Category: Uncategorized

The threat to North Korean refugees as a result of China’s surveillance technology

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A Human Rights Watch report detailed a mass surveillance app being used by Chinese police in Xinjiang to monitor the movements and activities of the territory’s Uighur Muslims, including the hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of those being held in political “re-education” facilities. In effect, the app allows the police to monitor the Chinese people’s every move.

As the data passes through the app, it screens and analyzes for so-called suspicious activity. According to the Human Rights Watch, “suspicious activity” encompasses actions as benign as leaving one’s house via the back door rather than the front–or any behavior that breaks from daily activities.

China’s embrace of oppressive surveillance technology will doubtless affect more than just its Muslim population. One especially vulnerable group is North Korean refugees.

While the total number of North Korean defectors currently in China are unknown, some estimate that between 100,000 to 300,000 currently remain in hiding. Nearly all refugees from the North must pass through China in order to reach ultimate freedom in South Korea. These refugees rely on underground networks—primarily made up of Christian missionaries and smugglers—to guide them along their treacherous journeys.

Escape from the brutal Kim regime depends on anonymity, invisibility, and use of the underground system. Invisibility is essential due to Beijing’s agreement with Pyongyang to repatriate all North Koreans found in China. Upon repatriation, North Koreans who accept help from missionaries or who convert to Christianity while in China face particularly harsh treatment. The Commission of Inquiry noted that refugees are usually asked whether they had contact with Christian missionaries; those who did face harsher consequences. The Commission report found that Christians are uniquely persecuted among religious groups in North Korea. Open Doors USA has identified Pyongyang as the world’s worst persecutor of Christians.

A 2014 report from the United Nations Commission of Inquiry documented systematic repression of North Koreans returned from China. Most are thrown in ordinary prison camps or political prison camps where they will most likely be subject to torture, malnourishment, and forced labor. Many pregnant North Korean women are forced to abort their children, often without anesthesia, sometimes by having a soldier stand on their pregnant stomach. Should the child survive the abortion, the mother may be forced to watch her baby be smothered to death. Conditions are brutal for all returned refugees, but they are especially grave for women.

[Forbes]

South Korean aid for North Korea

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South Korea has vowed to move quickly on its plans to provide $8 million worth of humanitarian aid to North Korea through international organizations and is also considering sending food to the country that says it’s suffering its worst drought in decades.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry said Monday it will discuss its plans with the World Food Program and the United Nations Children’s Fund so the aid reaches North Korean children and pregnant women quickly.

Seoul hopes the aid will help revive diplomacy and engagement with Pyongyang that tapered off amid a stalemate in nuclear talks between the United States and North Korea. But Seoul has yet to decide on concrete plans amid public frustration over recent North Korean missile tests.

[AP]

Lowest rainfall in 100 years in North Korea leaves millions at risk of starvation

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North Korea’s worst drought in decades is being driven by the lowest rainfall in a century, according to the country’s official state newspaper.

North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper—the official publication of Kim Jong Un’s ruling party—blamed the ongoing drought on lower than expected levels of precipitation. The newspaper said North Korea received just 56.3 millimeters (2.21 inches) of rain or snow from January to May 15, the lowest amount since 1917. The article noted that water was running out in the country’s lakes and reservoirs, and explained the lack of rainfall “is causing a significant effect on the cultivation of wheat, barley, corn, potatoes and beans,” according to Al Jazeera.

Yonhap reported that South Korean authorities are preparing to send food to North Korea if the situation deteriorates. Any food aid may give a shot in the arm to stalled negotiations between the North, South and U.S. on the denuclearization of the peninsula and the lifting of sanctions, the agency noted.

Earlier this month, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Programme (WFP) said more than 10 million North Koreans—representing some 40 percent of the national population—were already facing severe food shortages. Such an extensive drought will likely exacerbate such food pressures, leaving many at risk of starvation. The report said that North Koreans have been surviving on just 300g (10.5 oz) of food each day so far this year. During a visit to South Korea earlier this week, WFP Executive Director David Beasely told reporters the body has “very serious concerns” about the situation in North Korea.

Last week, Mohamed Babiker, the head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ North Korea office, said the organization was “particularly concerned about the impact that this early drought will have on children and adults who are already struggling to survive. Even before this drought, one in five children under 5 years old was stunted because of poor nutrition. We are concerned that these children will not be able to cope with further stress on their bodies.”

Thus far, there is no suggestion the drought could spark a famine as severe as the one that is believed to have killed millions of North Koreans in the 1990s.

[Newsweek]

North Korea waiting for Trump to blink … or leave office?

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It used to be North Korea that was facing maximum pressure, not exerting it. More recently, Pyongyang conducted a second ballistic missile test in a week, escalating tensions with Washington.

With Pyongyang ramping up the pressure, Trump will eventually have to blink — one way or another. Either he returns to his policy of “maximum pressure,” threatening North Korea with potential military action if it continues missile and potentially even nuclear testing, or he agrees to reopen the topic of sanctions relief.

North Korea’s current hand is a strong one, even if the potential risks of overplaying it are very real. And Trump can likely not afford a rapid escalation of tensions that would be a tacit admission that his entire strategy towards Pyongyang has been a failure.

Washington’s two other levers for pulling on North Korea, its neighbors in China and South Korea, are also likely not feasible. China is not going to exert any pressure on Kim on Trump’s behalf in the middle of a trade war, and the North Korean leader has made it clear that he blames South Korea in part for the general worsening of relations, particularly Seoul’s decision to go ahead with recent joint military drills with the US.

Pyongyang has also gained a solid new backer: Russia. According to Michael Elleman, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a UK-based think tank with ties to the defense industry, the missiles used it Pyongyang’s recent tests “look remarkably like those of a Russian-produced Iskander.” While he said it was possible North Korea had imported the missile from elsewhere or matched the Russian design, the most likely explanation is that it bought them direct from Moscow. It is surely no coincidence that Pyongyang’s tests came off the back of Kim Jong Un’s successful first summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Pyongyang may also be playing a longer game. It has shown in the past that it is perfectly willing to wait out difficult US Presidents and wait for a change in leadership that will give it a chance to restart negotiations and earn more time to shore up its military capabilities. While no US leader has ever sat down with their North Korean counterpart before Trump, now that the precedent has been made, Pyongyang will know that future Presidents will not see it as such an impossible step.

[CNN]

US and South Korean position on North Korea

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U.S. President Donald Trump and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in discussed North Korea’s recent short-range missile test as well as a recent joint food security assessment from the World Food Program (WFP) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

A UN report published on Friday concluded that 10.1 million North Koreans remained food insecure and predicted falling crops yields, expanding food shortfalls and noted lower Public Distribution System (PDS) rations. “Overall, it is estimated that 10.1 million people (40 percent of the population) are food insecure and in urgent need of food assistance,” the report reads. “Prolonged dry spells, abnormally high temperatures and floods, coupled with limited supplies of agricultural inputs, had a severe impact on yields of the 2018 main crops harvested last September/October.”

“President Trump assessed that South Korea’s provision of food to North Korea in a humanitarian move will be very timely and a positive step and supports it,” Blue House spokesperson Ko Min-jung said

Countries are not prohibited from sending humanitarian aid to North Korea, though some items like farming machinery, industrial and medical equipment must first be granted a sanctions exemption from the UN, which can slow down the aid delivery process.

The two leaders also talked about how to keep diplomacy moving forward with North Korea despite recent missile tests, which was likely a new kind of short-range ballistic missile (SRBM).  “We still believe that there is an opportunity to get a negotiated outcome where we get fully verified denuclearization. Chairman Kim has repeated that,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told U.S. media over the weekend.

