Trump administration meeting with North Korean diplomat canceled

Plans for the first contact between North Korea and the United States after President Donald Trump took office were canceled after the US State Department denied a visa for the top envoy from Pyongyang, The Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday.

The talks, between senior North Korean foreign ministry envoy Choe Son Hui and former US officials, were scheduled to take place on 1 and 2 March in New York but were called off.

It was not clear what led the State Department to deny the visa but North Korea’s test-firing of a ballistic missile on 12 February and the murder of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half brother in Malaysia may have played a role, the report said. South Korean and US  officials have said they believe North Korean agents assassinated Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half brother of Kim Jong-un, on 13 February.

The meeting in New York would have been the first time a senior North Korean envoy would visit the United States since 2011 and the first contact between US and North Korean representatives since Trump took office.

Choe, director general for North American affairs at the North’s foreign ministry, has previously met former US officials and academics, the last time in November in Geneva for informal discussions.

[The Independent]

North Korea signaling its chemical and biological weapons to the world?

The Malaysian police have declared that Kim Jong-nam was assassinated with VX nerve agent, when two women rubbed his face with the nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

If North Korean citizens were behind the killing, as Malaysian officials suggest, the use of VX raises several questions: Was the North Korean government using the attack to signal to the world its fearsome arsenal of such dangerous weapons? Or was the toxin simply an attempt to avoid detection in carrying out a brazen killing at one of the world’s busiest airports?

One drop of VX, or about 10 milligrams, can be fatal. But the attackers could have used a safety-enhancing battlefield form of the agent. Known as VX2, it is divided into two compounds that are harmless individually but become lethal when mixed together.

If Mr. Kim’s two assassins had each applied one component of VX, this would explain why two people were needed, and how they survived the attack. The woman who applied the second compound would have risked exposing herself to the first component, which could explain why one of the women became ill and began vomiting after the attack.

And as to why it took 15 minutes or more for Mr. Kim to die: Each component could have been made in slow-release form, as is done with many drugs.

Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has two degrees in chemical engineering, said it was clear that North Korea wanted the West to know what it is capable of. “They wanted everyone, especially the U.S., to know it was VX and that they can make it or have it,” he said. “Doing it publicly but not killing anyone else is a pretty good way to reveal that capability and deterrent.”

[The New York Times]

North Korean defectors defy Pyongyang through writing

About 30 North Korean defectors are working to shed light on the communist state’s human rights situation through literature, seeking to prove that the pen can indeed be mightier than the sword.

According to a report by South Korean news agency Yonhap, the group is known as the North Korean Writers in Exile PEN Center. It has been part of PEN International, an association of writers promoting literature and freedom of expression since 2012.

The center is led by North Korean defector Lee Gie Myung, who wrote plays in the republic for 20 years before escaping to South Korea in 2004. He began writing for the group in 2008, working with other “defector-writers” to tell the world about the difficulties faced by North Koreans under the three-generation rule of the Kim family.

Following calls for the UN Security Council to refer North Korea’s “crimes against humanity” to the International Criminal Court (ICC), the defector-writers tried to assist by compiling testimonies of 20 individuals who had defected over Pyongyang’s abuse of rights. They also backed the request for ICC to look into the crimes of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“It is meaningful that defector-writers have begun to gain recognition,” Gie Myung told Yonhap. “They are the ones who can speak up against North Korea’s abject human rights situation in their own voices. … North Koreans will awaken and rise up if they get access to outside information.”

[Free Malaysia Today]

North Korea says Kim Jong-nam evidence fabricated by Malaysia

North Korea denied responsibility on Thursday for Kim Jong-nam’s death, accusing the Malaysian authorities of fabricating evidence of Pyongyang’s involvement under the influence of the North’s archrival, South Korea. The statement from the Jurists Committee was cited by the state-run Korean Central News Agency, in the first comment on the killing from the North’s official news media.

With the North’s reclusive government on the defensive about the Feb. 13 killing of Mr. Kim, the estranged half brother of the country’s leader, a statement attributed to the North Korean Jurists Committee said that the greatest share of responsibility for the death “rests with the government of Malaysia” because he died there. And in what could be seen as a threat to Malaysia, the statement noted that North Korea is a “nuclear weapons state.”

And in a case that has been filled with mysteries and odd plot twists, North Korea still would not acknowledge that the man killed was indeed Kim Jong-nam. And it gave no indication that it would agree to Malaysia’s demands to question a senior staff member at the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur in the investigation into Mr. Kim’s death.

