Monthly Archives: June 2015

Watchdog warns of North Korean money laundering

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The Paris-based Financial Action Task Force, a money laundering watchdog, last week reaffirmed its earlier decision to put North Korea on its watch list because of North Korea’s “failure to address the significant deficiencies in its anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism,” the task force said in a public statement released on its website. It said that failure poses “serious threat to the integrity of the international financial system.”

The group also expressed concern about North Korea’s noncompliance with its recommendations to fight money laundering.

In an apparent attempt to ease financial sanctions by the United States and the United Nations some time back, North Korea promised steps to address money laundering concerns. In July 2014, Pyongyang announced it had joined the Asian affiliate of the anti-money laundering body as an observer. Later, North Korea sent a letter to the FATF indicating its commitment to implementing actions recommended by the group.


North Korean refugees endure rape and starvation

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Rape and repeated sexual abuse of female North Korean refugees is extremely common. Many defectors have testified it was common for military men to rape women in North Korea and then shame them for being sexually assaulted. Many were forced to abort children conceived through these rapes.

This echos the tale of Park Yeonmi, a refugee who has traveled the world to create awareness and alarm regarding the situation in North Korea. A Chinese soldier raped Park’s mother in front of her; her mother had sacrificed herself to prevent her young child from having to endure the rape herself.

Another woman, Song Kyong-ok, lost her mother, whom the local government chose to execute when the girl was ten-years-old. She had been caught praying, which UPI describes as “an act of treason.” During her time as an orphan in North Korea, Song “was forced into the streets to beg for food, finding it in the unlikeliest of places–such as unpicked fecal matter containing edible kernels of corn.”

The allure of escaping the yoke of Kim Jong-un is enough to attract thousands to try to escape, triggering increased vigilance on the part of the North Korean government.

China has also pressured North Korea to keep its people from using China as a bridge to South Korea. Many who defect from North Korea have experienced severe trauma, and some have raised the ire of the Chinese government.


The night I helped my mother escape North Korea

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Extracted from The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee:

I set my phone to silent, dressed myself entirely in black and walked calmly and purposefully through the hotel lobby. Outside I hailed a cab and directed the driver to take me to the point where the town ended, about 200 yards from the river. There, at the end of a row of low buildings, was the derelict house among the trees where I was to meet my mother and brother. I crouched down behind an old garden wall and waited. … I peeped over the wall and saw North Korean border patrols passing on the opposite bank of the river.

‘I had not seen my mother in 11 years. In the half-light I saw a strained, old face and a body moving stiffly’

My phone was buzzing. Min-ho’s voice was fast and tense: “We’ve had a problem.” Quickly Min-ho explained that just as he and my mother had been about to cross they had walked straight into a border guard.

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Famine and further malnutrition projected for North Koreans

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Even a simple piece of fruit was unfamiliar to Lee So-yeon when she fled North Korea seven years ago. She had never seen an orange. So when she came across one at a South Korean market, she bit into it like an apple — peel and all.

During the famine of the 1990s, Lee was forced to eat grass from the mountains to survive. “We were told that any grass that rabbits eat is edible,” she says. “So we picked any grass we could find that wasn’t poisonous and mixed it with rice, or used it to make grass porridge…. Children were suffering from malnutrition. Their stomachs were very swollen. … Their whole faces were covered with fine hair and their hair was a very light brown color instead of black. Their arms and legs were so skinny they looked like tree branches.”

Now, North Koreans are again facing a “looming humanitarian disaster” according to the United Nations human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who told CNN, “We call for the international community to support the DPRK and help the DPRK in a respect of what is going to be a very difficult famine. … You may well see starvation on a massive scale unless there’s a massive relief effort in the weeks and months to come.”

The Asia deputy regional director for the U.N. World Food Programme, John Aylieff says. “It doesn’t take long for malnutrition to spike … So a short and fairly serious shock to the food system of the country can create quite serious implications for the population.”

State media, which usually paint only a rosy picture of life for North Korea’s citizens, have been publishing reports about what they call the worst drought in 100 years.

