Category Archives: Refugees

RFA: North Korea tells overseas workers to attack journalists

Ever since the U.N. Commission of Inquiry issued its report last year, North Korea has been particularly sensitive to accusations of human rights violations. It shouldn’t surprise us that this sensitivity is especially keen when the scrutiny threatens to cut off a growing source of hard currency — its export of what amounts to slave labor to places like Russia, Malaysia, and Qatar. Press reports on the working conditions of these workers, and the regime’s spotty history of paying their (paltry) wages, have embarrassed the regime, embarrassed companies and governments that use North Korean labor, and sometimes, disrupted those arrangements.

Now, according to a new report from Radio Free Asia, Pyongyang is reacting to renewed media scrutiny of overseas North Korean laborers about like you’d expect Pyongyang to react to that:

“Particularly, when a foreign reporter or human rights activists tries to take a picture or film you, take the camera, camcorder or cell phone from them and smash it,” the document said, according to Do.

“They [North Korean workers] must physically smash them, but also they must pull out internal memory cards such as SD cards and then return the broken cameras or camcorders to their owners,” he said.

Workers are also directed to physically attack the journalists and investigators:

The action guide also instructs workers not to hesitate to respond with violence and to gang up on those trying to video or photograph them, he said.

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Hard times for North Korean mines, and miners

Please pardon me for taking a few days of rest with my family during the holidays. I’ll have much to say about The Interview, Nate Thayer’s intrepid reporting on the AP, and other exigent matters after we’re all played out on Legos and board games. Meanwhile, I have a few posts that I’d written last weekend and had planned to publish when North Korea hit the front pages. Here is the first of them.

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A series of possibly conflicting reports from North Korea’s outer provinces claims that North Korea’s mining industry is under unusual strain, due to commodity price disputes with China, or due to drought causing a lack of hydroelectric power to pump water and run hoists. Despite promises of ten-fold wage increases for miners, those increases have failed to materialize, and the payment of baseline wages is unsteady:

“These days, because of a dispute over prices with China, iron ore exports have been halted, and in many cases salaries go unpaid,” the source said. “With operations suspended at the mine due to the extreme power shortage in the country, people are worried that they won’t even receive their 30,000 KPW.” [Daily NK]

Yet copper demand has risen … due to a “recent order for copper to produce bronze statues of the son and father Kims all across the country.” Imagine that.

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N. Korean spy targeted refugees in the South

As much as I agree that the National Security Law is overbroad and prone to abuse, cases like this show that parts of it remain necessary for the protection of South Korean citizens, including refugees from the North.

A North Korean defector was sentenced to two years behind bars on Friday for trying to pass on information about fellow defectors in South Korea to Pyongyang authorities.

A local court in this southeastern city said it found the 45-year-old woman, identified only by her surname Kim, guilty of gathering information on about 20 defectors in South Korea and attempting to send it to the North.

She was indicted on charges related to South Korea’s strict National Security Law that bans South Koreans, including North Korean defectors, from having contact with the North. [Yonhap]

Miss Kim told the judge that after her defection, she changed her mind, decided to return, contacted the North Korean Embassy Consulate in Shenyang, and volunteered to become a spy to earn the right to return. It seems rather more likely that Miss Kim was sent South by the Reconnaissance Bureau of the Workers’ Party to collect intel on others. It seems unlikely that Miss Kim learned the sources and methods of espionage while already in South Korea.

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KCNA cites debunked accusations to deny human rights violations

It all started with a piece of web journalism that printed the demonstrably untrue accusations of two men whose views were never newsworthy, and which would never have been published had they been researched. One is a notorious denier of North Korea’s crimes against humanity who claims to have traveled widely within North Korea, meaning he’s either too blind to read a cuckoo clock at high noon or prevaricating, probably to protect his business interests there. The other is a combustible man (as in, warning: contents under pressure) without any basis for his mean-spirited accusation — an accusation he now both repeats and regrets in one incoherent post that also concedes the broader truth of Pyongyang’s crimes (but only as asserted by numerous other witnesses). Yet last week, their accusations graduated into official KCNA propaganda talking points in Pyongyang’s smear campaign against its accusers:

A journalist of Ireland on Oct. 29, 2014 in an article dedicated to the internet magazine The Diplomat said that Pak Yon Mi, 21-year old girl who defected from north Korea, spoke about “the serious human rights situation” in north Korea in tears at the World Youth Summit held in Dublin early in October and BBC, Al Jazeera, Daily Mail and other media gave wide publicity to it, but not a few critics claimed what she said was contrary to the truth, expressing skepticism about her speech.

