Archive for Refugees

Another reason North Koreans need an independent cell phone network: online banking

The AP’s Hyung-Jin Kim reports on how the 25,000 North Korean refugees in the South use Chinese cell phones, which reach across the border into North Korea, to send remittances to their families at home, and to keep food in their bellies.

Once Lee was certain she was talking to her sister, a broker took the phone on the North Korean end. Lee transferred 2 million won ($1,880) to a South Korean bank account belonging to a Korean-Chinese who was working with the broker, who confirmed the transfer and handed the phone back. The arrangement gave Lee’s sister 70 percent of the money, with a 30 percent cut for the go-betweens. [AP, Hyung-Jin Kim]

This is the kind of engagement that feeds the hungry and drives change, which is why Pyongyang is so desperate to shut it down.

Yeonmi Park appeals to the conscience of Europe

It is her first time in Ireland and, indeed, Europe. But at the age of just 21, this sweetly-confident, intelligent and tiny-framed young woman, who managed to flee the famine-torn country at the age of 13, is already a global spokesperson for her own people – a people terrorised into submission and silence while the wider world ignores what she describes as a “holocaust”. [Irish Independent]

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 6.51.15 AMMiss Park’s life went from latent terror to a living hell when her parents were arrested.  

Yeonmi and her sister, Eunmi were left to fend for themselves, at the age of nine and 11, foraging on the mountainsides for grasses, plants, frogs and even dragonflies to avoid starving to death. “Everything I used to see, I ate them,” she said.   Asked if any adults around knew the children were surviving alone, Yeonmi tries to explain.   “People were dying there. They don’t care… most people are just hungry and that’s why they don’t have the spirit or time to take care of other people.”

Park was reunited with her parents later, but what happened to them next may be worse than death. There’s also video at that link; unfortunately, it didn’t embed.

Let’s hope that Park evokes Ireland’s own historical memories of a famine caused by government indifference and cruelty. If nothing else, maybe the Irish government will do a better job of enforcing U.N. sanctions against selling luxury goods to Pyongyang.  

Commendably, the EU is now leading the U.N.’s effort to hold Kim Jong Un and his regime accountable for crimes against humanity. That is a vast improvement over its role until recently, which was predominantly one of softening and even violating U.N. sanctions designed to pressure North Korea to change.

Park’s visit is not only welcome for its impact on pubic opinion and policy in Europe, but also because another North Korean is leading the world toward how it should respond to the crisis in her homeland.

This guy rode a bicycle from North Korea to Mongolia while evading the Chinese police.

“One time I was sent back to North Korea through a broker so I couldn’t trust anybody any longer. So when I came out to China again I got a map and a compass and a bicycle, I just went”, he explained.

“I prepared a little mini tent, a change of clothes, a little of the money I earned,” park said, describing the items he took with him from the North. “I didn’t know how long it was going to take so I couldn’t bring food”. He said he also had a smartphone to help guide him, but struggled with navigation off major roads.

For Park, the early stages felt like an adventure – he was “young and free”. But as he got closer to Mongolia and felt the temperature drop he realised “it wasn’t going to be that much fun”. He says he got by charging his phone battery intermittently at service stations and eating noodles. Once at his destination, Park was able to travel to South Korea, arriving around a year ago ready to start a new life. [The Guardian]

The ride took 12 days.

Would it be slander if I called Rep. Sim Jae-kwon a fascist masquerading as a liberal?

A South Korean opposition lawmaker filed a resolution Thursday calling for the implementation of past inter-Korean agreements to stop slander between the two sides.

The resolution, submitted by Rep. Sim Jae-kwon of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), calls on the two Koreas to recognize that mutual recognition and respect are the basis for trust-building. It also urges the two sides to honor such agreements as the joint statement of July 1972, which bans cross-border slander. [Yonhap]

Sim went further than this, and called on the South Korean police to take what he darkly called “appropriate action” against the Fighters for a Free North Korea, in the name of “inter-Korean relations” — in other words, censorship to appease Pyongyang.

