Category: China

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]

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]

China warns citizens to keep away from its North Korean border

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Chinese authorities have told people to stay away from the border with North Korea, which has banned people from China to keep out the coronavirus, or risk being shot by North Korean guards, residents of the area said.

Residents said the warning came in a printed notice that Chinese authorities in the area issued this week, the latest indication of how seriously North Korea takes the threat of the virus.

Residents of the Chinese cities of Jian and Baishan were warned that people who get too close to the border might be shot, according to three people who received the notice, which was reviewed by Reuters. Residents are prohibited from fishing, grazing livestock or throwing rubbish near the river, according to the notice issued this week.

In January, North Korea told travel agencies that it was closing its borders to travelers from China, cutting off one of its few sources of external revenue. It is unclear how much trade continues, but sources who work near the border have said much of the official and unofficial trade was affected. China and North Korea share a 1,400-km (880-mile) frontier.

Activists who work with North Korean refugees trying to leave through China said the border lockdown has made an already dangerous journey nearly impossible.

Isolated and impoverished North Korea has imposed strict entry bans during past global epidemics, including a 2014 Ebola outbreak.

[Reuters]

Virus threat puts Trump-Kim showdown on hold

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The next showdown between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may need to wait until after the coronavirus scare. The U.S. said Thursday that it would postpone joint military exercises planned for the coming weeks, as its ally South Korea copes with the coronavirus outbreak. The decision removes for now a looming friction point with North Korea, which has denounced the exercises as rehearsal for an invasion and a “main factor of screwing up tensions.”

Meanwhile, North Korea has turned inward since neighboring China sounded the alarm about the new virus strain last month, shutting its borders and trumpeting its prevention campaigns in state media. Moves to provoke the U.S. haven’t materialized since Kim told ruling party leaders on New Year’s Eve that he was no longer bound by a freeze on tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

This year was expected to bring a return to tensions on the Korean Peninsula after Kim spent much of last year threatening to take a “new path” in nuclear talks with the U.S. in 2020 if Trump didn’t make a more appealing offer. The two leaders have made little progress since Trump walked out of their second formal summit last year in Hanoi.

The coronavirus outbreak, which has infected more than 82,000 and killed more than 2,800 worldwide, is particularly concerning to impoverished North Korea, which lacks the public health infrastructure of its more developed neighbors. While the country has yet to report any confirmed cases, the border closures have cut off a vital source of cash needed to soften the blow of international sanctions.

The outbreak also poses risks to South Korea, with cases surging to 1,700 in little more than a week. President Moon Jae-in — a longtime advocate for greater North Korea ties — is rushing to get the disease under control before April parliamentary elections that will shape the remainder of his single, five-year term.

Some 28,500 American troops are based on the peninsula and at last one U.S. solider has already tested positive for the virus. U.S. Forces Korea raised its risk level to “high” Thursday, restricting service members from attending non-essential, off-base activities and social events.

[Bloomberg]

North Korean cybercrime and cybersecrecy

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Technology has become one of the North Korea’s most important tools for survival. The so-called Lazarus group has used elaborate phishing schemes and cutting-edge money-laundering tools to steal money for Kim Jong-un’s regime, in a way to circumvent sanctions. The United Nations estimates that North Korean operators have stolen over $2 billion over the last four years, a relatively enormous percentage of the country’s estimated $28 billion gross domestic product. 

And this applies to a tenfold increase observed in North Korea’s mining of Monero, the privacy-driven cryptocurrency designed to make tracking somewhere between difficult and impossible. Analysts can see internet traffic so detailed that it reveals Pyongyang’s investment in new higher-end, higher-capacity machines to mine the cryptocurrency, according to a recent report from the American cybersecurity firm Recorded Future*.

North Korea’s unparalleled restrictiveness and secrecy around internet usage actually make it easier for intelligence analysts to track and understand how the country uses the internet. “What we see is internet use by the very privileged, the 0.1%, the North Korean military leadership and their families, who are actually given access to the internet,” says Priscilla Moriuchi, an analyst with Recorded Future who focused on China and North Korea during 13 years at the National Security Agency. “We wouldn’t be able to do this type of analysis if they didn’t have such restrictive parameters around the internet.”

