South Korea says it’s unlikely to help with North Korean flood relief

South Korea said that it was unlikely to provide humanitarian aid to tens of thousands of flood survivors in North Korea even if the country asked for help, reaffirming its hard-line stance after the North’s fifth nuclear test.

North Korea has mobilized soldiers and workers in internal relief efforts for an estimated 140,000 victims in its northern provinces after torrential rains last month caused what it has described as some of the worst flooding in its history.

“North Korea has not asked for help, and we don’t expect it to,” Jeong Joon-hee, a spokesman for the South’s Unification Ministry, said during a news briefing. “Even if it does, I think, given the present situation, that the possibility of providing aid is low.”

“It should have spent the massive expenses not in a nuclear test but in helping its people recover from the flood damage,” Mr. Jeong said.

Despite North Korea’s frequent military provocations and its pursuit of nuclear weapons, the suffering of ordinary citizens often elicits sympathy in the South. The South’s Constitution includes North Korea in its territory and calls for “national unity” through “humanitarianism and brotherly love.”

[New York Times]

Defected North Korean artist turns propaganda on its head

It was after he fled North Korea in 1990s that artist Sun Mu decided to turn the regime’s propaganda painting style on its head. After he settled in South Korea, his work became increasingly provocative, gaining attention for its ability to parody and imitate the North Korean regime’s social realist style.


Kim Jong-un or Jesus?

Like many defectors who grew up inside the secretive state, Sun Mu’s early life was dominated by the former leaders of North Korea. Sun Mu studied at an art college outside Pyongyang and was enlisted to draw propaganda posters during his time in military service. [Once in South Korea]  he slowly became accustomed to the greater political and artistic freedoms in Seoul, and began mixing North Korean painting styles with more overtly political imagery.

As a result the artist, now in his mid 40s, has stoked controversy and he has chosen to remain hidden from the public for fear of incriminating his family still in North Korea. Sun Mu is a nom de plume, a combination of two Korean words translating as “no borders”.

6-childrenIn one poignant work, Peace, six smiling children bear the flags of the countries taking part in the long-stalled six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear programme. “Children can get along with each other – adults don’t,” Sun Mu replies when asked why smiling children feature so prominently in his work.

A new documentary, I am Sun Mu, was screened in the UK in March, and follows the artist as he prepares for the opening of a controversial solo exhibition in Beijing called Red, White, Blue, in which visitors can step on giant portraits of former North Korean leaders in Santa Claus hats.

[The Guardian]

North Koreans defectors describe different lives in South Korea

Thirty college students, all defectors living in Seoul, sat in a classroom working on personal narratives, participants in a writing program run by the North Korea Strategy Center, a nonprofit that aims to increase awareness about them and what their experience is like.

Ga Eul, a peppy, English-speaking 23-year-old with dyed brown hair and purple glasses, began her essay this way: ” Until [I defected], my education consisted of learning how to worship Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jung-Il.” As a middle-schooler, Ga Eul dreamed of becoming a math teacher. But when Ga Eul’s extended relatives were caught trying to escape from North Korea, she wrote, “My dream of becoming a math teacher was not possible anymore. My family members were branded enemies of the state.” Ga Eul was told that she wouldn’t be able to join the military—a key step to getting good jobs in North Korea—and neither would her children.

Another defector explains, “In North Korea, people tend to sleep early due to electricity shortages. In the evening, the whole town turns into a jet-black night without a single light.”

A female defector says that when she arrived in South Korea, she assumed that the heaps of rice and hard-boiled eggs that greeted her at the defector integration center were some sort of propagandistic joke.

Another student wrote about his first time on Seoul’s gleaming subway: “I didn’t know where to direct my eyes! There were girls in hot shorts seemingly no different than panties. My cheeks flushed red and my eyes lost focus.”

