North Korean defectors see uncertain future in Korean reconciliation

SEOUL (REUTERS) – Thae Yong Ho, one of the highest profile North Koreans to defect in recent years, had hoped to visit New York last month to speak on a United Nations panel, meet U.S. envoys, and discuss human rights in the reclusive Asian nation.

Only a year ago, Thae testified before a congressional committee, while other defectors met U.S. President Donald Trump, who highlighted several of their stories in his state of the union speech in January.

This time, however, Thae said the Americans told him they would not provide him with the security protection he was provided in the past, prompting him to cancel the trip.

“I just wanted to talk about the human rights issues, which are being neglected in the face of North Korea’s charm offensive, and that’s all I can do,” Thae told Reuters.

Human rights have been almost completely absent from this year’s flurry of diplomatic negotiations between North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and leaders in South Korea and the United States.

As living examples of some of North Korea’s worst abuses, defectors have long been the public face of campaigns to pressure Pyongyang to change its ways.

But amid international efforts to reduce military tensions and improve ties with North Korea, many of the 32,000 North Korean refugees in South Korea say they feel like political pawns suddenly discarded.

‘HUMAN SCUM’

Thae was North Korea’s deputy envoy to the United Kingdom and, after his high-profile defection in 2016, South Korea’s intelligence agency gave him a job at its affiliated think tank.

But as Seoul pushed for a thaw in ties with the North, Thae left the think tank in May, saying he did not want to be a”burden”.

Soon after, Thae criticised Kim Jong Un during a press conference at the National Assembly, prompting Pyongyang to cancel high-level talks and blast the South for allowing “human scum” to speak.

One activist involved in planning Thae’s aborted New York trip said it was a political decision.

“If Thae goes there, Kim’s image would surely get tarnished, and that will most likely come back to Trump who said he trusts Kim.” The US State Department did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment, but officials have previously said they remain committed to human rights as an issue with North Korea.

Other defectors say they have also experienced a drop in support as South Korea and the United States seek to improve ties and officially end the 1950-53 Korean War.

The South Korean government has cracked down on defector groups who use balloons to send contraband and anti-Kim leaflets into North Korea.

One veteran journalist at the Chosun Ilbo, a major South Korean newspaper, was last month denied access by the South Korean government to cover a round of negotiations with North Korea because he was a defector.

An official at the newspaper referred to an editorial saying the ban on the journalist was part of the government’s censorship and maltreatment of defectors for the sake of the inter-Korean thaw.

The Unification Ministry said the ban was “inevitable” to ensure smooth talks, and it would make efforts to create conditions for defectors to resettle better. Minister Cho Myoung-gon has said he would make the same decision if the situation recurs.

And Choi Sung-guk, a defector who now draws cartoons about the life in North Korea, said he was asked to leave a radio show at TBS, a Seoul City-owned network supportive of the Moon administration, less than five minutes after criticising Kim.

“They asked how I felt about Kim coming to the South, and I said we should not be deceived by him because I don’t think he has changed,” Choi said.

“But then my air-time was suddenly cut to one first sentence from what would have been a regular one hour otherwise.”

An official at TBS said Cho was not replaced because of his remarks but the network’s decision to air “better content”.

UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Under Kim, North Korea has been accused of widespread human rights abuses, including public executions, torture and prison camps where the United Nations estimate up to 120,000 people are held. Defectors risked their lives to cross the border in a journey that may entail persecution and slave labour, if caught and repatriated.

Pyongyang rejects those allegations.

“The Moon administration is even, unfortunately, cutting support for these marginalised groups and even trying to censor their voices,” said Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer at the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, who met dozens of defectors during a visit to Seoul last month.

Controversy over the fate of 12 North Korean waitresses, several of whom say they were tricked by South Korean intelligence into defecting and now want to return home, has made some in the refugee community concerned about being forced to return to North Korea.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry has said the defection was voluntary, but said later it would consider returning them if the waitresses want, in what would be an unprecedented move.

South Koreans, including defectors, must seek government approval to visit the North. Some defectors have sneaked in via China and appeared on North Korean TV to criticise the South.

Another defector, Heo Seong-il, sought asylum in the United States in August, after facing years of what he says was harassment by the South Korean government, including a three-year jail term on espionage charges he says were false.

There was no immediate comment from the National Intelligence Service.

Heo hoped for a better life after Moon was sworn in, only to realise things could get worse for defectors as the president pushed for peace with the North.

