[NK News] Foreign fiction present in North Korea, though restricted

With some of the tightest restrictions on information on the planet, North Korea would never be called a book lover’s paradise. But aside from the domestic propaganda that spans media from comic books to newspapers, a North Korean bookworm can hope to access a limited, but increasing selection of foreign fiction, according to sources familiar with the country.

The choices available, however, could largely depend on where they live and if they can speak a foreign language.

“It’s getting easier to read books and sell books these days. It has been changing since (under) Kim Jong Il,” one recent defector surnamed Kim told NK News on condition of anonymity.

Kim, who left the northern city of Chongjin within the last two years, said officially sanctioned and translated foreign literature includes classics such as Gulliver’s TravelsTess of the d’UrbervillesRobinson CrusoeAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Gone with the Wind.

Gone with the Wind, in particular, has often been noted for its popularity in the country, even coming preloaded on a domestic version of the iPad.

While books with overtly political or religious themes are banned, classic Western, Chinese and Russian novels, as well as poetry, are sold at bookshops, albeit at prohibitively high prices, Kim said. He said a single book can cost $4-5. The average monthly wage for a worker in the country is around $40, according to an estimate by North Korea scholar Andrei Lankov.

Cho, a defector who said she worked as a librarian for five years, said books were available at libraries and chaekbang (book rooms), but were carefully selected by the authorities. She remembers reading two Chinese novels that were edited by the government: Dream of the Red Chamber and Light and Shadow.

“At those places, the government provides books to be lent and sold,” said Cho, who arrived in South Korea within the last five years but refused to name her hometown out of concern for her family still in North Korea. “But there, all the books are used for the government’s policies or propaganda.”

Novels are also sold on the black market and rented among the public, often for considerable sums, Kim said.

“There a lot of people selling books illegally in markets to make money,” said Kim, adding that he believes some government officials smuggle books into the country to make extra cash.

There a lot of people selling books illegally in markets to make money’

Cho painted a similar scene of the black market.

“There are many cases of individuals secretly selling on the black market after unsuccessfully trying to apply to sell at a government-approved business,” she said. “The age group varies, but there are many relatively poor people in their 20-30s.”

The experiences of another defector, surnamed Lee, also suggest that access to foreign fiction was previously more limited.

Lee said she had no experience of foreign novels before she left the country seven years ago. Even expressing curiosity about the outside world would have been dangerous, she said.

“Compared to before, it could be easier to find that sort of material. I think it could also depend on the region,” said Lee, who left the northern border area of Ryanggang Province while she was still in middle school.

At school, Lee’s exposure to literature was limited to stories extolling the ruling Kim family.

“There are books written by Kim Il Sung from my parents’ generation and I’ve seen people of that generation read those,” she said. “If you compare seven years ago to now, there is a greater variety of information.”

She also remembers being able to borrow books at train stations, but these were limited to stories about the Japanese occupation and other government- friendly narratives. Regardless, she said reading for leisure was not especially common.

“Everyone is so busy with work and life that they don’t have time to read books,” she said.

While access to foreign books may have become easier, the choice for readers of Korean appears to be still limited to the classics. Kim said he not seen or heard of any recent fiction translated in the country.

The situation is much different for North Koreans who can speak English in relatively wealthy and cosmopolitan Pyongyang, according to Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours and a frequent visitor to the country.

“I know quite a lot of people who’ve read Harry Potter. It’s quite popular among younger women, but these are English-speakers,” he said.

Cockerel said that such titles would probably come from a foreigner or friend who’d been abroad, as he’d never seen any in book shops in the capital.

“It wouldn’t amazingly shock me if someone told me they’d read a fairly recent work of foreign literature,” he said. “I wouldn’t consider that to be particularly remarkable in Pyongyang.”

The reading preferences of the capital’s middle class also throw up what might be considered an unlikely author.

Sidney Sheldon, an American writer of suspense novels who died in 2007, has a sizable following among those who can read English, Cockrell said.

“Honestly, you’ll find a lot North Koreans who’ve read of English novels might mention Gone with the Windand or books by Jack London, then Sidney Sheldon, as if Sidney Sheldon is part of the pantheon of great Western literature. Why that is, I honestly have no idea.”

