Recent changes in Kim Jong Un’s high command

Prior to the Singapore Summit, Kim Jong Un switched his top military leaders as part of the preliminary phase of mothballing the DPRK’s WMD program.

The changes in the high command made in the past two months involve the heads of the three institutions which comprise a military and political command and control over the Korean People’s Army (KPA) conventional and special operations forces, as well as the rear service and administrative components which support them. These institutions include the Minister of the People’s Armed Forces (the DPRK’s equivalent of a defense minister), the Chief of the KPA General Staff Department (and by extension the 1st Vice Chief of the General Staff and Director of the Operations Bureau) and the director of the KPA General Political Bureau. These are the top three positions in the KPA high command.

All three of the appointees are Kim Jong Un loyalists who have held high office since 2012. They will contribute to and implement his policies, including external overtures to China and the ROK as well as phased denuclearization, with little to no resistance. None has any long-standing patronage ties, and can be counted on not to feather their nests through malfeasance or misappropriation of resources. This is not to suggest that their predecessors were corrupt or disloyal; rather, the new appointments are an insurance policy based on their previous positions and contributions to the regime and their close links to Kim Jong Un and other members of the core leadership. In this respect, the Suryong (supreme leader) is leaving nothing to chance.

[38 North]

Trump to hold Round 2 with Kim Jong Un in NYC?

Some Trump administration officials are so optimistic about making progress with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un that they hope a Round 2 with President Trump can be held in New York in September, when world leaders pour into Trump’s hometown for the U.N. General Assembly.

The possibility would be for Trump to hold out a Round 2 meeting as a carrot to encourage real movement by North Korea over the summer. Kim would have to show progress for the meeting to occur.

Regardless of whether Kim gets another meeting with the leader of the free world just three months after the Singapore summit, the U.S. is giving him more time to begin denuclearizing despite new doubts about North Korea’s good faith.

  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit Pyongyang this week to press denuclearization, the Financial Times reported. Look for a win by Pompeo on securing the return of remains of U.S. soldiers killed during the Korean War.
  • Asked by Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business whether to expect North Korea to reveal the specifics of its facilities within the next several weeks, President Trump said: “I think they’re very serious about it. I think they want to do it. We have a very good chemistry.”
  • But national security adviser John Bolton sounded cautious on CBS’ “Face the Nation“: “We’re very well aware of North Korea’s patterns of behavior over decades of negotiating with the United States. … There’s not any starry-eyed feeling among the group doing this.”

[Axios]

Running afoul of the North Korean state

For many years, Heo Yeong-hui and her husband, Choi Seong-ga, and their son, Choi Gyeong-hak, lived in relative comfort in Hyesan near the Chinese border. Heo, a talented singer, was a professor at the city’s University of Arts. Her husband played trombone in the Ryanggang musical performance group.

Heo recalls: “To others it probably seemed like I was living a comfortable life while there were people starving around me,” she said. Her life took a sharp turn five years ago. The Ministry of State Security asked her to monitor one of her students, a young woman who came under suspicion. Heo balked.

“They tried to scare me,” Heo said. “They said, ‘Is your son more important than a student?’’’

Heo was shaken. She pulled the student aside and suggested she try to flee North Korea, that it was only a matter of time before authorities arrested her. Security agents found out, and Heo and the student were sent to a detention facility.

When Heo was released, her mind was made up. “Even after I made the decision to defect, I thought it over a lot,” she said. “I couldn’t tell my son and I couldn’t tell my husband. That’s the type of country that North Korea is . . . So I thought, ‘Let me do it first. Let me go through the dangerous journey first and, if South Korea is a place that is worth it, I will bring them over.’”

Heo and the student jailed with her waded across the Yalu River on Sept. 26, 2014, into China. They managed to reach Thailand and boarded flights for Seoul, arriving on December 18, 2014.

Heo’s planning to bring her husband and son began at once. Brokers wanted $20,000 each to bring her husband and son out of North Korea, and another $12,000 to get them to Thailand. Friends agreed to lend her the money. Read more

North Korea skips its annual anti-US rally

In another sign of detente following the summit between leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, North Korea has decided to skip one of the most symbolic and politically charged events of its calendar: the annual “anti-U.S. imperialism” rally marking the start of the Korean War.

Fist-pumping, flag-waving and slogan-shouting masses of Pyongyang residents normally assemble each year, culminating on July 27, for the rally to kick off a month of anti-U.S., Korean War-focused events designed to strengthen nationalism and unity. Last year’s event was attended by a reported 100,000 people. North Korea even issued special anti-U.S. postage stamps.

