Do-or-die decisions and a family ripped in two

King is a North Korean defector living in New Malden. A 34-year-old restaurateur who runs a Korean barbecue, he only wants to be identified by his nickname “King” amid fears of his family being punished.

His story is also one of heart-wrenching do-or-die decisions and a family ripped in two.

King fled his homeland with his mother and sister when he was aged 18. But his father, a high school teacher who felt loyalty to his job and fear of the regime, stayed behind. As punishment for his family’s actions, his father was fired and sent to a labor camp.

Totalitarian North Korea restricts every aspect of public life, throwing people into Nazi-style camps for crimes as petty as “gossiping” about the state. Ordinary citizens are not allowed to access the internet or the international press, instead having to rely on the propaganda of North Korea’s state-run media.

Nowadays, King only gets to speak to his dad once every two or three years, on the rare occasion his father can get an illicit cellphone capable of making international calls. He hasn’t spoken to any of his friends since he left.

“Yes, I miss them, of course, but I have friends here now,” King said. He quietly added: “It’s difficult to talk about my life here and my life in North Korea.”

In a way, his family’s hand was forced. Before they fled, his aunt had already escaped to China and they risked being punished by proxy if they stayed put.

“We were at a crossroads whether to be sent to prison or fleeing from the country,” he said.

[NBC]                                                                                                                    Read more

Defector: “The difference is like hell and heaven”

In the rooms above the Korea Foods superstore in New Malden are the unglamorous offices of Free NK, a North Korean newspaper run by Kim Joo Il, another defector.

“If you actually compare two lives, one in North Korea and the other one in New Malden, the difference is like hell and heaven,” the 43-year-old told NBC News.

When he lived in North Korea, he served as an officer in the Korean People’s Army and it was his job to catch defectors. He knew the risks of trying to flee. “They were all dealt with by military law, which meant public execution,” Kim Joo Il said.

According to him, the country’s feared secret police has a network of spies so extensive that one out of every three citizens is an informant. “Your lives are under surveillance every single moment,” he said. “Kim Jong Un has told his people that the tiniest thing, even the drop of a needle to the floor, should be reported back to him.”

Despite being aware of the potential consequences, he decided to take his chances and make a break for it across the Chinese border. “This is not a choice that you make in a day,” he said. “This is based on a long-term emotional process. You make up your mind to escape from North Korea, and then you give up on the idea, and then you make up your mind again, and then you give up again. You go through this process so many times you cannot imagine how many times.”

Kim Joo Il was single when he fled, but he had to consider the consequences his escape would have on his remaining family members. “It’s not just the family that you have in mind, you’ve got to actually be prepared to die, really, while escaping,” he said. “Personally it took me eight years to finally make up my mind and in the eighth year I made my escape.”

From China, he walked, hitched rides, and scraped together enough money for the occasional train or bus fare. He traveled through Vietnam, Cambodia and finally Thailand, where he got a plane ticket to the U.K.

He publishes the Free NK newspaper both in print and online, employing around five members of staff — both North and South Koreans — and highlighting the atrocities the regime is inflicting on his countrymen. Not only does he circulate the newspaper locally, he sends the digital files to South Korea where they are printed out, attached to balloons and dropped over North Korea as anti-regime propaganda.

Now well-known as a figurehead in the New Malden community, Kim Joo Il is determined to be a thorn in the side of the dictatorship.

[NBC]

Defectors from North Korea describe daily life

For the vast majority of the 25 million North Koreans, food is scarce. The United Nations reports that 70 percent of the population — around 18 million — goes hungry, with the stunting of children’s growth a “rampant phenomenon” due to the lack of nutrition. Almost 9 million have no health care, and more than 5 million live in squalor because they lack clean running water.

While food may be scarce, distrust is not. From childhood, North Koreans are instructed to report anyone being even mildly nonconformist or speaking of their leadership without over-the-top praise, even in private conversation. Tom Fowdy, founder of the analysis group Young DPRK Watchers, noted that compulsory community meetings are held: singing songs about their leaders and goading each other into confessing minor crimes.

A caste system means North Koreans often remain in the social rank into which they were born, something determined by a family’s reputation. Sometimes a citizen can move up the ladder to a more privileged caste, depending on one’s perceived support of the leadership, or move down the ladder, depending on one’s links to criminals, defectors or South Koreans.

“Those with a poor songbun (caste ranking) will have poor prospects,” said Chad O’Carroll, managing director of Korea Risk Group, which produces analyses on North Korea. “But regardless of one’s background, most young North Koreans should never expect to leave their country, officially consume foreign-produced information unapproved by the government or show respect to anyone beyond a leader to the Kim family tree.”

