North Korean defectors caution US against Kim Jong Un’s deceptive strategies

In the weeks since his landmark summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Donald Trump has maintained that “all of Asia is thrilled”. One constituency, however, that does not share the US president’s enthusiasm are those who have lived and suffered under the regime in Pyongyang, who are increasingly convinced the bout of diplomacy is smoke and mirrors and the young marshal will never abandon his arsenal of nuclear weapons.

“So many people are delusional right now. Kim Jong Un only wants economic support”, said Hyeonseo Lee, high profile North Korean defector.

“Kim Jong Un will never, ever denuclearize,” said Park Mija, who fled North Korea during the first year of Mr Kim’s reign in 2012.

Criticisms of the US and South Korea — once standard fare in state media — have disappeared in recent months, raising hopes that genuine change is afoot. But Choi Jung-hoon, a former North Korean army officer now in the South, said: “The current rapprochement is just a show for Kim and a political strategy for Trump in the run-up to the US midterm elections in November.”

Park Sang-hak, a North Korean who runs an activist group in Seoul, echoes the sentiment, saying Mr Trump’s attitude will change once the elections are over. “I believe if Mr. Pompeo fails to persuade the North to pursue complete denuclearization, the Pentagon will deal with the matter,” he said.

Ms Lee stressed that despite her doubts, she hoped diplomacy would win and that North Korea would genuinely seek to denuclearize and build its economy. “I hope I am wrong,” she said, “so that I can go home.”

 [Financial Times]

As North and South Korea cosy up, human rights groups struggle for cash

Human rights and North Korean defector groups in South Korea say they are struggling to raise money, cutting jobs and programs, and facing pressure to avoid criticism of Pyongyang as Seoul and Washington focus on diplomatic outreach to the isolated country.

Activists say they were disappointed but unsurprized that human rights has seemingly disappeared from the agenda as South Korean and American leaders met with Kim Jong Un in recent months.President Moon Jae-in’s administration has moved away from criticism of Pyongyang’s rights record in favor of engagement. Senior aides to Moon have said they believe confronting Pyongyang could be counterproductive and possibly harmful to North Korean citizens, who will continue to suffer if their government remains isolated.

The South Korean government recently closed the office of a human rights foundation, and representatives of several non-governmental organizations said they have struggled to secure funding. The government ended nearly 20 years of funding for the Association of North Korean Defectors in December, forcing the organization to end most of its programs. South Korean citizens have also told the group to stop launching propaganda leaflets into North Korea because it would “throw a wet blanket on improving inter-Korean relations.”

Citing a lack of financial backing, as well as recent clashes between police and groups trying to send leaflets into North Korea, Kim Tae-hee, a defector who heads the Coalition for North Korean Refugees, said she feels the government is undermining the work of human rights and defector NGOs. The Citizen’s Alliance for North Korean Human Rights said their organization had also seen donations from South Korean corporations dry up over the past year.

Officials with the International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK), which is affiliated with international organizations like Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, said they have struggled to win new government grants.

UN investigators have reported the use of political prison camps, starvation and executions in North Korea, saying security chiefs and possibly even Kim Jong Un himself should face international justice.

[Asahi Shimbun]

For North Korean defectors, escape is ‘like jumping 50 years into the future’

When Jung-ae Gwak, 64, arrived in South Korea, she was often afraid to leave her apartment. “When I was in North Korea, so many things were restricted,” Gwak said. “When you were outside, you weren’t sure who was spying on you, so you always had to be conscious.”

Gwak’s husband died during “the Arduous March”—the famine that killed between 1 and 3 million North Koreans in the years after Kim Il-Sung’s death in 1994. In those years, Gwak sometimes crossed North Korea’s border with China to get food for her starving family. Her trips across the Tumin River raised suspicions, and in 2002 she slipped across the border to escape the regime; she was sent back to North Korea several times and spent time at a detention center for defectors before escaping for good in 2007.

The distance between North and South Korea may be less than three miles, but the Korea societies are decades apart. South Korea is a frenetic hub of modern technology and giddy consumerism; across the most heavily militarized border in the world, North Korea is a undeveloped country whose citizens suffer from intermittent power outages, widespread malnutrition, and a dearth of information about the outside world.

“One way of framing this is that coming from North Korea to South Korea is like jumping 50 years into the future in a day,” said Sokeel Park, a director at Liberty in North Korea, a defector assistance organization in Seoul.

The leap into modernity can be jarring when you’ve come from a place where public transportation can mean flagging down a tractor pulling a trailer. Negotiating the ever-expanding Seoul Metropolitan Subway, which has nine lines in the city and more spreading out to the region, can be a bewildering adventure. The system carries more than 7 million passengers a day, making it one of the busiest and best public transportation systems in the world. In North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang, the nation’s first and only subway system has only 16 stations, two lines. Most North Koreans have never set foot in it.

