Asia in Review Archive (2019-2020)
North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic)
Date of AiR edition
12 January 2021
North Korea: Kim Jong-un granted General Secretary title, announces advancement of nuclear program
(dql) At the ruling Workers’ Party’s 8th congress on past Sunday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was granted title ‘General Secretary’, a largely symbolic move as he had already been the top official within the party as its chairman, but nevertheless seen by analysts as aimed at bolstering his authority amid economic challenges.
Besides announcing economic development goals and a reshuffle of party officials at the meeting, the first of its kind since 2016, Kim also pledged to develop more sophisticated nuclear weapons, including a nuclear-powered submarine, tactical nuclear weapons and advanced warheads designed to penetrate missile defense systems. His promise is widely seen as message to President-elect Joe Biden pressing him to resume talks and make concessions to Pyongyang after he takes office next week. [Deutsche Welle] [CNN]
15 December 2020
Inter-Korean relations: South Korea bans anti-North leaflets
(dql) South Korean’s parliament passed amendment to the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act to criminalize any scattering of printed materials, goods, money, and other items of value across the inner-Korean border. Furthermore, it restricts loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts, which for a long time had been used by the South Korean military as part of its psychological warfare against North Korea until it withdrew the equipment following a 2018 summit between the two Koreas.
Violating the new law is punishable with up to three years in prison or a fine of nearly 28.000 USD.
The ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) which pushed through the law with its majority of 174 seats in the 300-member parliament was criticized from the main opposition People Power Party, human rights activists and North Korea defectors for sacrificing freedom of expression to improve ties with the North. [Reuters] [The Guardian]
8 December 2020
South Korea: Parliamentary committee passes bill banning anti-North Korean leaflet campaigns
(dql) The Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee of the South Korean parliament last week passed a controversial bill which allows punishments of up to three years in jail or fines of up to more than 27.000 USD for those who distribute anti-North Korean leaflets at the military demarcation line.
With political parties being deeply divided over the bill, its passage was secured by the votes of committee members from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), while opposition party members boycotted the vote out of objection. The DPK justified the bill with the safety of residents in the border area. Opposition lawmakers, however, criticized the DPK’s decision as a “pathetic submission to the North” at the expense of South Koreans’ right to freedom of expression. The criticism refers to a complaint of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un‘s sister Kim Yo-jong who in June strongly condemned a leaflet campaign by a South Korean civic group, which tried to drop from balloons leaflets critical of North Korea’s human rights situation at the inner-Korean border, and announced retaliatory actions. [Korea Herald 1] [AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3] [AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2]
Human Rights Watch and other critics called on the National Assembly to reject the bill, warning that if passed the bill would violate citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and would make engaging in humanitarianism and human rights activism a criminal offense. [Human Rights Watch] [Korea Herald 2]
Despite these criticisms, the bill is expected to be approved by plenary vote in the National Assembly later this month without problems, given that the DPK holds the absolute majority in the 300-seat parliament.
8 December 2020
North Korea-US relations: US Department to offer rewards for tips on sanctions evasions
(dql) The US Department of State last week announced that it will offer rewards up to 5 million USD for information about sanctions evasions that help North Korea continue the development of nuclear weapons including money laundering, the export of luxury goods to North Korea, and cyberoperations, among others.
It also accused China of “seeking to undo” the United Nations sanctions regime and of hosting at least 20,000 North Korean laborers in violation of UN bans, adding that in 2019 ships carrying prohibited coal or other sanctioned goods from North Korea to China were observed on more than 500 separate occasions, with Beijing not stopping them once. [Aljazeera]
24 November 2020
Asian countries divided over UN death penalty moratorium
(dql) In a poll on a resolution which calls for a moratorium on the use of capital punishment eleven countries from the Asia-Pacific region were among the 39 countries which voted against the resolution in the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly. They include Afghanistan, Brunei Darussalam, China, India, Japan, the Maldives, North Korea, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, and Tonga.
120 countries voted for the resolution, including over 15 Asia-Pacific countries. Among them are Sri Lanka and the Philippines. 24 countries abstained from the vote. Asia-Pacific countries among these are Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. [Human Rights Watch]
24 November 2020
Inter-Korean relations: Seoul not co-sponsoring UN resolution on North Korea’s rights abuses
(dql) South Korea has opted out of co-sponsoring a UN resolution on human rights violations in North Korea, which was adopted last week by the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly. The resolution, drafted by the European Union and sponsored by 58 countries, condemns Pyongyang’s practices of forced labor, abductions, and arbitrary detention, while urging Pyongyang to permit assistance from international humanitarian agencies. The resolution, if adopted by the UN General Assembly, would be the 16th of its kind since 2005. [Korea Times]
It is the second consecutive year in which South Korea decided not to co-sponsor the resolution. The decision is widely believed to maintain door open for inter-Korean peace talks. [Korea Herald]
North Korea condemned the resolution, calling it “political ploy” that has “nothing to do with improving human rights.” [UPI]
The US, meanwhile, imposed sanctions on a Russian construction company and a North Korean trading company accused of being involved in exporting forced labor from North Korea. According to US estimations, Pyongyang was earning over 500 million USD annually almost 100,000 workers abroad of which around 50.000 were in China and 30.000 in Russia. [Reuters]
17 November 2020
North Korea believed to have up to 60 nuclear warheads
(dql) According to findings of the Institute for National Strategic Studies, a research institute affiliated with the US National Defense University, North Korea is in possession of 15 and 60 nuclear warheads and approximately 650 ballistic missiles capable of attacking cities in South Korea, as well as in Japan and eastern China.
The institute further says that Pyongyang has sold and transferred military technology to Iran, helping It advance its ballistic missile programs. [Korea Times]
3 November 2020
Inter-Korean relations: Pyongyang accuses Seoul of planning a second THAAD deployment
(dql) North Korea has warned South Korea of a path to “self-destruction”, claiming Seoul and Washington on a plan for the stable stationing of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, which Pyongyang views as aimed at paving the way for an additional THAAD deployment.
