Merrill Newman home from North Korea

An 85-year-old American man detained and later let go by North Korean authorities described his time in custody as comfortable.

Merrill Newman, who returned to the United States this weekend, told the Santa Cruz Sentinel in California that he was kept in a hotel room, not a jail cell, and fed traditional Korean food during his detention. If anything, he was “bored,” the newspaper reported he said.

For weeks, the North Korean government offered no explanation as to why they were holding Newman. An explanation finally came last month, when state media published and broadcast what they described as the Korean War veteran’s “apology.” The word was written atop the first of four handwritten pages detailing his alleged indiscretions.

When asked about the apology, Newman gave a smirk, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel. “Obviously, that’s not my English,” he said.

A senior administration official said that Newman’s release was the result of direct contact between Washington and Pyongyang. The official said the North Koreans had told the Obama administration in a telephone call that they were releasing Newman; no explanation was offered.

North Korea confirms ouster of Kim Jong Un’s uncle Jang Song Thaek

North Korea’s state news agency KCNA confirmed that in a move to squash dissent within North Korea’s ruling elite, the once-powerful uncle of Leader Kim Jong Un was removed from his government position at a Ruling Workers’ Party politburo meeting.

Jang Song Thaek, who is married to Kim Jong Un’s aunt, was the vice chairman of North Korea’s top military body and has often been pictured beside Kim, who has ruled North Korea since his father’s death in 2011.

“Some see this as perhaps the last part of the power consolidation phase, that Kim Jong Un has in fact removed all of the old guard close to his father and is now finalizing the inserting of his own inner group,” said John Park, a Northeast Asia analyst at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Jang and his allies were accused by Kim of double-dealing behind the scene, “dreaming different dreams” and selling off the country’s resources at cheap prices, thereby threatening North Korea’s economic development, according to the KCNA statement.

“Jang desperately worked to form a faction within the party by creating illusion about him and winning those weak in faith and flatterers to his side,” the statement said.

The public document also scolds Jang for improper relations with several women, drug use, gambling, eating at expensive restaurants and getting medical treatment in a foreign country.

Last week two close allies of Jang — Lee Yong-ha and Jang Soo-kee — were publicly executed, South Korean lawmakers said at a news conference.

Images of Jang Song Thaek erased from North Korean footage

South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers last week that it believes Jang Song Thaek was likely sacked. Jang — who is married to Kim Jong Un’s aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, the younger sister of Kim Jong Il — has held a string of top jobs, including in the National Defense Commission, the government’s top ruling body. He was considered a major influence on the young leader as he consolidated power after Kim Jong Il’s December 2011 death.

Now, images of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle have been removed from an official state TV documentary, a disappearing act that appears to lend credence to Seoul’s claim that Pyongyang’s second most powerful official may have been purged by his nephew.

On Saturday, North Korea’s state TV repeated a documentary on Kim Jong Un’s military inspection trips. Although Jang appeared throughout the version that aired on Oct. 28, images of him had vanished from the new version. North Korea has previously deleted the images of purged officials from state videos and publications, according to a South Korean government agency that tracks North Korean propaganda.

In one scene in the original version, the bespectacled Jang can be seen wearing a winter parka and standing behind Kim Jong Un as the leader shakes hands with a soldier. But Jang cannot be seen in Saturday’s version, which has the same title and narration.

Elsewhere in the older version, he is seen clapping his hands from a distance as a uniformed officer speaks to Kim. But the new version only shows what appear to be parts of Jang’s right arm, chest and abdomen.

An official at South Korea’s Unification Ministry said that 17 scenes showing Jang had been removed from the original documentary.

The removal of Jang’s images in the documentary serves as indirect confirmation of his dismissal, analyst Cheong Seong-chang at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea said in an email. “The fact that North Korea has erased Jang’s face from the documentary … indicates that efforts to completely root out his influence are spreading to every level.”

Jang’s position will likely be better understood, analysts say, if he appears at state-organized events on Dec. 17 to mark the second anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death.

Pyongyang has said nothing about Jang’s fate or the new version of the documentary. Jang was last seen in state media about a month ago.

[Manchester Journal]

Merrill Newman released by North Korea

North Korea on Saturday deported an elderly U.S. tourist, apparently ending the saga of Merrill Newman‘s return to the North six decades after he advised South Korean guerrillas still loathed by Pyongyang.

