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How a series of strategic mistakes have forced Kim Jong Un into a corner, By Andrei Lankov

How a series of strategic mistakes have forced Kim Jong Un into a corner
After years alienating China, North Korea might soon have no choice but to cave in to the U.S.

The North Korean leadership has in recent weeks found itself in an extremely uncomfortable, and potentially risky, situation. In the aftermath of the failed Hanoi summit, prospects for future negotiations with the United States do not look good.

Even if negotiations resume, it seems that the United States is unlikely to give North Korea the type of concessions Kim Jong Un and his advisors expect. And while international sanctions have failed to produce any kind of crisis inside North Korea so far, they still make a resumption of the kind of economic growth which the country saw in the first years of Kim Jong Un’s rule impossible.

The young leader knows well, of course, that his only chance at staying in power in the long-term is economic recovery. With this in mind it’s clear that, for the time being, the diplomatic strategy that the North Korean government has followed in recent years has been unsuccessful. A few words of caution are necessary here. As an ancient Georgian poet noted, after all: “everyone considers themselves a great strategist when he sees a battlefield from afar.”

Decisions in foreign policy (like decisions in business, warfare, and many other areas) are made when the people in charge don’t have access to all necessary information and have to rely on what is known at the time of the decision making.

Historians, armed with the wisdom of hindsight, necessarily find themselves in a privileged position, and as such should not be excessively harsh in their judgement.

We have seen countless time how disastrous consequences were brought about by decisions which looked perfectly reasonable. On top of that, one should not be excessively critical about the North Korean diplomats who, for decades, have shown remarkable skills in playing an extremely difficult game.Nonetheless, nobody is safe from mistakes — and North Korean strategists are no exception.

So, what went wrong for North Korean foreign policy in the last eight years (if judged from the point of view of the Kim family’s long term interests, of course)?

The first mistake was alienating China – or, perhaps, the lack of efforts to woo China.

The last years of Kim Jong Il’s rule were marked by a significant improvement of relations with Beijing. For a brief while, this continued under Kim Jong Un, but things quickly took a dramatic turn for the worse. Throughout the 2013-2016 period, the North Koreans kept their distance from China. It’s telling that it took a major international emergency — the seemingly real threat of a U.S. military strike — to get Kim Jong Un to finally visit China in March 2018.

Furthermore, under Kim Jong Un the North Koreans were frequently provocative towards China. They confiscated a large Chinese iron ore mine, they intercepted Chinese fishing boats, they harassed and arrested hwagyo, the Chinese citizens who have North Korean permanent residence rights.

When Kim Jong Un’s uncle and his erstwhile close advisor, Jang Song Thaek, was arrested and almost immediately executed in 2013, the openly published indictment claimed that the fallen dignitary had been excessively soft on China (euphemistically referred to as ‘a large country’).

A living example of these uneasy relations is a large bridge which was supposed to connect the Chinese city of Dandong with the North Korean city of Sinuiju.

The new bridge, built to replace the old and increasingly dysfunctional 1944 bridge, was basically completed in 2014, but never opened. It was the Chinese who built the bridge, but it was left to the North Koreans just connect its southern (that is, Korean) end with the road network. But they have refused to do so, so the unused bridge ends abruptly in the middle of a paddy field.

Such a policy might have some explanations. For example, there are good reasons to believe that the Chinese leaders favored two other members of the Kim family – Jang Song Thaek and Kim Jong Nam — over Kim Jong Un (both ended up being killed on the young leader’s orders). It seems possible that Kim Jong Un, too, has held an arrogant and hostile attitude to China since his school days in Europe. One thing is clear: in 2011-2016 North Korea, in spite of its steadily growing economic dependence on China, did a lot to annoy Beijing.

This policy, predictably, backfired. When, between 2016-17, U.S. diplomats at the UN Security Council suggested new and unprecedentedly harsh sanctions against North Korea, Chinese representatives, contrary to what most people expected, eagerly accepted the proposal.

