Tag Archives: North Korea

north korean sign language

German Man Attempts to Empower Deaf North Koreans

Pictured above: North Korean students study sign language. (Photo via Agape International North Korea)


by ERIC TALMADGE, Associated Press

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — In a country with zero kindergartens specifically for the deaf, Robert Grund wants to help establish the first — just a small suite of rooms for perhaps a couple dozen kids, in North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, a city of roughly 2.5 million.

It’s a small step, but Grund, the Pyongyang representative of the World Federation of the Deaf and the city’s only full-time deaf foreign resident, sees it as part of a larger push to end isolation for the deaf here by helping them be heard, involved and empowered in projects about them.

He appears to be making progress.

Over the past few years, North Korean officials have grown more receptive to helping the disabled. Events have become more frequent and get a higher profile in the state-run media, while more cultural exchanges are being allowed abroad. Recent media stories played up a new all-deaf soccer team. The North last month held high-profile events to mark Disabled Persons Day.

The kindergarten project is also coming together.

Grund says officials have approved a location for the facility, several rooms in a now under-used nursery building, and appear keen on opening it in time for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the country’s ruling party on Oct. 10.

The kindergarten itself will be wholly paid for and funded by TOGETHER-Hamhung, a German non-profit Disabled Persons Organization.

“Nobody knows how many kids will come,” Grund said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “If necessary, we can assign more rooms for children.”

The plan is to accept children from infancy on up until they are old enough to attend regular deaf schools. Grund hopes access will be based solely on need, but he is not sure whether the government will instead decide who gets to go.

“From our point of view, every deaf child has access,” he said. “Since this country strongly advertises the right of children to be in nurseries and kindergartens, it is probably not so much a matter of choosing, but a matter of information and spreading the word so that the families get to know the new option and dare to bring their deaf child, overcoming the traditional hiding in the family.”

To be deaf in North Korea is to endure a level of isolation that is hard to imagine.


For most of his childhood, Ri Jong-hyok was a shut in.

While his father went out to do construction work, he stayed at home in Pyongyang helping his mother make tofu. He didn’t go to school. He had no friends and, with no one to teach him sign language, essentially no way to communicate with them even if he did.

“I had never seen sign language before I came here,” Ri told the AP through a sign language interpreter during a visit to the country’s largest school for the deaf, in Songchon, outside of Pyongyang, last year.

Ri is lucky to have found the school.

He wants to be a barber, and the school has a classroom where the students practice cutting each other’s hair, with barber’s chairs and pictures of various hairstyles on the walls. With few other trades open to the deaf, the most common jobs are barber or tailor for men, and hairstylist or seamstress for women.

Of the eight schools for older deaf children in North Korea, none are located in Pyongyang, though statistically the deaf population in a city the same size in a developing country would likely be in the tens of thousands.

There are roughly 300,000 deaf people in all of North Korea, according to official estimates.

But while about 10-20 percent of deaf children in developing countries are able to study in deaf schools, according to the World Federation of the Deaf, that rate is just 2 percent in North Korea, said an aid worker who spoke on condition of anonymity because of worries that ongoing projects might be hurt.

North Korean officials dispute that estimate.

Ro Kyong-su, director of the Korean Economic and Cultural Center for the Deaf and Blind, said mainstream public schools or other special-needs facilities currently accommodate most deaf or hearing-impaired students. By his calculations, there are about 6,000 school-age deaf children who need to be in schools that are specifically for the deaf. He said about half already are, and the number is rising.

“The other half will soon be able to go to school. We aren’t looking at a five-year or 10-year plan. It will be much sooner than that,” he said.

Officials involved in projects for the deaf acknowledge an outdated grasp of the size of the deaf community.

A major problem continues to be getting access to and diagnosing pre-school children, many of whom are shut in at home with families who have little awareness of hearing disabilities or the resources that might be available to them.

