North Korean defector Kang Nara: “I’m glad I became a celebrity”

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The lures of online fame have lassoed North Korean defectors. Born in one of the world’s most information-repressed regimes, some young defectors in Seoul are now saturating the internet, plying their life stories for followers and cash-generating clicks.

Blessed with a K-pop idol’s good looks, Kang Nara, 22, is so famous that she gets recognized walking around her college campus. A fan club showers her with cakes and congratulatory banners. Dubbed the “North Korean beauty” by local media, she specializes in videos lampooning bad North Korean film accents and reviewing makeup.

The audience largely comes from South Koreans, who not long ago participated in national school competitions where students produced anticommunist poems and posters. But ties between the two Koreas have warmed of late, sparking wider interest about defectors and the Kim regime.

The fascination has even extended to non-Koreans like Zac Phoenix, a 30-year-old English teacher from the U.K., who lives in Seoul. He’s a fan of Mr. Heo’s videos, which carry English subtitles. “Western media is obsessed with North Korea but I want to know: What’s the real story besides the nukes?” Mr. Phoenix says.

According to Park Su Hyang, 28, a defector who fled North Korea in 2009, many North Koreans drink regularly, buying home-brewed rice liquor from neighbors rather than at a store, says. But nobody imbibes on July 8, the day honoring the death of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the North’s dynastic state.

“On that day there’s no drinking, no partying, no smiling,” Ms. Park says.

[Washington Post]

North Korea changes constitution to solidify Kim Jong Un’s rule

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North Korea’s parliament has approved changes to the country’s constitution to solidify leader Kim Jong Un’s role as head of state, state media said on Thursday. The move comes after Kim was formally named head of state and commander-in-chief of the military in a new constitution in July.

Kim’s legal status as “representing our state has been further consolidated to firmly ensure the monolithic guidance of the Supreme Leader over all state affairs,” state news agency KCNA quoted Choe Ryong Hae, president of the presidium of the supreme people’s assembly, or titular parliament, as saying.

The new constitution said Kim, as chairman of the State Affairs Commission (SAC), a top governing body created in 2016, was the supreme representative of all the Korean people, which means head of state, as well as “commander-in-chief”.

A previous constitution simply called Kim “supreme leader” who commanded the country’s “overall military force”. Thursday’s constitutional amendments appear to confirm that North Korea’s legal system will now recognize Kim as head of state.

“With the amendment, Kim Jong Un is reviving his grandfather’s head of state system,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute. “He has become a de facto head of state.”

The back-to-back constitutional revision is unprecedented, said Rachel Minyoung Lee, an analyst with NK News, a website that tracks North Korea. “By further bolstering the SAC chairman’s authority, Kim Jong Un has emerged as the most powerful leader in North Korean history,” she said.

In reality Kim, a third-generation hereditary leader, already rules North Korea with an iron fist and the title change will mean little to the way he wields power.

[Reuters]

North Korean defector Heo Jun: “My North Korean background shouldn’t be a shame. It’s who I am.”

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Fleeing North Korea 11 years ago, Heo Jun sought a better life, studied hard and won a prized admission to South Korea’s most prestigious university. But his aspirations have swung to a profession where a fancy degree isn’t required: YouTube star.

Mr. Heo has made videos challenging strangers to hug a “commie, spy or traitor.” He’s shown people tasting North Korean food, defectors trying dating apps and filmed his own exasperated reaction watching a music video by BTS, the mega-popular South Korean boy band. His subscribers recently surged past 100,000.

“We defectors have an advantage in attracting attention,” says Mr. Heo, 27, who says he earns several thousand dollars a month from advertising revenue—enough to suspend his studies at Seoul National University. He is one semester away from graduation, though he says he is in no rush to embark on a traditional career path.

“Why would I work for a company when I can make enough money off my YouTube channel?” says Mr. Heo, who lives in a chic downtown Seoul studio apartment.

Before becoming a full-time YouTuber, Mr. Heo had started a nonprofit company trying to promote more harmony between North and South Koreans. The endeavor didn’t gain nearly as much traction as his first video uploaded two years ago, where he stood blindfolded in a bustling Seoul neighborhood and asked strangers for hugs. It attracted more than four million views.

He’ll continue to make YouTube videos to improve Korean ties—so long as they remain popular, he says. “My North Korean background shouldn’t be a shame,” Mr. Heo says, “It’s who I am.”