In 2016, South Korea and the US decided to deploy a THAAD battery to counter missile threats from North Korea which had led to strained relations between South Korea and China. [Yonhap]
Meanwhile, South Korea and the United States are closely watching movements at North Korea’s major Yongbyon nuclear complex, following satellite images showing “smoke or vapor” emanating from a building just south of its uranium enrichment plant. [Korea Herald]
27 October 2020
China-US relations: Xi Jinping signals strength in Korean War address amid Pentagon’s approval of arms sales to Taiwan
(dql) Chinese president Xi Jinping used his address on occasion of the 70th anniversary of China’s entry into the Korean war against American forces to send a signal of strength towards the US. Speaking from the Great Hall of the People in Beijing last Friday, Xi hailed the “War to resist US aggression and aid Korea” – as the Korean War is called in China – as a demonstration of China’s military might against American imperialists. Drawing a lesson for the present day, Xi claimed that the “Chinese people understood that you must use the language that invaders can understand – to fight war with war and to stop an invasion with force, earning peace and respect through victory.” Without explicitly mentioning the US, he added: “In today’s world, any unilateralism, protectionism, or extreme egoism will never work. Any form of blackmail, blockade, or extreme pressure will never work. Any act of pursuing one’s own course or seeking hegemony, tyranny, or bullying will never work.” Quoting Mao Zedong, he reassured the world “that ‘the people of China are now organized and are not to be trifled with’.” [Xinhua, in Chinese] [The Diplomat]
The assertive speech comes amid news about latest US arms sales to Taiwan, with the US Defense Department approving a potential sale of advanced weapons systems to Taiwan worth 1.8 billion USD earlier last week. The sales include sensors, missiles and artillery, as well as drones and land-based Harpoon anti-ship missiles that are supposed to serve as coastal defense cruise missiles. The offensive weapons included in this package are capable of hitting mainland Chinese coastal areas, marking the first such sales in more than four decades. China threatened to “make a legitimate and necessary response” to Washington’s approval. [Reuters] [South China Morning Post]
In response, China announced that it will impose sanctions on several US companies that are associated with the arms sales. The sanctions will be aimed, inter alia, at Boeing Co.’s defense unit and Lockheed Martin Corp. – two contractors of the US military. [Associated Press] [CNN]
For the demand of “break[ing] Taiwan’s military out of 40 years of isolation” as a substantial increase of US military support for Taiwan “that would make the difference, way beyond an official statement clarifying American support for Taiwan,” see Grant Newsham in [AND Magazine].
20 October 2020
Inter-Korean relations: Pyongyang’s development of missile capabilities faster than expected by Seoul
(dql) According to South Korea’s Agency for Defense Development, the country’s agency for research and development in defense technology, North Korea is developing its missile capabilities at a much higher pace than believed. The Agency’s conceded his surprise, stating that his assumption that South Korea is about 20 years ahead of North Korea needed to be corrected to 10 years.
The finding is based on an analysis of images of North Korea’s October 10 parade held to mark the 75th founding anniversary of its ruling Workers’ Party at which a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), along with other weapons, were showcased. [Korea Herald]
29 September 2020
Inter-Korean relations: South Korean official killed by North Korean troops
(dql) South Korea has accused North Korea of killing an official of the Ministry of Oceans and Fishery which marks the first death of a South Korea citizen since 2008 when North Korean soldiers shot a woman while wandering into a restricted zone during a visit to a natural resort, jointly run by both Koreas. In an immediate response, Seoul called the killing a “brutal act” and tightened its military readiness posture to step up monitoring of North Korean military moves particularly near the tense sea border, calling the killing a [Korea Times]
North Korea leader Kim Jong-un, meanwhile, extended in a notice sent to South Korea’s presidential Blue House an apology, vowing to “prevent this unfortunate incident from happening again.” [CNN]
In a latest development, South Korea’s presidential office called for a joint investigation into the killing and expanded the search for the missing fisheries official, involving six aircraft and more than 40 vessels. Dismissing Seoul’s call, Pyongyang announced that it is conducting its own search while at the same time accusing South Korea of intruding its territorial waters. [The Guardian] [Reuters]
The incident is the latest in a string of setbacks of inter-Koran peace talks. In June, the North blew up a joint liaison office after South Korean NGOs sent via balloons with anti-North leaflets across the joint border. [AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3] [AiR No. 25, June/2020, 4]
22 September 2020
North Korea-USA relations: Washington concerned about Pyongyang-Teheran nuclear weapons cooperation
(dql) In response to a reporter’s question on whether the USA had seen evidence of Tehran and Pyongyang resuming cooperation on the development of long-range missile, US envoy for Iran and Venezuela0 Elliott Abrams said that Washington is concerned about such a cooperation, adding that the USA would “do whatever in can to prevent it. [Korea Joong Ang Daily]
The statement comes shortly after US President Trump imposed new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear weapons program, claiming it is enforcing a UN arms embargo and demanding that the European Union follows suit. The move was rejected by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as well as by overwhelming majority of members in the 15-nation U.N. Security Council. [Politico]
8 September 2020
North Korea: Six party dialogue to be reinstalled?
(dql) Amid stalled US-North Korean and inter-Korean talks on denuclearization and peace on the Korean peninsula, a revival of the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program in the form of a six-way summit was suggested by a special security adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, arguing that this format is necessary to yield success as the issue involves more countries than the two Koreas and the USA. Backing this suggestion, Moon said that although the USA is able to provide Pyongyang with regime security or sanctions relief it cannot provide economic or energy-related support, adding that in these areas cooperation from other countries, like China and Japan, would be needed. [Yonhap]
Involving the two Koreas, the USA, China, Russia and Japan, the six-party dialogue was launched in 2003 and saw five rounds of talks until 2007, before Pyongyang dropped out following the United Nations Security Council’s Presidential Statement which condemned the North Korean failed satellite launch and stated the Council’s intention to expand sanctions on North Korea.
