Helping Hands Korea
(freeing North Korean refugees)
Crossing Borders Ministries
(freeing North Korean refugees)
(freeing North Korean refugees)
(freeing North Korean refugees)
Liberty in North Korea blog
2/17/14 Voice of America: “UN Urges Probe Into ‘Atrocious’ N. Korean Crimes”
by Daniel Schearf
Seoul: A new United Nations report accuses North Korea of “unspeakable atrocities,” many of which amount to crimes against humanity.
The U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea is calling for an international tribunal to investigate the alleged crimes and to bring those most responsible to justice.
1/20/14 Time Magazine: “American Jailed in North Korea Asks for Help; Missionary Kenneth Bae spoke in Pyongyang”
By Nate Rawlings
(AP) An American missionary who has been held in North Korea for more than a year spoke to reporters
in Pyongyang on Monday and asked the U.S. government to help secure his release.
1/7/14 CNN: “Who is Kenneth Bae, and why is he in a North Korean prison camp?”
By Chelsea J. Carter
Who is Kenneth Bae? And why is he being held by North Korea?
Those are the questions for many following the combative exchange Tuesday between Dennis Rodman and Chris Cuomo on CNN’s “New Day,” who asked whether the former NBA player was planning to inquire about Bae, a U.S. citizen sentenced to 15 years in a North Korean labor camp.
In response, Rodman, who is in North Korea with a team of fellow former NBA players, suggested the Korean-American had done something wrong, but did not specify what.
11/14/13 Wall Street Journal: “The Bible in the Bird’s Nest: Owning the Good Book in North Korea can have fatal consequences”
By Melanie Kirkpatrick
The Bible is “the most dangerous book on Earth,” George Bernard Shaw famously warned a century ago. Today, Shaw’s words ring true, literally, for the 24 million people of North Korea. Possession of a Bible is a one-way ticket to the gulag or worse.
10/10/13 BBC: “Jailed US man Kenneth Bae’s mother in North Korea visit”
The mother of a US citizen imprisoned in North Korea is being allowed to visit him, his family says.
Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American, was arrested last November and sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour in May.
North Korea said that Mr Bae – described as both a tour operator and Christian missionary – had used his tourism business to plot sedition.
6/25/13 Wall Street Journal: “Five Decades as a POW: Now Out of North Korea, Mr. Yoo Battles for Others Left Behind
By Alastair Gale
Seoul: Yoo Young-bok’s worn hands and gnarled fingernails are the only visual clues of his 47 years spent working in North Korean mines.
Mr. Yoo, 82 years old, is one of an estimated 24,000 South Korean prisoners-of-war that North Korea didn’t repatriate after the signing of the Korean War armistice, 60 years ago in July.
Most were put to work in mines in the north of the country, where many died. A few hundred are thought to still be alive in North Korea.
5/2/13 Associated Press: “North Korea sentences American to 15 years’ labor”
By Sam Kim
Seoul, South Korea (AP): A Korean American detained for six months in North Korea has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for “hostile acts” against the state, the North’s media said Thursday – a move that could trigger a visit by a high-profile American if history is any guide.
Kenneth Bae, a Washington state man described by friends as a devout Christian and a tour operator, is at least the sixth American detained in North Korea since 2009. The others eventually were deported or released without serving out their terms, some after trips to Pyongyang by prominent Americans, including former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
5/17/12 Wall Street Journal: “North Korea’s Gulag; New evidence reveals a vast, cruel network of prison camps.”
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak deserves praise for one accomplishment above all others: He has put human rights in North Korea on the world’s agenda. This certainly has hit a nerve in Pyongyang. The late Kim Jong Il cut off talks with the South, and now Kim Jong Eun has embarked on a campaign of abuse against President Lee that is vile even by that regime’s standards.
3/26/12 CNN: “In North Korea, a brutal choice,”
by Madison Park, CNN
Washington, D.C. (CNN) — During a sleepless night, Song Ee Han agonized over a decision: Was she willing to leave her youngest child behind while she and her daughters escaped North Korea?
12/22/11: Los Angeles Times: “North Korean defector says Kim Jong Il stole her life”
Seoul – At age 74, Kim Young-soon has every reason to dance on Kim Jong Il’s grave. The North Korean dictator destroyed her life, and killed her family. For years, she wanted nothing but revenge; not just to see him dead, but to watch him suffer.
10/18/11 Christian Science Monitor: “Tim Peters provides Helping Hands to North Korean defectors;
Christian missionary Tim Peters sends aid to impoverished North Korea while working to help
defectors come to the South.”
7/9/09 CNN: “Sister hears from journalist held in N. Korea,”
After weeks of silence, the sister of one of the two American journalists imprisoned in North Korea finally got a phone call.
“It was only the first time I had heard her voice in weeks. … I was so relieved but I feel so helpless,” Lisa Ling, a CNN contributor, told affiliate KOVR in an interview Wednesday. “Because as an older sister, a best friend, a self-professed ‘doer,’ it’s just difficult to know I cannot do anything to bring her home.”
Ling said she spoke to her sister, Laura Ling, over the phone Tuesday night. Laura Ling and Euna Lee were sentenced in June to 12 years in prison on charges of illegally entering the country to conduct a smear campaign.
Lisa Ling is hoping the arrests will push the United States and the reclusive communist nation to engage in diplomatic talks.
“I know that our government has been working behind the scenes very hard trying to bring the girls back home,” she said. But she added, “Our countries don’t talk, and perhaps this could be a reason.”
She said her sister “was very specific about the message that she was communicating, and she said, ‘Look, we violated North Korean law and we need our government to help us. We are sorry about everything that has happened, but we need diplomacy.’ ”
Ling said that without being able to look at her sister, it was difficult to tell how she was doing. She described the past few weeks as being engulfed in a “terrifying and deafening” silence.
The two detainees — who are reporters for California-based Current TV, a media venture of former U.S. Vice President Al Gore — were arrested while reporting on the border between North Korea and China.
The North’s state media released a “detailed report” last month, saying that Ling and Lee entered the country illegally to record material for a “smear campaign” against the reclusive communist state.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said the United States is seeking the immediate release of the two journalists on humanitarian grounds.
6/22/09 New York Times: “Laura Ling, Euna Lee and North Korea,”
By Nicholas Kristof
Now that my colleague David Rohde has escaped from his Taliban kidnappers, the American journalists who remain imprisoned are Laura Ling and Euna Lee. They are the two journalists for Current TV who were arrested on March 17 for crossing illegally from China into North Korea at the Tumen River.
The details of the arrests remain unclear; they have “confessed,” but that is meaningless – who wouldn’t in such circumstances? There have been some suggestions that they wandered accidentally across the border, but that’s not easy to do. I’ve reported three times in that same area along the Tumen, interviewing North Koreans on the Chinese side of the border, and it’s always clear where the border is. That said, people often do cross over deliberately, just inside the border, and there are usually no consequences at all. In 1997, a Times correspondent based in China, Seth Faison, stepped across stones in the Yalu River (a different part of the border with China) to reach a North Korean island. He wrote:
“Have any cigarettes?” asked the head of North Korea’s five-man border guard on Lee Island, a finger of land in the Yalu River dividing North Korea from China. The officer, who gave his name as Park, lay idly on a shady patch of sand a few dozen yards from the border. He did not get up to greet a pair of visitors who stepped on stones to cross a narrow bend in the river from China, and allowed them onto the island because they accompanied a Chinese trader who had given him a pack of Chinese cigarettes the day before, worth 12 cents.
