North Korean leader Kim Jong Un mobbed by screaming women

It’s a scene more often associated with the likes of Justin Bieber or Harry Styles, but it appears it’s not just good-looking pop stars that get mobbed by screaming females as they walk down the street.

Earlier this week, it was the unlikely figure of North Korean despot Kim Jong-un who was set upon by adoring crowds of women as he toured a mushroom farm in the country.

Kim Jong Un mobbed by womenIn a photograph released by the state-controlled Central News Agency, a smiling Kim Jong-un is seen surrounded by a large group of women wearing white boiler suits.

Many of the women, who are assumed to be workers on the mushroom farm, are seen crying with joy as the dictator is led through the crowd by a stern-looking female soldier.

[The Independent]

The Spanish aristocrat who works for North Korea

Alejandro Cao de Benos-north-koreaAlejandro Cao de Benos, 38, is believed to be the only Westerner ever employed by the North Korean government. He’s a Spanish aristocrat, born to a family of landed gentry in northeast Spain, where he agreed to meet NPR for an interview one recent afternoon.

“I consider myself as [much] Spanish as Korean 50-50. This is my country of birth, and North Korea is my country of adoption,” says Cao de Benos, who also goes by the Korean name Cho Son Il, which means “Korea is one.”

For the past 11 years, he has held the title of special delegate for North Korea’s Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. It’s an unpaid gig. He earns money as an IT consultant, working in the past in Palo Alto, Calif., and the Spanish capital, Madrid. He pays his own way to North Korea, where he works six months a year as a minder for foreign visitors. The rest of the year he gives presentations about North Korea at universities across Europe, and tries to drum up business for the ailing regime. It’s an uphill battle, he admits.

Cao de Benos adopted North Korean ideology as a teenager, after his family fortune was squandered. His grandfather had made a series of bad investments. So his dad went from a nobleman to someone who had to find a job. The family moved to Andalusia, in southern Spain, a socialist stronghold at the time, when he was 15.

“While my friends were interested in football and things like that, I was much more interested in philosophy and politics,” he said. “Obviously first I got knowledge of Marxism and Leninism, but I heard that there was a country which had another kind of socialism another kind of experiment based on their own culture and history and that was North Korea.”

Cao de Benos speaks passionately about what draws him to Pyongyang year after year. He has an apartment there, where he sometimes even celebrates Christmas. “Society and life is completely different. In North Korea, there is no stock market, there is no gambling, there is no prostitution, and there are no drugs. Everybody leads a humble life, but with dignity,” he said. “You see the big difference? I was working in Palo Alto, Calif. and what I witnessed was yes, there are some beautiful houses and people with great cars, but there are a few people taking control over the properties and the companies, and they are the ones getting richer while the majority of the people the workers are getting poorer.”

He also acknowledges seeing a darker side of the isolated Communist country. “I’ve been in Pyongyang without electricity 24 hours [a day] without water,” Cao de Benos recalls. “I’ve been going with my comrades to pick up buckets of water that we will share among six or seven people and I have seen the situation. I have seen the starvation.”

But he blames that on natural disasters and most of all, Western sanctions. He says he believes that North Korean communism if left alone would do justice for a greater number of people than capitalism.

Read full NPR article  

North Korean refugees in Myanmar held by Burmese rebels

South Korean NGOs face a dilemma over how to rescue 64 North Koreans held by Myanmar rebels and forced to work on a drug farm.

The North Koreans have been taken to a rebel camp northeast of Tachilek, a town along the border between Myanmar and Thailand, over the past nine years, Pastor Kim Hee-Tae told AFP. The refugees were caught while attempting to travel on their own through rebel-held territory to Thailand in order to defect to South Korea after fleeing their poverty-stricken homeland.

He said NGOs were unable to launch a campaign to raise the money, that is $5,000 ransom for each of the hostages, or to ask for Seoul to intervene as the hostage takers were extremely publicity shy.

“We need very quiet negotiations to pull it through”, he said.

About 80 percent of the North Koreans were women and were forced to work at alcohol manufacturing or drug processing plants. “Some of them are forced into prostitution”, he said. Male captives were used to grow poppies.

Myanmar is the world’s second largest producer of opium — the raw ingredient for heroin — after Afghanistan, accounting for 10 percent of global production, according to UN data.

[Sinchew]

No trace of North Korean refugees held near Burma border

Burmese government officials said they are unable to confirm reports that 64 North Korean refugees are being held by rebel groups near the border town of Tachilek in Shan State.

