North Korea needs more minders for its minders, to stop them from defecting

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about only the second group defection of North Korean overseas workers of which I’m aware — of a group of North Korean construction workers in St. Petersburg, Russia. I also took note of the defection of a young translator from the North Korean embassy in Beijing, who had been detailed to the State Security Department, translating for the minders who do inspections of the North Korean workers elsewhere in China.

It’s one thing when workers defect; that’s why Pyongyang sends out minders. It’s more concerning when the minders start defecting. And when the Obergruppenführers who mind the Pyongyang elites and all the other, lesser minders start to defect, that’s a new stage of the metastasis.

Last week, the South Korean government disclosed that a “director-level” SSD official, who “was in charge of identifying trends in public sentiment among the residents of Pyongyang,” defected last year. (That would be in addition to the colonel who defected from the Reconnaissance General Bureau, also last year.) 

According to (yes, you guessed it) unnamed South Korean government sources, this defector brought with him “confidential information on the Kim regime, and the leadership’s surveillance methods critical to maintaining control of the population.” The SSD official also reports that Pyongyang is rife with “negativity about the Kim Jong Un regime.” 

The defector reportedly told South Korean government interviewers members of his bureau were uncomfortable with Kim’s rule, and after watching “others bounce,” state agents are “bouncing,” or exiting the regime. Increasing lack of faith in the North Korean leader among the Pyongyang security officials is surprising, given that the state security agency’s chief, Kim Won Hong, is believed to be the unofficial No. 2 in political power in North Korea, according to Yonhap. [UPI]

More on that here. South Korean media are also reporting that two other high-ranking North Koreas defected in Beijing last month, along with their families. One of them is said to be the Health Ministry official “in charge of procurement and acquisition of drugs and medical equipment” for His Porcine Majesty.

scooter

Although the Joongang Ilbo initially reported that the two men defected to (gasp!) Japan — I wonder why they’d consider that — “an intelligence source” now says that “the men are known to have come to the South and are in the process of being investigated.” The defections apparently happened several days before Park Geun-hye called on North Koreans to defect to the South. (Subsequent reports that Foreign Ministry official Kung Sok-un was purged as punishment for the defections appear to have been false.)

While others will undoubtedly disagree, I incline to the view that the recent tendency for diplomats, spies, fund managers, and vetted workers to defect is not “normal” for North Korea. Other reports also suggest that morale in Pyongyang is at a new low. The Daily NK even claims that some officials are consulting fortune tellers to choose the best time to flee. The saddest stories are of the North Korean parents who are sending their children overseas, ostensibly to study, knowing full well they’ll never return, and hatching improbable schemes to escape the repercussions they themselves could face for that.

“In North Korea, I came from a fairly affluent household, but I had a dream of learning IT [information technology] in the South,” said the defector, who asked to remain anonymous for the safety of his family, in a phone call with a JoongAng Ilbo reporter Wednesday. “My parents told me to study what I wanted to in the South and sent me here.”

His parents reported to the North Korean government that their child met with an accidental death in China.

Another source in China who conducts business with North Korea recently met with a ranking official of Pyongyang’s ruling Workers’ Party in Beijing.

“The Workers’ Party official made a request to me: ‘North Korea is like a sinking boat. I will send my child, so please take care of that kid,’” the businessman said. “I get such requests from North Korean elites from time to time.” [Joongang Ilbo]

It’s heartbreaking to think about the choices these desperate parents are confronting. A mother who sends one child away to safety and a better future consequently risks condemning her other children, and herself, to die in the gulag.

Of course, when we speak of a place where viewpoints are so absolutely stifled and the idea of scientific opinion polling is laughable, anecdotes may be the best evidence we have, which makes us all blind men feeling different parts of the same elephant. A hipster running a tour business in Pyongyang might come to believe that he really, honestly knows his guides’ and minders’ innermost thoughts, and that they’re broadly representative of elite opinion in Pyongyang. I incline to the view that the reports of abysmal morale in Pyongyang and elsewhere in the country are too numerous and consistent for them all to be wrong. A few of the recent reports of this-or-that purge or defection may turn out to be false, but there is too much evidence of a shift in North Korean elite opinion to dismiss.

The harder question is predicting the implications of this shift. Mass protests are exceedingly unlikely to break out in Pyongyang anytime soon. Viewpoints there probably vary widely between social and professional groups. None of those reports suggest that people in Pyongyang are ready to make the leap that overseas workers have begun to make — to conspire to commit acts of resistance against the state at the risk of their lives, and those of their families. This means that dissent, disillusionment, and discontent may be both widely distributed and completely isolated.

The lack of a coherent program of information operations directed at the North Korean elites probably means that the disgruntled elites lack a political consciousness or focus. But if an information operations campaign were to polarize that discontent, and if some event — most plausibly, a coup — suddenly presented North Koreans with a choice between combining in risky acts of resistance or accepting a lifetime of subjugation, I suspect that the spontaneity of many North Koreans would surprise the experts. What’s more likely for now is that in a thousand small ways, the elites will engage in petty acts of erosive corruption and passive sabotage of the system they’re supposed to sustain.

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In Russia, job holds YOU down (if you’re a North Korean)

For the second time this year, a group of North Korean overseas workers has defected to South Korea — this time, from Russia. KBS, citing anonymous South Korean government sources, first reported that “nearly ten” North Korean construction workers in St. Petersburg fled their dormitory in late August, contacted the local South Korean consulate, and expressed their intention to defect. The workers are now in the care of a human rights NGO pending their departure for the Land of Honey Butter Chips, where I can only hope they’ll punch the first person they hear saying “Hell Chosun” in the face. According to the Daily NK, their team leader may “have played a central role in the defection.”

“From what I have learned, the team leader took out 6-10 workers in his group to the worksite and then made a call to the South Korean Consulate right away,” the source said. “The defection happened in an instant under his leadership.” [Daily NK]

KBS says that “[t]he construction workers were reportedly unhappy with the poor working conditions and intense pressure to send back their earnings to provide the North with much-needed foreign currency.” They also felt “anxiety about their own safety,” which is understandable in light of a recent report that 40 North Korean workers around the world — including 13 in Russia — have died of disease, suicide, or accidents this year so far. Their sanitary conditions don’t sound so pleasant, either.

“Our comrades built a toilet in a small house and installed a dining room right there. So, someone is defecating at one side of the dining room.” [KBS]

Ah, yes, the bucolic lifestyle of North Korea’s “happy slaves” in Russia — like the one in Vladivostok who was so happy he set fire to himself and jumped off a building, or the ones whose minders cut their Achilles tendons to keep them from running away again. Or these contented members of the proletariat, seen here during some spontaneous comradely athletic solidarity exercises with their Russian hosts.

[Workers of all countries, unite. You have nothing to lose but your teeth.]

Wage theft, however, appears the most-cited reason for the workers’ discontent. Pyongyang, which increasingly relies on overseas workers to sustain it financially, is putting “relentless pressure” on them to “cough up more hard currency.” That pressure spiked again after the Hamgyeong floods.

Another source in China said since the severe flooding of the Duman River last month, the regime has been forcing workers overseas to donate US$100 to 150 each to a flood relief fund. “This kind of extortion is causing more North Korean workers overseas to defect,” the source added. [Chosun Ilbo]

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[Pictured: flood relief]

According to KBS, even under “normal” conditions, the workers earn $980 a month, of which $665 is confiscated. Then, on returning to North Korea, the workers have to pay another quota that few of them can afford. The additional taxes would have left the workers with nothing, or even with outstanding debts to some of the officials who shake them down. Some of the workers might well have concluded that they had little to lose by defecting. Still, with all the increased security due to the rash of defections this year, escape couldn’t have been easy. The Daily NK interviewed another recent defector from the same construction company, Mokran, which employs “more than 150 workers:”

On October 12, Daily NK succeeded in establishing contact with this worker who stated, “It is hardly possible for the workers to communicate with each other, no matter how close they are, due to the strict surveillance and control system. The recent group defection is, therefore, a remarkable achievement.”

“As I recall, almost 40 percent of the company workers secretly owned smartphones. So it is possible that the information they learned through their devices may have influenced their decision,” he continued. [Daily NK]

Think of all the risks these workers took. They had to obtain cell phones, conceal them, share their dissent and discontent with one another, conspire to defect, and make a run for it — all without being overheard, seen, or ratted out in a cramped and controlled environment, and in spite of the dire consequences for their families. (Which is to say nothing of the welcome they can expect from the quislings at Minbyun when they get to South Korea.)

The Chosun Ilbo and KBS suggest that the workers may have learned about the defections of Thae Yong-ho and the Ningpo 13. Pyongyang must be worried that news of these defections could spread and trigger a cascade. This incident may lend support to that concern. After all, one defection is an act of resistance; a group defection is an organized conspiracy to resist. I emphasize — as far as I know, there were no other group defections or mutinies of North Korean overseas workers until this year. As for the catalyzing effect of the cell phones, just imagine the subversive possibilities if they became available throughout North Korea itself.

It can be presumed that the recent chain of successful defections by overseas workers and officials is having an effect on the remaining workers who are being exploited under harsh working conditions. It is also likely that those with smartphones have access to reports on North Korea’s human rights violations published by the international media.

Accordingly, some are predicting further defections by North Korean workers at overseas working sites. A source from an intelligence agency has supported this assumption, adding, “There have been an increasing number of requests from overseas North Korean workers to defect through South Korean consulates. With the increased demand, people are having to be processed in a designated order.” [Daily NK]

The Chosun Ilbo‘s reporter also expects more defections in Russia, and reports that “[a]ltogether some 40 North Koreans including loggers in Siberia have defected and are staying in a shelter” there. The usual caveats about anonymous sources apply. Mind you, these defections preceded Park Geun-hye’s recent call for North Koreans to defect, but came after the North sent out more minders to prevent any further defections.

“The North is sending more officials to China and Russia to keep watch on workers there, but it seems difficult for the regime to prevent expat workers from defecting,” a government official here said. [Chosun Ilbo]

The Mokran president and State Security Department minder have since been summoned to North Korea, where the Daily NK‘s source says “it is highly likely that [they] will be held to account for the incident and possibly executed.” 

Pyongyang might also need more minders to mind its minders. According to the Donga Ilbo, a 27-year-old Kim Il-Sung University graduate and staffer at the North Korean embassy in Beijing, who was serving as an interpreter for an SSD inspection team sent to mind North Korean workers in China after the defection of the Ningpo 13 … has also defected. According to the Donga‘s sources, her job would have afforded her “a great deal of knowledge in high-level communication between the North and China.” The same report claims that another interpreter, a man in his 20s assigned to the customs office in Hyesan, defected in August and is now in South Korea. Both incidents are attributed to anonymous sources, probably within South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, so make of them what you will.

Last week and at the time of the Ningpo 13 defections, I wrote of a potential “death spiral” in which the regime would pass its financial pressures down to the workers and squeeze them for more money; minders would drive workers to the breaking point; workers would rebel, defect, or be sent home; the pressure on the remaining workers to make up for the lost earnings would increase further; and the state would increase controls over the workers and drives them even harder, pushing more of them to the breaking point. I could make an argument that this is an example of that death spiral.

And yet the state is desperate enough for money that it even risks sending former Kaesong workers to China and Russia. That might explain why negotiations a new U.N. sanctions resolution are taking so long. The U.S. side, under strong pressure from Congress, is most likely pushing to ban Pyongyang’s labor exports. Beijing must know what a financial catastrophe this would mean for Kim Jong-un.

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China just sent 30 N. Koreans back to a slow death in Kim Jong-un’s gulag

While the world is rightly focused on China’s (non-)compliance with a series of U.N. sanctions resolutions it voted for, the world must not forget that China is also in flagrant violation of the Refugee Convention when it sends people fleeing persecution back to North Korea, without affording them any opportunity to claim asylum or meet with representatives of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. And after all these years, China certainly knows damn well what happens to the men, women, and children it sends back.

Approximately 30 North Koreans previously caught escaping the country and repatriated from China have been detained for months by Sinuiju state security agents. These individuals have been subject to continual beatings by security agents during interrogation, Daily NK has learned.

“At the state security jail in Sinuiju, some 30 people who were caught in China are being held and interrogated,” a source from North Pyongan Province reported to Daily NK. “Although they were handed over by Chinese police back in April, for months the authorities have been conducting background checks and ordering them to write out their testimonies.”

