Category: Kim Jong Un

North Korea suffering worst downturn likely since 1990s Famine

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How much are sanctions hurting Kim Jong Un? North Korea’s economy hasn’t been in such bad shape since his father was battling floods, droughts and a famine that some estimates say killed as much as 10% of the population.

While North Korea’s isolation, secrecy and dearth of official statistics make estimates difficult, the economy probably contracted more than 5% last year, according to Kim Byung-yeon, an economics professor at Seoul National University. “As long as sanctions remain, time is on the U.S. side,” said Kim. “Sanctions are the most effective means to draw North Korea into negotiations, so they should not be lifted or eased without major progress on denuclearization.” Read more

A decline of 5% would mean that international curbs on North Korean trade — measures crucially backed by China — have put the country on its weakest economic footing since 1997. (Back then, the isolated nation was reeling from policy missteps under Kim Jong Il and a famine so bad some defectors reported rumors of cannibalism.)

The Bank of Korea estimated a 3.5% contraction in 2017, leaving North Korea an economy roughly the size of the U.S. state of Vermont. The South Korean central bank’s annual report on its northern neighbor — due for release later this month — will provide a fresh look at the impact of U.S. President Donald Trump’s pressure campaign just as the two sides prepare to restart talks.

One thing sanctions aren’t doing: stopping Kim from developing the nuclear arsenal that prompted his showdown with Trump. (The cost launching the more than 30 ballistic missiles Kim Jong Un has tested since taking power in 2011 comes in at about $100 million, according to estimates by South Korea’s defense ministry.) Nevertheless, Trump is counting on the economic pressure to compel Kim to compromise.

[Bloomberg]

Statistics on North Korea: Sanctions bite

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North Korea is heavily reliant on China, which accounts for about 90% of the country’s trade. And Beijing’s decision to support tougher international sanctions against North Korea following its sixth nuclear test in September 2017 has put severe pressure on the economy.

  • China’s imports from North Korea have slowed to a trickle, falling about 90% year on year in 2018, according to the Korea International Trade Association.
  • The drying up of hard currency due to plunging trade is potentially creating an “economic crisis” for Kim, the state-run Korea Development Institute in Sejong, said earlier this month.
  • Exports of food and fuel from China to the North have also tumbled. The fuel crunch has exacerbated decades of economic stagnation. North Korea’s oil consumption has fallen by about 80% from 1991 to 2017, according to the United Nations World Food Program (WFP).
  • Less fuel has meant less diesel to run farm tractors and irrigation pumps, hitting farms already affected by droughts last summer. Last year, farmers had a little less than 90 milliliters (3 fluid ounces) of fuel a day to farm an area about the size of two soccer fields, according to calculations based on WFP data.
  • The sanctions have led to shortages of other necessary agricultural items, including machinery and spare parts, and farm output has dropped in the provinces that make up North Korea’s southern and western breadbaskets, the World Food Program and Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations said in a May assessment.
  • Paddy production declined at least 17% last year in South Hwanghae and North Pyongan provinces, regions that together account for half of North Korea’s rice.

In April, Kim Jong Un replaced his prime minister and leading technocrat Pak Pong Ju with Kim Jae Ryong, a veteran overseer of one of North Korea’s most impoverished provinces whose reputation for weathering tough times suggests leader Kim may also see a need to dig in rather than experiment should the sanctions continue.

[Bloomberg]

Chinese leader urged Trump to ease North Korea sanctions ‘in due course’

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Chinese President Xi Jinping urged U.S. President Donald Trump last month at the G20 summit in Osaka to show flexibility in dealings with North Korea and ease sanctions on the country “in due course,” China’s Foreign Ministry said on Friday.

China signed up for strict U.N. sanctions following repeated North Korean nuclear and missile tests but also has suggested they could be eased as a reward for good behavior.

A senior U.S. official said U.S. policy continued to be to maintain sanctions on North Korea until it gives up its nuclear weapons.

