Monthly Archives: August 2014

Kenneth Bae gets consular visit at North Korea labor camp

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The State Department says the Swedish Embassy in North Korea has visited detained American missionary Kenneth Bae at a labor camp.

Spokeswoman Marie Harf said Wednesday this week’s visit was the 12th by Swedish representatives since Kenneth Bae was arrested in November 2012. As a result of his missionary and humanitarian work, he is serving 15 years of hard labor for alleged “hostile acts against North Korea”.

Sweden handles consular cases for the U.S. because Washington does not have diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. He’s one of three Americans now held.

Harf gave no update on Bae’s condition but said the department spoke to Bae’s family after Monday’s visit. His family says he has diabetes, heart and liver problems.

Bae recently told a pro-North Korean newspaper his health was worsening and he felt abandoned by the U.S. government.

[Bellingham Herald]

North Korea’s no. 1 role in the persecution of Christians

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The normally diplomatic Pope Francis recently asserted: “The persecution of Christians today is even greater than in the first centuries of the Church, and there are more Christian martyrs today than in that era.”

To those familiar with the true history of early persecution — when Christians were habitually tortured to death, set on fire, fed to lions and dismembered to cheering audiences — his statement may seem exaggerated.

But even today, as in the past, Christians are being persecuted for their faith and even tortured and executed. A January, 2014, Pew Research Center study on religious discrimination across the world found that harassment of Christians was reported in more countries, 110, than any other faith.

Open Doors, a nondenominational Christian rights watchdog group, ranked the 50 most dangerous nations for Christians in its World Watch List. The No. 1 ranked nation is North Korea, followed by a host of Muslim countries. North Korea, amongst other Communist countries, is intolerant of Christians; churches are banned or forced underground, and in North Korea, exposed Christians can be immediately executed.

Nothing integral to the fabric of these societies makes them intrinsically anti-Christian. Something as simple as overthrowing the North Korean regime could possibly end persecution there — just as the fall of Communist Soviet Union saw religious persecution come to a quick close in nations like Russia, which if anything is experiencing a Christian Orthodox revival.


Peace with Pyongyang to be on Pope’s agenda

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Pope Francis’ five-day visit to South Korea, which begins Thursday morning, will be the first time in a quarter-century that a pope has been on the divided Korean peninsula.

Francis plans to bring a message of peace and reconciliations to Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel, while encouraging Catholics in the region to spread their faith.

One of the highlights of Francis’ trip is the August 16 beatification of 124 Korean martyrs, killed for their faith by the anti-Western rulers of the Joseon Dynasty in the 18th and 19th centuries. Unlike most countries where missionary priests brought Catholicism and spread it, South Korea’s church is uniquely homegrown: Members of Korea’s noble classes discovered the faith in the 18th century reading books by the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci that they brought back from China.

Some historians say as late as 1953, at the end of the Korean War, there were as many as 300,000 North Korean Christians. “Now they’re practically all dead, many killed by the so-called death marches, from poverty or violent successive persecutions,” writes historian Vincenzo Faccioli Pintozzi.

Currently, there are no Vatican-recognized church structures or priests operating in North Korea. Francis is, however, expected to issue a message of peace and reconciliation for all Koreans during the Mass.


Why timing of China crackdown on North Korea border?

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It is not immediately clear why China, North Korea’s main ally and economic benefactor, is cracking down on missionaries in the region at this time, though experts said it had cooperated with North Korea in the past along the border.

While China can be suspicious of Christian groups and President Xi Jinping has launched a wide crackdown on underground churches, foreign missionaries usually operate without too much harassment.

The crackdown on the groups, many of which had been established in the region for years, has taken place over the last six months, foreign Christian sources working near the border told Reuters.

Beijing has not charged anyone with any crime, but two sources with direct knowledge say a Korean-American man who ran a vocational school in the border town of Tumen is being investigated by Chinese authorities. And earlier this month, China said it was investigating a Canadian couple who ran a coffee shop in Dandong city on suspicion of stealing state secrets.

