Friday, July 30, 2010

North Korea in peace talks

After a weeklong war of words, North Korea and the U.S. met at the U.N. Command  in Panmunjom, a hamlet on the frontier separating the two Koreas.

Colonels from both sides sat down to discuss how they could restart stalled negotiations to secure peace on the peninsular between the nations that are technically still at war since the 1953 cease-fire.

In condemning a four-day military exercise by South Korean and U.S. forces close to the demilitarized border, Pyongyang had threatened military action, a move that prompted its staunchest ally China to ask for calm by all sides.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

China’s rapid military modernization and support of North Korea

The US and South Korea recently held a joint naval exercise, mobilizing 8,000 troops, 20 ships and submarines — including the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington and 200 planes — in the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan.
Although the US has said that the maneuvers were aimed at sending a strong message to Pyongyang that aggression (ie sinking of the Cheonan) will not be tolerated, China  -- North Korea’s adamant supporter -- has strongly protested the drills, saying its national interest will be damaged if a US aircraft carrier is deployed in the Yellow Sea, which it views as its “backyard.”

Instead of ignoring these objections, the US made an unprecedented strategic U-turn, deciding to relocate some of the drills away from the sensitive Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan. Moreover, the aircraft carrier USS George Washington will not now enter the Yellow Sea. This conciliatory gesture shocked many security experts in South Korea and Japan. Clearly, China’s increasingly assertive posture toward the Western Pacific has significantly shifted the military status quo that has been maintained in Northeast Asia since World War II. Even though under international law it is legitimate for the US and South Korea to conduct military drills in international waters, Beijing believes this could threaten its sovereignty and therefore considers it unacceptable.
Accordingly, China is now a pivotal consideration for the US when planning maneuvers in the area. Moreover, by backing off the US might well embolden China to take further action that radically alters the balance of power in Northeast Asia.

[Taipei Times]

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Activist propaganda balloons continue into North Korea

South Korean activists launched propaganda leaflets attached to helium balloons across the border to North Korea from a park at Imjingak just south of the demilitarized zone on Tuesday.

The 10 balloons carried some 100,000 leaflets and 300 CDs describing the North Korea's torpedoing and sinking the Navy corvette Cheonan plus a thousand US$1 notes, according to activist Park Sang-hak. "It's been less than six months since the North attacked the Cheonan but it’s already fading away from people’s memory," he said. "It's dangerous that young South Koreans seem to forget the fact that the two Koreas are in permanent confrontation."

Choi Sung-yong, another activist, said the entire nation "should condemn Pyongyang over the Cheonan sinking, and it's distressing that some organizations side with the North."

"We floated the leaflets to the North to tell North Koreans the truth about the North’s invasion of the South that caused tremendous sacrifice and misfortunes among the Korean people," Park said. Some 300 members of various South Korean activist organizations were at the launch.

[Chosun Ilbo]

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

North Korea sabre-rattling amidst food rationing

North Korea has once again threatened to play the nuclear card following an announcement by South Korea and the United States of joint military exercises in the region.

North Korea has made similar threats in the past, but this time some officials in the US administration fear it might be more than just sabre-rattling. They may be ready to conduct a new atomic test or fire missiles, they fear, since they are being painted into a corner.

Some in the region fear that an explosive situation is brewing in the isolated north, which is suffering from immense economic problems, while at the same time undergoing a "transition crisis." Analysts in the US and South Korea believe ageing dictator Kim Jong Il might use the country's nuclear potential to ensure that his son succeeds him as leader.

North Korea is virtually cut off from international trade. Discontent among the population and food shortages is growing after a currency reform at the end of last year, according to refugee relief groups in South Korea.

Half of North Koreans eat just two meals a day; some 9 million people out of a population of 23.7 million were considered to be "food insecure." 45 percent of all North Korean children under the age of 5 suffer stunted growth because of malnutrition. Nine percent of children under 5 suffer from wasting; 25 percent are underweight, 7 percent severely. The World Food Program estimates that in 2009 one-third of North Korean women were malnourished and anemic.

Monday, July 26, 2010

China calls for restraint in North Korea stand-down

China’s Foreign Minister called for restraint from all parties on Sunday, as the US and South Korea launched a major naval exercise despite threats of nuclear retaliation by North Korea.

Washington and Seoul said the war games, which began on Sunday in the Sea of Japan, were meant as a message to Pyongyang to cease its aggressive behavior, following allegations it torpedoed a South Korean warship in March.

