The influence of Kim Jong-un’s wife Ri Sol Ju

Kim Jong-un’s wife Ri Sol Ju commands a growing following among the wives of North Korean elite while Kim Yo-jong now holds a senior position in the ruling Workers’ Party and serves as an adviser to her brother.

The purge of Jang Song Thaek may have strengthened the hand of Ri with the North Korean elite looking to avoid a similar fate. There are accounts that the wives of North Korean elite used their ties to Ri to “limit the number of officials removed from office due to the Jang purge,” Madden said.

“What we’ll need to watch for is whether Ri Sol Ju becomes Queen Bee among the wives or if that role is assumed by Yo-jong,” he said in an e-mail. “They are a quiet but politically influential cohort in the North Korean elite.”

In public Ri offers a softer side of the Supreme Leader and has been a regular in North Korean propaganda. In 2005, she traveled to South Korea as a teenage cheerleader for North Korean teams at an athletic competition. Seven years later she was revealed as his wife at an appearance with Kim at an amusement park in July 2012.

Still, so little is known about their relationship that it took former NBA star Dennis Rodman to reveal the couple had a child after a trip to Pyongyang in 2013 to play basketball. Rodman told the Guardian newspaper that he held Kim’s daughter Ju-ae and that Kim is a “good dad and has a beautiful family”.

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Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong in her brother’s shadow

Kim Yo-jong chooses to remain in her brother’s shadow at public events.

Still, Kim Yo-jong “has a lot of control over who has access to her brother, what they say to him, what documents they hand over – in short, she is a combination gatekeeper and traffic cop,” said Michael Madden, editor of the North Korea Leadership Watch blog.

She joined her brother in handing out awards to troops at an air force competition in May and that suggests she commands the party’s Organization and Guidance Department, which handles everything from promotions to purges, Cheong Seong Chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute near Seoul, said in an e-mail.

Kim was born to the same Korean-Japanese dancer, Ko Yong Hui, as Kim Jong-un. In February 2011 South Korean broadcaster KBS showed what it identified as Kim Yo-jong and her other brother, Kim Jong-chol, enjoying an Eric Clapton concert in Singapore.

Yonhap News said January 2 Kim married one of party secretary Choe Ryong Hae’s sons, citing two people in China it didn’t identify and a photo of her wearing a ring. Dong-A Ilbo newspaper rebutted the report days later.

[Washington Post]

American Jeffrey Fowle describes his North Korean detention

After learning about the 1990s famine and the country’s brutal persecution of Christians, Jeffrey Fowle decided to make the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) his next vacation destination. He inscribed his name and phone number in a Korean Bible, which he would “accidentally” leave behind, trusting that God would get it into the right hands.

Fowle thought the identifying information would make his plan more credible: “After all, what kind of idiot would leave a Bible with his name and phone number in it on purpose?” But somewhere along the way he changed course—a decision he still can’t explain.

Instead, Fowle hid the Bible under a waste bin, an obviously intentional act. The Bible fell into the hands of government officials who detained Fowle on the 36th floor of a high-rise hotel and kept him in an “information black-out” for six weeks. Fowle didn’t know if his family knew what had happened to him.

Fowle said he wasn’t concerned about his own safety: “I knew I was in God’s hands and that was a big comfort to me. God was in charge of the events.” His situation improved after six weeks, when the North Koreans allowed him to receive letters from his children and a pound of milk chocolate from his wife.

Fowle said his captors treated him well, letting him see a doctor and giving him ample food and water. His room had a television with three channels broadcasting government activities for four or five hours a day. After two weeks, his captors let him walk 30 to 40 minutes a day with his interpreter.

He underwent repeated interrogations, during which his captors required him to wear his best clothes—a pair of blue trousers and a striped, button down shirt. He came to call it his “Sunday-go-to-interrogation wardrobe.”

They also encouraged Foyle to “write letters to get media attention,” so he wrote to family, friends, and government officials, including President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. When his letters failed to convey enough distress, the officials made him rewrite them: “They thought if I sounded desperate people would rally to my cause and protest.”

After nearly six months—and without explanation—his captivity ended, and Fowle found himself on a plane headed home.

About three weeks after his release, the North Koreans released two other American detainees, Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller. Fowle wonders whether his situation somehow helped them: “Things did not unfold like I had planned. But maybe this was God’s way to get Bae and Miller out as well. I’ll let God be the judge of whether this was a good or a bad idea.”

[Excerpts of a WORLD article, by Julie Borg]

Defectors detail North Korea Leader’s slush fund

Choi Kun-chol says he didn’t know he had spent several years helping to fill Kim Jong Il’s private slush fund until he left North Korea. Like the thousands of others working under the North Korean government division known as Office 39, Mr. Choi was told by superiors that he was generating money to build a strong socialist economy.

In fact, according to details that Mr. Choi gave about his work it was a shadowy network of businesses that contribute to a private fund believed to be worth billions of dollars for the use of the ruling Kim family.

Defectors say Office 39 was created during the 1970s by Kim Jong Il, the father of current leader Kim Jong Un, to buy influence in his own rise to power. Office 39 has been accused by the U.S. and others of running an array of illicit money-making operations such as currency counterfeiting, narcotics and arms sales. Some experts estimate the total annual income of Office 39 to be up to a couple of billion dollars a year.

High-level defectors, security officials and analysts say the fund still enables current ruler Kim Jong Un to underwrite comfortable lifestyles for the upper tier of North Korean society to ensure their support. Analysts and security officials say the execution of Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, late last year may have been because Mr. Jang had interrupted the flow of funds to Office 39.

Office 39 also runs legal businesses under a state-owned shell corporation known as the Daesong Group, according to Mr. Choi and other defectors.

[read full Wall Street Journal article

Stop funding food aid to North Korea?

Excerpts of Guardian opinion by Jang Jin-sung, once one of Kim Jong-il’s favorite state poets until he defected in 2004:

North Korean exiles will tell you that the international community must stop funding food aid. We say this for pragmatic and humanitarian reasons.

Today, the fatal threat for the regime lies not in the outside world, but within the country itself. More specifically, this is the jangmadang – an underground economy arisen from the ashes of economic collapse in the 1990s, and which consist of market activities taking place beyond the remit of the regime’s control mechanisms.

This fundamental transformation from below, the notion that lives may be lived outside the domain of loyalty to the system, is the greatest imminent threat to the regime’s power – which is held in place by inculcating the cult of the Kim dynasty, surveillance controls and the coercive mobilization of its subjects.

In today’s North Korea there are two rival forces in battle: the forces of the regime and the forces of the market. The former’s interests are better served by the maintenance of existing party, military and surveillance mechanisms of control. The latter are equivalent to North Korea’s progressives, who believe in a future that is possible beyond the absolute, stifling and structurally inhumane confines of the regime.

An international community wishing to assist the North Korean people should recognize that funding food aid is a channel of limited efficiency. The majority of North Koreans depend not on the regime’s munificence but on market forces – they have already found this a more successful alternative, despite a disproportionate lack of international support or awareness. Even at times when the regime is calling for food aid, it does not mean that the jangmadang will not have food on offer, whether stolen from state cooperatives or smuggled in from China.

[The Guardian]

Chinese crackdown on missionaries to the North Koreans

Conditions in China have never been easy for foreign missionaries, and most try to keep a low profile. They work for so many different organizations and denominations that numbers are hard to come by. But from interviews with nearly a dozen former and active missionaries, experts and academics it’s clear at least hundreds – perhaps nearly 1,000 – have been forced out of China.

In early 2013, at the peak, China was home to some 2,000 to 4,000 missionaries from South Korea alone; U.S. missionaries made up large numbers as well.

The forced departures form the background to the detention a little more than two weeks ago of Canadians Kevin and Julia Garratt, a  Christian couple who had run a coffee shop in Dandong, a Chinese city on the North Korean border. Chinese authorities have accused them of stealing state secrets, but said little about what they have done wrong. Canadian officials believe their detention is likely China’s response to allegations of Chinese espionage in North America, including by a Canadian immigrant who is accused of co-ordinating hacking attacks to steal U.S. fighter jet secrets.

Yet the Garratts also stood at a dangerous nexus of issues that stir Chinese suspicion, by virtue of their personal faith, their humanitarian work with North Korea and the donations from Canadian churchgoers that supported them. That background almost certainly attracted the attention of authorities, though it may not be the primary reason for the couple’s detention.

China is North Korea’s closest ally, but the two nuclear powers still operate with great of mutual suspicion, and the Garratts live in a place that is the focus of intense Chinese military and intelligence scrutiny. Some of that is directed at Christian missionaries who play a critical role in the underground railroad that secrets North Korean defectors out of China.

“If you are a North Korean in China, the only place where you can realistically be given food and shelter is a church,” said Andrei Lankov, a Russian scholar and expert on North Korea. Often, that means the involvement of missionaries, who “actively proselytize among the North Korean refugees,” and train them in spreading Christianity inside North Korea.

The eviction of missionaries is in some ways a mark of China’s own perceived global strength, as an increasingly confident Beijing seeks to define China, an atheist state with government-run churches, on its own terms. Yet it also threatens to revive a point of conflict between China and Western nations, which have long criticized the Communist country for its refusal to allow free pursuit of religion.

[Globe and Mail]

The Church in North Korea

North Korea’s cryptic response to the Pope’s visit to Seoul is emblematic of the nation’s complicated relationship with religion in general. Its constitution formally grants citizens religious freedom, but in reality, religious practice is punishable by public execution or banishment to the nation’s kwan-li-so prison camps.

