Archive for Refugees

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.

29 N. Koreans arrested in China at risk of repatriation and execution

Via the Chosun Ilbo:

Twenty-nine North Korean defectors and five of their South Korean helpers were arrested in China on July 15-17. They were nabbed in Qingdao, Shandong Province, and Kunming, Yunnan Province, on an established escape route to Southeast Asia, and face deportation, possible torture and execution in North Korea. 

Kwon Na-hyun of an activist group for defectors on Tuesday said 20 defectors were arrested in Qingdao and nine others in Kunming. One of the helpers who were arrested is Na Su-hyun (39), himself a defector who now has a South Korean passport.

They have been transferred to a detention center in the border town of Tumen and face deportation to the North, Kwon added.

All defectors had stayed in a safe house in Qingdao, but some of them left for Kunming first. “Nine of them left for Kunming on July 14, because it would have been dangerous if all 29 defectors traveled together,” Kwon said. 

This is the largest-scale arrest of North Korean defectors and their helpers in China so far.

Here’s some background information explaining why it would be unlawful for China to repatriate these people, and here’s a link where you can spam your local Chinese Embassy to pressure its government to refrain from murdering these people.

The arrest of these South Korean heroes means the ROK government will have to be notified, pursuant to that new consular agreement with Xi Jinping. We’ll soon see whether South Korea has the backbone and principle to demand the safe passage to Seoul of those Koreans unfortunate enough to be born north of the DMZ.

Refugees’ lives may depend on interpretations of Sino-Korean consular agreement

Human rights advocates have long contended that China’s repatriation of North Korean refugees violates international law, including obligations China undertook voluntarily in the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1969 Protocol. A U.N. Commission of Inquiry recently added its weight to that contention and strongly criticized China’s disregard of that Convention.

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[Suzanne Scholte and Rep. Park Sun-young protest
outside the Chinese Embassy in Seoul
, 2012]

Some rights advocates have hoped that the COI’s report would force China to alter its refugee-deportation policy, for reasons best explained by Roberta Cohen, Co-Chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, in an interview with NK News, and by Stephan Haggard here.

These hopes are about to be tested. This week, following Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul, The Daily NK reports that eleven North Korean refugees, arrested by China on June 19th, are in grave danger of repatriation to the North. The arrests were first reported on July 3rd Korea time, as Xi arrived in Seoul. More here, via Reuters.

If only Park Geun-Hye had seen fit to raise the issue of repatriations in her meetings with Xi. If only Xi’s desire to improve relations with Seoul had potential to benefit the 23 million Koreans unfortunate enough to reside North of the DMZ. But in one of the lesser-reported outcomes of the summit, the two leaders actually signed an agreement on consular protections for each others’ citizens:

The agreement mainly calls for the two countries to notify each other within four days when a national from the other country is arrested or detained. Meeting with consular officials will be also allowed within four days, according to the sources. [Yonhap]

But what does the agreement say about North Koreans? The ROK Constitution claims the entire Korean peninsula as its territory, and Korean nationality law extends citizenship to Koreans born on Korea’s territory.* The issue was contentious enough to prevent agreement after 11 years (!) of negotiations, so the two governments eventually decided to sidestep it:

The two countries previously had made little progress as they could not bridge the gap over whether to cover North Korean defectors and Chinese living in South Korea. The concept of “a national” was not specified, which made it easier for the two parties to reach the agreement, the sources said. [Yonhap]

The two sides also failed to agree on the status of ethnic Koreans in China, who could also have standing to argue their own ROK citizenship under the ROK Nationality Law. To further complicate matters, China asked for the agreement to cover Taiwanese arrested in Korea. A cynical man would say that China raised the latter complication solely to get South Korea to drop the issue of North Korean refugees.

The negotiations received new impetus from the case of ex-leftist and rights activist Kim Young-Hwan, whom the Chinese police arrested in 2012, held for 114 days, and allegedly tortured through sleep deprivation and the administration of electric shocks. Three other South Koreans, including Daily NK correspondent Lee Sang Yong, were also arrested with Kim.

Whether Park invokes the agreement on the refugees’ behalf, and how Xi reacts, will be a test of the quality and the extent of where Park’s conscience ends, and Xi’s begins. Eleven lives hang in the balance.

* Admittedly, this is a sweeping simplification of a complex law.