Another possibility, which I incline to, is that Ling and Lee may have been sold to North Korea by a local guide. If the guide said that it was safe to cross, or that they were still on Chinese territory, they would have believed him. Moreover, by some accounts they were working on a story about human trafficking – there’s a good deal of trafficking of North Korean women and girls into China, into prostitution and to be wives of peasants – and the traffickers could well have tricked them in exchange for a reward from North Korea. A couple of years ago, I set up an interview with a trafficker in that border area, but then backed out when he demanded money; the traffickers may realize that the people to demand money from aren’t the journalists but the North Korean officials. And at a time of crisis, when it is undergoing a leadership transition and a confrontation with the West, North Korea would probably pay well for a few extra bargaining chips in the form of American journalists.
Ling and Lee were sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp. The conditions in those camps are unbelievably wretched, according to survivors and guards who have escaped (the book “Aquariums of Pyongyang” offers an window into them). But since Ling and Lee will eventually be released, the authorities will treat them more gingerly; perhaps they will be kept in a guest house. North Korea would lose face if they died or turned out to be starving, and that will help them immeasurably. In both my visits inside North Korea, the government has worked so hard to keep foreigners from seeing the real North Korea that I just can’t believe that it would allow Lee and Ling to see anything real even in the context of their punishment.
My hunch is that North Korea will use them for a time as a propaganda victory and then release them to a high-ranking visitor – Al Gore, Bill Richardson or someone else. Gore invested in Current TV, and Richardson has gone to North Korea before to extricate Americans and has a decent relationship with officials there. The problem is that a North Korean freighter is now steaming on the high seas, apparently to Burma, and reputedly carrying weapons. The U.S. should stop it and search it or turn it back, since Burma obviously won’t, but that could easily lead to bullets flying – either at sea or in an incident at the DMZ, or both. If there is such an incident, North Korea may be less likely to release Ling and Lee for the time being.
Then there’s the transition. In the past, North Korean provocations have mostly been about us: they’ve been intended to get our attention, in hopes of working out some kind of a deal. But this time, the provocations may be more about internal North Korean power dynamics, meant to facilitate the rise of Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Il’s youngest son, as the chosen heir. If this is all related to internal politics, then there’s not much we can do.
Ambassador Steve Bosworth, the administration’s envoy for North Korea, reportedly has been blocked by North Korea from visiting; that’s a bad sign that this is all about them, not us.
Incidentally, for those who want to learn more about how North Korea ticks, there have been many good books lately. Perhaps the best is Bradley Martin’s exhaustive “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader.” And the Inspector O novels, set in Pyongyang and written by an American intelligence expert on North Korea (who uses the pseudonym James Church), beautifully capture the attitudes of the North Korean officials I’ve met.
And for Ling and Lee, if by some chance this blog post reaches you, courage! We are with you in spirit, and some day this will end. Then you’ll be back with your loved ones, celebrating, like David Rohde. You will come home!
6/10/09 Washington Post: “N. Korean Women Who Flee to China Suffer in Stateless Limbo Many Are Sold Into Marriage,”
by Blaine Harden
Seoul — For North Korean women who run off to China , rules are rigged on both sides of the border.
North Korea regards them as criminals for leaving. China refuses to recognize them as refugees, sending many back to face interrogation, hard labor and sometimes torture. Others stay on in stateless limbo, sold by brokers to Chinese men in need of fertile women and live-in labor. China , so far, has refused to allow defectors, all of whom face criminal charges if they are sent back to North Korea , to make a claim for asylum with representatives from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Defectors who approach the UNHCR office in Beijing are sometimes arrested. The agency is barred from the areas where there are refugees.
In its most recent human rights report, the State Department said that in the run-up to last year’s Olympics, China increased its efforts to find and deport North Korean refugees, including women who had been victims of trafficking.
4/28/09 news10.net: “Vigil Held for Journalist Detained in North Korea,”
by Nicole Chavez
Sacramento , CA – A vigil was held Tuesday night at Del Campo High School for detained journalist Laura Ling and her colleague Euna Lee. Ling is a 1994 alumnus of the school.
Ling and Lee are under arrest in North Korea facing charges including espionage after they were arrested while covering a story about North Korean refugees near the North Korean and China border. The journalists are reporters for San Francisco-based Current-TV.
“I fear for her safety,” said Stephanie Tomasegovich, a long-time friend of Ling’s. “Are they feeding her? Are they hurting her?” she questioned.
More than one hundred members of the community, friends and
former teachers of Ling held candles and told stories of Ling’s tenacity and passion for journalism. “I reflected on the years she spent on the newspaper staff, even then trying to tell the stories she felt needed to be told,” said one of her former teachers.
Vigil organizers said they had hoped the gathering would keep Ling and Lee’s story front and center until the two are released. If convicted on the espionage charge, however, the women could face at least five years in prison.
Laura Ling is the sister of TV personality and fellow Sacramento native Lisa Ling. Some of Ling’s family members attended Tuesday’s vigil. They said they couldn’t go into detail regarding Ling’s ordeal due to the sensitive nature of the case, but did want to express thanks for the community’s
support and prayers.
2/2/09 Reuters: “North Korean children exploited by state,”
By Jon Herskovitz
Seoul (Reuters)” North Korea forcibly mobilizes its children as cheap labor, diverts their food aid and throws minors into detention centers because their parents have run afoul of the law, human rights groups said in a report.
The North’s failing school system has led to an increase in drop-outs and illiteracy in the impoverished state, according to the report, obtained on Monday, from the Seoul-based Citizen’s Alliance for North Korean Human Rights and The Asia Center for Human Rights.
“Child labor and economic exploitation have become widely spread and a customary practice accompanying the worsening economic hardship of the country,” said their “Situation Report on the Rights of the Child in the DPRK ( North Korea ).”
Children in the poorest parts of the destitute state face the greatest difficulty in obtaining an education. The few textbooks available in their schools are usually works celebrating the North’s communist party and leaders, it said.
Children are often sent out to work at farms and factories or to scrounge for materials such as tin and wood that can be used by the state’s powerful military or sold by local authorities, said the report, based on interviews with about 50 defectors.
“Consequently, it seems illiteracy rates have increased and the overall level of academic achievement in North Korean youth has decreased in most areas except for Pyongyang and a handful of other areas,” it said.
International aid agencies who try to feed the neediest people in the country of about 23 million have placed numerous checks to make sure their food reaches its intended destinations, but the report said children can still easily miss out.
It said teachers in poor provinces, who are supposed to help distribute the food, instead sell it to students or merchants and that part of the aid is also diverted to children of the privileged class in the capital of Pyongyang and the military.
Those who remain in school were forced into two years of quasi-military service from the age of 14 in the “Red Young Guards” that takes them away from studies for several months.
The United States , European Union and others have criticized North Korea for having one of the worst human rights records on the planet, saying the reclusive state uses guilt by association to imprison relatives of those the North sends to its vast network of political prisons.
The report said the children of those imprisoned are forcibly put in custody and sent to facilities where they are “deprived of a basic education, forced to child labor and restricted of freedom.”
The report noted some improvements in the condition of children, such as a North Korea cutting down on its use of torture of minors suspected of criminal offenses and easing penalties on children caught trying to escape the state.
The North has also increased its childhood vaccinations.
