Category: North Korean refugee

Only 12 North Korean defectors have made it to South Korea between April and June this year

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To address the spread of coronavirus in Asia, six months ago North Korea completely closed its borders, sealing off the country like never before.

In late January 2020, North Korea moved quickly against the virus – sealing off its borders and later quarantining hundreds of foreigners in the capital, Pyongyang. It also closed schools, and put tens of thousands of its citizens into isolation.

As to how this has impacted North Koreans defecting, from official figures, only 12 defectors have made it to South Korea between April and June this year – the lowest number on record.


Defying government ban, defectors group launches anti-North-Korea leaflets

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 A group of North Korean defectors claimed Tuesday it had sent anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border, continuing an activity that has enraged the North regime, which cited it as the reason it wrecked a liaison office with the South last week. The launch was also in defiance of a ban by South Korean authorities on the cross-border propaganda campaign.

Park Sang-hak, who heads Fighters for a Free North Korea, said the group sent 20 large helium-filled balloons, carrying 500,000 leaflets titled “The truth of the Korean War atrocity,” 2,000 $1 bills, 1,000 SD cards and 500 booklets across the border. He said they sent the flyers in a covert mission at night with relatively new members, to avoid police detection.

The balloons are attached to a bundle of leaflets and a large banner with pictures of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his influential sister Kim Yo-jong, as well as their grandfather and regime founder Kim Il-sung, and a slogan that calls on the North Korean people to rise up against the Kim family.

The Seoul government has warned of a “thorough crackdown” against campaigners sending anti-North leaflets, and vowed to enact legislation to ban such activities.

[Korea Herald]

The role of defector activists in North Korea’s communication shutdown

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North Korea has cut all communication channels with South Korea as it escalates its pressure on the South for failing to stop activists from floating anti-Pyongyang leaflets across their tense border.

This decision was made by Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of leader Kim Jong Un, and Kim Yong Chol, a former hard-line military intelligence chief who Seoul believes was behind two 2010 attacks that killed 50 South Koreans.

South Korean conservative activists and North Korean defectors in the South for years have floated huge balloons into North Korea that carry leaflets criticizing Kim Jong Un over his nuclear ambitions and abysmal human rights record. The leafleting has long been a source of tensions between the Koreas since the country bristles at any attempt to undermine the Kim leadership.

KCNA referred to North Korean activists as “riff-raff” in their statement: “The South Korean authorities connived at the hostile acts against (North Korea) by the riff-raff, while trying to dodge heavy responsibility with nasty excuses,” KCNA said. “They should be forced to pay dearly for this.”

Kim Yo Jong called the defectors “human scum” and “mongrel dogs” in reaction to recent leafleting when the North threatened to permanently shut down a liaison office and a jointly run factory park, as well as nullify a 2018 inter-Korean military agreement that had aimed to reduce tensions.

South Korea’s liberal government had no immediate response to the North Korean announcement. It has recently said it would push for legal bans on launching leaflets, but the North has said the South Korean response lacks sincerity.

South Korean conservatives have urged their government to get tougher on North Korea and uphold their constitutional rights to free speech. South Korea has typically let activists launch such balloons, but it has sometimes sent police officers to stop them when North Korean warnings appeared to be serious.


North Korea halts all communications with the South in row over leaflets

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North Korea has said it will cut off all inter-Korean communication lines with the South, including a hotline between the two nations’ leaders.

Daily calls, which have been made to a liaison office located in the North Korean border city of Kaesong, will cease from Tuesday. The two states had set up the office to reduce tensions after talks in 2018.

Military communication channels will also be cut, North Korea said.

Kim Yo-jong, the North Korean leader’s sister, threatened last week to close the office unless South Korea stopped defector groups from sending leaflets into the North. North Korean defectors occasionally send balloons carrying leaflets critical of the communist region into the North, sometimes with supplies to entice North Koreans to pick them up.

It’s likely that this shut down isn’t just about sending leaflets over the border – but instead, all part of a grander plan by Pyongyang. North Korea may be creating a crisis in order to use the tension as leverage in later talks. In short, it could be simply spoiling for a fight to get attention and ask for more from its neighbor. They’ve played this particular game before in 2013 to try to win more concessions from South Korea.

It’s also a good distraction domestically. Kim Jong-un is failing to deliver the economic prosperity he keeps promising and rumors continue to circulate that Covid-19 is affecting parts of the country. Giving the nation a common enemy helps rally his people back around a cause. The North said this was the first in a series of actions, describing South Korea as “the enemy”.

It’s worth noting Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-Jong gave the order to sever ties with Seoul. This gives her a platform and the spotlight and will fuel more speculation that she is being groomed as a potential leader.


North Korea warns South Korea to stop defectors from scattering anti-North leaflets

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The sister of North Korea’s leader has warned South Korea to stop defectors from sending leaflets into the demilitarized zone separating the countries, saying it may cancel a recent bilateral military agreement if the activity persists.

Kim Yo Jong, who serves unofficially as Kim Jong Un’s chief of staff, issued the warning in a statement carried by state news agency KCNA on Thursday.