U.N. Commission should find China responsible for crimes against humanity, too.

China is denying reports that it arrested 15 North Korean refugees near Kunming. According to the Chosun Ilbo, the refugees have been moved to areas near the North Korean border. Some may have been repatriated already, along with other refugees rounded up near Shenyang. If so, their fate inside North Korea is grim.

As the Chinese government already knows, and has for years.

I don’t know what, exactly, I should read from the fact that North Korea is loudly calling for China to return its escaped subjects. Ordinarily, North Korea doesn’t even have to ask. Perhaps China is unusually concerned about damage to its image, although there’s little evidence to suggest that right now.

It does, however, leads me to wonder what the U.N. Commission of Inquiry will have to say about China’s repatriation of North Korean refugees, now that we know that the COI will find that North Korea committed crimes against humanity.

China’s complicity, of course, is what locks the gate to the prison state. Declaring North Korea’s responsibility is an overdue first step, but if the COI is willing to something brave and potentially useful, it should also find China responsible for crimes against humanity, for violating its own obligations under the Refugee Convention.

The COI’s findings may well lead to charges before the International Criminal Court. Family members of Korean War abductees are taking North Korea to the ICC for unlawful detention. Certainly China has repatriated some of these very South Koreans to the North. Abductee family members and the family members of other North Korean refugees have just as good a basis to sue China before the ICC.

AP’s new Bureau Chief should tell us: Are these kids dead or alive?

Last night, a reader forwarded me AP’s announcement that it had replaced Jean Lee as Bureau Chief in both Seoul and Pyongyang. The new Bureau Chief in Pyongyang will be Eric Talmadge, whose name is absent from the vast OFK archives, and whose reputation is thus a blank slate.

The AP has also caught up with the spirit of ’45 by appointing a separate Bureau Chief for Seoul, Foster Klug. Klug’s name is one of the best known in Korea journalism, and while I don’t doubt that he has strong opinions, they’ve never been evident in his reporting. It isn’t clear whether Talmadge will report to Klug, whether they will both report to the same manager, or whether the creation of a new Bureau Chief position in Pyongyang means that Talmadge will remain there full-time (Lee alternated between the two Korean capitals).

Now, the curious part:

Talmadge succeeds Jean H. Lee, who will assume a new role as a writer covering in-depth issues on the Korean Peninsula and the region. As AP’s bureau chief in Seoul the past five years, and in Pyongyang for nearly two, she has been instrumental in helping AP gain greater access to the traditionally isolated country.

The AP “news” story continues its objective self-promotion with this:

Over the years, AP journalists have been granted unprecedented access to people and places both in Pyongyang and in the countryside.

It’s difficult to pack all of my reactions to this into one paragraph, but I’ll try. AP Pyongyang has reported next to nothing from North Korea that is (1) exclusive, (2) newsworthy, and (3) true — that is to say, an accurate representation of the subject in its greater context. North Korean minders have led the AP to its “stories,” nearly all of them in and near Pyongyang, and most of them fluff stories, with short leashes. The AP reported what it saw through the soda straw the minders held up to its lens, usually without questioning it, and led readers to believe, inaccurately, that this view was representative of North Korea as a whole. From the very beginning of the experiment, the AP compromised its objectivity by co-sponsoring a propaganda exhibition for a vile and murderous regime. It also associated itself KCNA, a state propaganda organ widely known for its fabulism, fakery, mendacity, and journo-terrorism.

I may have been AP’s most strident critic, but I certainly wasn’t the only one. AP has mostly responded to its critics by trying to bully them, but it hasn’t responded to the substance of their arguments, such as by disclosing the terms of its agreements with the North Korean government’s propaganda arm. Its ham-handed (indeed, almost North Korean) approach to media relations failed to suppress rising levels discomfort from other journalists who report for Foreign PolicyThe AtlanticThe New York TimesThe Washington Post, The AustralianThe Christian Science Monitor, and in greatest detail, The Weekly Standard.

By now, you’ve noticed that I needed two paragraphs to put all of that out there.

The appointment of a new Bureau Chief is an opportunity for all of this to change, of course. I hope it will be. In case the AP would like my view about how to use its “unprecedented access,” let me suggest that it tell us whether these nine children are dead or alive.