In a related development, South Korea’s and the US top nuclear envoys agreed in a phone talk held last week to step up efforts to resume talks with North Korea to yield substantive progress in efforts to achieve complete denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula. [Korea Herald]
1 September 2020
Inter-Korean relations: North-Korea release pictures to invalidate claims Kim Jong-un being in coma
(dql) Amid claims of a former South Korean diplomat that North Korea leader Kim Jong-un has been in coma since April and reports of South Korean Intelligence that his sister has been given power to partially state affairs after being promoted to the de-facto deputy leader, Pyongyang released images showing him at a meeting of politburo of the Workers Party, discussing the situation of coronavirus pandemic in the country. [Daily Mail] [CNN]
Seoul claims come at a time when the inter-Korean peace progress has seen setbacks in the past month an US-North Korean denuclearization talks have been halted.
For an analysis of decision-making with regards to nuclear doctrine in North Korea, see [Rand Corporation].
25 August 2020
China-South Korea relations: Chinese top diplomat meets South Korean top national security advisor
(dql) Last week, China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi met South Korea’s Director of the National Security Office Suh Hoon in Busan to discuss trade, denuclearization and the coronavirus response, with both sides confirming “ a very good conversation” as well as a visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to South Korea schedule for “an early date” once the COVID-19 situation is stabilized. [Reuters] [Yonhap]
The meeting comes amid a stalemate in denuclearization talks between the USA and North Korea as well as an impasse in inter-Korean relations. In this situation improving ties with Beijing, which have been rather stuck for the recent years following Seoul’s agreement to the deployment of U.S. missile defense system on South Korean soil in 2017, is one possible for Seoul to make diplomatic and economic gains, Gabriela Bernal argues in [The Diplomat].
18 August 2020
North Korea has up to 60 nuclear bombs
(dql) According to the US Army latest report, North Korea is possessing between 20 and 60 nuclear bombs and has the capacity to produce six new ones per year. Furthermore, Pyongyang is the world’s third-largest holder of chemical agents, potentially maintaining a 2,500- to 5,000-ton stockpile of 20 chemical weapons while at the same overseeing electronic warfare operations involving more than 6,000 computer hackers working internationally to gather intelligence, disable enemy networks and commit financial crimes. [Korea Herald]
11 August 2020
Inter-Korean relations: Seoul blames Pyongyang for breach of communications agreement
(dql) Reflecting the current impasse in inter-Korean relations, South Korea has criticized the North Pyongyang for breaking a communications agreement by not having informed Seoul in advance about its recent release of a dam water located near the Military Demarcation Line. The agreement was concluded in 2009 following the deaths of six people after the North discharged water without informing the South in advance. [KBS] [Korea Times]
Pyongyang’s move is the latest in a string of events demonstrating rapidly souring relations between the two Korea’s following the hopeful conclusion of the Panmunjom Declaration in April 2018 in which both sides vowed to work towards a final peace to the Korean conflict within a year and the complete denuclearization of Korea. A striking recent example for the failure of this peace process is Pyongyang’s blowing up of a joint liaison office in June after South Korean activists send of leaflets criticizing North Korea via balloons from South Korea to the North. [AiR No. 25, June/2020, 4]
11 August 2020
North-Korea in possession of miniaturized nuclear devices?
(dql) A United Nations interim report submitted by an independent panel monitoring the UN sanctions against North Korea confirms that Pyongyang “is continuing its nuclear program, including the production of highly enriched uranium and construction of an experimental light water reactor.” The report, furthermore, stated that nations believed that Pyongyang has been able to establish “miniaturized nuclear devices to fit into the warheads of its ballistic missiles.” [Deutsche Welle]
4 August 2020
South Korea’s government criticized for campaign against North-Korea human rights NGOs
(dql) Human Rights Watch has criticized the South Korean government for what the human rights organization calls a “campaign” to intimidate non-government organizations working for improvements of the human rights situation in North Korea.
HRW’s criticism refers to a recent order of the country’s Unification Ministry demanding that those NGOs comply with abrupt review deadlines, provide burdensome documentation of their work and face possible office inspections. [Human Rights Watch]
The move is unprecedented and comes against the background of the sending of leaflets via balloons in May from South Korea to North Korea by activist groups criticizing North Korea’s nuclear threats against South Korea. Pyongyang, angered about these actions, pressed Seoul to take action against those groups, reinforcing its demand by blowing up the joint liaison office. Eventually, the registration of those groups were revoked for “seriously hindering the unification policy of the government.” Furthermore, Seoul announced to revise laws to prohibit sending leaflets to the North. [AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2] [AiR No. 25, June/2020, 4]
28 July 2020
North Korea: Bleak prospects for de-nuclearization?
(yo) In a provocative speech, held on the occasion of the 67th anniversary of the armistice of the Korean War, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un stated that he believes North Korea will not need to engage in wars as Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons will deter external threats and allow the country to defend itself “against any high pressure and military threats of imperialists and hostile forces,” adding that future negotiations should shift the focus to halting US hostility rather than using sanctions relief to bargain denuclearization.
While North Korea has been constantly justifying the pursuit of nuclear weapons for defensive objectives in the past, Kim’s aggressive statement and posture reflects the current impasse in denuclearization talks and indicates how difficult it will be to overcome it. [CNN]
Meanwhile, South Korea’s Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo expressed gratitude to the United Nations Command (UNC) for its decades-long commitment to peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the unified command for the multinational military forces, established in 1950 to support South Korea during and after the Korean War. [Korea Herald]
21 July 2020
North Korea proceeds down a nuclear path
(yo) The “closed-door meeting” of the Workers’ party of the North Korea’s Central Military Commission which took place on July 18 insinuates that North Korea plans to continue developing and eventually producing strategic weapons. North Korea released photos of the CMC meeting, which revealed that nuclear weapons specialists were attending the meeting. The photo communicates the message that nuclear program remains key to the Commission’s policy and is consistent with recent statements about planning for threats coming from the US and strengthening own capabilities. [28 North]
21 July 2020
South Korean lawsuit filed against Kim Jong-un’s sister
(yo) A South Korean conservative activist lawyer filed a suit against Kim Yo-jong, sister of the North Korean leader Kim Yong-un, accusing her of being responsible for the blowing of the drastically deteriorating relationship between the two Koreas. South Korean prosecutors said they were looking into the litigation, but said that they would not be able to formally investigate Kim Yo-jong nor bring her to court. The lawyer admitted the implausibility of being able to carry out the investigation and forcing North Korea to pay compensation for destroying a building funded by South Korea. He noted the suite was a symbolic gesture, criticising the Moon administration’s lack of assertiveness in dealing with the North.
