Montreal panel on the gendered experience of North Korean defectors

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HanVoice, a student chapter of the Canadian advocacy group for North Korean refugees and human rights, hosted a panel to shed light on the gendered experiences of North Korean migration and to highlight the ways that women are disproportionately marginalized. 

HanVoice Director of Research Mégane Visette discussed the inherent link between the gender-based experience of refugees and border surveillance regimes between North Korea, China, and other Southeast Asian countries that defectors have to cross to reach South Korea. Visette emphasized some reasons for the gender-based experience of North Korean women defectors, pointing to China’s former one-child policy. In Jan. 2016, the policy was loosened to allow couples to have two children; however, the 36-year long policy created a demand for brides, which also increased mobility opportunities for women.

“Marriage, then, [became] a survival strategy,” Visette said. “When you’re crossing the border, […] you [may] know someone who can make you go through the border if you become the bride [to a stranger].” 

Visette concluded by discussing how Southeast Asian countries rationalize their treatment of North Korean refugees by classifying North Korean defectors as economic migrants as opposed to refugees. China, for example, has been able to deny them the protection mandated by the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention. “The international legal system [offers] such a cookie-cutter sort of interpretation of what a refugee convention [that leaves, which leaves] a lot of people […] in a grey zone,” Visette said. “North Korean refugee women cannot access refugee status in Thailand, which prevents them from accessing] private sponsorship programs in Canada because this is reliant on the UNHCR […] definition.”

The event ended with a video interview of North Korean defector Yeeun Joo, who spoke about her journey from North to South Korea by traveling through China with the help of missionaries who protected her from experiencing any gender-based violence. Joo also described her 20 years living in the one-party state. She dreams of becoming a teacher, with ambitions of creating an education system to teach North Korean children if the two Koreas ever unify. 

[McGill Tribune]

Frosty North Korean response to Trump tweet and good will gesture

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President Trump urged North Korea to return to the bargaining table to resolve the two countries’ differences. Trump made the request as part of a tweet defending Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden, in which he stated: “Mr. Chairman, … I am the only one who can get you where you have to be,” Trump tweeted yesterday. “You should act quickly, get the deal done. See you soon!”

Trump’s tweet followed a gesture of “goodwill” in the form of canceling a joint military exercise with South Korea.

The U.S. olive branch quickly was spurned by North Korea, whose response was to conduct a flying exercise of its own, wherein North Korean leader Kim Jong Un personally supervised a parachuting drill of military sharpshooters.

In a statement attributed to a spokesman for North Korea’s foreign ministry, North Korea claims that U.S. support for a “human rights resolution” at the United Nations last week had undercut the gesture of postponed war games.

“We, for our part, tried hard to appreciate it as part of positive attempts to ease tensions and make the most of chance for dialogue,” read the statement from the unnamed spokesman, who said the resolution proves the U.S. is “still wedded to the hostile policy geared to isolate and stifle” North Korea.

“In particular, the U.S. dreams of bringing down our system … which shows that it has no intention to sincerely work with us towards the settlement of issues,” the spokesman said. “Therefore, we have no willingness to meet such dialogue partner.”

[Washington Examiner]

North Korean refugees as advocates and storytellers

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For years, Joy Kim couldn’t understand why her mother left her behind when she defected from North Korea. Until she found herself in the same position, said Kim as she spoke alongside three other North Korean refugees at the Liberty in North Korea at UCLA’s second annual “The Stories that Link Us” event. The program, started last year, trains North Korean refugees to be advocates and storytellers in hopes of inspiring others to take action.

“Each [has] their own defection story and LiNK just helps them craft their stories and become really good storytellers so that they can bring other people along,” said Becky Chung, a special events and donor relations intern for LiNK. The refugees spend three months in the United States, during which time they travel to different states to speak to students, community leaders and government officials.

“I think it’s very easy to only see North Korea as an evil country, as part of this axis of evil, as people say,” said Ashley Ng, president of UCLA’s LiNK chapter and a fourth-year global studies student. “But I think this event does a good job of showing that there’s North Korean youth born in the ’90s that are just human like us and had the unfortunate circumstance of being born in North Korea (where they faced) human rights violations.”

Many prejudices exist against North Korean refugees living in South Korea, said Dasom Kim, a refugee who escaped North Korea with the help of LiNK before settling in South Korea in 2014. For example, North Koreans are paid less than their South Korean counterparts for the same work, she said.

Jeongyol Ri, a student at Seoul National University who defected while he was in Hong Kong for a math competition, shared the same sentiment. After resettling in South Korea, he started looking for tutoring jobs to pay for food and housing. The parents of a young boy were interested in hiring him, but after they figured out he was from North Korea, they had to rethink their decision, he said.

Ilhyeok Kim, now a student studying political science and diplomacy at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, said he was shocked by the number of candidates that appeared on election ballots. When he voted in North Korea, he said he only had one candidate to choose from.

