Scandal threatens South Korea nuclear-export ambitions


A scandal threatens to hamper South Korea's efforts to sell its nuclear technology around the globe as it shuts down several of its own nuclear reactors to investigate how some of their parts were approved.

South Korean officials recently discovered that safety certificates for some of their reactors' parts had been forged. The subsequent closures could put the country at risk of power shortages this winter.

Government authorities have stressed that the parts in question are “ordinary” pieces,  such as fuses and power switches, that aren't directly tied to reactor safety, the publicly funded news agency Yonhap reported Monday. The shutdown has nonetheless cast an unflattering light on the industry as South Korea tries to make its name abroad.

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in nearby Japan, “they’re trying to create an image of quality and safety,” said Edwin Lyman, senior scientist in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Any issue with quality assurance certificates should be seen as a big black eye for their efforts.”

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U.S. gas bonanza from fracking slow to spread globally


In less than a generation, the United States has soared to world leadership in extracting natural gas from shale formations by hydraulic fracturing. But as the world debates whether “fracking” is an economic boon or a budding environmental disaster, few foreign countries are following the U.S. lead.

GlobalFocusConditions unique to the United States have encouraged investment in the abundant source of low-carbon energy and boosted prospects for reducing dependence on costly and unpredictable supplies of foreign oil. Of the natural gas consumed in the United States last year, 94% came from domestic production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“The availability of large quantities of shale gas should enable the United States to consume a predominantly domestic supply of gas for many years and produce more natural gas than it consumes,” the agency reports, predicting a 29% increase in output by 2035, almost all of it from shale fracking.

The rapid advance toward self-sufficiency has made the U.S. industry both a model and a cautionary tale for other countries pondering all-in development of their shale-gas reserves.

Significant deposits of natural gas trapped in coal and shale seams have been identified in Eastern and Western Europe, Canada, Australia, China, South Africa and the cone of South America. Global energy giants like Shell and Chevron are bankrolling billions in exploration, sizing up the cost-effectiveness of replicating the U.S. boom in more remote locales with little infrastructure.

Technological advances in horizontal drilling have made it feasible to tap small pockets of gas trapped in shale layers a mile or more below the surface. Contractors bore thousands of feet down through soil, rock and water layers, then drill laterally through the shale to create a horizontal well. When sand, water and chemicals are blasted into the bore holes, the force fractures the shale, releasing gas from fissures within the sedimentary rock. The gas is captured and ferried by pipeline to distribution grids or to port facilities where it can be converted to liquefied natural gas for overseas shipment.

But the process leaves behind tons of chemical-contaminated mud. There are also reports of drinking water pollution from the chemicals and methane gas that escapes into underground reservoirs. A study last year published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documented “systematic evidence for methane contamination of drinking water associated with shale gas extraction” in the aquifers above the Marcellus and Utica shale formations in the U.S. Northeast.  This spring, the U.S. Geological Survey reported “a remarkable increase” in the occurrence of earthquakes of magnitude 3 or larger that it tied to fracking operations.

This month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office acknowledged that the Environmental Protection Agency was finding it “challenging” to inspect and enforce clean air and clean water regulations in the fast-moving fracking industry. For example, the GAO report noted, the EPA is often unable to evaluate alleged water contamination because investigators lack information about the water quality before the fracking occurred.

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South Korea puzzles over oddball success of 'Gangnam Style'


SEOUL -- When South Korea finally got its breakthrough, it wasn’t thanks to its usual polished pop exports, but a stocky jokester in a candy-colored suit, an oddball once known as “the Bizarre Singer.”

It was Park Jae-sang, now known worldwide as Psy, whose single hit the highest echelons of the Billboard charts. Who popped up on "Saturday Night Live" and the "Today Show." Who taught Britney Spears his addictively goofy “horsey dance” on "Ellen."

College marching bands took up his tune; American cheerleaders winningly galloped to the unexpected hit “Gangnam Style” as it climbed higher and higher in popularity.