“The last we heard of North Koreans on their way to Thailand was four years earlier,” a security officer was quoted as saying. “They had mistaken the Burmese shore north of Tachilek for Thai territory and had embarked there. We told them to return to where they came from.”

A South Korean activist claimed recently that the refugees had been held for years and were subject to forced labor and prostitution.

[Irrawaddy]

Sugar to North Korea in payment for weapons repairs

Officials fearing some sort of modern-day Cuban Missile Crisis could only have been relieved to find out that what Cuba describes as an assortment of antique Soviet weapons discovered aboard a North Korean ship are more suited to a Cold War museum than they are to being used as weapons in the 21st century.

Cuba says the weapons, which were en route to North Korea for repairs, are “obsolete.” And experts who identified early Cold War relics like the Soviet-designed SA-2 air defense system among the ship’s cargo say that’s not far from the truth.

“We are talking about really old stuff — that technology was designed in the 1940s and 50s,” said James O’Halloran, editor of Jane’s Land Based Air Defence and Jane’s Strategic Weapon Systems. “Very few countries still employ the SA-2 system as a frontline defensive weapon.”

Cuba requires repairs on old systems like the SA-2, which went out of commission decades ago, and the MiG-21 jet, which was last produced in 1985 and is now mostly kept by long-time Russian allies for spare parts, according to O’Halloran at Jane’s.

In the meantime, experts don’t expect the episode will have a lasting effect diplomatically on either country — North Korea is already “sanctioned to the hilt,” says Mike Elleman, Senior Fellow for Regional Security Cooperation at IISS, and Cuba’s relations with the U.S. are thawing after decades of tension.

The more lasting impression of the raid on ship could, in the end, be the 10,000 tons of brown sugar found on-board the ship. Experts believe the sugar could be Cuban payment to cash-strapped North Korea in exchange for the weapons repairs.

“This will be much ado about nothing, except telling the world just how bad a shape Cuba and North Korea are in today — bartering early Cold War materials for sugar, that speaks volumes,” said Ellemann.

CNN

Mystery of military equipment discovered on North Korean boat

What was the massive military equipment hidden under hundreds of thousands of sacks of brown sugar on a North Korean boat? Where did it come from? And where was it going before investigators seized the vessel near the Panama Canal?

Hours after Panama said it would ask U.S. and British officials for help solving the puzzle, Cuba gave an answer Tuesday night.

In addition to 10,000 tons of sugar, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said, the shipment contained “240 metric tons of obsolete defensive weapons” sent to North Korea “to be repaired and returned to Cuba.”

The equipment was manufactured in the mid-20th century and included two anti-aircraft missile systems, nine missiles in parts and spares, two MiG-21 jets and 15 motors for this type of airplane, the foreign ministry said.

Because it is supposedly pursuing nuclear weapons, North Korea is banned by the United Nations from importing and exporting most weapons.

Panamanian investigators are asking the United States and the United Kingdom to send teams to help them identify the weapons, and will invite a special commission from the United Nations to determine whether the shipment violates the organization’s North Korea weapons ban.

Investigators spotted the boat going through the Panama Canal to Havana and then back toward the canal, according to two senior U.S. officials who said the United States had been tracking the ship along with the Panamanians for some time.

CNN

An Orphan in North Korea

Hyuk Kim lost his mother when he was 6, then his father when he was 11. After his father died, he lived with a group of six other orphan boys in North Hamgyong province, located at the northern most tip of North Korea.

“We started a fire together, but we still couldn’t sleep because it was so cold,” he said. “We just warmed ourselves with the fire at night and we mainly slept during the day when the sun was shining.

In the punishing winters, Hyuk and other orphans would break into sheds containing electric transformers near factories and markets to find a warm place to sleep.  “Many children accidentally end up touching the transformers while sleeping and die,” said Hyuk, who asked that his real name not be used for the safety of family members still in North Korea. As Hyuk dozed off each night curled next to a transformer, he would try to stay as still as possible — willing himself not to move in his sleep. “During the night, we needed to find food to eat. We sometimes stole food from others and gathered food from here and there.”

When something went missing in the neighborhood, the blame automatically fell on Hyuk and his friends, even when they had not been involved. The children would be taken to the police station and tied to chairs, he said. “The police would then automatically accuse us of stealing because they assume we would have stolen since we don’t have parents. They hit us, tie us up, and torture us. There was no one to defend us.”

