Author Archives for Grant Montgomery

Helium balloon messages into North Korea

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A 15-year-old American girl, Charlotte Heffelmire, is using helium balloons and neighborhood donations to break into North Korea.Standing on the roof of a building in South Korea, Charlotte releases about a dozen balloons — pearly greens, pinks and blues — which she said will hopefully float over the 2.5-mile-wide Korean Demilitarized Zone into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Charlotte’s mother says, “Charlotte’s always told me she’s 100 percent Korean.” Charlotte’s mother Darmie Yoon, who emigrated from South Korea to the U.S. in 1985 for college, adds, “When I lived in South Korea, I got a flier from North Korea. These fliers, I thought, had to come from a balloon … There were fliers that would say their Korea or military was better than ours.”

As a child growing up in South Korea, Yoon said she was taught that North Korean children were not given the same advantages or quality of education as their South Korean peers. This is a lesson Yoon and her husband, Eric Heffelmire, shared with their children.

“Charlotte has grown up in two worlds — one cultural foot in America and the other in Korea — and has tried to take the best out of both cultures,” Heffelmire said. “Because she is part Korean, I think she feels for the sick and dying North Korean children more and at a deeper emotional level than she might otherwise.”

Charlotte Heffelmire Winds of ChangeCharlotte continues, “I sent about a 1,000 balloons [over], about a dozen each release. We tie a dollar [a South Korean 1,000 Won note] to each balloon and attach a note that reads ‘Stay Strong,’ in Korean,” said the teen, who is planning another visit to South Korea for the release of more balloons later this month.

So far, Charlotte estimates she has sent $2,500 tied to balloons over the DMZ. Her charity — Winds of Change —has raised about $14,000 toward the effort through Charlotte pounding the pavement, knocking on doors, asking for donations from family and friends, and mowing yards to raise money. Her parents pay for her travel expenditures so as not to take away from the charity.

“Whenever I think about North Korea, I think, ‘It needs to be changed.’ And [North Korea] can’t control the wind,” said Charlotte, explaining the name of her charity. “I got the idea after watching this documentary from National Geographic where they were showing all these awful things going on in North Korea,” Charlotte said. “These teens they were showing were so small from being malnourished that they looked like little kids.”

The 160-mile long DMZ is considered by the U.S. Department of State to be the most heavily militarized border in the world and divides the Korean Peninsula at the 38th parallel north. The border is the result of an armistice agreement in 1953, which followed the Korean War that began in June 1950 and claimed the lives of more than 3 million people.

Because of the nature of the DMZ, Charlotte said balloons were a natural fit.

“I think her idea is very novel and a very brave thing for her to do as someone her age,” said family friend and teacher Jessica Kim, who was born in South Korea. “I think it’s a small thing that many people may not recognize, but the small things all add up.”

Charlotte admits she is not sure how successful her efforts are and, because of the lack of communication with North Korea, she might never find out.

“Even if these balloons don’t actually get there, there’s hope in that we’re helping or doing something,” Charlotte said. “You’ve seen pictures and videos, but you can’t fully understand what is being done to these people by their own government. … Be grateful for what you have.”

North Korean refugee operation endangered by US reporters

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Public outcry continues over journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee (both from California) who spent nearly six months confined in North Korea, resulting in the American government sending Bill Clinton to a country with which the U.S. has no formal relations to negotiate their release.

But the video footage that was confiscated during their arrest put the journalists’ subjects in danger far worse than their own.

Ling and Lee were reporting for the American cable news network Current TV on the human trafficking of North Korean women into China, where they serve as sex workers and are purchased as wives. As part of the story the journalists videotaped and interviewed pastors, volunteers, and residents of five secret shelters for the children of North Korean women trafficked into China.

When Ling and Lee’s footage was confiscated by the North Korean government, the women ended up exposing the identities of the children and pastors living at the Durihana Mission, as well as the people who helped North Korean refugees cross into China and brought them to the Mission.

The Chinese government shut down all of Durihana Mission’s shelters and deported some of the pastors, many of whom were South Korean or North Korean defectors. The pastors are saying Ling and Lee reported recklessly and weren’t careful enough with the sensitive information and footage they gathered.

