Monthly Archives: September 2019

North Korean YouTubers in the South share experiences of life under Kim Jong-un’s rule

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While mainstream media reports on North Korea focus on heavy subjects like its nuclear programme or internal power hierarchy, young defector YouTubers feed a growing demand for softer news related to daily life in their former home country.

Wearing a fedora, Jang Myung-jin shouts “Hello, comrades!” as he begins his YouTube broadcast, titled “A North Korean man, Tango”. Video clips uploaded on Jang’s YouTube channel showed him saying that ordinary North Koreans usually raise dogs, rabbits, pigs and chickens, but to either eat or sell to markets. He also said he never heard about the existence of transgender people in North Korea, though he heard about gay people in the country.

He shares that calling someone “a baby born by a young female slave” is considered a profanity in North Korea, and that people there say “Do you want to have the order of your ribs revolutionarily reorganised?” when trying to intimidate others.

Jang, 32, is among a handful of young refugees in South Korea who have launched YouTube channels that offer a rare glimpse into the everyday lives of people in North Korea, one of the world’s most closed-off and repressive countries. He uses his Samsung smartphone to film himself at his small Seoul flat, and sometimes invites fellow North Korean refugees as guests and has friends shoot him when he ventures out.

Jang, who has about 7,000 subscribers to his two-year-old channel, said he does manual labour and delivers fried chicken as a means of living in South Korea because his YouTube-related income is too small. But he feels it’s worth keeping his YouTube career going because some subscribers have left messages saying his broadcasts help resolve their misunderstandings of North Korea.

“There are people who yearn for real scenes showing how people in North Korea live. There is a niche market for that,” said Jeon Young-sun, a research professor at Seoul’s Konkuk University. Read more

North Korean YouTubers in the South – Part 2

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Some North Korea-born YouTubers talk about why they left their homeland and the experiences they’ve had in South Korea. Some also broadcast themselves putting on North Korean-style make-up or eating foods from the country.

Kang Na-ra, a North Korean escapee who regularly appears on two YouTube channels and two TV programmes, is called “Princess Na-ra” by her fans. The 22-year-old with long, brown-dyed hair said she has a 200-member fan club that has sent her a cake topped with a mini-Kang doll on her birthday for the past three years.

When Kang, dressed in a North Korean military uniform, showed how to put on North Korean-style make-up on her YouTube channel, her subscribers wrote, “You are so pretty even without make-up” and “You’re such a beauty”.

The YouTubers, however, also have anti-fans who often vent their anger at them when Pyongyang does something provocative like conduct a weapons test. Jang said some messages have been left for him wishing for him to be assassinated with a poisoned needle or banished to a North Korean coal mine. Kang said she feels a “little sad” when she reads malicious messages from people such as “Go back to your country” and “Why does a Red live here?”.

Jang said a middle school student once asked him if North Koreans eat dirt when they’re hungry, while another escapee-turned-YouTuber, Lee Pyung, said he was asked whether North Koreans give potatoes instead of money to a driver when they take a bus.

They believe their YouTube programmes help address the widespread misinformation about North Korea in the South.

[South China Morning Post]

How a sanctions-busting smartphone business thrives in North Korea

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In 2017, official customs data show North Korea imported $82 million worth of mobile phones from China, the third biggest import item after soybean oil and fabrics. That number dropped to zero in 2018 as sanctions bit. But while sanctions eliminated official imports, informal trade along the China-North Korea border appears to be ongoing, experts and defectors say.

The availability of North Korean mobile phones are a big asset in North Korea’s flourishing grey market economy. One young North Korean woman surnamed Choi recalled selling two pigs and smuggling herbs from China to raise the 1,300 Chinese yuan ($183) her family needed to buy a mobile phone in 2013. She used the phone to help successfully run a retail business selling Chinese clothes and shampoos, arranging deliveries from wholesalers.

“It turned out we could make a way more money than our official salaries,” said Choi, who has since defected to South Korea, declining to give her full name for fear of retribution against relatives still in North Korea.

In a survey this year of 126 North Korean defectors who had used mobile phones, more than 90% said cellphones improved their daily lives and about half said they used them for market activities. “Millions of people are using mobile phones and need them to make a living or show off their wealth,” said Shin Mi-nyeo, executive director of the Organization for One Korea, a South Korean support group for defectors that conducted the poll.

Sin adds: “Then their phone bills create huge income for the government.” Kim Bong-sik, a researcher at South Korea’s Korea Information Society Development Institute, said estimating revenues was difficult, but it was likely to be one of the state’s biggest earners given the scale of the business.

North Korean phones can only be used to call domestic numbers and have some unique security features. Downloading or transferring files is severely restricted. Reuters found a warning pop-up when installing an “unidentified program” on the Pyongyang 2418 smartphone stating: “If you install illegal programs, your phone can malfunction or data will get destroyed.”

