CIA Director Mike Pompeo secretly met with Kim Jong Un

CIA Director Mike Pompeo visited North Korea more than two weeks ago for a secret meeting with leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, sources confirmed to CNN.

Pompeo, who is US President Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, didn’t take any officials from the White House or State Department with him on the trip, only intelligence officials, one source said Tuesday.

The White House declined to comment on Pompeo’s visit, which took place around April 1. The Washington Post  reported that Pompeo went as Trump’s envoy to lay the groundwork for direct talks between Trump and Kim about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

The two leaders are set to meet in late May or early June, in what would be the first face-to-face encounter between a sitting US President and a North Korean leader.

An administration official familiar with Pompeo’s encounter with Kim told CNN the North Korean leader had been “personable and well prepared” for the meeting, which took place but added there was a sticking point over the location of his meeting with Trump.

President Trump told reporters on Tuesday that five locations are being considered. Previously, US officials have floated the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar; the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea; a neutral European capital like Stockholm or Geneva; a location at sea like Jeju island or a ship; Southeast Asia, including possibly Singapore or Malaysia; the South Korean capital Seoul; or the North Korean capital Pyongyang, a seemingly unlikely choice that no US official has yet ruled out.

[CNN]

Kim Jong Un’s wife afforded new title and level of respect

Ri Sol Ju, wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, has been afforded a new title in the country’s state media, a move that analysts say could signal an evolution in the power structure of the reclusive country.

Referred to in a KCNA report as the “respected First Lady,” paired with an honorific reserved for respected members of society, the title is a step up from the usual “comrade” that she had previously been afforded.

“In North Korea, nothing is accidental. Each move is choreographed for a reason,” Troy Stangarone, Senior Director, Korea Economic Institute, told CNN. “The elevation of Ri’s status … helps to strengthen the Kim family’s status in North Korea, but also changes the international perception of the regime.”

The wives of North Korea’s two previous leaders, Kim Jong Un’s father and grandfather, have generally not been given the same status as that accorded to other leaders’ spouses around the world, Stangarone said.

Ri’s new title places her “more within Western norms and helps remove some of the old communist vestiges of the past,” Stangarone said.

He added that Kim’s decision to send his sister, Kim Yo Jong, to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea in February was another sign that the ruling family is intent on changing the optics around its power structure.

[CNN]

China’s continued efforts to apprehend North Korean defectors

China’s continued forced deportation of North Korean defectors, who face imprisonment or even death upon return to the repressive state, has received muted international criticism, as diplomatic efforts have intensified to negotiate a denuclearization deal with Pyongyang.

In the first three months of 2018, China apprehended at least 41 undocumented North Korean migrants, who crossed the Sino-Korean border, and more than 100 others between July 2016 and December 2017, according to the advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

The Chinese crackdown on these defectors, which has intensified in recent years, could get worse as relations improve between Beijing and Pyongyang, following Kim Jong Un’s recent meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“If relations between China and North Korea are good, North Korean authorities will be able to put pressure on the issue of North Korean defectors,” said Ahn Chan-il, a North Korean defector and analyst with the World Institute of North Korean studies.

Xi is likely to demonstrate greater solidarity on border security enforcement, with little regard for humanitarian concerns. “He’s using these defectors to say to Pyongyang that we are still your friend, we are committed to working with you, and we don’t want these people either,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.

Robertson says China’s forced deportation policy is in violation of a 1951 United Nations convention, which Beijing signed, recognizing the right of asylum for a people fleeing persecution.

[VoA]

A nuclear deal could increase risk for North Korean defectors

In recent years North Korea increased the number of guards and security measures at the border to prevent defections, that are viewed as a threat to the Kim government’s tight control over the population.

An estimated 100,000 undocumented North Koreans currently live in China, and many other defectors attempt dangerous journeys through China to reach a third country like Thailand or Mongolia, where they can request asylum in South Korea.

However human rights activists are concerned the progressive government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in is taking a passive approach to supporting defectors and confronting human rights violations on North Korea, in an effort to improve inter-Korean relations and facilitate a nuclear deal with the U.S.

U.S. President Donald Trump has been a more vocal critic of North Korean human rights violations, and some defectors expect he will confront Kim Jong Un on this issue when they meet for their summit, that is expected to take place in late May or early June.

