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.


North Korea’s cheerleaders human olive branches

The North Korean cheerleaders have arrived. The presence at the Winter Olympics of the all-female squad of cheerleaders — 229 strong, as part of the larger North Korean delegation — has been politically charged, provoking divided reactions among spectators at the Games and those watching from afar.

The cheerleaders have been praised as human olive branches, a preliminary way to ease tensions during the current nuclear crises. They have been criticized as singing, dancing spearheads of a strategic North Korean propaganda campaign at the Games.

In this very public bubble, they have been the source of endless, intense curiosity. And in their sheer numbers and with the surreal scenes they have created, they have garnered a level of attention — in competition venues and in the news media — that would make most Olympic athletes envious.

Han Seo-hee, 35, a North Korean defector to the South, who was picked to be a cheerleader 16 years ago, said squad members were drawn from various performance troupes around the capital. She said many, herself included, belonged to a band associated with the Ministry of People’s Security, a national law enforcement agency, which she joined after high school. Though it was not a year-round job, the women could be called in for months of full-time training before a major event.

Han explained the selection criteria: “Those who are well assimilated to the North Korean regime, those who are exemplars of working collectively, those who are from the right families, and of course those who meet the height and age standards,” she said.

“The countries have been divided for so long, and it’s my first time seeing people from the North, so it’s cool,” said Yoon Jin-ha, 16, a student from Seoul attending the game on Monday with her mother. Referring to a growing indifference toward reunification among younger South Koreans, she added, “We think that unification is not that important of a thing, but being this close to them tonight has made me really understand that we are the same people.”

“They look very pretty,” said Hyun Myeong-Hwa, 58, of Cheongju, South Korea, who filmed the women. But she had mixed feelings, too. For a moment she rubbernecked like everyone else. “I do understand the negative criticisms about them being here,” she added. “But I think we should be positive and open-minded about them. We are the same people.”

[New York Times]

Warm welcome home from Olympics for Kim Jong-un’s sister

The love affair that Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korea’s leader, enjoyed at the Winter Olympics in South Korea has not ended now that she is back home. If Mr. Kim sent his sister to the Olympics to mount a “charm offensive,” as United States officials feared, she did her job. Her visit has managed to help soften her country’s image among South Koreans, at least for the moment.

She delivered her brother’s surprise invitation for President Moon Jae-in of South Korea to visit the North for a summit meeting, and Mr. Moon met her four times during her three-day trip.

Despite the intense curiosity her visit generated, little is known about Ms. Kim, a member of the most secretive ruling dynasty in the world. Outside officials are not even sure about her age or marital status, though she is most often said to be 30 and married.

Ms. Kim is the youngest child of Kim Jong-il, the North’s second leader, who died in 2011. She and Kim Jong-un studied in Switzerland as teenagers, using aliases. Her father first noticed her political acumen when she was still young, analysts say. Back in 2001, when the Russian ambassador to North Korea asked Kim Jong-il which of his sons would become successor, Mr. Kim said that his sons were “idle blockheads” and that it was his daughters who he thought had the intellect and personality to be “reliable successors,” Michael Madden, an expert on North Korea leadership, wrote last week. Ms. Kim’s trip to South Korea was her debut on the global stage.

Certainly, when Ms. Kim was in Seoul last week, she was nothing but a charmer. She is said to have told the South Korean leader that if he and her brother meet, “the North-South relations will improve so fast that yesterday would seem a distant past.”

“I wish I could see you again in Pyongyang soon,” she told Mr. Moon at a luncheon on Saturday, according to South Korean officials. “I wish that Your Excellency President will leave a mark for future generations by playing a key role in opening a new chapter for reunification.”

In South Korean media, Ms. Kim was nicknamed “Princess” or “North Korea’s Ivanka,” likening her influence with her brother to that of Ivanka Trump’s on her father, President Trump.

[New York Times]

Kim Jong Un and wife Ri Sol Ju watch North Korean military parade on eve of Winter Games

Troops, missiles and tanks rolled into North Korea’s historic Kim Il Sung Square Thursday in a highly anticipated parade of military might on the eve of South Korea’s Winter Olympics. The choreographed display involved hundreds of soldiers marching in unison, planes soaring above and four of Pyongyang’s newest and most sophisticated missile, the Hwasong-15. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watched all of it from a balcony above.

