Monthly Archives: May 2016

Kenneth Bae former prisoner in North Korea explains his “crime”

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Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary imprisoned in North Korea, recounted last Wednesday how he had engaged in a kind of spiritual tourism to a little-known city in the northwestern corner of the country. Between 2011 and 2012, Bae brought more than 300 people on tours to North Korea [as part of his vision to evangelize North Koreans].

But on his 18th trip, he said, he made what he called a “very crucial mistake” — inadvertently bringing a computer hard drive along in a briefcase he meant to leave behind in China. The hard drive had files about his missionary work. It also contained a video of emaciated North Korean children scrounging in the dirt for food — footage Mr. Bae said a friend had sent him years earlier and that he not ever fully watched.

After the banned material was discovered, he was held in seclusion in a hotel in northeastern North Korea for a month while officials grilled him. He was given little to eat, generally a few bites of rice and some wilted vegetables, and was forced to watch government propaganda every evening. But he was not beaten or overtly physically abused by authorities.

He eventually confessed that one of the documents on his hard drive was a plan for what he described as “Operation Jericho” — an effort to bring tourists into North Korea to pray and spread the love of God. They would not have openly evangelized, but he had hoped that the “walls” isolating North Koreans from the rest of the world would come crumbling down, just as the walls of Jericho fell in the Bible story.

The book outlines how North Korean officials did not understand the plan’s metaphorical nature, and how Mr. Bae struggled to explain that he wasn’t trying to actually overthrow the government. The government sentenced him to 15 years in prison.

“I had to make a choice,” he said, adding that he began praying deeply as he pondered whether to fight his incarceration or somehow embrace it. He finally determined that it was “God’s will” that had put him there. “After that moment,” he said, “my perspective of life in prison changed because I was no longer there as a prisoner, but I was there as God’s ambassador — somebody who was sent from God to do God’s work.”

It was that belief that ultimately brought him through the ordeal, Mr. Bae said, adding that it has since made him realize that he had a new mission: to remind the world not to forget the ordinary people who are suffering in North Korea.

“We need to differentiate between the government and the people. The people are suffering without knowing what is coming next for them,” Mr. Bae said. “We as people outside need to continue to stand up for them and reach out to them and remember them through prayer support and any other blessing we can give.”

[Washington Times]

Horror of North Korea’s death camps – Part 1

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Kang Chol-hwan was just nine when he was sent to the Yodok concentration camp in North Korea with most of his family, including his father and grandmother. His grandad, who he would never see again, was accused of being a spy for the Japanese — and under North Korean rules, the whole family was guilty.

“At Yoduk, prisoners are executed in public to instill fear and obedience. Children, out of hunger and desperation, resort to scavenging for roots and rats. … There is one distinction that I would draw between the North Korean prison camps and Auschwitz,” Kang said. “While Auschwitz’s goal was rapid, industrial-style extermination, Yodok prolongs the suffering over three generations.

“The purpose of Yodok is to be but one facility that helps sustain the regime and cleanse the North Korean people of any freedom of thought.”

Kwon-Hyuk was once the commander of Haengyong Concentration Camp — the infamous Camp 22. Speaking about Haengyong to documentary filmmakers in 2004, he swore he had seen a family being gassed and said he had himself ordered the deaths of five families.

He recalled: “The parents were vomiting and dying, but till the very last moment they tried to save their kids by doing mouth to mouth breathing.”

A study by the Database Centre for North Korean Human Rights claims no prisoner has left Haengyong alive, while reports indicate the camp closed in 2012.     

Horror of North Korea’s death camps – Part 2

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Some of the cruelest treatment is saved for pregnant women, who are made to have abortions without anesthesia, or witness their babies murdered at birth. One grandmother was tasked with looking after pregnant women at Sinŭiju camp and said newborns were left to die in a box which was simply buried when full.

