Change in North Korea?

There have been quite a lot of things happening in North Korea lately. Things that have never happened before. Many experts on North Korean issues are saying that these events are signs of change within North Korea that may lead to reform. Others argue that these changes will not be enough to open up North Korea. Of course, I can’t offer any answers to these debates and it is not OneKorea’s purpose to do so. But instead, I’d like to take a look at some of these changes so that you might be able to form an opinion of your own.

A Relatable Leader

Since Kim Jong Un succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il, to be the leader of the world’s most isolated nation in the world, he’s been doing things a bit differently from the way his father liked things done. For one, he introduced his wife to the world. With Kim Jong Il, the leader’s wives were never officially revealed to the world. We may have had some information about them but you would never see them strutting around the country on the arm of their husband. The previous Kim was well known for his secrecy when it came to his personal life. However, this has not been the same for Kim Jong Un so far. We have been seeing Kim Jong Un and his wife in the news quite often lately as they visit various sites together hand in hand such as amusement parks and preschools.

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Korean War Armistice Signing Anniversary

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Truce In Korea 1953

This past July 27th marked the 59th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that officially put the Korean War on hold. It was a silent holiday that went nearly unnoticed by the world. However, for those soldiers who lived through the Korean War, this was an important day, no matter what side they fought on, and many gathered to remember and to celebrate.

In North Korea, this day was celebrated with war veterans visiting Panmunjom to pledge their unchanging loyalty to North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un. Fireworks were also fired to celebrate the day. The commemorations are meant to kindle patriotism and loyalty in North Koreans, and especially the young, by showcasing veterans who fought for their country, said Kim Yeon-su of Korea National Defense University in Seoul. Ahead of the anniversary, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry reiterated its long-standing demand that the United States sign a peace treaty with North Korea to replace the armistice. However, the United States continues to stand by its claim that normal ties will only come after North Korea abandons its pursuit of nuclear weapons and takes other steps towards change. Continue reading

North Korea Plays Frisbee!

Continuing the sports theme, I’d like to talk about Ultimate Frisbee. Or, more specifically, Ultimate Frisbee in North Korea. I know, it’s hard to imagine North Koreans running around throwing Frisbees and engaging in just a friendly competitive game. But it’s true!

North Korea is hosting the International Frisbee Tournament, to be held on August 11, 2012. More than 50 Western tourists will participate in this “Peace Tournament” with no political agendas whatsoever, but to simply have fun and make a good impression on the North Koreans as a Westerner. Continue reading

The Olympics and North Korea

I don’t know about you but I have not been able to get any sleep these past two weeks because of the Olympics. The time difference from London to Korea makes us have to stay up all night to be able to see all of the good games. But, let me tell you. It’s been worth it. South Korea has been doing extremely well, currently ranking 5th. It really is astonishing that a country so small would be doing this well. My parents can’t stop talking about that fact.

But South Korea is not the only Korea that has been doing surprisingly well. North Korea has also been raising a few eyebrows. With four golds and one bronze, North Korea has apparently won the most medals since the 1992 Olympics. And they have even set a new world record for the men’s 62 kg class category in weightlifting. I would say that’s doing extremely well for a country in the state that North Korea is in. Continue reading

Western Authors and North Korea

Perhaps a few generations ago most Western societies looked upon North Korea with fear and trepidation, having been raised in a time that identified North Korea as a threat during the Cold War. However, now it seems that the image of fear has been replaced with one that revolves around a fascination with devastation and morbidity. The recent popularity of novels written by Western authors about North Korea, such as Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the Westand Brandon W. Jones’s All Woman and Springtime, reveals the growth of the West’s captivation with the tales of the dark lives that the people of North Korea lead. The recent surge of new information coming from novels, which give the West a look into the enigmatic and mysterious self-enclosed world that is North Korea, may not necessarily be written with the intention of shocking and disturbing readers. But many seem to be written with the implication that they are exposing the ugly side of North Korean politics and society. Continue reading

Introducing the Legendary Kim Jong Il

Even people who aren’t very familiar with North Korean issues know that Kim Jong Il wasn’t your average man. There are plenty of news articles, testaments, and photos to verify this. He had a lot of different hobbies and interests. And North Korean propaganda only adds to his “bigger than life” reputation. I’ve put together a few of those facts and rumors into this article to take a look at. So let’s begin.

