A blog by Grant Montgomery, co-founder of Family Care Foundation, a 501c3 that provides emergency services and sustained development for families on 5 continents. This site highlights the plight of 300,000 North Koreans who have fled their country due to the brutal oppression of a Stalinist North Korean regime, as well as those still living in North Korea.
The National Geographic series presents archival footage, including scenes of starvation, executions, unbridled power and repression, that are likely to dispel the illusions of even die-hard pro-Northers that Kim might really be a nice guy at heart—a congenial successor to his dictatorial father, the late Kim Jong Il, and the dynasty founder Kim Il Sung. Interspersed are commentaries by veteran journalists who have visited North Korea many times, notably Mike Chinoy, formerly of CNN, and Jean Lee, formerly Associated Press. Neither is exactly hard-line.
They and assorted experts, and historical figures from news clips and newsreels, plus hard-to-get footage of everyday cruelty and hardships dug up by producers Mark Raphael and David Glover, give an unvarnished picture that won’t please apologists for the current ruler or his forebears—or convince wishful thinkers that real peace is at hand.
This epic documentary, colorful, quoteful, insightful, should definitely rekindle interest among a TV-watching public that may have forgotten about North Korea amid ongoing massacres, sporadic violence and political yakking at home. The timing is most opportune.
My name is Charles. I was born in North Korea on October 1st, 1994. My father left us when I was five years old and my mother passed away six years later from starvation. For years, I had to figure out how to live alone. I begged for food from strangers on the street, battling starvation and freezing weather.
One day my stepbrother came to find me and take me in. I lived with him for a while and when I was 14 years old he brought me to my father in China. Life was so much better in China and I remember thinking there would be no more starvation and no more begging for a place to sleep. Yet nine months later, the Chinese police came to our house and arrested my family.
We were kept in a Chinese jail for two weeks. At age 16 I was sent back to North Korea where I was detained. Each meal consisted of a single piece of corn. After eight months, I was finally released. I was just skin and bones – I had almost starved to death.
I began working in a coal mine which allowed me to buy rice to eat. Work in the coal mine was very risky — I saw people lose their arms and legs as they were smashed under the rocks. I was afraid and I couldn’t help thinking that I would soon lose an arm or a leg myself. After working in the mine for a year, I realized I couldn’t stay in North Korea any longer. My journey began when I boarded a train to take me closer to the border of China and North Korea. I was riding illegally and though I managed to hide during most of the ride I was at one point caught by the train security without my birth certificate. They locked me in a room with plans to kick me off at the next stop. As the train slowed, I realized that I might be able to escape through the window. I walked for hours, illegally boarded a second train, and then, finally, I was at the border of China and North Korea.
I knew I had to cross the Tumen River. I hid in tall grass for six hours, waiting for darkness. Finally, I took a deep breath and stepped into the water. Suddenly, I felt a light on my head. A border guard screamed, “Come back here or we’ll shoot you.” I was terrified, and I thought I would never make it because the current kept pulling me under, but I just kept swimming. At last, I made it to the river’s shore.
My journey did not end when I got to China. I traveled by foot, van, bus, motorcycle, and boat. My shoes fell apart and my feet bruised and bled. I went for days without food and water and there were times when I wanted to give up. I cried many days until I couldn’t cry anymore because I was too dehydrated. When I made it to my father’s house, I expected him to welcome me, but he beat me and asked me why I had come to him. I saw that he did not want me!
I escaped the eyes of many police officers and finally made it to Southeast Asia where I was safe. For months I stayed in a Korean Embassy refugee camp and then an international refugee camp where I was finally helped to come to the United States.
Sexual violence against women by authorities, government officials and police is part of daily life in North Korea, according to a new report by the international non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch, which based its data on two years of interviews with more than 50 North Koreans who left the country — more than half of them after 2011. Titled, “You Cry at Night but Don’t Know Why,” the report claims to give viewers an inside look at what happens in detention facilities, open markets, checkpoints, trains and army bases.
The report detailed sexual abuse by men in official positions of power, such as prison guards, police officers, prosecutors, soldiers and market supervisors. “The North Koreans we spoke with told us that unwanted sexual contact and violence is so common that it has come to be accepted as part of ordinary life: sexual abuse by officials, and the impunity they enjoy, is linked to larger patterns of sexual abuse and impunity in the country,” the report stated.
