Category Archives: Defectors

The summer of their discontent: Is Kim Jong Un losing the elite classes?

Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a spate of reports about defections from North Korea. Broadly, this is nothing new. The defection, for example, of three crew members of a fishing vessel is life-changing for three men, but is no more likely to rend the fabric of Kim Jong-Un’s regime than 27,000 other defections, almost all of them of people the regime had written off as expendable. 

Recently, however, we’ve seen multiple reports suggesting something very different, and vastly more consequential for Kim Jong-Un: a surge of defections from the Inner Party. The defection of the biochemical researcher I wrote about in last Thursday’s post is just one of a series of reports that causes me to wonder whether Kim Jong-Un’s purges—“on a scale not seen since at least the late 1960s,” according to Andrei Lankov—are alienating the ruling class that keeps him in power. I’m not alone in asking this question. No less an authority than Ken Gause opines that, assuming the reports are accurate, “they could reflect … that leaders within North Korea are becoming increasingly anxious about politics around Kim Jong Un.”  I’ve held and added to this post for more than a week as enough evidence emerged to suggest the start of a trend.

Recall that in June, shortly after the purge of North Korean Defense Minister Hyon Yong-Chol, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye sat for an interview with The Washington Post and claimed that a growing number of North Korean officials are discontented enough to risk their lives to escape it:

Since [he] took power 3 1/2 years ago, he has executed some 90 officials. Indeed, the reign of terror continues to this day. Although one can say that the reign of terror might work in the short term, in the mid- to long term, it is actually sowing and amplifying the seeds of instability for the regime …. Recently, a senior North Korean defected and confessed to us that because of the ongoing and widespread executions that include even his inner circle, they are afraid for their lives. That is what prompted him to flee. [WaPo]

Last week, Yonhap reported that “[a] number of North Korea’s working-level officials based in foreign nations have sought asylum” abroad, because “[m]any of them feel agitated” by Kim Jong Un’s rule. Some of them “have already defected to the South.” Yonhap also cited a report in the Chosun Ilbo, that “about a dozen senior North Korean officials” have defected for fear of being purged.

The defectors were working in China and Southeast Asia, some charged with earning hard currency for the regime. Several have already arrived in South Korea while others are staying in a third country.

Early this year, a mid-ranking official who had been dispatched to Hong Kong from Room 39, a Workers Party office that handles Kim’s slush funds, sought asylum in South Korea with his family.He reportedly told investigators here he was terrified of Kim’s draconian purges, which saw senior officials executed by anti-aircraft gun, and that officials left in North Korea find it almost impossible to flee because of tight controls but those working overseas can find some opportunities to defect. Last year, a senior official of Taesong Bank, who had handled Kim’s slush funds in Siberia, fled to South Korea with millions of dollars. Even a senior official of the State Security Department fled the North and arrived here. According to the National Security Service here, the defection particularly upset Kim. [Chosun Ilbo]

I wrote about that defection in this post at the time (see also this L.A. Times report). An especially tantalizing aspect of the Chosun Ilbo‘s report is that some of these defections could represent invaluable windfalls of financial intelligence about Pyongyang’s offshore assets, income streams, and money laundering methods. That intelligence could boost the Obama Administration’s ability to enforce sanctions against North Korea, should it develop the will to do so at a vulnerable moment for Kim Jong-Un.

(The Chosun Ilbo report also claims that “[a]n army general” who “was involved in the two inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007”—so presumably, once a highly trusted cadre—“has been staying in a third country since he fled the North recently.” If the general in question is Park Seung-Won, who was also involved in building the Masikryong Ski Resort, South Korea denies this report.)

Yonhap has since reported that North Koreans laboring abroad are terrified of the purges and “examinations” by security forces cadres posted in China, and that some of them are choosing to defect. The Daily NK reports increased surveillance of well-connected merchants (donju) and officials of state-owned enterprises. Radio Free Asia reports that at Pyongyang’s request, China has forcibly summoned ten of its officials home, as part of its own investigation into the defections:

North Korea’s National Security Agency (NSA) summoned the workers as part of an investigation into a recent flood of high-ranking officials seeking asylum, the source from inside North Korea with knowledge of the country’s affairs in China told RFA’s Korean Service.“Resident employees who work in Shenyang (in northeastern China’s Liaoning province) earning foreign currency were recalled in the last ten days of June by the North Korean government,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.“

It was not their will to go back. They were forcibly returned to their own country.” [RFA]

Invariably, most of these reports cite anonymous sources, but they’re consistent with other reports, and a report that, after the December 2013 purge of Jang Song-Thaek, Jang’s minions in hard currency-earning enterprises in China were called home, but ran the other way. Reports that some North Koreans choose defection over obedience suggests more than simple insubordination. They suggest that Kim Jong-Un is losing his psychological hold over his elites.

The purges are also sowing mutual distrust between Kim Jong-Un and the elites. Some of them now accuse the State Security Department of bugging their homes.

An official in Pyongyang recently told RFA’s Korean Service that “in December 2013, several complaints were lodged by the North Korean Workers’ Party leadership that the State Security Department had even wiretapped departments under the Central Party,” and Kim Jong Un had responded by saying that “if they are clean, why do they fear being wiretapped?”

Soon after, wiretapping and surveillance by the State Security Department became “ubiquitous,” targeting high-ranking officials in their homes and forcing them to rein in conversation with their families, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Several officials had gone so far as to send their children to stay with relatives or to live in areas outside of Pyongyang, he said. [RFA]

According to the Daily NK, there have been so many defections from elite families in Pyongyang that the regime has concluded that exiling their entire families, or sending them to prison camps, is no longer a practical deterrent. Instead, some elite families are merely put under enhanced surveillance.

“The number of various cadres defecting is on the rise, but I think it was determined that indiscriminate penalization of family members could worsen public sentiment and hurt the ‘Republic,’” he said.

Empirically, families of defectors in North Korea appear to lead stable lives in Pyongyang, but bubbling under the surface is the stress of constant surveillance and phone taps by the State Security Department (SSD).“

Families of traitors (defectors) are merely used as propaganda for the state, which claims they are able to lead stable lives thanks to the benevolence of the leader, but they never know when they’re going to be executed,” the source explained.

