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2009/07/16 10:52 KST


Tours to N. Korea Continue Despite Rising Tensions

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Travel agencies specializing in tours to North Korea, one of the world's most isolated nations, are trying to lure foreigners with cheaper rates despite rising international tension over Pyongyang's recent nuclear and missile tests.

   Koryo Tour, a Beijing-based tour agency that arranges trips to North Korea, mostly for Westerners, has begun promoting a new group tour program on its Web site.

   The three-day package is available from Aug. 27, in time for North Korea's famed Arirang mass gymnastics performance. It costs 750 euros per person (about US$1,000), comparatively cheaper than in the past, when such packages ran from $2,000 to $3,000.

   The Arirang festival is the North's biggest event, marking the establishment of its socialist regime.

   The program will include visits to nation's most famous landmarks, including the Arch of Triumph, Fountain Park and the Juche Tower, the Web site said.

   The travel agency said it will cost 5 euros to take the elevator up the 170 meter-high Juche Tower, plus 10 to 15 euros in tips for the North Korean tour guides.

   New Korea Tour, a U.S.-based tour operator, is also promoting a similar program during the Arirang festival for $1,199 per person.

   The agency's Web site called it a "must not miss chance," as U.S. citizens are allowed entry to North Korea only during the festival period, which run through mid-October.

   In 2007, North Korea launched an English-language Web site aimed at promoting its tour program for foreigners who wish to see the Arirang show.

   The site, www.dprk-tour.com, provides details on the performance, including schedules and prices, as well as information on tourist attractions in Pyongyang.

   The 90-minute show features tens of thousands of people performing synchronized gymnastics and flipping colored cards to create giant mosaics at a huge stadium in the North Korean capital. North Korea made the show an annual event in 2002.


Lee Says His Country Will Act Sternly until N. Korea Denuclearizes

STOCKHOLM (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said on July 13 his government will deal sternly with North Korea's provocative actions until the socialist nation decides to give up its nuclear ambition and begin working with the international community.

   The president also vowed to strictly implement U.N. sanctions meant to punish the communist nation for its May 25 nuclear detonation test.

   "The most important objective for us right now is to make North Korea give up nuclear weapons," Lee said in a meeting with South Korean reporters in Stockholm accompanying him on his three-nation European tour this week.

   Lee said the reason for Seoul's tough stance on Pyongyang was because South Korea cannot try to defend the North while the rest of the world is working to punish it for its latest nuclear test and various other military provocations.

   The North test launched a barrage of missiles since the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution against its atomic test, placing various sanctions on it.

   In a recent interview with a Europe-based television network, EuroNews, the South Korean president said there were suspicions that North may have diverted Seoul's economic assistance in the past to build its nuclear programs.

   "What I meant was that we tried to help North Korea, but that North Korea came back with nuclear weapons at the end of it all," the president said on July 13.

   Lee said he wanted to call for international support for North Korea's chronic food shortages when the world leaders gathered in Italy's central city of L'Aquila for the G-8 summit, but was unable to do so.

   "I could not say anything because I was afraid other countries might say. 'why would a country that makes nuclear weapons and missiles have a food shortage problem,'" he told reporters.

   Lee, however, said his country, as well as the international community, must always be ready to talk with the North as long as the communist nation is willing, adding the purpose of U.N. sanctions and any other steps taken against the North are to bring Pyongyang back to the dialogue table.


Seoul Has 'No Information' on Kim Jong-il's Reported Pancreatic Cancer

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- The South Korean government has no information on North Korean leader Kim Jong-il having pancreatic cancer as reported by a local broadcaster on July 13, officials said.

   "This morning, there was another report about Chairman Kim Jong-il's health, mentioning a particular illness. With regard to today's report, so far, I have no information," Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said in a press briefing.

   Citing unidentified intelligence sources in Seoul and Washington, the cable news channel YTN said Kim, 67, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer around the same time he is believed to have had a stroke in August last year.

   The report, quoting medical sources in Beijing, said the illness was "life-threatening." Kim may not live more than five years, given the high mortality rate of pancreatic cancer patients and his old age, it said.

   An official from the National Intelligence Service also said he was "unable to confirm the report."

