Monthly Archives: July 2015

Two Korean languages

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South Koreans enjoy making fun of the North Korean dialect, which sounds quaint or old-fashioned to Southerners. Comedy shows parody the North’s style of pronunciation and make fun of North Korean words that went out of style in the South years ago. And all that spells trouble for North Korean defectors.

“I had a very strong North Korean accent,” says 28-year old Lee Song-ju, who defected to South Korea in 2002. “People just kept asking me about my hometown, my background. So whenever I was asked by them, I had to lie.”

Lee says South Koreans would have looked down on him if he’d told the truth. “I wouldn’t have made any friends,” he says. So Lee, like many of the 28,000 other defectors in South Korea, tried to pick up the local accent in a hurry.

But accent differences are just the start of the linguistic frustration and confusion that many North Koreans feel when they first arrive in the South. An even bigger challenge is learning all the new words South Koreans have acquired in the seven decades since partition, many of them borrowed directly from English.

Read in PRI about how South Korean researchers are trying to help recent arrivals from the North bridge that language gap. 

Eun Kim’s thousand-mile journey to freedom

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Many [North Koreans] died because of malnutrition, including my grandparents. In 1997, my father passed away too. [When I was 11] my mom sold or bartered everything from our apartment until we had nothing left. So she decided to go to the city to search for food. She left me at home, but took my older sister who’s two-years-older than me. She said she would be back in three days, but if she got food earlier she would be back sooner. She gave me 15 North Korean chon—enough to buy just one piece of tofu—and left.

Three days passed, then four, then five. I was waiting for her to come home but on the sixth day I had no energy left and thought maybe today is my last day. I wasn’t afraid of death. I had seen so many people dying during that time. What made me sad was that I felt my mom didn’t want me.  She took my other sister but didn’t come back for me.

So I decided to write a will, at 11 years old. … But on the sixth day she came back. I was happy even though she arrived empty-handed. But she didn’t give up. She didn’t leave me alone. The first words she said were, ‘let’s die together.’ But I was still happy.

We lived in Hamgyong province, in a village called Undok in the northern part of North Korea. The first time we escaped during wintertime. The river was frozen hard and we made it across. In China, we were bought by a human trafficker then repatriated to North Korea. We were regarded as traitors, so we lived as beggars on the street, sleeping under bridges or in the market.

But we had tasted freedom. Two months later, in springtime, we escaped again. My story is a common one among North Korean refugees. Many North Korean women experience human trafficking in China. But we weren’t separated, even though we were sold to a Chinese man. So we could share the sadness and challenges, even when we were in China. Even when we were repatriated to North Korea, I was with my mother. That’s why I say, we were lucky. We didn’t become separated.

Eventually, we made it to Shanghai, where we lived for almost four years. Then, through friends, we found a way to go to South Korea.

Escaping from one’s home is not a simple thing to describe in a few words. Even though I really hate the North Korean government and the Kim family, I miss my hometown, because it’s my hometown. But I had to leave to survive.

[National Geographic]

On North Korean defectors settling in South Korea

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The following is an excerpt of a Washington Post interview with Lee Hark-joon, a journalist for the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest newspaper, responding to the question “ What could the world – and South Korea in particular – be doing to better help people who have escaped from North Korea?”:

A North Korean defector I interviewed had a son with cerebral palsy … She came from an artistic group in North Korea and was good at playing musical instruments. She had the so-called “star quality” that outsiders want from a defector.

Many human rights groups, churches and TV networks wanted her to appear for lectures or shows. In short, she was offered money to sell her horrible personal stories. She asked my opinion.

My advice was this. “It’s your decision in the end, but I don’t think that kind of life is an ideal way to settle down. What if another defector emerges with more horrible or stronger stories? The attention given to you would move to the other person and you might try to make up a story to win the attention back. It’s a vicious circle. How about looking for a way to earn decent money and live with your family?”

With help of her local church and charity groups, she learned to be a hairdresser and got a job. A hospital sponsored her son’s medical treatment. She once lived in the middle of media spotlight, but she now happily lives as an ordinary citizen in Seoul with her family.

I consider this as a model case of a North Korean defector settling down in South Korea. An ordinary citizen is valued in a democratic society.

To do more of this, regular people in South Korea need to pay more attention to North Korean defectors so they can live normal lives without being tempted by human rights groups or the media to sell their stories. North Korean defectors need to get jobs without discrimination and local community need to try harder to embrace them.