We know, of course, that the Lao government handed the kids over to North Korea, which flew them back to Pyongyang. (There is a petition to condemn the Lao government for doing this, but a more appropriate response might be to ask your member of Congress to push the State Department to classify Laos as a Tier III country for human trafficking purposes unless it promises to move future defectors speedily to Seoul.)

When this happened — during my hiatus, while I was on Capitol Hill — we took some comfort in the fact that North Korea originally have the kids the Park Jong Suk treatment and paraded them before the cameras. Knowing, or at least suspecting, that North Korea has shot adults and children alike for defecting before, we hoped that North Korea would at least feel compelled to keep these kids alive after putting them on display. But now, darker fears are obscuring our initial hopes:

Nine young North Korean defectors may have been executed upon their return from Laos, according to several media reports.

The escapees — aged 15 to 23 — were deported back to North Korea after a dangerous mission for freedom that had taken as long as four years for some of them, the Daily Mail reported. [Washington Times]

Because I haven’t graduated from the denial stage of the grieving process, I take small comfort in the fact that this report is sourced to The Daily Mail, a paper whose reputation isn’t much better than KCNA’s. But there is ample reason to fear for the safety of anyone who has been returned to North Korea, especially if the regime knows that the person has had contact with South Koreans or Christian missionaries.

When the AP created its new bureau, it promised to “open a door to better understanding between a nation and the world … in our usually reliable and insightful way.” Here is a story that is unquestionably newsworthy, and that the AP is a unique position to tell. It is alleged that the government of North Korea has executed nine children for what no one else on Earth would even recognize as a crime. Will the new AP Pyongyang have the courage to ask the question?

ROK Army shoots, kills man attempting to swim to N. Korea

I’ll withhold my criticism until I know a few more facts, but I can’t immediately understand why South Korean troops had to shoot and kill a South Korean man who was swimming the Imjin toward North Korea.

This would not be the first South-to-North defection, but I don’t know why one the loss of one more nut or fugitive would be a great loss to the South. If the South doesn’t address the appropriateness of the use of force, it will weaken calls for North Korea to treat would-be defectors from North Korea differently.

By day’s end, we should know more than we know now. I’d like to know whether this was really necessary.

Update:  The more I read, the harder I find the ROK Army’s explanation to accept as a sufficient justification. I can’t see punishing soldiers who followed the rules of engagement they were given, but the army should review its rules of engagement for incidents like this one.

I can’t stand watching this, but I hope millions of others can.

Sorry, I’m a father, and I couldn’t even make it through this trailer. Reading this has already traumatized me enough to make me start this site and document these places, and honestly, that’s already as much as I can take.

If you can’t stand it either, then send it to a friend. Until this ends.

For refugees, “bittersweet” still beats “hell on earth”

I loved this Reuters video of a graduation ceremony for North Korean refugees in Seoul.

LiNK also shares another happy story, about “Danny,” who resettled right here in America, and New Focus International writes about the difficulty many North Koreans have adjusting to the concept of credit in South Korea.

I would concede that for the ten-year period following my own graduation from high school and a background of fairly severe poverty (by American standards), I, too had difficulty adjusting to the concept of credit.

Although I don’t deny the profound psychological barriers between North Koreans and life on the Outer Earth, I sometimes wonder if the much-vaunted difficulty some North Koreans have with that adjustment is exaggerated.  We are speaking of an entire category of 27,000-odd people of all ages, most of whom arrived within a recent five-year period, all of whom are struggling with the same lack of sophistication that all of us also had to outgrow as we pupated into our less-yet-still-slightly cruel world.

 

North Korea Perestroika Watch: Kim Jong Un’s Border Crackdown Is Working

The most superficial things you’ve probably heard about Kim Jong Un are the closely related ideas that he is, or must be, a latent reformer because he (a) appreciates aspects of Western culture, (b) has a fashionable wife, and (c) had a Swiss education. As examples, I’ll cite this report by Jean Lee, this and this from Joohee Cho of ABC, and this exercise in straw-grasping by John DeLury. The problem with this theory is that it isn’t supported by any evidence that the regime has become less brutal, menacing, controlling, or confiscatory in the last year.

Leave aside the foundational question of whether Kim Jong Un is more than a figurehead, an assumption I am underprepared to accept. During his schooling abroad, he didn’t exhibit many signs of intellectual curiosity, enlightenment, or strength of character. Even the word “education” is a stretch; Jong Un didn’t graduate from his expensive foreign school.

