Author Archives for Grant Montgomery

Hundreds of public execution sites identified in North Korea

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A South Korean NGO says it has identified 318 sites in North Korea that have been used by the government to carry out public executions. The Transitional Justice Working Group interviewed 610 North Korean defectors over four years for its report, documenting decades of killings, for offenses ranging from stealing a cow to watching South Korean TV.

Public executions took place near rivers, fields, markets, schools, and sports grounds, the rights group said. Crowds of 1,000 or more would gather to watch these executions, the NGO said in its report, “Mapping the fate of the dead”.

The report alleges that family members of those sentenced to death, including children as young as seven, were sometimes forced to watch the event. The bodies and burial locations of those killed were rarely given to their relatives.

Some public executions also take place inside detention facilities such as prisons and labor camps – where people convicted of political crimes are forced into physical work such as mining and logging. One defector held in a labor camp in the early 2000s described how 80 inmates were made to watch the killing of three women charged with trying to escape to China. They said a Ministry of People’s Security officer told the crowd: “This could happen to you.”

The report said executions are “a core method of inciting fear and deterring citizens from engaging in activities deemed undesirable by the regime”.

The vast majority of executions happen by firing squad, defectors said. This often involves three shooters firing three rounds each into the body of the condemned person. A smaller number of public hangings was also reported, though the NGO said they appeared to have been scaled back or even halted since 2005.

Ethan Shin, one of the report’s authors, told AFP that “it looks like the number of public executions is on a downward trend”, but that Pyongyang may simply be operating with more secrecy “as it seeks recognition as a normal state”.


North Korean female defectors in China sold as cybersex slaves

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For five years, Lee Yumi — whose name has been changed for her safety — had been imprisoned with a handful of other girls in a tiny apartment in northeast China, after the broker she trusted to plan her escape from North Korea sold her to a cybersex operator. Her captor allowed her to leave the apartment once every six months. Attempts to escape had failed.

Lee’s story is shared by thousands of North Korean girls and women, some as young as 9 years old, who are being abducted or trafficked to work in China’s multimillion-dollar sex trade, according to a report by the London-based non-profit organization Korea Future Initiative (KFI).

Lee grew up in a family of low-level party cadres in North Korea. One day, after getting into a fight with them, she decided to cross the border into China. Lee said she found a broker to facilitate the dangerous move who promised her a job in a restaurant. That promise turned out to be a lie.

Lee had crossed the Tumen River in a group of eight girls. When she arrived in China, Lee said she was taken to a apartment on the fourth floor of a pale yellow building in Yanji, a city in Jilin province about 50 kilometers from Tumen, where most signs are written in Korean and Chinese and scores of restaurants sell bibimbap and kimchi, due to the large population of ethnic Koreans. At the apartment, she realized there was no restaurant job. Instead, Lee said her broker had sold her for 30,000 yuan (about $4,500) to the operator of a cybersex chatroom. “When I found out, I felt so humiliated,” she whispered. “I started crying and asked to leave, but the boss said he had paid a lot of money for me and I now had a debt towards him.”

Two other North Korean women already lived in the two-bedroom apartment Lee was delivered to. One was 19-year-old Kwang Ha-Yoon, whose name has also been changed to protect her identity, locked up for two years when Lee arrived. “My parents split up when I was very young and I grew up with my mother and grandparents,” she said. “We never had enough to eat.” Kwang left North Korea to earn money to send to her family. “Both my mother and my grandmother had cancer and needed treatment,” she said. But all the money Kwang earned in China went to her captor. During the seven years Kwang spent locked up in his apartment, she said he never gave her a cent.

Lee and Kwang shared a room. “The only furniture was two beds, two tables and two computers,” recalled Kwang. “Every morning, I would get up around 11 a.m., have breakfast and then start working until dawn the next day.” Sometimes, she would only get four hours of sleep. If they complained, they would get beaten, although both women said they did not suffer sexual abuse by their captor. Work involved logging onto an online chat platform on which South Korean men can pay to watch girls perform sexual acts. Read more

North Korean cybersex slave meets pastor online

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It was during the summer of 2018 that Lee Yumi finally saw her chance to escape her unwanted life as a cybersex slave.

In order to keep a close eye on them, Lee’s captor slept in the living room of the small apartment from where she worked along with another young North Korean woman, Kwang. “The front door was always locked from the outside and there was no handle on the inside. … Every six months, he would take us out to the park. During those outings, he would always stay right next to us, so we never got to talk to anyone,” said Lee. In 2015, Lee tried to escape by climbing out of a window and down a metal drain, but she fell and hurt her back and leg. She still limps slightly.

