Author Archives for Grant Montgomery

Still a “zero virus” claim by North Korea

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North Korea says it has zero coronavirus infections, but experts doubt it and say it’s likely the virus has spread in the country.

During the previous SARS outbreak and flu pandemics in North Korea, Dr. Choi Jung Hun didn’t have much more than a thermometer, with no test kits and working with antiquated equipment. He and his fellow doctors in the northeastern city of Chongjin were often unable to determine who had a disease, even after patients died, said Choi. He said that local health officials weren’t asked to confirm cases or submit them to the central government in Pyongyang. Choi adds his monthly salary was the equivalent of about 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of rice and that he received cigarettes from patients in return for telling them what medicine they should buy at markets.

In 2012 Choi fled to South Korea, and recently shared the above in an Associated Press interview.

Experts say North Korea’s reluctance to admit major outbreaks of disease, its wrecked medical infrastructure and its extreme sensitivity to any potential threat to Kim Jong Un’s authoritarian rule means that Pyongyang is likely handling the current coronavirus pandemic in the same manner. This has led to widespread skepticism over the nation’s claim to have zero infections.

“It’s a lie,” Choi, 45, said. “Year after year, and in every season, diverse infectious diseases repeatedly occur but North Korea says there isn’t any outbreak.”

Outsiders strongly suspect that coronavirus has spread to North Korea because the country shares a long, porous border with China, its most important trading partner. North Korea, which has quarantined tens of thousands and delayed the school year as precautionary steps, officially sealed its border with China in January, but smuggling across the frontier still likely happens.

Russia’s foreign ministry said in February it donated 1,500 coronavirus test kits to North Korea, and observers say similar kits have also been shipped there from China. Some relief agencies, including UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders, said they sent gloves, masks, goggles and hand hygiene products to North Korea.

Activist groups in Seoul said they’ve been told by contacts in North Korea that people had died of the virus. Those claims cannot be independently verified.

[AP]

US offers $5 million reward for information on North Korean hackers

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The US government is willing to pay up to $5 million for information on North Korea’s hackers and their ongoing hacking operations.

The reward for reporting North Korean hackers was announced today in a joint report published by the Departments of State, Treasury, Homeland Security, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The joint report contains a summary of North Korea’s recent cyber operations and is based on a UN Security Council report published last year that details the country’s tactic of using hackers to raise funds for the Pyongyang regime, as a novel way to bypass international sanctions.

Observed tactics include:

  • Attacks and thefts from banks and other financial entities
  • Attacks and thefts from cryptocurrency exchanges
  • Cryptojacking operations — where North Korean hackers compromise servers worldwide to mine cryptocurrency
  • Various types of extortion campaigns, such as:
  • – Compromising an entity’s network and threatening to shut it down unless the victim pays a ransom
  • – Getting paid to hack websites on behalf of third-party clients, and then extorting the targets
  • – Charging victims “long-term paid consulting arrangements” in order to prevent future attacks

US officials say a lot of these attacks have targeted the financial sector, from where North Korean hackers have stolen funds in excess of $2 billion, which have been laundered back into the hermit kingdom. The US says these hacks are now posing “a significant threat to the integrity and stability of the international financial system.”

The US government also issued a stern warning to companies that may be engaging with North Korean entities and might be, directly or indirectly, helping North Korean hackers launder stolen funds. Consequences include sanctions and seizure of funds and assets, officials said.

[ZDnet]

Former North Korean diplomat elected lawmaker in South Korea

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Thae Yong Ho, the second-highest ranking North Korean official to have defected to South Korea, made history becoming the first defector to be directly elected as a lawmaker in South Korea. His win in the affluent Gangnam district known for upscale luxury apartments and high-end fashion houses is also a light blow to the ruling party of South Korea.

“I risked my life and came to the Republic of Korea in search of freedom, democracy and market economy,” Thae told local press on live broadcast. He also emphasized that his election would “be an opportunity to publicize South Korea’s broad-mindedness and democracy to the world and especially to North Korea.”

Thae has drawn international attention four years ago, seeking asylum in South Korea while serving as North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom. He has since successfully settled in Seoul with his wife and two sons, making his career as an outspoken researcher, lecturer, a best-selling author and a YouTube influencer with 163K subscribers to his channel.

