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.
Last year was a disaster for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He helplessly watched his country’s already battered economy decay further amid pandemic border closures while brooding over the collapse of made-for-TV summits with former President Donald Trump that failed to lift crippling sanctions from his country.
Now he must start all over again with President Joe Biden, who has previously called Kim a “thug” and accused Trump of chasing spectacles instead of meaningful reductions of Kim’s nuclear arsenal.
North Korea won’t likely be the top priority for Biden, who while facing mounting domestic issues is also gearing up for a push to get back into a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that Trump blew up in favor of what he called maximum pressure against Iran.
Acoording to Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, the Biden administration’s “sequence of policy attention will likely be: Get America’s own house in order, strengthen U.S. alliances and align strategies toward China and Russia, and then address Iran and North Korea.”
Kim Jong-un acted quickly. On January 22, 2020, North Korea closed its borders with China and Russia to stop a new, mysterious virus from spreading into the country. More than a year later, the hermit kingdom’s border remains sealed tight shut. North Korea’s response to the pandemic has been one of the most extreme and paranoid in the world, experts say.
The real impact of Covid-19 on North Korea—and its citizens—remains a mystery. Faced with a global health crisis, the country has turned inward more than ever. “North Korea, in general, is more difficult to know this year or last year than at almost any point in the last two decades,” says Sokeel Park, director of research at Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a group that works with defectors from the country to understand what happens inside its borders.
The closest that officials got to admitting there might be a case was in July when state newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported that a “state of emergency” had been declared in Kaesong City, in the south of the country. The newspaper reported that a defector who had returned to the country from South Korea was “suspected” to have Covid-19. But the case was never confirmed. Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong-un, has hit back at suggestions from South Korea that the country may have had cases, describing such talk as “reckless.”
From the outside, it is impossible to know the scale of the Covid-19 crisis in North Korea. International diplomats and humanitarian groups have largely left the country. The result is that little reliable information finds its way out of North Korea. Those with contacts inside the country and who work with defectors also say it has been impossible to work out the reality of the health situation on the ground.
As for vaccines: At the end of November it was reported that state-sponsored hackers had targeted AstraZeneca; South Korea has reported attempts on its own vaccine infrastructure, and Microsoft has also found similar hacking efforts linked to North Korea. The country has since quietly requested international help in obtaining vaccines. Analysis of vaccine distribution predicts that the jabs may be widely available in North Korea in 2022 or 2023.
Defectors and activists in South Korea have for decades used balloons to send leaflets across the tightly guarded border, along with food, medicine, money, mini radios and USB sticks containing South Korean news and dramas.
But last month, South Korea’s parliament passed a bill banning such activities, which Tae Yong-ho, the first North Korean defector to be elected as a South Korean lawmaker, said was a “great mistake” that only hampers change in the isolated country.
Tae, who was North Korea’s deputy ambassador to Britain before defecting in 2016, said the ban severed one of the very few sources of outside information for ordinary North Koreans. “It’s a great mistake,” Tae said. “We can only bring a change in a communist state with soft power, not military interventions or economic blockade.”
In a 2019 survey by a Seoul-based activist group, more than 71% of 200 defectors said they had watched a South Korean drama or film before fleeing their homeland, mostly using a DVD or USB device at night when surveillance is weak.
“In daytime, the population is shouting ‘long live Kim Jong Un’, but at night they all watch South Korean dramas and movies,” Tae said. “Why stop the inflows of information?”
Tae Yong-ho explained that knowledge about the outside world gained from embassy postings in Europe had fostered disillusionment among his family, and eventually served as a key driver for his defection. “My children learned that their lives were nothing but those of contemporary slaves if they go back to North Korea,” he said. “I wanted to give them the choice of freedom.”
Last October, the United Nations sent a letter to the Chinese government, urging Beijing to refrain from forcibly repatriating a group of North Korean refugees under Chinese detention.
On Sept. 12, Chinese authorities had arrested a group of five defectors who were attempting to flee to South Korea, leaving the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang. The next day, the group of defectors were detained and sent to a police station in the port city of Qingdao, according to the letter from the U.N.
