From Lucy Williams, BBC news correspondent:

Mrs Kwon looks like she might work for a dull but reputable family business. Her blue jacket and office shoes look uncomfortable. But then what do you wear when your business is smuggling people out of North Korea?

Mrs Kwon is a broker, operating in the shadows of South Korean society. She charges thousands of dollars to send people on one of the most dangerous journeys in the world.

During our first meeting, she takes several calls on her many mobile phones – including one from North Korea. We listen as she talks rapidly with the anonymous contacts who make up her network.

“It’s not easy to talk to someone in North Korea,” she explains. “You can’t just pick up the phone. You have to pre-arrange a specific place they can go to, and a time.”

It is hard enough getting information out of North Korea, never mind people.

International communications and travel are tightly restricted to the country’s top elite. The country is dependent on aid to feed and fuel itself, and an assessment by the European Commission last month found that more than half a million people were at risk of dying from serious malnutrition, with many people resorting to eating grass.

Mrs Kwon says she makes $2,000-$3,000 (£1,250-£1,875) a month, helping people escape. And she says that is nothing to be ashamed of.

“I’m not a drug-dealer. I’m not bad, I’m just bringing people out. I’m doing something the South Korean government can’t do. Yes, I make a profit from it, but it’s still saving lives,” she says.

A growing market

Almost 3,000 North Koreans make it to the South every year. Known as defectors, they include economic migrants and political refugees. Once they arrive here, many try to bring family out to join them.

Kim Sal-yun lives in a concrete tower block, a long drive from Seoul city centre. She recently brought her daughter out of North Korea with the help of a broker. Now her parents have asked to come too.

“Nowadays, they’re asking for 3.5m won per person to bring someone out of North Korea to China,” she says.

“That’s about $3,500. And from China to South Korea would cost another $2,500. I don’t have that kind of money, so I had to say ‘No’. The cost is rising because it’s getting more difficult to get people out.”

Recent reports – which are very difficult to verify – say North Korea is tightening security along its border with China; the main route for defectors trying to leave. As the risks increase, so does the price.

And it is not just the North Korean guards who pose the risk.

Over the past few years China has launched its own series of crackdowns on the networks operating in its border region, which activists say is having an impact on the industry.

Chon Gi-wan knows that border region well. He is a South Korean pastor presiding over the Durihana Church in Seoul. Most of his congregation are North Korean defectors he helped bring over from the Chinese border.

“North Koreans are used to revering a leader, so when they find church groups like this one in China, they assess who the leader is and just follow him – it’s a survival technique,” he says.

Mr Chon used to lead groups of defectors out himself – until China banned him, as part of a wider crackdown on missionary groups there.

“The situation has become more difficult because China is barring missionaries from entering the country. And because of that, there are more private brokers working there now, doing it mostly for profit.

“The defectors don’t have the money upfront, so they agree to pay the brokers once they arrive in South Korea – which causes a different set of problems, like crime, to deal with the debt.”

Joanna Hosaniak is a human rights activist working for one of the main North Korea organisations in the South, called Citizens’ Alliance.

She says that the crackdowns by China are leading to a rise in more inexperienced brokers, who are willing to take bigger risks for bigger rewards.

“There are some people I’ve heard of that are new. But because they are inexperienced, there are a lot of problems.

“Because they don’t know how to do this they actually endanger a lot of the North Koreans who are trusting them.”

And she says, the “money culture” developing in the border region is seeping into North Korea itself.

“A group of North Koreans has also become attached to this network – who don’t want to leave, but are helping to get people out.

“Because North Koreans these days are looking for ways to make money, a lot of money, money-culture in North Korea is spreading, so a lot of people try to get involved with the brokers.”

Across town, Mrs Kwon sighs as I ask her what keeps her involved.

She replies: “This work keeps me awake at night but people keep calling me, and I feel I can’t say ‘No’.”

Popular news satire site The Onion recently posted an article proclaiming Kim Jong Un to be the sexiest man alive.

While this is all good for a light chuckle, the People’s Daily, China’s online communist newspaper, mistook the spoof for reality and ran a 55-photo spread on the North Korean dictator.  The People’s Daily had been taken in by satirical news sources before, and quoted The Onion article in their coverage of Kim Jong Un.

The Guardian posted the following article outlining the whole, hilarious thing (see below).  I would recommend taking a look at the collection of photos before everything is taken down.

  • Associated Press in Beijing
  • guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 27 November 2012 07.53 EST

The online version of China‘s Communist party newspaper has hailed a report by The Onion naming North Korean dictator as the Sexiest Man Alive – not realising it is satire.

The People’s Daily on Tuesday ran a 55-page photo spread on its website in a tribute to the round-faced leader, under the headline North Korea‘s top leader named The Onion’s Sexiest Man Alive for 2012.

Quoting the Onion’s spoof report, the Chinese newspaper wrote: “With his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-bred heartthrob is every woman’s dream come true.”

The People’s Daily cited the Onion as saying: “Blessed with an air of power that masks an unmistakable cute, cuddly side, Kim made this newspaper’s editorial board swoon with his impeccable fashion sense, chic short hairstyle, and, of course, that famous smile.”

