Seong Ho’s story of escaping North Korea

Seong Ho grew up in North Korea during the extreme famine of the 1990s. To survive, the young teen would often swipe coal from train cars in exchange for food – which was rarely more than rats and grass.

But tragedy struck one day in 1996. Malnourished, exhausted and slowly starving to death, Seong-ho – whose own grandmother died of starvation – fainted, fell onto the tracks and was struck by a train. In the bloody aftermath, nearby soldiers wrapped his fragile frame in old rags, and shuffled him to a barely functioning hospital in a cart. The wailing boy had to have his left hand and foot amputated – without anesthesia, without anything to dull the horrifying agony.

From there, life as a disabled child in an impoverished, closed society only became lonelier, as he was made fend for himself. Four years later, Seong Ho snuck into China to collect food scraps – but upon returning, was arrested and tortured by North Korean authorities.

That made up his mind: He couldn’t stay. Six years later, in 2006, Seong-ho finally fled – with just an old pair of wooden crutches – across the Tumen River into China. From there he went into Laos, then Thailand, finally ending up in South Korea.

Now living in Seoul, Seong Ho is studying law at Dongguk University.

 [Fox News]

Charles, a North Korean defector now living in the US

My name is Charles. I was born in North Korea on October 1st, 1994. My father left us when I was five years old and my mother passed away six years later from starvation. For years, I had to figure out how to live alone. I begged for food from strangers on the street, battling starvation and freezing weather.

One day my stepbrother came to find me and take me in. I lived with him for a while and when I was 14 years old he brought me to my father in China. Life was so much better in China and I remember thinking there would be no more starvation and no more begging for a place to sleep. Yet nine months later, the Chinese police came to our house and arrested my family.

We were kept in a Chinese jail for two weeks. At age 16 I was sent back to North Korea where I was detained. Each meal consisted of a single piece of corn. After eight months, I was finally released. I was just skin and bones – I had almost starved to death.

I began working in a coal mine which allowed me to buy rice to eat. Work in the coal mine was very risky — I saw people lose their arms and legs as they were smashed under the rocks. I was afraid and I couldn’t help thinking that I would soon lose an arm or a leg myself. After working in the mine for a year, I realized I couldn’t stay in North Korea any longer. My journey began when I boarded a train to take me closer to the border of China and North Korea. I was riding illegally and though I managed to hide during most of the ride I was at one point caught by the train security without my birth certificate. They locked me in a room with plans to kick me off at the next stop. As the train slowed, I realized that I might be able to escape through the window. I walked for hours, illegally boarded a second train, and then, finally, I was at the border of China and North Korea.

I knew I had to cross the Tumen River. I hid in tall grass for six hours, waiting for darkness. Finally, I took a deep breath and stepped into the water. Suddenly, I felt a light on my head. A border guard screamed, “Come back here or we’ll shoot you.” I was terrified, and I thought I would never make it because the current kept pulling me under, but I just kept swimming. At last, I made it to the river’s shore.

My journey did not end when I got to China. I traveled by foot, van, bus, motorcycle, and boat. My shoes fell apart and my feet bruised and bled. I went for days without food and water and there were times when I wanted to give up. I cried many days until I couldn’t cry anymore because I was too dehydrated. When I made it to my father’s house, I expected him to welcome me, but he beat me and asked me why I had come to him. I saw that he did not want me!

I escaped the eyes of many police officers and finally made it to Southeast Asia where I was safe. For months I stayed in a Korean Embassy refugee camp and then an international refugee camp where I was finally helped to come to the United States.

[LiNK blog]

Once in South Korea, North Koreans have little chance of getting asylum elsewhere

Jo Hye Kyung beat the odds: She made a dangerous escape from North Korea 20 years ago and eventually made her way to Canada and a new life. But because she initially settled in South Korea, her life in Toronto may soon be uprooted. Jo, 32, is just one of a number of North Korean defectors in Canada who came to the country by way of South Korea and could now be sent back to a place where, they say, they face systemic discrimination.

As soon as North Koreans enter South Korea, they are granted citizenship, but that makes them ineligible to apply for asylum in Canada [or elsewhere] since South Korea is considered a safe country. Which is why they end up applying for refugee status as North Koreans without declaring their South Korean citizenship.

Jo was 12 when she and her family crossed the icy Tumen River from North Korea to China. It was a daring escape on a perilous route that has claimed many lives. Jo, her mother, her father and her little brother made it into China, where Jo says they lived for five years in hiding for fear of being sent back to North Korea.

In 2002, Jo and her family climbed over a barrier into the grounds of the South Korean consul general’s Beijing office and claimed asylum. “I thought, ‘At least they won’t send us back to North Korea’ [like China might]” Jo said.