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South Korea’s illiberal left: authoritarians in the service of totalitarians

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. [Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19]

In America, we have grown accustomed to a political polarity in which we associate “left” with “liberal.” Whatever the merits of that correlation here, it’s useless to any understanding of politics in South Korea, where very few people on either side of the political spectrum can be described as liberal, and the only real candidate for that description — at the least the only candidate I can offer — is a member of the “right” Saenuri Party. For the most part, the Korean right has never overcome the authoritarian reputation Park Chung-Hee and Chun Doo-Hwan gave it, and the arrival of democracy did not mean the end of the old right’s use of an overbroad National Security Law to censor nonviolent speech that wiser men would have held up to ridicule and criticism instead.

Meanwhile, the Korean left seems to have dedicated itself to justifying the continued need for the National Security Law, and to making its own criticism of the NSL, however legitimate in isolation, seem hypocritical in the broader context.

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Kang Chol-Hwan does a Reddit AMA

“One of the biggest misconceptions I think people have of North Korea is that they are simple and naive,” he said. “But I feel that North Koreans as a group of people have gone through a lot of hardship, and their ability to survive in difficult situations are a lot higher that what people think. People think that unification will be a basketcase for North Koreans, but they will definitely be able to manage. People also think North Koreans will have a hard time adjusting to the market economy, but the black market is also growing under the regime’s nose, and people are used to working in this environment.” [The Atlantic]

Kang is a survivor of Camp 15, which some unconfirmed reports say has been dismantled as part of a hoax to fool the United Nations–reports I’ll believe when I see satellite imagery that proves it. You can buy Kang’s memoir, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, here; his AMA is here.

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North Korea perestroika watch

Two new reports from The Daily NK update us on Kim Jong Un’s efforts to (as Don Gregg put it) “change the nature of his country.”

Certain areas bordering China in Yangkang Province have been labeled “danger zones” as the latest effort by the North Korean authorities to beef up surveillance and inspections in the region. This move, in conjunction with the installation of new radio wave detectors to track down those making international calls, is the latest measure aimed at preventing defections and information from spilling outside the borders.

“In a recent inminban [people’s unit] meeting, there was a lecture on how certain areas adjacent to the border such as Hyesan and Baekam County have been designated ‘danger zones’ by the State Security Department [SSD],” a source in Yangkang Province told the Daily NK on Wednesday. [Daily NK]

On the other side of the border, even as China threatens to veto U.N. action on human rights, it is allowing North Korean security forces to hunt down refugee defection brokers.

North Korea has been deploying state security officials disguised as travelers with special personal visas or traders to China as an attempt to weed out brokers that aid defectors in escaping the country, a local source told the Daily NK.

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Embracing evil

Michael Bassett is an odd character of a kind that draws an increasingly selective audience–people who really, really hate other people who criticize North Korea about human rights.

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The most recent targets of Bassett’s rage are a friend of mine, Casey Lartigue, and this woman:

In an article by John Power for The Diplomat, Bassett calls the woman, a North Korean refugee named Yeonmi Park, “a liar” and a “spinstress” for telling The Irish Independent, in her slightly broken English: “Every morning and every … like … some riverside like this [gesturing out the window] you can see the dead bodies floating, and if you go out in the morning and just people dead there.”

Park’s actual words are on video, but Power–or whatever source he drew from–alters her words slightly but materially to, “Every morning at riversides like this you can see dead bodies floating. If you go out in the morning, they are there.” In search of a controversy, Power confronts Park with this misquote, and she responds, “What I meant was … it was the countryside and special border areas and in winters (you could see bodies in rivers).” Or so says John Power.

