A blog by Grant Montgomery, co-founder of Family Care Foundation, a 501c3 that provides emergency services and sustained development for families on 5 continents. This site highlights the plight of 300,000 North Koreans who have fled their country due to the brutal oppression of a Stalinist North Korean regime, as well as those still living in North Korea.
North Korean defectors and activists urged President Joe Biden to ramp up pressure on North Korea over human rights as South Korean President Moon Jae-in with the U.S. president in Washington DC.
Activists and defectors called for Biden to swiftly appoint a special envoy on North Korean human rights and to stand up for their freedom of speech in South Korea.
Activists had for decades sent the leaflets, alongside food, medicine, $1 bills, mini radios and USB sticks containing South Korean news and dramas, to raise awareness among ordinary North Koreans over what they call the regime’s tyranny and human rights.
“We have evidence that North Koreans are waiting for those leaflets to get to them, and that the North Korean regime is in fear of loose leaflets getting to the people,” said Park Sang-hak, who was investigated by police last week on charges of breaching the ban.
Biden and Moon have pledged to work together to continue the effort to denuclearize North Korea. As part of this process, Biden announced that Sung Kim will serve as the U.S. special envoy for North Korea. Sung Kim is a career diplomat and a former ambassador to South Korea.
In late April, a North Korean defector sent 500,000 propaganda leaflets by balloon from South Korea into his former country. Park Sang-hak said he and his organization sent 10 balloons that carried leaflets criticizing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his government, and 5,000 $1 bills, from an area near the border.
If law enforcement pursues Park under the new South Korean law that prohibits leafleting to North Korea, it would be the first known violation, as he is defying a new law that could result in a $27,040 fine or up to three years in prison, the Associated Press reported.
“Though [authorities] can handcuff and put me to a prison cell, they cannot stop [my leafleting] with whatever threats or violence as long as the North Korean people waits for the letters of freedom, truth and hopes,” said Park, according to AP.
The law was a subject of debate in the U.S. with lawmakers some of which called the legislation a violation of democratic freedoms. “What I really think is extremely alarming is a retreat by the South Korean government from its long-standing commitment to human rights vis-à-vis North Korea and China, ostensibly in the cause of fostering better relations or achieving nuclear nonproliferation,” Representative Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said. Other U.S. lawmakers argued that the leafleting campaigns are aggressive and provocative toward North Korea and that it could put South Koreans living near the border at risk.
Park, who is known for years of leafleting campaigns, called the anti-leafleting legislation “the worst law” that “sides with cruel human rights abuser Kim Jong Un and covers the eyes and ears of the North Korean people that have become the modern-day slaves of the Kim dynasty.”
Ex-US-Marine Christopher Ahn is out on bail and shows his electronic monitoring device placed on him by U.S. marshals. How did Ahn wind up in this situation? He is an unlikely person to be treated as a criminal by his own government. Burly and bearded, he is described by family friends in court filings as a “happy-go-lucky guy who is like a teddy bear inside.” A son of Korean immigrants, Ahn has been taking care of his family since he was 17, when his father died of cancer. He now takes care of his ailing mother, who has a debilitating nerve disease, and his 97-year-old, blind grandmother, who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s.
It is Ahn’s altruistic impulse that now threatens his freedom. In 2009, Ahn met a charismatic Yale dropout named Adrian Hong who had created a human rights group to help North Korean refugees. Eventually, Hong founded another group, called Free Joseon. Ahn is in his current predicament because of a call he received from Hong in early 2019 — this time to help facilitate the defection of North Korean diplomats in Madrid.
Responding to an extradition request from Spain, the Justice Department decided to arrest Hong at a time when then-President Donald Trump was seeking to strike a deal with Kim Jong Un. Ahn went to Hong’s apartment in Los Angeles only to discover that a heavily armed task force of U.S. marshals was there looking for Hong. (Hong, who had fled, is now a fugitive from the governments of Spain, North Korea and the United States.) Ahn was then arrested and spent three months in a federal jail.
Now, a pro bono lawyer is helping Ahn fight the Justice Department’s attempts to extradite him to Spain. (The standard to extradite him is relatively low — prosecutors need only prove “probable cause” that the charges are true.) If convicted by a Spanish court on charges including kidnapping, breaking and entering, battery and being part of a “criminal organization,” he could be imprisoned for 21 years.
Ahn is, above all, an idealist. The bitter irony is that in trying to grant North Koreans their freedom, Ahn might have sacrificed his own. [Washington Post]
Joe Biden, in his first address to Congress, called North Korea and Iran’s nuclear programs “serious threats” to American and world security and said he’ll work with allies to address those problems through diplomacy and stern deterrence.
“His statement clearly reflects his intent to keep enforcing the hostile policy toward the DPRK as it had been done by the U.S. for over half a century,” Kwon Jong Gun, a senior North Korean Foreign Ministry official, later said in a statement. “Now that the keynote of the U.S. … policy has become clear, we will be compelled to press for corresponding measures, and with time the U.S. will find itself in a very grave situation,” Kwon said. He didn’t specify what steps North Korea would take.
An unidentified North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman vowed a strong, separate response to a recent State Department statement that it would push to promote “accountability for the Kim regime” over its “egregious human rights situation.” He called the statement a preparation for “all-out showdown with us.”
Kim’s powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, also slammed South Korea over anti-Pyongyang leaflets floated across the border by a group of North Korean defectors in the South. The group’s leader, Park Sang-hak, said Friday he sent 500,000 leaflets by balloon last week, in a defiance of a new, contentious South Korean law that criminalizes such action. “We regard the maneuvers committed by the human waste in the South as a serious provocation against our state and will look into corresponding action,” Kim Yo Jong said in a statement. She accused the South Korean government of “winking at” the leaflets.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said the North Korean statements indicate that “Pyongyang is trying to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States” ahead of the May 21 summit between Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
After months of closed-door talks, President Joe Biden’s administration has completed its review of North Korea policy, charting a path forward that rejects both of his immediate predecessors’ stances on the nuclear-armed rogue state.
But the White House said Friday that its “goal remains the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, with the clear understanding that the efforts of the past four administration have not achieved this objective.”
This was a shot not just at Donald Trump, but also Barack Obama, Biden’s old boss. The new policy says Biden will not “rely on strategic patience,” the term that defined the Obama era approach of hoping U.S. and United Nations sanctions would ultimately put the screws to the North Korean government.
While the Biden administration hasn’t provided full details, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday they will deploy a “calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy with the DPRK and to make practical progress that increases the security of the United States, our allies and deployed forces.”
Biden will host South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the White House on May 21, just the second world leader that Biden will host early in his term, after Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga visited on April 16.
Russian diplomats departing North Korea have reported acute shortages of medicines and other basic goods in the country, indicating a crisis fueled by one of the world’s strictest quarantine regimes amid the coronavirus pandemic. Employees of the Russian embassy in Pyongyang described a “collective exit” of foreign diplomatic staff that they predicted would “unfortunately not be the last” due to unbearable conditions in the North Korean capital.
Russia has one of the largest foreign diplomatic footprints in North Korea, but staff have begun leaving due to shortages and problems obtaining key medicines. There were “hardly any diplomats left” in Pyongyang, the embassy letter said, tallying the total international presence in North Korea at 290 people. All but three foreign aid workers had evacuated the country as of last December.
In a report last month, a senior researcher on North Korea for Human Rights Watch said she had been told last year of shortages of food, soap, toothpaste and batteries. North Korean trade with China has fallen by about 80%, with imports of food and medicine falling close to zero last year as the government claimed that the trade, along with “yellow dust” blowing over the border from China, could lead to the spread of coronavirus. Severe floods have also undermined agricultural production, exacerbating food shortages in the country, Lina Yoon, a researcher, wrote.
North Korea snapped back at President Joe Biden’s criticism of its ballistic missile tests, calling his comments a provocation and encroachment on the North’s right to self-defense and vowing to continuously expand its “most thoroughgoing and overwhelming military power.”
The statement issued by senior official Ri Pyong Chol came after the North on Thursday tested-fired two short-range missiles off its eastern coast in the first ballistic launches since Biden took office. Ri, secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee and vice chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, is a former air force commander who has been seen as a key figure in the development of the North’s missile program.
“We’re consulting with our allies and partners,” Biden had said earlier at the first news conference of his presidency. “And there will be responses if they choose to escalate. We will respond accordingly. But I’m also prepared for some form of diplomacy, but it has to be conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization.”
Ri said it was “gangster-like logic” for the United States to criticize the North’s tactical weapons tests when the Americans are freely testing intercontinental ballistic missiles and could send their strategic military assets to the region surrounding the Korean Peninsula at any time.
Pyongyang has a history of testing new U.S. administrations with weapons demonstrations aimed at forcing Washington back to negotiations.
A unit of six North Korean border soldiers has defected to China, according to reports, in a sign of the increasingly high level of discontent in the reclusive country. While there has been a steady stream of one or two guards fleeing the authoritarian country, a group this large is highly unusual.
The soldiers fled across the Yalu River on the border with China earlier this month along with their weapons, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported this week. The unit was part of the 25th Border Guard brigade, which has been deployed to stop other North Koreans from escaping, and reportedly complained of being overworked and underfed since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, according to RFA.
Life in North Korea’s military has become especially hard in recent months amid severe food shortages and a crackdown on smuggling following the closure of the border in response to the coronavirus pandemic. “Usually, border guards are in collusion with professional smugglers and merchants and they live better than soldiers in other regions”, RFA quoted a source in the North Korean military as saying. “But the coronavirus outbreak has been raging for more than a year, so smuggling has completely stopped and they are suffering from hunger these days”.
The Chinese authorities have been informed of the defections and are understood to be searching for the armed men, a source said.
In North Korea’s first comments directed at the Biden administration, Kim Jong Un’s powerful sister warned the United States to “refrain from causing a stink” if it wants to “sleep in peace” for the next four years.
Kim Yo Jong’s statement was issued as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Asia to talk with U.S. allies Japan and South Korea about North Korea and other regional issues.
“We take this opportunity to warn the new U.S. administration trying hard to give off (gun) powder smell in our land,” she said. “If it wants to sleep in peace for coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step.”
Each January, Choi Bok-hwa’s mother had climbed a mountain near her home in in North Korea and used a broker’s smuggled Chinese cellphone to call South Korea to wish her daughter happy birthday. For the first time in years, Choi didn’t get her annual birthday call.
Choi, who hasn’t sent money or talked to her 75-year-old mother since May, believes the silence is linked to the pandemic, which led North Korea to shut its borders tighter than ever and impose some of the world’s toughest restrictions on movement. Many other defectors in the South have also lost contact with their loved ones in North Korea amid the turmoil of COVID-19.
Defectors in the South have long shared part of their income with parents, children and siblings in North Korea. But these defectors now say they’ve stopped or sharply reduced the remittances because of plunging incomes, or because brokers are demanding extremely high fees.
Brokers in North Korea use smuggled mobile phones to call the South from mountains near the border with China, where they can get better reception and avoid official detection. Defectors send money to the bank accounts of other brokers on the Chinese side of the border. The brokers in China and in North Korea are often also smuggling goods in and out of North Korea, so this means that money transfers don’t need to be sent across the border immediately; instead, brokers in North Korea can give the cash to defectors’ relatives and get paid back by their smuggling partners in China later. But North Korea’s year-long border closure has battered the smuggling business.
“The money we send is a lifeline,” said Cho Chung Hui, 57, who transferred the equivalent of $890 to each of his two siblings every year before the pandemic. “If someone works really diligently in North Korea’s markets, they make only $30-40 per month.”
A book published in January titled “Defector” (탈북자) is shedding light on the lesser-known stories of North Korean defectors, challenging stereotypes and misconceptions. The book was written by former documentary producer Cho Cheon Hyeon (55), who spent over two decades speaking to North Koreans living in China’s border regions.
Cho’s book is remarkable in more ways than one, particularly because it challenges the traditional South Korean narrative that often portrays North Korean defectors as desperately wanting to make it to the South.
Cho’s views are different. According to his decades-long experience speaking to North Koreans, the majority of those who leave North Korea have no intention of ever defecting to South Korea.
In his book, Cho distinguishes defectors in three different categories: 1. those working in China who intend to return to North Korea after earning enough money; 2. those living in China long-term who regularly send money back to their family members in North Korea; and 3. those wanting to defect to the South.
According to Cho, the vast majority of North Koreans who leave their country belong in the first two categories.
Two-way trade between North Korea and its biggest partner, China, fell 80.7% in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to estimates from Seoul’s Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.
Trade activity dropped significantly in February 2020, with two-way trade falling to $10.71 million in the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus epidemic that began in Wuhan, China. North Korea shut its 880-mile border with China as part of its COVID-19 response in January 2020, but trade levels recovered by June to $96.8 million, according to SP News.
Pyongyang has claimed its draconian tactics against the novel coronavirus have paid off and that there are zero COVID-19 patients in the country. North Korea has also ordered vaccines from the COVAX Facility, managed by the World Health Organization.
Kim Jong Un is angry, and he’s lashing out, complaining that North Korea’s last economic plan failed “tremendously.”
And his inner circle lacked an “innovative viewpoint and clear tactics” in drawing up a new one, Kim told the ruling Workers’ Party last month, yelling and finger-pointing at frightened-looking delegates.
His economy minister, appointed in January, has already been fired.
North Korea is suffering its worst slump in more than two decades, experts say. It’s a combination of international sanctions and especially a self-imposed blockade on international trade in attempts to keep the coronavirus pandemic out.
A shortage of spare parts usually supplied from China has caused factories to close, including one of the country’s largest fertilizer plants, and crippled output from the country’s aging power plants, according to news reports. Electricity shortages, long a chronic problem, have become so acute, production has even halted at some coal mines and other mines.
A North Korean man in diving gear swam to South Korea on Tuesday in an apparent bid to defect from Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, the South Korean military said Wednesday.
The man, who is reported to be in his 20s, and a civilian, appeared to have swam across the maritime border and crawled through a drainage pipe beneath a barbed-wire fence, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a press release obtained by the country’s JoongAng Daily newspaper.
He was first spotted on closed-circuit surveillance cameras passing a military checkpoint at 4:20 a.m. but was not captured until three hours later when he had entered the restricted civilian-control zone, the military said. The area is located south of the 2.5-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, that acts as a buffer between the two Koreas.
The JCS said a diving suit and fins were found on the beach in Goseong, Gangwon, where he first came ashore.
The apparent defection would be the second in a matter of months after a North Korean man climbed a border fence in November and continued half a mile before the South captured him.
South Korea has caught a suspected North Korean man after he crossed the heavily fortified de-militarized zone (DMZ) between the two countries.
South Korean troops tracked him for three hours on Tuesday as he made his way through the zone, which is filled with land mines and surrounded by barbed wire.
The man was located near a checkpoint at the eastern zone of the DMZ at 19:20 GMT on Monday. It is not yet clear if he is a civilian or a member of the military.
“He is presumed to be a North Korean and we’re conducting an investigation into details, including how he had come down and whether he wished to defect,” the Joint Chief of Staffs said in a statement.
Since taking power in 2011, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is believed to have ordered the tightening of border controls between the two sides and with China, including by laying more landmines. Crossing via the DMZ is incredibly dangerous. If spotted and arrested by the North Korean military, those trying to cross would certainly be taken to a detention center to be interrogated. They could be tried and sentenced to lengthy terms in labor camps.
The wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made her first public appearance in a year, ending an unusual absence that stoked speculation about her condition.
Ri Sol Ju joined her husband at a musical performance for the anniversary of the birth of former leader Kim Jong Il, which is known as the Day of the Shining Star in North Korea, the official Korean Central News Agency reported Wednesday.
Ri, thought to be 32, may have been sidelined due to the coronavirus, which virtually ended international visits and the need to appear by her husband’s side at events part of a normal nation’s statecraft, specialist service NK News reported in late January. The yearlong drought was by far the longest stretch she hasn’t appeared in state media during that time. North Korea has given no explanation for her absence.
“If her prolonged absence was due to concerns about the coronavirus, her reappearance could suggest increased regime confidence in the country’s quarantine situation,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, an independent political analyst who used to work for the U.S. government in areas related to North Korea.
South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers Tuesday Ri may have been taking care of the couple’s children and avoiding public exposure during the coronavirus pandemic, Kim Byung-kee, a ruling Democratic Party lawmaker, said after a meeting of a parliamentary intelligence committee.
The agency also said North Korea hacked Pfizer Inc. for information on its Covid-19 vaccine and treatments.
Ri, a former singer who as a teenager served in a North Korean cheerleading squad, has appeared with her husband for a summit in China, where the couple sat down for a meal with President Xi Jinping and his wife. Ri also joined Kim as they rode white horses through the snow on North Korea’s Mount Paektu, the symbolic seat of Kim family rule over the country.
South Korean intelligence said the two married in 2009. They are thought to have three children, but there is no official mention of their offspring. Dennis Rodman, the offbeat basketball great who visited Kim in North Korea, said in 2013 he held the leader’s baby girl in his arms, a daughter named Ju Ae.
Ken Eom, who defected from North Korea in 2010, said that for many North Korean defectors today, escaping their homeland was no longer about poverty and hunger, but finding “freedom, like getting more education and a better life”.
Hanna Song, a researcher at the non-profit Database Centre for NK Human Rights in Seoul. Adds that whereas defectors from North Korea were once driven by “simply survival”, this has changed during the last fifteen years. “If you look at the typology of North Koreans who have now resettled in South Korea, it is very diverse,” said Song.
Imesh Pokharel, who runs the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Seoul, agrees that most recent defectors he had encountered were driven by the desire for greater economic opportunity. “Basically those who have family members in [South Korea], they are more likely to come here directly,” says Pokharel.
“In the last 10 years, the trend is family-invited refugees,” said an activist who helps North Koreans reach the South, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of his work. “For North Korean refugees who have entered South Korea, bringing their parents and siblings from North Korea to South Korea is the top priority. They work hard to raise money, or they get support from mission agencies or NGOs to bring their family.”
Tim Peters, a Christian activist who runs Seoul-based non-profit Helping Hands Korea, said it had become increasingly typical to see single parents or grandparents with children, rather than whole families, make the decision to leave. “This elderly care of a grandchild has often occurred due to the death of an adult child – parent of the grandchild – or abandonment of the child by the grandparent’s adult child or his spouse in North Korea,” said Peters. “The grandparent guardian discovers that they are unable to economically survive supporting the grandchild alone in the North, so make the grim decision to seek a menial job in China. A similar phenomenon is observed in single parents, especially women, who’ve either lost their North Korean husbands due to an untimely death, or through divorce.”
In his first interview since defecting to the South more than a year ago, North Korea’s former acting ambassador to Kuwait Ryu Hyeon-woo told CNN that Kim Jong Un will not give up his nuclear arsenal but may be willing to negotiate an arms reduction for relief from the international sanctions crippling Pyongyang’s economy.
“North Korea’s nuclear power is directly linked to the stability of the regime” — and Kim likely believes nuclear weapons are key to his survival. Ryu also said previous US administrations had boxed themselves into a corner by demanding denuclearization up front in negotiations with the totalitarian state.
The former diplomat, who adopted the name Ryu upon moving to the South, is one of several high-profile North Korean officials to defect in recent years. Ryu and his family defectedto South Korea in September 2019, but their actions were only made public last week.
Determined to give their teenage daughter a better life, Ryu said he and his wife planned their escape for about a month while living in Kuwait. Ryu took his family to the South Korean embassy in Kuwait to claim asylum. They traveled to South Korea several days later.
Ryu said that if they had been caught, North Korean agents would have quickly taken them all back to Pyongyang for certain punishment, as defection is considered a major embarrassment to the Kim regime and is not taken lightly.
Kuwait was a particularly important revenue stream for Pyongyang, as the Persian Gulf nation used to employ about 10,000 North Korean laborers. Those workers were allegedly treated like modern-day slaves, and experts say almost all of their earnings were funneled back to the government.
Ryu also was posted to Syria, a close ally of North Korea, from 2010 to 2013. While Ryu was charged with overseeing relations with Syrian politicians, his countrymen were selling conventional weapons to the Bashar al-Assad regime, including long-range multiple launcher artillery and anti-aircraft weapons systems.
Looking back over the past 16 months, Ryu says his only regret is what might happen to his remaining family members back in Pyongyang. He and his wife believe they did the right thing for their daughter, by taking her away from her home country.
Defection from North Korea comes at a monumental cost, with defectors having to instantly sever ties from all family left in their home nation. Ryu is worried about his three siblings and 83-year-old mother still in North Korea, and the family also worries for his wife’s elderly parents living in Pyongyang.
It’s now been confirmed that North Korea’s acting ambassador to Kuwait defected to South Korea, the latest in a recent string of high-profile escapes from the isolated country, a South Korean lawmaker said on Monday.
Ryu Hyun Woo had led North Korea’s embassy in Kuwait since former Ambassador So Chang Sik was expelled after a 2017 U.N. resolution sought to scale back the country’s overseas diplomatic missions.
Ryu defected to South Korea last September, according to Thae Yong Ho, who was North Korea’s deputy ambassador to Britain before settling in the South in 2016 and being elected as a lawmaker last year.
Tae said Ryu is the son-in-law of Jon Il Chun, who once oversaw a Worker’s Party bureau responsible for managing the ruling Kim family’s secret coffers, dubbed Room 39.
Ryu fled several months after Jo Song Gil, who was North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, vanished with his wife from the embassy and resurfaced in South Korea.
Last year was a disaster for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He helplessly watched his country’s already battered economy decay further amid pandemic border closures while brooding over the collapse of made-for-TV summits with former President Donald Trump that failed to lift crippling sanctions from his country.
Now he must start all over again with President Joe Biden, who has previously called Kim a “thug” and accused Trump of chasing spectacles instead of meaningful reductions of Kim’s nuclear arsenal.
North Korea won’t likely be the top priority for Biden, who while facing mounting domestic issues is also gearing up for a push to get back into a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that Trump blew up in favor of what he called maximum pressure against Iran.
Acoording to Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, the Biden administration’s “sequence of policy attention will likely be: Get America’s own house in order, strengthen U.S. alliances and align strategies toward China and Russia, and then address Iran and North Korea.”
Kim Jong-un acted quickly. On January 22, 2020, North Korea closed its borders with China and Russia to stop a new, mysterious virus from spreading into the country. More than a year later, the hermit kingdom’s border remains sealed tight shut. North Korea’s response to the pandemic has been one of the most extreme and paranoid in the world, experts say.
The real impact of Covid-19 on North Korea—and its citizens—remains a mystery. Faced with a global health crisis, the country has turned inward more than ever. “North Korea, in general, is more difficult to know this year or last year than at almost any point in the last two decades,” says Sokeel Park, director of research at Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a group that works with defectors from the country to understand what happens inside its borders.
The closest that officials got to admitting there might be a case was in July when state newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported that a “state of emergency” had been declared in Kaesong City, in the south of the country. The newspaper reported that a defector who had returned to the country from South Korea was “suspected” to have Covid-19. But the case was never confirmed. Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong-un, has hit back at suggestions from South Korea that the country may have had cases, describing such talk as “reckless.”
From the outside, it is impossible to know the scale of the Covid-19 crisis in North Korea. International diplomats and humanitarian groups have largely left the country. The result is that little reliable information finds its way out of North Korea. Those with contacts inside the country and who work with defectors also say it has been impossible to work out the reality of the health situation on the ground.
As for vaccines: At the end of November it was reported that state-sponsored hackers had targeted AstraZeneca; South Korea has reported attempts on its own vaccine infrastructure, and Microsoft has also found similar hacking efforts linked to North Korea. The country has since quietly requested international help in obtaining vaccines. Analysis of vaccine distribution predicts that the jabs may be widely available in North Korea in 2022 or 2023.
Defectors and activists in South Korea have for decades used balloons to send leaflets across the tightly guarded border, along with food, medicine, money, mini radios and USB sticks containing South Korean news and dramas.
But last month, South Korea’s parliament passed a bill banning such activities, which Tae Yong-ho, the first North Korean defector to be elected as a South Korean lawmaker, said was a “great mistake” that only hampers change in the isolated country.
Tae, who was North Korea’s deputy ambassador to Britain before defecting in 2016, said the ban severed one of the very few sources of outside information for ordinary North Koreans. “It’s a great mistake,” Tae said. “We can only bring a change in a communist state with soft power, not military interventions or economic blockade.”
In a 2019 survey by a Seoul-based activist group, more than 71% of 200 defectors said they had watched a South Korean drama or film before fleeing their homeland, mostly using a DVD or USB device at night when surveillance is weak.
“In daytime, the population is shouting ‘long live Kim Jong Un’, but at night they all watch South Korean dramas and movies,” Tae said. “Why stop the inflows of information?”
Tae Yong-ho explained that knowledge about the outside world gained from embassy postings in Europe had fostered disillusionment among his family, and eventually served as a key driver for his defection. “My children learned that their lives were nothing but those of contemporary slaves if they go back to North Korea,” he said. “I wanted to give them the choice of freedom.”
Last October, the United Nations sent a letter to the Chinese government, urging Beijing to refrain from forcibly repatriating a group of North Korean refugees under Chinese detention.
On Sept. 12, Chinese authorities had arrested a group of five defectors who were attempting to flee to South Korea, leaving the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang. The next day, the group of defectors were detained and sent to a police station in the port city of Qingdao, according to the letter from the U.N.
It is unclear whether the arrested North Koreans are a family. The group included a 49-year-old woman, a 48-year-old man, a 14-year-old girl, a woman who was six months pregnant, and another woman whose age is unknown, according to reports.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights produced a letter signed by Tomás Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur on North Korea human rights, and Nils Melzer, the special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, that was delivered to the Chinese government on Oct. 27.
The U.N. said any repatriation of the defectors would be a violation of Article 3 of the U.N. Convention against Torture, or UNCAT, which requires no government expel, return or extradite a person to another country where there are sufficient grounds to believe the individual would be subjected to torture.
During 2020, the number of North Korean defections to the South has dropped amid the coronavirus pandemic. Pyongyang has sealed its borders in response to COVID-19.
The 2.5-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone separating South and North Korea is the most heavily fortified border in the world, guarded by tall barbed-wire fences, minefields, sensors and nearly two million troops on both sides.
When the North Korean man, a former gymnast in his late 20s, crawled over the fence on the southern edge of the DMZ this month, he got past sensors set to trigger alarms to alert South Korean guards. It was the South Korean military’s most embarrassing breach of border security in years.
It raised a disturbing question: How could the man have defected undetected?
This week, the South Korean military said it had solved the mystery: The sensors had loose screws that made the system malfunction. There were no indications that the screws had been deliberately tampered with.
Under pressure from the coronavirus pandemic and an ailing economy, Kim Jong Un is responding with fury, allowing at least two executions in the past three months, South Korea’s intelligence agency told a parliamentary briefing on Friday.
“Kim Jong Un is taking irrational actions,” opposition lawmaker Ha Tae-keung told reporters after being briefed by Seoul’s National Intelligence Service. Ha said a foreign exchange dealer was executed in late October, while an official at a customs post on the Chinese border was put to death in August for failing to abide by strict rules on imports intended to prevent the coronavirus from entering the country.
The South Korean intelligence account could not be independently verified. But experts say that Kim is likely to be feeling pressure after closing the Chinese border at the start of the year as the coronavirus spread around the world.
The volume of North Korea’s trade with China dropped by 73 percent in the first three quarters of 2020 compared with same period last year, according to a report released by the Korea International Trade Association in Seoul. Ha, the South Korean lawmaker, said prices of sugar and spices in North Korea have risen fourfold as imports from China dried up, while whole cities and even provinces, mostly near the border, have been placed under temporary lockdowns this month after foreign currency smuggling or foreign goods were detected.
Ha said examples of North Korea’s “paranoia” about the risks of coronavirus included its refusal to accept 110,000 tons of rice aid offered by China and a decision to ban fishing and salt production in North Korean waters because of concerns that seawater could be contaminated with the virus.
On the afternoon of February 22, 2019, a tall Asian man rang the doorbell of the North Korean Embassy in Madrid. His business card identified him as Matthew Chao.
About thirty minutes later, an employee of a nearby gym was driving past the Embassy and came across a woman, her face covered in blood, who had jumped from a second-floor balcony. The gym employee called for an ambulance, and, when it arrived, the woman told the medics that there were intruders in the Embassy killing people. Soon, the police rang the doorbell of the Embassy. The tall Asian man, now wearing a badge featuring the face of Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s Great Leader, came out and told the police that there had been a misunderstanding. Later, an I.D. bearing the name Matthew Chao was found by the police.
It was a delicate time for relations between North Korea and the United States. In 2017, the two countries had seemed to be on the brink of war. Donald Trump warned North Korea that it would be met with “fire and fury” if it continued to antagonize the U.S. A month later, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test. At Trump’s first address to the United Nations, he threatened to “totally destroy North Korea,” and called Kim Jong Un “rocket man.” But then Trump seemed to have a change of heart, and in June, 2018, he met Kim in Singapore.
The incident at the Madrid Embassy occurred five days before Trump and Kim met again, this time in Hanoi. At first, the Spanish paper El País connected the raid to the C.I.A. The next day, El Mundo reported that the South Korean government may also have been involved in the incident at the Embassy. Not long afterward, the Washington Post reported that, in fact, a “shadowy group” called Cheollima Civil Defense had raided the Embassy. Soon, a Spanish court identified the participants as citizens of the U.S., South Korea, and Mexico, and issued arrest warrants.
The story identified the leader of Cheollima Civil Defense as Adrian Hong. He was being hunted by the governments of Spain and North Korea, and it was unclear if the U.S. would attempt to find and extradite him.
Adrian Hong contacted me and told me the story of what had happened in Madrid, and about a secret network of what he called “freedom fighters,” including some within North Korea, who are trying to bring down Kim Jong Un’s government. Explaining why he had named the group Cheollima Civil Defense, Adrian likened it to the “righteous armies” throughout Korea’s thousands of years of history, “civilian militias who have mobilized spontaneously when government failed them.”
March 1, 2019, a week after the raid, was the centennial of the launch of Korea’s movement for independence from Japan, which occupied the country for thirty-five years. To mark the date, the C.C.D. renamed itself Free Joseon—for a Korean dynasty that lasted five hundred years, as well as what North Koreans call their country—and posted a video on its Web site announcing a government-in-exile for North Korea. The video was largely ignored by the media, but it was the first time that there had ever been an organized opposition to North Korea’s dictatorship.
Adrian told me that he, as “Matthew Chao,” and his companions had been let in by someone inside the Embassy. “It’s no longer trespassing if you are invited,” he said. Contrary to the speculations of the Spanish press, Free Joseon was not part of any government or intelligence service. “I have never worked for or been paid by or trained with or partnered with anyone at the C.I.A. or F.B.I.,” Adrian said. Free Joseon relied on resources that included “pro-bono labor, credit cards, and attempting things no government would risk,” Adrian told me. However, to set up a provisional government, the group also needed recognition. According to Adrian, “The plan was to have ambassadors and a cabinet in place.” He said that Free Joseon had initially received tacit support from members of the F.B.I. But then, he insisted, U.S. officials had turned on the group.
When he described Free Joseon’s goals for freeing North Koreans from persecution he was precise and single-minded. “[North Korea is] the worst place on earth, and a symbol of what man’s ingenuity and tenacity can achieve when organized for evil.”
“Regimes like this don’t collapse slowly. It happens instantly. Every revolution is that way, and this will be the same,” Adrian told me. “I don’t mean a revolution in a figurative sense. I don’t mean the revolution of the mind. Or some kind of fantasy where five hundred thousand people protest in Pyongyang and the regime just packs their bags and leaves and some transitional government comes in place. This is not like any other country, where offering them enough money will mean they will liberalize—any opening or reform will result in their insecurity. The only way to make them change is to force them to change.”
“We are going to remove this regime,” he said. “We are going to confront it with force, with the strength of our ideas, and with our bodies until these people are free and can determine their own future.” The goal of his organization, he said, was “abolition.” How would he achieve that? “There is only one way,” he said. “It’s an uprising. It’s a revolution.”
