UN Secretary-General to Pyongyang?

Yonhap news agency reported that the South Korean secretary-general Ban Ki-moon would visit North Korea to help set the stage for addressing a set of North Korea issues including its nuclear program.

Should he go to Pyongyang, it would be the first visit by an incumbent U.N. leader in 22 years. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who headed the U.N. from 1992-96, visited Pyongyang in 1993, while Kurt Waldheim, who led the U.N. from 1972-81, visited the North in 1979.

Ban planned to visit the inter-Korean industrial complex in the North’s border city of Gaeseong in May. But Pyongyang abruptly canceled his visit without elaborating on the reasons for the rejection. Observers say Ban’s remarks against Pyongyang’s potential launch of a rocket might have angered the North.

Analysts said that if Pyongyang has accepted Ban’s visit, it might want to use the U.N. to ease international pressure over its woeful human rights record, and nuclear and missile programs.

[Korea Herald]

South Korea police raid Christian group for North Korea spying

Seoul’s spy agency raided the offices of a Christian organization last Friday on charges of violating South Korea’s anti-Pyongyang National Security Law, after the group helped a North Korean defector, who wanted to return home, hold a press conference.

Law enforcement entered the offices of the group known as Christian Peace Action Shepherds and also served search warrants at the residences of Pastors Choe Jae-bong and Kim Seong-yun.

Police also issued an arrest warrant for Kim. A law enforcement source said Choe was out of the country, but once he returns from China, and after the seized documents from the raid are analyzed, police would determine whether to issue a subpoena, the source said.

Police said they have evidence the two pastors had been in contact with North Korean agents, and that Kim had met with spies affiliated with the Pyongyang’s Workers’ Party, during a trip to the Chinese city of Dalian in April 2011.

Christian Peace Action Shepherds received public attention in August after staging a press conference for the North Korean defector who said she wished to return to the North. Kim Ryon-hui had said she was tricked into defecting by South Korean agents in China.

The group immediately held a press conference outside the building on Friday where the raid had occurred and condemned the police and Seoul’s spy agency for “devising a sinister plot” to engage in “religious persecution,” Yonhap reported.


Defections from North Korea fall below 100 a month

For the first time in 12 years, fewer than 100 North Koreans are defecting to South Korea each month, that is less than 1200 per year.  Last year’s figure was 1,400, with the highest being 2,914 in 2009.

North Korea watchers point to tougher crackdowns along the border with China since Kim Jong-un took power but also to rising living standards thanks to burgeoning open-air markets in the socialist state.

Lee Soo-seok of the Institute for National Security Strategy said, “The spread of open-air markets has reduced the number of North Koreans who live on the edge of starvation, and tightened security along the Chinese border has made it more difficult to defect.”

As of the end of October of this year, 28,497 North Korean defectors had settled in South Korea.

[Chosun Ilbo]

US official recommends pressure on North Korea human rights violations

Speaking at the Seoul Human Rights conference, ambassador Robert King, U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights, said, “What we’ve got to do in terms of dealing with the problems of human rights in North Korea is to look at this as a long, tough fight. I think we need continued pressure.”

King said the United States and others have pressured North Korea in various ways, and so far, the strategy has been working. Yonhap reported the U.S. official said Pyongyang is feeling the heat from the international community and a vote is to take place at the United Nations General Assembly in December on a North Korea human rights resolution.

Placing pressure on North Korea to change, however, is just one of many tasks for concerned governments, King said. Humanitarian aid should be provided in a way that can be monitored by outside observers, and in a way that assistance is properly channeled to the most vulnerable segment of the North Korean population.

King’s remarks come at a time when the U.N. General Assembly’s Third Committee is expected to address the North Korea human rights resolution.


German expert speculates North Korea could announce major reforms next year

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un could announce a dramatic policy change, comparable to economic reforms that China and Vietnam embraced in the 1980s, when he convenes a rare meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party in May 2016, a German expert said Wednesday.

