Author Archives for Grant Montgomery

Not all North Korean defectors want the same thing

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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. 

[Daily NK]

North Korea’s trade with China declined 80% during 2020

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Two-way trade between North Korea and its biggest partner, China, fell 80.7% in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to estimates from Seoul’s Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.

Trade activity dropped significantly in February 2020, with two-way trade falling to $10.71 million in the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus epidemic that began in Wuhan, China. North Korea shut its 880-mile border with China as part of its COVID-19 response in January 2020, but trade levels recovered by June to $96.8 million, according to SP News.

Pyongyang has claimed its draconian tactics against the novel coronavirus have paid off and that there are zero COVID-19 patients in the country. North Korea has also ordered vaccines from the COVAX Facility, managed by the World Health Organization.

[UPI]

North Korea’s economy ravaged by sanctions and pandemic isolation

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Kim Jong Un is angry, and he’s lashing out, complaining that North Korea’s last economic plan failed “tremendously.”

And his inner circle lacked an “innovative viewpoint and clear tactics” in drawing up a new one, Kim told the ruling Workers’ Party last month, yelling and finger-pointing at frightened-looking delegates.

His economy minister, appointed in January, has already been fired.

North Korea is suffering its worst slump in more than two decades, experts say. It’s a combination of international sanctions and especially a self-imposed blockade on international trade in attempts to keep the coronavirus pandemic out.

A shortage of spare parts usually supplied from China has caused factories to close, including one of the country’s largest fertilizer plants, and crippled output from the country’s aging power plants, according to news reports. Electricity shortages, long a chronic problem, have become so acute, production has even halted at some coal mines and other mines.

[Washington Post]

North Korean defector swam to South Korea

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A North Korean man in diving gear swam to South Korea on Tuesday in an apparent bid to defect from Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, the South Korean military said Wednesday.

The man, who is reported to be in his 20s, and a civilian, appeared to have swam across the maritime border and crawled through a drainage pipe beneath a barbed-wire fence, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a press release obtained by the country’s JoongAng Daily newspaper.

He was first spotted on closed-circuit surveillance cameras passing a military checkpoint at 4:20 a.m. but was not captured until three hours later when he had entered the restricted civilian-control zone, the military said. The area is located south of the 2.5-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, that acts as a buffer between the two Koreas.

The JCS said a diving suit and fins were found on the beach in Goseong, Gangwon, where he first came ashore.

The apparent defection would be the second in a matter of months after a North Korean man climbed a border fence in November and continued half a mile before the South captured him.

[Fox News]

North Korean man caught after crossing DMZ border

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South Korea has caught a suspected North Korean man after he crossed the heavily fortified de-militarized zone (DMZ) between the two countries.

South Korean troops tracked him for three hours on Tuesday as he made his way through the zone, which is filled with land mines and surrounded by barbed wire.

The man was located near a checkpoint at the eastern zone of the DMZ at 19:20 GMT on Monday. It is not yet clear if he is a civilian or a member of the military.

“He is presumed to be a North Korean and we’re conducting an investigation into details, including how he had come down and whether he wished to defect,” the Joint Chief of Staffs said in a statement.

Since taking power in 2011, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is believed to have ordered the tightening of border controls between the two sides and with China, including by laying more landmines. Crossing via the DMZ is incredibly dangerous. If spotted and arrested by the North Korean military, those trying to cross would certainly be taken to a detention center to be interrogated. They could be tried and sentenced to lengthy terms in labor camps.

[BBC]

Kim Jong Un’s wife reappears after unusual one-year absence

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The wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made her first public appearance in a year, ending an unusual absence that stoked speculation about her condition.

Ri Sol Ju joined her husband at a musical performance for the anniversary of the birth of former leader Kim Jong Il, which is known as the Day of the Shining Star in North Korea, the official Korean Central News Agency reported Wednesday.

Ri, thought to be 32, may have been sidelined due to the coronavirus, which virtually ended international visits and the need to appear by her husband’s side at events part of a normal nation’s statecraft, specialist service NK News reported in late January. The yearlong drought was by far the longest stretch she hasn’t appeared in state media during that time. North Korea has given no explanation for her absence.

“If her prolonged absence was due to concerns about the coronavirus, her reappearance could suggest increased regime confidence in the country’s quarantine situation,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, an independent political analyst who used to work for the U.S. government in areas related to North Korea.

South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers Tuesday Ri may have been taking care of the couple’s children and avoiding public exposure during the coronavirus pandemic, Kim Byung-kee, a ruling Democratic Party lawmaker, said after a meeting of a parliamentary intelligence committee.

The agency also said North Korea hacked Pfizer Inc. for information on its Covid-19 vaccine and treatments.

Ri, a former singer who as a teenager served in a North Korean cheerleading squad, has appeared with her husband for a summit in China, where the couple sat down for a meal with President Xi Jinping and his wife. Ri also joined Kim as they rode white horses through the snow on North Korea’s Mount Paektu, the symbolic seat of Kim family rule over the country.

South Korean intelligence said the two married in 2009. They are thought to have three children, but there is no official mention of their offspring. Dennis Rodman, the offbeat basketball great who visited Kim in North Korea, said in 2013 he held the leader’s baby girl in his arms, a daughter named Ju Ae.

[Bloomberg]

The changing face of North Korean defectors

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Ken Eom, who defected from North Korea in 2010, said that for many North Korean defectors today, escaping their homeland was no longer about poverty and hunger, but finding “freedom, like getting more education and a better life”.