Jeong Gwang-myeong and Lee Mi-sun contributed to this article. 

The names of some interviewees were changed to protect their identity. Some timelines were also slightly altered.


[The Christian Science Monitor] Having built nation from scratch, elderly S. Koreans feel abandoned

Jeong Soon-ja spent a lifetime working and raising children as part of a generation that lifted South Korea from rural squalor and postwar ruin to become the world’s 15th  largest economy.

Yet like many of her peers, Ms. Jeong lives in poverty and isolation. Too frail to work, her husband gone, her children seemingly disinterested, she survives on a government pension of about $200 a month, plus a monthly allotment of kimchi and rice from a district office in the gritty Seoul neighborhood of Gaebong-dong, which lacks the glitz of districts like Gangnam.

“When I was young, I should have saved money, but I had to feed, clothe and teach my children,” says the octogenarian, who sits on her haunches, a stance ingrained among older Koreans. She did laundry and maintenance work all her life and now has no pension, and says, “my money is all gone.”

Family ties weakening?

Jeong’s situation is becoming more common among a generation given credit for aiding South Korea’s lightning rise to manufacturing and high tech prowess. A new government-funded study shows nearly half of South Koreans over 65 living in relative poverty as recently as 2011, in a society whose traditionally strong family bonds are weakening.

One of Jeong’s six children pays her rent and utilities. But in a culture that honors the elderly, she hasn’t seen her eldest or youngest daughter in five years, and rarely hears from the others.

Almost half of elderly South Koreans earn less than 50 percent of the median wage, according to a March study from the Korea Labor Institute. That abysmal rate is the lowest of all countries in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, and is twice the figure of second-ranked Switzerland. (In Japan, a recent study found nearly half of the 1.6 million Japanese living below the poverty line were elderly.)

In South Korea, most seniors in financial straits live alone. Whereas it was once common for three generations to live under one roof, about one in five elderly citizen now resides in a single-occupant household.

Low birth rate

“In the past, when a grandfather and grandmother, or a mother and father, taught their children, those children had a responsibility to support them because living all together like this was a help to everyone,” says Kim Hyun-mi, general manager of the government-affiliated Comprehensive Support Center for the Elderly Living Alone. “But now, you can see that support has weakened because they live separately.”

The challenge of providing for the old is particularly acute in South Korea, which has one of the most rapidly graying populations in the world, a consequence of a chronically low birthrate.

Jo Joon-yong, a professor of social welfare studies at the regional Hallym University, says that the elderly are projected to account for a quarter of the population by 2030, creating a potential future crisis for the welfare system.

“To maintain a social security system, you need a young generation to pay taxes and premiums for the social insurance system,” he says.

Amid the decline in filial piety in Korean families, the government has only marginally plugged the gap in support. Last year, South Korea had the lowest social spending of any OECD country.

President Park Geun-hye campaigned in 2012 on a pledge of introducing a universal state pension of about $200 a month. But that figure got scaled back to about $100-200 for the poorest 70 percent of seniors. Seniors who receive such benefits potentially lose out on separate, means-tested assistance for the poor.

Problems of living alone

The feasibility of more generous welfare schemes has been a political flash point between liberal and conservative politicians in a nation that is roughly divided along these general lines. Political gridlock may be slowing welfare reform, but more social spending in future appears inevitable, given the aging population.

“I think that because it is now in the beginning phase, welfare benefits for the old are insufficient compared to other countries, but in the future welfare benefits will be provided stably just like in advanced countries,” says Ms. Kim, the support center official.

Mental health, loneliness, and what Kim calls “emotional problems” are becoming more pressing concerns among elderly living alone, she says.

South Korea has the highest overall suicide rate in the OCED, and men aged 80 and above die by their own hand at almost five times the rate of those aged 30-39, according to government statistics.

Jeong, who speaks in loud, defiant bursts, insists she is satisfied with life. She regularly meets friends. But she also admits to being lonely.

Above all, she misses her daughters, who she has become convinced no longer love her. Even when she recently was hospitalized for an emergency, they did not visit.

“I really miss my daughters but they never contact me,” she says. “I miss my daughters the most. That’s the saddest thing.”

