Archive for October, 2010

Prices and exchange rates increase following currency re-denomination

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

According to the Korea Times:

In North Korea, the price of rice and currency exchange rates have been on a roller coaster ride since the failed currency reevaluation last November, a ruling party lawmaker said Thursday.

In a booklet, titled “Collection of National Assembly’s Annual Audit: North Korea 2010,” Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun of the Grand National Party claimed that creating a thriving market is the key to resolving economic problems in the Stalinist society.

North Korea watchers said the presence of a free market was the result of the communist party’s halt of the public food distribution system after the devastating famine hit the impoverished economy in the wake of massive floods in the mid 1990s.

The lawmaker released the booklet based on data and reports from the Ministry of Unification.

According to him, the price of one kilogram of rice was approximately 20 won before the currency reform. But it skyrocketed after that and hit 1,000 won early this year.

The range in the price of rice in late July reached between 1,300 and 1,500 won.

Along with rice prices, Yoon said foreign exchange rates were on a volatile up and down fluctuation as well.

The exchange rate for the North Korean won against the U.S. dollar was 30 won per dollar. But the dollar rate was rapidly appreciated to 1,000 won per dollar this March and rose further to 1,300 won per dollar.

Citing a unification ministry’s report, Yoon said some 300 to 350 markets were open in the North and there are one or two markets for every country [sic:  “county”].

North Korean authorities implemented the currency reform last year in order to repress the markets, but the failed results proved their bold miscalculations, he said.

Read the full story here:
Rice prices on a roller coaster ride in N. Korea
Korea Times
Kang Hyun-kyung


Rimjingang to be published in English

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

According to the Mainichi Daily News:

A magazine composed almost entirely of materials smuggled out of North Korea by reporters living inside the country has just launched its first English edition in an effort to reach a wider audience.

The quarterly Rimjingang has been available in Korean and Japanese since 2008. The English edition will be published about twice a year from now on, chief editor Jiro Ishimaru said at a recent meeting in New York University, adding that digital editions in various formats will be available from 2011, including one from Apple Inc.’s iBook store.

Published by Asiapress International, a Japan-based journalists’ organization, the magazine is named after a river in the Korean Peninsula flowing north to south across the demilitarized zone. It operates with eight North Koreans who report clandestinely while living in such capacities as driver, factory worker and mother.

All of the reporters left North Korea because of economic hardships but returned to the country after being recruited to work for the magazine, which provides them with journalistic training and recording equipment.

In a country that tightly regulates information, taking images of street-level North Koreans for outside distribution would most likely be construed as treason. For safety, the identities of the North Korean reporters are completely shrouded in secrecy — they do not know each other or what their colleagues are doing, Ishimaru said.

The reporters periodically cross the China-North Korea border to deliver what they have recorded. The materials include digital images of people who foreigners would rarely have access to — a woman making merchandise at home to sell at a market, homeless children looking for food in a dump, clothing regulation enforcers on the lookout for youngsters wearing unacceptable fashions such as tight-fitting pants, and young soldiers scavenging for food from a farm.

“The reporters are taking risks because they have a strong will to let the outside world know the reality in North Korea and inspire a desire to improve the situation there,” Ishimaru said.

Some of the recent materials cover the paralyzing effect of the November 2009 currency redenomination in which North Korea slashed the value of the won, setting the exchange rate between the old and new bills at 100 to 1 and imposing restrictions on the quantity of old bills that could be swapped for new ones. The move was widely seen as the state’s attempt to reinforce control of the economy.

The magazine shows one of those affected, a woman identified as “Ms. Kang,” who is in her 50s and makes a living selling general goods such as plates and bowls procured in China.

Shortly before the devaluation, “Ms. Kang” reportedly took out a loan of 10 million won, worth about $3,000 at the time, from an acquaintance. Now she struggles with a huge debt as no currency trader will exchange her old won into Chinese yuan, leaving her unable to buy goods in China. She is also unable to convert them into the new won beyond the 100,000-won limit.

“Because the Americans don’t know very much about North Korea, we wanted to include some introductory pieces that explain people’s everyday lives there, including the impact the market is having,” said Bon Fleming, an American editor who translated the bulk of the material for the English edition.

Suzy Kim, assistant professor of Korean history at Rutgers University, said she was most impressed by the abundance of visual footage in the magazine. But she added, “Many of the stories in the magazine are anecdotal — there is as yet no way to collect enough information to present a statistical context for the stories.”

In order to make up for its heavy dependence on a handful of reporters, Kim suggested that the magazine can improve by incorporating a wider variety of views about North Korea from people with different backgrounds, experiences and opinions.

Ishimaru said North Korea is a nation changing fast and so are its people, contrary to the oft-reported images of brainwashed citizens. One of the forces behind the change is the increasing availability of digital media, a trend fueled by the influx of Chinese electronics, including VCD players, which are much more affordable than DVD players, he said.

Illegal copies of South Korean TV dramas crossed the border into North Korea en masse around 2003 via ethnic Korean communities in northeastern China, where watching South Korean satellite broadcasting programs became popular in the late 1990s, according to Ishimaru.

“What allowed the North Korean government to exert tight control over the daily lives of its people was the state’s food rationing system, which taught everyone to remain submissive as long as they were fed,” Ishimaru said.

Since the collapse of the public distribution system in the famine of the 1990s, however, people have been forced to fend for themselves and have become less afraid of the authorities, he said.

“You can no longer talk about North Korea without talking about the expansion of the market economy there,” Ishimaru said.

“The question is not about food — it’s whether North Korea will open up to the outside world or not.”

Previous posts about Rimjingang can be found here.

I have added Rimjingang to my list of North Korea media outlets all of which can be found here.

Read the full sotry here:
Undercover magazine on North Korea launches English edition
Mainichi Daily News


China and DPRK signaling greater cooperation

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Aidan Foster-Carter wrties about the recent increase in China-DPRK “friendship” activities in the Asia Times

Over a month ago, in an article in these columns, I suggested a number of reasons why North Korea may well become a quasi-satellite of China.

