Author Archives for Grant Montgomery

North Korean defectors who starved to death in a land of plenty

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My hometown, where I once lived, is a mountain village with blossoming flowers.

The lyrics to this folk song, which is sung in both Koreas, evoke nostalgia for a time and a place to which one can never return. It is playing at a makeshift shrine in downtown Seoul. There’s an altar with flowers, alongside photos of 42-year-old North Korean defector Han Seong-ok and her 6-year-old son, Kim Dong-jin.

In late July, the management staff for the apartment building where Han lived went looking for her, to see about months of unpaid utility bills. Smelling a foul odor from her apartment, they broke in and found both mother and son on the floor. They had been dead for two months. The bodies were so decomposed, authorities say they couldn’t determine the cause of death.

There was no food in the apartment except a bag of chili pepper flakes. Han’s bank account was empty. Police found no evidence of foul play, so many people assume Han and her child starved to death. The case has shocked South Koreans and refocused attention on the roughly 33,000 North Korean defectors living in the South.

Kim Yong-hwa, chairman of the North Korea Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea, a defectors group, says South Korea should either take better care of defectors or not take them in at all.

Kim met Han Seong-ok in China in 2009, after Han had been trafficked from North Korea as a bride to a man in China. It’s not clear when exactly she was sold to the man. Kim helped Han get from China to South Korea that year.

Han returned to China last year, divorced her husband, and returned to Seoul with her son. Kim says Han applied to the government for welfare benefits last winter, but was rejected because she didn’t have proof of her divorce. Kim tried to persuade government administrators to help her, but to no avail. “I think that’s when she gave up on seeking help,” he says.

According to a survey last year by the government-funded Korea Hana Foundation, which helps defectors, the unemployment rate for defectors is 6.9% — 2.9% higher than the national average. They are concentrated in manual labor and service industries, and on average, work 8.8 hours a week more than the national average but are paid about a third less than South Koreans. Kim says defectors’ poverty in South Korea and the accompanying sense of shame often contribute to their isolation.


North Korea names conditions for getting rid of its nuclear weapons

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North Korea has laid out its conditions for discussing denuclearization ahead of the next round of planned talks with the United States, striking a positive tone for North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump’s historic peace process.

In a statement published Monday by the official Korean Central News Agency, the director-general of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s Department of U.S. Affairs said it was “fortunate that the U.S. has repeatedly expressed its stand to tackle an issue through dialogue and negotiations.” The statement noted that Washington’s approach could either “improve the relations” between it and Pyongyang or “add to the hostility towards each other, arguing there were “two options — crisis and chance” and it was “entirely up to the U.S.” to choose between the two.

“Clear and invariable is the DPRK’s stand,” the official was cited as saying. “The discussion of denuclearization may be possible when threats and hurdles endangering our system security and obstructing our development are clearly removed beyond all doubt.”

The exact meaning of that last phrase has at times proved an obstacle for the ongoing negotiations, with the U.S. pushing for a “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” without preconditions and North Korea first seeking sanctions relief and security guarantees. The two sides have yet to reach any agreement.

North Korea has long been the target of international sanctions due to its development of nuclear weapons, assets the ruling Kim dynasty has argued was necessary to deter a potential U.S. invasion. Washington and Pyongyang have never normalized ties since clashing during the 1950s Korean War in which the U.S. backed South Korea and China and the Soviet Union supported North Korea.

Still, both administrations have continued to express confidence in the other’s willingness to talk and South Korean newspaper Joongang Ilbo cited diplomatic sources Sunday as saying that Kim invited Trump to a fourth summit, possibly in Pyongyang, in his latest letter last month. Also on Monday, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency cited a State Department spokesperson as that the U.S. would “welcome the North Korean commitment to resume negotiations in late September” and was “prepared to have those discussions at a time and place to be agreed.”


Kim Jong-un invitation to Donald Trump to visit Pyongyang

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un invited US president Donald Trump to visit Pyongyang in a letter sent in August, a South Korean newspaper reported on Monday, citing diplomatic sources.

