Category: DPRK Government

North Korea’s trade with China declined 80% during 2020

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Two-way trade between North Korea and its biggest partner, China, fell 80.7% in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to estimates from Seoul’s Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.

Trade activity dropped significantly in February 2020, with two-way trade falling to $10.71 million in the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus epidemic that began in Wuhan, China. North Korea shut its 880-mile border with China as part of its COVID-19 response in January 2020, but trade levels recovered by June to $96.8 million, according to SP News.

Pyongyang has claimed its draconian tactics against the novel coronavirus have paid off and that there are zero COVID-19 patients in the country. North Korea has also ordered vaccines from the COVAX Facility, managed by the World Health Organization.

[UPI]

North Korea’s economy ravaged by sanctions and pandemic isolation

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Kim Jong Un is angry, and he’s lashing out, complaining that North Korea’s last economic plan failed “tremendously.”

And his inner circle lacked an “innovative viewpoint and clear tactics” in drawing up a new one, Kim told the ruling Workers’ Party last month, yelling and finger-pointing at frightened-looking delegates.

His economy minister, appointed in January, has already been fired.

North Korea is suffering its worst slump in more than two decades, experts say. It’s a combination of international sanctions and especially a self-imposed blockade on international trade in attempts to keep the coronavirus pandemic out.

A shortage of spare parts usually supplied from China has caused factories to close, including one of the country’s largest fertilizer plants, and crippled output from the country’s aging power plants, according to news reports. Electricity shortages, long a chronic problem, have become so acute, production has even halted at some coal mines and other mines.

[Washington Post]

North Korea’s former acting ambassador to Kuwait Ryu Hyeon-woo speaks out

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In his first interview since defecting to the South more than a year ago, North Korea’s former acting ambassador to Kuwait Ryu Hyeon-woo told CNN that Kim Jong Un will not give up his nuclear arsenal but may be willing to negotiate an arms reduction for relief from the international sanctions crippling Pyongyang’s economy.

“North Korea’s nuclear power is directly linked to the stability of the regime” — and Kim likely believes nuclear weapons are key to his survival. Ryu also said previous US administrations had boxed themselves into a corner by demanding denuclearization up front in negotiations with the totalitarian state.

The former diplomat, who adopted the name Ryu upon moving to the South, is one of several high-profile North Korean officials to defect in recent years. Ryu and his family defectedto South Korea in September 2019, but their actions were only made public last week.

Determined to give their teenage daughter a better life, Ryu said he and his wife planned their escape for about a month while living in Kuwait. Ryu took his family to the South Korean embassy in Kuwait to claim asylum. They traveled to South Korea several days later.

Ryu said that if they had been caught, North Korean agents would have quickly taken them all back to Pyongyang for certain punishment, as defection is considered a major embarrassment to the Kim regime and is not taken lightly.

Kuwait was a particularly important revenue stream for Pyongyang, as the Persian Gulf nation used to employ about 10,000 North Korean laborers. Those workers were allegedly treated like modern-day slaves, and experts say almost all of their earnings were funneled back to the government.

Ryu also was posted to Syria, a close ally of North Korea, from 2010 to 2013. While Ryu was charged with overseeing relations with Syrian politicians, his countrymen were selling conventional weapons to the Bashar al-Assad regime, including long-range multiple launcher artillery and anti-aircraft weapons systems.

Looking back over the past 16 months, Ryu says his only regret is what might happen to his remaining family members back in Pyongyang. He and his wife believe they did the right thing for their daughter, by taking her away from her home country.

Defection from North Korea comes at a monumental cost, with defectors having to instantly sever ties from all family left in their home nation. Ryu is worried about his three siblings and 83-year-old mother still in North Korea, and the family also worries for his wife’s elderly parents living in Pyongyang.

[CNN]

North Korea’s envoy to Kuwait defects to South Korea

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It’s now been confirmed that North Korea’s acting ambassador to Kuwait defected to South Korea, the latest in a recent string of high-profile escapes from the isolated country, a South Korean lawmaker said on Monday.

Ryu Hyun Woo had led North Korea’s embassy in Kuwait since former Ambassador So Chang Sik was expelled after a 2017 U.N. resolution sought to scale back the country’s overseas diplomatic missions.

Ryu defected to South Korea last September, according to Thae Yong Ho, who was North Korea’s deputy ambassador to Britain before settling in the South in 2016 and being elected as a lawmaker last year.

Tae said Ryu is the son-in-law of Jon Il Chun, who once oversaw a Worker’s Party bureau responsible for managing the ruling Kim family’s secret coffers, dubbed Room 39.

Ryu fled several months after Jo Song Gil, who was North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, vanished with his wife from the embassy and resurfaced in South Korea.

