Following the inauguration of the Donald Trump administration in the U.S., North Korea is stepping up its nuclear and missile threats. Analysts are viewing the move as Pyongyang’s intention to effectively establish its status as a nuclear weapons state and to urge the U.S. to change its North Korea policy. Here’s Jang Yong-seok, senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, to explain.
With the inauguration of the Trump administration emerging as a new factor, North Korea seems to be seeking ways to maximize its own benefits. Judging from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s message and the nation’s recent move, I guess Pyongyang is determined to stick to its previous position and challenge international sanctions. North Korea places emphasis on self-reliance and has revived an old slogan from the so-called Arduous March period in the 1990s to stress the importance of a speed battle when carrying out national tasks. This shows that the nation seeks to overcome the sanctions in its own way, rather than conforming to international demands. Also, the Kim Jong-un regime seems to believe that conflict between China and the U.S. might give North Korea some breathing space. In other words, North Korea doesn’t think that China and the U.S. will pressure it at the same time. Rather, the North is expecting China to embrace it in the process of confronting the U.S.
Pyongyang’s official Korean Central Television released a documentary film titled “Great Victory-2016 History of Heroic Struggle” for four days in a row from January 24. The video shows a Musudan missile entering the atmosphere and leader Kim Jong-un cheering for the successful launch with his officials. The missile was the one that was test-fired in June last year. Last August, North Korea disclosed a video that shows the test-launch of a submarine-launched ballistic missile. This time around, the North added another scene to the video to show the missile shooting out of the water by breaking a capsule.
North Korea has unveiled the video in an apparent bid to praise leader Kim Jong-un’s leadership, stabilize the regime and unite the elite as well as the people. North Korean weapons could make regional or global security unstable and cause further confrontation with the U.S. Having this in mind, North Korea seems to have released the video in a show of force. But it is still uncertain how effective the North Korean weapons are. Last year, North Korea test-fired eight Musudan missiles but only one was considered to be a success. In this vein, the recent video was more of political propaganda. It’s aimed at highlighting North Korea’s status as a nuclear weapons state. Based on that, Pyongyang seeks to build new relations with the outside world.
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis talked with his South Korean counterpart Han Min-koo over the phone on Tuesday, January 31, to stress the importance of the South Korea-U.S. alliance. During his visit to South Korea and Japan from Thursday to Saturday, Mattis is expected to underline the significance of cooperation among South Korea, Japan and the U.S. when countering North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats. He chose South Korea as the first stop of his foreign tour, reflecting the importance of South Korea-U.S. relations when it comes to growing military threats from North Korea.
With the North Korean nuclear issue remaining unresolved, the U.S. Defense Secretary’s South Korea visit shows the importance of the South Korea-U.S. alliance. Also, the U.S. is putting strong pressure on China to deter Beijing from emerging as a superpower in Northeast Asia. By sending the secretary of defense to South Korea and Japan, the U.S. seeks to cement relations with its Asian allies and strengthen cooperation among the three countries to counter North Korean threats and keep China in check.
On the occasion of the Lunar New Year’s holiday, high-ranking officials in North Korea and China reportedly pledged to promote bilateral friendship. According to the homepage of the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang, some 70 North Korean senior officials, including Kim Yong-dae, who is the vice president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, were present at the Lunar New Year reception at the Chinese Embassy on January 24. Attention turns to how North Korea-China relations may unfold down the road.
North Korea-China relations have been at odds since the start of the Kim Jong-un regime, while North Korea-Russia relations appear to have been relatively friendly. With the North Korean media still criticizing China indirectly, there is subtle tension in bilateral relations. But the news about the Chinese embassy’s recent party attended by a large group of North Korean officials has spawned speculation on the possibility of an improvement in bilateral ties. Their relations may show some signs of a diplomatic thaw, especially at a time when North Korea is struggling to escape from diplomatic isolation. But the nuclear issue is still the biggest obstacle standing in the way of bilateral relations, and this structure remains unchanged. But, it’s too early to talk about a remarkable improvement in North Korea-China relations in the short term.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un mentioned the possibility of test-launching an intercontinental ballistic missile or ICBM in his New Year’s speech. The nation has since hinted at the possibility of armed provocations in an apparent move to urge the U.S. to change its North Korea policy and to demand that the international community reexamine its sanctions against the North. Neighboring countries in Northeast Asia are concerned about the possibility of North Korea’s provocations.