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Basketball in North Korea: Brunch with Luke Elie

CNN Luke Elie North Korea Basketball Video

Last month I introduced to you Luke Elie. You might have seen him in the news recently because he’s been quite a sensation since his trip to North Korea. He’s been extremely busy with all of the interview requests from big name news outlets like CNN, but I managed to bribe him into meeting me for brunch. Coming from experience, connections and food will go a long way.

When he asked me what I’d like to ask him in regards to his trip to North Korea, I told him that I had no interest in the politics of it. There is plenty of information out there on the politics of North Korea and its current state and I didn’t think that it would be necessary to add another redundant article to that list. What I was curious to hear about was his personal experience and interactions with the North Koreans he met while there.

I also didn’t want our meeting to be a stiff interview but instead wanted it to be just friends getting together to catch up… which will then result in an article. But let’s not linger on that. We met at Itaewon in Seoul, or the foreigners’ district, on a rainy morning and ate at a restaurant that specializes in brunch foods. We sat down and just started to talk. I told Luke what I had been up to since high school, which is when I last saw him, and he told me his story about how he ended up going to North Korea. I felt like it was a fair deal. Continue reading

In the News – Fewer N.Korean Defectors Come to S.Korea

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In the News – Fewer N.Korean Defectors Come to S.Korea

The number of North Korean defectors arriving in South Korea in the first half of this year dropped to half that of the same period last year. According to the Unification Ministry on Thursday, 751 defectors arrived from January to June, down 45.4 percent from 1,375 on-year.

The number of defectors arriving here mostly rose every year since 2001, when it first exceeded 1,000. The figure only dropped in 2005, by 27 percent, and in 2010, by 19 percent. But this is the first time that the number has fallen so drastically

A tougher crackdown by the North Korean regime seems to be the main reason. A ministry official said, “Around the time of former leader Kim Jong-il’s death late last year, more guard posts were set up along the North Korea-China border, and the brakes were put on North Korean border guards taking bribes to turn a blind eye to defectors crossing the river.”

“Since the North imported electromagnetic wave detectors from Germany last year, it has been difficult to make phone calls to anybody in the North,” points out Kim Hee-tae of Group for North Korea Human Rights, an NGO helping defectors. “The broker’s fee for arranging a defection has increased by more than 50 percent.”

Until last year, about equal numbers fled to China in search of food or traveled to a third country right after escaping the North with the help of their families or acquaintances in South Korea.

But now more than 80 percent who arrive here fled to China in search of food first and then come to Seoul later, suggesting that the regime’s crackdown has crippled South Korean NGOs’ organized assistance, and only those who had already fled and lived in China manage to get to South Korea.

China’s crackdown on illegal aliens this year also probably plays a part.

Original Article 

In the News – Thousands of North Koreans perform updated ‘Arirang’ show with odes to new leader Kim Jong Un

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In the News – Thousands of North Koreans perform updated ‘Arirang’ show with odes to new leader Kim Jong Un

PYONGYANG, North Korea — An updated version of North Korea’s elaborate “Arirang” performance has opened in Pyongyang.

Wednesday’s performance featured up to 100,000 North Koreans and debuted routines set to odes to new leader Kim Jong Un. It’s the first “Arirang” since Kim came to power after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in December.

The mass performance with dancing and gymnastics is named after a Korean folk song.

Performers this year included children tumbling across May Day Stadium and students who create a huge moving backdrop of images set to music.

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In the News – South Korea Rejects North’s Terrorism Allegations

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In the News – South Korea Rejects North’s Terrorism Allegations

South Korea is calling “ridiculous” a North Korean claim that activists based in Seoul are behind alleged acts of sabotage in the North.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry says police and the National Intelligence Service are taking necessary measures to protect four people, including a freshman lawmaker, threatened by Pyongyang.

In an unusual announcement Tuesday, North Korea accused the four people of plotting to blow up statues and commit other acts of attempted terrorism.  It said they would not be able to escape merciless punishment.

Ministry spokeswoman Park Soo-jin says there is no truth to the North’s allegations and they do not merit a response.

Park says Pyongyang is making groundless charges that defectors from North Korea are engaged in kidnappings and terrorism.

One of those named by North Korea is Cho Myung-chul, a defector and freshman lawmaker (from the ruling Saenuri Party) who says he feels devastated by the allegation.

