Author Archives for Grant Montgomery

Through Lunar New Year feast, North Korean defectors draw attention to their plight

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As Minji Kim sliced spring onions and stirred pots of broth with dumplings in a pop-up kitchen in east London, the North Korean defector beamed with pride knowing that dozens of Britons had come to celebrate Lunar New Year and taste North Korean cuisine.  Kim, who declined to reveal her real name fearing repercussions since her family is still in North Korea, said she was delighted to demonstrate how to make her country’s specialities. “I feel grateful because, in a way, it means that there’s interest in North Korean people and culture,” the 42-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation through a translator.

Kim is one of about 700 North Korean refugees living in New Malden, southwest of London, who have fled the regime accused of widespread human rights abuses.

Another refugee, Jihyun Park, who was granted asylum in Britain in 2008, said she hoped efforts like the Lunar New Year event could help raise awareness of their plight. “When we eat together and have a meal and we talk … we can learn about other people, they also learn about us,” said Park, who is also an outreach manager with Connect North Korea, the group that organized the event and also provides English classes for refugees.

Though she has lived in Britain for a decade, Park said the existence of the North Korean community in the country remains under the radar. “Many people are surprised that there are North Koreans here. They say, ‘You are really North Korean?’ said Park, a former maths teacher who was sold to a Chinese farmer when she crossed the border into China.

Safe passage for defectors fleeing the oppressive regime often depends on their ability to make the grueling, and at times dangerous, trip across rural China without being detected.  Activists believe thousands of North Koreans are in hiding in China. Those sent back to the totalitarian state risk incarceration, forced labor and even execution.

Park said she hopes the international community will do more to help defectors and speak up against the regime. “No one helps us. It’s up to ourselves to find freedom. This world is always silent,” Park said.


North Korea pushing new loyalty campaign

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North Korea is stepping up a new loyalty campaign as leader Kim Jong Un prepares for his second summit with President Donald Trump. The campaign began last month with the introduction of a song in praise of the nation’s flag.

A video now being aired on state-run television to promote the song — called “Our National Flag” — shows repeated images of the flag being raised at international sports competitions and being formed by a sea of people holding up colored lengths of cloth at a parade and rally on Kim Il Sung Square. Other images show recent improvements in the economy and standard of living, a reflection of a current government policy shift that focuses on development and prosperity.

The video is a departure from the tone of the propaganda that dominated just two years ago, when tensions with Washington were escalating and the focus was on North Korea’s successful missile tests. In the summer of 2017, the country’s most popular musical group, the all-female Moranbong Band, released “The Song of the Hwasong Rocket” to commemorate the successful launch of North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. They also performed at concerts with big-screen images of the ICBM behind them.

Lyrics to “Our National Flag” have been distributed widely. Large posters showing the flag and the lyrics are being displayed in factories. The song opens with the lines, “As we watch our blue-red banner flying sky high, our hearts are bursting with the blood of patriotism. We feel the breath of our nation as the flag strongly flaps in the wind. The flag as important as life carries the fate of our people. We will love the shining flag of our nation. Please fly until the end of this world.”

Coming after years of what had seemed to be deepening hostility, Kim’s outreach to Washington and his Chinese and South Korean neighbors presents a bit of a conundrum for North Korea’s propaganda chiefs. Few details of Kim’s negotiations with Trump over the future of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal have been made public in the North. The official media have instead focused on how Kim has been welcomed on the world stage and asserted that he is leading the way to defuse tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

[Associated Press]

North Korean defector: Adapting to rules and norms of a new culture

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When Jessie first arrived in South Korea, she was overwhelmed: She was by herself, in an unfamiliar country.  So much was unknown: how to get around, where to study, how to make new friends, and even where to buy groceries.

She wasn’t used to this new culture’s rules and norms. The first time she heard someone publicly criticize the South Korean president she was stunned. Freely expressing any negative thoughts about the government was unheard of in North Korea.

Jessie now understands her new culture and loves her freedoms, especially being able to watch whatever dramas she wants without fear of punishment.

South Korea has become her home, but she still longs for the day she can return to North Korea. Her parents have both passed away and she wants to go and pay her respects in person.


Key challenges at Trump-Kim February summit

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US President Donald Trump has said he will hold a second nuclear summit with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un in Vietnam on 27-28 February. The two leaders face a number of challenges as they prepare for the meeting:

1: Getting past the pageantry – Both Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un made the most of the press extravaganza surrounding their choreographed reconciliation at the Singapore summit in June 2018. But the vaguely worded statement it produced hasn’t resulted in any concrete action towards the US goal of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and Pyongyang is frustrated by Washington’s refusal to ease sanctions. So the pressure’s on for them to come up with something tangible.

