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2009/05/14 10:56 KST


N. Korea Steps up Military Training on Western Border

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Amid heightened tension between the divided Koreas, North Korea has bolstered its live artillery exercises and fighter jet training near the western sea border with South Korea since it declared an "all-out confrontational posture" against the South this year.

   This year, the North is believed to have conducted 19 live-fire exercises at an island near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the sea borderline between the two Koreas in the West Sea.

   "The North appears to have doubled its live-fire artillery training exercise near the North Korean western coastline from the same period a year earlier," a Marine officer said, adding that gun positions have frequently been seen.

   North Korea is said to have deployed thousands of weapons hidden in mountain caves and tunnels near the inter-Korean border. The artillery puts South Korea's capital area within target range.

   The North Korean army is deploying about eight 27-kilometer-range 130mm guns and eight other 76.2mm artillery units with a range of 12 kilometers on islands located just north of the NLL, according to Marine officers.

   Pyongyang is also believed to be deploying about 100 units of 152mm howitzer guns with a range of 17 kilometers near the Haeju port, the North's southern coastal city that is within one hour's drive from Kaesong.

   North Korea's air force has also increased its flight training over the western border, military officials said.

   Disclosing that the number of sorties by North Korean aircraft rose six times from a year earlier, officials said about 100 fighter jets and surveillance airplanes took off from bases south of Pyongyang on April 7, just two days after Pyongyang went ahead with a rocket launch that Seoul and Washington say was, in fact, a missile test.

   Nearly 70 percent, or 1,100, of all aircraft activities below Pyongyang originated from a coastline airbase in Kwail County this year, according to a report of the South Korean Marine Corps.

   Tension often rises sharply along the NLL when a North Korean battleship emerges. South Korean naval boats scramble toward it and patrol back and forth alongside their shared sea frontier. On May 7, there was a standoff which lasted at least half an hour, prompting South Korean Marines on the nearby island of Baengnyeong to position themselves behind their automatic weapons.

   Baengnyeong Island, about 190 kilometers west of Seoul, is one of several South Korean islands in the Yellow Sea that the North has laid claim to their surrounding waters. It is South Korea's westernmost island that lies 90 kilometers west of Yeonpyeong, near which two clashes erupted between the Koreas in 1999 and 2002, resulting in the deaths of dozens on both sides.

   Each of the islands is located just several kilometers away from North Korea, which is believed to operate over 70 boats and 280 airplanes to patrol the western sea border it shares with South Korea.

   On Jan. 17, the North Korean military announced it would place its forces on an "all-out confrontational posture" and "no longer sit by idly" as South Korea continues to control the borderline islands.

   The North has also ditched all its military accords with the South and warned of an armed conflict near the NLL, expressing anger over the conservative stance taken by the South Korean administration that came to power early last year.

   Since the January announcement, North Korea has breached the NLL three times in February and March, said a South Korean colonel overseeing Yeonpyeong Island, about an hour's flight by chopper from Seoul.

   The violation of the border -- drawn by the U.S.-led United Nations Command at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in a truce -- came as North Korean naval ships moved eastward for routine relocation, he said. "Each ship reached about two to three kilometers into our territory," he said, adding live-fire artillery training has also doubled this year along the North Korean coastline.

   South Korean Marines activate and load their shoreline Vulcan cannons every time a North Korean airplane flies within a radius of 40 miles (64 kilometers), the commander on Baengnyeong said, adding an enemy fighter jet could reach his forces in "just two minutes."

   "It's hard for our soldiers because such an alert is raised at least twice a day," he said, disclosing the frequency of such flights has doubled compared to last year.


N.K. Places Spy Agencies under Military Control in Major Shakeup

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea has carried out a reshuffle of government organizations, shifting the jurisdiction over its overseas espionage and cash cow operations from the Workers' Party to the military, sources said May 10.

   The North has separated its two major spying and cash-generating overseas trade units -- Room 35 and Operation Unit -- from the Workers' Party and transferred them to the Ministry of People's Armed Forces, the sources said on condition of anonymity.

   The Operation Unit is known to train and send agents to South Korea, the United States and Japan, but its recent operations are believed to have shifted toward trades of arms, drugs and fake bills.

   Room 35 is North Korea's intelligence unit in charge of collecting information from South Korea, Japan, China, Southeast Asia and Europe.

