Donald Trump’s favorite North Korean defector urged president not to forget human rights

The North Korean defector whose harrowing story was used by Donald Trump to highlight the brutality of Kim Jong-un’s regime during his State of the Union address has urged the US president to hammer home the issue of human rights. Ji Seong-ho, 35, who lost his leg and hand in an accident before escaping North Korea in 2006, is among thousands of defectors who anxiously hope human rights will not be sidelined in the race to abolish Kim’s nuclear weapons.

President Trump had described how Mr Ji was a “starving boy” 22 years ago when he tried to steal coal from a train to barter for food. “He passed out on the train tracks, exhausted from hunger. He woke up as a train ran over his limbs,” said Mr Trump.

Mr Ji lost his left leg above the knee and his left hand at the wrist, enduring “amputations without anything to dull the pain.” He was later tortured by the regime to find out if he had met any Christians during a short trip to China. “He had – and he resolved to be free,” the president said.

Despite his disabilities, Mr Ji still managed to flee North Korea across the Tumen river, and made his way across China on crutches, before reaching the safe haven of South Korea via Southeast Asia. Most of his family followed, but his father was caught and killed.

Ji has little faith that Kim will be willing to contemplate improving his country’s dire human rights record. “The reformation of its society is not the main agenda for Kim Jong Un. I believe his main priority is to keep his regime in order and to be recognized by the international community,” he said.

[The Telegraph]

North Korean defectors caution US against Kim Jong Un’s deceptive strategies

In the weeks since his landmark summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Donald Trump has maintained that “all of Asia is thrilled”. One constituency, however, that does not share the US president’s enthusiasm are those who have lived and suffered under the regime in Pyongyang, who are increasingly convinced the bout of diplomacy is smoke and mirrors and the young marshal will never abandon his arsenal of nuclear weapons.

“So many people are delusional right now. Kim Jong Un only wants economic support”, said Hyeonseo Lee, high profile North Korean defector.

“Kim Jong Un will never, ever denuclearize,” said Park Mija, who fled North Korea during the first year of Mr Kim’s reign in 2012.

Criticisms of the US and South Korea — once standard fare in state media — have disappeared in recent months, raising hopes that genuine change is afoot. But Choi Jung-hoon, a former North Korean army officer now in the South, said: “The current rapprochement is just a show for Kim and a political strategy for Trump in the run-up to the US midterm elections in November.”

Park Sang-hak, a North Korean who runs an activist group in Seoul, echoes the sentiment, saying Mr Trump’s attitude will change once the elections are over. “I believe if Mr. Pompeo fails to persuade the North to pursue complete denuclearization, the Pentagon will deal with the matter,” he said.

Ms Lee stressed that despite her doubts, she hoped diplomacy would win and that North Korea would genuinely seek to denuclearize and build its economy. “I hope I am wrong,” she said, “so that I can go home.”

 [Financial Times]

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]

Recent changes in Kim Jong Un’s high command

Prior to the Singapore Summit, Kim Jong Un switched his top military leaders as part of the preliminary phase of mothballing the DPRK’s WMD program.

The changes in the high command made in the past two months involve the heads of the three institutions which comprise a military and political command and control over the Korean People’s Army (KPA) conventional and special operations forces, as well as the rear service and administrative components which support them. These institutions include the Minister of the People’s Armed Forces (the DPRK’s equivalent of a defense minister), the Chief of the KPA General Staff Department (and by extension the 1st Vice Chief of the General Staff and Director of the Operations Bureau) and the director of the KPA General Political Bureau. These are the top three positions in the KPA high command.

All three of the appointees are Kim Jong Un loyalists who have held high office since 2012. They will contribute to and implement his policies, including external overtures to China and the ROK as well as phased denuclearization, with little to no resistance. None has any long-standing patronage ties, and can be counted on not to feather their nests through malfeasance or misappropriation of resources. This is not to suggest that their predecessors were corrupt or disloyal; rather, the new appointments are an insurance policy based on their previous positions and contributions to the regime and their close links to Kim Jong Un and other members of the core leadership. In this respect, the Suryong (supreme leader) is leaving nothing to chance.

