The beginning of the end of the Korean War

In a sense, Donald Trump’s campaign to denuclearize North Korea is bearing fruit: The Korean War is beginning to end. Seoul and Pyongyang have been dismantling guard posts, designating no-fly zones, and disarming what was once the most volatile place on the peninsula. Indeed, by the estimation of the South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh, North and South Korea have already fully implemented about one third of the more than two dozen reconciliation agreements they reached in a pair of summits between the nations’ leaders in April and September.

The Koreas have suspended certain military exercises near the military demarcation line (MDL) separating the countries, cleared hundreds of land mines in the area (millions remain), and linked a road as part of an effort to excavate the remains of soldiers who died during the Korean War. They have covered up coastal artillery and warship-mounted guns and established a no-fly zone in the vicinity of the border. They are now exploring ways to jointly secure the iconic border village of Panmunjom and allow unarmed guards, civilians, and foreign tourists to move about on either side of the MDL there for the first time in more than 40 years.

While it’s hard to overstate what’s at stake in these seemingly minor developments, several of the meatiest measures require U.S. consent and are on hold. North and South Korea, for example, can’t collaborate on economic and tourism projects or actually get inter-Korean roads and railways up and running until international sanctions against North Korea are eased. They’ve also encountered resistance in calling for the leaders of the two Koreas, the United States, and perhaps China to formally declare an end to the Korean War, which came to a halt in an armistice in 1953.

But where Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have freer rein and have arguably made the greatest advances is in enacting various accords to cease military hostilities between their countries. The progress, though still modest and tentative, is all the more remarkable given the comparatively sluggish pace at the moment of nuclear negotiations between the United States and North Korea.

[The Atlantic]

Another North Korean soldier flees to the South

A North Korean soldier fled across a heavily fortified border to defect to South Korea early on Saturday, the military in Seoul said, just as the rivals began taking steps to reduce military tensions.

South Korean soldiers escorted the defector to safety after finding him moving south of the eastern side of the military demarcation line that bisects the Koreas, South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said.

The incident came as Donald Trump reaffirmed in a meeting with his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in that he wants a second summit with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. Trump and Moon, meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, “reaffirmed their commitment to achieve the final, fully verified denuclearization” of North Korea, Trump spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.

South Korean authorities said they would question the defecting soldier over the details of his escape.

The North’s official media has not reported about Saturday’s case. Pyongyang has frequently accused Seoul of kidnapping or enticing its citizens to defect.

In November 2017 a North Korean soldier, Oh Chong-song, was critically wounded in a jointly controlled area after he fled to the South amid a hail of bullets fired by his former comrades.

[The Guardian]

Defectors in China repatriated to North Korean

Several North Korean defectors have recently been arrested in Dandong, China, by Chinese police and almost immediately repatriated back to North Korea, according to sources close to the matter.

“Two laborers who were working at a metalworks company in Sinuiju were arrested by Chinese police. They were repatriated back to North Korea over the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge the day after they were questioned by the Chinese,” a source in North Pyongan Province told Daily NK on November 20.

A source with knowledge of the incident in China said, “In the past, many defectors could avoid being caught if they hid from the police for a couple of days, but these days the Chinese police have strengthened their patrols and there are now fewer defections.”

Another similar incident occurred said a separate source in China. “A defector hid in a reed field near the mouth of the Yalu River for three days before trying to swim across to Langtou Port to reach Chinese territory, but was arrested by Chinese police in the process,” he said, adding that the man was sent back across the Sino-Korean Friendship bridge soon after being questioned by Chinese authorities.

The Chinese have strengthened patrols along the Sino-DPRK border and installed more surveillance equipment, which has made it more difficult for North Koreans to defect, the source said. Chinese authorities began installing high-quality surveillance cameras on the Sino-DPRK border several years ago and have used thermal imaging cameras to crack down on defections and smuggling activities at night. The advanced surveillance equipment has been used to track the movements of North Koreans near the border and arrest those who try to defect into Chinese territory.

“Boats are used in the river for smuggling and these activities are not easy for Chinese authorities to track,” said the source. “By comparison, the authorities can relatively easily track movements of people coming over the border [..] The use of hundreds of cameras that can read very small print from 2 km away means that North Koreans have little chance of successfully defecting across the border.”

There are growing concerns about the safety of North Koreans trying to defect to China. “The Kim Jong Un regime may severely punish those attempting to cross over into China, so China’s moves to repatriate defectors back to North Korea can be seen as a crime against humanity,” one North Korean analyst told Daily NK on condition of anonymity. “The international community must call for the end of these repatriations.”

[Daily NK]

North Korea reacts strongly to human rights criticism

North Korea’s appalling human rights record has become the latest barrier to a rapprochement between Pyongyang and Washington.

The North Korean government accused the United States this week of “stoking confrontation” and “inciting an atmosphere of hostility” by calling a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss human rights in the country, according to the Associated Press.

Earlier this month, the U.N. General Assembly’s human rights committee adopted an annual resolution expressing deep concern “at the grave human rights situation, the pervasive culture of impunity and the lack of accountability for human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” The resolution was co-sponsored by 61 countries, including South Korea, and is certain to be adopted by the 193-member General Assembly next month for the 14th year in a row. The U.N. Security Council has also discussed North Korean human rights in each of the past four years.

