North Korean Defectors Help Escapees Reach China on ‘Underground Railroad’

Jeongho

Ji Seongho is president of Now Action & Unity for Human Rights.

SEOUL, South Korea – When she crossed the border from North Korea to China, Ann Kang understood it was only a temporary feeling of freedom, one that could be taken away in an instant.

The real difficulty, she knew, lay ahead in crossing into Laos and Thailand, where true freedom awaited.

It’s a similar story for the estimated hundreds of thousands of North Koreans now living illegally in China, and as legal citizens in South Korea.

“I had to slide down a mountain I’d climbed with four others to reach Laos from China. It was very dangerous, but I reached the Mekong River and a boat took us to Thailand,” said Kang, a 29-year-old now among the 30,000 North Korean defectors living in Seoul, South Korea’s capital.

Escape from North Korea

Friends inside North Korea gave Lee the phone number of a Chinese man who facilitates defections to South Korea. To North Koreans, these men are known simply as brokers, arranging the safe passage to third countries, mainly to Southeast Asia or Mongolia.

According to South Korea’s constitution, any Korean can be recognized as a South Korean national and receive Republic of Korea (South Korea’s official name) citizenship.

Thailand allows the South Korean embassy to intervene to help North Korean refugees, like Kang, reach their final destination, Seoul.

“I spent ten days in a Thai jail until I was allowed to leave for the South Korean embassy. I had to wait my turn to leave. It took 40 days until I was able to leave for Seoul,” Kang said.

The process for Kang was much quicker than for most defectors reaching South Korea. Her family’s status may have spared her the long vetting process of other North Koreans. But like all new defectors to South Korea, a three-month-long integration program begins.

“North Korean and South Korean people aren’t different. The only difference is in North Korea there are no human rights. When I was younger I had no idea about freedom. Not until I left did I realize there’s really no freedom in North Korea,” Kang said.

Due to its heavily militarized demilitarized zone, or DMZ, North Koreans can’t cross directly to South Korea over the shared border. They need to go north into China, where they are usually unwelcome guests.

A New Underground Railroad

China’s government labels North Koreans as illegal migrants, not allowing them the rights and protection guaranteed to refugees under international law.

The UN refugee agency – UNHCR knows North Koreans aren’t recognized as refugees in China, and are forcibly repatriated.

There’s nothing UNHCR, or the South Korean government can do to help those it may recognize as its nationals from being sent back to North Korea. There have been cases of North Korean defectors reaching South Korean or U.S. embassies in China, but increased security and police presence has made that nearly impossible today.

“People who cross the [Yalu and Tumen] river into China face the threat of exploitation and being caught and sent back to North Korea to face torture, forced labour and a range of harsh punishments,” said Sokeel Park, country director at Liberty in North Korea.

This organization has helped resettle 700 North Koreans, mainly in South Korea and the U.S. But the need is much greater as potentially hundreds of thousands of North Koreans remain stuck in China – with an unknown number deported back to North Korea every year to an uncertain fate.

According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, 2017 has seen a 10 per cent decrease in the amount of North Korean defectors reaching South Korea.

This is most likely due to heightened security restrictions and surveillance along North Korea’s northern border with China, the only escape route, and that those who make it into China from North Korea often spend months or years trying to acquire the funds to pay a broker to get them out.

Kang said it cost her five million South Korean Won ($4,424 USD) in total to escape China. A church pastor loaned her the money. This is an astronomical amount for most North Koreans. Those coming from poor families may be unable to ever acquire a loan for this amount – and will continue to work illegally in China for low pay.

North Korea Confidential

As humanitarian aid and Christian relief organizations continue to assist North Korean defectors, now North Koreans themselves are helping others escape China to bordering countries.

Ji Seongho is a 35-year-old North Korean defector also living in South Korea’s capital, Seoul. As a young man, he went to China three times before being caught by Chinese police and forcefully sent back to North Korea.

“Many poor North Koreans go to China to sell items. I sold my traditional charcoal paintings,” Ji said. “I first heard about South Korea in 2000, while in China. I was begging on the street and a Chinese [man] talked about life in Seoul is much better.”

Ten years ago, after arrest and what he says amounted to torture, Ji risked his life once more to leave North Korea. This time he would seek the help of others on what activists call a modern day “underground railroad,” reaching Thailand via Laos and Myanmar – an exceptionally long 9,000-kilometre route to freedom in South Korea.

“I’m helping North Korean defectors in China with my organization Now, Action, Unity, Human Rights. I can assist with funds needed to facilitate travel,” Ji said.

There’s no way to know the exact amount of North Koreans in China, according to Ji. But he believes it’s at least three times the amount of the 30,000 North Koreans, like himself, living in South Korea.

The Two Koreas: A human rights dichotomy

The Seoul-based Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights states 80 per cent of North Koreans defecting to South Korea are now women and children.