Despite the benefits of life in South Korea, some fellows also missed aspects of their life in North Korea. Ri confessed to yearning for the camaraderie he felt in North Korea, where he knew each and every single person who lived in his apartment building. In South Korea, people are so busy, he said, that he doesn’t have the time to get to know his neighbors.

[Daily Bruin]

Fleeing North Korea often the start of even more hardship

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Now a university student in South Korea studying social work, Joy Kim spoke about the hardships her family experienced in North Korea and the challenges she faced as a result of being trafficked once she crossed the border to China. She said that for women like her, fleeing from North Korea is often the start of more hardship.

Kim’s family in North Korea was very poor, and when her stepmother tried to marry her off, she decided to flee to China in 2009. However, unable to pay the broker who helped pay off the guards that kept watch over the border, Kim was sold as a bride. “For three days, a broker paraded me around villages in northern China and crowds of men would gather to bid on me,” Kim said. “I was treated like an animal in a zoo.”

A man eventually paid the equivalent of $3,000 for her. He and his parents kept constant watch over her in fear she would escape, Kim said. Kim soon discovered she was pregnant. Because a pregnancy would make her eventual escape challenging, if not impossible, she said she tried to induce a miscarriage. “I climbed up the highest tree in the backyard and jumped down,” Kim said. “I also carried around heavy buckets of water.”

Despite her efforts, Kim gave birth to a baby girl after nine months. She said she resented her daughter at first, but before long the girl became her only reason to live.

It was around this time that a member of LiNK approached Kim and offered to help her cross the 3,000 miles that separated her from South Korea. The crossing, however, would be too dangerous for a child, he told her. Unable to pass up the opportunity, she decided to escape, determined to one day return to China to take her daughter to freedom.

Kim finally reached South Korea in 2013, four years after first leaving North Korea. Because of her harrowing experience, she said she wants to devote herself to helping North Korean women who have experienced the same trauma.

“Sixty percent of North Korean female refugees in China are trafficked into the sex trade,” Kim said. “For female North Korean refugees, escaping from North Korea is not the end of their journey, but the beginning of their fight for freedom.”

[Daily Bruin]

Outrage over 2 North Koreans sent back to North Korea

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Since the division of the Korean peninsula after World War Two, South Korea has offered safe haven to more than 30,000 of their North Korean brethren from the impoverished, authoritarian North. But when two North Korean men sought asylum after drifting across the maritime border in a small fishing boat this month, Seoul made the unprecedented decision to turn them away.

The case has reignited criticism that South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a human rights lawyer-turned-liberal politician, has pursued rapprochement with the North, including three one-on-one summits with the North Korean leader, at the cost of sidelining human rights concerns and opposition towards the regime. Under his administration, defectors and other activists have complained of being restricted from carrying out activism such as flying balloons carrying anti-regime leaflets across the border.

Lim Jae-cheon, a North Korean studies professor at Korea University in Sejong, said the repatriations marked a fundamental shift in Seoul’s policy toward North Koreans, who are all considered South Korean citizens under a ruling by the country’s Supreme Court. While South Korea has occasionally repatriated North Koreans at their request, it had previously never returned someone from the North after they had requested asylum.

“When two defectors come to Korea, they should be regarded as South Korean people and judged according to our law,” added Kim Jong-ha, a professor at Hannam University in Daejeon, South Korea. “Why were they expelled so quickly?”

A coalition of 17 rights groups in South Korea accused the government of denying the men due process and failing to provide “clear evidence” of their guilt, calling for a parliamentary inquiry into its handling of the case.

“You could punish the men to the full extent under South Korean law,” said Jung Gwang-Il, a prison camp survivor who runs the non-profit organisation No Chain, questioning the need to return the accused men to the North. “Nobody can trust an investigation that has them repatriated after three days.”

“The North Korean regime believes all defectors including me are heinous criminals, so now it looks like we all could be repatriated for this purpose,” Jung said.

In the Daily NK, a defector-run media outlet, Choi Ju-hwal, a former official in the North Korean army, said it was “very hard to accept” that three men had been so easily able to kill 16 of their crewmates without a weapon such as a gun.

Another North Korean defector Eom Yeong-nam said it was “absolutely certain” that the two will be executed in the North. “The North will probably execute them in public as a message to potential defectors – even if you flee to the South, you will end up like this,” he told the Post.

[South China Morning Post]

North Korean defectors decry South’s expulsion of two fishermen

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South Korea’s expulsion of two North Korean fishermen set a bad precedent that has spread fears in the North Korean defector community and could lend legitimacy to its widely criticized judicial system, defectors and activists said on Friday. South Korean officials said the two, in their 20s, appear to have killed their 16 colleagues after their plan to take action against their abusive captain went wrong.

The decision drew criticism and dismay from some defectors, who said the men should have been tried in the South and would likely face torture, and possibly execution in North Korea.

