Monday, April 30, 2007

Thailand Is Final Life Line for North Korean Refugees

On Thursday, some 420 North Korean refugees ended a three-day hunger strike at an immigration detention center in Bangkok. The hunger strike opened the question of [the South Korean] government's attitude in dealing with the North Korean refugee issue in Southeast Asia.
In the past two or three years, North Korean refugees hiding in China have rushed to Thailand, thousands of kilometers away, by way of Burma, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, because crackdowns by the Chinese government blocked not only their path to foreign diplomatic missions in China but also their escape route to neighboring Mongolia.

The hunger strike raises concerns of a repeat of the situation in Vietnam three years ago. At the time, it was possible for refugees to travel to Vietnam from China and fly to South Korea. Refugees found out about this by word of mouth and rushed to Vietnam. When their number reached 468 at long last, it caused some conflict between South Korea and Vietnam. In the end, [the South Korean] government had no choice but to transport them belatedly to Seoul aboard a chartered airplane. But North Korea suspended inter-Korean relations in retaliation, and the Vietnamese route was closed.

The Thai route has therefore become the sole life line for North Korean refugees. And that life line could be severed at any moment unless everyone shares the responsibility.

In November 1999, seven North Korean refugees reached Vladivostok through the Sino-Russian border and asked the UNHCR to recognize them as refugees. Although the UN High Commissioner himself intervened, they were eventually deported to North Korea by way of China. It is a reality that nothing can be done for the refugees, even with UNHCR intervention, if the countries involved do not want to help.

The North Korean refugee issue, in short, is one that [the South Korean] government must resolve in coordination with all Southeast Asian countries.

The North Koreans detained in the Bangkok immigration detention camp [are kept] in a space where they can barely move. They don't have enough toothbrushes and soap. The hygiene problems, especially those of female refugees, are indescribable.

If direct support is difficult, the [South Korean] government should at least send them blankets, sanitary towels, tissue paper, toothpaste, toothbrushes and medicine through humanitarian organizations. If they were also distributed to other inmates, nobody would resent the North Koreans. The government should initiate programs to assist the poor in countries through which North Korean refugees travel -- Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Burma. Then those countries would treat our North Korean brothers and sisters with goodwill when they arrive there.

[Excerpt of a Chosun Ilbo column contributed by Benjamin Yoon, secretary-general of the Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights.]

Sunday, April 29, 2007

North Korea Freedom Week Concludes

A great quote from Suzanne Scholte at The North Korea Freedom Coalition:
"Kim Jong-il's strategy is to keep the world's attention focused on his nuclear weapons. Our strategy is to focus the attention on the real issue: human rights and the fact that over 3 million people have already been killed by his dictatorship, making his regime the most brutal in the world today."

North Korea Freedom Week, sponsored by The North Korea Freedom Coalition, ends today April 29. Among eyewitnesses who arrived in Washington, D.C. to present evidence to Congress and the administration of the atrocities being committed in North Korea and China were Chiba Yomiko and Choi Young Hun.

Chiba Yomiko is the only known survivor of the Yantai Boat incident of 2003, when over 86 North Korean refugees attempted to reach freedom by boat. A humanitarian worker involved with the rescue attempt, Choi Young Hun, spent nearly 4 years in a Chinese prison for trying to help therefugees.

Other witnesses at events during the week included political prisoncamp survivors, torture victims, refugees who were repatriated from China, and family members of citizens abducted by the Kim Jong-il regime.

North Korea Freedom Week also included: the North Korea Genocide Exhibit, panels on the economic benefits of regime collapse and on the persecution of Christians, a Capitol Hill Forum, a prayer vigil, and a worldwide demonstration at Chinese embassies and consular offices around the world to protest China's violent treatment of North Korean Refugees.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

North Korean Refugees in Thailand End Hunger Strike

Hundreds of North Korean defectors ended a three-day hunger strike at an immigration detention center in Bangkok on Thursday. Most of the 100-odd men and 324 women detained at the Suan Phlu detention center went on hunger strike on Tuesday evening, demanding early departure for South Korea and improved conditions at the center.

The hunger strike reportedly ended when the detainees accepted assurances by the Thai immigration authorities that none of them would be deported to North Korea and they would soon leave for South Korea. The first group of 20-plus could fly to Seoul on Friday at the earliest.
The hunger strike was started by some 20 of the detainees, with most joining in. The refugees cite overcrowding at the facility, where 324 women were packed into a room with a capacity for 120. The North Koreans also complained about extremely poor hygienic conditions, saying two of the four toilets were broken for two months and drains did not work.

It remains to be seen what the international attention will mean for the Thai government's policy on North Korean defectors. With escape routes to South Korea through China blocked for more than two years, Thailand has emerged as the biggest window to the South for North Korean refugees. The numbers have jumped from 30-plus a month in the past to over 1,00 per month since the latter half of last year. Due to the considerable burden, the Thai authorities seem to have decided to put the brakes on the stream of refugees to South Korea.

