Asia in Review Archive 2021

North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic)

Date of AiR edition

News summary

8 June 2021

North Korea: Investigations into UN sanctions violations 

(nm) According to reports, both the South Korean government and the United Nations are currently considering investigations into allegations that two oil tankers previously owned by South Korean companies were transferred to North Korea, in violation of UN sanctions. 

The allegations were raised in a report by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) which is part of the US-American think tank Center for Strategic & International Studies. A South Korean government official last week disclosed that the government and related agencies would examine the case more closely. Pursuant to UN Security Council resolutions, any member state is prohibited from the “direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer” of “any new or used vessels,” unless previous approval by the Security Council had been obtained. It yet remains to be seen if the South Korean companies knew that the tankers would ultimately end up in the North Korean fleet. [AMTI] [Korea Herald]

According to a report by the news platform Radio Free Asia, a spokesperson of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs encouraged the submission of relevant information to the United Nations Security Council Sanctions Committee, saying that allegations brought to the attention of the committee would be investigated. Norway is currently chairing the committee. [Korea Times]


8 June 2021

North Korea: Ruling party establishes new position of first secretary under Kim Jong Un 

(nm) According to reports by South Korean news agency Yonhap, North Korea’s ruling party created a new de facto second-in-command leader position under Kim Jong Un denominated “first secretary” through revised party rules in January. In January, Kim had been elected as general secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WKP) and now allegedly seeks greater involvement of his party in the nation’s government, as opposed to the more military-focussed approach during his father’s leadership. 

The holder of the new post is likely to be responsible for chairing meetings on behalf of Kim, a development that fits within the broader trend of delegating Kim’s duties – not power – to others, while streamlining party structures, according to a researcher with the US-based monitoring programme 38 North. The new position is rumoured to have been filled by Jo Yong Won who is also a member of the presidium of the party’s politburo. [Nikkei Asia] [Vox] [CNN]

1 June 2021

Inter-Korean ties: North Korea breaks silence on Moon-Biden summit, warning of arms race  

(nm) North Korea has broken its silence on the May 21 Biden-Moon summit this week, criticizing the US decision to lift restrictions on South Korea’s ability to build ballistic missiles and warning of an arms race on the Korean Peninsula. After having lifted the payload limit on South Korean missiles in a prior decision, Biden and Moon had used the summit to announce the termination of the so-called missile guidelines which had been limiting the range of South Korean missiles to 800 km. Some observers believe support for Seoul’s military capabilities is part of US efforts to effectively counter China in the region. The statements published by Korean state media were, however, attributed to “an international affairs critic,” indicating that Pyongyang has yet to develop an official response. Some experts interpret this as leaving room open for dialogue with the US. [Korea Times 1]

The Biden administration had announced the completion of its North Korea policy review in April, saying that it would take a “calibrated” and “practical” approach, followed by the summit with Moon in which both sides stressed the need for diplomatic dialogue by building on the 2018 Singapore Agreement. South Korea has recently tried to build up its defense capabilities as the North had launched its first missile test in a year in March. A recent report by the US think tank 38 North also finds signs of ongoing activity at North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center. [The New York Times 1] [SCMP] [38 North]

Following the lift, the South Korean Defense Ministry announced it would push to develop and diversify the nation’s military systems, including investments in its space system. Last week, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer also visited Seoul to declare Germany’s support in terminating the arms race on the Korean Peninsula. Seoul’s Unification Ministry, meanwhile, also said it would seek to restore communication and dialogue with the North, based on the conditions created by the summit [Korea Herald] [n-tv, German] [Korea Times 2]

For why the specific diplomatic route chosen by the US and South Korea may be miscalculated, see this opinion piece in [New York Times 2]. 

If you are interested in a more detailed analysis of the US-South Korean alliance after the summit,  see [The Diplomat] or [Council on Foreign Relations].

25 May 2021

North Korea-US relations: Biden administration to build on Singapore Agreement 

(nm) The US Biden administration announced it would build on the 2018 Panjunmon Declaration and the Singapore Joint Statement when engaging with North Korea, highlighting its commitment to achieving denuclearization through diplomacy. In a joint statement released after a bilateral meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Joe Biden on Friday, Seoul and Washington emphasized their “shared commitment to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and their intent to address […] [the North’s] nuclear and ballistic missile programs.” Moon welcomed the “calibrated and practical approach” laid out in the US’ North Korea policy review, reiterating the wording chosen when it was first introduced. 

The Panjunmon Declaration had been adopted during the historic 2018 meeting between Moon and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in which both sides agreed to work towards officially ending the Korean War, the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, as well as to improve inter-Korean ties. Similarly, the Singapore Joint Statement focussed on peace building and diplomatic means to achieve denuclearization and on establishing new ties between the US and the North. Moon is said to have wanted the accords included. [Korea Times 1] [Korea Times 2]

Signaling further readiness to resume talks, Biden also appointed a Special Envoy for the DPRK. Veteran Korean American diplomat Sung Kim will be tasked with coordinating the US’s diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang. On Sunday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also explicitly stated that Washington was prepared to talk but expressed doubt whether North Korea would be willing to engage, adding that “[t]he ball is in their court.”  [Korea Herald]

However, Biden also expressed deep concern over the North’s nuclear program and laid out pre-conditions for a possible meeting with Kim Jong-un. According to Biden, he only engages in dialogue if Kim seriously commits to discussing Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal and de-escalation. He also acknowledged the many challenges standing in the way of achieving concrete measures. [The New York Times 1] [Nikkei Asia

Washington had reached out to Pyongyang in March, but the North has since remained unresponsive, saying it will continue ignoring any approaches until Washington gives up its hostility. The Biden administration recently finished its months-long North Korea policy review but had until now refrained from disclosing any details other than pointing at a practical and calibrated approach. 

