Cell phone proliferation and use in North Korea

The number of mobile phone subscribers in North Korea doubled to more than two million last year. Koryolink, a joint venture between the state-ownedKorea Post and the Egyptian company Orascom, has passed two million subscribers in a country of about 24 million people.

North Korean defectors tell VOA that many go out of their way to purchase mobile phones, selling hard-earned crops or housewares. Cell phones have become status symbols, signs of prosperity, and one of the most noticeable examples of conspicuous consumption in North Korea. A man from Chongjin who defected in December 2012 said “cell [phones] have become so popular that a young man without a cell phone is not treated well and could not even find a girlfriend.”

In the reclusive state, mobile phones are primarily used for entertainment purposes. Think tablet computers – without the Internet.  Cell phone users use the handset to take pictures, watch videos and play games. North Koreans often use Chinese-made printers to print out photos taken with their mobile phones,

Defectors explained calls were usually reserved for emergencies, to avoid expensive top-up fees. A basic plan comes with just 200 minutes of calling and 20 text messages.

There are no signs that North Korea introduced cell phones as a means of reforming or opening up to the outside world. On the contrary, Pyongyang appears to be using the wide distribution of mobile phones to maintain and solidify its stability. One defector explained, “It is stupid to criticize the regime on the cell phone, which does more harm than good, when the call rate is exorbitant.”

It isn’t just the money factor, though, that is stopping cell phone users from actually using the handsets for communication. Authorities monitor all text messages, along with location data in real-time. Voice calls are recorded, transcribed, and stored for three years according to a former North Korean security agent. Also, there are no international calls allowed, and Internet access is banned for all but the ruling elite.

He told VOA that security guards often stop and question cell phone users on the street to search for any “politically inappropriate” content on their phones, especially South Korean soap dramas. An officer can confiscate a phone on the spot at his discretion.

Despite the North Korean government’s success at suppressing the flow of information through the mobile phone network, the network could potentially widen loopholes for information to flow to and from the reclusive state. For example, amateur reporters can record data on their cell phone memory card and transfer it to illegal Chinese cell phones to convey the information to foreign media outlets. Rimjin-gang, a Japan-based magazine featuring news and information from undercover North Korean reporters, says it has used this method to get hidden camera video out of the country.

[VoA]

North Korean defectors face unemployment in South Korea

Today, there are some 25,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea. While they have escaped extreme poverty and political repression, life in the South can also be hard. In fact, the suicide rate among North Korean defectors is six times that for South Koreans.

“Children over 15 have no incentive to study”, explains Park Sun-young, constitutional law professor at Dongguk University. “They had no education in North Korea and they just give up studying. They also need to earn money to bring the family members that remain in the North.”

Yet, in the long term, these youngsters cannot make money as they have little or no education and, after years of malnutrition, are not physically strong. “They are too small even for physical labor. They fall into despair and some commit suicide,” Park said. “This is a social problem, a time bomb, and we need to address this issue and prepare for unification.”

Park offered the case of East and West Germany before the unification, as an example of what should be done here. “Before unification, the unemployment rate among those who escaped the East was lower than that of West Germans. This was achieved through a year-long job training for the East German defectors.”

By comparison, 95 percent of North Korean defectors are unemployed after they leave Hana Center where they stay for three months familiarizing themselves with South Korea and its way of life, according to Park.

[Korean Herald]

North Korea says South Korean spy arrested in capital

North Korea’s security agency said Thursday it arrested a South Korean spy in Pyongyang who intended to rally anti-government forces, a claim that intelligence officials in Seoul quickly called ridiculous and groundless.

Outside analysts usually view such North Korean antics as a way to strengthen domestic support for leader Kim Jong Un – but specific claims that an individual spy has been captured, especially before an investigation is concluded, are unusual.

The North’s claim comes amid worsening ties. The Koreas had turned to tentative diplomacy after a spring that saw a near-daily barrage of threats, including North Korean warnings of nuclear strikes on Seoul and Washington. But tension has renewed since North Korea canceled planned reunions in September of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

The North Korean security ministry said that the South Korean initially said he was a Chinese citizen living in North Korea and then said he was a citizen of another country. The initial investigation found that the South Korean spent six years in a country bordering North Korea using religion to disguise anti-North Korea espionage activities, the North’s statement alleged.

Many South Korean missionaries work with North Korean defectors and border-crossers in China. One year ago, Kenneth Bae, an American missionary and tour operator, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor after being arrested for alleged hostile acts in North Korea.

