Monthly Archives: February 2020

The risks of being a North Korean Christian

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“Bon-Hwa,” a North Korean Christian woman, escaped to China two years ago for the chance to live a better life.

With the help of partners of Open Doors, Bon-Hwa found shelter in a safe house and attended her first Women to Women secret meeting in China and was baptized.

But baptizing North Koreans is illegal and dangerous, so Bon-Hwa, her pastor, and a group leader traveled to a remote location that “took many hours to reach.”

“I had to contain myself and focus on the steps of the ceremony,” said the Open Doors leader. “Or else, I would have cried … It was such a beautiful moment and such a privilege to baptize a North Korean believer in these circumstances.”

Most of North Korea’s underground Christians do not engage in the extremely dangerous work of proselytizing. Instead, they largely keep their beliefs to themselves or within their immediate families. But even those who stay deep underground face danger.

North Korea has previously arrested South Korean and American missionaries for allegedly attempting to build underground church networks or overthrow its government. 

[CBN]

Inside London’s community of North Korean defectors

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In the southwest London suburb of New Malden, it’s common to see Korean signage across the high street’s low-rise row of shopfronts, where about a third of its total population is Korean.

It’s also home to most of the UK’s North Korean defectors, which, at over 600 people, is the largest North Korean community in Europe. Arriving as refugees, they have escaped a country that the UN has repeatedly condemned for its corruption, human rights abuses and “appalling” levels of hunger. 

New Malden’s North Korean community is fairly recent; in 2007, there were only 20 defectors living in the area. Drawn by the Korean amenities already established by their southern neighbors, North Koreans have built a new life away from Kim Jong-un’s oppressive regime while still honouring the cultural traditions they left behind. It’s this delicate balance of renewal and remembrance that photographer Catherine Hyland sought out when she began working with New Malden’s North Koreans around three years ago. She began attending church services and K-pop competitions, spending over a year getting to know the community before she took a single photograph. 

Hyland was aware that these subjects deserved an especially sensitive approach. “Even after you defect, the psychological and cultural adjustment can be hard due to the extreme conditions people are used to,” she says. 

Named The Traces Left Behind, her multi-part series allows her subjects to express themselves through their own visual and cultural language. “The disparity between the media [portrayal of the community] and reality is vast,” Hyland points out. “We hope the project could be a platform for this community to share their stories on their own terms.”

She has recently finished the project’s first chapter, a short film and photo series in collaboration with the Korean Senior Citizen Society’s dance group and choir. Rather than a straightforward documentary-style observation, Hyland created a set inspired by the bright, pastel aesthetic specific to North Korea, inviting the group to dance, sing and share their story with her.

Despite the color and joy evident in her work, Hyland’s interviews touch on some painful moments. Lee-Sook Sung, a 77-year-old who participates in the dance troupe, was an early settler in the UK, having arrived in 2009. She told Hyland that three of her sons starved to death in North Korea before she escaped to China with her husband and three remaining children. 

Having lost her eyesight and become unable to read, she learns the choir songs with the help of her husband. Despite these hardships, she says the community helps her remain young, as does the healthcare and quality of life she has found in New Malden. “If I had still been in North Korea, by this age I wouldn’t be able to do anything,” she says. “But I have come to such a joyful and wonderful world that I am dancing at this age.”

[The Independent]

North Korea’s most senior defector to run for parliament in the South

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The most senior diplomat to have defected from North Korea will run for parliament in South Korea. Thae Yong-ho was deputy ambassador at the North Korean embassy in London when he defected with his wife and two sons in August 2016, and has since become one of the regime’s most vocal critics.

Thae, who was denounced as a traitor by North Korea, will run in the national assembly elections on 15 April for Liberty Korea, the country’s conservative main opposition party, officials said. Party officials said Thae was likely to campaign for a seat in a Seoul constituency.

“Thae is someone who risked his life for freedom,” Kim Hyong-o, a party official in charge of candidacies, told reporters. “As a person who understands the sorrow of the 10 million separated families, and as one of 25 million North Koreans, he could present a vision for peace. “His courage and decision will give hope to North Korean refugees and other South and North Korean people who want genuine unification.”

If elected, Thae, 57, would become the second North Korean defector to win a seat in the national assembly. The first was Cho Myung-chul, who fled to the South in 1994 and represented a predecessor to Liberty Korea from 2012-16.

[The Guardian]

North Korean refugee arrives in U.S.

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A North Korean male in his 50s or older arrived in the United States as a refugee this week, U.S. government data showed Friday.

He is the second North Korean refugee to resettle in the U.S. this year. In January, a male aged in the 14-20 range was placed in Richmond, Virginia, according to data from the State Department’s bureau of population, refugees and migration.

The new arrival was reported Thursday as a male aged in the 51-64 range. He now lives in Chicago, Illinois.

No North Korean refugees were admitted in 2018.