She was referring to thousands of “anti-DPRK leaflets” recently dumped along the North’s side of the heavily fortified DMZ, titled “Defectors from the North”.

“If such an act of evil intention committed before our eyes is left to take its own course under the pretext of ‘freedom of individuals’ and ‘freedom of expression’, the south Korean authorities must face the worst phase shortly,” the KCNA statement said.

Kim Yo Jong warned of the possible scrapping of the inter-Korean military agreement that promised to eliminate practical threats of war as a result of the clandestine leafletting. The military pact reached in 2018 was “hardly of any value”, she said.

She also warned the North will completely withdraw from the Kaesong industrial project and shut down the joint liaison office in the North’s border city, unless Seoul stopped such actions.

Kim Yo Jong has been the most visible presence around her brother in the past two years. She serves formally as a vice director of the ruling Workers’ Party’s powerful Central Committee.


North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho now serving on the South Korean National Assembly

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Ji Seong-ho was born not far from the Hoeryong concentration camp,and grew up during the North Korean famine of the mid-1990s. His grandmother starved to death; his father was tortured to death. As a teenager, he had hopped onto a train with his mother and sister. They were stealing coal, in order to barter it for food. When he was jumping from one car to the next, Ji lost consciousness, owing to hunger. He fell between the cars onto the tracks, and lost a leg and a hand.

Eventually, he escaped North Korea — on homemade crutches. He made it to the South, where he became a Christian and started a human-rights groups.

In April of this year, Ji won election to South Korea’s National Assembly.

Defectors are beyond excited about his election. “He’s one of us,” says Park Yeonmi. What does Yeonmi mean? Ji Seong-ho is a street kid, a homeless kid, a wretch. Or rather, he was. “He never went to Kim Il-sung University,” says Yeonmi. That is the elite university in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. In fact, Ji “has never even been to Pyongyang.”

There is no freedom of movement within North Korea, Yeonmi explains. “You know what North Koreans dream about when they dream of traveling?” she continues. “They don’t dream about going to China or Europe and all that. They can’t even go to the next town without permission. But they may dream about going to Pyongyang.”

Yeonmi repeats: “Seong-ho is just one of us.” He is not bitter but instead grateful, Yeonmi observes. “He has such a big heart for his countrymen.” And now he is serving on the National Assembly of South Korea.

I have met Ji Seong-ho several times and have never seen him without a big smile on his face. He is effortlessly charismatic. “He projects an air of ebullience,” I once wrote. “I can’t help thinking he is happy to be alive.” In my view, his story should be made into a movie — perhaps culminating with Ji’s entrance into the National Assembly.

In 2018, Ji was a guest of President Trump for the State of the Union address. Sounding like presidents past, Trump said, “Seong-ho’s story is a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom.”

Until recently, Ji was never very interested in politics — politics in a partisan sense. He was neutral, above the fray. But he was pushed into politics by the grievances and indignities I listed above. He was especially moved by the deaths of the defector mother and her young son, in that Seoul apartment.

Despite the best efforts of the North Korean dictatorship, news gets into that country, via shortwave radio and other means. North Koreans will hear about Ji’s election, and have. The news is “shocking,” as Henry Song, the D.C.-based activist, emphasizes: one of them, elevated to the legislature of a free country. A free and Korean country.

[National Review]

Former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho, now serving in the South Korean National Assembly

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In April 2018, former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho was giving a speech to a human-rights conference. South Korean intelligence agents prevented a television network from filming the speech. They also prevented — forcibly prevented — Thae from taking questions from the press. This was in advance of an inter-Korean summit, and the government apparently did not want to rile the North.

Two years later, Thae Yong-ho ran for and won election to the National Assembly of South Korea.

Thae was born in 1962, into the North Korean elite. He became a diplomat, eventually serving as deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom. He defected in 2016.

He is an urbane, elegant fellow. He is also tremendously brave. The North Korean government called him “human scum” and accused him of the usual: embezzlement and child rape. Thae is a defector in the traditional sense. Indeed, he is one of the highest-ranking officials ever to defect from North Korea.

At the Oslo Freedom Forum last year, I asked Thae about his personal security. “I have a lot of worries,” he said, “but I am heavily protected when I am in South Korea. The South Korean government knows that I am No. 1 on the assassination list.” And “I know this will go on till the last day of the Kim regime.”

In the South Korean context, Thae is a conservative, favoring a market economy and a tough-minded policy toward the North — a realistic one, he would say. He is strongly anti-socialist and anti-Communist, and a sharp critic of President Moon Jae-in’s government.

Park Yeonmi points out that Thae will be on South Korean television a lot. South Koreans will see his face, along with fellow-defector-turned-politcian Ji Seong-ho, hear their stories, listen to their points of view. Thae and Ji will help “humanize us,” says Yeonmi.

[National Review]

The North Korean government considers anyone who leaves a traitor

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On April 15, South Korea held a parliamentary election. Two different men, Thae Yong-ho and Ji Seong-ho, were elected. In the words of Henry Song, a human-rights defender in Washington, D.C., their election was “truly a historic, seismic, shocking event.”

