PN's Voice 15

Peace Network Korea
PN's Voice 15, 14-10-2014

PN's Voice 15, 14.10.2014
Small steps, Road to peace

S. Korea Open to Talking to N. Korea About Lifting Sanctions and Resuming Geumgang Tours

The South Korean Unification Minister Ryu Kihl-Jae spoke last week of the possibility for the two Koreas to discuss raising economic sanctions against the North, and the resumption of tours to Mount Geumgang during the scheduled senior-level inter-Korean dialogue. Ryu, who was speaking at a parliamentary audit of the unification ministry, said that "the May 24 measures and Mount Geumgang tours can be discussed if the high-level contact is held. All can be on the dialogue table.” Ryu added that it would be “important for the two Koreas to overcome the issues through dialogue”.

The May 24th sanctions have been in place since the Cheonan, a South Korean vessel, was sunk by, what was believed to be, a North Korean torpedo attack in 2010. Pyongyang has repeatedly denied responsibility for the incident and thus has demanded the lifting of these sanctions, and deliberately has kept inter-Korean exchanges to a bare minimum until the sanctions are lifted. While tours to Mount Geumgang, a source of considerable income for the North, have been on ice since a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean solider there in 2008.

Opposition lawmakers have been calling for the lifting of the sanctions to facilitate an expansion in inter-Korean exchanges that could lead to the North opening up; many experts believe such actions would be key step towards peace on the Korean Peninsula. Calls for the lifting of sanctions have become stronger after a top-level North Korean delegation visited South Korea for the closing ceremony of the Incheon Asian Games. This surprise visit has ignited hopes for a mood of reconciliation on the Korean peninsula.

However, Minister Ryu was keen to play down excessive expectations, pointing out that the recent North Korean visit wouldn’t change Seoul’s position or policy on inter-Korean issues, including the May 24th sanctions and Mount Geumgang tours.

NK Admits to Labor Camps

Last week marked the first time North Korea has publically admitted the existence of its labor camps. The admission appears to be a response to the UN’s highly critical human rights report on North Korea that was released earlier this year.

Choi Myong-Nam, a North Korean foreign ministry official in charge of UN affairs and human rights, said at a briefing with reporters that North Korea had no prison camps and, in practice, “no prison, or things like that”. However, he did say that, “we do have reform through labor detention camps — not, detention centers — where people are improved through their mentality and look on their wrongdoings.” These so-called ‘re-education labor camps’ are for petty offenders and some political prisoners, however most political prisoners are held in a harsher system of political prison camps.

A group of diplomats who were with Choi, told reporters that a “top North Korean official” had visited the headquarters of the EU and expressed interest in starting dialogue on human rights; talks are expected to take place sometime next year. Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, sums up the promise of this recent move by Pyongyang: “while the North Korean human rights record remains abysmal, it is very important that senior North Korean officials are now speaking about human rights.”

N. Korean Gulags Estimated to be Twice the Size of Seoul

Sticking with the subject of North Korean labor camps: A South Korean lawmaker claimed last week that satellite imagery shows that the total area of North Korea’s concentration camps for political prisoners amounts to an area double the size of Seoul. Rep. Yoon Sang-Hyun of the ruling Saenuri Party said "based on material from research institutes at home and abroad and the analysis of satellite imagery, the total area of North Korea's five prison camps was found to be 1,247.9 square kilometers…this amounts to twice the area of Seoul, which is 605.2 square kilometers."

North Korea is estimated to hold as many as 80,000-120,000 prisoners across its system of five concentration camps, according to a report published this year by Seoul-based Korea Institute for National Unification. The size of the infamously gruesome Yodok prison camp in the eastern South Hamgyong Province of the communist country is particularly noticeable as it occupies some 40 percent of the entire Yodok area at 551.6 square kilometers.

NK-SK Exchange Fire

Last week saw the two Koreas exchange fire in two separate incidents, despite the raised optimism for improved inter-Korean relations caused just days earlier by a top level North Korean delegation’s visit to South Korea. First, on Tuesday North and South Korean warships exchanged warning shots after a North Korean ship briefly violated the disputed western sea boundary. A South Korean official stated that the North Korean ship in South Korean waters for about 10 minutes before retreating. He said that a South Korean navy ship first broadcast a warning, then fired warning shots; the North Korean ship replied with shots of its own, the South Korean ship fired again leading the North Korean ship to retreat. The South Korean official stated that there haven’t been any reports of injuries or damage on either side.

Pyongyang has long disputed this boundary as it was drawn without the North’s consent by the American-led UN command at the end of the Korean War. As the line cuts off North Korea from rich fishing waters, North Korean navy ships and fishing boats frequently violate the sea boundary and therefore exchanges around the West Seas boundary are not uncommon. Indeed this area has been the scene of several deadly maritime skirmishes between the Koreas in recent years.

However, the second skirmish of the week, which took place on Friday, was a much rarer occurrence as the two Korea’s exchanged fire over their land border. The incident was sparked by South Korean activists’ release of balloons filled with leaflets condemning North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. Pyongyang had given pre-warning through harsh rhetoric that it would respond strongly if the balloon release went ahead.

South Korean media reported that the North fired to try and down the balloons, and South Korea responded as some of the shots landed on the Southern side of the border. As with the incident by the maritime border, there have been no reports of casualties.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un Returns to the Public Gaze           

The North Korean state run Korean Central News Agency reported that leader Kim Jong-Un “gave field guidance” at a newly-built scientists' residential district yesterday, this was Kim’s first public appearance in nearly 6 weeks. Kim’s prolonged absence had been partially explained by a North Korean official publically admitting that the leader was unwell, although no specific details were given. Nonetheless, rumors suggesting that Kim was laying low amid a struggle for power or even that he had been toppled in a coup were plentiful. 

North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun carried several images of Kim Jong-Un's visit. In these images it’s noticeable that Kim is now using a walking stick which further compounds the belief that he has been struggling against ill health. 

During Kim’s lengthy public his absence, Kim missed two high-profile public events - the 10 October anniversary of the establishment of the Korean Worker's Party and the 9 September Foundation Day of the North Korean State. Experts say these are two days in the political calendar when the leader would be expected to make an appearance. Several experts have suggested that yesterday’s public appearance was a response to the growing international media attention that Kim’s absence had caused.

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