Monthly Archives: March 2015

No apology from North Korea for sinking of Cheonan 5 years ago

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North Korea has rejected South Korean calls for an apology over the sinking of a warship, calling it an “intolerable mockery”. The move comes as South Korea prepares to mark five years since the Cheonan went down on 26 March 2010 with the loss of 46 lives.

Seoul says Pyongyang torpedoed the ship, but North Korea rejects this. It described the theory that North Korea sank the ship as “fictitious”.

The warship went down off an island near the disputed inter-Korean western maritime border. An investigation into the disaster involving South Korean and international experts found that a North Korean torpedo sank the ship. Pyongyang does not accept this and offered at the time to conduct its own investigation, an offer that was turned down.

Since then, ties between the two nations – which remain technically at war – have remained icy. There has also been no movement since 2009 on six-nation talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

Tensions are currently high on the peninsula because annual US-South Korea joint military drills are under way. The exercises always anger North Korea.

Pyongyang has also threatened to respond with “firepower” to South Korean activists who want to use balloons to fly propaganda leaflets and DVDs of The Interview – a film depicting a plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un – across the inter-Korean border.


Activist Park Sang-hak delays launch of ‘The Interview’ into North Korea

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South Korean activists have decided that the time is not yet right to attempt to fly balloons into North Korea carrying copies of “The Interview,” a comedy that depicts an assassination attempt on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Fighters for a Free North Korea, the group planning the airlift, told Voice of America on Monday that they would postpone, by at least a few days, Thursday’s planned launch of the balloons.

In a telephone interview last week with the Los Angeles Times, group leader Park Sang-hak said he wanted North Koreans to watch “The Interview” so they could see the country’s rulers, who are glorified in state-controlled films and television, in a different way. Though he believes “The Interview” is a useful contradiction of North Korean state propaganda, Park says the film wasn’t to his taste, with jokes he found to be somewhat crude.

Park fled the North in 1999 and now lives in South Korea, where he devotes his time to sending information to North Korea using USB sticks, DVDs and pamphlets. He describes his work as a campaign to undermine the Pyongyang government’s tight control on information.

Park is regularly the target of vitriol from North Korea’s official propaganda organs, which have called him “human scum” and threatened to “physically eliminate” him.

Park’s efforts have also made him unpopular among some South Koreans. In October, North Korea used machine guns to fire on some balloons his group launched. Shells landed on the South Korean side of the border, but no injuries or casualties were reported. South Korea residents of the area have held protests when the launches take place, arguing that the balloons pose a threat to their community’s safety.

[LA Times]

North Korea warns against airdropping DVDs of ‘The Interview’

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North Korea’s military on Sunday threatened to blow up balloons that South Korean activists plan to send over the heavily-militarized border carrying 10,000 DVDs of the satirical Hollywood film “The Interview”.

Activists plan to launch copies of the film, as well as 500,000 propaganda leaflets, across the border on or around March 26. The activists remained tight-lipped about the exact location and time for the launch.

Pyongyang has long condemned such balloon launches and threatened retaliation, and local residents have complained the activists are putting their lives at risk by making them potential targets.

“All the firepower strike means of the frontline units of the (Korean People’s Army) will launch without prior warning… to blow up balloons,” the North’s frontline military units said in a notice to the South. It said the launch would constitute “the gravest politically-motivated provocation” against North Korea and “a de facto declaration of a war”, according to Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency. The move is aimed at “deliberately escalating tension on the Korean peninsula where the situation has reached the brink of a war due to… joint war rehearsals” by South Korea and the United States, it said.

In October last year North Korean soldiers attempted to shoot down some balloons, triggering a brief exchange of heavy machine-gun fire across the border.

The launch will mark the five-year anniversary of the sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010, with the loss of 46 sailors.


Skirting North Korean sanctions at the grassroots level

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Since the start of the Korean War in 1950, when it included North Korea in the “Trading With the Enemy Act”, the United States has sought to restrict North Korea’s ability to bank and trade. This has tightened markedly over the past decade, with the United States imposing rounds of sanctions designed to curtail North Korea’s ability to procure materials for its nuclear weapons program by shutting the country out of the international financial system.

The restrictions hurt at first, but North Korea wised up. It uses small banks in China or Russia to transfer money—several banks in Dandong, a Chinese  city just over the border from North Korea, said it was possible to wire money to Pyongyang, for a hefty commission—or simply reverts to old-fashioned suitcases full of cash, which are much harder to stop with sanctions.

There is a sense in the Chinese border town of Dandong that sanctions are an issue for Washington and Beijing but that they don’t apply here on the border. “I’m just a local businessman,” one Chinese businessman said, adding that sanctions “apply to big, international companies, not to private individuals like us,” clearly considering his business with North Korea domestic. “Anyway, we find ways to get around them.”