Adrian Hong was born in 1984 in Tijuana, where his parents had immigrated from South Korea. His father was a Tae Kwon Do master who converted to Christianity and became a missionary. The family moved to San Diego when Adrian was six, but his father founded an orphanage in Mexico to which Adrian often returned, delivering donated supplies and helping to give aid to the homeless. Later, he conducted relief missions in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
According to those who knew Adrian at the time, his motivations seemed less religious than humanitarian. Adrian, like his father, taught Tae Kwon Do and is a practicing Christian, but, when I asked him about his faith, he said, “I make it a rule not to discuss personal beliefs. I am more concerned about freedom of belief.” Adrian admired people who effected great change; among them Martin Luther King, Jr. Adrian loved King’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable, which tells us, when confronted with someone in need, to ask not “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” but “If I don’t stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
While attending Yale, Adrian became interested in the plight of North Koreans. In 2003, while visiting Los Angeles, Adrian, then a junior, was sitting with Paul (PK) Kim, a standup comic eight years older, at a café called Blink, on Wilshire Boulevard. They had met when Adrian invited PK to a campus event, and they often discussed starting an organization to help North Koreans. One of them looked up at the café’s sign, and decided to take the “B” out of the name and call the new group LINK—Liberty in North Korea. It was launched early the next year, at the Korean American Students Conference at Yale, which Adrian had organized.
Traveling to two or three college campuses a week, Adrian would give presentations about the horrors of life in North Korea, sometimes screening the documentary film “Seoul Train,” which follows defectors escaping to China. LINK was “ninety per cent Adrian,” PK told me. LINK sought out college students who, PK said, “need to be a part of something.” Adrian told me, “I built LINK on Xanga,” a blog-based social network then popular among Asian Americans, where he had been active since 1999.
Ki Hong Lee, a thirty-four-year-old Korean American actor who has appeared on the Netflix sitcom “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” met Adrian at an event in 2005, when Lee was an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley. “If you spend three hours with Adrian, he makes you want to become a better person, do things you never thought about doing,” Lee told me. Lee helped start a chapter of LINK at Berkeley, and eventually he and Adrian traveled to South Korea to volunteer for an outreach program called Project Sunshine, which tried to raise awareness of the suffering of North Koreans. “You don’t really call someone to say, ‘Hey, you know what’s going on in the world that is messed up?’ ” Lee said. “He was that person I could do that with.”
Adrian dropped out of Yale in his senior year, and set up LINK’s ad-hoc headquarters in Manhattan’s Koreatown, before moving it to Washington, D.C. By then, there were nearly seventy local chapters. A close friend who helped get LINK off the ground told me, “Adrian knew that sometimes you have to work outside a diplomatic norm in order to reach something meaningful.”
In 2004, George W. Bush signed the North Korean Human Rights Act, which made North Koreans broadly eligible for political asylum in the U.S. Two years later, Adrian and two other members of LINK traveled to Yanji, in northeast China, where they met four women and two teen-age boys who had escaped from North Korea and were hiding in an underground shelter. If the defectors were caught by Chinese authorities, they might be returned to North Korea, where they would be imprisoned in labor camps and risk execution. Adrian and the LINK workers accompanied them on a twenty-hour train ride to Shenyang, the site of the nearest U.S. consulate, to apply for asylum. But the consular officers turned them away, telling Adrian, over a phone line that had likely been tapped by the Chinese government, to go instead to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Beijing, some four hundred miles away. Adrian got in touch with the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which also directed him to the U.N.H.C.R. Chinese police arrested everyone the LINK members were jailed for about a week before being deported; the North Koreans were detained for more than six months. After much pressure from LINK and other activist groups, the defectors were eventually freed and they flew to South Korea.
Adrian called the actions of the U.S. consulate “unacceptable and shameful.” In 2007, he wrote on the Web site Freekorea.us, “My experiences in December showed me that three years after the North Korean Human Rights Act has passed, nothing has changed on the ground for North Koreans.”
In 2008, Jay Lefkowitz, the special envoy under Bush, says that Adrian was an “effective and ardent advocate.” By then, LINK had a hundred chapters worldwide.
Yet Adrian’s experience in China had shifted something in him; in 2008, he abruptly resigned from the group. According to a journalist who knew him at the time, Adrian appeared to be severing ties with his former life.
That year, Adrian started a think tank called the Joseon Institute, to generate a plan for a civil society in North Korea should the regime collapse. Between 2009 and 2012, Adrian served as a TED fellow; he also spent a year at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy.
Adrian found the world of N.G.O.s and advocacy groups unsatisfying. “We have all collectively accomplished almost nothing,” he told me. For years, the U.N.’s General Assembly and the Human Rights Council have voted to adopt resolutions condemning the human-rights violations of the North Korean regime. In 2014, U.N. investigators concluded, “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”
“Raising awareness through college lectures, tours, concerts, and bake sales wasn’t enough,” Adrian told me. “Rescuing refugees through the underground work in China and Southeast Asia wasn’t enough. Advocacy, trying to convince governments to change their policies to do the right thing, wasn’t enough. So then what was left was direct action.”
In 2010, Adrian started Cheollima Civil Defense (later renamed Free Joseon), but he did not make its existence known to the public. (“Cheollima” is the Korean equivalent of Pegasus, and during these years he listed his title as managing director of Pegasus Strategies L.L.C.)
In June, 2019, I flew to Europe to meet with members of Free Joseon. They explained that the group had hundreds of members, in ten countries. Adrian indicates there are thousands, in more than fifteen countries. Both numbers are impossible to verify, and the vagueness seems to be intentional. The group operates in a decentralized manner, so that, if one member is arrested, others won’t be jeopardized. The more I tried to follow Free Joseon, the more it became obvious that Adrian was the only person who really knew the extent of the group.
A Free Joseon member in the U.S. told me that he had been involved in several operations, all of them rescue missions involving élite defectors.
South Korean troops patrolling the heavily militarized border failed to immediately apprehend an intruder, and critics point out that this is just the latest in a series of similar security breaches.
The man, believed to be a defector, has not been named. He was initially detected close to the eastern extremity of the DMZ by surveillance equipment at 7:26 p.m. on Tuesday. To reach that point he had already scaled barbed-wire fences and traversed mine fields laid by the North Koreans to stop people from defecting.
Fearing that the intruder might be a spy attempting to infiltrate the South or a member of a North Korean assault team, South Korean border troops immediately issued a level-two alert and dispatched personnel to locate the man. It was not until 9:50 a.m. the following morning, however, that the man was confronted.
In the intervening hours, he had climbed over three barbed-wire fences without setting off any alarms and was about 1.5 kilometers (0.93 miles) inside South Korean territory. Local media have reported that forward-facing sensors on the fences, which are designed to automatically sound an alarm when someone is detected approaching, malfunctioned.
“Obviously, I am happy to hear that this North Korean person was able to escape and was not injured, but that border is meant to be strong to protect us against provocations from the North and it is very worrying to hear that someone was able to get through it so easily,” said Song Young-chae, who works for the human rights organization “The Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocide in North Korea”.
Jo Song Gil, North Korea’s former acting ambassador to Italy who disappeared in late 2018, is confirmed to be living in South Korea. He is quite possibly the top-ranked defector living in the county.
Local news media reported that Jo’s wife had asked the National Intelligence Service (NIS) for permission to return to the North, out of concern for the safety of her teenage daughter and her family. The NIS approved the request, but also made clear that “Jo and his wife voluntarily defected to the South.”
Free Joseon, a group opposed to the Kim Jong Un regime that claims to represent an alternative provisional government for North Korea, helped Jo and his wife find their way to South Korea. (The U.S.-based group, also called “Cheollima Civil Defense,” previously helped Kim Han Sol keep safe from his potential North Korean adversaries after his father, Kim Jong Nam, was assassinated in 2017. In a very murky incident, Free Joseon was also responsible for raiding the North Korean embassy in Madrid in 2019.)
Jo hails from an elite family of orthodox diplomats. His father and father-in-law both served as ambassadors, according to South Korean news reports – the former as ambassador to Congo and Togo, and the latter as ambassador to Thailand and consul general to Hong Kong.
Thae Yong Ho who was deputy ambassador to London defected in 2016, and after arriving in the South became an outspoken critic of the North. In April, he was elected as a lawmaker with the conservative opposition. Previously, Thae had close relationships to the ultra-elite, having appeared in the public with Kim Jong Chul, Kim Jong Un’s brother, when the latter visited London, where he attended an Eric Clapton concert and visited guitar shops.
According to the South Korean Unification Ministry, six senior diplomats have defected to the South since the early 1990s. “As a member of the North Korean elite – by birth, education, and profession – Jo is privy to information that could be damaging to a totalitarian system. If more become outspoken like Thae Yong-ho, they could encourage further defections and undermine the Kim regime,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
So why do diplomats – part of a tiny minority of privileged North Koreans who are trusted to travel and even live overseas – defect from a country where they live at the top of the songbunsystem?
“The North Korean elite is not optimistic about the future of the North,” said Jo Dong-joon, a professor of political science and international relations at Seoul University. “Since the late 1980s, the North Korean elite had already lost confidence.”
“Some do it for their family (especially children), some fear repression from the regime for one reason or another, and some probably very genuinely learn to detest the North Korean system and prefer to take their chances in a place more free,” said Mason Richey, an associate professor of international politics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, in an email interview.
Two ballistic missiles made their debut in Saturday’s North Korean military parade: a sub-launched weapon and what appeared to be an enormous new intercontinental ballistic missile borne on a long, 11-axle mobile launcher.
Analysts have long scrutinized Pyongyang’s parades for what they reveal about the military capabilities of one of the world’s most secretive regimes — but the October 10 event also offered the latest and clearest signal yet that the Trump administration’s efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have failed. One expert called the new ICBM a destabilizing capability that would exacerbate tensions between North Korea and the rest of the world, particularly the United States.
The new ICBM isn’t exactly a surprise, said Jeffrey Lewis, a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and the founding publisher of the Arms Control Wonk blog. Lewis believes that the missile is intended to carry multiple warheads, another new capability. That means North Korea is improving the likelihood of slipping a nuclear weapon past the ground-based midcourse defense interceptors that the United States would deploy against an incoming ICBM. “It’s so much cheaper to add warheads than interceptors,” said Lewis.
He acknowledged that the missile hasn’t been flight-tested yet, so there’s no way to tell if it actually works. But it need not be 100-percent reliable to post a large threat that could change U.S. calculations. “We are standing by while they deploy very destabilizing capabilities,” he said.
Jo Song Gil and his wife disappeared in November 2018 after leaving the North Korean embassy in Rome where Jo was employed as acting-ambassador.
For almost two years, his whereabouts have been unknown — but this week, South Korean lawmaker Ha Tae-keung confirmed reports that Jo had defected to South Korea in 2019. “It is confirmed that former ambassador Jo Song Gil entered South Korea in July last year and is under government’s protection,” Ha wrote on his Facebook page Tuesday.
Jo is the highest-profile government official to defect from the totalitarian regime since Thae Yong-Ho, former deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, fled to South Korea in 2016. North Korea has yet to comment publicly on the news of Jo’s defection.
Jo disappeared in November 2018, shortly before his term as North Korea’s top diplomat in Italy was set to expire. In a statement after the diplomat fled, the Italian Foreign Ministry said it had received a notice from the North Korean Embassy that Jo and his wife had left the embassy on November 10, 2018. Four days later, Jo’s daughter returned to North Korea accompanied by female staff from the North Korean embassy after requesting to be reunited with her grandparents, the Italian Foreign Ministry said.
A spokesperson for South Korea’s National Assembly Intelligence Committee chair Jeon Hae-cheol told CNN that the South Korean government didn’t make Jo’s defection public for more than a year out of concern for his family’s safety. Jo had voluntarily expressed his desire to come to South Korea, the spokesperson said.
A North Korean defector who collected information for North Korean authorities after being blackmailed has been given a suspended sentence. The defector, identified by the surname Han, was sentenced to an eight-month prison term suspended for two years for violating the National Security Act.
The Seoul Central District Court ruled that Han’s actions represented a clear danger of damaging South Korea’s democratic order and national security, but handed down a suspended sentence in light of the determination that Han was acting under duress, that his plans to return to the North were not realized and that Han has no other criminal record.
Han came to the South in June 2011 through China, then settled to work at an industrial complex. The North’s State Security Department began to blackmail Han in 2013, directing him to return to the North and threatening to harm his family members in North Korea.
Han was told to collect information on North Korean defectors in the South for the North Korean State Security Department. The information he provided led to North Korean authorities apprehending a broker for sending money in North Korea.
As part of his plan to return to North Korea, Han went to China with 87 million won ($74,100) – 6 million won from savings and 81 million won borrowed from four different non-bank lenders. While in China, Han revealed his intention to give the State Security Department a bribe of 50 million won and to use 30 million won to purchase a truck that he planned to use once back in the North. When the North Korean official, however, demanded 80 million won, it prompted Han to return to the South.
For more than 240 days now, North Korea has kept its borders closed in a COVID-19-related lockdown, which has seriously driven down the number of new defectors entering South Korea.
But now, government data from Seoul shows a sudden surge in new defectors: After a stretch of record-low numbers totaling less than 10 people per month, 39 North Koreans abruptly arrived in South Korea in August 2020, Democratic Party lawmaker Jeon Hae-cheol’s office confirms.
This is a significant rise from the second quarter of 2020, when only twelve entered the South over the course of three months.
North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, offered a rare apology for the killing of a South Korean government official at sea by soldiers from the North.
“I am deeply sorry that an unexpected and unfortunate thing has happened in our territorial waters that delivered a big disappointment to President Moon Jae-in and the people of the South,” Mr. Kim was quoted as saying in a message his government sent to the South on Friday.
Mr. Kim’s prompt apology to the South, the first issued in his name since he took power nearly a decade ago, appeared to have headed off what could have been another serious crisis in relations between the Koreas. South Koreans across the political spectrum had expressed outrage since Mr. Moon’s government announced the official’s killing on Thursday.
The official, whose name has not been released by the South but who worked for the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, went missing from his patrol vessel on Monday. He was shot and killed in North Korean waters on Tuesday, apparently while trying to defect, according to officials in the South. North Korean soldiers then poured oil on the man’s body and set it on fire for fear that he might have had the coronavirus, the officials said.
With all official channels of communication with the North having been cut off since June, South Korea sent a message through a cross-border telephone hotline between North Korea and the United Nations Command, demanding that the North explain why it had killed a South Korean citizen. In the message, North Korea denied that its soldiers had burned the body of the South Korean official, and it offered an account that differed from the South’s in other key details.
South Korean officials had said Thursday that they believed the man had been killed because of the North’s fear of the coronavirus. North Korea has kept its borders closed since January because of the pandemic. This month, Gen. Robert B. Abrams, commander of the United States military in South Korea, said the North had deployed troops along its border with China with shoot-to-kill orders, to keep smugglers from bringing in the coronavirus.
When Kim Jong Un announced last month that the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea will convene for its eighth congress in January 2021, he also acknowledged that the regime’s current economic strategy is not working.
In one sense, this is a hopeful signal, given that such pragmatic admissions of failure are rare for North Korean leaders. But the announcement also underscored the depth of the country’s economic troubles. Of course, Kim does not have to worry about competing in elections. But like all dictators, he must still seek some level of buy-in from the population, and he has staked a great deal of credibility on his promises to improve North Koreans’ living standards.
First came the severe international sanctions imposed in 2016 and 2017, in response to North Korean tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Pyongyang’s recent measures to protect the country from COVID-19, including a virtual closure of the border with China, have added to the damage. Just in the first half of this year, trade with China plummeted by 67% from the same period in 2019, after already having declined for some time.
North Korea also appears to be experiencing difficulties finishing important prestige construction projects, such as the new Pyongyang General Hospital. The regime will inevitably use the recent typhoons that hit the country as an excuse, but the fact is that several of these projects were already on track to be delayed. Kim Jong Un’s key initiatives, such as changes in agricultural management, seem to have slowed, stalled or paused. There have also been troubling signs of crackdowns against private markets and businesses in the past year or so.
Such ventures carry symbolic importance for propaganda purposes; they send a message to the population that the state is making progress to improve people’s everyday lives. Although the vast majority of North Koreans will never directly see these high-profile projects, the implication is that one day, they or their children may benefit from the fruits of the state’s caring investments.
A recent internal report by security authorities in China’s Liaoning Province found that “most North Korean women in China are suffering from symptoms of depression and anxiety” and that there is an urgent need to “stabilize” their mental health. The report found that their living in an “oppressive society” since childhood had had serious impact on their mental health. It stated that the women had suffered from various kinds of human rights abuse, including forced participation in weekly criticism sessions and in the country’s “organizational life.”
One of the interviewees in the report complained that North Korea’s whistle blower system – the weekly criticism sessions – made it “impossible for her to trust anyone” and that she suffered from “psychological anxiety” that made it difficult to interact with others normally.
“The Chinese authorities concluded that the negative memories they have [about their time in] North Korean society are causing them to suffer from personality disorders, symptoms of anxiety, and paranoia,” the source said. “They also concluded that this is why many North Korean women show aggressive and violent behaviors even while living in China.”
The report also found that the women are suffering from severe levels of depression due to fears about being forcibly repatriated along with stress they suffered while defecting from North Korea.
The source told Daily NK that during the interviews the defector women complained about anxiety due to feelings of sadness and regret about leaving their families. A number of the women interviewed also complained about how difficult it was to adapt to a new language and culture while in China. Many of them reportedly claimed they suffered from a “loss of self-esteem” because of the perception they had been “sold [human trafficked] into China.”
South Korea is resuming audits of local groups registered with Seoul’s unification ministry, after a brief hiatus in August due to a new wave of COVID-19 infections.
The unification ministry oversaw the on-site office inspection of the group People Working Together, a support group for North Korean refugees in the South, Yonhap reported Thursday. The ministry was also planning to audit the office of the group North Korean Defectors, but the group turned officials away at the last minute, according to the report.
Earlier in the year, the ministry had said it would inspect registered organizations, including Fighters for a Free North Korea and Kuensaem. The activists came under government scrutiny in June after North Korean official Kim Yo Jong condemned their activities that include balloon launches at the border.
Criticism of President Moon Jae-in’s policies related to North Korea is rising among U.S. analysts. Joshua Stanton and Sung-Yoon Lee said in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday the South Korean leader and members of his administration have filed multiple defamation lawsuits against opponents.
North Korea’s level of anger about anti-North propaganda isn’t any less acidic today than it was six, twenty, or forty years earlier. The one big difference between now and then: whereas previous governments in Seoul would provide South-based defectors groups with a modicum of freedom, today’s South Korean government is far less sympathetic to such freelancing.
When a group calling itself Fighters for Free North Korea unleashed hundreds of thousands of anti-Kim leaflets into the North on May 31, President Moon Jae-in’s administration responded with almost immediate condemnation. On June 10, the South Korean Unification Ministry announced that the two defector groups involved in the operation would be charged with breaking the law. A week later, Seoul revoked their licenses, arguing that unauthorized leafleting of the North “severely hindered” the Moon administration’s peace agenda with Pyongyang and created environmental and safety risks for border communities.
Those measures were blasted as wholly inappropriate by Moon’s conservative political critics. Human rights organizations denounced the criminal charges as disgusting in terms of the optics and a government-sponsored violation of the very right to free speech and political expression South Koreans have valued since their country became a democracy.
Two months later, Seoul’s pressure campaign on North Korean defectors and activists has gotten the attention of former U.S. government officials who served in both Democratic and Republican administrations. After the Unification Ministry announced inspections of twenty-five defector-run NGO’s and requests on another 289 organizations to prove each was properly registered, thirteen former U.S. officials—including Robert King, the former special envoy for North Korea human rights—sent an open letter to President Moon expressing their concerns, describing the strong tactics against the NGO’s as “a chilling form of intimidation” designed to deter them from continuing their work on behalf of the North Korean people.
On August 20, Kim Jong Un offered a rare public acknowledgement of several crises North Korea is currently facing. Citing “severe internal and external situations” and “unexpected … challenges,” he conceded government failures to improve the country’s economy, noting that “many of the planned goals for national economic growth have not yet been attained nor [have] the people’s living standards improved markedly.” It was an unprecedented admission and demonstrates the severity of North Korea’s current dire economic situation.
North Korea is facing a triple set of crises. The Covid-19 pandemic led the totalitarian country to seal its borders in January, causing huge drops in its imports and exports with China, which accounts for almost all the country’s external trade. North Korea’s economy had already been shrinking significantly since 2016 from intensifying sanctions related to its weapons program. And in the past few weeks, historic levels of torrential rains have caused widespread damage across the country and left at least 22 people dead and 4 missing. Thousands of houses and public buildings have been flooded, nearly 100,000 acres of crops damaged, and critical infrastructure destroyed.
Last year, North Korea lashed out at Joe Biden, calling him a “rabid dog” that should “be beaten to death” for comments seen as disparaging of Kim Jong Un.
If Joe Biden is elected U.S. president, American policy toward North Korea is likely to see less emphasis on personal dealings with Kim Jong Un, and more focus on allies and working-level diplomacy, campaign advisers and former officials say. No more “Little Rocket Man”, exchanging love letters or summit pageantry.
“There’s no question that the era of love letters will be over,” one Biden policy adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.
Biden told The New York Times he would not continue the personal diplomacy with Kim, calling the meetings a “vanity project” that should only happen if coupled with “an actual strategy that moves the ball forward on denuclearization.”
Biden would not shut the door to diplomacy, but instead “empower negotiators and implement a sustained and a coordinated effort with allies and partners” to pressure and incentivize North Korea to denuclearize, while also drawing attention the country’s human rights abuses in a way that has been lacking in current U.S. policy, the Biden adviser said.
The influential younger sister of the North Korean ruler, Kim Jong-un, has become his de facto second-in-command with responsibility for relations with South Korea and the US, according to Seoul’s spy agency. This isaccording to Ha Tae-keung, a South Korean MP who sits on the national assembly’s intelligence committee.
Ha said Kim Jong-un had ceded a degree of authority to his younger sister, who has risen through the ruling party ranks since accompanying her brother to his 2019 nuclear summit with Donald Trump in Vietnam.
“The bottom line is that Kim Jong-un still holds absolute power but has turned over a bit more of his authority compared to the past,” Ha said after a closed-door briefing by South Korea’s national intelligence service. “Kim Yo-jong is the de facto second-in-command.”
Ha said Kim Jong Un had also delegated some decision-making powers over economic and military policy to other senior officials. He speculated that the move may be intended to reduce the strain on Kim – who was recently the subject of rumors about his health – and enable him to avoid blame for any failures.
Speaking at a meeting of the party’s central committee on Wednesday, Kim Jong Un also conceded there had been “unexpected and inevitable challenges in various aspects and the situation in the region surrounding the Korean peninsula” – thought to be a reference to sanctions, the coronavirus pandemic and torrential rain that has hit in recent weeks. In unusually frank terms the party concluded that “the goals for improving the national economy had been seriously delayed” and living standards had not been “remarkably” improved, the state-run news agency KCNA said.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry said last month it will “inspect” 25 defector-run NGOs, citing their failure to file necessary documents, and check if 64 others are following conditions to stay registered. Then on Wednesday, the ministry expanded the investigation to a total of 289 organizations.
The ministry has already revoked the licenses of two defector groups that were sending anti-Pyongyang propaganda into the North, following complaints from North Korea. Without a license, the organizations cannot get tax exemptions and hold fundraisers, though donations are still allowed.
Many of the groups have for decades worked with Seoul behind the scenes to bring defectors to the South via an informal network of brokers, charities and middlemen dubbed the North Korean “Underground Railroad”. Intermediaries work as guides and offer shelter for defectors during their long, dangerous journey across China into Southeast Asia.
The sweeping probe by South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration is scaring away donors, activists said. Several NGOs told Reuters the defector networks may never recover, even when borders closed due to coronavirus reopen.
Legendary journalist Bob Woodward’s new book will include details of 25 “personal letters” exchanged between President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, according to Simon & Schuster, which will publish the book next month.
The publisher said that the letters shed light on the unusual and deeply personal relationship between the two men, whose surprise detente was one of the most unexpected foreign policy developments of the Trump presidency to date.
In the 25 letters, “Kim describes the bond between the two leaders as out of a ‘fantasy film,’ as the two leaders engage in an extraordinary diplomatic minuet,” according to a description of the book posted on Amazon.
The president has repeatedly touted letters from Kim as evidence of their friendship, much to the discomfort of observers and lawmakers concerned with Trump’s apparent predilection for authoritarian leaders.
Trump has described the letters as “nice” and “very beautiful,” and suggested the letters were part of how the two men “fell in love.” Pyongyang has also celebrated the letter exchanges, with Kim’s sister and trusted aide Kim Yo Jong citing them as proof of the “excellent” relationship between the two men. “
Trump himself has published details of the exchanges before. In July 2018 shortly after the historic bilateral summit in Singapore, the president tweeted out an English translation of a “very nice note” from Kim, which Trump said showed the “great progress being made.” In the letter, Kim addressed Trump as “Your Excellency” and praised the president’s “energetic and extraordinary efforts” to improve ties between Washington, D.C. and Pyongyang.
But for all the warm words, the two men have achieved little in the way of denuclearization and sanctions relief.
Kim Jong Un lifted a three week lockdown in the city of Kaesong and nearby areas, after a man who defected to the South returned to the border town last month showing coronavirus symptoms.
North Korea has said it has no confirmed cases of the coronavirus, but Kim said last month that the virus “could be said to have entered” the country and imposed the lockdown after the man was reported to have symptoms. Later test results on the man were “inconclusive”, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Coronavirus prevention measures had stabilized the risk in the area, Kim said in a statement carried by KCNA.
“The situation, in which the spread of the worldwide malignant virus has become worse, requires us not to allow any outside aid for the flood damage but shut the border tighter and carry out strict anti-epidemic work,” Kim said in a statement carried out by the KCNA.
The monsoon season has caused extensive damage in several provinces, with farmlands inundated with floodwaters, around 16,680 houses and 630 public buildings destroyed or flooded, and many roads, bridges and railroads damaged, KCNA reported.
The Red Cross has trained 43,000 North Korean volunteers to help communities, including the locked-down city of Kaesong, fight the novel coronavirus and provide flood assistance, an official with the relief organization said on Monday.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared an emergency last month and imposed a lockdown on Kaesong, near the inter-Korean border, after a man who defected to the South in 2017 returned to the city showing coronavirus symptoms.
Heavy rain and flooding in recent days have also sparked concern about crop damage and food supplies in the isolated country.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has built an extensive network of North Korean volunteers to help residents in all nine provinces to avoid the virus and reduce damage from floods and landslides, spokesman Antony Balmain said.
North Korea has not confirmed any coronavirus cases but has enforced strict quarantine measures. South Korea has said there is no evidence the returning defector was infected.
The IFRC last month provided North Korea with kits designed to run up to 10,000 coronavirus tests, alongside infrared thermometers, surgical masks, gowns and protective gears.
Leaflets condemning the single-minded authoritarian rule of Kim Jong Un do not always make it across the border in helium balloons. But when they do, they can end up in the hands of the people who serve as a pillar for the regime’s security, according to Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
“The key point about the balloons is that 80 percent of the Korean People’s Army is forward deployed south of the Pyongyang-Wonsan line,” Scarlatoiu told UPI. “Many of these units are within reach [of the balloons]. Even if they round up all of the leaflets, the North Korean officers in charge are going to read them.”
Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s sister who has called defectors “human scum” and “rubbish-like mongrel dogs,” could be nervous about the eroding isolation of ordinary North Koreans, who live only a few hours away from Koreans in the South, one of the most wired societies in the world. By contrast, North Korea keeps a tight lid on outside information. There are only 2,000 IP addresses for a population of 25 million people, according to Scarlatoiu.
In response to North Korean threats of retaliation against the South, Seoul recently moved to ban balloon launches and revoked the operating licenses of two organizations, Fighters for a Free North Korea and Kuensaem. South Korea’s decision to penalize activists diminishes the prospect of delivering information to North Korea, says Suzanne Scholte, the chair of North Korea Freedom Coalition in Washington.
The government’s warnings against anti-North Korea activity appear to be an attempt to appease the North. Moon, who remains determined to complete his quest to sign a peace treaty with Kim Jong Un, could be thinking that curbing defector activity could help diplomacy and burnish his legacy.
“The South Korean government may hope that this would placate the North Korean regime and create the space for Seoul to make inroads into inter-Korea cooperation,” said Soo Kim, a policy analyst at the RAND Corp. “But allowing North Korea’s deeds to go unpunished only emboldens Kim and gives Pyongyang greater leeway.”
After three years of living in South Korea, defector Kim Geum-hyok returned to his native North Korea — swimming across the same river he’d crossed in 2017, South Korean officials said. North Korea has accused him of bringing coronavirus into the country for the first time, and resulted in putting Kaesong, Mr. Kim’s hometown, under lockdown.
Weeks before his departure, Mr. Kim, now 24, gave several interviews on a friend’s YouTube channel, talking about his life in the two Koreas. Even before Mr. Kim went back, his story was an unusual one. Firstly Mr. Kim made the dangerous decision to cross the inter-Korean border. Second, after defecting he made the rare decision to return.
In one of the YouTube interviews, Mr. Kim said he had lost most of his hearing at an early age. “Because of that, I had difficulty communicating with people,” he said. “I was beaten because I was told to bring one thing and brought some thing else.” When he was still a child, Kaesong, a city of 300,000, was chosen as the site of an industrial park run jointly by the two Koreas. Kaesong became a boomtown, awash with cash. Mr. Kim’s cousins worked at the park, he said, and he himself sold eggs and vegetables.
But four years ago, the South shut down the complex in a dispute over the North’s nuclear weapons program. The economy crashed, and Mr. Kim, like many others, was soon out of work. (Last month, with inter-Korean relations at another low, the North blew up an office in Kaesong that it had jointly operated with the South.) By June of 2017, Mr. Kim said he “saw no hope for the future, no meaning in life, wondering whether I should continue to live or die.” Seeing the South Korean buildings at night compelled him to “go there and check it out even if that meant my death,” he said.
Mr. Kim settled in the South Korean town of Gimpo, across the Han River from Kaesong. A doctor corrected the hearing problem that he had lived with since childhood. He said he cried that day.
He missed his parents deeply. He had enrolled in a vocational school, as part of the resettlement program that the South offers to defectors, but he said he quit and found work, hoping to send money to his family, as defectors often do through middlemen in China.
Off camera, according to the friend with the YouTube channel, Mr. Kim confided that he was being investigated by the police because another defector had accused him of raping her. He said that he had been so drunk on the night in question that he couldn’t remember anything. The police in Gimpo confirmed that a warrant had been issued for his arrest.
On July 18, officials say, Mr. Kim sent his last text message to the friend with the YouTube channel: “I really didn’t want to lose you because you were like a big sister to me,” he wrote. “I will repay my debt to you no matter where I live, as long as I live.”
South Korean officials concluded that Mr. Kim then crossed the border by crawling through a drain, three feet in diameter, that runs underneath barbed-wire fences on Ganghwa’s north shore. That led him to the Han River, which they believe he swam back across.
Over the past five years, eleven North Korean defectors returned to their communist homeland from South Korea.
A 24-year-old defector is the latest to do so, and is believed to have fled back to the North by crossing the demarcation line. His return was made known after the North said that a “runaway” came back home with coronavirus symptoms.
The South Korean Unification Ministry has stated that a total of 11 defectors have gone back to the North since 2015.
A 24-year-old defector returned to North Korea the way he left in 2017, authorities say, but with a coronavirus pandemic raging in the background this time, his illicit trip drew far more attention. South Korea has identified the man only by his surname, Kim, and identified him as the “runaway” who North Korea accuses of illegally crossing their shared border last week with symptoms of COVID-19.
Facing a sexual assault investigation, Kim evaded high-tech South Korean border control systems by crawling through a drain pipe and swimming across the Han River to the North on July 19, the South Korean military has said. He appears to have spent several days there before being caught in the city of Kaesong, a North Korean border town.
Little is known about how Kim made a living in South Korea, but a source with knowledge of his background told Reuters that he owed 20 million won ($16,800) to at least one fellow defector from Kaesong. “He had expressed his wish to become a security lecturer for students, like many other defectors do, but it never happened, partly because of the pandemic,” the source said on anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
According to police, a female defector in her 20s filed a complaint on June 12, accusing Kim of sexually assaulting her at his home. They interviewed him once on June 21, and he denied the accusations.
