Category: Kim Jong Un

Lowest number of North Korean defectors arrive in the South since 2001

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The number of North Koreans defecting to South Korea dropped to its lowest in nearly two decades last year, Seoul said Monday, continuing a downward trend as Pyongyang tightens controls on movement. 

About 1,047 North Koreans arrived in the democratic South last year, down from 1,137 in 2018, according to data released by the unification ministry. This was the lowest figure since 2001. (This number 1,047 relates specifically to those arriving in the South, rather than those leaving the North.)

The vast majority of defectors from the impoverished North go first to China. They sometimes stay there for several years before making their way to the South, often via a third country.

Arrivals to South Korea peaked at 2,914 in 2009, but have mostly declined since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un came into power in late 2011.

Women account for the lion’s share of defectors, making up around 81 per cent of last year’s arrivals. It is easier for women to leave the North as men all have assigned jobs, making any absence easier to spot for the authorities.

[AFP]

Kim Jong Un taps tough-talking military veteran as North Korean foreign minister

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North Korea’s new foreign minister is a former defense commander with little diplomatic experience, spotlighting leader Kim Jong Un’s reliance on party and military loyalists at a sensitive time amid stalled U.S. talks, analysts in Seoul said.

North Korea had previously told countries with embassies in Pyongyang that Ri Son Gwon, a senior military officer and official of the ruling Workers’ Party, had been appointed foreign minister, a diplomatic source in Seoul told Reuters. He replaces Ri Yong Ho, a career diplomat with years of experience negotiating with Washington.

Analysts said it was too soon to tell exactly what impact the appointment may have for the stalled denuclearisation talks with the United States, but said Ri Son Gwon had often played a confrontational role in negotiations with South Korea. Unlike his predecessor, Ri Son Gwon does not have any experience in dealing with nuclear issues or U.S. officials, though he has led high-level talks between the neighbors.

A tough, hawkish negotiator, Ri “stormed out of the room” during military talks with South Korea in 2014 when Seoul demanded an apology for what it saw as the North’s past military provocations, a former South Korean official who met him said.

Previously chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC), which handles relations with South Korea, Ri is the latest military official to be promoted to the party leadership. “There has been a demonstrative crossover dynamic in which senior military officials migrate into the party leadership,” said Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership expert at the Stimson Centre, a U.S. think tank.

[Reuters]

South Korea’s Moon says door not closed on talks with North Korea

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South Korean President Moon Jae-in believes North Korea remains open to dialogue with the United States, despite comments over the weekend from a top official in Pyongyang suggesting his country had been “deceived by the US” in nuclear negotiations.

Speaking at a news conference Tuesday, Moon said the recent birthday message sent by US President Donald Trump to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un should be considered a good sign. “North Korea has made it clear that the door for dialogue hasn’t been shut, even though there was a condition that the dialogue can only resume when North Korea’s demands were met,” said Moon.

Moon has long positioned himself as something of a mediator between North Korea and the US, a role that has become increasingly difficult as the two sides have failed to make tangible progress in diplomatic talks.

In a statement carried by North Korean state media, Kim Kye Gwan, a veteran diplomat and adviser to the North Korean foreign ministry, said Pyongyang would not consider giving up its nuclear facilities in return for partial sanctions relief.

Kim Kye Gwan, who was involved in previous negotiations with the US, said, “Although Chairman Kim Jong Un has good personal feelings about President Trump, they are, in the true sense of the word, ‘personal’,” he said. “We have been deceived by the US, being caught in the dialogue with it for over one year and a half, and that was the lost time for us.”

[CNN]

Why is the birthday of Kim Jong Un not a bigger deal in North Korea?

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un marked his 36th birthday on Wednesday, to little fanfare within the country.

Fyodor Tertitskiy, a senior researcher at Seoul’s Kookmin University, suggests that the young North Korean leader follows his father Kim Jong Il’s model: slowly building a cult of personality over the years while refraining from the kinds of excesses that might seem unbecoming for a leader so young. “Kim Jong Un likely follows the example of his father – he shows his modesty and loyalty to his predecessors by limiting his cult to a certain extent,” he said.

Tertitskiy  adds, “This is not the only part where his cult is limited – there are seemingly no badges with his portrait, no ‘Song of Commander Kim Jong Un,’ and, importantly, he does not have a single medal or order.”

