Category Archives: Human Trafficking

@GloriaSteinem @ChristineAhn & @WomenCrossDMZ: When will you call on Kim Jong-Un end the rape & murder of women prisoners?

The European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea’s new report on forced labor is rightfully attracting media attention for calling out 18 countries — Algeria, Angola, China, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Malta, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, Oman, Poland, Qatar, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates — for using North Korean slave labor. (In fairness, they might have included South Korea on the list, too.)

What reporters should not overlook, however, is the section of the report on slave labor in North Korea’s prison camp system. Within that section is a long list of witness accounts of rampant sexual violence they saw or experienced there.

“The guards called girls into a room and ordered them to take off their clothes. There were girls who were fifteen or sixteen years old and they started to cry. The guards would put on rubber gloves and push their hands inside their vaginas to check if they had money. The girls were still virgins and had not even started their menstrual cycles. They would bleed and cry. The guards kept doing this even though they didn’t find any money… …In the National Security Agency prison, the room was small and had a toilet to the side. The door had a hole through which the guards would send food. There were nine girls in the room. At 22:00, when we were ordered to go to sleep, a guard that stayed outside our room on patrol would call out for this nineteen year old girl to stand up and come close to the door where the hole was. He would tell her to come closer and then he would molest her and touch her breasts. I saw that when I was in the Sinuiju National Security Agency prison” [Kim XX, 40, Saebyul County]

“Sexual assaults are somewhat hidden, but if you find women whose workload has been lessened, that is probably because they have some kind of sexual relationships with the officers” [Suh XX, 43, North Hamgyeong Province]

“From China, when we were being repatriated back to North Korea, the guards from the Ministry of National Security stripped women naked to conduct examinations. They checked their vaginas to make sure there was no money hidden. If there were attractive women or girls, they were quietly taken away by the guards and sexually abused. These girls were unable to speak about what happened, because if they did they would be beaten further” [Park XX, 45, North Hamgyeong Province]

“Younger and more attractive girls are often sexually abused. The guards take them out to the hall [of the detention facility] and sexually molest them. Other guards who are passing by just pretend not to see anything. They do not report what they see to their superiors” [Kim XX, 49, Pyongyang]

This testimony is in addition to, and consistent with, what the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, and the Korean Bar Association have already reported about the rape and murder of women prisoners in North Korea. At some point, evidence of a course of criminal conduct becomes so cumulative that it overwhelms reasonable doubt. It also strongly suggests that at a certain level, the state condones or tolerates this. I cannot, for the life of me, see how anyone can go to Pyongyang, take part in staged propaganda theater, remain silent about the worst abuses of women imaginable, and dare call herself a women’s rights activist.

As members of the U.N. Security Council consider what new sanctions to impose on Pyongyang if it tests a missile, they should consider clarifying that the financial due diligence measures in UNSCR 2094 apply to these arrangements, which have become an important source of income for Pyongyang. The Security Council should prohibit any use of North Korean labor — including labor within North Korea — that fails to comply with International Labor Organization standards, authorize the ILO to report to the Panel of Experts on any suspected violations, and designate any North Korean entities known to be involved in this slave trade. To assuage Chinese objections, this need not be any more explicitly about human rights than the luxury goods ban in UNSCR 1718 was.

Continue reading »

In North Korea, prostitution used to be a survival strategy. Now, it’s just another racket.

The Great Famine of the 1990s changed North Korean society so profoundly that we are still trying to understand the breadth and depth of that change. During and after the famine, millions of North Koreans grasped at any survival strategy necessary to feed themselves. Those who did not change, and whom the state did not feed, died. For thousands of North Korean women, prostitution was the survival strategy of last resort to feed themselves, and often, their children.

In Kim Il Sung’s North Korea, the sex trade was invisible to the outside world. That began to change when Chinese traffickers and johns forced thousands of female famine refugees into the sex trade. By the end of the great famine, prostitution had become stealthily ubiquitous inside North Korea. It also became more organized and more predatory, with state officials playing a growing role its patronage and protection.

In Hamheung in 2008, a number of high-ranking party officials were accused of patronizing a tea house that also sold sex, and for protecting it against police interference. In Hyesan in 2009, the manager of a state-run inn frequently patronized by central party officials was arrested for pimping women and girls, some in their mid-teens. North Korea’s 2009 currency “reform” drove more women into the sex trade. By 2010, prostitution in Chongjin had been organized by “couple managers” who matched customers, often soldiers, with sex workers, often female university students, and sometimes women who had become dependent on drugs. Last year, the manager of a North Korean factory in China was accused of pimping out female factory workers.

The reports do not suggest that the state has consciously chosen to tolerate or profit from the sex trade as a matter of policy. The security forces periodically crack down on the sex trade, but inevitably, when corrupt authorities attempt to police a profitable trade, the authorities begin to see that trade as just another way to supplement their pay. More fundamentally, in a society where officials are the law, where enforcement is arbitrary, and where the state profits from trade at least indirectly, it can be hard to tell the difference between corruption and state policy. Today, the Daily NK reports that prostitution is increasingly run by well-connected businessmen and protected by the officials they’re connected with:

The sex industry in North Korea is becoming more systematic in large cities, as the number of pimps who lure in young workers is on the rise, and Ministry of People’s Security [MPS] officials who are tasked with cracking down on sex work are looking the other way, leaving the door open for prostitution around the clock, Daily NK has learned.

