North Korea increasing executions as sanctions strain its military, top U.S. General says

North Korea is increasing executions, the top commander of U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula said Monday, as the state has been decreasing military exercises under strain from economic sanctions.

“We’re seeing some increase in executions, mostly against political officers who are in military units, for corruption,” General Vincent K. Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces in Korea, told The Wall Street Journal. Brooks described the executions as attempts to “clamp down as much as possible on something that might be deteriorating and keeping it from deteriorating too quickly.”

Brooks said that defections had been occurring “in areas where we don’t generally see them,” such as crossings through the heavily guarded Demilitarized Zone separating the North and South.

[Newsweek]

North Koreans can’t escape human rights abuses even after fleeing to China

The majority of North Koreans who attempt to escape the repressive regime cross the Yalu River from Korea into either Jilin or Liaoning provinces in Northeast China. From there, they commence an arduous 3000-mile journey south ― commonly known as the “underground railway” ― through China, Vietnam and Laos until they “safely” arrive in Thailand. Sadly, throughout their whole journey in China, these refugees are considered by the Chinese government to be “illegal economic migrants,” and if caught, are arrested and routinely forcibly repatriated to North Korea.

Over the years there have been thousands of documented accounts of refugees being arrested by Chinese authorities and being sent back to North Korea, a country that is widely recognized as being devoid of basic rights and freedoms. Upon return, they face serious human rights abuses including jail, internment in re-education facilities and even death ― tactics used by the Kim government to intimidate other North Korean citizens from attempting their own escape.

In addition to the unknown number of refugees that are caught by Chinese authorities each year, it is estimated that there are a further 50,000 to 200,000 North Koreans residing in China. Forced to live in the shadows, they have no social or legal protections, no support, no rights and no hope. This population includes a large number of women who face heightened vulnerabilities, including being trafficked into the sex trade or sold as wives to local Chinese men.

The decision by the Chinese government to continuously return refugees to North Korea seriously calls into question China’s credibility as a member of the international human rights community. While it might not be common knowledge, China did in 1982 sign the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. This treaty contains a series of international legal obligations, including the fundamental tenet of non-refoulement: not sending someone back to a country where their life or liberty may be threatened. Despite this, China continues to proclaim that its national asylum legislation is “under development.” As 36 years have passed since its original signing of the Convention, it is safe to say that refugee protection is not a government priority.

The failure of China’s international commitments was again highlighted in the 2014 U.N. Commission of Inquiry report on the human rights situation in North Korea, which condemned Beijing for not only repatriating North Koreans but also for failing to protect them from falling into the hands of human traffickers. [However, China] dogmatically continues to arrest and deport North Koreans, citing them exclusively as “illegal economic migrants.”

[Excerpts from Opinion by Evan Jones, program coordinator at the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network]

Report says North Korean defector killed someone before he escaped

A North Korean soldier who made a desperate dash across the border in November escaped after causing a person’s death, a South Korean newspaper reported Tuesday, quoting an unidentified intelligence official.

According to the report in newspaper Dong-A, the confession came from Oh Chung Sung—or Oh Chong Song, depending on the translation—over the course of a routine interrogation led by the South Korean spy agency.

The South Korean Ministry of Unification did not confirm the reports. “The investigation has not been completed yet,” a ministry spokesperson told reporters at a press conference, quoted in South Korean news agency Yonhap. “We cannot confirm specific details of the incident.”

Should investigators find that Oh, who was identified as the son of a high-ranking military official, was involved in a crime such as murder or manslaughter, he may lose some of the privileges and the protections usually awarded to North Korean defectors. But as there is no extradition agreement between the two countries, he’ll likely be allowed to stay in South Korea.

Oh crossed the border area between North and South Korea on November 13, surviving several gunshot wounds inflicted by his former comrades who chased him across the Joint Security Area, firing at him. He was rescued and airlifted to the private Ajou University Hospital, where he underwent two rounds of surgeries and blood transfusions. Doctors also diagnosed him with a parasitic infection and hepatitis B.

[Newsweek]

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]