[Washington Post]

Two sides to the blame game

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Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea in Washington, told UPI that North Koreans in the South are in dire need of better networks from which they can seek help in difficult times. Most North Koreans are not ready for life in the advanced and industrialized South. About 80 percent of defectors are women, come from rundown areas “even by North Korean standards,” and do not have high school degrees, Scarlatoiu said.

Scarlatoiu said it is easy to pin blame on the South Korean government for the recent tragedy of a North Korean refugee mother and disabled son who apparently starved to death in Seoul. But one must also remember that South Korea continues to improve upon support programs for defectors that include vocational training, extra remuneration for defectors who keep their jobs and maintain savings accounts. All defectors receive substantial financial support upon arrival, a “pilot program for Korean unification,” the analyst said.

Casey Lartigue, a co-founder of Seoul-based Teach North Korean Refugees Global Education Center, said he dismisses the idea that a lack of state support in the South is responsible for the recent tragedy. “The danger is not that the South Korean government is not doing enough, but rather, that it is doing too much and is expected to do even more for North Korean refugees,” Lartigue said.

“The surprise is not that a refugee starved to death, but that more don’t do so, because the various levels of South Korean government seem to be teaching North Korean refugees learned helplessness.”

Lartigue, who has helped hundreds of North Korean refugees learn English through his volunteer program, said defectors need to seek help from people they know rather than suffering in silence or isolation.

Public opinion polls continue to indicate high levels of anxiety and unhappiness prevail among the majority of the North Korean refugee population. “From what I have heard, about 35 South Koreans on average commit suicide every day,” Lartigue said.

[UPI]

North Korea defector’s death highlights plight of trafficked women

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The deaths of a North Korean defector and her young son in their apartment in Seoul have shocked Korea. And the incident is also shedding light on the difficulties faced by South Korea’s overwhelmingly female population of North Korean refugees.

Jung Gwang-il, founder of activist group No Chain in Seoul, said the refugee mother Han slipped through the cracks of South Korea’s support system for resettled North Koreans while struggling with domestic violence and a disabled child.

Han met her “husband,” a Chinese citizen whom she later divorced, after her initial escape to China where she was the target of human trafficking. After Han was granted residence in the South in 2009, her husband followed her, and the couple had a second child. The child was born with disabilities because Han’s spouse beat her during her pregnancy, Jung said, recounting conversations he’s had with other defectors.

Human-and sex-trafficking practices in northeast China explain why the majority of defectors in the South and in China are women. First of all, North Korean women defectors are able to leave their country easier, because women are less noticed when they go missing, defectors have said. And in China there is a high demand for women of reproductive age in rural areas, where male Chinese nationals buy undocumented “wives”.

Jung, who survived abuses at a North Korean prison camp, said “almost all” North Korean women fall prey to trafficking or choose to be trafficked due to poverty. Han was no exception.

Han was found dead in Seoul on July 31. The woman and her son may have died of starvation at least a month before local authorities entered her apartment and found their decomposing corpses, South Korean media reported.

“These are people who left North Korea because they were hungry,” Jung said. “To come all the way to South Korea and then to starve — that doesn’t make any sense.”

[UPI]

Contradictory impulses by North Korean leadership

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North Korea’s leaders have shown contradictory impulses when it comes to the influence from the South, pushing a narrative of Korean unification, even as they discourage cultural crosscurrents at home.

One woman in her late 20s who defected from North Korea last year recalls watching a video of a concert, shared behind closed doors in her hometown near the Chinese border. “Kim Jong Un clapped and cheered at the [same] performance, but we could only watch smuggled footage of it in hiding, because consuming South Korean music was still a crime that could land us in prison,” she said.

Another North Korean defector Han Song-ee recalls she was just 10 when she first saw a video of the South Korean K-pop group “Baby V. O. X.”

“At first it was so shocking and weird to see these ‘capitalist vandals.’ But as I listened to their music, I realized it was pretty catchy,” she said. Soon, she was hooked.

Han and her friends began to wear the colorful hot pants popularized by another South Korean group, “Girls’ Generation” – but only in their neighborhood, not the city center. Her father even became angry with her mother for copying the band’s hairstyle.

Han defected in 2013 and is now a well-known vlogger in Seoul, where she also appears on radio and television.

[San Francisco Gate]

K-pop inspiration to young North Koreans

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Former defectors based in South Korea have long understood the power of foreign news and culture in countering the regime’s propaganda. Projects such as Flash Drives for Freedom smuggle in USB sticks loaded with Hollywood movies and American television shows, as well South Korean dramas and music videos.

