Jeffrey Fowle released by North Korea

Jeffrey Fowle, one of three Americans held by North Korea, has been released, the White House says.

Fowle, 56, who was detained in June, allegedly for leaving a Bible in his hotel room in North Korea, was home today after negotiators secured his release. At the time, North Korean state media said he had “acted in violation of the [North Korean] law, contrary to the purpose of tourism during his stay.”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest says the Pentagon provided Fowle with a flight home.

“While this is a positive decision by the DPRK, we remain focused on the continued detention of Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller and call on the DPRK to immediately release them,” Earnest said, referring to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

[NPR]

North Korean Ambassador says his country will keep nuclear program

Jang Il Hun, North Korea’s deputy U.N. ambassador in New York, told VOA that his country already declared itself a nuclear-armed state in its constitution and adopted a new policy calling for expansion of nuclear weapons. In a rare interview, he stated his country’s positions on the nuclear issue, human rights, and American detainees.

“If America continues to press us on the human rights issue, we have no option but to review our policy toward America completely,” warned Jang. He did not elaborate on what a review of policy meant specifically.

Recently, the country signaled renewed interest in resuming the stalled nuclear talks. However, Jang raised doubts about the prospect of resuming the talks. “I do not see the point of having the six-party talks at this point,” he said.

He accused the U.S. of masterminding international criticism of his country’s human rights records to launch a smear campaign against the country’s political system.

Asked whether the North will allow a visit by an investigator from outside to probe the human rights situation inside the country, the North Korean envoy replied: “It is a subject for discussion as long as the matter is handled in a positive manner.”

On the possibility of negotiating the release of the three Americans being detained in North Korea, Jang said it would be difficult, saying “it is a matter of enforcing law.”

[VoA]

Exchange of fire between North and South Korean troops inside DMZ

North and South Korean troops briefly exchanged fire Sunday inside the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) in the latest in a series of minor border skirmishes that have raised military tensions on the divided peninsula. There were no reported casualties.

Despite its name, the DMZ is probably the world’s most heavily militarized border, bristling with watchtowers and landmines.

[AFP]

North Korean defector disrupts Korean peace talks with balloons

Lee Min-bok lives in a small hut near the Korean Demilitarized Zone and regularly sends satchels with thousands of anti-Kim Jong-un flyers to North Korea via cylindrical 7-metre-tall hot-air balloons.

balloons to north koreaSometimes the satchels contain more than just anti-North Korea leaflets, such as instant noodle packs, $1 bills and USB sticks containing South Korean soap operas.

To time his deliveries perfectly, he studies satellite weather data on his laptop. The 57-year-old defector has been launching roughly 50 million leaflets a year for the past decade and believes that his propaganda is the best way of achieving peace between the two nations, rather than official negotiations.

“My balloons are the way to achieve peace and unification and tell North Koreans the truth – not to hate the United States and South Korea,” he said.

The leaflet drops have long angered Pyongyang, which has frequently threatened to attack the continued deliveries. Yet it was only until last Friday that North Korea responded, firing machine guns at one of Lee’s balloons that had crossed the border. Some of the bullets landed in the South, forcing retaliatory fire.

On October 4, three senior officials from North Korea made a surprise visit to the South, with a follow-up round of talks set to take place in late October or early November. However, North Korea’s state KCNA news agency said such negotiations were being stymied by Lee’s propaganda, which it called “a premeditated and deliberate politically-motivated provocation perpetrated under the backstage wire-pulling of the U.S. and the South Korean authorities”.

A slightly more open North Korea?

Just like that, Kim Jong-un was back. Despite his disappearances, this latest incident does reveal that the present leader is relatively more open than his father, Kim Jong-il, and grandfather, “Eternal President” Kim Il-sung. Neither ever publicly acknowledged so much as having a wife, let alone any other human frailties. The first Kim was always carefully photographed to avoid showing the huge goiter on his neck, while the second suffered a series of maladies – including an apparent stroke in 2008 – that were never mentioned in the North Korean press.

But in last Tuesday’s reports, there was 31-year-old Kim Jong-un propped up on a cane at the apartment complex, holding the cane as he rode around on an electric cart, leaning on it as he sat on a couch.

