Archive for Refugees

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.

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.