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Oct 8 '15 - How a 19-Year-Old North Korean Escaped and Became a Sushi Chef in America

By Keegan Hamilton

Daniel had been planning his escape for weeks. The 10-minute walk from his family’s home to the frozen river that formed the border with China would be simple. Then he would sneak across the ice, which he thought would be solid enough to support his weight — though he couldn’t be sure. If he pulled it off, he would make it out of North Korea.

That day, the 19 year old woke up early and slipped silently out the door without saying so much as goodbye to anyone, knowing his family would try to stop him if he told them what he was about to do. It was two days before his little brother’s 11th birthday.

Daniel, slender and about 5 feet 5 inches tall, was not a strong swimmer. Plunging into the frigid water might be a deadlier proposition than being caught by the soldiers who patrolled the area in their olive green uniforms and Russian-style ushanka hats, searching for defectors and smugglers. Those they caught were forced to pay bribes — or sent to prison camps.

The April ice held firm, however, and he hurried across, scrambling up the opposite bank and into China. His plan was to find a job that beat scrounging scrap metal or toiling in the fields, the sum of his work experience in North Korea.

“People were starving to death,” Daniel says now of his youth in North Korea. “Even when I went to school, I was working so hard in the fields I’d just sleep in class. I’d go to the fields at six, work for two hours, wash my face and go to school. I just felt like I had no future there.”

It’s impossible to verify the details of Daniel’s 2010 escape. What is certain, however, is that after making his way many of thousands of miles, illegally crossing at least one more border, applying for asylum, and battling government red tape, he successfully found a new job — as a sushi chef in the San Francisco Bay Area.

* * *

Daniel, a pseudonym he chose to protect the family he left in North Korea, tells VICE News his story while seated at the dining room table in his one-bedroom Bay Area apartment. His place is modest; a black couch is the only piece of furniture other than the table, which is neatly arranged with clean wine glasses, a white tea set with a strawberry vine pattern, a vase of faux flowers, and woven placemats that say “Bless Our Home.”

Daniel is one of 186 refugees who have settled in cities across the US since the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, which established a path for people fleeing the country to gain asylum in America. The group comprises a tiny percentage of defectors worldwide. The vast majority — more than 28,000 to date — have gone to South Korea, which has a special government program to help citizens from the northern half of the divided Korean peninsula adjust to new lives.

All defectors take tremendous risks. In addition to the North Korean border patrols, defectors are often arrested and repatriated by authorities in China, which supports North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un’s regime. People who get sent back face years of hard labor, abuse, and often death in brutal camps. But beyond the shared threat of bodily harm, the handful of North Koreans who opt for America over South Korea face an additional layer of cultural, psychological, and emotional challenges.

North Koreans are scattered throughout the US in more than three dozen cities, from Los Angeles and Chicago to smaller towns in Idaho, Virginia, and Kentucky. Going from the isolated Hermit Kingdom to the land of fast food, consumer culture, and individual freedom is about as close to falling into an alternate universe as reality allows. And while those brave and lucky enough to reach America enjoy safety and freedom, life in the land of opportunity is daunting. Many defectors are essentially left to fend for themselves.

With styled hair and neatly trimmed sideburns, Daniel could easily be mistaken for a Korean-American man who has lived in the country all his life. He seems healthy and lives comfortably. He owns a car, which would be an extravagant luxury back home. Yet he can’t help but wax nostalgic about his old life. He lives alone, and it’s been more than five years since he spoke to his family.

“I miss everything,” he says in Korean. “The smell of the ground. The dirt. Everything. I didn’t really see how precious it was to be able to live with my family. I don’t have that now.”

After scrambling across the Yalu river during his escape, Daniel says he began trekking deeper into the mountains toward a Chinese town about an hour away. He had been to China once before as a teenager, when he crossed over with a family friend he called Uncle.

Though leaving the country without permission is strictly forbidden, some North Koreans in the border region cross over to cities in northeast China, where there is a large ethnic Korean population, to earn money or bring back goods to sell. Uncle showed up one day in bad shape after being released from prison, where he had spent time after he was caught attempting to cross the border.

“We fed him and shared our food with him,” Daniel recalls. “Getting a meal from somebody else, it wasn’t an easy thing back then, but because my father knew him, we treated him well.”

After about two months, Uncle was healthy enough to head back to China. Daniel talked it over with his family and decided to go along. They had been relatively prosperous for a number of years, tending fields of barley, corn, and potatoes, but his father developed rheumatism and lost the use of his left leg, limiting his ability to work. The family needed the extra cash their son could potentially earn over the border.

Things did not go according to plan. Daniel was just 15 — too young to find work — and he ended up, as he puts it, “going from place to place” for nearly three years before returning home, sneaking past the border guards again to reunite with his family.

But life in China had opened his eyes to the brainwashing he had undergone growing up in North Korea. In 2009, Kim Jong-il, the father of current leader Kim Jong-un, was still alive, and the country’s economy was in shambles. The famine that killed hundreds of thousands of people in the late ’90s was over, but food security was still a problem. North Koreans are taught to worship the Kim family, but Daniel had lost faith.

“When I was 12 or 13, I completely believed the Dear Leader didn’t go to the bathroom, that it was like a divine thing, that he was on a completely different level than us,” he says.

Shortly after he returned, Daniel’s parents decided to move to the city on the Chinese border — Daniel declines to name it to protect his family — to be near his maternal grandmother. His discontent with the North Korean regime grew as he continued to witness hunger and deprivation all around.

“I had tasted freedom, and my perspective got a lot bigger,” he says. “Combined together it was political stuff, the brainwashing and indoctrination in North Korea. The things about the leader saying that we have a good life, but there are people starving and homeless people. I thought, That’s not true.”

He began planning his second escape, keeping it a secret from his family.”That’s the only thing that breaks my heart,” he says, expressing regret over his decision not to say farewell. “If I would have told my parents I was going to leave, they’d say ‘Sometimes you have money, sometimes you don’t, that’s just how life is, you just have to survive. That’s what’s important — your life is important.'”

* * *

Daniel had spent time during his first trip to China at an underground Christian church, and so after his second escape, he planned to find another church that would take him in. It started to snow. He got lost and ended up wandering down a muddy road.

“It was, like, six o’clock in the morning — I was scared,” he recalls. “I stopped in front of a house. There was a dove holding a branch with its beak, and a cross too, I saw that in front of the house. I recognized it from before. It was a church. When I look back, it was kind of a divine intervention.”

He knocked, but nobody answered. After wandering for another half an hour, he circled back to the church and found a woman standing outside calling to him in Chinese. He approached hesitantly and she switched to Korean. She could tell he was a defector due to his clothes and appearance.

“I was kind of scared, so I was avoiding her, but there was nowhere for me to go,” he recalls. “It was very cold. My body was weak and I was exhausted. She told me to rest, so I just kind of let go of everything and I slept.”

Daniel had previously stayed with an elderly Chinese woman whom he came to call “Grandmother.” Her phone number still worked, and she was delighted to hear from him. She picked him up and they traveled by bus to another city in the region. She introduced Daniel to a Christian missionary, who he says was knowledgeable about helping refugees escape to South Korea and the United States.

“Some missionaries will just give you some money and tell you to go back to North Korea and spread the gospel, but that missionary didn’t do that,” Daniel says. “He asked me if I wanted to go to America or South Korea. I said, ‘America.’ I didn’t really know anything about it at the time.”

The US fought against the North during the Korean war, and North Koreans are still bombarded with propaganda that portrays Americans as almost cartoonishly evil. Daniel says the forbidden-fruit aspect was part of the appeal. He knew from his past visit to China that the US was prosperous — the opposite of what his own government had told him.

“Anything related to America has a very bad connotation, but I was very curious,” Daniel says. “I knew America was a rich country, I thought maybe I should go and experience it. North Koreans are taught not to like America, but that’s kind of why I wanted to go.”

The missionary connected Daniel with a representative of Liberty in North Korea (LINK), a Los Angeles-based NGO that works with North Korean refugees. Since it was founded in 2004, LINK has shepherded more than 400 North Koreans through China and Southeast Asia to South Korea and the United States, where defectors can claim political asylum.

Sokeel Park, LINK’s director of research and strategy, makes it clear in a phone interview from his office in Seoul that his organization does not do “extractions” — meaning they don’t arrange for people inside North Korea to make it out. Instead, LINK works with refugees like Daniel who have already fled, or gets “referrals” from defectors who have kept in contact with relatives via smuggled cellphones or other means and know an escape is coming.

With China and North Korea both seeking to arrest defectors — and potentially the people who aid in their escapes — Park says “operational security” is crucial, so the first step upon meeting refugees is vetting. After LINK feels comfortable the defector is not an agent of the North Korean regime, the organization makes arrangements to smuggle the person from China’s northeastern frontier to a third country, typically in Southeast Asia, where refugees are able to make contact with the US State Department.

“It can happen very quickly,” Park says. “They can go through the rescue route… in a matter of days.”

In years past, defectors could simply enter a US embassy or consulate in China and be guaranteed protection. Getting out of the diplomatic outpost and moving on to the next destination required approval from the Chinese government, however, and Beijing began forcing refugees to wait months or years before allowing them to continue on their way. China also cracked down by beefing up security outside the compounds to make it more difficult to get inside.

“It was obviously politically inconvenient and embarrassing for the Beijing government to have to deal with that,” Park said. “They just made a decision to shut it down and were successful with that.”

Others have gone west to Mongolia through China’s Gobi Desert, but the terrain is so treacherous that most refugees attempt to head south instead. Daniel says LINK arranged for him to take trains and buses through China — a journey of some 3,000 miles — to a country in Southeast Asia that he does not name in order to protect LINK’s staff and other defectors still using the same route.

In some instances, North Koreans have been detained and sent back home even after leaving China. In 2013, authorities in Laos repatriated nine young defectors, reportedly telling them they were boarding a plane to South Korea that was actually headed back to China en route to Pyongyang. Earlier this year, Thai police arrested an American Christian missionary and charged the man with human trafficking after he helped seven North Koreans enter the country.

But according to Park, such cases are rare. “In general, once you make it out of China into Southeast Asia, you’re a lot more confident you’re going to make it to your final destination, whether that’s South Korea or the US,” he said.

Daniel knew that the Chinese authorities were on the lookout for defectors like him, but LINK had made arrangements. This meant Daniel was basically just along for the ride, hoping and praying that they would make it through undetected. LINK has a history of success when helping defectors escape — Park says their success rate is over 95 percent — but there are no guarantees.

“I knew there was a risk,” Daniel says with a shrug. “I got lucky.”

* * *

After successfully navigating China, refugees like Daniel begin an entirely new journey. In the best-case scenario, the months-long wait to enter the US is spent in relative comfort. For some, however, it means sitting in an immigration detention center, stuck in diplomatic and bureaucratic limbo for more than a year.

When President George W. Bush signed the North Korean Human Rights Act into law in 2004, he cleared the way for North Koreans to claim political asylum in the US, but the measure didn’t add any special provisions to expedite their applications or create a system to address their highly unusual circumstances and needs. In the eyes of the US government, North Koreans simply became eligible to become refugees like people from Syria, Iraq, or Eritrea.

“There is no special program for North Koreans,” a spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs told VICE News in a statement. “North Korean refugees access the USRAP (US Refugee Admissions Program) and are considered for US resettlement along with refugees of some 70 other nationalities worldwide.”

In practice, this means that North Koreans end up doing a lot of waiting around, sometimes behind bars in detention centers. Even in better circumstances, they usually aren’t allowed to leave the home, diplomatic compound, or refugee processing center where they are being housed.

Earlier this year, the George W. Bush Institute, the former president’s nonprofit policy center, released a report on the lives of North Korean refugees in the US. The survey, which coincided with a campaign to raise global awareness about human rights abuses in North Korea, included in-depth interviews with 16 defectors whose backgrounds “reflected a range of living standards in North Korea varying from relatively comfortable to the verge of starvation.”

While almost all the defectors were pleased with their decision to come to the US, they also spoke candidly about frustrating months spent in purgatory with no updates on the status of their applications.

“They took me to the cell, when I was first taken there I was so shocked,” said one 44-year-old man who fled North Korea in 2001 and arrived in the US in 2010. “I was surprised because I didn’t know why I had to stay in a place like that when I did nothing wrong. I was really scared and worried that they would do something to me or send me away.”

The report said many people encountered would-be US émigrés in China and Southeast Asia who “eventually found the waiting period too long and withdrew their applications for asylum in the United States and went, instead, to South Korea.” In one remarkable case, the report described a North Korean who was “warned in advance on his way to Thailand that the wait for admission to the United States could be months or more, [so] he took an unusual and much more arduous journey from Thailand on his own through South America and Mexico.”

Asked about the report and any efforts to improve the lot of North Koreans stuck waiting in Southeast Asia for passage to the US, the State Department issued a carefully worded statement that effectively said they could do nothing to improve matters.

“We urge all countries in the region to cooperate in the protection of North Korean refugees within their territories,” the statement said, citing international protocols that govern the handling of refugees. “On many occasions we have expressed our views to other government officials.”

Fortunately for Daniel, his case proceeded faster than usual. He spent five months waiting in a location his Korean translator from LINK declines to divulge, citing security reasons. He read, watched TV, and tried to study English while preparing himself for what would be a first for him.

“In North Korea, it’s impossible to get on a plane,” he says, still sounding awestruck at the thought of the experience.

After a brief layover in South Korea, Daniel’s flight touched down in Los Angeles. He was with a handful of other refugees, including two women who would become his roommates in the Bay Area. He called them his “sisters,” and they received small stipends from a civil society group contracted by the US Office of Refugee Settlement. LINK provided additional support, and they all quickly found jobs.

“One thing I regret is not studying English first and getting a job right away,” he says. “But I had no choice other than to get a job.”

Daniel found work in the most American of places: a shopping mall, where he worked in a restaurant bakery from 6am until noon, then served as a busboy at another food court eatery from 12:30pm to 5pm. He managed to eke out a living, but he longed for more. He eventually got laid off from the bakery and quit his other job. He says he then spent a month depressed in bed.

“I wanted to make a lot of money,” he says. “I wanted to buy stuff other people had. I was very ambitious. I was greedy.”

* * *

Joseph Kim can sympathize with Daniel’s struggle to adjust. The 25-year-old was among the first group of North Korean refugees to arrive in the United States in 2006, and he was placed with a foster family in Richmond, Virginia, where he enrolled in a local high school.

“They had no idea about North Korea,” he recalls. “It was a really poor community and neighborhood. Teachers didn’t really care whether we did homework or not. The students made me say the F-word, of course I didn’t know what that means. I’m like ‘Okay,’ and I say it and they start laughing.”

Kim’s background is bleak even by North Korean standards. His father died during the famine, and his mother sent his younger sister to China, he suspects to be sold as a bride or servant. He ended up homeless, one of the young children known in North Korea as Kotjebi, or wandering swallows, who roam train stations and public marketplaces in rags begging for food. He became a pickpocket and thief and spent time in a detention center before nearly starving to death on the streets.

Hunger is no longer a concern — he recounts this story at a restaurant in Midtown Manhattan’s Koreatown neighborhood over a massive lunch of Korean barbecue, kimchi, and banchan side dishes. He looks older than his years; like Daniel, he is short and wiry with a carefully coiffed tangle of black hair.

Kim fled to China at 15 in search of his sister, and was eventually taken in by an elderly Chinese woman who, he says, treated him like her own grandson. Their underground Christian church connected him with LINK, who offered to take him to America. At first he didn’t want to go; his pastor had to convince him by explaining the concept of freedom.

“I knew what freedom meant, the word in the dictionary, but it didn’t catch my attention until he elaborated what that means,” Kim says, recalling a time when he was seldom allowed outside for fear of being snatched up by Chinese authorities. “It means you can go outside any time you want to go. That was really eye-opening. All I wanted to do was go outside and explore. That’s what really changed my mind.”

Kim wrote a memoir, Under the Same Sky, about his escape and ongoing efforts to reconnect with his sister, and in it he describes how his US foster family kept a lock on their pantry because they had a tight budget for food. After being on the brink of starvation in North Korea, he found himself going hungry in the United States. He was eventually relocated to a new household, and says he holds no ill will against the people who first took him in.

“I don’t want to criticize them,” he says. “I never shared my hunger, or I never asked for more food, mainly because I didn’t know I had the right to ask.”

While groups such as LINK offer additional support and resources for a limited number of North Korean refugees, the majority receive limited assistance. Defectors interviewed by the Bush Institute all reported “sincere gratitude” for the opportunity they had been granted, but they also “expressed frustration over the fact they were ill-prepared to handle this on their own.”

North Korean defectors have a high prevalence of anxiety disorders and PTSD, and a survey of 140 female defectors in South Korea found that more than a quarter had been victims of sexual abuse or assault while in North Korea or during their escape; 45 said they had considered or attempted suicide. Some experience lingering health effects from malnutrition, and the Bush Institute report cited instances of North Korean immigrants having difficulty obtaining proper medical care in the US.

“In North Korea, we have free healthcare,” a 44-year-old woman who left in 2006 and arrived in the US in 2008 said. “There aren’t too many drugs or services available, but we are treated for free. I got lucky and received surgery for free in North Korea. These health-related costs in the US are always beyond my comprehension.”

Since 1999, South Korea has had a special support center where North Korean defectors undergo three months of reorientation, learning how to accomplish basic tasks like shopping for groceries in a supermarket or withdrawing money from an ATM, a device that doesn’t exist in the North. They also undergo job skills training and take classes to unlearn the warped history lessons taught by the North, then receive government financial support for up to five years.

Kris Potter, the US resettlement manager for LINK and the translator during one interview with Daniel, described North Korean refugees as “resilient” and “very driven,” and said most find jobs in America soon after arriving. “They’re equipped to find ways to be self-sufficient,” Potter said. “Finding a job is not really an issue; going to mainstream society is the bigger challenge.”

Like other non-English speaking refugees, the language barrier is a significant hurdle for North Koreans, and some end up self-isolating within Korean-American communities. Younger refugees like Kim have the advantage of being able to enroll in school and receive English lessons and an American education, but that’s not typically the case for adults.

“The US government doesn’t really recognize high school education from North Korea, and not many people defect with a high school diploma in their hand anyway,” Potter said. “They have to start from the bottom.”

Kim is one of the success stories. He eventually transferred to a better high school in Virginia, became a top student, and moved to Brooklyn, where he enrolled in a community college. “I heard from someone if you can survive in New York City you can survive anywhere,” he says. “I was like, ‘Well, I want to go there.'”

He enrolled this fall at Bard College in upstate New York, where he plans to study political science. He says the US should educate more North Korean defectors about their options, while also offering improved education once they arrive by offering support to NGOs like LINK, which specialize in making the transition smooth.

“The US doesn’t have to actually create a program, but they can be generous to support organizations that already do support them,” Kim says. “I am convinced that they can do more.”

* * *

After several hours of conversation with Daniel, the topic turned to American perception of North Korea. He had never heard of the movie The Interview, a comedy that stars James Franco and Seth Rogan as American journalists who plan to kill Kim Jong-un. He watched a trailer on his iPhone for about 90 seconds before turning it off and shaking his head.

“Not funny,” he said in English.

Through a translator, he said he could see why some people would find humor in “the Leader” as he called the third-generation Kim. But for him, it wasn’t a joke.

Outlandish tales emerge from North Korea so regularly — like the one about Kim executing an “incompetent” turtle farmer — that human rights violations and food shortages are sometimes trivialized. And the fact is, it’s getting harder to escape from North Korea. From 2007 to 2011, about 2,600 people fled each year to the South. The following two years, after Kim Jong-un assumed power following his father’s death, border security tightened and defections fell by 44 percent. A 2014 survey found that less than half of Americans have heard of North Korea’s prison camps.

Despite the grim situation, a handful of defectors have attempted to go back over the years. In one case in South Korea, the government has refused to allow a 45-year-old woman to return to her husband, daughter, and ailing parents in the North. Beyond family considerations, North Koreans sometimes face alienation in South Korea.

“It’s this whole legacy,” says Park, the LINK staffer based in Seoul. “There’s general uneasiness and curiosity, and at times over-curiousity. If you’re a North Korean refugee, that’s not just one of your labels, it defines you and defines all the interactions you have.”

The depression that kept Daniel in bed for a month eventually lifted, and he found work in the kitchen at the Korean-owned sushi restaurant where he now works as a chef. He clearly takes pride in his craft, describing how the rice has to be “perfect” and the fish must be cut to just the right thickness, but it’s also clear his life is missing something. When asked what he does for fun, he says, “Clean the house.” He’s also taken up golfing. “It’s like a hobby, I don’t really love it, but I’m trying to like it,” he says. “There’s nothing else to do on my off days.”

He has a few Korean friends — one has left behind a guitar with a broken string in his living room — but he hasn’t kept in touch with his former roommates, the two women he lived with upon arriving in the Bay Area. The conversation keeps coming back to food — the plants for which his family would forage when making soup, or a dish of seasoned tofu with marinated rice that he can’t seem to replicate here.