Defectors told the human rights group that government officials harmed them while they were in detention centers. “Interviewees told us that when a guard or police officer ‘picks’ a woman, she has no choice but to comply with any demands he makes, whether for sex, money or other favors,” the report said. “Women in custody have little choice should they attempt to refuse or complain afterward, and risk sexual violence, longer periods in detention, beatings, forced labor or increased scrutiny while conducting market activities.”
Yoon Mi Hwa, who fled the hermit kingdom in 2014, claimed in the report that a prison guard sexually abused her. “Click, click, click was the most horrible sound I ever heard,” she said. “It was the sound of the key of the cell of our prison room opening. Every night a prison guard would open the cell. I stood still quietly, acting like I didn’t notice, hoping it wouldn’t be me the one to have to follow the guard, hoping it wouldn’t be him.”
Oh Jung Hee, another woman interviewed in the report, said she had no idea she could resist the advances or report the sexual abuse. “It happens so often nobody thinks it is a big deal. Men who sexually assault women don’t think it is wrong, and we [women] do not either,” she said. “We don’t even realize when we are upset. But we are human, and we feel it. So sometimes, out of nowhere, you cry at night and don’t know why.”
Critics say North Korea’s human rights status has been ignored as nuclear negotiation talks continue. The report will likely anger North Korea, which often complains about what it claims is persistent U.S. hostility.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s propaganda service has billed the country as a “socialist paradise” free from crime, but Kenneth Roth, the executive director of the Human Rights Watch, said the regime could not ignore the report. “After this report, North Korea can’t say sexual violence doesn’t exist, so they have to either change their tune or fix the problem,” Roth said in a statement. “Kim Jong-un could stop this, he could enforce the laws North Korea already has on the books.”
In North Korea, where leader Kim Jong-un has almost godlike status, to question him out loud is for many unthinkable. So by speaking out, market trader Sun Hui – not her real name – knows she is putting her life at risk.
“People criticize Kim Jong-un,” she says, reflecting wider discontent. “[They say] the little man uses his head to suck up money like a little vampire.”
If the regime knew of Sun Hui’s real identity, she would face severe punishment – imprisonment in one of the regime’s hard labor camps or even execution. And she may not be the only one to be punished – three generations of her family could also be sent to prison.
Sun Hui lives with her husband and two daughters, eating three meals a day when business is good at the markets where she works. When it isn’t, the rice is mixed with maize.
More than five million North Koreans are either “directly or indirectly” reliant on such markets, according to Daily NK. While the market trade in North Korea directly contradicts the regime’s hard-line communism, it also allows the population to feed itself amid a largely-defunct ration system and economic sanctions against the country.
The markets, sometimes containing hundreds of stalls, can also be a breeding ground for gossip and rumor. “Things are changing,” says Sun Hui. “They say we should get along with the South. More recently, they say we should be living in peace with America, for everyone to have a better life.”
Starting from the North Korean famine of the 1990s, North Koreans have usually defected to China, most often to the border into Jilin and Liaoning provinces in northeast China, before then fleeing to a third country. About 76% to 84% of defectors interviewed in China or South Korea came from the Northeastern provinces bordering China.
Anywhere between 100,000–300,000 North Koreans have defected over the years, most of whom have fled to Russia or China, as well as many now in South Korea.
China: 80–90% of North Korean defectors residing in China are females who settled through de facto marriage; a large number of them experience forced marriage and human trafficking. The total number of North Korean refugees in China is estimated to be between 50,000 and 200,000.
Russia: Roughly 10,000 North Koreans live in the Russian Far East, according to a study by Kyung Hee University. Many are escapees from North Korean work camps there.
Europe: In 2014, research by the human rights organization the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea claims that there are around 1,400 North Korean refugees in Europe.
United States: Since 2006, less than 200 North Korean refugees have been officially admitted to the United States. An estimated 200 other North Koreans have entered the US illegally, for a estimated total of less than 400.
Canada: According to the 2016 census, there are about 970 people in Canada who were born in North Korea. North Korean asylum seekers and defectors have been rising in number. Radio Free Asia reports that in 2007 alone, over 100 asylum applications were submitted, and that North Korean refugees have come from China or elsewhere with the help of Canadian missionaries and NGOs.