“Their decision to officially report the drought in their internal media is remarkable,” says Andrei Lankov, a professor at South Korea’s Kookmin University. “It’s a signal to both domestic and foreign audience that probably something will go bad later this year. So they will probably apply for foreign aid.”


Following North Korean defectors on their exodus

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Much of the information we get about North Korea comes from people who’ve escaped the regime and sought refuge in South Korea, or from the people who do business along the river border that separates China and North Korea.

Lee Hark-joon, a journalist for the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest newspaper, sheds new light on the ordinary lives of North Koreans with his extraordinary book “Crossing Heaven’s Border,” in which Lee focuses on everyday people, telling stories of “common hardships,” as he puts it. It grew out of a documentary he made with the same name, which was broadcast on PBS in 2009 and was nominated for an Emmy in 2010.

To get these stories, Lee did something unprecedented – he “embedded” with North Korean defectors. Between 2007 to 2011, Lee lived among North Korean defectors in China, enduring some of the same hardships that these terrified escapees endured. He takes incredible risks to tell these stories; the book at times reads like a thriller as Lee makes a perilous, 12,000-mile journey through China, across into Laos and then Thailand.

Lee’s book is compelling because it offers a fresh perspective on the puzzle that is North Korea. He writes about the challenges he faced in reporting on this story and the ethical questions he encountered, and the toll it took on him as a person.        Read more

Motivated to accompany North Korean defectors in their escape

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Lee Hark-joon, a journalist for South Korea’s largest newspaper who’s now in England working on another project, answered some questions from The Washington Post about his work and his book “Crossing Heaven’s Border”.

WP: First up, kudos to you. You lived among North Koreans on and off for years, taking many of the same risks they did. What motivated you to go above and beyond the call of duty like this?

LHJ: In 2007, my boss suggested that I do a piece about the human rights situation of North Korean defectors. At that time, reporting related to North Korean defectors was mostly done by international media, but my boss pointed out it was an issue about our nation so South Korean media needed to take charge of the issue.

It’s an issue about real people. I was thrilled to cross borders with defectors and see them finally find freedom. I often wonder if the purpose of my education and becoming a journalist was to feel this joy.

I wasn’t able to help the defectors but they helped me. When we were crossing the border between China and Laos, our group included a woman in her 60s and a boy. We embarked on a journey walking 18 hours in the mountains. I was so worried that someone in the group may not be able to make it but I was sure of myself as I had completed my military service. Surprisingly, I was the one who began to fall behind.

The North Koreans’ passion for life and freedom helped them overcome their age and physical disadvantages. I was holding the group back so I asked them to leave me and go on. For them, being captured could lead to their repatriation to North Korea, but for me, my punishment would just be spending some time in Chinese prison.

But they didn’t leave me. They said they couldn’t abandon a journalist, a Korean like them. They carried my bags and pulled me by my hand and we finally crossed the border together. Maybe this kind of experience, relying on each other and meeting people who care for others, kept me going and working on this issue for such a long time.

I consider North Korean defectors as “the Jews of Asia.” It’s been a long time since the Holocaust but the world remembers it. It should be the same for North Korean defectors. …. I hope more attention will be given to them until their misery is over.

[Washington Post blog]

Why some North Korean defectors tend to exaggerate

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In the past in South Korea, when defection from North Korea was rare, we used the term “returned hero” to refer to a North Korean defector. The South Korean government offered a lot of money and support for their resettlement. That kind of support doesn’t exist anymore.

When they’re in China or in Russia, North Korean defectors tend to think they would be fully satisfied if they just had freedom. But when they arrive in South Korea they find it hard to accept the reality that they’re no longer treated as returned heroes but instead have to settle down to life as second-class citizens.

In this situation, some people exaggerate their stories. Why do they exaggerate?

Exposure to media leads to opportunities for speeches at churches in South Korea and the U.S. A defector gets paid. As the world started to pay more attention to North Korean defector issues, more defectors seek fame. Some end up believing in their exaggerated stories, and the media plays an important role in this process.

