Monthly Archives: October 2013

Non-specific crimes result in North Korean prison camp

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An Myeong Chul worked for eight years as one of the feared, ruthless guards in one of North Korea’s prison camps. Mr. An eventually became curious about the prisoners he once viewed as sub-human, discovering that, far from being enemies, most were hapless victims of an often-indiscriminate dragnet.

About 90% were arrested in the middle of the night without knowing what they had done wrong, he said. “They would be told they were there to pay for the crimes of some distant relative that they had never met,” said Mr. An. “I saw even two-year-olds and four-year-olds sent to the prison camp, and what crime did these children commit?”

Then his own father came under suspicion after suggesting that blame for the famine wracking the country lay with top Communist leaders, not local officials as suggested by supreme leader Kim Jong-il. Knowing the kind of fate that awaited him for voicing dissent, the father killed himself by drinking poison, said Mr. An. His mother, sister and brother were arrested and dispatched to the gulag themselves, but he managed to escape Camp 22 and make it across the nearby Chinese border.

Helped on the other side by ethnic-Korean Chinese, he eventually wound up in South Korea.

He still regrets, though, that the search launched by both North Korean and Chinese agents after he ran led to 140 Korean refugees in China being sent back to the regime they had fled.

He has other regrets, too, about his years in the gulag. “I’m very sorry and apologetic for the fact I was part of that system.”

[National Post]

Mother of Kenneth Bae departs North Korea without him

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The mother of Kenneth Bae has left North Korea “more anxious than ever” to bring her imprisoned and ailing son home.

In a statement she released Tuesday, Myunghee Bae said she was able to visit her son three times and was relieved to see his health was improving.

Earlier this year, Bae, a Korean-American, was sentenced to 15 years in a North Korean labor camp for what the government called “hostile acts.” His family had not been able to see him for almost a year since his November 3 arrest in North Korea.

The North Korean government accuses Bae of setting up bases in China for the purpose of “toppling” the North Korean government, encouraging North Korean citizens to bring down the government and conducting a “malignant smear campaign.”

The country’s state media also says that Bae had planned what it called a “Jericho operation” to bring down North Korea through religious activities. They have suggested that Bae could have been sentenced to death, but avoided it through “candid confession of his crimes.”

Myunghee Bae, of Lynwood, Washington, said that she pleaded with the North Korean authorities to let her visit her son, and expressed gratitude for granting permission.

“I plead with our government to do everything in their power to secure my son’s release soon,” Myunghee Bae said Tuesday.


Kim Jong Un removes many key figures to cement his leadership

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has replaced officials holding almost half of the nation’s key posts in an attempt to strengthen his control over the country, a South Korean government report reported Tuesday.

Kim Jong Un has changed the officials filling 97 out of 218 military, party and government posts since he took over the communist dynasty in December 2011, the South’s Unification Ministry said in a report.

Kim has often used a “demotion and reinstatement” process in reshuffling military posts in an attempt to tighten control over the military, the ministry said.

“This means Kim has completed the dynastic succession of power successfully and faster than expected,” Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies, told AFP.

He said Kim had replaced old appointees dating from his father’s era with relatively young figures loyal to himself.

The South’s spy agency said in a separate report to parliament that Kim had stepped up a campaign to build up a personality cult around himself.

[Agence France-Presse]                              Related post


North Korea requires external aid to feed its people

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North Korea remains one of the 34 countries in the world that require external assistance to properly feed their people. The October issue of “Crop Prospects and Food Situation” by the Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that there will be some 2.8 million “vulnerable” people in the communist country needing assistance until this year’s fall harvest.

The Washington-based media outlet Voice of America said that judging by official estimates tallied by the United Nations organization, Pyongyang’s spring cereal harvest for 2013, mainly winter, wheat and barley, fell shy of the initial forecast, and that this is the main reason for the current shortage. The U.N. agency also said people in the country are experiencing “widespread lack of access” to food caused in part by past floods.

North Korea is the only country in East Asia to be placed on the list requiring external aid. Others on the list of the 34 countries are in Africa and Central Asia.

The country had reported improved harvests in the fall of 2012. The FAO, meanwhile, estimated that North Korea has been able to secure 328,000 tons of various grain from November of 2012 to early last month. This is equal to 65 percent of the 507,000 tons of grain Pyongyang needs to properly feed its population.

[Yonhap News]

Crystal meth epidemic in North Korea

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Within secretive North Korea, there appears to be an epidemic of crystal meth so widespread that, in some communities, more than 50 per cent of people are users, according to a report released by two Seoul-based academics.

Professor Kim Seok-hyang, of the Department of North Korean Studies at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University, says little is known about the drug’s harmful effects in North Korea, and so many myths have developed about its medical benefits, that parents often give it to their children oblivious to the harm they may be doing. In small doses, crystal meth relieves pain and induces a feeling of euphoria and well-being.

