Monthly Archives: June 2019

No word on North Korean defectors apprehended in China

Posted on by

Kim Jeong-cheol already lost a brother who tried to escape from North Korea, and now fears his sister will meet a similar fate after she was caught by Chinese authorities.

“My elder brother was caught in 2005, and he went to a political prison and was executed in North Korea,” Kim told Reuters. “That’s why my sister will surely die if she goes back there. What sin is it for a man to leave because he’s hungry and about to die?”

Reuters was unable to verify the fate of Kim’s brother or sister. Calls to the North Korean embassy in Beijing were not answered.

When another woman – who asked to be unnamed for her family’s safety – escaped from North Korea eight years ago, she promised her sister and mother she would work to bring them out later. Her 27-year-old sister was in a group of four defectors who made it all the way to Nanning, near the border with Vietnam, before being caught.

In January, their mother died of cancer. On her death bed, the mother wrote a message on her palm pleading for her remaining daughter to escape North Korea.

“It will haunt me for the rest of my life that I didn’t keep my promise,” said the woman, who now lives in South Korea.

Activist groups and lawyers seeking to help the families say there is no sign China has deported the recently arrested North Koreans yet, and their status is unknown.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, which does not typically acknowledge arrests of individual North Korean escapees, said it had no information about the raids or status of detainees. “We do not know about the situation to which you are referring,” the ministry said in a statement when asked by Reuters. North Koreans who enter China illegally because of economic reasons are not refugees, it added.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on North Korea human rights,  Tomas Ojea Quintana, said Monday he has discussed the issue of detained North Korean defectors in China with South Korean officials.


Chinese raids on North Korean defector safe houses

Posted on by

A decade after leaving her family behind to flee North Korea, the defector was overwhelmed with excitement when she spoke to her 22-year-old son on the phone for the first time in May after he too escaped into China.

While speaking to him again on the phone days later, however, she listened in horror as the safe house where her son and four other North Korean escapees were hiding was raided by Chinese authorities. “I heard voices, someone saying ‘shut up’ in Chinese,” said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect her son’s safety. “Then the line was cut off, and I heard later he was caught.”

The woman, now living in South Korea, said she heard rumors her son is being held in a Chinese prison near the North Korean border, but has had no official news of his whereabouts.

“Raiding a house? I’ve only seen two or three times,” said Y. H. Kim, chairman of the North Korea Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea, who left North Korea in 1988 and has acted as a middleman for the past 15 years, connecting donors with brokers who help defectors. “You get caught on the way, you get caught moving. But getting caught at a home, you can count on one hand.”

At least 30 North Korean escapees have been rounded up in a string of raids across China since mid-April, according to family members and activist groups.

The increase in arrests is likely driven by multiple factors, including deteriorating economic conditions in North Korea and China’s concern about the potential for a big influx of refugees, said Kim Seung-eun, a pastor at Seoul’s Caleb Mission Church, which helps defectors escape.


Chinese President Xi Jinping to make first official visit to North Korea

Posted on by

Chinese President Xi Jinping will arrive in North Korea on Thursday for a two-day state visit, his first official trip to the country since he came to power in 2012. Xi is making the trip “at the invitation” of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Xinhua reported Monday.

Relations between the two countries had been in a deep chill under the North Korean leader until recently, but an unexpected visit by Kim to China in March 2018 signaled the beginning of a new era of Beijing-Pyongyang relations.

In the preceding years, Kim had purged several key officials with close ties to Beijing, including his uncle Jang Song Thaek. He had also angered China through his provocative missile and nuclear testing, which went against Beijing’s goal of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

However since that visit early last year, Xi and Kim have met four times, with China even lending the young North Korean leader a plane to attend a June 2018 summit with Trump in Singapore.

This week’s state visit will make Xi the first Chinese leader to visit North Korea since his predecessor, Hu Jintao visited in 2005. China is North Korea’s number one trading and economic partner, and Pyongyang’s only major military ally.


