Kim Jong-un ‘no longer seen as God’, as more Koreans turn to God

The North Korean regime continues to persecute anyone practicing religion within its borders, according to a new US State Department study, although reports from within the country suggest that more people are turning to religion.

The US State Department annual report on global religious freedoms again singled out North Korea. “The government continued to deal harshly with those who engaged in almost any religious practices through executions, torture, beatings and arrests”, the report states. … An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, some imprisoned for religious reasons, were believed to be held in the political prison camp system in remote areas under horrific conditions”, it adds.

Those claims were backed up by a North Korean defector who is now a member of the Seoul-based Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocide in North Korea. “Officially sanctioned persecution of people for religious reasons is still there and, I would say, even stronger than before”, the defector told The Telegraph.

But subtle changes are slowly becoming visible, said the defector, who declined to be named as he is active in assisting underground churches operating in the North. “In the past, the people were told to worship the Kim family as their god, but many North Koreans no longer respect Kim Jong-un”, he said. “That means they are looking for something else to sustain their faith. In some places, that has led to the emergence of shamens, but the Christian church is also growing and deepening its roots there”, he said.

“Even though people know they could be sent to prison – or worse – they are still choosing to worship, and that means that more cracks are appearing in the regime and the system”, he added.

[The Telegraph]

North Korean defector: “North Korean life is slavery, mentally and physically”

Dr. Lee Min-bok lives on the South Korean side of the world’s tensest border, along with his weather-tracking data, and his leaflets. Whenever the wind is right, he rushes out to blow up an enormous helium balloon, tied to hundreds of leaflets that combat the propaganda machine of North Korea. With facts about how wealthy and advanced South Korea is compared to the North, Lee’s leaflets encourage North Koreans to think for themselves, reconsider their circumstances, and rise up.

But how can Lee be so sure that plastic sheets of paper could possibly change hearts and minds? Because one saved his life.

Born and raised in North Korea, he worked in agriculture as a professor. Like all North Koreans are taught, he revered the Kim family. But he first grew disenchanted in the late 1980’s after his attempts to innovate the farming techniques were denied, despite the reprieve it would have brought from famine and starvation.

Then, while in the fields one day, he discovered a small leaflet that simply described how North Korea invaded South Korea and began the Korean War -– a reality that defied the regime’s propaganda. “After reading the leaflet, I knew that the North Korean regime was all false, so I decided to flee to the South,” he said.

Staring across the river now, nearly three decades later, Lee says he feels like he’s looking at his hometown, looking at the family he left behind. “I want to rescue these people out of the country,” he said, noting he still has family on the other side of the border.

To do that, he now tells his story in leaflets — how the truth fell from the sky and saved his life. He wants to arm North Koreans with that same knowledge so that they will defy the regime — a mission so dangerous that he travels with government minders at all times, four stone-faced South Korean men who move in a ring around him.

When asked what life is life in North Korea, Lee said: “It is slavery, mentally and physically.”

[ABC News]

North Korean defector: “I think Kim Jong-un would do it”

Following President Trump’s new warnings to Kim Jong Un’s nuclear threats, a woman who escaped North Korea 17 years ago is speaking out. Youngae Ma, who has been living in New Jersey for the past decade, once worked as an intelligence agent for North Korea’s security department. She was a military member stationed in China when she managed to escape the grasp of the rogue state.

Ma believes the recent threats of nuclear war from her native country’s leader should be taken seriously. “To boost his image and show strength, I think (Kim Jong-un) would do it,” she said.

She says that the U.S. or U.N. may need to show force first to prove they won’t take the threats lightly. “Someone like that has to be taken out because he will not listen to anyone—not the U.S. or U.N.,” she said.

Ma told a translator, “During my time in North Korea, I realized the government really messed up. Watching the government starve and kill innocent people is what drove me to escape.”

Ma is now well known in her Palisades Park community for selling homemade traditional North Korean dishes and sausages at local markets. In 10 years, she has used her profits to help more than 1,000 people escape North Korea to China, Russia, or the U.S. like she did. She has also helped them find jobs in their new countries.

Though she has assisted many, Ma has been unable to get her own family to the U.S. She believes her sister in North Korea was killed by the government for passing information to her in New Jersey.

[NBC New York]

North Korean refugees escape to Thailand via Christian underground railroad

At a glance, Thailand seems an unlikely destination for North Koreans seeking to defect from their abusive state. For starters, the two nations are separated by about 3,000 miles. Most of that distance is consumed by China, which tends to scoop up intruding North Korean refugees and ship them back home, where they face grim retaliation in gulags.

