Should US engage rather than isolate North Korea?

Under the Obama administration, U.S. policy toward North Korea largely has devolved into the president sitting in the Oval Office, closing his eyes, and hoping the nuclear monsters will go away. Alas, it hasn’t worked. Pyongyang has staged its 4th nuclear test and may well be working on the hydrogen bomb that it falsely claimed to have tested.

The administration’s frustration in dealing with the DPRK is understandable. Nothing seems to have worked. The latest member of the ruling Kim dynasty is unlikely to abandon his nation’s nuclear pretensions. In fact, the latest test came amid evidence of warming ties with the People’s Republic of China and reports of a possible invitation to Kim Jong-un to visit Beijing. Evidently Pyongyang cares no more about its ally’s than America’s opinion on the issue.

Washington is pressing the UN Security Council to approve additional sanctions; the House has passed legislation to impose additional unilateral economic penalties. But the Kims never have let their people’s suffering influence policy, the North’s economy remains largely isolated except for trade with China, and so far Beijing, though professing to support a “necessary response” by the UN, has refused to apply sufficient pressure to threaten the Kim regime’s survival.

If China did so the U.S., its allies South Korea and Japan, and China all might regret getting what they wished for. An abrupt and violent regime collapse could yield civil disorder, factional combat, loose nukes, and refugee tides. The consequences would overflow the DPRK’s boundaries. That could lead to Chinese military intervention to stabilize a new, pro-PRC government in Pyongyang. Then the Republic of Korea would face a renewed and likely permanent division of the peninsula.

The only other alternative? What Beijing has advocated all along: engagement with the North. Obviously, there’s no guarantee that this approach will work either. Nevertheless, it offers what the North most wants–direct contact with America. Talking to North Korea offers a better hope of success than ignoring it.

[Read full Huffington/World Post article]

North Korean refugee makes second application for temporary asylum in Russia

A refugee who fled a labor camp in North Korea — and faces almost certain death if deported back — has applied for a second time for temporary asylum in Russia.

The 36-year-old, whose name is being withheld due to safety concerns, is unlikely to receive asylum but activists will continue to appeal until he receives some sort of status or can be moved to a third country, human rights campaigner Svetlana Gannushkina said.

He still faces the threat of being deported or kidnapped by North Korean intelligence, which has seized North Koreans in Russia before, she said. In total the refugee has so far had one request for temporary asylum and two requests for permanent asylum rejected.

Of 211 North Koreans who appealed to the Russian migration service between 2004 and 2014, only two received asylum, while 90 received temporary asylum for one year, according to Gannushkina’s Citizen Assistance group.

North Korea and Russia signed an agreement in November to deport each other’s undocumented citizens. Although Russia has said those at risk of persecution would not be returned under the treaty, the migration service has previously ruled that this man did not prove that his life would be under particular threat in North Korea.

A November decision to refuse him temporary asylum seen by RBC newspaper said a significant number of people face persecution there and his “fears of being shot are connected only with North Korea employing the same punishment against all defectors”.

A 2014 UN investigation found that forcibly repatriated North Koreans are commonly subjected to torture, detention, execution or sexual violence.

The man first fled North Korea during a famine in 1997 and spent 10 years in China before he was deported and sent to a labor camp. He managed to escape to China again and crossed into Russia in 2013, where he was arrested and only allowed to apply for asylum after a hunger strike.

[The Guardian]

China backs UN move to denounce North Korea over nuclear test

Secretary of State John F. Kerry and China’s foreign minister agreed Wednesday to move ahead with a U.N. resolution condemning North Korea for its latest nuclear test, but they appeared as far apart as ever on how far to push Pyongyang.

The United States says any additional U.N. action against the North is likely to include greater sanctions.

Beijing, a critical ally for North Korea, was angered by the nuclear test earlier this month but had not indicated whether it would endorse further pressures. As a permanent U.N. Security Council member, China could use its veto power to block any measures.

