Monthly Archives: August 2014

The children of North Korean defectors prospering in South Korea

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About 25,000 North Koreans have escaped to the South over the past two decades.

The first wave of defectors tended to be high-ranking officials who were treated like royalty in the South, mined for information about Kim Jong Il’s regime.

But then thousands who were not considered so valuable in the South’s eyes started arriving, including many from the impoverished northern provinces of North Korea. They had no useful information about Kim and his cronies, spoke with country-bumpkin accents, and didn’t know how to use credit cards or smartphones — essentials of life in the South.

But their children have grown up in South Korea and have been able to integrate more easily. “These are people who came here 10 years ago and are the first wave of high school and university graduates,” said Joanna Hosaniak, deputy director general of the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights. “Now they’re writing books, painting, showing leadership in their own areas. They’re like eggs that are hatching.”

That applies even to the most disadvantaged of North Korean children — the kkot-jebi. In the North, these children survive by begging and scrounging for food, and can often be seen sleeping around train stations.  The problem of homeless children was particularly severe in the first decade of the 21st century, after a devastating famine in the 1990s caused perhaps millions of North Koreans to die of starvation or flee across the border to China. Many left behind children who had no choice but to fend for themselves.

While malnutrition is still common in North Korea, starvation is not. That means there are fewer traditional kkot-jebi in the closed state, but new categories of “swallows” are emerging. Today, North Koreans talk about the other “swallows” who have flown away: the gun-jebi, who have left the military; the chong-jebi (young adults) and noh-jebi (elderly people) who are living on the streets. There are even whole families — kachok-jebi — leaving their homes to look for food.

As many as 2 million people in North Korea — a tenth of the population — are homeless, says Kim Hyuk, a former kkot-jebi who has written a memoir, The Boy Who Stole Freedom. “People now have more flexibility because the state can’t provide for them,” said Kim, who is enrolled in a doctoral program in North Korean policy at a South Korean institute.

[Washington Post]

North Korean defector finds his voice in rap

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Most rap songs do not deal with matters of geopolitical significance — such as nuclear weapons and labor camps — but Kang Chun-hyok is not most rappers. The 29-year-old is an escapee from North Korea.

“You took money that we made digging earth to fund nuclear weapons. Take out that fat from your pot belly. Nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons,” he rapped at the opening of an exhibition in Seoul this month titled Kkotjebi in Bloom. “I am not afraid. Go ahead, attack me,” Kang continued, moving his right hand Eminem-style.

“Give me back that dirtied money. Show me the money,” he concluded, to cheers from the humanitarian workers, foreign diplomats and academics in the gallery, and from people who happened to be walking along Insadong-gil, a central Seoul street lined with art galleries and tourist shops.

Kang is one of a generation of North Korean defectors coming of age and finding his voice in South Korea. And his triumph is even more noteworthy given that he was a kkot-jebi, or “flowering swallow,” the term used in North Korea for homeless children, a reference to their constant hunt for food and shelter.

Kang ran away from his home in a northern North Korean province at age 13, and finally arrived in the South three years later, in 2001. He is now in his senior year as a fine-arts major at Hongik University, one of the South’s top creative colleges.

Kang also had his artwork on display in the exhibition, organized by the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, a nongovernmental organization, to draw attention to the hardships that children in North Korea face. A set of his drawings — illustrations for a Southern children’s book called “Do You Know How Happy You Are?” — shows skinny kids in tattered clothing searching for food and sleeping on the street.

“People here don’t know anything about what’s going on in North Korea,” Kang said in an interview at the exhibition, “so I’m trying to show what is really happening there.”

[Washington Post]

Growing Christianity in China

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Among the actions China has been guilty of: Detentions, the kidnapping of bishops, crackdowns on underground churches, as well as foreign missionaries on their North Korean border, and in the past few months, even entire churches have been torn down in China under the premise of building code violations. The Christian community has reacted in large numbers, with thousands showing up to protest the demolitions.

The rapidly growing popularity of religion may be seen as a threat to the Communist Party’s authority. “There’s a pattern of pendular movement in the Chinese government’s stance towards religion, of being repressive and then of being accommodating,” says Lionel Jensen, Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures, at the University of Notre Dame. “I think that the Chinese government doesn’t know how to go about assessing the strain along those lines.”

So when Pope Francis was given permission to fly over China on his way to and from South Korea, many saw it as a sign of hope for religious freedom in China. The state-run Global Times calls it a sign of “possible détente.”

Meanwhile, there are religious groups in China that have not been sanctioned by the state that worship underground.

