Kim Jong-un’s sister consolidates power

Kim Yeo-jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister, appears to have risen to a position of considerable power in the secretive regime. Yeo-jong now holds a key post in the Workers Party’s department in charge of promotions and appointments. Senior officials like Army politburo chief Hwang Pyong-so now salute her.

Kim Yeo-jong rose quickly through the party ranks and consolidated her position, thanks to her quick wit and natural political acumen. Since September last year, she has been her brother’s de facto secretary, with most documents being submitted for approval by Kim passing through her desk, according to some intelligence sources.

“Rumors began spreading late last year that the fastest way of getting Kim Jong-un’s attention is to go through Kim Yeo-jong,” the source said. “She’s gaining power by controlling the information and deciding who gets to contact him.”

Kim Yeo-jong apparently won the trust of senior officials by consoling them and offering them advice when they were criticized by her brother. The two of them are seen as a classic good cop/bad cop act.

But her political ambitions have apparently led to some jealousy in the family. “When Yeo-jong was on maternity leave in May last year, Kim Jong-un’s wife Ri Sol-ju appointed a close relative of hers, and that frayed their relationship,” another source said.

A source said Kim Yeo-jong’s husband is a university professor in Pyongyang and comes from an ordinary background, denying recent rumors that she is married to the son of senior official Choe Ryong-hae.

[Chosun Ilbo]

Another American held by North Korea ‘confesses’

An American detained in North Korea said he had spied against the country and asked for forgiveness at a media presentation Friday, nine days after an American student Otto Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labor for subversion.

Kim Tong Chol told a press conference in Pyongyang that he had collaborated with and spied for South Korean intelligence authorities in a plot to bring down the North’s leadership and tried to spread religious ideas among North Koreans. Describing his acts as “shameful and ineffaceable,” Kim said he feels sorry for his crime and appealed to North Korean authorities to show him mercy by forgiving him.

Kim Tong Chol was born in South Korea and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. In an interview with CNN in January, Kim said he lived in Fairfax, Virginia, before moving in 2011 to Yangji, a city near the Chinese-North Korean border. He said he commuted daily to Rason, a special economic zone in North Korea, where he was president of a trade and hotel services company.

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, the country’s main spy agency, said Kim’s case wasn’t related to the organization in any way and offered no further comment.

North Korea is currently holding three South Koreans and a Canadian pastor for what it calls espionage and attempts to establish churches and use religion to destroy the North’s system.

[AP]

China’s Xi to push Obama next week on North Korea talks

China is North Korea’s sole major ally but it strongly disapproves of its nuclear program and was angered by its fourth nuclear test in January and a subsequent rocket launch.

Now it seems, Chinese President Xi Jinping will push President Barack Obama next week to resume talks on the North Korean nuclear issue, a senior diplomat said on Thursday.

Xi and Obama will have their first meeting this year on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in Washington next week, and will talk about North Korea.

China has been calling for a resumption of so-called six-party talks between the two Koreas, China, the United States, Japan and Russia aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Russia has also urged Pyongyang to return to negotiations. Numerous efforts to restart the talks have failed since they collapsed following the last round in 2008.

[Reuters]

In search of Kim Jong Un’s motive …Survival

North Korea watchers haven’t been getting much sleep this year. With all the bluster of late, what does Kim Jong Un want?

“There are a lot of debates about ‘What North Korea wants,’ ” says Sheena Greitens, a fellow in the Center for East Asia Policy Studies and an assistant professor at the University of Missouri. “First, what matters are the interests of the very top leadership, which is narrower than ‘North Korea’ or even ‘the North Korean government.’ Second, North Korea might use a range of strategies … but we should remember that they’re all aimed at the same underlying, fundamental objective: ensuring Kim’s political survival.”

March is always a time of heightened tensions. This is when the U.S. and South Korea stage their annual joint military exercises, involving hundreds of thousands of troops. This year, the North has been especially demonstrative as it lays the groundwork for a major strategy meeting, its first Workers Party Congress since 1980.

The Chinese Communist Party holds these summits every few years to chart strategy, a common practice of communist states. In North Korea, the party congress framework was dropped under Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, who ruled from 1994 until his death in 2011. Soon to be revived under his son, the congress is expected to roll out the next phase of Kim’s rule.

“The stakes are always higher in the first few years of a dictator’s time in power, and the first few years are almost always more [internally] violent,” Greitens says. “The rules of the game under the new leader are still being established — both inside the country and externally — so it makes uncertainty higher.”

As the third-generation leader of the family dynasty, Kim needs to establish his own legitimacy, and that means standing up to enemies and advancing the nuclear program.