The parade is being held to mark the day Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, formed the Korean People’s Army, and came as celebrations started in the South for the Games in the resort city of Pyeongchang.

Kim and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, arrived by limousine and stepped out onto a red carpet.

Kim declared that the military parade would show to the world that North Korea” has developed into a world-class military power. As long as imperialism is present on the Earth and US’s hostile policy against North Korea continues, the mission of the Korea People’s Army to be the strong sword that protects the country and people, and peace can never change.”


Kim Jong Un’s sister joins North Korean Winter Olympics delegation

Kim Jong Un is sending his younger sister to South Korea for the Winter Olympics, the first time any member of the Kim dynasty has visited the country. The 30-year-old, who has seen her profile rise steadily since 2014, was last year promoted to North Korea’s Politburo. She and Kim Jong Un were born to the same mother, Ko Yong Hui.

Kim Yo Jong (center) seated among other officials

Kim Yo Jong’s inclusion in the North Korean delegation is likely to irritate the United States, which has sent its own delegation led by Vice President Mike Pence to counter North Korea’s charm offensive. Last year, the US Treasury Department included Kim Yo Jong on its list of blacklisted officials. As the vice director of the Workers’ Party Propaganda and Agitation Department, she has been targeted by US sanctions.

Like most members of the Kim clan, little is known about Kim Yo Jong beyond her official rank. According to NK Leadership Watch, she is a close aide of her brother’s “and since his accession manages his public events, itineraries and logistical needs, among other tasks.”

Her position is such that, according to a Seoul-based think tank run by North Korean defectors, Kim Yo Jong briefly took charge of the country while her brother was reportedly ill with gout or diabetes in late 2014.

Born September 26, 1987, Kim Yo Jong studied in Switzerland like her brother and is believed to have attended Kim Il Sung University and a western European school for her higher education.

The North Korean delegation also includes Hyon Song Wol, the lead singer of Kim Jong Un’s favorite girl band, whose every move was followed by a insatiable South Korean press during a pre-Games tour last month. Hyon’s the closest thing North Korea has to a celebrity and her presence in Pyeongchang is an indication of how seriously North Korea is taking its Olympic diplomatic mission.


Read more about Kim Yo Jong, the sister of Kim Jong Un

North Korean defectors tell Trump what it’s like to escape

Last Friday, President Trump met with several North Korean defectors in the Oval Office. Among the guests: Ji Seong-ho, who Trump lauded at his State of the Union speech on Tuesday. Ji lost a leg and an arm while scavenging coal as a boy, and later fled to South Korea.

Trump used Ji’s story to illustrate what he called the “depraved character of the North Korean regime” and the kind of threat it could pose to the United States and its allies if it obtains nuclear weapons.

During the meeting, Trump asked the defectors to tell their stories.

Hyeonseo Lee, another defector who met with Trump, said escaping from North Korea is not like leaving another country.  “It’s more like leaving another universe. I will never truly be free of its gravity no matter how far I journey.”

“The world knows about the terrible things being done to his own people – it has to stop,” said Greg Scarlatoiu, the executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. “Every time human rights comes up, the very legitimacy of (Kim’s) regime is undermined.”

[USA Today]

Pence presence to counter South Korean warming to North Korea

Vice President Pence is heading to South Korea, where — in addition to representing the U.S. at the Olympics — he plans to counter North Korea’s media messaging and push allies to maintain pressure on the rogue nation, according to multiple reports.

As NPR’s Elise Hu reports, the VPs aides have said that he wants to use the time in Korea to remind the world that just because North Korea will have a visually appealing cheering squad and an impressive figure skating duo, the regime running the country is brutal and totalitarian.

“One obvious sign of that is going to be who Vice President Pence is with,” Elise says. He’s expected to attend the opening ceremony with the father of deceased American college student Otto Warmbier, who died after being imprisoned in North Korea. That’s going to be a public reminder of that secrecy and brutality— at the same time that North Korean dignitaries will be in the same audience.

An Axios reporter and a Washington Post columnist both say they spoke to an unnamed White House aide who told them the White House won’t allow North Korea to “hijack the messaging of the Olympics.”

North Korea is sending its ceremonial leader, King Yong Nam, to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, where he will meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.