Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sharp increase in South Korean defense budget

South Korea's Defense Ministry is seeking a sharp increase in next year's budget to improve its fighting capability due to tensions over the deadly sinking of the warship Cheonan, blamed on North Korea.

Defense Ministry officials have agreed to request about 31.6 trillion won ($25.8 billion) next year to introduce new weapons and improve military hardware and welfare facilities for troops, a ministry official said on condition of anonymity, citing department policy.

The amount would represent a 6.9 percent increase from the amount budgeted this year, which was a 3.6 percent increase from the year before, he added.


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Kim Jong-un elected to North Korean parliament

Kim Jong-un, the youngest son and possible heir of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, was elected to the parliament of the one-party communist state in March of last year, a Western source told a small group of reporters in Seoul.

The Supreme People’s Assembly is a rubber stamp for the Communist Party and is comprised of high-ranking Communist Party officials. The election of Kim Jong-un, 27, is further evidence that he is being groomed to succeed his ailing father.

North Korea announced a new roster of its 687-member parliament after the election on March 9, 2009, which included a member named “Kim Jong” representing District 216.

“After the election,” the source said, “‘Pal-Kol-Um,’ a song extolling Kim Jong-un, began to be sung at primary schools.” Pal-kol-um, or bal-geol-eum, is Korean for footstep.

Monday, June 28, 2010

North Korea's Kim Jong-il 'showing signs of dementia'

Chosun Ilbo reports Kim Jong-il has been displaying signs of memory loss and occasionally talks nonsense, based on National Intelligence Service chief Won Sei-hoon apparently telling the National Assembly's Intelligence Committee in a closed-door meeting. "Kim has been exhibiting memory loss and saying things that do not make sense during his field visits," Won was quoted by lawmakers as saying.

According to the NIS, Kim said during a recent field inspection at a potato farm, "People should not live on potatoes alone. They need to have rice, too. We should send them rice." The NIS attributes Kim's odd comments to the aftereffects of his stroke. South Korean intelligence officials said North Korean officials are worried about Kim's deteriorating condition.

NIS officials apparently showed lawmakers photos of Kim's swollen left hand, which has been paralyzed since the stroke. The North Korean leader is undergoing therapy and has asked foreign specialists to the country.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

September transfer of power in North Korea?

In September, North Korea will hold only the third-ever meeting of its ruling party, the clearest sign yet that the hermit nation is preparing for a transfer of power.

The announcement that the Political Bureau of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) would gather to elect a new leadership follows an intense period of political jockeying in the secretive state. Ailing leader Kim Jong-il is desperate to ensure that his son Kim Jong-un is anointed as his successor.

It was at the last meeting of the WPK in 1980 that Kim Jong-il was made his father's official successor, when he was elected as a standing member of the Political Bureau. Analysts in South Korea, such as Koh Yu-hwan, an expert on North Korea at Seoul's Dongguk University, are speculating that the September session will result in Kim Jong-un being elevated in the party hierarchy.

Said to resemble his father in personality, the 27-year-old Jong-un was educated at a Swiss boarding school. With Kim Jong-il in poor health since suffering a stroke in 2008, Jong-un has started to take a more prominent role in DPRK politics. Last year, he was elected to a position on the National Defense Commission.

Yet Kim Jong-il faces a fight in his efforts to make sure his son becomes the third generation of his family to rule the DPRK. The mysterious death in a car crash earlier this month of Ri Je-gang, one of the most senior WPK officials and a key supporter of Kim Jong-un's succession, has fuelled speculation that the powerful North Korean military would prefer one of their own to succeed Kim.

Friday, June 25, 2010

North Korea links its case against American Aijalon Mahli Gomes to U.S. criticism of Pyongyang

North Korea threatened to increase punishment of an American who 2 months ago was sentenced to hard labor for illegally entering the country. Aijalon Mahli Gomes, from Boston, now has his case linked to U.S. criticism of Pyongyang over the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship.

Gomes was sentenced in April to eight years of hard labor and fined $700,000 for entering the country illegally and for an unspecified "hostile act." Prior to crossing into North Korea, Gomes had attended rallies in Seoul in support of Robert Park, a fellow Christian who also deliberately crossed into North Korea from China to call attention to the North's human rights record.

The North is examining what harsher measures to take against Gomes under a wartime law, and would be compelled to consider applying the law if the U.S. persists in its "hostile approach," the official Korean Central News Agency reported Thursday.

North Korea has recently freed three other Americans detained for illegal entry, but ruled out Gomes' release amid tensions over the March sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, that Seoul and Washington have blamed on the North.

"The U.S. government is requesting (North Korea) to leniently set him free on humanitarian grounds, but such a thing can never happen under the prevailing situation. There remains only the issue of what harsher punishment will be meted out to him," KCNA said.

An expert on North Korean legal affairs said the threat could be a tactic to head off U.S. sanctions over the ship sinking. "The North is using Gomes as a negotiating card as it knows that the U.S. will not sit idly by about him," said Choi Eun-suk, a professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Two North Koreans to be sentenced in Seoul

A South Korean court now has to decide what to do with two North Korean spies. The two men, who arrived in Seoul last year posing as North Korean defectors, later admitted they had actually been sent by Pyongyang to assassinate Hwang Jang-yop, a prominent North Korean defector.

During the court hearing in Seoul this week, it was revealed that Hwang was the primary target for the North Korean agents, one of whom declined to speak at the hearing, while the other begged for leniency, saying he wanted to spend the rest of his life in the South.

