North Korean defector becomes Fulbright Scholar

Kim Seong Ryeol was 10 when he witnessed his first public execution. He recalls it being a monthly event in his North Korean hometown, with police gathering crowds near a local market where they would shoot or hang people accused of criticizing the regime.

More than two decades later, Kim finds himself in a different world — sitting in a futuristic, glass-clad skyscraper in the heart of Seoul, the capital of neighboring South Korea.

Kim is one of around 30,000 North Koreans who have escaped their totalitarian regime by fleeing south.

In 2015, after completing his undergraduate studies, he won a scholarship from the Open Society Foundation, a New York-based grant-making organization, to do a master’s degree in unification studies at a South Korean university.

The 32-year-old was recently awarded a Fulbright scholarship to do a Ph.D. in the U.S. As a boy he used to dream of killing American soldiers, but no more. “When I was little, every book, every curriculum, they always mentioned that America is the enemy.”

He’s also become a Christian, a religion he knew next to nothing about before leaving his homeland. In 2009, he attended a school run by Youth With a Mission, a Texas-based Christian missionary organization. “It broadened my perspective, when I met my American friends, and made me think differently, to see that the world is global,” he says.

[NBC]

Celebrity North Korean defector Kim Ah-ra

Among rising stars of celebrity North Korean defectors is a 25-year-old actress named Kim Ah-ra. Her hipster leggings and elaborately painted toenails give little indication that she grew up amid famine, eating grass soup to survive.

Kim was only 12 when she slipped away from her home province, in a mountainous corner of North Korea, to the hinterlands of China. After a long spell in the Chinese countryside, she finally defected to South Korea around 2009.

Both Kim and her mother were aided by an underground railroad run by Christians. This daring network illegally traffics North Koreans out of China and into countries that will link them up with South Korean authorities. From there, they’re given a free plane ticket to Seoul and a new life in one of the most technologically advanced societies on Earth.

Almost all of Kim’s early memories revolve around food — or rather its scarcity. “When we had food, we ate it immediately. We’d take one or two spoons of rice, add some grass and pour in a lot of water to make a dark porridge. That had to feed four people.”

“I remember wandering the village, looking at the ground, hoping to spot a stray noodle or chicken head,” Kim says. “My dad would cook rats and tell us it was rabbit meat.”

[USAToday]

South Korean program for defectors not working, Seoul lawmaker says

A South Korean program that provides incentives for local businesses to hire North Korean defectors has been completely ineffective since it launched in 2000. Deputy National Assembly Speaker Park Joo-sun said Monday the 17-year-old program has not had the desired results.

The program incentivizes businesses to hire resettled North Koreans by guaranteeing the South’s unification ministry’s “priority purchases” of the firm’s products, should a business hire seven or more defectors.

The unification ministry said there were “only two cases” of firms applying for qualification under the program. The ministry also said only a “minority” of firms made products that qualify as “priority purchase items.”

Park, who explained the program’s history to reporters, challenged the explanation from the ministry, News 1 reported. “The real story is the unification ministry did not promote the program,” Park said.

The South Korean lawmaker said employment is a critical issue for the more than 30,000 resettled North Koreans in the South. North Koreans in the South have said life in the country is difficult for economic and other reasons.

[UPI]

Information the key to changing North Koreans

Kim Seung Chul, a North Korean defector who came to South Korea in 1994, believes that information is key to changing his homeland. Kim founded North Korea Reform Radio in 2007, which currently broadcasts two hours a day of news, information and entertainment over shortwave frequencies. He also occasionally uses remote-controlled balloons to drop leaflets and other information into the country.

“The goal is enlightenment,” he said. “We’re trying to reach North Koreans who are isolated, who don’t have anywhere to listen to real stories or real news, in order to trigger a spark, to give them a vision, something that will bring positive action.”

He estimates that at least 10% of North Korea’s 25 million people have access to foreign media regularly. He and his colleagues also try to target higher-ranking members of the North Korean regime who travel abroad with messages and shows they hope will prove inspirational.

