Author Archives for Grant Montgomery

One woman show portrays struggles of North Korean defectors and refugees

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A one-woman show inspired by the true stories of North Korean defectors, “SELL ME: I Am From North Korea” premiered at the 2019 International Human Rights Art Festival in New York. The play was written by and stars Korean-born playwright and performer Sora Baek. Baek and her team have expanded the play and a Jersey City show will be the first performance of the full production.

Baek based the play on her own research of her Northern neighbors who’ve resisted the North Korean government and the continuing obstacles, stigmas, and prejudices defectors face as undocumented refugees. She shows the very real, very human costs this brutal regime inflicts on individuals through the story of Jisun Park, a 15-year-old girl who risks her life for the chance to give her family hope and freedom.

“It is my wish that all our children grow up in a world that is more welcoming, free, and just than the one we have now,” said Baek. “To bring this meaningful and relevant story to the state I live in and to have the support of such a great beacon in the Jersey City community is truly special.”

“Theater breaks down walls that separate us by giving a voice to the voiceless. North Korea is often in the news but rarely do we hear about its people. SELL ME is an important new work about the fight against injustice by a refugee community whose stories of struggle and trauma have rarely been told before,” said Olga Levina, Artistic Director, JCTC.

[Hudson Reporter]

Kim Jong-un’s aunt reappears, six years after purge rumors

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The aunt of Kim Jong-un, Kim Kyong-hui, has appeared in public for the first time in more than six years, ending speculation that she had been purged or executed.

The official newspaper of North Korea’s ruling party, the Rodong Sinmun, showed Kim Kyong-hui seated next to Kim and his wife, Ri Sol-ju, at a performance to mark the lunar new year at a theatre in Pyongyang on Saturday.

Rumors that Kim Kyong-hui had been sidelined, or possibly executed, gained traction after her influential husband, Jang Song-thaek, was executed by firing squad for treason and corruption in December 2013. She has not been present at ceremonies since then and her name has not been mentioned in KCNA dispatches until Sunday.

Some observers believed she had become a victim of a series of purges her nephew ordered in an attempt to rid the ruling party of potential rivals. Others speculated that 73-year-old Kim Kyong-hui, a heavy drinker, had died due to ill health.

While she is unlikely to regain formal positions of political influence, her presence is hugely symbolic, according to Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership expert at the Stimson Center in Washington. “The sudden appearance of major officials in a regime like North Korea’s is always massively important,” Madden told Agence France-Presse. “Even if she does not have a political office or formal position in the regime, making a personal appearance like this is a public demonstration of support for her nephew,” he added. “It is a strong expression of Kim family unity.”

Before her absence from public life, Kim Kyong-hui – the youngest daughter of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung – was a four-star army general and politburo member. She is said to have been instrumental in grooming her nephew to succeed his father, who died from a heart attack in late 2011.

[The Guardian]

China tightening grip on North Korean defectors

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The number of North Korean defectors escaping to China increased notably in April and May of 2019, when the weather became warm enough that people could cross the Yalu River or hide in the forest more easily, according to a source in China who works with online newspaper Daily NK.

China already has a huge ethnic Korean community numbering more than 2.5 million, so defectors often blend in before heading to a third country. It is unclear how many North Korea defectors are hiding in China since the Chinese census does not recognize them, but some estimate the number as between 30,000 to 50,000.

Chinese authorities are reportedly tracking the history of mobile phone usage to locate defectors, and recently issued an Internet Content Provider (ICP) certificate to four North Korean propaganda websites, namely Uriminzokkiri, Arirang-Meari, Ryomyong, and Ryukyong. The certificate is issued and managed by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

Having the certificate means these websites can be searched on the Chinese internet and online users in Chinese have unlimited access to them.

However, it also means that those websites are under the Chinese government’s monitoring.

One of the necessary steps to receive the certificate is to have a designated official with a Chinese passport manage the website and have an on-the-ground office in China. Some reportedly acquire the certificate through a local partner. That means even the management of the websites could be overseen and controlled by the Chinese authorities to some extent.

Through such an arrangement, the Chinese authorities could point out and ask for a revision if anything sensitive relating to China is uploaded on the websites. That could be another way that Beijing can influence ethnic Koreans in the country, mainly with defectors in mind.

