Saturday, March 31, 2007

One Ear to the Ground with the Underground Grapevine

Typical of the dangers of sub-zero temperatures in the China-North Korean border region, a North Korean refugee recently became isolated after his crossing of the Tumen River and only when his frostbite became advanced did he call out for help.

Helping Hands Korea responded to his plea through the ‘underground grapevine’, providing the necessary funds for his medical care. Tragically however, he had lost a number of his toes by the time a doctor’s care could be arranged. We are at least grateful that the damage was not worse, had he neglected his condition even longer.

In light of the dangers of this heartbreaking situation above, Helping Hands Korea renewed its partnership with a faithful missionary in the border area to shelter 50 refugees for the next three brutally cold months.

--Tim Peters, Helping Hands Korea

Friday, March 30, 2007

Bill Richardson making trip to North Korea

Back when the Bush Administration was ratcheting up sanctions, I mused on the option of sending someone like Gov. Richardson over to North Korea for diplomatic talks. Among other things, Bill Richardson is no stranger to North Korea, having visited the isolated country several times as a congressman during the 1990's.

AP reports today that Bill Richardson will travel to North Korea in April, according to officials. Richardson will talk to government officials, though it is not clear what the topic of discussions will be. "They spoke on condition of anonymity because plans were still being completed."

While no doubt some presidential aspirations factor into the motivation stream, with Bill Richardson either a Democratic dark horse, or a Vice President on someone else's ticket, the fact remains that he has a good international track record as far as making friends, not foes.

"The New Mexico governor is a frequent diplomatic traveler. He was in Sudan in January to meet with government leaders and made a trip to the Darfur region where he visited refugee camps."

U.N.: Millions May Go Hungry in North Korea

North Korea is facing one of its biggest food shortages in the past decade, with millions of people going hungry because of a poor harvest and a huge drop in donor aid, a U.N. official said. Anthony Banbury, the Asian regional director for the World Food Program who just returned from a six-day trip to North Korea, said officials there told him they faced a food gap of 1 million tons.

He said they requested that the agency expand its assistance - a rare admission and plea for help from the secretive Stalinist regime. 'If donors do not respond to the request, millions of people are going to go hungry,' Banbury told a news conference.

In past years, the WFP fed about 6.5 million people annually in the North, but scaled back its proposed program last year to 1.9 million people after Pyongyang requested in 2005 to switch its emphasis from food aid to development assistance, claiming that food supplies were adequate.

In reality, the Rome-based WFP has since been able to reach only 700,000 people - about 3 percent of the North's population of 23 million - because of its smaller operation and lack of funding.

South Korea plans to hold off on resuming rice shipments until after mid-April to make sure the North carries out its promise to close its main nuclear reactor as part of a landmark Feb. 13 deal crafted during ongoing six-nation disarmament talks.

'We can't wait ... The lean season is upon is,' Banbury said. 'The needs of the people are separate from the political talks. There ought not to be a direct linkage between those talks and the food security situation in the country.'


Thursday, March 29, 2007

On North Korean defectors, brokers and human traffickers

Many North Koreans escaping to China often fall prey to unscrupulous human traffickers.

One such North Korean woman says she defected because of the harsh conditions in making a living back home. Born and raised in Onsong in North Hamgyong province, she lived with her family and worked the farm and gathered edible wild plants to put food on the table. Her parents and husband dutifully went to work each day but remained idle because there is no commerce in the town.

"We were living without any hope or future prospects. I wanted to give my 6-year-old son a chance to live a better life," she said.

After hearing about a neighbor who had returned from China after making a tidy sum as a migrant worker, she decided to try her luck. Before leaving, she promised her young son she would come back after saving 10,000 yuan (about 150,000 yen).

In June of last year, she approached a broker in North Korea to help her get to China. It was easy, she recalled. The broker took her to the Tumen River and simply told her to wade across to China. She sloshed through the shallow water and reached the opposite bank where another man was waiting for her.

As the broker in North Korea did not ask a fee in advance, she assumed payment would be made upon her return. But to her horror, she realized she had been sold to a Chinese farmer in need of a wife to work on his farm in Shandong province in eastern China. Her new "husband" communicated with her via hand gestures that he wanted her to do the backbreaking farm work and all the household chores.

A month later, she saw her chance to escape and fled.

She currently works for a personnel dispatch agency, earning 1,500 yuan (about 22,000 yen) a month and living in a cramped and spartan apartment with 10 other North Korean women. Sources close to her say that she is working as a prostitute.


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Letters from North Koreans

From a letter from North Korea, addressed to an ethnic Korean cousin living in Japan:
"The situation here began worsening last spring, and we are now in terrible shape. The government food rations stopped, and we have no other choice but buy black-market rice.

