China adds troops, cameras, radiation detectors at North Korean border

China has ramped up security along its border with North Korea, installing new surveillance cameras, deploying extra security forces and operating radiation detectors as it braces for a potential crisis.

Bellicose rhetoric between Washington and Pyongyang has raised fears in China of a conflict that could send millions of North Korean refugees across the 1,420-kilometre (880-mile) border, and of nuclear fallout that could hit Chinese towns.

Residents have seen an increase in patrols along the frontier. Radiation monitors are running in border towns, and locals say interactions with North Koreans have been discouraged. A red banner tacked to a border fence in Dandong — a major trading hub separated from North Korea by the Yalu River — has a Cold War-like message to residents: “Citizens or organizations who see spying activities must immediately report them to national security organs.”

On the opposite bank, North Korean soldiers peered out from turquoise watchtowers and at least one warplane surveilled the territory from above. Relations between China and North Korea have deteriorated as Beijing has backed a series of UN sanctions to punish its secretive ally over its repeated missile and nuclear tests.

Further north in Longjing, where the Tumen River freezes over in the winter, villages have established border protection units and cadres have taught self-defense to residents. The local propaganda department said last year that hundreds of cameras were being installed to build a “second generation border surveillance system.”

At the Dandong border crossing, authorities last week checked to make sure their nuclear radiation monitoring and protection equipment was working properly. “If the monitoring stations show any abnormalities, we will immediately alert citizens,” said Guo Qiuju, a professor at Peking University.

 [GlobalNews.ca]

North and South Korea to march together under one flag at Winter Olympics

North and South Korean athletes will march together at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony under a unified flag, the South said Wednesday, in a diplomatic breakthrough following days of talks between the two countries.

The nations have also agreed to form a joint North and South Korean women’s ice hockey team for the Games in Pyeongchang, which begin early next month, South Korea’s unification ministry said. North and South Korean skiers will also train together at a resort in North Korea before the Olympics start, and performers from the two countries will also hold a joint cultural event there.

North Korea will also send around 230 supporters to cheer on its athletes. A smaller delegation of North Korean athletes and supporters will attend the Paralympics, the ministry said.

While the two sides have earned praise for ratcheting down military tensions in recent weeks, some of Seoul’s allies voiced concern Wednesday that Pyongyang may be using the talks to buy time to pursue its weapons program.

[CNN]

North Korea again tops the list for Christian persecution

For the 16th year in a row, North Korea tops the list of 50 countries ranked for the worst persecution of Christians in the world, according to the Christian watchdog organization Open Doors USA.

At the top of the group’s top 10 countries where Christians face the most persecution is North Korea (94 points), citing Christians and Christian missionaries routinely imprisoned in labor camps.

A close second is Afghanistan, which jumped up one place since last year’s ranking. With the exception of North Korea, all the countries that cracked the top 10 are predominantly Muslim and most are in the Middle East and Africa.

Open Doors exists to support and to advocate for persecuted Christians where ever they may be in the world,” Open Doors USA’s CEO and president, David Curry, said in announcing the list in Washington on Wednesday (Jan. 10). “We are asking that the world begin to use its power and its influence to push for justice, that we would use the list to direct us where justice is needed most in the world today.”

[Religion News Service]

North Korean defectors must be returned for Korean family reunions to resume

North Korea wants a number of defectors returned as a precondition to resuming reunions of families separated by the Korean War, according to Japanese wire service Kyodo on Sunday.

North Korea and South Korea began diplomatic talks last week for the first time in two years. North Korea agreed to send a delegation and two athletes to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month during the talks.

Negotiations between the two countries hit a snag went it came to family reunification, according to Kyodo. The two countries have held family reunions for people divided by the Korean Wars over the years, but North Korea wants 13 people who defected to South Korea in 2016 and one woman who defected in 2011 returned before having more reunions.

The people who defected 2016 were 12 waitresses and their manager, who worked at a state-owned restaurant in China. At the North Korean restaurant, the women doubled as entertainers — singing and dancing in addition to serving food. The woman who defected in 2011, Kim Ryon Hui, has expressed that she wants to return to North Korea. She traveled to China to receive treatment for liver disease and then traveled to South Korea to make more money to afford the treatment. In an interview with CNN, she said she didn’t realize once she came to South Korea and renounced her North Korean citizenship she would not be able to return home. It is illegal to cross back into North Korea once in South Korea.