Well, it’s happening even faster than I expected. In all the excitement about Kim Jong-eun’s coming-out for a second time, at the 65th birthday of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) on October 10, we risk missing another key aspect of that big Pyongyang parade.

The “reptile press” – one of my favorite North Korean phrases; yup, I’m a lizard and proud – all oohed and aahed at their first glimpse of the “young general”. Most paid less attention to a middle-aged chap also standing on the podium, not far from the clearly ailing Kim Jong-il. The one without a badge – meaning he isn’t North Korean. A rare privilege for a foreigner.

How now, Zhou
Meet Zhou Yongkang. Hardly a household name, yet ranked ninth in China’s politburo. A former minister of public security (2002-2007), he still has responsibilities in that key area.

Now Zhou has a new role too: he is China’s point man on North Korea. This seems to have been his first trip there, but it won’t be his last. Barely a week later, back in Beijing, he was on the job again, this time hosting a large visiting North Korean delegation (of which more below).

Zhou has been parachuted in above Wang Jiarui, the head of the Chinese Communist Party’s international liaison department, who in recent years had been China’s most frequent flyer to Pyongyang. Wang is still on the case: he was part of the October 10 delegation too, but clearly ranked below Zhou.

This seems less a demotion for Wang than a broadening of Beijing’s agenda. Wang’s main task, a thankless one, was and is to try to chivvy the Kims into line on the nuclear issue. That remains a key goal, but now in a wider context. China wants to deepen its overall relations with North Korea. To that end, bringing in a new more senior figure to take charge flatters the Kims, while Zhou’s background in public security is doubtless meant to reassure them.

China means business
Who else did Zhou bring along? Not the usual cross-section of the great and the good, but the neighbors: meaning senior figures from the three Chinese provinces – Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang – which border or are close to North Korea. This trio had a special dinner with a quartet who are their North Korean equivalents: the party secretaries – provincial governors in all but name – from North Pyongan, Jagang, Ryanggang and North Hamgyong, the four provinces which adjoin China across the Yalu (Amnok in Korean) and Tumen rivers.

Not only dinner, but a deal. On the eve of Pyongyang’s parade, the two sides signed a trade agreement. No details were given, but again each side’s border bigwigs were in evidence.

Nor did it end there. A week later, one of North Korea’s rising stars led a big delegation to China, with provinces again prominent. Aged only 53, much younger than most of North Korea’s gerontocratic elite, Mun Kyong-dok is a new alternate politburo member. He also holds the key job of party secretary for Pyongyang. As such, on September 30 he gave a keynote speech in front of 150,000 people, congratulating Kim Jong-il on his re-election as leader.

October 16 saw Mun on the road, shepherding all 11 of North Korea’s provincial or big city party secretaries to – where else? – Beijing. Welcoming them, Zhou Yongkang – who else? – noted that this was “the first time that the secretaries from all the WPK provincial and municipal committees have visited China”, adding, “I wish that you will expand exchange with various Chinese regions you’re visiting and achieve success from your tours.” Mun replied that “We will study and learn the successful experiences from China.”

Maybe this time?
We’ve heard that before, even from Kim Jong-il – who forgets all about it as soon as he gets back home. But as Sally Bowles sings in Cabaret: “Maybe this time.” Sending such a large team – a full house, indeed – on the road in this way, including several younger and newly appointed provincial party bosses, looks like a real effort to take things forward. China won’t be impressed if its mendicant neighbor merely rattles the begging bowl again.

Mun’s team went on to – where else? – the northeast, visiting factories in Heilongjiang and Jilin. These provinces have in the past had bones to pick with their unneighborly neighbor, which too often fails to pay for coal or other goods – and sometimes doesn’t even return the railway wagons used to deliver them. That sort of tiresome trickery will have to stop. Time will tell whether North Korea has really turned over a new leaf in its business dealings.

Blood brothers
On another front, by a convenient coincidence October 19 was the 60th anniversary of China’s entry into the Korean War. The massed ranks of Chinese People’s Volunteers (CPV) – old British army joke: “I want three volunteers: You, you and you!” – turned the tide, saved Kim Il-sung’s bacon and stopped General Douglas MacArthur wiping the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) off the map.

Cue yet more love-ins. The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) ran a stirring headline: “Friendship Forged in Blood in Anti-US War.” Special events included a photo exhibition, a Chinese film week and performances by a visiting art troupe from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). A delegation from the Korean People’s Army visited China, led by vice minister of the People’s Armed Forces Pyon Il-son: a hitherto obscure general, but evidently another name to watch.

China reciprocated by sending a better-known bigwig. (Speaking of which, he wears one – or so says Wigipedia.) Unlike Zhou Yongkang, who is new to this patch, General Guo Boxiong – vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission – has had North Korean links for at least a decade; he visited in 2001 with then-president Jiang Zemin.

Usually the CPV anniversary is marked by a low-key wreath-laying and a few press articles. But 60 is a big one, and this time Pyongyang pulled out all the stops. There was a mass rally – “held with splendor”, gushed KCNA – with Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-eun in attendance and much stirring rhetoric. The dear leader also hosted a dinner, again with his son present.

Even Arirang has got in on the act. North Korea’s striking yet introverted mass games have finally admitted (pace juche) that the Kims didn’t go it alone; they got by with a little help from their friends. KCNA on October 22 described a newly added scene, “Friendship Arirang”. This highlights the role of the CPV, portrayed with “drums of different sizes, ribbons, red flags and other hand props … several-dozen-meter-long dragons, pandas and lions.”

We helped you first
One wonders what Chinese visitors who are the mainstay of North Korea’s thin tourist trade make of such cliches – or the fact that, the way Pyongyang tells it, that is only half the story. For Arirang also, and first, depicts “the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army and Chinese armed units fighting together against the Japanese imperialists”. The implication is that this was somehow reciprocal: Korea helped China out, and then China repaid the compliment. Note also the disrespect: Korea had an army, China merely “armed units”. What, no PLA?

