Category: Prison Camps

The defector who returned to North Korea, Kim Geum-hyok

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After three years of living in South Korea, defector Kim Geum-hyok returned to his native North Korea — swimming across the same river he’d crossed in 2017, South Korean officials said. North Korea has accused him of bringing coronavirus into the country for the first time, and resulted in putting Kaesong, Mr. Kim’s hometown, under lockdown.

Weeks before his departure, ​Mr. Kim, now 24, gave several interviews on a friend’s YouTube channel, ​talking about his life in the ​two Koreas. Even before Mr. Kim went back, his story was an unusual one. Firstly Mr. Kim made the dangerous decision to cross the inter-Korean border. Second, after defecting he made the rare decision to return.

In one of the YouTube interviews, Mr. Kim said he had lost most of his hearing at an early age. “Because of that, I had difficulty communicating with people,” he said. “I was ​beaten because I was told to bring one thing and brought some​ thing else.” When he was still a child, Kaesong, a city of 300,000, was chosen as the site of an industrial park run jointly by the two Koreas. Kaesong became a boomtown, awash with cash. Mr. Kim’s cousins worked at the park, he said, and he himself ​sold eggs and vegetables.

But four years ago, the South ​shut down​ the complex ​in a dispute ​over the North’s nuclear weapons program. The economy crashed, and Mr. Kim, like many others, was soon out of work. (Last month, with inter-Korean relations at another low, the North blew up an office in Kaesong that it had jointly operated with the South.) By June of 2017, Mr. Kim ​said he “saw no hope for the future, no meaning in life, wondering ​whether I should continue to live or die.” Seeing the South Korean buildings at night compelled him to “go there and check it out even if that meant my death,” he said.

Mr. Kim settled in the South Korean town of Gimpo, across the Han River from Kaesong. ​A doctor corrected the hearing problem that he had lived with since childhood. He said he cried that day.

He missed his parents deeply. He had enrolled in a vocational school, as part of the resettlement program that the South offers to defectors, but he said he quit and found work, hoping to send money to his family, as defectors often do through middlemen in China.

Off camera, according to the friend with the YouTube channel, Mr. Kim confided that he was being investigated by the police because another defector had accused him of raping her. He said that he had been so drunk on the night in question that he couldn’t remember anything. The police in Gimpo confirmed that a warrant had been issued for his arrest.

On July 18, officials say, Mr. Kim sent his last text message to the friend with the YouTube channel: “I really didn’t want to lose you because you were like a big sister to me,” he wrote. “I will repay my debt ​to you ​no matter where I live, as long as I live.”

South Korean officials concluded that Mr. Kim then crossed the border by crawling through a drain, three feet in diameter, that runs underneath barbed-wire fences ​on Ganghwa’s north shore. That led him to the Han River, which they believe he swam back across.

[New  York Times]

UN investigator warns against isolating North Korea as threat of COVID-19 looms

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A U.N. investigator Monday warned of serious consequences if COVID-19 gains a foothold in North Korea. The U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said the lack of freedoms and wide-range abuses in the tightly controlled, highly secretive society run counter to the transparency needed to combat the coronavirus epidemic.

Ojea Quintana acknowledges the government’s extensive efforts in preventing an outbreak of this virus inside the North. He warns a widespread infection in North Korea would be devastating for the people as many are malnourished, suffering from stunted growth and are vulnerable to getting sick.  

The U.N. official is calling on North Korea to allow full and unimpeded access to medical experts and aid workers and urges the government not to restrict access to vital information. The government in Pyongyang has not publicly disclosed any cases of COVID-19.

Regarding the economic sanctions that the United States and other countries have imposed on North Korea because of its nuclear weapons program, Ojea Quintana said because sanctions create economic hardships for the people and given the coronavirus crisis, they should be reviewed.

The U.N. rapporteur describes the overall human rights situation in North Korea as abysmal.  “Basic freedoms continue to be limited, control and surveillance are pervasive, and the population fears arbitrary arrest and mistreatment, including detention in political prison camps…A recent account refers to frequent deaths of prisoners due to hard labor, lack of food, contagious diseases and overcrowding,” he said.  

Ojea Quintana said women are the most abused members of this repressive society. He said women are the primary caretakers of the household and are under pressure to provide money and labor to the government. He said women are vulnerable to threats, imprisonment and sexual abuse from local state officials. Additionally, he said they have no political power or recourse to justice.

[VoA]

The risks of being a North Korean Christian

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“Bon-Hwa,” a North Korean Christian woman, escaped to China two years ago for the chance to live a better life.

With the help of partners of Open Doors, Bon-Hwa found shelter in a safe house and attended her first Women to Women secret meeting in China and was baptized.

But baptizing North Koreans is illegal and dangerous, so Bon-Hwa, her pastor, and a group leader traveled to a remote location that “took many hours to reach.”

“I had to contain myself and focus on the steps of the ceremony,” said the Open Doors leader. “Or else, I would have cried … It was such a beautiful moment and such a privilege to baptize a North Korean believer in these circumstances.”

