Category: DPRK Government

Kim Jong Un tightening control as North Korea’s economy reels

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When Kim Jong Un announced last month that the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea will convene for its eighth congress in January 2021, he also acknowledged that the regime’s current economic strategy is not working.

In one sense, this is a hopeful signal, given that such pragmatic admissions of failure are rare for North Korean leaders. But the announcement also underscored the depth of the country’s economic troubles. Of course, Kim does not have to worry about competing in elections. But like all dictators, he must still seek some level of buy-in from the population, and he has staked a great deal of credibility on his promises to improve North Koreans’ living standards.

First came the severe international sanctions imposed in 2016 and 2017, in response to North Korean tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Pyongyang’s recent measures to protect the country from COVID-19, including a virtual closure of the border with China, have added to the damage. Just in the first half of this year, trade with China plummeted by 67% from the same period in 2019, after already having declined for some time.

North Korea also appears to be experiencing difficulties finishing important prestige construction projects, such as the new Pyongyang General Hospital. The regime will inevitably use the recent typhoons that hit the country as an excuse, but the fact is that several of these projects were already on track to be delayed. Kim Jong Un’s key initiatives, such as changes in agricultural management, seem to have slowed, stalled or paused. There have also been troubling signs of crackdowns against private markets and businesses in the past year or so.

Such ventures carry symbolic importance for propaganda purposes; they send a message to the population that the state is making progress to improve people’s everyday lives. Although the vast majority of North Koreans will never directly see these high-profile projects, the implication is that one day, they or their children may benefit from the fruits of the state’s caring investments.

[World Politics Review]

Crisis in North Korea

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On August 20, Kim Jong Un offered a rare public acknowledgement of several crises North Korea is currently facing. Citing “severe internal and external situations” and “unexpected … challenges,” he conceded government failures to improve the country’s economy, noting that “many of the planned goals for national economic growth have not yet been attained nor [have] the people’s living standards improved markedly.” It was an unprecedented admission and demonstrates the severity of North Korea’s current dire economic situation.

North Korea is facing a triple set of crises. The Covid-19 pandemic led the totalitarian country to seal its borders in January, causing huge drops in its imports and exports with China, which accounts for almost all the country’s external trade. North Korea’s economy had already been shrinking significantly since 2016 from intensifying sanctions related to its weapons program. And in the past few weeks, historic levels of torrential rains have caused widespread damage across the country and left at least 22 people dead and 4 missing. Thousands of houses and public buildings have been flooded, nearly 100,000 acres of crops damaged, and critical infrastructure destroyed.

[Human Rights Watch]

What about North Korea if Biden becomes President?

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Last year, North Korea lashed out at Joe Biden, calling him a “rabid dog” that should “be beaten to death” for comments seen as disparaging of Kim Jong Un.

If Joe Biden is elected U.S. president, American policy toward North Korea is likely to see less emphasis on personal dealings with Kim Jong Un, and more focus on allies and working-level diplomacy, campaign advisers and former officials say. No more “Little Rocket Man”, exchanging love letters or summit pageantry.

“There’s no question that the era of love letters will be over,” one Biden policy adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.

Biden told The New York Times he would not continue the personal diplomacy with Kim, calling the meetings a “vanity project” that should only happen if coupled with “an actual strategy that moves the ball forward on denuclearization.”

Biden would not shut the door to diplomacy, but instead “empower negotiators and implement a sustained and a coordinated effort with allies and partners” to pressure and incentivize North Korea to denuclearize, while also drawing attention the country’s human rights abuses in a way that has been lacking in current U.S. policy, the Biden adviser said.

[Reuters]

Kim Yo-jong now ‘de facto second in command’

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The influential younger sister of the North Korean ruler, Kim Jong-un, has become his de facto second-in-command with responsibility for relations with South Korea and the US, according to Seoul’s spy agency. This isaccording to Ha Tae-keung, a South Korean MP who sits on the national assembly’s intelligence committee.

Ha said Kim Jong-un had ceded a degree of authority to his younger sister, who has risen through the ruling party ranks since accompanying her brother to his 2019 nuclear summit with Donald Trump in Vietnam.

“The bottom line is that Kim Jong-un still holds absolute power but has turned over a bit more of his authority compared to the past,” Ha said after a closed-door briefing by South Korea’s national intelligence service. “Kim Yo-jong is the de facto second-in-command.”

Ha said Kim Jong Un had also delegated some decision-making powers over economic and military policy to other senior officials. He speculated that the move may be intended to reduce the strain on Kim – who was recently the subject of rumors about his health – and enable him to avoid blame for any failures.

He added, however, that while Kim Yo-jong, who is thought to be in her early 30s, appeared to be directing policy towards toward Washington and Seoul, there were no signs that she was being groomed for the leadership or that her brother was in poor health.

