CNN reports pregnancy rumors envelop North Korea

Even CNN is now asking:  Is she or isn’t she pregnant? And I quote: 

Ri Sol-Ju, first lady of North Korea – As seen now in OCTOBER

Ri Sol-Ju, first lady – Last JULY

Ri Sol Ju, the wife of young leader Kim Jong Un, has not been seen in public for around two months, according to North Korea watchers. A photo released by the state-run news agency KCNA shows her back in public and wearing a long coat that could be hiding a bump. Ri watched a football match and attended a musical concert with her husband Monday to mark the 60th anniversary of the Kim Il Sung Military University.

South Korean media has kicked into overdrive to speculate on whether she is pregnant or whether she was kept out of the public eye as a disciplinary measure for a perceived slight. Local media has claimed she may have fallen out of favor for not wearing a lapel pin of the former leaders, a requirement for adult North Koreans.

“Rumors first came out from officials who attended the same event,” said Kim Yong-hoon, head of the North Korean desk at Daily NK, an online newspaper based in Seoul that focuses on North Korea. “They started questioning and speculating if she was pregnant and it has spread throughout the country and that’s how we heard about the rumors.”

Kim says the interest in whether Ri is pregnant is far higher outside of North Korea than it is inside, according to his sources inside the isolated nation.

John Delury, assistant professor at Yonsei University says this global interest speaks volumes about the way any news about North Korea is handled. “Do we track the last time Michelle Obama showed up?” Delury says. “Our minds are so trained to do this with North Korea that we miss the bigger picture which is there is something new –and by almost international standards we could say more normal — about the way she appears in public.”

While producing a son and heir for a dynastic regime is considered very important, Delury points out “that’s also true for the families of the ‘chaebol’ or business conglomerates of South Korea, for Hyundai and Samsung,” he says. “Even in the U.S. and UK, powerful families are concerned about producing the next generation.”

Ri Sol-Ju back in North Korean public view with husband Kim Jong-un

The wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un,  Ri Sol-Ju , has reappeared after dropping out of the public eye for 50 days amid fevered rumors that she was either pregnant or had fallen out of favor.

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Ri Sol-Ju joined her husband at a musical performance and a football match in Pyongyang on Monday.

“Marshall Kim Jong-un, the supreme leader of the party and the people, came to the spectators’ seats, accompanied by his wife Ri Sol-Ju. At that moment, thunderous applause broke out,” KCNA said.

The fact that Kim Jong-un even had a wife was only revealed in July when pictures emerged of a stylish young woman accompanying the new young leader at official events.

A terse statement from Pyongyang’s state television that month confirmed her identity and the fact the couple were married.

Then in early September she dropped from public view just as suddenly as she had appeared.

Her absence triggered speculation that she might be pregnant, while some suggested she was doing penance for failing to wear the lapel pin – bearing the image of one or both of the country’s late leaders – that all adult North Koreans are required to wear.

A photo of the couple at Monday’s musical performance showed Ri, wearing a long coat, applauding as Kim saluted the cheering crowd.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency stoked the pregnancy rumors by observing that her mid-section appeared swollen. It was not clear if she was wearing a badge under the coat.

The announcement of Kim Jong-un’s marriage and Ri’s media profile mark a departure for North Korea, whose intensely secretive regime has previously kept the private lives of its rulers under wraps.

Ri was described as coming from an ordinary family, with her father an academic and her mother a doctor. She visited South Korea in 2005 as a cheerleader for her country’s squad in the Asian Athletics Championships.

North Korean death camp 22 still operational

North Korea’s notorious Camp 22, which by some accounts is the country’s equivalent to the Nazi death camp Auschwitz, was reportedly shut down last month, but new satellite photos published Wednesday show that it is still open.

It is unclear exactly how many prisoners are being housed there, but it is said to be the largest concentration camp in impoverished, communist North Korea, located near the border with Russia and China.

Reports tell of camp officials conducting human experiments involving chemicals and gas on prisoners, amid accounts of torture and extrajudicial killings; if true, they would be among the worst human rights atrocities committed in the world today. Read more

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), a Washington, D.C.-based NGO, and DigitalGlobe, which operates commercial satellites, have joined forces to monitor North Korea’s prison camps in order to prevent the regime from destroying evidence of its killing and torturing of prisoners.

