Case of missing China scholar rattles compatriots at U.S. colleges

Chinese student Yingying Zhang is seen in a still image from security camera video taken outside an MTD Teal line bus in Urbana, Illinois, U.S. June 9, 2017. University of Illinois Police/Handout via REUTERS

By Julia Jacobs

CHICAGO(Reuters) – For many of the 300,000 Chinese students at U.S. colleges and their parents back home, the presumed kidnapping of a visiting scholar at the University of Illinois confirmed their worst fears about coming to America to study.

Xinyi Zhang, a 21-year-old student from China who is studying accounting at the same Illinois school that the missing woman was attending, said the case has stirred deep anxiety for her and her family in China.

She said she had tried to shield her parents from details of the disappearance of Yingying Zhang, 26, who came to Illinois several months ago to study photosynthesis and crop productivity. But the Chinese media had covered the story too closely to keep them in the dark.

“I just don’t want them to be panicked,” said Xinyi Zhang, who is not related to the missing woman. “I am the only child they have, and the risk of losing me is just too huge to handle.”

The business school student, who is home for the summer before returning to Illinois next month for her senior year, said her parents worry about her going back to her off-campus apartment. They have even suggested she apply to graduate school in a different country.

The case came to a head this month when a 28-year-old former Illinois graduate student, Brendt Christensen, was charged with kidnapping Zhang, who went missing on June 9. Authorities believe she is dead, though no body has been found.

Her misfortune has become a near-obsession with many of the 300,000 Chinese international students at U.S. colleges and their parents half a world away, lighting up social media and animating long-distance phone calls.

State-sponsored Chinese news media outlets have framed the case as emblematic of a security problem in the United States. The People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, wrote earlier this month that the kidnapping shows that China is “much safer” than America.

On Weibo, a Chinese blogging site, commenters have repeatedly questioned the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s effectiveness in investigating the case, said Berlin Fang, a Chinese newspaper columnist based in the United States.

Xiaotong Gui, a 20-year-old math student at Pomona College outside Los Angeles, said reading about the case made her feel unsafe on her own campus nearly 2,000 miles (3,200 km) from the Illinois university, which draws thousands of students from China.

On Johns Hopkins University’s Baltimore campus, Luorongxin Yuan, a 20-year-old biology student from outside Nanjing, said the fact that the accused kidnapper was a graduate student has made her mother particularly anxious. “She doesn’t trust anyone here anymore,” Yuan said.

Before Christensen’s arrest, federal agents put him under surveillance and heard him say that he had kidnapped Zhang, court documents show. A search of the suspect’s cellphone revealed that he had visited a website that included threads on “perfect abduction fantasy.”

His attorney has said his client is still presumed innocent. If convicted, Christensen could face up to life in prison.

Shen Qiwen, a spokesman for the Chinese consulate in Chicago, said Chinese officials hoped the FBI would step up efforts to find the missing scholar. The FBI is involved in the case because kidnapping is a federal crime. A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Illinois business student Xinyi Zhang said many Chinese students are hoping for a miracle.

“That could be me,” she said. “For some reason I’m still holding my hope, though, that there’s a tiny, tiny chance that she’s alive right now.”

(Reporting by Julia Jacobs; editing by Frank McGurty and Jonathan Oatis)

China’s Xi talks tough on Hong Kong as tens of thousands call for democracy

Pro-democracy protesters carry a banner which reads "One Country, Two Systems, a cheating for twenty years. Recapture Hong Kong with democracy and self-determination", during a demonstration on the 20th anniversary of the territory's handover from Britain to Chinese rule, in Hong Kong, China July 1, 2017. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

By James Pomfret and Venus Wu

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Chinese President Xi Jinping swore in Hong Kong’s new leader on Saturday with a stark warning that Beijing won’t tolerate any challenge to its authority in the divided city as it marked the 20th anniversary of its return from Britain to China.

Police blocked roads, preventing pro-democracy protesters from getting to the harbor-front venue close to where the last colonial governor, Chris Patten, tearfully handed back Hong Kong to China in the pouring rain in 1997.

