Category: Humanitarian Aid and Relief

My name is Prisoner 42

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Anyone in North Korea who is discovered to be a Christian is quickly eradicated from society into detention centers, re-education camps and maximum-security hard labor prison camps known as the Kwan-li-so where political prisoners are often sent.

“Open Doors” estimates there are 250,000 imprisoned North Koreans—50,000 of which are political prisoners jailed for their Christian faith. Following, a North Korean prison camp survivor walks us through her difficult journey in a North Korean prison:

I was in China because I needed to feed myself and my family. It was there that I met some Christians. I was touched by them. They never really spoke about the gospel, but I participated in their worship services.

Then one day a black car pulled up next to me. I thought the man wanted to ask for directions, but the driver and other men stepped out of the car and grabbed me. I tried to get away, but they pushed me into the car.

After a few weeks in a Chinese prison cell, I was brought to this North Korean prison. The first day, I had to strip off all my clothes, and they searched every part of my body to see if I had hidden anything, money especially. They shaved off all my hair and brought me to a prison cell. 

The name I was born with was the first thing they took away from me when I arrived at the prison. Every morning at 8 a.m., they call for “42.” To get to them, I have to crawl on my elbows through the cat-flap. When I stand up, I must keep my head down. I’m not allowed to look at the guards.

Each day begins the same. I put my hands behind my back and follow the guards to the interrogation room. Each day for an hour, they ask the same questions: “Why were you in China?”, “Are you a Christian?”,  “Who did you meet”, “Did you go to church?”, and “Did you have a Bible?”

Every day, I’m beaten and kicked—it hurts the most when they hit my ears. My ears ring for hours, sometimes days. The space in my cell is so small I can barely lie down. It isn’t often that I get to lie down. They force me to sit on my knees with closed fists and never allow me to open them. 

[Read full story of this North Korean defector]

Persecution of Christians in North Korea

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Estimates vary about how many Christians are in North Korea, but persecution watchdog group Open Doors places the number around 300,000, most of whom operate in secret networks of tiny house churches.

Christianity is illegal in North Korea and possessing a Bible, holding open religious services or making any attempt to build underground church networks can result in torture, lengthy prison terms or execution.

A North Korean defector, identified only as J.M., shared how he encountered Christianity after he fled to China in 1998. He was arrested by Chinese police and sent back home in 2001, and after serving several months in prison he attempted to share his faith with his parents. In 2002, J.M. escaped to South Korea so he could worship freely, and is today a Seoul-based pastor trying to promote Christianity in North Korea.

Pastor Peter Jung explains that his group provides shelter, food, and money to North Koreans visiting Chinese border towns. Before they return home, Jung said his group asks the North Korean visitors to memorize Bible verses or carry Bibles with them to share the Gospel with their friends and family.

Jung’s wife, Lee Han Byeol, also a North Korean refugee living in Seoul, recalled watching her father pray whenever her mother slipped into China. “I saw him praying many times. … My mom risked her life to go to China illegally to feed our family.” Lee said she didn’t know about Christianity at the time, as her father kept his faith to himself until his death in an apparent effort to protect his family.

According to statistics from the U.S. State Department, an estimated 120,000 Christians, defectors, and political dissidents are imprisoned in North Korean labor concentration camps where they face brutal torture.

[Christian Examiner]

North Korea asks for food aid while hinting at rocket launch

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Kim Jong Un went into his summit with President Trump with one objective: relief from international sanctions crippling North Korea’s economy. Having come away from the Hanoi summit empty-handed, North Korea is now inching toward provocation and simultaneously tugging at heartstrings.

Satellite images have detected activity at a launch facility and a missile manufacturing complex — sites North Korea knows full well are being closely watched — signaling the country may be gearing up for a rocket launch, and rattling nerves in Washington.

At the same time, the United Nations last week said that harvests in North Korea were down 9% in 2018, the lowest yield in a decade, and that 3.8 million people — 1 out of 7 North Koreans — were urgently in need of “life-saving aid.”

In a leaked memo in the lead-up to the Hanoi summit, a North Korean official pleaded for assistance from international organizations to address an impending food shortage that he said was caused not only by abnormally high temperatures and natural disasters, but by “barbaric and inhuman sanctions.”

