How Kim Jong Un has tightened his grip on power

Since succeeding his father in 2011, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has impressed and confounded with his rise from political novice to adept operator.

He has done a remarkable job of consolidating his power and remodeling the country in his own image, says Choi Jong-kun, associate professor at Yonsei University’s Department of Political Science and International Studies in South Korea. “He has reformed the economy far greater than his father, and hugely advanced the country’s nuclear and missile capabilities,” Choi tells CNN

Nick Bisley, executive director at La Trobe University in Melbourne, says security in the form of the nuclear program is a prerequisite to any serious attempt at North Korean economic reform. “Only when they feel confident that they have their nuclear weapons and the security they have with that will we see economic reform,” he says. “The most optimistic (outcome) is that it follows the China model — once secure it follows a China-style economic reform but (even in that case) we won’t see any political reform.”

Consolidating his power has been key to Kim’s rise, and much of this has been done in a brutal, bloody manner. One report from South Korean think tank, the Institute for National Security Strategy, claims he has ordered the executions of at least 340 people since he came to power in 2011 — 140 of whom were senior officers in the country’s government, military and ruling Korean Worker’s Party.

Of all the killings, few have the notoriety of his execution of his uncle by marriage, Jang Song Thaek in 2013. His abrupt removal was a sign Kim was removing the last vestiges of the old guard. With state media declaring Jang a “traitor for all ages,” Kim made sure there was no dissent to the decision.

The reported execution of five deputy minister-level officials in February of this year, who were working under disgraced state security chief Kim Won Hong, suggests that the purges may be still ongoing.


How would South Korea cope with a large influx of North Korean refugees?

Go Myong-Hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul who has researched North Korean refugees in South Korea, says Seoul would struggle to deal with a high number of refugees from the North.

“South Korea’s population is around 50 million,” he said. “A sudden influx of North Korean refugees is going to be incredibly stressful to the social service infrastructure and the labor market in South Korea,” Go says.

Go conducted a study of North Korean refugees in South Korea and found that many of them bring issues of PTSD, a lack of adequate education and poor health. For example, North Korean middle and high school kids dropped out at a range between 4.2 and 7.5 percent between 2010 and 2013 compared to 1.2-1.3 percent among South Korean students during the same time frame.

Attitudes towards South Koreans in the workplace isn’t much better, according to his report: A survey by the Korean Educational Development Institute (KEDI) (2013) showed that out of 429 elementary and middle school North Korean refugee students, 10.7 percent of them reported being discriminated against or socially ostracized due to the fact that they were from North Korea. Fifty-four of them also reported that they would not let their South Korean peers know they came from North Korea if they were given the chance to transfer to a different school.

Similarly, North Korean refugees in the workplace report having similar experience of social discrimination by their co-workers and superiors. For example, one employer whose employee is from North Korea expressed fear that his employee might kill others if provoked emotionally (Choi and Park, 2011). This prejudice stems from hearing or watching news that in North Korea, public executions are common. Even after taking into account the inevitable cultural misunderstandings in when dealing with recently arrived North Korean refugees, South Koreans’ strong prejudice and stereotyping of North Korea and its people are widespread and well entrenched.

[Foxtrot Alpha]

North Korea strongly criticizes its staunch ally China

North Korean state media warned Thursday Beijing was crossing a “red line” in its relationship with Pyongyang, in a rare criticism of its closest ally.

A commentary in the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun vowed North Korea would not give up its nuclear program. It accused China of “dancing to the tune of the US” and providing Washington excuses to deploy more military assets to the Korean Peninsula.

The commentary urged two Chinese state-run newspapers, the People’s Daily and Global Times, to refrain from making reckless remarks which risked undermining relations between the two countries. It comes after increased criticism of North Korea in Chinese state media amid heightened tensions in the region.

Rodong Sinmun specifically criticized the Chinese media’s call for more sanctions against North Korea as a way to avert war. “We didn’t cross the ‘red line’ of the (North Korea)-China relationship,” the commentary said. “China is violently stomping on and crossing it without hesitation.”

“(North Korea) will never beg for the maintenance of friendship with China, risking its nuclear program which is a precious as its own life, no matter how valuable the friendship is,” it said.