[The Christian Science Monitor] ‘Nut rage’ in S Korea spotlights culture of punishing long hours

South Korea’s “nut rage” scandal has unleashed long-simmering public resentment over the makeup of family-run conglomerates here.

Now the saga – where the daughter of Korean Air‘s chairman turned around a taxiing aircraft after being served bagged nuts in first class – is casting a light on the country’s relentless work culture. New revelations show the chief flight attendant who oversaw the nuts presentation was ordered to work shifts lasting up to 18 hours.

Testifying at the trial of the daughter, Cho Hyun-ah, who at the time was a Korean Air vice president, flight attendant Park Chang-jin said he was assigned a “work schedule from hell” after the incident that received international press attention. Ms. Cho potentially faces three years in prison if convicted of assault and aviation-safety related charges.

Mr. Park’s testimony resonates strongly in a society with some of the longest work hours in the world, undergirding a work culture that has seen South Korea rise from poverty in the 1960s to the top ranks of world economies.

According to statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Koreans on average work 47 days more days a year, about a month and a half, than their American peers.

Yet as Korea punches above its weight as a economic force after decades of a work ethic designed to help it surpass its neighbors, and former peer North Korea, a new round of grumbling about over-work and work place policies is starting to emerge.

No time for hobbies

Son Hye-jin, a sales representative at a clothing export firm in Seoul, for example, often feels she has no life outside the office. She begins work at 8 am, and doesn’t finish until 7 or 8 at night. Weekends are no guarantee of relief, as work often extends to Saturdays.

“If I had some free time, I think I would like to learn this or that, or take up a hobby, but it’s impossible because I don’t know how much overtime I will have to do,” she says. “You’ve no choice but to work, right?”

Small and medium-sized firms are notorious for pushing employees to work schedules at odds with labor laws that are supposed to strictly regulate work hours and pay.

As an employee at a mid-sized IT firm, 24-year-old Lee Eun-woo says she often worked for up to 17 hours to please her boss. “I was depressed. I really wanted to quit my job, but it was impossible because it is extremely hard to find a job in Korea these days.”

Like Son and many others, Lee wasn’t compensated for the mountains of work that extended outside her official workday of 9 to 6 and that she was expected to handle.

“That’s the reality at most small and medium companies. In our country, the places that actually give you money for overtime are large companies. At other small companies, it’s really hard to get.”

Social gatherings after hours

The rigors of work don’t end in the office. Employees often must attend afterwork dinners that turn into drinking sessions, called “hoesik.” While ostensibly set up to relieve work pressure and encourage bonding, such gatherings are often stressful, especially for women because of hierarchical norms.

“In the ‘hoesik’ culture, as a woman, the boss forces you to drink and tells you to show off your ‘aegyo,” says Lee, referring to a Korean expression for a type of affected cuteness prized in women.

At one such drink-fueled outing, Lee says she witnessed her former boss hit a subordinate for no apparent reason. As a lower-ranking employee, he had no choice but to accept his boss’s abuse, she says.

Korea’s demanding work culture largely stems from its rapid industrialization after the Korean War, according to Park Tae-gyun, a history professor at Korea University in Seoul. Park Chung-hee, a dictator who ruled for 17 years from the early 1960s, and is widely seen as the father of the country’s modernization, used South Koreans’ insecurities toward regional rivals like Japan, the former colonial power, to implement an intensive and regimented work culture.

“Actually, South Korea at that time was poorer than North Korea, so people believed that we should catch up with North Korea, and that was achieved in the early 1970s,” Prof. Park says, adding that a similar mentality pushed people to strive to catch up with Japan.

A culture of striving continues to guide society, he says.

“Every day, most parents say to their sons or daughters that, first of all, if they are students, ‘study hard’ — if they are more than 20, ‘please work hard.’ So that’s kind of Koreans’ habit still. They believe working hard is a way to live better.”

Signs of change

Albeit slowly, conditions are changing, as well as expectations. While still near the top of the global rankings, South Koreans today on average work about 350 fewer hours a year than they did in 2000.

Legislation to abolish the six-day work week at many companies came into effect in 2004. Successive governments have recognized the need to reduce work hours, for both economic and social reasons, although some businesses, as well as workers who want overtime pay, have opposed such moves.

