A blog by Grant Montgomery, co-founder of Family Care Foundation, a 501c3 that provides emergency services and sustained development for families on 5 continents. This site highlights the plight of 300,000 North Koreans who have fled their country due to the brutal oppression of a Stalinist North Korean regime, as well as those still living in North Korea.
A North Korean soldier fled across a heavily fortified border to defect to South Korea early on Saturday, the military in Seoul said, just as the rivals began taking steps to reduce military tensions.
South Korean soldiers escorted the defector to safety after finding him moving south of the eastern side of the military demarcation line that bisects the Koreas, South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said.
The incident came as Donald Trump reaffirmed in a meeting with his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in that he wants a second summit with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. Trump and Moon, meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, “reaffirmed their commitment to achieve the final, fully verified denuclearization” of North Korea, Trump spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.
South Korean authorities said they would question the defecting soldier over the details of his escape.
The North’s official media has not reported about Saturday’s case. Pyongyang has frequently accused Seoul of kidnapping or enticing its citizens to defect.
In November 2017 a North Korean soldier, Oh Chong-song, was critically wounded in a jointly controlled area after he fled to the South amid a hail of bullets fired by his former comrades.
North Korea’s appalling human rights record has become the latest barrier to a rapprochement between Pyongyang and Washington.
The North Korean government accused the United States this week of “stoking confrontation” and “inciting an atmosphere of hostility” by calling a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss human rights in the country, according to the Associated Press.
Earlier this month, the U.N. General Assembly’s human rights committee adopted an annual resolution expressing deep concern “at the grave human rights situation, the pervasive culture of impunity and the lack of accountability for human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” The resolution was co-sponsored by 61 countries, including South Korea, and is certain to be adopted by the 193-member General Assembly next month for the 14th year in a row. The U.N. Security Council has also discussed North Korean human rights in each of the past four years.
But North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, Kim Song, accused the United States and other, unnamed countries of “trying to employ all possible wicked and sinister methods” to hold a council meeting on Dec. 10. A government commentary said the complaints about human rights were cooked up by defectors, describing them as “human scum who ran away after committing unpardonable crimes, who had turned their back upon their parents and children, and who would do anything for small amounts of money.”
North Korean Ambassador Kim sent letters to all council members except the United States, urging them to vote against holding the meeting, according to the Associated Press, which obtained a copy of the letter. An equally angry commentary was published Monday in Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Workers’ Party of Korea, accusing Washington of using human rights to secure more concessions in talks about the North’s nuclear program.
In October, the United Nations’ independent investigator on human rights, Tomás Ojea Quintana, told the General Assembly that the human rights situation inside North Korea has not improved despite progress on peace and security this year. In 2014, a report by a U.N. panel found “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations” in North Korea without parallel in the world, which in many cases constituted “crimes against humanity” and were the result of policies established “at the highest level” of the state. These crimes included murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, enforced disappearances and knowingly causing prolonged starvation.
After Seon-mi’s mother escaped North Korea, hoping to find her way to South Korea, she was sold by traffickers to a man in a northeastern Chinese village. The man was a violent schizophrenic, but the mother was trapped. She lacked proper papers in China and was vulnerable to forced repatriation to North Korea, where she could face imprisonment, torture or worse. The two had a child, Seon-mi, who is now 11.
“I used to cry in the corner of the room while my father thrashed my mom,” Seon-mi recalled of her early years in China. “She once attempted suicide with rat poison.” When Seon-mi was about 6, her Chinese father murdered his own parents with a knife and then killed himself. But before he did so, he slashed Seon-mi nine times in the chin, neck and shoulder. Despite repeated plastic surgeries in South Korea, which the mother and daughter finally reached, the girl’s scars are still visible.
Seon-mi’s mother reached South Korea with the help of a smuggler and later sent for Seon-mi, who could go there legally because, having been born in China, she held a Chinese passport.
When children were born in China, South Korea’s government does not officially consider them defectors from the North. That means they get limited access to the governmental support normally given to defectors, like free health care, free college enrollment and housing subsidies.
