North Korea defectors find haven in London suburb

Around 5,300 miles from North Korea’s brutal dictatorship, the bland commuter suburb of New Malden (“Little Pyongyang”) has become an improbable home to hundreds of escapees.

New Malden sits on the edge of the British capital and the rural county of Surrey. It’s the type of place that, despite its ZIP code, most city-dwellers might dismiss as not-really-London. It boasts a huge Korean population, officially around 3,500 but with some estimates putting it closer to 20,000 in the wider borough. Of this community, several hundred are North Korean — making it the largest such community in Europe and one of the biggest outside the Korean Peninsula.

Kim Kwang Myong’s story is a common one. Like many people here, he fled North Korea but left family members behind. The regime often exercises a merciless policy of collective punishment against remaining relatives, sending them to labor camps, or worse. “My big brother is currently in prison in North Korea and he’s not getting released any time soon,” Kim Kwang Myong told NBC News. “The reason he is in prison is because of us fleeing the country.”

Picking his moment, Kim bribed some border guards to vacate a stretch of North Korea’s river border with China, allowing him to cross with his wife and two children. That was 20 years ago.  He has since lived illegally in China and then in South Korea before coming to the U.K. four years ago.

Kim has tried to help his relatives who stayed behind by sending them money. It was this that led to them being punished after authorities discovered the transactions. “My younger brother was sent to prison and stayed there for one year but got released. But my big brother has not been so lucky,” he said.

His family has suffered, and that knowledge weighs heavily on Kim.

[NBC]                                                                                                                   Read more

Do-or-die decisions and a family ripped in two

King is a North Korean defector living in New Malden. A 34-year-old restaurateur who runs a Korean barbecue, he only wants to be identified by his nickname “King” amid fears of his family being punished.

His story is also one of heart-wrenching do-or-die decisions and a family ripped in two.

King fled his homeland with his mother and sister when he was aged 18. But his father, a high school teacher who felt loyalty to his job and fear of the regime, stayed behind. As punishment for his family’s actions, his father was fired and sent to a labor camp.

Totalitarian North Korea restricts every aspect of public life, throwing people into Nazi-style camps for crimes as petty as “gossiping” about the state. Ordinary citizens are not allowed to access the internet or the international press, instead having to rely on the propaganda of North Korea’s state-run media.

Nowadays, King only gets to speak to his dad once every two or three years, on the rare occasion his father can get an illicit cellphone capable of making international calls. He hasn’t spoken to any of his friends since he left.

“Yes, I miss them, of course, but I have friends here now,” King said. He quietly added: “It’s difficult to talk about my life here and my life in North Korea.”

In a way, his family’s hand was forced. Before they fled, his aunt had already escaped to China and they risked being punished by proxy if they stayed put.

“We were at a crossroads whether to be sent to prison or fleeing from the country,” he said.

[NBC]                                                                                                                    Read more

Defector: “The difference is like hell and heaven”

In the rooms above the Korea Foods superstore in New Malden are the unglamorous offices of Free NK, a North Korean newspaper run by Kim Joo Il, another defector.

“If you actually compare two lives, one in North Korea and the other one in New Malden, the difference is like hell and heaven,” the 43-year-old told NBC News.

When he lived in North Korea, he served as an officer in the Korean People’s Army and it was his job to catch defectors. He knew the risks of trying to flee. “They were all dealt with by military law, which meant public execution,” Kim Joo Il said.

According to him, the country’s feared secret police has a network of spies so extensive that one out of every three citizens is an informant. “Your lives are under surveillance every single moment,” he said. “Kim Jong Un has told his people that the tiniest thing, even the drop of a needle to the floor, should be reported back to him.”

Despite being aware of the potential consequences, he decided to take his chances and make a break for it across the Chinese border. “This is not a choice that you make in a day,” he said. “This is based on a long-term emotional process. You make up your mind to escape from North Korea, and then you give up on the idea, and then you make up your mind again, and then you give up again. You go through this process so many times you cannot imagine how many times.”

Kim Joo Il was single when he fled, but he had to consider the consequences his escape would have on his remaining family members. “It’s not just the family that you have in mind, you’ve got to actually be prepared to die, really, while escaping,” he said. “Personally it took me eight years to finally make up my mind and in the eighth year I made my escape.”

From China, he walked, hitched rides, and scraped together enough money for the occasional train or bus fare. He traveled through Vietnam, Cambodia and finally Thailand, where he got a plane ticket to the U.K.

He publishes the Free NK newspaper both in print and online, employing around five members of staff — both North and South Koreans — and highlighting the atrocities the regime is inflicting on his countrymen. Not only does he circulate the newspaper locally, he sends the digital files to South Korea where they are printed out, attached to balloons and dropped over North Korea as anti-regime propaganda.