Xi said Hong Kong should crack down on moves towards “Hong Kong independence”.

“Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government … or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line and is absolutely impermissible,” Xi said.

He also referred to the “humiliation and sorrow” China suffered during the first Opium War in the early 1840s that led to ceding Hong Kong to the British.

Hong Kong has been racked by demands for full democracy and, more recently, by calls by some pockets of protesters for independence, a subject that is anathema to Beijing.

Xi’s speech was his strongest yet to the city amid concerns over what some perceive as increased meddling by Beijing, illustrated in recent years by the abduction by mainland agents of some Hong Kong booksellers and Beijing’s efforts in disqualifying two pro-independence lawmakers elected to the city legislature.

“It’s a more frank and pointed way of dealing with the problems,” said former senior Hong Kong government adviser Lau Siu-kai on Hong Kong’s Cable Television. “The central government’s power hasn’t been sufficiently respected… they’re concerned about this.”

The tightly choreographed visit was full of pro-China rhetoric amid a virtually unprecedented security lockdown close to the scene of pro-democracy protests in 2014 that grabbed global headlines with clashes and tear gas rising between waterfront skyscrapers.

Xi did not make contact with the people in the street or with any pro-democracy voices, forgoing an opportunity to lower the political heat through a softer, more nuanced approach.

The hardening stance of the democrats and Beijing could perhaps widen, spawning greater radicalism, though some activists also concede a spreading disillusionment has sapped momentum among the democracy movement since Xi came to power.

Under the mini-constitution, the Basic Law, Hong Kong is guaranteed wide-ranging autonomy for “at least 50 years” after 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula praised by Xi. It also specifies universal suffrage as an eventual goal.

But Beijing’s refusal to grant full democracy triggered the nearly three months of street protests in 2014 that posed one of the greatest populist challenges to Beijing in decades.


In the afternoon, tens of thousands gathered in sweltering heat in a sprawling park named after Britain’s Queen Victoria, demanding Xi allow universal suffrage. Organizers put the figure at more than 60,000.

“Xi shouldn’t be interfering in Hong Kong too much,” Peter Lau, a 20-year-old university student, said. “Despite him visiting garrisons and muscle-flexing, Hong Kong people’s confidence will never be shaken. Especially for our generation. We should … fight for our freedom.”

Some demonstrators marched with yellow umbrellas, a symbol of democratic activism in the city, and held banners denouncing China’s Communist “one party rule”.

Others criticized China’s Foreign Ministry which on Friday said the “Joint Declaration” with Britain over Hong Kong, a treaty laying the blueprint over how the city would be ruled after 1997, “no longer has any practical significance”.

At the end of the rally a simple white banner read: “Cry in grief for 20 years.”

[For a link to Reuters handover stories,]

Xi in the morning addressed a packed hall of mostly pro-Beijing establishment figures, after swearing in Hong Kong’s first female leader, Carrie Lam, who was strongly backed by China.

Xi hinted that the central government was in favor of Hong Kong introducing “national security” legislation, a controversial issue that brought nearly half a million people to the streets in protest in 2003 and ultimately forced former leader Tung Chee-hwa to step down.

A small group of pro-democracy activists near the venue were roughed up by a group of men who smashed up some props in ugly scuffles. Nine democracy protesters, including student leader Joshua Wong and lawmaker “long hair” Leung Kwok-hung, were bundled into police vans while several pro-China groups remained, cheering loudly and waving red China flags.

The activists, in a later statement, said the assailants had been “pro-Beijing triad members”.


(Additional reporting by Clare Jim, William Ho, Jasper Ng, Doris Huang and Susan Gao; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie)

North Korea says American was detained for ‘attempted subversion’

FILE PHOTO - A North Korean flag flies on a mast at the Permanent Mission of North Korea in Geneva October 2, 2014. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo

By Ju-min Park

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea said on Wednesday an American man it had detained in late April, the third U.S. citizen being held by the isolated country, was intercepted because he was attempting to commit “hostile acts”.

The state-run KCNA news agency said the American, identified last month as Kim Sang Dok, was arrested on April 22 at the Pyongyang airport for committing “hostile criminal acts with an aim to subvert the country”.

