North Korea’s Kim Jong-un pledges to shut missile site

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has agreed to shut one of the country’s main missile testing and launch sites.

He signed a pledge to permanently close the Tongchang-ri facility, after talks in Pyongyang with his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in. Both leaders also “agreed on a way to achieve denuclearization” on the Korean peninsula, President Moon said.

On Tongchang-ri, Kim Jong-un said the engine missile testing and launch facility would be permanently closed “in the presence of experts from relevant nations”. The BBC’s Seoul correspondent Laura Bicker said the announcement is a major step forward.

China has welcomed the outcome of the inter-Korean summit, saying both sides had found “new and important common ground”.

Mr Kim also expressed a readiness to shut down the Yongbyon nuclear facility – where North Korea is believed to have produced the material used in its nuclear tests – if the US took some reciprocal action. The details of that were not specified.

North Korea blew up its main nuclear testing site at Punggye-ri shortly before Mr Kim’s meeting with US President Donald Trump in June.

Kim Jong-un also said he hoped to “visit Seoul in the near future” – he would be the first North Korean leader to do so.

[BBC]

The second, quieter negotiation involving North Korea

Often drowned out by the din of President Trump’s headline-grabbing promises, a second, quieter set of negotiations between North and South Korea has been far more encouraging. On September 18, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea is scheduled to travel to Pyongyang for his third summit with Kim Jong-un.

Moon Jae-in, a liberal human-rights lawyer, has been “a key driver of this diplomacy since its inception,” said Abraham Denmark, a director at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars., because he’s proved to be a skilled and effective navigator among Kim, Trump, China and Japan.

China, with its own agenda, in recent months is loosening trade restrictions with Pyongyang and undercutting Trump’s efforts to pressure Kim, according to former officials and experts.

And “Kim Jong Un’s genius is to set three balls rolling” — the U.S., South Korea and China, according to Aidan Foster-Carter, an honorary senior research fellow at Leeds University, in England. “They all interact, cleverly.”

North Korea’s desire is to bring an official end to the Korean War. American officials are worried this would lead to further calls for a permanent end to military exercises or even withdrawal of the 28,000 American troops based in the South.

“Moon wants to improve relations; he doesn’t care if North Korea disarms or not,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear policy expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California. “Of course, he knows the United States cares, so his goal is get just enough on the score to keep Trump happy.”

Meanwhile with his talks at an impasse, Trump has asked Moon to be “chief negotiator” between Washington and Pyongyang. They’ve all been able to ride along together so far, their hopes and dreams not clashing too much.

[NBC]

North Korea holds military parade without ICBMs

North Korea staged a military parade Sunday to mark the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding, but held back on showcasing its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), believed to be capable of targeting the United States.  Experts speculated before the event that North Korea may choose not to display the country’s more advanced weaponry to avoid antagonizing US President Donald Trump.

Kim John Un has made 2018 a year of diplomacy, personally meeting with the leaders of China, South Korea and the United States for the first time since taking the reins of his country in 2011. Later this month, Kim will host South Korean President Moon Jae-in for a summit in Pyongyang, another event that could factor into the theme of Sunday’s festivities.

The celebration still saw dozens of military vehicles and goose-stepping soldiers parade past leader Kim Jong Un in the center of the capital, Pyongyang, as cheering crowds watched on. Though some of the artillery pieces on display featured anti-American slogans as in previous years, the theme of the parade appeared overwhelmingly focused on economic development and improving the lives of the North Korean people.

Kim reviewed the procession from a balcony in Kim Il Sung Square, alongside other senior officials, including Li Zhanshu, a special envoy sent by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Kim and Li locked hands and raised arms at the end of the event.

On Saturday, the US State Department said that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has received a letter from Kim for Trump, which the US President believes will be positive in tone. Experts, however, caution against reading too much into any sense of optimism.

[CNN]

Chinese and North Korean leaders to attend Russia summit

Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend a regional summit in Russia next week, officials said. a gathering that may include North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the heads of Japan and South Korea. It will be the first time that a Chinese leader participates in the annual economic forum hosted by Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has also invited Kim Jong Un to participate in the Sep 11-13 Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. Kim has not confirmed his attendance, but his participation would mark another major step in his efforts to bring Pyongyang out of international isolation over its nuclear programme.

Xi and Kim met three times in China this year as the two countries seek to repair relations frayed by North Korea’s nuclear activities and Beijing’s backing of United Nations sanctions against its Cold War-era ally.