Pull the other one, comrades. True, a small but gallant band of Korean communists under Mu Chong, a veteran of the Long March, were with Mao Zedong in Yanan. Separately, the young Kim Il-sung was one of a few guerillas – under Chinese command – who skirmished with the Japanese in Manchuria before being chased across the border into the Soviet Union. Kim came back in Soviet uniform and set about purging rivals – including Mu Chong, who had to flee to China. All quite a can of worms, which it seems unwise of North Korea to risk opening.

CPV casualty figures tell their own story. This year Beijing quantified these. A staggering three million Chinese troops fought in what China still calls the “War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea”. Over 180,000 never came back. PLA statistics show 114,084 killed in action or accidents, with another 25,621 missing. A further 70,000 died from wounds, illness or other causes. There are 183,108 registered war martyrs. Others put China’s losses as even higher. With all respect to Mu Chong, a few Koreans’ sacrifices for China don’t begin to compare.

Nuclear hopes and fears
China’s many and mixed motives vis-a-vis North Korea now include never to get dragged into war like that again. To that end, Beijing still professes faith in the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program which it hosts, even though these achieved little tangible – despite many hopes, and much talking-up – over five long years. (They began in 2003 and have been stalled since 2008.)

Here too there is fresh activity. Hardly had the cheers echoing in Kim Il-sung Square died away than the North’s long-time nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-gwan, newly promoted to first vice minister, led a delegation to Beijing on October 12. There followed four days of what KCNA called “an exhaustive and candid discussion on DPRK-China relations, resumption of the six-party talks and the regional situation, etc.” It added: “The DPRK is ready for the resumption of the above-said talks but decided not to go hasty [sic] but to make ceaseless patient efforts now that the US and some other participating countries are not ready…”

True. South Korea and Japan, like the United States, see no point in dusting off the six-party circus without clear signals from Pyongyang on two fronts: a serious will to give up nuclear weapons, as against playing games; and an admission that it sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan in March.

That is a hard gap for Beijing to bridge – especially if there is any basis to recent rumors that North Korea, so far from disarming, may be planning a third nuclear test. Somehow I doubt this. China’s fresh embrace of its tiresome neighbor is not unconditional. I would expect its price for propping up the Kims to be twofold: Market reforms – and no more nuclear tests.

Another bang would sorely tax China’s patience with this tiresome thorn in its northeastern flesh. Beijing is still sheltering number one son Kim Jong-nam, who on October 12 rained (or an earthier verb springs to mind) on little brother’s parade by declaring that he personally was against a third-generation succession. Might anyone try to change his mind? Jong-nam may look ghastly, but he is pro-reform. If Jong-eun proves a pest or a dud, China has alternatives.

Read the full story here:
North Korea: Embracing the dragon
Asia Times
Aidan Foster-Carter


DPRK/ROK 2010 family reunions

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

UPDATE 9 (11/5/2010): The Joong-Ang Ilbo posts images of the gift bags given by North Koreans to their Southern relatives.

UPDATE 8 (11/1/2010): The reunion has ended.  According to Yonhap:

After being reunited in North Korea for three days, 97 families separated by the Korean War bid one another farewell again on Monday, weeping over a reality forced upon them by six decades of conflict between their countries.

Touching the palms of their wrinkled hands to family members’ on the other side of closed bus windows, the South and North Koreans said their last words of blessing to each other on the final day of their reunions at this mountain resort in the communist state.

“I love you. I love you,” one South Korean woman shouted to her North Korean family member aboard a bus as it prepared to depart from the reunion center.

Many North Koreans stood up inside the bus for a better view of their South Korean family members waving at them. One of the three buses carrying North Koreans had its windows completely closed, muffling the words of its sobbing passengers.

As the white buses started to leave the center, the cries grew louder among the hundreds of South Korean family members sending them off. Many watched helplessly, long after the buses had disappeared. Some sat on the ground and broke down in yet more tears. One family member swore at the utter sadness of the scene, deploring the fact that none of the Koreans here could guarantee another meeting even though they lived only several hours’ drive from each other.

Millions of Koreans were separated during the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in a truce. Many of them have died over the years, and there are now 80,000 South Koreans on an official waiting list for reunions. The figure does not take into account the more than 40,000 applicants who have died or given up on the search.

Since 2000, when the Koreas held their first summit, they have briefly reunited over 17,000 people face-to-face and an estimated 3,700 via video. The latest reunions came as tension remained at the highest point in years after the sinking of a South Korean warship in March. The South blames the North, but Pyongyang denies any involvement.

The reunions, organized through the Red Cross channel, also came as the North tied additional future meetings to massive “humanitarian” assistance. In their Red Cross talks last week, the North demanded 500,000 tons of rice and 300,000 tons of fertilizer from the South.

Yoo Chong-ha, the head of Seoul’s Red Cross, said he proposed holding the next round of reunions in March and to use the time until then to verify the whereabouts of family members being sought by the other side.

During their “farewell session” on Monday morning, the families sang traditional folk songs like “Arirang” together and made sure that their children could recognize each other through photos if and when the Koreas reunify.

Unable to stand up after a deep bow to his father, 62-year-old Ko Pae-il sobbed with his head down, grabbing the hands of the man from whom he was separated at the age of three.

Ko, who lives in Alabama in the United States, told his father that he was “sorry for not being able to be a good son.” His father, 81, who looked for him first, said, “It’s OK. It’s OK.”

Wearing a coat given to him by his family members from the South, Park Byong-jin, a 80-year-old North Korean, embraced his South Korean relatives in tears, promising to meet them again.

The governments of the two Koreas prohibit civilian contact without prior authorization. Promises of reunions rarely materialize, swayed heavily by the state of cross-border relations.

The North Koreans were generally restrained in their expressions and action, some freezing in front of journalists and cameras.

“Give me something I can remember you by,” Kim Kyeong-oh, a South Korean, said as he pleaded with his older brother, who was wearing a coat Kim had brought for him.

Many family members embraced, cheek to cheek. One South Korean woman moaned, muffling herself with a scarf, saying, “I won’t cry. So you shouldn’t cry, either, sister.” Another family toasted with soda as they wished for another chance to be reunited.

