Information, interaction and engagement with North Korea

Many North Korean defectors are a far cry from the images that usually make their way out of the tightly controlled nation: expressionless North Koreans lockstepping in military parades and extravagantly choreographed public performances.

In fact, many refugees who escaped to Seoul describe a North Korea that is being transformed, if very slowly, by greater access to the outside world.

Hak Min, who grew up a North Korean town near the Chinese border, picked up on TV signals from China and bootleg videotapes and DVDs, that sparked his desire to escape. “Their culture, their language — everything intrigued me.”

As tensions rise with President Trump over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, many analysts believe information — rather than military force — can be the key to bring about change in North Korean society from the inside..

While the regime’s nuclear and military threat must be taken seriously, an overly confrontational approach by Trump plays into dictator Kim Jong-un’s hands, said Sokeel Park, country director of Liberty in North Korea, an organization that helps rescue and resettle refugees.

“North Korea is strong on traditional security stuff,” Park said. “That’s what they want us to focus on, that’s what they bring the attention to, and then we play right into it. Whereas they’re very weak on their soft underbelly of economy, information, society, culture. For not a lot of money, we could do a lot better on various forms of interaction, engagement, and information access programs.”

[USA Today]

North Korea launches missile over Japan

In a major show of defiance to the international community, North Korea fired a ballistic missile over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido Friday.

The launch is the second to fly over Japan in less than a month, and the first since North Korea’s sixth nuclear test and new United Nations sanctions on the country.

North Korean state media has yet to reference the launch, but a commentary published in the Rodong Sinmun newspaper Friday said “no matter how strong the pressure is, it doesn’t work on us.”

Tokyo and Washington will be seeking to up that pressure at the United Nations Friday, with the two governments calling a snap meeting of the Security Council for Friday afternoon, ahead of the General Assembly next week.

Initial US assessments suggested North Korea fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile, similar to that fired over Japan last month. The missile flew about 3,700 kilometers (2,300 miles) and reached an altitude of 770 kilometers (480 miles) before landing in the Pacific Ocean. Friday’s missile flew the furthest of any North Korean intermediate-range missiles.

[CNN]

Seoul’s assassination threat against Kim Jong-un

Reports that South Korea, in the wake of North Korea’s dramatic 3 September test of a massive thermonuclear bomb, has approved plans to establish a special forces unit to assassinate Kim Jong-un appear to signal a sharp change of direction in the foreign policy of South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in.

Why would a progressive politician elected in May on a platform of engagement with the North and who, just a few months ago in Berlin in July, talked confidently of establishing a “permanent peace regime” on the peninsula, of avoiding the “collapse” of North Korea and “easing its security and economic concerns”, suddenly shift gears and appear to embrace aggressive regime change?

Seoul’s leaders are terrified by the apparent failure of military deterrence, and the inability of Donald Trump, through his confident “fire and fury” rhetoric, to stop Pyongyang from pressing ahead rapidly with its aggressive military modernization campaign.

More missile tests are a certainty and in the last day there have been reports of new activity at the North’s nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri that suggest a seventh nuclear test may be being prepared.

Only by scaring Kim Jong-un into believing his life may be in imminent danger can Seoul hope to offset this risk by persuading the North to pause its tests and engage in constructive dialogue. But how realistic is such a threat?

[BBC]

North Korean labor camp experience

North Korea has been known to imprison its citizens for so-called crimes that include anything from speaking badly about the regime and its leader, Kim Jong Un, to distributing South Korean media or stealing rice.

Jun Heo was just a teenager when he was sent to one of North Korea’s prison camps. He told Fox News he would be beaten black and blue and tortured constantly. Cries and screams were a constant backdrop and prisoners were forced to perform hard labor for 14 hours straight.

A former camp guard, identified as Ahn Myong-chol, echoed the reports of brutal beatings, saying he and other guards were encouraged to view the prisoners as sub-human, and strike them repeatedly as punishment, according to the report.

Prisoners were assigned to intensive labor such as coal mining and cement making, and they often died due to work-related accidents. An unconfirmed report also indicated a nuclear test site was being constructed in a prison, the State Department said.

A report released by the Transnational Justice Working Group in Seoul in July explained that public executions carried out on “criminals” in schoolyards and fish markets in an attempt to instill an “atmosphere of fear” among the citizens.

[Fox News]

“We had already decided to kill ourselves rather than be sent back” to North Korea

North Koreans who escape from Kim Jong Un’s regime, by way of China, embark on a grueling journey that–best-case scenario–involves traveling almost 2,700 miles on buses, motorbikes and boats, in taxis and on foot over mountains.

For most, the journey will first pass through China, Vietnam and Laos, where they must be on the alert for police who might arrest them and send them back the way they came–to certain and brutal punishment in North Korea. Not until they cross a fourth frontier from Laos into Thailand are they finally safe.