Greg Scarlatoiu of HRNK said “The North Korean regime’s hiding and distorting the harsh reality of North Korea’s unforgiving political prison camp system ….  [But] with constant satellite imagery, we can maintain a watch over these camps even if no outside entry is allowed.”

Firsthand testimonies from North Korea’s Prison Camp 22

In 2004, Kwon Hyuk, a former chief of management at North Korea’s notorious Camp 22, said that he saw “a whole family being tested on suffocating gas and dying in the gas chamber,” according to The Guardian. He said, “Scientists observe the entire process from above, through the glass.”

North Korean defector, Soon Ok Lee(C) and hundreds of other demonstrators rally on the West steps of the US Capitol in Washington, DC

Soon Ok Lee, a survivor of the camp, corroborated Kwon’s claims. While at the camp she was instructed to hand out apparently poisoned cabbage that was being tested on women prisoners, all of a sudden they were vomiting blood and then died, recalled Soon.

Apparently thousands are killed there each year and even newborn babies who are born to prisoners are stamped on the neck to signify that they will soon be killed, according to the Guardian.

Cell phone use in North Korea

While North Korea has launched an unprecedented multi-agency campaign to crack down on illegal cell phones along the country’s border with China, a source in North Hamgyong province said that reliance on the illegal phones was so widespread that it would be difficult to eliminate the practice.

“No matter how tough the crackdown measures get, there is a limit,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “You cannot watch the entire border area to catch a single cell phone user.”

The number of illegal Chinese phones used in North Korea –where the official cell phone network has over a million subscribers– is unknown, but sources from the country say they are widely used in border towns, particularly by cross-border traders who rely on them to do business in China.

Some border residents have made a business of lending illegal cell phones to others to make calls to friends or relatives in China, South, Korea, Japan, and other countries.

North Korea’s official domestic mobile phone service was first launched in the capital Pyongyang in 2002, but banned two years later after a phone was used to trigger a deadly explosion at a northern train station.

Since launching a 3G cell phone service in a surprise deal with Egyptian company Orascom in 2008, the official network – which allows only handsets provided by North Korea’s Koryolink – has expanded coverage to about one fifth of the country’s territory.

Defectors go ahead with leaflet launch to North Korea from the South

South Korean activists floated balloons carrying tens of thousands of anti-Pyongyang leaflets into North Korea on Monday, eluding police who had disrupted an earlier launch attempt due to threats from North Korea.

South Korean police, citing security concerns, had sent hundreds of officers Monday to seal off roads and prevent the activists and other people from gathering at an announced launch site near the border. Before taking action, the South Korean government had implored activists to stop their campaign, but had cited freedom of speech in not making further attempts to intervene. Residents in the area were also asked to evacuate to underground facilities, according to local official Kim Jin-a.

North Korean defectors living in South Korea and activists prepare a balloon containing anti-Pyongyang leaflets, in Ganghwa, about 37 miles west of Seoul on October 22.

Some of the activists, mostly North Korean defectors, simply moved to another site near the border that was not guarded by police and carried out the launch of the balloons.

South Korean activists have in the past sent leaflets across the border, and North Korea has issued similar threats to attack without following through. But this time South Korea detected that North Korea had uncovered artillery muzzle covers and deployed troops to artillery positions in possible preparation for an attack. Yonhap cited no source for the information.

The activists said they floated balloons carrying about 120,000 leaflets critical of North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong Un and his country’s alleged human rights abuses. They said they wanted to let North Korean people know the true nature of their country.

“We could not delay our plans to send anti-North Korea leaflets because it is our love toward our northern brothers,” the activists wrote in a statement posted on the website of Seoul-based Free North Korea Radio, one of civic organizations involved in the leafleting.

On Monday, the top U.S. envoy on North Korea urged Pyongyang to stop issuing destabilizing threats. “It is grossly disproportionate to have threatened to respond to balloons with bombs,” Glyn Davies told reporters in Beijing after meeting with Chinese officials.

China, the North’s main ally and biggest aid source, welcomed South Korean efforts to quash the balloon-flying and urged all parties to exercise restraint.

North Korea threatens to attack South Korea over defector leaflets

North Korea’s military threatened Friday to strike a South Korean border area where anti-Pyongyang activists plan to launch leaflets from balloons next week. South Korea immediately vowed to retaliate if attacked.

