Category: North Korean refugee

Ex-Marine faces prison for assisting Adrian Hong and Free Joseon

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Ex-US-Marine Christopher Ahn is out on bail and shows his electronic monitoring device placed on him by U.S. marshals. How did Ahn wind up in this situation? He is an unlikely person to be treated as a criminal by his own government. Burly and bearded, he is described by family friends in court filings as a “happy-go-lucky guy who is like a teddy bear inside.” A son of Korean immigrants, Ahn has been taking care of his family since he was 17, when his father died of cancer. He now takes care of his ailing mother, who has a debilitating nerve disease, and his 97-year-old, blind grandmother, who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s.

It is Ahn’s altruistic impulse that now threatens his freedom. In 2009, Ahn met a charismatic Yale dropout named Adrian Hong who had created a human rights group to help North Korean refugees. Eventually, Hong founded another group, called Free Joseon. Ahn is in his current predicament because of a call he received from Hong in early 2019 — this time to help facilitate the defection of North Korean diplomats in Madrid.

Responding to an extradition request from Spain, the Justice Department decided to arrest Hong at a time when then-President Donald Trump was seeking to strike a deal with Kim Jong Un. Ahn went to Hong’s apartment in Los Angeles only to discover that a heavily armed task force of U.S. marshals was there looking for Hong. (Hong, who had fled, is now a fugitive from the governments of Spain, North Korea and the United States.) Ahn was then arrested and spent three months in a federal jail.

Now, a pro bono lawyer is helping Ahn fight the Justice Department’s attempts to extradite him to Spain. (The standard to extradite him is relatively low — prosecutors need only prove “probable cause” that the charges are true.) If convicted by a Spanish court on charges including kidnapping, breaking and entering, battery and being part of a “criminal organization,” he could be imprisoned for 21 years.

Ahn is, above all, an idealist. The bitter irony is that in trying to grant North Koreans their freedom, Ahn might have sacrificed his own.
[Washington Post]

North Korean posturing

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Joe Biden, in his first address to Congress, called North Korea and Iran’s nuclear programs “serious threats” to American and world security and said he’ll work with allies to address those problems through diplomacy and stern deterrence.

“His statement clearly reflects his intent to keep enforcing the hostile policy toward the DPRK as it had been done by the U.S. for over half a century,” Kwon Jong Gun, a senior North Korean Foreign Ministry official, later said in a statement.  “Now that the keynote of the U.S. … policy has become clear, we will be compelled to press for corresponding measures, and with time the U.S. will find itself in a very grave situation,” Kwon said. He didn’t specify what steps North Korea would take.

An unidentified North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman vowed a strong, separate response to a recent State Department statement that it would push to promote “accountability for the Kim regime” over its “egregious human rights situation.” He called the statement a preparation for “all-out showdown with us.”

Kim’s powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, also slammed South Korea over anti-Pyongyang leaflets floated across the border by a group of North Korean defectors in the South. The group’s leader, Park Sang-hak, said Friday he sent 500,000 leaflets by balloon last week, in a defiance of a new, contentious South Korean law that criminalizes such action. “We regard the maneuvers committed by the human waste in the South as a serious provocation against our state and will look into corresponding action,” Kim Yo Jong said in a statement. She accused the South Korean government of “winking at” the leaflets.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said the North Korean statements indicate that “Pyongyang is trying to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States” ahead of the May 21 summit between Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

[AP]

Six North Korean border guards defect to China ‘due to hunger and fatigue’

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A unit of six North Korean border soldiers has defected to China, according to reports, in a sign of the increasingly high level of discontent in the reclusive country. While there has been a steady stream of one or two guards fleeing the authoritarian country, a group this large is highly unusual.

The soldiers fled across the Yalu River on the border with China earlier this month along with their weapons, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported this week. The unit was part of the 25th Border Guard brigade, which has been deployed to stop other North Koreans from escaping, and reportedly complained of being overworked and underfed since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, according to RFA.

Life in North Korea’s military has become especially hard in recent months amid severe food shortages and a crackdown on smuggling following the closure of the border in response to the coronavirus pandemic. “Usually, border guards are in collusion with professional smugglers and merchants and they live better than soldiers in other regions”, RFA quoted a source in the North Korean military as saying. “But the coronavirus outbreak has been raging for more than a year, so smuggling has completely stopped and they are suffering from hunger these days”.

The Chinese authorities have been informed of the defections and are understood to be searching for the armed men, a source said.

