping first. China is North Korea’s number one trading and economic partner, and is Pyongyang’s only major military ally.

Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are due to meet next month, and a proposed meeting with Trump is due to take place by May.

Since North and South Korea reopened diplomatic ties in February, Pyongyang has been pushing for a Korean solution to the ongoing crisis on the peninsula, which analysts say is a way of driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington.

But recent moves have also left China, North Korea’s most important ally, somewhat marginalized.

The two countries have been allies since the Korean War, when Mao Zedong sent troops to support Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung, and still maintain a mutual defense treaty, under which they pledge to “immediately render military and other assistance by all means at its disposal” in the event of war or foreign attack.

Since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011 however, the relationship has become increasingly strained. Kim purged several key officials with close ties to Beijing, including his uncle, Jang Song Thaek. He also angered China by pursuing missile and nuclear testing against Beijing’s stated goal of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

“The North Korean Chinese relationship has not been very good in recent years, particularly over China’s acceptance of international sanctions and degree of implementing them,” said James Hoare, an associate fellow at Chatham House and former UK diplomat in North Korea. “These will be subjects the North Koreans are keen to talk about.”

“China would like to be seen as the ultimate peacemaker in the region,” said Adam Cathcart, an expert on Sino-Korean relations at the University of Leeds.

Tong Zhao, a North Korea expert at the Carnegie Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, adds, “A stable and positive relationship with China would prevent the US from launching a military strike.”

[CNN]

Kim Jong Un makes surprise visit to China

Kim Jong Un has made a surprise visit to Beijing on his first known trip outside North Korea since taking power in 2011, three people with knowledge of the visit told Bloomberg News.

Further details of the visit, including how long Kim would stay and who he would meet, were not immediately available. The people asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the information.

A special train may have carried Kim through the northeastern Chinese border city of Dandong under heavy security, Japan’s Kyodo News reported earlier. Nippon TV showed footage of a green and yellow train arriving today in Beijing that looked similar to one used by Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, to visit the Chinese capital shortly before his death in 2011.

The unannounced move follows U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision this month to grant an unprecedented meeting to Kim, after South Korean officials said Kim was willing to discuss giving up his nuclear weapons program. Diplomats from the U.S., North Korea and its neighbors have since been shuttling across the globe to prepare for the summit.

There has been no word of Kim planning a summit with Beijing. China has been one of North Korea’s most important allies, but relations have grown chilly because of Kim’s development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

Heavy security was reported at the Friendship Bridge before the train passed from North Korea to China, and there were reports of it passing through several stations on the way from North Korea to Beijing.

A video that aired on NTV also showed a motorcade of black limousines waiting at the train station and rows of Chinese soldiers marching on what appeared to be a train platform. The video did not show anyone getting off the train.

[Bloomberg News & Associated Press]

What brokers do to help North Koreans defect

Around 31,000 North Koreans have defected into the South since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Most of the North Koreans who defect do so via the long and expensive journey that takes them into China after crossing the Yalu River.

Um Yae-run, a 41-year-old defector who now works in Seoul at a marriage bureau and also as a broker, explains, “A lot of people who come to South Korea become brokers. They work with brokers in China who work with brokers in North Korea.

“If someone in the South wants to bring a family member over, they will give the address of the person in North Korea to the South Korean broker who will pass it on. In North Korea, you can’t trust anyone. So we give the brokers personal information, like a code word, so the person knows who sent the broker.

“The person will then work with the brokers to get you to the border. In North Korea, if you have money, you can do anything. If you don’t live near the border you need to take a train for which you will need a license. The brokers will pay to get you on the train and bribe the railway officials.

“Once at the border, the broker will arrange a time for crossing the river. In the summer, you might swim with a black rubber boat or the boat might have a string attached to the Chinese side that the brokers there will pull. The brokers might also bribe the border patrol to tell them their shifts so they can cross over then. If they can strike a deal, it becomes easy.

“When I crossed the border, it cost me around 3m Korean won ($2,800). When my daughter came, I paid 6.5m ($6,000). Now, it costs almost 10m won ($9,300). Coming to South Korea will cost you around 15m won ($14,000). Crossing the border is the most expensive part.

“After arriving in South Korea, I …worked as a broker because for every person you help, you made around two to four million Korean won ($1,800 to $3,700).”

North Korean defector describes life at home through cartoons

37-year-old cartoonist Choi Sung-guk explains, “In North Korea, I worked at an animation company, making local versions of The Lion King, Titanic, etc. …I was under surveillance for copying and distributing South Korean movies in the North when I decided to flee in 2010.

“I actually sent out my family first – my mother, sister and my nephew – to China because I was worried. However, after they left, I was arrested and sent to a detention center for six months. I manage to flee the country myself after that detention period was over.

