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]

North Korea blows up tunnels at Punggye-ri nuclear test site

North Korea appeared to destroy at least three nuclear tunnels, observation buildings, a metal foundry and living quarters at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site on Thursday, in a process observed by invited international journalists.

North Korea announced on April 20 that the country would no longer need to test nuclear weapons, and to demonstrate its commitment, it said it would destroy the nuclear test site.

A CNN crew at the remote mountain site in the country’s north witnessed explosions at nuclear tunnels 2, 3 and 4, from observation decks about 500 meters away. They were among two dozen journalists invited into the country to observe the apparent destruction of the site.
Hours later, the White House canceled a planned meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump which had been billed as a historic opportunity to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula.
[CNN]

President Trump cancels June 12 North Korea summit

President Donald Trump today called off the planned summit with North Korea, writing in a letter to Kim Jong-Un that he didn’t want to go forward with the meeting because of “tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement.”

In the run-up to the proposed summit, Mr. Trump had said that if North Korea cooperated and relinquished its nuclear weapons, the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, could expect that his regime would remain intact and the country would experience an economic revival.

But increasingly combative statements from North Korea’s leadership in recent days dimmed prospects for the summit.

On Monday, Vice-President Pence suggested that Mr. Kim would be overthrown like Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi if he doesn’t make a deal on U.S. terms. “This will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn’t make a deal,” Mr. Pence told Fox News.

North Korea’s senior envoy for U.S. affairs threatened to cancel the summit and warned that the country could inflict on America an “appalling tragedy that it has never experienced nor even imagined.”

One official said that it was “wise” of Mr. Trump “to walk away for the time being.” Even after the U.S. and North Korea agreed on a summit date and venue, it was clear that substantial gaps remained. A major gap, according to experts, is whether the U.S. and North Korea shared the same understanding of “denuclearization.” The Trump administration envisioned a rapid process—perhaps taking less than a year—in which important sanctions relief would come only at the end. Mr. Kim spoke about a prolonged process in which sanctions relief would come earlier.

On Tuesday, South Korea’s president met with Mr. Trump in a bid to keep the summit planning on track. China’s foreign minister said Wednesday that he also hoped the summit would take place. On Thursday White House officials said the summit could be revived at some point, suggesting that Mr. Trump’s letter was only the latest turn in a continuing negotiation.

[CNN]

On North Korean defectors’ concerns about being returned to the North

North Korean defectors now living in South Korea Seoul are concerned that Pyongyang could demand that defectors be forcibly returned to their homeland as a condition for the resumption of talks with Seoul, and thus that their lives might be at risk.

James Brown, an associate professor at Tokyo’s Temple University, agrees that the aggressive demands that North Korea is making of the South will inevitably be of serious concern to the defector community.

“Moon is under great pressure and clearly wants the talks with the North to resume and succeed, but he built his reputation on being a lawyer for human rights so I doubt he will actually order the repatriation of any defectors,” he said. “I imagine that Pyongyang has reached a similar conclusion, so they will soon ask for something else instead,” he suggested.

And because that request will be more palatable than sending defectors back to a deeply uncertain future, the South may give in to that request. And then, Brown expects, they will make another demand to test Seoul’s resolve.

[Deutsche Welle]

North Korea demanding the return of restaurant worker defectors

North Korea is demanding the return of 13 defectors as a condition for the resumption of talks with Seoul, with support groups for thousands who have fled the repressive regime in the North saying there is genuine fear that Seoul might give in to Pyongyang’s demands and that their lives might be at risk.

Pyongyang is demanding that 12 women who had worked at a North Korean restaurant in China and their manager be returned to the North after it was claimed on a television program that the women had not been told they were being taken to South Korea in 2016 and that they have been tricked into going by the South Korean intelligence services.

The demands coincide with Pyongyang cancelling a high-level meeting scheduled for last week that was designed to build on the agreements reached when South Korean President Moon Jae-in met with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, at the border village of Panmunjom late last month.

[Deutsche Welle]

Restaurant manager reveals he tricked North Korean waitresses into defecting

When 13 North Korean workers defected en masse from a restaurant in China in April 2016, it was a propaganda boost for South Korea and a huge embarrassment for their homeland.

Heo Gang-il, the manager of the restaurant in the Chinese port city of Ningbo has told CNN that the young women didn’t defect — he tricked them into going to South Korea at the bidding of South Korea’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service (NIS).  He says he had become an informant for the intelligence agency after becoming disillusioned with Kim Jong Un’s regime.

The South Korean government maintains that the 12 young women defected of their own free will, and took the unusual step of publicizing their decision stating it was the largest group defection since Kim took power in 2011.

Heo says the NIS told him to lie to the waitresses and bring them to South Korea. He told the workers they were relocating to better accommodations.  The 12 waitresses and Heo flew to Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, with tickets, he says, were paid for by the NIS.

Heo says they were given South Korean passports with false names and they flew to Incheon, South Korea’s main international airport. A journey that takes months for most defectors took these North Koreans just two days.

