A US student was freed this month by North Korea after spending eighteen months in prison, with his family stating that he has been in a coma for a year.
The parents of Otto Warmbier, 22, confirmed shortly after he was released that he was in a coma, stating that he was “brutalized” by a “pariah regime.” The 22-year-old is currently being treated in a US hospital after the flight carrying him landed in Ohio on 13 June.
Mr Warmbier was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labour for attempting to steal a propaganda sign from a hotel. He was in North Korea as a tourist with Young Pioneer Tours when he was arrested on 2 January 2016. He appeared emotional at a news conference a month later, in which he tearfully confessed to trying to take the sign as a “trophy” for a US church, adding, “the aim of my task was to harm the motivation and work ethnic of the Korean people.” Foreign detainees in North Korea have previously recanted confessions, stating that they were made under pressure. After a short trial on 16 March, Mr Warmbier was given a 15-year prison sentence for crimes against the state. Early last month, his parents told CNN that they had had no contact with their son for more than a year.
News of his coma was released on 13 June, with Mr and Mrs Warmbier disclosing in statement “Sadly, he is in a coma and we have been told he has been in that condition since March 2016. We learned of this only one week ago.” They were quoted by the Washington Post as saying that they had been told that Otto had contracted botulism, a rare illness that causes paralysis, soon after his trial in March 2016. North Korea has stated that he was given a sleeping pill after becoming ill after his trial last year and did not wake up. Sources however have indicated that it remains to be seen if Mr Warmbier’s illness is the direct result of brutality in prison, with some stating that there may be added pressure on US President Donald Trump to take action against Kim Jong-un’s regime.
Who Else is Detained in North Korea?
There are reported to be three other US citizens currently in custody in North Korea. They are:
- Kim Dong-chul, a 62-year-old naturalized US citizen born in South Korea, who was sentenced in April 2016 to ten years of hard labour for spying.
- Korean-American professor Kim Sang-duk (or Tony Kim) who was detained in April 2017. The reasons for his arrest currently remain unclear.
- Kim Hak-song, like Kim Sang-duk, worked at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) and was detained in May 2017 on suspicion of “hostile acts” against the state.
The latest arrests have come at a time of heightened tensions between North Korea and the US and its regional neighbours. In the past, the Untied States has accused North Korea of detaining its citizens in a bid to use them as pawns in negotiations over its nuclear weapons programme.
A US-North Korea war is highly unlikely. What is likely is status quo – vibrating waves of security tensions, sanctions, and South Korea and Japan’s whiny diplomacy to tell on North Korea to the US. As much as the world is entertained by Trump’s loud rhetoric that the US will unilaterally take care of the North Korean problem, the stakes are too high for China, South Korea and Japan to allow US attack on North Korea. Perhaps the only agenda common to China, South Korea and Japan right now on this matter is that none of them wants a war in the region.
When it comes to North Korea, we’re talking about a regime that:
- thrives on the nation’s fear of the regime;
- is not accountable to the nation for its actions;
- will not hesitate to starve the nation just to be able to wage a war, if it must;
And yet it is highly unlikely that Kim Jong Un wants to start war with the US. The dictator is brandishing threats against the US and its two Asian allies in the region to likely seek the least compromised peace treaty with the US. The regime would not see itself gaining in a peace negotiation unless it can project formidable military capability. Sustaining the regime is undoubtedly Kim’s biggest priority and going into a war with the US is his least likely option.
The US unilateral strikes on North Korea will likely anger Japan and South Korea more than China as the two Asian countries will have to bear the brunt of a North Korean retaliation. The safety of South Koreans and Japanese are as important as that of the US, not to mention that there are 29,000 and 50,000 US troops in South Korea and Japan respectively. Besides, North Korea has massed artillery and missile capability adjacent to the demilitarized zone, close to South Korea. It has been estimated that in this scenario alone, North Korea could potentially cause 100,000 casualties in South Korea.
China, on the other hand, has remained ambivalent whether or not it will defend North Korea in the event of a military conflict. According to the 1961 Sino North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, China is obliged to intervene against unprovoked aggression toward North Korea. But the Asian superpower has its own priorities in the region and can likely adopt other means to stop the supposed war between the US and North Korea. China’s support to North Korea dates back to the Korean War (1950-1953). Since then, China has provided political and economic backing to the North Korean regimes. But relations between the two countries have strained over the years since North Korea’s proliferation of nuclear weapons. Beijing has also supported sanctions from UN Security Council Resolutions and implemented new trade sanctions including reduced energy supplies to North Korea and has called for denuclearization talks. But China is also known to have stopped international punitive action against North Korea over human rights violations. China’s support to North Korea ensures a buffer between China and democratic South Korea, home to around 29,000 US troops and marines. Also, the apprehension of hundred of thousands of North Korean refugees flooding into China in the event of an unstable North Korea is a huge concern for Beijing. It is highly likely that China will want North Korea’s stability, which, otherwise, will jeopardize China’s strategic buffer and bring US troops too close for comfort.