For North Korean individuals who make money on the Chinese side of the border, one question is how to get it back. Everyone interviewed said that it is entirely possible to send cash to North Korea—people usually just carry it in bags over the bridge—and that while there might technically be limits on how much a person can carry, in practice there are no checks, or at least no checks that cannot be overcome by greasing a few palms.

Politics and economics are not entirely intertwined. “China and North Korea are like lips and teeth,” said a North Korean factory manager, repeating an old saying about the neighbors.

[Washington Post]

North Korean Ambassador calls defectors animals and human scum

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North Korea’s ambassador to the UK, Hyun Hak-bong, has said that his country is ready “anytime” to launch nuclear missiles. Asked if they would be prepared to “press the button first” rather than wait until the US makes the first strike, he said: “We are peace-loving people. We do not want war. But we are not afraid of war. This is our policy of the government.”

Mr Hak-bong also called defectors who have escaped from North Korea “human scum” and “animals” while the United Nations Security Council launches another investigation into the country’s human rights record.

Hak-bong said: “Those allegations are based on fabricated stories by the defectors from the North. “Do you know the difference between human beings and animals? Human beings have a conscience and morality. If they do not have a conscience and a morality, they are like nothing. … They’re animals. That is why we call the defectors animals. They are no better than animals. They’re human scum.”

Around 70 per cent of defectors who have settled in South Korea since 1998 are women in their 30s. The majority leave due to economic difficulties and the want of freedom.

Men often cite life-threatening situations, dislike of the government and persecution by the state as reasons to escape the country, according to South Korea government data.

[Times of India]

Smuggled gold and diplomat kingpins

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Last week a North Korean diplomat was caught smuggling gold estimated to be worth £1m ($1.4 M) from Singapore to Bangladesh. The route of travel and amount of gold seized suggests that North Korea was probably in the process of paying for something, but for what remains unclear.

A recent UN security council report suggests that this a common tactic employed by the country to evade sanctions. The report, chaired by a UN panel of experts on North Korea, focuses on the procurement networks established by Pyongyang, which have allowed it to continue trading illegally with international partners.

Of central importance are North Korean diplomats, officials and trade representatives who are key nodes arranging deals, organizing payments and helping contractors to bypass customs agencies, the report says.

Sanctions against North Korea is not working as well as some might have hoped, and Obama’s mantra of “strategic patience” has come under criticism from some North Korea observers. There are increasing calls for a change of tack. John Delury from 38 North, a group of North Korean analysts, argues that the US president should be the one to lead a proactive, strategic and effective dialogue with North Korea.

[The Guardian]

Character assassination of defectors by North Korean regime

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Defector Park Sang-hak (see photo at left), who launches helium balloons laden with USB sticks and anti-regime leaflets into North Korean airspace, has been called “human scum” by the North Korean regime, who will “pay for his crimes in blood”.

Sometimes these North Korean government threats go beyond mere rhetoric: in 2011, a hitman with a poison-tipped needle was intercepted on his way to kill another North Korean activist, Yeon-mi Park, living in South Korea.

In 1997 the nephew of one of Kim Jong-il’s mistresses was gunned down outside Seoul; he had recently published an expose about the dictator’s family.

But the regime’s most common weapon against its critics is character assassination.

North Korea has tried – unsuccessfully – to discredit a hard-hitting UN reposrt because one of its well-known witnesses, Shin Dong-hyuk, later admitted to changing parts of his biography. “The fundamental building blocks of Shin’s story remain the same,” says Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. “He was still a political prisoner and still tortured.” But the controversy highlights a tragic catch-22: sometimes the traumatic firsthand experiences that make defectors such powerful witnesses also make them vulnerable to assaults on their credibility.

“One of the very few growing industries in North Korea is this operation of trying to compromise defectors and witnesses,” says Scarlatoiu. The smears and threats have ramped up in the wake of a UN report documenting crimes against humanity in North Korea and recommending that the case be referred to the International Criminal Court. The UN findings were based on the testimony of more than 300 defectors who painted a picture of institutionalized cruelty within the regime, including mass incarceration in forced labor camps.

 [The Guardian]

Yeon-mi Park the tiny woman facing the wrath of North Korea Part 1

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What does a nuclear power with the fifth largest army in the world have to fear from a pint-sized university student in a pink frock? A great deal, apparently.

On 31 January 2015, a North Korean government-run website posted an 18-minute video titled The Human Rights Propaganda Puppet, Yeon-mi Park, which denounced the charismatic 21-year-old North Korean defector. It was the latest attack in a smear campaign aimed at silencing Yeon-mi, a human rights activist and outspoken critic of the world’s most repressive and secretive regime.

