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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 259 (April 25, 2013)

Relief Group to Set up Church in Pyongyang for Foreigners

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea has responded "favorably" to an international humanitarian group's proposal to establish a foreigners-only church in Pyongyang, which marks a notable development in the country known for strict state persecution of religion.

   Franklin Graham, the president of the Christian charity Samaritan's Purse, revealed on his church Web site in mid-April that he had made the suggestion to the authorities during his visit to North Korea last year and that he has recently received a positive answer through a North Korean diplomat.

   "Recently in New York, I had lunch with the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations. He informed me that the proposal has been received favorably by the country's new leader, Kim Jong-un," Graham said.
The envisioned church would be exclusive to foreign nationals living in Pyongyang, including foreign diplomats, businesspeople and humanitarian teams who are based there, he said.

   Samaritan's Purse plans to send a delegation team to the country soon in order to discuss the church's location, size and construction timeline with Pyongyang officials, according to the Washington-based Radio Free Asia on April 17.

   The New York-based private charity has been operating various relief programs in North Korea for over a decade. In 2008, it sent US$8.3 million worth of relief supplies for the country's flood victims.

   Currently, there are four state-run Christian churches in North Korea -- the Protestant Pongsu and Chilgol churches, the Roman Catholic Changchung Cathedral and the Russian Orthodox Church. They, however, are known to be operated for international propaganda purposes and inaccessible to most local residents.

   North Korea has one of world's lowest levels of religious freedom. Experts estimate there are tens of thousands of underground Christian believers in the socialist country, with some 50,000-70,000 Christians held in prison camps.


First Artisan Coffee Shop Opens in North Korea

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea's first artisan coffee shop has opened in the capital city of Pyongyang, a Singapore-based nonprofit group said on April 18, in the latest outside trend to seep into the isolated country.

   The Observatory Cafe overlooking the city is the first to have single origin beans, drip coffee and a small roasting machine, according to the non-profit organization working with North Korean students, Choson Exchange.

   North Korea is known as one of the world's most reclusive nations, with strict control over the influx of foreign goods. But there has been a slow inflow of cultural commodities into the tightly controlled country.

   While espresso is available in other restaurants, this is the first known shop to carry "third-wave coffee," the organization said, referring to high-quality beans or the movement to promote coffee as an artisanal good, like wine.

   The menu posted on the Choson Exchange Web site features a wide range of coffee beverages, from hand-drip, espressos and Americanos to mocha lattes and even caramel macchiatos.

   Choson Exchange said the espresso and cappuccino taste "excellent" or "good," but admitted that the pour-over coffee is "a bit off," with the grind too coarse and the beans too old by third-wave standards.

   Though only three months old, the shop is "likely to become the next hotspot for tourists and expats," it said, adding that the chances of its survival "are quite high" as more Pyongyang citizens are willing to spend on coffee.


S. Korean, U.S. Military Leaders warn N. Korea against Threats

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Military leaders of South Korea and the United States said on April 21 North Korea's recent torrent of provocative threats will have an unfavorable impact on the isolated socialist regime.

   South Korean Army Gen. Jung Seung-jo, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), and his U.S. counterpart Army Gen. Martin Dempsey made the remarks after a meeting in Seoul, the JCS said in a statement.

   After discussing how to cope with the North Korean threats, Jung and Dempsey also stressed that "the two allies have the capabilities and will to counter any North Korean provocative threats," it said.

   In particular, the military leaders confirmed that relations between South Korea and the U.S. will cement further in the future and they will have closer military ties, according to the JCS.

   Dempsey flew into Seoul for a three-hour stop before visiting China. His trip to Seoul also follows a recent visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as part of a three-nation trip, which also took him to China and Japan.

   On April 18, Jung and Dempsey held a video conference for the Military Committee Meeting, agreeing to maintain the highest-level of joint defense posture to counter any North Korean aggression.

   The agreement came as the communist nation, angered by international sanctions for its nuclear test in February and the ongoing South Korean-U.S. military drill, has unleashed a barrage of warlike rhetoric and threats against the allies, including a possible nuclear attack.


