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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 103 (April 22, 2010)

North Korea Sends Condolences to China over Deadly Earthquake

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea on April 15 sent a condolence message to China over a killer earthquake that struck the northwestern part of the neighboring country, Pyongyang's state media reported.

   The 6.9-magnitude temblor hit the Yushu region of Qinghai, a rugged area populated by ethnic Tibetans, on April 14, leaving more than 2,000 people dead and leveling thousands of mainly mudbrick and wooden houses.

   The North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said that Kim Yong-nam, the North's ceremonial head of state and chief of its rubber-stamp parliament, sent a message of sympathy to Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao over the many casualties and material losses caused by the quake.

   "The message expressed deep sympathy and consolation to the government and people of China, the victims and their families," the KCNA noted.

   The message expressed hope that inhabitants in the quake-stricken area would be able to cope with the aftermath of the disaster and bring their lives back to normal under the leadership of the Communist Party and government of China, the KCNA added.

   China is the North's key ally and largest benefactor as well as the host of the six-way talks on Pyongyang's atomic weapons program. North Korea's economic situation has worsened since its bungled currency reform in November and is in urgent need of external aid.


N. Korea Dismisses Seoul-proposed Nuclear Deal as 'Absurd'

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea dismissed on April 17 South Korea's proposal for a denuclearization deal with the North that seeks to completely rid the communist nation of its nuclear weapons in a single step, saying a decision to denuclearize will only come in the final stages of negotiations.

   The North said Seoul's proposal for the so-called "grand bargain" was part of a smear campaign that does not even deserve serious consideration.

   "The so-called 'grand bargain' is such a childish and clumsy plot that does not even deserve a mention," Rodong Sinmun, a newspaper published by the North's Workers' Party, said in a commentary carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

   The proposed deal, suggested by Seoul last year, seeks to denuclearize the North in one step in exchange for massive economic assistance for the impoverished North.

   The commentary said such a proposal does not consider the reason North Korea came to develop nuclear weapons in the first place.

   "If they wish to talk about ways to resolve the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula, they should at least understand the basic essence of the issue," it said.

   "It is not only absurd to say they will discuss issues that will only come at the last stage of negotiations on the nuclear issue, but makes us wonder how they will resolve all the issues that are required to resolve the nuclear issue, such as the pullout of U.S. troops, end of joint military exercises and a peace treaty between the DPRK and the U.S., all at the same time," it said, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

   North Korea refuses to attend the six-nation nuclear negotiations until U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang are lifted and discussions for an official peace treaty are launched to replace the 1953 cease-fire that ended the Korean War.

   The armistice was signed by North Korea, China and the U.S., acting on behalf of the U.N. combined forces, and left North and South Korea technically at war.

   The nuclear negotiations, involving both South and North Korea, the U.S., Japan, China and Russia, were last held in December 2008.


N. Korea Denies Involvement in Sinking of S. Korean Naval Ship

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea on April 17 denied involvement in the recent sinking of a South Korean warship that left 38 sailors dead and eight others missing, claiming such suspicions have been fabricated by the South Korean government.

   "Failing to probe the cause of the sinking of the ship, the puppet military warmongers, right-wing conservative politicians and the group of other traitors in South Korea are now foolishly seeking to link the accident with the north at any cost," a defense commentator at the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said in a statement.

   "The military warmongers are getting more undisguised in their moves to link the accident with the north though it was caused by their fault," said the statement carried by the KCNA.

   It marked the first time the North has officially denied involvement in the March 26 incident.

   The statement said the North considers the event a tragedy as it claimed the lives of many Koreans.

   "Though the sunken large ship belongs to the South side, we have so far regarded the accident as a regretful accident that should not happen in the light of the fact that many missing persons and most of rescued members of the crew are fellow countrymen forced to live a tiresome life in the puppet army," it said.

   It also said the South Korean administration was trying to lay the blame on North Korea in an attempt to divert the attention of the public from its own mistakes ahead of the June 2 local elections in South Korea.

   "It is prompted by its ulterior intention to get rid of the worst ruling crisis caused by the 'state management failure,'" the statement said.

   "Another sinister aim sought by the puppet regime in floating the above-said story is to justify the persistent and anachronistic policy towards the DPRK (North Korea) and shirk the blame for having driven the inter-Korean relations to the worst crisis," it added.

   South Korean investigators said on April 16 that an external explosion was the most likely cause behind the sinking of the 1,200-ton Cheonan patrol ship near the disputed Yellow Sea border with North Korea.

   The investigators, however, said the exact cause of the accident will not be known until after further investigation.


N. Korean Leader Kim Jong-il Sees Art Performances by Security Organs

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-il enjoyed performances by the art squads of the country's two key security agencies for two days running, shortly after the 98th anniversary of the birth of his late father on April 15, state media reported.

   In a report monitored in Seoul, the (North) Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said on April 18 that Kim watched a performance given by the art squad of the (North) Korean People's Army (KPA) Unit 10215 on the occasion of the Day of the Sun.

   Kim Jong-il is the KPA's supreme commander and chairman of the North's powerful National Defense Commission. The military unit is the external name of the Ministry of State Security, which is charged with conducting counterintelligence and monitoring citizens.

   A day earlier, the KCNA reported that Kim enjoyed a performance given by the Song and Dance Ensemble of the Korean People's Interior Forces under the People's Security Ministry, or the North's top police agency.

