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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 215 (June 21, 2012)

Breaking 'Information Blockade' Key to Change in N. Korea: U.S. Envoy

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- The U.S. envoy on human rights in North Korea said on June 14 his government is firmly committed to pressing ahead with efforts to allow ordinary North Koreans access to outside news, stressing that breaking an "information blockade" is the key to change in the isolated nation.

   Ambassador Robert King said human rights conditions in North Korea appear worse today than they were in the Soviet Union four decades ago, but the North's strict restriction of information is one reason why there is less of an outcry.

   "The United States broadcasts news and other information into the North, in an effort to break down the isolation of the people there and to make available independent sources of information," King told a forum in Seoul.

   Citing his early work experience at Radio Free Europe at a time when Central Europe was under Soviet domination in the 1960s, King said, "I still believe in the power of broadcasting and that breaking the information blockade is the key to positive change in North Korea."

   "Ultimately, a more open information environment contributes to more conscious North Korean citizens," the U.S. envoy said on the penultimate day of his week-long visit to Seoul.

   In May, a U.S. study commissioned by the State Department showed that North Koreans are increasingly, although clandestinely, enjoying access to outside information through DVDs and radio.

   "In the North Korean context, small but significant changes in the media landscape are under way, and the United States remains committed to increasing information to the DPRK," King said, using the acronym for the North's official name.

   "This is a fundamental component of our commitment to improving human rights in North Korea."

  King described radio in North Korea as "the only real-time direct source of sensitive outside news available nationwide."

   In North Korea, mobile phone communication is available but severely restricted. It is also illegal to own or use a radio that can be tuned, permitting the reception of any stations other than the state-controlled pre-tuned channels.

   North Korea has long been labeled one of the worst human rights violators in the world. The regime does not tolerate dissent, holds hundreds of thousands of people in political prison camps and keeps a tight control over outside information.

   Pyongyang has long bristled at any criticism of its human rights record, however, denouncing such talk as part of U.S.-led attempts to topple the regime.

   King said the U.S. is "prepared to engage constructively with North Korea, but its new leadership needs to understand that there will be no rewards for provocations."

   North Korea will "achieve nothing by threats or by provocations," King said, adding that a majority of ordinary North Koreans may not be aware of the failed rocket launch due to the information blockade.


Pro-Pyongyang Residents in Japan Strengthen Personality Cult of Kim Jong-un

TOKYO (Yonhap) -- Pro-North Korea residents in Japan are stepping up their propaganda campaign to strengthen the personality cult surrounding North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, activists said on June 18.

   The pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, also known as "Chongryon," has held three-day courses in Osaka since May 28 to indoctrinate the organization's key officials in the leadership qualities of Kim Jong-un, according to the Osaka-based civic group, Rescue The North Korean People! Urgent Action Network.

   Members of Chongryon sympathize with the North Korean regime and are often descendants of Korean laborers who were forcibly brought to Japan during Tokyo's 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

   Participants in the courses included the heads of Chongryon's branch committees in east and west Japan and the principal of a school run by the pro-North residents, an official of the civic group said on condition of anonymity.

   The courses, which are scheduled to run through June 14, are based on a 25-page A4 booklet filled with expressions of awe and respect for the young leader, who is believed to be in his late 20s.

   The booklet claims Kim Jong-un, as a teenager, studied the theoretical and practical aspects of the North's guiding "juche" philosophy of self-reliance and offered new perspectives.

   It also calls on members of Chongryon to strictly follow the words and instructions of the North Korean leader and his late father Kim Jong-il, who died last December after ruling the country for 17 years.

   A source familiar with Chongryon said the campaign may also be an attempt to consolidate power around the organization's new leader, who took office in April amid ongoing allegations of corruption.


Obama Government Extends Sanctions against North Korea

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- U.S. President Barack Obama on June 18 extended economic sanctions against North Korea for another year amid lingering tension over the North's nuclear and missile programs.

