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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 293 (December 26, 2013)

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

*** FOREIGN TIPS

China Media: N. Korea's Execution Unlikely to Hurt Ties with Beijing

BEIJING (Yonhap) -- A Chinese state newspaper said on Dec. 19 that the execution of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's uncle is unlikely to bode ill for bilateral economic ties with Beijing, but urged Pyongyang to "respond to the outside's questions" over what will happen next.

The stunning purge and execution of Jang Song-thaek, who was one of key regents for securing the succession of Kim and the best business partner with China among the North's leadership, raised questions about the stability of Kim's two-year-old leadership. It also has ramifications for the North's ties with China.

"As long as China does not interfere with the North's internal affairs or make it feel threatened, the North is unlikely to take the initiative to worsen ties with China or give up economic cooperation with China," state-run Global Times newspaper said in an editorial.

"At the moment, Pyongyang might have been engaged in dealing with Jang's affairs and have no time to take bilateral ties into consideration," the editorial said. "Even though it has made the Chinese public feel awkward, this may not be Pyongyang's intention."

However, the newspaper acknowledged that the execution of Jang has ramifications for China.

"Although Kim Jong-un has irritated the world several times since he took power, he has a clear mind when it comes to consolidating his regime," it said.

"But it has become a fact that some negative impact has been cast on Sino-North Korean ties. If Pyongyang doesn't want such impact to spread to the Chinese public or the world beyond, it should respond to the outside's questions," the English-language editorial said.

China has kept a low-profile stance on the dramatic downfall of Jang, with its foreign ministry describing the execution of Jang as North Korea's "internal affair."

South Korea and the United States have kept a close watch on North Korea, as the execution of Jang has raised concerns about possible provocations by the North's unpredictable regime.

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Hagel Concerned about Growing Uncertainty over North Korea

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, who oversees field operations of American troops, voiced strong concerns on Dec. 19 about increased uncertainties surrounding North Korea and the possibility of additional provocations.

Hagel stressed that North Korea's execution of Jang Song-thaek, a putative number two official, demonstrates the unpredictability of the communist regime.

It is "very concerning to everyone and reality of that uncertainty heightens the tensions," Hagel said at a news conference at the Pentagon.

U.S. officials have long stated that it is difficult to gain credible information about a nuclear-armed North Korea.

The sudden removal of Jang, an uncle of young leader Kim Jong-un and reportedly one-time regent for him, complicates the international community's efforts to fathom the secretive nation's intentions.

"It further deepens the suspicions of motives," Hagel added. "That nation is as closed as any nation in the world. There is no transparency."

Sitting next to him, Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said the North's recent move apparently heralds another provocative step.

"These kind of internal actions by dictators are often a precursor to provocation to distract attention from what they are doing inside of that country," he said.

In Seoul, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin also said earlier that chances are high the North will take provocative actions early next year or in spring, when the country will have some big national events and Seoul-Washington joint military drills are planned on the peninsula.

Meanwhile, Hagel put the blame on China for a dangerous incident in early December which elevated naval tensions with the U.S.

A Chinese warship nearly collided with U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens, which was in international wasters in the South China Sea.

"That action by the Chinese, cutting in front of their ship, 100 yards out in front of the Cowpens, was not a responsible action," the secretary said. "That's the kind of thing that's very incendiary, that could be a trigger or a spark that could set off some eventual miscalculation."

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Kim Jong-un's Aunt Returns Home in Nov. after Heart Treatment Abroad

BEIJING, Dec. 20 (Yonhap) -- The aunt of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appeared to have returned to Pyongyang in November after receiving treatment abroad for heart disease, a diplomatic source with knowledge in the matter said on Dec. 20.

The whereabouts of Kim Kyong-hui, a younger sister of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, the father of the current leader, have been a focus of media attention following the stunning purge and execution of her husband in earlier December, Jang Song-thaek.

"To my knowledge, Kim Kyong-hui had been receiving treatment for heart disease and returned to North Korea in Novemeber," the source said on the condition of anonymity.

Where precisely she had been treated in November, whether it was China or Russia, is unclear, the source said.

Despite the dramatic downfall of her husband, she appears to be safe as she was named to a list of top officials for a public function -- state funeral for senior Workers' Party official Kim Kuk-thae, who died on Dec. 13. However, she didn't appear at the second death anniversary of the late North Korean leader on Dec. 17.

Kim Jong-il died of heart attack on Dec. 17, 2011.

The execution of Jang, who was one of key regents for securing the succession of the younger Kim, raised questions about the stability of Kim's two-year-old leadership.

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China Urges Calm after N. Korea's Warning against S. Korea

BEIJING (Yonhap) -- China called for calm and restraint on Dec. 20 after North Korea warned of a "merciless" strike against South Korea in anger over the recent rally in the South against the North's leader Kim Jong-un.