The latest information about Kim’s detention comes as tensions on the Korean peninsula run high, driven by concerns that the North might conduct its sixth nuclear test in defiance of U.S. pressure and United Nations sanctions.

The United States is negotiating with China, North Korea’s sole major ally, about a stronger U.N. Security Council response, although Washington has also reiterated that all options for dealing with the North remain on the table.

North Korea, which has been criticized for its human rights record, has in the past used detained Americans to extract high-profile visits from the United States, with which it has no formal diplomatic relations.

KCNA said on Wednesday Kim had taught an accounting course in Pyongyang.

“Invited to Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) to teach accounting as a professor, he was intercepted for committing criminal acts of hostility aimed to overturn the DPRK not only in the past but also during his last stay before interception,” KCNA news agency said, using North Korea’s official name of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Law enforcement officials were investigating Kim’s alleged crime, it said.

Kim, who also goes by his English name Tony Kim and is in his 50s, was detained at Pyongyang International Airport as he attempted to leave the country, the university’s chancellor had said previously.

PUST said in an email to Reuters that it did not believe Kim’s detention was related to his work at the university.

A PUST spokesman, who asked not to be identified, said Kim’s wife, who was with him when he was arrested, had since returned to the United States.

“Mrs Kim left the DPRK and is now back in the USA with family and friends,” the spokesman said. “We certainly hope for a positive resolution as soon as possible.”

The other two Americans already held in North Korea are Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old student, and Kim Dong Chul, a 62-year-old Korean-American missionary.

Warmbier was detained in January 2016 and sentenced to 15 years hard labor for attempting to steal a propaganda banner.

Two months later, Kim Dong Chul was sentenced to 10 years hard labor for subversion. Neither has appeared in public since their sentencing.

(Reporting by Ju-min Park; Editing by Paul Tait)

China tightens rules on online news, network providers

A map of China is seen through a magnifying glass on a computer screen showing binary digits in Singapore in this January 2, 2014 photo illustration. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo

BEIJING (Reuters) – China on Tuesday issued tighter rules for online news portals and network providers, the latest step in President Xi Jinping’s push to secure the internet and maintain strict party control over content.

Xi has made China’s “cyber sovereignty” a top priority in his sweeping campaign to bolster security. He has also reasserted the ruling Communist Party’s role in limiting and guiding online discussion.

The new regulations, released by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) on its website, extend restrictions on what news can be produced and distributed by online platforms, requiring all services to be managed by party-sanctioned editorial staff.

The rules, which come into effect on June 1, apply to all political, economic, military, or diplomatic reports or opinion articles on blogs, websites, forums, search engines, instant messaging apps and all other platforms that select or edit news and information, the administration said.

All such platforms must have editorial staff who are approved by the national or local government internet and information offices, while their workers must get training and reporting credentials from the central government, it said.

Editorial work must be separate from business operations and only public funds can be used to pay for any work, it added.

Under the rules, editorial guidance measures used for the mainstream media will be applied to online providers to ensure they too adhere to the party line, such as requiring “emergency response” measures to increase vetting of content after disasters.

The rules also stipulate that a domestic business that wants to set up a joint venture with a foreign partner, or accept foreign funding, must be assessed by the State Internet Information Office.

Content on China’s internet has never been free of government censorship, though a number of internet companies run news portals that produce relatively independent reporting and opinion pieces.

A number of these platforms were shut down last year, after Xi in April called in a speech for better regulation of China’s internet.

The CAC separately on Tuesday released another set of rules that on June 1 will require “network providers and products” used by people who might touch upon “national security and the public interest” go through a new round of security reviews.

Beijing adopted a cyber security law last year that overseas critics say could shut foreign businesses out of various sectors in China.

(Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Venezuela protests spread to poor areas, two more deaths amid unrest

Riot police fire tear gas during a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Christian Veron

By Alexandra Ulmer and Corina Pons

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelans in poor areas blocked streets and lit fires during scattered protests across the country on Tuesday night, and two people were killed during the growing unrest in the midst of a crippling economic crisis.