Historically, the exposure of dictators’ sons to foreign culture has not moderated them; it was just another place for them to be everything they were at home except above the law and shielded from our sight. Because little tyrants eventually become big tyrants, what they became  was self-indulgent, impulsive sociopaths. Nicu CeausescuUday Hussein, and Hannibal Qaddafi never lacked for access to Europe’s fleshpots. Nicu and Uday (both of whom were serial rapists at home) are rumored to have palled around together in Switzerland, and both Uday and Hannibal share the distinction of being expelled from it for violent assaults (so enraging the elder Qaddafi that he demanded that the entire country of Switzerland be abolished; Hannibal later got in trouble in Denmark and the U.K. for other assaults). Like his peers before him, Kim Jong Un was privileged enough to be whisked off to a bacchanalian playground. Unlike his peers, he spent his time there torturing animals and masturbating to bondage porn alone in his room. But he loves Disney characters! Yes, and so did Hitler. It’s at least as plausible to theorize that Jong Un combines the self-restraint of Nicu and Uday with the poisonous inadequacy of Goebbels and Hitler.

I’ve already drawn the comparison between how Lee and Cho covered Ri Sol Ju’s fashions to how Vogue covered Asma Assad’s. This shouldn’t really surprise us. Don’t the first ladies of most impoverished banana republics love high fashion? I’ll say this much for Asma — the long list of her husband’s crimes doesn’t include starving his people while telling the world he can’t afford corn.

We know very little about Kim Jong Un’s personality; in fact, we don’t even know how important it is to know about it. All we can judge is the regime’s performance on matters of substance since his coronation. Maybe one day, the regime will make some pragmatic or humane reforms, although there’s scant evidence for that now. Last fall, for example, there was a lot of excitement outside North Korea when the regime announced agricultural reforms that would have allowed collectives to keep more of their crops.  Never mind that the move was accompanied by the seizure of privately cultivated land, which had become a major source of food and income for less-privileged North Koreans. The reforms were quickly forgotten as the harvest came in.

Politically, the regime has cracked down on information flows and defections. The area around Camp 22 is a particular target for warnings to citizens against telling what they’ve witnessed inside North Korea. Judging by new statistics from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, the crackdown is working.

Screen Shot 2013-01-13 at 9.49.47 AM

[Source: ROK Ministry of Unification, via Stars and Stripes.]

Although the crackdown began during Kim Jong Il’s rule, it has been redoubled since his death.

Under North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, human rights activists and South Korean officials say, it has become increasingly difficult to smuggle refugees out of the country, contributing to a sharp drop in the number of North Koreans reaching South Korea in the past year. [NYT]

Notwithstanding the explanation by the Times that this decline is the result of a crackdown, it’s appropriate to ask ourselves if there might be other reasons for this decreased flow. Foreign observers are seeing more cars, cell phones, and luxury goods in the elite reservation of Pyongyang, but are most North Koreans better off now than they were in 2009? The answer is probably not. North Korea’s economic recovery from the Great Famine of 1993 to 2000 appears to have peaked around 2005, when it was reversed by a series of confiscatory measures. As recently as last year, there were reports of microfamines in Hwanghae, the rice bowl of North Korea, as a direct consequence of crop seizures.  Unfortunately for the people of Hwanghae, it is all but impossible for most of them to make it all the way across North Korea to the Chinese border, to say nothing of crossing the border and evading Chinese police. (I suppose these things are especially hard to do while starving.)

Noland NK GDP growth

[Source: Noland, Witness to Transformation]

The decline in refugee flows also coincides with the disastrous December 2009 currency revaluation that I like to call The Great Confiscation. This action not only caused tremendous financial hardship for many North Koreans, it did lasting damage to North Korea’s black-market economy and unprecedented public disturbances, even resulting in an apology by North Korea’s third-highest official and, so it is rumored, the execution of at least one scapegoat. I’ve stopped hearing reports that the regime is closing down markets or banning the sale of foreign goods, as it had been in 2009, but the existence of these markets, on which most North Koreans depend for their survival, remains tenuous.

