Monthly Archives: May 2020

China proposes lifting North Korea sanctions

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China’s top diplomat called on the United States to ease North Korea sanctions, as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un discussed strengthening nuclear deterrence, according to state media reports.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Sunday action is more important between the United States and North Korea than “sitting down to discuss” differing points of view. Wang said Washington and Pyongyang need to take action in order to promote “mutual trust” and “overcome the deadlock.”

“In the past few years, North Korea has taken active steps to relieve tensions and denuclearize, but regrettably it has been unable to obtain a substantial response from the United States, which has led to stalled U.S.-North Korea talks,” Wang said, referring to sanctions.

China has offered to provide a mediating role between the United States and North Korea in recent years. In September at the United Nations General Assembly, Wang called on the United States and North Korea to “build trust through synchronized actions.”

“The way forward is parallel progress in denuclearization,” Wang had said last year, referring to a step-by-step denuclearization supported by Beijing.


Two years after Singapore summit, Kim Jong-un vows to boost North Korea’s nuclear deterrent

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Kim Jong Un has vowed to implement “new policies” to boost the country’s nuclear deterrent, state media reported on Sunday, underlining his decision to turn his back on denuclearization talks with the United States.

Kim made the call at a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Military Commission, nearly two years since he met President Trump at a historic summit in Singapore that seemed to offer hope of progress between the two nations.

Subsequent talks made little progress before dissolving in acrimony last year, and North Korea has since returned to a harder line in its public posturing.

[Washington Post]

North Korea claim it has no coronavirus cases

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As China placed a northeastern city on lockdown due to the novel coronavirus disease, nearby North Korea continued to claim zero instances of the infectious illness and even showed signs of opening up in some areas.

Authorities in China’s city of Shulan, Jilin province, have steadily intensified quarantine measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 after a cluster of new cases earlier this month. On Monday, city government officials announced additional measures that severely limit movement within the city.

But as China races to curb the feared outbreak in Shulan, North Korean officials reported the virus has been thwarted, just across the border.

The latest situation report published Tuesday by the World Health Organization said North Korea registered having no cases of COVID-19. North Korea is among a group of about a dozen countries around the world to have not registered any instances of a disease that has infected nearly 5 million people around the world.

Russia’s ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora supported North Korea’s claim by praising Pyongyang’s “decisive and tough measures” taken early on in the coronavirus crisis in an interview Wednesday with the Interfax News outlet. “I am inclined to trust what is being reported about the absence of infection in the DPRK,” Matsegora said, referring to North Korea by an acronym for its official title, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Pyongyang was the first to institute travel bans, border closures and other strict anti-epidemic measures as reports of the virus emerged back in January.


North Korea says irresponsible for countries that ignored coronavirus warnings to blame WHO

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North Korea’s delegation at the World Health Assembly threw its support behind the World Health Organization (WHO) and criticized countries that blamed the United Nations agency for the coronavirus outbreak. The delegation said WHO member states should be “wary” of countries that are trying to use the “catastrophe for their impure political purposes.”

President Donald Trump and other U.S. officials have been severely critical of the WHO’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in his statement at the assembly that one of the primary reasons the outbreak “spun out of control” was the WHO’s failure to “obtain the information the world needed.”

On Tuesday, member states approved a resolution that, among other things, called for WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to initiate an evaluation of the “experience gained and lessons learned” from the WHO’s response to the pandemic.

Experts are skeptical of North Korea’s zero case claim. Jung Pak, a former CIA analyst and North Korea expert with the Brookings Institution, told USA Today it’s a “near impossibility” that the country has no infections.

Bruce Klingner, an ex-CIA deputy division chief for Korea, said it was “hard to believe” there weren’t any cases but noted that it’s possible the outbreak was limited.


North Korean rumors: “When in doubt, leave it out”

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John Burton, a former Financial Times correspondent, writing in The Korea Times:

Unfortunately, the “black box” nature of North Korea appears to give carte blanche to many journalists to indulge in speculative reporting without fear of contradiction in most cases.

One friend, a former foreign correspondent in Beijing, said that much of the reporting on North Korea reminds him of his early days covering the mafia in New Jersey. “Some journalists would make up details about mafia figures, such as inventing fake nicknames for them, knowing that they would never be publicly rebutted by them.”

It is unlikely that major international media outlets would publish reports about the ill health or death of almost any other leading world leader, besides Kim Jong Un, that were largely based on rumors. With the Kim story now apparently out of the way, the same type of caution should also be applied to rumors about the widespread presence of the coronavirus in North Korea.

Pyongyang’s claim that it has detected no virus cases might be dismissed as propaganda, but equal skepticism should be given to unconfirmed reports about big outbreaks of the illness in the country. Diplomats and aid workers on the ground have not yet offered any evidence that would confirm this.

