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UN Command investigating whether DMZ shooting violated Korean War armistice


SEOUL, South Korea — Was it an accident? Or did North Korean soldiers fire at a South Korean guard post on purpose?

The U.S.-led United Nations Command sent a team to the tense Korean border area Monday to investigate whether the exchange of fire the day before violated the armistice agreement that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.

The UNC, which administers the Demilitarized Zone, said no further comment would be issued “until the investigation is complete and the report has been provided to the appropriate authorities.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and South Korean military officials already have said they believe the shooting was not intentional.

But some analysts suggested it may have been a low-level provocation aimed at boosting the North’s leverage in talks with the United States and South Korea.

North Korea, meanwhile, has not responded to a message sent via an inter-military communication line asking for an explanation, according to the South Korean Defense Ministry.

“It seems to be accidental, but South and North Korea need to be careful with each other because such an accident has the prospect to raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula,” said Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

U.N. Command investigating

The incident began Sunday morning when South Korean soldiers at a guard post in a central part of the Demilitarized Zone heard gunfire, then found four bullet holes on the wall of the guard post.

The South Koreans responded with 20 rounds of warning shots and broadcast warnings, military officials said.

The U.N. Command, which is led by Army Gen. Robert Abrams, dispatched a multinational special investigation team to the site on Monday.

The team was accompanied by Swedish and Swiss members of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission who were acting as observers.

“The investigative team will assess the events that took place and produce a report based on their findings to determine if a violation of #Armistice occurred,” the UNC said in a tweet.

The new mystery began two days after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appeared at the ribbon-cutting for a new fertilizer factory, tamping down speculation about his health after a nearly three-week absence.

Defense Ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo said North Korea had not responded to the South’s message.

“We expressed concern about the seriousness of the present situation, said North Korea should explain what happened and called on Pyongyang to halt such behavior immediately,” she added.

Jean Lee, director of the Korea program at the Washington, D.C.-based Wilson Center, said the breakdown in communications was troubling.

“What we would not want to see is gunfire sparking an exchange that could escalate into deadly violence,” she said. “While troops on the southern side responded with restraint this time, the ambiguity most certainly will have everyone in the DMZ on edge.”

The DMZ, about 155 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, has often been a flashpoint in tensions between the two Koreas and past violence has pushed the two countries to the brink of conflict.

The border is lined with barbed wire fences and filled with land mines with tens of thousands of combat troops on both sides.

The two Koreas signed a military agreement in September 2018 calling for both sides to halt all hostile acts against each other and establishing a series of confidence-building measures.

Military agreement

However, the North has conducted several short-range missile tests and artillery drills in recent months while expressing frustration over stalled nuclear talks with the United States.

“‘Accident’ or not, North Korean shots at South Korea’s GP violates the Sept. 19 inter-Korean military agreement and notable that Pyongyang hasn’t yet picked up the phone or explained the incident,” Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based adviser with the International Crisis Group, said in a tweet.

Pompeo told ABC News “This Week” in an interview on Sunday that the United States believes the shots “were accidental.”

“The South Koreans did return fire. So far as we can tell, there was no loss of life on either side,” he said.

South Korean military officials also have said they believe the shooting was not intentional, noting it was foggy in the area and the shooting occurred at a time when North Korean troops are believed to be having a shift change and testing their weapons.

Farming activity in the area also was said to be uninterrupted.

Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean lieutenant general who served on the DMZ as a battalion commander in the 1990s, said it could have been an accidental discharge.

“The probability is that’s what happened in my view,” he said Monday in a telephone interview.

He dismissed a suggestion that the North Koreans may have been trying to send a message by attacking the South Korean guard post.

“It was just a burst and then it ended,” he said. “If they wanted to send us a message I’m sure they would’ve done it with a bigger bang.”

Other analysts said the North may be trying to pressure South Korea to take its side and offer more economic assistance or coronavirus aid despite U.S.-led sanctions.

“Pyongyang may not have wanted to carry out a high-intensity provocation this time so it may have only breached the inter-Korean agreement slightly,” said Moon Keun Sik of the Korea Defense and Security Forum.

“Pyongyang might be trying to win cooperation from Seoul by bringing the South to the edge of crisis first, then easing the situation later,” he added.
Twitter: @kimgamel


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N. Korea stays mum on S. Korea’s call for explanation of DMZ gunfire: ministry

YONHAP News  |  By Oh Seok-min

SEOUL, May 4 (Yonhap) — North Korea has not responded yet to South Korea’s call for an explanation on Sunday’s firing of several bullets that hit a South Korean guard post on the inter-Korean border, Seoul’s defense ministry said Monday.

On early Sunday, four bullets from the North hit the South’s guard post in the central part of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Cheorwon, Gangwon Province, prompting South Korean troops to respond by firing 20 rounds of warning shots and issuing broadcast warnings, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Following the incident, the South’s military sent a notice via the military communication line, lodging a protest, calling for an explanation and urging the regime to stop acts that violate the inter-Korean military accord, the defense ministry said.

“We’ve not received any response from the North Korean side,” ministry spokesperson Choi Hyun-soo told a regular briefing.

