Daughter of defecting North Korean envoy was caught and forced to return home, says defector

SEOUL (AFP) – A North Korean diplomat who reportedly defected from his embassy in Rome last year has been separated from his daughter after she was forcefully repatriated to Pyongyang, an ex-colleague who has now settled in the South said on Tuesday (Feb 19).

Jo Song Gil, who went into hiding with his wife and is reportedly seeking asylum, “could not manage to get his daughter to join them”, said Thae Yong Ho, who also fled his post as the North’s deputy ambassador to Britain in August 2016.

Thae last month urged the Korean government to protect Jo and wrote an open letter asking him to come to the South so “they can work together to help the two Koreas reunify”.

But Thae told reporters in Seoul he could no longer urge Jo to join him in the South after he learnt through a friend that the girl, thought to be a high school student, had been forced to return to North Korea.

“The amount of punishment that is imposed to those whose family members fled to South Korea is incomparable to those whose family fled to other countries,” he said.

Jo, who is in his 40s and known to be fluent in French and Italian as well as English, came to Rome in 2015.

He was appointed acting ambassador in October 2017, after Italy expelled his predecessor Mun Jong Nam to protest a nuclear test staged by Pyongyang.

South Korean media said Jo’s daughter had lived with her parents in Rome before the defection and that she had been caught by North Korean authorities before she could join them in hiding.

It was unclear how she was returned to her home country.

Italy is an important diplomatic mission for Pyongyang as it handles relations with the Rome-headquartered UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. North Korea suffers from chronic food shortages.

About 30,000 North Koreans have fled repression and poverty under the communist regime and settled in the capitalist South, mostly by secretly crossing over the porous border with China.

Since defecting and resettling in Seoul, Thae has publicly discussed his impoverished but nuclear-armed former homeland and means of reconciling the two neighbours, which technically remain at war.

Ahead of the second US-North Korea summit next week, Thae also castigated US President Donald Trump for falling into North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s “trap”, adding that North Korea had not posed a real threat of war.

Trump made a “significant, strategic mistake” even before the his first summit with Kim in Singapore last year by threatening to “totally destroy North Korea” in his 2017 UN speech, Thae said.

At the time no threat of war existed between Pyongyang and the US, he added.

“(Trump) made the international community think that it was possible for the US and North Korea to have a nuclear war,” he continued.

“That’s what Kim Jong Un wanted. (The speech) allowed the world to agree to talk about peace first, not the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” .

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Ex-North Korean diplomat: Kim Jong Un won’t give up nukes

SEOUL, South Korea — A former North Korean diplomat says leader Kim Jong Un has no intention of giving up his nuclear weapons and sees his upcoming second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump as a chance to cement his country’s status as a nuclear weapons state.

Thae Yong Ho, who defected to South Korea in 2016, said in a news conference in Seoul on Tuesday that next week’s meeting in Vietnam will be a failure if Trump can’t get Kim to declare he will abandon all of his nuclear facilities and weapons and return North Korea to the nuclear non-proliferation agreement.

Thae worked as a minster at the North Korean Embassy in London before fleeing to South Korea. He is the highest-level North Korean diplomat to defect to the South.

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North Korean envoy en route to Hanoi ahead of Trump-Kim summit: Yonhap

SEOUL (AFP) – The North Korean special representative for the US arrived in Beijing on Tuesday (Feb 19), apparently en route to Vietnam to meet his Washington counterpart ahead of a second scheduled summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said.

Kim Hyok Chol arrived in the Chinese capital at around 10am local time (0200 GMT) and was expected to board a plane bound for Hanoi later in the day.

Kim’s trip comes three days after Kim Jong Un’s de-facto chief of staff, Kim Chang Son, landed in Hanoi to discuss protocol and security matters with the US team ahead of the summit on Feb 27-28.

Kim Hyok Chol and his US counterpart Stephen Biegun were engaged in three days of talks in Pyongyang earlier this month, exploring each side’s positions on denuclearisation ahead of the much-anticipated meeting.

Biegun said they had been productive, but more dialogue was needed.

“We have some hard work to do with the DPRK between now and then,” Biegun said, adding that he was “confident that if both sides stay committed we can make real progress here”.

The US State Department said talks during Biegun’s trip explored Trump and Kim Jong Un’s “commitments of complete denuclearisation, transforming US-DPRK relations and building a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula”.

Specifically, discussions on declaring an end to the 1950-53 Korean War could have been on the table, with Biegun last month saying Trump was “ready to end this war”.

