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North Korea after 10 years of Kim Jong Un: Better armed but more isolated than ever

Ten years after Kim Jong Un assumed power North Korea is better armed but deeply isolated and more dependent on China, despite actions by the young leader that raised – and dashed – hopes of economic transformation or international opening.

Kim’s pursuit of nuclear weapons defined his first 10 years in power, but analysts say the path has left him isolated and facing perhaps the greatest challenges yet.

Those weapons may stand in the way of political breakthroughs needed to improve a shattered economy and prevent millions from starving, as ongoing anti-pandemic lockdowns and sanctions that have left him over-reliant on China.

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Kim embraced a different style than his idiosyncratic father, seeking to “normalize” North Korea by institutionalizing and delegating more leadership; winning international respect through nuclear weapons and summits with foreign leaders; and displays of transparency and empathy toward improving the lives of everyday citizens.

At times that raised expectations of economic reform in the socialist state, or changes in its relationship with longstanding rivals such as the US and South Korea.

But systemic change has failed to materialize as Kim continued many of his father's worst practices, from political prison camps and brutal executions to tight control over the economy and society.

“I think the experience of Kim's rule for ordinary North Koreans was a moment of hope in those early years followed by regression to the mean,” said Christopher Green, a Korea specialist at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Kim will have to make hard decisions over whether to trade any of his arsenal to win sanctions relief, or find other ways to boost the economy, such as through a distrustful but vital relationship with China or allowing more economic and social opening without losing political grip.

“(Sanctions) put an upper limit on what he can do with his economy but doesn’t mean he can’t get to a point that’s much more comfortable for people than where he is now,” said Robert Carlin, a former CIA officer now with the Washington-based Stimson Center.

After the damage done by the pandemic, calls for controlled openness may again be heard from within the regime elite, but the challenges of turning the international situation in North Korea's favor are as big as ever, Green said.

“Without a big uptick in foreign capital, the cause of economic reform is almost certainly doomed,” he added.

Weapons for sanctions

Under Kim, North Korea conducted four of its six nuclear weapons' tests – including what appears to be its first hydrogen bomb – and developed a series of intercontinental ballistic missiles with the range to strike as far as the US.

For Kim that arsenal is the “treasured sword” that will protect North Korea – and his rule – from outside threats, while making the country an equal with other nuclear powers.

But it also brought North Korea to the brink of war with the United States in 2017, and prompted even the country's partners in China and Russia to approve strict UN sanctions.

Kim's attempts to win sanctions relief and a breakthrough in relations with the US led to historic and unprecedented summits with US President Donald Trump, but talks have since stalled with Washington demanding Pyongyang surrender some of its weapons before any sanctions are eased.

Kim will likely continue to “play tough” in nuclear diplomacy because further nuclear weapons development will increase his political leverage and bargaining power both in negotiations and during stalemates, said Duyeon Kim, with the US-based Center for a New American Security.

“We can expect to see him continue to shape his personal and his country’s image as normal, modern, and advanced across all sectors particularly nuclear and economic, and even foreign affairs when the pandemic subsides,” she added.

After sending the China-North Korea relationship to a historical low by prioritizing nuclear weapons and missiles development then harshly criticizing Beijing for supporting sanctions, Kim managed to quickly repair ties, said Zhao Tong, a strategic security expert in Beijing.

China now accounts for the vast majority of North Korea's limited international trade, and the current governments in both countries share the goals of promoting socialist ideology and countering Western influence, Zhao said.

“Despite Kim’s preference of diversifying North Korea’s international partnerships, he is likely to continue relying heavily on support from China and a small number of other like-minded countries,” he said.

Tightening control

In his early years, Kim Jong Un experimented with economic reform in order to generate the surpluses he needed to run the patronage networks that sustain autocratic rule, said Green.

“But it appears the risks of and opposition to this became too great in time, and he dialled it back,” he said.

A United Nations rights investigator has warned that vulnerable populations in North Korea risk starvation if the economic and food situation is not reversed.

