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SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea is releasing emergency military rice reserves as its food shortage worsens, South Korea’s spy agency said Tuesday, with a heat wave and drought reducing the country’s supply.North Korea’s reported food problems come as its moribund economy continues to be battered by the protracted COVID-19 pandemic. While mass starvation and social chaos have not been reported, observers expect a further deterioration of North Korea’s food situation until the autumn harvest.Seoul’s National Intelligence Service told a closed-door parliamentary committee meeting that North Korea is supplying rice reserved for wartime use to citizens with little food, other laborers and rural state agencies, according to Ha Tae-keung, one of the lawmakers who attended the session.Ha cited the NIS as saying an ongoing heat wave and drought have wiped out rice, corn and other crops and killed livestock in North Korea. The NIS said North Korea’s leadership views fighting the drought as “a matter of national existence” and is focusing on increasing public awareness of its campaign, Ha said.Another lawmaker, Kim Byung-kee, quoted the NIS as saying that North Korea normally needs about 5.5 million tons of food to feed its 26 million people but is currently short 1 million tons. He said the NIS told the lawmakers that North Korea is running out of its grain stockpiles.The price of rice, the most important crop in North Korea, once doubled from early this year. The price briefly stabilized in July before soaring again, Kim cited the NIS as saying.Ha said North Korea is trying to control the price of grains to which its public is most sensitive.Kwon Tae-jin, an expert at the private GS&J Institute in South Korea, said North Korea is likely releasing the military reserves to sell at a cheaper price than at markets to stabilize prices. He said rice prices are “considerably unstable” in North Korea because the government has a limit in how much rice it can supply.It isn’t the first time that North Korea has released state rice reserves, but the assessment that it doesn’t have much left in its grain stockpiles is worrisome, Kwon said.North Korea had similar food shortages in past years before the pandemic, according to Kwon, but its needs were met by the smuggling of rice and other grains via its porous border with China. But North Korea’s ongoing pandemic-caused border closure makes it extremely difficult for such smuggling to happen, worsening this year’s food shortage, Kwon said.The NIS has a spotty record in confirming developments in North Korea, one of the world’s most secretive countries. But its current assessments come after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un admitted his country faces the “worst-ever” crisis due to the pandemic and other difficulties and even a possible dire food shortage.During a key ruling party meeting in June, Kim urged officials to find ways to boost agricultural production, saying the country’s food situation “is now getting tense.” Earlier, he even compared the ongoing pandemic-related difficulties to a 1990s famine that killed hundreds of thousands of people.Chinese data show North Korea’s trade with China, its last major ally and biggest trading partner, nosedived by about 80% last year — a result of the North’s strict border closure. South Korea’s central bank said last week that North Korea’s economy is estimated to have shrunk 4.5% last year, the biggest contraction since 1997.Kwon said North Korea’s current food problem will continue until it harvests corn, rice and other grains in autumn. But he said North Korea isn’t likely to suffer a humanitarian disaster like the 1990s famine, during which he said there was little grain remaining at most markets. Currently, North Korean citizens can still buy grain at expensive prices if they have money, he said.Other experts say China isn’t likely to allow a massive famine to occur in North Korea. They say China worries about North Korean refugees flooding over the border into China or the establishment of a pro-U.S., unified Korea on its doorstep.According to the NIS, North Korea wants the United States to relax some of the newer U.N. sanctions imposed over its high-profile weapons tests as a precondition for returning to talks on its nuclear program. They are bans on exporting mineral resources and importing refined oil and high-end liquors and suits. Kim Jong Un, in particular, needs those liquors and suits to distribute to elites in North Korea, Ha cited the NIS as saying.The two lawmakers said the NIS also believes there is no indication that Kim Jong Un has a health issue, following recent photos that appeared to show a bandage on the back of his head. The NIS said Kim has been actively making public appearances and his movements have appeared normal.