Hanna Song, a researcher at the non-profit Database Centre for NK Human Rights in Seoul. Adds that whereas defectors from North Korea were once driven by “simply survival”, this has changed during the last fifteen years. “If you look at the typology of North Koreans who have now resettled in South Korea, it is very diverse,” said Song.

Imesh Pokharel, who runs the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Seoul, agrees that most recent defectors he had encountered were driven by the desire for greater economic opportunity. “Basically those who have family members in [South Korea], they are more likely to come here directly,” says Pokharel.

“In the last 10 years, the trend is family-invited refugees,” said an activist who helps North Koreans reach the South, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of his work. “For North Korean refugees who have entered South Korea, bringing their parents and siblings from North Korea to South Korea is the top priority. They work hard to raise money, or they get support from mission agencies or NGOs to bring their family.”

Tim Peters, a Christian activist who runs Seoul-based non-profit Helping Hands Korea, said it had become increasingly typical to see single parents or grandparents with children, rather than whole families, make the decision to leave. “This elderly care of a grandchild has often occurred due to the death of an adult child – parent of the grandchild – or abandonment of the child by the grandparent’s adult child or his spouse in North Korea,” said Peters. “The grandparent guardian discovers that they are unable to economically survive supporting the grandchild alone in the North, so make the grim decision to seek a menial job in China. A similar phenomenon is observed in single parents, especially women, who’ve either lost their North Korean husbands due to an untimely death, or through divorce.”

[South China Morning Post]

North Korea’s former acting ambassador to Kuwait Ryu Hyeon-woo speaks out

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In his first interview since defecting to the South more than a year ago, North Korea’s former acting ambassador to Kuwait Ryu Hyeon-woo told CNN that Kim Jong Un will not give up his nuclear arsenal but may be willing to negotiate an arms reduction for relief from the international sanctions crippling Pyongyang’s economy.

“North Korea’s nuclear power is directly linked to the stability of the regime” — and Kim likely believes nuclear weapons are key to his survival. Ryu also said previous US administrations had boxed themselves into a corner by demanding denuclearization up front in negotiations with the totalitarian state.

The former diplomat, who adopted the name Ryu upon moving to the South, is one of several high-profile North Korean officials to defect in recent years. Ryu and his family defectedto South Korea in September 2019, but their actions were only made public last week.

Determined to give their teenage daughter a better life, Ryu said he and his wife planned their escape for about a month while living in Kuwait. Ryu took his family to the South Korean embassy in Kuwait to claim asylum. They traveled to South Korea several days later.

Ryu said that if they had been caught, North Korean agents would have quickly taken them all back to Pyongyang for certain punishment, as defection is considered a major embarrassment to the Kim regime and is not taken lightly.

Kuwait was a particularly important revenue stream for Pyongyang, as the Persian Gulf nation used to employ about 10,000 North Korean laborers. Those workers were allegedly treated like modern-day slaves, and experts say almost all of their earnings were funneled back to the government.

Ryu also was posted to Syria, a close ally of North Korea, from 2010 to 2013. While Ryu was charged with overseeing relations with Syrian politicians, his countrymen were selling conventional weapons to the Bashar al-Assad regime, including long-range multiple launcher artillery and anti-aircraft weapons systems.

Looking back over the past 16 months, Ryu says his only regret is what might happen to his remaining family members back in Pyongyang. He and his wife believe they did the right thing for their daughter, by taking her away from her home country.

Defection from North Korea comes at a monumental cost, with defectors having to instantly sever ties from all family left in their home nation. Ryu is worried about his three siblings and 83-year-old mother still in North Korea, and the family also worries for his wife’s elderly parents living in Pyongyang.

[CNN]

North Korea’s envoy to Kuwait defects to South Korea

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It’s now been confirmed that North Korea’s acting ambassador to Kuwait defected to South Korea, the latest in a recent string of high-profile escapes from the isolated country, a South Korean lawmaker said on Monday.

Ryu Hyun Woo had led North Korea’s embassy in Kuwait since former Ambassador So Chang Sik was expelled after a 2017 U.N. resolution sought to scale back the country’s overseas diplomatic missions.

Ryu defected to South Korea last September, according to Thae Yong Ho, who was North Korea’s deputy ambassador to Britain before settling in the South in 2016 and being elected as a lawmaker last year.

Tae said Ryu is the son-in-law of Jon Il Chun, who once oversaw a Worker’s Party bureau responsible for managing the ruling Kim family’s secret coffers, dubbed Room 39.

Ryu fled several months after Jo Song Gil, who was North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, vanished with his wife from the embassy and resurfaced in South Korea.

[Reuters]

After Trump setbacks, Kim Jong Un has to start over with Biden

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Last year was a disaster for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He helplessly watched his country’s already battered economy decay further amid pandemic border closures while brooding over the collapse of made-for-TV summits with former President Donald Trump that failed to lift crippling sanctions from his country.

Now he must start all over again with President Joe Biden, who has previously called Kim a “thug” and accused Trump of chasing spectacles instead of meaningful reductions of Kim’s nuclear arsenal.

North Korea won’t likely be the top priority for Biden, who while facing mounting domestic issues is also gearing up for a push to get back into a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that Trump blew up in favor of what he called maximum pressure against Iran.

Acoording to Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, the Biden administration’s “sequence of policy attention will likely be: Get America’s own house in order, strengthen U.S. alliances and align strategies toward China and Russia, and then address Iran and North Korea.”

[AP]