North Korea halts all communications with the South in row over leaflets

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North Korea has said it will cut off all inter-Korean communication lines with the South, including a hotline between the two nations’ leaders.

Daily calls, which have been made to a liaison office located in the North Korean border city of Kaesong, will cease from Tuesday. The two states had set up the office to reduce tensions after talks in 2018.

Military communication channels will also be cut, North Korea said.

Kim Yo-jong, the North Korean leader’s sister, threatened last week to close the office unless South Korea stopped defector groups from sending leaflets into the North. North Korean defectors occasionally send balloons carrying leaflets critical of the communist region into the North, sometimes with supplies to entice North Koreans to pick them up.

It’s likely that this shut down isn’t just about sending leaflets over the border – but instead, all part of a grander plan by Pyongyang. North Korea may be creating a crisis in order to use the tension as leverage in later talks. In short, it could be simply spoiling for a fight to get attention and ask for more from its neighbor. They’ve played this particular game before in 2013 to try to win more concessions from South Korea.

It’s also a good distraction domestically. Kim Jong-un is failing to deliver the economic prosperity he keeps promising and rumors continue to circulate that Covid-19 is affecting parts of the country. Giving the nation a common enemy helps rally his people back around a cause. The North said this was the first in a series of actions, describing South Korea as “the enemy”.

It’s worth noting Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-Jong gave the order to sever ties with Seoul. This gives her a platform and the spotlight and will fuel more speculation that she is being groomed as a potential leader.

 [BBC]

North Korea warns South Korea to stop defectors from scattering anti-North leaflets

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The sister of North Korea’s leader has warned South Korea to stop defectors from sending leaflets into the demilitarized zone separating the countries, saying it may cancel a recent bilateral military agreement if the activity persists.

Kim Yo Jong, who serves unofficially as Kim Jong Un’s chief of staff, issued the warning in a statement carried by state news agency KCNA on Thursday.

She was referring to thousands of “anti-DPRK leaflets” recently dumped along the North’s side of the heavily fortified DMZ, titled “Defectors from the North”.

“If such an act of evil intention committed before our eyes is left to take its own course under the pretext of ‘freedom of individuals’ and ‘freedom of expression’, the south Korean authorities must face the worst phase shortly,” the KCNA statement said.

Kim Yo Jong warned of the possible scrapping of the inter-Korean military agreement that promised to eliminate practical threats of war as a result of the clandestine leafletting. The military pact reached in 2018 was “hardly of any value”, she said.

She also warned the North will completely withdraw from the Kaesong industrial project and shut down the joint liaison office in the North’s border city, unless Seoul stopped such actions.

Kim Yo Jong has been the most visible presence around her brother in the past two years. She serves formally as a vice director of the ruling Workers’ Party’s powerful Central Committee.

[Reuters]

Kim Jong Un’s health just one of North Korean worries

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After nearly three weeks of international speculation about his health, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un returned to public view at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new factory on May 1. Kim is apparently “alive and well.” But … Kim’s continued power does not equate to a static situation in North Korea.

The Kim regime may focus on modernizing state institutions, or it may crack down on social trends and commerce that do not comport with the ruling party’s ideology and control of the economy. The military might make a few external provocations while quietly improving its capabilities, or it might push the envelope with further escalation. In terms of diplomacy, Pyongyang could continue to reject engagement, or it could pursue tactical cooperation for short-term gain.

Kim appears focused on domestic affairs in light of North Korea’s economic challenges. To address these, he could do more to evade sanctions, strengthen his country’s self-reliance, or both. The coronavirus pandemic further complicates matters because North Korea’s self-imposed national quarantine has nearly halted trade with China, upon which the country is extremely dependent. Indeed, the pandemic may be doing more than international sanctions to arrest economic activity across North Korea’s borders.

Kim’s reasons for choosing the Sunchon fertilizer plant’s ribbon-cutting ceremony as his occasion to reappear are unknown. But the visit suggests the importance he places on food production, particularly while the pandemic disrupts the country’s supply chain and flow of foreign currency from China.

Outsiders may not have been the only ones questioning the sustainability of Kim’s leadership while he was absent. Kim may also intensify political purges and anticorruption campaigns.

Maintaining international tensions as a means of pursuing strategic objectives remains a priority. … While a major diplomatic breakthrough with Washington is unlikely before the U.S. presidential election in November, North Korea will continue pursuing its strategic aim of perfecting a nuclear deterrent and gaining strategic advantage without triggering outright conflict.