News outlets and blogs say they have found evidence that the women intentionally crossed the border (after they were continually warned not to go near it), violating international law and putting the subjects of their footage in danger. Other people are upset because they say the women need to use their public statements as a way to bring more attention to the North Korean refugees. Thus far the women have only spoken out about journalists held captive in other parts of the world.

The Women’s Media Center reports that 80 to 90 percent of female North Korean refugees living in China are trafficking victims. North Korea treats refugees— whether they emigrated voluntarily or were trafficked—as criminal defectors. China treats them as illegal immigrants, and deports thousands per year. While a refugee is an emigrant who has fled their country for safety reasons, a trafficked person has been sold and forced to work for others in a new country. These people are vulnerable, and often refugees or immigrants pursuing what seem like work opportunities only to have their identification and rights taken away.

China North Korea trade to increase via economic zones

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Chinese investment in North Korea, and business links between the two countries, are expected to increase sharply in the near future, with priority being given first to the development of two special economic zones aimed at attracting foreign investment.

china nk trade
Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming (right) and Jang Song-thaek mark the start of an administrative committee for economic zones in the North Korea

A director from China’s Ministry of Commerce told China Daily yesterday that work on the two zones in the North Korea had already reached a substantive stage, after ground was first broken at the sites in December.

Although China’s investment in North Korea is still relatively small, the director from the ministry’s Department of Asian Affairs, said it will “gain speed in the future, and the two sides will get closer and closer”. She added that the two economic zones will act as the stimulus for future investment between the two countries, and that it is hoped they will also attract considerable interest too from international investors.

The conference was part of a six-day visit to China by a delegation led by Jang Song-thaek, director of the central administrative department of the Workers’ Party of Korea, which started early this week. Jang’s visit was aimed at enhancing bilateral economic relations. The Chinese vice-minister of commerce said, in an article published in the People’s Daily yesterday, that China plans to actively support Chinese companies’ investment in North Korea.

The North Korean bloodlines theory

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“Escape from Camp 14” is a book about Shin Dong-hyuk, who was born in a North Korean slave labor camp and lived to escape.

Competition for food in the camp was so intense that a child was beaten to death for having stolen five kernels of corn.

Shin viewed his mother merely as a competitor for food. He had experienced no love from her and so, when he betrayed her for trying to escape–an act that resulted in the execution of his mother and brother, which he witnessed–Shin felt no remorse until he escaped and came to the West.

The work was backbreaking and people like Shin accepted that their lives would be brief and painful–and full of hunger.

The book brings out that the North Korean leadership developed a theory based on bloodlines that contributes to keeping North Koreans in submision. According to this thinking, Shin deserved to be a slave laborer because he had a bad bloodline–i.e., his father had been deemed insufficiently loyal to the regime.

Shin’s escape came about almost as happenstance. He met another prisoner in solitary confinement who had been a government official, and who was desperate to escape to China, a country of which Shin was ignorant. When the time came, the older man was electrocuted and Shin walked over his body to freedom.

[The abovementioned book, “Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West”, is written by Blaine Hardin, a former Washington Post reporter]

North Korean power player Jang Song-thaek visits China

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s uncle and the man seen as the power behind the young and untested leader went to Beijing on Monday, the latest signal that the reclusive state is looking seriously at ways to revive its broken economy.

Jang Song-thaek (L) shown behind North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong-un, accompanying the hearse carrying the coffin of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il

The official KCNA news agency said Jang Song-thaek was visiting China, the North’s only major ally, to discuss setting up joint commercial projects and comes after leader Kim recently told Beijing that his priority is to develop his impoverished country’s decaying economy.

Last month, a source with ties to both Pyongyang and Beijing told Reuters the North was gearing up to experiment with agricultural and economic reforms after Kim and his powerful uncle purged the country’s top general for opposing change.

The visit by Jang, who has long advocated economic reforms in one of Asia’s poorest states, follows growing speculation that Pyongyang and its new leaders want bring changes to the way the economy is managed.

China is believed to be wary of pursuing a major new commercial venture with North Korea at a time of its own leadership transition and as Pyongyang continues to defy calls to divert scarce resources away from arms development program.