As of late, more officials at North Korea’s missions overseas or trade workers plan group defections with their families due to the cycle of purges, executions, and ensuing anxiety rife within the upper echelons of power in the North. Others feel threatened while carrying out overseas posts and defect rather than return to their homeland, according to the source.

When those with families in Pyongyang or relatives stationed at overseas missions hear of officials’ returns being delayed or that they’ve gone missing, an increasingly common response is, “another one fled,” according to the source. [Daily NK]

It is also possible that corruption plays a role in the state’s leniency, and that the security forces are taking bribes to spare these families.

~  ~   ~

North Korea has survived other high-level defections, of course, most notably that of Hwang Jang-Yop in 1997. Predictions of North Korea’s collapse—and the refutation of them—are necessarily so based on unknowables that they become Rorschach tests of the writer’s broader policy views. For example, Yonhap quotes four scholars, two of whom argue that the recent defections will not cause the collapse of the regime (although the headline attributes that conclusion to “experts”). The article tells us nothing about these academics or their orientations,* and offers little explanation for their conclusions, but strictly speaking, defections will not cause the regime to collapse, any more than hair loss will kill a cancer patient, or any more than a wave of defections in 1989 caused the collapse of East Germany. That wave, however, was a coincident symptom of a metastatic social cancer, of a society so riddled with disillusionment at every level that in the end, even the Stasi feared summary justice, border guards couldn’t wait to cross the wall to buy bananas, and hardened killers like Erich Mielke did not dare to crack down violently.

The more data points there are, the more one can argue that those points represent a trend. There are more of these data points today than at any time during the reign of Kim Jong-Il, a man who couldn’t govern but who could, unquestionably, rule. Kim Jong-Un shows little aptitude for either skill. I’ve never believed that Kim Jong-Un had the temperament, credentials, or gravitas to survive long in power, and nothing I’ve observed since December 2011 disturbs this belief. The short, unhappy history of his rule has mostly been remarkable for its repressionbrutality, and purges; the widening of destabilizing social and class divisions; Kim’s flaunting of his bacchanalian, un-socialist lifestyle; and a disregard for the deiocratic cult of a selfless, enlightened, superhuman protector of the people.

If Kim is no master of statecraft, which members of the inner junta does Kim Jong-Un still trust enough to guide him as he shifts the levers of power, or to restrain him from grinding the gears? Which of them trusts him? Kim Yong Nam, an 87 year-old best known for leading delegations to Africa in his autumn years? Chae Ryong-Hae, who is rumored to have “barely escaped” his own one-way trip to the ZPU-4 range—a rumor that finds some support in official North Korean media—just before he suddenly appeared in Seoul, leading an official delegation? Chae was promoted as a contemporary of Hyon Yong-Chol, Ri Pyong-Chol, and Ri Yong-Ho; he’s now the lone survivor of the four. In such a place, not even Hwang Pyong-So can feel confident that he’ll survive long enough to serve on Kim Yong-Nam’s funeral committee.

If it’s true that Pyongyang survived the last two decades without a sudden collapse, it’s equally true that Pyongyang’s control over food, information, and consumer goods has undergone a gradual collapse. The regime is riddled with corruption and inequality; and (as I argue here) falling morale within the party and the security forces. You’d be right to scoff at the empirical pretensions of a Foreign Policy survey that recently ranked North Korea as the world’s 29th most unstable state—up from 26th last year—but the broader conclusion finds support in the historical trends.

Historically, totalitarian regimes either bend under the weight of popular disillusionment or break under it. Despite the mostly unsupported hopes of scholars in Washington and Seoul, Kim Jong-Un has not implemented significant economic reforms, and no one speaks of political reforms. Instead, he has tried to re-impose North Korea’s information blockade and win over the elites with material amenities, even as he terrorizes them. I doubt this will be a winning strategy. If I were to offer a guess as to how the gears of this charnel house will eventually coagulate and clog, it would start with a local disturbance and a bloody crackdown that splits the security forces, then a fatal delay as critical units wait in their barracks to see which will be the winning side.

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4th Annual North Korean Human Rights International Film Festival

4th NHIFF banner

NKnet is hosting its 4th annual North Korean Human Rights International Film Festival this coming Friday and Saturday, September 26-27, in Gwanghwamun, Seoul.

This year there are 14 films from Korea, the US, and Saudi Arabia, and two of the films received financial support from the festival:

poster: November 9th
November 9th
100 min. – Korea – documentary – no English subtitles
Directed by: Kim Gyu-Min (the director of Winter Butterfly, which played at the first NHIFF in 2011)
Category: Reunification of the Korean Peninsula
*Following the film, there will be a conversation with the director, who is originally from North Korea (interpretation not available).


10 hours from now, the ceasefire line will collapse and the Korean peninsula will be reunified.

On Thursday, November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall – symbolizing the division of Germany – fell. It wasn’t through an agreement of the East and West German governments that it happened on that day. Nor were East or West German academics or anyone else from around the world for that matter able to foresee the wall would come down on November 9, 1989. A year later Germany was reunified for the first time in 41 years through the votes of the East and West German citizenry in free elections.

– What might transpire if November 9 were to come to the Korean peninsula?
– How much have we prepared for a Korean 11/9?
– In preparing for a Korean 11/9, what are the things we must do first?
– Is there any way to know what will happen on 11/10 and beyond?

movie photo: The Threshold of Death
The Threshold of Death
115 min. – Korea – English subtitles
Directed by: Lee Eun Sang
Category: Refugees & Resettlement
* will be featured at the opening ceremony


Dong-jin works at the immigration office uncovering illegal immigrants. His relationship with his father, who has Alzheimer’s disease, is one of obligation, and things are awkward between his younger brother, Dong-seok, and the family.

Coworker Nam-il regularly uses his position to commit corruption, while Dong-jin’s youngest sibling Eun-sung is led by compassion and unable to be cold-hearted. Unable to build relationships with those around him in his lonely daily life, Dong-jin finds himself favorably inclined toward Yeon-hwa, a Chinese-Korean singer he met at noraebang (a singing room).

