North Korean hacker group carries out attack under guise of North Korean defector information

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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.

[ESRC]

UN human rights chief warns sanctions “impeding” North Korea’s COVID-19 efforts

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Sanctions have “impeded” the ability of … North Korea to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the UN’s top human rights official said on Tuesday.

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 weapons program.

“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 outbreak.

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.

[NK News]

Kim Jong Un orders construction of new hospital in Pyongyang

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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.

Kim reportedly wants construction on the hospital – which he labeled a “crucial task” — to be completed by early October.

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.

[Fox News]

North Korean negotiator may be tapped as Pyongyang’s top envoy to Austria

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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.

[UPI]

COVID-19 prevention equipment to be delivered to North Korea

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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 agency said.

“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 safe.”

[NK News]

Russia delivers Coronavirus testkits to North Korea

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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.

[US News World Report]

China warns citizens to keep away from its North Korean border

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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 said.

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 impossible.

Isolated and impoverished North Korea has imposed strict entry bans during past global epidemics, including a 2014 Ebola outbreak.

[Reuters]

COVID-19 in North Korea

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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.

UN investigator warns against isolating North Korea as threat of COVID-19 looms

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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 justice.

[VoA]

Diplomatic missions in North Korea shut amid coronavirus concern

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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 Vladivostok.

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.

[Reuters]

Kim Jong Un expresses ‘condolences’ over coronavirus outbreak in South Korea

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sent a personal letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to express his condolences over a soaring viral outbreak, Seoul officials said Thursday.

It wasn’t immediately clear if Kim’s letter was an attempt to improve strained ties with South Korea amid a deadlock in broader nuclear diplomacy with the U.S. Earlier this week, Kim’s sister issued insults against Moon’s presidential office in her first official statement.

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.

[TIME]

Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, slams South Korea in 1st-ever statement

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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 raising tensions. ​ In 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.”

[The New York Times]

North Korea fires two unidentified projectiles

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North Korea has fired two unidentified short-range projectiles from an area near the coastal city of Wonsan into waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, South Korea’s military said 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.

[CNN]

Foreign diplomats to be evacuated from North Korea as country steps up efforts to prevent virus outbreak

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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).

[CNN]

Virus threat puts Trump-Kim showdown on hold

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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.

The coronavirus 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.

[Bloomberg]

One in five North Korean defectors experience discrimination in the South

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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 North Korea.

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 they work.

[Yonhap]

Crash Landing on You: The defector who brought North-South Korean romance to life

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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.”

[BBC]

North Korea reportedly quarantines 380 foreigners to prevent coronavirus

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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 Korea.

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.

[CNBC]

North Korean refugees seek political voice in the South with new political party

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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 the South.

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.

Attendees at the launch event discussed cases that have become rallying cries for defectors, who say the South Korean government provides them too little support. In prominent cases last year, two North Koreans were repatriated, and a defector and her 6-year-old son who had been denied government benefits were found dead of starvation in their Seoul apartment.

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.

[Times of India]

North Korean cybercrime and cybersecrecy

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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.  

[MIT Technology Review]

John Bolton says President Trump “wasted two years” trying to make a peace deal with North Korea

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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. 

Though Bolton publicly supported Trump’s policies when he worked for the administration, the president did not always back his national security adviser.

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.

[Salon]

The risks of being a North Korean Christian

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“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. 

[CBN]

Inside London’s community of North Korean defectors

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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 Independent]

North Korea’s most senior defector to run for parliament in the South

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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.

[The Guardian]

North Korean refugee arrives in U.S.

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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.

[Yonhap]

Fifteen repatriated North Korean refugees quarantined for coronavirus with tuberculosis patients

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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 said.

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.”

[Radio Free Asia]

Why no coronavirus cases reported in North Korea?

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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.”

[CNN]

Coronavirus crackdown in China may prove beneficial for North Korean defectors?

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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.

[VoA]

China coronavirus lockdown complicates North Korea refugee journeys

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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.

[VoA]

Ri Sol Ju, the North Korean first lady

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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.

[Fox News]

More on North Korean would-be defectors arrested near China border

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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 source said.

[Radio Free Asia]

North Korean government officials escape across the border in group defection

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Eight North Korean government officials have escaped over the border into China, including a typist who handled important documents for the ruling party and a number of communications experts.

A Radio Free Asia report claims that a further seven officials from Pyongyang were caught by state security officers in a village close to the border before they could defect. 