It is unclear whether the arrested North Koreans are a family. The group included a 49-year-old woman, a 48-year-old man, a 14-year-old girl, a woman who was six months pregnant, and another woman whose age is unknown, according to reports.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights produced a letter signed by Tomás Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur on North Korea human rights, and Nils Melzer, the special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, that was delivered to the Chinese government on Oct. 27.
The U.N. said any repatriation of the defectors would be a violation of Article 3 of the U.N. Convention against Torture, or UNCAT, which requires no government expel, return or extradite a person to another country where there are sufficient grounds to believe the individual would be subjected to torture.
During 2020, the number of North Korean defections to the South has dropped amid the coronavirus pandemic. Pyongyang has sealed its borders in response to COVID-19.
The 2.5-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone separating South and North Korea is the most heavily fortified border in the world, guarded by tall barbed-wire fences, minefields, sensors and nearly two million troops on both sides.
When the North Korean man, a former gymnast in his late 20s, crawled over the fence on the southern edge of the DMZ this month, he got past sensors set to trigger alarms to alert South Korean guards. It was the South Korean military’s most embarrassing breach of border security in years.
It raised a disturbing question: How could the man have defected undetected?
This week, the South Korean military said it had solved the mystery: The sensors had loose screws that made the system malfunction. There were no indications that the screws had been deliberately tampered with.
Under pressure from the coronavirus pandemic and an ailing economy, Kim Jong Un is responding with fury, allowing at least two executions in the past three months, South Korea’s intelligence agency told a parliamentary briefing on Friday.
“Kim Jong Un is taking irrational actions,” opposition lawmaker Ha Tae-keung told reporters after being briefed by Seoul’s National Intelligence Service. Ha said a foreign exchange dealer was executed in late October, while an official at a customs post on the Chinese border was put to death in August for failing to abide by strict rules on imports intended to prevent the coronavirus from entering the country.
The South Korean intelligence account could not be independently verified. But experts say that Kim is likely to be feeling pressure after closing the Chinese border at the start of the year as the coronavirus spread around the world.
The volume of North Korea’s trade with China dropped by 73 percent in the first three quarters of 2020 compared with same period last year, according to a report released by the Korea International Trade Association in Seoul. Ha, the South Korean lawmaker, said prices of sugar and spices in North Korea have risen fourfold as imports from China dried up, while whole cities and even provinces, mostly near the border, have been placed under temporary lockdowns this month after foreign currency smuggling or foreign goods were detected.
Ha said examples of North Korea’s “paranoia” about the risks of coronavirus included its refusal to accept 110,000 tons of rice aid offered by China and a decision to ban fishing and salt production in North Korean waters because of concerns that seawater could be contaminated with the virus.
On the afternoon of February 22, 2019, a tall Asian man rang the doorbell of the North Korean Embassy in Madrid. His business card identified him as Matthew Chao.
About thirty minutes later, an employee of a nearby gym was driving past the Embassy and came across a woman, her face covered in blood, who had jumped from a second-floor balcony. The gym employee called for an ambulance, and, when it arrived, the woman told the medics that there were intruders in the Embassy killing people. Soon, the police rang the doorbell of the Embassy. The tall Asian man, now wearing a badge featuring the face of Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s Great Leader, came out and told the police that there had been a misunderstanding. Later, an I.D. bearing the name Matthew Chao was found by the police.
It was a delicate time for relations between North Korea and the United States. In 2017, the two countries had seemed to be on the brink of war. Donald Trump warned North Korea that it would be met with “fire and fury” if it continued to antagonize the U.S. A month later, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test. At Trump’s first address to the United Nations, he threatened to “totally destroy North Korea,” and called Kim Jong Un “rocket man.” But then Trump seemed to have a change of heart, and in June, 2018, he met Kim in Singapore.
The incident at the Madrid Embassy occurred five days before Trump and Kim met again, this time in Hanoi. At first, the Spanish paper El País connected the raid to the C.I.A. The next day, El Mundo reported that the South Korean government may also have been involved in the incident at the Embassy. Not long afterward, the Washington Post reported that, in fact, a “shadowy group” called Cheollima Civil Defense had raided the Embassy. Soon, a Spanish court identified the participants as citizens of the U.S., South Korea, and Mexico, and issued arrest warrants.
The story identified the leader of Cheollima Civil Defense as Adrian Hong. He was being hunted by the governments of Spain and North Korea, and it was unclear if the U.S. would attempt to find and extradite him.
