Economists who fled North Korea on the significance of special economic zones

South Korea’s blueprint for railroad links through North Korea to China and Russia falls well short of Kim Jong Un’s vision for developing his impoverished nation, according to a defector who provides economic research to the government in Seoul.

Defector Kim Byeong-uk, 55, teaches North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul and runs a small private economic research firm. Kim’s research firm interviews defectors to gather information about facilities ranging from factories to schools and hospitals. Kim said: “What South Korea wants is to connect the Korean Peninsula to reach out directly to Russia and China, but what the North primarily wants is to shore up its own economy by bringing in more money from overseas to its special economic zones.”

Kim Jong Un has increased the number of special economic zones more than fivefold to 27 since succeeding his father as North Korea’s leader in 2011. While the regime in Pyongyang has focused on military and nuclear deterrence to ensure its survival, the time may have arrived for boosting the economy.

Kim’s wife, Kim Young-hui, who is a specialist on the North at the Korea Development Bank in Seoul, concurs with his view that most of economic zones in the North remain severely underdeveloped. “North Korea is dying to see an inflow of multinational and U.S. companies to its economic zones,” she said. “If Americans go to North Korea and start living there, then there’s virtually no chance that the U.S. would attack it or start lobbing bombs there. What could be a better security guarantee than having U.S. citizens in the country?”

She and her husband made their way to Mongolia before defecting to South Korea with their two sons.

[The Japan Times]

US retorts “The world is a gangster” after North Korea’s accusations

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday shrugged off North Korean accusations of “gangster-like” behavior and said sanctions on Pyongyang would only be lifted with “final” denuclearization.

Speaking in Tokyo after two days of intense discussions in Pyongyang, Pompeo insisted the talks were making progress and were being conducted in “good faith.”

In stark contrast, Pyongyang’s take was overwhelmingly negative, with the North warning that the future of the peace process was being jeopardized by overbearing US demands for its unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Speaking privately, US officials suggested the harshly-worded North Korean reaction was a negotiating tactic. But after two days of theatrical amity in Pyongyang it illustrated the gulf that remains between the two sides.

Pompeo said his efforts to push the North on disarmament had the backing of the entire international community.”If those requests were gangster-like, the world is a gangster, because there was a unanimous decision at the UN Security Council about what needs to be achieved,” he said.

Why these North Korean defectors are learning English

Yoon-ho: “I took a leave of absence from my university because I was struggling with classes, mainly because of English. I had also applied for some opportunities abroad, but I was rejected because my English wasn’t good enough.”

Sunhee: “Some people think that because I am studying hair design and working in a beauty salon that I don’t need English, but that is not true. I have attended many workshops and career fairs where it is clear that you need English. I am at the final stage of a competition for an internship abroad for which there will be an individual English interview.”

Hyunhee: “My major is nursing, and there is so much English terminology that I must learn. When it is time for discussion in my university classes, I am quiet because I don’t have confidence to say anything in English. It is so stressful because next semester I will have three classes in English.”

Hea-young: “I remember the moment that I decided I would learn English. I was at church, a foreigner greeted me. But I could not reply, even the word “hello” was stuck in my brain but could not come out of my lips. I was thinking, “I escaped from North Korea where I was taught that foreigners are dangerous, but I was with some foreigners trying to talk to me, but I can’t communicate at even a basic level.”

Mikyung: “I saw Yeonmi Park give a speech at an international event. ….At that moment, I decided I would focus on English.”

[Korea Times]

North Korean defectors caution US against Kim Jong Un’s deceptive strategies

In the weeks since his landmark summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Donald Trump has maintained that “all of Asia is thrilled”. One constituency, however, that does not share the US president’s enthusiasm are those who have lived and suffered under the regime in Pyongyang, who are increasingly convinced the bout of diplomacy is smoke and mirrors and the young marshal will never abandon his arsenal of nuclear weapons.

“So many people are delusional right now. Kim Jong Un only wants economic support”, said Hyeonseo Lee, high profile North Korean defector.

“Kim Jong Un will never, ever denuclearize,” said Park Mija, who fled North Korea during the first year of Mr Kim’s reign in 2012.

Criticisms of the US and South Korea — once standard fare in state media — have disappeared in recent months, raising hopes that genuine change is afoot. But Choi Jung-hoon, a former North Korean army officer now in the South, said: “The current rapprochement is just a show for Kim and a political strategy for Trump in the run-up to the US midterm elections in November.”

Park Sang-hak, a North Korean who runs an activist group in Seoul, echoes the sentiment, saying Mr Trump’s attitude will change once the elections are over. “I believe if Mr. Pompeo fails to persuade the North to pursue complete denuclearization, the Pentagon will deal with the matter,” he said.

