Category: Humanitarian Aid and Relief

North Korean refugees as advocates and storytellers

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For years, Joy Kim couldn’t understand why her mother left her behind when she defected from North Korea. Until she found herself in the same position, said Kim as she spoke alongside three other North Korean refugees at the Liberty in North Korea at UCLA’s second annual “The Stories that Link Us” event. The program, started last year, trains North Korean refugees to be advocates and storytellers in hopes of inspiring others to take action.

“Each [has] their own defection story and LiNK just helps them craft their stories and become really good storytellers so that they can bring other people along,” said Becky Chung, a special events and donor relations intern for LiNK. The refugees spend three months in the United States, during which time they travel to different states to speak to students, community leaders and government officials.

“I think it’s very easy to only see North Korea as an evil country, as part of this axis of evil, as people say,” said Ashley Ng, president of UCLA’s LiNK chapter and a fourth-year global studies student. “But I think this event does a good job of showing that there’s North Korean youth born in the ’90s that are just human like us and had the unfortunate circumstance of being born in North Korea (where they faced) human rights violations.”

Many prejudices exist against North Korean refugees living in South Korea, said Dasom Kim, a refugee who escaped North Korea with the help of LiNK before settling in South Korea in 2014. For example, North Koreans are paid less than their South Korean counterparts for the same work, she said.

Jeongyol Ri, a student at Seoul National University who defected while he was in Hong Kong for a math competition, shared the same sentiment. After resettling in South Korea, he started looking for tutoring jobs to pay for food and housing. The parents of a young boy were interested in hiring him, but after they figured out he was from North Korea, they had to rethink their decision, he said.

Ilhyeok Kim, now a student studying political science and diplomacy at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, said he was shocked by the number of candidates that appeared on election ballots. When he voted in North Korea, he said he only had one candidate to choose from.

Despite the benefits of life in South Korea, some fellows also missed aspects of their life in North Korea. Ri confessed to yearning for the camaraderie he felt in North Korea, where he knew each and every single person who lived in his apartment building. In South Korea, people are so busy, he said, that he doesn’t have the time to get to know his neighbors.

[Daily Bruin]

Fleeing North Korea often the start of even more hardship

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Now a university student in South Korea studying social work, Joy Kim spoke about the hardships her family experienced in North Korea and the challenges she faced as a result of being trafficked once she crossed the border to China. She said that for women like her, fleeing from North Korea is often the start of more hardship.

Kim’s family in North Korea was very poor, and when her stepmother tried to marry her off, she decided to flee to China in 2009. However, unable to pay the broker who helped pay off the guards that kept watch over the border, Kim was sold as a bride. “For three days, a broker paraded me around villages in northern China and crowds of men would gather to bid on me,” Kim said. “I was treated like an animal in a zoo.”

A man eventually paid the equivalent of $3,000 for her. He and his parents kept constant watch over her in fear she would escape, Kim said. Kim soon discovered she was pregnant. Because a pregnancy would make her eventual escape challenging, if not impossible, she said she tried to induce a miscarriage. “I climbed up the highest tree in the backyard and jumped down,” Kim said. “I also carried around heavy buckets of water.”

Despite her efforts, Kim gave birth to a baby girl after nine months. She said she resented her daughter at first, but before long the girl became her only reason to live.

It was around this time that a member of LiNK approached Kim and offered to help her cross the 3,000 miles that separated her from South Korea. The crossing, however, would be too dangerous for a child, he told her. Unable to pass up the opportunity, she decided to escape, determined to one day return to China to take her daughter to freedom.

Kim finally reached South Korea in 2013, four years after first leaving North Korea. Because of her harrowing experience, she said she wants to devote herself to helping North Korean women who have experienced the same trauma.

“Sixty percent of North Korean female refugees in China are trafficked into the sex trade,” Kim said. “For female North Korean refugees, escaping from North Korea is not the end of their journey, but the beginning of their fight for freedom.”

[Daily Bruin]

Outrage over 2 North Koreans sent back to North Korea

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Since the division of the Korean peninsula after World War Two, South Korea has offered safe haven to more than 30,000 of their North Korean brethren from the impoverished, authoritarian North. But when two North Korean men sought asylum after drifting across the maritime border in a small fishing boat this month, Seoul made the unprecedented decision to turn them away.

The case has reignited criticism that South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a human rights lawyer-turned-liberal politician, has pursued rapprochement with the North, including three one-on-one summits with the North Korean leader, at the cost of sidelining human rights concerns and opposition towards the regime. Under his administration, defectors and other activists have complained of being restricted from carrying out activism such as flying balloons carrying anti-regime leaflets across the border.

Lim Jae-cheon, a North Korean studies professor at Korea University in Sejong, said the repatriations marked a fundamental shift in Seoul’s policy toward North Koreans, who are all considered South Korean citizens under a ruling by the country’s Supreme Court. While South Korea has occasionally repatriated North Koreans at their request, it had previously never returned someone from the North after they had requested asylum.

“When two defectors come to Korea, they should be regarded as South Korean people and judged according to our law,” added Kim Jong-ha, a professor at Hannam University in Daejeon, South Korea. “Why were they expelled so quickly?”

