North Korean food prices triple over past year

Beyond the capital of Pyongyang is the harsher reality of poverty, hunger and desperation, North Korean defectors say.

“My family had decided to commit suicide because for three days we didn’t have anything to eat,” said one North Korean female defector to ITN in Seoul. “We decided to starve to death. We said let’s die. But then I wanted to survive. I sold the house for 30 kilos of rice.”

She escaped North Korea shortly after leader Kim Jong Un came to power last year — her identity kept secret because she left family behind. “To survive, I had to eat grass. People pick grass and leaves and use them to make soup,” said the defector who now lives in South Korea.

Reports out of North Korea suggest food prices have tripled in the past year.

More than 25% of North Korean children under the age of five suffered from chronic malnutrition in 2012, according to the National Nutrition Survey of North Korea, a report backed by UNICEF, the World Food Program and the World Health Organization. The report also found nearly one in three women suffered from anemia.

As many as 3.5 million people are estimated to have died during North Korea’s severe famine of the 1990s,according to South Korean NGO Good Friends Center for Peace, Human Rights, and Refugees. Official North Korean numbers estimate 220,000 people died.

CNN

American citizen faces trial in North Korea

CNN reports North Korea plans to begin a trial against a U.S. citizen detained there last year, state media said Saturday, complicating tense relations between the two nations.

Pae Jun Ho entered North Korea as a tourist on November 3, according to the Korean Central News Agency. After his detention, evidence revealed he had committed an unspecified crime against the country, the news agency said. The agency said he confessed to the alleged offense, but did not say what it was.

“He will soon be taken to the Supreme Court of the DPRK to face judgment,” the news agency said.

Last year, consular officials from the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, which looks after U.S. interests in North Korea, visited Pae.

Who is Pae Jun Ho?

 

Resumption of six-party talks on North Korea by summer?

After weeks of harsh rhetoric from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, quiet diplomacy is taking shape regarding the country and its nuclear and ballistic-missile ambitions.

Through diplomatic exchanges, Beijing has played an active role to draw all parties back to the Six-Party Talks, said Huang Youfu, a professor on Korean studies at the Minzu University of China.

“When the US-ROK joint military drill ends later this month, Pyongyang will temporarily have no excuse to continue its strong words, so there will be more room for diplomatic talks, and the possibility of communication will increase”, he said.

Charles Armstrong, director of Columbia University’s Center for Korean Research, believes there’s a strong likelihood the Six-Party Talks will resume, possibly by summer, but it’s unlikely that it could happen immediately, after such a heated period of confrontation.

Shi Yuanhua, director of the Center for Korean Studies under the Institute of International Studies of Fudan University in Shanghai, said Pyongyang and Washington were likely to resume bilateral communication because both sides have the will to do so.

“But the negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang could be very difficult because neither side will give up its initial stance”, he added.

China Daily

 

Could North Korean economic reform lead to Korean reunification?

Of all the world’s known unknowns, the future of North Korea is perhaps the hardest to predict and hence presents China with unknown difficulties ahead. Today’s difficulty is mainly one of embarrassment, to have an ally who treats its own people with such contempt, draws communism further into the mire, and creates international incidents with nuclear and missile developments, meanwhile ignoring Beijing’s mild chastisements and sensible advice.

Pyongyang’s latest verbal aggressions as well as missile and nuclear tests are just more of the same tactics it has used for two decades. Creating supposed crises raises its status in the world without really threatening anybody.

The best hope for China now may be that Pyongyang’s new young leader has sufficiently shown his nationalistic credentials with bombs and rockets to satisfy the public and the ageing generals who stand behind the throne. In which case, he may be able to continue the reforms he has hinted at. Mobile phones and some internet access, albeit purely domestic, are opening space for the spread of news from the real world outside.

Trade with China continues to grow and even some investment has arrived. The best news for China would be that economic reform not only continues but is focused on trade with China.

But such economic opening must also make North Koreans aware of the even greater economic advantages they could gain by merging with the South. That cannot be done overnight but the North still has the sinews of a once semi-developed industrial economy, which could easily be rebuilt with the South’s know-how and access to money.

The pull of Korean nationalism is strong. In their different ways, Koreans on both sides are equally nationalistic, with the South being fortunate that it was mentored by the US (and indirectly by post-war Japan) while the North was mentored by Mao and Stalin.

The status quo suits everyone except the suffering North Koreans. Kim Jong-un probably recognizes that he must try to be an agent of change. The risk that he is buried in the implosion of the system is high. Change is dangerous. But maybe he has a long-term game plan; perhaps to bring about reunification and so preserve something of the family name by exchanging power for an honored place in history and fat bank accounts for the leading army and party functionaries?