But growing private enterprise may be the most powerful driver of change, with videos brought in en masse by traders who cross back and forth from China. The risks for viewers are real though, with a special unit of the police and security services known as Group 109 in charge of a renewed crackdown. Even minors who are caught can face six months to a year of ideological training in a reeducation camp – unless their parents can bribe their way out – while adults can face a lifetime of hard labor or, for sensitive material, even execution.

As far as the music, it’s not just the melodies and lyrics that prove catchy, it’s also the performers’ clothes and hairstyles. “The kind of thing I wanted to do was dye my hair and wear miniskirts and jeans,” said Kang Na-ra, 22. “Once I wore jeans to the market, and I was told I had to take them off. They were burned in front of my eyes.”

Kang, who had been a singer at an arts high school in Pyongyang, defected in 2014, so “I could express myself freely.” Now she has a successful career as a TV personality and an actress.

[San Francisco Gate]

K-pop lures young North Koreans to defect

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As a girl, Ryu Hee-Jin was brought up to perform patriotic songs praising the iron will, courage and compassion of North Korea’s leader at the time, Kim Jong Il.

Then she heard American and South Korean pop music. “When you listen to North Korean music, you have no emotions,” she said. “But when you listen to American or South Korean music, it literally gives you the chills. The lyrics are so fresh, so relatable. When kids listen to this music, their facial expressions just change.”

Western music once helped tear a hole in the Iron Curtain. Now, there is evidence that South Korean K-pop is playing a similar role in subtly undermining the propaganda of the North Korean regime, with rising numbers of defectors citing music as one factor in their disillusionment with their government, according to Lee Kwang-Baek, president of South Korea’s Unification Media Group (UMG). A survey of 200 recent defectors by UMG released in June found that more than 90 percent had watched foreign movies, TV and music in North Korea.

Ryu is one of many defectors who say K-pop and Western popular music opened their eyes, convincing them that North Korea was not the paradise it was made out to be and that their best prospects lay abroad. “We were always taught that Americans were wolves and South Koreans were their puppets,” she said, “but when you listen to their art, you’ve just got to acknowledge them.”

In 2015, at 23, she defected to the South. These days, Ryu is studying for a business degree but still dreams of breaking into K-pop or – better yet – Hollywood.

“It’s so incredible how far I have come,” she said. “South Korean music really played a central role in guiding me through this journey.”

[Washington Post]

Starvation death of North Korean defector and her child shocks South Korea

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The death of a North Korean woman and her child in their apartment in Seoul is raising questions about South Korean state support for defectors who resettle in the South, according to a local press report.

The woman, who was found dead with her 6-year-old son in her home in late July, may have died from starvation.

The woman, only identified by her surname Han, was in her early 40s, according to Seoul’s Gwanak District police. She may have no longer been eligible for a monthly stipend from the South Korean government at the time of her death.

After resettlement, Han the woman defector had apparently left South Korea, and married an ethnic Korean man from China. Han later returned to the South in 2018 after a divorce.

A South Korean unification ministry official said current law provides support for defectors up to the fifth year of resettlement. The official also acknowledged that Han’s death indicates a “blind spot” is posing problems for defectors who continue to face difficulties adjusting to South Korea’s capitalist society.

[UPI]

Does Kim Jong Un get Trump tweet alerts?

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How people stay informed in the Hermit State of North Korea is always a question.

On Thursday, President Donald Trump made a statement indicating that it only took Kim Jong Un 10 minutes to respond to his tweeted proposal for a landmark meeting in June at the border of North and South Korea.

This suggests that someone in Pyongyang — perhaps Kim himself — keeps a minute-by-minute watch on what the US tweetmaster-in-chief is saying on social media.

Trump told the New Hampshire Today radio program: “When I was flying to South Korea I had the idea, you know what, I am going to South Korea, right next to North Korea …. I put out a tweet: ‘Hey, I am going to South Korea. If you want to meet for a couple of minutes, let’s meet.'”

“And I put it out and [Kim Jong Un] was calling within 10 minutes.”

Trump appeared to reject speculation that the meeting had already been discussed quietly before he tweeted on June 29 from the G20 summit in Osaka: “If Chairman Kim of North Korea sees this, I would meet him at the Border/DMZ just to shake his hand and say Hello (?)!”

In any case, a little more than a day later, Trump became the first serving US president to step foot in North Korea, where he held brief talks with Kim.

“I mean it’s the craziest thing,” Trump, an early and now prolific Twitter user, told the radio program. Twitter is “an incredible way of communicating for me … It’s a way of getting the word out.”

Kim himself has not taken up tweets to communicate his edicts and invitations.

But he appears to be watching.

[AFP]