North Korean defectors challenge the ban on border propaganda

During the historic inter-Korean summit last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in pledged to end all hostilities and work towards peace on the peninsula.

North Korean defectors in South Korea have decided to challenge an agreement between the two Korean leaders banning the launch of propaganda leaflets across the border and have called for a day of action on May 5. Police presence is expected at the event, with officers instructed to break out the protest if needed, the South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh reported.

The North Korean defectors do not trust Kim’s intentions and want to keep fighting for the rights of their former compatriots. “We will keep doing this for the people of North Korea,” Fighters for a Free North Korea leader Park Sang-hak told Yonhap news agency.

The launch of balloons filled with propaganda leaflets or other media content banned in North Korea has been a source of tension between the two countries.

[Newsweek]

Reaching out to North Korea’s secret Christians

South Korea’s largest religious radio broadcaster, the Far East Broadcasting Company, transmits gospel-centered programs to both North and South Korea every day of the week. The station’s goal is to use Christian radio to subvert the Kim regime’s strict ban on religion, and ultimately pave the way for a unified, Christianized Korean Peninsula.

North Korean programming provides audio church services–the latter because most North Koreans cannot attend local churches, or even speak about Christianity, without risking forced labor or execution.

Though it’s impossible to get an accurate count given the Kim regime’s strict controls on information, after decades of oppression, the United Nations in 2014 cited estimates that the number of Christians living in North Korea was then between 200,000 and 400,000, or around 1 percent of the country’s population.

But South Korean Christian groups like FEBC cannot meet them, or potential converts, face to face. The station has settled for what it sees as the next best thing: reaching the curious through illicit radio receivers. FEBC buys handheld radio receivers and gives them to Christian organizations that work with smugglers to get the radios into North Korea so residents can secretly listen to the station’s broadcasts.

Chung Soo Kim, who has for more than 20 years been a radio host for FEBC, where he translates California pastor Rick Warren’s sermons, estimated that the company has purchased “tens of thousands” of receivers over more than two decades. Chung Soo Kim said he recognized that while simply owning a radio is not necessarily risky, smuggling the radios into North Korea, or being caught listening to FEBC, can be dangerous.

The station has indications from defectors’ testimonies and listener feedback that its broadcasts are reaching their destination.

[The Atlantic]

North Korean defectors find refuge in New Zealand

When Park Sung Il set foot in New Zealand last week, he felt like his prayers had been answered. Park, who defected from North Korea about 10 years ago when he was 23, is one of nine escapees from the Kim Jong Un regime who arrived in Auckland last week as part of a Christian mission.

David Cho, an Auckland-based Korean Christian organizer, said many of the defectors managed to escape the North with the help of evangelical organizations. Cho said there were plans to set up a proper base and school in Auckland for North Korean defectors.

Pastor Kwang Choi, who is heading the mission, works with North Korean refugees and has heard some harrowing tales of survival and of life in North. One of the worst, Choi said, was from a man who said he camped at his father’s grave for four days to prevent people from digging and eating his father’s corpse. “I have also come across others who went crazy from starvation and saw their own children as food.”

Park, now 33, remembers clearly the hazardous journey he had to make to escape the North. “It was a freezing Korean winter’s evening in March, and I had to cross frozen Amrok River to get to China,” he said. “I … nearly died when a sharp sheet of floating ice floated towards me and pierced my body.”

Growing up in North Korea, Park claimed, he was denied education because some of his other family members were known to be defectors. As a result, he found it difficult to find work or integrate in South Korea once he managed to get there.

As to upcoming summit between Kim Jong Un and President Trump, Choi has deep suspicion of Pyongyang’s true intentions for wanting closer relations with the South, and said many defectors felt the same.

[New Zealand Herald]

Eminent release of detained Americans by North Korea?

According to media reports, North Korea has released three US detainees in the country, which meets some of President Donald Trump demands for Pyongyang to demonstrate sincerity before the historic meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un.

Kim Dong-cheol, Kim Sang-deok, and Kim Hak-seong — three US citizens detained in North Korea for years — have been released from a suspected labor camp and given health treatment and ideological education in Pyongyang, according to the Financial Times.

