Monthly Archives: March 2013

North Korean refugee speaks at TED

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North Korean refugee Hyeonseo LeeBorn in North Korea, in 1997 Hyeonseo Lee escaped to China as a 14-year-old refugee.

After more than 10 years in China, in 2008 Hyeonseo Lee arrived in Seoul, where she struggled to adjust to life in the bustling city. North Korean defectors often have a hard time in South Korea, she noted in the Wall Street Journal: “We defectors have to start from scratch. Prejudice against North Koreans and icy stares were other obstacles that were hard to cope with.”

Now a student at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, she has become an advocate for fellow refugees, even helping close relatives leave North Korea after they were targeted.

Her dream? As she told the Korea Times, she’d like to work at the UN or an NGO that advocates for the human rights of North Koreans, including their right to be treated as political refugees.

View her TED presentation.


Kim Jong Un moves force boost in US missile defense

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Excerpts of an opinion piece by Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review:

Kim Jong Un has done the near-impossible. He has forced the Obama administration to admit that the United States needs more missile defense.

Opposition to missile defense constitutes one of the most treasured books of the Democratic arms-control gospel. Since it was introduced by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, Democrats have reflexively denounced the idea of a defense against incoming ballistic missiles as wholly unworkable, impossibly expensive, and dangerously destabilizing.

Upon taking office, the Obama administration promptly nixed additional interceptors planned for deployment on the West Coast against the budding North Korean missile threat. George W. Bush had already put 30 interceptors at two sites on the West Coast, a symptom of his “Cold War mindset” that the supple and sophisticated Obama administration had no use for.

Rather than simply trust that a lunatic North Korean regime running its country like a vast prison camp will rationally calculate its self-interest as we would hope, the Obama administration says it is going to add back the 14 canceled interceptors. This will take the number of West Coast interceptors from 30 to 44, though with unnecessary expense and delay. The new interceptors should be online in 2017, or by the end of the president’s second term.

A Possible War Scenario

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Prior threats issued by North Korea have always been viewed by political analysis as a way to keep North Korea unjust demands in the worlds spot light and cover up its human rights violations which their government’s dictatorships have created alone.

Yet this time something in the way North Korea has taken a stance is different. In what is now viewed as an escalation in their threats, North Korea has chosen to cancel the frayed armistice that has existed for sixty years, … turn off their crisis hot line which connects them directly to South Korea, as well as threaten a preemptive nuclear attack against the United States.

If a war was to pursue, the causalities to South Korea could quickly mount into the millions, for just south of the DMZ is Seoul surrounded by Lncheon and Gyeonggi province, with a combined population of 25.6 million people. Economically speaking, any disruption of commerce to this area would have a far reaching effect on the world’s commerce just now emerging from the recession.

And in reality North Korea’s threats aimed at South Korea and the United States have also directly threaten the people of China, potentially making China North Korea’s pawn in a potential war! From the United States stand point of view any attack on South Korea by North Korea will force an immediate retaliatory response from the United States. Such a response will drag China into the war to support its long term ally, North Korea.


Asia’s odd couple China and North Korea

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In the U.N. negotiations over sanctions — this time as before — the Chinese have consistently played the role of watering down the degree of punishment imposed against Pyongyang. It remains to be seen whether Beijing intends to enforce the new measures.

The Chinese worry that coming down hard on Pyongyang, by cutting off their vital oil or food exports, could trigger a collapse of the North Korean government or other political instability on the peninsula. Beijing’s nightmares include a loose nukes problem and a humanitarian disaster.

Beijing also has fears about the effects of a North Korean collapse on the strategic balance in East Asia. If North Korea collapsed and the two Koreas unified, China might find astride its border a unified, U.S.-aligned Korea hosting American troops. Chinese analysts also commonly argue that North Korea serves as an important distraction for the U.S. military, which might otherwise train its focus on defending Taiwan.

Thus, despite the nuisance that North Korea regularly makes of itself, for all these reasons, it would be sorely missed by Beijing. But the days of “lips and teeth” (Mao Zedong’s’s famous statement about the closeness of Sino-North Korean relations) are clearly over. Chinese scholars and analysts increasingly express open frustration with Pyongyang’s behavior. In a meeting of an advisory group to the Chinese government — the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference — participants openly debated the question: whether to “keep or dump” North Korea?

China’s remarkable four decades of economic reform and growth have catapulted it to wealth and power — China is a global power, with global interests. China has a deep stake in maintaining stability in order to sustain its pathway to prosperity. China’s relationship with the United States can be tense [but] the two countries are vital trade partners that share a vast array of ties and often overlapping interests. Beijing also values its relationship with South Korea.

Because the specter of North Korea’s collapse could potentially destabilize the Korea peninsula, Beijing may continue to shield Pyongyang. But the two countries’ increasingly divergent interests suggest that China’s dissatisfaction with North Korea is only likely to grow.