Parent-child reunions were rare in this week’s event, underscoring the growing number of people who die while waiting for their chance to reunite.

On Wednesday, another reunion event will take place at Mount Kumgang, bringing about 100 other South Koreans here. Those reunions will last until Friday.

UPDATE 7 (10/31/2010): More from Yonhap:

Swallowing the sorrow of having to part again in less than a day, Korean families reunited after 60 years of separation sang together, posed for photos and eventually broke down in tears on Sunday as they promised to meet again.

Exchanging the addresses of their homes on either side of the heavily armed border, some families prayed for a chance to be reunited again while others plunged into doldrums over fears that the two Koreas may never be one again.

“Their stress will peak tomorrow when they have to say goodbye to each other,” said Lee Jae-pil, a medical doctor assigned to the reunions of 100 families from both Koreas from Saturday to Monday.

The reunions brought about 430 South Koreans and 110 North Koreans together at this famed mountain resort in North Korea where the bright colors of autumn leaves matched the excitement of families meeting again for the first time since the Korean War.

The 1950-53 war ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas technically in a state of conflict to this day. No means of civilian contact is available between them, and over 80,000 South Koreans are on a waiting list for reunions with their loved ones in the North.

The figure does not take into account the South Korean applicants who have died while waiting, numbering more than 40,000.

South Korean Shim Boon-rye, 80, smiled as she sang a folk song about longing for loved ones, but burst into tears as soon as she finished. She then embraced her 77-year-old brother of North Korean citizenship who sang along with her, “How could I forget you? How could I forget you?”

Shim was one of many who sang — not out of pleasure but out of sorrow — here at this banquet hall, packed with people photographing each other for one last time and sharing snacks prepared by North Korean organizers.

The conviviality during a luncheon earlier in the day had mostly faded as the families began to face the reality that they would part on the third day of reunions.

“Ask your father everything you have ever wanted to know now, or you may regret it,” one family member told Ko Pae-il, a 62-year-old who was reunited with his 81-year-old father. Ko, a Korean-American from Alabama, had said earlier it was too “cruel” that he had to say goodbye to his father, from whom he was separated at the age of 3.

“Father, father, be healthy, OK?” Ko said, racked with sobs.

Such parent-child reunions were rare in this week’s event, underscoring the growing number of people who die while waiting for a chance to meet their loved ones again. Outbursts of tears grow fewer and fewer as the years go by, but the overwhelming sense of sorrow persists, South Korean Red Cross organizers say.

“As we approach the time to say goodbye, things to say and things not to say are all racing out of our hearts,” Kim Gyoo-byeong, a South Korean reunited with his uncle, said.

North Koreans typically refrained from giving truthful accounts of their lives in the impoverished North, instead praising the leadership of their leader Kim Jong-il and touting their socialist system.

Earlier during the luncheon, a North Korean family member stood up and sang a hymn to the “Dear Leader,” freezing the atmosphere momentarily.

Since 2000, when the Koreas held their first summit, they have briefly reunited more than 17,000 people face-to-face and an estimated 3,700 via video. The latest reunions come as tension remains at the highest point in years after the sinking of a South Korean warship in March. The South blames the North, but Pyongyang denies any involvement.

These reunions, organized through the Red Cross channel, also come as the North ties such events in the future to massive “humanitarian” assistance. In their Red Cross talks last week, the North demanded 500,000 tons of rice and 300,000 tons of fertilizer from the South.

UPDATE 6 (10/31/2010): More information from Yonhap:

Cheerfully thrusting rice cakes into each other’s mouths and taking Polaroid pictures together, South and North Koreans separated by the Korean War six decades ago dined together on Saturday, hours after the families were reunited at this eastern mountain resort in the North.

The 97 families, including four parents who met with their children, set their hearts at ease as they shared warm food served at the family reunion center in Mount Kumgang just north of the heavily armed border between the Koreas.

The more than 570 people, about one fifth of them North Koreans, dined on “galbi,” or a Korean beef rib dish, beef soups, the Korean alcoholic beverage soju, smoked salmon, rice cakes and a variety of fruits that included grapes, oranges and bananas.

Many South Koreans improvised family photos by using Polaroid cameras, an invention that came in handy as the families had only three days to spend together.

“When we first met, it felt a bit awkward, because we didn’t really know each other,” Shin Il-woo, 46, said after she was reunited with the brother of her mother-in-law. “But eating together helped lighten things up.”

Kim Yeong-soon, who was reunited with her 77-year-old brother, said after the group dinner that she was already missing him. “I can’t wait until tomorrow when we can spend time by ourselves.”

The first day of reunions took place en masse at a banquet hall. The second day allowed the families to spend time together separate from the group.

“We’re going to dance together when we don’t have to worry about other people’s eyes on us,” said Jang Gyoo-chae, a 51-year-old who met with the brother-in-law of his wife. “We’ll have fun and not worry about ideology.”

South and North Korea, which respectively support capitalism and communism, remain technically at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce. The state of war has been the major blockade when families separated by the war sought to be reunited. Many family members have died after decades of longing. About 80,000 South Koreans are on an official waiting list for the reunions.

The event, which runs from Saturday to next Friday, is the first of its kind in a year.

Since 2000, when the Koreas held their first summit, they have briefly reunited over 17,000 people face-to-face and about 3,700 via video. The latest reunions come as tension remains at the highest point in years after the sinking of a South Korean warship in March. The South blames the North, but Pyongyang denies any involvement.

The reunions, organized through the Red Cross channel, also come as the North ties additional ones to massive humanitarian assistance. In their Red Cross talks last week, the North demanded 500,000 tons of rice and 300,000 tons of fertilizer from the South.

“From the viewpoint that we are one nation, we should help each other. If the South opens up to us, we have a lot more to offer,” a North Korean Red Cross official said on the sidelines of the reunions that he was helping to organize.

On Seoul’s policy of linking large-scale aid to progress in Pyongyang’s denuclearization, another official said, “Such U.S.-like attitude must be abandoned. Would we use our nuclear arms to attack these people, the same nation as us?”