“One day one of my customers [from South Korea] realized I was North Korean and was being held captive,” said Lee. While most men probably knew the girls weren’t South Korean, because North Koreans have different accents and dialects to people in the south, they chose to look the other way. This man was different. “He bought a laptop and let me take control of the screen remotely, so I could send messages without my boss noticing,” Lee said.

The man also gave her the phone number of a South Korean pastor named Chun Ki-Won, one of a band of Korean pastors who specialize in helping North Korean women escape from China. Chun said his Christian aid organization, Durihana, has helped over 1,000 defectors reach Seoul since 1999. Korean media has nicknamed him the Asian Schindler, after the German industrialist and Nazi Party member who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews.

In September 2018, Lee contacted Pastor Chun on a Korean messaging service. “Hi, I want to go to South Korea. Can you help me?” read the first message she sent.

Over the following weeks, a plan was hatched: Chun would send a team to Yanji to extract Lee and her fellow sex slave Kwang. On October 26, while Yumi’s boss was away for the day, Durihana‘s members arrived at the foot of the building. The two girls knotted their bedsheets together and dropped them out of their window. The extraction team then tied a rope to the sheets, which the girls pulled up and used to lower themselves safely to the ground.

After escaping Yanji, Lee and Kwang traveled across China on buses and trains using fake Korean passports. Their last stop was Kunming, in China’s deep southwest. Lee and Kwang met with a Chinese man who took them across the mountains into a neighboring country. “We walked for five hours through the jungle, before reaching a road where a car was waiting for us,” said Kwang.

Chun later met them in the middle of the night on the side of a road. “I burst into tears as soon as I saw him,” said Kwang, who is now 24 years old. “For the first time in a very long time, I felt safe.”

As they rode towards the South Korean embassy, Lee stared giddily at the urban landscape unfolding before her eyes. “I’m so happy!” she said, as the embassy approached. The embassy, which receives about 10 defectors a month, according to officials, kept the women for about 10 days for questioning. Defectors who satisfy the questioning process then fly to freedom in South Korea. Read more

How female defectors join the ranks of sex workers in China

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After Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011, border security was tightened to avoid the bad publicity associated with defections and prevent information about North Korea trickling into the country, according to Tim Peters, an American pastor who co-founded an NGO called Helping Hands that helps defectors flee. An electric fence was added, as well as cameras at the border.  

“On the Chinese side, patrols were also increased because Beijing is afraid an influx of refugees could destabilize its own regime,” he added.

Usually, women defecting from North Korea pay brokers $500 to $1,000 to organize their safe passage to China, according to NGOs and defector accounts. To reach China, most defectors cross the Tumen River that separates North Korea from China on foot at night, sometimes in freezing weather with the water coming up to their shoulders. Upon arrival in China, North Korean women are then often immediately enslaved in brothels, sold into repressive marriages or made to perform graphic acts in front of webcams in satellite towns near cities close to the border.

Korean NGOs estimate that 70% to 80% of North Korean women who make it to China are trafficked, for between 6,000 and 30,000 yuan ($890 to $4,500), depending on their age and beauty. Some are sold as brides to Chinese farmers; more recently, girls have increasingly been trafficked into the cybersex industry, according to London-based non-profit organization Korea Future Initiative (KFI). Rising wages in northern China cities have led to a greater demand for prostitutes among the male population, according to a KFI report. In southern China, trafficked women from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia has typically met that demand. But in northeastern provinces, men have turned to North Korean refugees.

Within minutes of logging on to online sites, users are barraged by women on the platform sending text messages asking for a video chat in a private room. The minimum price to chat on the site is 150 won (13 cents), but girls can set the entry price for a room, with popular accounts tending to have a more expensive entry fee. Tips start at a minimum of 300 won (25 cents), but can go far higher as customers try to persuade the girls to fulfill their requests. The North Korean cybersex slaves are tasked by their captors with keeping the men online for as long as possible.

This sad story story is shared by thousands of North Korean girls and women, some as young as 9 years old, who are being abducted or trafficked to work in China’s multimillion-dollar sex trade, according to a report by KFI.

Korean pastors have set up a network of routes and safe houses in China inspired by the Underground Railroad, the secret passages enslaved African-Americans used to escape to free states from the late 1700s until the US Civil War.

“Each individual cell knows nothing about the other ones, to avoid compromising the whole operation if one of them gets caught,” said Tim Peters, the American pastor living in Seoul who is helping North Koreans flee.


