Initial outcome of North Korea-South Korea meeting

The rival Koreas moved toward reducing their bitter animosity Tuesday during rare talks, with North Korea agreeing to take part in next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea. The countries also agreed to hold more discussions on easing tension along their border and to reopen a military hotline.

The first meeting of its kind between the nations in about two years was arranged after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made an abrupt push for improved ties with South Korea following a year of escalating tensions with the outside world over his expanding nuclear and missile programs.

Critics say Kim may be trying to divide Seoul and Washington in a bid to weaken international pressure and sanctions on the North. In comments that appeared to back up those critical views, chief North Korean delegate Ri Son Gwon said his country’s nuclear weapons are aimed at the United States, not South Korea.

Despite Ri’s comments, the agreements were still seen to be a positive move. Chief South Korean delegate Cho Myoung-gyon described the accords as a “first step toward the development of South-North relations” when he briefed reporters about the meeting.

In another key accord Tuesday, North Korea also agreed to hold military talks aimed at reducing animosity along the border and restore a military hotline communication channel with South Korea, according to Cho. All major inter-Korean communication channels had been shut down over the North’s nuclear program in recent years. But North Korea reopened one channel last week as signs emerged of improving ties.

[AP]

North Korea accepts South’s offer to meet for talks

Kim Jong Un, to general surprise, announced in his New Year’s Day speech that he was prepared to “melt the frozen north-south relations,” to allow contacts with South Koreans and to discuss North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics to be held in February in South Korea.

US President Trump has tweeted that this would not have happened had he not been “firm, strong and willing to commit our total ‘might’ against the North.” He may be partly right. The single most important factor driving the North Koreans to this decision was probably economic distress.

President Trump’s unpredictability may also have contributed to Pyongyang’s decision. When United Nations Undersecretary-General Jeffrey Feltman visited Pyongyang from December 5 through 8, the North Koreans asked him repeatedly how decisions were made in Washington. They are nervous that the United States is now behaving in ways that they cannot predict and are probably anxious at President Trump’s talk of military action.

Perhaps the immediate trigger was the announcement on December 19 by President Moon Jae-In of South Korea that he had asked the US military to postpone the annual joint US-South Korean exercises until after the Winter Olympics. The North Koreans hate these exercises and have often tried to get them postponed, reduced or canceled, so this may have seemed too good an opportunity to miss. They acted quickly, meeting South Korean officials secretly right at the end of December.

Person-to-person talks between North and South Korea are scheduled to be held next Tuesday — the day after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s birthday — at the Peace House in the village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone.

[CNN]

Kim Jong Un overture could drive wedge between South Korea and USA

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, presented a canny new strategy to initiate direct talks with South Korea in the hope of driving a wedge into its seven-decade alliance with the United States.

Perhaps sensing the simmering tension between President Trump and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, Kim called for an urgent dialogue between the two Koreas before the opening of the Winter Olympics in the South next month.

The strained relationship between the allies has been playing out for months, as Mr. Moon, a liberal, argued for economic and diplomatic openings with the North, even as Mr. Trump has worked hard to squeeze the North with increasingly punishing sanctions. Mr. Moon also angered Mr. Trump and his aides in recent months by suggesting he holds what he called a veto over any American pre-emptive military action against the North’s nuclear program.

Until now Mr. Kim has largely ignored Mr. Moon, whom the North Korean media has portrayed as a spineless lackey of the United States. Kim now sees an opportunity to develop and accentuate the split between Mr. Moon and Mr. Trump, betting that the United States will be unable to mount greater pressure on the North if it does not have South Korean acquiescence. The gambit may work. Hours after Mr. Kim’s speech, Mr. Moon’s office welcomed the North’s proposal, in a way that could further aggravate tensions with the United States.

As part of the overture, Mr. Kim also agreed to a request by Mr. Moon to send a North Korean delegation to the Winter Olympics. The South Korean president is betting that the North is far less likely to disrupt the Olympics, with missile launchings or an act of terrorism, if North Korean athletes are competing.

[New York Times]

The nuclear war tweet heard around the world

The U.S. President ignited a stunning new showdown with North Korea late Tuesday, as Donald Trump boasted to volatile leader Kim Jong Un that he had a “much bigger & more powerful” nuclear weapon.

