The last Americans in North Korea: Christian missionaries

The work of humanitarian groups has resurrected tough questions about giving aid to despot nations, a debate centered on whether assistance to the needy frees up state resources for corrupt purposes. In North Korea, the question is whether the help allows the regime to spend more money on nuclear arms that threaten the U.S. and its allies.

U.N. aid to North Korea has shrunk to $39 million, around a tenth of its 2001 total. A handful of U.S. Christian groups provide roughly $10 million in aid a year, public documents show. The groups navigate international sanctions and a U.S. travel ban to serve as one of the last channels of help for North Korea’s many poor, particularly its children, elderly and sick.

When Chris Rice 57, a Christian aid worker from North Carolina, arrived in Pyongyang, he found some of his peers staying at the same hotel. One was Stephen Linton, 67 years old, from the Eugene Bell Foundation, named for his great grandfather, a Presbyterian who began Korean missionary work in 1895. Rice, 57, runs a South Korea-based humanitarian program for the Mennonite Central Committee.

These humanitarians, eligible for exemptions to the U.S. travel ban, are among the last Americans who engage in face-to-face work between people of the two nations, which over the past year have swung between brinkmanship and, of late, the possibility of talks between the country’s two leaders.

The U.S. travel ban allows humanitarian workers to apply for permission on a case-by-case basis. In practice, the sanctions have made aid work more difficult: Wary of running afoul of sanctions, transport companies are leery of taking goods to the North Korea border, and banks turn down requests to transfer money there, humanitarian workers said. Read more

Billy Graham’s first visit to North Korea in 1992

Christian work in North Korea began around the time of two trips to Pyongyang in the early 1990s by the late evangelical leader Billy Graham. He said he was received with a bear hug from Kim Il Sung, the now-deceased founder of North Korea’s dynastic state and grandfather of Kim Jong Un.

The regime gave its own spin. In 2016, state media reported Mr. Graham had affirmed Kim Il Sung was akin to God, “so perfect in his ideas that North Korea didn’t need the Bible,” which the Graham organization denied was said. (Note that regime founder Kim Il Sung grew up in a Presbyterian home and learned to play the church organ, historians said. He built three showcase churches in Pyongyang.)

In 1995, North Korea made an international call for help to combat famine and became one of world’s biggest recipients of food aid, about a million tons a year. The U.S. gave $1.3 billion in food and energy from 1995 to 2008. Researchers now suspect that North Korea diverted much of its famine-era aid to elites and its military.

Christian aid workers say they are confident their donations reach intended recipients. To deliver the food and medicine, North Korean authorities allow the workers to travel to regions otherwise off limits to foreign visitors.

While North Korea accepts Christian aid, it is no friend of Christianity. The regime sees religion as a threat and has imprisoned Christians for praying and owning a Bible. Preaching is forbidden, yet some aid workers say they talk about their beliefs in private with individuals who ask, despite the risk.

[The Wall Street Journal]

How will John Bolton figure into North Korean talks?

When it comes to controversial selections for national security adviser, there are few more divisive than John Bolton. The former U.N. ambassador’s hawkish politics and belittling public statements have made many bitter enemies over his decades in public life.

Among his most vocal critics is North Korea, an isolated dictatorship tentatively scheduled to hold talks on nuclear disarmament in the coming months — talks on which Bolton will play a key role in advising President Trump.

In August 2003, North Korean state media devoted an entire article to Bolton, personally insulting him by describing him as “human scum and a bloodsucker.” In the same article, a representative of the North Korean Foreign Ministry said that Pyongyang would no longer deal with the Bolton, the then-undersecretary of state for arms control and international security — indeed, Bolton did not attend talks with North Korea that took place the next month. Almost 15 years later, it is unclear whether that ban still stands.

What had he done to incur such personal insults from North Korea?

The context of the time is crucial. In his January 2002 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush had included North Korea in his “axis of evil” along with Iraq and Iran. Bolton visited Seoul at the very end of July 2003. There, he delivered a speech titled “A Dictatorship at the Crossroads” and argued that the United States would demand a complete rollback of North Korea’s nuclear program but offer no concessions in return. During the speech, Bolton personally insulted then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, calling him a “tyrannical dictator” who enjoyed the high life while his citizens suffered deeply, though Bolton later said he did not seek regime change. In the speech, Bolton took much of the standard State Department rhetoric about North Korea, but personalized it so it was about Kim.

A few days later, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency released its article belittling Bolton. “We know that there are several hawks within the present U.S. administration but have not yet found out such rude human scum as Bolton,” an English-language version of the article read. “What he uttered is no more than rubbish which can be let loose only by a beastly man bereft of reason.”

[The Washington Post]

South Korean president floats idea of 3-way summit

South Korean President Moon Jae-in raised the idea of a three-way summit among the two Koreas and the United States, depending on the outcome of a planned North-South summit next month and President Donald Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sometime before the end of May.

Working-level officials from all three countries have been engaging in a flurry of diplomatic meetings with other nations in Asia, Europe and the United States in the past weeks to get a sense of what to expect out of these two sets of bilateral talks.

South Korean envoys to the North, National Security Office Director Chung Eui-yong and National Intelligence Service chief Suh Hoon, made multiple trips to Washington D.C., Beijing, Tokyo and Moscow to deliver Kim’s intentions while North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho, flew to Stockholm to discuss Sweden’s consular role as a protecting power for the United States.

Another senior North Korean diplomat in charge of North American affairs, Choe Kang Il, is in Finland this week for semi-official meetings with former U.S. diplomats, including former U.S. Ambassadors to South Korea Kathleen Stephens and Thomas Hubbard, American academics and security experts from Seoul, according to South Korean news agency Yonhap.

Moon’s preparation committee today also suggested a meeting with North Korea on March 29 to kick-start discussions on details of the inter-Korean talks.

[ABC News]

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 says Kim Jong-un has committed to denuclearization

South Korea’s foreign minister has said that North Korea’s leader has “given his word” that he is committed to denuclearization, a prime condition for a potential summit with President Donald Trump in May.

South Korea’s Kang Kyung-wha said Seoul has asked the North “to indicate in clear terms the commitment to denuclearization” and she says Kim’s “conveyed that commitment.” She told the CBS program Face the Nation that “he’s given his word” and it’s “the first time that the words came directly” from the North’s leader.

Meanwhile, a senior North Korean diplomat arrived in Finland on Sunday for talks with US and South Korean officials about the nuclear summit between Trump and Kim. Choe Kang-il, deputy director for North American affairs at Pyongyang’s foreign ministry, is expected to meet retired US diplomat Kathleen Stephens, according to multiple reports.

The meeting in Finland follows three days of talks between North Korean and Swedish officials in Stockholm that apparently fell short of clearing the way for a US-North Korea summit attended by both nation’s leaders.

[The Guardian]

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.

[CNN]

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]