Asked if the ministry is considering taking additional steps regarding the North, the official said it will make a decision if necessary after closely following the developments.

It was the first exchange of gunfire between South and North Korea in years. Under the Comprehensive Military Agreement signed in September 2018, the two Koreas agreed to halt all hostile acts against each other, a move aimed at reducing tensions and building trust.

The U.S.-led United Nations Command, which administers the DMZ and enforces the armistice agreement that ended the 1950-53 Korean War, said it will launch an investigation into the case.

“UNC is cooperating closely with ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff to assess and continue to monitor the situation. UNC will conduct a thorough investigation tomorrow (Monday, May 4) to determine if there was an Armistice Agreement violation, and will provide the report to the appropriate authorities once completed,” the command said in a statement sent to Yonhap News Agency.

Any additional acts or specific movements by the North Korean military have not been detected so far, according to JCS spokesman Col. Kim Jun-rak.

“We had taken appropriate measures immediately after our troops heard gunshots, and found the bullet marks. Any further details will be available after investigations by the UNC and our authorities,” Kim said during the ministry briefing. “We have been closely monitoring the situation.”

This AFP photo, taken on April 23, 2020, shows South Korean soldiers patrolling along a barbed wire fence in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea, on the South Korean island of Ganghwa. (Yonhap)

This AFP photo, taken on April 23, 2020, shows South Korean soldiers patrolling along a barbed wire fence in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea, on the South Korean island of Ganghwa. (Yonhap)

On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview with ABC News, “We think those are accidental,” stressing that there was no loss of life on either side.

A JCS officer also said it did not appear to be an intentional provocation.

“It was far from ‘perfect’ circumstances for making provocative acts,” he said, noting that it was foggy at that time; the South Korean guard post is located at a higher altitude than North Korean guard posts situated in the region; it was the time when North Korean soldiers usually rotate shifts and check their firearms or equipment; and no unusual movements by the North Korean military had been detected.

The incident took place a day after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made his first public appearance in nearly three weeks, ending rumors about his health.

Some have raised speculations that the shooting could have something to do with Kim’s appearance, but JCS officials said they believe the chances are low.

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North and South Korean troops exchange fire along border

SEOUL, South Korea — North and South Korean troops exchanged fire along their tense border on Sunday, the South’s military said, the first such incident since the rivals took unprecedented steps to lower front-line animosities in late 2018.

Violent confrontations have occasionally occurred along the border, the world’s most heavily fortified. While Sunday’s incident is a reminder of persistent tensions, it didn’t cause any known casualties on either side and is unlikely to escalate, observers said.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul said in a statement that North Korean troops fired several bullets at a South Korean guard post inside the border zone. South Korea responded with a total of 20 rounds of warning shots on two occasions before issuing a warning broadcast, it said.

South Korea suffered no casualties, the military said. Defense officials said it’s also unlikely that North Korea had any casualties, since the South Korean warning shots were fired at uninhabited North Korean territory. The North’s official Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA, did not immediately report about the incident.

A preliminary South Korean analysis showed that North Korea’s firing wasn’t likely a calculated provocation, though Seoul will continue examining whether there was any motivation for the action, a South Korean defense official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said it was believed that North Korea’s firing was not intentional.

“We think those are accidental,” Pompeo said on ABC’s “This Week.” “South Koreans did return fire. So far as we can tell, there was no loss of life on either side.”

Farming activities around the North Korean area where the firing occurred continued throughout Sunday and North Korea’s military didn’t display any other suspicious activities after the gunfire, the official said. He said there was a thick fog in the area at the time of the incident.

Later Sunday, South Korea sent a message to North Korea to try to avoid an escalation, but the North did not immediately reply, according to South Korea’s military.

The exchange of fire came a day after North Korea broadcast video of its leader, Kim Jong Un, reappearing in public after a 20-day absence amid intense speculation about his health.

KCNA said Kim attended Friday’s ceremony marking the completion of a fertilizer factory near Pyongyang along with senior officials. State TV showed Kim smiling and walking around factory facilities.

Kim earlier vanished from the public eye after presiding over a Politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party on April 11 to discuss the coronavirus. Speculation about his health began swirling after he missed an April 15 event commemorating the birthday of his grandfather and state founder, Kim Il Sung, something he had never done since inheriting power upon his father Kim Jong Il’s death in late 2011.

The Korean Peninsula remains split along the 248-kilometer (155-mile) -long, 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) -wide border called the Demilitarized Zone. It was originally created as a buffer after the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. But unlike its name, an estimated 2 million mines are peppered inside and near the DMZ, which is also guarded by barbed wire fences, tank traps and combat troops on both sides.

Under a set of agreements to reduce border tensions reached in September 2018, the two Koreas destroyed some of their front-line guard posts and began removing mines from the DMZ later that year. But the efforts stalled amid a deadlock in negotiations between Kim and President Donald Trump meant to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal. The diplomacy hasn’t made any headway since the second Kim-Trump summit in Vietnam in early 2019 broke down due to disputes over U.S.-led sanctions on North Korea.

