North Koreans “living in peace with America, for everyone to have a better life.”

In North Korea, where leader Kim Jong-un has almost godlike status, to question him out loud is for many unthinkable. So by speaking out, market trader Sun Hui – not her real name – knows she is putting her life at risk.

“People criticize Kim Jong-un,” she says, reflecting wider discontent. “[They say] the little man uses his head to suck up money like a little vampire.”

If the regime knew of Sun Hui’s real identity, she would face severe punishment – imprisonment in one of the regime’s hard labor camps or even execution. And she may not be the only one to be punished – three generations of her family could also be sent to prison.

Sun Hui lives with her husband and two daughters, eating three meals a day when business is good at the markets where she works. When it isn’t, the rice is mixed with maize.

More than five million North Koreans are either “directly or indirectly” reliant on such markets, according to Daily NK. While the market trade in North Korea directly contradicts the regime’s hard-line communism, it also allows the population to feed itself amid a largely-defunct ration system and economic sanctions against the country.

The markets, sometimes containing hundreds of stalls, can also be a breeding ground for gossip and rumor. “Things are changing,” says Sun Hui. “They say we should get along with the South. More recently, they say we should be living in peace with America, for everyone to have a better life.”

It is a significant development.

[BBC]

Kim Jong-un invites Pope Francis to Pyongyang

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has invited Pope Francis to visit the country, South Korea’s presidential office has announced.

The invitation to visit Pyongyang will be delivered by South Korean president Moon Jae-in who will be in the Vatican next week as part of a trip to Europe.

No pope has ever visited North Korea, and North Korea and the Vatican have no formal diplomatic relations.

The invitation is the latest reconciliatory gesture from North Korea.

In 2000, Kim Jong-un’s father – Kim Jong-il – invited Pope John Paul II to visit North Korea after the pope was quoted as saying it would be “a miracle” if he could go there.

The visit never happened. The Vatican insisted at the time that a visit from the pope would only happen if Catholic priests were accepted in North Korea.

North Korea’s constitution promises a “right to faith” and state-controlled churches do exist. However, one human rights activist say this is all largely for show.

[BBC]

Experts say Kim Jong Un’s invitation to visit defunct nuclear testing site “pure PR”

Kim Jong Un’s supposed concession of inviting inspectors to a defunct nuclear testing site has been met with the equivalent of an eye roll from many experts.

“This is almost them reselling the same car to the Americans,” said Andrea Berger, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “We’re not inspecting a new action or a new facility. They already dismantled the site.”

The testing site, Punggye-ri, was closed six months ago because it was no longer needed by North Korea. Some of the tunnels in the mountain complex may have collapsed, rendering them unusable. North Korea invited inspectors to witness to site’s demolition in April, only to retract that and allow only journalists to attend. Extending the same offer to the Americans six months later, Berger said, amounts to an old concession dressed up as a new breakthrough.

“Chairman Kim invited inspectors to visit the Punggye-ri nuclear test site to confirm that it has been irreversibly dismantled,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

Some feel that Kim and his officials are instead trying to buy time so they can make progress on other fronts, such as building economic ties and even declaring a long-awaited peace with South Korea, as well as increasing their international standing.

Inviting inspectors to an old testing site is an example of this calculus, according to Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at MIT. “Kim has mastered the art of milking a single cosmetic concession for months to burn clock,” he wrote on Twitter.

James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace, called the invitation to Punggye-ri “a joke” and “pure PR.”

[NBC]

Pompeo says North Korea ready to let inspectors into missile and nuclear sites

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was ready to allow international inspectors into the North’s nuclear and missile testing sites, one of the main sticking points over an earlier denuclearization pledge.

Pompeo, who met Kim during a short trip to Pyongyang on Sunday, said the inspectors would visit a missile engine test facility and the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site as soon as the two sides agree on logistics.

The top U.S. diplomat also said both sides were “pretty close” to agreement on the details of a second summit, which Kim proposed to U.S. President Donald Trump in a letter last month.

“Most importantly, both the leaders believe there’s real progress that can be made, substantive progress that can be made at the next summit,” Pompeo said.

Stephen Biegun, new U.S. nuclear envoy who was accompanying the secretary, said he offered on Sunday to meet his counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, “as soon as possible” and they were in discussion over specific dates and location.