“My trip to South Korea was short and easy. I fled to China, then Laos and then to Thailand before arriving in South Korea. All in 15 days.

“I started working as a program developer and web designer after arriving here [in South Korea]. But I was always interested in comics and cartoons. What I saw here was really boring, so I took up working at a broadcasting network, as a radio jockey and also a journalist and that’s when I started to understand the South Korean society.

“I also realized the cultural differences between the two Koreas and how people had different attitudes towards unification.

“And that’s why I started my webtoon three years ago and help towards reducing the cultural gap. Through my art work, I want to teach people the differences and the similarities we have. I also want to dispel the prejudice the youth has about unification. Sometimes, I will include historical stuff or academic information in order to get people to understand why it is that North and South Koreans are different.”

European Parliament has been in ‘secret’ talks with North Korea for 3 years

A European Parliament delegation said Wednesday it has been conducting secret talks with North Korea over the last three years to try to persuade Pyongyang to negotiate an end to its nuclear programme.

The group led by British MEP Nirj Deva has met senior North Korean officials, including ministers, 14 times and plans another meeting in Brussels in the near future. News of the below-the-radar diplomacy effort comes after the surprise announcement that US President Donald Trump plans a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, part of fast-paced developments following an Olympic detente.

Deva said he and his colleagues on the European Parliament Delegation for Relations with the Korean Peninsula had been “relentlessly advocating the case for dialogue without preconditions” to end the increasingly tense nuclear standoff with the North.

The group also met senior officials in the US, China, Japan and South Korea, Deva said, for dialogue aimed at achieving a “verifiable denuclearized Korean peninsula. We told them in no uncertain terms that if they carry on with the missile programme and the nuclear bomb programme they will only lead to an inevitable conclusion which is unthinkable,” Deva said.

Deva said that from his meetings he believed the tough sanctions the EU has in place against North Korea had been an important factor in driving Pyongyang to agree to talks. “Part of the reason that this happened was the sanctions started to bite poor people – not the elite,” he said.

[The Telegraph]

How to cope with a North Korean refugee crisis

In the event of conflict breaking out in North Korea, analysts expect a large human toll. With a 1,670 kilometre shared border with North Korea, there would undoubtedly be a mass refugee spillover. To be prepared, both China and South Korea need to learn from other refugee emergencies by making three key policy decisions.

1. Adopting a temporary protection regime – Since 2011, the Turkish government has been providing asylum to Syrian nationals under a temporary protection scheme, which provides them with a set of rights, including the right to protection from forcible return, until a solution to their situation is reached. To benefit from this regulatory scheme, Syrian nationals must register themselves with the authorities within a designated time, and are issued identity cards, without which they cannot access vital services such as health care.

2. Allowing them choice of settlement – China and South Korea can emulate the Jordanian model, where Syrian refugees were given a choice to self-settle or stay in one of the designated refugee camps.

3. Including them in the formal economy – While needs in the early emergency phase mainly revolve around relief assistance, as time goes by refugees’ needs change. When refugees do not have a source of livelihood, they resort to negative coping mechanisms, such as child labor and street begging. China and South Korea can get inspiration from the Ugandan model if a refugee influx occurs. In this model, refugees work, pay taxes, and use their entrepreneurial skills to boost the formal economy.

[Read full article at The Conversation]

Meet the North Korean defector honored by Trump

During his State of the Union address, President Trump honored North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho.

Ji entered his teens during the famine and mass starvation in North Korea in the 1990s. In 1996, Ji was on a train trying to steal some coal to trade for food. He passed out from hunger and fell off the train onto the tracks. His left leg and parts of his left hand were pulverized as the train wheels plowed through them. Doctors amputated Ji’s leg and hand in a four-and-a-half-hour surgery with no anesthetics.

A decade later, Ji and his brother made a daring escape across the Tumen River into China. From there, Ji trudged on his hand-made crutches all the way to Laos and then Thailand. From there, he was sent to South Korea and reunited with his mother and sister who had escaped there prior. (Ji’s father died after a failed attempt to escape North Korea. Authorities tortured him severely, and he died from his injuries a few days later.)

While still living in North Korea, Ji met Christians during a temporary food-finding trip to China. When he returned, the North Korean authorities tortured him and wanted to know if he met any Christians. After escaping, Ji eventually converted to Christianity.

During an exclusive interview with the Daily Caller, Ji said of Communism, “Simply put, it is a horrible thing. Communism is a Hell.” When asked what he would say to North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un. Ji said he would tell the Communist leader, “In the land I lived in, you could choose life or death. I chose life. I chose to live in a land of freedom. I won. I achieved victory.”

In April 2010, Ji established Now Action and Unity for Human Rights (NAUH), an NGO dedicated to fighting the human rights violations in North Korea.

[Church Militant]