Sunday, February 27, 2011

Propaganda balloons strike nerve in North Korea

North Korea will open fire across the tense land border if South Korea keeps sending anti-regime propaganda materials via balloons, state media said Sunday.

Says the Korean Central News Agency, the North's military will launch "direct, targeted firing attacks" towards border areas where the South's activists and military float balloons carrying anti-government leaflets and DVDs if the practice continues.

Left: South Korean activists launching balloons carrying anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets near the border with North Korea

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Propaganda and supplies floated into North Korea by S Korean military

For the first time in eleven years, the South Korean military resumed an operation of sending packages of daily necessities to North Korea.  Packages are floated into North Korea in baskets tied to large balloons, with a timer attached to the balloon to track and direct the balloons. 

Since late last year, the investment has cost the military $500,000. Included in the packages are propaganda leaflets. The military sent 400,000 leaflets shortly after the Yon Pyong Island attack, and recently more than 2.6 million leaflets pertaining to the uprisings in Egypt and Libya have been sent north, comparing the hereditary dictatorships of Egypt and Libya to that of North Korea.

North Koreans are often afraid to eat anything from such food packages because the NK regime has told them they contain deadly poisons.  The South Korean military therefore puts notes on the packages reading, “This is from the Republic of Korea Army.  You may consume these food packages.  They are safe to eat.  If you don’t believe it, have your domestic animals eat them first.  Do not consume the packages if the dates on the packages have expired.” 

Packages include small rice packages and radios to bring outside news to them, as well as daily necessities such as medicines, medical supplies, and stationery items.

South Korean Assemblywoman Song Young Sun said, “What is happening in Egypt and Libya may happen in North Korea.  A North Korean defector who arrived in South Korea in May 2010 said, ‘The people near the border have been listening to Chinese news about the uprisings in Egypt and Libya.  The NK regime is viciously trying to block the news.’ ” 

Friday, February 25, 2011

Why North Korean Hunger

Chosun Ilbo states its belief that hoarding by the government and military is the main reason for the food shortage in North Korea. The reasoning:

No Drop in Food Production - According to South Korean government statistics, North Korea had bumper crops in 2005 and 2006. And the estimate of the 2010 crop yield is that it could be the best harvest in 20 years.
Hoarding Rice for the Military - In September last year, Grand National Party lawmaker Kim Moo-sung said North Korea has stored 1 million tons of rice for a war. That is enough to feed the country's 24 million people for three months. "Since 1987, North Korea has been setting aside 12 percent of its rice output as emergency supplies in case of war and 10 percent for military consumption," an intelligence official said.

Preparing for 2012 - After the severe famine from 1995 to 1997 when more than a million people starved to death, North Korea began to boast about its goal of becoming a "powerful and prosperous nation" by 2012. "North Korea is using the fantasy as a tool to keep its people calm," said Prof. Cho Young-ki of Korea University. "The North needs to stock up on food for use in the celebrations next year.”

No Assistance from China - The South Korean government says there are no signs that Beijing has provided food aid to Pyongyang recently. "If the regime was on the brink of collapse due to a food shortage, China would be the first to step in," a diplomatic source said.

Implacable Regime - According to data from Statistics Korea in January, North Korean mines contain an estimated 2,000 tons of gold and 5,000 tons of silver. There are no accounts that the North sold any of the gold or silver to buy food or that Kim Jong-Il tapped into his overseas cash hoard.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

International charities reveal details of food shortages in North Korea

The BBC reports that officials from five aid agencies who have just returned from a trip to North Korea say they saw evidence of looming food shortages and alarming malnutrition, including people picking wild grasses to eat. The charity workers - from World Vision, Mercy Corps, Samaritan's Purse, Christian Friends of Korea and Global Resource Services - spent a week in North Korea earlier this month, invited by the government. 

It is well documented that during food shortages in the North, people will forage for weeds, herbs and wild grasses to supplement their meager diet. What is harder to know is the extent to which this is normal or something out of the ordinary. 

The agencies report the Pyongyang government saying between 50% and 80% of the wheat and barley planted for harvesting in the spring has been killed by the extreme cold of the past two months, as well as potato seedlings. 

The team also says hospitals reported an increase in malnutrition over the past six months - the aid workers themselves saw acute cases too.

