Top North Korean official Kim Yong Chol visiting US

One of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s top officials is traveling to the United States and will meet Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as the two countries lay the groundwork for on-again, off-again talks between Kim and US President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12.

Once he touches down on American soil, Kim would be the most senior official to visit the United States since 2000.

Kim Yong Chol and Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, have been two of the most visible and important players in Pyongyang’s push for rapprochement with South Korea and the United States this year.

Kim Yong Chol is the vice chairman of North Korea’s Party Central Committee, and is Kim Jong Un’s top official in charge of relations between North and South Korea. He’s often pictured with the North Korean leader and attended his two recent meetings with South Korea’s President Moon at the DMZ that divides the two Koreas.  Kim Yong Chol was also part of the delegation from the North that traveled South in February for the Winter Olympics closing ceremony, a decision that surprised many considering he was believed to have masterminded the sinking of a South Korean navy ship in 2010 that killed 46 sailors while serving as North Korea’s top intelligence official.

[CNN]

North and South Korean leaders again meet to discuss how to make Trump-Kim summit a success

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un discussed their hopes for a U.S.-North Korea summit at a previously unannounced meeting, South Korean officials announced. The two leaders met for two hours Saturday and “frankly” discussed how to make the U.S.-North Korea summit a success, the presidential Blue House said.

President Trump canceled his meeting with Kim on Thursday, though he later said both sides are “having very productive talks with North Korea about reinstating” it, leaving the door open for further negotiation. This came after several roller-coaster days in which Trump canceled the summit, set for June 12 in Singapore. Moon was blindsided by Trump’s decision to abruptly announce he was canceling the summit, less than a day after returning from meeting in the Oval Office.

Moon and Kim met at Panmunjom, the truce village in the demilitarized zone and the site of their first meeting in April. The two met on the northern side of the line. The North Korean leader’s sister Kim Yo Jong awaited Moon’s motorcade on the north side of the demilitarized zone. Once he arrived, he shook hands with Kim Yo Jong and walked down a red carpet as members of the North Korean military saluted. Moon then walked inside and shook hands with Kim Jong Un and posed for a photo.

The two leaders also discussed a successful implementation of the inter-Korean “Panmunjom Declaration.” The two signed the three-page agreement at their earlier meeting, stating that “South and North Korea confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula,” officials said Saturday.

[Washington Post]

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]

Kim Jong-un ‘moved’ by K-pop peace concert in Pyongyang

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was deeply moved by a concert in Pyongyang featuring South Korea artists, the North’s state news agency KCNA reports.

It said the leader’s heart had swelled when he saw the North Korean audience respond enthusiastically to the performances of famous K-pop groups. He said the musical exchange was a significant occasion giving the appearance of a united country.

The North had sent performers to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea earlier this year, followed by the first South Korean musical delegation to visit North Korea in more than a decade. The South Korean music delegation, which combines K-pop, rock and other genres, is set to perform again on Tuesday.

Kim Jong Un and his wife, Ri Sol-ju, pose for photos with visiting South Korean musicians

Kim Jong Un is the first North Korean leader to attend a performance by an artistic group from the South, said South Korea’s official news agency, Yonhap. His wife Ri Sol-ju, and his sister Kim Yo-jong and the country’s nominal head of state Kim Yong-nam are also said to have attended.

Meanwhile, one of North Korea’s top officials, Kim Yong-chol, has apologized to South Korean reporters who had hoped to cover the performance after all but one were barred from entering the Grand Theatre, South Korean Yonhap news agency reports. “It was wrong to hinder the free media coverage and filming,” he said, in what Yonhap reported as “a rare apology”.

[BBC]

US-North Korea tensions to escalate?

The relative period of calm between the United States and North Korea may soon come to an end — and that’s as scary as it sounds.

Here’s why: On Monday, Washington and Seoul announced they will hold an annual joint military drill next month. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may have expected it would not happen ahead of his summit with President Donald Trump. The exercise will certainly annoy him — and may change how he feels about his diplomatic opening.

Also on Monday, the German newspaper Deutsche Welle reported that Germany’s foreign intelligence agency believes North Korea can strike Europe with a nuclear-tipped missile. The US already worries that Pyongyang could nuke its Asian allies. The US has promised to use massive force in defense of friends — but now the US may have to come to the defense of an even larger number of allies. That may necessitate more plans when thinking about war with North Korea.

And finally, South Korea announced plans to deploy “artillery killer” missiles to the border with North Korea. These missiles could potentially destroy Pyongyang’s artillery force, which North Korea would use to kill thousands in South Korea should a conflict break out. These new missiles, in effect, aim to defend against that outcome.

David Shear, who served as the Pentagon’s top Asia official from 2014 to 2016, related the exercises will be the first test of how serious North Korea’s diplomatic overtures really are. If the country threatens the US or South Korea during the drills, then perhaps Pyongyang puts the Trump-Kim summit in doubt. But if North Korea stands by for the full month, then maybe it really does want to sit down with the US for talks.