North Korean defectors have [experienced] serious trauma and they tend to maximize their damages. Media outlets look for more sensational stories. In other words, they want North Korean defectors who are selling attractive stories. NGOs, the South Korean and American governments want sensational stories as they believe they can put more pressure on North Korea about its human rights issue with a symbolic figure.

It is sad because the North Korean defector situation deserves international attention by itself.

I did a lot of my interviews in border areas between China and North Korea.  … People don’t tend to lie about themselves when they’re in imminent danger. I believe they were pure and honest at that moment. … Maybe that is why defectors I’ve interviewed tend not to exaggerate.

[Excerpts of a Washington Post interview with Lee Hark-joon, a journalist for the Chosun Ilbo]

North Korea the problem child of Asia

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Despite needing Beijing more than anyone else, North Korea, the nuclear-armed problem child of Asia, has frozen out its only real friend.

China’s new ambassador, the high-flying diplomat Li Jinjun, was appointed in mid-March yet has not met North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un nor had his credentials accepted. It is an unprecedented snub from the hermit kingdom to its powerful friend – and the latest sign of a growing impulsivity that has Korea watchers and seasoned diplomats deeply worried.

Stability under the 32-year-old Kim, who took power in late 2011, is shakier than it has been in a long time, prompting fears the Korean peninsula could crumble in ways that cannot be predicted or managed at a time when the region has enough flashpoints to worry about. Speaking of Kim Jong-un, one seasoned Asian diplomat commented, “Kim’s father and grandfather were as tough as you can get, they were ruthless dictators, but they were not reckless. This guy has the same brutality but with more recklessness.”

Determined to stamp his ruthless authority, Kim has shrugged off Beijing’s restraining hand and embarked on bloody purges. This included the execution of his own uncle, Jang Song-thaek, the final straw for Beijing because Jang was the point man on economic co-operation between the two countries. The purges have escalated in recent months.

Pyongyang also abruptly cancelled a planned visit by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon – which would have been the first by a UN leader since 1993. Three weeks earlier, Kim cancelled a planned visit to Moscow – reportedly annoying Vladimir Putin.

China’s biggest worry is that North Korea will collapse and unify with the south in a democratic, pro-Washington state. While Kim’s brutality is probably making some North Korean elites jittery, nobody is game to predict an internal collapse just yet.

[Sydney Morning Herald]

A North Korean defector’s observation on life in America

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After his father died of starvation during the North Korean famine of the 1990s and his mother and sister went to China, Joseph Kim was left living on the streets, having to steal and beg to survive. He was eventually liberated by a charity at the age of 16 and resettled in the US.

Asked in a Reddit AMA what he was “most surprised to learn about the world once [he] left North Korea”, you might have expected Kim to reference the enormity of skyscrapers, the prevalence of fast food or the pace of life.

His answer was much more personal, and incredibly touching. “Coming to America, probably the biggest shocking moment was how everyone was living different lives.  … going to public parks with family, refreshments and barbecues, laying on the ground – I think that was something I never really imagined. I never had that in North Korea. We never had those kind of things.”

While Kim is happy to be away from the struggles of life in North Korean and able to appreciate the simple joys of lying on the ground with loved ones, there are things he misses about the country. “I definitely miss some things. I do miss my friends, and also my hometown, my hometown has so many memories,” he said. “It’s a place that I learned how to swim in the river there, there were mountains we climbed for fun, and one thing I do really miss is the pear tree from my backyard.

Since resettling, Kim has spoken about his experiences at the UN and TED Global stage. Earlier this month, he published a memoir about his life titled ‘Under the Same Sky’.

[The Independent]

China willing to help drought-stricken North Korea

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China’s Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that the government was willing to help drought-stricken North Korea, after the isolated country said it was suffering its worst drought in a century.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a daily news briefing, “China is willing to provide the aid that is needed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” he added, without providing details.

China’s ties with North Korea have been strained over Pyongyang’s banned nuclear program. North Korea is under United Nations sanctions because of its nuclear tests and missile launches.

Beijing is Pyongyang’s last major ally, but relations have soured in recent years, while Beijing has grown closer to Seoul.

However, China is still a significant source of aid to North Korea, much of which happens off book.