Kim Jong Un’s gilded boyhood of chefs and gourmet meals

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Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, was 27 when he inherited power in 2011. Some insights into his early life of privilege follow, adapted from “The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un,” a new book by The Washington Post’s Beijing bureau chief:

The six-year-old Kim Jong Un stood by the billiard table in the games room of the royal residence at Sinchon, south of Pyongyang, one of dozens of palatial compounds reserved for North Korea’s first family.

He and his older brother, Kim Jong Chol, were waiting for their father to come out of a meeting with some officials. They were dressed in child-sized military uniforms, olive green suits complete with gold buttons and red piping. They had moon-shaped hats on their heads and gold stars on their shoulders. They were little generals.

When their father entered the room, they stood to attention and saluted him, serious expressions on their chubby faces. Kim Jong Il was delighted and wanted to introduce the boys to the officials and the household staff before they went into the dining room next door. Everyone lined up to meet the boys, who were referred to as “little princes.”

Kenji Fujimoto, who had moved from Japan to North Korea to make sushi in the royal households, was at the end of the line. He grew more and more nervous as the princes got closer, his heart beating faster with every step they took.

Jong Chol was first. Fujimoto extended his hand, and the eight-year-old reciprocated with a firm shake. Then Fujimoto put out his hand to the younger child. This one was not so well mannered. Instead of shaking Fujimoto’s hand, Jong Un glared at him with “sharp eyes” that seemed to say, “You abhorrent Japanese.” The chef was shocked and embarrassed that a child would stare down a forty-year-old man. After a few seconds that stretched out painfully for Fujimoto, Kim Jong Il intervened to save the situation.

“This is Mr. Fujimoto,” Kim Jong Il said, prompting “Prince Jong Un” to finally agree to shake hands, although without much enthusiasm. The chef thought there may have been some name recognition. Perhaps the boys had eaten the sushi he had prepared and heard that it had been made by “Fujimoto from Japan.”

Fujimoto was just one member of a team of chefs who prepared lavish meals for Kim Jong Il and his families. They made grilled pheasant, shark fin soup, Russian-style barbecued goat meat, steamed turtle, roast chicken and pork, and Swiss-style raclette cheese melted on potatoes. The royal family ate only rice produced in a special area of the country. Female workers handpicked each grain one by one, making sure to choose flawless grains of equal size. Sushi was on the menu once a week. Fujimoto made lobster sashimi with wasabi soy sauce and nigiri sushi with fatty tuna, yellow tail, eel, and caviar. Seabass was Kim Jong Il’s favorite.

[The Washington Post]

North Korean defectors deserve an international response

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In the past year, the number of North Korean defectors has declined by approximately 17% with even fewer making it to South Korea. This is largely due to the increase in security monitoring on the Chinese border and an increase in police patrols in some of North Korea’s metropolitan cities. As it stands, the majority of defecting refugees escape from the North Eastern provinces (roughly 80%) as these are less militarized and provide easier access into China.

The repatriation policy of the Chinese government owes to the fact that defectors are considered “illegal economic migrants.” Given that the preservation of this relationship takes precedence over the rights, protections and freedom of North Korean refugees it is incumbent on the U.S. and the extended international community to respond to this crisis in an appropriate way. China, itself negligible when it comes to human rights, won’t change its policy soon.

There are however many not-for-profit organizations based in South Korea that actively promote the rights and freedoms of North Korean defectors which is cause for hope.

On the international stage, U.S. President Donald Trump has met with Kim Jong Un in relation to denuclearisation and the lifting of economic sanctions. These meetings have also included a brief focus on human rights. There remains an opportunity for U.S. foreign policy makers to instigate change in relation to the situation by way of incorporating human rights dialogue into the talks and future relationship of the U.S. and North Korea.

In July 2018, The North Korean Human Rights Reauthorization Act of 2017  outrightly condemned the treatment of North Korean citizens by the oppressive regime and called upon the regime to respect the rights of its citizens. On top of this, it also supported the allocation of funds to support a special envoy on North Korean human rights at an international level. As a result, the meetings between Kim and Trump have followed on from this renewed legislation which ought to give the international community cause for more hope. While denuclearisation is important, human rights dialogue must factor into the North Korean strategy.

[The Organization for World Peace]

Status of ‘executed’ North Korean nuclear envoys

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Kim Hyok Chol – North Korea’s top nuclear envoy who was reportedly executed is actually alive and in state custody, CNN reported, citing people familiar with the matter. Kim Hyok Chol, who led working-level negotiations for the February summit in Hanoi between President Donald Trump and leader Kim Jong Un, is being investigated for his role in the failure to reach a deal, CNN reported Tuesday. A conservative South Korean daily, Chosun Ilbo, sparked global intrigue over the fate of Kim Hyok Chol when it reported Friday he had been executed by firing squad after being charged with espionage as part of an internal purge.