This is the first report I’ve seen of organized prostitution in the capital.

“In Pyongyang and other major cities, more professional prostitution rings that use young women to make money are surfacing,” a source in South Hamkyung Province told Daily NK on Wednesday. “People who run these operations bribe everyone from MPS agents to night patrol members under the same unit so they can do business.”

As is the case in South Korea, prostitution in North Korea tends to congregate in neighborhoods near train stations.

“In areas like Hamheung, Chongjin, and other large cities, if you go to train stations and areas around the marketplace, you’ll easily see older women approaching men and asking if they’d like ‘temporary lodging,'” he said. “They usually go up to well-dressed officials who seem to be on business trips or military officials, telling them they have full amenities (code for room and board and women of all ages).”

Although the price differs by region, mostly for women in their early teens and 20s, it costs roughly 40,000 to 50,000 KPW [5-6 USD], while for those in their 30s, it’s about 20,000 to 30,000 KPW [2.5-3.7 USD] The women who direct customers to the facility typically get a 30 percent cut, while the homeowner and sex worker split up the remaining sum. The latter two will for the most part make at least 10,000 KPW [1.2 USD] per case, according to the source.

“These days since sex businesses receive protection from crackdown agents, the industry has been growing, leading to squabbles over customers,” the source said. “With more operations up and running, there are even allotted schedules. During the day, all businesses run together, while at night, the hours are divided into early and late operations.

Yet again, the reports suggest that regime officials both patronize and protect the sex trade:

Party cadres and officials in the judicial system are frequent clients of sex services, and many venture out to places like Pyongyang’s Munsuwon and high-end public bathhouses such as ‘Eundeokwon’ with prostitutes, said the source. In the North, there are baths designated specifically for married couples and can only be used after national IDs are verified.

Some officials also use the sex trade to entrap and extort johns.

Also profiting from the business are safety officials, who not only receive bribes for turning a blind eye, they sometimes use pretty women to draw customers into the ‘temporary lodging’ facility and catch them in the act, he asserted. Then, they blackmail the clients for large sums of money or in some cases, call up for regular bribes. If customers do not comply, the officials report them and use it as an opportunity to add more ‘points’ and get a leg up at work.

North Korean society’s acceptance of prostitution will probably remain until long after unification; after all, prostitution still carries on more-or-less openly in South Korea, under terms that can also be very exploitative. Different societies take different views on whether the sex trade, at least between consenting and unmarried adults, is inherently evil, but the conditions in which North Korean women must sell their bodies is unquestionably evil. Their working conditions are horrible — for the obvious reasons, of course, but also for the general lack of health care available to those who became pregnant, or contract STDs. Some turn to addictive drugs, in the false hope that they can protect them from contracting disease.

The role of state officials in organizing and profiting from the sex trade is repellant, but still not as repellant as the state’s role in creating the conditions that force women into prostitution to begin with. Women who ought to be doctors should not be sex workers. Of North Korea’s many tragedies, there may be none greater than all the human potential destroyed by its unjust and unequal political system.

Continue reading »

“The first words she said were, ‘let’s die together.’ But I was still happy.”

Screen Shot 2015-07-21 at 8.02.27 AMNational Geographic recounts the story of Eunsun Kim, who survived the Great Famine and a dangerous journey from North Korea to the South:

Many people died because of malnutrition, including my grandparents. In 1997, my father passed away too. My mom sold or bartered everything from our apartment until we had nothing left. So she decided to go to the city to search for food. She left me at home, but took my older sister who’s two-years-older than me. She said she would be back in three days, but if she got food earlier she would be back sooner. She gave me 15 North Korean chon—enough to buy just one piece of tofu—and left.

Three days passed, then four, then five. I was waiting for her to come home but on the sixth day I had no energy left and thought maybe today is my last day. I wasn’t afraid of death. I had seen so many people dying during that time. What made me sad was that I felt my mom didn’t want me. She took my other sister but didn’t come back for me. So I decided to write a will, at 11 years old.

I wanted to say I would miss my mom, that even if she came home after I died, I wanted her to know what I had felt while waiting for her. But on the sixth day she came back. I was happy even though she arrived empty-handed. But she didn’t give up. She didn’t leave me alone. The first words she said were, ‘let’s die together.’ But I was still happy.

As I’ve argued before, every one of those deaths was needless — the result of deliberate decisions by the regime, and disproportionately inflicted on those at the bottom of North Korea’s political caste system.

Kim’s book is “A Thousand Miles to Freedom.”

Continue reading »

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.

“The action guide even includes a series of details: Do not kill, but inflict a blow or fracture until the person’s body is physically damaged,” Do said.

If a person apologizes while a North Korean is beating him, the North Korean must record his words with a video camera or cellphone and give the recording to the supervisor or manager of the work unit to which they belong, Do said.

“If North Korean workers block activities by preventing or beating a South Korean who is reporter or human rights activist, they will be evaluated according to their actions,” he said. “But if they don’t [follow the guidelines] and pictures or videos appear on the Internet or TV, they’ll be punished.” [RFA]

A caution is in order on the sourcing of the story: it’s attributed to an NGO, the Citizens’ Coalition for Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees (CHNK), citing “sources inside North Korea.” Although CHNK itself is a respected NGO, we’re in no position to evaluate the reliability and basis of knowledge of CHNK’s own anonymous sources.

