Tag Archives: North Korea


A Vital LiNK: How One Group Is Helping Change the Narrative on North Korea


by SUEVON LEE | @suevlee

Before he ever set foot in America, Joseph Kim had to learn how to pass for an American teen. Be loud and rowdy around others his age. Speak indifferently to authorities. Wear a baseball cap tilted sideways. Draw out the word “yeah.”

For the young North Korean defector, this was no ordinary crash course in acting “American.” This was his key to safety—specifically, reaching the U.S. consulate in Shenyang by train without arousing the suspicion of Chinese officials.

Giving those explicit instructions was Adrian Hong, a Korean American who formed a distinct impression: “He was young, his hair was cut in a stylish way, and his clothes were American and very hip. Everything about him, in fact, was cool,” describes Kim in his memoir, Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America, written with Stephan Talty and published in June.

As co-founder of the U.S.-based humanitarian group Liberty in North Korea, or LiNK, Hong was Kim’s first exposure to the Western world back in 2006, and just one of many people he would meet committed to North Korean refugee rescue and resettlement.

Kim, then 16, had crossed a frozen river alone to flee his homeland and enter China, worn down by hunger and poverty as an orphaned teen. Life in China was still punishing—going door to door in search of food, he was often turned away. Though eventually shown pity by an elderly Christian, as a defector, Kim faced a constant threat of being forcibly returned to North Korea where unspeakable punishment could await. So when, at a shelter, Hong offered to help him get to the U.S., it seemed the best option.

The 20-hour journey by train to the U.S. consulate was incident-free. Nearly a decade later, Kim lives in New York, where he is studying political science at a community college and considering a transfer to a university. “I spent a lot of my time wondering about Adrian and the others who had helped me,” Kim reflects in his book. “Why would they do such a thing, take such risks for people they’d never met? It seemed important to me to figure this out, a clue to the world I was going to.”

Helping bring refugees like Joseph Kim out of China while helping them transition to their new homes—mainly, South Korea, but also the U.S. for a small minority—is the bread and butter of LiNK’s work since its founding 11 years ago.

Launched by two Korean American friends from L.A. to raise awareness about North Korea by mobilizing Korean Americans on college campuses across the country, the organization has evolved from its early, patchwork-like structure to a bona fide nonprofit buoyed by organized leadership, steady fundraising and a clarified focus.

To date, the group has successfully facilitated 390 refugee “rescues,” which take place along a 3,000-mile route that starts in China, passes through Southeast Asia and ultimately ends at a foreign embassy or consulate, via a “modern underground railroad” formed by LiNK’s contacts on the ground.

The journey can take anywhere between five days to two weeks, costs $3,000 to fund and is incredibly risky—getting caught can lead to repatriation to North Korea, though the group has a 95 percent success rate with its rescue missions. Stateside, the nonprofit also engages in grassroots campaigns to change people’s thinking on North Korea, away from nuclear brinksmanship or kooky dictators, and onto the North Korean people themselves. In a media climate focused on the eccentricities of Kim Jong-un, Dennis Rodman’s Vice-chronicled visits, footage of militaristic automatons and nuclear missiles, LiNK counteracts by sharing defector stories and short documentaries on its sleek website, which captures 40,000 unique page visits per month.

Its message is straightforward: people over politics, as it seeks to humanize a population consisting of 24 million.

“When we meet these North Korean people and I sit here and listen to the stories of what they overcame—their escape and the fact that they made it this far—I tell them, ‘You know what, I don’t think I could’ve made it,’” says Hannah Song, LiNK’s 33-year-old president and CEO since 2008. Seated outside at a cafe in Torrance, Calif., near LiNK’s headquarters, she adds, “They are so incredibly resilient and intelligent.”


Staff and interns convene for a meeting inside the group’s headquarters. (Photo by Mike Lee)

The group’s office is located in a nondescript office strip mall, with no obvious signage indicating its presence aside from a van parked outside covered in the Liberty in North Korea logo.

In the small entryway, a side wall is painted solid red, decorated with hand-designed slogans and artwork featuring such phrases as “Accelerate change,” “Working with the People” and “What Better Time than Now?” Through a narrow hallway, in the main space, young headphone-wearing employees tap away on laptops; against one wall is taped a large map of the U.S.—push-pinned with locations of the group’s recent outreach.

And just beyond a metal spiral staircase, within a dimmed, transparent, glass-enclosed space, the creative and programing team is making upgrades to the website, reviewing analytics and managing its social media, the atmosphere evoking a tech startup.

What’s notable are the number of diverse faces sitting in front of these screens, both Asian and non. For an organization founded at the Korean American Student Conference, or KASCON, it has come to reach a much broader segment of youth in their teens, 20s and early 30s.

That could be a credit to the emphasis on grassroots engagement and mobilization led by Justin Wheeler, the group’s energetic 30-year-old vice president, who’s spent time along the Korea-China border and been part of seven rescue missions. He acknowledges how much technology is part of this equation.

“We rely so much on being able to share stories, being able to communicate, being able to build our own network and raise funds. So definitely, it’s like our business model is wrapped up in the use of the Internet and how can we maximize it,” Wheeler says. “It’s basically like a millennial-led organization—[the Internet] is just what we grew up with, so that’s to our advantage.”