Earlier this year, North Korea carried out a slew of missile and other weapons tests, but they were short-range and none posed a direct threat to the U.S. mainland.

The last time there was gunfire along the Korea border was in November 2017, when North Korean soldiers sprayed bullets at a colleague fleeing to South Korea. The defector was hit five times, but survived and is now living in South Korea. South Korea didn’t return fire.

Previously, the two Koreas traded gunfire along the DMZ numerous times, but no deadly clashes have occurred in recent years. A 2015 land mine blast that maimed two South Korean soldiers pushed the Koreas to the brink of an armed conflict. South Korea blamed North Korea for the explosion.


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Kim Jong-un Resurfaces, State Media Says, After Weeks of Health Rumors

The North Korean leader was said to have visited a factory on Friday, after a series of unsubstantiated news reports suggested that he was gravely ill.

North Korea’s state news agency on Saturday released this photo of Kim Jong-un, which it said was taken Friday at a fertilizer plant. His sister, Kim Yo-jong, is in the background.
Credit…KCNA, via Reuters


SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, resurfaced in public view on Friday, the North’s state news media reported Saturday, controverting three weeks of rumors and unconfirmed news reports that he was in grave danger after undergoing heart surgery.

He appeared at a ceremony at a factory in the city of Sunchon, the North’s state news agency said, later releasing photos from the event. The report could not immediately be independently confirmed.

Mr. Kim, 36, had last appeared publicly on April 11. Speculation about his health — and about who would take over the hermetic, nuclear-armed country should he become incapacitated or die — began swirling after Mr. Kim missed the state celebrations of his country’s biggest holiday on April 15. On that day, the North marks the birthday of his grandfather Kim Il-sung, the country’s founder.

Rumors subsequently went into overdrive, claiming that Mr. Kim was “in grave danger,” in a “vegetative state” after botched heart-valve surgery, or in quarantine after contracting Covid-19. Other reports said that China had sent doctors to Pyongyang to save him.

After its initial report on Saturday, the North Korean news agency released photos showing a smiling Mr. Kim applauding, cutting a ribbon and standing with his hands behind his back at a new fertilizer factory.

Another image of Mr. Kim released by the state news agency, also said to have been taken Friday at the factory.
Credit…KCNA, via Associated Press

“All the participants again burst into thunderous cheers of ‘hurrah,’” the news agency said, taking its characteristically fulsome tone for coverage of the leader. It said that Mr. Kim “warmly acknowledged the builders and masses raising thunderous cheers” and went on to tour the factory, accompanied by senior officials from the ruling Workers’ Party, including his only sister, Kim Yo-jong.

Although no outside media was apparently allowed to witness the ceremony, the report by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency followed a familiar pattern. State media typically reports Mr. Kim’s public appearances a day after they take place, carrying photos from the scene as well.

The South Korean government did not immediately comment on the report, but it has pushed back against the recent speculation that Mr. Kim was in poor health. Its unification minister, Kim Yeon-chul, had called the reports “fake news,” saying that South Korea could say “confidently” that there was no evidence to confirm the rumors.

Amid the reports, North Korea had continued to send out letters and gifts to foreign leaders and domestic workers under Mr. Kim’s name. But until Saturday, it had gone weeks without reporting any public appearances by its leader or responding to the speculation about his health, and its silence fueled the rumor mill.

As recently as Friday, Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector who recently won a seat in the South Korean Parliament, told reporters that he was “99 percent sure” that Mr. Kim had died last weekend.

The weeks of rumors showed how “unprepared” the outside world remains “for a potential political crisis caused by something like the sudden, unexpected death of the dictator in a country bristling with dozens of nuclear weapons,” said Danny Russel, vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute.

“We got a glimpse of the danger of loose nukes and worse if the death of Kim Jong-un had unleashed a destabilizing power struggle” in the North, where Mr. Kim had no designated adult heir in place, Mr. Russel said by email. Mr. Russel had dealt with North Korea as a National Security Council director at the White House and assistant secretary of state for Asia.

He said the past few weeks showed that “authoritative information about the North Korean supreme leader’s well-being and whereabouts is very closely guarded, and therefore dramatic rumors about his health and behavior need to be regarded with considerable skepticism.”

The North’s report on Saturday did not dispel the mystery over why Mr. Kim missed the important state ceremonies for his grandfather’s birthday — an absence that set off the series of speculative reports. A South Korean news website that hires North Korean defectors as reporters said Mr. Kim had undergone heart surgery. U.S. news reports said that Washington was monitoring intelligence suggesting that Mr. Kim was “in grave danger.”

It was not the first time Mr. Kim had disappeared from public view for weeks at a time or been the subject of intense speculation about his health. And the information vacuum surrounding the doings of North Korean leaders leaves fertile ground for misinformation to spread.

Some past rumors about the health of North Korean leaders have indeed proved true, like speculation that Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, had a stroke in 2008. But most have turned out to be groundless.

In 1986, a South Korean newspaper reported a “world scoop” claiming that Mr. Kim’s grandfather, then-President Kim Il-sung, had died in an armed attack. A smiling Kim Il-sung resurfaced two days later.