[Excerpts of article by Jennifer Lind, associate professor of government at Dartmouth College]

China shifting stance on old friend North Korea?

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No one is suggesting China will abandon the regime of leader Kim Jong-un or even implement the new sanctions to the letter, but China’s frustration grows. An exasperated China appears to have run out of patience after years of trying to coax Pyongyang out of isolation and to embrace economic reform.

To top it off, Kim Jong-un has failed to pay fealty to China, his country’s only major ally, as his father and grandfather did. He has not visited China since taking over when his father Kim Jong-il died at the end of 2011.

Even the modicum of affection Chinese used to feel towards North Koreans, brothers-in-arms during the 1950-53 Korean War, has all but vanished, the country and its leader becoming an object of derision and incomprehension, especially as China powers ahead economically and rises in global stature.

The Global Times, an influential tabloid published by Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, has called for China to cut North Korea off completely. It warned on Friday that Pyongyang should not underestimate China’s anger.

Signs of unhappiness with Pyongyang have seeped out of China’s military establishment too, although it is hard to know for certain what the top brass are thinking. “It does not matter if you were a comrade and brother-in-arms in the past, if you harm our national interest then we’ll get even with you,” retired major-general Luo Yuan, a prominent foreign policy hawk, wrote on his blog on Saturday.

Kim Jong Un’s actions have also become an unwanted headache for incoming Chinese president Xi Jinping, who is already facing a host of domestic problems from corruption to pollution. China’s new leadership, including Xi, do not have the emotional ties to North Korea that their predecessors had. Visits then used to be marked with smiles and bear hugs. Xi also understands there is little public sympathy at home for Pyongyang.

To be sure, China will not cut North Korea off completely. The country is a useful buffer from U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, and Japan too. China also does not want North Korea to go the same route as Myanmar, once a staunch ally of Beijing but which is now rapidly expanding ties with Washington.

And if China turns the screws too much then North Korea could collapse — Beijing’s ultimate nightmare scenario. Not only would that release a flood of refugees into northeastern China, it would also raise the question of what would happen to North Korea’s nuclear material.

[Excerpted from Reuters analysis

Situation ramps up as North Korea declares 1953 armistice invalid

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In the last 60 years, diplomacy between North and South Korea has zigzagged from conciliatory to bellicose.

Now the North Korean army has declared invalid the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War in 1953.  The Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported that the Supreme Command of North Korea’s army had done so, adding, “The U.S. has reduced the armistice agreement to a dead paper.”

Part of the reason for the latest move are the joint exercises between the United States and South Korea. A bigger reason is tougher sanctions passed in the U.N. Security Council against North Korea in response to its nuclear test on February 12.

The Treasury Department announced today that it was designating North Korea’s primary exchange bank, the Foreign Trade Bank, as a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction. Treasury also made the same designation, against Paek Se-Bong, the chairman of North Korea’s Second Economic Committee, which oversees production of North Korea’s ballistic missiles. The designation freezes any assets in the U.S. and prohibits transactions with Americans.

The armistice that North Korea has scrapped is the agreement that ended the war between North and South Korea. It is a truce, rather than a peace treaty. The terms of the armistice included the creation of the Demilitarized Zone, a heavily fortified 155-mile long (250 kilometers) 2.5-mile wide line separating the two countries.

North Korea has also cut off direct phone links with South Korea at the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency. The phone line was the emergency link for quick, two-way communication between the two sides.

The Rodong Sinmun also reported the North Korean Supreme Command saying that it can now make a “strike of justice at any target anytime, not bound to the armistice agreement.”

President Obama’s spokesman said today that the White House is concerned by war threats coming from North Korea. A military clash could risk drawing in the United States, which has about 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea as part of the security alliance between the two countries.

North Korean social media

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In North Korea, where people have almost no Internet contact with the outside world, “North Korean social media” sounds like an oxymoron. But on February 25, Jean H. Lee of the Associated Press became one of the first people to tweet from North Korea when she posted a message on the country’s new 3G wireless network, available only to foreigners.

“Hello world from comms center in ‪#Pyongyang,” she wrote. Lee has since been active from North Korea on Instagram as well, posting snapshots of street scenes, food and government propaganda posters.

Lee is joined in her social media updates from Pyongyang by AP photographer David Guttenfelder, who posts images often to his 71,000 Instagram followers.

As the AP’s bureau chief for both South and North Korea, Lee is the only American news reporter granted regular access to the secretive nation, which she has visited more than 20 times. She offers a rare glimpse of digital life beyond the DMZ.

The country lags behind much of the world when it comes to digital adoption, but there are signs that North Korea is trying to catch up, Lee said. The new Koryolink 3G network — jointly owned by the North Korean government and an Egyptian company — that launched last month marks a shift in policy for Kim Jong Un’s regime, which also has recently begun to allow foreigners to bring their cellphones into the country.

