“Inside North Korea’s Dynasty” documentary by National Geographic

Inside North Korea’s Dynasty,” a four-segment series from National Geographic documentary films that’s airing this month.

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.

[Daily Beast]

North Korean women suffer serious sexual violence by authorities

Sexual violence against women by authorities, government officials and police is part of daily life in North Korea, according to a new report by  the international non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch, which based its data on two years of interviews with more than 50 North Koreans who left the country — more than half of them after 2011. Titled, “You Cry at Night but Don’t Know Why,” the report claims to give viewers an inside look at what happens in detention facilities, open markets, checkpoints, trains and army bases.

The report detailed sexual abuse by men in official positions of power, such as prison guards, police officers, prosecutors, soldiers and market supervisors. “The North Koreans we spoke with told us that unwanted sexual contact and violence is so common that it has come to be accepted as part of ordinary life: sexual abuse by officials, and the impunity they enjoy, is linked to larger patterns of sexual abuse and impunity in the country,” the report stated.

Defectors told the human rights group that government officials harmed them while they were in detention centers. “Interviewees told us that when a guard or police officer ‘picks’ a woman, she has no choice but to comply with any demands he makes, whether for sex, money or other favors,” the report said. “Women in custody have little choice should they attempt to refuse or complain afterward, and risk sexual violence, longer periods in detention, beatings, forced labor or increased scrutiny while conducting market activities.”

Yoon Mi Hwa, who fled the hermit kingdom in 2014, claimed in the report that a prison guard sexually abused her. “Click, click, click was the most horrible sound I ever heard,” she said. “It was the sound of the key of the cell of our prison room opening. Every night a prison guard would open the cell. I stood still quietly, acting like I didn’t notice, hoping it wouldn’t be me the one to have to follow the guard, hoping it wouldn’t be him.”

Oh Jung Hee, another woman interviewed in the report, said she had no idea she could resist the advances or report the sexual abuse. “It happens so often nobody thinks it is a big deal. Men who sexually assault women don’t think it is wrong, and we [women] do not either,” she said. “We don’t even realize when we are upset. But we are human, and we feel it. So sometimes, out of nowhere, you cry at night and don’t know why.”

Critics say North Korea’s human rights status has been ignored as nuclear negotiation talks continue. The report will likely anger North Korea, which often complains about what it claims is persistent U.S. hostility.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s propaganda service has billed the country as a “socialist paradise” free from crime, but Kenneth Roth, the executive director of the Human Rights Watch, said the regime could not ignore the report. “After this report, North Korea can’t say sexual violence doesn’t exist, so they have to either change their tune or fix the problem,” Roth said in a statement. “Kim Jong-un could stop this, he could enforce the laws North Korea already has on the books.”

[Fox News]

North Korea’s ‘bold and audacious’ millennials

From the outside, it might look like North Korea hasn’t changed much over the last seven decades. But from the inside, a fundamental shift has been taking place: an economic revolution led by a generation of millennials who grew up as capitalists in a theoretically-communist state.

They are the “Jangmadang Generation,” and they have emerged as the greatest force for change that North Korea has ever seen. Jangmadang are the markets that popped up during the devastating famine in the 1990s when the state could no longer provide for the people. North Koreans turned into entrepreneurs out of necessity. Those with corn made corn noodles; those with beans made tofu. Capitalism took root in this communist society, and the regime had to tolerate it or risk an uprising.

Take Joo Yang, who was 6 years old when the famine began and grew up seeing people dying of starvation or cold. She began thinking about doing business when she was 14, and started out by picking leftover soybeans from the chaff at a factory and selling them.

Or Kang Min, who was separated from his mother when he was 9 years old and never saw her again. He began a new life as a street beggar, or “flower swallow” as they are known in North Korea, and made his living as a pickpocket in the markets, working his way up to importing socks and batteries from China.