Most of North Korea’s underground Christians do not engage in the extremely dangerous work of proselytizing. Instead, they largely keep their beliefs to themselves or within their immediate families. But even those who stay deep underground face danger.

North Korea has previously arrested South Korean and American missionaries for allegedly attempting to build underground church networks or overthrow its government. 

[CBN]

A call to prioritize human rights in North Korea

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In its 652-page ‘World Report 2020’, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries, including North Korea.

Among other things, the report points out that in 2019, the South Korean government prioritized diplomatic negotiations with North Korea over human rights advocacy.  

President Moon did not raise human rights when he met with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, in February 2019, in keeping with his approach in earlier meetings with Kim in 2017 and 2018. And in a troubling move in October, Moon’s government deported two North Korean fishermen to face murder charges in North Korea, where they most likely face torture and execution. In November, the government then dropped its traditional co-sponsoring of a resolution condemning North Korea’s horrific rights record at the United Nations General Assembly.

“President Moon Jae-in, who started his legal career fighting for human rights, is in several ways failing to promote them now,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

“President Moon needs to abandon his flawed North Korea policy, which is based on the hope that overlooking Pyongyang’s crimes will increase inter-Korean engagement and dialogue,” Sifton said. “The North Korean government is never going to improve its human rights record unless the world demands it, and South Korea needs to lead the rallying cry for that to happen.”

[Human Rights Watch]

Arrests of North Korean defectors in China are up

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Sources in China told Seoul-based online newspaper Daily NK that Beijing had strengthened its efforts to crack down on North Korea defectors flocking to China.

The number of defectors increased notably in April and May last year when the weather became warm enough that people could cross the Yalu River or hide in the forest more easily, according to the source.

The source added that even brokers, who help North Koreans to defect in exchange for money, are reluctant to help defectors these days due to the rising number of arrest cases by the Chinese authorities.

Chinese authorities are reportedly working with some brokers while tracking the history of mobile phone usage to locate defectors, the source added.

Another source in China told Daily NK that there had been an increasing number of cases of the Chinese authorities investigating defectors instead of repatriating them back to the North. The authorities even collected the personal details of defectors in a move to store and manage them as if they were Chinese citizens., taking photos and collecting fingerprints.

[The Diplomat]

US diplomats helped 13 North Koreans held in Vietnam

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Caught halfway into a multicountry escape from North Korea, 13 individuals detained in Vietnam reached safety last month due to an unexpected helping hand: the U.S. government.

A group of U.S. diplomats, including some involved in disarmament talks with the Kim Jong Un regime, intervened after videos surfaced showing two female detainees wrapped under blankets following failed suicide attempts. Both women had feared being repatriated to the North where they likely would have faced the regime’s gulags or worse.

American diplomats in Washington and Asia pressed Vietnamese officials to not hand over the North Korean escapees to Chinese or North Korean officials, according to the people familiar with the episode. It’s uncommon for American officials to get involved in cases pertaining to ordinary North Korean escapees. It’s rare for such interventions to become public.

The 13 refugees didn’t seem to be aware of the U.S. help behind the scenes, according to a person directly involved in the episode. That’s because such a diplomatic role is typically handled by South Korea. Mintaro Oba, a former official at the State Department’s Korea desk, said: “To the Moon administration, [the 13 North Korean refugees were] probably at best a serious irritant at a time when they’re hyperfocused on inter-Korean relations.”

Experts say U.S. officials took a diplomatic risk in helping activists guide the refugees to safety, as such moves could upset North Korea and complicate already stalled nuclear negotiations.

[Wall Street Journal]

After massive data leak, North Korean refugees fear for family back home

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Last December, an unidentified hacker stole the personal information of 997 North Korean refugees, shaking the refugee community in South Korea. According to the Ministry of Unification, the refugees’ names, birthdays, and addresses were stolen from a personal computer at a Hana Center, an institute in North Gyeongsang province that the Ministry runs where North Korean refugees can receive help after arriving in South Korea.

Such information on North Korean refugees could put family members back in North Korea in grave danger if it gets into the hands of the North Korean government.  Keenly aware of North Korea’s cyber ability and the consequences of information exposed from past cases, North Korean refugees who have family members back in North Korea live in a state of constant anxiety.

In 2006, a group of North Korean refugees was found on a boat by a South Korean sentry soldier in Goseong, Gangwon Province in South Korea. Terrified that their family members could be asked to take responsibility and punished for their escape, once the North Korean government learned about their identities, the refugees asked South Korean investigators not to reveal their information to the public. However, Gangwon Provincial Police Agency gave a report that included details of the refugees’ identities to South Korea’s news media outlets, disclosing their personal information to the public. After contacting their sources in North Korea, the refugees learned the devastating news that a total of 22 members of their immediate families had disappeared. Their whereabouts are still unknown.

While South Korea is known to have one of the strongest information technology infrastructures in the world, the Ministry of Unification has confirmed that the Hana Center in Gyeongsang violated an order to use a segregated network when handling the personal information of North Korean refugees, leading to malicious code sent via an email to infect the personal computer of an employee.

