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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 121 (August 26, 2010)

S. Korean Activist Returns Home after Unauthorized Trip to N. Korea

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- A South Korean Christian pastor returned home Aug. 20 and was quickly arrested after spending more than two months in North Korea on an unauthorized visit during which he denounced his government for icy relations between the divided states, officials said.

   Rev. Han Sang-ryol was "taken into custody and handed over to related authorities" upon setting foot on South Korean soil, a Unification Ministry official in Seoul said.

   Two ministry officials held the 60-year-old pastor in arms from the sides as soon as he crossed the military demarcation line, and relayed him to police officials standing nearby, he said.

   Han, who belongs to a progressive group of unification activists, entered Pyongyang by air on June 12 and made a series of speeches denouncing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak while traveling across North Korea.

   He faces charges of violating the South's laws that heavily restrict contact with North Koreans and activities seen as supporting Pyongyang. His trip came as relations between the two Koreas were at the lowest ebb in years after the South condemned the North in May over the deadly sinking of its warship.

   South and North Korea are locked in a technical state of conflict after their 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, which was signed at the Panmunjom village through which Han returned.

   Dressed in a white traditional Korean robe, Han was holding a flag depicting a unified Korean Peninsula when he crossed the military demarcation line at the village, the ministry official said.

   About 200 North Koreans stood on their side of the Panmunjom village to watch Han cross the border as they "lined up and chanted slogans like 'national unification,'" he said.

   The North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said "plain-clothed agents handcuffed him and hastily took him away" while North Koreans waved bouquets at him and chanted slogans.

   A police official in Seoul said Han was being transported to Seoul for questioning. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because information concerning police activities was classified.

   North Korea staged a farewell rally earlier in the day in Pyongyang for the pastor, who met with North Korea's nominal head, Kim Yong-nam, earlier this week.

   "Holding the flag of unification after the rally, Rev. Han Sang-ryol set out for Panmunjom while being cheered by the crowd," the KCNA said, without reporting on the scale of the rally.

   "I have felt the yearning for peaceful reunification, witnessed miracles created through independent rejuvenation and the united throb of the North Korean compatriots," Han was quoted as saying in a speech before departing for the South.

   About 100 progressive South Korean activists gathered at a train station near the border with North Korea to hold a rally welcoming Han, police here said. More than 600 others from conservative groups also flocked to a nearby area to denounce the pastor.

   Police said they deployed 2,500 riot officers to prevent any violent encounters between the two blocs, which held their rallies about a kilometer apart. No clashes were reported.

   Han, who had delayed his return originally set for Aug. 15, the day marking Korea's liberation from Japan's colonial rule, is the latest South Korean activist to have illegally entered North Korea to call for unification.

   Such visits in the past had created a sensation in the South, but Han's trip has largely been met with nonchalance here amid negative public views toward the North, which had conducted a series of nuclear tests in recent years.

   North Korea denounced Han's arrest, calling it a "fascist action."

   "The Lee Myung-bak group of traitors took such fascist action as arresting Han on charges of violation of the notorious 'National Security Law'," the North's KCNA said in a report, monitored in Seoul.

   The North's main newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, said on Aug. 23 that what Rev. Han did in Pyongyang was "nothing but his call for implementing the north-south declarations to give continuity to the June 15 era of reunification."

   In a commentary, the newspaper published by the Workers' Party claimed that the "Lee Myung Bak group cooked up the 'Cheonan' case, a hideous anti-DPRK farce, bringing the inter-Korean relations to a total collapse and driving the situation to the brink of a war."


Inter-Korean Trade Slightly Rebounds after Falling Streak

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Inter-Korean trade increased last month after a two-month falling streak in the wake of the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on the North, government data showed on Aug. 22.

   The monthly volume of goods and services exchanged between South and North Korea bounced back to US$161.93 million in July, up 32 percent from the previous month.

   The growth, however, seemed to be a one-off instance, as it comes from the Unification Ministry's temporary policy to clear backlogs of preordered raw materials that did not reach North Korea due to its trade restrictions issued in late May.

   Last month, batches of those raw materials received approval to be transported to a joint industrial complex in North Korea for processing.

   South Korea restricted inter-Korean trade and the shipment of humanitarian aid to the North in response to the ship sinking near the Yellow Sea border in March that killed 46 sailors. Seoul blames the sinking on a North Korean torpedo attack, but Pyongyang denies any involvement.

   With Seoul's restrictions, inter-Korean trade fell to $156.5 million in May from $190 million in April. The volume further dropped to $122.7 million in June.

   Cross-border trade is expected to fall again in the following months, as the temporary shipment of preordered materials was concluded earlier this month.

   July's inter-Korean trade volume broke down to imports worth $72.77 million and around $89.16 million in exports.


South Korea Considers Resuming Rice Aid to North Korea

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea's government and ruling party are discussing resuming food aid to North Korea that has been halted due to deteriorating inter-Korean relations, as part of efforts to improve its relations with Pyongyang and to control its rising rice stockpiles, lawmakers said on Aug. 23.

   In a meeting with senior government officials, Ahn Sang-soo, chairman of the ruling Grand National Party (GNP), raised the necessity of considering resumption of rice shipments to Pyongyang, citing the North's worsening food crisis in the wake of recent severe floods, according to GNP spokesman Ahn Hyoung-hwan.

   The GNP chairman also said that a North Korea-bound rice shipment would help Seoul promote rice consumption and cut costs for the state's stockpile of rice, particularly ahead of the government's upcoming annual rice purchase.

   South Korea has previously sent 300,000-400,000 tons of rice to its hunger-stricken neighbor annually, but has not made a delivery since President Lee Myung-bak took office in early 2008.

   "But the aid to North Korea should be reviewed multilaterally in terms of humanitarian perspectives as well as international relations," the spokesman said.

   The Unification Ministry, the main government arm handling affairs with North Korea, denied that any plan to resume rice aid to the communist state was in the making.

   "The government's position on aid to North Korea has not changed," ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said in a briefing. "There are no plans currently to review the matter of rice aid."

   Yoo Jeong-bok, a GNP lawmaker tapped to head the Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, backed Ahn, however, saying in a confirmation hearing that rice aid should be considered.

   "It is worth reviewing, not just for the purpose of taking care of the domestic rice pileup, but also from the perspectives of humanitarianism and inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation," he said.

   Lee Jae-oh, President Lee's nominee for special affairs minister, also supported the resumption of rice shipment to North Korea.

   "We have to consider resuming rice aid to North Korea from a humanitarian perspective. The humanitarian grounds should be taken into consideration separately from political reasons," the nominee said, noting he is ready to play an unofficial role in improving relations between Seoul and Pyongyang, if appointed to the Cabinet post.

   Inter-Korean relations further deteriorated last year when the North conducted long-range missile and nuclear tests. Tensions have sharply risen since the South Korean patrol ship Cheonan sank in March from what investigators said was a North Korean torpedo attack that killed 46 sailors.

   Earlier this month, a group of five South Koreans crossed the heavily armed border into North Korea to deliver 400 million won (US$340,000) worth of anti-malaria aid despite hostility between the divided states.

   The crossing marked the first South Korean civilian visit to the communist state since Seoul banned trips to North Korea three months ago in protest over the sinking of the South Korean warship near their Yellow Sea border.