Trump willing to meet North Korea’s Kim, wants to renegotiate Paris climate accord

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is willing to talk to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to try to stop Pyongyang's nuclear program, Trump told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Trump also said he disapproved of Russian President Vladimir Putin's actions in eastern Ukraine, called for a renegotiation of the Paris climate accord, and said he would dismantle most of the Dodd-Frank financial regulations if he is elected president.

The presumptive Republican nominee declined to share details of his plans to deal with North Korea, but a meeting with Kim would mark a major shift in U.S. policy towards the isolated nation.

“I would speak to him, I would have no problem speaking to him,” Trump said of Kim.

“At the same time I would put a lot of pressure on China because economically we have tremendous power over China,” he said in the half-hour interview at his Trump Tower office in Manhattan.

China is Pyongyang's only major diplomatic and economic supporter.

Trump said the United States is treated unfairly in the Paris climate accord, which prescribes reductions in carbon emissions by more than 170 countries. A renegotiation of the pact would be a major setback for what was hailed as the first truly global climate accord, committing both rich and poor nations to reining in the rise in greenhouse gas emissions blamed for warming the planet.

Turning to the economy, Trump said he planned to release a detailed policy platform in two weeks. He said it would dismantle nearly all of Dodd-Frank, a package of financial reforms put in place after the 2007-2008 financial crisis.

“I would say it'll be close to a dismantling of Dodd-Frank. Dodd-Frank is a very negative force, which has developed a very bad name,” Trump said.

The New York billionaire also said he perceived a dangerous financial bubble within the tech startup industry. He said tech companies were attaining high valuations without ever making money.

Trump also said he eventually wants a Republican to head the U.S. Federal Reserve, but said he is “not an enemy” of current chair Janet Yellen.

“I'm not a person that thinks Janet Yellen is doing a bad job. I happen to be a low-interest rate person unless inflation rears its ugly head, which can happen at some point,” he said, adding that inflation “doesn't seem like it's happening any time soon.”

U.S. to eye ‘other’ options if North Korea continues nuclear activity

The U.S. State Department urged North Korea on Tuesday to refrain from actions that destabilize the region and said it would consider “other” options if Pyongyang continued its nuclear and ballistic missile testing.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner made the comment at a briefing after being asked about reports that North Korea may be planning more nuclear or missile tests.

Toner noted the United Nations had recently imposed some of its toughest sanctions on Pyongyang over its testing.

“We're going to look at other options as we move forward if North Korea continues with this kind of behavior,” he said, declining to elaborate on what other steps Washington may be considering.

North Korea to pursue nuclear and missile programs

North Korea will pursue its nuclear and ballistic missile program in defiance of the United States and its allies, a top Pyongyang envoy said on Friday, adding that a state of “semi-war” now existed on the divided Korean peninsula.

So Se Pyong, North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, denounced the huge joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises taking place which he said were aimed at “decapitation of the supreme leadership of the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea)” and conquering Pyongyang.

North Korea conducted a fourth nuclear test in January and launched a long-range rocket in February. The South Korean military said on Friday that North Korea had fired a missile into the sea off its east coast.

“If the United States continues, then we have to make the counter-measures also. So we have to develop, and we have to make more deterrence, nuclear deterrence,” So, who is also NorthKorea's envoy to the U.N.-sponsored Conference on Disarmament, said in an interview with Reuters conducted in English.

“Simultaneous policy is the policy of my country, and my party also, meaning nuclear production and economic development,” he said, referring to the twin aims of the policy course of NorthKorean leader Kim Jong Un which is expected to be endorsed at a congress of the ruling Workers' Party in May, the first in 36 years.

So had no information about the latest missile firing or about South Korean allegations that his country was disrupting GPS signal reception which Seoul says has forced some boats to return to port amid heightened tensions.

“They (Seoul) are making too many manipulations, too many false reports,” he said.

U.S. President Barack Obama joined South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday in vowing to ramp up pressure on North Korea in response to its nuclear and missile tests. The three leaders recommitted their countries to each others' defense and warned they could take further steps to counter threats from Pyongyang.

“Actually that summit, we call it … a kind of propaganda,” So said, dismissing the talks on securing vulnerable atomic materials to prevent nuclear terrorism.


Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday also called for dialogue to resolve the “predicament” on the Korean peninsula during a meeting with Park in Washington, Xinhua news agency said on Friday.

Asked whether his reclusive country felt pressure from its ally China and other powers, So replied: “Whether they are going to do anything, we don't care. We are going on our own way.

“(We are) not having dialogue and discussions on that.”

The Security Council unanimously passed a resolution in early March expanding U.N. sanctions aimed at starving North Korea of funds for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

“We are going against that resolution also because that is not fair and (not just). At this point, because this is really the war now … We are busy to deal with this semi-war status of the situation on the peninsula now.”

Regarding the joint military exercises being conducted by U.S. and South Korean forces, he said that 300,000 troops were taking part: “Now they open (show) their true color, meaning the decapitation of the supreme leadership of DPRK.”

Asked about prospects for resuming stalled six-party talks on his country's nuclear program, So replied that denuclearisation of the peninsula was no longer on the table.

“If the United States stops their hostile policy towards the DPRK and comes to the peace treaty, then something (might be) different,” he said.

North Korea may get plutonium from restarted reactor in weeks

North Korea, which conducted its fourth nuclear test last month and launched a long-range rocket on Saturday, could begin to recover plutonium from a restarted nuclear reactor within weeks, the director of U.S. National Intelligence said on Tuesday.

James Clapper said that in 2013, following its third nuclear test, North Korea announced its intention to “refurbish and restart” facilities at its Yongbyon nuclear complex, to include the uranium enrichment facility and its graphite-moderated plutonium production reactor shut down in 2007.

“We assess that North Korea has followed through on its announcement by expanding its Yongbyon enrichment facility and restarting the plutonium production reactor,” Clapper said in prepared testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“We further assess that North Korea has been operating the reactor long enough so that it could begin to recover plutonium from the reactor's spent fuel within a matter of weeks to months,” he said in his annual Worldwide Threat Assessment.

North Korea has used its graphite-moderated reactor at Yongbyon as a source of plutonium for its atomic bombs. It tested a fourth nuclear device on Jan. 6.

North Korea said in September that Yongbyon was operating and that it was working to improve the “quality and quantity” of weapons which it could use against the United States at “any time.”

Clapper said North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programs would “continue to pose a serious threat to U.S. interests and to the security environment in East Asia in 2016.”

He said North Korea had expanded the size and sophistication of its ballistic missile forces and was also “committed to developing a long-range, nuclear-armed missile that is capable of posing a direct threat to the United States.”

Clapper said Pyongyang had publicly displayed a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, on multiple occasions, and the U.S. assessment was that it had taken initial steps toward fielding the system, although it had not been flight-tested.

North Korea said that it launched a satellite into space on Saturday with a long-range rocket. The United States and its allies see the launch as cover for Pyongyang's development of ballistic missile technology that could be used to deliver a nuclear weapon.

The launch was strongly condemned by the United States, its allies and the United Nations Security Council.