7/1/08 Wall Street Journal: “North Korea’s Trail of Kidnapping and Terror,”
by Melanie Kirkpatrick
On Nov. 29, 1987, a bomb exploded on Korean Air Lines Flight 858 off the coast of Burma . One hundred fifteen people died. The bomb had been planted by agents of the North Korean government, which hoped the attack would disrupt preparations for the Summer Olympics in Seoul . The mastermind of the operation was Kim Jong Il, son of Great Leader Kim Il Sung and then-chief of national security.
This is the event that propelled Pyongyang onto the U.S. list of state sponsors of terror, a designation that took place on Jan. 20, 1988. Since then, Kim Jong Il has gone on to succeed his father as absolute ruler of his country. Under his leadership, North Korea has built several nuclear weapons, transferred nuclear technology to Syria and missile technology to Iran , counterfeited U.S. currency, and laundered U.N. funds.
Yet last week President Bush announced his intention to begin the process of taking North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terror. It’s a coup for Pyongyang , which can now lay claim to the mantle of being of a higher moral order than Iran , Syria , Sudan and Cuba , its former companions on the list.
In addition to the KAL 858 bombing, North Korea ‘s terror record includes kidnapping Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s for the purpose of forcing them to train North Korean spies to pass as Japanese nationals. Pyongyang repatriated five abductees a few years ago and was proved to have lied about the death of the most famous one, Megumi Yokota, a 13-year-old girl who was kidnapped on her way home from school in 1977. There are 12 unaccounted-for victims on Japan ‘s official list of abductees, but Tokyo believes the true count may be in the hundreds.
South Korea , too, has hundreds of missing citizens – either kidnapped by the North or captured during the 1950-53 Korea War. Kim Jong Il, a movie buff, famously abducted a South Korean actress and her director husband. (They eventually escaped.) There currently are 485 people on Seoul ‘s list of abductees and more than 500 POWs still missing. The South Korean press reported last month that a 78-year-old Korean War POW escaped to China and is now waiting in a third country for repatriation to the South.
The State Department’s most recent report on terror- sponsoring nations also notes that North Korea continues to give sanctuary to four members of the Japanese Red Army who participated in the 1970 hijacking of a domestic Japan Airlines flight. With the support of Washington , Tokyo has been seeking their return for decades, to no avail.
The details of the bombing of Flight 858 are known thanks to the confession of one of the conspirators, a young woman named Kim Hyun-hee. Ms. Kim and her co-conspirator traveled on false Japanese passports, posing as father and daughter. They boarded the plane in Baghdad and deposited their bomb in an overhead compartment before deplaning in Abu Dhabi .
Police caught up with the bombers in Bahrain , where Ms. Kim was arrested before she was able to kill herself by biting down on a cyanide capsule hidden in a Marlboro cigarette. (Her companion was successful in his suicide attempt.) She was convicted by a South Korean court in 1989 and sentenced to death, but then pardoned by the government, which said she was a victim of North Korean indoctrination. North Korea has never accepted responsibility for, much less apologized for, the bombing.
Contrast this tale of unaccountability with that of another airplane bombing – that of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988. The terrorists responsible were from Libya , under the control of Moammar Gadhafi. In 2003, Gadhafi agreed to give up his nuclear and chemical weapons programs in return for an end to his country’s international isolation. Libya accepted responsibility for the bombing, agreed to pay the families of each of the 270 victims a sum of up to $10 million, and turned over two intelligence officials for trial by a Scottish court near The Hague .
In 2006, after Libya had fulfilled its promises, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that the U.S. would remove the country from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terror. She called Libya an “important model” for resolving the dispute with North Korea . If only.
Ms. Kirkpatrick is a deputy editor of the Journal’s editorial page.
6/28/08 Wall Street Journal: “North Korea ‘s Tragedy as Movie Drama,”
by Melanie Kirkpatrick
Call it a “Schindler’s List” for North Korea . The difference is that the Steven Spielberg film debuted nearly 50 years after the Holocaust had ended. “Crossing,” which premieres today south of the DMZ in Seoul , depicts a tragedy that is still going on — a tragedy that despite its massive scale rarely captures the world’s attention.
The plot of “Crossing” is based on the experiences of those whom South Korea calls “defectors” but are more properly deemed refugees or escapees. These are the men, women and children who defy North Korea ‘s law against leaving the country and cross the border into China , in search of food, livelihoods and — relative to what they have at home — freedom. In China , the women and girls are often sold as “brides” to Chinese-Korean men or pressed into service in brothels. The men typically end up hiding in forests or working at logging camps.
Human-rights organizations estimate that there are tens of thousands of North Korean refugees in China , which refuses to let the United Nations help them. The lucky few make their way from China to a neighboring country and then, usually, to South Korea . The unluckiest escapees are captured by Chinese security forces and repatriated to the North, where they face hard labor in a prison camp — a death sentence for many — or are executed outright.
You don’t have to be familiar with this background to be moved by “Crossing.” The film follows the life of the fictional Kim Yong-su, a miner in the bleak northern reaches of North Korea , who leaves his family to flee to China in search of medicine for his dying wife. The title refers to “crossing” the Tumen River , which separates the two countries.
After Chinese police nearly capture Yong-su in a raid on the logging camp where he works, he hooks up with sympathetic locals who help him reach sanctuary in a German consulate. From there he is transferred to South Korea , where he hires a broker to help him get his wife and young son out of the North. He soon learns that his wife has died and that his son has been sent to a prison camp after he was caught trying to cross into China to search for his father. The broker buys the boy’s freedom, gets him to China and from there to freedom in Mongolia . I won’t reveal the ending.
The most disquieting aspects of “Crossing” are the scenes of daily life in North Korea . One hundred refugees now resident in the South advised the filmmakers, and assistant director Kim Chul Young is himself a defector. Yong-su and his family live in a shack with a single lightbulb. Food is so scarce that his wife scavenges wild vegetables and the beloved family dog is eventually eaten to provide protein. Neighbors disappear one night when police discover Bibles hidden in their ceiling.
Scenes of child beggars in the local marketplace are nearly unbearable to watch. They stand at a distance from the peddlers and shoppers — all of whom are pitifully poor themselves — holding open plastic bags until someone takes pity on them and tosses a crust of bread or pours the dregs of a bowl of noodles into the bag. These details, like others in the film, are based on refugee reports. They comport with stories I have heard from the many defectors I have interviewed over the years.
The scenes in the prison camp where the boy, Jun, is taken are also true to life, if “life” is the right word. Dead prisoners are dragged out of their cells in the middle of the night. A woman, pregnant by a Chinese man, is beaten by a guard who curses her “hybrid” baby. Mr. Kim, the assistant director, tells the Web site www.dailynk.com that the scene “had to be toned down a bit,” as the real treatment of such women would be too gruesome for audiences to endure.
“There have been many documentaries about life in North Korea ,” says Patrick Daihui Cheh, one of the producers of “Crossing” and an American of Korean heritage. “But as a feature film, I believe this is the first.” The South Korean government has long discouraged making films that might be perceived as “political,” he says. “Crossing” walks a “fine line. If a movie seems too political, it will deter people from going to see it.” The younger generation of South Koreans don’t have a good understanding of what life is like in the North, Mr. Cheh says. “They know, but they don’t really know.”
There have been private screenings of “Crossing” in New York , Washington and Los Angeles in recent weeks, and it will be shown soon in Tokyo and several European cities. Mr. Cheh says he is looking for a distributor in the U.S. and is talking to independent theater chains.
