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U.S. Government Urges North Korea to Free Jailed American

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- The U.S. government called on May 15 for North Korea to release an American citizen jailed there, saying Washington's top priority is to secure the safety of its nationals.

   "We urge the DPRK (North Korea) authorities to grant Mr. Bae amnesty and immediate release," Patrick Ventrell, deputy spokesman for the State Department, told reporters. "There is no greater priority for us than the welfare and safety of our U.S. citizens abroad."

   The 44-year-old Korean-American man, Kenneth Bae, was arrested in November for unspecified anti-North Korea acts. He was reportedly working as a tour operator but multiple sources say he was involved in missionary work.

   He was sentenced to 15 years of compulsory labor, and the U.S. has taken issue with the transparency of the socialist nation's judicial process.

   North Korea announced on May 14 Bae has begun life at a "special prison."

   The U.S. has been trying to win the freedom of Bae through the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which acts as a "protecting power" for U.S. citizens in North Korea.

   The U.S. has no diplomatic office in North Korea as they have no formal diplomatic ties.

   Swedish authorities said they have no news about efforts to get Bae freed.

   "We are present there and also helping a lot of other countries, but I don't have an update on these talks (on Bae)," Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said at a joint press conference with Secretary of State John Kerry in Stockholm on May 14.

   The Bae issue is expected to be high on the agenda when Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights, travels to Seoul next week.


N. Korea Thought to Have 200 Mobile Missile Launchers: Report

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea could have as many as 200 mobile missile launchers, a report showed on May 17, nearly double the number previously estimated by Seoul authorities.

   According to the report submitted to the U.S. Congress by the Pentagon, North Korea appears to have accumulated up to 200 so-called transporter erector launchers (TEL), including up to 100 for short-range Scud missiles, 50 for medium-range Nodong missiles and 50 for long-range Musudan missiles, the South's state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA) said.

   South Korea's military and intelligence authorities previously estimated that the communist country appeared to possess a maximum of 94 mobile launchers.

   It is the first time that South Korea or the U.S. has made public the number of North Korean TELs in an official document.

   "The U.S. report shows that North Korea is bent on expanding its missile program despite its continued economic difficulties," said Kim Sung-kurl, a researcher at KIDA. "It is especially focused on certain asymmetric areas that can pose a threat to South Korea and U.S. forces stationed in the South."

   It also appears that the North is strengthening its military capabilities in an attempt to tame internal dissent and preserve its regime, he said.


U.N. Probe into N.K. Human Rights Abuses First of Its Kind in Peacetime

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- An independent U.N. body's investigation into North Korea's human rights abuses will provide the first look into problems in a country during peacetime, rather than during conflict, a senior South Korean diplomat said on May 19.

   Choi Seok-young, South Korean ambassador to Geneva, said the Commission of Inquiry (COI) by the U.N. Human Rights Council will investigate "grave, organized and systematic human rights violations" and will hold the leadership in the violating country accountable for such abuses.

   The U.N. established the COI on North Korea in March. The independent body is scheduled to submit its report, containing findings and recommendations, to the U.N. Human Rights Council in March next year.

   "So far, the COIs on Cote d'Ivoire, Libya and Syria have investigated human rights violations during times of conflict," Choi said. "North Korea is in a different situation than these countries, but it's widely believed that human rights violations are quite systematic in North Korea."

   The COI on North Korea was formed under a resolution that condemns human rights abuses in the communist state. Choi said the word "accountability" used in the resolution should be highlighted.

   The resolution states that the commission will "intensively investigate for a period of one year the human rights violations perpetrated by North Korea's government with a view to ensuring full accountability, in particular where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity."

   "In human rights, we use that term to describe political and legal responsibility for the violating government," Choi said. "This resolution is quite strong in that regard."

   Choi said after the COI's report is compiled next year, further discussions will be held on the follow-up measures. He noted that the U.N. dispatched peacekeepers to Cote d'Ivoire to monitor the human rights situation there after the COI's investigation, but said it's not yet certain whether the U.N. will follow the same course of action for North Korea.

   The ambassador said the COI's report on the North will provide the first comprehensive look into human rights violations in the country, since the U.N. Human Rights Council had previously dealt with individual allegations, such as torture and abuse in labor camps, separately.

   "Since it will be difficult to visit North Korea in person, (the commission's investigators) will conduct interviews with North Korean defectors," Choi said. "The COI will also receive major assistance from documents in South Korea, Japan, the U.S., China and Russia. We must provide investigators with accurate translation of our data that can corroborate human rights violations in the North."

   North Korea has long denied accusations of human rights abuses and considers them an attempt to topple its regime.


U.S. Sets Goal of Expanding Talks with N. Korea for Coming Year

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- The U.S. government aims to expand dialogue with North Korea in fiscal 2014 to improve the socialist country's "international standing," according to the State Department's report to Congress.

   The policy target is seen as in line with the South Korean administration's goal of building mutual trust with the North.