"My monthly salary is 100 won [note: this person is an elite living in the capital area], and one kilogram (about 2.2 lb.) of rice now costs 110 to 120 won. We cannot buy anything at government-run stores. Although starving to death never before even entered our minds, it is becoming quite believable these days. Because of malnutrition, minor health disorders easily turn into fatal diseases."

Here is another letter from a returnee to North Korea:
"My wage is 89 won, and my two younger brothers each earn about 80 to 90 won. However, we get only 20 to 50% of the wages because of the extreme shortage of cash. So, we get 25 to 30 won at the most. From this amount, the fees for insurance, union, and social sentry are withdrawn from the wages, so the actual amount of money that we get is 10 to 20 won.

"In the black market, 180 grams (about 0.4 lb.) of rice costs 65 won, one egg costs 5 to 5.5 won, 180 grams (about 0.4 lb.) of corn costs 35 won, one apple costs 7 to 10 won, and one persimmon costs 3 to 5 won.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

18 more North Korean refugees find freedom

February was a banner month for Helping Hands Korea in terms of rescues of North Korean refugees. All totaled and by God’s grace, 18 refugees were aided through two key partnerships to safety: some to Mongolia, and some via SE Asia.

Included in this number were 9 female refugees, ranging in age from 5-70, who came through Laos and into Thailand.

Helping Hands Korea’s “route” and helpers were also helpful in bringing to a third country three young North Koreans who’d been identified as believers inside their Stalinist country & thus had had to flee North Korean secret police.

--Tim Peters, Helping Hands Korea

Monday, March 26, 2007

South Korea to resume suspended flood aid to North Korea

South Korea said it would resume emergency flood aid to North Korea that had been suspended after last year's nuclear test, the latest sign that Pyongyang's recent agreement on nuclear disarmament has warmed ties between the Koreas.

South Korea's Vice Unification Minister Shin Eon-sang said the aid that had been pledged to help North Korea cope with floods last summer would be resumed. Seoul has previously said it would send food and medical supplies along with construction materials and equipment.

South Korea is also resuming regular fertilizer shipments to the North later this month that had been part of its annual aid to its impoverished neighbour.

[Toronto Globe and Mail]

Sunday, March 25, 2007

7 out of 10 North Koreans have insufficient food

Seven out of 10 North Koreans are believed to have insufficient food, a South Korean aid group said, citing the communist nation's distribution offices.

The Seoul-based Good Friends aid agency said there are concerns among midlevel North Korean officials that residents of cities who do not receive regular wages or rations and have no arable land could begin to starve, adding that farmers also have had food shortages since last month.

"Massive deaths caused by starvation do not occur, but malnutrition is worsening, resulting in some deaths," the group said in a regular newsletter.

It declined to give details of where it obtained the information. However, many of its previous reports of what was happening inside isolated North Korea have later been confirmed.

Food shortages were exacerbated by massive floods last summer and South Korea's suspension of food aid to protest North Korea's missile tests in July, according to the New York-based group Human Rights Watch.


Saturday, March 24, 2007

North Korea: Show us the money

Despite signing a breakthrough agreement last month, on Thursday the North Koreans went home.

U.S. envoy Christopher Hill said today another six party session would be arranged “as soon as we get their bank transfer done.”

The U.S. had agreed that $25m held at a bank in Macau, Banco Delta Asia, would be transferred to a North Korean account. The funds had been frozen in 2005 because of American accusations that they were linked to illicit dealings. Now, the Americans said, North Korea had agreed to use them for humanitarian and educational purposes.

But said Christopher Hill, America’s man at the talks, “If something can go wrong, it often does go wrong.” And the money from Banco Delta Asia had yet to be credited to North Korea’s account. Chinese and American officials tried to persuade North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il that this was merely a bureaucratic hitch and that he should get on with discussions about the nuclear problem. But Mr Kim refused to join the six-party talks until the money arrived.

North Korea has toughed out hard times before. Jean-Pierre de Margerie, the head of the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) in Pyongyang, says that “food crises” could emerge in parts of the country this year. However, he says the country is still “pretty far away” from the famine of the mid-1990s that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

[Excerpts of AP and Economist articles]

Friday, March 23, 2007

How do the North Korean people make a living?

The average worker's monthly income is 60 to 80 won, and this is hardly enough to buy anything. (This could barely buy 200 grams of rice, or one pack of cigarettes.)

Back in 1960 … the average monthly income of workers was also around 60 won [but then] the monthly rent for a high-rise apartment averaged about 2 won. Rice was available for extremely low prices.

A child from North Korea begged me for money at the China-North Korea border. I discovered that he was seventeen (hard to believe from his appearance) after we started to talk.