UPDATE 5 (10/30/2010): Koreas hold family reunion.  According to Yonhap:

Goh Bae-il, a 62-year-old man from South Korea, could not let go of the withered hands of his 81-year-old father from North Korea when they met for the first time in 60 years on Saturday in Red Cross-arranged reunions.

The two were separated in 1950 when the three-year Korean War broke out. The junior Goh was barely three years old and has since grown up in South Korea and the United States. The senior, a frail man who would not say how he ended up in North Korea, labored to extend his arm to his son as a teardrop rolled into the deep wrinkle under his eye.

The reunion, one of the 97 stories of separation and longing that unfolded at this scenic mountain resort in North Korea, underscored the pain and suffering that the six decades of national division has inflicted on Korean families.

The war technically continues to this day as it ended in a truce, blocking the citizens of the two Koreas from meeting or contacting each other freely.

The Gohs were one of only four cases on Saturday where a parent met his or her child.

“This must be a dream,” Ji Ja-ok, 79, said as she met with her 75-year-old brother, Ji Pal-yong, who was forcefully inducted into in the North Korean army during the war.

“We just assumed you were dead!” she said as she kept feeding her brother cookies and sweets that had been prepared on their table by the organizers of the reunion event.

Since South and North Korea held their first summit in 2000, a total of 18 reunions have been organized for separated family members on both sides. including the one that began Saturday.

Crying with her face buried in the laps of her 75-year-old brother, Kim Ok-ja recalled the years of longing and suffering their parents had to undergo before they passed away.

“They lived in sadness for not being able to see you again, brother,” she said. Kim Hyong-gun, patting his younger sister’s shoulders, tried to console her, saying that at least they were now reunited.

Kim Rye-jeong, 96, the oldest South Korean to travel to North Korea this week, was reunited with her 71-year-old daughter, and told her of the many nights she spent seeing the young image of her in her dreams.

“Now you’re here, now you’re here,” the mother told the daughter as tears welled in their eyes.

More than 80,000 South Koreans are waiting for a chance to be reunited with their family members left in the North. The official figure does not take into account those who may have given up on their search or the 40,000 applicants who have passed away.

Many families here brought presents that included bananas, watches, U.S. dollar bills, medicine, vitamins and clothes that would keep their loved ones warm in the North.

The families will part again on Monday after a series of reunion meetings. There is no hope that they will meet again anytime soon.

The latest reunions came amid a new wave of tensions after border soldiers of the two countries exchanged fire a day earlier. No casualties were reported in the incident. In March, a South Korean warship sank after being attacked by a torpedo blamed on the North.

Analysts say the North proposed the latest reunions in an apparent effort to ease tension and foster an atmosphere favorable for its hereditary power succession plan.

The Korean War broke out when North Korean forces stormed into South Korea in June 1950 and advanced as far as to the perimeter of the southeastern port city of Busan.

Upon intervention by U.S.-led U.N. forces, the North rolled back, forcing many South Koreans to join its retreating army. Hundreds of then-South Korean soldiers are believed to be still living in North Korea.

UPDATE 4 (10/27/2010): Koreas fail to regularize family reunions.  According to Yonhap:

South and North Korea on Wednesday failed to reach an agreement on holding regular reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, officials said Wednesday. The two sides are to meet again on Nov. 25 at a yet-to-be-determined venue.

Earlier Wednesday, North Korea demanded 500,000 tons of rice and 300,000 tons of fertilizer in humanitarian aid from South Korea in return for concessions on family reunions.

Red Cross delegates from Seoul told their North Korean counterparts here that their organization had no power to approve such massive aid, a South Korean official involved in the talks told reporters.

UPDATE 3 (10/27/2010): DPRK makes demands for aid in return for family reunions. According to Yonhap:

North Korea demanded 500,000 tons of rice and 300,000 tons of fertilizer in humanitarian aid from South Korea in return for concessions over reunions of families separated by the Korean War, officials said Wednesday.

Red Cross delegates from Seoul told their North Korean counterparts here that their organization had no power to approve such massive aid, one South Korean official involved in the talks told reporters.

The demand was made during the second day of the Koreas’ Red Cross talks. The North had asked on Tuesday that the sides increase “humanitarian cooperation projects” as a way to expand chances for families separated by the 1950-53 war to be reunited.

The talks in the North Korean border town of Kaesong came ahead of the first family reunions in a year at the Mount Kumgang resort in eastern North Korea from Saturday to next Friday, a sign of easing tension on the peninsula.

The official, asking not to be named because the talks were still underway, said his government was reviewing the demand. Another official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said South Korea “does not consider such large-scale aid as humanitarian.”

More than 80,000 South Koreans are waiting for a chance to be reunited with their loved ones left in the North after the 1950-53 war ended in a truce. About 20,800 Koreans have been reunited since 2000, when the countries’ governments held their first summit. Virtually no means of civilian contact are available between the two nations.

South Korea demanded during the two-day talks in Kaesong that the reunions be held at least nine times each year. The South Korean officials said North Korean delegates “tied the reunion issue to rice and fertilizer aid.”

“We may be able to discuss it in our next round of Red Cross talks,” one official said, adding the South proposed holding talks in late November in the South Korean border town of Munsan.

At the start of the meeting Wednesday, Choe Song-ik, head of the North Korean delegation, pressed South Korea on the earlier demand for humanitarian projects.

“There is a saying that one should not miss the right timing. Opportunities do not arise all the time, do they?” Choe said.

Choe also noted that Yoo Chong-ha, head of the South Korean Red Cross, was nearing the end of his tenure and may need showpiece achievements contributing to a thaw in inter-Korean relations.

Kim Yong-hyun, the chief South Korean delegate, responded by saying that his boss was working in his best capacity “regardless of his tenure.”

Kim said his side had “carefully studied” the North’s proposals made a day earlier and called for a more conciliatory stance from his counterpart.

Choe told Kim to “just have faith.”

“Without faith, feelings of insecurity arise,” he said. “All will go well if there is faith as one nation.”