-The first North Korean refugees arrived in 2006, with their number peaking at 38 in 2008.
-From 2009 to 2016, the number of arrivals ranged between 14 and 23.
-In 2017, the figure dropped sharply to one, before increasing slightly to six in 2018.

[Yonhap]

Fifteen repatriated North Korean refugees quarantined for coronavirus with tuberculosis patients

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Authorities in North Korea have quarantined a group of 15 refugees that were captured in China and repatriated with the help of Chinese police, placing them in a facility meant to isolate patients with open cases of tuberculosis, Radio Free Asia has learned.

“Yesterday an acquaintance of mine who works in the medical industry told me that some North Korean refugees who were sent back from China last month were put in isolation at a tuberculosis hospital,” a resident of North Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service.

The source said the 15 repatriated North Koreans, originally part of a group of about 20, had crossed the border into China from somewhere in North Hamgyong’s Musan county in early January. According to the source the 15 were not taken first to a detention center in China, but “were sent back to North Korea in strict secrecy.”

“Sopungsan tuberculosis hospital is famous because patients are sent there when they have the most dangerous types of open-case tuberculosis [including the drug-resistant Super-TB],” said the source. “It’s like the authorities don’t even care if these people become infected with tuberculosis,” the source said.

A second source added, “Seopungsan tuberculosis hospital is where terminal TB patients go to die. They are put there to prevent the spread of the highly-contagious tuberculosis bacteria.”

[Radio Free Asia]

Why no coronavirus cases reported in North Korea?

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It’s now about two months since a deadly novel coronavirus was found in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and nearly every country and territory in East Asia has confirmed a case. But not North Korea.

Every country and territory within a 1,500-mile radius of North Korea, except for sparsely populated Mongolia, has confirmed a case. It’s unclear how North Korea has been able to avoid the virus. Pyongyang has either been very lucky, isn’t saying something or is reaping one of the few benefits of being a so-called “hermit nation.”

Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University who previously served as the head of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), said it’s very possible someone inside North Korea — a country of 25 million people — has been infected. Nam suspects a Chinese patient could have infected someone from North Korea across their shared border. “We know that the Chinese regions close to the North Korean border, such as Dandong and Shenyang, have confirmed patients. About 90% of North Korean trade is with China and we know so many people, trucks and trains passed through the border between the two nations before North Korea installed recent regulations” to stop the virus from getting into the country, Nam told CNN.

Despite not publicly acknowledging any confirmed or even suspected cases, North Korea has been uncharacteristically transparent regarding its efforts to combat the virus. It appears the country is taking the epidemic very seriously, according to reports in state-run news service KCNA. North Korea has closed its borders to all foreign tourists, most of whom are Chinese, as a precautionary measure. On January 30, authorities declared a “state emergency,” and that anti-epidemic headquarters were being established around the country, and North Korean health officials had set up a “nationwide test sample transport system” and had the ability to promptly diagnose suspicious cases. 

Doctors who have defected in recent years often speak of poor working conditions and shortages of everything from medicine to basic healthcare supplies. Choi Jung-hun, a former physician in North Korea who fled the country in 2011, said when he was helping to combat a measles outbreak in 2006 to 2007, North Korea did not have the resources to operate round-the-clock quarantine and isolation facilities. “The problem in North Korea is that manuals [for doctors] are not followed,” Choi said.

Jean Lee, who previously worked for The Associated Press and opened the newswire’s bureau in Pyongyang, said the virus gives Pyongyang a new excuse to further tighten its borders and justify the draconian social restrictions most North Korean people live under. The majority of North Koreans also do not enjoy freedom of movement and are required to receive government permission to travel to other provinces. Very few are permitted to travel abroad. 

Choi, the doctor who defected, also said, “North Korea has the best control system in the world. North Korea probably is best at limiting social contacts and regional traveling because they’ve been practicing that for 70 years.”

[CNN]

Coronavirus crackdown in China may prove beneficial for North Korean defectors?

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Kim Seung-eun, a pastor at Seoul’s Caleb Mission Church, which helps defectors escape, estimates that about 40 North Koreans are trapped at various locations in China, unable to move onward because of the Chinese coronavirus lockdown. The Chinese lockdown is disrupting the main path through which North Koreans escape, forcing refugees to indefinitely pause their journeys, and leaving them vulnerable in a country that has long sent them back home to certain punishment.

If China’s virus lockdown expands to include house inspections, Pastor Kim warns,  tens of thousands of other North Koreans at various stages of transit through China or who have decided to settle there illegally could be in danger.

“The road closures have blocked the route. It has all stopped — I asked them not to come through that area for now,” said a South Korea-based broker who helps organize North Korean defector journeys through China.