In other words, economic conditions in North Korea probably got worse for most North Koreans during the period between 2008 and 2011 (I don’t have enough information to extend that trend through 2012). North Korea looks like an even more miserable place when compared to South Korea’s rapid GDP growth:

North Korea vs. South Korea FIXED

[Source:  Washington Post]

The Wall Street Journal‘s Kwanwoo Jun Evan Ramstad actually asked the question of whether improved economic conditions might explain the drop in defections. He gets an answer, and two more plausible explanations:

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

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

Ramstad also points to China’s crackdown on the other side of the border, and notes that North Koreans who had intended to defect to South Korea (or perhaps return with money or goods to North Korea) may be stranded in China.

One dynamic that intrigues me is the tendency of defections to ventilate political pressures by allowing the most discontented and ambitious dissenters to escape.  Now that only the very rich can hope to escape North Korea, what alternative stands between the discontented and lives lived in misery?

Correction: I mistakenly attributed the Korea Real Time post to Evan Ramstad. I apologize for the error.

“Escape from North Korea” Update

A PASSAGE IN “ESCAPE FROM NORTH KOREA” ties very recent events on Capitol Hill to a couple of fiskings I’d been saving for a special occasion. The update is here; scroll down.

Escape from North Korea: An Incremental Review

Nov. 7, 2012.  Early in Melanie Kirkpatrick’s Escape from North Korea, you start to find powerful phrases that stay with you — phrases that make you stop reading and chew on them, to extract the full significance of some aspect of life in another reality.  I couldn’t help quoting two of them.  The first is illuminating:

So accustomed are North Koreans to the lack of light that when I asked a North Korean who had settled in an American city if there was anything she missed from home, she replied, “the darkness.”

The second is ghastly:

“I keep thinking, maybe he would still be alive if we hadn’t buried him,” the young man told the reporters in Washington. He didn’t want his name used, for fear of retribution against his family in North Korea. But he told us the name of the man he buried, and I record it here: Kim Young-jin.

On a related note, I saw this quote in a link from another review that registered in my comments:

Interestingly, Haggard’s research is quoted at multiple points in the text, while Stanton does not merit a mention by the author.

Oh, my.  This is more than just a passive-aggressive blog post; it’s a life lesson:  Just as a reader shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, a reviewer shouldn’t judge a book before he actually reads the last chapter (beginning with its title).  Let the rewrite commence!

Nov. 29, 2012

Another quote I can’t resist giving you, about one of Kirkpatrick’s interviews with an escaped North Korean:

After our own trip to the buffet, we began the interview. The subject of our conversation was starvation.

Further on, there is this passage:

A commonplace observation of North Koreans who reached China was that Chinese dogs ate better than North Korean humans. The hungry refugees marveled at watching dogs devour scraps that were more nutritious than anything they had seen for years. They also marveled at seeing dogs. In North Korea, most of the dogs had been eaten.

One senses that Kirkpatrick longed to write this book not only because she had a story to tell, but because she had the literary impulse in her to tell it well in clear, high-impact prose.

Kirkpatrick’s second chapter is about religion in North Korea, a topic she introduces early because it has two levels of impact on the subject matter.  You already know, of course, that religion motivates most of the underground railroad’s conductors, but the complete ignorance of North Koreans about Christianity means that their first contact with it is a particularly strong shock to their systems.  It must be especially so for people who’ve broken with a lifetime of spiritual indoctrination, and the regime must understand that.

Kirkpatrick closes her chapter with an anecdote about my friend Tim Peters, and it speaks volumes about modern South Korean society:

In Seoul, Peters made his pitch to an assembly of divinity students at Chongshin University. Chongshin’s famous divinity school was founded in Pyongyang in 1901 and relocated south during the Korean War. Today, its graduates disperse to the four corners of the world to preach the Gospel. One would think that the school’s roots in the North would give it a special interest in reaching out to North Koreans. That was not what Peters found.

Peters described his interaction with the students at Chongshin. “Who’s going to India?” he asked the assembled seminarians. Lots of hands shot up. India is a popular spot for missionary work, and the South Korean students clearly were enthusiastic about the prospect of working there.

“Then I asked, ‘Who’s helping North Koreans?’ ” At this point in his story, Peters paused and looked around him. It was if he still had the prospective missionaries in his sight and was waiting to count the raised hands.

Finally, he answered his own question. “Nothing.”