Read full South China Morning Post article 

North Korea refuses to abandon nuclear program

Rejecting a U.S. precondition for talks, North Korea said on Saturday that it would not give up its nuclear weapons program, two days after it set preconditions for the U.N., the U.S. and South Korea to begin dialogue.

On Thursday, Pyongyang had demanded to lift the U.N. sanctions and to end the joint U.S.-South Korea military drills before starting peace talks. It added that Seoul must stop all anti-North Korea rhetoric, referring to the cyber attack on South Korean broadcasters and banks last month which Seoul blamed on its hostile northern neighbor. Additionally, it asked the U.S. to withdraw all nuclear weapons assets from South Korea and the region.

North Korea’s state-run Rodong Sinmun termed the U.S. talk of dialogue as “nothing but rhetoric.”

Why Hyeonseo Lee fled and then returned to North Korea – Part 1

north Korean hyeonseo-leeHyeonseo Lee was born in North Korea and left for China in 1997, and now lives in South Korea where she is an activist for North Korea refugees. Read excerpts of her story:

When I was young, I thought my country was the best on the planet. I grew up singing a song called “Nothing to Envy.”

I thought my life in North Korea was normal, even though when I was 7 years old, I saw my first public execution.

My family was not poor, and I had never experienced hunger. But after my mother read me a letter from a coworker’s sister who said that her family was dying of hunger, I realized that something was very wrong in my country. A huge famine hit North Korea in the mid to late 1990s, and I began to see suffering, hunger and death around me.

As a young girl, I went alone to China to live with distant relatives. I thought I would be separated from my family for a short time. I could never have imagined that it would take 14 years for my family to live together again. Since North Korean refugees are considered illegal migrants in China, I lived in constant fear that my identity would be revealed and I would be repatriated to a horrible fate back in North Korea.

One day, my worst nightmare came true when I was caught by the Chinese police and brought to the police station for interrogation. Someone had accused me of being North Korean, so they tested my Chinese language abilities and asked me tons of questions. I thought my life was over, but I managed to control all the emotions inside of me and answered their questions. They let me go. It was a miracle!

After 10 years of hiding my identity and living in fear in China, I decided to risk going to South Korea. Just as I was starting to get used to my new life, I received a shocking phone call — the North Korean authorities intercepted some money that I sent my family through a broker, and as punishment, my family was going to be forcibly removed to a desolate location in the countryside. They had to get out of North Korea quickly. So I started planning how to help them escape.

Continue reading

Why Hyeonseo Lee fled and then returned to North Korea – Part 2

Continued story of Hyeonseo Lee, who was born in North Korea and now lives in South Korea where she is an activist for North Korea refugees. 

I took a flight to China and headed toward the North Korean border. Since my family couldn’t speak Chinese, I had to guide them through more than 2,000 miles in China and then into Southeast Asia. The journey by bus took one week, and we were almost caught several times.

One time, our bus was stopped and boarded by a Chinese police officer. He took everyone’s ID cards and started asking questions. Since my family couldn’t understand Chinese, I thought we were going to be arrested. As the police officer approached my family, I quickly stood up and told him that these were deaf and dumb people that I was chaperoning. He looked at me suspiciously, but luckily, he believed me.

We made it all the way to the border of Laos, but I had to spend almost all of my money to bribe the border guards. Even after we got past the border, my family was arrested and jailed for illegal border crossing.

After I paid the bribe and fine, my family was released after one month. Soon after, they were arrested and jailed again in the capital of Laos. This was one of the lowest points in my life — my mind and body felt completely drained, and I felt like a failure. I did everything to help my family get to freedom — and we came so close. And now my family was thrown in jail just a short distance from the South Korean embassy.

I went back and forth between the police station and immigration office, desperately trying to get my family out … but I didn’t have enough money to pay the bribes. I lost all hope.

At that moment, I heard a man’s voice asking me: “What’s wrong?” I was so surprised that a total stranger cared enough to ask. He would only give me his first name. With my broken English and a dictionary, I explained the situation, and without hesitating, the man went to the ATM and paid the rest of the money for my family and two other North Koreans to get out of jail.

I thanked him with all my heart, and then I asked him, “Why are you helping me?” … “I’m not helping you,” he said. “I’m helping the North Korean people.”

I realized that this was a symbolic moment in my life. The kind stranger symbolized new hope for me and other North Koreans when we needed it the most. He showed me that the kindness of strangers and the support of the international community are truly the rays of hope that the North Korean people need.

Eventually, after our long journey, my family and I were reunited in South Korea.

 

Door opening for new talks with North Korea?