Once enrolled in South Korean schools, classmates often taunt them for their background and for not speaking Korean well. Further complicating matters is that their mothers often start new families with men they meet in South Korea, straining ties at home.
Many drop out of school and end up in shelters, like the Rev. Chun Ki-won’s Durihana International School in Seoul, as Seon-mi did soon after her arrival in South Korea in 2015. Read more
“These children are more disadvantaged than North Korean defectors themselves,” Mr. Chun said. “Giving them South Korean citizenship is about all the government does for them.”
Inside the Durihana International School and shelter in Seoul, a choir of defectors’ children practiced with teenage volunteers from South Korean families. Most of the 60 children in the shelter were born in China, to a North Korean mother who had defected and ended purchased by and indentured to Chinese men.
“I am not alone,” they sang. “For all my scars, I can still smile.”
“Making the refugee children smile has been one of the hardest parts of the choir practice,” said Kim Hee-churl, the general manager of the Korean Federation for Choral Music, who volunteered to coach the children. “This is more like a therapy session to instill them with self-confidence.”
Da-hee, 13, who was born in South Korea, used to get into fistfights with classmates who called her a “commie” because both of her parents had fled the North. By the time she was brought to the shelter in August, she had been living on the streets, smoking, drinking and stealing coins from laundromats.
Mi-yeon, 15, grew up in Mudanjiang in northeastern China, where she often saw her alcoholic Chinese father beat up her North Korean mother. Amid the family violence, Mi-yeon learned that her father had “bought” her mother for 6,500 renminbi (about $943). Her father once reported her mother as an illegal migrant to the Chinese police, so she was sent back to North Korea. After she was released from prison there and made her way back to China, he bought her again.
Mi-yeon tagged along when her mother fled China with the help of smugglers in 2014. On their way to South Korea via Laos, the two met other North Korean women fleeing the Chinese men who had purchased them. One woman said her “husband” showed her off by forcing her to appear naked before his friends.
“Many Chinese men treated their North Korean wives nicely, buying them identification documents, but others treated their women like slaves or toys,” Mi-yeon said. “I wanted my mom to live free from my father and free from the fear of getting caught by the Chinese police and sent back to North Korea again.”
In South Korea, Mi-yeon had trouble making friends in school after rumors spread that she was from China. Her mother worked overtime and hardly had time to look after her, and she began seeing another man. So Mi-yeon came to the shelter in 2016.
In a barely audible voice, Won-hyok, 14, added that he and his younger brother preferred the shelter to living with their father, his new wife and their baby.
Russian authorities have reportedly arrested, tried and repatriated a North Korean worker who was preparing to defect from a labor camp in the Russian Far East, with human rights activists suggesting Moscow has started to cooperate with Pyongyang in its crackdown on defectors.
The worker – identified as 29-year-old Jun Kyung-chul – had served as a private in the North Korean People’s Army before being sent to work in Russia about one year ago, the Daily NK, a Seoul-based dissident news site, reported. Unhappy at the grueling work conditions, he had made plans to defect to South Korea before being caught.
An unnamed source told the Daily NK that North Korean authorities requested the assistance of Russia in detaining Mr Jun, who was put on trial in the city of Vladivostok on November 7. Mr Jun was convicted, handed over to the custody of representatives of the Pyongyang government and transferred over the border to North Korea the same day. Human rights activists say the speed with which the investigators acted and the Russian authorities’ apparent disregard for Mr Jun’s likely fate should be cause for concern.
“If other defectors’ cases are anything to go by, it is very likely that he and all his extended family will have been sent to a political prison camp”, said Ken Kato, director of the Japan branch of Human Rights in Asia.
There are reports that as many as 50,000 North Koreans are working in slave-like conditions in mines, factories and logging camps in Siberia, with their wages paid directly to the government in Pyongyang.
As living examples of some of North Korea’s worst abuses, defectors have long been the public face of campaigns to pressure Pyongyang to change its ways. But amid international efforts to improve ties with North Korea, many of the 32,000 North Korean refugees in South Korea say they feel like political pawns, suddenly discarded.