[NK News]

Otto Warmbier’s parents tell North Korea: ‘We’re never going to let you forget our son’

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Cindy and Fred Warmbier — the parents of American college student Otto Warmbier who died after being detained by North Korea — have a message for Kim Jong Un’s regime. “People matter. Otto matters,” Cindy said. “We’re never going to let you forget our son.”

The Warmbier’s visited Capitol Hill on Wednesday to mark the passage of legislation named in their son’s honor. The Otto Warmbier Banking Restrictions Involving North Korea, or BRINK, Act — was approved by Congress, and President Trump is expected to sign the bill sometime this week. The bill requires mandatory sanctions on foreign banks and other businesses that deal with North Korea, which is a measure meant to tighten the economic pressure on Pyongyang amid stalled talks with the Trump administration.

The bill’s bipartisan sponsors are Sens. Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman of Ohio, the Warmbier’s home state. “I don’t know if Fred and Cindy are Republicans or Democrats,” Brown said. “What I do know is that Fred and Cindy love their son and love this country and their commitment every hour of every day of every week of every month since their son’s death has just been an honor to watch.” Portman, who said North Korea “effectively killed” Otto, added that he believed the 22-year old would have approved of the bill.

Otto was detained in North Korea’s capital in December 2015 while on a guided tour, later accused by the regime of stealing a propaganda poster. The University of Virginia student suffered brain damage during his imprisonment and was eventually released by North Korea to return to the U.S. in June 2017. Six days after returning to his family in Ohio, Otto died. Last Thursday would have been his 25th birthday.

[ABC News]

Trump officials block UN meeting on North Korean human rights abuses

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The U.S. is trying to preserve a diplomatic opening with Kim Jong-un, even as North Korea dismisses President Trump as a “heedless and erratic old man.” The Trump administration has refused to support a move by members of the United Nations Security Council to hold a discussion on North Korea’s rampant human rights abuses, effectively blocking the meeting for the second year in a row. The American action appeared aimed at muting international criticism of Pyongyang’s human rights record in the hope of preserving a tenuous diplomatic opening between President Trump and Kim Jong-un.

A proposed meeting of the Security Council on Tuesday had been intended to put a spotlight on North Korea on Human Rights Day, which is held every Dec. 10 to mark the day in 1948 when the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eight of the council’s 15 members had signed a letter to schedule the meeting but needed a ninth member — the minimum required. United Nations diplomats, confirming a report in Foreign Policy, said the United States had declined to sign.

The absence of American support for a discussion of human rights in North Korea is a conspicuous change under the Trump administration. In 2014, after a United Nations commission released a report on widespread rights violations in North Korea, the Americans supported an annual meeting on the council devoted to the subject. The North Korean government was infuriated. But last year, the Americans withdrew its support for such a meeting as Mr. Trump made diplomatic overtures to Mr. Kim.

Mr. Trump’s critics say the action is consistent with what they regard as a transactional approach to foreign policy that diminishes concern for human rights. The president has embraced authoritarian leaders who oversee widespread abuses in their countries and rarely talks about rights violations. Mr. Trump has blocked sanctions on Chinese officials for running internment camps holding at least one million Muslims, for example, to try to reach a trade deal with China.

“North Korea and other abusive governments that the United States is going easy on are undoubtedly elated that the days of U.S. criticism of their human rights records appear to be over for the time being,” said Louis Charbonneau, United Nations officer at Human Rights Watch.

[The New York Times]

Eleven North Korean defectors detained in Vietnam

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Eleven North Koreans seeking to defect to South Korea have been detained in Vietnam since Nov. 23 and are seeking help to avoid being repatriated, a South Korean activist group said on Monday. The eight women ranging in age from early 20s to 50s, and three men in their 20s, were detained by border guards in northern Vietnam two days after crossing from China, and are being held in the city of Lang Son, the Seoul-based Justice for North Korea said in a statement.

Currently, Vietnam is detaining all the defectors. After several of the women fainted, the Vietnamese government decided against forcibly sending them to China, according to Peter Jung, the head of Justice for North Korea which supports North Korean asylum-seekers.

Jung told VOA’s Korean Service that one of the defectors who had a cellphone contacted the South Korean Embassy in Vietnam asking for help, but he had not heard from them since Friday.

Jung added the Seoul embassy’s subsequent silence had spurred him to publicize the situation, fearing that without an international response the defectors could be forcibly repatriated. “The embassy told them it will take appropriate measures to help them,” said Jung. “But the defectors have not heard from the embassy” since Friday.

The defectors asked the South Korean government to provide asylum in Seoul so they can avoid being deported to North Korea. In a video clip sent by Jung, a woman was nursing other people who appeared to be ill.

The South Korean foreign ministry said it was aware of the case and had been in touch with the Vietnamese government. “Our government has been making necessary efforts to ensure the North Korean defectors living abroad are sent to a desired place without being forcibly repatriated,” the ministry said in a statement.

If the 11 defectors are sent to China, they would most likely be deported back to North Korea, where they could face severe punishment such as forced labor, torture and even execution.

As of September, at least 771 North Korean defectors had entered South Korea this year, according to the South’s Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North.

[Reuters/VoA]