[Mother Jones]

North Korean defectors share their experiences with South Korean high school students

Jae, a 23-year-old North Korean defector, stands nervously in front of the crowd of South Korean high schoolers. “Do North Korean students often date each other?” one student wants to know. Jae, a tall North Korean defector, grins. They do, he says, but secretly. Because students are reprimanded for showing affection, he explains, “if you like someone you often say, ‘Let’s become friends,’ which is basically the same thing as ‘Will you go out with me?'”

When asked about food shortages, Jae explains he became so hungry as a child that he had taken to eating tree bark.

Jae grew up in a North Korean town that bordered the DMZ separating the countries; once in a while, thick balloons from South Korea would drift through the sky and land on the ground. They were sent by human rights activists in the south and filled with USB drives and pamphlets condemning the dictatorial regime in Pyongyang. The police would snatch them up as soon as they reached the ground. But when Jae went into the mountains, away from people, he would see dozens of balloons snagged in bushes and trees.

The questions keep coming, among them, “Do you want to go back?” Jae responds to the question diplomatically. He wants to visit his extended family, but he probably wouldn’t want to live in North Korea again “because of the bad memories.”

Jae has found that many South Korean high schoolers remain fascinated by the prospect of meeting a defector from the north, but have no clue that 25,000 of them now live in their country.

[Mother Jones]

North Korea: Who’s provoking who?

The chorus of condemnation over North Korea’s nuclear test carried calls for strong action from China — but Beijing continues to back its reclusive neighbor.

Many in Beijing see American steps to neutralize the North Korea nuclear issue as a “cover” for pushing ahead with another objective: containing China. The planned deployment of an American missile-defense shield — THAAD to South Korea has served to fan those fears.

Academics and the Chinese general public appear split over what comes next, largely because there are two competing views when it comes to the risks. “One view is that destabilization and regime collapse in North Korea and chaos along the border with China is the main danger to China’s security, the other view is that the escalating nuclear program of North Korea and the prospect of nuclear war is an even bigger danger to China,” Zhang Liangui, a regional expert at China’s Central Party School, explained.

It doesn’t help matters that Beijing views U.S. and South Korean actions — like joint military exercises — as exacerbating the issue by ramping up North Korea’s fears of attack. Meanwhile the US is raising the stakes. Two American B-1B bombers flew over the Korean peninsula this week in a show of force intended to demonstrate U.S. resolve against North Korean aggression.

Many in China view the North Korea issue as a dispute exclusively between Pyongyang and the U.S., according to Zhang. “For China to exert too much pressure on North Korea is tantamount to helping the U.S.,” Zhang explained. “But after the recent fifth nuke test, this point of view is losing ground.”

“Washington and Seoul take the view that the North’s provocations require more military exercises, whereas Beijng is of the view that it’s the military exercises that are encouraging [North Korea] to accelerate its nuclear program,” explained Timothy Stafford, a research fellow at PacificForum-CSIS.

That was reflected in a recent editorial in China’s official People’s Daily newspaper, which called the U.S. a troublemaker with no right to lecture about taking responsibility for keeping North Korea in check. The United States is doing less and less for the public good in international affairs, “but its vigor for trouble-making has not diminished an iota,” the newspaper said in the commentary.


South Korean bias in hiring North Koreans

Ms. Lee, who works as a dishwasher in South Korea, received a vocational college degree in public health and nutrition [while living in her native North Korea] and worked as a chef at a resort facility. However, South Korea generally does not recognize degrees that are earned in North Korea, because the content and standards of education are very different.

Ms. Lee had decided to leave her home town when her husband, recently discharged from the military, was unable to get a job because her younger brother had fled to China. Her husband and his side of the family bitterly complained that his wife’s brother had ruined them—which he probably had, thanks to the North Korean government policy of blacklisting the entire family when one member departs without permission for China. She decided to escape from her uncomfortable home life and go to China to look for her brother.

The biggest problem with this plan was that she had a six year old son, but on one snowy winter day she embarked on her uncertain journey to China. She managed to get to China and eventually reach South Korea, using her savings and selling her wedding ring. She was now diligently saving up the $5,000 it would cost to hire a broker to retrieve her son.

