Otto Warmbier, American student released by North Korea, is in a coma

American college student Otto Warmbier has been released after more than 17 months in detention in North Korea but has been in a coma for over a year, according to his parents.

The 22-year-old contracted botulism and is in “bad shape” but en route back to the United States, a source close to the family told CNN.

“Otto has left North Korea. He is on Medivac flight on his way home. Sadly, he is in a coma and we have been told he has been in that condition since March of 2016. We learned of this only one week ago,” said Fred and Cindy Warmbier in a statement. “We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime in North Korean. We are so grateful that he will finally be with people who love him.”

Warmbier was detained in January 2016 at the airport in Pyongyang while on his way home. His parents say the University of Virginia student had been on a tour of the reclusive country.

North Korean authorities said they had security footage of him trying to steal a banner containing a political slogan that was hanging from the walls of his Pyongyang hotel.

Warmbier was found guilty and sentenced in March 2016 to 15 years hard labor. It was the last time he was seen publicly.

“Otto’s detainment and sentence was unnecessary and appalling, and North Korea should be universally condemned for its abhorrent behavior. Otto should have been released from the start,” said US Sen. Rob Portman, who represents Warmbier’s home state of Ohio.

[CNN]

North Korea views humanitarian aid as leverage

So far North Korea has rejected South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s offers of unconditional humanitarian aid and cooperation. Since he took office in early May, the new liberal South Korean leader has tried to balance strong support for military deterrence and international sanctions against Pyongyang’s continued nuclear and ballistic missiles provocations with increased engagement to restart inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation.

The North Korean state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun said in an editorial last week that, “Nobody can expect relations to improve just because they allow some humanitarian aid or civilian exchanges that the previous conservative clique halted.”

North Korea has also set a steep price for allowing future reunions of families that have been separated by the division of the Korean Peninsula at the end of World War II. When the South recently proposed trying to arrange a new reunion in August to mark the anniversary of the end of the Second World War, Pyongyang demanded Seoul first return a group of North Korean defectors, including 12 restaurant workers who sought asylum in the South last year. North Korea charges that these defectors were abducted while South Korea says they voluntarily fled.

Ahn Chan-il, a North Korean defector and analyst with the World Institute of North Korean studies, said the Kim Jong Un leadership is making seemingly impossible demands to improve inter-Korean ties because it expects relations to actually get worse in the short term.

The North Korea official news agency on Saturday indicated Pyongyang is close to testing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could potentially reach the U.S. mainland.

“If North Korea does it, Kim Jong Un knows well that China will prepare sanctions such as blocking the oil pipeline (between the two countries,)” Ahn said.

[VoA]

Russia moving closer to North Korea

As China responds to President Trump’s call to pressure North Korea to curb its rogue weapons programs, Russia has stepped in to help the hermit nation stay connected to the rest of the world.

Trade between Russia and North Korea increased by 73% during the first two months of 2017 compared to the same period the year before, boosted mostly by increased coal deliveries from Russia, according to Russian state-owned news site Sputnik.

China, North Korea’s chief political and economic benefactor, said it had curbed coal deliveries to North Korea and taken other steps aimed at persuading North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to halt his nuclear and ballistic missile development programs.

Other moves by Russia to expand commerce with North Korea include:

  • A Russian company, Investstroytrest, opened a new ferry line in May connecting the Russian port city of Vladivostok to the North Korean city of Rajin.
  • Russian railway officials in January visited North Korea to discuss upgrades to the Rajin-Hasan railway, which links Russia to the Korean peninsula.
  • Russia and North Korea have reached a labor immigration agreement to expand a program that already employs 40,000 North Korean laborers in Russia’s timber and construction industries, a major source of foreign currency for Kim Jong Un’s government.

These moves come despite Russia’s signing onto recent sanctions by the United Nations Security Council, which call for reducing trade with North Korea.

[USA Today]

S. Korean President wants to help Trump make deal with North Korea

Newly-elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in is intent on reopening inter-Korean channels of dialogue and engagement, despite Pyongyang’s continued missile tests and U.S. calls for increased sanctions.

The new liberal leader won a special presidential election in early May following the impeachment of conservative former President Park Geun-hye for her alleged involvement in a multimillion dollar corruption scandal. Park denied all criminal charges related to the scandal including bribery at the onset of her trial in Seoul on Tuesday.

