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N. Korean Leader Has over $1 Billion in Slush Funds Abroad

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is believed to have more than US$1 billion in overseas secret bank accounts, according to a news report that cited an intelligence official.

   The Washington Times on April 25 quoted the unnamed official as saying there are reports that Kim and his family maintain at least US$1 billion in slush funds in Switzerland, Austria and Luxembourg.

   The U.S. is trying to ratchet up financial pressure on Pyongyang to curb its nuclear and missile programs.

   The U.N. Security Council imposed new sanctions on the socialist regime after its Feb. 12 nuclear test.

   The official argues an effective way to squeeze Pyongyang financially would be pressing it to repay its debts.

   "In order to cut off North Korea's funds for developing weapons of mass destruction, we should trace and block the Kim family's overseas secret funds in addition to calling for creditor companies to call on North Korea to repay its debts," the official said.

   Estimates put the amount of foreign debt owed by North Korea at $14 billion from some 30 countries.

   North Korea owes Japan $400 million, Sweden $330 million, Iran $300 million, Germany $300 million, Thailand $260 million, Switzerland $100 million and Iraq $50 million, a Treasury official told the Washington Times. All of the nations are demanding repayment, but China and Russia are still lukewarm on the international debt repayment efforts.

   China, a key North Korean patron, is owed $6.98 billion by Pyongyang and Russia is owed $1.1 billion, mainly from transfers of military assets and other assistance, the newspaper said.

   "Treasury has been using tools at its disposal to increase financial pressure on the North Korean regime by targeting individuals and entities responsible for facilitating payments connected to North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile program, as well as financial institutions such as the Foreign Trade Bank, which has served as a key node for the regime's foreign exchange," the Treasury official was quoted as saying.


N. Korea, Iran Strike Mineral Resources-for-oil Deal

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea has agreed on a mineral resources-for-crude oil deal with Iran as the two countries work to increase their economic ties, a report said on April 25.

   North Korea will provide mineral resources in return for Iran's crude oil, the Washington-based Voice of America (VOA) quoted Iran's Minister of Commerce Mehdi Ghazanfari telling Iranian news agency MEHR.

   During a recent meeting, the countries decided what types of resources will be traded, he said.

   The North required crude oil, fertilizer and steel goods in return for provisions of their iron ore, the minister said, adding they have yet to determine bartering terms.

   The report came after Iran's Oil Minister Rostam Ghasemi said earlier that the two countries were in talks over the crude oil trade.

   The North last week dispatched a delegation, led by its oil minister Pae Hak, to an energy fair in Iran, indicating its tightening relations with the oil-rich country.

   China is by far the biggest crude oil exporter to the North, providing what is believed to be three-fourths of North Korea's crude oil needs.


Activists Set to Mark North Korea Freedom Week

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- Activists working to improve North Korea's human rights situation will stage an intensive campaign worldwide next week to raise public awareness of the problem, a main organizer said on April 26.

   They plan to hold various events in Washington, Seoul and other cities to mark the 10th annual North Korea Freedom Week from April 28 through May 5, according to Susan Sholte, head of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, based in Washington.

   Her group will work with other organizations and people supporting efforts to address the North Korean human rights issue.

   A special concert, titled "A Night of Hope," will kick off North Korea Freedom Week in Washington at 7 p.m. April 28.

   This year, the coalition will focus on collecting online petitions demanding China's new president, Xi Jinping, stop repatriating North Korean defectors.

   It has designated May 2 as Worldwide Awareness Day for North Korean Refugees.

   "Our focus is to have many Chinese embassies and consulates receive petitions to Xi Jinping on May 2 calling for the end to the illegal, inhuman and brutal repatriation of North Korean refugees. Many coordinators are also sponsoring events to raise awareness of this issue," Scholte said in an emailed message.

   In addition, various events will take place throughout North Korea Freedom Week in Seoul and several other South Korean cities, including a photo exhibition on North Korean human rights conditions, seminars and rallies, she added.


Number of N. Korean Visitors to China up 14 Percent in Q1

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- The number of North Korean visitors to China increased 14 percent in the first quarter of this year from a year earlier, a report said on April 26, indicating bilateral relations seemed undisturbed by U.N.-led sanctions on the hardscrabble country.