But a senior South Korean diplomat at the scene notes that Thailand has more than 150,000 illegal immigrants accommodated in border refugee camps. "The Thai government traditionally places importance on human rights and is friendly in dealing with refugee issues. It will neither repatriate the North Korean defectors nor send them to third countries like China."

[The Chosun Ilbo]

Friday, April 27, 2007

Australia to provide $4m aid to North Korea

Australia will provide almost $4 million in humanitarian aid to a hungry and malnourished North Korea.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Australia's $4 million commitment will focus on improving the health, hygiene and nutrition of North Koreans. "Thirty-seven per cent of North Koreans suffer from chronic malnutrition, and two-thirds of North Korean children do not receive enough food because of a one million tonne food shortfall," Mr Downer said in a statement. "Many North Koreans also lack access to clean water and sanitation."

Mr Downer said Australia's assistance will be provided through a number of United Nations agencies and the International Red Cross.

About $1.5 million will go towards UNICEF's water and sanitation program.

A further $1.5 million will provide food for 1.9 million people through the World Food Program.
The rest of the money will be spent on emergency health and essential medicines, disaster management, water supply and sanitation.

[The West Australian]

Thursday, April 26, 2007

North Korean refugees on hunger strike in Thailand

More than 400 North Koreans being held in a Thai immigration facility have launched a hunger strike, demanding they be sent to South Korea, Thai police and an activist group said.

The North Koreans -- 100 men and 314 women -- have been in the cramped detention center for about three months and are waiting to leave for South Korea, Lee Ho-taeg, an official of a South Korean group that aids North Korean asylum seekers, said in Seoul.

A South Korean diplomat in Bangkok said efforts were under way to bring the refugees to South Korea, noting that Thailand has never returned North Korean refugees to their home. The diplomat asked not to be identified, citing policy.

Seoul has said it would accept any North Korean who wants to resettle in the South, but is concerned the rapid increase in arrivals could strain inter-Korean ties and complicate international efforts to resolve North Korea's nuclear program.


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Teenage North Korean Defectors Released in Laos

Three teenage North Korean defectors, Choi Hyang, Choi Hyuk and Choi Hyang-mi, were released from a detention center in Laos on Tuesday and are now under the protection of the South Korean Embassy there.

"We will respect the defectors' wishes and they will travel to South Korea or the U.S. through the proper procedures in the near future," a senior South Korean Embassy official said.

The three were arrested at the end of November and held on smuggling charges. They are in poor health after their long detention in the hot weather. An official said Choi Hyuk was hospitalized for nausea on April 16, and the other two have been complaining of stomach and chest pains.

The defectors previously said they wanted to go to South Korea, scared that they would be forcibly repatriated to the North after meeting with a North Korean embassy official. Now they are reportedly asking to go to the U.S. as was their original plan.

[Chosun Ilbo]

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

At bay: the children who ran from Kim

Three helpless young North Korean escapees stare out from their cell, caught in the middle of a tug of war to decide whether they will be set free or sent home to face deprivation, punishment and the risk of death.

Their photograph and letters smuggled out of prison represent a desperate appeal this weekend to the international community and the United Nations to persuade the government of Laos to reject demands from the North Korean embassy to hand over the children.

The trio - an orphaned brother and sister aged 12 and 13, and a sick girl of 16 - are imprisoned in a crumbling jail in Vientiane, the Lao capital, only a few hundred yards from the Mekong river that divides Laos from Thailand.

“I can hardly sleep for fear,” said Choi Hyang, the 13-year-old girl, in a handwritten note in Korean shown to The Sunday Times. “If you don’t help they’re going to kill us,” her brother, Choi Hyok, wrote. “If we’re sent back we will face certain death,” added Choi Hyang-mi, their teenage companion.

The account of their journey, together with the photos and letters, were provided by refugee activists to The Sunday Times on condition that precise details were not disclosed.
[Excerpt of an article by Michael Sheridan, The Sunday Times]

"Exit Counsellors" from the North Korean Embassy in Laos

Three heavyweight “counsellors”, diplomats from the North Korean embassy, shouted and swore at the three young North Koreans apprehended in Laos. They talked about “the party’s generous forgiveness” one moment and threatened violent retribution for “traitors” the next.

Afterwards, Choi Hyok went from being a confident youth, so sharp that he had picked up the complex Lao language in jail and conversed in it with his captors, to a trembling, frightened boy crying for his mother.

He clung to his sister, who developed constant stomach pains and could not shake off the flu. To add to the fear of the older girl, Choi Hyang-mi, the strain accentuated her angina pains.

The next time a Christian activist was allowed to see the trio, he was horrified. “They were cast down and gloomy. Before, they always asked for pork and beef but they lost their appetites,” he said. His group went public with the children’s plight.

The South Korean ambassador in Vientiane is now negotiating with the authorities. The Lao foreign ministry says there will be no demands for ransom. The North Korean embassy did not answer phone calls and a guard slammed its gates on inquirers.