Adrian Hong contacted me and told me the story of what had happened in Madrid, and about a secret network of what he called “freedom fighters,” including some within North Korea, who are trying to bring down Kim Jong Un’s government. Explaining why he had named the group Cheollima Civil Defense, Adrian likened it to the “righteous armies” throughout Korea’s thousands of years of history, “civilian militias who have mobilized spontaneously when government failed them.”
March 1, 2019, a week after the raid, was the centennial of the launch of Korea’s movement for independence from Japan, which occupied the country for thirty-five years. To mark the date, the C.C.D. renamed itself Free Joseon—for a Korean dynasty that lasted five hundred years, as well as what North Koreans call their country—and posted a video on its Web site announcing a government-in-exile for North Korea. The video was largely ignored by the media, but it was the first time that there had ever been an organized opposition to North Korea’s dictatorship.
Adrian told me that he, as “Matthew Chao,” and his companions had been let in by someone inside the Embassy. “It’s no longer trespassing if you are invited,” he said. Contrary to the speculations of the Spanish press, Free Joseon was not part of any government or intelligence service. “I have never worked for or been paid by or trained with or partnered with anyone at the C.I.A. or F.B.I.,” Adrian said. Free Joseon relied on resources that included “pro-bono labor, credit cards, and attempting things no government would risk,” Adrian told me. However, to set up a provisional government, the group also needed recognition. According to Adrian, “The plan was to have ambassadors and a cabinet in place.” He said that Free Joseon had initially received tacit support from members of the F.B.I. But then, he insisted, U.S. officials had turned on the group.
When he described Free Joseon’s goals for freeing North Koreans from persecution he was precise and single-minded. “[North Korea is] the worst place on earth, and a symbol of what man’s ingenuity and tenacity can achieve when organized for evil.”
“Regimes like this don’t collapse slowly. It happens instantly. Every revolution is that way, and this will be the same,” Adrian told me. “I don’t mean a revolution in a figurative sense. I don’t mean the revolution of the mind. Or some kind of fantasy where five hundred thousand people protest in Pyongyang and the regime just packs their bags and leaves and some transitional government comes in place. This is not like any other country, where offering them enough money will mean they will liberalize—any opening or reform will result in their insecurity. The only way to make them change is to force them to change.”
“We are going to remove this regime,” he said. “We are going to confront it with force, with the strength of our ideas, and with our bodies until these people are free and can determine their own future.” The goal of his organization, he said, was “abolition.” How would he achieve that? “There is only one way,” he said. “It’s an uprising. It’s a revolution.”
Adrian Hong was born in 1984 in Tijuana, where his parents had immigrated from South Korea. His father was a Tae Kwon Do master who converted to Christianity and became a missionary. The family moved to San Diego when Adrian was six, but his father founded an orphanage in Mexico to which Adrian often returned, delivering donated supplies and helping to give aid to the homeless. Later, he conducted relief missions in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
According to those who knew Adrian at the time, his motivations seemed less religious than humanitarian. Adrian, like his father, taught Tae Kwon Do and is a practicing Christian, but, when I asked him about his faith, he said, “I make it a rule not to discuss personal beliefs. I am more concerned about freedom of belief.” Adrian admired people who effected great change; among them Martin Luther King, Jr. Adrian loved King’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable, which tells us, when confronted with someone in need, to ask not “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” but “If I don’t stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
While attending Yale, Adrian became interested in the plight of North Koreans. In 2003, while visiting Los Angeles, Adrian, then a junior, was sitting with Paul (PK) Kim, a standup comic eight years older, at a café called Blink, on Wilshire Boulevard. They had met when Adrian invited PK to a campus event, and they often discussed starting an organization to help North Koreans. One of them looked up at the café’s sign, and decided to take the “B” out of the name and call the new group LINK—Liberty in North Korea. It was launched early the next year, at the Korean American Students Conference at Yale, which Adrian had organized.
Traveling to two or three college campuses a week, Adrian would give presentations about the horrors of life in North Korea, sometimes screening the documentary film “Seoul Train,” which follows defectors escaping to China. LINK was “ninety per cent Adrian,” PK told me. LINK sought out college students who, PK said, “need to be a part of something.” Adrian told me, “I built LINK on Xanga,” a blog-based social network then popular among Asian Americans, where he had been active since 1999.
