Archive for September, 2002

Progress over Korean transport links

Saturday, September 14th, 2002

Caroline Gluck

Military officials from the two Koreas have held talks to discuss carrying out work inside the demilitarised zone separating them, so that cross-border road and rail links can be restored.

These talks – the first of their kind in more than a year and a half – are another sign of improving ties.

The meeting, in the border village of Panmunjom, focused on the technical details of reconnecting cross-border road and rail links, which will pass through the heavily-mined demilitarised zone.

Agreements signed by defence ministers from both countries are needed to guarantee the safety of workers and prevent accidental clashes between the two armies, which have maintained an uneasy truce since the Korean War ended in 1953.

Last month, the two sides set out a timetable for the work, saying they hoped to complete one rail link by the end of the year.


At least two more rounds of working-level talks are expected, and officials are confident that agreements will be in place before ground-breaking ceremonies are held in the two Koreas next Wednesday, marking the resumption of work.

The South has agreed to provide construction materials to the North, and in separate meetings held in North Korea officials are discussing the engineering details of the projects.

The two Koreas are still technically at war, but Seoul sees transport links as one of the most powerful symbols of their reconciliation efforts.

High-level talks between the two Koreas resumed last month and have been followed by a series of exchanges.

Limited numbers of elderly relatives from the two Koreas are currently holding emotional reunions in the North after being separated for half-a-century.

They are the fifth round of reunions since the historic Korean summit in June 2000.


Emotional Korean relatives reunited

Friday, September 13th, 2002


There have been emotional scenes in North Korea as hundreds of relatives from South Korea were reunited with 100 long-lost relatives from the North.

Many of the participants, mostly aged in their 60s and 70s, were speechless as they embraced their brothers, sisters, parents and children for the first time in more than 50 years.

The group of 455 South Koreans arrived by ship for the three-day reunion, which is taking place at the picturesque Kumgang Mountain (Diamond Mountain) resort on the northern side of the border.

This is the fifth reunion to take place since the meetings were agreed upon at an historic inter-Korean summit in 2000.

Millions of Koreans were separated after the 1950-1953 Korean War. About eight million South Koreans have relatives living in the North.

Time running out

The two counties remain technically at war, and it is impossible for civilians to telephone or send a letter to relatives on the other side of their heavily-fortified border

The oldest participant in this latest wave of reunions is a 94-year-old man who is set to see his son for the first time in more than 50 years.

Many Koreans wept as they were introduced to relatives that they could barely recognise after so many years.

South Korean sisters Lee Jin-ock and Lee Jin-geum broke down when they saw their father, Lee Kyoo-yom, aged 82.

The sisters have held an annual memorial service for him for the past 30 years, having given him up for dead after he went out shopping and never returned on the outbreak of war in 1950.

Kim Kun-rye, a 67-year-old South Korean grandmother, was blind but could still recognise the voice of her 74-year-old brother after five decades.

“It’s him! I can’t see him, but he still has the same voice,” the blind sister said, hugging her brother and weeping.

Selection lottery

The reunions are an emotional issue for many Koreans as the divided family members are beginning to die of old age or illness.

Red Cross officials in Seoul said three family-reunion applicants had to abandon this trip because of health problems.

South Korea held a lottery among 120,000 candidates to select its family members. It is not known how the North selected its participants.

The reunions are strictly controlled and participants are not allowed to visit their home towns.

Last week Red Cross officials from both sides agreed to set up a permanent reunion centre at the mountain resort.

Another group of 100 South Koreans will leave for Mount Kumgang on Monday to meet relatives.

The latest flurry of reunions is part of a recent thawing of relations between the two countries as the impoverished North reaches out internationally for much needed aid.


Mount Kumgang tourism talks falter

Thursday, September 12th, 2002


Efforts to revive a struggling tourism project between North and South Korea have broken down in the mountain resort of Kumgang just north of their shared border, local media reported.

The three days of talks were aimed at designating Mount Kumgang – also known as Diamond Mountain – a special tourist area open to the free flow of foreign capital and linked by a land route to the South.

But the despite running into extra time late on Thursday the talks ended without the two sides reaching an agreement.

Kumgang Mountain first opened to South Korean tourists in 1998, allowing them to visit the Stalinist North by cruise ship, despite the fact that the two states technically remain at war.

Financial crisis

The scheme was hailed as a success which had helped to cool relations between the two states.

But the number of tourists visiting the resort dropped away after South Korea’s privately owned Hyundai Group, which ran the cruise trips, ran into financial problems.

According to the Yonhap news agency the talks failed because Pyongyang insisted that Seoul should guarantee it would pay for the loss-making tourism business operated by Hyundai Group.

The South reportedly rejected this demand and the talks broke down.

“Failing to narrow differences, both sides ended the talks without an agreement produced,” the South’s chief delegate Cho Myung-Kyoon said.

But Mr Cho suggested that the talks might resume.

“I hope the two sides will soon meet again to continue discussions based on the contents of talks this time,” he said.

Easing tension

South Korea’s proposal that Mount Kumgang should be classed a special tourist area would pave the way for investors to build facilities such as golf courses, ski resorts and other entertainment facilities which could help boost tourism in the communist country.

The limited cruise tours to Mount Kumgang have already been a key source of income for the impoverished North.

But in the past the North has rejected the South’s plans for Kumgang, citing environmental and security reasons.