Xi is sending the head of China’s rubber-stamp legislature, Li Zhanshu, to Pyongyang this weekend to attend celebrations marking North Korea’s 70th anniversary, ending speculation that the Chinese president would use the occasion to make his first official trip to the neighboring country.

In the latest chapter in the roller-coaster diplomacy over North Korea, US President Donald Trump signaled on Thursday that negotiations on denuclearization remain alive after weeks of an apparent deadlock.

[AFP]

Trump blaming China for hurting U.S.-North Korean relations

President Trump appears to be blaming China for derailing a U.S.-North Korea rapprochement, implying that it’s placing “tremendous pressure” on Pyongyang as a result of ongoing trade disputes between Washington and Beijing.

In a quartet of tweets on Wednesday, Trump issued what he called a White House statement saying he “feels strongly that North Korea is under tremendous pressure from China because of our major trade disputes with the Chinese Government. … At the same time, we also know that China is providing North Korea with … considerable aid, including money, fuel, fertilizer and various other commodities. This is not helpful!” he continued.

Even so, Trump said he believed his relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was “a very good and warm one” and referred to “China’s great President Xi Jinping.”

The Trump statement also said Washington had “no reason” to resume the war games with South Korea that Trump agreed to suspend in June at the Singapore Summit with Kim. Those remarks seemed to contradict Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who told reporters on Tuesday that “We have no plans at this time to suspend any more exercises.”

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying responded Thursday to the latest series of tweets, calling them an “irresponsible distortion of facts and logic,” Reuters reported.

After the conclusion of the historic June summit with Kim Jong Un, Trump noted past U.S. diplomatic failures with North Korea, saying, “Honestly, I think {Kim]’s going to do these things. I may be wrong. I mean, I may stand before you in six months and say, ‘Hey, I was wrong.’ ”

“I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that,” Trump added, “but I’ll find some kind of an excuse.”

[NPR]

North Korean defector uses art as his weapon

Choi, 39, grew up blindly worshipping the Kim regime. His career in cartooning began when he drew a “patriotic” picture about Americans invading Korea and his artistic talents were spotted by a secondary schoolteacher. He went on to become an animator at North Korea’s premier animation studio.

Then, amongst second-hand computers smuggled from China, Choi discovered South Korean TV dramas. But watching such material is a crime in the North and the authorities banished him from the capital to the countryside when they discovered his activities.

“In North Korea, being banished from Pyongyang is the same as dying. People say Pyongyang and Seoul are 70 years apart, but Pyongyang and the countryside are separated by a century,” he said. “…The countryside exists only to support Pyongyang.”

Life outside the capital was so difficult that Choi decided to leave the country and head to the South via China. His family went ahead of him, but he spent six months in a camp as collective punishment. Choi made it out and reached the South in late 2010.

After settling in Seoul, Choi was determined to have an impact on people on both sides of the military demarcation line. He took up the pen to illustrate the deprivations of the North and the plight of North Korean women sold to Chinese men. He has also tried to bridge the cultural divide between the two people, making fun of the social differences between the North and South.

He smuggles the cartoons into North Korea in the hope of changing the population’s outlook, one mind at a time. He said smuggling from China is so rampant that it had created “an infrastructure” to influence North Korea.

[South China Morning Post]

A nine-year ordeal to make it to South Korea

Ji’s South Korean accent masks her nine-year ordeal of four escape attempts from the North, three repatriations from China, and starvation and torture in North Korean reeducation camps. Ji was also twice sold by human traffickers who wait on the Chinese side of the border to prey on fleeing women.

Ji has been outspoken about her experience, speaking on the international stage using her real name and using her traumatic times as inspiration for her books, poems and play. “As a defector, I want to tell South Koreans that they have to realize what they have. Freedom, happiness and love. Things that North Koreans desperately seek their entire life. South Koreans have something very valuable, but they have no idea how valuable it is,” she said.

Ji’s father was Chinese from an ethnic Korean minority who fled to North Korea during the Cultural Revolution. He stayed, had a family, and in 1998 arranged for his wife, two daughters and son to escape to South Korea via China. They left separately to avoid attracting attention, but Ji’s father was arrested in China and never seen again.

Ji was sent back to North Korea and interrogated. She tried to flee again later in the year but was caught by traffickers in China. She was eventually sent back to North Korea and to a camp where she and her fellow inmates endured extreme hardship. Ji became a Christian when she was in China and said she was forced to deny her religion during her incarceration.

A third escape effort also ended in failure and a stint at another camp, where the now pregnant Ji was forced to have an abortion without anaesthetic.

