US President and Japanese PM agree to toughen sanctions against North Korea

U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed on Friday to expand sanctions against North Korea for its continued development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, the White House said.

Meeting before a Group of Seven summit, Trump and Abe dedicated most of their discussions to the issue, aides said. “President Trump and Prime Minister Abe agreed their teams would cooperate to enhance sanctions on North Korea, including by identifying and sanctioning entities that support North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs,” the White House said in a statement.

“They also agreed to further strengthen the alliance between the United States and Japan, to further each country’s capability to deter and defend against threats from North Korea,” it said.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this month called on countries all over the world to implement existing U.N. sanctions on North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, adding that the U.S. administration would be willing to use secondary sanctions to target foreign companies that continue to do business with Pyongyang.

Most of North Korea’s trade is with its ally China, and so any hard-hitting secondary sanctions would likely target Chinese firms.


North Korea tension tops China-Russia agenda

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi makes an official visit to Russia on Thursday and Friday for meetings with key officials, including his counterpart Sergei Lavrov. China and Russia are well aware that security problems on the Korean peninsula have no easy resolution. Both are grappling with how best to respond to not just the regular missile launches by Pyongyang, but also its nuclear tests.

Recent rhetoric out of the United States has given Beijing, in particular, heightened concerns that Washington might now be thinking, much more seriously, about a pre-emptive strike on Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities. Several weeks ago, for instance, US President Donald Trump made clear – prior to his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida – that if Beijing “is not going to solve North Korea, we [the United States] will”.

Moreover, after the session with Xi, Trump sent the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier to waters near North Korea. This ups the ante further from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s striking announcement on his Asia trip earlier this year that the two decade US policy of “strategic patience” towards Pyongyang is now over and “all options” are on the table.

Wang Li asserted last month that “China’s priority now is to flash the red light and apply the brake to both [the US and North Korean] trains” to avoid a collision. Beijing and Moscow are concerned that the tensions on the peninsular could spiral out of control and have supported a UN Security Council initiative that would build on the UN vote last year to tighten some sanctions in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear tests.

Unlike the US, China has been reluctant to take more comprehensive, sweeping measures against its erstwhile ally. The key reason Beijing has differed with Washington over the scope and severity of actions against Pyongyang largely reflects the fact that it does not want to push the regime so hard that it becomes significantly destabilized. From the vantage point of Chinese officials, this risks North Korea behaving even more unpredictably and the outside possibility of the implosion of the regime would not be in Beijing’s interests. This is not least as it could lead to instability on the North Korea-China border, and ultimately the potential emergence of a pro-US successor nation.

[Mail & Guardian]

North Korea strongly criticizes its staunch ally China

North Korean state media warned Thursday Beijing was crossing a “red line” in its relationship with Pyongyang, in a rare criticism of its closest ally.

A commentary in the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun vowed North Korea would not give up its nuclear program. It accused China of “dancing to the tune of the US” and providing Washington excuses to deploy more military assets to the Korean Peninsula.

The commentary urged two Chinese state-run newspapers, the People’s Daily and Global Times, to refrain from making reckless remarks which risked undermining relations between the two countries. It comes after increased criticism of North Korea in Chinese state media amid heightened tensions in the region.

Rodong Sinmun specifically criticized the Chinese media’s call for more sanctions against North Korea as a way to avert war. “We didn’t cross the ‘red line’ of the (North Korea)-China relationship,” the commentary said. “China is violently stomping on and crossing it without hesitation.”

“(North Korea) will never beg for the maintenance of friendship with China, risking its nuclear program which is a precious as its own life, no matter how valuable the friendship is,” it said.


War with North Korea could mean a refugee crisis no one is ready for

Much of the discussion around North Korea has focused on a nuclear or conventional war between Pyongyang and Washington. But … if Pyongyang collapses as a result, it could lead to hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of people searching for food and shelter and refugees fleeing for China and, depending on the circumstances, South Korea.

A collapse of the North Korean government could create a humanitarian disaster for China. A mass migration of refugees trying to enter China through its northern Liaoning and Jilin provinces would present complex economic, infrastructure, and cultural and political challenges.

“If your number one national interest is … economic growth in order to hold on to social stability, having six million foreigners into provinces that have already had economic hardships before [won’t help],” said Jim Walsh, a senior research associate at MIT’s Security Studies program, who is also a board member at The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

He added: “And from a social stability standpoint—refugee camps with millions of North Koreans? Are the Chinese living there going to be thrilled about that in a context in which the economy is taking a hit because there’s been a shooting war?”

