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]

Trump ‘choices to avoid disaster’ at North Korea summit

Excerpts of a commentary by Leon E. Panetta, former Secretary of Defense and Director of the CIA under President Obama, and former Chief of Staff for President Bill Clinton:

While North and South Korea are obviously preparing and taking substantive steps to improve their leverage in any future negotiation, President Trump appears to be doing little to fully prepare for the complex issues that will have to be addressed at any summit.

It is no secret that this president has little diplomatic knowledge or experience nor does he have the patience to devote the time necessary to fully prepare for a high level summit. Without a comprehensive and well thought out strategy working closely with our allies, this president is likely to walk into a summit believing that the strength of his personality alone plus his gut instincts will be enough to prevail. That is a recipe for disaster.

Added to this is the large turnover of key personnel in critical national security positions, some of whom will have to go through a time-consuming nomination process in the Senate. Under a more stable White House, it would be difficult enough to fully prepare for that kind of high level meeting. Instability plus lack of time make it almost impossible to lay the necessary groundwork for one of the most important foreign policy summits in the history of this administration.

The reality is that the president has two choices to avoid disaster: 1) assume that the summit will largely be a photo op with Kim Jong Un, with an agreement on a broad framework of issues to be considered in future negotiations, and a decision on a place and time for an agreed set of negotiators to begin discussion on the specifics of a possible agreement; or 2) postpone any summit until designated negotiators have determined that there is in fact a set of elements and conditions that can be agreed to that will result in the denuclearization of North Korea.

The president indeed deserves some of the credit for bringing about this situation due to the increase in sanctions and his relationship with President Xi. But to be successful, it will take time, serious preparation, careful planning and extensive consultation with our allies. Tweeting will not do it!

[CNBC]

Kim Jong-un ‘moved’ by K-pop peace concert in Pyongyang

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was deeply moved by a concert in Pyongyang featuring South Korea artists, the North’s state news agency KCNA reports.

It said the leader’s heart had swelled when he saw the North Korean audience respond enthusiastically to the performances of famous K-pop groups. He said the musical exchange was a significant occasion giving the appearance of a united country.

The North had sent performers to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea earlier this year, followed by the first South Korean musical delegation to visit North Korea in more than a decade. The South Korean music delegation, which combines K-pop, rock and other genres, is set to perform again on Tuesday.

Kim Jong Un and his wife, Ri Sol-ju, pose for photos with visiting South Korean musicians

Kim Jong Un is the first North Korean leader to attend a performance by an artistic group from the South, said South Korea’s official news agency, Yonhap. His wife Ri Sol-ju, and his sister Kim Yo-jong and the country’s nominal head of state Kim Yong-nam are also said to have attended.

Meanwhile, one of North Korea’s top officials, Kim Yong-chol, has apologized to South Korean reporters who had hoped to cover the performance after all but one were barred from entering the Grand Theatre, South Korean Yonhap news agency reports. “It was wrong to hinder the free media coverage and filming,” he said, in what Yonhap reported as “a rare apology”.

[BBC]

Young North Korean defectors find new life in the South

Five years ago, as young boys, they crossed a frozen river in the dark of winter. As they passed from North Korea into China, they didn’t yet understand that they were leaving their homes for good. More than 6,000 miles later, Park Kwon’s and Ju Cheol Kwang’s separate trek to freedom brought them to South Korea, where they met as roommates in a group home for other young North Korean defectors.

“It is more comfortable [in South Korea],” Cheol Kwang said through a translator, “but sometimes I think of my hometown. That can be difficult.” Their childhoods have been on their minds lately, with the announcement earlier this month of unprecedented summits between North and South Korean leaders, and President Donald Trump that could happen this spring. For the teenagers, the talks raise long-buried hopes of someday being reunited with their families.

The friends, now 16, have worked hard to adjust to their new lives in Seoul. Like other recent defectors, they face a more difficult reality than those who arrived to the South even one or two decades earlier. They must contend with rapidly evolving technology and a highly competitive labor market that requires them to match their peers in one of the most wired countries on the planet.

“South Korea is a completely different society,” said Ji Cheol-ho, a 32-year-old North Korean defector. If you don’t study, you won’t understand this society, and if you don’t understand South Korean society, you’ll never become part of it.”

Cheol Kwang and Kwon live with several other boys in the group home they share in suburban Seoul. Adapting to school has been difficult. “What a North Korean sixth-grader learned in math or languages is the equivalent for a South Korean fourth-grader”, says Kwon. “My teachers and tutors have been saying, ‘Now is the time you have to really start studying,'” he said.

Ki-won Chun, a pastor whose faith-based Durihana Mission has rescued more than 1,100 North Korean refugees from China since 1999, said “It can only be difficult for these children, because they were born into a completely different culture.”   Read more

Teen-age defectors adapt to life in Seoul

What binds Park Kwon’s and Ju Cheol Kwang together are their stories. Cheol Kwang spent his childhood in North Korea laboring in the fields of Ryanggang Province to help support his family, so he didn’t go to school. His father died when he was 8. Four years later, in 2013, he and an older sister were told by their mother that they had to leave North Korea. He doesn’t remember much of the odyssey and is careful to protect the details of his family and escape, but he said he crossed into China on a frozen river. He stayed for about two weeks before being smuggled into Laos and was then granted safe passage into South Korea.

Kwon’s path to the South started from the mountainous mining region of North Hamgyong Province. In the winter of 2013, when he was 11, his family told him he would be going to his cousins’ home nearby. He saw his parents for what he didn’t know was the final time. With his older cousins, he snuck into China on the narrow Tumen River at night.  After a month in China, he was smuggled to Thailand, where police detained him. When they asked where he wanted to go, he gave only one answer: South Korea.

As required of all defectors, even children, the boys spent three months at a resettlement center outside of Seoul that teaches basics about South Korea and its history, as well as how to use its currency and transportation. The center also provides medical treatment and psychological counseling. They met at the group home in June 2014.

It felt like a dream. “The quality of food, clothing and shelter is so good. It’s the complete opposite of North Korea in that way, which was a pleasant surprise,” Cheol Kwang said. He was amazed to see most people in the South had cars, carried cellphones and lived in tall, modern buildings with electricity that didn’t flicker out in a storm. On television, the choice of channels was endless. In North Korea, there was only one — and it showed state propaganda.

[NBC News]