“There is a pattern here of being more forthcoming, a little less cryptic,” said John Delury, a North Korea watcher at Yonsei University in Seoul. “His father was always restrained, keeping his distance, but Kim Jong-un is shown shaking hands, with his arms around people, slapping their backs. He’s more like a Bill Clinton or Tony Blair.”

Of course, none of this is to suggest that North Korea has suddenly become an open, liberal democracy. But it is part of a pattern of marginally greater transparency that began when Kim succeeded his father at the end of 2011.

When a satellite intended to celebrate the centenary of the founding president Kim’s birth failed to reach orbit in 2012, Pyongyang immediately conceded that the launch had been a failure – something that would have been unthinkable in the second Kim’s “military first” era.

Last year, state media reported in vivid detail that Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-taek, had been purged and later executed. This year, the official mouthpieces said that an apartment building, part of a great construction boom under Kim, had collapsed.

More recently, North Korea has admitted to running “reform through labor” camps, although its description was a far cry from the brutal gulags described by defectors. It is even engaging with the United Nations on human rights, albeit in the very limited way.

[South China Morning Post]

“Why is the world allowing a holocaust to happen again?”

North Korean  holocaust YeonmiAt the age of just 21, Yeonmi, this sweetly-confident, intelligent and tiny-framed young North Korean woman, who managed to flee the famine-torn country at the age of 13, is already a global spokesperson for her own people – a people terrorized into submission and silence while the wider world ignores what she describes as a “holocaust”.

In an interview, Yeonmi told how her first memory is of being told by her mother at the age of four “not to even whisper because the birds and mice could hear you”.

When she was nine, she was forced to watch her best friend’s mother being executed on the street before her eyes. Her only crime had been she had watched a James Bond movie and shared the DVDs with neighbors.

“Always I knew that in North Korea when they kill the people, they justify themselves by saying these are criminals trying to destroy our socialist paradise.  But I knew that lady. She was not that bad. She was not going to destroy our country,” she said.

That same year, Yeonmi’s life changed catastrophically when her father, a mid-ranking civil servant, was arrested and imprisoned for selling precious metals to China on the black market. Her mother, too, was interrogated and thrown into jail. Yeonmi and her sister, Eunmi were left to fend for themselves, at the age of nine and 11, foraging on the mountainsides for grasses, plants, frogs and even dragonflies to avoid starving to death. “Everything I used to see, I ate them,” she said.

Asked if any adults around knew the children were surviving alone, Yeonmi tries to explain. “People were dying there. They don’t care… most people are just hungry and that’s why they don’t have the spirit or time to take care of other people.”

Her bravery and willingness to speak out about conditions in her native land comes at a price. Police in Seoul – the South Korean capital where she now lives – have warned her she is on North Korea’s official list of public enemies. If she ever returns to her native country, she will instantly be executed.

Yeonmi is more than familiar with the method – she has witnessed it many times as a child, when her mother used to give her a piggyback ride to the big stadium to watch the public executions, considered a ‘celebration’ which everybody is under orders to attend. Along the route, victims are beaten with sticks and a rock placed in their mouths so that all their teeth are broken. Once they get there, they are shot three times – in the knee, the chest and the head. Nobody, not even the closest of family members, is permitted to show any sign of grief.

At the age of 13, Yeonmi’s sister fled across the border without telling the family and after four days, Yeonmi’s mother, terrified for Eunmi’s safety, decided they would follow her. Released just the previous day from hospital after an appendix operation and wearing shoes that were too large for her, Yeonmi could barely walk and her clothes were too flimsy for the freezing conditions in which they crossed three mountains and a frozen river.

When they finally reached the alleged ‘safety’ of China, they encountered a man who demanded to have sex with the 13-year-old girl who had “never even heard the word sex before”. Terrified, her mother offered herself in return and ordered her daughter to turn her back while she was raped.

Life in China was worse, if possible, even than it had been in North Korea. With no money and unable to speak the language, the family was on the brink of starvation. And though Yeonmi’s father managed to join them across the border, his health had been destroyed by prison life and torture. When he died shortly afterwards, the family were forced to bury him secretly for fear of being caught.

His death sparked the family’s second flight – this time across the Gobi desert to South Korea, where Yeonmi went to school and learned for the first time that everybody is born equal.