Top North Korean defector disowned by his family in Pyongyang

Thae Yong Ho, the former deputy ambassador at the North Korean embassy in the United Kingdom, became the highest-ranking defector in nearly 20 years when he left his post last year.

Thae, who fled with his wife and children, worried about his family back home. Relatives of defectors are often sent to prison camps or used by the regime as propaganda tools.

But back in North Korea, Tae Ok Ran, Thae’s sister, calls that answer “100% evil propaganda.” Not one person in the family has been punished, the 57-year-old housewife said. His sister says it makes him a “rotten scumbag… not even an animal.”

Thae’s brother and sister spoke to CNN for their first-ever interview, which was organized by the government. “It’s good to be able to show how we are living,” Tae Ok Ran said. “I want to warn him the whole family won’t forgive him.”

Tae and her brother, Tae Yong Do, say they believe their brother is now a propaganda tool for South Korea and has brought shame upon their family.

Thae’s name has been erased as a caretaker on the family tombstone and he has been disowned. “If I don’t wash this sin away by myself, my sons and generations will have to work harder to pay for this,” said Tae Yong Do, 53.

Thae’s siblings spoke with a fervor that would have been expected of them, by a government that demands loyalty. North Koreans are often encouraged to report their neighbors for lacking patriotism, defectors say. The Tae siblings expressed a resolve and reverence to their leader that’s common among those on Pyongyang’s streets.


How defectors see change coming to North Korea

Cha Ri-hyuk, who defected from North Korea in 2013, still remembers what it was like after his country’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-il, died in 2011: Trains stopped running, customers were kicked out of hotels and the price of a kilogram of rice soared from 5,000 North Korean Won to more than 30,000 Won, said Cha, a former North Korea artillery corps officer.

After managing to buy and cook a kilogram of rice for the women and children in his friend’s family, Cha and his friend survived for three days on nothing but 10 litres – more than four gallons – of potent North Korean alcohol.

“There were many people like us who were drunk during the period and they were covering their faces with newspapers with the news of Kim Jong-il’s death, pretending they were mourning,” Cha told listeners at a forum about regime change sponsored by the Defense Forum Foundation. “If they were found to be drunk during the period, they would be sent to the political prison.”

Cha joined 11 other defectors at the forum to discuss weakening the North Korean regime through informing ordinary North Koreans of its realities. He and others pointed out that the difference in mood among North Koreans could eventually be a key to dealing with the current North Korean regime, led by Kim Jong-il’s youngest son, Kim Jong-un.

Hope for change resides with possible future resistance from North Korean citizens and the military, rather than military threats from the President Donald Trump’s administration, Cha said. Read more

North Korea: What liars fear the most is the truth

Change has been happening in North Korea, North Korean defectors say, speaking from their personal experiences and what they have since learned from their North Korean relatives.

Marketplaces have sprung up and have survived in cities and villages despite official disapproval after the collapse of the Public Distribution System in the mid-1990s. Academics and defectors alike say North Koreans are now able to exchange information about the realities of the outside world in those markets. “People sit around and whisper,” Cha Ri-hyuk, who defected from North Korea in 2013, explains in an interview.

While the state maintains tight control over official media, North Koreans get information through alternative means, including calling relatives in South Korea using smuggled South Korean phones, said Lim, another defector.

Some of the defectors at the forum work with Free North Korea Radio, one of three private radio stations in South Korea aiming to inform North Koreans across the border. Others said they had distributed fliers in North Korea using balloons, or smuggled computer flash drives into the country containing information about the outside world.

“What liars fear the most is the truth,” said Park Sang-Hak, an outspoken defector who is called “fireball” in the defector community. “And Kim Jong-un is the biggest liar of all.”

[U.S. News & World Report]

War with North Korea could mean a refugee crisis no one is ready for

Much of the discussion around North Korea has focused on a nuclear or conventional war between Pyongyang and Washington. But … if Pyongyang collapses as a result, it could lead to hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of people searching for food and shelter and refugees fleeing for China and, depending on the circumstances, South Korea.

A collapse of the North Korean government could create a humanitarian disaster for China. A mass migration of refugees trying to enter China through its northern Liaoning and Jilin provinces would present complex economic, infrastructure, and cultural and political challenges.

