Category: Kim Jong Un

Kim Jong Un orders construction of new hospital in Pyongyang

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Kim Jong Un is calling on his country to hastily build a “modern general hospital” to “better protect the precious health and safety of our people” amid growing suspicions the Hermit Kingdom isn’t being honest about the coronavirus outbreak.

State media reported Kim broke ground at the hospital construction site in Pyongyang on Tuesday as the North continues to insist it has no cases of COVID-19, despite being sandwiched between the virus hotbeds of China and South Korea.

Kim reportedly wants construction on the hospital – which he labeled a “crucial task” — to be completed by early October.

While North Korea continues to claim no coronavirus cases, another development suggests this isn’t the case. North Korean authorities extended school closures this week through April 15, Daily NK reports.

[Fox News]

Russia delivers Coronavirus testkits to North Korea

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The Russian government was able to get diagnostic test kits to North Korea via a flight to Pyongyang earlier this week after evacuating foreign diplomats and other travelers. This news came via a worker with an American nongovernmental organization who told U.S. News on the condition of anonymity, due to the sensitive nature of the person’s work.

“If they get the tests to run on their machines, we should start to hear about confirmed cases of COVID-19 in a few days,” says the worker, who has extensive experience in North Korea.

The country, under widespread lockdown in response to the global pandemic, has become one of the most troubling blind spots in the international response to the spread of the coronavirus. Global health officials have virtually no information about how the country has been affected by the virus that has roiled neighboring China and South Korea.

“Global health security is only as good as the weakest link,” says Kee Park, director of the North Korea Program at the Korean American Medical Association and a lecturer on global health and social medicine at Harvard University.

North Korea has not acknowledged any confirmed cases of the coronavirus within its borders, while neighboring South Korea documents more than 7,000 cases and China reports almost 5,000 deaths as a result.

Leader Kim Jong Un has attempted to demonstrate that his country is taking the spread of the virus seriously, including allowing the release of photos that show military service members wearing preventative medical masks. North Korea has also launched two rounds of short-range missiles in recent weeks, an effort analysts say is designed to show it remains a potent threat despite the health crisis.

“The main priority really is to make sure DPRK is well equipped to avoid any spread of the disease, the virus,” Fabio Forgione, Doctors Without Borders‘ head of mission for DPRK – an acronym for North Korea’s official name – said in a recent interview. “At the moment, our feeling is they’re really trying to work on prevention. They have in place all the right strategies to try to tackle and prevent the spread of the virus.”

The Russian tests will provide critical information at a time international health workers have struggled to better understand the situation in North Korea.

[US News World Report]

UN investigator warns against isolating North Korea as threat of COVID-19 looms

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A U.N. investigator Monday warned of serious consequences if COVID-19 gains a foothold in North Korea. The U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said the lack of freedoms and wide-range abuses in the tightly controlled, highly secretive society run counter to the transparency needed to combat the coronavirus epidemic.

Ojea Quintana acknowledges the government’s extensive efforts in preventing an outbreak of this virus inside the North. He warns a widespread infection in North Korea would be devastating for the people as many are malnourished, suffering from stunted growth and are vulnerable to getting sick.  

The U.N. official is calling on North Korea to allow full and unimpeded access to medical experts and aid workers and urges the government not to restrict access to vital information. The government in Pyongyang has not publicly disclosed any cases of COVID-19.

Regarding the economic sanctions that the United States and other countries have imposed on North Korea because of its nuclear weapons program, Ojea Quintana said because sanctions create economic hardships for the people and given the coronavirus crisis, they should be reviewed.

The U.N. rapporteur describes the overall human rights situation in North Korea as abysmal.  “Basic freedoms continue to be limited, control and surveillance are pervasive, and the population fears arbitrary arrest and mistreatment, including detention in political prison camps…A recent account refers to frequent deaths of prisoners due to hard labor, lack of food, contagious diseases and overcrowding,” he said.  