In Chapter 3, we have another anecdote to file under “things we already knew” — in this case, that too many of those who represent us abroad are Nevilles Chamberlain without umbrellas to protect them from the disapproving scowls of the angels.  Listen to Evans Revere tell Kirkpatrick the story of some of the first North Korean defectors to show up at the doorstep of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and try to find a good reason not to loathe him:  

Revere went to the front entrance. After his questions in Mandarin also failed to elicit a response, something about the two men prompted him to try Korean, which he also spoke. The men responded with big smiles and a torrent of words. “I had a hard time at first placing their accent,” Revere said. “But then it dawned on me. I couldn’t quite believe it, but they were from North Korea.”

If the North Koreans had been soldiers or officials with important information to impart, Revere said, the United States might have been able to figure out a way to extract them from China. But they were just farmers and not worth diplomatic intervention, and they didn’t know enough to ask for political asylum.

Nor, for the sake of two just-farmers, did Evans see that it was “worth” prompting them to ask, although it was mighty sweet of him to give them a ride to the train station.  Do you suppose he stuffed a dollar bill in each of their shirt pockets and wished them the best of luck evading the ChiCom police all the way to Hong Kong?

Interesting observations about music in Chapter 3:

“No dictatorship can tolerate jazz,” he said at the time of that Cold War visit. “It is the first sign of a return to freedom.”

Well, maybe one day I’ll “get” jazz.  As to Richard Claydermann — I can go no further than, “To each his own.”  (On the other hand, the subversive messages that Prokofiev and Shostakovitch passed under the noses of Stalin’s censors have always been clear enough for me.)  Now this would be a hardship:

The North Korean regime also bans individual composers whose biographies it deems dangerous. Among them is Sergei Rachmaninoff, who wrote some of the twentieth century’s greatest piano music. Rachmaninoff is verboten because he fled his native Russia after the 1917 Revolution and settled in the United States.

Really?  But then, his music is openly sentimental, and sentiment is a dangerous thing to allow people to feel.  (Irony — I’m listening to Dvorak’s Ninth as I write this, and I don’t know of another classical piece that evokes freedom more.  Maybe I just associate it with the open, sagebrush-scented landscapes between the Black Hills and the Badlands I so often crossed in my childhood, but I doubt that’s all there is to it.)

(Update:  iTunes just shuffled to “Fanfare for the Common Man.”)

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One of the best things about books like “Escape from North Korea” and “Nothing to Envy” is that for a few minutes, they make us think about North Korea as a humanitarian problem, and maybe even think about the diplomatic implications of dealing with people who place no value on human life.  I urge you to watch this extraordinarily powerful ten-minute speech by my good friend, Adrian Hong, in an event about Kirkpatrick’s book (she’s sitting to his right).  The speech struck a chord with The Washington Post‘s Max Fischer, which is itself a victory in a delaying action against those who sell out the North Korean people for a few promises that would surely be broken within a year.

After having had to correct his online review, Adam Cathcart swings at Hong and misses again, this time in the comment thread to Fischer’s post.  Cathcart begins by trying to associate Hong with “an ambitious agenda embracing the Arabic world,” falsely linking Hong to a completely unrelated entity that also happens to have “Pegasus” in its name.  He then twists Hong’s use of the word “preemptively” — in a context that Hong most likely meant in the diplomatic or humanitarian sense — to build a straw man (Cathcart:  “All these nascent rebels need is a small (to use Hong’s word) “preemptive’ push, the Korean Workers’ Party apparatus will tumble faster than you can say ‘nuclear Fuehrerbunker’”).

That’s a stretch.  In a lengthy piece in Foreign Policy, which Cathcart links, Hong advocates nothing more aggressive than broadcasting to the North Korean people, along with financial, diplomatic, and humanitarian pressure on the regime.  Hong mentions the possibility of an internal uprising, as plenty of other observers across the political spectrum have, but says, “[I]t is far better to have a coordinated, controlled landing, at the time of one’s choosing, instead of waiting for the worst to happen at any moment.”  If Hong has ever advocated what Cathcart obviously wants the Putinjugend trolls on that comment thread to infer, Cathcart ought to cite stronger evidence.

On the other hand, if Cathcart ever wants to challenge an actual advocate of a Libyan Solution for North Korea, he doesn’t need to imagine one, because I’m right here.  If there’s broad agreement that North Korea’s regime is inherently unstable, then the case of Syria shows what happens when you abdicate your nation’s interest in influencing the course of history.  As recently as 2010, no serious thinker believed a revolution was imminent in Libya or Syria.  Nor did anyone advocate sacrificing “engagement” with either regime to build relations with their disorganized and oppressed populations — populations that would soon produce militias, guerrilla armies, and a number of terrorists (in Syria, a growing number).  I certainly won’t defend the way this administration handled issues like embassy security or public communications in Libya, but its policy of building early alliances with the rebels while avoiding a ground war was sound, and stands a far better chance of producing a good outcome than our passive policy in Syria.