South Korea: As of 2017, there were 31,093 defectors registered with the Unification Ministry in South Korea, 71% of whom were women.
From the start of Kim Jong-un’s rule in 2011, the movements of people has been tightened and strictly controlled, resulting in less than a thousand defections per year, down from just under 3000 in 2009.
If the defectors are caught in China, they are repatriated back to North Korea where they often face harsh interrogations and years of punishment, or even death in political prison camps.
Escaping North Korea is a journey that is almost always a perilous one — thousands of miles on buses or motorcycles or sneaking on foot through mountains and valleys amid falling snow or torrential rain — in the desperate quest to evade border police and reach the frontier of a new life. Some pay a broker to traffic them out, some are too poor and bear the burden alone, and some are granted temporary visas to work in China but never return to their native land.
So how many North Korea defectors are there, and where do they go?
Since the hostilities of the Korean War ended in 1953, an estimated 300,000 North Koreans have defected from the tightly controlled hermit country.
Defectors use obscure routes to other Asian countries in the region — including Mongolia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan and Laos — but these are often used as transit points before moving to a third country such as South Korea.
South Korean law grants those from the North automatic citizenship following a mandatory three-month transition that involves debriefing and education to prepare them for their new lives in a much more open society. Official statistics published by the Ministry of Unification have documented just over 30,000 defectors since 1998.
“Most defectors head to China … [where they] either live their lives under the radar or make the harrowing trip to South Korea,” said Vernon Brewer, founder and president of World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization that supports the defectors.
China, which borders North Korea, is host to the majority of defectors, though official statistics are hard to come by and many are deported back to their origin if discovered.
Escapees from North Korea’s gruesome political prisons recount brutal treatment, including medieval torture with shackles and fire and being forced to undergo abortions by the crudest methods. Human rights activists say that this appears to have lessened slightly under Kim Jong Un. But severe beatings and certain kinds of torture — including being forced to remain in stress positions for crippling lengths of time — still appear commonplace throughout North Korea’s detention systems, as are public executions. Starvation is often part of the punishment, even for children.
Following are excerpts of testimonies of recent defectors from North Korea:
The money man: “In 2015, a money transfer went bad — the woman I’d given the money to got caught and she ratted on me — and I was put in detention. I spent two months there. I wasn’t treated like a human being — they beat me, they made me sit in stress positions where I couldn’t lift my head. Two times they slapped my face and kicked me during interrogation.”
The teenage prisoner: “I was interrogated repeatedly by the secret police as they wanted to know about my mother’s business. They were slapping me around the face, and pushed me so hard against the wall that I had blood coming from my head. I still get a headache sometimes.
“[Once imprisoned] we got up at 6 a.m. every day and went to bed at 11 p.m., and in between we would be working the whole time, shoveling cement or lugging sacks, except for lunch. Lunch was usually steamed corn. I was too scared to eat. I cried a lot. I didn’t want to live.”
The phone connector: “Even though we were working so hard in prison camp, all we got to eat was a tiny bit of corn rice and a small potato. By the time I got out, I was so malnourished I could hardly walk.
“[Concerning life in North Korea] if you speak out against the system, you will immediately be arrested. And if you do something wrong, then three generations of your family will be punished. Once I heard there was a going to be some kind of coup launched in Chongjin and that all of the people involved were executed. When you hear about cases like this, of course you’re scared. So instead of trying to do something to change the system, it’s better just to leave.”
The university student: “The secret to North Korea’s survival is the reign of terror. Why do you think they block all communications? Why do you think North Korea has public executions? Why do you think North Koreans leave, knowing that they will never see their families again? It shows how bad things are. All our rights as people have been stripped away.”
North Korea operates as a vast surveillance state, with a menacing state security department called the Bowibu as its backbone. Its agents are everywhere and operate with impunity. The government also operates a kind of neighborhood watch system. Every district in every town or city is broken up into neighborhood groups of 30 or 40 households, each with a leader who is responsible for coordinating grass-roots surveillance and encouraging people to snitch. Following are excerpts of testimonies of defectors from North Korea, all of whom defected during the past 4-5 years:
“The young mother”: “People in each neighborhood association are always checking up on each other. If one family seems to be living better than everyone else, then all the neighbors try to find out how they are making their money. …Nobody has to be asked to bring that wealthy family down and make sure that they lose their money. …That’s why it’s important not to show off any wealth.”
