Monthly Archives: March 2019

North Korea threatens to suspend denuclearization talks with US

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North Korea is considering suspending denuclearization talks with the United States unless Washington changes its stance after the breakdown of a summit meeting in Hanoi between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a senior North Korean official said Friday.

Kim Jong Un is set to make an official announcement soon on whether to continue diplomatic talks and maintain the country’s moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests, Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui told foreign diplomats and journalists in Pyongyang, the Associated Press reported.

Choe said North Korea was deeply disappointed by the breakdown of the talks in Hanoi and that the United States had missed a golden opportunity there. She said Pyongyang now has no intention of compromising or continuing talks unless the United States changes its “political calculation” and takes measures that are commensurate with the steps North Korea has already taken, such as the 15-month moratorium on launches and tests.

“I want to make it clear that the gangster-like stand of the U.S. will eventually put the situation in danger,” she added. “We have neither the intention to compromise with the U.S. in any form nor much less the desire or plan to conduct this kind of negotiation.”

Trump’s counteroffer was widely seen as unrealistic. He tried to persuade Kim to “go big” and surrender his entire arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in return for “a bright future” economically. Choe, who attended the Hanoi summit, said Kim was puzzled by what she called the “eccentric” negotiation position of the United States, but she said the North Korean leader still had a good relationship with Trump.

“Personal relations between the two supreme leaders are still good, and the chemistry is mysteriously wonderful,” she said, while accusing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton of creating an atmosphere of “hostility and mistrust.”

John Delury, an expert on East Asia at Seoul’s Yonsei University, said Choe’s comments could be seen as a response to Bolton’s threat to ramp up sanctions and did not mean the door to dialogue was closed. “This is each side reminding each other what’s at stake,” he said.

Nevertheless, the deterioration in relations has been a major blow to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has staked his reputation on closer ties with North Korea.

[Washington Post]

My name is Prisoner 42

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Anyone in North Korea who is discovered to be a Christian is quickly eradicated from society into detention centers, re-education camps and maximum-security hard labor prison camps known as the Kwan-li-so where political prisoners are often sent.

“Open Doors” estimates there are 250,000 imprisoned North Koreans—50,000 of which are political prisoners jailed for their Christian faith. Following, a North Korean prison camp survivor walks us through her difficult journey in a North Korean prison:

I was in China because I needed to feed myself and my family. It was there that I met some Christians. I was touched by them. They never really spoke about the gospel, but I participated in their worship services.

Then one day a black car pulled up next to me. I thought the man wanted to ask for directions, but the driver and other men stepped out of the car and grabbed me. I tried to get away, but they pushed me into the car.

After a few weeks in a Chinese prison cell, I was brought to this North Korean prison. The first day, I had to strip off all my clothes, and they searched every part of my body to see if I had hidden anything, money especially. They shaved off all my hair and brought me to a prison cell. 

The name I was born with was the first thing they took away from me when I arrived at the prison. Every morning at 8 a.m., they call for “42.” To get to them, I have to crawl on my elbows through the cat-flap. When I stand up, I must keep my head down. I’m not allowed to look at the guards.

Each day begins the same. I put my hands behind my back and follow the guards to the interrogation room. Each day for an hour, they ask the same questions: “Why were you in China?”, “Are you a Christian?”,  “Who did you meet”, “Did you go to church?”, and “Did you have a Bible?”

Every day, I’m beaten and kicked—it hurts the most when they hit my ears. My ears ring for hours, sometimes days. The space in my cell is so small I can barely lie down. It isn’t often that I get to lie down. They force me to sit on my knees with closed fists and never allow me to open them. 

[Read full story of this North Korean defector]

North Korea returns Otto Warmbier lawsuit

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North Korea has sent back a $500 million lawsuit to a U.S. District Court that ordered the Kim Jong Un regime to compensate the parents of Otto Warmbier for the student’s death in 2017.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia had issued a default judgment in December, ordering North Korea to pay $450 million in punitive damages to the estate of Warmbier and his parents. The remaining $50 million was to cover “pain and suffering,” economic losses and medical costs.

North Korea rejected the suit following its delivery to the foreign ministry, with Pyongyang denying responsibility for Warmbier’s death.

Otto Warmbier was arrested in Pyongyang in January 2016. The former U.S. captive had fallen into a coma by 2017, with North Korea claiming Otto Warmbier had contracted botulism, a claim that is under dispute.

President Trump has said he struggles with a “very, very delicate balance” between negotiations and being mindful of the Warmbiers.

[UPI]

Persecution of Christians in North Korea

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Estimates vary about how many Christians are in North Korea, but persecution watchdog group Open Doors places the number around 300,000, most of whom operate in secret networks of tiny house churches.

Christianity is illegal in North Korea and possessing a Bible, holding open religious services or making any attempt to build underground church networks can result in torture, lengthy prison terms or execution.

A North Korean defector, identified only as J.M., shared how he encountered Christianity after he fled to China in 1998. He was arrested by Chinese police and sent back home in 2001, and after serving several months in prison he attempted to share his faith with his parents. In 2002, J.M. escaped to South Korea so he could worship freely, and is today a Seoul-based pastor trying to promote Christianity in North Korea.