Another North Korean defector, Ji Seong Ho, secured a position through proportional representation for the same conservative opposition party. Ji is a high-profile human rights activist who had made a surprise appearance at President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address in 2018.

“Kim Jong Un is the person who will be most unhappy when I become a lawmaker in South Korea.” Tae said during his campaign speech to Gangnam residents. He told ABC News that his participation in the National Assembly can signal hope and new possibilities for the people of North Korea, especially the ruling class. “It can be a new signal to North Korea’s elite and people that South Korea is [an] open and inclusive society, so that in the future, we can be one again.”

“Thae knows the communist regime to the bottom and also has experience working as a diplomat in a democratic country for a long time. I believe that will give him a more objective stance in handling diplomatic issues,” Choi Younghae, a 70-year-old business woman who worked at a foreign embassy in her 30s, told ABC News on Monday.

 [ABC News]

North Korea fires suspected cruise missiles

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North Korea launched back-to-back missiles off its east coast on the eve of North Korea’s late founder, Kim Il Sung’s 108th birthday, the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un and parliamentary elections in the South.

North Korean troops in Munchonto fired what were presumed to be cruise missiles, according to a statement by South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. They flew roughly 93 miles off the coast, per a South Korean defense official.

The use of that type of projectile is unusual considering the country reportedly possesses just two known cruise missiles purposed for anti-ship operations, according to the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance. If confirmed, it would be the North’s first cruise missile launch since June 2017, per the defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Later on Tuesday, North Korea launched fighter jets which fired an unspecified number of air-to-surface missiles towards the same waters, the official added. Military drills had previously been scaled back in the North due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Some experts believe the tests were used to improve its position against South Korea while others said they were devoted to increasing unity within the county amid U.S. led sanctions during the virus outbreak.

North Korea has repeatedly said there has been no coronavirus outbreak on its soil. But many foreign experts are skeptical of that claim and have warned that a coronavirus outbreak in the North could become a humanitarian disaster because of the country’s chronic lack of medical supplies and fragile health care infrastructure.

[AP]

North Korea calls for stronger coronavirus measures

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North Korea has called for stricter and more thorough measures against the coronavirus at a meeting presided over by its leader Kim Jong Un, state media reported, without acknowledging whether the country had reported any infections.

The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said on Sunday that the virus had created obstacles to the country’s effort in its economic construction, describing the pandemic as “a great disaster threatening the whole mankind, regardless of borders and continents”. 

KCNA reassured North Korea “has been maintaining [a] very stable anti-epidemic situation” thanks to its “strict top-class emergency anti-epidemic measures … consistency and compulsoriness in the nationwide protective measures.”

Officials have previously insisted the North remains totally free of the virus. 

Experts have said North Korea is particularly vulnerable to the virus because of its weak healthcare system, and defectors have accused Pyongyang of covering up an outbreak.

A joint resolution was adopted “on more thoroughly taking national measures for protecting the life and safety of our people to cope with the worldwide epidemic disease”, it said. The resolution also included goals of “continuously intensifying the nationwide emergency anti-epidemic services and pushing ahead with the economic construction, increasing national defence capability and stabilizing the people’s livelihood this year”.

But photos released by North Korea’s state media showed that none of the committee members who attended the meeting including Kim Jong Un was wearing a mask nor sitting far apart from each other.

[Various News Agencies]

North Korean hacker group carries out attack under guise of North Korean defector information

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Researchers from South Korean-based ESTsecurity Security Response Center (ESRC) identified the latest APT37 campaign carried out by the state-sponsored North Korean group named ‘Geumseong121’ in early March 2020. The North Korean hackers have been running a spear-phishing email operation targeting North Korean refugees.

‘Geumseong121’, also known as APT37, has been conducting state-sponsored espionage activities in South Korean cyberspace for years, mainly targeting those who are engaged in unification, foreign affairs, or national security, the leaders of the organizations specializing in North Korean issues, along with North Korean refugees.

