Agriculture is changing in North Korea but will it last?

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Deep in the North Korean countryside, in remote villages that outsiders seldom reach, farmers are now said to be given nearly one-third of their harvests to sell at market prices. Collective farms are reportedly being reorganized into something closer to family farms. And State propagandists are expounding the glories of change under the country’s new young leader.

In the rigidly planned economy of this Stalinist state, could this be the first flicker of reform? A string of long-doubtful observers have become increasingly convinced that economic change is afoot, akin to China’s first flirtations with market reforms 30 years ago. But, they also warn, exactly what is happening remains a mystery.

“My gut sense is that something is changing,” said Marcus Noland of the Washington, DC-based Peterson Institute for International Economics and a leading scholar on the North Korean economy.

Kim Jong Un “is trying to do something new. … Whether that succeeds or not is a completely different issue,” he added. Like many other analysts, Noland remains pessimistic. The economic reforms appear to be very limited, he noted, and could quickly be abandoned if Kim changes his mind or faces opposition from his core supporters.

North Korea has flirted with radical economic shifts before. The 17-year rule of Kim Jong Il — whose December death paved the way for his son, Kim Jong Un, to take power — included market experiments in 2002, and a devastating currency devaluation in 2009 that stripped millions of people of their savings. Nearly all the changes were rolled back amid internal disputes, and fears among the ruling elite that they could lead to demands for change that could spiral beyond the state’s control.

Iraq blocks Syria-bound North Korean plane on weapons suspicions

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Iraq has denied permission to a North Korean plane bound for Syria to pass through Iraqi airspace because it suspects it could be carrying weapons, a senior official said.

Ali al-Mossawi, media advisor to the Iraq’s prime minister, told Reuters the scheduled plane’s itinerary, from North Korea to Syria, was what had aroused suspicions but that there had been no contact between the Iraqi government and North Korea on the issue.

Syria’s upheaval is politically tricky for Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim-led government of Iraq. Close to Assad’s ally, Shi’ite Iran, Baghdad has resisted joining Western and fellow Arab calls for the Syrian leader to step down while also calling for a reform process in Syria. Iraqi leaders fear Assad’s fall would fracture Syria along sectarian lines and yield a hostile, hardline Sunni Muslim regime that could stir up Iraq’s volatile Sunni-Shi’ite mix.

How difficult is it to escape North Korea?

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Any North Korean who wants to escape the country needs large measures of courage, determination, and luck. The only practical escape route is through China — across the Yalu or Tumen River.

Money obviously helps — to hire a guide to shepherd you across the river, or to bribe guards to look the other way. The bribery option is harder nowadays, though. Kim Jong Un, the young new dictator who took over after his father’s death last December, has issued a crackdown order, and border guards are afraid to disobey. North Koreans who cross the river to China can also be shot in the back by North Korean border guards.

It’s important to remember that the escape story doesn’t end when a North Korea reaches Chinese soil.

In China, a North Korean trades in one circle of hell for another. If he wants to be safe, if he wants to achieve freedom, the next step is to get out of China. He can’t do that on his own. He needs help to get out of China and then reach sanctuary in South Korea. That’s where the new underground railroad comes in.

–Hudson Institute senior fellow Melanie Kirkpatrick

Christians help North Koreans escape

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A new underground railroad run significantly by Christians has formed to help North Koreans escape their oppressive regime, Hudson Institute senior fellow Melanie Kirkpatrick told The Daily Caller.

“The new underground railroad is a secret network of safe houses and escape routes that carries North Koreans across China to safety in neighboring countries,” said Kirkpatrick. “Two groups of people operate the new underground railroad,” she continued, “brokers, who are in it for the money, and humanitarian workers — especially Christians — who are in it to serve God.”

“It is against Chinese law to assist North Koreans, and anyone who helps them is subject to arrest, prison, and, if he’s a foreigner, expulsion. I profile several American Christians who help. They operate safe houses, they run orphanages, and they lead North Koreans out of China. These people are brave and incredibly inspiring.”

“There are also secret Christian missionaries in North Korea. These usually are North Koreans who were converted in China and now feel the call to go home and evangelize, and who are planting secret new churches in the North.”

Kirkpatrick says escaping North Korea is no easy task. “Anyone who wants to escape needs large measures of courage, determination and luck,” she said. “The only practical escape route is through China — across the Yalu or Tumen River. North Koreans who cross the river to China can be shot in the back by North Korean border guards.”

Underground Railroad sowing seeds for change within North Korea

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“China refuses to let the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees or any other international aid group help North Koreans [who escape North Korea.  Instead China repatriates them to North Korea where they are killed.] …This is an indictment of China.”

It is a crime to leave North Korea. Yet increasing numbers of North Koreans dare to flee. They go first to neighboring China, which rejects them as criminals, then on to Southeast Asia or Mongolia, and finally to South Korea, the United States, and other free countries.

The conductors on the new underground railroad are Christians who are in it to serve God, while others are brokers who are in it for the money. The Christians see their mission as the liberation of North Korea one person at a time.

Just as escaped slaves from the American South educated Americans about the evils of slavery, the North Korean fugitives are informing the world about the secretive country they fled.

The New Underground Railroad describes how they also are sowing the seeds for change within North Korea itself. Once they reach sanctuary, the escapees channel news back to those they left behind. In doing so, they are helping to open their information-starved homeland, exposing their countrymen to liberal ideas, and laying the intellectual groundwork for the transformation of the totalitarian regime that keeps their fellow citizens in chains.

With a journalist’s grasp of events and a novelist’s ear for narrative, Melanie Kirkpatrick tells the story of the North Koreans’ quest for liberty. Click here to order the book from Amazon

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.”