The Thai authorities do not send them back. Instead, they will slap them with a minor immigration violation and alert the South Korean Embassy in Bangkok, which will start the process of transferring them to Seoul – not far from where many started their journey.

“I want to learn all about computers,” said a 15-year-old boy who had arrived in Thailand from Laos, just 12 days after escaping from North Korea. “I want to become a computer expert.”

“I want to be good at computers too,” chimed in his 8-year-old sister, who was playing with an imitation Barbie that a humanitarian worker had given her on arrival in Thailand. It was the first doll she had ever owned.

The brother and sister are two of the 11 North Koreans recovering from the last leg of their terrifying journey out of North Korea, which started with a dead-of-night escape across the water into China and culminated in a boat ride across a swollen Mekong, which washed them way downstream from where they were supposed to be dropped. After they had spent hours in the rain, not knowing where they were, the activist who had helped them escape finally found them.

[The Washington Post]

UN Security Council approves new North Korea sanctions

The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously on Monday to impose a new set of sanctions against North Korea after the United States compromised with Russia and China who opposed an even harder line sought by the Trump administration.

The new sanctions set a cap on crude and refined oil exports to North Korea at 8.5 million barrels per year, which represents a 30 percent reduction. The sale of natural gas will be prohibited and refined petroleum sales will be capped at 2 million barrels annually. The Security Council resolution also bans all North Korea textile exports, worth an average of $760 million over the past three years. The sanctions also prohibit nations from authorizing new work permits to North Korean citizens around the world. More than 90,000 North Korean workers employed abroad bring the regime about a half billion dollars a year.

But these measures fall short of the stronger sanctions the U.S. called for after the Pyongyang regime detonated its sixth and most powerful nuclear device last week. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley had pressed for a total oil embargo. She also called for direct penalties, such as an asset freeze and global travel ban, against North Korean leader Kim Young Un. But that proposal was a hard sell to the Russians and Chinese, who hold veto power in the Security Council.

China, North Korea’s top trading partner, is not eager to endorse sanctions that could undermine Pyongyang stability and cause millions of refugees to cross its border.

[NPR]

US sanctions resolution on North Korea watered down before UN vote

North Korea has said it will inflict “the greatest pain and suffering” on the US if it continues to call for fresh sanctions in response to the regime’s sixth nuclear test last week.

As the UN security council prepared to meet later on Monday, the US reportedly watered down its sanctions resolution in the hope of winning support from China and Russia, which have voiced doubts over tougher measures.

The US had initially called for a halt to oil exports to North Korea and a freeze on the assets of its leader, Kim Jong-un.

On Monday, diplomats said the assets freeze had been dropped from the revised draft resolution, and the oil embargo replaced with a proposal to gradually reduce oil exports.

[The Guardian]

Merkel offers German role in Iran-style nuclear talks with North Korea

Chancellor Angela Merkel has offered German participation in any future nuclear talks with North Korea and suggested that the 2015 agreement with Iran could serve as a model for negotiations.

The chancellor’s intervention reflects growing alarm in Europe that Donald Trump is worsening one nuclear crisis by repeated threats to use military force against North Korea, and seeking to trigger a second one by torpedoing the Iran deal to which Germany, France and the UK are among the signatories.

“If our participation in talks is desired, I will immediately say yes,” Merkel told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung in an interview published on Sunday.

She pointed to the example of the agreement sealed in Vienna in July 2015 by Iran, the five permanent members of the UN security council and Germany, describing it as “a long but important time of diplomacy” that ultimately had a good end.

“I could imagine such a format being used to end the North Korea conflict. Europe and especially Germany should be prepared to play a very active part in that,” Merkel said.

In exchange for sanctions relief under the Vienna deal, Iran accepted strict limits on its nuclear programme as a reassurance to the international community that it could never build a bomb. North Korea, on the other hand, is believed to already have a nuclear arsenal which it insists is not up for negotiation.

[The Guardian]

Kim Jong Un’s power is growing say North Korea defectors

More and more North Korean defectors in the South think Kim Jong Un is strengthening his grip on power, and more than a quarter of those surveyed think Kim’s rule will continue for at least 30 years.

According to the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, a recent survey indicates more defectors are less confident the Kim regime is weakening, South Korean newspaper Munhwa Ilbo reported.

At the same time, nearly 70 percent of those surveyed said they think Kim is doing his job poorly, an indication the North Korean ruler has been able to consolidate his position without necessarily gaining the approval of the people.

But Suh Bo-hyuk, the South Korean researcher who oversaw the survey, said Kim had proved himself by growing the economy despite his pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The survey also shows more defectors are less confident about prospects for unification. More than half of the respondents, or 55.7 percent, said they “believed unification to be impossible” when they lived in the North. Only 26 percent said they think unification is possible “within 10 years,” significantly down from 45 percent in 2016, according to the research.

[UPI]