While Daniel has managed to keep in contact with his Chinese “Grandmother,” he has not been able to communicate with his family. Some defectors send money home via elaborate smuggling networks — an estimated $15 million goes back to North Koreans each year from family members in South Korea and the US — and he described feeling guilty for even his relatively humble lifestyle.

“Financial stability, I used to think that was the most important thing, but not any more,” he says. “Relationships, I think that’s the most important thing in your life.”

Asked if he would tell his parents and siblings to attempt an escape, he says he would ask his younger sister and brother to consider it, but that his parents are likely too old. He still gets homesick, but he plans to apply for US citizenship next year and hopes to eventually open his own restaurant.

“It’s not a grand dream or anything, but I’ve realized it doesn’t matter where you work, whether it’s a restaurant or whatever, it’s what kind of mindset you have,” he says. “That’s the most important.”

The only decoration on the walls of Daniel’s home is a framed picture of Tuscany he bought at a local market. It shows a solitary Italian villa atop a hill surrounded by verdant farmland. He says years down the road, if North Korea opens up and it’s safe to return, he would like to build a nice house and go back to farming, perhaps tending a flock of sheep. But for now, he’s committed to his new life in America.

“I had to become self-sufficient, and I did it,” he says. “Sometimes I do feel miserable, but when I look back, I survived. I made it.”

Source: VICE News, 10.08.2015

Oct 8 '15 - After Turning Hundreds of North Koreans Away, Canada Now Vows to Accept Its Refugees

By Justin Ling

After spending years aggressively barring and deporting North Korean refugees trying to enter Canada, the governing Conservative Party is vowing to welcome defectors from the so-called Hermit Kingdom — but their promise might not be as concrete as they’re letting on.

Defense minister Jason Kenney promised on Wednesday that Ottawa would offer refugee status for North Koreans fleeing their country’s brutal dictatorship. Kenney is Canada’s former immigration minister and currently the point person on campaigning in cultural and immigrant communities during the federal election.

“Our Conservative government’s openness to North Korean refugees is in keeping with Canada’s best humanitarian traditions,” Kenney said in a statement.

“Special immigration measures will be developed in response to a request by the Korean community and will focus on North Korean refugees who are stuck in transit countries in Southeast Asia,” Kenney continues.

The statement specifically references private sponsorships as a way to help those who are stranded.

The program would apply only to North Koreans stuck in limbo — residing in China, Thailand, or other nearby countries — and would not give refugee status to any of the thousands of defectors in South Korea. A special program will be put in place to green-light those claims.

The announcement comes just weeks after Kenney’s government came under fire for refusing to increase numbers of Syrian refugees accepted by Canada.

Janet Dench, Executive Director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, calls the Korean announcement “a real head-scratcher.”

For one, she says, Ottawa has spent the past several years leading an aggressive effort to refuse North Korean asylum-seekers government-sponsored refugee status, and to appeal the cases of those who managed to receive it.

Dench also points out that this policy reversal appears to be only for privately-sponsored refugees — a program through which private groups or families can put up the needed resources to resettle refugees, albeit one that has been scaled back in recent years. There’s no clear commitment that things will change for government-sponsored claimants.

“I don’t know where this is coming form,” Dench. “Why would there suddenly, out of the blue, be a focus on North Koreans?”

Part of the explanation may be in the ongoing federal election.

Kenney made the announcement in the Toronto-area riding of Willowdale, home to some 12,600 Canadians of Korean origin — 9 percent of the riding. The story is the same in a handful of other Ontario ridings where the Korean population, both North and South, makes up voting blocs that could change the outcome of the election.

The Korean community has been vocal in their will to see the Canadian government do more, but years of talks and negotiations netted no results.

Statistics obtained by the Canadian Council for Refugees show that Ottawa has cracked down on refugees from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea aggressively in recent years.

Canada deals with relatively few refugee cases from North Korea — between 100 and 300 per year. In 2011 and 2012, it approved over 90 percent of those finalized claims, while roughly a quarter of those claims were abandoned by the person filing for refugee status.

Sometime after then, however, things changed.

The Immigration Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) — an independent tribunal made up of patronage appointments from the prime minister — began rejecting North Koreans en masse, citing the fact that North Koreans also receive citizenship in the Republic of Korea automatically as a reason to determine that they were not, in fact, refugees fleeing a brutal authoritarian regime.

The IRB only deals with government-sponsored refugees.

Part of the impetus for a change in policy may have been due to a spike in applications in 2012 — 719 in that year alone (although only a fraction of those were actually processed that year).

Whatever the reason, Ottawa’s refugee officials slammed the door shut.

In 2013, there were just 95 claims — 69 percent were refused.

In 2014, there were 327 claims — only one was accepted.

In the first six months of 2015, 62 refugee claims from North Koreans were either abandoned or rejected outright. Not a single application was approved.

The dramatic reversal — from 100 refugees per year to zero — was the product of clear government policy. Not only did the board clearly refocus its screening of North Korean claimants, the minister of immigration would, thanks to new powers afforded to that office by the current government, seek to overturn any decision that granted a North Korean refugee status.

Any North Koreans who are deported from Canada would be sent to South Korea.

The Conservatives maintain that they’re not turning away any legitimate refugees. They say all of those who were refused status were, in fact, South Korean-born, or at least had access to residency in South Korea.

“In cases where North Korean asylum claimants in Canada hold South Korean citizenship, the onus is on the claimant to demonstrate that he/she is facing persecution or harm in both North Korea and South Korea. Otherwise they would be expected to return to South Korea,” a government spokesperson told the Toronto Star in 2013.

In the same story from the Star, members of the Korean community in Canada said that it was unsurprising that North Koreans would flee the supposedly-hospitable South. “There is a lot of discrimination in employment. We were bullied because we spoke with a different accent,” Minseo Kim told the paper. “We were under constant surveillance because South Koreans think we are all spies.”

Kim, mother of an infant, was granted refugee status, only to have it revoked when the Minister of Immigration Chris Alexander appealed her claim, and won.

Media in Canada began picking up on the struggle of those refugees in Canada. NOW Toronto profiled three North Koreans trying to find asylum in Canada. The Walrus magazine profile a similar case. The Star documented another North Korean woman, pregnant, who had her health protections stripped while she waited for a decision on her application, as bureaucrats pre-determined her claim to be unfounded.

The problem goes back more than a decade. In 2004, under a previous government, former North Korean government official Song Dae Ri was refused refugee status — although status was granted for his toddler — even as he feared execution, should he be deported back to the Hermit Kingdom.

In a statement sent to VICE News after this story was published, Ana Curic, a spokesperson for Kenney, the Conservatives contend that these claimants “had obtained refugee protection in Canada after having made fraudulent claims. They did not disclose that they were now South Korean nationals. Typically, these individuals flew on their South Korean passports to the United States, entered Canada on those passports, and then made inland asylum claims, stating that they had never been to South Korea, and that they did not have South Korean nationality.”

But Canada is not the only one who has refused North Korean migrants.

More than 26,000 North Koreans have made it South of the demilitarized zone — which breaks down to anywhere from 500 to 2,000 a year. Yet, according to a 2014 brief from the Asian Institute for Policy Studies, socio-economic barriers make it hard for many North Koreans to work and integrate into the South.

And while the government in Seoul does offer assistance to those fleeing the oppressive North, the tough screening and integration process does deter some from entering or staying in the Republic of Korea. Fear of North Korean spies also creates an unwelcoming aura of suspicion.

Beijing also leads an aggressive campaign to root out and return North Koreans back to their home country, meaning that many of the migrants try to continue onto other parts of Southeast Asia. It’s estimated 2,500 escaped to Thailand last year — a huge jump from just 46 circa 2004.

America has only recently begun admitting North Korean defectors, accepting 186 since 2008, while Europe is home to roughly a thousand, continent-wide — the majority of them in a small London suburb.

Source: VICE News, 10.08.2015

Aug 4 '15 - State Department: 186 North Korean refugees now reside in the United States

By Elizabeth Shim

WASHINGTON, Aug. 4 (UPI) — The United States is now home to 186 North Korean refugees who first began to arrive in 2006 – two years after the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

The North Korean refugee population in the U.S. is still small and just a fraction of other communities, Voice of America reported on Tuesday.

Major refugee communities in the U.S. include 1,078 Burmese, 879 former nationals of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and 818 Somalis.

In fiscal year 2015 – which began in October 2014 for the State Department – Washington granted asylum to one or more North Koreans per month.

In July, the United States accepted four North Korean refugees, the second highest for the fiscal year.

As refugees North Koreans receive some financial support, including a monthly stipend between $200 and $300 for eight months to cover food and medical expenses, South Korean news agency Yonhap reported.

After a year of residence, refugees are eligible for permanent resident status and after five years are permitted to apply for U.S. citizenship.

But the financial support Washington provides North Korean refugees pales in comparison to the support South Korea provides similar defectors.

Seoul’s resettlement dollars awarded to North Koreans have decreased over the years as more North Koreans find their way to the South, but a North Korean defector still qualifies for $5,967 in financial grants, in addition to $11,000 that goes toward long-term housing.

In some cases the U.S. government works with NGOs to resettle the North Koreans, but problems have surfaced in recent years.

In July, The Washington Post reported how a U.S.-based North Korean refugee was deprived of food by his American foster family in Richmond, Va., because they wanted to make their budget stretch.

Joseph Kim, who was then 16, said he found himself hungry in the world’s wealthiest country after years of surviving on weed soup and roasted grasshoppers in North Korea.

Source: UPI, 08.04.2015

Jul 17 '15 - Empowering North Korean refugees abroad: Programs and Projects

New programs aim to alleviate issues experienced by North Korean refugees in Europe

By Hamish Macdonald

After fleeing North Korea, the majority of refugees find themselves in neighboring China, a country that neither provides support or recognizes their refugee status. Many however manage to find third destinations where they are recognized as refugees and have been resettled, with roughly 28,000 remaining on the peninsula, residing in South Korea.

While they collectively face difficulties in employment, plus alienation and a difficult transition into a society at the opposite end of the political, economic and social spectrum, those in the South at least share a common language and long history, which can sometimes ease the disparities felt.

However, for those refugees who have resettled elsewhere, a lack of language and communication skills present formidable barriers to integration. Issues with employment, mental health and support are pervasive for the close to 1,000 refugees residing in Europe.

In light of these ongoing challenges, the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK) have launched and are seeking fundraising for a set of new programs aimed at empowering and equipping refugees with the necessary skills to overcome these problems.

These include programs aimed at improving English language skills, applicable skills in new job markets and introducing mentoring for young North Koreans and support groups for North Korean women, who represent the majority of defectors and who have been subject to physical and sexual abuse in China, on their way to finding a new home.

NK News spoke to Jihyun Park, EAHRNK’s North Korean outreach and project officer, about the projects being launched, the issues faced by North Korean refugees settling abroad and how EAHRNK are aiming to address them.

Park, a North Korean defector herself, has personally witnessed and been through the issues commonly experienced by those aiming to flee the DPRK and find a new life overseas.

NK News: Many of the projects are geared towards enhancing skills for North Korean refugees. What areas do you think are most important to address and what gaps in necessary skills currently exist for North Korean refugees in Europe?

Park: I think the most important area to address is the language capabilities of many refugees. The majority of refugees arrive in Europe with no ability to speak the language of the country they arrive in.

Learning the language of their host country is important for North Korean refugees so that they can share their own personal experiences. In the United Kingdom, for example, there is such a small number of North Koreans who are able to speak English. This is important as it does not help their social advancement, or help them raise awareness. As a mother, the most important reason for me to learn English was for my children. Without being able to speak the language of their host country, many North Korean parents are not able to help their children.

How can a refugee seek healing when the appropriate medical staff don’t speak Korean and the refugees can’t speak the language of their new country? There are also some cultural differences, which make North Koreans reluctant to seek medical help for the issues they have faced.

With regards to our skills workshops, many North Korean refugees in Europe lack a complete education, so often do not have the technical skills to be able to get jobs or to raise awareness of their experiences in North Korea. With proper training, I aim to equip all defectors in Europe with the skills to express themselves and to eventually gain employment, but funding is required to do that.

NK News: How important is it for these refugees to have mentors in their resettled homes and have companies, individuals and businesses already committed to the projects in order to achieve this?

Park: It is extremely important for any refugee to have a wide-ranging support network, not only mentors. In the UK, there is a community network within the New Malden area, but this is lacking for refugees elsewhere in the UK or elsewhere in Europe.

Refugees do not, as a matter of rule, get placed in London or major capital cities throughout Europe – they get placed in smaller communities, removing any chance of them being able to easily settle. Our projects will try to mitigate that as best we can by, in the long run, having a strong web presence for resources for settlement and by offering some of the projects via the internet – we can, for instance, offer language classes via Skype.

Many refugees live in the UK, and everywhere we have found different refugee communities groups, they have been teaching driving … skills, computer skills , etc … but in the UK there still isn’t a North Korean teaching group, so this workshop is important to North Korean refugees.

NK News: You mention in your Phoenix program that the skills being learned in that project are “also important for creating leaders in different sectors for the future rebuilding of the North Korean state.” How important a role do you believe current North Korean refugees will have in the rebuilding of the country should the current status quo change?

Park: For older defectors, I believe they will play a large part in helping re-build North Korea in the short term, but the rebuilding of North Korea will not happen in a day. I am committed to supporting young North Koreans to provide them with the work experience and the skills to take the long-term lead in rebuilding the infrastructures of North Korea. Since the 1980s, North Koreans have managed to build an entire economy almost from scratch – imagine what we can do with the right education, training and mentorship! We need the public’s support to help our young North Koreans. Without support, we’ll struggle to properly assist them.

NK News: In your opinion, and having children yourself, how important is it to empower and educate the second generation of North Korean refugees living in Europe and around the world and what role do you help they can play in the future of the peninsula?

Park: I have great hopes for my children being successful in their lives, but refugees do face a struggle to achieve their potential. I hope our programs help them reach for the sky. If we reach our funding goal, I’m confident we can help these young people become successful.

In 2013 a United Nations Commission of Inquiry into North Korea human rights was conducted, but now in 2015 nothing has changed inside North Korea, our participants must build up North Korean human rights issues and also engagement inside the country, so we want to give them opportunity to learn how to work in human rights and also engagement.

NK News: The vast majority of North Korean refugees are women and many have suffered abuse and trafficking once they fled the country. Your final project is geared towards this issue. In your experience is it hard for these women to discuss these issues and to seek help to heal from their experiences following their resettlement?

Park: Last year a (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) group published report about the situation on the North Korean women in China. Speaking as a woman and as a refugee in Europe, there isn’t much help available to help us heal. That’s partly because of the small number of North Korean refugees, but also because of the language barrier. Also there are problems as many women want to hide their painful memories and hope to start new lives, so North Korean women’s voices are still lacking.

Women’s rights are a critical indicator on where a country’s human rights stand.

By speaking in a closed-door environment, we can talk about the problems we have faced to heal some of the hurt, but also think about how we can be a strong voice for the North Korean people. If we are able to invite speakers to talk about women’s rights, we can learn to become more effective advocates for our people, but we need the public’s support to help us be better advocates.

Source: NKNews, 07.17.2015

Jul 16 '15 - Helping N. Koreans help themselves

NKSC helps defectors, sends information into North Korea with aim of creating a government that represents its people

By David Tian

Kang Chol-hwan, co-author of The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, founded the non-partisan think-tank North Korea Strategy Center (NKSC) in 2007. Through the raising of awareness, leadership development, research and the dissemination of information, NKSC aims to promote action on issues related to North Korea based on the principles of freedom of expression and freedom of information.

Programs that NKSC undertakes include: sending USB sticks, DVDs, and radios into North Korea in an effort to increase the flow of information within its borders; publishing Eyes of Pyongyang, a magazine featuring the voices of North Korean defectors; and training North Korean defectors to become journalists.

Sharon Stratton is the U.S. program officer for NKSC. Based in New York, she manages U.S.-based projects while leading relationship-building, development and overall wider awareness of NKSC and its mission. With the help of the South Korean Ministry of Unification Stratton, along with several other NKSC staff, toured the United States with NK defectors in February 2015 for various speaking engagements at various universities and organizations, including Tufts University, Boston University, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Georgetown and the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Stratton told NK News that a great deal of support for NKSC and its programs and activities come from the United States, particularly from American college students. Additionally, while there has been great progress in effectively disseminating information within North Korea, there is still significant need for technological research and development to develop technology that addresses the needs of the majority of ordinary North Koreans who cannot freely access independent information, lack access to the internet, and, if they do have computers or other hardware, the technology they do have is likely outdated with limited capacity.

NK News: NKSC has sent in thousands of USB sticks containing outside media into North Korea. How effective have they been in increasing the flow of outside information within North Korea’s borders?

Stratton: By virtue of the North Korean regime’s oppressive, strict control over information available to citizens, disseminating USBs has been effective in increasing the flow of foreign information into North Korea. Ultimately, because of the dearth of non-state-generated information in the country, this outside information and media would not be available if international groups were not making deliberate efforts to send it into North Korea.

Of course, there are significant challenges in measuring effectiveness; it is difficult to know, for example, with exact certainty who and how many people are encountering the USBs being sent in, as well as precisely which locations USBs are reaching within the country. NKSC works with trusted partners in the field who are able to conduct interviews in North Korea and on the China-North Korea border regions. Through these interviews, NKSC can gauge the conditions in the country regarding responses to foreign media accessed via USBs.

One of the most referenced indicators of the effectiveness of these information campaigns (sending USBs and foreign media) is testimonies from North Korean defectors. So many defectors who resettle in South Korea recall having learnt for the first time about aspects of the world outside of North Korea after having encountered a foreign TV show, radio broadcast or movie. We know from a combination of defector testimonies and feedback from our partners in the field that access to foreign media within North Korea is increasing, as is the popularity and desire for certain kinds of media and preferences for particular genres and shows.

NK News: Have there ever been any situations in which smugglers were apprehended with these USB sticks and other devices? What does NKSC do in such an event?

Stratton: NKSC has not been apprehended on the border or when directly engaged in any distribution activity. USBs are concealed in various ways amongst existing trade goods, so that they move across the border alongside other official and unofficial trade networks.

Moreover, over the past seven years, NKSC has established a network based on long-lasting relationships of mutual trust. Our local partners range from businessmen to border patrol, and we have cooperation on both sides of the China-North Korea border in all aspects of our campaign.

NK News: Earlier this year, you and several members of NKSC came to the United States on a speaking tour with support from South Korea’s Ministry of Reunification. How did this tour get established? What have the responses among attendees been like? Is there widespread support among American college students?

Stratton: We were supported by South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MoU) through NKSC’s international youth engagement initiative, Woorihana, which focuses specifically on projects engaging youth around North Korean human rights issues and awareness-raising. MoU recognizes the importance of engaging in discussion with students on issues surrounding North Korea, and as we have a long history of working with MoU running programs to bring together defectors and international students in South Korea, it made sense for us to bring Woorihana to the U.S. Other examples of our past collaboration with MoU include our speaker series, mentoring and cultural exchange programs in elementary, middle and high schools as well as camps.

NKSC have always had a huge amount of support and interest from individuals and organizations in the U.S., with a particular enthusiasm from U.S. college students to learn about our work and ways to contribute. We have a high number of U.S. college students who intern and volunteer at our Seoul office. So for the Woorihana speaking tour, we partnered with colleges that had active North Korean human rights students groups who were eager to host us for an event at their college. We presented at Tufts Fletcher School of Diplomacy, Boston University, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Georgetown and the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and were so encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive feedback at each event. Most students had either little or no knowledge of human rights conditions in North Korea, and had never met a North Korean defector.

We wanted students to have the opportunity to meet and share conversations with defectors, to share cultural exchange, and to have person-to-person interactions while learning about conditions in North Korea and the very real, human impact of such conditions. North Korea cannot be marginalized by narrow emphases on its mass games, nuclear tests and an autocratic Supreme Leader with a fondness for the NBA. We believe it’s important that students are able to find a deeper understanding of what the country is like for the majority of the population and demystify some of the stereotypes that are applied to North Koreans generally. Central to our discussion at these events was the importance of increasing access to information within North Korea as a strategy to empower citizens with knowledge and resources in order to encourage independent, critical thinking.

Rather than suggest that we should expect change in North Korea to come from outside the country, we discussed the importance of supporting and empowering North Korean people to want to initiate changes for themselves. To do this, North Koreans need independent information to provide context that allows them to reflect critically on their own country and government. NKSC believes that independent thought, freedom to participate in political and civil life, and the freedom to disagree with your government without fear of persecution are the cornerstones of a strong, democratic society. North Koreans should also be able to realize these freedoms.

The idea of empowerment of ordinary North Koreans seemed to be a perspective that a lot of students hadn’t encountered in their studies on approaches to North Korea, with many expressing that that they found ideas of self-determination and empowerment through information for North Koreans compelling.

NK News: Has NKSC received any official response from the North Korean government for its programs and activities?

Stratton: No, NKSC has not received any official response, given that our headquarters are based in Seoul and North Korea do not have formal, direct diplomatic ties with South Korea. However, the North Korean government does make its general opposition to foreign media and information, as well as the severity of punishment for North Koreans accessing this information, very well known through state propaganda.

