Two North Koreans defecting latest upset for diplomatic thaw on Korean peninsula

Last Saturday morning, two North Koreans, including a military officer, defected to the South. The officer and a civilian defected by boat and were picked up by the South Korean military in the Yellow Sea, near the inter-Korean sea border, after expressing willingness to defect, reported the South’s newswire, Yonhap.

The defection, the first of a North Korean military officer since 2008, is awkward timing for Seoul, which has a longstanding policy of accepting any North Korean defectors who want to live in the South.

Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, has been at pains to keep this year’s diplomatic détente between North and South on track. But despite a friendly first meeting between Kim Jong-Un and Mr Moon at the end of April, during which they held hands as they crossed their shared border, the diplomatic thaw that began in January, the latest defections could raise tensions further.

[The Telegraph]

On North Korean defectors’ concerns about being returned to the North

North Korean defectors now living in South Korea Seoul are concerned that Pyongyang could demand that defectors be forcibly returned to their homeland as a condition for the resumption of talks with Seoul, and thus that their lives might be at risk.

James Brown, an associate professor at Tokyo’s Temple University, agrees that the aggressive demands that North Korea is making of the South will inevitably be of serious concern to the defector community.

“Moon is under great pressure and clearly wants the talks with the North to resume and succeed, but he built his reputation on being a lawyer for human rights so I doubt he will actually order the repatriation of any defectors,” he said. “I imagine that Pyongyang has reached a similar conclusion, so they will soon ask for something else instead,” he suggested.

And because that request will be more palatable than sending defectors back to a deeply uncertain future, the South may give in to that request. And then, Brown expects, they will make another demand to test Seoul’s resolve.

[Deutsche Welle]

North Korea demanding the return of restaurant worker defectors

North Korea is demanding the return of 13 defectors as a condition for the resumption of talks with Seoul, with support groups for thousands who have fled the repressive regime in the North saying there is genuine fear that Seoul might give in to Pyongyang’s demands and that their lives might be at risk.

Pyongyang is demanding that 12 women who had worked at a North Korean restaurant in China and their manager be returned to the North after it was claimed on a television program that the women had not been told they were being taken to South Korea in 2016 and that they have been tricked into going by the South Korean intelligence services.

The demands coincide with Pyongyang cancelling a high-level meeting scheduled for last week that was designed to build on the agreements reached when South Korean President Moon Jae-in met with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, at the border village of Panmunjom late last month.

[Deutsche Welle]

Restaurant manager reveals he tricked North Korean waitresses into defecting

When 13 North Korean workers defected en masse from a restaurant in China in April 2016, it was a propaganda boost for South Korea and a huge embarrassment for their homeland.

Heo Gang-il, the manager of the restaurant in the Chinese port city of Ningbo has told CNN that the young women didn’t defect — he tricked them into going to South Korea at the bidding of South Korea’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service (NIS).  He says he had become an informant for the intelligence agency after becoming disillusioned with Kim Jong Un’s regime.

The South Korean government maintains that the 12 young women defected of their own free will, and took the unusual step of publicizing their decision stating it was the largest group defection since Kim took power in 2011.

Heo says the NIS told him to lie to the waitresses and bring them to South Korea. He told the workers they were relocating to better accommodations.  The 12 waitresses and Heo flew to Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, with tickets, he says, were paid for by the NIS.

Heo says they were given South Korean passports with false names and they flew to Incheon, South Korea’s main international airport. A journey that takes months for most defectors took these North Koreans just two days.

[CNN]

North Korean defector hung upside down and/or water-boarded for ten unbearable months

North Korean defector Jung Gwang Il was accused of collaborating with a South Korean while on business in China, and arrested as he returned home to his wife and two young daughters.

Detained without trial, he was tortured daily by electrocution, and put in the “pigeon position” where a prisoner’s hands and legs are tied before being hung from the ceiling.

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 (165 lbs) to 36kg (79 lbs). I tried to hold out for my family as I knew they would be punished if I confessed,” he said.

But after almost a year he could bear it no longer. His torturers promptly shipped him to Yodok, a grim camp about 65 miles north of Pyongyang.

While others died due to the hard labor, Mr Jung fought to survive. “We willed each other not to die, to believe that we might make it out,” he said of his fellow inmates. Three years later he was released, and casually told he had been found ‘not guilty’.

By that time his home had been destroyed and his family hounded into hiding. They were finally reunited in China after he swam across the Tumen border river to escape.

[The Telegraph]

More from North Korean diplomat defector on what to expect from Kim Jong Un

Thae Yong Ho, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador to the UK, said he did not believe Kim Jong Un would agree to a US request of a “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” due to likelihood that it would “strike at the core of North Korea’s power structure.”

Besides making surprising advances in its missile capabilities in 2017, North Korea’s leadership has focused on peddling its significance to its own society and culture: the regime revised its constitution in 2012 to tout its nuclear ambitions, and despite saying it no longer needs to conduct nuclear tests, its nuclear capabilities still remain an essential part of Kim’s domestic and international clout.

Thae also noted that North Korea was likely to open its borders to tourism projects near its coast. Ho predicts it would then eventually seek joint economic projects with South Korea, such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex that used to employ North Korean civilians and provided a revenue stream for the regime.

Thae defected from North Korea with his family in 2016. As one of the highest ranking North Korean defectors, he frequently rails against Kim and is considered an ardent hawk on North Korea’s conciliatory overtures, even going as far as saying “Kim Jong Un’s days are numbered.”

[Business Insider]

Ex-diplomat defector says North Korea will never fully give up nuclear weapons

North Korea will never completely give up its nuclear weapons, a top defector Thae Yong-ho said ahead of Kim Jong Un’s landmark summit with Donald Trump next month.

The current whirlwind of diplomacy and negotiations will not end with “a sincere and complete disarmament” but with “a reduced North Korean nuclear threat”, said Thae, who fled his post as the North’s deputy ambassador to Britain in August 2016. “In the end, North Korea will remain ‘a nuclear power packaged as a non-nuclear state’.”

North and South Korea affirmed their commitment to the goal of denuclearization of the peninsula at summit last month, and Pyongyang announced at the weekend it will destroy its only known nuclear test site next week.

Washington is seeking the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (CVID)” of the North and stresses that verification will be key.

Thae, one of the highest ranking officials to have defected in recent years, said: “North Korea will argue that the process of nuclear disarmament will lead to the collapse of North Korea and oppose CVID.”

The North wanted to ensure Kim’s “absolute power” and its model of hereditary succession, he added, and would oppose intrusive inspections as they “would be viewed as a process of breaking down Kim Jong Un’s absolute power in front of the eyes of ordinary North Koreans and elites”.

At a party meeting last month when Kim proclaimed the development of the North’s nuclear force complete and promised no more nuclear or missile tests, he called its arsenal “a powerful treasured sword for defending peace”.

“Giving it up soon after Kim Jong Un himself labelled it the ‘treasured sword for defending peace’ and a firm guarantee for the future? It can never happen,” Thae said. In his memoir that hit shelves Monday, Thae added: “More people should realize that North Korea is desperately clinging to its nuclear program more than anything.”

[AFP]

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]