   In a statement to Congress, Obama said the extension is aimed at dealing with North Korea's "unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States constituted by the existence and risk of proliferation of weapons-usable fissile material on the Korean Peninsula."

   The U.S. has extended its sanctions on North Korea, also subject to international sanctions, each year in June.

   Tension persists on the Korean Peninsula following the North's failed rocket launch on April 13, prompting the U.N. Security Council to tighten sanctions on Pyongyang.

   South Korea and the U.S. have called on North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong-un, to stop its policy of provocations and improve its human rights record, but Pyongyang has responded to the call with threats.

   On June 17, North Korea criticized U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for what it called her "reckless" criticism of its human rights conditions.


North Korea's Food Shortages Not So Serious: Seoul

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Food shortages in North Korea do not seem to be as serious as expected while the country grapples with a months-long drought, Seoul's foreign ministry said on June 19, in a blunt assessment that contradicts warnings from United Nations agencies.

   Poverty-stricken North Korea appears to face another bleak year with its farm industry hit by an unusually long drought, particularly in the western areas, the North's state media recently reported, raising concern it could exacerbate its food shortages.

   Asked whether South Korea will consider resuming its state food aid to the North if the drought further worsens, Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Byung-jae replied, "Our general assessment is that (the North's food situation) is not so serious as to fall into a level of crisis."

   "At present, no plan is in the offing with regard to government-level food assistance to North Korea," Cho said.

   Last week, U.N. agencies operating inside North Korea reported that millions of North Korean people are suffering from chronic food shortages and dire health care, appealing for the world to raise funds to provide food to the impoverished state.

   The North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on June 15 that the North's key breadbasket areas including North Hwanghae Province have been hit by an unprecedented drought.

  KCNA added that "crops are withering" due to the most serious drought in 60 years.


Lee Confidant Admits to Secret Meeting with N.K. Official in 2009

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- A key aide to President Lee Myung-bak has admitted to a secret meeting with a top North Korean official in Singapore in 2009 to seek a summit between their leaders.

   Yim Tae-hee on June 19 said in a television interview that he met with Kim Yang-gon, North Korea's point man on the South, in Singapore in October 2009 to discuss details of a possible summit.

   In the interview with Channel A, Yim said "it is true" he met with Kim in Singapore. Yim was serving as labor minister when he traveled to the Southeast Asian country in 2009.

   When asked if he had met Kim more than three times, he said "several times," though he did not clarify whether those meetings were all in Singapore or in other countries.

   Yim's comment is the first confirmation of media speculation on secret talks in Singapore between the two Koreas. South Korea had previously denied such talks.

   Yim's confirmation came less than two months after he announced his presidential ambitions. The former three-term lawmaker served as chief of staff to Lee in 2010-2011.

   Yim said he and Kim drafted a memorandum of understanding for a summit, which called for economic aid from South Korea to the North in return for the repatriation of some South Korean abductees and soldiers taken as prisoners during the 1950-53 Korean War.

   He said he explained South Korea's food and other assistance to the North in response to North Korea's humanitarian gesture to the issues of abductees, prisoners of war and families separated during the war.

   South Korea estimates about 517 civilians are still alive in the North after being kidnapped by the North following the Korean War. It also believes about 500 South Korean soldiers taken prisoner during the war are still alive in the North.

   South Korea has repeatedly called for the repatriation of its nationals but Pyongyang denies any kidnappings, claiming any South Koreans in the North are there voluntarily.

   Yim also said he discussed with Kim how to recover the remains of South Korean soldiers killed in the North during the war, which ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty.

   South and North Korean officials held two follow-up talks in the North Korean border city of Kaesong in November 2009, but failed to reach an agreement on the summit due to unspecified differences.

   Lee's two liberal predecessors held summit talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in 2000 and 2007, respectively. Inter-Korean relations have worsened following the North's two deadly attacks on the South in 2010.

   Kim Jong-il died of a heart attack in December and he was succeeded by his youngest son, Kim Jong-un.