The investigation gathered steam when one of Kim’s acquaintances reported to police on July 19 that he threatened the woman and planned to flee to the North, a police official said. A warrant for Kim’s arrest was issued two days later, but according to North Korean state media, he had already arrived there.
By July 24, North Korean authorities had found him in Kaesong, and said he displayed COVID-19 symptoms. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered the city be locked down and declared a state of emergency.
South Korean health officials said there was no sign that Kim was infected with the coronavirus before he left the South, and at least two people who were in close contact with him have tested negative.
Kim Jong Un placed Kaesong on lockdown after a person was discovered with suspected symptoms, state media reported Sunday. Kaesong, with an estimated population of 200,000, is located just north of the heavily fortified border with South Korea.
Kim said he took “the preemptive measure of totally blocking Kaesong City and isolating each district and region from the other” on Friday afternoon, the state-run news agency said.
North Korea said respiratory secretion and blood tests showed the person “is suspected to have been infected” with the coronavirus and has since been quarantined. People who had been in contact with the patient and those who have been in Kaesong in the last five days were also quarantined.
NK News, an organization that tracks North Korean state-run media, said the person crossed the border on July 19. South Korean state media indicates the person is someone who fled to South Korea three years ago before illegally returning early last week.
If the person is officially declared a coronavirus patient, he or she would be North Korea’s first confirmed case. As the coronavirus has spread globally and shut down various countries this year, North Korea has steadfastly said it has had no cases of the virus, a claim questioned by outside experts.
In late March, the Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun reported more than 100 North Korean soldiers who were stationed at the border with China died from the virus. The South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo also claimed that Kim was spending “considerable time” away from the capital of Pyongyang due to the virus.
The ruling Kim clan is known in North Korea as the “Mount Paektu bloodline,” a reference to the mountain on the country’s border with China where North Korea claims Kim Jong Il was born and his father fought the Japanese.
“In many regards, North Korea is similar to the European societies of late medieval and early modern days. It is essentially a monarchy,” says professor Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, in which family members are more trusted than other elites.
That bloodline is what allows the youngre sister of Kim Jong-Un, Kim Yo Jong, to rise so high in North Korean politics, despite a bias against women in power in a country where traditional attitudes are summed up in the Korean maxim “If the hen cries, the household will be ruined.” The saying, used in both Koreas, suggests that when women speak up or take charge, no good will come of it.
“The North Korean system is fundamentally patriarchal,” says Lim Soon-hee, an expert on women in North Korea. “The government tells the people that they form one big socialist family,” she adds. The father of this metaphorical family, she explains, is Kim Jong Un. The mother is the ruling Workers’ Party. The children are the North Korean people. And the father’s authority is unchallenged.
Lim believes Kim Yo Jong’s most likely future role is not that of successor but, instead, a regent or caretaker until Kim Jong-Un’s son is old enough to take over. (Lim says Kim Jong Un reportedly has three small children who are too young to rule.)
Even if Kim Yo Jong were to take power, Lim argues, North Korea’s conservative military would never accept it.
“Kim Yo Jong herself would not hope to be a successor, although she may have a strong will to acquire greater practical power,” Lim concludes. “She is smart enough to know that it wouldn’t be easy for a woman.”
Kim Yo Jong was still in her 20s in 2011 when her father, Kim Jong Il, died and her brother Kim Jong Un took power. Her debut on the international stage came in 2018, when she acted as a special envoy at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and met with the country’s president, Moon Jae-in.
Kim Yo Jong became the first vice director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Her political star has risensteadily since her brother took power, leading to speculation that she could one day become the country’s first female ruler. But while there are plausible reasons for her recent elevation, analysts say, the traditional patriarchal nature of North Korean society will likely prevent her from advancing higher up the ranks.
But the younger sister’s rise to what many now see as the de facto No. 2 position in the Kim regime has historical precedent and political logic behind it.
“There is nothing unusual about, say, a sibling of the current leader to be his second in command. It’s actually a very well-established tradition of the Kim family,” says professor Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul. He notes that Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father, was assisted by his sister during his rule in the 1990s.
Kim Yo Jong’s new role was necessitated by her brother’s disappearance this spring, Lankov says, apparently because of an unknown illness. (By one estimate, Kim Jong Un has made only seven public appearances from April through June, compared with 46 in the same period last year.)
“This makes it more necessary for him to have a trusted deputy,” Lankov says. “And this person has to come from, if you like, the royal family, and in the ruling clan, they have now a shortage of adults.”
“Rip apart the defectors, the traitors and the human trash,” demonstrators wearing masks and standing in neat rows shouted at rallies in North Korea last month, aiming to signal dismay at South Korea for allowing defectors to send propaganda leaflets, often floated on balloons, over the border to criticize North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
While government-organized demonstrations are not unusual in the North, one notable feature of these rallies is that they echo the harsh rhetoric of Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong, 32. She is believed to be in charge of the campaign against the defectors and their leaflets.
“She’s gone from being her brother’s proxy to his protocol assistant, to his eyes and ears, to a punisher,”comments Kim Seung-chul, a defector who runs the Seoul, South Korea-based North Korea Reform Radio, which broadcasts news into the North.
At the Kim-Trump summits in Singapore and Vietnam, Kim Yo Jong appeared to act as her brother’s personal assistant, holding his pens and ashtrays. On other occasions, she has been seen watching her brother’s public events from the sidelines. She has also reportedly managed her brother’s public image as an official in charge of propaganda.
Recently, her rhetoric has recently grown harsher. In a statement, she assailed North Korean defectors as “human scum little short of wild animals who betrayed their own homeland.”
Since first meeting him in 2018 she described Moon, the South Korean president, as an “insane” man who put his neck in “the noose of the pro-U.S. flunkyism.”
The South Korean government revoked the operation permits of two defector groups on Friday for sending anti-North Korea leaflets across the border, officials said, after Pyongyang furiously denounced their activities.
The move is likely to trigger debate over potential infringements on freedom of expression in the democratic South. The leaflets — usually attached to hot air balloons or floated in bottles — criticize North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over human rights abuses and his nuclear ambitions.
But by sending them, the two groups “severely hindered” the government’s “efforts for unification”, Seoul’s unification ministry said in a statement. They also raised tensions on the Korean peninsula, and “put the safety and lives” of Koreans living in border towns “in danger”, it added.
Revoking the groups’ operational permits does not render them illegal, but will make it harder for them to raise money and deny them access to benefits for registered organizations.
Inter-Korean relations have been in deep freeze following the collapse of a summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump early last year over what the nuclear-armed North would be willing to give up in exchange for a loosening of sanctions.
North Korean phones are screened by the Ministry of State Security first to prevent them from being used in any non-permitted ways, so cannot be used to communicate with those in other countries.
Because of this, North Koreans use Chinese-made phones that have been purchased from smugglers, and contact relatives through an app WeChat, allowing voice calls, text messages, and video calls.
WeChat is also used to send money to loved ones in North Korea so they can maintain a living and eat their next meal. The transfer process involves the money passing through several countries before reaching the recipient in North Korea. After initial links are established through these networks in both North and South Korea, money is sent to the account of a Chinese middle-man, who takes a cut for themselves.
There are many shops in the China-North Korea border regions that are jointly run by people from both countries. At such places, at a pre-arranged time and date, the money originally sent by the defector is given over to the North Korean broker. The transfer is conducted not in South or North Korean won but in Chinese yuan.
The North Korean broker then takes their cut before taking the money and delivering it to the other side of the border.
After all is said and done, around seventy percent of the original amount makes its way into the hands of the recipient. Some unscrupulous brokers, however, take more, leaving only around half of the original sum.
Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, the top U.S. official on U.S.-North Korean affairs, on Wednesday said that Washington is willing to resume talks with Pyongyang but disputed reports that he was seeking to meet with North Korean officials during a visit to South Korea.
“Let me absolutely be clear, we did not request a visit” with the North Koreans, Biegun told reporters after meeting with the lead South Korean nuclear negotiator. “This visit this week is to meet with our close friends and allies, the South Koreans.”
“We look forward to continuing our work for a peaceful outcome of the Korean peninsula, I believe this is very much possible,” he added.
Days earlier, Pyongyang’s chief negotiator Vice Foreign Minister Choe Sun Hui had said the nation would only resume talks if the U.S. ended its “hostile” policies and accused the U.S. of the “shallow tactic” of seeking to exploit Washington-Pyongyang relations for electoral advantages, according to state media.
Biegun responded to this Wednesday with a rare rebuke of a North Korean diplomat, comparing Choe to former White House national security adviser John Bolton. “Both are locked in an old way of thinking, focused on only the negatives and what is impossible, rather than thinking creatively about what is possible,” Biegun said.
Biegun also implied resuming talks would be a non-starter if it would mean continued negotiations with Choe. “When Chairman Kim [Jong Un] appoints a counterpart to me who is prepared and empowered to negotiate on these issues, they will find us ready at that very moment,” he said, according to the AP.
To address the spread of coronavirus in Asia, six months ago North Korea completely closed its borders, sealing off the country like never before.
In late January 2020, North Korea moved quickly against the virus – sealing off its borders and later quarantining hundreds of foreigners in the capital, Pyongyang. It also closed schools, and put tens of thousands of its citizens into isolation.
As to how this has impacted North Koreans defecting, from official figures, only 12 defectors have made it to South Korea between April and June this year – the lowest number on record.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has hailed his country’s “shining success” in dealing with Covid-19, according to state news agency KCNA. Speaking at a politburo meeting, Kim said the country had “prevented the inroad of the malignant virus and maintained a stable situation”.
North Korea closed its borders and put thousands into isolation six months ago as the virus swept across the globe. It claims that it has no virus cases, though analysts say this is unlikely. Whatever the reality of the situation, Pyongyang wants to appear confident that it has crushed Covid-19.
Kim is said to have “analyzed in detail the six month-long national emergency anti-epidemic work” and said the success in handling the virus was “achieved by the far-sighted leadership of the Party Central Committee”.
But he stressed the importance of maintaining “maximum alert without… relaxation on the anti-epidemic front”, adding that the virus was still present in neighboring countries. “He repeatedly warned that hasty relief of anti-epidemic measures will result in unimaginable and irretrievable crisis,” said the KCNA report on Friday.
North Korea has now reopened schools, but has kept a ban on public gatherings and made it compulsory for people to wear masks in public places, said a Reuters report on 1 July quoting a World Health Organization official.
Previous public opinion surveys have shown strong South Korean public support for humanitarian food aid to North Korea.
In March 2020, 38North implemented a web survey: South Korean respondents were randomly assigned one of following three versions about providing humanitarian aid to North Korea.
Version 1: Do you think South Korea should give more humanitarian aid to North Korea than they are giving now?
Version 2: South Korea has allocated approximately 680 billion won for humanitarian aid to North Korea for 2020. Do you think South Korea should give more humanitarian aid to North Korea than they are giving now?
Version 3: South Korea has allocated approximately 680 billion won for humanitarian aid to North Korea for 2020. This comprises less than one-tenth of one percent of the national budget. Do you think South Korea should give more humanitarian aid to North Korea than they are giving now?
They found that how aid is presented matters. When provided with no information about allocations, only around 36 percent support expanding aid. However, when the actual budget of 680 billion Korean won is provided in the question, public support for expanding aid further decreases by approximately 11 percent. Even when the budget is contextualized in terms of the national budget, support declines by about 8 percent.
Additionally, findings suggest knowing a North Korean who has moved to South Korea generates broader sympathy for providing aid.
Overall, evidence suggests a public disconnect between support for peace and unification and a willingness to expand humanitarian aid that would support those efforts.
Alternating between raising tensions and extending an olive branch — all to confuse the enemy — has been part of North Korea’s dog-eared playbook. This geopolitical strategy has long been compared to dipping alternately in pools of scathingly hot and icy cold water in a public bathhouse.
Just a week ago, Kim Yo-jong, the only sister and key aide of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, threatened to kill the country’s agreements with South Korea that were intended to ease military tensions along the border. She called the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, “disgusting” and “insane.” Then the North blew up the joint inter-Korean liaison office, the first of a series of actions that threatened to reverse a fragile détente on the Korean Peninsula.
On Wednesday, her brother Kim Jong-Un emerged as the good cop, overruling his military and suspending its plans to deploy more troops and resume military exercises along the world’s most heavily armed border. Hours later, South Korean border guards confirmed that the North Korean military had dismantled loudspeakers installed on the border in recent days as part of its threat to revive propaganda broadcasts against the South.
If the flip-flop seemed disorienting, that was exactly the effect North Korea intended. Over the decades, alternating between raising tensions and extending an olive branch has been part of the North’s dog-eared playbook. Mr. Kim’s grandfather Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founding president, proposed reconciliation with South Korea even as he prepared to invade the South to start the 1950-53 Korean War. His father and predecessor, Kim Jong-il, discussed co-hosting the 1988 Summer Olympics with South Korea before North Korean agents planted bombs on a Korean Air Boeing 707 in 1987. The plane exploded near Myanmar, killing all 115 on board.
When the move is toward peace, the change of tack is so dramatic that North Korea’s external enemies often take the shift itself as progress, even though there is no evidence that the country has decided to abandon its nuclear weapons.
A group of North Korean defectors claimed Tuesday it had sent anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border, continuing an activity that has enraged the North regime, which cited it as the reason it wrecked a liaison office with the South last week. The launch was also in defiance of a ban by South Korean authorities on the cross-border propaganda campaign.
Park Sang-hak, who heads Fighters for a Free North Korea, said the group sent 20 large helium-filled balloons, carrying 500,000 leaflets titled “The truth of the Korean War atrocity,” 2,000 $1 bills, 1,000 SD cards and 500 booklets across the border. He said they sent the flyers in a covert mission at night with relatively new members, to avoid police detection.
The balloons are attached to a bundle of leaflets and a large banner with pictures of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his influential sister Kim Yo-jong, as well as their grandfather and regime founder Kim Il-sung, and a slogan that calls on the North Korean people to rise up against the Kim family.
The Seoul government has warned of a “thorough crackdown” against campaigners sending anti-North leaflets, and vowed to enact legislation to ban such activities.
Former U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton gives details in his new book, “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir”, of conversations before and after three meetings between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, including how their second summit in Vietnam fell apart.
Bolton writes that South Korean President Moon, who is keen to improve relations with North Korea, had raised unrealistic expectations with both Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump for his own “unification” agenda.
“It does not reflect accurate facts and substantially distorts facts,” South Korea’s national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, said in a statement referring to Bolton’s description of top-level consultations.
Trump and Kim met for the first time in Singapore in June 2018, raising hope for efforts to press North Korea to give up its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. But their second summit, in Vietnam in early 2019, collapsed when Trump rejected an offer by Kim to give up North Korea’s main nuclear facility in return for lifting some sanctions.
Bolton reportedly cites Chung as relaying Moon’s response to the breakdown as, on the one hand, Trump was right to reject Kim’s proposal but on the other, Kim’s willingness to dismantle the Yongbyon facility was a “very meaningful first step” toward “irreversible” denuclearisation. Bolton refers to Moon’s position as “schizophrenic”.
There is private despair among Chinese diplomats following Pyongyang’s explosive provocations this week, including the destruction of the inter-liaison office with South Korea.
Pyongyang’s recalcitrance about economic and social reform has long baffled Chinese counterparts, who point to their own economic success as an example of what the country could achieve if it followed in China’s footsteps.
“I don’t know what they’re thinking,” one Chinese academic who has had frequent contact with North Korean diplomatic delegations said.
North Korea blew up an inter-Korean liaison office building just north of the heavily armed border with South Korea on Tuesday in a dramatic display of anger that sharply raises tensions on the Korean Peninsula and puts pressure on Washington and Seoul amid deadlocked nuclear diplomacy.
The demolition of the building, which is located on North Korean territory and had no South Koreans working there, is largely symbolic. But it’s still likely the most provocative thing North Korea has done since it entered nuclear diplomacy in 2018 after a U.S.-North Korean standoff had many fearing war.
The liaison office was opened in 2018 as the first channel for full-time, person-to-person contact between the Koreas.
This development will pose a serious setback to the efforts of liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-in to restore inter-Korean engagement.
South Korea convened an emergency security meeting Sunday after the sister of North Korea’s leader threatened military action against South Korea in the latest escalation of tensions between the two neighbors.
Kim Yo Jong, a trusted aide to her brother, Kim Jong Un, said she would leave the right to take the next step of retaliation against South Korea to North Korea’s military in a statement carried Saturday by the state news agency, KCNA.
Kim, who has gained new prominence in North Korea’s power structure, didn’t specify what the next action could be or when exactly it would be taken, but she added: “I feel it is high time to surely break with the South Korean authorities. We will soon take the next action.”
A spokesman for the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential office, said Sunday that the national security council held an emergency video conference to review the situation and to discuss how best to respond.
Kim’s statement Saturday followed her announcement last week that North Korea was suspending all communication lines with South Korea, a move analysts believe could be an attempt to manufacture a crisis and force concessions from its neighbor.
Kim Jin Ah, a North Korea expert at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, a government research center in Seoul, said North Korea is using propaganda leaflets distributed by defectors as an excuse to break “the doldrum” in its negotiations with the U.S.
Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a lecturer in international relations at King’s College London, said it’s reasonable from the North Korean perspective for the regime to try to divert attention from domestic conditions by raising tensions with South Korea. “It makes sense for Kim Yo Jong to lead, or be seen as leading, these increasing tensions. This way she can show that she will be tough with South Korea if necessary,” he said.
On the two-year anniversary of the first meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang seems in no mood to pursue closer ties, according to a statement by Foreign Minister Ri Son Gwon.
“Never again will we provide the U.S. chief executive with another package to be used for achievements without receiving any returns,” Ri said.
The statement called for a change of direction in U.S. policy and pointed out what North Korea believes is U.S. hypocrisy. “The U.S. professes to be an advocate for improved relations with the DPRK, but in fact, it is hell-bent on only exacerbating the situation,” Ri added.
North Korea has cut all communication channels with South Korea as it escalates its pressure on the South for failing to stop activists from floating anti-Pyongyang leaflets across their tense border.
This decision was made by Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of leader Kim Jong Un, and Kim Yong Chol, a former hard-line military intelligence chief who Seoul believes was behind two 2010 attacks that killed 50 South Koreans.
South Korean conservative activists and North Korean defectors in the South for years have floated huge balloons into North Korea that carry leaflets criticizing Kim Jong Un over his nuclear ambitions and abysmal human rights record. The leafleting has long been a source of tensions between the Koreas since the country bristles at any attempt to undermine the Kim leadership.
KCNA referred to North Korean activists as “riff-raff” in their statement: “The South Korean authorities connived at the hostile acts against (North Korea) by the riff-raff, while trying to dodge heavy responsibility with nasty excuses,” KCNA said. “They should be forced to pay dearly for this.”
Kim Yo Jong called the defectors “human scum” and “mongrel dogs” in reaction to recent leafleting when the North threatened to permanently shut down a liaison office and a jointly run factory park, as well as nullify a 2018 inter-Korean military agreement that had aimed to reduce tensions.
South Korea’s liberal government had no immediate response to the North Korean announcement. It has recently said it would push for legal bans on launching leaflets, but the North has said the South Korean response lacks sincerity.
South Korean conservatives have urged their government to get tougher on North Korea and uphold their constitutional rights to free speech. South Korea has typically let activists launch such balloons, but it has sometimes sent police officers to stop them when North Korean warnings appeared to be serious.
North Korea has said it will cut off all inter-Korean communication lines with the South, including a hotline between the two nations’ leaders.
Daily calls, which have been made to a liaison office located in the North Korean border city of Kaesong, will cease from Tuesday. The two states had set up the office to reduce tensions after talks in 2018.
Military communication channels will also be cut, North Korea said.
Kim Yo-jong, the North Korean leader’s sister, threatened last week to close the office unless South Korea stopped defector groups from sending leaflets into the North. North Korean defectors occasionally send balloons carrying leaflets critical of the communist region into the North, sometimes with supplies to entice North Koreans to pick them up.
It’s likely that this shut down isn’t just about sending leaflets over the border – but instead, all part of a grander plan by Pyongyang. North Korea may be creating a crisis in order to use the tension as leverage in later talks. In short, it could be simply spoiling for a fight to get attention and ask for more from its neighbor. They’ve played this particular game before in 2013 to try to win more concessions from South Korea.
It’s also a good distraction domestically. Kim Jong-un is failing to deliver the economic prosperity he keeps promising and rumors continue to circulate that Covid-19 is affecting parts of the country. Giving the nation a common enemy helps rally his people back around a cause. The North said this was the first in a series of actions, describing South Korea as “the enemy”.
It’s worth noting Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-Jong gave the order to sever ties with Seoul. This gives her a platform and the spotlight and will fuel more speculation that she is being groomed as a potential leader.
The sister of North Korea’s leader has warned South Korea to stop defectors from sending leaflets into the demilitarized zone separating the countries, saying it may cancel a recent bilateral military agreement if the activity persists.
Kim Yo Jong, who serves unofficially as Kim Jong Un’s chief of staff, issued the warning in a statement carried by state news agency KCNA on Thursday.
She was referring to thousands of “anti-DPRK leaflets” recently dumped along the North’s side of the heavily fortified DMZ, titled “Defectors from the North”.
“If such an act of evil intention committed before our eyes is left to take its own course under the pretext of ‘freedom of individuals’ and ‘freedom of expression’, the south Korean authorities must face the worst phase shortly,” the KCNA statement said.
Kim Yo Jong warned of the possible scrapping of the inter-Korean military agreement that promised to eliminate practical threats of war as a result of the clandestine leafletting. The military pact reached in 2018 was “hardly of any value”, she said.
She also warned the North will completely withdraw from the Kaesong industrial project and shut down the joint liaison office in the North’s border city, unless Seoul stopped such actions.
Kim Yo Jong has been the most visible presence around her brother in the past two years. She serves formally as a vice director of the ruling Workers’ Party’s powerful Central Committee.
After nearly three weeks of international speculation about his health, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un returned to public view at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new factory on May 1. Kim is apparently “alive and well.” But … Kim’s continued power does not equate to a static situation in North Korea.
The Kim regime may focus on modernizing state institutions, or it may crack down on social trends and commerce that do not comport with the ruling party’s ideology and control of the economy. The military might make a few external provocations while quietly improving its capabilities, or it might push the envelope with further escalation. In terms of diplomacy, Pyongyang could continue to reject engagement, or it could pursue tactical cooperation for short-term gain.
Kim appears focused on domestic affairs in light of North Korea’s economic challenges. To address these, he could do more to evade sanctions, strengthen his country’s self-reliance, or both. The coronavirus pandemic further complicates matters because North Korea’s self-imposed national quarantine has nearly halted trade with China, upon which the country is extremely dependent. Indeed, the pandemic may be doing more than international sanctions to arrest economic activity across North Korea’s borders.
Kim’s reasons for choosing the Sunchon fertilizer plant’s ribbon-cutting ceremony as his occasion to reappear are unknown. But the visit suggests the importance he places on food production, particularly while the pandemic disrupts the country’s supply chain and flow of foreign currency from China.
Outsiders may not have been the only ones questioning the sustainability of Kim’s leadership while he was absent. Kim may also intensify political purges and anticorruption campaigns.
Maintaining international tensions as a means of pursuing strategic objectives remains a priority. … While a major diplomatic breakthrough with Washington is unlikely before the U.S. presidential election in November, North Korea will continue pursuing its strategic aim of perfecting a nuclear deterrent and gaining strategic advantage without triggering outright conflict.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Sunday action is more important between the United States and North Korea than “sitting down to discuss” differing points of view. Wang said Washington and Pyongyang need to take action in order to promote “mutual trust” and “overcome the deadlock.”
“In the past few years, North Korea has taken active steps to relieve tensions and denuclearize, but regrettably it has been unable to obtain a substantial response from the United States, which has led to stalled U.S.-North Korea talks,” Wang said, referring to sanctions.
China has offered to provide a mediating role between the United States and North Korea in recent years. In September at the United Nations General Assembly, Wang called on the United States and North Korea to “build trust through synchronized actions.”
“The way forward is parallel progress in denuclearization,” Wang had said last year, referring to a step-by-step denuclearization supported by Beijing.
Kim Jong Un has vowed to implement “new policies” to boost the country’s nuclear deterrent, state media reported on Sunday, underlining his decision to turn his back on denuclearization talks with the United States.
Kim made the call at a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Military Commission, nearly two years since he met President Trump at a historic summit in Singapore that seemed to offer hope of progress between the two nations.
Subsequent talks made little progress before dissolving in acrimony last year, and North Korea has since returned to a harder line in its public posturing.
As China placed a northeastern city on lockdown due to the novel coronavirus disease, nearby North Korea continued to claim zero instances of the infectious illness and even showed signs of opening up in some areas.
Authorities in China’s city of Shulan, Jilin province, have steadily intensified quarantine measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 after a cluster of new cases earlier this month. On Monday, city government officials announced additional measures that severely limit movement within the city.
But as China races to curb the feared outbreak in Shulan, North Korean officials reported the virus has been thwarted, just across the border.
The latest situation report published Tuesday by the World Health Organization said North Korea registered having no cases of COVID-19. North Korea is among a group of about a dozen countries around the world to have not registered any instances of a disease that has infected nearly 5 million people around the world.
Russia’s ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora supported North Korea’s claim by praising Pyongyang’s “decisive and tough measures” taken early on in the coronavirus crisis in an interview Wednesday with the Interfax News outlet. “I am inclined to trust what is being reported about the absence of infection in the DPRK,” Matsegora said, referring to North Korea by an acronym for its official title, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Pyongyang was the first to institute travel bans, border closures and other strict anti-epidemic measures as reports of the virus emerged back in January.
North Korea’s delegation at the World Health Assembly threw its support behind the World Health Organization (WHO) and criticized countries that blamed the United Nations agency for the coronavirus outbreak. The delegation said WHO member states should be “wary” of countries that are trying to use the “catastrophe for their impure political purposes.”
President Donald Trump and other U.S. officials have been severely critical of the WHO’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in his statement at the assembly that one of the primary reasons the outbreak “spun out of control” was the WHO’s failure to “obtain the information the world needed.”
On Tuesday, member states approved a resolution that, among other things, called for WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to initiate an evaluation of the “experience gained and lessons learned” from the WHO’s response to the pandemic.
Experts are skeptical of North Korea’s zero case claim. Jung Pak, a former CIA analyst and North Korea expert with the Brookings Institution, told USA Today it’s a “near impossibility” that the country has no infections.
Bruce Klingner, an ex-CIA deputy division chief for Korea, said it was “hard to believe” there weren’t any cases but noted that it’s possible the outbreak was limited.
John Burton, a former Financial Times correspondent, writing in The Korea Times:
Unfortunately, the “black box” nature of North Korea appears to give carte blanche to many journalists to indulge in speculative reporting without fear of contradiction in most cases.
One friend, a former foreign correspondent in Beijing, said that much of the reporting on North Korea reminds him of his early days covering the mafia in New Jersey. “Some journalists would make up details about mafia figures, such as inventing fake nicknames for them, knowing that they would never be publicly rebutted by them.”
It is unlikely that major international media outlets would publish reports about the ill health or death of almost any other leading world leader, besides Kim Jong Un, that were largely based on rumors. With the Kim story now apparently out of the way, the same type of caution should also be applied to rumors about the widespread presence of the coronavirus in North Korea.
Pyongyang’s claim that it has detected no virus cases might be dismissed as propaganda, but equal skepticism should be given to unconfirmed reports about big outbreaks of the illness in the country. Diplomats and aid workers on the ground have not yet offered any evidence that would confirm this.
When it comes to reporting on North Korea, I remember one of the most valuable pieces of advice I was given when I started out as a journalist: “When in doubt, leave it out.” But that of course contradicts another hoary journalistic adage: “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.”
Ji Seong-ho was born not far from the Hoeryong concentration camp,and grew up during the North Korean famine of the mid-1990s. His grandmother starved to death; his father was tortured to death. As a teenager, he had hopped onto a train with his mother and sister. They were stealing coal, in order to barter it for food. When he was jumping from one car to the next, Ji lost consciousness, owing to hunger. He fell between the cars onto the tracks, and lost a leg and a hand.
Eventually, he escaped North Korea — on homemade crutches. He made it to the South, where he became a Christian and started a human-rights groups.
In April of this year, Ji won election to South Korea’s National Assembly.
Defectors are beyond excited about his election. “He’s one of us,” says Park Yeonmi. What does Yeonmi mean? Ji Seong-ho is a street kid, a homeless kid, a wretch. Or rather, he was. “He never went to Kim Il-sung University,” says Yeonmi. That is the elite university in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. In fact, Ji “has never even been to Pyongyang.”
There is no freedom of movement within North Korea, Yeonmi explains. “You know what North Koreans dream about when they dream of traveling?” she continues. “They don’t dream about going to China or Europe and all that. They can’t even go to the next town without permission. But they may dream about going to Pyongyang.”
Yeonmi repeats: “Seong-ho is just one of us.” He is not bitter but instead grateful, Yeonmi observes. “He has such a big heart for his countrymen.” And now he is serving on the National Assembly of South Korea.
I have met Ji Seong-ho several times and have never seen him without a big smile on his face. He is effortlessly charismatic. “He projects an air of ebullience,” I once wrote. “I can’t help thinking he is happy to be alive.” In my view, his story should be made into a movie — perhaps culminating with Ji’s entrance into the National Assembly.
In 2018, Ji was a guest of President Trump for the State of the Union address. Sounding like presidents past, Trump said, “Seong-ho’s story is a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom.”
Until recently, Ji was never very interested in politics — politics in a partisan sense. He was neutral, above the fray. But he was pushed into politics by the grievances and indignities I listed above. He was especially moved by the deaths of the defector mother and her young son, in that Seoul apartment.
Despite the best efforts of the North Korean dictatorship, news gets into that country, via shortwave radio and other means. North Koreans will hear about Ji’s election, and have. The news is “shocking,” as Henry Song, the D.C.-based activist, emphasizes: one of them, elevated to the legislature of a free country. A free and Korean country.
In April 2018, former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho was giving a speech to a human-rights conference. South Korean intelligence agents prevented a television network from filming the speech. They also prevented — forcibly prevented — Thae from taking questions from the press. This was in advance of an inter-Korean summit, and the government apparently did not want to rile the North.
Two years later, Thae Yong-ho ran for and won election to the National Assembly of South Korea.
Thae was born in 1962, into the North Korean elite. He became a diplomat, eventually serving as deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom. He defected in 2016.
He is an urbane, elegant fellow. He is also tremendously brave. The North Korean government called him “human scum” and accused him of the usual: embezzlement and child rape. Thae is a defector in the traditional sense. Indeed, he is one of the highest-ranking officials ever to defect from North Korea.
At the Oslo Freedom Forum last year, I asked Thae about his personal security. “I have a lot of worries,” he said, “but I am heavily protected when I am in South Korea. The South Korean government knows that I am No. 1 on the assassination list.” And “I know this will go on till the last day of the Kim regime.”
In the South Korean context, Thae is a conservative, favoring a market economy and a tough-minded policy toward the North — a realistic one, he would say. He is strongly anti-socialist and anti-Communist, and a sharp critic of President Moon Jae-in’s government.
Park Yeonmi points out that Thae will be on South Korean television a lot. South Koreans will see his face, along with fellow-defector-turned-politcian Ji Seong-ho, hear their stories, listen to their points of view. Thae and Ji will help “humanize us,” says Yeonmi.
On April 15, South Korea held a parliamentary election. Two different men, Thae Yong-ho and Ji Seong-ho, were elected. In the words of Henry Song, a human-rights defender in Washington, D.C., their election was “truly a historic, seismic, shocking event.”
How so? Thae and Ji are North Korean defectors. And their elevation to the South Korean National Assembly reverberates on both sides of the border.
When news came that Thae and Ji had won, there was jubilation in the North Korean defector community, which numbers 33,500 in South Korea (a country of about 50 million). There are scattered others elsewhere.