“The farmer”: “We often heard and saw how Chinese people had money because Chinese people used to come to North Korea to sell things….I thought about the outside world, but if you say, ‘I want to go to China or South Korea,’ then it can be reported by an informant to the security services. You can think it, but you can’t say it. You never know who is going to snitch on you.”
“The rich kid”: ‘There were youth leaders who would patrol around, looking for things that we weren’t supposed to be doing. If you were wearing jeans or skinny pants, or if you had a manicure or your hair was too long, you would get in trouble. They would sometimes check your phone to see if you had any South Korean songs. I got busted for this, but I got out of it by buying them a box of 20 bottles of beer.”
“The teenage prisoner”: “When I was 16, I was staying at my grandma’s house and there was a banging on the door late at night. Two secret police officers took me to the police station and asked me: “Where are your parents?” I told them I didn’t know. (It turned out that they had gone missing, and my mom’s business associates said that she was the mastermind behind this big smuggling operation.) The police yelled at me: ‘You’re just like your mother. You probably have fantasies about China, too.’ They slapped my face about five times.”
“The phone connector”: “The first time I went to prison, I had been caught helping people make phone calls to their relatives in South Korea. I was sentenced to four months’ hard labor, building a road on the side of a mountain that they said we needed in case there was a war. The men did the digging, and the women had to carry rocks and soil.”
Ji’s South Korean accent masks her nine-year ordeal of four escape attempts from the North, three repatriations from China, and starvation and torture in North Korean reeducation camps. Ji was also twice sold by human traffickers who wait on the Chinese side of the border to prey on fleeing women.
Ji has been outspoken about her experience, speaking on the international stage using her real name and using her traumatic times as inspiration for her books, poems and play. “As a defector, I want to tell South Koreans that they have to realize what they have. Freedom, happiness and love. Things that North Koreans desperately seek their entire life. South Koreans have something very valuable, but they have no idea how valuable it is,” she said.
Ji’s father was Chinese from an ethnic Korean minority who fled to North Korea during the Cultural Revolution. He stayed, had a family, and in 1998 arranged for his wife, two daughters and son to escape to South Korea via China. They left separately to avoid attracting attention, but Ji’s father was arrested in China and never seen again.
Ji was sent back to North Korea and interrogated. She tried to flee again later in the year but was caught by traffickers in China. She was eventually sent back to North Korea and to a camp where she and her fellow inmates endured extreme hardship. Ji became a Christian when she was in China and said she was forced to deny her religion during her incarceration.
A third escape effort also ended in failure and a stint at another camp, where the now pregnant Ji was forced to have an abortion without anaesthetic.
She made it China a fourth time and was again sold to traffickers. Finally, after six more years, she obtained a fake South Korean passport and took a ferry to the South, where she was reunited with her mother and siblings.
Ji had always dreamed of being a writer and when she reached the South, she used “the blood and sorrow of the dead as my ink, and their tortured and bruised bones as my pen”.
She said life could still be a struggle and – like other defectors – she had to take medication for epilepsy and sleeping disorders. “Most of us suffer from the consequences of torture,” Ji said.
Conservative writer Bre Payton on Monday said she was dismayed by President Trump’s historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, asking how the president could not talk about “human rights abuses at all.”
“I was really upset when Donald Trump decided to meet with Kim Jong Un, shake his hand on the stage, have North Korean and American flags hung next to one another, I was honestly very, very upset by that — not talking human rights abuses at all, I mean how can you even do that?” Payton told Hill.TV’s Ned Ryun and Krystal Ball on “Rising.”
“However, I think the American people are willing to forgive that, in my opinion, giant blunder if it does result in better relations between North Korea and the United States,” she added.
Payton also said she wasn’t surprised by Trump’s decision to call off Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s planned visit to North Korea, which was scheduled for next week. “We all knew that North Korea wasn’t going to denuclearize. … This is the one trick that they have,” she said.
Trump announced on Friday that Pompeo won’t be going to North Korea after all, saying the meeting was not appropriate “at this time” due to the lack of “sufficient progress” on denuclearization. This marked a rare admission by Trump that denuclearization is not going as well as hoped. But the president left talks open and didn’t rule out a future meeting with North Korea.