A North Korean is required to hang in their homes portraits of Kim il Sung and Kim Jong-il, the grandfather and father, respectively, or the current leader. There are routine checks by authorities to ensure these are kept immaculately clean. It is mostly prohibited for one to communicate with others in the world outside. Pirated modern movies and music occasionally make their way into homes but, if caught, violators can be punished with death.

Soldiers have been known to enter homes and extract entire families, who are never heard from again.

[Fox News]

Kim Jong Un lives in fear of assassination by the West

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is reportedly so terrified of being targeted for assassination that he travels incognito inside the Hermit Kingdom, and there’s growing evidence his paranoia may be well-founded.

The 33-year-old, third-generation ruler is “extremely nervous” about a clandestine plot to take him out, according to a key South Korean lawmaker who spoke to The Korea Herald. Rep. Lee Cheol-woo, chairman of the South Korean parliament’s intelligence committee, made the claim based on reports from South Korea’s intelligence agency.

“Kim is engrossed with collecting information about the ‘decapitation operation’ through his intelligence agencies,” Lee said following a briefing last week. The rumored “decapitation plan” to target Kim and key deputies in the event fighting broke out on the peninsula first surfaced in late 2015, when the U.S. and South Korea signed “Operation Plan 5015,” a joint strategy for possible war scenarios with North Korea. According to the Brookings Institute, the plan “envisions limited warfare with an emphasis on preemptive strikes on strategic targets in North Korea and “decapitation raids” to exterminate North Korean leaders.”

Something about the term “decapitation” seems to have gotten the attention of the gout-addled, unpredictable and violent dictator. According to Lee, Kim’s is so frightened that he now disguises his movements, travels primarily at dawn and in the cars of his henchmen. Public appearances and jaunts in his prized Mercedes Benz 600 have been curtailed.

During this year’s Foal Eagle and Key Resolve exercises with South Korea, one of the largest annual military exercises in the world, members of U.S. Navy SEAL teams reportedly participated in decapitation drills with our South Korean counterparts for the first time.  Shortly after those war games, the USS Michigan, a submarine that is sometimes used to move U.S. Special Forces, took a position just off of North Korea’s coast.

But while taking out Kim may be a possibility, experts say it would be much more complicated that the 2011 raid in Pakistan in which CIA operatives and SEALs took out Bin Laden.

“Pyongyang is surrounded by antiaircraft weapons, and while the corpulent Kim presents a large and sluggish target, he’s kept on the move, always surrounded by fanatical guards and often near or in complex underground compounds,” Mark Sauter, a former U.S. Army and special forces officer, said.

[Fox News]

South Korea calls for the immediate release of Americans and S. Koreans held by Pyongyang

On Tuesday, South Korea called for the immediate release of the Americans and South Koreans being held by Pyongyang.

Its president, Moon Jae-in, described North Korea’s human rights abuses as “deplorable”, adding that South Korea would make every effort to win the release of the remaining detainees, according to a spokesman.

South Korea has tried to find out more about its own citizens through European countries with a diplomatic presence in Pyongyang, but its requests have been met with silence.

Three of the South Koreans were detained while carrying out missionary work, while the other three are defectors who returned to the North, according to South Korean intelligence officials.

[The Guardian]

Otto Warmbier’s death highlights plight of all foreigners jailed in North Korea

The death of Otto Warmbier has focused the world’s attention on the plight of other foreign nationals North Korea has imprisoned to use as bargaining chips for aid and diplomatic concessions. In addition to three other Americans, the regime is known to be holding six South Koreans, a number of Chinese and a Canadian citizen, Canadian pastor, Hyeon Soo-lim, who was charged with subversion in 2015 and given a 15-year sentence, and then released a few days ago in a coma after 17 months internment.

In the hours since Warmbier’s parents announced that their 22-year-old son had died in hospital in Ohio, calls grew for the release of other foreign nationals who have been incarcerated for alleged crimes against North Korea. The university student died on Monday, days after North Korea released him 17 months into his sentence of hard labor for attempting to steal a propaganda poster from a hotel near the end of an organized tour.

Foreign detainees are likely to be sent to a prison in the city of Sariwon, south of the capital, Pyongyang, where they are treated more leniently than the estimated 200,000 to 300,000 North Koreans held inside the country’s vast infrastructure of prisons, labor camps and political re-education camps.

“North Korean prisoners are routinely tortured, but it’s unlikely that that happens to foreign detainees. They are also well-fed compared with North Korean inmates,” said Jiro Ishimaru, of Asia Press, an Osaka-based organization with a network of contacts in North Korea. “The biggest problem is the toll incarceration in a place like North Korea takes on their mental health.”

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea used Warmbier’s death to draw attention to the incarceration of ordinary citizens who are “starved, tortured, brutalized and killed in North Korea’s political prison camps”.

[The Guardian]

Bill Richardson on China applying pressure on North Korea

Nations and international rights groups should pressure North Korea to accept an investigation into its treatment of Otto Warmbier as a possible violation of the Geneva Convention, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said.