Part of the group’s strategy includes training and sending so-called “nomads” all over the country to host engagement events at schools, churches and places of community on the topic of North Korea. Globally, it’s fostered the growth of 350 so-called “rescue teams” in 16 countries to fundraise on a grassroots level for refugee programs.

The group also works to personalize the act of donating—if one gives $3,000 or more, they are “matched” to an actual, specific rescue.

How often are these taking place? “It’s probably just best to assume there’s always a rescue mission underway,” Wheeler says. “It’s a big thing of what we do, and we have teams and partners and networks that are working on this.”

If Wheeler is the mobilization guy, then Song, as the group’s head, is in charge of the big picture. Based in New York City, but traveling every so often to the main office in California, the Michigan native is credited with turning the organization into a legitimate, functioning nonprofit that can pay its two dozen employees salaries and benefits; offer internships; award sabbaticals; and even host annual team-building employee retreats.

It wasn’t always that way: the organization was, at one point, driven more by the passions that fueled the underlying cause than by a sound structural framework to prop it up and keep it sustainable.

Early in 2004, Adrian Hong, then an undergrad and student activist at Yale, and friend Paul “PK” Kim, a student at Occidental College and budding standup comedian, had met at Blink Cafe, a bar in L.A.’s Koreatown, to discuss what they could do to raise awareness about North Korea.

“The fact there were even two Koreas, the fact that North Korea had a communist system, and was totalitarian—just the basic, basic details were not well known, much less the human rights crisis. Even the caricatures of the leadership were not as prevalent as they are now,” says Hong, in a phone interview with KoreAm from his home in New York. “It just wasn’t media fodder; it really was an uphill battle.”

Hence, LiNK—whose name was inspired by the establishment where that discussion between Hong and Kim took place—was born. “It started off as Liberation North Korea, but we decided the word ‘Liberation’ was too serious, so it became ‘Liberty,’” Kim tells KoreAm by phone.

Untitled-1Left: Liberty in North Korea brought together 200 students from around the U.S. for a two-day summit in Summer 2014 to learn about the changes happening in North Korea. Right: Wheeler speaks at the Summer 2014 summit. (Photos courtesy of LiNK)

That year, the nascent organization’s debut event went big at KASCON: a North Korean defector delivered a speech, Kim wrote and performed a song about the region, and enthusiasm among young Korean American students spread. The spirit was, “‘We’re gonna reunite the country, we’re gonna go in there and save everybody,’” Kim recalls. “I sang, people were weeping, everybody was holding hands, it was like one of those ‘We Are the World’ moments.”

Within a couple of years, nearly 70 LiNK chapters had formed at colleges all over the U.S. Hong continued to build on this momentum once graduating, setting up the group’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. “The intention was to be by policymakers, to be able to talk to governments and effect change … inform them of what’s happening. All of our energy was spent briefing governments, parliaments, foreign ministries, what life was like for North Koreans,” he says.

But it was an uphill battle. D.C. could be an impenetrable place. The number of local chapters made it difficult to manage the group’s messaging. And it was still all volunteer-run. Kim, the co-founder, took a step back, realizing what the group needed was more than just fiery passion.

“It’s a wealth of knowledge you had to know to keep up; you literally had to be a scholar on North Korea to answer questions,” he says. “These really brilliant college students, they would come up and ask me these geopolitical questions, and I’m like, ‘I’m so sorry, I have no idea.’”

It was while she was a student at Rutgers University when Song first got involved with the group. She had picked up The Aquariums of Pyongyang, a 2001 account of a North Korean political prisoner’s life, and a curiosity was sparked.

“When I read his book, I was shocked to find out [human rights abuses] was something that was happening in present day,” she says. “I think the book really just struck me because I knew my grandmother was from North Korea, and it was surprising to find out that something like this was going on in a place where she was from.”

Song attended a LiNK benefit concert, began volunteering at Rutgers and helped organize LiNK events in New York City. Even upon graduating and working a demanding job in advertising at Ogilvy, she found herself spending her free nights and weekends working with the group, even traveling to the North Korea-China border.

In 2006, Song decided to quit her day job and go work full-time for LiNK, as Hong’s deputy-in-command, despite the fact that there were only three employees and they were all working without pay. She waitressed on the side to support herself.

“I really liked my [corporate] job actually, I really enjoyed what I was
doing,” she says. “But at the end of the day, I realized that what I had the opportunity to do with LINK was actually far more important and meaningful to me.”

When Hong decided to leave the organization in 2008, he asked Song to take over. (He is not involved in the group today, though he remains an active voice on North Korean policy issues, penning op-eds and guest columns in various publications.)

Then just 27, taking over the organization was not something she had planned for, Song says. She was perfectly happy supporting what needed to be done, and her biggest fear was that, under her direction, the group would “go under.”

In fact, the opposite happened. Since that transition, the organization underwent a reset. Using what she learned in her corporate advertising job, Song brought much-needed infrastructure to the group. She implemented an employee policy guide. She reached out to other companies and organizations. She met and spoke with Wheeler, a California-based community organizer with an international relations degree who was leading his own North Korean refugee group at the time; she came away impressed with his background and success in mobilizing youth.