Jews often say of the Holocaust that the world must never forget. Anyone who sees “Crossing” will not soon forget the suffering of the North Korean people.
Ms. Kirkpatrick is a deputy editor of the Journal’s editorial page.
2/22/08 Wall Street Journal: “Seoul Is Criticized for Decision To Return 22 North Koreans,”
by Evan Ramstad and Sungha Park
Seoul, South Korea — South Korea’s decision to return 22 North Koreans who may have tried to defect is drawing criticism from defector groups, human-rights activists and some politicians who say government agencies acted too hastily.
The North Koreans — 14 females and eight males, three teenagers among them — floated to South Korea on two small boats, and were repatriated 13 hours after being found Feb. 8 near an island off South Korea’s northwest coast. South Korean authorities usually hold North Koreans who venture across the border for several days and conduct lengthy, individual interviews.
“It’s hard to believe that the South Korean government truly investigated and earnestly asked them if they want to live in South Korea in such a short time,” said Son Jung-hun, an officer in a North Korean defectors group called the Committee for Democratization of North Korea.
The situation gained urgency early this week after several South Korean news outlets, citing government sources anonymously, reported that some, and perhaps all, of the 22 people were executed after their return to the North. A representative at South Korea’s National Intelligence Service said yesterday that the agency hadn’t been able to determine what happened to the North Koreans after they were returned.
The agency has defended its role in the episode, saying the people aboard the boats told investigators they lost control of their craft, drifted to shore in the South and wanted to return. The agency said there were fish nets and oysters in the boats, and the North Koreans explained they were fishing.
Critics said the presence of so many women and children on the boats, along with the fact they were traveling during the Lunar New Year holiday, suggests the group was trying to leave North Korea.
11/18/07 Washington Post Foreign Service: As More Take a Chance On Fleeing North Korea , Routes for All Budgets,
By Blaine Harden
Seoul — Brokers here are busily selling what they call “planned escapes” from North Korea . North Korea ‘s underground railroad to the South is busier than ever because the number of border guards and low-level security officials in the North who are eager to take bribes has increased exponentially. China is not supposed to return people to a country where their lives are at risk. But it routinely repatriates North Koreans it has detained, human rights groups say.
When defectors do succeed in reaching South Korea , they are often debilitated by guilt over the kin they left behind. And such guilt is not unjustified, because the North Korean government often sends relatives of defectors to forced labor camps.
That occurs as a matter of policy when defectors are government or military officials with inside information about the workings of Kim Jong Il’s dictatorship.
Defectors from Pyongyang , the capital, can also expect their families to be ordered to labor camps, according to Lee, the former North Korean army officer, who said his relatives were all dead when he defected.
Punishment may also be inflicted on the families of ordinary people who manage to leave. “I just go crazy to think that because of me my parents and my sister may be in a labor camp now,” said a 40-year-old woman who two years ago fled her North Korean coastal town in a fishing boat, along with her husband and teenage son. She and her husband had run a small business trading fish for food and consumer goods.
She has since heard that her mother, father and sister were forced from their homes by the authorities and relocated to a farming area in the interior.
“We have hired brokers to try to find them, but the guide sent to find them has been arrested,” said the woman, who lives in a Seoul suburb and did not want her name published for fear that her family would be further punished.
“You cannot know how heartbreaking it is to leave your family in this way.”
Fees and Incentives
Seoul-based brokers say they often accept payment on an installment plan — with little or no money upfront. Once an installment-plan defector gets to Seoul and has access to some of the $43,700 that South Korea doles out to each new asylum seeker, brokers typically demand far more than their basic fee.
“My boss is willing to put up all the money to pay the bribes to get someone out,” said a Seoul-based broker who was formerly a North Korean military officer. “But when you get to Seoul , you have to pay double for this service.”
This broker, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he has a child and other relatives back in North Korea , said his company usually charges less than $2,000 for bringing a defector to Seoul via China and Thailand . That automatically jumps to $4,000 for those who cannot offer cash upfront.
To help defectors remain solvent as they adjust to life in the booming capitalist South, the Seoul government now pays out money over time rather than in a lump sum, according to Chun Sung-ho, the Unification Ministry official. It also offers incentives for finding and holding jobs.
About a quarter of the money goes directly for housing, eliminating any chance that it could be paid to a broker.
Guilt and Longing
Even after they pay off brokers for their own passage to Seoul , North Koreans who settle in the South often end up spending many thousands of dollars more to try to bring out loved ones left behind.
Lee Moon-jae, 81, fled North Korea more than five decades ago. He soon remarried in the South and raised two sons. But he continues to wrestle with the guilt and longing he feels for the wife and two sons he abandoned.
Two years ago, he said, he paid $4,800 to a broker to bring him face to face with one of his lost sons, who is now 58. They met for three days and two nights in a hotel on the Chinese side of the border.
At the end, Lee said, his son declined to defect — and returned home to his wife and children. Before his son left, Lee said, he gave him $1,700 in cash, a digital camera and some clothes — but Lee later learned that his son lost it all while swimming across the Tumen River that separates China from North Korea.
So Lee has raised $3,250 for brokers who promised him they will again contact his family. This month, he said, they hired agents who are already out searching. He has asked them to set up another border meeting or, if possible, smuggle out his entire family, including his aging North Korean wife.
They all live in the interior of the country, and Lee says that moving them to the border is complicated and perhaps foolhardy.
He says he is not sure he should be trying to do this, but he is desperate to see them again. Talking about it brings tears to his rheumy eyes.
“I do not have much time before I die,” he said. “What should I do?”
Special correspondent Stella Kim contributed to this report.
10/6/07 Wall Street Journal: Review and Outlook: “Freed in Beijing”
President Bush has accepted the invitation of President Hu Jintao to attend next summer’s Beijing Olympics — to the anger of human-rights activists, who are calling for a boycott of the Games.
Here’s a suggestion: Between now and then, the President might consider welcoming to the Oval Office one Steve Kim, an American businessman who was released recently from a Chinese jail. Mr. Kim spent four years in prison for the “crime” of helping North Korean refugees who had escaped their homeland and were hiding in China , hoping to make their way to South Korea .
Mr. Kim, who is from the Long Island, New York town of Huntington, is in the furniture business and since 1987 has been importing products from China . In the course of doing business there, he became aware of the plight of the refugees, who, according to numerous estimates, number in the tens of thousands. Instead of turning over the refugees to the United Nations, as it is required to do under international law, China hunts them and returns them to North Korea , where they face uncertain and often harsh fates.
With help from the congregation of his hometown house of worship — Good Neighbor Community Church — Mr. Kim raised money to help the refugees. He rented two apartments, where refugees could hide out until they could hook up with the underground railroad that would deliver them to safety in the South. The aim was to fatten up the starved Northerners so that they could pass as South Koreans during the journey across China .
Mr. Kim was arrested on September 26, 2003, along with nine North Koreans and two Chinese humanitarian workers. The Chinese were sent to jail for two years. No one knows what happened to the North Koreans, who presumably were repatriated. If they are still alive, it can be said with near certainty that they are not as lucky as Mr. Kim, who has finally come home to his wife, Helen, and their three children.
