Kim Jong Un briefed on Guam plan but opts to wait

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reviewed plans to fire missiles towards the US Pacific territory of Guam but will hold off, state media said. Although prepared for “the enveloping fire at Guam”, the North said it would watch what “the foolish Yankees” do before taking a decision.

Crucially, indications are that Mr Kim would watch the US before making any decision, signaling an apparent deceleration in the provocative rhetoric. Correspondents say that after days of menacing threats it might seem that Kim Jong-un could be in the mood to finally hit the pause button – but in a nation as secretive as North Korea, one can never be sure. Analysts say it could simply mean Pyongyang is not fully ready to launch an attack on Guam, so it could just be buying more time.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in meanwhile has urged the US not to launch an attack on the Korean peninsula without its consent. The two countries’ defence agreement states that they must “consult together” when either is threatened.

South Korea and China – North Korea’s closest ally – have been urging calm and a renewed push for diplomatic resolutions.

China’s foreign ministry on Monday reiterated its “suspension for suspension proposal”, where North Korea stops its missile tests in exchange for a freeze on military exercises by the US and South Korea.

US Defense Secretary James Mattis earlier warned that any attack could quickly escalate into war, and if Pyongyang fired a missile towards Guam, “then it’s game on”. He also sought to reassure residents of Guam, home to US military bases and about 160,000 people, that they were well-protected and if a missile was fired, “we’ll take it out”.

Some quick facts about Guam:

  • The 209 sq mile volcanic and coral island in the Pacific between the Philippines and Hawaii.
  • It is a “non-incorporated” US territory, with a population of about 163,000.
  • That means people born in Guam are US citizens, have an elected governor and House Representative, but cannot vote for a president in US national elections.
  • US military bases cover about a quarter of the island. About 6,000 personnel are based there and there are plans to move in thousands more.
  • It was a key US base in World War Two, and remains a vital staging post for US operations.

[BBC]

North Korean refugees escape to Thailand via Christian underground railroad

At a glance, Thailand seems an unlikely destination for North Koreans seeking to defect from their abusive state. For starters, the two nations are separated by about 3,000 miles. Most of that distance is consumed by China, which tends to scoop up intruding North Korean refugees and ship them back home, where they face grim retaliation in gulags.

Yet each year, hundreds and sometimes thousands of North Koreans make this grueling overland journey from their frigid homeland to the tropics of Southeast Asia. Despite its distance, Thailand is actually one of the closest reachable nations where North Koreans can reasonably expect that the government will deliver them to South Korean officials. That is the goal: defecting to South Korea, their estranged and far more prosperous sibling nation.

All of those who undertake this journey are desperate almost by definition. Many trials await them, especially during the overland route to China.

These journeys are typically managed by either rogue people smugglers, who charge several thousand dollars, or secretive Christian networks operating out of Seoul. Among Christian smugglers, this route is known as the “underground railroad”.

The clandestine leader of one of these Christian networks previously told PRI that “when [the defectors] first get out of North Korea, they look really shabby and skinny. We usually make them stay at a church member’s house [in China] for a month, just to eat.”

That’s how long it takes to put substantial meat on their bones. Painfully thin North Koreans, he said, are easily spotted by China’s surveillance network. Eventually, the refugees have to evade the eye of China’s officialdom as they travel on public trains and buses down to the border of Laos, a small communist nation in thrall to China.

Via trekking, river boats or more buses, the defectors must push through Laos to reach the Mekong River, which marks the border with Thailand. There, they can find the nearest police officer and ask to be arrested. South Korea will typically negotiate their release, fly them to Seoul, debrief and interrogate them and, finally, release the weary refugees into society.

[PRI]

North Korea vs the US: Opinions on how likely conflict?

The war of words between the US and North Korea has escalated, with Donald Trump warning any threats would be met with “fire and fury” and Pyongyang promptly announcing it was “carefully examining” a plan to attack an American military base in the western Pacific.

