North Korea deports US citizen claiming CIA link

North Korea has deported an American citizen who admitted to having entered the country illegally, claiming to be working at the direction of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), state media announced Friday.

North Korea reportedly detained the man, identified as Bruce Byron Lowrance, last month as he attempted to cross into the country through their northern border with China. He later told officials that he was “under the control of the CIA.” Authorities have since deported him to an area outside of the North Korean border.

In a statement Friday afternoon, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo thanked North Korea for their “cooperation” over the incident, though it did not mention Lowrance by name.

“The United States appreciates the cooperation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the embassy of Sweden in facilitating the release of an American citizen,” Pompeo said. “The United States is grateful for the sustained support of Sweden, our protecting power in North Korea, for its advocacy on behalf of American citizens. The safety and well-being of Americans remains one of the highest priorities of the Trump Administration.”

A man of the same name was deported from South Korea last November after he was found lurking near the heavily armed border with North Korea. He reportedly told South Korean officials that he planned to help facilitate talks between Pyongyang and Washington, despite having no official role in government. Police and intelligence officials who interrogated the man, believed to be in his mid-50s, claimed that they did not believe he was “psychologically disturbed.”

Such an incident of cooperation towards a U.S. citizen is rare from North Korea. The regime has previously captured and consequently tortured American citizens they accuse of crimes on their territory. The most recent case of this was that of Otto Warmbier, a college student arrested on charges of spying after he stole a propaganda poster from a hotel room. After being held in prison and tortured for months on end, North Korea eventually sent him back to the U.S. with severe brain damage, and he died shortly after his return.

[Breitbart]

North Korea’s creaky power grid is its Achilles heel

As he turns his attention to building North Korea’s economy, Kim Jong Un’s Achilles heel is his country’s power grid. The grid is leaky, archaic and badly needing repairs. What electricity there is is unevenly distributed. Flashlights are commonplace on the streets or in otherwise darkened apartments. In rural villages, even that often fades to black.

The whole nation of 25 million people uses about the same amount of electricity each year as Washington alone. It uses as much crude oil in a year as the U.S. consumes in just 12 hours. While North Korea has about half the population of South Korea, the South’s electricity consumption in 2014 was about 40 times bigger.

Hydroelectricity, which is subject to seasonal swings, provides about half of the fuel supplied to the North Korean national energy grid. Coal accounts for the other half. Years of intensive sanctions have severely impacted North Korea’s supply of fossil fuels from the outside world, and spurred the country to cobble together a smorgasbord of energy resources.

North Korea must import about 3 million to 4 million barrels of crude oil each year to sustain its economy. Under U.N. sanctions imposed late last year, North Korea can import a maximum 500,000 barrels of refined oil products along with 4 million barrels of crude oil per year.

Along with its Chinese connection, the North has been supplied by Russian tankers. It has found willing suppliers in the Middle East, or on the open market. Since the imposition of the import cap, Pyongyang has been implicated in increasingly sophisticated schemes to augment its supplies with hard-to-track transfers of oil by tankers at sea. Washington’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, claimed the amount of illegally transferred oil was 160 percent of the annual 500,000 barrel cap.

David von Hippel and Peter Hayes of the Nautilus Institute, who have been following North Korea’s energy issue for years, found that imports of diesel- and gasoline-powered generators, coupled with solar panels that are already ubiquitous in the North, are creating an energy system increasingly independent of the national power grid.

Still, keeping the power on often can be an elaborate routine. Solar panels, the cheapest option, can keep a room lit, a mobile phone working and maybe a TV or another appliance going. When electricity from the grid is actually flowing, it can be used to charge batteries before the next blackout hits. Those with a little more clout or money use diesel- or gas-powered generators that can power anything from a restaurant to an apartment block.

[AP]

Kim Jong Un is simply doing what he said he would

Talks between the United States and North Korea have hit a rut. Now a new report from a respected Washington think tank that identified hidden North Korean missile bases has sparked fresh debate about Pyongyang’s trustworthiness.

At the beginning of this year, Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Day speech hailed the supposed completion of its nuclear weapons development and said it was time for a new goal. “This year, we should focus on mass-producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for operational deployment,” Kim said. “These weapons will be used only if our security is threatened.”

A number of experts were asked whether the continued work at North Korean missile sites, as well as other reports that North Korean is expanding its missile arsenal, would violate the agreement reached between Kim and Trump in Singapore. All of them agreed — often quite emphatically — that it did not. “Kim hasn’t broken any promises,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “Instead, he’s making good on one of them — to mass-produce nuclear weapons.”

