North Korean foreign minister heads to Sweden amid summit speculation

North Korea’s foreign minister was flying to Sweden on Thursday, the Swedish government said, in the first significant diplomatic move by Pyongyang since US President Donald Trump said a week ago that he’d be willing to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Sweden, whose embassy represents US interests in the North Korean capital, has been touted as a possible venue for the momentous summit between Kim and Trump, and the visit will fuel speculation that a Stockholm encounter is in the cards.

Talks will take place between Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom and her North Korean counterpart, Ri Yong Ho. As North Korea’s top diplomat, Ri is one of the most visible faces of a country shrouded in secrecy. He made headlines last year by telling reporters that Kim could order a hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific Ocean in response to insults from Trump. He also said Trump was “mentally deranged” and likened his threats to “a dog barking.”

The trip to Sweden comes as Nirj Deva, the chair of a European parliamentary delegation, told reporters that his group has been holding secret meetings with senior members of the North Korean regime over the past three years to try to convince it to return to peace talks.

Sweden is one of a handful of places analysts believe could host the meeting, with other possible summit locations including: Switzerland, the neutral nation where Kim went to school; the Joint Security Area in the demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea; and China, which has diplomatic relations with the United States and North Korea and has hosted Kim’s father, the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Regardless of where the summit happens, if it happens, Trump would become the first sitting US President to meet with a North Korean leader.


European Parliament has been in ‘secret’ talks with North Korea for 3 years

A European Parliament delegation said Wednesday it has been conducting secret talks with North Korea over the last three years to try to persuade Pyongyang to negotiate an end to its nuclear programme.

The group led by British MEP Nirj Deva has met senior North Korean officials, including ministers, 14 times and plans another meeting in Brussels in the near future. News of the below-the-radar diplomacy effort comes after the surprise announcement that US President Donald Trump plans a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, part of fast-paced developments following an Olympic detente.

Deva said he and his colleagues on the European Parliament Delegation for Relations with the Korean Peninsula had been “relentlessly advocating the case for dialogue without preconditions” to end the increasingly tense nuclear standoff with the North.

The group also met senior officials in the US, China, Japan and South Korea, Deva said, for dialogue aimed at achieving a “verifiable denuclearized Korean peninsula. We told them in no uncertain terms that if they carry on with the missile programme and the nuclear bomb programme they will only lead to an inevitable conclusion which is unthinkable,” Deva said.

Deva said that from his meetings he believed the tough sanctions the EU has in place against North Korea had been an important factor in driving Pyongyang to agree to talks. “Part of the reason that this happened was the sanctions started to bite poor people – not the elite,” he said.

[The Telegraph]

North Korea talks sans Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired on Twitter after returning from an Africa trip in which he was out of the loop on North Korean talks and contradicted the White House position on Russia’s responsibility for poisoning a former double agent in the United Kingdom.

Tillerson had engaged with North Korea even when the president said — again via Twitter — that he was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.”

Now, Trump is heading into an unprecedented face-to-face meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un over that country’s nuclear program. The timing of Tillerson’s dismissal was designed to allow Trump to put a new team in place in advance of those talks, said a White House official speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss a personnel decision.

Trump’s new nominee to head the State Department is CIA director Mike Pompeo, a hard-liner on Iran and North Korea who is much more in line with Trump’s more militant instincts.

[USA Today]

7 things to understand about Trump talks with North Korea

President Trump has accepted North Korea’s invitation for direct talks with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, to be held by May. Seven things to consider:

  1. Short-term, it reduces the risk of war.
  2. Mismatched signals may have set up the talks to fail. – Usually, before high-level talks like these, both sides spend a long time telegraphing their expected outcomes. That is not really how things have proceeded with the United States and North Korea. Mr. Trump has already committed to granting North Korea one of its most desired concessions: a high-level meeting between the heads of state. Further, Mr. Trump has declared “denuclearization” as his minimal acceptable outcome for talks, making it harder for him to accept a more modest (but more achievable!) outcome and costlier for him to walk away. The North Koreans can walk away more freely, while the Americans will be more desperate to come home with some sort of win. It’s a formulation that puts the Americans at significant disadvantage before talks even begin.
  3. The sides do not agree on the point of talking. – Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based analyst, writes in a column in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that “denuclearization” means vastly different things to the United States and North Korea. Americans understand the word as describing North Korea’s full nuclear disarmament, which is very difficult to imagine happening. But North Koreans, she writes, tend to mean it as a kind of mutual and incremental disarmament in which the United States also gives up weapons.
  4. The Trump administration has gotten the process backward. – It’s practically an axiom of international diplomacy that you only bring heads of state together at the very end of talks, after lower-level officials have done the dirty work. Victor Cha, a well-respected North Korea expert, warns in a New York Times Op-Ed essay, “Failed negotiations at the summit level leave all parties with no other recourse for diplomacy.”
  5. The State Department is in a shambles, with no American ambassador to South Korea, or undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.
  6. Everything could turn on President Trump’s personality. Talks and their outcome will be determined, to an unprecedented degree, by Mr. Trump’s personal biases and impulses. By his mood at the time of talks. By his particular style of negotiation.
  7. North Korea has already achieved a symbolic victory. – For North Korea, high-level talks are a big win in their own right. Kim Jong-un seeks to transform his country from a rogue pariah into an established nuclear power, a peer to the United States, a player on the international stage. This wins Mr. Kim international acknowledgment and heightened status, as well as significant domestic credibility.

[Read full New York Times opinion]

A North Korean’s unexpected challenges in the South: Ditching the accent

When Ken Eom fled North Korea in 2010 to South Korea, he was astonished by how much a shared Korean language and culture had split after decades of war and division. Not only did this free and modern Korea look different than the only Korea he ever knew, the language in the South sounded at times bewildering.

His Northern inflection struck his co-Koreans as foreign, a telltale sign that also led to problems in the South. “I could understand maybe 70 per cent” of the Korean conversations on the streets of Seoul, Eom, 37, said recently in an interview at an English school in the South Korean capital. “But on the different side, the South Koreans couldn’t understand me! They couldn’t understand our language.”

Unless a defector spent time living near Pyongyang or another city close to South Korea’s border, Eom said, a Northern accent — faster, more clipped and with a “spiky, up-down” intonation — could be so thick that South Koreans would have trouble picking up half the speaker’s words.

Ostensibly safe in the South, Eom found himself contending with accent discrimination. Eom recalled phoning a gas station to inquire about job openings. The prospective employer, detecting an accent, cut him off and asked if Eom was from China. “I said, ‘Uh, I’m not Chinese people. I’m actually North Korean,'” Eom said. The gas station manager made it clear he wasn’t interested.

It’s common among defectors in their 20s and 30s to try to erase any traces of their North Korean backgrounds upon arriving to South Korea, in an effort to neutralize potential stigma associated with being raised in the regime, said Eom, now a graduate student studying policy analysis at Korea University.


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.


US imposes yet more North Korea sanctions

The United States said on Friday it was imposing its largest package of sanctions to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear missile program, and President Donald Trump warned of a “phase two” that could be “very, very unfortunate for the world” if the steps did not work.

The U.S. Treasury sanctions’ targets include a Taiwanese passport holder, as well as shipping and energy firms in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. The actions block assets held by the firms and individuals in the United States and prohibit U.S. citizens from dealing with them. The U.S. Treasury said the sanctions were designed to disrupt North Korean shipping and trading companies and vessels and further isolate Pyongyang.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the new sanctions would help prevent North Korea from skirting restrictions on trade in coal and other fuel through “evasive maritime activities.” Last month three Western European intelligence sources told Reuters that North Korea shipped coal to Russia last year and that it was then delivered to South Korea and Japan in a likely violation of U.N. sanctions.

Mnuchin said the number of sanctions steps taken by the United States against Pyongyang since 2005 was now 450, with approximately half imposed in the last year.

“The only thing missing here today is action against Chinese banks,” Jonathan Shanzer of the Washington think tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies said. “We know they continue to undermine our efforts to isolate North Korea.”