However, in recent weeks there have been signs of rapprochement between the two countries as the impoverished North reaches out internationally for much needed aid.

On Thursday North Korea signed a deal with the American-led United Nations Command, for the construction of an east coast rail link between the two Koreas.

A similar deal for a rail link on the western side of the peninsula was agreed last year, but it has yet to be implemented.


Red Army families seek Japanese home

Tuesday, September 10th, 2002


Six family members of Japanese Red Army guerrillas, who have been living in fugitive in North Korea, have arrived in Japan where they hope to settle.

Five of them are the children of activists who hijacked a Japan Airlines plane in 1970 and forced it to fly to North Korea. They were all born in the Stalinist state and have never been to Japan before.

They were accompanied by Takako Konishi, wife of Red Army member Takahiro Konishi, who was arrested upon arrival.

The Red Army hijackers were initially given a hero’s welcome by Pyongyang, but experts say that as North Korea tries to improve ties with Japan they have become an embarrassment.

First time in Japan

Among those returning on Tuesday were Mrs Konishi’s 22-year-old daughter, the 22-year-old daughter of alleged hijacker Shiro Akagi, and Hiromi Okamoto, the eldest daughter of activist Takeshi Okamoto, who has since died.

They were joined by the sons of Red Army members Moriaki Wakabayashi and Kimihiro Abe.

Mrs Konishi, was arrested on charges of violating Japan’s passport control law, having ignored an order to surrender her passport, the Metropolitan Police Department said.
Positions of privilege

When the nine hijackers first settled they were given positions of privilege in North Korea and special accommodation in a prestigious compound on the outskirts of the capital.

Years later they were also provided with Japanese wives, who arrived in North Korea under mysterious circumstances.

But Jonathan Watts, Japan correspondent for London’s Guardian newspaper, told the BBC’s East Asia Today programme that their position has since deteriorated and they are now living in normal accommodation and have to work to support themselves.

In July, the four hijackers remaining in the Stalinist state asked to be allowed to return home. Their presence has been cited by Washington as one of the reasons it has dubbed North Korea a terrorist state.

Three of the others have died, and two were arrested after they secretly returned to Japan.

Other family members of Red Army hijackers came to settle in Japan in May and September last year.

The notorious hijack marked a more dangerous turn by Japan’s radical student movement in the 1960s.


DPRK welcomes foreign money

Thursday, September 5th, 2002

From the BBC:

North Korea has announced that it will open up its companies to more foreign investment, as part of a new policy to liberalise its economy.

The Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (Kotra) said that it would now allow foreign investors to take stakes in Korean companies of more than 50%.

“In the case of joint ventures, foreign companies could take only up to 50% of stake in the past, but now there is no problem if their stake goes above the level,” Kotra said, quoting North Korea’s vice trade minister Kim Yong-sul.

The country is hoping that the rule change will encourage Japanese and South Korean businesses to take a greater stake in the North Korean economy.

Economic sea-change

In the past few months, North Korea has devalued its currency and abolished a convertible version of the won used in transactions with foreigners.

The country has also raised prices and wages, and placed more emphasis upon companies being profitable.

Changes to the foreign ownership rules were explained at a conference in Tokyo, which was attended by about 50 Japanese businessmen.

“The measure is an effort by Pyongyang to expand trade and business with other countries,” Kim Sang-shik, a Kotra official, said.

He added that North Korea had attracted $120m (£76.7m) of foreign investment to a special trade zone at the end of 2000 – more recent figures were unavailable.

Socialist profits

The new economic policies aim to wean factories and companies in North Korea off state subsidies and become self-sustained.

North Korea’s planned economy has been in place since the communist state came into being in 1947.

People in the country have been afflicted by droughts and numerous natural disasters, acerbated by an inefficient economy.

The economy grew by 3.7% in 2001, after a 1.4% expansion the previous year, according to estimates from the Bank of Korea – the South Korean central bank.

Following the ownership rule change, Kotra said it expected more South Korean companies to take stakes in companies across the border.

Trade between the two neighbouring countries increased by 8.9% year-on-year to $215m in the first half of this year.

Plans to build railway and road links between the two Koreas were agreed last month.


N Korean footballers arrive in South

Thursday, September 5th, 2002


North Korea’s football team has arrived in South Korea for the first match between the two countries for nearly 10 years.

They will play on Saturday in Seoul’s main stadium – scene of South Korea’s unexpected success in the recent World Cup, when the team reached the semi-finals.

The two teams last met in 1993, when the South won 3-0. The new game comes at a time of tentative moves by the two countries to improve their relations.

In the past two weeks, North Korea has held talks at various levels with the South, Russia and Japan as Pyongyang makes new attempts to widen its links with the outside world.

Symbolic ceremonies

Hours before the North Koreans footballers arrived in the South, there were simultaneous torch-lighting ceremonies in the two countries.

These were held in a symbolic gesture of reconciliation marking North Korea’s participation in the Asian Games, to be held in the southern town of Busan later this month.

In South Korea, seven women dressed as angels lit a torch using sunlight reflected by a mirror at the summit of the country’s highest peak, Halla Mountain, on the southernmost island of Juju.

The North Koreans lit their torch on top of Mount Paekdu, the most sacred place of the country and the birthplace of their leader, Kim Jong-il.

The two torches will unite on the border on Saturday, and then a single torch will travel around South Korea to Busan.