Monthly Archives: April 2019

Kim Jong Un arrives in Russia ahead of summit with Putin

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has arrived in Russia ahead of his planned summit with Vladimir Putin, Russian state news agency TASS reported Wednesday.Kim and Putin are set to meet for the first time in the eastern port city of Vladivostok Thursday, but do not plan to sign any agreements or make a joint statement.

The young North Korean leader left the capital of Pyongyang on Wednesday at dawn, traveling by train, North Korean state news agency KCNA reported, as he did for his summit with US President Donald Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam. The journey from the train station in Khasan, near the North Korean border, to Vladivostok is expected to take about nine hours, according to TASS.

Kim’s visit to North Korea’s northern neighbor comes amid an impasse in the nuclear negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington. Though the White House expressed optimism that things were left on good terms after Hanoi, North Korean officials have been less sanguine in public. Diplomats from Pyongyang have speculated about suspending talks with the United States and called for Trump to replace US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with someone “who is more careful and mature in communicating with us.”

Analysts have speculated that Kim’s meeting with Putin could be a way for the young North Korean leader to assess his diplomatic options outside talks with the United States.

Joining Kim on the trip is the recently promoted Choe Son Hui, one of Pyongyang’s more experienced diplomats who is heavily involved in talks with the United States. NK News, a prominent website specializing in North Korean news, reported that Choe’s promotion makes her the highest-ranking female diplomat in the country’s history.


Challenges to North Korean defectors who send money home

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In February 2018 Jessie Kim found out that she had been sending money to a dead man. Ms Kim, now a 27-year-old student in Seoul, fled North Korea for China in 2011. She had been sending her father in Yanggang province in the North around $1,000 a year since she arrived in South Korea in early 2014. Two years later she doubled the contributions, working several part-time jobs, after her aunt told her that her father had been in an accident and needed money for medical bills.

But another call from her aunt last winter, claiming that her father was asking for yet more money, made her suspicious. “He wasn’t the kind of man to ask his daughter for money,” she says. Ms Kim made inquiries through the broker who had facilitated the transactions. She eventually found out that her father had died in the accident in 2016 and that the money had gone to her aunt’s family instead. “I didn’t know my father was dead for two years because my aunt lied to me,” she says. “But I understand why she did it.”

Ms Kim’s case illustrates the pitfalls of supporting relatives in a country that is all but cut off from global communications and financial-services networks. Ordinary North Koreans are not allowed to receive money or even phone calls from abroad. Foreign banks are hesitant to handle any transaction associated with the North, for fear of falling foul of sanctions, intended to curtail its nuclear programme, that have been imposed by America and others.

Yet the relationship between the 30,000-odd North Korean refugees in South Korea and their relatives back home shows that the North is much less closed than at first appears. A growing proportion of those who have settled in the South manage to send money home. In 2018, 62% of refugees surveyed by the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), an NGO in Seoul, said they had transferred funds to relatives or friends in North Korea, up from 50% in 2013. Most respondents say they sent between $500 and $2,000 a year, which was mostly spent on basic living expenses, health and education. The annual total may run into the tens of millions of dollars. The majority of recipients live in North Hamgyeong and Yanggang on the northern border with China, the home provinces of most of those fleeing the North.

That is low compared with remittances from workers sent abroad by the state, which are estimated to be in the hundreds of millions. But it is substantial both relative to North Korean GDP per person, reckoned to be between $1,000 and $2,000 a year, and as a share of income earned by North Koreans in South Korea, who make around $1,300 a month on average.

[The Economist]

North Korean and Russian leaders to meet for first time

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North Korean state media has confirmed that leader Kim Jong-un will travel to Russia “soon” for his first ever meeting with Vladimir Putin. Speculation is growing that they’ll meet in Russia’s eastern port of Vladivostok, just hours from their shared border

The Soviet Union was a major ally of North Korea, offering economic co-operation, cultural exchanges and aid. It also provided North Korea with its initial nuclear know-how. But since the collapse of the Iron Curtain the relationship has suffered. The last North Korea-Russia bilateral meeting was in 2011, when then President Dmitry Medvedev met Mr Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il.

“International sanctions are beginning to take effect and without a change in the US position, it’s very unlikely North Korea will be able to get sanctions relief and pick up trade with the outside world,” says Professor Andrei Lankov of Seoul’s Kookmin University. . So North Korea needs to contact everyone who might be helpful in achieving that goal. Anything from real progress to even symbolic diplomatic assistance would be useful to Pyongyang.

