Category: North Korean refugee

Listening to South Korean radio could send you to a political prison camp or even execution

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Ill Yong opens Google Maps, trying to find a satellite image of his childhood house. This always makes him homesick. When he zooms in on his house, a blurry gray square surrounded by snow, he remembers the nearby waterfall and the summer days he spent playing there. But he also remembers how hard it was living in North Korea.

His family listened to illegal South Korean radio every night but had to keep it hidden from friends and neighbors. If caught, they could have been sent to a political prison camp or even executed.

Ill Yong resettled to South Korea in 2009 and, even though his family was with him, starting over in a new country was challenging. The everyday moments took adjusting to.

His first time at a buffet, Ill Yong was so overwhelmed by the massive amount of food that he just took a small bowl of rice.

The first time he tried to use an escalator he was so confused about what to do that he jumped on at the bottom and then jumped off at the top.

Ill Yong is studying to become a Human Rights lawyer. A lot has changed since he first arrived (he now knows how to get on an escalator) but he still thinks about his old home in North Korea and hopes to see it again in person one day.

[LiNK]

No further word about North Korea’s top diplomat in Italy who went into hiding

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There has been no further word about North Korea’s top diplomat in Italy who went into hiding along with his wife in November before his posting to Italy ended late that month. Media reports indicated that Jo was under Italian government protection as he seeks asylum in a Western nation.

A high-profile defection by one of North Korea’s elite would be a huge embarrassment for leader Kim Jong Un as he pursues diplomacy with Seoul and Washington and seeks to portray himself as a geopolitical player. North Korea, which touts itself as a socialist paradise, is extremely sensitive about defections, especially among its elite diplomatic corps, and has previously insisted that they are South Korean or U.S. plots to undermine its government.

In this case, North Korea has publicly ignored Jo Song Gil’s possible defection and held back harsh criticism to avoid highlighting the vulnerability of its government as it tries to engage Washington and Seoul in negotiations.

“It could be difficult for some diplomats to accept being called back to the North after enjoying years living in the free West. They could want their children to live in a different system and receive better education,” Thae Yong Ho, a former minister at the North Korean Embassy in London who fled to South Korea in 2016, told The Associated Press.

Jo seemed comfortable moving around Italy. In March 2018, accompanied by another embassy official, Pak Myong Gil, he visited two factories in Italy’s northeastern Veneto region with an eye on eventual trade, according to La Tribuna di Treviso, a local daily.

Jo comes from a family of diplomats, with his father and father-in-law both serving as ambassadors.

North Korean defector jailed for sending rice and cash to her homeland

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A North Korean defector was on Friday sentenced by the Seoul High Court to two-and-a-half years in jail for sending 130 tons of rice to her homeland as a “loyalty gift”.

It is an open secret North Korean defectors living in the South send small amounts of money to their relatives in the North but this case also involved an extraordinary amount of money sent to the North’s state security agency.

Upholding a lower court decision, the High Court rejected the accused’s claims she sent the rice to ensure the welfare of her son, who was left behind in the North when she defected to the South via China in 2011.

The woman, 50, has since made a small fortune by operating a massage parlour in the South. She sent 130 tons of rice in two instalments to coincide with the April 15 birthday of the North’s founding father Kim Il-sung in 2016 and the January 8 birthday of the current leader Kim Jong-un, via an intermediary associated with the North’s security agency. She also sent US$71,000 to the broker to send an additional 70 tons of rice to the impoverished state.

The court accepted prosecutors’ charges she sent the rice to prove her loyalty to Pyongyang as she sought to return to the North to reunite with her son, who has failed in his attempts to follow his mother in defecting to the South. Prosecutors charged her with providing the North with illegal aid in breach of the strict National Security Law.

[South China Morning Post]

North Korean ambassador’s defection could impact the already fragile ongoing nuclear negotiations

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News broke in early January that North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, Jo Song Gil, is in hiding and reported is seeking asylum in the West.

Is Jo Song Gil making his escape for personal reasons? Or is it an indication that things are as bad as ever in Pyongyang? Whatever the reason, his defection could impact the ongoing negotiations. He could, for example, share sensitive information with the US and South Korea about the real denuclearisation situation in North Korea – and this could make Kim Jong Un less willing to engage.

There are other factors to consider, too, not least North Korea’s sharp economic downturn. This has, in fact, given many North Koreans wider access to information from outside the country, partially thanks to a growing number of defectors communicating with those who remain and the outside world. 

Kim Jong Un’s “equal emphasis” (Byungjin) policy, which focuses on both military and economic development, has also given impetus to his willingness to talk with Moon and Trump. But even if the willingness is there, North Korea’s regime cannot upend nearly 70 years of history in a day. It will be a long process.