For a piece arguing that Pyongyang will not give up its nuclear arsenal, please see [The New York Times 2].

18 May 2021

Inter-Korean relations: South Korean court rejects injunction request on sales of Kim Il-sung memoir 

(nm) A Seoul court last week rejected the injunction request filed by several NGOs seeking to ban the sales and distribution of a memoir by North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung. 

In April, a small South Korean publisher had made available all eight volumes of Kim Il-Sung’s memoir “With the Century” for the first time in the South, which depicts Kim as a heroic fighter resisting Japanese atrocities during the 1910-1945 colonial rule over the Korean peninsula. Materials like the memoir are deemed illegal under a South Korean national security law that restricts the distribution of North Korean propaganda in the South. In 2011, the nation’s Supreme Court had explicitly called the very same book “an item of expression that benefits the enemy,” deeming it illegal. The now-rejected injunction request had claimed the sales and distribution of the book infringed on constitutional rights to human dignity, harming the basic order of free democracy. That claim was, however, dismissed by the Seoul Western District Court which argued that the applicants’ rights to human dignity had not been infringed and that they could not claim the exclusive rights of the Korean people. [Korea Herald 1] [Wall Street Journal

The Moon administration is currently seeking to decrease tensions with the North. This week, a unification ministry spokesperson expressed disappointment over Pyongyang’s decision to withdraw from a World Cup qualifier set to take place in the South next month, after it had been confirmed that the North would withdraw from the Asian qualifiers for the 2022 Qatar World Cup altogether. The event had been regarded as an opportunity for inter-Korean engagement through sports. [Korea Herald 2]

18 May 2021

Expectations grow around this week’s US-South Korea summit 

(nm) Expectations are rising around this week’s May 21 summit between South Korean president Moon Jae-in and his US-American counterpart Joe Biden in Washington. It is only the second face-to-face summit of the Biden administration after Japanese Prime Minister had visited in April, stressing the importance of the Asian alliance for the US administration. According to experts, the summit will likely focus on how to revive diplomatic efforts with North Korea, facilitating inter-Korean peace, how to deal with an increasingly assertive China, semiconductor chip investment, and vaccine cooperation. 

In relation to North Korea, the US had announced the completion of its North Korea policy review on 30 April. Although details of it still remain undisclosed, officials have outlined a “calibrated, practical” approach that is open to diplomacy and focussed on the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula rather than “a grand bargain […] [or] strategic patience,” a strategy welcomed by several nations, including South Korea. However, some experts also expect Moon to try to get Biden to be more flexible on North Korea, including supporting the Singapore agreement forged between former President Trump and the North’s leader Kim Jong-un in 2018 that seeks to establish US-North Korea relations. [Korea Times 1] [Korea Times 2

An equally sensitive issue is US and South Korean engagement with China and the related rumoured possibility of Seoul joining the US-led security alliance denominated the Quad. The alliance compromised of the US, Japan, India, and Australia has recently been promoted by Washington as an informal network for cooperation, suggesting that Korea’s participation might not target China. Last week, South Korean ambassador to the US told reporters that Seoul was reviewing possibilities of cooperation with the alliance’s working groups on vaccinations, emerging technologies, and climate change. [Korea Times 3]

Other topics might include cooperation in the semiconductor chip industry and in vaccination efforts. South Korea has recently struggled to obtain enough vaccine doses and officials in both countries have hinted at a possible partnership. Additionally, the US is currently exploring ways to regain control of the global chipmaker industry which, following a major shortage during the pandemic, has gained considerable geopolitical salience. South Korean manufacturers are considering large investments in the US, while Moon is said to be accompanied by a delegation of important industry representatives. Last week, the Moon government additionally announced large-scale investment plans in its national chipmaker industry.  [Korea Times 4] [The Diplomat] [Korea Herald][Nikkei Asia]


11 May 2021

EU and India to boost trade, Indo-Pacific partnership

(lm) The European Union and India have agreed to resume long-stalled talks on a free trade deal, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced on May 8. Brussel and New Delhi will also launch negotiations on reciprocal investments and on the protection of so-called geographical indications. [South China Morning Post]

Earlier on May 8, the first EU-Indian Leaders’ Meeting brought together all 27 heads of the EU member states and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Considering that previous EU-India summits have involved only the Indian prime minister and the heads of the European Commission and the European Council, the recent summit signals the bloc’s renewed interest in the Indo-Pacific region. [Reuters]

Last month, the EU Council asked the European Commission and high representatives to draw up the bloc’s Indo-Pacific strategy by September this year. In doing so, the Council unveiled the strategy’s main thrust, which included exploring closer economic ties with India and pledging to foster a rules-based order with “free and open maritime supply routes in full compliance with international law”, without naming China.

Earlier last week, the EU also said that efforts to ratify the proposed EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China had been suspended after Beijing imposed sanctions on several high-profile members of the European Parliament, three members of national parliaments, two EU committees, and several China-focused European academics.

For a comprehensive examination of the decision, please consider Chris Devonshire-Ellis’ comment for [China Briefing].

11 May 2021

Inter-Korean relations: North Korean defector questioned over violating leaflet ban  

(nm) After North Korean defector and activist Park Sang-hak had claimed to have sent about 500,000 leaflets into the North by balloon, in violation of a new South Korean anti-leaflet law, he was questioned by the Seoul police this week, after his office had been raided the previous week. His claim had led to further tensions between the North and the South as Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, called the alleged launches an “intolerable provocation,” warning of retaliation.

Park is the head of the defectors’ group Fighters for a Free North Korea which supposedly has engaged in leaflet actions more than 60 times since the beginning of records in 2010. Late in April, he had claimed to have sent a total of ten balloons with approximately 500,00 leaflets, 500 booklets, and 5000 1USD notes toward the North in order to, according to him, deliver the truth about South Korean society, politics, and liberal democracy to the North Korean people.

Sending propaganda leaflets across the border is banned under the revised Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act. Park is the first person to be investigated since the legislation, which has been criticized by human rights groups as limiting freedom of speech, took effect in March. He vowed his group would keep sending leaflets into the North, even if he should be imprisoned. [The Guardian] [Korea Herald] [Korea Times]

11 May 2021

G7 ministers support North Korean denuclearization 

(nm) The foreign ministers of the Group of Seven (G7) countries last week called on North Korea to return to denuclearization talks and to engage in inter-Korean dialogue, supporting a strategy set out in the US Biden administration’s recent North Korea policy review.

In a joint statement issued at the G7 Foreign and Development Ministers’ meeting in London, the diplomats called “on the DPRK to refrain from provocative actions and to engage in a diplomatic process with the explicit goal of denuclearization,” further committing “to the goal of complete, verifiable and irreversible abandonment of all of the DPRK’s unlawful weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs in accordance with relevant UN Security Council resolutions.” The G7 further criticized the North’s humanitarian situation and the lack of information about the conditions in the isolated country. 

The statement comes after the Biden administration recently announced having completed its long-awaited North Korea policy review. Although details of it have not yet been disclosed, the White House stated it would be a “calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy.” Like the G7, South Korean President Moon Jae-in also reacted positively to the US policy, saying it would enable Pyongyang to begin a dialogue, adding it is “on the same page as our government.” He also declared he would use the upcoming May 21 summit with Biden to “explore various ways that can entice the North to come forward for talks.” [Korea Herald] [Korea Times]

After Pyongyang and Washington had at first seemed to make some unexpected progress in their relations under the Trump administration, both sides have been in a diplomatic stalemate since the failed Hanoi summit in 2019. Tensions have flared up again since the inauguration of the Biden administration as Pyongyang tested short-range missiles in March and repeatedly issued verbal threats against Seoul and Washington, while rejecting dialogue offers.

This week, Washington and Seoul will hold biannual defense talks to discuss regional security, including policy coordination on North Korea, as well as the transition of wartime operational control (OPCON). [Yonhap]

4 May 2021

North Korea-China relations: “Export processing zone” near Chinese border announced 

(nm) North Korea last week announced it would build a “Musan Export Processing Zone” near its border with China, apparently seeking to recover trade after a year of strict border closure which in addition to international sanctions due to missile and nuclear tests let the nation’s trade contract to almost zero.  

Although the North’s official state media did neither specify the goods to be dealt with nor details on its opening, experts believe the zone might be used to manufacture products using materials imported from China before then exporting them back. 

The announcement comes about a month after Chinese president Xi Jinping vowed to “provide the peoples of the two countries with better lives,” while North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called for stronger bilateral cooperation in defiance of “hostile forces.” Trade between the two allies fell by 75% during the first ten months of 2020, according to South Korea’s spy agency, leading to a shortage of raw materials in the isolated North. In a low-level party meeting last month Kim had surprisingly acknowledged that his country is facing its “worst-ever situation,” comparing it to the devastating 1990 famine. [Korea Herald] [SCMP] [The Guardia n]

4 May 2021

North Korea warns US against “hostile policy” as US launches long-awaited policy review 

(nm) Pyongyang last week issued a series of three statements warning the US would face “a very grave situation” if it maintained its “hostile policy” towards the North. The statements were made after President Biden had made a brief reference to North Korea’s nuclear programme in a speech before Congress, calling it a “serious [threat] to American security and the security of the world,” which the US and its allies would meet “through diplomacy as well as stern deterrence.” 

Last week, the Biden administration also announced its long-awaited North Korea policy review, calling for the complete “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” and indicating that the US would try to find a middle ground between Trump’s more direct outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Obama’s “strategic patience” approach, which aimed at compelling Pyongyang to negotiate, using sanctions and other forms of pressure. According to the White House, the US would seek “a calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy” with North Korea. More details, however, remain yet undisclosed. 

Pyongyang reacted to the developments on Sunday, stating talks of diplomacy were merely “a spurious signboard for covering up its hostile acts,” and, in a separate statement, that the Biden administration was using criticism of the North’s human rights record as “a political weapon for overturning our social system.” [The New York Times] [SCMP 1]

For an explanation of the potential relevance of the wording “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” please see [Vox]. 

In a separate warning towards South Korea, Pyongyang also criticized Seoul for allowing a North Korean defector group to send 500,000 propaganda leaflets over the border by balloon. Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, called the manoeuvres “a serious provocation,” adding the North would “look into corresponding action.” South Korea’s police chief has since ordered a probe into the group that, if the case is confirmed, would be the first to fall under a new South Korean government ban on such activity. [SCMP 2] [Korea Herald] [Reuters]


4 May 2021

South Korea-Japan-US relations: Military chiefs discuss cooperation on North Korea

(nm) South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Won In-choul and his counterparts Gen. Mark Milley of the US and Gen. Koji Yamazaki of Japan held trilateral talks in Hawaii last week, affirming their commitment to strengthen their cooperation in response to North Korea’s missile and nuclear programmes. They further discussed the “importance of promoting a rules-based international order in the region.” 

During the meeting, the US official asserted the US would “[remain] prepared to provide extended deterrence,” and reaffirmed its “ironclad commitment” to defending the US allies. General Won emphasized the importance of the cooperation for the peace on the Korean Peninsula as well as in the Northeast Asia region, while Japan’s official stressed cooperation regarding the implementation of UN Security Council resolutions. [Korea Times]

The talks were held on the sidelines of a change-of-command ceremony at the US Indo-Pacific Command, with Navy Adm. John Aquilino succeeding outgoing commander Navy Adm. Philip Davidson, and amid efforts of the Biden administration to re-strengthen the US alliance with Japan and South Korea to counter China in Asia. 

Davidson, who looks back on a 39-year long career in the US Navy, said during the ceremony: ““Make no mistake, the Communist Party of China seeks to supplant the idea of a free and open international order with a new order, one with Chinese characteristics, one where Chinese national power is more important than international law.” [Korea Herald] [Stars and Stripes

4 May 2021

South Korea: Defector group launches anti-North Korea leaflets action

(dql) An activist group in South Korea headed by a defector from North Korea confirmed that it had in defiance of a recent legal ban released balloons into North Korea which carried half a million leaflets decrying the government in Pyongyang as “hereditary dictatorship”, along with 500 booklets, and 5,000 one-dollar bills. 

The action marks the first ‘leaflet’ protest against Kim Jong-un’s regime since a ban came into force in March, amid fears that such protest actions could provoke North Korea and endanger people living near the border. The law which provides a maximum prison term of three years or a fine of 30 million won (27,400 USD), was enacted in December after North Korea blew up an inter-Korean liaison office in the border town of Kaesong last June in response to Seoul’s failure to prevent an anti-Pyongyang leaflet action. 

The law has been criticized by human rights activists accusing the South Korean government of curtailing free speech at the behest of Pyongyang. [Korea Herald] [Reuters] [AiR No. 49, December/2020, 2]

27 April 2021

South Korea-US-North Korea relations: Moon calls for cooperation to keep peninsula peace

(nm) South Korean President Moon Jae-in urged the United States to kick-start negotiations with North Korea on denuclearization, which Moon called a “matter of survival” for the South, after two years of no diplomatic progress on the issue. In an interview with The New York Times, he also called on the US to cooperate with China on North Korea as well as on other issues, considering that escalating tensions between the US and China could undermine any effort of denuclearization.

The statements come at a crucial moment as US President Biden is expected to meet with Moon in Washington next month, while Pyongyang has resumed weapons tests. Additionally, the Biden administration is currently in the final stages of its North Korea policy review and has already started reversing some of the former administration’s foreign policy decisions. Moon also stated that former US President Trump had “failed to pull it through,” but equally voiced support for the 2018 Singapore agreement concluded between Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un that sets out broad goals for denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. Moon further called for “gradual and phased” steps towards denuclearization and a “mutually trusted road map,” stressing the necessity of concessions and incentives – a strategy that several conservative critics have dismissed, arguing Pyongyang would simply undermine international sanctions.

Moon is currently in his final year of his presidency and scrambling to reclaim his diplomatic legacy. While playing a critical mediating role in the 2018 negotiations between the US and North Korea, his work has since mostly unraveled. In addition to stalling negotiations, his domestic approval ratings have also plummeted. [The New York Times]

This week also marks the third anniversary of the historic inter-Korean April summit held between Moon and Kim in April 2018. Then, the two leaders vowed to work for peace and reunification on the Korean Peninsula, the first such meeting between leaders of the two Koreas in eleven years. Both sides also signed the so-called Panmunjom Declaration – named after the border village where they met – in which they pledged to commit to the “complete denuclearization” of the peninsula, improve inter-Korean relations, and officially end the 1950-53 Korean War. [Korea Herald 1]

In a different vein, the chief of the US Strategic Command last week affirmed the US was ready and able to deter any aggression from North Korea, stressing the US security commitment to the South. [Korea Herald 2].

For the case made for prioritizing engagement over pressure when dealing with North Korea, please see this piece by the US research programme [38 North]. 

20 April 2021

Inter-Korean relations: South Korea seeks to toughen regulations on internet-based exchanges with North Korea 

(nm) South Korea’s unification ministry has announced plans to require its citizens to obtain government approval prior to exchanging digital files of films or books with North Koreans via the internet. The ministry had announced plans in January to revise the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act so that it would require prior approval from the ministry to exchange “immaterial things” via electronic tools, as well as via information and communication networks. Contrary to media reports, the law does not affect radio broadcasting toward the North, according to the ministry’s spokesperson. As the two nations have not signed an official peace treaty, it is currently necessary to have all inter-Korean contact approved in advance or reported to the government afterwards. [Korea Herald 1]

The announcement comes amid inter-Korean tensions over what has been called a quiet arms race that could jeopardize the delicate peace on the peninsula. Last week, North Korean outlet Tongil Voice denounced the South’s plans to purchase weapons as an attempt to accelerate preparations to invade the North. The report refers to Seoul’s decision to import 36 large US combat helicopters by 2028. [Korea Herald 2] [The New York Times]

20 April 2021

North Korea-China relations: North Korean imports from China spike in March 

(nm) As speculation is growing that North Korea might reopen its border with China after sealing off all borders at the outbreak of the pandemic, imports from China to North Korea have grown to a six-month high in March. After Pyongyang had introduced even stricter border controls in October, trade had practically come to a halt. China accounts for more than 90% of the North’s trade. Given existing UN sanctions against North Korea, observers believe that exports from China would, however, not return to pre-sanctions level, but be limited to farm production materials, such as fertilisers, tractors, and agricultural machinery parts.

Although Pyongyang claims it had had no Covid-19 infections, the country was among the first to close its borders and has since imposed one of the strictest border control policies with flights, cargo ships, and trains being suspended. Beijing and Pyongyang are currently speculated to be moving closer amid growing tensions with the US. [South China Morning Post] [Korea Herald]

20 April 2021

North Korea holds birth anniversary celebrations for late state founder

(nm) North Korea held celebrations last week to commemorate Kim Il-sung’s, the country’s late founder, 109th birthday. For the occasion, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited his grandfather’s mausoleum at the Kumsusan Palace of Sun. The birthday, which marks the North’s biggest national holiday and is also referred to as the Day of the Sun, is usually celebrated by large-scale cultural and sports events. Kim had skipped the celebrations last year amid concerns over the Covid-19 pandemic, sparking speculation about his health. [Korea Times]


6 April 2021

South Korea-China relations: Bilateral talks amid Sino-US tensions

(nm) On Saturday, South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi met in the Chinese city of Xiamen in South Korea’s first ministerial level meeting in China since 2017, signaling an effort to rebuild relations after a fallout over the deployment of the US THAAD missile defence system in South Korea. Both sides agreed on planning new security talks and discussed a possible visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to the South. Beijing also called for increased co-operation on trade, high-tech development, and North Korea, as a number of leading Chinese firms were hit by US sanctions. While Beijing voiced support for a China‑South Korea free trade agreement, strengthening 5G technology and other high-tech issues, Seoul’s statement remained more vague, referring to “strengthening substantive cooperation” and “a range of forms of cooperation.” Both sides did, however, express hope to hold a trilateral summit with Japan. Concerning North Korea, they vowed to seek a process for a “political” resolution. 