South Korea is the only other partner in commercial development in the North, with an industrial park just north of their heavily fortified border the site of factories where about 120 South Korean firms use cheap local labor to make goods.

North Korea already relies heavily on China to support its crumbling economy but its leadership has in the past proven deeply suspicious of any changes, seeing them as a threat to its control over the country. But Kim Jong-un, who took over when his father died in December, has presented a sharply contrasting image to his father and is believed to be planning to carry out economic and agricultural reform.

In another sign that Kim may be looking to end international isolation, he has sent the country’s nominal head of state Kim Yong-nam this month to Vietnam and Laos, where he was reported to have discussed economic development.

Source: Reuters

Likelihood of a new North Korean nuclear test

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The Guardian reports that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has published a report on the likelihood of a new North Korean nuclear test, which argues that the Pyongyang regime has its ducks in a row technically to pull off a third test, motivated in part by the need to make amends for the humiliating failure of a space rocket launch in April .

The article is by Frank Pabian, an expert on satellite imagery at the Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory and a visiting fellow at Stanford University, and Siegfried Hecker, also of Stanford, who was taken on a tour of a hitherto unknown North Korean uranium enrichment site in 2010.

Pabian and Hecker think that any new North Korean test could involve both plutonium and highly-enriched uranium devices, speculating that Pyongyang will emulate the Pakistani experience and that it might have acquired blueprints for making small HEU warheads from the AQ Khan nuclear smuggling network, as suggested by the UN panel of experts.

Kim Jong-un accompanied by officers of the Korean People's ArmyHowever, the authors do not believe the regime has made up its mind to test, and argue that there is still time for the international community to weigh in on Pyongyang’s cost-benefit analysis:

“North Korea has strong technical and military drivers to conduct additional nuclear tests, and it is capable of doing so within as little as two weeks. It appears that Kim Jong-un’s regime is now weighing the political costs it would have to bear should it decide to test…It is imperative for Washington, Beijing, and their partners in the six-party talks to join forces to increase the costs on North Korea of continued testing. An additional nuclear test or two would greatly increase the likelihood that Pyongyang could fashion warheads to fit at least some of its missiles — a circumstance that would vastly increase the threat its nuclear program poses to the security of northeast Asia.”

North Korea a land of man-made misery

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The Economist puts it this way: With a decrepit economy, and now devastating floods, the closed regime of North Korea shows signs of greater openness—though not to everyone.

North Korea has been suffering flooding on a biblical scale. The official news agency this week reported that, after the heaviest rainfall in 39 years, 169 people had died and more than 200,000 had lost their homes. Some 65,000 hectares of farmland had been inundated, exacerbating the chronic food shortage the country has endured since famine killed as many as 1million people in the 1990s.

Both floods and hunger can be largely blamed on the government. Even without this year’s huge downpours, the policy failure that let goats and farmers desperate for arable land

Even without this year’s huge downpours, the policy failure that let goats and farmers desperate for arable land strip the country’s hillsides bare of trees has made flooding an almost annual event. Similarly, food shortages are the result of the economic mismanagement that saw GDP shrink almost by half in the 1990s, and never recover, leaving North Korea dependent on food aid from abroad.

Now the government has appealed to the United Nations for emergency aid, in a country where one in three children is chronically malnourished or stunted. Even before the floods, the World Food Programme expected life to be difficult through the annual “lean season”, until the harvest in October, with reduced rations from the public distribution system on which two-thirds of the population rely, and few ways of making up the shortfall.

Things would be a little less dire had Kim Jong Un, the young dictator and Great Successor to his father, Kim Jong Il, who died in December, not reneged on an agreement reached in February with America, which had offered food. After just a fortnight Mr Kim’s regime announced it would launch a satellite, in breach of United Nations sanctions.

If this made him look like his father’s son, he has since shown signs of becoming his own, rather different man. He has presented a jollier image, and people remember that, by local standards, he is cosmopolitan, having spent a couple of years at a school in Switzerland. On one recent outing, to a funfair, he enjoyed a ride with a young British diplomat and the Chinese ambassador. This seemed to be sending a message to a foreign as well as local audience. The British ambassador, Karen Wolstenholme, detects “more openness” in the regime under Kim Jong Un.