The word “defector” confuses some people, understandably, because we are used to thinking of a defector as a government official or celebrity — a ballet dancer, let’s say, or a baseball player — who goes over from an unfree country to a free one. But the North Korean government considers anyone who leaves a defector: a traitor to the state. People who have left North Korea think of themselves as having defected from the state that claimed ownership of them, body and soul.
So do South Koreans welcome their brothers from the North with open arms? Park Yeonmi, a prominent defector, said, “The South Koreans treat us like second-class citizens,” she says. “They are more sympathetic to people in Africa than they are to their fellow Koreans from the North.”
There are plenty of South Koreans who treat defectors compassionately, … but the South Korean Left bitterly resents defectors — especially ones who squawk about human rights and what they suffered back home.
Meanwhile, North Korean defectors have grown restive, politically. They regard the incumbent South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, as soft on North Korea. They suspect him of naïveté and worse. The government has severely cut aid to refugee groups and groups that help refugees, as well as direct assistance to refugees. The government is pretty frank about this. One official said, “North Korean defectors might not enjoy the same benefits that they enjoyed during the two previous conservative governments.”
From all accounts, North Korea is hardly the bastion of equality that Kim Il Sung promised would be achieved through economic liberation.
While women are an important part of the workforce, and drivers of the limited private markets inside the country — since all men have jobs assigned by the state — female defectors say they still face widespread discrimination. Furthermore, they lack the professional and social opportunities of their male counterparts.
“Men hold the purse strings a lot of times and men have all the social status. …. Women always have to be modest,” said Nara Kang, who left North Korea in 2015 and now lives in South Korea.
Sexual violence is also a major problem. It’s “so common that it has come to be accepted as part of ordinary life,” Human Rights Watch alleged in a 2018 report.
Jean Lee, an Associated Press reporter who opened the wire service’s bureau in Pyongyang in 2012, said she endured “incredible sexism. … My female North Korean colleagues [said] they were expected to do their jobs all day and still take care of all the cooking and cleaning at home,” said Lee, who is now the director of the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. “To be honest, neither Korea, north or south, is a great place to be a woman.”
On the other hand, Michael Madden, an expert on North Korea’s leadership, shared his opinion that, “North Korea has a 70-plus year history of women being very close to the center of power, of being influential in North Korea’s decision-making processes.”
Kang, the defector, isn’t so sure. When asked if she imagined there could be a female Supreme Leader while still living in North Korea, Kang responded incredulously, “Oh no way.” She said, “I can’t even imagine. Can’t even dream.”
About 20 years ago, while traveling across Russia, Kim Jong Il is reported to have made something of a confession to a foreign emissary, Konstantin Pulikovsky. Pulikovsky, a respected Russian diplomat, had asked one of the world’s most reclusive leaders about his family.
Kim Jong Il was believed to have had seven children. His youngest son and future successor, Kim Jong Un, was in his mid-teens at the time.
When Pulikovsky asked about the children, Kim spoke highly of his two daughters. His sons, however, he called “idle blockheads.” Michael Madden, an expert on North Korea’s leadership, adds, “Kim Jong Il loved his sons, but did not necessarily have a high opinion of what they were doing with their lives.”
Despite that apparent assessment, Kim eventually chose his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to succeed him. While it’s likely the world will never know if Kim seriously considered one of his daughters for the top job, his adoration for his youngest child, Kim Yo Jong, has been documented.
Kenji Fujimoto, the pen name of a former sushi chef for the Kim family, told The Washington Post that Kim Jong Il referred to her as “Princess Yo Jong” and “sweet Yo Jong.” Kim Yo Jong always sat to her father’s left at supper, while Kim Jong Il’s wife sat to his right, Fujimoto said in a book recounting his experience in North Korea.
Kim Jong Il may have believed that it would be a tough sell naming a woman as the next North Korean leader — especially with multiple sons available. North Korea is a notoriously patriarchal country, where women are expected to be dutiful and subordinate wives and doting mothers before all else. Defectors say misogyny, gender discrimination and sexual violence are rampant.
Yet Kim Yo Jong’s position among the North Korean leadership is significant. Her name was among the first mentioned as a possible successor to her brother when he recently disappeared from public view for almost three weeks. When Kim Jong Un did emerge in state media on Saturday, Kim Yo Jong was by his side. Experts say if anything was to happen to him before his young children are old enough to take over, Kim Yo Jong could be the safest and most likely heir.
Closer examination of the video footage has revealed what appears to be a needle mark on Kim’s right wrist, a mark that medical experts say could indicate that Kim had a “cardiovascular procedure.” The mark was not present during Kim’s previous public outing on April 11, according to the NK News.
“It looks like a right radial artery puncture … [which is] often used for access to the coronary arteries for stent placement,” one U.S.-trained medical professional told NK News, adding it appeared to be “about a week old. It is hard to tell from the foreshortening of the photograph, but it seems a bit medial. It is not an IV [intravenous], which wouldn’t leave such a mark.”
A South Korea surgeon also told NK News that the mark on Kim’s arm “looks more plausible to be a procedure or check-up mark from a procedure on a heart-related issue.”
South Korea-based Yonhap News Agency reports that Kim Jong Un made his first public appearance in 20 days, amid a flurry of speculation about his health.
Citing state-run media, Yonhap reported that Kim attended a ceremony marking the completion of a fertilizer plant in Sunchon, in the South Phyongan Province Saturday. Photos from the ceremony weren’t immediately released.
Kim was last seen April 11, when he presided over a meeting of the country’s ruling Workers Party.
Rumors of his possible death or illness began circulating after he missed a ceremony to commemorate the 108th birthday of his grandfather and North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung.
The rumors of Kim Jong-un’s death seem to have been greatly exaggerated.
Kim’s vanishing act has pushed his little sister, Kim Yo-jong, into the spotlight, with speculation that she might become the Kim family dynasty’s first female leader.
It has long been rumored that Yo-jong, who is sometimes described as the Ivanka Trump of North Korea, is the brains behind her brother’s brawn.
If something were to happen to big bro, she’s the obvious choice for supreme leader. Kim’s male relatives are either too young or uninterested: His big brother, Kim Jong-chul, seemingly stays out of politics, preferring to play guitar and obsess over Eric Clapton.
In recent years she has started to venture on to the world stage, representing Kim at the 2018 Winter Olympics, and publicly praising Donald Trump.
Yo-jong has also already proved herself equal to any man: in 2017, the US Treasury Department blacklisted her for “severe human rights abuses”.
“North Korea … is one of the most male chauvinistic societies in the world, but bloodline supplemented by status in the Korea Workers’ party supersedes gender,” one expert told Bloomberg.
Kim Jong-un could be lying low to avoid the coronavirus pandemic.
Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest, suggested this possibility to explain Kim’s absence. “The Kim family has a history of going on the lam when things seem to be going bad,” Kazianis told Newsweek. Now, Kazianis said, “North Korea is clearly facing the greatest existential threat in a generation as the coronavirus threatens the Kim regime’s very survival.”
He indicated that Kim’s health condition may already put him at risk for getting COVID-19. “While countless crazy rumors continue to swirl over why Kim Jong Un has not appeared in public for weeks, the most obvious explanation is he is staying out of the general population and isolating for fear of contracting the virus,” he added.
North Korea Leadership Watch blog head Michael Madden also points to a potentially similar situation involving Kim Jong Un’s father, the late supreme leader Kim Jong Il, which took place in 2003 during a time of global turmoil and another coronavirus outbreak that first appeared in neighboring China. “In contemporary North Korean history, you’d have to beat the record Kim Jong Il did. He disappeared for about three months,” Madden recently told Newsweek. “[There were] major issues, they had SARS, and we had just invaded Iraq. Those things sent him into a paranoia.”
The idea that Kim could be taking drastic quarantine measures was also supported by North Korean defector and human rights activist Yeonmi Park, who cited an unnamed source within the country, as well as South Korean daily JoongAng Ilbo, which cited an anonymous Chinese source familiar with North Korean affairs.
Kim Jong-un has vanished from sight, and in doing so, he’s exposed a potentially major weakness of President Donald Trump’s negotiating tactics. Trump made a bold bet: that by breaking precedent and engaging directly with Kim, he could convince the brutal young autocrat to give up his nuclear arsenal in exchange for future economic gains.
Today U.S. officials have found it hard to even get in touch with their North Korean counterparts; in some prominent cases, they’ve been publicly scorned. Now, amid rumors that Kim is sick (or even dead), current and former U.S. officials and North Korea analysts say Trump’s mano-a-mano diplomacy looks shakier than ever because the Trump-Kim relationship has been the only one that truly mattered.
On Monday, Trump said he had a “very good idea” about Kim’s health status, hinting that the American people would be hearing about it in the “not-too-distant future.” Trump said in response to a reporter’s question, “Kim Jong Un? …I do have a very good idea, but I can’t talk about it now. I just wish him well.”
[However] if a new leader emerges in North Korea, he (or she) may decide to grow the country’s nuclear arsenal as a way of consolidating and projecting power.
And with U.S.-Chinese relations on a downward spiral due to fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, the idea of international cooperation to diplomatically pressure North Korea and maintain economic sanctions on the country seems remote.
Kim Yo-jong is the younger sister of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and a high-ranking official of the Workers’ Party of Korea. She joined the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) in 2007, eventually serving as secretariat to her father, Kim Jong-il, until his death in 2011.
Kim Yo-jong continued to ascend her party’s ranks under her brother’s rule, taking control of his image as first vice-department director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department and later becoming an alternate member of the WPK’s powerful politburo.
After making a highly publicized appearance at the 2018 Winter Olympics, Kim joined her brother for his denuclearization summits with U.S. President Donald Trump.
Kim Yo-jong’s birthdate is listed as September 26, 1987. In 1996, she was sent to Switzerland to continue her education, attending Liebefeld Hessgut public school and later was joined by her brother Kim Jong-un at Liebefeld-Steinhölzli public school, the two enrolled under pseudonyms. She reportedly graduated from Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung University in 2007 with a degree in computer science.
When reports of Kim Jong-un’s poor health surfaced earlier this month, the media focused on Kim Yo-jong as a possible successor. Some analysts suggested that she is the most likely choice to follow her brother, given her ties to the “Paektu” bloodline that the family claims for divine ruling rights, while others argued that the male-dominated WPK would prefer a collective leadership.
Even young people seem to be picking up on Kim Yo-jong, as evidence by this Twitter account.
Kim Yo-jong is married In early 2015. It was reported that Kim Yo-jong married Choe Song, son of a l lieutenant of Kim Jong-un, Choe Ryong-hae. She was reported to be pregnant in spring 2015, and again around the time of the 2018 Winter Olympics.
The signature train belonging to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been spotted on satellite images parked at a station on the nation’s eastern coast since last week, according to a U.S. monitor, as questions swirl over the dictator’s health.
On Sunday, a key aide to the president of South Korea insisted Kim, who is believed to be 36, was “alive and well.” Chung-in Moon, foreign policy adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, told Fox News, “Our government position is firm. Kim Jong Un is alive and well. He has been staying in the Wonsan area since April 13. No suspicious movements have so far been detected.”
Satellite photos released on Saturday echo South Korean government intelligence that Kim is staying outside of the capital, Pyongyang. The photos released by 38 North, a Washington-based website specializing in North Korea studies, show that activity has increased in the resort town of Wonsan in April.
Kim Jong Un’s train has been parked at the Leadership Railway Station servicing his Wonsan compound since at least April 21, the website 38 North said Saturday, citing an analysis of recent satellite photos of the area. The railway station in Wonsan is reserved for use by the Kim family.
Kim’s preferred travel method is by train — like his late father Kim Jong Il and grandfather Kim Il Sung. Kim’s father loathed flying and made all his trips abroad by rail.
The present North Korean leader has taken his distinct armored green and yellow train to recent summits in Russia and Vietnam. Kim is known for traveling with a big entourage — possibly more than 200 people — and lots of supplies. The train cars are reportedly bulletproof, making them heavier than normal carriages — and much slower when traveling, according to a 2009 report by Chosun Ilbo. It travels an average speed of 37 mph.
The train, originally owned by Kim’s father, appears to provide a lot of comfort for the North Korean leaders. According to Konstantin Pulikovsky, a Russian official who accompanied Kim Jong ll on a three-week trip to Moscow in 2001, its 90 carriages are said to contain bedrooms, conference rooms and a chamber equipped with satellite phones and flat-screen televisions, as well as cases of Bordeaux and Beaujolais wine.
Japanese magazine Shukan Gendai reported that Kim collapsed during a visit to a rural area in April. Kim reportedly required a stent procedure following the incident.
Shukan Gendai subsequently detailed how the surgeon in charge of Kim’s operation was not used to dealing with obese patients and was too nervous during the operation, leading to delays that left Kim in a “vegetative state.”
The magazine cited an unnamed member of Kim’s medical team.
China has sent a team of doctors to North Korea to help determine supreme leader of North Korea Kim Jong Un’s health status, Reuters reported on Friday.
Hong Kong Satellite Television went as far as reporting that Kim was dead, though there has been no confirmation from U.S. sources at this point.
“While the U.S. continues to monitor reports surrounding the health of the North Korean Supreme Leader, at this time, there is no confirmation from official channels that Kim Jong Un is deceased,” a senior Pentagon official not authorized to speak on the record told Newsweek.
Kim’s last confirmed public appearance was on April 11, at a politburo meeting, though state media also shared footage of him attending aerial assault drills the following day. It was his absence from April 15 Day of the Sun celebrations dedicated to his grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, that first sparked speculation regarding his well-being.
On Monday, rumors spread that the North Korean head of state was in ill health after undergoing heart surgery on April 12, sparked by an anonymous source featured in the South Korea-based Daily NK outlet, a publication linked to a U.S. Congress-funded think tank, along with a CNN article citing an unnamed U.S. official that said Kim was in grave danger following the operation.
These rumors were subsequently discounted by U.S. intelligence, with two U.S. officials telling Newsweek on Tuesday they had no reason to think that Kim had suffered any kind of serious illness. Similarly, at the time, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency cited a government official who said there was nothing unusual coming from North Korea that could suggest Kim was ill.
The US is monitoring intelligence that suggests North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, is in grave danger after undergoing a previous surgery, according to a US official with direct knowledge. Another US official told CNN that the concerns about Kim’s health are credible but the severity is hard to assess.
Kim recently missed the celebration of his grandfather’s birthday on April 15, which raised speculation about his well-being. He was last seen four days before that, on April 11, at a government meeting.
Daily NK, an online newspaper based in South Korea that focuses on North Korea, reports that Kim reportedly had a cardiovascular system procedure on April 12, due to “excessive smoking, obesity, and overwork,” according to the news site.
After assessing that Kim’s condition had improved, most of the medical team treating him returned to Pyongyang on April 19 and only part of them remained to oversee his recovery situation, according to the news site.
CNN is unable to independently confirm the report.
The situation remains murky as gathering intelligence out of North Korea is notoriously difficult — one of the most challenging targets for US intelligence. Experts are unsure of what to make of Kim’s absence from any festivities celebrating his grandfather. When North Korean leaders have not shown up to these important celebrations in the past, it has portended major developments. But it has also turned out to be nothing.
North Korea says it has zero coronavirus infections, but experts doubt it and say it’s likely the virus has spread in the country.
During the previous SARS outbreak and flu pandemics in North Korea, Dr. Choi Jung Hun didn’t have much more than a thermometer, with no test kits and working with antiquated equipment. He and his fellow doctors in the northeastern city of Chongjin were often unable to determine who had a disease, even after patients died, said Choi. He said that local health officials weren’t asked to confirm cases or submit them to the central government in Pyongyang. Choi adds his monthly salary was the equivalent of about 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of rice and that he received cigarettes from patients in return for telling them what medicine they should buy at markets.
In 2012 Choi fled to South Korea, and recently shared the above in an Associated Press interview.
Experts say North Korea’s reluctance to admit major outbreaks of disease, its wrecked medical infrastructure and its extreme sensitivity to any potential threat to Kim Jong Un’s authoritarian rule means that Pyongyang is likely handling the current coronavirus pandemic in the same manner. This has led to widespread skepticism over the nation’s claim to have zero infections.
“It’s a lie,” Choi, 45, said. “Year after year, and in every season, diverse infectious diseases repeatedly occur but North Korea says there isn’t any outbreak.”
Outsiders strongly suspect that coronavirus has spread to North Korea because the country shares a long, porous border with China, its most important trading partner. North Korea, which has quarantined tens of thousands and delayed the school year as precautionary steps, officially sealed its border with China in January, but smuggling across the frontier still likely happens.
Russia’s foreign ministry said in February it donated 1,500 coronavirus test kits to North Korea, and observers say similar kits have also been shipped there from China. Some relief agencies, including UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders, said they sent gloves, masks, goggles and hand hygiene products to North Korea.
Activist groups in Seoul said they’ve been told by contacts in North Korea that people had died of the virus. Those claims cannot be independently verified.
The US government is willing to pay up to $5 million for information on North Korea’s hackers and their ongoing hacking operations.
The reward for reporting North Korean hackers was announced today in a joint report published by the Departments of State, Treasury, Homeland Security, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The joint report contains a summary of North Korea’s recent cyber operations and is based on a UN Security Council report published last year that details the country’s tactic of using hackers to raise funds for the Pyongyang regime, as a novel way to bypass international sanctions.
Observed tactics include:
Attacks and thefts from banks and other financial entities
Attacks and thefts from cryptocurrency exchanges
Cryptojacking operations — where North Korean hackers compromise servers worldwide to mine cryptocurrency
Various types of extortion campaigns, such as:
– Compromising an entity’s network and threatening to shut it down unless the victim pays a ransom
– Getting paid to hack websites on behalf of third-party clients, and then extorting the targets
– Charging victims “long-term paid consulting arrangements” in order to prevent future attacks
US officials say a lot of these attacks have targeted the financial sector, from where North Korean hackers have stolen funds in excess of $2 billion, which have been laundered back into the hermit kingdom. The US says these hacks are now posing “a significant threat to the integrity and stability of the international financial system.”
The US government also issued a stern warning to companies that may be engaging with North Korean entities and might be, directly or indirectly, helping North Korean hackers launder stolen funds. Consequences include sanctions and seizure of funds and assets, officials said.
Thae Yong Ho, the second-highest ranking North Korean official to have defected to South Korea, made history becoming the first defector to be directly elected as a lawmaker in South Korea. His win in the affluent Gangnam district known for upscale luxury apartments and high-end fashion houses is also a light blow to the ruling party of South Korea.
“I risked my life and came to the Republic of Korea in search of freedom, democracy and market economy,” Thae told local press on live broadcast. He also emphasized that his election would “be an opportunity to publicize South Korea’s broad-mindedness and democracy to the world and especially to North Korea.”
Thae has drawn international attention four years ago, seeking asylum in South Korea while serving as North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom. He has since successfully settled in Seoul with his wife and two sons, making his career as an outspoken researcher, lecturer, a best-selling author and a YouTube influencer with 163K subscribers to his channel.
Another North Korean defector, Ji Seong Ho, secured a position through proportional representation for the same conservative opposition party. Ji is a high-profile human rights activist who had made a surprise appearance at President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address in 2018.
“Kim Jong Un is the person who will be most unhappy when I become a lawmaker in South Korea.” Tae said during his campaign speech to Gangnam residents. He told ABC News that his participation in the National Assembly can signal hope and new possibilities for the people of North Korea, especially the ruling class. “It can be a new signal to North Korea’s elite and people that South Korea is [an] open and inclusive society, so that in the future, we can be one again.”
“Thae knows the communist regime to the bottom and also has experience working as a diplomat in a democratic country for a long time. I believe that will give him a more objective stance in handling diplomatic issues,” Choi Younghae, a 70-year-old business woman who worked at a foreign embassy in her 30s, told ABC News on Monday.
North Korea launched back-to-back missiles off its east coast on the eve of North Korea’s late founder, Kim Il Sung’s 108th birthday, the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un and parliamentary elections in the South.
North Korean troops in Munchonto fired what were presumed to be cruise missiles, according to a statement by South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. They flew roughly 93 miles off the coast, per a South Korean defense official.
The use of that type of projectile is unusual considering the country reportedly possesses just two known cruise missiles purposed for anti-ship operations, according to the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance. If confirmed, it would be the North’s first cruise missile launch since June 2017, per the defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Later on Tuesday, North Korea launched fighter jets which fired an unspecified number of air-to-surface missiles towards the same waters, the official added. Military drills had previously been scaled back in the North due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Some experts believe the tests were used to improve its position against South Korea while others said they were devoted to increasing unity within the county amid U.S. led sanctions during the virus outbreak.
North Korea has repeatedly said there has been no coronavirus outbreak on its soil. But many foreign experts are skeptical of that claim and have warned that a coronavirus outbreak in the North could become a humanitarian disaster because of the country’s chronic lack of medical supplies and fragile health care infrastructure.
North Korea has called for stricter and more thorough measures against the coronavirus at a meeting presided over by its leader Kim Jong Un, state media reported, without acknowledging whether the country had reported any infections.
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said on Sunday that the virus had created obstacles to the country’s effort in its economic construction, describing the pandemic as “a great disaster threatening the whole mankind, regardless of borders and continents”.
KCNA reassured North Korea “has been maintaining [a] very stable anti-epidemic situation” thanks to its “strict top-class emergency anti-epidemic measures … consistency and compulsoriness in the nationwide protective measures.”
Officials have previously insisted the North remains totally free of the virus.
Experts have said North Korea is particularly vulnerable to the virus because of its weak healthcare system, and defectors have accused Pyongyang of covering up an outbreak.
A joint resolution was adopted “on more thoroughly taking national measures for protecting the life and safety of our people to cope with the worldwide epidemic disease”, it said. The resolution also included goals of “continuously intensifying the nationwide emergency anti-epidemic services and pushing ahead with the economic construction, increasing national defence capability and stabilizing the people’s livelihood this year”.
But photos released by North Korea’s state media showed that none of the committee members who attended the meeting including Kim Jong Un was wearing a mask nor sitting far apart from each other.
Researchers from South Korean-based ESTsecurity Security Response Center (ESRC) identified the latest APT37 campaign carried out by the state-sponsored North Korean group named ‘Geumseong121’ in early March 2020. The North Korean hackers have been running a spear-phishing email operation targeting North Korean refugees.
‘Geumseong121’, also known as
APT37, has been conducting state-sponsored espionage activities in South Korean
cyberspace for years, mainly targeting those who are engaged in unification,
foreign affairs, or national security, the leaders of the organizations
specializing in North Korean issues, along with North Korean refugees.
A report titled “The stealthy mobile APT attack carried out by
Geumseong121 APT hacking group” published in November last
year, reveals that the group has attempted to perform cyber-attacks targeting a
wide range of devices including computers and mobile devices.
Their latest campaign, Operation
Spy Cloud, entices its victims to click links that appear to be about North
Korean refugees. Instead the links download malicious files, in an attempt to take
over computers and gather information from the owners of the hacked computers.
Sanctions have “impeded” the ability of … North Korea to stop the spread of
the coronavirus pandemic, the UN’s top human rights official said
North Korea is subject to a wide range of sanctions — including a ban on
metal goods that blocks countries from sending certain medical equipment to the
DPRK without special permission from the UN — as punishment for its nuclear
“It is vital to avoid the collapse of any country’s medical system — given
the explosive impact that will have on death, suffering, and wider contagion,”
said Bachelet, the former president of Chile.
“At this crucial time, both for global public health reasons, and to support
the rights and lives of millions of people in these countries, sectoral
sanctions should be eased or suspended,” she said. “In a context of global
pandemic, impeding medical efforts in one country heightens the risk for all of
us.” “Humanitarian exemptions to sanctions measures should be given broad and
practical effect, with prompt, flexible authorization for essential medical
equipment and supplies,” she added.
North Korea is known to have one of the world’s worst-prepared public health
systems for dealing with the rapid spread of a contagious virus. One study last
year said North Korea ranks last
among all nations in its ability to deal with an infectious disease
Humanitarian workers with experience in the country have told NK News
that the North has a severe shortage of many basic medical supplies, including
gloves and masks, that are essential during a pandemic. And even if the North
had all of the equipment it needed, many medical facilities in the country
still lack reliable sources of water, electricity, and heat.
On Sunday, U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House
that he had offered to help the DPRK fend off the coronavirus, despite the icy
relationship between the two countries. It remains unclear if Pyongyang said
yes to the offer of help — or what type of assistance the Trump administration
planned to give.
Kim Jong Un is calling on his country to hastily build a “modern general hospital” to “better protect the precious health and safety of our people” amid growing suspicions the Hermit Kingdom isn’t being honest about the coronavirus outbreak.
State media reported Kim broke ground at the hospital construction site in Pyongyang on Tuesday as the North continues to insist it has no cases of COVID-19, despite being sandwiched between the virus hotbeds of China and South Korea.
While North Korea continues to claim no coronavirus cases, another development suggests this isn’t the case. North Korean authorities extended school closures this week through April 15, Daily NK reports.
A North Korean diplomat previously in charge of negotiations with the United
States could be tapped as Pyongyang’s top envoy to Austria, a key position that
interfaces with the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.
Choe Kang Il, the deputy director-general for North America at Pyongyang’s foreign ministry, could succeed Kim Kwang Sop, the son-in-law of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.
Choe has been in charge of negotiations with the United States.
Ken Gause of CNA Corp., a nonprofit research firm in Arlington, Va., says
the Austrian ambassadorship is an important post for the North Koreans. For
Pyongyang, effective dealing with the IAEA could have financial implications
for North Korea, which is under heavy economic sanctions, the analyst said.
Choe’s task may be to mitigate the impact of sanctions on North Korea’s economy through diplomacy with European nations once U.S.-North Korea negotiations resume, Gause said.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) expects to see Personal
Protective Equipment (PPE) shipped to North Korea this week by land from China,
the UN agency told journalists, amid ongoing efforts by international
organizations to help North Korea in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
“We expect to receive a shipment of face shields, goggles, masks, gowns,
coveralls and gloves (PPE equipment) this week by land from China,” the UN
“Additional masks, gloves, and thermometers will be included in this
delivery,” it added. “This is part of our ongoing work with the World
Health Organization and other international organizations, and the government
to stop transmission of COVID-19, and to keep children and their families
The Russian government was able to get diagnostic test kits to North Korea via a flight to Pyongyang earlier this week after evacuating foreign diplomats and other travelers. This news came via a worker with an American nongovernmental organization who told U.S. News on the condition of anonymity, due to the sensitive nature of the person’s work.
“If they get the tests to run on their machines, we should start to
hear about confirmed cases of COVID-19 in a few days,” says the worker,
who has extensive experience in North Korea.
The country, under widespread lockdown in response to the global pandemic, has become one of the most troubling blind spots in the international response to the spread of the coronavirus. Global health officials have virtually no information about how the country has been affected by the virus that has roiled neighboring China and South Korea.
“Global health security is only as good as the weakest link,” says Kee Park, director of the North Korea Program at the Korean American Medical Association and a lecturer on global health and social medicine at Harvard University.
North Korea has not acknowledged any confirmed cases of the coronavirus within its borders, while neighboring South Korea documents more than 7,000 cases and China reports almost 5,000 deaths as a result.
Leader Kim Jong Un has attempted to demonstrate that his country is taking the spread of the virus seriously, including allowing the release of photos that show military service members wearing preventative medical masks. North Korea has also launched two rounds of short-range missiles in recent weeks, an effort analysts say is designed to show it remains a potent threat despite the health crisis.
“The main priority really is to make sure DPRK is well equipped to avoid any spread of the disease, the virus,” Fabio Forgione, Doctors Without Borders‘ head of mission for DPRK – an acronym for North Korea’s official name – said in a recent interview. “At the moment, our feeling is they’re really trying to work on prevention. They have in place all the right strategies to try to tackle and prevent the spread of the virus.”
The Russian tests will provide critical information at a time international health workers have struggled to better understand the situation in North Korea.
Chinese authorities have told people to stay away from the
border with North Korea, which has banned people from China to keep out the
coronavirus, or risk being shot by North Korean guards, residents of the area
Residents said the warning came in a printed notice that Chinese authorities in the area issued this week, the latest indication of how seriously North Korea takes the threat of the virus.
Residents of the Chinese cities of Jian and Baishan were warned that people
who get too close to the border might be shot, according to three people who
received the notice, which was reviewed by Reuters. Residents are prohibited
from fishing, grazing livestock or throwing rubbish near the river, according
to the notice issued this week.
In January, North Korea told travel agencies that it was closing its borders to travelers from China, cutting off one of its few sources of external revenue. It is unclear how much trade continues, but sources who work near the border have said much of the official and unofficial trade was affected. China and North Korea share a 1,400-km (880-mile) frontier.
Activists who work with North Korean refugees trying to leave through China
said the border lockdown has made an already dangerous journey nearly
Isolated and impoverished North Korea has imposed strict entry bans during past global epidemics, including a 2014 Ebola outbreak.
According to Daily NK, the COVID-19 virus killed 180 North Korean soldiers in January and February and has sent another 3,700 into quarantine. And according to South Korea’s government-backed Yonhap News Agency, North Korea quarantined almost 10,000 people over coronavirus fears but released nearly 4,000 because they didn’t present symptoms.
However the North Korean government line hasn’t changed. “The
infectious disease did not flow into our country yet,” North Korea’s
government-controlled Rodong Sinmun newspaper said on Monday, according to Newsweek.
The Daily NK attributed its information to a medical-corps report from within the North Korean military. Hospitals serving different parts of the army were asked to provide data about the number of soldiers in their care who died of high fevers triggered by pneumonia, tuberculosis, asthma, and colds, as well as those who were in quarantine.
The report itself caused a furor in the military’s leadership, according to a Daily NK source, who said that officials have ordered military hospitals to thoroughly sanitize the areas where quarantined soldiers are being housed. Soldiers with compromised immune systems or those who have a history of poor health are also being closely monitored, the source said. Military-unit leaders can also expect to be punished if the proper protocol directed at controlling the spread of the coronavirus is not followed, the Daily NK said.
Officials are looking into increasing the soldiers’ supply of food so their bodies are better equipped to resist COVID-19, the Daily NK‘s source said, adding that people “in charge of the military’s logistics operations are stressing that soldiers are supplied at least 800 grams worth of food per day. They also are emphasizing that soldiers eat three meals of pureed soybean soup per day, instead of the usual one per day.”
A warning was also issued in Rodong Sinmun that deemed it “absolutely unacceptable” for North Korean citizens to interfere with the government’s steps to halt the coronavirus. That includes those who object to wearing face masks, according to Newsweek.
A U.N. investigator Monday warned of serious consequences if COVID-19 gains
a foothold in North Korea. The U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of
human rights in North Korea, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said the lack of freedoms and
wide-range abuses in the tightly controlled, highly secretive society run
counter to the transparency needed to combat the coronavirus epidemic.
Ojea Quintana acknowledges the government’s extensive efforts in preventing
an outbreak of this virus inside the North. He warns a widespread infection in
North Korea would be devastating for the people as many are malnourished,
suffering from stunted growth and are vulnerable to getting sick.
The U.N. official is calling on North Korea to allow full and unimpeded
access to medical experts and aid workers and urges the government not to
restrict access to vital information. The government in Pyongyang has not
publicly disclosed any cases of COVID-19.
Regarding the economic sanctions that the United States and other countries have imposed on North Korea because of its nuclear weapons program, Ojea Quintana said because sanctions create economic hardships for the people and given the coronavirus crisis, they should be reviewed.
The U.N. rapporteur describes the overall human rights situation in North
Korea as abysmal. “Basic freedoms continue to be limited, control and
surveillance are pervasive, and the population fears arbitrary arrest and
mistreatment, including detention in political prison camps…A recent account
refers to frequent deaths of prisoners due to hard labor, lack of food,
contagious diseases and overcrowding,” he said.
Ojea Quintana said women are the most abused members of this repressive
society. He said women are the primary caretakers of the household and are
under pressure to provide money and labor to the government. He said women are
vulnerable to threats, imprisonment and sexual abuse from local state
officials. Additionally, he said they have no political power or recourse to
North Korea flew dozens of diplomats out of the country to
Russia on Monday, including the staff of the German, French and Swiss missions
which were shut amid concern in the isolated country about the possible spread
of the coronavirus.