Alexey Muraviev, associate professor at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, says North Korea has to show the US “they’re not in isolation. If they can show that major powers are still backing them up, this will give them additional bargaining power to talk to the US and China.”

“[Kim Jong Un] needs to be given full credit,” Mr Muraviev says. “He is quite skillful in playing high-stakes diplomacy for North Korea’s economic interest – and for the survival of his own regime.”

“I don’t think North Korea can get much from Russia,” Lee Jai-chun, a former South Korean ambassador to Russia, told BBC Korean. But a meeting will have domestic implications. “North Korea’s citizen know that the summit with US was a failure so the meeting with Russia could be a ‘show’ to the North Korean people.”


North Korea announces testing of new ‘tactical guided weapon’

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North Korea says its leader Kim Jong Un has overseen the testing of a “new-type tactical guided weapon.” The North’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper said Kim supervised the test at the Academy of Defense Science on Wednesday.

The report offered few details about the weapon, except that it was test-fired at various targets, carried a “powerful warhead” and had a “peculiar mode of guiding flight.”

The U.S. and South Korean governments have so far not commented on the test.

“Tactical weapons are for attacking South Korea, not the U.S.,” Park Hwee Rhak, a political scientist at Kookmin University in Seoul, and a former South Korean army colonel, commented in a phone interview. “In these tense times, North Korea wouldn’t conduct a test lightly,” he added. “The weapon must be something that can pose a threat or incite terror,” and therefore is likely to contain some new technology or capability.

Last November, North Korea claimed to have tested an “ultra-modern” tactical weapon. No details have emerged as to what the weapon was.

North Korea has not tested any strategic weapons, such as nuclear devices or long-range missiles since late 2017. Kim has since set goals for “keeping munitions production going, and putting national defense science and technology on [a] cutting edge level.

Park Hwee Rhak says whether or not Wednesday’s test violates the North’s testing moratorium is a moot point, because the moratorium is unwritten and self-imposed, and not the result of any agreement.

Kim has also made efforts to avoid diplomatic isolation. He is expected to meet with Vladimir Putin as early as next week. Russia has urged the U.N. to ease sanctions on the North. U.S. special envy on North Korea Steven Biegun is in Moscow Wednesday and Thursday ahead of the expected visit.

If sanctions are not lifted, Kim Jong Un has the option of waiting out the Trump administration, as Kim is in his 30s, and barring unforeseen circumstances, could rule his country for decades to come.


North Korean defector Oh Chong Song

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It was a dash for freedom that was caught on camera and captivated the world: a North Korean defector being peppered with bullets as he tried to flee his authoritarian homeland at the Demiiltarized Zone. But in his first television interview with a U.S. broadcaster, defector Oh Chong Song said he does not blame his former colleagues for shooting him five times as he ran for the border in November 2017.

“In their situation I would have fired the gun. It’s not a matter of friendship,” he told NBC News on Monday, almost 18 months after his dramatic escape. “I understand them because if I were in their shoes I would have done the same thing.”

On Nov. 13, 2017, surveillance cameras captured the moment Oh smashed through a military checkpoint in a green jeep and raced toward the DMZ, members of his own unit chasing him down. Had he been caught, Oh says he “would have been either sent to a concentration camp for political prisoners or, worse, executed by firing squad.”

His escape bid crunched to a halt yards from the boundary as his jeep became stuck in a ditch. With the chasing North Korean soldiers almost upon him, he climbed out of the car and started to run, the border just yards away.

“I was extremely terrified,” he said. “I watch this video once in a while and every time I see it, I realize the fact that I am alive is a miracle. Even I can’t believe something like this happened. … I can’t believe it’s me in the video.”

The footage shows Oh running between two trees, just as several North Korean soldiers scramble to take up positions behind him and open fire. The hail of bullets tore through Oh, at least five shots hitting him directly.

It took a moment for South Korean soldiers to crawl to him and drag him to cover. “I did think that I was going to die as I was lying there,” he said. “At this point, when they were coming to rescue me, I was unconscious.”

Doctors who operated on Oh said it was a “miracle” he survived. Among those credited with saving his life was Sgt. 1st Class Gopal Singh of San Antonio, Texas, a member of the medevac crew who flew Oh to a hospital in Suwon, the South Korean capital.

“I am truly grateful to him and I hope there will be an opportunity for me to meet him,” Oh said. “If I do, I want to thank him in person for everything.”


Kim Jong Un sends message to Trump with military visit

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North Korea is signaling a firmer stance toward the U.S. following the breakdown of denuclearization talks, with leader Kim Jong Un visiting a military unit for the first time this year and directing pilots in combat maneuvers. He left having “expressed great satisfaction over the excellent readiness,” the report said.