The unlucky three remain in their hot, fetid jail, clinging to their dreams - Choi Hyok and his sister want to be doctors, while Choi Hyang-mi just yearns to find her family. The negotiations continue.

[Excerpt of an article by Michael Sheridan, The Sunday Times]

Monday, April 23, 2007

Aid to North Korea vs violation of humanitarian norms

The North Korean government has repeatedly shown its willingness to impose extreme deprivation on its people. The probability that coordinated, wholesale reductions in food aid will lead to improved conditions, policy reform, or regime change remains both uncertain and well below 100 percent.

It is also important to emphasize that the violation of humanitarian norms, the flaws in the aid program, and the problem of diversion do not mean that aid is without positive elects. Aid has had beneficial effects both directly, by increasing overall supply and moderating prices, and indirectly, by encouraging commercialization and the growth of markets.

The highest estimates of diversion that we have seen—fully 50 percent going to less-deserving groups or the military—still leave 50 percent of food going to meet the needs of vulnerable groups.

Most important, the argument for cutting food aid rests on a highly dubious utilitarian logic: that it is morally acceptable to sacrifice the innocent today in the uncertain probability that lives will be saved or improved at some future point. This type of argument flies directly in the face of the fundamental rights that the international community is trying to uphold.

Although we oppose cutting of food aid, we agree with the critics that the international community must make a concerted and coordinated effort to wean North Korea of humanitarian assistance. This would involve outlining and negotiating a path of reduced aid—subject to reversal in the face of natural disasters—that would point toward self-sufficiency, defined as the capacity to import adequate external supplies on commercial terms.

[Excerpts from "Famine in North Korea", a book by Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland]

Sunday, April 22, 2007

South Korea to send food aid to North Korea

South Korea agreed Sunday to send 400,000 tons of rice to impoverished North Korea despite the communist government's failure to meet a deadline to shut down its nuclear reactor.

The agreement was reached early Sunday after five days of economic aid talks in the North Korean capital. It was seen as a setback in South Korea's attempt to use food aid as leverage to pressure the North to honor its pledge to shut down the reactor under the Feb. 13 nuclear disarmament deal with the U.S. and its regional partners.

The first batch of rice will be sent in late May, the agreement said. The South will ship 350,000 tons, and the remaining 50,000 tons be driven over land, across the world's most heavily fortified border. There were no conditions attached to the aid delivery, according to the text of the agreement.

However, South Korea's chief delegate, Chin Dong-soo, later stressed that the rice shipments were contingent on whether North Korea makes a move to implement the disarmament deal.

Seoul, a key aid donor to the North, has sent more than two million tons of rice since the mid-1990s when natural disasters and mismanagement devastated North Korea's economy and led to a famine estimated to have killed some 2 million people.


Saturday, April 21, 2007

North Korean defectors face alienation in S. Korea

More than 10,000 North Koreans have fled [to South Korea] since the end of the Korean War in search of food and freedom, but they now face other challenges: unemployment, crime and discrimination.

In 2006 alone, 1,578 defectors came to the South. Some 300,000 are still believed to be hiding in China.

But those lucky enough to have made it to the wealthy South find themselves confronting yet another economic challenge -- unemployment. A recent report by Seoul National University showed that nearly seven out of every 10 defectors in South Korea were unemployed. Even a defector with a job is likely to earn less than half of what an ordinary South Korean makes.

"Coming from a socialist country, defectors often have trouble adapting to capitalistic working environments," Professor Park Sang-in, who conducted the survey, said. "They should be given more realistic job training."

A recent study showed that many end up losing their money to fraud and other crimes. 23.4 percent had been victims of crimes like fraud, theft and robbery, five times higher than what is normally found among South Koreans.

[Yonhap News]

Friday, April 20, 2007

North Korean Teenage Defectors lag behind at school

"Some of them were street children and school dropouts in North Korea, and that is why they are always at the bottom of their class in South Korea," says Ma Seok Hoon, executive director of the Bridges Society, a non-governmental group that looks after North Korean teenagers in the South.

Many have lost motivation after sacrificing years of education, which means they frequently have to study alongside much younger children.

"To us, North Korea, the country itself and its people seem pure and unadulterated. In South Korea, we are always stressed out because of our schoolwork, and also because everyone around us is aware that we're from the North," 18-year-old junior high school student Kim Ok Yi said.

"That is why we sometimes feel disheartened and cannot help but think of the old times in the North. Over there, our classmates never shunned us, and we were never under so much stress. Getting around and having food on the table were always a problem in North Korea, but leaving that aside, there was never such intense competition as we encounter in the South," said Kim, one of the 10,000 North Korean defectors now resettled in the South.

[Radio Free Asia]

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Getting the North Korea out of a defector

Despite training as South Koreans-to-be, [the young North Korean defectors that I interviewed] were clearly torn, still loyal, even unconsciously patriotic, to the country they had fled -- at the very least, forever shaped by it.