She made it China a fourth time and was again sold to traffickers. Finally, after six more years, she obtained a fake South Korean passport and took a ferry to the South, where she was reunited with her mother and siblings.

Ji had always dreamed of being a writer and when she reached the South, she used “the blood and sorrow of the dead as my ink, and their tortured and bruised bones as my pen”.

She said life could still be a struggle and – like other defectors – she had to take medication for epilepsy and sleeping disorders. “Most of us suffer from the consequences of torture,” Ji said.

[South China Morning Post]

Illegal trade and activity have blossomed in North Korea

From the biggest cities to the smallest villages in North Korea, there is now some kind of market building where people can sell their wares and keep their profits. Some are state-run, some are state-sanctioned, some are ad hoc.

A doctor (42) who defected in 2014 explained, “The salary for doctors was about 3,500 won a month. That was less than it cost to buy one kilogram of rice! So of course, being a doctor was not my main job. My main job was smuggling at night. I would send herbal medicine from North Korea into China, and with the money, I would import home appliances back into North Korea. Rice cookers, notels, LCD monitors, that kind of thing.”

As the economy and the rules that govern it have change in North Korea, there are more and more gray areas that can be exploited which means that illegal trade and activity have also blossomed.

Said a drug dealer (46) who defected in 2014: “I worked as a broker transferring money and connecting people in North Korea with people in South Korea through phone calls. I arranged reunions for them in China. I also smuggled antiques out of North Korea, as well as ginseng and pheasants, and sold them in China.
“And I dealt ‘ice’ [methamphetamines]. 70 or 80 percent of the adults in Hoeryong city were using ice. My customers were just ordinary people. Police officers, security agents, party members, teachers, doctors. Ice made a really good gift for birthday parties or for high school graduation presents.
“It makes you feel good and helps you release stress. My 76-year-old mother was using it because she had low blood pressure, and it worked well.
“Lots of police officers and security agents would come to my house to smoke, and of course I didn’t charge them — they were my protection. They would come by my house during their lunch break. The head of the secret police in my area was almost living at my house.”

Increasingly, North Koreans are not fleeing their totalitarian state because they are hungry, as they did during the 15 or so years following the outbreak of a devastating famine in the mid-1990s. Now, they are leaving because they are disillusioned.

[Washington Post]

North Korea is planning a September celebration

North Korea is planning a party. Next month, the reclusive country will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the country, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. And there are signs that the event, which will take place Sept. 9, will be a celebration to watch.

Those observing the preparations for the event have spotted practice for a military parade, while tourist visas to the country have apparently been blocked–sparking speculation about who, exactly, the VIP guests could be.

The North Korean state cherishes anniversaries, using them to reinforce the tale of how their small, embattled state fought off bigger foes such as imperial Japan and the United States. This year’s DPRK anniversary event will be different, however. In many ways, the messaging behind it will be more complex.

North Korea was previously happy to menace the United States and other rivals with visions of military might as tensions escalated rapidly. Now, Pyongyang clearly views things differently. As such, although relations are nominally warmer with the United States, a surprise Trump visit to Pyongyang on Sept. 9 looks unlikely. Instead, many are expecting a different guest–Chinese President Xi Jinping–whose presence would send a message to Washington that it isn’t the only game in town.

[Washington Post]

After detente with North Korea, Trump increasingly takes aim at a new foe — China

After 18 months of treating North Korea as the top national security threat, President Trump has increasingly turned his attention to China, taking a more confrontational approach that experts said shows a risky shift in U.S. policy.

Last week, Trump cited the Chinese military as the rationale for creating a new “Space Force” at the Pentagon, and injected China into the specter of foreign influence of U.S. elections. “All of the fools that are so focused on looking only at Russia should start also looking in another direction, China,” the president wrote, without offering evidence of any Chinese conspiracy.

Analysts said the rise in hostility suggests that Trump and his advisers have come to view the communist nation as a malign power and direct competitor and adversary whose expanding influence must be blunted through more extreme countermeasures.

Trump had talked tough on China throughout his campaign, but he pulled back after taking office and inviting Xi to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida in the spring of 2017. But the president has soured on Beijing as his bid to force Pyongyang to live up to commitments made with leader Kim Jong Un in a nuclear summit in Singapore has faltered. As Trump’s relationship with Kim has appeared to enter an uneasy detente, analysts suggested the president sees China as a convenient political foil to juice his domestic political base.

“The Trump administration is trying surgery with a chain saw in making threats and demanding unconditional surrender,” said Daniel Russel, an analyst at the Asia Society who served as a top Asia policy official in the Obama administration.

[Washington Post]