“Merciless military strike by the Western Front will be put into practice without warning” if South Korean activists make a move to fly leaflets on Monday, the North’s military said in a statement in English. It also warned South Korean residents in the border area to evacuate in advance.

In South Korea, Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said at a parliamentary hearing that his troops would “thoroughly annihilate” any base responsible for the strike if the North attacked.

The exchange of strong warnings came as Glyn Davies, the top U.S. envoy for North Korea, met in Seoul with Lim Sung-nam, South Korea’s envoy to stalled six-nation talks on North Korea’s nuclear arms programs .

North Korean defectors and South Korean activists regularly send up balloons carrying leaflets criticizing North Korean leaders. North Korea accuses South Korea of supporting the activity, but Seoul denies it.

Crackdown on cell phones along North Korean border

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un has launched an unprecedented multi-agency campaign to crack down on illegal cell phones along the country’s border with China by tracking signals and sending security forces to nab the callers, according to sources in the area.

The move is aimed at closing off one of the few connections to the outside world from isolated North Korea. In areas close to the country’s northern border with China, North Koreans using phones smuggled in from the neighboring country can connect to Chinese cell phone towers to make outside calls.

But since the beginning of October, authorities have tightened restrictions on the phones and begun using radio monitoring stations to spot illegal cell phone signals, according to a source in North Hamgyong province. Once a signal is detected, a search force is immediately dispatched to the area to nab the culprit, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In addition to radio monitoring stations, military bases and the national police department’s special task forces are involved in the crackdown effort, the source said. “They are mobilizing even the posts of the Worker-Peasant Red Guards,” the country’s civilian defense force, the source said.

Previous curbs on illegal cell phones had not involved so many agencies or such a sophisticated method of detecting signals and finding callers, but did significantly reduce the number of people illegally crossing the river border into China.

North Korean Prison Camp Report by Freedom House

A report by Freedom House concludes that the North Korean prison camps breach almost every definition of crimes against humanity under modern international law.

“The phenomena of repression associated with the political prison camp system of (North Korea) are clear and massive crimes against humanity as now defined in law,” said the report, written by David Hawk.

Among other abuses, it said, camp officials and guards are regularly able to have sexual relations with female prisoners under circumstances judged to constitute rape or sexual violence.

Prisoners “are subjected, usually for a lifetime, to forced labor under extremely severe circumstances, beginning with the provision of below-subsistence level food rations.”

Inmates were regularly subjected to beatings and sometimes more systematic torture for breaking minor regulations.

The high rates of deaths in detention from malnutrition, starvation, exhaustion from forced labor and disease “would likely be deemed by legal scholars and judges to constitute the crime of humanity of extermination, the report said.

 

Life under Kim Jong-un has not changed for the better

North Korean insights from a New York Times article:

In the 10 months since Kim Jong-un took the reins of his desperately poor nation following the death of his autocratic father, … its capital has acquired more of the trappings of a functioning society, say diplomats, aid groups and academics who have visited in recent months.

But in rare interviews this month with four North Koreans in a border city … they said that at least so far, they have not felt any improvements in their lives since the installment last December of their youthful leader — a sentiment activists and analysts say they have also heard. In fact, the North Koreans said, their lives have gotten harder.

Food prices have spiked, the result of drought and North Korea’s defiant launching of a rocket in April that shut down new offers of food aid from the United States. The price of rice has doubled since early summer, and chronic shortages of fuel, electricity and raw materials continue to idle most factories, leaving millions unemployed.

In two days of interviews with North Koreans, a thinly concealed disgust over inequality that has risen in recent years — and a realization that the national credo of juche, or self-reliance, was a carefully constructed lie — was striking. Mrs. Kim, a pig farmer, when asked if she thought there were those who still believed in North Korea’s single-party system, she shook her head and said “zero.”

She and the others suggested that the information vacuum had been eased by the spread of cellphones (though sanctioned phones cannot call outside the country) and by South Korean soap operas that are smuggled across the border and secretly viewed despite the threat of prison. A 58-year-old retired truck driver from Sunchon, a city north of the capital, said he and his family locked their doors and covered their windows when watching the DVDs that offered glimpses of well-stocked supermarkets and glittering shopping malls.

“I wish we could have such a clean, shiny life,” he said, adding that few people he knows still believe the government propaganda that paints South Korea as far more impoverished than the North.