Category: Humanitarian Aid and Relief

North Korean diplomat who went missing in Italy two years ago is in South Korea

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A top North Korean diplomat who went missing in Italy two years ago is now living in South Korea, making him one of the regime’s most high profile officials to defect in decades.

Jo Song Gil and his wife disappeared in November 2018 after leaving the North Korean embassy in Rome where Jo was employed as acting-ambassador.

For almost two years, his whereabouts have been unknown — but this week, South Korean lawmaker Ha Tae-keung confirmed reports that Jo had defected to South Korea in 2019. “It is confirmed that former ambassador Jo Song Gil entered South Korea in July last year and is under government’s protection,” Ha wrote on his Facebook page Tuesday.

Jo is the highest-profile government official to defect from the totalitarian regime since Thae Yong-Ho, former deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, fled to South Korea in 2016. North Korea has yet to comment publicly on the news of Jo’s defection.

Jo disappeared in November 2018, shortly before his term as North Korea’s top diplomat in Italy was set to expire. In a statement after the diplomat fled, the Italian Foreign Ministry said it had received a notice from the North Korean Embassy that Jo and his wife had left the embassy on November 10, 2018. Four days later, Jo’s daughter returned to North Korea accompanied by female staff from the North Korean embassy after requesting to be reunited with her grandparents, the Italian Foreign Ministry said.

A spokesperson for South Korea’s National Assembly Intelligence Committee chair Jeon Hae-cheol told CNN that the South Korean government didn’t make Jo’s defection public for more than a year out of concern for his family’s safety. Jo had voluntarily expressed his desire to come to South Korea, the spokesperson said.

Thae, the former UK-based diplomat, criticized the press for exposing news about Jo without his consent. “For diplomats who have family members living in North Korea, to reveal their news (of defection) is a sensitive matter,” he said in a statement. “That is why other former North Korean diplomats are living in South Korea without revealing their identity and the South Korean government does not reveal it either.”

[CNN]

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]

Chinese authorities detail “mental anxiety” suffered by North Korean defectors

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A recent internal report by security authorities in China’s Liaoning Province found that “most North Korean women in China are suffering from symptoms of depression and anxiety” and that there is an urgent need to “stabilize” their mental health. The report found that their living in an “oppressive society” since childhood had had serious impact on their mental health. It stated that the women had suffered from various kinds of human rights abuse, including forced participation in weekly criticism sessions and in the country’s “organizational life.”

One of the interviewees in the report complained that North Korea’s whistle blower system – the weekly criticism sessions – made it “impossible for her to trust anyone” and that she suffered from “psychological anxiety” that made it difficult to interact with others normally.

“The Chinese authorities concluded that the negative memories they have [about their time in] North Korean society are causing them to suffer from personality disorders, symptoms of anxiety, and paranoia,” the source said. “They also concluded that this is why many North Korean women show aggressive and violent behaviors even while living in China.”

The report also found that the women are suffering from severe levels of depression due to fears about being forcibly repatriated along with stress they suffered while defecting from North Korea.

The source told Daily NK that during the interviews the defector women complained about anxiety due to feelings of sadness and regret about leaving their families. A number of the women interviewed also complained about how difficult it was to adapt to a new language and culture while in China. Many of them reportedly claimed they suffered from a “loss of self-esteem” because of the perception they had been “sold [human trafficked] into China.”

[Daily NK]

Crisis in North Korea

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On August 20, Kim Jong Un offered a rare public acknowledgement of several crises North Korea is currently facing. Citing “severe internal and external situations” and “unexpected … challenges,” he conceded government failures to improve the country’s economy, noting that “many of the planned goals for national economic growth have not yet been attained nor [have] the people’s living standards improved markedly.” It was an unprecedented admission and demonstrates the severity of North Korea’s current dire economic situation.

North Korea is facing a triple set of crises. The Covid-19 pandemic led the totalitarian country to seal its borders in January, causing huge drops in its imports and exports with China, which accounts for almost all the country’s external trade. North Korea’s economy had already been shrinking significantly since 2016 from intensifying sanctions related to its weapons program. And in the past few weeks, historic levels of torrential rains have caused widespread damage across the country and left at least 22 people dead and 4 missing. Thousands of houses and public buildings have been flooded, nearly 100,000 acres of crops damaged, and critical infrastructure destroyed.