I asked him, "How much do you need to save your four family members from starvation right now? … He answered that he needed 150 yuan (about 2,500 yen or US $30).

This answer motivated us to start our campaign "One thousand yen ($12) will help an entire four-member family survive for a month. Donate the money you would spend for one lunch."

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Starvation hangs over North Korea

If relief doesn't come soon, millions of North Koreans are at risk of serious malnutrition, said Jean-Pierre de Margerie, director of the U.N. World Food Program office in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital.

The government stopped distributing food last summer and citizens now primarily rely on aid.

Comparing 7-year-old boys in North and South Korea, the boy in the north is 8 inches shorter, weighs 20 pounds less and on average will live 10 fewer years, de Margerie said, adding that 6 million North Koreans —- one quarter of the population —- is "chronically undernourished."

[Excerpt of an article by Craig Simons, Atlanta Journal Constitution]

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

North Korea torture report

The Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights conducted an in-depth investigation with 20 defectors (9 male, 11 female) over a period of 7 months on torture methods used by North Korea’s national bureau, [and issued a] report, titled “North Korea: Republic of Torture” on the 13th.

This report claims that North Korean authorities enforce beatings, assault and confinement in order to get the prisoners to confess. [Additionally] rations are not distributed in the prisons and so prisoners inevitably meet tortured deaths in a malnourished state. The report highlights detainees being sent to the “basement” where their arms and legs are twisted behind their backs. The person is then positioned to hang in mid-air for long hours; this known as the notorious “pigeon torture.”

The report continued, “Since 2000, women have been subject to inhumane exploitation on a daily basis… Female detainees are stripped of their clothing and made to sit, then stand repeatedly in their naked state.”

The Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights will also issue the report in English, and at the end of this month present it to Vitit Muntarbhorn, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in the North Korea.

[Excerpt of an article by Kim Yong Hun, The Daily NK]

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

"We don't understand politics, we only want to be able to eat"

Before slipping across a frozen river from North Korea last year, Jin measured time in kernels of grain: The two tiny servings of porridge he ate each day to make the food last.

"We were always hungry," said Jin, who gave only his surname because he plans to return to North Korea and fears imprisonment if he is caught. In Hoeryong, a city of some 170,000 people where Jin, 49, and his family live, food and fuel are scarce. The number of homeless —- in North Korea called kotchebi, or swallows —- has grown as people sell their homes to buy food. Many homeless in Hoeryong "are listless and have distended bellies," Jin said.

Jin, his wife and two daughters survived on two small meals each day. After breakfast, Jin walked to the factory where he worked on an assembly line producing bean paste, earning the equivalent of about $1 a month.

Before he left in the fall, the government had distributed 5-pound bags of rice marked with U.N. labels to most adults each month, and because rice is more valuable than corn, Jin was able to trade it for low-quality corn and, sometimes, a few potatoes. Stretched over a month between four people, there was barely enough to survive, he said.

Jin left Hoeryong in November in search of work in China. When Jin arrived in Yanji he was shocked by how prosperous the city is. The sight of Yanji's markets and tall buildings shook his faith in the North Korean government.

"We don't understand politics," he said. "We only want to be able to eat."

[Excerpt of an article by Craig Simons, Atlanta Journal Constitution]

Monday, March 19, 2007

Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform

Columbia University Press announced the publication of Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform by Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland.

Authors Haggard and Noland present a comprehendsive account of the North Korean famine, examining not only the origins and aftermath of the crisis but also the regime's response to outside aid and the effect of its current policies on the country's economic future.

They examine the challenges of providing humanitarian assistance to North Korea and explore how needed materials can get to people suffering under the rule of the North Korean regime.

"Famine in North Korea is the authoritative account of the famine, examining its origins and impact from the level of the individual household to the high politics of international diplomacy. It is an extraordinary book, essential reading for anyone interested in the issues of famine, economic transition, and the future of the Korean peninsula."
—Joseph E. Stiglitz, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, and author of Making Globalization Work

"The UN General Assembly resolutions on human rights in North Korea have underscored the failure of the North Korean government to protect its people from gross human rights abuses. In Famine in North Korea, Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland compellingly outline the case with respect to food. This book is critical for any understanding of the humanitarian and human rights
crisis on the Korean peninsula."
—Vaclav Havel, former President of the Czech Republic

Sunday, March 18, 2007

North Korean Refugees Face Exploitation

China's growing population imbalance means many poor farmers cannot easily find brides. The women often face abuse and beatings but several interviewed said "their current situation is better than risking repatriation or starvation."

Hiding in villages among Chinese citizens of Korean descent, North Korean asylum seekers are victimized twice. Once they make it into China, they are highly vulnerable to abuse, extortion and exploitation. Desperate women sell sexual services through prostitution or arranged marriage. Or they are sold or abducted into sexual slavery. Some are beaten by violent Chinese husbands after seeking shelter with church groups who tell them marriage is the only way to avoid detection.