But North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, Kim Song, accused the United States and other, unnamed countries of “trying to employ all possible wicked and sinister methods” to hold a council meeting on Dec. 10. A government  commentary said the complaints about human rights were cooked up by defectors, describing them as “human scum who ran away after committing unpardonable crimes, who had turned their back upon their parents and children, and who would do anything for small amounts of money.”

North Korean Ambassador Kim sent letters to all council members except the United States, urging them to vote against holding the meeting, according to the Associated Press, which obtained a copy of the letter. An equally angry commentary was published Monday in Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Workers’ Party of Korea, accusing Washington of using human rights to secure more concessions in talks about the North’s nuclear program.

In October, the United Nations’ independent investigator on human rights, Tomás Ojea Quintana, told the General Assembly that the human rights situation inside North Korea has not improved despite progress on peace and security this year. In 2014, a report by a U.N. panel found “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations” in North Korea without parallel in the world, which in many cases constituted “crimes against humanity” and were the result of policies established “at the highest level” of the state. These crimes included murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, enforced disappearances and knowingly causing prolonged starvation.

[The Washington Post]

Children of North Korean mothers find more hardship in the South

After Seon-mi’s mother escaped North Korea, hoping to find her way to South Korea, she was sold by traffickers to a man in a northeastern Chinese village. The man was a violent schizophrenic, but the mother was trapped. She lacked proper papers in China and was vulnerable to forced repatriation to North Korea, where she could face imprisonment, torture or worse. The two had a child, Seon-mi, who is now 11.

“I used to cry in the corner of the room while my father thrashed my mom,” Seon-mi recalled of her early years in China. “She once attempted suicide with rat poison.” When Seon-mi was about 6, her Chinese father murdered his own parents with a knife and then killed himself. But before he did so, he slashed Seon-mi nine times in the chin, neck and shoulder. Despite repeated plastic surgeries in South Korea, which the mother and daughter finally reached, the girl’s scars are still visible.

Seon-mi’s mother reached South Korea with the help of a smuggler and later sent for Seon-mi, who could go there legally because, having been born in China, she held a Chinese passport.

When children were born in China, South Korea’s government does not officially consider them defectors from the North. That means they get limited access to the governmental support normally given to defectors, like free health care, free college enrollment and housing subsidies.

Once enrolled in South Korean schools, classmates often taunt them for their background and for not speaking Korean well. Further complicating matters is that their mothers often start new families with men they meet in South Korea, straining ties at home.

Many drop out of school and end up in shelters, like the Rev. Chun Ki-won’s Durihana International School in Seoul, as Seon-mi did soon after her arrival in South Korea in 2015. Read more

“These children are more disadvantaged than North Korean defectors themselves,” Mr. Chun said. “Giving them South Korean citizenship is about all the government does for them.”

[The New York Times]

 

Children of North Korean mothers: ‘For all my scars, I can still smile’

Inside the Durihana International School and shelter in Seoul, a choir of defectors’ children practiced with teenage volunteers from South Korean families. Most of the 60 children in the shelter were born in China, to a North Korean mother who had defected and ended purchased by and indentured to Chinese men.

“I am not alone,” they sang. “For all my scars, I can still smile.”

“Making the refugee children smile has been one of the hardest parts of the choir practice,” said Kim Hee-churl, the general manager of the Korean Federation for Choral Music, who volunteered to coach the children. “This is more like a therapy session to instill them with self-confidence.”

Da-hee, 13, who was born in South Korea, used to get into fistfights with classmates who called her a “commie” because both of her parents had fled the North. By the time she was brought to the shelter in August, she had been living on the streets, smoking, drinking and stealing coins from laundromats.

Mi-yeon, 15, grew up in Mudanjiang in northeastern China, where she often saw her alcoholic Chinese father beat up her North Korean mother. Amid the family violence, Mi-yeon learned that her father had “bought” her mother for 6,500 renminbi (about $943). Her father once reported her mother as an illegal migrant to the Chinese police, so she was sent back to North Korea. After she was released from prison there and made her way back to China, he bought her again.

Mi-yeon tagged along when her mother fled China with the help of smugglers in 2014. On their way to South Korea via Laos, the two met other North Korean women fleeing the Chinese men who had purchased them. One woman said her “husband” showed her off by forcing her to appear naked before his friends.

“Many Chinese men treated their North Korean wives nicely, buying them identification documents, but others treated their women like slaves or toys,” Mi-yeon said. “I wanted my mom to live free from my father and free from the fear of getting caught by the Chinese police and sent back to North Korea again.”

In South Korea, Mi-yeon had trouble making friends in school after rumors spread that she was from China. Her mother worked overtime and hardly had time to look after her, and she began seeing another man. So Mi-yeon came to the shelter in 2016.

In a barely audible voice, Won-hyok, 14, added that he and his younger brother preferred the shelter to living with their father, his new wife and their baby.