Gwak is particularly grateful for consistent, hot running water. “All of it feels like a dream really,” Gwak said. “When I think how good it would be if many people in North Korea could come to South Korea and all live well, I feel so bad for North Koreans. Worse than animals, compared to life here.”

[CityLab]

Running afoul of the North Korean state

For many years, Heo Yeong-hui and her husband, Choi Seong-ga, and their son, Choi Gyeong-hak, lived in relative comfort in Hyesan near the Chinese border. Heo, a talented singer, was a professor at the city’s University of Arts. Her husband played trombone in the Ryanggang musical performance group.

Heo recalls: “To others it probably seemed like I was living a comfortable life while there were people starving around me,” she said. Her life took a sharp turn five years ago. The Ministry of State Security asked her to monitor one of her students, a young woman who came under suspicion. Heo balked.

“They tried to scare me,” Heo said. “They said, ‘Is your son more important than a student?’’’

Heo was shaken. She pulled the student aside and suggested she try to flee North Korea, that it was only a matter of time before authorities arrested her. Security agents found out, and Heo and the student were sent to a detention facility.

When Heo was released, her mind was made up. “Even after I made the decision to defect, I thought it over a lot,” she said. “I couldn’t tell my son and I couldn’t tell my husband. That’s the type of country that North Korea is . . . So I thought, ‘Let me do it first. Let me go through the dangerous journey first and, if South Korea is a place that is worth it, I will bring them over.’”

Heo and the student jailed with her waded across the Yalu River on Sept. 26, 2014, into China. They managed to reach Thailand and boarded flights for Seoul, arriving on December 18, 2014.

Heo’s planning to bring her husband and son began at once. Brokers wanted $20,000 each to bring her husband and son out of North Korea, and another $12,000 to get them to Thailand. Friends agreed to lend her the money. Read more

A North Korean defector paid smugglers to get her family out. China sent them back.

Heo Yeong-hui, who fled North Korea in 2014, paid smugglers to try to bring her husband and son through China to reunite in South Korea.

Her husband was a trombone player in North Korea who liked to whistle the Irish ballad “Danny Boy” as a private serenade for his wife. His son gained a medical degree in Pyongyang and wanted to become a professor.

Sometime late last year, the two men disappeared into the North Korean gulags that hold a special place of punishment for defectors caught by Chinese authorities and who are then sent back over the border.

Now Heo has agreed to tell her story to The Washington Post, abandoning the normal cloak of anonymity used by defectors worried that speaking openly could endanger relatives back home. She is taking a chance. Her voice and others like hers, she believes, are needed to shape the debate over North Korea’s future and efforts to hold the regime accountable.

It’s impossible to put a precise number on North Korean defectors sent back by China. Most groups, including the Database Center, say it could be in the hundreds of thousands since the 1990s. China has resisted international calls to end the repatriations despite international pressure.

A 2014 U.N. report said those returned could face being “forcibly ‘disappeared’ into political prison camps, imprisoned in ordinary prisons or even summarily executed.”

[Washington Post]

North Korea systematically tortures North Koreans sent back by China

Even as diplomacy moves at a dizzying pace with North Korea, many human rights activists and others take issue with what’s missing. So far, the talks have cautiously avoided a direct spotlight on the North’s staggering record of abuses and political repression in apparent attempts to keep the outreach with Kim Jong Un from unraveling.

Also little discussed in the high-level dialogue is Beijing’s role in shipping back defectors snared by Chinese security forces.

Any comprehensive peace deal with Kim must deeply involve China, the political and economic big brother of the North. But a full reckoning on rights abuses will also touch on China’s practice of declaring the defectors to be economic migrants rather than people fleeing oppression — and deporting them.

“Sadly, through thick and thin in the bilateral relationship, one of the things Pyongyang and Beijing continually agree on is they don’t want North Koreans seeking freedom by fleeing across China,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “There is no sugarcoating the fact North Korea systematically tortures every North Korean sent back by China.”

[Washington Post]

Some North Korean defectors hopeful after Trump-Kim Jong Un summit

Two prominent North Korean defectors told CBS News they were “disappointed” by President Trump’s summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Singapore, but expressed hope in the American president’s efforts to usher in peace on the Korean Peninsula. With pageantry surrounding the historic meeting but scant mention of the regime’s brutal human rights record, activist Park Sang-hak wondered what had changed.

“Maybe he was thinking about America’s national interests first, or forgot the contents of his address before the National Assembly in Seoul last year. I was very sad,” said Park, founder of Fighters for a Free North Korea. The son of a former North Korean spy who defected with his family to the South in 2000, Park is known for his work launching balloons with USB drives, transistor radios and pro-democracy literature into North Korea. He has been the target of two foiled assassination attempts by North Korean spies.