This became apparent when I was first introduced to the group as an American, which inspired a rustle of intrigue and perhaps evoked a cast of unsavory characters from the North Korean propaganda films of their childhood. Kang asked aggressively, ''Do you really think the U.S. Army is better than the North Korean Army?'' Another asked, ''Where's your gun?''

And [one] said, ''You don't really look American.'' When I asked what an American looked like, he said, ''I don't know -- more mean.''

They boasted that the North Koreans are superior fighters to the Americans, and then they fell into little skirmishes with one another, doing battle. ''North Koreans are really good killers,'' Yum said, smiling. They talked about violence and the tools of violence the way Americans talk about sports teams -- with a touch of unknowing knowingness. When the subject turned to killing, I asked how many had seen an actual human being killed. More than half of them raised their hands, and those who didn't stared down at the floor.

In cloistered North Korea, little of the outside world penetrates or, if so, often comes as a distortion. The most world-savvy of the group asked, ''Is it true that every home in America has a robot?'' One boy said he had heard that there were extremely wealthy Americans who made $35,000 a year, every year. And if these fluttering swallows had heard rumors of places beyond their country where life was better -- China, Japan, America, South Korea -- there was no hard evidence to support the claim.

[Excerpt of an article by Michael Paterniti, GQ magazine]

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Three North Korean teens continue to languish in Laos

The three young North Koreans - an orphaned brother and sister and a girl with a heart ailment - say they traveled more than 3,000 kilometers on foot, bus and train, begging their way and hoping to reach the United States.

In November, more than three years after they fled their impoverished Communist homeland, the three apparently reached Laos. There they rested for a week in preparation for what they believed would be a final step toward freedom: a boat ride across the Mekong River into Thailand, where it is relatively easy for North Koreans to win the refugee status that can allow them to proceed to South Korea and beyond.

According to human rights activists, they never made it. They were intercepted by Laotian border guards and taken to a detention center in Vientiane, the capital. There they remain while North and South Korean diplomats tussle over custody.

The plights of 13-year-old Choi Hyang; her brother, Choi Hyok, 12; and their traveling companion, Choi Hyang Mi, 17, became public this month as a result of handwritten appeals for help that they wrote after North Korean diplomats interrogated them April 6.

The letters were made public by Hiroshi Kato, a Japanese human rights activist, whose colleagues visited the detainees to deliver food and other aid.

Typewritten statements from the children were released by Tim Peters, whose Seoul-based group Helping Hands Korea has been trying to draw international attention to their predicament since November.

Rights groups said that Laotian officials had refused to release the children and that some had demanded bribes after finding out that the children had advocates in South Korea and the United States. "When you start paying ransoms, then you are setting up a situation where security people are beginning to act like bounty hunters," Peters said.

Meanwhile, as discussions continue over their fate, the children have appealed to their helpers to "just pay the money" to get them released. In their letters, they cite figures of $1,000 or $2,000.

"Dear Americans. If you don't offer us a helping hand, they are going to kill us," Choi Hyok said in his handwritten letter. "I pray to my Lord to let me live in freedom and go to school in freedom."

[Excerpt of an article by Choe Sang-Hun, International Herald Tribune]

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A North Korean Teenage Defector, now in Seoul

When I met Heo, he was living in a house on a mountainside on the northeastern edge of Seoul with seven other young North Korean defectors.

As lucky as Heo and his housemates said they were to be here, they clearly hadn't yet escaped the specter of the recent past. Living life on the lam in China had been its own discombobulation. They had no schooling or structure to their lives, except maybe fear. They slept in caves, arcades and safe houses, drifting from meal to meal -- sometimes days apart -- hoping at all costs to avoid detection. For they knew how well their homeland doled out its punishment. There had been reports of refugees being returned to North Korea, all of them strung together with a wire through their noses. One boy at the house was caught 17 times and beaten, it seemed, to the point of mild brain damage.

Now these eight lived in a four-bedroom ranch-style home with all the modern conveniences in an upscale neighborhood among a maze of quiet streets. And yet they were still dealing with an almost Orwellian terror about being found out by the country they had left behind. They said they believed that agents might still be hunting them. And human rights groups say that the families of defectors are often severely punished.

This residence, then, had become their newest 'safe house'. Known as the Evergreen School, it was set up by a South Korean aid group and served as a six-month bridge between the mandatory three-month orientation program that all North Korean refugees must go through and life after as newly minted South Korean citizens. At the house there were two ''teachers,'' who provided 24-hour coverage in the hope of reinforcing the routines of a normal life: shopping, cooking, sleeping regular hours. More often than not, however, they acted like housekeepers, den parents, confidants, baby sitters, referees and truant officers.

[Excerpt of an article by Michael Paterniti, GQ magazine]

Monday, April 16, 2007

70 % of North Korean defectors in South Korea unemployed

Nearly seven out of every 10 North Korean defectors in South Korea are unemployed while those with jobs earn less than half of the minimum wage set by the government, a survey by a Seoul National University professor showed Monday.