If the report can be confirmed, it could have significant policy implications. It would amount to an order by the North Korean government to subnational groups to commit politically motivated violence against non-combatant citizens of other nations on foreign soil. In this case, Pyongyang’s political motivation is to suppress the work of journalists and NGOs, and to preempt policy discussions among governments. It’s far from the most egregious example of North Korean sponsorship of international terrorism — the direction to refrain from murder may even count as progress — but if these orders are attempted or carried out, they could meet the legal standard for the hate that dare not speak its name (at least in Foggy Bottom).

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

~   ~   ~

Update: New Focus also reports that the regime has tightened controls on its expat workers in China:

As a basic rule, it is understood that all workers must move in groups of at least fifteen people. But furthermore, television viewing is strictly prohibited. This is because South Korean dramas play regularly on Chinese broadcasts. If any labourer is caught moving out of bounds, away from the workplace and watching television, they will be sent straight back to North Korea the next day.

Previously, North Korean overseas labourers were allowed some degree of freedom, even being able to leave the workplace, provided that they moved in groups of two or three. However, during the lead up to Kim Il Sung’s birthday celebrations, the rules have changed and controls have tightened significantly.

To conclude, it can be observed that the North Korean government, in an effort to raise hard currency, is increasing its export labour, and, in addition, tightening its grip on them, especially in light of foreign influences such as Hallyu (the Korean Wave). The North Korean government has clearly shown, once again, its concerns and fears regarding the threat of exposure to Western cultural influences.

Or, I would add, its fears regarding the threat of Western exposure to how North Korea treats its people.

Continue reading »

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.

~   ~   ~

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.

Separately, the Daily NK reported on November 25th that operations at Musan, North Korea’s largest iron ore mine, had halted due to power shortages caused by low rainfall, and that this had caused “major disruptions” to the Kim Chaek and Songjin steel mills. (The report makes no reference to a price dispute with China. It seems improbable that both stories are true.)

Meanwhile, the regime is trying to raise coal production, perhaps to offset its lost iron ore revenue, by drafting slave labor from prisoners sentenced for “minor” offenses like selling smuggled CDs, and “conducting illegal business operations.”

“Upon orders to produce more coal, the state has been forcing male prisoners, who have been sent to labor training camps for misdemeanors, to coal mines,” a source in South Pyongan Province told the Daily NK on Friday.

Labor training camps refer to correctional facilities under the Ministry of People’s Security that hold criminals who have committed less serious crimes. They are held in these camps from anywhere between one to six months, where they carry out intense labor. Usually prisoners of these camps are mobilized to construction sites or farm areas, and coal mine work is considered an extreme exception,  reflecting the serious rate of power deficiency currently facing the North.

The prisoners are worked day and night at coal towns some kilometers away, eating and sleeping on site. [Daily NK]

The article goes on to detail a long list of occupational hazards (collapses, accidents due to lack of lighting) that either kill the miners or drain away their lives (malnutrition, exhaustion, beatings, and respiratory problems due to coal dust and poor ventilation).

She explained once such case, “A few days ago, a prisoner in his 40s fell unconscious from suffocation and then died from the added malnutrition. He then received ‘parole,’” going on to add, “With more residents learning about the conditions at coal mines for those in labor training camps, rumors are spreading that if you land yourself in a training camp, you come out dead.”

“Women who have their husbands in these camps are passing on bribes to security officials and trying everything they can to get them out,” she asserted. “As they get to know of how the inmates are working, not even because of a serious crime, people are saying even during the Japanese colonial period they did exploit people this much.” 

Although the drafting of prisoners as unskilled labor suggests a labor shortage, some (other?) part of the North Korean government is exporting (skilled?) mine laborers to Malaysia, where the conditions sound hardly better than inside North Korea itself.

Malaysia has defended the use of North Korean labourers in its mining industry, saying they are particularly good workers because of their dedication, strength and bravery.

After a North Korean was among those killed in a mine explosion at the weekend, Malaysia’s deputy home minister, Datuk Seri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, told reporters that the men had been working legally under a special agreement between Pyongyang and authorities in the Malaysian state of Sarawak.

“When it comes to industries such as coal mines, the jobs are very dangerous and tough,” Wan Junaidi said. “No local or Sarawakian will dare to take up such jobs — that is why [we] need foreign workers. In the coal-mining sector, only Britain, China and North Korea have highly-skilled workers.” [….]

The minister’s comments come just two days after three men — Tun Tun Win, 36, from Burma; Kardianto, 38, from Indonesia; and Pang Chung-hyok, 29, from North Korea — were killed after a blast ripped through the mine on Saturday morning. Another 29 men were injured, seven of them from North Korea. Forty-nine of the 119 foreign workers at the Sarawak mine were North Koreans. [The Guardian]

The report quotes “defectors’ groups” as saying there may be as many as 65,000 North Koreans working abroad now. The usual suspicions arise that the workers in Malaysia are receiving anywhere from zero to 15% of their salaries, as at the Kaesong Industrial Park, the Siberian logging camps, and Qatar’s new World Cup construction sites.