Trump’s flippant comments about his nuclear prowess — akin to “mine is bigger than yours” schoolyard taunts — raise new questions about whether the President has thought deeply about the awesome destructive power at his command.

His outburst also elevates Kim, leader of an impoverished autocracy using a nuclear program to ensure its survival, to a tit-for-tat confrontation alongside the President of the United States.

“Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” Trump tweeted. The tweet was remarkable not just for its content but for the fact it was generated by a President, the holder of the office that for decades has been the effective guarantor of a US-enforced 70-year era of global peace. Before Trump, no US President has made such public and cavalier threats.

Trump’s gambit is all the more risky since it is likely to alienate US allies, anger key world powers like Russia and China that Washington needs to resolve the standoff and because no one knows how the unpredictable Kim will respond.

“To call it juvenile would be an insult to children,” retired Adm. John Kirby, a former State Department and Pentagon spokesman told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday. “I do think in the halls of the Pentagon and the State Department, there has got to be a lot of concern over this, because he is the President of the United States. His tweets are going to be taken as official policy,” said Kirby, now a CNN analyst. “There is no question they are going to lead to miscalculation and confusion over there.”

[CNN]

US and China joint plan on North Korea

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson let slip last week a few tantalizing details about one of the nation’s most secret military contingency plans: how the United States would try to race inside North Korea to seize its nuclear weapons if it ever saw evidence that Kim Jong-un’s government was collapsing.

For years, American diplomats have been trying to engage their Chinese counterparts in a discussion of this scenario, hoping to avoid a conflict between arriving American Special Forces — who have been practicing this operation for years — and the Chinese military, which would almost certainly pour over the border in a parallel effort.

And for years the Chinese have resisted the conversation, according to several former American officials who tried to engage them in joint planning. The Chinese feared that if news of a conversation leaked, Beijing would be seen as conspiring with the United States over plans for an eventual North Korean collapse, eroding any leverage that Beijing still held over Kim Jong Un.

So it was surprising to Mr. Tillerson’s colleagues when, in a talk to the Atlantic Council last week, he revealed that the Trump administration had already provided assurances to China’s leadership that if American forces landed in North Korea to search for and deactivate nuclear weapons, the troops would do their work and then retreat.

North Korea has defied past predictions of collapse, and one does not appear imminent. But if a collapse were to occur, the aftermath could present grave dangers. American officials have envisioned that North Korean officers, fearing the end of Kim’s government, might lob a nuclear weapon at South Korea or Japan as a last, desperate act — or detonate it on North Korean territory to make occupation impossible.

Mr. Tillerson said at a conference on the Korea crisis that the United States and China “have had conversations about in the event that something happened — it could happen internal to North Korea; it might be nothing that we from the outside initiate — that if that unleashed some kind of instability, the most important thing to us would be securing those nuclear weapons they’ve already developed and ensuring that they — that nothing falls into the hands of people we would not want to have it.”

[New York Times]

UN adopts new tougher sanctions on North Korea

The UN Security Council unanimously adopted a new set of draconian US-drafted sanctions on North Korea that will further strangle its energy supplies and tighten restrictions on smuggling and the use of North Korean workers overseas.

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, claimed that the new sanctions, levied in response to Pyongyang’s November 29 ballistic missile test, went even further than sanctions passed in September that, at the time, were called the toughest yet. “Today, we cut deeper,” Haley said. She said the UN had repeatedly offered Pyongyang a choice and repeatedly, in its continued missile tests, the regime had “chosen the path of isolation.”

Hailing the unity of the Security Council vote and referring to leader Kim Jong Un, Haley said that, “we will continue to match the Kim regime’s choice of aggressive action with actions of international sanctions.” North Korea, she said, is “this most tragic example of evil in the modern world.”

Resolution 2397 cuts exports of gasoline, diesel and other refined oil products by a total of 89%, Haley said. The resolution also bans exports of industrial equipment, machinery, transportation vehicles and industrial metals to North Korea. It requires countries using North Korean laborers to send them back home no later than 24 months from the adoption of the resolution. The resolution also requires countries to stop ships from illegally providing oil to North Korea through ship-to-ship transfers and prohibits them from smuggling North Korean coal and other prohibited commodities by sea.