Cho tells reporters at the National Assembly this is a brutal pronouncement from Pyongyang and he says its threats against those in South Korea are inexcusable.

Two other defectors, Kim Song-min, the founder of Radio Free North Korea, and Park Sang-hak, who floats leaflets by balloons to North Korea, were threatened by Pyongyang along with high-profile activist, Kim Young-hwan.

Kim Young-hwan was formerly the leader of an underground leftist party, and a long-time polarizing figure on the Korean peninsula. In the 1980s he helped lead demonstrations against the dictatorship then in power in Seoul. He was imprisoned in South Korea for two years. In 1991 he was smuggled twice by submarine to North Korea to meet the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung. But he later became a fierce critic of North Korea’s repressive system.

In the statement broadcast by Pyongyang radio Tuesday  Kim was singled out as a “heinous nation-selling bastard.”

Kim Young-hwan and two colleagues were arrested in China on March 29. They were held there until July 20 on charges of endangering national security.

Kim has told local media Chinese security officers tortured him with a cattle prod and threatened to send him to North Korea.  He says that as a condition for his release, his captors tried to force him to sign a statement denying any mistreatment and admitting he violated Chinese law.

Kim says he wants the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to look into his allegations. He says he also plans to file civil lawsuits against Chinese authorities.

Kim has said he was visiting the country merely to collect information on human rights in North Korea and to aid refugees from the North who are in China. He has denied reports he was also attempting to set up the defection of a senior North Korean official.

South Korea’s foreign ministry, facing pressure from rights groups, announced Tuesday it plans to interview about 600 other citizens to determine whether they were also mistreated in Chinese jails.

Original Article 

As One: more than a movie

 

With the 2012 London Olympics currently in progress, I thought I’d write about sports. Just in time for the international event, a movie was released this past May simply titled As One. It is based on the true story of Korea’s first unified sports team since the division, an event that brought patriotism and hope to the entire Korean Peninsula.

In February 1991, North and South Korean officials met at Panmunjum at the North-South border to make agreements on forming a unified soccer and table tennis team. Everything was decided on at this meeting. The flag was to be the unification flag, a blue Korean peninsula on a white background, and the anthem was to be the famous Korean folk song Arirang. And in April that same year, both the North and South Korean table tennis teams left for Japan to participate in the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships as the first ever unified Korean team since the division of the peninsula. History was in the making. Continue reading

In the News – N. Korea says will build up nuclear arsenal against U.S.

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In the News – N. Korea says will build up nuclear arsenal against U.S.

SEOUL, July 31 (Yonhap) — North Korea vowed on Tuesday to further build up its nuclear capabilities, accusing the United States of attempting to topple its communist regime.

In a statement carried by the North’s Korean Central News Agency, a spokesperson of the North Korean foreign ministry said the country will counter any U.S. hostility with the utmost resoluteness.

“While talking about the livelihood of people in other countries, the U.S. is blocking our economic development and improvement of our people’s livelihood with its most vicious and persistent anti-republic sanctions,” the statement said.

“And for such a country to say we will be better off once we give up our nuclear weapons only reminds us of a coyote who tells a ram that it will not be eaten if it gives up its horns.”

The statement said the North did not need the U.S.’s support to develop its economy now that it has nuclear capabilities and the means to further build up its stockpile.

“With a rifle in one hand and a banner of industrial revolution in the other, we will surely build a powerful socialist nation while facing the U.S.’s anti-DPRK policies with the utmost resoluteness,” it said. DPRK stands for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The statement comes shortly after U.S. President Barack Obama last week said North Korea, along with Iran, “cannot be allowed to threaten the world with nuclear weapons.”

“It is our firm decision to counter U.S. hostility with stronger nuclear deterrence,” the statement said.

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In the News – North Korea Denies Reform Effort

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In the News – North Korea Denies Reform Effort

SEOUL — North Korea is rejecting speculation any economic reform is getting underway in the reclusive and impoverished country.

Pyongyang is making it clear it considers unacceptable any assertions from officials in Seoul and foreign media that policy change, reform or opening of the country has begun.

Quoting an unnamed spokesman for a North Korean group, the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, a television announcer declared that what he termed “ridiculous rhetoric” by South Korean officials reveal their “ignorance and sinister intention” against the North.