Speaking at a meeting of the party’s central committee on Wednesday, Kim Jong Un also conceded there had been “unexpected and inevitable challenges in various aspects and the situation in the region surrounding the Korean peninsula” – thought to be a reference to sanctions, the coronavirus pandemic and torrential rain that has hit in recent weeks. In unusually frank terms the party concluded that “the goals for improving the national economy had been seriously  delayed” and living standards had not been “remarkably” improved, the state-run news agency KCNA said.

[The Guardian]

North Korea harasses defectors with calls and texts

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Pyongyang is using its growing hacking prowess to track down and contact citizens who have escaped and gained prominence in the South.

Mysterious calls and text messages reach the telephone of North Korean defector activist Huh Kwang-il a couple of occasions a month.

“Are you having fun these days?” he was asked in one recent call. Mr. Huh believes the calls, from unknown Chinese numbers, are perpetuated by North Korea.

[Wall Street Journal]

Personal letters exchanged between President Trump and Kim Jong Un

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Legendary journalist Bob Woodward’s new book will include details of 25 “personal letters” exchanged between President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, according to Simon & Schuster, which will publish the book next month.

The publisher said that the letters shed light on the unusual and deeply personal relationship between the two men, whose surprise detente was one of the most unexpected foreign policy developments of the Trump presidency to date.

In the 25 letters, “Kim describes the bond between the two leaders as out of a ‘fantasy film,’ as the two leaders engage in an extraordinary diplomatic minuet,” according to a description of the book posted on Amazon. 

The president has repeatedly touted letters from Kim as evidence of their friendship, much to the discomfort of observers and lawmakers concerned with Trump’s apparent predilection for authoritarian leaders.

Trump has described the letters as “nice” and “very beautiful,” and suggested the letters were part of how the two men “fell in love.” Pyongyang has also celebrated the letter exchanges, with Kim’s sister and trusted aide Kim Yo Jong citing them as proof of the “excellent” relationship between the two men. “

Trump himself has published details of the exchanges before. In July 2018 shortly after the historic bilateral summit in Singapore, the president tweeted out an English translation of a “very nice note” from Kim, which Trump said showed the “great progress being made.” In the letter, Kim addressed Trump as “Your Excellency” and praised the president’s “energetic and extraordinary efforts” to improve ties between Washington, D.C. and Pyongyang.

But for all the warm words, the two men have achieved little in the way of denuclearization and sanctions relief.

[Newsweek]

North Korea lifts lockdown in border town after suspected COVID-19 case ‘inconclusive’

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Kim Jong Un lifted a three week lockdown in the city of Kaesong and nearby areas, after a man who defected to the South returned to the border town last month showing coronavirus symptoms.

North Korea has said it has no confirmed cases of the coronavirus, but Kim said last month that the virus “could be said to have entered” the country and imposed the lockdown after the man was reported to have symptoms. Later test results on the man were “inconclusive”, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Coronavirus prevention measures had stabilized the risk in the area, Kim said in a statement carried by KCNA.

“The situation, in which the spread of the worldwide malignant virus has become worse, requires us not to allow any outside aid for the flood damage but shut the border tighter and carry out strict anti-epidemic work,” Kim said in a statement carried out by the KCNA.

The monsoon season has caused extensive damage in several provinces, with farmlands inundated with floodwaters, around 16,680 houses and 630 public buildings destroyed or flooded, and many roads, bridges and railroads damaged, KCNA reported.

[Reuters]

North Korea most fears information

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Leaflets condemning the single-minded authoritarian rule of Kim Jong Un do not always make it across the border in helium balloons. But when they do, they can end up in the hands of the people who serve as a pillar for the regime’s security, according to Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

“The key point about the balloons is that 80 percent of the Korean People’s Army is forward deployed south of the Pyongyang-Wonsan line,” Scarlatoiu told UPI. “Many of these units are within reach [of the balloons]. Even if they round up all of the leaflets, the North Korean officers in charge are going to read them.”

Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s sister who has called defectors “human scum” and “rubbish-like mongrel dogs,” could be nervous about the eroding isolation of ordinary North Koreans, who live only a few hours away from Koreans in the South, one of the most wired societies in the world. By contrast, North Korea keeps a tight lid on outside information. There are only 2,000 IP addresses for a population of 25 million people, according to Scarlatoiu.

In response to North Korean threats of retaliation against the South, Seoul recently moved to ban balloon launches and revoked the operating licenses of two organizations, Fighters for a Free North Korea and Kuensaem. South Korea’s decision to penalize activists diminishes the prospect of delivering information to North Korea, says Suzanne Scholte, the chair of North Korea Freedom Coalition in Washington.

The government’s warnings against anti-North Korea activity appear to be an attempt to appease the North. Moon, who remains determined to complete his quest to sign a peace treaty with Kim Jong Un, could be thinking that curbing defector activity could help diplomacy and burnish his legacy.

“The South Korean government may hope that this would placate the North Korean regime and create the space for Seoul to make inroads into inter-Korea cooperation,” said Soo Kim, a policy analyst at the RAND Corp. “But allowing North Korea’s deeds to go unpunished only emboldens Kim and gives Pyongyang greater leeway.”

[UPI]

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]