“When I was in the North, the South was my emotional support, and I didn’t know it is a country where the government… can completely ignore a citizen’s life,” Heo, 36, told Reuters from the United States.

“I would rather live like a hobo here. I don’t see a future in South Korea.”

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New Southern Policy a commitment for South Korea to prosper with Asean: Moon Jae-in

SINGAPORE – South Korea’s New Southern Policy marks its “strong commitment” to prosper together with Asean, said President Moon Jae-in on Wednesday (Nov 14), as he invited leaders of South-east Asian nations to special summits that his country plans to host next year.

This is because 2019 marks 30 years of dialogue relations between Asean and South Korea, he noted in his opening remarks at the Asean-Republic of Korea Summit in Suntec Singapore International Convention and Exhibition Centre.

The New Southern Policy, which President Moon referred to, was unveiled last year and aims at reducing South Korea’s reliance on the United States, China, Japan and Russia by expanding ties with South-east Asian nations and India.

Next year, South Korea is expected to host a Korea-Asean summit, as well as the first Korea-Mekong summit – a meeting of leaders of South Korea and the Mekong River countries of Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand.

On Wednesday, the South Korean President added that he has met several Asean leaders in person over the past year and hopes to meet all by next year, in order to build deeper trust. He said he has also set up a presidential committee to realise the country’s vision, creating a “comprehensive blueprint” underlying its strategies.

Recent efforts have seen some results, he noted, with its bilateral trade volume with Asean rising 6 per cent to US$120 billion in the first nine months of the year compared to same period last year.

In his opening remarks to President Moon, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also highlighted the importance of upgrading the Asean-Republic of Korea Free Trade Area, establishing an Asean-Korea Air Services Agreement, and cooperating through the Asean Smart Cities Network.

“The Republic of Korea has… been a strong supporter of Asean-led mechanisms as well as Asean’s community building efforts. There is much more we should do,” he said.

Noting that Asean and South Korea have robust economic ties, Mr Lee added that South Korea is the region’s fifth-largest trading partner and fifth-largest source of foreign direct investment.

Both sides are aiming to reach a trade volume of US$200 billion by 2020, Mr Lee added.

In a statement after the summit, Mr Lee added that the commemorative summit with South Korea would be a timely opportunity “to strengthen collaboration in mutually beneficial areas of interest” such as trade and economic links, connectivity and smart cities.

Mr Lee also spoke on regional security, saying that the maintenance of peace and security is critical to the region’s prosperity.

“Singapore welcomes the positive developments brought about in the inter-Korean Summits and the US-DPRK Summit this year,” he said, referring to South Korea’s meetings with North Korea. “We urge all parties concerned to continue working towards the realisation of lasting peace and stability on a denuclearised Korean Peninsula.”

Adding that there is still a “long road ahead”, he said Singapore will continue doing its part and fully implement its obligations under the relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions.

Go to our Asean microsite for more stories and commentaries

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Jobs for the boys under fire in South Korea

SEOUL (AFP) – In her year-long quest for a job, South Korean college graduate Casey Lee has faced a barrage of personal and contradictory questions.

“One company asked if I had a boyfriend and when I’d get married,” she told AFP. “Another asked why I didn’t have a boyfriend and wondered if someone like me who had no plan to get married soon was trustworthy enough or had a personality issue.”

Women often struggle to find a foothold in South Korea’s male-dominated corporate culture and a series of firms have now been caught allegedly using sexist recruitment targets to keep it that way.

Ms Lee’s first interviewer complained that women tended to quit their positions once they had a child, while the other launched a tirade against “irresponsible young women” like her – she is 25 and single – for abandoning their responsibility to have children “for the country’s future”.

“I wanted to scream out loud, ‘I’m only here to get a job!'” she told AFP, adding male applicants in the same group-interview sessions were rarely asked similar questions.

Ms Lee is still looking for work, despite a degree from Seokyeong university in Seoul.

She is not an isolated case, and evidence points to some firms in the world’s 11th-largest economy systematically discriminating against women.

Three of South Korea’s top four banks have been embroiled in accusations they set ratios for male and female recruitment, lowering women’s test and interview scores and raising men’s to hit the target.

A total of 18 executives have been charged or convicted, including the chairman of Shinhan Financial Group, the country’s second-biggest lender.