We can predict that North Korea may launch armed provocations, including an ICBM test-launch, on important political occasions, such as February 16, which is the birthday of former leader Kim Jong-il, in order to publicize the achievements of the leadership. At a meeting with American experts, Choi Son-hee, who is the deputy director of North Korea’s foreign ministry, said that his country would not sit idle if South Korea and the U.S. carry out their combined military drills as intensely as before. We have to take note of these threatening remarks. February 16 could be chosen as a day for provocation, but I’m more concerned over North Korea’s possible reaction to the South Korea-U.S. combined military drills.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se will visit Germany this month to attend a G20 foreign ministers’ meeting and also the Munich Security Conference. In Germany, he is scheduled to hold talks with foreign ministers from various countries to discuss ways to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. While North Korea is showing signs of missile provocations, the U.S. Secretary of Defense is visiting South Korea and Japan. On top of that, the foreign ministers’ meeting is also scheduled for this month. With all this considered, the month of February is expected to be a turning point for regional security on the Korean Peninsula.
[Interview] Defector Runs Alternative School for N. Korean Students
Located in Seoul’s western district of Guro-gu, Kumkang School is an alternative school designed to assist children of North Korean defectors in adjusting to general schools in South Korea. School principal Ju Myong-hwa, who has been operating the school since she established it in 2013, is a North Korean defector herself.
In North Korea, I served as a literature teacher at a junior high school for 12 years. Here in South Korea, I felt sorry for North Korean children who were left neglected. Children from the North generally fall behind their South Korean counterparts in academic skills because South Korean education methods and culture are different from those of North Korea and China. In reality, many North Korean students drop out of school. I arrived in South Korea empty-handed, only holding a passport, but I have received a lot here. In the hopes of giving back, I set up this school. North Korean children learn the standard South Korean language at the school. If they can communicate with their teachers and friends, they are transferred to other schools. The purpose of this school is to fill the education vacuum that was caused in the process of defection and therefore help the North Korean students catch up with their South Korean peers in studies. And we also help them study after school.
Many North Korean kids struggle with the Korean language because they didn’t get proper education while staying in China after their parents defected from North Korea. Kumkang School provides basic education to those children and teaches them the Korean alphabet or Hangeul so they can adapt to South Korean schools and society in an appropriate way. It’s operated like a boarding school because many parents work in local provinces.
Many North Korean mothers work until 11 p.m. or midnight, while their children usually return home from school between 3:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. Some fortunate children can stay at a community center in the neighborhood until 7 p.m. After that, however, they are left alone. As part of efforts to help the North Korean mothers resettle in South Korea quickly and properly, we take care of the students 24 hours a day, like a boarding school.
The school has about 30 students aged between eight and 17. When school is in session, students have breakfast together and then go to their schools to attend regular and after-school classes before returning to Kumkang School to take part in evening programs. During vacations, the school offers its own education programs. Four teachers, including Ms. Ju, and some volunteers teach the Korean language, math, social studies, English, music, physical education and art. Conselling is also offered because many of the students are emotionally unstable due to their extremely painful experiences of hovering between life and death in the defection process. It’s been four years since Kumkang School was created. Some 100 students who attended the school have been transferred to neighboring schools. Principal Ju says that she has been able to run the school properly, thanks to many volunteers, companies that have sent food on a quarterly basis, as well as groups and citizens who have given their full support to the school.
People around me as well as the district office of Guro-gu have been very supportive. Without their love and support, I wouldn’t be able to do anything. They visit the school on the weekends to share something delicious with the kids here. A volunteer who comes to the school had served as an elementary school teacher for 36 years. Another person who attends Yale University promised to stay with the children here for one year after graduating from the university. A lot of people visit here. A woman comes to school once a week to wash the young kids. I’m very grateful to her.
It is students who have enabled Ms. Ju and her school to overcome the difficulties and survive. The students, who underwent the grueling defection process and explore their new lives in an unfamiliar environment, are the very reason why the school exists. The principal’s face brightens up when she talks about her students.
The kids were given a chance to participate in a two-day camp program, where they enjoyed entertainment and sports and also joined a talent show. Gift certificates worth 300-thousand won were offered as a prize, and my students won 250-thousand won. They sang and danced enthusiastically to win the prize. Before going to the camp, one of my students said to me, “Teacher, we’ll definitely win all the 300-thousand won.” I told him not to try too hard because it would be wonderful just to join the show. But he just said, “You’ll see.” The students formed a team and practiced very hard. Actually, they are very good actors. They performed in a play titled “Heungbu and Nolbu” at the Players’ Welfare Foundation of Korea. The chief director of the foundation loved the play, and it was performed again during an event commemorating the tenth anniversary of the foundation in 2015. In the same year, the kids presented another theatrical performance “The Journey of Washable.” Their performance was amazing. They are really good at acting and singing.
This song is titled “A Good Day to Start.” Along with popular rapper Flowsik, students at Kumkang School sang this rap song that describes their own story. One line says “Lift your head, straighten your shoulders and take your courage to the end of the world.” As the lyrics indicate, both the school principal and the students will hopefully be able to cherish their dreams and pursue their aims energetically.