   About 45,800 North Koreans traveled to China, the North's closest ally, in the January-March period, compared with 40,200 recorded in the same period in 2012, according to the report by the Washington-based Voice of America (VOA), which cited data from China.

   The increase is seen as showing that North Korea-China relations have not been disturbed by China's recent shift to take an active role in implementing the U.N. sanctions against the North, adopted following the country's December rocket launch and its third nuclear test on Feb. 12.

   The majority of the North Korean travelers to China, 48.3 percent, crossed the border to work in the world's second-biggest economy and 25.8 percent went there for business purposes, according to the report. Only 1.5 percent were on trips to China for tourism.

   Out of the total visitors, 78 percent were male North Koreans while 44.5 percent of the total were aged between 45 and 64.


N. Korea Preparing for Large-scale Forces Exercise along Yellow Sea Coast

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea is preparing to conduct a large-scale air, land combined forces exercise along its Yellow Sea coast, as it lets loose a steady barrage of verbal attacks against South Korea and the United States for conducting joint military drills.

   A government source on April 28 said intelligence picked up signs that the communist country may conduct an exercise around Nampho that makes use of aircraft and field artillery units. Nampho is the most populous port city in South Pyongan Province and lies southwest of the North Korean capital.

   "There is no way to tell when the drill will actually kick off, but there is a chance the North may opt to launch short range missiles as part of its show of force," the official, who declined to be identified, said.

   Pyongyang has claimed that the ongoing Foal Eagle exercise carried out by South Korean and U.S. forces is a dress rehearsal for the invasion of the North and warned it will do its best to deter such aggression, which might include the use of nuclear weapons.

   The possible launch of short-range rockets comes as Pyongyang has not gone ahead with the firing of its intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) that had been sent to the east coast. Seoul and Washington said it detected the deployments of two Musudan IRBMs and had issued warnings that launching the missiles will further raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Tensions have already reached the highest level in decades with the North testing its third nuclear device on Feb. 12.

   Besides the Musudan that may have the range to reach Guam, the North deployed its Rodong and Scud missiles to the east coast. The Rodong has the range to hit parts of Japan, while Scuds, with a shorter range, pose a threat to South Korea.

   Other military sources in Seoul said that while signs of movement of military forces have picked up, there is no clear evidence that the exercise is imminent.

   "A large part of the North's military is currently being used to help spring farming, although the South remains on guard against potential blitzkrieg like attacks," an officer said.

   He said with the complete withdrawal of South Korean personnel from the Kaesong Industrial Complex that should be completed this week, the North may move to heighten military tensions.


Local Group Claims 113 War Prisoners Alive in N. Korea

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- About 113 South Korean prisoners of war have been confirmed to be alive in coal-mining regions in North Korea's border with China, a local group claimed on April 29.

   Dream Makers for North Korea, which campaigns for the release of South Koreans abducted by the North, disclosed the list of the names and North Korean addresses of the 113 war prisoners.

   The prisoners, formerly South Korean soldiers who could not escape the North following the 1950-53 Korean War, are currently living in several coal-mining regions in North Hamgyong Province, the group said.

   Park Sun-young, a former lawmaker who leads the group, said the group verified the war prisoners' presence for four months starting last November, but refused to reveal the method used for the investigation.

   Based on remarks from North Korean defectors and former war prisoners who returned home, South Korea's defense ministry said on April 30 the government is assuming that about 500 South Korean prisoners of war are alive in the North.

   According to the National Intelligence Service, the government has confirmed the identities of 1,734 war prisoners in the North, with 548 of them believed to still be alive.


S. Korea Says N. Korean Missile Launch Preparations Still Underway

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea is still working on preparations for a medium-range ballistic missile launch, South Korea's presidential office said on April 29, denying a news report that the communist nation halted such preparations.

   For weeks, North Korea showed signs of preparing to fire the missile, known as "Musudan," which is believed to be capable of reaching as far as the U.S territory of Guam, in what outside experts suspect as an attempt at demonstrating its capability to launch nuclear missiles.

   Pyongyang had widely been expected to fire the missile around the April 15 birthday of Kim Il-sung, the country's late founding leader and grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un. But no such firing happened, raising speculation that the country might have decided against a launch.

