Otto Warmbier experienced what thousands experience in North Korean concentration camps

The abuse North Korea inflicted on Otto Warmbier, the American student who died this week after returning home to the U.S. following more than a year of imprisonment, is something up to 120,000 North Koreans regularly experience in the country’s concentration camps, according to defectors and analysts.

Jun Heo, who was just a teenager when he was sent to one of the country’s concentration camps, said to Fox News that being beaten black and blue and tortured within an inch of your life was routine.

There were about 20 people stuffed into each small cell, he said. Everyone over the age of 17 was forced to work hard labor in farms from 6:30 a.m. until at least 8 p.m. Cries and screams became the soundtrack of life, but it was after nightfall when the most excruciating howls could be heard, Heo said. Hapless prisoners, trying to sleep, would wail in pain as their bony bodies broke down from starvation, while at midnight the “secret police” came to take women to be raped.

Heo’s crime? He had fled to China for a chance at a better life. It was November 2005 and Heo — plus 12 other defectors — crossed into China and was staying in a “broker’s house” in Beijing. The broker ordered the North Koreans to not leave the house, citing safety reasons. But on Dec. 6, the day before he turned 14, a barrage of Chinese policemen — armed with guns and electric batons — knocked down the door and rounded up the terrified defectors.

“I was two days in a Chinese jail and then sent back to the Sinuiju concentration camp in North Korea,” Heo remembered

After several months, he was let go. But in 2008, at the age of 17, a determined Heo defected again – this time for good. Now a 26-year-old political science major at Seoul National University and studying English at the Teach North Korean Refugees center, he wakes up every day with a self-inflicted pinch.

“It is like heaven,” Heo said. “I don’t believe I live here.”

[Fox News]

Defectors from North Korea describe daily life

For the vast majority of the 25 million North Koreans, food is scarce. The United Nations reports that 70 percent of the population — around 18 million — goes hungry, with the stunting of children’s growth a “rampant phenomenon” due to the lack of nutrition. Almost 9 million have no health care, and more than 5 million live in squalor because they lack clean running water.

While food may be scarce, distrust is not. From childhood, North Koreans are instructed to report anyone being even mildly nonconformist or speaking of their leadership without over-the-top praise, even in private conversation. Tom Fowdy, founder of the analysis group Young DPRK Watchers, noted that compulsory community meetings are held: singing songs about their leaders and goading each other into confessing minor crimes.

A caste system means North Koreans often remain in the social rank into which they were born, something determined by a family’s reputation. Sometimes a citizen can move up the ladder to a more privileged caste, depending on one’s perceived support of the leadership, or move down the ladder, depending on one’s links to criminals, defectors or South Koreans.

“Those with a poor songbun (caste ranking) will have poor prospects,” said Chad O’Carroll, managing director of Korea Risk Group, which produces analyses on North Korea. “But regardless of one’s background, most young North Koreans should never expect to leave their country, officially consume foreign-produced information unapproved by the government or show respect to anyone beyond a leader to the Kim family tree.”

A North Korean is required to hang in their homes portraits of Kim il Sung and Kim Jong-il, the grandfather and father, respectively, or the current leader. There are routine checks by authorities to ensure these are kept immaculately clean. It is mostly prohibited for one to communicate with others in the world outside. Pirated modern movies and music occasionally make their way into homes but, if caught, violators can be punished with death.

Soldiers have been known to enter homes and extract entire families, who are never heard from again.

[Fox News]

Kim Jong Un lives in fear of assassination by the West

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is reportedly so terrified of being targeted for assassination that he travels incognito inside the Hermit Kingdom, and there’s growing evidence his paranoia may be well-founded.

The 33-year-old, third-generation ruler is “extremely nervous” about a clandestine plot to take him out, according to a key South Korean lawmaker who spoke to The Korea Herald. Rep. Lee Cheol-woo, chairman of the South Korean parliament’s intelligence committee, made the claim based on reports from South Korea’s intelligence agency.

“Kim is engrossed with collecting information about the ‘decapitation operation’ through his intelligence agencies,” Lee said following a briefing last week. The rumored “decapitation plan” to target Kim and key deputies in the event fighting broke out on the peninsula first surfaced in late 2015, when the U.S. and South Korea signed “Operation Plan 5015,” a joint strategy for possible war scenarios with North Korea. According to the Brookings Institute, the plan “envisions limited warfare with an emphasis on preemptive strikes on strategic targets in North Korea and “decapitation raids” to exterminate North Korean leaders.”

Something about the term “decapitation” seems to have gotten the attention of the gout-addled, unpredictable and violent dictator. According to Lee, Kim’s is so frightened that he now disguises his movements, travels primarily at dawn and in the cars of his henchmen. Public appearances and jaunts in his prized Mercedes Benz 600 have been curtailed.

