North Korean defector shocked she might have aided assassination of pastor

A North Korean defector has claimed she was forced to provide information on the movements of a pastor living in China who was helping defectors, shortly before he was murdered by agents of Pyongyang’s Ministry of State Security.

Han Chung-ryeol, a pastor at a church in China’s Changbai City, helped to run a network that assisted people fleeing the border region before they could be caught and sent back to North Korea. He disappeared in April 2016 but was later found dead with a slashed throat.

In an interview with the Seoul-based DailyNK news site, the woman, who defected from North Korea in June, explained  she had been caught smuggling medicinal herbs and scrap metal into North Korea, and local authorities forced her to become an informant.

She was ordered to record the movements of Pastor Han and pass the information on to security officers.

The woman, who has not been named, said she was “shocked” when she learned that the information she had been providing was used to kill Mr Han.

[The Telegraph]

North Korean defector repair boy

Kim Hak-min, 30, was born in coal country in the North Korean province of North Hamgyong, which borders China. His father worked in the mines as an engineer.

At the age of 7, Kim became obsessed with electric gadgets. “I just wanted to disassemble everything,” he says. At 13, he started fixing neighbors’ watches and electrical appliances, earning the nickname “Repair Boy.” After his father died of liver cancer in 2003, Kim started making a living fixing people’s broken appliances. He got to know how televisions work.

“To prevent North Koreans from watching Chinese channels that air South Korean dramas, state security officials fix televisions so they only broadcast state-run channels. I was the kid in the town who could unlock that code and let people watch South Korean dramas. I watched them myself.”

He was arrested three times for watching forbidden dramas. The first two times he avoided punishment because he was underage. The third time he got caught, in early 2009, he was 22. “Watching a single drama can earn you a five-year sentence. I was busted for having watched hundreds! I was certain I would be sent to a far-flung prison camp, where I would perish.”

Soon after his arrest, beatings and sleep deprivation began. “They [interrogators] made you sit absolutely rigid for 15 hours straight,” he recalls. “If you move an inch, a punch follows.”

To his surprise, he was released after two months. “People in the town pleaded with the authorities to release me, for which I am forever grateful.” They were the neighbors and friends whose electric gadgets Kim had fixed in the past – often for free.

On a freezing day in January 2011, he crossed the frozen Yalu River to China with a girlfriend. After making another crossing into Thailand, a route arranged by defection brokers, the couple landed in Seoul in March 2011. Kim is now majoring at electronic engineering at Sogang University in Mapo District, western Seoul.

[JoongAng Ilbo]

The mystery of the defector now back in North Korea

The case of a Korean woman Lim Ji-hyun who defected from North Korea, made a new life for herself as a TV personality in the South and then “returned home” to the communist state three years later has left South Koreans wondering why such people return to the repressive state they once fled.

From her new vantage point in North Korea, Lim has denounced South Korea and TV Chosun, which produced the programs about defectors that she appeared in. Despite that, the South Korean public is still fascinated by her, because of intense curiosity about one puzzling question: Was her return to the North voluntary?

One North Korean defector, Kim Ji-young, who appeared with Lim on the show Moranbong Club, doesn’t think so.

Another Moranbong Club star, defector Kim Ka-young, believes Lim was kidnapped and taken back to Pyongyang against her will. “Why would she go back on her own? Of course she was kidnapped,” said Kim. “Every word she said during that interview sounded disingenuous and fabricated.”

According to Kim Kwang-jin, another defector who now is a researcher at the government-funded Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS) in Seoul, such “involuntary repatriation of North Korean defectors” — particularly from China — is not uncommon. “There are many other cases where North Korean defectors are abducted in China while trying to send money to their families in their homeland,” Kim told VOA.

Kim told VOA’s Korean service that almost everyone …who winds up back in the North was coerced: “Going back to North Korea after living [in the South] is a lot riskier than escaping from there. It’s like running into a fire, carrying fuel.”

[VoA]

North Korean defector: Time for intervention

Ae-ran was born in Pyongyang and spent her teenage years in captivity in a North Korean work camp.

She tells a standing room only crowd in the Seattle area about the beatings and starvation she endured. She escaped and defected to South Korea, where she started up a successful health and culinary institute for women like her. She was honored by the U.S. State Department in 2010 with an International Women of Courage Award, standing beside Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama.

