Monthly Archives: October 2019

North Korea fires 2 missiles amid stalled denuclearization talks

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North Korea conducted a missile launch on Thursday, firing two projectiles into its eastern sea amid stalled denuclearization talks with Washington, military officials said. North Korea’s latest missile test, the second this month, comes two months ahead of an end-of-year deadline set by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to wrap up nuclear talks with the Trump administration as the Hermit Kingdom appeared to be losing patience.

U.S. officials had been watching North Korea prepare for this latest missile test over the “past few days,” the U.S. official told Fox News, calling the launch “routine.”

The missiles were believed to be “short or medium-range ballistic missiles,” fired from mobile launchers outside North Korea’s capital Pyongyang, a U.S. official told Fox News regarding an initial intelligence assessment.

Earlier this month, North Korea test-fired an underwater-launched ballistic missile, its first such test in three years.

North Korean senior official Kim Yong Chol said in a statement Sunday that there has been no progress in U.S.-North Korea relations. He warned that the cordial relationship between Kim and President Trump wouldn’t be enough to prevent nuclear diplomacy from failing, threatening that “there could be the exchange of fire at any moment.”

The stalled U.S.-led talks have also put a strain on relations between the two Koreas.

[ AP ]

North Korean Authorities Crack Down on Illegal Cellphone Use

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Authorities in North Korea are conducting a crackdown on illegal cellphone use after confidential information was reportedly leaked about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s recent activities, local officials and traders told RFA’s Korean Service.

Illegal cellphones are believed to have been used to disseminate what were apparently sensitive details about Kim’s recent itinerary. A source said that although the crackdown is intended to protect the safety of Kim Jong Un, it is also having an unintended impact on the lives people living along the border with China.

“It’s tense on the border. Smugglers who need to communicate with Chinese partners using their illegal phones, and phone brokers who make money with their illegal phones by arrange calls to defectors in South Korea, they instantly went into hiding,” said a source. “Most of the illegal phone users have fled the area but the residents are afraid as [North Korean government] inspectors are making everyone feel uneasy,” the source added.  “The state security officials that the Central Committee dispatched are searching everywhere [for illegal phone users]. I have a feeling that something serious is about to go down,” said the source.

Another source, a resident of Ryanggang, said even border security has been affected over the leak. “Border guards, who normally work with smugglers are tightening up security. … “In the past, even [in tense situations], smugglers could still bribe the border guards to bring in their illegal goods, but now the situation is so serious that smuggling things across the river is just not happening,” the resident said. “[Both] the smugglers and the guards are laying low because they don’t want to get into trouble until this tense political issue [is resolved,]” the source added.

[Radio Free Asia]

North Korea’s class system

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Since insight into North Korea is rare, as data or research is not available because of how isolated the country remains, insights from defectors and others involved with the country offer glimpses of what life is like on the inside.

For one, society in North Korea was highly fragmented by a class system.

There were three socio-political classifications that were based on North Korean citizens’ families, or their loyalty to the government, according to the Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson. These three groups were called the “core,” “wavering,” and “hostile” classes.
– The elites, those who fought foreigners, as well as those closest to the supreme leader, made up the core class.
– Peasants, laborers, and workers formed the second class.
– Those on the lowest rung were those who had opposed the elder Kim’s regime, or had previously worked with South Korea or Japan.

“And your life … ranging from residence, employment, education … is decided by the class system,” explains former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho. “I was lucky to be born into the ‘core’ class, the ruling class. That’s why I was able to get [an] elite education and a good job, and I lived in Pyongyang in good apartments… [but] there is a very strict class system structure in North Korea. … North Korea is just like the feudal dynasty of the Middle Ages.”

Despite being part of the upper echelon, Thae said he definitely wasn’t going to miss the life he left behind.

“The Kim family does not care about the human rights of individuals,” he stated. “They only care about their own interest.”

[Yahoo Finance]

North Korean defector explains why the next generation thinks differently about the United States

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Former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho who defected in 2016 says there’s a generational divide over how the people in his country view the United States.

“The majority of the people in North Korea, nowadays they do not mind [the U.S.] — especially the millennials,” Thae told Yahoo Finance on the sidelines of the 2019 Oslo Freedom Forum.

“The core class [holds] very strong hatred towards the U.S. … and the people [are] brainwashed, that America is always looking [to] attack … but the millennials … think differently because they were the ones who have grown up with Windows systems and Microsoft”.

“So even though they were taught that America is their sworn enemy, everyone has computers and knowledge… they know Bill Gates,” he said, adding that North Korean millennials “are really thirsty for information. That’s why they are different from their previous generations.”