This news was corroborated by additional sources in North Pyongan Province.

The prisoners are being detained in cells with leaky ceilings and are surviving on cornmeal mixed with grass and sand, and most are lacking enough energy to even sit upright in their cells. During hours of forced labor, if a prisoner collapses and is unable to get up, the other detainees are ordered to beat up that individual, reported the source.

“Although one of the women was beaten up so harshly during interrogation that she can no longer walk, she has been completely neglected and received no medical attention,” the source said, adding that no one is held accountable in the event that a repatriated defector is starved or beaten to death. [Daily NK]

The Daily NK then describes the outcome of the interrogation. First, the Ministry of State Security will repeatedly question each prisoner on why he or she left North Korea. Those who left to earn money for their families might get sent to a re-education camp like Camp 12, where torture, disease, brutal working conditions, and starvation rations all contribute to a high death rate. Some of these prisoners may yet survive long enough to be released into another prison with a lower level of security, also known as “North Korea.”

The worst fate is reserved for prisoners that the authorities conclude fled North Korea to escape to South Korea, to escape political persecution or punishment, or who met with Christians or South Koreans while in China. They will be sent to one of the camps of no return — vast political prison camps like Camp 14, Camp 15, Camp 16, or Camp 25. Naturally, large bribes from a prisoner’s family members can influence the security service’s decision.

Among the individuals apprehended was a woman in her 30s, who was caught living with a Han Chinese man in Shandong Province and forcefully repatriated by the Chinese authorities. She was charged with committing a minor offense but was detained for months. Only after her relatives in the South sent 5,000 USD as a bribe was she sent back to her home in Hyesan, reported the source.

The pervasiveness of security agents openly demanding bribes has infuriated many residents. “The fact that security agents are exploiting the leadership’s extreme hostility towards defectors is contributing to people’s underlying loathing for the regime,” the source noted. [Daily NK]

China insists that all North Koreans it repatriates are “economic migrants,” not refugees. But because North Koreans fleeing hunger and poverty are often kept hungry and poor because the state has secretly classified them as politically “wavering” or “hostile,” it isn’t always clear — even to the North Koreans themselves — that the root cause of the intolerable conditions that drove them to flee is really political.

Furthermore, even when a refugee crosses the border for an initially non-political reason, the fact that she’s certain to be tortured (or sexually assaulted) back in North Korea by itself entitles her to claim refugee status — the technical term is “refugees sur place.” North Koreans facing repatriation to North Korea are also entitled to protection under the Convention Against Torture.

So if China is willfully violating all of these standards of international law, are Chinese authorities also potentially culpable? Yes, as I’ll let the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s 2014 report explain, in a long quote below the fold (click “continue reading,” bottom right of the post).

The general rule with China is that it will violate any rule or standard to the extent it can get away with violating it. It’s long past time to raise not only diplomatic and moral pressure on China for these brutal and unlawful repatriations, it’s also time to target both the North Korean and Chinese security forces for mandatory sanctions under section 104(a)(5) of the NKSPEA. If the Chinese security forces choose to facilitate North Korea’s crimes against humanity, then they should at least do it without the use of America’s banking system. Only a credible threat of accountability will change China’s behavior.

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Defections may not foretell N. Korea’s collapse (but they could help induce it)

The defection of North Korean Deputy Ambassador Thae Yong-ho two weeks ago has tolled a ghoulish vigil in which bloggers, op-ed writers, and academics have speculated about the longevity of His Porcine Majesty. Some of them still read a long lifeline on his palm. South Korean President (and master troll) Park Geun-hye, on the other hand, sees “serious cracks” in the regime and says that the cohesion of the oligarchs is “collapsing.”

“The North Korean regime is taking no account of the people’s lives, while it oppresses the people with continuous rule by fear,” she said. “Recently, even the elite in the North is collapsing and high-profile figures are increasingly escaping their homeland and defecting to foreign countries. As the signs of serious cracks emerge, the regime’s instability is growing.” [Joongang Ilbo]

Park has several advantages over the rest of us. She probably has a good idea of what the seven North Korean diplomats who’ve defected this year — plus any other senior defectors we don’t know about yet, and those who defected in recent years — have said in their NIS debriefings. She probably has some idea of what the NIS found in their laptops and cell phones. Of course, it’s possible that she and the NIS are sexing up or spinning those reports, so the rest of us do what we do best — we speculate.

Christopher Green insists that Thae’s defection means “nothing” for the regime’s stability because Thae isn’t central to the regime’s power structure, other defections didn’t shake the regime’s stability before, and the psychological impact on the proles will be slight. Andrei Lankov acknowledges that the rise in high-level defections is significant, wisely doesn’t claim to know whether the regime will collapse in months or years, but less wisely, is very certain that the defections have nothing to do with sanctions. In an article that’s worth reading for its opening anecdote alone, Mark Fitzpatrick posits that “[s]uch defections reflect fissures in the regime,” but questions whether they “may also signal an impending regime collapse.” John Lee offers the most bearish interpretation of Kim Jong-un’s future, writing that North Korea “is just a spark away from an uncontrollable conflagration.”

In no particular order: I share Lee’s hope, but not his predictive confidence. Green’s is a dangerously tendentious prediction for uncertain times, and as we’ll see below, it didn’t take long for events to supersede it. I can’t quite reconcile Fitzpatrick’s view with itself; a regime like North Korea’s can’t be both riven by fissures and stable. I’ll meet Andrei halfway and admit that multiple factors are probably contributing to the recent defections, including the fear of political purges, self-interest outweighing a decaying ideology, low pay, lack of confidence in regime leadership, concern for their children, the loss of income from sanctions and South Korean diplomatic pressure, and officials’ fears that Pyongyang will hold them responsible for the loss of that income or for the defections of colleaguesOther analysts and South Korean officials think sanctions are also a factor, and the coincidence of events suggests that they’re right:

Both experts said that the implementation of recent UN Security Council sanctions may have been one determining factor in understanding the recent flurry of diplomatic defections.

Jeong said the salaries of DPRK diplomats are not high, meaning many of them have to make ends meet by sharing apartments, for example. And such personal economic difficulties may have pushed some of them to defect, he said.

“As the international community has strengthened sanctions against the North and surveillance of North Korean diplomats has increased, they can no longer make foreign currency as they did in the past,” Cheong said, citing old tactics such as the selling of counterfeit cigarettes or liquors.

Heightened pressure from the North Korean regime may have also driven them to the brink, the Korea University professor said.

“Kim Jong Un has had trouble in securing government funds after (the latest) sanctions, making the North’s foreign economic activities hard,” said Lim. “So, he has increased the pressure on diplomats abroad in charge of funds management.” [NK News, Dagyum Ji]

But if much of the conventional wisdom still predicts stability, conventional wisdom has a poor predictive history.

[Everything is absolutely fine.]

Most experts thought the regimes in East Germany, Romania, Albania, Libya, and Syria were as stable as Lehman Brothers, right up to the moments when each of those “stable” regimes fell. Most Sovietologists failed to predict the collapse of the East Bloc and the Soviet Union. Status quo bias is a powerful thing. The conventional analyst who predicts that the status quo will go on looks smart every day — until the day when he suddenly doesn’t. The unconventional analyst who predicts doom looks like a lunatic every day until the day when he suddenly looks like a prophet. The only day history remembers is that last one.

But prediction is a fool’s errand. Great events often start with infinitesimal and unpredictable ones — an official’s misunderstanding of an order, or the courage of one forgotten man in a crowd. Wise analysts do not predict such things. At most, they interpret a regime’s political and financial health from whatever vital signs are known. Once, the North Korean regime had a very strong political body. Since Kim Il-sung’s death, that body has decayed steadily. We don’t know enough to diagnose the disease or assess the progression of the atrophy, but defections by diplomats, like the desertion of soldiers, are contrary to the protagonists’ interests in normal times, and are not normal events. They suggest that the regime is unhealthy, but they are only symptoms. In North Korea, most of the vital signs are unknowable. Even then, they can’t predict when some infection kills a vulnerable host. 

Sometimes, it is easier to alter the course of history than it is to predict it.

The view that comes closest to my own is that of Stephan Haggard, who thinks that the recent defections could cause a financial crisis, which could lead to regime collapse. Haggard points to reports claiming that some of the defecting diplomats and officials have taken tens of millions of dollars with them — amounts which may seem small by most nations’ standards, but which are indispensable to Pyongyang when it’s under rising pressure from U.N. sanctions, the loss of its Kaesong income, and complaints that its labor exports violate the rights of the workers. The reports, however, are anonymously sourced, and they’ve been inconsistent about what (if any) amounts the diplomats absconded with.

Whatever the amounts, however, I agree that these defections could cause a financial crisis in Pyongyang. I just agree for a different reason.

A North Korean diplomat stationed in Russia defected last month, a local source said Thursday, amid a series of defections from the communist country to seek a new life in South Korea.

The diplomat from Pyongyang’s trade representatives under its consulate general in Vladivostok could have possibly defected with family, according to the source who asked not to be named. [….]

The diplomat is known to have been in charge of covering trade issues while sending necessary goods back to North Korea, according to the source. [Yonhap]

Following Yonhap’s report, New Focus International confirmed what I’d suspected — that North Korea’s former trade representative in Vladivostok was not only a purchasing agent for Pyongyang but a Bureau 39 fund manager. Vladivostok isn’t in Europe, so I’ll assume he isn’t the same person as the Europe-based slush fund manager whose defection was also recently reported (perhaps that person was the Bulgaria-based diplomat referred to here). Another Moscow-based trade rep defected in July. Then, there’s the recently reported defection in China of the man who controlled North Korea’s slush funds in Southeast Asia. All told, Seoul says at least seven North Korean diplomats have defected this year alone. Separately, “informed sources” have told Yonhap that ten North Korean diplomats defected in 2015, including another Bureau 39 fund manager based in Singapore. This doesn’t include the colonel in the Reconnaissance General Bureau who defected last year, the high-ranking North Korean banker who defected two years ago, or the diplomat based in Ethiopia who defected in 2013.

Pyongyang’s response to the defections — recalling diplomats to punish them for the defection of colleagues, recalling the families of diplomats back to Pyongyang, dispatching more security agents to surveil diplomats, and reshuffling or recalling embassy staff — risks pushing other diplomats to the breaking point.

If most of these reports of defections are roughly accurate, the NIS, CIA, and Treasury probably have a more complete map of Kim Jong-un’s bank accounts, assets, and financial networks around the world than at any time in North Korea’s history. (Ironically, Thae Yong-ho, who was posted in the capital of a U.N. Security Council member and U.S. ally with a strong regulatory and legal system, may be the least likely of these men to contribute much to that map, beyond the financing of his own embassy.)

So far, the Obama administration has abstained from taking any public action to block those funds. Its increasingly apparent failure to do this has already attracted criticism in the media, and the more Kim Jong-un provokes in the coming months, the louder that criticism will become. It’s certain to come up at a now-overdue briefing to Congress on the implementation and enforcement of the new North Korea sanctions law. The more attention Kim Jong-un attracts, the more likely it is that Congress will demand hearings on what Treasury has done to enforce the law. Knowing this should make some bankers very nervous. 

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Amid surge in elite defections, China raises bounties on North Korean refugees

The State Department, which refuses to re-designate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism despite all of the recent and well-documented cases of Pyongyang sending its agents to kidnap and kill refugees, emigres, and activists — and amid reports that it is sending more hit-men now — is calling on governments around the world to protect North Korean refugees. That’s good, I suppose.

“We urge all countries to cooperate in the protection of North Korean refugees and asylum seekers within their territories,” State Department spokeswoman Katina Adams told Yonhap News Agency. “The United States remains deeply concerned about the human rights situation in North Korea and the treatment of North Korean refugees and asylum seekers. She, however, declined comment on specifics of the North Korean diplomat’s defection.

“We continue to work with other countries and international organizations, including the U.N. Human Rights Council and U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to protect North Korean refugees and find durable solutions for them,” Adams said. [Yonhap]

We’ve seen recently that more privileged North Koreans are escaping in greater numbers, and good for them. But along the border between China and North Korea — which since the 1990s has been the last resort of North Korea’s poorest and hungriest people — Chinese authorities have raised the payment of bounties to catch and return North Korean refugees to Kim Jong-un’s gulag.

