North Korea ‘racing ahead’ on nuclear plan, diplomat defector says

Political uncertainty in the United States and in South Korea could give North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “an apt time” to develop nuclear weapons “at all costs by the end of 2017,” a high-profile North Korean diplomat who recently defected to South Korea said Tuesday.

“Due to domestic political procedures, North Korea calculates that South Korea and the US will not be able to take physical or military actions to deter North Korea’s nuclear development,” Thae Yong-ho, formerly No. 2 at the North Korean Embassy in London, said in a news briefing, according to the Yonhap News Agency.

Thae said Kim has no plans to give up the country’s nukes even if he is offered huge sums of money, saying the leader is “racing ahead with nuclear development after setting up a plan to develop it (nuclear weapons) at all costs by the end of 2017.”

Pyongyang will then try to open dialogue with Seoul and Washington’s new administrations as a nuclear-possessing state, Thae predicted of the North’s strategy to obtain a nuclear power status.

Until then, North Korea will continue to launch military provocations and conduct nuclear tests in a bid to frustrate Seoul and Washington’s sanctions-concentrated policy towards Pyongyang, Thae said.

Tuesday was the 55-year-old Thae’s first appearance to the media since he escaped his post in London to take refuge in South Korea along with his wife and two sons in July.

[CNN]

Kim Jong Un wants Christians to celebrate his grandmother’s birthday, not Jesus’

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has reportedly replaced Christmas with celebrations honoring his deceased grandmother. While Christians remain a minority in North Korea, Kim has declared Dec. 25 a holiday to pay tribute to Kim Jong Suk, who died in 1949, according to media reports Sunday.

Kim’s grandmother was born on Christmas Eve in 1919. Known as the “Sacred Mother of the Revolution,” she was the wife of former North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and a Communist activist. To honor her birthday, many North Koreans visit her tomb on Dec. 25 each year.

North Korea has previously banned Christmas trees and Kim has upheld his family’s anti-Christmas beliefs. In 2014, he threatened war against South Korea after it announced it would erect a Christmas tree along the border. 

“The DPRK ostentatiously treats anyone of faith, but especially Christians, as hostile,” wrote Doug Bandow, a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C. “Believers place loyalty to God before that of the North Korean state. Churches allow people to act and organize outside of state entities. Christianity also has ties to a world seen as almost uniformly threatening by Pyongyang.”

Christian celebrations, including decorating Christmas trees, were banned in 1950s, but some of the nation’s estimated 70,000 Christians continue to put up holiday decorations each December, especially in upscale shops and restaurants. In recent decades, however, North Korea has sent some Christians to prisons because of their religion.

[Yahoo News]

Alternative schools help young North Korean defectors reach their dreams

Kim Jung-hyang, a 20-year-old North Korean defector, had never attended school in the North. So she had to work extra hours to catch up with her South Korean high school classmates..

Her relentless efforts, coupled with benefits from special admission programs available for North Korean defectors, have paid off and now she is preparing to study at a prestigious college next year.

All of this, however, might not have been possible if she had not made a decision to move to an alternative school dedicated to educating students like her. Nestled on a hillside of Mount Nam in central Seoul, Yeomyung is an alternative school launched in 2004 to help young North Korean defectors find hope and dreams in the South through education. Around 30 students, including Kim, will graduate from the school early next year.

Yeomyung is one of nine such major alternative schools whose main objective is to provide “tailored” education for those with “unique” experience and needs. They do provide Korean, English, math, science, history and other major subjects needed for the college entrance exam, but it is done not in a “one-size-fits-all” manner as seen in many other ordinary Korean schools but in a way that fits the level of each group by capitalizing on a relatively small number of students.

Demand is now growing for alternative school programs as the number of North Korean defectors and their kids is on the steady rise. Though exact figures are not available, some estimates put the school-aged North Korean defectors at around 3,500.

[Yonhap]

North Korea accuses the South of luring its diplomats to defect

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday accused South Korea of committing “political terror” by stepping up efforts to encourage defections by North Koreans overseas, especially diplomats.