Or Danbi, who started importing clothes from China — copies of outfits worn in smuggled South Korean dramas — and had her good-looking friends walk through the markets in them, acting as human advertisements.

As a result of the famine, these kids grew up “bold and audacious,” says the mother of Geumju, another of the Jangmadang Generation.

Fast forward 20 years and those jangmadang are now the centerpiece of towns and cities across North Korea, having been retroactively legalized by a regime that knew it could not put this genie back in the bottle. Read more

[Washington Post]

Jangmadang generation at the forefront of social change inside North Korea

These days, markets throughout North Korea are not just a place for buying food, clothes and household goods. They have also become the clearing house for information from the outside world, a place where USB sticks loaded with foreign movies and soap operas can be bought.

A documentary, Jangmadang Generation, came about after North Korean escapees kept telling Sokeel Park, South Korea country director for LiNK (Liberty in North Korea), that the change inside the country was important. LiNK decided to make the film, to show that young North Koreans are not brainwashed automatons and are not just victims. That they have agency, and that they are at the forefront of social change inside North Korea.

“This is the most closed and repressive country in the world,” said Park, who directed and narrates the film. “But we wanted to let the audience see North Koreans are relatable people, to see that many of these people have experienced incredible loss and tragedy, but to also see the dynamism that is happening across the country.”

All the members of the Jangmadang Generation featured in the film escaped to South Korea, where they are now studying at universities or making their own way in the world. While older North Koreans often struggle to adapt to the fast-paced and ruthless capitalism of the South, people of this generation usually settle right in.

“Our generation grew up learning about and seeing freedom while being repressed by the government at the same time,” Huh Shimon said. “So our desire for freedom is strong.”

Asked to define freedom, he said: “Freedom means being able to work in a certain place if you want and not if you don’t want, being able to do your own business if you want, living where you want and being able to go where you want.”

[Washington Post]

What defectors say about the lives of North Korean women

Many of North Korea’s women suffer daily abuse and injustice, and there’s no sign that the situation is improving. In interviews with both male and female defectors, we hear about violations of basic rights that women inside North Korea face as a matter of routine.

Some interviewees talked about their ordeals in the face of domestic violence. One participant expressed her relief when her husband died after more than 20 years abusing her. According to her, there is no redress for North Korean women who are subject to ongoing violence within the household, which is often seen as legitimate treatment. Out of fear, most women suffer in silence in a society that has no term for sexual harassment.

Feeding starving families is largely left to women outside the formal workforce, who are subjected to less government control. These women are left to slip through the official system and get involved in black market trade or informal markets known as “Jangmadang”. Worse, some husbands take the goods their wives buy to exchange them for alcohol, even if their family has nothing to eat. If they do not, they are punished with abuse.  One participant described how North Korean women often call men in the household “guard dogs” – tough figureheads who stay at home making no particular contribution.

Sexual violence is also a common problem inside the army. Being able to join the Worker’s Party of Korea is an essential pathway to a secure, successful life in North Korea, and a major reason for women to join the army is to become a member of the party. Senior male officials frequently exploit this as a means to manipulate and harass young women, threatening to block their chances of joining the party if they refuse or attempt to report the abuse.

Female hygiene also remains a serious issue. Female soldiers are not given the chance to wash or change during training outside; my interviewees talked about women in the army being given wound dressings to use instead of sanitary towels. Things are even worse for ordinary female citizens, who have to make do with any materials available, such as off-cuts from men’s used vests or socks.

If they get pregnant unintentionally, women get the blame. Thus, many pregnant women use a range of dangerous methods to abort: tightening their stomach with an army belt to hide their growing pregnancy, taking anthelmintic medicine (antiparasitic drugs designed to remove parasitic worms from the body), or jumping off and rolling down the high mountain hills. Unsurprisingly, it’s common to find fetuses in army facilities’ toilets.