When she suddenly receives a call from a broker who is guiding her niece, Soon-bok (who has escaped from North Korea), things fall into disarray. Seeing Yeon-hwa’s difficult situation and Soon-bok’s purity and will to live, Dong-jin starts to change little by little from his cold ways. [SPOILER ALERT – stop reading here if you plan to see the film] In the wake of his weak father’s death and then Yeon-hwa’s suicide, Dong-jin works hard to find Soon-bok.

All of this amounts to nothing as his coworker Nam-il tries to shift the blame for his corrupt dealings to Dong-jin and his sister Eun-sung betrays him in order to protect the family. Having lost everything, Dong-jin is left alone only with his sad reality and desire to see Soon-bok.

For more complete information about the festival, please visit NKnet’s website, where I’ve put up lots of trailers, photos, film schedule and descriptions, how to RSVP, directions, reviews, subtitle info, the program for the opening ceremony, etc.

For Facebookers, there’s an event page for the festival and an event page for the opening ceremony.

Dan Bielefeld

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North Korea doesn’t want defectors from South Korea or the U.S. anymore.

There was a time when North Korea would have welcomed a defector from the United States and, long after any intelligence value had been squeezed out of him, put him in propaganda films for a generation. Today, if you try to defect to North Korea, they’ll sentence you to hard labor until Jimmy Carter comes to make them a different kind of propaganda film.

More surprising, however, is that North Korea doesn’t want South Korean defectors, either. There was a time when such a defector would have been heralded as proof of North Korea’s superior ideology, legitimacy, and standard of living. When North Korea rejects defectors from the South, it suggests to me that its security forces know that no one believes those things anymore, except for a few crazies who aren’t worth feeding and caring for.

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Top N. Korean money man defects to “third country”

A senior North Korean banking official who managed money for leader Kim Jong Un has defected in Russia and was seeking asylum in a third country, a South Korean newspaper reported on Friday, citing an unidentified source.

Yun Tae Hyong, a senior representative of North Korea’s Korea Daesong Bank, disappeared last week in Nakhodka, in the Russian Far East, with $5 million, the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported. [Reuters, Ju-Min Park and James Pearson]

Daesong Bank is sanctioned by both the U.S. Treasury Department and the European Union, and is closely linked to the infamous Bureau 39. This guy could know where a lot of bodies are buried, metaphorically speaking. Also, literally.

The Joongang Ilbo, which broke the story, says that Yun “officially worked as president of the bank” and “was in charge of raising and managing slush funds for Kim in Northeast Russia.” Apparently, Yun made a withdrawal of about $5 million from that slush fund before his defection, and North Korea has a substantial penalty for early withdrawal.

North Korea’s activities in the region include its infamous logging camps and the recently-sanctioned, Vladivostok-based Ocean Maritime Management, the agent for the Chong Chong Gangthe Mu Du Dong, and other sanctioned vessels. And, God-knows-what else.

“We were tipped off that Jon Il-chun, the first deputy director of the Central Committee of Workers’ Party who was effectively in charge of Office 39, is currently in a very unstable position in an ongoing power struggle [in the ruling party] following several recent incidents,” another source said. 

The allegation suggests to Seoul officials that in his third year of power, Kim Jong-un may be having problems managing his financial affairs.

Some sources said Yun’s defection could be part of the aftermath of the brutal execution of Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek, in December 2013.

North Korean officials in charge of foreign currency in China and other Western countries were allegedly part of Jang’s inner circle, sources said, and some of them felt threatened by Jang’s death and have vanished. [Joongang Ilbo]

After Jang’s purge, there were reports that dozens of North Korea’s offshore financiers had been called home, and (wisely) didn’t come. The Joongang Ilbo has done the best reporting of North Korean money laundering of all of the Korean papers.

God, how I hope the CIA and Treasury will have a chance to debrief this man. And that he brought his laptop with him. And that he isn’t the only one who has reached safety in the embrace of “third-country” intelligence officers.

Hat tip to a reader and friend.

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ROK Army shoots, kills man attempting to swim to N. Korea

I’ll withhold my criticism until I know a few more facts, but I can’t immediately understand why South Korean troops had to shoot and kill a South Korean man who was swimming the Imjin toward North Korea.

This would not be the first South-to-North defection, but I don’t know why one the loss of one more nut or fugitive would be a great loss to the South. If the South doesn’t address the appropriateness of the use of force, it will weaken calls for North Korea to treat would-be defectors from North Korea differently.

By day’s end, we should know more than we know now. I’d like to know whether this was really necessary.

Update:  The more I read, the harder I find the ROK Army’s explanation to accept as a sufficient justification. I can’t see punishing soldiers who followed the rules of engagement they were given, but the army should review its rules of engagement for incidents like this one.

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Escape from North Korea: An Incremental Review

Nov. 7, 2012.  Early in Melanie Kirkpatrick’s Escape from North Korea, you start to find powerful phrases that stay with you — phrases that make you stop reading and chew on them, to extract the full significance of some aspect of life in another reality.  I couldn’t help quoting two of them.  The first is illuminating:

So accustomed are North Koreans to the lack of light that when I asked a North Korean who had settled in an American city if there was anything she missed from home, she replied, “the darkness.”

The second is ghastly:

“I keep thinking, maybe he would still be alive if we hadn’t buried him,” the young man told the reporters in Washington. He didn’t want his name used, for fear of retribution against his family in North Korea. But he told us the name of the man he buried, and I record it here: Kim Young-jin.

On a related note, I saw this quote in a link from another review that registered in my comments:

Interestingly, Haggard’s research is quoted at multiple points in the text, while Stanton does not merit a mention by the author.

Oh, my.  This is more than just a passive-aggressive blog post; it’s a life lesson:  Just as a reader shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, a reviewer shouldn’t judge a book before he actually reads the last chapter (beginning with its title).  Let the rewrite commence!

Nov. 29, 2012

Another quote I can’t resist giving you, about one of Kirkpatrick’s interviews with an escaped North Korean:

After our own trip to the buffet, we began the interview. The subject of our conversation was starvation.