After nuclear test, U.N. readying new measures against North Korea

The U.N. Security Council said on Wednesday it would begin working immediately on significant new measures in response to North Korea's fourth nuclear test, a threat diplomats said could mean an expansion of U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang.

North Korea said it successfully tested a miniaturized hydrogen nuclear bomb on Wednesday. Atomic weapons experts cast doubt on the isolated nation's ability to make such an advance but it rang international alarm bells all the same.

“The members of the Security Council … recalled that they have previously expressed their determination to take 'further significant measures' in the event of another DPRK (North Korea) nuclear test,” Uruguay's U.N. ambassador, Elbio Rosselli, president of the council this month, told reporters.

“In line with this commitment and the gravity of this violation, the members of the Security Council will begin to work immediately on such measures in a new Security Council resolution,” he said, calling the test “a clear violation of Security Council resolutions.”

Rosselli spoke after an emergency council session requested by the United States, Japan and South Korea.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday called North Korea's fourth nuclear test “deeply troubling” and “profoundly destabilizing for regional security.”

“This test once again violates numerous Security Council resolutions despite the united call by the international community to cease such activities,” the United Nations chief, a former South Korean foreign minister, told reporters.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters: “We plan to work with other countries so that a resolution with strong content can be adopted at the U.N. Security Council as swiftly as possible.” 

Japan is a member of the council for the next two years.

Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters Moscow was calling for “cool heads” and a “proportionate response” to the nuclear test.

Several Western diplomats said that if the latest North Korean nuclear test was confirmed, the United States, European council members and Japan would seek to expand existing U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang.

Pyongyang has been under U.N. sanctions due to its nuclear weapons program since it first tested an atomic device in 2006.

The U.N. blacklist includes 20 entities and 12 individuals, as well as an international ban on the export of luxury goods and missile and nuclear technology to North Korea. Individuals are barred from international travel and the assets of all entities and persons on the blacklist are to be frozen.

One senior Western diplomat said possible additions to the U.N. sanctions list could be foreign representatives of the North Korean organization that administers its nuclear developments and people linked to one of its key procurement companies.

“All of this depends on the appetite of the council, particularly the Chinese position,” he said. “There are more things we could do in terms of listing more people, brokers and intermediaries, broaden out the circle of people on the list.”

Traditionally China has supported the expansion of sanctions against its ally and neighbor North Korea over nuclear tests and missile launches, though it has pushed hard to ensure the measures are not what it considers excessively harsh.

Sony CEO ordered ‘The Interview’ toned down, Rogen objected

Sony Corp. Chief Executive Kazuo Hirai ordered the film “The Interview” to be toned down after Pyongyang denounced it for depicting the assassination of North Korea's leader, according to emails apparently stolen from Sony's Hollywood studio.

The comedy, slated for U.S. release on Dec. 25, is about journalists played by Seth Rogen and James Franco who are hired by the CIA to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

According to emails that span from August through October and were obtained by Reuters, Hirai asked Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, to change a key shot in the film. It depicts Kim struck by a tank shell, causing his head to explode.

Pascal noted to Hirai that she had encountered resistance from the film's creators, including Rogen, who wrote and co-directed it.

Hirai's interest in the film shows the company's leadership was worried about Pyongyang's objections, even before a devastating cyber attack on Sony's Hollywood studio network last month that crippled most of it for more than a week.

A Sony Corp. official told Reuters that Hirai rarely reviews specific scenes in films.

North Korea complained to the United Nations in July, accusing the United States of sponsoring terrorism and committing an act of war by allowing production of the movie.

In an exchange with Rogen, Pascal said she was in a difficult position because Hirai had asked her to make changes in the film.

“And this isn't some flunky. It's the chairman of the entire Sony Corporation who I am dealing (with),” she said.

Rogen responded by promising to remove three of four burn marks on Kim's face, and reduce the “flaming hair” by 50 percent. But he said he could not meet all the demands.

“The head explosion can't be more obscured than it is because we honestly feel that if it's any more obscured, you won't be able to tell it's exploding and the joke won't work,” he said.

Representatives for Rogen declined to comment.

Details of the emails were reported late on Tuesday by Bloomberg News.

More than 100 gigabytes of information purportedly stolen from Sony have been released on the Internet, according to cybersecurity experts, who say the documents appear to be authentic.

Rogen initially told Pascal he objected to requests to modify the death scene, which he said would be viewed as censorship and hurt sales.

“This is now a story of Americans changing their movie to make North Koreans happy,” he said in an Aug. 15 email. “That is a very damning story.”

By October, however, he delivered what he hoped was the final version.

“This is it!!! We removed the fire from the hair and the entire secondary wave of head chunks,” he said. “Please tell us this is over now.”

Group claiming Sony hack demands ‘Interview’ not be released

A group that claimed to be responsible for the massive computer hack at Sony Pictures Entertainment demanded the company cancel the release of “The Interview,” a film comedy that depicts an assassination plot against North Korea's leader.

A letter posted on a file-sharing site on Monday asked Sony to “stop immediately showing the movie of terrorism which can break the regional peace and cause the War!” It was signed by GOP, the nickname for the “Guardians of Peace” group that says it is responsible for a cyber attack at Sony that began Nov. 24.

Pyongyang has denounced “The Interview” as “undisguised sponsoring of terrorism, as well as an act of war” in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

People close to the investigation of the Sony hacking have told Reuters that North Korea is a principal suspect, but a North Korean diplomat has denied that his nation is involved.

The letter included links to downloads of several gigabytes of new data purported to have been stolen from Sony. Reuters was not able to verify whether the letter or documents were released by the same group that revealed other Sony documents.

The letter also said the GOP was not involved in a threatening e-mail sent to Sony staff on Friday. That e-mail claimed to be from the group.

The documents released on Monday included an e-mail to Sony that demanded “monetary compensation” to avoid “great damage” to the studio, according to the website Mashable. The e-mail was dated Nov. 21, Mashable said in its report. News of the hacking became public on Nov. 24.

A Sony spokesman had no comment on the new letter or the Mashable report. Sony Pictures Entertainment is a unit of Japan's Sony Corp.

“The Interview,” starring James Franco and Seth Rogen, is scheduled for release in the United States and Canada on Dec. 25. The studio is holding advance screenings for media and others.

North Korea slams U.S. movie on leader assassination plot; Un calls it ‘act of war’

North Korea on Wednesday denounced a forthcoming American comedy film featuring a plot to assassinate its leader Kim Jong Un as an act of terrorism and threatened to unleash a “merciless counter-measure” if Washington failed to ban the movie.

The movie “The Interview”, starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, is scheduled for release in October this fall.

“Making and releasing a movie on a plot to hurt our top-level leadership is the most blatant act of terrorism and war and will absolutely not be tolerated,” the North's official KCNA news agency quoted a foreign ministry spokesman as saying.

The Hollywood movie recounts the story of a talk show host and his producer who land a rare sit-down interview with Kim, the third leader of his family dynasty to rule North Korea.

The Central Intelligence Agency then recruits the pair to assassinate him.

