Kim Jong-un gets another new title

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been named Chairman of an organ called the Commission on State Affairs, a new body established under a revised constitution adopted by the parliament and which replaces the powerful National Defense Commission. Pundits speculate that the aim of restoring this agency is a decisive move away from the military-first doctrine, as part of Kim junior’s ongoing attempts to bring the unruly military to heel and gain full control of the state.

The North Korean leader now has nine titles, most amounting to the same thing, including:

  • Chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers Party
  • Member of the standing committee of the Politburo
  • Workers Party chairman
  • Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army
  • Chairman of the military committee of the Workers Party
  • First Chairman of the National Defense Commission
  • Chairman of the Commission on State Affairs.

[Chosun Ilbo]

More North Korean workers defect from China

Several North Korean women reportedly defected from their work site in the Chinese city of Dandong – a month after a group of waitresses fled a state-run restaurant in central China.

Kim Seong-min, a defector in South Korea who heads Free North Korea Radio, said seven or eight North Korean women escaped their place of work on Saturday.

In response, North Korea’s state security department dispatched agents to China to track down the women, with the cooperation of Chinese security, Kim said.

Kim told Yonhap the women were all in their 20s, and they were working at a Chinese-owned company, although he did not specify whether the site was a factory or another establishment.

[UPI]

Chinese tourism to North Korea

“Every day we send dozens of people across to Sinuiju for one- or four-day trips,“ says local travel agent Li Qiang, referring to North Korea’s third largest city that sits opposite Dandong. “Anyone can go — except Americans, Japanese and South Koreans.” Boat tours weave between North Korean islands that sit in the middle of the waterway. For about an hour, passengers are completely surrounded by North Korean territory.

“I’m really curious and wanted to see the mysterious North Korea,” says Luan Shicai, a 42-year-old hairdresser from provincial capital Shenyang, standing by a Chinese government sign that warns visitors against throwing food to the North Koreans. “After seeing their life, it makes me feel good about my life here.”

“More and more foreigners are coming here to see North Korea,” says the captain called Mr. Kang, explaining that he makes 10 trips a day in peak season. A single-engine longboat approaches driven by a man in black flat-cap, utility waistcoat and cloth trousers rolled up to his knees. He begins hawking an assortment of wares — eggs, North Korean cigarettes, plastic tubs of kimchi pickled cabbage, “tiger bone” liquor. But he’s not a chancing smuggler — he’s an employee of the North Korean government, running probably the world’s smallest duty-free shop.

“He can collect 2,000-3,000 yuan [$300-500] a day,” says Mr. Kang, as he guns the engine away. “But he gives all that to the government. He only gets paid 50 yuan [$7.5] per month. That’s an extremely good wage in North Korea.”

[TIME]

China and Russia on North Korea’s nuclear missile strategy

The leaders of Russia and China have agreed that they will not accept North Korea’s nuclear and missile strategy, but they reaffirmed their opposition to a possible deployment of an advanced U.S. missile defense system in South Korea, according to their joint statement Monday. The statement was issued after Russian President Vladimir Putin held a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping last Saturday in Beijing.

Putin and Xi said they agreed that the long-stalled six-party talks are the best way to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Separately, a North Korean nuclear envoy who visited Beijing last week said Pyongyang wouldn’t return to the negotiating table on the country’s nuclear weapons program.

Putin and Xi also agreed that they would fully implement U.N. sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

Russia and China have long voiced opposition to the deployment of a THAAD battery to South Korea, claiming that the U.S. missile shield may undermine the strategic balance in the region. South Korea and the U.S. have dismissed the concerns, saying the THAAD system is defensive in nature and would only target North Korea.

[Yonhap]

Why North Korea won’t abandon its nukes

The top North Korean official for U.S. relations told The Associated Press on Friday that his country is now a nuclear threat to be reckoned with, and Washington can expect more nuclear tests and missile launches like the ones earlier this week as long as it attempts to force his government’s collapse through a policy of pressure and punishment.

“It’s the United States that caused this issue,” Han Song Ryol, director-general of the department of U.S. affairs at North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, said in his first interview with an American news organization since assuming the post three years ago. “They have to stop their military threats, sanctions and economic pressure. Without doing so, it’s like they are telling us to reconcile while they are putting a gun to our forehead.”

Han defended the North’s test-launching on Wednesday of two medium-range ballistic missiles. Foreign military experts believe that, once perfected, such missiles could deliver nuclear warheads to U.S. bases in Japan and possibly to major U.S. military installations as far away as the Pacific island of Guam, where long-range U.S. Air Force bombers are deployed. The tests indicated technological advances in the North’s missile capabilities.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said U.S. policy calling for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula hasn’t changed. He said, “We urge the North to take the necessary steps to prove that they’re willing to return to the six-party talk process, so that we can get to that goal.”