“We heard it through our sources in North Korea late last month. We believe that Mr. Trump can take them back on the day of the US-North Korea summit or he can send an envoy to take them back to the US before the summit,” said Choi Sung-ryong, who campaigns for the release of detainees in North Korea.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly spoke with Kim about the detainees during the pair’s secretive meeting in April.

If North Korea has released the detainees and is preparing to release them to the US, it represents another in a series of concessions Pyongyang has agreed to make.

[Business Insider]

Challenges to Korean unification

Sokeel Park, the Seoul-based director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea (LINK), a defector assistance group, said for many refugees, “transitioning from North Korea to South Korea, especially if you’re from a provincial town in North Korea, is like coming out of a time machine into the future.”

Many North Korean defectors struggle to get employment and adapt to life in South Korea. If integrating North Koreans into South Korean society one at a time is hard, the task of full reunification seems next to impossible.

“We really haven’t had this debate on a formal level for years …What happens in terms of unification?” said Wol-san Liem, director of Korean Peninsula affairs at the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU). She said some are now talking about a potential two state system — “separate but equal countries with good relations” — that would once have been unthinkable.

“For a lot of young South Koreans, the idea that we are one with the North Korean people is becoming a kind of ancient fiction or myth,” said Park. Most are “basically happy living separate” and unwilling to face the huge costs of reunifying with North Korea.

Economically disadvantaged North Korea, cut off from the world by decades of sanctions, would always be the weaker partner to the South, and there are fears this could lead to South Korean corporations and private interests running roughshod over their northern neighbor. A sudden flood of cheap labor could negatively effect South Korea too, driving down wages and allowing employers to cut benefits.

Estimates of the cost of reunification to South Korea range from around $500 billion to several trillion dollars, and putting even that specific a price on it is difficult, given the impossibility of guessing how the process would play out.

[CNN]

North Korean defectors say unification requires closing a huge cultural chasm

When Ken Eom first arrived in South Korea, he had to get used to hearing a lot of stupid questions. “Is there alcohol in North Korea?” people would ask the former North Korean soldier, who defected in 2010, aged 29. “If people were so malnourished, and couldn’t get rice, why didn’t they just eat ramen?”

The experience was alienating. It was “like they thought I was from an Amazon tribe,” he told CNN.

Now, a historic meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in has brought the Peninsula closer together than it has been in years. While many South Koreans welcome warming ties between the two countries, deep suspicion of Pyongyang’s intentions and hostility to the Kim regime remains, not least among the small but substantial community of defectors living in the South.

The chasm Eom feels with his southern compatriots, almost nine years after making his hazardous journey, shows that the matter of unification, and what it means for people on both sides of a border far stronger and less permeable than the Berlin Wall ever was, remains unclear.

Travis Jeppesen, a longtime North Korea watcher, said “(There needs to be) an acknowledgment of the vast differences that have emerged in the two societies since the division began in 1945…” he said.

[CNN]

North Korean defectors urge President Trump to raise human rights with Kim Jong-un

For ten unbearable months, Jung Gwang Il was hung upside down or waterboarded until he confessed to being a spy. He was then forced into hard labor at North Korea’s notorious Yodok detention camp for another three years.

“In that first ten months, I dropped from 75kg to 36kg,” he said. “In camp 15 I worked from 4am to 8pm every day, either logging or farming maize. We were given daily three lumps of corn mixed with beans, and slept on the floors of tiny cells crammed with 40 prisoners.”

Jung survived and escaped to South Korea in 2004. On Saturday he, and other North Korean defectors, expressed sorrow that their homeland’s ongoing dire human rights situation was ignored in an unprecedented summit between Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Jung plans to appeal personally to US President Donald Trump to raise human rights violations at his own summit with Kim in May or June.  Jung, who represents the Association of North Korean Political Victims and their Families, once smuggled flashdrives of a Trump speech denouncing North Korean “tyranny” into the reclusive state. The president thanked him for doing so when the two men met in the White House in February.

A second meeting is slated for May. Mr Jung will give the president the names of ten North Korean prisoners, urging him to ask Kim for their release.

