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North Korea abandons liaison office, shows signs of reverting to 'hermit kingdom'

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: North Korea pulls inwards; British PM Theresa May has failed to get the three-month Brexit extension she wanted from the EU, and now faces the wrath of MPs back home; online uproar over Dumbledore.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un attends a ceremony at the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum in Hanoi on March 2. On Friday, North Korea abruptly withdrew its staff from an inter-Korean liaison office in the North, according to South Korean officials in Seoul. (Jorge Silva/AFP/Getty Images)

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TODAY:

  • North Korean officials abruptly walked out of a meeting with their South Korean counterparts in the demilitarized border zone between the two countries this morning, announcing that they were abandoning the liaison office on "instructions from the superior authority."
  • The British prime minister has failed to get the three-month Brexit extension she wanted from the EU, and now faces the wrath of MPs back home.
  • An online uproar has some saying author J.K. Rowling is falling prey to a need to keep her work relevant 20 years after she brought it to the world
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.

North Korea

Three weeks after the failed summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, North Korea is showing signs of turning back into the Hermit Kingdom.

This morning, North Korean officials abruptly walked out of a meeting with their South Korean counterparts in the demilitarized border zone between the two countries, announcing that they were abandoning the liaison office on "instructions from the superior authority."

The meeting house, which was set up last September in an effort to improve relations and lines of communication, will now be staffed only by the South.

South Korean Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung leaves after a press conference at the Unification Ministry in Seoul, South Korea, on Friday regarding North Korea's pullout from an inter-Korean office in the North. (Ahn Young-joon/Associated Press)

No reason was given for the change of heart, but Korea analysts believe that the North is trying to pressure Seoul to help soften America's hardline stance on denuclearization.

What is clear, however, is that cross-border cooperation has basically ground to a halt.

A recent proposal from the South to start military talks has gone unanswered.

And there has been silence on a number of proposed joint-ventures, like the repatriation of the remains of soldiers who died in the Korean War, and setting up video reunions for families who have been divided since the conflict.

Ditto for a plan that was supposed to allow civilian ships to sail in the Han River estuary for the first time since 1953.

The walkout came just hours after the Trump administration imposed new sanctions on two Chinese shipping companies that it says it believes have been helping the North skirt an economic embargo.

Last month's summit in Vietnam broke down over Kim's demand that the U.S. and UN fully lift all trade restrictions as a precursor to him committing to dismantle the country's nuclear program.

There haven't been any official discussions between North Korea and the U.S. since.

North Korea's Kim Jong-un smiles as U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during their Vietnam summit. Although it started cordially, the summit ended abruptly and both leaders walked away from the talks. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

In the run-up to the summit, North Korea announced that it was cutting food rations for civilians, claiming that the sanctions — and a poor harvest — have pushed the country to the brink of crisis. The World Food Program is still trying to assess just how bad the situation has become.

But the sanctions certainly don't appear to have had much of an impact on Kim himself.

Earlier this month, the UN Security Council released a report detailing his regime's extensive efforts to find workarounds, as well as its many successes, including the importation of a Rolls-Royce, and Mercedes-Benz and Lexus limousines to ferry the Supreme Leader around.

An editorial published yesterday in Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of Kim's ruling Korean Workers' Party, suggests that the North's position on the U.S. demands for denuclearization is hardening.

"The nation could not live without its national pride, it could not be exchanged for treasures or gold, even if we starve or freeze to death," it thundered.  "Dependence can be easy and temporary, but it is like a penalty that makes the people helpless and weakens the national power."

On May 24, 2018, command post facilities at North Korea's nuclear test site in Punggye-ri were destroyed by its government as part of a public show of willingness to disarm. But international analysts have debated whether the North has taken any action at its most modern testing facilities. (Korea Pool/Yonhap via AP)

Attempts to break the impasse might be complicated by the revelation today that the FBI have been in contact with a dissident group that staged a daring raid on North Korea's embassy in Spain last month.

Ten masked men used fake firearms to force their way into the building, then tied up staff and interrogated them before making off with a reported treasure trove of documents and computers.

The group, which calls itself Free Joseon or  Cheollima Civil Defense, is calling for a revolution in the North.

Yesterday, it released a video — apparently taken inside the embassy — that shows one of its members destroying pictures of Kim's grandfather and father, while shouting "Down with Kim family rule!" It's an act that is punishable by death in the North.

Kim himself is known to be image-sensitive, as illustrated by reports today that his personal photographer has been fired and expelled from the Worker's Party for getting too close.

The man — who accompanied Kim to Vietnam — stands accused of "damaging the supreme dignity" of the party by positioning himself between the leader and an adoring crowd in a way that his camera flash obscured the dictator's already-limited neck.

Although the firing and public humiliation is kid glove treatment by the 35-year-old dictator's standards.

A recent report produced by the Seoul-based organization for North Korean defectors claims that Kim has purged 421 officials since he was named heir to his father Kim Jong Il in 2010.

Stories of his cruel tortures and extraordinary execution methods — including feeding prisoners to dogs, and roasting them alive with flamethrowers — abound. And even his closest family members receive no pity, with his uncle Jang Song-thaek reportedly having been killed by a firing squad of anti-aircraft machine guns.