The report, “A New Face of North Korean Drug Use” by Kim and Andrei Lankov, an associate professor at Kookmin University’s College of Social Studies, found that there has been a dramatic upsurge in methamphetamine use in rural northern areas of North Korea since 2005, which, they say, now constitutes an epidemic. The testimony of 21 defectors – combined with official reports from North Korea and China – presents what the academics say is “a worrying picture of escalating drug abuse in what was once one of the world’s most strictly supervised and controlled societies”. The report was written for the academic journal North Korea Review.

Throughout the Korean war and cold war years, soldiers were reportedly fed methamphetamine made in state-run factories to bolster their endurance and help them stay alert for days on end. The practice endured long after the years of direct conflict. North Korea became notorious for its production and distribution of drugs. For decades, defectors have testified that methamphetamine was produced at plants in Hamhung, South Hamgyong province, and Sangwon, near Pyongyang, both for illicit export to China, to generate hard currency, and for officially sanctioned domestic use, largely among the country’s military.

Around 2004, however, everything changed. Either because of a lack of money or in an attempt to clean up the country’s image, production of the drug at government- run pharmaceutical plants was scaled down or stopped altogether – a development that triggered an explosive growth in the number of private “kitchen labs” in Hamhung and other areas. The drug, now being produced on a far greater scale, is being made, it is claimed, by the technicians and scientists who once worked in state factories.

Crystal meth then became popular among professional men in their 30s and 40s who wanted to increase their endurance because of their work or status, testimony suggests. As talk of its medicinal and recreational benefits spread in North Korea, the drug began to be used by the broader population, who reasoned that, if it was being used by rich people, it must be safe and beneficial. Finally, in 2009-10, the habit spread to the young – high school and college students.

Defectors interviewed by the Seoul academics spoke of “at least 50 per cent” of people in some communities in the north of the country as being users. And most people remain convinced of its benefits.

[South China Morning Post]

The Dastardly North Korean Dynasty

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In The Last Days of Kim Jong-il, Bruce Bechtol outlines the progress North Korea has made in weaponizing uranium … At the heart of Bechtol’s analysis is an explanation of why these weapons, whether filled with plutonium or uranium cores, are so dangerous in the hands of the Kim family regime.

As he tells us, the ruling group is unstable, headed by a young leader constantly struggling with willful individuals, some of whom are scheming relatives and all of whom are rivals. And in the never-ending contest for power in Pyongyang, Bechtol explains, losers often come to a bad end. Beginning in 2010, senior North Korean officials started dying “under mysterious circumstances.” Some were killed in suspicious traffic accidents; others were simply executed. The deaths appear to have been arranged by Kim Jong-il, then the North’s leader, to assure the eventual succession of his youngest son, Jong-un, to ultimate power. As Bechtol points out, these “forcible removals” looked as if they were staged to open up vacancies in the regime; in fact, the number of executions tripled in 2010 over 2009, with at least 60 performed in public.

To be sure, peace did not come with the ascension of Kim Jong-un in December 2011, after his father’s fatal heart attack. And the new dictator—perhaps 27 at the time—was ruthless, even ordering the assistant chief of staff of the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces to be obliterated with a mortar round, “to leave no trace of him behind down to his hair.” The purges continued in less dramatic fashion into the fall of 2012.

Kim Jong-il spent about two years preparing his son [beginning] the process after he recovered from his 2008 stroke. Bechtol pegs the beginning of Kim Jong-un’s succession training to sometime early in the following year. The ailing Kim Jong-il speeded up the transition by eliminating officials who stood in his way, and the resulting turbulence eroded support for Jong-un in North Korea’s “cadre society.” Bechtol writes: “Sections of the elite have felt increasingly betrayed because of the large number of purges and executions that have occurred, presumably because of succession issues.” Young Kim may not be able to count on the support of the various factions that make up the regime. Continued   

The Dastardly North Korean Dynasty Continues

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In addition to the tight Kim family circle, the North Korean regime is, generally speaking, composed of three elements: the security apparatus, the People’s Army, and the party. All three parts have always fed into the one man—a Kim—in the center. But Kim Jong-un has yet to gain control by placing his supporters in positions of power. More important, he has not had time to learn how to balance and rule an inherently unstable structure. The result is that he is now guided by his aunt, Kim Kyong-Hui, and her husband, Jang Song-Thaek.

He reports that, last year, powerbrokers did exactly what Kim Jong-un told them to do, but what Kim told them to do “was exactly what they told him he should tell them to do.” In short, Kim was in charge in name only. Kim Jong-nam, the ruler’s eldest brother, is on-record saying that “the existing ruling elite” will keep Jong-un “as a symbolic figure.” To attain real power, Kim Jong-un will have to do what his father did: rely on the nation’s strongest institution, the military.

The never-ending intrigue and struggle inside the army is a major factor in making the North so volatile, and troubles in the military undercut the prevailing view among Korea-watchers that Kim Jong-un has consolidated power faster than anticipated.

