Category: China

Not all North Korean defectors want the same thing

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A book published in January titled “Defector” (탈북자) is shedding light on the lesser-known stories of North Korean defectors, challenging stereotypes and misconceptions. The book was written by former documentary producer Cho Cheon Hyeon (55), who spent over two decades speaking to North Koreans living in China’s border regions.

Cho’s book is remarkable in more ways than one, particularly because it challenges the traditional South Korean narrative that often portrays North Korean defectors as desperately wanting to make it to the South.

Cho’s views are different. According to his decades-long experience speaking to North Koreans, the majority of those who leave North Korea have no intention of ever defecting to South Korea. 

In his book, Cho distinguishes defectors in three different categories:
1. those working in China who intend to return to North Korea after earning enough money;
2. those living in China long-term who regularly send money back to their family members in North Korea; and
3. those wanting to defect to the South.

According to Cho, the vast majority of North Koreans who leave their country belong in the first two categories. 

[Daily NK]

North Korea’s trade with China declined 80% during 2020

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Two-way trade between North Korea and its biggest partner, China, fell 80.7% in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to estimates from Seoul’s Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.

Trade activity dropped significantly in February 2020, with two-way trade falling to $10.71 million in the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus epidemic that began in Wuhan, China. North Korea shut its 880-mile border with China as part of its COVID-19 response in January 2020, but trade levels recovered by June to $96.8 million, according to SP News.

Pyongyang has claimed its draconian tactics against the novel coronavirus have paid off and that there are zero COVID-19 patients in the country. North Korea has also ordered vaccines from the COVAX Facility, managed by the World Health Organization.

[UPI]

North Korea’s economy ravaged by sanctions and pandemic isolation

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Kim Jong Un is angry, and he’s lashing out, complaining that North Korea’s last economic plan failed “tremendously.”

And his inner circle lacked an “innovative viewpoint and clear tactics” in drawing up a new one, Kim told the ruling Workers’ Party last month, yelling and finger-pointing at frightened-looking delegates.

His economy minister, appointed in January, has already been fired.

North Korea is suffering its worst slump in more than two decades, experts say. It’s a combination of international sanctions and especially a self-imposed blockade on international trade in attempts to keep the coronavirus pandemic out.

A shortage of spare parts usually supplied from China has caused factories to close, including one of the country’s largest fertilizer plants, and crippled output from the country’s aging power plants, according to news reports. Electricity shortages, long a chronic problem, have become so acute, production has even halted at some coal mines and other mines.

[Washington Post]

Kim Jong Un’s wife reappears after unusual one-year absence

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The wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made her first public appearance in a year, ending an unusual absence that stoked speculation about her condition.

Ri Sol Ju joined her husband at a musical performance for the anniversary of the birth of former leader Kim Jong Il, which is known as the Day of the Shining Star in North Korea, the official Korean Central News Agency reported Wednesday.

Ri, thought to be 32, may have been sidelined due to the coronavirus, which virtually ended international visits and the need to appear by her husband’s side at events part of a normal nation’s statecraft, specialist service NK News reported in late January. The yearlong drought was by far the longest stretch she hasn’t appeared in state media during that time. North Korea has given no explanation for her absence.

“If her prolonged absence was due to concerns about the coronavirus, her reappearance could suggest increased regime confidence in the country’s quarantine situation,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, an independent political analyst who used to work for the U.S. government in areas related to North Korea.

South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers Tuesday Ri may have been taking care of the couple’s children and avoiding public exposure during the coronavirus pandemic, Kim Byung-kee, a ruling Democratic Party lawmaker, said after a meeting of a parliamentary intelligence committee.

The agency also said North Korea hacked Pfizer Inc. for information on its Covid-19 vaccine and treatments.

Ri, a former singer who as a teenager served in a North Korean cheerleading squad, has appeared with her husband for a summit in China, where the couple sat down for a meal with President Xi Jinping and his wife. Ri also joined Kim as they rode white horses through the snow on North Korea’s Mount Paektu, the symbolic seat of Kim family rule over the country.