NK News: Can you tell us about some of the outcomes for NKSC’s programs? For example, the journalist training program for defectors, and sending foreign media into North Korea.

Stratton: NKSC take great care to send content that will be amenable to North Koreans based on focus groups that we carry out regularly with defectors and our field partners where we place foremost feedback from within North Korea about what kind of content is in demand. As well as entertainment (South Korean dramas are particularly popular), NKSC prioritizes sending informative, educational and inspiring content that takes into consideration cultural and social modes in North Korea, whilst sharing insights about the world outside the country and alternate social, political and economic realities. We really take seriously the quality and potential impact of content that we distribute into North Korea.

With regards to the outcomes of our other programs, all of our programs and activities fall under our four organization strategies – raising awareness, leadership development, information dissemination and research, so each has different outcomes.

As you’ve mentioned, NKSC ran a program in Seoul called journalist academy (JA) between 2011-2014, involving a total of nearly 200 college-aged defectors resettled in South Korea. JA was a part of our leadership development strategy, and aimed to cultivate journalists with a North Korean background by providing training in critical writing and communications skills through structured theoretical and practical training, including workshops and having their writings published. A couple of our JA participants were actually contributors to NK News, through the Ask a North Korean section. Defectors play an important role as voices on issues pertaining to North Korea, so NKSC saw the need to ensure that young defectors were supported to communicate critically through their published written work. We had agreements with media outlets (e.g. Chosun Ilbo, the Daily NK, Independent Times and the Yonhap News Agency) who provided internships for JA participants, to add to their professional learning experience.

So, as well as having their pieces published through various online media outlets, extended training was offered for participants to be involved in the project “Eyes of Pyongyang” – a photographic essay series that incorporated personal photos from defectors with reflections on their lives in North Korea. Further, students who successfully completed the JA program were eligible to be speakers for the unification education program (which falls under our leadership development strategy), where young defectors visit primary and secondary schools throughout South Korea to talk about their personal experiences in North Korea and open up the discussion to unification.

NKSC conduct a lot of activities under our raising awareness strategy, including our speaker series run in Seoul that aims to engage the English-speaking community with North Korea experts and defectors for informative subject-specific presentations; speaking tours in the U.S. and Canada, that reach out to students and young professionals; and participation in international seminars that deal with a range of North Korea-related issues.

Finally, NKSC also carries out research that utilizes our networks in China, South Korea and North Korea to provide up-to-date and critical primary information and insights on North Korea. NKSC conducted a study into the labor conditions of state-designated overseas North Korean laborers in Russia, China, Kaesong Industrial Complex and Kuwait that provided an analysis of the exploitative nature of just one of North Korea’s foreign currency-earning operations. Other research has included, but is not limited to, an analysis of the IT infrastructure landscape in North Korea, and responses to foreign media in North Korea.

NK News: What are NKSC’s ultimate end goals? How will NKSC measure whether it has achieved these goals?

Stratton: NKSC’s ultimate objective is to see a North Korea that protects, fosters and governs in the interest of its people, under a democratic government that respects fundamental human rights. We envision a North Korea where the people themselves will initiate progress and change based on their own self-determination.

As we’re not in a position to be able to interview people directly in North Korea, we gauge our progress towards this vision by monitoring reactions through our information dissemination campaigns and research in the defector community. Reports that we receive confirming increased access to and desire for foreign content is one positive indicator that North Koreans have a desire to learn outside of what their government is dictating; feedback that we receive from North Korean residents is one of our most important evaluators.

NK News: Can you tell us a little more about what you think about current campaigns to spread outside information in North Korea? What has been done well? What could be improved?

Stratton: As proponents of the principle that more access to independent, outside information is a positive for North Koreans, we support campaigns that aim to do this in a manner most effective and safe (as possible) for North Koreans.

In terms of areas where there could be improvement – there is a great need for R&D to innovate new technology that adequately addresses certain challenging factors: minimizing physical risk of being discovered by authorities, devices that are not reliant on internet (given the lack of access for ordinary North Koreans), and need for significant memory capacity. North Korea presents complex and somewhat unique challenges in terms of how we share our world of information with the country, and greater cooperation between organizations that have experience in distribution of foreign media into North Korea and innovative technologists, is certainly an area that we believe could be improved. For these efforts, we welcome organizations and individuals who are interested in our work to contact us with ideas on cooperation.

Source: NKNews, 07.16.2015

Apr 13 '15 - Empowering North Korean defectors in the U.S.

By David Tian

In 2004, President George W. Bush signed into law the North Korean Human Rights Act, which was subsequently reauthorized in 2008 and again in 2012. Among other things, this act made North Korean refugees eligible for political asylum in the United States.

Due to factors such as having a shared language, similar cultures and relative proximity, the vast majority of North Korean defectors who have been granted asylum select to resettle in South Korea, where they undergo intensive training at the Hanawon facility and receive cash stipends from the South Korean Government.

However, the numbers of North Korean defectors opting to settle in the United States has been on the increase. In 2006, the first group of nine arrived but as of 2014, this number increased to 171, with over forty defectors arriving after the last reauthorization of the North Korean Human Rights Act. Defectors, when settling in new countries, often face difficulties due to the stark contrasts in society, employment and culture between their new home and their old one. ENoK, a Chicago based non-profit, seeks to provide resettlement services to North Korean defectors, which includes education training and preparation.

ENoK runs a program called Empower House that provides housing, cultural immersion, and tutoring services for a select number of young North Korean refugees who have been granted asylum in the United States. Ultimately, the end goal of Empower House is for its participants to get accepted at four-year colleges and universities, allowing them not just to settle but to advance in their new, chosen society.

NK News had the opportunity to speak with Andrew Hong, founder and president of ENoK, about the organization’s programs and services.

NK News: In your experience, what have been the greatest challenges faced by North Korean defectors trying to resettle in the United States?

Hong: The biggest challenges faced by North Korean defectors trying to resettle in the United States are: 1) the long time that they have to wait in Thailand or another country until they are admitted to America; 2) the language barrier; 3) their lack of knowledge about different government programs that they are eligible for in the early stages of their resettlement; and 4) the freedom of choice and the responsibility that follows this freedom, which they are not used to.

The defectors, in order to enter the U.S., must wait about one year, often confined in a jail-like space. Many give up waiting and end up changing their destination to South Korea, the entrance into which can take as short a period as a couple of weeks. Granted, the U.S. State Department has many refugee applications to review, and it is important that they go through this process carefully for national security. From a perspective of a North Korean defector, one year of confinement is a great challenge, and thus, greater efficiency in the process without loss of diligence would greatly be appreciated.

The obvious challenge to an immigrant from a non-English speaking country applies to North Korean defectors, perhaps to a greater extent than even their Southern counterparts because most likely they did not receive as much training in English as South Koreans before leaving their country.

North Korean defectors who enter the U.S. as legal refugees normally receive automatic benefits (food stamps, stipends, Medicaid, etc.) for the first 8 months after their entry. However, even after this period, they are often eligible for many government programs only if they knew and were able to fill out the necessary paperwork by themselves. Community service organizations and other government agencies exist to help refugees with this, but I have seen too many North Korean refugees who never received these benefits or services just because they were never aware of them. In America, each individual is left on his or her own to seek any information that one needs or wants, but to a North Korean, who lived all one’s life in a socialist state like North Korea, this is a daunting task, so somebody needs to be available before they can ask, and this is one of the areas that ENoK tries to fill the gap in by informing the defectors under our care and helping them fill out various applications.

The challenge does not end in having people available to tell them what is out there. Another problem that is in a way opposite of the problem discussed above is that normally North Korean defectors are not used to the breadth of options that they can take living in this new country. Once they enter the U.S., North Korean defectors interact with people from many different backgrounds and with their own opinions. Naturally, they will hear different advice, and I have seen many refugees who make a decision (such as picking up a job versus studying) based on only a narrow picture–in most cases, this means more money. Most people offer them something with good intentions, but without the whole picture of the refugees’ lives in mind, particularly in the long run. This often leads the defectors to spend the first few years in America hopping from one job to another with no clear direction in their mind in the end. Having lived in a socialist state for their entire lives, the defectors are not used to having many choices, and thus, they are not used to making cost-benefit assessments of different options, which results in their choosing the path that yields the most immediate results, but not necessarily the best path.

NK News: What services does ENoK provide for North Korean defectors in the United States that other resettlement programs do not?

Hong: ENoK provides the defectors in our programs with what we call Korean-style tutoring services and college counseling services. The majority of staff and volunteers at ENoK are bilingual undergraduate or graduate students who are well-versed in learning English as a foreign language and in preparing for post-secondary education in the States. Armed with such expertise, ENoK provides defectors with academic services, which would cost well above $500 per week in South Korea, free of charge. Our Empower House is like a mini boarding school, and the in-house supervisors have an extensive knowledge of how a boarding school should be run with a decade-long experience of attending boarding schools.

NK News: In what ways does ENoK provide retraining and re-education for participants in its Empower House project?

Hong: Largely, there are two ongoing programs offered by ENoK to North Korean defectors. First, RealPal is a mentoring program where each defector is matched with a volunteer. They normally meet once a week, either in person or online, to study English or other academic subjects. Secondly, Empower House, first opened last fall, is a more comprehensive program in which defectors are invited to live with each other in “Empower House” where they spend one or two years to close the academic gap required for them to pursue higher education. All living necessities are provided for by this program. All that is required of the defectors in this program is to have a clear set goal in partaking in this program, study their hardest, and follow house rules.

NK News: Have you noticed any gaps between North Korean defector students who received their education in North Korea and students who have received western-style educations? If so, can you comment on what the biggest gaps are?

Hong: The biggest gaps are in English grammar and vocabulary and math. It is interesting to see that there is a huge difference between international South Korean students (or immigrants) and North Korean defector students here in the U.S. South Korean students are often strong in grammar and have large vocabulary while they are weak in conversational English. However, North Korean defectors are often strong in conversational English, but they are weak in grammar and have small vocabulary. This most likely reflects the fact that North Koreans did not receive as much formal training in English as their Southern counterparts while North Korean defectors had to learn English in order to survive in their new country. Similarly, while many expect North Korean defectors to be good at math just because of the Asian stereotype, the level of their math is often around third grade level as they did not receive much consistent training in math. On the other hand, they are very quick in real-life situations such as when doing business, compared to South Korean students who have less experience in the real world.

NK News: What kinds of challenges do these gaps pose and how can they be overcome?

Hong: At ENoK, for the first couple of months, we focus heavily on teaching grammar and expanding the students’ vocabulary. After that, we shift our focus to math, especially if the defectors need to pass the GED.

NK News: Can you tell us some success stories ENoK and Empower House have had? Can you tell us about some setbacks or ongoing challenges?
Empower House is still very young for us to have had major success stories or setbacks. Our students are making gradual but sure progress in both English and math. Some of them will begin their college applications this summer, and others will take the GED. We have been able to provide the participants with housing in good condition and abundance of food as well as help them file various applications. The demand is growing to join Empower House across the country, and we are trying our best to meet this demand, which is our greatest challenge at the moment.

NK News: What is the end goal for participants in Empower House? How will you measure whether or not they have succeeded? If ENoK is successful with this program, do you believe that it can be expanded to other cities, regions, or countries and be successful as well?

Hong: The first goals of Empower House participants vary depending on their prior education level, but for most of them, their end goals are acceptance into a four-year college, and ENoK plans to help seek funding for their college education when the time comes as well. We closely track each student’s progress by keeping a weekly evaluation/performance metrics sheet for each student. It is too early a stage right now to expand the program to other cities and regions, but it is definitely a possibility in the long term. Success in each place will depend largely on 1) the ability to raise funds to finance the expenses operating each House, and 2) the ability to recruit as many qualified and committed in-house supervisors and volunteers or have a few paid staff for each House.

NK News: The Empower House project heavily relies on volunteers from the University of Chicago. What have the volunteers’ responses been, and is there a large awareness on the University of Chicago campus about North Korean-related issues?

Hong: The volunteers expressed gratitude for the opportunity to serve and develop friendships with people whom they would have never met otherwise. I believe there is a growing awareness of North Korea-related issues on campus at the University of Chicago. For instance, this year’s annual culture show presented by Korean Student Organization had Empower House as a premise.

Source: NKNews, 04.13.2015

Feb 26 '15 - Help from Someone Who Understands

Kim Mi Gyeong [pictured left, Image: Daily NK] conducts defector support services at the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seoul Committee for Reconciliation of the Korean People. Kim, a defector herself, uses her experiences adapting to life in South Korea as a starting point for helping others. In a plot reminiscent of daytime TV, Kim thought that escaping North Korea and making a new life in a new land would be a cinch. Before meeting her current husband, Kim lived an affluent life under the auspices of her diplomat father in North Korea. The road from rich child to embittered defector to hopeful counselor was a long one indeed.

Kim’s husband is an ethnic Korean from China who originally came to North Korea for business. Instead of checking into a hotel, he stayed at the Kim residence for approximately one month during his trip. For Kim, it was the start of her new destiny. After returning to China, he sent her scores of letters and even sent word by way of messenger. Little did he know that the Kims had moved, and thus all his efforts to reach her were in vain. Finally, the fourth personal messenger sent by the smitten businessman got through to her. On his invitation, she went to China. She escaped empty handed, without any plans or preparation.

The original decision to defect came from a vague sense of curiosity. From the time she was young, . Kim studied music. At the age of six she went to China to perform at an event for Children’s Day. In North Korea she was always told, “Capitalism is a dangerous and corrupt system, even China is being destroyed by the influence of capitalism.” The real China Mrs. Kim saw during this trip was strikingly different with what she was told to expect. Even though she was young, she was shocked by the relative luxury and riches of China. When her husband sent the fourth and final messenger, Mrs. Kim recalled these feelings and decided to return to China.

After this, it became impossible for Kim to return to her home in North Korea. Her family had explained her absence to the authorities by saying that she died in a car accident. Kim spent a few years in China, but she and her husband resolved to go to South Korea soon after the birth of her first child. It was the start of yet another unforeseen turn in her life. While her husband and child waited behind in China to settle the family’s affairs before departure, Kim set off for South Korea alone. Upon arrival, the very first thing she did was call her mother. Her husband crossed the border into North Korea to bring her mother back to China for a visit. This way she could see the baby and receive a phone call from her daughter in South Korea.

“My mom was quite shocked to hear that I was calling from South Korea. She asked how I was doing and I said I was fine. I told her not to worry about me. At that point, all I wanted to do was go to China to meet her in the flesh. She told me about the ‘car accident’ my family reported to the authorities,” Kim said. “Since we could never see each other again, my mother told me to go on with my new life and never look back.”

North and South Koreans begin to empathize with one another

It was never going to be easy for Kim to adjust to her new surroundings in South Korea, especially given that she had arrived without any kind of preparation. During the initial three years, it was so difficult that at times she thought about returning to North Korea. This feeling was compounded by the fact that she grew up in a loving and affluent home in North Korea. She added that if not for her husband and children, the weight of this loneliness would have been too much to bear.

It is through these experiences that she derives the confidence and drive to excel in her current work, where she is a defector support counselor focusing on helping the urban poor on behalf of the Committee for Reconciliation of the Korean People and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seoul. Specifically, Kim works through “Peaceful House” to help the needy defectors in her local area. She goes directly to their houses to help them overcome poverty by focusing on the most basic needs and building upwards.

Among all of the duties she performs, Kim considers forming bonds and starting friendships with the defectors to be the most important aspect of her work. She is able to empathize with the defectors because she knows all too well how painful the process of acculturation can be. She understands what it means to have no one to talk to and no one to depend on when things get rough. That is why talking to defectors and giving them a sense of security has become such a natural mission for her.

Kim draws on her own experiences, saying, “South Koreans tend to think about North Korea in an abstract way and there are many people who have prejudice against defectors. I was forced to endure such preconceptions myself. I became a pariah when people judged me by my appearance, dialect, etc. It was a very painful time for me. When I started to talk to more defectors about it, I realized that they had gone through similar experiences.”

She said that her coworkers sometimes struggle to see why defectors can’t adapt to and act in line with the expectations of South Koreans. “In my mind, financial contribution is also appreciated, but showing interest and affection is an entirely more meaningful form of contribution. When I see defectors and South Koreans taking pains to try to understand one another, I am filled with joy and satisfaction because I know that this is what true reconciliation looks like,” Kim stated.

Striving to help defectors overcome their hardships


Kim, who feels confident helping other defectors because she has gone through the same experiences as them, has also been highly motivated in her studies. At the “Committee to Unify the Homeland,” she studied for one year to learn how to conduct counseling for defectors.

“I found that one day, I had suddenly lost my identity. Looking back at the time that had passed by, I realized I had lost my resolve to live a meaningful life. While studying absentmindedly, I came to understand that I hadn’t really learned anything. Compared to the time I first entered South Korea, the support system for new defectors has changed quite dramatically. I studied in order to find out how to fix the system’s deficient aspects. And, most importantly, I made a lot of lasting friendships during that time,” she said.

Kim is interested in meeting new people. Expanding her network of friends and relations is also central to her goal: not for her own betterment, but rather because it is hard to anticipate exactly what a defector will need help with. For example, Kim was once introduced to a defector who was having great trouble dealing with insurance companies following the untimely death of his younger sibling. Kim connected him to a professor in law counseling she had met at the year long education program she attended. They were able to solve his problem. These kind of victories vindicate all the hard work Kim pours into helping the defectors she meets.

A longtime dream: to create a comfortable, safe space for defectors

For Kim, meeting with defectors gives her a sense of joy and purpose. Watching the older defectors lead productive, happy lives and helping the younger defectors to grow and learn gives her an unrivaled sense of fulfillment and gratification. With every encounter, Kim becomes more enthusiastic and passionate about her work. Through her own experience as a defector, she is able to talk to others about any issue that pop might up. She mostly deals with problems related to childcare, education, and geriatric care.

Kim’s future projects include: an education program for parents who need more information to make the right decisions about their children, creating a space for lonely elders to congregate, and making a study and play room for children whose parents are forced to work around the clock. On top of these, her longtime dream is to set up a safe and comfortable space for defectors, one that feels as cozy as their own homes. Given her penchant for tireless commitment, no one doubts her ability to accomplish this dream.

*This article was made possible by support from the Korea Hana Foundation [the North Korean Refugees Foundation].

Source: DailyNK, 02.26.2015

Feb 26 '15 - Defectors at High Risk for Diabetes

By Kang Soo Jeong

A recent study showed that North Korean defectors in South Korea are at high risk for metabolic diseases. Even those who fall within a healthy Body Mass Index range have presented symptoms of these diseases, indicating that a high percentage of them will eventually develop diabetes.

The study was conducted and announced by Professor Kim Shin Gon of the endocrine center of Korea University’s Anam Hospital on February 24th. The research applied a cohort study, a form of longitudinal analysis that follows a group of people with similar traits, on North Korean defectors, referred to as NORNS [North Korean Refugees’ Health in South Korea].

This research, carried out since 2008 for humanitarian and academic purposes, has revealed the causes for the hitherto unknown causes for noninfectious ailments among some North Korean defectors.

According to the study’s results, 75% of North Koreans who were normal weight when they first arrived in South Korea have gained more weight since arrival, and reach the same rate of obesity as South Koreans within eight years after the former’s arrival in South Korea. The rate of abdominal obesity among North Koreans is markedly lower than that of South Koreans [Males 1:6; Females 1:3], but the metabolic syndrome rate is similar; metabolic syndromes are a major risk factor for diabetes, and their significantly low insulin production is thought to increase their susceptibility to diabetes.

Those whose weight increased by more than 5% since their arrival in South Korea are ten times more likely to develop a metabolic syndrome. All defectors participating in the study also showed a lack of vitamin D, presumed to be a proclivity factor for developing metabolic issues.

The research showed that some North Koreans have developed non-obese diabetes [a case in which a patient’s obesity is not severe but he or she has the same risk for metabolic illnesses as obese patients). These symptoms could become worse and conspicuously increase their risk of metabolic ailments.

Professor Kim maintained that is imperative for the NORNS cohort to improve and maintain the health of North Korean defectors, which will pave the way for more effective treatment of North Koreans and overall improvement of the health care system after reunification.

Source: DailyNK, 02.26.2015

Feb 23 '15 - Young Defectors Experience a New Kind of Lunar New Year

By Kang Mi Jin

Lee Cheol Yong, who recently enjoyed his fifth Lunar New Year since arriving in South Korea, was elated to have been able to spend another holiday with his friends, breaking out in a smile when he spoke of all of their plans together. Sadly, unlike Lee, there are many North Korean defectors who are overcome with loneliness at this time of year when they think about their hometowns back in North Korea.

Busy with adapting to an unfamiliar country and carving out a new life for themselves, the only time defectors are generally able to convene with other friends who have escaped from the North are around Chuseok and the Lunar New Year holiday. Teen defectors find this task even more difficult–busy with college and employment preparations makes finding the time to meet and reminiscence outside of these two holidays a difficult task.

In North Korea, genders are typically segregated for most holidays. Despite scant instances of men and women meeting together for class reunions, most teen refugees agreed that during the holidays, men and women met with the same gender group because it was more natural to do so in the North. However, in South Korea, these same teens have remarked how different the holiday practices can be in this regard, with friends of friends or romantic partners joining in on the celebrations.