Han dismissed the criticism, saying North Korea has no choice but to build up its military deterrent as long as the world’s largest superpower — and the country that first developed nuclear weapons — remains an enemy. He noted that the U.S. recently deployed nuclear-powered submarines and strategic bombers capable of dropping nuclear weapons on North Korea to the region, and earlier this year conducted training for precision airstrikes on North Korea’s leadership, along with simulations of an advance into the capital, Pyongyang, with the South Korean military during joint annual exercises.

He held out the possibility of dialogue with the United States, but only if Washington agrees to “drop its hostile policies,” replace the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War with a lasting peace treaty, and withdraw its troops based in South Korea.

[AP]

Why North Korea dispatching workers abroad

China is North Korea’s only major trading partner, and roughly 70% of all the goods that pass between these neighbors comes across Dandong’s rickety iron bridge, or on the ships that chug between the riverbanks. But following Pyongyang’s recent barrage of nuclear and missile tests, Beijing signed up to unprecedented U.N. sanctions in March. Chinese imports of coal — North Korea’s main cash cow — and exports of building materials and assorted household goods have been slashed.

Because of the ramped up sanctions, North Korea now relies heavily on dispatching workers abroad to earn foreign currency — most commonly to China, but also to Russia and the Middle East. There are around 50,000-60,000 laborers working abroad in factories, fields and restaurants. Their below-standard wages are collected directly by the authorities, with only a tiny fraction kept for the workers themselves.

Different North Korean government departments also run around 130 restaurants in foreign cities such as Beijing, Rangoon, Dhaka, Vladivostok and Phnom Penh. Dandong has many such enterprises — the largest employing more than 200 North Korean staff; others just a handful.

Waitresses typically remain for three-year stints and hail from Pyongyang. Working abroad is deemed a mighty privilege in North Korea, and citizens permitted to live in the capital are considered the most loyal. Security is tight, nonetheless: girls reside together in dormitories under the watchful gaze of minders, who sit in the rear of restaurant during their shifts, conspicuous by their dour demeanors and gleaming Kim Il Sung pins.

[TIME]

South Korea continues questioning North Korean defectors

South Korea’s intelligence agency will continue to hold 13 North Koreans at the heart of a bitter dispute between the rival countries. South Korea says they defected of their own free will, while the North claims they were abducted.

Intelligence officers want longer to question the group of 12 waitresses and a manager at a North Korea-run restaurant in China, who arrived in Seoul in April. The move came ahead of a South Korean court’s decision to delay a request for a hearing by a group of lawyers. The lawyers want to question the group about whether they defected freely, after the intelligence agency refused to present them in court.

The National Intelligence Service has held the group since they arrived in South Korea on April 7 at a facility it runs on the southern outskirts of Seoul. More than 1,000 people from North Korea stay at the facility each year in the initial stages of defection. For up to 180 days, they are screened and questioned on their lives in the North.

The agency’s decision to extend the women’s stay means they will not be moved to a resettlement complex where defectors spend 12 weeks learning about life in the South.

[The Guardian]

Kim Jong Un oversees successful launch of a ballistic missile

Kim Jong Un oversaw what looks like the successful launch of a ballistic missile that reached an altitude of 1,000 km and got over half way to Japan’s main island of Honshu.

Experts said the launch, which came after five failed tests including one earlier the same day, marked progress in North Korea’s weapons program, and underlined Kim’s steely determination as well as his patience with scientists involved.

Reclusive North Korea’s state propaganda has painted Kim as a demanding but generous and understanding leader willing to forgive the failures of its scientists.

That contrasts with his reputation overseas as ruthless and impulsive, after he executed his own uncle, replaced his defense chief five times and defied the world with two nuclear tests.

Michael Madden, an expert on political leadership in the North who has contributed to the Washington-based 38 North think-tank, said rumors of technicians behind failures being shot or purged were “nonsense”.

“One thing to note is that people don’t get shot behind failures,” said Madden, who edits North Korea Leadership Watch. “They get shot because they lie in their reporting or refuse to accept responsibility.”

[Reuters]

North Korea reacts to publicity generated by ex-captive Kenneth Bae

North Korea has a message for former captive Kenneth Bae: Stop talking, or else U.S. prisoners in Pyongyang’s custody won’t be released.

State-controlled news agency KCNA said Monday that North Korea will “neither make any compromise nor conduct negotiations” with the United States as long as Bae keeps “jabbering” about his term of imprisonment, Yonhap reported.

“American criminals now in custody in [North Korea] will never be able to go back to the U.S.,” KCNA added.

North Korea has in custody two U.S. citizens: University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier and Kim Dong Chul, a resident of Fairfax, Va.

Bae, a U.S. missionary who was arrested in 2012 and released in 2014, had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea on charges of carrying out religious activities. The imprisonment took a heavy toll on Bae’s health, and he was hospitalized three times for diabetes, an enlarged heart and back pain. Bae recently published a memoir and has been interviewed by several U.S. television networks.

[UPI]