Monthly Archives: July 2019

Trump tells North Korean defector he’ll bring up Christian persecution in talks with Kim Jong Un

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After Donald Trump became the first sitting president to step foot in North Korea last month, many human rights groups have advocated for future talks to include human rights abuses committed by dictator Kim Jong Un, something absent from previous talks.

A few days ago, President Trump told a North Korean defector he would bring up religious persecution in his ongoing talks with Communist North Korea, which outlaws Christianity.

Ilyong Ju, a Christian from North Korea, one of 27 survivors of religious persecution invited to the Oval Office, shared his family’s story: “My aunt, all of my aunt’s family…are in political prison camp now…just because my aunt’s father-in-law was a Christian.”

Ju, a LiNK Advocacy Fellow, shared, “and my cousin’s whole family were executed because of their sharing the gospel.”

Trump shook his head and mouthed what appeared to be “awful.”

“But even though the persecution of Kim Jong Un, … North Korean citizens …want the gospel and they are worshiping in underground churches right now. …”

“I’m understanding exactly what you’re saying,” Trump said. “I’ll bring it up.”

Ju responded: “Yes, please.”

[Fox News]

American explains his CIA spy role in North Korea

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An American citizen whose May 2018 release was secured by President Donald Trump has detailed his experiences in a North Korean prison camp after getting caught spying for the CIA and the South Korean intelligence service.

Speaking with NK News, Kim Dong Chul said he spied for the CIA for around six years before being caught and sent to a labor camp, where he suffered torture at the hands of his North Korean guards. Kim, who once lived in Virginia was living in China before his arrest.

Kim confessed to spying soon after his arrest in 2015, admitting to supplying South Korea’s National Intelligence Agency with sensitive information. North Korean media at the time said the businessman was detained while “perpetrating… state subversive plots and espionage against” the North.

Kim told NK News that he had also been working for the CIA, passing along intelligence he was able to access thanks to his work at the Rason Special Economic Zone, which established by Pyongyang to encourage economic growth via foreign investment. The businessman described the information as “very significant,” and explained how he “filmed footage with a watch and used electromagnetic wave wiretapping equipment.” He was also tasked with recruiting double agents across the nation, with a specific focus on unearthing information regarding the North’s military and nuclear capabilities, Kim explained.

His last mission was to investigate a suspicious vessel at the Rajin port, identified as of interest to the CIA after being spotted on satellite images. The agency asked Kim “to take very close-up photos of it and figure out what it was being used for.” Kim delivered the information prior to being arrested in 2015. North Korean authorities said he was found with a USB stick containing military and nuclear secrets when he was detained in Rason, the BBC reported in 2016.

Kim detailed how his mental state and physical health quickly deteriorated under the pressure of torture and then forced labor. “I became a traitor overnight and was locked up in a forced labor camp,” he said. “I hit rock bottom.” Kim was beaten repeatedly and tortured in other ways as North Korean agents sought to uncover possible networks of fellow spies and double agents. The abuse left him partially paralyzed and even drove him to attempt suicide. Regardless, “I could not die,” Kim recalled.

After a one-day trial, Kim was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor at a prison camp, where he was kept isolated from fellow prisoners. Kim was eventually freed alongside Pyongyang University of Science and Technology lecturers Tony Kim and Kim Hak Song in 2018.


North Korean economy tanks as sanctions and drought bite

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North Korea’s economy shrank in 2018 for a second straight year, and by the most in 21 years, as it was battered by international sanctions aimed at stopping its nuclear programme and by drought, South Korea’s central bank said on Friday.
– North Korea’s gross domestic product (GDP) contracted by 4.1% last year in real terms, the worst since 1997 and the second consecutive year of decline.
– Their international trade fell 48.4% in value in 2018 as toughened international sanctions cut exports by nearly 90%, the worst loss in exports since the central bank started publishing data nearly 30 years ago.
– Output in the mining sector shrank 17.8% because of sanctions on exports of coal and minerals, while the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sector contracted by 1.8% because of drought.

North Korea’s population, estimated at 25.13 million, has a per head annual income of $1,298, the South Korean central bank said.

The United States and South Korea say tightening international sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programmes have been instrumental in leader Kim Jong Un’s decision to pursue denuclearisation talks with the United States.