Jo says she and her family didn’t realize that once on South Korean soil, they would automatically be considered citizens. “Until I came to South Korea, I didn’t know … [if] I became South Korean, … I could not go anywhere else,” Jo said.

In South Korea, her North Korean education wasn’t recognized, which meant that she had to begin her secondary school education from scratch at 18. She says her classmates told her that because she was North Korean, she did not belong in South Korea, and that she should not try to get an education because North Koreans should know their place in South Korean society. Jo’s North Korean dialect left her vulnerable to unwelcome interrogations from strangers.

Kim Joo Eun, a lawyer with the Refugee Law Office at Legal Aid Ontario in Toronto, says that Jo’s story is a part of a pattern of North Korean defectors who feel rejected by South Korean society and look to emigrate somewhere more welcoming.

“The overall trend is that after going through unbelievable treatment and trauma in North Korea, escaping from there and going through very precarious and dangerous time in China, after arriving in South Korea, a lot of them faced a lot of discrimination – stigma – against them,” Kim said.  Continue reading about Jo Hye Kyung and family 

[CBC]

Many less North Korean defectors under Kim Jong Un

The number of North Korean defectors to South Korea has fallen since Kim Jong-un came to power seven years ago. Park Byeong-seug, a South Korean lawmaker citing data from the South’s unification ministry, said there had been 1,127 defections last year – compared with 2,706 in 2011.

Mr Park said tighter border controls between North Korea and China and higher rates charged by people smugglers were key factors. China regards the defectors as illegal migrants rather than refugees and often forcibly repatriates them.

Relations between the North and the South – who are still technically at war – have markedly improved in recent months. This came after June’s historic meeting between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore, when they agreed in broad terms to work towards the nuclear-free Korean peninsula.

But on Saturday, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho blamed US sanctions for the lack of progress since then. “Without any trust in the US, there will be no confidence in our national security and under such circumstances, there is no way we will unilaterally disarm ourselves first,” Mr Ri said in a speech to the UN General Assembly in New York.

[BBC]

Pompeo floats prospect of officially ending Korean War ahead of Trump-Kim summit

Given the Trump administration’s goal of a complete, verifiable denuclearization of North Korea during President Trump’s first term, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is eager to maintain U.S.-North Korean engagement. As he prepares for upcoming discussions with the North Koreans, he is leaving one tool conspicuously on the table: the prospect of an official declaration to end the Korean War.

By leaving open the possibility, Pompeo is affirming that the U.S. is open to some form of negotiation with the North Koreans to achieve denuclearization — and he’s showing up armed with more than just demands. The Trump administration, which argues its efforts have averted war, insists it will press forward with the conversations with North Korea. Mr. Trump has said his next meeting with Kim will happen “in the not too distant future,” at a “location to be determined” — but not Singapore.

Until there is “final, full-verified” denuclearization, Pompeo says crippling U.S. sanctions against North Korea will remain in place, but the U.S. is using the prospect of a potential end of war declaration to keep the North Koreans at the table.

Critics warn that making such a grand barter with Kim may, however, only lead to even greater demands from North Korean negotiators. Other, more distant desires of the regime beyond a declaration ending the war include a formal peace treaty with the U.S., which could then see American forces removed from the Korean Peninsula.

[CBS]

US runs into opposition from Russia, China on North Korea sanctions

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s effort to marshal unified international pressure on North Korea showed cracks Thursday as Russia and China registered their opposition to further punishing Pyongyang.

Pompeo expressed frustration at a United Nations meeting Thursday that some countries were not strictly abiding by sanctions on Pyongyang, a major part of the US strategy to get North Korea to dismantle its nuclear and missile programs, along with President Donald Trump’s efforts at personal diplomacy.

In the same meeting, the representatives from Russia and China pushed back on Pompeo, asking the US to make concessions or back off its push to maintain sanctions.

The Chinese foreign minister, after praising US engagement with North Korea and in particular the announcement that Trump will hold a second summit with Kim Jong Un, suggested the Trump administration give North Korea something it has long sought: an official end to hostilities between the two countries.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that steps by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, including the dismantling of nuclear sites and a cessation in weapons and missile testing, should be followed by an easing of sanctions.

[CNN]

Financial lifeline between North Korean defector in the South and their families in the North

China is a lifeline for North Korean defectors living in the South, allowing them to send money back to their families. Contact is usually brief and dangerous, with relatives traveling to the hermit kingdom’s border and using smuggled Chinese SIM cards to tap into telecommunications signals across the Yalu River.

A 2016 survey of 200 defectors by the Seoul-based Chosun newspaper found that about 60 per cent of the respondents sent US$900-US$1,800 each year via agents in China and North Korea, while one person reported sending US$9,000 a year. About 70 per cent said they transferred money regularly.

One mother in her 50s told the South China Morning Post that she remitted money to her son in North Korea. She said her son used a Chinese SIM card to make brief phone calls to her several times a year to confirm the transactions, and there was little time to ask him about his life.