The few churches in Pyongyang are maintained by the state in order to give the appearance of religious practice; congregants are actors bussed in to services for the benefit of tourists.

It hasn’t always been this way. North Korea actually has a long history with Christianity. Catholic missionaries first arrived on the Korean Peninsula in 1784. There, prominent Korean Studies historian Andrei Lankov reports, the Church took root with such success that by the 1920s, Pyongyang was known among missionaries as “the Jerusalem of the East.” Kim Il-sung himself grew up in a Christian household, and was reportedly a church organist as a teenager.

In her book Escape from North Korea, journalist Melanie Kirkpatrick writes of North Korea’s underground church. Figures reporting on the size of such organizations are inherently subject to inaccuracy, but her estimate puts their number at 200,000 to 400,000 adherents, somewhere around 1% of North Korea’s population.

Though their numbers are small, Christians in North Korea are important for at least two key reasons. First, they are faithful in quiet opposition to an ideology of state propaganda that amounts to a religion of dictator worship. The modest ideological diversity they represent is anathema to authoritarianism and may constitute the seeds of a freer future North Korea.

Second, Christians are key actors in what Kirkpatrick calls Asia’s underground railroad – a network of safe houses that help North Korean defectors escape to China and beyond. Defectors’ testimonies bring to light the heinous human rights abuses of the Kim regime, which will eventually oblige the international community to respond. The defectors also reach out to their family and friends in North Korea with reports of the outside world, exposing what the state propaganda calls “paradise on earth” for the hellish prison it really is.

[Huffington Post]

A North Korean strike on the US electric grid?

The electric grid in the United States remains largely unprotected, according to a longtime adviser to Congress on national security issues, Peter Vincent Pry.

Pry told VOA he believes North Korea is ready to attempt a strike on the U.S. electric grid using an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP). Pry said North Korea practiced an EMP strike against the U.S. last year when it orbited a satellite at the optimal altitude and trajectory to carry out such an attack.

Pry was a member of the former Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack (2001-2008). He also is executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, a congressional advisory board dedicated to achieving protection of the United States from electromagnetic pulse and other threats.

An electromagnetic pulse (or disturbance) is a short burst of electromagnetic energy that can be natural or man-made. EMP interference generated by lightning, for example, can damage electronic equipment. At very high energy levels, an EMP can damage physical objects such as trees, buildings and aircraft.

Pry said the North Korean test last year took place over the South Pole, which he called a strategic move. “We are blind from the south. We don’t have the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System or interceptors to protect us from the south,” said Pry.

The congressional analyst said this was done after North Korea’s third illegal nuclear test in February 2013 and after the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, threatened to strike the United States and its allies with a nuclear missile.

[VoA

Wife of detained Ohio man asks North Korea for mercy for him

The wife and three children of an American man, Jeffrey Edward Fowle, 56, charged with “anti-state” crimes in North Korea apologized Tuesday to the communist country and pleaded for its government to show him mercy, saying in a statement they’re “desperate for his release and return home.”

North Korea said Monday it is preparing to try two Americans who entered the country as tourists, for carrying out what it says were hostile acts against the country. Fowle is suspected of leaving a Bible in a nightclub in the northern port city of Chongjin.

Fowle’s wife, Tatyana, has personally written to President Barack Obama, asking for his intervention, as have his three children, Alex, 13, Chris, 11, and Stephanie, 9. She also has written to three former presidents — George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter — and asked them to intercede.

“The family would like to express its heartfelt apology to the people and the government of the (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). Jeff has apologized publically for his actions and Jeffrey’s family petitions the government for mercy toward Jeffrey and asks for his release,” the family’s lawyer said.

Tepe has said Fowle was not on a mission for his church, that he was in North Korea on vacation as part of a tour and “loves the adventure of experiencing different cultures and seeing new places.”

North Korea has said authorities are preparing to bring Fowle and another American detainee, 24-year-old Matthew Todd Miller, of Bakersfield, California, before a court, but hasn’t yet specified what they did that was considered hostile or illegal, or what kind of punishment they might face. The date of the trial has not been announced.

[AP]

Kenneth Bae gets consular visit at North Korea labor camp

The State Department says the Swedish Embassy in North Korea has visited detained American missionary Kenneth Bae at a labor camp.

Spokeswoman Marie Harf said Wednesday this week’s visit was the 12th by Swedish representatives since Kenneth Bae was arrested in November 2012. As a result of his missionary and humanitarian work, he is serving 15 years of hard labor for alleged “hostile acts against North Korea”.

Sweden handles consular cases for the U.S. because Washington does not have diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. He’s one of three Americans now held.

Harf gave no update on Bae’s condition but said the department spoke to Bae’s family after Monday’s visit. His family says he has diabetes, heart and liver problems.

Bae recently told a pro-North Korean newspaper his health was worsening and he felt abandoned by the U.S. government.

[Bellingham Herald]