Last week, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said rates of malnutrition and disease were increasing in North Korea as it faces a harvest that is half of what was expected. James Belgrave, an official at the U.N. World Food Programme who visited North Korea in April, said recently that there had been a drop of up to 20% in North Korea’s wheat and barley production due to an early dry spell.

[Nikkei Asian Review]

Trump is letting Kim Jong Un do almost anything he wants

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In just the past week, North Korea has unveiled a brand new submarine that could potentially launch nuclear weapons and tested two short-range missiles that gravely threaten US allies South Korea and Japan.

The casual observer could understandably expect President Donald “fire and fury” Trump and his hawkish administration to respond forcefully to these new provocations. But the opposite has happened: They’re taking the barrage with a degree of calm virtually unseen before from this administration. In fact, they’re actively downplaying — and in some cases even defending — North Korea’s actions.

Trump told Fox News’s Sean Hannity that Kim’s missile tests didn’t worry him at all. “They haven’t done nuclear testing, they really haven’t tested missiles other than, you know, smaller ones, which is something that lots [of countries] test,” he said.

That view is fairly consistent with his past statements: As long as Kim doesn’t test a nuclear weapon or a long-range missile, Trump is happy. … The potential problem, though, is that the Trump administration’s approach could produce more issues down the line.

“Maybe they’re picking their battles to focus on resuming much-needed negotiations for a deal,” Duyeon Kim, a North Korea expert at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul, told me. “But [they’re] telling South Korea and Americans living there that they don’t matter.”

The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that the US Defense Intelligence Agency assesses that North Korea may have produced 12 nuclear weapons since Trump and Kim first shook hands in Singapore last year. That, added to the new potentially nuclear-launching submarine and further-tested missiles, means Kim has a greater arsenal at his disposal now than when his diplomacy with Trump started.


Pyongyang as experienced by foreign student Alek Sigley

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Alek Sigley was a 29-year-old postgraduate student studying in North Korea, pursuing a master’s degree in Korean literature. On or around June 26, after spending more than a year in Pyongyang as a foreign student, Sigley was detained by North Korean authorities. The state-run Korean Central News Agency said that Sigley was caught spying by “systemically collecting and offering data” to media outlets with critical views toward North Korea. The agency later said Sigley was deported from the country on July 4 out of “humanitarian leniency,” after he “admitted his spying acts” and “repeatedly asked for pardon.”

Sigley broke his silence on Twitter several days later, saying the allegation that he is a spy is “false”. And “I may never again walk the streets of Pyongyang, a city that holds a very special place in my heart.” While life in the capital for a foreign student is not representative of life for ordinary citizens across the country, Sigley’s experience does offer a rare glimpse into North Korea’s opaque society and some of the changes that may be underway in Pyongyang.

Sigley, who grew up in Perth, Australia, studied abroad in China in 2011, where he lived in a dormitory at Shanghai’s Fudan University and happened to be on the same floor as North Korean students. “I thought this would be really an interesting opportunity to just get to know some North Koreans as actual people.” Sigley made his first trip to North Korea in 2012 as a tourist, spending five nights in Pyongyang, where he met some people there in the local travel industry who inspired him a year later to start an Australian-based company that specializes in educational tourism to North Korea.

Enrolling in Kim Il Sung University as a foreign student some years later, Sigley said he had much more access to Pyongyang than tourists did and could explore most areas without a guide. Tourists, including diplomats and humanitarian workers, must be accompanied by guides to use the metro and other means of transportation. Locals and foreigners wishing to travel within the country need a permit issued by local authorities and proper identification, which are verified at numerous checkpoints within and between provinces.

Sigley said he dressed plainly and is half-Chinese, which allowed him to “blend in” better than some other foreigners. “But I do sometimes notice people looking at me,” he told ABC News.   Read more

Student fun, food and fashion in Pyongyang

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Kim Il Sung University is located in a central part of the capital Pyongyang. Alek Sigley described the campus as “very green” and “orderly,” with plenty of trees, pristine lawns and tidy flower beds. Students don’t hang out on the lawns reading books or playing sports; rather, students are often seen mopping the hallway floors and weeding the flower beds. “It’s much more of like a serious atmosphere,” Sigley told ABC News.

All students must wear uniforms: The men a white button-up shirt with a red tie, slacks and a blazer, and the women have an option to wear either a traditional Korean style dress or a white button-up blouse with a pencil skirt.