But once you agree to impose Pyongyang’s definition of slander on a free society to appease it, there’s no end to the reach of Pyongyang’s censorship, because inter-Korean relations will always be subject to however Pyongyang reinterprets “slander.” And when the likes of Sim were in power, the state’s censorship, or content-selective subsidies, extended to the newspapers, theater, movies, political demonstrations, and even the intimidation of refugees from the North to keep silent. That is no more liberal than Kim Jong Un is a Marxist.

Sim’s call is also a warning that North Korea’s sympathizers in the South will blame Park Sang-Hak and those who join him if the North attacks them in some way. I do wish Park would try to be a bit more unpredictable in his cat-and-mouse game with those who might be tracking his operations. That might even make their activities more interesting for journalists. And if there is an attack, it would inevitably focus media speculation on someone inside South Korea who revealed Park’s location to the North Koreans.

4th Annual North Korean Human Rights International Film Festival

4th NHIFF banner

NKnet is hosting its 4th annual North Korean Human Rights International Film Festival this coming Friday and Saturday, September 26-27, in Gwanghwamun, Seoul.

This year there are 14 films from Korea, the US, and Saudi Arabia, and two of the films received financial support from the festival:

poster: November 9th
November 9th
100 min. – Korea – documentary – no English subtitles
Directed by: Kim Gyu-Min (the director of Winter Butterfly, which played at the first NHIFF in 2011)
Category: Reunification of the Korean Peninsula
*Following the film, there will be a conversation with the director, who is originally from North Korea (interpretation not available).

Synopsis:

10 hours from now, the ceasefire line will collapse and the Korean peninsula will be reunified.

On Thursday, November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall – symbolizing the division of Germany – fell. It wasn’t through an agreement of the East and West German governments that it happened on that day. Nor were East or West German academics or anyone else from around the world for that matter able to foresee the wall would come down on November 9, 1989. A year later Germany was reunified for the first time in 41 years through the votes of the East and West German citizenry in free elections.

– What might transpire if November 9 were to come to the Korean peninsula?
– How much have we prepared for a Korean 11/9?
– In preparing for a Korean 11/9, what are the things we must do first?
– Is there any way to know what will happen on 11/10 and beyond?


movie photo: The Threshold of Death
The Threshold of Death
115 min. – Korea – English subtitles
Directed by: Lee Eun Sang
Category: Refugees & Resettlement
* will be featured at the opening ceremony

Synopsis:

Dong-jin works at the immigration office uncovering illegal immigrants. His relationship with his father, who has Alzheimer’s disease, is one of obligation, and things are awkward between his younger brother, Dong-seok, and the family.

Coworker Nam-il regularly uses his position to commit corruption, while Dong-jin’s youngest sibling Eun-sung is led by compassion and unable to be cold-hearted. Unable to build relationships with those around him in his lonely daily life, Dong-jin finds himself favorably inclined toward Yeon-hwa, a Chinese-Korean singer he met at noraebang (a singing room).

When she suddenly receives a call from a broker who is guiding her niece, Soon-bok (who has escaped from North Korea), things fall into disarray. Seeing Yeon-hwa’s difficult situation and Soon-bok’s purity and will to live, Dong-jin starts to change little by little from his cold ways. [SPOILER ALERT - stop reading here if you plan to see the film] In the wake of his weak father’s death and then Yeon-hwa’s suicide, Dong-jin works hard to find Soon-bok.

All of this amounts to nothing as his coworker Nam-il tries to shift the blame for his corrupt dealings to Dong-jin and his sister Eun-sung betrays him in order to protect the family. Having lost everything, Dong-jin is left alone only with his sad reality and desire to see Soon-bok.


For more complete information about the festival, please visit NKnet’s website, where I’ve put up lots of trailers, photos, film schedule and descriptions, how to RSVP, directions, reviews, subtitle info, the program for the opening ceremony, etc.

For Facebookers, there’s an event page for the festival and an event page for the opening ceremony.

Dan Bielefeld

North Korean Gulag survivors call on Switzerland to freeze Kim Jong Un’s slush funds (Alternate title: Cursed are the Cheesemakers).