Their visions aligned so much, the pair decided to merge forces—prompting the group’s relocation from D.C. to L.A. in 2009.

“LINK had been good at mobilizing the Korean American community at that time, but we weren’t really good at getting outside the Korean American community,” Song says. “For us, the North Korea issue is not a Korean issue per se. That was really one of our biggest challenges—[to reach outside just Korean Americans].”


Hannah Song confers with a staff employee.

Since its transformation in 2009, LiNK has made impressive financial strides. While more than 70 percent of its annual revenue comes from grassroots fundraising and online campaigns, the rest is from high net-worth donors, legacy donors and social justice organizations such as the Grace & Mercy Foundation, a private family foundation. In 2014, according to its financial statements, it raked in $2.2 million in donations and grants (in comparison, that number was $695,000 five years ago). Since 2010, the nonprofit has seen a 32 percent year over year growth in revenue.

“Bottom line, she kicks ass,” Kim says about Song. “The organization wouldn’t exist without Adrian—he took it to one level, but [she] took it to a whole ‘nother level, organizing it, legitimizing it.”

As the only U.S.-based group organized around this issue, LiNK has been able to tap into the social consciousness of young generations and stand on its own without a religious platform.

“Most of the other North Korean relief groups, while they do great work, are pretty much focused within the Korean churches throughout the U.S.,” Paul Song, a physician, LiNK board member and donor and spouse of television correspondent Lisa Ling, tells KoreAm. “No one’s going outside the Korean community so I think [LiNK] is very effective at that. You have to preach outside the choir.”

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Jason Li, third from left, and Jessica Kwen, second from right, co-founded a LiNK chapter at Glen A. Wilson High School. (Photo courtesy of Jason Li)

A model example is Jason Li, a sophomore at Stanford who, five years ago, co-founded a LiNK chapter with friend Jessica Kwen at Glen A. Wilson High School in Hacienda Heights, in the San Gabriel Valley. The group hosted screenings and discussions of documentaries around North Korea, raised $10,000 to fund rescue missions and was even invited by LiNK to travel to South Korea to learn about its operations abroad.

“I never really understood North Korea and I only understood kind of what the media fed me,” Li, who is Chinese American, says in a phone interview. “They always list a caricature of a crazy, militaristic country with these almost laughable dictators. I had a very simple idea of North Korea. What brought me to LiNK was that
they told really powerful stories.”

Li, 19, a potential creative writing and public health major, says the experience fostered his interest in the humanities and a possible career path that could involve human rights and community organizing.

“It taught me how to make people care about things and how to connect with people. It was really inspiring to see how our school came together for a country that seems so far removed from ours,” he says. “That passion never existed before we had LiNK at our school. That was really humbling and inspiring to see.”

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Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy who is based in Seoul, works on his laptop during a visit to the office in California.

Given the number of North Korean defectors in South Korea—approximately 28,000—LiNK also operates an office in Seoul that has five full-time staffers plus interns. Their office in Itaewon is anchored by the head of research and strategy, 30-year-old Sokeel Park, a policy wonk from Manchester, England whose father is Korean.

Each North Korean defector who arrives in South Korea undergoes a three-month government-run transition program and subsequently receives a subsidy to begin their new lives. But, assistance can be hard to find. LiNK helps defectors locate and apply for such assistance and provides a sense of community and support during that transition period. It’s also helping bring more awareness to the defector issue in South Korea.

While it’s not the only organization doing this kind of work in the country, it is the only American one. Park, who is fluent in Korean, uses a Korean term, shingihada (novel or interesting), to describe that advantage.

“We’re slightly different than a lot of the groups. … The first thing is, we’re international,” he says, speaking over Skype. “Overall, in South Korea, there is interest in North Korea, but at the same time, there is apathy and a feeling of, ‘We’ve heard it all before.’ So we need to introduce new ways of talking about North Korea, new concepts, and something that people maybe haven’t thought of before.”

Untitled-1Left: Hyeonsoo Lee, a North Korean defector, speaking at the Asian American Journalists Association in San Francisco on Aug. 20. Right: Joseph Kim, a North Korean defector who, in 2005, fled to China on his own at 16. With LiNK’s help, he came to the United States. (Photos by Suevon Lee)

That includes not relaying just the tragic stories, but emphasizing positivity and hope, he says. It requires some market research, being attuned to the way things are perceived in the country and moving away from the emphasis on the polarizing issue of reunification.

The group recognizes how challenging the transition can be for North Korean refugees, who are required to integrate into a drastically new environment than the one they knew—on all manners of social, economic and technological levels.

“It’s not just playing catch-up, it’s being competitive,” whether that’s in the U.S or South Korea, Song, the group’s head, says. “It’s catching up, then treading water.”

That struggle is reflected in North Koreans’ stories. In Under the Same Sky, the now 24-year-old Joseph Kim recounts his extreme isolation while living with a foster couple in Richmond, Va., and adjusting to U.S. schools. Hyeonseo Lee, another defector who also wrote a memoir, The Girl with Seven Names, and whose TED talk about her escape has been viewed more than 4.2 million times on YouTube, is frank about second-class treatment of North Koreans by their compatriots just across the border.

