Category: North Korean refugee

Lawyers determine North Korean waitresses abducted to South Korea, not defected

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A group of North Korean waitresses who “defected” to Seoul in 2016 were actually abducted by South Korea, a fact-finding team of international lawyers has concluded after a visit to Pyongyang.

The case has long been controversial, with Pyongyang saying the 12 women were kidnapped from a North Korean state-run restaurant in China, while Seoul insists they defected of their own free will.

During their six-day stay in the North Korean capital, which ended September 5, the lawyers said they spoke to seven former waitresses who claimed they managed to escape, while their colleagues were tricked into coming to Seoul.

The seven North Korean women said they escaped – and eventually return to the North – after their team leader overheard a conversation between the restaurant’s manager and a representative of the South Korean intelligence service.

While the seven escaped, 12 other waitresses had already left without knowing they were being taken to South Korea, the joint fact-finding committee of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers said in a statement.

The 12 women were “taken away by deception … against their will, separated from their families and country”, it said after taking evidence from their seven colleagues. “This constitutes the criminal offense of abduction.”

In a bombshell revelation last year, the manager of the restaurant where the waitresses worked said he had lied to them about their final destination and blackmailed them into following him to the South. Heo Gang-il told the South’s JTBC television that he had been recruited by Seoul’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) in China in 2014.

At a briefing in Pyongyang, one of the lawyers, Niloufer Bhagwat, vice president of the Confederation of Lawyers of Asia and the Pacific, slammed the Seoul government for its handling of the case.

The team of lawyers said they had received “full cooperation” from the North but were not allowed to meet the 12 North Korean women who are currently in the South. “The young women … are still being monitored by the South Korean intelligence service and the national police agency,” she said.


North Korean defectors in Canada plead their case

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Rocky Kim knew the North Korean regime he was living under was seriously flawed and that he was determined to bring about change. That set in motion a series of events that saw him go from student activist to victim of torture to escapee on the run and, finally, a refugee in Canada.

Yet, now the Canadian government plans to deport him. And Kim is hoping Canadians will hear his story — and those of dozens of other North Korean defectors living there — and agree that they should be allowed to stay.

When Kim arrived in Canada, he took ESL classes, learned English and enrolled at George Brown College. He apprenticed in heating and air conditioning repair and now runs his own HVAC company. The well-dressed Kim proudly states that he pays his taxes and employs several workers. It sounds like the ultimate Canadian immigrant success story. But Kim is slated for deportation.

He’s currently in the process of a pre-removal risk assessment, which is a type of appeal those earmarked for deportation can make if they believe being sent back will put them in harm’s way. There are dozens of North Koreans living in the Greater Toronto Area who are now facing deportation.

But there’s a catch. They’re not being sent back to North Korea. They’re being ordered to get on a plane to Seoul, South Korea.

Many of the defectors in Canada lied on their refugee applications and said they came to Canada directly from North Korea. What Rocky Kim and others are at risk of deportation over is misrepresentation on their application, which is treated as a serious offense.

“The Canadian [government] needs to change its attitude to North Korean defectors,” says Jin Hak Choi, the former president of the National Unification Advisory Council in Toronto. “They have no country.”

It’s this argument — that North Korean defectors are really stateless people — that those up for deportation and their allies are hoping Canadians and the government will agree with.

[Toronto Sun]

Chinese pastor shared his faith with North Koreans then executed, defector claims

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A pastor on the China-North Korea border, Rev. Han Chung-Ryeol, shared his faith with at least 1,000 North Koreans in the Hermit Kingdom before he was assassinated in 2016, a defector claims. Rev. Han, a Chinese pastor of Korean descent, who ministered on the border town of Changbai since the early 1990s, was reportedly on Pyongyang’s most-wanted list as early as 2003 for his faith-based charitable work.

Rev. Han fed and sheltered thousands of North Koreans over the years — many of whom had fled the famine-stricken country in search of food and jobs. One of them, Sang-chul, shared his story in a short documentary from The Voice of the Martyrs: “In primary school, we were taught that all missionaries were terrorists,” Sang-chul shares in the video through a translator. “They told us that a missionary will be nice to you at first, but when they get you into their homes, then they will kill you and eat your liver.”

The North Korean said he didn’t have work or food in his village so he had snuck across the mountain border into China, picking mushrooms along the way in hopes of selling them in a market. He ran into Han, who offered to sell them and give him the money. Sang-chul knew something was different when the pastor didn’t cheat him out of any money, and wondered why a Chinese citizen would help him, knowing the danger.