There is little to show for this yet in terms of closer economic or political contacts with Japan, South Korea and the West.

Signs of economic reform are even harder to detect. Three counties have been picked to test a new system of small farms, which will be allowed to keep 30% of their production quota, and any excess. Mr Kim has also complained about the way the country’s resources are being sold off on the cheap. He did not mention that the buyers are almost all Chinese, nor that many of the sellers are parts of the 1.2m-strong armed forces. Scholars in Beijing say he is trying hard to “recentralise” economic control, from the army as well as the largely illicit private sector.

That does indeed seem more likely than any radical reform. Economic relaxation is hampered by the fear of losing political control. As the official news agency puts it, “to expect…‘reform and opening’…is nothing but a foolish and silly dream, just like wanting the sun to rise in the west.”

North Korea’s fashionable Ri Sol-ju and her Christian Dior handbag

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The South Korean news media, which scrutinizes every photo of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, zeroed in this week on one particular photo released by the North’s state-run news agency on Tuesday. It shows Mr. Kim watching an art performance by soldiers during a military visit.

Christian Dior handbag of Ri Sol-juBut the photo also showed his wife, Ri Sol-ju, with something most North Korean women have never heard of, much less owned: a Christian Dior handbag.

South Korean journalists did not take long to identify Ms. Ri’s handbag and, assuming it is genuine, its going price in Seoul: 1.8 million won, or $1,600. That is about 16 times the average monthly wage of a North Korean worker in the Gaeseong industrial park, a joint venture between North and South Korea that provides some of the best-paying jobs in the impoverished North.

The South Korean news media also noted the apparent “belly fat” — or is it a baby bump? — that Ms. Ri has developed. (The South Korean spy agency believes that Ms. Ri and Mr. Kim already have a child.)

Ms. Ri has drawn international attention since she began accompanying her husband in public early last month. Her expensive-looking designer suits stand out among the North Korean elites, who typically wear olive-colored military uniforms and drab Mao suits.

Some outside analysts even consider her appearance as a sign of potential change in leadership and even lifestyle that Mr. Kim could bring about as a youthful leader who studied in Europe as a teenager. (Recent visitors to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, reported seeing miniskirts, high heels, Nike hats and Hello Kitty cellphone accessories.)

From a blog article by Choe Sang-hun

New North Korean leader Kim Jong-un distancing himself from former regime?

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Kenji Fujimoto, former sushi chef of Kim Jong Il, recently visited the new North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in North Korea, and says the younger Kim is planning reforms similar to that of China.

So the theory is that Kim Jong-un might reform North Korea on the lines of China’s system of Market Socialism.

“When I go to Europe or Japan, I see overflowing products and food, but when I return to [North Korea], there is nothing,” Fujimoto quoted Kim Jong-un as saying. “Do we need to study China’s policies?”

Analysts have said that Fujimoto’s meeting is another sign that the younger Kim wants to distance himself from the regime of his father and grandfather Kim Il-sung, who founded the Stalinist state.

“Judging by what Kim Jong-un has done in the last month or so he is not merely distancing himself from his father’s regime, but is doing so with remarkable boldness and speed,” Andrei Lankov, who studied in Pyongyang and now teaches at South Korea’s Kookmin University, said.

Fujimoto, who was invited to North Korea by Jong-un, said North Korea is really being run by Kim Jong-un’s aunt Kim Kyong-hui and his uncle Jang Song-taek. “Although Kim Jong-un was chosen as the successor, only one out of every 10 policies he presents will probably be implemented,” he said.

84,000 North Koreans left homeless following latest floods

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Reuters reports that heavy rains between 18-30 July have left approximately 84,000 people homeless in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), primarily in South Pyongan, Kangwon and North and South Hamgyong provinces.

The floods have also damaged 74,700 acres of farmland, exacerbating the pre-existing food security crisis linked to a severe drought earlier this year.

Kim Kwang-dok, vice-chairman of the Anju City People’s Committee in South Pyongan, described the flooding as the worst in the city’s history.