“More defectors are being repatriated by [Chinese] public security agents after their journey across the Tumen River into Chinese territory,” a source from North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on Monday. “Recently, Chinese border patrol units and public security officials have been carrying out joint patrols, tighter inspections, and searches, drastically reducing the potential for successful defection.”

An increased incidence in reporting by local residents also plays a significant role, he added. Defectors are picked up by law enforcement in the border region before they manage to make it further afield after crossing the river, the source explained, citing a case from early August, when two women in their 30s crossed the Tumen River from Musan County and were picked up by Chinese public security forces on a tip from local residents. The women were immediately handed over to North Korean State Security Department officials.

This would be understandable if we were talking about armed North Korean soldiers, who have been crossing the border to do home-invasion robberies in Chinese border towns recently. Instead, China is rounding up desperately poor women who may be trying to escape starvation or earn enough money to feed their children.

Local Chinese authorities have for some time been relatively wont to let defector-related matters slide, according to the source. “But recently,” she added, “local governments are taking a harsher stance, perhaps because of pressure from the central government on account of perceived warmer ties with Pyongyang.”

According to multiple sources in China close to North Korean affairs, Chinese public announcements on “enhanced border security measures” are ubiquitous in border regions, promising up to 1,000 RMB for those who report illegal border crossings, residence, and employment of North Koreans. Those who personally capture and hand over North Koreans to the Chinese authorities stand to receive 2,000 RMB for their efforts.

They have also outlined stronger punishments for local residents who enter verbal agreements with North Koreans to help them cross the river or smuggle goods, threatening fines of up to 3,000 RMB for transgressors. Moreover, Chinese border guards have been ordered to shoot North Korean defectors caught illegally entering the country if they resist arrest. [Daily NK]

President Obama should raise these bounties in particular, and China’s refugee policy in general, when he meets with Xi Jinping this week. He should also ask Xi to let 18-year-old mathematics student Ri Jong-yol leave the South Korean consulate in Hong Kong for a flight to Seoul. The same goes for the reported defection of a North Korean general (and possibly, several diplomats) in China.

In fact, the two men should have plenty to talk about. On several fronts, after promising to cooperate with efforts to disarm North Korea, China has turned back in the direction of enabling Kim Jong-un’s worst behavior

If, as I expect, direct appeals to Xi’s tender mercies fail, other appropriate responses must include a sustained effort to find and block North Korean assets, starting with those held by small Chinese banks and shadow banks, and moving steadily upward in the financial ecosystem. In doing so, Treasury should prioritize identifying the assets of the North Korean security agencies that are stepping up their censorship and surveillance to seal North Korea’s borders, and to prevent so-called “chain defections.”

slave hunter

When China allowed the Ningpo 12 to escape to South Korea, some activists took an optimistic view that China was finally moderating its cruel policies toward North Korean refugees. It was never clear to me that this represented a change in Beijing’s policy, but it is clear that Beijing’s North Korea policy has recently taken a great step backward.

How cynical, brutal, and flagrantly unlawful it would be if China were, in fact, punishing North Korean men, women, and children — who are guilty of no crime but wanting to live — over its objections to South Korean missile defense.

~   ~   ~

Update: Yonhap has more reporting on North Korea’s renewed crackdown along its border with China.

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12 N. Korean restaurant workers resettled in S. Korea amid new N. Korean terror threats

Pyongyang has finally settled on a story to explain the defection of its number two diplomat in London, Thae Yong-ho. Initially, Pyongyang’s principal puppet in Tokyo, Kim Myong-chol, had suggested that South Korean agents had coerced Thae into defecting. Now, Pyongyang is accusing Thae of embezzlement and child rape, and lashing out at Britain for aiding his escape.

thatstheticket

Until very recently, the British Foreign Office had hewed in a strongly pro-engagement direction. I wonder how this rupture will affect Britain’s policy under Theresa May.

Pyongyang’s story raises more questions than answers. It’s a transparent smear, of course, but for it to be true, either the North Korean authorities discovered all of Thae’s misconduct at the same time — immediately before he defected — or else it overlooked one or both of these crimes for some unspecified period of time beforehand. Among the details Pyongyang unwittingly exposed is that even Thae, ostensibly a trusted member of the elite, did not have custody of his own passport. Clearly, Pyongyang is terrified of Thae’s potential power as a counter-propagandist. That’s why it’s desperate to discredit him now.

Amid the Great Disturbance In The Force that is the North Korean diplomatic corps this week, let’s not forget the 12 brave young North Korean women who defied a dictator, risked their lives — and, it must be said, the safety of their families — and made a break for freedom.

Ningpo 13

Yonhap reports that the women have now left the care of the National Intelligence Service and “resettled” in undisclosed locations throughout South Korea.

The Ministry of Unification said that it is true that they have begun to resettle in South Korea, but it cannot reveal further details due to concerns over their safety. [….]

The rare massive defection has garnered attention over whether the sanctions have a major impact on pressuring North Korea, as Pyongyang-run restaurants in foreign countries have served as one of main sources of hard currency for the North.

But the case has also sparked a row in South Korea over whether they defected to Seoul of their own free will following North Korea’s repeated claims that the female workers were abducted by Seoul’s spy agency. [Yonhap]

They’ve escaped one set of hardships, but they’re about to confront another. They’ll need all the support they can find from their new society.

The resettlement of the women comes amid media speculation that North Korea could retaliate against South Korea for recent high-profile defections though terrorist attacks, maybe against South Koreans in third countries, and maybe by sending assassins to kill former Deputy Ambassador Tae Yong-ho. Without knowing more, the reports could be pure speculation, but that speculation has a solid backing in history. In the last several years alone, North Korea has repeatedly dispatched assassins to murder North Korean refugees in the South.

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

One group that can’t be pleased about the resettlement is the North Korean leadership. Another is South Korea’s far left, specifically the lawyers’ group Minbyun, which tried to abuse the legal process to expose and publicly interrogate the women, as part of what I personally believe was a plan to deter more defections. Minbyun’s failure is further cause for celebration, although it may have succeeded in deterring other defections.

Life will not be easy for these women. Concerns for their safety will prohibit them from becoming going on book tours or joining the cast of “Now on My Way to Meet You.”

They’ll be lonely, isolated from family, and wracked by guilt about the fate of their families. They’ll probably be isolated from their former colleagues, to protect each other from exposure in case the Reconnaissance General Bureau finds and turns one of them, perhaps by using family members as hostages. As long as the regime in Pyongyang survives, they will wonder if they can trust even their closest friends, yet their dialects and manners will be conspicuous in a country where neighbors often know a great deal about one another. Nor would I put it past far-left groups to try to stalk and out them. But for now, at least Minbyun will have the consolation of four new victims to bully — the family of Thae Yong-ho, who recently said this about the Ningpo 12:

I just can’t process that much irony. Look for Minbyun to file for an extradition request any day now.

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Yet another North Korean slush fund manager vanishes, this time in Europe

I’m no expert, but I don’t see how this could be a coincidence.

A North Korean official managing money for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Europe has disappeared, raising speculation that he might have defected with a large amount of state funds, a local media report said Friday.

Citing anonymous sources, major local daily newspaper the Dong-A Ilbo reported that the official in charge of money management for the so-called No. 39 office of the Workers’ Party vanished in June. The office is known for running money for Kim’s regime.

The North Korean official is currently staying in an unidentified European country. He and his two sons are also under the protection of local authorities, the report claimed.

The media report, which has not been independently verified, said that he disappeared with hundreds of billions of won that had been under his management. He was reported to have worked in the same European country for the past 20 years. [Yonhap]

For those of you keeping track, in the last year, that’s one banker from Russia, one diplomat from Russia, a colonel in the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the number two guy at the embassy in London, and possibly the general who runs Pyongyang’s money laundering operations in Southeast Asia. For reasons I explained here, I also believe we know a great deal about the location of North Korean slush funds in China.

According to informed sources, 10 North Korean diplomats defected to the South last year, but the number had reached almost the same level in the first half of this year. Of these defectors, most came from the North’s overseas missions in Europe, with some coming from Southeast Asian countries. [Yonhap]

rats sinking ship

As I said about Thae Yong-ho’s defection: trends that can’t continue, don’t. By now, there can be little doubt that if U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies are cooperating, they must know where a large portion (if not the majority) of North Korean slush funds are. Of course, the North Koreans will be scrambling to move that money today. As they do, nervous bankers around the world will be filing Suspicious Transaction Reports. Gleeful regulators will tent their fingers and cackle watching them make stupid mistakes. This is a rare opportunity — too rare to waste.

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“Citizens of Pyongyang, my name is Thae Yong-ho.”

When the news broke yesterday that North Korea’s Deputy Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Thae Yong-ho, had defected, many reporters who knew him were astonished. Subject to the confirmation of reports that a North Korean general and several diplomats defected in China recently, Thae would be the highest-ranking diplomat to have defected from the North, and the second-highest official, after Hwang Jang-yop‘s defection in 1997.

This is a new low in a bad year for Kim Jong-un. Defections are not only rising in number — up 15 percent from last year, but still well below pre-Kim Jong-un levels — the songbun levels of the defectors themselves are also rising. It isn’t just the lowly, downtrodden, and expendable who are fleeing now. Defections and protests are breaking out among the elite classes, vetted workers, and senior officials. Defections and small-scale mutinies within the military aren’t new, but those also seem to be rising.

Asked if this means “that North Korea is on the verge of collapse,” Christopher Green says, “Absolutely not.” But the only thing we can say “absolutely” is that no one outside Pyongyang can be absolutely certain of anything, and especially not now. The Pyongyang elite is the world’s most insular group of people. No one — with the possible exception of Thae and a few of his former confederates — should pretend to know, and not even they can predict it. All I can say is that trends that can’t continue won’t.

Thae was not just any North Korean diplomat, but an unusually high-profile one in an important post (Pyongyang’s current Foreign Minister is a former Ambassador to the U.K.). One of Thae’s duties was to monitor (and perhaps, to intimidate, or to turn) the growing population of North Korean refugees in Britain, something North Korea sometimes does by threatening their loved ones. Thae, unlike most of them, was fortunate enough to have the option of getting his own wife and two sons out, and the NIS’s help in carrying out a “scrupulous plan” for doing that. As of this morning, NK News reported that the family had arrived in South Korea.

Another of Thae’s duties was to protest against unflattering portrayals of his country and its leader, including (to the amusement of many) a satirical appropriation of His Porcine Majesty’s image by a hair salon. Thae could also have voiced North Korea’s objections to a proposed British television series in 2014. Other duties included serving as the “sole point-person for visa issues at the embassy” and taking Kim Jong-chol to a Clapton concert.

But Thae Yong-ho’s most important duty was to act as his justly despised regime’s (arguably) most oleaginous and effective mouthpiece. He did this job well, judging by the shock of the reporters and Korea-watchers who thought they knew him. They described him as “smooth and debonair,” “so middle-class, so conservative, so dapper,” “[c]harming, smart and with impeccable English,” “[d]ebonair and well-spoken” with a “measured style.” One man who knew him seemed shocked that Thae “had never given any hint of disloyalty to the regime, not a flicker of doubt,” which really shouldn’t be shocking at all. 


Thae seems articulate by North Korean diplomatic standards — yes, that is an oxymoron — although I also perceive some soft bigotry of low expectations in some of these judgments (to be clear, I don’t mean Pearson here). Still, is it any wonder why a guy like that wouldn’t want to go back to North Korea? Of course, certain bookstores in Jeremy Corbin’s England must seem at least a little bit like North Korea at times. Even I sympathize with Thae’s position as Pyongyang’s agent of influence when he must humor this klatsch of insufferable, Chomsky-thumping pseudo-intellectual poseurs.

How could Thae so convincingly project such belief in a system he secretly wanted to flee? The answer is “practice.” Natan Sharanksy’s “The Case for Democracy” is, without much doubt, a book of ideas with more merit for some societies than others, and much first-person wisdom about the psychology of those who live in totalitarian societies. One of the concepts Sharansky explains to his readers is “doublethink” — how a life lived under totalitarianism teaches people to compartmentalize the things they believe from the things they must believe.

