North Koreans defect due to disillusionment not hunger

During the late 1990s and the early 2000s, almost all the North Koreans who fled their country were escaping out of hunger or economic need. But the explosion of markets has improved life for many. Today, more people are leaving North Korea because they are disillusioned with the system, not because they can’t feed their families. Following are excerpts of testimonies of recent defectors:

The accordion player: “I was ambitious. … I left because I didn’t have the freedom to do what I wanted to do.”

The doctor: “I hoped to work abroad as a doctor in the Middle East or Africa. But to work overseas, you have to pass security screening to make sure you’re ideologically sound and aren’t going to defect. I am a very capable person, and I was a party member, but even I couldn’t make it.”

The construction worker: “I worked [on a coveted, overseas job] for three and a half years, but I made only $2,000 during that time. We were allowed to work overseas for five years maximum, and I was hoping to save $10,000 and return home proud. I realized it wasn’t going to happen, so I started looking for a chance to escape.”

The bean trader: “I wanted to progress in life, I wanted to go to university, but because my mother had defected to China, [as part of the penalty I couldn’t.] … I felt like I didn’t have any future in North Korea. That’s why I decided to leave.”

The meat delivery guy: “We were told in school that we could be anybody. But after graduation, I realized that this wasn’t true and that I was being punished for somebody else’s wrongdoing. I realized I wouldn’t be able to survive here. So for two years I looked for a way out. When I thought about escaping, it gave me a psychological boost.”

The university student: “I was so disgusted with the system. I didn’t have freedom to speak my mind, or to travel anywhere I wanted, or even to wear what I wanted. It was like living in a prison. We were monitored all the time by our neighborhood leader, by the normal police, by the secret police. If you ask me what was the worst thing about North Korea, I’d say: Being born there.”

[Washington Post]

Brutal treatment in North Korean political prisons

Escapees from North Korea’s gruesome political prisons recount brutal treatment, including medieval torture with shackles and fire and being forced to undergo abortions by the crudest methods. Human rights activists say that this appears to have lessened slightly under Kim Jong Un. But severe beatings and certain kinds of torture — including being forced to remain in stress positions for crippling lengths of time — still appear commonplace throughout North Korea’s detention systems, as are public executions. Starvation is often part of the punishment, even for children.
Following are excerpts of testimonies of recent defectors from North Korea:

The money man: “In 2015, a money transfer went bad — the woman I’d given the money to got caught and she ratted on me — and I was put in detention. I spent two months there. I wasn’t treated like a human being — they beat me, they made me sit in stress positions where I couldn’t lift my head. Two times they slapped my face and kicked me during interrogation.”

The teenage prisoner: “I was interrogated repeatedly by the secret police as they wanted to know about my mother’s business. They were slapping me around the face, and pushed me so hard against the wall that I had blood coming from my head. I still get a headache sometimes.
“[Once imprisoned] we got up at 6 a.m. every day and went to bed at 11 p.m., and in between we would be working the whole time, shoveling cement or lugging sacks, except for lunch. Lunch was usually steamed corn. I was too scared to eat. I cried a lot. I didn’t want to live.”

The phone connector: “Even though we were working so hard in prison camp, all we got to eat was a tiny bit of corn rice and a small potato. By the time I got out, I was so malnourished I could hardly walk.
“[Concerning life in North Korea] if you speak out against the system, you will immediately be arrested. And if you do something wrong, then three generations of your family will be punished. Once I heard there was a going to be some kind of coup launched in Chongjin and that all of the people involved were executed. When you hear about cases like this, of course you’re scared. So instead of trying to do something to change the system, it’s better just to leave.”

The university student: “The secret to North Korea’s survival is the reign of terror. Why do you think they block all communications? Why do you think North Korea has public executions? Why do you think North Koreans leave, knowing that they will never see their families again? It shows how bad things are. All our rights as people have been stripped away.”

 [Sources of quotations: The Washington Post]

A nine-year ordeal to make it to South Korea

Ji’s South Korean accent masks her nine-year ordeal of four escape attempts from the North, three repatriations from China, and starvation and torture in North Korean reeducation camps. Ji was also twice sold by human traffickers who wait on the Chinese side of the border to prey on fleeing women.

Ji has been outspoken about her experience, speaking on the international stage using her real name and using her traumatic times as inspiration for her books, poems and play. “As a defector, I want to tell South Koreans that they have to realize what they have. Freedom, happiness and love. Things that North Koreans desperately seek their entire life. South Koreans have something very valuable, but they have no idea how valuable it is,” she said.

Ji’s father was Chinese from an ethnic Korean minority who fled to North Korea during the Cultural Revolution. He stayed, had a family, and in 1998 arranged for his wife, two daughters and son to escape to South Korea via China. They left separately to avoid attracting attention, but Ji’s father was arrested in China and never seen again.