Under South Korean Constitution North Korea and its people are recognised as part of South Korea and lawsuits can be tried without defendants in court but it is most likely prosecutors will drop the case. [New York Times]
14 July 2020
North Korea announces retaliation against U.K.’s sanctions
(yo) Last week the U.K. issued sanctions against North Korea, targeting the country’s Ministry of State Security Bureau and Ministry of People’s Security Correctional Bureau considered by London to be involved in humanitarian crimes, including forced labour, torture, and murder. The sanctions include asset freezes on both targeted agencies. [NK News]
In response, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry criticized Britain for following US’s hostile policy and making a “violent interference in domestic affairs” and announced that it “will pay the price” for what it called a as the institutions are directly responsible for the state’s security. [Bloomberg]
14 July 2020
North Korea reassures: US concessions before third Trump/Kim summit
(dql) Amid stalled talks between North Korea and the USA, US President Trump announced last week his readiness for another summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. It would be the third summit after the first in June 2018 and the second in February 2019. [VoA]
In response, Kim’s sister demanded that Washington offers major concessions in order to re-open keep diplomatic channels for talks on Pyongyang’s denuclearization, adding that ” if there is a need for summit talks, it is a U.S. need, while for North Korea, it is “unpractical and does not serve us at all.” [AP]
7 July 2020
North Korea: No interest in talks with the US
(yo) Reflecting deteriorated relations between North Korea and the USA, a veteran North Korean diplomat ruled out any possibility of resuming negotiations with the US before US presidential elections in November, pointing to a “detailed strategic timetable” Pyongyang has in place to cope with the “long-term threat from the U.S.“ [The Diplomat]
This comment was made as a response to Seoul’s Unification Ministry stating that diplomacy remained their objective and that South Korean President Moon Jae-in proposed a third official summit between the key leaders. [United Press International]
30 June 2020
Inter-Korean relations: Pyongyang reinstalls propaganda loudspeakers along demilitarized zone
(dql) In the latest sign of deteriorating inter-Korean relations, Pyongyang has started to reinstall loudspeakers along the inter-Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), shortly ahead of the 70th anniversary of the begin of the Korean War on June 25. The loudspeakers, used to disseminate proclamations on the superiority of the North’s socialist regime, had been removed in 2018 at the height of inter-Korean peace and cooperation talks. [The Diplomat]
The move comes a week after North Korea had blown up a joint liaison office that has been built on North Korean soil by South Korea and used for talks between the two Koreas. [AiR No. 25, June/2020, 4]
For an explanation of Pyongyang’s resolve to recent tensions and its motives see the podcast with former CIA analyst and Brookings Senior Fellow Jung Pak at [Brookings].
30 June 2020
North Korea’s and Iran’s common enemy: the USA
(yo) North Korea’s new ambassador to Iran met President Hassan Rouhani to discuss about their common enemy, the USA. Rouhani after the meeting communicated his willingness to further bilateral ties to strengthen their abilities to confront US hegemony. Iran and North Korea have consistently been corresponding about deepening relations and have dispatched numerous delegations throughout the past few years. [NK News]
Meanwhile, according the North Korea state media North Korea is willing to use nuclear weapons against the USA, as it believes it to be the only option that is left to counter nuclear threats from Washington after diplomatic efforts have failed to yield results. [US News]
23 June 2020
Inter-Korean relations: North Korea blows up joint liaison office
(yo) In a highly symbolic move, North Korea has blown up a joint liaison office that has been built on North Korean soil by South Korea and used for talks between the two Koreas. The demolition of the office is the latest sign of deteriorating inter-Korean relations.
Pyongyang called the move a retaliatory measure after a group of defectors used balloons to send anti-North Korean leaflets north of the DMZ. [AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2] and announced that it will re-militarize some sections of the border. In response, South Korea’s defense ministry said that it will vigilantly follow the North’s actions, being ready to respond “strongly” to any aggressive provocations. [CNN]
Meanwhile, taking political responsibility for the deteriorating inter-Korean relations in inter-Koran peace talk, Kim Yeon-chul, South Korea’s Unification Minister offered his resignation which President Moon accepted. Kim has not had any personal interactions with officials from Pyongyang during the 14 months of his tenure. [The Guardian] [Korea Times]
16 June 2020
North Korea says Army ready for action on South Korea
(yo) Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong threatened to take military action against South Korea, claiming it is time to break relations with South Korea. She announced that she will exercise her power to instruct the army, which experts comment as a strategy to bolster her authority within the state. The Unification Ministry in South Korea urged North Korea to respect inter-Korean agreements and the past reconciliation efforts that have been made. The Defense Ministry stated they will maintain alert and ready. [Bloomberg]
Although Kim was responding to the activists that have been sending anti-Pyongyang propaganda, the intensifying aggression is considered to be caused by the frustration of “failed diplomacy” as there’s been little progress in peace talks between the two Koreas. [CNBC] [AiR No.23,June/2020, 2]
9 June 2020
North Korea: North Korea answers second liaison phone call from South Korea amid leaflet tensions
(yh) North Korea expressed anger about North Korean defectors and South Korean activists sending balloons that carry propaganda leaflets criticizing the North, one-dollar bills and USB memory sticks to attract North Korean citizens. Kim Yo jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister sent a statement threatening to close the inter-Korean liaison office, scrap an inter-Korean military tension reduction agreement as she accused South Korea of violating peace agreements banning hostilities against each other. [The Korea Herald]
In response, South Korea announced that it will push for new laws to ban activists from flying anti-Pyongyang leaflets over the border. [Market Watch]
2 June 2020
North Korea: Kim Jong Un demands money from North Korea’s elite
(yo) As North Korea faces an economic decline severely impacted by global pandemic and sanctions, Kim Jong-un makes adjustments in policies and management practices. The measure he has adopted is demanding cash from rich North Koreans, also known as donju. Experts say this is North Korea’s sharpest economic downturn since 1997, and that the adversity is proved by how Pyongyang aims to cover about 60% of state budget from this group of people. Observations of bond issues have been made, as “voluntary contributions” are made to counter challenges faced with hindered domestic commerce and trade with China.