The United States and Japan opened the door Sunday to new nuclear talks with North Korea if the saber-rattling country lowered tensions and honored past agreements. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Tokyo that North Korea would find “ready partners” in the United States if it began abandoning its nuclear program.

The diplomats seemed to point the way for a possible revival of the six-nation talks that have been suspended for four years.

China long pushed has for the process to resume without conditions. But the U.S. and allies South Korea and Japan fear rewarding North Korea for its belligerence and the endless repetition of a cycle of tensions and failed talks that have prolonged the crisis.

At a news conference in Tokyo, Kerry stressed that gaining China’s commitment to a denuclearized North Korea was no small matter given its historically strong military and economic ties to North Korea. But he refused to say what the Chinese were offering to do concretely to pressure the North into abiding by some of the conditions it agreed to in a 2005 deal that required it to abandon its nuclear program.

In remarks to U.S. journalists, Kerry said that under the right circumstances, he even would consider making a grand overture to North Korea’s leader, such as an offer of direct talks with the U.S.

Kerry’s message of openness to diplomacy was clear, however unlikely the chances appeared that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s government would meet the American conditions.

Japan is the last stop on a 10-day trip overseas for Kerry, who visited Seoul and Beijing as well in recent days.

China greatest potential leverage over North Korea

So far Kim Jong Un has refused to listen to the international community, leaving many to wonder if anyone can appeal to the leader, and defuse the crisis.

All eyes are turned on China. Of all the regional powers, analysts say, China has the greatest potential leverage over its traditional ally.

Chinese troops fought side by side with the North Koreans during the Korean War that left the Korean peninsula divided. And over the years it has supplied the North with much of its fuel, food and other resources. China could stop doing this at any time but it has rarely done so.

“Chinese netizens say, ‘if we squeeze it for one week, what do you do the next week? You have to un-squeeze because we can’t let them die,'” explained Sunny Lee, a South Korean writer and scholar. “They think it’s an ineffective strategy from the start.”

China fears the specter of millions of starving refugees crossing into China along its 1,400-kilometer (880 mile) border with North Korea. It also fears a united Korea under the control of South Korea, a close U.S. ally.

To date, none of China’s current leadership has met with Kim Jong Un.

CNN

Intelligence on North Korea hard to read

Excerpt of opinion article by Mike Chinoy, a former CNN Senior Asia correspondent:

The latest controversy over whether North Korea has the technology to fit a nuclear warhead on a missile is not the first time American intelligence agencies have been at odds in assessing Pyongyang’s capabilities. And it is not the first time the Pentagon’s intelligence arm, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) has been out front in reaching the most alarmist conclusions about North Korea — one with which other U.S. agencies have disagreed.

The DIA assessment, disclosed by a Congressman at a hearing on April 11, was that the DIA has “moderate confidence” North Korea has developed a nuclear warhead that can be delivered by a ballistic missile. Within hours, however, James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, released a statement saying the DIA report did not represent the consensus of the intelligence community, and that “North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile,” — a view echoed by a Pentagon spokesman and the South Korean Defense Ministry.

Secretary of State John Kerry also noted that “it is inaccurate to suggest that the DPRK has fully tested, developed or demonstrated capabilities that are articulated in that report.”

The sharply different judgments about Pyongyang’s capabilities recall a similar episode in 1998, when a fierce debate erupted within the American intelligence community after U. S. spy satellites discovered an underground complex at Kumchangri, not far from North Korea’s main nuclear facility at Yongbyon. On August 17, 1998, the New York Times published a story that revealed the intelligence findings, turning what had been an internal intelligence debate into a public firestorm of controversy — just as the congressman’s revelations did on Thursday.

The Times report, with headline “North Korea Site An A-Bomb Plant, US Agencies Say” created major problems. In Washington, the Clinton administration came under attack for Pyongyang’s alleged violations of the Agreed Framework. And, unless the issue was handled with great skill, the tenuous link between the U.S. and North Korea that has existed since the 1994 deal would collapse.

In the spring of 1999, Chuck Kartman, Washington’s Special Envoy for Peace Talks with North Korea — nicknamed “Iron Butt” for his ability to sit patiently and listen to North Korean envoys spew out venom, bombast and threats across the negotiating table — engaged in protracted talks with his North Korean counterparts.

In May, Kartman convinced the North to agree to permit U.S. inspectors to visit Kumchangri. In addition, after initially demanding a payment of $300 million dollars for a one-time visit, North Korea eventually accepted a shipment of 100,000 tons of potatoes as the “price” of permitting the inspection.

Accompanied by a team of experts, Kartman flew to Pyongyang and the North Koreans took them to Kumchangri. To the Americans’ surprise and embarrassment, they found a large, empty underground cave. There was no evidence of a secret nuclear site.