*** FOREIGN TIPS
Davies Due in Moscow, Berlin for Talks on North Korea
WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- The top U.S. envoy for North Korea, Glyn Davies, will travel to Russia and Germany next week for consultations about the North Korea issue, the State Department announced on March 15.
Davies, special representative for North Korea policy, will visit Moscow on Tuesday and Wednesday for meetings with senior Russian officials, including Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov, according to the department.
Russia is a member of the six-party talks aimed at denuclearizing North Korea. The negotiations, which have been stalled for years, also include South Korea, China and Japan.
Davies will then head to Berlin for two days where he will meet with Parliamentarians and senior German officials.
They include Ministry of Foreign Affairs Director-General for Asian and Pacific Affairs Peter Prugel and Deputy National Security Advisor Michael Flugger.
Although Germany and other European nations are not directly involved in multilateral talks on North Korea, they have shown keen interest in helping facilitate the process and address the communist nation's human rights issues.
N. Korea Fires off Short-range Missiles: Military Sources
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea fired off short-range missiles into the East Sea on March 15 amid heightened tension following its February nuclear test, a military source in Seoul said.
"A North Korean military unit on drill test-fired two shots of short-range missiles, presumed to be KN-02 missiles, into the East Sea" the source said.
The source did not say the exact time of the launching.
"The launch was seen as testing its capability for short-range missiles. It seemed to be conducted on a military-unit level, not at a national level."
North Korea is ratcheting up war rhetoric almost daily in response to the U.N. Security Council's adoption of new sanctions for the country's Feb. 12 nuke test.
Pyongyang is believed to have more than 1,000 missiles -- most of which are able to strike South Korea -- and some are capable of hitting Japanese and U.S. military bases in this region. The KN-02 missiles, an upgraded version of SS-21 short-range missiles, are estimated to have a range of about 120 kilometers.
The South Korean military source said the North's missile launch appears to be in response to the joint South Korea-U.S. Foal Eagle and Key Resolve military exercises that began on Monday.
According to North Korean media reports, the North's leader Kim Jong-un oversaw artillery exercises this week that targeted two South Korean frontline islands in the Yellow Sea.
Meanwhile, North Korea warned that it would be advisable for residents in several islands near the maritime border in the Yellow Sea to evacuate, according to Uriminzokkiri, North Korea's propaganda Web site.
In November 2010, North Korea launched artillery shelling on South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island near the tense maritime border. The attack killed four people, including two civilians, and injured 18 others.
The year of 2013 also marks the third anniversary of the sinking of a South Korean navy ship by Pyongyang's torpedo attack in the Yellow Sea, killing nearly 50 sailors.
Revised Trade, Customs Laws Give More Power to Cabinet: Documents
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea revised its trade and customs laws last year to give its cabinet more power over the economy, a copy of the revised laws showed on March 18.
The booklet on North Korea laws concerning external economic activities, secured by Yonhap News Agency, showed that the country revised its trade laws in April last year, a first since the previous revision in March 2007.
The revision newly requires trade institutions and other sub-trade groups to have their monthly plans reviewed and approved by the central trade supervision agency, according to the copy of the booklet.
The country's customs law, also revised in April 2012, indicate that the government has increased its supervision of the customs sector compared with 2007 when the corresponding law was last modified.
The government is also said to be seeking to foster customs specialists and establish an ad hoc committee to review customs affairs.
Analysts said the latest law change suggests that the cabinet's role in the economic sector has been enhanced compared to the military, which is known to have exerted a strong hold over state affairs reflecting late leader Kim Jong-il's military-first ideology.
The timing of the revision coincides with incumbent leader Kim Jong-un's emphasis on the importance of the cabinet in leading national policies. Kim Jong-un took power after the sudden death of his father in late 2011.
The monthly management of trade performance, envisioned in the revision, reflects the leader's plan to boost the trade sector as a means of earning more foreign currency, local experts also said. The military's and the governing Workers' Party of Korea's tight hold on economic affairs are widely believed to have posed obstacles in the country's economic performance.