Park says the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which led to unprecedented mass layoffs, effectively upended many Koreans’ expectations of a job for life. Some began to prize their leisure time and develop interests outside the workplace.

But for some Koreans, change can’t come fast enough. Fed up with negative experiences of the workplace and job market in her country, Lee moved to San Francisco in July to study English and plans to pursue a career in software development abroad.

“Korean society is rampant with a culture of poor workplaces,” she says.

What do the latest North Korea sanctions mean? A Q&A with Joshua Stanton of One Free Korea

As a journalist, there are times when you put work into an article, but it doesn’t actually result in a published piece. In that vein, I recently interviewed Joshua Stanton, author of One Free Korea and a drafter of a sanctions bill targeting North Korea, about President Barack Obama’s recent executive order aimed at Pyongyang, but the intended article didn’t come to fruition. It seems a shame to let the discussion go to waste, so I am publishing it here, in full. — John.

Q 1. Having looked at the White House press release, it appears these sanctions are potentially extremely broad, extending to anyone with dealings with the North Korean government. Would you agree with this characterizations, and you can you put these sanctions in context in terms of scope and nature compared to previous measures?

The potential breadth is clear, but I’m not 100% certain that this executive order is quite that broad in its immediate effect.

Let’s break this up into parts, starting with the North Korean entities designated in Sections 1(a)(i)-(iii). If this is intended to be immediate and universal, it doesn’t make sense to me that at the same time the President published this seemingly sweeping order, Treasury also released an annex designating only 10 small-fish individuals and three mid-level entities that had already been designated under other executive orders, years ago. Parse the words of the executive order carefully — “any person determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State … to be” — and it’s possible that that State and Treasury have to make an additional determination that a target is a North Korean government entity or official for that entity to be blocked. Which raises this question: Are Kim Jong Un’s billions in overseas assets blocked now, or only after State and Treasury get around to deciding that he’s an official of the North Korean government? To put it differently, have we decided that the Pope is Catholic?
With respect to those who have materially assisted or enabled (sec. 1(a)(iv)) North Korea, there will clearly have to be designations of the targets so that those designated will have an opportunity to respond, and so that the banks know whose assets to block. Even this discussion skips some important steps. Treasury certainly did not intend to impose an instant block on every bank and company that has ever dealt with North Korea. It would prefer to give them an opportunity to distance themselves on their own, so as to protect their reputations. But the administration’s interpretation of this provision will also be extremely important, because if other countries simply shift their North Korea transactions into the non-dollar economy, North Korea sanctions will fail the same way Cuba sanctions did. The key to the effectiveness of these sanctions will be how much diplomatic capital and brass the administration is willing to invest in getting China, South Korea, Japan, and Europe to cooperate in enforcing them. We remember the effectiveness of Treasury’s 2005 sanctions against Banco Delta Asia, but we forget that to really make them work, Treasury officials traveled all over Asia and Europe to meet with finance ministers and bankers. If you don’t see that happen, it means the administration isn’t really serious.
Potentially, this order is indeed very broad and sweeping. Depending on how this is interpreted, it could make our North Korea sanctions almost as tough as a lot of people (wrongly) believed they were all along. Our next good opportunity to find out these answers will be hearings in the new Congress, which could come as early as next week. I would encourage journalists to put these questions to Treasury, too, because I’d love to know the answers for my own edification.
Next, Treasury should start to issue rulings and opinions, to give some sense of certainty to those who finance transactions in food and medicine. Those institutions need to know that these transactions will not put them at risk. (Obviously, banks will still have to meet their “know your customer” obligations, and other standard requirements of regulatory compliance.) The need for this kind of early guidance has been a problem with sanctions against other countries in the past. No one wants to see unintended humanitarian consequences — least of all, those of us who believe in human rights in North Korea, and who also advocate for tougher sanctions as a way to force change that other strategies have failed to produce.
Finally, within the next few months, expect the Treasury Department to issue regulations clarifying the limits of this executive order. It will (and should) contain exceptions for legal services, emergency medical services, food and medicine, consular services, and other standard exceptions. That may be through a revision to 31 C.F.R. Part 510, or through the creation of a new subpart.

Q 2. Do you see these sanctions having any significant effect on the North’s relations with the U.S. or the South, and, if so, what?

