Monthly Archives: July 2015

Canadian pastor detained in North Korea ‘admits to subversive plots’

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A South Korean news agency is reporting that a Canadian pastor detained in North Korea has confessed to “subversive plots” against the Communist state during a televised news conference.

Yonhap says Rev. Hyeon Soo Lim of the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Mississauga, Ontario, is quoted by the Korean Central News Agency as saying he was “a servant of the U.S. imperialists and South Korean puppet group.”

A church spokeswoman says Lim was on a humanitarian mission to North Korea when he was detained in early February. Lisa Pak says the 60-year-old Christian missionary left Canada on Jan. 27 with stops in South Korea and China before crossing into North Korea on Jan. 31.

She says Lim’s family remains hopeful he will be released at some point, but didn’t want to comment on the reports of his alleged confessions. A Foreign Affairs spokeswoman says the government is “deeply concerned” and continues to try to arrange consular access and a find resolution to his case.

At Thursday’s news conference, Lim reportedly said that he travelled to several parts of the country pretending to deliver aid, but his real purpose was “to build a base to overthrow the system of the country and create a religious state.” He then went on to apologize for his “indescribable treason.”

Pak says the pastor has a deep love for the North Korean people, which is the reason he has visited the country more than 100 times. Lim’s family has previously said that much of his work has focused on the impoverished country’s northeastern region of Rason. Pak said he has also helped out schools, an orphanage and a nursing home.

[Brandon Sun]

Kang Chol Hwan and three-generation re-education for treason

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Kang Chol Hwan was 9 years old when his grandfather, a high-level government official and ethnic Korean immigrant from Japan, suddenly disappeared. Within a few weeks, soldiers came for the rest of his family, summarily stating that Kang’s grandfather had been convicted of “high treason” but giving no details. The entire three-generation family would immediately be sent to a reeduca­tion camp. The government confiscated the family’s house and nearly all its possessions, though the soldiers took pity on the tearful Kang and allowed him to carry out an aquarium of his favorite tropical fish. Soon after the family’s arrival at the Yodok concentration camp in the country’s northeastern mountains, the fish floated dead in their tank.

The family would spend the next decade in one of Kim Il-sung’s most notorious gulags. Kang’s daily life alternated between school—rote memorization of communist propaganda—and slave labor in the camp’s cornfields, lumberyards, and gold mines. For a time, Kang’s work detail included burying the corpses of prisoners who died daily from starvation or perished in mine cave-ins and dynamite accidents.

Children who disobeyed even slightly were beaten. Adult transgressors spent days, or even months, in the sweatbox, a tiny windowless shack in which victims could only crouch on hands and knees. Sometimes prisoners, including Kang, would be required to witness executions. Once he and other inmates were ordered to stone the hanging corpses of would-be escapees. “The skin on the victims’ faces eventually came undone and nothing remained of their clothing but a few bloody shreds,” Kang would later describe it. “I had the strange feeling of being swallowed up in a world where the earth and sky had changed places.”

As the years passed, Kang became a resourceful survivor. He learned to eat wild salamanders in a single swallow and catch rats with a lasso he designed out of wire. Their meat sustained him and several family members on the verge of starvation through winters at subzero temperatures.     Continued 

Kang Chol Hwan discovers the outside world through radio

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When Kang Chol Hwan was 18, the guards announced one day without preamble that his family would be released from the Yodok concentration camp as a demonstration of leader Kim Il-sung’s generosity. Except Kang’s grandfather—he had been assigned to a different camp, his treason still unexplained. Kang never saw him again.

In his postprison life as a deliveryman in the western county of Pyungsung, Kang harbored few illusions about the corruption of the North Korean regime. But it wasn’t until around three years later that he accessed the information that crystallized his contempt. It came from a pirate radio.

