Arrests of North Korean defectors in China are up

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Sources in China told Seoul-based online newspaper Daily NK that Beijing had strengthened its efforts to crack down on North Korea defectors flocking to China.

The number of defectors increased notably in April and May last year when the weather became warm enough that people could cross the Yalu River or hide in the forest more easily, according to the source.

The source added that even brokers, who help North Koreans to defect in exchange for money, are reluctant to help defectors these days due to the rising number of arrest cases by the Chinese authorities.

Chinese authorities are reportedly working with some brokers while tracking the history of mobile phone usage to locate defectors, the source added.

Another source in China told Daily NK that there had been an increasing number of cases of the Chinese authorities investigating defectors instead of repatriating them back to the North. The authorities even collected the personal details of defectors in a move to store and manage them as if they were Chinese citizens., taking photos and collecting fingerprints.

[The Diplomat]

Why is the birthday of Kim Jong Un not a bigger deal in North Korea?

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un marked his 36th birthday on Wednesday, to little fanfare within the country.

Fyodor Tertitskiy, a senior researcher at Seoul’s Kookmin University, suggests that the young North Korean leader follows his father Kim Jong Il’s model: slowly building a cult of personality over the years while refraining from the kinds of excesses that might seem unbecoming for a leader so young. “Kim Jong Un likely follows the example of his father – he shows his modesty and loyalty to his predecessors by limiting his cult to a certain extent,” he said.

Tertitskiy  adds, “This is not the only part where his cult is limited – there are seemingly no badges with his portrait, no ‘Song of Commander Kim Jong Un,’ and, importantly, he does not have a single medal or order.”

In an in-depth piece for NK News last year on the politics of the North Korean leaders’ birthdays, Tertitskiy noted that the first “proper” birthday celebrations of Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, only began in 1952, just a few years after coming to power. Annual celebrations began in earnest in 1962.

Similarly, “State media was careful in its treatment of Kim Jong Il’s birthday up through the mid-1980s, 10 years after he was designated as Kim Il Sung’s successor,” Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst with NK News‘s sister site NK Pro, said. “It was only in 1992, after Kim received all the top or second-to-the-top titles in the party, state, and the military, that state media officially began to commemorate Kim Jong Il’s birthday.”

Tertitskiy also suggested Kim Jong Un may be waiting for a time of real adversity to enhance his cult of personality. “Kim Jong Il did it in a time of crisis of the late 1990s so who knows – maybe he’ll do it if the situation in North Korea declines,” he argued.

Analyst Minyoung Lee wasn’t quite so sure, suggesting that the North Koreans may instead be waiting for Kim the youngest to accrue a little more time as leader. “State media will likely start commemorating Kim Jong Un’s birthday when Kim feels that the country’s situation at home and abroad is more stable, and he feels he has more achievements to speak for.”

[NK News]

Kim Jong Un turns 36 today

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un marks his 36th birthday on Wednesday, if the U.S. government is anything to go by. In any case, this is a remarkably young age for a man leading a nation of 25 million people — it also makes him the world’s third-youngest person to lead a government, and the youngest to possess an arsenal of missiles and nuclear weapons.

State media on Wednesday featured no mention of the auspicious day, with ruling party daily the Rodong Sinmun instead leading with an editorial extolling the outcomes of a recent party plenum. It is also conspicuously absent from officially-issued North Korean calendars.

North Koreans, it seems, were largely in the dark about the date of the Great Successor’s birth until an unusual visit to North Korea by former NBA hall-of-famer Dennis Rodman — and an impromptu courtside sing-a-long — revealed the fact back in 2014.

Reports suggest that the state has for several years informally celebrated Kim Jong Un’s birthday, with defector-run media outlets suggesting that the day is used as an occasion to send gifts to schoolchildren. “Presents for Kim Jong Un’s birthday were handed out at a national event on January 7,” a source told Daily NK last year, remarking that 2019’s offering had improved compared to previous years.

But while the birthdays of his grandfather and father — April 15 and February 16 respectively — are national holidays in North Korea, often marked with military parades and large public celebrations, Kim Jong Un has pointedly refused to deify his own, at least in outer-track outlets.

So why the reluctance to declare it a national holiday? Much of it may have to do with Kim Jong Un’s relative youth, and his reluctance to fully embrace the large-scale deification his grandfather and, later, his father, enjoyed — at least for the time being. Some suggest he may be seeking to follow Kim Jong Il’s model: slowly building a cult of personality over the years while refraining from the kinds of excesses that might seem unbecoming for a leader so young.

[NK News]

Consequences in North Korea from US killing of Iran’s top military commander

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The U.S. strike that killed Iran’s top military commander may have had an indirect casualty: a diplomatic solution to denuclearizing North Korea. Experts say the escalation of tensions between Washington and Tehran will inspire North Korea’s decision-makers to tighten their hold on the weapons they see, perhaps correctly, as their strongest guarantee of survival.