[38 North]

The intel file on Kim Jong-un

Over the past decade, allied intelligence agencies have pieced together a profile of the young Kim Jong-un from extensive interviews with teachers, students, food preparers, and other staff at the elite Swiss boarding school that Kim attended during his adolescence, according to a source who has carefully studied the classified binder on Kim.

“The picture that emerged from literally dozens of interviews bears a striking similarity with the man he has emerged into today,” the source said. “Gluttonous, prone to fits of anger and swaggering around his classmates. Kim Jong-un was an in-attendant student but demanded slavish loyalty from other children in his wake.”

“He was prone to violence,” the source added. “He had a couple of young guys who were with him” at the Swiss boarding school, and “he hit them frequently.”

The binder describes the young Kim making vague and grand declarations to his classmates — for example, after games he would say, in the source’s recollection, “Someday you will all remember me.”

Other reports indicate Kim was described as shy, and a good student while attending school in Switzerland, who got along well with his classmates, in addition to being a huge NBA basketball fan. (Kim Jong-un’s school friends recalled he “spent hours doing meticulous pencil drawings of Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan.”)

Although the classified binder indicates, “[Kim Jong-un] didn’t do well in school, as he was distracted a lot,” the classes Kim attended at international schools in Switzerland would have been taught in English. So he can read, write, and probably speak English. He also speaks German and French.

An unsubstantiated source adds: “To my knowledge, Kim Jong Un speaks Korean, English, German, French, Turkish and very likely also speaks Mandarin which his grandfather was fluent in. From all that I have read or learned Kim is what would be termed a polymath as he also has a passion for maths & physics. I would personally expect his IQ knocks the socks off most western politicians, not to mention the President of the United States.”

[Axios/Quora]

Trump to hold Round 2 with Kim Jong Un in NYC?

Some Trump administration officials are so optimistic about making progress with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un that they hope a Round 2 with President Trump can be held in New York in September, when world leaders pour into Trump’s hometown for the U.N. General Assembly.

The possibility would be for Trump to hold out a Round 2 meeting as a carrot to encourage real movement by North Korea over the summer. Kim would have to show progress for the meeting to occur.

Regardless of whether Kim gets another meeting with the leader of the free world just three months after the Singapore summit, the U.S. is giving him more time to begin denuclearizing despite new doubts about North Korea’s good faith.

  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit Pyongyang this week to press denuclearization, the Financial Times reported. Look for a win by Pompeo on securing the return of remains of U.S. soldiers killed during the Korean War.
  • Asked by Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business whether to expect North Korea to reveal the specifics of its facilities within the next several weeks, President Trump said: “I think they’re very serious about it. I think they want to do it. We have a very good chemistry.”
  • But national security adviser John Bolton sounded cautious on CBS’ “Face the Nation“: “We’re very well aware of North Korea’s patterns of behavior over decades of negotiating with the United States. … There’s not any starry-eyed feeling among the group doing this.”

[Axios]

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]

Red Cross tackles humanitarian needs in North Korea

The Red Cross is one of few humanitarian organizations working in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as North Korea is formally called. Their work is based on its seven fundamental principles: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality.

One of the challenges the country is facing is access to clean water. Many people fetch water in the river or struggle with shallow wells. Overall, there are six million people who suffer from a lack of clean water and improved sanitation.

“The humanitarian situation is worrying with over ten million people in need of humanitarian assistance. As political processes continue, we hope there is space for discussions to include the importance of improved humanitarian cooperation,” says Åsa Sandberg, Head of Desk at the Swedish Red Cross.

Åsa was moved by the kindness extended to her wherever she went. “I sat down with people in the villages to better understand their needs. They get by with very few means, but possess such resilience and dignity. … An elderly couple that I met had difficulty getting access to safe water from the well near their home, and for years they struggled with buckets, sometimes finding only a few drops of water. Now we have installed a water management system in their house, and they won’t have to worry about clean drinking water anymore. It was a joy to hear how well it works,” adds Åsa.

Another challenge for people living in the country is food insecurity and lack of a varied diet. “The Red Cross is keen to help in a long-term and sustainable way. That is why we support greenhouses where both vegetables and tree plants are cultivated. The vegetables are nutritious and will make the diet more varied for the vulnerable groups that we support. The tree plants will be used to build up protection of land, reduce soil erosion and prevent floods.”

[International Federation of Red Cross And Red Crescent Societies]

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]