When it comes to reporting on North Korea, I remember one of the most valuable pieces of advice I was given when I started out as a journalist: “When in doubt, leave it out.” But that of course contradicts another hoary journalistic adage: “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho now serving on the South Korean National Assembly

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Ji Seong-ho was born not far from the Hoeryong concentration camp,and grew up during the North Korean famine of the mid-1990s. His grandmother starved to death; his father was tortured to death. As a teenager, he had hopped onto a train with his mother and sister. They were stealing coal, in order to barter it for food. When he was jumping from one car to the next, Ji lost consciousness, owing to hunger. He fell between the cars onto the tracks, and lost a leg and a hand.

Eventually, he escaped North Korea — on homemade crutches. He made it to the South, where he became a Christian and started a human-rights groups.

In April of this year, Ji won election to South Korea’s National Assembly.

Defectors are beyond excited about his election. “He’s one of us,” says Park Yeonmi. What does Yeonmi mean? Ji Seong-ho is a street kid, a homeless kid, a wretch. Or rather, he was. “He never went to Kim Il-sung University,” says Yeonmi. That is the elite university in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. In fact, Ji “has never even been to Pyongyang.”

There is no freedom of movement within North Korea, Yeonmi explains. “You know what North Koreans dream about when they dream of traveling?” she continues. “They don’t dream about going to China or Europe and all that. They can’t even go to the next town without permission. But they may dream about going to Pyongyang.”

Yeonmi repeats: “Seong-ho is just one of us.” He is not bitter but instead grateful, Yeonmi observes. “He has such a big heart for his countrymen.” And now he is serving on the National Assembly of South Korea.

I have met Ji Seong-ho several times and have never seen him without a big smile on his face. He is effortlessly charismatic. “He projects an air of ebullience,” I once wrote. “I can’t help thinking he is happy to be alive.” In my view, his story should be made into a movie — perhaps culminating with Ji’s entrance into the National Assembly.

In 2018, Ji was a guest of President Trump for the State of the Union address. Sounding like presidents past, Trump said, “Seong-ho’s story is a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom.”

Until recently, Ji was never very interested in politics — politics in a partisan sense. He was neutral, above the fray. But he was pushed into politics by the grievances and indignities I listed above. He was especially moved by the deaths of the defector mother and her young son, in that Seoul apartment.

Despite the best efforts of the North Korean dictatorship, news gets into that country, via shortwave radio and other means. North Koreans will hear about Ji’s election, and have. The news is “shocking,” as Henry Song, the D.C.-based activist, emphasizes: one of them, elevated to the legislature of a free country. A free and Korean country.

[National Review]

Former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho, now serving in the South Korean National Assembly

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In April 2018, former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho was giving a speech to a human-rights conference. South Korean intelligence agents prevented a television network from filming the speech. They also prevented — forcibly prevented — Thae from taking questions from the press. This was in advance of an inter-Korean summit, and the government apparently did not want to rile the North.

Two years later, Thae Yong-ho ran for and won election to the National Assembly of South Korea.

Thae was born in 1962, into the North Korean elite. He became a diplomat, eventually serving as deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom. He defected in 2016.

He is an urbane, elegant fellow. He is also tremendously brave. The North Korean government called him “human scum” and accused him of the usual: embezzlement and child rape. Thae is a defector in the traditional sense. Indeed, he is one of the highest-ranking officials ever to defect from North Korea.

At the Oslo Freedom Forum last year, I asked Thae about his personal security. “I have a lot of worries,” he said, “but I am heavily protected when I am in South Korea. The South Korean government knows that I am No. 1 on the assassination list.” And “I know this will go on till the last day of the Kim regime.”

In the South Korean context, Thae is a conservative, favoring a market economy and a tough-minded policy toward the North — a realistic one, he would say. He is strongly anti-socialist and anti-Communist, and a sharp critic of President Moon Jae-in’s government.

Park Yeonmi points out that Thae will be on South Korean television a lot. South Koreans will see his face, along with fellow-defector-turned-politcian Ji Seong-ho, hear their stories, listen to their points of view. Thae and Ji will help “humanize us,” says Yeonmi.

[National Review]

The North Korean government considers anyone who leaves a traitor

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On April 15, South Korea held a parliamentary election. Two different men, Thae Yong-ho and Ji Seong-ho, were elected. In the words of Henry Song, a human-rights defender in Washington, D.C., their election was “truly a historic, seismic, shocking event.”

How so? Thae and Ji are North Korean defectors. And their elevation to the South Korean National Assembly reverberates on both sides of the border.

When news came that Thae and Ji had won, there was jubilation in the North Korean defector community, which numbers 33,500 in South Korea (a country of about 50 million). There are scattered others elsewhere.