Ojea Quintana said women are the most abused members of this repressive society. He said women are the primary caretakers of the household and are under pressure to provide money and labor to the government. He said women are vulnerable to threats, imprisonment and sexual abuse from local state officials. Additionally, he said they have no political power or recourse to justice.

[VoA]

Kim Jong Un expresses ‘condolences’ over coronavirus outbreak in South Korea

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sent a personal letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to express his condolences over a soaring viral outbreak, Seoul officials said Thursday.

It wasn’t immediately clear if Kim’s letter was an attempt to improve strained ties with South Korea amid a deadlock in broader nuclear diplomacy with the U.S. Earlier this week, Kim’s sister issued insults against Moon’s presidential office in her first official statement.

In his letter to Moon on Wednesday, Kim conveyed a message of comfort to the South Korean people over the cornonavirus outbreak that has infected more than 6,000 people and killed 37 others in the South. Kim said he was worried about Moon’s health and expressed frustration that there wasn’t much he could do to help South Korea at this moment, senior presidential official Yoon Do-han told reporters. Kim “underlined his unwavering friendship and trust toward President Moon and said that he will continue to quietly send his best wishes for President Moon to overcome” the outbreak, Yoon said.

Kim also expressed his “candid thoughts and opinions” about the current situation on the Korean Peninsula, Yoon said, without providing details. Moon sent Kim back a letter on Thursday conveying his gratitude to him, Yoon said.

Moon and Kim built personal ties in 2018 when they met three times and reached a series of agreements aimed at boosting exchanges and lowering military animosity. Moon, a liberal who espouses a negotiated settlement of the North Korean nuclear crisis, also facilitated Kim’s first summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore in 2018.

North Korea has repeatedly said there have been no cases of the virus on its soil, a claim that is questioned by many outside experts.

[TIME]

Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, slams South Korea in 1st-ever statement

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The sister of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un​, attacked South Korea’s presidential office on Tuesday, calling it idiotic a day after the South denounced the North’s first weapons test this year.

Kim Yo-jong, Mr. Kim’s only sister, also serves as one of his closest aides. She helped arrange the first summit meeting between Mr. Kim and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea in 2018, visiting Seoul with her brother’s letter of invitation.

On Tuesday, in the first​-ever​ statement​ issued under her name, Ms. Kim heaped scorn on South Korea, another sign that relations between the North and South have chilled since the collapse of a second summit meeting between Mr. Kim and President Trump​ in February last year​.

On Monday, North Korea conducted its first weapons tests this year, which involved large-caliber rockets. Mr. Moon’s presidential Blue House, called Chongwadae in Korean, ​immediately ​blamed North Korea for raising tensions. ​ In her statement on Tuesday, Ms. Kim​ said the South had no right to criticize the North’s test when it conducts its own exercises, whether alone or together with the United States. “Such incoherent assertion and actions made by Chongwadae only magnify our distrust, hatred and scorn for the South side as a whole​,” she said, according to the English translation by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency​. ​“It is us who have to express ​’strong regret​’ at such incoherent and imbecile way of thinking of Chongwadae​.”

Ms. Kim did not attack South Korean President Moon by name. But she said that if South Korea “is set to get down to doing anything with us, it had better be more brave and fair and square.”

[The New York Times]

North Korea fires two unidentified projectiles

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North Korea has fired two unidentified short-range projectiles from an area near the coastal city of Wonsan into waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, South Korea’s military said Monday. The objects were estimated to have a flight distance of 240 kilometers (149 miles) and altitude of 35 kilometers (22 miles), South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement, adding the projectiles are likely part of North Korea’s combined military drills.

The drills began on Friday, the one-year anniversary of leader Kim Jong Un’s summit in Hanoi with US President Donald Trump that ended without a deal. North Korean state media reported that Kim presided over the exercise, which was intended to “judge the mobility and the fire power strike ability of the defense units.”