Chinese raids hit North Korean defectors Underground Railroad

Posted on by

At least 30 North Korean escapees have been rounded up in a string of raids across China since mid-April, according to family members and activist groups. It is not clear whether this is part of a larger crackdown by China, but activists say the raids have disrupted parts of the informal network of brokers, charities, and middlemen who have been dubbed the North Korean “Underground Railroad”.

“The crackdown is severe,” said Y. H. Kim, chairman of the North Korea Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea.

Most worrisome for activists is that the arrests largely occurred away from the North Korean border – an area dubbed the “red zone” where most escapees get caught – and included rare raids on at least two safe houses.

An activist at another organization that helps spirit defectors out of North Korea said so far its network had not been affected, but they were concerned about networks being targeted and safe houses being raided.

“That is a bit of a different level, more targeted and acting on intelligence that they may have been sitting on to smash up networks,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect the organization’s work.

Y. H. Kim, of the Refugees Human Rights Association, said the raids raised concerns that Chinese authorities had infiltrated some smuggling networks, possibly with the aid of North Korean intelligence agents.

“I don’t know about other organizations, but no one is moving in our organization right now,” he said. “Because everyone who moves is caught.”


‘The Great Successor’ Kim Jong Un

Posted on by

There are few world leaders past or present we know less about than North Korea’s reclusive, nuclear-armed bad boy, Kim Jong Un. Kim’s very existence was only officially acknowledged a few years before the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011 after the elder Kim launched an 11th-hour scramble to ensure dynastic succession. At the time, no one was even sure of the new leader’s exact age, let alone his agenda.

So, The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un by The Washington Post‘s Anna Fifield — who has spent considerable time in North Korea both before and after the princeling Kim’s ascent — is a welcome addition to the political literature.

What emerges is a portrait of Kim fully in charge and consciously channeling his grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, to bolster his legitimacy. Contrary to prevailing stereotypes, in this story Kim is anything but a madman. Cold-blooded for sure, but playing a calculated defensive strategy aimed at standing up his rule.

By Fifield’s account, Kim is willing to loosen his grip just enough to placate the impoverished masses and the regime’s wealthy oligarchs. At the same time, he has proved more ruthless than his father — dispatching potential rivals, such as his uncle and top regime adviser Jang Song Thaek, who was executed in 2013, and his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, who was ambushed with a deadly nerve agent at a Kuala Lumpur airport three years later. The book also asserts unequivocally that Kim Jong Nam was a CIA informant, which had only been rumored previously.

Fifield offers us intriguing tidbits from Kim’s childhood — we get a picture of isolation in Kim’s formative years, with few playmates and an overwhelming, if not surprising, sense of entitlement.

Following his father’s death, the new leader understood that his youth and inexperience, particularly in a culture that values age and wisdom, meant that he needed to move quickly to consolidate power, Fifield notes. The nuclear and missile programs started by his grandfather and nurtured by his father were kicked into overdrive. And once North Korea’s ability to deliver these weapons to the shores of the hated United States proved sufficiently convincing, Kim was ready to pivot — “time for the cruel, threatening, nuclear-armed tyrant to begin his metamorphosis into misunderstood, gracious, developmental dictator,” writes Fifield.

Kim’s “charm offensive” that closely followed an alarming escalation of war rhetoric and personal insults traded by the regime and the serial tweeting President Trump was part of this attempt. With the goal of trying to understand the U.S. president, “North Korean officials began asking former American officials to decipher Trump’s tweets for them,” Fifield writes. “They read The Art of the Deal … They asked about the United States’ nuclear attack protocol. They asked if Trump really had the sole authority to push the nuclear button.”

By the time of the Singapore summit between Kim and Trump in June 2018, the North Koreans appear to have cracked the U.S. president’s code — that flattery would get them everywhere. At the conclusion of the meeting, however, it was Trump who was publicly praising the North Korean leader, calling him “very smart,” and a “very good negotiator” and admiring Kim’s iron-fisted rule of the North, that he was “able to run it, and run it tough.” What more could a shy young dictator want?

