Where North Korea’s elite get banned luxury goods

In much of the countryside, humanitarian groups say North Koreans live in grinding poverty. But in the capital, there is clearly money to spend.

You can buy anything your heart desires in one North Korean department store: premium blended whisky, jewelry and perfume. Or you can pick up a brand new drum set or a saxophone that’s carefully displayed in a glass case.

But there’s a catch. The department store is cash only.

New images released as part of a yearlong investigation by NK Pro, an independent North Korea monitoring group, shows just what money can buy in two luxury Pyongyang department stores.

If Western sanctions are meant to punish the ruling elite, it doesn’t appear to be working. Several items for sale in the NK Pro photos appear to be banned.

But why does the regime go to all the trouble of getting luxury goods to Pyongyang?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un likes to keep the ruling elite loyal with sweeteners says Kim Kwang Jin, a North Korea defector who helped finance illicit imports into North Korea. But he adds there is another reason.

“They earn a lot of dollars and cash from these luxurious department stores by selling all these goods and they re-allocate these dollars into their priorities like the nuclear and missile program,” he said. “Luxury goods sales help them build more missile and nuclear material.”

Kim Kwang Jin says the luxury stores are part of the secretive Office 39 — a group the US government describes as a slush fund for the regime.

[CNN]

North Korean insider on why sanctions fail to work

American and multilateral efforts to sanction North Korea into submission won’t work because there are too many ways around them, Ri Jong Ho says.

He should know. For about three decades, Ri was a top moneymaker for the Kim regime, sending millions of dollars a year back to Pyongyang even as round after round of sanctions was imposed to try to punish North Korea for its nuclear defiance.

Ri said North Korea has repeatedly found ways to circumvent whatever sanctions are imposed on it. “North Korea is a 100 percent state enterprise, so these companies just change their names the day after they’re sanctioned,” he said. “That way the company continues, but with a different name than the one on the sanctions list.”

Ri’s Chinese counterparts weren’t bothered, either, he said. “My partners in China also want to make a profit, so they don’t care much about sanctions,” he said. “When the Chinese government orders them to stop, they stop for a few days and then start up again.”

He described being able to send millions of U.S. dollars to North Korea simply by handing a bag of cash to the captain of a ship leaving from the Chinese port city of Dalian, where he was based, to the North Korean port of Nampo, or by giving it to someone to take on the train across the border. In first the nine months of 2014 alone, Ri said he sent about $10 million to Pyongyang this way.

For more than two decades, the United States has been trying to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program, alternating between inducements and punishments. In both cases, American policy has relied on China, North Korea’s erstwhile patron, using its economic power over its cash-strapped neighbor. But Beijing’s implementation of sanctions, even those it backed through the United Nations, has been patchy at best. China’s overwhelming priority is ensuring stability in North Korea.

China’s interest in North Korea is well known, but Russia’s role in supporting the former Soviet client state is often overlooked. Amid calls for China to limit oil exports to North Korea, Russia has dramatically increased the amount of oil it has sent–some reports suggest exports have quadrupled–to North Korea this year.

“Unless China, Russia and the United States cooperate fully to sanction North Korea, it will be impossible to hurt them,” Ri said.             Continue reading

 

Kim Jong Un spouse Ri Sol Ju makes appearance at banquet

North Korea’s leadership has been in a celebratory mood since the first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) last week that the country said meant it had “risen to become one of the few nuclear weapons states.” There is so much joy, in fact, that even the wife of leader Kim Jong Un has come out of hiding.

Public appearances by Ri Sol Ju have become increasingly rare within the past two years. But she was by Kim’s side as the pair attended a banquet in Pyongyang Monday to pay tribute to the developers of the recently launched missile. It was the first time she has been seen in public since early March, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

Video of the celebrations shows Ri largely observing impassively next to her husband. When Kim offers toasts to the missile developers, the head of whom was promoted to the role of colonel general, Ri moves into the background, without a glass in hand.

Ri was first seen by Kim’s side in 2012, shortly after he had succeeded his father as the country’s leader. It wasn’t until after her appearance, though, that North Korean state media confirmed her name and the fact that she was Kim’s wife. The wedding is believed to have taken place in 2009, when Ri was said to be 23. Little, however, is known about her.

A former member of a renowned orchestra, Ri was, though, seen in public on numerous occasions through 2012, 2013 and 2014, something which in itself was a break from tradition. The wives of Kim’s father and grandfather were never seen in public.

But sightings have declined substantially since.

The couple is known to have one child, a daughter who was confirmed by the unlikely source of Dennis Rodman following his visit to North Korea in 2013. Kim is believed to be desperate for a son to continue a family dynasty that has ruled the country since Korea was officially split into two states, in 1948.

[Newsweek]

North Korean defectors down as border tightened

The number of North Koreans escaping to the South declined sharply in the first half of this year as Pyongyang strengthened controls on its border with China, officials said Wednesday.

Since the DMZ dividing the Korean peninsula is one of the most heavily fortified places in the world, almost all defectors go to China first — where they still risk being repatriated if caught — and then on to a third country before traveling to South Korea.