South Korean intelligence said the two married in 2009. They are thought to have three children, but there is no official mention of their offspring. Dennis Rodman, the offbeat basketball great who visited Kim in North Korea, said in 2013 he held the leader’s baby girl in his arms, a daughter named Ju Ae.

[Bloomberg]

The changing face of North Korean defectors

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Ken Eom, who defected from North Korea in 2010, said that for many North Korean defectors today, escaping their homeland was no longer about poverty and hunger, but finding “freedom, like getting more education and a better life”.

Hanna Song, a researcher at the non-profit Database Centre for NK Human Rights in Seoul. Adds that whereas defectors from North Korea were once driven by “simply survival”, this has changed during the last fifteen years. “If you look at the typology of North Koreans who have now resettled in South Korea, it is very diverse,” said Song.

Imesh Pokharel, who runs the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Seoul, agrees that most recent defectors he had encountered were driven by the desire for greater economic opportunity. “Basically those who have family members in [South Korea], they are more likely to come here directly,” says Pokharel.

“In the last 10 years, the trend is family-invited refugees,” said an activist who helps North Koreans reach the South, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of his work. “For North Korean refugees who have entered South Korea, bringing their parents and siblings from North Korea to South Korea is the top priority. They work hard to raise money, or they get support from mission agencies or NGOs to bring their family.”

Tim Peters, a Christian activist who runs Seoul-based non-profit Helping Hands Korea, said it had become increasingly typical to see single parents or grandparents with children, rather than whole families, make the decision to leave. “This elderly care of a grandchild has often occurred due to the death of an adult child – parent of the grandchild – or abandonment of the child by the grandparent’s adult child or his spouse in North Korea,” said Peters. “The grandparent guardian discovers that they are unable to economically survive supporting the grandchild alone in the North, so make the grim decision to seek a menial job in China. A similar phenomenon is observed in single parents, especially women, who’ve either lost their North Korean husbands due to an untimely death, or through divorce.”

[South China Morning Post]

After Trump setbacks, Kim Jong Un has to start over with Biden

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Last year was a disaster for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He helplessly watched his country’s already battered economy decay further amid pandemic border closures while brooding over the collapse of made-for-TV summits with former President Donald Trump that failed to lift crippling sanctions from his country.

Now he must start all over again with President Joe Biden, who has previously called Kim a “thug” and accused Trump of chasing spectacles instead of meaningful reductions of Kim’s nuclear arsenal.

North Korea won’t likely be the top priority for Biden, who while facing mounting domestic issues is also gearing up for a push to get back into a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that Trump blew up in favor of what he called maximum pressure against Iran.

Acoording to Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, the Biden administration’s “sequence of policy attention will likely be: Get America’s own house in order, strengthen U.S. alliances and align strategies toward China and Russia, and then address Iran and North Korea.”

[AP]

North Korean defectors at risk of repatriation from China

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Last October, the United Nations sent a letter to the Chinese government, urging Beijing to refrain from forcibly repatriating a group of North Korean refugees under Chinese detention.

On Sept. 12, Chinese authorities had arrested a group of five defectors who were attempting to flee to South Korea, leaving the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang. The next day, the group of defectors were detained and sent to a police station in the port city of Qingdao, according to the letter from the U.N.

It is unclear whether the arrested North Koreans are a family. The group included a 49-year-old woman, a 48-year-old man, a 14-year-old girl, a woman who was six months pregnant, and another woman whose age is unknown, according to reports.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights produced a letter signed by Tomás Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur on North Korea human rights, and Nils Melzer, the special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, that was delivered to the Chinese government on Oct. 27.

The U.N. said any repatriation of the defectors would be a violation of Article 3 of the U.N. Convention against Torture, or UNCAT, which requires no government expel, return or extradite a person to another country where there are sufficient grounds to believe the individual would be subjected to torture.

During 2020, the number of North Korean defections to the South has dropped amid the coronavirus pandemic. Pyongyang has sealed its borders in response to COVID-19.

[UPI]

Kim Jong Un vents fury as pressure mounts over virus and economy

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Under pressure from the coronavirus pandemic and an ailing economy, Kim Jong Un is responding with fury, allowing at least two executions in the past three months, South Korea’s intelligence agency told a parliamentary briefing on Friday.

