Monthly Archives: June 2017

Otto Warmbier hospitalized back in the United States

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American college student Otto Warmbier has landed back in the United States after more than 17 months in detention in North Korea.

Warmbier has been in a coma for over a year, according to his parents, and was rushed to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center late Tuesday, a hospital spokeswoman said.

His return to the US comes as questions swirl about his health and what happened to him while he was detained by the North Korean government. The 22-year-old contracted botulism last year and is in “bad shape,” a source close to the family told CNN. North Korea told a US official that Warmbier contracted botulism and slipped into the coma after taking a sleeping pill, a senior State Department official told CNN.

Since last March, the US had been pressing North Korea to let Swedish officials see the four Americans, the senior State Department official told CNN. When the Swedes finally got the okay to visit, the North Koreans immediately asked for a meeting with Joe Yun, the US envoy in New York, when he was told about Otto Warmbier’s condition.

In that meeting about a week ago, Yun was told that Warmbier had contracted botulism a year ago and went into a coma after taking a sleeping pill. US officials then urged those with the ability to persuade Pyongyang to ratchet up the pressure to get him released, said a source, who is familiar with the government’s efforts.

A second senior State Department official said the US has not yet accepted the North Korean version of events in terms of the timing and cause of how Warmbier fell into a coma. “All we know so far is what they have told us,” the official said. “This is the North Korean version of events. We won’t know anything for sure until doctors are able to fully evaluate Otto’s condition.”


Otto Warmbier, American student released by North Korea, is in a coma

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American college student Otto Warmbier has been released after more than 17 months in detention in North Korea but has been in a coma for over a year, according to his parents.

The 22-year-old contracted botulism and is in “bad shape” but en route back to the United States, a source close to the family told CNN.

“Otto has left North Korea. He is on Medivac flight on his way home. Sadly, he is in a coma and we have been told he has been in that condition since March of 2016. We learned of this only one week ago,” said Fred and Cindy Warmbier in a statement. “We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime in North Korean. We are so grateful that he will finally be with people who love him.”

Warmbier was detained in January 2016 at the airport in Pyongyang while on his way home. His parents say the University of Virginia student had been on a tour of the reclusive country.

North Korean authorities said they had security footage of him trying to steal a banner containing a political slogan that was hanging from the walls of his Pyongyang hotel.

Warmbier was found guilty and sentenced in March 2016 to 15 years hard labor. It was the last time he was seen publicly.

“Otto’s detainment and sentence was unnecessary and appalling, and North Korea should be universally condemned for its abhorrent behavior. Otto should have been released from the start,” said US Sen. Rob Portman, who represents Warmbier’s home state of Ohio.


North Korea views humanitarian aid as leverage

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So far North Korea has rejected South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s offers of unconditional humanitarian aid and cooperation. Since he took office in early May, the new liberal South Korean leader has tried to balance strong support for military deterrence and international sanctions against Pyongyang’s continued nuclear and ballistic missiles provocations with increased engagement to restart inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation.

The North Korean state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun said in an editorial last week that, “Nobody can expect relations to improve just because they allow some humanitarian aid or civilian exchanges that the previous conservative clique halted.”

North Korea has also set a steep price for allowing future reunions of families that have been separated by the division of the Korean Peninsula at the end of World War II. When the South recently proposed trying to arrange a new reunion in August to mark the anniversary of the end of the Second World War, Pyongyang demanded Seoul first return a group of North Korean defectors, including 12 restaurant workers who sought asylum in the South last year. North Korea charges that these defectors were abducted while South Korea says they voluntarily fled.

Ahn Chan-il, a North Korean defector and analyst with the World Institute of North Korean studies, said the Kim Jong Un leadership is making seemingly impossible demands to improve inter-Korean ties because it expects relations to actually get worse in the short term.

The North Korea official news agency on Saturday indicated Pyongyang is close to testing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could potentially reach the U.S. mainland.