North Korea has not reported any cases of the illness, despite bordering
China where the epidemic started and South Korea which is suffering a major
outbreak. Pyongyang has reinforced border checks and ordered foreigners from
any country that has reported a case to spend 30 days in quarantine.
Diplomats who were flown on Monday to Vladivostok, a Russian port on the
Pacific Ocean, said North Koreans now wear face masks and are clearly concerned
about the spread of the disease. “There is a certain tension in the city and
all of the country because people are aware of the coronavirus. They have it in
their media, so it’s the biggest issue they are dealing with at the moment,”
Pit Heltmann, Germany’s ambassador, told reporters after arriving in
Klaus Stross, the German embassy’s first secretary, said he had not
witnessed any disruptions to construction projects or public life in the
country. He said that 103 people — 63 foreigners and 40 North Koreans — had
been on the flight, serviced by North Korea’s Air Koryo airline. “Everybody is
hoping for flights to resume, for the borders to reopen, but in Pyongyang you
don’t feel any restrictions,” he said. “The people are wearing masks, but
that’s about all.”
The Russian embassy said the group flown to Russia on Monday included the
full staff of the German, French and Swiss missions, 13 staff and family
members from Russia’s own embassy, as well as diplomats from Poland, Romania,
Mongolia and Egypt. Aid workers and businessmen were also on the flight.
Britain’s ambassador to North Korea, Colin Crooks, tweeted earlier in the
day: “Sad to say farewell this morning to colleagues from German Embassy and
French Office in North Korea which are closing temporarily.” He added, “British
Embassy remains open.”
Last week, Sweden’s ambassador to North Korea, Joachim Bergstrom, said he
was happy to be out of the compound where he was quarantined for a month.
In his letter to Moon on Wednesday, Kim conveyed a message of comfort to the
South Korean people over the cornonavirus outbreak that has infected more than
6,000 people and killed 37 others in the South. Kim said he was worried about
Moon’s health and expressed frustration that there wasn’t much he could do to
help South Korea at this moment, senior presidential official Yoon Do-han told
reporters. Kim “underlined his unwavering friendship and trust toward President
Moon and said that he will continue to quietly send his best wishes for
President Moon to overcome” the outbreak, Yoon said.
Kim also expressed his “candid thoughts and opinions” about the current
situation on the Korean Peninsula, Yoon said, without providing details. Moon
sent Kim back a letter on Thursday conveying his gratitude to him, Yoon said.
Moon and Kim built personal ties in 2018 when they met three times and
reached a series of agreements aimed at boosting exchanges and lowering
military animosity. Moon, a liberal who espouses a negotiated settlement of the
North Korean nuclear crisis, also facilitated Kim’s first summit with U.S.
President Donald Trump in Singapore in 2018.
North Korea has repeatedly said there have been no cases of the virus on its soil, a claim that is questioned by many outside experts.
The sister of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, attacked South Korea’s presidential office on Tuesday, calling it idiotic a day after the South denounced the North’s first weapons test this year.
Kim Yo-jong, Mr. Kim’s only sister, also serves as one of his closest aides. She helped arrange the first summit meeting between Mr. Kim and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea in 2018, visiting Seoul with her brother’s letter of invitation.
On Tuesday, in the first-ever statement issued under her name, Ms. Kim heaped scorn on South Korea, another sign that relations between the North and South have chilled since the collapse of a second summit meeting between Mr. Kim and President Trump in February last year.
On Monday, North Korea conducted its first weapons tests
this year, which involved large-caliber rockets. Mr. Moon’s presidential Blue
House, called Chongwadae in Korean, immediately blamed North Korea for
her statement on Tuesday, Ms. Kim said the South had no right to criticize the
North’s test when it conducts its own exercises, whether alone or together with
the United States. “Such incoherent assertion and actions made by Chongwadae
only magnify our distrust, hatred and scorn for the South side as a whole,”
she said, according to the English translation by the North’s official Korean
Central News Agency. “It is us who have to express ’strong regret’ at such
incoherent and imbecile way of thinking of Chongwadae.”
Ms. Kim did not attack South Korean President Moon by name. But she said that if South Korea “is set to get down to doing anything with us, it had better be more brave and fair and square.”
North Korea has fired two unidentified short-rangeprojectiles from an area near the coastal city of Wonsan into waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, South Korea’s militarysaid Monday. The objects were estimated to have a flight distance of 240 kilometers (149 miles) and altitude of 35 kilometers (22 miles), South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement, adding the projectiles are likely part of North Korea’s combined military drills.
The drills began on Friday, the one-year anniversary of leader Kim Jong Un’s summit in Hanoi with US President Donald Trump that ended without a deal. North Korean state media reported that Kim presided over the exercise, which was intended to “judge the mobility and the fire power strike ability of the defense units.”
If this was a missile test, it would be Pyongyang’s first of 2020. Last year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said his country would continue to “steadily develop” nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles to deliver them unless Washington changes course and abandons what Pyongyang calls its “hostile policy.” Weapons experts say test-firing missiles is an important part of improving their accuracy and reliability.
Though weapons tests are important for development purposes,
North Korea’s military moves are often timed for maximum political impact both
at home and abroad.
The US and South Korea chose to postpone military exercises due to the Novel
coronavirus outbreak. These drills usually draw the ire of North Korea. “The
US and South Korea postponing their defense drills and offering humanitarian
assistance has thus earned no goodwill from a Kim regime that sees little
benefit in restarting diplomacy,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha
University in Seoul, said in email. “Pyongyang instead appears intent on
raising the stakes before South Korea’s April elections and before the ‘Super
Tuesday’ primaries of the US presidential campaign,” Easley said.
A plan is in the works to evacuate quarantined foreign diplomats from North Korea, a source inside the country has revealed. “I would expect around 60 people to be on the flight,” a source said.
The German Embassy, French Cooperation Office, and Swiss Development Cooperation will close operations in the capital Pyongyang completely, said the source, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, given the extreme sensitivity of the current situation. Other countries with diplomatic missions in North Korea plan to scale down operations, the source added.
CNN previously reported foreign diplomats have been kept in
complete isolation since early February, as the outbreak extended beyond
mainland China. The exact number of foreign diplomats stationed inside North
Korea is unknown, but is estimated to be just a few hundred. Diplomatic staff
are not allowed to leave their compounds. All flights in and out of the country
have also been suspended.
On Wednesday, North Korean state-run media reported that more than 380 foreign nationals had been placed in isolation. Individuals who had recently returned from trips overseas, as well as those who show abnormal symptoms are also under observation, according to the report.
North Korea has not confirmed a single case of the virus inside its borders, but global health experts have warned the country is highly susceptible to an outbreak given its close proximity to China and limited medical capabilities. Every other country in East Asia has confirmed numerous cases.
The apparent ramping up of efforts to contain the virus
comes as neighboring South Korea reported 256 more confirmed cases of the virus
on Friday morning, bringing the national total to 2,022, according to the South
Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
The next showdown between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may need to wait until after the coronavirus scare. The U.S. said Thursday that it would postpone joint military exercises planned for the coming weeks, as its ally South Korea copes with the coronavirus outbreak. The decision removes for now a looming friction point with North Korea, which has denounced the exercises as rehearsal for an invasion and a “main factor of screwing up tensions.”
Meanwhile, North Korea has turned inward since neighboring China sounded the alarm about the new virus strain last month, shutting its borders and trumpeting its prevention campaigns in state media. Moves to provoke the U.S. haven’t materialized since Kim told ruling party leaders on New Year’s Eve that he was no longer bound by a freeze on tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
This year was expected to bring a return to tensions on the Korean Peninsula
after Kim spent much of last year threatening to take a “new path” in nuclear
talks with the U.S. in 2020 if Trump didn’t make a more appealing offer. The
two leaders have made little progress since Trump walked out of their second
formal summit last year in Hanoi.
outbreak, which has infected more than 82,000 and killed more than 2,800
worldwide, is particularly concerning to impoverished North Korea, which lacks
the public health infrastructure of its more developed neighbors. While the
country has yet to report any confirmed cases, the border closures have cut off
a vital source of cash needed to soften the blow of international sanctions.
The outbreak also poses risks to South Korea, with cases surging to 1,700 in little more than a week. President Moon Jae-in — a longtime advocate for greater North Korea ties — is rushing to get the disease under control before April parliamentary elections that will shape the remainder of his single, five-year term.
Some 28,500 American troops are based on the peninsula and at last one U.S.
solider has already tested positive for the virus. U.S. Forces Korea raised its
risk level to “high” Thursday, restricting service members from attending
non-essential, off-base activities and social events.
About one out of five North Korean defectors
experienced discrimination in South Korea last year mostly due to
“cultural” differences, a survey showed Wednesday.
According to the survey conducted by the Hana
Foundation, a state-run agency that helps resettlement of North Korean
defectors, 17.2 percent of 3,000 defectors polled said that they experienced
discrimination last year.
The ratio was slightly down from 20.2 percent reported a year earlier but
indicated a still deep-rooted prejudice against those defecting from communist
Of them, 76.7 percent said that they were discriminated against because of
“cultural” differences such as their way of speaking, manners and
lifestyles. It was higher than the corresponding figure of 69.9 percent a year
earlier. While South and North Koreans use the same language, their intonation
and the meaning of words along with their lifestyles are quite different.
About 44 percent also cited negative perception
against North Koreans as a reason for discrimination, followed by 22.9 percent
who cited their lack of skills and poor job performance as discrimination.
The survey, however, showed that 74.2 percent said that they are satisfied with
their lives in South Korea as they can enjoy liberty and make money as much as
An implausible love story in which a (literally) high-flying South Korean heiress accidentally paraglides into North Korea, lands on a soldier and falls in love with him has become the latest Korean drama smash hit, “Crash Landing on You”.
With his broad shoulders and thick
torso, Kwak Moon-wan has all the appearance of a bodyguard. That’s probably
because until 2004, he served with the Supreme Guard Command, the elite
security force which protects North Korea’s ruling Kim family. He was so trusted that he was assigned to work
overseas too, for a North Korean trade company in Moscow which was bringing in
much needed foreign currency. Only a select few North Koreans are permitted to
work outside the country, and to ensure their continued loyalty the leaders have
measures in place – Kwak had to leave his wife and son behind in North Korea. In
2004, he was ordered to return to Pyongyang. During a stopover in Beijing, he
found out one of his friends in Moscow had reported to their bosses in
Pyongyang what he had said in private conversation. He knew immediately that
what he’d said would cause huge trouble when he got home.
So he decided to defect. Alone. And
he has lived in South Korea without his family ever since. After arriving in
South Korea, Kwak, like thousands of North Korean defectors, began the process
of building a new life. And it took a remarkable twist of fate for Kwak to find
his way into the booming world of Korean entertainment.
Before entering the military, Kwak
had spent time learning about film. He ended up being accepted to study film
directing in Pyongyang University of Dramatic and Cinematic Arts. Shortly after
Kwak arrived in South Korea, a famous filmmaker who was working on a North
Korea-themed film project approached South Korea’s spy agency asking for some
advice. Kwak had just finished his interrogations, part of the resettlement
process new defectors go through, in which he’d talked about his film skills. The
agency put him in touch with the filmmaker, who offered him a job at his film
company. Kwak accepted it right away. He went on to work as an adviser and a
screenwriter on a number of films and dramas.
In 2018 a former colleague introduced Kwak to Park Ji-eun, the head writer of the drama. She had come up with an idea of a romantic comedy featuring a North Korean officer and a South Korean heiress, but her lack of intimate knowledge of Northern life was a pressing concern. Kwak’s intimate knowledge of how North Korean officials operate meant he was able to contribute ingenious plot devices. Read more on this
The series has since become one of
the most successful Korean dramas of all time. It tells the story of heiress
and businesswoman Yoon Se-ri and North Korean army captain Ri Jeong-hyuk. While
out paragliding one day, Se-ri gets caught up by freak winds, and pushed over
the border into North Korea. She is found by the dashing Jeong-hyuk, who
instead of turning her in agrees to keep her safe and help her return home.
Inevitably, they fall in love.
It’s also won praise from people like Sokeel Park, who works with defectors through Liberty in North Korea. “Its portrayal of various aspects of North Korean society have clearly been thoroughly researched, resulting in the most three-dimensional portrayal of North Korean society of any film or drama to date,” he told the BBC. “It is refreshing how it portrays various aspects of North Korean society without unnecessarily passing judgement, and shows North Koreans as complex people who are ultimately relatable and even lovable, even if they are culturally different.”
North Korea has reportedly quarantined 380 foreigners as part of efforts to prevent the coronavirus outbreak. The majority of those quarantined are thought to be diplomats stationed in the capital city of Pyongyang, Yonhap news agency reported Monday, citing state media in North Korea.
It was not immediately clear how
long the quarantine period would last, and the nationalities of those in
isolation have not yet been revealed.
The World Health Organization (WHO)
has previously said it has had no indication of COVID-19 having spread to North
South Korea, which has reported the
highest number of cases outside China, has confirmed more than 763 cases of the
coronavirus nationwide, with a total of seven deaths. The country is separated
from North Korea by the so-called demilitarized zone (DMZ), which is
approximately 154 miles long and 2.5 miles wide.
As part of efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, North Korea has reportedly intensified medical monitoring and testing measures on those who have returned from overseas travel and those showing “abnormal” symptoms. North Korea has also put measures in place to ensure all foreigners coming into the country must be quarantined for a period of 30 days. Late last week, North Korea canceled its Pyongyang Marathon amid heightened fears about COVID-19. The race had been scheduled to take place in April.
A group of North Korean refugees have launched a political
party in South Korea, aiming to give a voice to the 33,500 defectors living in
We were always considered minorities and aliens,” said Kim Joo-il, secretary-general of the new South-North Unification Party at its launch at a hall in South Korea’s capital Seoul. “North Korean defectors are now the future of unification.”
The decision to set up a formal political party was a sign that defectors are seeking a more direct political role ahead of a parliamentary election in April. Many are strongly critical of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration, which they accuse of sidelining defectors and ignoring human rights in a bid to repair relations with North Korea.
Kim Shin-ye, 38, one of the defector participants, said the new party’s criticism of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un – one party representative called him a “little pig” during the event – means some defectors may be worried about publicly pledging support for fear of endangering family back in the North.
“What Kim Jong Un is the most afraid of is when the dignity of the North Korean defectors is raised,” said lawmaker Kim Yong-tae, during his congratulatory speech.
Technology has become one of the North Korea’s most important tools for survival. The so-called Lazarus group has used elaborate phishing schemes and cutting-edge money-laundering tools to steal money for Kim Jong-un’s regime, in a way to circumvent sanctions. The United Nations estimates that North Korean operators have stolen over $2 billion over the last four years, a relatively enormous percentage of the country’s estimated $28 billion gross domestic product.
And this applies to a tenfold increase observed in North Korea’s mining of Monero, the privacy-driven cryptocurrency designed to make tracking somewhere between difficult and impossible. Analysts can see internet traffic so detailed that it reveals Pyongyang’s investment in new higher-end, higher-capacity machines to mine the cryptocurrency, according to a recent report from the American cybersecurity firm Recorded Future*.
North Korea’s unparalleled restrictiveness and secrecy around internet usage actually make it easier for intelligence analysts to track and understand how the country uses the internet. “What we see is internet use by the very privileged, the 0.1%, the North Korean military leadership and their families, who are actually given access to the internet,” says Priscilla Moriuchi, an analyst with Recorded Future who focused on China and North Korea during 13 years at the National Security Agency. “We wouldn’t be able to do this type of analysis if they didn’t have such restrictive parameters around the internet.”
There are only three primary ways North Korea connects to the global internet: first, through the allocated .kp IP range; second, through a connection to neighboring China’s telecommunications giant Unicom; and finally, through an increasingly important connection via a Russian satellite company that ultimately resolves to SatGate in Lebanon. But a number of North Koreans live and hack abroad in countries like China. This gives them better access to the internet as they take the opportunity to blend in, while affording plausible deniability for the regime.
“They’re outside usual
boundaries technologically and geographically,” Moriuchi says. “… North Korea sends a lot of their cyber operators overseas … these are super highly trained people that the regime
has invested lots of money, time, and trust in. … The revenue generation is state directed and state
mandated,” Moriuchi adds, “These people have to
earn a specific amount of money per year in order to support themselves and
stay overseas, and so their families aren’t endangered at home. It’s a criminal
state up-and-down exploiting the openness of the internet to earn money.”
*Recorded Future, an intelligence firm launched in 2009 with the backing of Google and In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital arm, has grown to 650 customers and 475 employees and has just signed a $50 million threat intelligence deal with the US Cyber Command.
Former national security adviser John Bolton told an audience at Duke University in his first public remarks since impeachment that President Donald Trump’s peacemaking efforts with North Korea amounted to “a wasted two years,” because the country never plans to give up its nuclear weapons.
“It was perfectly evident it was going to fail,” The Washington Post quoted Bolton as saying Monday. “There is not a single piece of evidence that the government of North Korea has made a strategic decision to give up the pursuit of nuclear weapons.”
North Korea wanted to “break free” from international sanctions, Bolton said. He described North Korea as “jiving the Americans” as he claimed that the nation was getting closer to being able to drop nuclear weapons on U.S. cities.
When asked if he had shared his views on North Korea with the president before accepting a job in his administration, Bolton reportedly replied: “Well, I’d be happy to answer that question except part of this is now involved in the pre-publication review of my book.” Bolton also revealed concerns about what he described as the attempted “censorship” of his manuscript.
Bolton publicly supported Trump’s policies when he worked for the
administration, the president did not always back his national security
Bolton is not the first American foreign policy expert to criticize Trump’s actions toward North Korea. Speaking with Salon last year, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that the Singapore summit between Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un was “a ‘Kim win’ because the President canceled some exercises that we have with our allies, the Japanese and the South Koreans, and it’s unclear to me what the North Koreans gave or what it is that they put up to this, especially since they have not agreed to any kind of way of an inventory or international way of figuring out what they have and what denuclearization — which is what we are trying to get — what is the measurement of that, what’s going on.
“Bon-Hwa,” a North Korean Christian woman, escaped to China two years ago for the chance to live a better life.
With the help of partners of Open Doors, Bon-Hwa found shelter in a safe house and attended her first Women to Women secret meeting in China and was baptized.
But baptizing North Koreans is illegal and dangerous, so Bon-Hwa, her
pastor, and a group leader traveled to a remote location that “took many
hours to reach.”
“I had to contain myself and focus on the steps of the ceremony,” said the Open Doors leader. “Or else, I would have cried … It was such a beautiful moment and such a privilege to baptize a North Korean believer in these circumstances.”
Most of North Korea’s underground Christians do not engage in the
extremely dangerous work of proselytizing. Instead, they largely keep their
beliefs to themselves or within their immediate families. But even those who
stay deep underground face danger.
North Korea has previously arrested South Korean and American missionaries for allegedly attempting to build underground church networks or overthrow its government.
In the southwest London suburb of New Malden, it’s common to see Korean
signage across the high street’s low-rise row of shopfronts, where about a
third of its total population is Korean.
It’s also home to most of the UK’s North Korean defectors, which, at over
600 people, is the largest North Korean community in Europe. Arriving as
refugees, they have escaped a country that the UN has repeatedly condemned for
its corruption, human rights abuses and “appalling” levels of hunger.
New Malden’s North Korean community is fairly recent; in 2007, there were only 20 defectors living in the area. Drawn by the Korean amenities already established by their southern neighbors, North Koreans have built a new life away from Kim Jong-un’s oppressive regime while still honouring the cultural traditions they left behind. It’s this delicate balance of renewal and remembrance that photographer Catherine Hyland sought out when she began working with New Malden’s North Koreans around three years ago. She began attending church services and K-pop competitions, spending over a year getting to know the community before she took a single photograph.
Hyland was aware that these subjects deserved an especially sensitive
approach. “Even after you defect, the psychological and cultural adjustment can
be hard due to the extreme conditions people are used to,” she says.
Named The Traces Left Behind, her multi-part series allows her
subjects to express themselves through their own visual and cultural language.
“The disparity between the media [portrayal of the community] and reality is
vast,” Hyland points out. “We hope the project could be a platform for this
community to share their stories on their own terms.”
She has recently finished the project’s first chapter, a short film and photo series in collaboration with the Korean Senior Citizen Society’s dance group and choir. Rather than a straightforward documentary-style observation, Hyland created a set inspired by the bright, pastel aesthetic specific to North Korea, inviting the group to dance, sing and share their story with her.
Despite the color and joy evident in her work, Hyland’s interviews touch on
some painful moments. Lee-Sook Sung, a 77-year-old who participates in the
dance troupe, was an early settler in the UK, having arrived in 2009. She told
Hyland that three of her sons starved to death in North Korea before she
escaped to China with her husband and three remaining children.
Having lost her eyesight and become unable to read, she learns the choir
songs with the help of her husband. Despite these hardships, she says the
community helps her remain young, as does the healthcare and quality of life
she has found in New Malden. “If I had still been in North Korea, by this age I
wouldn’t be able to do anything,” she says. “But I have come to such a joyful
and wonderful world that I am dancing at this age.”
The most senior diplomat to have defected from North Korea will run for parliament in South Korea. Thae Yong-ho was deputy ambassador at the North Korean embassy in London when he defected with his wife and two sons in August 2016, and has since become one of the regime’s most vocal critics.
Thae, who was denounced as a traitor by North Korea, will run in the national assembly elections on 15 April for Liberty Korea, the country’s conservative main opposition party, officials said. Party officials said Thae was likely to campaign for a seat in a Seoul constituency.
“Thae is someone who risked his life for freedom,” Kim Hyong-o, a party official in charge of candidacies, told reporters. “As a person who understands the sorrow of the 10 million separated families, and as one of 25 million North Koreans, he could present a vision for peace. “His courage and decision will give hope to North Korean refugees and other South and North Korean people who want genuine unification.”
If elected, Thae, 57, would become the second North Korean defector to win a
seat in the national assembly. The first was Cho Myung-chul, who fled to the
South in 1994 and represented a predecessor to Liberty Korea from 2012-16.
A North Korean male in his 50s or older arrived in the United States as a
refugee this week, U.S. government data showed Friday.
He is the second North Korean refugee to resettle in the U.S. this year. In January, a male aged in the 14-20 range was placed in Richmond, Virginia, according to data from the State Department’s bureau of population, refugees and migration.
The new arrival was reported Thursday as a male aged in the 51-64 range. He now lives in Chicago, Illinois.
No North Korean refugees were admitted in 2018.
-The first North Korean refugees arrived in 2006, with their number peaking at 38 in 2008. -From 2009 to 2016, the number of arrivals ranged between 14 and 23. -In 2017, the figure dropped sharply to one, before increasing slightly to six in 2018.
Authorities in North Korea have quarantined a group of 15 refugees that were captured in China and repatriated with the help of Chinese police, placing them in a facility meant to isolate patients with open cases of tuberculosis, Radio Free Asia has learned.
“Yesterday an acquaintance of mine who works in the medical industry told me that some North Korean refugees who were sent back from China last month were put in isolation at a tuberculosis hospital,” a resident of North Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service.
The source said the 15 repatriated North Koreans, originally part of a group of about 20, had crossed the border into China from somewhere in North Hamgyong’s Musan county in early January. According to the source the 15 were not taken first to a detention center in China, but “were sent back to North Korea in strict secrecy.”
“Sopungsan tuberculosis hospital is famous because patients are sent there
when they have the most dangerous types of open-case tuberculosis [including
the drug-resistant Super-TB],” said the source. “It’s like the authorities
don’t even care if these people become infected with tuberculosis,” the source
A second source added, “Seopungsan tuberculosis hospital is where terminal TB
patients go to die. They are put there to prevent the spread of the
highly-contagious tuberculosis bacteria.”
It’s now about two months since a deadly novel coronavirus was found in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and nearly every country and territory in East Asia has confirmed a case. But not North Korea.
Every country and territory within a 1,500-mile radius of North Korea,
except for sparsely populated Mongolia, has confirmed a case. It’s unclear how
North Korea has been able to avoid the virus. Pyongyang has either been very
lucky, isn’t saying something or is reaping one of the few benefits of being a
so-called “hermit nation.”
Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University who previously served as the head of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), said it’s very possible someone inside North Korea — a country of 25 million people — has been infected. Nam suspects a Chinese patient could have infected someone from North Korea across their shared border. “We know that the Chinese regions close to the North Korean border, such as Dandong and Shenyang, have confirmed patients. About 90% of North Korean trade is with China and we know so many people, trucks and trains passed through the border between the two nations before North Korea installed recent regulations” to stop the virus from getting into the country, Nam told CNN.
Despite not publicly acknowledging any confirmed or even suspected cases, North Korea has been uncharacteristically transparent regarding its efforts to combat the virus. It appears the country is taking the epidemic very seriously, according to reports in state-run news service KCNA. North Korea has closed its borders to all foreign tourists, most of whom are Chinese, as a precautionary measure. On January 30, authorities declared a “state emergency,” and that anti-epidemic headquarters were being established around the country, and North Korean health officials had set up a “nationwide test sample transport system” and had the ability to promptly diagnose suspicious cases.
Doctors who have defected in recent years often speak of poor working conditions and shortages of everything from medicine to basic healthcare supplies. Choi Jung-hun, a former physician in North Korea who fled the country in 2011, said when he was helping to combat a measles outbreak in 2006 to 2007, North Korea did not have the resources to operate round-the-clock quarantine and isolation facilities. “The problem in North Korea is that manuals [for doctors] are not followed,” Choi said.
Jean Lee, who previously worked for The Associated Press and opened the newswire’s bureau in Pyongyang, said the virus gives Pyongyang a new excuse to further tighten its borders and justify the draconian social restrictions most North Korean people live under. The majority of North Koreans also do not enjoy freedom of movement and are required to receive government permission to travel to other provinces. Very few are permitted to travel abroad.
Choi, the doctor
who defected, also said, “North Korea has the best control system in the
world. North Korea probably is best at limiting social contacts and regional
traveling because they’ve been practicing that for 70 years.”
Kim Seung-eun, a pastor at Seoul’s Caleb Mission Church, which helps defectors escape, estimates that about 40 North Koreans are trapped at various locations in China, unable to move onward because of the Chinese coronavirus lockdown. The Chinese lockdown is disrupting the main path through which North Koreans escape, forcing refugees to indefinitely pause their journeys, and leaving them vulnerable in a country that has long sent them back home to certain punishment.
If China’s virus lockdown expands to include house inspections, Pastor Kim warns, tens of thousands of other North Koreans at various stages of transit through China or who have decided to settle there illegally could be in danger.
“The road closures have blocked the route. It has all stopped — I asked
them not to come through that area for now,” said a South Korea-based broker
who helps organize North Korean defector journeys through China.
On the other hand, Teodora Gyupchanova, a researcher at the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul, says, “It is possible that the virus-related travel restrictions could create loopholes that defectors and brokers could exploit. That is especially true if Chinese authorities prioritize potential coronavirus cases and focus on monitoring established transportation routes rather than clandestine ones,” Gyupchanova says. “People in this line of work are quite inventive, so I am sure that backup routes will soon be found,” she says.
Earlier this week, Pastor Kim told VOA’s Korea Service that he heard North Korea has temporarily stopped demanding that China repatriate defectors, out of concern they may bring the virus into North Korea. It is unclear what would happen to North Korean refugees who are discovered by Chinese authorities during the lockdown.
A vast transportation lockdown meant to contain the spread of the coronavirus in central China is complicating the already grueling journey of North Korean refugees, according to two sources who help arrange North Korean defector trips.
After fleeing their homes, most North Korean refugees make their way down
through China and then onto Southeast Asian countries, including Laos and
Thailand, before ending up in South Korea. The journey, which can take months
or longer and is thousands of kilometers long, often involves trekking by foot
over mountains and using tiny boats to cross rivers.
The China portion of the trip is especially risky, since North Korean refugees are forced to use fake ID cards, according to the Seoul-based broker, who himself defected to South Korea in 2004.
“With China now trying to control everyone’s movements, it’s just too dangerous,” says the broker, who did not want to publish his name because of the sensitivity of his work.
Chinese authorities have implemented what one World Health Organization
official called an “unprecedented” lockdown to contain the viral outbreak. China
has closed public transportation links, restricted access to major highways,
and imposed strict ID and temperature checks – effectively placing tens
of millions under quarantine in an expanding circle around Hubei province,
where the outbreak began.
The “revered first lady” of North Korea, the wife of ruler Kim Jong Un, is believed to be around 30 years old.
Ri is a former pop singer. She once was a member of the
Hermit Kingdom’s “army of beauties” cheerleading squad – but now makes
sporadic appearances abroad and in state propaganda.
Ri was born into a military family in the North Korean city of Chongjin in the 1980s, according to the North Korea Leadership Watch blog. Her father serves as a commander in the Korean People’s Army’s Air and Anti-Air Forces, it adds, and she is reported to have attended Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang.
Prior to tying the knot with Kim, Ri is believed to have studied singing in China and was among a select group of young women dispatched to South Korea to cheer for the North’s team at the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships
She trained in the performing arts from a young age, singing with the Unhasu Orchestra and is believed to be close to the members of North Korea’s all-female pop group, the Moranbong Band, another Kim Jong Un creation.
South Korean intelligence reports that the real name of Ri, sometimes called Lee Seol-ju, is Hyon Song-wol.
Ri was identified as Kim’s wife in 2012, and it is likely the couple
married secretly in 2009 or 2010. They are thought to have three children, with
the first likely born in 2010. The existence of the children or their genders
have never been verified by the state media, but former NBA player Dennis
Rodman said in 2013 after returning from the Hermit Kingdom that he held the
couple’s then-baby daughter, Ju-ae, and praised the dictator as “a good dad.”
Most of Ri’s public appearances have been with her husband at military or diplomatic functions. She has been photographed meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the demilitarized zone’s Peace House. In January 2020, North Korea’s main newspaper released a photo showing Ri sitting next to Kim and his aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, at a performance in Pyongyang marking Lunar New Year’s Day.
A month earlier, an image was released of Ri riding on a white horse during Kim’s visit to snowy Mount Paektu.
Other photos of Ri show her poised, comfortable in the limelight and usually dressed in expensive outfits.
North Korean authorities arrested seven out of a group of 15 government
officials from Pyongyang who were allegedly attempting to defect by crossing
the border into China, RFA has learned.
The seven were arrested in a village near the border, while it is believed that the other eight were able to escape. Members of the group may have been carrying secret information in the form of official government documents.
“On January 2nd, the State Security Department launched an
emergency operation to arrest a group of 15 people who fled Pyongyang and were
heading to the border,” an official from Ryanggang province told RFA. “The fact that they used a plane to prevent
them from defecting proves that the would-be defectors are not ordinary
people,” said a source.
The source said that the group of 15 had left Pyongyang during the New Year
holiday. “Most of them are senior officials. They are believed to have lived in
the Ryomyong Street and Mirae Scientists Street area in the central area of
Pyongyang,” the source added, referring to a newly developed area of the
capital with expensive high-rise apartments.
Another source, a law enforcement official in Ryanggan told RFA that the
operation “was belatedly reported. The State Security Department and the
Provincial Security Department launched a desperate arrest operation to prevent
them from defecting,” said the second source.
The second source also said that the use of an airplane in the sting was not
normal. “I’ve been working for the judicial authorities all my life, but I’ve
never heard of flying an airplane to catch North Korean defectors,” the second
At the recent December 2019 plenum, Chairman Kim, rather than giving his traditional New Year’s speech, outlined a different strategy toward the US … a return to a combination of military and economic development, and the requirement for the people to tighten their belts during a period of prolonged sanctions. Kim’s strategic shift … offers clues as to his evolving leadership style, intentions and flexibility as he begins his ninth year in power.
The most tempting explanation would be that Kim has returned to his earlier byungjin policy, combining an emphasis on both economic as well as military development. … And observers might thereby be forgiven for assuming that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and that Kim is a mere replica of his father Kim Jong Il and grandfather Kim Il Sung. But such thinking risks missing the nuances of Kim’s leadership style, and how he continues to evolve and mature as a strategic leader.