All this for a star whose song had been waning on the Korean charts. Breaking into American pop made a comic rapper an unlikely hero for a country anxious about its place in the world. And its stunning, unpredicted success left a nation that has devoted millions to national branding again puzzling over what it takes to make it in America.

“Before Psy, the Korean singers who wanted to make it in the U.S. thought they had to do everything American style,” pop culture critic Ha Jae-keun said. “They spent substantial time in the U.S. They met up with all kinds of people. They hired U.S. personnel to produce their songs” -- and they sang in English.

“Koreans thought if someone made it in the U.S., it would be the pretty girls or boys,” the critic concluded. “Not a middle-aged man singing in Korean.”

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N. Korea soldier kills two superiors, crosses DMZ to S. Korea

Korea dmz
SEOUL -- A North Korean soldier shot and killed two superiors Saturday and then crossed the heavily guarded demilitarized zone and was taken into custody, South Korean military officials said.

Lee Boong-woo, spokesman for the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the North Korean soldier appeared in a driveway on the South Korean side of the armistice line. He showed his intention to surrender and is  being interrogated.

“The soldier, while on watch at the North Korean guard post, allegedly killed a platoon leader and a squad commander before defecting,” Lee said.

South Korean military officials were quoted as saying that North Korean troops were observed removing two bodies from the guard post.

The South Korean military heightened security in the area, but officials said they had seen no abnormal movements on the north side.

North and South Korean guard posts are within about a third of a mile of each other at the point where the soldier crossed; each is  820 feet from the military line of demarcation.

The line of demarcation bisects the Demilitarized Zone, which cuts across the Korean peninsula. A creation of a 1953 armistice that ended the fighting, the DMZ serves as a buffer between the two Koreas, which are still technically at war.

North Koreans for decades have used various means to cross to the South, and the number of defectors is now estimated to be about 25,000. Iit is rare for a soldier to cross in the DMZ; the last known case was in March 2010.


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--Jung-Yoon Choi

Photo: South Korean soldiers stand guard at a traffic control gate  in the heavily armed demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas. Credit: Bae Jung-hyun / Yonhap

North Korea reverses, says it won't accept flood aid from South

SEOUL -- North Korea reversed its decision to accept flood aid from South Korea on Wednesday, dealing a blow to hopes of an improvement in the two countries' relationship.

In the wake of a destructive typhoon,the government in Pyongyang had said it would be open to possible humanitarian aid from Seoul. But just two days later, the secretive regime announced its refusal in a written notice, citing dissatisfaction over the aid being supplied, South Korea's Ministry of Unification reported. 

In the past, North Korea has asked for aid in the form of rice, cement and heavy equipment. The South Korean government didn't included such items this time, fearing that they might be used for military purposes. Instead, it offered to supply 10,000 tons of flour, 3 million cups of instant ramen noodles, plus medicine and medical supplies worth $10 million.

"[South Korean officials] have hugely insulted us by offering insignificant goods," a North Korean Red Cross official was quoted as saying by KCNA, North Korea's national agency. 

An official with the South Korean ministry shot back, "We hoped our aid to be helpful for the North Korean citizens, but feel resentful for such reaction from North Korea this time."

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North Korea is willing to accept aid from South Korea, officials say


North Korea is willing to accept aid from South Korea after devastating floods left scores dead and tens of thousands homeless, South Korean officials said Monday. But what the country will get and how has yet to be decided.

If the two countries can reach agreement on an aid package, this would be the first time that North Korea has accepted aid from its southern neighbor since Kim Jong Un became leader of the isolated country -– a possible breakthrough after years of chilly relations between the two countries.

South Korea halted aid to North Korea nearly two years ago after North Korea shelled a southern island, killing four people; it later provided $5.7 million for malnourished children through UNICEF. Past talk of aid for North Korea has been hampered by disagreements over what will be provided and how it will be monitored, a reflection of fears that aid meant for the needy will be funneled instead to the elite.

