Author Archives for Grant Montgomery

North Korea reminds citizens they will be killed for watching South Korean TV

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North Korea has been trumpeting its thawing relations with South Korea, with images of Kim Jong Un meeting his counterpart Moon Jae-in shown in state-controlled media. But that doesn’t mean its punishments will be any less harsh for citizens who dare to watch TV programs from across the border. People who commit that crime can still face prison, labor camp, or death, as police officials have been reminding residents during lectures in the South Hwanghae province this month.

Radio Free Asia recently reported on the lectures, in which officials demanded that residents “abstain from watching decadent video materials of capitalism … that have found their way in from the South,” according to one source.

Those materials can reach North Koreans in a variety of ways, including via black markets and even the skies above. South Korean activists have long used balloons to carry leaflets deriding North Korea’s government and USB flash drives loaded with South Korean soap operas. Such shows can reveal to North Koreans how much better off their southern counterparts are.

North Koreans close to the border with South Korea can also receive broadcast signals from the south by manipulating frequencies on their TVs.

The police, in their lectures, have reminded people that anyone, regardless of their status, will be punished. In 2014, 10 officials of the ruling party were reportedly executed for watching South Korean soap operas.

[Quartz]

Listening to South Korean radio could send you to a political prison camp or even execution

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Ill Yong opens Google Maps, trying to find a satellite image of his childhood house. This always makes him homesick. When he zooms in on his house, a blurry gray square surrounded by snow, he remembers the nearby waterfall and the summer days he spent playing there. But he also remembers how hard it was living in North Korea.

His family listened to illegal South Korean radio every night but had to keep it hidden from friends and neighbors. If caught, they could have been sent to a political prison camp or even executed.

Ill Yong resettled to South Korea in 2009 and, even though his family was with him, starting over in a new country was challenging. The everyday moments took adjusting to.

His first time at a buffet, Ill Yong was so overwhelmed by the massive amount of food that he just took a small bowl of rice.

The first time he tried to use an escalator he was so confused about what to do that he jumped on at the bottom and then jumped off at the top.

Ill Yong is studying to become a Human Rights lawyer. A lot has changed since he first arrived (he now knows how to get on an escalator) but he still thinks about his old home in North Korea and hopes to see it again in person one day.

[LiNK]

No further word about North Korea’s top diplomat in Italy who went into hiding

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There has been no further word about North Korea’s top diplomat in Italy who went into hiding along with his wife in November before his posting to Italy ended late that month. Media reports indicated that Jo was under Italian government protection as he seeks asylum in a Western nation.

A high-profile defection by one of North Korea’s elite would be a huge embarrassment for leader Kim Jong Un as he pursues diplomacy with Seoul and Washington and seeks to portray himself as a geopolitical player. North Korea, which touts itself as a socialist paradise, is extremely sensitive about defections, especially among its elite diplomatic corps, and has previously insisted that they are South Korean or U.S. plots to undermine its government.

In this case, North Korea has publicly ignored Jo Song Gil’s possible defection and held back harsh criticism to avoid highlighting the vulnerability of its government as it tries to engage Washington and Seoul in negotiations.

“It could be difficult for some diplomats to accept being called back to the North after enjoying years living in the free West. They could want their children to live in a different system and receive better education,” Thae Yong Ho, a former minister at the North Korean Embassy in London who fled to South Korea in 2016, told The Associated Press.

Jo seemed comfortable moving around Italy. In March 2018, accompanied by another embassy official, Pak Myong Gil, he visited two factories in Italy’s northeastern Veneto region with an eye on eventual trade, according to La Tribuna di Treviso, a local daily.

Jo comes from a family of diplomats, with his father and father-in-law both serving as ambassadors.

Opinion on second North Korea summit

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North Korea has forgone nuclear tests, missile tests and rhetorical attacks for more than 400 days. That’s an important development. At the same time, however, it continues to produce nuclear fuel, weapons and missiles. It has not denuclearized, as Mr. Trump has demanded.

So, as President Trump and Kim Jong-un prepare for their second summit (reportedly next month in Vietnam), the pressure is on the Trump administration to articulate a realistic strategy for achieving a mutually agreed upon outcome.

After their first meeting, Mr. Trump declared that North Korea, which possesses 20 to 60 nuclear weapons, the missiles to deliver them and the facilities to make even more, was “no longer a nuclear threat.” Saying so didn’t make it so.

A new report this week about a previously secret North Korean missile base at Sino-ri, 132 miles (212 kilometers) north of the Demilitarized Zone, is a reminder of how sprawling and hidden the country’s nuclear program is and how challenging any sort of outside inspections regime might be to carry out.