“It is because I am a Christian,” Han reportedly said, causing the North Korean to be fearful of him.

And then one day Han told him: “God is real. There is hope for every person.” Sang-chul recalls, “I could not believe he would say that word, ‘God.’ Nobody says that word. … It is an act of treason…and can lead to soldiers coming in the night.”

Eventually, Sang-chul asked Rev. Han for a Bible, and then shared the gospel with his wife and best friend, who both found hope before he received the tragic news that Han was stabbed and axed to death by North Korean assassins. “Pastor Han gave his life, but he gave hope to me and to many other North Koreans,” Sang-chul said. “And despite the ever-present danger, many of us will continue to share the message that God is real.”


North Korea’s extensive underground empire may include underground air bases

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North Korea, one of the most secretive countries in the world, is no stranger to building underground military facilities. Whether a tunnel dug under the demilitarized zone designed to pass thousands of troops an hour, or bunkers to accommodate the regime’s leadership, North Korea has built extensive underground facilities designed to give it an edge in wartime.

One of the earliest examples of North Korean underground engineering was the discovery of several tunnels leading from North Korea under the demilitarized zone to South Korea. The first tunnel located in 1974, extended one kilometer south of the DMZ, and was large enough to move up to two thousand troops per hour under the DMZ.

Thanks to a tip from a North Korean defector, an even larger tunnel was discovered in 1978, a mile long and nearly seven feet wide. Since then at least four tunnels have been discovered, with reinforced concrete slabs, electricity for lighting and fresh air generation, and narrow railway gauges.

It’s difficult to determine how many tunnels exist. One report says that Kim Il-sung, the founder of the North Korean state and Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, ordered each of the ten front-line combat divisions to dig two tunnels. If completed, that would theoretically mean another dozen or so tunnels remain undiscovered. A former South Korean general, Han Sung-chu, claims there are at least eighty-four tunnels—some reaching as far as downtown Seoul. (The South Korean government does not believe Han’s numbers—nor the claimed ability to reach Seoul—are credible.)

The North Korean People’s Liberation Army Air Force is also believed to have three different underground air bases at Wonsan, Jangjin and Onchun. The underground base at Wonsan reportedly includes a runway 5,900 feet long and ninety feet wide that passes through a mountain. According to a defector, during wartime aircraft would take off from conventional air bases but return to underground air bases.

Another underground development is a series of troop bunkers near the DMZ. A North Korean defector disclosed that, starting in 2004, North Korea began building bunkers capable of concealing between 1,500 and two thousand fully armed combat troops near the border. At least eight hundred bunkers were built, not including decoys, meant to conceal units such as light-infantry brigades and keep them rested until the start of an invasion.

Other underground facilities are believed to have been constructed to shelter the North’s leadership. According to a South Korean military journal, the United States believes there are between 6000-8000 such shelters scattered across the country. This information was reportedly gathered from defectors in order to hunt down regime members in the event of war or government collapse.

North Korea is believed to have hundreds of artillery-concealing caves just north of the DMZ. Known as Hardened Artillery Sites, or HARTS, these are usually tunneled into the sides of mountains. An artillery piece, such as a 170-millimeter Koksan gun or 240-millimeter multiple-launch rocket system, can fire from the mouth of the cave and then withdraw into the safety of the mountain to reload. As of 1986, and estimated 200-500 HARTS were thought to exist.

All these facilities are hard to spot via satellite, so gleaning information from defectors has been the best way to learn about them in peacetime. Pyongyang’s eventual defeat in any wartime scenario is a given, but its underground headquarters, fortifications and troop depots have the potential to not only enhance the Korean People’s Army’s ability to mount a surprise attack, but also to prolong the war, confounding the high-tech armed forces of its adversaries.

[Read full article at The National Interest]

North Korean defector Thae Yong-ho says defection is a gradual process

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Born into North Korea’s elite class, Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat, was destined for great things. In the 1990s, he was posted to North Korea’s embassy in Denmark.

Only then, living in the West, did doubt about the system he was indoctrinated in begin to grow. “I learned that North Korea is not a socialist paradise, which I was taught,” Thae said in an interview. “So from that time on, the suspicion inside me is growing.”

It would take another two decades before Thae made a monumental decision that has made him both internationally famous and an assassination target for the regime he was once proud to serve.