The announcer said the United States and South Korea, after decades of advocating reform and opening to impose their “corrupt” system, now seem “preoccupied by hallucinations that such a move is taking place” in North Korea.

A prominent defector from the North, Lee Yun-keol, says the late leader Kim Jong Il, expressed in his will that the words “reform” and “opening” will not be used.

Lee, chairman of the North Korea Strategic Information Service Center in Seoul, says the authorized phrase from Pyongyang is “economic reform management system.” But Lee says this change is not meant to make life better for the masses, but rather to benefit the privileged class. He says, for its survival, the North’s leadership knows it must maintain the military-first policy because any true reform or opening would cause chaos for the government.

Meanwhile, North Korea’s powerful National Defense Commission is issuing a separate warning to Washington. This comes after repeated accusations in recent weeks that the United States is behind an alleged plot by agents in the North to sabotage national monuments and statues.

The defense authority in Pyongyang said it would launch a physical counter-offensive to render ineffective America’s strategic bombers and carrier strike forces.

Lee, who was a researcher at a North Korean state organization charged with extending the lives of the country’s leaders, is not worried by this rhetoric.

Lee believes the threats are just a ploy to get more food aid and other desperately needed support from the outside world. Although North Korea is well-armed, Lee says its leaders are actually afraid to start a military conflict and do not have the economic resources to support a war.

North Korea has the world’s fourth-largest standing army. It has never signed a peace treaty with the South following the three-year Korean war, which ended
in 1953 with an armistice that both sides have, over the years, repeatedly accused the other of violating.

Original Article 

In the News – Kim Jong-un Favors Cuban Heels Just Like His Dad

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In the News – Kim Jong-un Favors Cuban Heels Just Like His Dad

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (front right) wears Cuban heels during a visit to an amusement park in Pyongyang with his wife Ri Sol-ju (front left) on Wednesday. /[North] Korean Central News Agency-Yonhap

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (front right) wears Cuban heels during a visit to an amusement park in Pyongyang with his wife Ri Sol-ju (front left) on Wednesday. /[North] Korean Central News Agency-Yonhap

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been spotted sporting Cuban heels like his late father Kim Jong-il.

In photos from the North Korean state media of Kim visiting an amusement park in Pyongyang with his wife Ri Sol-ju last week, the chubby leader’s shoes look designed to make him seem taller.

Kim, who is thought to be 168 cm tall, apparently wears 5-cm lifts.

Original Article

In the News – N.Korea Pours Cold Water on Reform Hopes

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In the News – N.Korea Pours Cold Water on Reform Hopes

North Korea on Sunday poured cold water South Korean hopes of a changing political climate in the North. The South Korean government and media had cautiously interpreted recent changes in the North as the first signals of reform and opening.

But the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland said, “Our dynamic reality is earning admiration from the entire world. A group of traitors in the South interpret our situation to their own advantage and calling it ‘attempts towards reform and open door policy’ and ‘signs of political change.'”

According to the official KCNA news agency, a spokesman for the committee said the South Korean government aimed to create a negative image of North Korea by talking of possible regime change and reforms. “South Korea has the treacherous objective of spreading the delusional idea of reunification, with the South ‘absorbing’ the North.”

Meanwhile, the North’s National Defense Commission issued a statement on Sunday warning of a “strong physical attack” on South Korea and the U.S. in retaliation for an alleged plot to blow up statues of past leaders in the North.

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In the News – N. Korean visitors to China rise drastically since last year: data

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In the News – N. Korean visitors to China rise drastically since last year: data

SEOUL, July 29 (Yonhap) — The number of North Korean visitors to China increased drastically since then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s tour of the North’s biggest communist ally early last year, Chinese government data shows.

The data on the entry of foreigners obtained Sunday by Yonhap News Agency showed that 152,000 North Koreans entered China in 2011, a sharp rise from 116,000 the previous year. Out of the total, 114,000 were businessmen and laborers.

The comparable figures were 116,000 in 2010, 103,000 in 2009, 101,000 in 2008, 113,000 in 2007 and 110,000 in 2006.

The sharp rise is attributed to the visit to China by late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in May last year, apparently to enhance bilateral economic cooperation.

The Beijing government said at the time that Kim was invited “so he could have the chance to grasp the developments in China and make the most of them for the development of North Korea.”