The booklet, meanwhile, showed that the country rewrote its immigration law last April, doing away with the clause requiring state permission for foreign travelers wanting to travel outside of the capital of Pyongyang. Such a move could allow more freedom of movement by foreign tourists inside the communist country.
Arrested N. Korean Spy Claims to Have Been Coerced by Pyongyang
SUWON, South Korea (Yonhap) -- A North Korean woman has been arrested in Seoul after posing as a defector and engaging in espionage activities under threat from Pyongyang's spy agency, according to prosecutors on March 18.
The 43-year-old woman, whose identity is withheld, entered South Korea in August of last year by disguising herself as a North Korean defector. But she was unable to engage in any actual spying because she was arrested during a routine investigation of newly-arrived defectors.
Prosecutors soon indicted the female agent on charges of violating South Korea's National Security Law and sought a seven-year prison term for her.
"I could not help but carry out espionage activities because North Korea's spy agency threatened to hurt my family," the agent was quoted by the source as saying.
The agent, who was an ordinary housewife living in the North, was ordered by the spy agency in October 2010 to spy on Seoul's intelligence agency, they said.
Before coming to Seoul, the woman stayed in China until February 2011 and engaged in spying activities such as collecting information about Seoul's spy agents, they added.
"North Korean spies enter South Korea by disguising themselves as defectors about three to four times a year," a prosecutor said, adding that sometimes there are cases where the spies are forced to engage in espionage by Pyongyang's agency.
Obama 'Focused on' North Korea Issue, His Office Says
WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- U.S. President Barack Obama is "very focused on" the North Korea problem as he heads to another volatile region on the other side of the world, the White House said on March 18.
"I can tell you that the president is very focused on this issue, and that his senior national security team is focused on this issue," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said at a press briefing.
He was responding to a question about whether Obama is in close consultations with his South Korean, Chinese and Japanese counterparts over North Korea's recent military threats.
Obama is leaving Washington later this week for Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, a reporter pointed out.
Carney insisted the U.S. remains committed to ensuring peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.
"This means deterring North Korean aggression, protecting our allies and the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," he added.
Carney reiterated that "the U.S. will not accept North Korea as a nuclear state, nor will we stand by while it seeks to develop a nuclear-armed missile that can target the United States."
North Korea launched a long-range rocket in December, defying international warnings. It also carried out another nuclear test in February, followed by a series of threats to attack the U.S. and South Korea.
Some observers say Pyongyang is raising the ante for direct talks with Washington.
In an interview with ABC News last week, Obama gave unusually detailed views on North Korea.
He said his administration remains firm to break the vicious cycle of North Korea taking provocative acts, resuming talks and winning concessions.
"One thing we've tried to do is to make sure that we're not going to reward bad behavior," Obama said.
"There previously have been patterns where, you know, they bang the spoon on the table and then suddenly they get food aid, or they get other concessions," he added. "Then they come back to the table and negotiate a little bit, and then if they get bored they start provocative actions again. We've broken that pattern."
Obama said even China has started to rethink its policy on North Korea.
"You're starting to see them recalculate and say, 'You know what? This is starting to get out of hand,'" he added. "And, so, we may slowly be in a position where we're able to force a recalculation on the part of North Koreans."
North Korea's Forests Shrink by 31 Percent in 20 Years
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea saw its forests shrink by nearly 31 percent in the past 20 years, a report by an international organization said on March 19.
The size of forestlands in North Korea is down 30.9 percent as of 2010, compared to 1990, the 2013 Human Development Report by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) said.
The report ranked about 40 developing countries in terms of human development. It disclosed the North Korean data without including the country in its ranking.
The report also said that as of 2011, 8.6 percent of its animal and plant species are in danger of extinction.
The average life expectancy in North Korea is 69 while an average North Korean woman gives birth to two children in her lifetime as of last year, according to the report.
The average infant mortality rate -- the number of babies who die within one year of their birth per 1,000 babies -- reached 26 as of 2010 while the corresponding death rate for children under the age of five stood at 44, the report also noted.
A total of 6.6 North Koreans out of 100 used fixed-line or mobile telephone services as of 2010, according to the organization. Recent data from other sources have shown that the country with a population of about 25 million people had 660,000 mobile service subscribers in mid-2010. The number is believed to have soared to 1.5 million in late 2012.