It must also be the case that one who lives in a totalitarian society can simultaneously harbor views that seem mutually contradictory to us. North Koreans might feel nationalist pride in nuclear and missile tests while wishing that the state would spend its money on feeding their hungry children instead. They might despise both their government and its enemies. They might loathe America and secretly long to visit or live there. They might take pride in their purity while craving the impure. They might hate Kim Jong-un and revere his grandfather (if reservedly). When your job is to persuade a skeptical world of the things you must believe, self-delusion becomes essential to your livelihood, and to survival itself.

Which is to say that on a certain level, Thae may have believed much of what he said in defense of the regime he served with one part of his mind, while knowing in another, compartmentalized part of it that he was lying to everyone in the room — himself most of all — when he defended North Korea’s record on human rights.

That, or he was just a really good liar.

What caused Thae to flee, and what do his reasons tell us about broader political trends, or vulnerabilities? Our only direct evidence is what the South Korean government said about Thae’s reasons.

“About the motive of defection, it is known that Councillor Thae revealed he got sick and tired of the Kim Jong Un regime and yearned for a liberal and democratic regime, concerned about the future of his children,” MoU spokesperson Jeong added.

The spokesperson added that the defection illustrated the “North’s core layer considers there is no hope for the Kim Jong Un regime anymore… the perception that the North Korean regime already reached breaking point has been spreading and internal unity among the ruling class has been weakened. [NK News]

If you suspect that this is spin, it certainly sounds like it, although that guess makes as much sense as any other. A Yonhap “News Focus” piece goes further, arguing that Thae’s defection comes “amid increasing talk in South Korea about signs of a possible exodus by privileged North Koreans who are feeling the squeeze of international sanctions.” I’d like to believe this, but the piece offers little evidence that sanctions played a role in Thae’s defection.

Yonhap’s report then cites a researcher at the Sejong Institute, who speculates that “[i]n the face of new U.S. sanctions against North Korea’s human rights violations, which specifically targeted leader Kim Jong-un, Thae must have felt ever more inner conflict in his position to promote North Korea.” I’d love to believe that theory, too, but I still don’t see any direct evidence to support it. 

The same Sejong researcher also speculates that Thae “may have been exposed to frequent criticism from Western countries … and that might have spawned psychological conflicts.” Similarly, the Joongang Ilbo’s first anonymously sourced report claims that Thae “had been under growing pressure from Pyongyang to combat the diplomatic heat from the international community over North Korean violations of human rights.”

Or, maybe he got in trouble for recommending visas for the BBC correspondent who was detained and expelled for saying unflattering things about the regime in Pyongyang. Or, maybe he couldn’t stand the thought of facing those insufferable bookstore Chomskyites again. Or, maybe Pyongyang wanted to move him before his kids finished school. 

Here’s another possible explanation.

rats sinking ship

Thae’s defection will be an embarrassment to Pyongyang, but Kim Jong-un can surely survive the embarrassment of Thae Yong-ho’s alienation if he can survive the embarrassment of Dennis Rodman’s friendship. Thae’s laptop, cell phone, and bank records could help identify bank accounts, shell companies, and other illicit revenue schemes the London embassy uses to finance its operations. Given his role in Pyongyang’s influence operations, he may be able to identify spies and unregistered agents of influence in Europe, South Korea, or even the U.S. His very defection will cause the regime to redouble restrictions on, and monitoring of, its overseas personnel, and call home those it deems less than fully trustworthy. These precautions will feed the death spiral that undermines the loyalty of the remaining overseas personnel, who must work even harder to meet their earnings quotas.

The greatest potential that Thae may bring to Seoul, however, will be his perspective and talent for persuasion. Here is a man who can lie intelligently and convincingly. Just imagine how persuasive he’d be if he really believed himself. You can already see where I’m going with this, right?

The report cited a North Korean woman from South Pyeongan Province currently in China as saying that television signals transmitted from South Korea can be picked up in areas near Pyongyang such as Pyongsong and Sunchon.

She said that people who are watching South Korean television are mostly the elite class and they are strictly keeping it a secret.

Another source on North Korean affairs noted that South Korean TV programs can be viewed in Pyongyang as well as the Hwanghae and Hamgyeong provinces and coastal cities.

The source said that signals are particularly well received on flat lands and along coastlines, adding that images are more clear on cloudy days. [KBS]

Thae has undoubtedly done some terrible things to gain and keep his position. I doubt he had much choice. But if he wants to redeem himself as a transformational figure in Korean history, he has the potential that the wooden, doctrinaire, and charismatically challenged Hwang Jong-yop never had. I imagine that would work something like this.

[Kinda works for the last New Hampshire primaries, too.]

It has long been my view that governments place too much value on secrecy and too little value on public diplomacy and persuasion. Imagine the profound subversive impact on audiences in Pyongyang to see Thae speak the truth about why he defected. I can think of no better messenger to tell Pyongyang’s elites why they must reform and disarm or perish.

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S. Korea’s quisling left goes all-out to bully N. Koreans out of defecting, and it just might work

We still have few details and no confirmation regarding the reported defection of that North Korean general in China, other than this Korea Times report that he absconded with $40 million, and that he “was in charge of Section 39 inside the Korean Workers’ Party.” (KBS had reported that he was in charge of regime slush funds in southeast Asia only.) The Korea Times report probably refers to what’s more commonly referred to as Bureau 39, Room 39, or Office 39, the North Korean government’s official money-laundering agency. It also claims that the general has two family members with him. (The KBS report said that he defected with three other officials.)

The South Korean government is confirming nothing, but denying nothing. Having watched the Korean press report anonymously sourced NIS leaks for more than a decade now, the inconsistencies aren’t surprising, but my gut tells me there’s a grain of truth to the reports. They would also fit with the broader trend I’m hearing on the street from knowledgeable people — that the North Korean elites have lost faith in Kim Jong-un, and are feeling their way to the exits. My gut also tells me that this time, China may be deferring to Pyongyang to pressure Seoul over THAAD.

I wish I could say that South Korea’s hard left, most prominently represented these days by the lawyers’ group Minbyun, had also lost its faith in Kim Jong-un. Sadly for South Korean history, Minbyun is no fringe group; it has already produced one South Korean president and one presidential candidate. Once, it defended human rights against right-wing South Korean dictators, but since then, it has lost its way. Today, Minbyun wages lawfare for North Korean dictators. It fraudulently represents itself as a human rights group while abusing the law to deny North Korean refugees their human rights. It has taken to doing this by bullying 12 young North Korean women who had the courage to flee the from a restaurant in China, where their government had effectively impressed them into forced labor.

[These are the people Minbyun is using the courts to terrorize.]

Minbyun has demanded the right to interrogate the women — publicly, before the eyes of the North Korean authorities who hold their loved ones as hostages — about their intentions to defect. This would be in flagrant violation of a refugee’s absolute right to confidentiality, a right the U.N. High Commission for Refugees has long affirmed. When the judge correctly dismissed Minbyun’s petition, Minbyun demanded that the judge be removed from the case. Since then, an appellate court has refused to remove the judge.

The justification for Minbyun’s legally frivolous petition is North Korea’s factually absurd claim that the South Korean intelligence service kidnapped the women. Minbyun’s real goal is to terrorize would-be refugees, to deter a surge of defections that could bring down the regime in Pyongyang. In furtherance of this campaign, the left-wing Hankyoreh Sinmun even reported — falsely — that the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights office in Seoul would send staff to Pyongyang to interview the family members of the 13 refugees to investigate the abduction claims, but the OHCHR later denied this. Whether this was disinformation, or just another case of the Hankyoreh doing sloppy, poorly-sourced reporting without checking with the primary sources, I can’t say.

Even worse, Amnesty International briefly seemed to take Minbyun’s side when it reportedly “called on the South Korean government to disclose more information about the 13.” You’d think that a human rights organization would have a better grasp of the legal and practical reasons why the South Korean government should not disclose more information about them. You’d think it would grasp the obvious reality that the families in Pyongyang are under the control and manipulation of the state. It said that “the North Koreans have been unable to access lawyers,” which is also false — they’re being represented zealously, by a lawyer recommended by the Korean Bar Association. (If you’re an Amnesty donor, ask Amnesty to repudiate this misguided effort, or consider moving your donations elsewhere.)

Which brings us back to the story of the general, and three other North Koreans who allegedly defected with him. While the truth struggles to put its pants on, they’ve provided evidence that Minbyun’s lawfare influenced their plans.

The source said the four didn’t choose to defect to South Korea partly because of a petition by the Lawyers for a Democratic Society filed last month for habeas corpus relief of 12 North Korean restaurant workers in China who defected to Seoul in April. [KBS Radio]

I suppose it’s possible that the lawyers at Minbyun aren’t willful servants of puppet masters in Pyongyang; they could just be exceptionally and selectively gullible. What’s clear is that they’re abusing the legal process to make a patently frivolous case that flies in the face of the absolute right of confidentiality that all refugees are guaranteed under the 1951 U.N. convention. There is also fresh evidence that lives are at stake here.

North Korea publicly executed six officials in charge of supervision of its workers overseas in May following the defection of 13 workers at a North Korean-run restaurant in China a month earlier, a local Pyongyang watcher said Friday.

“North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered six officials, including intelligence officials, to be executed publicly on May 5 due to their lack of control over overseas (North Korean) workers,” Choi Seong-yong, chairman of the Abductees’ Family Union, claimed, citing people familiar with the matter.

Eighty public officials and 100 people who have their family members working overseas were forced to watch the execution, he said.

In early April, a group of 12 women and one man fled from a North Korea-run restaurant in China’s eastern port city of Ningbo and defected to South Korea. In the following month, three female workers at a North Korean restaurant in the midwest city of Shanxi reportedly defected to the South.

“North Korea locked the families of the defectors up and forced them to take ideological education at a training facility in Myohyang Mountain, in the northern part of the communist country,” Choi said. [Yonhap]

Meanwhile, in the South Korean consulate in Hong Kong, an 18-year-old North Korean student who defected from a mathematics tournament waits for the word that will determine whether he lives in freedom or dies in terror.

Obviously, there would be no reason for North Korea to shoot six people in front of 180 other people if the South Korean NIS really had kidnapped the 13 restaurant workers. Only an imbecile or a shill could believe Pyongyang’s claim, but South Korea is a society afflicted by a vocal minority of people who, though often technologically advanced, highly educated, and academically intelligent, are also logically retarded. In other cases, there is a simpler explanation for these people.

Some obvious cautions apply to this report, of course. I can easily believe that Pyongyang would murder hostages, or even plant false stories that it’s murdering hostages in the hope of coercing would-be defectors, but this is, after all, an anonymously sourced story from inside the world’s most secretive regime. The principle stands that the public interrogations of refugees from a place like North Korea can endanger lives. The principle also stands that Minbyun doesn’t care.

As I said before, the proper answer to Minbyun’s demands is for the South Korean government to give representatives of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees access to all 13 workers — the 12 who are the subject of Minbyun’s petition, and the one who isn’t. The 13 could then express their actual intentions to the UNHCR. Those expressions, and the very fact of the UNHCR interview, must remain absolutely confidential. In fact, if that interview had already taken place, we wouldn’t know, and shouldn’t know.

In any other civilized country, lawyers who abuse the process to terrorize the innocent and vulnerable would be disbarred, but not in South Korea. The many reasons I look forward to the North Korean revolution include my anticipation of reading the names of all the South Korean — and American? — agents in the Reconnaissance General Bureau’s personnel files. Also, its hit list.

But in the end, will Minyun’s efforts be enough? Not if the recent surge in defections represents the beginnings of a preference cascade against the regime. Not if Pyongyang is losing control of the borders Kim Jong-un has struggled so much to seal. The Unification Ministry is reporting that after declining each year since Kim Jong-un came to power, the number of defectors reaching South Korea rose more than 15% in the first half of this year. The regime is stepping up searches, including strip searches, of people leaving the country, apparently in an effort to catch those who might be carrying out their life’s savings in gold. Human smuggling is also on the rise again. Border guards, armed and unarmed, are crossing the border, or robbing North Korean civilians, out of apparent desperation, embittering the civilian population. In the end, however, China can do much to contain these outbreaks, as it has for years.