The government’s figures are also based on an old, somewhat ambiguous survey. Underreporting of disabilities is common, both because of a sense of shame and a fear among parents that, if reported, their children might be sent off to distant institutions, pigeonholed and channeled into an educational or career path with few opportunities. Nevertheless, a new survey is underway, which Ro believes will provide a more reliable picture.

Changing North Korea’s attitude toward the deaf


Grund, possibly more than anyone else, has helped influence the change in attitudes toward the deaf here.

As a teenager, he watched a TV report in his native Germany suggesting there were “practically no” deaf people in North Korea. A fourth-generation deaf child in his own family, an incredulous Grund decided to go see for himself. Grund, now 30, has since devoted himself to improving life for deaf North Koreans. He works with the bureaucracy and with the deaf to train them to plan and lead their own projects.

Though funding is always a struggle, he has received support from Catholic and Protestant groups and private donors, mainly in Germany. The biggest individual contribution came from Michael Spavor, of Paektu Cultural Exchange and the organizer of former NBA star Dennis Rodman’s visit last year, who donated $20,000 to the deaf kindergarten project.

Grund’s mantra for empowering the deaf, “nothing about us without us,” often rankles with even the most sympathetic North Korean officials. In the country’s top-down system, hearing bureaucrats who often don’t understand the deaf experience are used to making decisions on their behalf.

Grund says he will continue to cooperate with deaf North Koreans—he currently works closely with about 20, up from just two in 2013 — to help them join mainstream society.

One priority is more schools for occupational training and educational opportunities for the deaf. Another is teaching more deaf children—and interpreters—how to sign. He also wants sign language interpretation made available at workplaces and meetings. But most of all, he wants to see signing on national television broadcasts, if just to raise awareness in the hearing community that the deaf exist and need not be hidden away.

“That has been my oldest dream, from the time I first came here,” he said.

See Also


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Korean Son of Deaf Parents With Cancer Sings Heartfelt Song on ‘Superstar K6

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Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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‘Northern Limit Line’ Sets Sail for USA and Australia

by REERA YOO | @reeraboo

South Korea’s 3D maritime film Northern Limit Line will hit theaters in North America and Australia later this month, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

Based on a true story, Northern Limit Line depicts the Second Battle of Yeonpyeong between North and South Korean patrol boats. The battle occurred during the 2002 FIFA World Cup when South Korea’s national soccer team was playing against Turkey in the semifinals.

Starting July 16, the maritime action flick is set to release in seven Australian cities: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. The following day, the film will hit 13 North American cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Atlanta and Dallas.

Northern Limit Line is also preparing to premiere in other Asian locations, such as Hong Kong, Macao, the Philippines and Myanmar by the end of 2015.

Despite its premiere date being postponed due to the MERS outbreak, Northern Limit Line had a record-breaking opening weekend. As of July 7, the film has earned about $22 million total.

The film initially made headlines when its director, Kim Hak-soon, launched a crowdfunding campaign to produce the film. More than 7,000 individuals contributed to the campaign, which amassed about a third of the film’s budget of $6 million.


Featured image via Next Entertainment World (NEW)

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South Korean Violinist Wants Border Concert With North Korea

Pictured above: South Korean violinist Won Hyung-joon. (Photo via The House Concert)

by HYUNG-JIN KIM, Associated Press


SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Violinist Won Hyung-joon wants to bring North and South Korean musicians together next month to perform on each side of the world’s most heavily armed border. Standing in the way is the rivals’ long, frustrating inability to move past their painful shared history.

Won says North Korean diplomats in Berlin have tentatively signed off on a plan for a renowned German conductor to lead a 70-member South Korean orchestra through Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the Korean folk tune “Arirang” while accompanied by a choir of 70 North Koreans just across the border on Aug. 15, the 70th anniversary of the 1945 liberation of a single Korea from Japan’s 35-year colonial rule.

