North Korean defectors watch Kim Jong-un’s visit to South Korea with skepticism

On the eve of a historic summit of the leaders of North and South Korea, the prospect of a diplomatic thaw and improved relations vexes many of North Korean defectors who have made new lives in South Korea.

The skepticism comes amid a wave of more general optimism.

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.

Mr. Choi grew up never thinking of himself as an opponent of the regime but 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]

Even educated North Korean refugees face new challenges in the South

When elite North Korean soldier Joo Seung-hyeon made his way through the Demilitarized Zone in 2002, avoiding minefields and watchtowers to defect to the South, he thought he was going to a prosperous new life. Joo was partly lured by the promise of a “free and prosperous life” blasted from giant loudspeakers set up by the South’s army along the border. Abandoning his guard post, it took him just 30 minutes to cross the DMZ, crawling under electric barbed wire fences and walking across minefields.

The reality was more complicated than that. South Korea’s pressure-cooker society was a shock. “I was suddenly thrown into this ultra-competitive world ruled by the survival of the fittest,” he wrote. “I realized that I … may never be able to remove this scarlet letter of ‘North Korean defector’.”

Ostracized by Southerners who he says see their Northern cousins as “poor, uncivilized barbarians”, he was dismissed at countless interviews for menial jobs as soon as he revealed his thick accent. One restaurant he found work at paid him half the wages of fellow South Koreans.

But he persevered, eliminating his original tones by repeating radio broadcasts, earning a degree in his spare time, and following up with a PhD in unification studies – the first such doctorate ever earned by a North Korean defector.

Even after graduating, more than 100 job applications in which he identified himself as a defector were rejected. But as soon as he hid that piece of information he started securing interviews and even a few job offers. Now 37, he teaches at several universities in what he described a “rare, lucky case”.

Now he has written a book detailing the challenges faced by Northern defectors in what has become a radically different society. His book tells many heartbreaking stories – including one refugee who committed suicide after struggling to earn a college diploma but still being unable to secure a job. Some South Koreans see the refugees as “untouchables” and another emigrated after South Korean parents at his child’s school publicly protested that their offspring should not mix with his.

Joblessness among defectors is 7 per cent, nearly twice the overall figure in the South, while their monthly income is about half the national average. About 20 per cent of them fall victim to fraud, theft and other crimes, a study showed, noting many then lose a state cash subsidy intended to help them resettle.

[Channel NewsAsia]

North Koreans face chronic food shortages

A North Korean defector activist who requested anonymity told JoongAng Ilbo reporter Lee Young-jong a chronic food shortage is spreading throughout North Korea and ordinary people are “suffering” because in some areas the public distribution system has been suspended.

“There are stories the distribution network has virtually collapsed, not only in Pyongyang but also in regional cities,” the source said, adding worries about price instability are hampering the proper distribution of groceries in informal markets.

North Koreans are fearful of a second Great Famine, when as many as 3 million North Koreans may have died.

Seoul’s unification ministry and national intelligence service are not alarmed, however. Both agencies have said sanctions have hit North Korea but the state has not reached a stage where it needs emergency relief, according to Lee.

That position contradicts statements from the Food and Agriculture Organization, which stated in its Global Report on Food Crises that 41 percent of the population, or 10.5 million people, are undernourished in North Korea.

[UPI]

China’s continued efforts to apprehend North Korean defectors

China’s continued forced deportation of North Korean defectors, who face imprisonment or even death upon return to the repressive state, has received muted international criticism, as diplomatic efforts have intensified to negotiate a denuclearization deal with Pyongyang.

In the first three months of 2018, China apprehended at least 41 undocumented North Korean migrants, who crossed the Sino-Korean border, and more than 100 others between July 2016 and December 2017, according to the advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

The Chinese crackdown on these defectors, which has intensified in recent years, could get worse as relations improve between Beijing and Pyongyang, following Kim Jong Un’s recent meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“If relations between China and North Korea are good, North Korean authorities will be able to put pressure on the issue of North Korean defectors,” said Ahn Chan-il, a North Korean defector and analyst with the World Institute of North Korean studies.

Xi is likely to demonstrate greater solidarity on border security enforcement, with little regard for humanitarian concerns. “He’s using these defectors to say to Pyongyang that we are still your friend, we are committed to working with you, and we don’t want these people either,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.