However other advocates have voiced concern that Trump may be using human rights criticisms as a negotiating tacit to reach a better deal to end the North Korean nuclear threat.

[VoA]

The risk of Trump’s talks with North Korea

Excerpts of an Opinion piece by Jake Sullivan, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who served in the Obama administration as national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden:

What will happen if President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet? Many experts believe that a rushed and ill-prepared summit is likely to fail, prematurely discrediting diplomacy and putting us on a path to war.

Another scenario is just as plausible: Trump and Kim move quickly to strike a barest-of-bones “grand bargain” that commits Washington to address North Korea’s concerns in return for Pyongyang’s promise to pursue denuclearization, with the details to be worked out later. An all-sizzle-and-no-steak deal of this kind would be classic Trump, giving him the optics of a diplomatic “win” while doing little to reduce the threat posed by Kim’s nuclear program. This could prove a trap for the United States, but Trump may well fall into it.

First, in any high-stakes summit, the laws of diplomatic physics create momentum that drives leaders to reach a “declaration” or “accord,” even if it means defining down success. And Trump has always shown that he’s keen to trumpet “wins” even when the substance doesn’t bear out the claims. For him, it’s the choreography and drama that matter; he can leave the real substance for later, and for others.

Then consider the zone of possible agreement. Like his father and grandfather, Kim has apparently signaled that he is open to mouthing the word “denuclearization,” at least as a bargaining maneuver to alleviate sanctions pressure.

There is a real risk that this kind of outcome would work much more to Pyongyang’s advantage than Washington’s. Our partners would take their foot off the sanctions gas. South Korea would naturally accelerate its engagement with the North, including its economic ties. China, fearing that U.S.-North Korean engagement would weaken its hand, would scramble (even more than it already has) to offer incentives to increase Beijing’s influence with Kim.

North Korea would be implementing a new version of its old playbook: Make a series of promises in exchange for economic breathing room — and break them later. This could easily raise the risk of war in the medium term.

[The Washington Post]

Missionaries at the border spread Christianity to North Koreans

To the North Koreans gathered beneath a crucifix in an apartment in this northeastern Chinese border region, the 69-year-old Korean-Chinese woman is known as “mom.” She feeds them, gives them a place to stay and, on occasion, money.

Such border missionaries provide their North Korean visitors with room and board, and those escaping with places to hide. In return, they ask them to memorize the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed and other prayers. Some of the most trusted converts return home to North Korea and covertly share what they’ve learned, sometimes carrying Bibles.

It’s almost impossible to determine what happens when those North Koreans return home to evangelize. People involved in Bible distribution, secret prayer services and underground church networks are imprisoned or executed, according to activists and defectors.

Along the North Korean border, dozens of such missionaries are engaged in work that puts them and their North Korean converts in danger. Most are South Koreans, but others, like this 69-year-old woman, are ethnic Koreans whose families have lived in China for generations.

In recent years, 10 such front-line missionaries and pastors have died mysteriously, according to the Rev. Kim Kyou Ho, head of the Seoul-based Chosen People Network, a Christian group that runs a memorial hall in the South Korean capital for the victims. North Korea is suspected in all those deaths.

Hundreds of other missionaries have been imprisoned or expelled by China, which bans foreigners from proselytizing.

[AP]

Direct talks underway between US and North Korea

The United States and North Korea have been holding secret, direct talks to prepare for a summit between President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, a sign that planning for the highly anticipated meeting is progressing, several administration officials familiar with the discussions tell CNN.

Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo and a team at the CIA have been working through intelligence back-channels to make preparations for the summit, the officials said. American and North Korean intelligence officials have spoken several times and have even met in a third country, with a focus on nailing down a location for the talks.

The North Koreans are pushing to have the meeting in their capital, Pyongyang, the sources said, although it is unclear whether the White House would be willing to hold the talks there. The Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar has also been raised as a possible location, the sources said.

The talks between intelligence officials are laying the groundwork for a meeting between Pompeo and his North Korea counterpart, the head of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, in advance of the leaders’ summit. Officials said the decision to use the already existing intelligence channel was more a facet of Pompeo’s current status as CIA director as he awaits confirmation as secretary of state than a reflection of the content of the discussions.