While Trump has been urging China to do more to confront North Korea, the US has also sent an aircraft carrier strike group to the region, heightening concerns in China. China is worried that North Korea’s test of military hardware could provoke a strong response from Washington. Amidst the tension, China has sought Russia’s help to cool tensions over North Korea. Russia has also warned North Korea that Kim’s threats to deliver preemptive nuclear strikes could create a legal ground for the use of military force against the country.
There is a realistic possibility that the US does not know exactly what North Korean nuclear capability is as Kim’s threats have rapidly escalated US concerns. But the US ought to know that North Korea’s military capability is sufficient to annihilate millions in South Korea and Japan, should a war break out between the US and North Korea. That North Korea will be smashed in retaliation cannot be a consolation or measure of success in this war.
The US has pushed North Korea to irreversibly give up its nuclear weapons program in return for aid and diplomatic benefits. Washington believes in using pressure to influence North Korea to change its behavior. But the only likely power to influence North Korea is China. Pressing China to force North Korea to give up its nuclear arms is, however, ineffective, rather pushing China to make sure that North Korea does not use them is a reasonable way forward. It is almost certain that Beijing will actively seek to stop a supposed US strike on North Korea. This could be through attempts to force North Korea to negotiate. If that fails and a war is imminent, China is likely to deploy troops on the line in North Korea to dissuade the US from striking. It’s the same strategy that the US adopts as it stations troops in South Korea and Poland. The Chinese forces in North Korea would then also be in a position to force a coup and install an alternative government to the Kim regime, which ensures that North Korea survives and Chinese priorities in the region are served.
The lynchpin of this assessment is that Kim Jong Un is a rational actor in this matter. It is likely that he will not lose sight of his need to sustain his regime. With that in perspective, tensions will still prevail but the likelihood of a war in the region is remote.
Officials announced on 15 February that a female suspect has been arrested in Malaysia in connection with the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother.
Quoting police, Malaysian newspaper reports indicate that Kim Jong-name was attacked on 13 February morning while waiting at the budget terminal of Kuala Lumpur International Airport for a 10:00 flight to Macau. Exactly how the attack unfolded remains unclear, however officials and witnesses have variously said that he was splashed with a chemical or had a cloth placed over his face. Earlier reports spoke of a “spray” being used or a needle. He died on route to the hospital.
Local police have disclosed that the woman was arrested at the airport in the capital Kuala Lumpur, where Kim Jong-nam was targeted in an apparent poisoning on 13 February. She was in possession of a Vietnamese travel document. Malaysian police have disclosed that the arrested suspect, who was alone, was identified from CCTV footage taken at the airport. They have named her as Doan Thi Huong, 28, adding that they are looking for “a few” other suspects.
South Korean media have widely reported that two women, said to be North Korean agents, were involved and fled the airport in a taxi. Malaysian police however have not confirmed these details. A grain image broadcast in South Korea and Malaysia depicts a woman wearing a white t-shirt with the letters “LOL” written on the front.
Malaysia has also yet to formally confirm that the dead man is Kim Jong-nam, as he was travelling under a different name – Kim Chol. However the South Korean government has said that it is certain that it is him. Furthermore, the country’s spy agency is said to have told lawmakers that they believe Mr Kim was poisoned. South Korean spy chief Lee Byung-ho told South Korean MPs that Pyongyang had wanted to kill Kim Jong-nam for several years, but that he was being protected by China. Unnamed US government sources have also disclosed that they believe he was poisoned by North Korean agents. Some analysts however are questioning what motive Kim Jong-un would have to kill his estranged half-brother, given the risk of the operation and possibilities for embarrassment, and the fact that he was not seen as a threat to Mr Kim’s leadership. However it has been reported that Mr Kim was reportedly targeted for assassination in the past. In 2012, a North Korean spy was jailed in South Korea. He is said to have admitted to trying to organize a hit-and-run accident targeting Kim Jong-un. North Korea has also had a long history of sending agents overseas to carry out assassinations, attacks and kidnappings.
If it is confirmed that this was the North Korean leader’s half-brother, then it would be the most high-profile death linked to North Korea since Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Chang Song-thaek, who was executed in 2013. While North Korea has not commented on the death, officials from the country’s Malaysian embassy have been visiting the hospital in Kuala Lumpur where Mr Kim’s body has been taken.
Who is Kim Jong-nam?