Ju Wang Hwan, a ministry official working in its Institute for Disarmament and Peace, said North Korean diplomats around the world have received emails with attachments containing articles that look like they are from North Korean state media. He said the articles have been changed to confuse and influence their intended readers by “viciously slandering our supreme leader and our socialist system.”

“This is clearly political terror, trying to cause social chaos and bloodshed inside a sovereign state,” Ju said in an interview in Pyongyang.

In a long statement released by North Korea’s state news agency Thursday, the North’s Foreign Ministry also accused South Korean agents of calling and following its diplomats in attempts to encourage them to defect.

Several high-profile North Korean defections have occurred this year. A group of North Korean women working at a restaurant in China defected in April, but Pyongyang authorities insisted they were abducted against their will.

[Seattle Post-Intelligencer]

High-level North Korean defector exposes life among elites

When Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, defected to South Korea in August, he and his family were immediately taken into protective custody. They were grilled by South Korea’s intelligence service not only to glean all the information they could from them about North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, the ruling class, and the political situation there, but also to determine that he wasn’t a spy. After all, he’d fooled both Kim and the Brits into thinking he was the real deal — a dyed-in-the-wool hard-core communist — ever since 2004.

On Monday, South Korea sources announced that the months-long interrogation was complete and that, effective on this coming Friday, Thae will be free to go, to begin his new life in South Korea. He says he will spend the rest of his life “freeing the North Korean people from repression and persecution.” “I will engage in public activities even if it threatens my own safety,” he said.

He provided some insights into the personal life of Kim’s ruling class, including their highly insecure tenure in office. He said it was “perfectly normal” for their homes to be bugged and monitored for any hint of disloyalty to the regime. For instance, when North Korea’s defense minister Hyon Yong-Choi was executed in 2015, the international media said it might have been because he made the gross mistake of falling asleep during one of Kim’s long and endlessly boring speeches. Not so, said Thae: It was “because he said the wrong things at home.”

He noted that life among the elites is far from luxurious. Most high-level members are paid so little that they are “encouraged” to make some extra money “on the side,” referring to a black market that exists in North Korea despite sanctions against any form of “capitalism.”

[New American]

US puts the squeeze on North Korea’s UN diplomats

The U.S. Treasury Department tightened sanctions against North Korean diplomats to the United Nations, requiring banks to get special permission before granting them accounts, the agency said in a notice posted online Tuesday.

Banks will now have to obtain a special license from the Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) before opening bank accounts, processing transactions or extending credit for North Korean diplomats or their family members.

U.S. officials have long said North Korea uses the bank accounts of diplomats to help Pyongyang conduct business around the world, despite economic sanctions.

Washington has been ramping up economic sanctions against Pyongyang since a nuclear test and rocket launch this year, seen as provocations by the United States and its allies.

[Newsweek]

Former diplomat Thae Yong Ho vows to fight to free North Koreans from “slavery”

The former number two at North Korea’s embassy in London has said he fled because he was disillusioned with the “tyrannical reign of terror” in Pyongyang.

Thae Yong Ho told officials in South Korea he escaped with his family because he was disgusted with his homeland. Mr Thae, who has been guarded by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service since his defection in August, met South Korean officials on Monday, according to lawmaker Lee Cheol Woo.

Lee said Mr Thae learned about democracy by watching South Korean dramas and feature films. Thae said North Koreans are suffering “slavery” under Kim Jong-Un’s dictatorship and higher-level officials are subject to more intense state surveillance.

Mr Thae has said he will now work towards “freeing the North Korean people from repression and persecution,” Mr Lee told the Yonhap news agency. “I will engage in public activities even if it threatens my own safety,” he quoted Thae as saying.

South Korean media said that Mr Thae will be under a police protection program. He is the most senior North Korean diplomat to defect to South Korea. (In 1997, the North Korean ambassador to Egypt fled but he resettled in the United States.)

[Sky News]

Defectors lift curtain on North Korea’s information blackout

The Kim regime has maintained its grip on North Korea by imprisoning its enemies and by controlling and censoring the mass media — newspapers, TV, radio, with only a privileged few getting access to the internet.