North Korea made the decision because the 85-year-old Newman, who was detained since late October, apologized for his alleged crimes during the Korean War and because of his age and medical condition, according to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.

“I am very glad to be on my way home,” a smiling Newman told reporters after arriving at the airport in Beijing from Pyongyang. “And I appreciate the tolerance the (North Korean) government has given me to be on my way.”

Last month, Newman read from an awkwardly worded alleged confession that apologized for, among other things, killing North Koreans during the war. Former South Korean guerrillas who had worked with Newman and fought behind enemy lines during the war disputed some of the details.

Members of the former South Korean guerrilla group said in an interview last week with The Associated Press that Newman was their adviser. Some have expressed surprise that Newman would take the risk of visiting North Korea given his association with their group, which is still remembered with keen hatred in the North. Others, however, were amazed Pyongyang still considered Newman a threat. Park Chan-wu, a former guerrilla who worked with Newman during the war, said Saturday. “It’s been 60 years since he worked as our adviser.”

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf urged Pyongyang to pardon “as a humanitarian gesture” another American, Kenneth Bae, who has been held in the North for more than a year.

Before Newman, North Korea detained at least six Americans since 2009. Five of them have been either released or deported after prominent Americans like former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter travelled to Pyongyang.

[AP]

Satellite images show North Korean gulag prisons growing

Hundreds of thousands of people, including children, are detained in political prison camps and other detention facilities in North Korea. Many have not committed any crime whatsoever but are merely family members of those deemed guilty. They are detained as a form of collective punishment known officially in North Korea as “guilt-by-association”.

Amnesty International has shared the latest evidence with the UN Commission of Inquiry investigating human rights abuses in North Korea. The report is entitled “North Korea: Continued Investment in the Infrastructure of Repression”.

Researcher Rajiv Narayan, said:

  • “Under its new leader Kim Jong-un, North Korea is violating every conceivable human right.
  • “[Political prison] camps are a gruesome and powerful tool at the heart of a vast network of repression.
  • “People are sent to the political prison camps without charge, let alone a trial, many of them simply for knowing someone who has fallen out of favor.”

North Korea’s vast infrastructure of repression was exposed in satellite images taken in May showing the development of two of the country’s largest political prison camps. In a comprehensive mapping of camps, known as kwanliso, ’15’ and ’16’, Amnesty International found new housing blocks, an expansion of work facilities and tight security with perimeter fences and guard towers clearly visible.

Significant economic activity – such as mining, logging and agriculture – is  clearly visible in the satellite images and there is an expansion of an industrial area within kwanliso 16. Forced hard labor is common in North Korea’s political prison camps which hold an estimated 130,000 prisoners.

Kim Young-soon, a former detainee in Camp 15 between 1980 and 1989, described a public execution she witnessed of two detainees who were caught attempting to escape. She explained how they were first “half beaten to death” and then:  “They were brought to a stage after they were badly beaten. The prisoners were tied to wooden stakes and shot three times in their head, chest and feet.”

[Daily Mail]

Rape and murder of female inmates in North Korean political prison camp

A former security guard at the largest political prison camp in North Korea has spoken out for the first time about the rape and murder of female inmates at the facility.

Mr Lee, a former security official at Camp 16 in the 1980s and 1990s, revealed the horror of daily life for prisoners at the site near Hwaseong in North Hamgyong province, which is approximately 215 square miles. He broke his silence to tell Amnesty International about the methods used to execute prisoners incarcerated in the Soviet-style, hidden ‘gulags’.

According to Mr Lee, women were killed after being brutally raped. “After a night of ‘servicing’ the officials, the women had to die because the secret could not get out. This happens at most of the political prison camps,” he said.

He also told how detainees were forced to dig their own graves and were then killed with hammer blows to their necks.

Mr Lee witnessed prison officers strangling detainees and then beating them to death with wooden sticks at the camp.

[Daily Mail]

New North Korean leadership not following past patterns

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who is experienced in negotiations with North Korea, says that North Korea’s detention of Americans Merrill Newman and Kenneth Bae signals a change.

According to Richardson, the two American hostages are being used as pawns in a game with the United States — but the stakes remain unclear. “The North Koreans are up to something. … Hopefully, they’ll make a move soon and we’ll get these two Americans out,” Richardson said.

