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North Korea Warns of Dangerous Tensions on Korean Peninsula

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea warned on May 16 that dangerous tensions are rising on the Korean Peninsula in May due to naval drills conducted by South Korea and the United States.

   In an article carried by Rodong Sinmun, an organ of the ruling Workers' Party of (North) Korea (WPK), the North claimed the convergence of substantial forces around waters surrounding the peninsula is a move to taunt its Navy and heighten the risk of confrontation.

   Seoul and Washington carried out anti-submarine exercises in the Yellow Sea south of the sea demarcation line that separates the two Koreas early May, followed by a two-day-long drill in the East Sea that involved the Nimitz carrier battle group.

   The daily, which mirrors the views of the ruling party and the state, said this year's annual Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises that were carried out in March and April were unprecedented in its scope.

   The U.S. sent its F-22 stealth fighters, B-2 and B-52 strategic bombers over South Korea in an overt show of force after Pyongyang ratcheted up tensions by detonating its third nuclear device on Feb. 12 and threatening nuclear strikes against the United States.

   "The naval exercises following Key Resolve and Foal Eagle can only be seen as part of broader efforts to stifle the DPRK (North Korea) with military might," the paper said.

   Assessments by foreign military observers that Pyongyang has withdrawn its Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile are inaccurate, it said.

   The daily said that trying to find a fully automated mobile missile system is like finding a needle in a haystack. It warned that all of its missiles have coordinates of U.S. targets pre-set in the guidance systems.


N. Korea Denounces U.S. ICBM Test Plan as Military Provocation

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea on May 18 denounced a possible move by the United States to test fire an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) later in May, calling it a serious military provocation.

   Rodong Sinmun, an organ of the ruling Workers’ Party of (North) Korea (WPK) said in a article monitored in Seoul, the launch, if it takes place, will be an insult to the international community and a direct threat to Pyongyang.

   The daily, which effectively reflects the views of the socialist country, said the ICBM test can only be seen as a prelude to a pre-emptive invasion of countries the U.S. wants to strike.

   "The U.S. is trying foolishly to intimidate us with the ICBM launch," the paper claimed, and pointed out that Washington is not the only country capable of launching long-range missiles.

   It then said Pyongyang has the means to make U.S. ICBM's useless and made clear that if its sovereignty is violated by just "0.001 millimeter," the socialist country will take measures to "annihilate the heart of the attackers with unbelievably strong force." It did not say if it will use nuclear weapons, but the country has been threatening to hit both South Korea and the U.S. with nuclear weapons if it is provoked.

   On Feb. 12 the country detonated it third nuclear device and launched a long range rocket last year that may have a range of over 10,000 kilometers.

   The report comes as there have been some media reports that Washington may be moving to conduct a launch test with its Minuteman-3 missile next week from its Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

   Initially Washington had scheduled the test for earlier in the month, but it had been put off, in what many experts said may be a move not to antagonize the North. The country had started to tone down its saber rattling tactics in the past few weeks after South Korea and the United States concluded the annual Foal Eagle military drills on April 30.


N. Korea Bashes Seoul for Comments on Japan Official's Pyongyang Visit

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea slammed South Korea on May 18 for making critical comments on a Japanese official's recent visit to Pyongyang, calling it an "unprecedented precipitancy."

   Isao Lijima, an adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, returned to Tokyo on May 17 after a surprise four-day visit to North Korea. In Pyongyang, he met with high-ranking officials, including Kim Yong-nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly.

   Little has been known about the purpose of Lijima's trip, but the two sides reportedly discussed wide-ranging issues of mutual interest, including ways to resolve ongoing disputes over the abduction of about a dozen Japanese nationals by North Korea decades ago.

   The abduction issue, along with the North's demand for compensation for Japan's colonial rule of North Korea in the early part of the 20th century, is a major pending issue between the two countries.

   Japan normalized with South Korea in 1965 but has no formal ties with North Korea.
South Korea has taken a critical stand on Lijima's trip, expressing concern that it may hurt international efforts to form a unified approach to the belligerent North Korea which remains under U.N. sanctions for its missile and nuclear weapons programs.

   "It is important to maintain a close coordination, among South Korea, the U.S. and Japan, toward North Korea," South Korean Foreign Ministry Spokesman Cho Tai-young told reporters on May 16. "In that sense, we think that the visit by Iijima to North Korea is unhelpful."

   North Korea showed anger at the South Korean stance. "Officials' trip between countries is just common on the international arena. It is not a matter of intervention by a third party," the North said in a statement posted on its main propaganda Website, Uriminzokkiri.

   Lijima's trip drew attention from Washington as well. U.S. and South Korean officials said they were not informed of his trip in advance.

   Lijima is said to have helped arrange former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's trips to Pyongyang for talks with then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in 2002 and 2004.

   During Lijima's 2002 trip, Kim admitted that North Korean agents had kidnapped a total of 13 Japanese citizens to use them as language instructors for socialist spies.

