The North Korean defector’s Hanawon experience

Most defectors from North Korea undergo security questioning by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service for a few days up to several months in extreme cases, before being moved to the Hanawon resettlement center. At Hanawon, they then receive a mandatory three-month education on life in the capitalist South, from taking public transportation to opening a bank account to creating an email address.

“It’s where you would get to see the outside world for the first time, as they take you out to meet people on the streets and learn how to access the social service network. These days, you can also do a home stay with an ordinary South Korean family,” said Ji Seong-ho, a 35-year-old defector who heads Now, Action and Unity for Human Rights (NAUH), a group that rescues and resettles North Korean refugees.

Such training can be more useful for some people than others, said Kim Jin-soo, a 29-year-old former member of the North Korean secret police who defected to the South in 2011. “Looking back, it would’ve been really useful if they taught …how to prepare for a job fair and find a suitable workplace and why it’s important to lose the North Korean accent,” he said. “Fresh off Hanawon, you’re like a one-year-old baby. But those are the things that would pose a real obstacle when you actually go out there on your own,” said Kim, who now works at a advertising firm in Seoul.

After leaving Hanawon, central and local governments provide defectors 7 million won ($6,450) in cash over a year – barely a fifth of South Korea’s annual average income – as well as support in housing, education and job training. Police officers are assigned to each of the defectors to ensure their security.

[Business Insider]

South Korea halves the time it will interrogate North Korean defectors

South Korea will cut the time it spends interrogating North Korean defectors in half. The country’s Ministry of Unification confirmed to Business Insider it will shorten the questioning period — from up to 180 days down to 90 — for all defectors who arrive to South Korea.

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) leads the screening process into defectors’ backgrounds and motivations, partly to ensure they are not North Korean agents. There were no limits on screening periods before 2010, when the 180 day window was introduced. A “joint interrogation center” was opened by NIS in 2008 but after claims of mistreatment the name was changed to a “refugee protection center” and open-door interrogations are now required.

The questioning process usually takes a few weeks, though some escapees are held for several months. Defectors are then sent to Hanawon, a center south of Seoul that provides a three-month mandatory education on life in South Korea. New arrivals learn how to take public transport, open bank accounts and can even do a homestay with a local family. Democracy and capitalism can be the hardest topics for defectors to grasp.

Once they enter society, defectors are provided with $6,450 a year and help with housing and employment. The new limit on interrogations was announced as part of a restructure to help more North Korean arrivals find work.

[Business Insider]

North Korea’s cheerleaders human olive branches

The North Korean cheerleaders have arrived. The presence at the Winter Olympics of the all-female squad of cheerleaders — 229 strong, as part of the larger North Korean delegation — has been politically charged, provoking divided reactions among spectators at the Games and those watching from afar.

The cheerleaders have been praised as human olive branches, a preliminary way to ease tensions during the current nuclear crises. They have been criticized as singing, dancing spearheads of a strategic North Korean propaganda campaign at the Games.

In this very public bubble, they have been the source of endless, intense curiosity. And in their sheer numbers and with the surreal scenes they have created, they have garnered a level of attention — in competition venues and in the news media — that would make most Olympic athletes envious.

Han Seo-hee, 35, a North Korean defector to the South, who was picked to be a cheerleader 16 years ago, said squad members were drawn from various performance troupes around the capital. She said many, herself included, belonged to a band associated with the Ministry of People’s Security, a national law enforcement agency, which she joined after high school. Though it was not a year-round job, the women could be called in for months of full-time training before a major event.

Han explained the selection criteria: “Those who are well assimilated to the North Korean regime, those who are exemplars of working collectively, those who are from the right families, and of course those who meet the height and age standards,” she said.

“The countries have been divided for so long, and it’s my first time seeing people from the North, so it’s cool,” said Yoon Jin-ha, 16, a student from Seoul attending the game on Monday with her mother. Referring to a growing indifference toward reunification among younger South Koreans, she added, “We think that unification is not that important of a thing, but being this close to them tonight has made me really understand that we are the same people.”

“They look very pretty,” said Hyun Myeong-Hwa, 58, of Cheongju, South Korea, who filmed the women. But she had mixed feelings, too. For a moment she rubbernecked like everyone else. “I do understand the negative criticisms about them being here,” she added. “But I think we should be positive and open-minded about them. We are the same people.”