As such, it’s not surprising that North Korea would still be manning secret missile bases, or even producing new missiles or nuclear weapons. “Even though they’re violating all U.N. Security Council resolutions, North Korea didn’t break any promises with Trump because there’s no nuclear deal in place yet with Washington — there’s nothing that prevents them from expanding their nuclear arsenal,” Duyeon Kim said.

So if North Korea is doing what it said it would be doing, why are allegations of North Korean deception so worrying? Because they reveal how differently the United States and North Korea perceive what happened in Singapore, a gap that could sink any diplomatic progress.

“Trump seems not to understand that he did not negotiate a ‘deal’ in Singapore,” Frank Jannuzi, the president of the Mansfield Foundation and an Asia expert, wrote on Twitter. “He negotiated only an ‘intent to negotiate.’ The hard work has yet to commence.”

North Korea’s reputation for obtuseness and disregard for the truth is well-earned. But so far, North Korea has kept to the vague requirements agreed to in Singapore. And if there’s someone confused about what that summit meant, it doesn’t appear to be Kim.

[The Washington Post]

Hidden North Korean missile bases suggest deception

North Korea is moving ahead with its ballistic missile program at 16 hidden bases that have been identified in new commercial satellite images, a network long known to American intelligence agencies but left undiscussed as President Trump claims to have neutralized the North’s nuclear threat.

The satellite images suggest that the North has been engaged in a great deception: It has offered to dismantle a major launching site — a step it began, then halted — while continuing to make improvements at more than a dozen others that would bolster launches of conventional and nuclear warheads.

The secret ballistic missile bases were identified in a detailed study published Monday by the Beyond Parallel program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a major think tank in Washington.

The revelation of the bases comes as PresidentTrump’s signature piece of diplomacy, based on his meeting exactly five months ago with Kim Jong-un, appears in peril. Weapons experts, as well as Mr. Pompeo, add that North Korea, despite engaging in denuclearization talks, continues to produce the fissile material that fuels nuclear arms. The North is believed to have about 40 to 60 nuclear warheads.

And while most major nuclear powers tend to house their land-based missiles in underground silos, which can be vulnerable to pre-emptive attack, North Korea’s are designed so they can be repositioned with changing circumstances, giving the country a stronger hand in the game of nuclear diplomacy and brinkmanship.

[The New York Times]

North and South Korean military finish withdrawal from front-line guard posts

The North and South Korean military completed withdrawing troops and firearms from 22 front-line guard posts on Saturday as they continue to implement a wide-ranging agreement reached in September to reduce tensions across the world’s most fortified border, a South Korean Defense Ministry official said.

South Korea says the military agreement is an important trust-building step that would help stabilize peace and advance reconciliation between the rivals. But critics say the South risks conceding some of its conventional military strength before North Korea takes any meaningful steps on denuclearization — an anxiety that’s growing as the larger nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang seemingly drift into a stalemate.

South Korea reportedly has about 60 guard posts — bunker-like concrete structures surrounded with layers of barbed-wire fences and manned by soldiers equipped with machine guns — stretched across the ironically named demilitarized zone, while the North is believed to have about 160 guard posts within the 155-mile border buffer DMZ.

The Koreas plan to destroy 20 of the structures by the end of November, while symbolically leaving one demilitarized guard post on each side. They plan to jointly verify the results in December. In the September deal, the Koreas also agreed to create buffer zones along their land and sea boundaries and a no-fly zone above the border, which took effect on Nov. 1.

The Koreas and the U.S.-led U.N. Command recently finished removing firearms and troops from a jointly controlled area at the border village of Panmunjom and eventually plan to allow tourists to freely move around there. The Koreas have also been clearing mines from front-line areas and plan to start in April their first-ever joint search for remains of soldiers killed during the Korean War.

[AP]

US relations with North Korea strained

US and foreign sources close to the North Korean talks paint a picture that’s starkly different from the image President Donald Trump sought to convey Wednesday, when he told reporters the administration is “very happy with how it’s going with North Korea. We think it’s going fine.”

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told lawmakers in Seoul that she was told the North Koreans asked the US to postpone the talks, citing their busy schedules. A senior US official told CNN the North Korean delegation did not offer a clear explanation. Another source familiar with the US-North Korea talks and familiar with North Korean thinking said Pyongyang canceled because it came to the conclusion that it wasn’t going to get anywhere with working level talks.

