Defector appears in North Korean propaganda video

South Korean intelligence officials are investigating whether a prominent defector from the North has been kidnapped back to Pyongyang. In 2014, the woman, known as Lim Ji-hyun, fled to South Korea in 2014, where she became a popular TV personality.

In the North Korean video, she says she was lured away and forced to slander the North, and has voluntarily returned across the border.

The propaganda video was released on Youtube by the North Korean Uriminzokkiri website on Sunday. In the video, the woman introduces herself by another name, Jeon Hye-Sung. She is shown in conversation with an interviewer and Kim Man-bok, another former defector who also returned to the North.

She says she was lured to the South by the “fantasy” that she could “eat well and make lots of money” and claims that she was forced into slandering her own country. She describes how in the South everything was judged by money, how she was struggling to make ends meet and was asked to discredit the North on several TV shows. She said she was now living back with her parents again after returning to the North last month.

JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reports that the defector had thanked her fans as recently as April for a birthday party, calling it “possibly the happiest birthday of my life”.

Intelligence officials are investigating how Ms Lim might have re-entered North Korea. Some North Korean defectors have speculated that she may have been abducted on the China-North Korean border while attempting to smuggle out family members, the Korea Times reports.

Over the past decade, tens of thousands of North Koreans have defected from the authoritarian state into South Korea. The unification ministry in Seoul told the BBC that since 2012 only 25 have returned.

[BBC]

Where North Korea’s elite get banned luxury goods

In much of the countryside, humanitarian groups say North Koreans live in grinding poverty. But in the capital, there is clearly money to spend.

You can buy anything your heart desires in one North Korean department store: premium blended whisky, jewelry and perfume. Or you can pick up a brand new drum set or a saxophone that’s carefully displayed in a glass case.

But there’s a catch. The department store is cash only.

New images released as part of a yearlong investigation by NK Pro, an independent North Korea monitoring group, shows just what money can buy in two luxury Pyongyang department stores.

If Western sanctions are meant to punish the ruling elite, it doesn’t appear to be working. Several items for sale in the NK Pro photos appear to be banned.

But why does the regime go to all the trouble of getting luxury goods to Pyongyang?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un likes to keep the ruling elite loyal with sweeteners says Kim Kwang Jin, a North Korea defector who helped finance illicit imports into North Korea. But he adds there is another reason.

“They earn a lot of dollars and cash from these luxurious department stores by selling all these goods and they re-allocate these dollars into their priorities like the nuclear and missile program,” he said. “Luxury goods sales help them build more missile and nuclear material.”

Kim Kwang Jin says the luxury stores are part of the secretive Office 39 — a group the US government describes as a slush fund for the regime.

[CNN]

North Korean insider on why sanctions fail to work

American and multilateral efforts to sanction North Korea into submission won’t work because there are too many ways around them, Ri Jong Ho says.

He should know. For about three decades, Ri was a top moneymaker for the Kim regime, sending millions of dollars a year back to Pyongyang even as round after round of sanctions was imposed to try to punish North Korea for its nuclear defiance.

Ri said North Korea has repeatedly found ways to circumvent whatever sanctions are imposed on it. “North Korea is a 100 percent state enterprise, so these companies just change their names the day after they’re sanctioned,” he said. “That way the company continues, but with a different name than the one on the sanctions list.”

Ri’s Chinese counterparts weren’t bothered, either, he said. “My partners in China also want to make a profit, so they don’t care much about sanctions,” he said. “When the Chinese government orders them to stop, they stop for a few days and then start up again.”

He described being able to send millions of U.S. dollars to North Korea simply by handing a bag of cash to the captain of a ship leaving from the Chinese port city of Dalian, where he was based, to the North Korean port of Nampo, or by giving it to someone to take on the train across the border. In first the nine months of 2014 alone, Ri said he sent about $10 million to Pyongyang this way.

For more than two decades, the United States has been trying to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program, alternating between inducements and punishments. In both cases, American policy has relied on China, North Korea’s erstwhile patron, using its economic power over its cash-strapped neighbor. But Beijing’s implementation of sanctions, even those it backed through the United Nations, has been patchy at best. China’s overwhelming priority is ensuring stability in North Korea.

China’s interest in North Korea is well known, but Russia’s role in supporting the former Soviet client state is often overlooked. Amid calls for China to limit oil exports to North Korea, Russia has dramatically increased the amount of oil it has sent–some reports suggest exports have quadrupled–to North Korea this year.