[Human Rights Watch]

Defectors say South Korea investigations threaten North Korean ‘Underground Railroad’

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South Korea’s Unification Ministry said last month it will “inspect” 25 defector-run NGOs, citing their failure to file necessary documents, and check if 64 others are following conditions to stay registered. Then on Wednesday, the ministry expanded the investigation to a total of 289 organizations.

The ministry has already revoked the licenses of two defector groups that were sending anti-Pyongyang propaganda into the North, following complaints from North Korea. Without a license, the organizations cannot get tax exemptions and hold fundraisers, though donations are still allowed.

Many of the groups have for decades worked with Seoul behind the scenes to bring defectors to the South via an informal network of brokers, charities and middlemen dubbed the North Korean “Underground Railroad”. Intermediaries work as guides and offer shelter for defectors during their long, dangerous journey across China into Southeast Asia.

The sweeping probe by South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration is scaring away donors, activists said. Several NGOs told Reuters the defector networks may never recover, even when borders closed due to coronavirus reopen.

[Reuters]

North Korea lifts lockdown in border town after suspected COVID-19 case ‘inconclusive’

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Kim Jong Un lifted a three week lockdown in the city of Kaesong and nearby areas, after a man who defected to the South returned to the border town last month showing coronavirus symptoms.

North Korea has said it has no confirmed cases of the coronavirus, but Kim said last month that the virus “could be said to have entered” the country and imposed the lockdown after the man was reported to have symptoms. Later test results on the man were “inconclusive”, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Coronavirus prevention measures had stabilized the risk in the area, Kim said in a statement carried by KCNA.

“The situation, in which the spread of the worldwide malignant virus has become worse, requires us not to allow any outside aid for the flood damage but shut the border tighter and carry out strict anti-epidemic work,” Kim said in a statement carried out by the KCNA.

The monsoon season has caused extensive damage in several provinces, with farmlands inundated with floodwaters, around 16,680 houses and 630 public buildings destroyed or flooded, and many roads, bridges and railroads damaged, KCNA reported.

[Reuters]

Red Cross trains thousands of North Koreans to help cope with coronavirus

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The Red Cross has trained 43,000 North Korean volunteers to help communities, including the locked-down city of Kaesong, fight the novel coronavirus and provide flood assistance, an official with the relief organization said on Monday.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared an emergency last month and imposed a lockdown on Kaesong, near the inter-Korean border, after a man who defected to the South in 2017 returned to the city showing coronavirus symptoms.

Heavy rain and flooding in recent days have also sparked concern about crop damage and food supplies in the isolated country.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has built an extensive network of North Korean volunteers to help residents in all nine provinces to avoid the virus and reduce damage from floods and landslides, spokesman Antony Balmain said.

North Korea has not confirmed any coronavirus cases but has enforced strict quarantine measures. South Korea has said there is no evidence the returning defector was infected.

The IFRC last month provided North Korea with kits designed to run up to 10,000 coronavirus tests, alongside infrared thermometers, surgical masks, gowns and protective gears.

[Reuters]

The defector who returned to North Korea, Kim Geum-hyok

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After three years of living in South Korea, defector Kim Geum-hyok returned to his native North Korea — swimming across the same river he’d crossed in 2017, South Korean officials said. North Korea has accused him of bringing coronavirus into the country for the first time, and resulted in putting Kaesong, Mr. Kim’s hometown, under lockdown.

Weeks before his departure, ​Mr. Kim, now 24, gave several interviews on a friend’s YouTube channel, ​talking about his life in the ​two Koreas. Even before Mr. Kim went back, his story was an unusual one. Firstly Mr. Kim made the dangerous decision to cross the inter-Korean border. Second, after defecting he made the rare decision to return.

In one of the YouTube interviews, Mr. Kim said he had lost most of his hearing at an early age. “Because of that, I had difficulty communicating with people,” he said. “I was ​beaten because I was told to bring one thing and brought some​ thing else.” When he was still a child, Kaesong, a city of 300,000, was chosen as the site of an industrial park run jointly by the two Koreas. Kaesong became a boomtown, awash with cash. Mr. Kim’s cousins worked at the park, he said, and he himself ​sold eggs and vegetables.