“North Korea puts algorithms and software in its mobile phones to keep data from being copied or transferred,” said Lee Young-hwan, a South Korean software expert studying North Korean smartphones. The regime has also developed a home-grown surveillance tool on mobile phones, according the U.K.-based cybersecurity company Hacker House. When a user accesses illegal or non-state approved media, an alert is generated and stored inside the phone. A modified version of Android also conducts surveillance and tracks users, Hacker House said.


North Korean refugees share their experiences

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Nine North Korean refugees living in South Korea each gave 10-minute speeches at an English speech contest held by the Teach North Korean Refugees Global Education Center (TNKR).

The grand prize winner was Song Chaeeun, who escaped to South Korea in 2007. Her speech on the “three types of freedom” told of the importance of free speech, education and private property as fundamental freedoms. “Having experienced years of oppression and tyranny, I am finally able to talk about true freedom,” she said. At age 21, Song escaped from North Korea, arriving in China before moving to Myanmar and then Thailand, where she spent five months in jail before she was released and traveled to South Korea. “In time dictators will fail and freedom will prevail,” Song told the audience. “To all of you, the rights and freedoms you enjoy are fundamental from the day you are born.”

Next prize went to Eom Yeong-nam (Ken), who served in the North Korean military until “life threw (him) a curveball” and he escaped to South Korea. After working and studying in Canada, Eom returned to Seoul to earn a master’s degree at Korea University. Eom spoke of the difficulties he had after graduating from Hanawon and feeling shameful about his North Korean origins. He tried to hide his identity but opened up to his teacher and classmates in Canada. “That day was the greatest day of my life. I became a star,” he said. “If you do not accept yourself for who you are, then how can you expect others to accept you?”

Ju Chan-yang, who has been a prominent advocate for other North Korean refugees, also received a prize. She spoke of her childhood in North Korea, growing up listening to the Voice of America on a black market-bought radio and watching American movies like “Charlie’s Angels.” Her father escaped from North Korea in 2008, and her mother and siblings followed soon after. Finally, she was able to escape too with their help. “I remembered dreaming of my family every night, and I was afraid that this too was a dream,” she recalled.

[The Korean Times]

Why a senior defector believes North Korea’s days are numbered

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Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who held posts in Denmark, Sweden and the U.K. said that while the regime’s elusive leader, Kim Jong Un, may have no intention of undertaking reforms or giving up his nuclear weapons, change is inevitable. Thae, who lives under the protection of the South Korean government, and travels with an entourage of body guards, recently sat for an interview with TIME, amid news that U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim have been expressing interest in another summit.

Q: President Trump has pursued a strategy of cozying up to hostile leaders, including Kim Jong Un, in the hopes that it will pay off at the negotiating table. What do you think has been the effect of this?
A: I think President Trump is playing a very dangerous game with North Korea. President Trump met three times with Kim Jong-Un, [but] … has not taken any significant measures to stop the nuclearization of North Korea. Meanwhile Kim Jong Un has achieved quite a lot. First, he avoided a so-called military option, which President Trump had emphasized quite often in 2017. Second, he stopped President Trump from adding additional sanctions. Third, thanks to these meetings, Kim Jong Un actually strengthened his legitimacy and absolute rule over North Korea.

Q: President Trump has made it clear he wants the Nobel Prize for making peace with North Korea. What does Kim Jong Un want from these talks?
A: First, he wants nuclear status in this region. …Like what India and Pakistan did. Second, is that through this dialogue process with President Trump, Kim Jong Un, a man in his thirties, all of a sudden raised his rank to the same level as other important players in this region. And domestically, he proved to North Korean people that he is very capable, even though he is young.

Q: You’ve said that North Korean people, both regular citizens and the elite, don’t believe in the system. What gives you this impression?
A: The current regime can be termed a socialist skeleton. The bones have a socialist structure, but the flesh has already turned capitalist. The number of black markets and free markets are increasing every year. If you read Rodong Sinmun, North Korean media, they said North Korea will not collapse because of a military strike by imperialists, but it is possible if the young generations are not educated properly.

Q: What do they mean by ‘educated properly’? What’s different about the younger generation?
A: If you look at the millennial generation of North Korea, they are the only ones who have grown up with computers. When computers were introduced in late 1990s, all of a sudden there was a boom of English learning. If you want to use a computer, you have to know English, right? And they are not interested in watching communist or socialist cultural content. They are only interested in American or South Korean movies or dramas. I think that the young generations’ eyes are not on ideological things, but on material things. And even though the North Korean regime wants to stop it, they can’t stop this future.

[Excerpted from TIME interview]

Remembering Otto Warmbier’s death, Trump renews pressure on North Korea

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Is President Donald Trump dusting off his most potent weapon in what was his “maximum pressure” campaign to denuclearize North Korea, Pyongyang’s criminal human rights record?