Theresa May's Brexit blues

Theresa May is making friends in no places. The British prime minister has failed to get the three-month Brexit extension she wanted from the EU, and now faces the wrath of MPs back home, reporter Thomas Daigle writes from Brussels.

It was after midnight in Brussels when a war-weary Theresa May faced bleary-eyed reporters.

"Good morning," she said, eliciting a couple audible laughs in the room, but little sympathy.

The British prime minister had spent Thursday trying to persuade EU leaders to allow her country to delay its departure until June 30. Instead, they imposed a shorter timeline — effectively taking control of the Brexit date.

British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves after addressing a media conference at an EU summit in Brussels on Friday. (Frank Augstein/Associated Press)

May and her team had been sending "a lot of conflicting signals and confusion," a full-time Brussels watcher had told me earlier in the day. Tony Connelly, the Europe editor for Ireland's public broadcaster RTE, said the result was that "the EU's position has hardened" vis-à-vis Britain and its troubled exit.

Here in the heart of the EU, it means May's negotiating power is running lower than it's ever been.

And now, as she returns to London, her position of strength toward domestic lawmakers is hardly any better.

In a televised address from the grandeur of 10 Downing Street on Wednesday night before the EU summit, she unusually framed herself as being one with the people.

"I am on your side," she told those in the country fed up with endless infighting and uncertainty. May strictly blamed MPs for the Brexit delay, leading the public to infer their elected lawmakers were the ones not on their side.

The speech was received like a declaration of war in Westminster. MPs took it to be a populist "us vs. them" rallying cry, nearly daring Britons to rise up against Parliament.

The House of Commons' speaker, John Bercow, underlined to members that they are, in fact, "not traitors."

But MPs shared horror stories of an already antagonistic British public. "Last week I received a message saying that my head should be chopped off," Labour MP Paula Sherriff told the House of Commons.

The U.K.'s Speaker of the House, John Bercow, during a debate in the House of Commons in London on Wednesday. (Jessica Taylor/EPA-EFE)

May needs the support of MPs to get her twice-defeated Brexit deal approved. Her Wednesday night intervention will not have helped.

If Parliament agrees to the withdrawal agreement, the U.K. will leave in an orderly fashion on May 22. If the deal is voted down again, the country faces another cliff and could walk off the edge as early as April 12.

In a rare act of contrition in her late-night press conference in Brussels last night, May declared she respects the views of "MPs on all sides" of the Brexit debate. She acknowledged they all "have difficult jobs to do."

That the prime minister feels the need to make that distinction speaks volumes about the toxicity of the Brexit process. It also signals that after a setback in Brussels, May could face another defeat in London.

- Thomas Daigle


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Trouble in Potterverse

An online uproar has some saying author J.K. Rowling is falling prey to a need to keep her work relevant 20 years after she brought it to the world, writes producer Tarannum Kamlani.

J.K. Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter books and writer of several spinoffs, is facing a backlash over her latest comments about the sexuality of beloved character Professor Dumbledore.

Harry Potter's mentor and Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore has not been in the news since 2007, when his creator announced during a Q&A session at Carnegie Hall that she'd always thought of Dumbledore as gay.

Irish actor Richard Harris played Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films. (AFP/Getty Images)

Back then, the revelation was received warmly.

But 12 years and two prequels later, Dumbledore and his creator set the internet aflame this week.

The sparks were the DVD and Blu-ray discs of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, released March 12, which include Rowling talking about Dumbledore having had an "incredibly intense" love and sexual relationship with friend-turned-enemy Gellert Grindelwald.

Some are questioning why Rowling can't leave her creation alone. You might call them the "no one asked for this" camp.

Meanwhile, some in the LGBT community are roasting Rowling for making these revelations about a central character in an add-on DVD featurette to a movie, and not in the movie itself. This is the "don't just say it — show it" camp.

British author and screenwriter J.K. Rowling at the U.K. premiere of the film 'Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald' in London on Nov. 13, 2018. Her statements about Dumbledore in a featurette on the film's DVD, released March 12, has triggered online controversy. (Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)

There is also a fear that this controversy and Rowling's need to constantly update character backstories in the Potterverse could undermine much of what people have loved about them.

Rowling has remained engaged with her fans regarding her Potter-verse, often providing details in interviews and online posts that aren't in the books.

Which begs the question: do the people behind canonical works like the Harry Potter books, movies and spinoffs need to make sure their creations remain relevant as time marches on?

Or should Harry Potter and his friends, enemies and loved ones remain in the time and place in which they were created two decades ago, when many of the revelations about Dumbledore's sexuality would have made it hard for Rowling to have a young audience in many parts of the world, including the U.K.?

Also on the Pop Panel this week, we look at Canadian YouTube megastar Lilly Singh getting a show on NBC and what it means for the mostly male, mostly white world of late night TV.

Andrew Chang is your Pop Panel host tonight. Joining him around the table are news curation editor at Buzzfeed News Elamin Abdelmahmoud, senior editor at flare.com Ishani Nath, and freelance writer Katie Underwood.

Hope you'll join us!

- Tarannum Kamlani

  • WATCH: The Pop Panel tonight on The National on CBC Television and streamed online


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    About the Author

    Jonathon Gatehouse

    Jonathon Gatehouse

    Has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, including seven Olympic Games and a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey.