North Korean defector numbers slumped in 2017

Fewer than 100 North Koreans a month defected to the South last year, the lowest for 15 years as Pyongyang and Beijing both tighten controls on movement. A total of 1,127 North Koreans came to the South last year, down 21 per cent from 2016, according to data from the unification ministry. It was the lowest figure since 2001.

The vast majority of defectors from the impoverished North go first to China. They sometimes stay there for several years before making their way to the South, often via a third country.

Defections across the heavily guarded Demilitarized Zone that divides the Korean peninsula are very rare, but this year there have been four.

Pyongyang has been bolstering border controls since the second half of 2015, putting up more guards and setting up high-tension wires to prevent its citizens from fleeing to its giant neighbor.

“On top of that, China has drastically strengthened crackdowns on North Korean escapees, repatriating them recklessly whenever they find them”, Seo Jae-Pyong, an official of the Association of North Korean Defectors, told AFP.

[AFP]

North Korea accepts South’s offer to meet for talks

Kim Jong Un, to general surprise, announced in his New Year’s Day speech that he was prepared to “melt the frozen north-south relations,” to allow contacts with South Koreans and to discuss North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics to be held in February in South Korea.

US President Trump has tweeted that this would not have happened had he not been “firm, strong and willing to commit our total ‘might’ against the North.” He may be partly right. The single most important factor driving the North Koreans to this decision was probably economic distress.

President Trump’s unpredictability may also have contributed to Pyongyang’s decision. When United Nations Undersecretary-General Jeffrey Feltman visited Pyongyang from December 5 through 8, the North Koreans asked him repeatedly how decisions were made in Washington. They are nervous that the United States is now behaving in ways that they cannot predict and are probably anxious at President Trump’s talk of military action.

Perhaps the immediate trigger was the announcement on December 19 by President Moon Jae-In of South Korea that he had asked the US military to postpone the annual joint US-South Korean exercises until after the Winter Olympics. The North Koreans hate these exercises and have often tried to get them postponed, reduced or canceled, so this may have seemed too good an opportunity to miss. They acted quickly, meeting South Korean officials secretly right at the end of December.

Person-to-person talks between North and South Korea are scheduled to be held next Tuesday — the day after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s birthday — at the Peace House in the village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone.

[CNN]

Kim Jong Un overture could drive wedge between South Korea and USA

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, presented a canny new strategy to initiate direct talks with South Korea in the hope of driving a wedge into its seven-decade alliance with the United States.

Perhaps sensing the simmering tension between President Trump and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, Kim called for an urgent dialogue between the two Koreas before the opening of the Winter Olympics in the South next month.

The strained relationship between the allies has been playing out for months, as Mr. Moon, a liberal, argued for economic and diplomatic openings with the North, even as Mr. Trump has worked hard to squeeze the North with increasingly punishing sanctions. Mr. Moon also angered Mr. Trump and his aides in recent months by suggesting he holds what he called a veto over any American pre-emptive military action against the North’s nuclear program.

Until now Mr. Kim has largely ignored Mr. Moon, whom the North Korean media has portrayed as a spineless lackey of the United States. Kim now sees an opportunity to develop and accentuate the split between Mr. Moon and Mr. Trump, betting that the United States will be unable to mount greater pressure on the North if it does not have South Korean acquiescence. The gambit may work. Hours after Mr. Kim’s speech, Mr. Moon’s office welcomed the North’s proposal, in a way that could further aggravate tensions with the United States.

As part of the overture, Mr. Kim also agreed to a request by Mr. Moon to send a North Korean delegation to the Winter Olympics. The South Korean president is betting that the North is far less likely to disrupt the Olympics, with missile launchings or an act of terrorism, if North Korean athletes are competing.

[New York Times]

The nuclear war tweet heard around the world

The U.S. President ignited a stunning new showdown with North Korea late Tuesday, as Donald Trump boasted to volatile leader Kim Jong Un that he had a “much bigger & more powerful” nuclear weapon.

Trump’s flippant comments about his nuclear prowess — akin to “mine is bigger than yours” schoolyard taunts — raise new questions about whether the President has thought deeply about the awesome destructive power at his command.

His outburst also elevates Kim, leader of an impoverished autocracy using a nuclear program to ensure its survival, to a tit-for-tat confrontation alongside the President of the United States.

“Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” Trump tweeted. The tweet was remarkable not just for its content but for the fact it was generated by a President, the holder of the office that for decades has been the effective guarantor of a US-enforced 70-year era of global peace. Before Trump, no US President has made such public and cavalier threats.

Trump’s gambit is all the more risky since it is likely to alienate US allies, anger key world powers like Russia and China that Washington needs to resolve the standoff and because no one knows how the unpredictable Kim will respond.

“To call it juvenile would be an insult to children,” retired Adm. John Kirby, a former State Department and Pentagon spokesman told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday. “I do think in the halls of the Pentagon and the State Department, there has got to be a lot of concern over this, because he is the President of the United States. His tweets are going to be taken as official policy,” said Kirby, now a CNN analyst. “There is no question they are going to lead to miscalculation and confusion over there.”

[CNN]

US and China joint plan on North Korea

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson let slip last week a few tantalizing details about one of the nation’s most secret military contingency plans: how the United States would try to race inside North Korea to seize its nuclear weapons if it ever saw evidence that Kim Jong-un’s government was collapsing.

For years, American diplomats have been trying to engage their Chinese counterparts in a discussion of this scenario, hoping to avoid a conflict between arriving American Special Forces — who have been practicing this operation for years — and the Chinese military, which would almost certainly pour over the border in a parallel effort.

And for years the Chinese have resisted the conversation, according to several former American officials who tried to engage them in joint planning. The Chinese feared that if news of a conversation leaked, Beijing would be seen as conspiring with the United States over plans for an eventual North Korean collapse, eroding any leverage that Beijing still held over Kim Jong Un.

So it was surprising to Mr. Tillerson’s colleagues when, in a talk to the Atlantic Council last week, he revealed that the Trump administration had already provided assurances to China’s leadership that if American forces landed in North Korea to search for and deactivate nuclear weapons, the troops would do their work and then retreat.

North Korea has defied past predictions of collapse, and one does not appear imminent. But if a collapse were to occur, the aftermath could present grave dangers. American officials have envisioned that North Korean officers, fearing the end of Kim’s government, might lob a nuclear weapon at South Korea or Japan as a last, desperate act — or detonate it on North Korean territory to make occupation impossible.

Mr. Tillerson said at a conference on the Korea crisis that the United States and China “have had conversations about in the event that something happened — it could happen internal to North Korea; it might be nothing that we from the outside initiate — that if that unleashed some kind of instability, the most important thing to us would be securing those nuclear weapons they’ve already developed and ensuring that they — that nothing falls into the hands of people we would not want to have it.”

[New York Times]

UN adopts new tougher sanctions on North Korea

The UN Security Council unanimously adopted a new set of draconian US-drafted sanctions on North Korea that will further strangle its energy supplies and tighten restrictions on smuggling and the use of North Korean workers overseas.

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, claimed that the new sanctions, levied in response to Pyongyang’s November 29 ballistic missile test, went even further than sanctions passed in September that, at the time, were called the toughest yet. “Today, we cut deeper,” Haley said. She said the UN had repeatedly offered Pyongyang a choice and repeatedly, in its continued missile tests, the regime had “chosen the path of isolation.”

Hailing the unity of the Security Council vote and referring to leader Kim Jong Un, Haley said that, “we will continue to match the Kim regime’s choice of aggressive action with actions of international sanctions.” North Korea, she said, is “this most tragic example of evil in the modern world.”

Resolution 2397 cuts exports of gasoline, diesel and other refined oil products by a total of 89%, Haley said. The resolution also bans exports of industrial equipment, machinery, transportation vehicles and industrial metals to North Korea. It requires countries using North Korean laborers to send them back home no later than 24 months from the adoption of the resolution. The resolution also requires countries to stop ships from illegally providing oil to North Korea through ship-to-ship transfers and prohibits them from smuggling North Korean coal and other prohibited commodities by sea.

[CNN]

Two more North Koreans defect directly to South Korea

Two North Korean men defected to South Korea via the East Sea on Wednesday, the South Korean unification ministry (MOU) confirmed to NK News on Thursday.

