Author Archives for Grant Montgomery

Kim Jong Un tightening control as North Korea’s economy reels

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When Kim Jong Un announced last month that the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea will convene for its eighth congress in January 2021, he also acknowledged that the regime’s current economic strategy is not working.

In one sense, this is a hopeful signal, given that such pragmatic admissions of failure are rare for North Korean leaders. But the announcement also underscored the depth of the country’s economic troubles. Of course, Kim does not have to worry about competing in elections. But like all dictators, he must still seek some level of buy-in from the population, and he has staked a great deal of credibility on his promises to improve North Koreans’ living standards.

First came the severe international sanctions imposed in 2016 and 2017, in response to North Korean tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Pyongyang’s recent measures to protect the country from COVID-19, including a virtual closure of the border with China, have added to the damage. Just in the first half of this year, trade with China plummeted by 67% from the same period in 2019, after already having declined for some time.

North Korea also appears to be experiencing difficulties finishing important prestige construction projects, such as the new Pyongyang General Hospital. The regime will inevitably use the recent typhoons that hit the country as an excuse, but the fact is that several of these projects were already on track to be delayed. Kim Jong Un’s key initiatives, such as changes in agricultural management, seem to have slowed, stalled or paused. There have also been troubling signs of crackdowns against private markets and businesses in the past year or so.

Such ventures carry symbolic importance for propaganda purposes; they send a message to the population that the state is making progress to improve people’s everyday lives. Although the vast majority of North Koreans will never directly see these high-profile projects, the implication is that one day, they or their children may benefit from the fruits of the state’s caring investments.

[World Politics Review]

Chinese authorities detail “mental anxiety” suffered by North Korean defectors

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A recent internal report by security authorities in China’s Liaoning Province found that “most North Korean women in China are suffering from symptoms of depression and anxiety” and that there is an urgent need to “stabilize” their mental health. The report found that their living in an “oppressive society” since childhood had had serious impact on their mental health. It stated that the women had suffered from various kinds of human rights abuse, including forced participation in weekly criticism sessions and in the country’s “organizational life.”

One of the interviewees in the report complained that North Korea’s whistle blower system – the weekly criticism sessions – made it “impossible for her to trust anyone” and that she suffered from “psychological anxiety” that made it difficult to interact with others normally.

“The Chinese authorities concluded that the negative memories they have [about their time in] North Korean society are causing them to suffer from personality disorders, symptoms of anxiety, and paranoia,” the source said. “They also concluded that this is why many North Korean women show aggressive and violent behaviors even while living in China.”

The report also found that the women are suffering from severe levels of depression due to fears about being forcibly repatriated along with stress they suffered while defecting from North Korea.

The source told Daily NK that during the interviews the defector women complained about anxiety due to feelings of sadness and regret about leaving their families. A number of the women interviewed also complained about how difficult it was to adapt to a new language and culture while in China. Many of them reportedly claimed they suffered from a “loss of self-esteem” because of the perception they had been “sold [human trafficked] into China.”

[Daily NK]

South Korea again auditing defector groups

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South Korea is resuming audits of local groups registered with Seoul’s unification ministry, after a brief hiatus in August due to a new wave of COVID-19 infections.

The unification ministry oversaw the on-site office inspection of the group People Working Together, a support group for North Korean refugees in the South, Yonhap reported Thursday. The ministry was also planning to audit the office of the group North Korean Defectors, but the group turned officials away at the last minute, according to the report.

Earlier in the year, the ministry had said it would inspect registered organizations, including Fighters for a Free North Korea and Kuensaem. The activists came under government scrutiny in June after North Korean official Kim Yo Jong condemned their activities that include balloon launches at the border.

Criticism of President Moon Jae-in’s policies related to North Korea is rising among U.S. analysts. Joshua Stanton and Sung-Yoon Lee said in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday the South Korean leader and members of his administration have filed multiple defamation lawsuits against opponents.