Secret meeting between US and North Korea canceled

When US Vice President Pence departed for a five-day, two-country swing through Asia earlier this month an agreement was in place for a secret meeting with North Korean officials, while in South Korea at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

But on Feb. 10, less than two hours before Pence and his team were to meet with Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and Kim Yong Nam, North Korea’s nominal head of state, the North Koreans pulled out of the scheduled meeting, according to Pence’s office.

The North Korean decision to withdraw from the meeting came after Pence used his trip to denounce the North’s nuclear ambitions and announce the “toughest and most aggressive” sanctions yet against the regime, while also taking steps to further solidify the U.S. alliance with Japan and South Korea.

The cancellation also came as Kim Jong Un, through his sister, invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang to begin talks “soon” — a development that would be likely to cause consternation in Washington.

The vice president’s office promoted his trip as an effort to combat what it said was North Korea’s plan to use the Winter Games for propaganda purposes and portrayed the cancellation of the meeting as evidence his mission was a success.

The meeting — which Pence had coyly teased en route to Asia, saying, “We’ll see what happens” — had been two weeks in the making. It began to take shape when the CIA got word that the North Koreans wanted to meet with Pence when he was on the Korean Peninsula, according to a senior White House official. A second official said the initiative for the meeting came from South Korea, which acted as an intermediary to set up the meeting.

[The Washington Post]

South Korea puts brakes on hopes for quick talks with North Korea

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Saturday it was too early to talk about hosting a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, hinting he would not rush the matter.

“There are high expectations and our hearts seem to be getting impatient. It is like the old saying, seeking a scorched-rice water from a well,” Moon told journalists in Pyeongchang after being asked whether he planned to hold a summit with North Korea. The proverb translates to rushing into something without fully understanding the consequences.

South Korean President Moon receives Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

At the time of the Olympic invitation, Moon hailed the progress that had already been made in advancing inter-Korean talks. “I hope that this will lead to an improvement in inter-Korean relations — not only inter-Korean relations, but we also believe that there has been slowly, but gradually, a growing consensus on the need for dialogue between the United States and North Korea,” he said.


North Korea’s cheerleaders human olive branches

The North Korean cheerleaders have arrived. The presence at the Winter Olympics of the all-female squad of cheerleaders — 229 strong, as part of the larger North Korean delegation — has been politically charged, provoking divided reactions among spectators at the Games and those watching from afar.

The cheerleaders have been praised as human olive branches, a preliminary way to ease tensions during the current nuclear crises. They have been criticized as singing, dancing spearheads of a strategic North Korean propaganda campaign at the Games.

In this very public bubble, they have been the source of endless, intense curiosity. And in their sheer numbers and with the surreal scenes they have created, they have garnered a level of attention — in competition venues and in the news media — that would make most Olympic athletes envious.

Han Seo-hee, 35, a North Korean defector to the South, who was picked to be a cheerleader 16 years ago, said squad members were drawn from various performance troupes around the capital. She said many, herself included, belonged to a band associated with the Ministry of People’s Security, a national law enforcement agency, which she joined after high school. Though it was not a year-round job, the women could be called in for months of full-time training before a major event.

Han explained the selection criteria: “Those who are well assimilated to the North Korean regime, those who are exemplars of working collectively, those who are from the right families, and of course those who meet the height and age standards,” she said.

“The countries have been divided for so long, and it’s my first time seeing people from the North, so it’s cool,” said Yoon Jin-ha, 16, a student from Seoul attending the game on Monday with her mother. Referring to a growing indifference toward reunification among younger South Koreans, she added, “We think that unification is not that important of a thing, but being this close to them tonight has made me really understand that we are the same people.”

“They look very pretty,” said Hyun Myeong-Hwa, 58, of Cheongju, South Korea, who filmed the women. But she had mixed feelings, too. For a moment she rubbernecked like everyone else. “I do understand the negative criticisms about them being here,” she added. “But I think we should be positive and open-minded about them. We are the same people.”

[New York Times]