The truth is that Kim Jong-un cannot abandon his nuclear programme until he can see an alternative way of guaranteeing the security of his regime. After all, North Korea’s nuclear programme has so far worked well as a bargaining chip in international negotiations – although the current UN sanctions are an exception. Indeed, North Korea’s nuclear threats and long-range missiles have strengthened the county’s hand against the US, while without them, North Korea has almost nothing to offer as a concession.

Nor should we forget the role the North Korean media plays. By showing images of Kim Jong Un shaking hands with world leaders, it has become part of his survival strategy, bolstering his strongman image among both ordinary North Koreans and his government. 

2019 may yet bring a way forward. But unless there is a foundation of mutual understanding, defectors such as Jo Song Gil may offer the only tangible insight into what’s really going on in North Korea.

[Chanel NewsAsia]

Defected North Korean diplomat urges international community to help ex-colleague believed to be in hiding in Italy

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Thae Yong Ho, the former North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea in 2016, put out a call to the governments of Italy, South Korea and the United States to help facilitate his former colleague’s reported attempt to leave Italy.

“I urge the Italian government to follow international law and the spirit of humanity to guarantee every condition is met so that political asylum seeker Jo Song Gil and his family can go to the country of their choice,” Thae said at a press conference in Korean in Seoul on Wednesday.

Thae also had a message for Jo Song Gil, the acting North Korean ambassador to Italy, who is reportedly seeking political asylum in the U.S. after leaving the embassy last November. “I am telling you as a friend. Song Gil, do not worry. If you feel unsafe we will actively make an effort to urge the Italian embassy and [authorities] there. So we could at the least help you gain peace of mind.

“We respect your choice [of which country to seek asylum], but you have a home country, the Republic of Korea,” Thae said in Korean.

Jo and his wife are from a politically powerful family of diplomats and have maintained a luxurious lifestyle in Pyongyang, according to Thae, who went to the same university with Jo and knew the family “quite well.”

“As parents, they probably could not force their children, who already are aware of democracy and human rights from living in Europe, back to hell like North Korea. They must have thought that the last thing they could do for the children is to give them freedom,” said Thae, recalling his own defection with his two sons.

[ABC News]

Former North Korean diplomat urges missing colleague in Italy to go to South Korea, not US

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A former North Korean diplomat who staged a high-profile defection to the South has urged an old colleague who has gone missing in Italy to defect to Seoul, following a report that he was seeking asylum in the United States.

Jo Song Gil, the 44-year-old who was until recently North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, disappeared with his wife after leaving the embassy without notice in early November. Jo has applied for asylum in the United States and is under the protection of Italian intelligence, according to Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper.

In an open letter, Thae Yong Ho, Pyongyang’s former deputy ambassador to Britain, who said he went to the same university and worked with Jo before defecting to South Korea in 2016, urged Jo to follow in his footsteps. (Thae said his family visited Jo in Rome in 2008, where the latter was studying from 2006 to 2009. He guided them to sites such as St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.)

To defect to South is an “obligation, not a choice” for North Korean diplomats committed to unification, Thae said, calling Seoul “the outpost” for that task.

“If you come to South Korea, the day when our suffering colleagues and North Korean citizens are liberated from the fetters would be moved forward,” Thae said in the letter released on his website. “If you come to Seoul, even more of our colleagues would follow suit, and the unification would be accomplished by itself.” South Korea could not be “heaven on earth” but a place where Jo can realize his wishes, Thae said, highlighting the ardent desire for unification among many of the roughly 32,000 defectors there.

“The defectors may not be as wealthy as South Koreans,” Thae added. “But isn’t it the only thing you and I, as North Korean diplomats, should do the rest of our lives – to bring about unification and hand over a unified nation to our children?”

[Reuters]

Missing North Korea ambassador seeking US asylum

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The acting North Korean ambassador to Rome, reportedly missing since November, may have requested U.S. asylum, according to an Italian press report. Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported Friday that Ambassador Jo Song Gil is seeking entry into the United States and is under the protection of Italian intelligence.

The Italian foreign ministry has denied it has received an asylum application from Jo, and stated it is not protecting the North Korean envoy. But an Italian diplomatic source who spoke to La Repubblica on the condition of anonymity said Jo is receiving assistance from Italian intelligence while his U.S. asylum application is under review.

Jo reached out to the Italian government as early as mid-November, according to La Repubblica. Chiefs of Italian agencies and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte have been in contact with U.S. authorities to discuss Jo’s case, the report says.

Jo’s possible defection comes at a sensitive time for U.S.-North Korea relations. CNN reports the Trump administration is scouting locations for a second summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un.Trump has expressed enthusiasm for talks, and has said he received a “great letter” from Kim.