Last fall, Yeon-mi took the podium at the One Young World Summit in Dublin, and became a YouTube sensation. Looking like a fragile porcelain doll dressed in a flowing pink hanbok (traditional Korean dress), Yeon-mi told a harrowing and heartbreaking story: “North Korea is an unimaginable country,” she began in halting English. … When she was nine years old she saw her friend’s mother publicly executed for a minor infraction.

When she was 13, she fled into China, only to see her mother raped by a human trafficker. Her father later died in China, where she buried his ashes in secret. “I couldn’t even cry,” she said. “I was afraid to be sent back to North Korea.”

Eventually Yeon-mi and her mother escaped into Mongolia by walking and crawling across the frozen Gobi desert.

By the time Yeon-mi had finished with a plea to “shed light on the darkest place in the world”, the whole audience was in tears and on its feet. Yeon-mi became the human face of North Korea’s oppressed.

Attacks on prominent North Korean defectors are nothing new. These individuals regularly endure charges that they lie and exaggerate. Occasionally there are death threats. But the regime’s most common weapon against its critics is character assassination.

Read more about Yeon-mi Park 

Yeon-mi Park the tiny woman facing the wrath of North Korea Part 2

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As Yeon-mi’s “collaborator” – a publishing term for a writer who helps an author find her voice and turn her story into a narrative – I was immediately taken with the power of Yeon-mi’s testimony, as well as the warmth of her personality and her playful sense of humor. It was hard to fathom how this vibrant young woman could have suffered such an ordeal.

As soon as we began working together, I noticed there were some minor discrepancies in the articles written about Yeon-mi, a jumbling of dates and places and some inconsistent details about her family’s escape. Most of these issues could be explained by a language barrier – Yeon-mi was giving interviews in English before she was fully fluent. But Yeon-mi was also protecting a secret, something she had tried to bury and forget from the moment she arrived in South Korea at age 15: like tens of thousands of other refugees, Yeon-mi had been trafficked in China. In South Korea – and many other societies – admitting to such a “shameful” past would destroy her prospects for marriage and any sort of normal life.

She had hoped that by changing a few details about her escape she could avoid revealing the full story. But after she decided to plunge into human rights activism, she realized that without the whole truth, the story of her life would have no real power or meaning. She has apologized for any discrepancies in her public record, and is determined that her book be scrupulously accurate.

With Yeon-mi’s cooperation, I have been able to verify her story through family members and fellow defectors who knew her in North Korea and China. Sometimes Yeon-mi had forgotten or blocked out graphic details from her childhood, only to have the memories return in all their horror as we reviewed her recollections with other witnesses. It seemed that she wasn’t just remembering these things, but actually reliving them.

Dr Judith Herman, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard tells me: “Traumatized people don’t give you a perfect, complete narrative on the first go-round. You see this all the time with refugees seeking asylum. That doesn’t mean their story isn’t credible, because the gist of their story is consistent.”

[Journalist Maryanne Vollers, writing in The Guardian]

UN expert demands international action on North Korea

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The U.N.’s independent expert on the rights situation in North Korea urged the global community to resolve the fate of 200,000 people allegedly abducted by Pyongyang, and refer perpetrators to the International Criminal Court.

Addressing the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva Monday, Marzuki Darusman presented his latest report on the human rights situation in the country, including a strategy aimed at keeping the issue of abductions in the international spotlight. Darusman urged fast and effective action on the matter, noting “the victims, those who have survived, and their families are, for the most part, well advanced in the years,” and stressing “an international approach to the issue is now required.”

North Korean representative Kim Yong-Ho attacked Darusman’s report as “politicized,” telling the council the former Indonesian attorney general himself was “under manipulation of… hostile forces” and represented “their ill-minded political objectives.” He also cited recent news reports that Darusman had called for “regime change” in North Korea, accusing him of misusing “human right issues as a means to dismantle or overthrow the country’s system.”

Representatives of the European Union and Japan, which are set to table a resolution on the human rights situation in the country, were among many to hail Darusman’s report. US representative Robert King meanwhile voiced deep concern at the “widespread and gross human rights violations committed by the [North Korean] government.”  Japan’s representative Kaji Misako urged the country to “take concrete actions towards the improvement of its human rights situation, including the resolution of the issue of abduction.”

An UN-mandated investigation issued a searing report in February 2014, describing a litany of rights abuses in North Korea, including the abductions of an estimated 200,000 foreign nationals from at least 12 countries. Most of them were South Koreans left stranded after the 1950-1953 Korean War, but hundreds of others from around the world have since been taken or disappeared while visiting the secretive Stalinist state. Among those are an estimated 100 citizens of Japan believed to have been taken to train North Korean spies in Japanese language and customs.