The last Congress of the Workers’ Party was held in 1980, when Kim’s grandfather and national founder Kim Il-sung was in power. Thus the announcement of a Congress spurred speculation as to why Kim decided to convene such a rare meeting.

Ruediger Frank, a North Korea expert at the University of Vienna, said Kim could use the meeting for a “declaration of his victory in the domestic struggle for power” after massive purges in the past years or to announce a major policy change marking the departure down a path of true reform.

“Kim Jong-un might … play it safe and, after having spent the last years cleaning the ranks of the party, military and government, will use the 7th Party Congress for a triumphant declaration of his victory in the domestic struggle for power. The country would return to a new normal and continue to muddle through,” Frank said.

“We should also remember that all major reforms of state socialism — be it in China under Deng Xiaoping, the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, or Vietnam — have been announced at such regular party congresses or related events,” he said in an article contributed to 38 North.     Read more

Policy change under Kim Jong-un

Unlike his father and late leader Kim Jong-il who pursued “songun,” or military-first, policy, the current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un pursues the “byeongjin” policy of seeking both economic and nuclear development simultaneously.

“Kim Jong-un has from day one of his leadership declared that he wants to improve the material living conditions of his people,“ said Ruediger Frank, a North Korea expert at the University of Vienna.

He has tried to do that within the constraints of the existing system,” Frank said. “I had estimated that he would need about five years to find out that this does not work, that the system itself is the problem. The time is almost up.”

As Kim has consolidated his leadership and the economic situation in the North is relatively stable, the emerging middle class and the growing inflow of information from the outside, in particular via China, have put the regime under high pressure for reform, the expert said.


North Korean activist Yeonmi Park a tale of triumph

A refugee of Kim Jong-Il’s regime, Yeonmi Park has become an unlikely mouthpiece for the 25 million living on the very edge, in a place shrouded in darkness–literal and metaphysical. It is a nation predicated on fear, misinformation, and torture; a place that asks its citizens for absolute devotion, even as it executes them indiscriminately.

The Establishment sat down with North Korean defector Yeonmi to discuss her newfound activism and the painful realities of penning her memoir. In person, she is a portrait of grace and composure, possessing a preternatural wisdom for any 22 year old.

Elaborating on the plight of her fellow North Koreans and the global community’s obligation to them, she becomes quietly insistent: “These people, they don’t even know they have rights and I think it should be stopped. If we allow this to happen, it makes us less human, that’s what I believe. We have to fight, we have to educate the public, we have to tell their story, we have to ask North Korea to stop killing its own people…

“And we have to tell China that they cannot send these refugees back to their country–they are actually committing a crime by this; they’re helping North Korea and killing these people.”

Yeonmi Park’s childhood reads like the kind of fiction best-suited for sadists, marked by starvation, the execution of a friend’s mother, the imprisonment of her father, human trafficking, and chronic sexual violence.

Her story is also a tale of triumph–of a victory as formidable as the darkness that threatens to tamp it out forever. It is not a tale of good conquering evil–for the evil still thrives, with North Korea a prison kingdom of the first degree. But it is a story that reminds us of the strength of the human spirit.   Read more

The harrowing story of North Korean defector Yeonmi Park

Yeonmi Park, although just 13 years old when she fled North Korea and a mere 22 years old now, is a testament to an archetypal–if rare–act: it is sometimes better to spit in the face of death than suffer at the hands of crippling oppression.

The oppression she faced growing up in North Korea was absolute. Park describes a fear that plagued and formed her childhood. Born in the wake of the Soviet Union collapse and consequent famine in North Korea, Yeonmi faced hardships beyond this brutal mind control. The daughter of a once-successful civil servant for the ruling Working Party, Yeonmi adored her father, who was sentenced to 17 years in a labor camp for smuggling metal to feed his starving family. There he was tortured and fell ill under the harsh conditions; meanwhile Yeonmi, her mother, and her sister were relegated to the margins of society as a part of her father’s punishment.

