Asia in Review Archive 2021

North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic)

Date of AiR edition

News summary

23 February 2021

South Korea, Japanese and US diplomats agree to cooperate on peninsula denuclearization and peace 

(nm) Japanese, South Korean, and US-American diplomats have agreed to closely cooperate to achieve complete denuclearization and lasting peace on the Korean peninsula after South Korea’s top nuclear envoy, Noh Kyu-duk, met with US and Japanese representatives in video talks last Friday to discuss North Korea-related issues. They also agreed to hold follow-up consultations. The talks come as the US Biden administration is conducting a review of its entire policy toward North Korea. [The Korea Times]

The agreement comes at a time when South Korea and Japan are caught in dire bilateral relations over long-running issues concerning wartime forced labour. Last month, a Seoul court had ordered Japan to make reparations to 12 former sexual slavery victims called “comfort women,” with one of them now demanding that Seoul brings the issue to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, as Japan refuses to accept the court’s ruling, citing sovereign immunity. [Korea Herald

Meanwhile, South Korea Defense Ministry released a report which concludes that North Korea has expanded its missile development facilities and beefed up its missile and other conventional weapons. They includesSeveral new types of ballistic missiles have such as its version of Russia’s Iskander, and the US’ Army Tactical Missile System, but also advanced submarine-launched ballistic missiles. [Yonhap]


23 February 2021

North Korea-US relations: NK intelligence officers charged in 1.3 billion USD hacking scheme 

(nm) The United States Justice Department last week unsealed charges against three North Korean intelligence officials accused of participating in cyberattacks aimed at various companies and financial institutions to circumvent sanctions, fund the North Korean government, and control American companies considered enemies of the North Korean state. The alleged attacks include the 2014 assault on Sony Pictures Entertainment and the WannaCry ransomware cyberattack on Britain’s National Health Service. 

The three – Jon Chang Hyok, Kim Il, and Park Jin Hyok – allegedly worked for the hacking-focussed Reconnaissance General Bureau of the North Korean military intelligence which is better known as the Lazarus Group within the cybersecurity community. The now-revealed indictment builds on earlier investigations against Park for his alleged participation in the 2014 and 2017 attacks, adding accusations of robbing digital currency exchanges, extortion against a New York exchange, and targeting banks and cryptocurrency companies in Bangladesh, Britain, Mexico, Pakistan, the US, and other countries. US prosecutors declined to disclose how much money the hackers obtained. [The New York Times, $] [Politico]

The indictment is the first effort by the Biden administration to combat “a global campaign of criminality” being waged by North Korea. It stands in line with findings of a recent report by the cybersecurity research group Recorded Future which concludes that North Korea has successfully improved its ability to use the internet to generate revenue, gain access to prohibited technologies and knowledge, and operational coordination, thereby thwarting sanctions and financial controls. Last week, the US State Department also issued a statement, saying that as the US policy toward North Korea undergoes review, it will take cyberthreats into account.  [Recorded Future] [DW] [Korea Herald

The South Korean intelligence service additionally accused North Korean hackers of targeting pharma company Pfizer in order to obtain information on its Covid-19 vaccine and treatment. [Yonhap]


23 February 2021

North Korea: Kim Jong-un to be referred to as “president”, reduction of mandatory military service  

(nm) North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un is starting to be referred to as “president” instead of as his former official English title of “chairman,” a move that is seen by experts as an attempt to step up the country’s image of a “normal state” in the international community. The North Korean state news agency as well as the United Nations have started to use the new title, the latter apparently at the request of Pyongyang. The change comes after the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces had been renamed defence ministry last month. [Korea Herald 1] [Korea Herald 2]

In a different development, North Korea has reportedly shortened its mandatory military service in a bid to free up labourers amidst harsh economic realities. According to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, the term has been reduced from ten years to eight for men, and from seven to five years for women. At North Korea’s Eighth Party Congress last month, Kim Jong-un admitted that his five-year economic plan has “immensely underachieved in almost all sectors,” failing to meet targets. [Chosun] [BBC]

For a recent evaluation of North Korea’s economic prospects after the Party Congress, please view [38 North]. 

16 February 2021

North Korea least Democratic Country in the World

(nd) In the semi-annual Democracy Index by the Economist Intelligence Unit, which studies the state of democracy in 165 independent states and two territories, North Korea was ranked last. Criteria scrutinized include “Electoral process and pluralism,” “Functioning of government,” “Political Culture,” “Political Participation,” and “Civil Liberties.”