Kim, in his early 30s, has shown no sign of easing the iron grip imposed by his grandfather, state founder Kim Il Sung, and his father, Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011. Nor has there been any letup in the personality cult surrounding his leadership.

He has maintained tight control of virtually all aspects of life after ordering the execution of his powerful uncle to crush what was termed an attempt to overthrow the authorities. More than 200,000 people are believed to be held in prison camps, but Pyongyang rejects as “fabrications” details of mass brutality set out in a U.N.-sponsored report citing escapees and exiles.

The foreign ministry spokesman said North Koreans regarded the life of their leader as “more precious” than their own.

“If the U.S. administration allows and defends the showing of the film, a merciless counter-measure will be taken,” the unnamed spokesman was quoted as saying.

The North currently holds three U.S. nationals, accusing them of various crimes, and remains technically at war with Washington's key Asian ally, South Korea.

North Korea routinely refers to Americans as “imperialist warmongers”, berates American leaders through its media and once called U.S. President Barack Obama a “wicked black monkey”.

But Kim is also believed to be a fan of American culture and oversaw the staging of a show featuring popular U.S. folklore.

He was seen giving a thumbs-up to dancing Disney characters and a performance set to the theme song from the film “Rocky”.

Former NBA star Dennis Rodman, the most high-profile American to meet Kim, sang “Happy Birthday” to the North Korean leader during his latest visit in January to stage a basketball game.

Reporting by Ju-min Park; Editing by Ron Popeski

Holocaust in North Korea

As Shin Dong-hyuk crawled over his friend’s lifeless body, the 23-year-old North Korean could feel the electric current shooting through him. 

Luckily, for Shin, the two pairs of pants he was wearing, coupled with his friend’s corpse, shielded him for the most part from the deadly voltage pulsing through the barbed-wire fences. 

Those fences had trapped him since his birth inside Camp 14, a North Korean prison on the Taedong River in the hills, about 50 miles northeast of the capital city of Pyongyang. 

But on this frigid afternoon, Jan. 2, 2005, something happened at the camp that had never happened before — someone escaped.

Shin’s friend, Park Yong Chul, made it to the fence first, pushing his upper body through the lowest two strands of electrified wire. The current, though, was so powerful that it glued Park to the fence, killing him within seconds.

As journalist Blaine Harden writes in “Escape From Camp 14,” the gripping account of Shin’s life in the forced labor camp, “The weight of his [Park’s] body pulled down the bottom strand of wire, pinning it against the snowy ground and creating a small gap in the fence.”

[Related: Shin Dong-hyuk at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Photo by Jared Sichel

At the museum, Shin wore a red sweater, blue skinny jeans, a black Abercrombie & Fitch raincoat and bright blue sneakers. With sleek glasses; straight, long, black hair; and bangs, he seemed comfortable with a Western, or at least South Korean, look. 

Reserved and unassuming, Shin spoke quietly throughout the day, both while walking through the exhibits and at lunch. He smiled occasionally but had a serious, thoughtful — sometimes even flat — look on his face when speaking with me. 

Although when he spoke in Korean with his translator, he would occasionally chuckle or say something humorous, which would prompt his translator to tell me what he said.

He lives now in an apartment in Seoul, but Shin isn’t taking classes and doesn’t have a full-time job; he said he has friends and has even made enough money from sales of “Escape From Camp 14” to live comfortably. He has also established a nonprofit, Inside NK, which he wants to grow into a full-time job.

Shin’s translator said Shin refuses to accept payment for any of his speeches and appearances, but that when organizations want to pay, the money will sometimes be directed toward Inside NK.

At the museum, Shin sought the horrific images from 1945 of thousands of decomposing bodies from a liberated Nazi concentration camp being dug up by a bulldozer. 

The horror of that image, which he had viewed for the first time in South Korea, convinced him that he must do what he can to raise awareness of the plight of the prisoners languishing today in North Korea’s four concentration camps. Shin has become, despite his desire to remain private, a public face for what is a growing movement to shed light on North Korea’s totalitarian government and its unrelenting political imprisonment of its countrymen. 

The international media coverage of North Korea tends to focus on anything but the country’s humanitarian crisis. We hear about the country’s nuclear program or the budding friendship between former American basketball star Dennis Rodman and North Korea’s 31-year-old dictator Kim Jong-un, or the latter’s recent execution of his uncle, Jang Sung-taek, formerly Kim’s No. 2 man.

But Shin is a living testament to the fact that attention must be paid to what is happening to a completely hidden population: Nearly seven decades after the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet forces on Jan. 27, 1945, North Korea’s concentration camps have now existed more than 12 times longer than the Nazi camps and twice as long as the Soviet gulag.

According to David Hawk, author of “The Hidden Gulag,” the camps hold between 80,000 and 120,000 North Korean political prisoners in a country with a population of less than 25 million people — that is, proportionally, the equivalent of 1.5 million Americans languishing in slave camps, without judicial review, for arbitrary “crimes.” Many estimate the number incarcerated in the North Korean camps at 200,000, but no one can know for sure.

Further, although the prison and torture network established by the North Korean government is modeled on the unending detentions and hard labor of Stalin’s gulag, not on the Nazi extermination camps, Shin fears the North Korean regime will one day take a page out of Hitler’s playbook and begin to execute its prisoners.

“The fate of the North Korean prison camp inmates — they can be burned, gassed like this, shot to death,” Shin told me during our visit to the Holocaust museum. “To think of what fate awaits them, that’s what fills me with fear.”

A Google Maps satellite view of Camp 14 on the Taedong River in North Korea.

A slave by birth

Shin had committed no sin, except by North Korean standards. He was born, in November 1982, at Camp 14, a kwan-li-so — a forced labor camp for “political prisoners.” 

Shin was there because he committed the crime of being the son of his father, whose two uncles fled to South Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953). By dictatorial fiat, that meant that the uncles’ relatives had to be imprisoned, isolated from the public, for three generations. He never asked his mother, Jang Hye Gyung, how she ended up in the camp — and she never told him why.

Unlike Jewish families in Europe who’d had lives before the Holocaust, Shin knew only Camp 14. He was, by his own account, not fully human. The camp is 30 miles long and 15 miles wide, about the size of the city of Los Angeles, according to Harden. His home was a one-story building shared by four families, where Shin and his mother had one room to themselves and slept next to each other every night on a concrete floor. 

Families at Camp 14 get just two hours daily of electricity — from 4 a.m. to 5 a.m. and from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. There are no beds, tables, chairs or running water. They use a communal privy, the waste from which is used as fertilizer for the camp farm.

Shin’s diet was corn porridge, pickled cabbage and cabbage soup, twice daily, for 23 years. There were no exceptions, except when the political police, the bo-wi-bu, withheld food as punishment.

He was starved, overworked as a farmer, construction worker and repairman, and only minimally schooled. His primitive life taught him little beyond survival — Shin had no concept of love, compassion or morality. 

His mother was not his guardian — she was competition for food. For Jang, Shin was not a son to be loved and cared for — he was an impediment to survival.