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Dec. 6, 2012.  Here is a review, published in the Christian Science Monitor, and an interview with the author on National Public Radio.

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Jan 2, 2013.  Last fall, the Hands-Off-North-Korea gang called for its smelling salts after the House passed the North Korea Refugee Adoption Act. The bill would have required the State Department to “develop a comprehensive strategy for facilitating the adoption of North Korean children by United States citizens” and, when possible, “assist in the family reunification of … orphaned North Korean children.” Some of these children are kkotjaebi, children who are orphaned and abandoned inside North Korea and managed to flee across the border on their own, but most are the children of North Korean mothers and Chinese men. These kids are conceived in circumstances that vary from consensual marriage to forcible rape, and sometimes in the gray area between the two. Nor do these children fit into either nationality, which is never a good thing in that part of Asia. We already know what North Korea does with racially impure babies. As Kirkpatrick relates:

The South Korean government debriefs every refugee who arrives in Seoul and reports its findings in an annual publication. Many of the refugees have spent time in North Korean prisons, and the section on pregnant women is a parade of horrors. The matter- of-fact, staccato language of the government report only heightens the atrocity:

“Gave birth to a baby . . . but they put vinyl cover [over the baby’s face] and left it to die, accusing the baby of [being] Chinese.”

“Gave birth to a baby on way to hard labor. Baby died.”

“Hospital aborted baby at seven-month pregnancy because she had lived with a Chinese man.”

“The agents forced her to run one hundred laps around a track because she had a Chinese seed in her. She collapsed after sixty laps and the baby was aborted.”

If China had not sent these women back to North Korea, their babies would merely face lifetimes lived in fear and without education, medical care, or a future. Because their mothers (and sometimes their fathers) are in China illegally, and because their fathers may not claim them, many of these kids become orphans. Chapter 5 of Escape from North Korea explains all of the different categories of North Korean and half-North Korean children whose lives and futures are scarred in very different ways by China’s cruelty to them.  I can’t summarize it better here, so I won’t try. Read the book. That one chapter is worth the price.

Kirkpatrick finds interesting subjects to help her tell her story and help you feel it on a human level, but on an academic level, the scale of this problem had already been documented exhaustively.  I’d recommend you begin with this extensive and detailed report from Human Rights WatchThe Christian Science Monitor, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, and Refugees International, which in 2008 cited a South Korean NGO’s claim that there may be 10,000 “stateless children born to north Korean refugee women and Chinese men” who were born in the preceding decade and in need of assistance.  The evidence for the problem was never seriously in dispute until Congress finally got around to doing something about it this year — thereby causing hurt feelings at the Ministry for People’s Security and Foreign Policy in Focus – by trying to “facilitate the immediate care, family reunification, and, if necessary and appropriate, the adoption of any eligible North Korean children living outside North Korea as de jure or de facto stateless refugees.”

Someone named Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, in this fine representation of FPIF’s typical level of scholarship and class, elegantly translates “necessary and appropriate” as “baby scooping.” Dobbs’s own experience as an adoptee obviously wasn’t favorable, and while I don’t know what she went through as a child, it’s clear that something has driven her toward a bitterness that defies logic. For example, Dobbs thinks allowing Americans to adopt Korean children was “a tool used to expand U.S. neocolonial power under the guise of benevolence during the Cold War,” and that the new bill’s proponents are “naïve Hollywood stars and ambitious neoconservatives.” (It is widely known that these groups often rub elbows at bar mitzvahs and e-meter auditing parties. Presumably, Dobbs believes the European Parliament is also made up of neoconservatives and neocolonialists.) Without citing a single named source who appears to have direct knowledge of the facts, Dobbs denies that there is a problem of stateless orphans of North Korean parents in China, period. Also, we have always been at war with Eastasia. In the end, I’m left with more sorrow for Dobbs than anger.