The number of North Korean visitors to China will likely increase further this year as China has received 88,000 North Koreans for the first six months this year alone.

The statistics comes amid reports North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong-un, who took over from his father Kim Jong-il after the senior Kim’s sudden death in December, might soon come up with measures for economic reform.

The young Swiss-educated leader has often stressed the need to catch up with global trends in upgrading the country’s industries.

His father was rarely reported to be talking about global trends and instead focusing on “juche,” or self-reliance, ideology during a 17-year iron-fist rule of the impoverished state with nuclear ambitions.

The 28-year-old Kim recently sacked the chief of the North’s 1.2 million-strong Army, has been seen with his wife at official functions and has had North Korean troupes perform in Western style costumes.

Original Article 

In the News – Obama issues proclamation on Korean War Armistice anniversary

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In the News – Obama issues proclamation on Korean War Armistice anniversary

By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, July 27 (Yonhap) — U.S. President Barack Obama issued a proclamation Friday to commemorate the end of the Korean War 59 years ago, as the Pentagon hosted a formal ceremony to mark the anniversary.

“Today, on the 59th anniversary of the Military Armistice Agreement signed at Panmunjom, we honor all who served in the Korean War, and we pay lasting tribute to the brave men and women who gave their lives for our Nation,” Obama said in the proclamation. Panmunjom is a truce village in the demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas.

The Korean War ended with an armistice agreement on July 27, 1953, after three years of fierce fighting between the invading North, supported by China, and the South with the help of the U.S. and other U.N.-coalition forces.

“Most of all, we honor the tens of thousands of Americans who gave their lives defending a country they had never known and a people they had never met,” Obama said. “Their legacy lives on not only in the hearts of the American people, but in a Republic of Korea that is free and prosperous; an alliance that is stronger than ever before; and a world that is safer for their services.”

More than 50,000 U.S. service members were killed during the war, according to government data.

Obama called upon all Americans to observe the day with “appropriate ceremonies and activities” to honor Korean War veterans.

He has issued the proclamation each year since taking office in 2009.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon held a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery to commemorate the anniversary.

Named, “Heroes Remember,” it began with a wreath-laying ceremony to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the war
In his speech, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the Korean War is not “America’s forgotten war.”

“Today, thanks to the service and sacrifice of our veterans six decades ago, South Korea has grown strong and independent. South Korea is a trusted ally, an economic power, a democracy, a provider of security in the Asia-Pacific region and other parts of the world. To the veterans of this war: your sacrifice made a difference,” he said.

He pointed out the contrary fate of North Korea, “which remains a dangerous and destabilizing country that is bent on provocation and is pursuing an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction while its people are left to starve.”

Panetta said the U.S. needs to take a crucial lesson from the Korean War, in which lots of troops paid a heavy price due to a lack of necessary training and the right weapons.

“They were sent into a tough fight with little preparation,” he said. “That is a mistake that we will not make again. And that’s why today, coming out of a decade of war, we have put forward a strategy-driven defense budget to meet the challenges of the future.”

The Pentagon may face $500 billion in spending cuts on top of the $487 billion already being implemented.

Congress is stuck in a political deadlock, however, ahead of presidential elections in November.

Panetta emphasized the urgency for the U.S. to beef up combat readiness.

“The world remains a dangerous place, and America must maintain the decisive military edge. We must remain the most powerful military power on the face of the earth,” he said. “With this strategy, we will not only have the strongest military, but make no mistake: we will be ready to deter aggression — anytime, anyplace, anywhere.”

Original Article 

In the News – Both Koreas mark 59 years since war armistice after North announced military changes

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In the News – Both Koreas mark 59 years since war armistice after North announced military changes

 

PANMUNJOM, Korea — Elderly North Korean veterans pledged loyalty to their 20-something leader in Pyongyang during Korean War armistice commemorations Friday that were being closely watched after Kim Jong Un reshuffled the military and revealed he’s married.

Over the last two weeks, Kim has taken on the title of marshal and replaced his army chief — once a key mentor. Both moves were seen as an effort to build loyalty among the million-man armed forces and solidify his credentials as commander.

North Korea also revealed Wednesday that the stylish woman at Kim’s side in some public appearances this month is his wife. Images of her walking with Kim were choreographed to show the leader as modern, mature and down-to-earth, analysts said, and contrast sharply to his intensely private father, Kim Jong Il, who ruled for 17 years before his death in December.