In his memoir — The Aquariums of Pyongyang — Mr Kang recounts how a guard made a pregnant woman disrobe, exposing her belly, and then he beat her. Another defector illustrated how a pregnant woman had a board placed across her bump, which other prisoners were then forced to seesaw on.Those dreaming of escape face high-voltage electric fences, moats bristling with spikes, armed patrols, guard dogs and minefields, though security varies by camp. Anyone caught escaping is executed by either firing squad, hanging or stoning, typically in front of the other prisoners, and with rocks stuffed in their mouths to stop them screaming.
But the biggest killer in the camps is malnutrition, with no more food available than a handful of corn, grain and cabbage, plus whatever bugs, snakes, rats, grasses and barks can be found. Sketches drawn by gulag survivors detail how people, in their desperation, delay reporting each others’ deaths so that they kept getting their rations, and even steal dog food.
[Daily Star]

Kenneth Bae: “735 days in North Korea was long enough”

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Kenneth Bae is the longest-held U.S. citizen detained in North Korea since the Korean War. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for committing “hostile acts” in the country.

“I worked from 8 a.m. to 6 pm. at night, working on the field, carrying rock, shoveling coal,” Bae said on CNN’s “New Day.” Adding to the physical pain was the verbal abuse he received from North Korean officials, Bae said. He said one prosecutor repeatedly told him, “‘No one remembers you. You have been forgotten by people, your government. You’re not going home anytime soon. You’ll be here for 15 years. You’ll be 60 before you go home.’”

Still, Bae held out hope.  “I certainly hoped when I was in North Korea … that some day I’ll be able to come home and celebrate with the friends and family that have been praying, rooting for my release,” he said.

His wish came true in November 2014 after a top U.S. official–carrying a letter from President Barack Obama–arrived in North Korea. Shortly afterward, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered Bae’s release.

It was Bae’s faith that helped him deal with the physical and verbal agony. “Along the way, I found my way adjusting to life in the North Korean prison, just depending on God,” he said.

Bae’s imprisonment gained widespread publicity after former basketball star Dennis Rodman–who once called the North Korean leader a friend and “very good guy”–lambasted Bae on CNN’s “New Day” in 2014. Rodman provoked outrage after suggesting that Bae may have done something to deserve his sentence of 15 years of hard labor. Rodman later apologized, saying he had been drinking.

But Bae thanked Rodman for his 2014 outburst, saying it drew attention to his ordeal in North Korea. “I thank Dennis Rodman for being a catalyst for my release,” Bae said Monday.

Bae’s  memoir, which will be published HarperCollins’ Christian-themed division, will likely have strong religious undertones. “One thing I want people to take away from reading the book is God’s faithfulness,” Bae said. “After I was released, I was reminded that God has not forgotten the people of North Korea.”


Former prisoner in North Korea explains naïve ignorance of North Koreans

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Kenneth Bae, the longest-held U.S. citizen detained in North Korea since the Korean War, spoke to reporters in Washington Wednesday about highlights from his two-year detainment.

Bae said one of most jarring aspects of his long stay in a North Korean prison was a conversation he had with a prison guard watching over him in the labor camp. The talk “really haunted me,” said the Korean-American Christian missionary who spent two years in North Korean custody prior to his sudden release in 2014.

The college-educated guard revealed that “he’d never in his life heard the name Jesus before,” recalled Bae, who recounted the experience during a presentation on Capitol Hill Wednesday.  “Where does Jesus live? In China or North Korea? That was his sincere question that he asked me,” said an exasperated Bae.

“This is the 21st century in prosperous East Asia,” he said, adding that one of the things he realized during his captivity is that the people of North Korea “really don’t know what it is to live outside.”

“I mentioned to some people, ‘Did you know that the South Korean economy is about 40 times larger than the North Korean economy is?’ And they had no idea,” he said.

“Some people I asked, ‘Do you know that the secretary-general of the U.N. is actually South Korean?’ And, the response that I got was, ‘No way, that is not possible.’”