Ms Lee stressed that despite her doubts, she hoped diplomacy would win and that North Korea would genuinely seek to denuclearize and build its economy. “I hope I am wrong,” she said, “so that I can go home.”

 [Financial Times]

The intel file on Kim Jong-un

Over the past decade, allied intelligence agencies have pieced together a profile of the young Kim Jong-un from extensive interviews with teachers, students, food preparers, and other staff at the elite Swiss boarding school that Kim attended during his adolescence, according to a source who has carefully studied the classified binder on Kim.

“The picture that emerged from literally dozens of interviews bears a striking similarity with the man he has emerged into today,” the source said. “Gluttonous, prone to fits of anger and swaggering around his classmates. Kim Jong-un was an in-attendant student but demanded slavish loyalty from other children in his wake.”

“He was prone to violence,” the source added. “He had a couple of young guys who were with him” at the Swiss boarding school, and “he hit them frequently.”

The binder describes the young Kim making vague and grand declarations to his classmates — for example, after games he would say, in the source’s recollection, “Someday you will all remember me.”

Other reports indicate Kim was described as shy, and a good student while attending school in Switzerland, who got along well with his classmates, in addition to being a huge NBA basketball fan. (Kim Jong-un’s school friends recalled he “spent hours doing meticulous pencil drawings of Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan.”)

Although the classified binder indicates, “[Kim Jong-un] didn’t do well in school, as he was distracted a lot,” the classes Kim attended at international schools in Switzerland would have been taught in English. So he can read, write, and probably speak English. He also speaks German and French.

An unsubstantiated source adds: “To my knowledge, Kim Jong Un speaks Korean, English, German, French, Turkish and very likely also speaks Mandarin which his grandfather was fluent in. From all that I have read or learned Kim is what would be termed a polymath as he also has a passion for maths & physics. I would personally expect his IQ knocks the socks off most western politicians, not to mention the President of the United States.”

[Axios/Quora]

Trump to hold Round 2 with Kim Jong Un in NYC?

Some Trump administration officials are so optimistic about making progress with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un that they hope a Round 2 with President Trump can be held in New York in September, when world leaders pour into Trump’s hometown for the U.N. General Assembly.

The possibility would be for Trump to hold out a Round 2 meeting as a carrot to encourage real movement by North Korea over the summer. Kim would have to show progress for the meeting to occur.

Regardless of whether Kim gets another meeting with the leader of the free world just three months after the Singapore summit, the U.S. is giving him more time to begin denuclearizing despite new doubts about North Korea’s good faith.

  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit Pyongyang this week to press denuclearization, the Financial Times reported. Look for a win by Pompeo on securing the return of remains of U.S. soldiers killed during the Korean War.
  • Asked by Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business whether to expect North Korea to reveal the specifics of its facilities within the next several weeks, President Trump said: “I think they’re very serious about it. I think they want to do it. We have a very good chemistry.”
  • But national security adviser John Bolton sounded cautious on CBS’ “Face the Nation“: “We’re very well aware of North Korea’s patterns of behavior over decades of negotiating with the United States. … There’s not any starry-eyed feeling among the group doing this.”

[Axios]

Red Cross tackles humanitarian needs in North Korea

The Red Cross is one of few humanitarian organizations working in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as North Korea is formally called. Their work is based on its seven fundamental principles: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality.

One of the challenges the country is facing is access to clean water. Many people fetch water in the river or struggle with shallow wells. Overall, there are six million people who suffer from a lack of clean water and improved sanitation.

“The humanitarian situation is worrying with over ten million people in need of humanitarian assistance. As political processes continue, we hope there is space for discussions to include the importance of improved humanitarian cooperation,” says Åsa Sandberg, Head of Desk at the Swedish Red Cross.

Åsa was moved by the kindness extended to her wherever she went. “I sat down with people in the villages to better understand their needs. They get by with very few means, but possess such resilience and dignity. … An elderly couple that I met had difficulty getting access to safe water from the well near their home, and for years they struggled with buckets, sometimes finding only a few drops of water. Now we have installed a water management system in their house, and they won’t have to worry about clean drinking water anymore. It was a joy to hear how well it works,” adds Åsa.

Another challenge for people living in the country is food insecurity and lack of a varied diet. “The Red Cross is keen to help in a long-term and sustainable way. That is why we support greenhouses where both vegetables and tree plants are cultivated. The vegetables are nutritious and will make the diet more varied for the vulnerable groups that we support. The tree plants will be used to build up protection of land, reduce soil erosion and prevent floods.”

[International Federation of Red Cross And Red Crescent Societies]

North Korea skips its annual anti-US rally

In another sign of detente following the summit between leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, North Korea has decided to skip one of the most symbolic and politically charged events of its calendar: the annual “anti-U.S. imperialism” rally marking the start of the Korean War.