Christine Hong doesn’t care for the bill, either. Remember her? Back in 2010, she bitterly denounced the visit of a U.S. aircraft carrier to the Yellow Sea. You may also remember that this was pretty much the only U.S. response to North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean warship and killing of 46 sailors, for which Hong’s disapproval of which was lost in a cloud of nuance and angst. This can happen to folk who love peace more than you and me.

(Both Dobbs and Hong are members of Christine Ahn’s Korea Policy Institute.  You all remember Christine Ahn, right?)

In this long piece at 38 North, Hong calls the bill “an outdated portrait of on-the-ground conditions and distorted premises” based on “a dangerous fiction,” but later insists that China has solved this non-existent problem. Her sources for this? One unnamed aid worker of unknown affiliation and “[a] Yanji municipal social welfare officer with the People’s Policy Bureau. Seriously. (I also reached out to a well-known aid worker with up-to-date information about North Korean and half-North Korean kids in China. He insists that China most certainly has not solved the problem.)  And 38 North actually published this? Aside from it being disjointed, rambling, intellectually sloppy, poorly researched, and contrary to the overwhelming weight of credible evidence, I’m sure it’s an perfectly fine contribution to our discourse on this topic.

I should have also said “moot,” because this week, the Senate passed a version that bypasses Hong’s semantic argument that these children are “not North Korean, not refugees, and not orphans.” The Senate bill now includes “North Korean-origin children residing in other countries or children of one North Korean parent residing outside North Korea who are fleeing persecution or are living as de jure or de facto stateless persons.”  Happy now, Christine? Somehow, I doubt it.  Really, her biggest problem with this bill seems to be the way its advocates paint a “hellish picture” of North Korea’s expendable people and their children.

Naturally, Hong ends up arguing that the answer is more food aid to North Korea, or rather, to the regime that would have us believe hat droughts and floods have ruined 19 consecutive harvests, exclusively in North Korea, except in Pyongyang. (Hong blames North Korea’s hunger on politicians and activists supporting this bill, and of course, sanctions.) But deciding to give North Korea aid is one thing; getting North Korea to accept it is another. It rejected one offer of food aid in 2009, possibly over U.S. demands to monitor the distribution of the aid, and then expelled most American aid workers from private NGOs.  Although the U.S. government has regularly expressed that it was ready to resume food aid to North Korea, it took until last year to get North Korea to agree to take it, only to renege on an agreement that would have provided food aid in exchange for a moratorium on North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests. The U.S. also demanded essential requirements for monitoring to make sure it got to those who needed it most. The conditions were less restrictive than what the U.N. might have demanded in, say, Sudan or anywhere else, but Hong criticizes even those minimal safeguards as heavy-handed U.S. demands for “unprecedented access.”

Regardless of the terms on which North Korea would accept it free of charge, food is far below the nose cone of the Kim Dynasty’s hierarchy of fiscal priorities; the regime spent enough on just its latest one rocket launch to feed the entire country for a year.  It’s pretty difficult to escape the conclusion that the regime had decided to keep its people hungry (or rather, certain classes of them). Yet however inadvertently, Hong stumbles over a part of the truth — North Korean orphans in China are a small part of the humanitarian problem here. After all, very few North Korean orphans will ever make it that far. North Korean orphans are in China are just the biggest humanitarian problem we can begin to solve now, in some small way.

Of course, this lame duck session of Congress ends Thursday, which means that this bill could still die in a conference committee or on the President’s desk.  That means that the likes of Dobbs and Hong can go right back to paving other peoples’ road to Hell with their own intentions, which I’ll let you characterize as you see fit.  If you’re having difficulty making those judgments, then Escape from North Korea is a book you have to read.

Conference on North Korean political prison camps and refugees, this Friday in Los Angeles

This Friday, the Museum of Tolerance, in cooperation with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Liberty in North Korea and the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, will host a conference on human rights in North Korea.

According to the agenda flyer, which you can see at this link, “The event will conclude with a book signing by Melanie Kirkpatrick (author of Escape from North Korea, The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad), Blaine Harden (author of Escape from Camp 14), and Shin Dong-hyuk (the hero of Escape from Camp 14).”

For my own part, I’m hoping that sometime this week, at least one of the imagery companies I’ve contacted will be able to come up with new imagery of Camp 22, which might partially corroborate some of the hideous things we’ve heard about the closure of the camp and the liquidation of its population last week. My deepest appreciation to those of you who reached out and offered funding to help with this project.