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N Korea at crossroads

Heir to Kim bloodline looms over sanctions-battered regime

Dissident group that protected North Korean leader's nephew emerges from shadows

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un faces the challenge of shoring up support at home while a dissident group stirs abroad.   © KCNA via Reuters

SEOUL -- In the weeks since returning empty-handed from a late-February summit with the U.S., North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's troubles have only grown, with a resistance group starting to move against his government even as sanctions hamstring the economy.

An organization called Free Joseon took credit last month for a Feb. 22 raid on a North Korean embassy in Madrid, from which it stole computers and mobile phones and shared information with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The North remained silent on the matter until March 31, when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs finally released a statement.

The ministry said it expects that Spanish authorities will investigate "in a responsible manner" to "bring the terrorists and their wire-pullers to justice in conformity with the relevant international law." It is following "rumors" that the FBI and a "small fry" anti-Pyongyang group were involved in the incident, the statement said.

The problem goes beyond passing encrypted materials to American intelligence. Free Joseon is the only organization to declare itself a "provisional government" of North Korea and take real action against the regime in Pyongyang.

The Chosun Ilbo, a major South Korean newspaper, has speculated that the group's ultimate goal may be to foment a popular uprising.

Spanish authorities said the raid was led by U.S. resident Adrian Hong Chang. He had planned to establish a North Korean government-in-exile since around 2013, according to a former senior South Korean official, and had contacted Kim Jong Nam -- Kim Jong Un's paternal half brother -- through defectors multiple times to ask him to lead it.

The goal was to leverage the myth of the "Mt. Paektu bloodline," the term used for the descendants of Kim Il Sung, the country's revered founding father, who is said to have fought against the Japanese on the sacred mountain. This idea underpins the legitimacy of Kim Jong Un's rule, and as such, Free Joseon's efforts to co-opt the claim pose a unique threat.

Kim Jong Nam was assassinated in Malaysia in February 2017, with North Korean agents believed to have been involved in the incident. Free Joseon -- then known as Cheollima Civil Defense -- secretly escorted his son, Kim Han Sol, and two other family members to safety and posted a video of the younger Kim online as proof. Kim Han Sol is reportedly now living in the U.S. under American protection.

"We are now preparing big things," a March 31 statement on Free Joseon's website says. "Until then, we will keep the silence of the night before the storm."

Meanwhile, reports since the summit indicate that the North's economy has deteriorated further as sanctions relief failed to materialize. Online newspaper DailyNK reported Tuesday that many state-run enterprises in Pyongyang, along with a mine jointly operated with China, were forced to halt operations.

The Rodong Sinmun, a mouthpiece of the ruling Workers' Party, recently ran an editorial acknowledging the country's dire straits, calling the troubles of this decade the hardest trial faced by the country in its history.

And Kim Jong Un's sudden talk last year of denuclearization, just as the almost half-century-old nuclear program that began under Kim Il Sung was nearing completion, is said to have dismayed some in the North Korean military.

Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui acknowledged opposition to denuclearization in a meeting last month with foreign media and diplomats, saying Kim Jong Un had received thousands of petitions from military and munitions industry officials urging him to reconsider.

For Kim's government, as for any authoritarian regime, the military is a crucial tool of control but also a potential threat. The North Korean leader is taking steps to address his forces' complaints.

At a meeting of Korean People's Army company commanders and political instructors last month -- the first of its kind in more than five years -- Kim said the situation demands an unprecedented increase in the military's combat capabilities.

He also hinted at a tougher stance in his New Year's address. If the U.S. "persists in imposing sanctions and pressure against our republic, we may be compelled to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country and the supreme interests of the state," he said.

But a careful balance is needed. Alienating the U.S. by insisting on keeping his nuclear program could lose Kim the security guarantee and economic development assistance he now hopes to gain from the negotiations.

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