Kim Jong Un and his wife weren’t at Friday’s event. Hundreds of aging veterans were shown on state television in a huge auditorium as Choe Ryong Hae, the military’s top political officer, stood beneath giant portraits of Kim Jong Il and North Korea founder Kim Il Sung and urged the crowd to “follow the leadership of Marshal Kim Jong Un and win 100 out of 100 battles.”

North Korea later set off fireworks. At another location earlier in the day, soldiers from a tank unit named after military officer Ryu Kyong Su, famous in North Korea for leading troops during the war, also staged firing drills.

The commemorations are meant to kindle patriotism and loyalty in North Koreans, and especially the young, by showcasing veterans who fought for their country, said Kim Yeon-su of Korea National Defense University in Seoul.

Separately, North Korea is filling vacancies left by the sudden dismissal of former army chief Ri Yong Ho. Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency introduced the new military chief, Hyon Yong Chol, as Ri’s successor as a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party in a dispatch Friday. Hyon was promoted to vice marshal and chief of general staff after Ri was dismissed earlier this month. Kim Jong Un chairs the commission.

While South Korea and the U.S.-led U.N. forces that fought in the Korean War call Friday the 59th anniversary of the armistice that ended the 1950-1953 conflict, North Korea calls it a celebration of “victory in the Fatherland Liberation War” and veterans streamed into the capital.

“Airports, railway stations and parking lots were crowded with delegates to the celebrations, their comrades-in-arms, families and relatives, people from all walks of life and youth and students,” KCNA said.

U.S. and South Korean officials marked the armistice at the border village of Panmunjom. Because no peace treaty was signed, the Korean Peninsula remains technically in a state of war.

Ahead of the anniversary, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry reiterated its long-standing demand that the United States sign a peace treaty with North Korea to replace the armistice.

Washington says normal ties will only come after North Korea abandons its pursuit of nuclear weapons and takes other steps. International nuclear disarmament talks have been stalled since late 2008, and animosity between the Koreas is high.

Original Article

In the News – North Korea Hunger Worsens Despite Talks Of Economic Reform

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In the News – North Korea Hunger Worsens Despite Talks Of Economic Reform

By Ju-min Park

SEOUL, July 27 (Reuters) – Talk that North Korea’s young leader plans to reform the broken economy is already having an impact. It’s helping send rice prices even further out of the reach of most families in one of the world’s most under-fed societies.

Seo Jae-pyoung, a defector who now lives in South Korea, spoke this week to a friend in the secretive North who had furtively called him by mobile phone from a mountain-side to plead for cash to be smuggled across to help.

“He couldn’t cope with the high prices, saying rice prices had shot up … and he is running out of money,” Seo told Reuters.

“It shows that the economic situation is seriously worsening…I feel that…(it) has already reached the critical point and (leader Kim Jong-un) may know that without reform or openness, the regime is not going to last long.”

One of the reasons he and others gave for the price increase was rice hoarding by middlemen hoping that talk of reform would materialise into a chance to turn a profit.

A source with ties to North Korea and its chief backer, China, told Reuters last week that the North is gearing up to experiment with economic reforms.

Evidence is hard to come by in the almost hermetically sealed and suspicious state, where casual contact with outsiders can mean imprisonment. And because it usually takes defectors many months to make their way out of the North to a country where they can speak openly, information can be out of date.

But some of the defectors Reuters spoke to in Seoul said they were in clandestine contact with people inside the North. Reuters also spoke to foreigners who had gone to North Korea in recent months under government-sponsored visits.

The overall impression was that in the about seven months Kim Jong-un has been in office, there have been few tangible changes inside a country which is now, since Myanmar’s decision to open up, Asia’s last pariah state.

“I’ve not heard anything to suggest any improvement for the rank and file there. And in some sectors, things continue to slide,” said one Christian activist with Helping Hands Korea, which works with refugees fleeing the North.

Kim, thought to be in his late 20s, is the third generation of a family dynasty that has ruled North Korea since its founding. He took over when his father Kim Jong-il died in December.

With international sanctions over weapons programmes, and the insistence of the Kims on food and resources going to the military first, the general population has been on the edge of starvation for decades.

