*** FOREIGN TIPS
N. Korea Remains Top Persecutor of Christians for the 7th Year
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea topped the Open Doors' 2009 World Watch List as the country in which Christians face the highest level of persecution for the seventh year in a row.
"There is no other country in the world where Christians are being persecuted in such a horrible and relentless way," the U.S.-based organization said in a report released on Feb. 3.
Next on the list were Saudi Arabia and Iran, countries that adhere to Sharia law. Afghanistan, Somalia, and the Maldives came next, followed by Yemen, Laos, Eritrea, and Uzbekistan.
The ranking system is determined by a 50-point questionnaire taken by locals, activists, and Christians in each country.
"It is certainly not a shock that North Korea is No. 1 on the list of countries where Christians face the worst persecution," said Carl Moeller, President of the organizaton.
He encouraged those who are concerned to join Open Doors' on-going prayer campaign for North Korea and to advocate for oppressed believers during North Korea Freedom Week (April 25-May 2).
There have been several incidents of North Korea imprisoning, torturing or executing Christians, said Moeller in an interview with US radio broadcaster Voice of America.
Approximately one out of four of the 50,000 believers who secretly practice their faith in North Korea have been sent to forced labor camps for their beliefs, according to an Open Doors source.
Open Doors is a Christian organization that aids persecuted believers internationally and publishes an annual World Watch List, which ranks the top 50 countries with the highest level of legal, institutional and social discrimination and persecution toward Christians.
In the broader context, North Korea continues to be viewed negatively by the global public. In a recent poll conducted by international pollster GlobeScan and the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), North Korea ranked fourth worst in terms of negative global influence.
The results are based on 13,575 phone or in-home interviews across 21 different countries.
CIA Nominee Picks N. Korea Among Priority Security Challenges
WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- CIA director-designate Leon Panetta said on Feb. 5 that North Korea is one of the major security priorities facing the U.S.
"I really do think that if we are going to come into the 21st century we have got to set a list of priorities that not only look at current crises -- and clearly we've got Afghanistan, we've got Pakistan, we've got Iraq, we have North Korea," Panetta said in his Senate confirmation hearing.
He also stressed the importance of "clearly looking at Russia and China" and other "potential crises" that could develop in the future.
"We know North Korea detonated a nuclear weapon in 2006," Panetta said. "But we don't know whether Kim Jong-il is prepared to give up that nuclear capability once and for all."
The latest round of six-nation talks on North Korea's denuclearization ground to a halt in December after Pyongyang refused to allow inspectors to take samples from its nuclear reactor.
U.S. President Barack Obama has said he will continue the talks and would not dismiss the possibility of meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il directly to resolve concerns over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
Recent reports have said North Korea is getting ready to test-launch another ballistic missile capable of reaching the western part of the mainland U.S.
North Korea last test-fired a ballistic missile in 2006, but experts agree it failed shortly after launch.
N. Korea Believed to Have Revamped Missile Technology: Source
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea is believed to have improved its weapons technology to expedite the test-firing of its most advanced missile, a South Korean intelligence source said on Feb. 5.
Citing classified information, the source said the communist state has also revamped its launch pad on the east coast -- the site of two high-profile missile tests in 1998 and 2006.
"They have tried to improve (the missile) for the last couple of years, and we believe there has been improvement," the source said.
North Korea test-fired its longest-range Taepodong-2 missile in 2006, sharply raising regional tensions. But outside intelligence officials say the missile crashed shortly after take-off.
"We do not believe it will take as long" for Pyongyang to get ready to test-fire what is believed to be another Taepodong-2 missile, the source said.
The source refrained from discussing how much the procedure could be shortened. South Korean defense officials had estimated earlier this week that preparations for a launch could take a month or two.
The Taepodong-2 model is supposedly capable of traveling up to 6,700 kilometers, putting Alaska and the U.S. West Coast within its striking range, according to weapons experts.
The intelligence comes as North Korea continues to step up its harsh rhetoric against South Korea.
Relations between the two countries have hit the lowest level seen in decades since South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office early last year with a tougher stance on the North.
North Korea has reacted bitterly to Lee's policies, declaring all cross-border agreements void and warning of an armed clash near a western sea border where naval skirmishes turned deadly in 1999 and 2002.
