North Korean leader's female companion stirs speculation

Kim Jong Un at a Friday concert, accompanied by an unidentified woman
North Korean media have disclosed so little about leader Kim Jong Un's personal life that no one outside of his innermost circle knows his age or marital status. Now Koreans on both sides of the divided peninsula have a new mystery to ponder: Who is that elegant young woman at his side?

The same slender, twentysomething woman seen with Kim at a Friday night concert in Pyongyang showed up with the young leader at a memorial ceremony on Sunday marking the 18th anniversary of the death of his grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung.

Dressed in a tailored black skirt suit, her short hair demurely tucked behind her ears, the woman applauded and bowed in unison with Kim during both public appearances. Her unexplained presence has set off speculation among analysts of the hermetic northern state about whether she might be his wife or perhaps a younger sister.

The KRT broadcast network, the Rodong Sinmun newspaper and the Central Korean News Agency all carried photos or footage of the couple at the two events, but none identified the mystery woman.

Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea analyst at the Sejong Institute in South Korea, told the Associated Press that Kim has a sister born in 1987. But the images of the woman with Kim didn't evoke much family resemblance.

Official biographies of Kim, believed to be in his late 20s, make no mention of his marital status. Since assuming the leadership in December, following the death of his father Kim Jong Il, he has attended official ceremonies with other senior government leaders or older family members.


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Photo: North Korean media have carried photos and footage of leader Kim Jong Un in the company of a young woman, but have not identified her. Two appearances in recent days have set off speculation that she might be a younger sister or his wife. Credit: Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service/Associated Press

Outrage erupts over South Korean plans to hunt whales


South Korea has announced plans to hunt minke whales off its shores under a loophole in whaling rules for research, outraging environmentalists and prompting rebukes from Australia and New Zealand.

Joon-Suk Kang, leader of the South Korean delegation to the International Whaling Commission meeting in Panama, said South Korea has faithfully obeyed the longtime whaling ban and that minke whale populations appear to have rebounded. Fishermen have complained that whales are thinning fish stocks, he said.

Under the plan, whales would be hunted “to analyze and accumulate biological and ecological data on the minke whales migrating off the Korean peninsula,” Kang announced in his opening statement to the commission in Panama City. Doing so would provide better information than the “sighting surveys” South Korea has done so far and also address the complaints of local fishermen, he said.

Environmentalists derided the Korean research plans as a fig leaf for ordinary whaling, an echo of Japanese practices that have long upset activists and even led to violent showdowns at sea as environmental groups try to harass and interrupt the hunts. Japan hunts whales under the aegis of research, but the killed carcasses are ultimately used for human consumption.

“It’s commercial whaling in disguise,” International Fund for Animal Welfare campaigner Matt Collis told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “This is already a depleted stock in real pressure.”

New Zealand officials objected that the plan was unnecessary and inappropriate, saying whale research could be conducted without killing. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said she was “disappointed.”

“There’s no excuse for scientific whaling and I have instructed our ambassador in South Korea to raise this matter today at the highest levels of the Korean government,” Gillard told reporters Thursday.

South Korea has killed whales in the name of science before: The country did research whaling for more than 20 years ago under the same loophole. The World Wildlife Fund says the program yielded no valuable information, citing an International Whaling Commission report prepared at the time.

There is nothing stopping South Korea from moving ahead with its plans, but the Associated Press reported that several officials, speaking anonymously because they weren’t authorized to talk to the media, said the country would give up its whaling plans if the commission rejected them.


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Photo: A minke whale and calf off the coast of Australia last month. Credit: Greg Wood / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images


U.S. exempts seven countries that consume Iran oil from sanctions


WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration announced Monday that it had exempted seven countries that are major consumers of Iranian oil from threatened U.S. sanctions aimed at punishing Tehran for its disputed nuclear program.