For the moment, much of Washington’s attention is trained on the potential provocation. Commercial satellite images signal North Korea is taking steps to launch a rocket, analysts said.

Melissa Hanham, a nuclear expert at the One Earth Future Foundation, said in all likelihood, North Korea will launch a space rocket rather than test a missile. Even so, the timing would send a message, she said.

Hazel Smith, a veteran North Korea scholar who was previously based in North Korea working for U.N. agencies, said it would be a “very big mistake” to dismiss the request for aid as a government ploy. Smith, professor of international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said there was no doubt restrictions on North Korea’s oil imports — imposed in September 2017 — led to decreased agricultural productivity.

At least one country has heeded North Korea’s plea. Russia shipped 2,092 tons of wheat in humanitarian aid to feed children and pregnant women. Emblazoned in blue across the length of the white 50 kg sacks, with the stamp of the World Food Programme, were the words: “Gift of Russian Federation.”

[Los Angeles Times]

U.N. says 11 Million North Koreans are not getting enough food and kids are stunted

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An estimated 11 million people in North Korea — over 43 percent of the population — are undernourished and “chronic food insecurity and malnutrition is widespread,” according to a U.N. report issued Wednesday.

The report by Tapan Mishra, the head of the U.N. office in North Korea, said that “widespread undernutrition threatens an entire generation of children, with one in five children stunted due to chronic undernutrition.” With only limited health care and a lack of access to clean water and sanitation, “children are also at risk of dying from curable diseases,” the report added.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters that the U.N. humanitarian team in the country is calling for $120 million “to urgently provide life-saving aid to 3.8 million people.” Without adequate funding this year, some agencies providing desperately needed help to North Koreans will be forced to close down, he said.

Mishra’s report said North Korea faces annual shortfalls in agricultural production because of a shortage of arable land, lack of access to modern agricultural equipment and fertilizers, and recurrent natural disasters. Last year, it said, there was a severe heat wave in provinces considered to be the country’s “food basket,” and the food situation was further aggravated by Typhoon Soulik in late August.

He said an estimated 3 percent of children under age 5 — approximately 140,000 — “suffer from wasting or acute malnutrition” and “have a higher risk of mortality. … The main underlying causes of wasting are poor household food security, inadequate feeding and care practices, as well as poor access to health, water, hygiene and sanitation services.”

While U.N. Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs are supposed to exempt humanitarian activities, “humanitarian agencies continue to face serious unintended consequences on their programs,” Mishra said. He cited “lack of funding, the absence of a banking channel for humanitarian transfers and challenges to the delivery of humanitarian supplies. … The continued risk-averse approach taken by suppliers and some authorities in transit countries … continues to cause significant delays in the delivery of life-saving humanitarian assistance.”

[TIME]

Trump lets Kim Jong-un off the hook for Otto Warmbier’s death

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President Donald Trump faced a bipartisan backlash after saying he did not believe North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was responsible for the death of American student Otto Warmbier.

“I don’t believe he knew about it,” Trump said of Kim. “He tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word.”

Trump’s comments are a reversal from his past statements. In his 2018 State of the Union address, he criticized North Korea’s “depraved character” and blamed the country’s “dictatorship” for Warmbier’s injuries and eventual death.

Warmbier, 22, was arrested for taking a propaganda banner from a hotel while on a visit to Pyongyang in January 2016 and later sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. He suffered horrific injuries and died shortly after being released from 17 months of detention.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Thursday called the president’s remarks strange. “There’s something wrong –with Putin, Kim Jong Un, in my view, thugs — that the president chooses to believe,” she said.

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Fox News, “Look, Otto Warmbier, they made a spectacle out of him to the world. Accusing him of being a traitor, a spy. And they executed him. The blood of Otto Warmbier is on the hands of Kim Jong Un. There is no doubt in my mind that he knew about it, he allowed it to happen, and the responsibility lies directly with Kim Jong Un,” he said.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said Trump’s remarks show he believed an “obvious lie” by Kim. “Otto Warmbier’s bogus arrest and brutal murder was an international incident,” Warner said. “Of course, Kim knew about it. Apparently, the president of the United States is the only one who believes this obvious lie.”

