North Korean belief in the supernatural status of the Kim family

Ignorant of the long history of the North Korean problem, Trump at least brings fresh eyes to it. But he is going to collide with the same harsh truth that has stymied all his recent predecessors: There are no good options for dealing with North Korea.

The myth holds that Korea and the Kim dynasty are one and the same. It is built almost entirely on the promise of standing up to a powerful and menacing foreign enemy. The more looming the threat–and Trump excels at looming–the better the narrative works for Kim Jong Un.

Nukes are needed to repel this threat. They are the linchpin of North Korea’s defensive strategy, the single weapon standing between barbarian hordes and the glorious destiny of the Korean people–all of them, North and South.

Kim is the great leader, heir to divinely inspired ancestors who descended from Mount Paektu with mystical, magical powers of leadership, vision, diplomatic savvy, and military genius. Like his father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather Kim Il Sung before him, Kim is the anointed defender of all Koreans, who are the purest of all races. Even South Korea, the Republic of Korea, should be thankful for Kim because, if not for him, the United States would have invaded long ago.

This racist mythology and belief in the supernatural status of the Mount Paektu bloodline defines North Korea.

[The Atlantic]

North Korean foreign minister heads to Sweden amid summit speculation

North Korea’s foreign minister was flying to Sweden on Thursday, the Swedish government said, in the first significant diplomatic move by Pyongyang since US President Donald Trump said a week ago that he’d be willing to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Sweden, whose embassy represents US interests in the North Korean capital, has been touted as a possible venue for the momentous summit between Kim and Trump, and the visit will fuel speculation that a Stockholm encounter is in the cards.

Talks will take place between Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom and her North Korean counterpart, Ri Yong Ho. As North Korea’s top diplomat, Ri is one of the most visible faces of a country shrouded in secrecy. He made headlines last year by telling reporters that Kim could order a hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific Ocean in response to insults from Trump. He also said Trump was “mentally deranged” and likened his threats to “a dog barking.”

The trip to Sweden comes as Nirj Deva, the chair of a European parliamentary delegation, told reporters that his group has been holding secret meetings with senior members of the North Korean regime over the past three years to try to convince it to return to peace talks.

Sweden is one of a handful of places analysts believe could host the meeting, with other possible summit locations including: Switzerland, the neutral nation where Kim went to school; the Joint Security Area in the demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea; and China, which has diplomatic relations with the United States and North Korea and has hosted Kim’s father, the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Regardless of where the summit happens, if it happens, Trump would become the first sitting US President to meet with a North Korean leader.


European Parliament has been in ‘secret’ talks with North Korea for 3 years

A European Parliament delegation said Wednesday it has been conducting secret talks with North Korea over the last three years to try to persuade Pyongyang to negotiate an end to its nuclear programme.

The group led by British MEP Nirj Deva has met senior North Korean officials, including ministers, 14 times and plans another meeting in Brussels in the near future. News of the below-the-radar diplomacy effort comes after the surprise announcement that US President Donald Trump plans a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, part of fast-paced developments following an Olympic detente.

Deva said he and his colleagues on the European Parliament Delegation for Relations with the Korean Peninsula had been “relentlessly advocating the case for dialogue without preconditions” to end the increasingly tense nuclear standoff with the North.

The group also met senior officials in the US, China, Japan and South Korea, Deva said, for dialogue aimed at achieving a “verifiable denuclearized Korean peninsula. We told them in no uncertain terms that if they carry on with the missile programme and the nuclear bomb programme they will only lead to an inevitable conclusion which is unthinkable,” Deva said.

Deva said that from his meetings he believed the tough sanctions the EU has in place against North Korea had been an important factor in driving Pyongyang to agree to talks. “Part of the reason that this happened was the sanctions started to bite poor people – not the elite,” he said.

[The Telegraph]

North Korea talks sans Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired on Twitter after returning from an Africa trip in which he was out of the loop on North Korean talks and contradicted the White House position on Russia’s responsibility for poisoning a former double agent in the United Kingdom.

Tillerson had engaged with North Korea even when the president said — again via Twitter — that he was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.”

