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North Korea Clamps down on Private Markets
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korean authorities are clamping down on private markets that have cropped up across the country, citing concerns that such business activities can compromise centralized control, a local civic group said Nov. 6.
Good Friends claimed in its recent newsletter that the government will allow private markets to operate only once a month beginning in 2009. Markets operate on the first, 11th and 21st of each month at present.
In North Korea's capital and largest city of Pyongyang, such measures have been implemented since October, said Good Friends.
The Seoul-based relief group said North Korean authorities expressed concerns that merchants who make a living by selling goods at these markets could contest or circumvent decisions and rules made by the state.
The markets have become an integral part of the local landscape, as they are used by many people to supplement their meager state rations.
Quoting an anonymous North Korean official, the group said the government's ultimate goal is to shut down the markets altogether.
U.S. Analyzing Kim Jong-il's Photos to Prove Reported Health Failure
WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- The United States said on Nov. 7 it is analyzing recently released photos of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il for clues to his health.
"I assume, our people are taking a look at those photos and analyzing them," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said in a daily news briefing. "I've seen the same photos that you've seen. I don't have any way of verifying... what the condition is of his health."
North Korean media have sought to quell suspicions over Kim's health over the past few days by releasing photos of Kim attending an artistic performance and a soccer game between soldiers and inspecting military units.
They failed, however, to reveal when and where the photos were taken, spawning allegations that the pictures might have been doctored.
Kim had been absent from public view for nearly two months, since Aug. 14, triggering speculation that he suffered a stroke and underwent brain surgery.
In early October, North Korean media released a photo of Kim inspecting a female soldiers' unit. But the apparent summer foliage in that photo's background triggered further suspicions.
Releases of photos of Kim in early November showed signs of paralysis of his left hand, and some analysts even raised suspicions of fabrication, citing the disproportion between him and others beside him.
Some analysts say North Korea may soon release video footage of Kim to put an end to disputes over his health, citing the need for Kim to convince the incoming U.S. administration of Barack Obama that he is a legitimate partner in the ongoing negotiations on North Korea's nuclear dismantlement.
Obama Envoy Dispatch to Pyongyang Not Imminent: Official
WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- A State Department official on Nov. 10 dismissed speculation that U.S. President-elect Barack Obama will soon send a high-ranking envoy to North Korea to seek a breakthrough in talks on North Korea's nuclear dismantlement.
"There was no such invitation discussed," the official said, requesting anonymity, while responding to anticipation that a high-ranking U.S. delegation, including the president-elect's representatives, will make a rare trip to Pyongyang.
Ri Gun, director general of the North American Affairs bureau at North Korea's foreign ministry, met with Frank Jannuzi, a senior foreign policy adviser to Obama, and Sung Kim, special envoy for six-party talks, in New York last week, spawning expectations of a possible trip to Pyongyang by Jannuzi or another envoy.
Reports said that Obama may soon send former Secretary of State Colin Powell or another prominent figure as his special envoy to Pyongyang to prepare for a possible visit there by himself to make a breakthrough in the on-and-off multilateral nuclear talks that began in 2003.
At a presidential debate last month, Obama dismissed his Republican rival John McCain's criticism that it is naive to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il without preconditions, saying that any summit meeting should follow due preparations.
The president-elect has said the Bush administration's reluctance to deal directly with North Korea resulted in the North's detonation of its first nuclear device in 2006 and the quadrupling of its nuclear weapons to eight by the end of Bush's eight-year term.
Jack Pritchard, president of the Korea Economic Institute based in Washington, was also skeptical that the Obama administration will act quickly on Pyongyang.
Pritchard, a former point man on North Korea under the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, cited the months the nomination of secretary of state, defense and other key officials take and the need for the incoming administration to prioritize solving the ongoing economic crisis.
"I don't think that's going to happen soon as North Korea is not the top priority of the incoming administration," Pritchard said in a news conference. "Of course, there have to be preparations."
Prichard, who visited Pyongyang in April, said those who are talking about Obama possibly sending an envoy to Pyongyang are not part of the presidential transition team.
"The U.S. economy is by far the most important issue for the new Obama presidency," which requires "all the energy of the new administration," he said, adding the campaign focus on foreign policy issues was Iran and Afghanistan.
He also noted it takes several months for secretary and assistant secretary-level officials to pass the congressional nomination process after Obama's inauguration on Jan. 20.
Prichard stressed the need for the incoming administration to address quickly the North Korean nuclear issue, saying, "The longer North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, the harder for them to give it up."
In April, Prichard said he was told by North Koreans in Pyongyang that like Israel, a few nuclear weapons in the North "won't matter."
South Korean President Says He Won't Oppose U.S.-N. Korea Summit
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said he is not opposed to U.S. President-elect Barack Obama holding a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il after taking office if it helps in getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.
"I wouldn't oppose Mr. Obama meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, as long as it helps to lead North Korea to abandon its nuclear program," Lee said in an interview with South Korea's Chosun Ilbo, Japan's Mainichi Shimbun and the Times of Britain. The transcript of the interview was released on Nov. 11.
"Some are concerned that an Obama-Kim summit would isolate South Korea, but I don't have such fear. President-elect Obama will highly value the view of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) on inter-Korean issues. South Korea and the U.S. will have sufficient consultations over the North," said Lee in the interview held at his office on Nov. 9.
Lee and Obama agreed in phone talks on Nov. 7 to further reinforce the two countries' bilateral alliance and to closely cooperate in addressing the global financial crisis and North Korean nuclear issue.
Lee went on to say he is still willing to meet with North Korean leader Kim as often as possible. "I truly wish for North Korea's economic prosperity and national unification. Kim will someday understand my sincerity."
Human Rights Watchdog Creates North Korea Committee
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea's rights watchdog said on Nov. 11 it has created a special committee to monitor human rights conditions in North Korea, a politically sensitive issue that was avoided for years under previous liberal governments.
The National Human Rights Commission vowed to openly tackle the issue. The step is in line with the nine-month-old conservative government's initiative to get tough on the North's alleged human rights abuses.
"The Special Committee on Human Rights in North Korea has the mission of reviewing issues related to human rights conditions in North Korea and reporting its opinion to the commission's full-member human rights committee," the watchdog said in a statement.
The committee, led by Yoo Nam-yeong, a vice minister-level official, and three other commission officials, will also be responsible for examining issues outside the communist country, such as North Korean defectors illegally residing in China and those who make their way into South Korea or the United States.
The watchdog created an ad hoc North Korean committee in 2006, but it was operational only for a few months.
Conservative critics have accused previous liberal governments of overlooking the situation in North Korea to avoid political friction with Pyongyang, even as the international community has made repeated criticisms.
The rights watchdog, established in 2001 under the initiative of Nobel Peace laureate and then President Kim Dae-jung, has played a major role in monitoring abuses by government authorities and protecting minorities like the disabled and foreign migrant workers, but has maintained its distance in addressing North Korean issues.
Officials cautioned, however, against using the North's human rights issue to pressure Pyongyang. North Korea rejects outside criticisms about its human rights conditions as interference with domestic affairs.
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