[Hyun-Joo Lim, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Bournemouth University, writing in “The Conversation”]

“We ate frogs because we were so hungry”

Pak Sool is one of nearly 100 North Korean students at the Yeomyung school in Seoul, a place designed to teach those new to South Korean society. The school is funded largely by donations from Christian groups and all the teachers are Christian, although the curriculum is not religiously focused.

During a recent biology class at the school, the students joked and misbehaved like any group of teenagers, but there were moments that exposed the trauma they have escaped. When the teacher turned to explanations of different types of animals, a picture of a frog flashes on a screen.

“We used to eat that because we were so hungry in North Korea,” one student says. “We don’t just eat the back legs, we eat everything, it’s very delicious.”

It was an unsentimental statement, said matter of factly, but it betrayed a hardship that few of his South Korean counterparts would ever experience.

“They can be smiling and laughing during the day and then at night still be haunted by nightmares,” says Hwang Heui-gun, a teacher at the school. “But they can’t talk about it, it’s too painful.”

Severe economic disparities between the two neighbors also play out in the classroom. Some students are forced to drop out and find work in order to send money to family members back in North Korea or contribute to their journey to the South.

[The Guardian]

Once in South Korea, North Koreans have little chance of getting asylum elsewhere

Jo Hye Kyung beat the odds: She made a dangerous escape from North Korea 20 years ago and eventually made her way to Canada and a new life. But because she initially settled in South Korea, her life in Toronto may soon be uprooted. Jo, 32, is just one of a number of North Korean defectors in Canada who came to the country by way of South Korea and could now be sent back to a place where, they say, they face systemic discrimination.

As soon as North Koreans enter South Korea, they are granted citizenship, but that makes them ineligible to apply for asylum in Canada [or elsewhere] since South Korea is considered a safe country. Which is why they end up applying for refugee status as North Koreans without declaring their South Korean citizenship.

Jo was 12 when she and her family crossed the icy Tumen River from North Korea to China. It was a daring escape on a perilous route that has claimed many lives. Jo, her mother, her father and her little brother made it into China, where Jo says they lived for five years in hiding for fear of being sent back to North Korea.

In 2002, Jo and her family climbed over a barrier into the grounds of the South Korean consul general’s Beijing office and claimed asylum. “I thought, ‘At least they won’t send us back to North Korea’ [like China might]” Jo said.

Jo says she and her family didn’t realize that once on South Korean soil, they would automatically be considered citizens. “Until I came to South Korea, I didn’t know … [if] I became South Korean, … I could not go anywhere else,” Jo said.

In South Korea, her North Korean education wasn’t recognized, which meant that she had to begin her secondary school education from scratch at 18. She says her classmates told her that because she was North Korean, she did not belong in South Korea, and that she should not try to get an education because North Koreans should know their place in South Korean society. Jo’s North Korean dialect left her vulnerable to unwelcome interrogations from strangers.

Kim Joo Eun, a lawyer with the Refugee Law Office at Legal Aid Ontario in Toronto, says that Jo’s story is a part of a pattern of North Korean defectors who feel rejected by South Korean society and look to emigrate somewhere more welcoming.

“The overall trend is that after going through unbelievable treatment and trauma in North Korea, escaping from there and going through very precarious and dangerous time in China, after arriving in South Korea, a lot of them faced a lot of discrimination – stigma – against them,” Kim said.  Continue reading about Jo Hye Kyung and family 

[CBC]

North Koreans under threat of deportation from Canada

Life for North Koreans who make it to South Korea can be difficult. Defectors report feeling discriminated against by South Koreans. Many report being denied jobs because they speak in dialect or have a North Korean accent or seeing their children bullied at school because of their background. In extreme cases, defectors say they have been threatened or extorted by people claiming to be North Korean agents.

North Korean defector Jo Hye Kyung told CBC that in South Korea, even though she was out from under the repressive, Communist dictatorship of North Korea, she still felt like she was being watched. “We staked our lives to come to South Korea and then found that defectors are assigned police officers,” she said. “I felt like I was being watched by them. It felt like a cage without walls.”