3/10/07 Wall Street Journal: Kim the Counterfeiter,
By Ed Royce (a member of the House Foreign Affairs and Financial Services Committee)
Drinks flowed as North Korea ‘s top negotiator and his American counterpart met in New York this week in celebration of Pyongyang ‘s promise to give up its nuclear weapons. It was hard to believe that just five months ago North Korea actually exploded a nuclear weapon, for which it was roundly condemned. But that condemnation is gone today — as is any frank discussion of the criminal nature of the regime, including its highly sophisticated operation to counterfeit U.S. currency.
Troubling signs indicate that the Bush administration is prepared to push aside North Korea ‘s illicit activities, “resolving” issues surrounding Macau-based Banco Delta Asia, which was found to be complicit in the counterfeit operation. Regardless of the outcome surrounding Banco Delta Asia, active vigilance against North Korea ‘s robust and global illicit activities is essential. Confronting North Korea on its illicit activities, as a study I will release on Monday shows, makes the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula more likely, not less.
Remarkably, North Korea is the first country since Hitler’s Germany proven to counterfeit another’s currency. And in a little-noticed report sent to Congress last September, the Treasury Department found that the forgeries, high-quality “Supernotes,” are “being produced and distributed with the full consent and control of the North Korean government.” This includes both $100 and $50 bills, from the older series to the newer “big head” notes. Approximately $50 million of them have been seized from circulation since 1989.
Estimates on the amount of revenue generated from Pyongyang counterfeits range from $15 million to $25 million per year, but the actual amount may be considerably higher. As one government analyst put it, “We have no idea how much they’re counterfeiting, because it’s so good.” Left unchecked, these counterfeits could eventually weaken confidence in the U.S. dollar, with global consequences. Alarmingly, some countries — such as Ireland , Taiwan and Peru — have temporarily refused accepting our $100 bills.
North Korea ‘s counterfeiting network is global, employing a diplomatic presence in more than 60 countries. An IRA splinter group leader has even been arrested for distributing these bogus bills. Including drug trafficking and other illicit activities, the criminal sector is responsible for 35% to 40% of North Korea ‘s exports.
For Kim Jong Il, crime does pay. And given its ties to international criminal organizations, Pyongyang has access to a vast smuggling network that could allow it to move almost anything in or out of the country, including weapons of mass destruction.
Realizing this, the administration stood up the Illicit Activities Initiative in 2003. Its task was to attack the criminal lifeblood of the regime — which it did. The designation of Banco Delta Asia as a “willing pawn” of the North Korean government in September 2005 led banks throughout the region to sever contacts with the country, shaking Pyongyang and leading the regime back to the negotiating table.
When North Korea rejoined the six-party talks, its representative wanted to discuss one thing: money. Pressure — not appeasement — worked. But in a concession to Pyongyang , the U.S. committed to “resolve the issues concerning Banco Delta Asia” within 30 days of the Feb. 13 agreement.
It is unclear what this will mean exactly — but now that a deal has been made, U.S. officials who once pressed the case against Pyongyang ‘s counterfeiting are talking about the “broader interest.” They are lately referring to the North Koreans as “only depositors” at Banco Delta Asia, as if Kim Jong Il was attracted by its interest rates. The Illicit Activities Initiative has now become enmeshed in the State Department’s bureaucracy, losing the coordination, energy, and access to top officials it previously enjoyed — and losing steam.
Some may believe that tolerating North Korean counterfeiting is a small price to pay for disarming Pyongyang of its nuclear weapons. This discounts the potential impact on the world’s economy. It also sends the unhelpful signal to the North Koreans that as long as they make promises on their nuclear weapons, the U.S. will bend on its laws.
Ending North Korea ‘s nuclear weapons program must be our primary objective. However, the aggressive enforcement of our laws enhances rather than conflicts with the diplomatic effort to do so. Putting a stop to Pyongyang ‘s counterfeit operation and other criminal activities would sever a key subsidy for North Korea ‘s weapons of mass destruction program and frustrate Kim Jong Il’s payments to his inner circle. It would also condition Pyongyang into respecting international norms.
Can we really expect a regime that counterfeits our currency to abide by a nuclear weapons agreement? Only when North Korea ends its criminal behavior are prospects for peace and security in Northeast Asia real. Let’s help Pyongyang go straight.
3/6/07 Wall Street Journal: Kim the Kidnapper,
Commentary by Melanie Kirkpatrick
A deputy editor of the Journal’s editorial page.
When Japanese negotiators sit down tomorrow in Hanoi for bilateral talks with their North Korean counterparts, here’s the question at the top of their agenda: Where is Megumi?
Megumi Yokota is among the Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and ’80s and still missing today. “There will be no normalization of ties if the abductee issue is not resolved,” Japan ‘s lead negotiator, Koichi Haraguchi, told reporters in Hanoi yesterday. Japanese diplomats aren’t known for their bluntness, yet Mr. Haraguchi’s direct statement echoes the words of virtually every other senior Japanese official on this subject. North Korea says the matter is closed.
This week’s meetings are part of the elaborate six-party agreement reached in Beijing last month under which North Korea promises to give up its nuclear program in return for aid. Tokyo signed on to the accord, reportedly under U.S. pressure, but refuses to participate in the energy assistance that is part of the deal unless progress is made on the abduction issue.
Japan ‘s firmness comes directly from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He became aware of the abductees’ plight in the 1980s, when he was private secretary to his father, Shintaro, then Secretary-General of the Liberal Democratic Party, and family members went through the younger Mr. Abe to request a meeting. When he won his own election to the Diet, in 1993, he became the first politician to fight for return of the abductees. He feels their suffering and the pain of their families “in his heart,” says a politician who is close to him.
Megumi, who was abducted in 1977, has become the symbol of the movement to free the abductees. She was 13 years old and on her way home from school when she was snatched off the streets of the western Japanese city of Niigata by North Korean agents. Imprisoned in the hold of a ship and taken to Pyongyang , she was forced to teach spies how to pass as Japanese. In 2002, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il admitted to kidnapping Megumi and 11 other Japanese citizens.
Their stories are equally heart-rending: A young couple disappear in Kagoshima Prefecture while on a date at a beach, where they had gone to watch the sunset. A 23-year-old woman vanishes in Europe; the last her parents hear from her is a postcard from Copenhagen . A mother and daughter go missing during a shopping trip in Niigata Prefecture. At the time, police who investigated these and other disappearances had no notion of North Korean involvement. In recent years, Japan has reopened many of the missing-persons files from the era but the scent has grown cold. There are only 17 people on the official list of abductees — the most recent was added in November — but officials say privately that the victims may number in the “hundreds.” South Korea , whose appeasement-minded government prefers not to talk about the kidnappings of its citizens, has 485 people on its list of abductees.
Pyongyang allowed five of the Japanese abductees to return home in 2002. (They were required to leave behind their Korean spouses and children as guarantees that they wouldn’t badmouth their captors.) It claimed the rest of the abductees had all died, but the causes of death they cited were so absurd as to be unbelievable — a 20-something young woman who dropped dead of a heart attack; a man who drowned while swimming in the ocean during a typhoon; and so forth. Megumi was reported to have hanged herself. But the DNA evidence provided by Pyongyang in her case and others proved to be fraudulent.
“Megumi” is a household name in Japan , thanks largely to the efforts of her parents to keep her story alive. Her mother, Sakie, met with President Bush in the White House last year. At the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos in January, the Japanese government hosted a sushi reception and screening of “Abduction,” a documentary about her disappearance. Last month, in Tokyo , Mr. Abe attended a press conference at which American folk singer Noel Paul Stookey, of Peter, Paul and Mary fame, debuted his plaintive “Song for Megumi.” Meanwhile, a Japanese advocacy group last week announced it would use balloons to scatter 100,000 waterproof leaflets over North Korea offering a $10,000 reward for information on the abductees.