It appears that the officials took advantage of the New Year holiday period to leave Pyongyang in groups of three or four and head north towards the border.

The report suggested that the government employees may have been carrying secret information, perhaps to barter for their passage to South Korea.

[The Telegraph]

The many faces of Chairman Kim Jong Un

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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 side.

[Excerpts of 38 North commentary]

One woman show portrays struggles of North Korean defectors and refugees

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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.

[Hudson Reporter]

Kim Jong-un’s aunt reappears, six years after purge rumors

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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 Guardian]

China tightening grip on North Korean defectors

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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 them.

However, it also means that those websites are under the Chinese government’s monitoring.

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.

[The Diplomat]

Seoul reaches out to North Korean defectors with emergency aid

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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 other defectors.

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 subsidies.

“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.

[UPI]

Lowest number of North Korean defectors arrive in the South since 2001

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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.

[AFP]

Kim Jong Un taps tough-talking military veteran as North Korean foreign minister

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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.

[Reuters]

A call to prioritize human rights in North Korea

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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.”

[Human Rights Watch]

Acceptance of North Korean refugees in Canada

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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 Canada.

“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 other option.”

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.

[NK News]

Trump administration’s extreme vetting not kind to North Korean escapees seeking a new life in the US

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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.

2018 saw a slight recovery, back up to six.

[NK News]

South Korea’s Moon says door not closed on talks with North Korea

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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.”

[CNN]

Arrests of North Korean defectors in China are up

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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.

[The Diplomat]

Why is the birthday of Kim Jong Un not a bigger deal in North Korea?

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un marked his 36th birthday on Wednesday, to little fanfare within the country.

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 said.

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.”

In an in-depth piece for NK News last year on the politics of the North Korean leaders’ birthdays, Tertitskiy noted that the first “proper” birthday celebrations of Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, only began in 1952, just a few years after coming to power. Annual celebrations began in earnest in 1962.

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.”

[NK News]

Kim Jong Un turns 36 today

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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 so young.

[NK News]

Consequences in North Korea from US killing of Iran’s top military commander

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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 Myung-bak.

[AP]

Killing of Iranian commander sends message to North Korea

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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 assassinations.”

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.”

[VoA/South China Morning Post]

US diplomats helped 13 North Koreans held in Vietnam

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Caught halfway into a multicountry escape from North Korea, 13 individuals detained in Vietnam reached safety last month due to an unexpected helping hand: the U.S. government.

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.

[Wall Street Journal]

A taste of entrepreneurship in Seoul for North Korean defectors

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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.

[The Investor]

What will Kim Jong-Un do in 2020?

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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.

He 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 United States. 

[Reuters]

North Korean defectors train as baristas

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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.

[Yonhap]

A North Korean defector entrepreneurial success story

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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.”

[Yonhap]

The US Ship of Miracles that saved 14,000 North Korean refugees

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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 Korean War.

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

Is China changing its policy for female North Korean defectors?

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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 changing.”

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.”

[Daily NK]

China calls on US to take “concrete steps” with North Korea

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China has called on the US to take “concrete steps” to deliver on what was agreed between US and North Korea at their Singapore summit last year.

In a year-end interview with the state-controlled People’s Daily, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China encourages the US and DPRK to “work out a feasible roadmap” to establish peace and “realizing complete denuclearization on the Peninsula.”

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.

But 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 partners.

[CNN]

John Bolton: “The idea that we are somehow exerting maximum pressure on North Korea is just unfortunately not true”

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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.

[Vanity Fair]

Bolton’s views on North Korea: “They’re happy to sell that same bridge over and over again”

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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.

[NPR]

After massive data leak, North Korean refugees fear for family back home

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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.

[NK News]

Otto Warmbier’s parents tell North Korea: ‘We’re never going to let you forget our son’

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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.

Otto 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.

[ABC News]

The South Korean response to Trump’s demands to pay billions more for U.S. troops

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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.

[Washington Post]

North Korean maternal mortality rate 15-times higher than previously thought

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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.

[Financial Times] Related article

High-level, North Korean defector tells President Trump he’s been duped

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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 Washington Times]

Trump officials block UN meeting on North Korean human rights abuses

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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.

[The New York Times]

South Korea intelligence officers accused of raping defector from North

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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.