Sigley and the other foreign students liked to explore Pyongyang’s culinary scene, trying to go to a different restaurant each week. He was pleasantly surprised by the cultural variety, from traditional North Korean dishes and authentic Chinese cuisine to Italian classics, such as pizza and spaghetti, and even some American fast-food favorites, like burgers and fried chicken. Most of these restaurants, however, are not accessible to tourists and are too expensive for the average North Korean. They are largely patronized by the elite and foreigners. There are cheaper restaurants frequented by locals that typically offer just Korean dishes, according to Sigley.

There’s also certain other places, like some shops and restaurants, that are off-limits to foreigners, and it’s taboo for a foreigner to visit the home of a local.

However, as a student, Sigley had more interaction with locals than most foreigners ever would. There are some North Korean students living among the foreign students in the foreign student dormitory at Kim Il Sung University, serving as their “guides,” and Sigley shared a room with one for several months.  Sigley said his North Korean roommate loved soccer and was a big fan of professional players Lionel Messi of Argentina and Neymar da Silva Santos Junior of Brazil. He followed top professional men’s soccer clubs such as Barcelona and Real Madrid and watched the FIFA World Cup, which wasn’t broadcast live on North Korean television but rather recorded and played back on the local sports channel. “In some respects, he’s just like any other kid in his early 20s,” Sigley said.

Fashion was under strict limitations in North Korea, forbidding denim, piercings and hair dye, as well as certain makeup, he said. Men must keep their hair short, while women’s hair can’t be longer than mid-length. Garments must be modest in fit and color, with dresses and skirts no shorter than knee-length. The typical style for men is a dark Mao suit with a crew cut and tinted sunglasses. Sigley told ABC News that he had noticed the younger men sporting slightly longer hairstyles on the streets of Pyongyang. Read more

[ABC News]

Life for the rare foreign students who study in Pyongyang

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Authorities rarely stopped Australian postgraduate student Alek Sigley to ask for identification when he lived in Pyongyang, unless he was trying to catch the metro with one of his classmates who’s European and sticks out.

“Everything is pretty quickly smoothed over when we tell them that we’re foreign students and we show them some ID,” Sigley said. “But when I’ve gone alone, actually they’ve never stopped me, so I’ve kind of been able to blend in.”

Overall, Sigley said his experience with security in Pyongyang was “fairly laid back,” with authorities who were friendly and showed an “innocent curiosity” in foreign students like himself. “People there are people just like anywhere else,” he told ABC News. “They’re curious, especially in a sort of place where we don’t really get to see a lot of foreigners.”

According to Sigley, North Korea is one of the least wired nations in the world. Internet users are scant, with access restricted to regime elites, foreigners and select university students. Only the ruling elite and foreigners have direct access to the unrestricted global internet, as the outside world knows it. Privileged North Koreans use a domestic intranet network that is tightly-controlled by the government and only accessible from within the country’s borders.

Because he was a foreign student, Sigley said he had access to both. There’s a computer room in the foreign student dormitory at Kim Il Sung University where students can access the internet. But Sigley also used the domestic intranet service to play video games with the other foreign students, he said.

The country’s cellular networks along with a relatively new Wi-Fi service allow citizens in Pyongyang with mobile phones and other portable devices to access the intranet network, but not the global internet, according to Sigley.

North Korean laws and customs generally keep foreigners and locals separate in most aspects of life in Pyongyang, according to Sigley. For instance, foreigners are allowed to bring qualifying mobile phones into the country and purchase a SIM card with a local carrier or rent a handset with a SIM card; but they aren’t allowed to call locals, whose cellphones operate on a separate network. Read more

[ABC News]

North Koreans’ view of the USA

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In June 2018, a historic summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump took place, the first time a sitting U.S. president met face-to-face with a North Korean leader.

Alek Sigley an Australian student who studied at Kim Il Sung University, was in Pyongyang at the time and said there was immense interest in the summit among locals, who followed the extensive coverage of the big event on North Korea’s state-run media.

In the days leading up to the summit, Sigley said he saw long lines of people on the streets of Pyongyang waiting to collect their copies of the daily newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, which serves as the chief organ of the country’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. Sigley said he also had conversations with his North Korean classmates, who expressed hope that better relations with the United States could lead to sanctions relief and perhaps a peace treaty with South Korea to formally end the war.

The day after the summit, photos of Trump and Kim appeared on the front page of the Rodong Sinmun, and a documentary about the summit was featured another day later on North Korea’s state-owned broadcaster, Korean Central Television.