In 2014, Kim Jong-un disappeared for more than a month, prompting rumors that he might have been deposed in a coup. North Korean media later showed him walking with a cane; South Korean intelligence said he had undergone ankle surgery.

Over the years, top officials reported to have been executed have also often resurfaced. In 2015, a North Korean defector claimed that Mr. Kim had ordered his own aunt killed with poison. But the aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, re-emerged in Pyongyang in January.


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Trump says S. Korea agreed to pay more for defense cost: report


SEOUL, April 30 (Yonhap) — U.S. President Donald Trump said South Korea has agreed to pay more for the stationing of American troops in the country, according to a news report.

“We can make a deal. They want to make a deal,” Trump was quoted as saying in an interview with Reuters on Wednesday (U.S. time), referring to the negotiations to determine how to divide the cost for the upkeep of about 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

“They’ve agreed to pay a lot of money. They’re paying a lot more money than they did when I got here,” he said.

South Korea’s presidential office declined to comment, saying, “The negotiation is still ongoing.”

“We have nothing to announce yet in regard to the defense cost-sharing deal,” a Cheong Wa Dae official said Thursday in a phone call with Yonhap News Agency.

“The basic principle of a negotiation is that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” another key official at Cheong Wa Dae told reporters Thursday. “Nothing has been agreed on yet.”

The foreign ministry also said it is negotiating with the U.S. but an agreement has yet to be reached.

Trump said last week that he rejected South Korea’s offer because he felt the Asian ally should pay more. An earlier news report said South Korea suggested a 13-percent increase from the 2019 share of US$870 million for the stationing of the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea.

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said Tuesday that the amount Trump had rejected was “the highest possible level for us,” suggesting the prolonged impasse between the two countries will continue.

More than 4,000 South Korean employees of U.S. Forces Korea have been placed on unpaid leave since April 1 due to the absence of a new defense cost-sharing deal, known as the Special Measures Agreement, to cover their salaries.

The previous SMA, under which Seoul agreed on an 8.2 percent increase, expired at the end of 2019.

(2nd LD) Trump says S. Korea agreed to pay more for defense cost: report - 1



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N.K. defector claims he is ’99 pct’ sure that N. Korean leader died

Yonhap News

SEOUL, May 1 (Yonhap) — A North Korea defector elected as a lawmaker in South Korea claimed Friday that he is “99 percent” sure that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un died after surgery amid speculation over his health.

Unconfirmed reports about Kim’s ill health have mounted since he has not appeared in public for nearly three weeks. News reports described Kim as being in “grave danger” after surgery or hiding out at a coastal resort to escape the coronavirus pandemic.

Ji Seong-ho, who earned a proportional representation seat of a minor party in the April 15 elections, claimed that he is 99 percent sure of Kim’s death and North Korea may make the related announcement this weekend.

“I’ve wondered how long he could have endured after cardiovascular surgery. I’ve been informed that Kim died last weekend,” Ji told Yonhap News Agency.

“It is not 100 percent certain, but I can say the possibility is 99 percent. North Korea is believed to be grappling with a complicated succession issue,” he said.

Ji did not reveal the source of where he got his information. His claim cannot be verified independently.

The lawmaker-elect said that Kim Yo-jong, sister of the North’s leader, is likely to succeed him, as many experts speculate.

South Korea’s presidential office Cheong Wa Dae reaffirmed that it has not detected any “unusual” signs in North Korea regarding Kim’s health.

This file photo, taken on March 12, 2020, shows Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector and human rights activist. (Yonhap)

This file photo, taken on March 12, 2020, shows Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector and human rights activist. (Yonhap)

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Seven Questions to Ask About What Happens in North Korea If Kim Jong-Un Dies

The National Interest  By Stephan Haggard Follow @StephanHaggard on Twitter Daniel A. Pinkston

A lot of speculation out there fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the North Korean political system.

Editor’s Note: This is part of a symposium asking what happens if Kim Jong-un died. To read the other parts of the series click here.

Whether Kim Jong-un is dead, incapacitated, or recovering from a medical procedure, his absence from public view raises a series of questions about the stability of the regime and of the Korean peninsula more generally. Much speculation—that the system is potentially unstable, that there will be a power vacuum, that we are in for a period of more provocations—fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the North Korean political system.

Question #1. Is the North Korean system stable in the absence of its leader? The short answer is “yes.” Although North Korea is a notoriously personalist family dictatorship, it also maintains a number of the institutional features of communist political systems: clearly delineated formal institutions, a top-down structure, and strong norms of loyalty and obedience.

Question #2. How would succession work? We expect that the Politburo of the Korean Workers Party would play a pivotal role in any succession. Not only can the Politburo generate new leadership but it provides collective support from key stakeholders: from the party, the security apparatus, the military, state institutions, and the mass organizations. The Politburo may augment itself with new members, or may communicate with the party, the military, and the state through an expanded, ad hoc meeting. But the Politburo and its members are likely to be the organizational focal point for any transition.