But four years ago, the South ​shut down​ the complex ​in a dispute ​over the North’s nuclear weapons program. The economy crashed, and Mr. Kim, like many others, was soon out of work. (Last month, with inter-Korean relations at another low, the North blew up an office in Kaesong that it had jointly operated with the South.) By June of 2017, Mr. Kim ​said he “saw no hope for the future, no meaning in life, wondering ​whether I should continue to live or die.” Seeing the South Korean buildings at night compelled him to “go there and check it out even if that meant my death,” he said.

Mr. Kim settled in the South Korean town of Gimpo, across the Han River from Kaesong. ​A doctor corrected the hearing problem that he had lived with since childhood. He said he cried that day.

He missed his parents deeply. He had enrolled in a vocational school, as part of the resettlement program that the South offers to defectors, but he said he quit and found work, hoping to send money to his family, as defectors often do through middlemen in China.

Off camera, according to the friend with the YouTube channel, Mr. Kim confided that he was being investigated by the police because another defector had accused him of raping her. He said that he had been so drunk on the night in question that he couldn’t remember anything. The police in Gimpo confirmed that a warrant had been issued for his arrest.

On July 18, officials say, Mr. Kim sent his last text message to the friend with the YouTube channel: “I really didn’t want to lose you because you were like a big sister to me,” he wrote. “I will repay my debt ​to you ​no matter where I live, as long as I live.”

South Korean officials concluded that Mr. Kim then crossed the border by crawling through a drain, three feet in diameter, that runs underneath barbed-wire fences ​on Ganghwa’s north shore. That led him to the Han River, which they believe he swam back across.

[New  York Times]

Kim Jong Un puts Kaesong on lockdown over suspected coronavirus case

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Kim Jong Un placed Kaesong on lockdown after a person was discovered with suspected symptoms, state media reported Sunday. Kaesong, with an estimated population of 200,000, is located just north of the heavily fortified border with South Korea.

Kim said he took “the preemptive measure of totally blocking Kaesong City and isolating each district and region from the other” on Friday afternoon, the state-run news agency said.

North Korea said respiratory secretion and blood tests showed the person “is suspected to have been infected” with the coronavirus and has since been quarantined. People who had been in contact with the patient and those who have been in Kaesong in the last five days were also quarantined.

NK News, an organization that tracks North Korean state-run media, said the person crossed the border on July 19. South Korean state media indicates the person is someone who fled to South Korea three years ago before illegally returning early last week.

If the person is officially declared a coronavirus patient, he or she would be North Korea’s first confirmed case. As the coronavirus has spread globally and shut down various countries this year, North Korea has steadfastly said it has had no cases of the virus, a claim questioned by outside experts.

In late March, the Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun reported more than 100 North Korean soldiers who were stationed at the border with China died from the virus. The South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo also claimed that Kim was spending “considerable time” away from the capital of Pyongyang due to the virus.

[Fox News]

How North Korean defectors communicate with family back home

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North Korean phones are screened by the Ministry of State Security first to prevent them from being used in any non-permitted ways, so cannot be used to communicate with those in other countries.

Because of this, North Koreans use Chinese-made phones that have been purchased from smugglers, and contact relatives through an app WeChat, allowing voice calls, text messages, and video calls.

WeChat is also used to send money to loved ones in North Korea so they can maintain a living and eat their next meal. The transfer process involves the money passing through several countries before reaching the recipient in North Korea. After initial links are established through these networks in both North and South Korea, money is sent to the account of a Chinese middle-man, who takes a cut for themselves.

There are many shops in the China-North Korea border regions that are jointly run by people from both countries. At such places, at a pre-arranged time and date, the money originally sent by the defector is given over to the North Korean broker. The transfer is conducted not in South or North Korean won but in Chinese yuan.

The North Korean broker then takes their cut before taking the money and delivering it to the other side of the border.

After all is said and done, around seventy percent of the original amount makes its way into the hands of the recipient. Some unscrupulous brokers, however, take more, leaving only around half of the original sum.

[NK News]