Matchmaking helps North Korean defectors find spouses

Born and raised in Cheongjin, located in the northeastern part of reclusive North Korea, Park Myeong-hee escaped her home country in 2012, leaving behind all of her beloved family and friends.

[Among her challenges] it was hard to meet somebody in South Korea. She didn’t have anyone who could fix her up on a blind date. It was when she happened upon an online site exclusively intended for matchmaking between North Korean women and South Korean men that she made headway.

Park is one of the steadily increasing number of North Korean defectors seeking to find their lifelong partners in the South through matchmaking companies, whose business has been growing fast in recent years. There are no official figures, but industry experts say that the number of matchmaking companies stood at around 10 in the early 2010s but now has risen to around 70.

Small business owners, office workers and even public servants are signing up. Recent TV programs featuring North Korean women dating South Korean men seem to be of great help in removing any negative images attached to the women from the communist north.

North Korean women are known for their strong commitment to the family. Adding to that, since many have lost everything in the North by opting to defect, they tend to cherish their marriage no matter what.

[Business Standard]

North Koreans defect due to disillusionment not hunger

During the late 1990s and the early 2000s, almost all the North Koreans who fled their country were escaping out of hunger or economic need. But the explosion of markets has improved life for many. Today, more people are leaving North Korea because they are disillusioned with the system, not because they can’t feed their families. Following are excerpts of testimonies of recent defectors:

The accordion player: “I was ambitious. … I left because I didn’t have the freedom to do what I wanted to do.”

The doctor: “I hoped to work abroad as a doctor in the Middle East or Africa. But to work overseas, you have to pass security screening to make sure you’re ideologically sound and aren’t going to defect. I am a very capable person, and I was a party member, but even I couldn’t make it.”

The construction worker: “I worked [on a coveted, overseas job] for three and a half years, but I made only $2,000 during that time. We were allowed to work overseas for five years maximum, and I was hoping to save $10,000 and return home proud. I realized it wasn’t going to happen, so I started looking for a chance to escape.”

The bean trader: “I wanted to progress in life, I wanted to go to university, but because my mother had defected to China, [as part of the penalty I couldn’t.] … I felt like I didn’t have any future in North Korea. That’s why I decided to leave.”

The meat delivery guy: “We were told in school that we could be anybody. But after graduation, I realized that this wasn’t true and that I was being punished for somebody else’s wrongdoing. I realized I wouldn’t be able to survive here. So for two years I looked for a way out. When I thought about escaping, it gave me a psychological boost.”

The university student: “I was so disgusted with the system. I didn’t have freedom to speak my mind, or to travel anywhere I wanted, or even to wear what I wanted. It was like living in a prison. We were monitored all the time by our neighborhood leader, by the normal police, by the secret police. If you ask me what was the worst thing about North Korea, I’d say: Being born there.”

[Washington Post]

Brutal treatment in North Korean political prisons

Escapees from North Korea’s gruesome political prisons recount brutal treatment, including medieval torture with shackles and fire and being forced to undergo abortions by the crudest methods. Human rights activists say that this appears to have lessened slightly under Kim Jong Un. But severe beatings and certain kinds of torture — including being forced to remain in stress positions for crippling lengths of time — still appear commonplace throughout North Korea’s detention systems, as are public executions. Starvation is often part of the punishment, even for children.
Following are excerpts of testimonies of recent defectors from North Korea:

The money man: “In 2015, a money transfer went bad — the woman I’d given the money to got caught and she ratted on me — and I was put in detention. I spent two months there. I wasn’t treated like a human being — they beat me, they made me sit in stress positions where I couldn’t lift my head. Two times they slapped my face and kicked me during interrogation.”

The teenage prisoner: “I was interrogated repeatedly by the secret police as they wanted to know about my mother’s business. They were slapping me around the face, and pushed me so hard against the wall that I had blood coming from my head. I still get a headache sometimes.
“[Once imprisoned] we got up at 6 a.m. every day and went to bed at 11 p.m., and in between we would be working the whole time, shoveling cement or lugging sacks, except for lunch. Lunch was usually steamed corn. I was too scared to eat. I cried a lot. I didn’t want to live.”