“We cannot send text messages and the calls have to be short,” she said.

She said the money was sent via a network of trusted Chinese and North Korean brokers, including smugglers who carried the cash across the border, together with other smuggled Chinese goods. The operations are illegal and dangerous in both countries so the brokers take a heavy cut, usually 30 per cent of the total, according to defectors.

Another defector said food prices were soaring in North Korea and many of her relatives were not getting paid. She said 1kg of corn imported from China cost the equivalent of five months’ pay for a worker at a state factory.

“The country is in a mess,” she said.

[South China Morning Post]

Where have all the North Korean refugees gone?

Starting from the North Korean famine of the 1990s, North Koreans have usually defected to China, most often  to the border into Jilin and Liaoning provinces in northeast China, before then fleeing to a third country. About 76% to 84% of defectors interviewed in China or South Korea came from the Northeastern provinces bordering China.

Anywhere between 100,000–300,000 North Koreans have defected over the years, most of whom have fled to Russia or China, as well as many now in South Korea.

China: 80–90% of North Korean defectors residing in China are females who settled through de facto marriage; a large number of them experience forced marriage and human trafficking. The total number of North Korean refugees in China is estimated to be between 50,000 and 200,000.

Russia: Roughly 10,000 North Koreans live in the Russian Far East, according to a study by Kyung Hee University. Many are escapees from North Korean work camps there.

Europe: In 2014, research by the human rights organization the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea claims that there are around 1,400 North Korean refugees in Europe.

United States: Since 2006, less than 200 North Korean refugees have been officially admitted to the United States. An estimated 200 other North Koreans have entered the US illegally, for a estimated total of less than 400.

Canada: According to the 2016 census, there are about 970 people in Canada who were born in North Korea. North Korean asylum seekers and defectors have been rising in number. Radio Free Asia reports that in 2007 alone, over 100 asylum applications were submitted, and that North Korean refugees have come from China or elsewhere with the help of Canadian missionaries and NGOs.

South Korea: As of 2017, there were 31,093 defectors registered with the Unification Ministry in South Korea, 71% of whom were women.

From the start of Kim Jong-un’s rule in 2011, the movements of people has been tightened and strictly controlled, resulting in less than a thousand defections per year, down from just under 3000 in 2009.

If the defectors are caught in China, they are repatriated back to North Korea where they often face harsh interrogations and years of punishment, or even death in political prison camps.

[Source: Wikipedia]

Where are all the defectors from North Korea?

Escaping North Korea is a journey that is almost always a perilous one — thousands of miles on buses or motorcycles or sneaking on foot through mountains and valleys amid falling snow or torrential rain — in the desperate quest to evade border police and reach the frontier of a new life. Some pay a broker to traffic them out, some are too poor and bear the burden alone, and some are granted temporary visas to work in China but never return to their native land.

So how many North Korea defectors are there, and where do they go?

Since the hostilities of the Korean War ended in 1953, an estimated 300,000 North Koreans have defected from the tightly controlled hermit country.

Defectors use obscure routes to other Asian countries in the region — including Mongolia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan and Laos — but these are often used as transit points before moving to a third country such as South Korea.

South Korean law grants those from the North automatic citizenship following a mandatory three-month transition that involves debriefing and education to prepare them for their new lives in a much more open society. Official statistics published by the Ministry of Unification have documented just over 30,000 defectors since 1998.

“Most defectors head to China … [where they] either live their lives under the radar or make the harrowing trip to South Korea,” said Vernon Brewer, founder and president of World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization that supports the defectors.

China, which borders North Korea, is host to the majority of defectors, though official statistics are hard to come by and many are deported back to their origin if discovered.

[Fox News]

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un pledges to shut missile site

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has agreed to shut one of the country’s main missile testing and launch sites.

He signed a pledge to permanently close the Tongchang-ri facility, after talks in Pyongyang with his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in. Both leaders also “agreed on a way to achieve denuclearization” on the Korean peninsula, President Moon said.

On Tongchang-ri, Kim Jong-un said the engine missile testing and launch facility would be permanently closed “in the presence of experts from relevant nations”. The BBC’s Seoul correspondent Laura Bicker said the announcement is a major step forward.

China has welcomed the outcome of the inter-Korean summit, saying both sides had found “new and important common ground”.

Mr Kim also expressed a readiness to shut down the Yongbyon nuclear facility – where North Korea is believed to have produced the material used in its nuclear tests – if the US took some reciprocal action. The details of that were not specified.

North Korea blew up its main nuclear testing site at Punggye-ri shortly before Mr Kim’s meeting with US President Donald Trump in June.

Kim Jong-un also said he hoped to “visit Seoul in the near future” – he would be the first North Korean leader to do so.

[BBC]