Category: Humanitarian Aid and Relief

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]

Adrian Hong, LINK and Free Joseon – Part 1

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Adrian Hong was born in 1984 in Tijuana, where his parents had immigrated from South Korea. His father was a Tae Kwon Do master who converted to Christianity and became a missionary. The family moved to San Diego when Adrian was six, but his father founded an orphanage in Mexico to which Adrian often returned, delivering donated supplies and helping to give aid to the homeless. Later, he conducted relief missions in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

According to those who knew Adrian at the time, his motivations seemed less religious than humanitarian. Adrian, like his father, taught Tae Kwon Do and is a practicing Christian, but, when I asked him about his faith, he said, “I make it a rule not to discuss personal beliefs. I am more concerned about freedom of belief.” Adrian admired people who effected great change; among them Martin Luther King, Jr. Adrian loved King’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable, which tells us, when confronted with someone in need, to ask not “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” but “If I don’t stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

While attending Yale, Adrian became interested in the plight of North Koreans. In 2003, while visiting Los Angeles, Adrian, then a junior, was sitting with Paul (PK) Kim, a standup comic eight years older, at a café called Blink, on Wilshire Boulevard. They had met when Adrian invited PK to a campus event, and they often discussed starting an organization to help North Koreans. One of them looked up at the café’s sign, and decided to take the “B” out of the name and call the new group LINKLiberty in North Korea. It was launched early the next year, at the Korean American Students Conference at Yale, which Adrian had organized.

Traveling to two or three college campuses a week, Adrian would give presentations about the horrors of life in North Korea, sometimes screening the documentary film “Seoul Train,” which follows defectors escaping to China. LINK was “ninety per cent Adrian,” PK told me. LINK sought out college students who, PK said, “need to be a part of something.” Adrian told me, “I built LINK on Xanga,” a blog-based social network then popular among Asian Americans, where he had been active since 1999.

Ki Hong Lee, a thirty-four-year-old Korean American actor who has appeared on the Netflix sitcom “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” met Adrian at an event in 2005, when Lee was an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley. “If you spend three hours with Adrian, he makes you want to become a better person, do things you never thought about doing,” Lee told me. Lee helped start a chapter of LINK at Berkeley, and eventually he and Adrian traveled to South Korea to volunteer for an outreach program called Project Sunshine, which tried to raise awareness of the suffering of North Koreans. “You don’t really call someone to say, ‘Hey, you know what’s going on in the world that is messed up?’ ” Lee said. “He was that person I could do that with.”

Adrian dropped out of Yale in his senior year, and set up LINK’s ad-hoc headquarters in Manhattan’s Koreatown, before moving it to Washington, D.C. By then, there were nearly seventy local chapters. A close friend who helped get LINK off the ground told me, “Adrian knew that sometimes you have to work outside a diplomatic norm in order to reach something meaningful.”

In 2004, George W. Bush signed the North Korean Human Rights Act, which made North Koreans broadly eligible for political asylum in the U.S. Two years later, Adrian and two other members of LINK traveled to Yanji, in northeast China, where they met four women and two teen-age boys who had escaped from North Korea and were hiding in an underground shelter. If the defectors were caught by Chinese authorities, they might be returned to North Korea, where they would be imprisoned in labor camps and risk execution. Adrian and the LINK workers accompanied them on a twenty-hour train ride to Shenyang, the site of the nearest U.S. consulate, to apply for asylum. But the consular officers turned them away, telling Adrian, over a phone line that had likely been tapped by the Chinese government, to go instead to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Beijing, some four hundred miles away. Adrian got in touch with the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which also directed him to the U.N.H.C.R. Chinese police arrested everyone the LINK members were jailed for about a week before being deported; the North Koreans were detained for more than six months. After much pressure from LINK and other activist groups, the defectors were eventually freed and they flew to South Korea.

Adrian called the actions of the U.S. consulate “unacceptable and shameful.” In 2007, he wrote on the Web site Freekorea.us, “My experiences in December showed me that three years after the North Korean Human Rights Act has passed, nothing has changed on the ground for North Koreans.”

 [Suki Kim, writing in The New Yorker] Read more below

Adrian Hong, LINK and Free Joseon – Part 2

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In 2008, Jay Lefkowitz, the special envoy under Bush, says that Adrian was an “effective and ardent advocate.” By then, LINK had a hundred chapters worldwide.

Yet Adrian’s experience in China had shifted something in him; in 2008, he abruptly resigned from the group. According to a journalist who knew him at the time, Adrian appeared to be severing ties with his former life.

That year, Adrian started a think tank called the Joseon Institute, to generate a plan for a civil society in North Korea should the regime collapse. Between 2009 and 2012, Adrian served as a TED fellow; he also spent a year at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy.

Adrian found the world of N.G.O.s and advocacy groups unsatisfying. “We have all collectively accomplished almost nothing,” he told me. For years, the U.N.’s General Assembly and the Human Rights Council have voted to adopt resolutions condemning the human-rights violations of the North Korean regime. In 2014, U.N. investigators concluded, “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

“Raising awareness through college lectures, tours, concerts, and bake sales wasn’t enough,” Adrian told me. “Rescuing refugees through the underground work in China and Southeast Asia wasn’t enough. Advocacy, trying to convince governments to change their policies to do the right thing, wasn’t enough. So then what was left was direct action.”

In 2010, Adrian started Cheollima Civil Defense (later renamed Free Joseon), but he did not make its existence known to the public. (“Cheollima” is the Korean equivalent of Pegasus, and during these years he listed his title as managing director of Pegasus Strategies L.L.C.)

In June, 2019, I flew to Europe to meet with members of Free Joseon. They explained that the group had hundreds of members, in ten countries. Adrian indicates there are thousands, in more than fifteen countries. Both numbers are impossible to verify, and the vagueness seems to be intentional. The group operates in a decentralized manner, so that, if one member is arrested, others won’t be jeopardized. The more I tried to follow Free Joseon, the more it became obvious that Adrian was the only person who really knew the extent of the group.

A Free Joseon member in the U.S. told me that he had been involved in several operations, all of them rescue missions involving élite defectors.

 [The New Yorker]

North Korean defector triggers border security concerns in South Korea

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A North Korean made his way to freedom on Tuesday across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the Korean Peninsula. And the ease with which he penetrated South Korean defenses on the world’s most heavily fortified border is causing concerns.

South Korean troops patrolling the heavily militarized border failed to immediately apprehend an intruder, and critics point out that this is just the latest in a series of similar security breaches.

The man, believed to be a defector, has not been named. He was initially detected close to the eastern extremity of the DMZ by surveillance equipment at 7:26 p.m. on Tuesday. To reach that point he had already scaled barbed-wire fences and traversed mine fields laid by the North Koreans to stop people from defecting. 

Fearing that the intruder might be a spy attempting to infiltrate the South or a member of a North Korean assault team, South Korean border troops immediately issued a level-two alert and dispatched personnel to locate the man. It was not until 9:50 a.m. the following morning, however, that the man was confronted.

In the intervening hours, he had climbed over three barbed-wire fences without setting off any alarms and was about 1.5 kilometers (0.93 miles) inside South Korean territory. Local media have reported that forward-facing sensors on the fences, which are designed to automatically sound an alarm when someone is detected approaching, malfunctioned.

“Obviously, I am happy to hear that this North Korean person was able to escape and was not injured, but that border is meant to be strong to protect us against provocations from the North and it is very worrying to hear that someone was able to get through it so easily,” said Song Young-chae, who works for the human rights organization “The Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocide in North Korea”. 

[Deutsche Welle]

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]