U.S. says N. Korea still bound by NPT rules

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- A senior U.S. government official said on April 29North Korea is still obliged to follow rules under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) despite its withdrawal from the treaty in 2003.

Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said NPT members will discuss the North Korea problem during the Preparatory Committee (PreCom) meeting for the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferations Treaty Review Conference underway in New York.

"The NPT requirements remain binding upon the DPRK," he said at a Foreign Press Center briefing via video conference from New York. The DPRK is the acronym for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

He cited Pyongyang's agreement in 2005 to return to the NPT "at an early date" and U.N. Security Council resolutions calling on the communist nation to act in accordance with rules that apply to NPT members.

Countryman stressed the seriousness of the "threat that North Korea poses not only to its neighbors and itself but to the nonproliferation treaty in the international nonproliferation regime."

He added the issue will be addressed "openly and forthrightly" in the PreCom session that opened on April 28 for a 12-day run.

North Korea acceded to the NPT in 1985 but announced its withdrawal in 2003.

In a 2005 landmark deal with its five dialogue partners -- South Korea, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan -- it agreed to return to the NPT at an early date and abandon all of its nuclear program in exchange for political and economic incentives.

But it has since conducted three known nuclear tests and claimed to be a nuclear state.

Countryman was emphatic that the NPT serves as a key element of international security and the basis for international nuclear cooperation.

"We will continue to address the serious challenges of cases of noncompliance with treaty obligations, and will continue to support expanding access to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy," he said.

Countryman is the chief U.S. delegate to the drawn-out negotiations with South Korea on revising their civilian nuclear cooperation.

The two sides have struggled to rewrite the so-called "123 agreement" amid Seoul's push to expand its non-military nuclear program.

Seoul wants to leave the door open for enriching uranium and reprocessing spent fuel some day.

Still, the Obama administration is concerned about a possible negative impact on its global nonproliferation drive.

The veteran diplomat avoided a direct answer to a question about whether such differences are being narrowed.

"I am negotiating a nuclear cooperation agreement with the Republic of Korea. But not this week," Countryman said. "We will conclude a nuclear cooperation agreement with the valued ally, the Republic of Korea, in the near future."

It would reflect the fact that South Korea is not only a vital partner of the U.S. but also is a leader in civil nuclear technology, he added.


N. Korea's Kim paid 'huge attention to detail' for wax figure of his late father

BEIJING (Yonhap) -- North Korea's young leader Kim Jong-un paid "huge attention to detail" in the making of a wax figure of his late father by Chinese artists, checking details of the sculpture to make it perfectly duplicate his father's features, China's state media reported on April 28.

The wax figure of Kim's father, Kim Jong-il, who died on Dec. 17, 2011, has been on display at the North's International Friendship Exhibition Center, an ostentatious palace museum at Mt. Myohyang, since July 2013.

The Chinese artists, including Zhang Molei and Jia Wenlong, known for making a wax figure of the North Korean founder and Kim's grandfather, Kim Il-sung, were again offered to make the wax sculpture of Kim Jong-il by North Korea in 2012.

Jia told the state-run Global Times newspaper that they and North Korean artists had "longtime disputes" over which photo should be used as the model picture of the wax figure of Kim Jong-il.

"Kim Jong-il was seriously ill due to a massive stroke in his last days, which made him look awful," Jia was quoted as saying. "But we had to show his kindness and wisdom rather than the illness."

The two sides eventually agreed to use a photo of Kim Jong-il displayed at the memorial service of the late leader, Jia said.

"Kim Jong-un paid huge attention to detail," the newspaper said. "He even checked the teeth, neck and hair of the sculpture.

"North Korea sent over 100 photos to make sure the wax statue was perfect," the newspaper said, adding that the North also gave "a full set of shoes, glasses and an overcoat as well as other clothes" of the late leader to help the Chinese artists perfectly duplicate his figure.

North Korea is notorious for promoting a personality cult for the ruling Kim dynasty.

In the two-page feature story, the Chinese artists admitted that they felt "great pressure" to make the wax figure of Kim Jong-il.

"It is believed that creating the wax sculptures of the great men is similar to making a statute for God," Jia was quoted as saying. "We have to show our awe,"


N. Korea's grain imports from China halve in Q1

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea's grain imports from China decreased by more than 50 percent in the first quarter from a year earlier, data showed on April 27.

According to the Korea International Trade Association (KITA), North Korea imported 26,263 tons of grain, including 23,636 tons of flour, 1,241 tons of rice and 1,192 tons of corn, from China in the January-March period.

The North's imports during the first three months is equivalent to 48 percent of 54,178 tons imported during the same period a year ago, the data showed. Compared with the first quarter of 2012, the country's grain imports from China decreased about 40 percent.