Publicly, the two sides still hew to staunch positions: The Trump administration insists that tough sanctions will stay in place until North Korea completely gives up its nuclear arsenal. North Korean officials insist on sanctions relief early in the process.

But small signs of movement led to plans for the second summit. Mr. Trump backed off his insistence on immediate disarmament, and his administration recently eased travel restrictions so American aid workers and humanitarian supplies could once again enter the impoverished country.

Mr. Kim’s annual New Year’s Day speech presented a somewhat more positive view of United States-North Korea relations, an encouraging sign.

One potentially significant change is that Mr. Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, last August appointed Stephen Biegun, a retired business executive with years of experience as a Republican foreign policy adviser, as the day-to-day negotiator. He is regarded by people in both parties as having a nuanced and pragmatic view of negotiations and diplomacy.

[Read full New York Times Opinion]

What to keep in mind with anticipated second summit

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As a State Department official, Joel Wit participated in face-to-face talks with North Korea, and in 1999 led the first American nuclear inspection. Now a senior fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center and director of the 38North project, he shares his opinion:

With a second summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un expected in late February … a North Korean pledge to denuclearize will be eyed warily in the West. Verification will require more than just photos snapped by orbiting spy satellites. The United States will need to send inspectors on the ground to ensure Kim’s regime is living up to its word. I know from personal experience that will not be an easy task. Here are some lessons I learned:

1.Mutual distrust runs deep.
2.Assemble the right team – [Back in 1999] a team of 10 inspectors was assembled quickly. It included scientists from American nuclear weapons labs but was dominated by a contingent of intelligence analysts. Because the North Koreans were allergic to anything that smacked of spying, we tried to hide the identities of the intelligence contingent by issuing new diplomatic passports to everyone, standard procedure for State Department employees. However, the North Koreans were not fooled. Once we arrived, one of our escorts — an old Foreign Ministry friend — asked me in private with a wry smile, “Why are all of the team’s diplomatic passports completely new except yours?” Nothing more was said, at least not initially.
3.Set detailed ground rules – Then, the details of what the team could inspect had to be worked out with the North Koreans. Talks almost collapsed over the North’s suspicions that a high-tech laser device we wanted to use to measure tunnels was really meant to secretly gather intelligence.
4.Know what to look for – American intelligence agencies had been watching [the nuclear site] for months so we had a great deal of information on activities at the site. Days before leaving for Asia, analysts from the Defense Intelligence Agency who believed North Korea was cheating briefed our team. They rattled off secret information they thought proved the site was intended to house a secret nuclear facility. That information covered everything from satellite photography to calculations on the volume of dirt piles near the suspected site that helped them reach conclusions about the size of the underground areas. It was impressive but proved wrong.
5.Expect the unexpected (and be prepared to deal with it).
6.Inspections can’t guarantee compliance – Inspections can reduce uncertainty but not eliminate it. The trick for any American president will be to judge whether uncertainty warrants breaking the deal or whether U.S. security is better served by keeping it.
7.Build trust. – The most important lesson is that verifying a denuclearization deal between Washington and Pyongyang will be impossible without trust-building and reconciliation between the two countries. North Korea will not be a defeated country. Its cooperation will be essential. That will only happen if there is a denuclearization deal that also paves the path away from Cold War confrontation toward an improving relationship with the United States.

[Read full NPR article]

US and North Korean spies have held secret talks for the past decade

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The Washington Post reports that U.S. intelligence officials have met with North Korean counterparts secretly for a decade, a covert channel that allowed communications during tense times, aided in the release of detainees and helped pave the way for President Trump’s historic summit last year with Kim Jong-un.

The secret channel between the CIA and spies from America’s bitter adversary include two  missions to Pyongyang during the Obama administration by the then deputy CIA Director Michael Morell.

The channel appears to have gone dormant late in the Obama administration. Mike Pompeo re-energized it while CIA director, sending an agency officer to meet with North Korean counterparts in Singapore in August 2017. By early 2018, a whirlwind of secret and public talks were underway.

The U.S. and North Korea have never had diplomatic relations and don’t maintain embassies in each other’s capitals. They have long exchanged messages through the North Korean U.N. mission in New York. In contrast, before the new era of summits, the intelligence channel was a way to communicate directly with regime hard-liners.

North Korea’s key interlocutor was Gen. Kim Yong Chol, former head of Pyongyang’s Reconnaissance General Bureau spy agency. Now the senior North Korean negotiator, he met last Friday with President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo.

[Washington Post]

Trump’s dual Korean challenges

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The White House announced on Friday that President Trump will meet with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, in late February. A White House official said the date and the location of the meeting would be announced later.

The announcement came after a 90-minute meeting in the Oval Office between President Trump and Kim Yong-chol, a former North Korean intelligence chief, who has acted as the top nuclear negotiator for Kim Jong-un.