And last week, the Supreme Court upheld a four-year jail sentence given to the former CEO of state-run Korea Gas Safety Corp (KGS) for offences including bribery and violating equal opportunities laws.

Despite its economic and technological advances, the South remains a patriarchal society, and has one of the world’s thickest glass ceilings for women.

‘UNDERMINING SOCIAL TRUST’

Only 2.7 per cent of the 15,000 top executives at the country’s 500 biggest firms are female, a government survey showed last year.

At 36.7 per cent, the South also has the widest gender pay gap among the OECD club of advanced economies.

Jobs at state-run firms such as KGS are in high demand as they offer lifetime employment, but on former CEO Park Ki-dong’s instructions, seven qualified women applicants were eliminated – including the top scorer among the 31 finalists – and replaced by poorer-performing men.

Park “excluded women without legitimate reason by ordering his subordinates to manipulate test scores… seriously undermining social trust”, the Supreme Court said in its ruling.

Park claimed women would disrupt the firm’s operations by taking maternity leave.

In the conservative South, many married women – whether working or not – are expected to take sole responsibility for household chores and childcare, with the double burden seen as a major cause of the country’s paltry birthrate, the lowest in the world.

With daycare centres lacking and the country’s working hours notoriously long, many women quit their jobs after becoming mothers.

CASHING IN

Recruitment is highly competitive at the best of times in the South, and doubly so in potentially lucrative banking.

Cho Yong-Byoung, chairman of Shinhan Financial Group – the South’s second-largest finance house – was charged two weeks ago with violating equal opportunities laws for ordering subordinates to maintain a 3:1 ratio between male and female recruits.

According to state regulators, number four KEB Hana Bank set a 4:1 target for new hires in 2013 and ended up taking on 5.5 men for each woman. Without discrimination, the ratio would have been almost equal, officials said.

Seven of its managers are on trial, one telling the court that the company’s clients were mostly men and “feel more comfortable” with male staff who can “smoke or drink more freely”.

But sentences can be token.

Three senior managers of KB Kookmin Bank – the country’s top lender – were convicted last month of lowering test scores for 112 female applicants and raising those of 113 men.

“The accused deserved criticism for changing the fate of many job applicants and causing so great a sense of betrayal and despair in their hearts,” the court said.

But the offenders’ personal responsibility was limited, it went on, as they were simply “following social customs”.

The trio were given suspended jail terms and the bank fined a meagre five million won (S$6,094.29).

“South Korean women are fighting on an extremely unequal playing field that doesn’t seem to have changed for decades,” Ms Bae Jin-kyung, head of the Korea Women Workers’ Association, told reporters.

“In such an unfair world as this, how hard should women try to climb the ladder – if we can get our hands on the ladder at all?”

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Kim Jong Un's Seoul visit unlikely this year: Experts

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s visit to Seoul appears to be less likely to take place this year without more progress in stalled denuclearisation talks between Pyongyang and Washington, experts said Sunday (Nov 11).

South Korea’s Moon Jae-in administration is pushing to hold the fourth inter-Korean summit between Mr Moon and Mr Kim in Seoul within the year, in the hope of facilitating a breakthrough in the deadlocked US-North Korea talks.

One of the unexpected achievements from the third summit, which was held in September in Pyongyang, was the North Korean leader’s promise to visit Seoul within the year.

Mr Moon said at his speech at the National Assembly earlier this month that Kim’s visit to Seoul will take place in the near future.

Unification Minister Cho Myong-gyon said Friday at a parliamentary session that Kim’s visit to Seoul within the year is “possible,” and the ministry continues consultations with North Korean officials.

In a display of closer inter-Korean ties, the presidential office sent a gift of 200 tonnes of tangerines to North Korea on Sunday. The gift was in return for the mushrooms North Korea gave South Korea following the third summit between Moon and Kim.

But Kim’s visit to Seoul is closely linked to the result of the US-North Korea high-level meeting, as holding another inter-Korean summit without progress in denuclearisation talks with the US could be a burden for the North, experts say.

The meeting between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Mr Kim Yong Chol, vice-chairman of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee, did not take place as planned Thursday.

The North postponed it, citing “hectic schedules,” according to South Korean and US diplomats.

While the delay might have resulted from “scheduling problems,” there is speculation that the cancellation indicated stark differences between Washington and Pyongyang over who should make a concession first before moving on in their denuclearisation talks.