Wary South Korean officials, however, want a more formal endorsement from Pyongyang before they give their agreement to a concert at the border village of Panmunjom, where an armistice ended the three-year Korean War in 1953. Won and his German partners are pushing for that formal go-ahead from Pyongyang.

Dozens of Korean musicians joining their instruments and voices in harmony across the border, Won says, could dramatically illustrate the continuing tragedy of the Korean Peninsula, which, after liberation from Japan, was divided into a pro-U.S South and Soviet-backed North and remains in a technical state of war because a peace treaty formally ending the eventual Korean War has never been settled.

“We won’t be able to talk to each other or hug each other. We’ll just stand face to face and commune through music,” Won said. “We want to do something meaningful at a meaningful place on a meaningful day.”

First, though, he has to win support from two governments whose reluctance to cooperate, even on the most seemingly mild proposals, is often ingrained.

The countries, which enjoyed a period of rapprochement in the 2000s, bar their citizens from exchanging visits, phone calls, letters and email without government permission. Naval skirmishes occasionally happen. And Pyongyang, which faces global condemnation for its nuclear bomb program, has recently responded with fury to the opening of a U.N. office in Seoul meant to monitor what defectors, activists and many countries call an abysmal human rights record.

Won and some outside analysts believe the concert will likely happen. Pyongyang may see it as a way to improve ties with Seoul, which could then stimulate a flow of aid and investment that the impoverished country needs to help revive its decrepit economy. Better relations with Seoul could also help offset North Korea’s fraying ties with China, its only major ally.

German maestro Christoph Poppen, who has agreed to do the conducting on Aug. 15, called music the only “language which you can understand all across barriers.”

“It’s simply much stronger than language, and it can overcome also emotional conflicts and problems,” he said.

Still, Won, 39, knows that bitterness over the Koreas’ tangled past can easily get in the way. In May, for instance, Pyongyang, on the eve of a planned trip by U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to a jointly run factory park across the border in North Korea, canceled the invitation.

If the North-South concert on the border doesn’t happen, Won plans to gather the South Korean musicians and play someplace else, possibly near a South Korean border check-point or a former frontline U.S. army base.

Won, executive director of Seoul-based Lindenbaum Music, said the concert idea was inspired by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a troupe of Israeli and Arab musicians founded in 1999 by Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim and late Palestinian academic Edward Said as a gesture of peaceful coexistence in the Middle East.

Arts, sports and other non-political events have sometimes helped smooth relations between rival countries.

In 1989, for instance, Soviet exile and renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich played Bach suites below the crumbling Berlin Wall before making a return to Russia to perform with Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra the next year.

A previous flurry of cultural and sports exchanges between the Koreas largely ended when conservatives took over from previous liberal governments in Seoul in 2008, though there have been sporadic exchanges between Pyongyang and the West. The New York Philharmonic held a concert in Pyongyang in 2008, while a North Korean and a French orchestra performed together in Paris in 2012 under the baton of noted South Korean-born conductor Chung Myung-whun.

In 2011, Won partnered with then Philadelphia Orchestra chief conductor Charles Dutoit to push for a joint youth orchestra performance, also on Aug. 15, but in Pyongyang.

Dutoit visited North Korea, conducted the country’s symphony orchestra and earned support from culture officials for the project. But the plan fell apart after Pyongyang wanted to reschedule the concert for October 2011 because of annual summertime military drills between Washington and Seoul that it sees as invasion rehearsals.

Won is working this time with Uwe Schmelter, a Korea expert and retired regional director of the Goethe-Institute in East Asia, who has persuaded the North Korean Embassy in Berlin to sign off on the concert. Now it is a matter of winning an endorsement from a higher-level organization in Pyongyang. Schmelter said last week he’s acting as a mediator but declined to provide details about the delicate negotiations.

