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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 278 (Sept. 5, 2013)

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

*** FOREIGN TIPS

Panama: N. Korea Violates U.N. Sanctions with Shipment of Cuban Arms

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- North Korea's sea transportation of Cuban weapons, caught by Panama, is a violation of U.N. sanctions, the Central American nation reportedly said on Aug. 28 after a probe by U.N. experts.

The ministry of public safety cited a draft U.N. report as saying the shipment "undoubtedly violates the U.N. sanctions" on Pyongyang for its nuclear and long-range rocket tests, according to local news reports.

In July, a 14,000-ton North Korean ship, Chong Chon Gang, was intercepted while trying to cross the Panama Canal after leaving Cuba.

Panamanian authorities first suspected that it was carrying drugs. But 25 containers of military hardware covered by tons of sugar were found, including two Soviet-era MiG-21s, air defense systems, missiles and command and control vehicles.

North Korea claimed that the vessel was carrying "aging weapons" under a legitimate contract with Cuba.

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N. Korean Leader's Public Approval Exceeds 50 Percent: Poll

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un probably has a public approval rating of over 50 percent, a poll conducted on escapees living in South Korea showed on Aug. 29.

The survey carried out by the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University on 133 North Korean defectors showed that 61.7 percent believe the young leader has a majority support of his people.

A similar report conducted in 2011 showed that only 55.7 percent of defectors said the former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il had support of at least 50 percent of his people.

The former head is the late father of the incumbent leader, with Kim Jong-un taking control in December 2011.

The latest survey may be an indication that there has been an improvement in the lives of ordinary people.

The survey, however, showed that many defectors still believe that most North Koreans suffer from a lack of food.

North Korea watchers in Seoul said Kim Jong-un's popularity partly reflects his young age and that he is trying to improve the lives of everyday citizens.

The leader, thought to be about 30 years-old, has emphasized economic growth, light industries and farming. He also appears in the media more often than his reclusive father, which could of aided his image.

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North Korea's Armed Forces Minister Promoted to Full General

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea's armed forces minister Jang Jong-nam has been promoted to a full general, a sign change is taking place within the socialist country's top brass, observers said on Aug. 30.

The promotion was confirmed when the senior official was seen with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at a football match on on Aug. 28. Pictures of the event clearly show the fourth star on his shoulder board.

This is in contrast to the three stars he wore when the minister attended a science fair organized by the (North) Korean People's Army (KPA) on Aug. 21, and suggests that more senior officers may have stepped down.

Related to the sudden promotion, experts here said that Jang may have been given his new rank around the Day of Songun, which fell on Aug. 25. Songun means "military first" and was one of the country's guiding political principals under late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. It has been made a national holiday starting this year to mark the achievements of the country's armed forces.

There has been predictions that a reshuffle of the military brass took place when the North Korean press reported that important decisions were reached at the recent Workers' Party's Central Military Commission.

Besides Jang's promotion, Ri Yong-gil, the tactical director at the General Staff of the People's Army, has also been seen with a fourth star. Ri's official title has not been mentioned, but he may have been given the top seat at the general staff.

Supporting this view, observers in Seoul said that Gen. Kim Kyok-sik was not mentioned in the press report or seen in photos. Kim had held the top post at the KPA's general staff and was also the armed forces minister.

Related to the changes, Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University, said the promotion of Jang and Ri may be a move by the incumbent North Korean leader to strengthen his hold on the military while forceing older officers who served under his father to retire. Jang and Ri are in their 60s while Kim is 75.

"This can be seen as a step by the new leader to better control the military," the expert speculated. Under the new leader, who took control of the country in late 2011 following the sudden death of his father, there has been a move by the ruling Workers' Party of Korea to control the military.

Meanwhile, South Korea's unification ministry declined to verify if there was a shuffle in the North or give its view on whether Kim Kyok-sik has been dismissed.

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N. Korea Engaged in Major Construction Project at Rocket Test Site

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea is engaged in major construction at its long-range rocket launch facility along its west coast, a U.S. think tank said Saturday, citing recent satellite imagery.

According to 38 North, an analysis program of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, construction work may be underway at the Tongchang-ri launch site.

After initial analysis on photos taken on Sept. 1 it claimed there were six construction sites at the location, with the most noteworthy at a 45-meter by 65-meter plot of land to the west of the existing launch pad.

The think tank's latest findings, monitored in Seoul, said it is too early to say what the purpose of the construction is, but speculated that it may be a second launch platform that could be used to test the KN-08 intermediate-range ballistic missile or its Musudan rocket system.

