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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 224 (August 23, 2012)

North Korea May Own 48 Nuclear Weapons by 2015: Report

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- North Korea may build up to 48 nuclear weapons, both based on plutonium and uranium, by 2015 or 2016 unless negotiations and other proper measures are implemented to head off such a potential threat, a U.S. think tank report said on Aug. 16.

   The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) admitted the difficulty in obtaining accurate information on the secretive communist nation's nuclear capability.

   It used scientific and statistical data to estimate Pyongyang's nuclear weapons arsenal under various scenarios.

   If North Korea operates only one centrifuge plant, it is projected to have 28-39 nuclear weapons by the end of 2016, or an increase of 16 weapons since the end of 2011, according to the report.

   The 40-page report was co-authored by David Albright, head of the Washington-headquartered ISIS, and Christina Walrond, a research associate.

   "If North Korea has two centrifuge plants, however, it could produce a much larger quantity of WGU (weapons-grade uranium). It could have 37-48 nuclear weapons, or an increase of 25 weapons, most of which would be produced in 2015 and 2016," they said.

   North Korea has worked on a plutonium-based nuclear program for decades and it conducted underground nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

   The international community suspects Pyongyang is now pushing for another method -- uranium enrichment.

   In a report published earlier this week, based on satellite imagery, the ISIS said it expects North Korea to complete the construction of a new light-water reactor at Yongbyon as early as in the latter half of 2013.

   North Korea is widely believed to have six to 18 plutonium-based nuclear weapons.

   "North Korea is not thought to be currently making weapon-grade plutonium," Albright and Walrond said, adding it could resume such production in 2015 and 2016.

   They stressed talks remain a useful way to cap North Korea's uranium enrichment program and block the use of the light-water reactor (LWR) to make weapons-grade plutonium.

   "If negotiations resume, the issue of the experimental LWR should be taken up," they said.


North Korea May Be Preparing for Nuke, Missile Tests

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea may be preparing to conduct a nuclear or missile test in the near future, a government report submitted during a meeting with ruling party lawmakers showed on Aug. 17.

   "The defense ministry claimed that the socialist country was prepared to carry out tests with little preparation time," said a senior official from the Saenuri Party, who declined to be identified.

   The party official said while the report alluded to the country's capabilities, Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin did not touch on the matter during the meeting.

   Pyongyang has conducted two nuclear tests so far, and launched several missiles it claims are designed to carry satellites into orbit. Most outside observers said such rockets are in fact missiles the country is developing to target the United States.

   Senior government officials and party members discussed negotiations taking place with the United States to extend South Korea's ballistic missile range. Seoul sees this issue as vital for ensuring credible deterrence against North Korea's military threat.

   "Every effort is being made to reflect our views, that call for missiles with a range to cover all of the Korean Peninsula," Kim told lawmakers.

   Rep. Ahn Hong-joon, who chairs the National Assembly's Unification, Foreign Affairs and Trade Committee, said the senior policymaker remained cautious about the outcome of talks with Washington but hinted at positive progress being made.

   During the session, the defense minister, in addition, expressed concerns the North may try to interfere with South Korea's presidential election slated for December as it maintains a hostile posture toward its southern rival.

   Kim's assessment was based on "rare" moves by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

   "(Kim Jong-un) is trying to exercise control over the regime by taking such steps as visiting a military unit for the first time in 73 days," the minister said, referring to an inspection trip earlier August that was widely interpreted as a morale booster for North Korean soldiers ahead of South Korea's annual military drills with the United States.

   Seoul and Washington have made clear that the annual military exercise, scheduled for Aug. 20 through Aug. 31, is defensive in nature, but the North has consistently claimed it is part of a broader plan to invade the socialist country.

   The minister, however, did not elaborate on how North Korea might try to affect the South's presidential election.


Obama Signs N. Korean Human Rights Act Extending Until 2017

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- U.S. President Barack Obama on Aug. 17 signed into law legislation aimed at promoting human rights in North Korea, according to the White House.

   The law, which passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support, extends until 2017 the authority of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004. It is meant to put pressure on Pyongyang on the issues of human rights, democracy, refugee protection and freedom of information.

   It is the legal ground for the U.S. government's financial support for radio stations broadcasting into North Korea and the appointment of a special envoy on the North's human rights issues.

   The act also urges the U.S. government to demand China immediately halt its forcible repatriation of North Koreans, saying "there are genuine refugees among North Koreans fleeing into China who face severe punishments upon their forcible return."

   Lawmakers emphasized the urgency of addressing human rights abuses by the secretive communist regime, armed with nuclear weapons and missiles.

   “Even though North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is trying to present a fresh face to the world, he still maintains the same hellish gulag as his father and grandfather before him," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who leads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

   “A regime that abuses its own people with impunity cannot be trusted to negotiate honestly with the outside world. Stifling basic freedoms with death camps and firing squads undermines the long term stability of North Korea," she added. "By promoting human rights and transparency, this law is an important part of addressing the North Korean security threat.”


U.N. to Give North Korea $1 Million in Flood Aid: Report

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- The United Nations will provide more than US$1 million in emergency relief to flood-stricken North Korea, a news report said on Aug. 21.

   According to the Voice of America (VOA), the U.N. Central Emergency Response Fund allocated about $1.05 million in "Rapid Response Grants" for the socialist country on Aug. 16 following reports of heavy flood damage.

