Monthly Archives: May 2014

North Korea-Japan deals serves both ends

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Both Japan and North Korea have their own reasons for engaging with each other, separate agendas that led to this week’s landmark agreement on the abduction issue between the two countries.

Tokyo wants tangible progress on the long-standing issue, as abductees’ family members are growing old. North Korea, meanwhile, has become increasingly isolated in the international community, prompting it to turn to Japan for help.

During talks between senior government officials of the two countries in Stockholm this week, North Korea agreed to fully investigate the fate of Japanese nationals abducted by its agents and suspected abductees, while Japan pledged to lift some of its sanctions against North Korea.

North Korea has agreed that the probe will cover not only the 12 people recognized by the Japanese government as abduction victims, including Megumi Yokota, but also about 470 “specially designated missing persons” who are believed to have been abducted by Pyongyang.

Despite the much-heralded agreement, however, it is still open to question whether Pyongyang will follow through.

[The Yomiuri Shimbun]

The best books on North Korea

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From firsthand accounts of gulag survivors to memoirs of defectors once part of the top echelons of government, here’s a pick of the best books on the secretive kingdom from The Guardian:

1. Aquariums of Pyongyang: 10 years in the North Korean Gulag
The story of Kang Chol-hwan, a defector who spent 10 years in the notorious Yodok camp because his family was under suspicion for having lived in Japan. Billed as “part horror story, part historical document, part political tract”. Kang defected to South Korea a few years after his release, and went on to work as a journalist for Chosun Ilbo.

2. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
Barbara Demick’s critically acclaimed novel follows the lives of six citizens in the north-eastern city of Chongjin through the tumultuous period after the great leader Kim Il-sung dies and is replaced by his son Kim Jong-il. Demick, the Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, based the book on the accounts of of six North Korean defectors and photos and videos smuggled out of the country.

3. North Korea: State of Paranoia
A change of pace from Paul French in this analysis of the history and politics of the country. The trade review promises “a provocative and alarming account of what is a potentially explosive nuclear tripwire”. The book focuses on the economy which French, who also wrote the best-seller Midnight in Peking, argues is central to understanding the policy shifts and leadership.

4. Escape from Camp 14
This international best-seller is another harrowing testimony from the prison camps. American journalist Blaine Harden tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known person to have been born in a gulag and escaped.

5. Dear Leader
The most recent release on this list, Dear Leader is described as “a very rare, first hand account into life in the North Korean society” told by Jang Jin-sung, a former member of the elite.

6. The Orphan Master’s son
The novel by American writer Adam Johnson tells the story of Pak Jun-do, the North Korean John-Doe, son of an orphan master, who has never met his mother. The book was widely praised earning Johnson the Pulitzer prize for fiction and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in 2013.

7. Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader
By Bradley K Martin, a 900 pages portrait of Kim II-sun and Kim Jong-iI, which Daily NK says is an “excellent, well-researched insight into the nature of the North Korean regime, the way it indoctrinates from birth, the way it controls, monitors and crushes dissent.”

8. This is Paradise! My North Korean Childhood
The story of Kang Hyok’s childhood in North Korea, co-authored by Philippe Grangereau. Kang lived through famine in the north, the hardest hit area of the country, an account of country living under a disturbing notion of “paradise”.

China strengthens resolve against North Korea nuclear test

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South Korea says China has agreed to cooperate in opposing North Korea’s threat to test a fourth nuclear device. The agreement was reached during a meeting with China’s visiting top diplomat in anticipation of a state visit by President Xi Jinping. China has been reluctant to publicly and explicitly warn its neighbor and historic ally against the tests.

A statement issued said the two sides would strengthen cooperation against North Korea’s nuclear tests and urge meaningful dialogue for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear programs. The statement said they agreed not to accept North Korea as a nuclear power.

The two Ministers also discussed an expected visit to South Korea by China’s President Xi Jinping that could come as early as June. South Korea’s Joongang Daily newspaper reports it would be the first visit by a Chinese president to Seoul before visiting Pyongyang in nearly two decades. That would send a signal to North Korea that while China is increasingly uneasy with its old ally it is becoming closer to its historic enemy.

Meanwhile, North Korea’s top nuclear negotiator met with former U.S. officials in Mongolia last week to discuss the issue.  Although unofficial, the talks were seen as a positive step to possibly reviving negotiations.

The China-hosted denuclearization talks with the two Koreas, Japan, Russia, and the United States were last held in 2008.  Since then, North Korea tested a second and third nuclear explosive and numerous rockets before declaring its intention to talk.


To move forward on North Korean human rights

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[Excerpts of a CFR piece by Roberta Cohen, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, specializing in human rights and humanitarian issues:]

For decades, the international community has largely sidestepped its responsibility to hold North Korea to account. To be sure, the challenges are formidable. Take the most publicized recommendation  from the report by UN Commission of Inquiry(COI) on Human Rights in the DPRK—that the situation be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Although a logical step, it will be difficult to implement because North Korea has not ratified the ICC’s Rome Statute; consequently the court has no jurisdiction over the case. It will require a UN Security Council referral, but China’s veto could thwart its adoption. China’s veto could also prevent targeted sanctions from being applied to those most responsible for crimes against humanity, another COI recommendation.