Top U.S. and South Korean officials agreed to try to convince North Korea to return to talks on its nuclear programBy HYUNG-JIN KIM Associated PressJuly 22, 2021, 7:09 AM• 3 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleSEOUL, South Korea — Top U.S. and South Korean officials agreed Thursday to try to convince North Korea to return to talks on its nuclear program, which Pyongyang has insisted it won’t do in protest of what it calls U.S. hostility.U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman was in Seoul as part of her regional tour that will take her to China this weekend. She’ll be the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit China since President Joe Biden took office in January.On Thursday, she met South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong for talks on North Korea, the military alliance between Seoul and Washington and other regional issues.The two decided to continue close consultations to get North Korea to return to talks and agreed dialogue is essential to the complete denuclearization and permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula, Chung’s ministry said in a statement.During her separate meeting with President Moon Jae-in later Thursday, Sherman said she hopes North Korea will soon respond to a U.S. offer for dialogue. She said she wants to have in-depth talks on North Korea with Chinese officials when she visits the northeastern Chinese city of Tianjin on Sunday, Moon’s office said.While there are questions about its influence on North Korea, China is still North Korea’s last major ally and economic pipeline. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said earlier this month he’ll further upgrade his country’s ties with China, as he’s struggling to overcome deepening pandemic-caused economic shocks.U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at stripping North Korea of its nuclear program in return for economic and political benefits has been stalled for about 2 ½ years. A major sticking point is North Korea’s calls for the United States to abandon policy Pyongyang considers hostile — an apparent reference to punishing U.S.-led sanctions imposed over its past nuclear and missile tests.Last month, Kim’s influential sister, Kim Yo Jong, dismissed prospects for a restart of the nuclear diplomacy, saying U.S. expectations of talks would “plunge them into a greater disappointment.” After her statement, Kim Jong Un’s foreign minister said North Korea wasn’t even considering the possibility of any contact with the Americans, noting it “would get us nowhere, only taking up precious time.”The blunt back-to-back statements have dampened hopes that were raised when Kim said North Korea was ready for both dialogue and confrontation — though more for confrontation.Some experts say North Korea will likely find the urgent need to return to talks if its current pandemic-related economic difficulties further worsen.Also during Thursday’s meeting, Chung asked Sherman to strive to bolster the South Korean-U.S. alliance. Sherman responded she would do so, saying the alliance is key to peace, security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and Northeast Asia, according to the statement.Sherman also met South Korean presidential national security director Suh Hoon to discuss ways to restart U.S.-North Korea diplomacy and other stalled talks between the two Koreas, the South Korean presidential office said.
South Korea’s prime minister has offered a public apology over a large-scale coronavirus outbreak on a destroyer on an anti-piracy mission off East AfricaBy HYUNG-JIN KIM Associated PressJuly 20, 2021, 5:23 AM• 2 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleSEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s prime minister on Tuesday apologized for “failing to carefully take care of the health” of hundreds of sailors who contracted the coronavirus on a navy ship taking part in an anti-piracy mission off East Africa.The outbreak aboard the destroyer Munmu the Great is the largest cluster South Korea’s military has seen. A total of 247 of the ship’s 301 crew have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days and two military planes had to be dispatched to fly them all home.None of the destroyer’s crew had been vaccinated because they left South Korea in early February, before the start of the country’s vaccination campaign.Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said in televised comments that the government is “very sorry for failing to carefully take care of the health of our soldiers who are devoting themselves to the country.”In a separate address, Defense Minister Suh Wook said he “feels heavy responsibility for (the outbreak) and offers words of sincere apology” to the sailors, their families and the public.Suh said all of the sailors will be moved to hospitals or quarantine facilities upon their return to South Korea on Tuesday evening. He said the government will work out measures to prevent similar outbreaks involving South Korean troops dispatched abroad.The cause of infections at the 4,400-ton-class destroyer hasn’t been announced. But military authorities earlier suspected the outbreak might have begun when the destroyer docked at a harbor in the region to load goods in late June.South Korea has been engaging in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden since 2009.The military planes dispatched to bring back the sailors were carrying other navy personnel who are to sail the Munmu the Great to South Korea for a journey expected to take one month. Another South Korean destroyer was on its way to the area to replace the Munmu the Great, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.The outbreak on the destroyer comes as South Korea is battling its worst surge of the pandemic at home.On Tuesday, South Korea reported 1,278 new virus cases. It was the 14th day in a row that South Korea has reported more than 1,000 new cases.Since the pandemic began, South Korea has reported 180,481 infections and 2,059 deaths.