Program Manager Sohee Kim says its field workers in China identify North Koreans needing financial assistance to escape and provide support on a case-by-case basis.

“We mainly focus on rescuing women and children first. They are more vulnerable to human rights violations like sex trafficking.”

She added that since North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un has come to power, state surveillance has intensified, with the number of repatriations from China increasing.

But for Kang, she says most young women dream of life in South Korea, and that they are leaving in record numbers, even if the official statistics don’t reflect this. She wants to help other North Koreans, especially her family members, leave home to join her in Seoul.

“When I watched South Korean television programs I thought South Korean men were really handsome and that money must fall from the sky. I fantasized about living in Seoul,” Kang said. “Now that I’m here I feel lonely but that’s the price I had to pay.”

Advertisements
Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in Print

South Korea’s Candlelight Nights: Seongju County Residents Oppose U.S. missiles

thaad sk map

Seongju County is located 300 kms south of Seoul, South Korea’s capital.

SEOUL, South Korea – A nightly candlelight vigil by South Korean farmers was met with police force when a controversial U.S. missile defense system known as THAAD: Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, arrived against their wishes.

“The government assures us that this is a temporary deployment, which means it may be disassembled, or relocated but nobody believes that,” said Yoon Geumsoon, a 58-year-old Seongju farmer. “We don’t want it to be relocated, we want it gone.”

For the last 14 months, a small group of Korean melon farmers in Seongju County have organized nightly vigils and weekly protests to oppose the South Korean government’s deployment of the controversial missile defense system.

“When [President] Moon Jae-in was a candidate for the presidency he said will reconsider the deployment of THAAD and conduct an environmental evaluation,” said Jungmin Choi at World Without War. “But he deployed the remaining missiles without this procedure.”

The tension on the Korean peninsula between North Korea and the U.S. is the reason for South Korea’s rapid completion of a defense system. According to reports, North Korea is now capable of launching intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the U.S. wants to be able to monitor this and possibly shoot them down, if provoked.

The Chinese government stated that the THAAD deployment in South Korea is heightening tensions in the region.

A movement is born

The anti-THAAD vigils began months before the 2016-17 “Candlelight Revolution,” protests demanding, and ultimately achieving, the impeachment of South Korean president Park Guen-hye.

Former President Park promised to allow the U.S. military to deploy THAAD in Seongju County, 300 kms south of the capital Seoul. Earlier this year, a corruption scandal jailed Park, an aide, and the heir of South Korea’s largest company; Samsung vice president Lee Jae-yong.

“We call this Moon Jae-in government the candle light government. He was elected because of the protests to oust president Park,” said Sarang Lee, a human rights activist in Seoul who participated in the protests.

There is an ongoing blockade in Seongju County, led by women in the farming community. They are attempting to halt supplies from passing through town to the THAAD missile site, located on the grounds of a former Lotte golf course.

“Now we have a full THAAD unit deployed. But the construction to make that unit permanent isn’t finished yet, so they are continuing to fight to stop the construction,” said union organizer, Wolsan Liem.

Seongju County was a conservative support base. This means it viewed U.S. – South Korean military relations positively, and is most likely the reason it was selected by former President Park to host the THAAD missile defence system, completed by current President Moon.

The farming community is now deeply disillusioned by South Korea’s political leaders, and the need for increasing militarism on the Korean peninsula.

“At first they were worried that the radars would affect their crops,” said Liem. “Once they learned more about it they knew it would increase tensions in the region.”

 A blue butterfly effect

Filmmaker Emmanuel Park learned about the Seongju farmers’ protests against THAAD through media coverage. He felt compelled to document how this small farming community became a catalyst for change in South Korea.

“I was interested in what their motives were. Since I live nearby, I visited a couple of times. There was this energy I hadn’t seen in other protests before. They were really saddened and felt betrayed by the government,” he said.

Park’s film is called Blue Butterfly Effect. It’s now touring South Korea, where free community screenings are set up at other protest sites and events.

“They didn’t have any experience in activism. It was an eye opening experience for them,” Park said. “They were indifferent to these issues. But suddenly became engaged and informed and were actively doing something.”

Now a bus of Seongju County supporters, called Blue Butterfly, tours the country attempting to inform South Koreans about the need to deescalate tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Seongju farmers, like Yoon, believe nightly candlelight vigils is the only way to show South Koreans that their protest is carrying on the tradition of a country now known around the world for peaceful political protest.

Yoon and others from her generation hope to see the conditions met for reunification between the two Koreas: North and South. Not the further disintegration of relations for the sake of increasing American and South Korean militarism.

“We will never stop fighting. We know it’s time consuming work, but for the sake of peace in South Korea and for world peace we will continue our struggle,” said Yoon.

