US imposes sanctions on China and Russia over North Korean ties

The Trump administration announced new sanctions against China and Russia on Tuesday as part of its campaign to pressure North Korea to stop its development of nuclear weapons and missiles.

The new sanctions affect six individuals and 10 organizations with financial ties to Pyongyang’s weapons program.

“It is unacceptable for individuals and companies in China, Russia, and elsewhere to enable North Korea to generate income used to develop weapons of mass destruction and destabilize the region,” Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, said in a statement on Tuesday.

In June, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on a Chinese bank, a Chinese company and two Chinese citizens to crack down on the financing of North Korea’s weapons program.

[New York Times]

5 reasons things in North Korea could still go badly wrong

The U.S. and South Korea began its latest series of war games on Monday, but right now the outbreak of war is looking less likely. Here’s a quick look at some of the ways the current U.S.-North Korea détente can go sideways:

  1. The wild card in the White House – For the last 60+ years, the unpredictable element in the U.S.-North Korea standoff has always hailed from Pyongyang. For a man who remains conspicuously short of signature victories more than 200 days into his administration (and has a penchant for lurching from one PR disaster to another), taking a strong stand against North Korea might become more appealing day by day. And we haven’t even gotten to the Mueller investigation yet, which will most probably have Trump desperate to change the narrative any way he can.
  2. North Korea’s got something to prove –Kim Jong-un saw what happened to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, strongmen who bluffed a big nuclear game. He has no intention of following suit.
  3. China under pressure – Not that China had much choice but to turn the screws on North Korea. Trump has been floating the possibility of a trade war with China for months now. Given that, China has no good options when it comes to dealing with North Korea. It can’t push the Kim regime too far lest it collapse, flooding China with desperate North Korean refugees and producing two of China’s worst nightmares: loose nukes and a US military using North Korea’s collapse as a pretext for ramping up its activity in Asia.
  4. South Korea trapped in the middle – Some analysts estimate that the amount of North Korean it has trained on South Korea at all times could decimate Seoul (population: 10 million) in as little as two hours.
  5. A problem that defies solutions – The U.S. demands North Korea stop developing nuclear weapons and missiles. North Korea continues to do so to ensure its survival against an enemy it’s terrified of. South Korea just wants to be left alone (Japan too). If that wasn’t bad enough, consider the principal actors involved: Donald Trump, a South Korean president [who is also new to the job], Kim Jong-un, Chinese president Xi Jinping (who’s heading into a political transition this fall). North Korea may be the single most difficult geopolitical challenge the world faces. At a certain point someone desperate could act, forcing everybody’s hand. There’s always a chance that cooler heads prevail and traditional diplomacy will work, but the world just hasn’t had that type of luck lately.

[Read full TIME article]

North Korea warns of strike ahead of US-South Korea drills

Every year US and South Korean forces hold joint military drills to prepare for an attack from North Korea.

North Korea views them as a rehearsal for an invasion.

This year’s drills begin on Monday.

North Korea warned Sunday that the upcoming US-South Korea military exercises are “reckless behavior driving the situation into the uncontrollable phase of a nuclear war.”

Pyongyang also declared that its army can target the United States anytime, and neither Guam, Hawaii nor the US mainland can “dodge the merciless strike.”

Just last week, Pyongyang said it had finalized a plan to fire four missiles toward the US territory of Guam. State media reported that leader Kim Jong Un would assess the US’ next move before giving launch orders.

[BBC/CNN]

High-level North Korean defector says Kim Jong Un could be overthrown within 10 years

Thae Yong Ho, the highest-level diplomatic official to defect from North Korea, told South Korea’s JoongAng Daily that while North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was “actually very clever,” his days at the top of the regime are numbered.

As North Korean propaganda dominates outsiders’ perception of its citizens’ lives, Thae, who was the country’s deputy ambassador to the UK before defecting last year, provided a glimpse into a heavily policed but ultimately fragile system.

“Over the past decades, there were a myriad of anti-Workers’ Party, anti-revolutionary events in North Korea … something close to a pro-democracy movement,” Thae said. He added that “ordinary citizens” were “very much against” the leadership, adding that although the North Korean regime could execute people for watching South Korean media, virtually every North Korean did.