[Foreign Policy]

China proposes lifting North Korea sanctions

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China’s top diplomat called on the United States to ease North Korea sanctions, as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un discussed strengthening nuclear deterrence, according to state media reports.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Sunday action is more important between the United States and North Korea than “sitting down to discuss” differing points of view. Wang said Washington and Pyongyang need to take action in order to promote “mutual trust” and “overcome the deadlock.”

“In the past few years, North Korea has taken active steps to relieve tensions and denuclearize, but regrettably it has been unable to obtain a substantial response from the United States, which has led to stalled U.S.-North Korea talks,” Wang said, referring to sanctions.

China has offered to provide a mediating role between the United States and North Korea in recent years. In September at the United Nations General Assembly, Wang called on the United States and North Korea to “build trust through synchronized actions.”

“The way forward is parallel progress in denuclearization,” Wang had said last year, referring to a step-by-step denuclearization supported by Beijing.

[UPI]

Two years after Singapore summit, Kim Jong-un vows to boost North Korea’s nuclear deterrent

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Kim Jong Un has vowed to implement “new policies” to boost the country’s nuclear deterrent, state media reported on Sunday, underlining his decision to turn his back on denuclearization talks with the United States.

Kim made the call at a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Military Commission, nearly two years since he met President Trump at a historic summit in Singapore that seemed to offer hope of progress between the two nations.

Subsequent talks made little progress before dissolving in acrimony last year, and North Korea has since returned to a harder line in its public posturing.

[Washington Post]

North Korea claim it has no coronavirus cases

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As China placed a northeastern city on lockdown due to the novel coronavirus disease, nearby North Korea continued to claim zero instances of the infectious illness and even showed signs of opening up in some areas.

Authorities in China’s city of Shulan, Jilin province, have steadily intensified quarantine measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 after a cluster of new cases earlier this month. On Monday, city government officials announced additional measures that severely limit movement within the city.

But as China races to curb the feared outbreak in Shulan, North Korean officials reported the virus has been thwarted, just across the border.

The latest situation report published Tuesday by the World Health Organization said North Korea registered having no cases of COVID-19. North Korea is among a group of about a dozen countries around the world to have not registered any instances of a disease that has infected nearly 5 million people around the world.

Russia’s ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora supported North Korea’s claim by praising Pyongyang’s “decisive and tough measures” taken early on in the coronavirus crisis in an interview Wednesday with the Interfax News outlet. “I am inclined to trust what is being reported about the absence of infection in the DPRK,” Matsegora said, referring to North Korea by an acronym for its official title, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Pyongyang was the first to institute travel bans, border closures and other strict anti-epidemic measures as reports of the virus emerged back in January.

[Newsweek]

North Korea says irresponsible for countries that ignored coronavirus warnings to blame WHO

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North Korea’s delegation at the World Health Assembly threw its support behind the World Health Organization (WHO) and criticized countries that blamed the United Nations agency for the coronavirus outbreak. The delegation said WHO member states should be “wary” of countries that are trying to use the “catastrophe for their impure political purposes.”

President Donald Trump and other U.S. officials have been severely critical of the WHO’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in his statement at the assembly that one of the primary reasons the outbreak “spun out of control” was the WHO’s failure to “obtain the information the world needed.”

On Tuesday, member states approved a resolution that, among other things, called for WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to initiate an evaluation of the “experience gained and lessons learned” from the WHO’s response to the pandemic.

Experts are skeptical of North Korea’s zero case claim. Jung Pak, a former CIA analyst and North Korea expert with the Brookings Institution, told USA Today it’s a “near impossibility” that the country has no infections.

Bruce Klingner, an ex-CIA deputy division chief for Korea, said it was “hard to believe” there weren’t any cases but noted that it’s possible the outbreak was limited.

[Newsweek]

North Korean rumors: “When in doubt, leave it out”

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John Burton, a former Financial Times correspondent, writing in The Korea Times:

Unfortunately, the “black box” nature of North Korea appears to give carte blanche to many journalists to indulge in speculative reporting without fear of contradiction in most cases.

One friend, a former foreign correspondent in Beijing, said that much of the reporting on North Korea reminds him of his early days covering the mafia in New Jersey. “Some journalists would make up details about mafia figures, such as inventing fake nicknames for them, knowing that they would never be publicly rebutted by them.”

It is unlikely that major international media outlets would publish reports about the ill health or death of almost any other leading world leader, besides Kim Jong Un, that were largely based on rumors. With the Kim story now apparently out of the way, the same type of caution should also be applied to rumors about the widespread presence of the coronavirus in North Korea.