The Malaysian authorities have said that four North Koreans were believed to have directed the attack and that they fled to their homeland after it was carried out. On Wednesday, the Malaysian police said they were seeking to question an official at the North Korean Embassy, Hyon Kwang Song, in the case.

Channel NewsAsia, a Singaporean news agency, reported on Thursday that Mr. Hyon had been recorded on closed circuit cameras at the airport after the killing, seeing off the four North Koreans as they boarded a flight on the journey back to their homeland.

[New York Times]

Kim Jong-nam assassination a warning to potential defectors

The brazen assassination of Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia is a warning to North Korean elites thinking of defecting from the country via Malaysia, claims academic Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow from the Seoul-based Asan Institute for policy studies.

Go added that the assassination could have been carried out in Malaysia because it carried the least political risk compared to either Macau, China or Singapore – places where Kim Jong-nam is often seen. And as quoted in the Washington Post, Kim Jong Nam told Japanese journalist Yoji Gomi the Chinese government protected him in China and gave him a bodyguard, but did not do so elsewhere in Asia.

Go said that Macau was out of the question as it is a part of China and if North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un was indeed behind the murder, he wouldn’t want to create unnecessary conflict with China.

Go added that North Korea would not want to jeopardize their relationship with Singapore as it is an important regional hub for their overseas economic network. “Malaysia, in a way, is the least risky place to carry out the operation,” he said.

Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of leader Kim Jong-un, died shortly after an unidentified liquid was sprayed in his face on February 13 while at the airport in the Malaysian capital.

[The Star – Malaysia]

The non-relationship between brothers Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Nam

When North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was born, his elder half-brother Kim Jong Nam was studying overseas. Kim Jong Un was brought up by a mother who saw her husband’s first family as rivals to her own sons. Brought up separately, Kim Jong Un was never going to be close to his eldest brother.

Indeed, according to Japanese journalist Yoji Gomi, the two brothers never even met.

This did not stop Kim Jong Nam openly criticizing his sibling years later, saying that the new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was too weak to maintain control over the country and was a puppet for regime elders. Such criticism is unlikely to have gone down well in Pyongyang, which often reacts angrily to any perceived slight, particularly from overseas.

Kim Jong Nam told Gomi that North Korea would collapse without necessary reform, his half-brother Kim Jong-un would not last long as a leader and hereditary succession was a “joke to the outside world”.

Speaking to reporters last week, Gomi said Kim Jong Nam’s comments were known within the country. “A defector told me there was a rumor the oldest son of Kim Jong Il had said critical words about North Korea and could be a cause of [reform],” he said. “That person mentioned the rumor gave him hope.”

Gomi first encountered Kim Jong Nam during a chance meeting at Beijing airport in 2004, leading to an exchange of 150 emails and then two interviews in 2011.

South Korean lawmaker Lee Cheol-woo, citing a National Intelligence Service briefing, said that Pyongyang had been attempting to assassinate Kim Jong Nam for five years. A North Korean man jailed for spying in South Korean in 2012 reportedly said he had been ordered to kill Kim.

Another lawmaker, Kim Byung-kee, said that Kim Jong Nam had written to his brother in 2012, asking him to spare his life and those of his family. According to the South China Morning Post, friends of Kim Jong Nam in Macau said he told them he felt he was living on “borrowed time.”

[CNN / The Telegraph]

Sense of betrayal in China after assassination of Kim Jong Nam

Behind the scenes there is a sense of shock and dismay in Beijing: if indeed Kim Jong Nam was assassinated on the orders of North Korea, it would be seen as an affront to the country that has afforded him protection for many years.

Kim Jong Nam has lived for over a decade in Beijing and Macao, apparently with wives and children in both places. Chinese experts said he had received 24-hour protection–and monitoring–from China’s security services, as well as financial assistance when he needed it.

Said Wang Weimin, a professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs at Fudan University in Shanghai, “Kim Jong Nam’s assassination makes China more aware of how unpredictable and cruel the current North Korean regime is, as well as Kim Jong Un’s willingness to abandon China and sell it for his own benefit at any second.”

Relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have deteriorated significantly in recent years, with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un never having met and believed to share mutual disdain, experts say.

[Washington Post]

Senior North Korean representatives to visit the United States for talks?

China will suspend all imports of coal from North Korea, effectively slicing the country’s exports by about half. The move, announced by China’s commerce ministry on Saturday, is believed to form part of the country’s efforts to implement United Nations sanctions against North Korea. The Ministry of Commerce said the ban would start February 19 and be effective until December 31.