We focus on the Politburo because of the size of the bodies between which it is nested. In China, Xi Jinping has clearly centralized power but he still relies on the Politburo Standing Committee, with seven members. The corresponding body in North Korea, the Politburo Presidium, has precisely three: Kim Jong-un, Ch’oe Ryong-hae, and Pak Pong-ju. A body this narrow is not adequate to provide the support that will be needed to assure the succession is smooth. The Central Committee, on the other hand, is too large with about 125 members.

The Politburo fits the golden rule of being right-sized; it has 13 members (excluding the three Presidium members and Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s younger sister and a Politburo alternate member). More importantly, it also reflects all of the core political bases. While Kim Jong-un has not proven the reformer many thought he would be, he has in fact crafted a new leadership in the Politburo, with all members except for the three Presidium members coming on board since the Party Congress in 2016. Indeed the faces on the Politburo are surprisingly fresh, with one member elected in October 2017, five coming on in April 2019, and three in December 2019. The newest member was elected in early April 2020. All of these actors share a strong common interest in assuring continuity.

Question #3. Who is likely to lead? Scanning the biographies of the Politburo members, one individual stands out as a likely leader even if the structure looks collective: Ch’oe Ryong-hae. Ch’oe has impeccable family credentials; his father fought with Kim Il-sung in Manchuria against the Japanese, and he was tapped as one of the trusted insiders who helped Kim Jong-un navigate the succession at the time of his father’s death in 2011. His CV looks like a virtual “who’s who” of influential positions in the regime: Mangyongdae Revolution Academy, Kim Il Sung University, Socialist Youth League, party central committee, vice-marshal, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, director of the Korean People’s Army General Political Bureau, director of the Organization and Guidance Department, President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, and member of the Politburo Presidium, the highest party body. No one other than Kim Jong-un has the credentials to match him, and we can’t see him being sidelined by any of the other members of the Politburo, many of whom are more siloed military commanders or state functionaries.

Question #4. What about the family angle? A legitimate question is whether a regime of this sort can really survive without someone at the helm who is directly in the much-vaunted bloodline. With the uncles and brothers assassinated under Kim Jong-un, the only obvious candidate in this regard is Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s younger sister. We have to put some probability—even if low—that the leadership could buck its patriarchal traditions and put her at the helm. But it is more likely that she will play a pivotal role as something akin to the chief-of-staff, a role she effectively played for Kim Jong-un.

Her power is not only familial; in such a regime, the leadership controls vast networks of foreign accounts and access to those resources—in effect the bank account numbers—are likely to be held by family. She has also worked through a number of important institutional roles. From 2018, she served as a vice-director of the party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department, an important institution that curates and controls media information and the narrative surrounding the Kim family cult. In late 2019, she appears to have assumed the role of vice-director at the party’s Organization and Guidance Department, which controls and monitors the party apparatus. These roles and her position in the family provide her extraordinary power even if she does not formally assume the position of Supreme Leader.

Question #5. Will North Korea respond to an internal crisis by continuing its recent provocations or even escalating them? There is some sliver of logic to the argument that we might see an uptick in provocations, but we generally find this line of argument puzzling. The reason is simple: there are only two outside actors who could possibly exploit the circumstances to take the regime down and those are the United States, perhaps acting in consort with South Korea. But Trump is disinterested. He has more or less openly stated that he did not place a high priority on solving the North Korean issue before the election, and in any case the administration is tied down by the pandemic. We can expect to see the North Korean military and internal security apparatus go on high alert if Kim Jong-un has in fact died or is incapacitated. But we find it unlikely that the regime would draw any more attention to itself than it needs to.

Question #6. What about China and South Korea? South Korea’s Moon Jae-in has long sought to improve North-South relations and will extend sympathies and offers of help even if they are declined. But China is the key player in the end, and we saw their response to a succession in 2011: complete and total support for the regime, few questions asked. China has absolutely no interest in seeing the regime implode, and may even act as a lender of last resort if there are signs of economic or financial panic. There is an important implication: maintaining the sanctions regime—which is already leaking—will likely be difficult.

Question #7. Could COVID-19 scramble the logic of a smooth succession? The short answer is “yes.” On the one hand, North Korea did attempt to reach out for external support and has followed its socialist cousins in the region—China and Vietnam—with tough top-down measures to contain spread if not limit it entirely. For example, North Korea moved relatively quickly to close the border with China and although it has still admitted no COVID-19 cases, there is ample evidence it is taking the virus seriously.

On the other hand, the risks of an absolutely catastrophic spread in the country are nontrivial. As many as a third of the population is undernourished, the health system is underfunded, and numerous institutions and facilities—including packed military barracks—are highly vulnerable. If the leadership were to be preoccupied with succession and take its eye off of the virus, then North Korea could easily become a humanitarian disaster of the first order. But the regime has weathered these disasters before, and it is not clear that a significant death toll would derail the regime.

Stephan Haggard is the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies and director of the Korea-Pacific Program at UC San Diego. He is a Visiting Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and has been a consultant to AID, the World Bank, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, and the OECD and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Daniel A. Pinkston is a lecturer at Troy University in Seoul. He is former Deputy Project Director, North East Asia at the International Crisis Group. 


