The US Ship of Miracles that saved 14,000 North Korean refugees

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Almost 70 years ago, a US merchant marine ship picked up more than 14,000 refugees in a single trip from a North Korean port.

It was Christmas Day in 1950 and 14,000 North Korean refugees were crammed into a US merchant marine ship, fleeing the advancing guns of the Chinese army.  There was barely enough room on board to stand – and there wasn’t much medical equipment, either. And this was no ordinary birth.

“The midwife had to use her teeth to cut my umbilical cord,” Lee Gyong-pil tells me some 69 years on. “People said the fact that I didn’t die and was born was a Christmas miracle.” Mr Lee was the fifth baby born on the SS Meredith Victory that winter, during some of the darkest days of the Korean War.

The Meredith Victory’s three-day voyage saved thousands of lives, including the parents of the current President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in. It also earned the cargo freighter a nickname – the Ship of Miracles. Read more

Is China changing its policy for female North Korean defectors?

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Daily NK learned recently that Chinese police investigated a group of female defectors from North Korea –rather than immediately deporting them back to North Korea.

A source based in China told Daily NK on December 12 that the police in a village in Liaoning Province rounded up “dozens of North Korean women who had defected.” They were questioned by the foreign affairs division of the Ministry of Public Security in three interrogation sessions. The source reported that the Chinese officials “asked the women about their personal relations, their relatives, and their residence back in North Korea.”

The Chinese police also asked very detailed questions about the women’s’ defection process, including their defection routes. One source told Daily NK that the officials “asked which paths they took to sneak into China, and whether they defected independently or had a Chinese trafficker who facilitated their defection. They also asked who the identities of the traffickers were.” 

“The Chinese police officers furthermore photographed the women both from the front and in profile, and they took their fingerprints,” a source added. The pictures will most likely added to a facial recognition system which the Chinese authorities have adopted to both maintain law and order and control the citizens.

“This was the first time that the Chinese police conducted [such] sessions with North Korean defector women in this manner. In the past, they would have been deported immediately,” a source in China said. “It seems like China’s policy towards North Korean defectors is changing.”

These measures are interpreted as Chinese officialdom’s response to a social issue – the abrupt departure of North Korean women to South Korea, leaving both their Chinese husbands and children behind.

Sources reported an incident to Daily NK in which a North Korean woman was abused by her Chinese husband and attempted to return to North Korea. “She was discovered by the Chinese border patrol and the police brought her back to her husband,” a source from China explained.

It is very rare for female North Korean defectors to avoid being deported back to North Korea.

“There have recently been fewer investigations and deportations of women who defected from North Korea. Many are content to stay there rather than continue their journey to South Korea,” a source said. “Those married to Chinese men don’t need to risk defection to South Korea anymore if the Chinese authorities officially recognize their residence in the country.”

[Daily NK]

China calls on US to take “concrete steps” with North Korea

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China has called on the US to take “concrete steps” to deliver on what was agreed between US and North Korea at their Singapore summit last year.

In a year-end interview with the state-controlled People’s Daily, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China encourages the US and DPRK to “work out a feasible roadmap” to establish peace and “realizing complete denuclearization on the Peninsula.”

As the year draws to a close, North Korea’s actions are being closely watched, after a top North Korean official warned that it might deliver “a Christmas gift” to the US if there’s no progress on lifting sanctions. US defense officials have said they’re expecting a long-range ballistic missile test.

But a source familiar with the North Korean leadership’s current mindset told CNN that chances are “very low” that North Korea will actually conduct a provocative test like a satellite launch, firing an ICBM, or detonating a nuclear weapon, because those acts would be considered too provocative for the likes of China and Russia, Pyongyang’s two most important international trading partners.

[CNN]

John Bolton: “The idea that we are somehow exerting maximum pressure on North Korea is just unfortunately not true”

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Donald Trump often brags that he’s successfully stalled North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, claiming that the North Korean leader “will do the right thing because he is far too smart not to…and he does not want to disappoint his friend, President Trump!”

Now that he’s sprung from the Trump administration, former national security adviser John Bolton suggests that the administration is aware Trump’s approach has failed. “We’re now nearly three years into the administration,” Bolton said, “with no visible progress toward getting North Korea to make the strategic decision to stop pursuing deliverable nuclear weapons.”

He added, ominously, “The more time there is, the more time there is to develop, test and refine both the nuclear component and the ballistic missile component of the program.”

Trump claimed, after his first meeting with Kim in 2018, that there is “no longer a nuclear threat” from North Korea, and has continued to tout his supposed progress as his signature foreign policy accomplishment, framing his dealings with the authoritarian regime in highly personal terms.

“The idea that we are somehow exerting maximum pressure on North Korea is just unfortunately not true,” Bolton said.

[Vanity Fair]

Bolton’s views on North Korea: “They’re happy to sell that same bridge over and over again”

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John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador and President Trump’s national security adviser, takes North Korea’s threats with a “grain of salt.”

“This is all part of the North Korean playbook. They’ve successfully jived the three prior American administrations, and they plan to do the same with this one.” And he thinks the administration is making a “big mistake” if — as reported by The New York Times — it stymied attempts by the United Nations Security Council to hold a discussion on North Korea’s human rights abuses, for fear of upsetting North Korea and thereby derailing nuclear negotiations.

“It’s been the pattern as we’ve watched it for over three decades now: The North Koreans are very happy to declare that they’re going to give up their nuclear weapons program, particularly when it’s in exchange for tangible economic benefits, but they never get around to doing it,” said Bolton. “And I think the inescapable conclusion is that they’re happy to sell that same bridge over and over again, but there’s no serious chance they will ever voluntarily give it up.”

