Ellie Cha’s father, once a respected vice-president in a North Korean mining company, lost his job. An aunt had fled to China and the family was now regarded as potentially disloyal to the Kim regime.
So in 2012, Cha’s family made the decision to leave North Korea. It was the start of an arduous three-month journey across China and Southeast Asia to reach asylum in South Korea. Much of it was spent in prison cells.
Almost no North Korean defectors cross directly from North Korea into South Korea. The border is too well-guarded and it can be hard for ordinary North Koreans to travel around within their own country. So most people, especially those like Cha’s family who live near the border, cross into China.
But it’s hard for them to stay there. Because China has a relationship with North Korea, fleeing North Koreans are often caught by Chinese authorities and sent back home to face terrible punishments, including work camps or prison.
Instead, North Koreans typically head through China into Southeast Asia to find a South Korean embassy, where they can claim asylum and apply for South Korean citizenship. Read more
Ellie Cha’s family paid Chinese brokers to smuggle them across the North Korean border, one by one. Cha was reunited with her father and 12-year-old brother in China, but their ride wasn’t waiting for them when they arrived. So, Cha’s first night of freedom was spent outdoors, on the side of a mountain. After two days of cold rain on the mountain, their Chinese contact arrived and took the family to meet their mother, then they spent six days driving south through China by bus, eventually reaching Vietnam.
“During that time it was very scary for us, because we knew that if we were caught by Chinese authorities, they would send us to North Korea,” she said. “And strong punishment would await us in North Korea.”
They intended to go to the South Korean embassy in Hanoi, but were arrested by the Vietnamese police before they could get there. They spent three weeks in Vietnamese jail cells. After much confusion, they were sent back to the Chinese border. Cha was afraid.
They were eventually released back into China, and so they tried again. They went through this five times before trying a different route through Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, where they finally ended up in a refugee camp and were able to contact the South Korean authorities.
Cha believes Canadians and Westerners confuse North Korea’s public face – its robotic propaganda and seemingly fanatical devotion to Kim Jong Un — with the North Korean people. “Please remember the people’s lives, people still living under the repressive society.”
In the North Korean media, news stories are made, not covered, said Chang Hae Seong. He was a former journalist for the North’s Korean Central Television (KCTV) and is now a defector living in Seoul. “While working as a reporter at the Division of Revolution I at the TV station, I dignified Kim Il Sung to elevate him to being the hero who saved the country,” he said during a recent interview with Korea Times.
When Kim Il Sung died of cardiac arrest in 1994 and the leadership was passed to his son Kim Jong Il, the next person in the so-called Mount Paektu Bloodline. “I did research on Kim to find stories. If I found even a speck of something positive about him, I would exaggerate it to recreate a whole story to portray him as a great leader,” Chang said. ”Reporters were ordered to make and report stories about the Kim family to justify their policies.”
Chang said he got into trouble in the 1990s after he shared classified information about the Kim family with one of his co-workers, and finally defected to evade arrest from the security forces.
According to Chang, North Korean state media’s current policy was established during the Kim Jong Il era. His son Kim Jong Un, who took power in late 2011 following his father’s death, has largely followed the guidelines set by his father. Chang said that the media environment in the reclusive country has changed a lot since he fled the North in 1996. Ordinary North Koreans now have greater access to news from foreign media.
In the 2000s, some defectors worked together to provide fact-based news programs for North Koreans. Today North Koreans can secretly tune their radios to listen to news from any of the several radio stations that specialize in such news.
[The Straits Times]
Four North Korean defectors have told VOA in video messages intended for U.S. President Donald Trump what they want him to do and say during his visit to South Korea. The messages were delivered ahead of Trump’s departure Friday morning for a 12-day, five-nation tour which is expected to focus on tensions over North Korea’s its development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
“If [Trump’s] coming to strengthen Korea-U.S. relations, he’s welcome, but if he’s coming to foment a war between the two Koreas, I cannot welcome him,” said Kim Young Soo, a defector and former soldier who arrived in South Korea in 2006. “As a head of state, I think he could be more discreet when talking about a war.”
The defectors want Trump to persuade China, Pyongyang’s only remaining ally, to stop repatriating North Koreans who take refuge there. “While seeking freedom, they are put at risk of being captured by Chinese authorities and being forcibly returned to North Korea,” said Ji Seong-ho, a defector. “They may even face death. So I sincerely would like to ask President Trump to urge China’s Xi Jinping to stop repatriation of North Koreans so that they can attain their dreams of freedom.”
And they want him to keep up the pressure on North Korea with sanctions. “It’ll take an insurgency against the regime to bring about a revolution,” said Ri Sun Kyong, who arrived to South Korea in 2002. “Every single country in the world should … increase pressure so an insurgency takes place.”
North Korean spies infiltrated South Korea to threaten people who had fled the hermit kingdom, South Korea’s Unification Minister said Tuesday.
South Korean Minister Cho Myoung-Gyonto said his country would work to increase protections for defectors in the south, including by putting more limits on who can access the database holding defectors’ personal information. The minister said North Korean spies and hackers may have infiltrated the database to steal the personal data of North Koreans who had escaped.
“There is a real challenge for North Koreans because they usually aren’t well educated, they stand out, their dialect is different and they are smaller,” explained Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center. “And there is a long history of North Korea sending people into the south [as spies].”
“North Korean security officials are also visiting defector families and applying pressure to make them talk the defectors into returning home,” a source said.
