The message behind the liquid VX murder of Kim Jong Nam

Two women accused of fatally poisoning the estranged half brother of North Korea’s ruler pleaded not guilty as their trial began Monday in Malaysia’s High Court, nearly eight months after the brazen airport assassination that sparked a diplomatic standoff.

In a case with a thousand plot twists, there has been but one constant in the murder investigation of Kim Jong Nam: Nothing is ever what it seems. The two women accused of killing the playboy half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appear to be hired dupes, paid a few dollars to perform what they thought was a reality-TV stunt.  Stranger still was the murder weapon, liquid VX, a toxin so powerful that a few drops rubbed onto the skin killed the victim in minutes, yet it failed to harm the two women who applied the poison with their bare hands.

Some of the mysteries behind Kim Jong Nam’s death inside a Malaysian airport terminal will likely never be resolved. But U.S. and Asian officials have a clearer view of the attack’s significance. In carrying out history’s first state-sponsored VX assassination in a country 3,000 miles from its borders, North Korea has demonstrated a new willingness to use its formidable arsenal of deadly toxins and poisons to kill or intimidate enemies on foreign soil, analysts say.

Kim Jong Nam’s killing now looks to many experts like a proving exercise for a weapons system — in this case, a robust chemical-weapons stockpile that Pyongyang is thought to have built over decades and kept carefully under wraps.

A State Department report in 2001 found that North Korea was “already self-sufficient” in making all the necessary precursors for sarin and VX, as well as older weapons such as mustard gas. Drawing from an array of sources — from North Korean defectors and spies to satellite photos and electronic eavesdropping — U.S. agencies calculated the size of the country’s chemical stockpile at between 2,500 and 5,000 tons. That’s far larger than Syria’s arsenal at its peak, and larger than any known to exist in the world, except for those built by the Soviet and U.S. militaries during the Cold War.

[Washington Post]

US negotiating with North Korea, sort of!

Yesterday Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the US had direct lines of communication with North Korea and that he was trying to “calm things down” following months of escalating rhetoric over Pyongyang’s continued nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests.

Tillerson, speaking at a press conference in Beijing, said the US made it clear through its direct channels to North Korea that it was seeking peace through talks. “I think the most immediate action that we need is to calm things down,” Tillerson added. “They’re a little overheated right now, and I think we need to calm them down first.”

Then today, President Donald Trump again mocked North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and said his Secretary of State should not bother trying to negotiate with him in an effort to stop the country’s development of nuclear weapons.

“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man…” Trump said on Twitter. He continued, “…Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”

Asked if the President’s tweets indicate he has decided to abandon the diplomatic track on North Korea, a senior administration official told CNN: “We are still committed to a diplomatic approach.”

In September, Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis had said the goal on North Korea is to reach a diplomatic solution between the countries. The month prior, in August, Mattis stressed the importance of the nation’s diplomatic efforts, particularly through the United Nations, but in September he warned the US would meet threats from North Korea with “a massive military response.”

“I feel like we still have two different polices on North Korea: one at the Department of State and Department of Defense, and another on the President’s Twitter feed,” Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said.

[Source: CNN]

North Korean border further tightens

Three men dressed in fishermen garb attempted to cross the Tumen River into China at dawn. But the trio were soon discovered by North Korean border guards patrolling the area.

A Chinese fisherman who last week witnessed the killings of the three men said the guards bashed in the escapee’s heads using the butts off their guns and rocks at the riverside. A source speaking on the Chinese fisherman’s behalf told authorities: “The scene was so brutal that he said he still has nightmares.

“After the bashing ended, the soldiers dropped the lifeless bodies into the river.

“The fisherman was so traumatized by the incident that he has insomnia.”

Kim Jong-un has reportedly told border guards to “shoot anyone who crosses the river on site” as he believes defections have a negative effect on the county’s stability. The new orders come as war with the US looks increasingly more likely.

In the past, patrolling soldiers would arrest escapees attempting to cross the river.