After Trump recently met Kim at the Demilitarized Zone along the North’s border with South Korea, Trump announced that both sides would set up teams to push forward stalled talks aimed at getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said they would likely happen “sometime in July.”

[Reuters]

North Korean defectors head back to school in the South to ‘re-educate’ themselves

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North Korea claims a 100 per cent literacy rate and boasts that its free compulsory education indicates the superiority of its socialist system. But those who escape from the impoverished country often struggle in the South from a lack of basic knowledge.

One of the first things North Korean defector Ri Kwang-myong, 31, did after reaching the South was to go back to school – 12 years after finishing his education.  Ri is among a handful of adult students at Wooridul School in Seoul, an educational haven for North Korean students too old, or lagging academically and so unable to go to appropriate state schools.

One of the most important subjects in the North Korean education curriculum is revolutionary studies, which focuses on the ruling Kim family. Lee Mi-yeon, a former kindergarten teacher in the North who fled in 2010, said: “The [Kim family] are taught as mythical, God-like figures who created the country and made grenades out of pine cones.”

And for many, education is also disrupted by grinding poverty or their long journey to freedom. Lee Song-hee, a 27-year-old student at Wooridul School, said that after only four months of junior school in the North she had to drop out to help her mother as they struggled to earn a living.

At the very least, once in South Korea re-education in culture, language, social studies and history is essential.

[South China Morning Post]

“Denuclearization Lite”

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Over the past couple of weeks, there have been increasing signs that the Trump administration – and particularly the president himself – is moderating its position on North Korea’s stockpile of nuclear weapons. Gone are the adamant statements that the U.S. will only accept complete, immediate and irreversible denuclearization.

No serious observer of the Korean situation in general and Kim Jong Un in particular would bet that the impetuous young leader would ever willingly surrender his nuclear weapons. They are obviously his best guarantee against U.S.-imposed regime change. As the certainty of this has sunk in for the Trump team, they are seeking another path to a demonstrable foreign policy “win” that can be touted in the run-up to the 2020 election.

While the ultimate shape of what might be termed “denuclearization lite” remains unclear, one can envision the general outline. For starters, the U.S. would likely demand a full, verifiable accounting of North Korea’s active nuclear and missile programs, with specific geographic positions identified. The U.S. could also push for a reduction in the total stockpile to a number that international inspectors could keep under permanent observation, say 50 warheads of a specified level of kilotons each. The warheads would be held in a small number of locations, three or so, each with a technical oversight system (cameras, electronic monitors) to alert inspectors if the facilities were breached. There could be a similar plan for the launcher systems, but they would be based different parts of the country than the warheads. All of this would be verified by international teams, which would have a mandate to inspect the facilities at any time.

In exchange, the North would receive sanctions relief and a large amount of development aid, although perhaps not of the kind Trump famously proposed for North Korea’s beaches in his first meeting with Kim: “Boy, look at that view. Wouldn’t that make a great condo?”

There are plenty of valid objections to such a scheme. One is that Trump wouldn’t be delivering fully on the problem he has correctly identified: Making sure Kim can’t attack the U.S. with a nuclear weapon. On the other hand, America and its allies live under that threat from Russia and China, and are “comfortable” with other nuclear-armed nations such as India, Israel and Pakistan.   

[Read James Stavridis’ full Opinion piece in Bloomberg]

North Korean refugee: Why is the US, Spain punishing us?

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The following is authored by a North Korean defector, and a member of the Free Joseon, who was part of the group who entered the North Korean Embassy in Madrid on February 22, 2019:

I am a North Korean refugee. After being orphaned as a child, I faced hunger daily and fled alone as a young teenager to China before getting captured, repatriated and sentenced to forced labor and starvation in an internment camp. I witnessed public executions, suicides, and mass starvation, the everyday atrocities in an evil totalitarian regime.