A friend gave Kang two radio receivers. Kang paid a bribe to avoid registering one with police, and he learned how to disassemble its case and remove the filament that hardwired it to official regime frequencies. He and his closest confidants would huddle under a blanket—to muffle the sound from eavesdroppers—and listen to Voice of America, Christian stations, and the South’s Korean Broadcasting System. “At first I didn’t believe it,” he says. “Then I started to believe but felt guilty for listening. Eventually, I couldn’t stop.”

Under their blanket, they relearned all of North Korea’s history, including the fact that the North, not the South, had started the Korean War. Beginning in 1989, they followed the breakdown of Soviet Eastern Europe and the execution of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, a close friend of Kim Il-sung. They heard the music of Simon and Garfunkel and Michael Jackson, even learning the lyrics and softly singing along. “Listening to the radio gave us the words we needed to express our dissatisfaction,” Kang would later write. “Every program, each new discovery, helped us tear a little freer from the enveloping web of deception.”       Continued

Kang Chol Hwan and The Aquariums of Pyongyang

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A contact in the local government warned [North Korean defector Kang Chol Hwan that one of his companions] had told the police about Kang’s secret radio sessions. He was under surveillance and faced potential arrest and reassignment to a labor camp. Posing as a businessman, he bribed border guards on the Yalu River and escaped to Dalian, China, and finally to Seoul.

After his escape Kang wrote a memoir, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, originally published in French in 2000 and a year later translated into English. It was a revelation: the most detailed account yet of life in North Korea’s gulags. Kang was asked to speak around the world, touring Ivy League schools and European conferences. President George W. Bush invited him to visit the White House, where they discussed his homeland’s growing human rights crisis.

Back in South Korea, Kang’s story had no such impact. President Kim Dae-jung had won a Nobel Prize for the South’s so-called Sunshine Policy of compromise with the North to reestablish diplomatic ties. Kang’s story was seen as unfashionably antagonistic to the Kim regime and largely ignored.

By 2005, Kang had given up hope that South Korea or the rest of the world would act against the North Korean government. Change, he decided, would have to come from within, through the same life-altering education he had received from his illegal radio. He flipped his strategy: Instead of working to tell the world about the horrors of North Korea, he would work to tell North Koreans about the world.

That year, a Christian radio station donated 5,000 portable windup radios to Kang’s newly formed organization NKSC. Through defector contacts in China, he smuggled them into houses along North Korea’s Tumen River border. With funding from private donors and governments it declines to name, NKSC has since grown to 15 paid staffers, including independent operators along the Chinese border, each with their own contacts in North Korea.

Kang Chol-hwan founded the dissident group NKSC, focused on injecting foreign media into North Korea. Here he holds a popular video player known in the country as a notel.

He’s looking at ways the American tech community could advance NKSC’s mission. And in conjunction with the Human Rights Foundation, it’s been talking to Silicon Valley types about building new tools—everything from a small concealable satellite dish to steganographic videogames that hide illegal data.


Smuggling the outside world into North Korea

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On a cloudy, moonless night somewhere in northeastern China, three men creep through a stand of Japanese Clethra trees. They carry no flashlights, and the sky is so dark that they hear the sound of the rushing Tumen River before they see it: They’ve arrived at the North Korean border.

Earlier in the evening at a nearby restaurant, they treated the local Chinese police chief and head of the border patrol to a blowout feast.  Following an after-meal session of pricey Chunghwa cigarettes and shots of Moutai liquor, the officials made phone calls telling subordinates to abandon their posts for several hours.

A middle-aged North Korean defector named Jung Kwang-il, steps into the tall weeds of the riverbank. He pulls out a cheap laser pointer and flashes it across the water. Then he waits for a response: If he sees an X slashed through the air by a laser on the opposite bank, the operation will be called off. Instead, he’s answered with a red circle painted through the darkness.

USB drives about to be smuggled into North Korea, across the Tumen River

Soon after, a compact man dressed in only a hoodie and boxer shorts wades out of the waist-high water and onto the riverbank where Jung and his companions stand. Jung arranged the meeting earlier in the day using coded language over walkie-talkies. Jung hands the man a tightly wrapped plastic bag containing a trove of precious black-market data: 200 Sandisk USB drives and 300 micro SD cards, each packed with 16 gigabytes of videos like LucySon of God22 Jump Street, and entire seasons of South Korean reality television shows, comedies, and soap operas.

