Category: Uncategorized

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]

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]

US to ease limits on humanitarian aid to North Korea

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The U.S. State Department has decided to ease some of its most stringent restrictions on humanitarian assistance to North Korea, lifting travel restrictions on American aid workers and loosening its block on humanitarian supplies destined for the country, according to several diplomats and relief workers.

The decision—which was communicated to humanitarian aid organizations by Stephen Biegun, the U.S. senior envoy for North Korea—follows claims by United Nations and private relief agencies in recent months that the U.S. policy was undermining their efforts to run life-saving relief operations. Those include programs designed to combat infectious diseases, such as cholera and drug-resistant tuberculosis.

The move marked the first significant step in months by the Trump administration to relax its “maximum pressure” campaign on Pyongyang. But it’s unclear whether the action was conceived as a goodwill gesture to Kim Jong Un’s regime to help facilitate further nuclear talks or was a response to mounting diplomatic pressure to soften a policy that threatened the lives of North Korean civilians.

U.S. officials routinely delayed the export of surgical equipment for hospitals, stainless steel milk containers for orphanages, and supplies for fighting tuberculosis and malaria. But the effort led to protests from humanitarian relief organizations and left the United States diplomatically isolated at the U.N. The drama has been playing out behind closed doors in a U.N. sanctions committee, where the United States has used its influence to block or delay requests by relief groups to deliver assistance to North Korea.

In a confidential Dec 10, 2018 letter to the U.N. sanctions committee, Omar Abdi, the deputy executive director for the U.N. Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, complained that the U.S. holds on medical and relief supplies, including ambulances and solar generators needed to power tuberculosis clinics, were undermining the agency’s effort to fight the disease.

[Foreign Policy]

Negotiating a location for second US-North Korea summit

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President Trump said Sunday that the US is “negotiating a location” for a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whom Trump says he has spoken to “indirectly.”

Trump also said Sunday that the US has a “very good dialogue” going with North Korea, despite signs that talks between the two countries appear to have reached a stalemate.

Trump noted that sanctions against North Korea will remain “in full force and effect” in the meantime, and warned that if anyone else had been elected US president, “you’d be at war right now.”

“You would right now be in a nice, big fat war in Asia with North Korea if I wasn’t elected president,” Trump said.

Last week, Trump said he had received a “great” letter from Kim and held it aloft in the Cabinet Room for reporters to see.

Trump’s remarks last week came one day after Kim’s New Year’s address, in which the North Korean leader warned the US about sanctions. “I’ll endeavor towards a result that will be welcomed by the international community,” Kim said of the potential second meeting between the two leaders. North Korea, however, would have “no choice but to defend our country’s sovereignty and supreme interest, and find a new way to settle peace on our peninsula” if the US “misinterprets our people’s patience, and makes one-sided demands and continues down the path of sanctions and pressure on our republic,” Kim said.

[CNN]

Former North Korean diplomat urges missing colleague in Italy to go to South Korea, not US

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A former North Korean diplomat who staged a high-profile defection to the South has urged an old colleague who has gone missing in Italy to defect to Seoul, following a report that he was seeking asylum in the United States.

Jo Song Gil, the 44-year-old who was until recently North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, disappeared with his wife after leaving the embassy without notice in early November. Jo has applied for asylum in the United States and is under the protection of Italian intelligence, according to Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper.

In an open letter, Thae Yong Ho, Pyongyang’s former deputy ambassador to Britain, who said he went to the same university and worked with Jo before defecting to South Korea in 2016, urged Jo to follow in his footsteps. (Thae said his family visited Jo in Rome in 2008, where the latter was studying from 2006 to 2009. He guided them to sites such as St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.)

To defect to South is an “obligation, not a choice” for North Korean diplomats committed to unification, Thae said, calling Seoul “the outpost” for that task.

“If you come to South Korea, the day when our suffering colleagues and North Korean citizens are liberated from the fetters would be moved forward,” Thae said in the letter released on his website. “If you come to Seoul, even more of our colleagues would follow suit, and the unification would be accomplished by itself.” South Korea could not be “heaven on earth” but a place where Jo can realize his wishes, Thae said, highlighting the ardent desire for unification among many of the roughly 32,000 defectors there.

“The defectors may not be as wealthy as South Koreans,” Thae added. “But isn’t it the only thing you and I, as North Korean diplomats, should do the rest of our lives – to bring about unification and hand over a unified nation to our children?”

[Reuters]

Missing North Korea ambassador seeking US asylum

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The acting North Korean ambassador to Rome, reportedly missing since November, may have requested U.S. asylum, according to an Italian press report. Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported Friday that Ambassador Jo Song Gil is seeking entry into the United States and is under the protection of Italian intelligence.

The Italian foreign ministry has denied it has received an asylum application from Jo, and stated it is not protecting the North Korean envoy. But an Italian diplomatic source who spoke to La Repubblica on the condition of anonymity said Jo is receiving assistance from Italian intelligence while his U.S. asylum application is under review.

Jo reached out to the Italian government as early as mid-November, according to La Repubblica. Chiefs of Italian agencies and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte have been in contact with U.S. authorities to discuss Jo’s case, the report says.

Jo’s possible defection comes at a sensitive time for U.S.-North Korea relations. CNN reports the Trump administration is scouting locations for a second summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un.Trump has expressed enthusiasm for talks, and has said he received a “great letter” from Kim.

South Korean news service News 1 reported Friday Ambassador Jo was appointed to the North Korean embassy in Rome in May 2015, and then assumed the acting ambassador position after Italy expelled then-Ambassador Mun Jong Nam in 2017.

[UPI]