They did not try to water the sanctions down and, in some cases, even pressed the otherwise reluctant Russians to support the toughest sanctions ever. As a result, the ‘sectoral sanctions’ introduced between February 2016 and December 2017 put North Korea into a position akin to a full-scale economic blockade.

In early 2018, the North Korean government likely realized that it had gone too far and began to work hard to woo China back. The trade war between China and the United States made their task a lot easier. However, in many regards, it was too late.

The sanctions introduced by the UN Security Council will be very difficult to lift. Once a decision is accepted by all five permanent member states, it can be removed only if all them agree to it.

Given the tough American position on the issue, the removal of sanctions looks highly unlikely. In the UN Security Council it does not matter what the Chinese and Russians say – only the unanimous actions of the five great powers make a difference.

Another mistake by the North Korean leaders was their decision to proceed with developing their ICBM capabilities at a time when the White House had a new and rather unusual tenant.

There is little doubt that North Koreans have always wanted to possess a delivery system capable of striking the continental United States — and the significant technological breakthroughs of the Kim Jong Un era made this possible much faster than most outside observers expected. However, this success backfired.

In 2017, the North Koreans discovered that they were facing a President who was willing to consider a preemptive strike against them, with little regard for a possible retaliation against targets in the South.

Rightly or wrongly, Donald Trump was seen as a President who could not be deterred by concerns about the fate of U.S. allies. It was under the tenure of such a President, then, when the North Koreans decided to demonstrate their crown achievement – the workable ICBM program.

Predictably, the successful ICBM tests in 2017 triggered an unprecedented response from Donald Trump, which, together with Chinese reluctance to raise a finger to protect Pyongyang, resulted in the emergence of the present-day sanctions regime.

There might have been another, less significant, mistake made by the North Koreans. Perhaps influenced by the massive anti-Trump slant of the mainstream American media, they underestimated the U.S. President. It appears that they expected that Trump would be willing to accept their proposal – that is, to surrender almost all of the sanctions regime in exchange for a very partial surrender of North Korea’s nuclear production capabilities.

This did not work out — and now North Korea’s decision-makers are facing an extremely dangerous and bumpy ride ahead.

Personally, having studied the country for 35 years, I strongly suspect that the North Korean government and its diplomats will find a  solution and will jump out of this trap. However, at the time of writing, it appears that they are locked in an unfavorable situation. Unfortunately for them, it is, to a large extent, of their own making.

North Korea wraps up renovations at Pyongyang’s Yanggakdo Hotel, By Oliver Hotham

North Korea wraps up renovations at Pyongyang’s Yanggakdo Hotel
Hotel reopens ahead of this weekend’s marathon, April 15 “Day of the Sun” holiday

Pyongyang’s Yanggakdo Hotel this week reopened for business following several months of renovations, photos posted online by the Koryo Tours travel company showed on Friday.

The renovations, unveiled days before the city is set to host the annual Pyongyang Marathon and ahead of the April 15 “Day of the Sun” holiday, have seen the hotel upgrade much of its front lobby as well as several of its bars and cafes. “Basically everything in the lobby is still where it was; cloakroom, bar, telecoms centre, etc but it’s all been resurfaced and made shiny and new,” Koryo Tours General Manager Simon Cockerell told NK News.

“The main change is the bar which is much more open now, with the barriers between booths taken down,” he said. “So on busy nights it could get a bit noisier and hard to have a quiet conversation in there.” The work represents the first major overhaul of the Yanggakdo lobby since the hotel opened in 1996, he added. “The bar was redone around 12 years go, the coffee shop in the lobby added, but nothing on this scale.” Its reopening this week coincides with major upgrades to the hotel’s casino – now reportedly “back and operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week” following an extended closure.

Those upgrades include a sporadic WiFi service allowing online money transfers via two well-known Chinese platforms, NK News reported late last year.

Open access to Wi-Fi is extremely rare in Pyongyang, though a commercially accessible wireless internet access point was reportedly installed at the capital’s Potonggang hotel sometime in early fall.