The threat by the North's all-powerful National Defense Commission, which was delivered to South Korea through a military hotline on Dec. 19, came amid potential political instability following last week's stunning execution of Kim's uncle, Jang Song-thaek.

"China opposes any acts that will undermine peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula," China's foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a daily briefing, when asked about the North's warning.

"We hope that relevant parties will stay calm, exercise restraint and refrain from any words and deeds that will increase tension on the Korean Peninsula," Hua said.

The North's threat came two days after South Korean conservative activists burned effigies of the North Korean leader, his late father and grandfather in demonstrations that marked the second anniversary of the death of Kim Jong-il, the late father of Kim Jong-un.

The purge and execution of Jang, who was one of the key regents for securing the succession of Kim, raised questions about the stability of Kim's two-year-old leadership.

South Korea and the United States have kept a close watch on North Korea, as the execution of Jang has raised concerns about possible provocations by the regime.

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Spy Agency Dismisses Reports about Asylum Bids by Jang Aides

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea's spy agency chief on Dec. 23 denied as "totally untrue" persisting news reports that close aides to the executed uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have fled the socialist nation and sought asylum in China, lawmakers said.

National Intelligence Service Director Nam Jae-joon also reported to a parliamentary intelligence committee that North Korea has beefed up artillery units and exercises, and could attempt provocations against the South between January and March, the lawmakers said.

The agency also believes that Pyongyang is ready to conduct its fourth nuclear test at any time, though that does not mean a test is imminent, said Rep. Cho Won-jin of the ruling Saenuri Party and Rep. Jung Chung-rai of the main opposition Democratic Party in a joint briefing following the committee meeting.

Since North Korea's execution of the leader's uncle, Jang Song-thaek, some South Korean media outlets have reported that close associates to him have fled the bloody purge campaign, sought asylum in China, and are under the protection of South Korean authorities.

The NIS chief "reported that (the reports) are totally untrue," Rep. Chung said.

The agency also reported that it believes the North's young leader has no problem with his grip on power, and that Jang was believed to have been executed mainly because of his involvement in business rights for lucrative projects, one of them a coal related project, according to the lawmakers.

"In a situation where disputes over business rights between agencies and the issue of Jang's aides overstepping their authority have built up, Kim Jong-un must have ordered the disputes be sorted out," Rep. Chung said. "When the order was not complied with, (Jang) was executed for violating the supreme leadership. That's the NIS analysis."

"On the surface, Kim Jong-un's grip on power is believed to have no big problems because Jang's execution did not stem from an internal power struggle," Chung said, citing the NIS briefing.

The agency also reported that Jang's wife, Kim Kyong-hui, is believed to be safe, the lawmakers said. Kim Kyong-hui's fate has been in question after she failed to show up to a national memorial service for late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

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China Denies Discussions of Visit by North Korean Leader

BEIJING (Yonhap) -- China has told South Korea that it is not currently discussing a possible visit to Beijing by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, a diplomatic source said on Dec. 23.

China contacted South Korea over the weekend in response to a media report by a Hong Kong-based economic weekly that North Korea had asked China to invite Kim to Beijing at an early date, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The report came in the wake of the recent execution of Kim's uncle, Jang Song-thaek.

"With regard to the issue of a visit by Kim Jong-un to China, the Chinese side told South Korea that no discussions have been under way," the source said.

China has kept a low-profile stance on the dramatic downfall of Jang, considered the No. 2 official in the North and closest business partner of Beijing.

Kim, believed to be around 30, purged and executed his once-powerful uncle this month, prompting warnings from South Korea and the U.S. of possible provocations by Pyongyang's unpredictable regime.

The execution of Jang marked the most significant political upheaval since Kim took power two years ago following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il.

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Satellite Spots N. Korea's Fuel Fabrication Facilities in Yongbyon

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- North Korea appears to be running a new fuel fabrication plant in Yongbyon, an apparent sign that the secretive country is making an extensive effort to modernize and restart its nuclear facilities, a U.S. think tank said on Dec. 23 in a report.

"Commercial satellite imagery has identified facilities at the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center that may produce fuel for North Korea's recently restarted 5 MW plutonium production reactor," the U.S.-Korea Institute said on its "38 North" website.

The Washington-based think tank is associated with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Earlier 2013, North Korea reportedly reactivated the reactor, which was disabled in 2007.

"The availability of fuel is a key factor in the North's ability to operate these facilities," the institute said.

Fuel fabrication is the final stage in nuclear fuel preparation prior to use in a reactor.

The identification of a probable fuel fabrication plant for the 5 MW reactor reinforces the conclusion that the resumed operation of North Korea's nuclear facilities in Yongbyon is "more wide-ranging and extensive than previously understood," said the institute.

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