Category: North Korean refugee

Where there’s a will to help North Koreans, there’s a way

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Starving children in the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea are the focus of a complex undertaking by Rotarians.

“A small group of Rotarians and Rotoractors (young Rotarians) decided to establish a network that might facilitate the Rotary goals that we were trying achieve,” Rotarian Tom Wilkinson said. “The Rotary goal is to promote international understanding, good will and world peace. … If we’re really going to promote international understanding, and really believe that that is what we’re about, as Rotarians, then we have to explore those possibilities, always in that effort to bring about understanding.”

They established the Korean Friendship Network, a volunteer umbrella group of Rotarians from Shanghai, Hong Kong, the U.S., Italy and from Canada, networking with Rotary Clubs and Rotarians interested in humanitarian and educational projects in North Korea.

“It is needed to determine and develop relationships, not only with the people of North Korea but also with the few NGO’s (Non Governmental Organizations) to give them support as well as government officials and agencies which will help ensure that projects and material, especially such as food and medicine and equipment, get through the maze of bureaucracy, and, in fact, reach our intended recipients and not end up feeding the military,” Wilkinson said.

“ …The need was for starving children. … 75 per cent of the food production was lost in the floods.”

The group located and negotiated with an organization in the U.S. called, Feed My Starving Children. While Feed My Starving Children had the ability to prepare the food packages, it lacked ability to ship a container into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  … We found the shipping company. “

With all the obstacles in front of them, the group did manage to get the food packages into North Korea.

Rotaractors Gary Permenter and Michael Zhang travelled to North Korea at their own expense confirming that the food had in fact reached the children for whom it was intended.  The project has provided 273,000 meals to disabled and orphaned children.

Escaping North Korea via the Underground Railroad

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More than 150 years ago, in antebellum America, the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses, allowed slaves to escape to freedom. Today a similar network has been created by humanitarian groups and Christian missionaries, as well as by unscrupulous smugglers and brokers, to help North Koreans escape their modern-day slave state—a place where freedom of speech, religion and movement are all forbidden and where some 200,000 inmates are held in Stalinist gulags.

The escapees include North Korean women who have been sold to brothels as prostitutes or to Chinese farmers as brides against their will; defectors carrying state secrets; and ordinary men, women and children fleeing in search of food and a better life.

To trace the harrowing journey that refugees must undergo: first making their way across the border with China (which means traversing a major river and getting past numerous checkpoints and guards) and then making a long and risky trek across China to reach another country, usually in Southeast Asia, from which, if they are lucky, they find safe haven in South Korea or the West. The unlucky refugees, caught by the Chinese, are forcibly sent back.

The stories are just as moving for the Korean women who have been sold into prostitution or forced marriages in China. Their “half-and-half children” by Chinese men are unable to attend school or obtain medical care and may be “ripped from their mothers’ arms by Chinese policemen” and then abandoned if their Korean mothers are arrested and repatriated to North Korea. Pregnant women repatriated to the North suffer a special hell: “For the perceived crime of carrying ‘Chinese seed,’ their North Korean jailers force the repatriated women to undergo abortions, even in the final weeks of pregnancy.”

In all, some 24,000 North Koreans have thus far managed to flee to safety, and tens of thousands more are currently hiding in enclaves in northeastern China, under threat of repatriation by the Chinese regime. This new underground railroad is “a rare good-news story that foretells a happier future for that sad country.”

–From Sue Mi Terry’s book review of Melanie Kirkpatrick’s “Escape From North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad” 

Read more on the Underground Railroad

North Korea home to at least 15 slave labor camps

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North Korea is a country half the size of the State of Oregon, and home to at least 15 slave labor camps comparable to Auschwitz.

Quoting the North Korea Freedom Coalition:

“According to the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, there exists a vast network of structured institutions for punishment in North Korea, including forced-labor colonies … along the North Korea-China border.

“Prisoners are brutally treated in these institutions with testimonies from North Korean defectors describing … torture, hard labor, starvation, forced abortions, infanticide, families of up to three generations imprisoned, detention without judicial process, public executions, chemical and medical experimentation on prisoners, and gas chambers, resulting in thousands of deaths. Comparisons have been frequently made to the Nazi concentration camps.