The United Nations currently has a team of food experts in North Korea. A spokesman said as well as there being a known shortfall of nearly a million tons in cereals, the last vegetable harvest was much poorer than expected.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Animal Feed for Human Consumption in North Korea

North Korea is reportedly importing animal feed from China for human consumption.

And in a sign of just how desperate the reclusive regime is, the poor-quality feed is being fed to its powerful military forces, amid reports soldiers are deserting to forage for food.

Civilians are even more vulnerable to food shortages: the World Food Programme (WFP) estimates a third of the population is undernourished, and last week a WFP spokesman reported North Korea had a “severe winter and a poor vegetable harvest.”

Compounding the problem, Pyongyang just confirmed an outbreak of foot-and-mouth-disease. To stop the virus’s spread, animals have to be killed and buried ahead of this year’s rice planting, yet another blow for a nation dependent on oxen for plowing.

Through its embassies, North Korea is appealing directly to foreign governments for food aid. However, with world food prices rising and nations increasingly resistant to North Korea’s erratic and bellicose demands, Pyongyang has received few offers of help.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Defectors highlight sad state of North Korean soldiers

North Korean soldiers are increasingly plagued by malnutrition and human rights abuses amid the communist state's worsening food shortage, according to testimonies made by a number of former North Korean soldiers who defected to South Korea.

"I weighed 42 kilograms when I entered the military, but my weight was reduced to 31 kilograms in two years," Paek Hwa-seong, one of the defectors, said at the seminar hosted by North Korea Strategy Center, a Seoul-based conservative private think tank on human rights in the communist state. "My hair almost fell out after turning yellow and I was bony." 

Park Myeong-ho, a former captain, said starving soldiers have often stolen food from civilians, which created a saying in the North that the best place to live is where there is no military unit. 

He said there could be a rise of anti-Kim Jong-il forces in the North as pro-democracy movements sweep the Middle East. "Some claim there is no possibility of revolt in North Korea, but I think, once ignited, the fire of democratization can turn around the current situation in a short period because of the collective nature of the North Korean society," Park said.

North Korea's female soldiers suffer from serious sexual harassment in addition to malnutrition and poor supply of necessities, according to Choi Hee-kyung, a female defector who worked as an instructor at the North Korean Air Force Command. The women often had months without menstruation as a result of malnutrition, she said.

"Sexual harassment on female soldiers was so serious that they had to endure a physical touch. Some got pregnant from sexual assault and had to work wearing a maternity belt," Choi testified.

Yonhap News

Monday, February 21, 2011

The spin from North Korea’s side

The spin from North Korea’s side, as reported in the Russian press RIA Novosti:

Early this month, the South and North Korean army command envoys met in Panmunjom, on the de facto border between the two countries, to reach an agreement on the agenda, date, and location for the higher level talks suggested by Pyongyang at the end of January.

Pyongyang launched “a peaceful offensive” including a series of initiatives meant to revive the inter-Korean dialog in the spheres of politics, economy, etc. Initially, Seoul seemed unreceptive but – largely under pressure from Washington – had to accept Pyongyang's offer to organize contacts between the army commands.

The impression by the end of the first day of Panmunjom talks was fairly positive as the South Korean media reported profound discussions in a heated but still constructive atmosphere. However, fundamental disagreements over basically every issue on the table surfaced the very next day and bridging the gaps turned out to be impossible. The consultations were therefore suspended on February 9 and the North Korean delegation withdrew in a demonstrative manner without even trying to schedule another meeting.

Seoul described the outcome as a collapse and predictably blamed it on Pyongyang. The North's envoy similarly shifted the whole responsibility to Seoul in a statement referring to the North Korean administration as a puppet and claiming that the people of North Korea see no point in sustaining the dialog.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

First court decision bestowing refugee status on a Korean-Chinese

A Korean-Chinese is to be recognized as a refugee if at risk of persecution for helping North Korean defectors upon returning to China, a Seoul court said.

The Korean-Chinese, surnamed Kim, had filed a suit against the South Korean justice minister to annul the ministry’s decision which denied him refugee status. He had sought refugee status in January of last year.

The court said Kim was likely to be subjected to criminal punishment if he were to go back to China because he had provided food and transportation to North Korean defectors in China. One of his colleagues had already been punished for doing collaborative work.

“Considering the maximum penalty in Chinese law is a life sentence for people who are caught helping North Korean defectors, Kim may be arrested if he returns to China even though he wasn’t actively involved in aid work,” the court said in the ruling.

