US State Dept responds to American student being sentenced by North Korea to 15 years hard labor

After North Korea sentenced an American student, Otto Frederick Warmbier, to 15 years of hard labor for removing a political banner from a hotel, the U.S. State Department fired back Wednesday, saying the punishment doesn’t fit the alleged crime.

Greg Scarlatoui, executive director for the Committee for Humans Rights in North Korea said Warmbier may be forced to work in agriculture, which happened with other American prisoners.  “He may spend his day planting apple trees. It will be fairly grueling forced labor,” Scarlatoui said.

The sentence of 15 years of hard labor against University of Virginia student Otto Frederick Warmbier is “unduly harsh,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, calling for his release. The United States urges North Korea “to pardon him and to grant him special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds,” Toner said.

The State Department spokesman accused North Korea of politicizing the arrests of U.S. citizens, saying, “It’s increasingly clear from its very public treatment of these cases.”

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson told The New York Times he met with two North Korean diplomats on Tuesday to lobby for American student Otto Warmbier’s release. Richardson is a longtime diplomat and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich has also been pushing behind the scenes for Warmbier’s release, an aid to the governor told CNN.

Analysts say it’s possible Warmbier will be released at some point, but very likely Kim Jong Un’s regime could use the student as leverage — and will want a VIP from the United States to travel to North Korea to get him.


American student Otto Warmbier receives harsh sentence in North Korea

North Korea’s highest court sentenced an American tourist to 15 years in prison with hard labor on Wednesday for subversion.

Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia undergraduate, was convicted and sentenced in a one-hour trial in North Korea’s Supreme Court. He was charged with subversion under Article 60 of North Korea’s criminal code. The court held that he had committed a crime “pursuant to the U.S. government’s hostile policy toward (the North), in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist.”

The 21-year-old from Wyoming, Ohio, said he had tried to steal a propaganda banner as a trophy.

Trials for foreigners facing similar charges in North Korea are generally short and punishments severe. Warmbier was arrested as he tried to leave the country in early January. He was in North Korea with a New Year’s tour group.

Warmbier had been staying at the Yanggakdo International Hotel. It is common for sections of tourist hotels to be reserved for North Korean staff and off-limits to foreigners.


North Korea nuclear threat not all bluff

Skeptics of North Korea’s nuclear threat, and there are many, have long clung to two comforting thoughts. While the North has the bomb, it doesn’t have a warhead small enough to put on a long-range rocket. And it certainly doesn’t have a re-entry vehicle to keep that warhead from burning up in the atmosphere before it could reach a target like, as it has suggested before, Manhattan.

North Korea on Tuesday suggested it will soon show the world it has mastered both technologies. That would require a huge jump in the North’s suspected nuclear capabilities, so it may be just the latest case of Pyongyang propaganda. But if it delivers, it will put to rest one other comforting thought: that it’s safe for policymakers in Washington and elsewhere to take North Korea’s claims as mainly just bluster.

Kim Jong Un supposedly ordered the commencement of preparations for a “nuclear warhead explosion test” and test-firings of “several kinds of ballistic rockets able to carry nuclear warheads” to be conducted soon. As with all such reports, it’s hard to separate Pyongyang’s wishful thinking from the current reality.

Seoul, meanwhile, was holding to its skeptical line. Its Defense Ministry said Tuesday it remains unconvinced the North has achieved re-entry vehicle technology. Spokesman Moon Sang Gyun said the assessment is based on South Korean and U.S. intelligence. He refused to elaborate.

[Read full AP article]

UN rights envoy urges prosecution of Kim Jong Un

The United Nations human rights investigator for North Korea called Monday for leader Kim Jong Un and senior officials in the country to be prosecuted for committing crimes against humanity.

Marzuki Darusman told the U.N. Human Rights Council that North Korea is devoting huge resources to developing nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction while many of its citizens lack sufficient food and others work in “slave-like conditions”.

The delegation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) boycotted the session. The European Union, United States and Japan supported Darusman’s call for accountability, although they did not refer to Kim by name.

Ambassador Robert King, U.S. envoy on North Korea, denounced the “egregious human rights violations committed by the DPRK” and said that the United States would work with other countries to “seek ways to advance accountability for those most responsible”.

China, Pyongyang’s ally, took a more conciliatory tone, saying human rights issues should not be politicized and calling for a comprehensive approach to dealing with North Korea.

Darusman, referring to a report he issued last month, said: “I would like to reiterate my appeal to the international community to move forward to ensure accountability of the senior leadership of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, including that of Mr. Kim Jong Un.”

This could be via the International Criminal Court (ICC) but failing consensus among major powers, North Korea’s leadership could be prosecuted in a third country, he said.


US deploys additional ballistic missile defense asset in the Korean peninsula

In response to North Korea’s 4th nuclear test and its firing of a long-range missile, the US additionally deployed ballistic missile defense assets in the Korean Peninsula.

Commander of the Eighth US Army Thomas Vandal said on February 13 that “North Korea’s ongoing development of a ballistic missile in defiance of the will of the international community requires an effective ballistic missile defense from the Korea-US alliance. The additional deployment of ballistic missile defense assets is part of our emergency deployment readiness posture.”

PAC-3 is a low-altitude defense intercept missile which can strike a North Korean short and middle-distance missile at a height of 30 to 40km. While this is not targeting the long-range missile that North Korea recently fired, it will be interpreted as a strong warning towards North Korea.

The PAC-3 unit to be deployed will be integrated into the Korea-US combined and joint ballistic missile defense system.

Korea and the US are carrying out the most advanced and largest combined training, being held from March 7 to April 30. There are going to be 5,750 troops and 1 Carrier Strike Group and 45 fighters, up significantly from the year before. And with the deployment of the US strategic asset into the Korean Peninsula, both countries will show North Korea their combined power.