[NK News]

North Korea test-launches more missiles as U.S. Envoy visits Seoul

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North Korea fired two short-range missiles Thursday, an act of defiance that marks the country’s second test launch of weapons in less than a week.

North Korea launched a short-range missile from the country’s northwest Kusong region at 4:29 p.m. and then another short-range missile at 4:49 p.m., South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement. Both missiles flew east over the Korean Peninsula, with the first one traveling 420 kilometers (260 miles) and falling into the sea, the joint chiefs said. The second flew 270 kilometers and also fell into the water.

The tests follow increasingly impatient demands for sanctions concessions from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the wake of his failed February nuclear summit with U.S. President Donald Trump. Adding to the diplomatic pressure was the presence of the U.S.’s top nuclear envoy, Stephen Biegun, who was in Seoul meeting with South Korean officials Thursday.

The launches come six days after Kim supervised a military exercise in which he fired off several projectiles, including what non-proliferation experts believed was a short-range ballistic missile. While South Korean officials had played down the earlier tests, saying they were not a provocation, President Moon Jae-in was more critical to Thursday’s launches.

The return to missile testing after a lull of 17 months challenges Trump’s decision to continue talks with Kim, since the U.S. president has often cited the lack of such provocations as evidence his approach was working. North Korea, which has often complained about U.S. and South Korean joint military drills, called Saturday’s test a “reasonable strike drill” for its combat readiness.

“Since the U.S. response [has been] low-key, North Korea appears to think that this level of test would not cause problems and it can continue the tests,” said Jina Kim, a research fellow at Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.

[Bloomberg]

North Korea’s newest missile appears similar to advanced Russian design

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North Korea’s newest missile has a striking resemblance to an advanced Russian design, according to experts analyzing images from a test of the weapon on Saturday morning.

The missile, which North Korea describes as a “tactical guided weapon,” appears superficially to be nearly identical to Russia’s Iskander missile — a highly accurate short-range weapon capable of striking targets more than 150 miles away.

Such a system has the potential to challenge missile defenses in South Korea and further escalate tensions in the region. If it is an Iskander-like missile, this new weapon will fly at altitudes that will make it hard to intercept, according to Michael Elleman, a physicist and senior fellow for missile defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The Iskander flies at an altitude of roughly 30 miles, Elleman says, too high for U.S. Patriot surface-to-air missile interceptors, but too low for THAAD, a system capable of intercepting longer-range missiles.

North Korea tested the weapon on May 4 as part of a “strike drill” that included the use of other weapons such as rocket artillery. It was the first publicized test of a missile since North Korea declared a voluntary moratorium on long-range intercontinental missile tests in April 2018. The new missile appears to be short-range, meaning it doesn’t violate the moratorium.

[NPR]

Kim Jong Un arrives in Russia ahead of summit with Putin

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has arrived in Russia ahead of his planned summit with Vladimir Putin, Russian state news agency TASS reported Wednesday.Kim and Putin are set to meet for the first time in the eastern port city of Vladivostok Thursday, but do not plan to sign any agreements or make a joint statement.

The young North Korean leader left the capital of Pyongyang on Wednesday at dawn, traveling by train, North Korean state news agency KCNA reported, as he did for his summit with US President Donald Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam. The journey from the train station in Khasan, near the North Korean border, to Vladivostok is expected to take about nine hours, according to TASS.

Kim’s visit to North Korea’s northern neighbor comes amid an impasse in the nuclear negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington. Though the White House expressed optimism that things were left on good terms after Hanoi, North Korean officials have been less sanguine in public. Diplomats from Pyongyang have speculated about suspending talks with the United States and called for Trump to replace US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with someone “who is more careful and mature in communicating with us.”

Analysts have speculated that Kim’s meeting with Putin could be a way for the young North Korean leader to assess his diplomatic options outside talks with the United States.

Joining Kim on the trip is the recently promoted Choe Son Hui, one of Pyongyang’s more experienced diplomats who is heavily involved in talks with the United States. NK News, a prominent website specializing in North Korean news, reported that Choe’s promotion makes her the highest-ranking female diplomat in the country’s history.