South Korea has recently seen its geopolitical value rise as it has become a focal point in the competition between China and the United States. Since the new Biden administration is seeking to strengthen its alliances in the Indo-Pacific and as concerns over a nuclear threat by North Korea grow, the South is increasingly seen as a strategic player in the region. Chung has, however, stated the US and China are equally important partners, adding that this stance is anything but “strategic ambiguity.” While the US is considered South Korea’s “sole ally” and the cornerstone of its diplomatic and security policy, China is the country’s largest trading partner. [Korea Times] [South China Moring Post] [Nikkei Asia] [Korea Herald]

6 April 2021

South Korea, US, Japan hold three-way meeting

(nm) South Korean, US, and Japanese top officials last week held their first trilateral meeting after US President Biden took office to discuss, amongst other topics, issues with regards to North Korea, peace and security on the Korean Peninsula, as well as supply chain security. The meeting was held in Maryland, United States. 

In a joint statement following talks on Friday, the three raised concerns about Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes and reaffirmed their goal to address denuclearization through “concerted trilateral cooperation,” as well as the “need for a diplomatic solution to the issue.” They further stressed the “imperative of full implementation” of relevant UN Security Council sanctions against the North. [Korea Herald 1]

The meeting comes amid the final stages of the Biden administration’s North Korea policy review. A US State Department spokesman last week stated that denuclearization will be at the centre of any US policy toward the North. Efforts by Washington to engage with Pyongyang diplomatically have so far remained unresponsive. South Korean National Security Adviser Suh Hoon also used the opportunity to hold bilateral talks with his Japanese and US counterparts. In his talks with US representative Jake Sullivan, Suh pointed at the positive effect that good inter-Korean relations might have on denuclearization talks. [Korea Herald 2] [Yonhap]

According to one US officials, the three parties were also set out to discuss the current semiconductor shortages, considering that international chip supply has increasingly become a national security concern. Although Taiwan is the world’s biggest contract chipmaker, South Korea is also home to the headquarters of key industry players, such as Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix, coming in close to Taiwan capacity-wise. [Nikkei Asia

South Korea and Japan currently struggle to revive positive bilateral ties due to trade issues and wartime history. In an effort to address the conflict, South Korean and Japanese diplomats held closed-door meetings in Tokyo last week, one day after Chung had also expressed hope that he would meet with his Japanese counterpart sooner than later. The United States is currently pushing for closer trilateral ties with South Korea and Japan, an effort to counter growing competition with China, as well as a defiant North Korea. [Korea Herald 3] [Korea Herald 4]

6 April 2021

North Korea keeps conducting illegal cyber activities to generate revenue, UN panel says

(nm) Last week, a UN report concluded that North Korea had continued to violate UN Security Council resolutions last year by conducting illegal cyber activities to support the country’s development of weapons of mass destruction. Additionally, the North is also said to have violated international sanctions by illicitly importing oil several times the amount allowed under UN resolutions. 

According to one member state, the value of virtual assets illicitly obtained by the North between 2019 and 2020 amounted to about $316 million. The UN expert panel pointed at the Reconnaissance General Bureau, North Korea’s intelligence agency, as responsible for the cyber threats. [Korea Herald 1]

North Korea recently launched what appeared to be two short-range ballistic missiles into the East Sea in spite of having maintained a self-imposed moratorium until then. The UN Security Council decided to take no action on the testing and chose to seek dialogue and negotiations instead, foregoing a joint statement. South Korea’s defence ministry, meanwhile, announced it would be able to fully intercept North Korea’s missiles, pointing at the South Korea-US missile defence system. [Korea Herald 2] [Korea Times]

The North has become even more isolated during the global pandemic, following highly restrictive coronavirus measures, including completely sealing off the country’s borders. Last week, the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang stated about half of all 25 foreign embassies in North Korea had closed their missions due to pandemic-related challenges, with only nine ambassadors and four diplomats remaining, according to the embassy’s official Facebook page. Simultaneously, all foreign workers of humanitarian organizations have left the country. As reported by multiple sources, however, China and North Korea have recently potentially begun to revive trade. [Yonhap] [Nikkei Asia


30 March 2021

North Korea: First missile tests in a year 

(nm) North Korea has test-fired two “new-type tactical guided missiles” last week in violation of UN Security Council resolutions and despite international sanctions seeking to deter Pyongyang from developing rockets that can be equipped with nuclear warheads. The tests were deemed “very successful” by the country’s Academy of Defence Science and came only days after Pyongyang had fired two short-range, non-ballistic missiles over the previous weekend. Last Thursday’s launch was the first substantive launch since US President Biden took office. [DW]

In response, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in called the launch “undesirable” amid attempts to revive multilateral negotiations on the North’s denuclearization, especially by South Korea, the United States, and Japan. Seoul had initially remained silent on the issue which raised criticism. This week, South Korean Unification Minister, Lee In-young, called for inter-Korean cooperation in the humanitarian area as a starting point for resuming the talks in spite of current tensions. The South’s defense ministry, however, also announced that the country’s military will keep a close watch on the North amid a new report by the US monitoring website 38 North [38 North 1] that Pyongyang might be ready to launch a new ballistic missile submarine. [Korea Times 1] [Korea Times 2] [Korea Times 3] [Korea Herald 1] [Korea Herald 2]

