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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 251 (February 28, 2013)

European Tourists in N. Korea Banned from Sending Outbound Mail

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- European tourists visiting North Korea are banned from sending mail overseas following the country's nuclear test earlier in February, a U.S.-based internet news media said on Feb. 21.

   "Western tourists in North Korea have been banned from sending postcards home to friends and loved ones, supposedly as a result of 'sanctions' passed in recent days and weeks," NK News said.

   The ban is affecting Europeans, but not Americans, the Internet media said, citing two tourist groups in the country.

   "The new sanctions make it impossible for European tourists to send postcards home," it said, referring to "two separate tourist groups who were in the country during and after the nuclear test." "American tourists in another group were allowed to send their cards home."

   One North Korea tour guide cited Chinese sanctions as the reason why they were not allowed to send out the mail, the report said, adding that Chinese sanctions are unlikely and the ban could be an arbitrary measure on the North Korean side.

   Also the ban may not be the result of punitive measures by some European nations, the media said, adding the recent sanctions adopted by the European Union do not deal with postal services.

   North Korea is known to tightly screen mail coming in from the outside world but not those dispatched overseas by foreign travelers.

   Tensions are rising after the North conducted a nuclear test on Feb. 12 in defiance of the United Nations resolutions and the international community's warnings.


U.N. Council in Drawn-out Talks on North Korea Sanctions

NEW YORK (Yonhap) -- The U.N. Security Council is struggling to take what it calls "significant action" against North Korea for its latest nuclear test amid disputes among veto-wielding members, diplomatic sources said on Feb. 24.

   In the wake of Pyongyang's third known nuclear experiment on Feb. 12, the U.S. government called for a "swift, credible and strong" response by the U.N. council.

   South Korea aims to release a tough sanctions resolution against North Korea within this month. Seoul holds the rotating presidency of the council in February.

   But skepticism has grown about the likelihood of reaching a consensus on the issue by the end of February.

   "Throughout last week the U.S. and China had talks every day on the level of sanctions on North Korea, but there has been no progress," an informed U.N. source said, requesting anonymity.

   The two sides had no meetings over the weekend, added the source.

   The U.S. and its allies are seeking a resolution that includes a reference to Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter.

   A resolution based on Chapter 7 would obligate all U.N. member states to impose economic and other sanctions under Article 41 and even allow them to take military steps should Article 42 be adopted.

   China is apparently opposed to any measure cornering its socialist neighbor despite being critical of Pyongyang's provocative acts.

   Chinese officials are also anxious about political and economic instability in North Korea that would lead to the exodus of refugees and damages to Beijing's regional security interests.

   Many believe China uses North Korea as a buffer against the U.S. influence in Northeast Asia.

   A tug-of-war between the U.S., supported by South Korea and Japan, and China backed by Russia, is a familiar pattern in the 15-member U.N. council in discussing a unified response to North Korea's nuclear tests and long-range rocket launches.

   It took more than 40 days for the council to issue a resolution against Pyongyang for its December rocket launch.

   In the resolution, the council vowed to take "significant action" in the event of a nuclear test by North Korea.


North Korea Seen as Expanding Gulags: Satellite Imagery

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- North Korea is expanding its main political prison camps, apparently due either to hikes in the number of prisoners or the consolidation of its facilities, a human rights group in Washington said on Feb. 25.

   The findings came from joint research by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) and DigitalGlobe, a commercial earth image provider.

   An analysis of satellite photos of Camp No. 25 in the remote northeastern area of Chongjin city showed that agricultural development, maintenance and construction activities have continued there, the HRNK said in a report.

   "Between 2009 and 2010, the camp perimeter increased from approximately 3,710 meters to about 5,100 meters, a 37 percent expansion," it said. "During the same period, the camp size increased from approximately 580 square meters to about 1,000 square meters, a 72 percent increase."

   It added the number of guard posts has also sharply grown.

   The HRNK said the reasons for the expansion could include an intensified crackdown on attempted defectors, the purge of political dissidents after Kim Jong-un assumed power, and the consolidation of the nation's political prison camp system.

   "It appears that North Korea's vast system of unlawful imprisonment may be undergoing an alteration involving the consolidation of some of its political prison camps, and the expansion of others,” Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the committee, said in a press release.

   If the dismantlement of some of North Korea's political prisoner camps and prisoner transfers to expanded facilities are in progress, he added, it is essential to ensure that the North Korean regime does not attempt to erase evidence of atrocities at the camps or execute the surviving prisoners.

   Multiple civic groups around the world estimate there are 150,000-200,000 political prisoners in North Korea.


U.N. Likely to Form Inquiry Commission on Rights Abuses in N. Korea

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- The United Nations has been in consultations with member states to adopt a resolution that would set up its first commission of inquiry into widespread human rights violations in North Korea, two sources with direct knowledge of the matter said on Feb. 25.