Daily NK spoke with one young defector about this who said, “In North Korea, people don’t like it when you bring new people to their get-together, but in South Korea, they welcome the new member with open arms.” He added, “This holiday [Lunar New Year], when I told my defector friends that I would be bringing my girlfriend as well as her friends, they were excited.”

He particularly enjoys enlightening his South Korean friends as to the celebratory customs in the North and how they differ here in the South. Despite the economic and cultural disparities between the two Koreas, he appreciates that young people can still find a lot of common ground and know how to have a good time together.

These parties during the Lunar New Year typically include young defectors reminiscing about their days back in North Korea by cooking foods emblematic of their hometowns. Though the cuisine can vary widely, rice cake soup, dumplings, rice mixed with soy meat, and various types of naengmyeon [cold noodles] are omnipresent dishes.

Most of all, they feel a sense of relief from the relative economic stability that life in the South affords their families. In North Korea, most young defectors recall feeling an overwhelming sense of guilt when asking their parents for money to meet their friends during the holidays. Many of them with whom the Daily NK spoke said that while in North Korea it is virtually impossible for one person to pay for a group of friends at any celebratory gathering, it is far more plausible in the South, and that friends are generally more than willing to ensure that their less fortunate companions have a bountiful, pleasant holiday.

Kim Song Il, a university student originally from North Korea offered his sentiments on the matter, saying, “In North Korea, I felt guilty asking my mother for money every time I went out to meet friends. Even though I worked, I couldn’t do much with that income. However, in South Korea, my income balances out, so I don’t have to ask for money and burden my mother, which makes it feel more like a holiday.”

Source: DailyNK, 02.23.2015

Feb 5 '15 - Family Caught Attempting to Defect

By Kang Mi Jin

A family was recently apprehended near the China-North Korea border by State Security Department [SSD] agents after attempting to flee the country and is currently facing possible transfer to a re-education camp. Of the group, originally comprising four people, one of whom sources within the North revealed successfully fled while detained in custody, three are currently undergoing torture and investigation in the hands of security agents.

“A family of four from North Hamkyung Province attempted to escape with the help from a border guard and a smuggler near the end of last month; however, someone tipped off the proper officials, resulting in their arrest,” a source in Yangkang Province reported to Daily NK on February 4th. “To expedite the family’s escape, the smuggler got a number of soldiers, all of whom he deemed trustworthy, involved. But too many caught wind of the family’s plot to defect, which led to the family’s eventual capture.”

The family’s eldest son purportedly fled while being held in custody, leaving behind the parents and their younger son to endure relentless interrogation at a SSD-run detention center, where they are “as good as dead,” according to the source, because not only were they themselves planning to defect, but now their son presumably succeeded in doing so despite being held in custody.

She speculated that the three members remaining in custody will be sent to a re-education camp following the protracted interrogations, though the repercussions could prove more severe because of the son’s escape. She added that the SSD has stepped up pressure on the heads of inminban [people’s unit], threatening, “if anyone knew that he [the escapee] was bound for South Korea and did not inform us beforehand, they will face equal punishment.” Because the group was known to be headed for South Korea, “no excuse is sufficient to escape severe forms of torture,” according to residents familiar with this case–and the multitude of ones that predate it.

To stave off similar incidents the SSD has reportedly been conducting indiscriminate probes into the homes of residents living along the river. Those aware of the situation wasted no time in pointing out the obvious absurdity of such a measure, saying, “You think the person who ran away would still be here [North Korea] after knowing his death is certain?”

The source asserted that the investigations, carried out by both SSD and Ministry of People’s Safety [MPS] officials will continue until the defector is tracked down and used as an example to resolve the issue and warn others from trying to do the same.

Fortified border control utilizing special units is customary around major holidays, namely the birthdays of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, which is coming up on February 16th, however, in light of the recent incident, soldiers have commented it seems like the “special border units are already in overdrive.”

Moreover, tightened measures dating back to last September remain firmly in place, cracking down on outside phone calls and the flow of remittances into the country through border regions, resulting in a marked decrease of those fleeing the country, and an increase of arrests of those who try.

Against this backdrop, the source said these SSD border guards, yet to apprehend the escapee, “won’t be able to sleep at night,” and regarding the situation, some residents have remarked that “during times like this no one can even dream of escaping, but they [the family] were really fearless.”

Source: DailyNK, 02.05.2015

May 23 '14 - North Korean defectors tell stories of escape from homeland

By Alice Xiao

Eunju Kim and Jinhye Jo, two North Korean defectors, discussed their experiences and explained North Korean culture and propaganda at an event last night at the International House as a part of the University’s Global Voices Program.

The event was organized by representatives from Amnesty International, Emancipate North Koreans (ENoK), and PanAsia. Alumnus and organizer Andrew Hong (A.B. ’11) translated for both Kim and Jo, who spoke in Korean.

Eunju Kim suffered through the 1990s famine with her family. In 1997, her father died of malnutrition, and her mother left the house in search of food for over a week. Kim, who was then only 11, starved as she waited.

“I didn’t really fear death, because my dad died, my grandparents died, everyone was dying around me already—the hardest struggle for me was the feeling of being abandoned by my mom,” Kim said.

The concept of death was not new to Kim and other North Korean children. Even in preschool, Kim recalled the school system forcing her and the other children to view public executions.

Since then, she has co-written a book with French journalist Sébastien Falletti about her experiences that roughly translates to An Eleven Year Old’s Will. The book has been translated into Norwegian and Korean from French and will soon be published in English.

Kim’s mother returned after three days, and she, Kim, and Kim’s older sister escaped to China for a brief time, during which a human trafficker took them in and sold them as slaves to a Chinese family. She recalled being relieved that at least she was not starving in China.

In 2005, Kim and her family were caught and forcefully sent back to North Korea. “No one welcomed us, no human dignity was spared for us—we were human trash,” Kim recalled of her return to North Korea.

After two more attempts to escape, Kim and her family relocated to South Korea recently, where they faced difficulties with assimilation but were able to gain freedom. Kim currently lives in South Korea.

Jinhye Jo, a year younger than Kim, escaped from North Korea in 1998 after four failed attempts. She escaped to China, but each time was discovered and forcefully deported back by North Korean authorities. Jo lived in China for a total of ten years. During that time, everything that other children took for granted seemed like inaccessible pleasures to her. She was not able to attend school in China.

“I spent many days crying while looking out the window at students with the privilege of going to and from school,” Jo remembered. “There were times where I felt very bitter, and I thought, why was I born North Korean? Why do I have to die like this? Even if I died, would anyone care?” she said.

In 1998, a Korean-American missionary named Philip Jun Buck helped Jo, along with thirty other North Korean refugees, escape. Jo currently lives in Virginia, and has recently gained U.S. citizenship.

Both women related their experiences of growing up in a culture of propaganda in North Korea. Information about the rest of the world is closed off, and the Internet is inaccessible to most of the population. According to Kim, there are only one to two computers in a typical school, used not for the Internet or research but for typing practice.

She also said that a typical elementary school math textbook would contain questions such as, “If there are 11 apples, and the Americans stole five while the South Koreans stole three, how many apples are left?” and a typical history book often contained pictures of South Koreans polishing the shoes of Americans, to “teach the kids that the South Koreans were slaves to the imperialists,” Kim said.

Another aspect of North Korean life is the lack of medical care. “In written words, there is ‘Free Medicare’, but this is not really true,” explained Jo. “When you contract a disease, you have to pay the doctor in gifts, such as wine or cigarettes, to get treatment. And once you get a prescription, the government doesn’t provide the medicine—you have to search for medication on a sort of black market,” Jo said.

According to Kim, the black market is composed mostly of expired medicine from China, and so “even if anyone had the money, he couldn’t buy health,” Kim said.

Jo expressed confidence in eventual reunification of North and South Korea. “Unification [of Korea] is going to come soon, whether it’s in the way we expect it or not,” Jo said.

Fourth-year David Tian, who helped organized the event, said that he hoped it would shed light on the state of the North Korean people.

“Sometimes North Korea is immediately associated with being a belligerent state —nuclear weapons, unpredictable leaders—I’m hoping this event can help people put a face to North Korea, and raise awareness that people are hurting, hiding, and need support,” Tian said.

CORRECTION – MAY 23, 2014: An earlier version of this article misstated the language Kim’s book was originally written in and did not mention co-author Sébastien Falletti. It also misstated Kim and Jo’s age difference and did not include the sponsors of the event.

Source: The Chicago Maroon, 05.23.2014

Feb 17 '14 - UN documents North Korean torture chambers, prison camps ... (UN REPORT ATTACHED)

(Reuters) – United Nations human rights investigators on Monday issued a damning report cataloguing massive human rights violations in North Korea that they said amount to crimes of humanity which should be brought to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The 372-page report is the result of a year-long investigation marked by unprecedented public testimony by defectors at hearings held in South Korea, Japan, Britain and the United States.

Kim Jong-un may be personally responsible for crimes against humanity, top U.N. investigator Michael Kirby said in a Jan. 20 letter to the North Korean leader that accompanies the report.

Here are some excepts from the report, to be debated by the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 17:


“Systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, its institutions and officials. In many instances, the violations of human rights found by the commission constitute crimes against humanity.

“The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” the report said.

“A number of long-standing and ongoing patterns of systematic and widespread violations which were documented by the commission, meet the high threshold required for proof of crimes against humanity in international law. The perpetrators enjoy immunity.

“The key to the political system is the vast political and security apparatus that strategically uses surveillance, coercion, fear and punishment to preclude the expression of any dissent.”


“Persons who are forcibly repatriated from China are commonly subjected to torture, arbitrary detention, summary execution, forced abortion and other forms of sexual violence.

China should “respect the principle of non-refoulement and accordingly abstain from forcibly repatriating any persons to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”.

“China should raise with the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and other high-level authorities the issues of abductions, the infanticide of children entitled to Chinese nationality, forced abortions imposed on repatriated women and other human rights violations that target persons repatriated from China.

The report includes a Dec. 16 letter from chairman Kirby to China’s ambassador in Geneva, Wu Haitao, urging him to “caution relevant officials that such conduct on their part could amount to the aiding and abetting (of) crimes against humanity”.

Wu’s reply, dated Dec. 30, said North Koreans enter China illegally for economic reasons and some are engaged in “criminal acts such as theft, robbery, illegal harvesting”. Some North Koreans repeatedly enter China illegally, demonstrating that the allegation that repatriated citizens face torture is “not true”, Wu’s letter said.

The Commission of Inquiry cited estimates that there are 10,000 to 25,000 children born of Chinese fathers and North Korean mothers. “The status of most of these children appears to be effectively stateless, as the Chinese families have been discouraged from registering such children because of the illegal status of their mothers,” it said.

North Korean agents “appear to be operating on Chinese territory and attempting to gather information about DPRK citizens and persons supporting them. On some occasions, they appear even to have abducted DPRK citizens and at least one national of the ROK (Republic of Korea)”.


“Suspects of major political wrongs may find themselves in a detention interrogation centre anywhere from a few days to six months or more,” it said.

“Torture is an established feature of the interrogation process”, it said, citing testimony about a “torture chamber” at a detention facility of the State Security Department equipped with a water tank, shackles used to hang suspects upside down, and long needles driven underneath a suspect’s fingernails.

“Many suspects die at interrogation detention centres as a result of torture, deliberate starvation or illnesses developed or aggravated by the terrible living conditions.”

“If they are not executed immediately, persons held accountable for major political wrongs are forcibly disappeared to political prison camps that officially do not exist. Most victims are incarcerated for life, without chance of leaving the camps alive.”

“The limited information that seeps out from the secret camps also creates a spectre of fear among the general population in the DPRK, creating a powerful deterrent against any future challenges to the political system.”

“Four large prison camps are known to exist in the DPRK today,” it said, adding that there may be additional ones and that there were 12 camps or more in the past.

“Over time, the system has been consolidated. Some camps were closed down and the remaining inmates transferred to other sites, which were expanded.

Sources including human rights groups concur there has been a drop in the political prison camp population over the last few years, but this may be partly due to an “extremely high rate of deaths in custody,” due to starvation and neglect, arduous force labour, disease and executions, the U.N. report said.

The Korea Institute for National Unification estimates 80,000 to 120,000 people are detained in political prison camps today, based on recent satellite imagery and first-hand testimony, the report said. The activist group Committee on Human Rights in North Korea put the figure at 80,000 to 130,000.


A 1995 food crisis sparked by floods and the collapse of support and hard currency from the Soviet Union led to famine.

“The State has used food as a means of control over the population …. The State has also used deliberate starvation as a means of control and punishment in detention facilities. This has resulted in the deaths of many political and ordinary prisoners.

“Military spending – predominantly on hardware and the development of weapons systems and the nuclear programme – has always been prioritised, even during periods of mass starvation.”

“The commission finds that decisions, actions and omissions by the State and its leadership caused the death of at least hundreds of thousands of people and inflicted permanent physical and psychological injuries on those who survived.

“Hunger and malnutrition continue to be widespread. Deaths from starvation continue to be reported.

“The commission is concerned that structural issues, including laws and policies that violate the right to adequate food and freedom from hunger, remain in place, which could lead to the recurrence of mass starvation.

“In his 2014 New Year’s message, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un called for ‘decisive improvement in guidance and management of economic projects’. However, measures for agricultural reform and opening the economy were not mentioned in the speech.”


North Korea “continues allocating a significant amount of the state’s resources for the purchase and importation of luxury goods”, the report said.

Such imports are in violation of Security Council sanctions and have included high-quality cognac and whiskey and equipment for a 1,000 person cinema, it said. There have been attempts to import Mercedes-Benz vehicles, high-end musical recording equipment and dozens of pianos, it said.

“Luxury good expenditure by the DPRK rose to $645.8 million in 2012. Reportedly, this was a sharp increase from the average of $300 million a year under Kim Jong-il,” it said, citing a British newspaper report in October 2013.

North Korean authorities also engage in legal and illegal activities to earn foreign currency, channelling it into “parallel funds” outside of the regular state budget, it said.

“They are kept a the personal disposal of the Supreme Leader and used to cover personal expenses of the Supreme Leader, his family and other elites surrounding him, as well as other politically sensitive expenditures,” it said.

Revenue from criminal activity including drugs has been estimated at up to $500 million a year in 2008, amounting to a third of North Korea’s annual exports at the time, it said.

A former North Korean official, not identified in the report, provided information on the “illegal activities of DPRK embassies around the world. They were engaged in activities such as the illegal sale of alcohol in Islamic countries or the internationally prohibited trafficking of ivory from African countries to China,” the report said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay)

Source: Reuters, 02.17.2014

Download the UN report here:

Feb 17 '14 - Rumors of Exile Keep Defector Families on Edge

By Kang Mi Jin

There is a rumor circulating in border regions of North Korea that the authorities are planning to send families of defectors into exile in rural interior regions. The rumor, which is keeping nerves on edge, is spreading at the end of an extended period of abnormal official steps to stem the flow of both defections and other illicit cross-border movements.

“Recently everyone has been talking about this story that defector families are about to be sent away, so households connected to defectors abroad are deeply anxious,” a source in Yangkang Province reported to Daily NK on the 17th. “Everyone seems like they are trying particularly hard in their people’s units, Women’s Union sections and workplaces.”

At the beginning of this year, investigation teams made up of Ministry of People’s Security (MPS) cadres and students affiliated with a Ministry-run university were deployed along the border to conduct broad crackdowns against illegal acts including defection. The latest rumor appears to stem from the notion that families of defectors will be cast into internal exile as the inspection period reaches its conclusion.

“There has been no actual evidence however; it’s just a rumor at this stage,” the source noted. “Nevertheless, families of defectors are cautious to avoid becoming an example to others at times like this. They stay particularly active in political events, thinking of it as a wise move to be seen performing well.

“During this unusual investigation period the security services have been patrolling local areas day and night, and this has made it difficult for people to share information. Since it’s regarded as suspicious when a number of people gather in any one place, some households have even been sharing information by landline.”

The source estimates that the actual likelihood of the rumor manifesting itself as fact is low, however, given its practicality.

“If ‘families of defectors were all to be sent into exile, this would mean most of the people in the border regions being banished, and that is impossible. People say that the state would only cause itself harm, because even if they banished us and brought in people from other regions, that would only mean a rise in the number of different defectors. People are trying hard not to believe the stories. ”

However, “They may yet banish some families as an example to others.”

On this, a defector originally from Hoeryeong told Daily NK today, “At the end of last month I had a call from my father, who told me not to call him until at least the end of March even if I am curious about the news from home. These days there is word going round that even talking on the phone can be risky to life […] Controls have gotten so harsh, and families of defectors may be suffering harassment.”

Source: Daily NK, 02.17.2014

Feb 14 '14 - Orders to Shoot as Border Controls Intensify

By Oh Hyun Woo

The North Korean authorities have instructed border guards to shoot those caught defecting across the Chinese border, a Daily NK source has revealed. This most recent order, bearing the name of Kim Jong Eun, is fueling extreme anxiety in the border regions.

“An order has been conveyed to the border control posts to severely punish those arrested for preparing or attempting to defect. Word has come down that if a defector has been exposed and responds disobediently, or ignores warnings to stop crossing the river, they are to be shot on the spot,” the source from North Hamkyung alleged.

“The border is in a state of total blockade,” the source continued. “Even those going down to the Tumen River to fetch water or wash their clothes are very closely watched. They have to be very cautious; they are worried that that if they make one mistaken step they will be made an example of.”

“People are are highly critical of the new measures. Common remarks include, ‘Why would anybody even want to become a defector?’ and, ‘If our food worries were eliminated, we wouldn’t defect even if you told us to,’” the source went on.

It was further added that these latest measures are now having a deleterious effect on the number of border crossings of both defectors and smugglers alike.

While the source admitted uncertainty over whether the border patrols would actually fire on those crossing the river, the new measures are causing locals to grow fearful, and many are making themselves scarce.

“The current atmosphere on the border is so quiet that it is frightening. People don’t know how long these border crackdowns will last – it’s killing people. They are now saying things like, ‘It would just be better if a war broke out.’”

Word is also spreading through the border regions that family members of known defectors will be banished after February 16th (the birthday of Kim Jong Il), the source reported; “The security agents are going around making threatening remarks to these families, like ‘You better make the most of this!'”

The phrase “It would just be better if a war broke out” allegedly took off during the Arduous March, indicative of the dire food shortages of the time. The term was used less in the 2000s when people began to earn a living by participating in the markets, but appears to have seen a resurgence following Kim Jong Eun’s rise to power and the subsequent crackdowns on the once-porous border areas.

“The authorities are spreading propaganda like ‘benevolence politics’ and ‘love for the people’ to try and incite loyalty to the General (Kim Jong Eun), but this hasn’t done anything to stop defections. The border controls are just getting tougher, and harsh punishment is only set to intensify would-be defectors – the ‘traitors of the Republic’” the source said.

Source: Daily NK, 02.14.2014

Feb 13 '14 - Helping to Build a New Society (Unification Interview: Jung Ok Im)

By Cho Jong Ik

There are now 26,000 North Korean defectors in the South. No longer are they foreigners in a strange land; quite the opposite, they are full, contributing members of an increasingly diverse society. Successful settlement, where it occurs, not only has positive ramifications for South Korean society as a whole, but also for those left behind in the North.

The chairwoman of North Korean Refugees Foundation, Jung Ok Im works to facilitate this integration of North Koreans into South Korean society. She recently gave an interview to Daily NK to explain more.

What is the current situation for defectors in the South?

To me, defectors are “unification trailblazers.” The North Korean people are seeing these defectors succeed in becoming self-reliant and independent. This is incredibly important for North Koreans. Thus, defectors play the role of “stepping stone” toward unification.

The number of defectors entering South Korea has been decreasing in recent years. How do you explain this phenomenon?

Increasing border controls by the North Korean regime would be one variable. However, what we cannot see in the simple figures is the upward trend in defectors entering the country who had been hiding in China for a long period. There have been a number of cases where people have been entering South Korea quickly after defection, too, so it is too early to jump to the conclusion that there will be a drop in numbers over the long term.

There have been five known cases of defectors returning back to the North in the last year. What is behind this?

Most defectors have family and close friends still in North Korea. This weighs heavily on their hearts and they carry a real sense of burden and debt. This is due to the fact that their families are sometimes held hostage, and they are blackmailed. Also, defectors receive support and various benefits when they settle in the South, but many often struggle to adapt to a capitalist society and feel a real sense of loss.

Nevertheless, save a small minority, most defectors are satisfied [with life in South Korea]. A recent public survey indicated that the level of satisfaction for defectors exceed 96% [see linked article]. The fact that North Korea mobilizes the repatriation of defectors and holds press conferences where they criticize the South is evidence that North Korea fears the defection of its people.

What are the biggest difficulties that defectors face in the South?

Most work hard to achieve self-reliance and independence, but the largest difficulty they face is adapting to a different system. They suffer from economic, health and psychological problems, too. Our foundation not only provides tools for defectors to utilize in the initial resettlement period, but also medical treatment, education and employment support. The Foundation helps young people via scholarships, distributes employment vouchers and provides education on how to navigate this fast-paced information society. Since 70% of defectors are female, we also operate women’s shelters.

