North Korean defector: I could not trust anyone – Part 2

Despite the propaganda he had been subjected to, Joong-Ha could see the poverty around him and thought North Korea might not be the country the government made it out to be.

He remembered reading about the UK when at school and was fascinated by the history. He said: “I read about the Industrial Revolution that had happened hundreds of years ago in Britain and thought it must be a really advanced place. Economically it seemed like the most stable country I could get too.”

The trip across the river took a day and when Joong-Ha and his family got into China they had to strip off their clothes and dispose of anything that might identify them as North Korean. He said: “Just because we had got to China it didn’t mean we were safe. Every day we were fearful of being caught and being deported.

“We were lucky that my wife had family near the border and she and my son could stay with them. They helped us a lot.”

After four years working as a labourer, Joong-Ha managed to save enough money to pay a broker to take him and his family to the UK. He said: “My wife was not happy and did not want to go. She liked being with her family in China, but we could not stay because we would always be looking over our shoulder, wondering if we would be caught and sent back.”

When the family first arrived in UK they were placed in Newcastle and struggled to cope with the culture shock and the language barriers. Joong-Ha joked: “There were many days I woke up in Newcastle and thought I’d made a huge mistake. I couldn’t speak any English and could not get on with the culture in the town; it was so different from what we were used too.

“I heard there were lots of Koreans in New Malden and we decided to move down there.”

The family has now been living in New Malden for six years and in that time Joong-Ha has established himself as the chairman of the North Korean Residents’ Society. He said: “I want the North Koreans to interact in society. It is hard sometimes with the language barriers but I think it’s important for people to hear our stories.”

The 600 North Korean residents in New Malden each have a unique story of escape from the most secretive country on the planet.

[Full story

UN panel on North Korea stands by rights abuses report

The head of the UN commission that produced a damning report on North Korean rights abuses has dismissed Pyongyang’s claim that doubts about the credibility of a prominent witness made the panel’s findings “invalid”.

“The partial retraction of Shin Dong-hyuk of the testimony he gave to the Commission of Inquiry on North Korea is not significant for the report, conclusions or recommendations of the commission,” said retired Australian judge Michael Kirby.

Mr Shin, a well-known defector and Pyongyang critic, admitted this week that elements of his best-selling gulag survivor book Escape from Camp 14 were inaccurate, although he stressed that the crucial details of his suffering and torture still stood.

For his part, Mr Kirby noted that Mr Shin was only one of 300 witnesses interviewed by his commission, whose overall findings were based on a mass of “overwhelming” corroborative evidence.

The commission’s conclusion that North Korea was committing human rights violations “without parallel in the contemporary world” was the basis of a resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly last month. It urged the Security Council to consider referring Pyongyang to the International Criminal Court.

For activists within the North Korean defector community, Mr Shin’s admissions of inaccuracies in his survivor story are a genuine blow, given his high profile.

In his statement, Mr Kirby was protective of the 32-year-old defector. “Mr Shin bears, on his body, the evidence of torture and suffering. At this stage he needs help and support, not hounding,” he said.


North Korean defectors drop leaflets and “Interview” posters into North Korea

In the past, Pyongyang has called the North Korean defectors who organize covert balloon launches “human scum.” For good measure, the North Korean military promises to “physically eliminate” anyone who dares to send any material into the hands of its citizens, thereby breaking its information monopoly.

The threats did not dissuade a hearty band of North Korean defectors, their South Korean allies, Silicon Valley technologists, and a global team of pro-democracy activists, who braved sub-zero temperatures late Monday night to send word about Sony’s controversial movie The Interview into one of the world’s darkest corners.

The instigator for this adventure was Park Sang Hak, a man targeted as “Enemy Zero” by the North for his anti-regime activities. The son of a former high-ranking official who himself defected in 1999, Park followed his father into exile, crossing the Yalu River into China with his mother, brother, and sister.

Over the past decade, Park and his Fighters for a Free North Korea have sent dozens of balloons to the North, releasing 60-80 million leaflets into the sky, with varying rates of success. Yet Park’s activism has earned the ire of Pyongyang, which in 2011 dispatched a double agent to the South to kill him with a poison-tipped pen.

