North Korean power player Jang Song-thaek visits China

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s uncle and the man seen as the power behind the young and untested leader went to Beijing on Monday, the latest signal that the reclusive state is looking seriously at ways to revive its broken economy.

Jang Song-thaek (L) shown behind North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong-un, accompanying the hearse carrying the coffin of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il

The official KCNA news agency said Jang Song-thaek was visiting China, the North’s only major ally, to discuss setting up joint commercial projects and comes after leader Kim recently told Beijing that his priority is to develop his impoverished country’s decaying economy.

Last month, a source with ties to both Pyongyang and Beijing told Reuters the North was gearing up to experiment with agricultural and economic reforms after Kim and his powerful uncle purged the country’s top general for opposing change.

The visit by Jang, who has long advocated economic reforms in one of Asia’s poorest states, follows growing speculation that Pyongyang and its new leaders want bring changes to the way the economy is managed.

China is believed to be wary of pursuing a major new commercial venture with North Korea at a time of its own leadership transition and as Pyongyang continues to defy calls to divert scarce resources away from arms development program.

South Korea is the only other partner in commercial development in the North, with an industrial park just north of their heavily fortified border the site of factories where about 120 South Korean firms use cheap local labor to make goods.

North Korea already relies heavily on China to support its crumbling economy but its leadership has in the past proven deeply suspicious of any changes, seeing them as a threat to its control over the country. But Kim Jong-un, who took over when his father died in December, has presented a sharply contrasting image to his father and is believed to be planning to carry out economic and agricultural reform.

In another sign that Kim may be looking to end international isolation, he has sent the country’s nominal head of state Kim Yong-nam this month to Vietnam and Laos, where he was reported to have discussed economic development.

Source: Reuters

Likelihood of a new North Korean nuclear test

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The Guardian reports that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has published a report on the likelihood of a new North Korean nuclear test, which argues that the Pyongyang regime has its ducks in a row technically to pull off a third test, motivated in part by the need to make amends for the humiliating failure of a space rocket launch in April .

The article is by Frank Pabian, an expert on satellite imagery at the Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory and a visiting fellow at Stanford University, and Siegfried Hecker, also of Stanford, who was taken on a tour of a hitherto unknown North Korean uranium enrichment site in 2010.

Pabian and Hecker think that any new North Korean test could involve both plutonium and highly-enriched uranium devices, speculating that Pyongyang will emulate the Pakistani experience and that it might have acquired blueprints for making small HEU warheads from the AQ Khan nuclear smuggling network, as suggested by the UN panel of experts.

Kim Jong-un accompanied by officers of the Korean People's ArmyHowever, the authors do not believe the regime has made up its mind to test, and argue that there is still time for the international community to weigh in on Pyongyang’s cost-benefit analysis:

“North Korea has strong technical and military drivers to conduct additional nuclear tests, and it is capable of doing so within as little as two weeks. It appears that Kim Jong-un’s regime is now weighing the political costs it would have to bear should it decide to test…It is imperative for Washington, Beijing, and their partners in the six-party talks to join forces to increase the costs on North Korea of continued testing. An additional nuclear test or two would greatly increase the likelihood that Pyongyang could fashion warheads to fit at least some of its missiles — a circumstance that would vastly increase the threat its nuclear program poses to the security of northeast Asia.”

North Korea a land of man-made misery

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The Economist puts it this way: With a decrepit economy, and now devastating floods, the closed regime of North Korea shows signs of greater openness—though not to everyone.

North Korea has been suffering flooding on a biblical scale. The official news agency this week reported that, after the heaviest rainfall in 39 years, 169 people had died and more than 200,000 had lost their homes. Some 65,000 hectares of farmland had been inundated, exacerbating the chronic food shortage the country has endured since famine killed as many as 1million people in the 1990s.

Both floods and hunger can be largely blamed on the government. Even without this year’s huge downpours, the policy failure that let goats and farmers desperate for arable land

Even without this year’s huge downpours, the policy failure that let goats and farmers desperate for arable land strip the country’s hillsides bare of trees has made flooding an almost annual event. Similarly, food shortages are the result of the economic mismanagement that saw GDP shrink almost by half in the 1990s, and never recover, leaving North Korea dependent on food aid from abroad.

Now the government has appealed to the United Nations for emergency aid, in a country where one in three children is chronically malnourished or stunted. Even before the floods, the World Food Programme expected life to be difficult through the annual “lean season”, until the harvest in October, with reduced rations from the public distribution system on which two-thirds of the population rely, and few ways of making up the shortfall.