Two More Scud Missile Launchers Moved to N. Korea's East Coast

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea has recently moved two additional missile launchers believed to be for Scud missiles to its east coast, a military source familiar with the matter said on April 21, in yet another sign of preparations for a missile launch at a volatile time on the Korean Peninsula.

   According to intelligence authorities, the North in early April moved two mid-range Musudan missiles to Wonsan, and placed seven mobile missile transporter-erector-launchers (TEL) in Wonsan and South Hamgyeong Province at its eastern coast.

   Coupled with warning diplomats in Pyongyang to leave in case of war, the missiles fueled speculation of a possible launch before the April 15 celebrations of the 101st anniversary of the birth of late founder Kim Il-sung. But Seoul's defense ministry said the North Korean armed forces have not made any uncommon movements as of late.

   However, satellite imagery released after April 16 showed that two additional TELs for shorter-range Scud missiles were moved to South Hamgyeong Province, a military source said, asking for anonymity citing confidential information, fueling questions over the North's true intention.

   "The military is closely watching the North's latest preparations for a missile launch," the source said.

   As Pyongyang celebrated the birthday of the current ruler Kim Jong-un's grandfather only with cultural events, military officials in Seoul believe the belligerent country could stage a show of force, such as a missile launch or a military parade, during the anniversary of the birth of the Korean People's Army, which falls on April 25.


U.S., China Envoys Discuss Ways for Talks with N. Korea

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- The United States and China began high-level talks in Washington on April 22 aimed at reviving dialogue with Pyongyang as this week is widely seen as a watershed in efforts to diffuse tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

   Wu Dawei, Chinese special representative for Korean Peninsula affairs, met with his U.S. counterpart, Glyn Davies, and Dan Friend, who leads the sanctions office at the State Department.

   "Discussions have just begun," Wu told reporters in Chinese, leaving the department building. He gave no other comments.

   On April 23, Wu is scheduled to hold meetings with Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, and Joseph Yun, acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

   He arrived in Washington on April 21 for a four-day stay, his first official trip to the U.S. since 2010.

   Wu, Beijing's long-standing point man on Washington, led several rounds of the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program, which also involves South Korea, Japan and Russia.

   Wu's visit to Washington will be followed by a trip by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns to Beijing on April 24-25.

   Wu may also travel to Pyongyang after his Washington stop, according to some news reports.

   This week's shuttle diplomacy among key players in Northeast Asian security comes as the two Koreas and the U.S. are talking about the need for dialogue after weeks of increasing military tensions.


N. Korea Requests Food Aid from Mongolia: Media Report

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea has recently requested food aid from Mongolia, citing a food shortage the country may face, according to a Mongolian Internet news outlet on April 22.

   The request was made by Hong Gyu, the North Korean ambassador to Mongolia, during his meeting on April 16 with the country's President Ts. Elbegdorj to present a letter of credence, according to an article by

   "At the conclusion, North Korean Ambassador to Ulan Bator Hong Gyu said North Korea may face a severe food shortage. Therefore, we ask Mongolia to seek possibilities of delivering food aid to North Korea," the article said.

   Food assistance and other aid to the impoverished country from the outside world ground to a halt after the North conducted its third nuclear test on Feb. 12 in defiance of the international community's warnings.

   During the meeting with the Mongolian president, the North Korean envoy also "conveyed the greetings of the young supreme leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, and by delivering greetings confirmed Kim's invitation to the president to visit North Korea," according to the media.

   Hong noted Pyongyang's pledge to accelerate its economic reform and the president expressed his country's interest in sharing its economic reform experience, it also said.

   They also discussed the on-going tensions on the Korean Peninsula and the Mongolian president "expressed Mongolia's readiness to contribute to solve the dispute in a peaceful way," the news outlet said.

   North Korea's Korean Central Television also reported the meeting last week, but it did not refer to the food aid request.

   The two countries have maintained friendly relations since they established diplomatic ties in 1948.