The phone connector: “Even though we were working so hard in prison camp, all we got to eat was a tiny bit of corn rice and a small potato. By the time I got out, I was so malnourished I could hardly walk.
“[Concerning life in North Korea] if you speak out against the system, you will immediately be arrested. And if you do something wrong, then three generations of your family will be punished. Once I heard there was a going to be some kind of coup launched in Chongjin and that all of the people involved were executed. When you hear about cases like this, of course you’re scared. So instead of trying to do something to change the system, it’s better just to leave.”

The university student: “The secret to North Korea’s survival is the reign of terror. Why do you think they block all communications? Why do you think North Korea has public executions? Why do you think North Koreans leave, knowing that they will never see their families again? It shows how bad things are. All our rights as people have been stripped away.”

 [Sources of quotations: The Washington Post]

North Korea surveillance state

North Korea operates as a vast surveillance state, with a menacing state security department called the Bowibu as its backbone. Its agents are everywhere and operate with impunity. The government also operates a kind of neighborhood watch system. Every district in every town or city is broken up into neighborhood groups of 30 or 40 households, each with a leader who is responsible for coordinating grass-roots surveillance and encouraging people to snitch. Following are excerpts of testimonies of defectors from North Korea, all of whom defected during the past 4-5 years:

The young mother”: “People in each neighborhood association are always checking up on each other. If one family seems to be living better than everyone else, then all the neighbors try to find out how they are making their money. …Nobody has to be asked to bring that wealthy family down and make sure that they lose their money. …That’s why it’s important not to show off any wealth.”

The farmer”: “We often heard and saw how Chinese people had money because Chinese people used to come to North Korea to sell things….I thought about the outside world, but if you say, ‘I want to go to China or South Korea,’ then it can be reported by an informant to the security services. You can think it, but you can’t say it. You never know who is going to snitch on you.”

The rich kid”: ‘There were youth leaders who would patrol around, looking for things that we weren’t supposed to be doing. If you were wearing jeans or skinny pants, or if you had a manicure or your hair was too long, you would get in trouble. They would sometimes check your phone to see if you had any South Korean songs. I got busted for this, but I got out of it by buying them a box of 20 bottles of beer.”

The teenage prisoner”: “When I was 16, I was staying at my grandma’s house and there was a banging on the door late at night. Two secret police officers took me to the police station and asked me: “Where are your parents?” I told them I didn’t know. (It turned out that they had gone missing, and my mom’s business associates said that she was the mastermind behind this big smuggling operation.) The police yelled at me: ‘You’re just like your mother. You probably have fantasies about China, too.’ They slapped my face about five times.”

The phone connector”: “The first time I went to prison, I had been caught helping people make phone calls to their relatives in South Korea. I was sentenced to four months’ hard labor, building a road on the side of a mountain that they said we needed in case there was a war. The men did the digging, and the women had to carry rocks and soil.”

[Sources of quotations: The Washington Post]

Movie about North Korea defector to open Asia’s top film festival

A film about the plight of a defector who leaves her family behind in North Korea will open Asia’s biggest film festival next month, Busan International Film Festival organizers said Tuesday.

This year’s festival will open with South Korean filmmaker Jero Yun’s “Beautiful Days”, which tells the story of a woman who abandons her husband and young son to flee North Korea for a better life and later reconnects with them.

“The unique story line of the restoration of a family through initial dissolution was appealing, and the subject of a North Korean defector was also very timely,” said festival director Jay Jeon.