Choe also said, tongue in cheek, “I saw chief delegate Kim carrying a fat briefcase” and that the South Korean “perhaps brought with him many good proposals.”

South Korea stopped sending massive food aid to North Korea after President Lee Myung-bak took office in early 2008 with a pledge to link such assistance to progress in Pyongyang’s denuclearization efforts.

The relations between the divided countries hit the lowest point in years when the South condemned the North in May for the sinking of one of its warships. Forty-six sailors died in the sinking that the North denies any role in.

South Korea shipped 300,000-400,000 tons of rice to North Korea annually before Lee, a conservative, took over. The South this week is sending a shipment of 5,000 tons of rice to the North in flood aid through the Red Cross channel.

The North Korean Red Cross is also demanding that the South resume its cross-border tours to Mount Kumgang, where a South Korean tourist was shot to death in 2008 after apparently wandering into a restricted zone.

The tours immediately ground to a halt. North Korea says it has taken every measure to account for the shooting and guarantee safety, while the South calls for a renewed on-site probe and an array of tangible security measures.

Earlier this year, North Korea froze and seized South Korean facilities at the resort, including a family reunion center, in anger over Seoul’s refusal to resume the tours. The prospect for reopening the Mount Kumgang tours worsened when South Korea condemned the North for the Cheonan sinking.

The tours were long seen as a symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation and won Pyongyang millions of U.S. dollars every year until 2008. On Wednesday, the North renewed its demand that the two governments quickly hold dialogue on ways to revive the cross-border tourism project.

UPDATE 2 (10/6/2010): Two Koreas Exchange Lists of Family Reunions Applicants.  According to the Choson Ilbo:

North and South Korea on Tuesday exchanged lists of people who wish to attend reunions of families separated during the Korean War.

Both countries’ Red Cross organizations shared the lists of 200 applicants for the upcoming family reunions. Seoul and Pyongyang will now search for and match up applicants’ family members and exchange the results on Oct. 18.

The final lists will be announced and exchanged on Oct. 20 with only 100 applicants from each side to be permitted to attend the reunions at the end of the month.

Seoul’s Red Cross narrowed down its list from an initial 500 after assessing factors such as health and willingness to make the trip.

More than 80,000 Koreans in the South are waiting to see their family members in the North, but a Red Cross report shows about 260 of them die every month without being reunited.

After three rounds of talks last month the two sides agreed to hold the reunions at North Korea’s Mt. Kumgang resort from Oct. 30 to Nov. 5.

UPDATE 1 (10/1/2010): The two Koreas have agreed to reunions.  According to the BBC:

One hundred families from each side of the border will be allowed to meet their relatives from 30 October at a mountain resort in the North.

Officials from the two sides also agreed to hold another round of talks later in October to discuss how to hold the reunions on a more regular basis, South Korea’s Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said.

The last reunions were held in October 2009.

The agreement comes after military officials from the two sides failed to make any progress in their first meeting in two years.

ORIGINAL POST: According to Evan Ramstad in the Wall Street Journal:

North and South Korea over the weekend took steps to hold another reunion of families separated by the 62-year division of the Korean peninsula, the first since last September and a sign that some relatively normal exchanges continue amid ongoing tensions between the two countries.

As happened last year, North Korea proposed the reunion, issuing a statement Saturday in which it also pressed for more aid to cope with recent flooding. South Korean officials said they’ll announce a package of flood assistance, including rice and other goods, on Monday.

South Korea said Sunday it viewed the reunion proposal positively and, as it did last year, suggested such events be scheduled regularly. North Korea has tended to use the reunions as a public-relations boost in recent years. This year’s reunion could take place as soon as this month, under the North’s proposal.

Since they began in 2000, 17 in-person reunions and seven video-conference events have been held, allowing about 21,000 people from the two Koreas to meet. In South Korea, about 90,000 have applied to meet relatives in North Korea.

No reunion occurred in 2008, when South Korea refused to participate after a South Korean tourist was shot and killed at a North Korean resort by a North Korean soldier.

Read the full story here:
North, South Korea Plan Family Reunion
Wall Street Journal
Evan Ramstad


British bakeries a lifeline in North Korea

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

Pictured Above: Love North Korean Children Bakery (Sonbong, DPRK)

Michael Rank writes in the Asia Times:

North Korea is a land of hunger and poverty but the children of Hahyeon primary school look reassuringly healthy, thanks to a small, British-based charity that runs three bakeries in this isolated and highly secretive country.

The children receive their midday meals courtesy of Love North Korean Children, [1] which bakes 2,500 mandu or steamed buns each day for pupils in 20 schools in and around the northeastern coastal city of Sonbong, near the Chinese border.

“If we did not provide these buns the children would go hungry,” said the charity’s founder and powerhouse, South Korean-born George Rhee.

Rhee works indefatigably to make sure that his bakeries have sufficient supplies of flour and other essential items, all of which have to be imported from China, something of a logistical and bureaucratic nightmare.

“All of our food gets to the children. None goes to the North Korean army or government,” said Rhee, and as he travels to North Korea from London up to 10 times a year, he is in a position to know.

Rhee, 52, told how he was inspired to found Love North Korean Children as a result of his own childhood experiences. He was one of eight children – he has six brothers and a sister – and when his father’s land reclamation business went bust, it left the family penniless. His parents were forced to put him and his twin brother in a children’s home.

The home was a cruel place and the children often went hungry, and it was this experience that made Rhee decide that he wanted to help the children of North Korea.

“At first I was thinking of opening an orphanage, but the government wouldn’t allow that. They say North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is our father, so there is no need for orphanages. So then I decided to open a bakery,” Rhee recalled.

Rhee first visited North Korea in 2002, and opened the charity’s first bakery the following year, in Rajin, close to Sonbong. I visited him there last month. He recently handed over responsibility for the Rajin bakery to a Korean-American group, but he also runs a bakery in Pyongyang, and this year opened a new bakery In Hyangsan, about 150 kilometers north of the capital.

