China stepping up repatriation of North Koreans who have attempted to escape

This year China has increased the arrests and repatriation of North Koreans attempting to escape the poverty and repression at home. According to the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, 41 North Koreans were arrested in July and August alone, compared with 51 arrests documented for the entire year before.

Analysts attribute the rise in border arrests to efforts by China to discourage a possible flood of refugees as tougher economic sanctions imposed for Pyongyang’s repeated nuclear and missile tests increases poverty and food scarcity among ordinary North Koreans.

Phil Robertson, the Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch has criticized China for violating the U.N. Refugee Convention by designating North Korean refugees as illegal “economic migrants,” and forcibly repatriating them despite the likelihood they will be imprisoned and likely subjected to inhumane treatment.

“This is condemning people to decades of forced labor, possible executions, certainly torture in every case,” said Robertson.

China has also reportedly blocked the United Nations Security Council from acting on a General Assembly recommendation to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, based on a 2014 Commission of Inquiry report documenting a network of political prison camps and systematic human rights abuses, including murder, enslavement, torture, rape, and other sexual violence.

[VoA]

China adds troops, cameras, radiation detectors at North Korean border

China has ramped up security along its border with North Korea, installing new surveillance cameras, deploying extra security forces and operating radiation detectors as it braces for a potential crisis.

Bellicose rhetoric between Washington and Pyongyang has raised fears in China of a conflict that could send millions of North Korean refugees across the 1,420-kilometre (880-mile) border, and of nuclear fallout that could hit Chinese towns.

Residents have seen an increase in patrols along the frontier. Radiation monitors are running in border towns, and locals say interactions with North Koreans have been discouraged. A red banner tacked to a border fence in Dandong — a major trading hub separated from North Korea by the Yalu River — has a Cold War-like message to residents: “Citizens or organizations who see spying activities must immediately report them to national security organs.”

On the opposite bank, North Korean soldiers peered out from turquoise watchtowers and at least one warplane surveilled the territory from above. Relations between China and North Korea have deteriorated as Beijing has backed a series of UN sanctions to punish its secretive ally over its repeated missile and nuclear tests.

Further north in Longjing, where the Tumen River freezes over in the winter, villages have established border protection units and cadres have taught self-defense to residents. The local propaganda department said last year that hundreds of cameras were being installed to build a “second generation border surveillance system.”

At the Dandong border crossing, authorities last week checked to make sure their nuclear radiation monitoring and protection equipment was working properly. “If the monitoring stations show any abnormalities, we will immediately alert citizens,” said Guo Qiuju, a professor at Peking University.

 [GlobalNews.ca]

North Korean defector speaks out after China repatriates his family

North Korean defector Lee Tae-won is still plagued with guilt over his failed efforts to bring his wife and child to South Korea, which resulted in their forced repatriation and the likely prospect of imprisonment and possible execution in North Korea.

Lee’s wife and four-year-old son were reportedly among a group of 10 defectors that were apprehended by China soon after they crossed the North Korean border in late October.

In November he last spoke with his wife by phone while she was in a detention center in China. “As soon as my wife told me she was being repatriated, the call was cut. I thought the call was cut because the police took the phone. It was devastating,” he said.

At the time Lee made a public video message appealing to both Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump to intercede and prevent the repatriation of his family, during the time the U.S. leader was visiting the region. His plea went unanswered. Lee was later told by a friend in North Korea that his wife and child were turned over to a North Korean state security department in late November.

There is concern among human rights advocates that North Korean human rights violations and China’s complicity are being downplayed by both the U.S. and South Korea. Focusing on human rights issues could complicate Washington’s efforts to persuade Beijing to enforce tough economic sanctions, and could also undermine Seoul’s efforts to increase cooperation and dialogue with Pyongyang.

[VoA]

North Korea again tops the list for Christian persecution

For the 16th year in a row, North Korea tops the list of 50 countries ranked for the worst persecution of Christians in the world, according to the Christian watchdog organization Open Doors USA.

At the top of the group’s top 10 countries where Christians face the most persecution is North Korea (94 points), citing Christians and Christian missionaries routinely imprisoned in labor camps.