[New York Times]

Meet the North Korean defector honored by Trump

During his State of the Union address, President Trump honored North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho.

Ji entered his teens during the famine and mass starvation in North Korea in the 1990s. In 1996, Ji was on a train trying to steal some coal to trade for food. He passed out from hunger and fell off the train onto the tracks. His left leg and parts of his left hand were pulverized as the train wheels plowed through them. Doctors amputated Ji’s leg and hand in a four-and-a-half-hour surgery with no anesthetics.

A decade later, Ji and his brother made a daring escape across the Tumen River into China. From there, Ji trudged on his hand-made crutches all the way to Laos and then Thailand. From there, he was sent to South Korea and reunited with his mother and sister who had escaped there prior. (Ji’s father died after a failed attempt to escape North Korea. Authorities tortured him severely, and he died from his injuries a few days later.)

While still living in North Korea, Ji met Christians during a temporary food-finding trip to China. When he returned, the North Korean authorities tortured him and wanted to know if he met any Christians. After escaping, Ji eventually converted to Christianity.

During an exclusive interview with the Daily Caller, Ji said of Communism, “Simply put, it is a horrible thing. Communism is a Hell.” When asked what he would say to North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un. Ji said he would tell the Communist leader, “In the land I lived in, you could choose life or death. I chose life. I chose to live in a land of freedom. I won. I achieved victory.”

In April 2010, Ji established Now Action and Unity for Human Rights (NAUH), an NGO dedicated to fighting the human rights violations in North Korea.

[Church Militant]

North Korean defectors tell Trump what it’s like to escape

Last Friday, President Trump met with several North Korean defectors in the Oval Office. Among the guests: Ji Seong-ho, who Trump lauded at his State of the Union speech on Tuesday. Ji lost a leg and an arm while scavenging coal as a boy, and later fled to South Korea.

Trump used Ji’s story to illustrate what he called the “depraved character of the North Korean regime” and the kind of threat it could pose to the United States and its allies if it obtains nuclear weapons.

During the meeting, Trump asked the defectors to tell their stories.

Hyeonseo Lee, another defector who met with Trump, said escaping from North Korea is not like leaving another country.  “It’s more like leaving another universe. I will never truly be free of its gravity no matter how far I journey.”

“The world knows about the terrible things being done to his own people – it has to stop,” said Greg Scarlatoiu, the executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. “Every time human rights comes up, the very legitimacy of (Kim’s) regime is undermined.”

[USA Today]

Trump meeting with North Korean defectors to raise pressure on Kim Jong Un

President Trump will meet North Korean defectors in the Oval Office on Friday, a provocative action meant to highlight human rights violations and one that could raise alarms in Pyongyang.

Trump is expected to meet with eight defectors — six who live in South Korea and two who live in the United States — two days after he punctuated his State of the Union address by praising Ji Seong-ho, a defector from North Korea who had been invited to watch the address from the first lady’s box. Ji will be among the group at the White House on Friday.

Another of the eight defectors is Lee Hyeon-seo, a prominent human rights advocate who recounted her harrowing escape, including being sold as a bride in China, in a memoir called “The Girl with Seven Names.”

The visit will offer the president a chance to shine a spotlight on human rights abuses in North Korea at a time of growing tensions over Pyongyang’s ongoing nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests.

“No regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea,” Trump said Tuesday night during the annual address to Congress. “North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland.”

The visit was arranged by Greg Scarlatoiu at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a person familiar with the meeting said. Trump has sought to highlight the human costs of dictator Kim Jong Un’s regime, but foreign policy experts warned that there are risks to such a strategy.

“Meeting [North Korean defectors] in the Oval raises the question of whether the U.S. strategy is regime change,” said one foreign-policy expert who specializes in East Asia.

[Washington Post]

Trump honors North Korean defector in his State of the Union speech

During last night’s State of the Union address, President Trump highlighted the inspiring stories of several individuals, one of whom was a man who defected from North Korea, Ji Seong-ho.

As a boy, Ji was run over by train as he tried to collect coal for his struggling family. He endured multiple amputations, and his siblings ate dirt so that he could have their allotment of food as he recovered.

Later, after a brief trip to China, Ji was tortured by North Korean authorities wanting to know if he had met any Christians. “He had,” Trump said, “and he resolved, after that, to be free.”