In a worrying sign for leftist President Nicolas Maduro, groups in Caracas’ traditionally pro-government hillside slums and low-income neighborhoods took to the streets, witnesses and opposition lawmakers reported.

Maduro foes were galvanized by footage of a crowd in the south-eastern Bolivar state heckling and throwing objects at the closely-protected leader during a rally on Tuesday, before state television cut off the broadcast.

In the western Lara state, two people, aged 13 and 36, were killed during unrest on Tuesday, the state prosecutor’s office said in a statement. Lara’s opposition governor Henri Falcon blamed violence on “infiltrators” and “delinquents” who roamed on motorcycles after an energy blackout.

“They go by neighborhoods and shoot people who are protesting,” said Falcon, a former member of the ruling party, urging a negotiation to end Venezuela’s political crisis.

The opposition says Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader who took office four years ago, has morphed into a dictator after a Supreme Court decision in late March to assume the functions of the opposition-led congress.

The court quickly overturned the most controversial part of its decision, but the move breathed new life into the fractured opposition movement.

Two young men had already been killed in protests during the last week, according to authorities. Many are bracing for further violence in a country that is racked by crime and has one of the world’s highest murder rates.

Witnesses said residents of a number of working-class Caracas neighborhoods blocked streets with trash or burning debris on Tuesday night, describing confused street melees and clashes with security forces. The capital appeared calm on Wednesday, although some roads were charred and littered with broken glass.

Government officials did not provide an official account of the events, and the Information Ministry did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Maduro has said that under a veneer of pacifism, a U.S.-backed right-wing opposition is encouraging violent protests in a bid to topple his government and get its hands on Venezuela’s oil wealth.

On Wednesday night, he said the heckling incident a day earlier in the city of San Felix was an opposition attempt to “ambush” him that was thwarted by his loyalists.

“They had prepared an ambush and the people neutralized it,” he said. “I want to thank the people of San Felix for their expressions of fervor, passion, love and support.”


Maduro’s adversaries are demanding the government call delayed state elections, which polls suggest would not go well for the ruling Socialists. They also want an early presidential vote after authorities quashed a recall referendum against Maduro last year.

A ban on opposition leader Henrique Capriles from holding office for 15 years drew broad criticism as he was seen as the opposition’s best presidential hope.

But it is Venezuela’s extended economic crisis that has ordinary people fuming.

Venezuelans have been suffering food and medicine shortages for months, leading many to skip meals or go without crucial treatment. Lines of hundreds form in front of supermarkets as people jostle for hours under the hot sun hoping price-controlled rice or flour will be delivered.

The crisis has especially hurt the poor, long the base of support of Maduro and his predecessor the late Hugo Chavez.

Protesters say they have also been encouraged by stronger condemnation from American and European nations in the last two weeks.

“We cannot accept that the regime is willing to sacrifice Venezuelan lives to remain in power,” said Luis Almagro, the head of the Organization of American States, in a video posted on Wednesday, urging elections.

Another round of protests are planned for Thursday in Venezuela’s more than 300 municipalities. Opposition leaders are calling for the “mother of all marches” on April 19.


Amid what the opposition coalition says is a crackdown on dissent, some 71 people were arrested on Tuesday, according to rights group Penal Forum.

In total, 364 people were arrested between April 4-12 during the most sustained protests since 2014, with 183 people still behind bars, the group added.

A group of young men and teenagers were arrested for throwing “sharp objects” against Maduro’s vehicle on Tuesday night, according to a report by a local National Guard division seen by Reuters. Two sources told Reuters the protesters were hurling stones.

Local media reported lootings overnight in the working class bedroom community of Guarenas outside Caracas, as well as in parts of the capital.

State officials have tweeted images and videos of demonstrators vandalizing public property and throwing rocks at police.

Despite the spiking tensions, many in the opposition worry extended protests will not spur early or fair elections, but rather increase clashes in the already turbulent country.

Major anti-government protests in 2014 eventually floundered, though the opposition at the time did not have as clear-cut demands, poor neighborhoods largely abstained, and the economy was in better shape.

