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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 250 (February 21, 2013)

Inflow of Foreign Tourists to N. Korea Unaffected by Recent Nuke Test

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- The inflow of foreign tourists to North Korea remains unaffected despite the country's recent testing of a nuclear device in defiance of international demands, several travel agencies reported on Feb. 14.

   Beijing-based Young Pioneer Tours, specializing in trips to the North, said on its Web site that they will go ahead with their tour programs as planned despite the nuclear test conducted on Feb. 12.

   "This will not affect our upcoming Kim Jong-il Birthday Tour, which far from being canceled will have us in the country during what will obviously be a very interesting time," the tour agency said, referring to the late leader's birthday on Feb. 16.

   "Whilst these incidents always bring talk of sanctions, or strained relations with other countries, it is our experience that it does not, and should not affect the tourist industry, with our 2013 program going ahead as planned," it said.

   A report by Washington-based Radio Free Asia (RFA) also said British travel agency Lupine Travel will proceed with its tour scheduled to send about 10 foreign travelers, mostly from Britain, China and Northern Europe, to the socialist country on Feb. 15.

   The travel firm has not been informed of any policy changes from the North Korean government or from the U.S., nor has it received any application for travel cancellation, RFA quoted the firm's head as saying.

   RFA also reported that U.S.-based Uri Tours, specializing in trips to the North, is planning to go ahead with a North Korean group tour program, which starts on Thursday. No changes have been planned for the firm's programs for March and April as of now, it also said.

   Swedish travel agency Korea Konsult said around 20 European tourists will depart to Beijing en route to North Korea.

   International tension escalated as the North conducted its third nuclear test in defiance of a U.N. resolution banning such tests.

   The country conducted its two previous tests in 2006 and 2009.


Entrance of Tunnel at N. Korea's Nuclear Test Site Remains Intact

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- The entrance of a tunnel where North Korea conducted its third atomic test two days ago remains intact, a Seoul government source said on Feb. 14, suggesting that the underground blast was well contained.

   North Korea defied global warnings on Feb. 12 by detonating what it called a miniaturized nuclear device, drawing a chorus of worldwide condemnation and threats of new sanctions.

   According to South Korean intelligence, the tunnel North Korea used for the nuke blast is on the western side of the Punggye-ri test site.

   An analysis shows that the entrance of that tunnel remains intact, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

   "There are no changes in the external appearances of the entrances of the two tunnels on the western and southern sides at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site," the source said.

   It was the North's third nuclear test since 2006, and had a yield of 6 to 7 kilotons, according to Seoul's defense ministry.

   "North Korea appears to have made the western tunnel stronger than that when it conducted its second nuclear test in 2009," the source said.

   Earlier of the day, South Korean nuclear scientists said they have been unable to detect any radioisotopes from the country's nuclear test, complicating efforts to confirm what kind of fissile material was used.

   The visibly intact tunnel raised speculation that the outside world might have failed to fully understand the type and nature of the North's nuclear test, they said.

   It was still unclear what fissile material North Korea used in its latest nuclear test. The North claims that it used a "miniaturized" device. If true, it means that Pyongyang might be capable of making nuclear weapons small enough to fit on a missile.

   South Korea is ramping up diplomatic efforts with the international community to increase pressure on North Korea following the nuclear test.


No Radiation from N. Korea's Nuke Test Detected: Commission

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea has yet to detect any change in the levels of radiation or nuclear substances that might further confirm North Korea's recent nuclear test, Seoul's nuclear safety commission said on Feb. 14.

   The Seoul government partly confirmed the North's third nuclear test on Tuesday, noting an "artificial earthquake" believed to have been created by an underground nuclear detonation had been detected at the North's nuclear test site.

   Detection of certain isotopes, such as radioactive xenon, may help determine whether the North's recent test involved a plutonium- or uranium-based device, according to the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission.

   "Two days since the North's nuclear test, the commission has completed analyzing eight samples, but no radioactive isotopes have been discovered as of 3 p.m. Thursday," it said.