Collectively, mineral products constitute North Korea’s largest legal exports. The trend bears watching, not only because of its potential effects on North Korea’s economy and society, but also because the regime may feel tempted to substitute falling mineral exports with illicit exports, or by exporting more food.

Continue reading »

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. No, I don’t suppose they have.

HT: Deadspin

Continue reading »

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.”)


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.


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


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.

Continue reading »

China Targets North Korean Refugees and the Activists Who Help Them

So those reports that China would stop repatriating North Korean refugees were probably disinformation after all. Instead, China is launching yet another pogrom against North Korean refugees, which coincides with a wider sweep against foreigners that got its impetus (or pretext) from one drunken Brit. China is also targeting foreigners who are helping North Korean refugees:

“I heard that police and security staff are in every nook of the streets. All defectors must take shelter and cannot come out of it,” he said. “Most of the brokers appear to have returned home due to the crackdown. Chinese residents also refuse to help defectors in dire need of their support.” [….]

The clampdown also targets activist groups that have been operating near the border areas to help North Korean refugees. Chinese authorities take issue with their visas, which are mostly intended for tourism, not activism, activists said. Kim Young-hwan, a renowned human rights activist, and his three colleagues have been held in China for unspecified reasons since late March. They have been denied access to their families, the South Korean consulate and legal assistance.

“In recent weeks, more and more missionaries and activists have been ordered to leave the country. (The Chinese authorities) even threatened to punish them out if they don’t return home quickly,” said Peter Chung, chief of the Justice for North Korea, an activist group based in Seoul.

The South Korean government has raised the issue of Kim Young Hwang’s prolonged detention to the Chinese government, to little apparent effect. There is also this suspicious event to consider:

Kang Ho-bin, a South Korean human rights activist and survivor of an apparent assassination attempt in 2011, died in a car accident in China on Sunday.

Kang, who had been working for North Korean human rights in China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture for more than 10 years, died in a car accident on Sunday as he was driving to a church at about 2 p.m. Officials at the church said that Chinese authorities have not elaborated on the accident, but said that Kang is suspected of having fallen asleep at the wheel.

Although the Chinese authorities were initially vague about the accident, raising suspicions about the circumstances of Kang’s death, the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs has since said that there is no evidence to suggest North Korean involvement.

China is, however, collaborating with the North Korean regime to import hand-picked North Korean workers to labor in Chinese factories. In the past, the regime has collected “voluntary” contributions from expatriate workers’ wages, leaving them barely enough to live on. Even so, their pre-tax pay is probably still much less than the wages that even Chinese workers would accept, which means that two nominally socialist regimes get to split the profits generated from the use of slave labor. If anyone out there can help me identify which companies are using that labor, there are legal methods to prevent goods produced with this labor from being imported into the United States.

Continue reading »

Kaesong Updates

A bus accident, apparently caused in part by bad weather, has killed 10 North Korean workers and injured 40 others at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which, by the way, subsidizes Kim Jong Il to the tune of $50 million per month.

Give a thought to the poor families of the dead … and the wounded as well. I’m not sure how much of that substantial sum goes into providing suitable medical care for the North Korean people, but my best information about health care in North Korea falls short of the expectations U.N. apparatchik Margaret Chan raised last May Day.

Meanwhile, we all eagerly await angry calls by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions for an investigation into the safety of the North Korean workers.

The complex itself continues to persist as an artificial, subsidized entity despite a growing consensus that it’s a failure as a business model.

[T]he managers’ biggest difficulty has been a decline in orders from South Korean buyers, who they said had stopped buying from Kaesong factories for fear the complex might suddenly be closed down for political reasons. They also said they were worried that the North would close the complex if the South resumed its political broadcasts.

“We are being used as bargaining chips in a political game,” said Jimmy Bae, director of strategic planning at Cuckoo Electronics, a South Korean electronics company that has a $10 million factory in the complex. [N.Y. Times]

Continue reading »

The Comfort Women of Our Time: North Korean Women Are Turning to Prostitution to Survive

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Laura Ling and Euna Lee went to China to tell the story of what it means to be a North Korean woman today. What it means, increasingly, is having no future, and often, having no means to keep body and soul united but sacrificing the latter to preserve whatever remains of the former. If the historically weighty term “comfort woman” means a woman coerced into prostitution by the actions of an oppressive government, the women of North Korea are the comfort women of our time, and in these times, men and women in China and both Koreas are their exploiters, and often, their means of survival.

It would be an overstatement to suggest that the North Korean regime is directly impressing women into prostitution against their will, [Update: I stand corrected] but the regime’s actions, while less direct than those of the Japanese 60 years ago, frequently have the same ultimate effect. For an apt illustration, let’s return to the story of Ban Yong Mee:

Born in the town of Sinuiju, the city across the river from Dandong, Miss Ban studied hard at school to achieve her childhood dream of becoming a doctor. But despite getting excellent grades, a medical college refused her application on the grounds that she was from an ideologically “unreliable” family.

The problem was her grandfather, who had been a moderately prosperous businessman before the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. His fabrics factory employed only a few dozen people, yet in the eyes of North Korea’s communist leadership he was an exploiter, capitalist and counter-revolutionary threat.

His factory was confiscated, he was executed as a “public enemy”, and ever since, his descendants have been treated with suspicion – Miss Ban’s parents were forced to work on a cooperative farm.