Alex Wong, US deputy assistant secretary of state for North Korea, is already in the Vietnamese capital preparing for the summit.

Biegun is expected to fly soon to Hanoi from Washington to resume talks with Kim Hyok Chol.

Experts say tangible progress on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons will be needed for the second summit if it is to avoid being dismissed as “reality TV”.

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North Korea's Kim Jong Un to arrive in Vietnam on Feb 25 ahead of summit with Trump

HANOI (REUTERS) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will arrive in Vietnam on Feb 25 ahead of a planned second summit with US President Donald Trump, three sources with direct knowledge of Kim’s schedule told Reuters on Saturday (Feb 16).

Trump and Kim are due to meet in Hanoi on Feb 27 and 28 following their historic first meeting last June in Singapore.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday that Washington aims to “get as far down the road as we can” at the summit.

Kim will meet with Vietnamese officials when he arrives in Hanoi, said the sources, who requested anonymity citing the sensitivity and secrecy surrounding the movements of the North Korean leader.

He will also visit the Vietnamese manufacturing base of Bac Ninh and the industrial port town of Hai Phong, one source said.

Vietnam’s president and general secretary of the ruling Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, will meet Kim ahead of a planned trip by Trong to neighbouring Laos, one of the sources with direct knowledge told Reuters.

A Reuters witness saw Kim’s close aide, Kim Chang Son, in Hanoi on Saturday visiting a government guesthouse and the Metropole and Melia hotels in the centre of the capital.

Reuters was first to report last month that Hanoi was preparing to receive Kim for a state visit this month.

Communist-ruled Vietnam, which has embraced economic reforms and developed close diplomatic ties with its former foe the United States, has been widely touted as a model of reform for isolated and impoverished North Korea.

The former Cold War allies, which share a similar socialist ideology and exchanged military and political support during the Vietnam War, are eyeing a new chapter in relations following Hanoi’s opening up and embrace of the West.

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Crystal meth is North Korea's trendiest Chinese New Year's gift

HONG KONG (NYTIMES)- Like many across East Asia, North Koreans have been exchanging presents this month to celebrate the Lunar New Year. But rather than tea, sweets or clothing, some in this impoverished, isolated country are giving the gift of crystal meth.

The gifting and use of methamphetamine, a powerful stimulant that has been blamed in health and addiction crises around the world, is said to be a well-established custom in North Korea.

Users are said to inject or snort the drug as casually as they might smoke a cigarette, with little awareness of its addictive qualities or destructive effects.

“Meth, until recently, has been largely seen inside North Korea as a kind of very powerful energy drug – something like Red Bull, amplified,” said Andrei Lankov, an expert on the North at Kookmin University in Seoul, South Korea, who directs news site NK News.

That misconception, he said, highlighted a “significant underestimation” within the country of the general risks of drug abuse.

Methamphetamine was first introduced to the Korean Peninsula during the Japanese colonial period, in the early 20th century, and defectors have reported that the North Korean military provided methamphetamine to its soldiers in the years after World War II. Since the 1970s, many North Korean diplomats have been arrested abroad for drug smuggling.

In the 1990s, the North’s cash-poor government began manufacturing meth for export, about two decades after it began sponsoring local opium cultivation and the production of opiates, according to a 2014 study by Sheena Chestnut Greitens, a University of Missouri political scientist.

Finished meth was typically sent across the northern border into China or handed off at sea to criminal organisations like Chinese triads or the Japanese yakuza.

But around the mid-2000s, meth production that was “clearly sponsored and controlled” by the government began to decline, the study said. That left a surplus of people with the skills to manufacture meth, many of whom created small-scale meth labs and began selling to the local market.

Amid a chronic lack of health care supplies and medical treatments in North Korea, many people take opiates and amphetamine-type stimulants as perceived medicinal alternatives, Greitens, the political scientist, said in an e-mail.

“Methamphetamine is highly addictive, so it’s easy for casual users to develop more dependence and addiction over relatively short amounts of time,” she said.

The drug’s popularity in North Korea as a Lunar New Year gift was first reported last week by Radio Free Asia, a US government-funded news outlet. Radio Free Asia quoted several anonymous sources as saying that the custom was especially popular among the country’s young people.

The Radio Free Asia report could not be independently verified, and the North Korean government has long denied that its citizens use or produce methamphetamine.

“The illegal use, trafficking and production of drugs which reduce human being into mental cripples do not exist in the DPRK,” the North’s state-run news agency said in 2013, referring to the initials of the country’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

But experts say the custom of gifting crystal meth in North Korea – where it is called “bingdu,” the Korean transliteration of the Chinese word for “ice drug” – is essentially an open secret.