Despite the dangers in South Korea, North Koreans who have made it south are luckier than many who get stuck in China on their way. This summer, at least 70 North Korean defectors were intercepted in China, held in detention centers and eventually deported back to North Korea. Human rights experts criticize China for repatriating North Korean defectors, but Beijing continues to abide by a 1986 treaty with Pyongyang that includes a repatriation agreement.
China has removed hundreds of South Koreans and closed their churches for allegedly helping North Korean defectors, as part of a clampdown on religious activities by the communist country amid soaring tensions on the Korean peninsula.
The authorities in the three provinces – Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang – had hundreds of South Korean pastors and missionaries living there. A source told The Korean Herald: “As they were sent back home, churches were closed automatically.”
The authorities’ action is also interpreted as a pre-emptive measure before China implements new regulations on religious affairs, which will take effect on February 1 of next year. Under the new directive, organizers of unapproved religious activities in China will face fines of up to £34,084 (300,000 yuan) and anybody providing a venue for “illegal religious events” will face fines of between £2,272 (20,000 yuan) and £22,722 (200,000 yuan).
The new rules, which apply to all religions ranging from Christianity to Buddhism, also allow lower-level authorities to take care of affairs relating to unsanctioned religious activities, which will bring religious groups in China under tighter scrutiny.
China, Pyongynag’s only ally, regularly sends back North Korea defectors despite them facing “systematic” torture under Kim Jong-un’s regime. A report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2016 found: “Accounts from North Korean defectors indicate individuals caught trying to defect or forcibly repatriated from China are severely punished, particularly those believed to have interacted with missionaries or engaged in religious activities.”
The totalitarian state of North Korea forces the estimated 300,000 Christians living there to hide their religious beliefs and fellowship among each other.
“In a nation where the ruling regime demands total control over the general public, anything that challenges the government’s power is seen as a threat, including religion,” Jeff King, president of International Christian Concern, told Fox News. “As a result, the North Korean government does everything in its power to squash the spread of Christianity.”
This leads much of the religious population in North Korea to go underground with their worship. On the subject, North Korean defector Choi Kwanghyuk said, “North Hamgyong province is very cold. In the winter, we would dig a big hole and store kimchi there. We sometimes had services there. In the summer, we had services in the mountain or by the river. …We had only one Bible.”
In 2008, North Korean authorities caught up to Choi and arrested him. He said that he was about to be sent to one of North Korea’s brutal labor camps when he was able to break free. “I decided to escape because I thought that once they sent me to the other camp, they could eventually send me to the concentration camp or kill me,” Choi recalled. “I was traveling back and forth between China and North Korea, but they kept searching for me, and I knew it could put my friends in danger too, so I left.”
“Unfortunately, it is inexplicably easy to wind up in one of these camps. While someone can be sent to one of these camps for openly evangelizing, someone can just as easily be sent there for simply being in contact with a religious person,” said King.
North Korean Choi Kwanghyuk is one of the lucky ones. The 55-year-old managed to escape from the work camp where he was sent after being targeted and persecuted by the government for his Christian faith.
Despite having to hide his faith in plain sight while living in North Hamgyong province, Choi was still compelled to bring religion to others when he started an underground church. “If that information had leaked, we could have faced the death penalty.”
North Korea is ranked the most oppressive place for Christians in the world and has had that ignominious status for years, according to Open Doors USA.
“[Choi’s] statements describing oppression, as well as his report of imprisonment for owning a Bible or practicing faith, align with everything we know about North Korea,” Open Doors President David Curry told Fox News. “Rated the worst place for the persecution of Christians, North Korea treats Christians horrendously and registers them as ‘enemies of the state’ for their faith.”
In 2008, North Korean authorities caught up to Choi and arrested him. He was held in prison by the state security department where he says he was interrogated about his faith. “I was tortured there,” he said. Read more
After Choi Kwanghyuk escaped from his native North Korea to neighboring China, he heard how the general image of North Korean defectors was not positive among those in South Korea.
“So, I applied for asylum in the U.S.,” he told Fox News.
Choi was granted asylum in the U.S. in 2013. He first lived in Dallas before eventually moving to Los Angeles where he now lives.
Choi said that as a result of injuries he received while being tortured, he is unable to work but has committed himself to telling the world about the human rights abuses in his native land.
“First of all, every human must have the right to freedom,” he said. “There is no freedom in North Korea. By law, they have the freedom of religion and the freedom of the press, but the reality is very different.”
And despite the hardships he may face, Choi said that life in the U.S. is a vast improvement. “There is an enormous difference between my life in North Korea and my life in the U.S,” he said. “The life in North Korea is hell … life in America is heaven.”
The Treasury Department on Thursday issued new sanctions on seven individuals and three entities connected to the North Korean regime in conjunction with a new report from the State Department on human rights abuses within the hermit kingdom.
The sanctions were issued by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, and they freeze any property or interest in property within U.S. jurisdiction and generally prohibit any transactions by U.S. citizens with any of the sanctioned individuals or groups. Among the sanctioned entities are the Government of North Korea and the Workers’ Party of Korea.
“North Korea is run by a brutal regime that continues to engage in serious human rights abuses. We are especially concerned with the North Korean military, which operates as secret police, punishing all forms of dissent. Further, the military operates outside of North Korea to hunt down asylum seekers, and brutally detains and forcibly returns North Korean citizens,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
“Today’s sanctions target the North Korean military and regime officials engaged in flagrant abuses of human rights. We also are targeting North Korean financial facilitators who attempt to keep the regime afloat with foreign currency earned through forced labor operations.”