Switzerland has always been there for North Korea. When North Koreans were starving to death in heaps, Switzerland was there to receive Kim Jong Il’s personal shopper and sell him millions of dollars’ worth of its finest timepieces. When North Korea needed creative new ways to make money — literally! — Switzerland sold it the very same intaglio presses and optically variable ink our Bureau of Engraving and Printing uses to make money. When Kim Jong Un needed a place to spend his formative rumspringa torturing small animals, masturbating to bondage porn, flunking his classes, and developing the personality profile of a school shooter — a school shooter with nuclear weapons — his daddy picked Switzerland. Thanks to Switzerland’s narrow interpretation of U.N. sanctions on “luxury goods,” His Porcine Majesty is now eating himself into a mobility scooter on Emmental cheese.* And when the Treasury Department sanctioned North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank for its involvement in WMD proliferation, it was the Swiss who yodeled that Uncle Sam was starving North Korean babies.

Above all else, when Kim Jong Il needed a place to stash somewhere between $1 billion and $4 billion in personal slush funds, Switzerland and its bankers received his money launderers with open arms. But for one regrettable violation of North Korea’s human rights last year, when Switzerland refused to sell North Korea $7 million in ski lift equipment,** Switzerland has always been there to provide North Korea the watches and numbered bank accounts that starving people need so desperately (and the finest cheeses, of course). Switzerland’s refusal to sell the ski lifts may have delayed the opening of the Masikryeong Ski Resort by several days, but the Swiss people can still take comfort in knowing that, thanks to their government’s laissez-faire policies, the death certificates of 2.5 million expendable men, women, and children (might, possibly) record the hour and minute of their sacrifice with Swiss precision.

The Swiss government has also done its share. Every year, as a token of appreciation for North Korea’s patronage, it refunds the equivalent of 0.7%*** of North Korea’s slush funds to the North Korean government … as humanitarian aid. It’s all part of a reputation for impeccable financial ethics that dates back to the Holocaust. You could say that Switzerland is to kleptocrats what Cambodia is to pedophiles, if this wasn’t so grossly unfair to Cambodia.

For a while, it was fashionable for North Korea watchers to suggest that Kim Jong Un’s Swiss education might have influenced him toward a more libertine style of governance, but things haven’t quite worked out that way. It may be that these scholars were working from a flawed model of Switzerland as a liberal European utopia — a land of cuckoo clocks, alpine meadows, open-air heroin-shooting galleries, and drive-in brothels. This, of course, is a crude stereotype. The real Switzerland**** is the home of Europe’s answer to Gitmo, except that it holds more people (476 men, women, and children) and kills one of them now and then (sound familiar?). It’s a land that values simple things, like racial purity (sound familiar?), and that tolerates all religions except the ones that it doesn’t (hello!).

Actually, until this moment, I’d never realized just how much Switzerland and North Korea have in common. There may be enough similarities that, with a little imagination, you could view Switzerland and North Korea as moral equals.***** One logical reaction to this would be to reject everything that any Swiss person says about North Korea — ever — regardless of its substantive merit.****** Another possible response would be to call for Switzerland to use its financial power to alter how Kim Jong Un uses North Korea’s wealth and rules over its people.

This latter view is now advanced by U.N. Watch, a Swiss NGO. Despite the fact that they are Swiss, perhaps we should suspend logic briefly and hear them out. After all, U.N. Watch is really just publishing a call “by 20 North Korean defectors,” including several survivors of North Korea’s prison camps, for the Swiss Government to block Kim Jong Un’s slush funds. I’ve reprinted the letter in full below the fold, but here is the gist of it:

In conclusion, based on international law and Swiss domestic law, prior Swiss precedents, and the basic principles of morality and humanity, we respectfully urge Switzerland to immediately freeze all assets of the North Korean leadership, whether held in their names or those of their associates, that are located within its territory.

Even better, the Swiss government could make every centime of those deposits available to buy food—provided the distribution of those purchases was better monitored than, say, the Oil-for-Food program, or the World Food Program’s current North Korea operations. There is a catch, of course. Funds that are blocked, as opposed to confiscated, still belong to the North Korean government. But surely Kim Jong Un wouldn’t deny starving people their fair share of his vast wealth out of spite alone.