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., accused Trump of flinching in front of Kim regarding the student’s death: “No American president has ever cowered in front of dictators like @realDonaldTrump,” he said in a tweet.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, tweeted Thursday. “… accepting Kim’s denial of involvement in Warmbier’s death? Detestable, and harkens back to Trump’s duplicitous acceptances of denials from other dictators.”

“Americans know the cruelty that was placed on Otto Warmbier by the North Korean regime,” Nikki Haley, Trump’s former U.N. ambassador, tweeted Thursday.

Former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania told CNN that it was “reprehensible” that Trump gave cover to Kim regarding Warmbier’s death. “… This is reprehensible what he just did. I mean he gave cover … to a leader who knew very well what was going on with Otto Warmbier. And again, I don’t understand why the president does this, I am disappointed to say the least that he did it.”

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said it’s hard to believe that Kim didn’t know what happened to Warmbier, comparing it to Trump taking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s word over U.S. intelligence that Russia didn’t interfere in the 2016 elections. “I think the president is very gullible in this regard,” she said. “He seems to have a very odd affinity toward dictators … it is very odd, and I think it’s misplaced.”

[NBC News]

Through Lunar New Year feast, North Korean defectors draw attention to their plight

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As Minji Kim sliced spring onions and stirred pots of broth with dumplings in a pop-up kitchen in east London, the North Korean defector beamed with pride knowing that dozens of Britons had come to celebrate Lunar New Year and taste North Korean cuisine.  Kim, who declined to reveal her real name fearing repercussions since her family is still in North Korea, said she was delighted to demonstrate how to make her country’s specialities. “I feel grateful because, in a way, it means that there’s interest in North Korean people and culture,” the 42-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation through a translator.

Kim is one of about 700 North Korean refugees living in New Malden, southwest of London, who have fled the regime accused of widespread human rights abuses.

Another refugee, Jihyun Park, who was granted asylum in Britain in 2008, said she hoped efforts like the Lunar New Year event could help raise awareness of their plight. “When we eat together and have a meal and we talk … we can learn about other people, they also learn about us,” said Park, who is also an outreach manager with Connect North Korea, the group that organized the event and also provides English classes for refugees.

Though she has lived in Britain for a decade, Park said the existence of the North Korean community in the country remains under the radar. “Many people are surprised that there are North Koreans here. They say, ‘You are really North Korean?’ said Park, a former maths teacher who was sold to a Chinese farmer when she crossed the border into China.

Safe passage for defectors fleeing the oppressive regime often depends on their ability to make the grueling, and at times dangerous, trip across rural China without being detected.  Activists believe thousands of North Koreans are in hiding in China. Those sent back to the totalitarian state risk incarceration, forced labor and even execution.

Park said she hopes the international community will do more to help defectors and speak up against the regime. “No one helps us. It’s up to ourselves to find freedom. This world is always silent,” Park said.

[Reuters]

North Korean defector: Adapting to rules and norms of a new culture

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When Jessie first arrived in South Korea, she was overwhelmed: She was by herself, in an unfamiliar country.  So much was unknown: how to get around, where to study, how to make new friends, and even where to buy groceries.

She wasn’t used to this new culture’s rules and norms. The first time she heard someone publicly criticize the South Korean president she was stunned. Freely expressing any negative thoughts about the government was unheard of in North Korea.

Jessie now understands her new culture and loves her freedoms, especially being able to watch whatever dramas she wants without fear of punishment.

South Korea has become her home, but she still longs for the day she can return to North Korea. Her parents have both passed away and she wants to go and pay her respects in person.

[LiNK]

Defectors say Christians in North Korea face terrible persecution

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While Donald Trump says there is a “good chance” of reaching a deal on North Korean nuclear disarmament, the plight of Christians in North Korea remains dismal, an Associated Press report revealed this week.

Defectors say Christians in North Korea face terrible persecution. Even Christians who stay deep underground face danger, defectors now living in South Korea told the wire service.

Defectors’ stories include that of Kwak Jeong-ae, 65, who said a fellow inmate in North Korea told guards about her own religious beliefs and insisted on using her baptized name, rather than her original Korean name, during questioning in 2004: “She persisted in saying, ‘My name is Hyun Sarah; it’s the name that God and my church have given to me,’” Kwak said. “She told (the interrogators), ‘I’m a child of God and I’m not scared to die. So if you want to kill me, go ahead and kill me.’”