“With a project of this magnitude, there really is no easy or ideal time,” said violinist David Kim, concertmaster at the Philadelphia Orchestra and a member of Won’s team. “Relations between the two Koreas are always complicated and everyone knows that. But music itself is not complicated at all — it touches and softens people’s hearts.”

“In order to pull this off, there has to be a visionary, a dreamer … who believes in the cause with all their heart and is unwilling to accept no for an answer. That person is Won.”

You can watch a video of Won’s performance below:


Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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North Korean Biochemical Weapons Expert Flees to Finland

by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim

A North Korean scientist from a microbiology research center in Ganggye, Chagang Province near the border with China defected to Finland last month, according to sources from Yonhap News Agency.

The 47-year-old scientist, who is only identified by his surname, Lee, was also carrying 15 gigabytes of data on human experiment results with him. He apparently defected due to misgivings he had about the research being conducted.

Lee fled to Finland on June 6 through the Philippines, according to a North Korean human rights group. He is expected to speak before the European Parliament later this month.

Other North Korean defectors have shed light on how prisoners in the country’s “labor detention camps” are treated, and some of their testimonies include guards and doctors performing cruel punishments and experiments on them.

We will update this story as further details are revealed.

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Featured image via journeylism.nl

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U.S. Taekwondo Practitioners Plan DMZ Peace Walk


A group of U.S. taekwondo masters is organizing a peace walk across the demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea, reports the Voice of America.

Woo-jin Jung, a Korean American taekwondo grandmaster and publisher of the Taekwondo Times, said the peace walk is an effort to help promote positive engagement between the two Koreas, regardless of the dividing border.

“We plan on sharing different techniques with North Korean athletes and hold a seminar in Pyongyang,” Jung told VOA.

Last week, the 73-year-old grandmaster met with taekwondo officials in Pyongyang, including Chang Ung, who heads the International Taekwondo Federation and represents North Korea on the International Olympic Committee. Jung said North Korea supports the peace walk, adding that he’s also expecting a positive response from the South Korean government.

Both Koreas had approved of a similar walk back in May. About 30 international female activists, including American feminist Gloria Steinem and Nobel Peace laureate Leymah Gbowee, traveled through the heavily fortified DMZ, where they were allowed to march at specific checkpoints. However, some criticized WomenCrossDMZ, the organizers behind the march, for not addressing the human rights violations against women in North Korea.

This is not the first time Jung has attempted to foster goodwill between the two Koreas through martial arts. In 2007 and 2011, Jung helped coordinate U.S. tours for two North Korean taekwondo demonstration teams.

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Featured image via Woo-jin Jung/Facebook

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Seoul Holds Mass Wedding for North Korean Defectors

by REERA YOO | @reeraboo

Seoul held a mass wedding ceremony for North Korean defectors on Tuesday, reports Channel News Asia.

About 100 couples were chosen to get married at the free wedding ceremony in Seoul’s Olympic Park. The South Korean government and nonprofit organization Happy World organized the ceremony in an effort to assist North Korean defectors who are unable to afford a wedding of their own, according to the Chosun Ilbo.

Sixty of the newlyweds married fellow North Korean defectors, while 30 tied the knot with foreigners, mostly Chinese. Meanwhile, 10 North Koreans wedded South Koreans. Ages of the brides and grooms ranged from their 20s to their 60s.

South Korea’s Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo attended the mass wedding and wished the couples a blissful marriage. He added that the newlyweds are setting the foundation for the unification of the two Koreas.

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 9.38.08 AMNorth Korean bride with her South Korean husband at a Seoul mass wedding.
(Screenshot captured via Channel News Asia)

One bride described the ceremony as “extraordinary,” claiming that it’s not easy to meet the “right person” in a relationship.

“I’m North Korean and he is South Korean. Not only is the language different, but also the culture,” she told Channel News Asia as she stood next to her smiling husband. “I think it’s really great that we can live together by overcoming cultural barriers and being understanding and respectful of each other.”