What relations? But with respect to South Korea, remember that the Kaesong Industrial Complex relies heavily on payments to the North Korean government in U.S. dollars. Unless the businesses at Kaesong are granted a general license, they’ll have to make some difficult choices. That’s a good thing, because for years, Kaesong has been sending bulk cash to North Korea, no questions asked. That’s impossible to reconcile with U.N. Security Council resolutions that require financial transparency in dealings with North Korea — requirements that Kaesong has never met. Whether North Korea would be willing to accept financial transparency and adopt fair labor practices will be an important test of whether Kaesong can really be the engine of change we were all promised, or whether it will continue to be a crass exchange of bulk cash for slave labor.

Q 3. As you probably know, the two Koreas are presently in a phase apparently conducive to talks. There has been some comment in the left-leaning press here that the latest U.S. sanctions could hold back inter-Korean ties. What do you think about this view?

Has there ever been a time when South Korea’s left-leaning press wasn’t saying that? Not after the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong attacks, and not after any nuclear or missile I remember. That’s why they’ve lost so much credibility. It hate to seem argumentative, but I don’t even agree with the premise of the question. Obviously, you’re referring to an offer of talks Kim Jong Un made in his New Year speech. I’ve been watching North Korea make these speeches long enough to see a parade of analysts see the same things in each year’s inkblots, year after year. You’d get just as much predictive value from an asthmatic nonagenarian’s horoscope.

In this specific case, I read the offer of a summit as possibly conditioned on the cancellation of annual military exercises, which Kim knows is a non-starter. I’ve been open to downsizing USFK since I was assigned to it myself long ago, but I think everyone agrees that if USFK stays, it has to stay prepared. President Park has accepted Kim Jong Un’s offer just as the left-leaning press chooses to frame it, and there are good political reasons for her to have done that. My guess is that by setting a February deadline for action, she’s calling Kim’s bluff. But when Park came to Washington to address a joint session of Congress in 2013, she outlined North Korea’s cycle of provocation and reconciliation. Even in Park’s politically weakened state, she must be smart enough to see through this for what it is. She knows that these phases never last more than a few months.
On the other hand, if Kim Jong Un feels that enough international pressure is building against him, he might take a more conciliatory position in an effort to divide the U.S. and South Korea. He used that tactic with some success to divide Japan from the U.S. and South Korea last year.

Q 4. Sanctions on North Korea are nothing new. What, if anything, makes these measures any more likely to deter North Korean aggression than previous efforts?

Before you say that they aren’t new, you have to understand what they were to begin with. At least until January 2nd, America’s North Korea sanctions were a lot of nothing. They were far weaker than our sanctions against either Belarus or Zimbabwe, and not remotely comparable to our Iran, Burma, or Syria sanctions. Few people realize that it was none other than George W. Bush who gutted them. Don’t just take it from me, Google what Kurt Campbell has been saying about this. As for U.N. sanctions, hardly anyone has bothered to enforce them except in the most egregious cases. Many people will tell you that trade sanctions alone have a poor record of changing the behavior of governments, and I don’t disagree with them. The practical sum of our U.N. sanctions against North Korea today is, in effect, a subset of trade sanctions — the interdiction of some arms shipments. That’s a good thing, but the only thing that will force North Korea to change its behavior will be what worked in 2005 — targeted, aggressively enforced financial sanctions that force Pyongyang to make choices it would rather not make.

What makes these sanctions different? I think that goes back to my first answer — it depends on how they’re interpreted, applied, and enforced. For the reasons I stated, it’s too early to know the answer to those questions.

When you ask me if these sanctions will “deter” North Korea, I have two problems with that question. First, deterrence isn’t the principal objective of sanctions. Their objective is to put enough financial pressure on the target to force it to make difficult policy decisions, or failing that, to weaken its hold on power. Second, the question of whether any policy option can deter Kim Jong Un is more a psychological question than a legal one. My non-expert view is that Kim Jong Un may not have an easily deterrable personality. His past behavior suggests that he’s impulsive, temperamental, hubristic, and prone to exercising poor judgment based on emotional reactions. Many of his decisions — his public association with Rodman, the execution of Jang, the closure of Kaesong in 2013, and the Sony hack — are really the the actions of an imbecile. That assessment would be just as valid or invalid if we didn’t sanction him, and opted for military force or appeasement instead. Sanctions are one of two potentially effective, non-kinetic ways I can see to pressure him (a subversive campaign of information operations being the other). Given time, once his advisors are forced to explain what he can’t buy or maintain because his assets are blocked, we’ll see a cycle of reactions that should eventually result in a more compliant regime, in some form. Before that, things could get scary. I wish I knew of an alternative that wasn’t even worse.