Richardson, author of the new book, “How to Sweet-Talk a Shark: Strategies and Stories from a Master Negotiator,” said the detentions show Kim Jong Un “getting himself firmly in control — and I don’t think we should underestimate him. … He’s young, but he’s purged a lot of the old military leaders that were loyal to his father. He’s bringing his own people in, consolidating power.”

“… This new leadership, they’re not following the patterns that they had before like when I was negotiating,” the former governor said.

Richardson said he had helped get several hostages out of North Korea in the past. “But there was always a pattern. The pattern was there’s a confession, they apprehend them, but then they negotiate with high-profile people and they leave,” he said.

“In this case, there are two American detainees and the North Koreans, they’re acting very strange.”

“I went to North Korea in February with the head of Google, with Eric Schmidt, but the North Korean leader wouldn’t see us. He saw [basketball bad boy] Dennis Rodman.”

[Newsmax

The revamping of the North Korean power structure

Besides ousting his uncle and guardian Jang Song-taek, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appears to be completing revamping the power structure of the regime, now having replaced about half of the top cadres in the Workers Party, government and military in the year and 10 months since he took power.

According to the South Korean Unification Ministry, Kim has replaced 97 of 218 party heads, government ministers and senior military officers since his father Kim Jong-il died in December 2001.

And some 44 percent of military commanders have also been ousted, replacing elderly officers from Kim Jong-il’s time to younger officers (in their 50s).

South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae told lawmakers rumors that Jang Song-taek’s closest confidants Ri Yong-ha and Jang Su-gil were publicly executed in late November for damaging the Workers Party have been confirmed.

Jang’s brother-in-law, the North Korean Ambassador to Cuba, Jon Yong-jin, is apparently set to return to Pyongyang on Thursday. A diplomatic source in Beijing said Jon appears to have been recalled. Jang’s nephew and Ambassador to Malaysia Jang Yong-chol has already been recalled.

The Unification Minister said no harm appears to have come to Jang himself, though his whereabouts are a mystery.

Meanwhile, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is apparently away from Pyongyang, judging by a sighting of his personal train.

Challenging North Korean human rights policy

There is no more vexing issue than the challenge of how to support the improvement of human rights in North Korea, a country that has consistently ranked at the bottom of international indices rating human freedom around the world.

The U.S. Congress passed the North Korea Human Rights Act almost a decade ago, the United Nations has appointed a rapporteur to examine the human rights situation inside North Korea for almost as long, and the Korean Institute for National Unification has published an ever-growing annual white paper on North Korean human rights since 1996.

This year the UN Human Rights Council appointed a Commission of Inquiry that has held public hearings in Seoul, Tokyo, London, and Washington, DC; the commission will report back to the UN Human Rights Council with its assessment and recommendations by spring of next year.

But the stream of North Korean refugee testimony to unspeakable atrocities and evidence of systemic abuses inside North Korea continues to grow.

[Council on Foreign Relations]

Kim Jong Un sacks powerful uncle Jang Song Thaek

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is believed to have dismissed a powerful uncle, a man key to his rise to power, from his posts, South Korean lawmakers said on Tuesday, a move that could help consolidate his power base with a younger guard of aides.

Jang Song Thaek was likely sacked as vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission and as a department head of the ruling Workers’ Party, lawmaker Jung Cheong-rae said, citing a senior South Korean official with the National Intelligence Service (NIS).

Analysts who watch the North’s power structure say Jang’s removal would not have been possible without the approval of the third Kim to rule in the family dynasty, Kim Jong Un.

There was no immediate mention of Jang’s fate on North Korea’s KCNA news agency. Two members of the South Korean parliament’s Intelligence Committee told separate news briefings that the NIS had confirmed the public execution of two close aides to Jang in the North’s ruling Workers’ Party for corruption.

The removal of Jang, a key figure in the power transition following the 2011 death of Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, could tip the balance in the fiercely competitive group of confidants surrounding the current leader but was unlikely to impact on Kim Jong Un’s hold on power, experts said.

Koh Yu-hwan of Dongguk University in Seoul, a leading expert on the North’s leadership, said, “I think the young elite had Kim get rid of Jang, meaning that he will rule without a guardian.”

[Reuters]