Further on, there is this passage:

A commonplace observation of North Koreans who reached China was that Chinese dogs ate better than North Korean humans. The hungry refugees marveled at watching dogs devour scraps that were more nutritious than anything they had seen for years. They also marveled at seeing dogs. In North Korea, most of the dogs had been eaten.

One senses that Kirkpatrick longed to write this book not only because she had a story to tell, but because she had the literary impulse in her to tell it well in clear, high-impact prose.

Kirkpatrick’s second chapter is about religion in North Korea, a topic she introduces early because it has two levels of impact on the subject matter.  You already know, of course, that religion motivates most of the underground railroad’s conductors, but the complete ignorance of North Koreans about Christianity means that their first contact with it is a particularly strong shock to their systems.  It must be especially so for people who’ve broken with a lifetime of spiritual indoctrination, and the regime must understand that.

Kirkpatrick closes her chapter with an anecdote about my friend Tim Peters, and it speaks volumes about modern South Korean society:

In Seoul, Peters made his pitch to an assembly of divinity students at Chongshin University. Chongshin’s famous divinity school was founded in Pyongyang in 1901 and relocated south during the Korean War. Today, its graduates disperse to the four corners of the world to preach the Gospel. One would think that the school’s roots in the North would give it a special interest in reaching out to North Koreans. That was not what Peters found.

Peters described his interaction with the students at Chongshin. “Who’s going to India?” he asked the assembled seminarians. Lots of hands shot up. India is a popular spot for missionary work, and the South Korean students clearly were enthusiastic about the prospect of working there.

“Then I asked, ‘Who’s helping North Koreans?’ ” At this point in his story, Peters paused and looked around him. It was if he still had the prospective missionaries in his sight and was waiting to count the raised hands.

Finally, he answered his own question. “Nothing.”

In Chapter 3, we have another anecdote to file under “things we already knew” — in this case, that too many of those who represent us abroad are Nevilles Chamberlain without umbrellas to protect them from the disapproving scowls of the angels.  Listen to Evans Revere tell Kirkpatrick the story of some of the first North Korean defectors to show up at the doorstep of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and try to find a good reason not to loathe him:  

Revere went to the front entrance. After his questions in Mandarin also failed to elicit a response, something about the two men prompted him to try Korean, which he also spoke. The men responded with big smiles and a torrent of words. “I had a hard time at first placing their accent,” Revere said. “But then it dawned on me. I couldn’t quite believe it, but they were from North Korea.”

If the North Koreans had been soldiers or officials with important information to impart, Revere said, the United States might have been able to figure out a way to extract them from China. But they were just farmers and not worth diplomatic intervention, and they didn’t know enough to ask for political asylum.

Nor, for the sake of two just-farmers, did Evans see that it was “worth” prompting them to ask, although it was mighty sweet of him to give them a ride to the train station.  Do you suppose he stuffed a dollar bill in each of their shirt pockets and wished them the best of luck evading the ChiCom police all the way to Hong Kong?

Interesting observations about music in Chapter 3:

“No dictatorship can tolerate jazz,” he said at the time of that Cold War visit. “It is the first sign of a return to freedom.”

Well, maybe one day I’ll “get” jazz.  As to Richard Claydermann — I can go no further than, “To each his own.”  (On the other hand, the subversive messages that Prokofiev and Shostakovitch passed under the noses of Stalin’s censors have always been clear enough for me.)  Now this would be a hardship:

The North Korean regime also bans individual composers whose biographies it deems dangerous. Among them is Sergei Rachmaninoff, who wrote some of the twentieth century’s greatest piano music. Rachmaninoff is verboten because he fled his native Russia after the 1917 Revolution and settled in the United States.

Really?  But then, his music is openly sentimental, and sentiment is a dangerous thing to allow people to feel.  (Irony — I’m listening to Dvorak’s Ninth as I write this, and I don’t know of another classical piece that evokes freedom more.  Maybe I just associate it with the open, sagebrush-scented landscapes between the Black Hills and the Badlands I so often crossed in my childhood, but I doubt that’s all there is to it.)

(Update:  iTunes just shuffled to “Fanfare for the Common Man.”)


One of the best things about books like “Escape from North Korea” and “Nothing to Envy” is that for a few minutes, they make us think about North Korea as a humanitarian problem, and maybe even think about the diplomatic implications of dealing with people who place no value on human life.  I urge you to watch this extraordinarily powerful ten-minute speech by my good friend, Adrian Hong, in an event about Kirkpatrick’s book (she’s sitting to his right).  The speech struck a chord with The Washington Post‘s Max Fischer, which is itself a victory in a delaying action against those who sell out the North Korean people for a few promises that would surely be broken within a year.

After having had to correct his online review, Adam Cathcart swings at Hong and misses again, this time in the comment thread to Fischer’s post.  Cathcart begins by trying to associate Hong with “an ambitious agenda embracing the Arabic world,” falsely linking Hong to a completely unrelated entity that also happens to have “Pegasus” in its name.  He then twists Hong’s use of the word “preemptively” — in a context that Hong most likely meant in the diplomatic or humanitarian sense — to build a straw man (Cathcart:  “All these nascent rebels need is a small (to use Hong’s word) “preemptive’ push, the Korean Workers’ Party apparatus will tumble faster than you can say ‘nuclear Fuehrerbunker'”).

That’s a stretch.  In a lengthy piece in Foreign Policy, which Cathcart links, Hong advocates nothing more aggressive than broadcasting to the North Korean people, along with financial, diplomatic, and humanitarian pressure on the regime.  Hong mentions the possibility of an internal uprising, as plenty of other observers across the political spectrum have, but says, “[I]t is far better to have a coordinated, controlled landing, at the time of one’s choosing, instead of waiting for the worst to happen at any moment.”  If Hong has ever advocated what Cathcart obviously wants the Putinjugend trolls on that comment thread to infer, Cathcart ought to cite stronger evidence.

