Homosexuality virtually unheard-of in North Korea

When North Korean defector Jang Yeong-jin arrived in South Korea in 1997, officials debriefed him for five months but still hesitated to release him. They had one crucial question unanswered: Why did Mr. Jang decide to risk crossing the heavily armed DMZ border between the two Koreas?

“I couldn’t explain what it was that bothered me so much, made my life so miserable in North Korea, because I didn’t know until after I arrived here that I was a gay, or even what homosexuality was.” Mr. Jang said. His struggle continued even in the capitalist South, where he said he felt like a “double alien”: a North Korean refugee who was also gay.

Mr. Jang, 55, is the only known openly gay defector from North Korea living in the South. In  an autobiographical novel, “A Mark of Red Honor,” he described his experiences as a gay man growing up in the totalitarian North, where the government maintains that homosexuality does not exist because people there live with a “sound mentality and good morals.”

Mr. Jang said he never heard of homosexuality while growing up in Chongjin on the eastern coast of North Korea, even when he developed a crush on another boy. “When the subway was crowded, I sat on his lap, and he would hug me from behind,” Mr. Jang said. “People didn’t care, thinking we were childhood friends.”

“In North Korea, no ordinary people conceptually understand what homosexuality is,” said Joo Sung-ha, who attended the elite Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, in the 1990s and now works as a reporter for the mass-circulation South Korean daily Dong-A Ilbo. “In my university, only half the students may have heard of the word. Even then, it was always treated as some strange, vague mental illness afflicting subhumans, only found in the depraved West.”

[New York Times]

Defector appears in North Korean propaganda video

South Korean intelligence officials are investigating whether a prominent defector from the North has been kidnapped back to Pyongyang. In 2014, the woman, known as Lim Ji-hyun, fled to South Korea in 2014, where she became a popular TV personality.

In the North Korean video, she says she was lured away and forced to slander the North, and has voluntarily returned across the border.

The propaganda video was released on Youtube by the North Korean Uriminzokkiri website on Sunday. In the video, the woman introduces herself by another name, Jeon Hye-Sung. She is shown in conversation with an interviewer and Kim Man-bok, another former defector who also returned to the North.

She says she was lured to the South by the “fantasy” that she could “eat well and make lots of money” and claims that she was forced into slandering her own country. She describes how in the South everything was judged by money, how she was struggling to make ends meet and was asked to discredit the North on several TV shows. She said she was now living back with her parents again after returning to the North last month.

JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reports that the defector had thanked her fans as recently as April for a birthday party, calling it “possibly the happiest birthday of my life”.

Intelligence officials are investigating how Ms Lim might have re-entered North Korea. Some North Korean defectors have speculated that she may have been abducted on the China-North Korean border while attempting to smuggle out family members, the Korea Times reports.

Over the past decade, tens of thousands of North Koreans have defected from the authoritarian state into South Korea. The unification ministry in Seoul told the BBC that since 2012 only 25 have returned.

[BBC]

Where North Korea’s elite get banned luxury goods

In much of the countryside, humanitarian groups say North Koreans live in grinding poverty. But in the capital, there is clearly money to spend.

You can buy anything your heart desires in one North Korean department store: premium blended whisky, jewelry and perfume. Or you can pick up a brand new drum set or a saxophone that’s carefully displayed in a glass case.

But there’s a catch. The department store is cash only.

New images released as part of a yearlong investigation by NK Pro, an independent North Korea monitoring group, shows just what money can buy in two luxury Pyongyang department stores.

If Western sanctions are meant to punish the ruling elite, it doesn’t appear to be working. Several items for sale in the NK Pro photos appear to be banned.

But why does the regime go to all the trouble of getting luxury goods to Pyongyang?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un likes to keep the ruling elite loyal with sweeteners says Kim Kwang Jin, a North Korea defector who helped finance illicit imports into North Korea. But he adds there is another reason.

“They earn a lot of dollars and cash from these luxurious department stores by selling all these goods and they re-allocate these dollars into their priorities like the nuclear and missile program,” he said. “Luxury goods sales help them build more missile and nuclear material.”

Kim Kwang Jin says the luxury stores are part of the secretive Office 39 — a group the US government describes as a slush fund for the regime.

[CNN]

North Korean insider now living in Virginia suggests top-level talks

In 2014, Ri Jong Ho grew increasingly disillusioned after Kim Jong Un suddenly denounced his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, as a “traitor for all ages” and had him executed at the end of 2013.

For three decades, Ri worked in Office 39, the Workers’ Party operation responsible for raising money for the Kim family. The office has long been associated with both legal trade and illicit activity, including counterfeiting dollars and drug smuggling. The 59-year-old and his family now live in Northern Virginia, having defected to South Korea at the end of 2014, and moved to the United States last year.