North Korea officially recognizes freedom of religion, but it tolerates only sanctioned churches, and activists and defectors call it one of the world’s worst places for religion.

[AP]

North Korean labor camps compared to Nazi Holocaust

North Korea’s prison camps are a closed-off world of death, torture and forced labor where babies are born slaves, according to two survivors who liken the horrors of the camps to a Holocaust in progress.

“People think the Holocaust is in the past, but it is still very much a reality. It is still going on in North Korea,” Shin Dong-hyuk told AFP through an interpreter on the sidelines of a human rights summit in Geneva.

Shin himself spent his first 23 years in a prison camp in the secretive country, where he says he was tortured and subjected to forced labor before making a spectacular escape seven years ago – and giving the outside world a rare first-hand account of life inside the camps.

The 30-year-old is the only person known to have been born in such a camp to flee and live to tell the tale, and was portrayed in a book by journalist Blaine Harden published last year called “Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West.”

While Shin’s comparison with Nazi concentration camps – where the majority of the six million Jews who perished during the Holocaust were murdered – may seem extreme, another North Korean prison camp survivor, Chol-Hwan Kang, agreed with the analogy.

“Fundamentally, it is the same as Hitler’s Auschwitz,” Kang told AFP. With whole families in North Korea thrown into camps together and starving to death, he said the “methods may be different, but the effect is the same… It’s outrageous!”

Kang, now 43, was sent to Camp 15 with his whole family when he was nine years old to repent for the suspected disloyalties of his grandfather. He spent 10 years there before his family was released and later managed to flee to China and on to South Korea – the same route taken by Shin.

[News24]

North Korean defectors recount nightmare of prison camps

Chosun Ilbo reports on unimaginable suffering at the core of testimonies from former inmates of North Korea’s political concentration camps. Three briefs:

“I ate whatever I could put into my mouth, except stones,” recalled an inmate at the Yodok camp between 2000 and 2002. “As starving inmates surreptitiously ate seeds, security guards sprayed pesticides on the seeds, so many died from eating the poisoned seeds.”

Of 250 inmates he met at the camp, 80 starved to death or were executed in public after being arrested for attempting to flee the Stalinist country. He himself was held on espionage charges after being caught with a Bible smuggled in from South Korea.

A female defector recalled how she languished at the Kaechon political prison camp for 28 years after being taken into custody at age 13 for “guilt by association”, related to a crime committed by one of her relatives. She said, “I saw a starving woman eat the flesh of her son who had died of a disease.”

Another was detained at Kaechon Women’s Prison for attempting to flee the North twice, in 2003 and 2005. “Once we stood in line in the hallway of a detention house where a security guard was kicking a pregnant woman,” she recalled. “Some time later, this woman returned and lay bleeding with an empty womb. But nobody was allowed to do anything to help her.”

Escaping North Korea via the Underground Railroad

More than 150 years ago, in antebellum America, the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses, allowed slaves to escape to freedom. Today a similar network has been created by humanitarian groups and Christian missionaries, as well as by unscrupulous smugglers and brokers, to help North Koreans escape their modern-day slave state—a place where freedom of speech, religion and movement are all forbidden and where some 200,000 inmates are held in Stalinist gulags.

The escapees include North Korean women who have been sold to brothels as prostitutes or to Chinese farmers as brides against their will; defectors carrying state secrets; and ordinary men, women and children fleeing in search of food and a better life.

To trace the harrowing journey that refugees must undergo: first making their way across the border with China (which means traversing a major river and getting past numerous checkpoints and guards) and then making a long and risky trek across China to reach another country, usually in Southeast Asia, from which, if they are lucky, they find safe haven in South Korea or the West. The unlucky refugees, caught by the Chinese, are forcibly sent back.

The stories are just as moving for the Korean women who have been sold into prostitution or forced marriages in China. Their “half-and-half children” by Chinese men are unable to attend school or obtain medical care and may be “ripped from their mothers’ arms by Chinese policemen” and then abandoned if their Korean mothers are arrested and repatriated to North Korea. Pregnant women repatriated to the North suffer a special hell: “For the perceived crime of carrying ‘Chinese seed,’ their North Korean jailers force the repatriated women to undergo abortions, even in the final weeks of pregnancy.”

In all, some 24,000 North Koreans have thus far managed to flee to safety, and tens of thousands more are currently hiding in enclaves in northeastern China, under threat of repatriation by the Chinese regime. This new underground railroad is “a rare good-news story that foretells a happier future for that sad country.”

–From Sue Mi Terry’s book review of Melanie Kirkpatrick’s “Escape From North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad” 

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