“I don’t think it’s all scientific tests,” Hanham says. “I think a lot of this is political.”

[NPR]

North Korea’s record on human trafficking top focus of House hearing

The soon-to-be-released U.S. State Department’s 2016 trafficking report will be the topic of a hearing planned by U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, Chairman of the House congressional panel that oversees global human rights issues. Smith is the author of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a law which mandates the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report.

“Get It Right This Time: A Victims-Centered Trafficking in Persons Report,” is the title of the hearing to be held before the House Foreign Affairs Committee subcommittee on global human rights.

[Christian Newswire] 

North Korea: Flash drives for freedom

Smuggling 20,000 USB sticks loaded with the latest Hollywood films might seem like an unlikely way to try to overthrow the North Korean regime – but that’s exactly what Flashdrives for Freedom has in mind.

Launched by the New York-based Human Rights Foundation and Silicon Valley non-profit Forum280, organizers ask Americans to donate their unwanted USB sticks, which will then be loaded with a selection of films and TV shows and smuggled across the DPRK’s sealed borders.

Although it’s not the first project to smuggle in information, campaigners say the need to support and engage citizens has grown in recent months. Tong Kim, who has worked in US-Korea diplomatic relations for more than 25 years, says this is partly because international sanctions often isolate North Koreans even more.

Sharon Stratton, programme officer at the North Korea Strategy Centre which is helping to distribute the drives, says popular culture from elsewhere is a powerful way to reach out to ordinary citizens.

[The Guardian]

China’s thinking on North Korea

The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, lauded China last week for joining Washington in what is probably the toughest response North Korea has faced in twenty years. But such praise may well have been premature. Last week, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Beijing opposed any unilateral punishments against North Korea.

The grim reality is that Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un decided that North Korea must have nuclear weapons, and that China has thus far decided that, as far as Beijing is concerned, the benefits of that program outweigh the costs.

China has made many pledges on North Korean sanctions in the past, but has always failed to honor them and to systematically enforce its commitments. China may be keeping the regime afloat through its provision of economic and military resources—better after all to feed North Koreans in North Korea than risk a massive refugee exodus into China if the regime collapses—and can rationally justify this as a good investment on these grounds.

Front and center on the cost side of the ledger is Beijing’s concern that North Korea’s nuclear tests, missile tests, saber rattling and occasional limited uses of force will cause South Korea and Japan to develop their own nuclear weapons to deal with the menace that Pyongyang represents. This is the outcome that China above all seeks to avoid.

Short of this, but still deeply problematic, is that North Korea’s provocations push Seoul and Tokyo deeper into Washington’s embrace. For a country bent on, at minimum, increasing the costs of U.S. influence in East Asia and/or impeding U.S. activity in its littoral seas through anti-access and area denial capabilities and actively expanding its influence and territory, improving Washington’s security relationship with Japan and South Korea is the last thing Beijing wants.

Beijing has thus far decided that the benefits of a nuclear North Korea outweigh these costs. But as Pyongyang pushes closer to its ultimate goal of being able to target the mainland United States with strategic nuclear missiles, these calculations will become harder.

[The National Interest]

Why analysts of North Korea aren’t laughing

Bruce Klingner knows better than anyone how dangerous North Korea really is. He spent years analyzing the Hermit Kingdom for the CIA, and he now works as a Northeast Asia analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

And yet even he finds himself having an occasional chuckle at the North’s absurdity. The bombastic rhetoric and over-the-top propaganda is “kind of like 1950s Soviet Union on steroids,” he says.

But over the past few months, the experts have pretty much stopped laughing. That’s because North Korea has undertaken an unusual number of tests in the first quarter of 2016, everything from detonating a nuclear bomb underground to launching a satellite on a rocket that could be converted to a ballistic missile.

Keeping up with the pace of activity is “exhausting, to be honest,” says Melissa Hanham, a North Korea analyst at the East Asia Nonproliferation Program of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey California.

What’s clear, both analysts say, is that the North is working quickly towards its ultimate goal: a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on top of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). And they’re making pretty good progress.

A series of photos released by North Korea’s propaganda apparatus earlier this March is perhaps the best example of how views are changing. It shows the country’s current dictator, Kim Jong Un, the son of Kim Jong Il, posing in front a shiny silver ball placed atop chintzy red table cloth.

As experts started to analyze the pictures more closely, they weren’t laughing. The ball on the table was obviously a model, but many of the details were reasonably close to a real miniaturized warhead.

“They definitely know what a bomb looks like,” Hanham says. “I mean, that model didn’t come out of thin air. … It has roots in the truth.”

