News in Brief
Beijing-Pyongyang ties improving: Chinese ambassador
Relations between North Korea and China are on the recovery track, helping dissuade Pyongyang from taking provocative acts, Beijing's top envoy in South Korea said on Oct. 29.
"China and North Korea are engaging in more lively political exchanges, and their relations are improving to some extent," Ambassador Qiu Guohong said in a breakfast forum hosted by a group of Seoul National University graduates.
North Korea has neither fired a long-range rocket nor conducted another nuclear test recently, he pointed out, in part because of the improved mood, as well as international pressure.
In October, Liu Yunshan, a high-level Chinese communist party official, visited Pyongyang to attend a military parade to commemorate a key anniversary. A month earlier, the North's leader Kim Jong-un sent Choe Ryong-hae, one of his closest aides, to a similar event in Beijing.
Speculation has been widespread that the allies are mending ties notably strained since the North's nuclear test in early 2013. But it's quite unusual for a senior Chinese diplomat to confirm the mood in public.
China is seeking a "normal" relationship with North Korea, Qiu said, adding his country is supportive of the denuclearization of the peninsula and reunification.
N.K. may suffer severe food shortage next year: S. Korean expert
North Korea may see the volume of its food shortage reach around 1 million tons in 2016 due mainly to a serious drought that hit the North in early 2015, a South Korean expert said on Oct. 29.
In 2016, North Korea's food shortage may reach the largest since the North's leader Kim Jong-un took power in late 2011, according to Kwon Tae-jin, an expert on the North's agriculture at the GS&J Institute. North Korea needs a minimum of 5.nev million tons of food to feed its people.
The average food shortage per year has been around 400,000 to 500,000 tons under Kim's regime, he said.
His claims are based on the assumption that North Korea's crop production may fall 10 percent in 2015 on-year.
In early 2015, North Korea grappled with what it called its worst drought in 100 years.
A decline in an import of crops by the North from China was also cited as the cause for North Korea's bigger food shortage, he said.
In the January-September period, North Korea imported around 38,000 tons of crops from China, down 30 percent from a year earlier, amid the long-frayed Pyongyang and Beijing ties.
A U.N. report showed in April that about 70 percent of North Korea's 24.6 million people are suffering due to food shortages and 1.8 million, including children and pregnant women, are in need of nutritional food supplies aimed at fighting malnutrition.
New U.N. resolution submitted over N.K. human rights abuses
The European Union and Japan proposed a new U.N. resolution on Oct. 29 (New York time) that calls for referring the highest official responsible for North Korea's human rights violations to the International Criminal Court, a diplomatic source said.
In 2014, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a landmark resolution that calls for the U.N. Security Council to refer North's human rights abuses to the ICC. The resolution led to the Security Council adopting the issue as an official agenda item for the first time.
The new proposed resolution, which has been drafted jointly by South Korea, the United States, the European Union and Japan since early October, was submitted to the Third Committee of the U.N. General Assembly on the eve of the deadline for new resolutions, the source said.
The draft was not made public but includes the ICC referral part just like the 2014 resolution, sources said.
The new resolution is also expected to include calls for punishing those responsible for human rights violations and resolving abductions and kidnappings, while voicing concerns about torture, public executions and other types of human rights abuses in the North, according to the sources.
N. Korea digging new tunnel at its nuke test site: official
North Korea has been excavating a new tunnel at its nuclear test site in the country's northeastern tip, an official said on Oct.30, in what may be a show of its nuclear capability.
The North has so far conducted three nuclear tests in tunnels at Punggye-ri, in 2006, 2009 and 2013.
"An increased movement of people and cars has been spotted at the nuclear site," said the official, asking not to be named. "North Korea appears to be in the process of digging another tunnel."
Another source said that the North's move indicates its intention to conduct a fourth nuclear test although more analysis is needed to access whether the test is imminent.
The detection came more than a month after the North hinted that it may conduct a nuclear test in response to what it claims is the hostile policy of the United States and its allies.
It also came ahead of a planned trilateral summit among South Korea, China and Japan slated for November 1.
The leaders from the three nations plan to hold their first three-way summit in more than three years, during which North Korea's nuclear weapons program is likely to be one of the main agenda items.
Experts said that North Korea seems to want to demonstrate its nuclear capability ahead of a series of summits involving the three nations.
"North Korea likely doesn't think it is a good time to conduct a nuke test," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University. "But Pyongyang seems to want to politicize its nuclear program in a calculated move."