But North Korea threatened to respond with nuclear weapons.

China is encouraging Pyongyang to return to so-called six-party talks, aimed at dismantling its nuclear program, stalled since December 2008.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Seoul Protest March concerning the release of North Korean detainee Aijalon Gomes

Various NGOs and North Korean defectors have planned a press conference and protest at the UNHCR Korea Representative Office on July 26th, after which the group will then march to the U.S. Embassy in Seoul demanding the release of Aijalon Gomes, who has been detained in North Korea for the past 7 months.

Aijalon Mahli Gomes (31), who travelled to North Korea last January, is an American citizen from Boston, Massachusetts. He taught English at Choong-eui middle school in Pocheon from April 2008 to March 2009.  His colleagues said, “He was very friendly; he volunteered community activities; and he was a devout Christian.”
Mr. Gomes has shared the same human rights concerns as Robert Park and crossed over to North Korea via China on January 25, 2010; exactly one month after Robert Park went into North Korea.  

US spy chief nominee speaks out on North Korea

The DNI is charged with overseeing the 16 agencies that make up the US intelligence community, including the CIA and the NSA. And the soon-to-be head of the DNI says North Korea's alleged sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan may herald a "dangerous new period".

James Clapper told a Senate hearing that Pyongyang might seek "to advance its internal and external political goals through direct attacks".

"The most important lesson for all of us in the intelligence community from this year's provocations by Pyongyang is to realise that we may be entering a dangerous new period when North Korea will once again attempt to advance its internal and external political goals through direct attacks on our allies in the Republic of Korea."
"Coupled with this is a renewed realisation that North Korea's military forces still pose a threat that cannot be taken lightly," he added.

Earlier, the US and South Korea said they would hold large-scale joint military exercises next weekend in a show of force intended to "send a clear message to North Korea that its aggressive behavior must stop".


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

U.S. sanctions against North Korea "a diplomatic dance"

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced sanctions after her and US Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ visit to the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea. She said the measures would target Pyongyang's sale and purchase of arms and import of luxury goods, and would help prevent nuclear proliferation.
Mrs. Clinton added that the sanctions were not directed at the North Korean people but at the "misguided and malign priorities of their government".
Mrs Clinton said she expected North Korea to "take certain steps that would acknowledge their responsibility" for the sinking of the Cheonan warship in March of this year, and to move towards denuclearization.

McClatchy describes all this as a “a diplomatic dance …  in a display of solidarity intended to calm South Korean concerns about the American commitment.”
Analysts doubt if new U.S. sanctions will seriously go beyond those already imposed by the U.N. Security Council more than a year ago after North Korea conducted its second underground nuclear test.
"I don't really think there's anything new," said Han Sung-joo, a former South Korean foreign minister, noting that the U.N. sanctions already ban North Korea from importing or exporting weapons and also from importing luxury goods for the North Korean elite.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Film on North Korean Refugees Nominated for Emmy

"Crossing Heaven's Border," PBS's edited version of "On The Border", on the plight of North Korean refugees along the border with China, has been nominated for an Emmy Award. This is the first time a Korean-made documentary has been nominated.

"Crossing Heaven's Border" is a re-cut of the Chosun Ilbo documentary "On The Border" about trafficking of North Korean women in China, the plight of laborers in Russia's logging camps, and a 10,000-km journey by defectors through the jungles of Southeast Asia to escape arrest in China.

It was first shown by the Chosun Ilbo in March of 2008 and picked up by around 20 foreign broadcasters including PBS, BBC, Japan's TBS and Germany's ARD. It has won some 16 prizes at events like the Monte Carlo TV Festival and the Rory Peck awards.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Will Bill Richardson be travelling to North Korea?

U.S. President Barack Obama is considering a reversal of North Korean policy by allowing New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson to accept an invitation to visit Pyongyang, multiple diplomatic sources told the JoongAng Ilbo.

The sources said Han Song-ryol, deputy North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, invited Richardson to visit the communist state to discuss various diplomatic issues, including the sinking of the Cheonan.

“The North’s tactic resembles its actions in the case of the two American journalists who were released in August last year after former U.S. President Bill Clinton paid a visit to Pyongyang,” one source said. 

“The Obama administration wants to end the disputes stemming from the Cheonan sinking and is analyzing whether Richardson’s Pyongyang visit can be used as an opportunity to deliver a message to the North Korean government that the U.S. is committed to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” the source said. 

Richardson visited Pyongyang in 2007 to recover remains of American servicemen killed in the Korean War.