The man in the hoodie slings the bag of digital contraband over his shoulder. Then he says good-bye and disappears back into the world’s deepest black hole of information. Continued

Freeing North Koreans through smuggled USB drives

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North Korean defector Kang Chol-hwan  founded North Korea Strategy Center and over the past few years, Kang’s organization has become the largest in a movement of political groups who routinely smuggle data into North Korea. NKSC alone annually injects around 3,000 USB drives filled with foreign movies, music, and ebooks.

Kang’s goal, as wildly optimistic as it may sound, is nothing less than the overthrow of the North Korean government. He believes that the Kim dynasty’s three-generation stranglehold on the North Korean people—and its draconian restriction on almost any information about the world beyond its borders—will ultimately be broken not by drone strikes or caravans of Humvees but by a gradual, guerrilla invasion of thumb drives filled with bootleg episodes of Friends and Judd Apatow comedies.

Kang’s NKSC, with its pop cultural offerings, capitalizes on North Korea’s flowering black markets. The group’s smugglers inside the country are motivated by profit as much as politics: A USB stick loaded with contraband films sells for more than a month’s food budget for most middle-class North Korean families. A pack of hundreds represents a small fortune. “In North Korea a USB drive is like gold,” one NKSC smuggler tells me.

Kang likens the USB sticks to the red pill from The Matrix: a mind-altering treatment that has the power to shatter a world of illusions. “When North Koreans watch Desperate Housewives, they see that Americans aren’t all war-loving imperialists,” Kang says. “They’re just people having affairs or whatever. They see the leisure, the freedom. They realize that this isn’t the enemy; it’s what they want for themselves. It cancels out everything they’ve been told. And when that happens, it starts a revolution in their mind. Continued

Every USB drive causes 100 citizens to question North Korea

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The state propaganda system of North Korea indoctrinates its 25 million citizens from birth, insisting that the Kim family is infallible and that the country enjoys a superior standard of living. (In a ranking of 197 countries’ press freedom by research group Freedom House, North Korea places last.) It sees any attempt to introduce competing ideas, even the possession of a radio capable of accessing foreign frequencies, as a threat to its power.

A growing movement of North Korean defector activist groups, including Kang Chol-hwan’s NKSC and others, like North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity and Fighters for a Free North Korea, views that reliance on ideological control as a weakness: Outside data is now penetrating North Korea’s borders more than ever before.

Kang appears on a top-10 list of North Korean defector assassination targets. His quiet demeanor masks a deep, lifelong anger directed at North Korea’s dictatorship, which held him and his entire family in a prison camp for 10 years of his childhood.

“What I do is what Kim Jong-un fears most,” says one smuggler. “For every USB drive I send across, there are perhaps 100 North Koreans who begin to question why they live this way. Why they’ve been put in a jar.”

For Kang, that makes each of those coveted flash drives a self-propelled weapon in a free-market information insurgency. “Right now, perhaps 30 percent of the population in North Korea knows about the outside world,” Kang says. “If you reach 50 percent, that’s enough people to start making demands, to start making changes.”

And if that enlightened audience reaches 80 percent? Or 90 percent? Kang leans forward. “Then there’s no way the North Korean government, in its current form, could continue to exist.”


Half of North Koreans to encounter food shortages by 2025

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts half of North Korea’s population is expected to suffer from food shortages in 2025 due to income inequality and uneven distribution.

The USDA’s most recent report on international food security, an annual assessment that provides a global overview and forecasts, stated that by 2025 around half, or at least 13 million North Koreans could be subjected to an inadequate diet of less than 2,100 calories per day – the recommended number of calories the U.N. says is the minimum number the average person needs to stay healthy.