Pastor Peter Jung explains that his group provides shelter, food, and money to North Koreans visiting Chinese border towns. Before they return home, Jung said his group asks the North Korean visitors to memorize Bible verses or carry Bibles with them to share the Gospel with their friends and family.

Jung’s wife, Lee Han Byeol, also a North Korean refugee living in Seoul, recalled watching her father pray whenever her mother slipped into China. “I saw him praying many times. … My mom risked her life to go to China illegally to feed our family.” Lee said she didn’t know about Christianity at the time, as her father kept his faith to himself until his death in an apparent effort to protect his family.

According to statistics from the U.S. State Department, an estimated 120,000 Christians, defectors, and political dissidents are imprisoned in North Korean labor concentration camps where they face brutal torture.

[Christian Examiner]

Any impact of Trump-Kim summits on North Korea’s persecuted Christians?

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When President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un abruptly ended denuclearization talks in Vietnam, watchdog groups and other experts weighing in on the impact.

As far as the impact on Christians in North Korea, Justin Hastings, a University of Sydney professor of international relations and comparative politics, told Christianity Today the summit is unlikely to help Christians, only in the long term, because “Christian influence in North Korea is one of the North Korean regime’s fears.”

Open Doors USA told Fox News Christian persecution is worsening in North Korea, according to their sources on the ground. “Tens of thousands of people are in concentration camps because they professed faith or were caught owning a Bible. We have seen little change thus far,” David Curry, president and CEO of Open Doors USA, said.

Jamie Kim, the chair of the Lausanne Movement’s North Korea Committee, believes further dialogue will result in Christian engagement. “Christians have led the way toward bridge building in the last 20-plus years, and the summit can potentially open the border between North and South Korea. While many of the Western NGOs and businesses have abandoned North Korea, it is the Christians who have stayed the ground.” Kim says Christians and non-profits should train and prepare for work inside the country should a door open in the next few years.

An anonymous Seoul-based researcher on North Korean affairs noted the United States’ travel ban preventing Americans from traveling to North Korea is not helping in a crucial need to expose the people to outsiders. “Any genuine transformation in the treatment of Christians in the country is unlikely to happen without a risky change in the regime’s approach to governance or, indeed, a complete change in the regime itself to a new government that allows freedom of religion,” the researcher explained.

[Fox News]

South Korean TV shows embolden North Korean defectors

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South Korean television shows that feature North Koreans have transformed defectors’ attitudes toward speaking publicly about their experiences and identity.

After studying fellow defectors and their relationship to South Korean media, Ken Eom said after three such television shows gained widespread popularity, defectors shed their old habit of silence. North Koreans on television are emboldening others to speak out. Beyond the money and the merits of a measure of fame, defectors are also motivated by an opportunity to “rebuild the credibility of the North Korean refugee community”.

“After the TV shows [began to be watched], defectors were no longer afraid to talk about their story in public,” Eom said during a presentation of his thesis. The defector, who is in his 30s, added the shows, sometimes geared to bringing on the laughs with light-hearted tales, are far from perfect; they’re not well liked by the defector community, with some defectors have been accused by other defectors of “fake testimonies” on television.

Eom asked his interview subjects what they thought about the shows. “It was very surprising,” said Eom. “They really hate those TV shows. But they also say it’s necessary. Without TV, nobody knows of the North Korean refugee.”

Eom feels South Koreans “really don’t care” about North Koreans. Stereotypes about the regime’s abysmal human rights record, its prison camps and nuclear weapons program, deeply hurt defectors. But the shows, despite their flaws, provide many North Koreans with a rare opportunity to present their stories and to “just talk about their normal lives.”

“It’s better than nothing,” Eom said.

[UPI]

South Korean perceptions of North Korean defectors have changed over time

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According to a recent survey from the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, less than 6 percent of North Korean defectors said they completed university education in the North. Once in the South, North Koreans often take jobs as day laborers, or in the service sector.

It is perhaps unsurprising defectors are applying in large numbers to be on South Korean television shows that feature North Koreans, where the pay is good, they can sit in a relatively comfortable TV studio, and gain a bit of fame on local television.

Casey Lartigue, one of the co-founders of TNKR, said South Korean perceptions of North Korean defectors or refugees have changed over time. “South Koreans [in the ’90s] used to ask them questions in a very judgmental way, saying, ‘Why did you abandon your family’,” …adding the newcomers were often suspected of being spies. With the rising number of escapees, it was harder to call these people traitors or spies, and easier to understand North Koreans were flocking to the prosperous South in search of better opportunities.

Defector activists have said South Korean TV shows, copied to flash drives, have been spreading secretly in North Korea. Eom told UPI the shows are “really powerful,” and if ordinary North Koreans are better able to access South Korean media, “North Korea would be gone.”

But he also said he spoke to a defector who arrived earlier this year in the South, who confirmed North Korea is cracking down on TV shows; copying shows to flash drives could bring a three-year prison sentence in the North.