There are currently 19 organizations in South Korea alone providing various types of defector support. How do you address criticism from those who think that task duplication constitutes budgetary wastefulness?

It is most efficient to deliver support in those areas where it is absolutely needed. However, there is no single place serving as a “control tower” to harmonize the myriad of organizations and issues that are in play. We need to make adjustments from a policy standpoint. There is an urgent need in particular for customized assistance toward young and female defectors.

Do you think North Korea will go ahead with the impending separated family reunions?

They agreed to the reunions despite the fact that they coincide with the military drills. That they are attempting to improve North-South relations shows just how urgently they need economic support. We cannot trust the North Korean regime, so there is real concern that when the drills start the North could take drastic action over the reunions. We can only hope that these are imaginary fears. If they take an extreme position, they will be totally alienated from international society.

Will the reunions improve inter-Korean relations?

I hope that this is the case. [The reunions] are the desirable path for both North Korea and for unification. Furthermore, improved North-South relations are desirable for eventual unification and for the citizens of North Korea.

The North Korean Human Rights Act has taken center stage at February’s provisional session of the National Assembly. How likely is it to pass?

Even the leader of the opposition has talked about the act, giving hope for a positive result. Regardless; if it passes, it must include content that helps to enhance human rights. That’s the whole point of the act, after all. It must stand up to international scrutiny, and embody the meaning of our universal values.

The opposition says that it should include content pertaining to humanitarian support, too; politically this is the “art of compromise.” All it needs to really contain is a commitment to human rights and humanitarian support. That is, humanitarian support that ensures welfare for North Koreans and that they can function properly. This must also be verifiable.

What do you predict for the Kim Jong Eun regime?

It is too soon to tell, but it certainly appears that it will remain insecure. Kim Jong Eun’s youth adds to the anxiety surrounding the stability of the regime. Certainly, if it is to become stable then there will need to be economic support. Giving up its nuclear weapons and choosing to focus on its economy and people would make it stable. If they hang on to their nuclear weapons, however, international support will remain a remote possibility. Stability will be nearly impossible to achieve if Kim Jong Eun persists with the Byungjin line of simultaneous economic and nuclear development.

What do you hope to achieve as chair of the North Korean Refugees Foundation?

I would first like to build foundations of “unification trailblazers.” We must work to ensure that defectors can put down roots in this society of liberal democracy, a free market and constitutionalism. That is to say, we must work so they can be self-reliant and independent. Putting down roots is the first step toward integration. Youth and women form the majority of defectors. As they successfully adapt to this new society, they will set a good example.

Source: Daily NK, 02.13.2014

Feb 13 '14 - Defectors in SK Report Incomes Half National Average

By Moon Eun Ju

North Korea Refugees’ Foundation has revealed the results of its annual survey into the economic activities of adult (age 20+) defectors in South Korea, finding that they continue to earn far below the national average.

The average reported monthly income of defectors has increased by 37,000 won since 2012, the survey finds, but, at KRW 1,410,000 (approx. USD 1325), it is still just half the national average. The majority of survey respondents reported monthly incomes of KRW 1,010,000~1,500,000 (approx. USD 950-1410; 41.8%), with others reporting incomes of KRW 1,510,000~2,000,000 (approx. USD 1410-1880; 23.6%), KRW 2,010,000~3,000,000 (approx. USD 1880-2820; 7.3%), and KRW 3,000,000+ (0.7%).

Conversely, however, defectors also tend to work harder than other South Koreans, at 47.9 hours a week, 7.9 hours more than the national average. 37.6% of the total survey reported being “lower class,” and 21.5% said they felt they were “lower-middle class.”

Other problems include the rate of unemployment among defectors, which, at 9.7%, is more than three times the national average of 2.7% (the rate as of September 2013). Furthermore, it finds that just 56.9% of adult defectors are economically active, a significant tick lower than the national average of 62.1%. 20.7% of defectors also work as highly insecure day labor, much higher than the national average of 6.3%.

One area of good news concerns this last figure, however, which has been declining in recent years. It was 32.2% in 2011, 22.6% in 2012, and now 20.7% in 2013.

In addition, the survey reports a consistently high level of defector satisfaction with life in South Korea despite these economic difficulties. Respondents reported being “mostly satisfied” or “very satisfied” 54.2% and 20.3% of the time, a total of 74.5%.

The reasons for this sense of satisfaction, even as earnings stayed low, include: ‘”I get paid for the amount of work I do” at 43.5%, “I have more economic freedom than in North Korea” (42%), and “I am not under constant surveillance and regulation” (31%).

Unsurprisingly, many of the relatively small number who reported dissatisfaction with life in South Korea gave reasons of “financial difficulties” (70.2%). Other issues included the perception of “discrimination against defectors” (33.6%).

The survey sample size was 2355. 612 of the defectors surveyed were male and 1743 were female.

Source: Daily NK, 02.13.2014

Aug 20 '13 - Torture, starvation, infant execution in N. Korea prison camps exposed to UN panel

A North Korean soldier stands guard on the banks of the Yalu River at the North Korean town of Sinuiju across from the Chinese city of Dandong, in northeastern Liaoning province on April 10,2013.(AFP Photo / Wang Zhao)

Horrifying accounts of human rights abuse in North Korea were described by witnesses to UN Commission of Inquiry. They claim to have survived Gulag-style camps, where public executions, torture and deaths caused by hard work are said to occur regularly.

UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korea

The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), which was set up this March to investigate “systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights” in the country, on Tuesday held its panel hearing in Seoul.

Bone-chilling personal accounts of life in North Korean prison camps have for the first time been revealed to the UN team since the start of its work.

The witnesses who testified to the panel included North Korea’s arguably most famous defector, Shin Dong-hyuk – the only known person to have escaped a “total control” internment labor camp.

Shin was born in Camp 14, where political prisoners are forced to work until they die without any chance of release. Around 15,000 people are believed to be doing slave labor in the 155 square kilometer (60 square mile) prison area, which is also known as Kaechon internment camp.

Like the other children at the camp, Shin learned to survive starvation conditions living in bare concrete blocks – and later day-long work out in a field – by catching rats and reporting on others for “rewards.” He said he witnessed death from hard labor, tortures and public executions. The latter included those of his mother and brother, whom he turned in after hearing they were planning an escape.

Michael Kirby (L), chairman of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on North Korea, poses a question to Shin Dong-hyuk (R), a former North Korean defector, during a public hearing at Yonsei university in Seoul August 20, 2013 (Reuters / Kim Hong-Ji)

Michael Donald Kirby, The UN’s chairman of the commission, asked the 30-year-old to describe his own experience of torture in the camp. One such account included a prison guard cutting off Shin’s finger for dropping and breaking a sewing machine.

“I thought my whole hand was going to be cut off at the wrist, so I felt thankful and grateful that only my finger was cut off,” he said, as quoted by Reuters.

Shin himself managed to escape the prison camp in 2005 by climbing over the dead body of his friend, who had tried to scale the high voltage fence. Shin then made his way to China, where he worked as a laborer until he accidentally met up with journalist, Blaine Harden, who recognized the importance of the young man’s story and brought him to South Korea and the US.

After several years of campaigning for shutting down the North Korean prison camps, Shin told American journalist, Anderson Cooper, that he thinks he is “still evolving from an animal to a human.”

North Korean soldiers patrol along the bank of the Yalu River in the North Korean town of Sinuiju across from the Chinese city of Dandong on April 4, 2013.(AFP Photo / China Out)

The testimonies of some other North Korean ‘Gulag’ survivors suggest Shin was born under a lucky star, as in some of the other camps prison-born babies are said to be killed.

A 34-year-old woman, Jee Heon-a, who was incarcerated in 1999, told the Commission she witnessed a harrowing scene of a mother forced to kill her own newborn by drowning.

“It was the first time I had seen a newborn baby and I felt happy. But suddenly there were footsteps and a security guard came in and told the mother to turn the baby upside down into a bowl of water. The mother begged the guard to spare her, but he kept beating her. So the mother, her hands shaking, put the baby face down in the water. The crying stopped and a bubble rose up as it died,” Jee said.

Unlike Shin, who was raised in a prison camp and got used to its brutalities so much so he still considers it his “home,” Jee was shocked when she arrived to serve her time there.

“Everyone’s eyes were sunken. They all looked like animals. Frogs were hanging from the buttons of their clothes, they were in a plastic bag with their skins peeled,” she described.

Like the other prisoners, Jee also started eating salted frogs in order not to die from malnutrition.

“We were expendables they were keeping as beasts of labor, to get the most out of us before we die,” Shin added.

This Google Maps image published on claims to be showing locations and boundaries of largest North Korean labor camps, including the one known as Camp 14, or Kaechon internment camp.

This is not the first time North Korean defectors, some of whom are survivors of labor and concentration camps, have shared the story of their struggles with an international audience. However, the inquiry at UN level is the first of its kind.

“Because the North Korean people cannot take to arms with guns like Libya and Syria… I personally think this is the first and last hope left,” Shin told the UN panel. “There is a lot for them to cover up, even though they don’t admit to anything.”

Officially, Pyongyang has been strongly denying the very existence of the camps. Following the UN’s decision to carry out the inquiry, So Se Pyong, the North Korean representative at the UN Human Rights Council, has branded the commission a “political instrument… to discredit the image of the DPRK” and warned of “serious consequences” if the inquiry goes ahead.

According to the official, North Korean citizens are “happy with pride and honor that they have one of the best systems for promotion and protection of human rights in the world.”

However, Pyongyang has refused to let any human rights inspectors into the country.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) inspecting a supply base on the east coast under the Korean People’s Army (KPA) Unit 639 at an undisclosed place in North Korea (AFP Photo / KCNA via KNS)

‘A positive step in fighting crimes against humanity’?

Meanwhile, Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have estimated there are up to 200,000 people held in North Korean prison camps. Amnesty’s recent reports based on comparative analysis of satellite images suggest the vast areas of the camps have been expanding in the last few years.

Amnesty has hailed the UN Commission’s work as “a positive step in addressing crimes against humanity.”

“The Commission of Inquiry is a positive step towards addressing the dire human rights situation in North Korea. UN Member States have today sent a clear message to the North Korean authorities that those responsible for crimes against humanity will ultimately be held to account,” Rajiv Narayan, North Korea Researcher for Amnesty International, said.

However, many rights experts believe the inquiry is unlikely to have any immediate impact on the rights situation in North Korea, other than serve to publicize a campaign that has little visibility globally.

“The UN has tried various ways to pressure North Korea over the years in the field of human rights, and this is a way to raise the pressure a bit,” Bill Schabas, professor of international law at Middlesex University in Britain, told Reuters.

“But it’s obvious that North Korea is a tough nut to crack and the UN’s means are limited. There would need to be profound political changes in North Korea to make headway in the field of human rights,” he added.

A screenshot from a video by Amnesty International shows a satellite image of what the group says is the area covered by Yodok political prison camp No. 15.

On its website, the Commission also said it was “not appropriate” as yet to comment on any ICC jurisdiction over potential crimes against humanity because North Korea had not signed the statutes that would enable the court to prosecute.

But some activists believe the inquiry’s findings could play an important role in raising people’s awareness of a country with heavy ideological indoctrination – at least by means of contacts with family members living abroad.

“People living their daily lives here don’t realize how important this is. It will have a tremendously powerful impact across North Korea,” said Kim Sang-hun, chairman of the Seoul-based group Database Center for North Korean Human Rights.

The footage allegedly shows scenes from North Korean Yodok concentration camp, otherwise known as Camp 15.

Source: RT, 08.20.2013

July 5 '13 - Park Sang Hak: North Korea's 'Enemy Zero'

Sending balloons aloft with leaflets and memory sticks, a dissident enrages Pyongyang. South Korea isn’t too happy with him either.

By David Feith

Paju, South Korea

It’s nerve-racking to drive toward the North Korean border with Park Sang Hak. Called “Fireball” by his admirers, the North Korean-born Mr. Park is designated “Enemy Zero” by the Pyongyang regime, which two years ago sent an agent into South Korea to assassinate him with a poison-tipped pen. On this summer morning, he promises to do again what so infuriates the Kim dictatorship—launch large balloons into North Korea carrying leaflets, computer-memory sticks and sweets for the oppressed people of the hermit kingdom.

In return, Pyongyang promises to “physically eliminate the kind of human scum that commits such treason.” Adds the North Korean military: “The U.S. and the present puppet authorities of South Korea should not forget even a moment that the Rimjin Pavilion”—Mr. Park’s favorite launch site near the Demilitarized Zone separating the two countries—”is within the range of direct sighting strike” of the Korean People’s Army.

North Korean threats are generally discounted as bluster, but driving toward the border has a way of concentrating the mind. The highway from the South carries little traffic in either direction and is separated from the Imjin River by barbed-wire fences, guard towers and civil-defense loudspeakers.

Yet once we arrive at the balloon-launch site, it becomes clear that Mr. Park has a different antagonist to contend with: South Korea, which has deployed a few hundred police to stop his airborne humanitarian mission. The police let him speak to assembled local media, but when Mr. Park tries to retrieve his balloons from a pickup truck, three rows of plainclothes officers block the way. Mr. Park tries to push through, but the police push back. When he tries to drive the truck slowly through the cordon to a different launch site, a large scuffle breaks out.

Shoving matches pit uniformed and plainclothes police against Mr. Park and fellow activists—most of whom, like him, are native North Koreans who defected to the South sometime in the past 15 years. The most recent defectors wear handkerchiefs to cover their faces, because their identification in photos could mean imprisonment or execution for family members left behind. The grim, chaotic scene ends when Mr. Park is shoved into a police car and driven to the Paju Police Station.

He is released later that day, but not without a reinforced sense that something is rotten in one of the world’s most prosperous democracies. “Launching balloons is legal activism that I can do as a free citizen,” he tells me (through an interpreter) when we meet again two days later. But his arrest shows that “the threatening and blackmailing by the North Korean regime work well in the international community.” And especially in Seoul, he argues, where successive South Korean governments have played down the catastrophic human-rights abuses across the border.

To be born in North Korea is generally a life sentence in the world’s cruelest totalitarian state. There is no freedom of speech or worship. North Koreans can’t travel without official permission, and border guards have shoot-to-kill orders for anyone trying to flee. More than 200,000 languish in kwalliso, political prisons akin to Stalin’s gulag, where more than one million have died. Almost no one owns a car, only about 10% of apartments have refrigerators, and some 10% of the population died of starvation in the mid-1990s. The average 7-year-old is 8 inches shorter and 22 pounds lighter than peers in South Korea.

Mr. Park is one of roughly 25,000 North Koreans to escape and get to the South, and his balloon launches aim to break the information monopoly held by the Kim family. In addition to praising the South’s liberal democracy, the leaflets reveal unflattering truths about Pyongyang’s rulers, such as Kim Il Sung’s craving for mistresses during his reign from 1948-94. The digital memory sticks inform North Koreans about the world, including “people power” movements and life inside South Korea as captured by news articles, movies and (especially) soap operas.

The idea, says Mr. Park, is that even in North Korea “the truth can set you free”—but only if you have access to it. “We don’t want the South Korean government or the U.S. government to start a war,” he says. “What we’re waiting for is to change the [Pyongyang] regime by the hands of North Koreans who are educated with the truth. . . . That’s the only way we can give freedom to the 24 million people in North Korea.”

This strategy of pursuing regime change from within was explicitly rejected by South Korean leaders during the “Sunshine Policy” years of 1998-2008. Seoul believed that Kim Il Sung’s successor, his son Kim Jong Il, would lose interest in nuclear weapons and loosen his grip at home if he saw that no outside forces were working to oust his regime. So South Korean presidents feted him at summits, gave him economic benefits, and ignored human rights.

“Sunshine” didn’t stop North Korea’s nuclear drive, and South Korean voters have since rejected it twice at the polls. But five years of conservative leadership in Seoul haven’t made life easier for Mr. Park, who can’t recall whether his latest arrest is number seven or eight.

“South Koreans like saying that we are all in the same family, same ethnic group, we share the culture—but they’re just saying that, not really feeling it or believing it,” he says. “Many South Korean people think that when the Koreas are unified, they will have to take all the economic burden for developing North Korea, which is deprived and underdeveloped, so will have to pay more taxes for that.”

Mr. Park has little sympathy for this dollars-and-cents concern, even as he acknowledges South Korea’s efforts to resettle 25,000 defectors, including him and his family. “The GDP of South Korea is $23,000 per person,” he notes. “After reunification, after the North Korean regime collapses, the North Korean people will come and see this affluence and they’re going to ask you, ‘What did you do when we were suffering back in North Korea?’ What kind of answer should we give to them?”

The problem is visible, says Mr. Park, in how South Korean journalists report on North Korea’s new dictator. “They mention Kim Jong Un even more than North Korean media,” he says, sounding incredulous and adding that reporters in the South speak of Pyongyang as if it were a normal government, not a totalitarian tyranny. “They call Kim Jong Un by his formal names. . . . It’s like calling Hitler by his full rank and title, to pay respect.”

Park Sang Hak was born in 1968 into the elite of North Korean society. His father was a senior official in the Workers’ Party with responsibility for smuggling computer technology into North Korea from Japan and elsewhere. The work earned Mr. Park’s father riches—large amounts of U.S. currency, an Omega watch from “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung, even a Mercedes-Benz—and eventually a promotion into the intelligence directorate responsible for sending spies into South Korea. But he decided to defect in 1999, while stationed in Tokyo, telling his family that with North Koreans starving to death, to aid the Kim regime was a crime against the people.

The younger Mr. Park didn’t want to leave, since at age 31 he was a rising bureaucrat on the make. “I knew that within a few years I was going to be a member of the Party, which is really prestigious. I didn’t even serve in the military—which is allowed only for elites—but I still got the membership.” He owned a car, an imported Toyota. “I blamed my father for abandoning his faith in communism and becoming a capitalist,” he recalls.

But over a two-month period, as he listened to a taped message sent secretly by his father, young Mr. Park began to see things differently. “I felt for the first time that I wasn’t working for people but rather reigning over people,” he says. “I felt like a criminal. I felt guilty for spending a lot of money and having a luxurious life based on the efforts and miserable lives of ordinary citizens.”

On Aug. 9, 1999, he, his mother and two siblings defected across the Yalu River into China, having pleased the border guards with 10 times the usual bribe.

Once in South Korea, Mr. Park didn’t immediately take up the anti-Pyongyang cause, working instead at Seoul National University. His spur to activism came in 2003, when he learned that as a result of his family’s defection, the regime had tortured his uncles to death. His cousins had become street beggars, and to this day he doesn’t know if they are alive. “After I learned of that,” he says, “I had to stand up and do something.”

By 2008, Mr. Park was meeting in New York with President George W. Bush, whom he credits with bringing his work to international attention. No president of South Korea has ever met with Mr. Park.

Still, he has some gripes with the U.S., especially the Bush administration’s 2008 decision to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. But Mr. Park doesn’t fault Americans for thinking of North Korea more as a nuclear threat than a human-rights violator. For that he blames South Korea: “If your house is on fire, and you don’t care much about it and run away, you can’t expect other people to extinguish it for you.”

Mr. Park notes that South Korea’s president visited China this week without publicly pressing Beijing to stop repatriating defectors to North Korea, where they face imprisonment or worse. In Washington, meanwhile, North Korea remains off the terror-sponsor list, and U.S. officials want to resume negotiations with the Kim regime. “They’re going to deceive you again and again and again,” Mr. Park warns.

At least he offers some consolation as our conversation ends: Most of his balloon launches take place in secret—without advance notice or the glare of cameras—so the South Korean authorities let them proceed. Thus 30 to 40 times a year, when wind conditions are favorable and donors provide sufficient funds, Mr. Park launches 200,000 leaflets northward toward the hermit kingdom. Each one is considered a threat by Pyongyang. No regime so fragile can last forever.

Source: Wall Street Journal, 07.05.2013

May 5 '13 - Former Defectors Work for Change in North Korea

by Peter Slavin

(Jo Jin Hye enters a building at Annandale High School in Virginia where she attends night high school for adults.)

For a long time, Jo Jin Hye led two lives. Most people knew her as a home health-care manager living outside Washington D.C., or as a night student at a high school for adults.

But she had also become one of the United States’ leading activists for human rights in North Korea, her native country. She is called night and day by North Koreans half a world away in desperate need of advice, contacts, or money.

“Sometimes,” she says, “I am on the phone from 1:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m., when defectors are attempting an escape.”

These defectors are beginning a journey that Jo Jin Hye, now 25, began at age 10 with her mother Han Song Hwa and younger sister Jo Eun Hye, also called Grace Jo, in 1998 amid a famine in North Korea’s Hamgyeong Province, on the Chinese border.

Their escape followed the loss of half their family. Jo Jin Hye’s grandmother and newborn brother died of starvation, her older sister disappeared after setting out for China in search of food, and her father was tortured by security agents after crossing the border and bringing back a sack of rice. He died while in prison.