Analysts say North Korea's moves are primarily aimed at influencing U.S. President Barack Obama, whose foreign policy priorities are beginning to take form.
"What matters just as much as technical timing is the political timing," Baek said, adding North Korean leader Kim Jong-il will consider political factors in deciding whether he will push ahead with the missile launch.
N. Korea Still Short of Food Despite Good Harvest: Expert
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea's food-related trouble is likely to continue despite a relatively good harvest last year, a leading U.S. expert on the communist nation's economy said on Feb. 5.
"It is too early to break out the champagne," Marcus Noland, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said in an e-mail commentary, amid speculation here that Pyongyang's latest bellicose behavior might have been spurred by confidence from an improving food situation there.
"The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that North Korean grain production fell for three consecutive harvests, reaching 3.43 million metric tons in 2008-2009," he said. "The good harvests should be treated with caution. Overall grain balances in North Korea remain perilously close to the survival margin."
His gloomy outlook came in spite of Washington's shipments of close to 5,000 tons of rice earlier this month to the North as part of its commitment of up to half a million tons of grain.
Noland added that the Barack Obama administration's first sanctions on North Korean firms will have a limited effect.
Washington announced in Monday's Federal Register that it will impose sanctions on three North Korean companies engaged in weapons and technology proliferation of missiles and other weapons of mass destruction.
"The October 2006 sanctions (following North Korea's long-range missile test and nuclear detonation) have been ineffective," he pointed out. "At the simplest level, Chinese luxury good exports to North Korea continued to rise after the imposition of sanctions."
N. Korea Wants to Continue Denuclearization Talks: U.S. Expert
BEIJING (Yonhap) -- North Korea has signaled that it is willing to continue with multilateral talks aimed at dismantling the country's nuclear program, a former senior U.S. diplomat said on Feb. 7 after returning from a trip to Pyongyang.
"We concluded that the outlook is that we can continue to work towards eventual denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," Stephen Bosworth, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, told reporters in Beijing.
Bosworth and a group of non-government American experts on North Korea were returning from a five-day visit to Pyongyang, where they met with senior officials in a civilian exchange program between the U.S. and North Korea.
The former diplomat said following talks with senior North Korean officials that he got the impression they wished to continue with the nuclear disarmament process.
Bosworth also said that North Korean officials neither confirmed nor denied recent reports the country is preparing for another missile test.
North Korea is believed to be preparing to test-launch a long-range missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, after intelligence agencies recently spotted a train carrying a long cylinder-shaped object believed to be a Taepodong-2 missile.
"They said we should all wait and see. There were no threats, no indication that they were concerned," he said, adding that the group plans to depart for Seoul on Sunday.
President Lee Says North Korean Threat Not Worrisome
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said on Feb. 9 North Korea's recent threats do not pose any immediate danger and that his government is always ready to enter dialogue with the communist nation to resolve outstanding issues.
"I am very aware there are people who are concerned about the recent series of North Korean threats. But you do not need to worry too much," the president said in his bi-weekly radio address.
"The government is ready to sit down with North Korea at any time and resolve any issue," he added.
North Korea last month said it will no longer honor past accords reached between the two Koreas, including a 1991 agreement in which Pyongyang recognized the U.N.-drawn Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the Yellow Sea. The de facto border on the west coast has been the site of two deadly naval clashes in 1999 and 2002.
Appearing in a nationally televised program late last month, the South Korean president said his administration would soon hold dialogue with North Korea, which has refused to talk to the incumbent Seoul government since it was inaugurated a year ago.
Lee also said the government would not make the same mistake as its predecessors by rushing into inter-Korean dialogue without first questioning Pyongyang's intentions.
"I believe it is better to start off with a little difficulty, but ensure things are set right to reach a positive outcome, instead of trying to figure out what North Korea wants while saying all is well that ends well," he said.
Inter-Korean relations greatly affected the country's business environment during the Cold War era, but the president insists this no longer is the case and that this gives Seoul more room to maneuver and more ways to engage Pyongyang.
"We are ready to work with North Korea. North Korea, too, must realize the South is the only country in the entire world that is sincerely concerned for its future and willing to help it," Lee said.
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