Monthly Archives: July 2016

South Korean law professor encouraging engagement with North Korea

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On April 29, 1992, South Korea’s top intelligence agency arrested dozens of activists for plotting to overthrow the government by building underground socialist organizations. One of those arrested was Baik Tae-ung, the then 29-year-old activist sentenced to life in prison, a sentence which was later reduced to 15 years. Baik was designated as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and released in 1999 through a special pardon from former President Kim Dae-jung. He flew to the United States, where he earned a doctoral degree on international human rights law and passed the bar exam in the State of New York.

Now the activist-turned-professor has returned to South Korea with a new mission – to bring home people abducted by North Korea. In 2015, his activities won him the membership of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, representing Asia-Pacific states. The U.N. human rights expert said that his agency’s role is to act as a bridge between the families of the abductees and their government.  “The organization fosters communication between the victims and their state by constantly monitoring the case until final closure,” Baik said.

To date, North Korea has refused to discuss the disappearances issue since the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Right reported back in 2014 that the regime was responsible for the disappearances of more than 200,000 people.

Baik suggests there are possibilities that the North may open up toward international organizations, indicating some changes that it made home and abroad amid international pressure on its human right condition. “I think North Korea is and has been making changes. Whether the changes are active or passive ones, they can no longer ignore the pressure from the international community. What we should do is to steer such changes in the right direction,” he said.

“I don’t think that the U.S. has a clear blueprint about how to improve the North’s human rights condition,” he said, noting that the sanction on the leader Kim is more of a security measure to curb nuclear development rather than a human rights approach.

[The Korea Herald]

North Korean defectors have never even heard of human rights

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After graduating from middle school in 1979, I entered the North Korean military and after training I served for 11 years, and later became a farmer. In the early 1990s, life in rural areas was much better for workers than in the city. They had access to food distribution from farms, small plots of land and vegetable gardens. By 1995 though the food shortage started to affect us.

From 1996, the amount of food being distributed halved. It decreased by another 30% by 1997, and many died of hunger in rural areas. The food shortage hit my family in 1997. My mother, my wife, and my son died of hunger that winter. Everyone but one son.

I decided to escape North Korea so that he could live. I set off for the Tumen River with my young son in April 1998. There were police officers everywhere, sentries checking every road, but I found a way to cross over to China.  Finding work was hard because I had a young child. I would work but only for food.

Despite the hardships, I tried to listen to South Korean broadcasts every night.  The presenters were knowledgeable about the reality of North Korea. This is when I realized South Korea was not what I thought it would be. I decided to try to get there. I felt that both of us would die if we got caught, so I decided to try and get to South Korea first and left my son in the hands of a Korean Chinese person. I said goodbye to my son in May 1999.

The winter journey through the Mongolian desert was so tough that it amazes me even now that I was able to cross it. I had to survive in order to see my son again. I was determined.

I settled in South Korea in 2000. The government gave me $9,300 as a settlement fee and I used it to look for my child. I found him in March 2001 and planned to bring him to South Korea.

A group of people traveled with my son, but the guide was caught by a Chinese officer and the group dispersed. My son got left by himself in the desert and died on my birthday. I always feel guilty for not giving him a better life.

[Excerpts of an article in The Guardian, by Ryu Ki-ho]

North Korean defectors file petition on behalf of imprisoned families

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North Korean defectors have filed a petition in a South Korean court, requesting protection for imprisoned family members in the North.

Choi Hyun-joon, a defector and founder of activist group Unification Future Solidarity, submitted a petition to Seoul’s Central District Court, filed on behalf of six defectors in the South who have 20 family members in North Korean prison camps.

According to the defectors, the South Korean constitution recognizes North Korea as part of South Korean territory, and North Koreans are recognized as South Korean citizens. And their human rights need to be protected, the activists say.

North Korea is sensitive to international criticism of its human rights record and has called statements on the country’s political prison camps, forced labor and summary executions “outright lies.”


More on North Korean defector who showed up in Japan

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A man claiming to be a North Korean citizen was found wandering around the Japanese port town of Senzaki this weekend, police told CNN.

According to a report by CNN affiliate NHK, the man traveled from North Korea across the Sea of Japan by boat, saying “the man was drenched (in water) when police took him into custody.” Officials from Yamaguchi Prefecture said the man was interviewed by police.

The man, believed to be in his twenties, told police that he left Chongjin, the capital of North Korea’s Hamgyong Province, on Friday night in a wooden boat, broadcaster NHK reported. He claimed to have jumped from the boat into the sea with a plastic container and drifted to Senzaki by Saturday morning.

The man said he was fleeing North Korea because he was being chased by police after he was caught watching South Korean videos, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported.


North Korean defectors travel to US to share their story

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Yu Sunhui calmly recounted how she escaped North Korea by train, jumping off often to avoid the checkpoints. She had to swim across a river to China, where she was sold to human traffickers before she managed to make her way to South Korea in 2010.

Yu spoke through an interpreter after arriving Sunday in San Francisco as part of a delegation of North Korean defectors visiting the Bay Area. The visit, organized by the Hometown Mission Association for North Korea in Seattle and Korean Churches Council of San Francisco, includes 29 refugees, most of whom are living in the South Korean capital of Seoul.

Yu, 59, a former lieutenant in the North Korean military, recently obtained a green card and moved to Southern California, where she hopes to help other North Korean refugees better adjust to life in this country. She said she would like Americans to better understand North Korea. North Koreans are taught the United States is the “ultimate enemy,” but Yu described her experiences with Americans as “exactly the opposite of the way we were brainwashed.”