All of this comes about two months before Trump plans to meet with Kim Jong Un for a high-stakes summit to discuss the future of Kim’s nuclear and while Trump is considering a broader national security team shake-up.

[Vox]

South Korea to send envoy to North Korea

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is sending a special envoy to North Korea, following Pyongyang’s successful participation in the Winter Olympics.

It appears to be in direct response to a personal invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivered by his sister Kim Yo Jong during her visit to the South for the Games last month.

Moon doesn’t seem to be preparing for a personal trip above the demilitarized zone (DMZ) just yet, but sending an envoy to Pyongyang would be an important first step.

Multiple North Korean officials met with their South Korean counterparts before Kim’s Olympic trip last month in the first face-to-face meetings between the Koreas in almost two years in January.

Concerns about the Trump administration’s policy towards Pyongyang were also raised this week with the departure of Joseph Yun, the top US State Department for North Korea, who was widely seen as a voice for diplomatic engagement in contrast to the increasingly hawkish National Security Council.

[CNN]

North Korean defector’s reflections on the Olympics

Last week, Park Ui-Song, a thirty-year-old, took a break from his university classes in Seoul to travel to the Gangneung Ice Arena to watch some Olympic competitions. Park, who asked that his name be changed to protect the identity of his family that remains in North Korea, shared the following reaction:

I was hoping that [the outcome might be] starting a dialogue, that sort of humanizing theme would come through. Practically, the North Korean leaders have the power to improve the North-South relationship. I hate them, but they can bring change. So I also kept a close eye on the North Korean leaders like Kim Yo Jong [Kim Jong-Un’s sister] and South Korea President Moon Jae-in. I had a lot of hope and expectation when they showed each other what I thought looked like respect. I want reunification, even though many in the generation below me do not. Of course, I have a family that I’d like to see.

But watching the cheerleaders in particular—actually, watching the media watching the cheerleaders—and seeing how much attention the media gave them and how they were received was disappointing. Their actions weren’t natural. They looked like dolls. Or like actors in a play. And yes, they were very much playing their roles, but I struggled with how the rest of the world was so enamored with them and their looking like robots. At the hockey game [between North Korea and Switzerland], they yelled slogans about unity and sang old Korean folk tunes. They chanted We are one! There might be a desire to unify but it’s not their real intention. The chanting is an order. I do feel sorry for them because they are victims of a dictatorship. They are being used as a tool.

I wish the global audience could separate the North Korean regime and the North Korean people, which I know is very hard to do. But I wish people could try to have that perspective. In many ways, the North Korean people are just like other people—they fall in love, they have their own culture. Once you remove the regime, they’re not so different.

There’s some nostalgia. I’ve been in South Korea for three years, and seeing [North Korean Olympic attendees] on TV, there is an element of homesickness. I still think North Korea is in some ways a beautiful place, and I still identify myself closer to North Korean than South Korean because I spent 26 years of my life in the North. I don’t know if that will gradually change, sometimes I ask myself if it needs to.

I left to go back to Seoul feeling conflicted about it all. Kim [Jong-Un] clearly tried to create an environment for dialogue and also brighten up the world’s perception of the North at these Games, I don’t know if he was successful. Maybe it’s fifty-fifty.

[Esquire]

North Korea’s propaganda victory at the Winter Olympics

The Olympics has been a PR dream come true for the murderous Kim Jong Un dictatorship. South Korea’s Moon administration claims to be using the games to foster goodwill, but the reality is that the Hermit Kingdom has taken this opportunity to stage one of history’s great whitewashing operations, where the breathless focus is on the fashion style of the Dear Leader’s sister instead of his forced labor camps and police state.

North Korea is the worst human rights violator on our planet. Its leaders — including the smiling Kim Yo Jong — are active participants in a totalitarian state that starves, abuses and brainwashes millions of people. The Kim regime keeps tight control over its population through outright violent oppression, but also relies heavily on an elaborate system of censorship, propaganda and indoctrination. North Koreans grow up hearing creation myths about their godlike rulers alongside a warped version of history that places North Korea as both the strongest and most noble nation in the world, and as a victim of “American bastards.” According to Jieun Baek, author of “North Korea’s Hidden Revolution,” “children learn to add and subtract by counting dead American soldiers” and learn to use rifles “in case the ‘Yankee imperialists’ attack.”

The brainwashing works. As defector and human rights activist Yeonmi Park explains, before she decided to defect, she “was not aware, like a fish is not aware of water. North Koreans are abducted at birth, so they do not know the concept of freedom or human rights. They do not know that they are slaves.”

For decades, the regime has tried to maintain a strict censorship of all foreign news, books, movies, TV shows and more, and imposes severe punishments on anyone found consuming forbidden media. Individuals found consuming outside media can face long stints in the country’s reeducation centers, where they are worked nearly to death, tortured and abused by guards and underfed to the point of eating locusts and rats found on prison floors. In some cases, those caught with prohibited media are executed and, typically, such events are done in broad daylight with the local population forced to attend.

[From Washington Post Opinion piece by Garry Kasparov]

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’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.

[CNN]

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