Kim Jong Un meets with Chinese President Xi for 3rd time

President Donald Trump continues to tout the success of his North Korea summit last week — but it’s Kim Jong Un who’s taking the real victory lap.

On Tuesday morning, the North Korean leader made his third trip to China in as many months to meet with President Xi Jinping. Xi used the opportunity to praise Kim and say that the summit was an “important step toward the political solution of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue.”

And just the night before, the Pentagon announced that it would cancel a key military exercise with South Korea in August. That’s a big deal since that’s a significant concession the North Koreans have wanted for a long time. After all, they see these exercises as prep for an invasion and have protested against them every time they occur.

So it seems that the relationship between Washington and Seoul took a slight hit while Beijing-Pyongyang ties got a little stronger.

Experts think they know why Kim made the trip. “The most immediate reason Kim is visiting China is to share his impressions of the summit with President Xi,” Abigail Grace, who formerly worked on North Korea issues in Trump’s National Security Council, tells me. “At a time when friction is rising in the US-China relationship, Kim knows it will be easier for him to convince Xi that his proposed, phased approach is preferable to the US-drafted road map. This will reduce US negotiating leverage when they push Kim to take meaningful steps toward real denuclearization.”

Kim likely wants to get China’s approval before he takes any real steps to dismantle his nuclear program. China is North Korea’s most important trading partner and ally. The Kim regime has stayed in power in part because of Beijing’s help. So if China doesn’t consent on just how Kim might curb his nuclear program, it’ll be much harder for Kim to do that.

But that’s not all: “Xi wants Kim to start China-like economic reforms,” says Oriana Skylar Mastro, a China expert at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, “so they will probably spend much of their time together discussing that.”

China had great success pulling around 800 million out of poverty by making some market-based reforms in 1978, according to the World Bank. If any country can help Pyongyang improve its economy, then, it’s Beijing.

[Vox]

China the unexpected winner from the Trump-Kim summit

China is setting its sights on a key role in North Korea’s future, seeking to be part of any peace treaty, weapons inspections and economic assistance, after emerging as a surprise beneficiary of the summit between the U.S. and North Korean leaders.

At the top of China’s agenda are an easing of the economic sanctions that pressured North Korea into negotiations and working on ways to provide security guarantees to give Pyongyang the confidence to dismantle its nuclear program.

While China worried that its interests might get short-shrift in the Trump-Kim summit, the summit’s vaguely worded agreement to pursue denuclearization without providing details on how or when to achieve that goal gives Beijing time to lobby Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang for a direct role in negotiations, Chinese experts said.

China sees North Korea as an important strategic buffer, having fought alongside the North Korean military in the war to beat back the U.S.-led forces and, in recent years, propping up the government as the country’s biggest trade partner, aid donor and foreign investor.

[Wall Street Journal]

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to visit North Korea

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will visit North Korea on Thursday at the invitation of counterpart Ri Yong-ho, according to the reclusive nation’s state news agency. The foreign ministry statement said Lavrov and the North’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ri will discuss the reclusive state’s nuclear programme, bilateral cooperation and other key international problems during the meeting.

It’s the second time in as many months that the pair will meet, after Ri flew to Moscow in May for talks with the Russian foreign minister. Lavrov at the time floated the possibility of a summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sometime in the future.

Lavrov’s trip on Thursday comes amid preparations for a high-stakes summit between US President Donald Trump and Kim set for June 12. Washington wants North Korea to quickly give up all its nuclear weapons in return for sanctions and economic relief.

Pyongyang has a different view of denuclearisation and remains deeply worried that abandoning its deterrent would leave it vulnerable, especially while the US maintains a military presence in South Korea. Lavrov said he hoped the meeting between Kim and Trump would not degenerate into a trading of accusations.

News of Lavrov’s visit came after Putin called for restraint to keep Kim at the negotiating table for the Trump meeting. Russia is a traditional ally of North Korea, along with China. Putin said on Friday that finding a solution to the North Korea nuclear tensions is of great importance to Russia and North Korea’s sovereignty should be guaranteed.

[South China Morning Post]

President Trump cancels June 12 North Korea summit

President Donald Trump today called off the planned summit with North Korea, writing in a letter to Kim Jong-Un that he didn’t want to go forward with the meeting because of “tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement.”

In the run-up to the proposed summit, Mr. Trump had said that if North Korea cooperated and relinquished its nuclear weapons, the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, could expect that his regime would remain intact and the country would experience an economic revival.

But increasingly combative statements from North Korea’s leadership in recent days dimmed prospects for the summit.

On Monday, Vice-President Pence suggested that Mr. Kim would be overthrown like Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi if he doesn’t make a deal on U.S. terms. “This will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn’t make a deal,” Mr. Pence told Fox News.