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Featured image via Yonhap

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northern limit line

‘Northern Limit Line’ Tops South Korean Box Office

by REERA YOO | @reeraboo

Northern Limit Line, a film that depicts a 2002 inter-Korean naval skirmish, topped South Korea’s weekly box office this past weekend, dropping Jurassic World to second place.

The 3D maritime action flick set the record as this year’s most-viewed Korean film on its opening weekend, according to the Korean Film Council. The film hit 1 million admissions last Sunday, dominating 40.4 percent of the weekend market share and earning about a total of $9.9 million over five days, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

Directed by Kim Hak-soon, Northern Limit Line chronicles the Second Battle of Yeonpyeong, which escalated when a North Korean patrol boat crossed the contested Yellow Sea border and engaged a South Korean patrol boat on June 29, 2002. The naval skirmish killed six South Koreans and left 19 injured, whereas the North suffered about 30 casualties.

However, the battle did not receive much media coverage at the time, as South Korea’s national soccer team was playing against Turkey in the semifinals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup.

Northern Limit Line memorializes and centers on three fallen South Korean officers: Lieutenant Yoon Young-ha (Kim Mu-yeol), Sergeant Han Sang-gook (Jin Goo) and Corporal Park Dong-hyuk (Lee Hyun-woo).

Director Kim initially did not have the funds to produce Northern Limit Line and turned to crowdfunding campaign to raise money and awareness about the film. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Kim said more than 7,000 individuals contributed to the campaign, which amassed about a third of the film’s $6-million budget.

“Small and large sums donated by people across the country came together to make this movie,” Kim said at a press conference, according to the Korea Herald. “My hope is that viewers will be able to watch it and remember the six soldiers who sacrificed their lives while the rest of the country was celebrating.”

You can watch the trailer for Northern Limit Line below:

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Featured image via HanCinema

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Far From Being Forgotten: Learning Lessons From the Korean War


This article was published in the June 2000 issue of KoreAm Journal by then-assistant editor (and current contributing editor), Jimmy Lee. Some portions of the article have been edited for relevance and to include additional information.


In high school U.S. history class, it was the war that broke out in Korea on June 25, 1950—after World War II and before Vietnam. There weren’t any deeper examinations into the subject after that. But the Korean War is not even officially over, yet it’s regarded as the “Forgotten War.”

As for me, a 1.5-generation Korean American, the history of the Korean War held no interest compared to my thirst for soaking up all things American.

But as we put this issue together, it struck me for the first time that the Korean War is not so distant after all. My father was 9 years old and my mother was only 5 when their lives were changed forever. And when my mother described how she fled Seoul—running away from artillery shells, holding my grandmother’s hand—this part of history suddenly hit home.

Nothing could ever be the same again. During the fighting that lasted three years, millions of people died—mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters—and countless other lives were drastically altered.

So for this June 2000 issue, KoreAm commemorates the 50th anniversary of the start of the Korean War by remembering the past and looking at the present and how the Korean War has affected our lives today.

It Began With a Division


When North Korean forces attacked the South, the leader of the North, Kim II Sung, a communist guerilla fighter, claimed to be unifying a country divided. After World War II ended in 1945 and Korea gained independence from Japan, Korea was split into two regions, along the 38th parallel, with the North controlled by the Soviet Union and the South by the United States.

The United States had helped to put in power in the South Syngman Rhee, a fierce anti-communist who had spent most of t!” last few decades in the United States. Rhee, who turned out to be an authoritarian, however, was a guise the United States used to bait Kim to start a war.

Kim feared that the South would merely be a puppet of the United States, so he started the war to liberate Korea from imperialist western powers.

But there were other parties involved, namely China and the other emerging superpower, the Soviet Union. Prior to the invasion Kim consulted with Soviet leader Josef Stalin and Chinese Premier Mao Zedong for their support. One promise Kim gave Stalin was that he would be able to capture the South before the United States could intervene, and thus, prevent a drawn-out war.