Meanwhile, Seoul has figured out that one effective response to fake abduction claims is to assert real ones. It has begun to raise demands that the U.N. investigate North Korea’s abduction of its own citizens, and those demands have gained traction at Turtle Bay. The U.N. may not be taking Pyongyang’s abduction claims seriously, but it is calling on North Korea to provide information about 14 South Koreans believed to be held captive in North Korea, including crew members from a South Korean plane that was hijacked to Pyongyang 47 years ago by a North Korean spy named Cho Chang-hee. One South Korean politician claims that North Korea is holding 500 South Koreans, but that figure excludes tens of thousands of others kidnapped during the Korean War, and prisoners of war held back in violation of the 1953 Korean War Armistice.

It’s about time. Governments that value the lives and liberties of their citizens should consistently demand the return of those who are kidnapped or unjustly imprisoned. The only regrettable aspect of Seoul’s demands is that it’s only now making them publicly, giving them the taint of tit-for-tat. But then, one could hardly expect Seoul to have made those demands while it labored under the illusion that appeasing North Korea would ever bring peace.

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Latest N. Korea defections: 6 soldiers, 3 workers, a top student, a general & slush fund manager

It has been three months since 12 young women and a man defected from that North Korean restaurant in Ningpo, China, and since 100 North Korean workers in Kuwait staged a mass protest against their minders. I’d begun to wonder if the regime had cauterized the wounded cohesion of the very people it needs most desperately to pay its bills and seal its borders, but the drops of fresh blood on the floor tell another story. Let’s begin with the most painful — and potentially, lethal — loss.

Anchor: A general who was in charge of managing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s overseas slush funds is said to be in China after escaping from his country, and is seeking political asylum with two other North Koreans in a country other than South Korea. A source said that the three were separated from a diplomat from Pyongyang, who is seeking his own defection to another country. [….]

Report: It has been made known that a general escaped from North Korea and is seeking political asylum in a country other than South Korea. A source in China, who works in collaboration with Seoul government officials, on Thursday revealed the recent defection of the general, a diplomat and two others.  The source said that the North Korean military officer was in charge of managing Kim Jong-un’s slush funds in Southeast Asia. [KBS Radio]

The general was on a business trip in China meeting with three other North Koreans when he and two others parted ways with the third, a diplomat, and slipped away and sought asylum in “a country other than South Korea.” The diplomat is reportedly still in China, making his own plans to defect. Why not South Korea? In a word, “Minbyun,” but that topic deserves its own post.

Also, ineradicable historical ignominy.

KBS notes that this is the first known defection of a North Korean general. Indeed, by my reckoning, it would be the highest-ranking defection from North Korea since Hwang Jang-yop defected in 1997. KBS had no further information about the two North Koreans who defected with the general, or about the position held by the diplomat.

The source said that the four North Koreans decided to leave their country due to their dissatisfaction with the Kim Jong-un regime and pessimistic views about the future of the country. [KBS Radio]

So. One of the men who knows the most about Kim Jong-un’s finances — and presumably, its sanctions evasion strategy — secretly despised His Porcine Majesty and is convinced that his regime has no future. As we speak, the CIA or another friendly intelligence agency may be debriefing him, filling Excel spreadsheets and databases with bank names and account numbers, copying all the numbers in his cell phone, and imaging his laptop. All of that information will be cross-checked against the intelligence windfalls we presumably collected from the Reconnaissance General Bureau colonel who defected last year; from Yun Tae-hyong of Daesong Bank, who defected in Russia in 2014; and from North Korean diplomat Kim Chol-song, who was last seen earlier this month at Pulkovo Airport in St. Petersburg with his family, as they boarded a flight to Minsk and points west.

When asked why they don’t block all of His Supreme Corpulency’s slush funds, Treasury officials have answered that since the great training exercise for North Korean money launderers known as Banco Delta Asia (thank you, Chris Hill) the North Koreans have diversified and hidden their funds, and there are no equally vulnerable “nodes” that can be blocked anymore. These defections may well remove that excuse, and because of new compliance rules imposed by Treasury and the EU, banks may hesitate to move those North Korean funds again. If properly exploited, that intelligence would send His Corpulency schussing down a steep slope to bankruptcy.

fat lady sings

[As all the peace studies grad students know, sanctions never work.]

And in other North Korea defection news, three North Korean workers in Malta reportedly defected to South Korea last summer.

In response to the Yonhap report, the Ministry of Unification said it is true that there were North Koreans who defected from Malta to South Korea last year but there were no North Korean defectors from the island in 2016. “We cannot provide any further details on North Korean defectors as we are responsible for their security here,” a unification ministry official said asking not to be named. [Yonhap]

God forbid Minbyun’s “human rights” lawyers should demand the right to interrogate them in open court, too. 

Also defecting this week was one of North Korea’s top math students, who slipped away from his minders in Hong Kong and into the local South Korean consulate.

An article from the Ming Pao newspaper claimed the defector is 18, and was participating in a recent International Mathematics Olympiad held in Hong Kong from July 6 – 16.

“We can’t verify that. Please understand the South Korean government can’t release information regarding defectors for their own safety and possible diplomatic disputes that might occur with the concerned party,” the South Korean Foreign Ministry said during a Thursday briefing.

According to the report the student is still inside the South Korean compound, and is heavily guarded with armed anti-terrorist units from Hong Kong’s police forces. [NK News, JH Ahn]

Interestingly enough, the North Korean team placed sixth out of over 100 teams from around the world. Despite that impressive performance, KCNA hasn’t said a word about the team’s performance this year — for some reason — although it reported last year’s results the very next day. I’ve often said that one of the saddest things about the grand tragedy of North Korea is the loss of so much human potential there.

Also joining the flight from the Workers’ Paradise are five armed North Korean soldiers who had abandoned their posts for the more lucrative business of robbing Chinese civilians, when they got into a lips-versus-teeth gunfight with Chinese police, seriously wounding several of them. The Chinese captured two of the soldiers, but three others are still at large.

The source who lives near the Sino-China (sic) border region told Yonhap News Agency that the two were part of a group of five who illegally crossed the border near the North Korean city of Hyesan last Saturday and robbed people living in two rural villages at gunpoint.

They were holed up at a house in the Changbai Korean Autonomous County when Chinese border guard and police tried to apprehend them early Thursday. In the ensuing gun fight the culprits were arrested, although three others got away.

The Chinese national police then said that several Chinese security forces were injured in the process with two detectives receiving serious wounds requiring them to be evacuated to a hospital in Changchun.

“Chinese authorities are chasing the three runaways and telling people to be extra careful,” the source said.

He said Chinese authorities confirmed the robbers were armed with guns and had ammunition, and were North Korean military deserters. The provincial government and security forces imposed a curfew at night to protect citizens. [Yonhap]

This incident appears to be unrelated to another defection by a border guard, reported by the Daily NK last week, in a different sector of the border.

“The border patrol soldier, based in Onsong County, North Hamgyong Province, escaped across the Tumen River on Wednesday (July 20) at approximately 4 p.m.,” a source close to North Korean affairs in China told Daily NK on July 22.

“The soldier is an unarmed male believed to be around 20 years old. He was spotted in Kaishantun, China–a town across the Tumen River from Onsong County, North Korea. China’s border patrol units were dispatched to the area after receiving a tip from a resident, but the soldier slipped away and his whereabouts are unknown.” [Daily NK]

If you’re wondering why a North Korean soldier would be desperate enough to do something so suicidal, read Rimjin-gang’s new report on the history of the North Korean military’s hunger problem, complete with clandestine photos of skeletal young soldiers begging passersby for food, or on their way to hospitals.

201106-07NK_pyeongyang_gu_0-1

These reports are only the latest in a series of desertions, fraggings, and mutinies in the North Korean military that suggest that its discipline has come unglued, and is held together by nothing more than fear and food. Like the Ningpo and Kuwait incidents, group defections and mutinies tell us that disgruntled North Koreans are angry and desperate enough to share their views of the state and conspire against it.

In normal times, none of these things would be “in other news.” The times do not seem normal for North Korea anymore. What I’d give anything to know is whether these events mean that the regime can’t pay its bills and feed its soldiers anymore, and why. It wouldn’t be the first evidence of that kind we’ve seen in recent weeks. Surely this is the time when broadcasts to North Korea must send its soldiers the urgent message not to kill civilians, or each other. On this decision rests the future of all Koreans.

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Minbyun’s frivolous lawfare terrorizes 12 young N. Korean refugees & endangers lives.

The western association of “left” with “liberal” does not hold up well in South Korea, whose political spectrum is dominated by warring factions of nationalists. These factions wield the law as an authoritarian sword against their rivals, and as a (sometimes flimsy) shield against their rivals’ authoritarian assaults. Historically, the worst authoritarianism was on the political right before the transition to democracy in 1987. The left still fuels its moral propulsion from the nostalgia of dissent dating back to this time, but the authoritarian imperative survives, throughout Korea’s political spectrum.

In 2003, a left-wing human rights lawyer named Roh Moo-hyun fell, moist and unsteady, from the womb of a leftist lawyers’ group called Minbyun (Lawyers for a Democratic Society) into the presidency of the Republic. But Roh’s government was no paragon of liberal democratic virtues. It threatened opposition newspapers with tax audits, and the union goons and radicals it subsidized intimidated their enemies with iron pipes and bamboo poles.

Time and again, Roh’s allies were exposed as North Korean agents of influence, or worse. For the sake of Kim Jong-il’s tender sensitivities, his government overlooked the greatest crimes against humanity in the long history of the Korean nation. There were the disgraceful U.N. abstentions when the U.N. General Assembly voted to condemn human rights abuses in the North, and a callous die-in-place policy toward North Korean refugees. Those policies are consistent with Minbyun’s views, too, but you won’t read anything about them, or about human rights in North Korea, on Minbyun’s blog. That topic has been trotskied out of the approved history.

In 2012, Minbyun very nearly gave the Republic a second president in Moon Jae-in. Another Minbyun alumnus, Mayor Park Won-soon of Seoul, may run for the presidency in 2017. No organization is as identifiable with the elite of South Korea’s political left as Minbyun.

In light of Minbyun’s history of agnosticism about the atrocities in the North, its sudden interest in the welfare of 12 young North Korean women who risked their lives and their families to defect from a regime-run restaurant in China earlier this year seems uncharacteristic, even suspicious. (For reasons that aren’t clear to me, the proceedings of only 12 of the 13 are in contention.)

Ningpo 13

[12 of the Ningpo 13, and 5 colleagues who stayed behind.]

Minbyun has filed a habeas corpus petition “to check whether the defectors moved to South Korea on a voluntary basis.” It is a question with no evidentiary basis but the North Korean government’s unsupported allegation that South Korea kidnapped them; it’s also what Anna Freud would have called “projection.” Under Korean law, “people housed in state-run facilities” can petition to the courts for their own protection. In this case, however, the refugees aren’t behind that petition. In fact, they’re begging the court to deny it.

What Minbyun demands is nothing less than the right to interrogate 12 terrified refugees whom it doesn’t represent, in open court, in a city where multiple North Korean spies have been arrested for collecting information about refugees, and even for attempting to assassinate the most politically active ones. Pyongyang has also used threats against refugees’ family members to coerce them into going back.

Of course, the notion that Seoul would send abduction squads to China to kidnap North Korean waitresses is so asinine that only the sort of people who still cling to Cheonan conspiracy theories would entertain it. Surely the Chinese authorities would have said something, either at the time or now, if there were anything to it. As Choi Song-min, himself a North Korean refugee, asks in an opinion piece for the Daily NK, just what legitimate purpose could Minbyun’s interrogation possibly have? How long could such a secret be kept in South Korea’s open society after the 13 enter South Korean society to start their new lives?  On what basis does it believe the North Korean government’s accusation and disbelieve the South Korean government’s denial? Has it thought through the consequences of forcing the refugees to go on the record publicly?

We’ll get to all of those questions.

The problems with Minbyun’s argument go beyond its illogic and the lack of credible evidence to support it. The claim is legally frivolous. Neither Minbyun, nor the family members of the 12, nor their ventriloquists in the Reconnaissance General Bureau have any standing to intervene in an asylum proceeding. Granting Minbyun’s petition would not only violate the refugees’ internationally recognized right to confidentiality, it would endanger lives. Not only would it endanger the lives of the 12 and their families, it would have a chilling effect on any other future asylum claims by North Koreans in South Korea.

