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North Korea's Main Gulag Seems Still Operational: Report

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- North Korea appears to be still operating one of its largest political prison camps, contrary to media reports that it might have been shuttered, a major human rights group here said based on satellite imagery of the site.

   The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) issued a report, in partnership with DigitalGlobe, on the reclusive communist nation's notorious gulags.

   Multiple photos, taken from November 2010 to October 2012, show buildings and activity in Camp 22 in the northeastern county of Hoeryong.

   The imagery "does not support reports that Camp 22 was shut down or abandoned during 2012," the report said. "Harvesting of crops continues as does coal production, making it not yet clear that the camp has closed."

   The level of activity and the state of the agricultural, industrial and civil infrastructure in the area suggests that the camp remains operational, it added.

   The committee, established in 2001, has stepped up efforts to publicize the brutality of North Korea's concentration camps, where tens of thousands of people are believed to be held.

   In the report, it recommended "immediate access to the prison camps by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the World Food Program."

   It also called for the creation of an international commission of inquiry to investigate North Korea's breaches of international human rights and criminal laws.

   "The North Korean regime's hiding and distorting the harsh reality of North Korea's unforgiving political prison camp system is no longer an option," said Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the HRNK. "With constant satellite imagery, we can maintain a watch over these camps even if no outside entry is allowed."


Panetta Says No Signs of N. Korea's Imminent Nuke Test Yet

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said on Oct. 25 that North Korea is apparently planning for another nuclear test but there is no indication of any imminent action.

   "We always get intelligence that they continue to make plans for this, but I have not seen, at least intelligence that I've noted, that indicates that it's imminent," the secretary told reporters.

   After talks with Panetta in Washington on Oct. 24, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said the secretive and unpredictable communist nation may carry out a third atomic weapons experiment.

   "In fact, North Korea has been preparing for this for quite a long time," Kim told a joint press availability with Panetta. "And when the time comes for a political decision, it may in fact resort to this third nuclear test."

   North Korea conducted underground nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

   The U.S. defense chief also expressed concerns over North Korea's long-range missiles.

   "We've been dealing with the threat from North Korea for a long time now in terms of their developing intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach our homeland and could obviously reach other countries in that region," Panetta said. "That's a threat."

   Earlier this month, the North's military declared that it has missiles capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.

   The threat came in response to the U.S. decision to let South Korea extend its ballistic missile range up to 800 kilometers from the previous 300 km.

   The allies have guidelines for missile technology cooperation.


N. Korea Imports US$170,000 of Firearms from Switzerland

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea imported US$170,000 worth of firearms from Switzerland in the first half of this year, Seoul's trade agency said on Oct. 26.

   The socialist country brought in about $100,000 of guns such as shotguns, air and gas rifles, and revolvers while importing around $70,000 worth of firearm components, according to the report by the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, or KOTRA.

   The state-run agency said the North had no record of firearm imports from Switzerland since 2009 until last year when it started to ship them in the first half.

   Some experts said the new trend may be due to the fact that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un spent his adolescence in the country.


Election Won't Change U.S. Government's N.K. Policy: Envoy

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- The United States' special envoy for North Korea said there would be no major changes in U.S. policy toward Pyongyang no matter who wins the November presidential election, a report said on Oct. 27.

   Glyn Davies, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, said in a recent forum at Stanford University that since the Reagan administration, the U.S. government has pursued a "dual approach" of using both dialogue and pressure in dealing with North Korea, regardless of whether a Democrat or Republican was in office, the Washington-based Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported.

   Davies said no matter what the result of the Nov. 6 election would be, the U.S. policy toward Pyongyang is "unlikely to shift dramatically," the report said.

   President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney are currently locked in a neck-and-neck race.

   Davies visited South Korea on Oct. 18 for a three-day stay as part of his Northeast Asia tour for routine consultations on the socialist country with allies.

   During his visit, Davies called on Pyongyang to "follow through their obligations and commitments" as outlined in an aid-for-denuclearization agreement that was reached in 2005 during a six-party meeting on the North's nuclear programs.

   Davies said that the U.S. message to young North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is clear, saying that North Korea should make a strategic resolution toward denuclearization, according to RFA.

   Kim, believed to be in his late 20s, has been consolidating his power following the death of his father Kim Jong-il in December.

