Why is North Korea holding a parliamentary session this month?

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North Korea will hold an unusual second session of parliament on September 25, state-run media reported on Wednesday, amid signals that the country under new leader Kim Jong-un is preparing to approve laws which can support economic reform programs.

The North’s parliament normally meets annually to adopt the state budget, approve important appointments and amendments, and to make formal announcements. The parliament last met in April. During the seventeen years Kim Jong-il was in power, the Supreme People’s Assembly held double sessions only twice, in 2003 and 2010.

“The unusual gathering of the Supreme People’s Assembly means there is a decision to be made through consent from all the citizens,” Chang Yong-suk, a researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies of Seoul National University, told the Yonhap news agency. “Economic reform measures or reshuffling power groups like the National Defense Commission could possibly be [such decisions].”

North Korea rolling out agricultural policy changes

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Several media outlets that employ North Korean defectors, including Washington-based Radio Free Asia, have reported that Pyongyang is rolling out agricultural policy changes that mark a significant break from the state-controlled economy.

Those measures, according to the reports, reduce the size of cooperative farm units from between 10 and 25 farmers to between four and six. The decrease is critical because it allows one or two households, not entire communities, to plan and tend to their own farms. Farmers still must hit production quotas, but they can keep 30 percent of their crops, up from less than 10 percent. They can sell the rest to the government at market prices, not state-fixed prices, and they can keep (and sell privately) anything exceeding the quota.

The changes do not apply to the entire country; they have been introduced in three rural provinces and took effect in July, according to reports.

It remains unclear what is driving the government to allow farmers more personal control. The North could be trying to wring more production from its farmers “out of necessity, not out of virtue,” because its centrally planned rationing system is broken, said Victor Cha, a former White House director of Asian affairs. If and when the North’s food shortages ease, he said, the country is likely to retreat.

“Having said that, the more time they have to do this and let the economy function on its own, the better off we all are,” Cha said. “You can say to farmers, ‘Okay, for six months, you can keep 30 percent,’ but the more times you do this, the harder it will be to pull back.”

Few foreign government officials or scholars on North Korea expect a big-bang economic makeover or official announcements about reform.

Kim Jong Un has shifted North Korean rhetoric to emphasize the economy rather than the military

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The Washington Post emphasizes that North Korea, under Kim Jong Un, has shifted its rhetoric to emphasize the economy rather than the military, and is introducing small-scale agricultural reforms with tantalizing elements of capitalism, according to diplomats and defector groups with informants in the North.

The changes, which allow farmers to keep more of their crops and sell surpluses in the private market, are in the experimental stage and are easily reversible, analysts caution. But even skeptical North Korea watchers say that Kim’s emerging policies and style — and his frank acknowledgment of the country’s economic problems — hint at an economic opening similar to China’s in the late 1970s.

Analysts and outside government officials say it depends on the ambitions of its 20-something supreme leader, who can either bring his destitute country out of isolation or keep it there, figuring it too risky to loosen state controls.

Analysts emphasize that it could take years for a clear answer, but they point to early indications that Kim is willing to run the country differently than his father, who died eight months ago.  It is not known whether the Swiss-educated Kim has a worldview different from that of his dour and militant father.

Typhoon Bolaven leaves thousands homeless in North Korea

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Typhoon Bolaven, one of the most powerful storms to strike the Korean Peninsula in recent years, made landfall in North Korea on late Tuesday with torrential rains and maximum sustained winds of 90 kilometers (55.9 miles) per hour and gusts up to 129.6 kilometers (80 miles) per hour, according to Choe Tong Hwan, the director of the North Korean Hydro-meteorological Management Office in North Hwanghae province.

The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said at least three people were killed and around 110 public and factory buildings were destroyed. The typhoon, which weakened quickly after making landfall, also destroyed more than 490 houses in Paekam County of Ryanggang province and 100 in Sinpho City of South Hamgyong province. More than 3,300 people were left homeless by the destruction, KCNA reported.

North Korea has been hit hard by floods this year, killing hundreds of people and leaving nearly a quarter of a million people homeless. Tropical storm Khanun hit in July and was followed by torrential rains just days later, killing at least 169 people and leaving more than 400 others missing. Torrential rains hit the impoverished nation again between August 17 and August 20, killing six people and destroying hundreds of buildings.

North Korea signs technology agreement with Iran

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Iran and North Korea signed a scientific and technological cooperation agreement Saturday, bringing two nations deeply at odds with the U.S. closer together.

Iranian state TV did not provide further details on the document but said it will include setting up joint scientific and technological laboratories, exchange of scientific teams between the two countries and transfer of technology in the fields of information technology, energy, environment, agriculture and food.

Any technical accord between Pyongyang and Tehran is likely to raise suspicions in the West. The U.S. has repeatedly accused North Korea of providing Iran with advanced missiles capable of targeting Western European capitals.

Last year, Iran denied a U.N. panel report saying that North Korea and Iran appear to have been regularly exchanging ballistic missiles, components and technology in violation of U.N. sanctions.

Iran’s state TV said the agreement was signed in Tehran in the presence of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and, by Iran’s Minister of Science, Research and Technology Kamran Daneshjoo and North Korea’s Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told North Korea’s No. 2, Kim Yong Nam, that North Korea and Iran have “common enemies.”

“Arrogant powers don’t tolerate independent governments,” Khamenei told Kim. “In the march towards great goals, one should be serious, and pressures, sanctions and threats should not cause any crack in (our) determination.”

Rampant post-traumatic stress disorder among North Korean Refugees

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Rampant post-traumatic stress disorder among North Korean Refugees

Radio Free Asia reports that a study of post-traumatic stress disorder among North Korean defectors found that they reported certain traumatic events in North Korea with a high frequency.