He puts the cost of flour and equipment for the Sonbong and Pyongyang bakeries at about US$6,300 each per month, and for the Hyangsan bakery at almost double that, as it feeds twice as many children.

Rhee is a minister in the Assemblies of God Church and has its backing for his charity. Most of the costs are borne by three Dutch Christian foundations, the Barnabas Fund, Stichting Ora and Dorcas Aid International, but Rhee hopes to build more bakeries in North Korea and recently went on a fundraising trip to South Korea to talk to local companies and churches.

“There is a lot of interest in what we are doing. I am hopeful that we will be able to raise more money to open more bakeries,” he said.

Rhee said he hopes to open a fourth bakery in Haeju, the hometown of his late father, who escaped by boat to South Korea at the height of the Korean War in 1951.

“The North Korean government says we can. The only question is money,” he added.

Although the children at the Sonbong school looked healthy and well fed, they are among the lucky ones. Rhee said some of the children whom his bakeries feed are thin and pale, even with the extra food they receive from Love North Korean Children.

“I have even seen dead children in the streets. The situation for children in North Korea is terrible,” he stressed.

The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) bears this out. It says 33% of the population is undernourished and 23% of children under five are under-weight for their age.

“Public rations are reportedly far from sufficient and daily food consumption for most households is poor”, the WFP reports. Many people are forced to survive by cutting down on the number of meals per day, eating more wild foods – grass and bark in some cases – and less maize and rice, and reducing portion sizes for adults so that children can eat.

Although conditions have improved since the mid-1990s, when hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people died in a terrible famine, North Korea remains one of the world’s poorest countries.

Aid workers and diplomats say the government bears much of the blame, with an inflexible, highly centralized food-distribution system that results in a large proportion of the population going permanently hungry.

The WFP tactfully avoids blaming the government, referring to “a lack of arable land, poor soil management, insufficient water reservoirs to combat drought, shortages of fuel and fertilizer, outdated economic, transport and information infrastructure, and a general vulnerability to natural disasters”.

It quotes the Food and Agriculture Organization as saying North Korea needs to import 25% of its grain requirements, “but economic constraints mean the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] will struggle to meet its food import needs.”

All this means that small organizations like Rhee’s do a valuable job in feeding people who would otherwise go hungry, although the paranoid, xenophobic nature of the regime makes their work extremely challenging.

Until recently, a number of South Korean charities were active in North Korea, but the Seoul government ordered them out after the sinking of the naval ship the Cheonan in March in which 46 South Korean sailors died.

The South Korean government blamed North Korea for the sinking, and relations between the two countries, cool at best, went into the deep freeze.

Surprisingly perhaps, Rhee strongly supports the Seoul administration’s tough line, as he believes most of the South Korean charities were naive and were unable, or unwilling, to prevent the North Korean government from diverting much of the food they provided to the million-strong army.

“I support President Lee Myung-bak in this,” Rhee said. “These South Korean organizations were foolish” in not monitoring where food and other supplies were going.

Love North Korean Children was not affected by the ban, however, as it is a British-registered charity and Rhee, who has lived in the UK for 20 years, is a British citizen.

“The North Koreans cooperate well with us. It isn’t easy but we help to make sure that people get fed,” he said.

I had unexpected proof that the North Koreans appreciate Rhee’s efforts. During my visit to North Korea, officials constantly complained to me about photographs I was taking and at one point deleted some pictures on my camera.

I was concerned that they would delete more photographs when I left the country, as frequently happens.

I need not have worried, however. The customs officer who checked my camera at the North Korean-Chinese border was well disposed towards us, as his children were fed by Love North Korean Children. He took just a quick look at my photographs and waved us through.

You can see the author’s photos from Rason here.

Read the full story here:
British bakeries a lifeline in North Korea
Asia Times
Michael Rank


Leadership compound reconstruction continues

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

The Daily NK reports that construction is afoot at numerous DPRK leadership compounds.

Residence 15 in the Central District (중앙구역):

The residence is located at 39° 0’56.39″N, 125°44’45.45″E.  The first photo is dated March 23, 2009.  The second is dated December 20, 2009.  The third image is from the Daily NK story overlaid onto Google Earth.

Onpho Spa in Kyongsong County (경성군):
The Daily NK also provides a new image of the elite compound at the Onpho Spa.  Here is the original low resolution image from Google Earth and the new high resolution image:

This compound is located at 41°39’26.91″N, 129°30’29.57″E.  Even though the “before” image is in low resolution, we can see that the compound has been drastically rebuilt.  It bears resemblance to the Sinchon Elite Compound (satellite image here) which also is built on a spa.    Barbara Demick mentioned this facility in her recent Nothing to Envy.

The Daily NK also mentions that here is construction taking place at the leadership compound in Songdowon, north of Wonsan. Satellite image here.

The reconstruction of leadership compounds has been underway for some time.  I blogged about some other projects in February 2009. Read about them here.

Here is the text from the Daily NK story:

An unusual level of remodeling and reconstruction of official buildings and special villas is going on across North Korea, according to sources.

One such source inside North Korea reported today that after demolishing the No. 15 Official Residence, located in vicinity of Kim Jong Il’s current office in Pyongyang, the authorities began construction of a new building in July, a claim which has been confirmed by satellite images.

The No. 15 Official Residence was where Ko Young Hee, Kim Jong Eun’s mother, used to live. The location is linked to Kim Jong Il’s office and other official buildings by underground tunnels fitted with an electronic train. When Kim Jong Eun was a child, he also lived there.

However, the source said he believes that the prime real estate may be undergoing a change of use.

The source also reported that in December, 2009, Kim Jong Eun ordered the destruction of another special villa in Kyungsung, North Hamkyung Province, a place famous for hot springs, and the building of a new conference hall and villa with imported construction materials in its place.

Approximately ten kilometers of road and rail construction has also been going on so that the area can be reached more conveniently, the source added.

According to the source, around 1,200 soldiers have been mobilized alongside residents of Chongjin and Hoiryeong for the work. In addition, each household in the area has had to provide ten buckets of rocks for construction and pay 500 won for their delivery.