Teodora Gyupchanova, a researcher at the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul, said that many defectors interviewed by the centre in 2016 spoke of crystal meth as a popular gift for birthdays, graduations and “holidays such as the Lunar New Year.”

Lankov, of NK News, said stories of crystal meth being given as a present were very common when he and a co-author conducted interviews with defectors for a 2013 study on North Korean drug use. He added that defectors had made fewer references to crystal meth in the years since, possibly indicating a decline in overall use.

While meth is illegal in North Korea, like other private economic activities there, the drug has effectively become legal “because officials take bribes to look the other way, and because the state indirectly benefits from a food chain of bribes that goes all the way to the top,” said Justin Hastings, a political scientist at the University of Sydney in Australia who has studied North Korean drug trafficking networks.

“Over time, this has resulted in a culture where people are willing to take risks to make money and official state prohibition has little meaning,” Hastings said.

Greg Scarlatoiu, director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a Washington think tank, said that the regime of Kim Jong Un, the North’s leader, was currently focusing all its resources on priorities such as developing missiles and giving domestic elites access to luxury goods.

“For as long as drug use does not pose a challenge to the regime, but instead dulls the wills and minds of the North Korean people, the government tacitly allows it to go on, despite the tremendous mental and physical health challenges it creates,” Scarlatoiu said.

Lankov said that there were government propaganda posters about drug use displayed inside North Korea.

“They basically did not say, ‘Drugs are bad for you,’ ” he said of the posters. “They basically said, ‘Drugs are bad for the country.'” Mike Ives.

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Vietnam foreign minister to visit North Korea from Feb 12 to 14 ahead of Trump-Kim summit

HANOI (REUTERS) – Vietnam’s foreign minister Pham Binh Minh will visit North Korea ahead of this month’s planned summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, a spokesman said on Monday (Feb 11).

Trump said last week he would hold his second meeting with Kim in the Vietnamese capital on Feb 27 and 28.

The Vietnamese foreign minister plans to visit North Korea from Feb 12 to 14, the spokesman said in a statement posted to social network Twitter, without giving further details.

Ahead of the summit, Vietnam’s reform model has been widely touted as the economic path for impoverished and isolated North Korea to follow.

The summit follows an unprecedented first meeting between the leaders in Singapore last June.

But with just weeks to go, the two sides have appeared far from narrowing their differences over US demands for North Korea to give up a nuclear weapons programme that threatens the United States.

The Singapore summit yielded a vague commitment by Kim to work toward the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, where US troops have been stationed since the Korean War.

While in the US view North Korea has yet to take concrete steps to give up its nuclear weapons, Pyongyang complains that Washington has done little to reciprocate for its freezing of nuclear and missile testing and dismantling of some facilities.

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U.S. Envoy Arrives in North Korea to Prepare for 2nd Trump-Kim Summit

SEOUL, South Korea — A senior American negotiator arrived in North Korea on Wednesday to sort out crucial details for a nuclear summit meeting in Vietnam between President Trump and the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, with only three weeks to go before the talks take place.

Stephen Biegun, the Trump administration’s special representative for North Korea, arrived in Pyongyang, the North’s capital, around the time that Mr. Trump announced in his State of the Union address that he and Mr. Kim would meet for a second time on Feb. 27-28 in Vietnam. Mr. Beigun’s trip had been announced in advance.

When Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump first met in Singapore in June, they agreed to work toward the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and to build “new” relations between their countries. But since then, talks have stalled over how to carry out that vaguely worded agreement.

Mr. Trump now wants “significant and verifiable progress on denuclearization, actions that are bold and real,” Mr. Biegun said last week in a speech at Stanford University. But American intelligence agencies recently cautioned that the North was “unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability.”

During his Pyongyang visit, Mr. Biegun plans to pursue “concrete plans to advance all of the elements of the Singapore joint statement,” he said last week. He said the working-level talks in Pyongyang would be aimed at finding concessions that each side could accept, as well as “a road map of negotiations and declarations going forward, and a shared understanding of the desired outcomes of our joint efforts.”

Mr. Biegun’s trip to negotiate such important unresolved issues, just weeks before the talks, reflects the top-down diplomacy that Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim appear to prefer. The American envoy had his first meeting with Kim Hyok-chol, his newly appointed North Korean counterpart, only three weeks ago in Washington.