The Chinese have also provided a briefing to the White House after Kim and President Xi Jinping met in Beijing late last month.

Trump is due to meet in two weeks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his Mar-a-Lago estate. Abe is expected to come bearing a list of concerns about opening talks with Kim.

[CNN]

Experiences of a 15-year-old defector in a North Korean labor camp

Charles Ryu said he’s one of only 275 North Korean defectors living in the United States.

With an easy smile and calm voice … Ryu shares how he managed to escape not once, but twice from the most repressive regime in the world.

Ryu was born in 1994 to a Chinese father, who abandoned Ryu at age 5, and North Korean mother, who died of starvation when Ryu was 11.

When he was 14, Ryu and his stepbrother escaped North Korea. They bribed border guards, swam across a river and met Ryu’s father in a taxi in China.

But Ryu’s joy was temporary. He was captured by Chinese police and was kept in a Chinese jail for two weeks before being sent back to North Korea. Upon reentering his home country, Ryu was interrogated for months by the North Korean government.

Fifteen-year-old Ryu was then sent to a labor camp where he was given 150 kernels of rice to fuel 12 hours of work every day. One morning, Ryu was so overcome by starvation that he ate rice from dry vomit he found on a roadside.

After nine months, Ryu couldn’t stand or even lift an arm. While others have to work until they die, Ryu was released after nine months because of his young age, physical weakness and relatively insignificant crime of trying to unite with his father.  Continued

Ryu’s second and successful escape to China

After his release from a North Korean labor camp for defecting, Ryu started working at a coal mine. He said his peers went crazy when he shared the freedoms he had experienced in China, like watching South Korean dramas and K Pop, and eating white rice, seafood and fruit.

“Every time I told these stories to my friends, it also reminded me, ‘What am I doing here,’ “Ryu said.  He concluded the risk of escaping for a second time, a crime punishable by death, outweighed working in a coal mine until he died or lost a limb.

So he stole five flashlights from the coal mine, sold them for food and waited three months for an opportunity to travel to the border.  When he spotted a train car bound for the North Korean border, Ryu seized his chance. He took advantage of his young age and small stature, telling the train guard his mom had already boarded the train with their tickets.

He spent the next two days hiding from the guards on the train. Ryu said the train had almost reached its destination when he was grabbed by his neck and told he would be handed over to the police at the next stop. Ryu jumped off the moving train, rolled into a ditch and sprinted into nearby woods.

He walked for hours and illegally boarded another train before finally making it to the border town.  He then swam through a river and walked for three days, without water or food, into China. Just when he had enough blisters he couldn’t continue, Ryu met a motorcyclist who helped him travel to his father.

With the help of an unknown travel broker, Ryu migrated to Southeast Asia and arranged for his passage to the U.S. Since arriving in America five years ago, Ryu has graduated high school and worked as a sushi chef, Uber and Lyft driver and driving instructor.

Despite the brainwashing, interrogation and labor he endured, Ryu said he does not resent North Korea. “It’s my hometown,” Ryu said. “It’s not the people I hate. It’s the government.”

[Indiana Daily Student]

Kim Jong Un told Xi he wanted to resume six-party disarmament talks

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un told Chinese President Xi Jinping during talks in Beijing last week that he agreed to return to six-party talks on his nation’s nuclear program and missile tests, the Nikkei newspaper said on Thursday.

Months of chill between Beijing and Pyongyang appeared to suddenly vanish during Kim’s secretive visit, with China saying that Kim had pledged his commitment to denuclearization.

Quoting multiple sources connected to China and North Korea, the Nikkei said that, according to documents issued after Kim and Xi met, Kim told Xi that he agreed to resuming the six-party talks, which were last held in 2009. The talks grouped the two Koreas, the United States, Russia, Japan and host China.

The sources said it was also possible that Kim could convey his willingness to resume the talks to U.S. President Donald Trump at a summit set to take place in May, but that it was far from clear if that meant the talks would actually resume.

North Korea has said in previous talks that it could consider giving up its nuclear arsenal if the United States removed its troops from South Korea and withdrew its so-called nuclear umbrella of deterrence from South Korea and Japan.

[Reuters]