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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 232 (October 18, 2012)

North Korea's Liaison Office in Truce Village Caught Fire: Source

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- A North Korean building at the truce village of Panmunjom caught fire in early October, one day after a North Korean border guard killed two of his superiors and defected to the South, a senior military source said on Oct. 12.

   Built inside the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas in 1985, the North's conference hall, named "Tongilgak," is comparable to the Peace House in the southern portion of Panmunjom that serves inter-Korean dialogues and contacts.

   "The first floor of the building was on fire for about an hour," the source said, asking anonymity as he is not authorised to talk about military information to the media.

   North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited the office and other conference venues in Panmunjom in March and ordered his military to keep vigilant for tight security on the frontier.

   Internal maintenance works were underway inside the building at the time of the fire, the source said.

   Seoul officials say the latest incident could be another sign of lax military discipline among North Korean troops as it came after a North Korean soldier reportedly shot and killed his platoon and squad leaders in a front-line unit before defecting to the South.

   The two Koreas remain technically at war as the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.


North Korea's Hunger Situation Worse Than 1990: Report

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Hunger situation in North Korea this year worsened from the 1990s despite considerable amount of international aid to the socialist nation, a Washington-based food institute showed on Oct. 13.

   The 2012 Global Hunger Index (GHI) published by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) said hunger remains a serious problem worldwide, with alarming levels in some countries.

   North Korea's hunger situation was at the "serious level," the report said, with its GHI standing at 19 points, higher than that of 15.7 in 1997.

   The GHI ranks 120 countries on a 100-point scale in which zero is the best score (no hunger) and 100 the worst. An increase in a country's GHI score indicates that the food crisis is worsening.

   The North showed the highest GHI growth rate of 21 percent from 1990, followed by Burundi and Swaziland with 17 percent, it said.

   The country's GHI rose sharply between 1990 and 1996 and has declined only slightly since, providing evidence of chronic food insecurity in spite of considerable international humanitarian assistance, the institute said.

   The IFPRI attributed the worsening food situation to a weak economy, high military spending, weather-related crop failure and systemic problems in the agriculture sector that have hampered progress.

   This year's GHI reflects data from 2005 to 2010, the most recent available country-level data on undernourishment, underweight children and child mortality.

   North Korea suffers chronic food shortages, with the situation exacerbated by floods, droughts and mismanagement. Hundreds of thousands died during a famine in the 1990s.

   The impoverished North is grappling with the after-effects of floods in summer that killed hundreds of people and inundated vast areas of cropland, according to official figures from Pyongyang.

   South Korea stopped its annual major food and fertilizer shipments to the North after conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office in early 2008.


About 4,000 N. Koreans Work at Construction Sites in Kuwait: Diplomat

KUWAIT CITY (Yonhap) -- Some 4,000 North Koreans are estimated to be working at major construction sites in a suburb of the Kuwaiti capital and living in military-style camps run by the North's government, a Seoul diplomat said on Oct. 15.

   Impoverished North Korea has recruited its people to work abroad and reportedly kept most of their earnings, one of the few sources of hard currency for the isolated regime. Along with China and Russia, the Middle East is a major destination for North Korean laborers.

   "We have figured out that there are around 4,000 North Koreans working at major construction sites to build homes, hospitals and other facilities in a suburb area of Kuwait City, including Jahar," the diplomat said on the condition of anonymity.

   A North Korean worker in Kuwait earns up to US$500 per month, but nearly four-fifths of the worker's monthly salary is directly deposited into accounts controlled by the North's government, according to the diplomat.

   "A North Korean worker is believed to actually receive $100 per month, with their jobs ranging from plasterers, carpenters, welders to drivers at the construction sites," the diplomat said.

   In April this year, eight North Korean workers were arrested by Kuwaiti authorities for allegedly bootlegging alcoholic beverages, the diplomat said. Alcohol is illegal in Kuwait, making the illicit business of alcohol bootlegging highly profitable.

   A U.S. State Department report on North Korea's human rights conditions said that many North Koreans working overseas were subjected to forced labor, with their movement and communications constantly under surveillance and restricted by North Korean government "minders."

   "These workers faced threats of government reprisals against them or their relatives in North Korea if they attempt to escape or complain to outside parties," the report said.

   "Workers' salaries are deposited into accounts controlled by the North Korean government, which keeps most of the money, claiming fees for various 'voluntary' contributions to government endeavors."


U.S. Concerned about North Korea's Starving People: State Dept.

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- The U.S. government expressed worries on Oct. 15 once again over North Koreans stricken with hunger, amid reports of no improvement in their life under new leadership.

   Kim Jong-un, in his late 20s, took over power 10 months ago, raising some hopes of meaningful changes in the policy of the socialist country, which has long placed a focus on beefing up its military arsenal.

   But there is no sign that Pyongyang is averting its course, with many of its 24 million people starving and suffering oppression, according to information gained through various channels.

   The U.S. State Department acknowledged a lack of hands-on information on the secretive nation.

   "We don't have our own embassy there. We don't have our own personnel on the ground," department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at a press briefing.

   She was asked what the U.S. assessment of the North is since the power transition last December. The sudden death of long-time ruler Kim Jong-il left Kim Jong-un, his third and youngest son, in charge.

   Nuland would not share any intelligence the U.S. government has.

   "But it is obviously of concern that people are coming out and saying that things are even harder and not getting better," she added. "We have for many months now been calling on the new leader to make a better choice for his own people and to invest in their own future, including by working with us to meet their nuclear obligations."

   In a front-page article Monday, based on interviews with several North Koreans near the border with China, the New York Times reported they "have not felt any improvements in their lives" under the junior Kim's rule.