As Harden writes, Shin would often eat his mother’s meals; it didn’t occur to him that she would go hungry as a result. When young, he would scrounge around the room as she worked the fields. If she came home to find that food was missing, she would beat Shin with a hoe or shovel, often severely. 

Shin had an older brother, He Geun, but he barely knew him. When Shin was 4, He Geun moved out of the house — mandatory at age 12 — and into a dormitory near his worksite. Shin also had a father, Shin Gyung Sub, who lived in the camp but whom Shin also barely knew.

Shin’s parents’ “marriage” was arranged by the bo-wi-bu — as a reward to his father “for his skill in operating a metal lathe in the camp’s machine shop,” Harden writes.

Aside from five nights per year when he could be with his wife, Shin’s father lived in a dormitory at the machine shop.

As was true at Nazi and Soviet slave camps, conditions at the North Korean ones are ripe for abuse by guards, who rape female prisoners and often use sex as a carrot for more food or less punishment. Of course, the women are not allowed to resist. 

One night when he was 10, Shin went looking for his mother. He was hungry. He peered through a window into a guard’s office, which his mother was cleaning. A guard approached Jang and “began to grope her.” Shin watched as they had sex. 

He never mentioned to his mother what he’d seen. 

Luckily for Jang, she didn’t become pregnant. Women whose bellies begin to protrude have a knack for disappearing at Camp 14 if the pregnancy is unwanted by the guards. 

An Myeong Chul, a defector who was a guard in the prison camp system, told Harden that “he had personally seen [unplanned] newborns clubbed to death with iron rods” by camp guards.

Camp 14’s ‘education’

Teachers at Shin’s school in Camp 14 were uniformed guards who always carried pistols. Shin saw one of them beat a 6-year-old classmate to death with a chalkboard pointer. Illustrations by Shin Dong-hyuk / Courtesy Database Center for North Korean Human Rights

One day, when Shin was 6, he was sitting in class when his teacher “sprang a surprise search,” digging through the pockets of all 40 students in class. The teacher, whose name was unknown by the students, found five kernels of corn, as Shin tells it, all of which belonged to a female classmate.

Ordering the girl to kneel in front of the class, the teacher repeatedly struck her head with his chalkboard pointer. After repeated strikes, lumps puffed up on her skull, blood poured from her head, and she collapsed, unconscious. Later that night, she died. The next day, the teacher was back in front of the class. 

It wasn’t the first murder Shin witnessed, but it was the first informal one. Aside from the two or three annual executions that every prisoner has to watch at Camp 14, the bo-wi-bu have the green light to punish at will. 

Unlike students in the rest of North Korea, prisoners are not fed the brainwash devised by the Kim regime of its own god-like benevolence. Rather, they are taught next to nothing.

Shin believes children born in the camp were intentionally kept ignorant. Classes for child prisoners brought in from the outside, who knew something about society in North Korea, or maybe even China or South Korea, were held elsewhere.


As the 13-year-old Shin listened through the kitchen door, he could hear his mother and brother speaking.

One word made him perk up — escape. He Geun apparently had left his worksite without permission, and he knew that he faced punishment if he returned, which Shin concluded he did not intend to do.

Knowing the rule, “Any witness to an attempted escape who fails to report it will be shot immediately,” Shin’s “camp-bred instincts took over,” as Harden writes.

Running out of the house and finding the school’s night guard, Shin did exactly what he had been raised to do — he ratted on his own mother and brother, explaining what he had overheard. That night, he slept at the dormitory, not at home.

The next day, guards came and found Shin in the schoolyard. Handcuffed, blindfolded, pushed into a car and taken to an underground prison in Camp 14, he was confused why he, an informer, was being treated like this. 

Eventually, he realized that the night guard had taken all the credit for foiling his family’s escape plan — his mother and brother were both caught. 

Unable to trust the son of attempted runaways, guards held Shin in the underground prison for eight months, initially subjecting him to brutal torture and feeding him just enough tasteless food to survive his dark cell, which he shared with a kind old man.

After the discovery of his mother and brother’s escape plan, Shin was held for seven months in a secret underground prison inside Camp 14. He was 13 years old.

In late November, upon his release, guards had Shin stamp an agreement that prohibited him from discussing the underground prison. Again, he was handcuffed and blindfolded, then driven to a field near his childhood home — the same field where he had witnessed several annual executions for most of his life.

A guard removed his handcuffs and blindfold and sat him down. Then, his mother and brother were dragged out and led to a gallows and wooden stake lodged in the ground. Facing execution, Jang Hye Gyung tried to catch her son’s eyes, but he refused to look. As his mother hung, he felt at the time that she deserved death for endangering his life with the escape plan.

Tied to a wooden pole, his brother was next: Three guards each fired three shots, killing him instantly, which, Shin felt he also deserved.

When Shin initially shared with Harden the account of Jang’s and He’s executions, he left out the part where he turned them in. But living in freedom, learning basic values such as honesty, made him “want to be more moral,” which made him feel guilty, as he told Harden.

“I was more faithful to guards than to my family,” Shin said. “We were each other’s spies. I know by telling the truth, people will look down on me.”

‘Pointers from Hitler’

“Perhaps Kim Il-sung took pointers from Hitler himself,” Shin wondered aloud as he studied exhibitions detailing the Nazis’ rise to power.

If any of the North Korean dictators, their families and their minions have studied the 20th century’s most notorious villain, it would be no surprise.

Exhibit after exhibit, Shin described how similarly Camp 14 operates to the Nazi concentration camps — the humiliation, the beatings, the starvation, the utter lack of human dignity. 

At Camp 14, he said, “There was a special section where all the bodies were dumped, because the graves that were dug were very shallow,” Shin said. “When it rained, the bodies would come out of the ground.”

Looking at pictures of Germans humiliating Orthodox Jews in the streets of Berlin, Shin said that at Camp 14, the children of the prison guards often would taunt and throw rocks at Shin and his fellow prisoners. 

Sometimes, Shin said, “The prison guards would strip the inmates of their clothes and make fun of them.”

Unlike the Nazis, however, the North Korean government does not have a policy of mass extermination — although, as Shin points out, the combination of starvation, torture and slave labor can be a protracted death sentence.

Like its Nazi counterpart, though, the North Korean government sometimes uses prisoners as lab rats to test the potency of certain chemicals. Shin remembers when guards gave 15 inmates chemical solutions to rub on themselves. Shortly thereafter, they developed boils on their skin.

As Harden wrote, “Shin saw a truck arrive at the factory and watched as the ailing prisoners were loaded into it. He never saw them again.”

According to The Guardian newspaper, prisoners and guards from Camp 22 in Hamgyong “described watching entire families being put in glass chambers and gassed.” 

Kwon Hyuk, who was chief of management at Camp 22, told The Guardian, “Normally, a family sticks together and individual prisoners stand separately around the corners. Scientists observe the entire process from above, through the glass.”

One official document smuggled out by a defector said that 39-year-old Lin Hun-Nwa was transferred from Camp 22 “for the purpose of human experimentation of liquid gas for chemical weapons.”

In the underground prison, guards tortured Shin over a coal fire, seeking to find out his role in the planned escape of his mother and brother.