On the other hand, Teodora Gyupchanova, a researcher at the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul, says, “It is possible that the virus-related travel restrictions could create loopholes that defectors and brokers could exploit. That is especially true if Chinese authorities prioritize potential coronavirus cases and focus on monitoring established transportation routes rather than clandestine ones,” Gyupchanova says. “People in this line of work are quite inventive, so I am sure that backup routes will soon be found,” she says.

Earlier this week, Pastor Kim told VOA’s Korea Service that he heard North Korea has temporarily stopped demanding that China repatriate defectors, out of concern they may bring the virus into North Korea. It is unclear what would happen to North Korean refugees who are discovered by Chinese authorities during the lockdown.

[VoA]

China coronavirus lockdown complicates North Korea refugee journeys

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A vast transportation lockdown meant to contain the spread of the coronavirus in central China is complicating the already grueling journey of North Korean refugees, according to two sources who help arrange North Korean defector trips.

After fleeing their homes, most North Korean refugees make their way down through China and then onto Southeast Asian countries, including Laos and Thailand, before ending up in South Korea. The journey, which can take months or longer and is thousands of kilometers long, often involves trekking by foot over mountains and using tiny boats to cross rivers.

The China portion of the trip is especially risky, since North Korean refugees are forced to use fake ID cards, according to the Seoul-based broker, who himself defected to South Korea in 2004.

“With China now trying to control everyone’s movements, it’s just too dangerous,” says the broker, who did not want to publish his name because of the sensitivity of his work.

Chinese authorities have implemented what one World Health Organization official called an “unprecedented” lockdown to contain the viral outbreak. China has closed public transportation links, restricted access to major highways, and imposed strict  ID and temperature checks – effectively placing tens of millions under quarantine in an expanding circle around Hubei province, where the outbreak began.

[VoA]

Ri Sol Ju, the North Korean first lady

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The “revered first lady” of North Korea, the wife of ruler Kim Jong Un, is believed to be around 30 years old.

Ri is a former pop singer. She once was a member of the Hermit Kingdom’s “army of beauties” cheerleading squad – but now makes sporadic appearances abroad and in state propaganda.

Ri was born into a military family in the North Korean city of Chongjin in the 1980s, according to the North Korea Leadership Watch blog. Her father serves as a commander in the Korean People’s Army’s Air and Anti-Air Forces, it adds, and she is reported to have attended Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang.

Prior to tying the knot with Kim, Ri is believed to have studied singing in China and was among a select group of young women dispatched to South Korea to cheer for the North’s team at the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships

She trained in the performing arts from a young age, singing with the Unhasu Orchestra and is believed to be close to the members of North Korea’s all-female pop group, the Moranbong Band, another Kim Jong Un creation.

South Korean intelligence reports that the real name of Ri, sometimes called Lee Seol-ju, is Hyon Song-wol.

Ri was identified as Kim’s wife in 2012, and it is likely the couple married secretly in 2009 or 2010. They are thought to have three children, with the first likely born in 2010. The existence of the children or their genders have never been verified by the state media, but former NBA player Dennis Rodman said in 2013 after returning from the Hermit Kingdom that he held the couple’s then-baby daughter, Ju-ae, and praised the dictator as “a good dad.”

Most of Ri’s public appearances have been with her husband at military or diplomatic functions. She has been photographed meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the demilitarized zone’s Peace House. In January 2020, North Korea’s main newspaper released a photo showing Ri sitting next to Kim and his aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, at a performance in Pyongyang marking Lunar New Year’s Day.

A month earlier, an image was released of Ri riding on a white horse during Kim’s visit to snowy Mount Paektu.

Other photos of Ri show her poised, comfortable in the limelight and usually dressed in expensive outfits.

[Fox News]

More on North Korean would-be defectors arrested near China border

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North Korean authorities arrested seven out of a group of 15 government officials from Pyongyang who were allegedly attempting to defect by crossing the border into China, RFA has learned.

The seven were arrested in a village near the border, while it is believed that the other eight were able to escape. Members of the group may have been carrying secret information in the form of official government documents.

“On January 2nd, the State Security Department launched an emergency operation to arrest a group of 15 people who fled Pyongyang and were heading to the border,” an official from Ryanggang province told RFA.  “The fact that they used a plane to prevent them from defecting proves that the would-be defectors are not ordinary people,” said a source.

The source said that the group of 15 had left Pyongyang during the New Year holiday. “Most of them are senior officials. They are believed to have lived in the Ryomyong Street and Mirae Scientists Street area in the central area of Pyongyang,” the source added, referring to a newly developed area of the capital with expensive high-rise apartments.

Another source, a law enforcement official in Ryanggan told RFA that the operation “was belatedly reported. The State Security Department and the Provincial Security Department launched a desperate arrest operation to prevent them from defecting,” said the second source.

The second source also said that the use of an airplane in the sting was not normal. “I’ve been working for the judicial authorities all my life, but I’ve never heard of flying an airplane to catch North Korean defectors,” the second source said.

[Radio Free Asia]