   Japan's Asahi Shimbun reported earlier April 29 that North Korea suspended preparations for a launch and the U.S. military lowered its surveillance level by a notch. The paper cited unidentified South Korea, U.S. and Japanese officials as saying that no radio signal related to launch preparations has been detected since around April 20.

   But South Korea's presidential office Cheong Wa Dae denied the report.

   "Our assessment is that preparations for a Musudan missile launch are still going on," presidential spokesman Yoon Chang-jung told reporters. "We decided to immediately deny the report because this is a matter related to our national security."

   Yoon also said that the absence of such a radio signal does not necessarily mean that preparations for a launch have been halted.


U.S. Gov't Calls for Immediate Release of American Man Detained in N. Korea

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- The U.S. government urged North Korea on April 29 to immediately release a Korean-American man detained there.

   "We call on the DPRK (North Korea) to release Kenneth Bae immediately on humanitarian grounds," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters. "You know the welfare of U.S. citizens is a critical and top priority for this department."

   Washington's repeated call for the release of Bae, a Beijing-based tour operator who has been detained in the North for nearly half a year, came after Pyongyang's announcement that he will stand trial on unspecified charges of crimes against the state.

   The U.S. is trying to win the freedom of Bae, whose Korean name is Bae Jun-ho, through the Swedish Embassy in the North Korean capital. It serves as protecting power for the U.S. on issues involving U.S. citizens in the socialist nation, as the two sides have no formal diplomatic ties.

   Ventrell said Swedish officials last met Bae on April 26.

   "We were trying to find out more about the charges," he said.

   Before the Bae case, several Americans were detained in North Korea on similar charges. All of them were released unhurt, mostly as high-profile U.S. figures traveled to the North to bring them back home.

   In 2009, former U.S. President Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang for two female American journalists, which apparently offered a domestic propaganda chance for the North's leadership.

   Regarding Bae, however, the North did not request a trip by any U.S. envoy as of last week, according to Robert King, special envoy for North Korean human rights issues at the State Department.


Escapees to Ask U.N. to Determine Fate of Relatives in N. Korea

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- A group of North Korean escapees in Seoul said on April 30 that they will ask the United Nations to help them determine the fate of family members held in the socialist country's concentration camps.

   The Free the North Korean Gulag group said in a press conference that 20 escapees have compiled the names of 40 family members held against their will in the socialist country. It said the list has been handed over to the International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK), which will forward it to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

   "The petition will be rewritten to meet the U.N. body's standards and sent around mid May," said Kwon Eun-kyoung, the team leader for the ICNK's international affairs office.

   She said the arbitrary detention group is expected to review the request and directly contact North Korean authorities. Pyongyang, as a member of the international body, is obliged to respond to the inquiry within 60 days of receiving the message.

   The official also said efforts will be made to ensure the list is incorporated into a report to be made by United Nations Commission of Inquiry for North Korea in December.

   The ICNK, meanwhile, said it took similar steps to determine the fate of Shin Sook-ja and her two daughters in late 2011. Pyongyang responded that the mother had died from hepatitis. Shin is the wife of Oh Kil-nam who defected to the North while his family was in Germany in 1985. Having grown disenchanted with the North, Oh escaped the communist country alone the following year and has been asking various groups to help him find his family.


N. Korea's Nuke Pursuit Began in the 1950s: Dossier

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- North Korea's nuclear ambitions date back to the 1950s and its officials talked about the possibility of nuclear warfare even in the 1970s, according to a declassified diplomatic dossier.

   In a document dated April 30, 1958, five years after the end of the Korean War, Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko records that North Korea was eager to start a nuclear program, though Pyongyang insisted it was for peaceful purposes.

   North Korea "is turning to the government of the Soviet Union with a request to give help in preparing and drawing up a plan of DPRK (North Korea) scientific research work to organize the production of atomic energy for peaceful purposes," it reads.

   It is among 125 declassified documents made public by the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. The institute has been tracking diplomatic records on North Korea by its former communist allies such as the Soviet Union, Romania and Hungary.

   In a 1963 cable to Moscow, Vasily Moskovsky, Soviet ambassador to Pyongyang, quoted a North Korean engineer as saying North Korea can produce an atomic bomb at relatively low prices due to cheap labor costs.

   The North Korean regime has been claiming that its nuclear program is aimed for peaceful purposes but it conducted three underground nuclear tests, in 2006, 2009, and 2013, respectively.