One veteran journalist at the Chosun Ilbo, a major South Korean newspaper, was last month denied access by the South Korean government to cover a round of negotiations with North Korea because he was a defector. An official at the newspaper referred to an editorial saying the ban on the journalist was part of the government’s censorship and maltreatment of defectors for the sake of the inter-Korean thaw.
“They asked how I felt about Kim coming to the South, and I said we should not be deceived by him because I don’t think he has changed,” Choi said. “But then my air-time was suddenly cut to one first sentence from what would have been a regular one hour otherwise.”
“The Moon administration is … unfortunately, cutting support for these marginalized groups and even trying to censor their voices,” said Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer at the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, who met dozens of defectors during a visit to Seoul last month.
Another defector, Heo Seong-il, sought asylum in the United States in August, after facing years of what he says was harassment by the South Korean government, including a three-year jail term on espionage charges he says were false. Heo had hoped for a better life after Moon was sworn in, only to realize things would get worse for defectors as the president pushed for peace with the North.
“When I was in the North, the South was my emotional support. I didn’t know it is a country where the government… can completely ignore a citizen’s life,” Heo, 36, told Reuters from the United States. “I would rather live like a hobo here [in the USA]. I don’t see a future in South Korea.”
Giving his first interview since his defection last November, Oh Chong-song told Japanese and South Korean media that he’s a “new person with a new name” in South Korea, and that one of the first things he remembers following his emergency life-saving surgery, was seeing the South Korean flag.
The then-24-year-old was shot around five times by his fellow North Korean soldiers as he made his daring escape across the line that divides North and South Korea. Riddled with bullets, he was dragged to safety by South Korean soldiers and hovered close to death during the 25-minute airlift to hospital. The South Korean military doctor who operated on him called him “a broken jar. We couldn’t put enough blood into him.”
He told Japanese newspaper Sankei, that the soldiers who shot him were his friends, but that he understood their position. “If they don’t shoot, they will be severely punished. If I were in their position I would have shot me too.” He said “trouble” with his army friends led to his decision to flee, but declined to elaborate.
He said he was hospitalized until February, and still goes to hospital regularly. He said the nerves in his arm were removed, so he “can’t feel it” when he pinches it.
Oh was born into a relatively well-off military family. He joined the military in 2010, becoming a middle-ranking officer who was working as a driver for a senior officer stationed in the Joint Security Area (JSA) in the DMZ.
Nevertheless, he said that hunger remained a big part of life in the impoverished country. “If you don’t have money or power, you die in a ditch,” he said.
He added that widespread shortages of food and goods had led to a general apathy towards the leadership and an “indifference” towards leader Kim Jong Un. “People my age, about 80% of them are indifferent and they don’t feel loyal towards (Kim). Not being able to feed the people properly, but the hereditary succession keeps going on — that results in indifference and no loyalty.”
Oh, who was found to be infested with parasites when he underwent medical examination in the South, attributed to the use of human feces as fertilizer for the problem — saying that “most people have parasites” in the country.
Scott Kim first escaped North Korea at the age of 17, and ended up in and out of China for six years. Paying a broker to make it to South Korea was far out of reach for Kim and his mother. Instead, they lived as undocumented immigrants and worked as farm laborers in China. But one year after escaping North Korea, Kim’s neighbor reported his status to the police, who brought him and his mother back to North Korea.
Kim was taken to a detention center, where authorities determine where to send defectors next. He was put in a cell with 20 other defectors. There was one toilet in the corner and no space to lie down. Day and night, the defectors sat on the ground. When he or other defectors were told to proceed down the corridor to the warden’s office, they were made to crawl on their hands and feet. Officers beat them with gloves and sticks as they went. “We lost all our rights as human beings,” Kim said. “We were treated like animals, literally. We had to crawl on the floor to move from place to place.”
Despite the fact that one of North Korea’s biggest reeducation camps is in Chongori, near his hometown in Musan, Kim was sent to a center further south. Because no one knew him — and internet and phone service was nonexistent at the time — he was able to lie about his age, telling guards he was only 15 years old and had been in China looking for his mother. Rather than send him to one of the country’s brutal labor camps or political camps, he was sent to a center for orphaned children.