On the other hand, if Cathcart ever wants to challenge an actual advocate of a Libyan Solution for North Korea, he doesn’t need to imagine one, because I’m right here.  If there’s broad agreement that North Korea’s regime is inherently unstable, then the case of Syria shows what happens when you abdicate your nation’s interest in influencing the course of history.  As recently as 2010, no serious thinker believed a revolution was imminent in Libya or Syria.  Nor did anyone advocate sacrificing “engagement” with either regime to build relations with their disorganized and oppressed populations — populations that would soon produce militias, guerrilla armies, and a number of terrorists (in Syria, a growing number).  I certainly won’t defend the way this administration handled issues like embassy security or public communications in Libya, but its policy of building early alliances with the rebels while avoiding a ground war was sound, and stands a far better chance of producing a good outcome than our passive policy in Syria.


Dec. 6, 2012.  Here is a review, published in the Christian Science Monitor, and an interview with the author on National Public Radio.


Jan 2, 2013.  Last fall, the Hands-Off-North-Korea gang called for its smelling salts after the House passed the North Korea Refugee Adoption Act. The bill would have required the State Department to “develop a comprehensive strategy for facilitating the adoption of North Korean children by United States citizens” and, when possible, “assist in the family reunification of … orphaned North Korean children.” Some of these children are kkotjaebi, children who are orphaned and abandoned inside North Korea and managed to flee across the border on their own, but most are the children of North Korean mothers and Chinese men. These kids are conceived in circumstances that vary from consensual marriage to forcible rape, and sometimes in the gray area between the two. Nor do these children fit into either nationality, which is never a good thing in that part of Asia. We already know what North Korea does with racially impure babies. As Kirkpatrick relates:

The South Korean government debriefs every refugee who arrives in Seoul and reports its findings in an annual publication. Many of the refugees have spent time in North Korean prisons, and the section on pregnant women is a parade of horrors. The matter- of-fact, staccato language of the government report only heightens the atrocity:

“Gave birth to a baby . . . but they put vinyl cover [over the baby’s face] and left it to die, accusing the baby of [being] Chinese.”

“Gave birth to a baby on way to hard labor. Baby died.”

“Hospital aborted baby at seven-month pregnancy because she had lived with a Chinese man.”

“The agents forced her to run one hundred laps around a track because she had a Chinese seed in her. She collapsed after sixty laps and the baby was aborted.”

If China had not sent these women back to North Korea, their babies would merely face lifetimes lived in fear and without education, medical care, or a future. Because their mothers (and sometimes their fathers) are in China illegally, and because their fathers may not claim them, many of these kids become orphans.

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Learn about North Korean Human Rights Crisis at JFNK Volunteer Orientation

JFNK Orientation Program Flier English 2011May7 (web version)

For those of you in Korea, if you don’t know much about the human rights crisis that is North Korea (and spilling into China and South Korea) and/or if you want to learn how to get involved, there’s a great opportunity for you this Saturday in English or next Saturday in Korean (please encourage your Korean friends. coworkers, students to attend!).

I volunteer with Justice for North Korea, and we’re holding our third round of informational orientation sessions for volunteers and anyone who’s interested in learning more.  Each time we’ve held these sessions we’ve tried to improve them, and I think we’ve got a great program in place now.

  • Learn about the situation North Koreans must endure in North Korea, China, and South Korea.
  • Taught by those with extensive experience assisting North Korean refugees. One speaker was himself once such a refugee in China.
  • Learn about opportunities to get involved.

Saturday, May 7, 2011, 9:30 ““ 6:00 in English (Saturday, May 14 in Korean)

Sinchon Station, line 2, exit 5 — straight for 50m
키세스(KISES) Language Hakwon, 1st Floor.

Course Fee (includes lunch): 20,000 won if received by May 6th or 25,000 won at the door
(The fee will cover your lunch and help us pay for the facility rental. Anything left over will go toward Justice for North Korea’s work.)

Please see our homepage for lots more details and how to register:

JFNK Orientation Program Flier Korean 2011May14 (web version)

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31 North Koreans cross into S. Korean waters near Yeonpyeong

It’s not just the boat that smells fishy here:

Thirty-one North Korean people crossed the tense Yellow Sea border by boat and arrived in South Korea two days ago, but they have not expressed any wishes to defect to the South, a military official said Monday. The North Koreans, consisting of 11 men and 20 women, arrived on Yeonpyeong Island by a wooden fishing boat in thick fog at around 11 a.m. Saturday and were towed away to the western port city of Incheon, said the official at the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).

“So far, the North Koreans have not expressed a wish to defect,” the official said, asking not to be named because an investigation is still under way. The official confirmed that the North Koreans are a “work group,” not family members. [Yonhap]

Yonhap has a map of the path the vessel took, parallel to the coast for a considerable distance on both sides of the maritime border. Not only this, but the boat came all the way from Nampo, west of Pyongyang.

There are three ways I can explain this, none of them mutually exclusive:

(1) This is an attempted defection, as was the case in October 2009, when “three men, two boys and six women” came south in a creaky boat (photo here) and declared their intention to defect after spending a year preparing their escape. And after all, these demographics hardly reflects the average crew of a fishing vessel, right?

(2) The boat was minding its usual aquacultural business and accidentally drifted into South Korean waters, which doesn’t seem very plausible. In this case, there were “11 men and 20 women on board” the vessel (no kids this time, thank goodness). This echoes of the case, almost exactly three years ago, when 22 people — including 14 women and three teenagers — “drifted” across the maritime boundary, were towed to Incheon, were interrogated, and were then returned to North Korea, in a sort of farewell gift from Roh Moo Hyun to Kim Jong Il. Shortly afterward, all 22 were reportedly executed. Subsequently, North Korean authorities in the area are said to have kept a close watch on who was boarding local fishing boats, and how much fuel they were bringing with them. It doesn’t seem plausible that the North Korean authorities would permit women to board fishing vessels within range of South Korean territory. But even if this story is true, the people on that boat are in grave danger the moment they set foot back on North Korean territory. They ought to be warned, and — at their option — considered refugees sur place.

(3) The people aboard the boat were infiltrators, carrying out orders to test South Korean defenses at Yeonpyeong. From No Gun Ri to the present day, North Korea has a long history of using refugees to disguise infiltrations. Since the November 2010 shelling, there have been persistent rumors that North Korea might try to seize the islands to constrict South Korea’s use of the vital sea lane immediately to the South. These waters are thick with fishing vessels, and it’s not beyond imagination that the North Koreans might fill some of them with Special Forces to either preoccupy South Korean naval forces in the area, or to try to land sappers on the island. As they say, paranoid people have enemies, too.