Hyuk Kim fled North Korea in 2011, nearly a decade after becoming an orphan. Hyuk, now 21, attends Hangyeore Middle-High School in South Korea, where he sleeps in a bed inside a heated dormitory. The school serves three warm, buffet-style meals a day, and students can pile as much food as they’d like on their metal trays. The school, set up by the South Korean government, does not charge tuition.

Most North Koreans escape by crossing the river on the northern border to China. Some street children who flee to China become easy prey to traffickers, according to human rights activists. The girls are sold into the sex trade, or as wives for rural Chinese men. China sends back those escapees they catch, so defectors live in hiding — fearing they’ll be imprisoned and tortured back home.

 CNN

Interview with Kenneth Bae in North Korean prison

The American citizen sentenced to 15 years in a North Korean labor camp, has appealed to the Korean authorities for forgiveness and asked the United States for help in securing his release in an exclusive interview from prison obtained Wednesday by CNN.

Pae Jun Ho, known as Kenneth Bae by U.S. authorities, was found guilty in an April 30 trial of “hostile acts to bring down its government” and planning anti-North Korea religious activities, according to the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

In the interview footage, his head was shaved and his face noticeably thinner than the previous photos of the Korean-American. Bae wore a blue prison garment streaked with sweat and dirt that bore the number 103. The interview is believed to be the first since Bae’s sentencing about two months ago.

Choson Sinbo, a pro-North Korean group based in Tokyo, was permitted to conduct the interview by North Korea. The edited footage, which runs less than eight minutes, was made available to CNN.

The timing of the Bae interview comes after North Korea proposed high-level talks with the United States last month. However, North Korea has stated before that Bae is not a “political bargaining chip” through KCNA.

“There is no greater priority for us than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad and we urge the DPRK authorities to grant Mr. Bae amnesty and immediate release,” said Brent Byers, spokesperson at the U.S. Embassy in South Korea. He added that the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, which represents U.S. interests there, has met with Bae six times since his arrest.

In the interview, Bae sat in a room next to a door and a radiator. He calmly described his current prison life as eight hours of farm labor — which he had never done before — with a break in the middle of the day and lunch. He was also filmed clearing the fields, wearing black gloves and a hat as a guard stood watch nearby.

When asked if prison life was bearable, Bae replied, “Yes, people here are very considerate. But my health is not in the best condition, so there are some difficulties. But, everyone here is considerate and generous, and we have doctors here, so I’m getting regular check-ups.”

North Korean media has detailed the reasons why Bae was sentenced. Among the list of alleged crimes was 1) setting up bases in China for the “purpose of toppling the DPRK government,” 2) encouraging DPRK citizens to bring down its government and 3) conducting a “malignant smear campaign.” KCNA added that Bae had planned what it called a “Jericho operation” to bring down North Korea through religious activities. It suggested that Bae could have been sentenced to death, but avoided it through “candid confession of his crimes.”

North Korea seeks talks without preconditions to ease tensions

North Korea’s top diplomat said Tuesday that the U.S. must accept its offer for dialogue without preconditions if it wants to ease tensions on the divided Korean Peninsula. He drew a quick rebuttal from his South Korean counterpart, who said the international community has made clear that Pyongyang must give up its nuclear ambitions if it wants better relations.

The Koreas were among 27 nations at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum in Brunei, where the North’s nuclear weapons program was a key topic, along with other hot-button regional issues.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that the U.S., South Korea, Japan and China – North Korea’s chief ally – were “absolutely united” in their insistence on a denuclearized North Korea. Washington says Pyongyang must move in that direction before it will agree to talks, but North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun said during the conference Tuesday that it is America that must act.

“The U.S. must positively respond to our sincere and courageous decision (to offer talks) without preconditions if it is truly interested in ending the vicious circle of intensifying tension on the Korean Peninsula and safeguarding peace and stability,” Pak said, according to North Korean delegation official Choe Myong Nam.

Pak said that “a touch-and-go situation in which a war can break out anytime is fostered” on the Korean Peninsula, and that U.S. hostility against the North was primarily responsible for that.

Shortly after Choe spoke, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se told reporters that most diplomats at the forum expressed a “very strong message” to the North Korean delegation that Pyongyang must scrap its nuclear program and refrain from launching another provocation. “So they must have listened to this message very, very seriously,” he said.

On Tuesday, senior North Korean nuclear strategist and First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan left for Russia. Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov as saying he’ll meet with Kim in Moscow on Thursday to discuss the possibility of resuming the six-party talks.

The nuclear disarmament talks – which involve the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia – have been stalled since North Korea quit the negotiations in 2009 to protest international condemnation over a rocket launch.

AP