SEOUL, South Korea — As a child in an authoritarian, socialist country, Choi Hyunmi’s athletic talent was spotted early and her progress accelerated by a coach keen to impress the leader of North Korea.After packing the gloves away when her family defected to the South, it was boxing that helped her two years later after she faced discrimination.Nearly two decades after fleeing North Korea as a 13-year-old girl, Choi is South Korea’s only boxing world champion. She harbors ambitions to unify her super featherweight division and to move up a weight to challenge Irish legend Katie Taylor, who is one of the best pound-for-pound boxers in the women’s ranks.Choi’s big push got off to a rocky start, when her planned unification bout with WBC title-holder Terri Harper in May was cancelled because of the British boxer’s hand injury.Still, what the undefeated WBA champion has already achieved makes her a great ambassador for North Korean defectors in South Korea.“What I wish now is letting the world know there is Choi Hyunmi in Republic of Korea,” Choi said in an interview with The Associated Press, referring to South Korea’s official name. “I might have got some basic mental (toughness) in North Korea, but what has made me who I’m today is Republic of Korea.”Choi began boxing at 11 when she lived in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. She said a school coach noticed her athletic ability and told her parents that she could become a boxer who “can delight General Kim Jong Il,” the late father of current leader Kim Jong Un. She later joined an elite youth boxing program preparing for future Olympics.But in late 2003, her family left North Korea because her father Choi Yeong-chun, who had worked for a state-run trading company, wanted a different life for his children. They moved to South Korea via Vietnam, only to face poverty and discrimination like many other defectors whose qualifications in North Korea largely aren’t recognized in the South.Choi went back to boxing after a classmate insulted her North Korea background following an accidental collision at school.“She cursed me, telling me ‘You should have stayed in North Korea. Why did you come here and bump into me?‘” Choi said. “It deeply hurt me. I couldn’t show my temper because I was hurt too much … I just stood helplessly and I didn’t go to school for a week.”Determined not to be denigrated again, she chose boxing knowing it gave her a chance to build up a successful professional career.It was a wise choice.She became a member of South Korea’s national team in 2006 before turning pro and clinching the World Boxing Association’s vacant featherweight crown in 2008. After defending the title seven times, Choi jumped up a weight division and added the WBA super featherweight title to her collection in 2014. She’s defended that title eight times.But the sport’s declining popularity in South Korea left Choi with a lack of sponsorships, to the point where she even considered surrendering her title. Choi’s father visited politicians and officials and wrote a letter to the presidential office seeking help.“My daughter trained so hard but the fact that we lacked domestic sponsors was the most difficult thing that we’ve had to deal with,” he said.Agents from the United States, Japan and Germany have made approaches about Choi being naturalized in those countries. But the 30-year-old boxer said she’s rejected the offers for two reasons: worries about another tough resettlement, and the immense pride that she’s had representing South Korea.She recalled the “really hard time” she had initially settling into South Korea and wasn’t sure it would be different anywhere else.“Also, nothing can surpass the feeling and pride that I felt when I had taekukgi (the national flag) on my chest as a national team member,” she said.An estimated 34,000 North Koreans have moved to South Korea in search of better lives, mostly in recent decades. But many have experienced economic difficulties and discrimination in schools, workplaces and elsewhere. Some defectors even call themselves second- or third-class citizens.Jeon Ju-myung, who runs an association for defectors in Seoul, said many defectors “are very proud of Choi” and her inspirational story “has absolutely made positive effects on our resettlement here.”Choi, who occasionally appears on TV shows, doesn’t face the level of severe difficulties that other defectors have to deal with. But she still dislikes labels associated with her North Korean origin, such as “defector boxer” or “defector girl boxer,” that tend to preface her championship title in media stories.“I’ve come to this stage after crying and enduring the hardships. But how can the word ‘defector’ come before my champion title?” she said. “I’m the proud world boxing champion of Republic of Korea and want to let the world know about it, but I feel so bad because (the defector label) overshadows that.”John Hwang, head of a Seoul-based boxing association, described Choi as the all-time best female boxer in South Korea.“She’s very strong mentally, maybe because she risked her life to come to South Korea,” Hwang said. “Her professional perseverance is really good and she has a considerably good stamina too.”Now with an American boxing agency, Choi trains mostly in the United States, where she thinks she could become “an even greater boxer.”Choi isn’t sure when her match with Harper can be rearranged. But she said within three to five years she aims to combine the WBA title with the three other major belts — WBC, IBF and WBO — in her division.Then, her final objective is posing a challenge to Taylor.“Win or lose, if I take on the boxer who I view as the world’s best, I’ll be satisfied with myself when I retire because I’d think I’ve fought without any regret,” Choi said. “So that’s why I’d like to make another challenge.”———More AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP—Sport