A coalition of 17 rights groups in South Korea accused the government of denying the men due process and failing to provide “clear evidence” of their guilt, calling for a parliamentary inquiry into its handling of the case.

“You could punish the men to the full extent under South Korean law,” said Jung Gwang-Il, a prison camp survivor who runs the non-profit organisation No Chain, questioning the need to return the accused men to the North. “Nobody can trust an investigation that has them repatriated after three days.”

“The North Korean regime believes all defectors including me are heinous criminals, so now it looks like we all could be repatriated for this purpose,” Jung said.

In the Daily NK, a defector-run media outlet, Choi Ju-hwal, a former official in the North Korean army, said it was “very hard to accept” that three men had been so easily able to kill 16 of their crewmates without a weapon such as a gun.

Another North Korean defector Eom Yeong-nam said it was “absolutely certain” that the two will be executed in the North. “The North will probably execute them in public as a message to potential defectors – even if you flee to the South, you will end up like this,” he told the Post.

[South China Morning Post]

North Korean defectors decry South’s expulsion of two fishermen

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South Korea’s expulsion of two North Korean fishermen set a bad precedent that has spread fears in the North Korean defector community and could lend legitimacy to its widely criticized judicial system, defectors and activists said on Friday. South Korean officials said the two, in their 20s, appear to have killed their 16 colleagues after their plan to take action against their abusive captain went wrong.

The decision drew criticism and dismay from some defectors, who said the men should have been tried in the South and would likely face torture, and possibly execution in North Korea.

Many defectors have served prison terms in the South for crimes they committed in the North, including murder and rape, and the two should have been prosecuted in South Korea if they were suspected of having committed a crime, says Jung Gwang-il, a former political prisoner in North Korea who runs a human rights group in Seoul. Jung said.

“Now so many defectors are fearing they, too, might somehow be deported,” Jung said.

Y. H. Kim, another defector turned rights advocate, said the expulsion of the two was the latest in what he said were government efforts to “trample” on defectors. As a surge of inter-Korean diplomacy unfolded last year, many of the 33,000 refugees from North Korea in the South say they feel like political pawns suddenly discarded. “I’m so devastated thinking how human rights has become an empty word,” Kim said.

American lawyer Joshua Stanton said South Korea violated a U.N. convention banning the expulsion of people to a place where there are “substantial grounds” for believing they may face torture.

“There is little doubt that South Korea’s move has condemned these two men to torture and likely execution, and for that reason, there should have been a much higher standard of evidence required before sending them back,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch.

North Korea’s state media has made no mention of the pair.


13 North Koreans trek through four countries toward freedom

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A group of 13 North Koreans recently arrived in Southeast Asia, after a grueling two-month journey which spanned 6,000 kilometers (more than 3700 miles), in a quest for asylum in South Korea.

Among the group that reached the Southeast Asian destination were a two-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy, the rest ranging in age between their teens and 50s.

They were met by officials from the South Korean human rights group Now Action Unity Human rights (NAUH), who had been awaiting them.

Ji Seong-ho, founder of NAUH, who himself escaped North Korea in 2006, led the effort to rescue the 13. Ji said the latest rescue was both nerve-racking and moving.

He told RFA that many people that attempt to leave North Korea are arrested in China, as Beijing intensifies crackdowns on those who try to flee. He noted that the number of North Koreans fleeing to Southeast Asia has declined in recent years, but that many still make the journey hoping to escape to freedom.

[Radio Free Asia]

North Korean defectors call for postponement of funeral for mother and son

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North Korean defectors in South Korea say they have decided to postpone a funeral for a North Korean woman and her infant son because Seoul’s Unification Ministry is not meeting their demands.

Activists with an “emergency response committee” established after the death of Han Sung-ok and her son said the Unification Ministry is responsible for a “breakdown” in negotiations regarding a list of their demands, Yonhap reported.

According to activists, the group requested Seoul “apologize” for the incident, asked for the resignation of the head of the Korea Hana Foundation, a government agency, and demanded a nationwide network be established for North Korean defectors in the South. The activists also said they are seeking the creation of a council that could negotiate between the Unification Ministry and various defector groups.

The defectors added the Unification Ministry is “avoiding” the demands and making it appear the Hana Foundation is responsible for the delay, according to local news service Seoul Pyongyang News.

Han and her son were found dead in their apartment in southern Seoul in July. The family may have died of starvation at least a month before local authorities entered their apartment to find their decomposing corpses. Han was granted residence in the South in 2009. According to defectors who spoke to UPI, Han had two sons and her second son had died with her, while her ex-husband, a Chinese national, took her firstborn to China.


Information is key to liberating the minds of the North Korean people

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Thae Yong Ho, a former deputy ambassador to the U.K., who in 2016 became the highest-ranking North Korean diplomat to defect to South Korea, says disseminating information to younger North Koreans is “very important” in spurring people to reject the state’s ideological control and authoritarian rule.

A North Korean defector, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says he worked with South Korea’s Defense Ministry on radio broadcasts targeting North Korean soldiers near the border area for three years “mainly discussing North Korea media’s incorrect reports.” But, he says, his role was discontinued in early 2018.