Among the promises the U.S. made to North Korea as part of the Feb. 13 nuclear disarmament deal is a pledge to begin the process of removing it from the list of terror-sponsoring states. When Vice President Dick Cheney visited Tokyo last month, Mr. Abe urged the U.S. not to do so until the abduction issue is resolved. While President Bush has spoken eloquently in the past about human-rights violations in North Korea , that issue appears not to be high on the U.S. agenda these days. Chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill is holding talks in New York with his North Korean counterpart this week. A good question for him to ask is, Where is Megumi?
1/9/07 Wall Street Journal: “South Korea’s Balancing Act: Citizen Who Escaped From North’s Custody Touches Diplomatic Nerve,”
By Evan Ramstad
Seoul, South Korea — The government’s botched treatment of a South Korean who had just escaped a 31-year captivity in North Korea is the latest example of how Seoul is struggling to balance diplomacy with Pyongyang’s volatile regime against the interests of its own people.
1/9/07 Wall Street Journal: ” South Korea ‘s Balancing Act: Citizen Who Escaped From North’s Custody Touches Diplomatic Nerve,”
By Evan Ramstad
Seoul, South Korea — The government’s botched treatment of a South Korean who had just escaped a 31-year captivity in North Korea is the latest example of how Seoul is struggling to balance diplomacy with Pyongyang’s volatile regime against the interests of its own people.
Choi Wook Il, a South Korean fisherman abducted by the North in 1975, fled and made his way last week to Shenyang, a Chinese city about 80 miles from the North’s border. South Korean officials there initially refused to help the 67-year-old Mr. Choi, and they took him into custody several days later only after their rebuff had drawn heavy criticism across the South.
The difficulty Mr. Choi faced at the consulate shows the tightrope South Korea is walking with North Korea . On the one hand, it is trying to balance its relationship with the U.S. , its military protector that has taken a hard line with Pyongyang , and provide assistance to escapees from the totalitarian North. On the other hand, it is trying to maintain influence with Pyongyang and avoid diplomatic difficulties with China , which aids North Korea ‘s travel restrictions by arresting and returning about 150 North Koreans a week to the country.
Since 2004, Seoul has been trying with mixed results to slow the flow of refugees from the North and improve relations with Pyongyang . Those efforts now appear to have gone so far that South Korea is reluctant to assist even its own citizens who have been abducted by the North. During the Cold War period from the 1960s to the 1980s, 485 South Koreans are believed to have been kidnapped by the North for political and, at times, propaganda purposes.
The dismissive treatment by consulate officials angered many South Koreans who are eager to see the government give assistance to citizens kidnapped by the North.
“A South Korean risked his life, and it’s unacceptable that such an answer be given to him,” said Choi Woo Young, who is the daughter of a man abducted by North Korea in 1987. “The government has shown less interest in defectors and kidnapped people through the years.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade issued an apology Friday for the way Mr. Choi was treated, and it launched a probe of the incident.
Since 2002, South Korea has absorbed about 7,000 defectors from the North, a large increase compared with 3,000 in all the previous years since the Korean War in the 1950s. The South’s attitude toward defectors and refugees hardened after a group of 468 North Koreans arrived by way of Vietnam in August 2004, raising the prospect of larger increases. Shortly after that, South Korean officials said they wouldn’t tolerate “mass defections,” and in 2005, they cut the money provided to help defectors settle in South Korea .
The number of North Korean defectors and refugees to the South subsequently fell to 1,384 in 2005 from 1,894 in 2004, when it was inflated by the Vietnam group. The number rose again last year, reaching 1,542 through October. Statistics for November and December won’t be available until later this month.
The controversy over Mr. Choi’s treatment has been fueled by video, first circulated on the Internet last week and then on South Korean television. The video, made by a South Korean man who assisted Mr. Choi in his escape, shows Mr. Choi speaking by cellphone to an officer, who repeatedly asks how Mr. Choi got his number.
Mr. Choi is one of 33 South Korean men taken by North Korea when their ship was seized in a 1975 incident well known in South Korea . Another member of the ship’s crew escaped in 2005.
Mr. Choi crossed into China on Christmas Day and spent a week making his way to Shenyang . When he got there, it took numerous phone calls to get help from the consulate and several days to be taken into its custody. At first, he was mistaken for a North Korean defector and was told the consulate dealt only with South Koreans in China .
In Seoul , Mr. Choi’s wife drew further attention when she appeared on TV tearfully asking for help.
Mr. Choi remained in China yesterday as the foreign ministry worked with the Chinese government to arrange his exit to South Korea , a process that could take several weeks. While China has a policy of returning North Korean citizens, it has shown more flexibility with people who were abducted by the North.
12/18/06 Wall Street Journal: Pastor Buck Is a Rescuer . . .
By Melanie Kirkpatrick
Deputy Editor of the Journal’s editorial page.
This being The Wall Street Journal, we went straight to the bottom line. How much, we asked our visitor at a recent editorial board meeting, does it cost to free one North Korean refugee hiding in China ?
The Rev. Phillip Buck pauses a moment before replying, apparently making the yuan-to-dollar conversions on the abacus in his mind. “If I do it myself,” he says, “the cost is $800 per person. If I hire a broker to do it, it’s $1,500.”
Pastor Buck is a rescuer. It’s a job title that applies to a courageous few — mostly Americans and South Koreans and predominantly Christians — who operate the underground railroad that ferries North Korean refugees out of China to South Korea, and now, thanks to 2004 legislation, to the U.S. Mr. Buck, an American from Seattle, says he has rescued more than 100 refugees and helped support another 1,000 who are still on the run. For this “crime” — China ‘s policy is to hunt down and repatriate North Koreans — he spent 15 months in a Chinese prison. He was released in August.
The plight of the tens of thousands of North Korean refugees in China is a humanitarian crisis that has received scant world attention. It won’t be on the agenda of the six-party talks, which are scheduled to restart today in Beijing . But the experience of Pastor Buck and other rescuers is worth noting as negotiators sit down with Kim Jong Il’s emissaries. North Korea won’t change, they believe, so long as Kim remains in power. Follow that logic, and regime change is the proper goal.
The refugees, Pastor Buck argues, are the key to regime change in North Korea and, by inference, the key to halting the North’s nuclear and missile programs. Help one man or woman escape, he says, and that person will get word to his family back home about the freedom that awaits them on the outside.
Others will follow, and the regime will implode. This is what happened in 1989, when Hungary refused to turn back East Germans fleeing to the West, thereby hastening the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
Pastor Buck was born in North Korea in 1941 and fled with his brothers to the South during the Korean War.
He emigrated to the U.S. in the ’80s, becoming a citizen in 1992. When famine hit North Korea in the late ’90s, and millions died, he raised relief funds in Korean churches in the U.S. “I helped send 150 tons of flour and rice to the North,” he says, “and 70 tons of fertilizer . . . This was a time when government rations had stopped and people were living off grass.”
But on visits to the North, he soon realized that the government was stealing the food intended for starving citizens. “I changed my mind” about the efficacy of aid, he says, and in 1998 he joined the effort to help people escape. “If you see someone who is drowning in the river, wouldn’t you reach out and help that person?” he asks. “That’s what was in my heart.”