Both are mobile rocket systems carried on transporter erector launcher (TEL) vehicles and have a range between 4,000-5,000 kilometers.

It said that since work seems to be under way, the socialist country, which has a track record of launching long-range rockets, may be reading itself for another test, possibly in about six months.

Besides the supposed launch pad, the think tank said it detected a radar station, parking spaces for TELs, barracks for troops, roads and even a train with 11 carriages nearby.

Meanwhile, experts who checked the photos expressed their views that the North may be moving for another launch that could allow them to test their long-range missiles.

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North Korea to Skip Investor Fair at China Trade Show

BEIJING (Yonhap) -- North Korea will skip holding an investor fair and send fewer exhibitors than usual to this week's trade show in China's northeastern province of Jilin, a South Korean diplomat said on Sept. 3, amid strained ties between the two nations.

North Korea had held a fair to attract Chinese investors at the annual Northeast Asia Expo, set to open on Sept. 6 for a five-day run. The absence of such a fair by North Korea this year appears to be a reminder that Pyongyang's unpredictability keeps Chinese investors away.

"We have figured out that North Korea will not hold an investor fair session at the Northeast Asia Expo this year," the diplomat in Beijing said on the condition of anonymity.

"Also, there are some 20 North Korean participants, fewer than usual," the diplomat said. North Korea has sent about 70 participants to the annual trade show on its border with China.

During the expo last year, North Korea held an investor fair and explained about its plan to develop an economic zone on two islands on the border with China -- the Hwanggumphyong and Wihwa Islands Economic Zone.

China, North Korea's biggest trading partner and aid donor, has become increasingly frustrated with its wayward ally, particularly after the North's third nuclear test in February.

In May, the Bank of China closed accounts with North Korea's Foreign Trade Bank, which was accused by the U.S. of helping to finance the North's nuclear weapons program.

According to the South Korean Embassy in Beijing, North Korea's trade volume with China fell 6 percent on-year in the first six months of this year. The North's trade with China stood at US$2.95 billion in the January-June period, compared with $3.14 billion a year earlier, embassy officials said.

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Drug Use Leading Cause of N. Korean Escapees' Imprisonment in South

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- The use of illegal drugs is the leading cause of imprisonment among North Korean escapees in South Korea, a report by the justice ministry showed on Sept. 3.

The report sent to Rep. Park Joo-sun's office revealed that 297 defectors have been incarcerated from 2009 through August of this year. Of the total, 65, or roughly 22 percent, broke the law by using outlawed substances. There are over 25,000 North Korean escapees living in the country.

The findings showed the number of people imprisoned for illegal drug use stayed above 10 for the entire five-year period.

"There have been reports of wide spread substance abuse in the North and the high numbers among escapees seem to reflect this," an aide to the lawmaker said. He said there is a need to strengthen programs to help escapees overcome such addictions.

Besides drugs, 39 have been imprisoned for murder, 38 for fraud and embezzlement, and 31 for sexual crimes, the latest findings showed.

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Seoul Sys North Korean Nuclear Program 'Real Threat'

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea has made considerable progress in developing a fairly robust nuclear program in the past three years and is capable of making atomic weapons at any time, Seoul's defense ministry said on Sept. 3.

"North Korea's nuclear program remained at a developmental and experimental stage in 2010, but it has grown into a real threat in 2013, and it is able to make a nuclear device at any time," the ministry said in a report to the parliamentary defense committee. "China's changing attitude toward North Korea proves the seriousness of (its nuclear program)."

Tensions escalated between the two Koreas when Pyongyang in December fired a long-range rocket, which was deemed as a covert test of its ballistic missile technology, and then in February conducted its third atomic test. Both actions invited additional U.N. Security Council sanctions against the impoverished nation.

In April, the North announced that its nuclear scientists will begin work on restarting a uranium enrichment plant and a 5-megawatt reactor in the Yongbyon complex.

"North Korea is preparing to resume its nuclear facility in Yongbyon and continues to develop missiles," it said. "The South Korean military needs to beef up deterrence capabilities against a worsening North Korean threat."

Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin also told lawmakers that he sees the possibility of a connection between North Korea and Syria in developing chemical weapons, without elaborating on details.

Amid inter-Korean talks to resume cross-border projects, Pyongyang expressed its willingness to rejoin the six-party talks but has shown no signs of accepting conditions set by Seoul and Washington to give up its nuclear capabilities. Instead, it has insisted on being recognized as a nuclear power.