Now well-known as a figurehead in the New Malden community, Kim Joo Il is determined to be a thorn in the side of the dictatorship.

[NBC]

Otto Warmbier experienced what thousands experience in North Korean concentration camps

The abuse North Korea inflicted on Otto Warmbier, the American student who died this week after returning home to the U.S. following more than a year of imprisonment, is something up to 120,000 North Koreans regularly experience in the country’s concentration camps, according to defectors and analysts.

Jun Heo, who was just a teenager when he was sent to one of the country’s concentration camps, said to Fox News that being beaten black and blue and tortured within an inch of your life was routine.

There were about 20 people stuffed into each small cell, he said. Everyone over the age of 17 was forced to work hard labor in farms from 6:30 a.m. until at least 8 p.m. Cries and screams became the soundtrack of life, but it was after nightfall when the most excruciating howls could be heard, Heo said. Hapless prisoners, trying to sleep, would wail in pain as their bony bodies broke down from starvation, while at midnight the “secret police” came to take women to be raped.

Heo’s crime? He had fled to China for a chance at a better life. It was November 2005 and Heo — plus 12 other defectors — crossed into China and was staying in a “broker’s house” in Beijing. The broker ordered the North Koreans to not leave the house, citing safety reasons. But on Dec. 6, the day before he turned 14, a barrage of Chinese policemen — armed with guns and electric batons — knocked down the door and rounded up the terrified defectors.

“I was two days in a Chinese jail and then sent back to the Sinuiju concentration camp in North Korea,” Heo remembered

After several months, he was let go. But in 2008, at the age of 17, a determined Heo defected again – this time for good. Now a 26-year-old political science major at Seoul National University and studying English at the Teach North Korean Refugees center, he wakes up every day with a self-inflicted pinch.

“It is like heaven,” Heo said. “I don’t believe I live here.”

[Fox News]

Defectors from North Korea describe daily life

For the vast majority of the 25 million North Koreans, food is scarce. The United Nations reports that 70 percent of the population — around 18 million — goes hungry, with the stunting of children’s growth a “rampant phenomenon” due to the lack of nutrition. Almost 9 million have no health care, and more than 5 million live in squalor because they lack clean running water.

While food may be scarce, distrust is not. From childhood, North Koreans are instructed to report anyone being even mildly nonconformist or speaking of their leadership without over-the-top praise, even in private conversation. Tom Fowdy, founder of the analysis group Young DPRK Watchers, noted that compulsory community meetings are held: singing songs about their leaders and goading each other into confessing minor crimes.

A caste system means North Koreans often remain in the social rank into which they were born, something determined by a family’s reputation. Sometimes a citizen can move up the ladder to a more privileged caste, depending on one’s perceived support of the leadership, or move down the ladder, depending on one’s links to criminals, defectors or South Koreans.

“Those with a poor songbun (caste ranking) will have poor prospects,” said Chad O’Carroll, managing director of Korea Risk Group, which produces analyses on North Korea. “But regardless of one’s background, most young North Koreans should never expect to leave their country, officially consume foreign-produced information unapproved by the government or show respect to anyone beyond a leader to the Kim family tree.”

A North Korean is required to hang in their homes portraits of Kim il Sung and Kim Jong-il, the grandfather and father, respectively, or the current leader. There are routine checks by authorities to ensure these are kept immaculately clean. It is mostly prohibited for one to communicate with others in the world outside. Pirated modern movies and music occasionally make their way into homes but, if caught, violators can be punished with death.

Soldiers have been known to enter homes and extract entire families, who are never heard from again.

[Fox News]

South Korea calls for the immediate release of Americans and S. Koreans held by Pyongyang

On Tuesday, South Korea called for the immediate release of the Americans and South Koreans being held by Pyongyang.

Its president, Moon Jae-in, described North Korea’s human rights abuses as “deplorable”, adding that South Korea would make every effort to win the release of the remaining detainees, according to a spokesman.

South Korea has tried to find out more about its own citizens through European countries with a diplomatic presence in Pyongyang, but its requests have been met with silence.

Three of the South Koreans were detained while carrying out missionary work, while the other three are defectors who returned to the North, according to South Korean intelligence officials.

[The Guardian]

North Korean defector wants to go home but facing possible arrest

A North Korean defector who has demanded repatriation to her homeland, claiming she was tricked by a defection broker and came to South Korea by mistake, is once again in danger of arrest.

