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]

China condemns US sanctions over ‘North Korea funding’

China has reacted angrily to a US decision to impose sanctions on a Chinese bank, the Bank of Dandong, accused of laundering North Korean money.  A foreign ministry spokesman urged the US to “stop wrongful actions” to avoid harming co-operation.

The US announced the move, as well as sanctions on a Chinese shipping company and two Chinese nationals, on Thursday. It said the blacklisting was aimed at cutting funds to North Korea’s weapons programs.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told a news conference, the move was not a response to Chinese inaction on North Korea, saying: “This is not directed at China, this is directed at a bank, as well as individuals and entities in China.”

The UN has already imposed several rounds of sanctions on Pyongyang, but China is widely seen as the nation most able to impose economic pain on North Korea.

The sanctions mean that the Bank of Dandong will be barred from doing business in the US. Mr Mnuchin said that the US could impose more sanctions in the future.

The sanctions were announced as new South Korean President Moon Jae-in held talks with President Trump in Washington.

In a separate development, the US announced the sale of $1.42bn (£1.09bn) worth of arms to Taiwan, the first such transaction under the Trump administration. US arms sales to Taiwan always anger Beijing because it considers the self-governing island part of its territory. In a statement, the Chinese embassy in Washington called on the US to revoke its decision, saying China had “every right to be outraged”.

Earlier in the week, the US also placed China on its list of the worst offenders in human trafficking and forced labor – the first major move by the new administration over Beijing’s human rights record.

[BBC]

Defecting through the DMZ

The Demilitarized Zone or DMZ is a strip of land 250km (155 miles) long and 4km (2.5 miles) wide that runs across the Korean Peninsula, heavily mined and fortified with barbed wire, rows of surveillance cameras and electric fencing.

It is also closely guarded by tens of thousands of troops on both sides, making it almost impossible to walk across.

Yet on June 13th a North Korean soldier defected to the South by walking across that heavily protected DMZ separating the two sides. The North Korean soldier, who has not been officially identified, approached a South Korean guard post to surrender himself.

And this is the third defection by a North Korean soldier via the DMZ in the last three years, one in September 2016 and before that, in June 2015.

Nobody knows the number of unsuccessful attempts to cross the DMZ have been made by desperate defectors-to-be. If spotted by the North Korean military, those trying to cross the DMZ would certainly be taken to a detention center to be interrogated. They could be tried and sentenced to lengthy terms in labor camps.

[BBC]

North Korea defectors find haven in London suburb

Around 5,300 miles from North Korea’s brutal dictatorship, the bland commuter suburb of New Malden (“Little Pyongyang”) has become an improbable home to hundreds of escapees.

New Malden sits on the edge of the British capital and the rural county of Surrey. It’s the type of place that, despite its ZIP code, most city-dwellers might dismiss as not-really-London. It boasts a huge Korean population, officially around 3,500 but with some estimates putting it closer to 20,000 in the wider borough. Of this community, several hundred are North Korean — making it the largest such community in Europe and one of the biggest outside the Korean Peninsula.

Kim Kwang Myong’s story is a common one. Like many people here, he fled North Korea but left family members behind. The regime often exercises a merciless policy of collective punishment against remaining relatives, sending them to labor camps, or worse. “My big brother is currently in prison in North Korea and he’s not getting released any time soon,” Kim Kwang Myong told NBC News. “The reason he is in prison is because of us fleeing the country.”

Picking his moment, Kim bribed some border guards to vacate a stretch of North Korea’s river border with China, allowing him to cross with his wife and two children. That was 20 years ago.  He has since lived illegally in China and then in South Korea before coming to the U.K. four years ago.

Kim has tried to help his relatives who stayed behind by sending them money. It was this that led to them being punished after authorities discovered the transactions. “My younger brother was sent to prison and stayed there for one year but got released. But my big brother has not been so lucky,” he said.

His family has suffered, and that knowledge weighs heavily on Kim.

[NBC]                                                                                                                   Read more

Do-or-die decisions and a family ripped in two

King is a North Korean defector living in New Malden. A 34-year-old restaurateur who runs a Korean barbecue, he only wants to be identified by his nickname “King” amid fears of his family being punished.