The ban coincides with a report in The Washington Post that preparations are underway for senior North Korean representatives to visit the United States for talks with former American officials, a sign that Pyongyang may see a potential opening with the Trump administration.

China’s move to ban the imports effectively slices North Korea’s exports in half and came with a message for the US and its allies: it’s time to do a deal. Chinese officials say pushing North Korea into a corner won’t work as Kim Jong-un’s regime will keep developing its nuclear capability until it feels safe.

According to Shi Yongming, an associate research fellow at the Foreign Ministry-run China Institute of International Studies: “Beijing still wants to bring [Kim Jong Un] to a negotiation table – and that’s where the US role lies – because the collapse of the regime is right now outside China’s realistic capacity to handle.”

China has backed the Kim dynasty since it took charge after the Korean War, in part to prevent having a US ally on its border. With the international community enforcing sanctions on North Korea after a series of nuclear tests, China now accounts for more than 90 per cent of its total trade. Coal sales accounted for more than 50 per cent of North Korea’s exports to China last year, and about a fifth of its total trade, according to Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

[The Sydney Morning Herald]

What can Trump actually do about North Korea?

Since becoming President, Donald Trump has, at times, looked like a wrecking ball to the international order. But when it comes to North Korea, he may be forced to operate within the narrow constraints of his predecessors.

Some members of the President’s Republican Party have previously argued for a more forceful response to North Korean aggression. Others have advocated the drawing of a red line, telling North Korea explicitly that any intercontinental ballistic missile would be blown up on the launch pad. Trump’s Twitter activity, prior to his inauguration, suggested that he was in agreement with this line of thinking.

But while taking such steps would be vigorous and decisive, it could possibly lead to a wider war.  Escalation can happen very quickly on the peninsula — as was the case in the summer of 1950, when a series of border clashes on the 38th parallel turned into an all-out invasion of South Korea. This context is important to remember when trying to understand the limits facing Trump in constraining North Korea.

The Obama administration pushed very hard for the inclusion of human rights and even International Criminal Court prosecution as a pressure point against North Korea, much to the anger of the regime.  The lack of criticism of North Korea’s many documented human rights violations from the State Department and new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is surely music to Pyongyang’s ears.

For all its reputation of being a crazed and irrational state, North Korea appears to be taking a rational approach to Trump and waiting to see what happens in Washington. North Korean state media is at present keeping its powder dry: it has not yet attacked Donald Trump by name or criticized him for anything.

It is doubtful that Trump will be able to change things. Short of sending Tillerson or traveling to North Korea himself, it seems unlikely that he will make a significant breakthrough.


The psychological trauma of defecting from North Korea

In an apartment in Seoul, South Korea, Lee So-yeon wakes in the night, thankful that everything she’s just seen is in the distant past.

She dreams of her former life in North Korea, of swimming the icy waters of the Tumen River, of being captured by traffickers in northern China and subjected to a new set of horrors. She dreams of a failed suicide attempt, of being bound and thrown back into the river unconscious, of the North Korean soldiers who dragged her body from the Tumen, keeping her alive but condemning her to 13 days of starvation and physical brutalization in one of the country’s prisons. She dreams of being stripped naked there and forced to lie on a bed with four other women as a guard examined her bodily cavities, keeping the same unsterilized gloves on to search all five women. She dreams of the darkness of her cell, punctuated by smells of her own excrement and compares it to the black of being kicked unconscious by guards.

But she also dreams of release—getting out of prison, swimming the Tumen again, and taking a boat to Seoul, beginning the resettlement process in 2008, two years after her first escape attempt. She dreams of the day when, for the first time, a doctor told her that the nightmares and flashbacks were symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition many defectors face, and the hopelessness and despondency that hung over her waking life were symptoms of depression. Unlike what she was taught growing up, other North Koreans experienced these conditions too, and in Seoul, she could talk about them without fear of being sent to an institution few ever leave.

For resettlement and medical professionals working with North Korean migrants like Lee, a major step in providing effective mental health interventions is convincing defectors that the issues they face are diagnosable and treatable. While defectors are generally aware that mental health exists, they know little to nothing about specific conditions, the prevalence of mental health issues, and treatment strategies.

Defectors show high rates of psychological trauma. It can be caused by everything ranging from starvation or abuse to fearing capture after resettlement or retribution taken out on loved ones left behind. Despite the suffering, research shows that North Korean migrants are frequently averse to even basic mental health help.