Geoffrey See, founder of Choson Exchange, which is a Singapore-based non-profit group that teaches business and entrepreneurship in North Korea, echoed Thae’s sentiment, adding that he also observed a sense of adventure among the youth.

“Choson Exchange has had close to 3,000 Koreans take part in our volunteer-led training on economic policy and entrepreneurship in North Korea,” See told Yahoo Finance. “We meet younger Koreans who feel stifled working in a large state-owned enterprises, and have built small scale operations manufacturing toothpaste or trucking goods. There is a rising trend of entrepreneurship among this group.”

[Yahoo Finance]

Meth in North Korea

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Former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho, who defected in 2016, says North Korea engages in state-sponsored drug trafficking, and is also now trying to fix a widespread domestic drug addiction epidemic.

“In North Korea, the drug addiction is really, really a problem,” Thae told Yahoo Finance on the sidelines of the 2019 Oslo Freedom Forum. “… [Meth is] even produced by individual families in North Korea.”

While statistics on the drug addiction problem in North Korea are scarce, several reports have emerged that fill in some gaps:
– “Meth, until recently, has been largely seen inside North Korea as a kind of very powerful energy drug — something like Red Bull, amplified,” Andrei Lankov, an expert on the North at Kookmin University in Seoul, South Korea told the New York Times.
– Youth addiction has become a serious social issue, the Daily NK noted earlier this year, with many people in their 20s and 30s — and even high school students — drinking and smoking crystal meth at “birthday parties.”
– According to a report by Radio Free Asia, crystal meth was a “best-selling holiday gift item” during the Lunar New Year.
– The situation has gotten so bad that the country has “developed” an injectable selenium, which can be used to treat the addiction, according to state media.

North Korea’s role in the meth trade is nothing new, Thae added. He said that most of the production was located “mainly in Hamgyong, in pharmaceutical factories.” The country’s second largest city, Hamhung, which is in the southern part of the Hamgyong province, is known to be a hub for crystal meth production.

But despite the country’s production over the years, “the international police system has not found any” evidence, Thae noted.

[Yahoo Finance]

Kim Jong Un says his relationship with Donald Trump is ‘special’

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Kim Jong Un has praised his “special” relationship with US President Donald Trump, with one of North Korea’s most respected diplomats telling state media the two leaders maintain “trust in each other.”

Kim Kye Gwan, a former nuclear negotiator who now serves as an adviser to the North Korean leader, said Kim Jong Un and Trump enjoy “close relations” — a statement that appeared to pin the future of diplomatic talks between Washington and Pyongyang on the two leaders’ unique connection.

The statement was surprisingly optimistic given working-level talks between Washington and Pyongyang in Sweden collapsed earlier this month. North Korean diplomats said they broke off those negotiations because of what they described as US intransigence. The State Department disagreed, saying the two sides had a “good discussion.”

North Korea has publicly expressed appreciation for Trump’s efforts, while criticizing those around him for appearing inflexible. Kim Kye Gwan echoed those sentiments in his statement, saying: “The problem is that contrary to the political judgment and intention of President Trump, Washington political circles and DPRK policy makers of the US administration are hostile to the DPRK for no reason, preoccupied with the Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice.

Referring to what Kim John Un said in a policy speech in April, that he would give the Trump administration until the end of the year to change its negotiating strategy, Kim Kye Gwan said, “There is a will, there is a way. We want to see how wisely the US will pass the end of the year.”


Radical changes to North Korean foreign exchange rate system

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A new North Korean publication has confirmed what has been rumored for some time: that markets are integral to the country’s official exchange rates. In any other country this would be the first sentence in a beginner’s textbook on foreign currency markets, but in the DPRK, this marks a major admission of the central role that markets play in North Korean life. 

The book “The Methodology of Monetary Issuance and Monetary Adjustment” has a lot to tell us about the future of market-oriented reforms under Kim Jong Un. Contrary to inferences drawn from other sources, this book indicates a level of consolidation and commitment to the use of market mechanisms in the management of the economy, and speaks to the leadership’s willingness to accept markets over central planning in a growing number of areas.

North Korea is a country where the word ‘market’ is rarely used in official publications, and where markets remain at the alleged margins of the economy. The fact that some of the country’s top minds in monetary economics openly admit the existence of a market-oriented exchange rate that is in widespread usage is a dramatic signal of just how serious the government is about reform. This has the hallmarks of naked and all-encompassing state capitalism, without private firms or private property outside the household, with a side-order of state socialist planning alongside.

All this represents a dramatic improvement on state socialism, and if other areas of economic policy – especially investment policy – and the sanctions situation improves, these kinds of measures may help to encourage economic growth and better lives for North Koreans. 