   Medical specialists in Seoul say it is impossible to judge from photographs and videos whether Kim is indeed suffering from the reported new illness. In the latest video image released last week, filmed during a memorial service for his father and North Korean founder Kim Il-sung, Kim's hair was thinner particularly on the top of his head and his build more gaunt than in early April. Such signs have been said to stem from the stroke and diabetes, which Kim has long been known to have.

   "Just from the way he looks, we don't know whether it's pancreatic cancer," Park Se-hun, a cancer specialist at Samsung Medical Center, said. "One can lose hair and weight from the side effects of chemotherapy, but those symptoms are not limited to pancreatic cancer," he said.

   Kim's health condition is at the center of international media attention, being a decisive factor in what happens to the communist country if he dies without publicly naming a successor.

   Kim is rumored to have internally named his third and youngest son, Jong-un, to succeed him. Jong-un, born to Kim's deceased third wife Ko Yong-hui and either 25 or 26 years old, is said to most resemble the leader in temperament and appearance among his siblings.


U.S. Ready for North Korean Threat: Gen. Sharp

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- The commander of U.S. troops in South Korea said on July 14 that the combined forces of South Korea and the U.S. are prepared for any attack from North Korea and urged the North to return to the six-way talks on ending its nuclear ambitions.

   "I can assure you that the alliance is fully prepared to respond to any situation as we continue to monitor the activity in the region," Gen. Walter Sharp said in a video-linked news conference from New York.

   The U.S. maintains 28,500 troops in South Korea as a legacy of the Korean War, which ended in 1953 in an armistice, not a peace treaty.

   "We are prepared for any sort of military attacks and provocations, as you said, from ballistic missiles and any sort of missiles," Sharp said. "We have very extensive plans as far as being able to deal with provocations, any sort of attacks."

   Sharp's remarks come amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea tested a nuclear bomb in May, its second detonation, and has launched a series of dummy missiles.

   The provocations led the U.N. Security Council to ban the North from conducting any further nuclear and ballistic missile tests and to impose financial sanctions and an arms embargo. A Security Council resolution allows cargo interdiction on the high seas to detect weapons trafficking.

   Sharp urged North Korea to "return to the six-party talks" and "take a new path" to care for its people and stop threatening the international community.

   Pyongyang has been boycotting the multilateral talks on its denuclearization in protest of the international condemnation of its nuclear and missile tests.

   The commander also said that the U.S. military computer system has not been damaged by the recent cyber attacks against scores of government Web sites in South Korea and the U.S.

   "At the Department of Defense, our operations have not been affected by the cyberattacks," he said. "We, the U.S. military side, are looking very hard to make sure that we have the proper defense in place."


Clinton to Discuss N. Korean Provocations at ASEAN Forum

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will attend a regional security forum in Phuket, Thailand, next week to discuss North Korea's recent provocations and other regional and global issues, the U.S. State Department said on July 14.

   "I imagine that North Korea will be a topic at the ASEAN meeting," spokesman Ian Kelly said at a daily news briefing, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, meeting at the Thai island resort.

   Clinton's weeklong trip, beginning Friday, will include talks in New Delhi, India, on bilateral cooperation.

   Kelly said a formal itinerary, to include a number of bilateral meetings, could be announced Wednesday.

   It is possible but unlikely that representatives from South Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Japan will meet on the sidelines of the ASEAN forum to address North Korea's nuclear and missile ambitions. Those nations are part of the stalled six-party talks on North Korean nuclear disarmament.

   China, host of the talks, has been lukewarm to the idea of convening a meeting without North Korea, apparently out of fear of provoking Pyongyang. North Korea has been boycotting the nuclear talks in anger over international sanctions for its nuclear and missile tests.

   Reports indicate that North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun will not attend the forum in Thailand on July 22-23, but will send an ambassador-at-large.

   Kurt Campbell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, is visiting Seoul and Tokyo ahead of the forum to meet with officials on ways to persuade North Korea to return to the six-party talks.

   Campbell will also likely follow up on discussions on implementing financial sanctions and an arms embargo on North Korea.

   Philip Goldberg, U.S. interagency coordinator for implementation of the sanctions, recently met with officials in Asian capitals to discuss U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874, adopted after North Korea's nuclear test May 25.