China stepping up repatriation of North Koreans who have attempted to escape

This year China has increased the arrests and repatriation of North Koreans attempting to escape the poverty and repression at home. According to the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, 41 North Koreans were arrested in July and August alone, compared with 51 arrests documented for the entire year before.

Analysts attribute the rise in border arrests to efforts by China to discourage a possible flood of refugees as tougher economic sanctions imposed for Pyongyang’s repeated nuclear and missile tests increases poverty and food scarcity among ordinary North Koreans.

Phil Robertson, the Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch has criticized China for violating the U.N. Refugee Convention by designating North Korean refugees as illegal “economic migrants,” and forcibly repatriating them despite the likelihood they will be imprisoned and likely subjected to inhumane treatment.

“This is condemning people to decades of forced labor, possible executions, certainly torture in every case,” said Robertson.

China has also reportedly blocked the United Nations Security Council from acting on a General Assembly recommendation to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, based on a 2014 Commission of Inquiry report documenting a network of political prison camps and systematic human rights abuses, including murder, enslavement, torture, rape, and other sexual violence.

[VoA]

North Korean defector speaks out after China repatriates his family

North Korean defector Lee Tae-won is still plagued with guilt over his failed efforts to bring his wife and child to South Korea, which resulted in their forced repatriation and the likely prospect of imprisonment and possible execution in North Korea.

Lee’s wife and four-year-old son were reportedly among a group of 10 defectors that were apprehended by China soon after they crossed the North Korean border in late October.

In November he last spoke with his wife by phone while she was in a detention center in China. “As soon as my wife told me she was being repatriated, the call was cut. I thought the call was cut because the police took the phone. It was devastating,” he said.

At the time Lee made a public video message appealing to both Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump to intercede and prevent the repatriation of his family, during the time the U.S. leader was visiting the region. His plea went unanswered. Lee was later told by a friend in North Korea that his wife and child were turned over to a North Korean state security department in late November.

There is concern among human rights advocates that North Korean human rights violations and China’s complicity are being downplayed by both the U.S. and South Korea. Focusing on human rights issues could complicate Washington’s efforts to persuade Beijing to enforce tough economic sanctions, and could also undermine Seoul’s efforts to increase cooperation and dialogue with Pyongyang.

[VoA]

North Korea again tops the list for Christian persecution

For the 16th year in a row, North Korea tops the list of 50 countries ranked for the worst persecution of Christians in the world, according to the Christian watchdog organization Open Doors USA.

At the top of the group’s top 10 countries where Christians face the most persecution is North Korea (94 points), citing Christians and Christian missionaries routinely imprisoned in labor camps.

A close second is Afghanistan, which jumped up one place since last year’s ranking. With the exception of North Korea, all the countries that cracked the top 10 are predominantly Muslim and most are in the Middle East and Africa.

Open Doors exists to support and to advocate for persecuted Christians where ever they may be in the world,” Open Doors USA’s CEO and president, David Curry, said in announcing the list in Washington on Wednesday (Jan. 10). “We are asking that the world begin to use its power and its influence to push for justice, that we would use the list to direct us where justice is needed most in the world today.”

[Religion News Service]

North Korean defectors must be returned for Korean family reunions to resume

North Korea wants a number of defectors returned as a precondition to resuming reunions of families separated by the Korean War, according to Japanese wire service Kyodo on Sunday.

North Korea and South Korea began diplomatic talks last week for the first time in two years. North Korea agreed to send a delegation and two athletes to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month during the talks.

Negotiations between the two countries hit a snag went it came to family reunification, according to Kyodo. The two countries have held family reunions for people divided by the Korean Wars over the years, but North Korea wants 13 people who defected to South Korea in 2016 and one woman who defected in 2011 returned before having more reunions.

The people who defected 2016 were 12 waitresses and their manager, who worked at a state-owned restaurant in China. At the North Korean restaurant, the women doubled as entertainers — singing and dancing in addition to serving food. The woman who defected in 2011, Kim Ryon Hui, has expressed that she wants to return to North Korea. She traveled to China to receive treatment for liver disease and then traveled to South Korea to make more money to afford the treatment. In an interview with CNN, she said she didn’t realize once she came to South Korea and renounced her North Korean citizenship she would not be able to return home. It is illegal to cross back into North Korea once in South Korea.

North Korea maintains that the waitresses were abducted by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service and that their manager tricked them into defecting. The women and their manager are under close supervision of the National Intelligence Service and have undergone a different and much longer integration process than other defectors. The United Nations sent an investigator to research the women’s situation and whether they had come to the country of their own volition.

[Kyodo]

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]

Two more North Koreans defect directly to South Korea

Two North Korean men defected to South Korea via the East Sea on Wednesday, the South Korean unification ministry (MOU) confirmed to NK News on Thursday.

The men were found in seas roughly 100 km from the Dokdo islets, a ministry spokesperson said, and are two of three North Koreans to reportedly cross into the South in the past two days. They were discovered in a small wooden boat, the spokesperson said, and told the navy that they wanted to defect to South Korea.

A South Korean marine policeperson declined to give further details about the identity of the two escapees, though said they are “not that old.”

2017 has seen 11 defectors come to South Korea by crossing the maritime border between the two countries, the MOU said.

Defections across the inter-Korean border are relatively rare: North Koreans are much more likely to cross at the country’s border with China before seeking asylum in third countries.

[NK News]

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]

UN’s North Korea human rights expert schedules official visit to region

The UN’s specialist on human rights in North Korea will visit South Korea and Japan from December 11-16, in the context of heightened tensions in North-East Asia.

“I will use this mission to gather information on the latest developments in the human rights situation in North Korea and identify issues of concern that should be brought to the attention of the Human Rights Council,” said Tomás Ojea Quintana, the Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

[North Korea] itself has not granted access to the Special Rapporteur since the mandate was created in 2004, but has recently opened up to dialogue with other UN mechanisms in areas such as the situation of women, children and people with disabilities.

Tensions in North-East Asia have increased after North Korea conducted numerous missile launches in 2017, and carried out what it said was a hydrogen bomb test in September. Resolutions by the UN General Assembly and Security Council strongly condemned these tests, and international sanctions against the DPRK were strengthened.

Mr. Quintana will spend 11-14 December in the Republic of Korea before moving on to Japan on 15-16 December. He will present his next report to the Human Rights Council in March 2018.

[UN Human Rights Council]