While both agreed that more sanctions are warranted, they said the details would have to be resolved in talks at the U.N. Security Council in coming days.

[Washington Post]

The detention of Otto Warmbier in North Korea

The detention of Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old University of Virginia economics major who had chosen to spend his New Year’s vacation in North Korea, comes at a particularly difficult, or opportune, time, depending on how you choose to interpret it. Just days after he was arrested, North Korea conducted what it said was its first H-bomb test.

According to Warmbier’s tour agent, Young Pioneer Tours, he was almost on his plane home when officials pulled him aside, took him into a special room at the Pyongyang airport and placed him under arrest for allegedly committing an as-yet-undisclosed hostile act against the state. North Korea says he is under investigation and acted with the “tacit connivance of the U.S. government and under its manipulation.”

Initial announcements by North Korea rarely say much about the actual crime, and linking it to the U.S. government in their first statement to the world through state-run media is highly uncommon. North Korea and the United States are still technically at war and have no diplomatic relations.

Warmbier is still under lock-and-key, possibly in the relative comfort of the Yanggakdo, a tourist hotel where his group had stayed that has previously been used to keep detainees until they are deported or more formal legal measures are taken.

Though not a tourist, one more American, missionary Kim Dong Chul, believed to be a naturalized citizen of Korean descent, is reportedly in North Korean custody along with a Canadian-Korean missionary who is serving a life sentence.

[AP]

Reform in Stalinist North Korea would come at a price

North Korean founder Kim Il Sung (left) with son Kim Jong Il

A new book claims Kim il-Sung, the father of Kim Jong-il and grandfather of current North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, ordered officials to shoot his successor if he ever tried to lead the country away from its Stalinist system.

Ra Jong-yil, the former head of South Korea’s national intelligence service, claims he was told about Kim il-Sung’s plan by a Pyongyang insider, who described how the inner circle were handed the guns and ordered to assassinate Kim Jong-il if he tried to change how the country is run.

Mr Ra told the Sunday Telegraph: ”Kim Il-sung had seen by the experiences of the Soviet Union what would happen if you start reforming or meddling with a dysfunctional system. The whole system inevitably collapses. He could not let that happen”.

Mr Ra’s new book, The Path Taken by Jang Song-thack: A Rebellous Outsider, also claims Kim Jong-il wanted to end the hereditary system of rule which made Kim Jong-un his successor. Instead, the book argues, he wanted the country to be ruled by a committee of 10, but because he died in 2011 before he could set the wheels in motion, his plans never came to fruition.

The book is named after Jang Song-thack, the uncle who helped Kim Jong-un through the first months of his dictatorship after the death of his father. Mr Jang was executed in December 2013 on charges including “gnawing at the unity and cohesion of the party” and “dreaming different dreams”.

[Daily Mail]

American student in North Korean custody

Otto Frederick Warmbier, a 21-year-old University of Virginia economics student, was reportedly seized at Pyongyang airport before his scheduled flight to China on January 2. The Korean-language state broadcaster KCNA said Warmbier “aimed to destroy the country’s unity” and was being “manipulated by the U.S. government.”

Unconfirmed reports from a passenger suggested the American was dragged away by armed guards. The witness also told the U.K.’s Independent daily that Warmbier’s tour group “were up until four or five in the morning drinking vodka and having fun.”

According to Adam Cathcart, a North Korea specialist at the University of Leeds, in England, while the post-detention treatment of individuals is always political and used for domestic and international propaganda, “the arrests themselves are usually triggered by behavior that the North Korean authorities can classify as illegal.”

Most recently these include Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for proselytizing, and Matthew Todd Miller, a 25-year-old American whom the North Koreans accused of espionage. Both were subsequently released.

[TIME]

Will China rein in North Korea this time?

North Korea tested a nuclear weapon this month, and China officially said it was “firmly opposed” to the test, which is considered harsh language in some quarters — as if North Korea’s patron was finally fed up with these dangerous antics and was going to bring the hammer down.