Kim provided North Korean defectors with food and transportation to airports between 1995 and 2000 at the request of one of his colleagues. He came to Korea in September 2000 as a migrant worker, and heard from his wife in China that his colleague was executed for the aid work.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Boarding school for children of North Korean defectors

A boarding school for children of North Korean defectors will open in Seoul next week, aimed at offering Korean language lessons to those from low-income households. 

Some defector children have difficulty adapting to general local schools. Among other things, they cannot speak the Korean language well due to their long stay in other countries such as China before entering South Korea.

In consideration of the fact that their parents usually return home late after work, the school will be operated as a boarding school. Tuition fees and boarding expenses will be offered free of charge. According to North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity (NKIS), the Samheung School will start its first semester on February 25. 

“We will help them gain a basic academic background and offer cultural and sports activities so that they can attend a local school and better adapt to society,” said Kim Myung-sung, director general of NKIS, which is composed of defectors who have graduated from North Korean universities.

The school’s first principal is Chae Kyoung-hee, 41, former mathematics teachers at a middle school in North Hamkyoung Province in the North. She also taught in Hanawon, a resettlement center for defectors here.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Kim Jong Un, heir more apparent

At a time when dynastic rule is under attack in popular uprisings throughout the Middle East, the heir apparent to the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il smoothly acceded to a senior spot on the National Defense Commission.

Chosun Ilbo reports that Kim Jong-un had cemented his spot as the second most powerful person in the country when he was named recently to the post of vice chairman of the defense commission, which is led by his father.

The move was announced at a mass gathering of military leaders and security officials on February 10, the newspaper's source said, but emerged only on Wednesday, as the 69th birthday festivities for the elder Kim were in full swing in the nation's capital, Pyongyang.

''Kim Jong-un assuming such a position is quite natural and not surprising,'' said Paik Hak-soon, director of the centre for North Korean studies at the Sejong Institute near Seoul. ''It's not too early for something like this. Sooner or later it was to be expected.''

Although his emergence as a serious political figure has been undeniable, some political experts had remained unconvinced that Kim Jong-un was secure in his anointed position. But if the report of his promotion to the No. 2 post on the National Defense Commission is true, there can be no further doubts.

The 15-member defense commission has several vice chairmen, including Jang Song-taek, the leader's brother-in-law. It is widely believed that Mr Jang, the husband of Kim Jong-il's sister, has day-to-day control of the country. But in terms of power and position, ''Kim Jong-un is already ahead of Jang Song-taek,'' Mr Paik said

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Only a free press can hurt Kim Jong-il

Reporters Without Borders and several independent North Korean media marked North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s birthday on February 16th by giving a news conference at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club about the efforts of Seoul-based exile media, especially radio stations, to offer North Koreans an alternative to the regime’s propaganda.

The news conference was part of a campaign that Reporters Without Borders launched on January 17 to draw attention to Kim’s status as a “Predator of Press Freedom” and to drum up support for the exile radio stations. The campaign’s graphic has been a crumpled photo of the “Dear Leader” accompanied by the words: “Only a free press can hurt him.”

The campaign accused Kim and his family of being directly responsible for the suppression of all press freedom in North Korea and urged South Korea’s government and civil society to provide more support for the exile radio stations, which are trying to break down the wall of propaganda and political control.

Several North Korean exiles addressed the news conference. Kang-Il Jung, a former detainee at the Yo Duk prison camp, described the plight of journalists in North Korea’s labor camps. Chul-Hyun Jang, a former journalist with North Korea’s Chosun Central TV, stressed the importance of independent radio stations for the population. They can “rescue North Koreans from their daily brainwashing,” he said, adding that “radio offers the only way to bring down Kim Jong-il.”

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

North Korean defects through minefield to South Korea

As the North Korean elite prepared to put on choreographed celebrations to mark Kim Jong-il's birthday, a North Korean man walked across the heavily mined border into South Korea in a rare defection.  Military and spy agency officials could not explain how the man managed to walk across the 4km (2.5 mile) wide minefield and past North Korean guards.

The demilitarized zone border, which has divided the Korean peninsula since the end of the 1950-53 conflict, is rarely crossed. Hundreds of North Koreans flee the impoverished country each year across its northern border with China, and then make their way overland to the South.