Robertson says China’s forced deportation policy is in violation of a 1951 United Nations convention, which Beijing signed, recognizing the right of asylum for a people fleeing persecution.

[VoA]

A nuclear deal could increase risk for North Korean defectors

In recent years North Korea increased the number of guards and security measures at the border to prevent defections, that are viewed as a threat to the Kim government’s tight control over the population.

An estimated 100,000 undocumented North Koreans currently live in China, and many other defectors attempt dangerous journeys through China to reach a third country like Thailand or Mongolia, where they can request asylum in South Korea.

However human rights activists are concerned the progressive government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in is taking a passive approach to supporting defectors and confronting human rights violations on North Korea, in an effort to improve inter-Korean relations and facilitate a nuclear deal with the U.S.

U.S. President Donald Trump has been a more vocal critic of North Korean human rights violations, and some defectors expect he will confront Kim Jong Un on this issue when they meet for their summit, that is expected to take place in late May or early June.

However other advocates have voiced concern that Trump may be using human rights criticisms as a negotiating tacit to reach a better deal to end the North Korean nuclear threat.

[VoA]

Missionaries at the border spread Christianity to North Koreans

To the North Koreans gathered beneath a crucifix in an apartment in this northeastern Chinese border region, the 69-year-old Korean-Chinese woman is known as “mom.” She feeds them, gives them a place to stay and, on occasion, money.

Such border missionaries provide their North Korean visitors with room and board, and those escaping with places to hide. In return, they ask them to memorize the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed and other prayers. Some of the most trusted converts return home to North Korea and covertly share what they’ve learned, sometimes carrying Bibles.

It’s almost impossible to determine what happens when those North Koreans return home to evangelize. People involved in Bible distribution, secret prayer services and underground church networks are imprisoned or executed, according to activists and defectors.

Along the North Korean border, dozens of such missionaries are engaged in work that puts them and their North Korean converts in danger. Most are South Koreans, but others, like this 69-year-old woman, are ethnic Koreans whose families have lived in China for generations.

In recent years, 10 such front-line missionaries and pastors have died mysteriously, according to the Rev. Kim Kyou Ho, head of the Seoul-based Chosen People Network, a Christian group that runs a memorial hall in the South Korean capital for the victims. North Korea is suspected in all those deaths.

Hundreds of other missionaries have been imprisoned or expelled by China, which bans foreigners from proselytizing.

[AP]

Experiences of a 15-year-old defector in a North Korean labor camp

Charles Ryu said he’s one of only 275 North Korean defectors living in the United States.

With an easy smile and calm voice … Ryu shares how he managed to escape not once, but twice from the most repressive regime in the world.

Ryu was born in 1994 to a Chinese father, who abandoned Ryu at age 5, and North Korean mother, who died of starvation when Ryu was 11.

When he was 14, Ryu and his stepbrother escaped North Korea. They bribed border guards, swam across a river and met Ryu’s father in a taxi in China.

But Ryu’s joy was temporary. He was captured by Chinese police and was kept in a Chinese jail for two weeks before being sent back to North Korea. Upon reentering his home country, Ryu was interrogated for months by the North Korean government.

Fifteen-year-old Ryu was then sent to a labor camp where he was given 150 kernels of rice to fuel 12 hours of work every day. One morning, Ryu was so overcome by starvation that he ate rice from dry vomit he found on a roadside.

After nine months, Ryu couldn’t stand or even lift an arm. While others have to work until they die, Ryu was released after nine months because of his young age, physical weakness and relatively insignificant crime of trying to unite with his father.  Continued

Ryu’s second and successful escape to China

After his release from a North Korean labor camp for defecting, Ryu started working at a coal mine. He said his peers went crazy when he shared the freedoms he had experienced in China, like watching South Korean dramas and K Pop, and eating white rice, seafood and fruit.

“Every time I told these stories to my friends, it also reminded me, ‘What am I doing here,’ “Ryu said.  He concluded the risk of escaping for a second time, a crime punishable by death, outweighed working in a coal mine until he died or lost a limb.

So he stole five flashlights from the coal mine, sold them for food and waited three months for an opportunity to travel to the border.  When he spotted a train car bound for the North Korean border, Ryu seized his chance. He took advantage of his young age and small stature, telling the train guard his mom had already boarded the train with their tickets.