Pyongyang’s claim that it has detected no virus cases might be dismissed as propaganda, but equal skepticism should be given to unconfirmed reports about big outbreaks of the illness in the country. Diplomats and aid workers on the ground have not yet offered any evidence that would confirm this.

When it comes to reporting on North Korea, I remember one of the most valuable pieces of advice I was given when I started out as a journalist: “When in doubt, leave it out.” But that of course contradicts another hoary journalistic adage: “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho now serving on the South Korean National Assembly

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Ji Seong-ho was born not far from the Hoeryong concentration camp,and grew up during the North Korean famine of the mid-1990s. His grandmother starved to death; his father was tortured to death. As a teenager, he had hopped onto a train with his mother and sister. They were stealing coal, in order to barter it for food. When he was jumping from one car to the next, Ji lost consciousness, owing to hunger. He fell between the cars onto the tracks, and lost a leg and a hand.

Eventually, he escaped North Korea — on homemade crutches. He made it to the South, where he became a Christian and started a human-rights groups.

In April of this year, Ji won election to South Korea’s National Assembly.

Defectors are beyond excited about his election. “He’s one of us,” says Park Yeonmi. What does Yeonmi mean? Ji Seong-ho is a street kid, a homeless kid, a wretch. Or rather, he was. “He never went to Kim Il-sung University,” says Yeonmi. That is the elite university in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. In fact, Ji “has never even been to Pyongyang.”

There is no freedom of movement within North Korea, Yeonmi explains. “You know what North Koreans dream about when they dream of traveling?” she continues. “They don’t dream about going to China or Europe and all that. They can’t even go to the next town without permission. But they may dream about going to Pyongyang.”

Yeonmi repeats: “Seong-ho is just one of us.” He is not bitter but instead grateful, Yeonmi observes. “He has such a big heart for his countrymen.” And now he is serving on the National Assembly of South Korea.

I have met Ji Seong-ho several times and have never seen him without a big smile on his face. He is effortlessly charismatic. “He projects an air of ebullience,” I once wrote. “I can’t help thinking he is happy to be alive.” In my view, his story should be made into a movie — perhaps culminating with Ji’s entrance into the National Assembly.

In 2018, Ji was a guest of President Trump for the State of the Union address. Sounding like presidents past, Trump said, “Seong-ho’s story is a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom.”

Until recently, Ji was never very interested in politics — politics in a partisan sense. He was neutral, above the fray. But he was pushed into politics by the grievances and indignities I listed above. He was especially moved by the deaths of the defector mother and her young son, in that Seoul apartment.

Despite the best efforts of the North Korean dictatorship, news gets into that country, via shortwave radio and other means. North Koreans will hear about Ji’s election, and have. The news is “shocking,” as Henry Song, the D.C.-based activist, emphasizes: one of them, elevated to the legislature of a free country. A free and Korean country.

[National Review]

Former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho, now serving in the South Korean National Assembly

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In April 2018, former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho was giving a speech to a human-rights conference. South Korean intelligence agents prevented a television network from filming the speech. They also prevented — forcibly prevented — Thae from taking questions from the press. This was in advance of an inter-Korean summit, and the government apparently did not want to rile the North.

Two years later, Thae Yong-ho ran for and won election to the National Assembly of South Korea.

Thae was born in 1962, into the North Korean elite. He became a diplomat, eventually serving as deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom. He defected in 2016.

He is an urbane, elegant fellow. He is also tremendously brave. The North Korean government called him “human scum” and accused him of the usual: embezzlement and child rape. Thae is a defector in the traditional sense. Indeed, he is one of the highest-ranking officials ever to defect from North Korea.

At the Oslo Freedom Forum last year, I asked Thae about his personal security. “I have a lot of worries,” he said, “but I am heavily protected when I am in South Korea. The South Korean government knows that I am No. 1 on the assassination list.” And “I know this will go on till the last day of the Kim regime.”

In the South Korean context, Thae is a conservative, favoring a market economy and a tough-minded policy toward the North — a realistic one, he would say. He is strongly anti-socialist and anti-Communist, and a sharp critic of President Moon Jae-in’s government.

Park Yeonmi points out that Thae will be on South Korean television a lot. South Koreans will see his face, along with fellow-defector-turned-politcian Ji Seong-ho, hear their stories, listen to their points of view. Thae and Ji will help “humanize us,” says Yeonmi.

[National Review]