But despite two unpredictable nuclear-armed leaders trading barbs, most observers believe the possibility of conflict remains remote, with the North Korean leadership using its nuclear program as a bargaining chip rather than an offensive weapon.

Jean Lee, former AP Pyongyang bureau chief, says: “No one in the region, not even North Korea, wants another war. But Kim Jong-un is going to push it as far as he can to get what he wants: recognition from the United States that North Korea is a nuclear power, and legitimacy at home as a ruler who can defend his people against the big, bad US. In some ways, Trump’s threats play into the North Korean calculus: Kim Jong-un wants his people to believe that the United States continues to threaten the very existence of North Korea. That fearmongering brings the North Korean people together, and justifies the regime’s diversion of precious resources into building nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles. What I’m concerned about is a miscalculation or mishap that could force troops in the region to take military action.”

Andrei Lankov, professor at Kookmin University, Seoul, says: “The US president is employing both rhetoric and tactics which for decades have been used only by the North Korean side of the conflict. On the North Korean side, it is business as usual, of course: they repeat their promise to transform Seoul into the “sea of fire” every few years….Once North Korea finishes development and deployment of a nuclear force capable of hitting the continental US, they might be ready to talk about a nuclear and missile freeze. The US should accept this option.”

Robert Kelly, associate professor, Pusan National University: “There are two ways to think about what Trump said. The optimistic way – if you’re a Trump supporter – is that he’s trying to be unpredictable. What this is really intended to do is pressure the Chinese, to signal to them that strategic patience is over. The less optimistic, and probably more accurate, reading is that this is Trump shooting his mouth off. There’s rhetoric on both sides – it’s like two bullies in the playground yelling at each other. … We’re not used to unpredictability and anxiety coming from the American side of this relationship. That’s why people are so unnerved – we’re not used to Potus talking like this.
“The North Koreans are not going to offensively strike an American base or the American homeland unilaterally without any provocation – to do that would bring crushing American retaliation. The North Koreans aren’t stupid. Their nuclear weapons are intended for defense, not offence. The North Koreans are worried about what happened to Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, they’re worried about the Americans leveraging change and they know that nuclear weapons are guaranteed to prevent that from happening. That’s what this is really all about.”

John Delury, North Korea expert, Yonsei University, Seoul: “The North Koreans love the verbal hostilities. They will do this ad nauseam. They are happy to do daily threat battles with the White House. That is actually quite wonderful for them. They like the attention and it all underlines their point that they are under siege by the Americans. … But an outbreak of military conflict is not impossible.”

Jiyoung Song, senior lecturer in Korean studies, University of Melbourne: “North Korea wants to be recognized as a legitimate nuclear state by the US and establish diplomatic relations with the US. Constantly reminding the world and especially the US of their nuclear and missile capabilities is part of their regime survival calculations. … If Trump doesn’t want Kim to further develop his nuclear ambition, he has to sit down and talk with Kim.”

[The Guardian]

Will latest sanctions impact North Korean leadership in the desired way?

Experts express doubt over how strictly the latest attempt to slash North Korea’s earnings from coal, iron ore and seafood will be enforced.

And even if the new sanctions do cut export revenues by more than a third — as the U.S. expects — will that be enough to make Kim change course on developing nuclear missiles?  “Probably not,” said John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in South Korea. “Because one thing [North Korea is] good at is taking pain.”

The U.N. Security Council has hit North Korea with layer after layer of sanctions since 2006, but the moves have failed to thwart the country’s nuclear ambitions. North Korea has “an impressive track record over its whole history, going back to the 1940s when it was founded, of being able to … weather virtually any kind of economic pressure,” Delury told CNN. “This is not the kind of regime that is easy to bring to its knees.”

The new U.N. resolution goes further than previous sanctions by aiming to cut deeper into the wider North Korean economy. It received the backing of China, North Korea’s main ally and economic partner, but some analysts are skeptical Beijing will fully comply in practice.