“If North Korea does it, Kim Jong Un knows well that China will prepare sanctions such as blocking the oil pipeline (between the two countries,)” Ahn said.


South Korea suspends Terminal High Altitude Air Defense system

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South Korea has suspended the deployment of a controversial American missile defense system, with the new liberal administration declaring no further moves can take place until an environmental assessment is carried out–a process that could take a year or even two.

The decision highlights the potential for a rift between the United States under a Republican president and South Korea with its new liberal president, Moon Jae-in, who is due to visit President Trump in the White House later this month for their first meeting.

Moon’s office Wednesday said it would suspend the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system, an anti-missile battery designed to protect the South against North Korea but which has elicited strong opposition, particularly where it is being deployed.

An unnamed official said there was no hurry to get the system up and running, given that North Korea had been a threat to the South for years, the official said.

“[North Korea’s] nuclear tests have been going on for a long time, and so whether we must urgently install [the THAAD battery] by ignoring our legal procedures is a question,” he said.

[Washington Post]                                                   Read more: China on THAAD

The two latest defectors from North Korea

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A father and son saved from a small fishing boat were given permission to stay in South Korea – despite the chances of a fierce reaction from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

The pair were rescued along with two others on another boat on Friday and Saturday. The other two men requested to head back to North Korea.

Tensions are running high between the two nations – who have been at war since 1950 – after the tubby tyrant launched a missile test today. This morning’s test fire marks Kim’s fourth weapons launch in recent weeks.

The man in his 50s and son in his 20s will be allowed to stay in South Korea for “humanitarian” reasons. In a statement, the Ministry of Unification in South Korea said: “The government handled the issue on humanitarian grounds and respected their will as we do customarily.”

A South Korean official said: “We will provide education for them to settle in South Korea, for a certain period of time, as is usual for North Korean defectors.”

Unusually, North Korea has not spoken out about the rescue yet – Pyongyang has condemned the “kidnap” of its citizens rescued in this way before.

 [Daily Star]

How defectors send money to relatives in North Korea

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It is sometimes a challenge for North Korean defectors to find trustful middlemen to help them send money to relatives still in North Korea.

Brokers in South Korea wire money to middlemen in China, most of whom are smugglers or tradesmen with ties to North Korea. Then the middlemen call their contacts in the North to notify them of the amount of money to deliver out of the pockets of their North Korean counterparts while carrying out other trade deals of their own. The commission fee is between 20 percent and 30 percent in general.

For the past decade, Kim Hye-sook, a 42-year-old defector from North Korea, has successfully managed to send money to her elder sister and relatives who remain in the North. Kim was lucky enough to find someone in the transfer business who was a friend of a fellow defector. Although the commission fees are relatively high — around 30 percent of the amount entrusted — Kim’s money has always landed safely in the hands of her family.

“Looking at kids here, I cannot help but think of my nephews [in the North]. I wish they could live a decent life as they do here. I myself live on a tight budget with my husband, as I’m sick and can’t work. Nevertheless, I can’t stop sending money back home because I know exactly how they live in North Korea — it breaks my heart now just thinking of it,” Kim said during an interview.

[The Korea Herald]

North Korean defectors ripped off trying to send money to relatives

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A few months after fleeing her destitute homeland for a more decent life in South Korea, North Korean defector Park received a tempting offer: Someone who could transfer money to her family in the North for a commission fee.

Haunted by memories of her three starving children and old mother living in Hyesan in the country’s far north Ryanggang Province, the 44-year-old defector eagerly handed over 20 million won ($17,900) to a broker — only to find out a month later not a single penny had reached her family.

“It is just outrageous to think that other defectors like me could easily fall prey to this kind of fraud, getting their savings wiped out,” says Park.

According to a 2016 survey from the Seoul-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, around 58.5 percent of 400 surveyed defectors in South Korea have sent money home. Twenty-six percent said they did so last year, with the average remittance being about 2.35 million won ($2,100).