“There has been a mass exodus of South Korean missionaries,” said the owner of a Christian group business in Yanji. “Many organizations are pulling people out because they’re scared, and certain blocks of people have just disappeared.”

The issue could come up during a three-day visit to China by Robert King, the US special envoy on human rights in North Korea. King’s visit starts on Monday.


China crackdown on Christians along North Korea border

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China is cracking down on Christian charity groups near its border with North Korea, missionaries and aid groups say, with hundreds of members of the community forced to leave the country and some who remain describing an atmosphere of fear.

The sweep along the frontier is believed to be aimed at closing off support to North Koreans who flee persecution and poverty in their homeland and illegally enter China before going on to other nations, usually ending up in South Korea.

As many as one third of the 3,000 South Korean missionaries working in China, largely near the North Korean border, have been forced out, most by having their visas refused, said Simon Suh, a Christian pastor who runs an orphanage in Yanji, a city near Tumen.

Peter Hahn’s school in Tumen and Kevin Garratt’s coffee shop were two organizations that were really well known,” said Suh. “Both of them being cracked down on is a huge blow to everyone, to every activist who is involved with North Korea.”

The missionaries in the remote and mountainous region are usually reserved, but during a recent visit by a Reuters reporter, they seemed especially fearful of speaking to outsiders and appeared to be worried about being followed by security forces.

South Korean and Western missionary groups run schools, orphanages and cafes in the region and channel food and other aid into North Korea. But some of them have also been caught up in helping North Koreans who have fled their isolated country.

There was no firm evidence, however, that Hahn or the Garratts were involved in the so-called underground railroad, helping people escape from North Korea and clandestinely facilitating their journey to the South, usually through a third country.

“Obviously, the screw is tightening all along the border,” said a Christian activist in South Korea, who did not want to be named due to the sensitivity of the situation. “There has been a concerted effort to break up the network of people who help North Koreans—on either side of the border.”

Another source working in the region said: “I believe that the D-Day has come or is coming soon for individuals, businesses and schools who have set up fronts to do North Korea-related humanitarian and refugee works.”


Will Pope Francis address North Korean atrocities?

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Pope Francis leaves on Wednesday for five days in South Korea, his first outing to Asia. The pontiff is scheduled to meet government leaders and to take part in an Asian Catholic youth festival, beatify a group of Korean martyrs from the 18th and 19th centuries, and also meet family members of victims of the recent Sewol shipwreck that claimed more than 300 lives, and will lay out a role for the church’s mission in Asia in a speech to bishops from the continent.

The outing poses challenges to Francis the peacemaker on multiple levels. First is the division of Korea itself. Francis will try to send signals of openness across the DMZ that separates the peninsula, without provoking the North Korean regime. He’ll want to promote reconciliation but can’t afford to turn a blind eye to the problems in the north, including an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 believed to languish in forced labor camps.

There’s no indication Francis will spring another surprise by inviting leaders of the two Koreas to join him for a peace prayer in the Vatican, as he did with the Israelis and Palestinians while visiting the Middle East in late May. North Korea has spurned an invitation to send a delegation to an August 18 papal Mass in Seoul.

In addition to the North Koreans, Francis will be speaking to another party that won’t be physically present but will certainly be listening: China, especially President Xi Jinping, with whom Francis has already had backdoor contact. China is one of just a handful of nations without diplomatic relations with the Vatican.  The Vatican wants to improve the lot of China’s roughly 13 million Catholics, many of whom are compelled to practice their faith underground.

Francis is certainly conscious that martyrdom is very much with us in the here and now. For one thing, he can’t ignore the fact that just across the DMZ to the north, Christians face a systematic form of persecution that’s arguably the most grotesque anywhere in the world. Since the armistice in 1953 that stabilized the division of the peninsula, some 300,000 Christians in North Korea have simply disappeared and are presumed dead.

The anti-Christian animus in North Korea is so strong that even people with Christian grandparents are frozen out of the most important jobs — a grand irony, given that founder Kim Il Sung’s mother was a Presbyterian deaconess.