2: Getting on the same page – At the Singapore summit, the US and North Korea agreed to the “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula”. But they didn’t say what that meant, which gets to the heart of whether a deal is even possible. But last week the State Department’s North Korea envoy Stephen Biegun at least acknowledged the disconnect over disarmament goals, and said coming to an agreement with the North Koreans would have to happen “over time”.

3: Getting action on denuclearization – Pyongyang has offered to destroy all its facilities for making nuclear bomb fuel, according to Mr Biegun, if the Trump administration takes “corresponding measures”. The Americans seem to be softening their demands for significant denuclearization steps upfront, apparently adopting more of the action-for-action approach advocated by Mr Kim.

4: Getting realistic? – Virtually anyone in Washington who knows anything about North Korea thinks that Kim Jong-un won’t abandon his nuclear weapons programme. It’s too important a deterrent, director of national intelligence Dan Coats told a Senate committee last week. He said the country’s leaders “ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival”, especially against a US attempt to overthrow it. Some former Pentagon officials go so far as to argue that it would make more sense to pursue dialogue on arms control, rather than arms elimination.


Defectors say Christians in North Korea face terrible persecution

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While Donald Trump says there is a “good chance” of reaching a deal on North Korean nuclear disarmament, the plight of Christians in North Korea remains dismal, an Associated Press report revealed this week.

Defectors say Christians in North Korea face terrible persecution. Even Christians who stay deep underground face danger, defectors now living in South Korea told the wire service.

Defectors’ stories include that of Kwak Jeong-ae, 65, who said a fellow inmate in North Korea told guards about her own religious beliefs and insisted on using her baptized name, rather than her original Korean name, during questioning in 2004: “She persisted in saying, ‘My name is Hyun Sarah; it’s the name that God and my church have given to me,’” Kwak said. “She told (the interrogators), ‘I’m a child of God and I’m not scared to die. So if you want to kill me, go ahead and kill me.’”

Kwak said Hyun told her about what she did during the interrogations, and Hyun’s actions were confirmed to Kwak by another inmate who was interrogated alongside her. Kwak said she later saw Hyun, then 23, coming back from an interrogation room with severe bruises on her forehead and bleeding from her nose. Days later, guards took Hyun away for good.

Another defector said she only prayed under a blanket or in the bathroom because of worries of being caught. Another, who was jailed after being repatriated from China, where many Koreans took refuge during a 1990s-era famine, described praying silently in his jail cell after a hungry fellow prisoner shared some precious kernels of corn. “We communicated by writing on our palms (with our fingers),” he told AP. “I told him I was a Christian and asked whether he was too.”

Jung Gwangil, a North Korean defector-turned-activist, and one of the few who allowed AP to use his name in print, said he saw a man praying and singing hymns when they were held together at a detention facility in the northern city of Hoeryong in October 1999. The man was beaten frequently and one day was hauled away, Jung said. “While leaving, he shouted to us, ‘God will save you.’ I hadn’t encountered Christianity before at the time, and [at the time] I thought he was crazy,” Jung told the wire service.


North Korean human rights left behind

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A year ago, the White House was lit with glowing Christmas trees when Ji Seong-ho arrived for a holiday reception, an opu­lence he could not have imagined as a boy in North Korea. In the Grand Foyer, to the strains of the U.S. Marine Band, Ji made a wish that his former countrymen would “be liberated one day” and witness such grandeur.

Ji rose to prominence as an activist after defecting to South Korea and played a key role in President Trump’s risky strategy to build the international pressure that helped bring North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table over his nuclear weapons program.

Trump shared Ji’s personal story during his State of the Union address to shine a light on the brutality of Kim’s regime and praise the human spirit to overcome tyranny in a bid for freedom. It was an emotional appeal to the world that, beyond the existential nuclear threat, North Korea’s authoritarian leader was enacting savagery on his own people every day. Watching from first lady Melania Trump’s box in the House chambers, Ji stood and raised a pair of crutches over his head — a reminder of his amputated leg — to a standing ovation from both political parties.

Much has changed. Since Ji’s starring role in last year’s State of the Union, Trump has said almost nothing about the plight of the North Korean people, more than 100,000 of whom are estimated to be held in hard-labor prison camps. Instead, the president has abruptly shifted from a “fire and fury” condemnation of the North to an unprecedented strategy of engagement with Kim, which led to their historic summit in Singapore last June.

Their joint declaration after the meeting made no mention of human rights, and Trump has spoken warmly of Kim since then. He has said Kim has shown “courage” in moving forward with negotiations and often speaks about the “beautiful” letters the North Korean leader has sent him. At a campaign rally last fall, Trump told the crowd that as the two men got to know each another they “fell in love.” “We have a fantastic chemistry,” Trump said in an interview with CBS News that aired Sunday.