“Unless China, Russia and the United States cooperate fully to sanction North Korea, it will be impossible to hurt them,” Ri said.             Continue reading

 

North Korean insider now living in Virginia suggests top-level talks

In 2014, Ri Jong Ho grew increasingly disillusioned after Kim Jong Un suddenly denounced his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, as a “traitor for all ages” and had him executed at the end of 2013.

For three decades, Ri worked in Office 39, the Workers’ Party operation responsible for raising money for the Kim family. The office has long been associated with both legal trade and illicit activity, including counterfeiting dollars and drug smuggling. The 59-year-old and his family now live in Northern Virginia, having defected to South Korea at the end of 2014, and moved to the United States last year.

Jang had been leading economic cooperation efforts with China, and dozens of people who worked for him were also purged at the time, Ri said. He worried that his family would be next. They escaped to South Korea.

The former money man advocates an approach that combines Trump’s “maximum pressure” with another idea that the president has at least flirted with: talks.

“I think there should be top-level talks between the U.S. and North Korea, so that they can both work together to solve the problem,” Ri said.

While there is a great deal of skepticism in Washington about negotiations, that shouldn’t stop the current administration from trying, Ri said: “Like they say in politics, yesterday’s enemy can be today’s friend.”

[Washington Post]

Kim Jong Un spouse Ri Sol Ju makes appearance at banquet

North Korea’s leadership has been in a celebratory mood since the first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) last week that the country said meant it had “risen to become one of the few nuclear weapons states.” There is so much joy, in fact, that even the wife of leader Kim Jong Un has come out of hiding.

Public appearances by Ri Sol Ju have become increasingly rare within the past two years. But she was by Kim’s side as the pair attended a banquet in Pyongyang Monday to pay tribute to the developers of the recently launched missile. It was the first time she has been seen in public since early March, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

Video of the celebrations shows Ri largely observing impassively next to her husband. When Kim offers toasts to the missile developers, the head of whom was promoted to the role of colonel general, Ri moves into the background, without a glass in hand.

Ri was first seen by Kim’s side in 2012, shortly after he had succeeded his father as the country’s leader. It wasn’t until after her appearance, though, that North Korean state media confirmed her name and the fact that she was Kim’s wife. The wedding is believed to have taken place in 2009, when Ri was said to be 23. Little, however, is known about her.

A former member of a renowned orchestra, Ri was, though, seen in public on numerous occasions through 2012, 2013 and 2014, something which in itself was a break from tradition. The wives of Kim’s father and grandfather were never seen in public.

But sightings have declined substantially since.

The couple is known to have one child, a daughter who was confirmed by the unlikely source of Dennis Rodman following his visit to North Korea in 2013. Kim is believed to be desperate for a son to continue a family dynasty that has ruled the country since Korea was officially split into two states, in 1948.

[Newsweek]

Human rights activist Tim Peters helping North Korean refugees

Officials confirmed North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile test was the same day Tim Peters flew to Alaska. “And I thought to myself, this is a rather bizarre coincidence,” he said.

The Christian missionary is visiting Alaska and spent Saturday speaking at the Ninilchik Senior Center sharing his story about his organization, Helping Hands Korea. It’s a non-profit helping North Korean refugees escaping the regime under President Kim Jong-un.

Peters says he calls it a coincidence because the timing only motivated him more to raise awareness about North Korean refugees.

“There is a desperate humanitarian and human rights crisis that is raging in North Korea,” Peters said. “When you see the dark underbelly of human nature, in terms of the tyranny that exists in North Korea, the absolute deprivation of human rights. That is rampant in North Korea.”

Peters said his organization has people from Asia and Europe assisting with this work through what he calls Asia’s underground railroad. He won’t reveal the process, citing security and confidentiality issues, but says there’s always a need for help in other ways.

“The financial and material support at this point is rather critical,” he said.

Peters said his organization is in its twenty-first year of work. He said he and his wife will continue helping North Korean refugees and that he “hopes to the very core of his being” their efforts will debilitate the North Korean regime.

[KTVA.com]

Experts say North Korean ICBM has at least 4100 mile range

North Korea is reporting that their missile test launch early Tuesday was a success, marks their first successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), a significant milestone in a missile development program.

US military analysts expressed “high confidence” that the report of an ICBM launch was correct, and private scientists said the missile, which is being dubbed the Hwasong-14, demonstrated a range of at least 4,100 miles, which would allow it to reach any spot in Alaska.