“For what crimes?… Virtually any state-defined crime such as: being a Christian, making a negative comment about the regime, failing to have a picture of Kim Il-Sung in their house and failure to keep it clean enough, traveling to China to look for food …”

North Korean Prison Camps and Detention Centers

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An estimated 150 thousand to 200 thousand persons are believed to be held in detention camps in remote areas [of North Korea], including for political reasons.

NGO, refugee, and press reports indicated that there were several types of camps, and separate camps reportedly existed for political prisoners. Using commercial satellite imagery to bolster their assertions about the existence of the camps and point out their main features, defectors claimed the camps covered areas as large as 200 square miles. The camps contained mass graves, barracks, work sites, and other prison facilities. The government continued to deny the existence of political prison camps.

The government considered critics of the regime to be political criminals. Reports from past years described political offenses as including sitting on newspapers bearing Kim Il Sung’s picture, mentioning Kim Il Sung’s limited formal education, or defacing photographs of the Kims.

Collective punishment reportedly was practiced in the past. Entire families, including children, have been imprisoned when one member of the family was accused of a crime.

According to refugees, in some places of detention prisoners were given little or no food and were denied medical care. Sanitation was poor, and refugees who escaped from labor camps continued to report that they were rarely able to bathe or wash their clothing, nor were they given changes of clothing during months of incarceration.

— Excerpts from a U.S. State Department’s Human Rights report, on North Korea

North Korean prison camps Total Control Zones

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German filmmaker Marc Wiese specializes in films about the atrocities of war and repression. His latest film, Camp 14 – Total Control Zone, is about Shin Don-Huyk, a young man who was born in a North Korean prison camp and who hardly knew anything about the outside world until he escaped and defected.

In painful interviews, Shin describes a life of extreme brutality. Prisoners at the camps are immediately shot for any infraction, sometimes on the whim of the guards. There is no hope of being set free. Most people are there for the merest perceived lack of respect for the government and authority. The recollections are grueling for Shin. He has no interest in seeing the finished doc, Wiese says.

And yet there is, for Shin now, but even for the prisoners in the camp, a strong will to live. “There is no logic. Life in the camp is so horrifying that you’d think as an outsider, like you and me, ‘why the hell would they want to survive?’ ” Wiese says. And yet, in the most inhuman conditions, that’s when the will to live remains primordial and unfailing.

Wiese says one day, he simply clicked on Google Earth, scrolled around North Korea, and immediately he found not only a city near the camp, but the camp itself. “I could see it! And I checked other camps. They are huge with 20,000 or 40,000 people in them. You can really see it on a regular personal computer. I was thinking .. just imagine in the Second World War if you could see, live, the concentration camps? That’s the reality today.”

Thousands of North Koreans expected to starve

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Information coming in from the grassroots network of Life Funds for North Korean Refugees (LFNKR) indicates that drought and starvation are seriously affecting South Hwanghae Province. The drought is wreaking havoc on the harvest, and threatening widespread starvation.

The Hwanghae region is the rice bowl of North Korea. It is important in providing rice for the military and the capital Pyongyang, but the regional government fears that they will not be able to carry out that function after two consecutive years of natural disasters.

The regional government has issued no official statistics on deaths. According to a Ministry of Agriculture official, however, who was sent to assess the situation, a low estimate would be twelve to thirteen thousand people starved between February and May, just in the Hwanghae region alone. Observers expect to see the number of victims continue rising indefinitely.

In order to address the problem, the government has ordered emergency rations. Although the Chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Yong-nam, visited Indonesia, Kampuchea, Laos and other countries to request food aid, results are still in question.

North Korea rolling out agricultural policy changes

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Several media outlets that employ North Korean defectors, including Washington-based Radio Free Asia, have reported that Pyongyang is rolling out agricultural policy changes that mark a significant break from the state-controlled economy.

Those measures, according to the reports, reduce the size of cooperative farm units from between 10 and 25 farmers to between four and six. The decrease is critical because it allows one or two households, not entire communities, to plan and tend to their own farms. Farmers still must hit production quotas, but they can keep 30 percent of their crops, up from less than 10 percent. They can sell the rest to the government at market prices, not state-fixed prices, and they can keep (and sell privately) anything exceeding the quota.

The changes do not apply to the entire country; they have been introduced in three rural provinces and took effect in July, according to reports.