   North Korea then allowed eight of those Japanese abductees to return home but said the five others died of infectious diseases or killed in traffic accidents. Japan discredited the North's explanations, insisting that some of them may still be alive.


N. Korea Slams Japanese Politicians for Denying Past Atrocities

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea attacked Japanese political leaders on May 20 for denying atrocities committed in the past and for not taking measures to settle its historic debt to people in the region.

   In an article carried by Rodong Sinmun, an organ of the ruling Workers' Party of (North) Korea (WPK), Pyongyang said Japan must unconditionally apologize and take action to make compensations for the suffering it inflicted on all Asians countries.

   The daily's criticism, monitored in Seoul, comes after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he regretted not having paid homage to the Yasukuni Shrine in the past, while other political figures made comments distorting the plight of sex slaves used by the Japanese military during World War II.

   The shrine in Tokyo honors Japan's war dead, and is considered by neighboring Asian countries as a symbol of Japan's militarism. The exploitations of sex slaves have also become a human rights abuse issue that has drawn fire from all across the world.

   "The latest string of remarks shows the impudence and low moral standards of Japan," it said, adding that Tokyo is now in the process of trying to justify its colonial conquests and war by whitewashing its past misdeeds. Such developments the paper said aims to transform the country into a military power.

   North Korean watchers in Seoul, meanwhile, said the criticism is noteworthy because it comes right after the visit by a Japanese envoy to Pyongyang last week.

   Isao Iijima, an adviser to Abe, made a surprise four-day visit to the socialist country, where he met with high-ranking officials, including Kim Yong-nam.

   Little has been known about the purpose of Iijima's trip, but the two sides reportedly discussed wide-ranging issues of mutual interest, including ways to resolve ongoing disputes over the abduction of about a dozen Japanese nationals by North Korea decades ago.


North Korea Confirms Bird Flu Outbreak at Duck Farm

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea on May 20 confirmed a bird flu outbreak at a Pyongyang duck farm and said it has killed as many as 160,000 ducks to contain the virus.

   Authorities who conducted examinations on May 7 found that ducks in the Tudan Duck Farm were infected with the H5N1 virus, the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported. "They briefed UN bodies concerned on this situation while taking steps to kill as many as 160,000 ducks in the farm and quarantine and disinfect it," the news agency said.

   Veterinary epidemic control teams are monitoring poultry and movements of wild birds, and efforts are being made to raise the diagnosis capability and to increase preventive medicines, the KCNA report said.

   The Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health had notified South Korea on May 14 of the bird flu cases in the North, but North Korea did not confirm the outbreak at the time.

   The report said the State Emergency Anti-epidemic Committee was taking due measures, including checkups of humans in infected areas, testing and quarantine of poultry and restricting the movement of living fowls.

   "A strict step was taken to hedge fowl, duck, pigeon and other domestic poultry off from the outer world," it said.

   Earlier, North Korea has set up an emergency committee as part of a country-wide effort to cope with the bird flu threat. Rodong Sinmun, an organ of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), said on May 18 anti-bird flu measures have been implemented at all administrative levels of the government.

   The daily said the Ministry of Public Heath also published information outlining what measures ordinary people should take to prevent the avian influenza (AI) from spreading, and said authorities are checking the health of hundreds of people every day.

   It then said that H7N9 strain of AI found in China can be fatal to people and pointed out that global efforts are underway to help contain the virus and future outbreaks.

   Pyongyang, while reporting outbreaks in the neighboring country, has not once admitted an outbreak took place at a duck farm near the capital city.


N. Korean Leader Inspects Military Unit after Missile Firing

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspected a military unit, a state media outlet said on May 21 following three successive days of short-range projectile launches from the country's east coast.

   The North has fired a total of six short-range projectiles into the East Sea since May 18, aggravating inter-Korean tensions. Seoul presumed the projectiles to be short-range missiles or rockets.

   Kim inspected Unit 405 of the (North) Korean People's Army (KPA), the North's official news agency KCNA said on May 21 without providing the date of the inspection.

   Kim's previous reported military inspection was in late March when he visited military units for four days in a row, which was seen here as counteracting perceived threats from Seoul's two joint military exercises with the U.S.

   Kim expressed "belief that its service personnel would defend the dear socialist homeland as firm as an iron wall" and told them to "unite in one mind and develop the unit into stalwart steel-strong combat ranks," according to the KCNA English report.

   During the visit, the leader toured the unit's library and operation study room and inspected the unit's food service, highlighting the importance of providing convenient living conditions for soldiers, according to the report.

   The report said Kim did not make belligerent remarks toward the South or the U.S., a change from his March military visits where he guided military drills apparently targeting the two countries.

   The North Korean leader capped his latest visit by attending an art performance by the unit, the report said.

   The North's missile and rocket launches come after the country had toned down its saber-rattling in the past few weeks after South Korea and the United States concluded the annual Foal Eagle military drills on April 30.


North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un Sends Special Envoy to China

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on May 22 dispatched a top military official to China as a special envoy, the country's state media said.

