Category: Prison Camps

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]

Females now account for 85 percent of North Korean defectors

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The Ministry of Unification in Seoul estimates that, as of June 2019, some 33,022 North Korean defectors had entered South Korea. Of these, 23,786 – about 72 percent – were female. 

Throughout 2019 though, that trend has increased, with female defectors accounting for 85 percent of the total defector population. Data indicates that 17,566 North Korean female defectors are in the age range of 20-40, and the vast majority are mothers.

During the process of fleeing their impoverished home country, many women are forced into sex and labor trafficking, often are sold to Chinese men and ultimately forced to marry. Many have to leave their children behind as they attempt to carve out a way to survive.

One such mother Jeong Ah has gone on to serve as founder and executive director of Tongil Mom (which translates to “Unification Mom”), an NGO that focuses on issues related to the mental health and well-being of defector mothers. “I gave birth to four children, but, tragically, I only have one child that I am living with. Looking back, I feel that I was abandoned by my own birth parents, and I feel so terrible that I myself did the same thing my parents did to me,” Jeong Ah said. “I feel a great sense of tragedy and sadness that I have done this to my children. That is part of the reason I started this organization, to deal with the hurt and the pain so many other defector women go through in forced separation.”

“The Chinese government does not give North Koreans Chinese citizenship, [but classifies] North Korean defectors as illegal border crossers,” the latest Tongil Mom report states. “They even send them back to North Korea by force.”

Defectors thus live every moment with the risk of being discovered and forcibly returned to North Korea. If pregnant, the defectors also face the threat of a forced abortion on return. The looming fear and routinely brutal living conditions in China propels many women to flee their children and families once again and relocate to South Korea.

[Fox News]

Speaking to her children once a year: “A few minutes of joy, eclipsed mostly by waiting and agony”

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Son Myunghee, 35 was given up for adoption the day after she was born. Her adopted parents died when she was young, forcing her to work in an illegal scrap metal mine near her home town.

Myunghee first escaped North Korea in 2007 after two years of hiding in the mountains, but her foray into “freedom” was short-lived. She was tortured so severely by Chinese agents, she says, that her intestines ruptured and she was left fighting for her life before being repatriated  in 2012.

“The regime tried to make an example out of me and use me to put fear in the population. I had to escape this whole situation of further mistreatment and punishment,” she said.

Myunghee absconded again in 2014, making it to South Korea the following year. She currently lives in South Korea with her Chinese husband and children, and endeavors to support other victims of forced repatriation.

Another defector, who requested anonymity given that her immediate family remains in North Korea, told Fox News that, since defecting in 2004, she is only able to afford to speak to her children once per year. Arrangements are made through a secret broker that goes to the family home in North Korea and uses a Chinese cell signal to facilitate a brief phone call.

It’s a few minutes of joy, eclipsed mostly by waiting and agony.

[Fox News]

Parents of Otto Warmbier pursue North Korean assets

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The parents of a former U.S. hostage who died after being released from North Korea in a coma in 2017 say they are committed to finding and shutting down illicit North Korean business assets around the world in efforts to hold its government accountable for widespread human rights abuses.

In a news conference in Seoul on Friday, Fred and Cindy Warmbier also called for the Trump administration to raise North Korea’s human rights problems as it engages in negotiations to defuse the country’s nuclear threat.

“My mission would be to hold North Korea responsible, to recover and discover their assets around the world,” said Fred Warmbier, who was invited to a forum hosted by a Seoul-based group representing the families of South Koreans abducted by the North during the 1950-53 Korean War.

The Warmbiers, who live in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio, have claimed that their college student son, Otto, was tortured by North Korea after being convicted in 2016 of trying to steal a propaganda poster and imprisoned for months. The 22-year-old suffered severe brain damage and died shortly after being returned to the United States in a vegetative state in June 2017.

In December last year, a U.S. federal judge ordered North Korea pay more than $500 million in a wrongful death suit filed by the Warmbiers over their son, although they are unlikely to collect on the judgment.

The Warmbiers have been pushing legal action seeking the closure of a hostel operated on the grounds of the North Korean Embassy in Berlin and plan to go after other hostels the country operates in Europe, which they say are aimed at pressuring governments to tighten their enforcement of sanctions against Pyongyang.

During the earlier part of his presidency, President Donald Trump strongly criticized North Korea over its dismal human rights record, inviting the Warmbiers to his State of the Union address last year where he lashed out at the “depraved character” of the government led by third-generation leader Kim Jong Un.

But Trump months later began playing down the severity of North Korea’s human rights record and showering Kim with praises as they engaged in high-stakes nuclear summitry. Following his second summit with Kim in Vietnam in February, Trump said he takes Kim “at his word” that Kim was unaware of the alleged mistreatment of Otto Warmbier while he was imprisoned there.

[AP]