   While the lower classes suffer, newly built apartment blocks and a growing number of Mercedes-Benzes in Pyongyang are a story of a different world for the capital's elite, the Times said, citing comments from a North Korean resident.


In September Meeting, North Korea Passes Ball to U.S.: Report

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- In a rare meeting in China late September, North Korea made clear to the United States that it would continue its nuclear programs as long as the U.S. maintains what it termed a hostile policy, a news report said on Oct. 16.

   Clifford Hart, the Obama administration's special envoy to the now-suspended six-party talks, met informally with two senior North Korean officials in Dalian, China, on the sidelines of the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue.

   The two-day forum from Sept. 27 drew government officials and academics from the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan, which are the members of the six-party talks on North Korean denuclearization.

   Han Song-ryol, North Korea's deputy ambassador to the United Nations, and Choe Son-hui, the deputy director-general of the North American affairs bureau at its foreign ministry, told Hart that Pyongyang "will not continue on its path to denuclearization, as promised in 2005" until Washington averts its policy, according to the Cable, an online news provider specializing in foreign affairs. It cited "two government officials briefed on the meeting."

   Under the 2005 deal, produced at the six-way talks, North Korea vowed to abandon all nuclear weapons programs in return for political and economic rewards.

   North Korea's threat to break the agreement is not new. But the reported comments by Han and Choe in such an unusual chance for direct talks with the U.S. were a reminder of the wide gulf between the two sides after more than three years of impasse in the denuclearization process.

   "No progress was made on toward resuming negotiations over North Korea's nuclear program," the two unidentified U.S. officials were quoted as saying.

   The State Department did not respond immediately to Yonhap News Agency's inquiry on the report.


S. Korea, U.S., Japan Agree to Close Cooperation on N.K. Nuclear Issues

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Nuclear envoys from South Korea, the United States and Japan agreed on Oct. 17 to closely cooperate on North Korean nuclear issues, foreign ministry officials in Seoul said.
Lim Sung-nam, Seoul's chief envoy to the six-party talks on ending the North's nuclear weapons program, sat down for talks with his U.S. and Japanese counterparts, Glyn Davies and Shinsuke Sugiyama in Tokyo, the officials said.

   "During the meeting, the three countries reaffirmed the importance of resolving the North's nuclear issues via the six-party talks, of maintaining stability on the Korean Peninsula ahead of the presidential elections in South Korea and the U.S., and of reminding ourselves of constructive roles by China and Russia to denuclearize the North," Lim told reporters after the meeting.

   The six-party talks, which involve the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan, have been dormant since late 2008.
Based upon the results of the trilateral high-level meeting last month, the envoys jointly assessed the current situation of the Korean Peninsula including North Korea's nuclear and other issues, according to Seoul officials.

   In September, South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba met on the sidelines of a United Nations General Assembly session in New York, and shared notes on the assessment of developments in North Korea and agreed to maintain cooperation on the matter, the department said.

   The three-way talks among the envoys came amid reports of progress in the North's light-water reactor project that experts say may help expand its nuclear weapons capacity.

   In September, Lim visited Beijing and held talks with his Chinese counterpart Wu Dawei, through which the two sides agreed to keep a "close watch" on progress in Pyongyang's light-water atomic reactor project, according to Seoul officials.

   South Korea is concerned that the North's reactor under construction at its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon might be a cover to stockpile enriched uranium, a fissile material used to make bombs, though Pyongyang claims it is for producing electricity.

   The International Atomic Energy Agency has said North Korea has made "significant" progress in the light-water reactor project. Citing satellite imagery, the U.N. said the North has put a dome over the facility.

   Experts say the meeting is, in some part, intended to reaffirm close relations among the three key players in terms of North Korean matters as tension has run high between Seoul and Tokyo over Japan's renewed claim to South Korea's easternmost islets of Dokdo in recent months.
Seoul's envoy Lim said neither he nor Sugiyama mentioned the territorial issue during the meeting, adding "Today's meeting was solely devoted to North Korean issues."

   After the trilateral talks in Tokyo, the U.S. envoy will make a three-day visit to South Korea from Oct. 18 as part of his regional trip to Northeast Asia, Seoul's foreign ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young told reporters.


Report: North Korea Ditches Secret Fund Management Agency, 'Office 38'

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- North Korea's leadership has dissolved a key communist party organization tasked with managing slush funds for the ruling Kim family, a news report said on Oct. 17.

   Japan's Kyodo News Service reported Pyongyang has abolished the agency, code-named "Office 38," under the Workers' Party of (North) Korea. It quoted unidentified "sources familiar with North Korean affairs."

   Kyodo's story has not been confirmed independently.

   It cited the sources as saying the North's move reflects efforts by the young leader Kim Jong-un to streamline entities involved in earning foreign currency and also increase the role of the cabinet.

   Office 38, created by the late leader Kim Jong-il, is known as a party bureau that manages the funds of the Kim family and ruling elites.

   Its main mission was to oversee transactions involving foreign currency, hotels and trade.

   Kyodo said such a role has been transfered to a new entity called the Moranbong Bureau, believed to belong to the cabinet.

   Office 38 was merged in 2009 with another party body, Office 39, which was in charge of illicit economic activity, such as drug smuggling and arms trading, to support the government, according to previous media reports.

   Pyongyang revived Office 38, however, in 2010, they added.

   Kyodo said the Kim leadership also disbanded Office 39 recently.

   A North Korean leadership specialist based in the U.S. was cautious about Pyongyang's reported move.

   "We could (see it as a good sign, if true), but we need to look more closely," said Ken Gause, a senior researcher at CNA Strategic Studies' International Affairs Group.

   "In the past, Office 38 has been folded into Office 39 only to be resurrected as a separate office. So we cannot take any organizational restructuring at face value," he added.