Russia and North Korea have discussed establishing a bilateral visa-free regime, Far East Development Minister Alexander Galushka said, news agency Interfax reported on Tuesday. The issue of "transitioning to a visa-free regime between Russia and North Korea" was discussed during a recent trip to North Korea, Galushka was quoted as saying.
Russia under President Vladimir Putin has sporadically courted North Korea, which was heavily backed by the Soviet Union. Russia hopes to gain direct access to South Korean markets via a railway and natural gas pipeline, while simultaneously ensuring Russia's diplomatic relevance in the region by positioning itself as a rational voice in Pyongyang's ear.
These efforts have been accelerated as Moscow's relations with the West crumble amid the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and sanctions intended to punish Russia for its involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The topic of easing visa restrictions for Russian businesspeople seeking to do business in North Korea was broached by Galushka and North Korean officials as part of a meeting of an intergovernmental commission in June in Vladivostok. The two countries hope to raise the level of interstate trade to $1 billion annually by 2020.
Galushka on Tuesday could not specify a timeframe for how long the decision on a visa-free regime might take, but warned that the abolishment of visa restrictions between Russia and North Korea "will not happen instantaneously," the Vedomosti newspaper reported.
Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller have been allowed to leave North Korea "and are on their way home," the U.S. government announced Saturday, leaving no more Americans detained in the reclusive East Asian nation. The pair were released after a rare, last-second trip by a top American official -- U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper -- to Pyongyang as an envoy of President Barack Obama, a senior State Department official told CNN.
Clapper delivered a letter from Obama, addressed to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, describing Clapper as "his personal envoy" to bring the Americans home, a senior administration official told CNN on Saturday. The letter was "short and to the point," the official said. Clapper did not meet with Kim. Clapper had no guarantee he would bring the Americans home, a senior State Department official told CNN. China assisted in the monthslong process of arranging the release, the official said.
In a statement Saturday, Clapper's office said the U.S. government is facilitating the two men's return home, though it was not immediately clear when they would arrive back in the United States. Bae's sister Terri Chung told CNN that her family spent Saturday morning shedding happy tears and spreading the good news among relatives and friends. "Words cannot adequately express our relief and gratitude that Kenneth is finally coming home!" the family added later in a full statement. "We have been waiting for and praying for this day for two years. This ordeal has been excruciating for the family, but we are filled with joy right now."
Kenneth Bae arrived home after years of imprisonment in North Korea, expressing his gratitude to the U.S. government for securing his release and revealing that his time there offered lessons. And his sister said he had one stipulation for his first meal back home: No Korean food. "He said, 'I don't want Korean food, that's all I've been eating for the last two years,'" Terri Chung said Sunday outside her Seattle church. "We had a late night eating pizza."
Bae and Matthew Miller, another American who had been held captive in North Korea, landed Saturday night at a Washington state military base after a top U.S. intelligence official secured their release. "It's been an amazing two years, I learned a lot, I grew a lot, I lost a lot of weight," Bae, a Korean-American missionary with health problems, said at Joint Base-Lewis-McChord Saturday night. Asked how he was feeling, he said, "I'm recovering at this time."
Bae, surrounded by family members, spoke briefly to the media after the plane carrying him and Miller landed. He thanked President Barack Obama and the people who supported him and his family. He also thanked the North Korean government for releasing him. "I just want to say thank you all for supporting me and standing by me," Bae said. His family has said he suffers from diabetes, an enlarged heart, liver problems and back pain. Chung said Bae was in better shape when he arrived than his family expected. She said he had spent about six weeks in a North Korean hospital before he returned. "That helped. As you know, he had gone back and forth between the labor camp and hospital," she said.
The decision by a U.N. General Assembly committee to condemn North Korea for crimes against humanity this week is historic. It could well lead to the North Korean leadership facing trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), forcing them to confront the numerous accusations made against their isolated regime.
The lengthy Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea identified six groups of victims against whom North Korea had committed crimes against humanity. We explain them below.
1. Inmates of political prison camps.
North Korea denies they exist, but its political prison camps have become notorious around the world in the past few years and accounts of the camps from survivors formed one of the key parts of the committee's report.
While the country has downsized to just four sites in recent years, the committee still estimated there are between 80,000-120,000 people still in the camps, most of whom are never due for release. The system is modeled on the Soviet Union's infamous "Gulag" system, though the United Nations notes "many features of the DPRK camps are even harsher than what could be found in the Gulag camps."