[Daily Star]

China frustrated as North Korean crisis spirals

The view from China could hardly be much worse: the leaders of North Korea and the United States threatening to rain down total destruction on each other, while U.S. bombers and fighters stage a show of military might close to China’s shores. Behind closed doors, experts said Beijing is as frustrated with North Korea, and with the situation, as it has ever been.

As North Korea’s dominant trading partner, China is widely seen as the key to solving the crisis, yet experts say its influence over Pyongyang has never been weaker.

“The North Koreans have figured out that the Chinese are genuinely in a bind,” said Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. “Having cried wolf for so long about having limited influence, the Chinese genuinely do have limited influence in North Korea right now. It’s not just weasel words.”

China is not prepared to do anything that might bring down the North Korean regime, potentially bringing refugees streaming across its border and unifying the Korean Peninsula under a U.S.-friendly government. North Korea’s leaders, experts in brinkmanship, know that full well, and this knowledge has allowed them to call China’s bluff repeatedly.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has never met Kim Jong-un, and the two men are thought to hold each other in contempt. China’s attempts to send an envoy to Pyongyang to calm the situation have been rebuffed. So while Seoul cooperates with Washington, Pyongyang is freezing out Beijing.

 [The Washington Post]

Difference between American and North Korean war rhetoric

President Trump’s aggressive rhetoric about North Korea [includes] his threat at the United Nations to “totally destroy” the country. Whereas North Korea tends to couch its threats, however lurid, with carefully worded conditions.

When American B-1B long-range bombers, escorted by F-15 fighter jets, prowled along North Korea’s east coast on Saturday, one of the United States military’s most daring maneuvers on the Korean peninsula in decades, North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho, declared that North Korea had the right to shoot down the American bombers, not outright declaring they would.

“The North Koreans know how to choose their words,” said Cheon Seong-whun, a visiting research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, who served as a presidential secretary for security strategy in South Korea until early this year. “They know how to calculate their stakes. They are not reckless.”

With its threats, North Korea is trying to make the United States think twice about further shows of force, even as it seeks to portray itself as playing defense against an American bully, said Lee Sung-yoon, a Korea expert at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. At the same time, Pyongyang probably hopes China and South Korea will call for calm and restraint, while using Mr. Trump’s threats as justification to conduct another missile or nuclear test, Mr. Lee said.

Lu Kang, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said on Tuesday at a regular news conference in Beijing that China was “very displeased with the escalating war of words between the United States and North Korea,” adding that there would be “no winners from rashly triggering war on the peninsula.”

[The New York Times]

North Korean executions and sex slaves

According to the claims of a 26-year-old female North Korean defector, Kim Jong-un had 11 musicians executed with anti-aircraft guns, and orders aides to pick out sex slaves from North Korea’s schools. She said she was among 10,000 people once forced to watch the execution of musicians accused of making a pornographic video, at Pyongyang’s military academy.

This week Human Rights Watch (HRW) said, “North Koreans who recently escaped to third countries or maintain contacts in the North told HRW that when girls are sexually harassed or abused, some guardians refuse to formally complain to police or other government officials because they believe government officials will not investigate, and the girl and the family will face stigmatization.”

An academic, Dr Colin Alexander, an Asia expert at Nottingham Trent University, told The Independent: “In some cases there probably will be some elements of slavery in North Korea.” Dr Alexander added that the latest revelations fit “a narrative that we’re almost becoming accustomed to hearing”.

He said it was possible that ”somebody with a vested interest has got hold of this defector and has decided that it’s within their interest to approach international media and to run a story about this within the current climate”. He added, “If they’re a defector, and they’ve lived all their lives in North Korea, they will not be very well versed in how the international media works.”

Dr. Alexander also said: “I’m in no way endorsing the Kim regime here. Behind the narrative is most likely somebody, or an organization, with an interest in putting pressure on the Kim regime.

[The Independent]

Trump’s statements play right into the North Korean narrative

Kim Jong Un’s regime tells the North Korean people every day that the United States wants to destroy them and their country. Now, they will hear it from another source: from the President of the United States himself.