With a growing number of new arrivals falling prey to such scams, the Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs and defector support, has expanded related education and set up a 24-hour hotline manned by officials at the Hanawon resettlement center. Most defectors are mandated to undertake a three-month training period there as soon as they admitted to South Korea.

Most defectors are not high-income earners, with their average monthly wages hovering around 1.5 million won ($1342/month).

[The Korea Herald]

Russia moving closer to North Korea

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As China responds to President Trump’s call to pressure North Korea to curb its rogue weapons programs, Russia has stepped in to help the hermit nation stay connected to the rest of the world.

Trade between Russia and North Korea increased by 73% during the first two months of 2017 compared to the same period the year before, boosted mostly by increased coal deliveries from Russia, according to Russian state-owned news site Sputnik.

China, North Korea’s chief political and economic benefactor, said it had curbed coal deliveries to North Korea and taken other steps aimed at persuading North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to halt his nuclear and ballistic missile development programs.

Other moves by Russia to expand commerce with North Korea include:

  • A Russian company, Investstroytrest, opened a new ferry line in May connecting the Russian port city of Vladivostok to the North Korean city of Rajin.
  • Russian railway officials in January visited North Korea to discuss upgrades to the Rajin-Hasan railway, which links Russia to the Korean peninsula.
  • Russia and North Korea have reached a labor immigration agreement to expand a program that already employs 40,000 North Korean laborers in Russia’s timber and construction industries, a major source of foreign currency for Kim Jong Un’s government.

These moves come despite Russia’s signing onto recent sanctions by the United Nations Security Council, which call for reducing trade with North Korea.

[USA Today]

The awakening of the North Korean people

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From an interview with Kang Chol-hwan, who was detained in a North Korean concentration camp for 10 years, along with his family, as political criminals simply due to the fact that they had lived in Japan:

What is it like inside a concentration camp? It is very similar to the Soviet and Nazi camps made by Stalin and Hitler in the way they systematically kill the people.Children, women and even elderly people were imprisoned as political criminals, and are made to do inhumane hard labor on minimal food supplies.

But North Korea also has unique systems: a transfer system where the children inherit their parents’ “crimes”, and a three-generation wipe-out system where they kill the parents, children and their children altogether.

What is necessary for the democratization of North Korea? First, we need to ask China to stop the forced deportation of North Korean defectors. If they stop doing this, more people in North Korea will begin to openly seek democracy, and join in activism.

Secondly, we need to expand operations to send information to the west side of North Korea. There was a case in Romania where a citizen who got hold of outside information was able to bring down the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

…North Koreans have begun to resist. For example, when the Tumen river flood killed many people last year, the people were furious that Kim Jong-un didn’t come to see the devastation that took so many lives. After seeing on world news that leaders visit disaster sites, the people changed their views.

This is why we continue to smuggle USBs that carry world news into North Korea. The awakening of the people is a weapon stronger than any other.

[The Liberty Web]

S. Korean President wants to help Trump make deal with North Korea

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Newly-elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in is intent on reopening inter-Korean channels of dialogue and engagement, despite Pyongyang’s continued missile tests and U.S. calls for increased sanctions.

The new liberal leader won a special presidential election in early May following the impeachment of conservative former President Park Geun-hye for her alleged involvement in a multimillion dollar corruption scandal. Park denied all criminal charges related to the scandal including bribery at the onset of her trial in Seoul on Tuesday.

Shifting away from his predecessor’s hardline North Korea policies, President Moon wants to balance international sanctions imposed on the Kim Jong Un government for its continued nuclear and ballistic missile tests with positive incentives to ease tensions and rebuild trust.

“Humanitarian assistance to North Korea. Or another example could be assisting with the planting of trees in North Korea, or President Moon Jae-in might allow incremental exchange and cooperation between North and South Korea,” said Moon Chung-in, who was appointed a special aide for security and diplomacy by the new president this week to help formulate outreach polices.

The South Korean president is open to a proposal made by Beijing calling for Pyongyang to stop further nuclear and missile tests in exchange for a suspension of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises.

[Big News Network]