   Such radioactive materials may take several days to travel down to the South, experts said earlier.

   Since the North's nuclear test, the commission has also intensified its monitoring of changes in the level of radiation, cutting the frequency of automatic detection from every 15 minutes to every 5 minutes.

   "In addition, an analysis of dust samples collected at all 14 radiation detection centers has yet to find any radioactive material and the level of radiation detected at all 122 unmanned monitoring systems across the country has yet to show any changes," the commission said in a press release.


U.S. House Seeks BDA-style Financial Sanctions on North Korea

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) - The United States Congress will push to tighten the screw on North Korea with legislation making the socialist nation's access to the global financial system more difficult, diplomatic and congressional sources said on Feb. 17.

   Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Relations, is working on a bill aimed at tackling Pyongyang's ability to gain hard currency, according to the sources.

   The move is part of a series of reactions by the U.S. Congress to North Korea's nuclear test last week, while the Obama administration is focusing on first hammering out a unified response by the U.N. Security Council.

   "Rep. Royce is expected to submit a related bill in a few weeks," a source said. "I think now calls for far-reaching measures designed to cut North Korea's financial ties with the outside world."

   In an interview with Yonhap News Agency in December before Pyongyang's rocket launch, Royce said, "I think it is the time to respond with an asset freeze as we did before with Banco Delta Asia (BDA)."

   He was referring to a 2005 freeze of US$24 million in North Korea's assets at the Macau-based BDA by the Treasury Department, a measure intended to squeeze North Korea's financial sources for nuclear and missile programs.

   The financial measure sent a clear message to other financial institutions with ties with Pyongyang and it was apparently more painful for the isolated nation than any other ones like an arms embargo and restrictions on trade and travel.

   It remains uncertain whether such a BDA-style strategy will sting North Korea again amid widespread speculation that it has already taken measures to avoid impacts.

   As to a question about whether the U.S. has more cards to play against North Korea, already subject to a range of sanctions, State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last week, "We still do have some leeway. I would say that we continue to review what will be most effective." She did not elaborate.


N. Korea Tested Long-range Mmissile Engine before Nuke Blast

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea tested an engine for its new long-range missiles one day before its third nuclear test last week, government sources in Seoul said on Feb. 17.

   Pyongyang carried out a function test of the engine for its long-range "KN-08" missiles on the Dongchang-ri launch site in North Phyongan Province on Fen. 11, according to multiple government sources.

   It was one day before the socialist country defied international warnings by detonating what it calls a miniaturized atomic device, drawing a chorus of worldwide condemnations and prompting the United Nations Security Council to start work on "appropriate measures" against the North's latest provocation. The North also conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

   "It appears that North Korea conducted the engine test aimed at extending the range of the KN-08 missile to over 5,000 kilometers," said a source. He declined to be identified.

   "If the North decides the test successful, it is expected to operationally deploy the new long-range rocket," he added.
North Korea unveiled six units of the mobile missile last April to celebrate the 100th birthday of Kim Il-sung, its founding father and grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un. Experts assumed that the missile measuring 2 meters in diameter and 18 meters in length could carry a nuclear warhead, while the North has yet to conduct a test-firing.

   "What deserves attention is that the North carried out the engine test despite being aware of the fact that the U.S. surveillance satellite would detect the move," said another source.

   "The engine test right before its third nuclear test would be intended to intensify its threat to the U.S. and its allies," he added.

   North Korea has been making good on its threat to the international community following its nuclear test, warning that it is ready to conduct additional nuclear tests and can acquire intercontinental ballistic missiles "to counter hostile forces and bolster its self-defense capabilities."

   Seoul has been keeping close tabs on the possibility that the North may launch the long-range rocket if the U.N. Security Council slaps tougher sanctions on the North for its latest atomic test, according to military officials.


Chinese State Media Defends Beijing's North Korea Policy

HONG KONG (Yonhap) -- A Chinese state media outlet on Feb. 17 defended Beijing's policy toward North Korea, which many critics say has failed to stop its ally's nuclear program.