The men were found in seas roughly 100 km from the Dokdo islets, a ministry spokesperson said, and are two of three North Koreans to reportedly cross into the South in the past two days. They were discovered in a small wooden boat, the spokesperson said, and told the navy that they wanted to defect to South Korea.

A South Korean marine policeperson declined to give further details about the identity of the two escapees, though said they are “not that old.”

2017 has seen 11 defectors come to South Korea by crossing the maritime border between the two countries, the MOU said.

Defections across the inter-Korean border are relatively rare: North Koreans are much more likely to cross at the country’s border with China before seeking asylum in third countries.

[NK News]

Another North Korean soldier defects through DMZ

A North Korean soldier defected to South Korea on Thursday through the heavily guarded demilitarized zone separating the two countries, leading to gunfire on both sides of the border, the South Korean military said.

The “low ranking” soldier was manning a guard post along the DMZ when he fled through thick fog, the South Korean military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

The escape follows a similar one last month, in which another North Korean soldier was shot by his colleagues as he successfully fled his DMZ posting.  In that case, South Korean border guards who heard the gunshots found the soldier 55 yards from the border line that bisects Panmunjom, the so-called truce village in the Joint Security Area, and carried him to safety.

Officials said the soldier who fled Thursday was not fired upon. South Korean soldiers later fired 20 warning shots at North Korean border guards who were searching for the defector, which was followed 40 minutes later by gunfire in the North, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

It is extremely rare for people to flee across the demilitarized zone. The 2.5-mile-wide DMZ, considered the most heavily fortified border in the world, is guarded by minefields, sentry posts and tall fences topped with barbed wire, some electrified.

In a possible sign of worsening conditions in the North, the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said that 15 North Koreans, including the four soldiers, had fled directly to South Korea this year, compared with five people, including one soldier, last year. Most defectors avoid such a perilous crossing to the South, instead fleeing through China.

[New York Times]

Kim Jon Un’s endgame to avoid becoming vulnerable to American pressure

“When I was in Pyongyang, I was with some foreign ministry officials whose job it is, is to read Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, listen to his speeches, try to analyze the American government. And what they said was, ‘Frankly, we’re mystified,” said Evan Osnos, a New Yorker staff writer who traveled to North Korea on assignment for the magazine.

“We can’t figure out if he is, as they put it, irrational or whether he’s proceeding down a subtle strategy that’s leading them to an objective. So, when we send mixed messages, when we send confusing messages, they’re not quite sure what to make of it,” Osnos added.

Michael Morell, former acting and deputy director of the CIA, echoed the idea that mixed messages and threats without follow-through are damaging to any hopes of diplomacy. “You’ve lost a tremendous amount of credibility and I think that the language in that respect is dangerous,” Morell said.

North Korea and Kim Jon Un’s endgame, Osnos said, is to avoid becoming vulnerable to American pressure. “If you ask people in Pyongyang, really cut through what it is that they’re trying to achieve, the thing they return to over and over again, is they want to avoid being Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qaddafi,” Osnos said.

In addition to using nuclear capability as a way to secure themselves from attack, Morell added that there is a possibility they want to use them to become more dominant on the Korean Peninsula.  “Does he want these weapons to try to coerce the United States in South Korea? So in other words, once he has them, will he be more aggressive on the Korean Peninsula? The question is how do you deter that, and that’s more difficult,” Morell said.

[CBS]

South Korea criticized over treatment of North Korean defectors

A United Nations independent expert on alleged North Korean human rights violations was put on the defensive in Seoul Thursday over South Korea’s opaque treatment of defectors.

Tomás Ojea Quintana, an Argentinean human rights lawyer who was appointed in 2016 as the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, held a press conference after wrapping up a four-day visit to South Korea this week. In his statement he mentioned the case of the 12 North Korean women restaurant workers who escaped from China to seek asylum in South Korea in 2016. North Korea has demanded the return of these defectors, charging that they were abducted by South Korean agents.

Quintana said he wanted to meet with meet with the women to independently verify that they had come to the South of their own accord, but was not able to do so. Asked if South Korea denied him access to the women, he was very careful in his response.

“The South Korean government, I would say, is not preventing me to interview them, but there are some limitations in terms of, I would say, organizing the encounter with these women,” said Quintana.

South Korea often will not release any information about defectors, purportedly to protect families of the defectors that are still in North Korea from any government retribution.

[VoA]