She fought back tears reflecting on the story and is using it now as a driving force to prompt change in her native country. A packed house listened closely to her every word.

Ae-ran is expected to pass through multiple U.S. cities before returning to Seoul where she now lives. Ae-ran says she’s been prompted to speak out after the death of American Otto Warmbier after he was held in captivity in North Korea. “I do believe the North Korean government killed him,” she said through a translator Tuesday, and that she was surprised the death didn’t gather more attention in the United States.

In fact, Ae-ran says she thinks Kim Jong Un’s weapons testing is par for the course. “He’s trying to make people fear him,” she said, “by using nuclear weapons, and long distance missiles to make people around the world be afraid of him.” In fact, she says, it’s how he stays in power.

She added that in her belief there is only one solution for peace on the Korean Peninsula. “The answer for that, it’s very direct,” she said. “We need to remove Kim Jong Un and free the North Korean people.”

[King TV]

Family of 5 North Korean defectors arrested in China takes cyanide

A family of five North Korean defectors committed suicide last week after they were arrested in China, according to various media reports.

The father, a former member of the Korean Workers’ Party, his wife, and their three children crossed the Yalu River into China earlier this month, reports Radio Free Asia.

“Right after they were caught in Yunnan, they tried to bribe their way out through a local fixer, but once they were taken to Shenyang they probably lost hope,” Kim Hee-tae, an activist, told the Chosun Ilbo Sunday.

North Korean defectors are known to sometimes carry cyanide capsules, and suicide is not uncommon, although it is unusual for an entire family to commit suicide. The family “committed suicide because they were afraid of the severe punishment” they would face in North Korea, one of the brokers in China who was helping them escape revealed.

North Korean defector Grace Jo told the Daily Caller News Foundation, “China needs to stop sending people back. Thousands of people are trying to get out of North Korea, but the Chinese are standing in their way.”

[The Daily Caller]

China reportedly preps for crisis along border with North Korea

The Chinese military has reportedly been building up defenses along its border with North Korea that coincide with warnings by President Trump that he is considering military action over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons push.

The Wall Street Journal, citing a review of official military and government websites and interviews with experts, reported that Beijing has built bunkers to protect against nuclear blasts, established a new border brigade and a 24-hour surveillance of the mountainous frontier. The preparations are intended to respond to worst-case scenarios, like an economic collapse, nuclear contamination or a conflict, the experts told the paper.

The Chinese government has not spoken out about the report of preparations. An official from its defense ministry said in a statement that the forces “maintain a normal state of combat readiness and training.”

Mark Cozad, who works at the Rand Corp think tank, told the paper these preparations “go well beyond” creating a buffer zone at the border.

“If you’re going to make me place bets on where I think the U.S. and China would first get into a conflict, it’s not Taiwan, the South China Sea or the East China Sea: I think it’s the Korean Peninsula,” he said.

[Fox News]

North Korean men in Russia virtual slaves to Pyongyang

Some NGO workers helping trafficking victims said they estimated that 100,000 North Korean workers are in one region of Russia alone, working in gulag-like camps with salaries paid directly to the North Korean government.

“As in virtually every North Korean labor contract in foreign countries, employees’ wage payments are made to a DPRK government overseer or agent who skims off the lion’s share for dispatch to the Kim regime in Pyongyang, leaving a pittance for the individual DPRK laborers,” Tim Peters of Helping Hands Korea said.

The Global Slavery Index – an annual study of worldwide slavery conditions by country – estimates US$2.3 billion is generated per year for the North Korean government while civil society groups say North Korean workers earn only between US$120 and US$150 per month and “may be forced to work up to 20 hours per day with limited rest days”.

Steven Kim, founder of US-based 318 Partners, a non-profit organization that helps North Korean refugees, said he had met many North Korean men who were in forced labor in restaurants, on farms or factories and were exploited by Chinese business owners who threatened them with deportation. A few of these North Koreans reacted violently when they were not paid and subsequently were sent to prison.

[South China Morning Post]

North Korean defectors point out locations of mass graves using Google Earth

Commercial satellite imagery and Google Earth mapping software are helping a human-rights organization take inventory of the worst offenses of the North Korean regime and identify sites for future investigation of crimes against humanity.