Pompeo told South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Sunday his latest trip to Pyongyang was “another step forward” to denuclearization but there are “many steps along the way”.

[Reuters]

“We ate frogs because we were so hungry”

Pak Sool is one of nearly 100 North Korean students at the Yeomyung school in Seoul, a place designed to teach those new to South Korean society. The school is funded largely by donations from Christian groups and all the teachers are Christian, although the curriculum is not religiously focused.

During a recent biology class at the school, the students joked and misbehaved like any group of teenagers, but there were moments that exposed the trauma they have escaped. When the teacher turned to explanations of different types of animals, a picture of a frog flashes on a screen.

“We used to eat that because we were so hungry in North Korea,” one student says. “We don’t just eat the back legs, we eat everything, it’s very delicious.”

It was an unsentimental statement, said matter of factly, but it betrayed a hardship that few of his South Korean counterparts would ever experience.

“They can be smiling and laughing during the day and then at night still be haunted by nightmares,” says Hwang Heui-gun, a teacher at the school. “But they can’t talk about it, it’s too painful.”

Severe economic disparities between the two neighbors also play out in the classroom. Some students are forced to drop out and find work in order to send money to family members back in North Korea or contribute to their journey to the South.

[The Guardian]

The Trump administration loves issuing sanctions, not enforcing them

Since Donald Trump took office, the U.S. Department of the Treasury unit that implements sanctions has emerged as a high-profile foreign policy weapon, advancing U.S. interests by economically isolating Iran, Russia, and North Korea. The agency has blacklisted hundreds of people and companies around the globe and rolled out sanctions programs targeting everyone from foreign meddlers in U.S. elections to buyers of North Korean coal.

But with 2018 three-quarters gone, a crucial element of sanctions enforcement has all but disappeared: the actual enforcement.

Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control is on track to bring the lowest number of cases and penalties in 15 years, according to a Bloomberg Businessweek analysis of agency data. OFAC typically files dozens of cases a year against people and companies that breach sanctions orders, imposing hundreds of millions of dollars in fines.

So far this year, OFAC has filed exactly one case. The haul: $146,000.

Lawyers and former officials agree the change is stark. “You have an administration that loves using the sanctions powers afforded to it to forward foreign policy objectives,” says Dan Tannebaum, a former OFAC official and PwC executive who advises companies on sanctions compliance. “All they’re doing is implementing, and not really enforcing.”

[Bloomberg]

Once in South Korea, North Koreans have little chance of getting asylum elsewhere

Jo Hye Kyung beat the odds: She made a dangerous escape from North Korea 20 years ago and eventually made her way to Canada and a new life. But because she initially settled in South Korea, her life in Toronto may soon be uprooted. Jo, 32, is just one of a number of North Korean defectors in Canada who came to the country by way of South Korea and could now be sent back to a place where, they say, they face systemic discrimination.

As soon as North Koreans enter South Korea, they are granted citizenship, but that makes them ineligible to apply for asylum in Canada [or elsewhere] since South Korea is considered a safe country. Which is why they end up applying for refugee status as North Koreans without declaring their South Korean citizenship.

Jo was 12 when she and her family crossed the icy Tumen River from North Korea to China. It was a daring escape on a perilous route that has claimed many lives. Jo, her mother, her father and her little brother made it into China, where Jo says they lived for five years in hiding for fear of being sent back to North Korea.

In 2002, Jo and her family climbed over a barrier into the grounds of the South Korean consul general’s Beijing office and claimed asylum. “I thought, ‘At least they won’t send us back to North Korea’ [like China might]” Jo said.

Jo says she and her family didn’t realize that once on South Korean soil, they would automatically be considered citizens. “Until I came to South Korea, I didn’t know … [if] I became South Korean, … I could not go anywhere else,” Jo said.

In South Korea, her North Korean education wasn’t recognized, which meant that she had to begin her secondary school education from scratch at 18. She says her classmates told her that because she was North Korean, she did not belong in South Korea, and that she should not try to get an education because North Koreans should know their place in South Korean society. Jo’s North Korean dialect left her vulnerable to unwelcome interrogations from strangers.

Kim Joo Eun, a lawyer with the Refugee Law Office at Legal Aid Ontario in Toronto, says that Jo’s story is a part of a pattern of North Korean defectors who feel rejected by South Korean society and look to emigrate somewhere more welcoming.