[Reuters]

After Trump setbacks, Kim Jong Un has to start over with Biden

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Last year was a disaster for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He helplessly watched his country’s already battered economy decay further amid pandemic border closures while brooding over the collapse of made-for-TV summits with former President Donald Trump that failed to lift crippling sanctions from his country.

Now he must start all over again with President Joe Biden, who has previously called Kim a “thug” and accused Trump of chasing spectacles instead of meaningful reductions of Kim’s nuclear arsenal.

North Korea won’t likely be the top priority for Biden, who while facing mounting domestic issues is also gearing up for a push to get back into a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that Trump blew up in favor of what he called maximum pressure against Iran.

Acoording to Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, the Biden administration’s “sequence of policy attention will likely be: Get America’s own house in order, strengthen U.S. alliances and align strategies toward China and Russia, and then address Iran and North Korea.”

[AP]

North Korea’s ultra-lockdown against Covid-19

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Kim Jong-un acted quickly. On January 22, 2020, North Korea closed its borders with China and Russia to stop a new, mysterious virus from spreading into the country. More than a year later, the hermit kingdom’s border remains sealed tight shut. North Korea’s response to the pandemic has been one of the most extreme and paranoid in the world, experts say.

The real impact of Covid-19 on North Korea—and its citizens—remains a mystery. Faced with a global health crisis, the country has turned inward more than ever. “North Korea, in general, is more difficult to know this year or last year than at almost any point in the last two decades,” says Sokeel Park, director of research at Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a group that works with defectors from the country to understand what happens inside its borders.

The closest that officials got to admitting there might be a case was in July when state newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported that a “state of emergency” had been declared in Kaesong City, in the south of the country. The newspaper reported that a defector who had returned to the country from South Korea was “suspected” to have Covid-19. But the case was never confirmed. Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong-un, has hit back at suggestions from South Korea that the country may have had cases, describing such talk as “reckless.”

From the outside, it is impossible to know the scale of the Covid-19 crisis in North Korea. International diplomats and humanitarian groups have largely left the country. The result is that little reliable information finds its way out of North Korea. Those with contacts inside the country and who work with defectors also say it has been impossible to work out the reality of the health situation on the ground.

As for vaccines: At the end of November it was reported that state-sponsored hackers had targeted AstraZeneca; South Korea has reported attempts on its own vaccine infrastructure, and Microsoft has also found similar hacking efforts linked to North Korea. The country has since quietly requested international help in obtaining vaccines. Analysis of vaccine distribution predicts that the jabs may be widely available in North Korea in 2022 or 2023.

[WIRED UK]

North Korean defectors at risk of repatriation from China

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Last October, the United Nations sent a letter to the Chinese government, urging Beijing to refrain from forcibly repatriating a group of North Korean refugees under Chinese detention.

On Sept. 12, Chinese authorities had arrested a group of five defectors who were attempting to flee to South Korea, leaving the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang. The next day, the group of defectors were detained and sent to a police station in the port city of Qingdao, according to the letter from the U.N.

It is unclear whether the arrested North Koreans are a family. The group included a 49-year-old woman, a 48-year-old man, a 14-year-old girl, a woman who was six months pregnant, and another woman whose age is unknown, according to reports.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights produced a letter signed by Tomás Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur on North Korea human rights, and Nils Melzer, the special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, that was delivered to the Chinese government on Oct. 27.

The U.N. said any repatriation of the defectors would be a violation of Article 3 of the U.N. Convention against Torture, or UNCAT, which requires no government expel, return or extradite a person to another country where there are sufficient grounds to believe the individual would be subjected to torture.

During 2020, the number of North Korean defections to the South has dropped amid the coronavirus pandemic. Pyongyang has sealed its borders in response to COVID-19.

[UPI]

Kim Jong Un vents fury as pressure mounts over virus and economy

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Under pressure from the coronavirus pandemic and an ailing economy, Kim Jong Un is responding with fury, allowing at least two executions in the past three months, South Korea’s intelligence agency told a parliamentary briefing on Friday.

“Kim Jong Un is taking irrational actions,” opposition lawmaker Ha Tae-keung told reporters after being briefed by Seoul’s National Intelligence Service. Ha said a foreign exchange dealer was executed in late October, while an official at a customs post on the Chinese border was put to death in August for failing to abide by strict rules on imports intended to prevent the coronavirus from entering the country.

The South Korean intelligence account could not be independently verified. But experts say that Kim is likely to be feeling pressure after closing the Chinese border at the start of the year as the coronavirus spread around the world.

The volume of North Korea’s trade with China dropped by 73 percent in the first three quarters of 2020 compared with same period last year, according to a report released by the Korea International Trade Association in Seoul. Ha, the South Korean lawmaker, said prices of sugar and spices in North Korea have risen fourfold as imports from China dried up, while whole cities and even provinces, mostly near the border, have been placed under temporary lockdowns this month after foreign currency smuggling or foreign goods were detected.