[The Telegraph]

North Korean defectors struggle to send money home amid pandemic

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Each January, Choi Bok-hwa’s mother had climbed a mountain near her home in in North Korea and used a broker’s smuggled Chinese cellphone to call South Korea to wish her daughter happy birthday. For the first time in years, Choi didn’t get her annual birthday call.

Choi, who hasn’t sent money or talked to her 75-year-old mother since May, believes the silence is linked to the pandemic, which led North Korea to shut its borders tighter than ever and impose some of the world’s toughest restrictions on movement. Many other defectors in the South have also lost contact with their loved ones in North Korea amid the turmoil of COVID-19.

Defectors in the South have long shared part of their income with parents, children and siblings in North Korea. But these defectors now say they’ve stopped or sharply reduced the remittances because of plunging incomes, or because brokers are demanding extremely high fees.

Brokers in North Korea use smuggled mobile phones to call the South from mountains near the border with China, where they can get better reception and avoid official detection. Defectors send money to the bank accounts of other brokers on the Chinese side of the border. The brokers in China and in North Korea are often also smuggling goods in and out of North Korea, so this means that money transfers don’t need to be sent across the border immediately; instead, brokers in North Korea can give the cash to defectors’ relatives and get paid back by their smuggling partners in China later. But North Korea’s year-long border closure has battered the smuggling business.

“The money we send is a lifeline,” said Cho Chung Hui, 57, who transferred the equivalent of $890 to each of his two siblings every year before the pandemic. “If someone works really diligently in North Korea’s markets, they make only $30-40 per month.”

[AP]

Not all North Korean defectors want the same thing

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A book published in January titled “Defector” (탈북자) is shedding light on the lesser-known stories of North Korean defectors, challenging stereotypes and misconceptions. The book was written by former documentary producer Cho Cheon Hyeon (55), who spent over two decades speaking to North Koreans living in China’s border regions.

Cho’s book is remarkable in more ways than one, particularly because it challenges the traditional South Korean narrative that often portrays North Korean defectors as desperately wanting to make it to the South.

Cho’s views are different. According to his decades-long experience speaking to North Koreans, the majority of those who leave North Korea have no intention of ever defecting to South Korea. 

In his book, Cho distinguishes defectors in three different categories:
1. those working in China who intend to return to North Korea after earning enough money;
2. those living in China long-term who regularly send money back to their family members in North Korea; and
3. those wanting to defect to the South.

According to Cho, the vast majority of North Koreans who leave their country belong in the first two categories. 

[Daily NK]

North Korean defector swam to South Korea

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A North Korean man in diving gear swam to South Korea on Tuesday in an apparent bid to defect from Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, the South Korean military said Wednesday.

The man, who is reported to be in his 20s, and a civilian, appeared to have swam across the maritime border and crawled through a drainage pipe beneath a barbed-wire fence, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a press release obtained by the country’s JoongAng Daily newspaper.

He was first spotted on closed-circuit surveillance cameras passing a military checkpoint at 4:20 a.m. but was not captured until three hours later when he had entered the restricted civilian-control zone, the military said. The area is located south of the 2.5-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, that acts as a buffer between the two Koreas.

The JCS said a diving suit and fins were found on the beach in Goseong, Gangwon, where he first came ashore.

The apparent defection would be the second in a matter of months after a North Korean man climbed a border fence in November and continued half a mile before the South captured him.

[Fox News]

North Korean man caught after crossing DMZ border

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South Korea has caught a suspected North Korean man after he crossed the heavily fortified de-militarized zone (DMZ) between the two countries.

South Korean troops tracked him for three hours on Tuesday as he made his way through the zone, which is filled with land mines and surrounded by barbed wire.

The man was located near a checkpoint at the eastern zone of the DMZ at 19:20 GMT on Monday. It is not yet clear if he is a civilian or a member of the military.

“He is presumed to be a North Korean and we’re conducting an investigation into details, including how he had come down and whether he wished to defect,” the Joint Chief of Staffs said in a statement.

Since taking power in 2011, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is believed to have ordered the tightening of border controls between the two sides and with China, including by laying more landmines. Crossing via the DMZ is incredibly dangerous. If spotted and arrested by the North Korean military, those trying to cross would certainly be taken to a detention center to be interrogated. They could be tried and sentenced to lengthy terms in labor camps.

[BBC]

The changing face of North Korean defectors

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Ken Eom, who defected from North Korea in 2010, said that for many North Korean defectors today, escaping their homeland was no longer about poverty and hunger, but finding “freedom, like getting more education and a better life”.

