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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 244 (January 10, 2013)

Select Public Appearances of N.K. Leader's Uncle Indicates His 'Raised' Status

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Jang Song-thaek, the powerful uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was shown attending only selective top-class public events in December, with South Korea's analysts saying it is a sign of Jang's "raised" status within the socialist regime.

   Through monitoring recent North Korean media reports, Yonhap News Agency has noticed that Jang attended eight reported public events last month. All were high-profile gatherings attended by Kim, including the "guidance visit" to mark the country's Dec. 12 long-range rocket launch, as well as the visit to Kim family mausoleum on Jan. 1 to pay tribute to the Kim ancestry.

   North Korean media also showed images of Jang side by side with Kim on horseback during their visit to a cavalry unit in December.

   In contrast to the eight appearances, Jang reportedly did not attend low-level events like the New Year's banquet or other performance events, which were hosted by the cabinet or the military without the presence of his nephew.

   This is noteworthy since past North Korean reports showed Jang, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, participating in a wide range of public ceremonies attended only by senior government or military officials.

   The change indicates that Jang is now selectively attending so-called "No. 1 events" that take place with Kim in attendance.

   Local analysts said the change seen since early December can be an indication that he now holds a status distinctively higher than other senior officials. They presumed that Jang may even have a leadership position higher than Kim Kyong-hui, his wife and aunt to the incumbent North Korean leader.

   "Jang is deemed to be the No. 2 man (in the regime) who can give direct advice to Kim Jong-un," claimed Professor Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies.


Weight Loss by N. Korea's First Lady Fuels Speculation of Child Birth

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- An apparent loss of weight by Ri Sol-ju, the wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, fueled speculation in Seoul on Jan. 3 that she may have given birth.

   A government source, who declined to be identified, said images on the Korean Central TV Broadcasting Station showed a slimmer Ri watching a live New Year's performance with her husband and other high-ranking dignitaries.

   He claimed local experts who saw the footage of the first lady speculated that, judging by the weight loss, she may have given birth recently.

   This claim was based on the contrast between the latest images taken on New Year's Day and those released in mid December. Pictures of Ri taken in December showed her face looking puffy and there was a noticeable swelling in her midsection.

   Speculations have abounded about Ri's condition since late October when photos showed signs she may be carrying a child. Observers said Kim's wife seemed to have gained weight compared to when images of her first started being released by the socialist country's media outlets in July.

   This claim was further fueled when she was pictured in a black hanbok, or traditional Korean dress, on Dec. 17, the first anniversary of the death of Kim Jong-il, the father of her husband. Because hanbok tends to hide the body it was difficult to get a clear glimpse of her figure, but many North Korean watchers argued that her midsection seemed even larger.

   They speculated that since Ri was at a reception on Dec. 21 to mark the successful launch of North Korea's long-range rocket, she may have given birth right after the memorial service for her father-in-law.


More North Korean Escapees Receive Asylum in U.S.

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- The total number of North Korean escapees who received asylum in the United States reached 23 in 2012, up by seven from the year before, a news report said on Jan. 3.

   Washington-based Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that there was a trickle of North Korean nationals who won legal refugee status in the U.S. with numbers peaking at five and six in June and July, respectively.

   The total is a gain from 16 people accepted by Washington for the whole of 2011 and 17 in 2010, but it is still a small number despite the passage of the 2004 North Korea Human Rights Act. The law helps provide humanitarian assistance to people living inside North Korea and offers legal assistance to North Korean nationals who have fled the socialist country.

   The RFA said that 149 North Koreans have been given asylum in the United States in the last eight years.

   It pointed out that on average Washington accepts 15,000-20,000 refugees from east Asian countries annually with about 80 percent coming from Myanmar.

   The media outlet said a help group has been set up in Virginia to help North Koreans settle in the U.S.


N. Korea Linking Mineral Resources Development with Infrastructure Building

SHENYANG, China (Yonhap) -- North Korea is moving to give mineral resources development rights to Chinese companies in return for pledges to upgrade its backward infrastructure, sources said on Jan. 7.

   Sources with ties to North Korea and Chinese businesses, said Pyongyang would give resources development rights to Chinese investors if they are willing to build social infrastructure such as roads and hotels.

   Such moves come as the impoverished North that does not have not many manufactured goods to sell abroad wants to use its relatively abundant anthracite coal, iron ore and gold reserves as economic bargaining tools.