The photos that the People’s Daily selected include Kim on horseback squinting into the light and Kim waving towards a military parade. In other photos, Kim is wearing sunglasses and smiling, or touring a facility with his wife.

It is not the first time a state-run Chinese newspaper has fallen for a fictional report by The Onion.

In 2002, the Beijing Evening News, one of the capital city’s biggest tabloids at the time, published as news the fictional account that the US Congress wanted a new building and that it might leave Washington. The Onion article was a deadpan spoof of the way sports teams threaten to leave cities in order to get new stadiums.

One of my favorites.

In the wake of Kim Jong Il’s death, rumors began to spread internationally about Kimg Jong Un.  The challenging thing was that so little was known of the heir apparent.  As stated elsewhere on this blog, about one third of North Koreans are chronically hungry, yet the Kim’s (and the elite inner circle) experience luxury beyond compare.

In light of this fact, the Hungry Kim Jong Un meme surfaced.

Read all about it at knowyourmeme.com.

 

 

SMUGGLER:  You believe the Arduous March was worldwide, don’t you? You believe the entire world goes hungry every night.

MINJEE:  Of course. It’s in the news.

SMUGGLER:  This is the same news that gives you five new recipes for preparing tree bark into a stew so you don’t complain when food rations fall short.

– You For Me For You, scene 15 by Mia Chung

From Amnesty International:

Crippling food shortages exacerbated by government policies in North Korea have caused widespread illness as thousands are forced to survive on so-called “wild foods” such as grass and tree bark, according to testimonies obtained by Amnesty International in a new report.

Hwang, a 24-year-old man from Hwasung, North Hamgyong province, was homeless and lived alone from the age of nine. Foraging for wild foods was his only option to avoid starvation.

“I ate several different kinds of wild foods, such as neung-jae, which is a wild grass found in the fields. It’s poisonous – your face swells up the next day. Other kinds of grass and some mushrooms are also poisonous so you could die if you picked the wrong one,” says Hwang.

Wild foods like seaweed and mushrooms are traditionally a supplementary part of the North Korean diet, especially in rural areas. But as food shortages have intensified, the population has come to rely more on wild foods that have no nutritional value, simply to fend off hunger.

Many of these non-traditional wild foods can be poisonous and cause severe digestive problems. The UN has found that diarrhoea caused by wild foods is among the leading causes of malnutrition among children under 5.

Amnesty International’s report, the Crumbling State of Health Care in North Korea, reveals how the North Korean government has been unable to feed its people and,in violation of international law, has refused to cooperate fully with the international community to receive food aid.

The chronic food shortages have forced North Koreans to eating barely digestible or even poisonous plants, consigning the most needy to hunger and illness.

Amnesty International has documented how North Koreans have been adding grass or roots to existing foodstuffs to make food go further, such as mixing grass with ground corn to make corn gruel. Hwang’s diet consisted of wild foods and other sources that were equally poor in nutrition.

“Sometimes I mixed corn powder with pine tree bark, which gave me bowel problems but I needed to add something to my food to satiate my hunger. I also ate the leftover ingredients after making corn alcohol and tofu. I knew all these foods had little nutritional value, but I still ate them to fill my stomach,” says Hwang.

In the early to mid-1990s, unable to combat the growing food crisis and refusing to seek international assistance, the North Korean government actively encouraged the population to forage for alternative or wild foods instead, such as roots, grasses and stalks, promoting them as healthy and safe sources of nutrients. Since then, food rations have either been suspended or dramatically reduced.

By 1996, the height of the famine of the 1990s, the UN estimated that wild foods accounted for some 30 per cent of the North Korean diet.  Never shaking off chronic food insecurity, North Korea again suffered a severe food crisis in 2006-2007, and a World Food Programme 2008 assessment found that North Koreans’ consumption of wild foods had increased by nearly 20 per cent since 2003-2005.

Thousands are estimated to have starved to death in North Korea as recently as February this year after a botched currency revaluation.

Hwang, who left North Korea in September 2001, was among a growing number of homeless children – or “kkotjebi” – who had either lost their parents due to starvation or whose parents had abandoned them or went to China to find a job. He says his irregular and sporadic meals brought on digestive problems.

“I normally ate one meal a day. I was always hungry. If I had something to eat, I would eat it all. Even if I was full, I would continue eating because I didn’t know when I would have the chance to eat again.

“Also because I was homeless, I couldn’t take the food with me, so I just finished it in one go. Whenever I ate too much, I suffered from indigestion, including stomach ache and diarrhoea.”

As the food shortages worsened, North Korea’s population relied more heavily on wild foods and ventured to varieties that can be dangerous, especially among young children and the elderly.

Park, a 27-year-old man from Chongjin, North Hamgyong province who left North Korea in April 2007, also had adverse reaction from eating wild foods.

“I foraged for wild foods in the mountains.  Once I almost died eating mushrooms that were poisonous. Some wild greens or roots can be dangerous or difficult to digest.  During a particularly rough patch, I also ate food you normally feed to pigs.”

In North Korea, the amount of anti-American propaganda that is steadily fed to the populace is overwhelming.  In the following Huffington Post article, correspondent Jean H. Lee outlines how this indoctrination starts as early as kindergarten.  A very fascinating read about how children are taught to hate.

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