North Koreans “living in peace with America, for everyone to have a better life.”

In North Korea, where leader Kim Jong-un has almost godlike status, to question him out loud is for many unthinkable. So by speaking out, market trader Sun Hui – not her real name – knows she is putting her life at risk.

“People criticize Kim Jong-un,” she says, reflecting wider discontent. “[They say] the little man uses his head to suck up money like a little vampire.”

If the regime knew of Sun Hui’s real identity, she would face severe punishment – imprisonment in one of the regime’s hard labor camps or even execution. And she may not be the only one to be punished – three generations of her family could also be sent to prison.

Sun Hui lives with her husband and two daughters, eating three meals a day when business is good at the markets where she works. When it isn’t, the rice is mixed with maize.

More than five million North Koreans are either “directly or indirectly” reliant on such markets, according to Daily NK. While the market trade in North Korea directly contradicts the regime’s hard-line communism, it also allows the population to feed itself amid a largely-defunct ration system and economic sanctions against the country.

The markets, sometimes containing hundreds of stalls, can also be a breeding ground for gossip and rumor. “Things are changing,” says Sun Hui. “They say we should get along with the South. More recently, they say we should be living in peace with America, for everyone to have a better life.”

It is a significant development.

[BBC]

Kim Jong-un invites Pope Francis to Pyongyang

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has invited Pope Francis to visit the country, South Korea’s presidential office has announced.

The invitation to visit Pyongyang will be delivered by South Korean president Moon Jae-in who will be in the Vatican next week as part of a trip to Europe.

No pope has ever visited North Korea, and North Korea and the Vatican have no formal diplomatic relations.

The invitation is the latest reconciliatory gesture from North Korea.

In 2000, Kim Jong-un’s father – Kim Jong-il – invited Pope John Paul II to visit North Korea after the pope was quoted as saying it would be “a miracle” if he could go there.

The visit never happened. The Vatican insisted at the time that a visit from the pope would only happen if Catholic priests were accepted in North Korea.

North Korea’s constitution promises a “right to faith” and state-controlled churches do exist. However, one human rights activist say this is all largely for show.

[BBC]

Experts say Kim Jong Un’s invitation to visit defunct nuclear testing site “pure PR”

Kim Jong Un’s supposed concession of inviting inspectors to a defunct nuclear testing site has been met with the equivalent of an eye roll from many experts.

“This is almost them reselling the same car to the Americans,” said Andrea Berger, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “We’re not inspecting a new action or a new facility. They already dismantled the site.”

The testing site, Punggye-ri, was closed six months ago because it was no longer needed by North Korea. Some of the tunnels in the mountain complex may have collapsed, rendering them unusable. North Korea invited inspectors to witness to site’s demolition in April, only to retract that and allow only journalists to attend. Extending the same offer to the Americans six months later, Berger said, amounts to an old concession dressed up as a new breakthrough.

“Chairman Kim invited inspectors to visit the Punggye-ri nuclear test site to confirm that it has been irreversibly dismantled,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

Some feel that Kim and his officials are instead trying to buy time so they can make progress on other fronts, such as building economic ties and even declaring a long-awaited peace with South Korea, as well as increasing their international standing.

Inviting inspectors to an old testing site is an example of this calculus, according to Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at MIT. “Kim has mastered the art of milking a single cosmetic concession for months to burn clock,” he wrote on Twitter.

James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace, called the invitation to Punggye-ri “a joke” and “pure PR.”

[NBC]

Pompeo says North Korea ready to let inspectors into missile and nuclear sites

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was ready to allow international inspectors into the North’s nuclear and missile testing sites, one of the main sticking points over an earlier denuclearization pledge.

Pompeo, who met Kim during a short trip to Pyongyang on Sunday, said the inspectors would visit a missile engine test facility and the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site as soon as the two sides agree on logistics.

The top U.S. diplomat also said both sides were “pretty close” to agreement on the details of a second summit, which Kim proposed to U.S. President Donald Trump in a letter last month.

“Most importantly, both the leaders believe there’s real progress that can be made, substantive progress that can be made at the next summit,” Pompeo said.

Stephen Biegun, new U.S. nuclear envoy who was accompanying the secretary, said he offered on Sunday to meet his counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, “as soon as possible” and they were in discussion over specific dates and location.

Pompeo told South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Sunday his latest trip to Pyongyang was “another step forward” to denuclearization but there are “many steps along the way”.

[Reuters]

The Trump administration loves issuing sanctions, not enforcing them

Since Donald Trump took office, the U.S. Department of the Treasury unit that implements sanctions has emerged as a high-profile foreign policy weapon, advancing U.S. interests by economically isolating Iran, Russia, and North Korea. The agency has blacklisted hundreds of people and companies around the globe and rolled out sanctions programs targeting everyone from foreign meddlers in U.S. elections to buyers of North Korean coal.

But with 2018 three-quarters gone, a crucial element of sanctions enforcement has all but disappeared: the actual enforcement.

Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control is on track to bring the lowest number of cases and penalties in 15 years, according to a Bloomberg Businessweek analysis of agency data. OFAC typically files dozens of cases a year against people and companies that breach sanctions orders, imposing hundreds of millions of dollars in fines.

So far this year, OFAC has filed exactly one case. The haul: $146,000.

Lawyers and former officials agree the change is stark. “You have an administration that loves using the sanctions powers afforded to it to forward foreign policy objectives,” says Dan Tannebaum, a former OFAC official and PwC executive who advises companies on sanctions compliance. “All they’re doing is implementing, and not really enforcing.”