The United Nations sanctions committee focussed on North Korea’s nuclear programme asked its experts to investigate the launches last week, an announcement that was met with criticism by Pyongyang. The Security Council also voted to extend the committee’s mandate until April 2022 as it was about to expire. Responding to the United Nations, Pyongyang issued a statement denouncing the organization’s “double standard” and infringement on the North’s sovereignty. An official of the country’s foreign ministry stated, “it does not make any sense” that only the North’s “righteous self-defensive measures should be singled out for denunciation,” although several other countries fire projectiles for the purpose of increasing their military strength. [Korea Times 4] [Korea Herald 3]

Pyongyang further accused US President Biden of provoking the North and threatened to further build up militarily after Biden had condemned the launches as a violation of UN resolutions and warned “there will be responses if they [North Korea] choose to escalate.”

Bilateral dialogue between the two countries on the North’s denuclearization has stalled after an abrupt fallout in February 2019. The US is currently undergoing a North Korea policy review and has started to strengthen relations with partners in the region, especially Japan and South Korea. [South China Morning Post] [Korea Times 5]

This week, South Korea’s defense ministry also called for active support by Russia and for cooperation in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, as part of a broader strategic dialogue. The dialogue follows last week’s meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his South Korean counterpart Chung Eui-yong in which Lavrov “particularly emphasized the importance of efforts to maintain peace and stability in Northeast Asia, as well as on the Korean Peninsula,” further calling on “all concerned countries […] to renounce an arms race and activation of all kinds of military activities.” Russia has recently moved to close ranks with China as the US is pushing to build a system of regional democratic alliances in the Indo-Pacific. It was the first South Korean-Russian ministerial meeting in Seoul since 2009. [Yonhap] [Korea Times 6]

For an analysis of the fate of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, see this recent blog entry by [Brookings]. For a commentary arguing in favour of reaffirming the Singapore Joint Statement as early as possible, see this piece by [38 North 2], and for an analysis of key choices facing the Biden Administration amid its North Korea policy review, please see this piece by [38 North 3]. If you wish to gain more information on the content of North Korea’s arsenal, see [The New York Times].

30 March 2021

China-North Korea relations: Traditional alliance re-affirmed

(zh) China and North Korea have reaffirmed their alliance during a meeting between China’s senior diplomat Song Tao and North Korea’s new ambassador to China Ri Ryong Nam. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un has called for stronger “unity and cooperation” with China in the face of challenges posed by “hostile forces”, while China’s President Xi Jinping described the bilateral relations as a “valuable asset” to both countries. Xi has also expressed the commitment to “provide the peoples of the two countries with better life”, signaling that China might provide North Korea food, fertilized, and other aid that has been considerably reduced due to pandemic closure. [CNA] [South China Morning Post]

30 March 2021

South Korea not to co-sponsor this year’s UN resolution on human rights in North Korea, EU imposes individual sanctions against North Koreans 

(nm) South Korea will abstain from co-sponsoring this year’s UN Human Rights Council resolution on North Korea’s human rights violations for the third consecutive year, in an attempt to avoid tensions with the North amid efforts to re-enter inter-Korean dialogue. Seoul will, however, join the resolution’s adoption by consensus, an official said last week. The North for its part rejected the resolution, calling it a “fake document” with political motives. [Korea Times 1] [Korea Times 2]

The South’s unification ministry also announced that a law prohibiting the launching of anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border also takes effect this week. Violators would face a maximum prison term of three years or a fine of $27,400. As the amendment to the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act triggered criticism that it could limit freedom of expression and undermine attempts to send information into the isolated North, the ministry’s spokesman said the law will be applied in a “flexible and reasonable manner.” He further stated the bill will be enforced “in line with the government’s goal of improving the human rights situation of North Koreans and inter-Korean relations, and bringing peace on the Korean Peninsula.” [Korea Herald 1]

Meanwhile, a Seoul district court ordered North Korea and its leader Kim Jong-un to compensate a family member of a South Korean who was abducted to the North during the 1950-53 Korean War. It is the second damage suit won by South Koreans against the North. [Korea Herald 2]

The European Union, meanwhile, imposed its first-ever human rights sanction on North Korean individuals and entities under its new Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime as part of the bloc’s critical engagement policy. The EU regularly co-sponsors the UN’s resolution on the North and has imposed sanctions in addition to UN sanctions, considering that the isolated country is a relatively low-hanging fruit in demonstrating the union’s bite in pushing for human rights. [38 North]

For an account of the dire situation citizens of North Korea face, see Lina Yoon in [Human Rights Watch].

23 March 2021

North Korea severs diplomatic ties with Malaysia over extradition of national to US 

(nm) North Korea severed diplomatic ties with Malaysia last week after Malaysia’s highest court agreed to extradite a North Korean national to the United States, the first extradition of a North Korean to the US facing criminal trial. The extradition is seen as part of Washington’s bid to curb activities by North Korean businessmen and diplomats in conflict with UN sanctions that seek to restrain North Korea’s access to foreign currency which has been used to finance the country’s nuclear programme.   

Mun Chol-myong, who was arrested in Malaysia in 2019 after moving there in 2008, is accused of money laundering through front companies and violating international sanctions by helping ship prohibited luxury items from Singapore to Pyongyang, in violation of UN sanctions. Mun had rejected the accusations in his affidavit and claimed the extradition was “politically motivated” as his case got caught in diplomatic rivalry between Pyongyang and Washington. The court rejected his argumentation. 