It remains unclear what is driving the government to allow farmers more personal control. The North could be trying to wring more production from its farmers “out of necessity, not out of virtue,” because its centrally planned rationing system is broken, said Victor Cha, a former White House director of Asian affairs. If and when the North’s food shortages ease, he said, the country is likely to retreat.

“Having said that, the more time they have to do this and let the economy function on its own, the better off we all are,” Cha said. “You can say to farmers, ‘Okay, for six months, you can keep 30 percent,’ but the more times you do this, the harder it will be to pull back.”

Few foreign government officials or scholars on North Korea expect a big-bang economic makeover or official announcements about reform.

Rampant post-traumatic stress disorder among North Korean Refugees

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Rampant post-traumatic stress disorder among North Korean Refugees

Radio Free Asia reports that a study of post-traumatic stress disorder among North Korean defectors found that they reported certain traumatic events in North Korea with a high frequency.

Most commonly reported were: “witnessing public executions,” followed by “hearing news of the death of a family member or relative due to starvation,” “witnessing a beating,” “witnessing a punishment for political misconduct,” and “death of a family member or relative due to illness.”

The study, published in the international medical journal The Lancet, found symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 29.5 percent of North Koreans in South Korea, compared with a rate of 56 percent found among North Koreans in China in a separate study.

Increasingly friendly relationship between North Korea and Iran

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Kim Yong-nam will attend the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Tehran, Pyonyang’s official news agency said. Yong-nam is the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly and has represented North Korea’s supreme leaders (both the late Kim Jong-Il and now his son, Kim Jong-un) in visits around the world.

The North Korean news agency also reported that an Iranian delegation had visited North Korea in July for “political negotiations and consultations on international developments.” That parley ended with both sides adopting a shared stand against “Western imperialism.”

The high-level relations between North Korea and Iran, both of which are under various international sanctions over their respective nuclear programs, may suggest an increasingly friendly relationship that could pose a grave threat to international security.

Despite the devastating impact on Iran’s economy (for example, its currency has plunged 40 percent since December), the sanctions have not led to any halting of Iran’s uranium enrichment program so far. Similarly, the U.N.’s sanctions on North Korea have also failed to dissuade Pyongyang from relinquishing its nuclear ambitions.

Without firm commitments by North Korea’s trading partners (i.e., China), the effectiveness of Western sanctions will be limited. (China does have incentive in preventing North Korea’s government from collapsing as that would likely trigger a huge influx of refugees across its borders.)

China accounts for 57 percent of North Korea’s total trade and has increased its trade volume with North Korea in 2010, according to Bloomberg. And now Iran also appears to be a major player in North Korea’s economy, to the dismay of U.N. and U.S. officials.

Concerns in the West are that a close relationship between North Korea and Iran would undermine, or at least weaken, sanctions placed upon these nations. And as China continues to build the two economic zones in North Korea, Western sanctions on North Korea could be neutralized.

A Tale of Two Korean Countries

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South Koreans who receive a letter from a long-lost relative in the North for the first time usually burst into tears out of pity at the plight of their relatives, says Kim Kyung-Jae of the Separated Family Union.

“Southerners think they know how bad the situation is there, but it’s a whole lot worse than it appears. Things that are trivial to us here in South Korea can be of great use there.”

“Relatives in the North ask us to send anything from rubber to used clothes, but what they want most is medicine for disease, mostly tuberculosis, and food to combat malnutrition.” Basic household items are also in demand. “Things that we have, like scissors and knives? They don’t have them,” said Kim.

The staff of the Separated Family Union try to bridge the gap using the postal systems of third countries or brokers. Brokers take about 30 percent commission if transferring money, and charge roughly $203 to deliver a 20-kilogram (44-pound) package through the Chinese post. Despite the high commission and the difficulties, families in the South keep sending packages because they make such a difference in the poverty-stricken North.

“The Northerners always send letters saying the small efforts and money we’ve put in here has made a big difference there,” said Kim.

Kim himself left the North in 1950, the first year of the Korean War, with all his brothers. But he had to leave his youngest sister behind. He was 19 and she was eight. “That’s the last time we saw or talked to each other until 1990, when I miraculously received her address (through an acquaintance allowed to visit the North) and we started exchanging letters,” said Kim.

“It’s unrealistic to hope the two Koreas will be unified while I’m alive,” he said. “But I long for freer communication between families because I want to help my sister and other families reunite.”