Defection is a gradual process, he said, not a snap decision. He had been holding out hope that North Korea might embrace change. “[I hoped] that one day North Korea can become like Vietnam or China,” Thae explained. But his optimism was shattered when former leader Kim Jong-il announced he would be succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-un, who he knew would not be a reformer.

While living in Copenhagen, Stockholm and, lastly, London, Thae saw his two now-adult boys increasingly become at home with life in countries where democracy, a free media, open education, public health systems and plentiful food was normal.

Whenever Thae and his family had to return to North Korea, as diplomats do periodically, they had to conceal the lives they had been living in order to keep faith with the false messages transmitted to the people by the Kim regime. His boys could not talk about the internet or social media; they had to pretend living in the West was ugly.

Unless he acted, he knew he and his family would have to continue the unimaginable pretense of their double lives. Thae said his decision to become one of North Korea’s highest-ranking defectors ever was made out of love for his sons and their future children. “So as a father, I thought that it is my last mission to cut off this kind of slavery system, you know, for my sons,” he said.

In 2016, Thae and his family walked out of North Korea’s embassy in Ealing, West London, for the last time. Thae knew not only that his defection to South Korea would require high-level protection for his wife and sons; it would likely make life unbearable for his wider family back home. Knowing they could be working in forced labor camps or worse is a pain he cannot escape.

[Sydney Morning Herald]

New generation of North Korean defectors become YouTube stars

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North Korean defector Lee Pyung, 24, worked as a fashion model for an online shopping mall and appeared on a South Korean’s YouTube channel. Now he banks up to $15,000 a month, he says, having cultivated an online following of 45,000 on his channel by dishing about his tattoos and North Korean cigarettes.

Mr. Lee is also a role model for students at the Priming Leadership Academy, a school that helps young defectors enter college and find careers. In November, the school beefed up its curriculum, adding alongside math and English courses a new “one-person media” class taught by a 24-year-old South Korean YouTuber.

The phenomena of young North Korean defectors becoming YouTube star baffles some older North Korean defectors who have traditionally shunned the limelight. Few spoke up, and when they did, they focused on activism, like sharing their harrowing escapes to condemn the Kim regime.

The younger generation have milder views on North Korea, older defectors say, because few recall the country’s mass famine from the 1990s that killed an estimated two million to three million people. “I wish they would pay more attention to the important issues, but obviously I can’t force them,” says Seo Jae-pyong, 49, who fled nearly two decades ago and now heads a large defectors group.

This generational divide is seen with Kim Myung, 27, who carved out an online niche playing traditional Korean folk songs—including those from the North—with an ocarina, an ancient wind instrument. He had never touched a musical instrument before relocating to Seoul in 2006. His mother initially called the pursuit buffoonery. Mr. Kim’s YouTube channel gins up demand for paid, offline gigs—and he says his mother has now approved a career choice that wouldn’t be plausible in their former homeland.

The rationale for leaving North Korea is changing. Just seven years ago, the leading motive was still a lack of food and economic hardship, according to a survey funded by the South Korean government. Now the top-cited reason is searching for freedom.

[The Washington Post]

North Korean defectors decry autopsy for woman and her child

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North Korean defectors living in South Korea say the government is evading responsibility for the death of a North Korean woman and her infant son in their apartment in southern Seoul, following an autopsy result that did not confirm the cause of the deaths.

Defectors shocked by the deaths of members of their growing community say the result of the autopsy last Friday is a sign South Korean agencies do not want to be blamed for the neglect of the woman with the surname Han, and her young son, Yonhap reported.

Defectors with a group, Hongik Humanity for the World, are demanding a better response while a funeral for the deceased is being postponed, according to the report. The delayed funeral is a cause for concern, said Park Jin-hye of Hongik Humanity. Park said the postponed funeral prevents the dead from resting in peace, a reference to local spiritual beliefs.

“They were neglected for two months after their death [in their apartment], and are being prevented from leaving [this Earth] for 90 days,” Park said.

Han resettled in the South in 2009 and temporarily returned to China before coming back to the South with her second son. They was found dead on July 31, when her building’s technician noticed something odd with her water meter. The woman and her son may have died of starvation at least a month before local authorities entered their apartment to find their decomposing corpses.

Defectors have said South Koreans remain indifferent to their plight despite increased efforts in Seoul in the area of inter-Korea engagement.