There are countless testimonies of beatings, torture, degrading treatment, and even forced abortions and infanticide from those who have escaped.

The Chinese government does not recognize North Koreans as refugees but rather as "economic migrants," an inaccurate classification the Chinese government uses to deny North Koreans their rights under International Law, including safe passage to "friendly nations." The Chinese government also aggressively seeks out North Korean refugees and returns them back to North Korea.

Upon return to North Korea many are summarily executed while others end up in gulags internationally deplored for their abominable conditions and inhumane treatment, including forced abortions, sexual assault and systemic torture.

Action in Aid of North Korean Refugees (AANKR) is a team of concerned US citizens committed to raising money and awareness for North Korean Refugees. Primary fundraising efforts are centered on Helping Hands Korea a charity which helps North Korean refugees living along the China-North Korea border escape persecution and poverty via an Underground Railroad.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

If only North Korean refugees had a nation willing to accept them

Excerpt of a statement by LiNK Executive Director Adrian Hong, entered into the Congressional Record:

"It is deplorable that the Chinese government continues to actively hunt down, imprison and repatriate North Korean refugees, in violation of their obligations under international law. It is further reprehensible that underground activists remain in prison to this day, for the "crime" of helping North Korean refugees. But that is China.

"I have confidence that underground networks can rescue thousands of North Korean refugees, if only they had a nation willing to accept them. It is absolutely unacceptable and shameful that a United States post will turn away legitimate asylum seekers, especially those that are targeted or capture and repatriation by local authorities. These and other refugees and their guides take tremendous risk upon themselves, with their hopes placed on the principles of the United States, and the North Korean Human Rights Act. That they are turned away, literally at the gates, and sent elsewhere is a betrayal of American principles, and perhaps laws.

"My experiences in December showed me that three years after the North Korean Human Rights Act has passed, nothing has changed on the ground for North Koreans. Refugees are being turned away from the gates of US posts and sent to the UNHCR in Beijing- a dangerous journey that very few manage to make without capture. Funding for NGOs and underground workers has not been released; and less than a paltry three dozen North Korean refugees are now resettled in the United States. Our own refugees that I personally escorted to US custody last October arrived just last week- nearly four months after they had been accepted! It is my understanding that delays on their arrival here were not from the Chinese, but from our own State Department.

"We have a tremendous opportunity here to save thousands of refugees and effect real change for human rights and liberties for North Koreans. It is with regret that I say that despite our high rhetoric and the promises we have made to these people with no other advocate in the world, I believe the United States is squandering that opportunity. Unless our State Department
and this Administration is held to account for its lack of action for these people, it will continue to be that way."

Friday, March 16, 2007

North Korean Defector Park Sang Hak now in Seoul

Park Sang Hak, the son of a North Korean spy, grew up a believer. From nursery school on, he learned that the country's founder, Kim Sung Il was greater than his parents. On birthdays of Kim and his son Kim Jong Il, the teachers handed out clothes and snacks, said to be gifts from their leaders.

"For North Koreans, Kim Sung Il is greater than God," said Park, 37, chairman of the Democracy Network against North Korea Gulag. He was bundled up in two jackets inside the chilly, Spartan offices.

In school, they learned that the United States was a "wolf, the worst enemy in the world." As teenagers, they began receiving military training. For target practice, they fired at a picture of a Caucasian, emblazoned with "USA."

His family had a spacious apartment with a Western style toilet -- maybe 1 in 1,000 North Koreans had such a place, he said. His father, a high-ranking official, drove a Mercedes-Benz, and Park had a Honda motorbike, another rarity.

Park studied information technology in college -- but not the Internet. "The Internet is for democratic countries," he said. Like other students, Park also worked on rice farms in the spring, where people seemed to be starving and doing hard labor. It didn't seem right, but Park feared speaking out and risking his elite status.

After graduating, thanks to family connections, Park landed a job in the government's coveted propaganda office in Pyongyang, where he worked on school textbooks and patriotic songs. Every Sunday, small groups in the community would gather for self-judgment. "I was one of the leaders, so I believed," Park said.

But after a purge of leaders at North Korea's intelligence agency in the late 1990s, Park's father feared he would be killed if he returned from Hong Kong, where he was posing as a businessman.

From there, he sent a message to his family through a broker, ordering them to flee to China. The family agonized for a month about what they should do. Park left behind his fiancee, whom he promised to send for if the family was succeeded in making it across the river into China. "At that moment, it's heartbreak or nothing. If I die, nothing can happen with her. First life, then love."