Shifting away from his predecessor’s hardline North Korea policies, President Moon wants to balance international sanctions imposed on the Kim Jong Un government for its continued nuclear and ballistic missile tests with positive incentives to ease tensions and rebuild trust.

“Humanitarian assistance to North Korea. Or another example could be assisting with the planting of trees in North Korea, or President Moon Jae-in might allow incremental exchange and cooperation between North and South Korea,” said Moon Chung-in, who was appointed a special aide for security and diplomacy by the new president this week to help formulate outreach polices.

The South Korean president is open to a proposal made by Beijing calling for Pyongyang to stop further nuclear and missile tests in exchange for a suspension of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises.

[Big News Network]

Christians in North Korea facing persecution on par with the Early Christians under Nero

Human rights activists told Capitol Hill lawmakers that Christians in North Korea are facing persecution that is likely “on par” with the level of persecution that the Early Christian Church endured under Roman emperor Nero.

The activists, convened by International Christian Concern, told lawmakers about the human rights abuses that Christians face. They also asked lawmakers to support a resolution to reauthorize the North Korean Human Act of 2004.

“Our colleagues in South Korea have thoroughly documented cases of religious persecution,” said Greg Scarlatoui, the executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

“Organizations such as Database Center for North Korean Human Rights and the Korean Institution for National Unification [have] interviewed thousands of defectors who brought testimony of extremely severe religious persecution,” Scarlatoiu said. “Like other Communist leaders, as mentioned earlier, Kim Il-sung and the Kim regime has rejected religion as the ‘opium of the people.'”

“One can confidently say that it is the Kim family regime that has taken religious persecution, in particular the persecution of Christians, to a level, perhaps, on par with Nero’s Rome as well as the Assyrian, Greek and Armenian genocide of World War I or the Yazidi genocide today,” Scarlatoiu said.

[Pakistan Christian Post]

North Korean military obligations

Watching footage of April’s military parades in North Korea — with soldiers marching in formation to patriotic tunes — Lee So-yeon recalls all the steps. She was once one of those soldiers.

The daughter of a university professor, Lee, now 41, grew up in North Korea’s North Hamgyong province. But when famine devastated the country in the 1990s, women — including Lee — volunteered for the military in droves, often for the food rations.

Since 2014, North Korean women have been drafted for seven years of mandatory military service. Men serve 10 to 12 years. For each gender, those are the longest conscription terms in the world.

In the military, Lee says, she witnessed sexual abuse and violence against female soldiers. She tried to defect but was imprisoned and tortured. Finally, in 2008, she managed to sneak across the Tumen River to China.

“I was shocked by freedom — that I didn’t need permission to do anything!” Lee recalls. “I couldn’t believe there was hot water, hair dryers! I could vote for whomever I wanted. And all the food!”

Lee has since become an advocate for female defectors as head of the New Korea Women’s Union, based in western Seoul.

[NPR]

Defectors reflect on North Korean mental conditioning

From Lee So-yeon’s time in the military, she is able to offer insight into what the North Korean government wants its own people to know. When she was a soldier, state TV blasted nonstop in her office, she says.

“There’s a TV in every army barracks. When there was a nuclear test, state TV told us to feel proud, so we did,” Lee says. “Even when there were peace talks between North and South Korea, state TV told us it was a ploy by the South to take over our country.”

The media in North Korea do not merely report information. Instead, they’re a tool for the regime to stir emotion, especially when it feels threatened — as it does now, says Jeon Young-sun, a professor of North Korea studies in Seoul.

“Outside pressure on North Korea — sanctions or threats of attack — actually help the regime win domestic support,” Jeon says. “North Korea is as always on the defensive, and fear rallies people around their Dear Leader.”

It’s not just soldiers. Defector Lee Hyeonseo was a high school student in 1994, when the Clinton administration came close to a pre-emptive military strike on North Korea’s nuclear facilities. Her school ended classes and sent the students out digging trenches for months.

“We were so scared at the time. We really thought we were going to have a war,” says Lee, 36. “Somehow, we believed we were going to win that war, because our dear leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, they were superior gods who can make everything happen.”

