*** FOREIGN TIPS
Parliamentary Committee OKs N. Korean Human Rights Bill
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- A South Korean parliamentary committee on Feb. 11 endorsed a bill calling for the improvement of human rights conditions in North Korea, brightening the prospects of the legislation gaining approval at a plenary session.
The National Assembly's foreign affairs committee approved the bill submitted by the ruling Grand National Party, which calls for an establishment of a government body dedicated to the issue of North Korean human rights and provision of support for nongovernmental organizations working to improve the situation.
The bill was forwarded to the judiciary committee for further review before being put to a plenary vote.
North Korea has long been labeled one of the worst human rights violators in the world. The totalitarian regime does not tolerate dissent and holds hundreds of thousands of people in political prison camps across the nation. Pyongyang has bristled at any talk of its human rights conditions, calling it an attempt to overthrow the regime.
The bill, however, failed to win consent from members of the main opposition Democratic Party, as they boycotted the vote and demanded further deliberation due to the sensitive nature of the legislation.
The Democratic Party said in a statement said that they recognize the dire human rights condition in the North but also argued that the bill was in effect an "anti-North Korean" bill, insisting that it would lead to "prolonging of the chilled ties between the two Koreas while strengthening clampdowns in the North to consolidate the regime's security."
A similar bill was raised in the previous 17th National Assembly, but failed to win approval as the then-ruling Uri Party opposed the bill over concerns that it could strain relations with the communist neighbor.
S. Korean Mission Chief Says U.N. Not Ready to Remove N.K. Sanctions
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- The chief of South Korea's mission to the United Nations on Feb. 12 said the U.N. Security Council was not ready to discuss a possible removal of sanctions on North Korea, adding such discussions will only take place after the communist nation makes significant progress toward denuclearization.
"Basically, the Security Council will decide whether to ease or remove the sanctions after reviewing the progress in North Korea's denuclearization process as stated in Resolution 1874," Ambassador Park In-kook told reporters, referring to a Security Council resolution that was adopted last year shortly after North Korea's missile tests and its second nuclear detonation.
"But I believe it will be more accurate to say the mood of the Security Council is not yet ripe enough to begin such discussions," he added.
North Korea has boycotted six-nation talks on ending its nuclear program since December 2008, but said last month that it will return to the talks if the U.N. sanctions are first removed.
All five other participants in the six-nation talks -- South Korea, the United States, Japan, China and Russia -- have rejected the demand, saying the removal of the sanctions can only be considered after the North first returns to the nuclear talks. The U.S., China and Russia are also veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, along with Britain and France.
Park noted it was difficult to tell how effective the U.N. sanctions were in terms of numbers, citing the difficulty of obtaining any reliable information on the current state of the reclusive North. But he said the sanctions were proving very effective in two aspects.
"First of all, we believe the sanctions sent a very strong political and emotional message (from the international community) to the North in that they are being effectively carried out," Park said.
"Secondly, it is the general opinion of the United Nations that the sanctions have had a practical effect on North Korea by blocking its weapons exports and money-making," he added.
Park, 58, was on a brief trip back home for the annual conference of diplomatic mission chiefs, which ended earlier Feb. 12.
N. Korea Draws US$10 Billion in Foreign Investments: Source
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea has attracted $10 billion in foreign investments with the help of China to improve its infrastructure amid tight international sanctions, a source familiar with the deal said on Feb. 15.
"A couple of Chinese banks and multiple international companies have practically clinched investment deals with Daepung International Investment Group," the source told Yonhap News Agency, referring to the name of the North's state firm handling foreign investment.
The source in Seoul said Wang Jiarui, a senior Chinese party official who visited North Korea last week, appears to have worked as an intermediary for North Korea to secure the deal.
Wang's mission in North Korea was not clearly known but he met with leader Kim jong-il to discuss, among other issues, suspended six-party talks on the North's nuclear programs. North Korea quit the forum last year in protest of U.N. sanctions imposed on it over its missile tests.
China, as host of the six-party talks, has lately been trying to lure North Korea back to the dialogue forum. North Korea has vowed not to rejoin it unless U.N. trade and other sanctions are lifted and negotiations are started to set up a permanent peace regime on the Korean peninsula.
According to the Seoul source, Wang also met with other top North Korean government and party officials to discuss investment offers from China and other countries, the total amount of which is believed to reach $10 billion.
"Over 60 percent of the total investments, which will be announced next month, will come from China," the source said, suggesting that china is interested in building railways, ports and houses in North Korea.
The reported amount of foreign investments in North Korea is something that goes beyond common sense. North Korea remains isolated from most of the world and has received virtually no foreign investment. The North's gross domestic product (GDP) was estimated at about $26.2 billion in 2008.
Seoul's Effectively Increases Budget for N.K. Human Rights
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea has frozen its annual budget for supporting activities to improve human rights in North Korea this year, though the amount is far higher than what the nation's human rights body had requested, a state panel said on Feb. 16.
The National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) said the overall budget for its activities in 12 categories was cut by 5.38 percent on-year to 4.63 billion won (US$4 million) for the 2010 fiscal year. Funding for research into North Korean defectors and human rights conditions in the socialist state remained unchanged, however, at 331 million won, the independent commission said.
The North Korea-related budget is far larger than 140 million won that the commission initially asked for, indicating that the government is putting an emphasis on the issues.
The North Korea budget will be used to fund local and overseas surveys of defectors from the North and human rights conditions there, as well as to host an international symposium and domestic forums, and to publish and purchase books.
On Feb. 11 a parliamentary committee on foreign affairs endorsed a bill calling for the improvement of human rights conditions in the North. If enacted, the bill would be the first of its kind in South Korea. Officials at Seoul's Unification Ministry in charge of relations with the North said the legislation efforts are "in line with the government's direction."
U.S. Hints at Resuming Food Aid to North Korea: State Dept.
WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- The United States on Feb. 16 hinted at restarting food aid to North Korea, which was suspended early last year amid heightened tensions over its nuclear and missile tests.
"The efforts on trying to achieve a non-nuclear North Korea should not in any way be connected with efforts to improve the lives of ordinary North Koreans," State Department deputy spokesman Gordon Duguid said in a daily news briefing. "The United States is trying to help the people of North Korea in whatever ways we can."
Food aid was suspended in March last year when North Korea refused to issue visas to Korean-speaking monitors, whose mission was to assure that the food aid was not funneled to the military and government elite.
North Korea recently said it was ready to return to the six-nation forum, which it has boycotted since early last year over U.N. sanctions.
North Korea's chief nuclear envoy, Kim Kye-gwan, reportedly will visit the U.S. next month to follow up on the tour of North Korea by Stephen Bosworth, special representative for North Korea policy, in December to discuss the reopening of the nuclear negotiations.
As a condition to rejoining the talks, Pyongyang has insisted on the lifting of sanctions and signing a peace treaty to replace the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War. Washington wants the North to return to the talks first.
The U.S., which had provided more than 2 million tons of food aid to the North over the past decade or so, delivered 169,000 tons of food to North Korea from May 2008 to March 2009.
International relief organizations also suspended humanitarian food aid to North Korea around that time as the North Korean government expelled international monitors amid escalating tensions over its rocket test launch.
"Until North Korea ended the program, we were supplying food aid to North Korea to try and alleviate the starvation that is caused by no other factor other than the government's pursuit of a nuclear program at all costs -- costs to its people, costs to its economy," Duguid said.
Relief organizations have said that North Korea will need at least 1 million tons of food from abroad to feed its 24 million people this year. Reports indicate thousands have already starved to death this winter due to the sanctions and skyrocketing commodity prices caused by a revaluation of its currency.
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