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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 256 (April 4, 2013)

N. Korea Imports Massive Amount of Chinese Silver in January

BEIJING (Yonhap) -- North Korea imported an unusually massive amount of silver from China in January, possibly in relation to leader Kim Jong-un's birthday that month, sources and China's customs office said on March 28.

   Data from China's customs office showed that North Korea imported 661.71 kilograms of Chinese silver for US$653,128 in January.

   The monthly import is unusually enormous given that the North took in only $77,593 worth of precious metal and other jewels for the whole of 2012. The corresponding amount for 2011 was $57,000.

   Before January this year, the North had hardly spent more than $10,000 on monthly imports of such goods, according to the data.
Given the leader's birthday on Jan. 8, North Korea watchers said the massive amount of imported silver may have been used to produce silverware souvenirs to celebrate the leader's birthday.

   "It's difficult to assume the exact purpose of the silver imports," a source said. Given that late leader Kim Jong-il used to bring in foreign brand luxury sedans and expensive watches to treat the country's top echelon on major holidays, the bulk of silver imported in January may have been used for similar purposes, the source said.

   Backing this assumption, the customs data also showed that the North imported an unusually large amount of costume jewelry worth $10,447 in the same month.

   Another source said the country seems to have been in urgent need of an extraordinary amount of silver in January given that it has abundant silver reserves.


White House Says Tensions Attributable to N. Korea, Not B-2 Flights

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- The White House on March 29 dismissed a view that the U.S. is also doing a part in escalating tensions in Korea by sending B-2 stealth bombers there.

   "It's clear that the escalation is taking place from the North Koreans, based on their rhetoric and on their actions," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.

   The U.S. sent two Missouri-based B-2 stealth bombers to South Korea for ongoing annual joint military drills with South Korea.

   The deployment was apparently aimed to show its firepower and commitment to the alliance in the face of growing North Korean military threats.

   But some pointed out that such a move may be further antagonizing Pyongyang.

   "These military exercises are something that take place on a regular basis," Earnest said. "And they are a clear indication -- something that we have been resolute about in the past. The United States has the capability, and we have demonstrated the willingness to use that capability to protect our interests and our allies."

   In its latest threat, the North said its leader, Kim Jong-un, ordered strategic rocket forces to be on standby to strike U.S. and South Korean targets.

   The deputy press secretary said the bellicose rhetoric emanating from North Korea only deepens that nation's isolation.

   "The path here to resolving the situation is very clear -- that the North Korean regime should put the interest of their people first. They should abandon their nuclear program," he added. "They should live up to their international obligations. And upon doing so, they will be welcomed back into the international community."


N. Korea Exploits Dual-use Materials for WMD Development

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- A U.S. government official said on March 29 North Korea has taken advantage of illicit dual-used shipments to develop its nuclear and missile programs.

   Simon Limage, deputy assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation programs, emphasized that North Korea is among several nations that pose a threat to global nonproliferation efforts.

   He said especially North Korea and Iran have misused dual-used goods that have legitimate commercial applications, but can also be used to support illicit weapons programs.

   "North Korean and Iranian procurement networks continue to exploit unwitting suppliers and trans-shipment hubs to acquire materials needed for their nuclear and missile programs," he said in a speech at the University of Georgia, according to a transcript released by his department.

   North Korea's recent belligerence, the threat of chemical weapons attack on the civilian population in Syria, and the risk of weapons proliferation in Libya all illustrate the perilous link between illicit trade in dual-use items and global security, he added.

   Limage spearheads the Obama administration's efforts to curb the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) worldwide.

   "The proliferation of WMD and their delivery systems, as well as conventional weapons that can be used to destabilize societies, present grave threats to national, regional, and global security," he said.

   Limage said such threats are real, citing the seizures of weapons-grade nuclear material in the nation of Georgia and Moldova in 2010 and 2011.

   "Numerous interdictions of illicit dual-use shipments by the United States and our friends and allies indicate that efforts to develop covert WMD programs have not abated," he said.


Amid Military Tensions, Forum to Highlight N. Korea's Human Rights Abuses

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- While military tensions on the Korean Peninsula show no signs of abating, international efforts continue to address North Korea's abysmal human rights situation.

   The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), a nonprofit organization based in Washington, said on March 29 it would hold a forum next week aimed at raising public awareness on the socialist nation's human rights abuses.