The family were labeled “anti-state traitors” for entering China, and police and men from the Bowibu, the National Security Agency, threatened to burn down their house if they did not leave their village.

Her mother fled with Jo Jin Hye for the border, carrying seven-year-old Grace Jo, who was malnourished, in a sack on her back. They walked for three days and nights before holding hands and wading through the waist-high currents of the Tumen River into China.

But Han had no way to bring her five-year-old son and had left him with neighbors, promising to return for him in five days. The person she later hired in China to fetch him reported that the little boy had been put out by their neighbors, who were famished and didn’t have enough to feed another mouth.

The boy had wandered into a nearby field, crying out, “Mommy, sister! When are you coming back?” He, too, succumbed to starvation.

Struggle to survive

Once in China, Han and her daughters struggled to survive and evade deportation back to North Korea. China ignores international law prohibiting the forced repatriation of refugees, presumably fearing that if they accept any North Koreans, this will trigger a flood.

The Jo-Han family spent much of the next 10 years living as fugitives in China.

“We kept getting arrested, separated, and united again,” Jo Jin Hye said. “We … waited for each other in places where we knew we could establish contact.”

They were repeatedly caught, jailed, and sent back to North Korea, where they were sometimes imprisoned and tortured.

“I was slapped until my face was swollen,” said Jo Jin Hye. “They pulled my hair so hard that my head was half-bald.”

Eventually they would be released and, by paying bribes, flee across the river again.

While in China, both sisters were jailed at one point for 15 months for helping other North Korean defectors. Both were also repatriated, usually separately—Grace Jo twice and Jo Jin Hye four times. Their mother was also repatriated four times.

Whenever they were caught by Chinese police, Han and Jo Jin Hye would swallow money wrapped in plastic for later use in North Korea.

Somehow, after these long periods of separation, Han always found her daughters. Jo Jin Hye herself once spent three months tracking down her younger sister.

Whenever they could, they would resume living together in China until one or more of them was arrested again. Grace Jo lived in constant fear that her mother would suddenly disappear.

Help from others

Grace Jo wound up living with several Chinese families who were ethnic Koreans. Once she became a teenager, Jo Jin Hye was on her own for part of the time. She turned for help to the friends of people she got to know in North Korean prisons and labor camps.

Eventually the family was befriended by Pastor Philli Buck, a Christian missionary who was Korean-American. At one point he looked after them for a year.

Both sisters became fluent in Chinese, and Grace Jo got a little schooling. But like her mother, Jo Jin Hye—being older—always had to work. She would earn money in one restaurant until the police came to check papers, and would then run away to find work at another.

From time to time, she would find her mother and Grace Jo and give them some of her wages.

The family survived by their wits until they were aided by the underground railroad that smuggles North Korean refugees from China to welcoming countries.

In 2006, after Han and her daughters had been repatriated once again to North Korea and were in Bowibu custody, they expected to be publicly executed or sent to a camp for political prisoners after admitting they were Christians, knew American missionaries, and had helped other defectors try to reach South Korea.

Pastor Buck quickly raised U.S. $10,000 from American congregations and offered it through brokers to Bowibu agents for the family’s freedom. As a result, the three were charged with misdemeanors rather than serious crimes, and after promising high-level Bowibu officers they would remain in North Korea, they were released.

They had no intention of keeping their promise.

From China to America

Pastor Buck then arranged for brokers to get them out of North Korea and to Beijing, where the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees gave them lodging and protection. Finally, after more than a year, they were granted asylum in the United States.

Two months after they arrived, Jo Jin Hye and other refugees were invited to meet with then President George W. Bush. She then staged a hunger strike in front of the Chinese embassy in Washington to protest Beijing’s forced repatriation of North Korean refugees.

After 16 days, she was hospitalized. Her strike did help draw attention to the issue, but China’s policy did not change.

Like many other refugees, the Jo-Hans had their share of hard times in the United States, including a short spell of homelessness after their landlord, who rented them two rooms in his house, became intolerable. He had imposed a curfew and was unreasonable about their taking showers.

They finally left. The landlord refused to give them back their belongings, and they had to go to the police to recover them.

In addition, like other North Koreans, they were treated as inferior by some Korean-Americans. But today they have two cars, a suburban apartment, and jobs in home health care. Jo Jin Hye and Grace Jo are A-students and have professional ambitions.

Somehow, the traumatic events they suffered in North Korea during the famine and following their deportations have never thrown them off their stride.

A number of Americans and Korean-Americans have also stepped forward to aid and befriend the family. A Korean pastor has been a mentor to them even after they moved and changed churches. A former Clinton administration official gives them legal advice, two Korean interpreters have helped them in public appearances, and several individuals have tutored the sisters in their studies.

Members of their two Korean-American churches have lent a hand in many ways.

‘The right connections’

Both financially and culturally, observers agree, the family has fared unusually well in comparison with the other 150 or so North Koreans living in the United States.

Greg Scarlatoiu, director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, based in Washington, cites their hard work, friendly personalities, and good fortune in having made “the right connections here.”

Their mentor, Pastor Heemoon Lee, also notes that unlike most North Koreans, who come alone, they had the great advantage of having arrived together as a family. Moreover, Lee adds, their deep Christian faith has bolstered them and helped connect them to the Korean-American community.

Living underground in China for so many years no doubt also schooled them in how to deal with adversity.

Jo Jin Hye did something unusual while chasing the American dream—she founded a small nonprofit organization called NKUS to help other North Koreans escape and to support fellow refugees in the United States.

Her mother and sister pitch in, and NKUS now has more than a dozen supporters: Americans, Koreans, and nine other defectors.

“Despite all they experienced, which would make you want to leave it all behind, they instead are so committed to helping their brothers and sisters here in the USA, rescuing refugees out of China, and helping bring about change in North Korea,” said Suzanne Scholte, chair of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, in an e-mailed comment.

Through NKUS, the family has already been instrumental in helping at least six defectors in China reach a third country. NKUS also recently sponsored a church benefit concert in a Washington suburb that drew 300 people and raised $3,000.

The proceeds were intended to smuggle a female defector’s two nephews out of North Korea before they could be sent to prison as a punishment for her defection. The concert featured North Korean pianist Kim Cheol Woong, who defected in 2001.

The Jo-Han family finances NKUS by selling Korean food at church bazaars and festivals and by donating most of the money they receive for public speaking. Jo and her mother speak about oppression in North Korea at churches and universities all over the United States and in South Korea, and have both testified before Congress.

Outspoken and blunt, they are determined that others know what is happening to the people of North Korea. Few others in the United States can speak about that firsthand.

Peter Slavin is a U.S.-based freelance journalist.

Source: Radio Free Asia, 05.05.2013

April 22 '13 - North Korea: Defectors adjust to life abroad

by Stephanie Hegarty, BBC

Life inside North Korea’s closed borders is hard to imagine. One of the only insights into how ordinary people live, beyond the official line of the regime, comes from those who have escaped. Two defectors, Chanyang Joo and Yu-sung Kim, who left North Korea in 2011, tell their story.

“I heard that people sold and ate human flesh,” says Chanyang Joo. “I heard they were killing other family’s babies and selling the flesh after burying the head and fingers.”

Ms Joo says she ignored the rumours until the parents-in-law of a man she knew were publicly executed. They were butchers and the crime, people said, was selling human meat.

Rumours like this have surfaced in the testimony of several defectors coming from North Korea. Whether they are true or not – and we may never know – the fact that they circulate and are believed illustrates the level of hunger, deprivation and fear in parts of the country that marked the Great Famine.

Fellow defector Yu-sung Kim heard these rumours too and believes there may be some truth in them. “When I was in university that had happened,” he says. “It’s due to hallucination caused by severe hunger, people don’t even realise the act as murder and eat the flesh. But that is very, very rare.”

The rumours started during the Great Famine, from 1994 to 1998, when grain shortages in China meant food aid was drastically reduced. Sober estimates say that 600,000 to one million people died during the famine – about three to five per cent of the population of the country.

“It was the most destructive famine of the 20th century,” says Marcus Nolan, author of Famine in North Korea. “The idea that people are sufficiently desperate and unhinged is not surprising.”

Chanyang Joo was just a toddler when her family moved from a city to the rural village where she grew up. It was during the famine, when markets closed and transportation failed. Many in the cities died of starvation, she says, but in the countryside her family survived on vegetables and shrubs.

After the famine they were still very deprived. “We couldn’t get any medicine,” she says. “Very rarely some medicine was brought from China. Doctors sometimes performed surgery without anaesthesia. I saw some emergency patients dying.”

But some North Koreans like Yu-sung Kim and his family were entirely unaffected by the famine. His parents earned money by trading illegally with China and South Korea and arranging for separated families to reunite across the Korean border. He grew up in a government-owned high rise apartment, watching movies and playing video games that were smuggled across the border from the South.

As children, both Kim and Joo learned to worship the regime and its founder Kim il Sung. “The first sentence we learn as a child is ‘Great father Kim Il Sung, thank you.’ and ‘Dear leader Kim Jong Il, thank you,'” says Joo.

“We have to thank the leaders for everything. Every school, every classroom, even the train cars have the pictures of leader Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on display.”

From preschool to university this is the most important subject for a young North Korean. “You can fail everything as long as you know about the history of the Kim family,” says Joo.

But she had happy memories too. “Until North Korea’s brainwashing education takes effect, children are children,” she says. “When I was little and unaffected by politics, I had the most fun playing with my friends.”

Though his childhood was privileged and the illegal trading of his parents was overlooked by the regime, Yu-sung Kim and his family knew they had to toe the line when it came to certain rules.

They couldn’t watch any news from outside Korea and any criticism of the regime was forbidden. He could discuss politics with his family but not with anyone else. “There is always a government spy in a group of people more than three,” he says. “You could end up in a political prison camp.”

Joo’s family had first-hand experience of these camps. Her grandfather spent nine years in one. He had criticised the regime while with a group of friends but there was a spy in the group and he was arrested. “It was a simple slip of the tongue,” she says.

He told his grand-daughter of horrifying conditions at the prison camp, of people eating rats and digging grain from animal faeces to survive. He said prisoners were attacked by dogs as punishment and dead bodies were left to rot where they fell.

Her grandfather’s experience had a profound effect on the entire family, though not in the way the regime intended. At the camp he interacted with prisoners from the elite classes and learnt of the inequality in North Korea and of life outside the country.

“My grandfather had always told us we had to leave for freedom,” says Joo. “He said ‘Dream big’ and that if we wanted to live in the real world, we had to leave.”

“Since I was little, I strongly felt the need to leave. I’ve never touched a computer but I was really curious about them. I loved studying and was good at it so I wanted to learn as much as I wanted in a free country.”

For seven years, her family plotted to leave North Korea. They listened to radio broadcasts from the South. When this came to the attention of the authorities in 2008 it was time to go. Her father left first through China and Laos to the South Korean embassy in Bangkok. He saved to pay brokers to help the rest of the family escape.

Ms Joo was the last to defect and when authorities found out that her father was missing, she was put under investigation. She told them he had died in a fishing accident. “That is common in North Korea,” she says.

She practised swimming and trained physically for her escape. Three years later she crossed the border to China where she was arrested. China doesn’t recognise North Korean refugees and its official policy is to send them back. But defecting is a very serious crime and repatriation means imprisonment, torture or even death. A religious group, which she cannot name, helped release her from jail.

For Yu-sung Kim and his family, the decision to leave North Korea came suddenly. His father’s business came to light in a South Korean newspaper in 2011, fearing the government reaction they fled. They left behind his younger sister who was ill. He later found out that she was told her family had been captured and killed while attempting to escape. She later died in North Korea.

(North Korean defectors protest about China’s policy of repatriating defectors)

Though he appreciates his freedom Mr Kim says life in Seoul is difficult. He faces prejudice from South Korean society which often considers North Koreans, with their archaic dialect and strange accent, as ignorant and backward.

“In my university when I tell people where I’m from they see me as strange, like an alien from the Moon,” he says.

There are more than 24,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea. When they arrive many lack the basic skills to live and work in a modern society – operating a cash machine, driving a car, using a phone or a computer.

They find it hard to get work and some resort to petty crime which has given the community a bad name. “I sometimes think living in South Korea is fortune and misfortune at the same time,” Mr Kim says.

Chanyang Joo refuses to let prejudice bother her. But she says freedom has its own problems.

“There are too many things to do here and I have to plan my own life and it’s stressful,” she says.

“But when I think about the difficulty of living in a free society, I realise I’m working and getting tired for myself and for my future so I feel happy.”

Source: BBC, 04.22.2013

Interview with Chanyang Joo and Yu-sung Kim:

Feb 28 '13 - What items must North Korean defectors take on their journey?

When North Koreans decide to flee to South Korea, they resolve to make two decisions: one is to reach South Korea alive; another is to commit suicide if caught by the authorities.

North Korean defectors know what torture and punishment await them in the case they are repatriated back to North Korea after leaving the country, because the North Korean state declares that leaving the country is a criminal offense. In this context, suicide is not only an escape from punishment; it can also serve as a political statement. North Korean exile Kim Seok-young told us, “Suicide is considered a subversive crime against the North Korean state, so I planned to commit suicide if I was caught. I wanted my last act to serve as a protest against the state.”

North Korean defectors pack pills that help them succeed on their journey, as well as pills to commit suicide if caught. The suicide pill often takes the form of rat-poison, especially for those who can’t fathom taking their lives with a razor blade. The survival pill is the sleeping pill, especially for those who make the journey with babies or young children. Sleeping pills are considered a prerequisite for the journey out of North Korea and through China – travel brokers who assist defectors even have them ready for parents who have forgotten to pack them.

As North Korean defectors journey through China, travel at night is often necessary. It is dangerous for babies and young children to make a noise, as it might jeopardize the whole party. Travel brokers too are at risk of harsh punishment if they are caught aiding North Koreans who are fleeing from North Korea; and so the sleeping pill is considered a must-feed item for young children, despite the obvious dangers.

Shin Kyong-won, 35 years old, only realized how risky it was to give sleeping pills to babies after reaching South Korea. She told us, “If I had known that it could have had fatal consequences for my baby, I would not have attempted to flee from North Korea. I only made the journey because I did not know better.”

There is an old Korean saying that “the cry of a child is life for a family”. Yet for North Korean defectors traveling through China, the cry of a child is death for the family.

Source: New Focus International, 02.28.2013

Jan 2 '13 - North Korean Defector Arrivals Plunge in South in 2012

by Kwanwoo Jun

Associated Press: Chinese police work on a fence along the border with North Korea near Tumen in Jilin province, in a photo taken on Dec. 8, 2012.
(Chinese police work on a fence along the border with North Korea near Tumen in Jilin province, in a photo taken on Dec. 8, 2012.)

The number of North Koreans defecting to South Korea after fleeing their impoverished and oppressive homeland fell sharply in 2012, apparently due to tightened border control.

The Ministry of Unification said 1,508 North Korean defectors arrived in South Korea last year, a preliminary figure that may be revised by next month when final count is reached.

The number is about half the 2,706 North Koreans who arrived in South Korea in 2011. It’s also the first drop below the 2,000-level since 2006.

The annual number peaked at 2,929 in 2009.

Few in Seoul see the latest data as a sign of North Korea turning into a better place to live in under Kim Jong Eun, the new leader who took power after his father Kim Jong Il died in late December 2011.

“That falling number doesn’t mean that economic conditions are getting better in North Korea,” said Kim Yong-hyun, professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University. “A number of people, who could no longer bear the hardship up in the North, have already fled the country, and those who have stayed behind are probably immune to the difficulties or able to find a way to survive the ordeal.”

More than 24,000 North Koreans have taken shelter in South Korea since an inter-Korean war ended in 1953, according to the unification ministry.

“The number of North Korean defectors arriving here fell sharply last year largely because of Pyongyang’s tighter border control,” a South Korean government official said, asking not to be identified. “The number will not likely bounce back anytime soon.”

China has also beefed up security along the Sino-Korean border and increasingly cracked down on illegal North Korean immigrants, said Yang Moo-Jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

“China’s tougher border-control and crackdowns on illegal North Korean immigrants may have stranded a number of potential North Korean candidates wishing to make it to South Korea, and forced them to hole up somewhere in China for a while,” Mr. Yang said.

For the North’s internal propaganda, the lower number of defectors arriving in South Korea is likely to please the young Mr. Kim’s regime.

“Maybe it is beginner’s luck,” Mr. Yang said.

Source: Wall Street Journal, 01.02.2013

Dec 8 '12 - Half of North Korean Defectors Are Victims of ‘Multilevel Sales or Voice Phishing’


North Korean defectors face difficulties adapting to their new lives in South Korea.

Reportedly, about half of them have been victims of multilevel sales or voice phishing.

I am Reporter Junhee Chung


(North Koreans Counseling Office of the National Medical Center)

Most people who visit here have lost their settlement funds after falling prey to multilevel sales or voice phishing activities.

INTERVIEW: A North Korean defector: “We don’t know much about the South Korean society when we first get out of Hanawon (resettlement training center for North Korean defectors in South Korea). You know how well-spoken South Koreans are. I was tricked by multilevel sales…”

According to a survey by the South Korean Consumers Center on 310 North Korean defectors, close to half of them, that is 147 or 47% of them, have been victims of multilevel sales or voice phishing.

Over 1/3 of these cases were brought upon by other North Korean defectors.

INTERVIEW: A North Koreans Counseling Office clerk: “We came over here together, and we of all people understand each other’s circumstances, so we doubt they would cheat us, and we trust them.”

Nevertheless, 36% of these victims do not pursue legal procedures for compensation, which is twice the rate for an average consumer in South Korea. This shows their passive attitude in asserting their consumer rights.

INTERVIEW: Yongsuk Park, a Responsibility Researcher from the South Korean Consumers Center: “They are not used to the concept of consumer rights, and they fear the disclosure of their identity as a North Korean Defector; they also do not want to be seen as incompetent people.”

The South Korean Consumers Center plans to propose to the government countermeasures that would prevent North Korean defectors from being victimized—for example, by expanding practical consumer education.

I am Junhee Chung from MBC News.

Source: MBC News, 12.03.2010

Translated by ENoK

Dec 8 '12 - North Korean Defectors Number above 20,000… Their Newly-Found Happiness



Today, we report on the brighter side of the North Korean defectors’ life.

We will hear from North Korean defectors who have successfully overcome many challenges and resettled in South Korea.

I am Reporter Hyogul Yang.


Fresh-made Pyongyang dumplings are steaming hot.

Some twenty North Korean defectors, working at a 120 square yard dumpling house, have no time for rest before piling orders.

This dumpling house markets its authentic “Northern” taste to attract the South Korean customers.

INTERVIEW: Haesoon Choi/defected in 2008: “I feel like really living now that I am working here.”

Changshin Kim, who defected ten years ago and started as a poong-uh-bbang (waffle stuffed with sweet red beans) vendor, is now the president of a recycled products business company.

According to Kim, the key to his success, in the face of cycles of failure and bouncing back in the last 10 years, was his determination to gradually work his way up from the bottom of the market economy.

INTERVIEW: Changshin Kim/defected in 2000: “It’s been 10 years. During that time, I gained the confidence that I can do everything. I don’t experience as much difficulty in finding jobs that fit my skills.”

Of course, the North Korean defectors’ assimilation isn’t just easy.

Both those with their own expertise and those with no education have difficulties in finding jobs.

Experts emphasize the need for policies that create a network supporting North Korean Defector support organizations.

INTERVIEW: Younghee Kim (a North Korean defector and a researcher in a government agency): “They need the support and advice of those who came before them, but that’s not working so well. So we need help from the government, organizations, and the society itself.”

With 20,000 North Korean defectors, South Korea needs a systematic framework that can aid and encourage the efforts of those who are struggling in their new lives.

I am Hyogul Yang from MBC News

Source: MBC News, 11.18.2010

Translated by ENoK

Oct 24 '12 - Study: female N. Korean defectors suffer depression, sexual abuse

By Lee You-jin

Three out of every ten female North Korean defectors who arrived via a third country suffer from some form of depression, a study shows. The results also showed that the women suffered sexual abuse during their journey to South Korea.

The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family announced the findings of a study commissioned from the Yonsei University School of Social Welfare on Oct. 23. The study, which focused on the development of customized programs to assist abused female defectors in gaining self-sufficiency, examined 140 women between March and August of this year.

37 respondents, or 26.4%, were found to be suffering from depression, while another 80 (57.6%), showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sixty-four (45.7%) said they had considered suicide, engaged in suicidal behavior, or attempted suicide in the past year.

Ninety-eight (70%) were found to be suffering from chronic ailments such as stomach disorders, arthritis, and neuralgia.

Analysts attributed the physical and psychological symptoms to the women’s experience with sexual abuse and/or severe trauma. In particular, thirty-eight women were found to have been subjected to sexual abuse with direct physical contact while in North Korea, South Korea, or a third country, accounting for 27.1% of all participants. Defectors were found to have been threatened into sexual acts by the owner of a refuge in China, subjected to severe sexual harassment during a physical search after being sent back to North Korea, coerced into sexual acts by South Korean detectives, and abused by male acquaintances.

Forty-two of the women, or 30%, were found to have been encouraged to prostitute themselves in South Korea.

