Category: Kim Jong Un

US and North Korean spies have held secret talks for the past decade

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The Washington Post reports that U.S. intelligence officials have met with North Korean counterparts secretly for a decade, a covert channel that allowed communications during tense times, aided in the release of detainees and helped pave the way for President Trump’s historic summit last year with Kim Jong-un.

The secret channel between the CIA and spies from America’s bitter adversary include two  missions to Pyongyang during the Obama administration by the then deputy CIA Director Michael Morell.

The channel appears to have gone dormant late in the Obama administration. Mike Pompeo re-energized it while CIA director, sending an agency officer to meet with North Korean counterparts in Singapore in August 2017. By early 2018, a whirlwind of secret and public talks were underway.

The U.S. and North Korea have never had diplomatic relations and don’t maintain embassies in each other’s capitals. They have long exchanged messages through the North Korean U.N. mission in New York. In contrast, before the new era of summits, the intelligence channel was a way to communicate directly with regime hard-liners.

North Korea’s key interlocutor was Gen. Kim Yong Chol, former head of Pyongyang’s Reconnaissance General Bureau spy agency. Now the senior North Korean negotiator, he met last Friday with President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo.

[Washington Post]

Trump’s dual Korean challenges

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The White House announced on Friday that President Trump will meet with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, in late February. A White House official said the date and the location of the meeting would be announced later.

The announcement came after a 90-minute meeting in the Oval Office between President Trump and Kim Yong-chol, a former North Korean intelligence chief, who has acted as the top nuclear negotiator for Kim Jong-un.

Meanwhile, President Trump’s demands that South Korea take on far more costs for hosting U.S. troops is straining the alliance and potentially playing into North Korea’s hands ahead of a second summit.

South Korea has about 28,500 U.S. troops on more than 20 sites and paid $855 million last year toward the total $2B cost. But the cost-sharing pact expired at the end of last year after 10 rounds of negotiations that left — in the words of one foreign ministry official in Seoul — a “huge gap” between both sides.

South Korean lawmakers and experts worry that Trump is so obsessed with Seoul paying more that he could take the previously unthinkable step of withdrawing some troops if a deal is not reached. That would be an indirect gift to North Korean leader Kim, undermining one of the most important cards the United States has during negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program, experts say.

South Korean lawmakers called Trump’s demand unacceptable. Many members of Moon’s administration began their political careers as left-wing pro-democracy student activists, who were inclined to see the U.S. troop presence as more motivated by American strategic interests than South Korea’s views.

In “Fear,” Bob Woodward’s account of the Trump White House, the U.S. president is described as being obsessed with the cost of the U.S. troop presence, angrily threatening to pull them out on more than one occasion. At various times, he was talked down by a host of insiders, including former defense secretary Jim Mattis, former secretary of state Rex Tillerson and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Victor Cha, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “There’ll be nothing to filter what Trump wants to do, nothing to filter a very uniformed view on how he wants things done.”

[From a Washington Post analysis]

North Korea envoy headed to U.S. to meet Pompeo, possibly Trump

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Kim Yong Chol, Pyongyang’s lead negotiator in denuclearization talks with the United States, was headed for Washington on Thursday for expected talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a possible encounter with President Donald Trump to lay the groundwork for a second U.S.-North Korea summit, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The North Korean visit could yield an announcement of plans for another summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The Washington Post quoted people familiar with recent diplomatic activity as saying that if announced soon, a second summit would probably take place in March or April, with Danang, Vietnam, the most likely venue.

There has been no indication, however, of any narrowing of differences over U.S. demands that North Korea abandon a nuclear weapons program that threatens the United States or over Pyongyang’s demand for a lifting of punishing sanctions.

On Wednesday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence acknowledged that efforts to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal had not made headway. “While the president is promising dialogue with Chairman Kim, we still await concrete steps by North Korea to dismantle the nuclear weapons that threaten our people and our allies in the region,” Pence said in an address to U.S. ambassadors and other senior American diplomats at the State Department.

[Reuters]

What is North Korea’s definition of denuclearization?

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One of the central questions in the negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program: What does Kim Jong Un want in return for giving up his weapons?