   The sum will be divided between the U.N. World Food Program and UNICEF to help them deliver nutritional aid to women and children affected by the floods and to improve drinking water and hygiene.

   North Korea said early August a total of 169 people were killed and 400 others missing after heavy downpours that swept through large parts of the country between late June and the end of July.

   The flooding also left 144 people injured and some 212,200 others homeless, according to the country's state media.

   North Korea has asked the international community for emergency aid, while the U.N. Resident Coordinator's Office in Pyongyang issued a report calling for an additional $3.7 million in flood assistance.


Spring Drought Expected to Cut N.K.'s Crop Output by 700,000 Tons

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea may see its annual crop output cut by more than 700,000 tons this year, as a severe drought this spring will hurt its summer and autumn harvest, a report in Seoul said on Aug. 21.

   Due to the drought during May and June, the summer harvest of wheat, barley and spring potatoes declined by about 200,000 tons this year, said Kwon Tae-jin, a researcher of the Korea Rural Economic Institute, in a quarterly report on North Korea's agricultural trends.

   The autumn harvest of corn, rice and beans, the staple of North Koreans, may also shrink by around 400,000 tons, while another 100,000 tons of non-grain products are expected to be cut, Kwon said.

   "Given this year's sluggish harvest from double-cropping, North Korea's food shortage may reach a total of 1 million tons," the researcher said.

   The estimated amount compares with the 740,000-ton grain shortage forecasted by the United Nations' World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization, he said.

   The North has secured 600,000 tons of grain through imports and food aid from the outside world, but it still lacks 400,000 tons to feed its people, he added.

   "The occurrence of abnormal weather conditions like floods may deal a further blow to its autumn harvest, when the growth of crops was already dented by the drought," Kwon noted.


U.S. Urges North Korea to Stop 'Bellicose Statements'

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- In reply to North Korea's renewed verbal threats, the U.S. government urged the socialist nation on Aug. 20 to halt "bellicose statements."

   State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said a two-week joint military exercise that began earlier in the day is "routine" and not a preparation for aggression, as North Korea claims.

   "It is well understood these kinds of North Korean threats are not uncommon as well. But obviously we would call on them to refrain from those kinds of bellicose statements," she said at a press briefing.

   Nuland was responding to the North Korean foreign ministry's threat of a "sacred war for national reunification."

   North Korea has always criticized South Korea and the U.S. for staging the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills in which tens of thousands of troops participate.

   Pyongyang claims that it is a rehearsal for war.

   "Should the U.S. and South Korean warmongers drop even a single shell and bullet on the inviolable territory and waters of the DPRK (North Korea), its army and people will never miss the golden opportunity but wage a sacred war for national reunification," the North's foreign ministry said in a statement.


Iran Confirms North Korea's Kim Jong-un Won't Attend NAM Summit

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Iran has confirmed North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will not attend a Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit to be hosted by Tehran next week, a senior Seoul official said on Aug. 22, denying a published foreign news report that Kim would take part.

   "We verified from Iran's Foreign Ministry that the report is not true," the senior official at Seoul's foreign ministry said on condition of anonymity.

   Iran confirmed that North Korea's ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong-nam, will attend the summit, the official said, adding the report may be a result of "misunderstanding" of remarks by a spokesman for the summit quoted in local media.

   Earlier in the day, the German news agency DPA, citing remarks by summit spokesman Mohammad-Reza Forqani quoted on the Iranian Tabnak news Web site, reported the North's young leader would attend the upcoming summit.

   The new leader Kim, who is believed to be in his late 20s, took the helm of North Korea last December after his father, Kim Jong-il, died. Since then, he appears to have solidified his grip on power, but concerns persist over the communist regime's stability.

   Outwardly at least, Kim has put different stamp on the regime from his ruthless father with the North's propaganda machines depicting him as a warm and fun figure and publicly confirming he has married.

   Outside analysts have closely watched the North's new leader for any clues to the direction in which Kim will take the communist regime that has ambitions for nuclear weapons capability.

   The NAM consists of 120 member states and 21 observer states that consider themselves not aligned to any major power bloc.

   North Korea's founding leader Kim Il-sung, grandfather of the North's new leader, attended a NAM summit in Indonesia in 1965, but Kim Yong-nam attended subsequent meetings held every four month.


Hong Kong-based North Korean Agents Sell Military Technology

HONG KONG (Yonhap) -- Hong Kong-based North Korean agents have sold military technologies to other countries, using foreign passports to hide their identities, a media report here said on Aug. 22.

   Citing Japanese human rights activist Ken Kato, Hong Kong's English-daily South China Morning Post reported two North Koreans ran a company called New East International Trading Ltd. in China's special administrative region.

   The company, which was deregistered in 2009, was reported to have illegally shipped military technology to Myanmar.

   It was run by Chol Han and Ju Ok-hui, who were identified in 2004 as holding North Korean passports.

   By 2008, however, the two men were listed in the Hong Kong registry as having passports from the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, some 1,500 kilometers east of the African continent.

   Currently, the pair hold passports issued by Kiribati, an island nation located in the central tropical Pacific Ocean, the report said.

   The Japanese researcher speculated that Chol and Ju have likely started business anew in another city, and left Hong Kong, the report said.

   The South China Morning Post said dozens of small private firms in Hong Kong are known to have had business dealings with North Korean partners in recent years, with North Korean-linked ships having long been occasional visitors to the Chinese territory.