   Contingent on North Korea's cooperation, the department also plans to pursue multilateral discussions on steps towards irreversible denuclearization of the communist nation, including on its uranium-enrichment program, and an initial verification protocol, the department said in the annual performance plan report.

   Other goals include enhancing international implementation of sanctions to curb North Korea's proliferation, maintaining global unity in response to any North Korean provocations and strengthening trilateral cooperation with South Korea and Japan on Pyongyang.

   The department's primary goal for the fiscal year 2013 to end in September has been to improve inter-Korean relations and engage China to influence North Korea to refrain from provocations, read the report.

   It also wants to "negotiate early steps toward irreversible denuclearization ... and begin initial verification activities."

   The six-party talks on Pyongyang's nuclear program have been stalled for years.

   North Korea has rejected the South's offer of dialogue and the U.S. call for taking initial steps towards denuclearization to show its seriousness about negotiations.

   Following weeks of relative calm, the North fired four short-range missiles into the East Sea over the weekend.

   In response, the White House said, "North Korea will achieve nothing by threats or provocations, which only further isolate the DPRK (North Korea) and undermine international efforts to ensure peace and stability in Northeast Asia."


N. Korean Concentration Camp Escapee Wins Int'l Human Rights Award

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- A North Korean concentration camp escapee will receive an international human rights award for raising global awareness of atrocities taking place in the communist country, a news report said on May 21.

   The Voice of America (VOA) said the Switzerland-based non-governmental agency UN Watch decided to give the 2013 Moral Courage Award to Shin Dong-hyuk, who has been made famous by his biography "Escape from Camp 14."

   The award ceremony will be held in Geneva's League of Nations Hall on June 5 with the defector scheduled to give a speech to U.N. officials, diplomats and civic group representatives. The date marks the 20th anniversary of the human rights group's creation.

   According to the VOA, the organization's executive director, Hillel Neuer, said the defector deserves the recognition because he is a witness to the human rights abuses taking place in the North and has helped stir the conscience of all mankind to protect the fundamental human rights of the voiceless victims in the isolationist country.

   Shin is the only known person to have escaped from North Korea's infamous concentration camps. He made his escape in 2005 when he was 24, and made his way to China and then to South Korea.


U.S. Ambassador Urges N. Korea to Improve 'Horrible' Rights Situation

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- The U.S. ambassador in Seoul called on North Korea on May 21 to improve the "horrible" human rights situation in the totalitarian state, saying that both Seoul and Washington are deeply concerned about the welfare of the North Korean people.

   "It's very heart-wrenching to see North Korean citizens," Ambassador Sung Kim told a forum on North Korea policy. "North Korean citizens are not eating well, not living well and not receiving medical treatment because their government has chosen to be irresponsible."

   "It is very unfortunate that North Korean citizens are not given the opportunity" to live a decent life "because of the horrible, horrible human rights situation in North Korea."

   North Korea has long been labeled one of the worst human rights violators in the world. The regime does not tolerate dissent, holds hundreds of thousands of people in political prison camps and keeps a tight control over outside information.

   Pyongyang has long bristled at any criticism of its human rights record, however, denouncing such talk as part of U.S.-led attempts to topple the regime.

   The six-party talks aimed at persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons ambition have been stalled for years.

   North Korea has rejected the South's offer of dialogue and the U.S. call for taking initial steps towards denuclearization to show its seriousness about negotiations.

   The U.S. ambassador Kim reiterated that North Korea should demonstrate its seriousness for talks if it wants to hold dialogue with Washington.

   "We hope that the North Korean leadership demonstrates to all of us that it could be a serious partner if the diplomatic process resumes," Kim said.


U.S. Urges N. Korea to 'Fully Cooperate' with U.N. Human Rights Probe

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- The United States called on North Korea to "fully cooperate" with a landmark U.N. probe of widespread human rights violations in the North, a senior U.S. official said on May 21.

   Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for human rights in North Korea, said the human rights situation in the North "remains deplorable," warning that, unless Pyongyang's leadership takes care of its people, it will become even more isolated.

   Early May, the U.N. appointed three members to its "Commission of Inquiry" into human rights abuses in North Korea, a move that upgraded the level of the U.N. investigation to be on par with probes into Syria, nearly two months after the U.N. Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to begin a tougher investigation into rights violations in the North.

   "We will continue to work with our partners to support the Commission of Inquiry on its important work and look forward to its recommendations when the Committee presents its findings to the U.N. Human Rights Council in March 2014," King said in a speech at a forum in Seoul on North Korea policy.

   "We urge the DPRK (North Korea) to fully cooperate with the Commission of Inquiry," King said.

   King had been scheduled to visit South Korea this week and attend the forum, jointly hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Seoul and the East Asia Institute, but canceled his planned visit because of a "purely administrative" reason, Seoul officials said. His speech was read by Leslie Bassett, the U.S. Embassy's deputy chief of mission.