Rejected from medical school, Miss Ban attempted to join the Korean People’s Army and was rejected for the same reason. “They said, ‘We don’t need a person who may betray us any moment and whom we can’t trust’,” she said with a sad smile. “They think that I want revenge for my grandfather.”

Instead, she had no choice but to join her parents, toiling in the co-operative’s rice fields. [London Telegraph]

Miss Ban became a victim of the North Korean regime’s system of political castes known as
, meaning she was written off as unworthy and expendable. Some of the women in Miss Ban’s position say they were lured into Chinese brothels with false promises. Miss Ban makes no such claim. She admits knowingly selling herself to a brothel. There was simply no other alternative. Miss Ban was a subject of a nominally socialist regime that smothers private markets but which chooses to squander its resources on weapons and white elephants for the Inner Party rather than provide for its people, and which refuses to let other countries feed them, either:

“Most of us had absolutely nothing to eat,” she said, recalling the famines in the communist state that killed an estimated 300,000 people between 1995 and 1998. “We went to the hills to look for edible grass, wild animals and birds. I remember we even ate insects and caterpillars.” [London Telegraph]

Other North Korean women interviewed for this report, most likely having no idea of their own songbun status, simply claim that they were hungry — often because a provider died, leaving then no other means of support. A few others were targeted and abducted by the North Korean accomplices of Chinese gangs.

Like all North Korean refugees in China, Ms. Ban lived as a hunted fugitive under an unadjudged death sentence — the constant fear of being sent back to die in a North Korean gulag, or in front of a North Korean firing squad. One day, Chinese police caught her with fake documents. The price of Miss Ban’s survival was giving in to the sexual demands of six of the policemen and turning over all the earnings she had. And still, that was better than the alternative:

“The only way I’m going back to Korea is in a coffin,” she said, a look of defiance flashing across her face. “F*** you, comrade Kim Jong-il.”[London Telegraph]

Open News recently published several reports on the rising trend in this industry — forcing North Korean women to perform in front of web cams for South Korean customers hundreds of miles away. The South Korean partners in these ventures supply the Korean-Chinese pimps with South Korean national ID’s (presumably fake) for the North Korean women, so that they can chat online on South Korean web sites. According to Open News, the women don’t discuss where they come from, but the South Korean customers certainly recognize their North Korean dialects. Let it never be said that South Koreans never did anything for starving North Koreans, although there are things to be said for this commerce — it’s probably better than physical rape, and it’s still probably keeping more North Koreans alive than anything Kim Dae Jung or Roh Moo Hyun ever did for North Korea’s expendable classes. Here’s your “We Are One” feel-good moment of the year:

Mr. B told us that these chatting girls from North Korea have to do more than what is stated above because the more they work, the more money they can earn.

These chatting girls work usually around midnight. Because there are lots of customers after 6 pm, the work continues from 1 am to 4 am. There is no fixed time when the work will be done. It is also possible these women be driven by customer during the day.

Mr. A and Mr. B both said that these women are not free from supervision of the managers even after their work is done. They are confined 24 hours and not allowed to leave the building. Even if some are exceptionally allowed out, they will be accompanied with managers to be under their control. [Open News]

The women must meet earnings quotas or risk losing even this life, such as it is. But the earning potential is still phenomenal by North Korean standards:

These “North Korean refugee chatting girls” have a sales target (a mandatory minimum sales amount assigned by the employer) that must be met each day. The amount varies by employer; the lowest sales target is known to be 50,000 won (South Korean) per day, or 220,000 won per week.

According to Mr. A’s testimony, however, it is actually easy to earn a daily average of 100,000 won. Accordingly, it is easy to earn 500,000 won per week or 2 million won per month, in which case the chatting woman would receive an income (calculated as 30 percent of the sales revenue) of 600,000 won (approximately 4,000 yuan) (Note 1). Furthermore, the income is directly proportional to the duration of the chat; the longer the women draw out the chat, the higher their income. [Open News]

In North Korea itself, women and children are also being forced into prostitution by a deteriorating food situation and a state that won’t provide for them:

“Around stations in big cities, you can see many pimps affiliated to inns . . . . They approach pedestrians, euphemistically saying that “˜I am selling a bed,’ or “˜selling a flower.'” Sadly, some of those forced to survive this way are children. [Daily NK]

The beneficiaries of the majority’s misery are the minority with power and money. The Daily NK has previously reported on a prostitution scandal in which twenty North Korean officials in Hamhung were purged, and several senior military officers were shot for patronizing a “tea house.” This month, the Daily NK reports that in the city of Hyesan, the regime engaged in an inspection campaign directed at hotels that are selling women and girls to North Korean and foreign customers:

At the Hyemyung Inn, located in Hyemyung-dong, the superintendant, Mr. Lee, and the manager Mr. Baek allegedly ran a prostitution ring from 2005, despite the fact that it is a state-operated residential facility frequently used by Central Party officials. They charged 10,000 to 15,000 North Korean won per room for officials, and 4,000 won per room to average customers.

According to the source, prostitution at the Hyemyung Inn took place behind the disguise of flower sales. The superintendant and the manager connected male customers to various “flowers” according to their demands. What has been causing the most shock is the apparent coercion of girls as young as middle-school graduates into working at the inns.