Losing this job was particularly galling, he adds, because he was inspired to defect in 2009 after listening to similar illegal foreign media broadcasts for years. “My experience of listening to radio in North Korea changed my life,” the defector says.

With the South Korean–based efforts to both expose North Korean human rights issues and educate people inside North Korea about the outside world under pressure, some international organizations are stepping up their activities via China.

The Human Rights Foundation (HRF), a New York-based NGO, claims to have smuggled approximately 100,000 data storage devices into North Korea via China over the past three years. The foundation sends donated USB flash drives and SD cards loaded with entertainment programs like movies and soap operas into the country. The devices often include news clippings and broadcasts, testimonials from defectors and political material such as translations of books about the fall of the Soviet Union and the Arab Spring.

The organization estimates that each device reaches about 10 people, implying the material has been seen by as many as 1.3 million North Koreans, or 1 in every 20 people in the country.

“Information is key to liberating the minds of the North Korean people,” says Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer of HRF.


For North Korean defectors, fear may never leave

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Dae Hyeon Park was 17 when he fled North Korea with his mother, grandfather and sister in 2007. He says the fear never leaves him. “Most of North Koreans have the experience – the fear [of] death. … I mean 30,000 North Korean defectors are also facing those kind of problems and the fears – even now, every day.”

The East Asia Research Director for Amnesty International, Roseann Rife, said of North Koreans who manage to slip into China are tough and there is not always a happy ending. “We hear stories of people who actually spend most of their time in hiding, trying to avoid being noticed,” she said. “And it is very common in detention centers in China for torture to occur. A lot of the judicial system is based on unfortunately, confessions, and many of these confessions are extracted through torture.”

And even those who manage to reach South Korea, she adds, “They are coming under greater scrutiny and being detained and questioned about this transiting across the border.”

They also struggle to integrate into a very different country to the one they have left behind. They stand out because of their strong dialects, poor education and short heights, caused by severe malnourishment. Rife said of North Koreans in the south: “They often find it difficult to integrate and find jobs, and it’s a very difficult transition for many of them.”

The owner of a factory near Seoul which employs defectors from the north requests not be named because of fear of what the regime in the north could do to her brother, who is still there.

Once, she shared her real name and hometown with a client, who subsequently returned to the north. “So if that client was really a spy and exposed everything to the state, her younger brother could be in danger,” she said, through an interpreter.

Family members in South Korea paid NZ$80,000 (more than US$50,000) to brokers for the family of Dae Hyeon Park to make the dangerous crossing into China and later South Korea. It turns out the reality for those finally arriving in South Korea can be very different than the South Korean soap operas shown in the north.


South Korea should welcome defectors, not pander to Kim Jong Un

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One of the more troubling questions facing the government South Korean President Moon Jae-in is how to deal with defectors from the North. If Moon appears to welcome and support them, he risks incurring the wrath of the North. If he tries to cut back on aid and other forms of support for these people, many of them women, all of them lost in their new environment, he appears heartless and unconcerned about frightened people who must fend for themselves.

South Korea routinely puts defectors through several months’ training and then provides them with limited resources for living on their own. Moon is not inclined to do more for them and might even like to do less while hoping for ever more contact with the North.

In a competitive society where they’re viewed as strangers from a strange land, defectors tell stories of slights and slurs, fruitless searches for jobs. It’s not uncommon for defectors to try to get around questions about their northern accents by saying they’re from Gangwon province, divided between North and South, though most of them come from the northernmost provinces bordering China across the Yalu (Amnok) or Tumen rivers.

It’s out of the question that President Moon would openly talk about North Korea’s horrendous human rights violations, the quickest way to trigger a volley of denunciations in the North Korean media. But South Korea should remain a safe haven for those fleeing the North. The South Koreans should also never stop demanding that China view defectors as victims of the North’s inhumane policies rather than as economic migrants.

[Excerpts of Opinion piece by Donald Kirk, writing in Las Vegas Sun]

Empathy for defectors even in the top ranks of North Korean society

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Even in the top ranks of North Korean society, there are some who spit on the dictatorship and the hereditary politics of the Kim family — case in point, the incident of Mr. Lee.

A North Korean defector, now living in the South, recalls, “While I was serving a 10-year prison term in North Korea, Mr. Lee gave my son money to get some food for me.

“Sad to say, Mr. Lee, who worked at Ryanggang province’s Ministry of State Security, later shot himself with his own gun, allegedly after being harassed for helping would-be defectors.

“One may consider suicide as merely a cowardly evasion of one’s responsibility, but in North Korea it is considered an act of rebellion and thus the person’s bereaved family is punished severely. His son who was working in the Bodyguard Bureau in Pyongyang was subsequently discharged, leaving the family with no way to support themselves.

“Given Mr. Lee’s rank in the Ministry of State Security, a very authoritative institution, and the fact that he committed such ‘treacherous behavior’ against the government shook all of Ryanggang province, as well as throughout the entire country.”

[Written by Tae-il Shim, the pseudonym of a North Korean defector who arrived in South Korea in 2018.]