TV shows on state-run media tout the achievements of North Koreans and their leader. During the last few years, North Korean defectors based in in South Korea have been undermining the country’s information blackout.

One of those activists is Kang Chol-Hwan, a North Korean defector. Today, he’s the director of a non-profit called the North Korea Strategy Center based in Seoul, South Korea’s capital. Formed in 2007, his group pays Chinese smugglers to send USB drives filled with prohibited, outside media into North Korea. He says, even though North Koreans lack internet connections, they can watch smuggled movies and TV shows on their computers or on Chinese video players with USB ports, like these, called “Notels.”

KANG CHOL-HWAN: We send various content from stories on human rights, general information on South Korea, to images depicting the average American…. It helps them to realize that in the outside world, even the criminals have rights.

KARLA MURTHY: Your strategy of sending these USB sticks over there, how do you know that strategy is working?

KANG CHOL-HWAN: We regularly monitor the response through those who are able to move across the China-North Korea border more easily. If we find that a television drama that we sent has been banned, we know that it has been impactful.

KARLA MURTHY: Would have happened if you were caught listening to foreign broadcasts?

KANG CHOL-HWAN: You would have been branded as an anti-revolutionary. Then, you would be sent to an internment camp, but if you were repeatedly caught, you would be executed…

[Read transcript of full PBS interview]

5 ways North Korea has changed in 5 years under Kim Jong Un

It’s been five years since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took power following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. Here’s a look at five ways the country has changed:

  1. Kim Jong Un is in some ways a lot more like his charismatic and gregarious, albeit brutal and megalomaniacal, grandfather than Kim Jong Il. He has gone out of his way to milk that resemblance, right down to adopting his trademark haircut from a seemingly bygone era. While his father almost never spoke in public, Kim Jong Un has done so on any number of occasions. On the flip side, one of his most important moves to consolidate power — the execution of his powerful uncle and the purges that ensued — demonstrated both his personal independence and his willingness to employ the same kind of oppressive tools that were the hallmarks of both his father and grandfather. And, despite a short-lived friendship with former NBA bad boy Dennis Rodman, he has yet to travel abroad or meet a foreign head of state.
  2. Turning North Korea into a nuclear power wasn’t Kim Jong Un’s idea but it’s defined his first five years. Of the five nuclear tests North Korea has conducted, three have been under his watch and two, including its most powerful to date and its first of what Pyongyang claims was an H-bomb, were this year.
  3. North Korea’s main motto under Kim Jong Il was “Military First.” Under Kim Jong Un, the focus is now on building more and better nukes and bolstering the national economy, in large part through developing science and technology.
  4. Probably more out of pragmatic necessity than anything else, Kim Jong Un has allowed capitalist-style markets and entrepreneurialism to expand, invigorating the domestic economy and creating new revenue streams for the government, which profits by either taking a cut or by directly supporting such enterprises. Changes in farming policy that let individuals personally benefit from bigger harvests have boosted agricultural output. But the rise of the “cash masters,” an empowered middle class more open to capitalist ideals, or just more determined to acquire material wealth, could prove to be a problem for Kim down the road.
  5. Kim Jong Un has on several occasions vowed to make North Korea a “more civilized” nation.

[AP]

Canadian officials meet pastor sentenced to life in prison in North Korea

North Korea’s state media says Canadian officials have met with a detained Ontario pastor who has been sentenced to life in prison in the country. Hyeon Soo Lim, a pastor with the Light Korean Presbyterian Church of Mississauga, Ont., was sentenced last December by a North Korean court to life in prison with hard labor for what it called crimes against the state.

A Canadian government delegation led by Sarah Taylor, director general for North Asia and Oceania for Global Affairs Canada, arrived in North Korea for a three-day visit to discuss Lim’s case and other issues.

Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency said the Canadian officials met Lim, but provided no further details.

Lim’s relatives have said the pastor, who is in his 60s, traveled in January 2015 on a regular humanitarian mission to North Korea. They said Lim has made more than 100 trips to North Korea since 1997 and that his trips were about helping people and were not political.

[Canadian Press]