Q 5. There is still considerable doubt that North Korea carried out the Sony hacking. Do you think the legitimacy of these sanctions will suffer as a result?

I suppose that depends on who you ask. After 9/11, everyone with a GeoCities account was suddenly a structural engineer, but I’m not an expert on computer forensics and won’t pretend to be. I can only hope that the FBI was very confident about its conclusions before making such a serious charge. Its conclusions are obviously based on classified evidence, but it would be a mistake to assume that the FBI is basing its conclusions on computer forensics alone. I don’t know what the FBI knows, and neither do the inside-job theorists. Unfortunately, intelligence agencies have to keep their sources and methods secret, or else they won’t have those sources and methods for long. From what I’ve read, the inside-job theories are largely based on computer forensics, and most their arguments begin by stating that computer forensics are highly inexact. Of course, the FBI isn’t always right, but nothing has persuaded me that they’re wrong about this.
I don’t see any motive for the FBI or the President to fabricate this. If you’ve been watching this administration’s North Korea policy, what’s remarkable is the extraordinary efforts it has made to ignore North Korea; hence the term “strategic patience.” In fact, this administration has been forced to turn to a whole series of foreign policy problems that it would have preferred to ignore — the Arab Spring, the Green Revolution in Iran, Libya, the South China Sea, Ukraine, Syria, the rise of ISIS, and now, North Korea. The last thing it wanted was yet another foreign policy crisis, or for North Korea to make it look incapable of protecting the United States from the tantrums of a porcine adolescent heir to a blighted kingdom.
The legitimacy of sanctioning North Korea never depended on the Sony hack; it existed years ago. The greater shame is that it took the Sony hack to get the President to finally impose them. To be completely fair, however, in his executive order, the President also cited North Korea’s “provocative, destabilizing, and repressive actions and policies,” its violations of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, and its “commission of serious human rights abuses” as justifications.
Unlike the President, the House of Representatives started pushing for tougher North Korea sanctions for all of those other reasons more than a year ago, back in April 2013. That bill passed the House with strong bipartisan support. The Senate Democrats introduced their bill just as (and perhaps even slightly before) the Sony story hit page one, and their bill had been in the works for months. I think Anne Applebaum got it partially right today, when she argued that the Sony hack has distracted us from Kim Jong Un’s greater crimes, which the U.N. General Assembly just referred to the Security Council. I also disagree with Ms. Applebaum in another sense. Assuming (as I do, until I’m convinced otherwise) that the FBI was correct in accusing North Korea, I can’t recall another time when a foreign dictator censored freedom of expression in the United States so effectively as this. Imagine who else might feel encouraged to learn from his example. Remember when it was briefly fashionable to speak of Hollywood as an instrument of “soft power,” during President Obama’s first campaign? Unless others are deterred from similar tactics, you can say goodbye to that, and to so much more.
Unfortunately, I see a great temptation in some quarters of our society to seek out alternative explanations that would relieve us from the burdens of confronting these hard questions. As always with North Korea, the pathology of the North’s political system is the origin of our problems with it. This is why I argue that whatever the FBI ultimately concludes, there were many, many good reasons for tougher sanctions against North Korea long before the Sony hack.


[UCA News] South Korean Catholics seek healing across border

The division of the Korean Peninsula has outlasted the Cold War, numerous political leaders and repeated attempts at rapprochement. But as the 70th anniversary of division approaches next year, a group of Catholic clergy in South Korea is seeking engagement with the controversial state-sanctioned Church in North Korea in the hope of overcoming decades of separation and confrontation between the countries.

The Committee for the Reconciliation of the Korean People is working to hold a conference with the Pyongyang-approved Joseon Catholic Association next year to mark the anniversary and pray for peace, in the latest effort by South Korean Catholics to bridge the sides.