“If your number one national interest is … economic growth in order to hold on to social stability, having six million foreigners into provinces that have already had economic hardships before [won’t help],” said Jim Walsh, a senior research associate at MIT’s Security Studies program, who is also a board member at The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

He added: “And from a social stability standpoint—refugee camps with millions of North Koreans? Are the Chinese living there going to be thrilled about that in a context in which the economy is taking a hit because there’s been a shooting war?”

[Read full Foxtrot Alpha article outlining scenarios if armed conflict broke out between the US and North Korea]

A North Korean war and the 30 million person problem

A thermonuclear war with North Korea would be a humanitarian and ecological disaster for the entire region South Korea, China, Russia and Japan. Even if conventional weapons are used and the Kim regime collapses (a more likely scenario), we may face an alternative nightmare:

The first consequence would be that the Kims and all those connected with the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea would have to flee compatriots angry at years of human rights violations and public executions.

“Secret police and party officials would seek refuge in neighboring China or Russia,” Australian National University researcher Leonid Petrov told “Some South American countries might be willing to give refuge to people — Bolivia, Venezuela, Guatemala … countries that are anti-American might be supportive.”

So what will Kim Jong-un’s people do without their supreme leader? With a lack of money, food and shelter if the regime collapses, they too may seek refuge in China, Russia and South Korea, but those countries will not necessarily be open to an influx of North Korean refugees.

China is already home to an estimated 100,000 North Korean defectors, and is unlikely to want the pressure of more. The Chinese have been concerned about such a scenario for some time, and might reinforce the border with troops, Rand Corporation scientist Andrew Scobell told Foxtrot Alpha.

Others may try to travel from city to city in search of refuge, while others could try to cross into South Korea, although if fighting persists in the DMZ, that would be almost impossible.

The most likely conclusion would be the reunification of Korea, according to Dr Petrov, but this may mean deep economic and social problems. Read more

What Korean re-unification might look like

Reunification of North Korea with South Korea, according to Australian National University researcher Leonid Petrov, may mean deep economic and social problems.

“Both countries have been isolated from each other, they speak different dialects, understand the world differently. South Korea doesn’t need its impoverished, aggressive, poorly educated brothers to inundate South Korea.”

“The South Korean economy is reaching crisis,” Petrov said. “It needs to urgently access cheap resource and labor. South Korea might use the opportunity to exploit North Koreans who have less education or experience in enterprise. Millions of North Korean workers could become second class citizens, there could be widespread discrimination, even the border might be kept for years to stop mass immigration.”

“It will take at least a decade before the level of prosperity will be equalized between North and South. During that 10 years, the reunification going to be very expensive, $3 trillion or more. There’s going to be definite social tension between South Koreans and North Koreans.”

“The East and West Germany unification is a walk in the park compared to what is going to happen in North and South Korea if a reunification happens uncontrollably,” said Dr Petrov. “It will be a huge sociological and demographic issue.”


Chilling challenges faced by North Korean defectors in China

“In China, tens of thousands of North Korean women are hiding and living in fear of capture by the Chinese authorities,” said Lee So-yeon, a former soldier who fled her country in 2008 and is now a leading activist in South Korea.

Many of the women are sold to men in China with prices ranging from US$4,000 for women in their 20s to US$2,000 for those in their 40s.

“The greatest fear for women who are forced to leave is deportation to North Korea,” she said. Those who are caught by the Chinese authorities and sent back face the prospect of punishment meted out in prison camps, correctional training centers or labor training camps.

Life is especially harsh for women who have become pregnant by Chinese men, with some of them facing execution, she said.

Lim Hye-jin left her country in 1998 during the famine crisis. Once she crossed into China with a broker she was forcibly married to his brother, before becoming pregnant and was later rounded up by Chinese officials while working at a market. After repatriation she escaped back into China, but was brought back to the North once again. Eventually, she made a third escape and arrived in South Korea in 2002, but without her daughter.

Grace Jo who also fled North Korea adds, “We went to China to survive, but because of the Chinese government’s brutal treatment we lived in fear.”

[South China Morning Post]