Ki Hong Lee, a thirty-four-year-old Korean American actor who has appeared on the Netflix sitcom “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” met Adrian at an event in 2005, when Lee was an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley. “If you spend three hours with Adrian, he makes you want to become a better person, do things you never thought about doing,” Lee told me. Lee helped start a chapter of LINK at Berkeley, and eventually he and Adrian traveled to South Korea to volunteer for an outreach program called Project Sunshine, which tried to raise awareness of the suffering of North Koreans. “You don’t really call someone to say, ‘Hey, you know what’s going on in the world that is messed up?’ ” Lee said. “He was that person I could do that with.”
Adrian dropped out of Yale in his senior year, and set up LINK’s ad-hoc headquarters in Manhattan’s Koreatown, before moving it to Washington, D.C. By then, there were nearly seventy local chapters. A close friend who helped get LINK off the ground told me, “Adrian knew that sometimes you have to work outside a diplomatic norm in order to reach something meaningful.”
In 2004, George W. Bush signed the North Korean Human Rights Act, which made North Koreans broadly eligible for political asylum in the U.S. Two years later, Adrian and two other members of LINK traveled to Yanji, in northeast China, where they met four women and two teen-age boys who had escaped from North Korea and were hiding in an underground shelter. If the defectors were caught by Chinese authorities, they might be returned to North Korea, where they would be imprisoned in labor camps and risk execution. Adrian and the LINK workers accompanied them on a twenty-hour train ride to Shenyang, the site of the nearest U.S. consulate, to apply for asylum. But the consular officers turned them away, telling Adrian, over a phone line that had likely been tapped by the Chinese government, to go instead to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Beijing, some four hundred miles away. Adrian got in touch with the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which also directed him to the U.N.H.C.R. Chinese police arrested everyone the LINK members were jailed for about a week before being deported; the North Koreans were detained for more than six months. After much pressure from LINK and other activist groups, the defectors were eventually freed and they flew to South Korea.
Adrian called the actions of the U.S. consulate “unacceptable and shameful.” In 2007, he wrote on the Web site Freekorea.us, “My experiences in December showed me that three years after the North Korean Human Rights Act has passed, nothing has changed on the ground for North Koreans.”
In 2008, Jay Lefkowitz, the special envoy under Bush, says that Adrian was an “effective and ardent advocate.” By then, LINK had a hundred chapters worldwide.
Yet Adrian’s experience in China had shifted something in him; in 2008, he abruptly resigned from the group. According to a journalist who knew him at the time, Adrian appeared to be severing ties with his former life.
That year, Adrian started a think tank called the Joseon Institute, to generate a plan for a civil society in North Korea should the regime collapse. Between 2009 and 2012, Adrian served as a TED fellow; he also spent a year at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy.
Adrian found the world of N.G.O.s and advocacy groups unsatisfying. “We have all collectively accomplished almost nothing,” he told me. For years, the U.N.’s General Assembly and the Human Rights Council have voted to adopt resolutions condemning the human-rights violations of the North Korean regime. In 2014, U.N. investigators concluded, “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”
“Raising awareness through college lectures, tours, concerts, and bake sales wasn’t enough,” Adrian told me. “Rescuing refugees through the underground work in China and Southeast Asia wasn’t enough. Advocacy, trying to convince governments to change their policies to do the right thing, wasn’t enough. So then what was left was direct action.”
In 2010, Adrian started Cheollima Civil Defense (later renamed Free Joseon), but he did not make its existence known to the public. (“Cheollima” is the Korean equivalent of Pegasus, and during these years he listed his title as managing director of Pegasus Strategies L.L.C.)
In June, 2019, I flew to Europe to meet with members of Free Joseon. They explained that the group had hundreds of members, in ten countries. Adrian indicates there are thousands, in more than fifteen countries. Both numbers are impossible to verify, and the vagueness seems to be intentional. The group operates in a decentralized manner, so that, if one member is arrested, others won’t be jeopardized. The more I tried to follow Free Joseon, the more it became obvious that Adrian was the only person who really knew the extent of the group.
A Free Joseon member in the U.S. told me that he had been involved in several operations, all of them rescue missions involving élite defectors.