Sigley asked his North Korean roommate at the time how locals were reacting to the outcome of the summit. He told Sigley that they viewed it as a success on the part of their leader but were still awaiting actual change, particularly in sanctions. “People were still quite skeptical,” Sigley told ABC News.

“But then I noticed, after some time, there started to be quite a change in attitude.” In the days after the summit, Sigley said the state media toned down the anti-U.S. rhetoric and even some anti-American propaganda posted in prominent places around central Pyongyang were taken down. “There was a slogan board that said, ‘If the U.S. imperialists strike us again, we will wipe them from the face of the earth.’ That slogan board was removed,” Sigley said.

“There was another slogan board that had a picture of the White House being obliterated,” he added. “That one was taken down actually before the summit happened.” Sigley was also surprised by the impact the summit had on the attitudes of his North Korean teachers and classmates, who all described it as a “new era” and “the end” of decades of animosity with the United States. It was the first time Sigley saw some “genuine hope” that U.S.-North Korea relations could improve, he said.

Since the second Trump-Kim summit that took place in February in Vietnam? “I can still see a lot of the, like, distrust of Americans, which is historical, you know, because they remember the war,” Sigley told ABC News. “But there was more optimism than I’d ever seen before.”

[Read full ABC News article]

The case for humanitarian aid to North Korea

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Since the impromptu meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un late last month, there have been signs the United States may be prepared to make major concessions—including, so the rumors go, easing economic sanctions—in exchange for a North Korean freeze on some weapons development.

Clearly, Pyongyang would welcome any moves to ease economic sanctions, since news reports suggest that North Korea may once again be facing serious food shortages, and calls from the United Nations for the world to provide humanitarian assistance have grown. For U.S. policymakers, though, sending aid is far from an open-and-shut case. Historically, the United States and other democratic countries have provided help intended for the North Korean people. But such assistance has not always gone to those who needed it most, and Pyongyang strongly resists any kind of international monitoring to try to make sure it does.

Even so, the United States should open its pocketbook. U.S. aid will certainly not fundamentally alter the regime’s posture on security issues, nor will it resolve North Korea’s long-term problems without fundamental reforms to its system of government. But at its core, providing food and medical assistance is an issue of morality and humanity.

In May, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a report stating that some 10.9 million people in the country—approximately 43 percent of the population—suffer from food insecurity, and nearly as many lack access to water, sanitation, and hygiene services. Ten million North Koreans lack access to safe drinking water, and the U.N. estimates that 16 percent do not have access to basic sanitation. Meanwhile, UNICEF notes that while there has been some improvement in recent years, one in five North Korean children suffers from stunted growth.

Natural disasters have aggravated these conditions, but the sad truth is that much of this human misery is manmade. North Korea is a land rich in resources and human capital. Government policies and political ideologies, not droughts or floods, are responsible for the suffering. The simplest proof of this is to contrast North and South Korea. The democratic, free-market South is the 11th most prosperous economy in the world. Recent data on per capita gross domestic product is estimated at $1,700 in the North, versus $37,600 in the South. Both sides of the border have similar geographies and climates.

President Trump has dramatically reduced tensions, but to induce Pyongyang to denuclearize, he’s going to have to offer more. Providing humanitarian assistance shouldn’t be thought of as a lever to bring about political change in North Korea. While North Korea’s government may have a callous attitude toward its people, Americans believe that every life has value. Right now, lives are at stake. We can help to save them, and we should.

[Foreign Policy]

Hungry North Korean soldiers reportedly caught stealing food in China

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Two hungry North Korean soldiers were caught scrounging around for food in China, according to a report.

The guards, assigned to protect North Korea’s border, were spotted by locals stealing food from a house in the city of Dandong after crossing into China earlier this month, a source told DailyNK, a Seoul-based website that covers the North through a network of informants.

The soldiers, reported to be in their early 20s and wearing military uniforms, were then arrested and sent back across the Yalu River into North Korea.

“I’ve never heard of low-ranking soldiers crossing over into China… because they’re hungry,” the source said. “The Chinese authorities believe … droughts last year and this year are the reason for the lack of food.”

DailyNK reports that North Korean border guards have been under increasing financial strain due to international sanctions that have been placed upon the Hermit Kingdom, leading to a decline in smuggling. The guards, the website says, rely on bribes from smugglers and defectors as a source of income.

[Fox News]