A blog by Grant Montgomery, co-founder of Family Care Foundation, a 501c3 that provides emergency services and sustained development for families on 5 continents. This site highlights the plight of 300,000 North Koreans who have fled their country due to the brutal oppression of a Stalinist North Korean regime, as well as those still living in North Korea.
Ellie Cha was 19 when she left North Korea. She now works on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Cha is currently taking part in a program with the advocacy group HanVoice, which promotes human rights in North Korea. As part of the six-month program, the 23-year-old has spoken at universities in Ontario and Quebec while working as an intern.
As a child, Cha went to school and learned the same sorts of things a Canadian child might: reading, math, science – with a few differences. To start with, her history classes were almost completely wrong. She learned that the Korean War was started by South Korea and the United States, for example. Lacking any other information, she believed the history lessons, she said. But she didn’t believe the more overt propaganda.
Every day before class, students were asked to take 10 minutes to compose a written reflection on some recent news, like the “heroes” who died after they ran into burning buildings to save a portrait of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung.
And after school, she and her family would attend group meetings designed to instill further loyalty to the regime. All those amazing photos of parades on holidays or celebrations in honor of the leaders are the result of months or even years of forced practice, she said.
Growing up, Cha was aware of limitations placed on her family’s success. North Korea’s government has a social system that ranks people based on their perceived loyalty to the regime and doles out economic and social privilege accordingly. The rank can go back several generations and can be affected by the actions of family members. Read more
Ellie Cha’s father, once a respected vice-president in a North Korean mining company, lost his job. An aunt had fled to China and the family was now regarded as potentially disloyal to the Kim regime.
So in 2012, Cha’s family made the decision to leave North Korea. It was the start of an arduous three-month journey across China and Southeast Asia to reach asylum in South Korea. Much of it was spent in prison cells.
Almost no North Korean defectors cross directly from North Korea into South Korea. The border is too well-guarded and it can be hard for ordinary North Koreans to travel around within their own country. So most people, especially those like Cha’s family who live near the border, cross into China.
But it’s hard for them to stay there. Because China has a relationship with North Korea, fleeing North Koreans are often caught by Chinese authorities and sent back home to face terrible punishments, including work camps or prison.
Instead, North Koreans typically head through China into Southeast Asia to find a South Korean embassy, where they can claim asylum and apply for South Korean citizenship. Read more
Ellie Cha’s family paid Chinese brokers to smuggle them across the North Korean border, one by one. Cha was reunited with her father and 12-year-old brother in China, but their ride wasn’t waiting for them when they arrived. So, Cha’s first night of freedom was spent outdoors, on the side of a mountain. After two days of cold rain on the mountain, their Chinese contact arrived and took the family to meet their mother, then they spent six days driving south through China by bus, eventually reaching Vietnam.
“During that time it was very scary for us, because we knew that if we were caught by Chinese authorities, they would send us to North Korea,” she said. “And strong punishment would await us in North Korea.”
They intended to go to the South Korean embassy in Hanoi, but were arrested by the Vietnamese police before they could get there. They spent three weeks in Vietnamese jail cells. After much confusion, they were sent back to the Chinese border. Cha was afraid.
They were eventually released back into China, and so they tried again. They went through this five times before trying a different route through Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, where they finally ended up in a refugee camp and were able to contact the South Korean authorities.
Cha believes Canadians and Westerners confuse North Korea’s public face – its robotic propaganda and seemingly fanatical devotion to Kim Jong Un — with the North Korean people. “Please remember the people’s lives, people still living under the repressive society.”
In the North Korean media, news stories are made, not covered, said Chang Hae Seong. He was a former journalist for the North’s Korean Central Television (KCTV) and is now a defector living in Seoul. “While working as a reporter at the Division of Revolution I at the TV station, I dignified Kim Il Sung to elevate him to being the hero who saved the country,” he said during a recent interview with Korea Times.
When Kim Il Sung died of cardiac arrest in 1994 and the leadership was passed to his son Kim Jong Il, the next person in the so-called Mount Paektu Bloodline. “I did research on Kim to find stories. If I found even a speck of something positive about him, I would exaggerate it to recreate a whole story to portray him as a great leader,” Chang said. ”Reporters were ordered to make and report stories about the Kim family to justify their policies.”
Chang said he got into trouble in the 1990s after he shared classified information about the Kim family with one of his co-workers, and finally defected to evade arrest from the security forces.
According to Chang, North Korean state media’s current policy was established during the Kim Jong Il era. His son Kim Jong Un, who took power in late 2011 following his father’s death, has largely followed the guidelines set by his father. Chang said that the media environment in the reclusive country has changed a lot since he fled the North in 1996. Ordinary North Koreans now have greater access to news from foreign media.
In the 2000s, some defectors worked together to provide fact-based news programs for North Koreans. Today North Koreans can secretly tune their radios to listen to news from any of the several radio stations that specialize in such news.