He never saw her again. continued

[Excerpt of a San Francisco Chronicle article]

Thursday, March 15, 2007

North Korean Defector Park Sang Hak

On a March night, he and his brother swam across the river, while his mother and sister floated on an inner tube into China. Park bribed the North Korean guards with approximately $250 in cash.

His father arranged for a car to pick them up and the family flew together to South Korea with fake passports. As soon as they arrived, they turned themselves in to the authorities.

South Korea's tall buildings, paved clean roads, and all the cars amazed him. But it was difficult to adjust.

At the government education center, Park and other refugees learned about manners and how to greet people. "I felt humiliated. Why am I learning this?" Park said. "I was high status in North Korea. When I arrived, I had very low status."

He struggled in university classes in Seoul, because North Korea's schools had focused on ideology rather than on academics. And he missed the people from his hometown. "The people are good. People in developing countries are innocent. When the economy develops, they become cold," he said, describing how people seemed more formal and distant in the south.

Eventually, Park married another defector and they had a son. His sister works in the sales department, and his brother has a delivery job for a company that makes bags and wallets. His mother is a housewife, and his father works as defector activist in Japan.

"I knew the economy was much better, but I also realized I have freedom of the mind, and democracy was developed," he said. "It was the same people after the Korean War, but they have gone totally different ways. This one became rich and liberal. The other one, people are brainwashed and suffer from starvation."

[Excerpt of an article by Vanessa Hua, San Francisco Chronicle]

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Everyone on the inside knows something is wrong

Song, 40, stands less than 5 feet, even in her black, high-heeled boots. She has wide-set eyes, highlighted with green shadow. She arrived in Seoul last year in June 2005 -- hoping to get a job as a waitress.

Song had to settle for dishwashing because she could not understand what her customers were ordering. After more than 50 years of a divided peninsula, the common language has diverged. South Korea uses many more foreign words, and slang.

To supplement her income, Song also works part-time at a travel agency in Seoul, which among other things pitches special tours led by defectors. The office, in the swanky Lotte Hotel in downtown Seoul, was plastered with photos of the demilitarized zone, watch towers and soldiers.
In North Korea, Song was a television news presenter, a job she landed thanks to her father, an official in government broadcasting. She would read stories about the admirable qualities of North Korea and its leaders, and how the country had to grow its military to fight against the United States and Japan, which was seeking to isolate the north.

"Everyone on the inside knows something is wrong," she said. "They know the government is wrong, but they can't say anything."

[Excerpt of an article by Vanessa Hua, San Francisco Chronicle]

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

LiNK wants to establish settlement facility for North Korean defectors

An American activist group for North Korean human rights plans to build a settlement facility for North Korean defectors to the United States, a revamped version of one in South Korea.

"'Hanawon' is not exactly the best resettlement program out there. So...we're going to set up a version of that here in the United States to help facilitate these North Koreans to resettle here in the U.S.," Adrian Hong, head of LiNK (Liberty in North Korea), said in an interview with Washington-based Radio Free Asia.

Hanawon, a facility set up near Seoul by the South Korean government in 1995, accommodates up to 100 North Korean refugees and provides housing and three months of training to help defectors adjust to life in capitalist South Korea.

Hong also revealed his group's plan to increase the number of underground shelters his organization is running for North Korean defectors in China, North Korea's neighboring country.

"We have 30 shelters in China...for North Korean refugees," he said. "(We) decided to increase the size of the network by 50 percent, which means we are going to go up a lot." LiNK has been supplying the shelters with clothes, food and medical aid since December 2004, according to its officials.


Monday, March 12, 2007

Fast for North Korea

On March 14, 2007, thousands will be participating in a new Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) initiative - Fast for North Korea.

On that day, in solidarity with the North Korean people, and to raise awareness of the human rights and humanitarian crisis in that country, LiNK asks that you skip your normal meals, and donate the amount you would have normally spent on food (suggested donation, $25).

Imagine the impact of thousands on every continent sacrificing a day's meals, talking about the issue, and raising funds for the cause! LiNK has enlisted several US congressmen, celebrities, and many prominent individuals.

UPDATE: Fast for NK - NEW DATE: April 11, 2007

Sunday, March 11, 2007

North Korea Suddenly Opens to American Travelers

San Francisco-based Geographic Expeditions, responding to a sudden decision by North Korea to grant visas to Americans for its famed Mass Games in April, has announced an April 22nd - May 1st departure to the DPRK.

Because the North Koreans have set a late March deadline for visa applications, travelers will have to take advantage of a tiny window of opportunity to become some of the first Americans -- other than a sprinkling of journalists -- to visit the DPRK in more than 50 years.