[UPI]

North Korea asks for food aid while hinting at rocket launch

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Kim Jong Un went into his summit with President Trump with one objective: relief from international sanctions crippling North Korea’s economy. Having come away from the Hanoi summit empty-handed, North Korea is now inching toward provocation and simultaneously tugging at heartstrings.

Satellite images have detected activity at a launch facility and a missile manufacturing complex — sites North Korea knows full well are being closely watched — signaling the country may be gearing up for a rocket launch, and rattling nerves in Washington.

At the same time, the United Nations last week said that harvests in North Korea were down 9% in 2018, the lowest yield in a decade, and that 3.8 million people — 1 out of 7 North Koreans — were urgently in need of “life-saving aid.”

In a leaked memo in the lead-up to the Hanoi summit, a North Korean official pleaded for assistance from international organizations to address an impending food shortage that he said was caused not only by abnormally high temperatures and natural disasters, but by “barbaric and inhuman sanctions.”

For the moment, much of Washington’s attention is trained on the potential provocation. Commercial satellite images signal North Korea is taking steps to launch a rocket, analysts said.

Melissa Hanham, a nuclear expert at the One Earth Future Foundation, said in all likelihood, North Korea will launch a space rocket rather than test a missile. Even so, the timing would send a message, she said.

Hazel Smith, a veteran North Korea scholar who was previously based in North Korea working for U.N. agencies, said it would be a “very big mistake” to dismiss the request for aid as a government ploy. Smith, professor of international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said there was no doubt restrictions on North Korea’s oil imports — imposed in September 2017 — led to decreased agricultural productivity.

At least one country has heeded North Korea’s plea. Russia shipped 2,092 tons of wheat in humanitarian aid to feed children and pregnant women. Emblazoned in blue across the length of the white 50 kg sacks, with the stamp of the World Food Programme, were the words: “Gift of Russian Federation.”

[Los Angeles Times]

Top Trump official may have just doomed US-North Korea talks

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A top Trump administration official has all but admitted that the US stance toward North Korea talks is now a hardline one. What this means, some analysts say, is that the American position will sink any chance for progress in US-North Korea negotiations over ending its nuclear program.

A senior State Department official made a stunning remark when asked if the Trump administration agrees on how to handle the complexities of talks with North Korea: “Nobody in the administration advocates a step-by-step approach,” the official said. “In all cases, the expectation is a complete denuclearization of North Korea as a condition for all the other steps … being taken.” In other words, for Pyongyang to receive any kind of benefits like sanctions relief, it has to dismantle its entire nuclear arsenal first.

“Only through practical reciprocal steps will we get closer to denuclearization & peace and away from dangerous & irresponsible ‘fire & fury’ threats,” Arms Control Association Director Daryl Kimball also tweeted.

Here’s why analysts closely following the US-North Korea drama are so worried: Pyongyang for years has said that the only way it would consider giving up its nuclear weapons is through a step-by-step process where both sides offer reciprocal, commensurate concessions. By resolving smaller disagreements, like lifting sanctions in exchange for the closure of an important nuclear facility, over time the US and North Korea would eventually arrive at the grand prize: the end of Pyongyang’s nuclear threat.

This abrupt change in tone isn’t trivial. The North Koreans pay very close attention to any and all statements coming from the US government, and what they just heard is that the US wants “all or nothing.” It’s therefore possible that Pyongyang will get angry at the new rhetoric, thereby threatening the future of negotiations and possibly putting both nations back on the path to war.

“That could very well backfire,” says Harry Kazianis, a North Korea expert at the Center for the National Interest, by enticing Pyongyang “to push back with an intercontinental ballistic missile test in the coming weeks.”

Perhaps by indicating that the US will play hardball from here on out, the US aims to have North Korea moderate its own hardline position.

What’s clear, though, is that this statement won’t be taken kindly by the Kim regime. The US may want to continue negotiations, but comments like the official’s yesterday threaten to end them.

[Vox]

North Korea mentions summit failure in party newspaper

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North Korea is changing its narrative of the Hanoi summit. An article published on page six of Workers’ Party paper Rodong Sinmun stated the world was holding the United States responsible for the end of the bilateral summit without an agreement.

“Those inside and outside North Korea who couldn’t hope enough for good results at the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi are unanimously holding the United States responsible for the end of the summit without an agreement, while being unable to hide their regrets,” the Rodong stated on Friday.

The newspaper also stated the “whole world hopes the peace process in the Korean Peninsula will flow smoothly.”

The admission of the summit’s abrupt end is a first; as recently as Thursday North Korea was stating negotiations are feasible with a “fair proposal, appropriate attitude and will to solve the problem.”

The article may reflect the changing reality of North Korea, according to South Korean news agency Yonhap. Ordinary North Koreans have more access to outside world information, and they continue to move across the China-North Korea border. State authorities may have decided to report factual events for practical reasons, according to Yonhap’s analysis.

As speculation continues over what will happen after the Hanoi summit, South Korea appointed a new unification minister, Kim Yeon-chul, president of government-run think tank Korea Institute for National Unification. JTBC reported Friday Kim Yeon-chul seeks to pursue the resumption of U.S.-North Korea negotiations.

[UPI]