   With the theme of "Human Rights in Kim Jong-un's North Korea: Is progress possible?" the session will take place on Tuesday at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

   To be discussed mainly are the nation's notorious political prison camps and the U.N. system pertinent to North Korean human rights, according to HRNK.

   As many as 200,000 people are estimated to be held in those gulags, mostly in remote areas.

   The HRNK has teamed up with DigitalGlobe, a commercial satellite photo service firm, to locate the gulags.

   Participants will include Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of HRNK, Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, Lee Sung-yoon, Kim Koo-Korea Foundation professor in Korean studies at the Fletcher School, and Joseph Bermudez, a senior analyst at DigitalGlobe Analytics.

   The seminar will be co-hosted by the Fletcher School and the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice.

   It comes after the U.N. Human Rights Council launched an Independent Commission of Inquiry last week to investigate North Korea's "grave, widespread, systemic human rights violations."


Plan to Open High-rise Hotel in Pyongyang Suspended Due to "Market Conditions"

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- The planned opening of the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang was put on hold due to "market conditions," a U.S.-based Internet media outlet said on March 29.

   According to NK News, international hotel group Kempinski put on hold its plan to open the high-rise hotel in Pyongyang, citing "market conditions" in North Korea.

   The chief of the hotel group said in Seoul late last year that his company was planning to partly open the hotel sometime in mid-2013.

   The pyramid-shaped hotel had stood unfinished in downtown Pyongyang for more than 20 years as the cash-strapped country struggled to secure foreign investment in the project. Construction restarted in 2008 after Kempinski joined Egyptian firm Orascom Group in the project to finish and manage the hotel.

   Analysts said political and economic risks may have played a part in the suspension of the project.

   Tensions are sharply escalating on the Korean Peninsula as the North has continued to issue military threats to the U.S. and South Korea. The North has repeatedly threatened to mount nuclear attacks, condemning joint military drills by the U.S. and the South and the United Nations' punitive resolutions on the country's December rocket launch and the third nuclear test on Feb. 12.


N. Korean Missile Launch Sites Show Increased Activities: Sources

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea's missile sites have recently shown increased activities in the wake of the socialist nation's threat to strike South Korea and the United States in response to their ongoing military drill involving nuclear-capable bombers, military sources in Seoul said on March 29.

   The latest move comes after the North Korean military on March 26 put its strategic rocket units on the highest level of combat readiness, threatening to strike targets in South Korea as well as U.S. bases in Hawaii and Guam.

   Following the U.S. military's unprecedented announcement that its nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers participated in the joint military drill in the South, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on March 29 ordered the country's strategic rocket forces to assume combat ready status in a fresh threat to hit U.S. bases with its long-range missiles.

   Amid heightened tensions, South Korean and U.S. forces have focused their intelligence efforts on monitoring the North's missile sites, which have shown brisk activities.

   "North Korea's launch sites to fire off mid- and long-range missiles have recently shown increased movement of vehicles and forces," the official said, asking for anonymity. "We are closely watching possibilities of missile launches."

   Another source said several vehicles were seen moving to the Tongchang-ri missile site on the western coast, in what seemed like preparations for testing its long-range missiles.

   Seoul's defense ministry saw the latest move as a "follow-up measure" to the North Korean military's announcement of the heightened level of combat readiness, but it did not elaborate on "a rocket preparation plan" signed in the North.

   Tensions on the peninsula have risen after the North launched a long-range rocket in December 2012 and conducted its third nuclear test in February, which drew new rounds of U.N. sanctions on the isolated state.

   After the North announced it had voided the Armistice Agreement and cut the military hotline connecting two Koreas, concerns rose over unprovoked attacks by the recalcitrant neighbor, which launched deadly attacks near the western maritime border in 2010.

   Although Pyongyang has routinely denounced past annual drills in the South, Seoul and Washington have taken its bellicose rhetoric more seriously this year as the North has even threatened an "all-out battle" and "pre-emptive nuclear strike" against the U.S. mainland, which are unusually intense threats.

   Outside watchers, however, consider Pyongyang's latest remarks to be aimed at strengthening control domestically and building military credentials, raising doubts over whether it has the technology to build an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.


N. Korean Leader May Attack to Save Face: U.S. Lawmaker

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- With North Korea churning out military threats, a key concern is that its young leader Kim Jong-un may reach a point of no return in provocative steps, a U.S. congressman said on March 31.