In an in-depth piece for NK News last year on the politics of the North Korean leaders’ birthdays, Tertitskiy noted that the first “proper” birthday celebrations of Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, only began in 1952, just a few years after coming to power. Annual celebrations began in earnest in 1962.

Similarly, “State media was careful in its treatment of Kim Jong Il’s birthday up through the mid-1980s, 10 years after he was designated as Kim Il Sung’s successor,” Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst with NK News‘s sister site NK Pro, said. “It was only in 1992, after Kim received all the top or second-to-the-top titles in the party, state, and the military, that state media officially began to commemorate Kim Jong Il’s birthday.”

Tertitskiy also suggested Kim Jong Un may be waiting for a time of real adversity to enhance his cult of personality. “Kim Jong Il did it in a time of crisis of the late 1990s so who knows – maybe he’ll do it if the situation in North Korea declines,” he argued.

Analyst Minyoung Lee wasn’t quite so sure, suggesting that the North Koreans may instead be waiting for Kim the youngest to accrue a little more time as leader. “State media will likely start commemorating Kim Jong Un’s birthday when Kim feels that the country’s situation at home and abroad is more stable, and he feels he has more achievements to speak for.”

[NK News]

Kim Jong Un turns 36 today

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un marks his 36th birthday on Wednesday, if the U.S. government is anything to go by. In any case, this is a remarkably young age for a man leading a nation of 25 million people — it also makes him the world’s third-youngest person to lead a government, and the youngest to possess an arsenal of missiles and nuclear weapons.

State media on Wednesday featured no mention of the auspicious day, with ruling party daily the Rodong Sinmun instead leading with an editorial extolling the outcomes of a recent party plenum. It is also conspicuously absent from officially-issued North Korean calendars.

North Koreans, it seems, were largely in the dark about the date of the Great Successor’s birth until an unusual visit to North Korea by former NBA hall-of-famer Dennis Rodman — and an impromptu courtside sing-a-long — revealed the fact back in 2014.

Reports suggest that the state has for several years informally celebrated Kim Jong Un’s birthday, with defector-run media outlets suggesting that the day is used as an occasion to send gifts to schoolchildren. “Presents for Kim Jong Un’s birthday were handed out at a national event on January 7,” a source told Daily NK last year, remarking that 2019’s offering had improved compared to previous years.

But while the birthdays of his grandfather and father — April 15 and February 16 respectively — are national holidays in North Korea, often marked with military parades and large public celebrations, Kim Jong Un has pointedly refused to deify his own, at least in outer-track outlets.

So why the reluctance to declare it a national holiday? Much of it may have to do with Kim Jong Un’s relative youth, and his reluctance to fully embrace the large-scale deification his grandfather and, later, his father, enjoyed — at least for the time being. Some suggest he may be seeking to follow Kim Jong Il’s model: slowly building a cult of personality over the years while refraining from the kinds of excesses that might seem unbecoming for a leader so young.

[NK News]

Consequences in North Korea from US killing of Iran’s top military commander

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The U.S. strike that killed Iran’s top military commander may have had an indirect casualty: a diplomatic solution to denuclearizing North Korea. Experts say the escalation of tensions between Washington and Tehran will inspire North Korea’s decision-makers to tighten their hold on the weapons they see, perhaps correctly, as their strongest guarantee of survival.

North Korea’s initial reaction to the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani has been cautious. The country’s state media was silent for several days before finally on Monday issuing a brief report on the attack that didn’t even mention Soleimani’s name. The Korean Central News Agency report didn’t publish any direct criticism by Pyongyang toward Washington, instead simply saying that China and Russia had denounced the United States over last week’s airstrike at the airport in Baghdad.

So while the killing of Soleimani may give Pyongyang pause about provoking the Trump administration, North Korea ultimately is likely to use the strike to further legitimize its stance that it needs to bolster its nuclear arsenal as a deterrent against American aggression.

North Korea has often pointed to the demises of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi while justifying its nuclear development, saying they would still be alive and in power had they successfully obtained nuclear weapons and didn’t surrender them to the U.S.

“The airstrike does serve as a warning to North Korea about taking extreme actions as the presumption that the Trump administration refrains from using military force when concerned about consequences has been shattered,” said an ex-intelligence secretary to former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

[AP]

Killing of Iranian commander sends message to North Korea

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U.S. efforts to deal with Iran could take the U.S.’s attention away from North Korea as Pyongyang seeks to raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula, said David Maxwell, a former U.S. Special Forces colonel who served on the Combined Forces Command of the U.S and South Korea. “Kim Jong Un is not going to be happy with all the attention focused on Iran when he was trying to execute a large-scale information and influence campaign against the U.S. and the international community to get sanctions lifted,” he said.