The letter pre-dates North Korea’s latest launch of short-range projectiles a week ago, and is the second letter Trump received from Kim last month amid stalled denuclearization talks between the two countries. In the second letter, which was passed to Trump in the third week of August, Kim spoke of his willingness to meet Trump for another summit, one source reportedly told the Joongang Ilbo newspaper.

The White House, the US State Department and the North Korean mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Trump and Kim have met three times since June last year to discuss ways to resolve a crisis over North Korea’s missile and nuclear programmes, but substantive progress has not been made.

Last week’s round of short-range North Korean missiles came just hours after vice foreign minister Choe Son Hui said North Korea was willing to have “comprehensive discussions” late this month. Trump subsequently said he would be willing to meet Kim at some point later this year.

[The Guardian]

Lawyers determine North Korean waitresses abducted to South Korea, not defected

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A group of North Korean waitresses who “defected” to Seoul in 2016 were actually abducted by South Korea, a fact-finding team of international lawyers has concluded after a visit to Pyongyang.

The case has long been controversial, with Pyongyang saying the 12 women were kidnapped from a North Korean state-run restaurant in China, while Seoul insists they defected of their own free will.

During their six-day stay in the North Korean capital, which ended September 5, the lawyers said they spoke to seven former waitresses who claimed they managed to escape, while their colleagues were tricked into coming to Seoul.

The seven North Korean women said they escaped – and eventually return to the North – after their team leader overheard a conversation between the restaurant’s manager and a representative of the South Korean intelligence service.

While the seven escaped, 12 other waitresses had already left without knowing they were being taken to South Korea, the joint fact-finding committee of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers said in a statement.

The 12 women were “taken away by deception … against their will, separated from their families and country”, it said after taking evidence from their seven colleagues. “This constitutes the criminal offense of abduction.”

In a bombshell revelation last year, the manager of the restaurant where the waitresses worked said he had lied to them about their final destination and blackmailed them into following him to the South. Heo Gang-il told the South’s JTBC television that he had been recruited by Seoul’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) in China in 2014.

At a briefing in Pyongyang, one of the lawyers, Niloufer Bhagwat, vice president of the Confederation of Lawyers of Asia and the Pacific, slammed the Seoul government for its handling of the case.

The team of lawyers said they had received “full cooperation” from the North but were not allowed to meet the 12 North Korean women who are currently in the South. “The young women … are still being monitored by the South Korean intelligence service and the national police agency,” she said.


North Korean defectors in Canada plead their case

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Rocky Kim knew the North Korean regime he was living under was seriously flawed and that he was determined to bring about change. That set in motion a series of events that saw him go from student activist to victim of torture to escapee on the run and, finally, a refugee in Canada.

Yet, now the Canadian government plans to deport him. And Kim is hoping Canadians will hear his story — and those of dozens of other North Korean defectors living there — and agree that they should be allowed to stay.

When Kim arrived in Canada, he took ESL classes, learned English and enrolled at George Brown College. He apprenticed in heating and air conditioning repair and now runs his own HVAC company. The well-dressed Kim proudly states that he pays his taxes and employs several workers. It sounds like the ultimate Canadian immigrant success story. But Kim is slated for deportation.

He’s currently in the process of a pre-removal risk assessment, which is a type of appeal those earmarked for deportation can make if they believe being sent back will put them in harm’s way. There are dozens of North Koreans living in the Greater Toronto Area who are now facing deportation.

But there’s a catch. They’re not being sent back to North Korea. They’re being ordered to get on a plane to Seoul, South Korea.

Many of the defectors in Canada lied on their refugee applications and said they came to Canada directly from North Korea. What Rocky Kim and others are at risk of deportation over is misrepresentation on their application, which is treated as a serious offense.

“The Canadian [government] needs to change its attitude to North Korean defectors,” says Jin Hak Choi, the former president of the National Unification Advisory Council in Toronto. “They have no country.”

It’s this argument — that North Korean defectors are really stateless people — that those up for deportation and their allies are hoping Canadians and the government will agree with.