North Korea’s initial reaction to the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani has been cautious. The country’s state media was silent for several days before finally on Monday issuing a brief report on the attack that didn’t even mention Soleimani’s name. The Korean Central News Agency report didn’t publish any direct criticism by Pyongyang toward Washington, instead simply saying that China and Russia had denounced the United States over last week’s airstrike at the airport in Baghdad.

So while the killing of Soleimani may give Pyongyang pause about provoking the Trump administration, North Korea ultimately is likely to use the strike to further legitimize its stance that it needs to bolster its nuclear arsenal as a deterrent against American aggression.

North Korea has often pointed to the demises of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi while justifying its nuclear development, saying they would still be alive and in power had they successfully obtained nuclear weapons and didn’t surrender them to the U.S.

“The airstrike does serve as a warning to North Korea about taking extreme actions as the presumption that the Trump administration refrains from using military force when concerned about consequences has been shattered,” said an ex-intelligence secretary to former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

[AP]

Killing of Iranian commander sends message to North Korea

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U.S. efforts to deal with Iran could take the U.S.’s attention away from North Korea as Pyongyang seeks to raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula, said David Maxwell, a former U.S. Special Forces colonel who served on the Combined Forces Command of the U.S and South Korea. “Kim Jong Un is not going to be happy with all the attention focused on Iran when he was trying to execute a large-scale information and influence campaign against the U.S. and the international community to get sanctions lifted,” he said.

Experts also said the U.S. killing of the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani could change North Korea’s thinking about the U.S. ability to use force.

“The attack tells adversaries like North Korea to reassess [its] assumptions about U.S. actions moving up the escalatory ladder,” said Ken Gause, director of the adversary analytics program at CNA. “Trump, more so than previous presidents,” he added, “is not averse to doing decapitation strikes and focused assassinations.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said the U.S. could use a military option on North Korea if necessary. “We think the best path forward, with regard to North Korea, is a political agreement that denuclearizes the peninsula,” Esper said in an interview with Fox News. “But that said, we remain, from a military perspective, ready to fight tonight, as need be.”

The Pentagon recently released a photo of U.S. and South Korean special forces conducting drills simulating raids on North Korean facilities aimed at taking out its top officials. “It will be interesting to speculate if [Kim] thinks something like this [the U.S. killing of the Iranian general] could happen to him or if his paranoia would lead him to think that Trump is somehow sending him a message,” Maxwell said.

On the other hand, Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University said, “I think Kim Jong-un will be laughing at this situation as he now has an opportunity to test how much trouble Trump can handle at the same time.”

[VoA/South China Morning Post]

Europe helps secure release of 11 North Korean defectors held in Vietnam

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A group of 11 North Koreans who were detained in Vietnam while seeking to defect to South Korea have been released thanks to the help of European institutions, a Seoul-based activist group has said.

The eight women and three men were caught by border guards in northern Vietnam in late November after crossing from China, and had been held in the northeastern border city of Lang Son.

Peter Jung, who heads the group helping the refugees, Justice for North Korea, said they were freed and on their way to South Korea last month. Multiple European organizations played a key role, he said. He declined to identify them due to the diplomatic sensitivity but said they included a non-government group.

The Wall Street Journal earlier reported that U.S. officials, including diplomats engaged in denuclearization talks with North Korea, intervened to secure the defectors’ release, citing unidentified sources.

But Jung said he was unaware of any U.S. contribution. South Korea’s foreign ministry said that the WSJ report was “not factual”, but said the government had made immediate efforts to prevent the defectors from being forcibly repatriated. It refused to elaborate.

“The European institutions acted after we published a video of the refugees making desperate appeals for freedom,” Jung said. “South Korea’s foreign ministry got also involved later.”

[Reuters]

US diplomats helped 13 North Koreans held in Vietnam

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Caught halfway into a multicountry escape from North Korea, 13 individuals detained in Vietnam reached safety last month due to an unexpected helping hand: the U.S. government.

A group of U.S. diplomats, including some involved in disarmament talks with the Kim Jong Un regime, intervened after videos surfaced showing two female detainees wrapped under blankets following failed suicide attempts. Both women had feared being repatriated to the North where they likely would have faced the regime’s gulags or worse.

American diplomats in Washington and Asia pressed Vietnamese officials to not hand over the North Korean escapees to Chinese or North Korean officials, according to the people familiar with the episode. It’s uncommon for American officials to get involved in cases pertaining to ordinary North Korean escapees. It’s rare for such interventions to become public.