Associated Press staff in the North Korean capital confirmed Monday that it would not be held this year.

North Korea has noticeably toned down its anti-Washington rhetoric over the past several months to create a more conciliatory atmosphere. Then North Korea’s state media were filled with reports, photos and video of the June 12 meeting between Trump and Kim in Singapore.

A 42-minute documentary-style news special was aired on the state television network two days after the summit and has been repeated frequently since, meaning that by now there are probably few North Koreans who are unaware of the changes in the air.

North Korea’s decidedly less strident posture these days underscores the delicate position it finds itself in after decades of touting the United States as its archenemy. The 1950-53 Korean War, and the devastation the country suffered at the hands of the U.S. and its allies, remain a major part of every North Korean’s education.

[Yahoo News]

US-based group sowed seeds of peace in North Korea through agricultural assistance

President Donald Trump’s historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un produced a thaw in relations between the two countries but the communist regime continues to face international sanctions and food shortage problems.

However, one U.S.-based non-profit organization that has been partnering for 20 years with North Korean farmers to help them increase food production is starting to see results.

“Production has been increasing over the last five years because of changes in agriculture,” said Linda Lewis, country director for DPRK at American Friends Service Committee, a Philadelphia-based Quaker organization that has worked with and in North Korea on agricultural and economic issues for several decades.

North Korea’s agriculture is centrally managed and based mostly on cooperative farms while a smaller portion are state industrial farms operated as government enterprises. The average farm in the country has nearly 3,000 people and gets its marching orders of what will be grown usually from the government.

Lewis said there have been reforms by North Korea in the past several years that have allowed farmers “more local discretion and individual control over decisions on allocated pieces of land.” The government also allows farmers to sell or barter food when there’s a surplus beyond certain production targets. At the same time, changes in the management of agriculture by the government in the last five years have produced what Lewis calls “more resilience in the face of droughts.”

Lewis said AFSC has operated a program on the ground in North Korea continuously since 1998 focused on increasing agricultural production. Specifically, the group’s goal is greater production of corn and boosting the productivity of rice farming.

[CNBC]

Why the food insecurity of North Korea?

28 percent of North Korean children are stunted — abnormally short for their age, a condition that the World Health Organization calls the “largely irreversible outcome of inadequate nutrition and repeated bouts of infection during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life.”

The roots of what is known as “food insecurity” lie partly in the geography and climate of the country. Mountains cover most of the nation, leaving few places to farm. North Korea is also beset by widespread erosion and frequent drought. In addition, many of the country’s farmers do not have access to modern agricultural machinery like tractors and combines.

Around 30 percent of the country’s food comes from external sources. Foreign aid provides a good portion of that 30 percent, but funding for aid programs has been getting scarce. A report released this month by the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP), which relies on donations from the governments of member nations, reveals it only has $15 million to address the $50 million yearly need in North Korea.

Current sanctions allow exemptions for humanitarian food aid, but Lewis says the process of getting a humanitarian exemption is cumbersome and intimidating. “It’s really hard to be sure you’re in compliance, particularly with the U.S. Treasury regulations,” C. Jerry Nelson, professor emeritus of plant sciences at the University of Missouri in Columbia explains. “Donors are put off, vendors are put off by these restrictions. It’s just easier not to get involved.”

David Orr, communications officer for the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP), agrees that donors are leery. In an emailed statement to NPR, Orr wrote that “the legal and political consequences of the sanctions have resulted in UN member states, private companies and individuals exercising greater caution, or reluctance, when engaging with WFP and the UN system in general.”

Up to 195,000 kindergarten-aged schoolchildren will lose food aid this year after WFP suspended a program offering “supplemental nutrition” in November 2017 due to lack of funding.

“It’s impossible to talk about food security in North Korea without talking about their odious songbun system, the social control mechanism by which they stratify the nation into different social classes,” Eberstadt Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist at the American Enterprise Institute argues.

Songbun refers to a longstanding system of state-sponsored discrimination. Large numbers of people in North Korea — mostly urban citizens who can’t grow their own food — consistently rely on government-issued rations. How much you get is determined by your family’s perceived loyalty to the state. If your grandfather fought the Japanese in the 1940s or worked in a factory, your rations are likely to be relatively generous. But if your grandfather was a lawyer or a merchant, your rations are comparatively meager. Given this system, “it’s hardly surprising that there should be rampant malnutrition in North Korea,” Eberstadt says.

