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.


75% of all North Korean defectors are from just two provinces

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification publishes yearly statistics on the provinces of origin of North Korean defectors settled in South Korea. According to the figures, as of the year 2016, over 75% (23,138) of all North Korean defectors hailed from just two provinces: North Hamgyong Province and Ryanggang Province, with the former accounting for over 60% of all defections.

Even given that both provinces straddle the border with China, 75% is still a significant portion given that the DPRK has nine other provinces. Two other provinces which also straddle the border, and which are actually larger in population, Jagang and North Pyongan … only account for 3.3% of North Korean defectors.

While there are a number of possible explanations for this discrepancy, perhaps one of the simplest relates to geography. While both sections straddle the Chinese border and are, as a result, exposed to an overflow of Chinese/foreign sounds, culture, ideas, and lights, one section presents a considerably more formidable land obstacle.

North Pyongan and Jagang provinces straddle the Yalu river portion of the border. The Yalu is wider, deeper, stronger, and is more densely populated on the Chinese side, making it more difficult to cross safely and unnoticed.

On the other hand, North Hamgyong and part of Ryanggang province sit on the Tumen river, which is, by comparison, more narrow, shallow, and calmer than the Yalu – making it easier to cross. In addition, the area along the Chinese side of the Tumen river … has a large ethnic Korean population. In addition to being easier to access, this side of the border is, likely, culturally more approachable for defectors as well.

Despite its location and reputation as a city for the elite class, Pyongyang itself also produced more defectors (695) than a number of other North Korean provinces, and more than triple that of Jagang province, which sits on the border with China.

Altogether, almost 90% of all defectors come from just four North Korean provinces, and these provinces account for only 40% (10 million of 25 million) of North Korea’s population in total.

[Source: Shaquille James, Co-Founder of the North Korea Network]

Celebrity defector women of North Korea changing stereotype

South Korean entertainment is awash in fads that come and go. Here’s one with staying power: celebrity defectors from North Korea.

In recent years, North Koreans have populated a new wave of talk shows, reality TV programs and dramas — each of them promising viewers a thrilling glimpse of life north of them. Often enlightening, sometimes tawdry (and occasionally both), these programs have proved highly popular.

It also sharply inverts the typical image of fly-nibbled refugees, replacing it with a new stereotype: celebrity defectors who are invariably young, female and attractive. For decades, North Korean defectors have been regarded by their southern siblings as sad, backwards and possibly still brainwashed. That is now changing.

One such talk show called “Now On My Way To Meet You” is propelled by a rotating cast of North Korean defectors — almost all of them glamorously dressed young women with perfect skin. These “northern beauties,” as they’re called by the show, are quizzed by upbeat hosts about life beyond the border. The success of that show inspired a new spate of defector-themed shows.

One celebrity North Korean defector Kim Ah-ra says, “They’re starting to see that the story of our people is much bigger than Kim Jong-un and nuclear bombs. … Now we have shows that present us in a lighter, more human way.”


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.”


‘We would never think of eating for pleasure,’ recalls North Korea defector

Yoon Ok, whose full name is being withheld because of concerns her outspokenness will jeopardize the safety of family still in North Korea, recalls one particular Lunar New Year’s Day. She noticed fireworks and lights blazing in China, while her town received electricity only for a few hours a night.

“I was wondering — why is that country so bright, with so many lights during the day,” she said. “It’s just a border crossing. Why is it so much brighter than North Korea?”

She also watched television from China, where she would sometimes see South Korean soap operas dubbed in Chinese. She didn’t understand the language, but the images made it clear to her that South Korea was a place where she wanted to go. “Their lifestyle was very carefree, freewheeling,” she said. “If they want to do something, they can do something. if they want to travel somewhere, they travel. I could see that life is much freer than in North Korea.”

Yoon Ok made it to South Korea, and found a kitchen job in a Seoul restaurant. She fell in love with cooking and has begun taking classes with a goal of starting her own food truck and perhaps one day bringing it to North Korea.

“In North Korea, we would never think of eating for pleasure,” she said. “Eating was for survival.

“If I have an opportunity to go back or if Korea unifies as one nation, I want to cook for the people in North Korea who couldn’t enjoy eating. I hope they too can have bigger dreams of their own someday.”

