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]

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]