Describing the upgrade as taking “from classic 1990’s to futuristic Ashgabat airport Turkmen modern chic,” Koryo Tours compared this week’s upgrade as comparable to similar renovations undertaken at the nearby Koryo Hotel in 2017.  Alongside the Koryo Hotel, the Yanggakdo serves as one of the North Korean capital’s busiest hubs for foreign visitors to the country – often hosting friendship delegations and international press during major public holidays.

Despite the major overhaul of much of the first floor of the hotel, however, most of the Yanggakdo’s facility has gone unchanged, Koryo wrote.“For those fans of the Yanggakdo’s original decor, much remains the same beyond the hotel lobby.” After its lobby renovations, the Koryo Hotel also lacked any changes to the rooms guests stay in.

No Chinese fuel exports to North Korea since 2017, Beijing’s trade data suggests, By Leo Byrne

No Chinese fuel exports to North Korea since 2017, Beijing's trade data suggests
Russia, Pongwha facility now DPRK’s only official sources of refined fuels: data

Chinese refined oil product exports to North Korea haven’t included fuels like gasoline and diesel for over a year, analysis of Beijing’s customs data shows. If accurate, the numbers represent an apparently unannounced fuel cut off that has run from mid-2017 until the start of this year — at least in theory.


“A new path” of socialist construction: North Korean street propaganda in March, By Oliver Hotham

DPRK continues to push heavy focus on the economy in street-level messaging, photos suggest

Street-level propaganda in North Korea last month continued the heavy focus on the economy seen late last year, images obtained by NK Pro showed this week. In messaging seen both in the capital city of Pyongyang and in rural areas, posters and slogans on North Korean streets and roads called on citizens to “thoroughly implement”.


This week on the podcast:

Open for business? Law and litigation in North Korea – Ep.65

Open for business? Law and litigation in North Korea – NKNews Podcast Ep.65

Michael Hay discusses his time running a law firm in Pyongyang — and prospects for the future

Contrary to conventional wisdom, there is such a thing as rule of law in North Korea, with lawyers, litigation, mitigation, and other familiar proceedings.

In fact, Mike Hay argues that the North takes law very seriously when it comes to foreign businesses operating in country in order to create more hospitable environment for foreign investment.

This week on the podcast, we sat down with Mike about his law practice in Pyongyang, his years living in the country, and why he is optimistic about the future in North Korea.

Mike Hay is a lawyer who, in 2004, moved to Pyongyang to start the country’s first and only international law firm. He now heads the DPRK team at HMP Law in Seoul.

About the podcast: The “North Korea News Podcast” is a weekly podcast hosted exclusively by NK News, covering all things DPRK: from news to extended interview with leading experts and analysts in the field and insight from our very own journalists.

Top MHI-NK Stories from around the web:

S. Korea shares information on eastern fire with N. Korea (Yonhap News)

Hasil gambar untuk (2nd LD) S. Korea shares information on eastern fire with N. Korea

South Korea on Friday shared information with the North about a devastating forest fire that engulfed the country’s northeastern regions near the inter-Korean border and conveyed the need for possible cooperation, the unification ministry said.

The fire, which broke out in Goseong, 160 kilometers northeast of Seoul, on Thursday, spread quickly to neighboring areas, leaving one dead and thousands displaced. President Moon Jae-in earlier ordered officials to work with the North to put out the fire if it spreads across the border.

On Friday, the South delivered a document about the fire to the North at their liaison office in the North’s border town of Kaesong, the ministry said. The document contained detailed information about the fire and the possible need for inter-Korean cooperation, officials said. “We will consider having further consultations with the North depending on the situation,” Lee Eugene, the ministry’s deputy spokeswoman, said at a regular briefing earlier in the day.

The South Korean government declared a state of national disaster over the fire as the damage has been piling up to what authorities have described as “an unprecedented extent.”