Now, Trump is heading into an unprecedented face-to-face meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un over that country’s nuclear program. The timing of Tillerson’s dismissal was designed to allow Trump to put a new team in place in advance of those talks, said a White House official speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss a personnel decision.

Trump’s new nominee to head the State Department is CIA director Mike Pompeo, a hard-liner on Iran and North Korea who is much more in line with Trump’s more militant instincts.

[USA Today]

South Korea to send envoy to North Korea

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is sending a special envoy to North Korea, following Pyongyang’s successful participation in the Winter Olympics.

It appears to be in direct response to a personal invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivered by his sister Kim Yo Jong during her visit to the South for the Games last month.

Moon doesn’t seem to be preparing for a personal trip above the demilitarized zone (DMZ) just yet, but sending an envoy to Pyongyang would be an important first step.

Multiple North Korean officials met with their South Korean counterparts before Kim’s Olympic trip last month in the first face-to-face meetings between the Koreas in almost two years in January.

Concerns about the Trump administration’s policy towards Pyongyang were also raised this week with the departure of Joseph Yun, the top US State Department for North Korea, who was widely seen as a voice for diplomatic engagement in contrast to the increasingly hawkish National Security Council.


North Korean defector’s reflections on the Olympics

Last week, Park Ui-Song, a thirty-year-old, took a break from his university classes in Seoul to travel to the Gangneung Ice Arena to watch some Olympic competitions. Park, who asked that his name be changed to protect the identity of his family that remains in North Korea, shared the following reaction:

I was hoping that [the outcome might be] starting a dialogue, that sort of humanizing theme would come through. Practically, the North Korean leaders have the power to improve the North-South relationship. I hate them, but they can bring change. So I also kept a close eye on the North Korean leaders like Kim Yo Jong [Kim Jong-Un’s sister] and South Korea President Moon Jae-in. I had a lot of hope and expectation when they showed each other what I thought looked like respect. I want reunification, even though many in the generation below me do not. Of course, I have a family that I’d like to see.

But watching the cheerleaders in particular—actually, watching the media watching the cheerleaders—and seeing how much attention the media gave them and how they were received was disappointing. Their actions weren’t natural. They looked like dolls. Or like actors in a play. And yes, they were very much playing their roles, but I struggled with how the rest of the world was so enamored with them and their looking like robots. At the hockey game [between North Korea and Switzerland], they yelled slogans about unity and sang old Korean folk tunes. They chanted We are one! There might be a desire to unify but it’s not their real intention. The chanting is an order. I do feel sorry for them because they are victims of a dictatorship. They are being used as a tool.

I wish the global audience could separate the North Korean regime and the North Korean people, which I know is very hard to do. But I wish people could try to have that perspective. In many ways, the North Korean people are just like other people—they fall in love, they have their own culture. Once you remove the regime, they’re not so different.

There’s some nostalgia. I’ve been in South Korea for three years, and seeing [North Korean Olympic attendees] on TV, there is an element of homesickness. I still think North Korea is in some ways a beautiful place, and I still identify myself closer to North Korean than South Korean because I spent 26 years of my life in the North. I don’t know if that will gradually change, sometimes I ask myself if it needs to.

I left to go back to Seoul feeling conflicted about it all. Kim [Jong-Un] clearly tried to create an environment for dialogue and also brighten up the world’s perception of the North at these Games, I don’t know if he was successful. Maybe it’s fifty-fifty.


US imposes yet more North Korea sanctions

The United States said on Friday it was imposing its largest package of sanctions to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear missile program, and President Donald Trump warned of a “phase two” that could be “very, very unfortunate for the world” if the steps did not work.

The U.S. Treasury sanctions’ targets include a Taiwanese passport holder, as well as shipping and energy firms in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. The actions block assets held by the firms and individuals in the United States and prohibit U.S. citizens from dealing with them. The U.S. Treasury said the sanctions were designed to disrupt North Korean shipping and trading companies and vessels and further isolate Pyongyang.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the new sanctions would help prevent North Korea from skirting restrictions on trade in coal and other fuel through “evasive maritime activities.” Last month three Western European intelligence sources told Reuters that North Korea shipped coal to Russia last year and that it was then delivered to South Korea and Japan in a likely violation of U.N. sanctions.