Things would be a little less dire had Kim Jong Un, the young dictator and Great Successor to his father, Kim Jong Il, who died in December, not reneged on an agreement reached in February with America, which had offered food. After just a fortnight Mr Kim’s regime announced it would launch a satellite, in breach of United Nations sanctions.

If this made him look like his father’s son, he has since shown signs of becoming his own, rather different man. He has presented a jollier image, and people remember that, by local standards, he is cosmopolitan, having spent a couple of years at a school in Switzerland. On one recent outing, to a funfair, he enjoyed a ride with a young British diplomat and the Chinese ambassador. This seemed to be sending a message to a foreign as well as local audience. The British ambassador, Karen Wolstenholme, detects “more openness” in the regime under Kim Jong Un.

There is little to show for this yet in terms of closer economic or political contacts with Japan, South Korea and the West.

Signs of economic reform are even harder to detect. Three counties have been picked to test a new system of small farms, which will be allowed to keep 30% of their production quota, and any excess. Mr Kim has also complained about the way the country’s resources are being sold off on the cheap. He did not mention that the buyers are almost all Chinese, nor that many of the sellers are parts of the 1.2m-strong armed forces. Scholars in Beijing say he is trying hard to “recentralise” economic control, from the army as well as the largely illicit private sector.

That does indeed seem more likely than any radical reform. Economic relaxation is hampered by the fear of losing political control. As the official news agency puts it, “to expect…‘reform and opening’…is nothing but a foolish and silly dream, just like wanting the sun to rise in the west.”

North Korea’s fashionable Ri Sol-ju and her Christian Dior handbag

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The South Korean news media, which scrutinizes every photo of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, zeroed in this week on one particular photo released by the North’s state-run news agency on Tuesday. It shows Mr. Kim watching an art performance by soldiers during a military visit.

Christian Dior handbag of Ri Sol-juBut the photo also showed his wife, Ri Sol-ju, with something most North Korean women have never heard of, much less owned: a Christian Dior handbag.

South Korean journalists did not take long to identify Ms. Ri’s handbag and, assuming it is genuine, its going price in Seoul: 1.8 million won, or $1,600. That is about 16 times the average monthly wage of a North Korean worker in the Gaeseong industrial park, a joint venture between North and South Korea that provides some of the best-paying jobs in the impoverished North.

The South Korean news media also noted the apparent “belly fat” — or is it a baby bump? — that Ms. Ri has developed. (The South Korean spy agency believes that Ms. Ri and Mr. Kim already have a child.)

Ms. Ri has drawn international attention since she began accompanying her husband in public early last month. Her expensive-looking designer suits stand out among the North Korean elites, who typically wear olive-colored military uniforms and drab Mao suits.

Some outside analysts even consider her appearance as a sign of potential change in leadership and even lifestyle that Mr. Kim could bring about as a youthful leader who studied in Europe as a teenager. (Recent visitors to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, reported seeing miniskirts, high heels, Nike hats and Hello Kitty cellphone accessories.)

From a blog article by Choe Sang-hun

New North Korean leader Kim Jong-un distancing himself from former regime?

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Kenji Fujimoto, former sushi chef of Kim Jong Il, recently visited the new North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in North Korea, and says the younger Kim is planning reforms similar to that of China.

So the theory is that Kim Jong-un might reform North Korea on the lines of China’s system of Market Socialism.

“When I go to Europe or Japan, I see overflowing products and food, but when I return to [North Korea], there is nothing,” Fujimoto quoted Kim Jong-un as saying. “Do we need to study China’s policies?”

Analysts have said that Fujimoto’s meeting is another sign that the younger Kim wants to distance himself from the regime of his father and grandfather Kim Il-sung, who founded the Stalinist state.

“Judging by what Kim Jong-un has done in the last month or so he is not merely distancing himself from his father’s regime, but is doing so with remarkable boldness and speed,” Andrei Lankov, who studied in Pyongyang and now teaches at South Korea’s Kookmin University, said.

Fujimoto, who was invited to North Korea by Jong-un, said North Korea is really being run by Kim Jong-un’s aunt Kim Kyong-hui and his uncle Jang Song-taek. “Although Kim Jong-un was chosen as the successor, only one out of every 10 policies he presents will probably be implemented,” he said.