“Sometimes I [felt] like a foreigner,more so than a foreigner living in South Korea,” Lee, 31, said during a talk at the Asian American Journalists Association conference in San Francisco in mid-August. “It’s difficult for North Korean defectors, very difficult, to find jobs. It’s a tragedy for North Koreans: when they’re looking for jobs, they’re saying they’re Korean-Chinese.”

“It’s changed, but still there’s a long way to go,” she adds of South Koreans’ attitudes toward their neighbors.

There have been other issues. Shin Dong-hyuk briefly became the most famous North Korean refugee in the world, but some details of his story have been discredited. Many of the horrific aspects of his narrative have been confirmed, though, and remain a vital look into life inside North Korea’s prison camps. LiNK and Song played vital roles in Shin’s transition from refugee to activist, a process that did not always go smoothly.

As former Washington Post writer Blaine Harden wrote in his 2013 book about Shin, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, Song was “frustrated that Shin sometimes avoided responsibility, expected special treatment, and made little effort to learn English, which limited his usefulness as a spokesman in the United States. The strain was probably inevitable. It certainly was not unusual.”

Despite these obstacles, LiNK’s leaders remain committed to helping the North Korean people accelerate change in their homeland. They point to the burgeoning younger generation, known as the jangmadang generation, for the word “market,” where they’ve learned to buy and sell in the black market and broken rules to survive.

“They don’t remember a North Korea where government provided,” Wheeler says. “If you ask any North Korean about how they survived in North Korea, they’ll talk about the markets. It’s a young generation that doesn’t share the same sentiment towards the regime as their parents.”

So when young defectors like Joseph Kim may wonder, why would certain individuals take such risks for people they’ve never met? Perhaps Song’s words sum it up best: “At the end of the day, our vision—what we’re working toward—is our name. It’s ‘Liberty in North Korea,’ she says. “It’s not that we will bring liberty to North Korea, it’s not that we will liberate the North Koreans, it’s that we believe the North Korean people will achieve their liberty. We believe—I believe—that it will be in our lifetime.”


This article was published in the August/September 2015 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the August/September issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days.)

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[VIDEO] John Oliver Covers Inter-Korean Tensions, K-pop on ‘Last Week Tonight’

by REERA YOO | @reeraboo

John Oliver opened Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight with some witty remarks on North and South Korea’s tense standoff.

“We begin in North Korea—named best Korea for 70 years running by North Korea Magazine,” Oliver quipped before showing a clip of CNN reporting on inter-Korean tensions. (Note: CNN mistakenly used photos of the South Korean army while reporting about North Korea’s military actions.)

Earlier this month, two South Korean soldiers were maimed after triggering mines along the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone. The United Nations and the South Korean Defense Ministry claimed that North Korean soldiers had planted three land mines near South Korean military guard posts.

In response, Seoul resumed anti-North Korean propaganda broadcasts for the first time in 11 years. The move infuriated Pyongyang, leading the capital to declare a “quasi state of war” last week. After 40-plus-hours of talks, South Korea agreed on Tuesday to halt its loudspeaker broadcasts in exchange for an apology from the North.

“Look, North Korea. If your neighbor is blasting horrible noise at all hours of the day, you do not retaliate with war. You wait until the next morning and leave a passive aggressive note,” Oliver joked. “There is an etiquette for how we handle this stuff.”

The host also poked fun at how South Korea was blasting K-pop songs in addition to criticism about Kim Jong-un’s regime.

“Now, they haven’t said exactly what music they’ve been playing, but I hope it’s some of the better K-pop stuff,” Oliver said before listing Neon Bunny, Uhm Jung-hwa, Jo Sung-mo and the original five-member band TVXQ as some of his favorites.


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North and South Korea Find a Way to Avoid Disaster, Reach Deal

Above photo: South Korean National Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin addresses reporters in Seoul shortly after 2 a.m. following three days of “marathon talks” with North Korea. (Reuters)

Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — After 40-plus-hours of talks, North and South Korea on Tuesday pulled back from the brink with an accord that allows both sides to save face and, for the moment, avert the bloodshed they’ve been threatening each other with for weeks.

In a carefully crafted, though vague, piece of diplomacy, Pyongyang expressed “regret” that two South Korean soldiers were maimed in a recent land mine blast Seoul blamed on the North. While not an acknowledgement of responsibility, let alone the “definite apology” South Korea’s president had demanded, it allows Seoul to claim some measure of victory in holding the North to account.

South Korea, for its part, agreed to halt anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts on the border, which will let the authoritarian North trumpet to its people a propaganda win over its bitter rival — and put an end to hated loudspeaker messages that outside analysts say could demoralize front-line troops and inspire them to defect.

The agreement marks a good first step in easing animosity that has built since South Korea blamed North Korea for the mine explosion at the border earlier this month and restarted the propaganda broadcasts in retaliation. But, as always on the Korean Peninsula, it’s unclear how long the good mood will continue.

Despite South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s expression of hope that the North’s “regret” will help improve the Koreas’ relationship, the accord does little to address the many fundamental, long-standing differences. The announcement of further talks to be held soon in either Seoul or Pyongyang could be a beginning, but the Koreas have a history of failing to follow through on their promises and allowing simmering animosity to interrupt diplomacy.