N. Korea spurring 'online' education at its universities
North Korea is making efforts to spur online education at its major universities in a bid to better instill the North's ideology into young people and nurture their expertise, Pyongyang's media reported on Oct. 30.
North Korea has opened online classes at its main universities, including Kim Il Sung University, a prestigious institution named after the country's founder, according to the reports.
But the concept of online education in North Korea is different from that in South Korea, one of the most wired countries in the world. As North Korea limits access to the Internet, cyber education in the North mainly means the use of intranets at a designated location.
"North Korea has been beefing up ideology education for its people via cyber classes," said Park Moon-woo, a researcher at the National Information Society Agency in South Korea.
The North's Rodong Sinmun, the country's main newspaper, reported Thursday that about 110 students have completed cyber education courses.
Around 10,000 North Koreans are taking online classes provided by Kim Chaek University of Technology, the report said.
The North is also seeking to establish a cyber education system based on a mobile communication network, according to the Korean Central News Agency.
Kim Chaek University of Technology has recently set up a tele-education system with a mobile communication network, which enables people to take classes "at any place and anytime," the KCNA reported on Oct. 1.
China endorses international tourism zone with N. Korea, Russia
China's ruling Communist Party has endorsed a plan to build an international tourism zone in the country's northeastern border area with North Korea and Russia, state-run media reported on Oct. 30.
The northeastern Chinese province of Jilin has drawn up the project to establish its border town of Fangchuan, located near a North Korean river that forms the border with China and Russia, as the "Trans-border Tourism Zone."
The tourism zone was endorsed as a five-year project for Jilin province at the end of an annual plenum of Chinese Communist Party leaders in Beijing on Thursday, according to the report by state-run Xinhua news agency.
By the end of 2015, the Jilin provincial government is expected to finalize the details of the project with its North Korean and Russian partners, the report said, citing an unnamed provincial official.
Under international sanctions over nuclear and missile ambitions, North Korea has promoted tourism as a source of much-needed hard currency.
China is North Korea's economic lifeline and diplomatic backer and their economic ties remain largely unaffected, despite the North's defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons.
N. Korea's income from tourism half of that from Kaesong complex
North Korea earned tens of millions of dollars from foreign tourists in 2014, around half of the hard currency it won from the lucrative inter-Korean industrial park, a researcher said on Nov. 1.
North Korea's income from foreign tourists is estimated at US$30.6 million to $43.6 million last year, considering about 95,000 Chinese tourists and 5,000 tourists from Western countries visited the country, Yoon In-ju of the Korea Maritime Institute said in a paper.
North Korea's annual income from the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the North's border town of Kaesong, accommodating 124 South Korean firms that employ more than 50,000 North Korean workers, reached $86 million in 2014.
North Korea has launched a drive to woo foreign tourists since leader Kim Jong-un assumed power in 2011 by introducing a variety of tour packages that give participants sports, military and labor experiences.
North Korea, however, lacks enough infrastructure, such as transportation and lodgings, to attract foreign tourists, Yoon said, adding the North's policy of allowing only group tours and limiting tourist destinations also serve as obstacles to foreigners investing in infrastructure, as well as tourists.
N. Korea seldom adopts policies of closing down markets: U.S. expert
North Korea's policy on marketplaces has swung between suppression and accommodation, but the regime has seldom cracked down on markets with the intention of permanently closing them down, a U.S. researcher said.
Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, a non-resident Kelly fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS, said he reached the assessment after analyzing satellite photos taken of a dozen major cities in North Korea since the early 2000s.
"Government repression of the markets usually does not translate into less space for market activity. In other words, during periods when the North Korean government has cracked down on the markets, like 2009-2010, markets generally have not permanently closed on any noticeable scale," Silberstein said.
"North Korea seldom adopted policies of market repression with the intention of closing down the markets for the long term," he said in an article posted in October on 38 North, a website run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Since the early 2000s, the North's markets have seen overall growth, Silberstein said. While growth has been only marginal in some cities, other cities like the border city of Sinuiju have seen markets grow by over 110 percent between 2003 and 2014, he said.
N. Korean leader calls for more precise rockets
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered a further development of "modern and precise" anti-aircraft rockets as he watched a firing drill in a western front-line area, Pyongyang's state media reported on Nov. 3.
