Author Archives for Grant Montgomery

North Korea unveils ICBM

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Two ballistic missiles made their debut in Saturday’s North Korean military parade: a sub-launched weapon and what appeared to be an enormous new intercontinental ballistic missile borne on a long, 11-axle mobile launcher.

Analysts have long scrutinized Pyongyang’s parades for what they reveal about the military capabilities of one of the world’s most secretive regimes — but the October 10 event also offered the latest and clearest signal yet that the Trump administration’s efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have failed. One expert called the new ICBM a destabilizing capability that would exacerbate tensions between North Korea and the rest of the world, particularly the United States. 

The new ICBM isn’t exactly a surprise, said Jeffrey Lewis, a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and the founding publisher of the Arms Control Wonk blog. Lewis believes that the missile is intended to carry multiple warheads, another new capability. That means North Korea is improving the likelihood of slipping a nuclear weapon past the ground-based midcourse defense interceptors that the United States would deploy against an incoming ICBM. “It’s so much cheaper to add warheads than interceptors,” said Lewis. 

He acknowledged that the missile hasn’t been flight-tested yet, so there’s no way to tell if it actually works. But it need not be 100-percent reliable to post a large threat that could change U.S. calculations.  “We are standing by while they deploy very destabilizing capabilities,” he said. 

[Defense One]

North Korean diplomat who went missing in Italy two years ago is in South Korea

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A top North Korean diplomat who went missing in Italy two years ago is now living in South Korea, making him one of the regime’s most high profile officials to defect in decades.

Jo Song Gil and his wife disappeared in November 2018 after leaving the North Korean embassy in Rome where Jo was employed as acting-ambassador.

For almost two years, his whereabouts have been unknown — but this week, South Korean lawmaker Ha Tae-keung confirmed reports that Jo had defected to South Korea in 2019. “It is confirmed that former ambassador Jo Song Gil entered South Korea in July last year and is under government’s protection,” Ha wrote on his Facebook page Tuesday.

Jo is the highest-profile government official to defect from the totalitarian regime since Thae Yong-Ho, former deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, fled to South Korea in 2016. North Korea has yet to comment publicly on the news of Jo’s defection.

Jo disappeared in November 2018, shortly before his term as North Korea’s top diplomat in Italy was set to expire. In a statement after the diplomat fled, the Italian Foreign Ministry said it had received a notice from the North Korean Embassy that Jo and his wife had left the embassy on November 10, 2018. Four days later, Jo’s daughter returned to North Korea accompanied by female staff from the North Korean embassy after requesting to be reunited with her grandparents, the Italian Foreign Ministry said.

A spokesperson for South Korea’s National Assembly Intelligence Committee chair Jeon Hae-cheol told CNN that the South Korean government didn’t make Jo’s defection public for more than a year out of concern for his family’s safety. Jo had voluntarily expressed his desire to come to South Korea, the spokesperson said.

Thae, the former UK-based diplomat, criticized the press for exposing news about Jo without his consent. “For diplomats who have family members living in North Korea, to reveal their news (of defection) is a sensitive matter,” he said in a statement. “That is why other former North Korean diplomats are living in South Korea without revealing their identity and the South Korean government does not reveal it either.”

[CNN]

North Korean defector given suspended sentence for collecting info for the North

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A North Korean defector who collected information for North Korean authorities after being blackmailed has been given a suspended sentence. The defector, identified by the surname Han, was sentenced to an eight-month prison term suspended for two years for violating the National Security Act.

The Seoul Central District Court ruled that Han’s actions represented a clear danger of damaging South Korea’s democratic order and national security, but handed down a suspended sentence in light of the determination that Han was acting under duress, that his plans to return to the North were not realized and that Han has no other criminal record.

Han came to the South in June 2011 through China, then settled to work at an industrial complex. The North’s State Security Department began to blackmail Han in 2013, directing him to return to the North and threatening to harm his family members in North Korea.

Han was told to collect information on North Korean defectors in the South for the North Korean State Security Department. The information he provided led to North Korean authorities apprehending a broker for sending money in North Korea.

As part of his plan to return to North Korea, Han went to China with 87 million won ($74,100) – 6 million won from savings and 81 million won borrowed from four different non-bank lenders. While in China, Han revealed his intention to give the State Security Department a bribe of 50 million won and to use 30 million won to purchase a truck that he planned to use once back in the North.  When the North Korean official, however, demanded 80 million won, it prompted Han to return to the South.

[The Korea Herald]

Surge in North Korean defectors after months of record lows

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For more than 240 days now, North Korea has kept its borders closed in a COVID-19-related lockdown, which has seriously driven down the number of new defectors entering South Korea.

But now, government data from Seoul shows a sudden surge in new defectors: After a stretch of record-low numbers totaling less than 10 people per month, 39 North Koreans abruptly arrived in South Korea in August 2020, Democratic Party lawmaker Jeon Hae-cheol’s office confirms.

This is a significant rise from the second quarter of 2020, when only twelve entered the South over the course of three months.

[NK News]

Kim Jong-un offers South Korea a rare apology for killing official

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North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, offered a rare apology for the killing of a South Korean government official at sea by soldiers from the North.

“I am deeply sorry that an unexpected and unfortunate thing has happened in our territorial waters that delivered a big disappointment to President Moon Jae-in and the people of the South,” Mr. Kim was quoted as saying in a message his government sent to the South on Friday.

Mr. Kim’s prompt apology to the South, the first issued in his name since he took power nearly a decade ago, appeared to have headed off what could have been another serious crisis in relations between the Koreas. South Koreans across the political spectrum had expressed outrage since Mr. Moon’s government announced the official’s killing on Thursday.

The official, whose name has not been released by the South but who worked for the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, went missing from his patrol vessel on Monday. He was shot and killed in North Korean waters on Tuesday, apparently while trying to defect, according to officials in the South. North Korean soldiers then poured oil on the man’s body and set it on fire for fear that he might have had the coronavirus, the officials said.

With all official channels of communication with the North having been cut off since June, South Korea sent a message through a cross-border telephone hotline between North Korea and the United Nations Command, demanding that the North explain why it had killed a South Korean citizen. In the message, North Korea denied that its soldiers had burned the body of the South Korean official, and it offered an account that differed from the South’s in other key details.

South Korean officials had said Thursday that they believed the man had been killed because of the North’s fear of the coronavirus. North Korea has kept its borders closed since January because of the pandemic. This month, Gen. Robert B. Abrams, commander of the United States military in South Korea, said the North had deployed troops along its border with China with shoot-to-kill orders, to keep smugglers from bringing in the coronavirus.

[The New York Times]

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]