~   ~   ~

* Or so say the unverified rumors. I guess you could verify the exports from trade statistics, but I hesitate to believe that anyone who knows what’s on Kim Jong Un’s table is telling.

** I wish this was a tasteless joke, but the North Koreans really did call this a “serious human rights abuse.” The value of the ski lifts, at $7 million, is almost exactly the same amount as what Switzerland donated to North Korea as humanitarian aid the same year.

*** Actually, it’s impossible to estimate that percentage without knowing how big the slush funds are or where they’re deposited, but if you divide $7 million by $1 billion, you get 0.007, or 0.7%.

**** Disclaimer: Author may not have actually been to Switzerland.

***** Especially if you’re really, really high.

****** Some might say that’s especially so of one who called the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report on North Korea’s crimes against humanity “a massive exaggeration.” The best thing that can be said of most Holocaust deniers is that they’re merely vicarious, post-hoc deniers. This cannot be said of Felix Abt.

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Park Sang Hak is a very brave man.

Park and the Fighters for a Free North Korea, most of whom are North Korean refugees, ignored a letter from Pyongyang to the office of South Korea’s President that, according to Yonhap, “alluded to retaliation” against their next leaflet balloon launch:

Defying the warning, 10 activists from Fighters for Free North Korea launched 10 big balloons carrying 200,000 anti-North Korea leaflets into the sky in Paju, north of Seoul.

The waterproof leaflets contain messages denouncing the three-generation power transfer in the North as well as the dire economic situation, while praising South Korea’s economic prosperity. [Yonhap]

They also ignored a warning from the South Korean government about the safety risks, and a request from the Unification Ministry not to go through with the launch. Park’s reaction was defiant.

“In spite of any threat or warning from the North, we will continue sending letters of truth until the North Korean people achieve liberalization,” the activist group’s chief, Park Sang-hak, said during the leaflet campaign.

As much as I admire Park’s uncompromising courage, I also worry about him enough to think he should compromise it just slightly, by being more cagey about launch times and places. The North Koreans have already made one attempt on his life, and I wouldn’t put it past them to shell a launch site. Nor would I put it past South Korean “progressives” to blame Park for the attack and its consequences. They want the government to censor Park:

“Sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets constitutes a dangerous act that devastates peace on the peninsula,” said an activist from the Korea Alliance of Progressive Movements.

You can call the Korean left many things, but “liberal” isn’t one of them.

At times, I’ve wondered what effect Park’s leaflets could possibly have, especially when most of them probably aren’t even found, much less read. One thing that Pyongyang’s reaction to Park tells me is that he must be having some effect. It wouldn’t issue threats like these and send assassins to kill Park if it wasn’t afraid of his message.

Yonhap: American caught trying to swim to North Korea

You see, if this guy had been reading OFK only yesterday, he’d have learned that North Korea doesn’t even want him. OFK: It’s not just a blog, it’s a public service.

On the positive side, at least the South Koreans didn’t shoot him. Which reminds me of my son’s favorite line from South Park.

North Korea doesn’t want defectors from South Korea or the U.S. anymore.

There was a time when North Korea would have welcomed a defector from the United States and, long after any intelligence value had been squeezed out of him, put him in propaganda films for a generation. Today, if you try to defect to North Korea, they’ll sentence you to hard labor until Jimmy Carter comes to make them a different kind of propaganda film.

More surprising, however, is that North Korea doesn’t want South Korean defectors, either. There was a time when such a defector would have been heralded as proof of North Korea’s superior ideology, legitimacy, and standard of living. When North Korea rejects defectors from the South, it suggests to me that its security forces know that no one believes those things anymore, except for a few crazies who aren’t worth feeding and caring for.

North Korea Perestroika Watch

The North Korean authorities have launched a task force to track down any residents who abetted the “three-family defection” last month. As Daily NK previously reported, a group of 16 North Koreans defected across the country’s border with China in North Hamkyung Province in August, after which they made their way safely to Thailand. [Daily NK]

Fifty a day, every Tuesday. Men. Women. Children.