The negotiations that began Saturday at the border village of Panmunjom, where the Koreas agreed to the 1953 ceasefire that stopped fighting in the Korean War, also resulted in Pyongyang agreeing to lift a “quasi-state of war” declared last week, according to South Korea’s presidential office and North Korea’s state media.

While this declaration was largely a matter of rhetoric — the border is the world’s most heavily armed and there has never been a formal peace agreement ending the Korean War, so the area is always essentially in a “quasi-state of war” — there had been growing worry about South Korean reports that the North continued to prepare for a fight during the talks, moving unusual numbers of troops and submarines to the border.

The Koreas also struck an important humanitarian agreement by promising to resume in September the emotional reunions of families separated by the Korean War. They said more reunions would follow, but there were no immediate details.

In a signal of North Korea’s seriousness, Pyongyang sent to the talks Hwang Pyong So, the top political officer for the Korean People’s Army and considered by outside analysts to be North Korea’s second most important official after supreme leader Kim Jong Un.

“I hope the two sides faithfully implement the agreements and build up (mutual) confidence through a dialogue and cooperation and that it serves as a chance to work out new South-North relations,” chief South Korean negotiator and presidential national security director Kim Kwan-jin said in a televised news conference.

The United States quickly welcomed the agreement and the prospect of tensions dropping.

Kim, the Seoul negotiator, described the North’s expression of “regret” as an apology and said the loudspeaker campaign would end at noon Tuesday unless an “abnormal” event occurs.

Pyongyang had denied involvement in the land mine explosions and rejected Seoul’s report that Pyongyang launched an artillery barrage last week. South Korea’s military fired dozens of artillery rounds across the border in response and said the North’s artillery strikes were meant to back up an earlier threat to attack the loudspeakers. There were no details on whether the North addressed the artillery claim in Tuesday’s deal.

These were the highest-level talks between the two Koreas in a year, and the length of the sessions was no surprise.

While the Koreas have difficulty agreeing to talks, once they do, marathon sessions are often the rule. After decades of animosity and bloodshed, finding common ground is a challenge. During the latest Panmunjom talks, the first session lasted about 10 hours and the second session about 33 hours.

The negotiations started just hours ahead of a Saturday deadline set by North Korea for the South to dismantle the propaganda loudspeakers. North Korea had declared that its front-line troops were in full war readiness and prepared to go to battle if Seoul did not back down.

South Korean defense officials said during the talks that about 70 percent of the North’s more than 70 submarines and undersea vehicles had left their bases and could not be located by the South Korean military. They also said the North had doubled the strength of its front-line artillery forces since the start of the talks.

It was not immediately clear whether North Korea pulled back its submarines and troops after the agreement was announced.


Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Seoul Takes Hard Line as Talks Between Rival Koreas Drag On

Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s president vowed a hard line on Monday as marathon negotiations between senior officials of the two Koreas stretched into a third day in an attempt to defuse a crisis that had the rivals threatening war.

President Park Geun-hye said that without a clear North Korean apology for a land mine attack that maimed two soldiers, the anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts that infuriate the North will continue. Her strong words provide a good hint at why the talks, which started Saturday evening and whose second session began Sunday afternoon and was still continuing more than 28 hours later, have dragged on.

Both sides want to find a face-saving way to avoid an escalation that could lead to bloodshed, especially the North, which is outmatched militarily by Seoul and its ally, the United States.

But authoritarian Pyongyang must also show its people that it is standing up to bitter enemy Seoul. Pyongyang has denied involvement in the land mine explosions and also rejected Seoul’s report that Pyongyang launched an artillery barrage last week — so winning an apology will be difficult work. The North, for its part, demands that Seoul stop the propaganda broadcasts started in retaliation for the land mine attack.

For now, the attempt at diplomacy has pushed aside previous heated warnings of imminent war, but South Korea’s military said North Korea has continued to prepare for a fight, moving unusual numbers of troops and submarines to the border.

These are the highest-level talks between the two Koreas in a year. And just the fact that senior officials from countries that have spent recent days vowing to destroy each other are sitting together at a table in Panmunjom, the border enclave where the 1953 armistice ending fighting in the Korean War was agreed to, is something of a victory.

The length of the talks and the lack of immediate progress are not unusual. While the Koreas often have difficulty agreeing to talks, once they do, overlong sessions are often the rule. After decades of animosity and bloodshed, however, finding common ground is much harder.

President Park said during a meeting with top aides that Seoul would not “stand down even if North Korea ratchets up provocation to its highest level and threatens our national security.”

She said Seoul needs “a definite apology” and a promise that such provocations would not recur.

The decision to hold talks came hours ahead of a Saturday deadline set by North Korea for the South to dismantle the propaganda loudspeakers. North Korea had declared that its front-line troops were in full war readiness and prepared to go to battle if Seoul did not back down.

South Korea said that even as the North was pursuing dialogue, its troops were preparing for battle.

An official from Seoul’s Defense Ministry said about 70 percent of the North’s more than 70 submarines and undersea vehicles had left their bases and were undetectable by the South Korean military as of Saturday. The official, who refused to be named because of official rules, also said the North had doubled the strength of its front-line artillery forces since the start of the talks Saturday evening.