But some scholars now believe Soviet leader Josef Stalin orchestrated the war to measure the strength of the United States as the Cold War was taking shape.

“As the chief architect behind the war, Stalin had been looking at the logistics of invading South Korea for some time,” says Prof. Soh Jin Chull of South Korea’s Wonkwong University. “Kim II Sung became the designated loyal ‘executor’ of the war and China’s Mac Zedong became the ‘guarantor’ of a successful military campaign.

In the end, whether by a Communist conspiracy or American baiting, millions of lives were caught between the crossfire of egos and politics.

A Nation Forever Changed


The signing of the armistice in 1953 ended the fighting but not the war. And without an end, it’s hard to see the what the marks left on the Korean peninsula are. First, with North Korea cut off from the rest of the world, it’s difficult to assess what impacts the Korean War has had on its people. But its inability to capture the South and unite the country contributed to its retreat into what it is now -which is, other than having a sizable military and famine, we’re really not sure.

In the South, the legacy of the Korean War is a bit more distinguishable. Korea has grown into one of the leading economies in the world today, ranking in the top 15. Contributing to its rise as an “Asian Tiger,” one of several Asian countries whose economies grew dramatically during the ’70s and ’80s, is the support provided by the United States over the last 50 years.

With the presence of U.S. military forces, agreed upon with the signing of the Mutual Defense Agreement between the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK), Korea had been able to direct its resources towards building up its industries and bringing in foreign investment, rather than using most of its money to assemble a military to protect itself from a potential attack by the North. Despite the financial crisis of 1998, the Korean economy is back to being robust.

And with all the American troops stationed in Korea, a nation that had been ethnically homogenous for thousands of years was no longer. An influx of western culture was then inevitable—rock and roll, McDonald’s, etc.

But the presence of these soldiers has also fostered less desirable industries. Prostitution catered for U.S. soldiers, legalized and regulated by the government, has flourished, creating a new class of women looked down upon by the Korean people.

The number of violent and criminal acts committed by U.S. soldiers has also proliferated. In 1999, there were 956 reported crimes committed by U.S. soldiers, up from 575 in 1998, according to the Criminal Division of the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office. And last year, only 3.5 percent of those cases were tried in a Korean court.

“We are suffering because of the murders and other violence perpetrated by the ‘Keepers of Peace.’ We denounce this situation,” read a statement released on Mar. 22, 2000 and signed by 73 organizations in the South calling for a revision in the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in order to guarantee greater accountability for crimes.

Editor’s Note: The SOFA has remained a contentious issue up until the last few years. Anti-American military sentiment has also remained steady, buoyed along by high-profile criminal cases.

Notably in 2002, the drivers of a U.S. military vehicle that fatally injured two 14-year-old South Korean girls were sent back to the States after a U.S. military court found them not guilty. In 2011, a 21-year-old American solider was sentenced to 10 years in prison for rape of a 17-year-old Korean girl. Most recently, the “inadvertent” live anthrax case in May also raised calls for revisiting the terms of SOFA.

A People No Longer the Same


As a Korean American, is the Korean War relevant?

Growing up, my mom wouldn’t let me waste anything: toothpaste, food, even paper towels. One paper towel had to go towards at least two cleaning jobs. As a kid, I thought this obsessiveness was freakish, and I found it embarrassing.

“You don’t have to do that, mom,” I would say, “we’ve got plenty of paper towels.”

But then I learned that she was sick in the war, with her parents having to scrimp to get the necessary drugs.

I realize now that survival is a cultural value learned in war. My mom has it. I hope one day that it too was instilled in me.

[The ones] who survived the death and destruction—their stories give voice to our parents’ generation who, only fifty short years ago, came of age in the aftermath of loss and devastation, of families torn apart, and a nation flattened. Nothing could ever be the same again.

The Korean War is far from forgotten.


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