Category: Kim Jong Un

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]

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]

11 defectors have returned to North Korea in past 5 years

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Over the past five years, eleven North Korean defectors returned to their communist homeland from South Korea.

A 24-year-old defector is the latest to do so, and is believed to have fled back to the North by crossing the demarcation line. His return was made known after the North said that a “runaway” came back home with coronavirus symptoms.

The South Korean Unification Ministry has stated that a total of 11 defectors have gone back to the North since 2015.

[Yonhap]

Defector at heart of COVID-19 case fled sex abuse investigation

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A 24-year-old defector returned to North Korea the way he left in 2017, authorities say, but with a coronavirus pandemic raging in the background this time, his illicit trip drew far more attention. South Korea has identified the man only by his surname, Kim, and identified him as the “runaway” who North Korea accuses of illegally crossing their shared border last week with symptoms of COVID-19.

Facing a sexual assault investigation, Kim evaded high-tech South Korean border control systems by crawling through a drain pipe and swimming across the Han River to the North on July 19, the South Korean military has said. He appears to have spent several days there before being caught in the city of Kaesong, a North Korean border town.

Little is known about how Kim made a living in South Korea, but a source with knowledge of his background told Reuters that he owed 20 million won ($16,800) to at least one fellow defector from Kaesong. “He had expressed his wish to become a security lecturer for students, like many other defectors do, but it never happened, partly because of the pandemic,” the source said on anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

According to police, a female defector in her 20s filed a complaint on June 12, accusing Kim of sexually assaulting her at his home. They interviewed him once on June 21, and he denied the accusations.

The investigation gathered steam when one of Kim’s acquaintances reported to police on July 19 that he threatened the woman and planned to flee to the North, a police official said. A warrant for Kim’s arrest was issued two days later, but according to North Korean state media, he had already arrived there.

By July 24, North Korean authorities had found him in Kaesong, and said he displayed COVID-19 symptoms. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered the city be locked down and declared a state of emergency.

South Korean health officials said there was no sign that Kim was infected with the coronavirus before he left the South, and at least two people who were in close contact with him have tested negative.

[Reuters]