Monthly Archives: September 2014

More on Kim Jong Un’s health

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The world is fascinated by North Korea, and often seems happy to believe the wilder stories – whether there is evidence or not. Kim’s absence is no different: One of the strangest stories doing the rounds is an ambiguously sourced one in a British newspaper that suggests that Kim has become addicted to Swiss cheese. “The tubby North Korean dictator has become hooked on Emmental,” the Daily Mirror reported this week, adding that Kim had “gorged on so much that he has ballooned in size and is now walking with a limp.”

Weirdly, there might be a kernel of truth there: Kim has clearly put on weight since becoming leader, and analysts say it may be causing wider health problems. “Any perceptive viewer of the evening news within the DPRK will already know that Kim Jong-un has been limping about, even requiring the use of a golf cart on several occasions,” says Adam Cathcart, editor in chief of North Korea-watching Web site Sino-NK.

There are suggestions that the North Korean leader could have gout or diabetes, though his health problems may be simpler. Kim “needs to lose weight, eat better and exercise more,” Aidan Foster Carter, an honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University, explains in an e-mail. “More no-brainer than mystery imho, this one,” he added.

[Adam Taylor, writing in The Washington Post]

Reading into Kim Jong-Un’s “uncomfortable illness”

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North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un is suffering a serious medical problem or faces a threat to his power from his highest aides – or maybe both.That’s the inference of an extraordinary acknowledgement from Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) that the portly 30-or-so-year-old heir to power over North Korea is in trouble one way or another.  After disappearing from public view for more than three weeks, KCNA blamed his absence on what it carefully described as an “uncomfortable physical condition.”

In a society in which the biggest stories tend to take most people by surprise, this report was shocking not just because of the news that the anointed leader was ill. The question was why was KCNA reporting his illness  considering that the long-running illness of his late father, Kim Jong-il, never made the news at all. Why, however, have the power brokers and rule-makers in Pyongyang failed to cover up his illness as they did his father’s prolonged absence from view?

Kim Jong-un, obviously overweight, photographed walking with a limp in several appearances before the last one on September 3, no doubt inherits some of his father’s unhealthy genes and lifestyle.The conventional wisdom, reported by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, is that he may be suffering from gout.  That’s described by the Mayo Clinic as “characterized by sudden, severe attacks of pain, redness and tenderness in joints, often the joint at the base of the big toe.”

The pain would be terrible: “An acute attack of gout can wake you up in the middle of the night with the sensation that your big toe is on fire.” Causes relate to drinking and obesity – certainly a risk factor in Kim Jong-un, who some observers think has been gaining weight since taking over the reins after his father’s lavish funeral.

A power struggle at the top, however, may also be in play here.  The evidence lies in an artfully bland KCNA report on the “2nd session of the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly” held in Pyongyang this week. Kim Jong-un’s name does not come up until the tail end of the report. The absence of Kim Jong-un — or any mention of his name at the session — is strange indeed considering that he has the titles of first secretary of the Workers’ Party, first chairman of the national defense commission and supreme commander of the Korean people’s army – all represented on the occasion.

Stranger still, not until the final sentences of the lengthy report do we see the news of portentous shifts in the National Defense Commission, the real center of power. Choe Ryong-hae, a former vice marshal and head of the political bureau of the Korean People’s Army – the term covers the entire armed forces – had been “recalled,” said the report, in English, as vice chairman of the commission.

In his place, Hwang Pyong-so,  recently made a vice marshal, assumed the title of vice chairman and also that of head of the KPA’s politburo, a position seen as second only to the KPA commander, Kim Jong-un. The changes in the National Defense Commission were made “at the proposal of Kim Jong-un,” according to the KCNA report.

[Donald Kirk, writing in Forbes

Kim Jong-un misses North Korea Parliament meeting

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Kim Jong-un, who hasn’t been seen in public for more than three weeks, was absent from a gathering of top party and government officials on Thursday, state television showed, fuelling speculation that health problems may be keeping the 31-year-old out of the public eye.

Kim failed to attend a session of the North Korean parliament for the first time since coming to power almost three years ago, China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported.

But analysts warned against reading too much into Kim’s absence. “Kim Jong Il didn’t attend every time, either,” said Chris Green, a North Korea expert at Seoul-based Daily NK website. “Moreover, we know that the SPA primarily performs a demonstrative function, it is not a true decision-making body.”

At the parliamentary meeting, state media said Choe Ryong Hae had been removed from the post of vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, a body chaired by Kim. Choe Ryong Hae  was replaced by Hwang Pyong So, member of a powerful faction created in the 1970s by the father of the current leader, to boost a personality cult around his family.

Choe had been widely seen as a new right-hand man to Kim Jong Un after he purged his uncle last year, but had since fallen back into the shadows.