84,000 North Koreans left homeless following latest floods

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Reuters reports that heavy rains between 18-30 July have left approximately 84,000 people homeless in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), primarily in South Pyongan, Kangwon and North and South Hamgyong provinces.

The floods have also damaged 74,700 acres of farmland, exacerbating the pre-existing food security crisis linked to a severe drought earlier this year.

Kim Kwang-dok, vice-chairman of the Anju City People’s Committee in South Pyongan, described the flooding as the worst in the city’s history.

Vietnamese rice for North Korean flood victims

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Flooding in North Korea has killed at least 169 people since late June, around 212,000 homeless along with 400 missing.

Vietnam pledged a donation of 5,000 tons of rice to flood-stricken North Korea.

This week North Korea’s nominal head of state Kim Yong Nam visited Vietnam to boost ties between two of the world’s few remaining communist countries. Kim met with the Vietnamese President, Communist Party chief and Prime Minister. The North Korean official then moved on to a state visit to Laos.

Former sushi chef to Kim Jong-il visits Kim Jong-un in North Korea

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North Korea Kim Jong-un and wife Ri Sol-ju
Kim Jong-un with his wife Ri Sol-ju

The late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s former sushi chef visited North Korea for the first time in 11 years, and apparently there were no hard feelings as he met new leader Kim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol-ju, according to Japan’s Kyodo News.

The chef, who goes by the pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto, was Kim’s personal chef from 1989 until 2001 and has published several books about this time in the secretive country. Fujimoto’s 2003 memoir offered a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the North’s ruling household.

The young North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, called Fujimoto by his real name, said “Long time no see’ and told him he was always welcome in the North, according to the chef. Kim’s younger sister Yeo-jeong also came to the party where they met, but his older brother Jong-chol was not there.

Fujimoto treated the young North Korean leader to blue-fin tuna that he brought with him.

The two discussed no hairy issues like the North’s bizarre abductions of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 80s or Pyongyang-Tokyo relations in general, Fujimoto said.

Fujimoto went to North Korea on July 21 and also met his family in Pyongyang during the visit. Why Kim Jong-un invited Fujimoto back remains something of a puzzle. Back in 2001, the chef virtually fled the North after being accused of spying, leaving his North Korean wife and children in Pyongyang.

“Kim Jong-un has recently been showing signs of opening up his country and may be seeking to send some kind of message to Tokyo with this treatment of Fujimoto,” an informed source said.

 

North Korea Gulag Nation -Part 1

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The guards at North Korea’s No. 22 Hoeryong prison camp had a little competition going: catch one of the rare inmates who dare try to escape and win a trip to college. And so one day, recalls Ahn Myong Chul, a former prison driver who later fled North Korea, an enterprising fellow guard coaxed five prisoners into climbing the camp’s barbed-wire fence. He shot them dead–and thereby earned an education at a state political college.

Such is the capriciousness of life in one corner of North Korea’s vast gulag, its chain of political prison camps for those who–often by chance–run afoul of the world’s most virulently Stalinist regime. Today, at least 200,000 political prisoners are held in six giant camps, according to South Korean and U.S. officials, and the number may be growing as North Korea’s leaders tighten their grip on a hungry and desperate population. The camps are nothing short of human black holes, into which purported enemies of the regime disappear and rarely exit.

“If they died, even their corpses would be buried there,” says Ahn, now a 34-year-old bank worker in Seoul.

In the past three decades, some 400,000 North Koreans are believed to have perished in the gulag. Yet relatively little is known about the camps, which are sealed off from international scrutiny. U.S. News tracked down five former prisoners and guards who managed to defect to South Korea, and they describe a world of routine horror: beatings, crippling torture, hunger, slave-style labor, executions. Fetuses are said to be aborted by salt water injected into women’s wombs; if that fails, babies are strangled upon delivery. Guards practice tae kwon do on prisoners, who obediently line up to take their punches and kicks. These are places, says Ahn, where the proverbial salt was actually rubbed into prisoners’ wounds.

Inmates are told they are traitors–and no longer human beings. Their grinding, daily routines reinforce the message. After laboring 14 hours a day, exhausted prisoners return at night to dreary, unheated quarters. A few die from illness, hunger, or injuries in a typical week, say survivors. Executions by firing squad or hanging serve as warnings not to resist. Former guard Choi Dong Chul, 36, describes the fate of a family of five political prisoners caught three days after making their escape: The grandmother and the father were hanged; his three boys were shot; their bodies were strung up; and some 15,000 inmates filed by, throwing stones, which tore apart the bodies. “Just make them obey” was the standing order on handling inmates, says Choi, who served at the now defunct No. 11 camp in North Hamgyong province.