I am grateful to have experienced freedom and a full stomach. My friends and family and millions of my countrymen have not experienced such luxuries. The world has forgotten them.

When I learned of the existence of the North Korean dissident group  Provisional Government of Free Joseon, I was overwhelmed with joy and relief. Finally, I had discovered a group of people who felt a personal responsibility to stop the crimes against humanity in my homeland. …I found my purpose and my destiny: to use the privileges I had been given as an adult to help save those left behind. Those who still live in the hell I was freed from.

Fast forward to February 2019. I was at the North Korean embassy in Spain to help a North Korean diplomat defect. Stepping inside the embassy was like being transported back to North Korea. The walls were lined with propaganda singing praises to North Korea’s leaders. Each room had portraits of the leaders – watching your every move and thought, peering into your soul. … They were the faces of the leaders who had driven their people into poverty, oppression and starvation. Men who turned us into animals while growing fat off luxury goods and threatening the world with nuclear weapons.

I stepped on a chair, raised the portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, turned and smashed them on the ground. I cannot explain how that felt. It was as though I was striking a blow on behalf of millions upon millions of my people, dead, alive or yet unborn, against this evil injustice. The sound of the shattering glass felt as though the chains in my heart also shattered.

These men [Adrian Hong and Chris Ahn] are heroes. They and their families deserve better. Somehow, the United States is now hunting us on behalf of Pyongyang, via Spain. …I cannot fathom why Spain would take North Korean testimony at face value and issue arrest warrants. If the intent was simply to harm or steal, why not leave in minutes? Would a group seeking to attack or raid use their own passports, enter via the front gate in the middle of broad daylight with neighbors walking around, and stay for five hours?

I ask the Spanish courts to drop the charges against these men. I ask the United States to deny extradition.

[Read full article at Fox News Opinion]

Ex-Marine accused by Spain of North Korean embassy break-in freed on bail

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A former U.S. Marine accused of breaking into North Korea’s embassy in Madrid and assaulting diplomatic personnel was freed on $1.3 million bond in Los Angeles on Tuesday. As a condition of his release, Christopher Ahn must confine himself to his home in the Los Angeles suburb of Chino Hills ahead of his possible extradition to Spain and must wear an ankle monitor. Ahn can only leave his home for medical appointments and church.

Spanish authorities have charged Ahn, 38, who spent six years in the Marines and served in Iraq, with breaking into the North Korean embassy with five others on February 22. They said the group beat some embassy staff and held them hostage for hours before fleeing. The charges include breaking and entering, robbery with violence and causing injuries, according to U.S. court documents.

Ahn is said to be a member of Free Joseon, or the Cheollima Civil Defense, an activist group which supports North Korean defectors and seeks to overthrown North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Two people allegedly involved in the embassy incident are still at large, including Adrian Hong, a Mexican national and longtime U.S. resident who is the purported leader of the group.

Attorneys for Free Joseon said the allegations of violence are lies from Kim’s diplomats, who they say made up the story to save their own skins. They claim the group members were invited inside and that there were no problems.

Video obtained by Fox News shows the activists walking into the embassy and chatting with a member of Kim’s diplomatic corps. One activist takes official photographs of Kim and his father Kim Jong II from a wall and smashes them on the floor.

Ahn was arrested by U.S. agents in April in Los Angeles. His actions have made him a target of the Kim regime, the magistrate said in an order conditionally granting him bail. “The F.B.I. has confirmed that the North Korean government has threatened his life,” the judge wrote. “He is apparently the target of a dictatorship’s efforts to murder him.”

[Fox News]

Australian student expelled from North Korea denies spying

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An Australian student who was expelled from North Korea denied on Tuesday that he had been spying on the authoritarian state while he lived there. Alek Sigley, 29, was released last week after being detained for several days, with Pyongyang later accusing him of promoting propaganda against the country online.