[Toronto Sun]

Chinese pastor shared his faith with North Koreans then executed, defector claims

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A pastor on the China-North Korea border, Rev. Han Chung-Ryeol, shared his faith with at least 1,000 North Koreans in the Hermit Kingdom before he was assassinated in 2016, a defector claims. Rev. Han, a Chinese pastor of Korean descent, who ministered on the border town of Changbai since the early 1990s, was reportedly on Pyongyang’s most-wanted list as early as 2003 for his faith-based charitable work.

Rev. Han fed and sheltered thousands of North Koreans over the years — many of whom had fled the famine-stricken country in search of food and jobs. One of them, Sang-chul, shared his story in a short documentary from The Voice of the Martyrs: “In primary school, we were taught that all missionaries were terrorists,” Sang-chul shares in the video through a translator. “They told us that a missionary will be nice to you at first, but when they get you into their homes, then they will kill you and eat your liver.”

The North Korean said he didn’t have work or food in his village so he had snuck across the mountain border into China, picking mushrooms along the way in hopes of selling them in a market. He ran into Han, who offered to sell them and give him the money. Sang-chul knew something was different when the pastor didn’t cheat him out of any money, and wondered why a Chinese citizen would help him, knowing the danger.

“It is because I am a Christian,” Han reportedly said, causing the North Korean to be fearful of him.

And then one day Han told him: “God is real. There is hope for every person.” Sang-chul recalls, “I could not believe he would say that word, ‘God.’ Nobody says that word. … It is an act of treason…and can lead to soldiers coming in the night.”

Eventually, Sang-chul asked Rev. Han for a Bible, and then shared the gospel with his wife and best friend, who both found hope before he received the tragic news that Han was stabbed and axed to death by North Korean assassins. “Pastor Han gave his life, but he gave hope to me and to many other North Koreans,” Sang-chul said. “And despite the ever-present danger, many of us will continue to share the message that God is real.”


Powerful typhoon Lingling passes over North Korea

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A powerful typhoon has passed over the Korean peninsula, leaving five people dead and 460 houses damaged or destroyed in North Korea, according to state media.

The storm flooded 178 sq miles of farmland, the official KCNA news agency said, in a country already suffering food shortages. Flights were cancelled and tens of thousands of homes left without power.

There were concerns the storm, which injured three people, could worsen already severe food shortages. Earlier this year, the UN warned that up to 10 million North Koreans were “in urgent need of food assistance”.

The government was giving “primary attention” to the protection of crops as well as dams and reservoirs, the agency said.


North Korea tells UN to cut international aid staff in Pyongyang

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North Korea has told the United Nations to cut the number of international staff it deploys to Pyongyang, saying the organization’s programs have failed “due to the politicization of UN assistance by hostile forces,” according to a letter seen by Reuters on Wednesday.

North Korea wants the number of international staff with the UN Development Programme cut from six to one or two, the World Health Organization from six to four and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to cut its 13 staff by one or two.

In the letter dated August 21, Kim Chang Min, secretary-general for North Korea’s National Coordinating Committee for the United Nations, gave a deadline of the end of the year for the agencies to make the cuts.

Kim said the number of international staff with the World Food Programme should also be reduced “according to the amount of food aid to be provided”, once the agency and North Korean agree how to implement a plan for 2019 to 2021.

The UN estimates 10.3 million people – almost half the country’s population – are in need and some 41 percent of North Koreans are undernourished, while Pyongyang said in February it was facing a food shortfall this year and had to halve rations, blaming drought, floods and sanctions.

“Historically there’s been a critical lack of international expertise and oversight and capacity to monitor the use of the assistance that is provided,” said a UN diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We’re deeply surprised by this turn of events in part because this is when the needs have grown and the UN has been trying to mobilize support to scale up assistance in country.”

The move comes amid stalled talks between the US and North Korea aimed at dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs. The UN Security Council has tightened sanctions on North Korea since 2006 in a bid to choke funding for those programs.


North Korea denies expert UN report linking it to $2 billion hacking campaign

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Allegations that the North Korean government is responsible for getting over $2 billion in a long-running hacking campaign, including attacks on crypto-exchanges, are a “sheer lie,” says a North Korean government spokesperson.