   The resolution is one of several that have been the subject of debate during the ongoing 22nd session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which will last until March 22.

   Ahead of the U.N. council's session in Geneva, the European Union and Japan agreed last week to ask the council to form an independent "inquiry mechanism" on human rights abuses in North Korea, a Seoul government source told Yonhap News Agency.

   "The European Union is exchanging views with other U.N. member states on the formation and missions with regard to the proposed inquiry mechanism on human rights in North Korea," the source said.

   The inquiry mechanism resolution would be adopted if half of the 47-member council approves it, and another Seoul government source said prospects for a passage are high. South Korea is one of the council members.

   "The possibility of passage is very high because a draft resolution for the inquiry mechanism is being written by the European Union with its passage in mind amid the international community's growing concerns over human rights issues in North Korea," the second source said.

   Human rights advocacy groups have long called for international efforts to stop genocide and crimes against humanity which they claim are being systematically carried out by North Korean authorities.

   Activists said North Korea was holding thousands of political prisoners in at least six facilities where they face extrajudicial executions, torture and forced labor.

   The socialist country has been accused of human rights abuses for decades, ranging from holding hundreds of thousands of political prisoners to torture and public executions. Pyongyang has flatly denied the accusations, calling them a U.S.-led attempt to topple its regime.

   The U.N. council's move comes as tensions on the Korean Peninsula are heightened after the North's Feb. 12 nuclear test.

   South Korea, the U.S. and others are pushing for more sanctions against North Korea, while Pyongyang has threatened to take unspecified retaliatory steps against such sanctions.


U.S. Government Tepid on 'Basketball Diplomacy' with North Korea

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- The U.S. government responded tersely on Feb. 26 to a trip to North Korea by former NBA star Dennis Rodman, dismissing any comparison to the so-called ping-pong diplomacy between Washington and Beijing in the early 1970s.

   "In terms of this present travel to do basketball with kids, we just don't take a position on this private travel," Patrick Ventrell, the State Department's deputy spokesman, said at a press briefing.

   The 51-year-old Rodman, once a U.S. professional basketball sensation, arrived in Pyongyang on Feb. 26 (local time) in a civilian program organized by the New York media company VICE.

   The U.S. government has not been contacted about the group's tour to the socialist nation, which conducted a nuclear test earlier this month following a long-range missile launch in December, according to Ventrell.

   Asked if Rodman's visit is regarded as similar to ping-pong diplomacy, the exchange of table tennis players between the U.S. and China that led to a thaw in their relations, Ventrell said, "Well, not exactly in this case."

   The department official emphasized the U.S. government would not encourage any civilian travel to North Korea.

   "We do urge U.S. citizens contemplating travel to North Korea to review our travel warnings on North Korea as well as country-specific travel information available on our website," he said.

   North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, believed to be in his late 20s, is known to be a basketball fan.

   In a tweet, Rodman said, "I'm not a politician. Kim Jong-un and North Korean people are basketball fans. Looking forward to sitting down with Kim Jung Un. I love the people of North Korea."

   Washington's lukewarm reaction to Rodman's trip contrasted with its open disapproval of a January visit by Google CEO Eric Schmidt and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. U.S. officials called their trip "unhelpful."

   Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, on a trip to Germany, had a telephone conversation with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi.

   "One of the main things they talked about today was DPRK (North Korea)," Ventrell said.

   The phone talks came as the two global powers are in a tug-of-war over how to punish Pyongyang for its latest nuclear test.

   More than two weeks into consultations in the U.N. Security Council, there is no report of substantial progress in efforts by the U.S. and its allies to produce a "swift, credible and strong" response.

   "We're still working every day on this very actively," the deputy spokesman said without going into details.


N. Korea Appears to Replace Domestic Security Chief: Source

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appears to have replaced his chief official in charge of domestic security affairs, a Seoul intelligence source said on Feb. 26, in what could be part of his moves to cement his power.

   Ri Myong-su, the North's minister of people's security, has not been seen in public for months, raising speculation that he might have been purged.

   "To my knowledge, North Korea recently appointed Choi Bu-il, deputy chief of staff at the North's military, to the minister of people's security," the source said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

   The source declined to give further details, including exactly when Cho was named, but the apparent replacement is believed to be linked to a "part of loyalty test by Kim Jong-un."

   Kim, who took over North Korea in late 2011 after the death of his father Kim Jong-il, sacked the North's army chief Ri Yong-ho in July last year, which some analysts said was a sign of the new leader tightening his control over the military.

   Ri is regarded as a close confidant of the late Kim Jong-il.