"He underlined the need for the field of national defense science to more dynamically develop various types of new anti-aircraft rockets suited to the demand of a modern war so as to firmly defend the blue sky of the homeland from any air strike of enemies," said the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
It did not specify the timing and location of the training conducted by anti-aircraft units deployed on the western sector of the inter-Korean border.
Kim instructed the military and scientists to step up efforts to "modernize rockets and ensure their precision," the KCNA added.
On Monday, South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo and his American counterpart, Ashton Carter, announced a set of four major operational guidelines for countering North Korea's missile attacks after their talks in Seoul.
Under the so-called 4D strategy, the allies said they will swiftly "detect, defense, disrupt and destroy" the North's missiles if needed.
North Korea watchers noted the timing of the North's report.
"I think the military training was held before (the Han-Carter talks). But North Korea released a relevant report just after that," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies. "It seems to be strategically intended to counter the South Korea-U.S. coordination."
N. Korean computers can use new time zone: ex-Google employee
North Korean computers can use the country's newly established time zone, according to a former Google employee.
Will Scott, who bought a copy of North Korea's "Red Star 3" computer operating system during a visit to Pyongyang, captured images of its on-screen appearance and posted them in an article dated Nov. 1 in Business Insider.
"When installing Red Star 3, you're prompted to select a city for your time zone," reads the article. "Interestingly enough, Seoul, South Korea, isn't an option."
The accompanying image shows that "Joseon-Pyongyang" is an option, the North Korean names for the country and its capital city.
The country adopted its own time zone on Aug. 15, calling it a patriotic act that removes the vestiges of Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula and a proper measure in scientific terms.
The new time zone puts North Korea 30 minutes behind South Korea.
S. Korea monitors construction work on N. Korean border island
North Korea has begun construction work on an uninhabited island near the inter-Korean border, but its purpose has yet to be determined, a South Korean military official said on Nov. 3.
South Korea detected construction activity on Ari Island, some 12-13 kilometers northeast of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea, in early October, according to the official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Military sources said the state may be building an observation point to spy on the South's military activities or some other facility to crack down on Chinese fishing boats.
It appears unlikely that the North is building a military camp, given the size of the island and the lack of any digging activity, they added.
"We are carefully watching the construction work," the official said.
In July, the North positioned 122-mm howitzers on another uninhabited island just 4.5 kilometers northwest of Yeonpyeong after building a new military camp there.
The howitzers were used in the North's deadly shelling of Yeonpyeong in 2010, which left two civilians and two soldiers dead.
N. Koreans in Siberia earn US$200-3,000 per year: report
North Korean workers in the eastern Siberian region earn a mere US$200-3,000 a year on average, often exposed to a delay in payment due partly to corruption among managers, a report showed on Nov.4.
It adds to renewed international attention to tens of thousands of North Korean workers now toiling in Russia, China and more than a dozen other nations. Marzuki Darusman, U.N. special rapporteur on North Korea, recently told a U.N. General Assembly panel that they are "under overall conditions that reportedly amount to forced labor."
According to the new report by Lee Chang-ho, professor at Hanyang University in Seoul, the annual income of North Koreans working in the Maritime Province of Siberia, close to the Russia-North Korea border, is $200-3,000 excluding taxes.
"A delay in payment is frequent," said the report based on on-site surveys and interviews with North Korean defectors.
In contrast, North Korean managers there make $50,000-100,000 per year by taking bribes or running private businesses, it added.
N. Korean tablet PC fitted with S. Korean memory chip
A North Korean tablet PC was found to have been made with South Korean memory chips, a local defectors' group said on Nov.4.
North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, a think tank launched by North Korean intellectuals who defected, said it disassembled the "Ryonghung" tablet PC in which it found two memory chips made by South Korean chipmaker SK hynix.
"The South Korean memory chips probably ended up there as North Korea imported the entire circuit board from China," said Kim Heung-kwang, head of the NKIS.
North Korea unveiled the Ryonghung at an international trade fair held in Pyongyang in May 2013.
It runs on Google's Android platform and comes with all the basic mobile functions, such as a camera, photo album and calculator, as well as more than 30 apps, including educational ones that teach the ideological works of North Korea's two previous leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
According to the box, the Ryonghung is built with a 1 gigahertz central processing unit (CPU), a 512 megabyte random-access memory, an 8 gigabyte internal memory and 16 gigabyte external memory, NKIS said.
It also has an 8-inch screen, weighs 250 grams and has a battery life of six hours.
North Korea began to develop its own tablet PCs in 2010, and in May, released another device named "Myohyang."
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