Officials said India, South Korea, Turkey, Taiwan, Malaysia, South Africa and Sri Lanka had reduced their purchases of Iranian crude sufficiently to cut Tehran’s exports without upsetting global oil prices. In March, the Obama administration similarly exempted 10 European countries and Japan from sanctions, saying they too had done enough to wean themselves from Iranian energy.

U.S. officials said Iran now exports at least 700,000 barrels per day fewer than last year’s exports of 2.5 million barrels a day, cutting into a crucial source of revenue. U.S. and European officials have sought to squeeze Iran’s energy sector as part of the international campaign to pressure Iran to stop enriching uranium that could be converted for use in nuclear weapons.

“We are sending a decisive message to Iran’s leaders: Until they take concrete actions to satisfy the concerns of the international community, they will continue to face increasing isolation and pressure,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement Monday.

Another round of Western sanctions is  due to begin July 1, including an embargo on purchases of Iranian oil by all European Union members. Mark Dubowitz, an energy specialist at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank, said the new embargo could cut Iran oil exports to below 1.2 million barrels per day, less than half last year’s output.

Although the tightening sanctions have hurt Iran’s economy, Iranian negotiators have shown little sign in two rounds of international talks that they may slow down their nuclear development. Many countries believe Iran is enriching uranium so it can become capable of producing a nuclear bomb if it decides to do so. Iran maintains it is interested only in peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Obama administration officials didn’t say how much the seven countries had cut their oil purchases. In March, U.S. officials signaled that they were seeking reductions of 15% to 22% of purchases.

Several large countries, including India and Turkey, said publicly that they were reluctant to reduce imports of Iranian oil because of their long reliance on the Islamic regime. They appear to have met the minimum level of cooperation that Washington demanded, however.

Many of the countries have begun buying additional oil from Saudi Arabia to make up for their Iranian supplies.

The cutbacks by the seven nations haven’t raised global oil prices, largely because of the economic slowdown in both Europe and China, as well as increased supply from several countries, including Iraq and Libya.

Two importers of Iranian oil that have not yet been granted exemptions are China and Singapore.

China has been increasing purchases of Iranian oil in the last two months, after a sharp reduction earlier in the year. But Beijing has forced Tehran to grant it substantial price cuts. Since price cuts reduce Iran’s profit, China may ultimately be granted an exemption, some analysts believe. The tiny nation of Singapore imports relatively small amounts of Iranian oil overall.


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Photo: Indian motorists crawl along a road in Hyderabad. Credit: Mahesh Kumar A. / Associated Press

South Korea school textbooks drop evolution examples

SEOUL -- Some major science textbook publishers for South Korea's secondary schools have deleted examples of Darwinism, bowing to petitions by a group that calls evolution "an unconfirmed theory."

Of the seven major science textbook publishers in South Korea, three have agreed to remove or revise references to the evolution of horses, and six publishers  deleted or changed chapters related to avian evolution.

The decision was made after the Society for Textbook Revision, or STR, filed petitions in December and March with South Korea's Ministry of Education, Science and Technology  against the inclusion of the information.

Since its formation in 2009, the STR has continuously  challenged the teaching of the evolution in South Korea.

"We are an academic research society that aims to delete the errors [relating to] evolution, which is an unconfirmed theory," STR President Lee Gwang-won said. "It is important to revise the textbooks and teach the students that evolution is just one of the theories, as it affects how students form their view of the world. "

Lee denied his organization is affiliated with Christian groups or creationist scientists. But  Han Jungyeol, spokesman for the Korea Assn. for Creation Research, told the science journal Nature that the STR is an independent offshoot of his association.

South Korean academics expressed confusion over the publishers' decision, assigning some blame to the government's education ministry because it forwarded the petitions to the publishers without any academic reviews or expert consultation.

"It is hard to believe that such a one-sided petition was easily accepted like this," said Choe Jae-cheon, a scientist at Ewha Woman's University in Seoul. "The education ministry included 'science and technology' in their name, but it is not paying enough attention to the importance of rightful science education."