Shortly after arriving, he escaped and went back to China, where he got work as a farm laborer near Helong, a city in northeastern China. “Every day, I planted, farmed, logged on the mountain. Corn, beans, potatoes,” he said. “Life was better because I was not starving. I could eat and be full after meals.”
Kim was caught a second time, a neighbor again reporting him to the police. This second time he was sent back to North Korea, he wasn’t so lucky. He was sent to the concentration camp near his hometown. From there he was sent to a labor camp, where for months he chopped down trees on a mountain. He escaped one day when he realized that all his fellow laborers were at the top of the mountain chopping while he was at the bottom. He ran away as fast as he could until he found a train that he could take him north to cross the border with China again.
After some time in China, he was caught a third time and sent to a camp for political prisoners — the worst place to be sent, as imprisonment there is interminable. He escaped the camp by bribing the authorities through a broker, who helped him make it across the border with China a final time.
In China, he went back to work to pay off his debt to the broker. One day, he got a call from a North Korean woman who told him that his mother was dying of cancer. For the first time in many years, the two saw each other. “When I opened the door of my mother’s house, I froze, and couldn’t say anything, because my mother looked incredibly different,” he said. “There was no fat on her, and her whole body looked like a triangle, I just went outside and cried for a long time and came back again, and I embraced my mother and we cried together.”
Several days later, a friend of his mother offered his mother the opportunity to escape to South Korea via Laos and Cambodia. A broker was taking a group; they had an extra space. Unable to walk, Kim’s mother told Kim he had to go and become educated. Once he was settled, she said, he could bring her and help others in need. He decided to go. The night before Kim and the group of defectors were to cross the border into Laos, he received a call telling him that his mother had died.
In 2007, six years after he first escaped, Kim finally made it to South Korea.
Seong Ho grew up in North Korea during the extreme famine of the 1990s. To survive, the young teen would often swipe coal from train cars in exchange for food – which was rarely more than rats and grass.
But tragedy struck one day in 1996. Malnourished, exhausted and slowly starving to death, Seong-ho – whose own grandmother died of starvation – fainted, fell onto the tracks and was struck by a train. In the bloody aftermath, nearby soldiers wrapped his fragile frame in old rags, and shuffled him to a barely functioning hospital in a cart. The wailing boy had to have his left hand and foot amputated – without anesthesia, without anything to dull the horrifying agony.
From there, life as a disabled child in an impoverished, closed society only became lonelier, as he was made fend for himself. Four years later, Seong Ho snuck into China to collect food scraps – but upon returning, was arrested and tortured by North Korean authorities.
That made up his mind: He couldn’t stay. Six years later, in 2006, Seong-ho finally fled – with just an old pair of wooden crutches – across the Tumen River into China. From there he went into Laos, then Thailand, finally ending up in South Korea.
Now living in Seoul, Seong Ho is studying law at Dongguk University.
The National Geographic series presents archival footage, including scenes of starvation, executions, unbridled power and repression, that are likely to dispel the illusions of even die-hard pro-Northers that Kim might really be a nice guy at heart—a congenial successor to his dictatorial father, the late Kim Jong Il, and the dynasty founder Kim Il Sung. Interspersed are commentaries by veteran journalists who have visited North Korea many times, notably Mike Chinoy, formerly of CNN, and Jean Lee, formerly Associated Press. Neither is exactly hard-line.
They and assorted experts, and historical figures from news clips and newsreels, plus hard-to-get footage of everyday cruelty and hardships dug up by producers Mark Raphael and David Glover, give an unvarnished picture that won’t please apologists for the current ruler or his forebears—or convince wishful thinkers that real peace is at hand.
This epic documentary, colorful, quoteful, insightful, should definitely rekindle interest among a TV-watching public that may have forgotten about North Korea amid ongoing massacres, sporadic violence and political yakking at home. The timing is most opportune.