Top 10 stories from North Korea in 2017

Yang Jong Ah  |  2017-12-28 16:22
1. President Trump's 'maximum pressure' strategy
On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States and introduced a new 'America First policy in his inaugural address. Trump labelled ex-President Obama's policy of strategic patience towards North Korea a disaster and vowed to establish an entirely new policy. In April, the Trump Administration began referring to a new strategy of maximum pressure against North Korea.
The strategy was intended to pressure North Korea back to the negotiating table by intensifying economic sanctions. The US simultaneously stepped up diplomatic efforts to pressure other nations worldwide to participate in sanctions and further isolate the North. Trump's primary target in these efforts has been China, considered to be responsible for 90% of North Korea's trade volume. In addition, Trump has escalated talk of military action and threats of a preemptive strike against the North, placing all options on the table to increase the pressure. Despite this, it appears that the US is still considering a diplomatic solution and is not yet ready to take military action. 
2. Kim Jong Un orders assassination of half-brother Kim Jong Nam
On February 13, Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong Un, was assassinated in a busy terminal at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia. Two young women, one Indonesian and one Vietnamese, were caught on camera poisoning Kim with the deadly VX nerve agent. The two were arrested soon after, but Malaysia has otherwise acquiesced to the regimes demands, sending the corpse of Kim Jong Nam to the North and repatriating the other North Korean suspects arrested in the case. The assassination brought the international communitys attention to North Korea's history of terror, further isolating the impoverished nation.
Kim Jong Nam was the child of Kim Jong Il and his second wife Song Hye Rim. Although he was once considered a potential heir to his father, he eventually became known as the 'doomed heir' following an embarrassing incident while travelling abroad in Japan. After Kim Jong Un was anointed the successor in 2010, Kim Jong Nam began moving around Asia at an increased pace, traveling between Macau, China, Singapore, and Indonesia. Other events that contributed to his paranoia included Kim Jong Un's execution of close aide Jang Song Thaek and the demotion of Jang's wife (Kim Jong Un's aunt) Kim Kyong Hui, leading to her disappearance from public view. The new leader Kim Jong Un sought to legitimize his leadership by emphasizing his connection to the Mt. Paektu Bloodline' - the bloodline of North Korean leadership, and likely began plotting the assassination of Kim Jong Nam soon after the death of Kim Jong Il. 
3. President Moon Jae In's 'driver's seat' policy for the Korean Peninsula
South Korea held a special presidential election in May following the impeachment of former president Park Geun Hye in March. Moon Jae In of the Democratic Party cruised to victory, garnering approximately 5.5 million more votes than his next closest opponent - making the largest margin of victory in the country's democratic era. In a series of high profile speeches in his first months as president, Moon stressed the need to maintain peace and stability on the peninsula, the rejection of a state of constant crisis, and the normalization of relations with North Korea. 
Moon laid out his plans to restart dialogue with the North during a speech in Berlin on July 6, calling for an end to hostile acts starting on July 27 - the 64th anniversary of the 1953 Armistice Agreement between the two countries. He also pointed to the 'October 4 Agreement' signed in 2007, calling for North Korea to resume talks on family reunions and other matters. With the Pyeongchang Olympics in February 2018, Moon also invited North Korea to participate, highlighting the event as an opportunity for inter-Korean cooperation. At the same time, Moon stressed that South Korea should be in the "driver's seat" of developments on the peninsula. Despite these overtures, North Korea continued to carry out provocations throughout the year, dashing Moon's hopes for better relations. 
4. Prisoner Otto Warmbier repatriated to US in a coma, dies 6 days later
Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old American citizen, was arrested in North Korea in January 2016 and sentenced to 15 years hard labor. The North agreed to release Mr. Warmbier on June 19 this year, but it was soon determined that he had been in a coma for some time prior and was in ill health. Just 6 days after returning to his home state of Ohio, Mr. Warmbier passed away, having never regained consciousness.
Mr. Warmbier traveled to North Korea towards the end of 2015, but was arrested at Pyongyang Airport on January 2, 2016, just before he was due to board a plane and leave the country. He was sent to a prison camp after receiving his sentence, and the North Korean authorities later revealed that he fell into a coma shortly afterwards in March of 2016. The authorities claimed that he contracted botulism and did not regain consciousness after taking a sleeping pill as part of treatment for the illness. Doctors in the US were ultimately unable to confirm the veracity of these claims. 