The pandemic has seen the government further strengthen its grip on the economy, casting doubt on the future of the black markets and as well as official businesses that many North Koreans had come to rely on.

Kim's rule has seen the proliferation of new technologies such as cellphones in North Korea, but activists say he has simultaneously adopted a more high-tech approach to surveillance and oppressive political control as he seeks to outlaw and stamp out foreign influence and any hint of domestic protest.

Still, it's not too late for Kim to make good on promises to improve lives in North Korea if he embraces diplomacy, said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a Korea expert at King's College London.

“Ultimately, Kim’s time in power could be defined by his ability to raise the living standards of ordinary North Koreans once the pandemic is over,” he said.

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US: Bodies of two of three missing kids found in Minnesota lake

The bodies of two young children have been recovered from a Minnesota lake, and searchers are still looking for a third they fear may have been intentionally drowned.

Meanwhile, the father of the children died at a different location hours earlier, and their mother is missing. Names have not been released.

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The chain of events began Friday morning when the father was found dead at a mobile home park in the town of Maplewood, near Minneapolis. Police determined that the woman had left with the children, and a search began.

Maplewood Police Lt. Joe Steiner said the woman’s car was found near Vadnais Lake around 4 p.m. Friday. The shoes of the children were found on the shore.

A search of the lake found one child’s body Friday evening. A second body was found overnight. Searchers from several organizations were busy Saturday looking for the third, as well as the mother.

Authorities believe all three children were under the age of 5.

“There’s nothing more tragic than the loss of young children,” Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher said at a news conference on Friday. He called the deaths a “likely triple homicide.”

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Foreign firefighters arrive in Greece for summer wildfire season

Several dozen Romanian and Bulgarian firefighters took up their posts in Greece on Saturday, the first members of a European force being deployed to the country to provide backup in case of major wildfires during the summer.

More than 200 firefighters and equipment from Bulgaria, France, Germany, Romania, Norway and Finland will be on standby during the hottest months of July and August in Greece, where a spate of wildfires caused devastation last summer.

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A group of 28 Romanian firefighters with eight vehicles, and 16 firefighters from Bulgaria with four vehicles, were the first to arrive for the two-month mission, financed and coordinated under the European Union’s civil protection mechanism.

“We thank you very much for coming to help us during a difficult summer for our country, and for proving that European solidarity is not just theoretical, it’s real,” Greek Civil Protection Minister Christos Stylianides said on Saturday as he welcomed the members of the Romanian mission in Athens.

“When things get tough, you will be side by side with our Greek firefighters so we can save lives and property.”

The Bulgarian firefighters have been stationed in Larissa, in central Greece.

Last summer’s wildfires ravaged about 300,000 acres (121,000 hectares) of forest and bushland in different parts of Greece as the country experienced its worst heatwave in 30 years.

Following sharp criticism of its response to the fires, the Greek government set up a new civil protection ministry and promised to boost firefighting capacities.

In Greece’s worst wildfire disaster, 102 people were killed when a blaze tore through the seaside town of Mati and nearby areas close to Athens during the summer of 2018.

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One killed, six injured in shootout between migrant groups in Serbia

One migrant was killed and at least six others, including a teenage girl, were injured Saturday in a shootout between migrant groups in Serbia near the Hungarian border, the state-run RTS television reported.

The 16-year-old girl sustained life threatening injuries in the incident that occurred in a forest in the outskirts of Subotica, some 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Belgrade, where the injured were hospitalized, RTS reported.

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Police, who made no immediate comment, blocked access to the forest where the incident took place, only around a kilometer from the Hungarian border.

Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin rushed to the scene.

The injured, aged between 20 and 30, have no documents, Subotica mayor Stevan Bakic told local media.

It is not known what triggered the incident, he added.

Local media reported that the shootout occurred between Afghan and Pakistani migrants most likely over human trafficking from the area to European Union member Hungary.

Serbia lies on the so-called Balkans route used by migrants heading towards Western Europe as they flee war and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Although the route is nowhere as busy as it was during Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015, tens of thousands of illegal migrants still cross the region annually.

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