How close we came to nuclear war with North Korea

“Most people are not aware of how close we came to nuclear war and how plausible it actually was throughout 2017 and early 2018.”

That’s North Korea expert Van Jackson’s stunning conclusion. In his new book On the Brink: Trump, Kim, and the Threat of Nuclear War, Jackson retraces the Washington-Pyongyang standoff during President Donald Trump’s first two years in office.

He identified at least “seven or eight moments” when he believed war between the US and North Korea was possible. And while much of the tensions had to do with North Korea’s aggression before Trump took office, the president found ways to make it much, much worse.

“Trump talks shit everywhere about everybody, but only as it relates to North Korea did we come close to nuclear war because of it,” Jackson, a former Obama administration official now at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, told me. “So I blame Trump, but I don’t blame him entirely.”

What’s scarier is that Jackson doesn’t see the relationship improving anytime soon. The current diplomatic opening is solely because of Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s relationship, he notes, but tensions could escalate if Trump changes his mind or leaves office.

“This is not a stable situation. We’re forced to rely on the whims of a dictator and a wannabe dictator,” he says.

Read transcript of interview with North Korea expert Van Jackson

Secret workforce funds North Korea—and defies sanctions

Inside one of Uganda’s main air bases lurks a resource the nation pledged two years ago to jettison—North Korean soldiers. The commandos, from North Korea’s special-operations division, are covertly training Uganda’s elite troops in skills from martial arts to helicopter-gunnery operations, say senior Ugandan military officers.

The instructors are among the North Korean soldiers, companies, contractors and arms dealers operating around the world in violation of United Nations sanctions, helping Pyongyang skirt a Washington-led “maximum pressure” campaign, say military officers and foreign diplomats.

The pattern traces across a swath of smaller nations, such as Tanzania, Sudan, Zambia and Mozambique, that have pledged to sever relations nurtured over decades as part of a U.N. campaign to pressure North Korea to drop its nuclear-weapons programs. North Korean operatives or Pyongyang-controlled companies in those countries and Uganda generate foreign exchange for Pyongyang.

Malaysia Korea Partners, or MKP, a company that U.N. monitors say is part of a joint venture of North Korean entities directed by the intelligence agency responsible for clandestine operations has earned tens of millions of dollars for the Kim regime on projects in Uganda, Angola and Zambia over the past decade, the Journal reported last year, citing analysts who evaluated MKP.

Two military officers say they viewed documents confirming North Korean weapons deliveries as recently as August that included antitank systems, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms. The weapons, for Uganda’s special forces, were shipped through a Kenyan port and driven across Uganda’s border at night, they say.

“We never ended our ties,” said an Ugandan officer who described how North Korean commanders recently trained him in close combat. “They just moved underground.”

A Ugandan Defense Ministry spokesman said in a statement: “These are despicable allegations.” Uganda’s defense force, he said, “has totally complied with the UN Security Council resolutions on the subject and the Uganda government as required of it, has made numerous reports to the UN in that regard.” Asked directly whether there were North Koreans training in the country, he didn’t respond.

The American Embassy in Uganda and the Pentagon’s U.S. Africa Command didn’t respond to requests for comment. U.S. officials say many in the Trump administration have been instructed to remain quiet on North Korean defiance over concern speaking out could undercut the image of an effective sanctions regime or weigh on negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.

[Wall Street Journal]

US sanctions three North Korean officials for rights abuses

The United States on Monday imposed sanctions on three North Korea officials, including a top aide to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, citing “ongoing and serious human rights abuses and censorship,” the U.S. Treasury Department said.

The sanctions “shine a spotlight on North Korea’s reprehensible treatment of those in North Korea, and serve as a reminder of North Korea’s brutal treatment of U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier,” the department said in a statement. Warmbier was an American student who died in June 2017 after 17 months of detention in North Korea, which contributed to already tense exchanges between Pyongyang and Washington, primarily over North Korea’s nuclear development program.

The sanctions freeze any assets the officials may have under U.S. jurisdiction and generally prohibits them from engaging in any transactions with anyone in the United States.

Ryong Hae Choe, an aide close to Kim who, according to the U.S. Treasury, heads the Workers’ Party of Korea Organization and Guidance Department, was sanctioned, as were State Security Minister Kyong Thaek Jong and the director of North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department, Kwang Ho Pak.

[Reuters]

North Koreans more afraid of China than the United States?

North Korea expert Barbara Demick’s now legendary book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, chronicles the lives of six defectors over 15 years. Demick explains that the famine of the mid-1990s in North Korea was profoundly traumatic for the country, leading to greater repression.

“For a while during the famine, when things were really bad during 1994, ’95, ’96, [the authorities] didn’t stop people from wandering around,” said Demick, now the Los Angeles Times’ bureau chief in New York. “But people started wandering to look for food, and kids who crossed the border into China looking for food weren’t stopped that much. But then when the food situation got a little better, they had unleashed this spirit of self-enterprise, and [North Korean authorities] had to crack down very harshly.”

The famine also broke popular faith in the Kim dynasty as government corruption became widespread, though the need to believe in something remained. “It’s interesting that most North Korean defectors become Christian,” Demick said.

She thinks it’s inevitable that the two Koreas will grow closer. But the gulf between them is vast, greater than the pre-unification division between East and West Germany, said Demick, who was based in Berlin during the 1990s. “There was some communication between East and West Germany. But you still can’t send a letter from North to South Korea, can’t make a phone call, not to speak of an e-mail or a WhatsApp message. The degree of separation is like nothing else in the world,” she said.

Demick suggested the Singapore summit between Trump and North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un last June was “a good thing. I don’t think it will lead to denuclearization, but it certainly eased tension,” she said.

After five years in Seoul … Demick served as Los Angeles Times’ bureau chief in Beijing. She does not buy the argument that China is a benign force for stability in the East Asia.

“The North Koreans will never say this, but they’re more afraid of China than the United States. They’ll say that China is their friend and the US is the great enemy. But I think they fear China’s undue influence on Korea. …Much of the motivation behind the nuclear program is to take control of their own national security. They don’t want to be dependent on China the way they were during the Korean War.”

The North Korean view is also governed by one of the most enduring principles of geopolitics, Demick added: “The US is far away.”

[Asia Times]

UN Security Council meeting on North Korea human rights scrapped

The United States has dropped a bid to hold a UN Security Council meeting on North Korea’s human rights record after failing to garner enough support for the talks, diplomats said Friday.

The meeting has been held every year since 2014, as the US has always garnered the nine votes needed at the council to hold the meeting, despite opposition from China.

North Korea had written to council members last month to urge them to block the US request for the meeting that shines a spotlight on Pyongyang’s dismal record. North Korean Ambassador Kim Song last month told council members that criticism of Pyongyang’s human rights record would “swim against the current trend” of rapprochement and “stoke confrontation.”

China had failed to derail the meeting until this year, when non-permanent member Ivory Coast refused to bow to pressure to lend its backing to the US. China, which has strong expanding ties in Africa, has argued that the Security Council is not the venue to discuss human rights as a threat to international peace and security.

A landmark 2014 report by a UN Commission of Inquiry documented human rights abuses on an appalling scale in North Korea, describing a vast network of prison camps where detainees are subjected to torture, starvation and summary executions. The report accused leader Kim Jong Un of atrocities and concluded that he could be prosecuted for crimes against humanity. North Korea has rejected the report as a fabrication, based on testimony from dissidents living in exile.

[Times of India]

North Korea is expanding missile base with eye toward U.S., experts warn

North Korea is expanding an important missile base that would be one of the most likely sites for deploying intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States, two experts on the North’s missile programs said Thursday, citing new research based on satellite imagery.

The activities at the Yeongjeo-dong missile base near North Korea’s border with China and the expansion of a new suspected missile facility seven miles away are the latest indications that North Korea is continuing to improve its missile capabilities, said Jeffrey Lewis and David Schmerler of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California.

“The base is located in the interior of North Korea, backed up against the Chinese border,” they said. “It is this location that leads us to believe that the general area is a strong candidate for the deployment of future missiles that can strike the United States.” Military planners in Seoul and Washington have long suspected that North Korea would deploy its intercontinental ballistic missiles as close to China as possible to reduce the likelihood of pre-emptive strikes from the United States.

Using satellite imagery, they located tunnels in Yeongjeo-dong that might be used for storing missiles and the construction of a new headquarters, as well as a pair of drive-through shelters in Hoejung-ni suitable for large ballistic missiles and “an extremely large underground facility” under construction further up a narrow valley.

A series of United Nations resolutions require North Korea to give up its ballistic missile program. But the country has never signed any agreement to curtail or disclose its missile capabilities. Following his June summit meeting in Singapore with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, Mr. Trump claimed that there was “no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.”

[New York Times]

North Korean state media attacks high-profile defectors in new videos

North Korea’s state-run Uriminzokkiri outlet recently attacked two prominent defectors based in the U.S. and UK, amongst a total of seven defectors targeted as part of a series of videos released mid-October and late November.

Uriminzokkiri — an outer-track outlet mainly aimed at an overseas Korean audience — mainly accused high-profile defectors of lying about their identities.

Former defector TV star Jon Hye Song, known as Lim Ji-hyun in North Korea, appeared regularly on the outlet last year, in broadcasts criticizing the refugee community as well as South Korean society.

Another North Korean defector Ju Ok Soon who also returned to the North  appeared in a video provided by the Uriminzokkiri last October, in which she spoke out about her six-year “painful” life in the South.

