Eminent release of detained Americans by North Korea?

According to media reports, North Korea has released three US detainees in the country, which meets some of President Donald Trump demands for Pyongyang to demonstrate sincerity before the historic meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un.

Kim Dong-cheol, Kim Sang-deok, and Kim Hak-seong — three US citizens detained in North Korea for years — have been released from a suspected labor camp and given health treatment and ideological education in Pyongyang, according to the Financial Times.

“We heard it through our sources in North Korea late last month. We believe that Mr. Trump can take them back on the day of the US-North Korea summit or he can send an envoy to take them back to the US before the summit,” said Choi Sung-ryong, who campaigns for the release of detainees in North Korea.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly spoke with Kim about the detainees during the pair’s secretive meeting in April.

If North Korea has released the detainees and is preparing to release them to the US, it represents another in a series of concessions Pyongyang has agreed to make.

[Business Insider]

Challenges to Korean unification

Sokeel Park, the Seoul-based director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea (LINK), a defector assistance group, said for many refugees, “transitioning from North Korea to South Korea, especially if you’re from a provincial town in North Korea, is like coming out of a time machine into the future.”

Many North Korean defectors struggle to get employment and adapt to life in South Korea. If integrating North Koreans into South Korean society one at a time is hard, the task of full reunification seems next to impossible.

“We really haven’t had this debate on a formal level for years …What happens in terms of unification?” said Wol-san Liem, director of Korean Peninsula affairs at the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU). She said some are now talking about a potential two state system — “separate but equal countries with good relations” — that would once have been unthinkable.

“For a lot of young South Koreans, the idea that we are one with the North Korean people is becoming a kind of ancient fiction or myth,” said Park. Most are “basically happy living separate” and unwilling to face the huge costs of reunifying with North Korea.

Economically disadvantaged North Korea, cut off from the world by decades of sanctions, would always be the weaker partner to the South, and there are fears this could lead to South Korean corporations and private interests running roughshod over their northern neighbor. A sudden flood of cheap labor could negatively effect South Korea too, driving down wages and allowing employers to cut benefits.

Estimates of the cost of reunification to South Korea range from around $500 billion to several trillion dollars, and putting even that specific a price on it is difficult, given the impossibility of guessing how the process would play out.

[CNN]

North Korean defectors say unification requires closing a huge cultural chasm

When Ken Eom first arrived in South Korea, he had to get used to hearing a lot of stupid questions. “Is there alcohol in North Korea?” people would ask the former North Korean soldier, who defected in 2010, aged 29. “If people were so malnourished, and couldn’t get rice, why didn’t they just eat ramen?”

The experience was alienating. It was “like they thought I was from an Amazon tribe,” he told CNN.

Now, a historic meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in has brought the Peninsula closer together than it has been in years. While many South Koreans welcome warming ties between the two countries, deep suspicion of Pyongyang’s intentions and hostility to the Kim regime remains, not least among the small but substantial community of defectors living in the South.

The chasm Eom feels with his southern compatriots, almost nine years after making his hazardous journey, shows that the matter of unification, and what it means for people on both sides of a border far stronger and less permeable than the Berlin Wall ever was, remains unclear.

Travis Jeppesen, a longtime North Korea watcher, said “(There needs to be) an acknowledgment of the vast differences that have emerged in the two societies since the division began in 1945…” he said.

[CNN]

Korean leaders hold historic summit

The leaders of North and South Korea embraced on Friday and pledged to work for the “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” on a day of smiles and handshakes at the first inter-Korean summit in more than a decade.

The two Koreas announced they would work with the United States and China this year to declare an official end to the 1950s Korean War and establish a permanent peace agreement, removing an important vestige of the conflict.

“The two leaders declare before our people of 80 million and the entire world there will be no more war on the Korean peninsula and a new age of peace has begun,” the two sides said.

But their commitments were short on specifics and failed to clear up key questions about Pyongyang’s intentions over its nuclear arsenal ahead of an even more critical summit, with U.S. President Donald Trump, that is expected in coming weeks.

[Reuters]

From brink of war to hopes of peace: Kim Jong Un heads south for summit

For the first time in over a decade, the leaders of a divided Korea will sit down to negotiate an end to a decades-long rivalry which has threatened at times to plunge the world into nuclear war.

In a meeting heavy with history and symbolism, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will hold talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Peace House on the southern side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ).

Moon and Kim will meet for the first time at 9.30 a.m. local time on Friday (8.30 p.m. Thursday ET), with cameras from around the world fixed on the moment Kim steps across the demarcation line that runs through the demilitarized zone between the two countries.

It is the third summit between the leaders of North and South Korea — the last was in 2007 when then-South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun met Kim’s father Kim Jong Il. (At the time, President Moon was Roh’s chief of staff and a close personal friend.) Both previous meetings were held in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

[CNN]

Kim Jong Un’s latest play for peace actually a declaration

North Korea’s recent promise to halt nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests looks like an overture for peace, but a careful reading reveals that it could indicate Kim Jong Un is ready for nuclear war.

“This is very good news for North Korea and the World – big progress!” President Donald Trump tweeted of the announcement.

But look at Kim’s stated reason for pausing tests. North Korean media quoted Kim as saying: “No nuclear test and intermediate-range and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire are necessary for the DPRK now, given that the work for mounting nuclear warheads on ballistic rockets was finished…the development of delivery and strike means was also made.”

Basically, Kim says North Korea has stopped testing because it’s done testing.