South Korean military officials wouldn’t confirm or deny a Yonhap news agency report, citing unidentified military sources, that said North Korea had moved toward the border about 10 hovercraft used for landings by special operation forces in the event of a war.

The standoff started with the explosions of land mines on the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone between the Koreas that Seoul says were planted by North Korea. In response, the South resumed anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts for the first time in 11 years, infuriating the North, which is extremely sensitive to any criticism of its authoritarian system. Analysts say the North fears that the broadcasts could demoralize its front-line troops and inspire them to defect.

On Thursday, South Korea’s military fired dozens of artillery rounds across the border in response to what Seoul said were North Korean artillery strikes meant to back up an earlier threat to attack the loudspeakers.

A Defense Ministry official said the South continued the anti-Pyongyang broadcasts even after the start of the talks Saturday and also after the second session began Sunday. He said Seoul would decide after the talks whether to halt the broadcasts.

While the meeting offered a way for the rivals to avoid an immediate collision, South Korea probably can’t afford to walk away with a weak agreement after it openly vowed to stem a “vicious cycle” of North Korean provocations amid public anger over the land mines, said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University.

At the meeting, South Korea’s presidential national security director, Kim Kwan-jin, and Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo sat down with Hwang Pyong So, the top political officer for the Korean People’s Army, and Kim Yang Gon, a senior North Korean official responsible for South Korean affairs. Hwang is considered by outside analysts to be North Korea’s second most important official after supreme leader Kim Jong-un.

In Pyongyang, North Korean state media reported that more than 1 million young people have volunteered to join or rejoin the military to defend their country should a conflict break out.

Despite such highly charged rhetoric, which is not particularly unusual, activity in the North’s capital remained calm on Sunday, with people going about their daily routines. Truckloads of soldiers singing martial songs could occasionally be seen driving around the city, and a single minivan with camouflage netting was parked near the main train station.

Associated Press writers Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul and Eric Talmadge in Pyongyang contributed to this report.


Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Featured image via AP Video (screenshot)

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President Park Geun-hye (C, front) visits the headquarters of Third Army in the city of Yongin, just south of Seoul, on Aug. 21, 2015, amid heightened tensions raised by the two Koreas' shelling across the inter-Korean border the previous day, in this photo released by the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae

North Korea Warns of War With South After Artillery Fire

Pictured above: President Park Geun-hye visits the headquarters of Third Army in the city of Yongin, just south of Seoul, on Aug. 21, 2015, amid heightened tensions raised by the two Koreas’ shelling across the inter-Korean border the previous day. (Photo courtesy of the Blue House/Yonhap)

Associated Press

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Friday declared his front-line troops in a “quasi-state of war” and ordered them to prepare for battle a day after the most serious confrontation between the rivals in years.

South Korea’s military on Thursday fired dozens of artillery rounds across the border in response to what Seoul said were North Korean artillery strikes meant to back up a threat to attack loudspeakers broadcasting anti-Pyongyang propaganda.

The spike in tensions prompted the U.S. and South Korea to halt an annual military exercise that began this week, U.S. defense officials said Friday. North Korea had criticized the drills, calling them a preparation for invasion, although the U.S. and South Korea insist they are defensive in nature.

The North’s declaration Friday is similar to its other warlike rhetoric in recent years, including repeated threats to reduce Seoul to a “sea of fire,” and the huge numbers of soldiers and military equipment already stationed along the border mean the area is always essentially in a “quasi-state of war.” Still, the North’s apparent willingness to test Seoul with military strikes and its recent warning of further action raise worries because South Korea has vowed to hit back with overwhelming strength should North Korea attack again.

Pyongyang says it did not fire anything at the South, a claim Seoul dismissed as nonsense.

Kim Jong-un ordered his troops to “enter a wartime state” and be fully ready for any military operations starting Friday evening, according to a report in Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency. The North has also given Seoul a deadline of Saturday evening to remove border loudspeakers that, after a lull of 11 years, have started broadcasting anti-Pyongyang propaganda. Failure, Pyongyang says, will result in further military action. Seoul has vowed to continue the broadcasts.

The North’s media report said that “military commanders were urgently dispatched for operations to attack South Korean psychological warfare facilities if the South doesn’t stop operating them.”

South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, citing an unidentified government source, reported Friday that South Korean and U.S. surveillance assets detected the movement of vehicles carrying short-range Scud and medium-range Rodong missiles in a possible preparation for launches. South Korea’s Defense Ministry said it could not confirm the report.

North Korea said the South Korean shells fired Thursday landed near four military posts but caused no injuries. No one was reported injured in the South, either, though hundreds were evacuated from front-line towns.

The loudspeaker broadcasts began after South Korea accused the North of planting land mines that maimed two South Korean soldiers earlier this month. North Korea denies this, too.

Authoritarian North Korea, which has also restarted its own propaganda broadcasts, is extremely sensitive to any criticism of its government, run by leader Kim Jong Un, whose family has ruled since the North was founded in 1948. The loudspeaker broadcasts are taken seriously in Pyongyang because the government does not want its soldiers and residents to hear outsiders criticize human rights abuses and economic mismanagement that condemns many to abject poverty, South Korean analysts say.