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Print

South Korea: World’s Longest Protest Over Comfort Women

25-year-old demonstration in Seoul draws international attention to Japan’s World War II sex slavery in occupied Asia.

Lee Yong-soo from Daegu

Former Korean ‘comfort woman’ Lee Yong-soo steps off the stage at the Wednesday Demonstration last month in Seoul.

SEOUL, South Korea – For the last 25 years, Koreans both young and old have gathered in front of the Japanese embassy in central Seoul every Wednesday – 1,300 times – making it the world’s longest-running protest.

South Koreans demand the Japanese government apologise and compensate the estimated 200,000 female victims – known euphemistically as “comfort women” – forced into sexual slavery by imperial Japan.

When leaders realised this would never happen, many decided asking for these elderly women, known as “halmonies” or grandmothers in Korean, be honoured and remembered with a national memorial day in South Korea. President Moon Jae-in agrees.

“It could be a great step forward if the new [South] Korean government adopts this as official policy,” said Sunghee Oh, general-secretary of the Foundation for Justice and Remembrance for the Issue of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, an advocacy group based in the capital.

“The government is trying to support them, but these women are old and dying,” Oh told Al Jazeera.

A presidential spokesperson was unavailable for comment. But an official stated the matter is now in the hands of the National Assembly, South Korea’s parliament. A spokesperson for the National Assembly was unavailable for comment.

In 2015, the Korean government announced it reached an agreement with Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered compensation to South Korea’s former president Park Guen-hye. According to the Japanese, this would resolve the comfort women issue “finally and irreversibly”.

But they misjudged how deeply ingrained the issue is in South Korean society. And some Japanese were outraged at Tokyo’s concessions.

At the centre of this controversy is a bronze statue of a young Korean girl. It sits in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, where protesters have gathered every Wednesday since 1992.

“This statue symbolises innocence. It offends the Japanese because it’s a constant reminder and they want to forget what happened. They tried to solve this problem with money, but that’s not what we want,” said Hyo Jin-kim, creative director of Uncomfort Women Project, a cyber protest launched in Seoul last August.

“I wanted to use social media to take this weekly Wednesday demonstration online so people outside of [South] Korea could participate.”

The Uncomfort Women Project began by uploading photos to Instagram and Facebook of young Koreans with their faces photoshopped on to the bronze statue, known as “Sanyeosang”, or statue of girl in Korean.

According to Hyo, many Japanese have gone to the Uncomfort Women Project website to upload photos of themselves in support of the cause.

Sunghee Oh

General Secretary for the Foundation of Justice and Remembrance, Sunghee Oh, outside of the office in Seoul.

“When I got started with this project I learned there were women from not only [South] Korea but from all over Asia forced to work as sex slaves by Japan,” said Hyo.

The Uncomfort Women Project seeks to engage a global audience, and uses geotagging to place the geographical location of the photos at the UN headquarters in New York.

This way, Hyo said, people who care for human rights can see this cyber protest and join calls for an international day for comfort women – the project’s ultimate goal.

“The real issue is protecting and honouring the survivors. We need to set the record straight and watch this cause grow from a Korean one into an international one,” said Hyo.

There are only 35 Korean comfort women survivors alive today. Most live with family or in government-run care centres. The average age is 91-years-old. Two died last August.

Nine survivors live at House of Sharing, located in a suburb southeast of Seoul. The adjacent buildings house a museum dedicated to comfort women from Korea and the rest of Asia, including even Japan.

“This is what most don’t realise – that Japanese women were also recruited and forced to serve their country as comfort women,” said Shinkwon Ahn, chairperson at House of Sharing.

Chinese and Philippine women were also forced into sexual slavery.

The South Korean president has also mentioned a national museum for comfort women to be opened by 2020, pending government approval.

Anh believes another museum dedicated to women and human rights will help bring more international visitors to the country and raise the profile of the comfort women issue abroad.

“A national museum set up by the government could mean a lot. The War and Women Human Rights Museum in Seoul is operated by a civil society group and The House of Sharing, outside of Seoul, is managed by a Buddhist social welfare organisation,” said Anh.

Sunghee Oh and Hyo Jin-kim know a comfort women museum will infuriate hardline Japanese, who believe comfort women were prostitutes who voluntarily gave up their freedom to serve the colonial military until the end of World War II.

“It’s not an anti-Japan issue. It’s a human rights issue. Sexual slavery still occurs today in countries around the world,” said Oh.

Since 2012, August 14th is the date set aside to remember comfort women in South Korea. It’s the day before Independence Day when decades of Japanese colonial rule ended in 1945.

“It’s not ancient history. There are women still suffering because of the abuse faced over 70 years ago. It’s time to right the wrongs of the past,” Hyo said.