North Korea is calling on the US to ease sanctions before it takes further denuclearisation steps, while the US is making clear that it will continue to impose economic sanctions on the North until it completely denuclearises despite ongoing engagement with the reclusive country.

US Vice-President Mike Pence said the US will “continue to exert unprecedented diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea” until it achieves the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula in an op-ed published Friday in the Washington Post.

Outgoing US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Friday that the US “have given a lot of carrots up until now. We’re not going to get rid of the stick because they have not done anything to warrant getting rid of the sanctions yet.”

The US was also seen trying to get China, North Korea’s Cold War ally that is locked in a trade war with the US, on its side for implementation of the sanctions during their bilateral meeting on Friday.

Mr Pompeo said that China’s cooperation “will help achieve meaningful breakthroughs on this important denuclearisation issue,” after he met with his Chinese counterpart during the meeting, called the US-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue.

US President Donald Trump said last week that Washington is “in no rush” as the sanctions are still “on” during a press conference following the US midterm elections.

In response, North Korea is using its state-run news media and propaganda websites to express discomfort about the US’ calling for tighter enforcement of the sanctions against the North, and the slow pace of inter-Korean projects.

“If the US does not implement the (June 12) joint statement but prefers to stick to the status quo by making a case for adjusting speed with such an expression as ‘in no hurry,’ there is no reason to bother to have talks,” Japan’s pro-North Korean newspaper Choson Sinbo said in an article, apparently targeting Trump’s recent remarks.

North Korea’s newspaper Rodong Sinmun on Friday urged its people to overcome outside pressure and sanctions with unity and self-reliance in a front-page editorial, titled “Let’s go our own way and build a powerful socialist state.”

With the prolonged stalemate in denuclearisation negotiations between the US and North Korea, it appears to be difficult for Kim to visit Seoul and inter-Korean projects to further move ahead this year.

“South Korea will continue to try to make room for the US and North Korea to continue negotiations and ease tensions between the countries through Kim Jong-un’s visit to Seoul,” said Mr Park Won-gon, a professor at Handong Global University.

“But for Kim, visiting Seoul without any progress in the US-North Korea relations could be a burden because it would likely draw more opposition from South Korea’s conservatives and more skepticism from the US,” he said. “I think Kim will decide on his visit to Seoul after the high-level meeting between Pompeo and Kim.”

Mr Shin Beom-cheol, research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, also said that there is a lower possibility of Kim visiting Seoul this year.

” I think North Korea would want to come to Seoul on the back of some progress in its relations with the US so that it could gain economic rewards – economic assistance, for example – from South Korea,” he said.

“Without progress in the US-North Korea denuclearisation talks, South Korea cannot offer tangible economic benefits, meaning there is not much Kim can gain from his visit to Seoul.”

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North and South Korea begin destroying border guard posts

SEOUL (AFP) – The two Koreas began destroying 20 guard posts along their heavily-fortified frontier on Sunday (Nov 11) under a plan to reduce tensions on the border.

Under an agreement made between their generals in late October, North and South Korea agreed to each remove 10 posts and preserve one on either side of the frontier.

The militaries on Sunday began destroying the 20 border guard posts in the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas after withdrawing troops and equipment from them, Yonhap news agency reported, citing Seoul’s defence ministry.

South Korea has around 60 such posts along the rest of the border while the North has about 160, Yonhap said.

The border truce village of Panmunjom – or the Joint Security Area (JSA) – is the only spot along the tense, 250-kilometre frontier where soldiers from the two Koreas and the US-led UN Command stand face to face.

But as part of the latest reconciliatory gesture, the two Koreas last month removed all firearms and guard posts from the area, leaving it manned by 35 unarmed personnel from each side.

The moves come as a diplomatic thaw between the former wartime foes gathers pace.

Under doveish South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Seoul has pursued a policy of engagement with its isolated, nuclear-armed neighbour, in contrast with the US which insists pressure should be maintained on Pyongyang until it denuclearises.

Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed on a broad plan to ease tensions along the border during their third summit in Pyongyang in September.

The two nations technically remain at war after the 1950-53 Korean War that sealed the division of the peninsula and ended with a ceasefire instead of a peace treaty.

But ties improved markedly this year as Moon and Kim took a series of reconciliatory gestures.

Kim and US President Donald Trump also held a historic summit in June in Singapore and signed a vaguely worded deal on denuclearisation, but little progress has been made since then, with the two countries sparring over the exact meaning of the agreement.