This week’s launch was especially prominent, however, in light of the recent computer hack of Sony Pictures. Park enlisted the help of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, which launched a “Hack Them Back” campaign aimed at raising funds to send 100,000 copies of The Interview on DVD and USB into the North. Though the group did not send copies of the film on this launch, it plans to do so “on a rolling basis” over the next few months. A 2010 survey of North Korean refugees found that 48 percent had viewed DVDs, a 28 percent increase from just two years prior.

[The Daily Beast]

North Korean prison camp survivor admits inaccuracies

Shin Dong-hyuk’s horrific descriptions of his time in a North Korean prison camp became a best-selling book translated into 27 languages, made him a key witness before the United Nations and grabbed headlines around the world.

Now the publisher of the book and its author say has revealed that parts of the story he told weren’t true. Blaine Harden, author of the book “Escape from Camp 14,” said in a statement on his website over the weekend that Shin had changed “key parts of his story.”

“On Friday, Jan. 16, I learned that Shin Dong-hyuk, the North Korean prison camp survivor who is the subject of ‘Escape from Camp 14,’ had told friends an account of his life that differed substantially from my book,” Harden said. “I contacted Shin, pressing him to detail the changes and explain why he had misled me.”

Shin had previously said that he had lived his entire life in Camp 14 before escaping in 2005. He now says he escaped from Camp 18 twice before — in 1999 and 2001, wrote Harden in his statement.

Shin now says he was 20 years old when he was tortured as a punishment for escaping, wrote Harden. His original account indicated that he was tortured when he was 13.

Shin had described in the book that his finger was chopped off by an angry guard after he dropped a sewing machine in Camp 14. Now, Shin told Harden that his finger was mangled as a guard pulled out his fingernails as punishment for escaping.

“When I agreed to share my experience for the book, I found it was too painful to think about some of the things that happened,” Shin told Harden.

Human rights activists argue that changes in Shin’s account do not ultimately affect his testimony, saying they still believe he was tortured and that his story highlights the horror of prison camps.


‘The Interview’ movie not well-received by North Koreans

According to North Korean defectors, “The Interview,” the Sony Pictures comedy about a fictional CIA plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un, is not going over well with North Korean viewers, even among people who oppose the country’s dictatorship.

Several democracy activists with contacts in the North said the North Koreans they spoke with reacted to the film first with fear of punishment for watching it, but also with derision and wounded feelings over the depiction of their country. Some of the activists said it was unlikely that many people would risk watching it.

To put it simply, national pride trumped their dislike for Kim Jong-un, their country’s young and often ruthless leader.

“They cursed at the movie,” said Chung Kwang-il, a North Korean defector and democracy activist in South Korea who said that his associates in China had smuggled digital copies of the movie into the North and that he had since spoken by cellphone with eight people who surreptitiously watched it. “They were angry it depicted North Koreans as a bunch of idiots,” he said. “Now, these are not people worshiping Kim Jong-un; they are ones who wish he were gone.”

Kim Sung-min, a North Korean defector who runs Free North Korea Radio, a Seoul-based website, wrote there that he spoke to two North Korean viewers and one of them said that he was thrilled by the scene in which an American talk-show host visiting Pyongyang asked the Kim Jong-un character why he was starving his people. Nonetheless, Mr. Kim quoted the viewer as saying that “the movie will only increase animosity among us because it not only failed to understand our feelings, but didn’t even try to.”

[NY Times]

US aims at remaining North Korean financial links

The United States aims to use new sanctions imposed on North Korea over the cyber attack on Sony Pictures to cut off the country’s remaining links to the international financial system, a senior U.S. Treasury official said on Tuesday.

Daniel Glaser, assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the U.S. Treasury Department, said past sanctions had already discouraged “hundreds” of overseas banks, including China’s major commercial banks, from doing business with North Korea. New sanctions announced by President Barack Obama on Jan 2. provided “a tremendous amount of flexibility” and the goal was to identify remaining financial institutions that allowed North Korea access to the global system, which could face sanction themselves, Glaser told a House of Representatives briefing.

Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called for use of the full scope of the new sanctions announced. “The significance of this new Executive Order may come from the broad power it gives the president to target anyone who is a part of the North Korean government, or is assisting them in any way … that is if the administration chooses to use it to its full advantage,” he told the briefing. “We need to step up and target those financial institutions in Asia and beyond that are supporting the brutal and dangerous North Korean regime.”

When challenged by Royce about “a number of small banks” still doing business with North Korea and the need to choke off the country’s access to hard currency, Glaser replied: “That’s exactly what we are trying to do.”