“The intention of the God we trust in is telling us to overcome division and conflict, and achieve reconciliation and concord,” Fr Lee Eun-hyung, the secretary-general of the organization under the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea, told ucanews.com. “It is saying let’s meet and pray together to overcome the current danger and crisis. The goal of this event is to say let’s gather our minds in prayer for peace.”

Lee said representatives from both sides agreed in principle to a faith conference during a meeting in Beijing last month but said an exact date and venue has yet to be set.

The group would need the approval of the governments of both Koreas for any event to go ahead.

The Catholic Church has often been associated with liberal activism in South Korea, a key focus of which is engagement with North Korea. In May, Cardinal Yeom Soo-jung, the archbishop of Seoul, visited an industrial park in North Korea jointly run by both governments. The South Korean hierarchy also invited its neighbor to send worshippers to events related to Pope Francis’ visit in August, though Pyongyang declined the offer.

Cooperation with North Korea, however, remains especially politically sensitive in a country that remains technically at war with its neighbor. South Korea’s sweeping National Security Law makes praise of the Kim Jong-un regime a crime and prohibits contact between the sides without prior government permission.

“The biggest challenge is the political situation between South and North Korea. I hope political influence does not influence religious or private exchanges, but if you look at the process up until now, it doesn’t look like it will be easy,” said Lee.

Also fraught is the very nature of the so-called Church north of the border. North Korea is ranked the least free country for practicing Christianity by Open Doors, an American NGO that tracks religious persecution worldwide. Extensive defector testimony has documented the imprisonment and execution of Christians for practicing their faith.

The fate of the Church could hardly have diverged more widely on the other side of the border: The Church in South Korea managed to almost triple its congregation between 1985 and 2005, defying the decline seen in other developed countries.

“They [the Kim regime] see it as a major challenge, a challenge coming from a completely different philosophical viewpoint, on the one hand, but also pretending to be a universal explanation of everything, like juche,” said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University and longtime North Korea watcher, referring to the state ideology of self-reliance.

A state-approved Church has existed in the capital Pyongyang since 1988, but defectors and human rights groups consider it a sham set up to fool outside visitors.

Andrei said that while genuine believers may exist within it, the North Korean Catholic leadership is largely comprised of members of the State Security Department, the regime’s secret police.

But he added that it is possible they could be influenced to question the regime through meetings with outsiders.

“They are human beings, they have brains,” said Lankov. “If you look, say… at the disintegration of the Soviet Union, you will be surprised how many of the subversive ideas got to the Soviet Union through the KGB, the Foreign Ministry, through all these carefully selected people.”

Lee himself acknowledged that there are no legitimate priests in the country, but expressed hope of reaching North Koreans with a Catholic background.

“There are no priests but there are people who have been baptized. There are people who were baptized before the division, and there are also people involved in the religious exchange process who have been baptized,” he said.

Asked about the possible presence of government agents among purported Catholic representatives, Lee said it was hard to comment on an “internal problem”.

“There are many disappointing things to me about the religious conditions in North Korea, but I think it is fortunate that there is a representative group with whom to push for a meeting.”

Lee was adamant that their modest proposal could eventually grow into something much bigger for the benefit of all.

“Although it is now just a small and simple meeting, I believe these efforts for a meeting will bear large fruit one day through the Lord.”

[Christian Science Monitor] North Korea chooses optimum moment to release Americans Bae and Miller

The surprising weekend release of two Americans detained by North Korea has spurred the usual flurry of speculation over why the secretive regime in Pyongyang let them go.

North Korea watchers agree the freeing of Mr. Bae, an evangelical who had been in a labor camp for two years, and Matthew Miller, who was detained in April, certainly facilitates the strategic objectives of the Kim Jong-un dictatorship.

The releases appear to be Act Two of a process that began last month with the release of Jeffrey Fowle. The most likely scenarios are the North’s concern about being indicted for crimes against humanity at the United Nations, or that it is seeking talks or at least a diplomatic thaw with the US over its nuclear program, or both.

“N. Korea might… decide the timing now to prevent discussing North Korea human rights issues and North Korean denuclearization and additional actions on those two issues between the U.S. and China,” Mr. Song says.