But the fact that an educated government official guarding him had no idea of the existence of Jesus Christ was particularly “painful,” said Bae, because of his knowledge of Korean history. Prior to the late-1940s rise of a totalitarian dictatorship in North Korea, Pyongyang was actually known as the “Jerusalem of the Far East” for the large number of Christians who lived there, he said.

Mr. Bae has just published “Not Forgotten: The True Story of My Imprisonment in North Korea,” an intensely personal religious memoir peppered with biblical quotes bolstering his view that God’s hand was behind both his incarceration and release.

[Washington Times]

Is South Korea’s spying apparatus broken?

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When it comes to spying on North Korea, rival South Korea seems to be wrong almost as much as it’s right.

Seoul’s intelligence agents get battered in the press and by lawmakers for their gaffes, including one regarding Ri Yong Gil, the former head of North Korea’s military. Officials in Seoul’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), the country’s main spy agency, reportedly said Ri had been executed, but at this month’s ruling-party congress, he was seen not only alive but also in possession of several new titles.

While spying on perhaps the world’s most cloistered, suspicious, difficult-to-read country is no easy task, repeated blunders raise questions about whether South Korea’s multibillion-dollar spying apparatus is broken.

South Korean spies are thought to closely monitor Pyongyang’s media for details, to talk to defectors in Seoul, especially those who claim sources in North Korea, and to cultivate contacts in the North. The problem is that it’s unclear how reliable the sources are.

The NIS gives closed briefings to lawmakers, who then relay what they hear to South Korean press. Foreign media commonly cite those local reports, but by that point the information has passed through several hands. That makes it difficult to gauge the NIS’s level of certainty, understand how the information was obtained or determine how reliable its sources are.

When spies leak information directly to the local press, they usually demand that reporters refer to them only as “a source familiar with North Korea affairs.” This allows the NIS and other South Korean spy agencies to deny they were the source if the information is bad, which is what’s currently happening in the Ri case.


North Korean Congress does little to win over a frustrated China

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Beijing played along with North Korea’s political theater: Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a letter to Kim Jong-un, congratulating him on adding another title to his name – chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said China hopes to enhance its ties with the North.

However, in an editorial Wednesday, the state-run China Daily opined that North Korea’s economic and nuclear goals conflict with each other, and that Kim Jong-un doesn’t seem to care.

“He appears unaware that his nuclear ambitions are poison for his country’s economy,” stated the strongly worded editorial.  “They will not only exhaust his country’s very limited resources, but will further isolate his country from the rest of the world, politically and economically.”

Fearful that economic collapse in North Korea could dangerously destabilize its own border regions, China is wary of squeezing the errant Kim too hard. Shi Yinghong, a professor of international relations at Beijing’s Renmin University, says that China’s leaders have no choice now but to recognize Kim as North Korea’s unchallenged leader.

China’s reasons for opposing North Korea’s nuclear program have only partly to do with fears of an accident or rogue attack. China worries that North Korea’s nuclear weapons give the United States an excuse to bolster its military presence on the Korean peninsula, part of a larger policy of “containment.”

Since Kim came to power in 2011, Beijing and Pyongyang have barely been on speaking terms. Neither Kim nor China’s Xi have paid state visits to each other’s country. China last week did not send a delegation to the congress, as it did in 1980, apparently because it was not invited.

[Christian Science Monitor]

North Korea expels 3 BBC journalists

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North Korea on Monday expelled three BBC journalists it had detained days earlier for allegedly “insulting the dignity” of the authoritarian country, sending them off on a flight to Beijing. Correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes and his team had accompanied a group of Nobel laureates, and were stopped at the Pyongyang airport, detained and questioned.

O Ryong Il, secretary-general of the North’s National Peace Committee, said Wingfield-Hayes’ news coverage distorted facts and “spoke ill of the system and the leadership of the country.” He said Wingfield-Hayes wrote an apology, was being expelled Monday and would never be admitted into the country again.

North Korea did not reveal which of the team’s reports it was upset with, but in one of the segments, North Korean officials are seen arguing with Wingfield-Hayes over video shot in front of a statue of national founder Kim Il Sung.

