Russia condemned for handing over North Korean defector

Russian authorities have reportedly arrested, tried and repatriated a North Korean worker who was preparing to defect from a labor camp in the Russian Far East, with human rights activists suggesting Moscow has started to cooperate with Pyongyang in its crackdown on defectors.

The worker – identified as 29-year-old Jun Kyung-chul – had served as a private in the North Korean People’s Army before being sent to work in Russia about one year ago, the Daily NK, a Seoul-based dissident news site, reported. Unhappy at the grueling work conditions, he had made plans to defect to South Korea before being caught.

An unnamed source told the Daily NK that North Korean authorities requested the assistance of Russia in detaining Mr Jun, who was put on trial in the city of Vladivostok on November 7. Mr Jun was convicted, handed over to the custody of representatives of the Pyongyang government and transferred over the border to North Korea the same day. Human rights activists say the speed with which the investigators acted and the Russian authorities’ apparent disregard for Mr Jun’s likely fate should be cause for concern.

“If other defectors’ cases are anything to go by, it is very likely that he and all his extended family will have been sent to a political prison camp”, said Ken Kato, director of the Japan branch of Human Rights in Asia.

There are reports that as many as 50,000 North Koreans are working in slave-like conditions in mines, factories and logging camps in Siberia, with their wages paid directly to the government in Pyongyang.

[The Telegraph]

Lest we forget: Some scary statements about war with North Korea

President Donald Trump just basically admitted that the US was very close to going to war with North Korea last year, during his Sunday interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace.

Trump’s statements show how seriously the president considered Pyongyang a threat last year. When Wallace asked Trump about the biggest decision he’s had to make as president, he referred to his discussion on North Korea because “we were very close.”

When he says “we were very close,” it’s fairly clear he’s referencing attacking the country to punish it over improving its nuclear arsenal, and he’s made references to how close the US and North Korea came to blows before.

That was seriously considered: Former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster advocated for military options within the White House, including a limited attack to deter Pyongyang from building more nuclear bombs. But instead, the Trump administration chose another way — the current diplomatic push between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — in part because Kim wants to reduce US-imposed economic pressure on his country.

It’s good news that both Washington and Pyongyang are currently talking instead of making imminent war plans. But while it’s comforting to know war is off the table for now, it’s not comforting to know that Trump had to think hard about that option.

And should diplomacy with North Korea not go as planned, it’s possible Trump will be faced with the same choice.

And here’s the bad news: Diplomacy with North Korea isn’t going well.

[Vox]

What ever happened to the top level North Korean defector Thae Yong Ho, former North Korean deputy envoy to the UK?

Thae Yong Ho, one of the highest profile North Koreans to defect in recent years, had hoped to visit New York last month to speak on a United Nations panel, meet U.S. envoys, and discuss human rights in the reclusive Asian nation.

A year ago, Thae testified before a Congressional committee. This time, however, Thae said the Americans told him they would not provide him with the security protection he was provided in the past, prompting him to cancel the trip.

“I just wanted to talk about the human rights issues, which are being neglected in the face of North Korea’s charm offensive,” Thae told Reuters. Human rights have been almost completely absent from this year’s flurry of diplomatic negotiations between North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and leaders in South Korea and the United States.

An activist involved in planning Thae’s aborted New York trip said it was a political decision. “If Thae goes there, Kim Jong-un’s image would surely get tarnished, and that will most likely come back to Trump who said he trusts Kim.”

Thae was North Korea’s deputy envoy to the United Kingdom and, after his high-profile defection in 2016, South Korea’s intelligence agency gave him a job at its affiliated think tank. But as Seoul pushed for a thaw in ties with the North, Thae left the think tank in May, saying he did not want to be a “burden”.

Soon after, Thae criticized Kim Jong Un during a press conference at the National Assembly, prompting Pyongyang to cancel high-level talks and blast the South for allowing “human scum” to speak.

[Reuters]

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]