Kim understands that getting sanctions lifted, or at least eased, may be key to his long-term survival, Fifield writes. It’s not that rank-and-file North Koreans have the capacity to revolt, but that the country’s 0.01 percent, the technocrats who know the situation inside and outside of the country, need to be kept happy.


Hundreds of public execution sites identified in North Korea

Posted on by

A South Korean NGO says it has identified 318 sites in North Korea that have been used by the government to carry out public executions. The Transitional Justice Working Group interviewed 610 North Korean defectors over four years for its report, documenting decades of killings, for offenses ranging from stealing a cow to watching South Korean TV.

Public executions took place near rivers, fields, markets, schools, and sports grounds, the rights group said. Crowds of 1,000 or more would gather to watch these executions, the NGO said in its report, “Mapping the fate of the dead”.

The report alleges that family members of those sentenced to death, including children as young as seven, were sometimes forced to watch the event. The bodies and burial locations of those killed were rarely given to their relatives.

Some public executions also take place inside detention facilities such as prisons and labor camps – where people convicted of political crimes are forced into physical work such as mining and logging. One defector held in a labor camp in the early 2000s described how 80 inmates were made to watch the killing of three women charged with trying to escape to China. They said a Ministry of People’s Security officer told the crowd: “This could happen to you.”

The report said executions are “a core method of inciting fear and deterring citizens from engaging in activities deemed undesirable by the regime”.

The vast majority of executions happen by firing squad, defectors said. This often involves three shooters firing three rounds each into the body of the condemned person. A smaller number of public hangings was also reported, though the NGO said they appeared to have been scaled back or even halted since 2005.

Ethan Shin, one of the report’s authors, told AFP that “it looks like the number of public executions is on a downward trend”, but that Pyongyang may simply be operating with more secrecy “as it seeks recognition as a normal state”.


North Korean female defectors in China sold as cybersex slaves

Posted on by

For five years, Lee Yumi — whose name has been changed for her safety — had been imprisoned with a handful of other girls in a tiny apartment in northeast China, after the broker she trusted to plan her escape from North Korea sold her to a cybersex operator. Her captor allowed her to leave the apartment once every six months. Attempts to escape had failed.

Lee’s story is shared by thousands of North Korean girls and women, some as young as 9 years old, who are being abducted or trafficked to work in China’s multimillion-dollar sex trade, according to a report by the London-based non-profit organization Korea Future Initiative (KFI).

Lee grew up in a family of low-level party cadres in North Korea. One day, after getting into a fight with them, she decided to cross the border into China. Lee said she found a broker to facilitate the dangerous move who promised her a job in a restaurant. That promise turned out to be a lie.

Lee had crossed the Tumen River in a group of eight girls. When she arrived in China, Lee said she was taken to a apartment on the fourth floor of a pale yellow building in Yanji, a city in Jilin province about 50 kilometers from Tumen, where most signs are written in Korean and Chinese and scores of restaurants sell bibimbap and kimchi, due to the large population of ethnic Koreans. At the apartment, she realized there was no restaurant job. Instead, Lee said her broker had sold her for 30,000 yuan (about $4,500) to the operator of a cybersex chatroom. “When I found out, I felt so humiliated,” she whispered. “I started crying and asked to leave, but the boss said he had paid a lot of money for me and I now had a debt towards him.”

Two other North Korean women already lived in the two-bedroom apartment Lee was delivered to. One was 19-year-old Kwang Ha-Yoon, whose name has also been changed to protect her identity, locked up for two years when Lee arrived. “My parents split up when I was very young and I grew up with my mother and grandparents,” she said. “We never had enough to eat.” Kwang left North Korea to earn money to send to her family. “Both my mother and my grandmother had cancer and needed treatment,” she said. But all the money Kwang earned in China went to her captor. During the seven years Kwang spent locked up in his apartment, she said he never gave her a cent.

