Pulitzer Prize novelist, North Korea tech blogger offer global perspective in Newsroom by the Bay keynote address

jenna_lee: North Koreans are often defined by their totalitarian government, Communism, and terror — when they are really, just ordinary people. This article is right to note that we should work to “humanize people of North Korea” instead of classifying them as mere citizens of a corrupt regime.
The writer mentions some noteworthy works as well, including a book named “The Orphan Master’s Son” and a movie called “The Defector.” This reminds me of the non-profit organization, LINK’s motto — defining North Korea by its people, not its government.

In this age of information, anything you could possibly want to know is at your fingertips at the press of a button. Here in the United States, it’s easy to take for granted the range of access that we have to information.

On Monday night, Pulitzer Prize winner Adam Johnson, and North Korea Tech blogger Martyn Williams put our lives into perspective in a two-hour talk to approximately 90 students, parents and guests at Jordan Hall on the Stanford University campus.

Johnson and Williams share a passion for researching the enigma of North Korea, a puzzle that cannot be solved.

North Korea is a “mystery-generating machine,” said Johnson. “It’s what they export.”

But these mysteries often lead to caricatures of a bleak and steadily declining society. Instead of taking into account the 20 million people that live under the totalitarian regime, the media portrays “a place of evil or madness…

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Background of the Korean War

A Walk to Remember – The Korean War (6.25.1950)

Jee Young Lee (jenna_lee@missporters.org)

The upcoming June 25th marks the 63rd anniversary of the Korean War. This significant, yet horrific event of our history left generations of people with irrevocable agonies and losses. Thus, it is crucial that the deceased are commemorated and remembered for their bravery and sacrifice.

It was June 25, 1950. The first shots were heard on this peaceful Sunday at dawn, as Kim Il-Sung’s North Korean Communist troops invaded South Korea without notice. The surprise attack marked the beginning of the Korean War, which lasted three years from 1950 to 1953. After the North Korean army crossed the 38th border, the U.S. troops, led by General Douglass MacArthur, came to support non-Communist South Korea. With the support of the United Nations, MacArthur aggressively landed on Inchon, crushing the North Korean army. Upon his landing, he also recaptured Seoul; he went even further north, attempting to reunify Korea. The struggle for land between Communist Soviet Union and Anti-Communist American troops continued, even when the peace negotiations began in Kaesong in 1951. The negotiations took place in Panmunjom from 1951 to 1952, as each side refused to compromise. A peace treaty was finally signed in 1953 at Panmunjom, declaring the division between North and South Korea at the 38th parallel. The status of the country, if not worse, was the same as before the tragic war happened.

 The ramifications of the war are evident: the separated families, disconnection between North and South, and emerging hostility and distrust. As the war literature and art reflect, the painful memories of war have become ingrained in our culture. It is everyone’s responsibility to remember and preserve the chapter of Korean history that left us with tears, trauma, and resilience for the future. 

Nine North Korean Teenage Refugees Deported to North Korea from Laos

(CNN) — The nine young North Koreans thought they were near the end of their long and dangerous journey toward freedom.

Their years-long odyssey had taken them thousands of miles, from North Korea, one of the world’s most repressive states, to Laos, a small, landlocked nation in Southeast Asia. From there, they just needed to cross the border into Thailand and find their way to South Korean diplomats who would be able to offer them citizenship and a new life.

Orphaned and homeless: Surviving the streets of North Korea

But something went wrong in Laos. They were detained by the authorities. And rather than transferring the group of young refugees to South Korean officials, as the people engineering their escape were anticipating, the Laotian government this week did something unexpected.

It gave them back to North Korea.


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“This is a horrible, horrible thing that has happened,” said Suzanne Scholte, the president of the Defense Forum Foundation, a U.S.-based nonprofit group that was involved in the effort to get the young North Koreans to safety.

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The United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR, says Laos deported the group of North Koreans to China on Monday. And Scholte said Friday that she believes they have already been flown back to North Korea, where she fears they could face torture or even death.

Human rights advocates and UNHCR have criticized the decision by Laos to deport the refugees, who are between 15 and 23 years old, noting that international law gives people the right not to be forced to return to places where they face persecution.

Thousands of North Koreans have fled their country’s Stalinist regime since the Korean War in the 1950s and settled in South Korea, which offers them citizenship. Most of them make their way there through China and Southeast Asia.

Plucked from the streets

Until they were detained by Laotian authorities earlier this month, it appears the group of young North Koreans traced a path similar to that of many other refugees.