The Daegu Metropolitan Police Agency’s security investigation team is currently investigating Kim Ryon-hui, 48. Kim is being charged with posting materials praising the North Korean regime on her Facebook page in April 2016, including a video commemorating the Day of the Sun (a holiday celebrating the birthday of North Korean founding leader Kim Il-sung) and a song cheering for Kim.

Police are also charging Kim in connection with statements she made in a 2015 interview with the Hankyoreh. Her Feb. 2016 visit to the Vietnamese embassy in South Korea to demand to be sent to North Korea is also being seen as a National Security Law violation.

“Kim’s remarks are something we are obliged to investigate according to domestic law,” a police source said. “We are considering an arrest warrant request because we have sent three summonses to Kim as of June 13 demanding that she appear, and she has refused all of them,” the source added.

In Apr. 2015, Kim received a two-year jail sentence suspended for three years for making a telephone call to a North Korean consulate in China, which is considered meeting or communicating with North Korea according to the National Security Law. Kim claims that at the time that she was trying to alert North Korea to her detention and request rescue were not accepted by the court.

Kim has demanded her own repatriation. The Ministry of Unification maintains that Kim’s repatriation is not allowed by domestic law.

[Hankyoreh]

North Korea views humanitarian aid as leverage

So far North Korea has rejected South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s offers of unconditional humanitarian aid and cooperation. Since he took office in early May, the new liberal South Korean leader has tried to balance strong support for military deterrence and international sanctions against Pyongyang’s continued nuclear and ballistic missiles provocations with increased engagement to restart inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation.

The North Korean state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun said in an editorial last week that, “Nobody can expect relations to improve just because they allow some humanitarian aid or civilian exchanges that the previous conservative clique halted.”

North Korea has also set a steep price for allowing future reunions of families that have been separated by the division of the Korean Peninsula at the end of World War II. When the South recently proposed trying to arrange a new reunion in August to mark the anniversary of the end of the Second World War, Pyongyang demanded Seoul first return a group of North Korean defectors, including 12 restaurant workers who sought asylum in the South last year. North Korea charges that these defectors were abducted while South Korea says they voluntarily fled.

Ahn Chan-il, a North Korean defector and analyst with the World Institute of North Korean studies, said the Kim Jong Un leadership is making seemingly impossible demands to improve inter-Korean ties because it expects relations to actually get worse in the short term.

The North Korea official news agency on Saturday indicated Pyongyang is close to testing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could potentially reach the U.S. mainland.

“If North Korea does it, Kim Jong Un knows well that China will prepare sanctions such as blocking the oil pipeline (between the two countries,)” Ahn said.

[VoA]

The two latest defectors from North Korea

A father and son saved from a small fishing boat were given permission to stay in South Korea – despite the chances of a fierce reaction from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

The pair were rescued along with two others on another boat on Friday and Saturday. The other two men requested to head back to North Korea.

Tensions are running high between the two nations – who have been at war since 1950 – after the tubby tyrant launched a missile test today. This morning’s test fire marks Kim’s fourth weapons launch in recent weeks.

The man in his 50s and son in his 20s will be allowed to stay in South Korea for “humanitarian” reasons. In a statement, the Ministry of Unification in South Korea said: “The government handled the issue on humanitarian grounds and respected their will as we do customarily.”

A South Korean official said: “We will provide education for them to settle in South Korea, for a certain period of time, as is usual for North Korean defectors.”

Unusually, North Korea has not spoken out about the rescue yet – Pyongyang has condemned the “kidnap” of its citizens rescued in this way before.

 [Daily Star]

How defectors send money to relatives in North Korea

It is sometimes a challenge for North Korean defectors to find trustful middlemen to help them send money to relatives still in North Korea.

Brokers in South Korea wire money to middlemen in China, most of whom are smugglers or tradesmen with ties to North Korea. Then the middlemen call their contacts in the North to notify them of the amount of money to deliver out of the pockets of their North Korean counterparts while carrying out other trade deals of their own. The commission fee is between 20 percent and 30 percent in general.

For the past decade, Kim Hye-sook, a 42-year-old defector from North Korea, has successfully managed to send money to her elder sister and relatives who remain in the North. Kim was lucky enough to find someone in the transfer business who was a friend of a fellow defector. Although the commission fees are relatively high — around 30 percent of the amount entrusted — Kim’s money has always landed safely in the hands of her family.

“Looking at kids here, I cannot help but think of my nephews [in the North]. I wish they could live a decent life as they do here. I myself live on a tight budget with my husband, as I’m sick and can’t work. Nevertheless, I can’t stop sending money back home because I know exactly how they live in North Korea — it breaks my heart now just thinking of it,” Kim said during an interview.

[The Korea Herald]