Tools of the trade of North Korean assassins

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Investigators in Seoul have revealed some of the gadgets they claim are used by their bitter rivals from North Korea to assassinate political enemies in the South. The murderous catalogue of secret weapons reads like something from James Bond’s collection. The first weapon looks like an innocuous electric torch, except it is able to fire three bullets. The second is a ballpoint pen with a poisoned needle. The third is another “poison pen”, containing a bullet that both punctures the skin and releases a deadly toxin.

The weapons were found on a failed Pyongyang assassin last year, whose target was Park Sang-hak, an activist who has angered Pyongyang by sending helium-filled balloons containing propaganda leaflets into North Korea.

Pyongyang sent a former commando, known as “Ahn” and disguised as a defector, to Seoul to kill Mr Park. He pretended to be keen to join Mr Park’s activist movement, but was foiled by intelligence services and jailed for four years in April. Ahn had been in South Korea for 17 years before the assassination attempt, having worked with numerous groups opposing the government in North Korea.

In 2010, two North Korean army officers tried to assassinate activist Hwang Jang-yop, a former official from North Korea who defected to South Korea, which seriously angered the late leader of the North, Kim Jong-il. Mr Hwang subsequently died of a heart attack, although there are question marks over what might have caused it.

Similar activities previously included:

On 21 January, 1968, a group of 31 North Korean commandos infiltrated the Blue House, the official residence of the president of South Korea, Park Chung-hee, to “slit his throat” as the only commando captured alive described his mission.

In 1974 the mother of South Korea’s current presidential election candidate, Park Geun-hye, was killed by North Korean assassins, who tried for a second time to kill her father, then President, as he delivered a speech.

In 1983, North Korean assassins struck again, this time in Burma, when they exploded a bomb during a ceremony. President Chun Doo-hwan, who was on an official visit to Rangoon, escaped but 21 people were killed.

Source: The Independent

Kim Jong Un “Sexiest Man Alive”

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The online version of China’s Communist Party newspaper has hailed a report by The Onion naming North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un as the “Sexiest Man Alive” — not realizing it is satire.

The People’s Daily on Tuesday ran a 55-page photo spread on its website in a tribute to the round-faced leader, under the headline “North Korea’s top leader named The Onion‘s Sexiest Man Alive for 2012.”

Quoting The Onion‘s spoof report, the Chinese newspaper wrote, “With his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-bred heartthrob is every woman’s dream come true.”

“Blessed with an air of power that masks an unmistakable cute, cuddly side, Kim made this newspaper’s editorial board swoon with his impeccable fashion sense, chic short hairstyle, and, of course, that famous smile,” the People’s Daily cited The Onion as saying.

It is not the first time a state-run Chinese newspaper has fallen for a fictional report by the just-for-laughs The Onion. In 2002, the Beijing Evening News, one of the capital city’s biggest tabloids at the time, published as news the fictional account that the U.S. Congress wanted a new building and that it might leave Washington. The Onion article was a spoof of the way sports teams threaten to leave cities in order to get new stadiums.

North Korean decision-maker Jang Song-Taek

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After only the second power transition in North Korea’s history, the government, essentially a Kim family criminal enterprise, appears to be stable.  However, the regime’s foundation is weak.

Last December “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il died, and his son, Kim Jong-un, tagged the “Great Successor,” was left nominally in charge.  However, it remains unclear if Kim also is the Great Decision-maker. Kim is surrounded by party officials and military officers who have long awaited their turn to rule.  Who is most accomplished at brutal intrigue?  Probably not the spoiled brat who spent his time in Swiss boarding school playing computer games and American basketball.

Greater power likely lies with Jang Song-Taek  (Kim Jong-un’s uncle), Kim Kyong-hui  (Kim Jong-un’s aunt) and other regime elders. Indeed, Jang’s experience with Kim family governance—he was purged and rehabilitated by both his father-in-law and brother-in-law—suggests that he might not desire to elevate the third generation to supreme power.

In any case, Jang promoted his ally Choe Ryong-hae to oversee the military. And the State Security Ministry, long overseen to some degree by Jang, also has gained in status.

Escape from North Korea

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Within and beyond China, remarkable heroes extend the North Korean Underground escape networks into numerous Asian countries as they work to assist North Koreans’ escape to freedom in South Korea and beyond. These heroes include:

  • Steve Kim, founder of 318 Partners (named for Article 318 of the Chinese criminal code which sent him to jail for aiding North Koreans in China);
  • “Mary and Jim,” a retired couple, who run orphanages in China for mixed children abandoned by missing North Korean mothers and desperate Chinese fathers (the undocumented status of these children makes them ineligible for adoption);
  • “Mr. Jung,” who has undergone face-changing surgeries to repeatedly fool Chinese authorities while rescuing South Korean prisoners of war held illegally in North Korea since 1953.