American doctors also confirmed that there were no signs of physical assault, but Warmbier's family maintains their belief that he was subjected to brutal treatment during his imprisonment in the North. The fact that the North Korean authorities failed to notify his family or anyone else of the events until over a year later caused additional outrage. The US banned all American citizens from traveling to the North shortly after on July 21. The turn of events was also seen as a major reason why the US returned North Korea to its list of state sponsors of terrorism later in the year.
5. Intensification of efforts to kidnap defectors
North Korea's Ministry of State Security is thought to have intensified efforts to lure and kidnap defectors in 2017. North Koreas state mouthpiece Uriminzokkiri (operated by the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, the North's unification ministry) uploaded a series of videos on July 16 showing former defector Lim Ji Hyun, who identifies as Jeon Hye Song in the North, back in North Korea, decrying South Korean society and explaining why she returned to the North. External reports allege that North Korean agents kidnapped and forcefully repatriated Jeon to the North.

Daily NK and other news sources have confirmed that, with the help of the Chinese authorities, North Korean agents this year have expanded operations to capture more defectors. They have also enlisted the families of defectors still living in the North in appeals to the defectors to return. As part of the propaganda efforts, returning defectors have been promised that Kim Jong Un will pardon any who return. It is possible that Jeon returned to the North due to threats to her family that she received from North Korean agents. 
Meanwhile, statistics from South Koreas Ministry of Unification (MOU) show that as of July, 886 of the 31,093 North Koreans who have entered the South since the end of the Korean War can no longer be accounted for. As of October, the MOU was able to confirm at least 26 instances of defectors returning to North Korea.  
6. The 6th nuclear test
North Korea conducted its 6th nuclear test on September 3. An official from the North's nuclear weapons research arm announced on television that, "The Korean Workers' Party successfully tested an ICBM-compatible hydrogen bomb at 12 o'clock on September 3 at a nuclear test site in the north of the country." President Moon Jae In, in liaison with the US, declared the Souths intention to deliver severe consequences in response to the provocation, resulting in a slew of new sanctions being approved by the UN Security Council. 
A series of earthquakes and aftershocks also occurred in the Kilju area of North Hamgyong Province in the aftermath of the nuclear test, deemed by South Korea's national meteorological service to be a direct consequence of the test. The Korea Meteorological Administration announced a magnitude 4.4 reading resulting from the initial nuclear test, and at least 7 subsequent aftershocks. North Korea has reportedly been excavating additional tunnels near the Punggye-Ri nuclear test site in preparation for further tests.  
The North Korean authorities announced to its population that earthquakes are not a risk associated with nuclear tests. Defectors have since reported instances of abnormal health issues in the Kilju region (near the nuclear site). According to the Ministry of Unification, 114 people from Kilju have defected to the South since the North's first nuclear test in 2006. Of these, 30 have passed away since their defection. The MOU is expected to release a full report on the matter soon.
7. Pressure mounts with continued strengthening of international sanctions
The international community has instituted a series of new sanctions measures against North Korea as Kim Jong Un continues to carry out nuclear and missile tests. The UN passed Resolution 2375 in September in response to the countrys 6th nuclear test. The resolution completely bans the North from importing textiles while aiming to cut fuel imports by around 30%. Member nations were also banned from signing new contracts employing North Korean overseas workers, and extensions of existing contracts were prohibited. Additionally, UN Resolution 2371, passed in August, cuts off the North's primary exports of coal, iron, and iron ore. The US has been working to persuade other nations around the world to step up their implementation of these sanctions.
The US has also demanded that China completely halt crude oil exports to the North after the successful test launch of the countrys new Hwasong-15 ICBM in November. China refused the suggestion, but did agree to drastically reduce their exports. The Trump Administration has proposed a complete naval blockade of North Korea as well, although it remains sensitive to Russian and Chinese opposition to any move that could be considered an act of war. North Korea has already declared as much following the additional UN sanctions (Resolution 2379) announced in late December. Experts have predicted that economic conditions will further worsen North Koreas outlook next year as the lagging effects of sanctions begin to take their toll.