“The $1 billion number depends on China implementing the U.N. sanctions, we … have 11 years of evidence they will not do so,” tweeted Anthony Ruggiero, a former official at the U.S. State and Treasury departments.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged the problem of enforcement on Monday, telling reporters that the U.S. would be “monitoring that carefully and certainly having conversations with any and all that we see who may not be fully embracing not just the spirit of those sanctions but the operational execution of those sanctions.”

Beijing has found itself caught between Trump’s demands to put greater pressure on Kim’s regime and its own desire to keep North Korea as a strategic buffer against U.S. influence in the region.  By supporting the latest U.N. resolution, Beijing may have dodged — for the time being — U.S. sanctions against Chinese companies that are suspected of doing business with the North Korean regime.

However, any breathing room China has gained isn’t likely to last long, according to Tong Zhao, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.

[CNN Money]

Tillerson hails UN sanctions, as Chinese Minister rebukes North Korea at ASEAN meeting

A day after the United Nations Security Council passed its toughest sanctions against North Korea, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson met with his South Korean and Chinese counterparts in hopes of ratcheting up pressure on Pyongyang.

Mr. Tillerson hailed the United Nations vote, which could cost North Korea nearly $1 billion a year, or about one-third of its foreign earnings.

Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, held direct talks with his North Korean counterpart, Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong. In unusually strong terms, he urged North Korea to show restraint. “Do not violate the U.N.’s decision or provoke the international society’s good will by conducting missile launching or nuclear tests,” Mr. Wang said.

He also said, “Of course, we would like to urge other parties like the United States and South Korea to stop increasing tensions.”

The top US diplomat for the region, Susan Thornton, the acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, gave credit to the Chinese for supporting Saturday’s vote in the United Nations against North Korea.

But Ms. Thornton cautioned that Beijing has often failed to follow through on its promised tough measures against Pyongyang. China accounts for more than 90 percent of North Korea’s external trade, and it has long avoided tough economic sanctions against the North for fear that a collapse of the government would lead to a flood of refugees, as well as the North’s reunification with the South, putting a close American ally directly on China’s border.

[New York Times]

More on North Korea’s Office 39

Kim Jong Un’s perceived flare for the dramatic is something he shares with his late father, Kim Jong Il. The elder Kim was a noted cinephile and James Bond fan, and analysts say his fondness for spy thrillers appeared to influence his leadership — South Korea says he tried to assassinate enemies with a pen, and kidnapped movie stars in order to boost the country’s own film industry.

And Kim Jong Il also created of what’s known as “Office 39.”

The US Treasury Department says Office 39 is the bureau that “provides critical support to North Korean leadership in part through engaging in illicit economic activities and managing slush funds.”

The money basically hides in plain sight, according to Harvard-based North Korea specialist John Park. “North Korean overseas networks have been extremely adaptive to the combined pressures of international sanctions, in large part due to their ability to nest and disguise their illicit business within the licit trade,” according to Park.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States will try to further stymie North Korean operations by punishing third parties that help Pyongyang skirt sanctions. Though Tillerson did not specify how those third-country sanctions would work, part of the strategy involves asking countries around the globe to scale back their diplomatic relationships with Pyongyang. Experts say China cracking down on its unruly neighbor may be the key to stopping Pyongyang’s illicit activities.

[CNN]

North Korean defector reveals Office 39 inner workings

Ri Jong Ho, a high-profile North Korean who defected in 2014,worked for decades in what’s known as “Office 39.” The office is in charge of bringing in hard currency for the regime. Ri calls it a “slush fund for the leader and the leadership.” Some of Office 39’s profits also go to the country’s nuclear and missile programs

However, Ri told CNN “Office 39”, which has branches throughout North Korea, is not engaged in illicit activities He said that they were not under the purview of Office 39, but did not deny they occurred. (North Korea has been accused of crimes like hacking banks, counterfeiting currency, dealing drugs and even trafficking endangered species.)

Ri said much of North Korea’s hard cash is earned through exporting labor — the country sends workers across the globe and collects much of their pay, according to the UN — and exporting natural resources like coal, which China used to buy but has since stopped.