Unlike their predecessors, Mr. Trump and Kim Jong-un — after a series of vitriolic exchanges during the American president’s first year in office — have personally driven their countries’ diplomatic engagement, exchanging letters and flattering remarks. Mr. Trump has boasted of his “fantastic chemistry” with Mr. Kim, even saying that the two “fell in love.”

President Moon Jae-in of South Korea has said that Mr. Trump’s apparent strong desire to become the American leader who ends the North Korean nuclear threat, along with Mr. Kim’s announcement that reviving the North’s economy is his top priority, have increased the chances for a breakthrough in the decades-old nuclear dispute.

“We hope that both leaders will take more detailed and concrete steps in Vietnam,” Mr. Moon’s spokesman, Kim Eui-kyeom, said on Wednesday, urging both sides to learn from the American experience in Vietnam.

“Vietnam and the United States once wielded guns and bayonets against each other, but they are now friends,” the spokesman said. “We hope that Vietnam will provide a perfect backdrop as both sides try to write a new history.”

In Vietnam, a one-party Communist state where government offices were closed on Wednesday for the Lunar New Year holiday, Mr. Trump’s announcement was noted in the state-controlled news media. Le Thi Thu Hang, a spokeswoman for the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry, said in a statement that the country “strongly supports dialogues held with a view to maintaining peace, security and stability in the Korean Peninsula.”

Others in Vietnam said the meeting would be a good opportunity for Vietnam to raise its international profile, advance some of its strategic interests and improve its relationship with the United States.

Mr. Biegun said last week that Mr. Trump’s bold approach had allowed more room for maneuver than any of the envoy’s predecessors had. His North Korean counterpart is from the State Affairs Commission, a powerful agency that reports directly to Kim Jong-un.

“It’s a positive sign that the working-level teams of both sides are headed by figures who are considered flexible and deeply trusted by their leaders,” said Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute in South Korea.

But critics said that going into a meeting with Mr. Kim without a clear set of agreements hammered out in advance by staff would be dangerous, raising the prospect of another summit deal with no more specifics on how to denuclearize the North than the Singapore one had.

In his speech last week, Mr. Biegun acknowledged that the United States and North Korea had yet to come up with “a specific and agreed definition” of the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the goal that both leaders pledged in Singapore to work toward.

Analysts have long warned that Mr. Kim could try to give up just enough of his nuclear weapons program to create the illusion of progress, allowing Mr. Trump to claim victory while leaving unchanged the North’s long-term goal of being recognized as a de facto nuclear weapons state.

“This is like the train racing ahead without even knowing where its final destination is,” said Cheon Seong-whun, an analyst at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. “If they produce another half-cooked agreement in the second summit and fail to specify what their final goal is, it would only help make North Korea’s nuclear arsenal a fait accompli.”

When Mr. Kim met with Mr. Moon in Pyongyang in September, Mr. Kim said the North was willing to take significant actions toward denuclearization — including the permanent dismantlement of its facilities in Yongbyon, a key site for producing nuclear bomb fuel — if Washington took “corresponding” steps.

Mr. Biegun said he would discuss those measures while in Pyongyang. He also indicated that the Trump administration was softening its position to make a deal possible.

He said the United States was ready to take actions “simultaneously and in parallel” with the North as denuclearization proceeds. In the past, Washington insisted that the North take significant steps of its own, starting with the full disclosure of all of its nuclear assets, before expecting any rewards.

But Mr. Biegun said last week that a comprehensive disclosure of such assets could come “at some point.” He even indicated that Washington might ease sanctions against the North before the North denuclearizes completely.

”We didn’t say, ‘We won’t do anything until you do everything,’” Mr. Biegun said.

Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said one stated goal of Mr. Beigun’s trip — a “road map of negotiations and declarations going forward” — was particularly crucial.

“Without a negotiated road map, the denuclearization process lacks transparency, accountability and a decent chance of success,” Mr. Easley said.

Chau Doan contributed reporting from Hanoi, Vietnam, and Mike Ives from Hong Kong.

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North Korea: US planning 'bloody nose' first strike

Pyongyang says US hyping the threat of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, much like it did before invading Iraq in 2003.

    North Korea accused the United States of planning to launch a “bloody nose” military strike against the country while promoting the threat of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons – much like it did before invading Iraq.

    During disarmament talks in Geneva on Tuesday, North Korean diplomat Ju Yong-chol – referring to his country’s official name the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – said Washington continues to plan a pre-emptive strike, despite a recent calm in bellicose rhetoric between the arch-rivals.

    “US officials – including the defence secretary and the CIA director – repeatedly talked about DPRK nuclear and missile threat to justify their argument for a military option and a new concept of a so-called ‘bloody nose’,” said Ju.