The report said faulty policies and structural problems in the country were causing North Korea’s chronic food shortages, South Korean news agency Yonhap reported.

The USDA research indicated, however, the food distribution gap is expected to shrink between 2015 and 2025, from 235,000 to 140,000 tons. In other words 140,000 tons of supplementary food would be needed in ten years to meet the needs of low-income North Koreans who cannot afford to feed themselves.


China still betting on North Korea as business gamble

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At China’s very farthest limits, a town sandwiched between North Korea and Russia stands at the heart of Beijing’s plan to revitalize its bleak, frigid northeastern rustbelt. Less than 70 kilometres away in North Korea, the port of Rason offers access to the sea and a shorter trade route to Japan, one of China’s biggest trading partners, than almost any of its own harbors. But the ambitious plan relies on Russian and North Korean co-operation and implementation, making it a monumental gamble.

Hunchun has a population of only 225,000 but received investments totaling more than $16 billion last year from government and private sources, according to the commerce ministry. A high-speed railway running 225 miles and connecting it to the Jilin provincial capital Changchun is slated to open by October. City officials have budgeted to build a tri-national tourist zone enabling visitors to play golf in Russia during the day, dine in China and then gamble at a North Korean casino for the evening. But North Korea can be a difficult business partner.

China’s biggest joint economic project with the North so far has been in Rason, a special economic zone where it invested in two ports. But visitors describe little shipping and only a handful of operating businesses, while many Hunchun locals say relations with North Korea have been frigid in recent years.

Two Chinese entrepreneurs who have done business in Rason said their confidence was deeply shaken in 2013 when Pyongyang purged and executed Jang Song-Thaek — previously its point man on relations with China. In the article announcing his death and branding him a “traitor”, the official Korean Central News Agency said Jang sold “off the land of the Rason economic and trade zone to a foreign country for a period of five decades”.

“Doing business in North Korea is completely unpredictable, they’re really irresponsible,” Peter Wu told AFP. He has been negotiating for almost a year to build a factory in North Korea to make a medicinal herbal drink for export to China, but after spending more than 100,000 yuan has nothing to show for his efforts. “There’s silence for months on the North Korean side and then finally, just when you think you’ve reached a deal, all the rules change and you need to start over.”


North Korean defector Eun Kim on adapting to South Korea

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In  A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape From North Korea, Eunsun Kim gives us a glimpse into everyday life in North Korea behind the “Bamboo Curtain.” She now lives in Seoul and offers insights on the major differences between North and South Korean culture:

North and South Korea both speak Korean, but for North Korean refugees the most difficult thing is the language difference. In South Korea, they speak “Konglish”. A lot of words are different.

Communication is very different. North Koreans communicate more directly; South Koreans communicate indirectly. For example, if a North Korean refugee has a job interview, and the owner says, ‘I will call you if we need you,’ the North Korean refugee will wait for a month for the company to call. Then, he will call the company back and say, ‘You said you would call me, but you didn’t, what’s happened?’

The humor is also different. Even today, if I watch a [South Korean comedy], I won’t laugh because I don’t find it funny.

The most difficult thing [about adapting to life in South Korea] was the loneliness, because we had no relatives there. But it was a new place and we had to learn—like a baby taking its first steps—how to go the market, how to ask a question, everything. When I went to high school, the most confusing thing was learning about Korea. In North Korea, we learned South Korea invaded. Here they taught us that North Korea invaded South Korea.

North Korea is a big prison. People live there, but they have no human rights. So we need to open the prison and give people freedom. It’s not only North Korea’s problem.  It’s a global problem.

I believe a little movement can bring huge change in North Korea. It’s already changing faster than ever before. Videos and USB’s are being smuggled in from South Korea all the time and through those media young people are learning about other worlds outside North Korea and to have their own ideas.

And even if Kim Jung Un is a psychopath, he’s trying to change things, he seems to be shifting North Korea towards capitalism. Before, North Korea really hated Western things. Now a lot of people use these things.

[National Geographic]