Power then quotes Felix Abt, a windbag North Korean apologist and Switzerland’s greatest embarrassment to humanity since François Genoud.

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Incompetent translation could cost N. Korean teen his life

The Swedish government has denied the asylum claim of a teenager who claims to be a North Korean from North Hamgyeong Province. The denial is based on a report by a contractor, Sprakab, that failed to identify the teen’s dialect, or the places he named in his interview. A Korean expert hired by Sprakab now claims that the company misquoted her. An appeal is all that stands between the young man’s life and deportation to China, repatriation to North Korea, and almost certain death:

A Korean expert hired to assess the teenager’s dialect by a controversial Swedish linguistic company that evaluates asylum applications told journalists that his strong dialect had left her in no doubt that he came from North Korea.

The company, Sprakab, nevertheless concluded in its report that his dialect did not fit with his story of growing up in North Korea’s northern districts.

The woman, who has not been named, accused the company her of twisting her words in its report. “I never said that he didn’t come from North Korea,”she said. “What they are saying is wrong. It’s ridiculous.”

The teenager has appealed against the decision. “If I go back to North Korea then I will die,” he told Swedish radio.

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Qatar, the sponsor of ISIS, is using N. Korean slave labor to build a World Cup village

One North Korean worker helping to build the high-rise said: “People like us don’t usually get paid. The money does not come to the person directly. It’s nothing to do with me, it’s the [North Korean recruitment] company’s business.”

A project manager of the lavish development said the workers “don’t have a single rial themselves” and “borrow money from us if they need small things like cigarettes”.

“The descriptions of the conditions North Korean workers endure in Qatar – abuse of vulnerability, withholding of wages and excessive overtime – are highly indicative of state-sponsored trafficking for forced labour,” a modern form of slavery, said Aidan McQuade, the director of Anti-Slavery International.

Sources in Qatar estimate there may be as many as 3,000 North Koreans working on projects across the emirate. [The Guardian]

I realize that choosing the most loathesome friends imaginable is an established custom in Qatar, but does FIFA have any standards? Oh, right. But on the positive side, at least the presence of the North Koreans should make it easier for Qataris to sneak a drink now and then.

The Qatari Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs insists it takes the issue of worker payment very seriously, but says that no North Koreans have complained.

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NIS agent gets prison time for framing defector

A Seoul court sentenced Tuesday a mid-ranking state intelligence agent to two and a half years in prison for instructing other agents to forge documents to frame a North Korean defector as a spy.

The 48-year-old National Intelligence Service (NIS) agent, surnamed Kim, was convicted of instructing other agents to fabricate the Chinese immigration records of Yoo Woo-seong, a 34-year-old defector who was then an employee of the Seoul municipal government, to charge him with espionage.

“Kim routinely made excuses before the judges and asked his collaborators to give false testimonies to make him appear innocent,” the Seoul Central District Court said in a ruling. [Yonhap]

Why would an NIS agent do this? My best guess, based on this report, is that the investigator really believed Yoo was guilty, couldn’t get the evidence the right way, and then decided to fabricate the missing pieces. Obviously, that excuses nothing.

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China arrests 11 more N. Korean refugees

Eleven North Korean defectors were arrested by Chinese police while seeking to cross the border with Myanmar, a source said Friday.

Local police rounded up the defectors — 10 adults and a seven-year-old child — at around 3-4 a.m. on the day, shortly before they were to head towards the border in the southern region of Yunnan Province, according to the source.

They were immediately put in custody in a police station there, added the source.

A South Korean foreign ministry official said the government is still trying to determine the exact details of the situation. [Yonhap]

For China to do this, even as the U.N. debates action on a Commission of Inquiry report that called on China to grant asylum to North Korean refugees and stop repatriating them, tells you all you need to know about China’s contempt for human rights, and how it will vote in the Security Council.

Perhaps it’s time to start talking about alternatives like a special tribunal, and actions to block the assets of Chinese officials and agencies responsible for these repatriations. If no one talks about alternatives like these, it’s a sure bet that China will feel safe to veto any U.N.

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

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

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

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

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Yeonmi Park appeals to the conscience of Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ride took 12 days.

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

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

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

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

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

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