Category: Kim Jong Un

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

North Korea unveils ICBM

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Two ballistic missiles made their debut in Saturday’s North Korean military parade: a sub-launched weapon and what appeared to be an enormous new intercontinental ballistic missile borne on a long, 11-axle mobile launcher.

Analysts have long scrutinized Pyongyang’s parades for what they reveal about the military capabilities of one of the world’s most secretive regimes — but the October 10 event also offered the latest and clearest signal yet that the Trump administration’s efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have failed. One expert called the new ICBM a destabilizing capability that would exacerbate tensions between North Korea and the rest of the world, particularly the United States. 

The new ICBM isn’t exactly a surprise, said Jeffrey Lewis, a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and the founding publisher of the Arms Control Wonk blog. Lewis believes that the missile is intended to carry multiple warheads, another new capability. That means North Korea is improving the likelihood of slipping a nuclear weapon past the ground-based midcourse defense interceptors that the United States would deploy against an incoming ICBM. “It’s so much cheaper to add warheads than interceptors,” said Lewis. 

He acknowledged that the missile hasn’t been flight-tested yet, so there’s no way to tell if it actually works. But it need not be 100-percent reliable to post a large threat that could change U.S. calculations.  “We are standing by while they deploy very destabilizing capabilities,” he said. 

[Defense One]

Kim Jong-un offers South Korea a rare apology for killing official

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North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, offered a rare apology for the killing of a South Korean government official at sea by soldiers from the North.

“I am deeply sorry that an unexpected and unfortunate thing has happened in our territorial waters that delivered a big disappointment to President Moon Jae-in and the people of the South,” Mr. Kim was quoted as saying in a message his government sent to the South on Friday.

Mr. Kim’s prompt apology to the South, the first issued in his name since he took power nearly a decade ago, appeared to have headed off what could have been another serious crisis in relations between the Koreas. South Koreans across the political spectrum had expressed outrage since Mr. Moon’s government announced the official’s killing on Thursday.

The official, whose name has not been released by the South but who worked for the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, went missing from his patrol vessel on Monday. He was shot and killed in North Korean waters on Tuesday, apparently while trying to defect, according to officials in the South. North Korean soldiers then poured oil on the man’s body and set it on fire for fear that he might have had the coronavirus, the officials said.

With all official channels of communication with the North having been cut off since June, South Korea sent a message through a cross-border telephone hotline between North Korea and the United Nations Command, demanding that the North explain why it had killed a South Korean citizen. In the message, North Korea denied that its soldiers had burned the body of the South Korean official, and it offered an account that differed from the South’s in other key details.

South Korean officials had said Thursday that they believed the man had been killed because of the North’s fear of the coronavirus. North Korea has kept its borders closed since January because of the pandemic. This month, Gen. Robert B. Abrams, commander of the United States military in South Korea, said the North had deployed troops along its border with China with shoot-to-kill orders, to keep smugglers from bringing in the coronavirus.

[The New York Times]

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]

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]

Red Cross trains thousands of North Koreans to help cope with coronavirus

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The Red Cross has trained 43,000 North Korean volunteers to help communities, including the locked-down city of Kaesong, fight the novel coronavirus and provide flood assistance, an official with the relief organization said on Monday.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared an emergency last month and imposed a lockdown on Kaesong, near the inter-Korean border, after a man who defected to the South in 2017 returned to the city showing coronavirus symptoms.

Heavy rain and flooding in recent days have also sparked concern about crop damage and food supplies in the isolated country.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has built an extensive network of North Korean volunteers to help residents in all nine provinces to avoid the virus and reduce damage from floods and landslides, spokesman Antony Balmain said.

North Korea has not confirmed any coronavirus cases but has enforced strict quarantine measures. South Korea has said there is no evidence the returning defector was infected.

The IFRC last month provided North Korea with kits designed to run up to 10,000 coronavirus tests, alongside infrared thermometers, surgical masks, gowns and protective gears.

[Reuters]