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3 Scenarios for Kim Jong Un’s Mysterious Absence

The United States and South Korea should be ready to cooperate whether Kim is dead, sick, or about to reappear.

This picture, taken on July 4, 2017, and released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (center) celebrating the successful test fire of the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 at an undisclosed location.

This picture, taken on July 4, 2017, and released by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (center) celebrating the successful test fire of the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 at an undisclosed location. STR/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

The recent spate of rumors and thinly sourced reports about Kim Jong Un’s status shows how the leader’s health is a wild card in the North Korean system. Whenever one of the three generations of Kim leaders was not seen in public for a prolonged period, speculation has run rampant. The current leader is only in his mid-30s but has visible health problems and has been out of sight for over two weeks. Notably, for the first time since coming to power in 2011, Kim missed national ceremonies on the April 15 holiday memorializing his grandfather, regime founder and eternal president Kim Il Sung.

Official sources in Pyongyang remain silent about Kim’s status, albeit not unusual for the secretive regime. It may be that he is recovering from an illness or medical operation or is distancing himself from a coronavirus outbreak in North Korea. The regime may be taking time to regroup from recent setbacks, strategizing after South Korea’s legislative election and before the presidential election in the United States, or simply looking to keep its rivals guessing to test how they will react. Or perhaps the propaganda department is struggling how to explain the unexplainable—a grievously ill, or even dead, Kim.

From a policy perspective, while it is important to be cautious about uncorroborated reports, it is necessary to prepare for major scenarios. Kim might reappear sometime soon, apparently in control of North Korea. He might remain out of sight, potentially incapacitated, for a prolonged period of time. Or he might be confirmed dead or incapable of governing. The challenges and expectations for allied responses to each of these three scenarios are not mutually exclusive. Whatever the fate of the North Korean leader, close cooperation between the United States and South Korea is essential.

Scenario 1: Kim reappears in full control.

One scenario is that after completing his recovery or other tasks out of the public eye, Kim visibly returns to the helm of the North Korean state. In the face of North Korea’s policy continuity, Washington and Seoul still need to coordinate their strategic approach toward Pyongyang. Enduring objectives would be to avoid military escalation, prevent the unraveling of sanctions enforcement, and seek opportunities to resume diplomacy.

The challenge, however, will be to smooth over differences between Seoul’s priority of cross-border engagement and Washington’s priority of denuclearization. U.S. President Donald Trump is preoccupied with his reelection campaign and the COVID-19 epidemic in the United States. In contrast, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is determined to double down on inter-Korean cooperation after Seoul managed to flatten the curve of its COVID-19 epidemic and Moon’s party won a landslide victory in legislative elections. For starters, Moon reiterated that public health cooperation with North Korea is the most urgent task during a meeting with his advisors on April 27, the two-year anniversary of the inter-Korean summit’s Panmunjom Declaration.

While it makes sense for Seoul to test for opportunities to improve relations, it remains to be seen if Pyongyang will respond favorably to Seoul’s overtures.

While it makes sense for Seoul to test for opportunities to improve relations, it remains to be seen if Pyongyang will respond favorably to Seoul’s overtures.

But the U.S.-South Korea alliance could experience friction if cross-border projects require the easing of key sanctions or are perceived as diverging from a coordinated approach to incentivize denuclearization. If the Koreas successfully cooperate on a coronavirus response via a reopened liaison office in Kaesong and resume other cultural and humanitarian exchanges, these would be relatively uncontroversial. Gradually resuming inter-Korean rail and road connection projects would then be diplomatically plausible as Seoul is likely to coordinate with United Nations bodies and consult with Washington.However, if the Moon government attempted to restart larger economic projects—like tours to North Korea or the Kaesong Industrial Complex—those efforts could contradict significant U.N. and U.S. sanctions. Washington will want Pyongyang to take credible denuclearization steps to justify the sanctions relief required. The United States and South Korea need to stay on the same page in order for the alliance to effectively support meaningful diplomacy with Pyongyang and prevent North Korean wedge-driving and extortion tactics.

Scenario 2: Kim remains unseen, potentially incapacitated for longer.

A second scenario is that Kim Jong Un remains out of sight and potentially incapacitated for an indefinite period of time, increasing uncertainty about the stability of North Korea, which, in turn, could raise the risks of miscalculation, miscommunication, and unintended escalation. As Kim’s de facto chief of staff and closest confidante sharing the Mount Paektu bloodline, his sister Kim Yo Jong could step in as the acting leader. Or a power struggle might ensue, as it is unprecedented for a woman in her early 30s to lead the North Korean regime. The leadership structure will be highly uncertain until there is official confirmation from Pyongyang—and even then, the interim leader’s position may not be secure. Neighboring countries will likely take a wait-and-see approach until there is concrete evidence on North Korea’s internal dynamics.