Following the court’s decision, North Korea warned the US will “pay a due price” and denounced the country as the “backstage manipulator and main culprit of this incident.” Pyongyang further called its relations with Washington “the most hostile one on this planet,” adding the two countries have been practically at war for over 70 years. 

North Korea and Malaysia have since both expelled the respective ambassadors from their capitals. 

The fall out came just a day after North Korea had stated it would not respond to efforts by the new US administration to establish a channel of communication in order to negotiate the denuclearization of the North Korean peninsula. Washington and Pyongyang have been caught in deadlock ever since negotiations ended abruptly in 2019. 

Malaysian and North Korean relations have similarly suffered setbacks in recent years after Kim’s estranged half brother, Kim Jong-nam, was assassinated at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 2017 using the internationally banned VX nerve agent. Although Malaysian officials have never officially accused Pyongyang of involvement, prosecutors made clear that they suspected a connection throughout the trial. North Korea has denied any involvement. [The Diplomat] [The New York Times, $] [Yonhap]

The New York Times also recently uncovered how one ship circumvents international sanctions and continues to illicitly import oil to North Korea. You can read the major takeaways of the investigation [here]. 

23 March 2021

South Korean and US Foreign and Defense Ministers meet for foreign policy talks

(nm) Last week, South Korea and the United States held their first foreign policy talks since President Biden took office as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III embarked on a two-day visit to South Korea. Both sides stressed the significance of their alliance for the entire region with Blinken calling it the “linchpin for peace, security, and prosperity for the Indo-Pacific region.”

Key topics included the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, cooperation between South Korea, the US, and Japan, as well as the transition of wartime operational control (OPCON). South Korean Minister of Defense, Suh Wook, said his ministry will push ahead to build a strong security relationship with Japan, a particularly notable statement considering current tensions between the two countries and the fact that South Korea seriously considered leaving an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan only last year in protest of export curbs. The US and Korea’s defense ministers additionally agreed to continue joint efforts to transfer wartime operational control to Seoul, although the process might take longer than expected as full military tests are being delayed due to the pandemic. Although they are undergoing a conditions-based, rather than a times-based, transition, President Moon Jae-in hopes to regain military control before the end of his term in May 2022. [Yonhap] [Korea Herald 1]

Together with Moon they then went on to discuss North Korea’s denuclearization and cooperation to counter growing competition from China, albeit not agreeing on a joint rhetoric. While the United States seeks greater cooperation with its allies in the region, especially Japan and South Korea, to combat “unprecedented threats from China and North Korea,” South Korea’s Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong stated “It is unimaginable for us to pick either the US or China.” Seoul finds itself in a dilemma between reliance on the US to rein in aggression from North Korea, while maintaining strong economic ties with China. 

Concerning the growing nuclear threat from North Korea, both sides confirmed their commitment to a complete denuclearization of the peninsula. Blinken again stressed the importance of engaging with partners and allies, but also acknowledged that China “has a critical role to play” in any diplomatic effort with the North, considering that China is the chief financial and political benefactor of the isolated country. Moon is also keen on restarting dialogue between North Korea and the US but struggled to regain relevance in negotiations after the US and North Korea ended their engagement without an agreement in 2019. [Korea Herald 2] [The New York Times, $]

Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, had however warned the US in Pyongyang’s first direct statement toward the Biden administration after the US-South Korea joint military drills, stating that Washington should refrain from “causing a stink” if it “wants to sleep in peace for coming four years.” She further opened the possibility for military provocation toward the South, declaring she had already reported the options for critical measures to Kim Yong Un. North Korea’s first vice foreign minister Choe Son Hui also said Pyongyang will ignore the US while it keeps its “hostile policy” in place, after Washington had tried to reach out to North Korea but received no response. [The Diplomat] [Korea Herald 3] [38 North]

Blinken also accused North Korea of committing “systematic and widespread abuse,” saying “We must stand with the people demanding their fundamental rights and freedoms and against those who repress them.” The South Korean government, on the other hand, showed itself more reluctant and refrained from calling out the North, stating “We have our concern for that matter but we have a lot to go over first,” and adding “We could see rights conditions improve there while we make progress on building peace on the Korean Peninsula.” [Korea Times] [Korea Herald 4]

After the high-level diplomatic meeting, National Assembly speaker Park Byeong-seug held a videoconference with US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday to discuss remaining issues, while the foreign ministry’s director general for North American affairs, Koh Yun-ju, and deputy US assistant secretary of state for Korea and Japan, Marc Knapper, launched a new regular working-level policy dialogue to discuss diplomatic and security issues. Blinken, for his part, travelled on to Alaska to meet with China’s top two diplomats on Thursday and Friday.[Korea Herald 5] [Korea Herald 6]


16 March 2021

UN official calls for international action on North Korea’s human rights violations  

(nm) United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea Tomás Ojea Quintana has called on the international community to direct attention to possible crimes against humanity by North Korea and urged the UN Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for prosecution.

In presenting his latest report, Ojea Quintana voiced concern over the drastic measures taken by North Korea to contain the spread of Covid-19, which have exacerbated economic hardships and abuses against citizens, including severe punishments for breaking lockdown orders. He also said he had received information confirming the findings of a landmark 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry on several grave human rights violations, including but not limited to extermination, enslavement, torture, and sexual violence. He further told the Human Rights Council in Geneva, “The urgency to stop violations of such a scale, gravity and nature cannot take a back seat to national interests or geopolitical interests,” further stating he believes “that the Security Council bears responsibility for its inaction against the continuation of crimes against humanity in the DPR Korea.” [Reuters 1]

