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Thursday, 20 February 2014 02:50

Koreas begin reunions of separated families

   SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Elderly North and South Koreans separated for six decades are tearfully reuniting, grateful to embrace children, brothers, sisters and spouses they had thought they might never see again.
   About 80 elderly South Koreans traveled Thursday through falling snow with their families to North Korea's Diamond Mountain to reunite with relatives they hadn't seen since the 1950-53 Korean War. Seoul says about 180 North Koreans were expected.
   South Korean TV showed elderly women in traditional hanbok dresses talking and hugging at the resort. Stooped men wiped away tears with their handkerchiefs. Another old man was wheeled into the meeting room on a stretcher, a blue blanket wrapped tightly around him.
   More reunions are planned through Tuesday. This round of reunions, the first since 2010, comes amid a North Korean charm offensive.
Published in National News
   PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) - An American missionary who has been jailed in North Korea for more than a year has appeared before reporters and is appealing to the U.S. government to do its best to secure his release.
   The missionary, Kenneth Bae, made the comments Monday at what he called a press conference held at his own request.
   Bae was arrested in November 2012 while leading a tour group. He was accused of crimes against the state and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. He was moved to a hospital last summer in poor health. He is the longest-serving American detainee in North Korea in recent years.
   Bae expressed hope that the U.S. government will do its best to secure his release.
Published in National News

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — The execution of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's uncle brought a swift and violent end to a man long considered the country's second-most powerful. But while Jang Song Thaek is now gone, the fallout from his bloody purge is not over.

In a stunning reversal of the popular image of Jang as a mentor and father figure guiding young Kim Jong Un as he consolidated power, North Korea's state-run media on Friday announced he had been executed and portrayed him as a morally corrupt traitor who saw the death of Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011 as an opportunity to make his own power play.

Experts who study the authoritarian country, which closely guards its internal workings from both outsiders and citizens, were divided on whether the sudden turn of events reflected turmoil within the highest levels of power or signaled that Kim Jong Un was consolidating his power in a decisive show of strength. Either way, the purge is an unsettling development for a world that is already wary of Kim's unpredictability amid North Korea's attempts to develop nuclear weapons.

"If he has to go as high as purging and then executing Jang, it tells you that everything's not normal," said Victor Cha, a former senior White House adviser on Asia.

The first appearance of the new narrative came out just days ago, when North Korea accused Jang, 67, of corruption, womanizing, gambling and taking drugs. It said he'd been eliminated from all his posts. Friday's allegations heaped on claims that he tried "to overthrow the state by all sorts of intrigues and despicable methods with a wild ambition to grab the supreme power of our party and state."

"He dared not raise his head when Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were alive," it said, referring to the country's first leader and his son. But after Kim Jong Il's death, it claimed, Jang saw his chance to challenge Kim Jong Un and realize his "long-cherished goal, greed for power."

The purge also could spread and bring down more people, Cha said. "When you take out Jang, you're not taking out just one person — you're taking out scores if not hundreds of other people in the system. It's got to have some ripple effect."

South Korean intelligence officials say two of Jang's closest aides have already been executed last month.

Narushige Michishita, a security expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, suggested that Jang's removal shows "that Kim Jong Un has the guts to hold onto power, and this might have shown his will to power, his willingness to get rid of anything that stands in his way."

One of the biggest opportunities for the world to see what may happen next will come on Dec. 17, which is the second anniversary of Kim Jong Il's death. North Korea watchers will be closely following whether Jang's wife, Kim Kyong Hui, the younger sister of Kim Jong Il, and other figures are present in the official ceremonies marking the day.

News of Jang Song Thaek's execution was trumpeted across the nation by North Korea's state media — with unusually vitriolic outbursts on TV, radio and in the main newspaper — as a triumph of Kim Jong Un and the ruling party over a traitor "worse than a dog" who was bent on overthrowing the government.

Pyongyang residents crowded around newspapers posted at the capital's main subway station to read the story. State media said Jang was tried for treason by a special military tribunal and executed Thursday.

"He's like an enemy who dares to be crazy enough to take over power from our party and our leader," said Pak Chang Gil, echoing the media's official line. "He got what he deserved."

That's a long way from the popular perception that "Uncle Jang" was nurturing his nephew as a regent appointed by Kim Jong Il. Jang was seen prominently by Kim Jong Un's side as he walked by his father's hearse during his 2011 funeral. He was also a fixture at the new leader's side as he toured the country.

The KCNA report was unusually specific in its accusations. In particular, it criticized Jang for not rising and applauding his nephew's appointment to a senior position because Jang "thought that if Kim Jong Un's base and system for leading the army were consolidated, this would lay a stumbling block in the way of grabbing the power."

It stressed repeatedly that Jang had tried to assemble a faction of his own, suggesting the purging process could still be playing out.

Jang's death could herald a "reign of terror," including more purges, said Lim Eul Chul, a North Korea expert at South Korea's Kyungnam University.

Another question mark is how the purge will impact North Korea's relationship with its only major ally, China. Jang had been seen as the leading supporter of Chinese-style economic reforms and an important link between Pyongyang and Beijing. China has called Jang's execution a domestic issue and has avoided further public comment.