Ji traveled thousands of miles on crutches, across China and southeast Asia, to freedom. Ji now lives in Seoul, where he works to rescue other defectors. “Today, he has a new leg,” the president added. “But Seong-ho, I understand you still keep those old crutches, as a reminder of how far you’ve come.”

[National Review]

North Korea’s Olympic charm offensive

North Korean defectors, who fled their impoverished and repressive homeland, are voicing concern that the North’s Olympic delegation featuring its “army of beauties” will score deceptive propaganda points, but they also hold out hope that inter-Korean cooperation can create an opportunity for peaceful progress.

A 230 member all female cheerleading squad, often called the “army of beauties,” will be among the large North Korean Olympic delegation planning to visit South Korea for the PyeongChang Olympics in February.

“It will garner the spotlight, and as each of its actions can become an opportunity to promote North Korea, I consider this as a political move,” said Kim Chul-woong, who was a pianist with Pyongyang University of Music and Dance, before defecting in 2002.

The cheering squad is made up of attractive and relatively tall women (over 160cm,) who were selected from elite universities and have no relatives living abroad. Perhaps the most famous former cheering squad member is Ri Sol Ju, the wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. At the age of 16 she participated in the 2005 Asian Athletic Championships in South Korea.

The women cheerleaders also undergo extensive ideological education to ensure loyalty to the state and to the leadership of the Kim family. “Leaving North Korea and visiting overseas is like going to fight in the heart of the enemy,” said North Korean defector Han Seo-hee. Han can also testify that the state’s ideological training is not always effective, as she was actually a North Korean cheerleader for the 2002 Asian Games held in Busan, South Korea, before she defected.


North Korea increasing executions as sanctions strain its military, top U.S. General says

North Korea is increasing executions, the top commander of U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula said Monday, as the state has been decreasing military exercises under strain from economic sanctions.

“We’re seeing some increase in executions, mostly against political officers who are in military units, for corruption,” General Vincent K. Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces in Korea, told The Wall Street Journal. Brooks described the executions as attempts to “clamp down as much as possible on something that might be deteriorating and keeping it from deteriorating too quickly.”

Brooks said that defections had been occurring “in areas where we don’t generally see them,” such as crossings through the heavily guarded Demilitarized Zone separating the North and South.


North Koreans can’t escape human rights abuses even after fleeing to China

The majority of North Koreans who attempt to escape the repressive regime cross the Yalu River from Korea into either Jilin or Liaoning provinces in Northeast China. From there, they commence an arduous 3000-mile journey south ― commonly known as the “underground railway” ― through China, Vietnam and Laos until they “safely” arrive in Thailand. Sadly, throughout their whole journey in China, these refugees are considered by the Chinese government to be “illegal economic migrants,” and if caught, are arrested and routinely forcibly repatriated to North Korea.

Over the years there have been thousands of documented accounts of refugees being arrested by Chinese authorities and being sent back to North Korea, a country that is widely recognized as being devoid of basic rights and freedoms. Upon return, they face serious human rights abuses including jail, internment in re-education facilities and even death ― tactics used by the Kim government to intimidate other North Korean citizens from attempting their own escape.

In addition to the unknown number of refugees that are caught by Chinese authorities each year, it is estimated that there are a further 50,000 to 200,000 North Koreans residing in China. Forced to live in the shadows, they have no social or legal protections, no support, no rights and no hope. This population includes a large number of women who face heightened vulnerabilities, including being trafficked into the sex trade or sold as wives to local Chinese men.

The decision by the Chinese government to continuously return refugees to North Korea seriously calls into question China’s credibility as a member of the international human rights community. While it might not be common knowledge, China did in 1982 sign the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. This treaty contains a series of international legal obligations, including the fundamental tenet of non-refoulement: not sending someone back to a country where their life or liberty may be threatened. Despite this, China continues to proclaim that its national asylum legislation is “under development.” As 36 years have passed since its original signing of the Convention, it is safe to say that refugee protection is not a government priority.

The failure of China’s international commitments was again highlighted in the 2014 U.N. Commission of Inquiry report on the human rights situation in North Korea, which condemned Beijing for not only repatriating North Koreans but also for failing to protect them from falling into the hands of human traffickers. [However, China] dogmatically continues to arrest and deport North Koreans, citing them exclusively as “illegal economic migrants.”

[Excerpts from Opinion by Evan Jones, program coordinator at the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network]