In 2004, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, traveled to Seoul to speak with three defectors who alleged having been involved in those experiments.

Cooper sits on the board of directors of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and has worked actively in recent months to shame and pressure Rodman regarding his “basketball diplomacy” with North Korea. 

“I will never forget the anguish of a second defector who years after the fact broke down describing how he supervised the slow killing of parents and their child in a glass-encased chamber,” Cooper wrote in a December op-ed in this newspaper. “Shocking details of how long the agony went on and the efforts of the doomed parents to breathe air into the lungs of their dying child were duly written down and forwarded for analysis to those in charge of the production and upgrade of North Korean poison gases.”

At the Holocaust museum, passing slowly from section to section, Shin was drawn to an exhibit detailing the Nazis’ use of kapos, Jewish prisoners who the Germans assigned to supervise their fellow Jews. 

For Nazi guards, giving Jews positions of relative power was not only a matter of efficiency; it turned Jews against one another, as kapos were often as brutal as the German guards — a tactic Shin saw employed at Camp 14.

“Certain prison inmates [are] the section leaders among the prison inmates,” Shin said, describing the camp’s hierarchy. “They, themselves, would control, under the orders of the prison guards, the other inmates.”

Observing the images of faces of Polish Jews who were moments from execution, Shin was awed by what he termed “faces of defiance.” 

He said there was no corollary in Camp 14, where, before a public execution, guards would beat and torture a prisoner before filling his or her mouth with pebbles, making it impossible for them to yell out anything defiant in their final moments. 

Shin said he knows of no silver bullet for the North Korean crisis. But what he does know, and what disappoints him, is the world’s ignorance of and seeming indifference to the 21st century’s gulag — the same kind of indifference that allowed Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot to carry out similar political persecutions and mass imprisonments.

“There was an opportunity to bomb this area, to try to save these prisoners,” Shin said, pointing at satellite images of the train tracks leading to Auschwitz, which the United States declined to strike. “The same thing today — we see through Google Earth, we know where these prison camps are in North Korea.”

Yet, a war with the North is not in the cards, according to author Hawk.

“It will never happen, simply because the North Koreans have the ability to destroy Seoul,” North Korean expert Hawk said in a recent interview. With thousands of long-range artillery guns and missile batteries built into the mountainsides near the border, North Korea could, as it has threatened, turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.” 

“That will always deter military intervention by the South Koreans, or the United States, or anybody else,” Hawk said.


As is true for most North Koreans, who live near starvation, almost anything at Camp 14 is viewed as edible. Shin and his fellow prisoners ate frogs, snakes, insects, rats —anything. 

In the winter, when food is scarce, prisoners try to abate hunger pangs by not defecating, regurgitating and re-eating food — nothing is off limits, but none of it changes the fact of starvation.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Kim family lost crucial subsidies from its communist ally — free fuel and cheap fertilizers. A massive famine in the 1990s is estimated to have killed 1 million North Koreans, whose country was unable and unwilling to feed its own citizens. 

Despite the government’s near complete control over what information leaves North Korea, some photos and videos have reached Western media that look like the liberation footage from the Nazi camps in 1945 — young children, devastatingly thin, with their ribs visibly protruding. 

And those photos are of North Koreans who live outside the camps.

According to Kang Chol-hwan, author of “The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag,” food shortages in the 1990s were so bad that ordinary citizens “had to resort to boiling tree bark and the roots of rice plants to make the tough fibers digestible.”

Kang was released from Camp 15 in 1987 and fled the North in 1992. Now a journalist in South Korea, Kang has interviewed more than 500 refugees and defectors from the North. He writes in the preface to his book that after hearing defectors’ testimonies of mass starvation in the North, he wondered, “Has the entire country turned into a gigantic gulag?”

“Life in the camps,” as Washington Post blogger Max Fisher wrote in The Atlantic, “is an exaggerated metaphor for life on the outside.”

In March, the United Nations reported that 25 percent of North Korean children are stunted from chronic malnutrition. In April 2012, professor Daniel Schwekendiek from Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul told the BBC that, due to malnutrition, North Korean defectors to South Korea are between one and three inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts.

The North’s totalitarian dictatorship faults natural conditions for the country’s unending food shortage, but it has only itself to blame. The government denies market incentives to farmers, centrally manages the country’s agriculture and lacks the cash to purchase modern farm equipment. Meanwhile, North Korea’s elite government officials live in luxury — Kim’s collection includes his own private island and a personal yacht.

Today, Shin says, the variety of food now available to him is his favorite thing about freedom. After going through the main exhibition at the Holocaust museum, he abruptly decided he had had enough and announced that it was time for lunch. 

Knowing the diet he subsisted on for 23 years, who would argue with him?

“To be able to go to a restaurant and choose to eat delicious food and not eat not-so-tasty food,” Shin said, “that’s the best expression of freedom that I can have.”

At the cafe, Shin visibly enjoyed his meal and was curious at my choice of soup — matzah ball, which he had never seen before. Told that it’s part of Jewish cuisine, Shin asked whether his own tomato soup “is also a Jewish soup.”

The Korean Peninsula

Founded in 1953 as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the most secretive country on earth lies on the northern half of the Korean Peninsula.

Once the brutal Japanese occupation ended with the empire’s fall in 1945, at the end of World War II, the peninsula was divided into two zones, somewhat arbitrarily, along the 38th parallel. The north was occupied by the Soviet Union; the south by the United States.

While the two superpowers had originally hoped to create a unified Korea, that quickly became impossible. In the Soviet-led communist North, Kim Il-sung, a ruthless, nationalist dictator, had his eyes set on controlling the entire peninsula. In the South, the authoritarian, anti-communist and American-backed Syngman Rhee desired the same.

On June 25, 1950, after receiving support from both the Russians and Chinese, Kim Il-sung ordered the North Korean People’s Army to cross the 38th parallel, launching a war that would engulf the two Koreas, along with America and China, and kill nearly 3 million soldiers and civilians. It would also leave both countries with their borders unchanged following a 1953 truce.

Still divided at the 38th parallel, North and South Korea have become models for radically different worldviews. 

The North, led today by Kim Jong-un, grandson of Kim Il-sung, denies citizens freedom of movement, freedom of speech and even, as philosopher Hu Shih described China under Mao, the “freedom of silence.”

“Residents of a communist state are required to make positive statements of belief and loyalty,” Hu said. In North Korea, images of citizens publicly wailing when Kim Jong Il died in 2011 made outsiders wonder whether they were genuinely heartbroken or just fearful of not appearing loyal. 

Although North Korea is portrayed as a comically evil regime in films like “Team America: World Police” (2004), the reality is anything but funny.

In something Americans might find familiar from the horrors depicted in Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” novels. the North Korean government installs government-operated radios in every home — they can’t be turned off, and outside signals are jammed. Schools double as indoctrination mills, teaching students songs like “We Have Nothing to Envy in the World.” The government occasionally launches massive national work campaigns, with slogans such as “Let’s Breed More High Yielding Fish!”

