US and China joint plan on North Korea

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson let slip last week a few tantalizing details about one of the nation’s most secret military contingency plans: how the United States would try to race inside North Korea to seize its nuclear weapons if it ever saw evidence that Kim Jong-un’s government was collapsing.

For years, American diplomats have been trying to engage their Chinese counterparts in a discussion of this scenario, hoping to avoid a conflict between arriving American Special Forces — who have been practicing this operation for years — and the Chinese military, which would almost certainly pour over the border in a parallel effort.

And for years the Chinese have resisted the conversation, according to several former American officials who tried to engage them in joint planning. The Chinese feared that if news of a conversation leaked, Beijing would be seen as conspiring with the United States over plans for an eventual North Korean collapse, eroding any leverage that Beijing still held over Kim Jong Un.

So it was surprising to Mr. Tillerson’s colleagues when, in a talk to the Atlantic Council last week, he revealed that the Trump administration had already provided assurances to China’s leadership that if American forces landed in North Korea to search for and deactivate nuclear weapons, the troops would do their work and then retreat.

North Korea has defied past predictions of collapse, and one does not appear imminent. But if a collapse were to occur, the aftermath could present grave dangers. American officials have envisioned that North Korean officers, fearing the end of Kim’s government, might lob a nuclear weapon at South Korea or Japan as a last, desperate act — or detonate it on North Korean territory to make occupation impossible.

Mr. Tillerson said at a conference on the Korea crisis that the United States and China “have had conversations about in the event that something happened — it could happen internal to North Korea; it might be nothing that we from the outside initiate — that if that unleashed some kind of instability, the most important thing to us would be securing those nuclear weapons they’ve already developed and ensuring that they — that nothing falls into the hands of people we would not want to have it.”

[New York Times]

UN adopts new tougher sanctions on North Korea

The UN Security Council unanimously adopted a new set of draconian US-drafted sanctions on North Korea that will further strangle its energy supplies and tighten restrictions on smuggling and the use of North Korean workers overseas.

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, claimed that the new sanctions, levied in response to Pyongyang’s November 29 ballistic missile test, went even further than sanctions passed in September that, at the time, were called the toughest yet. “Today, we cut deeper,” Haley said. She said the UN had repeatedly offered Pyongyang a choice and repeatedly, in its continued missile tests, the regime had “chosen the path of isolation.”

Hailing the unity of the Security Council vote and referring to leader Kim Jong Un, Haley said that, “we will continue to match the Kim regime’s choice of aggressive action with actions of international sanctions.” North Korea, she said, is “this most tragic example of evil in the modern world.”

Resolution 2397 cuts exports of gasoline, diesel and other refined oil products by a total of 89%, Haley said. The resolution also bans exports of industrial equipment, machinery, transportation vehicles and industrial metals to North Korea. It requires countries using North Korean laborers to send them back home no later than 24 months from the adoption of the resolution. The resolution also requires countries to stop ships from illegally providing oil to North Korea through ship-to-ship transfers and prohibits them from smuggling North Korean coal and other prohibited commodities by sea.

[CNN]

Two more North Koreans defect directly to South Korea

Two North Korean men defected to South Korea via the East Sea on Wednesday, the South Korean unification ministry (MOU) confirmed to NK News on Thursday.

The men were found in seas roughly 100 km from the Dokdo islets, a ministry spokesperson said, and are two of three North Koreans to reportedly cross into the South in the past two days. They were discovered in a small wooden boat, the spokesperson said, and told the navy that they wanted to defect to South Korea.

A South Korean marine policeperson declined to give further details about the identity of the two escapees, though said they are “not that old.”

2017 has seen 11 defectors come to South Korea by crossing the maritime border between the two countries, the MOU said.

Defections across the inter-Korean border are relatively rare: North Koreans are much more likely to cross at the country’s border with China before seeking asylum in third countries.