The study done by Park Sang-in, a professor of public administration studies, also showed over 60 percent of North Korean defectors find jobs through private job consulting firms or their acquaintances, and only 16.2 percent or 73 respondents said they found work through government employment offices.

"(A large number of) North Korean defectors appeared to be losing interest in finding jobs due to repeated failure to find employment," said the professor.

Over 10,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea since the end of 1950-53 Korean War. Each defector receives 6 million ($6,461) won upon arrival here in government resettlement support, and an additional 13 million won ($14,000) is available to each household for housing.

In addition, each defector can receive up to 15 million ($16, 153) won over a period of three years if he or she is employed or going through job training during the period.


Sunday, April 15, 2007

North Korean Teenage Defectors Face Huge Challenges

Teenage North Korean defectors may have escaped starvation and repression, but they have a hard time playing catch-up with their South Korean peers once they resettle, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reports.

"If they're well-fed now, it doesn't mean that the physical and mental effects of years of deprivation and starvation in North Korea have disappeared," said Ma Seok Hoon, executive director of the Bridges Society, a non-governmental group that looks after North Korean teenagers in the South.

"The side effects of starvation are long-lasting, and many of these kids are still experiencing serious gastrointestinal problems. Some of the girls suffer from gynecological disorders, and many of the youngsters experience an inferiority complex because of their slight physique," Ma told RFA's Korean service.

Educational difficulties are also rife among teen defectors, who face language difficulties, gaps in studies caused by major disruptions in daily life, and discrimination.

[Radio Free Asia]

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Three North Korean youth likely to be freed after months of detention in Laos

Three North Korean teenagers will likely be freed within days, months after being held in Laos for illegally entering the country, Radio Free Asia reported Friday, quoting a U.S. activist seeking their release.

The two girls, aged 17 and 14, and a 12-year-old boy defected from North Korea in 2000 and had since been hiding in China until November, when they attempted to go to Thailand via Laos, the Washington-based station said.

[Yonhap News]

Seoul's Mission in Laos 'Ignored Pleas From North Koreans'

The South Korean Embassy in Laos allegedly ignored pleas for help from three young North Koreans held by Lao authorities who could be deported to their Stalinist home country. Hiroshi Kato, the head of Japanese activist group Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, on Thursday revealed the identity of the young defectors and is working for their release. According to Kato, Choi Hyang, Choi Hyuk and Choi Hyang-mi are being held in a detention center near the capital Vientiane.

The three were caught by Lao border patrols in November 2006 while attempting to cross the Mekong River into Thailand. They were sentenced to three months in prison. Although the three completed their jail term, they are still being held in what is billed as protective custody.

According to Kato, North Korean Embassy officials verbally abused and threatened them, and they live in fear that they may be deported to North Korea. Kato has appealed to the U.S. and Japanese governments, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other human rights organizations for the release of the young North Korean defectors.

Korean expatriates in Laos asked the South Korean Embassy there to work for the release of the North Korean young people when they were arrested and completed the jail term. But no embassy officials visited the young refugees, Kato said.

[The Chosun Ilbo]

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Escape of Heo, a North Korean teen refugee

In September, a North Korean boy named Heo joined a group of seven other refugees in China -- most of whom had left their homeland by crossing the Tumen River -- and boarded a southbound train from Jilin Province to Beijing. The North Koreans carried no luggage. Once at the station in Beijing, they summoned a taxi and piled in.

The South Korean Consulate was well protected by Chinese military guards. There were two gates to pass through to reach the consulate's inner sanctum -- to reach South Korea itself -- and at each a number of armed soldiers were milling around. The consulate itself had been scouted by people working for a South Korean pastor in the business of trying to lead just such refugees out of the dungeon of their lives.

Heo has a brillo of black hair, a few unconvincing whiskers on his chin and a light spray of acne on his cheeks. He's a dreamy kid, who in 2000 escaped from North Korea along its heavily patrolled northern border. Once he crossed, Heo spent two years moving from place to place, trying to avoid the Chinese authorities and North Korean agents who stalk defectors. He also had to watch out for Chinese citizens, who are paid a reward for turning in North Korean refugees and fined for harboring them. Heo was caught once and returned to North Korea, where he spent four months in a labor camp, gathering wood in the forest, fed nothing but watery soup. When he escaped from North Korea again, he vowed he would never go back.

At the consulate's first gate, the refugees calmly presented fake citizenship papers, which were accepted by the more lackadaisical guards. But once they were through, without hesitation or thoughts of trying to dupe the younger guards, they began surging for the second gate, where three guards blocked their way. The eight refugees kept punching and flailing, pushing the guards backward. The standoff seemed to go on for an eternity, with the guards making a stand and punching back.

And then the South Korean consul suddenly appeared like the deus ex machina in some Greek drama. He said, "These people belong to South Korea now."