[AFP]

Ongoing North Korean repression and disillusionment

It is impossible to overstate the pervasiveness of the personality cult surrounding the Kims’ in North Korea. Founding President Kim Il Sung, his son Kim Jong Il and his grandson, the current leader, Kim Jong Un form a kind of “holy trinity” in North Korea. There is no criticizing them or questioning the system — at least not without risking both personal freedom and the freedom of your entire family. Following are excerpts of testimonies of defectors from North Korea (with year of their defection noted in parenthesis):

The preschooler” (2017): “We got gifts on Kim Jong Un’s birthday: candy and cookies and gum and puffed rice. I was so grateful to him for giving me all these sweets. We would stand up in class and say, ‘Thank you, General Kim Jong Un.’”

The university student” (2013): “We had ideological education for 90 minutes every day. There was revolutionary history, lessons about Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un. …They taught us about why we needed nuclear weapons, and they would tell us that we needed to make sacrifices in our daily lives so they could build these weapons and protect our country, keep the nation safe. I was so sick and tired of hearing about all this revolutionary history, I was so sick of calling everyone ‘comrade.’ I didn’t care about any of that stuff.”

The doctor” (2014): “It’s like a religion. From birth, you learn about the Kim family, learn that they are gods, that you must be absolutely obedient to the Kim family. The elites are treated nicely, and because of that they make sure that the system stays stable. But for everyone else, it’s a reign of terror. The Kim family uses terror to keep people scared, and that makes it impossible to stage any kind of social gathering, let alone an uprising.”

The money man” (2015): “Every month there was special instruction about Kim Jong Un. …We were told that Kim Jong Un wanted to know everything so that he could take proper care of everyone, help everyone. Nobody believed this because if Kim Jong Un knew we had no electricity and were eating corn rice [imitation rice made from ground corn], why wasn’t he doing anything about it?”

The young mother” (2014): “Everybody knew that Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un were both liars, that everything is their fault, but it’s impossible to voice any opposition because we are under such tight surveillance. If someone is drunk and says ‘Kim Jong Un is a son of a bitch’, you’ll never see them again.”

[Source of quotations:The Washington Post]

North Korean defector uses art as his weapon

Choi, 39, grew up blindly worshipping the Kim regime. His career in cartooning began when he drew a “patriotic” picture about Americans invading Korea and his artistic talents were spotted by a secondary schoolteacher. He went on to become an animator at North Korea’s premier animation studio.

Then, amongst second-hand computers smuggled from China, Choi discovered South Korean TV dramas. But watching such material is a crime in the North and the authorities banished him from the capital to the countryside when they discovered his activities.

“In North Korea, being banished from Pyongyang is the same as dying. People say Pyongyang and Seoul are 70 years apart, but Pyongyang and the countryside are separated by a century,” he said. “…The countryside exists only to support Pyongyang.”

Life outside the capital was so difficult that Choi decided to leave the country and head to the South via China. His family went ahead of him, but he spent six months in a camp as collective punishment. Choi made it out and reached the South in late 2010.

After settling in Seoul, Choi was determined to have an impact on people on both sides of the military demarcation line. He took up the pen to illustrate the deprivations of the North and the plight of North Korean women sold to Chinese men. He has also tried to bridge the cultural divide between the two people, making fun of the social differences between the North and South.

He smuggles the cartoons into North Korea in the hope of changing the population’s outlook, one mind at a time. He said smuggling from China is so rampant that it had created “an infrastructure” to influence North Korea.

[South China Morning Post]

A nine-year ordeal to make it to South Korea

Ji’s South Korean accent masks her nine-year ordeal of four escape attempts from the North, three repatriations from China, and starvation and torture in North Korean reeducation camps. Ji was also twice sold by human traffickers who wait on the Chinese side of the border to prey on fleeing women.

Ji has been outspoken about her experience, speaking on the international stage using her real name and using her traumatic times as inspiration for her books, poems and play. “As a defector, I want to tell South Koreans that they have to realize what they have. Freedom, happiness and love. Things that North Koreans desperately seek their entire life. South Koreans have something very valuable, but they have no idea how valuable it is,” she said.

Ji’s father was Chinese from an ethnic Korean minority who fled to North Korea during the Cultural Revolution. He stayed, had a family, and in 1998 arranged for his wife, two daughters and son to escape to South Korea via China. They left separately to avoid attracting attention, but Ji’s father was arrested in China and never seen again.