   The (North) Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said Choe Ryong-hae, vice marshal and director of the General Political Bureau of the (North) Korean People's Army (KPA), had left Pyongyang for China.

   The KCNA did not elaborate on details of the visit or the itinerary other than saying he was being sent by Kim.

   The dispatch comes as bilateral relations have cooled in recent months after the North ignored repeated calls from Beijing not to ratchet up tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

   The visit also comes as South Korea President Park Geun-hye is expected to go to Beijing in June for her first summit meeting with Chinese leaders.

   Choe's trip marks the first time that Pyongyang has sent a special envoy to its closest ally since the incumbent leader took power after the sudden death of his father Kim Jong-il in December 2011.

   Choe is considered a close confidant of the North Korean leader and is often seen in Kim's company when he conducts on-site inspections within the country.

   It is the second high-level visit by a North Korean official since Jang Song-thaek's trip last August. Jang, who is known to have personnel ties with many senior Chinese officials, is currently the vice chairman of the country's powerful National Defense Commission and Kim's uncle.

   Choe's visit comes as bilateral relations have cooled in recent months after the North ignored repeated calls from Beijing not to ratchet up tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Defying warnings by China, the North went ahead with the launching of two long-range rockets last year and detonated its third nuclear device in February.

   In response, Beijing allowed the U.N. Security Council to pass sanction resolutions in March and has taken steps to clamp down on financial transactions between the two countries that is expected to hurt the North.

   The visit also comes as South Korea President Park Geun-hye is expected to go to Beijing in June for her first summit meeting with Chinese leaders. U.S. President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping on June 7-8.

   Earlier in the day, China News Service said the envoy met with Wang Jiarui, the head of the Communist Party of China's (CPC) central committee's external affairs department, shortly after his arrival, although no details of the talks were announced.

   Diplomatic sources in Beijing predicted Choe will meet Chinese President Xi Jinping later in the week, along with senior officials from the military, CPC and the government, with close talks expected to take place with Yang Jiechi, the working-level head of China's foreign policy team. He is expected to stay in the Chinese capital for three to four days.

   North Korea watchers in Seoul said Choe's sudden visit could affect relations across Northeast Asia that have witnessed a spike in tensions with joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises and the temporary suspension of an inter-Korean factory complex in the North.


N.K.'s Former Armed Forces Minister Posted as Chief of KPA General Staff

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Former North Korean armed forces minister Kim Kyok-sik has been posted as chief of the General Staff of the (North) Korean People's Army (KPA), a media report monitored in Seoul said on May 22.

   The appointment was confirmed by the (North) Korean Central Television Broadcasting Station, which said Kim was one of the dignitaries present at the airport for Choe Ryong-hae's visit to China as the special envoy of the North Korean leader. The report only gave Kim's title and did not say when he was appointed.

   The 75-year-old held the same KPA position from April 2007 through February 2009. He was tapped as armed forces minister last October before he was recently replaced by Jang Jong-nam.

   Kim is seen as a hardliner by many North Korean observers. He is often cited for having instigated the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010 and the sinking of a South Korean warship eight months earlier while he was the commanding officer for the fourth corps, which is in charge of Hwanghae Province. The province lies north of the Northern Limit Line that acts as the demarcation line that separates the two Koreas in the Yellow Sea.

   The two incidents left 50 South Koreans dead and soured inter-Korean relations.

   Meanwhile, North Korea has appointed Jon Chang-bok as new first-vice defense minister, replacing Vice Mashal Hyon Chol-hae.

   Jon Chang-bok, who was promoted to colonel general in 2010, accompanied North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on a field guidance trip to a food processing plant as first-vice minister of the People's Armed Forces, the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 17 said in the report monitored in Seoul.

   Jon is known to have served as a senior official of the ministry until April 2012. He was also spotted with Kim Jong-un at a May Day concert earlier May.

   The report comes only days after the North revealed the replacement of its defense minister. On May 13, the KCNA identified Jang Jong-nam, a relatively unknown field commander, as chief of the ministry.


North Korea Blasts U.S. Report on Its Religious Freedom

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea on May 22 upbraided an annual U.S. government report critical of the socialist country's suppression of religious freedom, claiming that the report is designed to defame its image internationally.

   The report refers to the 2012 International Religious Freedom Report which the U.S. State Department issued on May 20. The report put the North for the second time in a row on the department's list of "countries of particular concern" for religious freedom.

   "In North Korea, the government severely restricted religious freedom, including discouraging organized religious activities, except those controlled by officially recognized groups," the report said.

   There is no indication of any notable change in the situation even after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, reportedly in his late 20s and educated in Switzerland, took over power in December 2011, the report pointed out.

   "Finding that the military way did not work on the DPRK (North Korea), the U.S. has resorted to such a base act of issuing the report to tarnish the image of the DPRK in the world," the KCNA cited an unidentified Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying.

   "It's shameless Washington urges Pyongyang to improve the human rights situation and livelihood, while threatening the existence of the Korean people by continuously introducing preemptive nuclear strike means into the Korean Peninsula," the spokesman said.