    “A limited pre-emptive strike on the DPRK is under consideration within the US administration.”

    A “bloody nose” attack refers to a limited military strike against the North’s nuclear weapons sites that allegedly would not result in large-scale death and destruction.

    The Rodong Sinmun, the North’s ruling party newspaper, said on Tuesday US criticism of Pyongyang’s weapons programmes and its human rights record was setting the stage for an attack.

    It compared the situation to the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq war, when then-president George W Bush warned of “weapons of mass destruction” being deployed by Saddam Hussein.  

    “There is a foolish attempt to make pretence for provocation and pave the road for invasion ahead of conducting the military adventure ‘bloody nose strategy’ in the invectives of Trump recalling Bush’s reckless remarks of ‘axis of evil,’ ” the newspaper said in a commentary.

    Bush described Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as the “axis of evil” in sponsoring global “terrorism” in his 2002 State of the Union address.

    “The empire of America would go to hell and the short history of the US would end forever the moment he destroys even a single blade of grass on this land,” the commentary added.

    ‘Months away’

    At the Geneva talks, US disarmament ambassador Robert Wood told the forum North Korea was only “months away” from attaining the capability to strike the United States with a nuclear-armed ballistic missile.

    Asked what the basis was for his assessment, Wood said he had “no new information to share”.

    North Korea accused the United States of seeking to aggravate the current situation on the divided peninsula by “deploying large nuclear assets” nearby.

    On Monday, 18 American senators sent a letter to President Donald Trump, warning he doesn’t have the authority to launch a “bloody nose” attack.

    “Like many, we are deeply concerned about the potential consequences of a preemptive military strike on North Korea and the risks of miscalculation and retaliation,” the letter said.

    It described such a plan as “an enormous gamble”.

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    Are US and North Korea on the verge of nuclear war?

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    Trump 'absolutely' willing to talk to Kim Jong-un

    US president describes inter-Korean talks as a ‘big start’, says they would not be happening without his ‘tough stance’.

      US President Donald Trump said he would be willing to talk to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on the phone, but not without conditions.

      “I always believe in talking,” Trump briefly told reporters on Saturday. 

      “Absolutely, I would do that,” he said when asked if he would be willing to talk to the North Korean leader. 

      Trump also said he hoped the upcoming talks between North and South Korea on Pyongyang’s participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics would ease tensions over the North Korea’s missiles and nuclear programme.

      The high-level talks, to be held on January 9, will be the first such communications in more than two years.

      Trump said he “very much” wants to see “it work out between the two countries,” and took credit for the rapprochement. 

      “Without my rhetoric and tough stance,” he said, “they wouldn’t be talking”.

      The US president and the North Korean leader have repeatedly traded barbs in the past – Trump has called Kim “rocket man”, while Kim described Trump as a “dotard”.

      Earlier this week, Trump responded furiously to Kim’s taunt of a nuclear button, by saying his button was “bigger and more powerful”.

      The offer for talks on Olympic cooperation also came after South Korea and the US announced they would postpone joint military exercises that rile North Korea. Pyongyang says the war games held multiple times each year are a precursor to an American-led invasion. 

      Trump described the inter-Korean dialogue as a “big start”.

      “If something can happen and something can come out of those talks, that would be a great thing for all of humanity, that would be a great thing for the world,” he said.

      South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said on Sunday that North Korea’s five-member delegation to the talks will be led by Ri Son Gwon, head of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland.

      Cho Myoung-gyon, South Korea’s unification minister, will head the delegation from Seoul.

      The talks are to be held in the border village of Panmunjom. 

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      Korean Peninsula: Will upcoming talks ease tensions?

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      Trump pushes back against US spy chiefs on North Korea, ISIS

      WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – US President Donald Trump on Wednesday (Jan 30) pushed back against threat assessments offered to Congress by the nation’s top intelligence officials a day earlier and defended his more optimistic assertions on North Korea and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

      In a series of early morning posts on Twitter, Trump said ISIS “will soon be destroyed” and that there was a “decent chance of denuclearisation” with Pyongyang.

      On Tuesday, the intelligence officials broke with Trump in their assessments of the threats posed by North Korea and other nations.

      Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats joined the heads of the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies on Tuesday to deliver their annual assessments of the most critical threats facing the United States in a public briefing with US senators.

      Coats said North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons, while Trump has said the country no longer poses a threat.

      Trump plans a second meeting next month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

      On ISIS, Coats said the militant group would continue to pursue attacks from Syria and Iraq against regional and Western adversaries, including the United States.

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