8. Power reshuffle: Choe Ryong Hae resurfaces, Kim Yo Jong rises to prominence
On October 7, Kim Jong Un opened the 2nd plenary meeting of the 7th Workers Party of the Korea Central Committee during which numerous changes were made to the central party and military committees. Kim Jong Un's younger sister Kim Yo Jong received a significant promotion during the meeting, rising to the status of alternate member of the central Political Bureau. Kim Yo Jong originally joined the ruling committee at the 1st plenary meeting in May 2016, so her rise to Politburo member just 17 months later came as a surprise to many. Her first major official post came in March 2014, when she is believed to have been elected to the country's Supreme People's Assembly. 
Her elevation is considered quite fast compared to Kim Jong Il's younger sister Kim Kyung Hui, who entered the central committee at age 42 and gradually rose to the status of Army General and Director of the Light Industry Department, finally becoming a Politburo member decades later. Some analysts have concluded that the move is intended to strengthen the Kim familys rule by installing another potential heir in a position of power.
The meeting also revealed that Choe Ryong Hae had regained central positions after he was thought to have fallen from favor. He emerged as the vice chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), increasing the number of his officially designated positions from 5 to 7. He did not stay long in his position as Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission after being promoted in April 2014, and many believed his disappearance from the scene was a signal of his demise. But with his latest promotions this year, he seems to have regained a foothold in the party and the military pillars of power. 
9. Accelerated missile tests in pursuit of an advanced ICBM
North Korea has also conducted missile tests at an unprecedented rate, keeping tensions high on the peninsula. Kim Jong Un said during his New Year's address that the country was in the "final stages" of ICBM development, which was followed by test firings of at least 20 missiles over the course of 15 separate tests throughout the calendar year. Multiple new rocket designs were tested, including the intermediate-range ballistic missile Hwasong-12 in May, two tests of the Hwasong-14 ICBM in July, and the long-range Hwasong-15 ICBM in November.
The 'Hwasong-14 was said to be a major improvement over the Hwasong-12, doubling the range to approximately 8,000 km. Kim Jong Un also boasted of the revolutionary new 80-ton Paektusan engine first completed in March and later test fired. When the country successfully tested the Hwasong-15 - their longest-range missile yet - in November, Kim announced the country had completed its ambition to achieve a nuclear warhead-fitted ICBM. The rocket reached a height of 950 km and a distance of 4,475 km, though estimates of its capabilities were noted at around 13,000 km, placing the mainland United States and even its capital Washington D.C. well within range. 
10. Dramatic defection of a soldier through the JSA, North Koreans fire across border
In the afternoon of November 13, a young North Korean soldier succeeded in a daring escape to the South through the heavily-guarded Panmunjom Joint Security Area. The soldier first drove to the JSA by jeep and then made a run for the South Korean side, taking fire from North Korean soldiers. South Korean soldiers retrieved the defector, who was badly wounded from multiple gunshot wounds, and flew him to hospital by helicopter. CCTV footage released in the days following showed the harrowing escape, including a scene of three South Korean soldiers who crawled towards the wounded man, still at risk of North Korean gunfire despite having already crossed the border. 
The dramatic video shows the defecting soldier, later revealed to be named Oh Chong Song, driving quickly towards the border and across the small "Bridge of No Return" (aka the "72-hour Bridge") on the North side, before getting stuck in a ditch just meters from the border. He then makes a dash for the South on foot with North Korean soldiers hot on his tail, firing at him even after he had crossed the border. 
Oh was placed in intensive care in the following weeks, and it was revealed that he was shot multiple times and had been in general poor health. Further investigation revealed that his father is a lieutenant colonel in the military police. His motives for defecting are still unclear, but he did express that it was at least partially due to his interest in K-pop and stars like IU and Girls' Generation, pointing to dissatisfaction with the North Korean system and fascination with South Korean society. The presence of parasitic worms in his gut and other disease symptoms highlighted the dire conditions experienced even by frontline soldiers in todays North Korea. 

*Translated by Colin Zwirko

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