[CNN]

Kim Jon Un’s endgame to avoid becoming vulnerable to American pressure

“When I was in Pyongyang, I was with some foreign ministry officials whose job it is, is to read Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, listen to his speeches, try to analyze the American government. And what they said was, ‘Frankly, we’re mystified,” said Evan Osnos, a New Yorker staff writer who traveled to North Korea on assignment for the magazine.

“We can’t figure out if he is, as they put it, irrational or whether he’s proceeding down a subtle strategy that’s leading them to an objective. So, when we send mixed messages, when we send confusing messages, they’re not quite sure what to make of it,” Osnos added.

Michael Morell, former acting and deputy director of the CIA, echoed the idea that mixed messages and threats without follow-through are damaging to any hopes of diplomacy. “You’ve lost a tremendous amount of credibility and I think that the language in that respect is dangerous,” Morell said.

North Korea and Kim Jon Un’s endgame, Osnos said, is to avoid becoming vulnerable to American pressure. “If you ask people in Pyongyang, really cut through what it is that they’re trying to achieve, the thing they return to over and over again, is they want to avoid being Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qaddafi,” Osnos said.

In addition to using nuclear capability as a way to secure themselves from attack, Morell added that there is a possibility they want to use them to become more dominant on the Korean Peninsula.  “Does he want these weapons to try to coerce the United States in South Korea? So in other words, once he has them, will he be more aggressive on the Korean Peninsula? The question is how do you deter that, and that’s more difficult,” Morell said.

[CBS]

North Korean suicide bombers ready to be unleashed if war breaks out?

Joo-il Kim, a North Korean defector who lives in London, said brainwashed fighters who will “live and die” for Kim Jong-un have their own “nuclear backpacks”.

Mr Kim told Express.co.uk that these bombers were assembled because Jong-un’s military is not strong enough to simply nuke their rivals. He said: ” They know they can’t win the war.”

But he insisted the brainwashed soldiers could “infiltrate” neighboring countries and unleash their suicide backpacks.

Mr Kim’s warning comes after Chinese officials warned the risk of a war against North Korea is higher than ever before.

[The Sun]

China prepares for North Korea crisis by building refugee camps on border

China has started construction on a network of refugee camps along its 880-mile border with North Korea, quietly preparing for the mass exodus of refugees that the collapse of Kim Jong Un’s regime could potentially cause.

Detailed plans for the camps, intended to house thousands of migrants who might flee a crisis on the Korean Peninsula, emerged after internal documents from a state-run telecom giant went viral on the Chinese social media site Weibo. The telecom company appeared to be tasked with providing the camps with internet services, and the document stated that camps were planned in three villages in Changbai County and two cities in the northeastern province of Jilin, on the border, on state-owned land.

The document, which Newsweek could not independently verify, said: “Due to cross-border tensions…the [Communist] party committee and government of Changbai County has proposed setting up five refugee camps in the county.”

In addition, The New York Times reported that centers for refugees were also planned in the cities of Tumen and Hunchun, citing a local businessman, who remained anonymous.

The secret construction of the camps reflects growing concern in China about the potential for political instability—or even regime collapse—in North Korea.

[Newsweek]

Kim Jong Un is not crazy, just a cold calculator

North Korea’s latest threat of nuclear war is another salvo of incendiary rhetoric from the rogue nation, but it’s also part of a calculated power move by leader Kim Jong Un.

Experts say Kim’s fiery talk and defiance of the international community masks a core fact: His pursuit of a nuclear program is designed to establish the legitimacy of his regime inside North Korea and to gain international stature.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo said last week that the consensus in the intelligence community is that Kim is “rational” — even though some comments from North Korea may not seem so.

Sheila Miyoshi Jager, a professor at Oberlin College and author of Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea concurs, “Kim certainly is acting rationally and predictably if his objective is to secure his hold on power.”

North Korea’s test last month established that the isolated nation had built a missile capable of reaching Washington, D.C., and other East Coast cities. Kim believes that the threat of a nuclear attack on the United States might force Washington to rethink its commitment to defend South Korea if attacked. North Korea’s ultimate goal is to reunify the peninsula.

Kim believes nuclear weapons serve as a deterrent and provide economic leverage for North Korea, Jager said. Kim fears he will go the way of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi — both gave up their nuclear weapons programs and were overthrown.

[USA Today]