She explained the situation in North Korea as a “holocaust” the world is again choosing to ignore.

[Irish Independent]

China’s legal (and illegal) trade with North Korea

With decades of breakneck growth, Communist China has become a testament to capitalism and urban living. North Korea, which also describes itself as a socialist state, is still sealed and secretive — almost.

China is North Korea’s largest trading partner by a long way, and despite Beijing’s official displeasure with the DPRK’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, this trade continues to grow. China has rebuffed any attempts to strengthen economic sanctions further against Pyongyang.

Dandong (China) is a thriving border town on the Yalu River within throwing distance of the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea. And Dandong is the lifeline, say critics, of the autocratic regime led by Kim Jong Un. Whole neighborhoods in the back streets of the city are lined with trading shops quietly run by North Korean officials.

Up to 70% of all China trade with North Korea runs through Dandong, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, and it takes the form of both legal trade and illegal smuggling.

“Chen,” a smuggler who makes midnight runs across the Yalu several times a month to trade with North Korean soldiers, claims that Dandong is crawling with North Korean spies. “Don’t say anything sensitive around the North Korean waitresses,” he whispers to us. “They speak Korean and English.” And you can find them all across Dandong in North Korean themed restaurants, karaoke bars, and musical review shows.

If refugees are caught trying to escape from North Korea, they are shot, but in restaurants in the gaudy two-story tourist trap, North Koreans are allowed to work in China on special three-year permits. They are often the children of mid-level Korean Workers’ Party loyalists and their movements and earnings are tightly controlled.

And as the four-piece all-female North Korean band plays to the Chinese tourists drinking North Korean beer, I think how perfectly it sums up this city: extremely bizarre and perhaps a little tragic.

[Full CNN article

South Korean activists vow to send more leaflets over border

South Korean activists vowed to launch balloons next week carrying anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border into North Korea, days after their campaign triggered gunfire between the rival Koreas.

North Korea considers leaflets an attack on its government and has long demanded that South Korea ban activists from sending them. South Korea refuses, saying the activists are exercising freedom of speech.

Last Friday, North Korea opened fire after propaganda balloons were floated from the South. South Korean soldiers returned fire, but there were no reports of casualties. North Korea has warned it would take unspecified stronger measures if leafleting continues.

South Korean activist Choi Woo-won said Thursday his group won’t yield to the North’s threats and plans to send about 50,000 leaflets on Oct. 25. “Our government and people must not be fazed even though North Korea, the criminal organization, is blackmailing us,” said Choi, a university professor.

He said his leaflets will urge a military rebellion against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “The leaflets will tell North Korean soldiers to level their guns at Kim Jong Un, launch strikes at him and kill him,” Choi said.

Another activist Lee Min-bok said he was also ready to fly millions of leaflets, which describe South Korea’s economic prosperity. “No one can block my rights” to send leaflets, said Lee, whose leafleting Friday from a South Korean border village was believed to have directly caused North Korea to start firing.

The leafleting was high on the agenda when military generals from the two Koreas met in a border village on Wednesday in the countries’ first military talks since early 2011.

[AP]

A rap music revolution coming to North Korea?

Kang Chun-hyok says even though he cannot go back across the border to North Korea, he hopes his music will.

Among the more than 26,000 North Koreans who have fled their country for new lives in South Korea, one refugee is trying to start a career as a hip-hop artist with hopes his music will eventually make it back to his homeland.

Kang Chun-hyok, 28, is originally from North Hamgyong province in North Korea. He grew up there during the famine that is believed to have killed millions. Kang says it is that experience that influences his music.

He says he wants to criticize the North Korean government because people there have been starving to death and are desperate, but yet the system has not changed. In this rap, Kang reminds North Korea’s rulers that while they were drinking expensive, imported alcohol, people like him were eating tree bark and drinking from mud puddles.

Those are lyrics that would not go over well with the Pyongyang regime. But Kang says he hopes his music will resonate with many people back home. He says he is not so sure what people in North Korea will think about his songs, but maybe his lyrics could help start a revolution there.

There is nothing like rap in North Korea, he says, though South Korean pop music is broadcast into the North by defector run radio stations in Seoul.

[VoA]