A close second is Afghanistan, which jumped up one place since last year’s ranking. With the exception of North Korea, all the countries that cracked the top 10 are predominantly Muslim and most are in the Middle East and Africa.

Open Doors exists to support and to advocate for persecuted Christians where ever they may be in the world,” Open Doors USA’s CEO and president, David Curry, said in announcing the list in Washington on Wednesday (Jan. 10). “We are asking that the world begin to use its power and its influence to push for justice, that we would use the list to direct us where justice is needed most in the world today.”

[Religion News Service]

North Korean defectors must be returned for Korean family reunions to resume

North Korea wants a number of defectors returned as a precondition to resuming reunions of families separated by the Korean War, according to Japanese wire service Kyodo on Sunday.

North Korea and South Korea began diplomatic talks last week for the first time in two years. North Korea agreed to send a delegation and two athletes to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month during the talks.

Negotiations between the two countries hit a snag went it came to family reunification, according to Kyodo. The two countries have held family reunions for people divided by the Korean Wars over the years, but North Korea wants 13 people who defected to South Korea in 2016 and one woman who defected in 2011 returned before having more reunions.

The people who defected 2016 were 12 waitresses and their manager, who worked at a state-owned restaurant in China. At the North Korean restaurant, the women doubled as entertainers — singing and dancing in addition to serving food. The woman who defected in 2011, Kim Ryon Hui, has expressed that she wants to return to North Korea. She traveled to China to receive treatment for liver disease and then traveled to South Korea to make more money to afford the treatment. In an interview with CNN, she said she didn’t realize once she came to South Korea and renounced her North Korean citizenship she would not be able to return home. It is illegal to cross back into North Korea once in South Korea.

North Korea maintains that the waitresses were abducted by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service and that their manager tricked them into defecting. The women and their manager are under close supervision of the National Intelligence Service and have undergone a different and much longer integration process than other defectors. The United Nations sent an investigator to research the women’s situation and whether they had come to the country of their own volition.

[Kyodo]

More on North Korean defectors being targeted in mobile espionage campaign

Malicious APK files are being used to attack North Korean defectors and journalists. According to the McAfee Mobile Research team, threat actors are sending malicious links via KakaoTalk and other social network services, such as Facebook, in a targeted campaign. The links claim to connect to either something called Pray for North Korea, or BloodAssistant, which is a fake health care app.

In both cases, they redirect to a dropper mechanism.

The dropper phishes the victim to turn on the accessibility permissions, and then installs an espionage Trojan with a range of malicious functions, including saving SMS messages, contact information, GPS location, phone call logs, installed apps and contacts; it can also record phone calls. Further, the attackers can easily extend the Trojan’s malicious functionality without needing to update the whole malware.

Researcher Jaewon Min, wrote in his blog, “This malware campaign is highly targeted …and appear to want to spy on North Korean defectors and on groups and individuals who help defectors. …and the actors are familiar with South Korea.”

[InfoSecurity Magazine]

Android trojan targets North Korean defectors and their supporters

North Korean defectors, along with those who help them, are being targeted by a hacking operation which aims to infect their devices with trojan malware for the purposes of spying.The campaign apparently uses social networks and chat applications to directly interact with selected victims in South Korea and plant spyware onto their smartphones.

Researchers at McAfee have attributed the attacks to an operation they’ve dubbed Sun Team, named after deleted files used to help carry out the attacks. The attacks used applications including KakaoTalk – a popular chat app in South Korea – and popular social media services including Facebook to aid efforts of distributing trojan malware to the Android devices of victims.

If successful in being dropped onto a device, the malware uses a phishing attack to trick the victim into turning on the accessibility settings they require to gain full control of the infected device. Once successfully installed on the target device, the trojan uses cloud services including Dropbox, Google and Yandex as a control server, as well as a hub for uploading stolen data and receiving commands.

Not much is known about the mysterious group behind the attacks, but researchers at McAfee have speculated that they must be very familiar with the Korean language and South Korean culture, because names of the account names associated with their cloud accounts are from Korean television – including the name of soap characters and reality show contestants.