[Excerpt of an article by Michael Paterniti]

Thursday, April 12, 2007

North Korean-Chinese money brokering system

When North Korean defectors succeed in landing work in China and begin earning wages, they remit money to relatives who stayed behind in the reclusive communist nation.

However, when Pyongyang tested a nuclear device last October 9, major Chinese banks barred remittances to North Korea. But enterprising North Koreans and Chinese soon breached this barrier. An underground money brokering system was devised to allow North Koreans to send their hard-earned money home.

According to sources, the underground remittance system involves a broker in North Korea escorting a person designated to receive the money to a prearranged spot on the bank of the Tumen River. On the Chinese side, another broker takes a person designated to send the money to a certain spot.

The broker in North Korea hands money to the appointed person, who then calls the Chinese side via mobile phone to confirm receipt. The appointed person then hands over an equal sum, plus a commission, to the broker on the Chinese side. And the deal is done.

Later, the broker in China repays the broker in North Korea and they split the commission fee, which is usually 20 to 30 percent.


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Money answers all matters, even nuclear

With just days to go before a weekend deadline for North Korea to shut down its main nuclear facility, the State Department announces that a stalemate over the release of $25 million in frozen North Korean bank accounts had been cleared.

The U.S. bipartisan delegation, Victor Cha, President Bush's top adviser on North Korea, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Anthony Principi, Bush's former veteran affairs secretary, thus seemed to be successful in the diplomatic field.

The reality seems to be that financial sanctions can be at least as effective as military threats in curbing the spread of nuclear weapons.

North Korea's top nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye Gwan, was informed that North Korea was running out of time to act on the agreement. And Kim responded to Principi that his government would allow U.N. nuclear inspectors into the country as soon as the $25 million is released.

In the grand scheme of international finance, $25 million is small change, but obviously not to the North Koreans. After all, they agreed to take the first steps toward a potential nuclear disarmament in exchange for the $25 million and promises of energy assistance.

Libya also abandoned its nuclear program in the face of financial sanctions and incentives.

In today’s globalized economy, is it too much to hope for financial intervention rather than a military one in Iran?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The underground church in North Korea

There are reports that underground churches are beginning to flourish in the isolated Stalinist state of North Korea, which preaches its own doctrine of juche, or self-reliance, and forbids all but the most limited forms of state-sponsored worship.

A recently defected North Korean woman told RFA's Korean service, "There was a Bible in my home. With it, we used to sing hymns, and my grandmother preached. … I was young at that time and kept an eye on the outside to see if someone was approaching," the woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said.

The woman said her family had been unofficial Christians for three generations, and that the meetings were attended by around 10 other believers.

Later, however, the North Korean intelligence service became suspicious of their activities and installed hidden listening devices in each home. About one year later, the family and relatives were forced to move to another place and they were never allowed to return home, she said.

"My daddy was arrested. Then my grandmother died of sorrow, and all my family had to undergo harsh investigation from the Intelligence Service and were then expelled to a secluded place," she said, adding that they were charged with political crimes.

[Radio Free Asia]

Monday, April 09, 2007

North Korean converts influence those back home

Lee Soon Ja, who ran a shelter for fugitive North Koreans, said many North Korean defectors became interested in religion as a result of their experience in China.

"One day a boy told me that a person in the [North Korean] Intelligence Service asked for me to bring a Bible with a zipper to him. So he sent it to him," Lee added."He might have been one of the boy’s relatives who found out that the boy’s visit was of great economic assistance to a family who had been long starved, and this seemed to make him request a Bible with a zipper," she said.

The number of religious believers in North Korea is unknown, but has been estimated at 10,000 Protestants, 10,000 Buddhists, and 4,000 Catholics by overseas observers.

Lee Soon Ja, a defector who made it to South Korea three years ago, said the official churches in Pyongyang were largely a propaganda tool to show foreign believers visiting the capital.
Repatriated converts still had to conduct their worship in secret, with no access to the official churches, she said.

[Radio Free Asia]

Sunday, April 08, 2007

US allowed Ethiopia to buy arms secretly from North Korea

Three months after the United States successfully pressed the United Nations to impose strict sanctions on North Korea because of the country's nuclear test, Bush administration officials allowed Ethiopia to complete a secret arms purchase from North Korea, in what appears to be a violation of the restrictions, according to senior US officials.

The United States allowed the arms delivery to go through in January in part because Ethiopian troops were in the midst of a military offensive against Islamic militias inside Somalia, a campaign that aided the US policy of combating religious extremists in the Horn of Africa.

The arms deal is an example of the compromises that result from the clash of two foreign policy absolutes: the Bush administration's commitment to fighting Islamic radicalism and its effort to starve the North Korean government of money it could use to build up its nuclear weapons program.

It is also not the first time that the Bush administration has made an exception for allies in their dealings with North Korea. In 2002, the Spanish military intercepted a ship carrying Scud missiles from North Korea to Yemen. At the time, Yemen was working with the United States to hunt members of Al Qaeda operating within its borders, and after its government protested, the United States asked that the freighter be released.