U.S. Official: N. Korea Food Situation 'Fairly Difficult,' Door Still Open for Aid

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- A U.S. special envoy on North Korea said on April 22 that North Korea's food plight is "fairly difficult" and that Washington is keeping the door open for food aid.

   Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, affirmed that the U.S. draws a line between food assistance and politics.

   "If there were a request for assistance, it's something I'm sure that we would look at," he said during a roundtable meeting with reporters at the State Department. "We try to keep our humanitarian assistance separate from political considerations."

   He cited Washington's three main criteria in deciding whether to provide food aid to a country -- its own need, comparison with needs in other nations, and transparency in distribution.

   "Reports from a lot of organizations that operate in North Korea indicate conditions are fairly difficult," King said. "People don't have a lot of protein. The food situation is very tight."

   In a separate report, the World Food Program said last fall that the North's food supply might have improved.

   The envoy said he is aware of a news report that North Korea recently asked for food assistance from Mongolia, although he refused to confirm whether it is true.


U.S. Keeps Tabs on N. Korea amid Nuke, Missile Concerns

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- The U.S. government is keeping close tabs on North Korea's military actions, the White House said on April 22, after a top Chinese military official formally raised the possibility of another nuclear test by Pyongyang.

   The White House would not be surprised if North Korea launches a missile or take other provocative steps, its spokesman Jay Carney said at a press briefing.

   "We remain in a state of constant monitoring and vigilance with regards to all the developments that we have seen in recent weeks," Carney added.

   After weeks of ferocious military threats, Pyongyang is talking about the terms of dialogue. The communist nation calls for disarmament talks with the U.S., not denuclearization discussions. The U.S. dismissed the offer as unacceptable, saying it would never tolerate the North's development and possession of nuclear bombs.

   With the world paying close attention to the actions of North Korea in the coming weeks, China's top military general said Pyongyang may conduct a forth nuclear test.

   "(North Koreans) held their third nuclear test (in February) and it is very likely they are going to hold their fourth test," Chief of the General Staff Gen. Fang Fenghui said after talks with his U.S. counterpart, Gen. Martin Dempsey, in Beijing.

   "In this situation, we ask all sides to work on the North Koreans to stop nuclear tests and stop producing nuclear weapons. We believe that dialogue should be the right solution," he added.


U.S. Gov't Says Food Aid for N. Korea Possible If Distribution Transparent

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- The U.S. government clearly said on April 23 it could weigh food assistance to North Korea as long as transparency of distribution is guaranteed.

   "In terms of food aid, we've long said that we have no ill will toward the North Korean people," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said at a press briefing.

   But a precondition is that the regime make efforts to feed its people rather than spending money on the development of nuclear weapons and missiles, he added.

   "If we were to have confidence that the food aid would actually get to the people, that's something we're willing to consider," the official said.

   The U.S. halted shipments of food to North Korea in 2009 as suspicions grew that the reclusive nation was channeling much of the provided assistance to the military.

   In 2011, the U.S. agreed to send 240,000 tons of "nutritional assistance," which excludes rice, to the North but the deal broke apart when the North launched a long-range rocket.

   Meeting a small group of reporters in Washington on April 22, Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, said should Pyongyang request the resumption of food aid, Washington would mull it over on the basis of the principles for any foreign assistance.

   He emphasized the U.S. does not link humanitarian assistance with political issues.

   "If there were a request for assistance, it's something I'm sure that we would look at," he said. "We try to keep our humanitarian assistance separate from political considerations."

   The three main criteria in deciding whether to provide food aid to a country are its own need, its need relative to other nations, and transparency in distribution, King said.

   Last fall, the World Food Program suggested the food supply in the North improved a little bit compared to the year before. But many organizations operating in the North agree that the conditions remain "fairly difficult," the envoy pointed out.


U.N. Monitoring Body Detects Radioactive Traces from N. Korea's Nuclear Test

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Traces of radioactive materials from North Korea's February nuclear test were detected, a U.N. nuclear monitoring body said on April 23, providing the first evidence of the nuclear detonation.

   The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, a U.N. body, said in an emailed statement that its "radionuclide network has made a significant detection of radioactive noble gases that could be attributed to the nuclear test" announced by North Korea on Feb. 12.