Their tactics can be surprisingly creative. One program Seung Chul has turned to is House of Cards, hoping that its main character will offer some pointers in the dark arts of political maneuvering. “In order for high officials to act wisely against Kim, they will have to act like Frank Underwood,” Seung Chul said. “The revolution shouldn’t be like the ones in Iraq or Libya. It should be led by those intellectual people to make slight changes that lead to a bigger change. The strategic goal is to make North Korea change by itself.”

[USA Today]

North Korean refugees fleeing a hypothetical Korean contingency

In the event of a Korean “contingency,” there is speculation that a large number of refugees from impoverished, starving North Korea could make their way to Japan.

Citing an estimate of over 100,000 appearing along Sea of Japan coast in prefectures like Niigata, Yamagata and Aomori, with some possibly armed, Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso recently posed the question: “Will police respond and arrest them on charges of illegal immigration? If the Self-Defense Forces are dispatched, will they shoot them down?”

Aso raised the specter of armed North Korean refugees flooding the Sea of Japan coastline in a speech on Saturday. Aso, who is also the finance minister, asked how authorities would respond if that should happen. “Can the police handle them? Will the Self-Defense Forces be dispatched …? We’d better think about it seriously,” he claimed.

Aso also suggested that the government should discuss where such refugees would be held.

“It’s a politician’s job to think of (an emergency) response. It may not be an event in the distant future,” he said.

The United States and North Korea remain on high alert as their leaders continue to hurl nuclear threats at each other.

[Japan Times]

Defector floats 1000 digital Bibles into North Korea

A North Korean defector used 350 helium balloons to send 1,000 flash drives loaded with portions of the Bible across the border from the South Korean side, according to reports.

Jung Kwang-il, founder of a group called No Chain, went to an area of South Korea’s Gyeonggi Province close to the border to drop the balloons inside the North Korean territory, according to UPI. The flash drives were donated by college and high school students in the United States.

Fifty-four-year-old Jung, who was sentenced to three years in a North Korean prison camp for a crime he says did not commit, is based out of South Korea. Using helium balloons, human smugglers and helicopter drones, he often sends USB drives, SD cards, and other devices carrying Hollywood movies, South Korean television shows and testimonials from North Korean defectors across North Korea’s borders, according to The Atlantic.

“In recent memory, we’ve had the Jasmine Revolution [in Tunisia], and the Arab Spring,” Jung told the magazine last year. “How come none of that is happening in North Korea? The reason is simple: Because the country’s such a closed-off country, information-wise. People don’t know that the situation they’re in is truly a terrible one. … We want to break that ignorance.”

According to Open Doors, anywhere from 50,000 to 70,000 Christians are suffering in labor camps in North Korea. “In North Korea, even children are aware of the risks of possessing a Bible. … People who pick up a Bible know their choice is very risky, they could probably end up being executed,” added the Rev. Eric Foley, president of Voice of the Martyrs Korea.

Last year, a report by the U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide revealed that the following: “Documented incidents against Christians include being hung on a cross over a fire, crushed under a steamroller, herded off bridges and trampled underfoot. A policy of guilt by association applies, meaning that the relatives of Christians are also detained regardless of whether they share the Christian belief.”

[Christian Post]

How many North Korean defectors are there in the United States?

According to Lindsay Lloyd, deputy director of the Human Freedom Initiative at the Bush Institute, there are around 225 “direct” North Korean refugees who have received asylum in the United States following the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004. These defectors usually go through China and then to Southeast Asia, where they apply for asylum.

Another 250 North Koreans in the United States arrived as legal immigrants after spending several months or years in South Korea, and obtaining a South Korean citizenship. Despite being born in North Korea, they are registered as South Koreans on America’s doorstep, Lloyd said.

As for undocumented immigrants from North Korea, they are “all over the map,” Lloyd said, estimating they are fewer than 1,000.

A 2014 Bush Institute research revealed North Koreans have conflicting feelings regarding their assimilation and opportunities in the United States.