The statement, which was published by KCNA, North Korea’s state news agency, denies allegations that North Korea “illegally forced the transfer of two billion US dollars needed for the development of WMD programs by involving cyber actors”.

“Such a fabrication by the hostile forces is nothing but a sort of a nasty game aimed at tarnishing the image of our Republic and finding justification for sanctions and pressure campaign against the DPRK,” reads the statement.

A UN report, leaked to the AP and Reuters, reveals that North Korea hit South Korean exchanges hard, stealing cryptocurrencies from exchanges and using victims’ computing power to mine bitcoin for the development of mass destruction programs. 

The cybercrime group Lazarus, alleged to be sponsored by North Korea, is said to be responsible for $571 of the $882 million–or 65%– of the total crypto stolen from exchanges between the second quarter of 2017 and early 2018, according to a report released by cybercrime watchdog Group-IB last October. 

[Yahoo News]

North Korea’s extensive underground empire may include underground air bases

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North Korea, one of the most secretive countries in the world, is no stranger to building underground military facilities. Whether a tunnel dug under the demilitarized zone designed to pass thousands of troops an hour, or bunkers to accommodate the regime’s leadership, North Korea has built extensive underground facilities designed to give it an edge in wartime.

One of the earliest examples of North Korean underground engineering was the discovery of several tunnels leading from North Korea under the demilitarized zone to South Korea. The first tunnel located in 1974, extended one kilometer south of the DMZ, and was large enough to move up to two thousand troops per hour under the DMZ.

Thanks to a tip from a North Korean defector, an even larger tunnel was discovered in 1978, a mile long and nearly seven feet wide. Since then at least four tunnels have been discovered, with reinforced concrete slabs, electricity for lighting and fresh air generation, and narrow railway gauges.

It’s difficult to determine how many tunnels exist. One report says that Kim Il-sung, the founder of the North Korean state and Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, ordered each of the ten front-line combat divisions to dig two tunnels. If completed, that would theoretically mean another dozen or so tunnels remain undiscovered. A former South Korean general, Han Sung-chu, claims there are at least eighty-four tunnels—some reaching as far as downtown Seoul. (The South Korean government does not believe Han’s numbers—nor the claimed ability to reach Seoul—are credible.)

The North Korean People’s Liberation Army Air Force is also believed to have three different underground air bases at Wonsan, Jangjin and Onchun. The underground base at Wonsan reportedly includes a runway 5,900 feet long and ninety feet wide that passes through a mountain. According to a defector, during wartime aircraft would take off from conventional air bases but return to underground air bases.

Another underground development is a series of troop bunkers near the DMZ. A North Korean defector disclosed that, starting in 2004, North Korea began building bunkers capable of concealing between 1,500 and two thousand fully armed combat troops near the border. At least eight hundred bunkers were built, not including decoys, meant to conceal units such as light-infantry brigades and keep them rested until the start of an invasion.

Other underground facilities are believed to have been constructed to shelter the North’s leadership. According to a South Korean military journal, the United States believes there are between 6000-8000 such shelters scattered across the country. This information was reportedly gathered from defectors in order to hunt down regime members in the event of war or government collapse.

North Korea is believed to have hundreds of artillery-concealing caves just north of the DMZ. Known as Hardened Artillery Sites, or HARTS, these are usually tunneled into the sides of mountains. An artillery piece, such as a 170-millimeter Koksan gun or 240-millimeter multiple-launch rocket system, can fire from the mouth of the cave and then withdraw into the safety of the mountain to reload. As of 1986, and estimated 200-500 HARTS were thought to exist.

All these facilities are hard to spot via satellite, so gleaning information from defectors has been the best way to learn about them in peacetime. Pyongyang’s eventual defeat in any wartime scenario is a given, but its underground headquarters, fortifications and troop depots have the potential to not only enhance the Korean People’s Army’s ability to mount a surprise attack, but also to prolong the war, confounding the high-tech armed forces of its adversaries.

[Read full article at The National Interest]