As tested, the missile flew some 578 miles, landing in the sea just west of Japan, with Japanese officials complaining that it landed in their exclusive economic zone.

Officials say this is sooner than they expected North Korea to have such a delivery capability by a couple of years, though it is still generally accepted that North Korea does not have the capability of miniaturizing their nuclear warheads to launch them from such a missile.

Still, the launch earned rebukes from Russia and China, who are trying to talk down the risk of a US attack on North Korea, and led to a new push by President Trump for China to put “a heavy move” on North Korea, or risk having the US make its own move.

[antiwar.com]

North Korean missile test with claim to reach anywhere in the world

North Korea claims to have conducted its first successful test of a long-range missile that it says can “reach anywhere in the world.”

Tuesday morning’s missile test reached a height of 2,802 kilometers (1,741 miles), according to state broadcaster Korea Central Television, which would be the highest altitude a North Korean missile had ever reached.

The country claimed it was an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, which would put the United States on notice that Pyongyang could potentially hit the US mainland. South Korea said this latest missile had an “improved range” compared with its May launch.

North Korea appears to have timed the launch for maximum political effect, giving the order to fire on the eve of the July Fourth holiday, just days after President Donald Trump spoke with Japanese and Chinese leaders about the North Korean threat and before this week’s G20 meeting.

The launch was North Korea’s 11th missile test this year and comes amid increasing frustration from Trump about the lack of progress in curbing Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

[CNN]

The secrets behind Kim Jong Un’s funding

Despite international sanctions, Kim Jong Un continues to enjoy the good life, with recent purchases thought to include a gleaming white yacht, expensive liquors and even the equipment necessary to kit out a luxury ski resort. When the world’s most mysterious leader arrives for a parade, he steps out of a black Mercedes Benz. But who sold North Korea’s Supreme Leader a brand new, top-of-the-line limousine?

In 2015, North Korean imports totaled $3.47 billion. But if you remove China — Pyongyang’s biggest trading partner — from the equation, the breakdown reveals North Korea spent more on luxury goods than it did on licit imports from the rest of the world combined, according to UN data processed by the MIT Media Lab’s Observatory of Economic Complexity.

So how can the leader a country that in March of last year warned its citizens to prepare for possible famine and severe economic hardship afford to live in such luxury?

Experts say these types of purchases are made using Kim’s personal piggy bank, filled by Pyongyang’s illicit dealings across the globe. North Korea has been accused of crimes such as hacking banks, selling weapons, dealing drugs, counterfeiting cash and even trafficking endangered species — operations that are believed to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars. North Korean diplomats around the world have been accused of using their diplomatic privileges to conducted crimes such as smuggling gold and running guns.

A 2008 Congressional Research Service report said Pyongyang could generate anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion in profits annually from its ill-gotten gains.

In order to really pressure Kim until he’s desperate enough to get to the negotiating table on the US’ terms, US President Donald Trump may need to go after that money, analysts say. But cutting off that revenue may prove difficult, like playing a game of international whack-a-mole.

[CNN]

China condemns US sanctions over ‘North Korea funding’

China has reacted angrily to a US decision to impose sanctions on a Chinese bank, the Bank of Dandong, accused of laundering North Korean money.  A foreign ministry spokesman urged the US to “stop wrongful actions” to avoid harming co-operation.

The US announced the move, as well as sanctions on a Chinese shipping company and two Chinese nationals, on Thursday. It said the blacklisting was aimed at cutting funds to North Korea’s weapons programs.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told a news conference, the move was not a response to Chinese inaction on North Korea, saying: “This is not directed at China, this is directed at a bank, as well as individuals and entities in China.”

The UN has already imposed several rounds of sanctions on Pyongyang, but China is widely seen as the nation most able to impose economic pain on North Korea.

The sanctions mean that the Bank of Dandong will be barred from doing business in the US. Mr Mnuchin said that the US could impose more sanctions in the future.

The sanctions were announced as new South Korean President Moon Jae-in held talks with President Trump in Washington.

In a separate development, the US announced the sale of $1.42bn (£1.09bn) worth of arms to Taiwan, the first such transaction under the Trump administration. US arms sales to Taiwan always anger Beijing because it considers the self-governing island part of its territory. In a statement, the Chinese embassy in Washington called on the US to revoke its decision, saying China had “every right to be outraged”.

Earlier in the week, the US also placed China on its list of the worst offenders in human trafficking and forced labor – the first major move by the new administration over Beijing’s human rights record.

[BBC]