North Korea has recently turned to attempts at diplomacy with South Korea and the United States. But tensions have remained high since Pyongyang's threats in March and April, which included warnings that it would restart nuclear bomb fuel production.

Another resident in Pyongyang, Ri Chol Ho, said he did not believe Jang alone was deserving of the harshest punishment.

"For this group of traitors who were going to destroy our single-hearted unity, execution is too lenient," he said. "They should be torn up and thrown into the rubbish bin of history."

__

Klug reported from Seoul. AP reporters Hyung-jin Kim and Eun-young Jeong in Seoul and Ken Moritsugu in Tokyo contributed to this story.

Published in National News

   SEOUL (ABC) - Former NBA star Dennis Rodman is on way to Pyongyang today for a five-day visit to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but the trip he said is not to free jailed American missionary Kenneth Bae.

   "I'm going to North Korea to meet my friend, Kim," Rodman told reporters while transiting at Beijing's airport earlier today. "It's a friendly gesture."

   Bae, currently serving a 15 year sentence of hard labor in North Korea, was arrested for attempting to overthrow the communist government. Negotiations for his release was canceled at the last minute by North Korea just before Robert King, U.S. special envoy on North Korean human rights issues, was to visit Pyongyang last week.

   Pyongyang's excuse for the abrupt withdrawal was disapproval of the U.S. military participating in annual joint drills with South Korea.

   Rodman, the first American to have met Kim in February, noted this trip is "another basketball diplomacy tour." His earlier visit had stunned the diplomatic world when very little was known about Kim Jong Un's personality.

   The former basketball star was spotted hugging, drinking, and laughing with Kim who is known to have been a fan of Rodman from teenage years when he was educated in Switzerland. The trip had been organized by the cable channel Vice to promote an exhibition game and make a documentary.

   Rodman has referred Kim as "an awesome kid" and gave lavish praises after spending time with him earlier this year.

   Rodman said that Kim's father and grandfather Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, "were great leaders," according to the Associated Press. "He's proud, his country likes him — not like him, love him, love him," Rodman said of Kim Jong Un. "Guess what, I love him. The guy's really awesome."

Published in National News

   SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Thursday accepted South Korea's request that this week's talks on reuniting families separated by war be held at a border village, Seoul officials said, the latest in a series of conciliatory gestures Pyongyang has recently taken.

   North Korea appears to be increasingly open to reducing the tensions marked by a North Korean nuclear test, war threats and annual military drills by Seoul and Washington. The Koreas agreed last week to move toward reopening a jointly run factory park closed since April, and North Korea's criticism of U.S.-South Korean training exercises this week was milder in tone than its statements on past drills.

   North Korea agreed to hold talks on Friday on the southern side of the border village of Panmunjom as South Korea proposed, South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk told reporters Thursday, according to his office. Pyongyang had earlier proposed meeting at Diamond Mountain, a scenic site in North Korea.

   North Korea also proposed another set of talks between late August and early September on resuming lucrative jointly run tours to Diamond Mountain, according to the ministry. South Korea proposed holding talks on the mountain tours on Sept. 25 in response to North Korea's earlier proposal to meet on Thursday.

   "North Korea once again showed it would continue the mood of dialogue .... with South Korea," said Lim Eul Chul, a professor at South Korea's Kyungnam University. "North Korea is believed to have determined that reunions of separated families would be helpful for a resumption of Diamond Mountain tours."

   The mountain tours had provided a legitimate source of hard currency to North Korea before they were suspended after a 2008 shooting death of a South Korean tourist in the resort.

   The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, is visiting the two Koreas to discuss the family reunion and other humanitarian issues. Maurer arrived in Pyongyang for a four-day trip and is to travel on to Seoul on Sunday after a visit to China.

   The ICRC has had a permanent presence in North Korea for about 10 years. Maurer is the group's first president to make a combined visit to both countries on the Korean peninsula in 21 years, it said in a statement.

   Family reunions were a key inter-Korean cooperation project during a period of thawed relations between 2000 and 2010, but they have not been held for three years. About 22,000 Koreans were able to meet in that time. The families were separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, when there were huge movements of refugees between North and South Korea.

   But analysts say the North often follows provocations and threats with a charm offensive meant to win aid. A similar proposal on the reunions in July fizzled.

Published in National News

   SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in South Korea on Friday on an unusual diplomatic journey, traveling directly into a region bracing for a possible North Korean missile test and risking that his presence alone could spur Pyongyang into another headline-seeking provocation.

   Kerry was kicking off four days of talks in East Asia amid speculation that the North's unpredictable regime would launch a mid-range missile designed to reach as far as the U.S. territory of Guam. Kerry also planned to visit China and Japan.

   North Korea often times its provocations to generate maximum attention, and Kerry's presence in Seoul will provide plenty of that, even if the United States is engaged in intense diplomacy with China, the North's benefactor, in an effort to lower tensions. Another dangerous date on the calendar is April 15, the 101st birthday of North Korea's deceased founder, Kim Il Sung.