[NPR]

Kim Jong Un ends visit to China with a message for the US

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended a celebratory visit to China’s President Xi Jinping on Wednesday with tea, praise, handshakes — and a message for the US. Kim’s trip reinforced the idea that Beijing remains a key player — a variable that President Donald Trump needs and yet one that remains outside his control.

Administration officials have said that they will maintain sanctions on North Korea even as talks continue, and stand ready to intensify that economic pressure should Pyongyang fail to cooperate. But China, North Korea’s biggest trading partner, ultimately has power over whether sanctions on Pyongyang truly bite.

With tensions climbing between Beijing and Washington over trade, some analysts point to the warmth on display during Kim’s visit to Beijing as a warning from Xi that Trump’s moves on trade could undermine the most ambitious goal — peace with North Korea — on his foreign policy agenda.

“I think China is sending a message to Trump: You want to put trade tariffs on us and have our cooperation with North Korea? You can’t have both,” Bill Richardson, the former US energy secretary, ambassador and repeat US envoy to North Korea, told CNN.

[CNN]

Kim Jong Un meets with Chinese President Xi for 3rd time

President Donald Trump continues to tout the success of his North Korea summit last week — but it’s Kim Jong Un who’s taking the real victory lap.

On Tuesday morning, the North Korean leader made his third trip to China in as many months to meet with President Xi Jinping. Xi used the opportunity to praise Kim and say that the summit was an “important step toward the political solution of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue.”

And just the night before, the Pentagon announced that it would cancel a key military exercise with South Korea in August. That’s a big deal since that’s a significant concession the North Koreans have wanted for a long time. After all, they see these exercises as prep for an invasion and have protested against them every time they occur.

So it seems that the relationship between Washington and Seoul took a slight hit while Beijing-Pyongyang ties got a little stronger.

Experts think they know why Kim made the trip. “The most immediate reason Kim is visiting China is to share his impressions of the summit with President Xi,” Abigail Grace, who formerly worked on North Korea issues in Trump’s National Security Council, tells me. “At a time when friction is rising in the US-China relationship, Kim knows it will be easier for him to convince Xi that his proposed, phased approach is preferable to the US-drafted road map. This will reduce US negotiating leverage when they push Kim to take meaningful steps toward real denuclearization.”

Kim likely wants to get China’s approval before he takes any real steps to dismantle his nuclear program. China is North Korea’s most important trading partner and ally. The Kim regime has stayed in power in part because of Beijing’s help. So if China doesn’t consent on just how Kim might curb his nuclear program, it’ll be much harder for Kim to do that.

But that’s not all: “Xi wants Kim to start China-like economic reforms,” says Oriana Skylar Mastro, a China expert at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, “so they will probably spend much of their time together discussing that.”

China had great success pulling around 800 million out of poverty by making some market-based reforms in 1978, according to the World Bank. If any country can help Pyongyang improve its economy, then, it’s Beijing.

[Vox]

American CEOs think Kim played Trump

Last week, on the same day that President Trump met with Kim Jong-un, top American business leaders attended the Yale C.E.O. Summit at the New York Public Library, led by Jeff Sonnenfeld. What did America’s top business executives think of the day’s news?

• About 69 percent of the 107 attendees surveyed thought that the Kim-Trump meeting was overrated, because of a lack of clear targets and outcomes.

• The summit meeting’s biggest winner? 59 percent said Mr. Kim. The biggest loser? 28 percent thought Mr. Trump.

[New York Times]

China the unexpected winner from the Trump-Kim summit

China is setting its sights on a key role in North Korea’s future, seeking to be part of any peace treaty, weapons inspections and economic assistance, after emerging as a surprise beneficiary of the summit between the U.S. and North Korean leaders.

At the top of China’s agenda are an easing of the economic sanctions that pressured North Korea into negotiations and working on ways to provide security guarantees to give Pyongyang the confidence to dismantle its nuclear program.

While China worried that its interests might get short-shrift in the Trump-Kim summit, the summit’s vaguely worded agreement to pursue denuclearization without providing details on how or when to achieve that goal gives Beijing time to lobby Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang for a direct role in negotiations, Chinese experts said.

China sees North Korea as an important strategic buffer, having fought alongside the North Korean military in the war to beat back the U.S.-led forces and, in recent years, propping up the government as the country’s biggest trade partner, aid donor and foreign investor.

[Wall Street Journal]