North Korea’s senior envoy for U.S. affairs threatened to cancel the summit and warned that the country could inflict on America an “appalling tragedy that it has never experienced nor even imagined.”

One official said that it was “wise” of Mr. Trump “to walk away for the time being.” Even after the U.S. and North Korea agreed on a summit date and venue, it was clear that substantial gaps remained. A major gap, according to experts, is whether the U.S. and North Korea shared the same understanding of “denuclearization.” The Trump administration envisioned a rapid process—perhaps taking less than a year—in which important sanctions relief would come only at the end. Mr. Kim spoke about a prolonged process in which sanctions relief would come earlier.

On Tuesday, South Korea’s president met with Mr. Trump in a bid to keep the summit planning on track. China’s foreign minister said Wednesday that he also hoped the summit would take place. On Thursday White House officials said the summit could be revived at some point, suggesting that Mr. Trump’s letter was only the latest turn in a continuing negotiation.

[CNN]

North Korea demanding the return of restaurant worker defectors

North Korea is demanding the return of 13 defectors as a condition for the resumption of talks with Seoul, with support groups for thousands who have fled the repressive regime in the North saying there is genuine fear that Seoul might give in to Pyongyang’s demands and that their lives might be at risk.

Pyongyang is demanding that 12 women who had worked at a North Korean restaurant in China and their manager be returned to the North after it was claimed on a television program that the women had not been told they were being taken to South Korea in 2016 and that they have been tricked into going by the South Korean intelligence services.

The demands coincide with Pyongyang cancelling a high-level meeting scheduled for last week that was designed to build on the agreements reached when South Korean President Moon Jae-in met with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, at the border village of Panmunjom late last month.

[Deutsche Welle]

Restaurant manager reveals he tricked North Korean waitresses into defecting

When 13 North Korean workers defected en masse from a restaurant in China in April 2016, it was a propaganda boost for South Korea and a huge embarrassment for their homeland.

Heo Gang-il, the manager of the restaurant in the Chinese port city of Ningbo has told CNN that the young women didn’t defect — he tricked them into going to South Korea at the bidding of South Korea’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service (NIS).  He says he had become an informant for the intelligence agency after becoming disillusioned with Kim Jong Un’s regime.

The South Korean government maintains that the 12 young women defected of their own free will, and took the unusual step of publicizing their decision stating it was the largest group defection since Kim took power in 2011.

Heo says the NIS told him to lie to the waitresses and bring them to South Korea. He told the workers they were relocating to better accommodations.  The 12 waitresses and Heo flew to Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, with tickets, he says, were paid for by the NIS.

Heo says they were given South Korean passports with false names and they flew to Incheon, South Korea’s main international airport. A journey that takes months for most defectors took these North Koreans just two days.

[CNN]

North Korean defector hung upside down and/or water-boarded for ten unbearable months

North Korean defector Jung Gwang Il was accused of collaborating with a South Korean while on business in China, and arrested as he returned home to his wife and two young daughters.

Detained without trial, he was tortured daily by electrocution, and put in the “pigeon position” where a prisoner’s hands and legs are tied before being hung from the ceiling.

For ten unbearable months, Jung Gwang Il was hung upside down or waterboarded until he confessed to being a spy. He was then forced into hard labor at North Korea’s notorious Yodok detention camp for another three years.

“In that first ten months, I dropped from 75kg (165 lbs) to 36kg (79 lbs). I tried to hold out for my family as I knew they would be punished if I confessed,” he said.

But after almost a year he could bear it no longer. His torturers promptly shipped him to Yodok, a grim camp about 65 miles north of Pyongyang.

While others died due to the hard labor, Mr Jung fought to survive. “We willed each other not to die, to believe that we might make it out,” he said of his fellow inmates. Three years later he was released, and casually told he had been found ‘not guilty’.

By that time his home had been destroyed and his family hounded into hiding. They were finally reunited in China after he swam across the Tumen border river to escape.

[The Telegraph]

North Korea details plans to dismantle nuclear test site this month

North Korea outlined steps Saturday to dismantle its nuclear testing site — and confirmed that international journalists, including from the United States and the United Kingdom, would be invited to watch this month as its tunnels are blown up.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un previously had announced the conclusion of North Korea’s nuclear testing program and the intended shuttering of the Punggye-ri complex. He said on April 20 that his nation already had “completed its mission” to test its weapons capability. (Located in mountainous terrain in the northeast of the country, Punggye-ri is less than 100 miles, or 160 kilometers, from China.)

The latest developments come a day after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters that he’d had “warm” and “good” conversations with Kim.

President Trump announced: “We are starting off on a new footing — I really think we have a very good chance of doing something very meaningful. A lot of very good things have happened. … I really think [Kim Jong-Un] wants to do something and bring the country into the real world,” he added.

[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]