The 12 already have a lawyer, Park Young-sik, from by the law firm of Bae, Kim, and Lee. Park was recommended by the Korean Bar Association, an organization that has long shown a deep concern for the human rights of North Koreans by compiling and publishing book-length scholarly reports on North Korea’s prison camps (I’ve cited them for these pages on North Korea’s prison camps). Park insists that his clients have all told him that they want to stay in South Korea, have no interest in meeting with Minbyun, and want Minbyun to go away and leave them alone. Park has made those representations to the court, and so far, the court has been satisfied with them.

So what business does Minbyun have in intervening? It claims to represent the families of the 13, back in North Korea, using a power of attorney obtained either through an unnamed U.S. citizen in China or a Chinese journalism professor. (The details are vague, although Minbyun certainly didn’t have much trouble finding someone in Pyongyang to authorize its intervention.)

And yes, Park was retained by the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS), which helped get the Ningpo 13 out of China, but which undoubtedly has a sordid history. Minbyun’s skepticism would be a virtue if it weren’t so selective.

While Minbyun chases Pyongyang’s unsupported abduction claims through the courts in Seoul, it shows its more credulous side to Pyongyang, which recently “allowed an Associated Press Television crew to interview some of the colleagues and parents of the waitresses.” Yet even the AP, which has hardly distinguished itself for questioning Pyongyang’s narratives — it has even used North Korean regime-supplied “journalists” to “interview” subjects — concedes that “it is common for authorities to coach interviewees beforehand to make sure they stay on message.” Even the AP acknowledges that Pyongyang, in making the parents available for an interview, appeared to be “trying to capitalize” on “concerns for family left behind.” Lest there be any doubt about Pyongyang’s game: “[O]ur leader Kim Jong Un is waiting for you, parents and siblings are waiting for you, please come back.” 

Later, after the twelve young women exercised their legal right not to be hauled into court for committing no crime, citing the fear of “possible reprisals against their relatives in North Korea,” Minbyun demanded that the judge be replaced because he’s a Mexican because he denied their frivolous attempt to abuse the legal process to terrorize twelve brave, frightened young women.

All in the name of human rights, of course.

I should explain why I call Minbyun’s case “frivolous.” When countries ratify treaties, they give those treaties preemptive effect over national law. The relevant treaty here is the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention which, along with its 1967 protocol, provides certain legal protections to refugees. South Korea has ratified both documents, and international law has recognized that the absolute confidentiality of asylum applications is one of those legal protections. Here’s how our own government applies it, and here’s how the U.N. High Commission for Refugees explains it:

2.1 Confidentiality in UNHCR RSD Procedures

   2.1.1 The Applicant’s Right to Confidentiality

  • The confidentiality of UNHCR RSD procedures is essential to creating an environment of security and trust for asylum seekers who approach UNHCR. All UNHCR staff, including interpreters and security staff, as well as any implementing partners, counsellors or medical practitioners who provide services to asylum seekers and refugees under agreement with UNHCR, are under a duty to ensure the confidentiality of information received from or about asylum seekers and refugees, including the fact that an individual has registered or is in contact with UNHCR.

  • UNHCR standards regarding the confidentiality of information about asylum seekers and refugees should be incorporated into RSD procedures in every UNHCR Office, and should be understood by all UNHCR staff and any other individuals who are responsible for implementing the RSD procedures. Specific recommendations for ensuring confidentiality in each stage of the RSD procedures are proposed in the relevant sections of this document.

  • Applicants for RSD should be informed of their right to confidentiality in UNHCR procedures. Any limits on the right to confidentiality, including information sharing arrangements with host country authorities or resettlement countries where applicable, should be explained to the Applicant (see § 2.1.3 – Disclosure to Host Country Authorities). Applicants should also be advised that the UNHCR Offices may share information with UNHCR Headquarters or other UNHCR Offices.

  • Applicants should be assured that UNHCR will not contact or share any information regarding the Applicant with the country of origin, unless expressly authorized to do so by the Applicant. [UNHCR]

Given that Minbyun claims to represent the family members in North Korea, presumably, it intends to tell those family members what its questioning reveals. Whatever Minbyun tells the family members, they’ll certainly tell their own interrogators in Pyongyang. What Minbyun knows, Pyongyang also knows, in clear violation of the refugees’ internationally recognized right to confidentiality. Surely Minbyun is well aware of this right, although I’ve yet to find a journalist who has reported it. Not a single reporter who covered this story — not the New York Times’s consistently biased Choe Sang-hun, not one of the three NK News reporters who covered it, and none of the conservative papers that defended the NIS’s position — has cited or referred to this inviolable right.

Minbyun points out that Pyongyang already knows who the 12 are, so what’s the harm? Park Young-sik answers that question with a question of his own: “What’s going to happen for a defector’s family if the defector’s motivation and process of defection is revealed?”

“They believe that their families’ lives will be threatened if they openly testify that they fled the North of their own free will,” Park said. “They don’t want to be exposed openly in the media and draw attention, and they don’t want to appear in court,” Park added. “In this situation, forcing them to appear and testify in open court might seriously infringe their human rights.” [Chosun Ilbo]

The moment Minbyun gains the right to interrogate the 12, lives will be in danger. If they’re forced to reaffirm their asylum claims in public, Minbyun will have succeeded in winning its “clients” a slow death in the gulag. If, knowing and fearing this, the 12 publicly renounce their asylum claims, they’ll be sent back to North Korea and a dark, uncertain fate. And if Minbyun establishes a precedent that it has a right to interrogate refugees every time Pyongyang trots out a terrified family member as a cat’s-paw plaintiff, no North Korean refugee would ever dare to enter South Korea again.

“The North’s claim is absurd in that it could dismantle the system of North Korean defectors’ entry into the South and their protection.” Unification Ministry spokesman Chung Joon-hui said, “The North Korean waitresses are undergoing the due course for legal protection, which is designed to support their settlement in South Korean society.”

“If this is how it works, whenever North Korean defectors come to South Korea, and if someone who claims that he or she has been commissioned by the defectors’ families in the North file a lawsuit, the court should determine whether those defectors voluntary defected or not. It is like conducting collective interrogation of the defectors in public before North Korea,” a South Korean government source said. “If so, we doubt whether any North Koreans will dare to defect to the South.” [Joongang Ilbo]

The practical effect of this? South Korea would have effectively renounced the Refugee Convention, at least with respect to refugees from North Korea.

To the extent anyone entertains Pyongyang’s spurious claims, as Minbyun does, there is a safe and easy way to resolve them. South Korea could (and should) let a UNHCR representative interview the 12. The representative could submit an affidavit attesting to their decision in a closed proceeding. The court should then deny Minbyun’s motion, seal the record, and reiterate that courts will continue to honor the confidentiality of asylum proceedings. If Minbyun were sincere, that’s exactly what it would have asked the court to do. Of course, it would have no right to know who the refugees met with. The very fact that a refugee has contacted a UNHCR representative is confidential.

In fact, for all we know, that meeting has already happened.

ningpo 13

[From the Ministry of Unification, via NK News]

The latest word is that the 12 have filed a complaint with local prosecutors that Minbyun is violating the National Security Law. That’s not the strategy I’d have chosen, because it plays right into Minbyun’s nostalgia of victimhood, but then, I’m not a terrified young refugee from North Korea, either. Just try to imagine the terror, heartache, and confusion these young women must be feeling right now. It does cause me to wonder whether South Korea has an attorney licensing authority to discipline lawyers who file unethical motions to abuse the process, and who are waging a cynical campaign of lawfare against 12 vulnerable and terrified young refugees. Minbyun’s lawyers probably shouldn’t be jailed, but they should be disbarred.

The best thing you can say about Minbyun is that it doesn’t give two shits who it gets killed or sent to a prison camp. But then, Minbyun never gave Shit One about the prison camps anyway. Its lawyers can’t be complete idiots, especially lawyers clever enough to create such a terrifying paradox. They must know exactly the danger they’re putting these people in. Everyone from government officials to editorial writers to refugees to Park Young-sik has explained it for them. But of course, if Minbyun is deliberately trying to terrorize refugees, no amount of explanation will discourage them. That’s clearly Pyongyang’s aim, and that’s who’s controlling Minbyun’s “clients.”

Viewing Minbyun’s motives this way has the advantage of making more sense than any other explanation. The defection of the Ningpo 13 wasn’t just a tremendous embarrassment to Pyongyang, it’s a threat to the very stability of the regime. A group defection of a dozen vetted daughters of the Pyongyang elite is so unprecedented — so unthinkable — that it threatens to become a preference cascade by other members of the elite. The defection of the Ningpo 13 was followed by a smaller group defection from another restaurant, an astonishing mass protest by 100 North Korean workers in Kuwait, the defection of two other workers in Qatar, and most recently, rumors of yet another group defection from China. This, despite Pyongyang’s redoubling of the indoctrination of its overseas slaves and extra precautions to keep them under control.

In its desperation to make examples and prevent further outbreaks of dissent, Pyongyang fulminated, threatened, and transparently tried to use the refugees’ loved ones as hostagesWhat Pyongyang needs now, as if its survival depends on it, is stooges with briefcases who would discard all notions of legal ethics, abuse the legal process to pervert international law, and perhaps, terrorize other North Korean refugees away from South Korea. It looks like Pyongyang has found its stooges. So give yourself a big fucking hand, Minbyun.

pilate

Just remember to wash them well afterward.

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The North Korean Army’s rape epidemic

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 8.12.22 AMA few days ago, the Korea Times carried a profile of Lee So-yeon, a native of Hoeryong in North Korea’s far northeast, who defected to the South in 2008, did menial jobs for a few years, later earned her bachelor’s degree in social welfare from Gukje Cyber University based in Suwon, and then founded an NGO called the North Korea Women’s Union.

Founded in 2011, the group hosts talks at schools and other groups, and provides job training and psychological counseling to defectors as well. What makes Lee, a defector, stand out is that she comes forth to speak about the ordeals of women defectors from North Korea.

“Whether it’s in the restaurant business, in the radio industry or something else, I believe North Korean defectors groups all are working for unification, for the democratization of North Korea and for change in North Korea,” Lee said in a recent interview at her office in Dangsan-dong, western Seoul. [Korea Times]

By Lee’s reckoning, she endured far less than other women refugees whose accounts she’s heard: “[W]hen I hear the stories of other female defectors, I think they are the stuff for movies.” After all, Lee was only caught and sent back for one attempted defection, and only spent one year in a North Korean prison for it. The interview briefly mentions that Lee previously served in the North Korean army’s signal corps, but doesn’t mention what she endured during her service. But elsewhere, Lee talked about what army life is like for female soldiers in North Korea, and what she said was horrifying.

“Out of 120 soldiers in my unit, there were only 20 men, but they were all high-ranking officers. I was in the 1st squad, but a couple of squad leaders in the 2nd squad raped every single one of the low-ranking female soldiers,” Lee testified.

[….]

One defector, Kim Eun-mi, who worked as a railway attendant, said in the conference, “women crew members often fell victim to sexual assault and rape, which was common in trains carrying soldiers, especially in the evening when lights were turned off.”

Kim also mentioned that she worked under a squalid condition where female crew had to “reuse sanitary pads that were already solidified (with blood).”

Choi Su-hyang, a former nurse in the North Korean Army, left the country for the South in 2014. She pointed out that 30 to 40 percent of the North‘s military personnel are women, who are often raped and assaulted by superior officers.

Adding to the sexual assault, she added, most military soldiers, both males and females, suffer from malnutrition, and are at high risk of contracting diseases like hepatitis and tuberculosis. [Korea Herald]

A New York Times blog also took notice of the accounts, but could have found many other consistent ones. New Focus International has previously reported that North Korean soldiers commonly stalk and rape civilian women, often impregnating them or infecting them with sexually-transmitted diseases contracted from prostitutes. Women aren’t the only victims, either. Male soldiers also suffer frequent abuse, including sexual abuse, by their superiors.

To maintain such a large army in proportion to its population, the North Korean military has long terms of enlistment, often as long as ten years. Soldiers aren’t allowed to marry or have girlfriends, so rape and prostitution become outlets for their desires. The state and the command don’t punish rape or abuse — sexual or otherwise — thus creating an environment of impunity.

“Those who got pregnant were sent to a hospital in the city of Haeju, South Hwanghae Province, the only hospital in the vicinity of the military base,” Lee said, according to the report. “Medical personnel in the hospital who found out about the incident divulged the fact after two years.”

Rape targeting female soldiers is frequent at North Korean military bases and those responsible are rarely punished, she said. Victims are often dishonorably discharged from the military.