   Xinhua News Agency argued in an article that the United States, rather than China, should reflect profoundly on its policy toward North Korea, stressing that threats of sanctions will not motivate the world's most reclusive regime to give up its nuclear weapons.

   Citing Liu Jiangyong, a scholar at Tsinghua University, the news outlet claimed the root cause of North Korea's latest nuclear test lies with the United States.

   "North Korea's nuclear test is not aimed at China...but aimed at the United States," Liu was quoted as saying. "It should be noted that it is rather the failure in the North Korean policy of the United States, South Korea and Japan."

   China's advocacy of dialogue to solve the issue is not wrong and needs to be adhered to, the news agency stressed.

   Tensions on the Korean Peninsula eased when the United States and South Korea were more engaged with North Korea, it said, referring to the "sunshine" policy carried out during the administrations of two previous liberal presidents in South Korea -- Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.

   Ruan Zongze, vice president at the China Institute of International Studies, was quoted as saying in the article that the relevant parties should resume diplomatic contacts after a period of time.

   "In the future, we must rely on multilateral dialogue mechanisms such as the six-party talks to resolve the mistrust and hostility between the United States and North Korea," he said.

   "And China should continue to play the role of mediator and facilitating talks, as after all, only negotiations can solve the fundamental problem."

   North Korea conducted a nuclear test on Tuesday in defiance of international warnings. It was the third of its kind following ones in 2006 and 2009.

   The test was also conducted two months after the regime's launch of a rocket into space.

   China expressed firm opposition against North Korea's latest nuclear test, calling for the North's return to suspended six-party denuclearization talks.


Late N.K. Leader First Proposed Summit with President Lee: Official

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il had first proposed an inter-Korean summit in 2009, though the proposal later fell apart as Pyongyang demanded economic aid in return, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was quoted on Feb. 18 as saying.

   The proposal was conveyed via Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, Lee said in an interview with the Donga Ilbo newspaper last week, according to senior presidential press secretary Choe Guem-nak. Kim attached no conditions to the offer at the time, such as demanding food aid, Lee said.

   "I determined that it is important to normalize relations between the South and the North. So I responded that I am willing to meet if it is helpful for maintaining peace on the Korean Peninsula and making progress in the nuclear issue," Lee was quoted as saying.

   Lee said he demanded Kim visit Seoul for a summit as all two previous inter-Korean summits were held in Pyongyang, but he later agreed to travel to the North as the Chinese premier persuaded him not to attach too much importance on venue, according to Choe.

   But the proposal never materialized due to disagreement in follow-up talks, Lee said.

   It has been known for years that officials of the two Koreas met secretly in Singapore in October 2009 to organize a summit, but the negotiations broke down as Pyongyang demanded massive economic aid in exchange for agreeing to a summit.

   North Korean officials must have thought that the South needs to pay something in return if its president is to visit the country, Lee was quoted as saying, adding that Pyongyang "could not break away from the past practice" of accepting aid in exchange for summits.

   Lee has repeatedly pledged that he won't pay to hold a summit with the North or use an inter-Korean summit for political gains, voicing criticism of his liberal predecessors -- late former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun -- who were accused by conservative critics of paying too much to hold summits.

   "If I had wanted to use it politically, I would have held a summit," Lee was quoted as saying.


North Korea's First Lady May Have Given Birth: Source

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea's first lady Ri Sol-ju may have given birth, a government source said on Feb. 18, citing her slimmer silhouette and permed hair seen in a photo of her that was released a day earlier.

   The photo shows Ri accompanying North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the governing family mausoleum where the embalmed body of late leader Kim Jong-il is laid. Feb. 16 was the anniversary of the birth of the late leader, who died from heart problems in December, 2011.

   Ri appeared in a tight dark skirt suit, designed to emphasize her slim waist, and short curly hair.

   "We assume (she) may have given birth," a government source said in the first-ever confirmation by a government official that Ri may have given birth.

   Another intelligence source also said "The released photo suggests the possibility of childbirth." The intelligence source added that the process to confirm the suspicion is underway.