South Korea is sending military aircraft to replace the entire 301-member crew of a navy destroyer on an anti-piracy mission off East Africa after nearly 70 of them tested positive for the coronavirusBy HYUNG-JIN KIM Associated PressJuly 18, 2021, 8:35 AM• 3 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleSEOUL, South Korea — South Korea on Sunday sent military aircraft to replace the entire 301-member crew of a navy destroyer on an anti-piracy mission off East Africa after nearly 70 of them tested positive for the coronavirus, officials said.Two multi-role aerial tankers are bringing the new crew and will then take home 301 sailors aboard the 4,400-ton-class destroyer Munmu the Great, Joint Chiefs of Staff and Health Ministry officials said.They said 68 sailors have so far tested positive and the results of tests for 200 crew are still pending.Fifteen sailors have been hospitalized in an African country that authorities did not name, while the rest are on the destroyer. None of the crew has been vaccinated for COVID-19 as they left South Korea in early February, before the start of the vaccination campaign, a Joint Chiefs of Staff official said requesting anonymity citing department rules.The cause of infections hasn’t been officially announced. But military authorities suspect the virus might have spread when the destroyer docked at a harbor in the region to load goods in late June.The replacement crew of 150 navy personnel will arrive aboard the aerial tankers and move to the destroyer, which is anchored at sea, to sail it back to South Korea on a journey that takes about a month, the Joint Chiefs of Staff official said.Health Ministry official Sohn Youngrae told reporters that the 301 crew of the destroyer will be sent to hospitals or quarantine facilities upon their return to South Korea early this week. He said the crew were all relatively in good condition.South Korea has taken part in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden since 2009. Military officials said the Munmu the Great was to be replaced with another destroyer next month following a six-month rotational deployment. The second destroyer is on its way to the area.The outbreak on the destroyer comes as South Korea is grappling with a spike in infections at home that has forced authorities to place the populous capital region under the toughest distancing rules.Starting Monday, authorities will enforce a four-person cap on private gatherings in areas outside the Seoul metropolitan region for two weeks, Sohn said. In the Seoul area, the same restrictions have been in place during the daytime since last Monday but gatherings of three or more people are banned after 6 p.m.South Korea on Sunday confirmed another 1,454 new cases, taking the country’s total to 177,951 infections and 2,057 deaths since the pandemic began. It was the 12th consecutive day for South Korea to report more than 1,000 new cases.
SEOUL, South Korea — A small group of North Korean defectors gather at a sleek seven-story building in Seoul. Together with South Korean residents, they play the accordion, make ornaments and learn how to grow plants. Later, some go out for coffee.“South and North Koreans gather here, smile and talk to each other. They ask each other about their pasts. Some (South Koreans) say their parents also originally came from North Korea,” said Ko Jeong Hee, 60, a defector who teaches accordion at the Inter-Korean Cultural Integration Center. “The atmosphere is really good here.”The center, which opened last year, is South Korea’s first government-run facility to bring together North Korean defectors and local residents to get to know each other through cultural activities and fun. It’s meant to support defectors’ often difficult resettlement in the South, but also aims at studying the possible blending of the rivals’ cultures should they unify.Unification is a cherished part of the political rhetoric of both Koreas, but the difficulties of creating a single Korea comprised of the fantastically rich and successful South and the poor, authoritarian North make the reality of such a plan deeply complicated.A Korean unification in the near future seems highly unlikely. The North, despite decades of poverty and mistrust of the outside world, is not politically unstable, and there have been no meaningful recent talks on unification between the Koreas.Exchange programs between the Koreas — singers, art troupes and basketball matches — are frozen in the midst of a dispute over North Korea’s continued accumulation of nuclear weapons. There are also questions over just how useful the center will be, and whether many defectors, suffering economic hardship, will join in events that offer no chance of profit.About 34,000 North Koreans have resettled in South Korea after fleeing poverty and political oppression at home, mostly in the last 20 years or so. That’s about 0.06% of South Korea’s 52 million people. Upon their arrival in South Korea, defectors are given citizenship, apartments, resettlement money, three months of social orientation courses and other benefits.But they come from an extremely repressive, nominally socialist country whose estimated nominal gross domestic product was only one-54th of South Korea’s in 2019. Many are often discriminated against in the South and struggle to adjust to their new brutally competitive, capitalistic lives.Last year, official data showed defectors’ monthly average wage was about 80% of South Koreans’. They stuck with a job for 31.6 months on average, less than half the time spent by South Koreans; and their school dropout rate was nearly three times higher. A 2019 survey showed only 9.4% of South Korean respondents would accept defectors marrying into their families.The plight of defectors in the South raises questions about what would happen if South Korea had to handle a sudden influx of North Korea’s 26 million people in the event of a unification on South Korean terms.“This country has been unable to embrace those who voluntarily flee North Korea, but many are shouting for an integration of South and North Koreans and a unification,” said defector Son Jung Hoon, who worked as a human rights activist in South Korea for years. “That’s hypocrisy.”Even the center’s establishment has been contentious. Its opening was delayed for several years because of protests by local residents, who worried it would tarnish their neighborhood’s image and lower housing prices. Center officials say there are no such complaints any longer.Churches and civic groups have previously offered activities involving defectors, often enticing them with cash. They included a chorus, camping trips and soccer games with South Korea-born residents. But Kang Woo-jun, a university professor who is in charge some programs at the government center, said that facility doesn’t offer money but is pushing to give defectors high-quality classes.