   A Hungarian diplomatic document, dated Feb. 16, 1976, indicates the North began preparations for nuclear war as early as the 1970s.

   Some North Korean officials told a visiting Hungarian health delegation that "Korea cannot be unified in a peaceful way," adding, "They (the North Koreans) are prepared for war. If a war occurs in Korea, it will be waged with nuclear weapons, rather than conventional ones."

   They were quoted as adding that their nation "has been turned into a system of fortifications, important factories have been moved underground and airfields, harbors, and other military facilities have been established in the subterranean cave networks."


N. Korea's Imports of Chinese Fertilizers Jump in Q1: Report

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea's imports of Chinese fertilizers surged in the first quarter of this year, an indication that the country may be focused on improving agricultural output, a report showed on May 1.

   According to the report by the Korea Rural Economic Institute (KREI), Pyongyang bought 29,791 tons of chemical fertilizers from its neighbor, up 3.6 fold from the 6,530 tons it imported for the same three month period in 2012.

   It said for March alone, the country brought in 28,725 tons of fertilizer.

   "Normally the North imports fertilizers in April," said Kwon Tae-jin, a research fellow at KREI. He said the fact that it bought so much ahead of when it usually imports the product means Pyongyang may be interested in improving farm output.

   North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had said earlier in the year that the North needs to concentrate on farming and light industries in 2013 because they directly impact the everyday lives of people.

   The expert, in addition, speculated that a surge in imports could be the result of problems in local fertilizer production.

   The latest findings based on data provided by Korea International Trade Association, meanwhile, showed the North importing 54,178 tons of grain from China in the first quarter, an increase of 31.6 percent from the year before.

   Total imports as measured in dollars also jumped 39.2 percent on-year to US$24.71 million from $17.75 million in the first three months of last year.


North Korea's Premier Pak Pong-ju Focuses More on Economy

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea's newly appointed prime minister is paying more attention to the economy as the socialist country seeks to improve the livelihoods of its people, analysts in Seoul said on May 1.

   Pak Pong-ju, a longtime industrial technocrat who led the country's economic reform a decade ago, was tapped as prime minister on April 1 in what many outside experts saw as a move by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to breathe new life into the stagnant economy.

   Observers said the 74-year-old had initially maintained a rather low-key stance, doing little to differentiate himself from his predecessor Choe Yong-rim, but more recently he has started attending more economy-related events and given specific policy instructions.

   It is not unusual for senior officials to tour front-line factories and businesses, but they generally do not touch on details on operations and refrain from giving actual instructions designed to push for change.

   "There seems to be a move by Pak to slowly lay the foundation for some new kind of economic reform program," said Cho Bong-hyun, an analyst at the IBK Economic Research Institute. "The regime may be using Pak to show it is dedicated to improving the livelihood of the people in the face of persistent economic troubles."

   The country's economic woes may worsen this year after the United Nations imposed fresh sanctions after Pyongyang detonated its third nuclear device on Feb. 12.

   North Korean news reports monitored in Seoul showed Pak visiting a coal and chemical plant in South Pyongan Province last Saturday, as well as touring a fertilizer factory and cooperative farm in South Hwanghae Province six days earlier.

   During these visits, state media outlets said the premier touched on the need for new management strategies to better meet development in the new century, and called for the drawing of blueprints for more efficient running of companies and employment of labor.

   Reports also said that he discussed ways to increase agricultural production by adopting more advanced farming techniques.

   Pak, in addition, delivered a speech at the opening event of a new restaurant in the capital city on April 25 and was present at the 28th science and technology fair two days earlier.

   Other Pyongyang experts such as Lim Eul-chul, a research professor at Kyungnam University, said the new prime minister may be showing the people that the leadership is not only interested in building up its nuclear might, but also the national economy that directly affects the lives of its people.

   "With the two-month-long joint South Korean-U.S. Foal Eagle exercise having ended on April 30, Pak may try to secure tangible gains in the light industrial and the farming sectors," Lim said.

   Kim Jong-un has repeatedly said that the country must concentrate on light industry and the farming sector this year, as he stressed the need to strive for both economic growth and nuclear arms development.

   Analysts said with Kim starting to attend more economic and social events, the prime minister may begin to push for economic policy change.