North Korea unveils statue of Kim Jong-il

North Korea has unveiled a statue of leader Kim Jong-il, probably the first in the communist country. "It is our highest privilege and good fortune to be able to unveil a bronze statue of our comrade commander for the first time in our country," Gen. Kim Jong-gak, a vice director of the People's Army's General Political Bureau, was quoted as saying by an army newsletter that also carried a picture of the statue.

The streets of Pyongyang are riddled with statues of former leader Kim Il-sung, but this is the first representing Kim Jong-il.

"There have been instances when loyal officials insisted on erecting a statue of Kim Jong-il, but Kim always declined," a senior defector who escaped from the North last year said. "He also initially rejected a proposal back in the 1980s to hang portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il side by side, which led to confusion among the public over which picture to hang on their walls.

A South Korean intelligence official said. "The emergence of statues of a leader signifies the end of his reign." Statues of Kim Il-sung began to appear at the end of his reign and the start of Kim Jong-il's leadership.

The bronze statue may be a project by his son Jong-un, who is widely expected to inherit the North Korean throne.

[Chosun Ilbo]

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Aid agencies in row over North Korea health care system

The World Health Organization (WHO) says a report on North Korea's health system by Amnesty International is unscientific and outdated. Amnesty said North Korea was failing to meet its people's most basic healthcare needs.

In April, the WHO's director visited North Korea and said its health system was the envy of the developing world. WHO director-general Margaret Chan said the country had "no lack of doctors and nurses".

Amnesty's report, The Crumbling State of Health Care in North Korea, was released on Thursday. It describes barely functioning hospitals, poor hygiene and epidemics made worse by widespread malnutrition. Many people were also too poor to pay for treatment, the report says. It also cites WHO figures indicating Pyongyang spends less than $1 per person on healthcare a year.

The WHO said Amnesty's report was based on a small sample of people who had left North Korea, some as long ago as 2001. "All the facts are from people who aren't in the country," WHO spokesman Paul Garwood said in Geneva. "There's no science in the research."


Friday, July 16, 2010

North Korean defectors establish research institute

The world’s first North Korean research institute set up by a North Korean defector has just opened in Seoul. The World Institute for North Korean Studies, or WINK, which is housed in a small office in Yeoksam-dong, in southern Seoul, had an opening ceremony attended by dozens of well-known North Korea experts.

The attention it has already gained is primarily because founder An Chan-il, a visiting professor at the University of Virginia, is heading the institution. An, a leading scholar in North Korean issues, is regarded as one of the most successful North Korean defectors living in the South. Three of the 10 researchers at the institute are also scholars who defected from the North.

Attention is also being paid to An’s call for a paradigm shift in North Korean studies. “Unlike other research institutes whose focuses are mainly on analyzing issues generating from North Korea, we will provide alternative solutions that North Korea can use,” said An, 56, in an interview before the opening ceremony. “The alternative solutions we will provide will in particular cover the areas of politics, economy and social integration.”

An said that helping North Korean leadership deal with major challenges will help it move toward opening up to the outside world and reform. “Rather than suggesting solutions that are too much for the country to take, or which could alienate it, we think that recommendations on how it can get closer to the rest of the world without threatening the leaders’ grip on power is the most effective approach,” he said.

The name of the institute, WINK, was chosen with that very gesture in mind, he said. “We want to send a wink as a sign of recognition.”

An also wants the institute to become a network for North Korean defectors.

[JoongAng Daily]

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Grim assessment of North Korean medical system

North Korean doctors perform operations without anesthesia in clinics where hypodermic needles are not sterilized and sheets are not washed, the human rights group Amnesty International said in a report released on Thursday.

“Five medical assistants held my arms and legs down to keep me from moving,” the report quoted a 24-year-old North Korean defector as saying, describing how his left leg was amputated without anesthesia after a train accident. “I was in so much pain that I screamed and eventually fainted from pain.”

Other defectors told similarly horrific stories. One said her appendix was removed without anesthesia and her hands and feet were bound to prevent her from moving during the procedure. Others told of entire cities with no ambulances.

Drawn from interviews with more than 40 North Koreans who had defected over the past six years, as well as with health professionals who had worked with North Koreans, the report depicted a North Korean health system in dire straits.

North Korea claims that it offers free medical service for all its people. But in reality, patients have had to pay their doctors with cash, cigarettes, alcohol and food since the 1990s, the 50-page report said.

[The New York Times]