Kim Jong Un’s wife reappears after unusual one-year absence

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The wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made her first public appearance in a year, ending an unusual absence that stoked speculation about her condition.

Ri Sol Ju joined her husband at a musical performance for the anniversary of the birth of former leader Kim Jong Il, which is known as the Day of the Shining Star in North Korea, the official Korean Central News Agency reported Wednesday.

Ri, thought to be 32, may have been sidelined due to the coronavirus, which virtually ended international visits and the need to appear by her husband’s side at events part of a normal nation’s statecraft, specialist service NK News reported in late January. The yearlong drought was by far the longest stretch she hasn’t appeared in state media during that time. North Korea has given no explanation for her absence.

“If her prolonged absence was due to concerns about the coronavirus, her reappearance could suggest increased regime confidence in the country’s quarantine situation,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, an independent political analyst who used to work for the U.S. government in areas related to North Korea.

South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers Tuesday Ri may have been taking care of the couple’s children and avoiding public exposure during the coronavirus pandemic, Kim Byung-kee, a ruling Democratic Party lawmaker, said after a meeting of a parliamentary intelligence committee.

The agency also said North Korea hacked Pfizer Inc. for information on its Covid-19 vaccine and treatments.

Ri, a former singer who as a teenager served in a North Korean cheerleading squad, has appeared with her husband for a summit in China, where the couple sat down for a meal with President Xi Jinping and his wife. Ri also joined Kim as they rode white horses through the snow on North Korea’s Mount Paektu, the symbolic seat of Kim family rule over the country.

South Korean intelligence said the two married in 2009. They are thought to have three children, but there is no official mention of their offspring. Dennis Rodman, the offbeat basketball great who visited Kim in North Korea, said in 2013 he held the leader’s baby girl in his arms, a daughter named Ju Ae.

[Bloomberg]

The changing face of North Korean defectors

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Ken Eom, who defected from North Korea in 2010, said that for many North Korean defectors today, escaping their homeland was no longer about poverty and hunger, but finding “freedom, like getting more education and a better life”.

Hanna Song, a researcher at the non-profit Database Centre for NK Human Rights in Seoul. Adds that whereas defectors from North Korea were once driven by “simply survival”, this has changed during the last fifteen years. “If you look at the typology of North Koreans who have now resettled in South Korea, it is very diverse,” said Song.

Imesh Pokharel, who runs the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Seoul, agrees that most recent defectors he had encountered were driven by the desire for greater economic opportunity. “Basically those who have family members in [South Korea], they are more likely to come here directly,” says Pokharel.

“In the last 10 years, the trend is family-invited refugees,” said an activist who helps North Koreans reach the South, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of his work. “For North Korean refugees who have entered South Korea, bringing their parents and siblings from North Korea to South Korea is the top priority. They work hard to raise money, or they get support from mission agencies or NGOs to bring their family.”

Tim Peters, a Christian activist who runs Seoul-based non-profit Helping Hands Korea, said it had become increasingly typical to see single parents or grandparents with children, rather than whole families, make the decision to leave. “This elderly care of a grandchild has often occurred due to the death of an adult child – parent of the grandchild – or abandonment of the child by the grandparent’s adult child or his spouse in North Korea,” said Peters. “The grandparent guardian discovers that they are unable to economically survive supporting the grandchild alone in the North, so make the grim decision to seek a menial job in China. A similar phenomenon is observed in single parents, especially women, who’ve either lost their North Korean husbands due to an untimely death, or through divorce.”

[South China Morning Post]

North Korea’s former acting ambassador to Kuwait Ryu Hyeon-woo speaks out

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In his first interview since defecting to the South more than a year ago, North Korea’s former acting ambassador to Kuwait Ryu Hyeon-woo told CNN that Kim Jong Un will not give up his nuclear arsenal but may be willing to negotiate an arms reduction for relief from the international sanctions crippling Pyongyang’s economy.

“North Korea’s nuclear power is directly linked to the stability of the regime” — and Kim likely believes nuclear weapons are key to his survival. Ryu also said previous US administrations had boxed themselves into a corner by demanding denuclearization up front in negotiations with the totalitarian state.

The former diplomat, who adopted the name Ryu upon moving to the South, is one of several high-profile North Korean officials to defect in recent years. Ryu and his family defectedto South Korea in September 2019, but their actions were only made public last week.

Determined to give their teenage daughter a better life, Ryu said he and his wife planned their escape for about a month while living in Kuwait. Ryu took his family to the South Korean embassy in Kuwait to claim asylum. They traveled to South Korea several days later.

Ryu said that if they had been caught, North Korean agents would have quickly taken them all back to Pyongyang for certain punishment, as defection is considered a major embarrassment to the Kim regime and is not taken lightly.

Kuwait was a particularly important revenue stream for Pyongyang, as the Persian Gulf nation used to employ about 10,000 North Korean laborers. Those workers were allegedly treated like modern-day slaves, and experts say almost all of their earnings were funneled back to the government.

Ryu also was posted to Syria, a close ally of North Korea, from 2010 to 2013. While Ryu was charged with overseeing relations with Syrian politicians, his countrymen were selling conventional weapons to the Bashar al-Assad regime, including long-range multiple launcher artillery and anti-aircraft weapons systems.

Looking back over the past 16 months, Ryu says his only regret is what might happen to his remaining family members back in Pyongyang. He and his wife believe they did the right thing for their daughter, by taking her away from her home country.

Defection from North Korea comes at a monumental cost, with defectors having to instantly sever ties from all family left in their home nation. Ryu is worried about his three siblings and 83-year-old mother still in North Korea, and the family also worries for his wife’s elderly parents living in Pyongyang.

[CNN]

North Korea’s envoy to Kuwait defects to South Korea

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It’s now been confirmed that North Korea’s acting ambassador to Kuwait defected to South Korea, the latest in a recent string of high-profile escapes from the isolated country, a South Korean lawmaker said on Monday.

Ryu Hyun Woo had led North Korea’s embassy in Kuwait since former Ambassador So Chang Sik was expelled after a 2017 U.N. resolution sought to scale back the country’s overseas diplomatic missions.

Ryu defected to South Korea last September, according to Thae Yong Ho, who was North Korea’s deputy ambassador to Britain before settling in the South in 2016 and being elected as a lawmaker last year.

Tae said Ryu is the son-in-law of Jon Il Chun, who once oversaw a Worker’s Party bureau responsible for managing the ruling Kim family’s secret coffers, dubbed Room 39.

Ryu fled several months after Jo Song Gil, who was North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, vanished with his wife from the embassy and resurfaced in South Korea.

[Reuters]

After Trump setbacks, Kim Jong Un has to start over with Biden

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Last year was a disaster for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He helplessly watched his country’s already battered economy decay further amid pandemic border closures while brooding over the collapse of made-for-TV summits with former President Donald Trump that failed to lift crippling sanctions from his country.

Now he must start all over again with President Joe Biden, who has previously called Kim a “thug” and accused Trump of chasing spectacles instead of meaningful reductions of Kim’s nuclear arsenal.

North Korea won’t likely be the top priority for Biden, who while facing mounting domestic issues is also gearing up for a push to get back into a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that Trump blew up in favor of what he called maximum pressure against Iran.

Acoording to Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, the Biden administration’s “sequence of policy attention will likely be: Get America’s own house in order, strengthen U.S. alliances and align strategies toward China and Russia, and then address Iran and North Korea.”

[AP]

North Korea’s ultra-lockdown against Covid-19

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Kim Jong-un acted quickly. On January 22, 2020, North Korea closed its borders with China and Russia to stop a new, mysterious virus from spreading into the country. More than a year later, the hermit kingdom’s border remains sealed tight shut. North Korea’s response to the pandemic has been one of the most extreme and paranoid in the world, experts say.

The real impact of Covid-19 on North Korea—and its citizens—remains a mystery. Faced with a global health crisis, the country has turned inward more than ever. “North Korea, in general, is more difficult to know this year or last year than at almost any point in the last two decades,” says Sokeel Park, director of research at Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a group that works with defectors from the country to understand what happens inside its borders.

The closest that officials got to admitting there might be a case was in July when state newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported that a “state of emergency” had been declared in Kaesong City, in the south of the country. The newspaper reported that a defector who had returned to the country from South Korea was “suspected” to have Covid-19. But the case was never confirmed. Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong-un, has hit back at suggestions from South Korea that the country may have had cases, describing such talk as “reckless.”

From the outside, it is impossible to know the scale of the Covid-19 crisis in North Korea. International diplomats and humanitarian groups have largely left the country. The result is that little reliable information finds its way out of North Korea. Those with contacts inside the country and who work with defectors also say it has been impossible to work out the reality of the health situation on the ground.

As for vaccines: At the end of November it was reported that state-sponsored hackers had targeted AstraZeneca; South Korea has reported attempts on its own vaccine infrastructure, and Microsoft has also found similar hacking efforts linked to North Korea. The country has since quietly requested international help in obtaining vaccines. Analysis of vaccine distribution predicts that the jabs may be widely available in North Korea in 2022 or 2023.

[WIRED UK]

North Korean diplomat defector says South’s propaganda leaflet ban ‘great mistake’

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Defectors and activists in South Korea have for decades used balloons to send leaflets across the tightly guarded border, along with food, medicine, money, mini radios and USB sticks containing South Korean news and dramas.

But last month, South Korea’s parliament passed a bill banning such activities, which Tae Yong-ho, the first North Korean defector to be elected as a South Korean lawmaker, said was a “great mistake” that only hampers change in the isolated country.

Tae, who was North Korea’s deputy ambassador to Britain before defecting in 2016, said the ban severed one of the very few sources of outside information for ordinary North Koreans. “It’s a great mistake,” Tae said. “We can only bring a change in a communist state with soft power, not military interventions or economic blockade.”

In a 2019 survey by a Seoul-based activist group, more than 71% of 200 defectors said they had watched a South Korean drama or film before fleeing their homeland, mostly using a DVD or USB device at night when surveillance is weak.

“In daytime, the population is shouting ‘long live Kim Jong Un’, but at night they all watch South Korean dramas and movies,” Tae said. “Why stop the inflows of information?”

Tae Yong-ho explained that knowledge about the outside world gained from embassy postings in Europe had fostered disillusionment among his family, and eventually served as a key driver for his defection. “My children learned that their lives were nothing but those of contemporary slaves if they go back to North Korea,” he said. “I wanted to give them the choice of freedom.”

{Reuters]

North Korean defectors at risk of repatriation from China

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Last October, the United Nations sent a letter to the Chinese government, urging Beijing to refrain from forcibly repatriating a group of North Korean refugees under Chinese detention.

On Sept. 12, Chinese authorities had arrested a group of five defectors who were attempting to flee to South Korea, leaving the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang. The next day, the group of defectors were detained and sent to a police station in the port city of Qingdao, according to the letter from the U.N.

It is unclear whether the arrested North Koreans are a family. The group included a 49-year-old woman, a 48-year-old man, a 14-year-old girl, a woman who was six months pregnant, and another woman whose age is unknown, according to reports.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights produced a letter signed by Tomás Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur on North Korea human rights, and Nils Melzer, the special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, that was delivered to the Chinese government on Oct. 27.

The U.N. said any repatriation of the defectors would be a violation of Article 3 of the U.N. Convention against Torture, or UNCAT, which requires no government expel, return or extradite a person to another country where there are sufficient grounds to believe the individual would be subjected to torture.

During 2020, the number of North Korean defections to the South has dropped amid the coronavirus pandemic. Pyongyang has sealed its borders in response to COVID-19.

[UPI]

North Korean defection is South Korean military’s embarrassing border security breach

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The 2.5-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone separating South and North Korea is the most heavily fortified border in the world, guarded by tall barbed-wire fences, minefields, sensors and nearly two million troops on both sides.

But one man recently got through because of loose screws.

When the North Korean man, a former gymnast in his late 20s, crawled over the fence on the southern edge of the DMZ this month, he got past sensors set to trigger alarms to alert South Korean guards. It was the South Korean military’s most embarrassing breach of border security in years.

It raised a disturbing question: How could the man have defected undetected?

This week, the South Korean military said it had solved the mystery: The sensors had loose screws that made the system malfunction. There were no indications that the screws had been deliberately tampered with.

[The New York Times]

Kim Jong Un vents fury as pressure mounts over virus and economy

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Under pressure from the coronavirus pandemic and an ailing economy, Kim Jong Un is responding with fury, allowing at least two executions in the past three months, South Korea’s intelligence agency told a parliamentary briefing on Friday.

“Kim Jong Un is taking irrational actions,” opposition lawmaker Ha Tae-keung told reporters after being briefed by Seoul’s National Intelligence Service. Ha said a foreign exchange dealer was executed in late October, while an official at a customs post on the Chinese border was put to death in August for failing to abide by strict rules on imports intended to prevent the coronavirus from entering the country.

The South Korean intelligence account could not be independently verified. But experts say that Kim is likely to be feeling pressure after closing the Chinese border at the start of the year as the coronavirus spread around the world.

The volume of North Korea’s trade with China dropped by 73 percent in the first three quarters of 2020 compared with same period last year, according to a report released by the Korea International Trade Association in Seoul. Ha, the South Korean lawmaker, said prices of sugar and spices in North Korea have risen fourfold as imports from China dried up, while whole cities and even provinces, mostly near the border, have been placed under temporary lockdowns this month after foreign currency smuggling or foreign goods were detected.

Ha said examples of North Korea’s “paranoia” about the risks of coronavirus included its refusal to accept 110,000 tons of rice aid offered by China and a decision to ban fishing and salt production in North Korean waters because of concerns that seawater could be contaminated with the virus.

[Washington Post]