My first question to Ms. Lee was, “What is the most difficult thing to bear living in South Korea?” “Missing my son, surely. My job at this large Korean restaurant is dish washing, which is not difficult, but what I hate more than anything is that we throw away tons of food, including meat and rice that would be a delicacy in the North. Whenever I throw this food away, I cry thinking of my son, who rarely had a chance to eat meat and rice.”

A few days later, I happened to visit a coffee shop whose owner was a wealthy Korean who had studied in the United States and opened the café in order to meet interesting people. When the owner complained that it was difficult to find a reliable person to manage the café, I told the owner that I might be able to find her a good manager, describing Ms. Lee’s qualifications and the owner sounded interested. Then I added, “The only difference between this candidate and others is that she is a North Korean defector.”

The owner almost shouted at me, “You must be kidding. Look at our café. The place is filled with valuable porcelains and paintings and antique furniture, and I have a very sophisticated clientele. How can I trust a defector, who may steal things and alienate my customers?”

The next morning I received a call from the owner. “I apologize. I’ve been thinking about your candidate and our mutual friend has convinced me that I should interview her for the job.”

Ms. Lee got the job, and a year later when I visited the café I couldn’t recognize her at all. She wore a smart new hairstyle and dressed in a stylish but conservative manner. The owner thanked me profusely. “Since she came here we have more customers and are making more money. Everybody loves her. She is a great asset.” When I talked with Ms. Lee, she was equally satisfied. “I love my job. People are very kind to me. I appreciate my new life in the South these days.”

[The Brookings Institution]

North Korean defectors the “small unification” of Koreas

Over 18,000 defectors from North Korea now live in South Korea. Objectively, their living conditions are much improved over what they were in the North. They needn’t worry about finding food, adequate housing or transportation. They can go wherever they want and associate with whomever they wish.

Yet, they feel something is terribly wrong with life in their new society.  Especially in the first year, most defectors suffer from a combination of suspiciousness, anxiety, and depression—a reaction that is typical of new immigrants in any society. They badly miss the families they left behind, and feel guilty for having left them at the mercy of officials who will persecute them for having a family member who left the fatherland.

Defectors don’t feel they are fully accepted by their new society. Whenever the media report bad news from North Korea, defectors feel ashamed and guilty about their origins. On a personal level, they suffer from loneliness because it is difficult to make new friends and find romantic partners. Because they speak a different dialect of Korean in which traditional words are used instead of foreign-loan words, they are easily identified as North Koreans and usually looked down upon as country bumpkins. As one defector said, “I was a member of the elite cadre circle and now I’m a computer-illiterate senile old man.” And another, “I graduated from a good college but now I’m enrolled in a vocational computer school with youngsters.” And yet another, “I was a relatively wealthy foreign trader for the government but now I drive a pick-up truck and sell vegetables.”

Defectors bitterly joke that they left one class society in the North and now find that South Korea is equally class conscious, and the defectors are not members of a favored class.

Most South Koreans just don’t want to bother with defectors, although they favor their arrival in principle. They don’t understand the larger issues of cultural acclimation that prevent the defectors from becoming integrated into South Korean society.

Someday, perhaps years or decades in the future, the 23 million people in the North will join the 46 million citizens of the South under one government. However, unless the South Korean government and people learn how to deal with the several thousand defectors each year participating in what Assemblyman Park Jin has called “small unification,” national unification will be unimaginably difficult.

[The Brookings Institution]

Devastation from floods in North Korea

North Koreans living along the Tumen River border with China described a hellish ordeal as the river rose swiftly, leaving many people scrambling for safety in a flood that has claimed at least 200 lives and devastated a wide swath of country’s poorest region.

“The floods came through with such force that the Tumen River, which borders China, swelled rapidly,” Dong Nam Kim, a North Korean defector and representative of the Free North Korea Global Network, told RFA’s Korean Service as he relayed descriptions of the disaster from inside the country.