   North Korea set off its third nuclear device on Feb. 12, drawing a chorus of international condemnation. Seoul and Washington are pushing for more sanctions against Pyongyang, which has threatened to "take the second and third stronger steps in succession" to retaliate against such sanctions.

   The North's latest atomic test, which came weeks after an apparent successful launch of a long-range missile, raised fears that Pyongyang might have taken a step closer to flying nuclear warheads atop inter-continental ballistic missiles.


U.S., China Still in Talks over U.N. Response to N. Korea's Nuke Test

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Negotiations between the United States and China over a U.N. response to punish North Korea for conducting its third nuclear test are still being conducted, Seoul's foreign ministry said on Feb. 26, denying a Japanese media report.

   Foreign ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young made the remarks in response to the Japanese Asahi newspaper's report earlier in the day that Washington and Beijing tentatively agreed last week on new U.N. sanctions, but without a clause for military enforcement of sanctions.

   "There has been neither an agreement nor a breakdown between the U.S. and China," during their consultations about U.N. sanctions against the North's nuclear test, Cho said.

   "Consultations about the issue of sanctions against North Korea are still under way," Cho said.

   North Korea conducted its third nuclear test on Feb. 12, defying U.N. resolutions and raising fears that Pyongyang might take a step closer to a workable long-range nuclear missile.

   Seoul and Washington are seeking to convince the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution against Pyongyang that would include Articles 41 and 42 of Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which allows all U.N. members to enforce sanctions by military means, theoretically enabling Navy ships to intercept and board North Korean vessels suspected of carrying illicit weapons or nuclear or missile components.

   South Korean diplomats have admitted that China, the North's last-remaining ally and one of the veto-wielding council members, has been opposed to including Chapter 7 in the new resolution.

   Resolutions approved under Chapter 7 can be enforced through military action, but China and Russia have opposed including Chapter 7 against North Korea and Iran because their nuclear programs have been subject to negotiations.

   In earlier, Cho, the ministry spokesman, said that South Korea "is making multifarious efforts, including meetings with China and other permanent members of the Security Council as well as other countries concerned, to see tough measures drawn up."

   "To China, for instance, we have been making requests that it play a constructive and responsible role as a permanent member of the Security Council," Cho said.

   Cho also indicated that the Security Council may not pass a resolution against North Korea until the end of this month. "Rather than running against time, I think that focusing on what contents would be included in the resolution is more important," he said.


North Korean Film to Debut on U.S. Silver Screen in March

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- A North Korean film will make its debut in the United States in March, marking the first time a film from the isolated country has reached the silver screen in the U.S., Internet Web sites said on Feb. 27.

   North Korean director Kim Gwang-hun worked with British and Belgian counterparts to film the romantic comedy, which was released last year.

   The websites for the Center for Asian American Media (CAAF) film festival and the Miami International Film Festival confirmed "Comrade Kim Goes Flying" will be shown to the public at the CAAF festival held in San Francisco.

   The joint North Korea-British-Belgian movie was set and filmed in Pyongyang, and portrays the life of Kim Yong-mi, a 28-year-old coal miner who overcomes hardships to fulfill her dream of becoming a trapeze artist.

   The film was first shown overseas in Canada during the 37th Toronto International Film Festival in September and at the Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) in South Korea last year.


N. Korea Used Political Prisoners to Build Nuke Test Site: Anti-N.K. Group

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea used political prisoners from its many concentration camps to build and maintain its nuclear test site, a local anti-Pyongyang civic group leader said on Feb. 27.

   Ahn Myong-chol, secretary general of human rights group Free the North Korea Gulag, said in a Seoul press conference that while serving as a guard at the Hoeryong concentration camp in 1992, he saw 100 prisoners taken away on trucks, never to return.

   He claimed that later, a security official told him that the prisoners were sent to build the nuclear site near Mt. Mantap in Punggye-ri and were executed afterwards to prevent information from leaking out. The site was used to test three nuclear devices from 2006 with the latest detonation on Feb. 12.

   The civic group representative, who defected to South Korea in 1994, said testimonies from escapees and recent satellite imagery of Punggye-ri indicate that there is a road connecting the Hwasong concentration camp with one of the tunnel entrances that was used to conduct a nuclear detonation test.

   This, he said, is clear evidence that political prisoners have been employed at the nuclear test site, which is located in the remote northeastern tip of the country. Escapees have said that the treatment in political camps is appalling and that prisoners are often used as slave laborers and are forced to work in hazardous areas.

   The group said that for the world to effectively tackle North Korea and end its weapons of mass destruction development plan, it must first deal with human rights abuses, urging the United Nations to open an independent committee to look into the matter.

   There have been growing calls for a separate human rights committee in the international body, with the European Union, and such countries as the United States and Japan taking the lead to call for close monitoring of abuses.