In terms of value, the North's imports of Chinese grain amounted to US$11.93 million in the first quarter, down 52 percent from $24.71 in 2013.

"The drop in the North's grain imports from China in the period compared with other years seems to be due to an increase in the country's grain production last year," said Kwon Tae-jin, a research fellow at the government-funded Korea Rural Economic Institute (KREI). "However, the country may increase its grain imports in the future, as the amount of its grain production is not enough for its people."

The U.N. World Food Program (WFP) estimates the North produced 5.03 million tons of polished grain between November 2013 and October 2014, up 5 percent from a year ago.


China's border city to begin 'bicycle tour' to N. Korea

BEIJING (Yonhap) -- A Chinese border city of Tumen plans to offer one-day "bicycle tours" to North Korea beginning in early May, a local Chinese media reported on April 26, in the latest sign that the reclusive North is increasing travel opportunities for Chinese visitors.

The bike tours between the northeastern city of Tumen in Jilin province and a North Korean border city of Onsong will begin on May 2, the local newspaper named Yanbian Xinxigang reported on its website.

The itinerary includes a train station, a memorial facility honoring Chinese soldiers killed during the 1950-53 Korean War and a North Korean performance, according to the report.

North Korea is one of the world's most secretive and isolated nations, but Pyongyang has stepped up efforts to attract foreign tourists since last year by offering more international and domestic flights.

In early April, China launched its second train travel service to North Korea. The opening of regular rail services from China's northeastern city of Jian to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang makes Jian the second city offering such service after another Chinese border city of Dandong.


China media urges N. Korea not to conduct 'nuclear, missile tests'

BEIJING (Yonhap) -- North Korea should abandon its nuclear ambition and refrain from conducting "nuclear and ballistic-missile tests," China's official Xinhua news agency said on April 25, shortly after U.S. President Barack Obama warned the North against carrying out its fourth nuclear test.

South Korea has warned that North Korea's nuclear test site of Punggye-ri is technically ready for a new test. In a written interview with South Korean media earlier in the day ahead of his arrival in Seoul, Obama said North Korea will face a "firm response from the international community" if it conducts a nuclear test.

"For the DPRK (North Korea), it needs to understand that a nuclear-armed Korean Peninsula serves the fundamental interests of none," Xinhua said in a commentary. "It is imperative that it comply with its due international obligations and refrain from such moves as nuclear and ballistic-missile tests."

It appears to be rare for the Chinese official news agency to speak against North Korea's possible provocations by mentioning the North by name.

The commentary also urged the U.S., South Korea and Japan not to flex their military muscles.

"For the United States and its allies in the region, they need to make a convincing case about their proclaimed commitment to regional stability," it said.

"Demanding the DPRK to back down on the one hand but flexing military muscles at its door on the other is not helpful; it would only ratchet up Pyongyang's distrust and sense of insecurity," it said.

Angered by a condemnation by the United Nations Security Council over its ballistic missile tests, North Korea threatened late last month to conduct a "new form" of nuclear test. Although the North didn't elaborate, outside experts believe that the North's fresh nuclear test may be based on enriched uranium.

North Korea has so far conducted three nuclear tests, in 2006, 2009 and 2013, at the Punggye-ri site.


China didn't export crude oil to N. Korea in Q1

BEIJING (Yonhap) -- China did not export any crude oil to North Korea in the first three months of this year, data compiled by South Korea's government trade agency showed on April 24, in an unprecedented three-month absence of oil shipments amid North Korea's threats of a nuclear test.

Monthly shipments of crude oil from China to North Korea were absent in February, June and July 2013, but it was the first time that China apparently stopped exports of crude oil to North Korea for three consecutive months.

The Beijing unit of the South's Korea Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) said in a report, citing data it collected from China's customs authorities, that there were no oil shipments from China to North Korea from January to March 2014.

"To my knowledge, it is the first time that China did not export crude oil to North Korea for three consecutive months and that would impact the North Korean economy," a diplomat at the South Korean Embassy in Beijing said on the condition of anonymity.

China's total trade with North Korea fell 2.83 percent to US$1.27 billion in the January-March period, compared with the same period a year ago, according to the KOTRA report.

China, the North's main ally and economic lifeline, issued a veiled warning on Wednesday to North Korea not to conduct its fourth nuclear test.

"We are opposed to all actions that may lead to an escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula," China's foreign ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, told reporters during a regular press briefing, when asked about the possibility of a new nuclear test by North Korea.

"We should cool down the situation, rather than flaring up tensions," Qin said, adding that China was paying "high attention" to reports that said heightened activities have been detected at North Korea's nuclear test site of Punggye-ri.

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