Author Archives for Grant Montgomery

Defector at heart of COVID-19 case fled sex abuse investigation

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A 24-year-old defector returned to North Korea the way he left in 2017, authorities say, but with a coronavirus pandemic raging in the background this time, his illicit trip drew far more attention. South Korea has identified the man only by his surname, Kim, and identified him as the “runaway” who North Korea accuses of illegally crossing their shared border last week with symptoms of COVID-19.

Facing a sexual assault investigation, Kim evaded high-tech South Korean border control systems by crawling through a drain pipe and swimming across the Han River to the North on July 19, the South Korean military has said. He appears to have spent several days there before being caught in the city of Kaesong, a North Korean border town.

Little is known about how Kim made a living in South Korea, but a source with knowledge of his background told Reuters that he owed 20 million won ($16,800) to at least one fellow defector from Kaesong. “He had expressed his wish to become a security lecturer for students, like many other defectors do, but it never happened, partly because of the pandemic,” the source said on anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

According to police, a female defector in her 20s filed a complaint on June 12, accusing Kim of sexually assaulting her at his home. They interviewed him once on June 21, and he denied the accusations.

The investigation gathered steam when one of Kim’s acquaintances reported to police on July 19 that he threatened the woman and planned to flee to the North, a police official said. A warrant for Kim’s arrest was issued two days later, but according to North Korean state media, he had already arrived there.

By July 24, North Korean authorities had found him in Kaesong, and said he displayed COVID-19 symptoms. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered the city be locked down and declared a state of emergency.

South Korean health officials said there was no sign that Kim was infected with the coronavirus before he left the South, and at least two people who were in close contact with him have tested negative.

[Reuters]

Kim Jong Un puts Kaesong on lockdown over suspected coronavirus case

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Kim Jong Un placed Kaesong on lockdown after a person was discovered with suspected symptoms, state media reported Sunday. Kaesong, with an estimated population of 200,000, is located just north of the heavily fortified border with South Korea.

Kim said he took “the preemptive measure of totally blocking Kaesong City and isolating each district and region from the other” on Friday afternoon, the state-run news agency said.

North Korea said respiratory secretion and blood tests showed the person “is suspected to have been infected” with the coronavirus and has since been quarantined. People who had been in contact with the patient and those who have been in Kaesong in the last five days were also quarantined.

NK News, an organization that tracks North Korean state-run media, said the person crossed the border on July 19. South Korean state media indicates the person is someone who fled to South Korea three years ago before illegally returning early last week.

If the person is officially declared a coronavirus patient, he or she would be North Korea’s first confirmed case. As the coronavirus has spread globally and shut down various countries this year, North Korea has steadfastly said it has had no cases of the virus, a claim questioned by outside experts.

In late March, the Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun reported more than 100 North Korean soldiers who were stationed at the border with China died from the virus. The South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo also claimed that Kim was spending “considerable time” away from the capital of Pyongyang due to the virus.

[Fox News]

The ruling Kim clan and the big socialist family

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The ruling Kim clan is known in North Korea as the “Mount Paektu bloodline,” a reference to the mountain on the country’s border with China where North Korea claims Kim Jong Il was born and his father fought the Japanese.

“In many regards, North Korea is similar to the European societies of late medieval and early modern days. It is essentially a monarchy,” says professor Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, in which family members are more trusted than other elites.

That bloodline is what allows the youngre sister of Kim Jong-Un, Kim Yo Jong, to rise so high in North Korean politics, despite a bias against women in power in a country where traditional attitudes are summed up in the Korean maxim “If the hen cries, the household will be ruined.” The saying, used in both Koreas, suggests that when women speak up or take charge, no good will come of it.

“The North Korean system is fundamentally patriarchal,” says Lim Soon-hee, an expert on women in North Korea. “The government tells the people that they form one big socialist family,” she adds. The father of this metaphorical family, she explains, is Kim Jong Un. The mother is the ruling Workers’ Party. The children are the North Korean people. And the father’s authority is unchallenged.

