Chul Hwan Kang’s Yoduk Story

Chul Hwan Kang arrived in South Korea in 1992, having survived detention in living hell, serving in the labor camp for political prisoners called “Yoduk” from the age of 9 to 19 — for the sole reason that his grandfather was accused of criticizing the North Korean regime.

Kang recounts his experience as a young person in the camps stating that children would spend the day beginning at 6 o’clock in the morning working hard manual labor. The failure to accomplish the work quota may result in reduced food rations.

At age 17, he was less than 150 centimeters tall (5 feet) and weighed about 40 kilograms (88 pounds). In fact, Kang’s size was characteristic of all detained children, whose growth was universally retarded by continuous malnutrition and brutality.

Girls were no taller than 145 centimeters by their late teens. With unkempt hair and lacking the nutrition critical to adolescent development, they did not look like girls, forced to become part of an androgynous and anonymous prison population.

North Korean refugee documentary nominated

A documentary about the plight of North Korean refugees has been nominated for the documentary category of the 40th International Emmy Awards.

Titled “Across Land, Across Sea” in English, the documentary was nominated along with works from the U.K., Germany and Argentina. The documentary has three 52-minute episodes:

  • “Across Land, Across Sea,” which tracks a successful escape from North Korea and China to South Korea in December 2009 by Song Sung-kook and his family helped by Pastor Kim Sung-eun;
  • “Seeking Haven,” which depicts the desperate attempts of a North Korean refugee to bring her family in the North to the South and her difficult adjustment to South Korean society; and
  • “Crossing Three Borders,” a story of North Korean refugees who stormed into the Danish Embassy in Vietnam in pursuit of freedom.

The International Emmy Awards are presented to the best TV programs produced and originally aired outside the U.S. and are considered to be among the world’s top three broadcast awards along with Canada’s Banff World Media Festival and Monaco’s Monte Carlo Television Festival. The award ceremony takes place in New York on October 19.

North Korea says its missiles can reach US mainland

North Korea said Tuesday its missiles can reach the U.S. mainland — days after South Korea announced a deal with the United States to extend its missile range. The strike zone of North Korean rocket forces includes “not only the bases of the puppet forces and the U.S. imperialist aggression forces’ bases in the inviolable land of Korea, but also Japan, Guam and the U.S. mainland,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported.

But some analysts questioned the claim. “That’s been a desire or an objective, politically, for North Korean leadership for quite some time. But they have not demonstrated that capability,” said Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group’s North East Asia Program.

On Sunday, South Korea said it reached a deal with the United States that allows Seoul to extend the range of its ballistic missiles to include the northern peninsula of North Korea.

“What else can they say? It was politically impossible for them not to react,” said professor Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in Seoul.

Privileged Pyongyang a political strategy

A mix of underground trading, investment funds, particularly from China, and the growth of government-authorized commercial enterprises has helped reshape North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, with its 3 million residents.

The capital is a complex mixture of facade and reality: blackouts remain commonplace in many neighborhoods; backstreets are dusty and potholed; the outsides of many apartment buildings are splattered with patches of mold.

But life is also far less grim than in the rest of the country. If nothing else, there is the appearance of opportunity.

Top officials in the ruling party, the government and the military live in gated neighborhoods closed to outsiders. They shop in stores filled with goods, and sing karaoke in wood-paneled restaurants. They live and work in constant proximity to power, opening up channels for professional promotion, business opportunities and black market profits.

“The government is privileging Pyongyang as a political strategy,” said Glyn Ford, a former European Union parliamentarian and international consultant who travels regularly and widely in North Korea. “The people who live in the capital are the people who count. They’re the people who underpin the regime.”

Their support is particularly important right now, with the ascension of third-generation leader Kim Jong Un, who clearly sees his political survival linked to improved standards of living. With Kim Jong Un’s abrupt rise to power, Pyongyang is getting even more.

In just the past few months, the regime has opened the Dolphinarium (which also required a new 30-mile pipeline to pump in fresh seawater), a $19 million amusement park and an elaborate pool-and-water-slide complex. All are filled with adults, and all are wildly popular.