Many defectors have served prison terms in the South for crimes they committed in the North, including murder and rape, and the two should have been prosecuted in South Korea if they were suspected of having committed a crime, says Jung Gwang-il, a former political prisoner in North Korea who runs a human rights group in Seoul. Jung said.

“Now so many defectors are fearing they, too, might somehow be deported,” Jung said.

Y. H. Kim, another defector turned rights advocate, said the expulsion of the two was the latest in what he said were government efforts to “trample” on defectors. As a surge of inter-Korean diplomacy unfolded last year, many of the 33,000 refugees from North Korea in the South say they feel like political pawns suddenly discarded. “I’m so devastated thinking how human rights has become an empty word,” Kim said.

American lawyer Joshua Stanton said South Korea violated a U.N. convention banning the expulsion of people to a place where there are “substantial grounds” for believing they may face torture.

“There is little doubt that South Korea’s move has condemned these two men to torture and likely execution, and for that reason, there should have been a much higher standard of evidence required before sending them back,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch.

North Korea’s state media has made no mention of the pair.

[Reuters]

US asking North Korea to return to talks

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The United States is “very actively” trying to persuade North Korea to come back to negotiations, South Korea’s national security adviser said on Sunday, as a year-end North Korean deadline for U.S. flexibility approaches.

South Korea was taking North Korea’s deadline “very seriously”, the adviser, Chung Eui-yong, told reporters, at a time when efforts to improve inter-Korean relations have stalled.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in April gave the United States a year-end deadline to show more flexibility in their denuclearization talks, and North Korean officials have warned the United States not to ignore that date. The window of opportunity for progress in dialogue with the United States was getting smaller, a senior North Korean diplomat said on Friday, adding that Pyongyang expects reciprocal steps from Washington by the end of the year.

South Korea has set up various contingency plans if the deadline passes without any positive outcome, Chung said, without elaborating. As the talks between the United States and North Korea have stalled, so have efforts to improve ties between the two Koreas, despite efforts by the South Koreans to nudge them forward.

[Reuters]

Two North Korean defectors returned to North Korea due to murder charges

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South Korea said Thursday it expelled two North Korean men after learning they murdered 16 crew members on their fishing boat before fleeing to the South.

The pair, both in their 20s, were questioned by South Korean authorities after being found on Saturday near the maritime border in the Sea of Japan, and concluded that the men had killed 16 fellow fishermen on their boat and then fled to South Korea, Seoul’s unification ministry said.

The two men were deported to the North via the truce village of Panmunjom after informing Pyongyang of the plan, ministry spokesman Lee Sang-min told reporters.

“If they had been incorporated into our society, it was judged they would pose a threat to the lives and safety of the people,” Lee said.

[AFP]

13 North Koreans trek through four countries toward freedom

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A group of 13 North Koreans recently arrived in Southeast Asia, after a grueling two-month journey which spanned 6,000 kilometers (more than 3700 miles), in a quest for asylum in South Korea.

Among the group that reached the Southeast Asian destination were a two-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy, the rest ranging in age between their teens and 50s.

They were met by officials from the South Korean human rights group Now Action Unity Human rights (NAUH), who had been awaiting them.

Ji Seong-ho, founder of NAUH, who himself escaped North Korea in 2006, led the effort to rescue the 13. Ji said the latest rescue was both nerve-racking and moving.

He told RFA that many people that attempt to leave North Korea are arrested in China, as Beijing intensifies crackdowns on those who try to flee. He noted that the number of North Koreans fleeing to Southeast Asia has declined in recent years, but that many still make the journey hoping to escape to freedom.

[Radio Free Asia]

Some of the reasons North Koreans defect

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A group of North Korean defectors recently arrived in Southeast Asia after lengthy travels through China. Following are their responses as to why they left their homeland:

A female member of the group, explained she left North Korea in July because she was being forced to join the military and had to give up her dream of becoming a doctor. “It wasn’t hard for me because I kept thinking this is the only way I can achieve my dream and [secure] my future,” she added.

Another woman in the group, in her fifties, said she decided to seek asylum because she hated the incompetence of North Korean authorities, who she said make strong crackdowns on minor infractions. She also disliked the rampant corruption in North Korean society and said it was her wish to travel to other countries as she pleased.

She said that even North Korea’s rich are looking for ways to get out. “People think that the state just drains money from us. It would be nice if the state would let us be in charge of our own business,” said Lee. “So it means that the people are all saying ‘Let’s leave. We will be able to be in charge of our own affairs in South Korea, We can enjoy freedom. Let’s go look for our freedom there.’ Many of the rich people want to come because [the authorities] are giving them a hard time,” she said.

Another female defector identified as Lee is the mother of a 2-year-old. Her 12-year old niece, small enough to pass for a much younger child, was also a part of the group. Lee’s mother had escaped into South Korea 13 years ago. “Now that I’m here, I break into tears just thinking of seeing my mother. It’s been 13 years. I have tears just thinking about meeting her for the first time in 13 years,” Lee said.

[Radio Free Asia]