Years ago, they slipped through the authoritarian grip of their homeland and crossed the border into China, most likely with their various parents.

Opinion: What North Korea could learn from Myanmar

Scholte said that in China, one or way another, they all ended up fending for themselves on the streets, eating out of trash bins and dodging North Korean agents. She said she didn’t know whether their parents had abandoned them, died or been detained and sent back to North Korea.

They were plucked from that precarious existence by a South Korean man and his wife who were living in China, Scholte said, referring to the man only by the name of “M.J.” to protect his identity.

Read more: Why the Korean War still matters

M.J. and his wife took in a total of 15 young North Koreans, giving them food, shelter and protection for more than four years. To avoid getting caught, the youngsters had to remain inside at all times.


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“You could liken it to a Jewish family trying to hide from the Nazis,” Scholte said. “They had to be invisible.”

China doesn’t treat North Koreans in its territory as refugees and usually sends them back across the border.

Difficult journeys

In 2011, the Defense Forum Foundation began working with M.J. and his wife to try get the group of North Koreans out of China to South Korea or the United States.

They managed to get the three oldest North Koreans to safety in South Korea via Thailand, Scholte said. Next, they succeeded in organizing the escape of the two youngest children and one with learning difficulties to the United States.

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Nine others remained in China. M.J. and his wife accompanied them on the quest to reach South Korea via Laos and Thailand.

They reportedly entered Laos around May 10 and were detained soon after that. At the time, Laotian authorities assured M.J. and his wife, who were not being held, that there was nothing to worry about, Scholte said.

“We had no reason to believe that the Laotians were going to cut some deal with North Korea,” she said, noting that she had helped to get four other North Koreans to the United States from Laos in 2009.

But on Monday, she said, M.J. received word that the group of refugees was being taken to the North Korean Embassy. By then, it was too late to save them.

“When I got the call, I was in shock,” Scholte said.

An ‘alarming case’

Other organizations also were surprised by the development.

Laos has been one of the main routes to a safe country for North Korean defectors, according to Eun Young Kim, a senior program officer with the Citizen’s Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, a nongovernmental organization based in Seoul.

“We never officially experienced the Laotian government actually cooperating with the North Korean government and sending them back to North Korea,” she said. “This is a very surprising, alarming case, especially the fact that the North Korean government got involved.”

Read more: Escaping from N. Korean gulag

It was unclear what prompted the decision by Laos to give the refugees to the North Koreans.

Laotian government officials in the country’s capital, Vientiane, declined to provide official comment on the matter when contacted by CNN on Friday.

But Khantivong Somlith, an official at the Laotian Embassy in Seoul, said that the refugees had been handed over to North Korea because they didn’t have visas and were therefore in Laos illegally.

“We know they are Koreans, that’s why they were sent back to the North Korean Embassy,” he said. “That’s the rule.”

He said he didn’t know where the refugees are now.

Controversy in South Korea

South Korean officials have been criticized in their country’s news media as having failed to act quickly and decisively enough to get the North Koreans out of Laos after their detention.

But Scholte said that all those involved in the attempt to recover the refugees had “underestimated” the North Koreans’ determination to get hold of them. She noted the efforts of South Korea in previous successful operations to rescue North Koreans. “We haven’t seen this before,” she said.

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The South Korean government has declined to discuss the specifics of this case.

“We’ve expressed our government’s position to the relevant nation and we have also consulted on future measures,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young said in a news briefing Thursday.

After reaching a peak of nearly 3,000 in 2009, the number of North Koreans arriving in South Korea dropped to just above 1,500 in 2012, according to the South Korean Unification Ministry.

Concerns over safety

International organizations, meanwhile, are raising concerns about what fate awaits the deported refugees.

“North Korea has to come clean on where these nine refugees are and publicly guarantee that they will not be harmed or retaliated against for having fled the country,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of the advocacy group Human Rights Watch. “As a result of their return they are at dire risk — North Korea criminalizes unauthorized departures and is known to torture those caught trying to escape and those sent back.”

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres expressed deep concern “about the safety and fundamental human rights of these individuals if they are returned” to North Korea.

M.J. and his wife, herself a former North Korean refugee, are now back in South Korea and remain very upset about what happened, Scholte says.

“This is a couple that was willing to risk their own life and safety to shelter these children,” she said.

CNN’s Jethro Mullen reported and wrote from Hong Kong. CNN’s Brian Walker and Madison Park in Hong Kong, K.J. Kwon in Seoul, Kocha Olarn in Bangkok and C.Y. Xu in Beijing contributed to this report.