Ellie Cha’s father, once a respected vice-president in a North Korean mining company, lost his job. An aunt had fled to China and the family was now regarded as potentially disloyal to the Kim regime.
So in 2012, Cha’s family made the decision to leave North Korea. It was the start of an arduous three-month journey across China and Southeast Asia to reach asylum in South Korea. Much of it was spent in prison cells.
Almost no North Korean defectors cross directly from North Korea into South Korea. The border is too well-guarded and it can be hard for ordinary North Koreans to travel around within their own country. So most people, especially those like Cha’s family who live near the border, cross into China.
But it’s hard for them to stay there. Because China has a relationship with North Korea, fleeing North Koreans are often caught by Chinese authorities and sent back home to face terrible punishments, including work camps or prison.
Instead, North Koreans typically head through China into Southeast Asia to find a South Korean embassy, where they can claim asylum and apply for South Korean citizenship. Read more
The North Korean gulag system is notorious for harsh conditions and brutal treatment of its prisoners. Camp 22, also known as Hoeryong concentration camp is part of a large system of North Korean prison camps. It is an 87-square-mile penal colony located in North Hamgyong province where most of the prisoners are people accused of criticizing the government.
Inmates, most of whom are serving life sentences, face harsh and often lethal conditions. According to the testimony of a former guard from Camp 22, prisoners live in bunkhouses with 100 people per room and some 30 percent show the markings of torture and beatings — torn ears, gouged eyes and faces covered with scars.
Prisoners are forced to stand on their toes in tanks filled with water up to their noses for 24 hours, stripped and hanged upside-down while being beaten or given the infamous “pigeon torture” — where both hands are chained to a wall at a height of 2 feet, forcing them to crouch for hours at a time.
Tiny rations of watery corn porridge leave inmates on the brink of starvation, and many hunt rats, snakes and frogs for protein. Some even take the drastic measure of searching through animal dung for undigested seeds to eat. Beatings are handed out daily for offenses as simple as not bowing down in respect to the guards fast enough. Prisoners are used as practice targets during martial arts training. Guards routinely rape female inmates.
China has removed hundreds of South Koreans and closed their churches for allegedly helping North Korean defectors, as part of a clampdown on religious activities by the communist country amid soaring tensions on the Korean peninsula.
The authorities in the three provinces – Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang – had hundreds of South Korean pastors and missionaries living there. A source told The Korean Herald: “As they were sent back home, churches were closed automatically.”
The authorities’ action is also interpreted as a pre-emptive measure before China implements new regulations on religious affairs, which will take effect on February 1 of next year. Under the new directive, organizers of unapproved religious activities in China will face fines of up to £34,084 (300,000 yuan) and anybody providing a venue for “illegal religious events” will face fines of between £2,272 (20,000 yuan) and £22,722 (200,000 yuan).
The new rules, which apply to all religions ranging from Christianity to Buddhism, also allow lower-level authorities to take care of affairs relating to unsanctioned religious activities, which will bring religious groups in China under tighter scrutiny.
China, Pyongynag’s only ally, regularly sends back North Korea defectors despite them facing “systematic” torture under Kim Jong-un’s regime. A report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2016 found: “Accounts from North Korean defectors indicate individuals caught trying to defect or forcibly repatriated from China are severely punished, particularly those believed to have interacted with missionaries or engaged in religious activities.”
The totalitarian state of North Korea forces the estimated 300,000 Christians living there to hide their religious beliefs and fellowship among each other.
“In a nation where the ruling regime demands total control over the general public, anything that challenges the government’s power is seen as a threat, including religion,” Jeff King, president of International Christian Concern, told Fox News. “As a result, the North Korean government does everything in its power to squash the spread of Christianity.”
This leads much of the religious population in North Korea to go underground with their worship. On the subject, North Korean defector Choi Kwanghyuk said, “North Hamgyong province is very cold. In the winter, we would dig a big hole and store kimchi there. We sometimes had services there. In the summer, we had services in the mountain or by the river. …We had only one Bible.”
In 2008, North Korean authorities caught up to Choi and arrested him. He said that he was about to be sent to one of North Korea’s brutal labor camps when he was able to break free. “I decided to escape because I thought that once they sent me to the other camp, they could eventually send me to the concentration camp or kill me,” Choi recalled. “I was traveling back and forth between China and North Korea, but they kept searching for me, and I knew it could put my friends in danger too, so I left.”
“Unfortunately, it is inexplicably easy to wind up in one of these camps. While someone can be sent to one of these camps for openly evangelizing, someone can just as easily be sent there for simply being in contact with a religious person,” said King.
For over 15 years, North Korea has ranked #1 on the Open Doors “World Watch List” as the worst place to be a Christian:
– The very act of owning a Bible is punishable by death.
– An estimated 25% of the Christian population lives in prison camps comparable to Auschwitz in Poland.
– All other Christians must keep their faith a secret.