Bechtol’s main contribution—and it is a critical one—is drawing the line from Pyongyang’s ugly succession politics to its belligerent external behavior. Deadly incidents were executed to gain support among Kim Jong-un’s young, hardline “guardian cadres.” Attacks will probably continue, he argues, because provocations along the Northern Limit Line are not only part of the North’s asymmetric tactics to intimidate Seoul, but they help consolidate the succession, which is clearly Kim’s top priority.

Kim cannot act peacefully because to do so would undermine the beliefs, developed by his grandfather and father, that hold the ruling group together. This explains why North Korea has remained belligerent no matter who resides in the White House. Kim Jong-un is bound by the conventions established by his predecessors, which means that he cannot easily divert North Korea from its unsustainable path. In his final years, Kim Jong-il pursued “defiant” policies, especially in his development of nuclear warheads and proliferation of weapons, and the North will continue this aggressive behavior.

[From a book review by Gordon G. Chang, author of Nuclear Showdown] 

Daughter of African dictator tells of growing up in North Korea

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  • Monique Macias was packed off to North Korea with her siblings in the 1970s when her father was executed
  • The former leader of Equatorial Guinea struck a deal with Pyongyang to take his children shortly before his death
  • Monique’s schooldays consisted of firing Kalashnikovs and completing survival courses and military drills
  • Now in her 40s, Ms Macias has just published her memoirs of North Korea, ‘I’m Monique, from Pyongyang”

New memoirs by an African woman that document her bizarre childhood living in exile in the secretive state of North Korea could shed new light on the totalitarian regime.

Born in Equatorial Guinea, Monique Macias spent 15 years living in the capital Pyongyang, where her school days consisted of firing Kalashnikov rifles at the same prestigious military academy that Kim Jong-il was educated.

Being one of very few black people in Pyongyang and living in a strange country taught Ms Macias to see the world differently. She writes, “I know how Koreans think and how to talk to them because they taught me. They made me.”

This, she said, is what inspired her to publish her memoirs now, with tensions between North and South Korea running high. She said: ‘Although North and South say they want unification, they don’t actually know each other as people. If we want unification, we have to bury prejudice.’

She recalls rumors in 1989 of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement and subsequent massacre in Beijing reaching the hallways of North Korean colleges. “I felt university students in Pyongyang at the time were thinking about change too. Although they (North Korean media) didn’t report it, a lot of people knew about it.”

Her education, which she speaks highly of, was peppered with survival courses and drills. Under the North Korean education system, anti-Americanism became a constant factor in her understanding of the world as a child, something that made meeting her first American a big shock on a rare trip to see relatives in Beijing.

She said: “At that time no one there spoke English and I was lost. I saw a white guy passing and I asked him if he spoke English but when he started talking he had an American accent,” Macias said. “I was so scared. I thought ‘oh my god, it’s an American’. My palms were sweating and I just started to run. He was shouting ‘hey, stop! I’m not going to eat you’.”

This week, state media in North Korea criticized a report by a US think-tank on scenarios for the collapse of a reclusive country with a grim record of famine, prison camps and nuclear brinkmanship. But Ms Macias sees that as unlikely. “I don’t think it’s going to collapse easily. What I’ll say is that it can open up like China but very, very slowly.”

[Full Daily Mail story and photos]

The plight of young North Korean defectors

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The tragic story of this group of youngsters aged between 15 and 23 takes us back a few years when one by one they managed to cross the heavily-guarded border from North Korea into China to search for food. Most of them were orphans, while others had a parent unable or unwilling to look after them.

The youngsters survived by foraging for scraps in trashcans. Fish bones and discarded rice were mixed to make a porridge, while rodents were considered a luxury. When M.J., a South Korean missionary living in China, first met some of them in December 2009, they had frostbite on their hands and toes from living in an old abandoned building where temperatures plummeted to as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius. Some of them had injuries from beatings by security guards and merchants when they were caught stealing food.

“These kids were suffering from malnutrition and disease,” recalled M.J. “They had been living in quarters with bad sanitation … also they all seemed to have suffered in one form or another from tuberculosis. Because they were suffering from malnutrition, their growth was stunted.”

“This one child used to live with his father,” he explained. “One day his father went into a North Korean military base trying to find food but was caught and beaten to death on the spot. The child witnessed this … his mother then told him not to come home and threw rocks at him to keep him away.”

Missionary M.J. and his wife offered to help the youngsters leave China for Laos — a landlocked country in South-East Asia — and then onto a third country to claim asylum. It is a route that is well traveled by defectors, and the missionary couple had already helped other North Koreans escape to a better life that way.

“Pack your bags you’re going to South Korea.” These are the words these nine young North Korean defectors had waited years to hear, having traveled thousands of miles. This is what they were told by authorities in Laos, to where they had fled.

M.J. said they were so happy they all shouted for joy. Years in hiding seemed to finally be over. But the bitter truth of the situation soon became clear.

Later, the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR, said the group had been sent back to North Korea via China.

Read their story