South Korean news service News 1 reported Friday Ambassador Jo was appointed to the North Korean embassy in Rome in May 2015, and then assumed the acting ambassador position after Italy expelled then-Ambassador Mun Jong Nam in 2017.

[UPI]

North Korean diplomat in Italy goes into hiding

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North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy has disappeared from the diplomatic compound in Rome, according to South Korea’s spy agency.

Ambassador Jo Song Gil and his wife disappeared from the diplomatic compound in Rome in November, before his term was set to end later that month. South Korea’s Joongang Ilbo newspaper reports that the 48-year-old Jo has sought asylum in the west, but Rome has not confirmed this detail. The defection of a senior diplomat would of course be a major embarrassment for Pyongyang.

South Korean lawmaker Kim Min-Ki told reporters he has information about the case, but cannot discuss it, according to Reuters. “They left the diplomatic mission and vanished,” Kim said.

The Italian foreign ministry says it knows nothing of reports that a North Korean diplomat has defected and is seeking asylum, reports NPR Senior European Correspondent Sylvia Poggioli. She says Italian media reports that the Rome foreign ministry “denies he’s in protected hiding.”

The Associated Press reports that North Korea has yet to comment on Jo’s status. Jo became acting ambassador after Italy expelled the former top diplomat in October 2017 to protest a North Korean nuclear test, Poggioli reports.

North Korea has long been concerned about the possibility of defections, especially among its elites. The secretive country has insisted in the past that diplomatic defections are South Korean or U.S. plots to undermine its communist government, reports the AP.

The last high-profile North Korean defector, the No. 2 diplomat in the U.K., escaped to South Korea in 2016.

[NPR]

For a North Korean defector turned journalist, warming Korean ties are cause for worry

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Kim Myong Song, a reporter for one of South Korea’s biggest daily newspapers, the Chosun Ilbo, who covers the Unification Ministry, which is in charge of inter-Korean relations, remembers rushing to cover a high-level meeting of North and South Korean officials early one morning in October.

On the way to the bus that would take him to Panmunjom, the border village where the talks were taking place, the ministry called to tell him he had been barred from covering the event. “I felt so betrayed and angry,” Kim tells NPR. “I could understand it if I was an inexperienced newcomer. But I’ve been covering the ministry for six years.”

The ministry never really explained why it barred Kim. A spokesman simply said the ministry took “necessary steps” because of “the special circumstance.”

Kim happens to be a defector from North Korea. Kim and other defectors believe that their experience of living under the North Korean regime gives them a role to play in this process. He speculates that officials shut him out because they were concerned that having a defector in the room could offend the North Korean officials and derail the talks.

Other journalists, defectors and human rights activists sprang to Kim’s defense and slammed the ministry’s action. Among them was defector Choi Kyong Hui, president of a civic group called South and North Development, who pointed out that Kim was going to cover talks in South Korea, not North Korea. “In a democratic society,” she argues, “no individual or official has the right to restrict journalists working for the people’s right to know.”

All this makes Kim Myong Song apprehensive about his future as a journalist in South Korea. Before the government banned him from covering the inter-Korean meeting, he says, the peace process had actually given him hope: that someday he could report from Pyongyang, as a South Korean correspondent. These days, it seems he can’t even report freely from Seoul.

[NPR]

Returned North Korean defectors lecture on miseries of capitalism they saw in China

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North Koreans who defected but later changed their minds and returned to the North are giving lectures in towns and cities on the Chinese border extolling the pleasures of life under Kim Jong-un and the misery of being on the run in China and struggling to survive in a capitalist state. 

The lectures are part of the North Korean government’s efforts to halt the steady flow of its citizens over the border into China, from where they attempt to reach a third country and seek asylum and the assistance of Seoul to settle in South Korea. The use of double-defectors is designed to reinforce the regime’s message that many who flee the North regret their decision. 

A North Korean who attended a recent lecture in the city of Hoeryong, which is on the Tumen River that marks the border with China, said a double-defector in her 40s said she had not been able to earn any money after she had crossed the border and that she could not even go to a hospital when she was taken ill. The woman said she had been discriminated against the entire time she had been outside the North, adding that she was “treated as less than human” and that she became a perpetual “social outcast”. 

The double-defectors’ lectures have hammered home the message that it is difficult to earn enough money to survive in China and that there is a high likelihood of women being sexually exploited. People-smugglers are known to sell young women to Chinese farmers looking for a bride or into the sex industry. 

The woman added in her lecture that she had been surprised after returning to the North at “how fast our country is developing”. 

Similar lectures were delivered to women working in farms and factories across Onsong County and at the Musan mine, the Seoul-based Daily NK news site reported. 

[The Telegraph]