During this year’s Foal Eagle and Key Resolve exercises with South Korea, one of the largest annual military exercises in the world, members of U.S. Navy SEAL teams reportedly participated in decapitation drills with our South Korean counterparts for the first time.  Shortly after those war games, the USS Michigan, a submarine that is sometimes used to move U.S. Special Forces, took a position just off of North Korea’s coast.

But while taking out Kim may be a possibility, experts say it would be much more complicated that the 2011 raid in Pakistan in which CIA operatives and SEALs took out Bin Laden.

“Pyongyang is surrounded by antiaircraft weapons, and while the corpulent Kim presents a large and sluggish target, he’s kept on the move, always surrounded by fanatical guards and often near or in complex underground compounds,” Mark Sauter, a former U.S. Army and special forces officer, said.

[Fox News]

South Korea calls for the immediate release of Americans and S. Koreans held by Pyongyang

On Tuesday, South Korea called for the immediate release of the Americans and South Koreans being held by Pyongyang.

Its president, Moon Jae-in, described North Korea’s human rights abuses as “deplorable”, adding that South Korea would make every effort to win the release of the remaining detainees, according to a spokesman.

South Korea has tried to find out more about its own citizens through European countries with a diplomatic presence in Pyongyang, but its requests have been met with silence.

Three of the South Koreans were detained while carrying out missionary work, while the other three are defectors who returned to the North, according to South Korean intelligence officials.

[The Guardian]

Otto Warmbier’s death highlights plight of all foreigners jailed in North Korea

The death of Otto Warmbier has focused the world’s attention on the plight of other foreign nationals North Korea has imprisoned to use as bargaining chips for aid and diplomatic concessions. In addition to three other Americans, the regime is known to be holding six South Koreans, a number of Chinese and a Canadian citizen, Canadian pastor, Hyeon Soo-lim, who was charged with subversion in 2015 and given a 15-year sentence, and then released a few days ago in a coma after 17 months internment.

In the hours since Warmbier’s parents announced that their 22-year-old son had died in hospital in Ohio, calls grew for the release of other foreign nationals who have been incarcerated for alleged crimes against North Korea. The university student died on Monday, days after North Korea released him 17 months into his sentence of hard labor for attempting to steal a propaganda poster from a hotel near the end of an organized tour.

Foreign detainees are likely to be sent to a prison in the city of Sariwon, south of the capital, Pyongyang, where they are treated more leniently than the estimated 200,000 to 300,000 North Koreans held inside the country’s vast infrastructure of prisons, labor camps and political re-education camps.

“North Korean prisoners are routinely tortured, but it’s unlikely that that happens to foreign detainees. They are also well-fed compared with North Korean inmates,” said Jiro Ishimaru, of Asia Press, an Osaka-based organization with a network of contacts in North Korea. “The biggest problem is the toll incarceration in a place like North Korea takes on their mental health.”

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea used Warmbier’s death to draw attention to the incarceration of ordinary citizens who are “starved, tortured, brutalized and killed in North Korea’s political prison camps”.

[The Guardian]

Bill Richardson on China applying pressure on North Korea

Nations and international rights groups should pressure North Korea to accept an investigation into its treatment of Otto Warmbier as a possible violation of the Geneva Convention, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said.

Richardson, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton, now is a negotiator for detainees in countries hostile to the United States and had sought to secure Otto Warmbier’s release from North Korea.

The U.S. also should press for additional international sanctions on North Korea, Richardson said. The United Nations Security Council this month expanded sanctions on North Korea after its recent nuclear missile tests, but China has opposed more stringent efforts, such as an oil embargo.

Perhaps holding up China’s ally as a human-rights abuser, a place where a young man’s life was destroyed, might change the country’s mind, Richardson said. The ultimate hope: that pressure on North Korea could result in the release of the other three Americans held.

“This is a real opportunity to say to the Chinese, ‘Look at these human rights violations. Look what they did to this young man,’ ” Richardson said. “This is one of the worst violations, the most egregious treatment of human rights that I’ve seen.”

[USA Today]

The US State Dept approach to negotiating the release of Americans from North Korea

For years, the State Department has worked privately to negotiate the release of Americans detained in North Korea, often working through an intermediary such as Sweden, which has had an embassy in the country since 1970. Government officials in the know are told not to say anything publicly that might provoke North Korean retaliation against U.S. citizens. Eventually, the approach usually works.

In Otto Warmbier’s case, it didn’t. [After being held for a year and a half, Warmbier’s] situation represents the worst outcome for any American whom North Korea has detained.

After a year of remaining silent, Otto Warmbier’s parents began appearing on prime-time news shows, demanding that more be done to bring home their son. Fred Warmbier and his wife Cindy decided to start talking. They gave interviews to Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson and The Washington Post, among others.