Matthew Miller’s North Korean prison photo

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matthew miller jail uniform north KoreaA North Korean government official released a photo of Miller, taken on Wednesday. Dressed in a blue-gray prison garment with the number 107 and his head shaved, Miller is seen with his eyes downcast, staring away from the camera.

Details about where he’ll serve his sentence or what labor he will be required to do were not released.

Miller was convicted of committing “acts hostile” to North Korea and sentenced earlier this month. North Korea has accused him of ripping up his visa on arrival to the country so he could go to prison and expose human rights violations there, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

KCNA described him as “rudely behaved,” saying he was sent to infiltrate prison as part of a United States campaign against North Korea. “He perpetrated the above-said acts in the hope of becoming a world famous guy and the second Snowden through intentional hooliganism,” state media said.


US push for Human Rights accountability in North Korea

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Seeking to push the issue of human rights abuses in North Korea up the diplomatic agenda, Secretary of State John Kerry made a passionate appeal to world leaders to seek accountability for perpetrators of torture, rape and other atrocities.

“We simply cannot be blind to egregious affronts to human nature,” Mr. Kerry said at a meeting Tuesday in New York with the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea and the top United Nations official for human rights. “We cannot accept it. Silence would be greatest abuse of all.”

It was the first time the top diplomats from the three countries had publicly spoken about human rights in North Korea, though none of them spelled out exactly how to seek redress.

Any referral to the International Criminal Court would have to be authorized by the United Nations Security Council, a measure that, at the moment at least, is unlikely considering that Pyongyang’s staunch ally, China, wields veto power.

The new United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein of Jordan, cited a landmark report published by a United Nations commission of inquiry earlier this year documenting grave rights abuses and calling for a referral to the Hague-based tribunal.

Prince Zeid said North Korean officials had signaled the country “was prepared to some degree to open to greater engagement with international human rights mechanisms.” But, he said, his office would continue to document rights abuses there, including the establishment of a field office soon, based in South Korea.

Kerry said that abuses detailed in the UN commission’s 400-page report “have no place in the 21st century.” The commission estimated that between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners are currently detained in four large camps, where deliberate starvation has been used as a means of control and punishment.

Rights activists say they are hopeful a resolution could be introduced in the General Assembly next month.

[NY Times/AP]

Where in the world is Kim Jong Un?

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Kim jong un Ri sol juNorth Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been out of the public eye for 20 days since attending a concert on Sept. 3 with his wife Ri Sol-ju. (See inset photo.)

The North Korean leader appeared in public 17 times in June, 24 times in July and 16 times in August. But his only public appearance in September was the concert.

This has led to speculation that he is ill. In July he was seen on state TV in July with a slight limp in his right leg and again earlier this month limping on his left leg.

Kim is also getting fatter, leading to rumors that he is suffering from stress and symptoms of heart disease, Free North Korea Radio reported Wednesday. The rumors say Kim has been suffering the symptoms since the execution of his uncle Jang Song-taek and over-eating and drinking heavily.

A South Korean Unification Ministry official warned against jumping to conclusions. “In 2012, Kim Jong-un disappeared from view for 23 days and last year for 17 days,” the official recalled. “Of course it’s possible that there is something wrong …”

[Chosun Ilbo]

John Kerry speaks out on North Korean ‘evil’ labor camps

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American Secretary of State, John Kerry, has told North Korea to shut down its prison camps – describing them as an evil system. He said the barbarity and inhumanity of the labor colonies brought shame on the country.

Mr Kerry was speaking at an event in New York on North Korean human rights abuses on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting. “We simply cannot be blind to these egregious affronts to human nature… silence would be the greatest abuse of all,” said Mr Kerry at the meeting, which was also attended by the South Korean and Japanese foreign ministers.

North Korea has long rejected the charge that it maintains camps for up to a 120,000 prisoners – despite the presentation of detailed satellite pictures and testimony from former prisoners and guards. It likewise denies all charges of repression and brutality and regularly describes criticism of its record as an attempt to undermine its leadership.

US administrations were for long reluctant to challenge North Korea too forcefully on its human rights record, for fear of provoking tension in the region. Instead, they focused on North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, while attempting to draw the North Koreans into negotiations with offers of diplomatic and economic concessions.

The Obama administration, however, has increased sanctions on the North and gave its backing to a thorough human rights report commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council, which was published in February. That report concluded that the gravity and scale of abuses had no parallel in the contemporary world.

“The crimes against humanity entail extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, persecution on political, religious and gender grounds… and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation,” concluded the report presented by a panel of international jurists.


North Korea a powerful temptation for some Americans

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Sneaking into autocratic, cloistered North Korea has proven a strange and powerful temptation for some Americans. Sometimes the spur is deep religious conviction. Sometimes it’s discontent with America and a belief that things will be different in a country that can seem like its polar opposite. Quite often, analysts say, it’s mental or personal problems – or simply a case of a person acting upon a very, very bad idea.