Even agreeing to talk about resuming aid was done cautiously: North Korea signaled that it would accept aid by passing the message to Red Cross contacts in the village of Panmunjom, a South Korean Ministry of Unification official told Chosun Ilbo. South Korea had sent a cable a week earlier offering help. The talks are expected to happen through exchanged documents.

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Court deals blow to South Korean law outing Internet users


South Koreans should not have to identify themselves before posting to online message boards and using other websites, a constitutional court ruled Thursday, dealing a blow to a law curbing Internet anonymity.

The South Korean law required Internet users to submit their real names and government identification numbers before chattering on Web portals, a rule that was expanded five years ago to cover all websites with more than 100,000 daily visitors.

Outing Internet users was meant to stop malicious attacks by nameless netizens, which had been blamed for several suicides, including that of one of the country's most beloved actresses.

The South Korean system was the most sweeping effort to register and identify Internet users in the world, rivaled only by restrictions in China, said Sarah Cook, a Freedom House senior research analyst focusing on Internet freedom. But as other countries become increasingly wired, the same debates are likely to pop up elsewhere.

"South Korea is a few steps ahead, not just in technology, but in the debates we’re seeing as more and more people get online," Cook said. Because it is an Internet pioneer, "these decisions have an impact far beyond its borders as the Internet becomes a part of everyday life."

Profanity and "slanderous and abusive words" against the government and individuals fell after the registration law went into effect, one recent Carnegie Mellon University study found. Free speech groups complained that the rules inhibited South Koreans from speaking openly online.

Outrage over the rules spread last year after hackers victimized tens of millions of people, spurring the government to alter the system so that sensitive data would not be at risk, turning to cellphone numbers and other identifiers to verify names.

The Thursday ruling piled on another problem: The Internet registration law is unconstitutional, the court found, concluding it violated freedom of speech. It also had a nasty side effect for South Korean companies, as many South Koreans turned to foreign sites such as Twitter to avoid having to be identified.

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Japan, China, S. Korea stir old resentments on war anniversary

War anniversary stirs tensions in Asia Pacific
Wednesday's 67th anniversary of the end of World War II collided with election-year politics in the Asia Pacific, spurring South Korea's president, Japanese officials and Chinese activists to stage controversial gestures that have stirred up bitter wartime memories.

South Korea had already rekindled long-smoldering resentment of Japanese occupation and war-era abuses when its president, Lee Myung Bak, last week visited a cluster of rocky islets claimed by both his nation and Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda recalled his nation's ambassador to South Korea in protest of Lee's visit Friday to the outcroppings known in Japan as Takeshima and in South Korea as Dokdo and coveted for their surrounding fisheries and energy reserves.

On Wednesday, the anniversary of Japan's surrender that ended World War II and its colonial occupations, Japanese coast guards arrested 14 Hong Kong activists who landed at another set of disputed islands to stake a claim for Chinese sovereignty. The report by Japan's NHK World network on the incident said the fishing boat bore a banner proclaiming that "China cannot give up an inch of its territory."

That Japan-China island dispute, also over the natural resources more than the rugged land, has strained relations between the Asian economic giants for years. Tensions flared two years ago when a Chinese fishing boat collided with two Japanese coast guard vessels off the islands known in Japan as Senkaku and in China as Diaoyu.

The Chinese government lodged "solemn representations" with Tokyo over the latest incident, the official New China News Agency reported. It said Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying on Wednesday reiterated China's claim over the islands, summoned the Japanese ambassador and demanded the immediate and unconditional release of the activists.

In another gesture that provoked anger among Japan's wartime victims in South Korea, two Japanese Cabinet ministers joined an annual pilgrimage to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo honoring Japan's war dead, including those now branded as war criminals.

Lee used the anniversary to appeal for Japanese compensation to surviving South Korean "comfort women" forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers during the war, the Yonhap news agency reported from Seoul. Lee also called on Emperor Akihito to apologize for Japan's mistreatment of Koreans during its 40-year occupation of the peninsula that ended with the surrender in 1945, calling the abuses violations of "universal human rights and historic justice."