Kim hadn’t visited a military facility since November. Security analysts saw Kim’s most recent trip as a message to the Trump administration: Unless Washington is prepared to compromise on sanctions, Pyongyang can revert to a cycle of confrontation.

The North Korean leader said last week that the U.S. had until year’s end to change its stance in nuclear talks or risk a “gloomy and very dangerous” response.

“Kim Jong Un doesn’t make meaningless visits,” said Moon Seong-mook, a retired South Korean army brigadier general and an analyst for the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, a private think tank in Seoul.“He’s sending a message internationally that we are ready militarily, and domestically that we need to be thoroughly prepared.”

Washington and Pyongyang remain gridlocked over how the North should relinquish its nuclear arsenal. Though the two countries’ leaders affirmed their close personal ties in recent days, the Kim regime has expressed frustration, if not astonishment, over U.S. demands for specific commitments on Pyongyang’s denuclearization.

New evidence suggesting nuclear pursuits came Tuesday, when researchers at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, using satellite imagery, identified five specialized railcars inside Pyongyang’s main Yongbyon nuclear facility. The railcars were near a uranium-enrichment facility and radiochemistry lab. The North has previously used railcars for the movement of radioactive material or reprocessing campaigns, the CSIS said.

“Kim is reminding us, in a general way, that unless the Trump administration is prepared to move forward, then he has military options to up the ante,” said Euan Graham, a North Korea security expert at Australia’s La Trobe University.

About two-fifths of North Korea’s 810 combat aircraft are stationed near Pyongyang, according to South Korean Defense Ministry estimates. The unit is tasked with helping defend airspace over the capital, according to North Korean state media.

North Korea maintains an active military of roughly 1.2 million members, according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry. Pyongyang’s air force also operates drones and surface-to-air missiles.

[Washington Post]

North Korea willing to take part in talks if US has ‘right attitude’

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has said he would take part in a third summit with Donald Trump – but only if the US brought the “right attitude”.

He urged Mr Trump to pursue a deal that was “mutually acceptable.” In response the president tweeted praise of Mr Kim.

After a February summit, Trump said North Korean officials had wanted economic sanctions lifted in their entirety in exchange for disabling a major nuclear site, provoking him to walk away. However, the North Koreans disputed the US account.

In recent comments, Kim said in a speech that the summit had created a “strong doubt” in him over whether the US genuinely wanted to improve relations. But he went on to say: “We are willing to give another try if the US offers to have a third summit with the right attitude and mutually acceptable terms.”

He said the US “mistakenly believe that if they pressure us to the maximum, they can subdue us” and called on them to cease “hostile” negotiating tactics.


China to use 5G technology to tackle flow of North Korean refugees

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A Chinese border patrol unit plans to use 5G technology to help stem the flow of refugees from North Korea and smuggled goods between the two countries, according to mainland Chinese media.

The unit in Tonghua, Jilin province, signed an agreement with China Mobile – the largest wireless network operator –to build the country’s first 5G checkpoint at Unbong, or Yunfeng Reservoir in Chinese, Legal Daily reported.

“The Yunfeng checkpoint faces great difficulties in [border] control because it is in the mountains and covers a large area with many major road junctions, so [they] decided to set up China’s first 5G border checkpoint there,” the report said. Jian is a key border trading area between China and North Korea and a favorite crossing point for North Korean refugees and smugglers of food, goods and cash.

According to the Legal Daily  report, Yunfeng border police would trial the use of new technologies such as virtual reality glasses, simultaneously updating logbooks, drones and 4K night-vision monitors to patrol the border when the 5G network is fully established. The report did not say when the project would be completed.

[South China Morning Post]

Kim Jong Un summons ambassadors from Beijing and Moscow

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North Korea’s ambassadors to China and Russia have been summoned back to Pyongyang, raising the possibility Kim Jong Un may have a big announcement he is likely to make at the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly this week.

Kim Jong Un is launching the second term of his rule on Thursday, according to the report. The North Korean leader was not found on a list of delegates newly elected to the assembly in March. His absence from the list is raising questions; some analysts, including high-profile defector Thae Yong-ho, have said Kim Jong Un is probably looking to be appointed titular head-of-state.

Kim Jong Un could also be calling in the diplomats in Beijing and Moscow to discuss a new strategy on resuming dialogue with the United States. Ji and Kim Hyong Jun are also the top diplomats in countries that have consistently supported easing sanctions against Pyongyang.