[NK News]

Another North Korean soldier defects through DMZ

A North Korean soldier defected to South Korea on Thursday through the heavily guarded demilitarized zone separating the two countries, leading to gunfire on both sides of the border, the South Korean military said.

The “low ranking” soldier was manning a guard post along the DMZ when he fled through thick fog, the South Korean military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

The escape follows a similar one last month, in which another North Korean soldier was shot by his colleagues as he successfully fled his DMZ posting.  In that case, South Korean border guards who heard the gunshots found the soldier 55 yards from the border line that bisects Panmunjom, the so-called truce village in the Joint Security Area, and carried him to safety.

Officials said the soldier who fled Thursday was not fired upon. South Korean soldiers later fired 20 warning shots at North Korean border guards who were searching for the defector, which was followed 40 minutes later by gunfire in the North, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

It is extremely rare for people to flee across the demilitarized zone. The 2.5-mile-wide DMZ, considered the most heavily fortified border in the world, is guarded by minefields, sentry posts and tall fences topped with barbed wire, some electrified.

In a possible sign of worsening conditions in the North, the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said that 15 North Koreans, including the four soldiers, had fled directly to South Korea this year, compared with five people, including one soldier, last year. Most defectors avoid such a perilous crossing to the South, instead fleeing through China.

[New York Times]

Kim Jon Un’s endgame to avoid becoming vulnerable to American pressure

“When I was in Pyongyang, I was with some foreign ministry officials whose job it is, is to read Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, listen to his speeches, try to analyze the American government. And what they said was, ‘Frankly, we’re mystified,” said Evan Osnos, a New Yorker staff writer who traveled to North Korea on assignment for the magazine.

“We can’t figure out if he is, as they put it, irrational or whether he’s proceeding down a subtle strategy that’s leading them to an objective. So, when we send mixed messages, when we send confusing messages, they’re not quite sure what to make of it,” Osnos added.

Michael Morell, former acting and deputy director of the CIA, echoed the idea that mixed messages and threats without follow-through are damaging to any hopes of diplomacy. “You’ve lost a tremendous amount of credibility and I think that the language in that respect is dangerous,” Morell said.

North Korea and Kim Jon Un’s endgame, Osnos said, is to avoid becoming vulnerable to American pressure. “If you ask people in Pyongyang, really cut through what it is that they’re trying to achieve, the thing they return to over and over again, is they want to avoid being Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qaddafi,” Osnos said.

In addition to using nuclear capability as a way to secure themselves from attack, Morell added that there is a possibility they want to use them to become more dominant on the Korean Peninsula.  “Does he want these weapons to try to coerce the United States in South Korea? So in other words, once he has them, will he be more aggressive on the Korean Peninsula? The question is how do you deter that, and that’s more difficult,” Morell said.

[CBS]

South Korea criticized over treatment of North Korean defectors

A United Nations independent expert on alleged North Korean human rights violations was put on the defensive in Seoul Thursday over South Korea’s opaque treatment of defectors.

Tomás Ojea Quintana, an Argentinean human rights lawyer who was appointed in 2016 as the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, held a press conference after wrapping up a four-day visit to South Korea this week. In his statement he mentioned the case of the 12 North Korean women restaurant workers who escaped from China to seek asylum in South Korea in 2016. North Korea has demanded the return of these defectors, charging that they were abducted by South Korean agents.

Quintana said he wanted to meet with meet with the women to independently verify that they had come to the South of their own accord, but was not able to do so. Asked if South Korea denied him access to the women, he was very careful in his response.

“The South Korean government, I would say, is not preventing me to interview them, but there are some limitations in terms of, I would say, organizing the encounter with these women,” said Quintana.

South Korea often will not release any information about defectors, purportedly to protect families of the defectors that are still in North Korea from any government retribution.

[VoA]

North Korean suicide bombers ready to be unleashed if war breaks out?

Joo-il Kim, a North Korean defector who lives in London, said brainwashed fighters who will “live and die” for Kim Jong-un have their own “nuclear backpacks”.