One of the publishers that revised its texts,  Kyohaksa, was quoted by local media as saying the fact that there was an apparent scientific controversy over the issue prompted its decision.

But Jang Dayk, a scientist at Seoul National University, said the publishers' position was not acceptable. He said the scientific community had ignored the STR up to now "because it was unworthy to confront them. The quality of their argument is sophomoric and based on distorted information."

But the latest move by textbook publishers, Dayk said,  has galvanized the scientific community, pushing it to act.  "We have formed a task force and will put out a statement to halt the textbook revision."


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South Korea marks Buddhist holiday amidst scandal

Buddha's birthday

SEOUL -- South Korea marked a holiday honoring Buddha's birthday with services in 20,000 temples across the country amidst a scandal over the behavior of monks who had been filmed gambling, drinking and smoking in a hotel suite.     

About 22% of South Korea's people are Buddhists. As the annual holiday marking Buddha's birthday was celebrated Monday. As it nears, lotus laterns are hung in the streets. 

But this year's celebration was marred by reports of misbehavior of a number of monks belonging to the Jogye Order, the largest in South Korea. A former member of the order's executive committee, Seongho, obtained footage of the gambling party and took it to a prosecutor's office on May 15. He accused monks of gambling, which is illegal in South Korea outside of legal casinos, with money contributed by believers.

The scandal shocked Buddhist society and the public alike. Six members of the executive committee of the order resigned. But the scandal has only gotten worse. Seongho told the media that monks also have been going to racy bars and paying for sex. The executive committee responded by accusing him of attempting to sexually assault a Buddhist nun in 2004, and buying luxury cars with the temple's money.

 Furious South Koreans voiced their anger on the web.

 "How can they dare conduct Buddhist services day and night while having done such things?" one asked on a blog.

While Jogye Order is still in turmoil and the issue remains unresolved, on Monday hoards of citizens flocked to Jogyesa temple in downtown Seoul.

Some high-profile guests such Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, Roman Catholic Archbishop Kim Hee-joong and other major politicians participated in the service held at the temple, which is known as the center of South Korean Buddhism.

 Venerable Jaseung, head executive of the Jogye order who has been under a pressure to resign, acknowledged that the monks' behavior had wounded believers and other members of the public.

"Because it's a deep, huge wound, it will take a while to heal," he said. "But with patience and continuous effort I will work towards healing with the members of the priesthood."

Some who came this year said the scandal had not dented their faith. Hundreds of people stood in line to to pour water over baby Buddha's statue, a ritual of this holiday.

 "I've coming with my family to Jogye temple for several years now," said Noh Yeo-beom, a follower waiting in line with his 5-year-old son, wife and mother. "The recent scandals didn't affect my faith at all."


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Photo: Young girls pour water on a small statue of Buddha during a service to celebrate Buddha's birthday at Jogyesa temple in Seoul, South Korea, on May 28, 2012. Credit: Matt Douma/For The Times.

U.S., Asian envoys warn North Korea on nuke test miscalculation

Amid signs of renewed nuclear development activity in North Korea, U.S. and Asian diplomats warned the regime on Monday that it will face a united international community and harsh sanctions if it carries out a nuclear test its neighbors suspect is being readied.

The U.S. special envoy for North Korea, Glyn Davies, met in Seoul with representatives from the other nations of the stalled six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear programs for the first time since Pyongyang carried out a failed rocket launch April 13.

The Unha-3 rocket, which foreign intelligence services believe was a test of long-range missile-firing capability, flew for less than two minutes before it broke up and fell into the Yellow Sea west of South Korea.

“It is very important that North Korea not miscalculate again and engage in any future provocation,” Davies told reporters at the South Korean Foreign Ministry after his talks with counterparts from Seoul and Japan. He plans to travel to China and Japan later this week.

Continue reading »

North Koreans getting more foreign media than ever, study says

Although North Korea remains one of the most closed countries in the world, more outside information is trickling in through foreign movies, television and radio than ever before, says a study commissioned by the State Department that surveyed hundreds of recent defectors.