Jin Tianming is a priest and member of Beijing Shouwang Church, an underground Protestant community. His group of worshipers has had trouble finding a permanent location to hold church gatherings, frequently suffering harassment from police, with members of the church arrested or detained on occasion. “We put our beliefs above society. I don’t think the two are compatible in any way,” says Jin.

The existence of unregistered religious groups makes it difficult to calculate the number of Christians in China. A Pew Research Center study from 2011 estimates the number of Christians inside China at 67 million, about 5% of the country’s total population at the time, amongst which around 10 million are Catholics. This is compared to 10 million Christians in total in 1996.

According to researchers, the numbers are rising quickly. Professor Fenggang Yang, director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University, has predicted that China will be home to the largest Christian population by 2030.


A North Korean strike on the US electric grid?

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The electric grid in the United States remains largely unprotected, according to a longtime adviser to Congress on national security issues, Peter Vincent Pry.

Pry told VOA he believes North Korea is ready to attempt a strike on the U.S. electric grid using an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP). Pry said North Korea practiced an EMP strike against the U.S. last year when it orbited a satellite at the optimal altitude and trajectory to carry out such an attack.

Pry was a member of the former Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack (2001-2008). He also is executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, a congressional advisory board dedicated to achieving protection of the United States from electromagnetic pulse and other threats.

An electromagnetic pulse (or disturbance) is a short burst of electromagnetic energy that can be natural or man-made. EMP interference generated by lightning, for example, can damage electronic equipment. At very high energy levels, an EMP can damage physical objects such as trees, buildings and aircraft.

Pry said the North Korean test last year took place over the South Pole, which he called a strategic move. “We are blind from the south. We don’t have the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System or interceptors to protect us from the south,” said Pry.

The congressional analyst said this was done after North Korea’s third illegal nuclear test in February 2013 and after the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, threatened to strike the United States and its allies with a nuclear missile.


Pope calls on both Koreas to reject “suspicion and confrontation”

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Pope Francis ended his first official visit to Asia on August 18th by urging Koreans — from both the North and the South — to reject “suspicion and confrontation” and find new ways to build peace on the divided peninsula.

“Let us pray, then, for the emergence of new opportunities for dialogue, encounters and the resolution of differences, for continued generosity in providing humanitarian assistance to those in need, and for an ever greater recognition that all Koreans are brothers and sisters, members of one family, one people,” Francis said.

He delivered the message at a moving reconciliation Mass at Seoul’s main Myeong-dong Cathedral attended by South Korean President Park Geun-hye, as well as North Korean defectors.

As the pope flew across Chinese airspace on his return flight to Rome, he sent a telegram — his second during the trip — to President Xi Jinping, expressing his “divine blessings” for the powerful leader and the Chinese people.

Francis was the first pope in history to be granted permission to fly over China, and he used the opportunity in both directions to create the opportunity for new dialogue. China’s Foreign Ministry has reacted positively to the pope’s telegrams and already indicated it wants to promote dialogue with the Holy See after decades of frosty relations.

[Washington Post]

The Catholic Church of Pyongyang

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North Korea is officially atheist and is accused of widespread religious persecution. The United States claims its few state-run churches exist simply to give the appearance of religious freedom.

Its Catholic Church is known as the “silent church.” It has no ties with the Vatican and there is not one single residing priest in the country. They were once referred to as the “Vatican’s spies.” There are strict controls over what is permitted — many religious processes such as confession are out of the question. A confidential one-on-one conversation between a South Korean — even if that person is a priest — and a North Korean is impossible and both could be accused of espionage.

In the 1970s, Pyongyang proudly insisted that the country was “free from religious superstitions,” according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry. Then for no apparent reason, the authorities in the North created a small number of churches and temples in the late 1980s, all of them under very strict government control.

Says Andrei Lankov, an associate professor in social sciences at Kookmin University in South Korea, “From [North Korea’s] point of view, [Christianity] is a very real threat. Right now, Christianity seems to be their most dangerous ideological challenge to the existing regime.”

Kenneth Bae, an American citizen who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea, was accused of bringing down the government through religious activities. And he is not the only missionary to be detained in the country.


Pope Francis reaches out to China and North Korea

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Pope Francis made his strongest gesture yet to reach out to China on Sunday, saying he wants to improve relations and insisting that the Catholic Church isn’t coming in as a “conqueror” but is rather a partner in dialogue.

“I’m not talking here only about a political dialogue, but about a fraternal dialogue. These Christians aren’t coming as conquerors, they aren’t trying to take away our identity.” He said the important thing was to “walk together.”

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the pope’s remarks were “obviously a sign of goodwill for dialogue” with China as well as the other countries in Asia with which the Vatican doesn’t have diplomatic relations, amongst them North Korea.