Lee Ae-ran, founder of the Center for Liberty and Unification and the first defector to run for the South Korean National Assembly, wondered if Mr. Trump had been “fooled again like previous presidents.” But upon digesting Mr. Trump’s press conference post-summit, where he told reporters he had “discussed” the human rights abuses of the dynastic Kim regime “strongly” but “relatively briefly compared to denuclearization,” Lee said she became more understanding of the circumstances.

Mr. Trump drew criticism when he continued his praise for Kim. “He’s a funny guy, he’s very smart, he’s a great negotiator. He loves his people, not that I’m surprised by that, but he loves his people,” he told Voice of America. Lee said she was “dumbfounded” by the statement, but took it as diplomatic rhetoric. “I felt like [President Trump] was pacifying a child. Could President Trump actually think Kim Jong Un ‘loves’ the North Korean people? If he loved them, that child would never act the way he does.

Park said he hopes Mr. Trump will stand on the side of tens of millions of North Koreans who are “victims,” rather than with Kim Jong Un. Only if Kim dismantles his country’s notorious political prison camps will Park believe he can be trusted on promises to work toward the U.S. goal of complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization.

[CBS News]

North Korean defectors vow to fight on against Kim Jong-un government

Some North Korean defectors who have made new lives in the South vow they will never stop fighting for the removal of the government in Pyongyang even if  Kim Jong Un agrees to give up his nuclear weapons.

Choi Jung-hoon, a former North Korean army officer, who defected to the South in 2006 and who survived a North-driven assassination attempt in 2013, insists the Moon-Kim meeting will to do little to change his mind about the country he fled.

“No matter the outcome of these summits, our goal will still ultimately be regime change,” Mr. Choi said in an interview recently.

He spoke inside a discreet office in the South Korean capital, where he and handful of other defectors run Free North Korea Radio, a nonprofit that has piped subversive shortwave news broadcasts into the North since 2006.

Mr. Choi told The Washington Times the harrowing story of his own escape from North Korea, where he grew up never thinking of himself as an opponent of the regime. His views changed in 2006 after unintentionally running afoul of the government when he sought money in exchange for helping a South Korean family locate a kidnapped relative in the North.

[Washington Times]

The Father of Defectors

Kim Yong-hwa, 64, fled North Korea in 1988, and later formed the North Korean Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea in Seoul to look after those who continue to arrive and face difficulties settling in.

He begins: “I joined the Korean People’s Army in 1970 but left to work on a railroad safety project a decade later. In 1988, there was an accident and I was [accused] of not being loyal to the state. If I had stayed, I would’ve been shot in public just like the four others who were also blamed for the accident.

“So I fled to China and then Vietnam, Laos, and finally South Korea, spending months and  months in detention along my journey.

“I don’t know where my family is. I heard through others that they were killed after I fled. I was not able to speak to them after I fled North Korea.

“[Once settled in South Korea] in 2005, I founded the North Korean Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea. Our group sends money, clothes and medicine to defectors who are having a difficult time. There are a lot of young women in China who are sold in the sex industry or as wives. Men are also treated as slaves and they’ll be forced to work on farms but won’t be given any money.

“I’ve help save almost 6,000 defectors so far and the media calls me the ‘Father of Defectors’. But the job isn’t done yet.

[Al Jazeera]

North Korean defectors ‘treated like animals’

Scott Kim first escaped North Korea at the age of 17 in 2001. At the time, he and his mother only wanted to get across the border to China so they could eat hot meals. Growing up during North Korea’s deadly famine in the late ’90s, Kim had spent much of his childhood starving.

Today, Kim lives in South Korea and owns a business trading automobile and railway parts. He is currently working on an English-language memoir about his experiences with the help of Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR), a volunteer-run organization in Seoul helping defectors develop English skills.

But it was a long and dangerous six years in and out of China before he got to Seoul.

“At the detention center in North Korea where i was held, we lost all our rights as human beings,” Kim told Business Insider. “We were treated like animals, literally. We had to crawl on the floor to move from place to place.”

Kim was put in a cell with 20 other defectors. There was one toilet in the corner and no space to lie down. Day and night, the defectors sat on the ground.

When he or other defectors were told to down the corridor to the warden’s office, they were made to crawl on their hands and feet. Officers beat them with gloves and sticks as they went.

An estimated 100,000 North Koreans or more currently live in detention centers, political prisons, or labor camps where they endure hard labor, torture, and starvation. Kim’s description of his experience comes amid President Donald Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who has been accused of killing his own people. But when asked about the North Korean dictator’s human rights violations, Trump appeared to be an apologist for the dictator’s actions.

[Business Insider]