Outside of Pyongyang though, there are no $19 million amusement parks. Asked what Kaesong residents do for enjoyment, a city official paused to think. There’s the pool, Kim Ryong Mun said eventually, though it’s really just for children. Finally, he had something: “Many people go outside and have picnics.”

Kim, with his faded, blue-striped tie and digital camera hanging from his wrist as a sign of his success, blames international sanctions, imposed because of Pyongyang’s nuclear program, for the lack of development.

North Koreans shorter than South Koreans due to malnutrition

The biggest hurdle for many North Korean refugees trying to assimilate into South Korean society was not just that they faced a language barrier but that, quite simply, they also looked different. First, they are shorter.

According to UNICEF, because of malnutrition, by the age of 7 there’s already a 4.7-inch gap in height between North Korean and South Korean children — and that difference may reach 7.8 inches.

Another sign is malnutrition. Many young refugees from North Korea have heads that appeared to be slightly oversize on their frames. It was hard to notice, until they are standing next to a South Korean their age — or unless you are South Korean.

”We live under the myth of homogeneity, of oneness here in Korea,” Byung-ho Chung, an anthropologist, told me, ”but these kinds of distinctive physical markings are a scar. The fear is that the scar will become a social stigma affecting many generations to come.”

–Excerpt of an article by Michael Paterniti, GQ magazine

The elite mystery of Pyongyang

North Korea can appear outwardly stagnant, a country frozen by poverty and Soviet economic policies, but a small but resonant market economy has taken root over the past 15 years or so. While the country still has a per capita GDP of just $1,800 per year, according to U.S. figures, this new economy – a mix of underground trading, investment funds, particularly from China, and the growth of government-authorized commercial enterprises – has helped reshape its capital Pyongyang.

Pyongyang is a closed city, sealed off by security forces that monitor movement at dozens of checkpoints. North Koreans cannot move there, or even visit, without official permission. Its estimated 3 million residents have been vetted for their ideological purity, or at least their connections to the inner circle.

Today, the Pyongyang rich, spending their dollars, euros and Chinese yuan, can buy everything from high heels to imported watches. They have bought enough cars in the past couple years to cause the occasional traffic jam. But few of these changes have gone beyond the capital, and the elite who live there. That contrast, between Pyongyang and every other city in the country, reflects an ever-growing chasm between North Korea’s elite and the daily struggles of everyone else.

The urban divide can be seen in the industrial city of Hamhung, where the skies above the handful of working factories are filled with gray soot, and workers are ferried to the beach on their day off in crowded, cobbled-together trucks powered by wood-burning stoves. It’s visible on the “Youth Hero Highway” outside the port city of Nampho, where there are so few cars on the eight-lane road that it looks like an empty parking lot stretching toward the horizon.

It’s in the province around Chongjin, where U.N. data shows the rate of abnormally short children – a key indicator of chronic malnutrition – is 50 percent higher than around Pyongyang.

You can also find the urban divide in the hospitals of the other second-tier cities, according to people who have fled North Korea. They say desperate doctors struggle to treat patients with almost no medicine, using equipment that can be decades old.

North Korean defectors recount nightmare of prison camps

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

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

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

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

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

A possibly tougher China defers North Korean leader’s trip

China quietly deferred a request by North Korea for its young leader to visit last month because the Chinese leadership was preoccupied with its once-in-a-decade leadership change and a host of other distractions, two independent sources said.

The move also suggests that China, North Korea’s main food and oil supplier, may be seeking an assurance from the isolated state that it drops its nuclear ambitions, one source said, after it ignored warnings from Beijing not to go ahead with a rocket launch in April.

Kim Jong-un’s desire to visit China in September was relayed by his powerful uncle, Jang Song-thaek, when the latter met Chinese leaders on a visit to Beijing in August.

But China discreetly put off the request, which was never publicized.

“Kim Jong-un wanted to come but it was not a convenient time,” a source familiar with China’s foreign policy said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who died in December, made six visits to China from 2004 to 2011.