Mnuchin said the number of sanctions steps taken by the United States against Pyongyang since 2005 was now 450, with approximately half imposed in the last year.

“The only thing missing here today is action against Chinese banks,” Jonathan Shanzer of the Washington think tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies said. “We know they continue to undermine our efforts to isolate North Korea.”


Secret meeting between US and North Korea canceled

When US Vice President Pence departed for a five-day, two-country swing through Asia earlier this month an agreement was in place for a secret meeting with North Korean officials, while in South Korea at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

But on Feb. 10, less than two hours before Pence and his team were to meet with Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and Kim Yong Nam, North Korea’s nominal head of state, the North Koreans pulled out of the scheduled meeting, according to Pence’s office.

The North Korean decision to withdraw from the meeting came after Pence used his trip to denounce the North’s nuclear ambitions and announce the “toughest and most aggressive” sanctions yet against the regime, while also taking steps to further solidify the U.S. alliance with Japan and South Korea.

The cancellation also came as Kim Jong Un, through his sister, invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang to begin talks “soon” — a development that would be likely to cause consternation in Washington.

The vice president’s office promoted his trip as an effort to combat what it said was North Korea’s plan to use the Winter Games for propaganda purposes and portrayed the cancellation of the meeting as evidence his mission was a success.

The meeting — which Pence had coyly teased en route to Asia, saying, “We’ll see what happens” — had been two weeks in the making. It began to take shape when the CIA got word that the North Koreans wanted to meet with Pence when he was on the Korean Peninsula, according to a senior White House official. A second official said the initiative for the meeting came from South Korea, which acted as an intermediary to set up the meeting.

[The Washington Post]

What will be next for North Korean athletes who attended Winter Olympics?

For North Korean athletes, the prospect of failure on the big stage carries a punishment far worse than a damaged ego. Having failed to land a single medal in South Korea so far, its Winter Olympic team could suffer the same fate as previous under-performing athletes – imprisonment in one of the country’s gulags.

The most infamous case is that of the North Korean football team which made history for reaching the second round of the 1966 World Cup. Former leader Kim Il-Sung is widely believed to have ordered them to be arrested and sent to prison after they lost to 5-3 Portugal days after they were seen drinking with local women in public.

North Korean defector Kang Chol-Hwan claims he met some of the team while they were being held in Yodok prison, or Camp 15, usually reserved for political prisoners. In his tell-all book The Aquariums of Pyongyang, he asserts that footballer Pak Seung-Zin became infamous for his ability to endure torture.

After the 2010 World Cup, FIFA was forced to investigate claims another North Korean football team were “punished” after being thrashed 7-0 by Portugal.

North Korea expert Toshimitsu Shigemura said of the North Korean Olympic team who traveled to Rio 2016 and came back with just two gold medals: “Those who won medals will be rewarded with better housing allocations, better rations… and maybe other gifts from the regime,” adding that athletes who “disappointed” the leader would likely be punished with a downgrade in housing, reduced rations and even “being sent to the coal mines”.

Defector Kim Hyeong-Soo, who fled the country in 2009, has also said both athletes and coaches were punished to months of hard labor if they did not live up to expectations.

[The Sun – UK]

South Korea puts brakes on hopes for quick talks with North Korea

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Saturday it was too early to talk about hosting a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, hinting he would not rush the matter.

“There are high expectations and our hearts seem to be getting impatient. It is like the old saying, seeking a scorched-rice water from a well,” Moon told journalists in Pyeongchang after being asked whether he planned to hold a summit with North Korea. The proverb translates to rushing into something without fully understanding the consequences.

South Korean President Moon receives Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

At the time of the Olympic invitation, Moon hailed the progress that had already been made in advancing inter-Korean talks. “I hope that this will lead to an improvement in inter-Korean relations — not only inter-Korean relations, but we also believe that there has been slowly, but gradually, a growing consensus on the need for dialogue between the United States and North Korea,” he said.