What can Trump actually do about North Korea?

Since becoming President, Donald Trump has, at times, looked like a wrecking ball to the international order. But when it comes to North Korea, he may be forced to operate within the narrow constraints of his predecessors.

Some members of the President’s Republican Party have previously argued for a more forceful response to North Korean aggression. Others have advocated the drawing of a red line, telling North Korea explicitly that any intercontinental ballistic missile would be blown up on the launch pad. Trump’s Twitter activity, prior to his inauguration, suggested that he was in agreement with this line of thinking.

But while taking such steps would be vigorous and decisive, it could possibly lead to a wider war.  Escalation can happen very quickly on the peninsula — as was the case in the summer of 1950, when a series of border clashes on the 38th parallel turned into an all-out invasion of South Korea. This context is important to remember when trying to understand the limits facing Trump in constraining North Korea.

The Obama administration pushed very hard for the inclusion of human rights and even International Criminal Court prosecution as a pressure point against North Korea, much to the anger of the regime.  The lack of criticism of North Korea’s many documented human rights violations from the State Department and new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is surely music to Pyongyang’s ears.

For all its reputation of being a crazed and irrational state, North Korea appears to be taking a rational approach to Trump and waiting to see what happens in Washington. North Korean state media is at present keeping its powder dry: it has not yet attacked Donald Trump by name or criticized him for anything.

It is doubtful that Trump will be able to change things. Short of sending Tillerson or traveling to North Korea himself, it seems unlikely that he will make a significant breakthrough.

[CNN]

The psychological trauma of defecting from North Korea

In an apartment in Seoul, South Korea, Lee So-yeon wakes in the night, thankful that everything she’s just seen is in the distant past.

She dreams of her former life in North Korea, of swimming the icy waters of the Tumen River, of being captured by traffickers in northern China and subjected to a new set of horrors. She dreams of a failed suicide attempt, of being bound and thrown back into the river unconscious, of the North Korean soldiers who dragged her body from the Tumen, keeping her alive but condemning her to 13 days of starvation and physical brutalization in one of the country’s prisons. She dreams of being stripped naked there and forced to lie on a bed with four other women as a guard examined her bodily cavities, keeping the same unsterilized gloves on to search all five women. She dreams of the darkness of her cell, punctuated by smells of her own excrement and compares it to the black of being kicked unconscious by guards.

But she also dreams of release—getting out of prison, swimming the Tumen again, and taking a boat to Seoul, beginning the resettlement process in 2008, two years after her first escape attempt. She dreams of the day when, for the first time, a doctor told her that the nightmares and flashbacks were symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition many defectors face, and the hopelessness and despondency that hung over her waking life were symptoms of depression. Unlike what she was taught growing up, other North Koreans experienced these conditions too, and in Seoul, she could talk about them without fear of being sent to an institution few ever leave.

For resettlement and medical professionals working with North Korean migrants like Lee, a major step in providing effective mental health interventions is convincing defectors that the issues they face are diagnosable and treatable. While defectors are generally aware that mental health exists, they know little to nothing about specific conditions, the prevalence of mental health issues, and treatment strategies.

Defectors show high rates of psychological trauma. It can be caused by everything ranging from starvation or abuse to fearing capture after resettlement or retribution taken out on loved ones left behind. Despite the suffering, research shows that North Korean migrants are frequently averse to even basic mental health help.

[PBS]

Kim Jong Un “MacBeth with nukes”

Malaysian authorities arrested the second of two women in connection with the death Monday of Kim Jong Nam, the elder half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who died on his way to a hospital after an unidentified woman covered his face with a cloth containing an agent of some sort.

North Korean diplomats unsuccessfully tried to prevent an autopsy and obtain the return of Kim Jong Nam’s body.

Jong Nam in recent years lived under Chinese protection. Beijing apparently wanted a Kim in reserve to possibly serve as a China-friendly leader of a successor regime in Pyongyang. Jong Nam, often called a playboy, appeared to harbor no desire to do so and exhibited little aptitude for such a demanding role. In reality, Jong Nam posed virtually no threat to his half-brother’s rule, but that did not mean Jong Un did not try to kill him. (There was also an assassination attempt in 2012.)

Ordering a hit on a Kim, in a society where family members were once considered divine and where regime legitimacy rests on bloodline, is an especially heinous act. It is also a desperate one. The execution of a family member can intimidate others in the short term, but it erodes support and undermines regime credibility. The murder could even be interpreted as a last resort.

The killing of his Nam Jong is not the only sign of instability in Pyongyang this month. Two weeks ago, for instance, the world learned of the demotion of the minister of state security, General Kim Won Hong. On Sunday, the chief of North Korea’s strategic missile forces did not witness the launch of the Pukguksong-2 intermediate-range missile, indicating instability at the top of the Korean People’s Army.

Whether Kim Jong Un is deeply insecure or suffering from a “delusional disorder”—the diagnosis of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service—the international community faces a North Korean supremo who now exhibits a low threshold for risk, largely because he feels he has so little to lose.