The women selling flowers were classified into those selling “red flowers” (girls in their late teens~early 20s), “blue flowers” (unmarried women over 25), “yellow flowers” (married women) and “purple flowers” (widows). The superintendant was provided with the women through another supplier. These prostitutes divided payments for their services with the suppliers at a 40:60 or 50:50 ratio.

The source explained, “The most expensive ‘red flower’ costs around 20,000 won for two hours and 40,000 won for the entire night. It was even revealed that the supplier has good connections in China, so some of his women crossed the border and went as far as Changbai in China to work.” [Daily NK]

This time, different government actions are implicated in the rise of survival prostitution — the regime’s attack on the markets many North Koreans depend on to survive, and the mass mobilization that takes them away from the hard work of getting by day by day:

The source also explained, “Since the 150-Day Battle began, the number of women selling their bodies has progressively increased.” As households are being mobilized for farm labor and construction projects, and the markets are opening at past 4pm, the income of households in the cities has dramatically decreased, resulting in greater numbers of women engaging in sex trafficking as a means of survival. [Daily NK]

Take nothing I say here as a moral objection to voluntary commercial sex among free and consenting adults. Certainly there are greater social evils than this in North Korea today. Take this as an objection to an oligarchy that deprives human beings of their aspirations and their innate potential, and which forces them to choose between a degradation in a brothel or dessication in a grave.

Continue reading »

The Blood of Children on Their Hands (Updated)

[Update: Someone I trust tells me that Laura Ling and Euna Lee are anguished by the blog posts and news stories going around about this aspect of their story. Obviously, we’d love to hear Ling and Lee’s side of it, but according to my friend, they’re under a great deal of pressure from Current TV (among others) not to talk. Expect Ling and Lee to say more in the next few days about the precautions they took to prevent incriminating information from falling into the hands of the North Koreans, and much more about the very harsh treatment they endured from the North Koreans themselves. They may dispute some of what Durihana is saying to the Chosun Ilbo and other media. I got no additional information about how they crossed the border. I look forward to hearing their side of it, but every day they don’t speak up for 25 hunted children is another day those children are vulnerable to the Chinese police sending them to their deaths.

Al Gore, if you’re reading this, it’s time to speak out against Manbearpig before he kills again.]

I’m now being flooded with e-mails with links to this story, and I’m simply horrified. A fascist dictatorship with a seat in the U.N. Security Council rounds up innocent women and children, probably to ship them to Kim Jong Il’s slaughterhouses, and three inexplicably stupid and reckless Americans unwittingly helped them do it:

Lee said Laura Ling, Euna Lee and a man named Mitch Koss met him at a hotel in Yanji, in China’s Jilin Province, on March 14. They said they wanted to gather information about North Korean women who were working in adult videos at the North Korean-Chinese border area and on other North Korean women who were sold into the Chinese countryside.

They also wanted to know about children born to North Korean women and Chinese men. At the time, Lee was protecting some 21 children who had been abandoned by their Chinese families after their mothers were taken back to the North at five orphanages.

“I allowed them to collect information about the children on condition that they would not film their faces,” he said.

The three visited an orphanage the following day. Euna Lee, who speaks fluent Korean, asked children to send video messages to their mothers who had been deported to the North, and to bow to their mothers in front of the camera. But Lee said he stopped them from filming the scene.

The next day, the journalists filmed North Korean women at the border. They crossed the border and were arrested by North Korean soldiers on March 17. Ling and Lee were taken to North Korea, but Koss made it back and was arrested by Chinese border guards and handed over the video footage he was carrying. [Chosun Ilbo]

But it was information the Chinese gestapo found on Mitch Koss that caused the most heart-wrenching part of this:

On the early morning of Mar. 19, Chinese police raided Lee’s house and confiscated his computer, camera and various documents. “The documents contained the personal information of 25 North Korean orphans in addition to the children staying at the orphanages, and the phone numbers and addresses of human rights activists and their future plans,” he said. “I was interrogated intensively by three Korean-Chinese police officers until March 26. It was during interrogation that I found out that Chinese police had confiscated the video.”

Lee was deported to South Korea on April 8 after paying a fine of 20,000 yuan (approximately W4 million). “The five orphanages were forced to close down one by one,” he said. “I found Chinese relatives for 17 of the 21 orphans and a safe shelter for the remaining four, who have no relatives there.”

Koss declined to comment, and it was not possible to contact Euna Lee.

So if I’m reading this correctly, Pastor Lee was allowed to place 21 kids with shelters or Chinese families — families that appear not to want them, and for the time being — and another 25 kids are being hunted down for deportation to North Korea, or for all we know, already have been. Make what assumptions you will about their fate — I assume that China’s brutality is proportional to its ability to commit any given atrocity outside the presence of witnesses.

Other refugees, denied the assistance of a network to help them escape North Korea, will now be limited to the option of dying in place. There won’t be a Bill Clinton visit for them, and I doubt Bill Richardson raised the subject while he was whoring for the cameras.

I took a call from the Wall Street Journal today, asking for my views on this. What can I say that I haven’t already? It’s distressing beyond belief that this happened. I hope that Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee will use some of the media interest they’ve attracted to bring attention to the horrors they were used to help perpetrate. I suppose there is no undoing what is done, but there is atonement in what Ling and Lee could still do to save others.