   Rep. Peter King (R-NY), former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said North Korea's statements may not be an "empty threat."

   "Kim Jong-un is trying to establish himself. He's trying to be the tough guy. He is 28, 29 years old, and he keeps going further and further out, and I don't know if he can get himself back in," he said in an interview with ABC News.

   "So my concern would be that he may feel to save face he has to launch some sort of attack on South Korea, or some base in the Pacific," said King, who now sits on the House intelligence and homeland security committees.

   He described the North Korean regime as "more like an organized crime family running a territory."

   North Korea has ratcheted up its threats to launch nuclear attacks on the U.S. and stage a war against South Korea. It also warned that it could shut down the inter-Korean industrial complex in Kaesong, just north of the border of the two sides.

   The U.S. has responded with related calls for Pyongyang to calm down and by showing off its available firepower.

   The Pentagon dispatched Japan-based F-22 Raptor stealth fighters for the ongoing South Korea-U.S. joint military drills after sending B-52 Stratofortress and B-2 Spirit bombers, both of which are capable of carrying nuclear bombs, to the Korean Peninsula.

   Pentagon officials said such sorties are aimed at preventing North Korea from making a miscalculation.

   "We have guarded against miscalculation on the Korean Peninsula for over 60 years," Pentagon press secretary George Little told CNN. "We hope to avoid miscalculation. We think we can. The North Koreans simply need to dial the temperature down."

   Some Korea watchers in Washington say Pyongyang is unlikely to immediately translate its threats into actions.

   "Regarding the latest news from Pyongyang, it looks like the voice of reason is finally beginning to prevail over blind fears and hurt pride, and the North Korean leadership is beginning to step back from the brink," Alexandre Mansourov, a U.S. expert who has followed North Korea issues for a long time, said.


N. Korea Offered Iran Anti-tank Guerrilla Tactic in 1982

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea trained Iranian soldiers to blow up Iraqi tanks in 1982 with a motorcycle carrying a liquefied natural gas (LPG) cylinder, Seoul's declassified diplomatic documents showed on March 31.

   Military cooperation between North Korea and Iran started after a bitter eight-year war broke out in 1980 when Iraq invaded Iran, but the documents revealed details on how Pyongyang offered Tehran lethal assistance and equipment at the time.

   The documents, written by the South Korean embassy in Tehran on April 30, 1982, and based on "intelligence from Iranian soldiers," said North Korean Special Forces "trained Iranian troops to destroy Iraqi tanks by driving a motorcycle carrying LPG cylinders into a tank."

   "The anti-tank guerrilla tactic was used in the war," the documents said.

   Japanese-made 90cc or 125cc motorcycles were used for the tactic and an LPG cylinder was designed to explode by a detonation device linked to the motorcycle's fuel tank when it struck the tank, according to the documents.

   The documents were made public on March 31 by Seoul's foreign ministry as part of its annual release of diplomatic documents after 30 years of confidentiality.

   In November 1980, North Korea sent about 60 Special Forces officers to Iran and another 30 officers for T-62 tanks.

   According to the documents, North Korea supplied US$300 million worth of weapons to Iran, including 60 T-62 tanks, surface-to-air and anti-tank guided missiles and multiple rocket launchers, during the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq.


U.S. Says No Unusual Military Move in N. Korea, Diplomacy Still Possible

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- The White House said on April 1 the deployment of advanced warplanes such as B-2 bombers and F-22 stealth fighters to the Korean Peninsula has helped decrease the possibility of a North Korean miscalculation or provocation.

   "We believe this has reduced the chance of miscalculation and provocation," press secretary Jay Carney said at a press briefing.

   The U.S. has not seen any unusual military action by North Korea despite its near-daily threats to attack the U.S. and its regional allies, he added.

   "We haven't seen action to back up the rhetoric in the sense that we haven't seen, you know, significant changes in the North in terms of mobilizations or repositioning of forces, and that is important to note," Carney said.

   With annual joint military drills with South Korea under way, the U.S. briefly deployed Japan-based F-22 Raptor stealth fighters to Korea after sending B-52 Stratofortress and B-2 Spirit bombers, both of which are capable of carrying nuclear bombs.

   In a rare move, the U.S. military made public the dispatch of those strategic weapons.