A career diplomat from an elite North Korean family, Kim Hyok Chol made his international debut a few weeks before the Hanoi summit as Pyongyang’s new point man for nuclear negotiations, taking diplomats by surprise. As to his personal “failure” in the summit, South Korea’s former top envoy to international nuclear talks with North Korea commented, “I cannot imagine that Kim Hyok Chol misinterpreted the U.S. position and misled his bosses into believing that sanctions relief is possible. He is not senior enough to make such a judgment.”

Kim Yong Chol – Recently, another key player Kim Yong Chol appeared in public attending an art performance alongside Kim Jong Un. An invitation to join to join the North Korean leader in public would likely not be extended to someone who had fallen out of favor. However, sources said Kim Yong Chol had seen power “almost deprived” since the Hanoi summit. The sources add Kim, who previously served as North Korea’s spy chief, was not sentenced to forced labor, but instead “kept silently in his office writing statements of self-criticism.” Trotting him out publicly was a signal to Washington that Kim Jong Un was “not breaking off negotiations over denuclearization,” despite escalating tensions in recent weeks, one source said.

Sin Hye Yong – Kim Jong Un’s translator at the failed Hanoi talks, Sin Hye Yong, also is in custody and under investigation, sources said.

The above North Korean officials join other senior North Korean officials who South Korean media over the years has reported they had been executed, only to have proven false.

Diplomats and officials from Pyongyang have been known to disappear from public view only to resurface after a period of so-called reeducation, analysts and former diplomats say.

[CNN / Bloomberg]

North Korea warns America their patience is wearing thin

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North Korea has issued its latest demand that the U.S. work harder to find common ground on sanctions relief and denuclearization, warning leaders in Washington that patience in Kim Jong Un’s regime is wearing thin.

A statement issued Tuesday by the North Korean foreign ministry said the U.S. must abandon its “current way of calculation” if it wished to revive talks between the two nations. The statement was carried by the Rodong Sinmun newspaper—the official publication of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. It said an adjustment to America’s approach would be the “correct strategic choice” to keep alive the joint statement signed by Kim and President Donald Trump in Singapore in June 2018, in which both committed to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

The message—attributed to a ministry spokesperson—said the survival of the agreement depends on how America responds to “our fair and reasonable stand.” If the response is inadequate, the spokesperson said the Singapore statement would become “a mere blank sheet of paper.”

“The U.S. should duly look back on the past one year and cogitate about which will be a correct strategic choice before it is too late,” the official continued. “The U.S. would be well-advised to change its current method of calculation and respond to our request as soon as possible. There is a limit to our patience.”


Sister of Kim Jong-un makes appearance at mass games

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While attending North Korea’s Mass games, leader Kim Jong-un openly criticized his country’s “irresponsible work attitude”.

Apart from this, in attendance at the opening of the games was Mr Kim’s sister, who had not been seen publicly in nearly two months.

Kim Yo-jong has over the past two years become an close aide to her brother and was part of his diplomatic mission during the two US-North Korea summits in Singapore and Hanoi. She has been absent from the public eye before, but her recent absence was by some observers linked to the failure of the negotiations with the US. Reports suggested that Kim had ordered his sister to keep a low profile after the failure of his recent nuclear summit with Donald Trump.

There were reports last week that several of North Korea’s top officials had been purged or possibly even executed after the Hanoi summit. One of them has since reappeared in photos alongside Mr Kim, while the other’s fate remains unclear.

With none of the reports verifiable, analysts have to read official photos and seating patterns for clues as to who might have fallen out of favor. For example, some suggest Kim Yo-jong appears to no longer be member of the Politburo, as some official photos show her too far from Kim Jong-un to still be part of that powerful body.

Kim was also accompanied by his wife, Ri Sol-ju, along with senior North Korean officials.


North Korea defectors send anti-Kim flyers into London embassy compound

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A group of North Korean defectors, Fighters for Free North Korea, a South Korea-based group of activists, recently had a confrontation at the North Korean Embassy in London.

The group initially requested to be let in to deliver a message to the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Embassy staff did not issue a response or make an appearance, according to the activists.

When no one showed up, the activists began to paste dozens of anti-North Korea flyers to the embassy gate. Lastly, they tossed the 500 remaining flyers across the gate, according to Yonhap.

The flyers included condemnations of Kim as the “demon who killed his brother,” and read, “Kim Jong Un, butcher of humanity,” in Korean.