Experts note these measures signify North Korea’s return to centralized control, and that the pandemic may be an opportunity for Kim to bolster control in foreign trade. Despite the crisis, Kim continues to dedicate large portions of financial resources to its military. [Financial Times]
26 May 2020
North Korea: Kim Jong-un moves to increase North Korea’s nuclear strength
(yo) After a long absence from public view, which had ignited rumors about his health, Kim Jong-un made his first public appearance last week in a meeting with his top military advisors which he convened to outline “policies for increasing nuclear war deterrence and putting the strategic armed forces on a high alert operation”. The promotion of nuclear and missile forces was expected among analysts after Kim announced last December that North Korea would no longer be bounded by a self-imposed moratorium on these arms. [The New York Times]
As a response, the US National Security Advisor Robert O-Brien said North Korea must give up on their nuclear program in order to make progress in economic development and diplomatic matters. China’s top diplomat Wang Yi, meanwhile, urged the two states to overcome deadlock and reach a concrete solution. He raised the possibility of relaxing UN sanctions as a potential solution to the stalemate in US-DPRK conversations. He argues this step could ease economic and livelihood difficulties, creating the conditions for an agreement. [NK News]
12 May 2020
North Korea: South Korean naval exercises violate inter-Korean agreement
(ef) North Korea condemned the recent joint exercises by the South Korean Air Force and the South Korean Navy in the West Sea, adding that “everything was going back to the starting point before the Inter-Korean summit in 2018.”
Pursuant to the Inter-Korean Military Agreement, large-scale military exercises require consultations. The condemnation comes a week after the inter-Korean cross-border shooting at the DMZ. [AiR No. 18, May/2020, 1] [The Diplomat]
12 May 2020
Inter-Korean relations: Seoul proposes joint system against infectious diseases
(ef) Amid the pandemic, South Korea’s Unification Minister has proposed a joint response system to future infectious diseases. Due to a variety of wild plants blooming in North Korea, development of natural medicine would be possible.
The proposal comes after President Moon has repeatedly pushed for cross-border healthcare cooperation with regards to the pandemic. Thus far, North Korea has not responded to the offers. According to the Unification Minister, UN sanctions would not be a hindrance to this as the UN’s stance is that the main objective should be the overcoming of the pandemic. [Korea Times]
5 May 2020
Inter-Korean relations: Exchange of gunfire across DMZ
(ef) In violation of the Comprehensive Military Agreement of 2018, gunfire was exchanged at the Korean Demilitarized Zone in Cheorwon. In the morning hours of Sunday, South Korean soldiers heard gunshots and subsequently found four bullet marks on a guard post. Following the response protocol, South Korean soldiers issued a broadcast warning and fired 20 shots in response – 10 rounds each time.
Thus far, North Korea has not explained the firing although there were apt possibilities to do so in a timely fashion. However, due to foggy conditions and the absence of tactical targets in sight, the South Korean military presumes that the firing was unintentional. No casualties were reported. [Korea Herald] [Korea Herald 2] [Korea Times]
It is the first reported exchange of gunfire between the North and South Korea along the border since 2017. It coincided with the reemergence of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un who was absent for 20 days.
5 May 2020
North Korea-USA relations: Pompeo reaffirms denuclearization mission
(ef) US Secretary of State reaffirmed the foreign policy goal of denuclearizing North Korea in order to ‘create a brighter future for North Korean people’. The statement came shortly after Kim Jong-un’s return to the public eye after 20 days ending rumors of the North Korean leader’s death. [Korea Herald 1]
Meanwhile, two US Senators introduced legislation that would bar President Trump from taking military action against North Korea unless authorized by Congress or following a North Korean preemptive strike. [Korea Herald 3]
28 April 2020
Inter-Korean relations: Moon vows to improve inter-Korean cooperation
(ef) On the occasion of the second anniversary of the inter-Korean summit and the adoption of the Panmunjom Declaration, South Korean President Moon vowed to find ways to improve cooperation with North Korea suggesting a joint response to Covid-19 as a possible area of cooperation within what he called “the most realistic and realizable path to inter-Korean relations” given international constraints, in particular the ongoing impasse between Pyongyang and Washington over de-nuclearization and UN sanctions against North Korea.
In a related move to underscore its pledge to push for inter-Korean cooperation, the government held a ceremony to celebrate a railway project which connects the rail networks of North and South Korea. The project is expected to be completed by the end of the year. However, no representatives of North Korea took part in the event. Neither, did North Korean state media mention the anniversary of the inter-Korean summit. [Korea Times] [Korea Herald 1]
Meanwhile, the UN Human Rights Office has urged North Korea to improve prison conditions in light of the pandemic as prisoners were “locked up in cramped conditions” that make them vulnerable for rapidly spreading infections. Pyongyang, however, insist that there were no infections in North Korea. [Korea Herald 2]
For a critical assessment of Moon’s focus on a bilateral inter-Korean peace building approach see Lauren Richardson at [East Asia Forum] who criticizes the South Korean president for neglecting to incorporate Japan in his strategic thinking given that “[a]s long as Pyongyang remains in an antagonistic relationship with Tokyo, it is difficult to envision the Kim regime laying down its defences.”