North Korea on Thursday afternoon first fired a single round believed to be from an anti-aircraft gun, which landed near a South Korean border town, Seoul said. About 20 minutes later, three North Korean artillery shells fell on the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas. South Korea responded with dozens of 155-millimeter artillery rounds, according to South Korean defense officials.

South Korea’s military warned Friday that North Korea must refrain from engaging in “rash acts” or face strong punishment, according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry.

South Korea raised its military readiness to its highest level. Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Jeon Ha-kyu told a televised news conference that South Korea is ready to repel any additional provocation.

Escalation is a risk in any military exchange between the Koreas because after two attacks blamed on Pyongyang killed 50 South Koreans in 2010, South Korea’s military warned that any future North Korean attack could trigger strikes by South Korea that are three times as large.

Many in Seoul are accustomed to ignoring or discounting North Korea’s repeated threats, but the latest have caused worry because of Pyongyang’s warning of strikes if the South doesn’t tear down its loudspeakers by Saturday evening. Observers say the North may need some save-facing measure to back down.

See Also: N. Korea Threatens Strikes Over South’s Propaganda Broadcasts

This is what happened in December 2010, when North Korea backed off an earlier warning of catastrophic retaliation after South Korea defiantly went ahead with live-fire drills near the country’s disputed western sea boundary. A month earlier, when South Korea staged similar drills, the North reacted with an artillery bombardment that killed four people on a South Korean border island. North Korea said it didn’t respond to the second drill because South Korea conducted it in a less provocative way, though the South said both drills were the same.

The rivals also were at odds over the annual U.S.-South Korean military drills that began Monday. U.S. defense officials said the exercise has been halted amid the growing tensions with North Korea.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said the U.S. is monitoring the situation. It was unclear whether the exercise, which was scheduled to end next Friday, would resume.

On Friday, residents evacuated in the South Korean town near where the shell fell, Yeoncheon, returned home, officials said. Yonhap reported that a total of about 2,000 residents along the border were evacuated Thursday.

Pyongyang was mostly business as usual Friday morning, although propaganda vans with loudspeakers broadcast the state media line that the country was in a “quasi-state of war” to people in the streets.

North Korean officials held a pair of rare briefings Friday to try to win support for their country’s ultimatum that South Korea stop anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts by Saturday.

Kim Yong-chol, director of the general reconnaissance bureau of the North Korean army, in what was described as an “emergency situation briefing” for diplomats and military attaches in Pyongyang, said all front-line units are on full war readiness. He gave no details on what kind of military retaliation North Korea would consider appropriate “punishment” for the South.

In Beijing, at the North Korean Embassy, Ambassador Ji Jae Ryong told reporters that South Korea’s psychological warfare had “gone beyond the limits of tolerance.”

South Korea has said the two soldiers wounded in the mine explosions were on a routine patrol in the southern part of the DMZ that separates the two Koreas. One soldier lost both legs and the other one leg.

The Koreas’ mine-strewn DMZ is a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula still technically in a state of war. About 28,500 U.S. soldiers are deployed in South Korea to deter potential aggression from North Korea.

Kim reported from Seoul. AP writers Foster Klug in Seoul, Chris Bodeen in Beijing, and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this story.


Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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N. Korea Threatens Strikes Over South’s Propaganda Broadcasts

by FOSTER KLUG, Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Saturday threatened to attack South Korean loudspeakers that are broadcasting anti-Pyongyang propaganda messages across their shared border, the world’s most heavily armed.

The warning follows Pyongyang’s earlier denial that it had planted land mines on the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone that maimed two South Korean soldiers last week. Seoul retaliated for those injuries by restarting the loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts for the first time in 11 years and suggested more actions could follow.

The authoritarian North is extremely sensitive about insults of its leader, Kim Jong Un, and tries to isolate its people from any criticism or suggestions that Kim is anything other than powerful and revered.

North Korea’s army said in a statement that the broadcasts are equivalent to a declaration of war and that a failure to immediately stop them and take down the loudspeakers would result in “an all-out military action of justice to blow up all means for ‘anti-north psychological warfare'” on the front lines.

South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye said that her government will firmly respond to any provocation, and urged Pyongyang to “wake up” from the delusion that it could maintain its government with provocation and threats, which Park claimed would only result in isolation and destruction.

Park said that if the North opts for dialogue and cooperation, it will find opportunities to improve the lives of its people. She also urged the North to accept the South’s proposals for building a “peace park” at the DMZ and for reunions of families separated by the border.

Such bombast from the North isn’t unusual and this is not the first time Pyongyang has threatened to attack its enemies. Seoul is often warned that it will be reduced to a “sea of fire” if it doesn’t do as the North bids, and Washington and Seoul were both threatened with nuclear annihilation in the months after Kim Jong Un took power in late 2011.

Pyongyang’s threats are rarely backed up, although the North did launch an artillery attack in 2010 that killed four South Koreans. Earlier that year, a Seoul-led international investigation blamed a North Korean torpedo for a warship sinking that killed 46 South Koreans.