2. Inmates of the ordinary prison system, in particular political prisoners among them.
While the regular prison system isn't quite as bad as the political system, it's still horrific by any standard we know. The report notes that many of the inmates are imprisoned without trial or without any kind of due process. The committee notes that the conditions inside the ordinary prison system can still be so bad that people die:
A former female inmate of Ordinary Prison Camp (kyohwaso) No. 11 at Cheungson described how she was held with 40 to 50 inmates in a cell of approximately 40 square metres in the female section. People could not lie down straight and fights about space were frequent. In winter, it was extremely cold in the cellblock. Inmates could only wash themselves once a month, and everyone had lice. Every month, at least two people from her cell died.
3. Religious believers and others considered to introduce subversive influences.
The U.N. committee's report states that religious North Koreans, in particular Christians, face persecution from the state. While the North Korean state points to a number of state-sanctioned churches as proof of religious tolerance, the committee found that ordinary citizens are not allowed to practice Christianity and that it was treated as a political crime. "It has been compared to a drug, narcotics, a sin, and a tool of Western and capitalist invasion. Christian missionaries are portrayed as the product of USA capitalism and work akin to vampirism," the report notes.
The report notes that there are indications of a "genocide against religious groups, specifically Christians, in particular in the 1950s and 1960s." However, the committee found that it would be impossible to research this possibility without access to North Korean archives.
4. Persons who try to flee the country.
The committee's report found that, in practice, most North Korean citizens are subject to a blanket travel ban. If they break this ban, they risk extreme violence and harsh punishment. Despite this, many do try to flee the country, crossing illegally over to China. The committee noted that guards at the border may operate with a "shoot to kill" policy, and that North Korea's security services have also been accused of traveling into China to abduct North Korean citizens who have made it across.
The report also notes that repatriated citizens are often tortured and kept in inhumane conditions when they return. There have even been cases where pregnant women have been forced to undergo abortions and new-born babies were killed, the committee found.
5. Starving populations.
One of the reasons that people would risk their lives to leave North Korea is simple: They can't get enough food. While food shortages have gotten better since the the mass starvation of the 1990s, which may have led to the death of as many as 2.5 million people, the committee found that starvation was still a major issue in the country. The report sites data from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations that estimated that between 2011 and 2013, 30.9 percent of the population suffered from malnutrition. The report also noted is that what food there was often distributed for political reasons.
6. Persons from other countries who became victims of international abductions and enforced disappearances.
One of the most incredible crimes described by the U.N. committee's report is the practice of abducting foreign nationals, a practice that has its roots in the Korean War but has extended into recent years. In 2002, then-leader Kim Jong Il admitted that his country had also abducted Japanese nationals and taken them to North Korea in the 1970s and '80s. Kim expressed regret for the action, which served espionage and terrorism functions. The U.N. report describes how people were taken:
Kidnappings of nationals on land in Japan mostly occurred in the countryside, near the coast. Agents approach Japan by sea, and landed onshore. Women walking alone were often targeted for the ease at which they could be overcome. The former official cited various methods used to overcome victims. These included surrounding the victims, choking them and/ or tying a bandage soaking in anaesthetic over their mouths before putting them in a sack for transportion to the boat.
North Korea released a statement Sunday that clearly relished a cyberattack on Sony Pictures, which is producing an upcoming film that depicts an assassination plot against Pyongyang’s supreme leader. While denying responsibility for an attack last week that disrupted Sony’s computer system and spewed confidential information onto the Internet, an unidentified spokesman for the North’s powerful National Defense Commission acknowledged that it “might be a righteous deed of the supporters and sympathizers” of the North’s call for the world to turn out in a “just struggle” against U.S. imperialism.
“We do not know where in America the Sony Pictures is situated and for what wrongdoings it became the target of the attack, nor (do) we feel the need to know about it,” the statement carried in state media said. “But what we clearly know is that the Sony Pictures is the very one which was going to produce a film abetting a terrorist act while hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership of” North Korea.
North Korea has built a cult of personality around the Kim family, which has ruled for three generations, and sees any outside criticism or mockery of its leader as an attack on its sovereignty. It recently opened fire on anti-Pyongyang propaganda balloons that North Korean defectors in the South were floating across the border into the North. The Sony movie in question, “The Interview,” is a comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, and its plot concerns an attempt on the life of leader Kim Jong Un.
Some cybersecurity experts say they’ve found striking similarities between the code used in the hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment and attacks blamed on North Korea that targeted South Korean companies and government agencies last year. Experts are divided, however, over the likelihood that North Korea or independent hackers were involved.