Published @AlJazeera.com

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Print

Hong Kong’s Heritage Heroes – Part Three

HONG KONG – Heritage Heroes Part Three is the third, and last, part of a documentary on residents fighting to save Hong Kong’s cultural heritage and historic buildings from neglect and, eventual, demolition by local government and property development companies in the world’s most expensive city.

The story returns to Hong Kong’s urban explorers, HK Urbex, inside an abandoned building in Kowloon. Over the last 10 years, citizen pressure for heritage conservation has intensified. Meanwhile urban renewal has taken place at a rapid pace. In 2007, Hong Kong established the Development Bureau to work with citizens groups on identifying and preserving the city’s unique cultural heritage.

A huge public outcry following the demolition and redevelopment of Lee Tung Street, known as Wedding Card Street to locals, in Wan Chai district led to the heritage conservation movement staging protests and sit-ins to save the Queen and Star ferry terminals at Victoria Harbour. Both were eventually torn down, but activists are now organized.

Today, from Wan Chai to Sheung Wan and across the harbour to Kowloon, Hong Kong residents are having their voices heard on urban renewal and gentrification, where the original inhabitants of an area can no longer afford to live there due to increasing costs of living and rent.

What HK Urbex is doing is taking matters into their own hands by entering, often illegally, Hong Kong’s old, abandoned buildings to document the city’s fading cultural heritage before it’s lost to another skyscraper forever.

Featuring (in order of appearance): Ghost and Echo Delta from HK Urbex (*not their real names to protect their identities), Dr. Lee Hoyin (Hong Kong University Department of Architecture).

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Radio

Hong Kong’s Heritage Heroes – Part Two

HONG KONG – Heritage Heroes Part Two is the second part of a documentary on residents fighting to save Hong Kong’s cultural heritage and historic buildings from neglect and, eventual, demolition by local government and property development companies in the world’s most expensive city.

This part begins at Hong Kong House of Stories in the historic Wan Chai district. Kayla Tsang has lived in Wan Chai for over 20 years. She does House of Stories walking tours around Blue House, a Hong Kong tenement building (known by locals as “Stone Nullah Lane cluster”). Blue House is now being converted and renovated into a community hub for local business and low cost rental suites.

Wan Chai is a thriving area for business and nightlife. Hong Kong’s skyline consists mostly of high rises in this district. Over the years the Hong Kong government has focused on urban renewal in an effort to modernize Wan Chai. But its residents feel they are being pushed out and are unable to afford to live here.

Blue House is one of three tenement buildings (Yellow and Orange Houses are the other two on Stone Nullah Lane) residents are saving from neglect, to preserve for its cultural heritage value and to share with Wan Chai’s history with visitors and other Hongkongers.

Featuring (in order of appearance): Kayla Tsang (Hong Kong House of Stories – Blue House), Suki Chau (St. James Settlement – Wan Chai citizens group), Christopher DeWolf (Author and Journalist), Jose Yam Hosan (Commissioner for Heritage in Hong Kong government).

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Radio

Hong Kong’s Heritage Heroes – Part One

HONG KONG – Heritage Heroes Part One is the first part of a documentary on residents fighting to save Hong Kong’s cultural heritage and historic buildings from neglect and, eventual, demolition by local government and property development companies in the world’s most expensive city.

The story begins with Hong Kong’s urban explorers, known as HK Urbex, inside an abandoned building slated for demolition and redevelopment on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong. An upscale condominium and shopping district will soon replace it.

Across Hong Kong’s world famous Victoria harbour, near the central business district, one local activist is challenging the government’s plan to bulldoze 30 old tenement buildings in the historic Sheung Wan district. Katty Law’s story is inspiring heritage activists all over Hong Kong to try and save the city from itself.

The pressure for urban renewal in Sheung Wan is intense because of its location. Hong Kong has rebranded this area Old Town Central. This means the city is celebrating Sheung Wan’s storied past while having its historic buildings replaced.

Featuring (in order of appearance): Ghost and Echo Delta from HK Urbex (*not their real names to protect their identities), Christopher DeWolf (journalist and author), Katty Law (mother and heritage activist), Dr. Lee Hoyin (Hong Kong University).

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Radio

Myanmar’s Youthful Change – CBC The World this Weekend

YANGON, Myanmar – There has been a transition taking place in this Southeast Asian country since the end of 50 years of military dictatorship in 2012. The first fully democratic elections in 2015 brought Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy to power.

But many say Suu Kyi’s government isn’t moving fast enough on human rights, and is out of touch with young people demanding social change. In the meantime, those young Burmese are stepping up to lead by example.

This story aired on CBC The World this Weekend Saturday, July 22, 2017.

Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in Radio
@adambemma
#Thailand: Snapshots of #Bangkok. Calli-graffiti! Riverside, Chinatown.
Recent Comments
Michał on A Visit to the Cemetery of Pol…