Kim shares his grandfather’s and father’s ruthlessness, legacy of human rights abuses, single-minded obsession with power and self-preservation, cult of personality and fierce devotion to the ideals of one-party rule, juche (self-sufficiency) and national pride. … He has shown a side similar to his grandfather in his famous onsite inspection visits—jovially hugging employees, smiling, back-slapping and posing for selfies. In this sense, both he and his grandfather are different from Kim Jong Il, who rarely spoke publicly and only traveled to Russia and China.
Kim’s differences from his father and grandfather are a measure of his youth, diplomatic talent, style, trust in his wife and his sister (both of whom have traveled internationally with him) and ability to think and act more strategically, rather than impulsively.
His impatience may be a function of external political pressures (particularly from the military) rather than a mere reflection of his personality. Certainly, after his 2019 New Year’s speech … Kim has shown restraint and patience. He has not tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or resumed nuclear testing—nor is he likely to do so, although a public “display” of a new ICBM or ballistic missile submarine is not out of the question.
Kim remains an aspirational leader, even as the DPRK’s diplomacy is likely
to shift—given the replacement of Ri Yong Ho and appointment of Ri Son Gwon (a
military hardliner and protégé of Kim Yong Chol) as foreign minister—to a more
muscular, hard-nosed version. And Kim, rather than acting impulsively to
provoke an unpredictable President Trump, has surely taken measure of America’s
current impeachment drama, the upcoming American presidential election, and
Trump’s recent show of resolve with respect to the killing of Iran’s Quds Force
leader General Soleimani, as well as the signing of the China trade deal. Kim
is patiently waiting—with a tendency to avoid unnecessary political risks—knowing
that, if Trump were to serve another four years, time is on his and the DPRK’s
A one-woman show inspired by the true stories of North Korean defectors, “SELL ME: I Am From North Korea” premiered at the 2019 International Human Rights Art Festival in New York. The play was written by and stars Korean-born playwright and performer Sora Baek. Baek and her team have expanded the play and a Jersey City show will be the first performance of the full production.
Baek based the play on her own research of her Northern neighbors who’ve
resisted the North Korean government and the continuing obstacles, stigmas, and
prejudices defectors face as undocumented refugees. She shows the very real,
very human costs this brutal regime inflicts on individuals through the story
of Jisun Park, a 15-year-old girl who risks her life for the chance to give her
family hope and freedom.
“It is my wish that all our children grow up in a world that is more welcoming, free, and just than the one we have now,” said Baek. “To bring this meaningful and relevant story to the state I live in and to have the support of such a great beacon in the Jersey City community is truly special.”
“Theater breaks down walls that separate us by giving a voice to the voiceless. North Korea is often in the news but rarely do we hear about its people. SELL ME is an important new work about the fight against injustice by a refugee community whose stories of struggle and trauma have rarely been told before,” said Olga Levina, Artistic Director, JCTC.
The aunt of Kim Jong-un, Kim Kyong-hui, has appeared in public for the first time in more than six years, ending speculation that she had been purged or executed.
The official newspaper of North Korea’s ruling party, the Rodong Sinmun, showed Kim Kyong-hui seated next to Kim and his wife, Ri Sol-ju, at a performance to mark the lunar new year at a theatre in Pyongyang on Saturday.
Rumors that Kim Kyong-hui had been sidelined, or possibly executed, gained
traction after her influential husband, Jang Song-thaek, was executed by firing squad for treason and
corruption in December 2013. She has not been present at ceremonies since then
and her name has not been mentioned in KCNA dispatches until Sunday.
Some observers believed she had become a victim of a series of purges her nephew ordered in an attempt to rid the ruling party of potential rivals. Others speculated that 73-year-old Kim Kyong-hui, a heavy drinker, had died due to ill health.
While she is unlikely to regain formal positions of political influence, her presence is hugely symbolic, according to Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership expert at the Stimson Center in Washington. “The sudden appearance of major officials in a regime like North Korea’s is always massively important,” Madden told Agence France-Presse. “Even if she does not have a political office or formal position in the regime, making a personal appearance like this is a public demonstration of support for her nephew,” he added. “It is a strong expression of Kim family unity.”
Before her absence from public life, Kim Kyong-hui – the youngest daughter of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung – was a four-star army general and politburo member. She is said to have been instrumental in grooming her nephew to succeed his father, who died from a heart attack in late 2011.
The number of North Korean defectors escaping to China increased notably in April and May of 2019, when the weather became warm enough that people could cross the Yalu River or hide in the forest more easily, according to a source in China who works with online newspaper Daily NK.
China already has a huge ethnic Korean community numbering more than 2.5 million, so defectors often blend in before heading to a third country. It is unclear how many North Korea defectors are hiding in China since the Chinese census does not recognize them, but some estimate the number as between 30,000 to 50,000.
Chinese authorities are reportedly tracking the history of mobile phone usage to locate defectors, and recently issued an Internet Content Provider (ICP) certificate to four North Korean propaganda websites, namely Uriminzokkiri, Arirang-Meari, Ryomyong, and Ryukyong. The certificate is issued and managed by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.
Having the certificate means these websites can be searched
on the Chinese internet and online users in Chinese have unlimited access to
However, it also means that those websites are under the Chinese
One of the necessary steps to receive the certificate is to have a
designated official with a Chinese passport manage the website and have an
on-the-ground office in China. Some reportedly acquire the certificate through
a local partner. That means even the management of the websites could be
overseen and controlled by the Chinese authorities to some extent.
Through such an arrangement, the Chinese authorities could
point out and ask for a revision if anything sensitive relating to China is
uploaded on the websites. That could be another way that Beijing can influence
ethnic Koreans in the country, mainly with defectors in mind.
South Korea has identified hundreds of North Korean defectors who need emergency assistance, according to the country’s Ministry of Unification. The ministry, which looks after the settlement of North Korean defectors, plans to offer emergency help to a total of 553 North Koreans who fled to the South.
The measure, announced Tuesday, is aimed at preventing a tragedy like the deaths last July of a defector in her early 40s and her 6-year-old son. They were found dead in their rented apartment in Seoul. Many assumed that they starved to death because their refrigerator was empty, as was her bank account. Police found no evidence of foul play or suicide.
After divorcing her Chinese-Korean husband, the woman lived on a monthly childcare allowance from the government, which amounted to less than $100. She initially fled to South Korea in 2009 and gave birth to her son there.
The deaths shed light on the plight of North Korean defectors in the
affluent South, prompting the Seoul administration to check on the welfare of
During the past few months, the Ministry of Unification checked up on more
than 10 percent of the 31,000 North Korean defectors and designated 553 to be in
need. However, there still might be
blind spots; the ministry could not reach 155 defectors.
Earlier this month, a defector in his early 60s was found dead at a cemetery
in Daegu. Police found a note describing his struggles living alone on state
“We plan to check the status of North Korean defectors twice a year. We
also think of introducing a better system to help them together with the Korea
Hana Foundation,” the ministry said in a statement. The Korea Hana
Foundation is a state-funded entity that helps defectors.
The number of North Koreans defecting to South Korea dropped to its lowest
in nearly two decades last year, Seoul said Monday, continuing a downward trend
as Pyongyang tightens controls on movement.
About 1,047 North Koreans arrived in the democratic South last year, down
from 1,137 in 2018, according to data released by the unification ministry.
This was the lowest figure since 2001. (This number 1,047 relates specifically
to those arriving in the South, rather than those leaving the North.)
The vast majority of defectors from the impoverished North go first to
China. They sometimes stay there for several years before making their way to
the South, often via a third country.
Arrivals to South Korea peaked at 2,914 in 2009, but have mostly declined
since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un came into power in late 2011.
Women account for the lion’s share of defectors, making up around 81 per
cent of last year’s arrivals. It is easier for women to leave the North as men
all have assigned jobs, making any absence easier to spot for the authorities.
North Korea’s new foreign minister is a former defense commander with little diplomatic experience, spotlighting leader Kim Jong Un’s reliance on party and military loyalists at a sensitive time amid stalled U.S. talks, analysts in Seoul said.
North Korea had previously told countries with embassies in Pyongyang that Ri Son Gwon, a senior military officer and official of the ruling Workers’ Party, had been appointed foreign minister, a diplomatic source in Seoul told Reuters. He replaces Ri Yong Ho, a career diplomat with years of experience negotiating with Washington.
Analysts said it was too soon to tell exactly what impact the appointment may have for the stalled denuclearisation talks with the United States, but said Ri Son Gwon had often played a confrontational role in negotiations with South Korea. Unlike his predecessor, Ri Son Gwon does not have any experience in dealing with nuclear issues or U.S. officials, though he has led high-level talks between the neighbors.
A tough, hawkish negotiator, Ri “stormed out of the room” during military talks with South Korea in 2014 when Seoul demanded an apology for what it saw as the North’s past military provocations, a former South Korean official who met him said.
Previously chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the
Country (CPRC), which handles relations with South Korea, Ri is the latest
military official to be promoted to the party leadership. “There has been a
demonstrative crossover dynamic in which senior military officials migrate into
the party leadership,” said Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership expert at
the Stimson Centre, a U.S. think tank.
In its 652-page ‘World Report 2020’, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries, including North Korea.
Among other things, the report points out that in 2019, the South Korean government prioritized diplomatic negotiations with North Korea over human rights advocacy.
President Moon did not raise human rights when he met with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, in February 2019, in keeping with his approach in earlier meetings with Kim in 2017 and 2018. And in a troubling move in October, Moon’s government deported two North Korean fishermen to face murder charges in North Korea, where they most likely face torture and execution. In November, the government then dropped its traditional co-sponsoring of a resolution condemning North Korea’s horrific rights record at the United Nations General Assembly.
“President Moon Jae-in, who started his legal career fighting for human rights, is in several ways failing to promote them now,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
“President Moon needs to abandon his flawed North Korea
policy, which is based on the hope that overlooking Pyongyang’s crimes will
increase inter-Korean engagement and dialogue,” Sifton said. “The North Korean
government is never going to improve its human rights record unless the world demands
it, and South Korea needs to lead the rallying cry for that to happen.”
Since 1978, Canadians have sponsored around 280,000 refugees, either through
organizations or groups of individual citizens. Not only does this approach put
responsibility for looking after refugees on passionate volunteers — and away
from sluggish government departments — it automatically gives them a community
to latch on to.
“The community is already actively engaged at the start, in terms of the
integration process,” says Sean Chung, the director of lobbying and strategy at
HanVoice, a Toronto NGO that fights for the right of North Koreans to settle in
“It’s not the government that’s telling the newcomers where they should
register their kids for primary school. It’s the community, at the very start,
that’s organizing the transportation at the airport, bringing them into their
homes, and welcoming them.”
Clearly, the United States has a very different political culture to Canada,
but Chung argues that the protests that shadowed the travel ban show that many
Americans realize “refugees are fleeing their countries because they have no
Not that a Canada-style approach in America seems likely anytime soon. Lindsay Lloyd, director of the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute, thinks it’s an interesting idea but isn’t sure “it’s practical right now” — especially given the current occupant of the Oval Office.
Barely a week into his presidency, officials huddled by his side, Donald
Trump signed Executive Order 13769 into law. The bureaucratic title sounds
harmless enough, but many Americans quickly learned to call it by another name:
the Muslim ban.
Already arriving in small numbers, at that point the flow of North Koreans migrating to America then slowed to a crawl.
Back in 2004, the Bush administration pushed the North Korean Human Rights
Act through Congress, promising to provide “assistance to North Korean
refugees, defectors, migrants, and orphans outside of North Korea” and bolstered
by $20 million in annual funding, and a promise to classify North Korean
escapees as proper refugees.
Yet the numbers of North Koreans coming to America remained low. “Over the
past 13 years, there have been a dozen, maybe two-dozen, people coming every
year,” says Sokeel Park, the South Korea country director at Liberty in North Korea, an NGO.
According to statistics compiled by the Refugee Processing Centre (RFC), an
average of 20 North Koreans refugees were admitted to the United States each
year in the decade to 2016.
In 2017, the first year after the election of President Trump, only a single North Korean refugee landed on American shores.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in believes North Korea remains open to dialogue with the United States, despite comments over the weekend from a top official in Pyongyang suggesting his country had been “deceived by the US” in nuclear negotiations.
Speaking at a news conference Tuesday, Moon said the recent birthday message sent by US President Donald Trump to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un should be considered a good sign. “North Korea has made it clear that the door for dialogue hasn’t been shut, even though there was a condition that the dialogue can only resume when North Korea’s demands were met,” said Moon.
Moon has long positioned himself as something of a mediator
between North Korea and the US, a role that has become increasingly difficult
as the two sides have failed to make tangible progress in diplomatic talks.
In a statement carried by North Korean state media, Kim Kye Gwan, a veteran diplomat and adviser to the North Korean foreign ministry, said Pyongyang would not consider giving up its nuclear facilities in return for partial sanctions relief.
Kim Kye Gwan, who was involved in previous negotiations with the US, said, “Although Chairman Kim Jong Un has good personal feelings about President Trump, they are, in the true sense of the word, ‘personal’,” he said. “We have been deceived by the US, being caught in the dialogue with it for over one year and a half, and that was the lost time for us.”
Sources in China told Seoul-based online newspaper Daily NK that Beijing had strengthened its efforts to crack down on North Korea defectors flocking to China.
The number of defectors increased notably in April and May last year when the weather became warm enough that people could cross the Yalu River or hide in the forest more easily, according to the source.
The source added that even brokers, who help North Koreans to defect in
exchange for money, are reluctant to help defectors these days due to the
rising number of arrest cases by the Chinese authorities.
Chinese authorities are reportedly working with some brokers while tracking the history of mobile phone usage to locate defectors, the source added.
Another source in China told Daily NK that there had been an increasing number of cases of the Chinese authorities investigating defectors instead of repatriating them back to the North. The authorities even collected the personal details of defectors in a move to store and manage them as if they were Chinese citizens., taking photos and collecting fingerprints.
Fyodor Tertitskiy, a senior researcher at Seoul’s Kookmin University,
suggests that the young North Korean leader follows his father Kim Jong Il’s
model: slowly building a cult of personality over the years while refraining
from the kinds of excesses that might seem unbecoming for a leader so young.
“Kim Jong Un likely follows the example of his father – he shows his modesty
and loyalty to his predecessors by limiting his cult to a certain extent,” he
Tertitskiy adds, “This is not the only part where his cult is limited – there are seemingly no badges with his portrait, no ‘Song of Commander Kim Jong Un,’ and, importantly, he does not have a single medal or order.”
Similarly, “State media was careful in its treatment of Kim Jong Il’s birthday up through the mid-1980s, 10 years after he was designated as Kim Il Sung’s successor,” Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst with NK News‘s sister site NK Pro, said. “It was only in 1992, after Kim received all the top or second-to-the-top titles in the party, state, and the military, that state media officially began to commemorate Kim Jong Il’s birthday.”
Tertitskiy also suggested Kim Jong Un may be waiting for a time of real
adversity to enhance his cult of personality. “Kim Jong Il did it in a time of
crisis of the late 1990s so who knows – maybe he’ll do it if the situation in
North Korea declines,” he argued.
Analyst Minyoung Lee wasn’t quite so sure, suggesting that the North Koreans
may instead be waiting for Kim the youngest to accrue a little more time as
leader. “State media will likely start commemorating Kim Jong Un’s birthday
when Kim feels that the country’s situation at home and abroad is more stable,
and he feels he has more achievements to speak for.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un marks his 36th birthday on Wednesday, if the U.S. government is anything to go by. In any case, this is a remarkably young age for a man leading a nation of 25 million people — it also makes him the world’s third-youngest person to lead a government, and the youngest to possess an arsenal of missiles and nuclear weapons.
State media on Wednesday featured no mention of the auspicious day, with
ruling party daily the Rodong
Sinmun instead leading with an editorial extolling the outcomes of
a recent party plenum. It is also conspicuously absent from officially-issued
North Korean calendars.
North Koreans, it seems, were largely in the dark about the date of the Great Successor’s birth until an unusual visit to North Korea by former NBA hall-of-famer Dennis Rodman — and an impromptu courtside sing-a-long — revealed the fact back in 2014.
Reports suggest that the state has for several years informally celebrated Kim Jong Un’s birthday, with defector-run media outlets suggesting that the day is used as an occasion to send gifts to schoolchildren. “Presents for Kim Jong Un’s birthday were handed out at a national event on January 7,” a source told Daily NK last year, remarking that 2019’s offering had improved compared to previous years.
But while the birthdays of his grandfather and father — April 15 and February 16 respectively — are national holidays in North Korea, often marked with military parades and large public celebrations, Kim Jong Un has pointedly refused to deify his own, at least in outer-track outlets.
So why the reluctance to declare it a national holiday? Much of it may have
to do with Kim Jong Un’s relative youth, and his reluctance to fully embrace
the large-scale deification his grandfather and, later, his father, enjoyed —
at least for the time being. Some suggest he may be seeking to follow Kim Jong
Il’s model: slowly building a cult of personality over the years while
refraining from the kinds of excesses that might seem unbecoming for a leader
The U.S. strike that killed Iran’s top military commander may have had an
indirect casualty: a diplomatic solution to denuclearizing North Korea. Experts
say the escalation of tensions between Washington and Tehran will inspire North
Korea’s decision-makers to tighten their hold on the weapons they see, perhaps
correctly, as their strongest guarantee of survival.
North Korea’s initial reaction to the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani has
been cautious. The country’s state media was silent for several days before
finally on Monday issuing a brief report on the attack that didn’t even mention
Soleimani’s name. The Korean Central News Agency report didn’t publish any
direct criticism by Pyongyang toward Washington, instead simply saying that
China and Russia had denounced the United States over last week’s airstrike at
the airport in Baghdad.
So while the killing of Soleimani may give Pyongyang pause about provoking the Trump administration, North Korea ultimately is likely to use the strike to further legitimize its stance that it needs to bolster its nuclear arsenal as a deterrent against American aggression.
North Korea has often pointed to the demises of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein
and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi while justifying its nuclear development,
saying they would still be alive and in power had they successfully obtained
nuclear weapons and didn’t surrender them to the U.S.
“The airstrike does serve as a warning to North Korea about taking
extreme actions as the presumption that the Trump administration refrains from
using military force when concerned about consequences has been shattered,”
said an ex-intelligence secretary to former South Korean President Lee
U.S. efforts to deal with Iran could take the U.S.’s attention away from North Korea as Pyongyang seeks to raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula, said David Maxwell, a former U.S. Special Forces colonel who served on the Combined Forces Command of the U.S and South Korea. “Kim Jong Un is not going to be happy with all the attention focused on Iran when he was trying to execute a large-scale information and influence campaign against the U.S. and the international community to get sanctions lifted,” he said.
Experts also said the U.S. killing of the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani could change North Korea’s thinking about the U.S. ability to use force.
“The attack tells adversaries like North Korea to reassess [its] assumptions
about U.S. actions moving up the escalatory ladder,” said Ken Gause, director of the adversary
analytics program at CNA. “Trump, more so than previous presidents,” he
added, “is not averse to doing decapitation strikes and focused
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said the U.S. could use a military option on North Korea if necessary. “We think the best path forward, with regard to North Korea, is a political agreement that denuclearizes the peninsula,” Esper said in an interview with Fox News. “But that said, we remain, from a military perspective, ready to fight tonight, as need be.”
The Pentagon recently released a photo of U.S. and South Korean special forces conducting drills simulating raids on North Korean facilities aimed at taking out its top officials. “It will be interesting to speculate if [Kim] thinks something like this [the U.S. killing of the Iranian general] could happen to him or if his paranoia would lead him to think that Trump is somehow sending him a message,” Maxwell said.
On the other hand, Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University said, “I think Kim Jong-un will be laughing at this situation as he now has an opportunity to test how much trouble Trump can handle at the same time.”
A group of U.S. diplomats, including some involved in disarmament talks with the Kim Jong Un regime, intervened after videos surfaced showing two female detainees wrapped under blankets following failed suicide attempts. Both women had feared being repatriated to the North where they likely would have faced the regime’s gulags or worse.
American diplomats in Washington and Asia pressed Vietnamese officials to
not hand over the North Korean escapees to Chinese or North Korean officials,
according to the people familiar with the episode. It’s uncommon for American
officials to get involved in cases pertaining to ordinary North Korean
escapees. It’s rare for such interventions to become public.
The 13 refugees didn’t seem to be aware of the U.S. help behind the scenes,
according to a person directly involved in the episode. That’s because such a
diplomatic role is typically handled by South Korea. Mintaro Oba, a former
official at the State Department’s Korea desk, said: “To the Moon
administration, [the 13 North Korean refugees were] probably at best a serious
irritant at a time when they’re hyperfocused on inter-Korean relations.”
Experts say U.S. officials took a diplomatic risk in helping activists guide
the refugees to safety, as such moves could upset North Korea and complicate
already stalled nuclear negotiations.
When North Koreans defect to and resettle in South Korea, they often find themselves looked down upon in what they thought would be their land of promise. Combatting the prejudice and the hurdles, some North Korean resettlers in South Korea have managed to find a way into a soft landing in the business world.
Heo defected from the place of his birth in 2008, and became a video content creator in Seoul with over 100,000 YouTube subscribers. He set his sights on becoming an entrepreneur.
What gave him, along with dozens of other North Korean defectors, a taste of being an entrepreneur was the four-month program Asan Sanghoe, financed and supported by the Hyundai-backed nonprofit organization Asan Nanum Foundation. Before Asan Sanghoe, a majority of North Korean defectors had little chance to know where to start, or to explore whether they are even fit for entrepreneurship to achieve a personal goal.
According to a survey last year of 130 North Korean defectors by a nonprofit organization that helps escapees resettle, 66.9 percent responded they were willing to found a company, 17.7 percent said they had started working on a startup and 3.1 percent said they had already founded one. But the same survey showed that nearly 97 percent did not respond when it comes to startup items they had prepared or source of information or advice for entrepreneurship they can rely on.
Participants in Asan Sanghoe take part in lectures, mentorship sessions and workshops three times a week. North Korean resettlers are given chances to team up with South Korean or foreign participants. The program also features a two-week overseas trip to Germany, where the social innovation scene has been on the rise.
“Asan Sanghoe built
a strong fence around the new community to protect us, so my confidence could
be built,” Heo says.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said on Wednesday his country will continue developing nuclear programmes and introduce a “new strategic weapon” in the near future, after the United States missed a year-end deadline for a restart of denuclearization talks.
Kim convened a rare four-day meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s policy-making committee as the United States had not responded to his repeated calls for concessions to reopen negotiations, dismissing the deadline as artificial.
Kim had warned he might have to seek a “new path” if Washington fails to meet his expectations. U.S. military commanders said Pyongyang’s actions could include the testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which it has halted since 2017, alongside nuclear warhead tests.
There were no grounds for North Korea to be bound any longer by the self-declared nuclear and ICBM test moratorium, as the United States continued joint military drills with South Korea, adopted cutting-edge weapons and imposed sanctions while making “gangster-like demands”, Kim said, according to KCNA.
pledged to further develop North Korea’s nuclear deterrent but left the door
open for dialogue, saying the “scope and depth” of that deterrent
will be “properly coordinated depending on” the attitude of the
Cho Kyung-ja (alias), a 33-year-old North Korean defector,
is busy operating an espresso machine, preparing four cappuccinos, grinding,
temping, frothing and sometimes wiping away beans that scatter here and there.
As she lays the four cups down on a table, she shyly smiles.
At a glance, it looks like a run-of-the-mill coffee shop, but Cho is completing a two-month-long job training program arranged by a state-run agency supporting the resettlement of North Korean defectors in South Korea. She passed a barista test weeks earlier and now her last remaining hurdle that she has to overcome is the latte art test. Cho is one of a growing number of North Korean defectors eyeing job opportunities in coffee on the hope of landing a more stable and better-paying job, as well as better working conditions, than the manual and labor-intensive work many other defectors have to do to make ends meet.
In South Korea, coffee is closely interwoven in daily life. In sharp contrast in North Korea, buying a coffee would have been a luxury in a country where the per-capita annual income stands at a little over US$1,200.
Getting used to the new culture might be hard but it can be done with the passage of time. A much harder challenge for North Korean defectors aspiring to become baristas might be to develop a “taste” and getting necessary “skills” both for making coffee and dealing with customers, none of which they had done before in their former communist homeland.
This is where the South Korean government comes in and provides various forms of job training. This barista-training course was arranged by Hana Foundation, a state-run resettlement agency in partnership with Hanjoo College of Culinary Arts, a civilian job training institute.
Another North Korean defector, Lee Kyung-min (alias), who is also attending the program is aiming higher than most trainees. She plans to run her own shop in the near future.
According to government data, only about 12 percent of the
32,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea run their own business,
mostly in lodging, restaurant and transportation sectors, though it remains
unclear how many have been successful.
Joseph Park, 38, serves as a role model for North Korean defectors by showing what it takes to run a business. Fleeing North Korea in 1999 and staying for years in China before entering South Korea in 2004, Park spent around two years preparing to launch a business of his own after graduating from college.
He launched Yovel Inc., a social enterprise intended to help North Korean defectors, like him, find jobs and become economically independent. He opened his first coffee shop on the outskirts of Seoul in 2014 inside a branch of a local bank, employing five North Korean defectors as his entire staff. He later launched one more in-house office and recently opened another independent coffee shop in Chungju, some 150 kilometers south of Seoul.
“Opening a business is just like conducting an orchestra,” he said. “It is not enough to do only one thing well. You have to be able to do many things that require long-time preparations and training. It also requires a network for funding and financing, which North Korean defectors lack.”
No less important, he said, is emotional stability North Korean defectors many also be lacking, due to trauma they had to go through in the process of fleeing their home country and leaving their loved ones behind. “When I considered opening a company, the suicide rates for North Korean defectors were very high with many of them struggling to stand on their own in their livelihood,” he said. “I wanted to find solutions on those matters.”
Almost 70 years ago, a US merchant marine ship
picked up more than 14,000 refugees in a single trip from a North Korean port.
It was Christmas Day in 1950 and 14,000 North Korean refugees were crammed into a US merchant marine ship, fleeing the advancing guns of the Chinese army. There was barely enough room on board to stand – and there wasn’t much medical equipment, either. And this was no ordinary birth.
“The midwife had to use her teeth to cut my umbilical cord,” Lee
Gyong-pil tells me some 69 years on. “People said the fact that I didn’t
die and was born was a Christmas miracle.” Mr Lee was the fifth baby born
on the SS Meredith Victory that winter, during some of the darkest days of the
The Meredith Victory’s three-day voyage saved thousands of lives, including the parents of the current President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in. It also earned the cargo freighter a nickname – the Ship of Miracles. Read more
Daily NK learned recently that Chinese police investigated a group of female defectors from North Korea –rather than immediately deporting them back to North Korea.
A source based in China told Daily NK on December 12 that the police in a village in Liaoning Province rounded up “dozens of North Korean women who had defected.” They were questioned by the foreign affairs division of the Ministry of Public Security in three interrogation sessions. The source reported that the Chinese officials “asked the women about their personal relations, their relatives, and their residence back in North Korea.”
The Chinese police also asked very detailed questions about the women’s’ defection process, including their defection routes. One source told Daily NK that the officials “asked which paths they took to sneak into China, and whether they defected independently or had a Chinese trafficker who facilitated their defection. They also asked who the identities of the traffickers were.”
“The Chinese police officers
furthermore photographed the women both from the front and in profile, and they
took their fingerprints,” a source added. The pictures will most likely added
to a facial recognition system which the Chinese authorities have adopted to
both maintain law and order and control the citizens.
“This was the first time that the
Chinese police conducted [such] sessions with North Korean defector women in
this manner. In the past, they would have been deported immediately,” a source
in China said. “It seems like China’s policy towards North Korean defectors is
These measures are interpreted as Chinese officialdom’s response to a social issue – the abrupt departure of North Korean women to South Korea, leaving both their Chinese husbands and children behind.
Sources reported an incident to Daily NK in which a North Korean woman was abused by her Chinese husband and attempted to return to North Korea. “She was discovered by the Chinese border patrol and the police brought her back to her husband,” a source from China explained.
It is very rare for female North
Korean defectors to avoid being deported back to North Korea.
“There have recently been fewer
investigations and deportations of women who defected from North Korea. Many
are content to stay there rather than continue their journey to South Korea,” a
source said. “Those married to Chinese men don’t need to risk defection to
South Korea anymore if the Chinese authorities officially recognize their
residence in the country.”
As the year draws to a close, North Korea’s actions are
being closely watched, after a top North Korean official warned that it might
deliver “a Christmas gift” to the US if there’s no progress on
lifting sanctions. US defense officials have said they’re expecting a long-range ballistic missile test.
a source familiar with the North Korean leadership’s current mindset told CNN
that chances are “very low” that North Korea will actually conduct a
provocative test like a satellite launch, firing an ICBM, or detonating a
nuclear weapon, because those acts would be considered too provocative for the
likes of China and Russia, Pyongyang’s two most important international trading
Donald Trump often brags that he’s successfully stalled North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, claiming that the North Korean leader “will do the right thing because he is far too smart not to…and he does not want to disappoint his friend, President Trump!”
Now that he’s sprung from the Trump administration, former national security adviser John Bolton suggests that the administration is aware Trump’s approach has failed. “We’re now nearly three years into the administration,” Bolton said, “with no visible progress toward getting North Korea to make the strategic decision to stop pursuing deliverable nuclear weapons.”
He added, ominously, “The more time there is, the more time there is to develop, test and refine both the nuclear component and the ballistic missile component of the program.”
Trump claimed, after his first meeting with Kim in 2018, that there is “no longer a nuclear threat” from North Korea, and has continued to tout his supposed progress as his signature foreign policy accomplishment, framing his dealings with the authoritarian regime in highly personal terms.
“The idea that we are somehow exerting maximum pressure on North Korea is just unfortunately not true,” Bolton said.
John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador and President Trump’s national security
adviser, takes North Korea’s threats with a “grain of salt.”
“This is all part of the North Korean playbook. They’ve successfully
jived the three prior American administrations, and they plan to do the same
with this one.” And he thinks the administration is making a “big
mistake” if — as
reported by The New York Times — it stymied attempts by the United Nations
Security Council to hold a discussion on North Korea’s human rights abuses, for
fear of upsetting North Korea and thereby derailing nuclear negotiations.
“It’s been the pattern as we’ve watched it for over three decades now:
The North Koreans are very happy to declare that they’re going to give up their
nuclear weapons program, particularly when it’s in exchange for tangible
economic benefits, but they never get around to doing it,” said Bolton. “And
I think the inescapable conclusion is that they’re happy to sell that same
bridge over and over again, but there’s no serious chance they will ever
voluntarily give it up.”
Bolton’s comments represent a stark break — but
not a surprising one — with the administration he served before his ouster
three months ago. The foreign policy hawk and the president had butted heads
repeatedly over the direction of the administration’s national security policy.
Last December, an unidentified hacker stole the personal information of 997
North Korean refugees, shaking the refugee community in South Korea. According
to the Ministry of Unification, the refugees’ names, birthdays, and addresses were
stolen from a personal computer at a Hana Center, an institute
in North Gyeongsang province that the Ministry runs where North Korean
refugees can receive help after arriving in South Korea.
Such information on North Korean refugees could put family members back in North Korea in grave danger if it gets into the hands of the North Korean government. Keenly aware of North Korea’s cyber ability and the consequences of information exposed from past cases, North Korean refugees who have family members back in North Korea live in a state of constant anxiety.
In 2006, a group of North Korean refugees was found on a boat by a South Korean sentry soldier in Goseong, Gangwon Province in South Korea. Terrified that their family members could be asked to take responsibility and punished for their escape, once the North Korean government learned about their identities, the refugees asked South Korean investigators not to reveal their information to the public. However, Gangwon Provincial Police Agency gave a report that included details of the refugees’ identities to South Korea’s news media outlets, disclosing their personal information to the public. After contacting their sources in North Korea, the refugees learned the devastating news that a total of 22 members of their immediate families had disappeared. Their whereabouts are still unknown.