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Kim Jong Il, Unplugged Again

First, I’ll just say that I have nothing to say about Eric Clapton that I didn’t say more than two years ago. We’ve already heard Eric Clapton unplugged. The economic unplugging of Kim Jong Il is a more consequential thing, one that I see as closely related to domestic discontent inside North Korea. My suspicion, though it is not yet supported by much direct evidence, is that these recent developments have reduced him to new lows of extortionate desperation.

When I posted the other day about Kim Jong Il’s Austrian shopper, the story mentioned that he’d attempted to purchase yachts for His Dessicated Majesty. This more recent story confirms that the seller was Azimut-Benetti, which cooperated in the investigation of violations of UNSCR 1718 and 1874, and which I first wrote about here. The “shopper,” who was not named but should have been, claims he is merely a businessman, which is what Don Corleone also said if I recall correctly. Maybe the violation of two U.N. Security Council resolutions isn’t malum in se, but the diversion of resources from the starving certainly is.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the foreign exchange ledger, there are several new stories about hard times for the industries that earn North Korea that Earth money it needs to buy all that … infant formula. The Daily NK interviews a former manager of North Korean logging camps in Russia about why so many loggers have defected that the 20,000 of them were recently called home. Separately, the Chosun Ilbo also reports that a North Korean military translator, obviously the scion of an elite family, has defected in Russia:

Choi told Kyodo the North Korean regime “makes people suffer. People are executed or sent to labor camps all the time, and most ordinary people are starving.” He claimed he “wanted to contribute to changing the situation from outside.”

Choi reportedly lived in the Soviet Union in the 1980s between the ages of 13 and 17 years old, when his father worked at the North Korean Embassy in Moscow.

“I was there in January last year when the North Korean government announced Kim Jong-un as the successor of Kim Jong-il in front of high military officials in Pyongyang,” Choi claimed. “Kim Jong-il is going to die in a few years, and it’s impossible for the young and inexperienced Jong-un to rule the country. My dream is to go back to my country, which will be free some day, and live with my family.”

And in Nepal, the manager of the local Pyongyang Okryugwan Restaurant has absconded to India with the contents of the till. Enraged (and probably fearful) diplomats at the North Korean embassy then exerted pressure on the Nepalese authorities, who arrested two South Korean nationals, possibly on “kidnapping” charges. South Korea says it’s negotiating with the Nepalis for their release.

The Chosun Ilbo reports that these restaurants bring in a substantial amount of cash for the regime, but have recently suffered from a rash of defections. I’ve speculated before that they could also serve as a good cover for money laundering. I wonder how much of the stolen money is counterfeit.

I’m beginning to sense a great disturbance in The Force. That sense may change tomorrow, but today, it is that something truly dramatic, horrible, and/or hopeful will surely happen in North Korea, or because of North Korea, in the next six months.

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Hwang Jang Yop Dies at 87

Hwang Jang Yop survived multiple purges and power struggles, a defection, at least one assassination attempt, and 87 years in some especially cruel places and times. I was ambivalent about Hwang, who became Kim Jong Il’s strongest critic, but who still defended the juche ideology as misunderstood and misinterpreted by its more recent oracles. We can appreciate what Hwang did to expose the system’s ruthlessness, even as we must recognize that he probably stepped on plenty of skulls to ascend to its higher ranks.

When my wife told me that Hwang had died, the first thing I wondered was whether it was of natural causes. Officially, the answer is “yes,” and I see no reason to question that, given Hwang’s advanced age. Still, South Koreans love a good conspiracy theory, or even a bad one. The fact that two officers of the Reconnaissance Bureau of the North Korean Workers’ Party pled guilty to charges of trying to give Hwang the Trotsky treatment just months ago would be as good a basis for a conspiracy theory as, say, any of the completely baseless ones that have caught fire on Naver recently. But because a conspiracy theory’s traction is a function of ideology, rather than plausibility, I’d bet that any conspiracy theories about Hwang won’t likely involve any North Korean agents bearing ice-axes.

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Of Conferences and Reports … and Reports from Conferences

10-10-10 has been another busy day for North Korea watchers, what with the military parade being broadcast live from Pyongyang and the passing of Hwang Jang-yop.

But I want to mention several things I’ve spotted over the last weeks and months and the upcoming NKnet conference in Washington, D.C., on October 21st.  This will be in no particular order.


In the beginning of September Tim Peters chaired a panel and other OFK favorites (e.g., Chuck Downs) spoke at a conference at the Marine Corps University in Virginia.  Tim’s website linked to C-SPAN footage of the event — there’s a neat feature there that (sort of) lets you see just the video segments for the speaker you’re interested in.


Han Voice of Canada joined with Citizens’ Alliance of South Korea to hold CA’s 10th annual international conference on NKHRs in Toronto in late August.  Han Voice has posted the conference transcripts in English and Korean and photos.


Curious about NED grants that go to projects related to North Korea?      I haven’t looked recently, but I always came up empty in past attempts to find a similar list for the State Department’s grants.


In late July Angelina Jolie came to Seoul to promote a new movie (HT to Yuna).  At the time I wrote up 2/3rds of a post about the UNHCR’s goodwill ambassador and her comments about the North Korean situation.  Since I spent a lot of time looking for the actual video, I might as well at least pass the URL along.  The question in Korean is at 10:43 followed by the English translation, then Jolie’s answer is 11:44 – 13:02.


Friday, September 24th was Save North Korean Refugees Day, sponsored by the NK Freedom Coalition.  They’ve published what they call “‘The List’ of North Korean refugees and humanitarian workers who are known to have been seized by Chinese authorities.   It makes for chilling reading.  Go to their home page for a file of LOTS of recent news reports and also testimony “from the Sept 23 Congressional Hearing, “Escaping North Korea: The Plight of Defectors,” hosted by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.