“These days, China trucks about 50 North Korean defectors from its immigration detention center in Tumen to North Korea’s Namyang city just across the border every Tuesday,” an activist said, citing an unidentified Chinese official familiar with the matter. He did not elaborate on the official’s identity for fear of possible reprisal against her by the Chinese government. [Yonhap]

Update: The title of this post was edited after publication, adding the words “every Tuesday.”

It’s surprising how little we listen to those who know the most.

As someone who has firsthand experience of North Korea’s foreign affairs and policy, I was disappointed, even angry, at notions that unprincipled aid, dialogue or exchange could somehow change for the better North Korea’s underlying policy objectives even a little.” [New Focus International]

For those of you in Europe, some North Korean exiles will give their insider perspectives

of the North Korean government at Leiden University on September 17th and 18th. One of them will be Jang Jin-Sung of New Focus International, author of “Dear Leader.” The names of the other exiles will be withheld “[f]or security reasons.”

Top N. Korean money man defects to “third country”

A senior North Korean banking official who managed money for leader Kim Jong Un has defected in Russia and was seeking asylum in a third country, a South Korean newspaper reported on Friday, citing an unidentified source.

Yun Tae Hyong, a senior representative of North Korea’s Korea Daesong Bank, disappeared last week in Nakhodka, in the Russian Far East, with $5 million, the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported. [Reuters, Ju-Min Park and James Pearson]

Daesong Bank is sanctioned by both the U.S. Treasury Department and the European Union, and is closely linked to the infamous Bureau 39. This guy could know where a lot of bodies are buried, metaphorically speaking. Also, literally.

The Joongang Ilbo, which broke the story, says that Yun “officially worked as president of the bank” and “was in charge of raising and managing slush funds for Kim in Northeast Russia.” Apparently, Yun made a withdrawal of about $5 million from that slush fund before his defection, and North Korea has a substantial penalty for early withdrawal.

North Korea’s activities in the region include its infamous logging camps and the recently-sanctioned, Vladivostok-based Ocean Maritime Management, the agent for the Chong Chong Gangthe Mu Du Dong, and other sanctioned vessels. And, God-knows-what else.

“We were tipped off that Jon Il-chun, the first deputy director of the Central Committee of Workers’ Party who was effectively in charge of Office 39, is currently in a very unstable position in an ongoing power struggle [in the ruling party] following several recent incidents,” another source said. 

The allegation suggests to Seoul officials that in his third year of power, Kim Jong-un may be having problems managing his financial affairs.

Some sources said Yun’s defection could be part of the aftermath of the brutal execution of Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek, in December 2013.

North Korean officials in charge of foreign currency in China and other Western countries were allegedly part of Jang’s inner circle, sources said, and some of them felt threatened by Jang’s death and have vanished. [Joongang Ilbo]

After Jang’s purge, there were reports that dozens of North Korea’s offshore financiers had been called home, and (wisely) didn’t come. The Joongang Ilbo has done the best reporting of North Korean money laundering of all of the Korean papers.

God, how I hope the CIA and Treasury will have a chance to debrief this man. And that he brought his laptop with him. And that he isn’t the only one who has reached safety in the embrace of “third-country” intelligence officers.

Hat tip to a reader and friend.

I love watching North Korean refugees emerging as a cultural force …

to inform the world about life, such as it was, in their homeland. The South China Morning Post covers a North Korean human rights film festival in Hong Kong, and The Washington Post’s new Seoul correspondent, Anna Fifield, covers a young North Korean rapper who doesn’t quite share my taste in music, but does share my outlook about food distribution north of the no-smile line.

11 down, 31 to go: Mixed news on China and N. Korean refugees

I NEVER THOUGHT I’D SAY THIS, but God bless Park Geun Hye, because China would never have allowed those ten young North Korean adults and one child to go to South Korea after their capture by the police near the Laotian border if she hadn’t pushed the issue with her new pal, Xi Jinping.

No, China’s leaders have not grown a soul, but they aren’t completely impervious to Park’s sensitivities, and after all, they can’t fight everyone in Asia at once. This is a rare occasion when we can at least say that China did something that happens to be humane, even if the reasons were strictly interest-based.