[The New York Times]

Russia condemned for handing over North Korean defector

Russian authorities have reportedly arrested, tried and repatriated a North Korean worker who was preparing to defect from a labor camp in the Russian Far East, with human rights activists suggesting Moscow has started to cooperate with Pyongyang in its crackdown on defectors.

The worker – identified as 29-year-old Jun Kyung-chul – had served as a private in the North Korean People’s Army before being sent to work in Russia about one year ago, the Daily NK, a Seoul-based dissident news site, reported. Unhappy at the grueling work conditions, he had made plans to defect to South Korea before being caught.

An unnamed source told the Daily NK that North Korean authorities requested the assistance of Russia in detaining Mr Jun, who was put on trial in the city of Vladivostok on November 7. Mr Jun was convicted, handed over to the custody of representatives of the Pyongyang government and transferred over the border to North Korea the same day. Human rights activists say the speed with which the investigators acted and the Russian authorities’ apparent disregard for Mr Jun’s likely fate should be cause for concern.

“If other defectors’ cases are anything to go by, it is very likely that he and all his extended family will have been sent to a political prison camp”, said Ken Kato, director of the Japan branch of Human Rights in Asia.

There are reports that as many as 50,000 North Koreans are working in slave-like conditions in mines, factories and logging camps in Siberia, with their wages paid directly to the government in Pyongyang.

[The Telegraph]

North Korea defector: next generation have no loyalty to Kim Jong-un

Oh Chong Song, the North Korean soldier who defected to the South in a hail of bullets last year says most Northerners of his age have no loyalty to Kim Jong-un, according to a Japanese newspaper.

The 25-year-old Oh is the son of a major-general, Japan’s Sankei Shimbun newspaper reported. But despite his privileged birth – he described himself as “upper class” – he felt no allegiance to the North’s leadership.

“Inside the North, people, and especially the younger generation, are indifferent to each other, politics, and their leaders, and there is no sense of loyalty.”

He was “indifferent” to the rule of Kim Jong-un, the third generation of the Kim family to lead the North, and had no interest in how his friends felt about it.

“Probably 80 percent of my generation is indifferent and has no loyalty,” he was quoted as saying.

[Sankei Shimbun]

North Korean defectors see uncertain future in Korean reconciliation

As living examples of some of North Korea’s worst abuses, defectors have long been the public face of campaigns to pressure Pyongyang to change its ways. But amid international efforts to improve ties with North Korea, many of the 32,000 North Korean refugees in South Korea say they feel like political pawns, suddenly discarded.

One veteran journalist at the Chosun Ilbo, a major South Korean newspaper, was last month denied access by the South Korean government to cover a round of negotiations with North Korea because he was a defector. An official at the newspaper referred to an editorial saying the ban on the journalist was part of the government’s censorship and maltreatment of defectors for the sake of the inter-Korean thaw.

And the South Korean government has cracked down on defector groups who use balloons to send contraband and anti-Kim leaflets into North Korea.

And Choi Sung-guk, a defector who now draws cartoons about the life in North Korea, said he was asked to leave a radio show at TBS, a Seoul City-owned network supportive of the Moon administration, less than five minutes after criticizing Kim Jong-un.

“They asked how I felt about Kim coming to the South, and I said we should not be deceived by him because I don’t think he has changed,” Choi said. “But then my air-time was suddenly cut to one first sentence from what would have been a regular one hour otherwise.”

“The Moon administration is … unfortunately, cutting support for these marginalized groups and even trying to censor their voices,” said Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer at the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, who met dozens of defectors during a visit to Seoul last month.

Another defector, Heo Seong-il, sought asylum in the United States in August, after facing years of what he says was harassment by the South Korean government, including a three-year jail term on espionage charges he says were false. Heo had hoped for a better life after Moon was sworn in, only to realize things would get worse for defectors as the president pushed for peace with the North.

“When I was in the North, the South was my emotional support. I didn’t know it is a country where the government… can completely ignore a citizen’s life,” Heo, 36, told Reuters from the United States. “I would rather live like a hobo here [in the USA]. I don’t see a future in South Korea.”

[Reuters]

Lest we forget: Some scary statements about war with North Korea

President Donald Trump just basically admitted that the US was very close to going to war with North Korea last year, during his Sunday interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace.

Trump’s statements show how seriously the president considered Pyongyang a threat last year. When Wallace asked Trump about the biggest decision he’s had to make as president, he referred to his discussion on North Korea because “we were very close.”

When he says “we were very close,” it’s fairly clear he’s referencing attacking the country to punish it over improving its nuclear arsenal, and he’s made references to how close the US and North Korea came to blows before.

That was seriously considered: Former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster advocated for military options within the White House, including a limited attack to deter Pyongyang from building more nuclear bombs. But instead, the Trump administration chose another way — the current diplomatic push between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — in part because Kim wants to reduce US-imposed economic pressure on his country.

It’s good news that both Washington and Pyongyang are currently talking instead of making imminent war plans. But while it’s comforting to know war is off the table for now, it’s not comforting to know that Trump had to think hard about that option.

And should diplomacy with North Korea not go as planned, it’s possible Trump will be faced with the same choice.

And here’s the bad news: Diplomacy with North Korea isn’t going well.

[Vox]