 [BBC]

North Korea insults President Donald Trump as a “heedless and erratic old man”

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North Korea insulted U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday, calling him a “heedless and erratic old man” after he tweeted that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wouldn’t want to abandon a special relationship between the two leaders and affect the American presidential election by resuming hostile acts.

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.

[AP]

Trump warns Kim Jong Un on hostile actions

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U.S. President 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.”

North Korea 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. only.”

[Voice of America] 

The challenges of a half-North Korean, half-Chinese offspring in South Korea

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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 classmates.

[AP]

Half-North Korean, half-Chinese kids miss out on refugee benefits

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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

[AP]

Half-North Korean, half-Chinese kids struggle in South Korea

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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.”

[AP]

North Korean defector hospitalized after hunger strike

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A North Korean defector in South Korea was hospitalized after a nine-day hunger strike.

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 to Newsis.

[UPI]

Eleven North Korean defectors detained in Vietnam

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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 statement.

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.

[Reuters/VoA]

American who gave cryptocurrency talk in North Korea arrested

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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.

[The New York Times]

North Koreans aren’t having enough children

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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.

[Excerpts of an article by Anthony Fensom, writing in The National Interest]

Females now account for 85 percent of North Korean defectors

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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.

[Fox News]

The psychological toll on North Korean defectors from child abandonment and sex slavery

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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 brighter life.

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 her life.”

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

Speaking to her children once a year: “A few minutes of joy, eclipsed mostly by waiting and agony”

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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.

[Fox News]

Tongil Mom

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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 own.”

“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.”

[Fox News]

Parents of Otto Warmbier pursue North Korean assets

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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.

The Warmbiers, who live in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio, have claimed that their college student son, Otto, was tortured by North Korea after being convicted in 2016 of trying to steal a propaganda poster and imprisoned for months. The 22-year-old suffered severe brain damage and died shortly after being returned to the United States in a vegetative state in June 2017.

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 Pyongyang.

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 Jong Un.

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.

[AP]

Where things stand with North Korea

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Excerpts of an interview 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.

[Intelligence Matters]

Will there be talks?

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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.

[Reuters]

Montreal panel on the gendered experience of North Korean defectors

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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. 

[McGill Tribune]

Frosty North Korean response to Trump tweet and good will gesture

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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.”

[Washington Examiner]

North Korean refugees as advocates and storytellers

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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.

[Daily Bruin]

Fleeing North Korea often the start of even more hardship

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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 for freedom.”

[Daily Bruin]

Outrage over 2 North Koreans sent back to North Korea

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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 China Morning Post]

North Korean defectors decry South’s expulsion of two fishermen

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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 said.

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.

[Reuters]

US asking North Korea to return to talks

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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. flexibility approaches.

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.

[Reuters]

Two North Korean defectors returned to North Korea due to murder charges

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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.

[AFP]

13 North Koreans trek through four countries toward freedom

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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 and moving.

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.

[Radio Free Asia]

Some of the reasons North Koreans defect

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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 homeland:

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.

[Radio Free Asia]

North Korean defectors call for postponement of funeral for mother and son

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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 China.

[UPI]

Kim Jong Un has ‘decided’ on U.S.-North Korea summit, Seoul says

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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.

[UPI]

Kim Jong Un is ‘fascinated’ by Trump, views him as father figure, new book claims

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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.

“Kim is fascinated by Donald Trump. He sees him as a unique figure on the stage of world history. And he wants to make history with him,” Wead claims in his book “Inside Trump’s White House: The Real Story of His Presidency.”

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.'”

[Fox News]

Cho Jin-hye’s story

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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 Korea defector battles cyberbullies in the U.S.

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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

[UPI]

North Korea, emboldened by Trump peril and Chinese allies, assumes harder line

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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.

[Reuters]

North Korea fires 2 missiles amid stalled denuclearization talks

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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 launch “routine.”

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 assessment.

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 two Koreas.

[ AP ]

North Korean Authorities Crack Down on Illegal Cellphone Use

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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 Korean Service.

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.

[Radio Free Asia]

North Korea’s class system

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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 class system.

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.”

[Yahoo Finance]

North Korean defector explains why the next generation thinks differently about the United States

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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.”

[Yahoo Finance]

Meth in North Korea

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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.

[Yahoo Finance]

Kim Jong Un says his relationship with Donald Trump is ‘special’

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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.”

[CNN]

Radical changes to North Korean foreign exchange rate system

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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. 

[Read full article at NK News]