The tenacity of such brave individuals is sharply contrasted with the failure of the world – especially South Korea, the United States, even the United Nations – to confront and combat North Korea’s atrocities.

Melanie Kirkpatrick is a methodical writer, and her recent book “Escape from North Korea” offers an eye-opening opportunity to explore an overlooked, pressing topic. She shares with readers the harrowing testimonies, the wrenching struggles, and the inspiring successes of the North Korean Underground. Read more


What influence will China’s new leader exert on North Korea?

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Chosun Ilbo projects that China’s new leader Xi Jinping is unlikely to change the country’s relationship with North Korea drastically, but experts predict Xi could push for specific reform plans and greater market opening. “They will ask North Korea for more specific and tangible reforms and market-opening measures than in the Hu Jintao era,” said Choo Jae-woo at Kyunghee University.

“Beijing believes it is important to stabilize North Korea and halt its nuclear ambitions to benefit China’s economic growth,” said Park Byung-kwang at the Institute for National Security Strategy. “China thinks it is possible to stabilize North Korea and resolve the nuclear dilemma over the long-term by strengthening economic cooperation.”

North Korea is finding it increasingly difficult to ignore China’s demands. The North’s dependence on China for trade rose from 52 percent in 2005 to 84 percent last year. And 90 percent of the crude oil North Korea uses comes from China.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is expected to visit China and meet Xi as soon as possible. Some forecast a visit to China by Kim as early as January. He will also be looking for handouts from China ahead of the birthdays of former leader Kim Jong-il (Feb. 16) and nation founder Kim Il-sung (April 15).

Chinese experts have said that Beijing’s influence on the stubborn North Korean military is limited. If on the other hand China’s relationship with the U.S. worsens, North Korea’s strategic value increases. “China-North Korea relations will be closely related to China-U.S. relations, inter-Korean relations and China-South Korea relations,” said a diplomatic source.

A Swiss view of North Korea

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According to former Swiss federal councillor’s Peter Vollmer, just back from a trip to North Korea with a group of Swiss politicians, “North Korea has a cell phone network with its own frequency, and there is internet service, but it’s very limited. You can make a phone call, but it’s complicated. You don’t see any satellite dishes”.

The tour group visited a number of Swiss-funded aid projects, such as an agricultural one with a focus on cultivation methods for steep slopes. In addition, Switzerland has been supplying milk powder which is enriched with vitamins and distributed to infants, schools, hospitals and day care centres through the World Food Programme (WFP). “The project makes sense and helps the population,” Vollmer said.

There is little traffic outside Pyongyang and hardly any private transport. “On the highway, our bus was all alone. There were potholes, and we also drove on dirt roads – where corn was being dried and pedestrians and cyclists were travelling, too. It was pretty demanding for our driver; it took two hours to cover 60 kilometres.”

“Some of North Korea looks like Switzerland’s Emmental. Gently rolling hills plus steep slopes and many mountains with little arable farmland.” Although North Korea’s landscape is similar to that of the Emmental, he adds “the country is still a far cry from a democratic civil society”.

According to Vollmer, an atmosphere of change had prevailed there during his last visit in 1985. “At that time, agricultural mechanization was taking off there, and North Korea was developing its own tractors. But the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union brought on a total collapse. From one day to the next, Russia turned off the oil spigot and only delivered in exchange for hard currency, while the North Korean economy was on the brink of ruin. Then came the great famine – a huge setback,” Vollmer said.

Today the country is heavily de-industrialised; productivity is low, crop yields modest and infrastructure obsolete. You see factories that no longer operate, and because of international sanctions, there are no spare parts.

“People are constantly walking somewhere briskly, often carrying heavy loads. They march for 20 or 30 kilometres, sometimes with ox carts,” Vollmer said. He says the little-developed railway network is mainly used for the transport of goods, while people often travel in 50-year-old open trucks.

“We were able to take photos of everything except military installations. Earlier, there was a soldier stationed at every intersection, bridge and tunnel, but this is no longer the case,” Vollmer said.

Vollmer is aware that his group only saw a tiny part of the country during its short visit. And the chaperones were omnipresent. But in his opinion, North Korea is a poor country that is trying to meet the basic needs of its population – albeit at a very low level.