[The Diplomat]

Seoul reaches out to North Korean defectors with emergency aid

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South Korea has identified hundreds of North Korean defectors who need emergency assistance, according to the country’s Ministry of Unification. The ministry, which looks after the settlement of North Korean defectors, plans to offer emergency help to a total of 553 North Koreans who fled to the South.

The measure, announced Tuesday, is aimed at preventing a tragedy like the deaths last July of a defector in her early 40s and her 6-year-old son. They were found dead in their rented apartment in Seoul. Many assumed that they starved to death because their refrigerator was empty, as was her bank account. Police found no evidence of foul play or suicide.

After divorcing her Chinese-Korean husband, the woman lived on a monthly childcare allowance from the government, which amounted to less than $100. She initially fled to South Korea in 2009 and gave birth to her son there.

The deaths shed light on the plight of North Korean defectors in the affluent South, prompting the Seoul administration to check on the welfare of other defectors.

During the past few months, the Ministry of Unification checked up on more than 10 percent of the 31,000 North Korean defectors and designated 553 to be in need.  However, there still might be blind spots; the ministry could not reach 155 defectors.

Earlier this month, a defector in his early 60s was found dead at a cemetery in Daegu. Police found a note describing his struggles living alone on state subsidies.

“We plan to check the status of North Korean defectors twice a year. We also think of introducing a better system to help them together with the Korea Hana Foundation,” the ministry said in a statement. The Korea Hana Foundation is a state-funded entity that helps defectors.


Lowest number of North Korean defectors arrive in the South since 2001

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The number of North Koreans defecting to South Korea dropped to its lowest in nearly two decades last year, Seoul said Monday, continuing a downward trend as Pyongyang tightens controls on movement. 

About 1,047 North Koreans arrived in the democratic South last year, down from 1,137 in 2018, according to data released by the unification ministry. This was the lowest figure since 2001. (This number 1,047 relates specifically to those arriving in the South, rather than those leaving the North.)

The vast majority of defectors from the impoverished North go first to China. They sometimes stay there for several years before making their way to the South, often via a third country.

Arrivals to South Korea peaked at 2,914 in 2009, but have mostly declined since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un came into power in late 2011.

Women account for the lion’s share of defectors, making up around 81 per cent of last year’s arrivals. It is easier for women to leave the North as men all have assigned jobs, making any absence easier to spot for the authorities.


Kim Jong Un taps tough-talking military veteran as North Korean foreign minister

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North Korea’s new foreign minister is a former defense commander with little diplomatic experience, spotlighting leader Kim Jong Un’s reliance on party and military loyalists at a sensitive time amid stalled U.S. talks, analysts in Seoul said.

North Korea had previously told countries with embassies in Pyongyang that Ri Son Gwon, a senior military officer and official of the ruling Workers’ Party, had been appointed foreign minister, a diplomatic source in Seoul told Reuters. He replaces Ri Yong Ho, a career diplomat with years of experience negotiating with Washington.

Analysts said it was too soon to tell exactly what impact the appointment may have for the stalled denuclearisation talks with the United States, but said Ri Son Gwon had often played a confrontational role in negotiations with South Korea. Unlike his predecessor, Ri Son Gwon does not have any experience in dealing with nuclear issues or U.S. officials, though he has led high-level talks between the neighbors.

A tough, hawkish negotiator, Ri “stormed out of the room” during military talks with South Korea in 2014 when Seoul demanded an apology for what it saw as the North’s past military provocations, a former South Korean official who met him said.

Previously chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC), which handles relations with South Korea, Ri is the latest military official to be promoted to the party leadership. “There has been a demonstrative crossover dynamic in which senior military officials migrate into the party leadership,” said Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership expert at the Stimson Centre, a U.S. think tank.


A call to prioritize human rights in North Korea

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In its 652-page ‘World Report 2020’, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries, including North Korea.

Among other things, the report points out that in 2019, the South Korean government prioritized diplomatic negotiations with North Korea over human rights advocacy.  