There are only three primary ways North Korea connects to the global internet: first, through the allocated .kp IP range; second, through a connection to neighboring China’s telecommunications giant Unicom; and finally, through an increasingly important connection via a Russian satellite company that ultimately resolves to SatGate in Lebanon. But a number of North Koreans live and hack abroad in countries like China. This gives them better access to the internet as they take the opportunity to blend in, while affording plausible deniability for the regime. 

“They’re outside usual boundaries technologically and geographically,” Moriuchi says. “… North Korea sends a lot of their cyber operators overseas … these are super highly trained people that the regime has invested lots of money, time, and trust in. … The revenue generation is state directed and state mandated,” Moriuchi adds, “These people have to earn a specific amount of money per year in order to support themselves and stay overseas, and so their families aren’t endangered at home. It’s a criminal state up-and-down exploiting the openness of the internet to earn money.”

*Recorded Future, an intelligence firm launched in 2009 with the backing of Google and In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital arm, has grown to 650 customers and 475 employees and has just signed a $50 million threat intelligence deal with the US Cyber Command.  

[MIT Technology Review]

The risks of being a North Korean Christian

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“Bon-Hwa,” a North Korean Christian woman, escaped to China two years ago for the chance to live a better life.

With the help of partners of Open Doors, Bon-Hwa found shelter in a safe house and attended her first Women to Women secret meeting in China and was baptized.

But baptizing North Koreans is illegal and dangerous, so Bon-Hwa, her pastor, and a group leader traveled to a remote location that “took many hours to reach.”

“I had to contain myself and focus on the steps of the ceremony,” said the Open Doors leader. “Or else, I would have cried … It was such a beautiful moment and such a privilege to baptize a North Korean believer in these circumstances.”

Most of North Korea’s underground Christians do not engage in the extremely dangerous work of proselytizing. Instead, they largely keep their beliefs to themselves or within their immediate families. But even those who stay deep underground face danger.

North Korea has previously arrested South Korean and American missionaries for allegedly attempting to build underground church networks or overthrow its government. 

[CBN]

Fifteen repatriated North Korean refugees quarantined for coronavirus with tuberculosis patients

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Authorities in North Korea have quarantined a group of 15 refugees that were captured in China and repatriated with the help of Chinese police, placing them in a facility meant to isolate patients with open cases of tuberculosis, Radio Free Asia has learned.

“Yesterday an acquaintance of mine who works in the medical industry told me that some North Korean refugees who were sent back from China last month were put in isolation at a tuberculosis hospital,” a resident of North Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service.

The source said the 15 repatriated North Koreans, originally part of a group of about 20, had crossed the border into China from somewhere in North Hamgyong’s Musan county in early January. According to the source the 15 were not taken first to a detention center in China, but “were sent back to North Korea in strict secrecy.”

“Sopungsan tuberculosis hospital is famous because patients are sent there when they have the most dangerous types of open-case tuberculosis [including the drug-resistant Super-TB],” said the source. “It’s like the authorities don’t even care if these people become infected with tuberculosis,” the source said.

A second source added, “Seopungsan tuberculosis hospital is where terminal TB patients go to die. They are put there to prevent the spread of the highly-contagious tuberculosis bacteria.”

[Radio Free Asia]

Why no coronavirus cases reported in North Korea?

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It’s now about two months since a deadly novel coronavirus was found in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and nearly every country and territory in East Asia has confirmed a case. But not North Korea.

Every country and territory within a 1,500-mile radius of North Korea, except for sparsely populated Mongolia, has confirmed a case. It’s unclear how North Korea has been able to avoid the virus. Pyongyang has either been very lucky, isn’t saying something or is reaping one of the few benefits of being a so-called “hermit nation.”

Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University who previously served as the head of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), said it’s very possible someone inside North Korea — a country of 25 million people — has been infected. Nam suspects a Chinese patient could have infected someone from North Korea across their shared border. “We know that the Chinese regions close to the North Korean border, such as Dandong and Shenyang, have confirmed patients. About 90% of North Korean trade is with China and we know so many people, trucks and trains passed through the border between the two nations before North Korea installed recent regulations” to stop the virus from getting into the country, Nam told CNN.