[Read full Foxtrot Alpha article outlining scenarios if armed conflict broke out between the US and North Korea]

A North Korean war and the 30 million person problem

A thermonuclear war with North Korea would be a humanitarian and ecological disaster for the entire region South Korea, China, Russia and Japan. Even if conventional weapons are used and the Kim regime collapses (a more likely scenario), we may face an alternative nightmare:

The first consequence would be that the Kims and all those connected with the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea would have to flee compatriots angry at years of human rights violations and public executions.

“Secret police and party officials would seek refuge in neighboring China or Russia,” Australian National University researcher Leonid Petrov told “Some South American countries might be willing to give refuge to people — Bolivia, Venezuela, Guatemala … countries that are anti-American might be supportive.”

So what will Kim Jong-un’s people do without their supreme leader? With a lack of money, food and shelter if the regime collapses, they too may seek refuge in China, Russia and South Korea, but those countries will not necessarily be open to an influx of North Korean refugees.

China is already home to an estimated 100,000 North Korean defectors, and is unlikely to want the pressure of more. The Chinese have been concerned about such a scenario for some time, and might reinforce the border with troops, Rand Corporation scientist Andrew Scobell told Foxtrot Alpha.

Others may try to travel from city to city in search of refuge, while others could try to cross into South Korea, although if fighting persists in the DMZ, that would be almost impossible.

The most likely conclusion would be the reunification of Korea, according to Dr Petrov, but this may mean deep economic and social problems. Read more

Chilling challenges faced by North Korean defectors in China

“In China, tens of thousands of North Korean women are hiding and living in fear of capture by the Chinese authorities,” said Lee So-yeon, a former soldier who fled her country in 2008 and is now a leading activist in South Korea.

Many of the women are sold to men in China with prices ranging from US$4,000 for women in their 20s to US$2,000 for those in their 40s.

“The greatest fear for women who are forced to leave is deportation to North Korea,” she said. Those who are caught by the Chinese authorities and sent back face the prospect of punishment meted out in prison camps, correctional training centers or labor training camps.

Life is especially harsh for women who have become pregnant by Chinese men, with some of them facing execution, she said.

Lim Hye-jin left her country in 1998 during the famine crisis. Once she crossed into China with a broker she was forcibly married to his brother, before becoming pregnant and was later rounded up by Chinese officials while working at a market. After repatriation she escaped back into China, but was brought back to the North once again. Eventually, she made a third escape and arrived in South Korea in 2002, but without her daughter.

Grace Jo who also fled North Korea adds, “We went to China to survive, but because of the Chinese government’s brutal treatment we lived in fear.”

[South China Morning Post]

Human Rights Watch urges China to release North Korean refugees

China should immediately reveal the whereabouts of eight North Koreans it detained last month, Human Rights Watch said Monday, adding they risk severe torture if they were returned to North Korea.

“By now, there are plenty of survivor accounts that reveal Kim Jong-Un’s administration is routinely persecuting those who are forced back to North Korea,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

China regularly labels North Koreans as illegal “economic migrants” and repatriates them based on a border protocol adopted in 1986.

The group it highlighted — which includes at least four women — was detained by Chinese officials in mid-March after they were stopped for a random check in Shenyang, in northeastern China. Human Rights Watch said that on the basis of information from sources it considers usually reliable, the group was still believed to be jailed in China. But it feared they may soon be returned to the North since “most repatriations happen two months after detention”.

“There is no way to sugar coat this: if this group is forced back to North Korea, their lives and safety will be at risk,” Robertson said.

Seoul’s foreign ministry did not confirm the HRW account, saying its protocol was not to publicly comment on individual refugee cases for their own safety and to protect diplomatic relations. “But we closely coordinate with a nation involved when a problem involving North Korean refugees arises,” it said in a statement, and was in general “doing our best to ensure the safety and safe transfer of those who wish to come to the South”.

More than 40 North Koreans, including children and pregnant women, have been held by China over the past nine months, Human Rights Watch said, and at least nine forcibly returned to the North.


“Tremendous enthusiasm” for defection from North Korea

After being discharged from the North Korean navy as a lieutenant-colonel, North Korean defector Kim Hwa (not her real name) was given a visa that enabled travel to and from China.