Well, not quite. China also expressed unhappiness when North Korea first tested a weapon in 2006, calling it “brazen.” [Seven years later] after Pyongyang’s 2013 test, Asian analysts noted that China’s patience was “wearing thin.”

China shares an 880-mile border with North Korea, a nation of 25 million people who mainly live in dire poverty. The global power also shares a communist ideology, though both nations have evolved beyond Karl Marx to meet their particular needs. While it uses North Korea as a bargaining chip in international relations, China also has legitimate concerns about keeping the nation from falling apart, a scenario often raised to argue against putting more sanctions on the Kim Jong Un regime.

Yet China cannot continue to indulge its unruly neighbor, like a permissive parent who winks at a teenager’s destructive antics. The current gyrations in China’s financial sector, reflecting deep-seated weaknesses in its economic model, should make it behave with more caution on the world stage.

[Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]

One of many opinions on North Korea

An excerpt of a CounterPunch article by Winslow Myers, author of “Living Beyond War:

“As North Korea dug tunnels at its nuclear test site last fall, watched by American spy satellites, the Obama administration was preparing a test of its own in the Nevada desert. A fighter jet took off with a mock version of the nation’s first precision-guided atom bomb. Adapted from an older weapon, it was designed with problems like North Korea in mind: Its computer brain and four maneuverable fins let it zero in on deeply buried targets like testing tunnels and weapon sites. And its yield, the bomb’s explosive force, can be dialed up or down depending on the target, to minimize collateral damage.” —The New York Times, January 10, 2016

Is there no bottom to the depth of our hypocrisy, we masters of war and merchants of death? We whited wraiths who grind the faces of the poor, who tax them to pay for world-destroying weapons to “pacify” millions across the waters who are more desperate than our own poor?

By what logic do we assume we are one jot or tittle different from or better than the North Koreans? What makes our own arrogant and pompous leaders one whit less adolescent than theirs? We are subject like the North Koreans to the same self-perpetuating paranoia, the same lack of moral imagination, the same suppression of truth-telling, the same wildly unnecessary secrets and lies, the same demagogic rationalizations of the status quo, the same folly of an endless arms race, the same nuclear dictatorship that leaves citizens without a voice when world-ending decisions are made.   Read more

Analysis of North Korea’s computer system

The first in-depth analysis of North Korea’s internal computer operating system has revealed spying tools capable of tracking documents offline.

Hidden features on Red Star OS (designed to superficially mimic Apple’s OS X) allow it to watermark files and tie them to an individual. Any files uploaded to the system via a USB stick or other storage device can be watermarked, allowing the state to trace the journey of that file from machine to machine. Red Star can also identify undesirable files and delete them without permission.

The covert tools were discovered by two German researchers who conducted the analysis over the past month. German researcher Florian Grunow said. “It enables [North Korean authorities] to keep track of where a document hits Red Star OS for the first time and who opened it. Basically, it allows the state to track documents.”

The idea for an internal operating system was first conceived by Kim Jong-il, according to Mr Grunow. “He said North Korea must create their own operating system and that is what they’ve done.

The extent to which Red Star is used in North Korea is not known. It is likely installed in libraries and other public buildings, says Mr Grunow, where operating systems can be decided by the state.

[BBC]

North Korea again talks of a peace treaty with USA

North Korea on Saturday called for the conclusion of a peace treaty with the United States and a halt to U.S. military exercises with South Korea to end its nuclear tests.

The isolated state has long sought a peace treaty with the United States, as well as an end to the exercises by South Korea and the United States, which has about 28,500 troops based in South Korea.

Asked if the United States would consider a halt to joint exercises, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said it had alliance commitments to South Korea.

Asked earlier this week about North Korea’s call for a peace treaty, the State Department reiterated its position that it remained open to dialogue with North Korea but said “the onus is on North Korea to take meaningful actions toward de-nuclearization and refrain from provocations.”

[Reuters]