They’d better start soon. A lifetime may not be enough to repay a karmic debt this ghastly. But that’s still more than can be said for the thugs who run China.

Continue reading »

The Winding Road to Redemption

It may be the ultimate case of paving someone else’s road to hell with good intentions.

You may have heard it reported that on a lark, Laura Ling and Euna Lee crossed into North Korea and were captured while carrying video showing the faces of refugees and rescuers, whom Chinese police duly rounded up to send back to a firing squad or worse in North Korea.  Intentional?  Of course not.  Reckless?  Yes, perhaps fatally; yet it’s damage that can’t be undone now, and perhaps Ling and Lee can redeem themselves in some way that can save others from the same fate:

One of the two TV reporters who were freed after being imprisoned in North Korea said Wednesday she hopes her story will lead to more public awareness of …

North Korean refugees?  Political prisoners?  The kids who starved and the women who sold themselves into slavery while Kim Jong Il bought himself yachts, luxury cars, and palaces?  The people (you might faintly recall them) you were doing your original story about?

… the plight of journalists held captive around the world.  [….]

She added that she hopes her ordeal would bring more attention to the plight of other journalists placed under arrest.

“Euna and I are two of the lucky ones whose story of captivity resulted in a happy ending,” she said. “But there are so many journalists imprisoned around the world whose fate is still undecided.”  [AP]

After all, the only people already willing and able to bring attention to those issues are sympathetic colleagues who buy ink by the barrel, plus Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, etc.  Seriously — hasn’t it occurred to you that the fate of some other people somewhere is still undecided?  Or that you might be responsible in some way for putting them in grave danger, however unwittingly?  Or that by drawing the eyes of the world to their Chinese pursuers and North Korean executioners, you just might still save them?

Shouldn’t you at least say, “Sorry ’bout that?”

Continue reading »

State Dep’t: NK Trades in Slave Labor

What the State Department is saying about North Korea’s use of forced labor is at least as strident as anything we heard during George W. Bush’s second term.  I suspect we’re seeing a combination of two things here — first, the State Department has internal politics of its own, and the bureaus that deal with labor and refugee issues tend to subscribe less to the diplomacy of connivance than the East Asia Bureau.  Second, with North Korea’s recent behavior pushing an otherwise unimaginable policy shift in the Obama Administration, the East Asia Bureau is no longer able to censor what other parts of State say:

The North Korean government is directly engaged in the trafficking of slave labor, claimed Luis de Baca, the director of the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, on Wednesday. He was peaking at a video press conference at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. He said the regime is sending North Koreans overseas to work under exploitative contracts with Southeast Asian, Eastern European and Middle Eastern nations.

De Baca said European countries no longer accept North Korean workers, citing the example of the Czech Republic which has concluded no labor contract with North Korea since 2007. But he called for diplomatic efforts to persuade countries like Mongolia, Thailand and Laos, which do import labor from North Korea, to protect the workers’ rights.

The tone of Baca’s remarks isn’t that different from the statements we’ve heard from Stuart Levey and Philip Goldberg in relation to North Korea’s finances recently.

Continue reading »

China’s “missing women phenomenon” fueling bride trafficking of North Korean refugees

I’ve been reading a few of the articles to come out of North Korea Freedom Week which was April 26-May 2 in Washington, D.C. and among them was particular story focusing on the bride trafficking industry in China.

Not surprisingly, China’s history of favoring baby boys over girls, coupled with its one child policy, has resulted in a severe shortage of women for a generation of bachelors. This shortage is referred to as “the missing women phenomenon” by the World Economic Forum which publishes its Global Gender Gap Index each year. Capitalizing on this major social problem, human traffickers have found a way to make money by selling North Korean brides to single Chinese men along the China-North Korea border.

The problem is so big that the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2008 mentioned the problem in a “Topics of Interest” section, referring to North Korean refugees (interesting word choice compared to the common “defector” label we usually hear) as “highly vulnerable.”

From the article covering the bride trafficking problem:

The shortage of women in China is nothing less than a national disaster ““ in some rural areas Chinese men outnumber women by a 14 to 1 ratio, according to the U.S. Committee on Human Rights in North Korea. It is into these rural border areas that North Korean women, desperate to escape the starvation in their homeland, are arriving. For human traffickers, the situation could not be more ideal.

Upon learning about the situation, someone recently asked me where all the Chinese girls have gone throughout the years. I referred him to a 1995 piece written by Tom Hilditch titled, “A Holocaust of Little Girls,” also mentioned in the above article.

The birth of a girl has never been a cause for celebration in China, and stories of peasant farmers drowning new born girls in buckets of water have been commonplace for centuries. Now, however, as a direct result of the one-child policy, the number of baby girls being abandoned, aborted, or dumped on orphanage steps is unprecedented.

(Remember, this was written in 1995.) Hilditch’s piece is worth reading in its entirety as the discoveries revealed in his article are beyond shocking in regard to China’s treatment of baby girls in the 1990s. It’s good background information for the social problems we’re seeing today in China as a generation comes of age.

Regarding the North Korea refugee connection, this particular story is incredibly difficult to read:

Upon entry into China, Mi-Sun Bang fell prey to human traffickers operating on the border. She was sold for $585 to an older, disabled Chinese man, the first of several “husbands” that she would be sold to. The string of abuses and heartache that followed would be enough to crush anyone’s spirit. Her final husband, fourteen years her junior, demanded that she bear him a son. Soon afterwards, Mi-Sun Bang was turned into the authorities and arrested. She was sent back to North Korea, to the horrors of a labor camp.