Planned talks between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and one of Kim’s right-hand men, Kim Yong Chol, were also delayed this week.

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Seven killed in Seoul studio complex fire

SEOUL (AFP) – Seven tenants were killed and 11 others injured early Friday (Nov 9) when a blaze ripped through a three-storey studio complex in Seoul, fire authorities said.

While South Korea is technologically advanced and has risen to become the world’s 11th-largest economy, many people who have missed out on its progress struggle to get by.

Low-income tenants often live in buildings with tiny single-bed studios once favoured by applicants preparing for various state examinations and known as goshiwon, or exam centres.

The dead and injured were mostly casual labourers or street vendors in their 40s to 60s, living in the dilapidated building, which had no sprinklers, Yonhap news agency said.

“I heard screams and went out. Then I saw the building enveloped by a lot of smoke and flames,” a 61-year-old businessman living across the street told Yonhap.

With labyrinthine structures with narrow corridors, goshiwon buildings are notoriously vulnerable to blazes, with more than 250 breaking out over the past five years.

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South Korea's Moon Jae In to replace finance minister: Reports

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean President Moon Jae-in plans to replace his finance minister with another veteran bureaucrat as early as Friday (Nov 9), local media reported citing unnamed sources within the ruling party and the presidential office.

“As far as I am aware, the announcement (of the replacement of the finance minister) is due for this afternoon,” domestic Yonhap news agency reported, citing an unnamed source at the ruling party.

Another unnamed senior official at the presidential office was quoted as confirming that an announcement on replacing the finance minister is due soon.

Finance Minister Kim Dong-yeon has served since June last year as Moon’s first top economic policy planner. President Moon’s approval rating has been falling in recent weeks as Asia’s fourth-largest economy has been hobbled by worsening employment and a plunge in domestic investment.

Government plans to regulate the housing market and sharply increase minimum wages have also darkened the growth prospects.

Yonhap and other media reported Hong Nam-ki, veteran bureaucrat and currently head of the government policy coordination office, was the most likely to be tapped to replace Kim.

The presidential office declined to comment on these reports.

If named, Hong would still have to testify before a parliamentary verification hearing but parliamentary approval is not mandatory.

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Outgoing US commander Vincent Brooks urges Seoul, Washington to protect pact

PYEONGTAEK, SOUTH KOREA (AFP) – The outgoing commander of US forces in South Korea on Thursday (Nov 8) urged Seoul and Washington to maintain their alliance as differences mount in their approach to the nuclear-armed North.

The US played a key role in defending the South after the North invaded in 1950, triggering the Korean War, and even now stations 28,500 troops in the country, a treaty ally, to protect it from its neighbour.

US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un traded personal insults and threats of war last year, only for fears of conflict to be replaced by a rapid diplomatic rapprochement.

But as progress has slowed in recent months there has been a growing uneasiness between the allies, with the US firm on sanctions against Pyongyang while Seoul is seeking to relax measures on its neighbour.

“In this place we have never succeeded by going alone,” General Vincent Brooks said in his last act as the commander of US Forces Korea, the UN Command and the South Korea-US Combined Forces Command.

“Our fears and our concerns should rise if we become inclined to go our own way.”

On the campaign trail US President Donald Trump raised doubts about the continued presence of US troops in South Korea.

This week the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff said the US would need to make “some changes to the military posture on the peninsula” over time if talks with Pyongyang progress.

Over the 65 years of the alliance, Brooks told a change-of-command ceremony at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, “we grew stronger under the tests and strains that confronted us, contrary to the predictions of cracks and fissures”.

“Let this be a lesson to all in the alliance,” he added.

Brooks, who took up his post in April 2016, has described his time in the South as “a rollercoaster ride”.

He previously said he was given no prior indication that Trump, after his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June, would announce the cancellation of “very provocative” and expensive joint military drills with the South.

The allies have since suspended most of their major joint exercises, including the Ulchi Freedom Guardian in August and the Vigilant Ace air force training initially slated for next month.

His successor General Robert B. Abrams told his Senate confirmation hearing there “was certainly a degradation in the readiness of the force, for the combined forces” as a result of the pause in drills.

At Thursday’s ceremony Abrams – whose father was a former Army Chief of Staff for whom the M1 Abrams tank is named – vowed to continue Washington’s “ironclad relationship” with Seoul.

The military would maintain its capability so “we cannot only deter but defeat external threats if we are called to do so”, he said.

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