Regarding this work, North Korea Reform Radio reported in July, “During construction of Kim Jong Eun’s special villa in Kyungsung, the authorities diverted the flow of a stream flowing through Haonpo-ri in Kyungsung, burying farms and angering residents.”

Reconstruction of another villa and conference hall at the coastal Songdowon Resort in Wonsan, Kangwon Province is also ongoing. This construction is reportedly a gift for Kim Jong Il on the orders of Kim Jong Eun.

The construction consists of two large, circular buildings. One of them has a lot of separate rooms, while the other has just one big hall, according to rumors.

Therefore, the source assumed that the finished building might be a similar to Kim Jong Il’s Seoho Villa, the No. 72 Villa in Nakwon, South Hamkyung, which is rumored to have one room extending 100m below the ground.

A South Korean architect estimates that the construction of the three facilities and railroad will cost a total of around $180 million dollars, an amount which, according to the current international market price of corn, $300/ton, is enough to buy 600,000 tons of corn, enough to feed 2.3 million North Koreans for two months.

According to documents the South Korean military and intelligence authorities provided for submission to a hearing of the Diplomacy, Commerce and Unification Committee of the National Assembly by lawmaker Yoon Sang Hyun, there are 33 luxurious villas in beautiful mountainous areas and along the coasts of North Korea. Since 2008, 13 out of 33 sites have been under maintenance work, according to intelligence.

There are also 28 stations for the exclusive use of Kim Jong Il across North Korea.

In North Korea, in general, around two or three facilities are remodeled per year, but the current degree of widespread construction and remodeling suggests that Kim Jong Eun may be set to use the villas in the future.

On this, an anonymous expert with a national policy institute suggested that it does not portend a scaling back of the Kim family ruling style. “Seeing Kim Jong Eun’s luxurious life pattern,” he said, “he seems set to follow his father’s conventional method of dictatorship.”

You can see satellite imagery of 19 leadership  train stations here.

Read the full sotry here:
Luxury Villa Construction Booming
Daily NK
Kim Tae Hong


ROK Catholics resume DPRK food aid

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

According ot the Union of Catholic Asian News:

The Catholic Church in South Korea has sent rice aid to flood-hit areas of North Korea, the first aid since a South Korean naval ship was sunk reportedly by a North Korean torpedo.

The Korean Bishops’ Committee for the Reconciliation of the Korean People committees delivered 50 tons of rice worth 95 million won(US$85,000) on Oct. 22.

Uijeongbu diocese, the Korean Conference of Major Superiors of Men’s Religious Institutes and Societies of Apostolic Life and the Korean Catholic Farmers’ Movement also assisted with the shipment.

The rice was sent to the (North) Korean Roman Catholics Association, which organized distribution of the rice in the Kaesong (Gaeseong) district.

“This is the first rice support to North Korea since the Cheonan naval ship incident last March,” said Father Baptist John Kimm Hun-il, executive secretary of the Subcommittee for Aid to North Korea under the bishops’ committee for the reconciliation.

“The food condition of North Koreans is worsening and their government is unable to support them. We need to offer more help,” he added.

Following the sinking of the naval vessel, the South Korean government banned all economic exchanges with North Korea, except for the minimum humanitarian aid.

Read the full story here:
Bishops send food aid to flood-hit North Korea
Union of Catholic Asian News
John Choi


North Koreans receive largest gift rations since Kim Il-sung’s death

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

According to the Choson Ilbo:

North Koreans were given the most extra supplies on Oct. 10, the 65th founding day of the Workers Party, since nation founder Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994, Radio Free Asia in the U.S. claimed last Friday.

The so-called “holiday supplies” are various daily necessities sold at state prices or about 1/100 of market prices on major holidays such as Kim Il-sung’s and current leader Kim Jong-il’s birthdays.

On the day, two days’ supply of food and daily necessities were supplied at state prices, a senior party official in Daehongdan-gun in Yanggang Province was quoted by RFA as saying.

Each of about 9,500 homes in the county received two bottles of liquor, 1 kg of potato noodles, 1 kg of potato starch syrup, a bottle of vinegar, a bottle of soybean oil, 1 kg of pork, a cake of soap, a pair of shoes, toothbrushes and toothpaste, the official said.

Another North Korean source said the sudden bounty led to drunken accidents and an inebriated gang fight between youngsters, several of whom were taken to hospital. The source said a tractor carrying potatoes keeled over, killing four people.

Holiday rations/gifts are a time honored tradition in the DPRK, though their significance to the North Korean people has declined since the “arduous march” and the rise of markets.

Paradoxically, their importance to foreign observers of the DPRK has in fact grown since the “arduous march”.  This is because the composition of the gifts, or lack thereof, is important data for estimating the strength of the Public Distribution System and by extension the state’s finances.  By giving the most generous gifts since Kim Il-sung’s death, the DPRK government wants us, and the North Korean people, to believe its fiscal position is improving.

Here, here, herehere, and here are previous posts about holiday rations.

Here is a story in the Daily NK featuring pictures of holiday rations.

Read the full story here:
N.Korean Regime in Rare Show of Generosity
Choson Ilbo


Sen. Lugar releases CRS report on DPRK sanctions

Monday, October 25th, 2010

According to Senator Lugar’s web page:

On October 22, 2010, Senator Lugar, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member, released a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on implementation of sanctions for North Korea.

Following renewed interest in sanctions against North Korea in the wake of the sinking of South Korea’s Cheonan ship, which killed 46 individuals, Lugar asked the CRS to evaluate the implementation of the U.N. sanctions already in place.

You can read Sen. Lugar’s original request for the report here. (PDF)

The CRS report he received can be found here. (PDF)

I have added this report to my growing collection of DPRK-focused CRS reports found here.


“The Cleanest Race” on C-Span

Monday, October 25th, 2010

Back in February, B.R. Myers, author of The Cleanest Race, gave a few talks in the US.  Apparently I missed all of them.

Luckily, C-Span recorded the one of the discussions for us all to see.  It is well worth watching in its entirety here.

You can order the book at Amazon here.

(hat tip to a reader)