The floods ripped through the area as Typhoon Lionrock lashed Northeast Asia from August 29 to September 2. The floods may have hit the provinces in the north harder after North Korean authorities opened up the floodgates in the hydroelectric facilities upstream. It’s unclear why the North Korean government decided to open up the floodgates, but the North Korean defector said that with the rain falling at nearly four inches per hour caused the authorities to fear that the dams would burst, causing even more damage.

At least 140,000 people are in urgent need of assistance, the OCHA said in a statement. It estimated 100,000 people have been displaced and water supplies to about 600,000 people have been cut.

Of the more than 35,500 houses that were damaged, nearly two-thirds were destroyed. A further 8,700 buildings, including schools and public buildings, were damaged, and 16,000 hectares (39,540 acres) of arable land inundated, the OCHA said.

The government of North Korea, which called the deadly natural disaster the “the strongest storm and heaviest downpour” the country has experienced in decades, issued an unusual appeal for international help.

North Korea’s appeal for help could not have come at a worse time, coming after the country conducted its second nuclear test in eight months on September 9, that was widely condemned and is expected to draw more economic sanctions from the international community.

[Radio Free Asia]

North Korean defector now a London graduate student

sungju-lee-north-korean-defectorSungju Lee is a graduate student in London today. During his childhood, his father was in North Korea’s military and they lived in Pyongyang …where Lee enjoyed a rather lush life: excellent Taekwondo classes, good schools, and plenty of food on the table.

One day, “my father came to the house and then just told me that we’re going to the northern part of North Korea for vacation,” Lee said. He realized something was amiss because they had to change trains at one point. “The condition of the second train was really bad,” he told VOA’s Asia Weekly podcast. “It was smelly. He said, “There weren’t even any proper chairs on the train. It was packed with people.”

Life in Gyeong-seong was rough and his family struggled. After a year, his father left, making his way to China, later followed by his mother. Without any way to provide for himself, he found himself on the streets, forming a gang with other kids in order to pickpocket, steal food, or earn money by taking men to see “night flowers,” a euphemism for prostitutes. Lee knew stealing wasn’t right, but remembered, “The first time stealing was really, really difficult. The second time got easier. The third time was much easier. And then after fourth time, fifth time …it became my job.”

He was on the streets for four years, moving from town to town, because staying too long in one place would mean merchants would recognize them and stop them from looting. He returned to Gyeong-seong in February 2001 and went to the train station, looking for a mark to steal from when an elderly man approached him. The man said he knew Lee and wanted to take him home. Unbeknownst to him, Lee was plotting to rob him of everything of value he had.

“[When] I entered his house, … my eyes went to the wall. There was my mother’s wedding picture. [The man] was my real grandfather.”

In October 2002, a man came to his grandfather’s house, sent by his father. The man helped Lee defect to South Korea and ultimately reunite with his father.

Sungju Lee’s complete story can be read in the new book Every Falling Star.


After rains and severe flooding, North Korea makes rare public appeal for relief

North Korea usually projects itself to the world as a fully functioning worker’s paradise. Yet severe flooding in the country’s northeast has resulted in a rare admission that all is not so well.

According to a report published Sunday by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) — North Korea’s official state media — the country’s northeast has been affected by the “heaviest downpour” since 1945, with “tens of thousands” of buildings destroyed and people left homeless and “suffering from great hardship.”

Figures released by the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs confirmed the natural disaster. So far, 133 people have been killed, 395 people are missing and 140,000 people are in “urgent need of assistance.”

The KCNA report stated how the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) had sent a public appeal to party members and service personnel of the Korean People’s Army to pool their efforts toward recovery operations to help those in the worst-hit regions. According to the report, the WPK even redirected a nationwide 200-day mass mobilization campaign aimed at boosting the economy toward helping flood victims.

Chris Staines, the head of a Red Cross delegation to North Korea, said he witnessed how the floods had “destroyed everything in their path” during a government-led trip to North Hamgyong province between September 6-9. Shelter will be a major concern in the coming months, Staines said in a statement. “Thousands of homes will need to be rebuilt before winter sets in and by the end of October overnight temperatures can plummet to sub-zero,” he added.