North Korea

Kim Jong-un theories mount as rumors swirl

When Kim Jong-un went conspicuously missing for a month back in 2014, North Korean state media finally put rumors about the young dictator’s status to bed by announcing he was very much alive, just experiencing some “discomfort.” As of Sunday, there were no such reports from state media in Poyngyang. And, with Mr. Kim now absent from public view for the past two weeks, the rumor mill is beginning to churn at full tilt. Is he dead? Will his sister Kim Yo Jong take power? What about his father’s half-brother Kim Pyong Il? Are Chinese and American officials secretly negotiating over the North’s nuclear weapons stockpile while the world waits for an announcement? Those are just a few of the questions swirling in the absence of any official North Korean announcement about the 36-year-old Mr. Kim, an overweight smoker with a family history of heart disease who’s been known to fall ill in the past. While U.S. and regional intelligence sources continued on Sunday morning to firmly push back against foreign media reports — including a rising number this weekend that have claimed Mr. Kim is “dead” — the theories about what’s really going on in notoriously secretive North Korea are mounting. Some well respected Pyongyang watchers have already weighed in with predictions about the future of the regime, as if Mr. Kim may truly be deceased. “Regardless of who assumes power, there are no indications that a successor would pursue different domestic or foreign policies,” Bruce Klingner, a former CIA Korea official now with the Heritage Foundation wrote in an analysis late last week. David Maxwell, a retired Special Forces colonel and North Korea expert with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, was more sober on Saturday, reflecting in comments circulated by email that reports of satellite imagery showing the North Korean dictator’s private train parked at an exclusive Kim family compound could mean many things. “This certainly adds to the mystery,” Mr. Maxwell said. “He could be there to hide out from the coronavirus or just sipping cognac and smoking cigars chuckling about how the international community has worked itself into a [tizzy].” “Or maybe it is there to return his body to Pyongyang,” Mr. Maxwell added. Such speculation is based on the fact that no images of Mr. Kim in public have been published since April 11.

And that’s really the bottom line..  He hasn’t been seen in public since April 11th; two weeks  It could mean something, or it could mean nothing.  So, no point in speculating or gossiping.  We’ll just have to wait until they’re ready to tell us.  Of course, once we have credible information, AND what it all means going forward, we’ll be sure to report it here.

N. Korea Says Trump Sent Letter to Kim, Offers Cooperation

President Donald Trump sent a personal letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, seeking to maintain good relations and offering cooperation in fighting the viral pandemic, Kim’s sister said Sunday. The latest correspondence came as Kim observed the firing of tactical guided weapons over the weekend, drawing criticism from South Korea, as the nuclear talks remain deadlocked. In a statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency, Kim’s sister and senior ruling party official, Kim Yo Jong, praised Trump for sending the letter at a time when “big difficulties and challenges lie ahead in the way of developing ties” between the countries. In the letter, she said Trump explained his plan to “propel the relations between the two countries … and expressed his intent to render cooperation in the anti-epidemic work” in an apparent reference to the global coronavirus outbreak. North Korea has repeatedly said there hasn’t been a single case of the coronavirus on its soil. Some foreign experts question that claim and say an outbreak in the North could cause a humanitarian disaster because of its poor medical infrastructure. There was no immediate comment from the White House. Kim Yo Jong said Trump’s letter is “a good example showing the special and firm personal relations” between the North Korean and U.S. leaders. But she said it’s not a good idea to “make hasty conclusion or be optimistic about” the prospect for bilateral relations. “In my personal opinion, I think that the bilateral relations and dialogue for them would be thinkable only when the equilibrium is kept dynamically and morally and justice ensured between the two countries,” she said. “Even at this moment we are working hard to develop and defend ourselves on our own under the cruel environment which the U.S. is keen to ‘provide.’” Kim and Trump have met three times and exchanged letters and envoys on many occasions since 2018, when they launched talks on the fate of Kim’s advancing nuclear arsenal. The two leaders have avoided harsh language against each other and Trump once said he and Kim “fell in love.” But their diplomacy has largely come to a standstill since the breakdown of their second summit in Vietnam in February 2019, when Trump rejected Kim’s demands for broad sanctions relief in return for a partial disarmament step. Kim pressed Trump to come up with new proposals to salvage the negotiations by the end of last year. Kim later vowed to bolster his nuclear deterrent, unveil “a new strategic weapon” and warned he would no longer be bound by a major weapons test moratorium. In recent weeks, North Korea has fired a slew of artillery and other rockets into the sea in what experts say is an attempt to improve its military capabilities. The weapons were all short range and did not pose a direct threat to the U.S. mainland. A resumption of long-range or nuclear weapons tests by Kim would likely completely scuttle diplomacy with Trump, experts say. KCNA said Kim watched the test firing of tactical guided weapons on Saturday with Kim Yo Jong and other top officials. South Korea’s military called the demonstration “very inappropriate” at a time when the world is struggling with the coronavirus pandemic. South Korea’s military said Saturday it detected two presumed short-range ballistic missiles that flew from a site in western North Korea across the country and landed in the waters off the east coast. The weapons flew 410 kilometers (255 miles), according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Sending that letter to Kim Jong Ding Dong was a smooth move on the part of President Trump.  It was his classic “art of the deal;” seeing an opportunity to reopen a door that had been temporarily shut.  We’ll see if this goes anywhere.  But, it was definitely a smart strategic move, and frankly..the right thing to do.  After all, the healthcare infrastructure in the DPRK is like the middle ages.  And, while the North Korean regime is claiming they have not a single case of the Wuhan virus…we all know better.  We’ll keep an eye on this developing story…