[USA Today]

Fighting Kim Jong Un’s regime with information

Park Sang Hak is a slender man with nervous looks, and generally jittery about sharing his whereabouts.

Park Sang Hak’s worries about threats to his life are not farfetched. Six years ago, a North Korean refugee had arranged a meeting with the activist. The two were supposed to meet in broad daylight at a busy intersection. But when he was on his way to the meeting, Park received a phone call from the South Korean intelligence, informing him that the person he was going to meet had been arrested. A sympathizer of the North Korean regime, the alleged refugee was carrying deadly poison, concealed as a ballpoint pen. He was promised around $10,000 for carrying out the assassination and Pyongyang is suspected to be behind the attempt. Park has continued to receive death threats, also targeting his wife and son.

The threats have not deterred Park Sang Hak from pursuing his radical propaganda campaign against Pyongyang. The activist packs flyers, books and transistor radios into specially prepared, cigar-shaped balloons – and flies them across the heavily-militarized border into North Korea. Nothing scares the Kim regime more than a free flow of information to its isolated people.

Activist Park is convinced that his flyers save lives. 20 years ago, he himself came across one – sent as part of the South Korean military’s psychological warfare campaign. A student of electrical engineering in Pyongyang at the time, Park learned for the first time about the notorious internment camps run by his country’s leadership. Park himself had no reason to flee at that time. He came from a privileged family; his father was among the few people in the country who even owned imported Mercedes cars.

After defecting and making it to Seoul, Park could have led a comfortable life there as an intellectual, but in 2003 a refugee from his hometown told him about the fate of Park’s remaining relatives. “My two uncles had been tortured and they died as a result; my fiancée was terribly mutilated; my cousin disappeared without a trace,” said Park. It marked the start of his radical activism, to which he says he has devoted the rest of his life.

[Deutsche Welle]

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.


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]

China stand on North Korean defectors enables a growing human rights crisis

Many eyes are on China, and what its leaders will do to pressure Pyongyang to end its gamesmanship. But another life-threatening crisis is emanating from North Korea that few are watching: China’s apparently expanding dragnet to force back fleeing North Koreans. These forced returns very likely mean that the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has imprisoned and tortured dozens of refugees.

Starting in July, China appears to have intensified its crackdown on groups of North Koreans trying to move through China in search of protection in a third country, and on the networks of people that facilitate their escape. Human Rights Watch believes that China has also arrested a number of local guides, undermining the capability of networks helping North Koreans to pass through China.

Both China and North Korea have increased the number of their border guards and added more barbed wire fencing to their common border. China has expanded CCTV surveillance and increased checkpoints on roads leading away from the border. Pyongyang has cracked down on networks aiding escaping citizens.

China regularly violates its U.N. Refugee Convention treaty obligations by returning escapees to North Korea, despite the likelihood they will be persecuted, tortured, and subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment for leaving. North Korea’s Ministry of People’s Security enforces a decree that classifies defection as a crime of “treachery against the nation.” Punishments are harsh and can include a death sentence. Others disappear into North Korea’s horrific political prison camp system (kwanliso), to face torture, sexual violence, forced labor, and other inhuman treatment, or forced labor camps, where they can spend years working in harsh and dangerous conditions.

[Read full Pacific Standard article]

North Korean border further tightens

Three men dressed in fishermen garb attempted to cross the Tumen River into China at dawn. But the trio were soon discovered by North Korean border guards patrolling the area.

A Chinese fisherman who last week witnessed the killings of the three men said the guards bashed in the escapee’s heads using the butts off their guns and rocks at the riverside. A source speaking on the Chinese fisherman’s behalf told authorities: “The scene was so brutal that he said he still has nightmares.

“After the bashing ended, the soldiers dropped the lifeless bodies into the river.

“The fisherman was so traumatized by the incident that he has insomnia.”

Kim Jong-un has reportedly told border guards to “shoot anyone who crosses the river on site” as he believes defections have a negative effect on the county’s stability. The new orders come as war with the US looks increasingly more likely.

In the past, patrolling soldiers would arrest escapees attempting to cross the river.

[Daily Star]