Author Archives for Grant Montgomery

Souring conditions in Pyongyang

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Russian diplomats departing North Korea have reported acute shortages of medicines and other basic goods in the country, indicating a crisis fueled by one of the world’s strictest quarantine regimes amid the coronavirus pandemic. Employees of the Russian embassy in Pyongyang described a “collective exit” of foreign diplomatic staff that they predicted would “unfortunately not be the last” due to unbearable conditions in the North Korean capital.

Russia has one of the largest foreign diplomatic footprints in North Korea, but staff have begun leaving due to shortages and problems obtaining key medicines. There were “hardly any diplomats left” in Pyongyang, the embassy letter said, tallying the total international presence in North Korea at 290 people. All but three foreign aid workers had evacuated the country as of last December.

In a report last month, a senior researcher on North Korea for Human Rights Watch said she had been told last year of shortages of food, soap, toothpaste and batteries. North Korean trade with China has fallen by about 80%, with imports of food and medicine falling close to zero last year as the government claimed that the trade, along with “yellow dust” blowing over the border from China, could lead to the spread of coronavirus. Severe floods have also undermined agricultural production, exacerbating food shortages in the country, Lina Yoon, a researcher, wrote.

[The Guardian]

North Korea snaps back at Biden over his criticism of its missile launches

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North Korea snapped back at President Joe Biden’s criticism of its ballistic missile tests, calling his comments a provocation and encroachment on the North’s right to self-defense and vowing to continuously expand its “most thoroughgoing and overwhelming military power.”

The statement issued by senior official Ri Pyong Chol came after the North on Thursday tested-fired two short-range missiles off its eastern coast in the first ballistic launches since Biden took office. Ri, secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee and vice chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, is a former air force commander who has been seen as a key figure in the development of the North’s missile program.

“We’re consulting with our allies and partners,” Biden had said earlier at the first news conference of his presidency. “And there will be responses if they choose to escalate. We will respond accordingly. But I’m also prepared for some form of diplomacy, but it has to be conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization.”

Ri said it was “gangster-like logic” for the United States to criticize the North’s tactical weapons tests when the Americans are freely testing intercontinental ballistic missiles and could send their strategic military assets to the region surrounding the Korean Peninsula at any time.

Pyongyang has a history of testing new U.S. administrations with weapons demonstrations aimed at forcing Washington back to negotiations. 

[AP]

Six North Korean border guards defect to China ‘due to hunger and fatigue’

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A unit of six North Korean border soldiers has defected to China, according to reports, in a sign of the increasingly high level of discontent in the reclusive country. While there has been a steady stream of one or two guards fleeing the authoritarian country, a group this large is highly unusual.

The soldiers fled across the Yalu River on the border with China earlier this month along with their weapons, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported this week. The unit was part of the 25th Border Guard brigade, which has been deployed to stop other North Koreans from escaping, and reportedly complained of being overworked and underfed since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, according to RFA.

Life in North Korea’s military has become especially hard in recent months amid severe food shortages and a crackdown on smuggling following the closure of the border in response to the coronavirus pandemic. “Usually, border guards are in collusion with professional smugglers and merchants and they live better than soldiers in other regions”, RFA quoted a source in the North Korean military as saying. “But the coronavirus outbreak has been raging for more than a year, so smuggling has completely stopped and they are suffering from hunger these days”.

The Chinese authorities have been informed of the defections and are understood to be searching for the armed men, a source said.

[The Telegraph]

North Korea warns US not to ‘cause a stink’

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In North Korea’s first comments directed at the Biden administration, Kim Jong Un’s powerful sister warned the United States to “refrain from causing a stink” if it wants to “sleep in peace” for the next four years.

Kim Yo Jong’s statement was issued as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Asia to talk with U.S. allies Japan and South Korea about North Korea and other regional issues.

“We take this opportunity to warn the new U.S. administration trying hard to give off (gun) powder smell in our land,” she said. “If it wants to sleep in peace for coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step.”

[AP]

North Korean defectors struggle to send money home amid pandemic

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Each January, Choi Bok-hwa’s mother had climbed a mountain near her home in in North Korea and used a broker’s smuggled Chinese cellphone to call South Korea to wish her daughter happy birthday. For the first time in years, Choi didn’t get her annual birthday call.

Choi, who hasn’t sent money or talked to her 75-year-old mother since May, believes the silence is linked to the pandemic, which led North Korea to shut its borders tighter than ever and impose some of the world’s toughest restrictions on movement. Many other defectors in the South have also lost contact with their loved ones in North Korea amid the turmoil of COVID-19.

Defectors in the South have long shared part of their income with parents, children and siblings in North Korea. But these defectors now say they’ve stopped or sharply reduced the remittances because of plunging incomes, or because brokers are demanding extremely high fees.