   Media speculations said Ri was pregnant when she appeared in a wide-bellied yellow coat to watch a musical performance on the New Year. The Sunday photo again stirred media speculations that she has given birth.

   South Korea's spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, previously said last year that the couple which leads the communist country may already have one child.


EU Slaps Tougher Sanctions against N. Korea Nuke Test

BRUSSELS (Yonhap) -- The European Union governments agreed on Feb. 18 to tighten sanctions against North Korea for its recent nuclear test, diplomats in Brussels said.

   Despite repeated international warnings, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test by detonating what it called a miniaturized atomic device on Feb. 12, drawing a chorus of worldwide condemnations and prompting the international community to begin devising sterner punishments against it. The North also conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

   After a meeting in Brussels, 27 EU foreign ministers decided to impose "more comprehensive and stronger" sanctions against Pyongyang, including financial and trading sanctions, asset freezes and travel bans, according to the diplomats.

   The new sanctions ban the export of components that could be used for ballistic missiles, and prohibit trade in new public bonds from North Korea. North Korean banks will also be barred from opening new branches in the EU, while European banks will not be able to open new branches in the communist country.

   The decision for the tougher sanctions brings the number of North Koreans subject to a travel ban and an asset freeze to 26, and that of sanctioned companies to 33, according to the EU diplomats.

   "We have pushed for enhancing the sanctions. That's the answer to a nuclear program that is not only a danger to the region but also to the worldwide security architecture," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.

   The United Nations Security Council has also been pushing for "appropriate measures" against the North's latest act of defiance, with South Korea hoping to convince it to adopt a stronger resolution before the end of this month, when South Korea's presidency of the Security Council will rotate to another nation, according to Seoul government officials.


U.S. Visa Issuance to North Koreans Drops Last Year

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- The number of visas the United States issued to North Korean nationals dropped more than 20 percent last year, data showed on Feb. 19, reflecting strained relations between the two countries over Pyongyang's provocative acts.

   According to the data compiled by the U.S. State Department, a total of 87 visas were issued for North Koreans in the 2012 fiscal year running from October 2011 to September 2012. This represents a 22 percent decrease from a year earlier.

   The drop is mainly attributed to the soured relations between Washington and Pyongyang after the communist country launched a long-range rocket last April in breach of an earlier agreement to stop nuclear tests, uranium enrichment and long-range missile launches.

   North Koreans were issued more than 200 visas per year during 2003-2005, but the figure has been on a downward trend since then, with 148 cases in 2006, 150 in 2007, 137 in 2008, 76 in 2009 and 53 in 2010, according to the official data.

   The notable falls in 2006 and 2009 show a correlation with Pyongyang's first and second rounds of nuclear tests, experts say.

   By type of visa issued in fiscal 2012, short-term business and travel visas of B1 or B2 took up the largest share with 50 cases, followed by 32 G-type visas for representatives of international organizations and their immediate family members. There were also three F-type visas for students and two C-type visas issued for short-stay visitors, the data showed.

   Meanwhile, the U.S. government issued a total of 90,927 visas to South Koreans in fiscal 2012, down 15 percent, the data showed.


China to Start Electricity Supply to Rason Economic Zone in N. Korea

SHENYANG, China (Yonhap) -- China is expected to start supplying electricity to North Korea's special economic zone in June as part of their joint development efforts there, a news report said on Feb. 19.

   China-based Yangbian Internet Radio said the Chinese city of Hunchun, which is close to the border with the North, will make efforts to establish joint economic projects, including the electricity supply plan.

   The news outlet said preparations for the plan to supply electricity to the Rason Special Economic Zone, located in the northern tip of North Korea, will be complete in June. The Chinese city also plans to build a bridge and road.

   Since last year, Chinese media outlets have said the supply plan marks the first case of China's state-run electricity agency providing electricity to a foreign nation and aims to help build up infrastructure in the North Korean special zone.

   Experts said China may continue its economic cooperation projects in the North's east coast region as they are part of the country's efforts to secure a commercial stronghold in the East Sea despite rising tension over the North's Dec. 12 nuclear test.