In the six months to June, 593 Northerners entered South Korea, down 20.8 percent from the same period in 2016, statistics compiled by Seoul’s Unification Ministry showed.

As usual most — 85 percent — were women. North Korean men who try to leave are likely to be rapidly identified as absent by their work units.

Pyongyang’s “tightened grip on the population and strengthened border controls add to the risks for potential defectors to take the plunge”, a ministry official told AFP.

The Seoul-financed Korea Institute for National Unification said in a report that since late 2015, the North has been bolstering border controls and installing high-tension electric fencing along the Tumen River that forms the border with China.

A total of 30,805 North Koreans have fled to the South, many of them leaving during the famine years of the 1990s. Arrivals peaked in 2009, but numbers have fallen more recently, with leader Kim Jong-Un reportedly ordering crackdowns on defectors and tightened border controls after inheriting power from his father in 2011.

[SBS-Australia]

Meet an American woman helping North Korea’s defectors

One woman in Virginia has made it her mission to find people who have escaped North Korea’s totalitarian regime and can tell their story to inspire and liberate others.

Suzanne Scholte is president of Defense Forum Foundation. In a “labor of love,” she has been reaching out to North Korea defectors for over a decade, helping fund a small radio station run by these people in South Korea to broadcast news, truth, information and messages of hope to those living under the North Korean brutal dictator, Kim Jung Un.

The shortwave radio station run by North Korean defectors relies exclusively on private donations, allowing it to include Christian programming as part of its daily broadcast. Scholte seeks partners who, with $250, can sponsor a full hour of programming that provides vital information and news.

In late April, she hosted her 14th annual North Korean Freedom Week to “prepare for the regime collapse and peaceful reunification of Korea” with North Korean defectors in Washington, D.C.

These defectors, like all North Koreans, were manipulated to hate Americans as “Yankee Imperialist Wolves.”  Now they start with a church service and then go to the Korean War Memorial where they lay a wreath, with great emotion, for the Americans who died making South Korea free.

“It’s very powerful because these are people brainwashed to hate us and now they know we were the good guys,” Scholte says.

 [The Daily Caller]

The secrets behind Kim Jong Un’s funding

Despite international sanctions, Kim Jong Un continues to enjoy the good life, with recent purchases thought to include a gleaming white yacht, expensive liquors and even the equipment necessary to kit out a luxury ski resort. When the world’s most mysterious leader arrives for a parade, he steps out of a black Mercedes Benz. But who sold North Korea’s Supreme Leader a brand new, top-of-the-line limousine?

In 2015, North Korean imports totaled $3.47 billion. But if you remove China — Pyongyang’s biggest trading partner — from the equation, the breakdown reveals North Korea spent more on luxury goods than it did on licit imports from the rest of the world combined, according to UN data processed by the MIT Media Lab’s Observatory of Economic Complexity.

So how can the leader a country that in March of last year warned its citizens to prepare for possible famine and severe economic hardship afford to live in such luxury?

Experts say these types of purchases are made using Kim’s personal piggy bank, filled by Pyongyang’s illicit dealings across the globe. North Korea has been accused of crimes such as hacking banks, selling weapons, dealing drugs, counterfeiting cash and even trafficking endangered species — operations that are believed to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars. North Korean diplomats around the world have been accused of using their diplomatic privileges to conducted crimes such as smuggling gold and running guns.

A 2008 Congressional Research Service report said Pyongyang could generate anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion in profits annually from its ill-gotten gains.

In order to really pressure Kim until he’s desperate enough to get to the negotiating table on the US’ terms, US President Donald Trump may need to go after that money, analysts say. But cutting off that revenue may prove difficult, like playing a game of international whack-a-mole.

[CNN]

North Korea’s big guns

North Korea’s military exercises leave little doubt that Pyongyang plans to use large numbers of nuclear weapons against U.S. forces throughout Japan and South Korea to blunt an invasion. In fact, the word that official North Korean statements use is “repel.”

North Korean defectors have claimed that the country’s leaders hope that by inflicting mass casualties and destruction in the early days of a conflict, they can force the United States and South Korea to recoil from their invasion.

This isn’t new. This threat has been present for more than 20 years. “It is widely known inside North Korea that [the nation] has produced, deployed, and stockpiled two or three nuclear warheads and toxic material, such as over 5,000 tons of toxic gases,” Choi Ju-hwal, a North Korean colonel who defected, told a U.S. Senate subcommittee in 1997.

For years North Korea has had extensive batteries of conventional artillery–an estimated 8,000 big guns–just north of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), which is less than 40 miles from Seoul, South Korea’s capital, a metropolitan area of more than 25 million people. One high-ranking U.S. military officer who commanded forces in the Korean theater, now retired, told me he’d heard estimates that if a grid were laid across Seoul dividing it into three-square-foot blocks, these guns could, within hours, “pepper every single one.” This ability to rain ruin on the city is a potent existential threat to South Korea’s largest population center, its government, and its economic anchor. Shells could also deliver chemical and biological weapons.