Brokers in North Korea use smuggled mobile phones to call the South from mountains near the border with China, where they can get better reception and avoid official detection. Defectors send money to the bank accounts of other brokers on the Chinese side of the border. The brokers in China and in North Korea are often also smuggling goods in and out of North Korea, so this means that money transfers don’t need to be sent across the border immediately; instead, brokers in North Korea can give the cash to defectors’ relatives and get paid back by their smuggling partners in China later. But North Korea’s year-long border closure has battered the smuggling business.

“The money we send is a lifeline,” said Cho Chung Hui, 57, who transferred the equivalent of $890 to each of his two siblings every year before the pandemic. “If someone works really diligently in North Korea’s markets, they make only $30-40 per month.”

[AP]

Not all North Korean defectors want the same thing

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A book published in January titled “Defector” (탈북자) is shedding light on the lesser-known stories of North Korean defectors, challenging stereotypes and misconceptions. The book was written by former documentary producer Cho Cheon Hyeon (55), who spent over two decades speaking to North Koreans living in China’s border regions.

Cho’s book is remarkable in more ways than one, particularly because it challenges the traditional South Korean narrative that often portrays North Korean defectors as desperately wanting to make it to the South.

Cho’s views are different. According to his decades-long experience speaking to North Koreans, the majority of those who leave North Korea have no intention of ever defecting to South Korea. 

In his book, Cho distinguishes defectors in three different categories:
1. those working in China who intend to return to North Korea after earning enough money;
2. those living in China long-term who regularly send money back to their family members in North Korea; and
3. those wanting to defect to the South.

According to Cho, the vast majority of North Koreans who leave their country belong in the first two categories. 

[Daily NK]

North Korea’s trade with China declined 80% during 2020

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Two-way trade between North Korea and its biggest partner, China, fell 80.7% in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to estimates from Seoul’s Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.

Trade activity dropped significantly in February 2020, with two-way trade falling to $10.71 million in the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus epidemic that began in Wuhan, China. North Korea shut its 880-mile border with China as part of its COVID-19 response in January 2020, but trade levels recovered by June to $96.8 million, according to SP News.

Pyongyang has claimed its draconian tactics against the novel coronavirus have paid off and that there are zero COVID-19 patients in the country. North Korea has also ordered vaccines from the COVAX Facility, managed by the World Health Organization.

[UPI]

North Korea’s economy ravaged by sanctions and pandemic isolation

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Kim Jong Un is angry, and he’s lashing out, complaining that North Korea’s last economic plan failed “tremendously.”

And his inner circle lacked an “innovative viewpoint and clear tactics” in drawing up a new one, Kim told the ruling Workers’ Party last month, yelling and finger-pointing at frightened-looking delegates.

His economy minister, appointed in January, has already been fired.

North Korea is suffering its worst slump in more than two decades, experts say. It’s a combination of international sanctions and especially a self-imposed blockade on international trade in attempts to keep the coronavirus pandemic out.

A shortage of spare parts usually supplied from China has caused factories to close, including one of the country’s largest fertilizer plants, and crippled output from the country’s aging power plants, according to news reports. Electricity shortages, long a chronic problem, have become so acute, production has even halted at some coal mines and other mines.

[Washington Post]

North Korean defector swam to South Korea

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A North Korean man in diving gear swam to South Korea on Tuesday in an apparent bid to defect from Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, the South Korean military said Wednesday.

The man, who is reported to be in his 20s, and a civilian, appeared to have swam across the maritime border and crawled through a drainage pipe beneath a barbed-wire fence, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a press release obtained by the country’s JoongAng Daily newspaper.

He was first spotted on closed-circuit surveillance cameras passing a military checkpoint at 4:20 a.m. but was not captured until three hours later when he had entered the restricted civilian-control zone, the military said. The area is located south of the 2.5-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, that acts as a buffer between the two Koreas.

The JCS said a diving suit and fins were found on the beach in Goseong, Gangwon, where he first came ashore.

The apparent defection would be the second in a matter of months after a North Korean man climbed a border fence in November and continued half a mile before the South captured him.

[Fox News]

North Korean man caught after crossing DMZ border

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South Korea has caught a suspected North Korean man after he crossed the heavily fortified de-militarized zone (DMZ) between the two countries.

South Korean troops tracked him for three hours on Tuesday as he made his way through the zone, which is filled with land mines and surrounded by barbed wire.

The man was located near a checkpoint at the eastern zone of the DMZ at 19:20 GMT on Monday. It is not yet clear if he is a civilian or a member of the military.

“He is presumed to be a North Korean and we’re conducting an investigation into details, including how he had come down and whether he wished to defect,” the Joint Chief of Staffs said in a statement.

Since taking power in 2011, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is believed to have ordered the tightening of border controls between the two sides and with China, including by laying more landmines. Crossing via the DMZ is incredibly dangerous. If spotted and arrested by the North Korean military, those trying to cross would certainly be taken to a detention center to be interrogated. They could be tried and sentenced to lengthy terms in labor camps.

[BBC]