21 April 2020
US spy planes monitor North Korea
(dql) Two US spy planes, the US Air Force’s E-8C and Navy’s P-3C, have been spotted flying over South Korea, in what appears to be a mission to monitor North Korea.
In response to Pyongyang’s stepped-up military moves amid stalled denuclearization negotiations, Washington has deployed a series of reconnaissance aircraft in South Korea. [Korea Herald]
14 April 2020
North Korea: High-profile missiles fired a day before legislative election in South Korea
(dql) One day ahead of the national election in South Korea and the 108th birthday of North Korea’s founding father Kim Il-sung this Wednesday, North Korea has fired a salvo of suspected cruise missiles towards the Sea of Japan, in a major show of force. The launches are the most high-profile actions among a series of weapon tests the country has conducted recently amid frosty relations with the USA over stalled nuclear talks. [Aljazeera]
31 March 2020
North Korea: Dialogue with the US halted due to pressure from Pompeo
(ef) Although the correspondence between Kim Jong-un and Trump had recently improved [AiR No. 12, March/2020, 4], the North Korean Foreign Ministry has announced that their interest in dialogue has ceased after the US Secretary of State Pompeo asked the G7 to remain united with regards to North Korea. Reportedly, this statement has made North Korea “more zealous for [their] important planned projects aimed to repay the U.S. with actual horror and unrest for the sufferings it has inflicted upon [their] people”. [New York Times]
24 March 2020
North Korea: Trump writes to Kim Jong-un as further missile testing is conducted
(ef) According to the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, President Trump sent a letter to the North Korean leadership offering cooperation in the anti-pandemic work. The letter is viewed as an attempt to rekindle friendly relations which have dwindled after the 2019 summit in Vietnam. The letter came a day after a report of the third testing of short-range projectiles in the month of March. [Washington Post, AiR No. 9, March/2020, 1] It has been put forth that those launches could be interpreted as a protest against continuing UN sanctions. [The Korea Herald]
10 March 2020
South Korea: North Korean defectors’ political party launched
(ef) In a historic first, North Korean defectors launched a political party in South Korea. According to its representatives, the newly formed party, tentatively named ‘Inter-Korean Unification Party’ and claiming to represent more than 30.000 defectors, aims at “liberating” North Korea from autocratic rule and improving the rights of defectors. The launch comes after a former North Korean diplomat announced that he was running for the parliamentary elections on April 15. [Korea Herald] [Asia Times]
3 March 2020
North Korea testing weapons
(ef) Signalling a tough stance amid stalled de-nuclearization talks with the USA, North Korea has fired two short-range missiles into the East Sea between South Korea and Japan, just days after South Korea and the USA announced to postpone annual joint drills until further notice in the midst of the Covid-19. [Foreign Policy] [The Guardian].
The launches are the first since November and came weeks after Pyongyang declared its moratorium on long-range missile tests over. [AiR No. 4, January/2020, 4]
11 February 2020
North Korea accused of breach of UN sanctions
(dql) According to a United Nation report, North Korea continued to enhance its nuclear and ballistic missile programs in 2019 in violation of UN sanctions. Furthermore, the report accuses Pyongyang illicit import of refined petroleum and export of coal worth 370 million USD. [Reuters]
28 January 2020
North Korea: Nuclear freeze pledge abandoned
(dql) Prospects for a resumption of stalled North-Korean-U.S. denuclearization talks look bleak, after Pyongyang announced at last week’s Conference on Disarmament in Geneva that it was no longer bound by commitments to halt nuclear and missile testing. It justified this decision with Washington’s failure to meet the 2019 year-end deadline for nuclear talks and with the Trump administration’s “brutal and inhumane” sanctions. [ABC]
31 December 2019
North Korea: Kim Jong-un discusses “aggressive measures” to protect country’s sovereignty
(dql) North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un has reportedly spoken about and discussed “proactive and aggressive political, diplomatic and military response measures for ensuring the country’s sovereignty and security” during a plenary of an ongoing meeting of the Central Committee of the North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party which kicked off last Saturday. He suggested action to be taken in the areas of foreign affairs, the munitions industry and armed forces.
While Kim failed to reveal details of these “measures”, his statement has raised concerns that Pyongyang will resume tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons as its self-imposed year-end deadline, set for Washington to come up with new offers to break the impasse of stalled denuclearizations talks, is drawing near without any moves made by the Trump administration. [Korea Herald] [CNBC]
In response, US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, urged Kim to wisely choose between two paths: one on which North Korea “can become like South Korea, and be a very prosperous, very wealthy country,” or another that “takes [North Korea] down the road of sanctions and isolation and being a pariah state.” [NK News]
24 December 2019
China, Japan, South Korea agree to promote dialogue between USA and North Korea
(dql) At a trilateral summit in Chengdu this week, China, Japan and South Korea have vowed to work together to help promote the North Korea-US dialogue to end North Korea’s nuclear program. South Korean President Moon Jae-in confirmed in a joint news conference that “the three countries, agreed to continue close communication and cooperation toward denuclearization and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
The pledge comes amid the looming year-end deadline set by Pyongyang for Washington to change what it considers as a policy of hostility. The meeting is also a chance for Beijing to flex its diplomatic muscle and to present itself as weighty broker between Tokyo and Seoul whose ties have hit rock bottom in recent months over trade issues and disputes over compensation payment for South Korean victims of forced labor during Japan’s rule over the Korean Peninsula 1910-1945. [Aljazeera][Reuters]
17 December 2019
China and Russia propose partial removal of sanctions against North Korea
(dql) China, together with Russia, has reportedly called on the U.N. Security Council to lift sanctions to allow Pyongyang export statues, seafood and textiles, traditionally important revenue sources for North Korea. Beijing and Moscow described the move as attempt to encourage stalled talks between the USA and North Korea.