Experts also said the U.S. killing of the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani could change North Korea’s thinking about the U.S. ability to use force.

“The attack tells adversaries like North Korea to reassess [its] assumptions about U.S. actions moving up the escalatory ladder,” said Ken Gause, director of the adversary analytics program at CNA. “Trump, more so than previous presidents,” he added, “is not averse to doing decapitation strikes and focused assassinations.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said the U.S. could use a military option on North Korea if necessary. “We think the best path forward, with regard to North Korea, is a political agreement that denuclearizes the peninsula,” Esper said in an interview with Fox News. “But that said, we remain, from a military perspective, ready to fight tonight, as need be.”

The Pentagon recently released a photo of U.S. and South Korean special forces conducting drills simulating raids on North Korean facilities aimed at taking out its top officials. “It will be interesting to speculate if [Kim] thinks something like this [the U.S. killing of the Iranian general] could happen to him or if his paranoia would lead him to think that Trump is somehow sending him a message,” Maxwell said.

On the other hand, Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University said, “I think Kim Jong-un will be laughing at this situation as he now has an opportunity to test how much trouble Trump can handle at the same time.”

[VoA/South China Morning Post]

What will Kim Jong-Un do in 2020?

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said on Wednesday his country will continue developing nuclear programmes and introduce a “new strategic weapon” in the near future, after the United States missed a year-end deadline for a restart of denuclearization talks. 

Kim convened a rare four-day meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s policy-making committee as the United States had not responded to his repeated calls for concessions to reopen negotiations, dismissing the deadline as artificial.

Kim had warned he might have to seek a “new path” if Washington fails to meet his expectations. U.S. military commanders said Pyongyang’s actions could include the testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which it has halted since 2017, alongside nuclear warhead tests.

There were no grounds for North Korea to be bound any longer by the self-declared nuclear and ICBM test moratorium, as the United States continued joint military drills with South Korea, adopted cutting-edge weapons and imposed sanctions while making “gangster-like demands”, Kim said, according to KCNA.

He pledged to further develop North Korea’s nuclear deterrent but left the door open for dialogue, saying the “scope and depth” of that deterrent will be “properly coordinated depending on” the attitude of the United States. 

[Reuters]

China calls on US to take “concrete steps” with North Korea

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China has called on the US to take “concrete steps” to deliver on what was agreed between US and North Korea at their Singapore summit last year.

In a year-end interview with the state-controlled People’s Daily, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China encourages the US and DPRK to “work out a feasible roadmap” to establish peace and “realizing complete denuclearization on the Peninsula.”

As the year draws to a close, North Korea’s actions are being closely watched, after a top North Korean official warned that it might deliver “a Christmas gift” to the US if there’s no progress on lifting sanctions. US defense officials have said they’re expecting a long-range ballistic missile test.

But a source familiar with the North Korean leadership’s current mindset told CNN that chances are “very low” that North Korea will actually conduct a provocative test like a satellite launch, firing an ICBM, or detonating a nuclear weapon, because those acts would be considered too provocative for the likes of China and Russia, Pyongyang’s two most important international trading partners.

[CNN]

John Bolton: “The idea that we are somehow exerting maximum pressure on North Korea is just unfortunately not true”

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Donald Trump often brags that he’s successfully stalled North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, claiming that the North Korean leader “will do the right thing because he is far too smart not to…and he does not want to disappoint his friend, President Trump!”

Now that he’s sprung from the Trump administration, former national security adviser John Bolton suggests that the administration is aware Trump’s approach has failed. “We’re now nearly three years into the administration,” Bolton said, “with no visible progress toward getting North Korea to make the strategic decision to stop pursuing deliverable nuclear weapons.”

He added, ominously, “The more time there is, the more time there is to develop, test and refine both the nuclear component and the ballistic missile component of the program.”

Trump claimed, after his first meeting with Kim in 2018, that there is “no longer a nuclear threat” from North Korea, and has continued to tout his supposed progress as his signature foreign policy accomplishment, framing his dealings with the authoritarian regime in highly personal terms.

“The idea that we are somehow exerting maximum pressure on North Korea is just unfortunately not true,” Bolton said.

[Vanity Fair]