The Information Age stifled in North Korea

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With one million cell phones in North Korea and a government-sponsored intranet, the regime believes it can survive the advent of information technology by restricting its use to the most elite of the population who have the largest stake in the survival of the regime as it currently exists.

North Korea intentionally restricts access to information to control its population.  TV and radios in North Korea are hardwired to only receive government-controlled media. Foreign newspapers and periodicals are forbidden.

North Koreans are not free to travel within the country without government permission. Foreigners who visit North Korea are carefully controlled by their (two) minders who keep them from interacting with the North Korean populace. In short, North Korea has traditionally viewed controlling the flow of information to its population as a fundamental necessity to ensure the survival of the state.

It is surprising then to see that the North Korea state has sanctioned the use of cell phones and other information technology. There are now more than 1 million third-generation cell phones in North Korea, as part of the Koryolink cell phone system. These phones can call other members of the Koryolink network, but cannot make calls outside of the country.

There is also a state-sponsored intranet in North Korea, called Kwangmyong. The intranet is restricted to elites in North Korea with good social standing. The intranet features message boards, chat functions, and state sponsored media; its use has also been encouraged among university students, technical experts and scientists, and others to exchange information.

Very few North Koreans have access to the unfiltered Internet. Andrei Lankov, a leading North Korean expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, estimated this number to be “a few dozen families” including Kim Jong-Un’s clan. Other select North Koreans may have restricted and/or monitored access to the Internet to gather data on the U.S. and South Korea, find content to populate the intranet, and maintain the North Korean government’s propaganda web sites.

The Coming North Korean Famine

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From an article by Andrew S. Natsios, a Texas A&M University professor, and former USAID administrator and Special Envoy to Sudan:

The U.N.’s annual crop assessment for North Korea will shortly be published. This assessment will show that drought early this summer seriously damaged the crop so that the harvest will drive the country, always on the edge of starvation, ever deeper into nutritional disaster.

While famines anywhere have terrible humanitarian consequences, in North Korea’s case in particular, they have political consequences because they have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. While the North Korean government has been building its nuclear arsenal and the maintaining the third largest land army in Asia, its people have been sliding into deepening poverty and acute malnutrition.

When Kim Jong Il died in late 2011, he left his 28-year-old son, Kim Jong Un, in charge of a government run by an aging party apparatus and military command structure. Bowing to Chinese pressure, Kim Jong Il appointed the boy’s uncle, Jang Song-taek, as Regent. To ensure the party cadres and military are loyal to the new leader, Taek has been forcing officials and generals into retirement to purge the system of the old order and ensure the loyalty of the new one. The purge, however, has created a class of officials angry at the new leadership for their loss of power and its perquisites.

All this could not come at a more inopportune time.

North Koreans outside their country

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An estimated 60,000-70,000 North Koreans labor outside the country, according to Seoul-based advocacy groups, working in factories in China, logging camps in Siberia and construction sites in the Middle East.

Others choose a more direct route. A middleman in Shenyang who says that he helps North Korean refugees escape to prosperous South Korea has seen women choosing to be sold into marriage in China, or to work in brothels.

“They want to flee home but there’s no other way than to be sold in a form of marriage,” said the Korean-speaking man who requested anonymity because of his safety.

“One person is worth 10,000 yuan-12,000 yuan.” (US$1600 – 1900)

North’s poverty where annual gross domestic product per capita is estimated to be just $1,800 on a purchasing power parity basis, based on an independent analysis.

North Korea’s cautious experiment with economic zone Hwanggumphyong

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Hwanggumphyong was launched with great fanfare in 2011 by Jang Song-thaek, the uncle of North Korea’s new ruler, with a pledge of tax breaks and repatriation of dividends, hoping to emulate a formula that has worked for economic zones the world over.

But for the moment, it remains little more than a small, boggy island.

The 14 km2 Hwanggumphyong island is one of four economic zones that were designed to be a magnet for Chinese capital and manufacturing. It lies on the Yalu river, across from the bustling Chinese border city of Dandong and one of the few areas where North Korea allows its citizens contact with the outside world.

Chinese investors are showing little appetite for North Korea, whose economy is worse off than it was 20 years ago from a combination of sanctions over its nuclear weapons ambitions, famine and mismanagement.

Many analysts say the North Korean leadership is terrified that reforms could weaken its iron grip on the state and it has repeatedly baulked at any sweeping changes, ignoring pressure from China, its only real ally, to emerge from a self-imposed cocoon.

China’s leverage is limited and its fear that North Korea could collapse appears to make it willing, albeit begrudgingly, to support the government of leader Kim Jong-un.