Most commonly reported were: “witnessing public executions,” followed by “hearing news of the death of a family member or relative due to starvation,” “witnessing a beating,” “witnessing a punishment for political misconduct,” and “death of a family member or relative due to illness.”

The study, published in the international medical journal The Lancet, found symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 29.5 percent of North Koreans in South Korea, compared with a rate of 56 percent found among North Koreans in China in a separate study.

China North Korean ties as close as lips and teeth

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Prior to his death, Kim Jong Il visited China to introduce his heir apparent, Kim Jong Un, to Chinese senior leaders. And as he had done many times, Kim Jong Il also asked for continued economic and military aid and political support.

China-North Korean ties are so close they are frequently described “as close as lips and teeth.” The the two neighbors were Korean War allies.

Of all the regional powers, Beijing has the greatest potential leverage over Pyongyang. China supplies at least 80% of North Korea’s oil and significant amounts of food, fertilizer and military aid. The two Communist neighbors have frequent political, military and party-to-party exchanges.

Former CNN correspondent, Mike Chinoy, a veteran Korea-watcher who has visited North Korea several times, said: “The Chinese have made it extremely clear that they are not going to let Korea go down the drain. They are going to do whatever they need to do to prop it up.”

Foremost in Beijing’s mind, North Korea serves as a buffer, keeping the U.S. troops stationed in South Korea away from the Chinese border.

 

On North Korea’s economic development push

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Kornelius Purba, Senior Managing Editor of the Jakarta Post, has this to say about North Korea’s economic development push:

North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, has ambitions to revive the country’s collapsed economy as it is the only way to preserve his family’s control over the country. The young leader has apparently realized that he has no choice but to take quick action to rebuild the economy, as it is only a matter of several years before his regime will collapse if nothing is done to get the military-controlled economy back on track.

Kim Jong-un has taken an important preliminary step by reducing the military’s control of the economy. But his ambitions may backfire as the country has been under a military dictatorship for a very long time and the regime has little knowledge about market-based development, the key to China’s economic might today.

North Korea has little experience in opening its market to foreign investors and the few foreign companies allowed in, including those from China, have complained they were cheated.

The continuously increasing number of starving people represents a major potential threat to China’s national security in the event of a regime collapse and a subsequent flood of refugees spilling over the border. The failure to achieve food security in North Korea could destabilize the already fragile Korean Peninsula and the broader East Asia region.

Increasingly friendly relationship between North Korea and Iran

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Kim Yong-nam will attend the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Tehran, Pyonyang’s official news agency said. Yong-nam is the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly and has represented North Korea’s supreme leaders (both the late Kim Jong-Il and now his son, Kim Jong-un) in visits around the world.

The North Korean news agency also reported that an Iranian delegation had visited North Korea in July for “political negotiations and consultations on international developments.” That parley ended with both sides adopting a shared stand against “Western imperialism.”

The high-level relations between North Korea and Iran, both of which are under various international sanctions over their respective nuclear programs, may suggest an increasingly friendly relationship that could pose a grave threat to international security.

Despite the devastating impact on Iran’s economy (for example, its currency has plunged 40 percent since December), the sanctions have not led to any halting of Iran’s uranium enrichment program so far. Similarly, the U.N.’s sanctions on North Korea have also failed to dissuade Pyongyang from relinquishing its nuclear ambitions.

Without firm commitments by North Korea’s trading partners (i.e., China), the effectiveness of Western sanctions will be limited. (China does have incentive in preventing North Korea’s government from collapsing as that would likely trigger a huge influx of refugees across its borders.)

China accounts for 57 percent of North Korea’s total trade and has increased its trade volume with North Korea in 2010, according to Bloomberg. And now Iran also appears to be a major player in North Korea’s economy, to the dismay of U.N. and U.S. officials.

Concerns in the West are that a close relationship between North Korea and Iran would undermine, or at least weaken, sanctions placed upon these nations. And as China continues to build the two economic zones in North Korea, Western sanctions on North Korea could be neutralized.

Bridging the family gap between South and North Korea

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Kim Kyung-Jae has had success in reconnecting some of the tens of thousands of family members separated for decades by the world’s last Cold War frontier, the one between North and South Korea.

There are no civilian mail or phone connections across the closely guarded inter-Korean border, and many do not even know whether their loved ones are still alive. Sporadic reunions arranged by the two sides since 2000 have brought together only a fraction of those seeking news, and have been halted because of political tensions.

Kim Kyung-Jae and his colleagues in a nine-member foundation called the Separated Family Union try to bridge that gap, using the postal systems of third countries or brokers. Kim sends about 70 to 80 letters and packages every year to North Koreans at the request of families in the South. It takes roughly 30 days for letters to arrive and another 30 days for a reply to come back. In the case of letters, Kim mails them from Japan, where he is based. But Tokyo restricts the contents of packages to the North to comply with UN sanctions, so those are sent through China.

Brokers handle their passage through the Chinese postal system and are also used to track down long-lost family members. For the professional intermediaries who cross the border between China and North Korea, a home town is all that is necessary to discover whether relatives are still alive, and if so, their address.

Sometimes even letters cannot be sent by a public route, in which case Shim Goo-Seob, co-founder of the foundation, takes over and arranges for a broker to make a more unorthodox delivery. The document could be tied to a rock and thrown over a narrow section of the Yalu river border with China, or sneaked through in a container truck. Until a few years ago all postal traffic was one-way, with South Koreans looking for relatives in the North. But now many North Koreans are seeking family members across the border through the brokers, Kim said.

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