The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights compiled a report that the National Commission of Human Rights of Korea has just published in English:  Survey Report on Political Prisoners’ Camps in North Korea.  It’s currently the 3rd item listed.


And last, but certainly not least, my new employer, NKnet (officially known in English as the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights, whew), is holding a conference together with NED and the Sejong Institute on Thursday, October 21st, at NED headquarters in D.C.  Robert King, Andrei Lankov, Kang Cheol Hwan, Marcus Noland, Roberta Cohen, Chuck Downs, and many others!   RSVP by October 18th, mind you.  All the details are here.


As a post script, I leave you with some photos I took on September 28th in Daehangno, Seoul, of a press conference against the 3rd generation of the Kim clan getting power.  It was held by three NK refugee/defector college students groups.  Look for “˜Lil Kim getting his crown and his first nuke from dad.
Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un - Enter Stage Right

Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un - Entertaining the Crowd

Kim Jong Il and his crown

Kim Jong Il gives his crown to Kim Jong Un

Kim Jong Un gets a nuke from his dad

Reading a Statement

Wrapping up the Press Conference

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Toronto: 10th International Conference on North Korean Human Rights and Refugees; Seoul: Beautiful Dream Concert

promo posters for 10th International Conference on North Korean Human Rights and Refugees

On August 19-22 Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul is partnering with this year’s host HanVoice in Toronto for their 10th International Conference on North Korean Human Rights and Refugees.  This will be the first time the conference has been held in North America; to date the ICNKHRR has been in Seoul (3x), Tokyo, Prague, Warsaw, Bergen (Norway), London, and Melbourne.

The main session this year is Saturday, August 21st, from 9 – 6.  Events open to the public also include an art exhibition and concert Thursday, and movie screenings of Kimjongilia (followed by a Q&A session with the director) and The Red Chapel Friday evening.

All events are free, though for the main conference Saturday they’re asking that people register in advance since they’re providing free lunch and a translation device.

Here is the schedule on Saturday:

@ The Isabel Bader Theatre (U of T)

08:30 Registration

09:30 Opening Session

Opening Remarks
Benjamin H. Yoon, Founder & Chairman, Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights

Welcoming Speeches
– Randall Baran-Chong, Chair ““ 10th International Conference on North Korean Human Rights and Refugees , HanVoice, Canada
– Carl Gershman President, National Endowment for Democracy, USA

Congratulatory Remarks
– Michaelle Jean (Written), Governor General of Canada

– Hon. Jason Kenny (Written), Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism, Canada

– Dalton McGuinty (Written), Premier of Ontario, Canada

– Heidi Hautala, Chairperson of Sub-committee on Human Rights to the EU Parliament

(to be confirmed)

Keynote Speech
Hon. Lawrence Cannon, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Canada (To be confirmed)

Special Remarks
Barry Devolin, Member of Parliament, Canada

10:30 Session 1: Human Rights in North Korea between Obstacles & Opportunity

Pervasive State of Fear in the Country
Man-ho Heo, Professor, Kyungpook National University, ROK

Changing Perception of North Korean Population
Katy Kongdan Oh Hassig, Researcher, Institute for Defense Analysis, US

Testimony of NK defector
Young Cheol Kim, Former Officer at Ministry of people’s Safety in the DPRK, Escaped and Entered South Korea in February of 2008

Q & A

12:30 Lunch

13:30 Session 2: Experience of North Korean Refugees in Transit & Asylum Countries

Moderator: Dr. Sun-Young Park, MP, Liberty Forward Party, ROK

Legal Grounds for Protection of North Korean refugees
Roberta Cohen
, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Brookings Institution, US

Human Trafficking: Human Rights Situation of North Korean Refugee Women in China
Won-Woong Lee, Professor, Social Welfare Studies, Kwandong University, ROK

Children from Nowhere: Stateless Children in China
Kay Seok, Human Rights Watch

Testimony of NK Refugee
Mi-Ran Kim, Hair Dresser in the DPRK, Escaped from the country on 3rd of April, 2007 and entered South Korea in March of 2008

Resettlement Process & Experiences of countries accepting North Korean refugees: issues with resettlement and integration in final destination
– South Korea: Yoon-Sook Park, Professor at World Cyber University, ROK
– Canada: Younglee Ha, Executive Director, Korean Canadian Womens’ Association
Canada: Young-Lee Ha, Executive Director, Korean Canadian Women’s Association, Canada
– US: Hannah Song, President, Liberty in North Korea (LiNK)
– Japan: Kate Nielsen, Director of International Relations,  Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, Japan

Q & A

16:00 Break

16:15 Session 3: Strategies for the Improvement of Human Rights in North Korea and Protection of Refugees

Moderator: Hon. Barry Devolin, Member of Parliament, Canada

Maintaining the Momentum and Commitment of the International Society
– Pam Shime, Researcher, Global Advocacy & Leadership Institute
– Joanna Hosaniak, Head of International Campaign & Cooperation, Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, ROK
– Jack Kim, Executive Director, HanVoice
– Kate Nielsen, Director of International Relations, Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, Japan

– N.C. Heikin, Director of Documentary Film, “Kinjongilia(2009)”, US

Q & A

Closing Cermonies

The Isabel Bader Theatre is located at 93 Charles St. West  (Closest TTC Station ““ Museum):

If anyone is planning on driving to the conference from the Milwaukee/Chicago area, please drop me a line.  If I can go, I’d certainly help with gas and driving duties.


2010 Beautiful Dream Concert poster

Second, this must be a pretty busy season in the Citizens’ Alliance events department — tomorrow (Sunday) in Seoul is their annual Beautiful Dream Concert to raise money for young North Koreans who’ve resettled in the South.  It will be at 4pm at Korea University.  Sounds like a good way to observe Liberation Day, August 15th:


There are youth defectors all around you that traveled a long and perilous road to reach a place where their dreams could flourish. Yet, many experience difficulties in adjusting to life here due to differences in culture, disparities in education levels, lack of understanding by fellow professors and students, and other problems regarding their families and their lives. The need for our concern and our help is exigent to insure that their budding hopes and dreams are not rooted out by the cold indifference of society. As a result, we are holding the Beautiful Dream Concert 2010 to raise contributions to aid youth refugees. We would be deeply grateful if you would join us in our effort to protect the bright future of youth defectors.