North Korea’s Coronavirus Response: Adding Face Masks to People in Photos

North Korean state media has for weeks now been publishing doctored images of people wearing surgical masks to give the impression that the country is effectively responding to the coronavirus outbreak, according to NK News. NK News reports that since mid-February, all state media has depicted people in public places wearing surgical masks to help prevent the spread of the disease. In most cases, it is blatantly obvious that the masks have been digitally added to the image. The images have appeared in newspapers including the party daily Rodong Sinmun, the cabinet newspaper Minju Choson, and the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), with the counterfeit nature of the image very easily detectable. State media has long attempted to alter images to fit their desired narrative, including fake photos of the country’s military capabilities or the disappearance of dictator Kim Jong-un at a recent weapons test. North Korea is currently experiencing a shortage of surgical masks and has already reached out to South Korea and international charities for help in getting hold of them. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported Monday that despite offering help to their neighbor through unofficial channels, Seoul has turned down the request due to their own shortages in the South. The reports were dismissed by Unification spokesman Yeo Sang-gi, who described their claims as unfounded. “Basically, the government needs inter-Korean cooperation in quarantine efforts,” he said. “But let me make it clear once again that as of now, there has been neither a request for support from the North nor any specific program.” The spread of coronavirus in North Korea is believed to be fairly serious, and state media has aggressively sought to present an image of a committed, dramatic response to the outbreak, despite the fact that the regime has refused to confirm a single official case. According to sources from inside the country, hundreds of people have already died as a result. No concrete numbers exist of coronavirus cases; the official number is zero. Some measures implemented by Pyongyang include a ban on all foreign tourists, the suspension practically all cross-border traffic with China where the virus originated, increasing observation at entry points, and mobilizing health workers to monitor residents and isolate those suspected of carrying it. Last month, authorities took the unusual step of canceling two major annual festivals in Pyongyang celebrating the birthday of late dictator Kim Jong-il over fears it would bring about further contagion. Concern over North Korea’s ability to handle the outbreak is shared by the World Health Organization, whose chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesusr recently warned that an epidemic is particularly dangerous in somewhere like North Korea because of the dire state of the country’s healthcare system. “Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems, and which are ill-prepared to deal with it,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last month.

North Korea is a disaster on oh so many levels.  It’ll be interesting to see how this coronavirus thing will play out there.  At least China, on SOME level is starting to come clean with how it is there.  Their struggle is balancing actually addressing the problem against the Asian culture of saving face and not admitting problems because its embarrassing.  With the DPRK (i.e. N . Korea), its ALL about saving face, no matter what….hence the the doctored photos, etc.