More than 70% of the countries have seen a decrease in their democracy score compared to last year, with just under the half the world’s population living in “a democracy of some sort.” 8.4% of the world’s population lives in full democracies, 41% in flawed democracies, 35.6% in “authoritarian regimes.”  15% live in “hybrid regimes” The average global score in the 2020 Democracy Index fell to 5.37, from 5.44 in 2019, marking the lowest score since the index was launched in 2006. As factor the bad result the index cited government-imposed restrictions on individual freedoms and civil liberties due to the coronavirus pandemic. [National Interest]


2 February 2021

Inter-Korean relations: South Korea’s defense White Paper confirms North Korea not an enemy

(dql) In its 2020 defense white paper South Korea avoided to designate to North Korea as an enemy. However, it reiterates its 2018 stance saying that the military considers forces that threaten or violate South Korea’s sovereignty, territory, people and property as an enemy.

Furthermore, the paper claims that North Korea has “expanded its ballistic missile units, strengthened special forces with modernized equipment and reinforced exercises to attack strategic targets,” specifying the Pyongyang possesses 13 missile brigades under its strategic force command, a rise of four units compared to 2018. The units are believed to operate short-range Scud missiles for South Korean targets, Rodong missiles with a range of about 1.300 kilometers and Musudan missiles with a range of 3.000 kilometers, capable of striking the strategic U.S. military base in Guam.[KBS] 


26 January 2021

Japan-US relations: Defense Ministers reaffirm defense cooperation over Senkaku Islands

(dql) Japan’s Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi and his newly appointed US counterpart Lloyd Austin agreed during a phone talk that the Japanese controlled, Chinese claimed Senkaku Islands fall under the security treaty between both countries which was concluded 1951 and amended 1960, establishing the military alliance between Japan and the US. In a thinly veiled attack against China, both Ministers reaffirmed that they “oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East and South China seas.”

Both defense chiefs also reasserted the importance of the Japanese-US alliance as well as cooperation with partners outside the region for a free and open Indo-Pacific. Furthermore, they also agreed to work towards “complete, verifiable and irreversible” denuclearization of North Korea.

They confirmed their countries’ determination to prevent North Korea from evading sanctions through such means as illegal ship-to-ship transfers and direct shipments of goods banned under U.N. Security Council resolutions. [Japan Today]

For a discussion on how an anti-China and pro-Japan bias on US side “has led to the increasing acceptability of poor conflict management, pushing us toward an unquestioning alliance with Japan that further heightens China’s threat perceptions,” see Su-Mei Ooi in [The Diplomat].

See also the book “Japan Rearmed” by Sheila A. Smith, providing an extensive and intimate account of U.S.-Japan relations. Smith argues that “the Japanese government is reconsidering its dependence on the United States amidst increasing threats from North Korean missiles and Chinese maritime activity around the Senkaku islands.” [Asia Media]

19 January 2021

China in the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific” 

(dql) Shortly before Joe Biden will be sworn in as US President in this week, the Trump administration declassified and published the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific”, approved by President Trump in 2018 and stamped secret and not for release to foreign nationals until 2043. 

The 10-page national security strategy paper identifies maintaining “U.S. strategic primacy over the Indo-Pacific region,” and promoting “a liberal economic order, while preventing China from establishing new, illiberal spheres of influence and cultivating areas of cooperation to promote regional peace and prosperity” one of three national security challenges, along with North Korea’s threat to the US and its allies as well as the advancement of US global economic leadership. 

Furthermore, the document assumes that the “[s]trategic competition between the United States and China will persists,” with China “circumvent[ing] international norms and rules to gain advantage,” and seeking to “dissolve U.S. alliances and partnerships,” in order to “exploit vacuums and opportunities created by these diminished bonds.”

As an desired outcome with regards to China, the “United States and its partners on every continent” shall become “resistant to Chinese activities aimed at undermining their sovereignty, including through covert or coercive influence.” [White House, USA]

For a concise assessment of what has been achieved under this strategic framework, see Grant Newsham in [Asia Times] who argues that “Trump and his staff are handing off to Joseph Biden an Indo-Pacific that is better off than it was in 2017. 

19 January 2021

North Korea: Kim Jong-un vows to step up efforts to boost military capabilities and nuclear deterrence

(dql) On last Thursday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un concluded the 8th Workers’ Party Congress last week with a call for increased military power and greater nuclear war deterrence of the country, adding that need to have the military “thoroughly prepared to play their role against any form of threats or unexpected situations.” [Korea Herald]

This echoes his remarks at the congress’ opening session in which he called the US the country’ “foremost principal enemy,” and the “fundamental obstacle to the development of our revolution.” declared that Pyongyang would “approach the U.S. on the principle of answering force with toughness.”

Furthermore, he pledged to develop more sophisticated nuclear weapons, including a nuclear-powered submarine, tactical nuclear weapons and advanced warheads designed to penetrate missile defense systems. Meanwhile, the military parade following the closure of the congress showcased the country’s submarine-launched ballistic missile, along with a new short-range ballistic missile, resembling Russia’s Iskander with an operational range of up to 400-500 kilometers. [Yonhap] [AiR No. 2, January/2021, 2] [CNN]

The statements and the parade come shortly before US President-elect Joe Biden assumes office this week and signal Kim’s continued strategy to press the US to resume talks on his own terms. 

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]