According to Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times reporter and author of “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea,” every town has its own movie theater, but the state-run Korean Feature Film Studio produces all the films. Without any information from the outside world, the government’s propaganda — that North Korea is the greatest country on earth, and that the American imperialists wish to destroy it — is difficult to counter.

The Kim family regularly orders public executions and uses political purges as a form of intimidation against would-be agitators. Being caught with a Bible or a South Korean DVD can land one in a prison camp or in front of a firing squad. 

The government is so concerned about the increased trickle of outside culture reaching North Koreans that, according to Harden, the state will sometimes cut electricity to specific neighborhoods and raid apartments — “to see what tapes and discs were stuck inside the players.” 

You don’t want to be the one caught holding the DVD.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimates that North Korea’s GDP (gross domestic product) — one measure of an economy’s size and wealth — was $40 billion in 2011, only $1,800 per citizen. The CIA describes North Korea as “one of the world’s most centrally directed and least open economies.” 

South Korea, meanwhile, is a leading economic power, exporting everything from ships to electronics. Seoul, the nation’s capital, is a sprawling metropolis, home to nearly 10.5 million Koreans.

For Justin Wheeler, an activist for opening up North Korean society, South Korea’s dynamism is an example of what the trapped citizens of the North could achieve if its government allowed them to.

Wheeler is the vice president for Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a Torrance-based group that not only advocates for the North Korean people, but directly helps them, employing “protection officers” who smuggle North Korean refugees out of China, where North Korean agents are said to hunt down defectors. Additionally, China regularly repatriates North Korean defectors to their home country.

In fact, as revealed in a recent PBS documentary, “Secret State of North Korea,” the Chinese government has installed a barbed-wire fence on parts of the border, making it harder not only for North Koreans to sneak out, but for activists with thumb drives and DVD players to sneak in.

“Fifty years ago, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world,” Wheeler said in an interview at LiNK’s offices, located in an industrial park. “Today it’s one of the most dynamic economies. The North Korean people have that exact same potential.”

In a search on Google for a nighttime satellite image of East Asia, lights dot the landscape from Japan to Vietnam to China, and South Korea, particularly Seoul, is a blob of light. 

But between the 38th parallel and China is complete darkness. That is North Korea —where 23 million people survive with barely any electricity, cut off from the outside world. 

Reaching California

After his escape from Camp 14, Shin spent about a month making his way through North Korea, making friends with the homeless underworld and hopping on and off trains between cities. Eventually, he reached the Tumen River, bribed a border guard and crossed the river into China. 

He spent more than a year laying low in China. Well fed but working for measly pay in people’s homes, he was wary of attracting attention from the government, which typically repatriates North Korean defectors, claiming they are “economic migrants.” If the Chinese government were to recognize defectors like Shin as humanitarian refugees, it would be prohibited, under international law, from returning them to North Korea.

In February 2006, after moving around much of China, Shin ran into a Korean-born journalist in a restaurant in Shanghai. The journalist listened to — and believed — Shin’s story, then smuggled him past Chinese police and into the South Korean consulate, which provided Shin diplomatic immunity. 

After six months living at the consulate, Shin was flown to Seoul; soon thereafter, he moved to a government-run resettlement center 40 miles south. He struggled to adapt to life in the free world. He frequently had nightmares of Camp 14, worrying about his father’s fate in the camp. He also stopped eating. 

After a few months in a psychiatric ward at the resettlement center, he moved into a government-owned apartment in Hwaseong, 30 miles outside Seoul, where he still struggled with his new life, but eventually learned about South Korean life by venturing out into the city. His growth was, as he told Harden, like the “slow growth of a fingernail.”

In the West, as news spread of a prison-camp escapee living in South Korea, Shin was invited to speak in spring 2008 at UC Berkeley and at Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley. At the same time, he came to believe that his story, and the plight of his fellow North Koreans, was simply not of interest to most South Koreans, who he says are more concerned with economic growth.

In 2009, he accepted a position with LiNK and moved to Southern California. 

The South Bay may seem like an odd place for a Korean-based nonprofit to headquarter, but there’s logic to the choice. In the Korean diaspora, there’s no better place than Southern California for a Korean to feel at home — more than 300,000 Korean Americans live in greater Los Angeles.

Founded in 2004 in Washington, D.C., LiNK initially approached the North Korean problem from a policy angle, trying to make the humanitarian crisis a priority in meetings with congressional members.

But as its vice president, Wheeler, said during a meeting in LiNK’s office, “It was somewhat of a stalemate at the high politics level,” with nuclear talks crowding out the Kim regime’s oppression.

So the group refocused, reorganized and relocated to California in 2008, deciding that advocacy wasn’t enough — especially when there were still North Korean defectors hiding in China, on the run and often exploited. 

Since 2010, LiNK’s anonymous “protection officers” in Asia have helped bring 204 refugees to freedom through its 3,500-mile underground railroad, with most ending up in South Korea after being smuggled, free of charge, through China and various countries in Southeast Asia.

When I recently visited LiNK, 15 nomads — volunteers who travel the country, speaking about North Korea at high schools and colleges — had just returned from a semester of touring the United States, where they spoke to 27,000 people at more than 430 venues, according to LiNK’s tour manager, Chelsea Quinn. Crowded into a rec room, they shared with one another their experiences educating Americans about life in the Hermit Kingdom.

Josh Lee is a 22-year-old LiNK nomad, part of a team that spoke at venues throughout California. A child of South Korean immigrants, Lee reflected on his Korean heritage.

“It was my pure luck that my grandfather settled south of the border,” Lee said.

A recent graduate of Syracuse University, Lee became a LiNK activist while in college, disturbed by the ignorance and apathy surrounding the humanitarian crisis.

“They said, ‘Never again,’ right?” Lee said, emotionally, referring to his middle school classes about the Holocaust. “They told us that it would never happen again.”

So far, high schools, colleges and churches have been happy to invite LiNK’s nomads, both Wheeler and Quinn said. They said that they aim to speak at more synagogues and Jewish high schools, too, but, so far, there hasn’t been much traction.

“The Jewish people have such a good understanding of what it means to be oppressed; what it’s like to be systematically tortured,” said Quinn, whose mother is Jewish. “I just assumed that temples would be totally down, that synagogues would totally jump on this.”

Yet, Wheeler remembers being told by an influential local Jewish businessman, “It’s hard for the Jewish community to get around because they haven’t seen a ton of support from the Korean community.” 

Shin echoed a similar sentiment, clearly expressing annoyance at what he senses as apathy in his home country.

“They do not want to care about what is going on in North Korea,” Shin said. “South Koreans treat North Korea as if it’s just another separate country, not land of the same people, the same blood.”

During South Korea’s 2007 presidential elections, Harden writes, “Just three percent of voters named North Korea as a primary concern. They told pollsters that their primary interest was in making higher salaries.”

Change from within

Faced with the realization that diplomats, politicians and even Koreans have not taken up the cause of the North Koreans, LiNK takes the position that, if the Hermit Kingdom will open up, it will be due to North Korea’s citizens. 

What will be the cause that breaks the silence? One word: food.

After the Soviet Union’s collapse, when it became clear the Kim regime was incapable of feeding its citizens on its own, illegal food markets popped up.