   Some media reports have raised speculation about progress in the North's light-water reactor project that experts say may help expand Pyongyang's nuclear weapon-building capacity.


North Korean Defector Arrivals Fall to 7-year Low

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- The annual number of North Koreans defecting to the South is expected to hit the lowest level in seven years this year due to the socialist country's tightened border control under its new leadership, Seoul's Unification Ministry said on Oct. 28.

   The number of North Koreans fleeing to the South reached 1,086 during the January-September period, with women refugees accounting for 783 of them, according to the ministry.

   By the year's end, the total number of new North Korean refugees is expected to hit 1,440 for 2012, the first annual figure below the 2,000 level in seven years.

   The annual number of North Korean refugees coming to the South reached only several hundred before the year 2000, but it first exceeded the 1,000 level the next year under the Kim Dae-jung administration, known widely for its engagement policy toward the communist North.

   Since then, the annual number steadily grew to hit the 2,000 level in 2006 and stayed in the upper range of the 2,000 level for the next five years till last year, according to the ministry data.

   The yearly number stood at 2,553 for 2007, 2,804 for 2008, 2,914 for 2009, 2,401 for 2010 and 2,706 for 2011.

   The estimated 2012 figure is on par with the level registered in 2005 when the number of North refugees reached 1,382.

   This year's decrease is mainly attributable to the North's tightened grip on the areas bordering China, the main defection route, government officials said.

   The death of leader Kim Jong-il last December has affected the country's political stability, causing the communist country to tighten its border control, they said. China's internationally-denounced repatriation of North Korean refugees back to the oppressive country has also resulted in both China and the North strengthening their border security, they also noted.

   The 2012 decrease also reflects more North Korean refugees deciding to settle down in China rather than in the South, experts said.

   The total number of North Korean defectors who had settled in the South stood at 24,193 as of the end of September, according to the ministry handling inter-Korean issues.


U.N. Chief Confident Koreas Can Form Joint Team for 2015 Universiade

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Oct. 29 that he is confident Seoul and Pyongyang can field their first-ever joint team for the 2015 World University Games to be hosted by a South Korean city.

   The Universiade organizing committee in the southwestern city of Gwangju and Wilfried Lemke, the U.N. special adviser on sports for development and peace, signed a cooperation agreement in July to help the two Koreas form a unified team for some events at the 2015 world student games.

   In a speech at a forum in Seoul on promoting sports diplomacy, Ban said the 2015 Universiade in South Korea "will be a wonderful opportunity for students to come together for sports and culture, value and understanding.

   "We are even exploring the possibility of the first-ever united Korean team to compete jointly at the event," said Ban, who arrived in Seoul on Oct. 28 for a four-day visit.

   "I am certain that the whole peninsula will share the product of it," Ban said, adding the U.N. is "working very hard" for the two Koreas to field a unified team for the 2015 Universiade.

   The two Koreas, which remain technically at war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty, have competed as a single nation at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships and also at the 1991 FIFA World Youth Championship.

   But they have never competed as one or have formed unified teams for events at the Olympics, Asian Games or Universiades. They have marched together at opening ceremonies, though not since the 2007 Asian Winter Games in Changchun, China.


U.N. Chief Says Willing to Visit North Korea

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Oct. 30 he is mulling a visit to North Korea as part of efforts to promote peace on the Korean Peninsula.

   "As the U.N. secretary-general, I am ready to play every role required to promote peace on the Korean Peninsula. I consider visiting North Korea as soon as conditions are met," Ban said in a speech during the National Assembly plenary session.

   "I hope North Korea's new leadership will be a responsible member of the international community by responding to calls for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and taking the initiative of improving the lives of the people," Ban said, vowing efforts for the reunification of the two Koreas.

   Stressing the serious circumstances North Korea is facing, the U.N. chief, who served as South Korea's foreign minister before being elected as the eighth secretary general of the United Nations in 2006, urged his home country's parliament to play a leading role in helping their neighbors.

   The U.N. chief began a four-day trip to his home country on Oct. 28, during which he was awarded the biennial Seoul Peace prize, becoming the first South Korean to receive the award that was established in 1990 to commemorate the success of the 1988 Seoul Olympics. It was Ban's first parliamentary address since taking office as the U.N. chief.