North Korea Comes Unglued; SK Church Calls for Dialogue

North Korean stalwart China joined the United States in a unanimous U.N. Security Council vote for tougher sanctions against North Korea on March 8, targeting the secretive nation's nuclear program. Just hours before, the Kim regime in Pyongyang threatened a possible "preemptive nuclear attack" against the United States. On March 6 North Korea said it planned to scrap the armistice that halted the Korean War in 1953 and warned it could carry out strikes against the United States and South Korea. If the sabor-rattling rhetoric escalates into actual an actual clash of arms, nearly 30,000 U.S. troops in South Korea are at risk of being drawn into the conflict.

With the Kim regime in North Korea increasingly appearing unglued, Archbishop Andrew Yeom Soo-jung of Seoul, urged dialogue, proposing that the Korean Peninsula be peacefully denuclearized. The archbishop made his appeal just days after the inauguration of the new president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, daughter of one-time South Korean strongman Park Chung-hee, has crowded her new administration with former military and is expected to take a hard line with the increasingly erratic north.

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Could the church be a mediating force?

"As Archbishop of Seoul I am also Apostolic Administrator of Pyongyang,” Archbishop Yeom Soo-jung said on March 7. “Therefore, our church must take into account the problems of the church in North Korea. I think the most important aspect in relations between North and South Korea is to build mutual trust in order to prevent further conflict. The church will engage in prayer and try to make gestures of solidarity.” The archbishop said a solution to the inter-Korean conflict could still be found through dialogue.

In the meantime he said the Seoul diocese would continue to provide humanitarian assistance to North Korea through Caritas. “The Korean Church cares about the people of North Korea and the evangelization of the country,” he said. “Our people are diligent, serious and optimistic: we do not lose hope in any circumstance. On February 25, we welcomed the first woman president, Park Geun-hye. The nation hopes that the president keeps her promises and makes South Korea a peaceful country.

As Korea-watchers tried to anticipate the next moves out of Pyongyang, Amnesty International raised alarms about North Korea’s increasing political prisoner population in North Korea. A.I. researchers say that analysis of new satellite images shows the North Korean government is blurring the lines between its political prison camps and the surrounding population, Amnesty International said on March 7, as it reiterated its call for UN Member States to establish an independent Commission of Inquiry into grave, systematic and widespread human rights violations in North Korea—including crimes against humanity. Responding to reports of the possible construction of a new political prison camp, Kwan-li-so, adjacent to Camp No. 14 in Kaechon, South Pyongan Province, Amnesty International USA’s (AIUSA) Science for Human Rights programme commissioned satellite imagery and analysis of the area from the commercial provider DigitalGlobe. 

Analysts found that from 2006 to February 2013, North Korea constructed 20km of perimeter around the Ch’oma-Bong valley -- located 70km north-northeast of Pyongyang -- and its inhabitants, new controlled access points and a number of probable guard towers.  Analysts also found construction of new buildings that appear to house workers, likely associated with an expansion of mining activity in the region.

According to Amnesty International, the activity points to a tightening in the control of movement of the local population adjacent to Camp No. 14, thus muddying the line between those detained in the political prison camp and the valley’s inhabitants. This raises fears for the population within the perimeter the current conditions faced by them and the North Korean government’s future intentions for the valley and those that live there. 

“We expected to find a new or expanded prison camp. What we found is in some ways even more worrisome,” said Frank Jannuzi, AIUSA deputy executive director. “The creation of a security perimeter with controlled access points and guard towers beyond what appears to be the formal boundaries of Camp 14 blurs the line between the more than 100,000 people who suffer in North Korea’s Kwan-li-so system and the neighbouring civilian population.” AI reports that hundreds of thousands of people—including children—are held in political prison camps and other detention facilities in North Korea, where they are subject to human rights violations, such as forced hard labor, denying food as punishment, torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. Many of those held in political prison camps have not committed any crime, but are related to those deemed unfriendly to the regime and detained as a form of collective punishment.

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