– Many Christian parents even choose to keep their faith a secret from their children, for fear that they might accidentally expose their faith to their neighbors, teachers or government officials.
Nevertheless, reports indicate that the church is growing, in spite of the persecution.
North Korean 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 by the government for his Christian faith.
Despite having to hide his faith in plain sight while living in North Hamgyong province, Choi was still compelled to bring religion to others when he started an underground church. “If that information had leaked, we could have faced the death penalty.”
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’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.”
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. Read more
The Treasury Department on Thursday issued new sanctions on seven individuals and three entities connected to the North Korean regime in conjunction with a new report from the State Department on human rights abuses within the hermit kingdom.
The sanctions were issued by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, and they freeze any property or interest in property within U.S. jurisdiction and generally prohibit any transactions by U.S. citizens with any of the sanctioned individuals or groups. Among the sanctioned entities are the Government of North Korea and the Workers’ Party of Korea.
“North Korea is run by a brutal regime that continues to engage in serious human rights abuses. We are especially concerned with the North Korean military, which operates as secret police, punishing all forms of dissent. Further, the military operates outside of North Korea to hunt down asylum seekers, and brutally detains and forcibly returns North Korean citizens,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
“Today’s sanctions target the North Korean military and regime officials engaged in flagrant abuses of human rights. We also are targeting North Korean financial facilitators who attempt to keep the regime afloat with foreign currency earned through forced labor operations.”
There is evidence to suggest that the presence of political prison camps in certain North Korean provinces may have some sort of influence on the number of defections.
Provinces more to the south that have more defections than some provinces in the north also happen to host prison camps within their borders. And other northern provinces with smaller defection rates happen to have no political prison camps at all.
When comparing a map of North Korea’s provinces with the locations of known North Korean Kwalliso or political prison camps (both still active and recently closed), one finds that half of the reported camps – camps 16, 22, and 25, near Hwasong, Hoeryong, and Chongjin, respectively are located in North Hamgyong province .
North Hamgyong province is the region of origin for more than 60% of all North Korean defectors.
South Pyongan province also hosts another two political prisoner camps – camps 14 and 18, known as Gaechon and Bukchang, respectively. Camp 15, known as Yodok is located to the east of the border area with South Hamgyong province, though the camp itself is technically located in South Hamgyong province proper.
[Source: Shaquille James, Co-Founder of the North Korea Network] Read more
Many eyes are on China, and what its leaders will do to pressure Pyongyang to end its gamesmanship. But another life-threatening crisis is emanating from North Korea that few are watching: China’s apparently expanding dragnet to force back fleeing North Koreans. These forced returns very likely mean that the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has imprisoned and tortured dozens of refugees.
Starting in July, China appears to have intensified its crackdown on groups of North Koreans trying to move through China in search of protection in a third country, and on the networks of people that facilitate their escape. Human Rights Watch believes that China has also arrested a number of local guides, undermining the capability of networks helping North Koreans to pass through China.
Both China and North Korea have increased the number of their border guards and added more barbed wire fencing to their common border. China has expanded CCTV surveillance and increased checkpoints on roads leading away from the border. Pyongyang has cracked down on networks aiding escaping citizens.
China regularly violates its U.N. Refugee Convention treaty obligations by returning escapees to North Korea, despite the likelihood they will be persecuted, tortured, and subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment for leaving. North Korea’s Ministry of People’s Security enforces a decree that classifies defection as a crime of “treachery against the nation.” Punishments are harsh and can include a death sentence. Others disappear into North Korea’s horrific political prison camp system (kwanliso), to face torture, sexual violence, forced labor, and other inhuman treatment, or forced labor camps, where they can spend years working in harsh and dangerous conditions.
[Read full Pacific Standard article]
According to the claims of a 26-year-old female North Korean defector, Kim Jong-un had 11 musicians executed with anti-aircraft guns, and orders aides to pick out sex slaves from North Korea’s schools. She said she was among 10,000 people once forced to watch the execution of musicians accused of making a pornographic video, at Pyongyang’s military academy.
This week Human Rights Watch (HRW) said, “North Koreans who recently escaped to third countries or maintain contacts in the North told HRW that when girls are sexually harassed or abused, some guardians refuse to formally complain to police or other government officials because they believe government officials will not investigate, and the girl and the family will face stigmatization.”
An academic, Dr Colin Alexander, an Asia expert at Nottingham Trent University, told The Independent: “In some cases there probably will be some elements of slavery in North Korea.” Dr Alexander added that the latest revelations fit “a narrative that we’re almost becoming accustomed to hearing”.
He said it was possible that ”somebody with a vested interest has got hold of this defector and has decided that it’s within their interest to approach international media and to run a story about this within the current climate”. He added, “If they’re a defector, and they’ve lived all their lives in North Korea, they will not be very well versed in how the international media works.”
Dr. Alexander also said: “I’m in no way endorsing the Kim regime here. Behind the narrative is most likely somebody, or an organization, with an interest in putting pressure on the Kim regime.