Does this signal a shift in China’s refugee policy? Almost certainly not. There has been no recent news — none that I’ve heard, anyway — about a larger group of 31 North Koreans sitting in a detention center in China, waiting to know whether they’ll get to go to South Korea, or be sent back to die in the North.

I cannot imagine what even a day of that waiting must be like.

There is also the news of the arrest of a Canadian couple and the investigation of a Korean-American by the Chinese. The three were all Christians who assisted North Koreans in China, and who also brought food aid into North Korea. It’s hard to see anything objectionable in that — even by ChiCom standards — but if China suspected that they were also involved in underground railroad work, that might explain it:

China is cracking down on Christian charity groups near its border with North Korea, missionaries and aid groups say, with hundreds of members of the community forced to leave the country and some who remain describing an atmosphere of fear.

The sweep along the frontier is believed to be aimed at closing off support to North Koreans who flee persecution and poverty in their homeland and illegally enter China before going on to other nations, usually ending up in South Korea.

The South says the number of such defections is showing signs of a slight slowdown this year. [Reuters]

That slight slowdown would follow a much larger slowdown from previous years.

As far as I can see, the two most significant changes in Kim Jong Un’s style of governance are providing more amenities for the rich in Pyongyang, and cracking down harder on everyone else.

In related news, a group of 16 North Koreans from three families has managed to escape despite Kim Jong Un’s crackdown. The detention of local security forces in a corruption investigation may have played a role in their ability to slip the net.

China shuts down exhibition by North Korean satirist

IF THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT WONDERS why its own people find its modern cultural output stultifying, then maybe it shouldn’t stultify quite so much:

A North Korean defector known for his satirical paintings on North Korean society was forbidden from holding a rare exhibition in Beijing on Sunday, with Chinese police officials removing his artwork shortly before the exhibition began.

The painter from North Korea with the pseudonym Sun Mu, who fled the North in 1998 and resettled in South Korea in 2001, has been called a “faceless” artist as he does not allow himself to be photographed out of fears that his family left behind could suffer retribution. [Yonhap]

This man must be brave to go to a country that’s swarming with regime agents, assassins, and abduction squads. The good news story here is that North Koreans are emerging as a cultural force in their own right. That will eventually make them a serious cultural threat to the regime.

S. Korea: We’re trying to save those N. Korean refugees in Chinese custody

The ROK Foreign Ministry has made a public statement about the case of the 29 refugees arrested by China, whose case I first noted here last week. The statement is a good sign, because it means that Park Geun-Hye’s government is linking China’s treatment of North Korean refugees to the quality of South Korea’s relations with China:

The Foreign Ministry on Wednesday pledged to make all diplomatic efforts to prevent 29 North Korean defectors being deported from China back to their repressive home country.

On July 15-17, the defectors and six of their South Korean helpers were arrested in Qingdao and Kunming in China. [Chosun Ilbo]

Some of the North Koreans were arrested in Qingdao, and others were picked up along the Underground Railroad to Southeast Asia. The ChiComs have taken them to the infamous Tumen Detention Center, just across the border from North Korea. The next stop is either this, or this.

A staffer of an agency helping defectors said, “Chinese authorities may have wanted to move them quietly to the border and deport them before anyone notices, so this is making things awkward for Beijing.” [....]

A relative of one of the defectors said, “The Tumen detention center is stopping the families from speaking to them. If they’re deported to the North, they’ll definitely be sent to a concentration camp.”

The defectors, most of whom are of families, left Cheongjin and Musan, North Hamgyong Province or Hyesan, Ryanggang Province in June and July. They include a couple in their 60s and a one-year-old baby girl.

Unfortunately, that new consular agreement between China and South Korea hasn’t taken effect yet, so the South Korean government hasn’t even been given access to its own nationals.

But perhaps I’m making too much of that agreement. After all, China signed the Refugee Convention, and yet it treats that Convention like so much one-ply bathroom tissue. No piece of paper, no word of honor, and nothing resembling conscience will ever make China do what’s right. Only pressure can do that.