While defections are cause for deep embarrassment for the North Korean authorities, the country's masses never hear or read about them through the state-controlled media.

The news came as North Koreans celebrated the country's biggest holiday, marking the 69th birthday of Kim Jong-il, the ailing Dear Leader.

In the South, balloons with anti-Pyongyang messages were released across the border, while in the capital, Seoul, protesters burnt posters of Kim Jong-il and his son Kim Jong-Un.

 The Guardian

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Transparency required in distribution of food aid to North Korea

A senior U.S. senator Richard Lugar called on the Obama administration to secure transparency in the distribution of food aid to North Korea before any resumption of the aid, which was suspended years ago over the same issue, is made.

The leading Republican senator at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued the statement amid reports that the Obama administration is reviewing North Korea’s request for food aid made through the North Korean mission in the United Nations in New York.

U.S. food aid to the North was suspended in early 2009 amid heightened tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests and controversy over the transparency of food distribution. North Korea at the time refused to issue visas to Korean-speaking monitors, whose mission was to assure that the food was not funneled to the military and government elite.

The U.S. provided more than 2 million tons of food aid to the North over the past decade.

International relief organizations suspended humanitarian food aid to North Korea in early 2009 as the North Korean government expelled international monitors amid escalating tensions over its rocket test launch and an ensuing nuclear test, the second after one in 2006.

Relief organizations have said that North Korea will need about 1 million tons of food from abroad to feed its 24 million people every year amid reports that thousands have starved to death this winter.

[Korea Herald]

Monday, February 14, 2011

What ails Kim Jong il?

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il turns 70 on February 16, midst speculation over his ill health. Chosun Ilbo reports that doctors say he mainly suffers from health problems in three areas.

Stroke - Kim is slowly recovering from a stroke he suffered in 2008. In recent footage he looks as though he is still dealing with the fallout, with movement in his left hand restricted and his left foot dragging. Depending on progress, these handicaps will improve. But the real problem is the depression or impulse control disorder that stroke patients often suffer.

"If part of your brain is damaged due to stroke, you may suffer from depression as you become extremely sensitive to your emotions, or from uncontrollable anger attacks," a doctor said. "If people don't carefully manage the aftermath of a stroke, their judgment can be severely affected."

Chronic Renal Failure from Diabetes - Kim has also reportedly been suffering from diabetes for more than a decade which has now led to chronic renal failure. Recent pictures of Kim show that the dark spots on his face have grown and his nails are whiter. This is probably due to a buildup of toxins in his body because the kidneys are failing. His wrists often look swollen, and he is said to be going undergoing kidney dialysis twice a week, but without a transplant his kidneys are unlikely to hold out for another five years.  Even if he wants a kidney transplant, it is unclear if North Korea has the wherewithal to perform the operation.

Cardiovascular Disease - Doctors believe that Kim had a stroke due to the complications of diabetes. He seems to have gained some weight and started smoking again. A combination of diabetes, abdominal obesity and smoking greatly increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases recurring.

Cho Kyung-hwan, a professor at Korea University Anam Hospital, said, "After the age of 70, serious chronic diseases like diabetes can affect various parts of the body."

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Half of all North Korea defectors send remittances to relatives back home

Nearly half of North Korean defectors living in Seoul have remitted money to their families in the impoverished communist nation, a poll showed Sunday.

According to the survey of North Korean defectors residing in South Korea, 49.5 percent said they have sent money to their families in the North, while 46 percent said they have not and 4.5 percent said that they have no family there.

The findings mark the first confirmation of widespread speculation that North Korean defectors provide financial help to their families facing chronic hunger in the North.

The Influence of North Korean Defectors on their Homeland

A 43-year-old North Korean defector who has taken asylum in South Korea since 1997 believes that his and other defectors’ remittances to their relatives in the communist state help enlighten them about the free, democratic and capitalist South.

“When we make remittances to our loved ones in the North, we talk to them over the phone to ensure the money was properly sent. Through such talks, a wave of news about our capitalist society flows in and spreads there,” Kang said, refusing to give his full name to protect his family remaining in the North.

“Such circulating news forms public opinion there, enabling North Koreans to come to terms with how they have been fooled (by the regime).”

“I annually send about 1 million won ($890) to my aunt ― enough for a family of five to live on in the North. We defectors send the money, not because we have much money, but because we know better than anyone else about their economic ordeals and hardships.”