Following the report, four lawmakers from the South Korean main opposition People Power Party (PPP) met up with Unification Minister Lee In-young to call for greater efforts in achieving tangible improvements in North Korea’s human rights situation, including the expedited implementation of the North Korean Human Rights Act, which was passed by the National Assembly in 2016. They further protested the delayed launch of a state-run human rights foundation which the same act calls for. The launch of the foundation, which is supposed to allow South Korea to monitor abuses in the North, was delayed by political differences over the appointment of board members. Ojea Quintana had also urged the South to enforce the same act, as well as to take action in relation to the North’s rights violations in nuclear talks and to seek economic and humanitarian exchanges in a human rights-based framework. [The Korea Herald 1] [Yonhap 1] [The Korea Herald 2]

Meanwhile, the US Biden administration has tried to restart negotiations with North Korea over the fate of its nuclear programme, but has not heard back from the isolated country, according to a White House press secretary on Monday, confirming earlier reports by Reuters. The administration is currently undergoing an entire review of its North Korea policy and the failed attempt to reach out has raised questions as to how Biden will address Pyongyang and the possibility of nuclear weapons. According to South Korea’s unification ministry, the US had first consulted with the South before attempting to reach North Korea. [New York Times, $] [Yonhap 2] [Korea Times, opinion] [Reuters 2]

16 March 2021

China, Russia, Iran, North Korea form coalition to push back against unilateral force, sanctions

(zh) China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and 13 other countries – including Algeria, Angola, Belarus, Bolivia, Cambodia, Cuba, Eritrea, Laos, Nicaragua, Saint Vincent, the Grenadines, Syria, and Venezuela – have formed a coalition to foster “the respect to the purposes and principles enshrined in the UN Charter,” including “non-interference in the internal affairs of States, peaceful settlement of disputes, and to refrain from the use or threat of use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State.”

The move comes as US President Biden has abandoned his predecessor’s ‘America First’ unilateralism and sought a more multilateral approach to global affairs. However, he has still maintained sanctions already in place against Venezuela, as well as against Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria and other countries of the group. [Reuters] [Newsweek]

9 March 2021

North Korea: US shortlists NK as nation-state threat as images reveal signs of resumed nuclear activity   

(nm) According to reports by the Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and recent commercial satellite imagery, North Korea might have taken up renewed nuclear operations after an assumed two-year break.

Director of the IAEA, Rafael Mariano Grossi, last week stated that “some nuclear facilities in the DMPRK continued to operate while others remained shut down” and, referring to the Yongbyon Nuclear Center, that there were “recent indications of operation of the steam plant” that serves the Radiochemical Laboratory. Grossi added there were no signs of enriched uranium production at Yongbyon, but that there are ongoing indications of activity at another facility in Kangson. The statement is supported by commercial satellite imagery which indicates that the plant is back in operation, based on smoke emanating from a laboratory. However, the steam could also simply indicate preparations for handling radioactive waste as monitoring the facility is difficult. [38 North]

The US head of intelligence for the US Indo-Pacific command, Michael Studeman, reacted to Grossi’s reports, voicing concern that North Korea might use the renewed nuclear activity as leverage for sanction relief as the Biden administration is undergoing a complete North Korea policy review. [Korea Times 1]

Earlier last week, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had included North Korea in a list of states posing “nation-state threats” to the US and its allies, next to Russia and Iran. North Korea has recently kept a relatively low international profile, which some attribute to the global pandemic, and has maintained a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing since 2017. Since Pyongyang expelled IAEA inspectors in 2009, international monitoring has been conducted using open-source information and satellite imagery. However, US officials assert that “North Korea continues to develop its ballistics missile capability and can stark a provocation cycle at any moment.” [Korea Times 2] [Korea Herald]

Last week, the 2021 Index of Economic Freedom by the Washington-based Heritage Foundation also ranked North Korea as the world’s least free country in terms of economic freedom for its people and businesses, after Venezuela. South Korea ranked 24th. [Korea Times 3]



2 March 2021

US-North Korea relations: US court awards 2.3 billion USD in damages over 1968 torture case, experts call for stressing human rights in normalization talks 

(nm/dql) A federal district court in Washington ordered North Korea to pay 2.3 billion USD in damages to the crew and family of the US naval ship USS Pueblo captured in 1968, as court documents released last week show. The case was filed on behalf of 61 former crew members and 110 family members three years ago after the Trump administration redesignated North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism in late 2017.

The USS Pueblo, a US spy ship disguised as a marine research vessel, was captured by North Korea in January 1968. One man was killed, while the remaining 82 crewmembers were captured, charged with spying, mentally and physically abused, and imprisoned. They were later released after a written statement from the US admitting the USS Pueblo was spying as well as a vow not to spy on North Korea again. 

In North Korea’s narrative the seizure of the Pueblo was a legitimate wartime move, while the US Navy insists the ship was in international waters when captured. [Foreign Policy] [Yonhap]

The court ruling comes at a time when the Biden administration is reviewing the US policy toward North Korea and several US experts on Korean affairs have stressed the need to include human rights issues in future peace and de-nuclearization talks with North Korea as. [Korea Herald 1

An interesting proposal for a new US diplomatic strategy toward North Korea which suggests that the “unachievable objective of complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization (CVID) should be dropped in favor of a more realistic step-by-step approach based on an equal commitment to denuclearization and peace,” is available at [38 North]. For a similar position suggesting to shift away from the “hostile” strategy toward North Korea under the Trump administration, see Doug Bandow in [National Interest] who argues for pairing “a peace declaration, which the Biden administration could issue unilaterally, with a commitment to negotiate a formal treaty,” to improve bilateral relations as preconditions of talks on disarmament and denuclearization. He adds that in this approach the “Biden administration should not be afraid to propose measures that benefit America just because they also would benefit North Korea.”

Meanwhile, according to a report, the US State Department further warned that North Korea’s strict Covid-19 measures significantly impeded humanitarian efforts by outside organizations, UN agencies, and other countries. In spite of claiming to be coronavirus-free, Pyongyang has taken relatively drastic measures since early 2020, including completely sealing its borders and restrictions on movement. [Korea Herald 2

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]