The report recommends tapping the entire UN system, most notably humanitarian and development organizations, so that they also address human rights concerns in their work. But here too it will be difficult to bring everyone on board. Those working on the ground may be resistant because it could interfere with their access and cooperation with the government. Yet agencies dealing with food, health, children, and refugees can hardly afford to overlook the findings in this report—state policies leading to mass starvation, discrimination in food distribution and health care, and children mistreated in camps—and then claim they’re doing their jobs of reaching the most vulnerable.

One tangible result thus far is the approval by the UN of an office in Asia to continue monitoring and documenting the human rights situation in North Korea and reinforcing the UN’s efforts to hold accountable those responsible for crimes against humanity.  If properly funded, staffed, and given a broad mandate, the office should be able to maintain the momentum created by the COI report.

A strong UN voice will be needed as well. Regrettably, COI Chair Michael Kirby’s powerful voice has begun to recede now that the COI’s work is completed, while Navi Pillay, another leading voice, will no longer be High Commissioner for Human Rights after July.

Overall, a sustained and broad-based effort will be needed by governments, international organizations, NGOs, foundations, experts, and business enterprises to make sure that human rights concerns in North Korea remain firmly rooted on the international agenda.

Walking Dead star to appear in movie of ‘Aquariums of Pyongyang’

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The Hollywood Reporter writes that Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun is teaming with Radar Pictures to adapt Kang Chol-Hwan’s autobiographical book The Aquariums of Pyongyang for the big screen.

“The movie is set in North Korea, one of the last bastions of hardline Communism. Its leaders have kept a tight grasp on the one-party regime, quashing any nascent opposition movements and sending all suspected dissidents to its brutal concentration camps for ‘re-education.’

Kang Chol-Hwan is the first survivor of one of these camps to escape and tell his story to the world, documenting the extreme conditions in these gulags and providing a personal insight into life in North Korea. Part horror story, part historical document, part memoir, part political tract, the book is a record of one man’s triumph over unbelievable adversity to expose the truths of North Korea to the modern world.”

Predictions for Kim Jong Un’s North Korea

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The Chosun Ilbo and the Ilmin International Relations Institute at Korea University questioned 135 North Korea experts — 86 from overseas, including the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and Europe — and 49 from South Korea.

Almost half the experts predict that Kim Jong Un will consolidate his grip on power within the next three to five years, but about one-third predict he will face increasing internal instability. But the chances of a coup d’état or regime collapse are seen as slim.

Asked to guess how much longer the Kim Jong-un regime will last, over one-third said five to 10 years, and one-third 10 to 20 years.

Consequently about half expect reunification to happen in the next 10 to 20 years, and one-fifth between five to 10 years from now.

Most say that an internal power struggle in the North would be the most likely agent to trigger a regime collapse in the North. Only one-third see economic failure as a more likely cause, and very few a public uprising.

The majority of experts believe that the North Korean regime will press ahead with reforms at the same timid rate, while one-fifth expect them to speed up. Yet there is little confidence that the reforms will help improve the North Korean economy.

Almost half of the experts feel it is China rather than the U.S. that holds the key to improving the North Korean economy, while some believe Washington’s and Beijing’s policies will have an equal impact. About equal numbers forecast that North Korea’s economic dependency on China will remain the same or get worse.

NGO reaction to US government grants promoting human rights for North Korea

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Nicholas Hamisevicz, a researcher at the Washington-based Korea Economic Institute, echos the sentiment that the benefits of US government grants to funds NGOs promoting human rights and democracy in North Korea were worth the risks.

“While many can have concerns … because of North Korea’s potential reaction, which could include persecution, jailing, and execution of North Korean citizens found to be connected or engaged with human rights activities, and the imprisonment of foreigners deemed to be undertaking these efforts in North Korea, I am still in favor of this call for grant applications,” Hamisevicz said.

Other observers cautioned against interpreting the grant call as any statement of US policy on North Korea. “[The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, or DRL] has specific responsibilities and is one bureau in the whole department of state, so this shouldn’t necessarily be seen as representing some sort of broader government policy,” said Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea (LiNK). “DRL’s remit is in their name (Democracy, Human Rights and Labor). It’s not all-encompassing, but it’s part of the puzzle,” he added, adding that the call would not be relevant for LiNK as the group does not accept government funding.

Greg Scarlatoiu, the executive director of the committee for Human Rights in North Korea, said that “over the years, State/DRL funding has been made available to organizations addressing North Korea from a broad range of angles.”

The grant call is nothing new, but indicates changing priorities at the State Department. While previous grant winners could receive funding of up to $3m a year, the ceiling of $350,000 meant that in 2014 “not many NGOs can work with this funding,” Bada Nam of the People for Successful Korean Reunification, an organization that helps North Korean defectors in China, said. “There are a lot of brilliant ideas to bring information into North Korea. Lots of NGOs are working on this but recently stopped due to financial problems.” Nam said.