 

Analysts say Office 39 is likely now in the cross hairs of US President Donald Trump’s administration. The Trump team has made it clear that one of the ways it plans to deal with North Korea is to squeeze its revenue streams across the globe in order to pressure them into negotiations over their weapons programs.

 

Ri, who now lives in Washington DC, believes that secondary sanctions — targeting those who do business with North Korea — is the way to go, especially in China.

 

Beijing accounts for about 85% of North Korean imports in 2015, according to UN data, though Ri revealed that Pyongyang does import some oil from Russia. North Korean economist Ri Gi Song told CNN in February that China accounts for 70% of trade and that trade with Russia is increasing.

[CNN]

North Korean defector shocked she might have aided assassination of pastor

A North Korean defector has claimed she was forced to provide information on the movements of a pastor living in China who was helping defectors, shortly before he was murdered by agents of Pyongyang’s Ministry of State Security.

Han Chung-ryeol, a pastor at a church in China’s Changbai City, helped to run a network that assisted people fleeing the border region before they could be caught and sent back to North Korea. He disappeared in April 2016 but was later found dead with a slashed throat.

In an interview with the Seoul-based DailyNK news site, the woman, who defected from North Korea in June, explained  she had been caught smuggling medicinal herbs and scrap metal into North Korea, and local authorities forced her to become an informant.

She was ordered to record the movements of Pastor Han and pass the information on to security officers.

The woman, who has not been named, said she was “shocked” when she learned that the information she had been providing was used to kill Mr Han.

[The Telegraph]

The mystery of the defector now back in North Korea

The case of a Korean woman Lim Ji-hyun who defected from North Korea, made a new life for herself as a TV personality in the South and then “returned home” to the communist state three years later has left South Koreans wondering why such people return to the repressive state they once fled.

From her new vantage point in North Korea, Lim has denounced South Korea and TV Chosun, which produced the programs about defectors that she appeared in. Despite that, the South Korean public is still fascinated by her, because of intense curiosity about one puzzling question: Was her return to the North voluntary?

One North Korean defector, Kim Ji-young, who appeared with Lim on the show Moranbong Club, doesn’t think so.

Another Moranbong Club star, defector Kim Ka-young, believes Lim was kidnapped and taken back to Pyongyang against her will. “Why would she go back on her own? Of course she was kidnapped,” said Kim. “Every word she said during that interview sounded disingenuous and fabricated.”

According to Kim Kwang-jin, another defector who now is a researcher at the government-funded Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS) in Seoul, such “involuntary repatriation of North Korean defectors” — particularly from China — is not uncommon. “There are many other cases where North Korean defectors are abducted in China while trying to send money to their families in their homeland,” Kim told VOA.

Kim told VOA’s Korean service that almost everyone …who winds up back in the North was coerced: “Going back to North Korea after living [in the South] is a lot riskier than escaping from there. It’s like running into a fire, carrying fuel.”

[VoA]

Family of 5 North Korean defectors arrested in China takes cyanide

A family of five North Korean defectors committed suicide last week after they were arrested in China, according to various media reports.

The father, a former member of the Korean Workers’ Party, his wife, and their three children crossed the Yalu River into China earlier this month, reports Radio Free Asia.

“Right after they were caught in Yunnan, they tried to bribe their way out through a local fixer, but once they were taken to Shenyang they probably lost hope,” Kim Hee-tae, an activist, told the Chosun Ilbo Sunday.

North Korean defectors are known to sometimes carry cyanide capsules, and suicide is not uncommon, although it is unusual for an entire family to commit suicide. The family “committed suicide because they were afraid of the severe punishment” they would face in North Korea, one of the brokers in China who was helping them escape revealed.

North Korean defector Grace Jo told the Daily Caller News Foundation, “China needs to stop sending people back. Thousands of people are trying to get out of North Korea, but the Chinese are standing in their way.”

[The Daily Caller]