Royce said he hoped a bipartisan bill he sponsored that would label North Korea “a primary money laundering concern” would be passed by the Senate this year.


Talks coming between North and South Korea?

In a New Year’s press conference Monday, South Korean President Park Geun-hye made an overture to North Korea, extending an offer to hold talks without any preconditions. “My position is that to ease the pain of division and to accomplish peaceful unification, I am willing to meet with anyone,” Park said in her speech. “If it is helpful, I am up for a summit meeting with the North. There is no pre-condition.”

Geun-hye’s remarks are in part a reaction to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un conceding that he would be willing to hold a summit with the South under certain conditions, says Charles Armstrong, a professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University.

“If the atmosphere and environment is there, there is no reason not to hold a high-level summit [with South Korea],” Kim Jong Un said in a speech broadcast on state media January 1. However, Pyongyang has not acquiesced to recent requests to resume negotiations with South Korea on human rights and other matters.

Amstrong says that “both sides are sending signals to the other that they are ready to open dialogue.”

The Wall Street Journal’s bureau chief in Korea is less optimistic about the possibility for talks, saying that “there are always unpalatable preconditions in inter-Korean talks even if one side says there aren’t.”

The two countries have been divided since the end of World War II. The Korean War that followed ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty, thus North and South Korea have technically been at war for more than six decades. Reunification has been a goal for both states, but they lie on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of political ideology.


North Korea offers to suspend nuclear tests if US suspends military drills

North Korea said on Saturday it was willing to suspend nuclear tests if the United States agreed to call off annual military drills held jointly with South Korea, but Washington rejected the proposal as a veiled threat.

The offer is an often repeated demand by Pyongyang for an end to the large-scale defensive drills by the allies.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the nuclear tests and military exercises were separate issues.

The United States and South Korea have stressed that the annual drills, which in some years involved U.S. aircraft carriers, are purely defensive in nature, aimed at testing the allies’ readiness to confront any North Korean aggression.


North Korea threatens ‘war disaster’ over sanctions

North Korea has again condemned U.S. sanctions imposed on the country following a cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment and on Wednesday demanded the restrictions be lifted.

“The U.S. took part in wars of aggression … But it has never experienced a hail of bullets and shells on its own territory,” North Korea’s National Defense Commission said in a warning through state-run media. “The U.S. should roll back its hostile policy towards the DPRK of its own accord if it does not want to suffer a war disaster.”

The United States on Friday slapped sanctions on 10 individuals and three entities, including North Korea’s primary intelligence organization and its arms dealer, over the country’s alleged role in a cyberattack that threatened to derail Sony’s release of “The Interview” and made public emails that embarrassed top-level executives.

North Korea has denied it carried out the cyberattack and said the sanctions were imposed “under absurd pretexts and conditions.”


Bureau 121 hackers operating in China says defector

In the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang, you’ll find businesses owned and operated by the North Korean government.

You’ll also find a secret network of North Korean hackers, known as Bureau 121, according to defector Kim Heung-Kwang.

“It’s easy for them to work secretly. It also has great Internet infrastructure,” says Kim Heung-kwang, a former Pyongyang computer science professor who escaped North Korea in 2004. Kim says some of his own students became cyber warriors for the hacker network. “By day, they worked regular jobs. But the rest of the time, they were acting on orders from Pyongyang,” he says.

Kim claims North Korean hackers operated secretly in Shenyang for years, moving from location to location to conceal their whereabouts and activities. “Bureau 121 began its large-scale operation in China in 2005. It was established in the late 90s,” Kim says.

“Team members entered China separately — in smaller groups — 20 members at a time,” he says. “When they entered China, they came under different titles. For example an office worker, an official with a trade company or even as a diplomatic staffer.”

Long before North Korea had its own Internet, it dialed in to servers in Shenyang, in Liaoning Province, in the country’s north. Today, nearly all of North Korea’s Internet traffic is still routed through China.

Kim says the operation in China scaled back considerably a few years ago, when North Korea expanded its high speed Internet access. But he believes hackers are still operating in Shenyang.

“North Korea does have illicit activities in China,” says Steve Sin, a terrorism expert at the University of Maryland and former U.S. military intelligence analyst. Sin wrote a report naming Shenyang as a North Korean hacker hub. “It has the location, security, as well as infrastructure,” Sin says.

“Right now, the best information available to us is that they are still conducting such an operation and they can still conduct such an operation from that location.”