[UPI]

Opposition to South Korea’s stance on North Korean defectors’ efforts

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North Korea’s level of anger about anti-North propaganda isn’t any less acidic today than it was six, twenty, or forty years earlier. The one big difference between now and then: whereas previous governments in Seoul would provide South-based defectors groups with a modicum of freedom, today’s South Korean government is far less sympathetic to such freelancing.

When a group calling itself Fighters for Free North Korea unleashed hundreds of thousands of anti-Kim leaflets into the North on May 31, President Moon Jae-in’s administration responded with almost immediate condemnation. On June 10, the South Korean Unification Ministry announced that the two defector groups involved in the operation would be charged with breaking the law. A week later, Seoul revoked their licenses, arguing that unauthorized leafleting of the North “severely hindered” the Moon administration’s peace agenda with Pyongyang and created environmental and safety risks for border communities.

Those measures were blasted as wholly inappropriate by Moon’s conservative political critics. Human rights organizations denounced the criminal charges as disgusting in terms of the optics and a government-sponsored violation of the very right to free speech and political expression South Koreans have valued since their country became a democracy.

Two months later, Seoul’s pressure campaign on North Korean defectors and activists has gotten the attention of former U.S. government officials who served in both Democratic and Republican administrations. After the Unification Ministry announced inspections of twenty-five defector-run NGO’s and requests on another 289 organizations to prove each was properly registered, thirteen former U.S. officials—including Robert King, the former special envoy for North Korea human rights—sent an open letter to President Moon expressing their concerns, describing the strong tactics against the NGO’s as “a chilling form of intimidation” designed to deter them from continuing their work on behalf of the North Korean people.

[The National Interest]

Crisis in North Korea

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On August 20, Kim Jong Un offered a rare public acknowledgement of several crises North Korea is currently facing. Citing “severe internal and external situations” and “unexpected … challenges,” he conceded government failures to improve the country’s economy, noting that “many of the planned goals for national economic growth have not yet been attained nor [have] the people’s living standards improved markedly.” It was an unprecedented admission and demonstrates the severity of North Korea’s current dire economic situation.

North Korea is facing a triple set of crises. The Covid-19 pandemic led the totalitarian country to seal its borders in January, causing huge drops in its imports and exports with China, which accounts for almost all the country’s external trade. North Korea’s economy had already been shrinking significantly since 2016 from intensifying sanctions related to its weapons program. And in the past few weeks, historic levels of torrential rains have caused widespread damage across the country and left at least 22 people dead and 4 missing. Thousands of houses and public buildings have been flooded, nearly 100,000 acres of crops damaged, and critical infrastructure destroyed.

[Human Rights Watch]

What about North Korea if Biden becomes President?

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Last year, North Korea lashed out at Joe Biden, calling him a “rabid dog” that should “be beaten to death” for comments seen as disparaging of Kim Jong Un.

If Joe Biden is elected U.S. president, American policy toward North Korea is likely to see less emphasis on personal dealings with Kim Jong Un, and more focus on allies and working-level diplomacy, campaign advisers and former officials say. No more “Little Rocket Man”, exchanging love letters or summit pageantry.

“There’s no question that the era of love letters will be over,” one Biden policy adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.

Biden told The New York Times he would not continue the personal diplomacy with Kim, calling the meetings a “vanity project” that should only happen if coupled with “an actual strategy that moves the ball forward on denuclearization.”

Biden would not shut the door to diplomacy, but instead “empower negotiators and implement a sustained and a coordinated effort with allies and partners” to pressure and incentivize North Korea to denuclearize, while also drawing attention the country’s human rights abuses in a way that has been lacking in current U.S. policy, the Biden adviser said.

[Reuters]

Kim Yo-jong now ‘de facto second in command’

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The influential younger sister of the North Korean ruler, Kim Jong-un, has become his de facto second-in-command with responsibility for relations with South Korea and the US, according to Seoul’s spy agency. This isaccording to Ha Tae-keung, a South Korean MP who sits on the national assembly’s intelligence committee.

Ha said Kim Jong-un had ceded a degree of authority to his younger sister, who has risen through the ruling party ranks since accompanying her brother to his 2019 nuclear summit with Donald Trump in Vietnam.