[NK News]

North Korea offers little resistance to latest soldier defecting

Relations have begun to warm between the two Koreas, so when a North Korean soldier defected across the militarized border dividing the nations on Saturday, there was little fanfare. So North Korea’s lack of formal reaction to the incident may actually bolster hopes for continued peace talks between the two states.

Last year (November 2017) when another North Korean soldier, Oh Chong Song, made a dash across the border into South Korea, he was shot five times by fellow soldiers as he made his break. UN and South Korean troops had to low crawl to his position under threat of North Korean gunfire to drag him to safety before placing him aboard a UN helicopter to be flown to the nearest hospital for treatment.

As dangerous as that crossing proved to be for Oh, the response from North Korean troops proved an even larger cause for concern. North Korean soldiers, aware that they would be held responsible for permitting Oh’s defection, briefly crossed the border into South Korean territory during their pursuit, and even fired rounds over the border that hit structures on the South Korean side of the dividing line. South Korea chose to respond with stern warnings at the time, choosing not to escalate the already tense situation.

Soon thereafter, it was reported that the troops stationed at the border had all been transferred elsewhere in favor of a new staff of border guards. The presumption at the time was that the transfer was punitive, as a result of their failure to prevent the defection, rather than their violation of the demilitarized zone.

Last weekend’s defection, on the other hand, could be described as mundane, by comparison. According to reports, the soldier that defected was found walking across the eastern sector of the Demilitarized Zone. He was escorted into custody where he’ll undergo a debriefing aimed at determining his reasons for defection. There were no unusual troop movements reported along the North Korean side of the border following the defection, nor did any soldiers apparently pursue this latest defector as he made his escape.

The North Korean soldiers opting not to aggressively pursue the defector could send a dangerous message to other North Koreans. However, it sends an equally strong message to South Korea — seemingly demonstrating a new approach to relations between the two states; potentially one that no longer sees the “other” Korea as a mortal enemy.

[Read full NewsRep article]

Trump says next meeting with Kim Jong Un likely in early 2019

President Trump said a second summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un will likely take place in January or February.

“We’re getting along very well,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One during the return trip from the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina. “We have a good relationship with Kim.”

The first Trump-Kim summit took place in June in Singapore but Trump has said the next meeting will probably take place at a new location. The two countries are considering three sites for the potential summit, Trump said.

When asked if Kim would come to the US for a visit apart from the second summit, Trump said “at some point” he will.

Speaking to reporters onboard a flight following the G20, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in said Trump had asked him to pass a message to Kim, should the North Korean leader visit Seoul this year. Moon said on Sunday that Trump told him he had a “very amicable view” of Kim and that he wanted to “implement the rest of the agreement.”

Last month, Vice President Mike Pence said the US will not require North Korea to provide a full list of its nuclear and missile sites before Trump meets Kim again. Rather than requiring a declaration of nuclear weapons sites as a prerequisite to a second meeting with Trump, Pence told NBC News that the administration will insist on developing a “verifiable plan” to disclose those sites while the two leaders are in the same room.

[CNN]

The beginning of the end of the Korean War

In a sense, Donald Trump’s campaign to denuclearize North Korea is bearing fruit: The Korean War is beginning to end. Seoul and Pyongyang have been dismantling guard posts, designating no-fly zones, and disarming what was once the most volatile place on the peninsula. Indeed, by the estimation of the South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh, North and South Korea have already fully implemented about one third of the more than two dozen reconciliation agreements they reached in a pair of summits between the nations’ leaders in April and September.

The Koreas have suspended certain military exercises near the military demarcation line (MDL) separating the countries, cleared hundreds of land mines in the area (millions remain), and linked a road as part of an effort to excavate the remains of soldiers who died during the Korean War. They have covered up coastal artillery and warship-mounted guns and established a no-fly zone in the vicinity of the border. They are now exploring ways to jointly secure the iconic border village of Panmunjom and allow unarmed guards, civilians, and foreign tourists to move about on either side of the MDL there for the first time in more than 40 years.

While it’s hard to overstate what’s at stake in these seemingly minor developments, several of the meatiest measures require U.S. consent and are on hold. North and South Korea, for example, can’t collaborate on economic and tourism projects or actually get inter-Korean roads and railways up and running until international sanctions against North Korea are eased. They’ve also encountered resistance in calling for the leaders of the two Koreas, the United States, and perhaps China to formally declare an end to the Korean War, which came to a halt in an armistice in 1953.

But where Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have freer rein and have arguably made the greatest advances is in enacting various accords to cease military hostilities between their countries. The progress, though still modest and tentative, is all the more remarkable given the comparatively sluggish pace at the moment of nuclear negotiations between the United States and North Korea.

[The Atlantic]