Fist-pumping, flag-waving and slogan-shouting masses of Pyongyang residents normally assemble each year, culminating on July 27, for the rally to kick off a month of anti-U.S., Korean War-focused events designed to strengthen nationalism and unity. Last year’s event was attended by a reported 100,000 people. North Korea even issued special anti-U.S. postage stamps.

Associated Press staff in the North Korean capital confirmed Monday that it would not be held this year.

North Korea has noticeably toned down its anti-Washington rhetoric over the past several months to create a more conciliatory atmosphere. Then North Korea’s state media were filled with reports, photos and video of the June 12 meeting between Trump and Kim in Singapore.

A 42-minute documentary-style news special was aired on the state television network two days after the summit and has been repeated frequently since, meaning that by now there are probably few North Koreans who are unaware of the changes in the air.

North Korea’s decidedly less strident posture these days underscores the delicate position it finds itself in after decades of touting the United States as its archenemy. The 1950-53 Korean War, and the devastation the country suffered at the hands of the U.S. and its allies, remain a major part of every North Korean’s education.

[Yahoo News]

US-based group sowed seeds of peace in North Korea through agricultural assistance

President Donald Trump’s historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un produced a thaw in relations between the two countries but the communist regime continues to face international sanctions and food shortage problems.

However, one U.S.-based non-profit organization that has been partnering for 20 years with North Korean farmers to help them increase food production is starting to see results.

“Production has been increasing over the last five years because of changes in agriculture,” said Linda Lewis, country director for DPRK at American Friends Service Committee, a Philadelphia-based Quaker organization that has worked with and in North Korea on agricultural and economic issues for several decades.

North Korea’s agriculture is centrally managed and based mostly on cooperative farms while a smaller portion are state industrial farms operated as government enterprises. The average farm in the country has nearly 3,000 people and gets its marching orders of what will be grown usually from the government.

Lewis said there have been reforms by North Korea in the past several years that have allowed farmers “more local discretion and individual control over decisions on allocated pieces of land.” The government also allows farmers to sell or barter food when there’s a surplus beyond certain production targets. At the same time, changes in the management of agriculture by the government in the last five years have produced what Lewis calls “more resilience in the face of droughts.”

Lewis said AFSC has operated a program on the ground in North Korea continuously since 1998 focused on increasing agricultural production. Specifically, the group’s goal is greater production of corn and boosting the productivity of rice farming.

[CNBC]

Why the food insecurity of North Korea?

28 percent of North Korean children are stunted — abnormally short for their age, a condition that the World Health Organization calls the “largely irreversible outcome of inadequate nutrition and repeated bouts of infection during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life.”

The roots of what is known as “food insecurity” lie partly in the geography and climate of the country. Mountains cover most of the nation, leaving few places to farm. North Korea is also beset by widespread erosion and frequent drought. In addition, many of the country’s farmers do not have access to modern agricultural machinery like tractors and combines.

Around 30 percent of the country’s food comes from external sources. Foreign aid provides a good portion of that 30 percent, but funding for aid programs has been getting scarce. A report released this month by the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP), which relies on donations from the governments of member nations, reveals it only has $15 million to address the $50 million yearly need in North Korea.

Current sanctions allow exemptions for humanitarian food aid, but Lewis says the process of getting a humanitarian exemption is cumbersome and intimidating. “It’s really hard to be sure you’re in compliance, particularly with the U.S. Treasury regulations,” C. Jerry Nelson, professor emeritus of plant sciences at the University of Missouri in Columbia explains. “Donors are put off, vendors are put off by these restrictions. It’s just easier not to get involved.”

David Orr, communications officer for the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP), agrees that donors are leery. In an emailed statement to NPR, Orr wrote that “the legal and political consequences of the sanctions have resulted in UN member states, private companies and individuals exercising greater caution, or reluctance, when engaging with WFP and the UN system in general.”

Up to 195,000 kindergarten-aged schoolchildren will lose food aid this year after WFP suspended a program offering “supplemental nutrition” in November 2017 due to lack of funding.

“It’s impossible to talk about food security in North Korea without talking about their odious songbun system, the social control mechanism by which they stratify the nation into different social classes,” Eberstadt Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist at the American Enterprise Institute argues.

Songbun refers to a longstanding system of state-sponsored discrimination. Large numbers of people in North Korea — mostly urban citizens who can’t grow their own food — consistently rely on government-issued rations. How much you get is determined by your family’s perceived loyalty to the state. If your grandfather fought the Japanese in the 1940s or worked in a factory, your rations are likely to be relatively generous. But if your grandfather was a lawyer or a merchant, your rations are comparatively meager. Given this system, “it’s hardly surprising that there should be rampant malnutrition in North Korea,” Eberstadt says.

[NPR]