North Korea maintains that the waitresses were abducted by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service and that their manager tricked them into defecting. The women and their manager are under close supervision of the National Intelligence Service and have undergone a different and much longer integration process than other defectors. The United Nations sent an investigator to research the women’s situation and whether they had come to the country of their own volition.

[Kyodo]

Android trojan targets North Korean defectors and their supporters

North Korean defectors, along with those who help them, are being targeted by a hacking operation which aims to infect their devices with trojan malware for the purposes of spying.The campaign apparently uses social networks and chat applications to directly interact with selected victims in South Korea and plant spyware onto their smartphones.

Researchers at McAfee have attributed the attacks to an operation they’ve dubbed Sun Team, named after deleted files used to help carry out the attacks. The attacks used applications including KakaoTalk – a popular chat app in South Korea – and popular social media services including Facebook to aid efforts of distributing trojan malware to the Android devices of victims.

If successful in being dropped onto a device, the malware uses a phishing attack to trick the victim into turning on the accessibility settings they require to gain full control of the infected device. Once successfully installed on the target device, the trojan uses cloud services including Dropbox, Google and Yandex as a control server, as well as a hub for uploading stolen data and receiving commands.

Not much is known about the mysterious group behind the attacks, but researchers at McAfee have speculated that they must be very familiar with the Korean language and South Korean culture, because names of the account names associated with their cloud accounts are from Korean television – including the name of soap characters and reality show contestants.

Researchers also note that one word found associated with the attackers – ‘blood type’ – is used in a way associated with North Korean spelling, rather than in the South Korean equivalent. North Korean IP test log files were also discovered on some Android accounts used to spread the malware. However, McAfee notes that this isn’t enough to draw any conclusions about the location of the attackers because “Wi-Fi was on so we cannot exclude the possibility that the IP address is private”

[Read full ZDNet article]

The North Korean “Tunnels of Aggression”

The U.S. Army has reportedly stepped up training efforts for North Korea’s massive network of underground tunnels amid ongoing tension and threats of a military conflict from both nations. The Army is training thousands of soldiers while the Pentagon is buying up gear that would specifically help troops fight in the North’s tunnels, NPR reported Tuesday morning citing unnamed U.S. officials.

The well-documented tunnel system, possibly around 5,000 of them, in the isolationist state reportedly contains not only pathways for troops across the demilitarized zone but also artillery and nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. One such tunnel was discovered a mere 32 miles away from Seoul, the South’s capital city.

The tunnels, dubbed Tunnels of Aggression, were first discovered in 1974 after North Korean defectors warned the South of their existence. The defectors claimed North Korea’s founder Kim Il-Sung had ordered the tunnels built in an effort to possibly invade the South with one tunnel supposedly capable of funneling 30,000 troops per hour, according to The New York Times.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis are reportedly pushing for diplomacy, while national security adviser H.R. McMaster is encouraging a “bloody nose” strategy involving a minor military strike rather than a full-out conflict.

[Newsweek]

Initial outcome of North Korea-South Korea meeting

The rival Koreas moved toward reducing their bitter animosity Tuesday during rare talks, with North Korea agreeing to take part in next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea. The countries also agreed to hold more discussions on easing tension along their border and to reopen a military hotline.

The first meeting of its kind between the nations in about two years was arranged after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made an abrupt push for improved ties with South Korea following a year of escalating tensions with the outside world over his expanding nuclear and missile programs.

Critics say Kim may be trying to divide Seoul and Washington in a bid to weaken international pressure and sanctions on the North. In comments that appeared to back up those critical views, chief North Korean delegate Ri Son Gwon said his country’s nuclear weapons are aimed at the United States, not South Korea.

Despite Ri’s comments, the agreements were still seen to be a positive move. Chief South Korean delegate Cho Myoung-gyon described the accords as a “first step toward the development of South-North relations” when he briefed reporters about the meeting.

In another key accord Tuesday, North Korea also agreed to hold military talks aimed at reducing animosity along the border and restore a military hotline communication channel with South Korea, according to Cho. All major inter-Korean communication channels had been shut down over the North’s nuclear program in recent years. But North Korea reopened one channel last week as signs emerged of improving ties.