[The Telegraph]

North Korean defectors watch Kim Jong-un’s visit to South Korea with skepticism

On the eve of a historic summit of the leaders of North and South Korea, the prospect of a diplomatic thaw and improved relations vexes many of North Korean defectors who have made new lives in South Korea.

The skepticism comes amid a wave of more general optimism.

Choi Jung-hoon, a former North Korean army officer, who defected to the South in 2006 and who survived a North-driven assassination attempt in 2013, insists the Moon-Kim meeting will to do little to change his mind about the country he fled. “No matter the outcome of these summits, our goal will still ultimately be regime change,” Mr. Choi said in an interview recently.

Mr. Choi grew up never thinking of himself as an opponent of the regime but his views changed in 2006 after unintentionally running afoul of the government when he sought money in exchange for helping a South Korean family locate a kidnapped relative in the North.

[Washington Times]

Even educated North Korean refugees face new challenges in the South

When elite North Korean soldier Joo Seung-hyeon made his way through the Demilitarized Zone in 2002, avoiding minefields and watchtowers to defect to the South, he thought he was going to a prosperous new life. Joo was partly lured by the promise of a “free and prosperous life” blasted from giant loudspeakers set up by the South’s army along the border. Abandoning his guard post, it took him just 30 minutes to cross the DMZ, crawling under electric barbed wire fences and walking across minefields.

The reality was more complicated than that. South Korea’s pressure-cooker society was a shock. “I was suddenly thrown into this ultra-competitive world ruled by the survival of the fittest,” he wrote. “I realized that I … may never be able to remove this scarlet letter of ‘North Korean defector’.”

Ostracized by Southerners who he says see their Northern cousins as “poor, uncivilized barbarians”, he was dismissed at countless interviews for menial jobs as soon as he revealed his thick accent. One restaurant he found work at paid him half the wages of fellow South Koreans.

But he persevered, eliminating his original tones by repeating radio broadcasts, earning a degree in his spare time, and following up with a PhD in unification studies – the first such doctorate ever earned by a North Korean defector.

Even after graduating, more than 100 job applications in which he identified himself as a defector were rejected. But as soon as he hid that piece of information he started securing interviews and even a few job offers. Now 37, he teaches at several universities in what he described a “rare, lucky case”.

Now he has written a book detailing the challenges faced by Northern defectors in what has become a radically different society. His book tells many heartbreaking stories – including one refugee who committed suicide after struggling to earn a college diploma but still being unable to secure a job. Some South Koreans see the refugees as “untouchables” and another emigrated after South Korean parents at his child’s school publicly protested that their offspring should not mix with his.

Joblessness among defectors is 7 per cent, nearly twice the overall figure in the South, while their monthly income is about half the national average. About 20 per cent of them fall victim to fraud, theft and other crimes, a study showed, noting many then lose a state cash subsidy intended to help them resettle.

[Channel NewsAsia]

North Korea suspends nuclear missile testing, aims to focus on economic development

North Korea says its quest for nuclear weapons is “complete” and it “no longer needs” to test its weapons capability, a significant development ahead of diplomatic engagement with South Korea and the United States.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said Saturday that “under the proven condition of complete nuclear weapons, we no longer need any nuclear tests, mid-range and intercontinental ballistic rocket tests, and that the nuclear test site in northern area has also completed its mission,” as quoted by the state-run Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA.

The announcement appears to signify a remarkable change in policy for Kim, following a relentless pursuit of nuclear and ballistic weapons as a means to ensure his regime’s survival — although some analysts remain skeptical, pointing out that Kim hasn’t tested a missile since November.

The news comes six days before a meeting between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a precursor to a much-anticipated planned encounter between Kim and President Donald Trump expected to take place in late May or early June.

Vipin Narang, an associate political science professor and nuclear proliferation expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said, “The aim of this, in my view, is to make it exceedingly difficult for Trump to say the North is uninterested in talks and walk away,” he said. “Kim is doing everything he can now – in a reversible way, mind you – to ensure the summit happens.

Kim stressed at the party meeting his desire to shift the national focus to improving the country’s economy, which has been hit hard by international sanctions and the “maximum pressure” strategy pushed by Trump.

[CNN/India Express]