Hanna Song, a researcher at the non-profit Database Centre for NK Human Rights in Seoul. Adds that whereas defectors from North Korea were once driven by “simply survival”, this has changed during the last fifteen years. “If you look at the typology of North Koreans who have now resettled in South Korea, it is very diverse,” said Song.

Imesh Pokharel, who runs the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Seoul, agrees that most recent defectors he had encountered were driven by the desire for greater economic opportunity. “Basically those who have family members in [South Korea], they are more likely to come here directly,” says Pokharel.

“In the last 10 years, the trend is family-invited refugees,” said an activist who helps North Koreans reach the South, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of his work. “For North Korean refugees who have entered South Korea, bringing their parents and siblings from North Korea to South Korea is the top priority. They work hard to raise money, or they get support from mission agencies or NGOs to bring their family.”

Tim Peters, a Christian activist who runs Seoul-based non-profit Helping Hands Korea, said it had become increasingly typical to see single parents or grandparents with children, rather than whole families, make the decision to leave. “This elderly care of a grandchild has often occurred due to the death of an adult child – parent of the grandchild – or abandonment of the child by the grandparent’s adult child or his spouse in North Korea,” said Peters. “The grandparent guardian discovers that they are unable to economically survive supporting the grandchild alone in the North, so make the grim decision to seek a menial job in China. A similar phenomenon is observed in single parents, especially women, who’ve either lost their North Korean husbands due to an untimely death, or through divorce.”

[South China Morning Post]

North Korea’s former acting ambassador to Kuwait Ryu Hyeon-woo speaks out

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In his first interview since defecting to the South more than a year ago, North Korea’s former acting ambassador to Kuwait Ryu Hyeon-woo told CNN that Kim Jong Un will not give up his nuclear arsenal but may be willing to negotiate an arms reduction for relief from the international sanctions crippling Pyongyang’s economy.

“North Korea’s nuclear power is directly linked to the stability of the regime” — and Kim likely believes nuclear weapons are key to his survival. Ryu also said previous US administrations had boxed themselves into a corner by demanding denuclearization up front in negotiations with the totalitarian state.

The former diplomat, who adopted the name Ryu upon moving to the South, is one of several high-profile North Korean officials to defect in recent years. Ryu and his family defectedto South Korea in September 2019, but their actions were only made public last week.

Determined to give their teenage daughter a better life, Ryu said he and his wife planned their escape for about a month while living in Kuwait. Ryu took his family to the South Korean embassy in Kuwait to claim asylum. They traveled to South Korea several days later.

Ryu said that if they had been caught, North Korean agents would have quickly taken them all back to Pyongyang for certain punishment, as defection is considered a major embarrassment to the Kim regime and is not taken lightly.

Kuwait was a particularly important revenue stream for Pyongyang, as the Persian Gulf nation used to employ about 10,000 North Korean laborers. Those workers were allegedly treated like modern-day slaves, and experts say almost all of their earnings were funneled back to the government.

Ryu also was posted to Syria, a close ally of North Korea, from 2010 to 2013. While Ryu was charged with overseeing relations with Syrian politicians, his countrymen were selling conventional weapons to the Bashar al-Assad regime, including long-range multiple launcher artillery and anti-aircraft weapons systems.

Looking back over the past 16 months, Ryu says his only regret is what might happen to his remaining family members back in Pyongyang. He and his wife believe they did the right thing for their daughter, by taking her away from her home country.

Defection from North Korea comes at a monumental cost, with defectors having to instantly sever ties from all family left in their home nation. Ryu is worried about his three siblings and 83-year-old mother still in North Korea, and the family also worries for his wife’s elderly parents living in Pyongyang.

[CNN]

North Korea’s envoy to Kuwait defects to South Korea

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It’s now been confirmed that North Korea’s acting ambassador to Kuwait defected to South Korea, the latest in a recent string of high-profile escapes from the isolated country, a South Korean lawmaker said on Monday.

Ryu Hyun Woo had led North Korea’s embassy in Kuwait since former Ambassador So Chang Sik was expelled after a 2017 U.N. resolution sought to scale back the country’s overseas diplomatic missions.

Ryu defected to South Korea last September, according to Thae Yong Ho, who was North Korea’s deputy ambassador to Britain before settling in the South in 2016 and being elected as a lawmaker last year.

Tae said Ryu is the son-in-law of Jon Il Chun, who once oversaw a Worker’s Party bureau responsible for managing the ruling Kim family’s secret coffers, dubbed Room 39.

Ryu fled several months after Jo Song Gil, who was North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, vanished with his wife from the embassy and resurfaced in South Korea.

[Reuters]