August 15th 2010 (Sun) 4:00 pm
Korea University Inchon Memorial Hall

Hosted by:  GSIS of Korean University, Ewha Institute of Unification Studies
Organized by: Beautiful Mind Charity, Citizen’s Alliance for North Korean Human Rights


Beautiful Harmony Orchestra ““ Silk Road Foundation
Poem by Dong-Ju Yoon on Orchestral Music and Sopranos -Jin-Won Lee
Cavatina- S. Myers
Arirang rhapsody -Ji-Soo Lee

Piano Trio ““ Pianist Joo Young Kim =, Violinist Ji-Hoon Park , Cellist Il-Hwan Bai
Hungarian Dances No.1 – J. Brahms
Otono Porteno from Four Season in Buenos Aires – A. Piazzolla

Visually Impaired Clarinetist Sang Jae Lee
Theme from Schindler’s list – J. Williams
It ain’t necessarily so from Opera – G. Gershwin

[Kyeong-min Kim Introduction Slideshow]
Cerebral Palsy Pianist Kyeong-min Kim
Piano Sonata no.14 op.27-2 c# min. 1st mov. – L. V. Beethoven
Yearning – Kyeong-min Kim

Baritone Kyoo-Seok Lee
Largo al factotum della citta from Opera – G. A. Rossini

Soprano Mihyun Kho
Il bacio> – Arditi

Soprano Mihyun Kho &   Baritone Kyoo-Seok Lee
All I ask of you from Musical – A. L. Weber

Nowon Voll Ensemble
Radetzky March – Johann Strauss Sr.

Nowon Voll Ensemble & North-South Korean Youth Choir Dream Plus
Magic Castle – Kwang-Jin Kim
To the Country of Hope – Jae-Myoung Hyun

# There will be an event during the concert to donate funds aiding youth defectors.
# The donations falls under public interest contributions under Corporate Tax law and   will
be eligible for tax-free benefits at the end of the year.

# There will be pizza served starting at 6 pm* thanks to the generous donations of Papa John’s Korea.
(First 400 guests)

[*NOTE: It appears the pizza party has been changed to 3pm if I’m reading this update right. -DB]

Invitation Tickets: Free.
Performance and Ticketing inquiries ã…£
Yeon Jung Hong   02-723-1672, 2671

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If North Korea’s Attempt to Kill Hwang Jang Yop Isn’t the State Sponsorship of Terrorism, I Don’t Know What Is

Two North Korean agents sent to South Korea to assassinate Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking official ever to defect from Pyongyang, have been arrested, intelligence and law enforcement authorities announced yesterday.

According to the National Intelligence Service and prosecutors, Kim Yong-ho, 36, and Dong Myong-gwan, 36, have been arrested. Both men were majors of the North Korean Army’s reconnaissance bureau, the authorities said.

The two agents were ordered in November by the bureau’s chief, Colonel General Kim Yong-chol, to assassinate Hwang, the former secretary of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party. [Joongang Ilbo]

According to the Chosun Ilbo, which has more on the Reconnaissance Bureau, the spies had orders to “cut Hwang’s head off.” The AP, quoting an anonymous prosecutor, reports that the instruction was to “slit the betrayer’s throat.”

As North Korean spies have often done in recent years, Kim and Dong posed as defectors; in this case, they came to South Korea via Thailand. This time, however, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service smelled a rat, and the two men confessed under questioning. The hunt is now on for the spies’ contacts in South Korea.

AFP puts the new revelation into the context of North Korea’s recent threats against Hwang.

You can find the legal definition of “international terrorism” at this section of the U.S. Criminal Code. The procedure for listing a government as a state sponsor of terrorism can be found here.

The assassins were trained in the Peoples’ Republic of China, which has long tolerated the presence of North Korean spies on its soil. Frankly, that may be the most sensational part of this entire story; after all, North Korea has assassinated people on South Korean soil before. I can’t foresee much support in Washington for the idea of listing China as a state sponsor of terrorism, but I certainly hope — this being an election year and all — that some members of Congress will hold hearings and ask the Congressional Research Service to investigate the question of what the Chinese government knew about the training and the plot. At a minimum, China’s support for the North Korean intelligence services is a crime against humanity, and China ought to pay a much higher price for it.

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Hwang Jang Yop Calls for Ideological Warfare Against Kim Jong Il

I was too busy to see Hwang Jang Yop speak in D.C. the other day, but a few news services picked up his remarks:

North Korea’s highest-ranking defector said “ideological warfare,” not military action, would help topple the regime of Kim Jong Il.

“We don’t need to resort to force,” Hwang Jang-yop told a small audience Wednesday at the Center for Strategic International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. “We need to use ideology and markets and diplomacy. We need to take a lesson from the cold war.” [….]

“Simply trying to make Kim Jong Il die would not be the solution,” he said. “The solution is ideological warfare. We need to focus on the people of North Korea and alert them to the human rights abuses that are taking place.” [CNN]

I agree with Hwang’s message about ideological subversion and believe that most North Koreans are ready to be subverted. I’m not sure, however, that I’d want Hwang, who still professes belief in the “misunderstood” juche ideology, to be the messenger or the author of the message. I’m deeply ambivalent about Hwang. North Korea’s Inner Party is the sort of place where you don’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs. Like Rudolf Hess before him, his defection doesn’t exactly absolve him of his responsibility for helping to create a tyrannical system, and like Hess, he hasn’t necessarily rejected the ideology on which the system is built. Still, his defection has value for what it tells us about that system and its weaknesses, and for what it has done to discredit the system.

Hwang also called for excluding North Korea from the six-party talks, which sounds silly to me because (a) North Korea is doing just fine excluding itself; (b) eventually, the regime is going to fracture and we’ll want a mechanism in place to talk to Kim Jong Il’s replacement, and eventually manage the peaceful reunification of Korea, and (c) I get that the talks’ value is exclusively cosmetic, so why ruin that by excluding North Korea?

Oh, and Hwang just doesn’t understand why China doesn’t help us pressure North Korea to be nice to everybody. Really?

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