At the time, North Korea was always low on medicine, so for medical purposes everyone had to buy illegal drugs in village markets. Prescription drugs and opium as well as marijuana were readily available on the black market, smuggled from China.

“There is nobody who works in trade with China that doesn’t trade drugs,” Kim says. It is so commonplace that she did not even consider the risks, and she and a friend began doing it.

One evening, she received a call from the son of her friend saying his mom had been caught. “I thought I would get caught [too], so that night I thought I had to escape to China.”

She took her savings from dealing drugs, $US3000, bribed the North Korean border guard with $US30 to cross and was walked through minefields and into China. She estimates that only two in 10 people successfully make a border crossing. Those who don’t are either killed where they stand or captured and simply disappear. She was lucky. (Since Kim Hwa defected, Kim Jong-un has increased border security on northern and southern borders, planting millions of landmines that make escapes much less possible.)

In late 2009, Kim Hwa’s partner along with other drug dealers were lined up and executed by shotgun. Kim could never return to her homeland. She traveled through Laos and Cambodia before seeking asylum at the South Korean embassy in Thailand, arriving in Seoul in December 2011. She was safe from the regime, at the cost of leaving her mother and two younger brothers behind.

“When I first got to South Korea I cried all day. I missed my mother. I joined the army when I was 16 years old, so I hardly spent any time with her.”

As a former high-ranking military officer, Hwa faced a lot of suspicion from South Korean authorities before she was allowed into the country. Defectors typically face a week-long investigation but she was questioned for three months, and was locked up throughout the process. [Finally] she was cleared and flown into Incheon airport.

Just last week, Kim Hwa attended a North Korean defectors meeting in the South and heard that about 100 defectors are arriving each month. It’s only a third of what it used to be a few years ago, but she finds it staggering considering the strengthening of border defense, increased land mines, higher broker fees for smugglers and heightened dangers associated with defection.

For her the message is clear – enthusiasm for defection is tremendous.

[AFR Weekend]

North Korea restricts access to Tumen River at border

North Korea is restricting access to the border with China and banning its citizens from using their mobile phones in places where they can still receive signals.

A source in North Hamgyong Province told Radio Free Asia the “vetting” of ordinary North Koreans has “made it difficult to even go outside.” The source said, “We must report to the head of the local cooperative every time we look for firewood or farm the fields.”

North Koreans in North Hamgyong Province “who go to the mountains” are searched at sentry posts because people “can use their [international] mobile phones undetected” in more remote areas, according to the source. North Koreans with relatives on the outside frequently use mobile phones that can access Chinese networks at the border.

A second source in North Hamgyong Province said “the center” has “completely banned residents from coming within 150 meters of the Tumen River.” (The “center” refers to the central leadership in Pyongyang.)

“People who used to do their laundry at the river, or use the water for everyday living are being inconvenienced,” the source said. The source also said water was supplied for about an hour morning and evening, but “recently even that source has been shut off. …We now depend on mountain valley water merchants for our livelihoods,” the source said.

Additionally, North Korea has increased border surveillance, and China has also stepped up crackdowns on North Korean refugees.


US warns North Korea while not ruling out talks

US Vice President Mike Pence warned North Korea on Monday not to test American resolve, but he also raised the possibility that the Trump administration could pursue talks. The message, delivered by Mr. Pence on a visit to South Korea that included a stop at the demilitarized zone that divides the Korean Peninsula, showed that the American administration, while talking tough, was not ruling out negotiations.

North Korea should not test “the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region,” Mr. Pence said in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. Yet, he also noted that Washington was seeking security “through peaceable means, through negotiations.”

Though North Korea refrained from detonating a nuclear device and botched another missile test this weekend, the Trump administration has not yet found a way around the limited options against the North that constrained his predecessors and put it on the path to becoming a nuclear power.

The Trump administration essentially has three choices: a military strike that could ignite a full-blown war; pressure on China to impose tougher sanctions to persuade the North to change course, an approach that failed for his predecessors; or a deal that could require significant concessions, with no guarantee that North Korea would fulfill its promises.

Thus far, Trump has tried to signal both resolve and ambiguity, suggesting at various times that he is open to all three options. The question is whether his apparent willingness to consider both war and a deal may be enough carrot and stick to persuade China to change its approach and apply enough pressure to bring the North to the table.

[The New York Times]