As the socialist country has enhanced its missile and nuclear capacity, it is more likely that the North could misjudge the security situation on the Korean Peninsula if Seoul regains its wartime operational control (OPCON) from Washington in December 2015, the ministry said.

The remark comes as South Korean and U.S. officials have been trying to decide whether the two sides need to reschedule the transition, and if so, under what condition it should be done.

During last week's ASEAN meeting in Brunei, the two nations' defense chiefs met to further discuss the matter on how to handle growing North Korean threats and decide on the appropriate timing of the transfer.

"There is a consensus that the December 2015 deadline is not appropriate for Seoul to regain the wartime control," defense chief Kim told lawmakers during the parliamentary committee meeting. "Currently, the ministry is discussing with its American counterpart (over the postponement) in accordance with the current security situation."

Seoul's regaining operational control of its troops in the event of war is still a politically and ideologically controversial issue, as the two Koreas still remain technically at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce.

South Korea handed over its operational control to the U.S.-led U.N. troops during the three-year conflict and regained peacetime OPCON in 1994.

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China Reaffirms 'Clear-cut' Goal of Denuclearizing North Korea

BEIJING (Yonhap) -- A senior Chinese military official renewed his country's "clear-cut" goal of ending North Korea's nuclear program through dialogue during a meeting with South Korean defense officials last week, China's defense ministry said Sept. 3.

Sun Jianguo, the deputy chief of general staff of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, made the remark on Aug. 30 when he met a delegation of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, which is affiliated with South Korea's defense ministry, in Beijing.

"China's stand on the issue of peninsula security is consistent and clear-cut," Sun said, according to a statement posted on the ministry's website.

"China sticks to the goal of denuclearization of the peninsula, adheres to safeguarding peace and stability of the peninsula, and persists in tackling issues of the peninsula through dialogue, negotiations and consultations," the statement said.

Amid indications Beijing is accelerating its efforts to revive the six-party talks, the chief nuclear envoys from North Korea and China held talks in Pyongyang last week.

Confirming last week's talks in Pyongyang, China's foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Sept. 2 that the two sides "exchanged views on the resumption of the six-party talks."

The six-party talks, which involve the two Koreas, China, the U.S., Japan and Russia, have been stalled since late 2008.

Despite signs of easing tensions, a U.S. research institute said late last week, citing recent satellite images, that North Korea has started a major construction project at the facility where it launched a long-range rocket last December.

During a regular press briefing on Sept. 3, Hong sidestepped a question by a reporter about the reported works at the North's missile launch site.

Instead, Hong told reporters, "We hope that all relevant parties can take positive actions to ease the tensions and to promote dialogue, and to make positive contributions to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula."

Meanwhile, the Chinese foreign ministry on Sept. 3 briefed senior diplomats of South Korea, the U.S., Japan and Russia about the outcome of Wu's visit to North Korea, a diplomatic source in Beijing said.

At the closed-door briefing session, China delivered the North's latest stance on its nuclear programs to diplomats from the four nations and reasserted the need to resume the six-party talks, the source said on the condition of anonymity.

The source did not elaborate on whether North Korea may accept a set of pre-conditions set by Seoul, Washington and Tokyo to pave the way for the resumption of the talks. They include a moratorium of its nuclear and missile tests and a return of international nuclear inspectors to the country.

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WP: Take Action against Auschwitz-like Camps in North Korea

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- When it comes to an international response, North Korea's prison camps may be remembered by historians as Auschwitz, operated by Germany's Nazi regime during World War II, a U.S. newspaper said on Sept. 3.

The Washington Post carried an editorial on North Korea's gulags at the top of its op-ed page, calling for the world to take action against the inhumane facilities.

"As the world sits by, North Korea has imprisoned as many as 200,000 people in these camps," it pointed out. "Other nations have tolerated these camps for far too long."

The Post said South Korea is reluctant to speak about human rights in the North, while the U.S. has focused largely unsuccessfully on dissuading North Korea from developing nuclear weapons.

It cited a new report by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea detailing the horrible situations in Camp 22, known as a major concentration camp in the secretive socialist nation.

The North recently scaled down the camp in a northeastern mountainous area due to a food shortage in 2009-10, reducing its population to around 3,000-8,000 from about 30,000 in previous years, according to the committee, which analyzed satellite imagery.

"Thousands of prisoners seem to have evaporated into thin air -- perhaps via Camp 22's crematoria," the Post said.

It likened the world's approach toward the problem to that of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

"Among the more chilling questions in the history of World War II is how the Allies could know about Auschwitz and other German death camps but take no definitive action, such as bombing the rail lines, to stop them," the newspaper said.

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