Author Archives for Grant Montgomery

What is North Korea’s definition of denuclearization? [Part 2]

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In 2016, a government spokesman set out Pyongyang’s definition of denuclearization of the peninsula, explaining “this includes the dismantlement of nuclear weapons in South Korea and its vicinity,” a definition North Korean state media restated in December.

“The withdrawal of the U.S. troops holding the right to use nukes from South Korea should be declared,” it added. But does that mean all 29,000 American troops in South Korea, or only those that “hold the right to use nuclear weapons?” And does Pyongyang expect Washington to remove the nuclear-armed bombers and submarines stationed in the region?

In a New Year’s Day speech, Kim Jong-un demanded South Korea stop joint military exercises with the United States, adding that “the introduction of war equipment including strategic assets from outside should completely be suspended.”

Sung-Yoon Lee, a North Korea expert at Tufts University, believes Kim’s goal is to keep its nuclear weapons while negotiating for the removal of U.S. forces, and Moon’s liberal administration is playing into his hands by allowing him to “fudge” the question.

Shin Beom-chul of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies says the danger is that North Korea will demand U.S. forces withdraw at the final stage of negotiations, as a condition for finally dismantling its nuclear weapons. But by then, sanctions may have largely been lifted, leaving few levers to persuade Pyongyang to denuclearize.

But some leading U.S. experts like Robert Carlin and Joel Wit at the Stimson Center in Washington take issue with the idea that the North Koreans really want the Americans out. They point out that Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, told South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in 2000 that there was “nothing bad” about U.S. troops staying on in the peninsula after all sides sign a peace treaty, but only if their role was transformed to become “a peacekeeping army” rather than “a hostile force.” That stance was confirmed during various rounds of negotiations from 1992 to 2001, Carlin said.

[The Washington Post]

Trump sends letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un

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Over the weekend, a letter was delivered from US President Donald Trump to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a source familiar with the ongoing denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang told CNN. It was flown to Pyongyang and delivered by hand, the source said.

According to the source, North Korea’s former spy chief Kim Yong Chol — one of Pyongyang’s top negotiators — could visit Washington as soon as this week to finalize details of the upcoming summit.

CNN previously reported that US scouting teams had visited Bangkok, Hanoi and Hawaii as they search for a location for the second summit.

Kim Jong-un’s recent trip to China served to emphasize that not only does Pyongyang have partners beyond Seoul and Washington, but also that China remains a major player in any future action to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.

Kim had been due to visit the South Korean capital in December, but that summit was repeatedly delayed as the denuclearization process and talks between Pyongyang and Washington ran into difficulties.

[CNN]

North Korean ambassador’s defection could impact the already fragile ongoing nuclear negotiations

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News broke in early January that North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, Jo Song Gil, is in hiding and reported is seeking asylum in the West.

Is Jo Song Gil making his escape for personal reasons? Or is it an indication that things are as bad as ever in Pyongyang? Whatever the reason, his defection could impact the ongoing negotiations. He could, for example, share sensitive information with the US and South Korea about the real denuclearisation situation in North Korea – and this could make Kim Jong Un less willing to engage.

There are other factors to consider, too, not least North Korea’s sharp economic downturn. This has, in fact, given many North Koreans wider access to information from outside the country, partially thanks to a growing number of defectors communicating with those who remain and the outside world. 

Kim Jong Un’s “equal emphasis” (Byungjin) policy, which focuses on both military and economic development, has also given impetus to his willingness to talk with Moon and Trump. But even if the willingness is there, North Korea’s regime cannot upend nearly 70 years of history in a day. It will be a long process.

The truth is that Kim Jong-un cannot abandon his nuclear programme until he can see an alternative way of guaranteeing the security of his regime. After all, North Korea’s nuclear programme has so far worked well as a bargaining chip in international negotiations – although the current UN sanctions are an exception. Indeed, North Korea’s nuclear threats and long-range missiles have strengthened the county’s hand against the US, while without them, North Korea has almost nothing to offer as a concession.

Nor should we forget the role the North Korean media plays. By showing images of Kim Jong Un shaking hands with world leaders, it has become part of his survival strategy, bolstering his strongman image among both ordinary North Koreans and his government. 

2019 may yet bring a way forward. But unless there is a foundation of mutual understanding, defectors such as Jo Song Gil may offer the only tangible insight into what’s really going on in North Korea.

[Chanel NewsAsia]

Could a Trump-Kim deal leave Japan in the lurch?

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As a second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un looms, and as the American president grapples with an all-consuming Russia probe, fears are growing that Trump’s next move could put Tokyo in a bind.