While North Korea has never fired an ICBM at range, and only fired its Hwasong-15 ICBM twice, Hanham and other experts think it’s already achieved sufficient capability to threaten the US.

On the issue of nuclear testing, Robert Manning, a North Korea expert at the Atlantic Council, told Business Insider there’s a “fair amount of evidence” that suggests if they tried to test another nuclear device in the same location, they would destroy the entire site and possibly collapse a mountain. According to Manning, Kim is “making a virtue of necessity and hoping we’re stupid enough to think it’s a concession.”

Of the upcoming Trump-Kim talks: “I think the fear among a lot of Korea watchers is when you have a summit between two leaders, if things do not go well, there’s little to fall back on,” Jung Pak, a senior fellow and the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies at Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies, told MSNBC on Saturday.

So while Trump and much of the world cheer North Korea’s decision to stop testing while talks are going on, something that almost certainly does help the peace process, it’s important to remember what Kim’s nuclear weapons mean to him.

[Business Insider]

North Korea suspends nuclear missile testing, aims to focus on economic development

North Korea says its quest for nuclear weapons is “complete” and it “no longer needs” to test its weapons capability, a significant development ahead of diplomatic engagement with South Korea and the United States.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said Saturday that “under the proven condition of complete nuclear weapons, we no longer need any nuclear tests, mid-range and intercontinental ballistic rocket tests, and that the nuclear test site in northern area has also completed its mission,” as quoted by the state-run Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA.

The announcement appears to signify a remarkable change in policy for Kim, following a relentless pursuit of nuclear and ballistic weapons as a means to ensure his regime’s survival — although some analysts remain skeptical, pointing out that Kim hasn’t tested a missile since November.

The news comes six days before a meeting between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a precursor to a much-anticipated planned encounter between Kim and President Donald Trump expected to take place in late May or early June.

Vipin Narang, an associate political science professor and nuclear proliferation expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said, “The aim of this, in my view, is to make it exceedingly difficult for Trump to say the North is uninterested in talks and walk away,” he said. “Kim is doing everything he can now – in a reversible way, mind you – to ensure the summit happens.

Kim stressed at the party meeting his desire to shift the national focus to improving the country’s economy, which has been hit hard by international sanctions and the “maximum pressure” strategy pushed by Trump.

[CNN/India Express]

North Korea drops withdrawal of US forces as condition of denuclearization

North Korea has dropped its long-held demand that the United States withdraw forces from South Korea in exchange for denuclearization, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Thursday.

“North Korea has expressed willingness to give up its nuclear program without making (a) demand that the (US Forces Korea) forces withdraw from the Korean Peninsula,” Moon said in a meeting with the press, adding that any proposed troop withdrawal would be a “condition that the US cannot accept.”

The concession comes as President Donald Trump insisted Wednesday he’d be willing to leave a highly anticipated summit meeting with Kim Jong-un should it fall short of his expectations.

In a similar vein, Kim signaled in March that he would not oppose joint US-South Korean military exercises. The annual war games have been a sore point for the North Korean leader, who sees them as a direct provocation to his country’s security. US military leaders have refused to put the drills on the table as a negotiating chip.

The South Korean leader, President Moon Jae-in, is due to meet Kim Jong-un next week for a historic summit in the Demilitarized Zone.

[CNN]

CIA Director Mike Pompeo secretly met with Kim Jong Un

CIA Director Mike Pompeo visited North Korea more than two weeks ago for a secret meeting with leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, sources confirmed to CNN.

Pompeo, who is US President Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, didn’t take any officials from the White House or State Department with him on the trip, only intelligence officials, one source said Tuesday.

The White House declined to comment on Pompeo’s visit, which took place around April 1. The Washington Post  reported that Pompeo went as Trump’s envoy to lay the groundwork for direct talks between Trump and Kim about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

The two leaders are set to meet in late May or early June, in what would be the first face-to-face encounter between a sitting US President and a North Korean leader.

An administration official familiar with Pompeo’s encounter with Kim told CNN the North Korean leader had been “personable and well prepared” for the meeting, which took place but added there was a sticking point over the location of his meeting with Trump.

President Trump told reporters on Tuesday that five locations are being considered. Previously, US officials have floated the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar; the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea; a neutral European capital like Stockholm or Geneva; a location at sea like Jeju island or a ship; Southeast Asia, including possibly Singapore or Malaysia; the South Korean capital Seoul; or the North Korean capital Pyongyang, a seemingly unlikely choice that no US official has yet ruled out.

[CNN]

Kim Jong Un’s wife afforded new title and level of respect

Ri Sol Ju, wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, has been afforded a new title in the country’s state media, a move that analysts say could signal an evolution in the power structure of the reclusive country.

Referred to in a KCNA report as the “respected First Lady,” paired with an honorific reserved for respected members of society, the title is a step up from the usual “comrade” that she had previously been afforded.

“In North Korea, nothing is accidental. Each move is choreographed for a reason,” Troy Stangarone, Senior Director, Korea Economic Institute, told CNN. “The elevation of Ri’s status … helps to strengthen the Kim family’s status in North Korea, but also changes the international perception of the regime.”

The wives of North Korea’s two previous leaders, Kim Jong Un’s father and grandfather, have generally not been given the same status as that accorded to other leaders’ spouses around the world, Stangarone said.

Ri’s new title places her “more within Western norms and helps remove some of the old communist vestiges of the past,” Stangarone said.

He added that Kim’s decision to send his sister, Kim Yo Jong, to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea in February was another sign that the ruling family is intent on changing the optics around its power structure.

[CNN]