Meanwhile, President Trump’s demands that South Korea take on far more costs for hosting U.S. troops is straining the alliance and potentially playing into North Korea’s hands ahead of a second summit.

South Korea has about 28,500 U.S. troops on more than 20 sites and paid $855 million last year toward the total $2B cost. But the cost-sharing pact expired at the end of last year after 10 rounds of negotiations that left — in the words of one foreign ministry official in Seoul — a “huge gap” between both sides.

South Korean lawmakers and experts worry that Trump is so obsessed with Seoul paying more that he could take the previously unthinkable step of withdrawing some troops if a deal is not reached. That would be an indirect gift to North Korean leader Kim, undermining one of the most important cards the United States has during negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program, experts say.

South Korean lawmakers called Trump’s demand unacceptable. Many members of Moon’s administration began their political careers as left-wing pro-democracy student activists, who were inclined to see the U.S. troop presence as more motivated by American strategic interests than South Korea’s views.

In “Fear,” Bob Woodward’s account of the Trump White House, the U.S. president is described as being obsessed with the cost of the U.S. troop presence, angrily threatening to pull them out on more than one occasion. At various times, he was talked down by a host of insiders, including former defense secretary Jim Mattis, former secretary of state Rex Tillerson and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Victor Cha, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “There’ll be nothing to filter what Trump wants to do, nothing to filter a very uniformed view on how he wants things done.”

[From a Washington Post analysis]

North Korean defector jailed for sending rice and cash to her homeland

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A North Korean defector was on Friday sentenced by the Seoul High Court to two-and-a-half years in jail for sending 130 tons of rice to her homeland as a “loyalty gift”.

It is an open secret North Korean defectors living in the South send small amounts of money to their relatives in the North but this case also involved an extraordinary amount of money sent to the North’s state security agency.

Upholding a lower court decision, the High Court rejected the accused’s claims she sent the rice to ensure the welfare of her son, who was left behind in the North when she defected to the South via China in 2011.

The woman, 50, has since made a small fortune by operating a massage parlour in the South. She sent 130 tons of rice in two instalments to coincide with the April 15 birthday of the North’s founding father Kim Il-sung in 2016 and the January 8 birthday of the current leader Kim Jong-un, via an intermediary associated with the North’s security agency. She also sent US$71,000 to the broker to send an additional 70 tons of rice to the impoverished state.

The court accepted prosecutors’ charges she sent the rice to prove her loyalty to Pyongyang as she sought to return to the North to reunite with her son, who has failed in his attempts to follow his mother in defecting to the South. Prosecutors charged her with providing the North with illegal aid in breach of the strict National Security Law.

[South China Morning Post]

North Korea envoy headed to U.S. to meet Pompeo, possibly Trump

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Kim Yong Chol, Pyongyang’s lead negotiator in denuclearization talks with the United States, was headed for Washington on Thursday for expected talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a possible encounter with President Donald Trump to lay the groundwork for a second U.S.-North Korea summit, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The North Korean visit could yield an announcement of plans for another summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The Washington Post quoted people familiar with recent diplomatic activity as saying that if announced soon, a second summit would probably take place in March or April, with Danang, Vietnam, the most likely venue.

There has been no indication, however, of any narrowing of differences over U.S. demands that North Korea abandon a nuclear weapons program that threatens the United States or over Pyongyang’s demand for a lifting of punishing sanctions.

On Wednesday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence acknowledged that efforts to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal had not made headway. “While the president is promising dialogue with Chairman Kim, we still await concrete steps by North Korea to dismantle the nuclear weapons that threaten our people and our allies in the region,” Pence said in an address to U.S. ambassadors and other senior American diplomats at the State Department.

[Reuters]

What is North Korea’s definition of denuclearization?

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One of the central questions in the negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program: What does Kim Jong Un want in return for giving up his weapons?

The United States is demanding the “complete, verifiable and irreversible” denuclearization” of North Korea. But when Kim met Trump in Singapore last June, he promised only to “work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Specifically, the issue is what Kim means by his insistence on the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” — and whether that includes a demand for U.S. troops to leave South Korea and pull nuclear-armed American bombers and submarines out of the surrounding region. (South Korean President Moon Jae-in raised a separate issue: whether making a “political” declaration that the 1950-53 Korean War was over would affect the status of U.S. forces in South Korea.)

Moon’s own unification minister, Cho Myoung-gyon, told a parliamentary hearing on Jan. 9 that Seoul does not share Pyongyang’s definition of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

The ambiguity over such a central question could be a negotiating tactic, leaving some tough questions for later in the peace process when mutual trust is higher. 

Many experts see all this as a problem, a sign that Trump and Moon are dodging some of the big issues in their desire to declare the talks a success. Read more