“They clearly felt that we said stuff that was not respectful to the great leader,” Wingfield-Hayes said in the segment. He said they were ordered to delete the footage or they would not be allowed to leave the university campus where they were filming.

Another segment included a tour of a modern-looking hospital that Wingfield-Hayes expressed doubts about. “The children we’re shown look remarkably well, and there isn’t a doctor in sight. … Everything we see looks like a setup,” he said.


No major reforms in Kim Jong Un’s five-year plan

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In a three-hour speech broadcast on North Korean TV Sunday, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un set a five-year plan to revive his country’s struggling economy. But the speech included no major policy changes or economic reforms.

Kim delivered the speech during the 7th Congress of the Workers Party of Korea, the highest-level political gathering in the isolated, one-party state. More than 3,400 party members are in Pyongyang for the congress that began Friday and continued through the weekend.

Kim’s economic plan, the first of its kind in decades, was short on specifics. Kim repeatedly referenced North Korea’s “Juche” ideology of self-reliance, but also spoke of a desire to increase foreign trade. He pledged North Korea would not use its nuclear weapons “unless its sovereignty is encroached upon by any aggressive hostile forces with nukes.”

In the highly secretive country, where the government controls information even among its own officials, foreign journalists and their government minders had a confusing and frustrating day on Sunday. After being told to dress formally, more than 100 journalists were driven to the People’s Palace of Culture in Pyongyang. Reporters were told to bring their passports and equipment inside for a security check. But after members of the media waited in the lobby for around an hour, an official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced “the program has changed” and the journalists were driven back to their hotel, where they stayed for the remainder of the day.

[CNN NewSource]

A stark reality of life inside North Korea

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As North Korea embarks on its first party congress in 36 years, ‘supreme leader’ Kim Jong-Un is set to announce a number of economic reforms and tighten his iron-clad grip on power. It is likely to be accompanied by mass choreographed fist-pumping rallies and spectacles.

Jihyun Park has firsthand experience of the “hermit kingdom”. Born in North Korea, she lived through the famine of the late 1990s. “Three and a half million North Koreans died of famine in this period.” she tells The Independent. “I lived only worrying about what I would eat that day, and then the next day. My family died from starvation. My uncle lived alone in a rural area and because of food shortage and problems with food distribution he starved.”

Unable to afford a coffin, Ms Jihyun says her family wrapped his corpse with rice straws and carried him on an ox cart to be buried. According to Ms Jihyun, stories such as these are common in North Korea.

Education in the totalitarian state was wholeheartedly centred around and devoted towards the Kim dynasty . “The words of the Kims – both father and son – are on the walls of the classroom and we have to memorize them. Such mantras are repeated by every teacher, every hour,” she explains.

This indoctrination transcends the classroom. Jihyun says that in the 1990s, a poem written about former leader Kim Il Sung was ordered to be hung on the walls of every single home. “Everyone, man, woman and child, had to learn the poem by heart,” she recalls.

At the age of 30, Ms Jihyun and her brother escaped to China from her hometown Chongjin by the border to China. Although she had been promised a well-paid job once there, she was instead brought to a trafficking establishment. “Between 1998-2004, I spent six years in northeast China as a slave to a Chinese man. I gave birth to a son”.

But everything suddenly changed when she was arrested and repatriated back to North Korea and her son remained in China. There she spent a year in one of the country’s most harrowing detention camps. “Although I fled the North due to economic reasons, my crime was considered political betrayal,” she said. “I was imprisoned, tortured, and re-educated for six months, after which I could no longer work because of severe malnutrition, and an injury in my leg was so bad that I was released on sick bail to have it amputated.”

After a year she escaped yet again to China and there she took her son from the father’s family. She then traveled to Mongolia, and against all odds, arrived in Manchester England with her son in 2008. On the way she met her husband, a fellow North Korean defector, in China.

[The Independent]