If this was a missile test, it would be Pyongyang’s first of 2020. Last year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said his country would continue to “steadily develop” nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles to deliver them unless Washington changes course and abandons what Pyongyang calls its “hostile policy.” Weapons experts say test-firing missiles is an important part of improving their accuracy and reliability.

Though weapons tests are important for development purposes, North Korea’s military moves are often timed for maximum political impact both at home and abroad.

The US and South Korea chose to postpone military exercises due to the Novel coronavirus outbreak. These drills usually draw the ire of North Korea. “The US and South Korea postponing their defense drills and offering humanitarian assistance has thus earned no goodwill from a Kim regime that sees little benefit in restarting diplomacy,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said in email. “Pyongyang instead appears intent on raising the stakes before South Korea’s April elections and before the ‘Super Tuesday’ primaries of the US presidential campaign,” Easley said.

[CNN]

Virus threat puts Trump-Kim showdown on hold

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The next showdown between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may need to wait until after the coronavirus scare. The U.S. said Thursday that it would postpone joint military exercises planned for the coming weeks, as its ally South Korea copes with the coronavirus outbreak. The decision removes for now a looming friction point with North Korea, which has denounced the exercises as rehearsal for an invasion and a “main factor of screwing up tensions.”

Meanwhile, North Korea has turned inward since neighboring China sounded the alarm about the new virus strain last month, shutting its borders and trumpeting its prevention campaigns in state media. Moves to provoke the U.S. haven’t materialized since Kim told ruling party leaders on New Year’s Eve that he was no longer bound by a freeze on tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

This year was expected to bring a return to tensions on the Korean Peninsula after Kim spent much of last year threatening to take a “new path” in nuclear talks with the U.S. in 2020 if Trump didn’t make a more appealing offer. The two leaders have made little progress since Trump walked out of their second formal summit last year in Hanoi.

The coronavirus outbreak, which has infected more than 82,000 and killed more than 2,800 worldwide, is particularly concerning to impoverished North Korea, which lacks the public health infrastructure of its more developed neighbors. While the country has yet to report any confirmed cases, the border closures have cut off a vital source of cash needed to soften the blow of international sanctions.

The outbreak also poses risks to South Korea, with cases surging to 1,700 in little more than a week. President Moon Jae-in — a longtime advocate for greater North Korea ties — is rushing to get the disease under control before April parliamentary elections that will shape the remainder of his single, five-year term.

Some 28,500 American troops are based on the peninsula and at last one U.S. solider has already tested positive for the virus. U.S. Forces Korea raised its risk level to “high” Thursday, restricting service members from attending non-essential, off-base activities and social events.

[Bloomberg]

North Korean refugees seek political voice in the South with new political party

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A group of North Korean refugees have launched a political party in South Korea, aiming to give a voice to the 33,500 defectors living in the South.

We were always considered minorities and aliens,” said Kim Joo-il, secretary-general of the new South-North Unification Party at its launch at a hall in South Korea’s capital Seoul. “North Korean defectors are now the future of unification.”

The decision to set up a formal political party was a sign that defectors are seeking a more direct political role ahead of a parliamentary election in April. Many are strongly critical of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration, which they accuse of sidelining defectors and ignoring human rights in a bid to repair relations with North Korea.

Attendees at the launch event discussed cases that have become rallying cries for defectors, who say the South Korean government provides them too little support. In prominent cases last year, two North Koreans were repatriated, and a defector and her 6-year-old son who had been denied government benefits were found dead of starvation in their Seoul apartment.

Kim Shin-ye, 38, one of the defector participants, said the new party’s criticism of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un – one party representative called him a “little pig” during the event – means some defectors may be worried about publicly pledging support for fear of endangering family back in the North.

“What Kim Jong Un is the most afraid of is when the dignity of the North Korean defectors is raised,” said lawmaker Kim Yong-tae, during his congratulatory speech.