   In a separate press briefing, Pentagon spokesman George Little confirmed two F-22s from the 94th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, based at Kadena Air Base, Japan, deployed to Osan Air Base, on March 31 (local time), marking the fourth time the F-22 has deployed to South Korea.

   "The aircraft are on static display at Osan Air Base as part of the Foal Eagle exercise to provide bilateral training for the U.S. and ROK military and to provide South Korean senior leaders with an orientation to the aircraft, which are an advanced capability that is available for the defense of South Korea," he said.

   Critics said the U.S. move has contributed to escalating tensions as the North responded angrily to it.

   But the White House official said it was an important step to "reassure our allies, demonstrate our resolve to the North and reduce pressure on Seoul to take unilateral action."

   The U.S. is apparently concerned about the possibility that the tensions on the peninsula will get out of control and trigger another major conflict.

   South Korean President Park Geun-hye ordered the military on April 1 (local time) to deal sternly with any North Korean provocation without "political considerations."

   The State Department reiterated Washington takes Pyongyang's threats very seriously and it would remain vigilant.

   It pointed out that the door is still open for diplomacy.

   "We've made clear that there is a chance for diplomacy if they do the right thing but not if they don't," department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.

   She emphasized that President Barack Obama has been clear that if North Koreans "unclench their fists," the U.S. is willing to meet them.

   "These kinds of threats are not going to get them back to the table," she said. "They're going to take them in the opposite direction."

   The North Korea crisis will be high on the agenda when Secretary of State John Kerry travels to Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing next week.


U.S. Views N.K.'s Nuclear Move as 'Pattern' Violating Obligations

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- The White House said on April 2 that North Korea's stated move to reactivate its dormant nuclear facilities is not surprising, given its repeated breaches of international deals.

   "The fact is that North Korea's announcement that it will reopen or restart its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon is another indication of its pattern of contradicting its own commitments and its pattern of violating its international obligations," press secretary Jay Carney told reporters.

   Hours earlier, Pyongyang said it would "readjust and restart" a Yongbyon reactor mothballed under a six-party deal in 2007.

   Carney said the Barack Obama administration won't be swayed by North Korea's behavior and will take precautionary measures, maintain close consultations with allies, and send consistent messages to Pyongyang.

   "That process will continue," he said, adding Obama is being regularly updated on the issue.

   "The entire national security team is obviously focused on this," he said.

   The North's announcement that it will plug in the Soviet-era reactor further raised skepticism over the fate of the six-way talks launched in 2003 but deadlocked since 2009. Also in doubt is Washington's goal of denuclearizing the secretive communist nation.

   The "disabling" of the reactor was a key accomplishment for the U.S., South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.

   In a meeting of the central committee of the ruling Workers' Party on March 31, under leader Kim Jong-un, the North set a "new strategic course of parallel economic construction and nuclear weapons development on the basis of self-reliance."

   U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement expressing deep concerns over the North's move, which comes on the heels of weeks-long military threats.

   In a show of firepower, the U.S. has dispatched advanced planes and warships to Korea.

   Ban said the current crisis on the peninsula "has gone too far."

   "Things must begin to calm down, as this situation, made worse by the lack of communication, could lead down a path that nobody should want to follow," he said during a trip to Andorra, according to a transcript distributed by his spokesperson, Morana Song.

   "There is no need for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) to be on a collision course with the international community," he added. "I am convinced that nobody intends to attack DPRK because of disagreements about its political system or foreign policy."


N. Korea's New Threats 'Unhelpful, Unconstructive': White House

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- The White House urged North Korea on April 3 to stop issuing "unhelpful and unconstructive" threats.

   It was responding to Pyongyang's statement that its military has received approval for a nuclear strike against the United States.

   "We've seen today's statement by North Korea, again making unhelpful and unconstructive threats," National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told Yonhap News Agency in an email.

   It is yet another offering in a long line of provocative statements that only serve to further isolate North Korea from the rest of the international community and undermine its goal of economic development, she added.

   "North Korea should stop its provocative threats and instead concentrate on abiding by its international obligations," Hayden said.

   Hours earlier, the General Staff of the Korean People's Army (KPA) said its "merciless operation" involving a nuclear strike has been approved.

   It said it was formally informing the White House and the Pentagon of the plan, saying the outbreak of a conflict is just a matter of time.