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2009/05/07 10:54 KST


S. Korea Bolsters Task Force to Deal with N. Korean Nuke Threat

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea has expanded its nuclear task force to deal with North Korea's threat that it will conduct a second nuclear test, a foreign ministry official said May 4.

   The ministry added non-governmental nuclear experts and government officials to the ad hoc unit launched in April last year so as to strengthen its technical analysis, the ministry official said, requesting anonymity.

   The expanded task force, led by Seoul's deputy envoy to nuclear disarmament talks, Hwang Joon-kook, includes officials from the ministries of foreign affairs, national defense and unification, the National Intelligence Service and the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae as well as think tank experts and scholars, the official said.

   "The new task force will deal with all technological issues concerning North Korea's nuclear program," the official said. "In particular, its mission includes sharing information about North Korea's move toward reprocessing (spent fuel rods) and a nuclear test, analyzing their technological significance and establishing countermeasures," the official said.

   Pyongyang warned it will conduct a second nuclear test as well as test its inter-continental ballistic missiles after withdrawing from six-nation nuclear disarmament talks in protest over the U.N. Security Council's rebuke of its April 5 rocket launch. The North also said it has begun reprocessing thousands of spent nuclear fuel rods, a process that involves extracting plutonium used to make nuclear bombs.


S. Korea Rescues N.K. Ship from Attempted Hijacking in Somali Waters

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- A South Korean naval unit rescued a North Korean freighter from being hijacked by suspected pirates in Somali waters on May 4, a Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) official said.

   The incident, which took place at 5:40 a.m. (Somali time) 37 km south of the Yemeni port city of Aden, came amid chilled relations between the Koreas that have been technically at war for over five decades.

   A South Korean warship, Munmu the Great, was operating in the Gulf of Aden as part of a U.S.-led multinational anti-piracy campaign when it received a distress call from the North Korean vessel, Dabaksol, Col. Lee Hyoung-kook told reporters in Seoul.

   The call was received in Korean through an internationally shared communications network, prompting the destroyer to dispatch an anti-submarine attack helicopter, Lee said.

   Dabaksol, a 6,399-ton steel transporter traveling eastward, was only 3 km away from the suspected pirate ship when the helicopter arrived at the scene after half an hour of flight.

   "Our soldiers aboard threatened to fire as part of a standard procedure," Lee said, adding the pirates began to veer away after about 10 minutes.

   The South Korean helicopter continued to hover around the North Korean freighter as it asked for extended support.

   "Will you just continue to protect us?" a crew member on the vessel said, according to a transcript of dialogue between the two sides.

   "Thank you. Please take good care of us," the unidentified crew member said after receiving assurance from the South Korean helicopter. North Koreans aboard also waved their hands at the helicopter in apparent gratitude.

   The helicopter returned to its destroyer at 13:30 after guiding Dabaksol toward the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor, Lee said.

   Pirates use conventional weapons, such as automatic weapons and rocket launchers, and capture commercial vessels by clambering aboard with ladders and grappling hooks.

   Lee said the South Korean unit, Cheonghae, which carries a crew of 300, could not immediately estimate the number of suspected pirates on the boat that apparently carried a set of ladders.

   The 2,100-ton destroyer was escorting the fifth South Korean vessel since its deployment when it received the distress call.

   Approximately 500 South Korean ships ply the route each year, according to the JCS, which estimates 150 are vulnerable to pirate attacks because of their low speed.

   Somalia has not had a functional government since its dictator was overthrown by warlords in 1991. Poverty has driven a large number of locals to piracy, while black market sales of weapons run rampant.

   According to the U.S. navy, about two dozen hijackings have occurred this year, well ahead of the pace in 2008.

   Over 110 pirate-related incidents took place in the sea off Somalia last year, a five-fold jump from two years earlier.

   The May 4 incident marks the third time that the Cheonghae unit has apparently driven away suspected pirates. Last month, it separately helped a Marshall Islands-registered ship and a Denmark-registered ship after receiving distress calls.


Unification Ministry to Close Humanitarian Aid Unit on N. Korea

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea's Unification Ministry is set to close its bureau on humanitarian aid to North Korea as part of its restructuring, officials said May 4, a move that mirrors frozen political relations between the divided Koreas.

   The restructuring plan will shut down the Humanitarian Cooperation Bureau established in late 1996, ministry officials said.

   The bureau has been in charge of sending humanitarian aid to the North, arranging reunions of families separated by the Korean War and assisting with the resettlement of North Korean defectors in the South.

   Its four divisions will be either absorbed into the Inter-Korean Exchanges and Cooperation Bureau or the higher-level Unification Policy Office, they said.

   "The Humanitarian Cooperation Bureau will be dissolved ... But those plans will be confirmed after they are approved in the Cabinet meeting," a ministry official said.

   The restructuring comes as inter-Korean relations have dipped to their lowest level in a decade. Seoul suspended rice and fertilizer aid after President Lee Myung-bak took office in February last year, vowing a tougher stance on North Korea's nuclear program. Pyongyang cut off government-level dialogue and stopped reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 war. The political freeze considerably reduced the humanitarian bureau's functions.

   North Korea also abolished a Cabinet-level committee on economic cooperation with South Korea in an April 9 reshuffle. The committee was set up amid brisk relations in 2004.

   "North Korea has removed the economic cooperation committee, and the South will abolish the humanitarian cooperation bureau -- these are a portrait of inter-Korean relations at this moment," Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said.

   Yang noted the restructuring contravenes the Lee government's pledge to prioritize humanitarian issues, such as separated families, defectors and South Korean soldiers held in North Korea.

   The unification ministry plans to create a new section called the Political Analysis Office to better examine North Korean internal politics and regional issues. With the restructuring, the ministry will be comprised of two offices and two bureaus, compared to the current one office and three bureau system, the officials said.


Two Koreas Discussing Second Meeting on Joint Venture

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea plans to propose holding a second round of talks with North Korea, likely within this week, to discuss the operation of their joint industrial park, a Seoul official said on May 5.

   "South and North Korea are discussing the details for the talks, but they have yet to set a date, the official said. "We intend to propose contact this week."

   Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyoun only said that inter-Korean consultations are "underway" on the next round of talks.

   Officials of the two Koreas met in the joint park in the North's border town of Kaesong on April 21 in the first inter-Korean government dialogue in more than a year. Pyongyang complained that wages South Korean firms pay North Korean employees are too low and demanded the two sides start negotiations on raising salaries.

   Seoul has been taking opinions from South Korean businesses in order to present its position to the North.

   In the first round of talks that lasted only 22 minutes, North Korea also demanded that South Korean firms start paying for land use from next year, four years ahead of schedule.

   Seoul has been pressing for the release of a worker in Kaesong, who was detained by the North on March 30 on charges of criticizing its political system. North Korea has refused to discuss the issue, saying the talks are meant to cover issues relevant solely to the industrial park.

   The Kaesong park, just an hour's drive from Seoul, opened in late 2004 as an outcome of the first inter-Korean summit in 2000 that paved the way for reconciliatory exchanges. More than 100 South Korean firms there employ about 39,000 North Korean workers, who produce clothes, utensils, electronic equipment and other labor-intensive products.