“Authorities, aware of time and money invested in nurturing high-ranking male officers, are reluctant to punish them, although they are responsible for the crime,” Lee said. [Korea Times]

The U.N. Commission of Inquiry found evidence of frequent rapes and murders of female inmates in its prison camps, and that violence against women both in public and in the home was commonplace.

I’ve prosecuted and defended multiple sexual assault cases in the U.S. Army (nearly all of them soldier-on-soldier, with an occasional civilian wife as the accuser), and it must be the case that sexual assault is a serious problem that every army has to confront. That’s just a demographic inevitability. What implicates a command as responsible for the problem is whether it investigates and prosecutes credible allegations, whether it maintains a fair process to try the accused, and whether it punishes the guilty. What’s clear is that the North Korean government appears to be doing none of those things. What’s less clear is why some self-described feminists in this country give the North Korean government a free pass for that.

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If Kim Jong-un can’t trust his own spies and assassins, who can he trust? (updates)

The revelation last weekend that a colonel in North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau, or RGB, defected to South Korea last year represents a huge potential windfall in uncovering North Korea’s operations in the South. Reuters quotes Yonhap as reporting that the colonel “specialized in anti-South espionage operations before defecting and had divulged the nature of his work to South Korean authorities.” The Korea Herald, also citing Yonhap, reports that he gave “detailed testimony” on RGB operations in the South. Or so says the National Intelligence Service “an unnamed source with knowledge on the inner workings of the communist state.” 

Historically, the RGB’s operations have included not only intelligence collection, but also extensive influence operations and assassinations of dissidents in exile. The RGB is believed to be behind the sinking of the naval ship Cheonan, the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, and North Korea’s cyberattacks against the United States and South Korea. It is designated by the U.N. Security Council for arms dealing, and by the U.S. Treasury Department under Executive Order 13687. This defector’s information may help the NIS foil assassination plots, terrorist attacks, or cyberattacks. It could potentially support criminal prosecutions of North Korean leaders, including General Kim Yong-chol or His Porcine Majesty himself.

This man assuredly knows where many bodies are buried, and that is more than a metaphor.

The South Koreans also revealed two other defections, both by diplomats. One “oversaw economic affairs at the North Korean embassy in an African nation” and was fortunate enough to escape with his wife and two sons last May, over “life-threatening” concerns. The other was posted in an unnamed Asian country, and defected in February, when “Pyongyang was moving to cut and call in the staff at overseas diplomatic missions.” 

~   ~   ~

This being South Korea during an election week, the revelations have South Korea’s opposition party and some left-of-center commenters in a tizzy, accusing President Park’s government of deliberately timing the announcement to influence the upcoming National Assembly elections. Deutsche Welle swallows this narrative hook, line, and sinker, investing more faith in the conspiracy theory than in the veracity of the reports of the defections. Indeed, DW’s report yields the most breathtakingly oblivous delusion of skepticism I’ve ever seen:

“The media in South Korea has very low standards of quality,” says Jean Lee, who in 2012 opened the first bureau of The Associated Press in Pyongyang. Many reports are based only on anonymous sources, without any cross-checking. “I rarely allowed my colleagues to pick up South Korean media reports about North Korea,” Lee told DW. [Deutsche Welle]

Really, Jean? Even lower standards of quality than this?

Seven billion people on this planet, and DW manages to find the one person who may be the least qualified to offer a sweeping generalization of the media in South Korea, after having made and lost a career by picking up obviously staged, highly politicized North Korean reports about South Korea. In this case, it was left to other reporters to investigate and question whether the narrative Lee’s bureau echoed globally was a fiction built on North Korean threats against this woman’s family — threats that probably would have been delivered by the RGB. And as long as we’re engaging in sweeping generalizations of entire nationalities, do German reporters ever do their homework on the sources they quote?

Although it’s never safe to eliminate political shenanigans as a motive for the actions of governments, this particular theory is strained and illogical. After all, a defection in 2015 — when the Blue House had no coherent North Korea policy at all — hardly bolsters an argument that its much more coherent 2016 policy is working. Surely the Blue House would have anticipated the ease with which the opposition could refute an argument that its policies had worked retroactively. Unfortunately, South Korea’s political culture is so conspiratorial that many news readers begin and end their analysis with conspiratorial explanations. But this isn’t a safe assumption, either.

~   ~   ~

There is a more logical explanation, and it might even satisfy those of you who also demand a conspiratorial one. I also suspect that Seoul is working a political mindf**k here, but the more likely target isn’t South Korean voters, it’s His Corpulency. A logical chain of chronological events supports my speculation. The first link is the recent defection of the entire staff of a North Korean restaurant. The fact that Seoul announced that mass defection publicly is “unusual,” in that it departs from what Yonhap calls Seoul’s previous “low-key stance on the issue of North Korean defectors.” Seoul appears to be using the issue to pressure Pyongyang politically, by showing that the restaurant defection was not a one-off, and that the core class is increasingly a wavering class. 

The revelation of this group defection also coincides with other reports of unexplained closures of North Korean restaurants. Adam Cathcart photographed the aftermath of one in Dandong. An intrepid AP correspondent called dozens of North Korean restaurants all over Asia and found that one in Da Nang, Vietnam had also recently and suddenly closed without explanation. There were also some early reports that a restaurant in Yanji was the source of the defections (could it be another unexplained closure?). Eventually, Yonhap went with a version in which the 13 came from Ningpo, in northeastern China, via Thailand and Laos.

Given reports that sanctions are preventing the restaurants from repatriating currency or paying staff, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn of more defections from North Korean restaurants over the next several months. Indeed, The Korea Herald cites “a top Unification Ministry official” as stating “that some other left-behind colleagues may be seeking to follow suit, or on their way here now.” For its part, the regime has tightened its surveillance of the restaurant workers, assigned guards to watch them while they sleep, and banned them from going outside.

China has also acknowledged that the 13 came from a restaurant on its soil. Not even China could cover up a story this big. And while China’s allowance of passage for the 13 is encouraging, it’s not unprecedented. In the past, China has sometimes allowed groups of North Koreans to travel to South Korea if their cases became publicized, or if South Korea was forceful in demanding that they be granted safe passage. Presumably, one or both of those things happened in this case. China also seems to have lost some of its will to shield Pyongyang from embarrassment.

Fine, you say, so might Seoul have timed the restaurant incident for political gain? Not if the theory is that the Blue House is trying to show that its policies are working. Before North Korea’s January 6th nuclear test, the Blue House had no coherent North Korea policy at all. It didn’t shut down Kaesong until February 10th. The U.S. Congress didn’t pass sanctions until February 12th, and the President didn’t start to implement them until March. The U.N. Security Council only approved new sanctions against North Korea in early March. Given that member states have only just begun to implement those sanctions, we’re only starting to see their effects. Even in China, implementation is encouraging but uneven. In that light, it’s slightly surprising (but not implausible) that sanctions are already contributing to the defection of North Korean loyalists.

~   ~   ~

In other words, the announcement of the defection of the RGB colonel now is more likely to coincide with the Ningpo restaurant incident, and a desire to influence the views of North Koreans, than with a desire to influence South Koreans before the election. Six months ago, a Unification Ministry spokesman would not have said that the defection of the RGB colonel “could be read as a sign of fissure at the top levels of North Korea’s regime,” or that it “could be seen as a sign that some of the North Korean elites were not happy under the supreme leader, Kim Jong-un.” Seoul appears, at last, to be returning some heavy fire in the psychological war Pyongyang has been waging against it.

Still, one colonel’s defection does not represent an identifiable upward trend in the number of recent defections from the security forces, although it’s arguably an upward movement in terms of rank. Last December, for example, two defectors from North Korea’s cyber warfare command, which would be subordinate to the RGB, accused the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology of training hackers. For years, reports have suggested that morale in the North Korean military is low, discipline is poor, and abuse and corruption are rife. Those reports have included multiple fraggings and defections. In 2010, a fighter pilot died in an apparent defection attempt, when his MiG-21 crashed in a Chinese cornfield.

Nor is this the only recent sign of flagging loyalty within the RGB’s officer corps. In 2010, the South Koreans arrested two RGB officers, Major Kim Yong-ho and Major Dong Myong-gwan, who were in South Korea on a mission to assassinate senior defector Hwang Jang-yop, an 87-year-old man who died of natural causes several months later. Those two field-grade officers not only let themselves be taken alive, but they pled guilty in open court and implicated their boss, North Korean terror master General Kim Yong-chol — now in charge of relations with South Korea — as having ordered the hit. This is not what we might have expected from a crack hit squad.

[This is.]

Even Pyongyang seems to have lost faith in the RGB, given its subsequent outsourcing of its next hit on Hwang to a bumbling team of South Korean drug dealers. 

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

Once again, this is not the behavior we’d expect from some of the most trusted members of the North Korean elite, unless the loyalties of the elite are wavering. In multiple recent cases, all that has stopped members of the “core” class from breaking with the regime has been the opportunity to do so. One wonders how many other members of the core class may be wavering. So must His Corpulency’s Secret Services, whose paranoia will beget more surveillance, more purges, and more discontent.

~   ~   ~

Updates: 

  • This statement from Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se supports my theory: “This appears to be an example indicating that such incidents may continue if the North Korean regime continues to make the wrong choices, such as its development of nuclear weapons.” Yun warned that other group defections may follow if His Porcine Majesty continues with his current policies.
  • South Korean “sources” say that “[a]bout five to seven other North Koreans who used to work at a restaurant in the Chinese eastern port city of Ningbo are known to be hiding in other areas of China, biding their time before they make it to the South, according the sources.”
  • South Korea says it is putting some diplomats on the job of persuading other Asian countries to allow North Korean refugees safe passage. “There has been no trouble so far in our talks and cooperation with relevant nations,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck. “We are in close talks with relevant nations to help defectors come to South Korea if they so wish under humanitarian principles.”
  • The Unification Ministry says that North-to-South defections rose 17.5% during the first quarter of 2016, over the same period last year. The report doesn’t parse whether this represents an increase in actual flights from North Korea, or just an increase in arrivals in South Korea, of people who may have been hiding in China for years. That matters, because of what it tells us about the continued effectiveness of Kim Jong-un’s border crackdown, and whether corruption is starting to reverse it.

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Inter-Korean phone calls can keep the promises of the Sunshine Policy

Twenty years of state-to-state engagement between North and South Korea have not lived up to Kim Dae-Jung’s promises. Pyongyang has taken Seoul’s money, nuked up, and periodically attacked South Korea for good measure. Rather than reforming, it has invested heavily in sealing its borders. Pyongyang sustains itself on foreign hard currency, even as it cuts off the flow of people, goods, and information to its underprivileged classes. It knows that if it fails to do this, members of those classes will achieve financial, material, and ideological independence from the state.

In their efforts to seal the borders, the North Korean security forces’ principal targets have been the Chinese cell phones whose signals can cross a few miles into North Korea, and which provide North Koreans with their last fragile link to the outside world. Today, there is a real danger that this link will be cut, and that the market-driven changes in North Korean society — changes driven by the people, despite the government’s attempts to suppress them — will cease.

Now, imagine if signals from South Korean cell providers began spreading across the DMZ into North Korea, with steadily expanding ranges. You saw how Pyongyang reacted to loudspeaker propaganda, which reached a few thousand conscripts at best. Imagine the subversive potential of North Koreans being able to call their relatives in the South directly, reading the Daily NK on smart phones, sending photographs or video of local disturbances to Wall Street Journal reporters, or downloading religious pamphlets from South Korean megachurches. Small beginnings like these could be profoundly transformational. If, eventually, North Koreans gain the ability to talk to each other, free of the state’s interference, these beginnings could become the foundations of a new civil society in North Korea. That could vastly mitigate the chaos and cost of reunification.

And yet, Seoul hesitates to allow this kind of people-to-people engagement, ostensibly because it is paralyzed by paranoia that North Korean spies would also use this network.

South Korean police expressed concerns over the national security implications of mobile phone conversations between North Korean defectors in the South and their relatives in the North.

A police official who spoke to South Korean press on the condition of anonymity said the security concerns call for the passage of a law at the National Assembly that could step up surveillance, South Korean outlet Financial News reported on Friday.