At times subsisting on insects and grass, the family decided they had to leave–or perish. Her mother and Yeonmi fled when Yeonmi was 13. What they hoped would be their path to freedom, quickly proved to be another two-year chapter of degradation and suffering. Trafficked upon entering China, Yeonmi’s mother sacrificed herself to prevent her daughter from being raped, and was in turn violated in front of her child. Both members of the family were sold.

Yeonmi was purchased for $260. Essentially functioning as a sex slave, Yeonmi said she cried every day. Her captor, however, ultimately released them, but only after her father rejoined she and her mother in China; he died soon after from untreated colon cancer.

In the wake of this tragedy, Yeonmi and her mother set out again for freedom–this time traversing the Gobi Desert on foot in frigid temperatures, with only the stars to guide them. Both carried knives to use on themselves if they were captured, resigned to suicide rather than facing repatriation.

[The Establishment, republished in Huffington Post]

Kim Jong-un impersonators

With his extreme crew cut, chubby cheeks and a penchant for black button-up shirts and shiny brogues, Kim Jong-un is one of the world’s most recognizable dictators – and one of the most memed and mocked .

It’s good work if you can get it. One impersonator, who asked to be identified as Howard, hung out with pop star Katy Perry at this year’s Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. Another, who goes only by Jeremy, boasted of snogging up to 40 womenwhen he went – in character – to Hong Kong’s rugby sevens tournament in March.

Howard is keen to stress that his character, whom he calls “Kim Jong-um”, was the world’s first professional Kim lookalike, predating his rival Jeremy. Howard markets himself as “the closest thing you will get to the Dear Leader without going to North Korea” and speaks frankly about the fact that he’s happy to “lend the character to projects that make extra money”. …It started in 2013 on April Fools day, I uploaded some pictures of me with a Kim Jong-un-esque haircut… Two weeks later I got a call asking me to go to Israel to shoot a burger commercial ,” says Howard, speaking on the phone from Hong Kong.

But it’s not just about the commercial gigs, he says. “Kim Jong-um” attended Russia’s Victory Day celebrations this year when the real Kim, who was on the Kremlin’s guest list with a cast of other well-known autocrats, failed to show. He has also lent his face to protests organized by a group called North Korea Defector Concerns, rallying against China’s forcible repatriation of North Koreans, a situation he has called “unacceptable and extremely unethical”.

Minyong Kim from South Korea has also adopted the look. He too first dressed up for fun before realizing it could make for an interesting part-time vocation. Arguably his most impressive stunt was when he joined forces with Barack Obama impersonator Reggie Brown to croon a rendition of Eric Carmen’s 1970s classic “All By Myself” on the streets of Seoul. He has since moved to the US to study where he has become “ the most selfied guy on campus ”, he told News Gazette.

 [Mail & Guardian]

North Korea raises issue of “comfort women” with Japan

North Korea has urged Japan to also address North Korean “comfort women” as part of the current discussion with neighboring South Korea. As many as 200,000 women, mostly from Korea and China, were forced into the Japanese Army’s brothels during World War II, though it is not known how many may currently live in North Korea.

“This issue can hardly find a final solution unless the damage suffered by all Koreans is redressed throughout Korea because there are victims of the sexual slavery of the Imperial Japanese Army not only in the south of Korea but also in the north,” said a spokesperson for North Korea’s Foreign Ministry in a statement carried by the country’s state-controlled media Korean Central News Agency.

Pyongyang has claimed compensation from Tokyo for the aggression in the past, but the latest move comes at a delicate time. North Korea is facing growing criticism for its human rights record.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor of University of North Korea Studies in Seoul, said North Korea’s focus on the comfort women issue appears to be an attempt to counter the Japanese efforts on Pyongyang’s human rights conditions. “Pyongyang might have raised the issue to try to deflect the world’s attention away from its human rights situation. …” said Yang.

Nam Gwang-gyu, a professor at Korea University, said Pyongyang might be trying to use the diplomatic row between Seoul and Tokyo to press Seoul. “North Korea can blame South Korea for any unsatisfactory results from future talks between South Korea and Japan over the comfort women issue,” said Nam.