While South Korea is known to have one of the strongest information technology infrastructures in the world, the Ministry of Unification has confirmed that the Hana Center in Gyeongsang violated an order to use a segregated network when handling the personal information of North Korean refugees, leading to malicious code sent via an email to infect the personal computer of an employee.
Cindy and Fred Warmbier — the parents of American college student Otto Warmbier who died after being detained by North Korea — have a message for Kim Jong Un’s regime. “People matter. Otto matters,” Cindy said. “We’re never going to let you forget our son.”
The Warmbier’s visited Capitol Hill on Wednesday to mark the passage of legislation named in their son’s honor. The Otto Warmbier Banking Restrictions Involving North Korea, or BRINK, Act — was approved by Congress, and President Trump is expected to sign the bill sometime this week. The bill requires mandatory sanctions on foreign banks and other businesses that deal with North Korea, which is a measure meant to tighten the economic pressure on Pyongyang amid stalled talks with the Trump administration.
The bill’s bipartisan sponsors are Sens. Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman of
Ohio, the Warmbier’s home state. “I don’t know if Fred and Cindy are
Republicans or Democrats,” Brown said. “What I do know is that Fred
and Cindy love their son and love this country and their commitment every hour
of every day of every week of every month since their son’s death has just been
an honor to watch.” Portman, who said North Korea “effectively
killed” Otto, added that he believed the 22-year old would have approved
of the bill.
was detained in North Korea’s capital in December 2015 while on a guided tour,
later accused by the regime of stealing a propaganda poster. The University of
Virginia student suffered brain damage during his imprisonment and was
eventually released by North Korea to return to the U.S. in June 2017. Six days
after returning to his family in Ohio, Otto died. Last Thursday would have been
his 25th birthday.
South Koreans overwhelmingly reject the Trump
administration’s calls to pay more money for U.S. troops stationed in the
country, according to a survey released Monday, with only 4 percent of
respondents saying that Seoul should meet the U.S. demands and a quarter
suggesting it refuse to pay rather than negotiate.
A clear majority of South Koreans favor only a relatively modest increase in funding for the hosting of U.S. troops, rather than the more substantial amount demanded by the Trump administration. The data also showed that if no agreement could be reached between Washington and Seoul on the costs of hosting the troops, a majority of South Koreans prefer reducing the number of U.S. troops in South Korea, while about 1 in 10 said that all U.S. troops should be removed.
President Trump has long complained that foreign nations were taking advantage of the U.S. military, and repeatedly returns to issues related to the cost of stationing 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea. His administration demanded that South Korea increase its contribution to the funding of U.S. troops five-fold to nearly $5 billion, according to officials on both sides. That amount has prompted significant controversy in South Korea, where talks with U.S. officials broke down in November; the next round of talks is due to begin this week.
The vast majority of South Koreans — 94 percent — consider their country’s relationship with the United States vital for their national security, with 92 percent supporting the alliance and 62 percent favoring closer ties with the United States even if it harmed relations with China, South Korea’s neighboring economic and political giant. Just about three-quarters of South Koreans favored the long-term stationing of troops in South Korea. But few South Koreans agreed with the U.S. demands for money; 26 percent said the country should refuse any increase in costs, and 68 percent said South Korea should negotiate a lower cost. A scant 4 percent said South Korea should meet the full U.S. request.
Healthcare for women and babies in North Korea is far worse
than international research has previously shown, according to new evidence
from hundreds of defectors.
North Korea’s maternal mortality rate is 1,200 deaths per
100,000 births, 15 times higher than what had been reported in UN data and
nearly five times above the global average, according to the Database Center
for North Korean Human Rights, a
Seoul-based non-governmental organization.
“Women don’t die right after they give birth. They go home
because there are no conditions for postnatal care [in the hospital],” said a
doctor who fled North Korea in 2016. “There are cases in which they start
bleeding walking home, and after continuously bleeding for two to three days at
home they die.”
Interviews with defectors also uncovered anecdotal evidence
of barbaric treatment of infants born with disabilities and deformities. “Many
women have their pregnancies terminated midterm, and those who don’t have money
keep the baby and give birth. If the babies have a disability, they are either
not given food until they die or are put face down to suffocate,” the doctor
said. “It was like they never existed.”
The NGO (NKDB) puts North Korea’s neonatal mortality rate at 46 deaths per 1,000 births, a nearly fivefold increase from UN estimates and more than double the world average of 18.
NKDB said North Korea’s free healthcare system is “defunct” for many of its 25m people, plagued by a lack of medicine, facilities and equipment, as well as corrupt officials who divert humanitarian aid for their own profit. There is also insufficient electricity to power devices. Only 65 per cent of births were attended by skilled medical staff, NKDB found, compared with the near 100 per cent claimed in the country’s official data.
Despite greater availability of medicine at local markets, called jangmadang, and more privately run pharmacies in recent years, there are many areas where people do not have the financial means to afford even basic medicine, researchers said. NKDB’s estimates of incidences of infectious diseases, including tuberculosis and malaria, were higher than the UN’s. The NGO’s findings for non-communicable diseases, however, were lower.
Reliable statistics on North Korea are scarce as international efforts to gather data, including by the UN, are restricted by officials. But experts say defector testimonies provide some of the most trustworthy insights into the country. NKDB surveyed 503 North Koreans who resettled in South Korea between March and August this year, including more than 400 women. Longer interviews were conducted with defectors who had worked as nurses or doctors.
A high-level defector from Kim Jong-un’s regime has sent a letter to President Trump warning that he has been “tricked” into believing the North Korean leader will ever denuclearize and that Washington should instead ramp up a “psychological warfare campaign” aimed at inspiring North Korea’s elites to replace the young dictator from within. The U.S. should simultaneously impose “all-out sanctions” against Pyongyang and be prepared to carry out a “preemptive strike” against Mr. Kim’s nuclear sites, according to the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times.
“As long as Kim Jong-un remains in power, denuclearization of North Korea is permanently impossible because [Kim] regards nuclear weapons as the last means to defend his survival,” the defector warned Trump. “You have stopped Kim Jong-un from launching missiles and conducting nuclear tests, but he is still mounting nuclear threats behind the scenes of dialogue and is attempting to take advantage of the relationship with you.
“The most effective way to resolve the North Korean issue is to conduct
psychological warfare operations,” the letter continues. “It can have the same
power as a nuclear bomb. It is also an ideal way to get North Koreans to solve
their own problems by themselves.”
The White House declined to comment on the defector’s appeal. Two sources verified that the defector’s letter was delivered to two of Mr. Trump’s top North Korea policy advisers: Deputy National Security Adviser Matthew Pottinger and acting National Security Council Asia Director Allison Hooker.
The U.S. is trying to preserve a diplomatic opening with Kim Jong-un, even as North Korea dismisses President Trump as a “heedless and erratic old man.” The Trump administration has refused to support a move by members of the United Nations Security Council to hold a discussion on North Korea’s rampant human rights abuses, effectively blocking the meeting for the second year in a row. The American action appeared aimed at muting international criticism of Pyongyang’s human rights record in the hope of preserving a tenuous diplomatic opening between President Trump and Kim Jong-un.
A proposed meeting of the Security Council on Tuesday had been intended to put a spotlight on North Korea on Human Rights Day, which is held every Dec. 10 to mark the day in 1948 when the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eight of the council’s 15 members had signed a letter to schedule the meeting but needed a ninth member — the minimum required. United Nations diplomats, confirming a report in Foreign Policy, said the United States had declined to sign.
The absence of American support for a discussion of human rights in North Korea is a conspicuous change under the Trump administration. In 2014, after a United Nations commission released a report on widespread rights violations in North Korea, the Americans supported an annual meeting on the council devoted to the subject. The North Korean government was infuriated. But last year, the Americans withdrew its support for such a meeting as Mr. Trump made diplomatic overtures to Mr. Kim.
Mr. Trump’s critics say the action is consistent with what they regard as a transactional approach to foreign policy that diminishes concern for human rights. The president has embraced authoritarian leaders who oversee widespread abuses in their countries and rarely talks about rights violations. Mr. Trump has blocked sanctions on Chinese officials for running internment camps holding at least one million Muslims, for example, to try to reach a trade deal with China.
“North Korea and other abusive governments that the United States is going easy on are undoubtedly elated that the days of U.S. criticism of their human rights records appear to be over for the time being,” said Louis Charbonneau, United Nations officer at Human Rights Watch.
Two South Korean intelligence officials have been accused of raping a North Korean defector, with one said to have abused her dozens of times. The officials, a lieutenant colonel and a master sergeant, have been suspended and an investigation is underway.
The Defense Ministry’s intelligence command is tasked with investigating North Korean defectors and gathering intelligence. The two suspects were assigned the woman’s custody, law firm Good Lawyers told BBC Korean. According to the law firm, the first time the woman was raped she was unconscious as a result of drinking alcohol.
The officials, a lieutenant colonel and a master sergeant, have been suspended while an investigation is underway. The master sergeant is accused of raping her dozens of times while the lieutenant colonel is accused of raping her once. The alleged victim was forced to have two abortions, her lawyers say.
North Korean women who defect are more vulnerable to sexual assault than South Koreans, human rights activists say, and difficult economic circumstances can make them reluctant to speak out.
A human rights activist who advises North Korean women told BBC Korean that “many North Korean defectors experience sexual violence in China before coming to Korea. … They endured it and when they come to South Korea some have this notion that they are already defiled.” When the activist asked North Korean women what they thought of the MeToo movement in South Korea back in 2018, some replied by saying: “What good will it do?”; “It only brings humiliation”; or “They should just endure it.”
“They’re not used to speaking out, being educated about sexual
violence, and demanding their rights,” the activist says. “They don’t
know that when they are sexually assaulted it’s a crime and that people can be
held accountable or be compensated.”
In fact, the biggest reason North Korean women keep quiet, human rights experts say, is because making a living is their foremost priority. “They tell me: ‘I need to survive. I need to eat and I need to live. That comes first,'” the activist said.
A senior North Korean official, former nuclear
negotiator Kim Yong Chol, said in a statement that his country wouldn’t cave in
to U.S. pressure because it has nothing to lose and accused the Trump
administration of attempting to buy time ahead of an end-of-year deadline set
by Kim Jong Un for Washington to salvage nuclear talks.
In a separate statement, former Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong said Trump’s comments were a “corroboration that he feels fear” about what North Korea might do when Kim’s deadline expires and warned Trump to think twice if he wants to avoid “bigger catastrophic consequences.”
Kim Yong Chol said Trump’s Sunday tweets clearly show that he is an irritated old man “bereft of patience.” Kim Yong Chol traveled to Washington and met with the U.S. president twice last year while setting up the summits with Kim Jong Un.
“As (Trump) is such a heedless and erratic old man, the time when we cannot but call him a ‘dotard’ again may come,” Kim Yong Chol said. “Trump has too many things that he does not know about (North Korea). We have nothing more to lose. Though the U.S. may take away anything more from us, it can never remove the strong sense of self-respect, might and resentment against the U.S. from us.”
In his statement, Ri, currently a vice chairman
of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, said Trump would be well
advised to stop using “abusive language” that may offend Kim. “Trump might be
in great jitters but he had better accept the status quo that as he sowed, so
he should reap, and think twice if he does not want to see bigger catastrophic
consequences,” Ri said.
Donald Trump on Sunday warned North Korean leader Kim Jong Un against hostile
military actions, even as Pyongyang announced it had conducted “a very
important test” at a satellite launching site.
“Kim Jong Un is too smart and has far too much to lose, everything actually, if he acts in a hostile way,” Trump said on Twitter. “He does not want to void his special relationship with the President of the United States, or interfere with the U.S. Presidential Election in November. North Korea, under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, has tremendous economic potential, but it must denuclearize as promised. NATO, China, Russia, Japan, and the entire world is unified on this issue!”
Trump’s remarks came after North Korea’s state media said the test was conducted Saturday at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station 7, a long-range rocket launching site station in Tongch’ang-ri, a part of North Pyongang Province located near the border of China. Saturday’s test comes as North Korea continues to emphasize its declared end-of-year deadline for the United States to change its approach to stalled nuclear talks.
This year has been one of North Korea’s busiest in terms of missile launches. Pyongyang has carried out 13 rounds of short- or medium-range launches since May. Most experts say nearly all of the tests have involved some form of ballistic missile technology.
Earlier this month,
Trump, in answering reporters’ questions about North Korea at the NATO summit
in London, said, “Now we have the most powerful military we’ve ever had
and we’re by far the most powerful country in the world. And, hopefully, we
don’t have to use it, but if we do, we’ll use it. If we have to, we’ll do it.”
responded in kind. “Anyone can guess with what action the DPRK will answer if
the U.S. undertakes military actions against the DPRK,” Pak Jong Chon, head of
the Korean People’s Army, said on state media. “One thing I would like to make
clear is that the use of armed forces is not the privilege of the U.S.
Song Hong Ryon’s mother fled North Korea in the late 1990s in search of food and work in China, like tens of thousands of other North Korean women did to avoid a famine at home. Many women ended up being sold to poor Chinese farmers as brides, before fleeing again and moving to South Korea, which considers the North part of its territory and therefore embraces North Korean refugees. Many of the children of these marriages, if they’re able to reunite with their mothers in the South, are then alienated and frustrated as they struggle to navigate a strange culture, cut off from friends and many of their relatives.
North Korean mothers lived in China in constant fear of being captured and repatriated to the North, where they could face torture and lengthy detention. When they made the risky trip to South Korea, they often left their children behind in China. The lucky ones, after getting jobs and saving money in South Korea, arranged for their children and husbands to travel to the country. But some children were abandoned, or their fathers refused to leave their hometowns and move to a place where they had no relatives or friends.
Three years after her arrival from China, Song
Hong Ryon a half-North Korean, half-Chinese 19-year-old has made only two South
Korean-born friends and says she’s often been hurt by little things, like when
people ask if she’s from China because of her accent.
Song said she was 10 when her mother left their
home in the northeastern Chinese city of Yanji in 2010. A year later, her
father also went to South Korea, leaving her with her grandparents. She only
reunited with her parents in 2016 in South Korea after a six-year separation.
Last December, her mother died of lung cancer.
“I came to blame God,” said Song, a devout Christian. “I asked why this had to
happen to me.”
Song’s bilingual ability helped her receive
special admission to a university near Seoul. Her first semester starts in
March, and she’s excited and nervous about meeting her mostly South Korea-born
A half-Chinese, half-North Korean young woman — who wishes to be identified only by her family name, Choe, because she worries that media publicity could damage her life in South Korea – told AP her story.
Years before, brokers had lured Choe’s mother to cross the border into China with the promise of a job — before selling her to her husband for $710. In early 2017, her mother fled their home in Dunhua city in northeastern China after witnessing a fellow North Korean woman in their village being arrested and sent back to North Korea.
Last year, 20-year-old Choe came to Seoul from China to reunite with her North Korean refugee mother. She speaks only a little Korean and has no South Korean friends. She has yet to travel alone beyond Seoul and often spends time chatting online with her friends back in China.
Upon arrival in South Korea, children like Choe are given citizenship because their mothers are now South Korean nationals. But because they don’t have a direct link to North Korea, they cannot legally receive some other special favors that North Korea-born refugees enjoy. Those missed benefits include the right to bypass the highly competitive national university entrance exam, get a college tuition waiver and, for men, choose whether to perform two years of mandatory military service. (Choe said her brother is still in China because of worries that he’ll have to serve in the military.)
Choe wants to improve her Korean and go to a South Korean university, which means she must compete with South Korean students in the university entrance exam. But language is a problem. Choe’s mother says: “If I try to go deeper in our conversation in Korean, she won’t understand…”
“Half-Chinese, half-North Korean children mostly give up on opportunities to develop themselves, … and combined with South Korea’s social bias against them … this eats away at them fulfilling their potential,” said Kim Doo Yeon, the principal of the alternative Great Vision School in Uijeongbu, just north of Seoul. Read more
Twenty years ago, North Korean mothers began slipping into China, and many left behind half-Chinese, half-North Korean children in China when they managed to gain entrance to South Korea.
Even when in South Korea, such children often face crises in identity. They’re often confused about whether they’re Chinese, South Korean or North Korean refugees. Because neither parent is originally from South Korea, they don’t have help assimilating into the country’s brutally competitive and fast-paced society.
Now, with such children reaching adulthood,
their plight could soon become a bigger social issue in South Korea. According
to the South Korean Education Ministry, about 1,550 half-Chinese, half-North
Korean children were enrolled in primary, middle and high schools in South
Korea as of April this year, along with about 980 North Korea-born students,
though the true numbers are likely higher.
In recent years, the government has tried to
help by providing $3,390 to each of their families as well as dispatching more
bilingual instructors to schools. Shim Yang-sup, principal of the Seoul-based
alternative South-North Love School, said the children should be supported
because they represent an untapped resource, with the ability to often speak
two languages and navigate both Korean and Chinese cultures. However, in May,
an opposition lawmaker proposed providing China-born North Korean children with
the same assistance given to North Korea-born refugees.
Kim Hyun-seung, 20, from Tianjin, China, arrived in South Korea three years ago to reunite with his mother, who came six years earlier. Tall and slim, Kim said he wouldn’t mind serving in the South Korean military and dreams of being a chef in a French restaurant. But he doesn’t want a serious girlfriend out of fear they’d “become a couple like my father and mother that gives pain to their child, fails to live together and worries about many things.”
A North Korean defector in South Korea was hospitalized after a nine-day
Lee Dong-hyun, 46, was protesting the deaths of a North Korean woman and her infant son and the repatriation of a North Korea boat crew, when he fell ill, South Korean news service Newsis reported Tuesday. Lee was suffering from malnutrition and “weakened stamina” when he was taken to a hospital in Seoul, according to the report.
A North Korean defector emergency response committee, which has called for greater protection of defectors following the deaths, and South Korea’s emergency dispatch office, said Lee was fasting when his health began to quickly deteriorate. He returned home after five to six hours at the hospital.
Lee is demanding the resignation of South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul. Lee has said Kim is responsible for the deaths of the defectors and the “forced repatriation” of North Korean fishermen in November. The fishermen were suspected of homicide and returned to the North; Seoul has said they are not protected under South Korea’s Act on North Korea Refugee Protection and Settlement Support.
Defectors are receiving backing for their cause from the opposition Liberty
Korea Party. LKP lawmakers who have created a task force on the repatriations
say Seoul should confirm the status of the repatriated North Koreans, according
Eleven North Koreans seeking to defect to South Korea have been detained in
Vietnam since Nov. 23 and are seeking help to avoid being repatriated, a South
Korean activist group said on Monday. The eight women ranging in age from early
20s to 50s, and three men in their 20s, were detained by border guards in
northern Vietnam two days after crossing from China, and are being held in the
city of Lang Son, the Seoul-based Justice
for North Korea said in a statement.
Currently, Vietnam is detaining all the defectors. After several of the
women fainted, the Vietnamese government decided against forcibly sending them
to China, according to Peter Jung, the head of Justice for North Korea which supports North Korean asylum-seekers.
Jung told VOA’s Korean Service that one of the defectors who had a cellphone
contacted the South Korean Embassy in Vietnam asking for help, but he had not
heard from them since Friday.
Jung added the Seoul embassy’s subsequent silence had spurred him to
publicize the situation, fearing that without an international response the
defectors could be forcibly repatriated. “The embassy told them it will take
appropriate measures to help them,” said Jung. “But the defectors have not
heard from the embassy” since Friday.
The defectors asked the South Korean government to provide asylum in Seoul
so they can avoid being deported to North Korea. In a video clip sent by Jung,
a woman was nursing other people who appeared to be ill.
The South Korean foreign ministry said it was aware of the case and had been
in touch with the Vietnamese government. “Our government has been making
necessary efforts to ensure the North Korean defectors living abroad are sent
to a desired place without being forcibly repatriated,” the ministry said in a
If the 11 defectors are sent to China, they would most likely be deported
back to North Korea, where they could face severe punishment such as forced
labor, torture and even execution.
As of September, at least 771 North Korean defectors had entered South Korea
this year, according to the South’s Unification Ministry, which handles
relations with the North.
In April, Virgil Griffith a self-styled “disruptive technologist” traveled to North Korea with a visa he had obtained from a diplomatic mission in New York City, going through China to circumvent an American travel ban. He gave a talk at the Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference in Pyongyang about how to use cryptocurrency and blockchain technology to launder money, according to federal investigators.
Now Mr. Griffith, 36, faces federal charges that he violated international sanctions. He was arrested on Thursday as he landed at Los Angeles International Airport. The charges come after the Trump administration raised concerns over the summer about the national security threat cryptocurrencies pose because of their potential to be used to finance illicit activities. During his speech and in discussions afterward, Griffith provided information about how North Korea could use cryptocurrency to “achieve independence from the global banking system,” the complaint said. He also later made plans “to facilitate the exchange” of a digital currency between North and South Korea.
Mr. Griffith, an American citizen who lives in Singapore and works for the Ethereum Foundation, is accused of conspiring with North Korea since August 2018. He appeared in federal court in Los Angeles last week and will eventually be brought to New York. He faces up to 20 years in prison.
“We cannot allow anyone to evade sanctions, because the
consequences of North Korea obtaining funding, technology, and information to
further its desire to build nuclear weapons put the world at risk,” said
William F. Sweeney Jr., an assistant director-in-charge at the Federal Bureau
of Investigation. “It’s even more egregious that a U.S. citizen allegedly chose
to aid our adversary.”
Hacker magazine, 2600, where Mr. Griffith was a contributing writer, issued a statement on Twitter on Friday saying that his arrest was “an attack on all of us.” The magazine’s editor, who uses the pen name Emmanuel Goldstein, said on Twitter that what Mr. Griffith had done — explaining the concept of cryptocurrency — was not a crime. He added, “He’s a typical hacker who loves technology and adventure.”
A self-described ex-hacker, Mr. Griffith earned a doctorate
from the California Institute of Technology in computational and neural
systems, then went to work in Silicon Valley, where he developed a reputation
as a tech-world rebel.
North Korea seems to be following a similar trajectory as South Korea’s
demographic decline, which it is desperately trying to cover up. That is
the conclusion of analysts assessing the future of one of the world’s most
secretive and authoritarian regimes.
The current population of communist North Korea has been estimated at around twenty-five million, and is seen peaking within two decades. Pyongyang needs workers and soldiers, but North Koreans aren’t having enough children to meet this demand any more. The North’s population growth has already slowed from its peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s of an estimated 3 percent to its current fertility rate of 1.9, below the “replacement” level rate of around 2.1, according to UN data.
The geopolitical implications of a weak economy combined with a diminishing population will not be lost on the ruling Kim dynasty. This is particularly the case when as many as 30 percent of its citizens are estimated to comprise either active or reserve military personnel, with more than 1.2 million active personnel and some six million in reserve.
Anecdotal evidence points to North Korean families hesitating at having more than one child due to the added financial burden of education and child-rearing, despite reports of the regime deliberately denying access to contraceptives and prohibiting abortion.
And the life expectancy of North Korea’s citizens lags the South’s by nearly twelve years, however, reflecting persistent food shortages where as many as 40 percent of the population are undernourished.
Demographers see the North’s population starting to decline from 2044. And unlike Asian neighbors such as Japan, North Korea is unlikely to attract an influx of foreign workers to help compensate for a shrinking labor force, while it also lacks the financial resources to support child-rearing. While the North’s current demographics give it “some political leverage thanks to its stronger population growth” than the South, this advantage could soon dissipate.
As much as Pyongyang might try to hide its population data, the analysis all
points in the same direction. Isolation might protect the “hermit kingdom”
for now, but its demographic destiny cannot be avoided. The worry for policymakers
is what the North might do in the meantime to bolster its faltering regime.
of an article by Anthony Fensom, writing in The National Interest]
The Ministry of Unification in Seoul estimates that, as of June 2019, some 33,022 North Korean defectors had entered South Korea. Of these, 23,786 – about 72 percent – were female.
Throughout 2019 though, that trend has increased, with female defectors accounting for 85 percent of the total defector population. Data indicates that 17,566 North Korean female defectors are in the age range of 20-40, and the vast majority are mothers.
During the process of fleeing their impoverished home country, many women
are forced into sex and labor trafficking, often are sold to Chinese men and
ultimately forced to marry. Many have to leave their children behind as they
attempt to carve out a way to survive.
One such mother Jeong Ah has gone on to serve as founder and executive director of Tongil Mom (which translates to “Unification Mom”), an NGO that focuses on issues related to the mental health and well-being of defector mothers. “I gave birth to four children, but, tragically, I only have one child that I am living with. Looking back, I feel that I was abandoned by my own birth parents, and I feel so terrible that I myself did the same thing my parents did to me,” Jeong Ah said. “I feel a great sense of tragedy and sadness that I have done this to my children. That is part of the reason I started this organization, to deal with the hurt and the pain so many other defector women go through in forced separation.”
“The Chinese government does not give North Koreans Chinese citizenship, [but classifies] North Korean defectors as illegal border crossers,” the latest Tongil Mom report states. “They even send them back to North Korea by force.”
Defectors thus live every moment with the risk of being discovered and
forcibly returned to North Korea. If pregnant, the defectors also face the
threat of a forced abortion on return. The looming fear and routinely brutal
living conditions in China propels many women to flee their children and
families once again and relocate to South Korea.
The pain of losing her babies is still evident in the eyes of Kim Jeong Ah, a North Korean defector and mother. The life of the 43-year-old Hermit Kingdom survivor has been scarred by battle after battle, and all she can do now is pick up the pieces.
Three days after Jeong Ah was born, she was orphaned. Her
adoptive mother and father were dead by the time she was 13. Soon after being
adopted at the age of 17, she was summoned to join the North Korean military.
After narrowly escaping death as a result of extreme malnutrition and
harsh treatment during her seven-year tenure as a soldier, Jeong Ah thought
getting married and starting a family of her own would be the start of a
But pain found her at home, too. “My second child was born with a disability due to my husband beating me,” Jeong Ah told Fox News. “Unfortunately, my daughter did not survive for more than 10 months, and I realized I could not stay in this type of environment. But I had nowhere to go, no extended family because I was [an] orphan, so I decided to escape North Korea.”
The young mother, who left her eldest child with his father in
North Korea, found out she was pregnant soon after crossing into China — where
she had just been sold into “a human trafficking situation.” One of Jeong
Ah’s customers agreed to be her “husband” to avoid the immediate threat of
having her be forcibly returned to North Korea.
“But for almost two years and nine months, I lived in fear of being arrested
and forced back to North Korea, so I knew I had to go to South Korea,” she
said. “After resettlement, I wanted to bring my Chinese husband and daughter I
had with him, but he refused. For ten years now, I have not been able to
contact my daughter in China, or hear her voice, or know what is going on in
To this day, barely a moment goes by in which Jeong Ah doesn’t think of her
two estranged children and the baby who died in such harrowing circumstances.
“I gave birth to four children, but, tragically, I only have one child that I am living with. Looking back, I feel that I was abandoned by my own birth parents, and I feel so terrible that I myself did the same thing my parents did to me,” Jeong Ah said. Read more
Son Myunghee, 35 was given up for adoption the day after she was born. Her adopted parents died when she was young, forcing her to work in an illegal scrap metal mine near her home town.
Myunghee first escaped North Korea in 2007 after two years of hiding in the mountains, but her foray into “freedom” was short-lived. She was tortured so severely by Chinese agents, she says, that her intestines ruptured and she was left fighting for her life before being repatriated in 2012.
“The regime tried to make an example out of me and use me to put fear in the
population. I had to escape this whole situation of further mistreatment and
punishment,” she said.
Myunghee absconded again in 2014, making it to South Korea the following
year. She currently lives in South Korea with her Chinese husband and children,
and endeavors to support other victims of forced repatriation.
Another defector, who requested anonymity given that her immediate family
remains in North Korea, told Fox News that, since defecting in 2004, she is
only able to afford to speak to her children once per year. Arrangements are
made through a secret broker that goes to the family home in North Korea and
uses a Chinese cell signal to facilitate a brief phone call.
It’s a few minutes of joy, eclipsed mostly by waiting and agony.
Tongil Mom translates as “Unification Mom”, and is a NGO based in South Korea that focuses on issues related to the mental health and well-being of North Korean defector mothers.
The women who make up the leadership of Tongil Mom are tireless in their push to highlight the ongoing human rights violations suffered by female North Koreans both in their homeland and as defectors in neighboring China, and are urging the international community to support the defectors even after they have left North Korea.
“We want to raise awareness about the North Korean defector women and what they
experience. Once they resettle in South Korea, it doesn’t mean the nightmare
ends for them,” said Son Myunghee, 35. “The forced repatriation policy [in
China] obviously hurts the North Korean defectors, but it hurts their own
citizens too. Chinese fathers are then forced to raise the children on their
“I have met many defectors, and whether they have been settled in South Korea for one year or ten years, they all suffer from PTSD and require treatment. The type of PTSD and trauma they are suffering from prevents them from living properly in a life of freedom,” explained Oh Eun Kyung, the director of Tongil Mom, a counseling psychologist supervisor and professor at the Korea National University of Transportation. “Instead of seeking help; they turn to alcohol or suffer from deep depression and anxiety.”
Kyung is urging defector women not to be afraid to step forward and join Tongil Mom’s group sessions – attended by hundreds of women across South Korea.
“We want to provide a safe environment for these women to
come and experience this type of counseling. What these defector women have
suffered through is unspeakable, and the first step is to provide a place for
them slowly to open up to people they can trust and start revealing what they
went through,” she said. “The pain can’t be erased, but there are people willing
to help. And that is the only way they can grow and live in freedom.”
The parents of a former U.S. hostage who died after being released from North Korea in a coma in 2017 say they are committed to finding and shutting down illicit North Korean business assets around the world in efforts to hold its government accountable for widespread human rights abuses.
In a news conference in Seoul on Friday, Fred and Cindy Warmbier also called for the Trump administration to raise North Korea’s human rights problems as it engages in negotiations to defuse the country’s nuclear threat.
“My mission would be to hold North Korea responsible, to recover and discover their assets around the world,” said Fred Warmbier, who was invited to a forum hosted by a Seoul-based group representing the families of South Koreans abducted by the North during the 1950-53 Korean War.
In December last year, a U.S. federal judge ordered North Korea pay more
than $500 million in a wrongful death suit filed by the Warmbiers over their
son, although they are unlikely to collect on the judgment.
The Warmbiers have been pushing legal action seeking the closure of a hostel
operated on the grounds of the North Korean Embassy in Berlin and plan to go
after other hostels the country operates in Europe, which they say are aimed at
pressuring governments to tighten their enforcement of sanctions against
During the earlier part of his presidency, President Donald Trump strongly
criticized North Korea over its dismal human rights record, inviting the
Warmbiers to his State of the Union address last year where he lashed out at
the “depraved character” of the government led by third-generation leader Kim
But Trump months later began playing down the severity of North Korea’s human rights record and showering Kim with praises as they engaged in high-stakes nuclear summitry. Following his second summit with Kim in Vietnam in February, Trump said he takes Kim “at his word” that Kim was unaware of the alleged mistreatment of Otto Warmbier while he was imprisoned there.
Excerpts of aninterview with Sue Mi Terry, a former senior CIA analyst and senior fellow for Korea at the Center for Strategic and International Studies: Background: When President Trump first came into the office, President Obama first told Trump that North Korea is going to be the number one security issue. And it turned out to be true. In 2017, North Korea conducted many tests, including three ICBM tests, intercontinental ballistic missile tests, which the United States, from the US’s perspective, used to always say that’s the threshold because now they have a missile that can reach New York or Washington. They also conducted nuclear tests with a hydrogen bomb test. And so if you remember in 2017, the Trump administration was pursuing what they called a maximum pressure policy, along with a fire and fury rhetoric and calling Kim a rocket man on a suicide mission.
On prospects for a nuclear deal: “Despite President Trump saying right after the Singapore Summit that the North Korean threat is over, we are at a stalemate. The North Korean threat is not over. They have not taken a single step towards denuclearization. […] Most fundamentally, I don’t think Kim Jong Un has made the strategic decision to give up his nuclear weapons program.”
Kim’s domestic political prospects: “Kim Jong Un] has consolidated power […] We don’t see any kind of potential challengers to Kim because Kim got rid of them.”