“The allegation that I am a spy is (pretty obviously) false,” he wrote on Twitter, adding that he was “well both mentally and physically”. The tweets were the first comments addressing the incident from Sigley, who speaks fluent Korean and had been one of just a handful of Westerners living and studying in North Korea. His disappearance, which prompted deep concern about his fate, came just days before a G20 summit and a landmark meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

After he was released and flew to Japan, North Korean state media published a report saying the country had deported the student for spying.

“I may never again walk the streets of Pyongyang, a city that holds a very special place in my heart,” Sigley, who speaks fluent Korean, tweeted Tuesday. “I may never again see my teachers and my partners in the travel industry, whom I’ve come to consider close friends. But that’s life.”

From the capital, Sigley organized tours to the country and ran a number of social media sites which posted a stream of apolitical content about life in one of the world’s most secretive nations. His blog posts focused on everyday Pyongyang — from the city’s dining scene to North Korean app reviews.

He also wrote columns for specialist website NK News, which North Korean state media called an anti-regime news outlet in its report on Saturday.

[AFP]

Former North Korean ambassador may be new point man in US-NK talks

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North Korea appears to have appointed a long-time veteran of international diplomacy as point man in the new round of denuclearisation talks with the United States, a diplomatic source in Seoul confirmed on Friday.

North Korea has indicated that former ambassador to Vietnam Kim Myong Gil would act as counterpart to U.S. Special Representative Stephen Biegun, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Left: Former ambassador to Vietnam Kim Myong Gil

South Korean media, citing unnamed diplomatic sources, reported on Thursday that Kim Myong Gil would be taking over for Kim Hyok Chol, the North Korean diplomat who served as Biegun’s counterpart ahead of the Hanoi summit, which collapsed with no deal in February. [In June, CNN reported that Kim Hyok Chol, a former ambassador to Spain, was alive and in state custody, contradicting a South Korean newspaper report that he had been executed for his role in the summit breakdown.]

The collapse of the Hanoi summit was a major setback for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who, several sources said, was led to believe by hawkish aides like former general and spy master Kim Yong Chol that he was about to win sought-after sanctions relief in return for a promise to partially scrap nuclear facilities. Kim Yong Chol was also removed from his position as counterpart for U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but has since appeared at some public events alongside Kim Jong Un.

After meeting Kim Jong Un on Sunday at the DMZ, President Trump said that the two sides had agreed to name teams to resume talks that have been stalled since the previous summit. According to a fact sheet by South Korea’s Unification Ministry, Kim Myong Gil was previously a member of delegations at the United Nations and the failed six-party talks, aimed at reining in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes that it pursued for years in defiance of U.N. Security Council sanctions.

If the appointment is confirmed, Kim Myong Gil’s long experience as a diplomat could pose opportunities as well as challenges for Biegun, said Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “On the one hand, it will make Biegun’s conversations easier because Kim knows ‘diplomatic speak’ and the issues very well, but his knowledge and experience means that negotiations could also get tricky,” she said. “North Korean diplomats pride themselves for knowing the U.S. better than Americans.” Kim added, “At the end of the day, it almost doesn’t matter who the lead negotiator is because they get their marching orders from Kim Jong Un.”

[Reuter]

Former special envoy defends Trump’s North Korea visit

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Former special envoy Joseph Detrani on Wednesday said President Trump’s recent meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) has led to meaningful results on the negotiations front.

Detrani, who was special envoy for the six-party talks with North Korea under former President George W. Bush, said Trump secured a commitment that will help jumpstart denuclearization talks.

“He did get something back — he got a commitment from Kim Jong Un that we would now commence with working-level negotiations,” Detrani told Hill.TV. “That means all negotiators will come together and talk about complete verifiable denuclearization. The key now is to get all negotiators to sit down and talk about is there a path to getting complete verifiable denuclearization.”

Detrani advised the administration to “immediately” move forward with talks with North Korea. “We shouldn’t be waiting six months before negotiators sit down,” he told Hill.TV.

[The Hill]