Few on Capitol Hill are blaming the Warmbiers now that everyone knows about their son’s condition. Much remains unknown about what happened to Otto Warmbier, but he reportedly has been in a coma for more than a year. Brain scans show severe damage. Cincinnati doctors describe his condition as “unresponsive wakefulness.”

Otto Warmbier’s condition and the fact that no one knew about it for a year shows the limitations of the approach of the State Department.

The Warmbiers’ efforts may have put more pressure on both Washington and Pyongyang, but complaints from high-ranking officials would have worked better, said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. Governments respond to “pressure, embarrassment and exposure.”

“I’m hopeful that what happened to Otto will embolden members of the House and Senate — and, most importantly, the international community — to increase pressure on this pariah country,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio,, who has grown close to the Warmbiers since their ordeal began.

[USA Today]

North Korean defector wants to go home but facing possible arrest

A North Korean defector who has demanded repatriation to her homeland, claiming she was tricked by a defection broker and came to South Korea by mistake, is once again in danger of arrest.

The Daegu Metropolitan Police Agency’s security investigation team is currently investigating Kim Ryon-hui, 48. Kim is being charged with posting materials praising the North Korean regime on her Facebook page in April 2016, including a video commemorating the Day of the Sun (a holiday celebrating the birthday of North Korean founding leader Kim Il-sung) and a song cheering for Kim.

Police are also charging Kim in connection with statements she made in a 2015 interview with the Hankyoreh. Her Feb. 2016 visit to the Vietnamese embassy in South Korea to demand to be sent to North Korea is also being seen as a National Security Law violation.

“Kim’s remarks are something we are obliged to investigate according to domestic law,” a police source said. “We are considering an arrest warrant request because we have sent three summonses to Kim as of June 13 demanding that she appear, and she has refused all of them,” the source added.

In Apr. 2015, Kim received a two-year jail sentence suspended for three years for making a telephone call to a North Korean consulate in China, which is considered meeting or communicating with North Korea according to the National Security Law. Kim claims that at the time that she was trying to alert North Korea to her detention and request rescue were not accepted by the court.

Kim has demanded her own repatriation. The Ministry of Unification maintains that Kim’s repatriation is not allowed by domestic law.


Why Otto Warbier received an extra dose of North Korean brutality

North Korea is known to have detained 16 American citizens since 1996, including three who are still in custody. They have been subjected to varying degrees of mental abuse but less often physical torture.

Since North Korea has generally refrained from physically abusing the Americans it has held, it makes the case of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old American college student who had been serving a 15-year sentence in North Korea, even more striking.

Mr. Warmbier was released in a coma and returned on Tuesday to the United States. A senior American official has said the United States obtained intelligence reports that he had been repeatedly beaten.

Dr. Daniel Kanter, director of the Neurocritical Care Program at the University of Cincinnati, said at a news conference, Warmbier has “severe injuries to all regions of the brain.”

Warmbier’s fate has cast new attention on how North Korea treats foreigners in captivity.

Despite its longstanding enmity toward the United States and its allies, North Korea has been deeply sensitive to outside criticism of its human rights record, billing itself as a righteous nation that respects international norms. It has used American prisoners as bargaining chips in dealing with Washington.  The prospect that the Americans might eventually be released as part of negotiations seems to have influenced their treatment.

The worst known case of abuse before Mr. Warmbier was that of Robert Park, a Christian missionary who said he was severely beaten by North Korean soldiers after he was caught in 2009 while walking across the border from China waving a Bible. After he was transferred to Pyongyang, North Korea, he said, he was subjected to torture –beating of his genitals with a club– so horrific he begged for death.

The news about Mr. Warmbier has also deepened the anxiety among families of South Koreans and Japanese citizens held in the North. One relative said he was shocked to hear of Mr. Warmbier’s release in a coma. “It’s like a warning to the U.S.,” he said.

[New York Times]

Three Americans still held in North Korea

Two of the three other Americans still being held in North Korea are academics who worked at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, and the third is a businessman.

  • Kim Dong Chul, the president of a company involved in international trade and hotel services, was arrested in 2015 and is serving 10 years on espionage charges.
  • Kim Sang Duk, also known as Tony Kim, a university professor, was detained in Pyongyang in 2017 and accused of attempting to overthrow the government.
  • Kim Hak-song, a native Korean born in China (Jin Xue Song is the Chinese version of his name) and professor working at the same university as Tony Kim was detained May 6 on suspicion of “hostile acts” against the regime.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States is discussing their respective cases with the North Korean regime. The United States does not have a diplomatic mission in North Korea.

“It’s a delicate matter, he said. We’re working on it.”