The determined story of a North Korean defector caught trying to escape Part 2

When Scott Kim was in China he looked for his mother, and was caught a second time, when a neighbor again reported him to the police. He was sent back to North Korea, to a concentration camp near his hometown. From there he was sent to a labor camp, where he chopped down trees on a mountain for months. He escaped one day when he realized that all his fellow laborers were at the top of the mountain chopping while he was at the bottom.

He ran away as fast as he could until he found a train that he could take him north to cross the border with China again. After some time in China, he was caught a third time and sent to a camp for political prisoners — the worst place to be sent, as imprisonment there is interminable. He escaped the camp by bribing the authorities through a broker, who helped him make it across the border with China a final time.

In China, he went back to work to pay off his debt to the broker. One day, he got a call from a North Korean woman who told him that his mother was dying of cancer. For the first time in many years, the two saw each other.

“When I opened the door of my mother’s house, I froze, and couldn’t say anything, because my mother looked incredibly different,” he said. “There was no fat on her …. I just went outside and cried for a long time and came back again, and I embraced my mother and we cried together.”

Several days later, a friend of his mother offered his mother the opportunity to escape to South Korea via Laos and Cambodia. A broker was taking a group through; they had an extra space. Unable to walk, Kim’s mother told Kim he should go instead.

The long journey began. The night before Kim and the group of defectors were to cross the border into Laos, he received a call telling him that his mother had died.

In 2007, Kim finally made it to South Korea, six years after he first escaped.

[Business Insider]

A ‘life of hell’ for Christians in North Korea

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 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 for his Christian faith by the North Korean government.

While hiding his faith in plain sight while living in North Hamgyong province, Choi still felt compelled to bring religion to others when he started an underground church.

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.

“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.”

[Fox News]

North Korean defector the lone survivor of five siblings

Jae-un is the lone survivor in a family of five siblings. Her father was taken to a labor camp in North Korea when she was 2 years old, and never heard of again. During the Great Famine in the mid-1990’s, her only brother died of malnutrition. Her mother died on the road while trying to find food to bring back to her starving family.

Jae-un, vividly recalled in tears, the hardship they went through. “During the famine, we only got rice once in three days. When my mother died, we did not have the strength to bury her. My older sister went to China to earn a living for the family. She sent money once to buy rice but I never heard of her after that. I learned that she was sold as a slave. My other sister engaged in smuggling, got caught, and was sent to a labor camp where she also died.”

Out of desperation, Jae-un decided to escape from North Korea. One night in December of 1999, she crossed the Yalu River and swam for the Chinese border. The water was freezing and the current was so strong but she was determined to survive.

After arriving in China, she was sold to a man who she ran away from because he did not treat her well.

It was then that Jae-un joined a Bible study group in China. She remembered the woman she met prior to her escape who spoke to her about God. Jae-un said she was impressed with the woman’s kindness. “She gave me money to buy three months’ worth of rice and she told me that God is alive and is with me since He is the Father to the fatherless and the defender of the widows. I had heard of God in North Korea but I was also aware that believers are taken to prison.”

Jae-un married a North Korean man she met in church and they eventually made it to South Korea.

[CBN News]

Defector twice escapes North Korea

Growing up in North Korea, Gim Gyu Min listened to banned radio broadcasts from the South that turned him against his own country. “I was born in a normal worker family,” he said. “My father was a weapons technician, and my mother worked at the local state-owned market.”

As a student, he turned to activism. He destroyed several symbolic sites of the state, including a local polling station. He was arrested and while in prison awaiting trial, Gim realized he would be sentenced to a prison camp. In order to be sent to a hospital instead, he swallowed a nail, causing enough injury to require surgery. After the operation, he took advantage of lax security during a public holiday to escape and flee across the border into China, where he was arrested and returned to North Korea.

This time he was imprisoned at the Chongjin Detention Center, a political prison in the mountainous northeast corner of North Korea, relatively near the Chinese border. From there, he escaped a second time, again taking advantage of the public confusion during a holiday. Crossing parts of China and Mongolia on foot, he was finally rescued by the South Korean government.

Gim had good reason to flee a North Korean concentration camp. Political prisoners in the camps have been ordered to dispose of corpses and women have been forced to kill their own babies, according to a 2014 UN report. Some escapees have described watching the mortal remains of prisoners being “burnt like rubbish” and their ashes used as fertilizer.

It is not unusual for entire families, including young children, to have been incarcerated as a form of collective punishment against a single malcontent who committed the same sort of anti-state activities as Gim. As for his own family, Gim has heard they’re all dead.
Read more

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]