South Korea’s Park pledges engagement with Pyongyang

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South Korea’s presidential frontrunner Park Geun-hye proposed on Monday to open liaison offices in the capitals of the rival Koreas in a sweeping policy statement that aimed to revive ties between the two countries.

Park, who is seeking to become the country’s first woman president, said she was willing to meet North Korea’s leader but said Pyongyang must renew its commitment to end its nuclear programme. Park, who is the daughter of assassinated leader Park Chung-hee, leads her two major liberal opponents by double digits in a race for a December 19 vote to pick South Korea’s president for a single five-year term.

Park’s call for a more accommodative policy toward the North is aimed at distancing herself from President Lee Myung-bak’s hardline position. Offering a different policy approach to Lee, Park also said she would separate the humanitarian crisis in North Korea from politics. Lee, who cut off aid to the North when he took power in 2008, has linked a resumption of food aid to a political thaw.

“For continued and systematic development of South-North economic cooperation and social and cultural exchange, I will establish South-North exchange and cooperation offices in Seoul and Pyongyang,” Park told a news conference. Park called for a confidence building process as a way to normalize ties between the two Koreas, adding it should begin with the two sides reaffirming existing agreements.

Shin Dong Hyok – Growing up in a North Korean prison camp

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On Nov. 29, 1996, a 14-year-old North Korean, Shin Dong Hyok, and his father were made to sit in the front row of a crowd assembled to watch executions.

The two had already spent seven months in a North Korean prison camp’s torture compound, and Shin assumed they were among those to be put to death.

Instead, the guards brought out his mother and his 22-year-old brother. The mother was hanged, the brother was shot by a firing squad.

“Before she was executed, my mother looked at me,” Shin said in a recent interview. “I don’t know if she wanted to say something, because she was bound and gagged. But I avoided her eyes.”

North Korean prison camp inmates [like Shin] were held in the “revolutionizing zone” at Camp No. 15 in Yodok in eastern North Korea. This means that the emphasis was on “re-educating” the prisoners. If they survived long enough to complete their sentences, they were released.

Shin is the first North Korean who made it to South Korea who is known to have escaped from such a prison camp, a “total-control zone.”

Shin “is a living example of the most brutal form of human rights abuse,” said Yoon Yeo Sang, president of Database Center for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul. “He comes from a place where people are deprived of their ability to have the most basic human feelings, such as love, hatred and even a sense of being sad or mistreated.”

[Excerpt of an International Herald Tribune article by Choe Sang-Hun]

German theaters to screen movie on North Korean political prison camp

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A movie about a former North Korean political prisoner will be screened in theaters in Berlin and nine other German cities on November 8.

Director Marc Wiese’s “Camp 14 ― Total Control Zone” is about the dramatic life of Shin Dong-hyuk, who was born in a political prison camp, according to the documentary film company.

Shin remained in the camp for 24 years before escaping over electrified fences and making his way to China. He settled in South Korea in 2006.

“Our sole purpose was to follow the rules of the work camp and then die,” Shin said in a synopsis. “Sometimes people tried to escape, driven by fear of starving or being beaten, but they were publicly executed and became the object of hate for those of us who were left behind.” Shin has said inmates were subjected to torture, hard labor and arbitrary execution.

The movie follows the March publication of “Escape from Camp 14,” a book on Shin’s experiences by American journalist Blaine Harden.


Sunshine Policy as a path to peace in the Koreas?

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Chung-in Moon, a well-known scholar who served as an adviser to two South Korean presidents spanning 1998 until 2008, has published a new book on the Sunshine Policy. “The Sunshine Policy: In Defense of Engagement as a Path to Peace in Korea“.

During the above-mentioned decade, the South Korean administration tried to thaw relations with Pyongyang, build trust, and create conditions for gradual change in the North Korea’s political and economic systems that might lead to coexistence and eventually to peaceful unification.

But to say the least, the policy depended on more reciprocity from the North and more strategic patience from the United States than could realistically be expected — not to mention more support from the South Korean public, which proceeded to award the presidency to a hard-liner, Lee Myung-bak, in 2008.

The scholar blames U.S. President George W. Bush for disrupting those efforts before they had a chance to build on what he claims were initial successes.

Nevertheless, Chung-in Moon’s book outlines the logic of the “sunshine policy” and a call for its revival, since every other option — military pressure, containment, and waiting for the regime in Pyongyang to collapse — has failed.

CNN reports pregnancy rumors envelop North Korea

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.