Ha said examples of North Korea’s “paranoia” about the risks of coronavirus included its refusal to accept 110,000 tons of rice aid offered by China and a decision to ban fishing and salt production in North Korean waters because of concerns that seawater could be contaminated with the virus.

[Washington Post]

An underground movement trying to topple North Korea – Part 1

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On the afternoon of February 22, 2019, a tall Asian man rang the doorbell of the North Korean Embassy in Madrid. His business card identified him as Matthew Chao.

About thirty minutes later, an employee of a nearby gym was driving past the Embassy and came across a woman, her face covered in blood, who had jumped from a second-floor balcony. The gym employee called for an ambulance, and, when it arrived, the woman told the medics that there were intruders in the Embassy killing people. Soon, the police rang the doorbell of the Embassy. The tall Asian man, now wearing a badge featuring the face of Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s Great Leader, came out and told the police that there had been a misunderstanding. Later, an I.D. bearing the name Matthew Chao was found by the police.

It was a delicate time for relations between North Korea and the United States. In 2017, the two countries had seemed to be on the brink of war. Donald Trump warned North Korea that it would be met with “fire and fury” if it continued to antagonize the U.S. A month later, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test. At Trump’s first address to the United Nations, he threatened to “totally destroy North Korea,” and called Kim Jong Un “rocket man.” But then Trump seemed to have a change of heart, and in June, 2018, he met Kim in Singapore.

The incident at the Madrid Embassy occurred five days before Trump and Kim met again, this time in Hanoi. At first, the Spanish paper El País connected the raid to the C.I.A. The next day, El Mundo reported that the South Korean government may also have been involved in the incident at the Embassy. Not long afterward, the Washington Post reported that, in fact, a “shadowy group” called Cheollima Civil Defense had raided the Embassy. Soon, a Spanish court identified the participants as citizens of the U.S., South Korea, and Mexico, and issued arrest warrants.

The story identified the leader of Cheollima Civil Defense as Adrian Hong. He was being hunted by the governments of Spain and North Korea, and it was unclear if the U.S. would attempt to find and extradite him.

[Suki Kim, writing in The New Yorker] Continue story

An underground movement trying to topple North Korea – Part 2

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Adrian Hong contacted me and told me the story of what had happened in Madrid, and about a secret network of what he called “freedom fighters,” including some within North Korea, who are trying to bring down Kim Jong Un’s government. Explaining why he had named the group Cheollima Civil Defense, Adrian likened it to the “righteous armies” throughout Korea’s thousands of years of history, “civilian militias who have mobilized spontaneously when government failed them.”

March 1, 2019, a week after the raid, was the centennial of the launch of Korea’s movement for independence from Japan, which occupied the country for thirty-five years. To mark the date, the C.C.D. renamed itself Free Joseon—for a Korean dynasty that lasted five hundred years, as well as what North Koreans call their country—and posted a video on its Web site announcing a government-in-exile for North Korea. The video was largely ignored by the media, but it was the first time that there had ever been an organized opposition to North Korea’s dictatorship.

Adrian told me that he, as “Matthew Chao,” and his companions had been let in by someone inside the Embassy. “It’s no longer trespassing if you are invited,” he said. Contrary to the speculations of the Spanish press, Free Joseon was not part of any government or intelligence service. “I have never worked for or been paid by or trained with or partnered with anyone at the C.I.A. or F.B.I.,” Adrian said. Free Joseon relied on resources that included “pro-bono labor, credit cards, and attempting things no government would risk,” Adrian told me. However, to set up a provisional government, the group also needed recognition. According to Adrian, “The plan was to have ambassadors and a cabinet in place.” He said that Free Joseon had initially received tacit support from members of the F.B.I. But then, he insisted, U.S. officials had turned on the group.

When he described Free Joseon’s goals for freeing North Koreans from persecution he was precise and single-minded. “[North Korea is] the worst place on earth, and a symbol of what man’s ingenuity and tenacity can achieve when organized for evil.”

“Regimes like this don’t collapse slowly. It happens instantly. Every revolution is that way, and this will be the same,” Adrian told me. “I don’t mean a revolution in a figurative sense. I don’t mean the revolution of the mind. Or some kind of fantasy where five hundred thousand people protest in Pyongyang and the regime just packs their bags and leaves and some transitional government comes in place. This is not like any other country, where offering them enough money will mean they will liberalize—any opening or reform will result in their insecurity. The only way to make them change is to force them to change.”

“We are going to remove this regime,” he said. “We are going to confront it with force, with the strength of our ideas, and with our bodies until these people are free and can determine their own future.” The goal of his organization, he said, was “abolition.” How would he achieve that? “There is only one way,” he said. “It’s an uprising. It’s a revolution.” 

[The New Yorker] Read more