North Korean state media also reported on fires that broke out in South Korea this week. Citing South Korea’s public broadcaster KBS television, the North’s Korean Central News Agency said that a series of forest fires broke out in regions of Gangwon Province and North Gyeongsang Province along the east coast on Wednesday.

Moon Jae-in Is The Grown-Up at the Table (Foreign Policy)

South Korean President Moon Jae-in talks on the phone with U.S. President Donald Trump at the presidential Blue House on February 28, 2019 in Seoul. (Photo by South Korean Presidential Blue House via Getty Images)

Stuck between Trump and Kim, the South Korean president is still showing the way forward. “Inter-Korean economic projects represent a compromise that both the United States and North Korea can accept. As a result of the Hanoi summit, North Korea is now aware that across-the-board economic sanctions relief in exchange for Yongbyon dismantlement is out of reach…”

Yet on meeting with Trump in Hanoi, Kim made the same demand with no fallback position. It’s not clear why. Perhaps Kim thought he could pull a fast one by Trump, or the Pyongyang brain trust was drinking its own Kool-Aid as to the value of the Yongbyon nuclear facility, an aging complex that would likely have to be scuttled soon at any rate.

The United States did better—but not by much. Leading up to the summit, many observers were optimistic that the Trump administration had finally come around to the view of most nonproliferation experts: that denuclearization of North Korea would be a long and complex processthat may last more than a decade. In a speech given at Stanford University on Jan. 31, the U.S. special representative to North Korea, Stephen Biegun, dismissed this strategy, which he characterized as “you do everything first and then we’ll begin to think about whether or not we’re going to do anything in response.”

Trump also gave similar signals, repeatedly saying, when it comes to North Korea’s denuclearization, “Speed is not important to me” and “I’m in no rush.” Yet once in Hanoi, Trump—with a helping hand from his hawkish national security advisor, John Bolton—reverted to form. At one point, Trump demanded that North Korea transfer all nuclear weapons and fissile materials to the United States and abandon chemical and biological weapons as well. Such a demand for North Korea’s unilateral disarmament was precisely what Biegun had dismissed in his Stanford speech less than a month before the summit. It was not a negotiation but a call for surrender.

The Hanoi summit was not a total failure, since it at least clarified the parameters of what is being offered and the asking price of each party. The summit also showed a deal was within reach, putting to bed the persistent claim in Washington foreign-policy circles that no deal with North Korea can be possible. In the post-summit press conference, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho stated the negotiation came down to “one more step” that the U.S. delegates demanded in addition to the demolition of the Yongbyon facility. In an interview given in Russia, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui claimed that Trump was willing to consider sanctions relief on a “snapback” basis, making the relief reversible if North Korea did not make progress in denuclearization. It appears that, despite the initial maximalist stances, the two countries managed to narrow the gap but could not quite overcome the difference in the initial asking prices.

Here, Moon’s plan could mediate the sticker shock. He laid out his approach in a speech he gave in Berlin in July 2017: first build a “peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula by improving North Korea’s relationship with South Korea and the United States and then pursue step-by-step denuclearization as trust is cultivated among the parties. Joint inter-Korean economic projects are a key mechanism for the parties to build trust, along with cultural exchanges and regular meetings of separated families.

The inter-Korean projects include the Kaesong Industrial Complex, tourism at Mount Kumgang, and an inter-Korean railway. As the two Koreas form an economic relationship, the repeated interactions arising from such a relationship would gradually lead to a measure of trust between the two countries. In addition, the inter-Korean economic relationship would pry North Korea away from economic dependence on China, decreasing Beijing’s leverage over Pyongyang.

Inter-Korean economic projects represent a compromise that both the United States and North Korea can accept. As a result of the Hanoi summit, North Korea is now aware that across-the-board economic sanctions relief in exchange for Yongbyon dismantlement is out of reach. Inter-Korean projects, then, are the next best option and actually possible. The United States need not lift sanctions wholesale to have the inter-Korean projects progress. It merely needs to grant sanctions exemptions to those projects, allowing the sanctions to take effect once again if North Korea does not follow through with its promised denuclearization steps.