   Two radioactive isotopes of the noble gas xenon, xenon-131m and xenon-133, were identified in its detection stations in Takasaki, Japan and Ussuriysk, Russia, the organization said.

   "The ratio of the detected xenon isotopes is consistent with a nuclear fission event occurring more than 50 days before the detection," it said, referring to the North's nuclear test.

   The North's February nuclear test, its third since 2006 and 2009, prompted the U.N. Security Council to impose fresh sanctions on the socialist country.

   Some arms experts suspect the socialist regime may have attempted to test a nuclear warhead to be fitted onto a ballistic missile.

   South Korea's defense ministry said earlier this month that it was doubtful about the North's capability to produce a nuclear bomb small and light enough to be loaded onto a ballistic missile.


N. Korea's Spring Harvest Likely to Be Better Than Last Year

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea's spring farm harvest is expected to exceed last year's tally mainly due to favorable weather conditions, a news report said on April 23, citing data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

   According to the FAO data, output of barley, wheat and potatoes that can be harvested from June onwards will likely grow vis-a-vis the year before, Radio Free Asia (RFA) said.

   The report by the Washington-based media outlet also said the sowing of seeds for rice and corn, which make up 95 percent of North Korea's grain production, is also moving forward without complications.

   The RFA said that the FAO calculated that North Korea's overall grain production rose 14 percent on-year in 2012, with this year's number expected to go up as well. Despite such gains, the country is expected to suffer from a food shortage that may affect 2.8 million people out of a total population of about 24 million.

   "The North needs to import at least 510,000 tons of grain this year to make up for the shortage, but so far it has brought in just 12,400 tons," the news outlet said.

   It said the U.N. organization has stressed that the next four months will be critical for the North because it can suffer from shortages ahead of the spring harvest, and there may be a need to receive aid from the international community.

   Reflecting the country's shortcomings in the agricultural field and the need to bolster production, North Korean media called for more effort to increase organic fertilizer production.

   The (North) Korean Central News Agency and Rodong Sinmun all filed articles that were monitored in Seoul, outlining ways to increase fertilizer output and lauded production facilities and workers who contributed to more production.

   Pyongyang has been moving to increase organic fertilizer production since 2008, after Seoul cut off aid in this field.

   Seoul delivered 115,000 tons of chemical fertilizers in 1999, and followed this by providing 30,000-35,000 tons of the material to Pyongyang every year from 2000 through 2007.

   Kwon Tae-jin, a research fellow at state-run Korean Advanced Farmers Federation, said the North has been putting a lot of effort into organic fertilizer production to make up for the cut in supply from the South. However, he said there is an inherent limit to organic fertilizers in terms of boosting output that is exerting a negative impact of the country's farm output.


China's Crude Oil Exports to N. Korea up 8.2 Pct in March

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- China's exports of crude oil to North Korea rose 8.2 percent last month from a year earlier, a report said on April 24.

   China shipped 106,000 tons of crude oil to the North in March, the Washington-based Voice of America (VOA) said, citing data by China's customs.
The total volume of crude oil export from China to North Korea during the first three months of this year reached 159,000 tons, up 6.7 percent from a year earlier, the report said.

   The news outlet confirmed previous media reports that China did not export crude oil to the North in February, which was attributed to the superpower's tightened implementation of economic sanctions on the socialist country for its third nuclear test on Feb. 12.

   VOA said, however, that China, the North's closest ally, had no records of crude oil exports to the North in February in 2012 and 2011.

   According to China's customs, the country shipped a total of 523,000 tons of crude oil to the North in 2012, 526,000 tons in 2011 and 528,000 tons in 2010.

   Besides official trade, China is believed to have ship an additional 500,000 tons every year in crude oil assistance to the North.

   In a recent Congress hearing, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that about three-fourths of North Korea's crude oil needs are sourced from China.

   The North is also reportedly considering crude oil imports from Iran. Iran's Oil Minister Rostam Ghasemi said the two countries are currently in talks over the matter.