In speeches before the United Nations, the South Korean National Assembly and in his 2017 State of the Union (SOTU) address, Trump had used the harshest language to expose the Kim regime’s atrocities against its long-suffering population. He told the General Assembly that “the depraved regime in North Korea is responsible for the starvation deaths of millions of North Koreans, and for the imprisonment, torture, killing, and oppression of countless more.”

Finally, the president showed that the Kim regime’s cruelty extends beyond its own people to its treatment of a U.S. citizen. He marshaled his administration’s diplomatic resources and his own personal energies to secure the release of Otto Warmbier, the American student held by Pyongyang for 17 months for trying to filch a propaganda poster as a North Korean souvenir.

Tragically, Warmbier was released in June 2017 only after he had been repeatedly beaten and tortured until falling into a coma; he died shortly after being sent home. Trump cited “the regime’s deadly abuse of an innocent American college student” in his U.N. speech.

Yet, last February, the president dramatically shifted his position on Kim Jong Un’s responsibility for Warmbier’s mistreatment and death. Asked about the case after his failed Hanoi summit with Kim, Trump stated that the North Korean leader felt “badly” about what had happened to Otto Warmbier and then went on to absolve Kim of responsibility. The Warmbier family was not so accepting of that explanation and expressed shock at the president’s statement: “Kim and his evil regime are responsible for the death of our son Otto. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. No excuses or lavish praise can change that.”

Nothing more had been heard about the case from the White House in the ensuing six months — until now. The White House announced last week that the president would host the Warmbier family for a Saturday evening dinner to honor Otto’s memory. In case the media failed to take proper notice, Trump used his joint press conference with Australia’s prime minister days later to recall how “horribly” Otto had been treated.

Trump’s decision to highlight it in a high-visibility public setting … could well have been him telling Kim Jong Un that America has not forgotten or forgiven the outrageous treatment and murder of one of its young sons — or the nature of the regime that carried out such a heinous act. Trump may well be hinting at a potential return to the broader focus on North Korea’s despicable treatment of its own people, not least including the millions held in concentration camps.

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), which helped arrange the 2017 White House meeting with North Korean defectors, this past week released its latest in a series of authoritative reports laying out the inner workings of the Kim regime’s system of oppression. HRNK’s work, and that of the United Nations human rights committee, have effectively made the case for regime change in North Korea in one form or another.

[Excerpts from The Hill by Joseph Bosco who served as China country director for the secretary of Defense, 2005-2006, and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, 2009-2010.]

North Korea faces lowest crop harvest in five years

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North Korea’s crop production this year is expected to drop to its lowest level in five years, bringing serious shortages for 40% of the population, as a dry spell and poor irrigation hit an economy already reeling from sanctions over its weapons programs, the United Nations said on Thursday.

In its latest quarterly Crop Prospects and Food Situation report, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said the poor harvest of the country’s main crops, rice and maize, means 10.1 million people are in urgent need of assistance.

The crops shortfall comes as the country bids to contain the spread of African swine fever in its pig herd, following confirmation of a first case in May. The disease, fatal to pigs though not harmful to humans, has spread into Asia since first being detected in China last year, resulting in large-scale culls and reduced production of pork, a staple meat across the region including in North Korea.

The FAO report followed earlier U.N. assessments this year that the isolated country’s food production last year fell to its lowest level in more than a decade amid a prolonged heatwave, typhoon and floods.

South Korea has pledged to provide 50,000 tonnes of rice aid to its northern neighbor through the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP). But its delivery has been delayed by Pyongyang’s lukewarm response amid stalled inter-Korean dialogue and denuclearization talks with the United States, Seoul officials said. North Korea has told the United Nations to cut the number of its staff it deploys in the country for aid programs. citing the “politicization of U.N. assistance by hostile forces.”


Anguish over deaths Of North Korean defectors who starved in Seoul

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The death of 42-year-old North Korean defector Han Seong-ok and her 6-year-old son, Kim Dong-jin anguishes Kim Yong-hwa and made him doubt himself. Kim Yong-hwa is chairman of the North Korea Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea, a defectors group, which was responsible for helping Han get from China to South Korea. Han had been trafficked from North Korea as a bride to a man in China.

Kim recalls Han’s hard life was visible in her rough and calloused hands. “She looked at least 15 or 20 years older than her actual age,” he recalls. “She was growing corn and potatoes in a rural town in China. And unlike here, farming there is not mechanized.”

After Han died in Seoul, “I thought, ‘Why did I bring her here?’ ” he says. Of course, he says, he brought her here to help her find freedom — but what was the point, he wonders, if she just starved to death in a land of plenty.

A man sets up portraits of North Korean defector Han Seong-ok and her 6-year-old son, Kim Dong-jin , who are believed to have died from starvation, at a shrine in downtown Seoul.