Washington, however, expressed disagreement on the proposal arguing that the it was premature as North Korea was still “threatening to conduct an escalated provocation, refusing to meet to discuss denuclearization, and continuing to maintain and advance its prohibited weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs.” [CNBC]
North Korea, meanwhile, does not shy away from further escalating already heightened tensions with the USA and declared that it will make use the recently tested new technologies to develop a strategic weapon to counter the US nuclear threat. The chief of the North Korean military’s General Staff added that Pyongyang has “stored up a tremendous power” and the military is fully ready to carry out any decision of leader Kim Jong-un. [Korea Herald]
10 December 2019
South Korea calls for China’s support in denuclearization process amid bleak prospects for US-North Korean talks
(dql) During the visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to South Korea last week, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in called for China to play am important role in denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, while Wang urged to established stronger strategic communication between Beijing and Seoul. [South China Morning Post]
The statements come amid concerns that the US-led denuclearization diplomacy will fall apart after North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations at the weekend declared that denuclearization is off the negotiating table with the United States. [CNBC]
3 December 2019
North Korea’s heavy reliance on China’s trade
(dql) Data presented Korea International Trade Association have revealed that North Korea’s trade reliance on China has jumped more than fivefold since 2001. While China’s proportion of the North’s overall external trade stood at 17.3% in 2001, it rose to 91.8% in 2018.
Meanwhile, Pyongyang reportedly launched two unidentified projectiles last week, the latest of 13 weapons tests so far this year. The test is seen as attempt to press the USA to meet the year-end deadline set by North Korea to offer a new initiative to salvage nuclear talks. [CBS]
19 November 2019
North Korean hacking attack on Indian nuclear facility
(ls) A cyberattack on an Indian nuclear power plant that was discovered in September appears to have been launched from North Korea as evidence seems to indicate. The incident shows an upgrade of North Korea’s cyberattack capabilities, which used to be deployed mostly against civilian targets. Now, North Korean hackers are also tasked with either disrupting atomic plants or stealing atomic technologies. [Asia Times]
The nuclear power plant’s employees are suspected to have opened phishing emails from North Korean spammers, accidentally installing malware on their computers, which then spread across the system. According to an investigative report, the attackers had acquired high-level access and struck “extremely mission-critical targets.” There are also rumors that a similar cyberattack affected India’s high-profile Moon mission Chandrayaan last month. The project collapsed after it lost contact with the spacecraft. [Asian Sentinel]
5 November 2019
North Korea launches rocket ahead of possible talks with U.S.
(ls) North Korea has conducted its third test-firing of a new “super-large” multiple rocket launcher that it says expands its ability to destroy enemy targets in surprise attacks. The launches followed statements of displeasure by top North Korean officials over the slow pace of nuclear negotiations with the United States and demands that sanctions and pressure on their country were eased. [South China Morning Post]
Meanwhile, South Korean member of parliament Lee Eun-jae said that North Korea and the United States could hold another round of working-level talks as soon as mid-November to expedite progress before a year-end deadline set by the North. [Reuters]
The United States and South Korea are also likely to suspend a planned air force military drill for the second straight year to avoid increasing tensions. [Straits Times]
24 September 2019
Japanese radar stations and MSDF crews failed to track recent North Korean missiles launches
(dql) In a blow to Japan’s missile defense network, Japan has failed to track the trajectory of some of North Korea’s new types of short-range missiles in a recent series of launches. Among them were missiles capable of reaching Japan which apparently escaped detection. [Defense World]
10 September 2019
North Korea: UN warns against Pyongyang’s cyberattacks on cryptocurrency exchanges amid plans for resumption of de-nuclearizations talks
(dql/jd) Amid stalled U.S.-North Korean denuclearization negotiations, the UN Security Council released a report which accuses Pyongyang of “us[ing] cyberspace to launch increasingly sophisticated attacks to steal funds from financial institutions and cryptocurrency exchanges to generate income”. The report also suggests that North Korea continues to advance its nuclear and missile programs referring to Pyongyang’s recent missile tests. [United Nations]
Despite these findings, the resumption of denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang seems to be within reach. While US Secretary of State Pompeo affirmed North Korea’s right to defend itself and assured Pyongyang of Washington’s security guarantees in case the regime would scrap nuclear weapons program. In response, North Korea voiced willingness to engage in “comprehensive discussions” with the United States in late September at a time and place agreed between both sides. Pyongyang, however, insists that Washington would have to “come out with an alternative based on a calculation method that serves both sides’ interests and is acceptable to us.” [Yonhap] [Aljazeera]
Shortly after this statement, North Korea fired two unknown projectiles from South Pyongan Province toward the sea off North Korea’s east coast, as confirmed by South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. [Voice of America]
3 September 2019
North Korea-USA denuclearization talks: Hope dwindling
(jd) On Saturday, a senior North Korean diplomat officially warned the US that hopes are fading for the continuation of the stalled denuclearization talks. The statement came after Pompeo criticized Pyongyang’s behavior in the light of the recent missile tests as “rogue,” which the diplomat rejected as “thoughtless” comment. [Aljazeera]
Amid stalled talks between Washington and Pyongyang, South Korea’s top nuclear envoy is set to meet the Russian Vice Foreign Minister to discuss North Korea’s denuclearization. They are expected to discuss how to facilitate the stalled negotiations between Pyongyang and the US. [Hankyoreh]
Meanwhile, a US reconnaissance plane flew over Seoul and its surrounding regions in a North Korean intelligence-gathering mission stepping up its surveillance of North Korea amid fears that Pyongyang would continue missile tests. Pyongyang defended again the weapons testing, arguing that it is crucial as a means to defend against “imperialistic behavior,” referring to the United States’ behavior in the region. Since late July, seven rounds of weapons testing have been conducted, primarily using short-range missiles and projectiles. [Korea Herald 2]
Complicating the situation, Japan claimed that Pyongyang is developing a new range of short-range ballistic missiles which penetrate a ballistic missile shield defending Japan. [Japan Times]
Date of AiR edition
16 July 2019
North Korea: Pyongyang condemns Seoul’s F-35 fighter jet purchase
(jd) In a move dimming expectations towards the possible resumption of nuclear talks between the USA and North Korea after the recent meeting between US President Donald and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the Demilitarized Zone [AiR 1/7/2019], Pyongyang has slammed South Korea for purchasing high-tech US stealth fighters, calling the purchase “impudent” and announcing as response that it has “no choice” but to develop “special armaments” to defend itself. South Korea received in March the first batch of F-35s and is to buy 40 F-35 fighter jets by 2021. [Reuters] [Wall Street Journal]
Pyongyang remarks come as Israel’s President Rivlin has arrived on Sunday in South Korea for a five-day visit cement cooperation between both countries, with a focus on regional security, a free trade agreement and advanced technologies. Israel-North Korea relations are hostile, with North Korea not recognizing Israel. [Yonhap]
Meanwhile US Forces Korea, in a recently published annual report “2019 Strategic Digest”, has acknowledged that North Korea’s Hwasong-15, an intercontinental ballistic missile, can reach anywhere on US soil, with an estimated reach of around 13000 km. [Japan Times] After North Korea tested the missile in November 2017, South Korea also acknowledged in their Defense White Paper last year that it has a range of over 10000 km.