[Defence Talk]

The rise and fall of Jang Song-thaek, son-in-law of the North Korean theocracy – Part 1

In late 2013, Jang Song-thaek, an uncle of Kim Jong-un was taken to the Gang Gun Military Academy in a Pyongyang suburb. Hundreds of officials were gathered there to witness the execution of Mr. Jang’s two trusted deputies in the administrative department of the ruling Workers’ Party. Jang, widely considered the second-most powerful figure in the North, fainted during the ordeal, according to a new book published in South Korea that offers a rare glimpse into the secretive Pyongyang regime.

“Son-in-Law of a Theocracy,” by Ra Jong-yil, a former deputy director of the National Intelligence Service, is a rich biography of Jang Song-thaek, the most prominent victim of the purges his young nephew has conducted since assuming power in 2011.

Mr. Jang was convicted of treason in 2013, and was executed at the same place and in the same way as his deputies, the South Korean intelligence agency said.

The book asserts that although he was a fixture of the North Korean political elite for decades, he dreamed of reforming his country. “With his execution, North Korea lost virtually the only person there who could have helped the country introduce reform and openness,” Mr. Ra said during a recent interview.   Continued

The rise and fall of Jang Song-thaek, son-in-law of the North Korean theocracy – Part 2

Jang Song-thaek had met one of the daughters of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, while both attended Kim Il-sung University in the mid-1960s. The daughter, Kim Kyong-hee, developed a crush on Mr. Jang, who was tall and humorous — and sang and played the accordion. Her father transferred the young man to a provincial college to keep the two apart. But Ms. Kim hopped in her Soviet Volga sedan to see Mr. Jang each weekend. Once they married in 1972, Mr. Jang’s career took off under the patronage of Kim Jong-il, his brother-in-law and the designated successor of the regime. Few benefited more than Mr. Jang from the regime he loyally served. But he was never fully embraced by the Kim family because he was not blood kin.

North Korean diplomats who have defected to South Korea also said that during his frequent trips overseas to shop for Mr. Kim, Mr. Jang would drink heavily and speak dejectedly about people dying of hunger back home. Mr. Ra said Hwang Jang-yop, a North Korean party secretary who defected to Seoul in 1997 shared a conversation he once had with Mr. Jang. When told that the North’s economy was cratering, Mr. Jang responded sarcastically: “How can an economy already at the bottom go further down?”

When Kim Jong-il banished Mr. Jang three times for overstepping his authority, his wife intervened on his behalf. After Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke in 2008 and died in 2011, Mr. Jang helped his young nephew, Kim Jong-un, establish himself as successor. At the same time, he vastly expanded his own influence — and ambition.  Continued

The rise and fall of Jang Song-thaek, son-in-law of the North Korean theocracy – Part 3

Jang Song-thaek wrested the lucrative right of exporting coal to China from the military and gave it to his administrative department. He purged his rivals. Mr. Jang’s campaign for more influence was apparently aimed at pushing for the kind of economic overhaul that China has introduced, Mr. Ra wrote. But he underestimated how unpalatable the idea was to Kim Jong-un, whose totalitarian rule would be undermined by such reform.

In 2013, Kim Jong-un, after hearing complaints about Mr. Jang’s expansion of power, ordered his department to relinquish the management of a fishing farm and a condensed milk factory. But officials loyal Jang, blocked those who arrived to carry out Kim’s orders from entering their premises. It was probably the last straw for Kim, still unsure about himself and extremely sensitive about any challenge to his supposedly monolithic leadership. Meanwhile, Mr. Jang’s enemies in the secret police were eager to go after him.

When announcing his execution, North Korea said Mr. Jang, “human scum worse than a dog,” had betrayed the Kim family by plotting to overthrow the younger Mr. Kim, using economic collapse as a pretext, and to rule the country himself as premier and “reformer.”

Jang Song-thaek’s name was then expurgated from all official records in North Korea.

[New York Times]

Life in North Korea 100 times worse than China

After defecting from North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee spent 10 difficult years in China, but those years also revealed she had been lied to her entire life in North Korea.

“For someone who was brainwashed so severely, …I was mesmerized by seeing development, cities.” It took a while to accept that the economic situation in North Korea was 100 times worse than in China. … Lee gradually learned to accept the shocking truth: “Life in North Korea is the worst life”.

Lee also began to appreciate the basic human rights and freedoms that had been denied to her. Being able to move around China without having to get a travel certificate was a revelation. “I could go wherever I wanted if I had money to pay for the ticket, that’s huge,” she said.

Gradually she realized what freedom really meant: “I don’t have to hide to watch China TV, I don’t have to cover the window, I can have the sound loud, I can listen to music loudly. I realized I had lived in a virtual prison [in North Korea].”

Eighteen years later, she thinks more North Koreans understand that they are not living in paradise and that there are problems with the economy, even if the conditions are not as bad as the days of the big famine in the 1990s.

“At least they know they are not the best country, they are not the happiest human beings, they are not living in paradise and they know there are economic problems, nearly 50 per cent know that,” she said.

“But the Kim dynasty’s power is too big, they can’t say that or they will be sent to a political prison camp. Who can risk that?” They also risk the lives of three generations of their family. “They are fully aware that they are not only killing themselves.”


Russia and China attempt to rein in North Korea

Russia and China have urged North Korea to halt ballistic-missile tests and return to talks on its nuclear program. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi issued the appeal following talks in Moscow on March 11.

The two met a day after North Korea defied the United Nations by firing two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea.

Just prior to the joint Russian-Chinese statement, North Korean official media said leader Kim Jong Un had watched a ballistic-missile test launch and ordered the country to improve its nuclear attack capability by conducting more tests.