Kang explained that North Korean defectors usually send their money through ethnic Chinese in Seoul, who ask their Chinese relatives or acquaintances inside the North or near the North Korea-China border to deliver the money. The brokers take 30 percent of the total remittances, he said.

“As North Korean authorities are rarely harsh in dealing with Chinese nationals, the brokers with Chinese nationality can operate in the North to deliver the money from us here,” Kang said.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

North Korea pleads for food aid

In a dramatic and poignant sign of a state nearing collapse, North Korea has asked its embassies to appeal to foreign Governments for aid to feed a population close to starvation.

The plea poses a major dilemma for the international community on how to deal with a totalitarian regime which it accuses of developing a nuclear arsenal while, at the same time, facing massive and endemic deprivation.

The United States stopped food aid two years ago after continuing friction over Pyongyang's stance on atomic weaponry and South Korea has drastically reduced its contributions after a series of recent clashes.

South Korea has a contingency plan for the possible implosion of its neighbor which involves sealing the border to prevent an influx of famished refugees while sending massive amounts of aid to the North.

China, which has long served as North Korea's food supplier of last resort, faces its own food crisis as a result of a sustained drought, and, according to US State Department documents made public by WikiLeaks, Beijing has become increasingly exasperated by the Kim Jong-il Administration's seemingly intransigent stance on the nuclear issue.

The direct plea for help from all quarters is highly unusual for North Korea, which normally negotiates deliveries from organizations such as the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization.

 [New Zealand Herald]

Friday, February 11, 2011

North Korean Dependence on Oxen Increases Foot-And-Mouth Risks

North Korea’s dependence on animals to plow fields and haul harvests adds greater urgency to containing an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease before planting begins in the country, already dependent on food handouts.

“Oxen are so important in North Korea’s agricultural industry that the government owns them all, while individuals can keep pigs,” said Kwon Tae Jin, vice president of the Korea Rural Economic Research in Seoul. “During the rice planting season you can see more oxen than tractors.” 

The outbreak of the contagious animal virus may disrupt farming in a nation where an estimated 2 million people died from famine in the mid-1990s and where flood damage to crops late last year exacerbated shortages. The disease may also mar plans to mark Kim Jong Il’s 69th birthday on February 16 and a pledge to put meat on every table. 

More than 10,000 draught oxen, milk cows and pigs have been infected with the disease, with thousands of them already dead, North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency reported yesterday. The United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization is discussing with the North’s government how it can help, the Rome-based agency’s regional office for Asia said today in an e-mailed response to inquiries by Bloomberg News.

“If North Korea fails to contain the virus before the planting season begins, it will disrupt farming with fewer animals to put to work,” Kwon, an economist specializing in North Korea’s agriculture industry, said today in a telephone interview. “That explains why they are in such a hurry to seek help from outside.” 

Using animals to transport crops and plow the land also raises the risk of spreading the virus if it isn’t contained by May, when planting begins in North Korea, he said. 


Thursday, February 10, 2011

China urges Koreas to resume dialogue

Forward progress may still be possible, as authorities in Beijing have urged North and South Korea to put their differences aside and resume dialogue, a day after the acrimonious collapse of talks that were aimed at easing tensions.

Meanwhile, South Korea indicated it would allow 31 North Koreans who drifted into its waters to return home, with North Korea demanding their return. The North Koreans were on a fishing boat that crossed over the sea border Saturday, and they were taken to Incheon for questioning by South Korean authorities.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it will respect the “free will” of the individuals, who have not expressed any desire to defect.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Defectors Send $10 Million a Year to North Korea

North Korean defectors settled in South Korea are sending secretly some US$10 million a year to their families in the North.

Some 3,000 to 5,000 of 20,000 defectors settled in South Korea are sending cash each to their families back home through middlemen every year, the government and defectors' organizations believe. Defectors organization said middlemen take commissions of about 30 percent.

The money is believed to be a mainstay of the North Korean underground economy. A security official said the defectors' money has created a lively economy in the North Korea-China border area.

Chosun Ilbo

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

North and South Korea begin military talks

North and South Korea opened working-level military talks Tuesday at the truce village of Panmunjom, South Korea's Defense Ministry said, marking the first inter-Korean dialogue in months.

The talks signal a change in tone after tensions between the two sides escalated sharply last year, and are meant to help pave the way for higher-level military discussions.