   Outside support and tie-ups have taken on more urgency after South Korea effectively halted all cross-border trade following the sinking of one of its naval vessels by a North Korean torpedo in the Yellow Sea in 2010.

   Local Chinese business insiders in Shenyang said Hunan Investment Co., secured the right to develop the Unsan gold mine in North Korea in exchange for supporting a project to build a 30-story luxury hotel and highway in the country.

   China's Hunchun trading company has reached a similar deal with Pyongyang Moranbong Co. to develop a gold mine in Chagang Province near the North Korea-Chinese border, the inside sources said.

   The Chinese partner is a player in the management of up-end hotels as well as the development of iron ore, various mines and real estate, they said.

   North Korea is also expected to further use its mineral resources to win concessions from foreign companies in 2013, with some predicting Pyongyang may be seeking large-scale investment projects, the sources said.

   Despite the few headways made so far, the sources said many Chinese firms have general reservations about signing contracts because of many difficulties in doing business in North Korea, they said.


North Korea to Open Museum Near Angkor Wat in Cambodia

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea spent US$10 million to build a museum near the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia, and the museum will begin its operations in April, a news report said on Jan. 8.

   Washington-based Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that the museum is located near the entrance of the Angkor Archaeological Park in northern Cambodia, the place of the largest Hindu temple complex in the world.

   The overseas construction unit of the state-run Mansudae Art Studio, the North's group of artists, is building the museum with the $10 million investment from the North Korean regime, according to the RFA report.

   The radio station said the North is donating the museum as a gesture of friendship with the Southeast Asian country.

   The two countries maintain close ties, with the North operating a variety of business projects in Cambodia.

   The museum will feature a mega-size mosaic work by North Korean artists as well as a portrait of a Buddha, according to the report.


N. Korea's Religious Freedom 'Worst' Yet under New Leader, Survey Shows

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- North Korea's persecution of Christians shows no sign of abating under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, a young man known to have a western education, a religious group here said on Jan. 8.

   "North Korea is ranked No. 1 on the top 50 list of the worst persecutors of Christians for the 11th straight year," Open Doors said, publishing what it calls the 2013 World Watch List.

   The group is an international Christian ministry that serves persecuted believers.

   It releases annual rankings of the 50 blacklisted nations on the basis of the analysis of information collected through "field operations" and also opinions by external experts.

   "In North Korea, the main persecution dynamics are Communist operation and dictatorial paranoia," it said.

   It's illegal to be a Christian in North Korea and Christians are reportedly sent to labor camps or executed.

   The socialist regime has long campaigned for worship cults for late leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

   "It's is not getting better," Ron Boyd-MacMillan, chief strategy officer for Open Doors, said at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington. "The intense persecution has continued under new leader Kim Jong-un."

   Kim took power in late 2011.

   It is estimated that there are 200,000-400,000 Christian believers in North Korea who risk harsh punishments, Boyd-MacMillan said.

   As many as 70,000 Christians suffer in horrific prison camps, he added.


China Sends Economic Officials to N. Korea to Develop Joint Economic Zones

BEIJING/ SHENYANG, China (Yonhap) -- China has dispatched a large group of economic officials to North Korea in a bid to find ways to boost joint North Korea-China economic zones, which reportedly remain largely inactive due to a lack of investment, sources said on Jan. 9.

   The sources well versed in North Korea-China relations said that China sent about 70 commerce officials from Jilin Province to the North several months ago as part of the country's efforts to invigorate the joint economic zones in the North Korean city of Rajin and the islands of Hwanggumpyong and Wihwa.

   "The dispatched officials discussed (with the North) a possible management system for the special economic zones and legal guidelines as well as ways to lure foreign investment," a source in China said. "They provided China's knowhow (secured) during its reform drive in the last 30 years."

   The officials are presently traveling between Pyongyang and Sinuiju, the North's northwestern city bordering China to hold discussions over various development projects, other sources said.

   The sending of experts came after the neighboring countries held talks in August over the North's economic zones. The North reportedly sought to secure China's investment and work to improve these zones.

   Jang Song-thaek, the powerful uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, visited China and his meeting with China's Commerce Minister Chen Deming was reported to have secured China's cooperation.

   In a bid to kick-start the special zones, China is nudging the North to reduce its control over the zone, the sources said.

   China's vice commerce minister, Yi Xiaozhun, also visited Pyongyang on Monday for North Korea-China economic and trade talks.