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2008/09/25 10:57 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 22 (September 25, 2008)


U.S. Concerned about Possible Massive Outflow of N. Korean Refugees: Gates

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- The United States is concerned about the possibility of a massive outflow of refugees from North Korea in case of a regime collapse, the top defense official said on Sept. 18, following recent reports that the socialist country's leader is ailing.

   "We are concerned about instability. I think that all of North Korea's neighbors are concerned about instability, in no small part because of the possibility of large flows of refugees," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in London, according to a transcript released in Washington.

   Gates was responding to conflicting reports on the condition of Kim Jong-il, with some saying he is recovering, albeit slowly, from major brain surgery and others reporting that a form of collective leadership has already been established due to Kim's poor health.

   The North Korean leader's oldest son, Kim Jong-nam, has been staying in China since he was deported from Japan's Narita airport for possessing a forged passport in 2002. He reportedly told Chinese officials that Kim Jong-il's health is not good due to his age. The senior Kim is 66 years old.

   A Japanese television station broadcast images of Jong-nam, said to be the likeliest heir due mainly to China's strong support, at a Beijing hotel on Sept. 17. He reportedly had briefly returned to Pyongyang in late July because of his father's failing health.

   Gates said his agency was closely watching developments in North Korea, but added, "at this point it's not entirely clear how seriously ill he is, what the circumstances are. So, I would say we, with our friends and probably the neighbors, are just watching the situation at this point."

   The defense secretary dismissed the possibility of any instability in North Korea affecting U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

   "Well, frankly, I think, in terms of our military forces, it's irrelevant," he said. "I mean, the way that things have evolved in Korea, if there ever should be a conflict, the main American contribution is not ground forces. So, the connection with Afghanistan and Iraq, I think, is irrelevant."
Reports have said the U.S. does not have the capability to cope with a war elsewhere due to its heavy engagement in the Middle East.


US Believes North Korea Helped Build Syrian Reactor: CIA

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- The United States has every reason to believe North Korea helped Syria build a nuclear reactor that was destroyed by an Israeli air strike last year, a top U.S. intelligence official said on Sept. 18.

   Israeli planes bombed the structure at Al-Kibar alongside the Euphrates River in September last year, but Damascus would not acknowledge that it was a nuclear reactor.

   After the bombing, "The Syrians immediately cleared away the rubble and every trace of the building, stonewalling the IAEA when asked to explain," Central Intelligence Agency director Michael Hayden told a forum in Los Angeles. "Their cover-up only underlined the intense secrecy of this project and the danger it had posed to a volatile region."

   Hayden said his agency had "a group of officers who started working overtime on this issue in April 2007 and kept at it for months."
"Virtually every form of intelligence -- imagery, signals, human source, you name it -- informed their assessments, so that they were never completely dependent on any single channel," he said.

   Hayden said a report from a foreign partner initially identified the structure as a nuclear reactor similar to one in North Korea.

   "But even without that piece of the puzzle, ... we had previously identified the facility on imagery as a suspicious target," he said. "When pipes for a massive cooling system were laid out to the Euphrates River in the spring of 2007, there would have been little doubt this was a nuclear reactor."

   A number of intelligence reports on nuclear ties between Pyongyang and Damascus led the CIA to believe the theory that the North helped Syria build the reactor, he said. "The reactor hypothesis was the most difficult to refute with the available evidence."

   Hayden, however, dismissed the possibility that North Korea tried to use the reactor in Syria as a replacement for its Yongbyon reactor, which Pyongyang has pledged to dismantle in return for economic aid and diplomatic recognition under multilateral talks.

   "We took that hypothesis and worked very hard on it, but the mainstream theory held sway," he said.

   The CIA chief said that close cooperation between U.S. agencies and other governments helped shed light on the close connection between North Korea and Syria.


N. Korea Among Eight Worst Countries in Religious Freedom: State Dept.

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- North Korea is among the eight worst countries in terms of religious freedom, a U.S. State Department report said on Sept. 19.

   Also listed as countries of particular concern are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. North Korea has been designated for eight consecutive years since 2001.

   The North Korea section of the report, based on statistics and eyewitness accounts collected for the year ending June 30, said, "Although the Constitution provides for 'freedom of religious belief,' genuine religious freedom does not exist. There was no change in the extremely poor level of respect for religious freedom during the reporting period."

   In a press conference to mark the release of the report, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, "The U.S. government remains very concerned about the atrocious religious freedom conditions in the country, and we urge the regime to respect the rights of its people."