The centerpiece of GeoEx's 10-day trip is the famed Mass Games, scheduled this year to commemorate the birthday of North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il. Huge extravaganzas one witness described as making "the Olympic opening ceremony look like a school play," the Mass Games are one of the world's most astounding human spectacles.

In a stadium holding 150,000 people (said to be the largest seating capacity in the world) 80,000 dancers and gymnasts emerge from months of grueling practice and perform against a massive backdrop of rapidly changing flash cards showing images of North Korean unity, strength, and agricultural bounty.

The group will also pay visits to the DPRK border cities of Kaesong and Panmunjom, on the edge of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

Saturday, March 10, 2007

North Korean Border-Crossers Harshly Punished on Return

In an ominous hardening of policy, North Korea appears to be punishing its citizens with longer sentences in abusive prisons if they are caught crossing the border to China or have been forcibly repatriated by Beijing, Human Rights Watch said in a new briefing paper.

According to recent escapees from North Korea interviewed by Human Rights Watch, Pyongyang announced that it would send people who crossed the border, including first-time “offenders” and those crossing only to find food, to prison for up to five years. Human Rights Watch recently interviewed 16 North Koreans who crossed the border to China between mid-July and early December 2006. They provided consistent testimonies on harsher punishments for those recently repatriated.

Between 2000 and 2004, many border-crossers had been either released after questioning, or served at most a few months at labor re-education facilities, unless they were found to have had contact with missionaries or South Koreans.

North Korean border-crossers who had been imprisoned described to Human Rights Watch the abuses they suffered, including strip searches, verbal abuse and threats, beatings, forced labor, little or no medical care, and severe shortages of food, often described as a “fistful of powdered cornstalk per meal.” As punishment for disobedience, former detainees said they were forced to hit their own heads against cell bars and to sit up and down repeatedly until they fainted. Such punishments were often inflicted for failing to sit still for hours on end, and collective punishments of entire groups of cellmates were common.

[Human Rights Watch]

Friday, March 09, 2007

Hunger May Have Helped Push Along North Korea Nuclear Deal

International aid organizations are hoping the recent diplomatic breakthrough over North Korea's nuclear weapons program will pave the way for increased food donations to the impoverished North.

Current shortages may also have increased Pyongyang's willingness to make concessions at the nuclear weapons bargaining table, experts say. Paul Risley, Asia spokesman for the United Nations World Food Program, says "There is a deficit of about one million tons of food cereals - that means rice, wheat, and corn - that are not available to the population in North Korea, and in fact have been in years past."

Risley says the most dangerous time of year for North Korea is just ahead - starting in late March. "When you get into April and May of this year that's what agronomists refer to as the lean season," Risley says.

Tim Peters, a Seoul-based activist with Helping Hands Korea who helps North Korean refugees gain passage to other countries, said earlier this year that the "lean season" would begin even sooner.

"Donor fatigue and donor utter disenchantment has set in to such a degree that North Korea will be facing another extremely severe lack of rations for its own people," Peters says.

[Excerpt of an article by Kurt Achin, VOA]

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Is North Korea serious?

There was optimism on Wednesday that North Korea is serious this time about disabling its nuclear facilities under the Feb. 13 six-party agreement, but some experts warn it is too soon to break out the champagne. U.S. chief negotiator Christopher Hill reported “a sense of optimism on both sides that we will get through the 60-day period and achieve all our objectives set out in Beijing.”

"After the 60-day period" means once North Korea shuts down its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon and gets 50,000 tons of heavy oil from South Korea, and “the next step” under the agreement is “disabling” the nuclear facilities. That is a process of making the nuclear facilities useless, and thus goes much further than shutting them down.

Kim Keun-sik, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University, said Kim Jong-il is “highly likely” to make a positive decision if the U.S. recognizes his regime and offers security guarantees.

Yoon Duk-min of Seoul’s Institute for Foreign Affairs and National Security indicated it is jumping the gun to speculate about Kim Jong-il’s intentions, since Washington and Pyongyang don't have to focus on their differences for the moment. An academic with another state-run think tank in Seoul said, "… I don't think Kim Jong-il will so readily abandon his nuclear weapons."

Kim Kye-gwan looked pleased with the outcome. Kim hinted he suggested a meeting between U.S. President George W. Bush and Kim Jong-il. "The shortcut to the normalization of the (North) Korea-U.S. relations is a meeting between top officials in (North) Korea and the United States,” he said.

USA Today said some former U.S. diplomats and foreign policy experts Kim met in New York were “optimistic the U.S. and North Korea would agree to formal relations before President Bush leaves office in January 2009.”