“The chasm between the Kim Jong Un regime and the general public is widening every year, and some day, the two sides will ultimately break like a rubber band,” Thae said. “I think that day will come within the next 10 years.”

However, Rodger Baker, the lead analyst of the Asia-Pacific region for Stratfor, a geopolitical consulting firm, previously told Business Insider that North Korea’s government might be stronger than we think.

“A lot of the West’s vision of North Korea is from defector testimony, which is going to have a political bent,” Baker said. He added that the idea that air-dropping South Korean DVDs and music into North Korea would eventually sway the population against Kim “overestimates the draw of material goods over nationalism and national identity.”

[Business Insider]

Public executions in North Korea

An NGO researching atrocities under the Kim John Un regime has confirmed that public executions still happen in North Korea and how these are intended to instill fear of the North Korean government, and to be witnessed by as many people as possible.

The Transitional Justice Working Group‘s executive director Hubert Youngwhan Lee told Sky News: “There are certain types of locations that are frequently used for the public killings. The most commonly used locations are river banks, under bridges, markets, or even on school grounds, or public stadiums.”

Asked to clarify whether school grounds were being used for public executions, he replied: “Yes, school grounds, because North Korea uses this as a tool for instilling public fear of being punished by their government.”

He said public killings continue to be carried out under Mr Kim’s leadership, with testimony as recently as 2015, three years into his rule.

His colleague, researcher Sehyek Oh, who is from North Korea, has carried out 375 interviews so far with fellow defectors, including former officials, as they gather evidence ultimately intended to be used in court, to bring those responsible to justice.

[Sky News]

North Korean defector reveals why enthusiastic crowds for Kim Jong Un

A North Korean defector has revealed why many people still seem to follow Kim Jong Un despite the country being in a terrible economic state and their leader possibly taking them to nuclear war.

The man, who didn’t want to be identified to protect his daughter who still lives in the country, said North Koreans are forced to show loyalty or they will be punished. He added the crowds were manufactured and the people turned out because they feared the consequences.

“These civilians, if the government tells them to come, … they’re forced to come, they don’t have the freedom not to,’ he told Sky News after being shown footage of thousands of people at a pro-regime rally in capital Pyongyang. He added: ‘People are scared. On the surface they look thankful, but none of it is genuine.’

He said criticism of the regime could result in being taken to a prison camp or even being publicly executed.

Venues for executions included river banks, stadiums and school property. The defector said: ‘Yes, school grounds, because North Korea uses this as a tool for instilling public fear of being punished by their government.’

[Metro UK]

Kim Jong-un ‘no longer seen as God’, as more Koreans turn to God

The North Korean regime continues to persecute anyone practicing religion within its borders, according to a new US State Department study, although reports from within the country suggest that more people are turning to religion.

The US State Department annual report on global religious freedoms again singled out North Korea. “The government continued to deal harshly with those who engaged in almost any religious practices through executions, torture, beatings and arrests”, the report states. … An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, some imprisoned for religious reasons, were believed to be held in the political prison camp system in remote areas under horrific conditions”, it adds.

Those claims were backed up by a North Korean defector who is now a member of the Seoul-based Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocide in North Korea. “Officially sanctioned persecution of people for religious reasons is still there and, I would say, even stronger than before”, the defector told The Telegraph.

But subtle changes are slowly becoming visible, said the defector, who declined to be named as he is active in assisting underground churches operating in the North. “In the past, the people were told to worship the Kim family as their god, but many North Koreans no longer respect Kim Jong-un”, he said. “That means they are looking for something else to sustain their faith. In some places, that has led to the emergence of shamens, but the Christian church is also growing and deepening its roots there”, he said.

“Even though people know they could be sent to prison – or worse – they are still choosing to worship, and that means that more cracks are appearing in the regime and the system”, he added.

[The Telegraph]

Kim Jong Un briefed on Guam plan but opts to wait

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reviewed plans to fire missiles towards the US Pacific territory of Guam but will hold off, state media said. Although prepared for “the enveloping fire at Guam”, the North said it would watch what “the foolish Yankees” do before taking a decision.

Crucially, indications are that Mr Kim would watch the US before making any decision, signaling an apparent deceleration in the provocative rhetoric. Correspondents say that after days of menacing threats it might seem that Kim Jong-un could be in the mood to finally hit the pause button – but in a nation as secretive as North Korea, one can never be sure. Analysts say it could simply mean Pyongyang is not fully ready to launch an attack on Guam, so it could just be buying more time.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in meanwhile has urged the US not to launch an attack on the Korean peninsula without its consent. The two countries’ defence agreement states that they must “consult together” when either is threatened.

