Dear Leader
July 3, 2015

A North Korean biological weapons scientist has reportedly defected to Finland, taking with him 15 gigabytes of data detailing experiments on humans.

The 47-year-old — identified only by his surname Lee — fled a research facility near North Korea's border with China in June, The Independent reports. Citing a humans rights group, South Korean newspaper Yonhap says he plans to present his data to the EU in July. There is reason for caution, however: Neither his defection nor his planned presentation have been confirmed by European authorities.

Greg Scarlatoiun, director of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, reportedly told a Finnish newspaper that the story is at least plausible.

"We have been told similar stories in the past that human experiments are carried out in prison camps," he said, adding that the experiments in question likely involved chemical weapons. Nico Lauricella

January 28, 2015

Russian officials announced Wednesday that Kim Jong Un will make his first official visit to Russia in May. He will attend a commemorative ceremony in Moscow to mark the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory in World War II.

South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported the news, adding that the Kremlin had invited Kim Jong Un, along with 20 other "state leaders," to attend the ceremony.

The Kremlin stated that "North Korea's leader" would attend the event, and while most people took that to mean Kim Jong Un would visit, South Korean officials told the Yonhap News Agency that the phrase could also refer to Kim Yong-nam, the nominal head of state for foreign relations. Meghan DeMaria

December 10, 2014

North Korea is hoping to score some easy points at the U.N. off the CIA's torture program.

On Wednesday, a foreign ministry spokesperson for North Korea requested that the U.N. censure the U.S., The Telegraph reports. In an editorial published in the state's news service KCNA, North Korea also accused the U.N. Security Council of "turning its face from the inhuman torture practiced by the CIA." If the U.N. was "shutting its eyes to the serious human rights issue in the U.S.," it was only showing itself as a "tool for U.S. arbitrary practices," the editorial said.

There's obvious political maneuvering going on here. Pyongyang is reportedly growing increasingly concerned that it will be punished by the U.N. for its voluminous record of human rights abuses; it's evidently hoping to turn the U.S. Senate report on CIA torture into a veritable get-out-of-jail-free card.
Nico Lauricella

November 19, 2014

A United Nations human rights committee on Tuesday passed a resolution recommending that North Korea's leaders be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. The resolution was based on a February report describing decades of executions, torture, rape, and mass starvation. North Korea denies the atrocities, saying the accusations were cooked up to smear its leaders. China, a key Pyongyang ally, could veto the resolution when it reaches the Security Council. Harold Maass

October 28, 2014

Another week, another undersourced news item about life in the Hermit Kingdom.

South Korea's National Intelligence Service announced that Pyongyang has purged 10 officials for watching South Korean soap operas, Yonhap reports. As Bloomberg News points out, there is little context about the announcement, including what action was taken or when it occurred.

Popular throughout Asia, South Korean soap operas have gained a foothold in North Korea despite being forbidden. "North Koreans face harsh punishment for listening to foreign broadcasts and possessing dissident publications," says Yonhap. Nico Lauricella

October 22, 2014

North Korea unexpectedly released Jeffrey Fowle, one of three Americans held by North Korea, on Tuesday, six months after he was arrested for leaving a Bible in a club in the reclusive communist country. Fowle, 56, was first flown on a U.S. military plane from Pyongyang to Guam, then to his home state, Ohio, where he reunited with his family early Wednesday morning. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf declined to say how Fowle, a municipal worker who had traveled on a tourist visa, was freed, to avoid complicating efforts to get the other two captive Americans released. Read more at CNN. Harold Maass

September 17, 2014

There's a fine line between crazy and adventurous, and this guy is on it.

The Korea Herald reports that a U.S. citizen was caught trying to cross the Han River between South and North Korea at around 11:55 pm Tuesday. The American, apparently in his early 30s, was taken into custody by South Korean Marines in Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province.

The man allegedly told South Korean government officials that the purpose of his visit was to meet the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The events mirror the 1996 actions of Evan Hunziker, an American man arrested on espionage charges in North Korea following a swim across the Yalu River from Dandong, China. Hunziker claimed he had been dared to do so by a friend during a drinking session. John Aziz

September 16, 2014

North Korean defectors have provided details about how they unwittingly created Kim Jong Il's "slush fund" — a system that they say is still used by his son, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

The North Korean government division Office 39 "underwrites comfortable lifestyles" for the Kim family, The Wall Street Journal reports. Choi Kun-chol told the Journal that the money was called the "revolutionary fund," and he didn't know the funds, generated from both licit and illicit means, were going directly to Kim Jong Il.

Choi told the Journal that Office 39 has thousands of employees, who are told they are "generating money to build a strong socialist economy." He estimates the private fund is worth billions of dollars. "We were proud of our work and given a lot of power, but only a few senior people knew it was money for Kim Jong Il," Choi told the Journal.

The U.S. Treasury accused Office 39 of "engaging in illicit economic activities and managing slush funds and generating revenues for the leadership" in 2010. The illicit activities mentioned include counterfeiting, narcotic and weapons sales, and even insurance scams.

Defectors have stated that Office 39 was created in the 1970s under the reign of Kim Jong Il, and security officials believe the fund still allows Kim Jong Un to buy support from Pyongyang's elite by providing them with lavish items. Analysts and security officials also told the Journal that Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Un's uncle, may have been executed for halting Office 39's cash flow. Meghan DeMaria

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