   "North Korea remains among the world's most egregious violators of religious freedom," Rice said. "The cult of personality surrounding the ruling family remains an important ideological underpinning of the regime, at times resembling tenets of a state religion."

   Kim Jong-il is still believed to be in firm control of the world's most reclusive state due to the personality cult-based leadership built over decades, despite recent reports of his failing health following major brain surgery.

   "The government severely restricts religious freedom, including organized religious activity, except that which is supervised tightly by officially recognized groups linked to the government," according to the report. "Services at state-authorized churches appeared staged and contained political content supportive of the regime."

   The report quoted several North Korean defectors as saying they had "witnessed the arrests and execution of members of underground Christian churches by the regime in prior years."
It is estimated that between 150,000 to 200,000 North Koreans are being held in political prison camps in remote areas, many for religious reasons.

   "Prison conditions are harsh; torture and starvation are common," the report noted. "Refugees and defectors who had been in prison stated that prisoners held on the basis of their religious beliefs generally were treated worse than other inmates."


North Korean Leader Has Slightly Recovered: Intelligence Chief

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who reportedly suffered a stroke last month, has recovered somewhat, South Korea's intelligence chief was quoted as saying on Sept. 23.

   Seoul has been on high alert recently in anticipation of possible complications regarding the denuclearization of the socialist state.

   "He has slightly recovered," National Intelligence Service Director Kim Sung-ho was quoted as saying by ruling party lawmaker Lee Chul-woo during a parliamentary session.

   Kim refused to comment further on the issue as the South Korean government remains cautious of irritating the North, which has several times angrily denied speculation about its leader's bad health.

   Pyongyang recently reneged on a six-party aid-for-denuclearization deal, complaining about Washington's delay in removing it from a list of state sponsors of terror.

   In the deal, signed by the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States, Washington had agreed to remove North Korea from the list in exchange for the North's complete declaration of its nuclear programs. Washington regards the declaration as incomplete without a rigorous verification mechanism.

   Reports of the leader's bad health are adding to uncertainties as a power vacuum could nullify the deal altogether.

   The intelligence chief remained cautious on reports that Pyongyang has asked the International Atomic Energy Agency to remove cameras and seals placed at its main atomic facilities.

   "It is possible, but we cannot be fully sure," he was quoted as saying.

   The nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula took a positive turn in June when Pyongyang provided a list of its nuclear programs and blew up the cooling tower at its Yongbyon reactor in a symbolic gesture of its commitment to the denuclearization deal.

   But the process hit a snag following a dispute between North Korea and the United States over how to verify Pyongyang's nuclear programs. North Korea tested a nuclear device in 2006, triggering concerns throughout the world.

   North Korea's high-profile leader has been absent from the public eye since Aug. 14, with foreign doctors reportedly entering the country last month for a medical operation.

   Kim, 66, rose to power after his father and the founder of North Korea, Kim Il-sung, died in 1994. The junior Kim has reportedly not groomed an heir-apparent among his three sons.


North Korea Conducts Massive Air Force Exercise: Sources

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea recently conducted a massive aerial exercise near its border with China and around its western coast, a military source said on Sept. 23, a drill rare in its scale for the energy-starved country.

   "North Korea recently held a large-scale flight exercise over the West Sea, involving its MIG-21 fighter jets and other combat aircraft," the source said, asking not to be identified.

   The remarks partly confirm an earlier claim by Carl Moeller, president of the U.S. missionary group Open Doors U.S.A., that he had personally witnessed a massive air force exercise near the Chinese border.

   "I was just there at the border two weeks ago and noticed for the first time North Korean fighter jets flying extensively near the border of China, and I was surprised because typically those things don't occur there," Moeller was quoted as saying by U.S. broadcaster Radio Free Asia (RFA).

   Moeller claimed the flight exercise and various reports of worsening food conditions in the North prove there is an "immense amount of destabilization" in the country, according to the RFA report.

   Many observers have suggested the communist nation may be undergoing serious changes since the disappearance from public view of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who is said to have suffered a stroke and has not been seen in public since Aug. 14.

   The military source, however, said the recent exercise does not indicate any sign of destabilization in the North, noting the communist nation has held such military drills in the past, though not regularly.

   North Korean fighter jets took off on over 170 sorties a day for several days in January while some even provoked the launch of South Korean interceptors by approaching a tactical red line drawn 50 kilometers north of the inter-Korean border, earlier reports said.