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Pyongyang reportedly admits causing "great pain"

Kim Jong-il apologizes for the currency reform that caused public unrest. The North designates firing zones for its military exercises. Reports indicate that Pyongyang has reinforced its military. The South signs a chemical plant/gas field deal with Uzbekistan. Female unemployment hits an all-time high. And students across the country are forced to disrobe after their graduation ceremonies.

Top News: North Korea’s government made a rare apology to the public about its recent currency reform that caused public unrest due to skyrocketing prices and put severe restraints on free market activities that had spread in the impoverished country, according to South Korean media reports.

Reports citing unnamed sources inside the North indicated that Kim Young-il apologized for causing “great pain to the people” to a gathering of thousands of grassroots leaders.

Analysts believe that if confirmed, the apology further indicates that the North is backpedaling from its previous crackdown on the market that effectively wiped out most public wealth through a currency reform. The reports came days after the South Korean media released stories on the demotion of a senior official that led the currency reform measure.

North Korea designated eight naval firing zones in the sea west of the peninsula and the East Sea for three days that are expected to be part of the North’s winter military exercises. It is the fourth time Pyongyang has declared naval firing zones since late January. The areas include the zones in the West Sea where numerous naval skirmishes have occurred.

The North has fired a barrage of artillery near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), which is the de facto maritime border between the two countries. An official from the military said the exercises will likely end at the end of next month, and a report submitted from the defense ministry to legislators indicated that Pyongyang had strengthened its military drills and reinforced its military forces along the west coast.

Money: South Korea signed a $4 billion deal with Uzbekistan to build a chemical plant and develop a gas field in the Central Asian country. The agreement came after the leaders of the two countries held a summit in Seoul, following a meeting in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to developing a strategic partnership, and South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak vowed to expland official development aid for the energy-rich country.

Female unemployment in South Korea hit an all-time high, jumping more than 75 percent from its previous record ten years ago. The statistics on January unemployment, which were released by a state-run agency, indicated that jobless rates for men had risen by 27.2 percent during that same period.  Analysts believe the unequal jobless rate is due to  industries such as retail, manufacturing and service sectors, which are dominated by women.

Elsewhere: Although South Korea is a short-track speed skating powerhouse, it won its first ever gold medal in long-track at the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Even the elated skater, 21-year-old Mo Tae-bum, called his victory "unexpected.”

The country’s Lee Sang-hwa added another gold in the women’s 500-meter race in the big oval, prompting some to say that South Korea’s dominance in short-track is now extending to the longer track.

South Koreans were shocked by photos released on the Internet of middle and high school students standing naked or semi-naked in public as part of rituals after their graduation ceremonies. The series of photos, which were taken from separate ceremonies across the country, showed students being coerced into removing their clothing and underwear outdoors by older students who had graduated from the same school.

President Lee Myung-bak called the acts “shocking,” and prompted a police investigation into the case.