Jang had been leading economic cooperation efforts with China, and dozens of people who worked for him were also purged at the time, Ri said. He worried that his family would be next. They escaped to South Korea.

The former money man advocates an approach that combines Trump’s “maximum pressure” with another idea that the president has at least flirted with: talks.

“I think there should be top-level talks between the U.S. and North Korea, so that they can both work together to solve the problem,” Ri said.

While there is a great deal of skepticism in Washington about negotiations, that shouldn’t stop the current administration from trying, Ri said: “Like they say in politics, yesterday’s enemy can be today’s friend.”

[Washington Post]

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]

Christian and non-faith-based groups rescue trafficked women in China

Several Christian and non-faith-based groups work to rescue women and girls from sex trafficking along China’s border areas, in Yunnan and Henan provinces, and in northern China.

In 2006, I witnessed the beginning of a small grassroots movement of Christians from the house churches joining the fight against human trafficking in China – a radical concept, since women in prostitution were traditionally treated with contempt and not welcomed into churches.

Ai Jin, one of the outreach leaders, said that before she began to rescue women from sex trafficking. “I didn’t want to shake hands with prostitutes, thinking their whole body was dirty. Now I can treat them like my own family,” she said.

Dan Chung of Crossing Borders, a NGO that provides humanitarian support for trafficked North Korean women, said this past January that several arrests have been made of missionaries who had been simply helping North Korean refugees in China with counseling and spiritual support.

“That’s alarming to us,” he said. Apart from the government crackdown, these rescuers also face the danger of being killed by gangsters behind the trafficking networks.

[South China Morning Post]

Human rights activist Tim Peters helping North Korean refugees

Officials confirmed North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile test was the same day Tim Peters flew to Alaska. “And I thought to myself, this is a rather bizarre coincidence,” he said.

The Christian missionary is visiting Alaska and spent Saturday speaking at the Ninilchik Senior Center sharing his story about his organization, Helping Hands Korea. It’s a non-profit helping North Korean refugees escaping the regime under President Kim Jong-un.

Peters says he calls it a coincidence because the timing only motivated him more to raise awareness about North Korean refugees.

“There is a desperate humanitarian and human rights crisis that is raging in North Korea,” Peters said. “When you see the dark underbelly of human nature, in terms of the tyranny that exists in North Korea, the absolute deprivation of human rights. That is rampant in North Korea.”

Peters said his organization has people from Asia and Europe assisting with this work through what he calls Asia’s underground railroad. He won’t reveal the process, citing security and confidentiality issues, but says there’s always a need for help in other ways.

“The financial and material support at this point is rather critical,” he said.

Peters said his organization is in its twenty-first year of work. He said he and his wife will continue helping North Korean refugees and that he “hopes to the very core of his being” their efforts will debilitate the North Korean regime.

[KTVA.com]

North Korea a society where all anger must be suppressed

Missile launches have galvanized world attention again on the strange isolated country of North Korea. But scant attention is paid to the trickle of defectors who escape the country’s hardships, and then, basically drown in new freedoms.

Lee Sang-jun is one of tens of thousands of defectors who have settled in South Korea, and most struggle to adjust.

“They lived in an environment where they had to suppress their anger,” says counselor Kim Young-in who works in a government support service. She says many of them suffered a traumatic past.

For Lee, pangs of hunger sear his memory: of being aged seven and surviving on his own as famine gripped North Korea. “I used to just stare at people eating. We’d wait until people threw scraps of food on the ground,” he says. “I spent more than four years living on the streets, hungry and alone. I was literally skin and bone.”

Lee’s mother had fled to China to survive, abandoning her family. His siblings had died or gone far away. Tragically, Lee witnessed his father take his own life. “I had seen people executed by a firing squad since I was little, so it wasn’t really a big deal that everyone in my family had died or left me,” he says matter-of-factly.

After four years his mother made contact through a broker. “It was good to hear she was alive, but it also hurt me a lot,” he says. “I wanted to tell her off badly.

An escape plan was hatched — for Lee to make the perilous journey across the Tumen River into China. Suddenly he was surrounded by plentiful, succulent food. He devoured fried chicken feeling like he’d never stop. But his reunion with his mother was difficult. “She was crying a lot … but I just felt nothing and numb,” he says.

Lee felt overwhelmed by South Korea when he finally arrived in 2006. “I couldn’t believe I’d arrived in this unbelievably perfect place where freedom and happiness were guaranteed,” he says.

But he soon struggled to cope. “I was very aggressive and just had the worst personality. I upset my mum and a lot of people along the way. .. She wasn’t there for any of [my struggles]. So, I don’t see why I need her in my life.”

[Australian Broadcast Corporation]