N. Korea joins U.N. Convention on Contracts for International Sales of Goods (Yonhap News)

N. Korea joins U.N. Convention on Contracts for International Sales of Goods - 1

North Korea has joined the U.N. Convention on Contracts for International Sales of Goods (CISG), a U.N. commission said, an unusual move for the isolated nation whose trade with the outside world is significantly restricted by sanctions.

With the accession, North Korea become the 90th state party to the convention, the U.N. Commission on International Trade Law said in a statement Tuesday. The convention provides a standard set of rights and obligations for buyers and sellers, including dispute settlement options.

The convention will enter into force for North Korea in April 2020.

“The CISG provides an equitable and modern uniform framework for the contract of sale, which is the backbone of international trade in all countries,” the commission said.

The intention of the North’s accession to the convention, however, remains to be seen as the reclusive regime is effectively excluded from the international trade system due to multilayered sanctions imposed on the country over its nuclear and missile programs.

Trump should trust his instincts, not Bolton’s, on North Korea (LA Times)

Trump should trust his instincts, not Bolton’s, on North Korea

Much progress can be made in next week’s U.S.-DPRK summit if Trump can drop the “all or nothing” approach, writes Carlin. “Undoubtedly, the initial North Korean offer in Hanoi to trade Yongbyon for sanctions relief was vague and unacceptable to the United States….”

Shortly before the February U.S.-North Korea summit collapsed, President Trump handed Kim Jong Un a piece of paper. It contained, national security advisor John Bolton pointed out on the Sunday talk shows a few days later, the outline of the “big deal” on denuclearization.

Thanks to a March 29 Reuters report, we now know more precisely what the president delivered on that paper in Hanoi. It was, in part, a rehash of a “Libya model” — Bolton’s flawed recipe for total, quick surrender by a nuclear state.

Among other things, the plan insists on access by U.S. inspectors to the North’s nuclear-related facilities; a halt to all construction or activities related to chemical, biological and nuclear weapons; and transfer of all nuclear material to the United States (which for technical reasons is totally zany if it means physically transporting nuclear weapons).

By and large, this is how the U.S. will want things to be at the end of negotiations, and the North Koreans already know it. The issue during the Hanoi summit, however, was not to confront the North with our preferred final outcomes, but to get the process moving in that direction. At the historic June 2018 Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, the president had pragmatically laid aside Bolton’s all-or-nothing Libya model in favor of a more feasible approach. He’d have been better off to continue that approach in Hanoi. Yet, suddenly the Libya model was back.

The Libya model — so called because it reflects Bolton’s perception that Moammar Kadafi gave up Libya’s nascent nuclear program in one fell swoop — suffers from circular logic. It assumes a country has made a final, strategic decision to abandon its nuclear program and thus is prepared to dismantle everything and ship it out. If the country will not do those things, then it must not have made such a decision and, most likely, never will. For the North Koreans, it isn’t really diplomacy; it is simply a call for their surrender. And when they saw it reappear in Hanoi, they began to worry that it meant a repeat of October 2002, when Bolton led the charge to scrap the 1994 U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework.

We already know this tactic doesn’t work with Pyongyang, which is cautious in the extreme and, not surprisingly, may still be weighing how far to go in giving up nuclear weapons. And yet the president was advised to forgo North Korea’s offer to take a first step — dismantling Yongbyon, the center of its nuclear weapons program — and instead go for the “big deal.”

This was the same sort of bad advice that Bolton and others gave to President George W. Bush. That approach led North Korea to restart its plutonium program, which had been frozen for eight years, and build the bomb. Abandoning diplomacy again under the tattered flag of “the big deal or nothing” will have only one result: a North Korea armed with even more nuclear weapons.