During the Cold War, a handful of U.S. soldiers, some of whom knew little about life in the North, fled across the Demilitarized Zone and later appeared in North Korean propaganda films. Other defector soldiers had problems in their military units or issues with family at home. One was reportedly lured north by a female North Korean agent.

In the decades after the war, some Americans harbored “glamorous notions of North Korea as a socialist paradise,” said John Delury, an Asia expert at Yonsei University in Seoul. “But that’s just not part of the mix any more. Even in the furthest fringes of American online culture, you don’t find that notion.”

Mental health issues have often played a part, Delury said. “It’s seen as a forbidden country … a place that’s perceived in the American mind as being locked down,” Delury said. “To cross the border, in some ways, could be alluring” to people looking to break social rules.

Whatever their reasons, Americans detained in North Korea, including three currently in custody, are major complications for Washington, which must decide whether to let a U.S. citizen languish or to provide Pyongyang with a propaganda victory by sending a senior U.S. envoy to negotiate a release.

For North Korea, getting a senior U.S. official or an ex-president to visit is a huge propaganda coup. It allows Pyongyang to plaster its newspapers and TV screens with scenes meant to show its powerful leaders welcoming humbled American dignitaries, said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in South Korea.

Washington has repeatedly offered to send its envoy for North Korean human rights to discuss the currently detained Americans, but Pyongyang has so far balked.

“The North Koreans are in no hurry,” Lankov said. “It’s a sellers’ market. They say, ‘This is our price: a senior visit and some concessions. These are our goods, these Americans. If you don’t want to pay, that’s your problem. We can wait.’”


North Korea threatens retaliation if defectors’ leaflets are launched from South

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A group of South Korean activists plans to launch 200,000 anti-Pyongyang leaflets slung from gas-filled balloons into North Korea from a site near the border despite retaliatory threats from North Korea. Civic groups in the South regularly float leaflets over the border with messages criticizing the Kim dynasty and urging the North Korean people to rise up against repression.

The North’s official Internet website Uriminzokkiri reads: “We will never sit by idly as a vicious provocative act, openly backed by South Korean authorities, is being committed against us at a time when our athletes are taking part in the Asian Games” [hosted by Seoul].

North Korea’s military warned it would immediately “wipe out” those “provocateurs” and their supporters if they push through with such launches. These were not “simply empty” words, the website warned. “Should puppet authorities instigate so-called ‘defectors’ to push through with the leaflet launch, there would be unpredictable consequences,” it added.

But South Korean activists said they would not flinch at the threats. “Let the North rage in anger and scream. We will do it as planned”, Park Sang-Hak who leads the activists’ group told AFP.

The warning came days after North Korea sent a rare message to the South Korean president’s office, demanding an end to such anti-Pyongyang leaflets. The message, addressed to the presidential Blue House, was sent through a military hotline on Monday by the North’s powerful National Defence Commission (NDC).

It urged Seoul to stop anti-North activists sending leaflets over the border, saying action would have to be taken before the North would consider the South’s recent proposal for high-level talks.

North Korea has sent 150 athletes for the Asian Games, who are being guarded by hundreds of South Korean security personnel.


Matthew Miller’s goal was imprisonment in North Korea to expose human rights violations

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American Matthew Miller ripped up his visa upon arrival in North Korea so he could go to prison and expose human rights violations there, state media KCNA said Saturday. Miller shouted his desire to seek asylum, and was later convicted of committing “acts hostile” to North Korea and sentenced to six years of hard labor last week.

Saturday’s report in the state-run Korean Central News Agency boldly heaped blame on Miller, claiming his acts were a preconceived plan to gain notoriety. State media described him as “rudely behaved,” saying he was sent to infiltrate prison as part of a United States campaign against North Korea.

“He perpetrated the above-said acts in the hope of becoming a world famous guy and the second Snowden through intentional hooliganism,” state media said. (Edward Snowden got asylum from Russia, where he fled last year after leaking classified U.S. government documents.)

Once sentenced, Miller hoped to meet Kenneth Bae, another American detained in North Korea. Miller planned to secure Bae’s release so both can serve as “witnesses” to the human rights violations in the nation, state media said.

Earlier this month, Miller told CNN’s Will Ripley that he “prepared to violate the law of DPRK before coming here. And I deliberately committed my crime.” But Miller didn’t elaborate on what his “crime” was. He said he wouldn’t learn of his charges until he went to trial.

Miller’s family lives in Bakersfield, California. In a July interview, a neighbor told The Associated Press that Miller went to South Korea about four years ago to visit his brother and started teaching English. He then traveled to North Korea this year after arranging a private tour through the U.S.-based company Uri Tours, which takes tourists into North Korea.