“In many cases, the support provided to refugees in the United States was stellar and participants believed the help they received, despite the challenges they faced, allowed them to very quickly achieve economic independence,” the report stated.

“For others, however, outside help was scarce and it was not only a struggle to acclimate to their new surroundings, but to achieve a minimal standard of financial independence,” the report said.

[CNN]

Information, interaction and engagement with North Korea

Many North Korean defectors are a far cry from the images that usually make their way out of the tightly controlled nation: expressionless North Koreans lockstepping in military parades and extravagantly choreographed public performances.

In fact, many refugees who escaped to Seoul describe a North Korea that is being transformed, if very slowly, by greater access to the outside world.

Hak Min, who grew up a North Korean town near the Chinese border, picked up on TV signals from China and bootleg videotapes and DVDs, that sparked his desire to escape. “Their culture, their language — everything intrigued me.”

As tensions rise with President Trump over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, many analysts believe information — rather than military force — can be the key to bring about change in North Korean society from the inside..

While the regime’s nuclear and military threat must be taken seriously, an overly confrontational approach by Trump plays into dictator Kim Jong-un’s hands, said Sokeel Park, country director of Liberty in North Korea, an organization that helps rescue and resettle refugees.

“North Korea is strong on traditional security stuff,” Park said. “That’s what they want us to focus on, that’s what they bring the attention to, and then we play right into it. Whereas they’re very weak on their soft underbelly of economy, information, society, culture. For not a lot of money, we could do a lot better on various forms of interaction, engagement, and information access programs.”

[USA Today]

North Korean labor camp experience

North Korea has been known to imprison its citizens for so-called crimes that include anything from speaking badly about the regime and its leader, Kim Jong Un, to distributing South Korean media or stealing rice.

Jun Heo was just a teenager when he was sent to one of North Korea’s prison camps. He told Fox News he would be beaten black and blue and tortured constantly. Cries and screams were a constant backdrop and prisoners were forced to perform hard labor for 14 hours straight.

A former camp guard, identified as Ahn Myong-chol, echoed the reports of brutal beatings, saying he and other guards were encouraged to view the prisoners as sub-human, and strike them repeatedly as punishment, according to the report.

Prisoners were assigned to intensive labor such as coal mining and cement making, and they often died due to work-related accidents. An unconfirmed report also indicated a nuclear test site was being constructed in a prison, the State Department said.

A report released by the Transnational Justice Working Group in Seoul in July explained that public executions carried out on “criminals” in schoolyards and fish markets in an attempt to instill an “atmosphere of fear” among the citizens.

[Fox News]

“We had already decided to kill ourselves rather than be sent back” to North Korea

North Koreans who escape from Kim Jong Un’s regime, by way of China, embark on a grueling journey that–best-case scenario–involves traveling almost 2,700 miles on buses, motorbikes and boats, in taxis and on foot over mountains.

For most, the journey will first pass through China, Vietnam and Laos, where they must be on the alert for police who might arrest them and send them back the way they came–to certain and brutal punishment in North Korea. Not until they cross a fourth frontier from Laos into Thailand are they finally safe.

The Thai authorities do not send them back. Instead, they will slap them with a minor immigration violation and alert the South Korean Embassy in Bangkok, which will start the process of transferring them to Seoul – not far from where many started their journey.

“I want to learn all about computers,” said a 15-year-old boy who had arrived in Thailand from Laos, just 12 days after escaping from North Korea. “I want to become a computer expert.”

“I want to be good at computers too,” chimed in his 8-year-old sister, who was playing with an imitation Barbie that a humanitarian worker had given her on arrival in Thailand. It was the first doll she had ever owned.

The brother and sister are two of the 11 North Koreans recovering from the last leg of their terrifying journey out of North Korea, which started with a dead-of-night escape across the water into China and culminated in a boat ride across a swollen Mekong, which washed them way downstream from where they were supposed to be dropped. After they had spent hours in the rain, not knowing where they were, the activist who had helped them escape finally found them.

[The Washington Post]