Kwak said Hyun told her about what she did during the interrogations, and Hyun’s actions were confirmed to Kwak by another inmate who was interrogated alongside her. Kwak said she later saw Hyun, then 23, coming back from an interrogation room with severe bruises on her forehead and bleeding from her nose. Days later, guards took Hyun away for good.

Another defector said she only prayed under a blanket or in the bathroom because of worries of being caught. Another, who was jailed after being repatriated from China, where many Koreans took refuge during a 1990s-era famine, described praying silently in his jail cell after a hungry fellow prisoner shared some precious kernels of corn. “We communicated by writing on our palms (with our fingers),” he told AP. “I told him I was a Christian and asked whether he was too.”

Jung Gwangil, a North Korean defector-turned-activist, and one of the few who allowed AP to use his name in print, said he saw a man praying and singing hymns when they were held together at a detention facility in the northern city of Hoeryong in October 1999. The man was beaten frequently and one day was hauled away, Jung said. “While leaving, he shouted to us, ‘God will save you.’ I hadn’t encountered Christianity before at the time, and [at the time] I thought he was crazy,” Jung told the wire service.

 [Aleteia]

North Korean human rights left behind

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A year ago, the White House was lit with glowing Christmas trees when Ji Seong-ho arrived for a holiday reception, an opu­lence he could not have imagined as a boy in North Korea. In the Grand Foyer, to the strains of the U.S. Marine Band, Ji made a wish that his former countrymen would “be liberated one day” and witness such grandeur.

Ji rose to prominence as an activist after defecting to South Korea and played a key role in President Trump’s risky strategy to build the international pressure that helped bring North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table over his nuclear weapons program.

Trump shared Ji’s personal story during his State of the Union address to shine a light on the brutality of Kim’s regime and praise the human spirit to overcome tyranny in a bid for freedom. It was an emotional appeal to the world that, beyond the existential nuclear threat, North Korea’s authoritarian leader was enacting savagery on his own people every day. Watching from first lady Melania Trump’s box in the House chambers, Ji stood and raised a pair of crutches over his head — a reminder of his amputated leg — to a standing ovation from both political parties.

Much has changed. Since Ji’s starring role in last year’s State of the Union, Trump has said almost nothing about the plight of the North Korean people, more than 100,000 of whom are estimated to be held in hard-labor prison camps. Instead, the president has abruptly shifted from a “fire and fury” condemnation of the North to an unprecedented strategy of engagement with Kim, which led to their historic summit in Singapore last June.

Their joint declaration after the meeting made no mention of human rights, and Trump has spoken warmly of Kim since then. He has said Kim has shown “courage” in moving forward with negotiations and often speaks about the “beautiful” letters the North Korean leader has sent him. At a campaign rally last fall, Trump told the crowd that as the two men got to know each another they “fell in love.” “We have a fantastic chemistry,” Trump said in an interview with CBS News that aired Sunday.

Gone are the denunciations of the abuses Kim inflicts on his people. A second summit is tentatively booked for late February. Ji and several other North Korean defectors who visited the Oval Office a year ago remain uncertain whether their partnership with Trump will lead to the human rights improvements that they have sought.

[Washington Post]

Listening to South Korean radio could send you to a political prison camp or even execution

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Ill Yong opens Google Maps, trying to find a satellite image of his childhood house. This always makes him homesick. When he zooms in on his house, a blurry gray square surrounded by snow, he remembers the nearby waterfall and the summer days he spent playing there. But he also remembers how hard it was living in North Korea.

His family listened to illegal South Korean radio every night but had to keep it hidden from friends and neighbors. If caught, they could have been sent to a political prison camp or even executed.

Ill Yong resettled to South Korea in 2009 and, even though his family was with him, starting over in a new country was challenging. The everyday moments took adjusting to.

His first time at a buffet, Ill Yong was so overwhelmed by the massive amount of food that he just took a small bowl of rice.

The first time he tried to use an escalator he was so confused about what to do that he jumped on at the bottom and then jumped off at the top.

Ill Yong is studying to become a Human Rights lawyer. A lot has changed since he first arrived (he now knows how to get on an escalator) but he still thinks about his old home in North Korea and hopes to see it again in person one day.

[LiNK]