“I think there’s a very a high chance — maybe more than 50 percent — that, if Trump meets Kim again, there will be a deal that sells out allies,” said Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official and North Korea expert who teaches at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.

Trump has touted his dealings with Kim as his administration’s signature foreign policy achievement, frequently pointing to the lack of nuclear tests by the North and the absence of missiles being shot over Japan — part of an informal moratorium by Pyongyang on atomic or longer-range missile tests. Now, with the White House mired in what is expected to be a punishing year for the president as the probe into alleged Russia interference in the 2016 election gains steam, Trump could look to North Korea for a much-needed victory.

“Anything that can deflect attention from serious questions about Trump’s integrity and fitness for office will be seen by this White House as worth trying,” said Andrew O’Neil, an expert on North Korea and a professor at Griffith University in Australia.

For Trump, such a victory could involve the U.S. signing off on the easing of crippling sanctions on the North in exchange for Pyongyang capping or curbing intercontinental ballistic missiles believed capable of striking much of the United States, while permitting it to keep some level short- and midrange missiles that could hit Japan, including the estimated 200 to 300 medium-range Nodong missiles it possesses. Those missiles can fly about 1,300 km (800 miles). Such a move, while adhering to Trump’s “America First” mantra, would almost assuredly have devastating implications for the U.S. alliance with Japan.

[The Japan Times]

US to ease limits on humanitarian aid to North Korea

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The U.S. State Department has decided to ease some of its most stringent restrictions on humanitarian assistance to North Korea, lifting travel restrictions on American aid workers and loosening its block on humanitarian supplies destined for the country, according to several diplomats and relief workers.

The decision—which was communicated to humanitarian aid organizations by Stephen Biegun, the U.S. senior envoy for North Korea—follows claims by United Nations and private relief agencies in recent months that the U.S. policy was undermining their efforts to run life-saving relief operations. Those include programs designed to combat infectious diseases, such as cholera and drug-resistant tuberculosis.

The move marked the first significant step in months by the Trump administration to relax its “maximum pressure” campaign on Pyongyang. But it’s unclear whether the action was conceived as a goodwill gesture to Kim Jong Un’s regime to help facilitate further nuclear talks or was a response to mounting diplomatic pressure to soften a policy that threatened the lives of North Korean civilians.

U.S. officials routinely delayed the export of surgical equipment for hospitals, stainless steel milk containers for orphanages, and supplies for fighting tuberculosis and malaria. But the effort led to protests from humanitarian relief organizations and left the United States diplomatically isolated at the U.N. The drama has been playing out behind closed doors in a U.N. sanctions committee, where the United States has used its influence to block or delay requests by relief groups to deliver assistance to North Korea.

In a confidential Dec 10, 2018 letter to the U.N. sanctions committee, Omar Abdi, the deputy executive director for the U.N. Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, complained that the U.S. holds on medical and relief supplies, including ambulances and solar generators needed to power tuberculosis clinics, were undermining the agency’s effort to fight the disease.

[Foreign Policy]

North Korea and China project unity on sanctions

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The leaders of China and North Korea used a summit this week to project a show of unity in the face of stalled negotiations over Pyongyang’s nuclear program and to press the U.S. to compromise.

The meetings gave Beijing a platform to underline its clout in global affairs and its critical leverage in resolving one of Washington’s top security challenges. The U.S., embroiled in an increasingly bitter dispute with China over trade practices, needs the cooperation of President Xi Jinping to enforce sanctions on North Korea and to nudge his Communist ally into making concessions toward giving up his nuclear arsenal.

For Kim Jong Un, his fourth visit in a year to China carried a purposeful reminder for the Trump administration that it should prepare to give ground to get a denuclearization deal. The regime has been calling for sanctions relief from the U.S.

China’s leadership was instrumental in tightening sanctions and prodding Mr. Kim to the negotiating table last year. As North Korea’s biggest trading partner, aid provider and investor, China is critical to maintaining the pressure. To move ahead with denuclearization, Mr. Xi’s government has suggested a phased approach in which North Korean concessions should be met with ones from the international community—a position potentially at odds with Washington’s.

On Thursday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in pressed the U.S. and North Korea to break the impasse in denuclearization talks, saying reciprocal concessions were needed to achieve the U.S. goal of disarming Pyongyang and Mr. Kim’s goal of obtaining sanctions relief.

With U.N. sanctions still in place, China’s willingness to aid North Korea’s economic ambitions is limited, said Kim Heung-kyu, a professor of political science at Ajou University in South Korea. “At the end, if North Korea wants what it wants, like becoming a normal state, pursuing economic growth, then it must achieve a breakthrough in talks with the U.S.,” he said.