North Korea’s state media outlet KCNA said November 2: “We gave all things possible to the US, things it hardly deserves, by taking proactive and good-will measures, what remains to be done is the US corresponding reply. Unless there is any reply, the DPRK will not move even 1 mm, how costly it may be.”

US military officials, foreign diplomats and sources familiar with developments say the two sides are locked in a standoff over who will make concessions first, that North Korea is “really angry” about the US refusal to offer sanctions relief and that personal friction between US and North Korean negotiators may be slowing progress.

A former CIA deputy division chief for Korea, Bruce Klingner, now a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, pointed to North Korea’s recent threat to restart “building up nuclear forces” if the US didn’t ease sanctions, the fact that Pyongyang has yet to meet Pompeo’s Special Representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, and that the two countries still haven’t agreed on the definition of basic terms such as “denuclearlization” — five months after Trump’s historic summit with Kim. “Clearly the two sides remain very far apart,” Klingner said. “It doesn’t bode well for the negotiations, which were already not proceeding well.”

Pyongyang’s threats over the weekend to restart its nuclear program have also increased tensions, according to the sources familiar with the exchanges between the US and North Korea. They also say that personal friction between negotiators has been a problem. The US side sees the North Korean general charged with leading negotiations, hardliner Kim Yong Chol, as “difficult and old-fashioned” in negotiations and would prefer‎ to work with someone else.

President Trump has said he would meet with Kim Jong-un “sometime next year, sometime early next year”.

[CNN]

Trump wants second meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in early 2019

President Trump said today that he expects his second meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will take place “sometime early next year.” Trump’s remarks came as his administration postponed a Thursday meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a top North Korean official.

Pompeo’s meeting with Kim Yong Chol, the former head of North Korea’s spy agency who has been leading nuclear talks for North Korea, has been rescheduled and will now take place at an unspecified “later date,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement released late Wednesday.

North Korea is now seeking sanctions relief as a bargaining chip in giving up its nuclear weapons, but Pompeo over the weekend said that the United States would not lift sanctions until it could verify that the isolated nation had halted its missile and nuclear programs.

“We’re very happy how it’s going with North Korea. We think it’s going fine,” Trump told reporters at a post-election press conference. “The missiles have stopped, the rockets have stopped. …. I’d love to take the sanctions off, but they [North Korea] have to be responsive, too. It’s a two-way street. But we’re not in any rush at all. There’s no rush whatsoever,” Trump said.

[The Hill]

North Korea issues nuclear threat ahead of high-level talks with US

As the United States and North Korea prepare for another round of high-level talks this week, Pyongyang’s increasingly heated rhetoric has analysts worried that the stalemate between the two sides could lead to a breakdown in negotiations.

An official with North Korea’s Foreign Ministry issued a veiled threat Friday, warning that Pyongyang could restart “building up nuclear forces” if the US does not ease the crippling sanctions levied on North Korea.

The comments come ahead of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s meeting with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Yong Chol, in New York this week.

Experts like Adam Mount, a senior fellow and the director of the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists, say, the North Korean position does not come as a total surprise — staking out hard-line positions in state media ahead of diplomatic meetings has long been a favored tactic in Pyongyang’s playbook. “It’s a clear play for leverage, it’s a clear play to set the agenda in the upcoming round of diplomacy, but there’s still a very real risk that it does seriously damage the negotiation process.”

Additionally, Kim Jong-un received Cuba’s Miguel Díaz-Canel, who holds the title of “president” but remains subordinate to dictator Raúl Castro. Díaz-Canel received a hero’s welcome in North Korea on Sunday and Monday, enjoying a theater performance and street parade with Kim.

[CNN/Breibart]

US/South Korea resume low-key military drills ahead of talks with North Korea

The United States and South Korea will begin small-scale military drills on Monday just days ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meeting with a North Korea official to discuss denuclearization and plans for a second summit between the two countries.

The Korean Marine Exchange Program was among the training drills that were indefinitely suspended in June after U.S. President Donald Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore and promised to end joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises often criticized by the North.

A spokesman for South Korea’s Ministry of Defense confirmed a round of training would begin near the southern city of Pohang, with no media access expected. About 500 American and South Korean marines will participate in the maneuvers, the Yonhap news agency reported.

Last week, South Korea’s defense minister said Washington and Seoul would make a decision by December on major joint military exercises for 2019.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo, interviewed on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” said he would be in New York City at the end of this week to meet with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Yong-chol.

“I expect we’ll make some real progress, including an effort to make sure that the summit between our two leaders can take place, where we can make substantial steps towards denuclearization,” Pompeo said.

[Reuters]

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]