The word “defector” confuses some people, understandably, because we are used to thinking of a defector as a government official or celebrity — a ballet dancer, let’s say, or a baseball player — who goes over from an unfree country to a free one. But the North Korean government considers anyone who leaves a defector: a traitor to the state. People who have left North Korea think of themselves as having defected from the state that claimed ownership of them, body and soul.

So do South Koreans welcome their brothers from the North with open arms? Park Yeonmi, a prominent defector, said, “The South Koreans treat us like second-class citizens,” she says. “They are more sympathetic to people in Africa than they are to their fellow Koreans from the North.”

There are plenty of South Koreans who treat defectors compassionately, … but the South Korean Left bitterly resents defectors — especially ones who squawk about human rights and what they suffered back home.

Meanwhile, North Korean defectors have grown restive, politically. They regard the incumbent South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, as soft on North Korea. They suspect him of naïveté and worse. The government has severely cut aid to refugee groups and groups that help refugees, as well as direct assistance to refugees. The government is pretty frank about this. One official said, “North Korean defectors might not enjoy the same benefits that they enjoyed during the two previous conservative governments.”

[National Review]

Will Kim Yo Jong span the North Korean gender divide?

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From all accounts, North Korea is hardly the bastion of equality that Kim Il Sung promised would be achieved through economic liberation.

While women are an important part of the workforce, and drivers of the limited private markets inside the country — since all men have jobs assigned by the state — female defectors say they still face widespread discrimination. Furthermore, they lack the professional and social opportunities of their male counterparts.

“Men hold the purse strings a lot of times and men have all the social status. …. Women always have to be modest,” said Nara Kang, who left North Korea in 2015 and now lives in South Korea.

Sexual violence is also a major problem. It’s “so common that it has come to be accepted as part of ordinary life,” Human Rights Watch alleged in a 2018 report.

Jean Lee, an Associated Press reporter who opened the wire service’s bureau in Pyongyang in 2012, said she endured “incredible sexism. … My female North Korean colleagues [said] they were expected to do their jobs all day and still take care of all the cooking and cleaning at home,” said Lee, who is now the director of the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. “To be honest, neither Korea, north or south, is a great place to be a woman.”

On the other hand, Michael Madden, an expert on North Korea’s leadership, shared his opinion that, “North Korea has a 70-plus year history of women being very close to the center of power, of being influential in North Korea’s decision-making processes.”

Kang, the defector, isn’t so sure. When asked if she imagined there could be a female Supreme Leader while still living in North Korea, Kang responded incredulously, “Oh no way.” She said, “I can’t even imagine. Can’t even dream.”

One thing is sure, Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong Un, is one woman who has already become prominent in the North Korean government, and could really be on her way to making history.


Kim Jong Un’s sister, “Princess” Yo Jong

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About 20 years ago, while traveling across Russia, Kim Jong Il is reported to have made something of a confession to a foreign emissary, Konstantin Pulikovsky. Pulikovsky, a respected Russian diplomat, had asked one of the world’s most reclusive leaders about his family.

Kim Jong Il was believed to have had seven children. His youngest son and future successor, Kim Jong Un, was in his mid-teens at the time.

When Pulikovsky asked about the children, Kim spoke highly of his two daughters. His sons, however, he called “idle blockheads.” Michael Madden, an expert on North Korea’s leadership, adds, “Kim Jong Il loved his sons, but did not necessarily have a high opinion of what they were doing with their lives.”

Despite that apparent assessment, Kim eventually chose his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to succeed him. While it’s likely the world will never know if Kim seriously considered one of his daughters for the top job, his adoration for his youngest child, Kim Yo Jong, has been documented.

Kenji Fujimoto, the pen name of a former sushi chef for the Kim family, told The Washington Post that Kim Jong Il referred to her as “Princess Yo Jong” and “sweet Yo Jong.” Kim Yo Jong always sat to her father’s left at supper, while Kim Jong Il’s wife sat to his right, Fujimoto said in a book recounting his experience in North Korea.

Kim Jong Il may have believed that it would be a tough sell naming a woman as the next North Korean leader — especially with multiple sons available. North Korea is a notoriously patriarchal country, where women are expected to be dutiful and subordinate wives and doting mothers before all else. Defectors say misogyny, gender discrimination and sexual violence are rampant.

Yet Kim Yo Jong’s position among the North Korean leadership is significant. Her name was among the first mentioned as a possible successor to her brother when he recently disappeared from public view for almost three weeks. When Kim Jong Un did emerge in state media on Saturday, Kim Yo Jong was by his side. Experts say if anything was to happen to him before his young children are old enough to take over, Kim Yo Jong could be the safest and most likely heir.