[Wall Street Journal]

Defected North Korean diplomat urges international community to help ex-colleague believed to be in hiding in Italy

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Thae Yong Ho, the former North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea in 2016, put out a call to the governments of Italy, South Korea and the United States to help facilitate his former colleague’s reported attempt to leave Italy.

“I urge the Italian government to follow international law and the spirit of humanity to guarantee every condition is met so that political asylum seeker Jo Song Gil and his family can go to the country of their choice,” Thae said at a press conference in Korean in Seoul on Wednesday.

Thae also had a message for Jo Song Gil, the acting North Korean ambassador to Italy, who is reportedly seeking political asylum in the U.S. after leaving the embassy last November. “I am telling you as a friend. Song Gil, do not worry. If you feel unsafe we will actively make an effort to urge the Italian embassy and [authorities] there. So we could at the least help you gain peace of mind.

“We respect your choice [of which country to seek asylum], but you have a home country, the Republic of Korea,” Thae said in Korean.

Jo and his wife are from a politically powerful family of diplomats and have maintained a luxurious lifestyle in Pyongyang, according to Thae, who went to the same university with Jo and knew the family “quite well.”

“As parents, they probably could not force their children, who already are aware of democracy and human rights from living in Europe, back to hell like North Korea. They must have thought that the last thing they could do for the children is to give them freedom,” said Thae, recalling his own defection with his two sons.

[ABC News]

Confirmation that Kim Jong-Un visiting China at Xi Jinping’s invitation

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, accompanied by his wife Ri Sol Ju and top North Korean officials, has arrived in China for a four-day visit at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, as preparations increase for a second summit with US President Trump.

During his stay in China, Kim is expected to hold his fourth summit with Xi. The visit comes a week after Kim warned that North Korea may seek an alternative course if the United States maintains sanctions and pressure on his country.

Analysts also believe that Kim is eager to use the fact that relations between China and the US are strained amid the world’s two biggest economies’ bitter trade war, in order for North Korea to get as much as possible out of the expected talks.

In his annual New Year’s address last week, Kim renewed his commitment to denuclearization but added that the progress would be faster if Washington took the corresponding action.

North Korea would have “no option but to explore a new path in order to protect our sovereignty” if the US “miscalculates our people’s patience, forces something upon us and pursues sanctions and pressure without keeping a promise it made in front of the world”, Kim said, adding that he was ready to meet Trump again at any time.

Christopher Hill, a former US ambassador to South Korea, said Kim’s visit to China may be Beijing’s way of ensuring it remains a player in any future developments with Washington.

The visit also coincided with what South Korean officials say is Kim Jong-un’s 35th birthday on January 8.

Kim Jong Un may be on his way to China for a summit

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South Korean media reported late Monday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be on his way to Beijing for his fourth summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Officials in China and in Seoul had no immediate comment. North Korea rarely reports such visits until they are over.

The reports said a train like the one often used by Kim was seen crossing through the Chinese border city of Dandong late Monday amid heavy security. South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency speculated the train could be carrying a senior North Korean official, while the Hankyoreh newspaper cited sources as saying Kim was in China for a summit.

Yonhap said the train was expected to reach Beijing at about 10 a.m. Tuesday local time.

Reports of the North Korean leader’s possible trip to China come after U.S. and North Korean officials are believed to have met in Vietnam to discuss the location of a second summit between Kim and President Donald Trump. China is the North’s most important trading partner and a key buffer against pressure from Washington.

If Kim is going to meet Xi, Kim could be hoping to coordinate his positions with China before the Trump summit.

[AP]

Negotiating a location for second US-North Korea summit

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President Trump said Sunday that the US is “negotiating a location” for a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whom Trump says he has spoken to “indirectly.”

Trump also said Sunday that the US has a “very good dialogue” going with North Korea, despite signs that talks between the two countries appear to have reached a stalemate.

Trump noted that sanctions against North Korea will remain “in full force and effect” in the meantime, and warned that if anyone else had been elected US president, “you’d be at war right now.”

“You would right now be in a nice, big fat war in Asia with North Korea if I wasn’t elected president,” Trump said.

Last week, Trump said he had received a “great” letter from Kim and held it aloft in the Cabinet Room for reporters to see.

Trump’s remarks last week came one day after Kim’s New Year’s address, in which the North Korean leader warned the US about sanctions. “I’ll endeavor towards a result that will be welcomed by the international community,” Kim said of the potential second meeting between the two leaders. North Korea, however, would have “no choice but to defend our country’s sovereignty and supreme interest, and find a new way to settle peace on our peninsula” if the US “misinterprets our people’s patience, and makes one-sided demands and continues down the path of sanctions and pressure on our republic,” Kim said.

[CNN]