Bolton’s comments represent a stark break — but not a surprising one — with the administration he served before his ouster three months ago. The foreign policy hawk and the president had butted heads repeatedly over the direction of the administration’s national security policy.

[NPR]

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]

The South Korean response to Trump’s demands to pay billions more for U.S. troops

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South Koreans overwhelmingly reject the Trump administration’s calls to pay more money for U.S. troops stationed in the country, according to a survey released Monday, with only 4 percent of respondents saying that Seoul should meet the U.S. demands and a quarter suggesting it refuse to pay rather than negotiate.

A clear majority of South Koreans favor only a relatively modest increase in funding for the hosting of U.S. troops, rather than the more substantial amount demanded by the Trump administration. The data also showed that if no agreement could be reached between Washington and Seoul on the costs of hosting the troops, a majority of South Koreans prefer reducing the number of U.S. troops in South Korea, while about 1 in 10 said that all U.S. troops should be removed.

President Trump has long complained that foreign nations were taking advantage of the U.S. military, and repeatedly returns to issues related to the cost of stationing 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea. His administration demanded that South Korea increase its contribution to the funding of U.S. troops five-fold to nearly $5 billion, according to officials on both sides. That amount has prompted significant controversy in South Korea, where talks with U.S. officials broke down in November; the next round of talks is due to begin this week.

The vast majority of South Koreans — 94 percent — consider their country’s relationship with the United States vital for their national security, with 92 percent supporting the alliance and 62 percent favoring closer ties with the United States even if it harmed relations with China, South Korea’s neighboring economic and political giant. Just about three-quarters of South Koreans favored the long-term stationing of troops in South Korea. But few South Koreans agreed with the U.S. demands for money; 26 percent said the country should refuse any increase in costs, and 68 percent said South Korea should negotiate a lower cost. A scant 4 percent said South Korea should meet the full U.S. request.

[Washington Post]

North Korean maternal mortality rate 15-times higher than previously thought

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Healthcare for women and babies in North Korea is far worse than international research has previously shown, according to new evidence from hundreds of defectors.

North Korea’s maternal mortality rate is 1,200 deaths per 100,000 births, 15 times higher than what had been reported in UN data and nearly five times above the global average, according to the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, a Seoul-based non-governmental organization.

“Women don’t die right after they give birth. They go home because there are no conditions for postnatal care [in the hospital],” said a doctor who fled North Korea in 2016. “There are cases in which they start bleeding walking home, and after continuously bleeding for two to three days at home they die.”

Interviews with defectors also uncovered anecdotal evidence of barbaric treatment of infants born with disabilities and deformities. “Many women have their pregnancies terminated midterm, and those who don’t have money keep the baby and give birth. If the babies have a disability, they are either not given food until they die or are put face down to suffocate,” the doctor said. “It was like they never existed.”

The NGO (NKDB) puts North Korea’s neonatal mortality rate at 46 deaths per 1,000 births, a nearly fivefold increase from UN estimates and more than double the world average of 18.

NKDB said North Korea’s free healthcare system is “defunct” for many of its 25m people, plagued by a lack of medicine, facilities and equipment, as well as corrupt officials who divert humanitarian aid for their own profit. There is also insufficient electricity to power devices. Only 65 per cent of births were attended by skilled medical staff, NKDB found, compared with the near 100 per cent claimed in the country’s official data.

Despite greater availability of medicine at local markets, called jangmadang, and more privately run pharmacies in recent years, there are many areas where people do not have the financial means to afford even basic medicine, researchers said. NKDB’s estimates of incidences of infectious diseases, including tuberculosis and malaria, were higher than the UN’s. The NGO’s findings for non-communicable diseases, however, were lower.

Reliable statistics on North Korea are scarce as international efforts to gather data, including by the UN, are restricted by officials. But experts say defector testimonies provide some of the most trustworthy insights into the country. NKDB surveyed 503 North Koreans who resettled in South Korea between March and August this year, including more than 400 women. Longer interviews were conducted with defectors who had worked as nurses or doctors.

[Financial Times] Related article

High-level, North Korean defector tells President Trump he’s been duped

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A high-level defector from Kim Jong-un’s regime has sent a letter to President Trump warning that he has been “tricked” into believing the North Korean leader will ever denuclearize and that Washington should instead ramp up a “psychological warfare campaign” aimed at inspiring North Korea’s elites to replace the young dictator from within. The U.S. should simultaneously impose “all-out sanctions” against Pyongyang and be prepared to carry out a “preemptive strike” against Mr. Kim’s nuclear sites, according to the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times.

“As long as Kim Jong-un remains in power, denuclearization of North Korea is permanently impossible because [Kim] regards nuclear weapons as the last means to defend his survival,” the defector warned Trump. “You have stopped Kim Jong-un from launching missiles and conducting nuclear tests, but he is still mounting nuclear threats behind the scenes of dialogue and is attempting to take advantage of the relationship with you.

“The most effective way to resolve the North Korean issue is to conduct psychological warfare operations,” the letter continues. “It can have the same power as a nuclear bomb. It is also an ideal way to get North Koreans to solve their own problems by themselves.”

The White House declined to comment on the defector’s appeal. Two sources verified that the defector’s letter was delivered to two of Mr. Trump’s top North Korea policy advisers: Deputy National Security Adviser Matthew Pottinger and acting National Security Council Asia Director Allison Hooker.

[The Washington Times]