In his maiden address to the United Nations Tuesday, President Trump threatened to “totally destroy North Korea.” Analysts noted that he didn’t even differentiate between the Kim regime (as President George W. Bush did with his infamous “axis of evil” speech) and the 25 million people of North Korea.

“President Trump has handed the North Koreans the soundbite of the century,” said Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute for International Economics and one of the authors of its “North Korea: Witness to Transformation” blog. “That footage will be used time and time and time again on North Korea’s state television channel.”

Since the Korean War ended in an armistice in 1953, the Kim regime has portrayed the United States as an “imperialist aggressor” pursuing to “hostile policy” to crush North Korea–again. To keep control of and unify the populace, the regime has kept alive the memories of the Korean War, when the U.S. destroyed 80 percent of all the buildings in the North and killed as many as 20 percent of its people.

“The Kim regime argues that only it is capable of protecting the country from the existential threat North Korea faces from ‘hostile foreign forces’ led by the United States,” Noland said. “All of the depravity and the denial of rights is all justified by this.”

The “threat” from the United States is the whole reason why North Korea needs nuclear weapons, the regime tells the people. Trump’s words feed right into that narrative.

[Washington Post]

Escalating verbal war between Trump and Kim Jong-un

Kim Jong-un warned U.S. president Donald Trump that the US would “pay dearly” for his address to the United Nations General Assembly earlier this week.

“I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire,” Kim said of Trump. “Action is the best option in treating the dotard* who, hard of hearing, is uttering only what he wanted to say,” he continued, according to a translation of his statement.

Hours later, North Korea’s foreign minister threatened to drop a hydrogen bomb somewhere in the Pacific.

President Donald Trump then responded by calling North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un a “madman” who would be “tested like never before”.

The threat marks the latest attack in an escalating verbal war between the two leaders.

Days before at the UN, Trump had  called the North Korean leader a “rocket man … on a suicide mission,” and warned that he would “totally destroy” North Korea if Kim’s regime did not tamp down its nuclear development, later announcing new U.S.-imposed sanctions against North Korea on Thursday, which would force countries to choose between doing business with the U.S., an economic juggernaut, or isolated North Korea.

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, said Trump is “very serious” about holding other countries ― especially China ― accountable over their relationship with North Korea.

But experts have warned against U.S. leadership using bombastic language. “Describing North Korea as irrational and crazy [in the U.S.] might demonize the existence of the Kim Jong Un regime, or provide the rationale to criticize or kind of act more coercively towards North Korea,” Kuyoun Chung, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a think tank funded by the South Korean government, told HuffPost in August. “But that does not really help the security of the United States and the security of northeast Asia.”

Note: "Dotard", while not widely used today, is an insult centuries
old. Merriam-Webster defines the term as referring to "a state or
period of senile decay marked by decline of mental poise."

North Korea ridicules Trump threat as the ‘sound of a dog barking’

North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho, has issued a withering riposte to Donald Trump, likening his threat to destroy the regime to the “sound of a dog barking”.

Trump had said on Tuesday the US would be forced to “totally destroy” North Korea if Washington was forced to defend itself or its allies against the country’s missiles.

Speaking to reporters outside his New York hotel, Ri cited a Korean proverb when asked to respond to Trump’s vow to destroy his country. “There is a saying that the marching goes on even when dogs bark,” Ri said, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

“If he was thinking he could scare us with the sound of a dog barking, that’s really a dog dream,” he added. In Korean, a dog dream is one that makes little sense.

Asked what he thought of Trump’s description of Kim Jong-un as rocket man, Ri replied: “I feel sorry for his aides.”

 [The Guardian]

Trump tells UN delegates US may have to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that the United States will be forced to “totally destroy” North Korea unless Pyongyang backs down from its nuclear challenge, mocking North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a “rocket man” on a suicide mission.

Unless North Korea backs down, he said, “We will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”

“Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime,” he said.

 [Reuters]