Homage to Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un

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Hyeonseo Lee was raised in a relatively privileged manner, a middle-class existence because of her stepfather’s job with the North Korean military, but even so she attended her first public execution at the age of seven — a stark lesson in obedience.

Seeing a man hanged under a railway bridge — one of many such public executions that are mandatory for people to see, she says — was only one of the grotesque means of control the regime waged against its citizens.

As in many authoritarian countries, for example, Lee’s family displayed portraits of the ruling family in their home, first Great Leader Kim Il-sung, then his son and heir Dear Leader Kim Jong-il and, later, his son and heir Kim Jong-un. The government gave them a special cloth for cleaning the portraits and nothing else. The pictures had to be the most prominent in any room, hung the highest, perfectly aligned and on a wall containing no other adornment.

Once a month, Lee says, officials wearing white gloves would visit every house in her neighborhood to inspect the portraits. If one was dusty or improperly hung, the family would be punished. It was with the portraits, one under each arm, that her stepfather emerged — blackened and coughing — after running back into their burning house, risking his life for their preservation.

“It was genuine (respect) and fear mixed together,” says Lee. “They had to show they were loyal to the regime in order to survive.”                    Continued

Hyeonseo Lee now knows how naive she was

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When famine struck in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the North Korean government initiated a wide public education campaign — “Let us eat two meals a day” was the slogan, accompanied by information on how eating less was healthier.

As food distribution worsened and after the death of her stepfather, who had been arrested by military police on suspicions about his business deals and apparently killed himself while in hospital, the intense impact of famine became obvious.

“I saw people dying on the street. I was shocked. If we went near the train station or under the bridge we can easily see those dead bodies everywhere and the smells of decomposing bodies,” she says.

It troubled Lee not just emotionally, but intellectually. All her education and the propaganda told her North Korea was the greatest country on Earth, its leader could change the weather and her homeland was a beacon of light in a world immersed in darkness.

Across the river, there were the lights, twinkling in the Chinese town of Changbai. “I wanted to find out the answer myself by seeing the real life in China with my own eyes and I was very young, naive girl at the time so I was brave. I took the huge risk by crossing the border.”

The frozen river was narrow near her home and could be crossed with ease. She intended a “sneak visit,” she says, to see China, visit her father’s relatives there and return. She did not intend to defect.

But in China she saw her upbringing had been a lie. For the first time, she heard people speaking openly about the North Korean regime. She heard Kim Jong-un called a “bastard” and the country’s starvation blamed on his failed economic policy.

“It was shocking to me; how can you make fun of our Dear Leader like that?” she says. And at first it was hard to accept, she still wanted to respect her country — a common thing, she learned, for those who have just fled North Korea.

She says now she knows how naive she was, about that as well as how hard her journey would be. Walking across the river was perhaps the easiest part.

[National Post]

New York University student in North Korean jail to be set free?

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A South Korean student from New York University who is being detained in North Korea for allegedly entering the country illegally said Tuesday that he hopes to be released soon.

Won Moon Joo, who was presented to the media in North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, also said he was being treated well and asked his family not to worry too much about him.

He acknowledged breaking North Korean laws, but such admissions are often recanted by detainees after they’re set free. Detainees are also often coached ahead of time by North Korean officials as to what to say.

Joo, 21, who has permanent resident status in the United States, was arrested in April for allegedly entering North Korea illegally across the Chinese border. He did not explain why he tried to enter North Korea.

The appearance by Joo on Tuesday came as South Korea announced it had sent back two North Korean fishermen who were rescued from South Korean waters earlier this month.


China set to try jailed US missionary near North Korea border

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On July 28, China will begin the trial of a Korean-American missionary, Peter Hahn, arrested last year over a non-profit school he ran near the sensitive border with North Korea, his lawyer said. Supporters of Hahn said he was being targeted because of his Christian faith and because of the small vocational school he ran.

Authorities have dropped three of the four charges against Hahn, 74, probably for lack of evidence, his lawyer, Zhang Peihong, told Reuters, leaving only the least serious charge of counterfeiting receipts. “I wouldn’t call my attitude optimistic,” Zhang said by telephone. “After all Peter has only done good works, so he shouldn’t face any punishment. I do hope the court will act impartially.”

Hahn could receive a maximum of two years in prison, Zhang said, but he expected authorities would simply deport him back to the United States instead.