[The Chosun Ilbo]

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Hanawon facility too small

Excerpt of a column by Moon Gab-sik, an editorial writer of the Chosun Ilbo, writing about Hanawon, the South Korean resettlement facility:

Experts say that today's "Hanawon", built to suit the situation of 10 years ago, is too small to accommodate the increasing number of North Korean defectors. The facility has provided North Korean defectors with two means -- subsidies and job placements -- to help them into the local labor market. But these two means seem mostly ineffective. If things continue as usual, there will be no way to prevent North Korean refugees who make it to South Korea from becoming an impoverished class.

There are many more problems that cannot be solved by laws or systems: the suffering defectors will experience if they fail to succeed, their children's education, and South Koreans' dim attitudes towards Northerners. Even if it were in a position to do so, the current government would be hard pressed to sort out all the problems facing the 10,000 North Korean refugees here today.

The population of North Korea is some 20 million, or 2,000 times more than the 10,000 in the South. We can think of those 10,000 as students taking the SAT exam to prepare for the process of college admissions called the reunification of Korea.

In those terms, we South Koreans are like students too busy goofing off to prepare for the future. It's worrying to think what might happen if the truce line were to collapse tomorrow -- because we are totally unprepared.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

CIA blunder 'prompted Korean nuclear race'

An excerpt of what Andrew Gumbel wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

The United States appears to have made a major intelligence blunder over North Korea's nuclear weapons program, one that may have exacerbated tensions with Pyongyang over the past four years and goaded Kim Jong-Il into pressing ahead with last October's live nuclear test, intelligence and Bush administration officials have said.

The blunder concerns the assessment, in a CIA report to Congress in November 2002, that North Korea was also pursuing a parallel uranium enrichment program capable of providing the raw material for two or more nuclear weapons a year, starting "mid-decade".

That prompted the US to cut off oil supplies to Pyongyang, to which North Korea responded by throwing out international weapons inspectors and ratcheting up its plutonium bomb program.
But now many intelligence officials doubt whether the North Koreans have a viable uranium enrichment program, and administration officials have begun wondering if they could not have handled the North Korean crisis much more smartly if they had been in less of a hurry to get confrontational.

That may be linked to North Korea's agreement to readmit weapons inspectors. The Bush administration may prefer to sow doubts about its assessments now rather than face greater embarrassment later.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Sad story of American Consulate violating norms of human decency

If you haven't already seen it, check out One Free Korea and the sad story of how American Consulate officials in Shenyang, China, violated the norms of human decency in the case of the Shenyang Six, includng a personal account by Adrian Hong of LiNK.

Background on The Shenyang Six: The six North Korean refugees were captured just before Christmas along with two Americans who had been sheltering them in safe houses in another city. The 6 North Korean refugees tried, but failed, to obtain sanctuary in the U.S. Consulate in Shenyang, China. The six had been in jail, awaiting deportation under China's policy regarding the North Korean refugees it tracks down. (China's treatment of the North Koreans violates the International Convention Regarding the Status of Refugees, to which it is a party and which bars "refoulement," or the repatriation of refugees to places where their lives or freedom would be in jeopardy. North Koreans who are sent home by Beijing face execution or a term in one of Kim Jong Il's prison camps, which can amount to a death sentence.)

Excerpt from a Wall Street Journal editorial page, January 04, 2007: "As Adrian Hong, executive director of LiNK, was being escorted from jail, he he passed the cell where several of the North Koreans were being held. "There is nothing like looking in the eyes of someone who thinks they are going to die," he says. "They all had that look - like there was no hope."

North Korean Refugees and Hanawon

The Unification Ministry's Hanawon center wins high praise for helping North Korean escapees make the daunting leap from their Stalinist homeland to life in what has become Asia's third biggest economy and one of its most vibrant democracies.

"They (at Hanawon) are doing a marvelous job," said Douglas Shin, a pastor who works with defectors.

For those who do make it -- normally after a hazardous border crossing into China -- the center is their first home in the South and where they are taught basic skills to help them adapt.

Most, Lee said, were farmers or laborers who flee simply because there is not enough food at home.

[Excerpt of an article by Jonathan Thatcher , Reuters]

Sunday, March 04, 2007

80 North Koreans to Seek U.S. Asylum

Eighty North Korean refugees are hiding in various Asian countries and preparing to seek asylum in the United States, a South Korean activist, Chun Ki-won, said Friday.

Chun Ki-won, director of the Seoul-based Durihana Mission group that arranged the defections earlier this week of 12 North Koreans to the U.S. _ the largest such group in recent times _ said similar preparations were under way in five southeast Asian countries to arrange refugees' travel to the U.S.

Chun also said his group was aware of about 420 other North Koreans who are hiding in the region and awaiting asylum in South Korea.

A small but growing number of North Koreans are seeking asylum in the U.S. after Washington passed the 2004 North Korea Human Rights Act, which mandates assistance to refugees fleeing the North. However, activist groups have criticized Washington for being slow to offer help to refugees.