Mr Kim told Express.co.uk that these bombers were assembled because Jong-un’s military is not strong enough to simply nuke their rivals. He said: ” They know they can’t win the war.”

But he insisted the brainwashed soldiers could “infiltrate” neighboring countries and unleash their suicide backpacks.

Mr Kim’s warning comes after Chinese officials warned the risk of a war against North Korea is higher than ever before.

[The Sun]

THAAD tensions impede China passage for North Korean defectors

Strained relations between Beijing and Seoul over the deployment of a US missile defense system have made it “more difficult” for North Korean refugees or defectors to pass through China before reaching South Korea, a former US special envoy said.

Robert King, former US special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, told a US House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that Beijing at times has allowed North Korean refugees to travel into the South via China when the Chinese capital has maintained good relations with Seoul. But after South Korea decided to install an American-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, system on the Korean Peninsula earlier this year, triggering a year-long diplomatic stand-off between Seoul and Beijing, North Korean refugees could hardly pass through China, King said.

King’s comments coincide with the beginning of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s official visit to China and his third meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two neighboring countries agreed to resume relations last month after tensions flared over THAAD.

“I am hopeful that the recent indications of better ties between Beijing and Seoul will lead to easier conditions for defectors to pass through China,” King said in his testimony to the foreign affairs panel. “Virtually all” North Korean refugees flee the North through China, the ex-special envoy said.

The number of refugees leaving the North annually has declined recently owing to tighter border control by Pyongyang, King said. After peaking at nearly 3,000 in 2011, the number fell to fewer than 1,500 in 2016. “Numbers thus far this year look to be even lower,” he said.

[South China Morning Post]

Tillerson’s new North Korea strategy undermined by Trump?

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson laid out a new US strategy toward North Korea on Tuesday that was met with cheers in Russia and China but may have been squashed by the White House on the same day.

“We’re ready to talk any time North Korea would like to talk, and we’re ready to have the first meeting without precondition,” Tillerson said at an event at the Atlantic Council.  His words appeared to signal a significant shift in US policy toward North Korea. Instead of the promise of verifiable denuclearization, Tillerson simply asked for a “period of quiet” in which North Korea pause testing nuclear devices and ballistic missiles.

Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, told Russian media he welcomed the decision. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Lu Kang, told a press briefing the same.

But the White House, where Tillerson has reportedly fallen out of favor, seemed to push back. “The president’s views on North Korea have not changed,” the White House said in a vague statement, according to Reuters. “North Korea is acting in an unsafe way … North Korea’s actions are not good for anyone and certainly not good for North Korea.”

Trump has frequently talked up military and kinetic responses to North Korea’s missile testing, and he has often undermined Tillerson’s efforts at diplomacy, once calling them a waste of time. In the past month, Trump administration sources began leaking that Tillerson may be on his way out of the executive branch in favor of a Trump favorite, CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

[Reuters]

China prepares for North Korea crisis by building refugee camps on border

China has started construction on a network of refugee camps along its 880-mile border with North Korea, quietly preparing for the mass exodus of refugees that the collapse of Kim Jong Un’s regime could potentially cause.

Detailed plans for the camps, intended to house thousands of migrants who might flee a crisis on the Korean Peninsula, emerged after internal documents from a state-run telecom giant went viral on the Chinese social media site Weibo. The telecom company appeared to be tasked with providing the camps with internet services, and the document stated that camps were planned in three villages in Changbai County and two cities in the northeastern province of Jilin, on the border, on state-owned land.

The document, which Newsweek could not independently verify, said: “Due to cross-border tensions…the [Communist] party committee and government of Changbai County has proposed setting up five refugee camps in the county.”

In addition, The New York Times reported that centers for refugees were also planned in the cities of Tumen and Hunchun, citing a local businessman, who remained anonymous.

The secret construction of the camps reflects growing concern in China about the potential for political instability—or even regime collapse—in North Korea.

[Newsweek]