Researchers also note that one word found associated with the attackers – ‘blood type’ – is used in a way associated with North Korean spelling, rather than in the South Korean equivalent. North Korean IP test log files were also discovered on some Android accounts used to spread the malware. However, McAfee notes that this isn’t enough to draw any conclusions about the location of the attackers because “Wi-Fi was on so we cannot exclude the possibility that the IP address is private”

[Read full ZDNet article]

A tale of two defectors – Part 1 – Sun-sil Lee

As delegates met in the no man’s land of Panmunjom yesterday, raising anew the prospect of reunification for families separated by the Korean War, two North Kor­ean defectors — one fearful of reunification, the other desperate to return — illustrate the deep ­divisions that scar the peninsula.

Last month, Sun-sil Lee moved into a new apartment outside of Seoul — a landmark moment for the 50-year-old who 12 years ago was starving on the streets of a North Korean border town, ­begging for food for herself and her three-year-old daughter.

The former army nurse, who gave birth on the streets after fleeing an abusive marriage, tried eight times to defect before succeeding at a terrible cost in 2005. Ms Lee had been determined to give her daughter a life without hunger but says human traffickers pounced soon after she stepped into China, carrying her child in a rucksack on her back. Over her own screams, and the little girl’s frightened pleas to her mother, they auctioned her off to the highest bidders among a group of people gathered for the sale.

“My daughter was grabbing hold of my hand as they took her away. She kept saying to me; ‘Mummy, I will never say I am hungry again. Please take me with you,’ ” she recalls.

Ms Lee herself was sold to a local Chinese wheat farm but escaped and eventually made her way into South Korea with help from a well-established defection ­network. She has never found her daughter, despite years of searching.

“People here [in South Korea] live in so much abundance and happiness, that they just cannot imagine the horrors that millions endure daily just two hours away by car,” she said.  [Continue story]

A tale of two defectors – Part 2 – Kwon Chol-nam

For Kwon Chol-nam, yesterday’s talks were the best news he has had in years. The 44-year-old North Korean made the risky crossing through China in 2014 after his marriage disintegrated, but says after years of discrimin­ation and loneliness in the south, he just wants to go home to his wife and son.

“I came because I thought I could build a better life here but one has to ride a horse to know whether it’s a good one or not,” he said.

“You go to work, you remain ­silent all day and then you come home. Defectors can’t speak of their feelings here because you never know who might report you as a North Korean spy. People here think we are ignorant fools.”

Like all defectors, Mr Kwon has been granted South Korean citizenship but the country’s national security act prohibits all citizens from making any contact with the North without permission. Mr Kwon has managed to do so, paying hefty commissions to brokers to funnel money to his wife and connect them by telephone. He believes there is an “80 to 90 per cent chance” of reviving his marriage if he returns.

But there is no legal way to do so and last June he was jailed for two months after intelligence agents got wind of his plans to ­reverse-defect. He reckons at least 60 per cent of defectors feel as he does but are scared to speak up.

“It feels unfair that I can’t go back,” he says. “Why stop me from going back to the place I was born and raised, where I want to be?”

[The Australian]

The North Korean “Tunnels of Aggression”

The U.S. Army has reportedly stepped up training efforts for North Korea’s massive network of underground tunnels amid ongoing tension and threats of a military conflict from both nations. The Army is training thousands of soldiers while the Pentagon is buying up gear that would specifically help troops fight in the North’s tunnels, NPR reported Tuesday morning citing unnamed U.S. officials.

The well-documented tunnel system, possibly around 5,000 of them, in the isolationist state reportedly contains not only pathways for troops across the demilitarized zone but also artillery and nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. One such tunnel was discovered a mere 32 miles away from Seoul, the South’s capital city.

The tunnels, dubbed Tunnels of Aggression, were first discovered in 1974 after North Korean defectors warned the South of their existence. The defectors claimed North Korea’s founder Kim Il-Sung had ordered the tunnels built in an effort to possibly invade the South with one tunnel supposedly capable of funneling 30,000 troops per hour, according to The New York Times.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis are reportedly pushing for diplomacy, while national security adviser H.R. McMaster is encouraging a “bloody nose” strategy involving a minor military strike rather than a full-out conflict.

[Newsweek]