But the growing access to outside information doesn’t seem to change North Koreans’ ideas about their own country -- a finding that splits from earlier research on the isolated nation.

Nearly half of the North Korean defectors who were surveyed said they had watched a foreign DVD, an illegal act that can be severely punished. Most of the movies were South Korean television dramas and films, which they often found appealing because they weren’t saddled with obvious messages.

"North Korea only shows beautiful images," a 26-year-old woman who left North Korea two years ago told the researchers. "But in the South Korean dramas, there is fighting and I think that is realistic. There is also poverty, but in North Korea they only show you good things."

The dramas also undercut North Korean propaganda. "I was told when I was young that South Koreans are very poor, but the South Korean dramas proved that just isn't the case," a 31-year-old man said.

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Nuclear inspector in Iran reported to be killed in car crash

TEHRAN -- An International Atomic Energy Agency inspector died Tuesday in Iran, killed in a car accident near a heavy-water reactor in Markazi province, according to Iranian news reports.

The death of a nuclear inspector is bound to draw scrutiny, but there were no immediate reports of foul play. Iranian roads are known for being dangerous; the country is widely believed to suffer one of the highest rates of driving fatalities in the world.

The victim was identified by the Islamic Republic News Agency as Seo Ok-Seok from South Korea. An inspector from the Slovak Republic also was wounded in the car crash and hospitalized, Fars News reported. 

Inspectors from the U.N. watchdog agency regularly visit Iranian nuclear facilities. The Iranian nuclear program has been under scrutiny from the West and Israel, which fear the country is trying to gain the capacity to make nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.


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South Korea: Confiscated 'health' pills made of human remains

SEOUL and BEIJING — South Korean customs said it had confiscated more than 17,000 “health” capsules smuggled from China that contain human flesh, most likely extracted from aborted fetuses or stillborn babies.

The Chinese Ministry of Health said Tuesday it had been investigating allegations that capsules were being manufactured from human remains but had found no evidence.

The South Korean customs agency said pills had been smuggled into the country through parcels and luggage carried from China. The pills were composed of "ground stillborn fetus or babies that had been cut into small pieces and dried in gas ranges for two days, then made into powders and encapsulated," the report said.

"Flesh pills have been continuously smuggled into [South Korea], camouflaged as health tonics," the statement said. The pills came mostly from cities in northeastern China: Yanji, Jilin, Qingdao and Tianjin.

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South Korea unveils missiles, says can hit any North Korea target


After a failed North Korea rocket launch that nonetheless upset and unsettled the region, South Korea showed off new cruise missiles to reporters, boasting that they could hit any target in North Korea.

"If we are strong, they cannot make provocations,” President Lee Myung-bak was quoted by the Yonhap News Agency on Thursday. “North Korea provokes us when we are weak."

Video footage of a test launch of the cruise missile was shown to reporters on Thursday, reportedly depicting the missile arcing through the air and destroying a target.

“This cruise missile can attack a target as small as a window located hundreds of kilometers away,” Defense Ministry official Shin Won-sik was quoted by Joongang Ilbo, a South Korean news outlet. “We can attack any military target precisely, including North Korea’s facilities, soldiers or equipment.”

Fears are high that North Korea soon will carry out a nuclear test, which it has done twice in the last after trying to launch a rocket. South Korean intelligence has spotted signs that its northern neighbor was gearing up for such a test earlier this month. If it does, South Korea has warned it will retaliate.

Even before the South Korean missiles were unveiled, North Korea had said it would wage a "sacred war to wipe out the Lee Myung-bak group of traitors, the sworn enemy with whom the nation can never live under the same sky," North Korean state media reported Wednesday, blaming South Korea for "extreme provocations."


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Photo: This picture released on Thursday by the South Korean Defense Ministry shows the test-launch of its new cruise missile. Credit: South Korean Defense Ministry via Yonhap / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images


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