Despite not publicly acknowledging any confirmed or even suspected cases, North Korea has been uncharacteristically transparent regarding its efforts to combat the virus. It appears the country is taking the epidemic very seriously, according to reports in state-run news service KCNA. North Korea has closed its borders to all foreign tourists, most of whom are Chinese, as a precautionary measure. On January 30, authorities declared a “state emergency,” and that anti-epidemic headquarters were being established around the country, and North Korean health officials had set up a “nationwide test sample transport system” and had the ability to promptly diagnose suspicious cases. 

Doctors who have defected in recent years often speak of poor working conditions and shortages of everything from medicine to basic healthcare supplies. Choi Jung-hun, a former physician in North Korea who fled the country in 2011, said when he was helping to combat a measles outbreak in 2006 to 2007, North Korea did not have the resources to operate round-the-clock quarantine and isolation facilities. “The problem in North Korea is that manuals [for doctors] are not followed,” Choi said.

Jean Lee, who previously worked for The Associated Press and opened the newswire’s bureau in Pyongyang, said the virus gives Pyongyang a new excuse to further tighten its borders and justify the draconian social restrictions most North Korean people live under. The majority of North Koreans also do not enjoy freedom of movement and are required to receive government permission to travel to other provinces. Very few are permitted to travel abroad. 

Choi, the doctor who defected, also said, “North Korea has the best control system in the world. North Korea probably is best at limiting social contacts and regional traveling because they’ve been practicing that for 70 years.”

[CNN]

Coronavirus crackdown in China may prove beneficial for North Korean defectors?

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Kim Seung-eun, a pastor at Seoul’s Caleb Mission Church, which helps defectors escape, estimates that about 40 North Koreans are trapped at various locations in China, unable to move onward because of the Chinese coronavirus lockdown. The Chinese lockdown is disrupting the main path through which North Koreans escape, forcing refugees to indefinitely pause their journeys, and leaving them vulnerable in a country that has long sent them back home to certain punishment.

If China’s virus lockdown expands to include house inspections, Pastor Kim warns,  tens of thousands of other North Koreans at various stages of transit through China or who have decided to settle there illegally could be in danger.

“The road closures have blocked the route. It has all stopped — I asked them not to come through that area for now,” said a South Korea-based broker who helps organize North Korean defector journeys through China.

On the other hand, Teodora Gyupchanova, a researcher at the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul, says, “It is possible that the virus-related travel restrictions could create loopholes that defectors and brokers could exploit. That is especially true if Chinese authorities prioritize potential coronavirus cases and focus on monitoring established transportation routes rather than clandestine ones,” Gyupchanova says. “People in this line of work are quite inventive, so I am sure that backup routes will soon be found,” she says.

Earlier this week, Pastor Kim told VOA’s Korea Service that he heard North Korea has temporarily stopped demanding that China repatriate defectors, out of concern they may bring the virus into North Korea. It is unclear what would happen to North Korean refugees who are discovered by Chinese authorities during the lockdown.

[VoA]

China coronavirus lockdown complicates North Korea refugee journeys

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A vast transportation lockdown meant to contain the spread of the coronavirus in central China is complicating the already grueling journey of North Korean refugees, according to two sources who help arrange North Korean defector trips.

After fleeing their homes, most North Korean refugees make their way down through China and then onto Southeast Asian countries, including Laos and Thailand, before ending up in South Korea. The journey, which can take months or longer and is thousands of kilometers long, often involves trekking by foot over mountains and using tiny boats to cross rivers.

The China portion of the trip is especially risky, since North Korean refugees are forced to use fake ID cards, according to the Seoul-based broker, who himself defected to South Korea in 2004.

“With China now trying to control everyone’s movements, it’s just too dangerous,” says the broker, who did not want to publish his name because of the sensitivity of his work.

Chinese authorities have implemented what one World Health Organization official called an “unprecedented” lockdown to contain the viral outbreak. China has closed public transportation links, restricted access to major highways, and imposed strict  ID and temperature checks – effectively placing tens of millions under quarantine in an expanding circle around Hubei province, where the outbreak began.

[VoA]