Pastor Buck is nothing if not determined. In 2002, while in a Southeast Asian country with a group of refugees he had guided there, his apartment in Yanji city, in northeast China , was raided. Nineteen refugees were captured and a copy of his passport was confiscated. With his identity now compromised, Mr. Buck returned to the U.S. and underwent legal proceedings to change his name. John Yoon, the name he was born with, was dead; Phillip Buck was born.
The new Pastor Buck returned to China , where, on May 25, 2005, he was arrested and eventually convicted of the crime of helping illegal immigrants. Thanks to the intervention of the U.S. government, he was deported before he could be sentenced.
Another American, Steve Kim, was not so lucky. Mr. Kim, a furniture importer from Huntington , N.Y. , has been in prison in China since September 2003, sentenced to five years for smuggling aliens. Mr. Kim, who, like Mr. Buck, is of Korean ancestry and is a Christian, became aware of the plight of the refugees during business trips to China . He funded two safe houses and paid for refugees’ passage on the underground railroad. Beijing refuses to grant him parole, saying foreigners are not eligible. His wife and three children will pass their fourth Christmas without him.
Mr. Buck, meanwhile, will celebrate Christmas at home in Seattle, along with four refugees, now settled in South Korea, whom he has invited to spend the holiday with him and his family. These refugees — two men and two women — have harrowing personal tales of starvation, death and repression in the North and desperate lives on the run in China .
One young man, who asks that his name not be used for fear of retribution on family members still at home, spent time in the North Korean gulag, after being captured in China and repatriated. He was tortured, he says — rolling up his trousers at a recent press conference in Washington , D.C. to display the scars on his legs.
One morning at roll call, he recounts, one of his cellmates, a man who had been badly beaten during the night, was too sick to get out of bed. The guards ordered the prisoners to carry the injured man into the woods and bury him. “I keep thinking, maybe he would still be alive if we hadn’t buried him,” the escapee says. The name of the dead man was Kim Young Jin. The name of the prison is Chong Jin. Says the man who escaped: “I am very glad to be here, and tell the people in America how life in North Korea really is.”
Pastor Buck spent last Christmas in jail. “My cellmates were criminals,” he says, “12 in all, murderers and rapists.” His diary entry for Dec. 24, 2005, notes that he distributed the chocolates his children had sent him as Christmas gifts to his cellmates. And this year? “I am so excited that I can celebrate this Christmas with lots of joy,” his diary entry for last Thursday reads.
His final words are for the refugees. “I pray, let the Christmas spirit be with those North Korean refugees still in China . Let them be safe too.”
10/21/06 Wall Street Journal: Desperate Refugees Driven By Famine and Oppression,
In regard to the moving essay Great Leadership by Suki Kim (editorial page, Oct. 16):
Driven by famine and brutal oppression, hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees have fled to China . There, they still face tremendous suffering as the numerous gut-wrenching letters from them to Radio Free Asia (RFA) indicate. One typical letter states, “But the Korean-Chinese people abused us because we couldn’t speak Chinese. They arranged jobs for us but took our wages. All of us North Korean refugees have nowhere to go to complain. This has lasted for six years. I don’t know what to do now. I have thought many times about committing suicide.”
Also, the Chinese police periodically conduct raids, each rounding up hundreds of the refugees. The police immediately arrange for Chinese soldiers to send the refugees to certain torture and death in North Korea . In one particular case, after the soldiers handed a refugee over to the North Korean guards at the Chinese-Korean border, “[a Korean guard] seized her and another speared her hand — the soft part between thumb and forefinger — with the point of a sharpened steel cable, which he twisted into a leash. ‘She screamed just like a pig when we kill it at home in the village,’ the soldier later told his relative. ‘Then they dragged her away.'”
While this brutality occurs month after month, many members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) send their adult children to the United States to study, to work and to live permanently. Ultimately, they take advantage of lenient American immigration laws and arrange to bring their parents here to savor the good life. These privileged Chinese enjoy the freedoms and prosperity of the U.S. even while their relatives and other comrades in the CCP orchestrate the brutalization of helpless Korean refugees.
The time has come for Washington to address this sickening hypocrisy. Namely, we Americans should give Beijing an ultimatum: If Beijing does not allow the North Korean refugees to transit freely through China to reach sanctuary in the U.S., Japan or another democracy, then Washington (in alliance with other Western governments) shall (1) prohibit any CCP member or his relatives from entering any Western country and, (2) deport all CCP members and their relatives who are residing in a Western nation but who do not possess its citizenship.
Dwight Sunada, Ph.D.
10/16/06 Wall Street Journal: Great Leadership,
by Suki Kim
Despite the much-touted label of being the most secretive nation in the world, the one thing everyone knows about North Korea is that its people have been dying in massive numbers from starvation and persecution for decades, the reality of which seems to have bypassed the nations involved in the on-again-off-again six-party talks — whose diplomacy has apparently failed. By landing a punch at the nonproliferation policy of the U.N. Security Council, an organization soon to be led by South Korean Ban Ki Moon, North Korea yet again thwarted its former promises of stopping all nuclear activities. The Bush administration is advocating harsher ways of punishing a country they maintain is a member of the “axis of evil” through tougher sanctions and cutting off its financial sources, neither of which has worked so far in stopping North Korea from doing whatever it wants to do. Now that it claims to have become the world’s ninth nuclear power, I wonder what will change, if anything, for its people.
* * *
On June 25, 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea , my mother’s brother, then age 18 and living in Seoul , was kidnapped by the North’s soldiers. Fleeing the bombs, my grandmother, with her five children, fought through the panicked crowd onto the jam-packed, southbound train when someone screamed out that young men should give up their seats for women and children. My grandmother spent her remaining life haunted by that last moment, of her eldest son rising and reassuring her that he would be on the next train. Hers turned out to be the last train out of Seoul . Later, a neighbor reported seeing him tied up and being dragged away by the North Korean soldiers. Korean Confucian ethics holds that there is no bigger sin than abandoning one’s family, and yet neither Korean government has granted reunions for the millions of separated families, except for a handful who have been used as a showcase for the failed peace summits.
In February 2002, I traveled to Pyongyang in an effort to locate my uncle. I never found him, but I spent about a week with the Workers’ Party leaders, ranging from the chairman of the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries to the then-ambassador to the Permanent Mission to the U.N., who repeatedly told me that their real enemy was not South Korea, with whom they are still technically at war, but the U.S., which, along with the Soviet Union, had drawn up the 38th Parallel in 1948 and perpetuated the war by isolating them through sanctions. They were mystified as to why the United States was allowed to have nuclear weapons when it was the only nation in history to have deployed them on civilians, never mind starting wars all over the world.
My most vivid impression of Pyongyang was that an entire generation must have been eradicated for such a place to exist. Nothing on their empty, energy-deprived streets indicated that anything prior existed. Every book, piece of artwork and building was either made by the Great Leader or about the Great Leader. Their only official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, was four pages long and consisted almost exclusively of praise for their Great Leader. Their state-controlled TV showed mostly undated footage of the Great Leader. Everywhere I went, music played in the background and the subject of the lyrics was inevitably the Great Leader.