South Korea and China – North Korea’s closest ally – have been urging calm and a renewed push for diplomatic resolutions.

China’s foreign ministry on Monday reiterated its “suspension for suspension proposal”, where North Korea stops its missile tests in exchange for a freeze on military exercises by the US and South Korea.

US Defense Secretary James Mattis earlier warned that any attack could quickly escalate into war, and if Pyongyang fired a missile towards Guam, “then it’s game on”. He also sought to reassure residents of Guam, home to US military bases and about 160,000 people, that they were well-protected and if a missile was fired, “we’ll take it out”.

Some quick facts about Guam:

  • The 209 sq mile volcanic and coral island in the Pacific between the Philippines and Hawaii.
  • It is a “non-incorporated” US territory, with a population of about 163,000.
  • That means people born in Guam are US citizens, have an elected governor and House Representative, but cannot vote for a president in US national elections.
  • US military bases cover about a quarter of the island. About 6,000 personnel are based there and there are plans to move in thousands more.
  • It was a key US base in World War Two, and remains a vital staging post for US operations.

[BBC]

North Korean defector: “North Korean life is slavery, mentally and physically”

Dr. Lee Min-bok lives on the South Korean side of the world’s tensest border, along with his weather-tracking data, and his leaflets. Whenever the wind is right, he rushes out to blow up an enormous helium balloon, tied to hundreds of leaflets that combat the propaganda machine of North Korea. With facts about how wealthy and advanced South Korea is compared to the North, Lee’s leaflets encourage North Koreans to think for themselves, reconsider their circumstances, and rise up.

But how can Lee be so sure that plastic sheets of paper could possibly change hearts and minds? Because one saved his life.

Born and raised in North Korea, he worked in agriculture as a professor. Like all North Koreans are taught, he revered the Kim family. But he first grew disenchanted in the late 1980’s after his attempts to innovate the farming techniques were denied, despite the reprieve it would have brought from famine and starvation.

Then, while in the fields one day, he discovered a small leaflet that simply described how North Korea invaded South Korea and began the Korean War -– a reality that defied the regime’s propaganda. “After reading the leaflet, I knew that the North Korean regime was all false, so I decided to flee to the South,” he said.

Staring across the river now, nearly three decades later, Lee says he feels like he’s looking at his hometown, looking at the family he left behind. “I want to rescue these people out of the country,” he said, noting he still has family on the other side of the border.

To do that, he now tells his story in leaflets — how the truth fell from the sky and saved his life. He wants to arm North Koreans with that same knowledge so that they will defy the regime — a mission so dangerous that he travels with government minders at all times, four stone-faced South Korean men who move in a ring around him.

When asked what life is life in North Korea, Lee said: “It is slavery, mentally and physically.”

[ABC News]

North Korean defector: “I think Kim Jong-un would do it”

Following President Trump’s new warnings to Kim Jong Un’s nuclear threats, a woman who escaped North Korea 17 years ago is speaking out. Youngae Ma, who has been living in New Jersey for the past decade, once worked as an intelligence agent for North Korea’s security department. She was a military member stationed in China when she managed to escape the grasp of the rogue state.

Ma believes the recent threats of nuclear war from her native country’s leader should be taken seriously. “To boost his image and show strength, I think (Kim Jong-un) would do it,” she said.

She says that the U.S. or U.N. may need to show force first to prove they won’t take the threats lightly. “Someone like that has to be taken out because he will not listen to anyone—not the U.S. or U.N.,” she said.

Ma told a translator, “During my time in North Korea, I realized the government really messed up. Watching the government starve and kill innocent people is what drove me to escape.”

Ma is now well known in her Palisades Park community for selling homemade traditional North Korean dishes and sausages at local markets. In 10 years, she has used her profits to help more than 1,000 people escape North Korea to China, Russia, or the U.S. like she did. She has also helped them find jobs in their new countries.

Though she has assisted many, Ma has been unable to get her own family to the U.S. She believes her sister in North Korea was killed by the government for passing information to her in New Jersey.

[NBC New York]