He spent the next two days hiding from the guards on the train. Ryu said the train had almost reached its destination when he was grabbed by his neck and told he would be handed over to the police at the next stop. Ryu jumped off the moving train, rolled into a ditch and sprinted into nearby woods.

He walked for hours and illegally boarded another train before finally making it to the border town.  He then swam through a river and walked for three days, without water or food, into China. Just when he had enough blisters he couldn’t continue, Ryu met a motorcyclist who helped him travel to his father.

With the help of an unknown travel broker, Ryu migrated to Southeast Asia and arranged for his passage to the U.S. Since arriving in America five years ago, Ryu has graduated high school and worked as a sushi chef, Uber and Lyft driver and driving instructor.

Despite the brainwashing, interrogation and labor he endured, Ryu said he does not resent North Korea. “It’s my hometown,” Ryu said. “It’s not the people I hate. It’s the government.”

[Indiana Daily Student]

Young North Korean defectors find new life in the South

Five years ago, as young boys, they crossed a frozen river in the dark of winter. As they passed from North Korea into China, they didn’t yet understand that they were leaving their homes for good. More than 6,000 miles later, Park Kwon’s and Ju Cheol Kwang’s separate trek to freedom brought them to South Korea, where they met as roommates in a group home for other young North Korean defectors.

“It is more comfortable [in South Korea],” Cheol Kwang said through a translator, “but sometimes I think of my hometown. That can be difficult.” Their childhoods have been on their minds lately, with the announcement earlier this month of unprecedented summits between North and South Korean leaders, and President Donald Trump that could happen this spring. For the teenagers, the talks raise long-buried hopes of someday being reunited with their families.

The friends, now 16, have worked hard to adjust to their new lives in Seoul. Like other recent defectors, they face a more difficult reality than those who arrived to the South even one or two decades earlier. They must contend with rapidly evolving technology and a highly competitive labor market that requires them to match their peers in one of the most wired countries on the planet.

“South Korea is a completely different society,” said Ji Cheol-ho, a 32-year-old North Korean defector. If you don’t study, you won’t understand this society, and if you don’t understand South Korean society, you’ll never become part of it.”

Cheol Kwang and Kwon live with several other boys in the group home they share in suburban Seoul. Adapting to school has been difficult. “What a North Korean sixth-grader learned in math or languages is the equivalent for a South Korean fourth-grader”, says Kwon. “My teachers and tutors have been saying, ‘Now is the time you have to really start studying,'” he said.

Ki-won Chun, a pastor whose faith-based Durihana Mission has rescued more than 1,100 North Korean refugees from China since 1999, said “It can only be difficult for these children, because they were born into a completely different culture.”   Read more

Teen-age defectors adapt to life in Seoul

What binds Park Kwon’s and Ju Cheol Kwang together are their stories. Cheol Kwang spent his childhood in North Korea laboring in the fields of Ryanggang Province to help support his family, so he didn’t go to school. His father died when he was 8. Four years later, in 2013, he and an older sister were told by their mother that they had to leave North Korea. He doesn’t remember much of the odyssey and is careful to protect the details of his family and escape, but he said he crossed into China on a frozen river. He stayed for about two weeks before being smuggled into Laos and was then granted safe passage into South Korea.

Kwon’s path to the South started from the mountainous mining region of North Hamgyong Province. In the winter of 2013, when he was 11, his family told him he would be going to his cousins’ home nearby. He saw his parents for what he didn’t know was the final time. With his older cousins, he snuck into China on the narrow Tumen River at night.  After a month in China, he was smuggled to Thailand, where police detained him. When they asked where he wanted to go, he gave only one answer: South Korea.

As required of all defectors, even children, the boys spent three months at a resettlement center outside of Seoul that teaches basics about South Korea and its history, as well as how to use its currency and transportation. The center also provides medical treatment and psychological counseling. They met at the group home in June 2014.

It felt like a dream. “The quality of food, clothing and shelter is so good. It’s the complete opposite of North Korea in that way, which was a pleasant surprise,” Cheol Kwang said. He was amazed to see most people in the South had cars, carried cellphones and lived in tall, modern buildings with electricity that didn’t flicker out in a storm. On television, the choice of channels was endless. In North Korea, there was only one — and it showed state propaganda.

[NBC News]