Many North Korean defectors who have resettled in the South keep in contact with their families, who are able to circumvent North Korea regulations through the use of Chinese mobile phones. One unidentified woman defector said she calls her family in the North 3 or 4 times a week, to confirm money transfers through a broker based in China. [….]

Police officials in Seoul are saying the conversations between family members can leak sensitive information that can pose a threat to South Korea’s national security, but amendments to Seoul’s Protection of Communications Secrets Act could reduce risks. [UPI]

But given the frequency with which North Korean agents are exposed in the South — just keep scrolling — the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the United Front Department, and their assortment of spies, street thugs, slashers, hackersassassinsagents of influence, and fifth columnists in the South seem to be the only North Koreans who aren’t having trouble with “inter-Korean engagement.”

It’s a silly, short-sighted paranoia that’s tantamount to refusing to treat a disease for fear of the treatment’s side effects. The answer to spies using the phones is called law enforcement. More broadly, if Seoul doesn’t want to deal with North Korean espionage and influence operations in perpetuity, it should open a second front in Kim Jong-Un’s information war, and start running a few information operations of its own. 

One of the most important uses of inter-Korean phone links could be their use for money transfers. Plenty of families in the North rely on those remittances to survive, or to start small businesses that provide for their families. Seoul has been ambivalent about these remittances, too:

South Korea technically bans the transfers, but an official at Seoul’s Ministry of Unification, which handles North Korea policy, says that the government has little incentive to stop the remittances.

“They fall into a gray area,” said the official, requesting anonymity because he was unauthorized to speak about the policy on record. “We always say no money should be sent to North Korea in case it is diverted for military purposes. But in this case, we’re not talking about huge amounts. And it’s for humanitarian purposes. So long as that’s the case, we won’t pursue it.” [WaPo, Chico Harlan, Feb. 2012]

Seoul has even fretted that small-time remittances from North Korean refugees to their families back home might violate international sanctions. Which is an argument that takes a lot of chutzpah, if you contemplate the millions of dollars Seoul pours into Pyongyang through the Kaesong Industrial Park each year.

South-to-North remittances have always been risky and expensive. Remitters charge commissions as high as 30%. Today, with Kim Jong-Un’s information crackdown on illegal calls over the Chinese border, money transfers often require North Korean family members and remitters to risk their lives:

In May this year, a North Korean defector in her 40s took a call from an unknown number at her office in the South Korean capital Seoul.

It was from her brother, who she had not seen for more than a decade, calling illegally from North Korea after tracking her down.

He was speaking from a remote mountainside near the border with China, and was in dire need of money to help treat another sister’s late stage cancer, she said.

Accompanied by a Chinese broker, the brother had spent five hours climbing up the mountain, avoiding North Korean security and desperately searching for a signal on a Chinese mobile telephone. Contact with anyone in the South is punishable by death in North Korea, one of the world’s most isolated states. [Reuters, Ju-Min Park, July 2012]

Defectors objected strongly to a 2011 proposal by Seoul to require licenses for South-to-North remittances. Personally, I’m not sure that a licensing procedure is such a bad idea, if it’s administered efficiently. Licensing can help prevent South Koreans from sending money to government officials — and maybe even spy-handlers — while channeling legitimate remittances through the more honest and reliable remitters.

To ease the burden of the new red tape, Seoul might consider a new way to reduce the cost of a remittance, say, by allowing direct South-to-North transfers that don’t have to run through Chinese banks or Chinese cell phones:

Consortiums led by information technology service giants Kakao Corp. and KT Corp. won a preliminary license to launch South Korea’s first Internet-only bank Sunday, the financial regulator said, opening the new business market in the long-slumping banking industry. [Yonhap]

The online bank will start operation by next June, and will team up with KakaoTalk, which is already gaining popularity with North Koreans because of its anonymity and functionality with weak signals. North Koreans already use Kakao to arrange money transfers from South Korean banks to clandestine North Korean hawaladars.

The FSC said Kakao Bank has an innovative business plan with broader customer lists based on KakaoTalk, which has more than 34 million members.

Kakao is already running mobile payment tools such as KakaoPay and BankWalletKakao.

K-Bank is initiated by KT, the largest fixed-wire operator. Its partners involve No. 1 bank Woori Bank, leading IT solution provider Nautilus Hyosung Inc., GS Retail Co. and Hyundai Securities Co. [Yonhap]

For the last 20 years, South has poured $7 billion in no-questions-asked aid and favorable trade arrangements into Pyongyang’s coffers, blithely unaware of how Pyongyang was spending that money. As far as Seoul knows, Pyongyang used some of that money to nuke up. Yet in the name of “engagement” with Kim Jong-Il, Seoul took bold risks to draw North Korea into the global economy and gradually induce it to disarm and reform. It didn’t work, but the money still flows.

Today, however, Seoul is afraid to take a chance on the kind of people-to-people communications that are changing North Korea profoundly. If those communications become regular and safe, suddenly, they start to sound like the first steps in a plausible plan to keep the Sunshine Policy’s gauzy promises about engagement, change, reform, and reunification.

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China arrests 10 N. Korean refugees, including a family with a baby; protest tomorrow at Chinese embassy

A group of North Korean defectors who were being smuggled across the China-Vietnam border have been detained, and are at risk of being repatriated to North Korea.

A South Korean government official who spoke to News 1 on the condition of anonymity said 10 defectors in total were taken into custody in the Mong Cai region of northern Vietnam. All have been sent back to China, and 9 of the 10 are at risk of being repatriated to North Korea, South Korean outlet Newsis reported. [….]

The group includes a captain of the North Korean army, and a family of three that includes a 1-year-old child, the source said. It is likely the group was seeking asylum in South Korea through an embassy in Vietnam. [UPI, Elizabeth Shim]

If these people are sent back to North Korea, they’re in grave danger of being executed or sent to a political prison camp. A United Nations Commission of Inquiry has condemned China for sending these refugees back to North Korea, instead of allowing them to travel on to South Korea, which gives them asylum.

43. Despite the gross human rights violations awaiting repatriated persons, China pursues a rigorous policy of forcibly repatriating citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea who cross the border illegally. China does so in pursuance of its view that these persons are economic (and illegal) migrants. However, many such nationals of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea should be recognized as refugees fleeing persecution or refugees sur place. They are thereby entitled to international protection. In forcibly returning nationals of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, China also violates its obligation to respect the principle of non-refoulement under international refugee and human rights law. In some cases, Chinese officials also appear to provide information on those apprehended to their counterparts in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. [UN COI]

The NGO No Chain has announced that it will hold a protest at the Chinese embassy tomorrow, Saturday, November 21st, from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. The address is 3505 International Place NW, Washington DC 20008. Bring your own signs, placards, and banners. Details here.

Please share this post as widely as you can on social media.

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Seoul & Pyongyang join forces to fund N. Korea’s rich, starve its poor

Our endlessly unrequited vigil for North Korean reform continues:

Hyeonseo Lee is also increasingly worried about her personal security since the July publication of the best-selling memoir about her escape from North Korea, “The Girl with Seven Names”.

Defectors living in South Korea contact relatives in the North through Chinese mobile phones that are smuggled across the border. They communicate through transmission towers on the Chinese side of the border.

It’s all arranged through brokers on the Chinese side, who also help smuggle money from the defectors to their relatives.

North Korea, however, has been cracking down on this lifeline, using phone signal detectors and interference devices, Lee said in an interview on the sidelines of the Ubud Writers and Readers festival. The signals can reveal the location of the speaker if the conversation lasts much longer than a minute.

Lee arranged for many of her family members to join her in exile after her own escape in 1998, but she still talks to an aunt there.

“Right now the signal is not so good. I can’t hear their voice clearly … And my aunt says after a minute, oh my god, we have to turn off the phone now we’re being monitored.”

The aunt was sent to a labour camp for a few months last year, accused of trying to escape. “She was reported by her best friend. That’s how this regime works,” Lee said. [Reuters, Bill Tarrant]

More about Lee here. This is exactly the kind of behavior a rational person should expect from North Korea. What’s inexplicable is that South Korea — which sends cash to Kim Jong-Un through Kaesong — also prevents North Korean refugees from remitting money back to their relatives.

Sending money across the border – or private communications of any kind with the North – is also illegal in South Korea.

The money from defectors goes into North Korea’s increasingly established rural markets, which sprouted up during the famine years when the state food distribution system broke down. The markets are thriving hot spots of commerce, where people can buy or barter for things, including smuggled Hollywood and South Korean movies.

Despite the occasional crackdown, the government has been unable to shut down the markets and now basically tolerates them, Lee said, despite the fact they have become the thin edge of the wedge for Western influences.

That is to say, Seoul continues to push direct economic engagement with Pyongyang years after the failure of that policy became objectively undeniable, and despite legitimate concerns about how Pyongyang is using that money, yet shuts down forms of economic engagement that could be feeding the hungry, catalyzing the growth of a market economy, subverting the state’s propaganda, and loosening the dependence of the people on the regime.

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South Korean plastic surgeons heal the broken survivors of North Korea

Via Singapore’s Straits Times comes one of the saddest, most hopeful, things I’ve read for a long time. South Korean plastic surgeons are volunteering to help repair the abused, broken, and scarred bodies of North Korean refugees.

Since news of the free surgery programme spread, dozens of defectors have signed up, including a man who cannot breathe through his nose after it was smashed in a logging camp accident.

One woman who lost a breast to cancer hoped that reconstructive surgery would make her more comfortable with using a public bathhouse and dating again.

“I often thought of killing myself and my five-year-old son to end my misery,” said Mrs Kim Seon Ah.

The 37-year-old wants to erase the cigarette-burn marks on her head and chest inflicted by a Chinese man, the father of her son. [….]

Superintendent Kim Kyeong Suk of Yongsan police station, who helps link defectors to plastic surgeons, came up with the idea for the programme after hearing many people from North Korea say they could not find work because of their scars.

She said: “Surprisingly often, you find defectors carrying big ugly scars, like crude stitches crawling like giant centipedes on their stomach, patches of hair missing from their scalp and other signs of torture, or they wear ideological slogans tattooed on their skin.” [Straits Times]

South Korea’s skillful plastic surgeons also healed our own Ambassador, Mark Lippert, after a slashing attack by a pro-North Korean assailant, an attack that North Korean state media openly approved.

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves. 

There is much work for South Korean volunteer doctors to do for people like Ji Seong-Ho, who lost a hand and a foot after falling from a coal train; Park Jihyun, whose “leg bears an enormous scar” from an untreated wound she suffered in a prison camp; or Han Song-Ee, whose hands are “contorted and scarred from torture,” and who wears her “wavy black hair in a careful bun” to cover “the scars on the left side of her head where she was beaten by North Korean soldiers with a wooden rod,” breaking her skull.

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Tomorrow night in Columbia, Md.: Fundraiser concert for N. Koreans in the U.S.A.

From NKinUSA, a new organization of North Korean refugees in America:

Dear Friends:
This invitation below is for the 4th Performing Arts Fundraiser Festival Benefiting North Korean Refugees organized by the NKinUSA.  Please forward to folks you know in the DC/VA/MD area — this will be a wonderful evening that will help save more lives of North Koreans trying to escape.  The concert will be 7 pm on Saturday, October 24, 2015 at Gyung Hyang Garden Presbyterian Church, 8665 Old  Annapolis Rd, Columbia, MD 21045.
The concert will include a variety of performances by first and second generation Korean youth.  Tickets are free but donations in any amount are greatly appreciated and can be made through the website www.nkinusa.org or at the concert.  Even if you cannot attend the concert, you can donate to support this great cause.
NKinUSA_Poster1_Poster2

It’s wonderful to see Korean-Americans so obviously embracing these refugees and lending their talents for the betterment of their brothers and sisters from the North. As the proud father of two Korean-Americans myself, as one who has taught them to embrace that part of their heritage, I see great things coming from Korean-Americans. I see what is best about both cultures in so many of them.

North Korean refugees have often had a hard time adjusting here. Their educations were often useless for the outside world, and they have the additional burdens of learning to speak English, to drive, and to learn every life skill we take for granted. They often work long, hard hours for little pay, in circumstances in which one accident can be the difference between raising the money to smuggle a loved one out of the North, or becoming an invalid. Helping North Korean refugees succeed here is one way to “engage” with North Koreans right here in your own country. Korea’s future Angela Merkel just might be among the 30,000 refugees who’ve escaped the country.

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