This makes the Hwasong-15 the second missile created by North Korea which is capable of reaching some part of the US mainland. The other missile is its predecessor, the Hwasong-14, which is believed to be capable of reaching most parts of the US mainland. [Chosunilbo]
16 July 2019
North Korea officially makes Kim Jong-un Head of State
(jd) North Korea has revised its constitution to officially name Kim Jong-un as the country’s Head of State. Prior to the revision, the President of the Supreme People’s Association (SPA), North Korea’s unicameral legislature, was technically the head of state. [UPI]
The revision is seen as part of efforts to normalize the nation’s diplomatic affairs to the rest of the world. Since March 2018, Kim has met with multiple foreign heads of state and government. [Bloomberg]
2 July 2019
North Korea-USA relations: Trump and Kim agree to resume denuclearization talk at meeting at the DMZ
(jyk) U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed to resume the previously deadlocked denuclearization talks at a meeting at the inner-Korean Demilitarized Zone on Trump’s return from the G20 Summit. “We’ve agreed that we’re each going to designate a team. The teams will try to work out some details”, said Trump — referring to the U.S. negotiators that will be led by Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun. He also said the U.S. and North will start working on a comprehensive deal for the next two to three weeks, which won’t be a rushed agreement as he was “not looking for speed” but “looking to get it right”. [JoongAng Daily]
18 June 2019
Japan seeks Mongolia’s support in North Korean abduction issue
(jyk) Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono met his Mongolian counterpart in Ulaanbaatar on Sunday, in an effort to seek Mongolia’s cooperation in resolving issues related to North Korea’s abduction of Japanese nationals in 1970s and 80s. The two agreed on the importance of fully implementing U.N. sanctions against North Korea toward denuclearization, according to Japanese officials. This is the first time in 9 years for a Japanese foreign minister to visit Mongolia, and the two agreed to deepen ties. North Korea has reacted coldly to Japanese Prime Minister’s offer of holding a meeting so far. Japan currently lists 17 people as missing from NK’s abduction, five of whom were repatriated in 2002. [Mainichi]
18 June 2019
North Korea: TJWG Report details on-going public executions in North Korea
(jyk) Last week, the Seoul-based non-governmental organization Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG) published a report, detailing the 323 locations in the hermit kingdom where state-led executions have taken place without appropriate legal procedures. According to the report, a wide range of crimes, as petty as stealing a cow and as grave as murder, warranted executions in the firing squad, where hundreds of ordinary citizens would watch.
The report was compiled on the basis of interviews with more than 600 North Korean defectors over four years, but its findings are not definitive due to the lack of third-party that can confirm the veracity of the interviewee’s allegations. And it may be under-representative of what is in fact going on in the country as most defectors were from North Hamgyong, close to the Chinese borders. The human rights conditions could be more destitute in areas farther away from the borders. [JoongAng Daily]
11 June 2019
Inter-Korean relations: President Moon leaves for Scandinavian countries after signing off food aid to North Korea
(jyk/dql) Soon after signing off 8 million USD worth of food and medical aid for North Korea [JoongAng Daily 1], President Moon went on a weeklong trip on Sunday to Finland, Norway and Sweden to seek economic cooperation in technological areas including 5G networks and artificial intelligence. [JoongAng Daily 2] Moon will also deliver a speech about his vision for denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula at the Oslo Forum, as a way of issuing a message to North Korea as he did in Berlin in 2017. President Trump is also known to have discussed and supported the food aid program to North Korea over the phone with Moon, according to the Presidential Office. [New York Times]
28 May 2019
North Korea-USA relations: Pyongyang slams US seizure of North Korean cargo ship, while Bolton and Trump add odds over recent North Korean missile tests
(jyk/dql) At a press conference at UN headquarters, North Korea’s top envoy, Kim Song, protested and said the US’s recent seizure of North Korean large carrier [AiR 2/5/2019], was unlawful and a serious violation of international law. The carrier was known to have shipped large amounts of goods such as coals, petroleum, and heavy machinery in out of the sanctioned country until a warrant issued in New York led to its custody in the US. It was the first instance in which the USA has seized and impounded a North Korean vessel for violation of international sanctions. [JoongAng Daily]
The move came after North Korea fired two short-range missiles a few days earlier which White House national security adviser John R. Bolton described as violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, prompting Pyongyang calling him a “warmonger” and “human defect”. [New York Times]
Contradicting Bolton, but also Japanese Prime Minister Abe during his trip to Japan, US President Trump reportedly said: “My people think it could have been a violation. I view it differently.” Like Bolton, Abe called the missile tests a breach of United Nations Security Council resolutions. [Politico]