A fellow defector surnamed Lee, who did not want NPR to use her full name for fear that her family would face discrimination, was one of the few people who knew Han Seong-ok. Both were from Hamhung, North Korea’s second-largest city. In 2009, they were in the same class at a government-funded training center, which all defectors to the South must attend.

“I was really glad and grateful to know that she’s from my hometown,” Lee remembers. “I liked her so much that we promised to remain friends and move to the same district together.”

Lee remembers that Han seemed bright, but says she often had a “shadow” or sad look on her face and often walked on the street with her face tilted down, obscured by the brim of her hat. She believes Han was distraught about a husband and child she left in China.

“Almost every female North Korean defector feels torn between the family they already have,” she says, “and the possibility of a new spouse and a new family in South Korea.”

Lee says that if Han had stayed in North Korea, she would not have died unknown there. In North Korea, “You even know how many spoons your neighbor has,” Lee says. “Even during the famine of the 1990s, we would know the morning after if someone had died overnight, so we could take out the body for burial right away.”


North Korean defectors who starved to death in a land of plenty

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My hometown, where I once lived, is a mountain village with blossoming flowers.

The lyrics to this folk song, which is sung in both Koreas, evoke nostalgia for a time and a place to which one can never return. It is playing at a makeshift shrine in downtown Seoul. There’s an altar with flowers, alongside photos of 42-year-old North Korean defector Han Seong-ok and her 6-year-old son, Kim Dong-jin.

In late July, the management staff for the apartment building where Han lived went looking for her, to see about months of unpaid utility bills. Smelling a foul odor from her apartment, they broke in and found both mother and son on the floor. They had been dead for two months. The bodies were so decomposed, authorities say they couldn’t determine the cause of death.

There was no food in the apartment except a bag of chili pepper flakes. Han’s bank account was empty. Police found no evidence of foul play, so many people assume Han and her child starved to death. The case has shocked South Koreans and refocused attention on the roughly 33,000 North Korean defectors living in the South.

Kim Yong-hwa, chairman of the North Korea Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea, a defectors group, says South Korea should either take better care of defectors or not take them in at all.

Kim met Han Seong-ok in China in 2009, after Han had been trafficked from North Korea as a bride to a man in China. It’s not clear when exactly she was sold to the man. Kim helped Han get from China to South Korea that year.

Han returned to China last year, divorced her husband, and returned to Seoul with her son. Kim says Han applied to the government for welfare benefits last winter, but was rejected because she didn’t have proof of her divorce. Kim tried to persuade government administrators to help her, but to no avail. “I think that’s when she gave up on seeking help,” he says.

According to a survey last year by the government-funded Korea Hana Foundation, which helps defectors, the unemployment rate for defectors is 6.9% — 2.9% higher than the national average. They are concentrated in manual labor and service industries, and on average, work 8.8 hours a week more than the national average but are paid about a third less than South Koreans. Kim says defectors’ poverty in South Korea and the accompanying sense of shame often contribute to their isolation.


North Korea names conditions for getting rid of its nuclear weapons

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North Korea has laid out its conditions for discussing denuclearization ahead of the next round of planned talks with the United States, striking a positive tone for North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump’s historic peace process.

In a statement published Monday by the official Korean Central News Agency, the director-general of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s Department of U.S. Affairs said it was “fortunate that the U.S. has repeatedly expressed its stand to tackle an issue through dialogue and negotiations.” The statement noted that Washington’s approach could either “improve the relations” between it and Pyongyang or “add to the hostility towards each other, arguing there were “two options — crisis and chance” and it was “entirely up to the U.S.” to choose between the two.

“Clear and invariable is the DPRK’s stand,” the official was cited as saying. “The discussion of denuclearization may be possible when threats and hurdles endangering our system security and obstructing our development are clearly removed beyond all doubt.”

The exact meaning of that last phrase has at times proved an obstacle for the ongoing negotiations, with the U.S. pushing for a “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” without preconditions and North Korea first seeking sanctions relief and security guarantees. The two sides have yet to reach any agreement.

North Korea has long been the target of international sanctions due to its development of nuclear weapons, assets the ruling Kim dynasty has argued was necessary to deter a potential U.S. invasion. Washington and Pyongyang have never normalized ties since clashing during the 1950s Korean War in which the U.S. backed South Korea and China and the Soviet Union supported North Korea.

Still, both administrations have continued to express confidence in the other’s willingness to talk and South Korean newspaper Joongang Ilbo cited diplomatic sources Sunday as saying that Kim invited Trump to a fourth summit, possibly in Pyongyang, in his latest letter last month. Also on Monday, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency cited a State Department spokesperson as that the U.S. would “welcome the North Korean commitment to resume negotiations in late September” and was “prepared to have those discussions at a time and place to be agreed.”