STARTLING

The effects of such prolonged meagre diets is one of the startling images of North Korea, making the chubby leader Kim stand out even more against his subjects.

“What’s strikingly obvious is peoples’ stunted growth, they’re all very short for their age,” said one humanitarian worker who visited the North earlier this year.

“There’s always going to be a food shortage, The problem is, what they can produce, the best always goes to the best (top of society).” That elite refers especially to the military, estimated at 1.2 million out of a population of 25 million.

According to North Korean defectors who still keep in touch with family and friends and Daily NK, which monitors conditions in the reclusive state, the price of 1 kg (2.2 pounds) of rice in the market was estimated to be at least one month’s salary.

But that, said one defector, is meaningless because the cash-starved state, the main employer, rarely pays salaries.

“Even if you are employed by the state, you do business in the market. If you are an office worker, you do business in the market in the afternoon … There’s no way other than this to make it there,” said the woman, in her 30s, who asked not to be identified because she feared reprisals against family members still in the North. She fled the North late last year.

“Basically, many people are doing restaurant business or selling things on credit and pay off credits later. There is a huge gap between the rich and the poor. Pyongyang has enough supplies but other areas fall short. So it is completely up to an individual’s effort. If you try hard to make money, you can survive. But if you don’t, you struggle,” she said.

She and other defectors said the authorities had been tightening their watch on the border with China, about the only route for escape. The dangers of crossing the border are compounded by the very high risk of being sent back to the North by Chinese authorities to face imprisonment or even execution.

FEAR OF REFORM

North Korea has dabbled with reforms over the years but never stuck to them, forced to rely increasingly on China to prop up a rusting industry and broken infrastructure.

Most recently, in 2009, it orchestrated the re-denomination of the currency, a move deemed so catastrophic that the official who initiated it was reportedly executed.

None of the defectors Reuters spoke to believed the leadership would dare allow reforms that damage its grip. Some thought the Pyongyang elite had been scared by the disastrous 2009 experiment.

Analysts say this fear of reform explains why the Kim dynasty has stuck so rigidly with a system that ensured the country was excluded from any benefit of being at the centre of the world’s most rapidly growing region — China, Japan and South Korea.

While their economies have surged, North Korea’s has shrunk. Once wealthier than the South, its economy is now less than three percent of South Korea’s. Its population is half the size.

“I think even if it loosens up, it would only be partial. If it fully opens, the regime will collapse. People began to not trust the regime after the currency reform in 2009,” said the woman defector who said she fled because she could no longer tolerate the constraints on her life.

Kim Yong-hwa, a defector who heads the NK Refugees Human Rights Association on Korea, was equally dismissive.

“Is North Korea is planning to reform and open up? I think the foreign press is over-reacting. The only thing Kim Jong-il left to Kim Jong-un is debt. He has no funds to run the regime.” (Additional reporting by Jack Kim and Choonsik Yoo in Seoul, and reporters in Beijing, Bangkok and Singapore, writing by Jonathan Thatcher; editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Original Article 

In the News – N. Korean leader Kim goes on outing after introducing wife

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In the News – N. Korean leader Kim goes on outing after introducing wife

SEOUL, July 27 (Yonhap) — North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has attended a music performance together with his recently unveiled wife, state media said Friday, their first reported outing since the wife’s identity was revealed to the outside world for the first time earlier this week.

The wife has been a focus of speculation since earlier this month when state media began showing her closely accompanying the young leader during a series of public appearances without identifying who she was.

The North’s media identified her as the leader’s wife, Ri Sol-ju, on Wednesday. Seoul’s intelligence agency said the 23-year-old Ri, who is believed to have been educated in music and sang in a national orchestra, married Kim in 2009 and may have a child with the leader.

On Friday, Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the couple viewed a music performance by the music band of the country’s police force Internal Security Forces held in Ponghwa Art Theatre in Pyongyang a day earlier.

The singing and dance performance was held to celebrate victory in the Korean War, the North Korean holiday that marks the July 27 truce in 1953 that ended the 1950-53 conflict.

“The performers sang of the undying feats of Kim Il Sung, who wrought miracles of history by defeating the most atrocious U.S. imperialists in the war,” KCNA reported.

Kim expressed great satisfaction over the performance, which extolled the country’s Songun, or military-first, revolution, it said.

Original Article