The United States is demanding the “complete, verifiable and irreversible” denuclearization” of North Korea. But when Kim met Trump in Singapore last June, he promised only to “work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Specifically, the issue is what Kim means by his insistence on the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” — and whether that includes a demand for U.S. troops to leave South Korea and pull nuclear-armed American bombers and submarines out of the surrounding region. (South Korean President Moon Jae-in raised a separate issue: whether making a “political” declaration that the 1950-53 Korean War was over would affect the status of U.S. forces in South Korea.)

Moon’s own unification minister, Cho Myoung-gyon, told a parliamentary hearing on Jan. 9 that Seoul does not share Pyongyang’s definition of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

The ambiguity over such a central question could be a negotiating tactic, leaving some tough questions for later in the peace process when mutual trust is higher. 

Many experts see all this as a problem, a sign that Trump and Moon are dodging some of the big issues in their desire to declare the talks a success. Read more

Trump sends letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un

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Over the weekend, a letter was delivered from US President Donald Trump to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a source familiar with the ongoing denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang told CNN. It was flown to Pyongyang and delivered by hand, the source said.

According to the source, North Korea’s former spy chief Kim Yong Chol — one of Pyongyang’s top negotiators — could visit Washington as soon as this week to finalize details of the upcoming summit.

CNN previously reported that US scouting teams had visited Bangkok, Hanoi and Hawaii as they search for a location for the second summit.

Kim Jong-un’s recent trip to China served to emphasize that not only does Pyongyang have partners beyond Seoul and Washington, but also that China remains a major player in any future action to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.

Kim had been due to visit the South Korean capital in December, but that summit was repeatedly delayed as the denuclearization process and talks between Pyongyang and Washington ran into difficulties.

[CNN]

North Korean ambassador’s defection could impact the already fragile ongoing nuclear negotiations

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News broke in early January that North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, Jo Song Gil, is in hiding and reported is seeking asylum in the West.

Is Jo Song Gil making his escape for personal reasons? Or is it an indication that things are as bad as ever in Pyongyang? Whatever the reason, his defection could impact the ongoing negotiations. He could, for example, share sensitive information with the US and South Korea about the real denuclearisation situation in North Korea – and this could make Kim Jong Un less willing to engage.

There are other factors to consider, too, not least North Korea’s sharp economic downturn. This has, in fact, given many North Koreans wider access to information from outside the country, partially thanks to a growing number of defectors communicating with those who remain and the outside world. 

Kim Jong Un’s “equal emphasis” (Byungjin) policy, which focuses on both military and economic development, has also given impetus to his willingness to talk with Moon and Trump. But even if the willingness is there, North Korea’s regime cannot upend nearly 70 years of history in a day. It will be a long process.

The truth is that Kim Jong-un cannot abandon his nuclear programme until he can see an alternative way of guaranteeing the security of his regime. After all, North Korea’s nuclear programme has so far worked well as a bargaining chip in international negotiations – although the current UN sanctions are an exception. Indeed, North Korea’s nuclear threats and long-range missiles have strengthened the county’s hand against the US, while without them, North Korea has almost nothing to offer as a concession.

Nor should we forget the role the North Korean media plays. By showing images of Kim Jong Un shaking hands with world leaders, it has become part of his survival strategy, bolstering his strongman image among both ordinary North Koreans and his government. 

2019 may yet bring a way forward. But unless there is a foundation of mutual understanding, defectors such as Jo Song Gil may offer the only tangible insight into what’s really going on in North Korea.

[Chanel NewsAsia]

Could a Trump-Kim deal leave Japan in the lurch?

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As a second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un looms, and as the American president grapples with an all-consuming Russia probe, fears are growing that Trump’s next move could put Tokyo in a bind.

“I think there’s a very a high chance — maybe more than 50 percent — that, if Trump meets Kim again, there will be a deal that sells out allies,” said Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official and North Korea expert who teaches at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.

Trump has touted his dealings with Kim as his administration’s signature foreign policy achievement, frequently pointing to the lack of nuclear tests by the North and the absence of missiles being shot over Japan — part of an informal moratorium by Pyongyang on atomic or longer-range missile tests. Now, with the White House mired in what is expected to be a punishing year for the president as the probe into alleged Russia interference in the 2016 election gains steam, Trump could look to North Korea for a much-needed victory.

“Anything that can deflect attention from serious questions about Trump’s integrity and fitness for office will be seen by this White House as worth trying,” said Andrew O’Neil, an expert on North Korea and a professor at Griffith University in Australia.