Ji was sent back to North Korea and interrogated. She tried to flee again later in the year but was caught by traffickers in China. She was eventually sent back to North Korea and to a camp where she and her fellow inmates endured extreme hardship. Ji became a Christian when she was in China and said she was forced to deny her religion during her incarceration.

A third escape effort also ended in failure and a stint at another camp, where the now pregnant Ji was forced to have an abortion without anaesthetic.

She made it China a fourth time and was again sold to traffickers. Finally, after six more years, she obtained a fake South Korean passport and took a ferry to the South, where she was reunited with her mother and siblings.

Ji had always dreamed of being a writer and when she reached the South, she used “the blood and sorrow of the dead as my ink, and their tortured and bruised bones as my pen”.

She said life could still be a struggle and – like other defectors – she had to take medication for epilepsy and sleeping disorders. “Most of us suffer from the consequences of torture,” Ji said.

[South China Morning Post]

Over 80% of North Korean defectors found to have tuberculosis

A report by the South Korean government’s settlement center for North Korean defectors revealed that 81 percent of over 3,000 tested people who fled from the North to the South were infected with tuberculosis (TB). Jeon Jeong-hee, a nursing officer at the Hanawon settlement center, released her findings at the “North Korea Tuberculosis and Healthcare Symposium” at the Seoul City Hall on Thursday.

Among those aged 40 or more, 90 percent were positive.

Jeon said such findings could signal that North Korea had difficulties in the distribution and supply of TB vaccines and not enough facilities to keep medicines refrigerated.

In the North, according to defectors, it was common to diagnose TB without any X-ray test to patients who had a fever or diagnose TB after touching the belly. The patients had to purchase TB drugs at a market without any prescription, they said.

For North Korean TB patients, it is difficult to buy TB treatments continuously because they are expensive. Considering a North Korean worker’s monthly wage is about 1,600 won on average, paying 15,000 won for a one-month streptomycin was a luxury.

Due to such financial burdens, North Koreans, including TB patients, turn to folk remedies, Jeon said. To treat TB, they took pear juice, ginger juice, traditional herbal medicines, and moxibustion.

[Korea Biomedical Review]

Illegal trade and activity have blossomed in North Korea

From the biggest cities to the smallest villages in North Korea, there is now some kind of market building where people can sell their wares and keep their profits. Some are state-run, some are state-sanctioned, some are ad hoc.

A doctor (42) who defected in 2014 explained, “The salary for doctors was about 3,500 won a month. That was less than it cost to buy one kilogram of rice! So of course, being a doctor was not my main job. My main job was smuggling at night. I would send herbal medicine from North Korea into China, and with the money, I would import home appliances back into North Korea. Rice cookers, notels, LCD monitors, that kind of thing.”

As the economy and the rules that govern it have change in North Korea, there are more and more gray areas that can be exploited which means that illegal trade and activity have also blossomed.

Said a drug dealer (46) who defected in 2014: “I worked as a broker transferring money and connecting people in North Korea with people in South Korea through phone calls. I arranged reunions for them in China. I also smuggled antiques out of North Korea, as well as ginseng and pheasants, and sold them in China.
“And I dealt ‘ice’ [methamphetamines]. 70 or 80 percent of the adults in Hoeryong city were using ice. My customers were just ordinary people. Police officers, security agents, party members, teachers, doctors. Ice made a really good gift for birthday parties or for high school graduation presents.
“It makes you feel good and helps you release stress. My 76-year-old mother was using it because she had low blood pressure, and it worked well.
“Lots of police officers and security agents would come to my house to smoke, and of course I didn’t charge them — they were my protection. They would come by my house during their lunch break. The head of the secret police in my area was almost living at my house.”

Increasingly, North Koreans are not fleeing their totalitarian state because they are hungry, as they did during the 15 or so years following the outbreak of a devastating famine in the mid-1990s. Now, they are leaving because they are disillusioned.

[Washington Post]