How so? Thae and Ji are North Korean defectors. And their elevation to the South Korean National Assembly reverberates on both sides of the border.

When news came that Thae and Ji had won, there was jubilation in the North Korean defector community, which numbers 33,500 in South Korea (a country of about 50 million). There are scattered others elsewhere.

The word “defector” confuses some people, understandably, because we are used to thinking of a defector as a government official or celebrity — a ballet dancer, let’s say, or a baseball player — who goes over from an unfree country to a free one. But the North Korean government considers anyone who leaves a defector: a traitor to the state. People who have left North Korea think of themselves as having defected from the state that claimed ownership of them, body and soul.

So do South Koreans welcome their brothers from the North with open arms? Park Yeonmi, a prominent defector, said, “The South Koreans treat us like second-class citizens,” she says. “They are more sympathetic to people in Africa than they are to their fellow Koreans from the North.”

There are plenty of South Koreans who treat defectors compassionately, … but the South Korean Left bitterly resents defectors — especially ones who squawk about human rights and what they suffered back home.

Meanwhile, North Korean defectors have grown restive, politically. They regard the incumbent South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, as soft on North Korea. They suspect him of naïveté and worse. The government has severely cut aid to refugee groups and groups that help refugees, as well as direct assistance to refugees. The government is pretty frank about this. One official said, “North Korean defectors might not enjoy the same benefits that they enjoyed during the two previous conservative governments.”

[National Review]

Will Kim Yo Jong span the North Korean gender divide?

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From all accounts, North Korea is hardly the bastion of equality that Kim Il Sung promised would be achieved through economic liberation.

While women are an important part of the workforce, and drivers of the limited private markets inside the country — since all men have jobs assigned by the state — female defectors say they still face widespread discrimination. Furthermore, they lack the professional and social opportunities of their male counterparts.

“Men hold the purse strings a lot of times and men have all the social status. …. Women always have to be modest,” said Nara Kang, who left North Korea in 2015 and now lives in South Korea.

Sexual violence is also a major problem. It’s “so common that it has come to be accepted as part of ordinary life,” Human Rights Watch alleged in a 2018 report.

Jean Lee, an Associated Press reporter who opened the wire service’s bureau in Pyongyang in 2012, said she endured “incredible sexism. … My female North Korean colleagues [said] they were expected to do their jobs all day and still take care of all the cooking and cleaning at home,” said Lee, who is now the director of the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. “To be honest, neither Korea, north or south, is a great place to be a woman.”

On the other hand, Michael Madden, an expert on North Korea’s leadership, shared his opinion that, “North Korea has a 70-plus year history of women being very close to the center of power, of being influential in North Korea’s decision-making processes.”

Kang, the defector, isn’t so sure. When asked if she imagined there could be a female Supreme Leader while still living in North Korea, Kang responded incredulously, “Oh no way.” She said, “I can’t even imagine. Can’t even dream.”

One thing is sure, Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong Un, is one woman who has already become prominent in the North Korean government, and could really be on her way to making history.


Kim Jong Un’s sister, “Princess” Yo Jong

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About 20 years ago, while traveling across Russia, Kim Jong Il is reported to have made something of a confession to a foreign emissary, Konstantin Pulikovsky. Pulikovsky, a respected Russian diplomat, had asked one of the world’s most reclusive leaders about his family.

Kim Jong Il was believed to have had seven children. His youngest son and future successor, Kim Jong Un, was in his mid-teens at the time.

When Pulikovsky asked about the children, Kim spoke highly of his two daughters. His sons, however, he called “idle blockheads.” Michael Madden, an expert on North Korea’s leadership, adds, “Kim Jong Il loved his sons, but did not necessarily have a high opinion of what they were doing with their lives.”

Despite that apparent assessment, Kim eventually chose his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to succeed him. While it’s likely the world will never know if Kim seriously considered one of his daughters for the top job, his adoration for his youngest child, Kim Yo Jong, has been documented.

Kenji Fujimoto, the pen name of a former sushi chef for the Kim family, told The Washington Post that Kim Jong Il referred to her as “Princess Yo Jong” and “sweet Yo Jong.” Kim Yo Jong always sat to her father’s left at supper, while Kim Jong Il’s wife sat to his right, Fujimoto said in a book recounting his experience in North Korea.

Kim Jong Il may have believed that it would be a tough sell naming a woman as the next North Korean leader — especially with multiple sons available. North Korea is a notoriously patriarchal country, where women are expected to be dutiful and subordinate wives and doting mothers before all else. Defectors say misogyny, gender discrimination and sexual violence are rampant.

Yet Kim Yo Jong’s position among the North Korean leadership is significant. Her name was among the first mentioned as a possible successor to her brother when he recently disappeared from public view for almost three weeks. When Kim Jong Un did emerge in state media on Saturday, Kim Yo Jong was by his side. Experts say if anything was to happen to him before his young children are old enough to take over, Kim Yo Jong could be the safest and most likely heir.