Adding nuclear ICBMs to this arsenal would put many more cities in the same position as Seoul. Nuclear-tipped ICBMs, according to Lewis, are the final piece of a defensive strategy “to keep Trump from doing anything regrettable after Kim Jong Un obliterates Seoul and Tokyo.”

[The Atlantic]

Trump meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in

The Trump administration is considering a wider range of strategies on how to deal with North Korea, including the military option, Trump’s national security adviser H.R. McMaster said Wednesday. He said it would be insanity to continue to do the same thing the U.S. has done for years and expect a different result.

McMaster’s comments come a day before Trump is scheduled to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. South Korea’s new leader vowed to stand firmly with Trump against North Korea, downplaying his past advocacy for a softer approach toward the isolated regime. The talks between Moon and Trump, which begin with dinner on Thursday night and then formal talks on Friday, come amid intense wrangling over North Korea.

China is pushing the United States to start negotiations with North Korea. That prospect appears unlikely as Trump grows frustrated over Beijing’s level of economic pressure on the North, its wayward ally.

President Moon told The Washington Post that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is “unreasonable” and “very dangerous” and that pressure was necessary. But Moon said sanctions alone would not solve the problem, and dialogue was needed “under the right conditions.”

The THAAD missile defense is also expected to be on the agenda. Seoul delayed the full deployment of the U.S. system that is intended to protect South Korea and the 28,000 U.S. forces on the peninsula.

[Fox news]

Defector: “The difference is like hell and heaven”

In the rooms above the Korea Foods superstore in New Malden are the unglamorous offices of Free NK, a North Korean newspaper run by Kim Joo Il, another defector.

“If you actually compare two lives, one in North Korea and the other one in New Malden, the difference is like hell and heaven,” the 43-year-old told NBC News.

When he lived in North Korea, he served as an officer in the Korean People’s Army and it was his job to catch defectors. He knew the risks of trying to flee. “They were all dealt with by military law, which meant public execution,” Kim Joo Il said.

According to him, the country’s feared secret police has a network of spies so extensive that one out of every three citizens is an informant. “Your lives are under surveillance every single moment,” he said. “Kim Jong Un has told his people that the tiniest thing, even the drop of a needle to the floor, should be reported back to him.”

Despite being aware of the potential consequences, he decided to take his chances and make a break for it across the Chinese border. “This is not a choice that you make in a day,” he said. “This is based on a long-term emotional process. You make up your mind to escape from North Korea, and then you give up on the idea, and then you make up your mind again, and then you give up again. You go through this process so many times you cannot imagine how many times.”

Kim Joo Il was single when he fled, but he had to consider the consequences his escape would have on his remaining family members. “It’s not just the family that you have in mind, you’ve got to actually be prepared to die, really, while escaping,” he said. “Personally it took me eight years to finally make up my mind and in the eighth year I made my escape.”

From China, he walked, hitched rides, and scraped together enough money for the occasional train or bus fare. He traveled through Vietnam, Cambodia and finally Thailand, where he got a plane ticket to the U.K.

He publishes the Free NK newspaper both in print and online, employing around five members of staff — both North and South Koreans — and highlighting the atrocities the regime is inflicting on his countrymen. Not only does he circulate the newspaper locally, he sends the digital files to South Korea where they are printed out, attached to balloons and dropped over North Korea as anti-regime propaganda.

Now well-known as a figurehead in the New Malden community, Kim Joo Il is determined to be a thorn in the side of the dictatorship.

[NBC]

Defectors from North Korea describe daily life

For the vast majority of the 25 million North Koreans, food is scarce. The United Nations reports that 70 percent of the population — around 18 million — goes hungry, with the stunting of children’s growth a “rampant phenomenon” due to the lack of nutrition. Almost 9 million have no health care, and more than 5 million live in squalor because they lack clean running water.

While food may be scarce, distrust is not. From childhood, North Koreans are instructed to report anyone being even mildly nonconformist or speaking of their leadership without over-the-top praise, even in private conversation. Tom Fowdy, founder of the analysis group Young DPRK Watchers, noted that compulsory community meetings are held: singing songs about their leaders and goading each other into confessing minor crimes.

A caste system means North Koreans often remain in the social rank into which they were born, something determined by a family’s reputation. Sometimes a citizen can move up the ladder to a more privileged caste, depending on one’s perceived support of the leadership, or move down the ladder, depending on one’s links to criminals, defectors or South Koreans.

“Those with a poor songbun (caste ranking) will have poor prospects,” said Chad O’Carroll, managing director of Korea Risk Group, which produces analyses on North Korea. “But regardless of one’s background, most young North Koreans should never expect to leave their country, officially consume foreign-produced information unapproved by the government or show respect to anyone beyond a leader to the Kim family tree.”

A North Korean is required to hang in their homes portraits of Kim il Sung and Kim Jong-il, the grandfather and father, respectively, or the current leader. There are routine checks by authorities to ensure these are kept immaculately clean. It is mostly prohibited for one to communicate with others in the world outside. Pirated modern movies and music occasionally make their way into homes but, if caught, violators can be punished with death.

Soldiers have been known to enter homes and extract entire families, who are never heard from again.

[Fox News]