A report titled “The stealthy mobile APT attack carried out by Geumseong121 APT hacking group” published in November last year, reveals that the group has attempted to perform cyber-attacks targeting a wide range of devices including computers and mobile devices.

Their latest campaign, Operation Spy Cloud, entices its victims to click links that appear to be about North Korean refugees. Instead the links download malicious files, in an attempt to take over computers and gather information from the owners of the hacked computers.

[ESRC]

UN human rights chief warns sanctions “impeding” North Korea’s COVID-19 efforts

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Sanctions have “impeded” the ability of … North Korea to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the UN’s top human rights official said on Tuesday.

North Korea is subject to a wide range of sanctions — including a ban on metal goods that blocks countries from sending certain medical equipment to the DPRK without special permission from the UN — as punishment for its nuclear weapons program.

“It is vital to avoid the collapse of any country’s medical system — given the explosive impact that will have on death, suffering, and wider contagion,” said Bachelet, the former president of Chile.

“At this crucial time, both for global public health reasons, and to support the rights and lives of millions of people in these countries, sectoral sanctions should be eased or suspended,” she said. “In a context of global pandemic, impeding medical efforts in one country heightens the risk for all of us.” “Humanitarian exemptions to sanctions measures should be given broad and practical effect, with prompt, flexible authorization for essential medical equipment and supplies,” she added.

North Korea is known to have one of the world’s worst-prepared public health systems for dealing with the rapid spread of a contagious virus. One study last year said North Korea ranks last among all nations in its ability to deal with an infectious disease outbreak.

Humanitarian workers with experience in the country have told NK News that the North has a severe shortage of many basic medical supplies, including gloves and masks, that are essential during a pandemic. And even if the North had all of the equipment it needed, many medical facilities in the country still lack reliable sources of water, electricity, and heat.

On Sunday, U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House that he had offered to help the DPRK fend off the coronavirus, despite the icy relationship between the two countries. It remains unclear if Pyongyang said yes to the offer of help — or what type of assistance the Trump administration planned to give.

[NK News]

Kim Jong Un orders construction of new hospital in Pyongyang

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Kim Jong Un is calling on his country to hastily build a “modern general hospital” to “better protect the precious health and safety of our people” amid growing suspicions the Hermit Kingdom isn’t being honest about the coronavirus outbreak.

State media reported Kim broke ground at the hospital construction site in Pyongyang on Tuesday as the North continues to insist it has no cases of COVID-19, despite being sandwiched between the virus hotbeds of China and South Korea.

Kim reportedly wants construction on the hospital – which he labeled a “crucial task” — to be completed by early October.

While North Korea continues to claim no coronavirus cases, another development suggests this isn’t the case. North Korean authorities extended school closures this week through April 15, Daily NK reports.

[Fox News]

North Korean negotiator may be tapped as Pyongyang’s top envoy to Austria

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A North Korean diplomat previously in charge of negotiations with the United States could be tapped as Pyongyang’s top envoy to Austria, a key position that interfaces with the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.

Choe Kang Il, the deputy director-general for North America at Pyongyang’s foreign ministry, could succeed Kim Kwang Sop, the son-in-law of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.

Choe has been in charge of negotiations with the United States.

Ken Gause of CNA Corp., a nonprofit research firm in Arlington, Va., says the Austrian ambassadorship is an important post for the North Koreans. For Pyongyang, effective dealing with the IAEA could have financial implications for North Korea, which is under heavy economic sanctions, the analyst said.

Choe’s task may be to mitigate the impact of sanctions on North Korea’s economy through diplomacy with European nations once U.S.-North Korea negotiations resume, Gause said.

[UPI]

COVID-19 prevention equipment to be delivered to North Korea

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The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) expects to see Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) shipped to North Korea this week by land from China, the UN agency told journalists, amid ongoing efforts by international organizations to help North Korea in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“We expect to receive a shipment of face shields, goggles, masks, gowns, coveralls and gloves (PPE equipment) this week by land from China,” the UN agency said.

“Additional masks, gloves, and thermometers will be included in this delivery,” it added. “This is part of our ongoing work with the World Health Organization and other international organizations, and the government to stop transmission of COVID-19, and to keep children and their families safe.”

[NK News]