Richardson, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton, now is a negotiator for detainees in countries hostile to the United States and had sought to secure Otto Warmbier’s release from North Korea.

The U.S. also should press for additional international sanctions on North Korea, Richardson said. The United Nations Security Council this month expanded sanctions on North Korea after its recent nuclear missile tests, but China has opposed more stringent efforts, such as an oil embargo.

Perhaps holding up China’s ally as a human-rights abuser, a place where a young man’s life was destroyed, might change the country’s mind, Richardson said. The ultimate hope: that pressure on North Korea could result in the release of the other three Americans held.

“This is a real opportunity to say to the Chinese, ‘Look at these human rights violations. Look what they did to this young man,’ ” Richardson said. “This is one of the worst violations, the most egregious treatment of human rights that I’ve seen.”

[USA Today]

The US State Dept approach to negotiating the release of Americans from North Korea

For years, the State Department has worked privately to negotiate the release of Americans detained in North Korea, often working through an intermediary such as Sweden, which has had an embassy in the country since 1970. Government officials in the know are told not to say anything publicly that might provoke North Korean retaliation against U.S. citizens. Eventually, the approach usually works.

In Otto Warmbier’s case, it didn’t. [After being held for a year and a half, Warmbier’s] situation represents the worst outcome for any American whom North Korea has detained.

After a year of remaining silent, Otto Warmbier’s parents began appearing on prime-time news shows, demanding that more be done to bring home their son. Fred Warmbier and his wife Cindy decided to start talking. They gave interviews to Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson and The Washington Post, among others.

Few on Capitol Hill are blaming the Warmbiers now that everyone knows about their son’s condition. Much remains unknown about what happened to Otto Warmbier, but he reportedly has been in a coma for more than a year. Brain scans show severe damage. Cincinnati doctors describe his condition as “unresponsive wakefulness.”

Otto Warmbier’s condition and the fact that no one knew about it for a year shows the limitations of the approach of the State Department.

The Warmbiers’ efforts may have put more pressure on both Washington and Pyongyang, but complaints from high-ranking officials would have worked better, said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. Governments respond to “pressure, embarrassment and exposure.”

“I’m hopeful that what happened to Otto will embolden members of the House and Senate — and, most importantly, the international community — to increase pressure on this pariah country,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio,, who has grown close to the Warmbiers since their ordeal began.

[USA Today]

Why Otto Warbier received an extra dose of North Korean brutality

North Korea is known to have detained 16 American citizens since 1996, including three who are still in custody. They have been subjected to varying degrees of mental abuse but less often physical torture.

Since North Korea has generally refrained from physically abusing the Americans it has held, it makes the case of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old American college student who had been serving a 15-year sentence in North Korea, even more striking.

Mr. Warmbier was released in a coma and returned on Tuesday to the United States. A senior American official has said the United States obtained intelligence reports that he had been repeatedly beaten.

Dr. Daniel Kanter, director of the Neurocritical Care Program at the University of Cincinnati, said at a news conference, Warmbier has “severe injuries to all regions of the brain.”

Warmbier’s fate has cast new attention on how North Korea treats foreigners in captivity.

Despite its longstanding enmity toward the United States and its allies, North Korea has been deeply sensitive to outside criticism of its human rights record, billing itself as a righteous nation that respects international norms. It has used American prisoners as bargaining chips in dealing with Washington.  The prospect that the Americans might eventually be released as part of negotiations seems to have influenced their treatment.

The worst known case of abuse before Mr. Warmbier was that of Robert Park, a Christian missionary who said he was severely beaten by North Korean soldiers after he was caught in 2009 while walking across the border from China waving a Bible. After he was transferred to Pyongyang, North Korea, he said, he was subjected to torture –beating of his genitals with a club– so horrific he begged for death.

The news about Mr. Warmbier has also deepened the anxiety among families of South Koreans and Japanese citizens held in the North. One relative said he was shocked to hear of Mr. Warmbier’s release in a coma. “It’s like a warning to the U.S.,” he said.

[New York Times]

Three Americans still held in North Korea

Two of the three other Americans still being held in North Korea are academics who worked at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, and the third is a businessman.

  • Kim Dong Chul, the president of a company involved in international trade and hotel services, was arrested in 2015 and is serving 10 years on espionage charges.
  • Kim Sang Duk, also known as Tony Kim, a university professor, was detained in Pyongyang in 2017 and accused of attempting to overthrow the government.
  • Kim Hak-song, a native Korean born in China (Jin Xue Song is the Chinese version of his name) and professor working at the same university as Tony Kim was detained May 6 on suspicion of “hostile acts” against the regime.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States is discussing their respective cases with the North Korean regime. The United States does not have a diplomatic mission in North Korea.

“It’s a delicate matter, he said. We’re working on it.”

[CNN]