The private radio station Open Radio for North Korea ended its broadcasts into North Korea earlier this year, apparently due to a grant coming to an end.

[The Guardian]

Criticism of US govt grants for North Korea ‘ignorant and insulting’

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The call for proposals by the US State Department’s Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor has attracted harsh public criticism, centering on three focal points:

1) That these types of activities (which could involve the carrying of illicit products into North Korea) mean that funding is actively encouraging violations of North Korean law.

2) That funding could be used to facilitate activities that place those who undertake them in danger.

3) That resulting projects will do little to help ordinary North Korean people.

In sum, naysayers feel that the money could end up promoting projects that are not only illegal, but also risky and ultimately quite unhelpful.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Even if one acknowledges that some illegality, danger, and even some unproductive outcomes may result, the fact is that the benefits still far outweigh the risks.

The illegality argument is misguided. It is no exaggeration to say that North Korea is the kind of endemically corrupt place where the person who does not engage in illegality of some sort is at risk of death. A vast and completely incomprehensible litany of activities is forbidden there.

Read more     

US government grants for promoting human rights in North Korea

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The call by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) offers applicants grants of up to $350,000 to promote “human rights and democratic principles in North Korea”. Proposals are sought that promote “access to information into, out of, and within North Korea,” the call says, including those involving “the production of media, including visual/video content, for DVDs, USBs, and other methods to send information into North Korea.”

But while many oppose North Korea’s long-standing information blockade and strict censorship laws, several observers told NK News that there could be serious risks for those involved in the transport or consumption of US-funded information, with provisions in the call clearly implying activities that both North Korean and Chinese authorities may view as illegal.

“[The call] is encouraging people to break their country’s laws, with no consideration of the possible consequences,” said James Hoare, a former British Charge D’affaires to Pyongyang. “I doubt whether those who devised these policies have given much thought to the likely consequences.”

As shown in the case of Kenneth Bae, the US national currently serving a 15-year sentence of hard labor in North Korea, Washington’s North Korea policy is not often helped by the arrest of American citizens attempting to share information that Pyongyang views with suspicion.

The grant call welcomes proposals “that support recommendations from the recently released report from the (United Nations) commission of inquiry on North”. While the UN commission operated on a strict “first do no harm” basis to ensure the safety of contributors, the risks involved in moving information in and out of North Korea suggest a contradiction with the State Department’s own strategy to improve human rights in North Korea.

The report, which offers the most comprehensive account of human rights violations in North Korea, explained how local authorities have been known to execute vendors found supplying external media, or tortured or imprisoned end-users found with foreign materials in their possession.

It also referenced the North Korean criminal code, which says that those found “listening to hostile broadcasting and collect[ing], keeping and distribut[ing] enemy propaganda”, would be sentenced to hard labor.”

Because the trafficking of physical information takes place along the Chinese-North Korean border, it could require the illicit movement of individuals and materials, which is likely to break both Chinese and North Korean laws.

Despite the risks involved with getting information into and out of North Korea, two human rights activists said the dangers were worth the benefits. “Brave policies, activists and strong convictions have made progress in human history… Doing nothing for fear that such grants may irritate the North Korean regime is cowardly,” said Eunkyoung Kwon, of Open Radio North Korea, an organization that has received US funding.

Bada Nam, secretary general of the People for Successful Korean Reunification, an organization that helps North Korean defectors in China, said there was a net benefit to the process of getting outside information into North Korea. “Even though it is so dangerous to deliver information inside NK, it is worth it to change the people inside,” Nam said.

“If there is no one providing information into North Korea, the NK people will not gain any access to the real world. I think they have the right to know the truth,” Nam said, adding that “the future is made by the people who take danger together”.

[The Guardian] 

The limits of China’s patience with North Korea

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[Excerpt by Scott A. Snyder from Council of Foreign Relations site]

A major foreign policy achievement that has thus far been credited to South Korean President Park Geun-hye during her first year in office has been the establishment of a stronger foundation for good relations with China.

Park and China’s president Xi Jinping have routinely made time for each other at multilateral summits, most recently on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit at The Hague. The hospitality afforded to Park stands in stark contrast both to the tensions that had characterized Sino-South Korean relations under Lee Myung-Bak and China’s treatment of Kim Jong-un, who remains in the dog house with Xi following nuclear and missile tests.

It will be interesting to see whether Beijing revises its assessment of Park following her Dresden speech and whether an improved Sino-South Korean relationship will influence China’s policies toward Pyongyang in the event of new North Korean provocations such as a fourth nuclear test or another inter-Korean clash in the West Sea.

What will Park and Xi be able to gain from a warming Sino-ROK relationship that thus far, symbolically at least, seems primarily to have developed at the expense of Kim Jong-un? And to what extent does Kim’s likely pique with Beijing carry costs, possibly including to stability in North Korea itself, that remain the sine qua non of China’s policy toward the peninsula? Read more