Kim has long-range missiles—three that can reach the western U.S.—and a stockpile of enough plutonium and uranium to fashion about 16 to 20 warheads. His technicians have almost certainly learned how to mate a nuclear warhead to his intermediate-range missiles and within, say, four years will have mastered the ability to strap on nukes to his intercontinental-range missiles as well. So call his murderous family drama “Macbeth with Nukes.”

[The Daily Beast]

North Korea’s long history of assassinations

If two North Korean female agents are responsible for the murder of Kim Jong-Nam, it would be the latest in a long history of planned assassinations and attacks by the secretive state.

Kim Jong-Un, the younger brother of Kim Jong-Nam, has overseen a purge of various “traitors” perceived to be a threat to his regime since he came to power in December 2011. If it was an ordered hit by the younger sibling on his elder brother, it would not be the first time North Korean operatives have targeted defectors, South Korean leaders or members of the Kim clan.

:: In December 2013, the North Korean leader’s uncle was branded a “traitor” and executed by machine gun for “attempting to overthrow the state by all sorts of intrigues and despicable methods”.

:: Yi Han-Yong, a nephew of Kim Jong-Nam’s mother was shot dead in February 1997 outside his home in Bundang, Seongnam. The two assailants were never caught.

:: South Korean diplomat Choi Duk-Keun was bludgeoned to death in Vladivostok, a port city in Russia, in October 1996. South Korean media reports said he was killed to avenge the deaths of 25 North Korean commandos who died when their vessel ran aground in the South.

:: Korean Air flight 858 was flying from Baghdad to Seoul on 29 November 1987 when it exploded over the Andaman Sea, killing all 115 people on board. One of the two bombers … confessed the bombing had aimed to hamper the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

:: North Korean undercover agents killed 21 people including four South Korean cabinet ministers in a bomb attack in Rangoon, Myanmar, in October 1983, which was intended to kill then South Korean president Chun Doo-Hwan.

:: In January 1968 a team of 31 North Korean commandos attempted to assassinate then South Korean president Park Chung-Hee, but were stopped some 100 metres from the presidential Blue House. … There was a further failed attempt to kill Mr Park in 1974.

[Sky News]

North Korea purged and executed thousands after Jang Song Thaek was killed?

North Korea may have ordered a sweeping massacre of about 1,000 people after the execution of Jang Song Thaek, claims a defector activist in South Korea.

Kang Chol-hwan, president of the North Korea Strategy Center, said in addition to the mass slaughter a total of 20,000 people were purged under Kim Jong Un, South Korean newspaper Segye Ilbo reported.

“In connection to the case of Jang Song Thaek, 415 cadres in the Korean Workers’ Party, more than 300 people in affiliated organizations, and 200 officers in the state security department were shot to death,” Kang said.

There have been previous reports in South Korea media that Jang’s death sentence in 2013 triggered the executions of other senior officials. But Kang’s assertions on Friday mark the first time an analyst has said the state executed 1,000 people in the case of Jang, who was Kim Jong Un’s uncle-in-law. Relatives were reportedly purged or sent to prison camps because of Jang, the activist said.

Kang said his information was drawn from the testimonies of six North Koreans who recently escaped the country, including statements from former diplomat Thae Yong-ho.

The North Korea Strategy Center, a non-profit organization that seeks to aid defectors with development programs and international support networks, is planning to bring the Jang Song Thaek case before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, South Korean news service Newsis reported.

[UPI]

North Korean leader’s brother Kim Jong-nam killed at Malaysia airport

The half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-nam, has been killed in an attack in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. Malaysian police say he was waiting at the airport for a flight to Macau on Monday when a woman covered his face with a cloth which burnt his eyes.

Malaysian police official Fadzil Ahmat confirmed that the victim was indeed Kim Jong-nam, as well as adding these details: “While waiting for the flight, a woman came from behind and covered his face with a cloth laced with a liquid. Following this, the man was seen struggling for help and managed to obtain the assistance of a KLIA [Kuala Lumpur International Airport] receptionist as his eyes suffered burns as a result of the liquid. Moments later, he was sent to the Putrajaya Hospital where he was confirmed dead.”

“So far there are no suspects, but we have started investigations and are looking at a few possibilities to get leads,” Fadzil Ahmat told Reuters news agency separately.

The late Kim Jong-il’s eldest son is thought to have fled North Korea after being passed over for the leadership. Kim Jong-nam became one of the North Korean regime’s highest profile critics, openly questioning the Stalinist policies and dynastic succession his grandfather Kim Il-sung began crafting in 1948. Following his father’s death, Kim‘s comments about his younger brother … singled him out as Kim Jong-un most vocal, and high profile, critic.

The results of an autopsy on his body have not yet been released.

[BBC]

China arrests four Christian missionaries near North Korea border

Chinese authorities recently arrested four Christian missionaries near the North Korea border, but reasons for their arrest were not provided.

A local resident in Yanji, a city in the Yanbian region of Jilin Province, said the arrests were made at a hotel in the town on Thursday, Radio Free Asia reported.

All four missionaries appear to be of Korean descent, but carried different passports.