[Bloomberg]

North and South Korea begin removing landmines along fortified border

Troops from North and South Korea began removing some landmines along their heavily fortified border on Monday, the South’s defense ministry said, in a pact to reduce tension and build trust on the divided peninsula.

They have already dismantled propaganda loudspeakers and some guard posts along the border.

Details were agreed during last month’s summit in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, between its leader, Kim Jong Un, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

The deal also provides for removal of guard posts and weapons from the JSA* to follow the removal of the mines, with the troops remaining there to be left unarmed. (*The JSA is the only spot along the 250-km [155-mile] -long “demilitarized zone” [DMZ] where troops from both Koreas are face to face.)

Since fighting during the 1950-1953 Korean War ended in a stalemate, at least nine soldiers have been killed in incidents with North Korean troops, including the killing in 1976 of two U.S. soldiers by axe-wielding North Koreans.

[Reuters]

North Korean black market thriving thanks to international sanctions

Choi Seong-guk, a defector who cartoons about the lives of North Koreans in the South, said his contacts in the North suggested that the black market was thriving thanks to international sanctions.

Choi said the sanctions had cut off essential supplies, forcing the desperate public to turn to smugglers and making it more difficult for Pyongyang to control the distribution of food and money. The regime appears to have tolerated the black market for years to keep the country afloat.

But there were signs that it may want to tighten control over the economy, Choi said. The North Korean regime started a political campaign against “jobless people”, he said.

“As the economic situation worsened in North Korea, lots of people abandoned their state-related jobs and started to run their own businesses to survive. They are called the ‘jobless’ in North Korea.

“The regime is monitoring those jobless people to destroy capitalism within North Korean society,” Choi said.

[South China Morning Post]

US runs into opposition from Russia, China on North Korea sanctions

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s effort to marshal unified international pressure on North Korea showed cracks Thursday as Russia and China registered their opposition to further punishing Pyongyang.

Pompeo expressed frustration at a United Nations meeting Thursday that some countries were not strictly abiding by sanctions on Pyongyang, a major part of the US strategy to get North Korea to dismantle its nuclear and missile programs, along with President Donald Trump’s efforts at personal diplomacy.

In the same meeting, the representatives from Russia and China pushed back on Pompeo, asking the US to make concessions or back off its push to maintain sanctions.

The Chinese foreign minister, after praising US engagement with North Korea and in particular the announcement that Trump will hold a second summit with Kim Jong Un, suggested the Trump administration give North Korea something it has long sought: an official end to hostilities between the two countries.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that steps by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, including the dismantling of nuclear sites and a cessation in weapons and missile testing, should be followed by an easing of sanctions.

[CNN]

On the Monday meeting of Moon Jae In and Donald Trump

When Moon Jae In and Donald Trump met at the United Nations on Monday, South Korea’s president hailed his American counterpart for helping guide nuclear talks, employing the superlative language that Trump adores, stating, “You are, indeed, the only person who can solve this problem,” Moon said of Trump.

A first step, President Moon stated, would be a declaration to end the Korean War, which halted in an armistice in 1953. It would encourage North Korea to make additional moves toward giving up its nuclear weapons, such as shutting down its infamous Yongbyon nuclear complex, he argued.

Perhaps most notably, Moon declared that the “two Koreas” were in the midst of pursuing an end-of-war declaration, in what seemed like a pointed message from the conductor that the peace train was chugging ahead and the United States would be wise to hop on board. (Many of Trump’s advisers, if not Trump himself, worry that such a declaration is premature and potentially perilous for U.S. security interests.)

Moon acknowledged that there is ample reason to be skeptical about North Korea’s intentions. “We have had many agreements on denuclearization with North Korea in the past, but unfortunately they have all collapsed,” he said. “It’s only natural that we have plenty of suspicion regarding the true motives of the North Korean regime.”

But then he earnestly made the case for overcoming that skepticism. Moon said the North Korean leader is aware of the criticisms that he is only engaging in nuclear diplomacy to “deceive people” and “buy time,” but has responded that he has nothing to gain from doing so. “If he was indeed trying to deceive the United States, then he was very clear that he would be facing almighty consequences and great retaliation from the United States, which North Korea would not be able to withstand,” Moon said. “This is why he’s asking for the international community to trust his sincerity.”

Moon described Kim as “young,” “candid,” and someone who “respects elders” and “seems to have great aspirations to achieve economic development.”

[The Atlantic]

Trump says 2nd North Korea summit likely ‘soon’

Confronting the dangers of North Korea’s nuclear threat, President Donald Trump arrived at the United Nations on Monday striking a far less ominous tone than a year ago, announcing he likely will hold a second summit with Kim Jong Un “quite soon.”

Twelve months after Trump stood at the rostrum of the UN General Assembly and derided Kim as “Rocket Man.” The president’s bellicose denunciations of Pyongyang have largely given way to hopeful notes. “It was a different world,” Trump said Monday of his one-time moniker for the North Korean leader. “That was a dangerous time. This is one year later, a much different time.”

He added that preparations are underway by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for a second presidential meeting with Kim “quite soon.”

Trump arrived at the UN on Monday morning …ahead of a sit-down with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who comes bearing a personal message to Trump from Kim after their inter-Korean talks last week.

The nuclear threat was also on the agenda at Trump’s dinner meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Manhattan on Sunday night.

“We have our eyes wide open,” Pompeo told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “There is a long ways to go to get Chairman Kim to live up to the commitment that he made to President Trump and, indeed, to the demands of the world in the UN Security Council resolutions to get him to fully denuclearize.”

[CTV]