Seoul and Washington must closely share intelligence while responding together in a timely manner in the event of any North Korean provocation. Pyongyang might turn inward but then test more missiles to reinforce domestic order as well as show strength internationally. If Kim Yo Jong is at the helm, North Korea might continue with the current level of military exercises and missile tests (short- and medium-range) in line with her brother’s strategy ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November. However, there might be competing voices as government elites jostle to establish themselves in the temporary order, producing pressure for a more hawkish weapons-testing agenda, more aggressive sanctions-busting, and more provocative rhetoric toward South Korea, Japan, and the United States.

In this case, the alliance may be at a disadvantage owing to existing political strains and the currently reduced schedule of combined military exercises, particularly full-scale field exercises. If the alliance looks weakened or underfunded, it will also lack credibility. Washington and Seoul should thus swiftly conclude negotiations on the Special Measures Agreement to provide defense cost-sharing for hosting U.S. troops in South Korea. And if Pyongyang ramps up missile launches, Japan and South Korea must overcome recent spats to allow smooth intelligence-sharing. While the allies need to maintain readiness and deterrence, they must also be careful not to misinterpret shows of force that are aimed at rivals or the North Korean public, rather than at the United States, South Korea, and Japan.

Scenario 3: Kim is dead or incapable of governing.

A third scenario is that North Korea confirms Kim Jong Un is dead or incapable of governing. Who leads the country will first depend on whether Kim anointed someone to take over or if someone can credibly claim to have received his dying injunction for how the country should be governed. The likelihood of an immediate regime collapse is slim because the North Korean state and even national identity have been institutionalized, with overlapping interests between the Kim family and North Korea’s political, economic, and military elites.

This scenario leaves more room for political power struggles among various domestic factions and the possibility that international actors may misread the situation inside North Korea. Possible candidates jockeying for power besides Kim’s sister include his uncle Kim Pyong Il, who despite being effectively exiled for decades as an ambassador in European capitals, returned to North Korea last year and may have support among the elite of his generation. A dark horse could emerge from the Kim lineage, Workers’ Party officials, or military generals, especially if there were initially a collective leadership arrangement that narrowed over time. Even if Kim’s sister were elevated, it would be unclear how long she would be able to maintain her grip on power.

Amid the pandemic, Washington, Seoul, and Beijing are not adequately prepared for another crisis.

Amid the pandemic, Washington, Seoul, and Beijing are not adequately prepared for another crisis.

Clarity about the facts on the ground needs to be established (and mutually understood) by all sides. Beijing will likely respect North Korea’s decision on a leadership succession or transition without directly injecting itself to influence the outcome. However, it would probably send humanitarian assistance and prevent a mass exodus of refugees across its border in the event of North Korean instability. As Beijing could move quickly on a range of actions, Washington and Seoul need to be in close and constant consultation.Both allies would be well advised to send condolences to the Kim family and North Korean people, even if this sticks in the throat and provides ammunition to political rivals. Washington should reaffirm its commitment to the 2018 Singapore vision shared by Trump and Kim on a new relationship, peace regime, and denuclearization. South Korea should likewise reaffirm its commitment to inter-Korean agreements, and both allies ought to express hope for working with the new North Korean leadership to fulfill those goals. An attempt to intervene in North Korea and force change would be an exceedingly dangerous move that not only risks clashes with North Korean forces but a broader conflict between China and the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

U.S.-South Korea coordination at all levels of government must be ironclad, from the big political questions to the technical command and control issues. Seoul and Washington will need to review and calibrate contingency plans, such as Operational Plan 5029, for conducting joint military maneuvers in the event of instability or regime collapse, including efforts to secure North Korea’s strategic assets. The feasibility of the plan remains an open question, and progressive South Korean governments tend to prefer avoiding conversations regarding a North Korean regime collapse. The United States and South Korea have a working group on North Korea that will need to remain adequately staffed with officials from both sides who are empowered to coordinate policy.

Seoul and Washington would also need a unified message, setting expectations for China’s role and inviting Beijing, Tokyo, and Moscow to discuss and coordinate a range of contingency plans in advance. Such coordination will be more difficult because of the recent deterioration in U.S.-China relations with Beijing’s increased assertiveness, the trade war, and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Beijing has historically refused discussing North Korean contingency plans with Washington and Seoul, but private consultations will be necessary to prevent miscalculation over possible dangers if there is a loss of control in Pyongyang, including the safety and security of weapons of mass destruction and fissile materials, weapons exports, and a refugee crisis across North Korea’s shared borders with China, Russia, and South Korea.

Regional coordination will be imperative to prevent any instability or crisis in North Korea from escalating into a regional conflict. The allies need the concerted will—despite all the political distractions—to coordinate very closely with Beijing, Tokyo, and Moscow in any emergency situation. Intelligence cooperation will be particularly important between Washington and its allies, as well as between Seoul and Tokyo using their General Security of Military Information Agreement. If a flow of U.S. forces to the Korean Peninsula is necessary, U.S. bases in Japan will be indispensable. Washington and Seoul will also need to work closely with the U.N. Security Council and various organizations that can provide humanitarian and financial assistance during a crisis.

The latest mystery behind Kim’s health and whereabouts will be solved with North Korea’s confirmation in due course. If he is alive, this will not be the last time rumors fly regarding a premature death. Still, this episode can serve as a wake-up call to the U.S.-South Korea alliance on the need for close and advance coordination on scenarios surrounding the health of the North Korean leader.