[CNN]

Challenges to North Korean defectors who send money home

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In February 2018 Jessie Kim found out that she had been sending money to a dead man. Ms Kim, now a 27-year-old student in Seoul, fled North Korea for China in 2011. She had been sending her father in Yanggang province in the North around $1,000 a year since she arrived in South Korea in early 2014. Two years later she doubled the contributions, working several part-time jobs, after her aunt told her that her father had been in an accident and needed money for medical bills.

But another call from her aunt last winter, claiming that her father was asking for yet more money, made her suspicious. “He wasn’t the kind of man to ask his daughter for money,” she says. Ms Kim made inquiries through the broker who had facilitated the transactions. She eventually found out that her father had died in the accident in 2016 and that the money had gone to her aunt’s family instead. “I didn’t know my father was dead for two years because my aunt lied to me,” she says. “But I understand why she did it.”

Ms Kim’s case illustrates the pitfalls of supporting relatives in a country that is all but cut off from global communications and financial-services networks. Ordinary North Koreans are not allowed to receive money or even phone calls from abroad. Foreign banks are hesitant to handle any transaction associated with the North, for fear of falling foul of sanctions, intended to curtail its nuclear programme, that have been imposed by America and others.

Yet the relationship between the 30,000-odd North Korean refugees in South Korea and their relatives back home shows that the North is much less closed than at first appears. A growing proportion of those who have settled in the South manage to send money home. In 2018, 62% of refugees surveyed by the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), an NGO in Seoul, said they had transferred funds to relatives or friends in North Korea, up from 50% in 2013. Most respondents say they sent between $500 and $2,000 a year, which was mostly spent on basic living expenses, health and education. The annual total may run into the tens of millions of dollars. The majority of recipients live in North Hamgyeong and Yanggang on the northern border with China, the home provinces of most of those fleeing the North.

That is low compared with remittances from workers sent abroad by the state, which are estimated to be in the hundreds of millions. But it is substantial both relative to North Korean GDP per person, reckoned to be between $1,000 and $2,000 a year, and as a share of income earned by North Koreans in South Korea, who make around $1,300 a month on average.

[The Economist]

North Korean and Russian leaders to meet for first time

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North Korean state media has confirmed that leader Kim Jong-un will travel to Russia “soon” for his first ever meeting with Vladimir Putin. Speculation is growing that they’ll meet in Russia’s eastern port of Vladivostok, just hours from their shared border

The Soviet Union was a major ally of North Korea, offering economic co-operation, cultural exchanges and aid. It also provided North Korea with its initial nuclear know-how. But since the collapse of the Iron Curtain the relationship has suffered. The last North Korea-Russia bilateral meeting was in 2011, when then President Dmitry Medvedev met Mr Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il.

“International sanctions are beginning to take effect and without a change in the US position, it’s very unlikely North Korea will be able to get sanctions relief and pick up trade with the outside world,” says Professor Andrei Lankov of Seoul’s Kookmin University. . So North Korea needs to contact everyone who might be helpful in achieving that goal. Anything from real progress to even symbolic diplomatic assistance would be useful to Pyongyang.

Alexey Muraviev, associate professor at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, says North Korea has to show the US “they’re not in isolation. If they can show that major powers are still backing them up, this will give them additional bargaining power to talk to the US and China.”

“[Kim Jong Un] needs to be given full credit,” Mr Muraviev says. “He is quite skillful in playing high-stakes diplomacy for North Korea’s economic interest – and for the survival of his own regime.”

“I don’t think North Korea can get much from Russia,” Lee Jai-chun, a former South Korean ambassador to Russia, told BBC Korean. But a meeting will have domestic implications. “North Korea’s citizen know that the summit with US was a failure so the meeting with Russia could be a ‘show’ to the North Korean people.”

[BBC]