“Kim Jong Un is taking irrational actions,” opposition lawmaker Ha Tae-keung told reporters after being briefed by Seoul’s National Intelligence Service. Ha said a foreign exchange dealer was executed in late October, while an official at a customs post on the Chinese border was put to death in August for failing to abide by strict rules on imports intended to prevent the coronavirus from entering the country.

The South Korean intelligence account could not be independently verified. But experts say that Kim is likely to be feeling pressure after closing the Chinese border at the start of the year as the coronavirus spread around the world.

The volume of North Korea’s trade with China dropped by 73 percent in the first three quarters of 2020 compared with same period last year, according to a report released by the Korea International Trade Association in Seoul. Ha, the South Korean lawmaker, said prices of sugar and spices in North Korea have risen fourfold as imports from China dried up, while whole cities and even provinces, mostly near the border, have been placed under temporary lockdowns this month after foreign currency smuggling or foreign goods were detected.

Ha said examples of North Korea’s “paranoia” about the risks of coronavirus included its refusal to accept 110,000 tons of rice aid offered by China and a decision to ban fishing and salt production in North Korean waters because of concerns that seawater could be contaminated with the virus.

[Washington Post]

North Korean defector given suspended sentence for collecting info for the North

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A North Korean defector who collected information for North Korean authorities after being blackmailed has been given a suspended sentence. The defector, identified by the surname Han, was sentenced to an eight-month prison term suspended for two years for violating the National Security Act.

The Seoul Central District Court ruled that Han’s actions represented a clear danger of damaging South Korea’s democratic order and national security, but handed down a suspended sentence in light of the determination that Han was acting under duress, that his plans to return to the North were not realized and that Han has no other criminal record.

Han came to the South in June 2011 through China, then settled to work at an industrial complex. The North’s State Security Department began to blackmail Han in 2013, directing him to return to the North and threatening to harm his family members in North Korea.

Han was told to collect information on North Korean defectors in the South for the North Korean State Security Department. The information he provided led to North Korean authorities apprehending a broker for sending money in North Korea.

As part of his plan to return to North Korea, Han went to China with 87 million won ($74,100) – 6 million won from savings and 81 million won borrowed from four different non-bank lenders. While in China, Han revealed his intention to give the State Security Department a bribe of 50 million won and to use 30 million won to purchase a truck that he planned to use once back in the North.  When the North Korean official, however, demanded 80 million won, it prompted Han to return to the South.

[The Korea Herald]

Kim Jong Un tightening control as North Korea’s economy reels

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When Kim Jong Un announced last month that the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea will convene for its eighth congress in January 2021, he also acknowledged that the regime’s current economic strategy is not working.

In one sense, this is a hopeful signal, given that such pragmatic admissions of failure are rare for North Korean leaders. But the announcement also underscored the depth of the country’s economic troubles. Of course, Kim does not have to worry about competing in elections. But like all dictators, he must still seek some level of buy-in from the population, and he has staked a great deal of credibility on his promises to improve North Koreans’ living standards.

First came the severe international sanctions imposed in 2016 and 2017, in response to North Korean tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Pyongyang’s recent measures to protect the country from COVID-19, including a virtual closure of the border with China, have added to the damage. Just in the first half of this year, trade with China plummeted by 67% from the same period in 2019, after already having declined for some time.

North Korea also appears to be experiencing difficulties finishing important prestige construction projects, such as the new Pyongyang General Hospital. The regime will inevitably use the recent typhoons that hit the country as an excuse, but the fact is that several of these projects were already on track to be delayed. Kim Jong Un’s key initiatives, such as changes in agricultural management, seem to have slowed, stalled or paused. There have also been troubling signs of crackdowns against private markets and businesses in the past year or so.

Such ventures carry symbolic importance for propaganda purposes; they send a message to the population that the state is making progress to improve people’s everyday lives. Although the vast majority of North Koreans will never directly see these high-profile projects, the implication is that one day, they or their children may benefit from the fruits of the state’s caring investments.

[World Politics Review]