On Friday, responding to the allegations by Seoul and the U.S.-led U.N. Command that North Korean soldiers buried the land mines, Pyongyang’s powerful National Defense Commission argued that Seoul fabricated the evidence and demanded video proof to support the argument that Pyongyang was responsible. The explosions resulted in one soldier losing both legs and another soldier one leg.

Officials said the mine planting violates the armistice that stopped fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War, which still technically continues because there has never been a formal peace treaty.


Associated Press writers Youkyung Lee and Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Tinder Claims It Has North Koreans Users

by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim

Tinder threw a public tantrum on Twitter earlier this week in response to a Vanity Fair article that criticized the app’s hook-up culture and its users.

In more than 30 tweets, Tinder argued in points of 140-character-or-less for why #GenerationTinder is a thing and why having users in China and North Korea somehow validates its product of “amazing experiences” and “meaningful connections.”

Tinder did release a statement acknowledging the outburst and overreacting. But the big question now is then, are there actually Tinder users in North Korea?

Vox Media is calling bullsh-t. For one, North Korea’s only legal smartphone, called the “Arirang,” is quite incapable of doing much other than running an old, probably crippled version of Android and a few rip-off apps. The hardware probably can’t handle Tinder, let alone run Flappy Bird at the proper frame rate.

Any foreign smart devices smuggled in won’t be able to connect to North Korean cell services or Internet-connected WiFi. Currently, only foreigners are able to access WiFi through their mobile devices by purchasing an overpriced SIM card from North Korean telecommunications company Koryolink. Most North Koreans use foreign devices as storage for (often illegal) content, including music, movies and TV shows.

Lastly, it could just be the foreigners in North Korea who are using Tinder. Chinese tourists, who are allowed to use smartphones, or businesspeople spending time in Pyongyang, might have opened Tinder out of curiosity or boredom. That might explain why Tinder was receiving location pings from the area. It could also have been Dennis Rodman.

In any case, the best thing about this has been the memes, especially ones showcasing Kim Jong-un on Tinder. Thank you, Internet.


Feature image via Run of the Web

FILE - In this Aug. 29, 2011, photo, a North Korean waitress walks through a door under a clock with Chinese emblems at a restaurant in Rason city in North Korea. North Korea said Friday, Aug. 7, 2015, that it will establish its own time zone next week by pulling back its current standard time by 30 minutes. Local time in North and South Korea and Japan is the same — nine hours ahead of GMT. It was set during Japan's rule over what was single Korea from 1910 to 1945. The establishment of "Pyongyang time" is meant to root out the legacy of the Japanese colonial period, the North's official Korean Central News Agency said. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)

North Korea Creates Its Own Time Zone to Snub Japan

Pictured above: A North Korean waitress walks through a door under a clock with Chinese emblems at a restaurant in Rason city in North Korea. North Korea said Friday, Aug. 7, 2015, that it will establish its own time zone next week by pulling back its current standard time by 30 minutes. (Photo courtesy of Ng Han Guan/AP Photo)

by HYUNG-JIN KIM, Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea has no time for Japan. Not anymore, at least.

The country will establish its own time zone next week by pulling back by 30 minutes its current standard time, a legacy of the Japanese colonial rule.

The new time zone will take effect Aug. 15 — the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese rule at the end of World War II, North Korea’s official Central News Agency said Friday. The establishment of “Pyongyang time” will root out that legacy, it said.

Local time in North and South Korea and Japan is the same — nine hours ahead of GMT. It was set during Japan’s rule over what was single Korea from 1910 to 1945.

“The wicked Japanese imperialists committed such unpardonable crimes as depriving Korea of even its standard time while mercilessly trampling down its land with 5,000-year-long history and culture and pursuing the unheard-of policy of obliterating the Korean nation,” the KCNA dispatch said.

The North’s move appears to be aimed at bolstering the leadership of young leader Kim Jong Un with anti-Japan, nationalistic sentiments, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. Kim took power upon the death of his dictator father, Kim Jong Il, in late 2011.

Many Koreans, especially the elderly, on both sides of the border still harbor deep resentment against Japan over its colonial occupation. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans were forced to fight as front-line soldiers, work in slave-labor conditions or serve as prostitutes in brothels operated by the Japanese military during the war.

South Korea says it uses the same time zone as Japan because it’s more practical and conforms to international practice.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry said Friday that the North’s action could bring minor disruption at a jointly-run industrial park at the North Korean border city of Kaesong and other inter-Korean affairs. Spokesman Jeong Joon-Hee said the North’s new time zone could also hamper efforts to narrow widening differences between the Koreas.

The two Koreas were divided into the capitalist, U.S.-backed South and the socialist, Soviet-supported North after their 1945 liberation. They remain split along the world’s most heavily fortified border since their 1950-1953 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

Most time zones in the world differ in increments of an hour and only a small number of countries like India, Iran and Myanmar use zones that are offset by a half-hour. Nepal is offset by 45 minutes.

The time zone that North Korea plans to use is what a single Korea adopted in 1908, though the peninsula came under the same Japanese zone in 1912, two years after Tokyo’s colonial occupation began. After the liberation, North Korea has maintained the current time zone, while South Korea had briefly used the old zone from 1954 to 1961.


Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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