North Korean defector Kang Nara: “I’m glad I became a celebrity”

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The lures of online fame have lassoed North Korean defectors. Born in one of the world’s most information-repressed regimes, some young defectors in Seoul are now saturating the internet, plying their life stories for followers and cash-generating clicks.

Blessed with a K-pop idol’s good looks, Kang Nara, 22, is so famous that she gets recognized walking around her college campus. A fan club showers her with cakes and congratulatory banners. Dubbed the “North Korean beauty” by local media, she specializes in videos lampooning bad North Korean film accents and reviewing makeup.

The audience largely comes from South Koreans, who not long ago participated in national school competitions where students produced anticommunist poems and posters. But ties between the two Koreas have warmed of late, sparking wider interest about defectors and the Kim regime.

The fascination has even extended to non-Koreans like Zac Phoenix, a 30-year-old English teacher from the U.K., who lives in Seoul. He’s a fan of Mr. Heo’s videos, which carry English subtitles. “Western media is obsessed with North Korea but I want to know: What’s the real story besides the nukes?” Mr. Phoenix says.

According to Park Su Hyang, 28, a defector who fled North Korea in 2009, many North Koreans drink regularly, buying home-brewed rice liquor from neighbors rather than at a store, says. But nobody imbibes on July 8, the day honoring the death of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the North’s dynastic state.

“On that day there’s no drinking, no partying, no smiling,” Ms. Park says.

[Washington Post]

North Korean defector Heo Jun: “My North Korean background shouldn’t be a shame. It’s who I am.”

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Fleeing North Korea 11 years ago, Heo Jun sought a better life, studied hard and won a prized admission to South Korea’s most prestigious university. But his aspirations have swung to a profession where a fancy degree isn’t required: YouTube star.

Mr. Heo has made videos challenging strangers to hug a “commie, spy or traitor.” He’s shown people tasting North Korean food, defectors trying dating apps and filmed his own exasperated reaction watching a music video by BTS, the mega-popular South Korean boy band. His subscribers recently surged past 100,000.

“We defectors have an advantage in attracting attention,” says Mr. Heo, 27, who says he earns several thousand dollars a month from advertising revenue—enough to suspend his studies at Seoul National University. He is one semester away from graduation, though he says he is in no rush to embark on a traditional career path.

“Why would I work for a company when I can make enough money off my YouTube channel?” says Mr. Heo, who lives in a chic downtown Seoul studio apartment.

Before becoming a full-time YouTuber, Mr. Heo had started a nonprofit company trying to promote more harmony between North and South Koreans. The endeavor didn’t gain nearly as much traction as his first video uploaded two years ago, where he stood blindfolded in a bustling Seoul neighborhood and asked strangers for hugs. It attracted more than four million views.

He’ll continue to make YouTube videos to improve Korean ties—so long as they remain popular, he says. “My North Korean background shouldn’t be a shame,” Mr. Heo says, “It’s who I am.”

[Washington Post]

Two sides to the blame game

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Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea in Washington, told UPI that North Koreans in the South are in dire need of better networks from which they can seek help in difficult times. Most North Koreans are not ready for life in the advanced and industrialized South. About 80 percent of defectors are women, come from rundown areas “even by North Korean standards,” and do not have high school degrees, Scarlatoiu said.

Scarlatoiu said it is easy to pin blame on the South Korean government for the recent tragedy of a North Korean refugee mother and disabled son who apparently starved to death in Seoul. But one must also remember that South Korea continues to improve upon support programs for defectors that include vocational training, extra remuneration for defectors who keep their jobs and maintain savings accounts. All defectors receive substantial financial support upon arrival, a “pilot program for Korean unification,” the analyst said.

Casey Lartigue, a co-founder of Seoul-based Teach North Korean Refugees Global Education Center, said he dismisses the idea that a lack of state support in the South is responsible for the recent tragedy. “The danger is not that the South Korean government is not doing enough, but rather, that it is doing too much and is expected to do even more for North Korean refugees,” Lartigue said.

“The surprise is not that a refugee starved to death, but that more don’t do so, because the various levels of South Korean government seem to be teaching North Korean refugees learned helplessness.”

Lartigue, who has helped hundreds of North Korean refugees learn English through his volunteer program, said defectors need to seek help from people they know rather than suffering in silence or isolation.

Public opinion polls continue to indicate high levels of anxiety and unhappiness prevail among the majority of the North Korean refugee population. “From what I have heard, about 35 South Koreans on average commit suicide every day,” Lartigue said.