Yet each year, hundreds and sometimes thousands of North Koreans make this grueling overland journey from their frigid homeland to the tropics of Southeast Asia. Despite its distance, Thailand is actually one of the closest reachable nations where North Koreans can reasonably expect that the government will deliver them to South Korean officials. That is the goal: defecting to South Korea, their estranged and far more prosperous sibling nation.

All of those who undertake this journey are desperate almost by definition. Many trials await them, especially during the overland route to China.

These journeys are typically managed by either rogue people smugglers, who charge several thousand dollars, or secretive Christian networks operating out of Seoul. Among Christian smugglers, this route is known as the “underground railroad”.

The clandestine leader of one of these Christian networks previously told PRI that “when [the defectors] first get out of North Korea, they look really shabby and skinny. We usually make them stay at a church member’s house [in China] for a month, just to eat.”

That’s how long it takes to put substantial meat on their bones. Painfully thin North Koreans, he said, are easily spotted by China’s surveillance network. Eventually, the refugees have to evade the eye of China’s officialdom as they travel on public trains and buses down to the border of Laos, a small communist nation in thrall to China.

Via trekking, river boats or more buses, the defectors must push through Laos to reach the Mekong River, which marks the border with Thailand. There, they can find the nearest police officer and ask to be arrested. South Korea will typically negotiate their release, fly them to Seoul, debrief and interrogate them and, finally, release the weary refugees into society.

[PRI]

North Korea releases Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim

Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim, North Korea’s longest-held western prisoner in decades, was “released on sick bail” Wednesday by the country’s top court for “humanitarian” reasons after two and a half years in detention, state-run news agency KCNA said.

Lim’s son, James Lim, received word over the weekend that a plane carrying senior Canadian officials, a medical doctor, and a letter to North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un was dispatched to Pyongyang “at the last minute,” according to family spokeswoman Lisa Pak. The plane landed in the North Korean capital Monday.

Lim was serving a life sentence of hard labor after being convicted of crimes against the state in December 2015. The 62-year-old’s health has deteriorated while in North Korean custody and the pastor has experienced “dramatic” weight loss, Pak said.

His family has not been allowed to see him during his imprisonment, but have been able to send him letters and blood pressure medication via the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, which often serves as an intermediary for prisoners from nations with no formal diplomatic ties to North Korea.

Lim detained in February 2015 while on a humanitarian mission in Rajin, North Korea, a family spokesperson said at the time. He was acting on behalf of the Light Korean Presbyterian Church, which he had led since 1986. According to his family, Lim has made more than 100 trips to North Korea since 1997, and his humanitarian efforts have included the founding by his church of a nursery, orphanage, and nursing home in the northeastern city of Rajin.

In a January 2016 interview with CNN in Pyongyang — his first conversation with foreign media — the Canadian said he was the sole prisoner in a labor camp, digging holes for eight hours a day, six days a week. At the time, he said he received regular medical care and three meals per day.

[CNN]

North Korean men in Russia virtual slaves to Pyongyang

Some NGO workers helping trafficking victims said they estimated that 100,000 North Korean workers are in one region of Russia alone, working in gulag-like camps with salaries paid directly to the North Korean government.

“As in virtually every North Korean labor contract in foreign countries, employees’ wage payments are made to a DPRK government overseer or agent who skims off the lion’s share for dispatch to the Kim regime in Pyongyang, leaving a pittance for the individual DPRK laborers,” Tim Peters of Helping Hands Korea said.

The Global Slavery Index – an annual study of worldwide slavery conditions by country – estimates US$2.3 billion is generated per year for the North Korean government while civil society groups say North Korean workers earn only between US$120 and US$150 per month and “may be forced to work up to 20 hours per day with limited rest days”.

Steven Kim, founder of US-based 318 Partners, a non-profit organization that helps North Korean refugees, said he had met many North Korean men who were in forced labor in restaurants, on farms or factories and were exploited by Chinese business owners who threatened them with deportation. A few of these North Koreans reacted violently when they were not paid and subsequently were sent to prison.

[South China Morning Post]

North Korea drought: “Worst crisis since 2001”

North Korea is facing severe food shortages after being hit by its worst drought since 2001, a report from the United Nations says. Crop production in the country has been hampered by a prolonged dry period and food imports are now urgently required to fill the gap, the UN has warned.

The most vulnerable, such as children and the elderly, will be worst hit.

In the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are believed to have died during a widespread famine.

