Category: North Korean refugee

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]

South Korean TV shows embolden North Korean defectors

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South Korean television shows that feature North Koreans have transformed defectors’ attitudes toward speaking publicly about their experiences and identity.

After studying fellow defectors and their relationship to South Korean media, Ken Eom said after three such television shows gained widespread popularity, defectors shed their old habit of silence. North Koreans on television are emboldening others to speak out. Beyond the money and the merits of a measure of fame, defectors are also motivated by an opportunity to “rebuild the credibility of the North Korean refugee community”.

“After the TV shows [began to be watched], defectors were no longer afraid to talk about their story in public,” Eom said during a presentation of his thesis. The defector, who is in his 30s, added the shows, sometimes geared to bringing on the laughs with light-hearted tales, are far from perfect; they’re not well liked by the defector community, with some defectors have been accused by other defectors of “fake testimonies” on television.

Eom asked his interview subjects what they thought about the shows. “It was very surprising,” said Eom. “They really hate those TV shows. But they also say it’s necessary. Without TV, nobody knows of the North Korean refugee.”

Eom feels South Koreans “really don’t care” about North Koreans. Stereotypes about the regime’s abysmal human rights record, its prison camps and nuclear weapons program, deeply hurt defectors. But the shows, despite their flaws, provide many North Koreans with a rare opportunity to present their stories and to “just talk about their normal lives.”

“It’s better than nothing,” Eom said.

[UPI]

South Korean perceptions of North Korean defectors have changed over time

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According to a recent survey from the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, less than 6 percent of North Korean defectors said they completed university education in the North. Once in the South, North Koreans often take jobs as day laborers, or in the service sector.

It is perhaps unsurprising defectors are applying in large numbers to be on South Korean television shows that feature North Koreans, where the pay is good, they can sit in a relatively comfortable TV studio, and gain a bit of fame on local television.

Casey Lartigue, one of the co-founders of TNKR, said South Korean perceptions of North Korean defectors or refugees have changed over time. “South Koreans [in the ’90s] used to ask them questions in a very judgmental way, saying, ‘Why did you abandon your family’,” …adding the newcomers were often suspected of being spies. With the rising number of escapees, it was harder to call these people traitors or spies, and easier to understand North Koreans were flocking to the prosperous South in search of better opportunities.

Defector activists have said South Korean TV shows, copied to flash drives, have been spreading secretly in North Korea. Eom told UPI the shows are “really powerful,” and if ordinary North Koreans are better able to access South Korean media, “North Korea would be gone.”

But he also said he spoke to a defector who arrived earlier this year in the South, who confirmed North Korea is cracking down on TV shows; copying shows to flash drives could bring a three-year prison sentence in the North.

[UPI]

No deal summit no surprise to North Korean defectors

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The abrupt end to the summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un came as no surprise to North Korean defectors in the south.

Cha Ri-hyuk, 33, told AFP that he was not shocked by the no deal outcome. “I knew that Kim Jong Un would never give up the nukes. If the two countries were to make an agreement, I think they would have done it in Singapore last year,” added Cha, who left North Korea in 2013.

Jo Young-hwa, aged 39, who defected a year earlier, said his countrymen “don’t care” about the summits. “Whenever I talk to them in the North, they are not interested. They don’t bother trying to learn anything about it,” he said.

The no deal outcome will come as a huge disappointment for South Korea’s president, who had touted the summit as a “remarkable breakthrough” for peace negotiations on the Korean peninsula. And in Seoul’s main railway station, dozens of people of all ages were glued to TV screens, sombre faced as Trump explained why he and Kim had failed to reach an agreement.

Some expressed sympathy for the North Korean leader. “I feel bad for Kim Jong Un who made a very long train journey to get to Hanoi only to walk away from the meeting with empty hands,” said Jang Ho-su, 36, a government employee.

Lee Gap-yong, a 71-year-old a taxi driver, said Trump could have been “more flexible. I think he wanted too much out of Kim, to an extent that Kim could not agree to.”

[AFP] 

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]

Defector surprised how little South Koreans know about North Korea

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Geum Hyok stood by himself in an empty apartment wondering if he made a mistake. He had no friends and no family to reassure him.

Feeling lonely but determined to make a life for himself, he started classes at Korea University where he met people who were kind to him and checked on him regularly. Their friendship helped him not feel as lonely.

Except for the couple times he was turned down for a job because they didn’t want to hire a North Korean, most people were welcoming to him.

But what surprised him most was how many South Koreans didn’t know what was happening in North Korea. Geum Hyok didn’t blame them, he knew humans rights was complicated. But it was still disappointing.

Now, Geum Hyok is studying politics and diplomacy and enjoys having the freedom to do what he wants. He no longer questions his choice to escape but he does think about his loved ones still in North Korea. He especially misses his mother whom he hasn’t seen or spoken to in eight years. He is waiting for the day North Korea finally opens so they can be reunited.  

[LiNK]