Political posturing is seen behind the controversial gestures, given that major leadership challenges lie ahead this year in all three countries. China's Communist Party is expected to carry out a once-in-a-decade shakeup of its hierarchy this fall, Noda faces his Democratic Party of Japan's leadership election next month and a presidential vote is set for December in South Korea.


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--Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles

Photo: Worshipers offer prayers for Japanese war dead at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on Wednesday, the anniversary of Japan's surrender that ended World War II and Japanese occupations in Korea and China. Credit: Kimimasa Mayamaa / EPA

North Korea vows to revisit 'nuclear issue' after alleged plot


North Korea said Friday it will "review the nuclear issue" after arresting a North Korean defector for allegedly plotting to destroy statues of the late leader Kim Il Sung at the behest of the United States and South Korea.

State media reported Thursday that North Korean defector Jon Yong Chol said South Korean and U.S. intelligence agencies had ordered him to return to the country to blow up statues and monuments, a bid to make it appear that North Korea was suffering internal unrest. Jon appeared on North Korean television Thursday giving an extensive account of how the alleged attacks were planned.

South Korea has denied the allegation as groundless. One government official was quoted in the newspaper Chosun Ilbo dismissing the idea as an "improbable plot."

The North Korean Foreign Ministry added in a statement run on state media Friday that by backing the plot, the U.S. had violated a deal with Pyongyang to pull back on its nuclear program.

"The situation forces us to completely review the nuclear issue," it concluded.

It is unclear what a nuclear review might mean. A failed North Korean rocket launch earlier this year -- widely believed to be a cover for testing its ballistic missile technology -– spurred fears that the country would turn next to a nuclear test, as it did after unsuccessful launches in 2006 and 2009.

Earlier this year, North Korea said it had no plans to carry out a nuclear test. The Friday announcement spurred speculation over whether the country's leadership could be reconsidering.

"North Korea is not expected to translate its threat into action for a while. But it is saying it can take action if the United States continues to ignore its calls," Yang Moo Jin of the University of North Korean Studies told the Agence France-Presse news service.

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South Korea said to be scrapping whaling plan after outcry

South Korea dropping whaling plan

After an international outcry, South Korea is dropping a hotly debated plan to hunt whales for research, a senior government official told Yonhap News and the Associated Press on Tuesday.

"Discussions between government ministries have been concluded in a way that effectively scraps the plan to allow whaling in coastal waters," the senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity, was quoted as saying by Yonhap. "Even if it is for scientific research, we have to take into consideration that this has emerged as a sensitive issue at home and abroad."

Although the South Korean decision hasn't been officially announced, the news was cheered by environmentalists and Australian government officials, who were outraged earlier this month when South Korea said it would use a loophole in global whaling rules to hunt minke whales off its shores.

South Korea had argued at the International Whaling Commission that after the country faithfully obeyed the whaling ban, minke whales had flourished, thinning fish stocks. Hunting the whales would address the complaints of local fishermen and help scientists "analyze and accumulate biological and ecological data," South Korean delegation leader Joon-Suk Kang said at this month's meeting in Panama.

Although hunting whales for research is allowed under global rules, critics argue that the practice is simply a cover for commercial whaling, because the carcasses can be later used for human consumption. Japan has long used the same loophole to continue whaling, to the outrage of environmental groups that say the kills are unnecessary because scientific studies can be done without hunting whales.

There were already hints that South Korea was reconsidering its controversial plan: Last week, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said a South Korean official had assured him at a summit in Cambodia that research whaling would not move forward, drawing applause from Australian officials and activists.

"Clearly the Korean foreign minister saw this as an issue simply not worth the hassle," International Fund for Animal Welfare campaigner Matt Collins wrote Friday after the Australian news broke. "Let us hope that last week’s dipping of the toe in the water isn’t heralding a process whereby Korea continuously floats the idea in the hope that when it actually transpires the world will just accept it."


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: South Korean animal rights activists hold dolphin- and whale-shaped balloons during a rally in Seoul on Tuesday to oppose the government's recent plan to resume whaling. Credit: Lee Jin-man / Associated Press


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