(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea, Brian Ellsworth, Diego Ore, Miguel Angel Sulbaran, Liamar Ramos, Maria Ramirez, Deisy Buitrago and Mircely Guanipa; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Hay and Michael Perry)

Woken up before 5 a.m. to see North Korea’s leader, five hours later

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his sister Kim Yo Jong attend an opening ceremony of a newly constructed residential complex in Ryomyong street in Pyongyang, North Korea April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

By Sue-Lin Wong

PYONGYANG (Reuters) – It’s unusual being a foreign correspondent in North Korea, as a team from Reuters, among scores of journalists visiting the reclusive state, found out on Thursday.

Invited to Pyongyang for this week’s celebrations of the 105th birth anniversary of founder president Kim Il Sung, the journalists were herded together for hours, not allowed water and not given access to phones – to attend a street opening by North Korea’s current leader, his grandson Kim Jong Un.

The preparations began on Wednesday night when North Korean government minders rushed into the media center at our hotel just after 10 p.m., told us to stop working and pack up our laptops because “you won’t be coming back here tonight.”

Gathered in the lobby, we were told there would be a “big and important” event on Thursday. With tensions high because of the possibility that Pyongyang may conduct a nuclear or long-range missile test in defiance of U.S. warnings of retaliation, the words were striking.

Our minders refused to give details. Just bring your passports and cameras, nothing else. No phones, no laptops, no water.

“No water?” we ask.

One of our government minders, Ri Hyon Mu, shifted awkwardly.

“I am being very direct now. Please urinate and excrete before the event as there will be no water closets.”

No more details were given, except to be ready for a 6 a.m. start.

At 4.45 a.m., the phone rang. It was Ri. Our wake-up call had been pushed forward.

Soon, the hotel lobby was thronging with journalists from around the world, armed with video and photo cameras, all with blue armbands with white letters that read “journalist” in Korean.

We were piled into buses that weaved through the manicured streets of Pyongyang as the sun rose. Groups of men in grey suits and women in colorful dresses, many holding bunches of red and pink plastic flowers, were walking briskly, a sign we were headed to a mass rally of some sort.

We arrived at the People’s Palace of Culture for what turned into a two-hour security check, where our wallets and chocolate were taken away and tied up in black plastic bags.

The Reuters team boarded a bus after the security check, only for a minder to shout at us to get off – “This bus is for Americans only!”

“That’s the imperialist bus,” O Kum Sok, another minder, explained with a grin, as we got into another bus.


We set off again at around 7.30 a.m., passing crowds of North Koreans, some squatting, most standing. Our buses stopped just past the Chinese embassy, one of the largest foreign missions in the city.

We are at Ryomyong, a new residential street, constructed, we were told, in less than a year, lined with more than twenty buildings, each about thirty or forty-plus storeys.

Soon, tens of thousands of North Koreans had gathered in the area, some in military dress, most in traditional suits and dresses holding balloons, plastic flowers and North Korean flags. They looked curiously at us, some smiling slightly.

A brass band played as the square filled up. Then around 10 a.m. the crowd fell silent.

Suddenly, there was fervent clapping and cheering, balloons bobbing, flags flapping. Kim Jong Un and top government officials walked onto the stage to a fanfare from the brass band reserved to mark his public appearances.

It is “a very significant, great event, more powerful than the explosion of hundreds of nuclear bombs on the top of the enemies’ heads,” said North Korea’s premier Pak Pong Ju, the main speaker at the opening ceremony.

The completion of Ryomyong Street is one of the examples of “a brilliant victory based on self-reliance and self-development against maneuvers by the U.S. and vassal forces”, he said, using the state’s typical descriptions of the United States and its allies.

A translation of the speech was provided when we returned to the hotel.

Kim did not speak but clapped intermittently. After about twenty minutes of speeches, a thick, red ribbon was unfurled on stage. Kim cut the ribbon and was whisked away in a shiny black Mercedes as his sister Kim Yo Jong bowed deeply. Ryomyong Street was officially open.