“The overall trend is that after going through unbelievable treatment and trauma in North Korea, escaping from there and going through very precarious and dangerous time in China, after arriving in South Korea, a lot of them faced a lot of discrimination – stigma – against them,” Kim said.  Continue reading about Jo Hye Kyung and family 

[CBC]

North Koreans under threat of deportation from Canada

Life for North Koreans who make it to South Korea can be difficult. Defectors report feeling discriminated against by South Koreans. Many report being denied jobs because they speak in dialect or have a North Korean accent or seeing their children bullied at school because of their background. In extreme cases, defectors say they have been threatened or extorted by people claiming to be North Korean agents.

North Korean defector Jo Hye Kyung told CBC that in South Korea, even though she was out from under the repressive, Communist dictatorship of North Korea, she still felt like she was being watched. “We staked our lives to come to South Korea and then found that defectors are assigned police officers,” she said. “I felt like I was being watched by them. It felt like a cage without walls.”

In a statement to CBC News, the South Korean Ministry of Unification, responsible for settlement support for North Korean defectors, said police officers are tasked with protecting defectors and resolving any problems they might face.

Andrei Lankov, the director of NKNews.org, a Delaware-based site covering North Korean news, and a scholar of Korean studies, wrote in 2006 that typically, “defectors, suffering from low income, alienation and real or perceived discrimination, form a sort of underclass that might even become semi-hereditary.”

The prospect of her children facing the same type of discrimination  frightened Jo. “If I had lived alone in South Korea, I could have borne it,” Jo explained, “but with a child, I found myself thinking about his future and his well-being.

After eight years living in Seoul, Jo decided to go to Canada in 2010 along with her parents, her partner, a North Korean defector she met in South Korea, and their four-year-old son. When the family arrived in Vancouver, Jo did not disclose that they had been living in South Korea as citizens. She says she was advised by members of the Korean community in Canada they would have a better chance of staying in Canada if they applied for asylum as North Koreans.

Canada granted the family asylum. Then in July, living in Toronto now with two more children, Jo’s family received a notice alerting them that their refugee status could be vacated. They have a hearing scheduled for October 19, and if their refugee status is vacated, Jo, her firstborn son, now 10, her husband, and her parents will go through a pre-removal risk assessment and have the opportunity to file an appeal to stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

Around 135 North Koreans were in the process of removal as of July although it was unclear how many of those held South Korean citizenship, according to the Canada Border Security Agency.

[CBC]

North and South Korea begin removing landmines along fortified border

Troops from North and South Korea began removing some landmines along their heavily fortified border on Monday, the South’s defense ministry said, in a pact to reduce tension and build trust on the divided peninsula.

They have already dismantled propaganda loudspeakers and some guard posts along the border.

Details were agreed during last month’s summit in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, between its leader, Kim Jong Un, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

The deal also provides for removal of guard posts and weapons from the JSA* to follow the removal of the mines, with the troops remaining there to be left unarmed. (*The JSA is the only spot along the 250-km [155-mile] -long “demilitarized zone” [DMZ] where troops from both Koreas are face to face.)

Since fighting during the 1950-1953 Korean War ended in a stalemate, at least nine soldiers have been killed in incidents with North Korean troops, including the killing in 1976 of two U.S. soldiers by axe-wielding North Koreans.

[Reuters]

Many less North Korean defectors under Kim Jong Un

The number of North Korean defectors to South Korea has fallen since Kim Jong-un came to power seven years ago. Park Byeong-seug, a South Korean lawmaker citing data from the South’s unification ministry, said there had been 1,127 defections last year – compared with 2,706 in 2011.

Mr Park said tighter border controls between North Korea and China and higher rates charged by people smugglers were key factors. China regards the defectors as illegal migrants rather than refugees and often forcibly repatriates them.

Relations between the North and the South – who are still technically at war – have markedly improved in recent months. This came after June’s historic meeting between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore, when they agreed in broad terms to work towards the nuclear-free Korean peninsula.

But on Saturday, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho blamed US sanctions for the lack of progress since then. “Without any trust in the US, there will be no confidence in our national security and under such circumstances, there is no way we will unilaterally disarm ourselves first,” Mr Ri said in a speech to the UN General Assembly in New York.

[BBC]