“The bottom line is that Kim Jong-un still holds absolute power but has turned over a bit more of his authority compared to the past,” Ha said after a closed-door briefing by South Korea’s national intelligence service. “Kim Yo-jong is the de facto second-in-command.”

Ha said Kim Jong Un had also delegated some decision-making powers over economic and military policy to other senior officials. He speculated that the move may be intended to reduce the strain on Kim – who was recently the subject of rumors about his health – and enable him to avoid blame for any failures.

He added, however, that while Kim Yo-jong, who is thought to be in her early 30s, appeared to be directing policy towards toward Washington and Seoul, there were no signs that she was being groomed for the leadership or that her brother was in poor health.

Speaking at a meeting of the party’s central committee on Wednesday, Kim Jong Un also conceded there had been “unexpected and inevitable challenges in various aspects and the situation in the region surrounding the Korean peninsula” – thought to be a reference to sanctions, the coronavirus pandemic and torrential rain that has hit in recent weeks. In unusually frank terms the party concluded that “the goals for improving the national economy had been seriously  delayed” and living standards had not been “remarkably” improved, the state-run news agency KCNA said.

[The Guardian]

North Korea harasses defectors with calls and texts

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Pyongyang is using its growing hacking prowess to track down and contact citizens who have escaped and gained prominence in the South.

Mysterious calls and text messages reach the telephone of North Korean defector activist Huh Kwang-il a couple of occasions a month.

“Are you having fun these days?” he was asked in one recent call. Mr. Huh believes the calls, from unknown Chinese numbers, are perpetuated by North Korea.

[Wall Street Journal]

Defectors say South Korea investigations threaten North Korean ‘Underground Railroad’

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South Korea’s Unification Ministry said last month it will “inspect” 25 defector-run NGOs, citing their failure to file necessary documents, and check if 64 others are following conditions to stay registered. Then on Wednesday, the ministry expanded the investigation to a total of 289 organizations.

The ministry has already revoked the licenses of two defector groups that were sending anti-Pyongyang propaganda into the North, following complaints from North Korea. Without a license, the organizations cannot get tax exemptions and hold fundraisers, though donations are still allowed.

Many of the groups have for decades worked with Seoul behind the scenes to bring defectors to the South via an informal network of brokers, charities and middlemen dubbed the North Korean “Underground Railroad”. Intermediaries work as guides and offer shelter for defectors during their long, dangerous journey across China into Southeast Asia.

The sweeping probe by South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration is scaring away donors, activists said. Several NGOs told Reuters the defector networks may never recover, even when borders closed due to coronavirus reopen.

[Reuters]

Personal letters exchanged between President Trump and Kim Jong Un

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Legendary journalist Bob Woodward’s new book will include details of 25 “personal letters” exchanged between President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, according to Simon & Schuster, which will publish the book next month.

The publisher said that the letters shed light on the unusual and deeply personal relationship between the two men, whose surprise detente was one of the most unexpected foreign policy developments of the Trump presidency to date.

In the 25 letters, “Kim describes the bond between the two leaders as out of a ‘fantasy film,’ as the two leaders engage in an extraordinary diplomatic minuet,” according to a description of the book posted on Amazon. 

The president has repeatedly touted letters from Kim as evidence of their friendship, much to the discomfort of observers and lawmakers concerned with Trump’s apparent predilection for authoritarian leaders.

Trump has described the letters as “nice” and “very beautiful,” and suggested the letters were part of how the two men “fell in love.” Pyongyang has also celebrated the letter exchanges, with Kim’s sister and trusted aide Kim Yo Jong citing them as proof of the “excellent” relationship between the two men. “

Trump himself has published details of the exchanges before. In July 2018 shortly after the historic bilateral summit in Singapore, the president tweeted out an English translation of a “very nice note” from Kim, which Trump said showed the “great progress being made.” In the letter, Kim addressed Trump as “Your Excellency” and praised the president’s “energetic and extraordinary efforts” to improve ties between Washington, D.C. and Pyongyang.

But for all the warm words, the two men have achieved little in the way of denuclearization and sanctions relief.

[Newsweek]