The latest drought is serious, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said on Thursday, because bilateral food aid to the country has dramatically fallen in recent years. A persistent lack of rainfall in North Korea in recent months has decimated staple crops such as rice, maize, potatoes and soybean, which many of the country’s citizens depend on during the lean season that stretches from May to September.

The key regions affected include the major cereal-producing provinces of South and North Pyongan, South and North Hwanghae and Nampo City, which normally account for about two-thirds of overall cereal production, the FAO said. Inefficient food production means that large parts of the North Korean population face malnutrition or death.

[BBC]

Helping North Korean defectors overcome the language gap

Dedicated to closing the education gap in Korea, the nonprofit “Dream Touch For All” provides afterschool tutoring services to students from disadvantaged backgrounds ― including North Korean defectors. For defectors, training focuses on enhancing their language skills ― both Korean and English ― that have been widely cited as the main barrier for them adjusting to the South.

According to a 2016 study by the Korea Development Institute (KDI), 40 percent of the 2.95 million North Korean defectors in South Korea were students in their 20s, 10 percent of whom were enrolled in a university. And although affirmative action policies here make it relatively easier for them to get into universities, most of them struggle. Their dropout rate is significantly higher than that of their South Korean peers, the most cited reason was difficulties with the English language. Getting used to the Korean language used in the South  is also a challenge, as the two Koreas have grown apart in their use of dialect, terminology and expressions over the past several decades.

“Dream Touch For All”s work with North Korean defectors began coincidentally in 2013, its CEO and founder Choi Yu-kang told the Korea Times. “I met one student who had fled the North and this led to us hosting a summer camp for student defectors,” he said. Choi talked about the first day at the camp, when a volunteer stood up and talked about a fleeting conversation he had with one of the students. “The student told the volunteer, jokingly, that no matter how hard they study, they will never be able to become like him, a student at a top-ranking university in Seoul. But then, the volunteer burst into tears and soon the whole floor was flooded with tears.”

The organization provides afterschool English lessons at Yeomyung School, in central Seoul, which consists of student defectors aged between 14 and 28.

[The Korea Times]

North Korean defectors down as border tightened

The number of North Koreans escaping to the South declined sharply in the first half of this year as Pyongyang strengthened controls on its border with China, officials said Wednesday.

Since the DMZ dividing the Korean peninsula is one of the most heavily fortified places in the world, almost all defectors go to China first — where they still risk being repatriated if caught — and then on to a third country before traveling to South Korea.

In the six months to June, 593 Northerners entered South Korea, down 20.8 percent from the same period in 2016, statistics compiled by Seoul’s Unification Ministry showed.

As usual most — 85 percent — were women. North Korean men who try to leave are likely to be rapidly identified as absent by their work units.

Pyongyang’s “tightened grip on the population and strengthened border controls add to the risks for potential defectors to take the plunge”, a ministry official told AFP.

The Seoul-financed Korea Institute for National Unification said in a report that since late 2015, the North has been bolstering border controls and installing high-tension electric fencing along the Tumen River that forms the border with China.

A total of 30,805 North Koreans have fled to the South, many of them leaving during the famine years of the 1990s. Arrivals peaked in 2009, but numbers have fallen more recently, with leader Kim Jong-Un reportedly ordering crackdowns on defectors and tightened border controls after inheriting power from his father in 2011.

[SBS-Australia]

Meet an American woman helping North Korea’s defectors

One woman in Virginia has made it her mission to find people who have escaped North Korea’s totalitarian regime and can tell their story to inspire and liberate others.

Suzanne Scholte is president of Defense Forum Foundation. In a “labor of love,” she has been reaching out to North Korea defectors for over a decade, helping fund a small radio station run by these people in South Korea to broadcast news, truth, information and messages of hope to those living under the North Korean brutal dictator, Kim Jung Un.

The shortwave radio station run by North Korean defectors relies exclusively on private donations, allowing it to include Christian programming as part of its daily broadcast. Scholte seeks partners who, with $250, can sponsor a full hour of programming that provides vital information and news.

In late April, she hosted her 14th annual North Korean Freedom Week to “prepare for the regime collapse and peaceful reunification of Korea” with North Korean defectors in Washington, D.C.

These defectors, like all North Koreans, were manipulated to hate Americans as “Yankee Imperialist Wolves.”  Now they start with a church service and then go to the Korean War Memorial where they lay a wreath, with great emotion, for the Americans who died making South Korea free.

“It’s very powerful because these are people brainwashed to hate us and now they know we were the good guys,” Scholte says.

 [The Daily Caller]