The 13 refugees didn’t seem to be aware of the U.S. help behind the scenes, according to a person directly involved in the episode. That’s because such a diplomatic role is typically handled by South Korea. Mintaro Oba, a former official at the State Department’s Korea desk, said: “To the Moon administration, [the 13 North Korean refugees were] probably at best a serious irritant at a time when they’re hyperfocused on inter-Korean relations.”

Experts say U.S. officials took a diplomatic risk in helping activists guide the refugees to safety, as such moves could upset North Korea and complicate already stalled nuclear negotiations.

[Wall Street Journal]

A taste of entrepreneurship in Seoul for North Korean defectors

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When North Koreans defect to and resettle in South Korea, they often find themselves looked down upon in what they thought would be their land of promise. Combatting the prejudice and the hurdles, some North Korean resettlers in South Korea have managed to find a way into a soft landing in the business world.

Heo defected from the place of his birth in 2008, and became a video content creator in Seoul with over 100,000 YouTube subscribers. He set his sights on becoming an entrepreneur.

What gave him, along with dozens of other North Korean defectors, a taste of being an entrepreneur was the four-month program Asan Sanghoe, financed and supported by the Hyundai-backed nonprofit organization Asan Nanum Foundation. Before Asan Sanghoe, a majority of North Korean defectors had little chance to know where to start, or to explore whether they are even fit for entrepreneurship to achieve a personal goal.

According to a survey last year of 130 North Korean defectors by a nonprofit organization that helps escapees resettle, 66.9 percent responded they were willing to found a company, 17.7 percent said they had started working on a startup and 3.1 percent said they had already founded one. But the same survey showed that nearly 97 percent did not respond when it comes to startup items they had prepared or source of information or advice for entrepreneurship they can rely on.

Participants in Asan Sanghoe take part in lectures, mentorship sessions and workshops three times a week. North Korean resettlers are given chances to team up with South Korean or foreign participants. The program also features a two-week overseas trip to Germany, where the social innovation scene has been on the rise.

“Asan Sanghoe built a strong fence around the new community to protect us, so my confidence could be built,” Heo says.

[The Investor]

What will Kim Jong-Un do in 2020?

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said on Wednesday his country will continue developing nuclear programmes and introduce a “new strategic weapon” in the near future, after the United States missed a year-end deadline for a restart of denuclearization talks. 

Kim convened a rare four-day meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s policy-making committee as the United States had not responded to his repeated calls for concessions to reopen negotiations, dismissing the deadline as artificial.

Kim had warned he might have to seek a “new path” if Washington fails to meet his expectations. U.S. military commanders said Pyongyang’s actions could include the testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which it has halted since 2017, alongside nuclear warhead tests.

There were no grounds for North Korea to be bound any longer by the self-declared nuclear and ICBM test moratorium, as the United States continued joint military drills with South Korea, adopted cutting-edge weapons and imposed sanctions while making “gangster-like demands”, Kim said, according to KCNA.

He pledged to further develop North Korea’s nuclear deterrent but left the door open for dialogue, saying the “scope and depth” of that deterrent will be “properly coordinated depending on” the attitude of the United States. 

[Reuters]

North Korean defectors train as baristas

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Cho Kyung-ja (alias), a 33-year-old North Korean defector, is busy operating an espresso machine, preparing four cappuccinos, grinding, temping, frothing and sometimes wiping away beans that scatter here and there. As she lays the four cups down on a table, she shyly smiles.

At a glance, it looks like a run-of-the-mill coffee shop, but Cho is completing a two-month-long job training program arranged by a state-run agency supporting the resettlement of North Korean defectors in South Korea. She passed a barista test weeks earlier and now her last remaining hurdle that she has to overcome is the latte art test. Cho is one of a growing number of North Korean defectors eyeing job opportunities in coffee on the hope of landing a more stable and better-paying job, as well as better working conditions, than the manual and labor-intensive work many other defectors have to do to make ends meet.

In South Korea, coffee is closely interwoven in daily life. In sharp contrast in North Korea, buying a coffee would have been a luxury in a country where the per-capita annual income stands at a little over US$1,200.

Getting used to the new culture might be hard but it can be done with the passage of time. A much harder challenge for North Korean defectors aspiring to become baristas might be to develop a “taste” and getting necessary “skills” both for making coffee and dealing with customers, none of which they had done before in their former communist homeland.

This is where the South Korean government comes in and provides various forms of job training.  This barista-training course was arranged by Hana Foundation, a state-run resettlement agency in partnership with Hanjoo College of Culinary Arts, a civilian job training institute.

Another North Korean defector, Lee Kyung-min (alias), who is also attending the program is aiming higher than most trainees. She plans to run her own shop in the near future.

According to government data, only about 12 percent of the 32,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea run their own business, mostly in lodging, restaurant and transportation sectors, though it remains unclear how many have been successful.

[Yonhap]