Lim believes Kim Yo Jong’s most likely future role is not that of successor but, instead, a regent or caretaker until Kim Jong-Un’s son is old enough to take over. (Lim says Kim Jong Un reportedly has three small children who are too young to rule.)

Even if Kim Yo Jong were to take power, Lim argues, North Korea’s conservative military would never accept it.

“Kim Yo Jong herself would not hope to be a successor, although she may have a strong will to acquire greater practical power,” Lim concludes. “She is smart enough to know that it wouldn’t be easy for a woman.”

[NPR]

How far can Kim Yo Jong rise through the ranks?

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Kim Yo Jong was still in her 20s in 2011 when her father, Kim Jong Il, died and her brother Kim Jong Un took power. Her debut on the international stage came in 2018, when she acted as a special envoy at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and met with the country’s president, Moon Jae-in.

Kim Yo Jong became the first vice director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Her political star has risen steadily since her brother took power, leading to speculation that she could one day become the country’s first female ruler. But while there are plausible reasons for her recent elevation, analysts say, the traditional patriarchal nature of North Korean society will likely prevent her from advancing higher up the ranks.

But the younger sister’s rise to what many now see as the de facto No. 2 position in the Kim regime has historical precedent and political logic behind it.

“There is nothing unusual about, say, a sibling of the current leader to be his second in command. It’s actually a very well-established tradition of the Kim family,” says professor Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul. He notes that Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father, was assisted by his sister during his rule in the 1990s.

Kim Yo Jong’s new role was necessitated by her brother’s disappearance this spring, Lankov says, apparently because of an unknown illness. (By one estimate, Kim Jong Un has made only seven public appearances from April through June, compared with 46 in the same period last year.)

“This makes it more necessary for him to have a trusted deputy,” Lankov says. “And this person has to come from, if you like, the royal family, and in the ruling clan, they have now a shortage of adults.”

[NPR]

Kim Yo Jong rising through ranks with tough rhetoric

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“Rip apart the defectors, the traitors and the human trash,” demonstrators wearing masks and standing in neat rows shouted at rallies in North Korea last month, aiming to signal dismay at South Korea for allowing defectors to send propaganda leaflets, often floated on balloons, over the border to criticize North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

While government-organized demonstrations are not unusual in the North, one notable feature of these rallies is that they echo the harsh rhetoric of Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong, 32. She is believed to be in charge of the campaign against the defectors and their leaflets.

“She’s gone from being her brother’s proxy to his protocol assistant, to his eyes and ears, to a punisher,” comments Kim Seung-chul, a defector who runs the Seoul, South Korea-based North Korea Reform Radio, which broadcasts news into the North.

At the Kim-Trump summits in Singapore and Vietnam, Kim Yo Jong appeared to act as her brother’s personal assistant, holding his pens and ashtrays. On other occasions, she has been seen watching her brother’s public events from the sidelines. She has also reportedly managed her brother’s public image as an official in charge of propaganda.

Recently, her rhetoric has recently grown harsher. In a statement, she assailed North Korean defectors as “human scum little short of wild animals who betrayed their own homeland.”

Since first meeting him in 2018 she described Moon, the South Korean president, as an “insane” man who put his neck in “the noose of the pro-U.S. flunkyism.”

[NPR]

Seoul revokes permits for North Korean defector groups over leaflets

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The South Korean government revoked the operation permits of two defector groups on Friday for sending anti-North Korea leaflets across the border, officials said, after Pyongyang furiously denounced their activities.

The move is likely to trigger debate over potential infringements on freedom of expression in the democratic South. The leaflets — usually attached to hot air balloons or floated in bottles — criticize North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over human rights abuses and his nuclear ambitions.

But by sending them, the two groups “severely hindered” the government’s “efforts for unification”, Seoul’s unification ministry said in a statement. They also raised tensions on the Korean peninsula, and “put the safety and lives” of Koreans living in border towns “in danger”, it added.

Revoking the groups’ operational permits does not render them illegal, but will make it harder for them to raise money and deny them access to benefits for registered organizations.