Prosecutors have asked for a 15 year sentence for both.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Plan for a Nuclear Strike on North Korea

In 1969, the United States studied a plan for a nuclear strike on North Korea but advisers to then-president Richard Nixon concluded it was best to remain calm, declassified documents showed Wednesday.

The documents, obtained by the National Security Archive at George Washington University, foreshadow present-day US frustration on how to handle Pyongyang following its nuclear tests and the sinking of a South Korean ship.

In 1969, North Korea shot down a US spy aircraft over the Sea of Japan (East Sea), killing the 31 personnel on board. Despite US outrage, the new Nixon administration chose not to retaliate other than to order a continuation of flights and go ahead with naval exercises.

The administration nonetheless charted out a series of options that included conventional and nuclear attacks. Civilian casualties "would range from approximately 100 to several thousand," said a classified memorandum by then-defense secretary Melvin Laird prepared for Henry Kissinger, who was Nixon's national security adviser.

Since the Korean War, the United States has repeatedly -- and sometimes begrudgingly -- relied on carrot-and-stick diplomacy with North Korea, concluding it was the only realistic option.

[Raw Story]

Could football be a key to uniting the Koreas?

JoongAng Daily reports shouts of “Joguktongil” (Korean for “Unification of Korea!”) were ringing out at the Kumgang bar in Yeongdeungpo (Seoul) on Monday night in support of the North Korean team taking on Portugal at the 2010 World Cup. The crowd was made up of North Korean defectors and their families and colleagues, all of whom had come to root for the North in its first World Cup outing in 44 years. “Urineunhana!” (“We are one!”) they shouted.

The rooters laid the emphasis on “we” and “unification” partly out of consideration for the national security law, and fear that their new home, South Korea, might view support of North Korea - even its flag - as illegal activity benefitting the enemy. And extra caution is needed these days, said the men who organized the cheering rally, as the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan has aroused hostility toward the North.

But the words were also chosen to show the hearts of the defectors, now divided equally between the land they turned their backs on in despair and the one they once considered an enemy and now call home.

Hasar Choi, a 37-year-old North Korean defector, said he fled his home in North Hamgyong in 2001, leaving behind his parents and three younger siblings. Choi said, “I hate its leaders and politicians, but I don’t hate the country itself.”

Jeong Eui-seong, 32, the owner of the bar, said many thoughts crossed his mind as he watched the game. “Considering the unfair treatment that I suffered there, I should think they [North Korea] deserve to lose, but I don’t,” Jeong said. “I’m just sorry that they are losing that way. It’s hurting.”

“I was hoping that if the two Koreas got into the round of 16 together it might help ease the tension between them, but now that’s impossible,” said Jeong Hyo-jin, one of Choi’s South Korean colleagues, after the game. But even in defeat, the defectors showed how much they’ve taken their new home to heart. “I pray now that South Korea will avenge North Korea by beating Nigeria,” Jeong said.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

South Korean activist blames President Lee Myung-bak for sinking of Cheonan

A South Korean activist on an unauthorized trip to North Korea on Tuesday blamed his country's conservative president - not the communist North - for the deadly sinking of one of Seoul's warships.

Rev. Han Sang-ryol is a member of a small-but-vocal minority of South Korean activists and religious groups who are sympathetic to North Korea and call for unification of the two countries.

North Korea has embraced Han's visit, which began June 12, according to the country's state media. Seoul, however, has said that Han did not have permission to travel to the northern neighbor and that the government will handle his case according to a law that can put him in prison for up to three years.

Han, who works for Seoul-based Korea Alliance Progressive Movements, gave a rare news conference in Pyongyang, criticizing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak for allegedly discarding past rapprochement accords with North Korea and raising tension by staging joint military exercises with the United States.

Lee has taken a harder line on North Korea than his liberal predecessor, linking aid to North Korea's denuclearization, and relations between the two Koreas have worsened as a result.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

To stave off starvation, North Korea encourages citizens to rely on private markets

In recent weeks, according to North Korea observers and defector groups with sources in the country, Kim Jong Il’s government admitted its inability to solve the current food shortage and encouraged its people to rely on private markets for the purchase of goods.

So bowing to reality, the North Korean government has lifted all restrictions on private markets — a last-resort option for a regime desperate to prevent its people from starving.

“The North Korean government has tried all possible ways [for a planned economy] and failed, and it now has to resort to the last option,’’ said Koh Yu-Hwan, professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. “There’s been lots of back and forth in what the government has been willing to tolerate, and I cannot rule out the possibility of them trying to bring back restrictions on the markets. But it is hard for the government to reverse it now.’’

Because North Korea operates in secrecy and isolation, outside observers rely on informants and accounts from defectors. In this case, analysts agree that the food shortage is dire. Several analysts who monitor and travel to North Korea agree that in recent weeks, Pyongyang has abandoned almost all rules about who can spend money and when. That would seem to indicate that Kim — who once equated free-market trading with “egotism’’ and a collapse of social order — now wants to rehabilitate markets damaged months earlier.

As of May 26, the government no longer forces markets to close at 6 or 7 p.m., has dropped the rule restricting customers to women older than 40, and has lifted a ban on certain goods being sold. One city official in the city of Pyungsung informed the Good Friends humanitarian group that the living standard had “drastically decreased since the currency exchange, and the government cannot provide distribution so they have to bring the market back up.’’

The Good Friends newsletter quoted the official as saying: “There are increasing deaths from starvation so opening [the] market is a reasonable resolution. Death due to starvation has gone out of control.’’

[Boston Globe]