Lee and Kwang shared a room. “The only furniture was two beds, two tables and two computers,” recalled Kwang. “Every morning, I would get up around 11 a.m., have breakfast and then start working until dawn the next day.” Sometimes, she would only get four hours of sleep. If they complained, they would get beaten, although both women said they did not suffer sexual abuse by their captor. Work involved logging onto an online chat platform on which South Korean men can pay to watch girls perform sexual acts. Read more

North Korean cybersex slave meets pastor online

Posted on by

It was during the summer of 2018 that Lee Yumi finally saw her chance to escape her unwanted life as a cybersex slave.

In order to keep a close eye on them, Lee’s captor slept in the living room of the small apartment from where she worked along with another young North Korean woman, Kwang. “The front door was always locked from the outside and there was no handle on the inside. … Every six months, he would take us out to the park. During those outings, he would always stay right next to us, so we never got to talk to anyone,” said Lee. In 2015, Lee tried to escape by climbing out of a window and down a metal drain, but she fell and hurt her back and leg. She still limps slightly.

“One day one of my customers [from South Korea] realized I was North Korean and was being held captive,” said Lee. While most men probably knew the girls weren’t South Korean, because North Koreans have different accents and dialects to people in the south, they chose to look the other way. This man was different. “He bought a laptop and let me take control of the screen remotely, so I could send messages without my boss noticing,” Lee said.

The man also gave her the phone number of a South Korean pastor named Chun Ki-Won, one of a band of Korean pastors who specialize in helping North Korean women escape from China. Chun said his Christian aid organization, Durihana, has helped over 1,000 defectors reach Seoul since 1999. Korean media has nicknamed him the Asian Schindler, after the German industrialist and Nazi Party member who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews.

In September 2018, Lee contacted Pastor Chun on a Korean messaging service. “Hi, I want to go to South Korea. Can you help me?” read the first message she sent.

Over the following weeks, a plan was hatched: Chun would send a team to Yanji to extract Lee and her fellow sex slave Kwang. On October 26, while Yumi’s boss was away for the day, Durihana‘s members arrived at the foot of the building. The two girls knotted their bedsheets together and dropped them out of their window. The extraction team then tied a rope to the sheets, which the girls pulled up and used to lower themselves safely to the ground.

After escaping Yanji, Lee and Kwang traveled across China on buses and trains using fake Korean passports. Their last stop was Kunming, in China’s deep southwest. Lee and Kwang met with a Chinese man who took them across the mountains into a neighboring country. “We walked for five hours through the jungle, before reaching a road where a car was waiting for us,” said Kwang.

Chun later met them in the middle of the night on the side of a road. “I burst into tears as soon as I saw him,” said Kwang, who is now 24 years old. “For the first time in a very long time, I felt safe.”

As they rode towards the South Korean embassy, Lee stared giddily at the urban landscape unfolding before her eyes. “I’m so happy!” she said, as the embassy approached. The embassy, which receives about 10 defectors a month, according to officials, kept the women for about 10 days for questioning. Defectors who satisfy the questioning process then fly to freedom in South Korea. Read more

How female defectors join the ranks of sex workers in China

Posted on by

After Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011, border security was tightened to avoid the bad publicity associated with defections and prevent information about North Korea trickling into the country, according to Tim Peters, an American pastor who co-founded an NGO called Helping Hands that helps defectors flee. An electric fence was added, as well as cameras at the border.  

“On the Chinese side, patrols were also increased because Beijing is afraid an influx of refugees could destabilize its own regime,” he added.

Usually, women defecting from North Korea pay brokers $500 to $1,000 to organize their safe passage to China, according to NGOs and defector accounts. To reach China, most defectors cross the Tumen River that separates North Korea from China on foot at night, sometimes in freezing weather with the water coming up to their shoulders. Upon arrival in China, North Korean women are then often immediately enslaved in brothels, sold into repressive marriages or made to perform graphic acts in front of webcams in satellite towns near cities close to the border.