For Trump, such a victory could involve the U.S. signing off on the easing of crippling sanctions on the North in exchange for Pyongyang capping or curbing intercontinental ballistic missiles believed capable of striking much of the United States, while permitting it to keep some level short- and midrange missiles that could hit Japan, including the estimated 200 to 300 medium-range Nodong missiles it possesses. Those missiles can fly about 1,300 km (800 miles). Such a move, while adhering to Trump’s “America First” mantra, would almost assuredly have devastating implications for the U.S. alliance with Japan.

[The Japan Times]

North Korea and China project unity on sanctions

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The leaders of China and North Korea used a summit this week to project a show of unity in the face of stalled negotiations over Pyongyang’s nuclear program and to press the U.S. to compromise.

The meetings gave Beijing a platform to underline its clout in global affairs and its critical leverage in resolving one of Washington’s top security challenges. The U.S., embroiled in an increasingly bitter dispute with China over trade practices, needs the cooperation of President Xi Jinping to enforce sanctions on North Korea and to nudge his Communist ally into making concessions toward giving up his nuclear arsenal.

For Kim Jong Un, his fourth visit in a year to China carried a purposeful reminder for the Trump administration that it should prepare to give ground to get a denuclearization deal. The regime has been calling for sanctions relief from the U.S.

China’s leadership was instrumental in tightening sanctions and prodding Mr. Kim to the negotiating table last year. As North Korea’s biggest trading partner, aid provider and investor, China is critical to maintaining the pressure. To move ahead with denuclearization, Mr. Xi’s government has suggested a phased approach in which North Korean concessions should be met with ones from the international community—a position potentially at odds with Washington’s.

On Thursday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in pressed the U.S. and North Korea to break the impasse in denuclearization talks, saying reciprocal concessions were needed to achieve the U.S. goal of disarming Pyongyang and Mr. Kim’s goal of obtaining sanctions relief.

With U.N. sanctions still in place, China’s willingness to aid North Korea’s economic ambitions is limited, said Kim Heung-kyu, a professor of political science at Ajou University in South Korea. “At the end, if North Korea wants what it wants, like becoming a normal state, pursuing economic growth, then it must achieve a breakthrough in talks with the U.S.,” he said.

[Wall Street Journal]

Confirmation that Kim Jong-Un visiting China at Xi Jinping’s invitation

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, accompanied by his wife Ri Sol Ju and top North Korean officials, has arrived in China for a four-day visit at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, as preparations increase for a second summit with US President Trump.

During his stay in China, Kim is expected to hold his fourth summit with Xi. The visit comes a week after Kim warned that North Korea may seek an alternative course if the United States maintains sanctions and pressure on his country.

Analysts also believe that Kim is eager to use the fact that relations between China and the US are strained amid the world’s two biggest economies’ bitter trade war, in order for North Korea to get as much as possible out of the expected talks.

In his annual New Year’s address last week, Kim renewed his commitment to denuclearization but added that the progress would be faster if Washington took the corresponding action.

North Korea would have “no option but to explore a new path in order to protect our sovereignty” if the US “miscalculates our people’s patience, forces something upon us and pursues sanctions and pressure without keeping a promise it made in front of the world”, Kim said, adding that he was ready to meet Trump again at any time.

Christopher Hill, a former US ambassador to South Korea, said Kim’s visit to China may be Beijing’s way of ensuring it remains a player in any future developments with Washington.

The visit also coincided with what South Korean officials say is Kim Jong-un’s 35th birthday on January 8.

Kim Jong Un may be on his way to China for a summit

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South Korean media reported late Monday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be on his way to Beijing for his fourth summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Officials in China and in Seoul had no immediate comment. North Korea rarely reports such visits until they are over.

The reports said a train like the one often used by Kim was seen crossing through the Chinese border city of Dandong late Monday amid heavy security. South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency speculated the train could be carrying a senior North Korean official, while the Hankyoreh newspaper cited sources as saying Kim was in China for a summit.

Yonhap said the train was expected to reach Beijing at about 10 a.m. Tuesday local time.

Reports of the North Korean leader’s possible trip to China come after U.S. and North Korean officials are believed to have met in Vietnam to discuss the location of a second summit between Kim and President Donald Trump. China is the North’s most important trading partner and a key buffer against pressure from Washington.

If Kim is going to meet Xi, Kim could be hoping to coordinate his positions with China before the Trump summit.

[AP]