The survivors’ recollections cannot be verified firsthand, and the North Korean government denies that it even maintains political prisons. But U.S. and South Korean authorities, along with some human-rights experts in both countries, give the accounts considerable credence since they track with what intelligence shows about the North’s repressive practices. “It’s arguably the worst human-rights situation in the world,” asserts Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican.

Life in North Korea’s secret gulag is getting some overdue attention, however. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has condemned Pyongyang for “systemic, widespread and grave” rights violations. The Bush administration is also focusing on the camps–and uncovering new detail about their surprising scope. Despite North Korea’s denials, says a senior State Department official privy to intelligence, “there’s lots of proof.”

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North Korea Gulag Nation -Part 2

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Early in the Bush administration, a U.S. spy satellite was assigned to shoot high-resolution pictures from space of one camp in mountainous northeastern North Korea. At first, officials were mystified: Where were the camp’s fences? They repeatedly ordered the satellite to expand the frame of its pictures. Finally, a senior administration official tells U.S. News, the perimeter was located, revealing a camp larger in size than the District of Columbia, with clusters of buildings that look like villages.

“If you look at a map of North Korea, it would not be just a dot on the map. It’s a perceptible portion of the map,” says the official. “There’s a general lack of understanding of how depraved the human-rights situation in North Korea is,” the official says, predicting that “the horrors that will come out” will rival those of Cambodia in the 1970s.

And yet, stories from the North Korean gulag receive surprisingly little attention in South Korea and elsewhere. The South Korean government has turned the spotlight away from the North Korean gulag. The South’s “sunshine policy” of reaching out to the North seeks to avoid confrontation with Kim Jong Il in favor of encouraging Pyongyang to open up to the world.

That hope doesn’t impress many human-rights activists. “The defectors are politically inconvenient,” says Tim Peters, the founder of Helping Hands Korea, a Seoul-based group that helps North Korean refugees make their way to the South. “They’re not consonant with the sunshine policy,” a tenet of which, he argues, is “Don’t offend the Kim Jong Il regime.” One result is public indifference. Young South Koreans, Peters says, “are woefully ignorant of the gulag in North Korea.”

But those who endured the camps are anything but indifferent. They describe a level of savagery that satellite photographs can never convey. Nor does the Orwellian terminology for the camps reveal much. Political prisons are called “management centers.” Those centers, in turn, are divided into two categories: “complete control zones,” with life imprisonment, and “revolutionizing process zones,” from where some inmates, principally family members, might eventually return to society. The prisoners are banally referred to as “resettlers.” Other camps, dubbed “re-education” places, lump together common criminals and political prisoners.

The horror of the North Korean gulag is compounded by the trivial offenses that can draw such punishment: listening to foreign radio, accidentally sitting on a newspaper photo of Kim Jong Il, or making a heedlessly candid remark. Most prisoners, recalls Ahn, “made one small mistake.”

One was arrested after singing a South Korean pop song titled, “Don’t Cry for Me, Younger Sister.” The unlucky woman, says David Hawk, a researcher for the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, learned the tune from watching a North Korean propaganda film but was nonetheless accused of disturbing the public socialist order. Often, individuals and even whole families are whisked away from their homes in the dead of night and packed off to camps. Says Hawk, a veteran of human-rights probes in Cambodia and Rwanda, “I don’t know of a country in the world today that’s as repressive as North Korea. I believe it’s the worst.”

The camps serve as a frightening, if mysterious, deterrent to anti-Communist activity. North Koreans receive few details about the gulag–but enough is known that parents see fit to warn their children to keep family opinions to themselves. “There were rumors that nobody can get out,” says Soon Young Bum, a 46-year-old fishing boat captain from North Korea who brought his family to freedom last August. Adds Benjamin Yoon, a leader of the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, “We call North Korea a prison state. It’s rule by terror.”

The camps also generate funds for a cash-strapped regime whose economy has shrunk by about half since 1990. Prisoners mine coal, harvest trees, and manufacture goods for export and domestic consumption–from snake brandy to bicycles. They gather the roots of plants used for traditional medicines, some destined for sale in Japan. The hot pepper sauce from Ahn’s camp at Hoeryong sits on the tables at Pyongyang’s Koryo Hotel, where westerners stay. Ahn likens the camps to Nazi-run Auschwitz. The survivors agree.

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