Hahn, who was formally arrested in December after months under house arrest, will be tried in Yanbian prefecture, near the North Korean border in northeast China, Zhang added. Hahn has diabetes and has suffered strokes, his wife has said.

A sprawling crackdown by the Chinese Government forced hundreds of Christian missionaries out of China, most by having their visas refused, sources told Reuters last August.

Last year, a Canadian Christian couple who worked with North Korean refugees and ran a coffee shop in Dandong on the Chinese border were accused of espionage by the Chinese government.

[Channel NewsAsia]

Andrei Lankov on China and Kim Jong-un’s purges

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The following are excerpts of a RFA interview with Andrei Lankov, a native of the former Soviet Union who lived as an exchange student in North Korea in the 1980s: 

RFA: What has been the extent of [Kim Jong-un’s] purges?
Lankov: He’s been purging not only military officers but also security officials on a scale not seen in North Korea since the late 1960s, when his grandfather Kim Il Sung was consolidating power. … It means that he wants to be taken seriously. And it means that he wants a docile and obedient military.

RFA: We’ve seen reports of some senior officials defecting to South Korea. Do all of these purges indicate instability at the top of the Kim regime?
Lankov: The common assumption at the moment is that the purges point to instability. I’m not so sure about that….But if the current policy continues, it might increase the chances of a military coup.

RFA: Let’s talk about China. One of the officials executed in 2013 was Jang Song Taek, who was Kim’s own uncle. He was accused of being a traitor. This became a source of tensions with China, since the Chinese considered Jang to be a trusted negotiator and go-between. What are some of the other sources of tension?
Lankov: First, China is seriously unhappy about North Korea’s continuing development of nuclear weapons. China absolutely doesn’t want a nuclear North Korea. And some Chinese officials had pinned their hopes on Jang Song Taek as the man who could introduce Chinese-style economic reforms in North Korea. That hasn’t happened. North Korea’s missile launch and nuclear test in 2012 and 2013 were major causes of tension.

RFA: What are some of the other sources of tension?
Finally, Xi Jinping may be the first Chinese leader to have only a faint memory of the Korean War. He has no sentimental links with North Korea. And there’s a great deal of mutual dislike on both sides. … many Chinese officials who didn’t grow up with direct experience of the Korean War, such as Xi Jinping himself, consider North Korea to be not a younger brother in arms but a strange, bizarre, irrational, and very stubborn country that creates lots of problems for China.

RFA: Some U.S. experts are disappointed that China hasn’t applied many of the sanctions called for by the U.N. against North Korea following its nuclear test and missile launch. Why does China choose to apply sanctions against only a few North Korean banks or companies but not against many of the others?
Lankov: China has a vested interest in keeping North Korea afloat. China needs a relatively stable North Korea. They don’t want to deal with the fallout from a North Korean collapse, which would likely be a messy situation involving thousands of refugees. They don’t want a North Korea under South Korean control. And North Korea serves for China as a buffer zone against the Americans and South Koreans.

[Excerpts of Radio Free Asia interview]

North Korea names new defense minister

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North Korea has named a new defense minister nearly two months after rumors surfaced that the last man to hold the post was executed.

A press release from North Korean state media, announcing a senior-level military meeting, called Pak Yong Sik the country’s defense minister.

Hyon Yong Chol, the country’s last defense minister, was last mentioned by state media on April 29. It has been reported that Chol was killed by fire from an anti-aircraft gun at a military school in front of hundreds of people in Pyongyang around April 30, the South Korean Intelligence Service (NIS) reportedly told members of its parliament.

Some analysts doubt that Hyon was killed, noting that he appeared on documentaries several times after the reported date of execution.


US to track and stop spread of North Korean WMD

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The nominee to become the highest-ranking military officer in the U.S. armed forces has vowed to make it even more difficult for North Korea to trade weapons of mass destruction with other rogue states.

Speaking at his confirmation hearing to be the next Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford said he would track down North Korean entities spreading weapons-related technology to Iran and Syria.

He added that Washington will strengthen cooperation with related countries to prevent weapons spread via North Korean ships and aircraft.

Dunford also stressed the United States will work closely with South Korea to shore up its defense posture. Analysts say that remark provides yet another hint the U.S. will push Seoul to accept the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system known as Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense or THAAD to ensure the allies can more effectively respond to North Korea’s ballistic missile threats.