John R. Bolton, who helped to push the resolution imposing sanctions on North Korea through the Security Council in October, before stepping down as UN ambassador, said that the Ethiopians had long known that Washington was concerned about their arms purchases from North Korea and that the Bush administration should not have tolerated the January shipment. "Never underestimate the strength of 'clientitis' at the State Department," said Bolton, using Washington jargon for a situation in which State Department officials are deemed to be overly sympathetic to the countries they conduct diplomacy with.

[Excerpt of an article by Michael R. Gordon and Mark Mazzetti, New York Times News]

The well trodden path through Yanji China

[North Korean Underground Railroad activist] Nam has never before risked meeting a foreign reporter while on a mission. It had taken months of negotiation to arrange this moment. First came a vetting by two anonymous Christian activists of Korean origin. We met in a bustling terminal at Bangkok airport. Weeks of silence followed. Then the trip was on again, off again.

At last came the call to Yanji, a place out on the extremes of China in every sense. “The police are run by the ‘black societies’ and everything can be bought,” confided a former policeman in the city. North Korean agents operate with impunity, says the ex-policeman, funding their work by drug dealing. They have kidnapped and assassinated opponents.

Nam was also dodging a highly sophisticated surveillance operation by the Chinese security services. They want to break the Manchurian connection — that crucial link between the nightmare world of North Korea and the neon lights of Seoul, where people can eat their fill and a myriad church spires pierce the skyline.

If the refugees can make it out of Manchuria, there is a well-trodden path by rail, bus and even on foot across China to reach its distant borders.

If they fail, a terrible fate awaits them. Once caught by the Chinese, they are deported straight into the hands of the North Korean secret police. Beatings and abuse are the minimum punishments; over the next few days I was to hear accounts of far worse — the murder of newborn babies, summary executions and prolonged deaths by torture.

[Excerpt of an article by Michael Sheridan, Sunday Times]

Saturday, April 07, 2007

North Korean Defectors follow those who help

"If a Buddhist priest [helps a North Korean defector], he goes to a temple, and if a Sister, then he goes to a Catholic church. If an evangelical does the same, he goes to a Protestant church," Kim Sung Min, chairman of the Association of North Korean Defectors in South Korea, said.

Defectors are often highly suspicious and distrustful at the beginning of new contacts, but later become open to religious teachings because of the unconditional assistance they receive from those who preach them.

Later, such defectors, who live precarious lives in hiding for fear of repatriation by the Chinese authorities, may spread their faith to other defectors, and even among relatives back home in North Korea, where only limited forms of state-sponsored worship are tolerated.

Lee Soon Ja said she used to run a shelter on behalf of evangelist missionaries for fugitive young North Koreans who had been reduced to begging and picking pockets.

"There were five young people in my sarangbang, a shelter furnished for those people who were taken care of by me," Lee told RFA.

"The youngest of them was 17 years old and the oldest was 21. I served meals for them, preached the Bible to them, and we prayed together. I sent the younger ones to school, and I finally settled here in South Korea," Lee said.

[Radio Free Asia]

Friday, April 06, 2007

North Korea toughening up its policies and penalties

North Korea is 'toughening up' its policies and penalties for citizens caught trying to defect, according to a new report.

US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that Pyongyang now hands down 'longer sentences in abusive prisons' if defectors are found trying to flee the country. The punishment for illegal border crossing has typically been several years in prison, where defectors face beatings, forced labor and starvation. Previously, the penalty was more likely to have been a few months in prison or labor camp - though RI sources report that some repatriated defectors such as Christians have been executed.

Indeed, HRW's report, which is based on interviews with North Korean defectors, confirms the widely held belief that Pyongyang reserves particularly brutal treatment for defectors who have met Christian missionaries and, worse still, those who have turned to Christ.

One woman from Saebyul, interviewed in China, said: 'Now first-time offenders serve one year in regular prison, second-time offenders three years. Those who went to church [while in China] go to kwanliso [political prison camp] for 10 years.'

Tim Peters, director of RI partner Helping Hands Korea, which supports North Korean defectors, says that the crackdown is symptomatic of a regime in meltdown. He claims chronic food shortages are leading to unrest, corruption and widespread disillusionment with political leadership:

"The picture I see is a regime that is desperate to maintain control of a population (which is) increasingly restive and even beginning to openly question. The decay of the system, in my view, has caused it to rot to the very marrow of society.'”

Tim Peters says that some of the refugees with whom his organization works say they were released early from jail because they were able to pay their way out.

[Release International]

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Comparisons on the two Underground Railroads

An article by Josh Chin, writing in the The San Francisco Chronicle states:
An avowed agnostic raised in the smug spiritual certainty of Mormon Utah, I've always been deeply skeptical of missionaries.

Watching Grace, a North Korean refugee in China [as she explained that she planned to risk her life to return to North Korea “to spread the Gospel], I felt the bile rise in my throat. This, I thought, was evangelical exploitation of the first order, spiritual blackmail masquerading as liberation.