Monday, February 07, 2011

North Koreans arrive by boat in South Korea in possible defection

Thirty-one North Korean people crossed the tense Yellow Sea border by boat and arrived in South Korea two days ago, but they have not expressed any wishes to defect to the South, a military official said Monday.

The North Koreans, consisting of 11 men and 20 women, arrived on Yeonpyeong Island in a wooden fishing boat amidst thick fog.

Officials said they were not immediately clear on whether those aboard were fleeing the communist North for the South or whether they had simply drifted across the border unintentionally.

There are no children among the North Koreans, and they were believed to have left North Korea's western port city of Nampo, about 60 kilometers southwest of Pyongyang, according to the military official.

Yonhap News

Saturday, February 05, 2011

North Koreans ponder developments in Egypt

How much longer will North Koreans succumb to an incompetent regime who can’t even guarantee them a basic means of survival?

Radio Free Asia (RFA), quoting an anonymous businessman, reported that many North Koreans have heard of the Egyptian protests via their cell phones and that officials are taking events very seriously. 

The report said that North Koreans living abroad had spread the news to their relatives and families in North Korea, and that they passed it on to others within the country via cell phones. While international calls are closely monitored, the inland cellular network is not entirely controlled. The report also said that North Koreans also receive the information by secretly (and illegally) watching South Korean television news programs.

Speculations are rising in South Korea about whether it could spark mass protests in North Korea where the population also suffers under an incompetent authoritarian regime. 

Ironically, Egypt's Orascom Telecom owns a majority of North Korea's only 3G cellular network. The CEO of the company met and had dinner with North Korean leader Kim Jung-il on January 26, the day after the Egyptian protests ignited. One wonders how the dinner conversation went.

Another irony is that the Egyptian regime faced a strong rebellion when Mubarak attempted to transfer power to his son. In North Korea, where power has been transferred for three generations, the Egyptians democratic protests will not be treated as something that happened in a random country far away. 

Kim Jong-il will no doubt do all that is possible to set the information barrier high to prevent the news from spreading to the North Korean masses.

Friday, February 04, 2011

North Korea and the Internet

The internet may give the impression that it is a decentralized, people-powered network, almost free from establishment control, but the embattled Egyptian government’s success cutting off its citizens for most of the past week suggests otherwise.

Of course, the Egyptian blackout was a tactical failure and didn’t stop people gathering in their hundreds of thousands to demand change. If it had an effect, the most import role of the internet in these protests – that of spreading ideas and increasing aspirations - had already been played.

Of the world’s undemocratic regimes, only North Korea apparently appreciates these long term dangers to the status quo. Only the party elite get access, and Kim Jong-Il has described himself as an “internet expert”.

Yet just as it’s unlikely that Mubarak will be the last undemocratic leader to be pushed out by the anger sweeping the Arab world, it seems unlikely he will be the last to switch off the internet on his way.

The Telegraph

Thursday, February 03, 2011

The Big Chill in North Korea

North Korea has been hit by the longest cold spell in six decades, raising concerns about this year's grain production, a pro-Pyongyang newspaper Chosun Sinbo reports.

Temperatures stayed below zero degrees Celsius for 40 consecutive days from December 24, a phenomenon only surpassed by a 62-day streak in 1945,

It quoted North Korean meteorologist Ryu Ki-Yol as saying the chill had frozen soil up to 42 centimetres below the surface, 10cm deeper than last year, causing farmers to worry about crop production this year.

Aid groups have warned that the North's chronic food shortages would worsen this year as international donations dwindle, in part due to irritation over the regime's missile and nuclear programs.

South Korea used to ship 400,000 tons of rice a year to its northern neighbor. The shipments ended in 2008 as relations worsened.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Two Koreas agree on date for military talks

North and South Korea will hold working-level military talks on February 8, the defense ministry said Tuesday, in their first contact since the North's deadly shelling of a border island last November. 

The talks will set the date, place and agenda for a higher-level military meeting, possibly between defense ministers. 

But Seoul said the high-level meeting would only go ahead if Pyongyang took responsibility for two attacks on the South last year and promised no repetition. 

South Korea earlier expressed its openness to a leadership summit with the North Korea dictator Kim Jong-il if it shows it is sincere about nuclear disarmament, the south's president has said, further raising hopes of a resumption of talks between the troubled nations in the coming months.