On human rights in North Korea: “I don’t think it has gotten any better. […] When President Trump first came into office in 2017 he did at least appear that he cared about North Korea’s human rights issue: The State of the Union Address. He brought Otto Warmbier’s family to the State of the Union Address. He invited a North Korean defector. He hosted several meetings with North Korean defectors. When he went to South Korea, he gave this big speech in front of the National Assembly addressing North Korean human rights. But all of that sort of got thrown out just because he wanted to now not annoy Kim. [So] the human rights situation has not gotten better.”
Q: In 2018, Kim Jong Un’s new year editorial indicated maybe North Korea was shifting. North Korea basically said, “We’re done with our testing. We’re going to now try to focus on economic development.” Why do you think Kim Jong Un made that shift in that new year speech? A: Kim is a very shrewd guy. He was about 90-95% done with North Korea’s nuclear program. […] I think he felt comfortable in terms of where they were in their nuclear missile program. And that he didn’t feel the need to go all the way to show 100% capability in terms of being able to strike New York City with a nuclear weapon. He pivoted to a charm offensive: Sending the North Korean athletes to the South Korean Olympics, and then proposing meeting with Trump. But ever since the Singapore Summit, the North Koreans have continually worked on their nuclear missile program. They’ve conducted dozens of short range missiles this year. And each time it, of course, improves their capability.
Q: Would you say the threat has gotten worse as they make these advances? A: It certainly has not improved. I would say it’s worse because they’re improving their missile program. It feels like it’s not worse because the scary intercontinental ballistic missile tests are not happening in front of our eyes. But […] unless we can resolve the North Korean crisis, the threat has not gone away at all.
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun
said on Wednesday there had been no concrete evidence that North Korea had made
a decision to give up its nuclear weapons, but he still believed Pyongyang
could make this choice. He made the remarks in prepared testimony presented to
the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in his nomination hearing for the State
Department’s No. 2 post.
Biegun has led U.S. efforts to try to persuade North Korea to denuclearize since last August, with little success so far. Biegun’s latest remarks came after repeated statements from North Korea in recent days that it has no interest in talks with the United States unless the U.S. ends what it called a policy of hostility.
Earlier on Wednesday, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted North Korea’s
First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui as saying that discussions related to
the nuclear issue might have been taken off the negotiating table give the U.S.
attitude. “I think the nuclear issue can be discussed again when the U.S.
abolishes all hostile policies toward North Korea,” it quoted her as saying
during a visit to Moscow.
Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have met three times since last
year to push forward negotiations Washington hopes will lead to North Korea
dismantling its nuclear and missile programs.
North Korea has been demanding that sanctions hobbling its
economy be lifted, and in April, Kim set a year-end deadline for Washington to
show more flexibility. That raised concerns that North Korea could resume
nuclear and long-range missile testing suspended since 2017 that Trump has
repeatedly held up as a major achievement of his engagement with North Korea.
HanVoice, a student chapter of the Canadian advocacy group for North Korean refugees and human rights, hosted a panel to shed light on the gendered experiences of North Korean migration and to highlight the ways that women are disproportionately marginalized.
HanVoice Director of Research Mégane Visette discussed the inherent link between the gender-based experience of refugees and border surveillance regimes between North Korea, China, and other Southeast Asian countries that defectors have to cross to reach South Korea. Visette emphasized some reasons for the gender-based experience of North Korean women defectors, pointing to China’s former one-child policy. In Jan. 2016, the policy was loosened to allow couples to have two children; however, the 36-year long policy created a demand for brides, which also increased mobility opportunities for women.
“Marriage, then, [became] a survival strategy,” Visette said. “When you’re crossing the border, […] you [may] know someone who can make you go through the border if you become the bride [to a stranger].”
Visette concluded by discussing how Southeast Asian countries rationalize their treatment of North Korean refugees by classifying North Korean defectors as economic migrants as opposed to refugees. China, for example, has been able to deny them the protection mandated by the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention. “The international legal system [offers] such a cookie-cutter sort of interpretation of what a refugee convention [that leaves, which leaves] a lot of people […] in a grey zone,” Visette said. “North Korean refugee women cannot access refugee status in Thailand, which prevents them from accessing] private sponsorship programs in Canada because this is reliant on the UNHCR […] definition.”
The event ended with a video interview of North Korean defector Yeeun Joo, who spoke about her journey from North to South Korea by traveling through China with the help of missionaries who protected her from experiencing any gender-based violence. Joo also described her 20 years living in the one-party state. She dreams of becoming a teacher, with ambitions of creating an education system to teach North Korean children if the two Koreas ever unify.
President Trump urged North Korea to return to the bargaining table to resolve the two countries’ differences. Trump made the request as part of a tweet defending Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden, in which he stated: “Mr. Chairman, … I am the only one who can get you where you have to be,” Trump tweeted yesterday. “You should act quickly, get the deal done. See you soon!”
Trump’s tweet followed a gesture of “goodwill” in the form of canceling a
joint military exercise with South Korea.
The U.S. olive branch quickly was spurned by North Korea, whose response was
to conduct a flying exercise of its own, wherein North Korean leader Kim Jong
Un personally supervised a parachuting drill of military sharpshooters.
In a statement attributed to a spokesman for North Korea’s
foreign ministry, North Korea claims that U.S. support for a “human rights
resolution” at the United Nations last week had undercut the gesture of
postponed war games.
“We, for our part, tried hard to appreciate it as part of positive attempts
to ease tensions and make the most of chance for dialogue,” read the statement
from the unnamed spokesman, who said the resolution proves the U.S. is “still
wedded to the hostile policy geared to isolate and stifle” North Korea.
“In particular, the U.S. dreams of bringing down our system … which shows that it has no intention to sincerely work with us towards the settlement of issues,” the spokesman said. “Therefore, we have no willingness to meet such dialogue partner.”
For years, Joy Kim couldn’t understand why her mother left her behind when she defected from North Korea. Until she found herself in the same position, said Kim as she spoke alongside three other North Korean refugees at the Liberty in North Korea at UCLA’s second annual “The Stories that Link Us” event. The program, started last year, trains North Korean refugees to be advocates and storytellers in hopes of inspiring others to take action.
“Each [has] their own defection story and LiNK just helps them craft their stories and become really good storytellers so that they can bring other people along,” said Becky Chung, a special events and donor relations intern for LiNK. The refugees spend three months in the United States, during which time they travel to different states to speak to students, community leaders and government officials.
“I think it’s very easy to only see North Korea as an evil country, as part of this axis of evil, as people say,” said Ashley Ng, president of UCLA’s LiNK chapter and a fourth-year global studies student. “But I think this event does a good job of showing that there’s North Korean youth born in the ’90s that are just human like us and had the unfortunate circumstance of being born in North Korea (where they faced) human rights violations.”
Many prejudices exist against North Korean refugees living in South Korea, said Dasom Kim, a refugee who escaped North Korea with the help of LiNK before settling in South Korea in 2014. For example, North Koreans are paid less than their South Korean counterparts for the same work, she said.
Jeongyol Ri, a student at Seoul National University who defected while he was in Hong Kong for a math competition, shared the same sentiment. After resettling in South Korea, he started looking for tutoring jobs to pay for food and housing. The parents of a young boy were interested in hiring him, but after they figured out he was from North Korea, they had to rethink their decision, he said.
Ilhyeok Kim, now a student studying political science and diplomacy at
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, said he was shocked by the
number of candidates that appeared on election ballots. When he voted in North
Korea, he said he only had one candidate to choose from.
Despite the benefits of life in South Korea, some fellows also missed aspects of their life in North Korea. Ri confessed to yearning for the camaraderie he felt in North Korea, where he knew each and every single person who lived in his apartment building. In South Korea, people are so busy, he said, that he doesn’t have the time to get to know his neighbors.
Now a university student in South Korea studying social work, Joy Kim spoke
about the hardships her family experienced in North Korea and the challenges
she faced as a result of being trafficked once she crossed the border to China.
She said that for women like her, fleeing from North Korea is often the start
of more hardship.
Kim’s family in North Korea was very poor, and when her stepmother tried to marry her off, she decided to flee to China in 2009. However, unable to pay the broker who helped pay off the guards that kept watch over the border, Kim was sold as a bride. “For three days, a broker paraded me around villages in northern China and crowds of men would gather to bid on me,” Kim said. “I was treated like an animal in a zoo.”
A man eventually paid the equivalent of $3,000 for her. He and his parents kept constant watch over her in fear she would escape, Kim said. Kim soon discovered she was pregnant. Because a pregnancy would make her eventual escape challenging, if not impossible, she said she tried to induce a miscarriage. “I climbed up the highest tree in the backyard and jumped down,” Kim said. “I also carried around heavy buckets of water.”
Despite her efforts, Kim gave birth to a baby girl after nine months. She
said she resented her daughter at first, but before long the girl became her
only reason to live.
It was around this time that a member of LiNK approached Kim and offered to help her cross the 3,000 miles that separated her from South Korea. The crossing, however, would be too dangerous for a child, he told her. Unable to pass up the opportunity, she decided to escape, determined to one day return to China to take her daughter to freedom.
Kim finally reached South Korea in 2013, four years after first leaving
North Korea. Because of her harrowing experience, she said she wants to devote
herself to helping North Korean women who have experienced the same trauma.
“Sixty percent of North Korean female refugees in China are trafficked into
the sex trade,” Kim said. “For female North Korean refugees, escaping from
North Korea is not the end of their journey, but the beginning of their fight
Since the division of the Korean peninsula after World War Two, South Korea has offered safe haven to more than 30,000 of their North Korean brethren from the impoverished, authoritarian North. But when two North Korean men sought asylum after drifting across the maritime border in a small fishing boat this month, Seoul made the unprecedented decision to turn them away.
The case has reignited criticism that South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a human rights lawyer-turned-liberal politician, has pursued rapprochement with the North, including three one-on-one summits with the North Korean leader, at the cost of sidelining human rights concerns and opposition towards the regime. Under his administration, defectors and other activists have complained of being restricted from carrying out activism such as flying balloons carrying anti-regime leaflets across the border.
Lim Jae-cheon, a North Korean studies professor at Korea
University in Sejong, said the repatriations marked a fundamental shift in
Seoul’s policy toward North Koreans, who are all considered South Korean
citizens under a ruling by the country’s Supreme Court. While South Korea has
occasionally repatriated North Koreans at their request, it had previously
never returned someone from the North after they had requested asylum.
“When two defectors come to Korea, they should be regarded as South Korean people and judged according to our law,” added Kim Jong-ha, a professor at Hannam University in Daejeon, South Korea. “Why were they expelled so quickly?”
A coalition of 17 rights groups in South Korea accused the government of denying the men due process and failing to provide “clear evidence” of their guilt, calling for a parliamentary inquiry into its handling of the case.
“You could punish the men to the full extent under South Korean law,” said Jung Gwang-Il, a prison camp survivor who runs the non-profit organisation No Chain, questioning the need to return the accused men to the North. “Nobody can trust an investigation that has them repatriated after three days.”
“The North Korean regime believes all defectors including me are heinous criminals, so now it looks like we all could be repatriated for this purpose,” Jung said.
In the Daily NK, a defector-run media outlet, Choi Ju-hwal, a former official in the North Korean army, said it was “very hard to accept” that three men had been so easily able to kill 16 of their crewmates without a weapon such as a gun.
Another North Korean defector Eom Yeong-nam said
it was “absolutely certain” that the two will be executed in the North. “The
North will probably execute them in public as a message to potential defectors
– even if you flee to the South, you will end up like this,” he told the Post.
South Korea’s expulsion of two North Korean fishermen set a bad precedent that has spread fears in the North Korean defector community and could lend legitimacy to its widely criticized judicial system, defectors and activists said on Friday. South Korean officials said the two, in their 20s, appear to have killed their 16 colleagues after their plan to take action against their abusive captain went wrong.
The decision drew criticism and dismay from some defectors, who said the men
should have been tried in the South and would likely face torture, and possibly
execution in North Korea.
Many defectors have served prison terms in the South for crimes they
committed in the North, including murder and rape, and the two should have been
prosecuted in South Korea if they were suspected of having committed a crime, says
Jung Gwang-il, a former political prisoner in North Korea who runs a human
rights group in Seoul. Jung said.
“Now so many defectors are fearing they, too, might somehow be deported,” Jung
Y. H. Kim, another defector turned rights advocate, said the expulsion of
the two was the latest in what he said were government efforts to “trample” on
defectors. As a surge of inter-Korean diplomacy unfolded last year, many of the
33,000 refugees from North Korea in the South say they feel like political
pawns suddenly discarded. “I’m so devastated thinking how human rights has
become an empty word,” Kim said.
American lawyer Joshua Stanton said South Korea violated a U.N. convention
banning the expulsion of people to a place where there are “substantial
grounds” for believing they may face torture.
“There is little doubt that South Korea’s move has condemned these two men to torture and likely execution, and for that reason, there should have been a much higher standard of evidence required before sending them back,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch.
North Korea’s state media has made no mention of the pair.
The United States is “very actively” trying to persuade
North Korea to come back to negotiations, South Korea’s national security
adviser said on Sunday, as a year-end North Korean deadline for U.S.
South Korea was taking North Korea’s deadline “very seriously”, the adviser,
Chung Eui-yong, told reporters, at a time when efforts to improve inter-Korean
relations have stalled.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in April gave the United States a year-end
deadline to show more flexibility in their denuclearization talks, and North
Korean officials have warned the United States not to ignore that date. The
window of opportunity for progress in dialogue with the United States was
getting smaller, a senior North Korean diplomat said on Friday, adding that
Pyongyang expects reciprocal steps from Washington by the end of the year.
South Korea has set up various contingency plans if the deadline passes
without any positive outcome, Chung said, without elaborating. As the talks
between the United States and North Korea have stalled, so have efforts to
improve ties between the two Koreas, despite efforts by the South Koreans to
nudge them forward.
South Korea said Thursday it expelled two North Korean men after learning they murdered 16 crew members on their fishing boat before fleeing to the South.
The pair, both in their 20s, were questioned by South Korean authorities after being found on Saturday near the maritime border in the Sea of Japan, and concluded that the men had killed 16 fellow fishermen on their boat and then fled to South Korea, Seoul’s unification ministry said.
The two men were deported to the North via the truce village of Panmunjom after informing Pyongyang of the plan, ministry spokesman Lee Sang-min told reporters.
“If they had been incorporated into our society, it was judged they would pose a threat to the lives and safety of the people,” Lee said.
A group of 13 North Koreans recently arrived in Southeast Asia, after a grueling two-month journey which spanned 6,000 kilometers (more than 3700 miles), in a quest for asylum in South Korea.
Among the group that reached the Southeast Asian destination were a two-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy, the rest ranging in age between their teens and 50s.
They were met by officials from the South Korean human rights group Now Action Unity Human rights (NAUH), who had been awaiting them.
Ji Seong-ho, founder of NAUH, who himself escaped North Korea in 2006, led
the effort to rescue the 13. Ji said the latest rescue was both nerve-racking
He told RFA that many people that attempt to leave North Korea are arrested
in China, as Beijing intensifies crackdowns on those who try to flee. He noted
that the number of North Koreans fleeing to Southeast Asia has declined in
recent years, but that many still make the journey hoping to escape to freedom.
A group of North Korean defectors recently arrived in Southeast Asia after lengthy
travels through China. Following are their responses as to why they left their
A female member of the group, explained she left North Korea in July because
she was being forced to join the military and had to give up her dream of
becoming a doctor. “It wasn’t hard for me because I kept thinking this is the
only way I can achieve my dream and [secure] my future,” she added.
Another woman in the group, in her fifties, said she decided to seek asylum because she hated the incompetence of North Korean authorities, who she said make strong crackdowns on minor infractions. She also disliked the rampant corruption in North Korean society and said it was her wish to travel to other countries as she pleased.
She said that even North Korea’s rich are looking for ways to get out. “People think that the state just drains money from us. It would be nice if the state would let us be in charge of our own business,” said Lee. “So it means that the people are all saying ‘Let’s leave. We will be able to be in charge of our own affairs in South Korea, We can enjoy freedom. Let’s go look for our freedom there.’ Many of the rich people want to come because [the authorities] are giving them a hard time,” she said.
Another female defector identified as Lee is the mother of a 2-year-old. Her
12-year old niece, small enough to pass for a much younger child, was also a
part of the group. Lee’s mother had escaped into South Korea 13 years ago. “Now
that I’m here, I break into tears just thinking of seeing my mother. It’s been
13 years. I have tears just thinking about meeting her for the first time in 13
years,” Lee said.
North Korean defectors in South Korea say they have decided to postpone a funeral for a North Korean woman and her infant son because Seoul’s Unification Ministry is not meeting their demands.
Activists with an “emergency response committee” established after the death of Han Sung-ok and her son said the Unification Ministry is responsible for a “breakdown” in negotiations regarding a list of their demands, Yonhap reported.
According to activists, the group requested Seoul “apologize” for
the incident, asked for the resignation of the head of the Korea Hana
Foundation, a government agency, and demanded a nationwide network be
established for North Korean defectors in the South. The activists also said
they are seeking the creation of a council that could negotiate between the
Unification Ministry and various defector groups.
The defectors added the Unification Ministry is “avoiding” the demands and making it appear the Hana Foundation is responsible for the delay, according to local news service Seoul Pyongyang News.
Han and her son were found dead in their apartment in southern Seoul in
July. The family may have died of starvation at least a month before local
authorities entered their apartment to find their decomposing corpses. Han was
granted residence in the South in 2009. According to defectors who spoke to UPI, Han had two sons and her second son had
died with her, while her ex-husband, a Chinese national, took her firstborn to
Kim Jong Un has made up his mind about the timing of the next U.S.-North Korea summit, Seoul’s spy agency said Monday.
Suh Hoon, the head of South Korea’s national intelligence service, told the National Assembly’s information committee the third official meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader could take place before the end of the year, News 1 and MoneyToday reported.
In preparation for the third summit, not counting the brief Trump-Kim encounter at the truce village of Panmunjom, working-level talks between Pyongyang and Washington could take place in November, or early December at the latest, the spy chief said, according to reports. (Last week, North Korea fired two projectiles as it warned of a “year-end deadline” for the United States.)
Suh also said Kim could visit China ahead of a third U.S.-North Korea summit, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of bilateral ties. Last week, sources in China told a South Korean newspaper that North Korea’s all-women’s Moranbong Band could tour Chinese cities in December, and that Chinese President Xi Jinping could attend a concert with Kim.
A new book claims to shed light on President Trump’s
relationship with North Korea. Author Doug Wead interviewed Trump on the issue
and was able to read some of the personal letters exchanged between the
president and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Un.
The book, set for release on Nov. 26, comes at a time when the U.S. has
improved diplomatic relations with North Korea, but continues working for
concessions on the rogue nation’s nuclear development.
President Trump took the historic step of meeting in person with Kim after a
prolonged, international standoff that included fiery rhetoric and multilateral
sanctions. Kim has frequently attacked Trump’s mental stability while Trump
suggested that Kim was short and fat.
But despite the public bluster, the president told Wead that he and Kim had
good “chemistry” and they both wanted to avoid conflict.
When Wead discussed the letters with White House adviser Jared Kushner, Kushner suggested Kim had problems with Trump because of issues surrounding his own father. “‘It’s a father thing,’ Kushner observed.
‘You can see from these letters that Kim wants to be friends with Trump, but his father told him never to give up the weapons. That’s his only security. Trump is like a new father figure. So, it is not an easy transition.'”
North Korean defector Cho Jin-hye was resettled in the United States, but she’s never had it easy.
Cho lost her father during the catastrophic North Korean famine of the late
’90s. Her family was notified of his death with a letter from the North Korean
government, as he was in prison at the time …. His crime that he had gone to
China to search for food. “He passed away from hunger and torture,”
she said. “He had infections all over his body. They didn’t give him
medicine or water.”
In 1998, as a child she escaped North Korea with her mother. They had
relatives in China — her father’s stepbrother and his family — but they met
them only once. “When we crossed the border, they did not help my family,
so I never met with them again,” she said.
Out of options, Cho and her mother “stayed” with an ethnic
Korean-Chinese man, living with him for four years.
“He was a drunkard,” she said. “After he drank he would start
yelling at my mother, beating my mother, using a stick to beat me too, and my
sister. We had a really difficult four years with him.”
Cho, a naturalized U.S. citizen who resettled in 2008, said a nine-year battle for her reputation has led her to believe that an online antagonist could be collaborating with the North Korean regime. Pyongyang’s propaganda service Uriminzokkiri has targeted Cho with a video that includes a “testimony” from a North Korean woman who claims Cho faked her identity and that she was, in fact, Korean-Chinese. The story aligns with the rumors that Cho says was started by her opponent. The official statement from North Korea has been upsetting, Cho said. Read more
North Korean defector Cho Jin-hye who now lives in the U.S. in Georgia, remembers reaching a low point when she became the target of cyberbullying in online defector communities. The stinging accusations from other defectors, alleging Cho had feigned her North Korean identity in order to gain asylum in the United States, were so overwhelming she said she contemplated suicide.
That was 2014. Five years later, Cho is still struggling with unfounded rumors she is somehow not related to her mother and her younger sister, although they fled North Korea together and lived for a time in China. Cho, who is in her early 30s, said her troubles began when another U.S.-based North Korean defector began to fabricate stories about her background.
The row between the two defectors may be puzzling, but a sense of solidarity may not prevail among defectors, says Markus Bell, a North Korea expert and migration researcher based in Yangon, Myanmar. Bell, who has studied North Korean defectors in the South, said North
Koreans often don’t trust each other because of the political situation on the
Korean Peninsula. “There is often a wariness about who might be informing
for the North Korean government,” Bell told UPI by email. “This makes
it more difficult for new arrivals to forge meaningful relationships.”
Bell said lack of trust among defectors sometimes boils over into anger and bitterness. “Because of the mutual mistrust among North Koreans in exile, individuals like these can become focal points of resentment, susceptible to accusations that could have them sent to China or South Korea,” Bell said. “It’s absurd that Ms. Cho’s asylum in the United States could now be up for debate. She was granted asylum and that should be that.” Read more
Successful sanctions evasion, economic lifelines from China and U.S.
President Donald Trump’s impeachment woes may be among the factors that have
emboldened North Korea in nuclear negotiations, analysts and officials say.
Both Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un continue to play up the personal rapport they say they developed during three face-to-face meetings. But North Korea has said in recent days that it is losing patience, with two missile launches on Thursday, giving the United States until the end of the year to change its negotiating stance.
“Still, I think that Pyongyang has concluded they can do without a deal if they must,” Andray Abrahamian, a visiting scholar with George Mason University Korea, said. “The sad thing is I think that will lock in the current state of affairs, with its downsides for all stakeholders, for years to come.”
Trump’s reelection battle and the impeachment inquiry against him may have
led Kim to overestimate North Korea’s leverage, said one diplomat in Seoul, who
spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.
“Trump is all Kim has. In order to denuclearize, Kim needs confidence that
Trump will be reelected.”
Although United Nations sanctions remain in place, some trade with China appears to have increased, and political relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have improved dramatically.
A huge influx of Chinese tourists over the past year appears to be a major source of cash for the North Korean government, according to research by Korea Risk Group, which monitors North Korea. Estimates that as many as 350,000 Chinese tourists have visited this year, potentially netting the North Korean authorities up to $175 million. That’s more than North Korea was making from the Kaesong Industrial Complex – jointly operated with South Korea before it was shuttered in 2016.
For now, North Korea seems inclined to avoid engaging further with the
United States or South Korea until they make more concessions. “North Korea
appears to be interested only in a deal under its terms to the exact letter,”
said Duyeon Kim, with the Washington-based Center for a New American Security.
North Korea conducted a missile launch on Thursday, firing two projectiles into its eastern sea amid stalled denuclearization talks with Washington, military officials said. North Korea’s latest missile test, the second this month, comes two months ahead of an end-of-year deadline set by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to wrap up nuclear talks with the Trump administration as the Hermit Kingdom appeared to be losing patience.
U.S. officials had been watching North Korea prepare for this latest missile
test over the “past few days,” the U.S. official told Fox News, calling the
The missiles were believed to be “short or medium-range
ballistic missiles,” fired from mobile launchers outside North Korea’s capital
Pyongyang, a U.S. official told Fox News regarding an initial intelligence
Earlier this month, North Korea test-fired an underwater-launched ballistic missile, its first such test in three years.
North Korean senior official Kim Yong Chol said in a statement Sunday that there has been no progress in U.S.-North Korea relations. He warned that the cordial relationship between Kim and President Trump wouldn’t be enough to prevent nuclear diplomacy from failing, threatening that “there could be the exchange of fire at any moment.”
The stalled U.S.-led talks have also put a strain on relations between the
Authorities in North Korea are conducting a crackdown on illegal cellphone
use after confidential information was reportedly leaked about North Korean
leader Kim Jong Un’s recent activities, local officials and traders told RFA’s
Illegal cellphones are believed to have been used to disseminate what were apparently sensitive details about Kim’s recent itinerary. A source said that although the crackdown is intended to protect the safety of Kim Jong Un, it is also having an unintended impact on the lives people living along the border with China.
“It’s tense on the border. Smugglers who need to communicate with Chinese partners using their illegal phones, and phone brokers who make money with their illegal phones by arrange calls to defectors in South Korea, they instantly went into hiding,” said a source. “Most of the illegal phone users have fled the area but the residents are afraid as [North Korean government] inspectors are making everyone feel uneasy,” the source added. “The state security officials that the Central Committee dispatched are searching everywhere [for illegal phone users]. I have a feeling that something serious is about to go down,” said the source.
Another source, a resident of Ryanggang, said even border security has been
affected over the leak. “Border guards, who normally work with smugglers are
tightening up security. … “In the past, even [in tense situations], smugglers
could still bribe the border guards to bring in their illegal goods, but now
the situation is so serious that smuggling things across the river is just not
happening,” the resident said. “[Both] the smugglers and the guards are laying
low because they don’t want to get into trouble until this tense political
issue [is resolved,]” the source added.
Since insight into North Korea is rare, as data or research is not available because of how isolated the country remains, insights from defectors and others involved with the country offer glimpses of what life is like on the inside.
For one, society in North Korea was highly fragmented by a
There were three socio-political classifications that were based on North Korean citizens’ families, or their loyalty to the government, according to the Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson. These three groups were called the “core,” “wavering,” and “hostile” classes. – The elites, those who fought foreigners, as well as those closest to the supreme leader, made up the core class. – Peasants, laborers, and workers formed the second class. – Those on the lowest rung were those who had opposed the elder Kim’s regime, or had previously worked with South Korea or Japan.
“And your life … ranging from residence, employment, education … is decided by the class system,” explains former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho. “I was lucky to be born into the ‘core’ class, the ruling class. That’s why I was able to get [an] elite education and a good job, and I lived in Pyongyang in good apartments… [but] there is a very strict class system structure in North Korea. … North Korea is just like the feudal dynasty of the Middle Ages.”
Despite being part of the upper echelon, Thae said he
definitely wasn’t going to miss the life he left behind.
“The Kim family does not care about the human rights of
individuals,” he stated. “They only care about their own interest.”
Former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho who defected in 2016 says there’s a generational divide over how the people in his country view the United States.
“The majority of the people in North Korea, nowadays they do not mind [the U.S.] — especially the millennials,” Thae told Yahoo Finance on the sidelines of the 2019 Oslo Freedom Forum.
“The core class [holds] very strong hatred towards the U.S. … and the people [are] brainwashed, that America is always looking [to] attack … but the millennials … think differently because they were the ones who have grown up with Windows systems and Microsoft”.
“So even though they were taught that America is their sworn
enemy, everyone has computers and knowledge… they know Bill Gates,” he said,
adding that North Korean millennials “are really thirsty for information.
That’s why they are different from their previous generations.”
Geoffrey See, founder of Choson Exchange, which is a
Singapore-based non-profit group that teaches business and entrepreneurship in
North Korea, echoed Thae’s sentiment, adding that he also observed a sense of
adventure among the youth.
“Choson Exchange has had close to 3,000 Koreans take part in
our volunteer-led training on economic policy and entrepreneurship in North
Korea,” See told Yahoo Finance. “We meet younger Koreans who feel stifled
working in a large state-owned enterprises, and have built small scale
operations manufacturing toothpaste or trucking goods. There is a rising trend
of entrepreneurship among this group.”
Former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho, who defected in
2016, says North Korea engages in state-sponsored drug trafficking, and is also
now trying to fix a widespread domestic drug addiction epidemic.
“In North Korea, the drug addiction is really, really a problem,” Thae told Yahoo Finance on the sidelines of the 2019 Oslo Freedom Forum. “… [Meth is] even produced by individual families in North Korea.”
While statistics on the drug addiction problem in North Korea are scarce, several reports have emerged that fill in some gaps: – “Meth, until recently, has been largely seen inside North Korea as a kind of very powerful energy drug — something like Red Bull, amplified,” Andrei Lankov, an expert on the North at Kookmin University in Seoul, South Korea told the New York Times. – Youth addiction has become a serious social issue, the Daily NK noted earlier this year, with many people in their 20s and 30s — and even high school students — drinking and smoking crystal meth at “birthday parties.” – According to a report by Radio Free Asia, crystal meth was a “best-selling holiday gift item” during the Lunar New Year. – The situation has gotten so bad that the country has “developed” an injectable selenium, which can be used to treat the addiction, according to state media.
North Korea’s role in the meth trade is nothing new, Thae added. He said that most of the production was located “mainly in Hamgyong, in pharmaceutical factories.” The country’s second largest city, Hamhung, which is in the southern part of the Hamgyong province, is known to be a hub for crystal meth production.
But despite the country’s production over the years, “the international police system has not found any” evidence, Thae noted.
Kim Jong Un has praised his “special” relationship with US President Donald Trump, with one of North Korea’s most respected diplomats telling state media the two leaders maintain “trust in each other.”
Kim Kye Gwan, a former nuclear negotiator who now serves as an adviser to the North Korean leader, said Kim Jong Un and Trump enjoy “close relations” — a statement that appeared to pin the future of diplomatic talks between Washington and Pyongyang on the two leaders’ unique connection.
The statement was surprisingly optimistic given working-level talks between Washington and Pyongyang in Sweden collapsed earlier this month. North Korean diplomats said they broke off those negotiations because of what they described as US intransigence. The State Department disagreed, saying the two sides had a “good discussion.”
North Korea has publicly expressed appreciation for Trump’s efforts, while criticizing those around him for appearing inflexible. Kim Kye Gwan echoed those sentiments in his statement,
saying: “The problem is that contrary to the political judgment and
intention of President Trump, Washington political circles and DPRK policy
makers of the US administration are hostile to the DPRK for no reason, preoccupied
with the Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice.
Referring to what Kim John Un said in a policy speech in April, that he would give the Trump administration until the end of the year to change its negotiating strategy, Kim Kye Gwan said, “There is a will, there is a way. We want to see how wisely the US will pass the end of the year.”
A new North Korean publication has confirmed what has been rumored for some time: that markets are integral to the country’s official exchange rates. In any other country this would be the first sentence in a beginner’s textbook on foreign currency markets, but in the DPRK, this marks a major admission of the central role that markets play in North Korean life.
The book “The Methodology of Monetary Issuance and Monetary Adjustment” has a lot to tell us about the future of market-oriented reforms under Kim Jong Un. Contrary to inferences drawn from other sources, this book indicates a level of consolidation and commitment to the use of market mechanisms in the management of the economy, and speaks to the leadership’s willingness to accept markets over central planning in a growing number of areas.
North Korea is a country where the word ‘market’ is rarely used in official
publications, and where markets remain at the alleged margins of the economy. The
fact that some of the country’s top minds in monetary economics openly admit
the existence of a market-oriented exchange rate that is in widespread usage is
a dramatic signal of just how serious the government is about reform. This has
the hallmarks of naked and all-encompassing state capitalism, without private
firms or private property outside the household, with a side-order of
state socialist planning alongside.
All this represents a dramatic improvement on state socialism, and if other
areas of economic policy – especially investment policy – and the sanctions
situation improves, these kinds of measures may help to encourage economic
growth and better lives for North Koreans.