This is the third delegation Seattle Pastor John Yoon, who escaped North Korea in 1950 and has been living in the U.S. for 36 years, has arranged to help Americans better understand the plight of North Koreans. Yoon said he wants North Korean refugees who now have the freedom to travel to learn about the United States, and he wants the world to better understand the abuses that North Koreans are undergoing at the hands of the government.

[San Francisco Chronicle]

Japanese police interrogate North Korean defector

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Japan police on Sunday began the interrogation of a man who claimed he jumped from a North Korean ship and swam ashore clinging to a plastic container, the BBC reported.

According to officials, the man was carrying no proof of identity when he was found in the city of Nagato prefecture on Saturday.

Police are expected to hand him over to immigration officials who will decide whether he is a genuine defector, the BBC noted.

In 2011, nine North Koreans were picked up by the Japanese Coast Guard after spending five days at sea.


North Korean defectors in America

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Defectors from North Korea automatically become South Korean citizens after a mandatory three-month transition that is part debriefing, part re-education. Refugees receive a few thousand dollars to start their new lives and learn skills most people take for granted: grocery shopping or using an ATM.

“South Korea has an enormous program to resettle North Koreans. It’s basically a yearlong program, but then it goes on beyond that in many ways where there are grants for education, for housing, and all kinds of things,” said Lindsay Lloyd , who currently leads the George W Bush Institute’s Freedom in North Korea project. “So the scale of their programs to bring these people into South Korea, compared to what happens here in the US, it’s just radically, radically different.”

“When refugees come to the United States … the US government only provides about six months’ worth of support for them,” Lloyd added. “It’s done through groups like Catholic charities and others that really just address the basics: find a place to live, get some basic healthcare, maybe some rudimentary English lessons, a first job, that kind of thing.”

The State Department has documented 192 North Koreans entering the US from 1 January 2002 to 1 January 2016. But this only includes refugees who have obtained green cards through the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004. Many North Koreans enter the US illegally and settle in Los Angeles, amid the large population of ethnic Koreans. Nearly 200 former North Koreans live in Los Angeles, advocacy groups say, but exact numbers are unknown.

In October 2014, the Bush Institute at the George W Bush Presidential Center published a qualitative survey, “US-Based North Korean Refugees.” It found that “even those on a path to citizenship lived almost entirely within Korean communities”, the survey reported. “However, nearly all also said they did not feel completely accepted or included, and often felt looked down upon or pitied.”

[The Guardian]

North Korea calls United States ‘heinous violator of human rights’

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North Korea denounced the United States as a “heinous violator of human rights” on Wednesday.

A Pyongyang foreign ministry spokesman told state news agency KCNA: “The United States has proved once again it is the source of trouble, sweeping the world with acts of terror and human rights violations.”

“An atrocious nation of war criminals, violator of human rights, the United States needs to undergo a rigorous judgment of rights abuses and yet goes around pretending to be an ‘international judge,’ meddling in other countries’ affairs,” the statement read.

The North Korean spokesman also said the United States had attacked the country’s “highest dignity,” which is an “unforgivable crime.”

The verbal attack on Washington seems to be part of a series of reactions from Pyongyang regarding the U.S. decision to sanction Kim Jong Un for human rights abuses.


North Korean defectors develop post-unification reconstruction plans

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Some 30 North Korean defectors have rolled up their sleeves to create reconstruction plans for their hometowns and help residents improve their lives post-unification.

“While studying the reunification of East and West Germany, I thought there are certainly roles that we defectors could play in the reconstruction of North Korea,” said Kim Byeong-uk, the founder and president of Seoul-based think tank North Korea Development Institute and founder of the 185 Project. “I think South Korea can cut unification costs if it narrows the development divide with the North. If concrete, area-specific construction plans are in place, it will be easier for the South to reconstruct the North, and this, consequently, will reduce costs.”

One of the project’s current plans is for North Korea’s public markets. [By analyzing satellite imagery] “we’ve found 414 markets all across North Korea, which have become an integral part of the North Korean way of life,” Kim said. “As long as the North Koreans are allowed to make a living through the markets, they won’t care much about politics or nuclear weapons. But they won’t sit back if the North Korean authorities attempt to suppress market activities because these are their lifeline,” he said.

Kim said the thriving markets in the North indicate that a wind of change is blowing. He also noted that in the country’s relatively basic manufacturing industries, North Koreans import raw materials from China and send them to the cities or counties that have sufficient facilities and labor forces to process them into finished products.

“The markets are classrooms in which North Koreans learn the capitalistic way of life. The thriving markets indicate that, whether intentionally or not, North Koreans are preparing themselves for reunification,” Kim said.

[Korea Times]

North Korea willing to talk denuclearization

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North Korea has said it was willing to talk denuclearization (but no one noticed).

On July 6 the U.S. Department of Treasury announced it had designated Kim Jong-un by name on a new list of individuals sanctioned for human rights violations.

In the dance of jubilation, few had the time or inclination to pay attention to a DPRK government spokesman’s statement released earlier the same day. That statement made clear what the North Koreans have been hinting at for some time—yes, they were willing to talk about denuclearization.

It is important to pay attention to the vehicle Pyongyang used to convey the latest position—a DPRK Government spokesman’s statement, among the highest on the North’s ladder of authority. Statements at this level are generally used to signal important new policies.

[Read full article, published on a blog of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins SAIS]