[AP]

North Korea accepts South’s offer to meet for talks

Kim Jong Un, to general surprise, announced in his New Year’s Day speech that he was prepared to “melt the frozen north-south relations,” to allow contacts with South Koreans and to discuss North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics to be held in February in South Korea.

US President Trump has tweeted that this would not have happened had he not been “firm, strong and willing to commit our total ‘might’ against the North.” He may be partly right. The single most important factor driving the North Koreans to this decision was probably economic distress.

President Trump’s unpredictability may also have contributed to Pyongyang’s decision. When United Nations Undersecretary-General Jeffrey Feltman visited Pyongyang from December 5 through 8, the North Koreans asked him repeatedly how decisions were made in Washington. They are nervous that the United States is now behaving in ways that they cannot predict and are probably anxious at President Trump’s talk of military action.

Perhaps the immediate trigger was the announcement on December 19 by President Moon Jae-In of South Korea that he had asked the US military to postpone the annual joint US-South Korean exercises until after the Winter Olympics. The North Koreans hate these exercises and have often tried to get them postponed, reduced or canceled, so this may have seemed too good an opportunity to miss. They acted quickly, meeting South Korean officials secretly right at the end of December.

Person-to-person talks between North and South Korea are scheduled to be held next Tuesday — the day after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s birthday — at the Peace House in the village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone.

[CNN]

Kim Jong Un overture could drive wedge between South Korea and USA

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, presented a canny new strategy to initiate direct talks with South Korea in the hope of driving a wedge into its seven-decade alliance with the United States.

Perhaps sensing the simmering tension between President Trump and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, Kim called for an urgent dialogue between the two Koreas before the opening of the Winter Olympics in the South next month.

The strained relationship between the allies has been playing out for months, as Mr. Moon, a liberal, argued for economic and diplomatic openings with the North, even as Mr. Trump has worked hard to squeeze the North with increasingly punishing sanctions. Mr. Moon also angered Mr. Trump and his aides in recent months by suggesting he holds what he called a veto over any American pre-emptive military action against the North’s nuclear program.

Until now Mr. Kim has largely ignored Mr. Moon, whom the North Korean media has portrayed as a spineless lackey of the United States. Kim now sees an opportunity to develop and accentuate the split between Mr. Moon and Mr. Trump, betting that the United States will be unable to mount greater pressure on the North if it does not have South Korean acquiescence. The gambit may work. Hours after Mr. Kim’s speech, Mr. Moon’s office welcomed the North’s proposal, in a way that could further aggravate tensions with the United States.

As part of the overture, Mr. Kim also agreed to a request by Mr. Moon to send a North Korean delegation to the Winter Olympics. The South Korean president is betting that the North is far less likely to disrupt the Olympics, with missile launchings or an act of terrorism, if North Korean athletes are competing.

[New York Times]

The nuclear war tweet heard around the world

The U.S. President ignited a stunning new showdown with North Korea late Tuesday, as Donald Trump boasted to volatile leader Kim Jong Un that he had a “much bigger & more powerful” nuclear weapon.

Trump’s flippant comments about his nuclear prowess — akin to “mine is bigger than yours” schoolyard taunts — raise new questions about whether the President has thought deeply about the awesome destructive power at his command.

His outburst also elevates Kim, leader of an impoverished autocracy using a nuclear program to ensure its survival, to a tit-for-tat confrontation alongside the President of the United States.

“Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” Trump tweeted. The tweet was remarkable not just for its content but for the fact it was generated by a President, the holder of the office that for decades has been the effective guarantor of a US-enforced 70-year era of global peace. Before Trump, no US President has made such public and cavalier threats.

Trump’s gambit is all the more risky since it is likely to alienate US allies, anger key world powers like Russia and China that Washington needs to resolve the standoff and because no one knows how the unpredictable Kim will respond.

“To call it juvenile would be an insult to children,” retired Adm. John Kirby, a former State Department and Pentagon spokesman told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday. “I do think in the halls of the Pentagon and the State Department, there has got to be a lot of concern over this, because he is the President of the United States. His tweets are going to be taken as official policy,” said Kirby, now a CNN analyst. “There is no question they are going to lead to miscalculation and confusion over there.”

[CNN]