“Those black markets have emerged and have grown,” Wheeler said. “If you are not a part of those markets today, you’d starve to death.”

Although these markets started with food, they are now offering far more. Electronics, radios, flash drives, DVDs — all are increasingly reaching North Koreans, bringing information from the outside world and slowly breaking down the attempted brainwash of the Kim government.

In the PBS documentary, illegal footage from inside North Korea showed some citizens secretly watching South Korean movies and TV shows on DVD players. One woman cursed at and pushed a soldier who tried to shut down her makeshift private bus service. Another, when told by soldiers that she was breaking the law by wearing pants, protested. They put an armband on her to mark her offense.

“People’s willingness to confront or ignore authority has become more and more common,” Japanese journalist Jiro Ishimaru said. “People around the world have this image of North Koreans as being brainwashed, but that’s very mistaken.”

Moses and Pharaoh

Although Shin quit LiNK in early 2011, moving abruptly from Los Angeles to Seattle to live with a girl he was seeing, he said over lunch in Washington that, while living in Southern California, he was particularly fond of In-N-Out Burger, which he “liked,” and Chick-fil-A, which he “loved.”

Now living in Seoul, Shin visits the United States a few times per year. He still has not taken classes in remedial English or even elementary mathematics, a bit of which he learned in Camp 14. 

“I would say things are sometimes difficult for me in terms of adjusting, settling into a life of freedom,” he said. As he suggested, he is, for obvious reasons, not yet as intellectually or emotionally developed as anyone who grew up free.

Among defectors, Shin is not alone in his adjustment issues. According to Harden, government career counselors in South Korea say that people resettled from the North “often depend on the South Korean government to solve their problems and fail to take personal responsibility for poor work habits or for showing up late on the job.”

Chuckling, Shin said, “I would consider myself 8 years old.” At the time of our interview, he was eight years out from his escape. When I told him a story about my grandmother, who was advised by a rabbi to subtract from her age the number of years she spent at Auschwitz, Shin responded, “Maybe I shouldn’t count the 23 years in prison camp.”

Dogged by his own desire to be left alone, to no longer be the face for freedom in North Korea, Shin said he thinks about leaving public life “more than 12 times a day, [but] when I think about my father or other fellow inmates who are in the prison camp, that compels me to push forward.”

He’s intrigued by Israel, and by the Jewish people, by their ability, as he put it, to survive the Holocaust, rise up, resettle their homeland and become a “powerful nation.” He says he wants to visit the Jewish state and the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem but hasn’t yet had the opportunity.

As lunch wound down, Shin’s translator said that they had to leave soon for another interview. So I asked him if we could discuss a light topic — God.

Shin responded that although he isn’t entirely convinced of God’s existence, he does believe he received help from above. “I believe that there was a higher being, a higher power involved with my life, for me to be where I am right now,” he said.

Like all of North Korea, Camp 14 was devoid of any religion, of anything that could challenge the Kim family’s throne.

Today, Shin attends an Evangelical church in Seoul whenever he can, and, in fact, finds solace in Moses and the story of the Exodus — a self-doubting leader who helped an enslaved people escape a tyrant.

“When I look at North Korea now,” Shin said, “It reminds me of ancient Egypt and the Pharaohs.”

To contact Liberty in North Korea, visit

U.S. can intercept North Korean missile but may opt not to, admiral says

The United States is capable of intercepting a North Korean missile, should it launch one in the coming days, but may choose not to if the projected trajectory shows it is not a threat, a top U.S. military commander told Congress on Tuesday.

Admiral Samuel Locklear, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific region, said the U.S. military believed North Korea had moved to its east coast an unspecified number of Musudan missiles, with a range of roughly 3,000-3,500 miles.

An Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters “our working assumption is that there are two missiles that they may be prepared to launch” — which was in line with South Korean media reports.

Locklear said the Musudan's range was far enough to put Guam, a U.S. territory, at risk but not Hawaii or the U.S. mainland.

“If the missile was in defense of the homeland, I would certainly recommend that action (of intercepting it). And if it was defense of our allies, I would recommend that action,” Locklear told a Senate hearing.

Asked whether he would recommend shooting down any missile fired from North Korea, regardless of its trajectory, Locklear said: “I would not recommend that.”

The comments by Locklear came amid intense speculation that Pyongyang may be preparing for a missile test -—something the White House says would not be a surprise — or another provocation that could trigger a military response from Seoul.

The Pentagon has in recent weeks announced changes to its posture to respond to the North Korean threat, including the positioning of two, Aegis-class guided-missile destroyers in the western Pacific and deployment of a missile defense system to Guam.

Any U.S. or South Korea response to a North Korean provocation has the potential to further escalate tensions on the peninsula, just as North Korea intensifies threats of imminent conflict. Pyongyang warned to foreigners on Tuesday to evacuate South Korea to avoid being dragged into “thermonuclear war”.


The North's latest message belied an atmosphere free of anxiety in the South Korean capital, where the city center was bustling with traffic and offices operated normally.

Despite the heated rhetoric, Pyongyang has shown no sign of preparing its 1.2 million-strong army for war, indicating the threat could be aimed partly at bolstering Kim Jong-un, 30, the third in his family to lead the country.

Locklear said the U.S. military believed the younger Kim was more unpredictable than his father or grandfather, who always appeared to factor into their cycle of period provocations “an off-ramp of how to get out of it.”

“And it's not clear to me that he has thought through how to get out of it. And so, this is what makes this scenario, I think, particularly challenging,” Locklear said.

Lawmakers at the hearing were extremely critical of China, the North's major benefactor, and Locklear acknowledged that the United States wanted Beijing to do more to influence the North to dial-back its aggressive posture.

Asked at one point in the hearing whether China was a friend or foe, Locklear responded: “Neither.”

“I consider them at this point in time, someone we have to develop a strategic partnership with to manage competition between two world powers,” he said.

Reporting by Phil Stewart; editing by Jackie Frank

In Iran talks, North Korea parallel goes only so far

If you have nuclear weapons, all sorts of bad behavior will be tolerated.

That’s the lesson some are worried Iran may be learning from North Korea’s increasingly confrontational stance against South Korea and the United States.

Pyongyang has stepped up its belligerent rhetoric in recent days, threatening to strike targets in South Korea and America, shuttering the joint North-South industrial park at Kaesong and warning foreigners to leave South Korea to avoid possible nuclear war. The Obama administration has scrambled to tamp down tensions, in part by delaying some planned military exercises.

Combined with the latest failure to reach any accord in talks between the major powers and Iran on Tehran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, some Iran watchers are worried the Islamic Republic is learning that truculence pays off — at least if you have nuclear capabilities.

“I would imagine the lessons they’re drawing are not the ones the Western powers would like,” Valerie Lincy, who directs the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, told The New York Times. “That you can weather sanctions and renege on previous agreements, and ultimately if you stand fast, you’ll get what you’re looking for.”

But Iran experts caution that there are some fundamental differences between North Korea and Iran that undercut parallels between them.