The North Korean gulag system is notorious for harsh conditions and brutal treatment of its prisoners. Camp 22, also known as Hoeryong concentration camp is part of a large system of North Korean prison camps. It is an 87-square-mile penal colony located in North Hamgyong province where most of the prisoners are people accused of criticizing the government.
Inmates, most of whom are serving life sentences, face harsh and often lethal conditions. According to the testimony of a former guard from Camp 22, prisoners live in bunkhouses with 100 people per room and some 30 percent show the markings of torture and beatings — torn ears, gouged eyes and faces covered with scars.
Prisoners are forced to stand on their toes in tanks filled with water up to their noses for 24 hours, stripped and hanged upside-down while being beaten or given the infamous “pigeon torture” — where both hands are chained to a wall at a height of 2 feet, forcing them to crouch for hours at a time.
Tiny rations of watery corn porridge leave inmates on the brink of starvation, and many hunt rats, snakes and frogs for protein. Some even take the drastic measure of searching through animal dung for undigested seeds to eat. Beatings are handed out daily for offenses as simple as not bowing down in respect to the guards fast enough. Prisoners are used as practice targets during martial arts training. Guards routinely rape female inmates.
Four North Korean defectors have told VOA in video messages intended for U.S. President Donald Trump what they want him to do and say during his visit to South Korea. The messages were delivered ahead of Trump’s departure Friday morning for a 12-day, five-nation tour which is expected to focus on tensions over North Korea’s its development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
“If [Trump’s] coming to strengthen Korea-U.S. relations, he’s welcome, but if he’s coming to foment a war between the two Koreas, I cannot welcome him,” said Kim Young Soo, a defector and former soldier who arrived in South Korea in 2006. “As a head of state, I think he could be more discreet when talking about a war.”
The defectors want Trump to persuade China, Pyongyang’s only remaining ally, to stop repatriating North Koreans who take refuge there. “While seeking freedom, they are put at risk of being captured by Chinese authorities and being forcibly returned to North Korea,” said Ji Seong-ho, a defector. “They may even face death. So I sincerely would like to ask President Trump to urge China’s Xi Jinping to stop repatriation of North Koreans so that they can attain their dreams of freedom.”
And they want him to keep up the pressure on North Korea with sanctions. “It’ll take an insurgency against the regime to bring about a revolution,” said Ri Sun Kyong, who arrived to South Korea in 2002. “Every single country in the world should … increase pressure so an insurgency takes place.”
North Korean spies infiltrated South Korea to threaten people who had fled the hermit kingdom, South Korea’s Unification Minister said Tuesday.
South Korean Minister Cho Myoung-Gyonto said his country would work to increase protections for defectors in the south, including by putting more limits on who can access the database holding defectors’ personal information. The minister said North Korean spies and hackers may have infiltrated the database to steal the personal data of North Koreans who had escaped.
“There is a real challenge for North Koreans because they usually aren’t well educated, they stand out, their dialect is different and they are smaller,” explained Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center. “And there is a long history of North Korea sending people into the south [as spies].”
“North Korean security officials are also visiting defector families and applying pressure to make them talk the defectors into returning home,” a source said.
Despite the dangers in South Korea, North Koreans who have made it south are luckier than many who get stuck in China on their way. This summer, at least 70 North Korean defectors were intercepted in China, held in detention centers and eventually deported back to North Korea. Human rights experts criticize China for repatriating North Korean defectors, but Beijing continues to abide by a 1986 treaty with Pyongyang that includes a repatriation agreement.
China has removed hundreds of South Koreans and closed their churches for allegedly helping North Korean defectors, as part of a clampdown on religious activities by the communist country amid soaring tensions on the Korean peninsula.
The authorities in the three provinces – Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang – had hundreds of South Korean pastors and missionaries living there. A source told The Korean Herald: “As they were sent back home, churches were closed automatically.”
The authorities’ action is also interpreted as a pre-emptive measure before China implements new regulations on religious affairs, which will take effect on February 1 of next year. Under the new directive, organizers of unapproved religious activities in China will face fines of up to £34,084 (300,000 yuan) and anybody providing a venue for “illegal religious events” will face fines of between £2,272 (20,000 yuan) and £22,722 (200,000 yuan).
The new rules, which apply to all religions ranging from Christianity to Buddhism, also allow lower-level authorities to take care of affairs relating to unsanctioned religious activities, which will bring religious groups in China under tighter scrutiny.
China, Pyongynag’s only ally, regularly sends back North Korea defectors despite them facing “systematic” torture under Kim Jong-un’s regime. A report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2016 found: “Accounts from North Korean defectors indicate individuals caught trying to defect or forcibly repatriated from China are severely punished, particularly those believed to have interacted with missionaries or engaged in religious activities.”