One missionary identified as Pastor Park Won-cheol is a man in his fifties and an American citizen. Park’s whereabouts are being confirmed by the U.S. embassy in China, the source said.

Park had been traveling frequently to China “for years,” the source said. “Park flew to China from South Korea last week. On Feb. 9, at 10:30 a.m., immediately before he was to travel to Yanji airport to board a plane to return to South Korea, he was arrested at his hotel after a raid.”

Of the other missionaries, at least one is a South Korean passport holder with the surname Kim, and in his thirties.

[UPI]

North Korea launches ballistic missile test-fire

North Korea says it has successfully completed the launch of a new ballistic missile, according to state media. KCNA reported Kim was present at the site and personally gave the order for the launch, which was the first missile test by Pyongyang since US President Donald Trump took office.

A US official said the missile traveled 500 kilometers (310 miles) before landing in the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea, and that it was launched from North Pyongan province.  Intermediate-range ballistic missiles typically travel from 3,000 to 5,500 kilometers (1,864 to 3,417 miles).

The United Nations Security Council said it plans hold consultations on an “urgent basis” Monday afternoon regarding North Korea, according to the US Mission to the United Nations. The meeting was requested by the United States, South Korea and Japan — whose Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, was visiting President Trump in the United States when the launch occurred.

Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, spoke to his South Korean counterpart Kim Kwan Jin, according to the South Korean President’s office. They condemned the launch and agreed “to seek all possible options” to deter Pyongyang in the future. China, North Korea’s neighbor and most important strategic partner, has not yet commented on the launch.

[CNN]

North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee prominent global voice

Hyeonseo Lee is a miniature hurricane and a woman of strong will — “obstinate” is how she puts it herself — she is not at all the doll-faced persona suggested in photographs. Now 36, she escaped on foot across the frozen Yalu river into China from her home in North Korea at the age of 17. For the next decade, she survived abusive Chinese pimps, gangsters, importunate marriage suitors, informers and police interrogators, and then escaped again to seek asylum and a new home in South Korea.

She is now one of the most prominent global voices of the subjugated North Korean people, a bestselling author and public speaker and a campaigner against the thriving Chinese trade in Korean sex slaves. Recalling the TED talk she gave in 2013 that propelled her to stardom, and which has so far been watched 7 million times, she says, “The TED talk I gave [me] a kind of responsibility. Every word I’m speaking, it’s not from myself. I’m speaking for and representing the people of communist North Korea.”

Lee is The Girl with Seven Names (her autobiographical book describes how she escaped detection in China, learning the language and living under a series of assumed identities), and unless the two Koreas are reunified, I will probably never know her real name, which must remain secret to protect relatives and friends left behind under the dictatorship of Kim Jong Un. She chose the name Hyeonseo — whose two parts mean “sunshine” and “good luck” — to celebrate her emergence from the “long tunnels” of darkness into her new life of freedom in South Korea, and insists that even her mother must use it all the time.

The dangers are real. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service has warned Lee that Pyongyang’s agents may try to kidnap her — it has happened to other critics of Pyongyang and Beijing — and make an example of her in North Korea. “That’s why the NIS tells me, every event, when you receive an invitation, better check if that’s a real event. And the one thing they told me is, don’t go to Southeast Asia, including China.”

[Financial Times]

North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee on the secretive state

While interviewing North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee, her memories come tumbling out, some good but mostly bad: her disbelieving mother — lost and now found again — running towards her in a prison yard in Laos; the corpses of famine victims floating down the Yalu River; the handcarts to take away the dead so that Chinese visitors would not see evidence of North Korea’s shameful failure; a weakling flung on to the heaps of dead because he was probably going to die anyway and a passing Chinese driver laughing at the sight. “Sometimes the dead bodies wouldn’t be moved, so the smell of the decomposing flesh was everywhere, especially under the bridge and near the train station, because under the bridge is where not many people can see.”

North Koreans flee because they realize there is something wrong with their homeland. It is the lies they have been taught about the rest of the world that are deeply ingrained. “We learned that Americans are our primary enemies and all human scums live in America,” says Lee, who stunned her mother and brother by entering a relationship with an American man called Brian, before marrying him four years ago.

“South Korea was described as the poorest country in the world, where beggars were filling the streets. And then the most shocking thing for us was the Korean war — it was created by the American and South Korean enemies together. We never learned it was actually started by the North Korean regime. My mum, who was brainwashed for more than 60 years, she still asks me: ‘Show me the proof’.”

Lee wants reunification, she wants to be able to go back to her hometown on the Yalu, and she worries that young South Koreans do not care as much as their parents whether or not it ever happens. (“Many people in the past, they never predicted German reunification,” she says hopefully, “but it did happen very abruptly.”).

The importance of Lee’s story rests on her intimate understanding of China. … The communist government in Beijing treats North Korean refugees with varying degrees of cruelty and indifference, depending on the winds of geopolitics. “We refugees [are a political punching bag] between China and South Korea and North Korea. China has all the keys right now. .. So if … China stops supporting North Korea, within one week or 10 days they can make North Korea chaos. I wish they could do more, but they are not doing it at all.”

[Financial Times]