[Read full article at NK News]

Defectors in Seoul lose platform to speak out against North Korea

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Joo Yang once hid underground in a tiny bunker made for storing kimchi as she evaded detection while fleeing across the North Korean border to China. Years later, Yang built a new life in Seoul, speaking in public about her experiences to shed light on life in the communist country.

But she and multiple defectors and human rights activists say paid speaking opportunities for North Korean escapees — including media appearances and public lectures at universities and military bases — have disappeared over the past two years while President Moon Jae-in has sought rapprochement with dictator Kim Jong Un. 

The allegations raise questions over whether Moon’s policy of engagement with Kim has also included efforts to silence critics and shift public focus from problems such as human rights abuses in North Korea. Suzanne Scholte, chair of North Korea Freedom Coalition, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization, says the change in approach was “definitely coming from the government.”

Ahn Chan-il, a Seoul-based defector, researcher and commentator on North Korea, likewise believes that from early 2018 — ahead of a flurry of summitry between Moon and Kim — he was “permanently struck from the list” of guest contributors with most state-backed media. “I used to be on [state-linked television news] almost every day, but suddenly since March [2018], they stopped calling me,” Ahn says.

Academics and others say they have also been directed by officials and media executives to use the formal title of “Chairman” when talking publicly about Kim. For North Koreans who risked their lives to escape and still have family in the country, the request is highly offensive.

Human rights organizations say Moon’s government has also cracked down on groups that try to counter Pyongyang’s propagandists by sending factual information and cultural content into North Korea. The 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, signed by Kim and Moon, contained a pledge to “stop all hostile acts” including loudspeaker broadcasting and distribution of leaflets along the border area. Read more


Information is key to liberating the minds of the North Korean people

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Thae Yong Ho, a former deputy ambassador to the U.K., who in 2016 became the highest-ranking North Korean diplomat to defect to South Korea, says disseminating information to younger North Koreans is “very important” in spurring people to reject the state’s ideological control and authoritarian rule.

A North Korean defector, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says he worked with South Korea’s Defense Ministry on radio broadcasts targeting North Korean soldiers near the border area for three years “mainly discussing North Korea media’s incorrect reports.” But, he says, his role was discontinued in early 2018.

Losing this job was particularly galling, he adds, because he was inspired to defect in 2009 after listening to similar illegal foreign media broadcasts for years. “My experience of listening to radio in North Korea changed my life,” the defector says.

With the South Korean–based efforts to both expose North Korean human rights issues and educate people inside North Korea about the outside world under pressure, some international organizations are stepping up their activities via China.

The Human Rights Foundation (HRF), a New York-based NGO, claims to have smuggled approximately 100,000 data storage devices into North Korea via China over the past three years. The foundation sends donated USB flash drives and SD cards loaded with entertainment programs like movies and soap operas into the country. The devices often include news clippings and broadcasts, testimonials from defectors and political material such as translations of books about the fall of the Soviet Union and the Arab Spring.

The organization estimates that each device reaches about 10 people, implying the material has been seen by as many as 1.3 million North Koreans, or 1 in every 20 people in the country.

“Information is key to liberating the minds of the North Korean people,” says Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer of HRF.


North Korea sees little reason to rein in its missile program

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Since the regime in Pyongyang doesn’t see any reason to rein in its nuclear weapons program or to put the brakes on its ballistic missile technology efforts, North Korea possibly poses “the most pressing national security issue we face,” a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said Thursday.

“Tearing up [the Iranian nuclear agreement] sends a signal” to North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un that the United States might not live up to its part of any future arrangement with Pyongyang, Sen. Chris Coons, (D-Del.) said while speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

He said Kim and others in North Korea’s leadership are well aware of “the Libya model,” where Muammar Gaddafi, former leader of the nation, voluntarily ended his nuclear weapons program. A few years later was killed in a coup that toppled his regime and sent his country into years of civil war. “Why would he choose to give up nuclear weapons” and risk his regime’s existence, Coons asked rhetorically.

Ukraine’s post-nuclear experience, Coons said, provides Kim with another example of the dangers he could face if he turned over his nuclear stockpile for disposal. Kyiv turned over nuclear weapons the Soviet Union left behind after its collapse. “Now it is a smaller nation and under assault by Russia,” Coons said.

Apparently, nothing is holding Kim back from resuming nuclear testing now. In the same way, North Korea continued ballistic missile testing following the two summit meetings with the United States, Coons said. Adding to the tension is the most recent test, of a sea-based missile raising the threat of quick, surprise attack to South Korea and Japan to a higher level.

[US Naval Institute News]