“We are starting to see more openness,” she said. “We’re talking baby steps. They’re a long way from being a free and open society.”

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North Korean control even beyond its prison camps

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When Amnesty International officials scrutinized new satellite imagery of a notorious North Korean gulag, what caught their attention was not what was happening inside the fence but outside it.

A network of what appeared to be guard posts enclosing a valley and a small town indicated not an expansion of the sprawling Camp 14, as originally thought, but authorities’ control of those living beyond the camp’s perimeter. (The best-selling book “Escape from Camp 14” by author Blaine Harden has shed light onto one corner of the gulag.)

Amnesty said it commissioned satellite images and analysis of the area. It found that North Korea has constructed a 12.5-mile perimeter, much of it on steep terrain, next to the camp to encircle a valley that contains mines, orchards and a small town. While the perimeter is marked by posts and not a fence, there is controlled access and some 20 guard towers that are more concentrated near the town than the camp.

“What’s most worrisome is that it seems to expand the scope of control beyond the formal boundaries of the prison camp,” said Frank Jannuzi , deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA. The rights group isn’t sure why that’s happening but says it’s another good reason to step up scrutiny of human rights conditions in the secretive nation, with its unparalleled restrictions on citizenry and its vast gulag.

Amnesty is pushing for member states next week at the U.N. Human Rights Council to support an independent commission of inquiry into systematic abuses and crimes against humanity in North Korea. That would add international pressure on Pyongyang, which was hit Thursday with its latest round of U.N. sanctions.

A U.N. special rapporteur on human rights is due to present a report on North Korea to the council in Geneva on Monday. Japan, Europe, the U.S. and South Korea have all indicated support for some kind of enhanced inquiry mechanism, and only half of the 47 member states on the council will need to vote in favor for it to be established.

Was a South Korean missionary murdered by North Korean agents?

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Kim Ha-young believes her husband was murdered for helping North Koreans defect.

It’s almost two years since she found her husband, Kim Chang-hwan, foaming at the mouth in the Chinese city of Dandong on the North Korean border. The 46-year-old father of two had been working as a missionary, helping North Korean defectors escape across the border. Kim Ha-young was living in the border city as well, helping her husband.

She had just spoken to her husband 15 minutes earlier. “He told me he was meeting a North Korean defector and would then come home. A short time later I got a call from one of his colleagues who said (my husband) collapsed on the street and he told me to rush to the hospital,” she said. “When I got there he was dead.”

Hospital officials said Kim Chang-hwan had committed suicide by swallowing pesticides. His wife believes he was killed by a North Korean agent.

Refusing to accept the hospital’s explanation for her husband’s death, Kim Ha-young demanded the Chinese government conduct an autopsy. The autopsy report came back saying there was no poison in his system. Fearful of a cover-up, she went to the morgue before his body was cremated and collected samples of his blood on a glove and gave them to South Korean authorities on her return to Seoul.

The South Korean government report on that blood sample, reviewed by CNN, revealed levels of poison high enough to kill a person instantly.

“My husband was aware of the risk. People around us were telling us that it is a dangerous job because the North Korean government will severely deal with people who helped North Koreans defect,” she said. “We thought maybe the risk was prison or being expelled from the country by Chinese government. We never thought that it would cost his life.”

Fellow missionary Seok Sa-hyun said his friend had received threats in the past but nothing could stop him from helping defectors or providing food to North Korea’s malnourished children.

How much bite will the latest UN sanctions have on North Korea?

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The U.N. Security Council unanimously passed tougher sanctions against North Korea Thursday. And after the vote U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice proclaimed, “These sanctions will bite, and bite hard.”

But will they?

The goal of the new sanctions is to stymie the activities of North Korean banks and cash couriers who might be funneling money to the secretive regime’s nuclear and missile programs. It will be tougher for the regime to move large sums of cash stuffed into suitcases, the US says.

The U.N. resolution also outlines measures to step up scrutiny of suspicious sea shipments and air cargo. And it expands restrictions to encompass several institutions and senior officials in the North’s weapons industry, as well as a range of materials and technology known to be used in uranium enrichment.

It also blocks the sale of luxury goods — such as yachts and certain high-end jewelry — to North Korea. “As a result, North Korea’s ruling elite, who have been living large while impoverishing their people, will pay a price” for the ongoing nuclear activities, Rice said.

Some doubt whether the new measures will make much difference. “As long as China allows North Korea to operate, as long as China provides food, energy assistance, and investment, the sanctions really don’t matter,” said Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute.

Ken Gause, an analyst with CNA, said the new sanctions won’t deter North Korea from building up its nuclear program. “North Korea last year inserted language into its constitution that the country is a nuclear power. To walk back from this, especially under pressure from the outside world, would undermine Kim Jong Un’s legitimacy and make him vulnerable. He will not do this,” said Gause.