Over half the women were found to be receiving basic livelihood subsidies because of poverty – seventy-one (50.7%) of all participants. Thirty-eight (27.1%) of them had not found employment as of the time of the study. Another 58 (41.4%) were employed in temporary or day labor, with just twelve (8.6%) holding full-time jobs.

The responses also pointed to problems with occupational training during settlement in South Korea. Forty-one of the respondents who received it (29.3%) said it did not help them in settling down in South Korea.

Source: The Hankyoreh, 10.24.2012

Sept 26 '12 - North Korean refugees who choose a “world” other than South Korea – where are they and what are they doing?

The defectors aren’t only in South Korea. They live scattered all over the world – in China, of course, and also Southeast Asia, Europe, the US, and other places. It’s similar to the large-scale emigration of South Koreans that began in the early 20th century. This is why the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University refer to these scattered North Korean refugees as the “North Korean Diaspora.”

The situation report on defectors living abroad, recently published by the Institute, was also titled the “North Korean Diaspora.” Written by professors Park Myung Kyu and Kim Byung Ro, a total of five experts on North Korea contributed.

North Korean defectors scattered throughout the world… 581 in the UK, 146 in Germany, tens of thousands in China, Russia ~in total, hundreds of thousands.

The Ministry of Unification reports that by the end of December of 2011, 23,100 defectors had entered South Korea. Most of them are residing in South Korea. If so, how many are the defectors who live overseas?

While exact numbers are unknown, most estimates are over two thousand. According to a repot published last year by UNHCR, the annual total of North Korean defectors accorded international refugee status between 2001 and 2010 are as follows (in parentheses are the number of defectors accorded refugee status): 2001 (19), 2002 (259), 2003 (304), 2004 (343), 2005 (288), 2006 (398), 2007 (605), 2008 (886), 2009 (881), 2010 (917).

Of these defectors who were accorded refugee status, the largest population live in the UK. It was reported that 581 North Korean defectors lived there, as of 2010. The country with the second largest population of defectors is Germany. At the end of 2010, 146 of them were living there. Compared to the defector population of 276 in 2004, however, this number represents a reduction by nearly half. Regarding this, the report said, “In Germany, it is possible to apply for permanent residency five years after obtaining refugee status. For this reason, relatively many defectors move from refugee to permanent resident status.” The UK, on the other hand, requires that residents live there for at least 10 years before they apply for permanent residency.

In addition, at the end of 2010, the number of North Korean defectors in each country were as follows (in parentheses are the numbers of defectors): the Netherlands (32), Australia (25), the United States (25), Canada (23), Belgium (22), Norway (14), Russia (14), Denmark (9), Sweden (8), Ireland (6), Switzerland (4), Kyrgyzstan (3), Israel (2), Mexico (1), New Zealand (1), Yemen (1).

The country with the largest number of North Korean defectors is China. Different sources give different estimates, but we can expect a population around 20,000 – 100,000. In China, the number of defectors rose to as many as 30,000 in 1990, at the height of the North Korean famine. Since 1999, however, the numbers have been continually decreasing. These defectors in China have had significant influence on the change in thinking of North Koreans, the report suggests. It says, “At first (in the mid-1990s), many North Koreans defected because of economic hardship and starvation. Now, there are more who defect on account of information they’ve received about the outside world. They may defect, for example, after comparing conditions in North Korea to conditions outside, to find relatives who have defected, or to earn money in China.”

Other than these, there are also North Korean residents overseas who are categorized as “potential defectors.” There are more than 100 of these North Koreans in Japan, more than 700 in Mongolia, several hundred in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, and 30,000-40,000 in Russia’s Primorsky Krai. Thus, if internal politics are not sufficient to drive sudden changes in North Korean society, these tens of thousands of overseas North Koreans may end up sparking them, instead.

Now, what kind of lives do they lead? Ever since the United States passed the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, the numbers of defectors immigrating to America have been increasing every year. In March of 2011, the number of defectors entering the US was 119. Since these people entered with or without refugee status, the numbers differ from those reported by UNHCR. Starting with Joseph Shin, who entered the US with six other defectors in May of 2006, the numbers of those who acquire permanent residency have also been steadily increasing.

In Los Angeles, which has the largest population of Koreans, there were, as of September of 2008, more than 60 defectors. Defectors who obtain refugee status and reside in LA receive housing for $250, and for the first six months receive social security and health benefits of $500-600. They earn $1800-2000 monthly on average, women typically working at restaurants and men typically in maintenance. It is reported that there are also many defectors who earn $20,000-40,000 tri-monthly from construction work.

Mr. Shin, however, after struggling to adapt, committed suicide. Among the young people, many drop out of college and struggle to find long-term employment. For many, the American dream is only a rose-colored fantasy.

In Canada, instances of defectors receiving refugee status have been steadily increasing since 2008, as well. In 2009 and 2010, 66 and 42 defectors were granted refugee status, respectively. Canada grants the right to apply for refugee status to any defector who can show that he/she is a North Korean. The Canadian government has a strong interest in North Korean defectors. Defectors who apply for refugee status receive $1000 per household. They are also given the right to become citizens three years after they are recognized as refugees.

In the UK, many apply for refugee status but in reality, the incidence of obtaining refugee status has noticeably declined. This is because they have strict policies on “disguised exiles” that enter from South Korea. There are many cases where Korean Chinese, rather than North Korean defectors, have applied for refugee status. According to the report, in the summer of 2007, of those who applied for refugee status in greater numbers than North Korean defectors, 90% were Korean Chinese. Besides language issues, defectors in the UK suffer from problems in housing. This is because temporary shelters are generally located in areas with high crime rates.

As shown statistically, North Korean defectors do not rest their hopes only on South Korea. In their hearts, they also dream of America, Canada, Europe, and other advanced places. This is so because highly developed countries generally have greater interest in North Korea’s human rights issues and offer more organized assistance. It is clear, therefore, that in the future, North Korean defectors will continue to proceed not only to South Korea but also to these countries.

Accordingly, within the Korean diaspora of over 700,000 people, the role of the North Korean diaspora can only get larger in the process of re-unification of North and South, and the aftermath. Let us view these defectors scattered worldwide, not only as people to be aided and protected but also as the future of unified Korea, and from then on, the Koreans of the world.

The report emphasizes this point. “When North Korean defectors develop their own diaspora, they can pursue consolidated networks through 21st century means through collaboration with the existing Korean community. Those with intentions to form a complex political community based not on nation-states but on diverse categories and regions must prioritize such diaspora-like conditions.”

Source: NKinUSA, 09.26.2012

Translated by ENoK

July 12 '12 - Young North Korean Defectors Struggle in the South

by Martin Fackler

(Kim Seong-cheol, who fled North Korea, studying at his home near Seoul, in the South. Haunted by his past, he had initially dropped out of college.)

SEOUL, South Korea — Kim Seong-cheol is a survivor. He left his home in North Korea at the age of 8 for a Dickensian existence, begging on the streets with a pack of boys when famine struck and his parents could not feed him. By his account, he endured several stays in brutal North Korean and Chinese prisons for attempting to cross the border into China.

But when he finally made it to South Korea, and freedom, Mr. Kim faced an obstacle that even his considerable street smarts could not help him overcome. He had placed into a university under a new affirmative action program, but was haunted by the deprivations of his past and quickly slipped behind South Korean classmates who had already made it through years of an extremely competitive education system.

“I just couldn’t shake the memory of hunger from my mind,” said Mr. Kim, 26, who dropped out after just one semester and fell into a deep, alcohol-fueled depression.

Mr. Kim is part of a growing number of defectors who are making their way south — the number has increased sevenfold to 23,000 in the last decade — and posing a growing challenge for South Korea. Attempts at integration, including government-run crash courses on life in the capitalist South, have had mixed results, leaving many North Koreans unable to adapt to South Korea’s high-pressure society or overcome their stereotype as backward country cousins.

The government had hoped that education might close the chasm, offering piecemeal steps over the last decade that evolved into a full-fledged affirmative action program, which gives young North Koreans the chance to bypass grueling entrance exams to enter top universities. Now, even that stopgap measure appears to be failing as large numbers of North Koreans are dropping out, creating new worries that they and other defectors could become part of a permanent underclass.

“These children are simply not equipped for South Korea’s fiercely competitive society,” said Shin Hyo-sook, a specialist in education at the North Korean Refugees Foundation, a newly created government research institute. “They suffer identity issues due to their extreme experiences.”

The difficulties have come despite the fact that the government and universities have tried to give them an additional leg up, offering the approximately 500 defectors enrolled in South Korean universities free tuition, government-paid housing and living stipends. And the problems are likely to get more pronounced as defectors increasingly include whole families and children who left without their parents.

Officials say the difficulties tend to appear at university because it is the first time that the defectors, who are sent to special remedial elementary and high schools after arriving, find themselves in the same classroom with South Korean students.

Many South Koreans had assumed that a shared language and culture would help defectors ease past the educational gaps, but the defectors say the extra help is not enough to catch up with South Korean classmates who spent the evenings and weekends of their childhood at cram schools preparing for entrance exams. Most of the North Koreans, often from that nation’s lower social rungs, have at most a few years of elementary school education more focused on political indoctrination than reading and math, defectors say.

An even bigger challenge, educators say, are the defectors’ emotional problems. While South Korean officials say they have not concluded whether these children suffer cognitive deficiencies from malnutrition, they say the North Koreans often suffer depression, anger and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

What is clear is the result: education experts say that at many universities, half or more of North Korean defectors are dropping out, though the problem is so new that complete statistics do not exist. (The dropout rate among South Koreans is just 4.5 percent.)

One North Korean who barely avoided that fate is Kim Kyeong-il, whose family reached the South in its second attempt to defect seven years ago. After the first attempt, when he was 9, he says, he was thrown into a North Korean prison where he barely survived the beatings and starvation that claimed the life of his father. After arriving in the South at 17 and going to a special remedial school, he got a chance to enter Korea University, one of the country’s most prestigious schools. But he found himself way behind in English, which he was not taught in virulently anti-Western North Korea. He was even behind in Korean, having reached only the fourth grade in the North. In lectures, he did not understand the professors’ jokes about South Korean pop culture, but laughed anyway to avoid sticking out.

“I felt like someone from the 1970s who was put on a time machine and dropped in the 21st century,” said Mr. Kim, 24, a senior majoring in Chinese language. He said many of his classmates shun him for his northern accent, and for his small stature likely caused by inadequate nutrition.

He avoided dropping out by transferring to Seoul’s Yonsei University, another high-level university but one that has been cited as a model for the support it offers defectors.

The university offers its approximately 50 North Korean students free tutoring and psychological counseling, according to Jeong Chong-hun, a professor who advises the North Koreans there. “They risked their lives to seek freedom here, so it’s our obligation to help,” he said.

Still, he said some students grow so isolated or bitter that they skip classes, and even there, a third of the defectors do not finish school. One North Korean student at Yonsei committed suicide.

Kim Seong-cheol, the former street beggar, said his own feelings of intense isolation contributed to his leaving school. His relatively coddled classmates, he said, could not possibly understand the traumas that he had suffered — the wrenching decision to leave his parents to survive or the pain of being shocked with electric prods in prison camps. And they were unburdened by the nightmares that jolted him awake at nights, leaving him too exhausted to study. In the worst dream, he relived the death of his best friend, over and over. The boy died in front of him, choking on a stolen ball of rice as an angry merchant kicked him.

But after a year of heavy drinking and never leaving his government-paid apartment during the day, Mr. Kim decided it was not in his nature to give up.

He enrolled at a new school, Konkuk University in Seoul, and changed his major from computer science to real estate, in part because it seemed easier.

“I must succeed this time,” said Mr. Kim, now a junior. “But whatever I do here, I still always ask myself, ‘What am I? Where do I belong?’ ”

Source: The New York Times, 07.12.2012

May 15 '12 - North Korean Human Rights Act – 2012 Reauthorization

On May 15, 2012, the House of Representatives approved the reauthorization of the North Korean Human Rights Act (NKHRA) until 2017. The NKHRA, which became law in October 2004, was previously reauthorized in 2008. The legislation addresses U.S. policy on issues including radio broadcasting into North Korea, humanitarian assistance to North Koreans within and outside of the DPRK, and North Korean eligibility for refugee status in the United States. NKHRA also established the position of Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights in 2004, and the 2008 reauthorization further outlined the scope of this position.

In addition to maintaining the Special Envoy position and other provisions, the reauthorizing legislation contains two notable changes. First, the new legislation adds a “Sense of Congress” clause calling for the U.S. to seek further cooperation with foreign governments to allow the United States to process North Korean refugees, and to urge China to halt the forcible repatriation of North Koreans and fulfill its obligations on refugees under international law.

Additionally, the Act’s annual authorized expenditure on assistance and protection to North Koreans outside of North Korea has been reduced from $20 million to $5 million annually. However, this will not result in any reduction in actual spending, as the State Department already has access to Migration and Refugee Assistance (MRA) funds to pay for such assistance, and its spending of funds specifically allocated through the NKHRA has been minimal. The reduced allocation therefore reflects a change in how the Congressional Budget Office will score the bill, but not in actual spending.

The Senate passed the Act without amendment by a voice vote on August 2, 2012. The legislation re-authorizing the act is reproduced in full below:

Click on the link for the full text.

Source: National Committee on North Korea, 05.15.2012

May 24 '12 - Female student who escaped from North Korea four times achieves dream of studying in the US

by Lee Yong Su

“I wish with all my heart that you will survive the North Korean system, no matter what.”

Park Hye Jin (fictitious name, female, 23 years old), escaped North Korea four times, was deported back three times, and reached South Korea in 2006. In a May 22th interview with Chosun Ilbo, she addressed the North Korean people this way. “International interest in North Korea’s human rights crisis is increasing, so please endure it a little longer,” she said.

After following her mother out of North Korea in 1998, Miss Park was forcibly sent back in 2000, 2002, and 2003. “At first I left because I was hungry, but after going to China a few times, I found myself thinking that there was something wrong with this country (North Korea). Even though there was only the Tumen River between them, the two countries were too different,” she said. “North Korea is lacking not only in rice and electricity; it lacks basic freedoms natural to a human being. That’s why I couldn’t stop leaving.”

^A promotional meeting of the ‘Forget-me-not association,’ held at the First Church of Chungdong on May 22nd. From left to right: Assemblywoman Park Sun Young of the Liberty Forward Party, who led the gathering; Honorary Secretary Kim Gil Ja of Kyung-In Women’s College; Lee Woo Yeol, representative of the Next-Generation Committee for the NKPs (North Korean persons); Park Hye Jin (fictitious name, right), North Korean defector and college student, receiving her certificate as the ‘First Forget-me-not Language Trainee.’

Miss Park has ahead of her eight months of language training in the United States. She was chosen as the first language trainee of the Forget-me-not association, which was launched to provide support for North Korean defectors, at its promotional meeting on May 22nd.

“Adjusting to life in South Korea, English is what we defectors struggle with most,” she said. “Through this opportunity, I want to learn English and also study American government and society.”

Miss Park’s goal, after returning from language training, is to enter a graduate program in education. “In North Korea, all education consists of brainwashing. We must tell defectors and, when the country is unified, to people in North Korea, ‘What you were taught up to now is wrong.’ To this end, I think it’s necessary that people like me become involved in education.”

After coming to South Korea, she enrolled as a first year in high school, at age 17. After obtaining her GED, she is currently a fourth year at Yonsei University, majoring in Political Science. She says that in adjusting to life in South Korea, the biggest difficulty was language.

She had expected the struggle with English, but our language posed an even bigger problem. Having spent nine years of her youth in China, her Chinese was fluent, but she had forgotten almost all Korean. Another challenge was getting over South Koreans’ habit of mixing Korean words with foreign vocabulary.

She said, “At Hanawon (a Ministry of Unification resettlement center), I did a lot of training, by repeating lines from South Korean dramas with chopsticks in my mouth. Afterwards, I had to practice on my own for several years before I could speak fluently.”

Regarding the recent controversy with the pro-DPRK movement, she said, “I don’t know whether they really love the North Korean system, or if they’re supporting it just because they can’t say ‘no’ to their old ideology.” Stating that “If they’re human, they could not think of a country with a starving populace as ideal,” she said, “If they really think that, they should go live in North Korea.”

Meanwhile, in the evening of the same day at the First Church of Chungdong, the Forget-me-not association, centered around Assemblywoman Park Sun Young of the Liberty Forward Party, held its promotional meeting.

This association, which was formed to maintain the strength behind the anti-forced repatriation movement that began last February, plans to promote various kinds of policy research and support activities to raise the quality of life for North Korean defectors and POWs, etc.

Kim Suk Woo (former undersecretary at the Ministry of Unification), an adviser for the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR), who helped establish Forget-me-not, said, “the protest against forced repatriation that continued in front of the Chinese embassy for close to 100 days moved public sentiment on not only the national level but also the international level, and gave awareness to the seriousness of the human rights issues regarding defectors.” He explained further, “there is a significance to establishing Forget-me-not, which aims to amass this energy and convert it to an independent movement.”

Promoting Forget-me-not were a total of 126 people from various fields, including Kim Tae Yong the former Secretary of Defense Kim Tae Yong, Kwon Young Hae the former director of ANSP (Agency for National Security Planning), and Kim Tae Woo the director of KINU (Korea Institute for National Unification).

Source: Chosun Ilbo, 05.24.2012

Translated by ENoK

Feb 25 '12 - The Tumen Detention Camp of Hell

The Station Before Being Sent Back to North Korea…Testimony of Two North Korean Defectors

The Detention Camp in Tumen City, Jilin Province. If you cross the neighboring Tumen River, you are in North Korea. This border management office in the northeast area of China is the last gateway you pass through to reach North Korea. Recently, there were nine North Korean defectors sent to this detention camp from Yanji, China, and then sent back to North Korea.

Choi Joo-hyuk (an alias, 25 years old), a defector from North Korea, who arrived in South Korea in 2010, spent three months at the Tumen Detention Camp in 2002. Choi, a native of North Hamgyong Province, told us how he escaped from North Korea, was captured, sent back to North Korea, put into forced labor, and was finally able to re-escape. When Choi was fourteen, he lost his parents and his younger brother due to famine. Choi heard that his mother’s relative was in Yanbian, China, so he crossed the border into China but was caught by Chinese public security and sent to Tumen Dentention Camp.

At the Tumen Detention Camp, he was placed with 17 other North Koreans who had attempted to flee North Korea. Ranging from an old man to a young girl, the 17 others were caught on their way to Vietnam, and after torture, they admitted to being headed in the direction of South Korea. These people cried every night because they knew they would die after crossing the border back into North Korea.

After that, Choi tried to escape again, but after getting caught again, he spent three years in a detention camp. During this time, he witnessed someone drown in a pool of feces while shoveling the feces from being so fatigued from starvation. He stated, “the most horrific punishment was being tied to a post to be shot 7-8 times from the head down as a form of public execution.” However, he added that “it’s still better than living in North Korea, which is why people still try to escape.”

Ryu Sun-ja (an alias, 47 year old female) was able to reach South Korea in 2005 after three attempts; however, in 2002, she was also detained at the Tumen Detention Camp for about a month. During this time, she suffered from great fear of being sent back to North Korea. Also, the security officers of the camp treated the defectors like prisoners, even forcing the men to shave their heads. When the Chinese public security set the day of repatriation, three officials from North Korea’s Defense Department crossed the Tumen River, and the detained defectors were handed over to the three officials.

Ryu explained that the Chinese government waited until they captured at least 100 North Korean defectors from Yanji to repatriate the defectors. If the repatriation happened quickly, it was a sign that there were many captured defectors. She stated that if the recent defectors were returned to North Korea, their punishment would become a warning to others wanting to flee North Korea. Because she is sure that a public execution would take place, she believes the repatriation should be stopped.

The violation of North Korean defectors’ human rights in other Chinese prisons is as serious as the repatriation of North Koreans at the Tumen Detention Camp. Ryu shed tears at the memories of being tortured at the Yanji prison before being transferred to the Tumen Detention Camp. She said that after being tortured to near death, the defectors are forced to sign a paper that is no different from sentencing themselves to death; the paper is an admittance that they tried to escape to South Korea. Using that document as proof, the Chinese security personnel classify them as “illegal aliens” and send them back to North Korea.

Usually the Chinese public security personnel that questions the defectors at the prison in Yanji is someone of Korean descent. These people speak Korean to the defectors, but they hit the defectors with wooden sticks for no reason at all. If they resisted, the prison personnel hit them in the knee with an electric club. Ryu said that even the sturdy men would fall on their face from being hit. Ryu claimed that she endured all the pain by thinking, “I must survive for the two children I left behind in North Korea.”

Meanwhile, Choi Sung-yong, the president of Families of Abductees by North Korea, stated that on the 20th of last month, there were 56 defectors transferred from various places, now waiting in the Tumen Detention Camp to be sent back and that the expected date of repatriation is the 28th or 29th of this month.

Source: JoongAng Ilbo, 02.25.2012

Translated by ENoK

Dec 19 '11 - North Korean Spy-Turned-Sausage Maker Reacts to Kim Jong-Il’s Death

“I’m so happy,” says Ma Young-Ae, the North Korean defector-turned-restaurateur profiled in our March 4 cover story, upon hearing news of Kim Jong-Il’s death.