North Korea fired two projectiles, ending self-imposed moratorium on weapons testing: Seoul

North Korea fired two presumed short-range ballistic missiles on Monday, just days after its leader Kim Jong Un supervised artillery drills aimed at testing the combat readiness of some of its units. South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff revealed the projectiles were fired from an area near the coastal town of Wonsan and flew about 149 miles northeast on an apogee of about 22 miles, the Associated Press reported. They told reporters they are presumed to be short-range ballistic missiles. The South Korean and U.S. militaries are said to be analyzing the launches. The launch was the first of its kind by North Korea in 2020, which could signify the Hermit Kingdom might be resuming weapons demonstrations after a months-long hiatus that may have been forced by the coronavirus epidemic in Asia. The rogue leader, who late last year announced he was no longer obligated to comply with a self-imposed moratorium on testing weapons, gave no clear indication of when he would resume testing. North Korea likely tested one of its new road-mobile, solid-fuel missile systems or a developmental “super large” multiple rocket launcher it repeatedly demonstrated last year, said Kim Dong-yub, an analyst from Seoul’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies. Experts say such weapons can potentially overwhelm missile defense systems and expand the North’s ability to strike targets in South Korea and Japan, including U.S. bases there. South Korea’s presidential office said National Security Director Chung Eui-yong discussed the launches with the South’s defense minister and spy chief, and that the officials expressed “strong concern” over the North’s resumption of testing activity, which could raise military tensions. Japan said that it had not detected any projectile landing in its territory or its exclusive economic zone, and that no sea vessels or aircraft had been damaged. “The repeated firings of ballistic missiles by North Korea is a serious problem for the international community including Japan, and the government will continue to gather and analyze information, and monitor the situation to protect the lives and property of the people,” the Defense Ministry’s statement said. Kim’s latest show of force is apparently aimed at boosting military morale, strengthening internal unity and showing that his country is doing fine despite outside worries of how the North would contend with an outbreak. North Korea in previous years has intensified testing activity in response to springtime military exercises between South Korea and the United States that it has described as invasion rehearsals. But the allies announced last week that they were postponing their annual drills due to concern about the coronavirus outbreak in South Korea, with soldiers from both countries being infected. Amid the deadlock in larger nuclear negotiations with the Trump administration, Kim has suspended virtually all cooperation with South Korea in the past months while demanding that Seoul defy U.S.-led international sanctions and restart inter-Korean economic projects that would jolt the North’s broken economy.

Nothing to really be concerned about here…yet.   But, we’ll continue to monitor and update as needed.  For now, this is just business as usual, and Kim Jong Ding Dong is probably doing this more for internal reasons than anything else.

South Korea to send 50,000 tons of rice to North Korea

South Korea says it plans to send 50,000 tons of rice to North Korea through the World Food Program, in its second aid package announced over the past month as it seeks to help with North Korean food shortages and improve bilateral relations. South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul said Wednesday that Seoul will work with the U.N. agency to ensure that the food reaches North Korean people without delay. Kim said South Korea will decide whether to provide more food aid after reviewing the outcome of the current assistance.

