Author Archives for Grant Montgomery

North Korean men paying not to work

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Imagine going to work every day and rarely getting paid. Then, one day, you’re told there’s no work to do — and you must pay the company for the privilege of not working!

Welcome to the Orwellian world of work in North Korea, where men remain tied to the country’s moribund state-run institutions.

Mr. Kim’s job in a state-run steel factory requires him to build roads. He can’t remember the last time he received a monthly salary. When there are no roads to build, he has to pay his company around 20 times his paltry monthly salary.

“He had to pay not to work for about six months of last year,” Mrs. Kim told NPR, sighing. “You have to pay, even if you can’t afford to eat. It’s mandatory.”

“And if you don’t go to work, you go to prison,” another male interviewee tells NPR.

Who is Kenneth Bae and why is he being held by North Korea?

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Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American tour operator, was arrested by security authorities in North Korea in early November. A US official told CNN that Kenneth Bae, whose Korean name is Pae Jun Ho, is affiliated with a Protestant religious group.

Bae, 44, entered the northeastern port city of Rajin on November 3 along with five other tourists for a five-day trip. Rajin is a special economic zone across the border from the Chinese city of Yanji, where many Christian groups shelter North Korean refugees — something which angers the North Korean state considerably.

Bae was detained by North Korean authorities and questioned after a computer hard disk was found among the group of tourists, an unidentified source has said. The source added that the hard disk might have contained sensitive information about North Korea.

After his detention, Bae was transferred to Pyongyang for further investigation.

Last year, Eddie Yong Su Jun, a Korean-American missionary, was arrested and then released after facing indictment on charges of committing an unspecified crime against the regime.

In 2010, North Korea set free Robert Park, a Korean-American Christian activist who crossed into the country on Christmas Day 2009 to draw international attention to the North’s poor human rights record.

Also in 2010, former President Jimmy Carter helped secure the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes, another U.S. citizen and Christian activist, who had been fined roughly $600,000 and sentenced to eight years of hard labor for crossing over the Chinese border into North Korea.

In 2009, former U.S. President Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang to win the release of two American journalists caught during a reporting tour covering North Korean defectors.

Bae’s detention comes amid tensions over Pyongyang’s planned long-range rocket launch. Concerns have been raised that Pyongyang may try to use the case as a “bargaining chip” or a trump card in forcing the US into post-launch talks.

 

North Korea trip by Richardson and Schmidt set for next week

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Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt will lead a private humanitarian mission to North Korea next week, Richardson’s office confirmed in a statement Saturday.

The trip comes despite public criticism from the U.S. State Department, which has said the visit was ill-timed in light of tensions stemming from North Korea’s recent rocket launch.

The delegation will also include Jared Cohen, the director of a Google initiative known as Google Ideas and Schmidt’s co-author on an upcoming book about how the Internet is changing the world.

Last July, Cohen organized a conference outside Los Angeles that featured nearly a dozen North Korean defectors, who gave harrowing accounts of privation and coerced criminal activity including drug sales.

Schmidt spoke at the conference and met with the group, according to panel moderator and North Korea expert Sheena Chestnut Greitens, now a graduate student at Harvard University.

Richardson, a former ambassador to the United Nations, has made numerous trips to North Korea. Many observers expect Richardson to seek the release of Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American tour guide who was detained last year.

North Korea suspicious of US policy in Asia

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State-run North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun published an article Friday that said the United States was trying to start a war on the Korean Peninsula. Titled “The fight for Asian and global peace,” the article says the United States’ so-called pivot to Asia is a threat to regional stability.

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department has questioned the timing of a planned North Korea visit by Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and former ambassador Bill Richardson.

In her media briefing, State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said the two will be making the trip as private citizens. “They are traveling in an unofficial capacity,” Nuland said. “They are not going to be accompanied by any U.S. officials. They are not carrying any messages from us. Frankly, we don’t think the timing of this is particularly helpful, but they are private citizens and they are making their own decisions.”

When asked if the trip might be tied to winning the release of a U.S. national being held in North Korea, Nuland said: “Again, they are not going on our behalf. No American official is going with them. They are not carrying any messages from us.”

Bill approved making it possible for Americans to adopt North Korean children

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The US Congress has approved a bill which aims to make it possible for Americans to adopt orphaned North Korean children. The measure was passed by the House in September and by the Senate last week.

The North Korea Refugee Adoption Act instructs the US State Department to devise a comprehensive strategy to facilitate the adoption of North Korean children by US citizens.

US Republican lawmaker Ileana Ros Lehtinen, a key backer of the bill, said late last year that the legislation aims to “provide loving families for some of the world’s most endangered children.”

Supporters of the measure said many North Korean children become orphaned or stateless when their families flee with them to China or other neighboring nations, and that the youngsters often are left without the proper care. But many children who remain in North Korea fare no better, Ros Lehtinen said.

“We are all too keenly all aware of the extreme repression, malnutrition, and poverty suffered by so many inside North Korea today. Those threats often take the greatest toll on children,” the Republican lawmaker said.

Any efforts to facilitate adoptions, Ros Lehtinen said, would ensure that the North Korean adoptees are genuine orphans, and not victims of child trafficking.

The United States is home to the largest ethnic Korean population outside of Northeast Asia, with nearly two million Americans of Korean descent.