His story is also one of heart-wrenching do-or-die decisions and a family ripped in two.

King fled his homeland with his mother and sister when he was aged 18. But his father, a high school teacher who felt loyalty to his job and fear of the regime, stayed behind. As punishment for his family’s actions, his father was fired and sent to a labor camp.

Totalitarian North Korea restricts every aspect of public life, throwing people into Nazi-style camps for crimes as petty as “gossiping” about the state. Ordinary citizens are not allowed to access the internet or the international press, instead having to rely on the propaganda of North Korea’s state-run media.

Nowadays, King only gets to speak to his dad once every two or three years, on the rare occasion his father can get an illicit cellphone capable of making international calls. He hasn’t spoken to any of his friends since he left.

“Yes, I miss them, of course, but I have friends here now,” King said. He quietly added: “It’s difficult to talk about my life here and my life in North Korea.”

In a way, his family’s hand was forced. Before they fled, his aunt had already escaped to China and they risked being punished by proxy if they stayed put.

“We were at a crossroads whether to be sent to prison or fleeing from the country,” he said.

[NBC]                                                                                                                    Read more

Defector: “The difference is like hell and heaven”

In the rooms above the Korea Foods superstore in New Malden are the unglamorous offices of Free NK, a North Korean newspaper run by Kim Joo Il, another defector.

“If you actually compare two lives, one in North Korea and the other one in New Malden, the difference is like hell and heaven,” the 43-year-old told NBC News.

When he lived in North Korea, he served as an officer in the Korean People’s Army and it was his job to catch defectors. He knew the risks of trying to flee. “They were all dealt with by military law, which meant public execution,” Kim Joo Il said.

According to him, the country’s feared secret police has a network of spies so extensive that one out of every three citizens is an informant. “Your lives are under surveillance every single moment,” he said. “Kim Jong Un has told his people that the tiniest thing, even the drop of a needle to the floor, should be reported back to him.”

Despite being aware of the potential consequences, he decided to take his chances and make a break for it across the Chinese border. “This is not a choice that you make in a day,” he said. “This is based on a long-term emotional process. You make up your mind to escape from North Korea, and then you give up on the idea, and then you make up your mind again, and then you give up again. You go through this process so many times you cannot imagine how many times.”

Kim Joo Il was single when he fled, but he had to consider the consequences his escape would have on his remaining family members. “It’s not just the family that you have in mind, you’ve got to actually be prepared to die, really, while escaping,” he said. “Personally it took me eight years to finally make up my mind and in the eighth year I made my escape.”

From China, he walked, hitched rides, and scraped together enough money for the occasional train or bus fare. He traveled through Vietnam, Cambodia and finally Thailand, where he got a plane ticket to the U.K.

He publishes the Free NK newspaper both in print and online, employing around five members of staff — both North and South Koreans — and highlighting the atrocities the regime is inflicting on his countrymen. Not only does he circulate the newspaper locally, he sends the digital files to South Korea where they are printed out, attached to balloons and dropped over North Korea as anti-regime propaganda.

Now well-known as a figurehead in the New Malden community, Kim Joo Il is determined to be a thorn in the side of the dictatorship.

[NBC]

Otto Warmbier experienced what thousands experience in North Korean concentration camps

The abuse North Korea inflicted on Otto Warmbier, the American student who died this week after returning home to the U.S. following more than a year of imprisonment, is something up to 120,000 North Koreans regularly experience in the country’s concentration camps, according to defectors and analysts.

Jun Heo, who was just a teenager when he was sent to one of the country’s concentration camps, said to Fox News that being beaten black and blue and tortured within an inch of your life was routine.

There were about 20 people stuffed into each small cell, he said. Everyone over the age of 17 was forced to work hard labor in farms from 6:30 a.m. until at least 8 p.m. Cries and screams became the soundtrack of life, but it was after nightfall when the most excruciating howls could be heard, Heo said. Hapless prisoners, trying to sleep, would wail in pain as their bony bodies broke down from starvation, while at midnight the “secret police” came to take women to be raped.