   As is customary, the news agency did not disclose when the North Korean leader watched the performances, but he is widely believed to have seen them on April 16 and 17, respectively.

   Kim's viewing of the performances is seen as an attempt to lend power to the security agencies which have reportedly been tightening internal control over the isolated country following a bungled currency reform conducted in November last year.

   Analysts and officials in Seoul say the surprise currency overhaul, aimed at reasserting control over free market activities, backfired, worsening already-high inflation and food shortages and sparking social unrest.

   Earlier on April 6, the North's official Korean Central TV Broadcasting Station reported the Ministry of People's Security had been renamed in Korean to indicate that its status within the state has been elevated.

   According to the KCNA, the North Korean leader watched art performances by the security ministry and the police organ on Feb. 16 and Feb. 21.

   In a joint statement issued on Feb. 8, the two security organizations said Pyongyang is poised to mobilize troops to defend itself and that they will "mercilessly pulverize" those who attempt to damage the North's national security by mobilizing all its troops and security forces.


N. Korea Plans to Produce Own Mobile Phones to Meet Rising Demand

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea plans to begin producing its own mobile phones this year, a report said on April 19, as demand for wireless communication in the isolated socialist state is quickly rising.

   North Korea first launched mobile phone service in Pyongyang in November 2002, but banned it after a deadly explosion in the northern Ryongchon train station in April 2004.

   In December 2008, the country introduced a 3G mobile phone network in a joint venture with Cairo-based Orascom Telecom, marking the first time that North Koreans were allowed to use mobile phones since 2004.

   Orascom said last year the number of mobile phone subscribers stood at over 47,000. Chosun Sinbo, a pro-North Korean newspaper published in Tokyo, said Monday the number is expected to reach as high as 600,000 this year, and that the regime is currently building a factory to produce its own phones.

   "Within half a year, handphone terminals will begin to be produced," the paper said. "For a certain time, parts will be imported from overseas and assembled, but eventually the prospect is that development will be self-sufficient."

   The report said equipment for mobile service has been set up in more than half of the cities and counties in the country, adding the service will also be used on major roads and railways.


North Korea Names Consul Affairs Director As Ambassador to China

SEOUL/BEIJING (Yonhap) -- North Korea named Choe Pyong-gwan as its new ambassador to China, replacing Choe Jin-su, the North's official Korean Central News Agency said on April 20.

   "Choe Pyong-gwan was appointed as DPRK (North Korea) ambassador to China, according to a decree of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly," the KCNA said in a single-paragraph dispatch monitored in Seoul.

   Meanwhile, North Korea's new ambassador to China arrived on the same day in Beijing, a diplomatic source said, amid Pyongyang's increasing efforts to strengthen ties with its foremost benefactor.

   The appointment of Choe has been anticipated since last month, when China sent Liu Hongcai, a vice ministerial diplomat, to Pyongyang as its top envoy to the socialist ally.

   Details of Choe's profile were limited. In 1994, he attended an experts' forum in Washington on the potential establishment of North Korea's liaison office in the United States. The sides still share no formal diplomatic relations.

   Choe had served as the former top envoy to Laos and the foreign ministry's director general of consul affairs.

   The exchange of diplomatic appointments between Beijing and Pyongyang took place amid speculation that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il may soon visit China to seek a breakthrough in six-party nuclear talks, stalled since late 2008.


N.K. Vows to Limit Nuke Production in Return for Recognition As Nuclear State

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea pledged on April 21 to limit production of atomic bombs beyond what it deems necessary, renewing its demand to be recognized as a nuclear arms state before joining global denuclearization efforts.

   The North's foreign ministry statement, released in the form of a memorandum, appeared to be another bid by the isolated state to raise its bargaining power before it rejoins stalled six-party talks aimed at ending its atomic ambitions.

   Despite two nuclear tests in the previous four years, North Korea has yet to be formally recognized as a nuclear arms state by the United States and South Korea. The countries, along with China, Japan and Russia, make up the members to the six-party talks.

   The North Korean foreign ministry said in the statement that it will manufacture nuclear arms "as much as it deems necessary but will neither participate in a nuclear arms race nor produce more than it feels necessary."

   "The DPRK (North Korea) has a willingness to join international efforts for nuclear non-proliferation and on nuclear material security on an equal footing with other nuclear weapons states," said the statement carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) monitored in Seoul.

   The North reiterated its demand that the U.S. agree to launch talks aimed at forging a peace treaty with the communist rival to formally close the 1950-53 Korean War, arguing that "denuclearization presupposes confidence-building."

   "An earlier conclusion of a peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula still in the state of ceasefire would help build confidence needed for denuclearization," it said, maintaining that the U.S. has cornered it into developing nuclear arms.

   The foreign ministry memorandum comes amid lingering uncertainties over whether to view the communist state as a nuclear power, especially after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made comments to that effect.

   In an April 10 speech, Clinton said "we know" that North Korea "has somewhere between one and six nuclear weapons." It was the second time in as many weeks that she suggested that North Korea has nuclear weapons.

   North Korea, which conducted its second nuclear test in May last year, is widely believed to possess several nuclear warheads, even though many experts doubt it has the technology to mount them on long-range missiles.

   North Korea said late last year that it has "entered the final stage" of enriching uranium as an alternative method of producing nuclear weapons. It had been producing weapons-grade plutonium at its sole operating reactor in Yongbyon, north of the capital, Pyongyang.