“Cultural integration is much more difficult and requires a longer time than a political and institutional unification,” Unification Minister Lee In-young said recently. “Even though South and North Korea, living separated for about 70 years, becoming one is a long, treacherous journey, we must not stop it. It’s a journey that we have to go on together. That’s the reason why the Inter-Korean Cultural Integration Center exists.”Built in a quiet residential neighborhood in western Seoul, the center isn’t well-known to the general public. COVID 19-related restrictions have largely forced it to offer more than half of its programs online and limit the number of in-person participants to less than 10. On Monday, its in-person programs were suspended or switched online amid a viral resurgence in Seoul.During a recent visit to the center by Associated Press journalists, four female defectors and a South Korean man, all wearing masks, played the accordion, with Ko, the instructor, helping them.Yu Hwa-suk, 57, fled to the South in 2015, and said she wants to achieve her childhood dream of becoming an accordionist.“(South Korean) participants have a huge interest in North Koreans so we felt an intimacy with them,” Yu said, adding that she and others often dine out after their class.In a craft class, four defectors and three South Koreans, all women, appeared a bit uncomfortable with each other, saying they haven’t had any meaningful conversations.Song Hyo Eun, a 39-year-old South Korean, said she wouldn’t ask defectors about their lives in North Korea because it might involve a sore subject like their relatives left behind. Two defectors in their 70s said they worry South Koreans might have negative views about defectors.Authorities should use various local facilities to integrate defectors living around South Korea, rather than establishing one big center in a certain area, said Kim Whasoon, an expert at a research institute at Seoul’s Sungkonghoe University.Many defectors eke out a living and have been paid for attending cultural events in the past, said Kim Jong Kun, a professor at Seoul’s Kunkuk University. Because of this, Kim said, “I don’t think they want to gather with South Koreans just to learn calligraphy and musical instruments or sing a song.”Some defectors and South Koreans also view unification differently.Park Seong Hee, 50, a South Korean instructor in the craft class, said she hopes for a gradual process. “If we are unified, I think North Koreans would all come down to South Korea and disrupt the order that we’ve established,” she said.Yu, the defector, wept as she spoke of unification as a way to rejoin her relatives and teach them what she’s learned in South Korea.“Frankly speaking, I sometimes want to go back home,” Yu said. “When I lived in North Korea, I thought I would be happy if I was well-off. But after coming here, I’ve realized that being happy means being with the people I miss.”
The North Korean and Chinese leaders have expressed their desire to further strengthen their ties as they exchange messages marking the 60th anniversary of their countries’ defense treatyBy HYUNG-JIN KIM Associated PressJuly 11, 2021, 5:31 AM• 2 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleSEOUL, South Korea — The North Korean and Chinese leaders expressed their desire Sunday to further strengthen their ties as they exchanged messages marking the 60th anniversary of their countries’ defense treaty.In a message to Chinese President Xi Jinping, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said it is “the fixed stand” of his government to “ceaselessly develop the friendly and cooperative relations” between the countries, the state-run Korean Central News Agency said.Xi said in his message that China and North Korea have “unswervingly supported each other,” according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency.“The world has recently seen accelerating changes unprecedented over the past century,” Xi said. “I wish to … lead bilateral relations to unceasingly rise to new levels to the benefit of the two countries and their peoples.”North Korea has been expected to seek greater support from China, its major ally and aid benefactor, as it grapples with economic hardship exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and crippling U.S.-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons program. China, for its part, sees preventing a North Korean collapse as crucial to its security interests and would need to boost ties with North Korea and other traditional allies amid fierce rivalry with the United States, some experts say.Kim said in his message that the bilateral treaty “is displaying its stronger vitality in defending and propelling the socialist cause of the two countries … now that the hostile forces become more desperate in their challenge and obstructive moves.”Under the 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, North Korea and China are committed to offering one another immediate military and other aid in the event of an attack.North Korea-China ties go back to the 1930s, when Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong Un, led Korean guerrillas as they fought alongside Chinese soldiers against Japanese colonizers in northeastern China. The two countries established diplomatic relations in 1949, one year before North Korea launched a surprise attack on South Korea and started a three-year war that killed hundreds of thousands of people.China fought alongside North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War, while U.S.-led U.N. forces supported South Korea. About 28,500 U.S. soldiers are still stationed in South Korea to deter potential aggression from North Korea. China doesn’t deploy troops in North Korea.