For one thing, said Alireza Nader, a senior Iran analyst at the Rand Corp., the impasse in the most recent round of negotiations with Iran held in Kazakhstan was the result of political uncertainty in Iran, not the situation in North Korea.

Iran is scheduled to hold elections on June 14. Ayatollah Ali Khameini, the country's supreme leader, is maneuvering to replace outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with someone who is more loyal to the theocracy and less prone to distracting outbursts, Nader said.

Nader also said Tehran is much more likely to be influenced by sanctions than Pyongyang because North Korea is totalitarian and Iran, while authoritarian, still is susceptible to public pressures.

“North Korea has suffered from sanctions, but its regime does not care about its population the way the Islamic Republic has to consider its population,” Nader said.

Michael Makovsky, a Pentagon official who helped shape Iraq policy during the George W. Bush presidency and has been critical of the Obama administration’s handling of Iran, said the big question is whether Iran is drawing dangerous lessons about America’s will to stop regimes from obtaining or using weapons of mass destruction.

“There's still a big question mark about the U.S. using force” to stop the use of unconventional weapons, said Makovsky, now the director of foreign policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “We have to make abundantly clear we're serious about not having a nuclear Iran.”

President Obama told Israel’s Channel 2 last month just prior to his visit to Israel that he believed he had a year’s window to resolve the Iran crisis through pressure and diplomacy. He emphasized during his visit that he would not count out a military strike should that process fail. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry repeated that message this week during a visit to Israel.

“The clock that is ticking on Iran’s program has a stop moment, and it does not tick interminably,” Kerry said Tuesday in Israel. “We have said again and again that negotiations are not for the sake of negotiations, they are to make progress. And negotiations cannot be allowed to become a process of delay, which in and of itself creates greater danger.”

Kerry also raised the North Korea parallel in addressing reports that Iran was reopening mines for yellowcake, which can be used to prepare uranium fuel for nuclear reactors.

“Clearly, any effort — not unlike the DPRK, where Kim Jong-un has decided to reopen his enrichment procedures by rebuilding a facility that had been part of an agreement to destroy — in the same way as that is provocative, to open up yellowcake production and to make any step that increases the rapidity with which you move towards enriched fissile material raises the potential of questions, if not even threat,” he said. “And I think that is not constructive.”

Heather Hurlburt, the executive director of the National Security Network think tank, said Iran is more susceptible to international opinion than North Korea, particularly because Tehran is seeking to enhance its international influence.

“There's a political cost to an Iranian regime becoming perceived the way North Korea is perceived,” she said. “Iran’s regime is acutely aware of it.”

When the Jews went to North Korea

When a delegation from the American Council for World Jewry went to North Korea, its agenda was typical of visits by Jewish organizations to developing nations: promote outreach to Israel, offer to broker assistance and training, gently raise problematic defense relations with Israel’s enemies.

Pyongyang’s agenda was much simpler but just as timeworn: Get to know these powerful Jews.

The two meetings, in 2008 and 2009, offered a window into the operation of the most cloistered country in the world—and, many believe, the most dangerous – and how communist North Korea may engage as it gently teases apart the curtains.

The death this week of longtime isolationist leader Kim Jong Il and the apparent succession of his 20-something son, Kim Jong Un, has led to abundant speculation about whether the son will expand or squelch the ginger openness launched by his father.

Jack Rosen, the founder of the American Council for World Jewry who took the trips to Pyongyang, said his group first made overtures to the North Korean delegation at the United Nations. It took considerable time and bureaucracy, but the invitation from North Korea eventually came through.

Rosen, a top New York lawyer who has been a fundraiser for presidential candidates of both parties, described North Korea as a country both remote and surreal.

“The discipline and fear permeated every element of society we came across,” Rosen told JTA. “Everything was a fine-tuned machine. Children would line up in a large public square several times a day. At a certain time of evening, there were long lines at the bus stations—and then just as suddenly you didn’t see anyone, there were no people in the street.”

One factor that Rosen said motivated his outreach to Pyongyang was North Korea’s increasing openness at the time to outside assistance. His group cleared the visit with the U.S. State Department.

Yet when they arrived in North Korea, much of the initial talk from the country’s officials nonplussed the Jewish delegation, as it focused not on the Middle East or appeals for assistance but on nuclear diplomacy.

“The first time we went,” Rosen recalled, “they were engaged in long discussions about the six-party talks and America’s intentions”—talks aimed at exchanging assistance for North Korea’s agreement to dial back its nuclear weapons program that had been suspended in 2007.

It quickly became evident that the North Koreans were interested in the visit because they viewed American Jews as critical to influencing the U.S. power establishment.

This was typical for Asian nations exposed to cliches about Jews but not to actual Jews, observed Norm Levin, a Koreas expert who has published a number of studies of the peninsula.

“They, like many Asians, have all kinds of stereotyped images of the Jews,” Levin said. “Many of them are quite favorable, although as biased as any stereotype of the Jews. Because everybody else sees the Jews as an important group—smart, successful, creative and powerful, and what do they know, they’ve never seen a Jew – they say if they’re that important, we should pay attention to them because maybe at one point they could be helpful to us on issues related to the U.S.”

Rosen recalled that when he gently pressed the Koreans on Middle East issues they seemed surprised – but hastened to organize a meeting with a top Foreign Ministry official.

“They were surprised we highlighted the issue to them; it wasn’t part of the official program,” he said.

Much of the talk focused on the country’s arms sales to Iran and Syria. North Koreans reportedly designed the nascent Syrian nuclear reactor destroyed by Israel in 2007, although North Korea denies the accusation. In their conversations, Rosen said, the North Koreans said they had no choice but to sell arms to such rogue states, as others were cut off to them.

Rosen, in an account of the trips he published in 2010 on the American Council website, said the expectation was not that North Korea would cease such activities but instead would be more sensitive to Western sensibilities about relationships with rogue states.

“We are hardly in a position to broker a nuclear agreement with North Korea, but the Council’s outreach has sensitized North Korean officials to U.S. and Jewish concerns over exporting materiel and technology to third countries,” he wrote.

That outreach makes sense, Levin said.

“If and when leadership changes in North Korea, they’re being able to go to the Rolodex” and reinitiate contact with Jewish interlocutors “could have potential value,” Levin said.

The North Koreans, Rosen said, were interested in the potential Israel had for educating its professionals, particularly in agricultural techniques. Outside experts say most North Koreans live at subsistence level.

“We found it interesting to see how openly they wanted to discuss more engagement with Americans, and took the time to talk about Israel to learn more about agricultural techniques,” he said. They also were interested in investment.

Rosen relayed the North Koreans’ interest in such engagement to Israeli and American officials, but nothing came of it.

Levin said Israel’s expertise in agriculture, water conservation and economic development would be a natural for North Korea to seek.

“It’s no secret their economy is a disaster,” he said. “They need help from A to Z and don’t have a lot of places they can turn to.”

The uncertainty in this transition period has made the need for outreach sharper, Rosen said.

“The big question here is, do we understand the risk in the days ahead after the death of Kim Jong Il of destabilization?” he said. “We ought to understand there are opportunities here we need to take a close look at.”