In a statement to CBC News, the South Korean Ministry of Unification, responsible for settlement support for North Korean defectors, said police officers are tasked with protecting defectors and resolving any problems they might face.

Andrei Lankov, the director of NKNews.org, a Delaware-based site covering North Korean news, and a scholar of Korean studies, wrote in 2006 that typically, “defectors, suffering from low income, alienation and real or perceived discrimination, form a sort of underclass that might even become semi-hereditary.”

The prospect of her children facing the same type of discrimination  frightened Jo. “If I had lived alone in South Korea, I could have borne it,” Jo explained, “but with a child, I found myself thinking about his future and his well-being.

After eight years living in Seoul, Jo decided to go to Canada in 2010 along with her parents, her partner, a North Korean defector she met in South Korea, and their four-year-old son. When the family arrived in Vancouver, Jo did not disclose that they had been living in South Korea as citizens. She says she was advised by members of the Korean community in Canada they would have a better chance of staying in Canada if they applied for asylum as North Koreans.

Canada granted the family asylum. Then in July, living in Toronto now with two more children, Jo’s family received a notice alerting them that their refugee status could be vacated. They have a hearing scheduled for October 19, and if their refugee status is vacated, Jo, her firstborn son, now 10, her husband, and her parents will go through a pre-removal risk assessment and have the opportunity to file an appeal to stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

Around 135 North Koreans were in the process of removal as of July although it was unclear how many of those held South Korean citizenship, according to the Canada Border Security Agency.

[CBC]

Many less North Korean defectors under Kim Jong Un

The number of North Korean defectors to South Korea has fallen since Kim Jong-un came to power seven years ago. Park Byeong-seug, a South Korean lawmaker citing data from the South’s unification ministry, said there had been 1,127 defections last year – compared with 2,706 in 2011.

Mr Park said tighter border controls between North Korea and China and higher rates charged by people smugglers were key factors. China regards the defectors as illegal migrants rather than refugees and often forcibly repatriates them.

Relations between the North and the South – who are still technically at war – have markedly improved in recent months. This came after June’s historic meeting between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore, when they agreed in broad terms to work towards the nuclear-free Korean peninsula.

But on Saturday, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho blamed US sanctions for the lack of progress since then. “Without any trust in the US, there will be no confidence in our national security and under such circumstances, there is no way we will unilaterally disarm ourselves first,” Mr Ri said in a speech to the UN General Assembly in New York.

[BBC]

Financial lifeline between North Korean defector in the South and their families in the North

China is a lifeline for North Korean defectors living in the South, allowing them to send money back to their families. Contact is usually brief and dangerous, with relatives traveling to the hermit kingdom’s border and using smuggled Chinese SIM cards to tap into telecommunications signals across the Yalu River.

A 2016 survey of 200 defectors by the Seoul-based Chosun newspaper found that about 60 per cent of the respondents sent US$900-US$1,800 each year via agents in China and North Korea, while one person reported sending US$9,000 a year. About 70 per cent said they transferred money regularly.

One mother in her 50s told the South China Morning Post that she remitted money to her son in North Korea. She said her son used a Chinese SIM card to make brief phone calls to her several times a year to confirm the transactions, and there was little time to ask him about his life.

“We cannot send text messages and the calls have to be short,” she said.

She said the money was sent via a network of trusted Chinese and North Korean brokers, including smugglers who carried the cash across the border, together with other smuggled Chinese goods. The operations are illegal and dangerous in both countries so the brokers take a heavy cut, usually 30 per cent of the total, according to defectors.

Another defector said food prices were soaring in North Korea and many of her relatives were not getting paid. She said 1kg of corn imported from China cost the equivalent of five months’ pay for a worker at a state factory.

“The country is in a mess,” she said.

[South China Morning Post]