Likening the North Korean Underground Railroad to the original felt like an unconscionable lie -- a PR formulation meant to reassure rich American donors -- and I immediately began to map out the contours of a story that would pierce the facade.

Soon enough, doubts started seeping in. Where the Antebellum South had its slave hunters and lynch mobs, northeast China has a cadre of border guards and secret police tasked with returning illegal North Koreans to their homeland and arresting the people who help them.

Like the early American abolitionists, the [North Korean Underground Railroad] had been doing what no other group possessed the courage to do, and, like the abolitionists, sought no recognition for what they did. They earned no payoff other than a sense of being true to their beliefs.

What motivates people to sacrifice themselves like this? What keeps them from running back to the safety of the day job, the leisurely weekend, the phone line that doesn't click suspiciously?

For more on the subject

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Atrocities Against North Korean Christians

Chinese authorities round up and repatriate North Korean Christians who seek refuge on Chinese territory.

"We have reports that these refugees had wires driven through their wrists and noses. By these wires they were led back into North Korea," said Thomas White, head of the U.S. section of the organization Voice of the Martyrs.

What Christian organizations such as VOM and ICC had been saying for years was confirmed by an eyewitness testimony before Congress: Hundreds of thousands of political prisoners are unspeakably mistreated in North Korea's gulags. But the worst tortures are meted out to Christians.

Soon Ok Lee, once a senior cadre of the ruling Communist Party, testified that while she was in the Kaechon political prison camp, she observed the atrocious execution of five or six elderly Christians who refused to give up their belief in Christ.

"The selected prisoners all remained silent at the repeated command of conversion. The security officers ... killed them by pouring molten iron on them one by one," related Soon.

[Excerpt of an article by Uwe Siemon-Netto, UPI religion editor]

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

North Korean missionaries

Of the half-dozen North Korean refugees I interviewed, two stood out: Esther, a quiet 16 year-old whom the [North Korean Underground Railroad] had purchased for $800 from a broker ready to sell her as a wife to a Chinese farmer, and 17-year-old Grace, who had already been caught in a safe house two years earlier, sent back to North Korea and beaten for converting to Christianity.

The striking thing about them was not their sadly typical pasts. It was what they planned to do with their futures. Both said they would return to North Korea -- "to spread the Gospel."

North Koreans caught illegally crossing the border are no longer put to death, with one notable exception: those who return to proselytize.

From the moment they emerge from the womb, North Koreans are taught unquestioning reverence for three forces: Kim Il Sung, North Korea's late leader; his heir and current dictator, Kim Jong Il; and juche, the national philosophy of Korean self-reliance. To convert a North Korean to Christianity is thus, in a sense, a simple process of substitution: Kim Sr., Kim Jr. and juche become Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

[Excerpt of an article by Josh Chin, a student at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, writing in The San Francisco Chronicle]

Monday, April 02, 2007

North Korean Defectors turn to faith

North Korean defectors are finding religious faith in large numbers as they face intense suffering and hardship in their flight from hunger and repression in their homeland, defectors and religious activists have told RFA's Korean service in a series of in-depth interviews.

North Korean defector Lee Nam Soo has begun flying balloons carrying the Gospel towards his homeland from a nearby island, hoping to counteract government propaganda that shows foreign missionaries torturing children. "This contains what the Gospels mean, the correct information about missionaries to counteract what has been introduced to them as the beast of the beasts, and about Christianity as a den of spies and other disinformation," Lee told RFA.

Kim Sung Min, chairman of the Association of North Korean Defectors in South Korea, said defectors were naturally drawn at times of danger and hardship to follow the faiths of those who helped them.

"There are many Buddhist priests and [Catholic] nuns in [the Chinese border town of] Yanji, who are visiting there. A priest approaches a defector to offer help or assistance to him, then the defector becomes used to following him," Kim told RFA.

[Radio Free Asia]

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Missionaries play dual role in lives of Korean refugees

In January 2006, I shared several meals with a dozen North Korean orphans in a safe house in China, half a day's train ride from the North Korean border. Run by a missionary couple, the house was part of a loose network -- made up almost entirely of Christian aid workers -- that shelters some of the 100,000 or so North Koreans who've fled their criminally mismanaged country in search of food and economic opportunity. Many of these migrants, living in China illegally, are victims of abuse and exploitation. The missionaries are virtually their only protectors.

To supporters in the United States, the network is known as the "Underground Railroad," a reference to its incredible secrecy and its agents' occasional successes in smuggling North Koreans through China to freedom in South Korea.

At the time of my visit, the two-story apartment held 14 North Koreans, ranging in age from 5 to 20. Hidden on the outskirts of a major city, it was owned and run by the Lees, Chinese citizens of Korean descent who had led regular lives in Beijing until a divine revelation provided them with a new purpose: the Christian salvation of their fellow Koreans.

[Excerpt of an article by Josh Chin, a student at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, writing in The San Francisco Chronicle]