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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 Ceausescu, Uday 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.
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.)
The decline in refugee flows also coincides with the disastrous December 2009 currencyrevaluation 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 publicdisturbances, 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:
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.