[CNN]

An expert’s opinions on the Trump-Kim Summit

The much-anticipated summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, scheduled for June 12, is in trouble. After National Security Adviser John Bolton said last week that the US would seek complete and total North Korean nuclear disarmament, North Korea said publicly that it would never accept such an outcome — and threatened to pull out of the meeting if Washington didn’t adjust its expectations.

North Korea experts see this as a long-overdue reckoning. The truth is that the United States and North Korea have long expected diametrically opposed outcomes from the talks — with the US wanting North Korea to give up its nukes and North Korea demanding recognition as a legitimate nuclear power. But neither side was willing to confront the reality of the situation. We’ve just been stumbling toward negotiations with no clear sense of how this yawning gulf could be resolved.

How did we get here? Robert E. Kelly, a professor at South Korea’s Pusan National University, gave a really clear explanation in a series of Monday morning tweets, as per the following excerpts:
1) It increasingly looks like the Moon administration overstated North Korea’s willingness to deal.
2) Trump accepted the NK summit offer 45 minutes after he was told of it, without even telling the White House staff, and then drank his own kool-aid watching Fox telling him for weeks that he deserved a Nobel. Now comes the hang-over.
3) It is an open secret in South Korea that this was just flattering Trump to prevent him from starting a war.
4) Moon’s approval rating has shot up into the 80s%, even though he won with just 41% a year ago, and approval of the summit process is in the 90s%. [Note: Moon is a leftist who took office in May of last year, back when Trump was threatening war with North Korea. He made a deep and concerted effort to try to broker negotiations between Trump and Kim to defuse the tension. The problem, as Kelly points out, is that this was always a kind of shell game: Moon could never change the fact that the US and North Korea want fundamentally different things. Basically, he argues, this was a gambit to try to convince Trump not to go to war with North Korea — one that may yet fail.]
5) The problem, of course, is that … NK is not going to denuclearize; NK was not driven to negotiate by maximum pressure (they chose to negotiate, because they established nuclear deterrence with the US mainland);
6) Trump likely desperately wants this summit for the TV, attn, & a political ‘win’ he can market at home to change the story f/ his scandals & blunt a looming blue wave. So the summit will [probably] still happen, even tho, scarily, w/ 3 weeks to go, no one really knows how it will unfold.

[Vox]

Bolton potential wrecking ball for Trump-Kim summit

John Bolton’s desire to turn North Korea into the next Libya isn’t going over so well in Pyongyang, where Kim Jong Un’s government has threatened to cancel upcoming talks with the U.S. in part because of the U.S. national security adviser’s remarks.

Bolton drew the ire of the North Korean government for saying that the country’s nuclear disarmament should follow the “Libya model” embraced by Muammar Qaddafi, who was later overthrown and killed in a U.S.-backed uprising.

That history is well understood by Kim’s regime. In a blistering statement Wednesday, North Korea’s vice foreign minister and a top disarmament negotiator, Kim Kye Gwan, said his government felt “repugnance” toward Bolton.

“[Bolton’s remark] pushes all the wrong buttons,” said Joe Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, which seeks to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons. “The diplomacy with North Korea is going very well and Bolton threw a spanner in the works.”

Comparisons to Libya’s disarmament have long been anathema to the North Koreans, according to Robert King, a former U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights who led a delegation to Pyongyang in 2011. “One thing is clear: if the United States is to make progress in the denuclearization of North Korea, it would be well to avoid any reference whatsoever to Libya,’’ King wrote.

Cirincione said Bolton’s repeated references to Libya show that he is in over his head and probably should take a back seat to other top aides in advance of the Singapore summit. “Bolton is approaching this from this Neanderthal view of diplomacy that we pound people into submission and then expect their surrender,” Cirincione said. “If the U.S. holds to that position, the summit will fail.”

[Bloomberg]

North Korea threatens to pull out of Trump-Kim summit over denuclearization demands

North Korea signaled Wednesday that it was not interested in a “one-sided” summit with the U.S. in which it would be pressured to give up its nuclear weapons, The Associated Press reported, citing a top North Korean official. It was the second indication from Pyongyang within a matter of hours that it was reconsidering its positions.

The statement from Kim Kye Gwan, North Korea’s first vice foreign minister, was issued through the North’s state-run Central News Agency. It came just hours after the Yonhap News Agency, the Seoul-based media outlet, reported that the North had abruptly canceled a high-level meeting with South Korea scheduled for Wednesday and was considering withdrawing altogether from the highly anticipated meeting between President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, over ongoing military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea.

It was unclear whether North Korea might seriously contemplate canceling the summit, tentatively set for June 12 in Singapore, or whether it was simply venting over U.S. rhetoric and perhaps also seeking a stronger bargaining position.

In his statement, Kim Kye Gwan criticized comments from Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, and other U.S. officials who have been talking about how the North should provide a “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement” of its nuclear weapons program, according to The AP.

“We will appropriately respond to the Trump administration if it approaches the North Korea-U.S. summit meeting with a truthful intent to improve relations,” Kim Kye Gwan said, adding: “But we are no longer interested in a negotiation that will be all about driving us into a corner and making a one-sided demand for us to give up our nukes, and this would force us to reconsider whether we would accept the North Korea-U.S. summit meeting.”

[Politico]