U.S. Officials Discussing Iran-style Sanctions on N. Korea: Source
WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- On a trip to Northeast Asia, a couple of senior U.S. officials specializing in economic sanctions have been discussing ways to impose financial restrictions on North Korea as tough as those on Iran, multiple sources said on March 19.
David Cohen, under secretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, and Dan Fried, the State Department's sanctions coordinator, are due in Beijing following trips to Tokyo and Seoul. The two are in charge of Washington's sanctions worldwide.
"It is unusual that China accepted a simultaneous trip by two ranking U.S. government officials handling sanctions on North Korea," an informed source told Yonhap News Agency, requesting anonymity.
Their mission is to discuss bilateral and multilateral sanctions on North Korea to follow through on U.N. Security Council Resolution 2094, adopted after its Feb. 12 nuclear test, added the source.
China has been traditionally reluctant to allow any high-profile visit by U.S. sanctions officials on North Korea, another source noted.
"The trip by the two officials -- Cohen and Fried -- itself may send a message to North Korea," the diplomatic source said.
The U.S. officials are requesting Beijing's cooperation as they hope for de-facto "secondary boycott" sanctions on North Korea, which are sanctions imposed against particular non-U.S. companies and individuals in response to specified types of activity. Secondary boycott sanctions do not involve traditional civil or criminal penalties but instead are measures designed to prevent non-U.S. persons from accessing the U.S. market or conducting business with U.S. nationals.
The U.S. has such sanctions on Iran.
Many agree that China would not formally consent to secondary boycott sanctions on North Korea.
"What the U.S. government is seeking is to put psychological pressure on Chinese banks," the source said. "If U.S. banks avoid transactions with Chinese banks that have ties with blacklisted North Korean banks or other entities, it could lead to effects similar to those from secondary boycott sanctions."
In its own bilateral sanctions, the Treasury Department blacklisted the Foreign Trade Bank, North Korea's primary foreign exchange bank, last week.
U.S. officials are stepping up efforts to curb North Korea's financial transactions for the development and trade of nuclear weapons and missiles.
Cohen is in charge of the Treasury Department's campaign against money laundering and financial crimes by proliferators, international terrorist organizations and narcotics traffickers.
Fried oversees all sanctions policy at the State Department, heading a newly created office tasked with imposing and enforcing sanctions on North Korea, Iran and other nations.
In Seoul, Cohen and Fried met with South Korea's chief nuclear envoy, Lim Sung-nam, and officials at the Finance Ministry.
During their visit to Tokyo earlier this week, the Japanese government reportedly said it would take measures to ban the country's financial institutions from doing business with North Korea's Foreign Trade Bank.
China Carries out Stringent Probes against N. Korean Restaurants in China
BEIJING, China (Yonhap) -- China has launched unusually stringent investigations against North Korean restaurants in China, sources said on March 20, adding it may be linked with the country's punitive actions against the North's internationally condemned nuclear test in February.
The sources well-versed in North Korean affairs said China's police, customs authorities and food safety officials recently began scrutinizing North Korean restaurants in Beijing and those in the Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces, bordering North Korea.
The officials are examining whether restaurants hired illegal North Korean immigrants and whether they are engaged in the trading of illegally imported liquors and tobacco as well as counterfeit goods, the sources said. They added that such checks on restaurants of the close ally country are almost unprecedented.
The move may be a sign that China is moving to take action against irregularities at North Korean restaurants that were previously overlooked due to the close ties between the two neighboring countries.
The restaurants were believed to have used people without proper work visas and sold North Korean alcoholic beverages without customs declaration. The isolated state's ties with China are one of the key sources of foreign currency income.
"It's the first time China has conducted an investigation like this. I feel things are not like what they used to be," a North Korean restaurant worker said.
The North Korean-China relations show signs of strain as China joined the U.S. and other countries in punishing the North for its Feb. 12 underground nuclear test. Breaking its usual silence toward the North's provocations against the outside world, China has repeatedly called on the country to stop nuclear activities.
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