[NPR]

Cybersecurity defector describes North Korea’s ‘hacker army’

North Korea has an army of up to 3,000 trained hackers and is “100%” capable of having launched the “WannaCry” ransomware attack that paralyzed businesses and government agencies, according to a computer professor who defected from the country.

Kim Heung-kwang, founder and director of North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, a nonprofit organization promoting North Korean defectors’ rights, told the Nikkei Asian Review that the rogue state has world-class software engineering talent and technology, which it has been nurturing since the 1960s.

“Some people downplay North Korea’s computer technology, but they have top-class software technology manpower,” Kim said during an interview at his office in eastern Seoul. “If you ask me whether they are able to attack using ransomware — yes, 100%.”

Kim was a professor at Hamheung Computer Technology University before he crossed the Tumen River, which marks the border between North Korea and China in 2003 and then came to South Korea in 2004.

Kim said the North Korean government has developed an army of hackers, or “information warriors,” in part to attack “enemies.” But the North’s key interest, he said, is financial. Pyongyang earned $1.5 billion from hacking and other cyber activities in 2016, up from $1 billion a year earlier, making cyber activities a major source of foreign currency for the Kim Jong Un regime.

Pyongyang therefore gives hackers special treatment, Kim said. “Information warriors are treated very well. They are offered nice apartments in Pyongyang, given medals and awarded compensation. They are promoted quickly and allowed to join the [country’s ruling] Workers’ Party.”

He said about 500 top secondary school students are selected as potential hackers every year and sent to college, where they learn computer languages and are put through rigorous training. Some are even given the chance to study abroad in China and Russia — benefits beyond the reach of most North Koreans.

[Nikkei Asian Review]

US President and Japanese PM agree to toughen sanctions against North Korea

U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed on Friday to expand sanctions against North Korea for its continued development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, the White House said.

Meeting before a Group of Seven summit, Trump and Abe dedicated most of their discussions to the issue, aides said. “President Trump and Prime Minister Abe agreed their teams would cooperate to enhance sanctions on North Korea, including by identifying and sanctioning entities that support North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs,” the White House said in a statement.

“They also agreed to further strengthen the alliance between the United States and Japan, to further each country’s capability to deter and defend against threats from North Korea,” it said.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this month called on countries all over the world to implement existing U.N. sanctions on North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, adding that the U.S. administration would be willing to use secondary sanctions to target foreign companies that continue to do business with Pyongyang.

Most of North Korea’s trade is with its ally China, and so any hard-hitting secondary sanctions would likely target Chinese firms.

[aol]

North Korea tension tops China-Russia agenda

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi makes an official visit to Russia on Thursday and Friday for meetings with key officials, including his counterpart Sergei Lavrov. China and Russia are well aware that security problems on the Korean peninsula have no easy resolution. Both are grappling with how best to respond to not just the regular missile launches by Pyongyang, but also its nuclear tests.

Recent rhetoric out of the United States has given Beijing, in particular, heightened concerns that Washington might now be thinking, much more seriously, about a pre-emptive strike on Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities. Several weeks ago, for instance, US President Donald Trump made clear – prior to his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida – that if Beijing “is not going to solve North Korea, we [the United States] will”.

Moreover, after the session with Xi, Trump sent the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier to waters near North Korea. This ups the ante further from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s striking announcement on his Asia trip earlier this year that the two decade US policy of “strategic patience” towards Pyongyang is now over and “all options” are on the table.

Wang Li asserted last month that “China’s priority now is to flash the red light and apply the brake to both [the US and North Korean] trains” to avoid a collision. Beijing and Moscow are concerned that the tensions on the peninsular could spiral out of control and have supported a UN Security Council initiative that would build on the UN vote last year to tighten some sanctions in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear tests.

Unlike the US, China has been reluctant to take more comprehensive, sweeping measures against its erstwhile ally. The key reason Beijing has differed with Washington over the scope and severity of actions against Pyongyang largely reflects the fact that it does not want to push the regime so hard that it becomes significantly destabilized. From the vantage point of Chinese officials, this risks North Korea behaving even more unpredictably and the outside possibility of the implosion of the regime would not be in Beijing’s interests. This is not least as it could lead to instability on the North Korea-China border, and ultimately the potential emergence of a pro-US successor nation.

[Mail & Guardian]