   Kerry's trip coincides with the disclosure of a new U.S. intelligence report that concludes North Korea has advanced its nuclear knowhow to the point that it could arm a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead. The analysis, disclosed Thursday at a congressional hearing in Washington, said the Pentagon's intelligence wing has "moderate confidence" that North Korea has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles but that the weapon would be unreliable.

   Pentagon spokesman George Little said afterward that "it would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully tested, developed or demonstrated the kinds of nuclear capabilities referenced" at the congressional hearing.

   James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said he concurred with Little and noted that the report alluded to at the hearing was compiled by the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency and was not an assessment by the entire U.S. intelligence community. "Moreover, North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile," he said.

   President Barack Obama on Thursday urged calm, calling on Pyongyang to end its saber-rattling while sternly warning that he would "take all necessary steps" to protect American citizens.

   Kerry's trip marks his first foray to the Asia-Pacific as America's top diplomat, spearheading the effort to "pivot" U.S. power away from Europe and the Middle East and toward the world's most populous region and fulcrum of economic growth.

   And it comes on the heels of months of provocative action and warlike rhetoric from Pyongyang, including talk of nuclear strikes against the United States - however outlandish analysts consider such threats. No one is discounting the danger entirely after tests of a nuclear device and ballistic missile technology in recent months.

   Kerry's trip was planned well in advance of the latest danger to destabilize the Korean peninsula: North Korea's apparent preparations for another missile test in defiance of United Nations resolutions. The crisis clearly has overtaken the rest of his Asian agenda.

   The Obama administration believes North Korea is preparing for another missile test, said a senior State Department official traveling with Kerry on the plane to Seoul. "We will show to our allies that we are prepared and we will defend them," the official said.

   To mitigate the threat, however, Kerry is largely depending on China to take a bigger role in pressuring North Korea to live up to previous agreements to halt its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. It's a strategy that has worked poorly for the U.S. for more than two decades.

   Beijing has the most leverage with Pyongyang. It has massively boosted trade with its communist neighbor and maintains close military ties. And the U.S. believes the Chinese could take several specific steps to show North Korea it cannot threaten regional stability with impunity.

   These include getting China to cut off support for North Korea's weapons of mass destruction program, said the State Department official and another senior administration official, though they rejected that the U.S. was seeking a commercial embargo against the North.

   The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly about Kerry's meetings in advance.

   Neither could say, however, whether Pyongyang under its enigmatic young leader, Kim Jong Un, was actually listening at this point. One of them stressed that he "wouldn't say there is no conversation between them," but declined to describe the level and impact of Chinese-North Korean contacts.

   Kim's actual control of the country also is unclear, the official added. Now 29 or 30, the basketball devotee and product of a Swiss boarding school inherited power from his late father, Kim Jong Il, some 16 months ago and has seemed to lead his country on an increasingly reckless path toward possible confrontation.

   That has led many observers and policymakers abroad to devote increasing time toward analyzing what little information they have on Kim to figure out how he can be mollified without being rewarded.

Published in National News

   South Korean officials are playing down security fears on the peninsula amid what seem to be daily threats from the North and a warning that a nuclear war was imminent.

   A Defense Ministry official in Seoul says South Korea has deployed three naval destroyers, an early warning surveillance aircraft and a land-based radar system.

   But many North Koreans are focused today on the first anniversary of their leader's appointment as head of the ruling Worker's Party.

   Still, at the border: North Korea remains tense as more South Korean workers return.

 

 

 

Published in National News

   PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) - A South Korean Defense Ministry official says North Korea has completed preparations for a missile test that could come any day.

   The warning Wednesday came as Pyongyang prepared to mark the April 15 birthday of its founder Kim Il Sung, historically a time when it seeks to draw the world's attention with dramatic displays of military power.

   In Pyongyang, however, the focus was more on beautifying the city ahead of the nation's biggest holiday. Soldiers hammered away on construction projects and gardeners got down on their knees to plant flowers and trees.

   The official in Seoul said the North's military is capable of conducting multiple missile launches involving Scud and medium-range Rodong missiles, as well as a missile transported to the east coast recently.

   He spoke on condition of anonymity.

Published in National News

   SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - South Korea's point man on North Korea says there is an "indication" that Pyongyang is preparing for a fourth nuclear test.

   Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae told a parliamentary committee Monday that "there is such an indication," according to two ministry officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

   Ryoo was answering a lawmaker's question about increased personnel and vehicle activities at the North's nuclear test site.

   Ministry officials cite Ryoo as telling the lawmakers he wouldn't provide further details because they involve confidential intelligence affairs.

   South Korean defense officials previously said the North completed preparations for a nuclear test at two underground tunnels. The North used one tunnel for its Feb. 12 nuclear test. The second remains unused.

 
Published in National News

GENEVA (AP) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says he fears North Korea is on a collision course with other nations that could lead to war.

Ban says "the current crisis has already gone too far" because of escalating tensions raised by North Korea's almost daily threats of war against the United States and South Korea.

North Korea also vowed today to escalate production of nuclear weapons material, including restarting a plutonium reactor shut down in 2007.

 
Published in National News
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