Adm. Bill Gortney, who heads the North American Aerospace Defense Command, told lawmakers: “It’s the prudent decision on my part to assume that [Kim Jong Un] has the capability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon and put it on an ICBM.” This is a change in tone from just a few years ago, when the U.S. intelligence community stated that North Korea didn’t have all the tools it needed to send a nuke over American soil.

Both Klingner and Hanham say there’s no need to panic. North Korea’s newest ballistic missile is untested, and they have yet to prove they have vital reentry technology that would allow their warhead to reach its target without burning up in the atmosphere. But Klingner also says it’s clear that North Korea is making lots of progress.

 [NPR]

After more than twenty years of sanctions against North Korea

The economy and people of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has suffered through decades of international sanctions.

The health system of DPRK has been one of the most impacted sectors. International aid organizations and aid workers who are active in DPRK have been quite straightforward and linked the collapse of the vital public services to the international sanctions. Surgery anesthetics, common antibiotics, obstetric medicines, spare parts of medical devices and laboratory supplies cannot be imported or are significantly delayed to enter the country if some of their parts or substances are listed as prohibited goods.

Even a product which is almost entirely made in a third country but it has a component or a spare part made by a US based company, cannot be imported to North Korea without the permit of the US authorities. Those restrictions apply to everything, from the import of much needed technology to modernize public services, to spare parts of agricultural machinery, fertilizers and pesticides.

Even the donation of soccer balls is considered a breach of the international sanctions because the 1874 resolution of the UNSC includes all sports goods in its list of luxury items. Accordingly, in the autumn of 2013 the cargo of an American Charity was confiscated; it contained 1000 soccer balls to be donated to two North Korean orphanages.

The years of 2013 and 2014 were probably the worst for aid organizations working in DPRK. The sanctions against the Bank of Foreign Commerce of North Korea had frozen all financial transactions and the aid groups were unable to pay salaries to their staff, rent and utilities bills. Even the World Food Program (WFP) had to suspend production in five out of its seven factories producing fortified biscuits for malnourished children. More than half a million children were dependent on the WFP ratio for their daily nutritional needs.

But as far as the country’s elite, even with the sanctions they have never really suffered. Chanel goods, Italian wines, foreign cigarettes, Swiss watches were still largely available in Pyongyang and the major cities and the nuclear program continued to develop.

The question is: Is there any justification for the international sanctions besides their political significance?

[Read full CounterPunch article by Fragkiska Megaloudi]

Harrowing reality of North Korean labor camps

Korean citizens who have survived the ordeal of North Korean political prison camps and escaped the regime emerge with harrowing tales of the compatriots and family members who didn’t make it – most killed off by the cruel combination of prolonged near-starvation and slavish forced labor.

“Conditions are horrific. People are worked for 14, 15 or 16 hours every day with just a handful of corn to live on and they are intentionally starved and worked to death,” said Suzanne Scholte, chairman of the North Korea freedom coalition, a group of organizations based in Washington DC assisting defectors and campaigning for improved human rights. “Torture is common, there is no medical aid and the sanitation is horrible. They wear the torn uniforms of old prisoners and sleep crammed together in a room.”

North Korea denies the existence of vast political prison camps, but according to a 2014 UN special commission report, a combination of satellite imagery and extensive human testimony proves they are still in operation and are used to perpetrate “unspeakable atrocities” on hapless citizens, who simply disappear with no word to their families even if they subsequently die in detention.

The UN reported systematic starvation, torture, rape and many executions at such camps, which hold an estimated total of 80,000 to 120,000 prisoners in the most wretched conditions.  “The commission estimates that hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have perished in these camps over the past five decades,” the report said.

A 2009 legal report from South Korea cited prisoners being fed starvation rations of a few ounces of rotten corn and some kind of thin “salt soup”. “They lose their teeth, their gums turn black, their bones weaken and, as they age, they hunch over at the waist … they live and die in rags, without soap, socks or underwear,” the Washington Post reported at the time.

Former prisoners sentenced to just 18 months hard labor recalled fellow inmates not surviving amid the constant beatings and malnutrition. They often work in the fields, logging in forests, down mines with no safety measures or crude factories where injuries are rampant, Scholte said.

And in another account, a man who was arrested as a teenager trying to sneak out of North Korea, Hyuk Kim, recalled subsisting at a lower-level labor camp by catching rats, drying them out and eating the flesh raw. “If you tried to cook the rats, the guards would smell the meat or fire, catch you and beat you mercilessly,” the 33-year-old defector later said.

 [The Guardian]