In late April, a North Korean defector sent 500,000 propaganda leaflets by balloon from South Korea into his former country. Park Sang-hak said he and his organization sent 10 balloons that carried leaflets criticizing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his government, and 5,000 $1 bills, from an area near the border.
If law enforcement pursues Park under the new South Korean law that prohibits leafleting to North Korea, it would be the first known violation, as he is defying a new law that could result in a $27,040 fine or up to three years in prison, the Associated Press reported.
“Though [authorities] can handcuff and put me to a prison cell, they cannot stop [my leafleting] with whatever threats or violence as long as the North Korean people waits for the letters of freedom, truth and hopes,” said Park, according to AP.
The law was a subject of debate in the U.S. with lawmakers some of which called the legislation a violation of democratic freedoms. “What I really think is extremely alarming is a retreat by the South Korean government from its long-standing commitment to human rights vis-à-vis North Korea and China, ostensibly in the cause of fostering better relations or achieving nuclear nonproliferation,” Representative Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said. Other U.S. lawmakers argued that the leafleting campaigns are aggressive and provocative toward North Korea and that it could put South Koreans living near the border at risk.
Park, who is known for years of leafleting campaigns, called the anti-leafleting legislation “the worst law” that “sides with cruel human rights abuser Kim Jong Un and covers the eyes and ears of the North Korean people that have become the modern-day slaves of the Kim dynasty.”
Ex-US-Marine Christopher Ahn is out on bail and shows his electronic monitoring device placed on him by U.S. marshals. How did Ahn wind up in this situation? He is an unlikely person to be treated as a criminal by his own government. Burly and bearded, he is described by family friends in court filings as a “happy-go-lucky guy who is like a teddy bear inside.” A son of Korean immigrants, Ahn has been taking care of his family since he was 17, when his father died of cancer. He now takes care of his ailing mother, who has a debilitating nerve disease, and his 97-year-old, blind grandmother, who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s.
It is Ahn’s altruistic impulse that now threatens his freedom. In 2009, Ahn met a charismatic Yale dropout named Adrian Hong who had created a human rights group to help North Korean refugees. Eventually, Hong founded another group, called Free Joseon. Ahn is in his current predicament because of a call he received from Hong in early 2019 — this time to help facilitate the defection of North Korean diplomats in Madrid.
Responding to an extradition request from Spain, the Justice Department decided to arrest Hong at a time when then-President Donald Trump was seeking to strike a deal with Kim Jong Un. Ahn went to Hong’s apartment in Los Angeles only to discover that a heavily armed task force of U.S. marshals was there looking for Hong. (Hong, who had fled, is now a fugitive from the governments of Spain, North Korea and the United States.) Ahn was then arrested and spent three months in a federal jail.
Now, a pro bono lawyer is helping Ahn fight the Justice Department’s attempts to extradite him to Spain. (The standard to extradite him is relatively low — prosecutors need only prove “probable cause” that the charges are true.) If convicted by a Spanish court on charges including kidnapping, breaking and entering, battery and being part of a “criminal organization,” he could be imprisoned for 21 years.
Ahn is, above all, an idealist. The bitter irony is that in trying to grant North Koreans their freedom, Ahn might have sacrificed his own.
Joe Biden, in his first address to Congress, called North Korea and Iran’s nuclear programs “serious threats” to American and world security and said he’ll work with allies to address those problems through diplomacy and stern deterrence.
“His statement clearly reflects his intent to keep enforcing the hostile policy toward the DPRK as it had been done by the U.S. for over half a century,” Kwon Jong Gun, a senior North Korean Foreign Ministry official, later said in a statement. “Now that the keynote of the U.S. … policy has become clear, we will be compelled to press for corresponding measures, and with time the U.S. will find itself in a very grave situation,” Kwon said. He didn’t specify what steps North Korea would take.
An unidentified North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman vowed a strong, separate response to a recent State Department statement that it would push to promote “accountability for the Kim regime” over its “egregious human rights situation.” He called the statement a preparation for “all-out showdown with us.”
Kim’s powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, also slammed South Korea over anti-Pyongyang leaflets floated across the border by a group of North Korean defectors in the South. The group’s leader, Park Sang-hak, said Friday he sent 500,000 leaflets by balloon last week, in a defiance of a new, contentious South Korean law that criminalizes such action. “We regard the maneuvers committed by the human waste in the South as a serious provocation against our state and will look into corresponding action,” Kim Yo Jong said in a statement. She accused the South Korean government of “winking at” the leaflets.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said the North Korean statements indicate that “Pyongyang is trying to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States” ahead of the May 21 summit between Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
After months of closed-door talks, President Joe Biden’s administration has completed its review of North Korea policy, charting a path forward that rejects both of his immediate predecessors’ stances on the nuclear-armed rogue state.
Kim Jong Un, the totalitarian leader in Pyongyang, has tested Biden once with a launch of two short-range ballistic missiles and urged the U.S. to drop its push for denuclearization.
But the White House said Friday that its “goal remains the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, with the clear understanding that the efforts of the past four administration have not achieved this objective.”
This was a shot not just at Donald Trump, but also Barack Obama, Biden’s old boss. The new policy says Biden will not “rely on strategic patience,” the term that defined the Obama era approach of hoping U.S. and United Nations sanctions would ultimately put the screws to the North Korean government.
While the Biden administration hasn’t provided full details, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday they will deploy a “calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy with the DPRK and to make practical progress that increases the security of the United States, our allies and deployed forces.”
Biden will host South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the White House on May 21, just the second world leader that Biden will host early in his term, after Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga visited on April 16.
Russian diplomats departing North Korea have reported acute shortages of medicines and other basic goods in the country, indicating a crisis fueled by one of the world’s strictest quarantine regimes amid the coronavirus pandemic. Employees of the Russian embassy in Pyongyang described a “collective exit” of foreign diplomatic staff that they predicted would “unfortunately not be the last” due to unbearable conditions in the North Korean capital.