[Times of India]

North Korean cybercrime and cybersecrecy

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Technology has become one of the North Korea’s most important tools for survival. The so-called Lazarus group has used elaborate phishing schemes and cutting-edge money-laundering tools to steal money for Kim Jong-un’s regime, in a way to circumvent sanctions. The United Nations estimates that North Korean operators have stolen over $2 billion over the last four years, a relatively enormous percentage of the country’s estimated $28 billion gross domestic product. 

And this applies to a tenfold increase observed in North Korea’s mining of Monero, the privacy-driven cryptocurrency designed to make tracking somewhere between difficult and impossible. Analysts can see internet traffic so detailed that it reveals Pyongyang’s investment in new higher-end, higher-capacity machines to mine the cryptocurrency, according to a recent report from the American cybersecurity firm Recorded Future*.

North Korea’s unparalleled restrictiveness and secrecy around internet usage actually make it easier for intelligence analysts to track and understand how the country uses the internet. “What we see is internet use by the very privileged, the 0.1%, the North Korean military leadership and their families, who are actually given access to the internet,” says Priscilla Moriuchi, an analyst with Recorded Future who focused on China and North Korea during 13 years at the National Security Agency. “We wouldn’t be able to do this type of analysis if they didn’t have such restrictive parameters around the internet.”

There are only three primary ways North Korea connects to the global internet: first, through the allocated .kp IP range; second, through a connection to neighboring China’s telecommunications giant Unicom; and finally, through an increasingly important connection via a Russian satellite company that ultimately resolves to SatGate in Lebanon. But a number of North Koreans live and hack abroad in countries like China. This gives them better access to the internet as they take the opportunity to blend in, while affording plausible deniability for the regime. 

“They’re outside usual boundaries technologically and geographically,” Moriuchi says. “… North Korea sends a lot of their cyber operators overseas … these are super highly trained people that the regime has invested lots of money, time, and trust in. … The revenue generation is state directed and state mandated,” Moriuchi adds, “These people have to earn a specific amount of money per year in order to support themselves and stay overseas, and so their families aren’t endangered at home. It’s a criminal state up-and-down exploiting the openness of the internet to earn money.”

*Recorded Future, an intelligence firm launched in 2009 with the backing of Google and In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital arm, has grown to 650 customers and 475 employees and has just signed a $50 million threat intelligence deal with the US Cyber Command.  

[MIT Technology Review]

John Bolton says President Trump “wasted two years” trying to make a peace deal with North Korea

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Former national security adviser John Bolton told an audience at Duke University in his first public remarks since impeachment that President Donald Trump’s peacemaking efforts with North Korea amounted to “a wasted two years,” because the country never plans to give up its nuclear weapons.

“It was perfectly evident it was going to fail,” The Washington Post quoted Bolton as saying Monday. “There is not a single piece of evidence that the government of North Korea has made a strategic decision to give up the pursuit of nuclear weapons.” 

North Korea wanted to “break free” from international sanctions, Bolton said. He described North Korea as “jiving the Americans” as he claimed that the nation was getting closer to being able to drop nuclear weapons on U.S. cities.

When asked if he had shared his views on North Korea with the president before accepting a job in his administration, Bolton reportedly replied: “Well, I’d be happy to answer that question except part of this is now involved in the pre-publication review of my book.” Bolton also revealed concerns about what he described as the attempted “censorship” of his manuscript. 

Though Bolton publicly supported Trump’s policies when he worked for the administration, the president did not always back his national security adviser.

Bolton is not the first American foreign policy expert to criticize Trump’s actions toward North Korea. Speaking with Salon last year, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that the Singapore summit between Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un was “a ‘Kim win’ because the President canceled some exercises that we have with our allies, the Japanese and the South Koreans, and it’s unclear to me what the North Koreans gave or what it is that they put up to this, especially since they have not agreed to any kind of way of an inventory or international way of figuring out what they have and what denuclearization — which is what we are trying to get — what is the measurement of that, what’s going on.

[Salon]