In recent months North Korea has launched one of its rare diplomatic offenses overseas, designed to counter the possibility of a UN Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, based on years of abuses and killings in its labor camps.

But John Delury, professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, is skeptical that this issue, rather than outreach to the US, is driving Pyongyang’s policy. “They take their relationship with the United States very, very seriously, it’s one of their top strategic relationships, and it trumps [the issue of] human rights,” he says. The release of Bae and Miller removes an “irritant in their relationship with the Obama administration.”

North Korea has repeatedly called for the revival of six-nation talks over nuclear denuclearization, without preconditions. The US has insisted the regime demonstrate its sincerity through action. The talks involving the US, China, both Koreas, Russia and Japan have been dormant since 2008 when Pyongyang walked away from the negotiating table.

US officials insisted this weekend that no quid pro quo arrangement was made in the release of the two Americans. Obama said at the APEC summit on Monday that there had been no discussions on denuclearization.

But Mr. Delury says it is highly possible that Clapper did broach the nuclear issue, despite its denials.

“The Obama administration seems to put it as a point of pride, like we weren’t suckered into talking about this nuclear issue,” he says. “But that seems a little odd as a strategy. I mean, you send your intelligence director to Pyongyang, why would you not feel the North Koreans out?”

Bae was arrested two years ago while leading a tour group from China into the North and was sentenced to 15 years hard labor for spreading “Christian propaganda.” Miller arrived in Pyongyang as a tourist in April and tore up his visa, apparently so that he could be sent to a labor camp as a witness to alleged abuses. 

[Christian Science Monitor] North Korean leader misses key anniversary as rumors still swirl

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un remained out of sight Friday on one of his country’s most important political anniversaries, adding fuel to weeks of speculation about his absence.

His nonappearance on the 69th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party marked the young dictator’s 38th day missing from public view. Mr. Kim, who paid his respects to his late father and grandfather on previous anniversaries, has never gone more than three weeks without making an appearance in North Korean media, which usually follow his every move.

Observers contend that Kim’s prolonged absence is less remarkable than how it’s portrayed in foreign media. They dismiss many reports as breathless conjectures that illustrate the difficulty of obtaining accurate information about one of the world’s most secretive regimes.

Kim went missing for about 20 days in 2012 and again for two weeks this past April, says Michael Madden, who runs the blog North Korean Leadership Watch. Mr. Madden points out that Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, would also disappear for long periods of time during his 17-year reign.

“There is an absence of information, and people are going to fill it however they are going to fill it,” he says. “Some of this obviously comes from government officials who are under pressure to come up with an explanation for the boss. That’s not entirely unheard of.”

Amid rumors of a coup or even an assassination, the most credible explanation for Kim’s absence may be that he is suffering from health problems. An unnamed source with access to the North Korean leadership told Reuters that Kim was recovering from a leg injury, the news outlet reported Thursday.

Andrei Lankov, a longtime North Korea watcher at Kookmin University in Seoul, doubts anything serious has happened to Kim. If the leader had died or been overthrown, Dr. Lankov says, “you would expect serious changes in the composition of the government.”

“Nothing like that has happened,” he says. “We see the same faces, the normal bureaucratic work of government.”

Lankov adds that recent visitors to the capital, Pyongyang, have not reported any cancelations of scheduled events or restrictions on traffic. He takes their reports as signs that things are relatively normal in North Korea despite Kim’s absence.

News outlets around the world often produce unverified and outlandish reports about North Korea, which has no independent media and prevents most of its citizens from leaving the country. In May, a popular North Korean singer performed in Pyongyang eight months after international media reported that the regime had executed her.

Even the South Korean government struggles to gather reliable information on the inner workings of its rival neighbor. The Unification Ministry, which handles cross-border relations, told local media on Friday that while the North Korean regime appeared stable, it had no information on Kim’s health.

South Korea’s intelligence agencies have a lot of difficulties acquiring accurate information on North Korea,” says Song Dae-sung, the president of Sejong Institute, a national security-focused think tank in Seoul. “All information in North Korean society has been so strongly controlled, so it is very difficult for us to say a definitive duration for Kim’s absence.”