Heo’s crime? He had fled to China for a chance at a better life. It was November 2005 and Heo — plus 12 other defectors — crossed into China and was staying in a “broker’s house” in Beijing. The broker ordered the North Koreans to not leave the house, citing safety reasons. But on Dec. 6, the day before he turned 14, a barrage of Chinese policemen — armed with guns and electric batons — knocked down the door and rounded up the terrified defectors.

“I was two days in a Chinese jail and then sent back to the Sinuiju concentration camp in North Korea,” Heo remembered

After several months, he was let go. But in 2008, at the age of 17, a determined Heo defected again – this time for good. Now a 26-year-old political science major at Seoul National University and studying English at the Teach North Korean Refugees center, he wakes up every day with a self-inflicted pinch.

“It is like heaven,” Heo said. “I don’t believe I live here.”

[Fox News]

South Korea calls for the immediate release of Americans and S. Koreans held by Pyongyang

On Tuesday, South Korea called for the immediate release of the Americans and South Koreans being held by Pyongyang.

Its president, Moon Jae-in, described North Korea’s human rights abuses as “deplorable”, adding that South Korea would make every effort to win the release of the remaining detainees, according to a spokesman.

South Korea has tried to find out more about its own citizens through European countries with a diplomatic presence in Pyongyang, but its requests have been met with silence.

Three of the South Koreans were detained while carrying out missionary work, while the other three are defectors who returned to the North, according to South Korean intelligence officials.

[The Guardian]

Otto Warmbier’s death highlights plight of all foreigners jailed in North Korea

The death of Otto Warmbier has focused the world’s attention on the plight of other foreign nationals North Korea has imprisoned to use as bargaining chips for aid and diplomatic concessions. In addition to three other Americans, the regime is known to be holding six South Koreans, a number of Chinese and a Canadian citizen, Canadian pastor, Hyeon Soo-lim, who was charged with subversion in 2015 and given a 15-year sentence, and then released a few days ago in a coma after 17 months internment.

In the hours since Warmbier’s parents announced that their 22-year-old son had died in hospital in Ohio, calls grew for the release of other foreign nationals who have been incarcerated for alleged crimes against North Korea. The university student died on Monday, days after North Korea released him 17 months into his sentence of hard labor for attempting to steal a propaganda poster from a hotel near the end of an organized tour.

Foreign detainees are likely to be sent to a prison in the city of Sariwon, south of the capital, Pyongyang, where they are treated more leniently than the estimated 200,000 to 300,000 North Koreans held inside the country’s vast infrastructure of prisons, labor camps and political re-education camps.

“North Korean prisoners are routinely tortured, but it’s unlikely that that happens to foreign detainees. They are also well-fed compared with North Korean inmates,” said Jiro Ishimaru, of Asia Press, an Osaka-based organization with a network of contacts in North Korea. “The biggest problem is the toll incarceration in a place like North Korea takes on their mental health.”

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea used Warmbier’s death to draw attention to the incarceration of ordinary citizens who are “starved, tortured, brutalized and killed in North Korea’s political prison camps”.

[The Guardian]

Bill Richardson on China applying pressure on North Korea

Nations and international rights groups should pressure North Korea to accept an investigation into its treatment of Otto Warmbier as a possible violation of the Geneva Convention, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said.

Richardson, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton, now is a negotiator for detainees in countries hostile to the United States and had sought to secure Otto Warmbier’s release from North Korea.

The U.S. also should press for additional international sanctions on North Korea, Richardson said. The United Nations Security Council this month expanded sanctions on North Korea after its recent nuclear missile tests, but China has opposed more stringent efforts, such as an oil embargo.

Perhaps holding up China’s ally as a human-rights abuser, a place where a young man’s life was destroyed, might change the country’s mind, Richardson said. The ultimate hope: that pressure on North Korea could result in the release of the other three Americans held.

“This is a real opportunity to say to the Chinese, ‘Look at these human rights violations. Look what they did to this young man,’ ” Richardson said. “This is one of the worst violations, the most egregious treatment of human rights that I’ve seen.”

[USA Today]