(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

China’s new civil code light on individual rights reforms

China's President Xi Jinping and other delegates listen as China's Premier Li Keqiang (not pictured) delivers a government work report during the opening session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

By Christian Shepherd

BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s Communist leaders will this week introduce sweeping new laws that codify social responsibilities for the country’s 1.4 billion citizens while also providing some modest new protections.

The preamble of what state media is calling China’s “declaration of rights” will be announced on Wednesday and is expected to be passed by the close of the National People’s Congress (NPC) on March 15, paving the way for more detailed laws expected to be passed in 2020.

The changes are part of President Xi Jinping’s wider push to align the legal system with the country’s social and economic modernization and for some legal reformers, the code is a test of how far China will go in allowing civil liberties that might impinge upon state power.

“Civil law is the fundamental doctrine for a country’s legal system, the source of its basic essence,” Liang Ying, head of the NPC Legislative Affairs Research institute, told state media on Sunday.

“A foundational civil (law) system is an important sign of whether a country’s legal system is mature.”

Xi has made governing the nation by law a top priority of his tenure though he has drawn a line at allowing the courts to expand their power at the expense of the Communist Party’s control.

Since pledging to reform and open in 1978, China has been gradually shifting its legal system away from a socialist law towards something closer to a European-style legal system.

In 2011, China declared that “socialist legal system with Chinese characteristics” had been established, but officials themselves say China’s laws remains a work in progress.


The preamble, which was released in draft form to the public in June last year, seeks to address some of the legal issues that have gnawed at public consciousness in recent years, such as who is responsible for China’s abandoned children and elderly, or what protections cover so-called “Good Samaritans”.

China’s incomplete legal system was heavily criticized for an incident in 2011 when multiple passersby ignored a toddler knocked to the ground in a hit-and-run.

Shocked observers said the lack of clarity on civil rights leaves helpers at risk of liability when coming to the aid of strangers.

Reformers also hope the code will resolve the issue of guardianship for “left behind” children whose parents work away from home and “empty nest” elderly folk who are similarly abandoned by their children.

One issue that lawyers say remains mostly unresolved in the draft code is that of property rights.

Most Chinese homeowners do not legally own the land on which their homes are built. Instead, they lease the rights to use the property for a limited number of years from the government, an arrangement that creates uncertainty for buyers.

“Whether farmers or city folk, businessman or scientists, an inability to guarantee your own property in the way that other nations allow will impact social stability,” said Li Shu, a lawyer at Anli Law Firm in Beijing.

But Philip Cheng, a lawyer at Hogan Lovells in Shanghai, said a provision in the current draft requiring civil activities to be carried out in a “fair” and “reasonable” manner could help with certain property disputes.

It may, for example, allow companies and individuals to be paid market rates for land that is rezoned to produce new housing in major cities or make way for industrial development, he said.


Many legal experts say the latest draft of general rules that form the basis of the code falls short of enshrining sweeping private rights and makes little progress in key areas including property and civil liberties.

Another issue: how far the code will go in defending the rights of individuals, known as “personality rights”, a broad term Chinese legal experts use to talk about the basic rights each individual should enjoy.

Health, reputation, image, name and freedom are included, but the term is significantly narrower and de-politicized compared to human rights, according to Chinese academics.

Proponents of individual rights have called for a dedicated section of the code, while others worry granting too many private rights could lead to revolution.

The current scope of personality rights in the draft rules makes them “seriously imbalanced”, according to Xu Xianming, deputy chairman of the National People’s Legal Association, an advocate for more personal freedoms being included in the code.

“First, the list of rights is incomplete; second, the number of rights is insufficient; third, the civil rights system is curtailed,” Xu wrote last year in an essay for the official magazine of China’s parliament.

As China’s constitution cannot be cited in court, rights must be passed by parliament before can they be protected, Xu argued.

China’s constitution on paper promises freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly among others. In practice, however, such provisions are not considered legally actionable and the party’s right to govern as it sees fit takes precedent.

Liang Huixing, a scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has repeatedly warned that writing personality rights into the civil code might lead to a “color revolution” in China, referring to mass political movements in former Soviet Union states in the early 2000s.

(Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Tony Munroe and Sam Holmes)

North Korean elite turning against leader Kim: defector

North Korea leader Kim Jong Un

By James Pearson

SEOUL (Reuters) – The North Korean elite are outwardly expressing their discontent towards young leader Kim Jong Un and his government as more outside information trickles into the isolated country, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador to London said on Wednesday.

Thae Yong Ho defected to South Korea in August last year and since December 2016 has been speaking to media and appearing on variety television shows to discuss his defection to Seoul and his life as a North Korean envoy.

“When Kim Jong Un first came to power, I was hopeful that he would make reasonable and rational decisions to save North Korea from poverty, but I soon fell into despair watching him purging officials for no proper reasons,” Thae said during his first news conference with foreign media on Wednesday.

“Low-level dissent or criticism of the regime, until recently unthinkable, is becoming more frequent,” said Thae, who spoke in fluent, British-accented English.

“We have to spray gasoline on North Korea, and let the North Korean people set fire to it.”

Thae, 54, has said publicly that dissatisfaction with Kim Jong Un prompted him to flee his post. Two university-age sons living with him and his wife in London also defected with him.

North and South Korea are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The North, which is subject to U.N. sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs, regularly threatens to destroy the South and its main ally, the United States.

Thae is the most senior official to have fled North Korea and entered public life in the South since the 1997 defection of Hwang Jang Yop, the brains behind the North’s governing ideology, “Juche”, which combines Marxism and extreme nationalism.

Today’s North Korean system had “nothing to do with true communism”, Thae said, adding that the elite, like himself, had watched with unease as countries like Cambodia, Vietnam and the former Soviet Union embraced economic and social reforms.

Thae has said that more North Korean diplomats are waiting in Europe to defect to South Korea.

North Korea still outwardly professes to maintain a Soviet-style command economy, but for years a thriving network of informal markets and person-to-person trading has become the main source of food and money for ordinary people.

Fully embracing these reforms would end Kim Jong Un’s rule, Thae said. Asked if Kim Jong Un’s brother, Kim Jong Chol, could run the country instead, Thae remained skeptical.

“Kim Jong Chol has no interest in politics. He is only interested in music,” Thae said.

“He’s only interested in Eric Clapton. If he was a normal man, I’m sure he’d be a very good professional guitarist”.

(Reporting by James Pearson; Editing by Nick Macfie)

U.S. blacklists North Korean officials over rights abuses

Kim Jong Un leader of North Korea leading a meeting

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Treasury Department has added seven senior North Korean officials, including leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, to its sanctions list because of human rights abuses and censorship by the communist nation.

The department said in a statement on Wednesday that its Office of Foreign Assets Control added six men and one woman, all officials of the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, along with the Ministry of Labor and the State Planning Commission, to the Specially Designated Nationals List.

“The North Korean regime not only engages in severe human rights abuses, but it also implements rigid censorship policies and conceals its inhumane and oppressive behavior,” acting OFAC Director John Smith said in the statement, adding that the move aimed to expose the individuals responsible for the abuses.

The U.S. State Department said in a separate statement that the action coincided with the release of its second report on North Korean human rights abuses and censorship, which it called among the worst in the world.

Pyongyang “continues to commit extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrest and detention, forced labor, and torture. Many of these abuses are committed in the political prison camps, where an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 individuals are detained, including children and family members of those subject to persecution and censorship,” the State Department statement said.

Among seven individuals on the Treasury Department blacklist is Kim Yo Jong, 27, who it said is the younger sister of leader Kim Jong Un, as well as the vice director of the Workers’ Party of Korea Propaganda and Agitation Department.

Also on the list is Minister of State Security Kim Won Hong, whose agency the department said “engages in torture and inhumane treatment of detainees during interrogation and in the country’s network of political prison camps.”

(Reporting by Tim Ahmann; Writing by Eric Walsh; Editing by Tom Brown and Steve Orlofsky)

Venezuelans revel in pots-and-pans protests after Maduro humiliation

people banging pots in Venezuela

By Alexandra Ulmer

MARACAIBO, Venezuela (Reuters) – For over a decade, Venezuelan opposition supporters would clang pots and pans on balconies of middle-class apartments to protest late leader Hugo Chavez’s self-styled “21st century socialism.”