President Moon did not raise human rights when he met with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, in February 2019, in keeping with his approach in earlier meetings with Kim in 2017 and 2018. And in a troubling move in October, Moon’s government deported two North Korean fishermen to face murder charges in North Korea, where they most likely face torture and execution. In November, the government then dropped its traditional co-sponsoring of a resolution condemning North Korea’s horrific rights record at the United Nations General Assembly.

“President Moon Jae-in, who started his legal career fighting for human rights, is in several ways failing to promote them now,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

“President Moon needs to abandon his flawed North Korea policy, which is based on the hope that overlooking Pyongyang’s crimes will increase inter-Korean engagement and dialogue,” Sifton said. “The North Korean government is never going to improve its human rights record unless the world demands it, and South Korea needs to lead the rallying cry for that to happen.”

[Human Rights Watch]

Acceptance of North Korean refugees in Canada

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Since 1978, Canadians have sponsored around 280,000 refugees, either through organizations or groups of individual citizens. Not only does this approach put responsibility for looking after refugees on passionate volunteers — and away from sluggish government departments — it automatically gives them a community to latch on to. 

“The community is already actively engaged at the start, in terms of the integration process,” says Sean Chung, the director of lobbying and strategy at HanVoice, a Toronto NGO that fights for the right of North Koreans to settle in Canada.

“It’s not the government that’s telling the newcomers where they should register their kids for primary school. It’s the community, at the very start, that’s organizing the transportation at the airport, bringing them into their homes, and welcoming them.”

Clearly, the United States has a very different political culture to Canada, but Chung argues that the protests that shadowed the travel ban show that many Americans realize “refugees are fleeing their countries because they have no other option.”

Not that a Canada-style approach in America seems likely anytime soon. Lindsay Lloyd, director of the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute, thinks it’s an interesting idea but isn’t sure “it’s practical right now” — especially given the current occupant of the Oval Office.

[NK News]

Trump administration’s extreme vetting not kind to North Korean escapees seeking a new life in the US

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Barely a week into his presidency, officials huddled by his side, Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13769 into law. The bureaucratic title sounds harmless enough, but many Americans quickly learned to call it by another name: the Muslim ban.

Already arriving in small numbers, at that point the flow of North Koreans migrating to America then slowed to a crawl.

Back in 2004, the Bush administration pushed the North Korean Human Rights Act through Congress, promising to provide “assistance to North Korean refugees, defectors, migrants, and orphans outside of North Korea” and bolstered by $20 million in annual funding, and a promise to classify North Korean escapees as proper refugees.  

Yet the numbers of North Koreans coming to America remained low. “Over the past 13 years, there have been a dozen, maybe two-dozen, people coming every year,” says Sokeel Park, the South Korea country director at Liberty in North Korea, an NGO.

According to statistics compiled by the Refugee Processing Centre (RFC), an average of 20 North Koreans refugees were admitted to the United States each year in the decade to 2016. 

In 2017, the first year after the election of President Trump, only a single North Korean refugee landed on American shores.

2018 saw a slight recovery, back up to six.

[NK News]

South Korea’s Moon says door not closed on talks with North Korea

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South Korean President Moon Jae-in believes North Korea remains open to dialogue with the United States, despite comments over the weekend from a top official in Pyongyang suggesting his country had been “deceived by the US” in nuclear negotiations.

Speaking at a news conference Tuesday, Moon said the recent birthday message sent by US President Donald Trump to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un should be considered a good sign. “North Korea has made it clear that the door for dialogue hasn’t been shut, even though there was a condition that the dialogue can only resume when North Korea’s demands were met,” said Moon.

Moon has long positioned himself as something of a mediator between North Korea and the US, a role that has become increasingly difficult as the two sides have failed to make tangible progress in diplomatic talks.

In a statement carried by North Korean state media, Kim Kye Gwan, a veteran diplomat and adviser to the North Korean foreign ministry, said Pyongyang would not consider giving up its nuclear facilities in return for partial sanctions relief.

Kim Kye Gwan, who was involved in previous negotiations with the US, said, “Although Chairman Kim Jong Un has good personal feelings about President Trump, they are, in the true sense of the word, ‘personal’,” he said. “We have been deceived by the US, being caught in the dialogue with it for over one year and a half, and that was the lost time for us.”