China cut relations with the Vatican in 1951, after the Communist Party took power and set up its own church outside the pope’s authority. China persecuted the church for years until restoring a degree of religious freedom and freeing imprisoned priests in the late 1970s. The Vatican under then-Pope Benedict XVI sought to improve ties by seeking to unify the state-sanctioned church with the underground church still loyal to Rome.

The church in North Korea is under tight government control and is not recognized by the Vatican. Organizers of the papal trip had invited a delegation from the North to attend a Mass for peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula, but Pyongyang authorities declined the invitation.

During a Friday mass, diverging from prepared text, the Pope led the attendees in a silent prayer for North Koreans and the reunification of the two Koreas. “You are brothers who speak the same language. … Think of your brothers in the North. They speak the same language and when, in a family, the same language is spoken, there is a human hope,” he said.

Sony to yield to North Korea’s threats in amending movie “The Interview”

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Executives at Japanese-owned Sony Pictures appear to have yielded in the face of increasing anger from North Korea over an upcoming comedy flick, The Interviewwrites the Hollywood Reporter.

The movie stars Seth Rogen and James Franco, and much to Pyongyang’s dismay its plot follows two American broadcast journalists who are recruited as CIA agents and ordered to assassinate the communist state’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un after they score an interview with him.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, the studio plans to digitally alter thousands of buttons worn by extras so that they no longer depict the actual buttons worn by the North Korean military to honor Kim Jong Un and his father Kim Jong Il. Sony is also considering cutting a scene where Kim Jong Un’s face is “melted off graphically in slow motion.”

In June, North Korean authorities labeled the film a “wanton act of terror” and threatened a “merciless” retaliation against the U.S. if the movie was released. The Interview was originally set to hit the big screen in October; however, because of the controversy, its release date has been knocked back to December.


American missionary Kenneth Bae confirmed back in labor camp

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American officials confirmed this week that North Korean authorities sent Kenneth Bae back to a labor camp in late July to continue serving his 15-year sentence, after he was discharged from the Pyongyang Friendship Hospital.

The State Department has asked that the ailing Kenneth Bae be released on humanitarian grounds. The American missionary has been in Pyongyang’s custody for two years, after he was found guilty of committing “hostile acts” while leading a tour in the city of Rason. The U.S. State Department has repeated its demand that the physically ailing Bae be released immediately.

“We remain gravely concerned about Bae’s health, and we continue to urge [North Korean] authorities to grant Bae special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds,” read an email by State Department officials that was sent to the Voice of America’s Korean news service.

Swedish officials, who act as diplomatic interlocutors for the U.S. in North Korea, visited the American earlier this week at the unspecified camp — the 12th such meeting between Bae and Sweden’s diplomatic corps since he was arrested. Representatives from the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang were unable to comment on the matter when contacted by TIME on Thursday.

Human rights groups slammed the North Korean leadership for continuing to use harsh methods to punish the American. “Bae, like millions of North Koreans before him, faces injury or death by a regime that systematically employs forced labor to punish anyone that it accuses of undermining the government,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, tells TIME.

Bae’s arrest appears to be part of a wider campaign aimed at curtailing any form of proselytizing in North Korea, where officials view the act as a challenge to the ruling Kim dynasty.


Wife of detained Ohio man asks North Korea for mercy for him

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The wife and three children of an American man, Jeffrey Edward Fowle, 56, charged with “anti-state” crimes in North Korea apologized Tuesday to the communist country and pleaded for its government to show him mercy, saying in a statement they’re “desperate for his release and return home.”

North Korea said Monday it is preparing to try two Americans who entered the country as tourists, for carrying out what it says were hostile acts against the country. Fowle is suspected of leaving a Bible in a nightclub in the northern port city of Chongjin.

Fowle’s wife, Tatyana, has personally written to President Barack Obama, asking for his intervention, as have his three children, Alex, 13, Chris, 11, and Stephanie, 9. She also has written to three former presidents — George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter — and asked them to intercede.

“The family would like to express its heartfelt apology to the people and the government of the (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). Jeff has apologized publically for his actions and Jeffrey’s family petitions the government for mercy toward Jeffrey and asks for his release,” the family’s lawyer said.

Tepe has said Fowle was not on a mission for his church, that he was in North Korea on vacation as part of a tour and “loves the adventure of experiencing different cultures and seeing new places.”

North Korea has said authorities are preparing to bring Fowle and another American detainee, 24-year-old Matthew Todd Miller, of Bakersfield, California, before a court, but hasn’t yet specified what they did that was considered hostile or illegal, or what kind of punishment they might face. The date of the trial has not been announced.