Bang Mi-Sun, you will recall, has been mentioned on this blog before.

While the North Korean government can hardly be counted upon to help ease the situation, the Chinese can – to a limited extent. According to the State Department, China has made some active efforts at assisting victims of human trafficking by setting up shelters with the help of UNICEF, however, the country lacks any sort of coherent victim identification system which is a consistent hurdle in dealing with the problem.

Despite showing efforts to improve human trafficking within its borders, China was placed on the State Department’s “Tier 2 Watch List” for the fourth consecutive year in 2008 for not fully complying “with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” and for failure “to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat human trafficking from the previous year, particularly in terms of punishment of trafficking crimes and the protection of Chinese and foreign victims of trafficking.”

(For what it’s worth, North Korea was branded a “Tier 3” nation on the very same State Department report – and with a much worse report card than China. Its country narrative may be found here, but you’ll have to scroll down a bit to read it. Countries are listed alphabetically.)

Continue reading »

North Korean Johns in Need of More Effective Consumer Protection

As a worker at a state enterprise, at Chongjin city, North Hamkyung Province, he came to Pyungsung City on a business trip. As a beautiful woman approached him and said the motel had a warm cozy room as well as a “high-class waiting room” (rooms where prostitutes wait for travelers who want sexual intercourse), he went to a one-story house in Yangji-dong. [Open Radio for N. Korea]

What could possibly go wrong with a story that begins like that?

For those of you with a more (ahem) academic interest in the subject matter, Open Radio offers a comprehensive history of North Korea’s newest oldest profession:

Prostitutes form groups with other ones. Each group has the ringleader (the “Big sister”). Rank among prostitutes is decided according to the age and work experience. Best customer unconditionally goes to the “Big sister. If someone disobeys this rule, one has to leave the group and the region. “˜Cadets’ are put together a team with the “˜Drillmaster Sister’ and two people help each other in serving the customer. Each prostitute group has its territory. There are other kinds that wander around one province to the other. [Open Radio for N. Korea]

Despite the martial rank structure — no surprise to observers of camp town culture in South Korea, by the way — the industry’s customary military discount is now a thing of the past. That’s a pretty harsh thing when you consider how few opportunities North Korean soldiers have for dating or marriage. And I’ll just let you figure out the rest of that by yourself.

There’s going to be a lot of moral and social decay evident when the regime finally collapses.

Continue reading »

The Power of Truth

Freedom rises over Korea, into the air over the most oppressed and darkened place on earth. The video clips that follow are from the BBC, Al Jazzeera, the Voice of America, and New Tang Dynasty Television.


The people who are launching these balloons are, in large part, North Koreans who could not live — or stand living — in their homeland, and who can find no other means to connect with those they left behind. Others are South Koreans whose loved ones were stolen from them by North Korean abductors. How emotionally stunted must one be not to consider, for an instant, the sorrow these people must feel? Who could fail to understand their need to somehow connect with those they love, but with whom ordinary means of communication could, if they were possible at all, be a death sentence for them?

The balloons are being launched from South Korean territory, and from South Korean waters — from a country that thousands of Americans soldiers who helped to defend it were told was free. The balloons also contain money that hungry people might use to buy food and seed a nascent underground economy, and that economy might feed even more people Kim Jong Il won’t by drawing smuggled food from across the Chinese border. The leaflets are non-violent expression. They could not possibly do harm to anything worth preserving. They do not so much as resemble anything harmful or dangerous, either to the eye or on a radar scope. For the starving and oppressed, these leaflets could carry the hope to live on, to fight on, and to stand for a future worth living in.

Someone please explain the downside of this. How easy and shallow a thing for those with something to live for to deny a future to those who have nothing.

But we must preserve relations with the North Koreans! (Which really means, with one of them.) And to what end? After billions in aid over more than a decade, engaging Kim Jong Il’s regime had accomplished what, exactly? Where is the measurable transformation of North Korea’s totalitarian system? How many North Koreans have seen their lives improved? Are there fewer North Korean guns pointed at South Korean cities? Is its system of government kinder, gentler, or more transparent? Is North Korea less of a nuclear danger to South Korea and the rest of the world? Have North Korea’s “expendable” people ceased to starve and die? Has the North reformed its economy? Can anyone point to a single tangible benefit the world has gained by prolonging this wretched regime, much less some benefit that outweighs all of the misery millions have experienced as it was prolonged?

Ah, but there are those lucky hand-picked 30,000 at the Kaesong Industrial Park. Though their wages were stolen by their oppressors and exchanged for short rations of food and goods, their exploiters would say that the lives of their rented slaves were at least a little better than those of their neighbors for a while. By this logic, a foreign pedophile who flies to Cambodia should be commended as long as he buys his victim a hot breakfast. In the unlikely event the leaflet balloons have played some part in ending this vile, regime-sustaining exploitation, all the better.

To support the balloon leaflet launches, please join me in contributing to the North Korean Freedom Coalition.

Update: Here’s a photo essay of the balloon launches. More here and here at the BBC.

Continue reading »
1 2 3