Inter-Korean relations have been in deep freeze following the collapse of a summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump early last year over what the nuclear-armed North would be willing to give up in exchange for a loosening of sanctions.

[Agence France Press]

How North Korean defectors communicate with family back home

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North Korean phones are screened by the Ministry of State Security first to prevent them from being used in any non-permitted ways, so cannot be used to communicate with those in other countries.

Because of this, North Koreans use Chinese-made phones that have been purchased from smugglers, and contact relatives through an app WeChat, allowing voice calls, text messages, and video calls.

WeChat is also used to send money to loved ones in North Korea so they can maintain a living and eat their next meal. The transfer process involves the money passing through several countries before reaching the recipient in North Korea. After initial links are established through these networks in both North and South Korea, money is sent to the account of a Chinese middle-man, who takes a cut for themselves.

There are many shops in the China-North Korea border regions that are jointly run by people from both countries. At such places, at a pre-arranged time and date, the money originally sent by the defector is given over to the North Korean broker. The transfer is conducted not in South or North Korean won but in Chinese yuan.

The North Korean broker then takes their cut before taking the money and delivering it to the other side of the border.

After all is said and done, around seventy percent of the original amount makes its way into the hands of the recipient. Some unscrupulous brokers, however, take more, leaving only around half of the original sum.

[NK News]

US ready to talk to North Korea, with rebuke for Pyongyang counterpart

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Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, the top U.S. official on U.S.-North Korean affairs, on Wednesday said that Washington is willing to resume talks with Pyongyang but disputed reports that he was seeking to meet with North Korean officials during a visit to South Korea.

“Let me absolutely be clear, we did not request a visit” with the North Koreans, Biegun told reporters after meeting with the lead South Korean nuclear negotiator. “This visit this week is to meet with our close friends and allies, the South Koreans.”

“We look forward to continuing our work for a peaceful outcome of the Korean peninsula, I believe this is very much possible,” he added.

Days earlier, Pyongyang’s chief negotiator Vice Foreign Minister Choe Sun Hui had said the nation would only resume talks if the U.S. ended its “hostile” policies and accused the U.S. of the “shallow tactic” of seeking to exploit Washington-Pyongyang relations for electoral advantages, according to state media.

Biegun responded to this Wednesday with a rare rebuke of a North Korean diplomat, comparing Choe to former White House national security adviser John Bolton. “Both are locked in an old way of thinking, focused on only the negatives and what is impossible, rather than thinking creatively about what is possible,” Biegun said.

Biegun also implied resuming talks would be a non-starter if it would mean continued negotiations with Choe. “When Chairman Kim [Jong Un] appoints a counterpart to me who is prepared and empowered to negotiate on these issues, they will find us ready at that very moment,” he said, according to the AP.

[The Hill]

Trump says he’d meet with Kim Jong Un again

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President Trump says he is open to another summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, even as Pyongyang signals it is uninterested in resuming stalled nuclear talks.

Trump made the comments Tuesday in an interview with Gray Television’s Greta Van Susteren*. “I understand they want to meet and we would certainly do that,” Trump said.

When Van Susteren, also a VOA contributor, asked if Trump thought such a meeting would be helpful, Trump replied: “Probably. I have a very good relationship with him, [so it] probably would be.”

North Korea has twice in the past week said it is not interested in more talks with the U.S., insisting another summit would only benefit Trump’s domestic political situation.

*The complete interview will air Sunday on Gray TV’s Full Court Press program, but VOA obtained a transcript of Trump’s North Korea comments ahead of time.  

[VoA]

Only 12 North Korean defectors have made it to South Korea between April and June this year

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To address the spread of coronavirus in Asia, six months ago North Korea completely closed its borders, sealing off the country like never before.

In late January 2020, North Korea moved quickly against the virus – sealing off its borders and later quarantining hundreds of foreigners in the capital, Pyongyang. It also closed schools, and put tens of thousands of its citizens into isolation.

As to how this has impacted North Koreans defecting, from official figures, only 12 defectors have made it to South Korea between April and June this year – the lowest number on record.

[BBC]