Gone are the denunciations of the abuses Kim inflicts on his people. A second summit is tentatively booked for late February. Ji and several other North Korean defectors who visited the Oval Office a year ago remain uncertain whether their partnership with Trump will lead to the human rights improvements that they have sought.

[Washington Post]

US envoy reveals North Korea nuclear pledge

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North Korea has pledged to destroy all its nuclear material enrichment facilities, according to the US special envoy for the country, Stephen Biegun. He said the promise had been made to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when he visited North Korea in October. Biegun added that Kim Jong-un had committed, in his talks with Mr Pompeo, to “the dismantlement and destruction” of all its plutonium and uranium facilities, which provide the material for nuclear weapons.

Pyongyang has not confirmed making any such pledge.

Mr Biegun also said that North Korea must provide a complete list of its nuclear assets before any deal can be reached.

President Donald Trump had earlier claimed “tremendous progress” in talks between the countries. Speaking in the Oval Office on Thursday, the president said he would soon announce the date and location of a planned second summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.

Stephen Biegun has been Washington’s top envoy to North Korea for five months but he gave a detailed public accounting of his approach for the first time in a speech at Stanford University in California.

Mr Biegun said President Trump was “ready to end this war”.

“We’re not going to invade North Korea. We are not seeking to topple the regime,” he said.

But Biegun reiterated that the US would not lift sanctions until denuclearisation was complete, demanding “a complete understanding of the full extent of the North Korean WMD [weapons of mass destruction] and missile programmes through a comprehensive declaration”.

He also admitted that North Korea and the US did not have a shared definition of what denuclearisation actually meant.


Kim Jong Un has played Donald Trump ‘like a fiddle,’ Ex-CIA Chief says

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Former CIA Director John Brennan has blasted President Donald Trump’s criticism of his own intelligence community, claiming it has allowed foreign leaders like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to play him “like a fiddle.”

The assessment from Brennan, who has been a fierce critic of the president, came on a day in which the president launched an extraordinary attack on United States intelligence chiefs. Responding to the attack, Brennan said the president’s actions posed a danger to the U.S.

“Your refusal to accept the unanimous assessment of U.S. Intelligence on Iran, North Korea, ISIS, Russia, & so much more shows the extent of your intellectual bankruptcy,” Brennan wrote on Twitter. “All Americans, especially members of Congress, need to understand the danger you pose to our national security.” Trump, Brennan said, “should be ashamed of himself” over the comments, “but I know he knows no shame.”

Brennan later appeared on MSNBC’s Hardball and was asked for specific ways that Trump’s ignoring of intelligence concerned him. “I don’t think he understands the complexities of the problems associated with North Korea’s nuclear program,” he told host Chris Matthews. “We have not gotten anything from the North Koreans.

“Kim Jong Un has demonstrated just how easy it is to play Donald Trump like a fiddle, which is what he has done, and there’s going to be another summit, and I think he has been duped by Kim Jong Un,” Brennan added.

North Korea has not conducted any missile tests since Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to sit down with a North Korean leader last June. However, experts have noted that Trump emerged from the historic summit with no firm commitment for North Korean denuclearization. Trump and Kim are set to sit down for a second summit next month.


Trump disputes US intelligence on North Korea

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President Trump continues to plan a second summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un – date and location to be determined – and expresses confidence that Kim is committed to junking his nuclear weapons programs.

The U.S. intelligence community does not share that optimism.

During her Senate testimony, CIA Director Gina Haspel said the evidence shows that North Korea “is committed to developing a long-range nuclear-armed missile that would pose a direct threat to the United States.”

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said that, while Kim is expressing “openness” to the idea of eliminating weapons of mass destruction, “we currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its WMD capabilities, and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities.”

In tweets, Trump said the U.S. relationship with North Korea is “the best it has ever been.” He said they have stopped nuclear testing, and claimed a “decent chance of Denuclearization.”

Saying “I look forward to seeing Kim Jong Un shortly,” Trump claimed “progress (is) being made-big difference!” 

[USA Today]

Defector surprised how little South Koreans know about North Korea

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Geum Hyok stood by himself in an empty apartment wondering if he made a mistake. He had no friends and no family to reassure him.

Feeling lonely but determined to make a life for himself, he started classes at Korea University where he met people who were kind to him and checked on him regularly. Their friendship helped him not feel as lonely.

Except for the couple times he was turned down for a job because they didn’t want to hire a North Korean, most people were welcoming to him.

But what surprised him most was how many South Koreans didn’t know what was happening in North Korea. Geum Hyok didn’t blame them, he knew humans rights was complicated. But it was still disappointing.

Now, Geum Hyok is studying politics and diplomacy and enjoys having the freedom to do what he wants. He no longer questions his choice to escape but he does think about his loved ones still in North Korea. He especially misses his mother whom he hasn’t seen or spoken to in eight years. He is waiting for the day North Korea finally opens so they can be reunited.