A new report from the South Korea-based Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG)—a non-governmental organization that tracks human-rights abuses and crimes against humanity by the world’s most oppressive regimes—details how the organization’s researchers used Google Earth in interviews with defectors from North Korea to identify sites associated with mass killings by the North Korean regime. Google Earth imagery was used to help witnesses to killings and mass burials precisely point out the locations of those events.

“Although it is beyond our current capabilities to investigate and analyze the sites due to lack of access,” the researchers noted, “this research is a crucial first step in the pursuit of accountability for human rights crimes. It is also designed to serve first responders [NGO workers, forensic scientists, journalists, and others] who may enter North Korea in the future.”

Efforts to bring charges against North Korea’s regime in the International Criminal Court have been held up by resistance in the United Nations from China and Russia. However, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea (UN COI) continues to bring attention to abuses by the North Korean regime, and it has called for measures to be taken to end human rights abuses and hold those responsible for the abuse accountable. And the UN COI continues to gather evidence in a repository for use in a future process.

While the Mapping Project is still in its early stages, TJWG released the report to “attract wider participation from both informants and technical practitioners with expertise and knowledge that will advance the project,” the researchers said.

[Ars Technica]

Homosexuality virtually unheard-of in North Korea

When North Korean defector Jang Yeong-jin arrived in South Korea in 1997, officials debriefed him for five months but still hesitated to release him. They had one crucial question unanswered: Why did Mr. Jang decide to risk crossing the heavily armed DMZ border between the two Koreas?

“I couldn’t explain what it was that bothered me so much, made my life so miserable in North Korea, because I didn’t know until after I arrived here that I was a gay, or even what homosexuality was.” Mr. Jang said. His struggle continued even in the capitalist South, where he said he felt like a “double alien”: a North Korean refugee who was also gay.

Mr. Jang, 55, is the only known openly gay defector from North Korea living in the South. In  an autobiographical novel, “A Mark of Red Honor,” he described his experiences as a gay man growing up in the totalitarian North, where the government maintains that homosexuality does not exist because people there live with a “sound mentality and good morals.”

Mr. Jang said he never heard of homosexuality while growing up in Chongjin on the eastern coast of North Korea, even when he developed a crush on another boy. “When the subway was crowded, I sat on his lap, and he would hug me from behind,” Mr. Jang said. “People didn’t care, thinking we were childhood friends.”

“In North Korea, no ordinary people conceptually understand what homosexuality is,” said Joo Sung-ha, who attended the elite Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, in the 1990s and now works as a reporter for the mass-circulation South Korean daily Dong-A Ilbo. “In my university, only half the students may have heard of the word. Even then, it was always treated as some strange, vague mental illness afflicting subhumans, only found in the depraved West.”

[New York Times]

Defector appears in North Korean propaganda video

South Korean intelligence officials are investigating whether a prominent defector from the North has been kidnapped back to Pyongyang. In 2014, the woman, known as Lim Ji-hyun, fled to South Korea in 2014, where she became a popular TV personality.

In the North Korean video, she says she was lured away and forced to slander the North, and has voluntarily returned across the border.

The propaganda video was released on Youtube by the North Korean Uriminzokkiri website on Sunday. In the video, the woman introduces herself by another name, Jeon Hye-Sung. She is shown in conversation with an interviewer and Kim Man-bok, another former defector who also returned to the North.

She says she was lured to the South by the “fantasy” that she could “eat well and make lots of money” and claims that she was forced into slandering her own country. She describes how in the South everything was judged by money, how she was struggling to make ends meet and was asked to discredit the North on several TV shows. She said she was now living back with her parents again after returning to the North last month.

JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reports that the defector had thanked her fans as recently as April for a birthday party, calling it “possibly the happiest birthday of my life”.

Intelligence officials are investigating how Ms Lim might have re-entered North Korea. Some North Korean defectors have speculated that she may have been abducted on the China-North Korean border while attempting to smuggle out family members, the Korea Times reports.

Over the past decade, tens of thousands of North Koreans have defected from the authoritarian state into South Korea. The unification ministry in Seoul told the BBC that since 2012 only 25 have returned.

[BBC]