Google executive and Governor Bill Richardson to visit North Korea

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Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, will be traveling to North Korea on a private, humanitarian mission led by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson that could take place as early as this month, sources told The Associated Press.

The trip would be the first by a top executive from U.S.-based Google, the world’s largest Internet search provider, to a country considered to have the most restrictive Internet policies on the planet. To add to the mystery, last year a group of North Koreans paid a visit to Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.

North Korea is in the midst of what leader Kim Jong Un called a modern-day “industrial revolution” in a New Year’s Day speech to the nation. Kim Jong Un is pushing science and technology as a path to economic development for the impoverished country, aiming for computers in every school and digitized machinery in every factory.

However, giving citizens open access to the Internet has not been part of the regime’s strategy. While some North Koreans can access a domestic Intranet service, very few have clearance to freely surf the World Wide Web.

It was not immediately clear who Schmidt and Richardson expect to meet in North Korea.

The visit also follows North Korea’s announcement that an American citizen of Korean descent has been jailed in Pyongyang on suspicion of committing “hostile” acts against the state. Kenneth Bae, identified in North Korean state media by his Korean name, Pae Jun Ho, is the fifth American detained in North Korea in the past four years. The exact circumstances of his arrest were not clear.

Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who often serves as an envoy to countries that do not have diplomatic relations with the United States, will try to meet with North Korean officials, and possibly Bae, to discuss the case, the sources said.

Rare New Years address by Kim Jong-un

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called for an end to confrontation between the two Koreas, in a surprise New Year’s broadcast on state media.

“An important issue in putting an end to the division of the country and achieving its reunification is to remove confrontation between the north and the south,” Kim said in an address that appeared to be pre-recorded. “Past records of inter-Korean relations show that confrontation between fellow countrymen leads to nothing but war,” he said, speaking from an undisclosed location.

The New Year’s address was the first in 19 years by a North Korean leader, and appeared to take the place of the policy-setting New Year’s editorial published annually in the past in leading state newspapers. Additionally, his father, Kim Jong-il, rarely spoke in public.

Conspicuously absent from Kim’s speech though was any mention of North Korea’s nuclear arms program.

Kim’s statement “apparently contains a message that he has an intention to dispel the current face-off (between the two Koreas), which could eventually be linked with the North’s call for aid” from the South, said Kim Tae-woo, a North Korea expert at the state-funded Korea Institute for National Unification. “But such a move does not necessarily mean any substantive change in the North Korean regime’s policy towards the South.”

North Korea has offered olive branches before and Kim’s speech does not necessarily signify a change in tack from a country which vilifies the United States and U.S. ally South Korea at every chance.

Kim Jong Un facing an authoritarian contradiction

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It’s a dilemma for Kim Jong Un who needs to find a way to modernize North Korea and its economy while holding onto absolute power.

In a clear sign of the North Korea’s border crackdowns, the number of North Korean refugees reaching South Korea in 2012 has dropped by almost half, to about 1,400, compared to last year.

Meanwhile, changing technologies, ambitious smugglers and well-funded critics of Pyongyang mean that everything from DVD melodramas to illegal Chinese cellphones to Korean-language radio news broadcasts funded by the U.S. government make their way into North Korea. And their presence exposes an ever-growing number of North Koreans to the outside world, which threatens the underpinnings of the Kim regime.

The hunger for the larger world resembles, in many ways, the appetites in China in the years after Mao Zedong’s 1976 death, when Beijing began opening the door for the world’s mass media.

“I felt sad about the state of my country when I watched the DVDs,” said a North Korean defector who now lives in Seoul and spoke on condition he not be named, fearing retribution against family still living in North Korea. “I could see Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, the United States … these other places were so much better off.”

“There has definitely been a push to roll back the tide of the flow of information,” said Nat Kretchun, associate director of an international consulting group InterMedia, which released a report earlier this year about information flow into North Korea, based on surveys of hundreds of recent North Korean defectors.

North Korea attempts to keep out ideological and cultural infiltration

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The warning came from Kim Jong Un, the North Korean ruler who sees his isolated nation, just across the border from this busy Chinese trading town, as under siege. The attack, he said, must be stopped.

“We must extend the fight against the enemy’s ideological and cultural infiltration,” Kim said in an October speech, as he called upon his vast security network to “ruthlessly crush those hostile elements.”

Over the past year, Kim has intensified a border crackdown that has attempted to seal the once-porous 1,420-kilometer (880-mile) frontier with China, smugglers and analysts say. Special security units have been formed to seek out any contraband information or technology that Pyongyang sees as a threat.

The assault that Kim Jong Un fears? It’s being waged with cheap televisions rigged to receive foreign broadcasts, and with smuggled mobile phones that – if you can get a Chinese signal along the border – can call the outside world. Very often, it arrives in the form of wildly popular South Korean soap operas smuggled in on DVDs or computer thumb drives.

Their presence exposes an ever-growing number of North Koreans to the outside world and threatens the underpinnings of the Kim regime. Kim’s crackdown has been largely aimed at the border with China, long the route for much of the outside information making its way into North Korea, as well as for refugees trying to get out.

In a country where one family has held absolute control for more than 60 years, a communist enclave that survived the downfall of the Soviet Union and a devastating 1990s famine, the notion of allowing knowledge of the larger world is deeply feared.