Undoubtedly, the initial North Korean offer in Hanoi to trade Yongbyon for sanctions relief was vague and unacceptable to the United States. There was a need for probing, discovery, refinement and counterproposal, if not in the limited time available in Hanoi, then later. The paper Bolton has touted, however, was not a counterproposal. Nor a good chess move. It was, to paraphrase Bolton circa 2002, a hammer to smash a negotiating process he did not like. Worse, now as then, there is no practical Plan B for when it fails, just a near-religious belief in the efficacy of “pressure.”

Are we prepared for what happens if the North restarts weapons and missile tests at its 2017 pace, allowing it to achieve the ability to strike the U.S. with missiles capped with nuclear warheads?

Next week, when President Moon Jae-in of South Korea arrives in Washington, there’s a chance to regain traction on negotiations with North Korea if he and Trump can harness each other’s pragmatic experience in dealing with Kim and drop the all or nothing approaches.

President Trump was on the right track in Singapore last year; he appeared to be on the right track in going to Hanoi in February. His instincts on engaging the North Koreans have proven to be sound. Following them, we began digging ourselves out from under 17 years of delusion about how to deal with North Korea until the reappearance of Bolton’s Libya model put us back in the hole.

A month after Hanoi summit, Vietnam starts deporting North Korean refugees (Washington Post)

Hasil gambar untuk A month after Hanoi summit, Vietnam starts deporting North Korean refugees

Trust a month after hosting a summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Vietnam has deported three North Korean refugees, sending them home via China to an uncertain future in their homeland.

The deportations mark a worrying new development for fleeing North Koreans, who previously had been safe if they managed to evade capture in China and reach a third country.

The deportations could also be an indication of North Korea’s growing diplomatic clout and lessening isolation since Kim stepped onto the global stage over the past year.

“I am worried that Kim Jong Un’s diplomatic engagement with Vietnam could have influenced them to deport North Korean refugees,” said Sokeel Park, South Korea director for a group called Liberty in North Korea, which helps North Korean refugees cross borders and adjust to life in the South.

Hasil gambar untuk A month after Hanoi summit, Vietnam starts deporting North Korean refugees

But refugee groups also blamed South Korea’s government, amid reports it failed to respond promptly to a request to help the refugees after they were arrested in Vietnam. North Korean refugees in South Korea accuse the Seoul government of putting ties with Pyongyang ahead of human rights issues.

Aid workers told South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper that the South Korean Foreign Ministry failed to respond to a request to assist the refugees, a claim the ministry denied.

Three North Koreans who fled their country via China were arrested in the Vietnamese town of Ha Tinh on Monday, according to Chosun Ilbo. Aid workers who were assisting the refugees reached out to the South Korean Embassy in Vietnam and were told to contact Seoul’s Foreign Ministry directly.

The ministry repeatedly told them to wait, but no assistance was provided before the refugees were sent to China on Wednesday, the aid workers told Chosun Ilbo. China views North Korean defectors as illegal economic migrants and repatriates them to their home country, where they face severe punishment.

The Foreign Ministry in Seoul denied the report, saying in a statement that the ministry “immediately got in contact with the local authorities and took a stand against forcible repatriation to North Korea.” The ministry declined to comment on the safety and whereabouts of the refugees.

Han Jin-myung, a North Korean diplomat who served in Vietnam before defecting to South Korea in 2015, said the government in Seoul should have acted more quickly.

“Vietnam is in a tricky position, politically close to North Korea, and economically close to South Korea. Only the Seoul government can take the initiative to rescue those refugees,” he said. “Vietnam couldn’t have deported them if South Koreans promptly stepped in. It is irresponsible for the Seoul government to have let this happen.”

Vietnam has been one of Southeast Asian countries that provide safe haven for North Korean escapees, helping them reach South Korea.

“Once North Korean refugees make it through China, then they are normally safe,” said Park of Liberty in North Korea. “The fact that they were repatriated from Vietnam, after all that, is really concerning. . . . We don’t want this to set a precedent.”

The number of North Koreans coming annually to the South has dropped by half since Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011. South Korean lawmakers attribute the decline number to tighter border controls and China’s repatriation of refugees to North Korea.

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