This is not the first time that Mr Kim has travelled under an assumed identify: he was caught in 2001 trying to enter Japan using a fake passport. At the time, he told officials that he had been planning to visit Tokyo Disneyland. That incidents is thought by some analysts to have spoilt Kim Jong-nam’s chances of succeeding his father, Kim Jong-Il, who died in 2011.
After being bypassed in favor of his youngest half-brother for succession, Kim Jon-nam kept a low profile, spending most of his time overseas in Macau, mainland China and Singapore. He later spoke out against his family’s dynastic control of North Korea and in a book in 2012, he was quoted as stating that he believed his younger half-brother lacked leadership qualities. He however had said that he was not interested in assuming the leadership himself.
The United Nations Security Council has imposed new sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear programme, with the latest sanctions targeting the secretive nation’s valuable coal exports to China.
Under the new sanctions, which follow North Korea’s fifth and largest nuclear test in September, coal exports will be decreased by about 60% under a strict new sales cap. Coal is North Korea’s to export earner and diplomats have disclosed that the export cap of 7.5 million metric tonnes would cost it US $700 million in lost earnings compared with 2015 sales. Exports of copper, nickel, silver, zinc and the sale of statues will also be banned. The resolution also blacklists eleven more people and ten entities, who are said to be connected to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programme, imposing a travel ban and asset freeze.
China, believed to be the only state that purchases North Korean coal, agreed to the sanctions after months of negotiations with the United States and the Council unanimously approved the sanctions resolution. While China is the reclusive country’s primary ally, and has traditionally protected it diplomatically over fears of what may occur if the government were to collapse, it has however grown increasingly impatient with its actions.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has disclosed that the latest sanctions sent an “unequivocal message that the DPRK must cease all the provocative actions and comply fully with its international obligations,” adding, “sanctions are only as effective as their implementation.” Meanwhile US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power has admitted that “no resolution in New York will likely tomorrow persuade Pyongyang to cease its relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons,” adding however that “unprecedented costs” were being placed on North Korea for defying the international community.
North Korea has been under UN sanctions since 2006 over its nuclear and missile programme.
World leaders on Friday reacted with anger after North Korea carried out its fifth, and reportedly biggest, nuclear test.
The latest test was announced on state TV after a 5.3 magnitude tremor was detected near the Punggye-ri underground nuclear site. Estimates of the explosive yield of the latest blast have varied, with South Korea’s military reporting that it was about 10 kilotonnes, enough to make it the North’s “strongest nuclear test ever.” Other experts have disclosed that initial indications suggest 20 kilotonnes or more. The bomb dropped by the US on Hiroshima in 1045 had a yield of about 15 kilotonnes.
In its statement announcing the underground test, North Korea disclosed that it was aimed at further developing the miniaturisation of nuclear warheads so that they could be mounted on ballistic missiles. In its statement, the North disclosed that it could not produce “at will, and as many as it wants, a variety of smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear warheads of higher strike power.” While the North ahs previously made claims on “miniaturised” nuclear warheads, they have never been independently confirmed. North Korea also expressed anger at the “racket of threat and sanctions…kicked up by the US-led hostile forces” to deny a “sovereign state’s exercise of the right to self-defense.” The country has also been angered by a US and South Korean plan to install an anti-missile defense system in the South and by the allies’ massive annual joint military exercises, which are still taking place. The test comes on the country’s National Day, which celebrates the founding of the current regime and which is often used in order to show its military strength.
Shortly after the confirmation of the nuclear test, South Korea accused North Korean leader Kim Jong-un of “maniacal recklessness,” adding that “such provocation will further accelerate its path to self-destruction.” China also “firmly opposed” the test, while Japan “protested adamantly,” adding that North Korea is an “outlaw nation in the neighbourhood.” Russia disclosed in a statement “we insist that the North Korean side stop its dangerous escapades and unconditionally implement all resolutions of the United Nations Security Council. Meanwhile the United States warned of “serious consequences,” including “new sanctions,” with President Barack Obama stating that he had agreed with South Korea and Japan to work with the UN Security Council “to vigorously implement existing measures imposed in previous resolutions, and to take additional significant steps, including new sanctions.” The United Nations Security Council is due to meet later behind closed doors in order to discuss the issue. Such nuclear tests are banned by the UN, however this is Pyongyang’s second test in 2016.
Since its first test in 2006, the isolated communist country has been targeted by five sets of UN sanctions. Talks involving world and regional powers have failed to rein in the North’s nuclear programme. In recent months, the North has conducted a series of ballistic missile launches and has in the past often stated that its aim is to hit US targets. The North’s recent actions have tested its relations with its only ally, China. China condemned January’s test and repeated that on Friday after the latest. China’s foreign ministry stated that it would lodge a diplomatic protest and urged North Korea to avoid further action that would worsen the situation. Analysts have also reported that Kim Jong-un’s rhetoric is increasingly becoming aggressive.