   Kim Hyon-hui, one of the two North Korean agents who blew up a Korean Air flight over Myanmar in 1987, was believed to have belonged to the Room 35 and to have been trained in the Operation Unit.

   "North Korea's Operation Unit handles a large amount of cash through illegal activities such as counterfeiting currency, manufacturing drugs and exporting arms," a source said. "With the Operation Unit now under its wing, the North Korean military will have a major source of independent financing."

   The latest shakeup appears to be intended to address overlapped functions among government organizations and raise their overall efficiency, according to North Korea watchers.

   The sources said North Korea may be trying to shed a terrorism-related image from its ruling Workers' Party, which has tagged along since the 1987 flight bombing.

   The latest U.S. report on terrorism-sponsoring nations, released on April 30, said that North Korea "was not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987."

   The U.S. government removed North Korea from its list of terrorism-sponsoring nations in October as the North had agreed to follow steps to dismantle its nuclear program.

   The denuclearization process, however, was stalled late last year over a dispute on how to verify North Korea's past nuclear activities.


Unification Ministry Closes N.K. Aid Unit, Bolsters Intelligence

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea's unification ministry May 12 closed its bureau on humanitarian aid to North Korea and created a new one to better analyze Pyongyang's internal politics as part of government restructuring.

   The Cabinet approved the ministry's proposal to shut down its Humanitarian Cooperation Bureau and set up the tentatively-named Political Analysis Bureau, Kim Jung-tae, assistant minister for planning and coordination, said in a press briefing.

   "The restructuring aims to strengthen the ministry's long-term unification policy and intelligence analysis and merge overlapped low-level units," Kim explained.

   He said the humanitarian aid bureau's closure will bring no functional changes, as its four divisions were either absorbed into the Inter-Korean Exchanges and Cooperation Bureau or the higher-level Unification Policy Office. But the move has raised concerns, given the bureau's symbolic significance in non-political exchanges.

   The humanitarian aid bureau, established in late 1996, was 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.

   The revamping comes as inter-Korean relations have dipped to their lowest level in a decade. Seoul suspended rice and fertilizer aid after Lee took office in February last year, vowing to take 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.

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


Koreas Wrestle with Agenda for 2nd Talks on Industrial Zone

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South and North Korea have not yet made a breakthrough in setting up the second round of talks on their joint industrial venture, Seoul's unification minister said on May 13, amid Pyongyang's refusal to include the detention of a South Korean worker in discussions.

   The deadlock over the agenda may dash Seoul's hopes of holding the talks this week to help ease regional tension, ministry officials said.

   "Our government is trying to focus on resolving the detention ... but inter-Korean relations are now rigid, and there is a wide gap between the two sides' positions, so setting up talks is not easy," Unification Minister Hyun In-taek said in the opening speech of a forum on cross-border relations.

   Working-level officials of the two Koreas are meeting at the joint complex in the North's border town of Kaesong to arrange government-level talks to discuss changes in the operation of the complex. The main dialogue would be a follow-up to the April 21 meeting, the first official talks in more than a year.

   In the previous meeting that lasted only 22 minutes, North Korea complained that wages South Korean firms pay North Korean employees are too low and that Seoul should also start paying for land use next year, four years ahead of schedule.

   Seoul's major concern is a South Korean worker who has been detained in Kaesong since March 30 with no chance of seeing his colleagues or Seoul officials. North Korea accuses the Hyundai Asan Corp. employee in his 40s, who is known only by his family name, Yu, of criticizing its political system.

   North Korean officials who attended the first talks said they are not authorized to discuss the detention issue.

   Seoul officials have maintained North Korea should provide information about the detained worker in return for presenting its demands on the joint park. In the forum, Hyun called the prolonged detention an "unwarranted violation of human rights."

   North Korea said May 1 that the South is raising the rights issue "without knowing about the essence of the case." Yu "malignantly slandered the dignified system," the North's official Korean Central News Agency said, without specifying charges.

   "The two sides are not moving forward to reach agreement" on the agenda, a ministry official well-informed on the negotiations said, requesting anonymity due to the fragile nature of inter-Korean contact.

   Pyongyang is also holding two American female journalists for illegally entering the country and committing unspecified "hostile acts." North Korea has said they will be tried on its soil.

   Pyongyang suspended dialogue with Seoul after President Lee Myung-bak took office in February last year, taking a tougher stance on North Korea's nuclear program and ending the unconditional flow of economic aid to the North.