The latest arrivals Wednesday of 12 defectors raises to 31 the number of North Koreans to have recently sought refuge in the United States.

On Thursday in Washington, the U.S. envoy on North Korean human rights, Jay Lefkowitz, said he expects the number of North Korean refugees coming to the U.S. to increase. 'We impose no quota or limit on the number we are willing to accept,' he said at a Congressional hearing.

It is not known how the latest defections could affect the nuclear agreement, although the North is highly sensitive to criticism of its human rights record and treats it as a thinly veiled attack on the regime.

[Excerpt of an AP article by Kwang-Tae Kim]

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Crash Course for North Korean Defectors

On a sprawling campus hidden in farmland in South Korea, about 300 North Koreans are learning that, no, actually, it was not the South that started the Korean War.

And, yes, America is an ally, their re-education goes, before broaching the A B C's of capitalism, human rights and democracy. Field trips focus on how to apply for a job or use an automated teller machine. Women are shown the finer points of home decorating; men, the basic skills to fix the home boiler.

Soon after landing in South Korea, all North Korean defectors come here to the South Korean government's main resettlement center, called Hanawon, or to annex, for a three-month crash course on life south of the demilitarized zone.

To hear North Koreans tell it, South Korea is bewildering precisely because it is at once familiar and alien.

Very few defectors came to South Korea until the mid-1990's, when famine in the North sent many refugees into China. Since then, as a network of South Korean evangelical Christian missionaries and smugglers has established itself in China, the numbers have sharply risen.

Graduates of the three-month resettlement program receive a stipend and are provided with low-cost public housing. They are also entitled to welfare benefits in case of unemployment and cash incentives for job training.

Out in the real world, many defectors who have come here with unrealistically high expectations find out that they are prepared for only the most menial of jobs.

[Excerpt from New York Times]

Friday, March 02, 2007

The two Koreas

The two Koreas have little in common despite an ancient shared history and belonging to one of the world's most homogenous ethnic groups.

The personality cult for the North's leaders and a strictly regimented life for almost everyone else makes North Korean defectors ill-prepared for the bewildering barrage of demands of life in one of the world's most wired societies. Quite a few have adapted but the majority lose out. They are uprooted and transplanted in different soil.

A North Korean defector, asking not to be identified for fear of retribution against relatives still in the North, said it was an oppressive life, not hunger, that drove her away. "It wasn't because of poverty but the political oppression," she said. "I wanted to raise my daughter in better circumstances."

Kim Jong-il, creating the communist world's first dynasty by taking power when his father died in 1994, has presided over an economy that was once on a par with the South's and now ranks among the world's poorest.

The economic woes, and famines have not stopped the official media from repeatedly referring to their country as a people's paradise.

[Excerpt of an article by Jonathan Thatcher , Reuters]

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Unification of Koreas compared to Germany

Excerpts of a commentary by Moon Gab-sik, an editorial writer of the Chosun Ilbo, comparing the unification of Germnay with the Koreas:

The number of North Korean defectors living in South Korea has exceeded 10,000. Fewer than 10 defectors came to the South every year until the mid-1990s, but since 1999 the number has increased exponentially at intervals of two to three years.

Some predictions say the number will double in five years. If the situation continues at this speed, South Korea will face a "German-style" re-unification. Germany was suddenly reunified after East German defectors to the West numbered some 3,000 a day.

But the Korean situation is different from the German case in one major respect. The more East German defectors there were, the more warmly the West Germans welcomed them. In our case, the greater the number of North Korean defectors, the greater our indifference.

Experts say that the "generation gap" between young and old in South Korea can also be found in North Korean defectors. While most defectors of the past came south because they were starving, experts say, nowadays many North Korean defectors are coming because they want to buy mobile phones and cars and get rich. According to statistics, 65 percent of North Korean refugees in South Korea are in their 20s and 30s.

So are the young defectors finding jobs and making money more quickly than their seniors? According to the experts, defectors taste much more failure than success.

"Hanawon" in Anseong, Gyeonggi Province is a "school" where North Korean defectors are taught about capitalism, 100 people at a time. After the vocational training, the refugees are divided into two groups -- employed and unemployed. As of last June, only 12 percent of 2,449 defectors who had used the Labor Ministry's Korea Work Information Center had found jobs.

About 28 percent remain jobless. Considering these circumstances, what would it be like if Korea was reunited and North Koreans rushed south? The labor market would likely be divided into a new Korean-style caste system, with regular workers at the top of the hierarchy, followed by non-regular workers, North Korean defectors, alien workers, and North Korean residents. It's important to note that Germany has yet to narrow the many gaps between the former East and West.