U.S. seizes North Korean ship suspected of violating U.N. sanctions

The U.S. has seized a North Korean freighter that was caught shipping coal in violation of U.N. sanctions, the Justice Department revealed Thursday. The 17,000-ton cargo ship, called the Wise Honest, was stopped in Indonesia last year after it was found to be carrying coal. The ship’s captain was charged with violating Indonesian law, and last July, the U.S. filed an action to seize the ship, according to court papers. Federal prosecutors said the seizure marks the first time the U.S. has taken possession of a North Korean ship for violating international sanctions. “This sanctions-busting ship is now out of service,” said John Demers, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s National Security Division. The Wise Honest, North Korea’s second-largest ship for carrying bulk cargo, was on its way to American Samoa, U.S. officials said. On Thursday, the Justice Department asked a federal judge to give the U.S. ownership of the vessel through a civil forfeiture action — the same thing prosecutors do when they seek to take ownership of planes or boats used by drug smugglers. The Justice Department says the U.S. is entitled to take this action because payments to maintain and equip the vessel were made through American banks. “Our office uncovered North Korea’s scheme to export tons of high-grade coal to foreign buyers by concealing the origin of their ship, the Wise Honest,” said Geoffrey Berman, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. “This scheme not only allowed North Korea to evade sanctions, but the Wise Honest was also used to import heavy machinery to North Korea, helping expand North Korea’s capabilities and continuing the cycle of sanctions evasion.” The announcement of the seizure came just hours after North Korea launched suspected short-range missiles — the second such weapons test in a week. But Berman said the effort to take control of the Wise Honest had been in the works for some time and was not spurred by North Korea’s overnight actions. The Justice Department said the Korea Songi Shipping Company used the Wise Honest from at least November 2016 through April 2018 — and broke American law by paying U.S. dollars to “unwitting” banks for several improvements, equipment purchases and service expenditures for the vessel. The March 2018 cargo shipment yielded payments totaling more than $750,000, the Justice Department said.

This story is developing…

Kim Jong-un’s move to replace hardline spy chief creates fresh uncertainty in nuke talks

A major regime shake-up by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the eight weeks since his failed summit with President Trump has set U.S. officials on edge amid uncertainty over whether high-level personnel changes in Pyongyang will help or damage the stalled nuclear talks. With the prospect of a third Trump-Kim summit hanging in the balance, U.S. officials are scrambling to make sense of Mr. Kim’s apparent sidelining of top adviser Kim Yong-chol, a 73-year-old hard-liner and former intelligence chief disliked by the Trump administration, in favor of a much younger and lesser-known regime apparatchik named Jang Kum-chol. American and South Korean sources said that while Mr. Jang’s name was rarely mentioned by North Korea’s state-controlled media until two weeks ago, he has been an influential behind-the-scenes player for years, with a reputation for favoring diplomacy over hard-line confrontation. In his late-50s, Mr. Jang comes from an elite North Korean family and has spent his entire career working within the ruling Korean Workers’ Party United Front Department (UFD), a powerful intelligence arm of the regime that has long overseen relations with South Korea and increasingly with the United States, the sources said. He is believed to have been elevated to replace Kim Yong-chol as head of the UFD, although it is not clear whether that means Mr. Kim, who once threatened to turn South Korea into a “hell of fires” and is accused of masterminding a major 2014 cyberattack against the United States, is being punished by Kim Jong-un or pushed into a more background role. Either way, analysts say, Mr. Jang’s promotion can be read in a variety of ways at a time of maximum uncertainty in U.S.-North Korean diplomacy. “Outside observers may not be familiar with Jang, but he is well known within the power structure in Pyongyang, having spent his career in the UFD,” said Robert Collins, a senior adviser to the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea who has lived in South Korea more than four decades and is considered an authority on the regime in Pyongyang. “Jang also has a reputation there as a negotiator who is really the opposite of Kim Yong-chol, who is renowned for being an extreme hard nose in negotiations.” Longtime North Korea analyst Paik Haksoon, president of the Sejong Institute, a leading think tank in South Korea, went further, asserting that Mr. Jang’s sudden rise, coupled with the elevation last month of longtime nuclear negotiator and diplomat Choe Son-hui to the position of first vice foreign minister, was clearly meant by Kim Jong-un “to send a message.” “The North Koreans are playing politics by changing the players involved in the negotiations. By moving Jang and Choe to positions of more prominence, they are sending a signal to the Americans and to South Korea that North Korean negotiators may be more engaging diplomatically than Kim Yong-chol has been,” Mr. Paik said. “This is not a concession by North Korea,” he added, “but more of an overture to say that on a personal, attitudinal level, with regard to their personal negotiating styles, they could be more diplomatic.” But how they translate into tangible changes in the nuclear negotiations remains to be seen.

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