It would be odd indeed if Francis were to celebrate the memories of martyrs from three centuries ago without at least acknowledging the reality that many Koreans today are paying a similar price. Figuring out how to do that in a way that doesn’t anger the North Koreans, potentially making life even more difficult for Christians, will be among the pontiff’s stiffest challenges.

[Boston Globe

Chinese authorities sweep of Christian foreigners on North Korean border

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In searches of an apartment and coffee shop belonging to Kevin and Julia Garratt, Chinese authorities took safes, documents, cash, computers, laptops, cell phones – even a fan and electric piano, according to the couple’s Vancouver-based son, Simeon Garratt.

On Monday, the Garratts were detained by China’s State Security Bureau and accused of stealing Chinese military and defense research secrets. The Christian couple operated a charity that brought humanitarian goods to North Korea. They also ran a coffee shop and weekly English classes in Dandong, China, a city that overlooks the northwestern corner of North Korea.

The seizures come as China has also frozen the bank accounts of a Korean-American man running a Christian non-profit organization in a different city on the border with North Korea. Peter Hahn operated a school in Tumen, China, and ran several businesses, including a bakery, in North Korea. He was placed under investigation by Chinese authorities three weeks ago, a source with direct knowledge of the case told Reuters, which reported the case Thursday.

Mr. Hahn has not been detained, and his school continues to operate, according to a woman who answered the telephone at the Tumen River Vocational School. But the Korean-American man is not permitted to leave the country, Reuters said.

Mr. Hahn’s school is attended by ethnic Korean children. He also operates several humanitarian projects and joint venture companies inside North Korea, including a local bus service in the Rajin-Songbon Special Economic Zone. Attached to the Tumen River Vocational School is a western restaurant called the Green Apple Café. That cafe remains operational, the woman at the school said.

A third cafe owned by Christian westerners in Yanji, another Chinese city near the North Korean border, has also recently closed. Gina’s Place Western Restaurant opened in 2008, the same year the Garratts opened their café. The owners of the two establishments knew each other, with their children attending summer camps together.

David Etter, who ran Gina’s before it closed, said he, too, delivered humanitarian aid, including food, to North Korean orphanages. But, he said, the cafe’s closure was financially-motivated, and did not come as a result of government pressure.

Still, the confluence of closures and government pressure on border establishments owned by foreign Christians adds to the questions about what lies behind the detentions.

[Globe and Mail] 

Canadian missionary couple detained by China near North Korean border

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A Vancouver couple detained in China for the “theft of state secrets” may have triggered an investigation for something as innocuous as posting photos online of a view from their balcony overlooking a river bordering North Korea, according to experts.

Canadian missionaries Kevin and Julia Dawn GarrattBefore they were detained Monday night, Kevin Garratt, 54, and Julia Dawn Garratt, 53, uploaded images on Facebook and Instagram of their life in Dandong, including pictures taken from their apartment looking out onto the Yalu River and the Friendship Bridge, which brings trade between China and North Korea.

The Garratts have been living and working across China for the last 30 years, moving to Dandong in 2008 to open up Peter’s Coffee House: a popular hangout for expats and locals looking to improve their English, marketed as “the perfect stopoff while en route to or returning from the Hermit Kingdom.”

“They’ve been there for so long now,” Kevin’s father Ross said Tuesday afternoon from his home in Innisfil, Ont. “Originally they wanted to go there to help people; they were sponsored by different church groups who wanted somebody over there to help run orphanages.”

Their real passion became delivering aid to impoverished North Koreans on either side of the sensitive border through an evangelical Christian organization.

“We’re China-based, North Korea-focused, but we’re Jesus-centered,” Kevin said in a November 2013 guest sermon at Surrey’s Terra Nova Church. In a recording of the sermon — which has since been removed from the church’s website — he described running a house outside Dandong where North Koreans could “hang out.”

Kevin said he used an organization called North Star Aid, which serves the people of North Korea by providing humanitarian aid, according to its website.