The former counternarcotics officer in the North Korean intelligence services fled her homeland 11 years ago, a journey that took her through China and South Korea before she ended up running a sausage restaurant in northern Virginia.

The restaurant, Pyongyang Soondae (Pyongyang Sausage) has since closed. Ma had a dispute with the landlord over rent and, she implies, politics. The landlord broke the lease with Ma, and now rents out the two-story building on Little River Turnpike in Alexandria to another Korean restaurant. Ma continues to make her sausages and sells them wholesale to Korean supermarkets in Virginia, Maryland, New York and New Jersey through the Assi grocery chain. In the meantime, Ma devotes herself to her political activism, denouncing the regime through speeches and musical performances, mostly at local Korean churches.

Ma says her phone has been ringing off the hook since news of Kim’s death broke late last night. (State-run news agency KCNA reported it was due to a heart attack, but the Dear Leader was also suffering from diabetes and pancreatic cancer and was recovering from a stroke, so who knows.) She’s been fielding calls from both Korean media and other North Korean defectors, who have been calling each other back and forth across the U.S. and South Korea. One fellow defector stayed up all night drinking in celebration.

“I always wished for Kim Jong-Il’s death” whenever protesting at North Korea’s UN diplomatic mission in New York, says Ma, “and now it actually happened.” As for what the succession of Kim’s son, Kim Jong-Un, to the country’s dynastic throne means for defectors and their chances of reuniting with family members back home, Ma says “it’s too soon to tell.”

Anyone hoping to celebrate the end of the Dear Leader’s reign with authentic North Korean sausages can find them at Lotte Plaza in Fairfax (3250 Old Lee Highway). Ma’s sausages are also on the menu—both the regular and the spicy fried variety—at Arirang restaurant, which has two locations in Maryland: Rockville (1326 East Gude Dr.) and Germantown (13541 Clopper Rd.).

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Source: Washington City Paper, 12.19.2011

Mar 4 '11 - Hermit Kitchen: How Did a North Korean Restaurant Wind Up in Northern Virginia?

The first thing you notice on the menu is what isn’t there: beef. It’s the essential feature of South Korean restaurants, particularly in barbecue form: beef ribs and bulgogi.

But Pyongyang Soondae—Pyongyang Sausage—isn’t a South Korean restaurant. It’s North Korean, so the menu skews toward seafood, poultry—and pork, pork, pork. The staple meat of the South is nowhere to be seen, except in a single soup dish. That would be naengmyun, the one northern dish every Korean knows, a buckwheat noodle soup with cucumbers and slices of beef, served cold, often with ice cubes in the broth.

Most Korean restaurants advertise “Pyongyang naengmyun” as a mark of authenticity, regardless of whether their chefs have ever been to the totalitarian-ruled city that serves as the soup’s namesake. Pyongyang Soondae does them one better, serving its version with balls of pheasant meat.

The authenticity might explain why the new restaurant stands out in a region already dense with eateries from the peninsula. For that often elderly chunk of the Korean immigrant population that traces their ancestry to the North, the spot is unique. Owner Ma Young-Ae has been advertising heavily in the local Korean press, both print and TV, since opening her restaurant last fall. Among the customers lunching on pork liver and intestines are Lim Sung-Il, 73, and his wife Hye-Gyung, 71, both of whom left Pyongyang as kids. Both made the trek from Maryland to Pyongyang Soondae’s storefront, lured by childhood culinary memories.

Sitting near the border of Alexandria and Fairfax County on Little River Turnpike—the restaurant-saturated main drag of Northern Virginia’s Korean community—the restaurant doesn’t tout its unlikely origins, at least not in English. Its only English-language sign, in the parking lot, features the name of the previous restaurant to occupy the narrow building. “Pyongyang Soondae” is written above it, in Korean.

Which makes it the perfect place to find a restaurant owned by a former spy and operated by North Korean defectors.

Clad in a red apron decorated with cats and hearts, Ma Young-Ae, 48, looks like the quintessential ajuma—a Korean woman who has settled comfortably into middle age and the privileges that accompany it: being bowed to, getting seated first on the bus, giving unsolicited advice to strangers. Her day revolves around restaurant work. By 9:30 in the morning, she’s shopping for supplies. She works until at least 10:30 each night. In her spare time, she listens to music and watches movies. She likes action flicks, especially those about the FBI.

A little more than a decade ago, Ma was an undercover agent for North Korea’s Ministry of Public Security, conducting drug investigations. Her job was to bust smugglers—farmers, mostly—who were exporting opium to China. It was an odd assignment, considering the North Korean government’s documented involvement in the drug trade itself: along with weapons and counterfeit “superdollars,” opium has been a key source of revenue for the cash-strapped regime. Ma says her job was a bit less righteous: She was tasked with busting smugglers operating without government approval.

Besides a slight North Korean accent—pronouncing ni as nei—there is little that would make Ma stand out among Northern Virginia’s large Korean community.

Until she gets to talking about politics, that is. A devout Christian with the zeal of a convert—she found Jesus in South Korea, where she lived after abandoning the atheist North—Ma is waging a missionary campaign against the state that once employed her. Her political activities are evident on the walls of her restaurant, decorated with pictures of her with Hillary Clinton and members of the South Korean parliament. She travels to New York frequently to lead protests at the offices of the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, the only official North Korean delegation in the U.S. Last year, following North Korea’s controversial sinking of a South Korean naval vessel, she was back, waving a picket sign at the ambassador. She says a North Korean official pulled her aside to growl at her: “Where do you think you are, bitch?” she recalls, through an interpreter. “You just watch. We will kill you.”

Ma’s family was chosun saram—Korean-descended Chinese citizens who migrated from North Korea just before the peninsula’s partition. Most chosun saram settled in the Jilin Province of northeastern China. But Ma’s brother joined the northern army during the Korean War; the family followed him back in 1968, when Ma was five years old. Ma says her mother’s southern roots meant they were perpetually under suspicion. “I wanted to go to college,” she says, “but because of my mother, I didn’t have the opportunity.”

Instead, at 17, Ma joined the army, long the country’s dominant institution—and a place that offered opportunities unavailable elsewhere. A music lover who could play the piano and accordion as well as the yanggeum, a stringed instrument played with bamboo sticks, she wound up in the army’s musical wing, or Yesuldan, performing songs of tribute to the regime.

Eight years into her service, at age 25, Ma joined North Korea’s security apparatus as an intelligence officer. She had married well, to a high-ranking army officer named Choi Gwang-Chul. He worked at one point for Kim Jong-Il’s personal architect, designing Kim’s summer home. Choi’s younger brother, who worked in intelligence, pulled some strings to get her the job.

Working as an undercover agent afforded Ma the rare license to travel. Her assignments took her to China, where she first got into trouble.

“There was a flood,” Ma says, “and we couldn’t cross the river back [into North Korea].” Bored, she wandered into a Korean church. The congregation, she recalls, was friendly. They had heard of the famines across the border and assumed she was a refugee, welcoming her with food. (“I didn’t tell them I was a government agent,” Ma says.)

The church members also sang hymns. They asked if Ma could play the piano. She could. They asked if she knew any hymns. She did not. So they told her to play any songs she knew. There was a tune she had often performed in the army, an anthem praising Kim Il-Sung. She proceeded to play it, singing of the Great Leader’s revolutionary glories, until the horrified congregation asked her to stop.

After a few days, the river receded and Ma returned to Pyongyang. She wrote a report about her investigation, leaving out the part about visiting the church. “After I turned it in, they said, ‘write it again,’” she says. “So I did. And they said, ‘write it again.’” She admitted to going to the church. At an underground prison, she says, she was interrogated for a month. “They threw things at me, and wanted to know if I was a Christian,” she says.

Ma escaped the worst punishment, she believes, thanks to her husband’s connections. She got off relatively easy—suspended from the force, but later reinstated, with a promotion to boot.

But it wasn’t long before Ma was in trouble again. She was tailing a Korean-Chinese businessman who had built a textile factory in North Korea. But the North Korean government was broke, and did not want to pay his investment returns. So Ma says she was assigned to investigate trumped-up charges that he was a spy.

When the charges were brought, the businessman turned to Ma, whom he believed to be a North Korean commerce official. He pleaded with her to pass along a letter proclaiming his innocence. She did. For that, Ma says, a warrant was issued for her arrest.

Her brother-in-law in the Ministry of Public Security tipped her off. This time, her husband’s connections wouldn’t save her. “I didn’t mean to flee,” she says. But when the call came in, she was close to the Chinese border anyway. She says she seized the opportunity without even telling her husband.

For a police state, North Korea has a surprisingly porous border. Unlike the Yalu River, which forms the longest part of the Chinese-North Korean frontier, the Tumen River is shallow and slow. Parts of it are left unprotected by either country. Those who work with North Korean refugees say it is not uncommon for whole families to sneak across and back multiple times. Ma crossed for good in 2000.

Most refugees don’t make it much farther than that. In China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, they can blend in with the ethnic Korean residents. But jobs are scarce, and many established residents see recent migrants as beggars or thieves. Shady operations abound in an area where the dominant activity is human smuggling. North Korean women are in hot demand in China, a product of gender imbalances from the one-child policy. Many are forced into marriages with older bachelors and widowers; some men in rural villages pool their money together to purchase a “shared bride.” In South Korea, several porn sites feature North Korean women stripping over live feeds.

Ma, who had developed contacts in China, was luckier. For several months, she hid out with the family of a Korean-Chinese merchant in the city of Tumen. Eventually, she made her way to Beijing. Her ultimate destination was South Korea. But, she says, a South Korean embassy official told her Seoul wasn’t taking any more asylum cases at the time. He gave her some money and told her to lay low among the city’s Korean-Chinese community.

Instead, she went back to Tumen, where she was arrested.

Ma says she was tortured by Chinese police. “They beat me with an ashtray,” she says. “They hit me in my face and my hands.” Her right hand and collarbone were broken; the injuries are still visible from where the bones were improperly set. Police suspected she was not a poor farmer, as she claimed. “I was too pretty,” she says. It wasn’t that the authorities were especially eager to detain a senior official; it was that they believed a better-connected refugee could afford a bigger bribe.

They eventually got her to confess. Ma spent 35 days in lockup, certain she was going to be killed. Instead, she was miraculously sprung. It turned out her host, the Korean-Chinese merchant, had paid a bribe. Ma wasn’t taking any chances with the legal asylum process after that. The merchant’s family paid a forger 25,000 yuan for a fake passport and airfare for Ma to South Korea. At age 38, she was on a plane bound for Seoul.

At the time, Ma believed her husband’s military rank would spare him from the dire consequences that befall other defectors’ families. And, she thinks, it did—for a time. But years later, after Ma had moved to the U.S. and started campaigning against Pyongyang, it caught up with her. In 2004, she got news from her sister in China that he had been executed. “I was upset,” she says, “but more upset thinking how my son [then living in South Korea] would take it.”

A disproportionate number of defectors who make it to the South end up running restaurants. Lee Cheong-Guk, one of Pyongyang’s top chefs, as well as Yo Man-Chol, another North Korean intelligence officer, both opened restaurants in Seoul after defecting.

It turns out that culinary nostalgia sells. Older North Koreans who migrated South before the war hunger for northern cuisine. And the estimated 20,000 more recent North Korean refugees in the South represent a good source of restaurant labor. Though they’re greeted with a government stipend and job-skills classes, many also face prejudice that makes salaried employment tough. They’re sometimes accused of being spies, especially after periodic flare-ups with the North.

In fact, North Korean agents occasionally infiltrate refugee communities in South Korea, in order to assassinate some of the higher-profile defectors: two alleged spies were caught last April trying to kill Hwang Jang-Yeop, former chairman of the North Korean parliament and the highest-ranking defector to date. More often, South Koreans accuse refugees of being leeches on the welfare system. One study found the unemployment rate among North Korean refugees to be 14 percent at the time, compared to 4 percent for the country as a whole.

Again, Ma fared better than most. Following resettlement, she formed a North Korean folk music group with nine other defectors and began playing concerts, calling themselves “Pyongyang Yesuldan,” after her old army group of the same name. It was a time of rapprochement with the North, and the novelty of North Korean refugee all-star band attracted an audience. With proceeds from her performances, she opened the first of her Pyongyang Sausage restaurants, in Seoul.

“I wasn’t a very good cook,” Ma says. But, she reasoned: “At least when you own a restaurant, you never go hungry.”

She also paid to have her teenage son, Choi Hyo-Sung, smuggled out of North Korea. “You can get anyone out with enough money,” she says, waving her hand. Suzanne Scholte, chairwoman of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, says it can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $30,000 to get someone from the North to the South. Ma says she paid smugglers $500 to get her son out of North Korea, and $3,000 to get him out of China.

But Ma ran into other troubles. During the years between 1998 and 2008, successive South Korean presidents embraced the “Sunshine Policy” toward the Pyongyang regime, paving the way for aid and investment, as well as a series of televised reunions of families separated by the demilitarized zone.

Critics, including Ma, called it appeasement. South Korean hawks accused the government of trying to silence Pyongyang’s opponents. Scholte, of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, says it amounted to “a gag rule on high-level defectors.” Since the most prominent defectors had jobs at Seoul’s Ministry of Unification, they could be fired for speaking out of line.

Ma was neither a high-level defector nor a government employee. Nevertheless, her outspokenness got the attention of Scholte’s organization, which sponsored a 2002 U.S. visit, where she spoke at a congressional hearing in favor of a bill tightening the screws on Pyongyang. Passed in 2004, the measure also opened the doors for the first North Korean refugees to come to the U.S. As of March 2010, the Government Accountability Office reports that 94 North Koreans had resettled here; Ma says the number is now around 120.

In 2004, Ma came to the U.S. a second time, touring Korean churches as a speaker and performer. In South Korea, Christians outnumber Buddhists by a small margin, but Korean immigrants to the U.S. are disproportionately Christian, and the church plays a central role in the community. (When two Koreans meet in the U.S., the first question is usually “what church do you go to?” The second: “Why don’t you go to my church?”). This role, along with frequent factional quarrels and splits among congregations, explains the proliferation of Korean churches in California, Virginia, New York, New Jersey, and any area with a sizeable Korean community.

For decades, the plight of North Koreans has been the cause célèbre for Korean churches in South Korea and abroad. Aid work for North Korean refugees is usually handled by ministers, who make little distinction for humanitarian relief and proselytizing. For many, fighting the communist regime is a holy cause. The so-called Hermit Kingdom represents not merely a dictatorship, economic basket-case and humanitarian disaster, but also the last frontier for soul-saving.

Today, Ma traverses easily between the spiritual, temporal, political, and cultural realms. Her performances at churches alternate between the serene, warbled singing of Korean folk tales about farmers, mountains, and frogs and fiery denunciations of Kim Jong-Il.

For her 2004 tour, Ma and her new husband, a fellow defector who goes by the fake name Choi Un-Chol, were accompanied by a South Korean government handler. She claims that he confiscated her passport and return ticket, then pressured her to drop the political content from her performances. She ignored him. In Chicago, she says, an argument between her husband and the handler erupted into blows. The handler left mid-tour, but Ma and her husband (who uses a false identity because he still has family in the North) stayed. Her passport had expired, and she says she was told by the South Korean consulate in New York that she could not renew it.

Ma says she and her husband sought political asylum in the U.S., which they were granted. She settled in Los Angeles, running a restaurant there for a few years. She moved to Virginia after Scholte convinced Ma that her political activities would be better advanced being closer to the U.S. capital.

Ma’s latest incarnation of Pyongyang Soondae is as much a refugee aid office as a restaurant. She opened it on Nov. 1, after selling her restaurant in L.A. She devotes a portion of the restaurant proceeds to refugee rescue and relief work, and efforts to oppose the Pyongyang government. Of the approximately 15 North Koreans who have been resettled in the D.C. area under the North Korean Human Rights Act, eight work for Ma; two of them currently live with her. (She says they’ll move once they get on their feet.)

Most of the refugees also attend the same church, First Presbyterian Church of the East, in Chantilly. The minister, Rev. Lee Guang-Hyun, says six of his 50 parishioners are North Korean; he says his church’s involvement in North Korean refugee relief work is a big draw.

So far, business has been good. “Everyone is surviving,” Ma says, adding that she has been able to pay her employees on time. Most are North Korean. Besides Ma and her son, all go by fake names, worried of reprisals against family members back home. A 26-year-old waitress going by the name Kang I-Sul crossed the Tumen River three years ago and made it out of China through Mongolia. She and other servers politely answer questions from customers about the political situation, the famine, and other topics of curiosity that attract clientele to the restaurant as much as the food. (There is one non-Korean on staff, Mari Cruz, 26, from Honduras, who works as a kitchen assistant. Having worked in three Korean restaurants before, she says she is comfortable with the work. The only difference is the food. “And they don’t rip me off,” she says.)

Ma being Ma, she says that her troubles didn’t end with her move to the Washington area. She claims that she had received threatening phone calls from an intelligence officer working in the South Korean embassy; she says she later heard from ministers who had previously booked her that the man had been pressuring them not to host her performances. She filed a lawsuit against the government, seeking damages for harassment. A spokesperson for the South Korean embassy, Han Bo-Wha, responded that the case had been dismissed by a South Korean court; Ma says she is appealing the decision.

Victor Cha, director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council under George W. Bush’s administration, says that claims of South Korean government intimidation of defectors are “not implausible at all.” Cha says that Seoul “was hypersensitive about the North Korean human rights issue being used as a regime-change policy” by the Bush administration.

But Ma has stranger claims still. She says she received death threats from a man identifying himself as a North Korean defector in L.A., who threatened to kill her with a hammer. She believes a Korean minister in the U.S. who had offered to pay her to do refugee relief work in China was also secretly working on behalf of the Chinese government, plotting to kidnap her and have her deported back to North Korea. She fears that North Korean agents will infiltrate the U.S., posing as defectors, in order to kill her.

Seated at a dining table at Pyongyang Soondae, Ma tells of the dire threats to her life in a matter-of-fact tone, as though they are the normal hazards of a 48-year-old woman running a sausage restaurant. Maybe it’s paranoia. But as a North Korean defector and ex-spy, she has more reasons than most to be paranoid.

Still, Ma does not seem the least bit agitated. Rather, she appears wearily resigned to whatever fate God has in store for her. For the moment, at least, it involves serving buckwheat noodle soup and dumplings to a steady stream of customers.

Translation assistance by Kim Soni and Park Eun-Jung

Source: Washington City Paper, 03.04.2011

Jun 12 '07 - 30% of North Korean Defectors in Japan Stateless... Others are Japanese Citizens or 'Korean Domiciles'

By Kim Do Hyung

In one defector family living in Tokyo, the five members have three different citizenship types.

Japanese citizens – the ‘Japanese wife’ (66) who followed her ethnic Korean husband to North Korea and defected in 2001, and their eldest daughter who was born in Japan
Stateless – Son (35) and daughter (35) born in North Korea
“Korean domicile” – Grandson (20)

While the Japanese mother hopes to “get Japanese citizenship for [her] children and grandson, too”,
her dream has gone unfulfilled due to inadequate government support toward North Korean defectors, reported Yomiuri Shimbun on the 12th.

In particular, stateless defectors face discrimination and have trouble finding jobs and even enrolling in school because they are suspected of being in Japan illegally, it was reported. This past February, a defector aid group examined the legal statuses of 82 defectors among the more than 130 permitted to settle in Japan, and found that 24 were stateless. The rest had regained Japanese citizenship or registered as Chosen-seki, or “Korean domiciles”. Most “Korean domiciles” later switch to South Korean citizenship.

Yomiuri Shimbum interviewed a defector family of four that had settled in Japan in 2004. Three of the four members were stateless and unable to find work, and received government aid instead, it was reported. The son showed an employer his ID marked “Stateless” during a job interview. He was treated with suspicion and his application rejected.

According to immigration policy set in 1971, local governments are to register ethnic Koreans as “Korean domiciles”. The reality is far different, however. Local officials often register North Korean defectors as stateless because they lack passports and other identification documents, it was reported.

Japan’s stringent immigration policies are one factor, and financial instability among defectors is another. The Japanese mother, who was registered as stateless, could easily regain Japanese citizenship because of emigration records. However, although her children and grandson tried to become naturalized citizens they cannot be recognized as such without a certain level of income.

Source: the Hankyoreh, 6.12.2007

Translated by ENoK

Jul 3 '06 - Over 100 Defectors Residing in Japan

On the 2nd [of this month], a professor at Tohoku(東北) University in Japan revealed during an interview on the defector-run online radio program ‘Free North Korean Radio’ that over 100 North Korean defectors are residing in Japan.

He said, “Most of these defectors were part of the ethnic Korean population in Japan that had gone to North Korea [as part of an agreement between the Japanese and North Korean governments between the 1950s and 1980s], and their family members. Some of the defectors have difficulty adjusting to the new culture and language.” He further remarked that “the defectors largely reside near major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka”, and are “heavily dependent on government aid and support from NGOs.”

Source: JoongAng Daily, 7.03.2006

Translated by ENoK