Ji was sent back to North Korea and interrogated. She tried to flee again later in the year but was caught by traffickers in China. She was eventually sent back to North Korea and to a camp where she and her fellow inmates endured extreme hardship. Ji became a Christian when she was in China and said she was forced to deny her religion during her incarceration.

A third escape effort also ended in failure and a stint at another camp, where the now pregnant Ji was forced to have an abortion without anaesthetic.

She made it China a fourth time and was again sold to traffickers. Finally, after six more years, she obtained a fake South Korean passport and took a ferry to the South, where she was reunited with her mother and siblings.

Ji had always dreamed of being a writer and when she reached the South, she used “the blood and sorrow of the dead as my ink, and their tortured and bruised bones as my pen”.

She said life could still be a struggle and – like other defectors – she had to take medication for epilepsy and sleeping disorders. “Most of us suffer from the consequences of torture,” Ji said.

[South China Morning Post]

Conservative writer calls Trump summit with Kim Jong Un a ‘giant blunder’

Conservative writer Bre Payton on Monday said she was dismayed by President Trump’s historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, asking how the president could not talk about “human rights abuses at all.”

“I was really upset when Donald Trump decided to meet with Kim Jong Un, shake his hand on the stage, have North Korean and American flags hung next to one another, I was honestly very, very upset by that — not talking human rights abuses at all, I mean how can you even do that?” Payton told Hill.TV’s Ned Ryun and Krystal Ball on “Rising.”

“However, I think the American people are willing to forgive that, in my opinion, giant blunder if it does result in better relations between North Korea and the United States,” she added.

Payton also said she wasn’t surprised by Trump’s decision to call off Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s planned visit to North Korea, which was scheduled for next week.  “We all knew that North Korea wasn’t going to denuclearize. … This is the one trick that they have,” she said.

Trump announced on Friday that Pompeo won’t be going to North Korea after all, saying the meeting was not appropriate “at this time” due to the lack of “sufficient progress” on denuclearization. This marked a rare admission by Trump that denuclearization is not going as well as hoped. But the president left talks open and didn’t rule out a future meeting with North Korea.

[The Hill]

Over 80% of North Korean defectors found to have tuberculosis

A report by the South Korean government’s settlement center for North Korean defectors revealed that 81 percent of over 3,000 tested people who fled from the North to the South were infected with tuberculosis (TB). Jeon Jeong-hee, a nursing officer at the Hanawon settlement center, released her findings at the “North Korea Tuberculosis and Healthcare Symposium” at the Seoul City Hall on Thursday.

Among those aged 40 or more, 90 percent were positive.

Jeon said such findings could signal that North Korea had difficulties in the distribution and supply of TB vaccines and not enough facilities to keep medicines refrigerated.

In the North, according to defectors, it was common to diagnose TB without any X-ray test to patients who had a fever or diagnose TB after touching the belly. The patients had to purchase TB drugs at a market without any prescription, they said.

For North Korean TB patients, it is difficult to buy TB treatments continuously because they are expensive. Considering a North Korean worker’s monthly wage is about 1,600 won on average, paying 15,000 won for a one-month streptomycin was a luxury.

Due to such financial burdens, North Koreans, including TB patients, turn to folk remedies, Jeon said. To treat TB, they took pear juice, ginger juice, traditional herbal medicines, and moxibustion.

[Korea Biomedical Review]

Illegal trade and activity have blossomed in North Korea

From the biggest cities to the smallest villages in North Korea, there is now some kind of market building where people can sell their wares and keep their profits. Some are state-run, some are state-sanctioned, some are ad hoc.

A doctor (42) who defected in 2014 explained, “The salary for doctors was about 3,500 won a month. That was less than it cost to buy one kilogram of rice! So of course, being a doctor was not my main job. My main job was smuggling at night. I would send herbal medicine from North Korea into China, and with the money, I would import home appliances back into North Korea. Rice cookers, notels, LCD monitors, that kind of thing.”

As the economy and the rules that govern it have change in North Korea, there are more and more gray areas that can be exploited which means that illegal trade and activity have also blossomed.

Said a drug dealer (46) who defected in 2014: “I worked as a broker transferring money and connecting people in North Korea with people in South Korea through phone calls. I arranged reunions for them in China. I also smuggled antiques out of North Korea, as well as ginseng and pheasants, and sold them in China.
“And I dealt ‘ice’ [methamphetamines]. 70 or 80 percent of the adults in Hoeryong city were using ice. My customers were just ordinary people. Police officers, security agents, party members, teachers, doctors. Ice made a really good gift for birthday parties or for high school graduation presents.
“It makes you feel good and helps you release stress. My 76-year-old mother was using it because she had low blood pressure, and it worked well.
“Lots of police officers and security agents would come to my house to smoke, and of course I didn’t charge them — they were my protection. They would come by my house during their lunch break. The head of the secret police in my area was almost living at my house.”