   "Over the next year, we will see an increased focus on human rights conditions in the DPRK and greater pressure for improved conditions for the North Korean people," King said.

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

   Activists said North Korea is holding hundreds of thousands of political prisoners in at least six facilities where they face extrajudicial executions, torture and forced labor. Pyongyang has flatly denied the accusations, calling them a U.S.-led attempt to topple the regime.

   "Since November 2009, when I assumed the position of Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues, we've seen significant changes in the DPRK -- the death of Kim Jong-il, the subsequent rise to power of his son Kim Jong-un," King said.

   "Unfortunately, one thing has not changed: the human rights situation in the North remains deplorable," the U.S. envoy said.

   Citing various official reports, King said, "Between 100,000-200,000 North Koreans are incarcerated in an expansive network of political prison and detention facilities where human right abuses persist and many prisoners are not expected to survive."

   King warned that North Korea will be further isolated unless it improves its human rights record.

   "The DPRK has a choice to invest its resources in feeding and educating its people, or continue down the path of isolation," King said.

   While North Korea is one of the world's most reclusive and closed societies, there are signs that the North Korean regime's strict control over outside information is loosening.

   "We have recently seen very modest indications that, despite government restrictions, this is beginning to change," King said, citing a U.S. government-funded report entitled, "A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment."

   "While this survey of North Korean defectors indicates there is still virtually no general Internet access and it is still illegal to own or have in one's possession a tunable radio that permits listening to any stations other than state-controlled information channels, 20 to 30 percent of defectors interviewed said they had listened to foreign radio broadcasts," the U.S. envoy said.

   "This shows that at least some North Koreans are willing to risk punishment to hear information about the outside world. Foreign DVDs are seen by even larger numbers -- roughly half of those interviewed had seen foreign DVDs in North Korea. Other studies suggest that this number has reached 80 percent," King said.

   King said that the U.S. will continue to support organizations that broadcast toward North Korea.

   "Given the closed nature of North Korean society, foreign broadcasting is one of the most effective means of sharing information about the outside world with residents of the country," King said.

   "The U.S. government supports Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA), which broadcast ten hours daily via medium wave. We also provide support to independent broadcasters based in the ROK (South Korea)," the envoy said.


U.S. Nuke Response 'Adequate' to Deter N. Korea: U.S. Military Professor

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea has relied on the U.S. nuclear umbrella as insurance against North Korea's defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons, but the likelihood of a U.S. nuclear response is "more than adequate" deterrence against the North, a U.S. military professor said on May 21.

   Terence Roehrig, a professor of national security decision-making at the U.S. Naval War College, made the remarks at a forum on North Korea policy, as conservative South Korean politicians have argued that Seoul should arm itself with nuclear weapons to protect itself against Pyongyang's nuclear threat, particularly after the North's third nuclear test in February.

   "The nuclear umbrella is only one part of the U.S. defense commitment to defend South Korea. The overall defense commitment is strong and credible, but the range of scenarios that would generate a U.S. nuclear response is very small," Roehrig told the forum, jointly organized by the U.S. embassy in Seoul and the East Asia Institute think tank.

   "However, a certain conventional response and even a small likelihood of a nuclear response is more than adequate to deter North Korea," the professor said.

   North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006 and successfully launched a long-range rocket late last year, raising the possibility of mounting nuclear bombs atop missiles aimed at Seoul, Tokyo or even parts of the U.S.

   While the North's ability to accurately deliver a warhead is in doubt, South Korean officials have said Pyongyang could deploy a nuclear-armed missile within five years.

   Diplomacy aimed at persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions has failed and South Korea has witnessed a failure of U.S. conventional deterrence against the North, particularly after Pyongyang's two military attacks in 2010.

   North Korea has been blamed for torpedoing a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors in March 2010. Eight months later, the North shelled a South Korean border island, killing two marines and two civilians.

   The alliance between South Korea and the U.S. "is strong, and the United States will be there to defend South Korea if attacked," Roehrig said.

   However, Roehrig said, "The number of scenarios where the United States might use nuclear weapons for that commitment is very small ... The U.S. response is far more likely to be conventional than nuclear."

   The U.S. withdrew its tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991.


UNFPA Provides US$500,000 in Medical Aid to N. Korean Mothers

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- A United Nations organization supporting child birth has provided US$500,000 worth of medical aid to North Korean mothers and children, a report said on May 22.

   The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) shipped drugs and medical equipment for mothers with newborn babies in the North last month, the report by the Washington-based Radio Free Asia said.

   The goods were sent to about 300 health facilities in the country and the UNFPA tapped into the U.N.'s Central Emergency Response Fund in order to provide the assistance, it said.

   With a budget of $10 million, the UNFPA has been leading a five-year project to help pregnant North Korean women and conduct a census in the communist country since 2011.

   Maternal death in the North reached 77 in 2008, up 40 percent from 54 recorded in the 1990s, according to the UNFPA. The rate refers to the number of women dying from child birth-related complications per 100,000 live births.