The regime of North Korea has done a most efficient job of wiping out Korea ‘s 5,000-year history, imbued with Buddhism, Shamanism and Confucianism, with one amnesia-inflicting spell called “Juche,” its political philosophy of self-reliance. And what seems to make the Great Leader so “great” is that he has replaced their lost memory. For my uncle to have survived there, he either would have had to forget everything he had known, or learned to believe in the Great Leader. Or it is possible that he held on with the hope for the two Koreas to reunite; my grandmother did, until she passed away 25 years after he went missing.
In the 1970s in South Korea , I grew up with the anthem, “Our Wish is Reunification,” which children still sing. Today, however, South Koreans readily claim North Koreans as their siblings and yet they hesitate upon the topic of the Kim Jong Il regime’s collapse, which might lead to the breakdown of 38th Parallel and to millions of refugees pouring south. President Roh Moo Hyun’s increasingly less popular “sunshine policy” has provided a conduit through which money is funneled into North Korea for supposed economic reform, although it now looks as though it has effectually funded the North’s nuclear program.
South Korea is not the only one who fears the consequence of Kim Jong Il’s demise. Neither China nor Russia , North Korea ‘s biggest allies and neighbors, wants to foot the bill for refugees. As many as 300,000 North Koreans have crossed the northern border since the Korean War despite a joint crackdown from North Korean agents and Chinese police. For Japan , the threat from North Korea has provided a basis for lobbying for remilitarization and a revision of their post-World War II, U.S.-sponsored pacifist constitution. America, whose soon-to-be downsized 32,000 troops are still stationed in Seoul’s Yong San Garrison, does not want to forfeit its control over the region to China, whose trading relationship with South Korea and economic hold over the North have grown rapidly in recent years. The prospect of One Korea benefits no one except the welfare of the North Korean people, whom the mighty six-party nations seem to have forgotten. So why are we relying on their decision on what to do about North Korea ?
Just last month, the World Food Program launched an appeal for more funds to fight the food shortage in North Korea, worsened by the August flood that had, according to the state’s figures, killed and left homeless hundreds, although various human rights groups claim numbers closer to hundreds of thousands if not millions. Over a third of all children are reported to be malnourished. According to Amnesty International, 400,000 have perished from political persecution; 150,000 are still held in underground concentration camps. Since the much condemned July 4 missile tests, humanitarian aid has been cut drastically.
In the 1970s, South Korean propaganda posters of starving children were forced upon us to show that North Korea was hell on earth and that its leader was a selfish, ruthless despot. In the decades since, during which time a famine killed over a tenth of North Korea ‘s 23 million people, not much has changed at all. The 38th Parallel is still there. The most the Bush administration has done in its diplomatic strategy about North Korea is to call it evil. The peace talks are continuously stalled. The U.N. is in yet another emergency huddle to figure out a way of handling the problem. Now that North Korea claims to be a nuclear power, what will be different?
In the meantime, the Siberian winter is quickly approaching for the people of North Korea , where heat and food are scarcer than ever. The Rodong Sinmun headlines after the nuclear test revealed just one brief congratulatory paragraph on the success of the test, which has turned the rest of the world upside down. The other articles were about the floral baskets delivered to their Great Leader from the various communist parties of China , Laos and Cuba .
Ms. Kim, a 2006 Guggenheim fellow, is author of “The Interpreter” (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2003).
12/9/05 Wall Street Journal: Desperate Journey,
By Nancy Dewolfe Smith
Despite its whimsical title, “Seoul Train” is deadly serious — and yet so compelling that you can’t stop watching even though you know it will haunt your dreams. Its subject is the “underground railroad” of North Korean refugees who are running for their lives in a desperate attempt to reach freedom. (On PBS’s Independent Lens series, Tuesday, 10-11 p.m. ET. Check local listings.)
Getting out of North Korea , which this documentary accurately describes as the “world’s largest prison camp,” may be the easy part. Once they make it over the border into China , the refugees are hunted like rabbits by zealous Chinese cops and soldiers. Forcibly repatriated to North Korea , the refugees face torture and imprisonment for the treasonous act of leaving the country. It’s a crime punishable by death. Some of the North Koreans interviewed for this film probably are dead already.
Apart from a few sickening scenes shot secretly in North Korea, most of the program takes place in China, where we meet groups of refugees awaiting rides on an underground route to safety. One of the most welcoming destinations is Mongolia , which has a reputation for treating North Koreans humanely before helping them reach their ultimate destination in democratic South Korea .
Schindler of Asia
We meet the first group of refugees as they plan a trip by train, taxi and foot across China to the Mongolian border. They include Han Sul-hee, who is 17. She and the rest of the group, mainly young adults who have left parents and siblings behind, are sitting in a safe house with a Christmas tree and Santa decorations. They have been waiting several months — eating proper food and trying to gain enough weight so they’ll look healthy enough to pass for South Korean tourists. So severe is North Korea ‘s government-induced famine that the average 7-year-old child in North Korea is about half a foot shorter than his counterpart in South Korea , and it’s estimated that up to three million souls have perished from hunger in recent years.
The camera follows Sul-hee and the others as they head for the train station in Yanji , China , for a journey that will be full of peril at every stage, especially in towns where the locals like to report foreigners to the police. The refugees’ escort is Chun Ki-won, a South Korean pastor who has been called the “Schindler of Asia” for his rescue efforts. We last see him and his little tour group as they head into the Gobi, just a few miles from the crossing into Mongolia . The hidden camera could go no farther, so a message on our TV screen fills in the rest: Chun and all his charges were arrested at the border by Chinese police.
We know how awful that must have been from the scenes we do see, of another group of North Koreans who tried a different method of escape. With the help of activist-guide Moon Kook-han, this group moved into a motel near the Japanese consulate in Shenyang, China, where they spent days preparing to dash through the gates onto sovereign Japanese soil and demand asylum. According to the plan, two men in the group would go first, pushing Chinese guards aside so the women, including 2-year-old Han-mi and her mother, could rush into the consulate yard.
A camera across the street recorded what happened next: Reaching the gate, the men barged through but the guards grabbed Han-mi and her mother. As a crowd gathered, and the camera rolled, the mother clung to the iron gate, screaming and struggling with all her might to break free and get to safety, just a few precious feet away. But the guards wrestled her to the ground. The last shot we see is little Han-mi’s terrified face as the guards overpower her mother.
Like a Human Being
Mr. Moon also worked with the seven North Koreans who tried yet another approach and formally applied for refugee status at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The MoFA-7, as the group became known, were arrested by Chinese authorities and presumably repatriated. None has been heard of again. Mr. Moon weeps when he thinks that he may have, in effect, led them to their deaths.
Watching film of the MoFA-7 in the moments before their arrest — one woman tells the camera that she’s willing to risk death for the chance “to live like a human being with dignity” — it’s tempting to heap all the blame on China and North Korea . But the behavior of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is in a way more shocking. A UNHCR official interviewed here says that while some of the North Koreans may be refugees, there’s not much his agency can do to help them. After all, he explains, “a couple” of UNHCR representatives went to the border “four or five years ago” to look into the situation of refugees there and were prevented from doing that by Chinese authorities, “so it’s not like we haven’t tried.”
A few of the North Koreans seen in this program have since been released from captivity in China and made their way to South Korea, some with the help of concerned members of Congress. But most of the stories do not have happy endings. Since Mr. Chun was arrested at the Mongolian border in 2001, many thousands of refugees have tried and failed to reach freedom. All the program can do is end our ignorance. Someday, when the full extent of North Koreans’ suffering is revealed, no one who has seen “Seoul Train” will be able to say, “I didn’t know.”