Kim Jong Un expresses ‘condolences’ over coronavirus outbreak in South Korea

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sent a personal letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to express his condolences over a soaring viral outbreak, Seoul officials said Thursday.

It wasn’t immediately clear if Kim’s letter was an attempt to improve strained ties with South Korea amid a deadlock in broader nuclear diplomacy with the U.S. Earlier this week, Kim’s sister issued insults against Moon’s presidential office in her first official statement.

In his letter to Moon on Wednesday, Kim conveyed a message of comfort to the South Korean people over the cornonavirus outbreak that has infected more than 6,000 people and killed 37 others in the South. Kim said he was worried about Moon’s health and expressed frustration that there wasn’t much he could do to help South Korea at this moment, senior presidential official Yoon Do-han told reporters. Kim “underlined his unwavering friendship and trust toward President Moon and said that he will continue to quietly send his best wishes for President Moon to overcome” the outbreak, Yoon said.

Kim also expressed his “candid thoughts and opinions” about the current situation on the Korean Peninsula, Yoon said, without providing details. Moon sent Kim back a letter on Thursday conveying his gratitude to him, Yoon said.

Moon and Kim built personal ties in 2018 when they met three times and reached a series of agreements aimed at boosting exchanges and lowering military animosity. Moon, a liberal who espouses a negotiated settlement of the North Korean nuclear crisis, also facilitated Kim’s first summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore in 2018.

North Korea has repeatedly said there have been no cases of the virus on its soil, a claim that is questioned by many outside experts.

[TIME]

Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, slams South Korea in 1st-ever statement

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The sister of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un​, attacked South Korea’s presidential office on Tuesday, calling it idiotic a day after the South denounced the North’s first weapons test this year.

Kim Yo-jong, Mr. Kim’s only sister, also serves as one of his closest aides. She helped arrange the first summit meeting between Mr. Kim and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea in 2018, visiting Seoul with her brother’s letter of invitation.

On Tuesday, in the first​-ever​ statement​ issued under her name, Ms. Kim heaped scorn on South Korea, another sign that relations between the North and South have chilled since the collapse of a second summit meeting between Mr. Kim and President Trump​ in February last year​.

On Monday, North Korea conducted its first weapons tests this year, which involved large-caliber rockets. Mr. Moon’s presidential Blue House, called Chongwadae in Korean, ​immediately ​blamed North Korea for raising tensions. ​ In her statement on Tuesday, Ms. Kim​ said the South had no right to criticize the North’s test when it conducts its own exercises, whether alone or together with the United States. “Such incoherent assertion and actions made by Chongwadae only magnify our distrust, hatred and scorn for the South side as a whole​,” she said, according to the English translation by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency​. ​“It is us who have to express ​’strong regret​’ at such incoherent and imbecile way of thinking of Chongwadae​.”

Ms. Kim did not attack South Korean President Moon by name. But she said that if South Korea “is set to get down to doing anything with us, it had better be more brave and fair and square.”

[The New York Times]

North Korea fires two unidentified projectiles

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North Korea has fired two unidentified short-range projectiles from an area near the coastal city of Wonsan into waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, South Korea’s military said Monday. The objects were estimated to have a flight distance of 240 kilometers (149 miles) and altitude of 35 kilometers (22 miles), South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement, adding the projectiles are likely part of North Korea’s combined military drills.

The drills began on Friday, the one-year anniversary of leader Kim Jong Un’s summit in Hanoi with US President Donald Trump that ended without a deal. North Korean state media reported that Kim presided over the exercise, which was intended to “judge the mobility and the fire power strike ability of the defense units.”

If this was a missile test, it would be Pyongyang’s first of 2020. Last year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said his country would continue to “steadily develop” nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles to deliver them unless Washington changes course and abandons what Pyongyang calls its “hostile policy.” Weapons experts say test-firing missiles is an important part of improving their accuracy and reliability.

Though weapons tests are important for development purposes, North Korea’s military moves are often timed for maximum political impact both at home and abroad.

The US and South Korea chose to postpone military exercises due to the Novel coronavirus outbreak. These drills usually draw the ire of North Korea. “The US and South Korea postponing their defense drills and offering humanitarian assistance has thus earned no goodwill from a Kim regime that sees little benefit in restarting diplomacy,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said in email. “Pyongyang instead appears intent on raising the stakes before South Korea’s April elections and before the ‘Super Tuesday’ primaries of the US presidential campaign,” Easley said.

[CNN]

Foreign diplomats to be evacuated from North Korea as country steps up efforts to prevent virus outbreak

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A plan is in the works to evacuate quarantined foreign diplomats from North Korea, a source inside the country has revealed. “I would expect around 60 people to be on the flight,” a source said.

The German Embassy, French Cooperation Office, and Swiss Development Cooperation will close operations in the capital Pyongyang completely, said the source, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, given the extreme sensitivity of the current situation. Other countries with diplomatic missions in North Korea plan to scale down operations, the source added.

CNN previously reported foreign diplomats have been kept in complete isolation since early February, as the outbreak extended beyond mainland China. The exact number of foreign diplomats stationed inside North Korea is unknown, but is estimated to be just a few hundred. Diplomatic staff are not allowed to leave their compounds. All flights in and out of the country have also been suspended.

On Wednesday, North Korean state-run media reported that more than 380 foreign nationals had been placed in isolation. Individuals who had recently returned from trips overseas, as well as those who show abnormal symptoms are also under observation, according to the report.

North Korea has not confirmed a single case of the virus inside its borders, but global health experts have warned the country is highly susceptible to an outbreak given its close proximity to China and limited medical capabilities. Every other country in East Asia has confirmed numerous cases.

The apparent ramping up of efforts to contain the virus comes as neighboring South Korea reported 256 more confirmed cases of the virus on Friday morning, bringing the national total to 2,022, according to the South Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).

[CNN]

Virus threat puts Trump-Kim showdown on hold

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The next showdown between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may need to wait until after the coronavirus scare. The U.S. said Thursday that it would postpone joint military exercises planned for the coming weeks, as its ally South Korea copes with the coronavirus outbreak. The decision removes for now a looming friction point with North Korea, which has denounced the exercises as rehearsal for an invasion and a “main factor of screwing up tensions.”

Meanwhile, North Korea has turned inward since neighboring China sounded the alarm about the new virus strain last month, shutting its borders and trumpeting its prevention campaigns in state media. Moves to provoke the U.S. haven’t materialized since Kim told ruling party leaders on New Year’s Eve that he was no longer bound by a freeze on tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

This year was expected to bring a return to tensions on the Korean Peninsula after Kim spent much of last year threatening to take a “new path” in nuclear talks with the U.S. in 2020 if Trump didn’t make a more appealing offer. The two leaders have made little progress since Trump walked out of their second formal summit last year in Hanoi.

The coronavirus outbreak, which has infected more than 82,000 and killed more than 2,800 worldwide, is particularly concerning to impoverished North Korea, which lacks the public health infrastructure of its more developed neighbors. While the country has yet to report any confirmed cases, the border closures have cut off a vital source of cash needed to soften the blow of international sanctions.

The outbreak also poses risks to South Korea, with cases surging to 1,700 in little more than a week. President Moon Jae-in — a longtime advocate for greater North Korea ties — is rushing to get the disease under control before April parliamentary elections that will shape the remainder of his single, five-year term.

Some 28,500 American troops are based on the peninsula and at last one U.S. solider has already tested positive for the virus. U.S. Forces Korea raised its risk level to “high” Thursday, restricting service members from attending non-essential, off-base activities and social events.

[Bloomberg]

One in five North Korean defectors experience discrimination in the South

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About one out of five North Korean defectors experienced discrimination in South Korea last year mostly due to “cultural” differences, a survey showed Wednesday.

According to the survey conducted by the Hana Foundation, a state-run agency that helps resettlement of North Korean defectors, 17.2 percent of 3,000 defectors polled said that they experienced discrimination last year.

The ratio was slightly down from 20.2 percent reported a year earlier but indicated a still deep-rooted prejudice against those defecting from communist North Korea.

Of them, 76.7 percent said that they were discriminated against because of “cultural” differences such as their way of speaking, manners and lifestyles. It was higher than the corresponding figure of 69.9 percent a year earlier. While South and North Koreans use the same language, their intonation and the meaning of words along with their lifestyles are quite different.

About 44 percent also cited negative perception against North Koreans as a reason for discrimination, followed by 22.9 percent who cited their lack of skills and poor job performance as discrimination.

The survey, however, showed that 74.2 percent said that they are satisfied with their lives in South Korea as they can enjoy liberty and make money as much as they work.

[Yonhap]

Crash Landing on You: The defector who brought North-South Korean romance to life

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An implausible love story in which a (literally) high-flying South Korean heiress accidentally paraglides into North Korea, lands on a soldier and falls in love with him has become the latest Korean drama smash hit, “Crash Landing on You”.

With his broad shoulders and thick torso, Kwak Moon-wan has all the appearance of a bodyguard. That’s probably because until 2004, he served with the Supreme Guard Command, the elite security force which protects North Korea’s ruling Kim family.  He was so trusted that he was assigned to work overseas too, for a North Korean trade company in Moscow which was bringing in much needed foreign currency. Only a select few North Koreans are permitted to work outside the country, and to ensure their continued loyalty the leaders have measures in place – Kwak had to leave his wife and son behind in North Korea. In 2004, he was ordered to return to Pyongyang. During a stopover in Beijing, he found out one of his friends in Moscow had reported to their bosses in Pyongyang what he had said in private conversation. He knew immediately that what he’d said would cause huge trouble when he got home.

So he decided to defect. Alone. And he has lived in South Korea without his family ever since. After arriving in South Korea, Kwak, like thousands of North Korean defectors, began the process of building a new life. And it took a remarkable twist of fate for Kwak to find his way into the booming world of Korean entertainment.

Before entering the military, Kwak had spent time learning about film. He ended up being accepted to study film directing in Pyongyang University of Dramatic and Cinematic Arts. Shortly after Kwak arrived in South Korea, a famous filmmaker who was working on a North Korea-themed film project approached South Korea’s spy agency asking for some advice. Kwak had just finished his interrogations, part of the resettlement process new defectors go through, in which he’d talked about his film skills. The agency put him in touch with the filmmaker, who offered him a job at his film company. Kwak accepted it right away. He went on to work as an adviser and a screenwriter on a number of films and dramas.

In 2018 a former colleague introduced Kwak to Park Ji-eun, the head writer of the drama. She had come up with an idea of a romantic comedy featuring a North Korean officer and a South Korean heiress, but her lack of intimate knowledge of Northern life was a pressing concern. Kwak’s intimate knowledge of how North Korean officials operate meant he was able to contribute ingenious plot devices. Read more on this

The series has since become one of the most successful Korean dramas of all time. It tells the story of heiress and businesswoman Yoon Se-ri and North Korean army captain Ri Jeong-hyuk. While out paragliding one day, Se-ri gets caught up by freak winds, and pushed over the border into North Korea. She is found by the dashing Jeong-hyuk, who instead of turning her in agrees to keep her safe and help her return home. Inevitably, they fall in love.

It’s also won praise from people like Sokeel Park, who works with defectors through Liberty in North Korea. “Its portrayal of various aspects of North Korean society have clearly been thoroughly researched, resulting in the most three-dimensional portrayal of North Korean society of any film or drama to date,” he told the BBC. “It is refreshing how it portrays various aspects of North Korean society without unnecessarily passing judgement, and shows North Koreans as complex people who are ultimately relatable and even lovable, even if they are culturally different.”

[BBC]

North Korea reportedly quarantines 380 foreigners to prevent coronavirus

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North Korea has reportedly quarantined 380 foreigners as part of efforts to prevent the coronavirus outbreak. The majority of those quarantined are thought to be diplomats stationed in the capital city of Pyongyang, Yonhap news agency reported Monday, citing state media in North Korea.

It was not immediately clear how long the quarantine period would last, and the nationalities of those in isolation have not yet been revealed.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has previously said it has had no indication of COVID-19 having spread to North Korea.

South Korea, which has reported the highest number of cases outside China, has confirmed more than 763 cases of the coronavirus nationwide, with a total of seven deaths. The country is separated from North Korea by the so-called demilitarized zone (DMZ), which is approximately 154 miles long and 2.5 miles wide.

As part of efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, North Korea has reportedly intensified medical monitoring and testing measures on those who have returned from overseas travel and those showing “abnormal” symptoms. North Korea has also put measures in place to ensure all foreigners coming into the country must be quarantined for a period of 30 days. Late last week, North Korea canceled its Pyongyang Marathon amid heightened fears about COVID-19. The race had been scheduled to take place in April.

[CNBC]

North Korean refugees seek political voice in the South with new political party

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A group of North Korean refugees have launched a political party in South Korea, aiming to give a voice to the 33,500 defectors living in the South.

We were always considered minorities and aliens,” said Kim Joo-il, secretary-general of the new South-North Unification Party at its launch at a hall in South Korea’s capital Seoul. “North Korean defectors are now the future of unification.”

The decision to set up a formal political party was a sign that defectors are seeking a more direct political role ahead of a parliamentary election in April. Many are strongly critical of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration, which they accuse of sidelining defectors and ignoring human rights in a bid to repair relations with North Korea.

Attendees at the launch event discussed cases that have become rallying cries for defectors, who say the South Korean government provides them too little support. In prominent cases last year, two North Koreans were repatriated, and a defector and her 6-year-old son who had been denied government benefits were found dead of starvation in their Seoul apartment.

Kim Shin-ye, 38, one of the defector participants, said the new party’s criticism of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un – one party representative called him a “little pig” during the event – means some defectors may be worried about publicly pledging support for fear of endangering family back in the North.

“What Kim Jong Un is the most afraid of is when the dignity of the North Korean defectors is raised,” said lawmaker Kim Yong-tae, during his congratulatory speech.

[Times of India]

North Korean cybercrime and cybersecrecy

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Technology has become one of the North Korea’s most important tools for survival. The so-called Lazarus group has used elaborate phishing schemes and cutting-edge money-laundering tools to steal money for Kim Jong-un’s regime, in a way to circumvent sanctions. The United Nations estimates that North Korean operators have stolen over $2 billion over the last four years, a relatively enormous percentage of the country’s estimated $28 billion gross domestic product. 

And this applies to a tenfold increase observed in North Korea’s mining of Monero, the privacy-driven cryptocurrency designed to make tracking somewhere between difficult and impossible. Analysts can see internet traffic so detailed that it reveals Pyongyang’s investment in new higher-end, higher-capacity machines to mine the cryptocurrency, according to a recent report from the American cybersecurity firm Recorded Future*.

North Korea’s unparalleled restrictiveness and secrecy around internet usage actually make it easier for intelligence analysts to track and understand how the country uses the internet. “What we see is internet use by the very privileged, the 0.1%, the North Korean military leadership and their families, who are actually given access to the internet,” says Priscilla Moriuchi, an analyst with Recorded Future who focused on China and North Korea during 13 years at the National Security Agency. “We wouldn’t be able to do this type of analysis if they didn’t have such restrictive parameters around the internet.”

There are only three primary ways North Korea connects to the global internet: first, through the allocated .kp IP range; second, through a connection to neighboring China’s telecommunications giant Unicom; and finally, through an increasingly important connection via a Russian satellite company that ultimately resolves to SatGate in Lebanon. But a number of North Koreans live and hack abroad in countries like China. This gives them better access to the internet as they take the opportunity to blend in, while affording plausible deniability for the regime. 

“They’re outside usual boundaries technologically and geographically,” Moriuchi says. “… North Korea sends a lot of their cyber operators overseas … these are super highly trained people that the regime has invested lots of money, time, and trust in. … The revenue generation is state directed and state mandated,” Moriuchi adds, “These people have to earn a specific amount of money per year in order to support themselves and stay overseas, and so their families aren’t endangered at home. It’s a criminal state up-and-down exploiting the openness of the internet to earn money.”

*Recorded Future, an intelligence firm launched in 2009 with the backing of Google and In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital arm, has grown to 650 customers and 475 employees and has just signed a $50 million threat intelligence deal with the US Cyber Command.  

[MIT Technology Review]