While sometimes deafening, the protests never seemed to get under the skin of the charismatic leftist, whose supporters often countered with fireworks from shanty towns, and many in the opposition ended up deeming them futile.

But the ‘cacerolazo’, as such protests are known round South America, returned with a bang a few days ago when a pot-wielding crowd ran after Chavez’s unpopular successor Nicolas Maduro in a previously pro-government working class neighborhood of Margarita island.

Amazed and amused by the sight of the normally hyper-protected Maduro humiliated in public, opposition supporters are now flaunting their kitchenware nationwide to taunt the man they blame for a dire economic crisis that has many families skipping meals.

“Now it feels completely different because there’s no food, there’s hunger, and this thug we have as president is scared of ‘cacerolazos’!” said protester Migdalia Ortega, 59, beside a handful of women banging pots along a main avenue in Maracaibo, an oil city full of shuttered stores and littered with garbage.

“We had stopped using the pots and pans in marches but now we’re going to bring them every time,” she added, as a few hundred protesters prepared to march under the sizzling tropical sun to demand a recall referendum against Maduro.

The former bus driver and union leader has not spoken publicly about the incident in Margarita, which sparked a frenzy of jokes and cartoons. One showed him overtaking Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt to avoid pots being thrown his way.

Government officials say the grainy videos of Maduro surrounded by jeering protesters were “manipulated” by pro-opposition media and maintain he was actually cheered by supporters after inspecting state housing projects.

Still, authorities briefly rounded up more than 30 people for heckling him. A prominent journalist is in jail – and charged with money laundering – after publicizing the protest.

Recalling protests against government members at restaurants, houses and even funeral parlors, Socialist Party lawmaker Elias Jaua said pots-and-pans protests should be considered a punishable offense if they promote “intolerance.”

During Chavez’s 14-year rule, their use reached a crescendo around a failed 36-hour coup attempt in 2002 and a strike that crippled the oil industry from late that year into 2003.


“The ‘cacerolazo’ is even more relevant today because it is a symbol of rebellion,” said artist Cecilia Leonardi, 54, who said she has cut back on meat and legumes because they are unavailable or too expensive, while banging a pot in Maracaibo.

‘Cacerolazos’ came to the fore under Chile’s late socialist President Salvador Allende in the early 1970s, when middle- and upper-class women would bang on pots to protest shortages.

They transcend political lines: ‘cacerolazos’ have taken place this year against both Argentina’s center-right president Mauricio Macri and Brazil’s now-ousted leftist leader Dilma Rousseff.

In Venezuela, ‘cacerolazos’ have been a defining symbol of anti-socialist opponents, many of whom come from the middle and upper classes. Chavez, who died from cancer in 2013, used to mock them as a “parasitic bourgeoisie” intent on getting its hands back on the OPEC country’s oil reserves.

One government-employed ‘Chavista’ in western Zulia state said she was becoming disillusioned with Maduro but still did not have faith in his opponents.

“The ‘cacerolazos’ are useless: why doesn’t the opposition give us (policy) proposals instead?” she said, asking to remain anonymous because she feared for her job at a state university.

“If they put forward a coherent proposal, even I would join them. But for now I’ll stick to the devil I know.”

Some former government supporters, however, are now joining the pots-and-pans protests.

Suffering a third year of recession and triple-digit inflation, many poor Venezuelans say they are skipping meals and forgoing protein-rich meats and beans as they often emerge empty-handed from shops despite hours in line.

“Sometimes we only eat once a day,” said Marjorie Rodriguez, an angry former Chavez supporter and mother-of-three, who described putting on a shirt and hat in the colors of the national flag earlier this week to bang pots in her poor

Ciudad Ojeda neighborhood, next to oil-rich Maracaibo Lake.

“We have to get rid of this president so that products start arriving again,” said Rodriguez, stood in a hot line under the midday sun with dozens of others hoping to buy pasta.

(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Kieran Murray)