Increasingly, North Koreans are not fleeing their totalitarian state because they are hungry, as they did during the 15 or so years following the outbreak of a devastating famine in the mid-1990s. Now, they are leaving because they are disillusioned.

[Washington Post]

The market in the North Korean bastion of socialism

In theory, North Korea is a bastion of socialism, a country where the state provides everything, housing, health care, education and jobs.

In reality, at this point in time the state economy barely operates. People working in factories and fields find there is little for them to do, and they are paid almost nothing. Meanwhile, a vibrant private economy has sprung up out of necessity, one where people find ways to make money on their own, whether through selling homemade tofu or dealing drugs, smuggling small DVD players with screens called “notels” over the border, or extracting bribes.

As a university student who defected in 2013 related, “North Korea technically has a centrally planned economy, but now people’s lives revolve around the market. No one expects the government to provide things anymore. Everyone has to find their own way to survive.”

While men had to continue to show up for work in dormant factories, women would turn corn into noodles, and homeless children would steal manhole covers to sell as scrap metal.

A farmer who defected in 2014 recalls, “We lived in the city center, but we rented some land in the foothills and grew corn there. During planting and harvest season, we would wake up at 4 a.m. and walk three hours to reach the farmland. Besides a little break for lunch we’d work until 8 p.m. before walking home again. We’d then buy beans from the market and make tofu that we’d sell from our house. Our profit was less than 5,000 won [60 cents at the blackmarket rate] a day.”

Another defector adds, “It’s the women who can really make money in North Korea. My aunt was the main earner in the house. My uncle is in the military, so his position provided protection for my aunt’s business which was selling beans in the market. You also have to smooth the way with money.”

[Washington Post]

Defectors in Japan sue North Korea for millions over rights abuses

Five North Korean defectors in Japan filed a suit in Tokyo demanding Pyongyang pay ¥500 million [4.5 Million US Dollars] in damages over its alleged human rights abuses.

The suit was filed with Tokyo District Court and was the first legal action against the North Korean government by defectors, according to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

The five claimed that North Korea asked Koreans living in Japan to return between 1959 and 1984 when the country advertised repeatedly through the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon) that it was a “heaven on earth” where things such as clothing, food and shelter were secure.

The plaintiffs said they returned to North Korea between 1960 and 1972, but they were forced to live under harsh conditions including not being able to get food. They claim that North Korea committed an act of state-sponsored kidnapping by deceiving victims. They also said that their right to see their families in North Korea had been violated.

[Japan Times]

The long road for North Korean defectors

North Korean defectors living in China can spend 5-10 years there without legal status, with the goal of making their way to South Korea and becoming South Korean citizens.

After seeking asylum in South Korea, defectors spend two months undergoing investigation. A human rights lawyer is on site to ensure that their rights are not violated during this process, but they cannot freely contact the outside world. They then enter Hanawon, a three-month program that provides healthcare (physical and emotional), education (including courses on history, democracy and human rights), job training, and settlement support or life planning.

With their monthly allowance they can buy phone cards to call family or friends in China or elsewhere. (Some have spouses or children still in China.) They are taken on field trips and spend a night with a South Korean family. One surprise for the residents has been when U.S. service members come to the facility to put on talent shows. Seeing those they’ve been taught to view as mortal enemies singing ballads and making jokes is shocking and eye-opening.

Trainees, which is what defectors at Hanawon are called, also secure South Korean citizenship while at Hanawon; they receive help in finding an apartment and their security deposit is paid for by the government. After leaving Hanawon, individuals can receive employment subsidies, college tuition, and incentives for savings (if you save $500 a month, the government will match that) for an additional five years.

 [Excerpts of Des Moines Register article by Mary M. McCarthy, professor at Drake University]

North Korean defectors: You are the winner already

Defectors spend up to three months in Seoul learning the history of the Korean Peninsula, and basic life skills like how to use an ATM and shop for groceries. Many defectors are drastically behind in education, as North Korea emphasizes propaganda over skills like reading and math. Defectors can be unprepared for things Hanawon doesn’t teach, such as understanding South Korea’s ultra-competitive social structure.

“After making it to Mongolia, we flew to South Korea,” recalls North Korean defector Yeon Mi Park. “They put us into a place called Hanawon Resettlement.

“Everyone thinks that once you escape, once you arrive in the land of freedom, people think that’s the end of the story, everyone is fine and happy, but that’s not [the case].

“The suicide rate among North Korean defectors in South Korea is three times higher than South Koreans, and South Korea [already] is one of the most high-suicide-rate countries.

“I fought for my freedom. It was not given to me, but I fought for it. So, I want the North Korean defectors struggling in South Korea [to realize] that you should be very proud of yourself, and don’t listen to anyone say that you are not enough, that you are different, you are not going to win. You are the winner already.”

[Business Insider]