Russia has one of the largest foreign diplomatic footprints in North Korea, but staff have begun leaving due to shortages and problems obtaining key medicines. There were “hardly any diplomats left” in Pyongyang, the embassy letter said, tallying the total international presence in North Korea at 290 people. All but three foreign aid workers had evacuated the country as of last December.
In a report last month, a senior researcher on North Korea for Human Rights Watch said she had been told last year of shortages of food, soap, toothpaste and batteries. North Korean trade with China has fallen by about 80%, with imports of food and medicine falling close to zero last year as the government claimed that the trade, along with “yellow dust” blowing over the border from China, could lead to the spread of coronavirus. Severe floods have also undermined agricultural production, exacerbating food shortages in the country, Lina Yoon, a researcher, wrote.
North Korea snapped back at President Joe Biden’s criticism of its ballistic missile tests, calling his comments a provocation and encroachment on the North’s right to self-defense and vowing to continuously expand its “most thoroughgoing and overwhelming military power.”
The statement issued by senior official Ri Pyong Chol came after the North on Thursday tested-fired two short-range missiles off its eastern coast in the first ballistic launches since Biden took office. Ri, secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee and vice chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, is a former air force commander who has been seen as a key figure in the development of the North’s missile program.
“We’re consulting with our allies and partners,” Biden had said earlier at the first news conference of his presidency. “And there will be responses if they choose to escalate. We will respond accordingly. But I’m also prepared for some form of diplomacy, but it has to be conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization.”
Ri said it was “gangster-like logic” for the United States to criticize the North’s tactical weapons tests when the Americans are freely testing intercontinental ballistic missiles and could send their strategic military assets to the region surrounding the Korean Peninsula at any time.
Pyongyang has a history of testing new U.S. administrations with weapons demonstrations aimed at forcing Washington back to negotiations.
A unit of six North Korean border soldiers has defected to China, according to reports, in a sign of the increasingly high level of discontent in the reclusive country. While there has been a steady stream of one or two guards fleeing the authoritarian country, a group this large is highly unusual.
The soldiers fled across the Yalu River on the border with China earlier this month along with their weapons, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported this week. The unit was part of the 25th Border Guard brigade, which has been deployed to stop other North Koreans from escaping, and reportedly complained of being overworked and underfed since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, according to RFA.
Life in North Korea’s military has become especially hard in recent months amid severe food shortages and a crackdown on smuggling following the closure of the border in response to the coronavirus pandemic. “Usually, border guards are in collusion with professional smugglers and merchants and they live better than soldiers in other regions”, RFA quoted a source in the North Korean military as saying. “But the coronavirus outbreak has been raging for more than a year, so smuggling has completely stopped and they are suffering from hunger these days”.
The Chinese authorities have been informed of the defections and are understood to be searching for the armed men, a source said.
In North Korea’s first comments directed at the Biden administration, Kim Jong Un’s powerful sister warned the United States to “refrain from causing a stink” if it wants to “sleep in peace” for the next four years.
Kim Yo Jong’s statement was issued as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Asia to talk with U.S. allies Japan and South Korea about North Korea and other regional issues.
“We take this opportunity to warn the new U.S. administration trying hard to give off (gun) powder smell in our land,” she said. “If it wants to sleep in peace for coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step.”
Each January, Choi Bok-hwa’s mother had climbed a mountain near her home in in North Korea and used a broker’s smuggled Chinese cellphone to call South Korea to wish her daughter happy birthday. For the first time in years, Choi didn’t get her annual birthday call.
Choi, who hasn’t sent money or talked to her 75-year-old mother since May, believes the silence is linked to the pandemic, which led North Korea to shut its borders tighter than ever and impose some of the world’s toughest restrictions on movement. Many other defectors in the South have also lost contact with their loved ones in North Korea amid the turmoil of COVID-19.
Defectors in the South have long shared part of their income with parents, children and siblings in North Korea. But these defectors now say they’ve stopped or sharply reduced the remittances because of plunging incomes, or because brokers are demanding extremely high fees.
Brokers in North Korea use smuggled mobile phones to call the South from mountains near the border with China, where they can get better reception and avoid official detection. Defectors send money to the bank accounts of other brokers on the Chinese side of the border. The brokers in China and in North Korea are often also smuggling goods in and out of North Korea, so this means that money transfers don’t need to be sent across the border immediately; instead, brokers in North Korea can give the cash to defectors’ relatives and get paid back by their smuggling partners in China later. But North Korea’s year-long border closure has battered the smuggling business.
“The money we send is a lifeline,” said Cho Chung Hui, 57, who transferred the equivalent of $890 to each of his two siblings every year before the pandemic. “If someone works really diligently in North Korea’s markets, they make only $30-40 per month.”
A book published in January titled “Defector” (탈북자) is shedding light on the lesser-known stories of North Korean defectors, challenging stereotypes and misconceptions. The book was written by former documentary producer Cho Cheon Hyeon (55), who spent over two decades speaking to North Koreans living in China’s border regions.
Cho’s book is remarkable in more ways than one, particularly because it challenges the traditional South Korean narrative that often portrays North Korean defectors as desperately wanting to make it to the South.
Cho’s views are different. According to his decades-long experience speaking to North Koreans, the majority of those who leave North Korea have no intention of ever defecting to South Korea.
In his book, Cho distinguishes defectors in three different categories:
1. those working in China who intend to return to North Korea after earning enough money;
2. those living in China long-term who regularly send money back to their family members in North Korea; and
3. those wanting to defect to the South.
According to Cho, the vast majority of North Koreans who leave their country belong in the first two categories.