Korean NGOs estimate that 70% to 80% of North Korean women who make it to China are trafficked, for between 6,000 and 30,000 yuan ($890 to $4,500), depending on their age and beauty. Some are sold as brides to Chinese farmers; more recently, girls have increasingly been trafficked into the cybersex industry, according to London-based non-profit organization Korea Future Initiative (KFI). Rising wages in northern China cities have led to a greater demand for prostitutes among the male population, according to a KFI report. In southern China, trafficked women from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia has typically met that demand. But in northeastern provinces, men have turned to North Korean refugees.

Within minutes of logging on to online sites, users are barraged by women on the platform sending text messages asking for a video chat in a private room. The minimum price to chat on the site is 150 won (13 cents), but girls can set the entry price for a room, with popular accounts tending to have a more expensive entry fee. Tips start at a minimum of 300 won (25 cents), but can go far higher as customers try to persuade the girls to fulfill their requests. The North Korean cybersex slaves are tasked by their captors with keeping the men online for as long as possible.

This sad story story is shared by thousands of North Korean girls and women, some as young as 9 years old, who are being abducted or trafficked to work in China’s multimillion-dollar sex trade, according to a report by KFI.

Korean pastors have set up a network of routes and safe houses in China inspired by the Underground Railroad, the secret passages enslaved African-Americans used to escape to free states from the late 1700s until the US Civil War.

“Each individual cell knows nothing about the other ones, to avoid compromising the whole operation if one of them gets caught,” said Tim Peters, the American pastor living in Seoul who is helping North Koreans flee.


Kim Jong Un’s gilded boyhood of chefs and gourmet meals

Posted on by

Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, was 27 when he inherited power in 2011. Some insights into his early life of privilege follow, adapted from “The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un,” a new book by The Washington Post’s Beijing bureau chief:

The six-year-old Kim Jong Un stood by the billiard table in the games room of the royal residence at Sinchon, south of Pyongyang, one of dozens of palatial compounds reserved for North Korea’s first family.

He and his older brother, Kim Jong Chol, were waiting for their father to come out of a meeting with some officials. They were dressed in child-sized military uniforms, olive green suits complete with gold buttons and red piping. They had moon-shaped hats on their heads and gold stars on their shoulders. They were little generals.

When their father entered the room, they stood to attention and saluted him, serious expressions on their chubby faces. Kim Jong Il was delighted and wanted to introduce the boys to the officials and the household staff before they went into the dining room next door. Everyone lined up to meet the boys, who were referred to as “little princes.”

Kenji Fujimoto, who had moved from Japan to North Korea to make sushi in the royal households, was at the end of the line. He grew more and more nervous as the princes got closer, his heart beating faster with every step they took.

Jong Chol was first. Fujimoto extended his hand, and the eight-year-old reciprocated with a firm shake. Then Fujimoto put out his hand to the younger child. This one was not so well mannered. Instead of shaking Fujimoto’s hand, Jong Un glared at him with “sharp eyes” that seemed to say, “You abhorrent Japanese.” The chef was shocked and embarrassed that a child would stare down a forty-year-old man. After a few seconds that stretched out painfully for Fujimoto, Kim Jong Il intervened to save the situation.

“This is Mr. Fujimoto,” Kim Jong Il said, prompting “Prince Jong Un” to finally agree to shake hands, although without much enthusiasm. The chef thought there may have been some name recognition. Perhaps the boys had eaten the sushi he had prepared and heard that it had been made by “Fujimoto from Japan.”

Fujimoto was just one member of a team of chefs who prepared lavish meals for Kim Jong Il and his families. They made grilled pheasant, shark fin soup, Russian-style barbecued goat meat, steamed turtle, roast chicken and pork, and Swiss-style raclette cheese melted on potatoes. The royal family ate only rice produced in a special area of the country. Female workers handpicked each grain one by one, making sure to choose flawless grains of equal size. Sushi was on the menu once a week. Fujimoto made lobster sashimi with wasabi soy sauce and nigiri sushi with fatty tuna, yellow tail, eel, and caviar. Seabass was Kim Jong Il’s favorite.

[The Washington Post]