Kim palace intrigue is not gossip about a photogenic royal family or an entertaining Korean drama. It’s a matter of life and death for the North Korean people and how a human rights-abusing and nuclear missile-pursuing regime will persist or fall, with implications for peace and security in Asia and beyond. If and when the time comes, the U.S.-South Korea alliance needs to be ready.



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ESPN nearing deal to broadcast S. Korean baseball games: source

YONHAP NEWS  |  By Yoo Jee-ho and Shin Chang-yong

SEOUL, April 27 (Yonhap) — The U.S. sports media giant ESPN is nearing a deal to broadcast South Korean baseball games to its American audience this season, an industry source told Yonhap News Agency on Monday.

The source, who requested anonymity because the deal wasn’t finalized as of Monday afternoon, said ESPN could air multiple Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) games per week. The exact duration of the deal and proposed financial terms weren’t immediately clear.

A Korea Baseball Organization preseason game takes place at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul between the Doosan Bears and the KT Wiz on April 25, 2020. (Yonhap)

A Korea Baseball Organization preseason game takes place at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul between the Doosan Bears and the KT Wiz on April 25, 2020. (Yonhap)

The KBO’s regular season will begin on May 5, pushed back by more than a month from the original March 28 Opening Day due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It will be the second pro baseball league to begin during the pandemic, after the Chinese Professional Baseball League in Taiwan.

If completed, the deal would represent a turnaround from last week, when talks between ESPN and Eclat, which holds international distribution rights to KBO games, reached a stalemate over ESPN’s demand for free games. Sources had told Yonhap at the time that ESPN was seeking monthly deals, rather than a longer deal that would cover the whole 2020 season. Those month-to-month deals would allow ESPN to drop KBO games once Major League Baseball (MLB), currently on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, begins its season.

Both the KBO and Eclat balked at the initial ESPN demand for free rights. One source said there was “a feeling of being disrespected among KBO ranks.” One KBO official said the league would rather not have Eclat shoulder production costs just to put games on ESPN.

Since then, ESPN has apparently changed its stance. ESPN first indicated interest in KBO games earlier this month amid its struggles to fill dead air, with the coronavirus pandemic having put all professional and amateur sports on hold.

When reached by Yonhap on Monday, an Eclat official declined to provide specifics of the potential deal, saying negotiations were still ongoing.


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Kim Jong Un ‘alive and well,’ South Korean official says amid new reports North Korean leader is ill

USA TODAY  |  Deirdre Shesgreen

WASHINGTON South Korean government officials tried again to quell persistent rumors that Kim Jong Un, the authoritarian leader of North Korea, is in poor health.

On Monday, South Korea’s unification minister, Kim Yeon-chul, told a closed-door forum in Seoul the government has “enough intelligence to confidently say that there are no unusual developments” in rival North Korea to corroborate speculation about Kim’s health.

“Kim Jong Un is alive and well,” Chung-in Moon, foreign policy adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, told Fox News on Sunday. “He has been staying in the Wonsan area since April 13. No suspicious movements have so far been detected.”

North Korea is one of the world’s most secretive nations in the world and information about its repressive leader is extremely difficult to verify.

Speculation about Kim’s health began to swirl after the North Korea leader failed to attend the April 15 celebration of his grandfather’s birthday, an important national holiday that he had not previously missed since his rise to power in 2011.

Last week, a Seoul-based website called Daily NK reported that the North Korean leader had undergone heart surgery on April 12 and was recuperating at a villa outside the capital, Pyongyang. The Daily NK’s story was based on a single source inside North Korea. Other media outlets, including CNN, have reported that Kim’s health may be in “grave danger.”

The state-controlled North Korean media has been silent about Kim’s whereabouts in recent weeks. The state-run Korean Central News Agency released a photo of him, dated April 11, which it said shows Kim attending a politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang. However, neither the content nor the date of the photo could be independently verified.

Media reports say North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is believed to be in "grave danger" after surgery, but officials in South Korea believe otherwise.

Some media reports about North Korea and its leadership have previously turned out to be inaccurate. President Donald Trump said last week that he thought the CNN story was “inaccurate,” but he declined to comment further on what information the Trump administration has about Kim’s health status.

“I hear the report was an incorrect report. I hope it was an incorrect report,” said Trump, who has met directly with Kim in an unsuccessful effort to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.

South Korea’s unification minister did not reveal the specific intelligence behind his conclusion that Kim is not ill, but he said it was reached after a thorough analysis.

38 North, a website that tracks developments in North Korea, reported that a train likely belonging to Kim has been parked at a railway station that services the leader’s Wonsan compound since at least April 21. North38 cited commercial satellite imagery and said the approximately 250-meter long train is reserved for use by the Kim family.

“The train’s presence does not prove the whereabouts of the North Korean leader or indicate anything about his health, but it does lend weight to reports that Kim is staying at an elite area on the country’s eastern coast,” the website said.

Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard and the Associated Press


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