A short statement on the China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency after the couple’s detention Monday night made no mention of their aid work but reported they “are under investigation for suspected theft of state secrets about China’s military and national defense research.”

[Read full Vancouver Sun article]

Silicon Valley “Hack North Korea”

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Silicon Valley temporarily turned its focus to North Korea. Over the weekend, about 100 hackers, coders and engineers gathered in San Francisco to brainstorm ways to pierce the information divide that separates North Korea from the rest of the world.

The event, dubbed “Hack North Korea” by organizers at the Human Rights Foundation, is part of a broader effort to channel the wealth, ambition and know-how of Silicon Valley to address difficult real-world problems — and few topics are knottier than North Korea.

The Human Rights Foundation hackathon follows a balloon launch earlier this year that brought democracy leaflets, South Korean soap operas on DVD and USB drives loaded with the Korean Wikipedia over the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas.

During the two-day “Hack North Korea” event, the participants were briefed by defectors on the situation in the country. They then pitched ideas for ways to use technology to get information into the country, and broke into groups to turn those ideas into rough prototypes.

A pair of teenage siblings who flew in from Virginia for the event presented a prototype of a system that could allow North Koreans to get real-time information more easily inside the country, using micro-radio devices the size of credit cards, which they said could pick up signals from the South and which could be delivered into the country by smuggling or balloon drop.

Alongside this, the team would target South Korean satellite television broadcasts aimed at China, which pass over the North. Using what they described as “easily concealable” satellite receivers, North Koreans would be able to directly plug their televisions into the receivers.

For their efforts, this winning team won a trip to South Korea to meet with defectors and try and turn their idea into a reality.

Of course, North Korea is no stranger to cyber warfare. It has its own legions of computer-savvy hackers, who have been fingered in a number of attacks on the South, though the North has denied involvement.

In June, a Seoul-based defector group said that Pyongyang had issued an order signed by the country’s leader Kim Jong Un to insulate the country from the South’s cyberattacks.

[Wall Street Journal blog

Has Washington kept South Korea welfare dependent?

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From a Forbes opinion piece by Doug Bandow:

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is angry with the U.S. again, citing all manner of crimes and misdemeanors.  To emphasize its point the DPRK is prosecuting two Americans currently held in the North for “hostile” behavior. [Additionally, another American]  Kenneth Bae is serving a prison term, apparently for promoting Christianity while visiting.  Pyongyang has been using them as bargaining chips in an attempt to get America’s attention.

Why is North Korea worried about Washington?  Because the U.S. military remains deployed in the South 61 years after the end of the Korean War.  Washington has turned the otherwise successful Republic of Korea into an international welfare queen, apparently forever stuck on the U.S. defense dole.

Last week North Korea’s deputy UN ambassador, Ri Tong-il, gave a press conference denouncing Washington in florid terms.  U.S. behavior “is reminding us of the historical lasting symptoms of a mentally retarded patient,” said Ambassador Ri.

His list of grievances was long [including] that Washington was sabotaging improved inter-Korean relations and ignoring Pyongyang’s proposals for reducing tensions on the peninsula. Although it’s tempting to dismiss Ambassador Ri’s dyspeptic remarks, he made a legitimate point when justifying his nation’s nuclear program:  “No country in the world has been living like the DPRK, under serious threats to its existence, sovereignty, survival.”  There is much not to like about North Korea, but even paranoids have enemies.

In any war the North would face South Korea, which has vastly outstripped Pyongyang on virtually every measure of national power, and the U.S., the globe’s superpower.  East Asia is filled with additional American allies, while the North’s Cold War partners, Moscow and Beijing, have drifted away and almost certainly wouldn’t help in a conflict.

Which raises the question:  just what is America doing with troops on the Korean peninsula?

Today the ROK leads the North on most measures of national power.  The former has 40 times the GDP, twice the population, all the new technologies, the most important allies, access to international markets, and a system legitimized by elections and popular consent.  This is precisely the development the American defense shield was supposed to enable.