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The latest news on Kim Jong Un from Business Insider

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    North Korea Defector Lee Hyeon seoAs a schoolgirl in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee was forced to watch executions, denounce her friends for fabricated transgressions, and dig tunnels in case of a nuclear attack.

    But Lee and her classmates grew up convinced they lived in the "greatest nation on earth" run by a benevolent god-like leader whom they loved in the way many children love Santa Claus.

    It wasn't until she left North Korea at the age of 17 that she began to discover the full horror of the government that had fed her propaganda since birth.

    In a memoir published in London on Thursday, Lee gives a rare insight into the bizarre and brutal reality of daily life in the world's most secretive state.

    "Leaving North Korea is not like leaving any other country. It is more like leaving another universe," she writes in The Girl With Seven Names. "Nearly 70 years after its creation it remains as closed and as cruel as ever."

    Lee, now a human-rights campaigner living in South Korea, grew up in Hyesan next to the Chinese border. She had a close family with an array of colorful relatives including "Uncle Opium" who smuggled North Korean heroin into China.

    All family life took place beneath the obligatory portraits of North Korea's revered founder Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il, that hung in every home. Failure to clean and look after them was a punishable offence.

    At supper Lee had to thank "Respected Father Leader Kim Il-sung" for her food before she could pick up her chopsticks.

    Her family was well regarded and her father's job in the military meant they were not short of food. But brutality and fear were everywhere.

    The faintest hint of political disloyalty was enough to make an entire family — grandparents, parents, and children — disappear. "Their house would be roped off; they'd be taken away in a truck at night, and not seen again," she says.

    As Lee entered her teens her world was turned upside down when her father was arrested by the secret police. He was later released into a hospital. He had been badly beaten and died soon afterwards. The circumstances remain unclear.

    Lee says one of the tragedies of North Korea is that everyone wears a mask, which they let slip at their peril.

    "Kindness towards strangers is rare in North Korea. There is a risk to helping others," she writes. "The state made accusers and informers of us all."

    Public executions were used as a way to keep everyone in line.

    Lee witnessed her first execution at seven. After Kim Il-sung's death in 1994 she recalls a spate of executions of people who had not mourned sufficiently.

    North Korea Soldiers Kim Jong Il

    FAMINE KILLS 1 MILLION

    In the mid-1990s North Korea suffered a famine that killed an estimated 1 million people.

    Lee's first inkling of the crisis came when her mother showed her a letter from a colleague's sister living in a neighboring province.

    "By the time you read this the five of us will no longer exist in this world," it read, explaining that the family were lying on the floor waiting to die after not eating for weeks.

    Lee, who still believed she lived in the world's most prosperous country, was stunned. A few days later she came across a skeletal young mother lying in the street with a baby in her arms. She was close to death, but no one stopped.

    Beggars and vagrant children began to appear in the town and corpses turned up in the river. "The smell of decomposing bodies was everywhere," Lee said, speaking at a book launch at Asia House in London.

    In her book she describes taking a train through a "landscape of hell" to visit a relative. She saw people roaming the countryside "like living dead". In the city of Hamhung she recalled people "hallucinating from hunger" and "falling dead in the street".

    The government blamed the famine on US sanctions, but she later learnt it had more to do with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been subsidizing North Korea with food and fuel.

    North Korea Kim Jong Un Military

    Power cuts became increasingly frequent. At night Lee would stare across the river to the twinkling lights of China and wonder at the contrast with the darkness that shrouded her own city.

    Her fascination was fueled by the Chinese satellite TV she watched illegally after blacking out the windows.

    One winter night in 1997 she slipped out of the house and crossed the narrow stretch of frozen river by her home with the help of a friendly guard. Lee's defection started off as a prank — she simply wanted to see what China was like.

    When her mother finally tracked down her daughter to a distant relative's home in China, her first words on the phone were "Don't come back."

    North Korea Defectors High School Graduation Crying

    SAFETY IN CHANGE OF NAME

    But China was not safe either. Lee lived in fear of being unmasked and deported back to North Korea, where she would have been imprisoned or even killed.

    To survive she changed her name numerous times — hence the book's title.

    She had many close shaves: She narrowly escaped an arranged marriage, almost became enslaved in a brothel, was kidnapped by a gang of criminals, and caught and interrogated by police.

    Lee managed to persuade the officers she was Chinese, thanks to her mastery of the language and her quick wits.

    After years on the run she reached South Korea, where North Koreans are given asylum. But she missed her family desperately.

    In a daring mission she returned to the North Korean border to rescue her mother and brother and guide them 2,000 miles through China into Laos and from there to South Korea — a journey beset by disaster from start to finish.

    Kim Jong Un North Korea airport

    Since settling in South Korea, Lee has become an advocate for North Korean human rights and refugee issues, addressing the UN and the US Committee on Human Rights. Her fans include US chat-show host Oprah Winfrey.

    The name Lee uses today is not the one she was given at birth, nor one of those forced on her by circumstance.

    "It is the one I gave myself, once I'd reached freedom," she writes. "Hyeon means sunshine. Seo means good fortune. I chose it so that I would live my life in light and warmth, and not return to the shadow." 

    (Editing by Tim Pearce; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Take a tour of the $367 million jet that will soon be called Air Force One


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    North Korea Airport PyongyangRTR4YWMS

    Last month, the North Korean capital of Pyongyang opened the doors to the country's newest airport terminal: Pyongyang Sunan International Airport. 

    The new international terminal will replace the airport's old terminal facility, which dates back to the early days of the Cold War. So far, details surrounding the facility, called "Terminal 2," are few. However, North Korea's state-owned media agency released a series of photos of the new facility.

    SEE ALSO: The 10 best airports in North America

    Terminal 2 opened in a massive celebration featuring attendees in traditional North Korean outfits.



    It will replace the old building, a relic of the Cold War.



    The terminal features at least three jet bridges and the ability to park at least a dozen other planes on the tarmac.



    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    North Korea Kim Jong Un Military

    North Korea leader Kim Jong-un – to all appearances – may never have seemed so powerful.

    Mr. Kim has recently carried out a series of executions and purges of suspected enemies, and North Korea’s nuclear program appears much farther along than observers would have imagined even a year ago. Those are the two main data points from outside the shadowy and isolated nation. 

    Recently, for example, Kim, now quite portly, was seen touring a gleaming new airport with his wife, Ri Sol-ju, and appearing proud and contented in photographs distributed by Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency. He visited shops that will sell luxury goods not readily available elsewhere in the North.

    The KCNA report did omit an unpleasant detail: the architect of the airport, Ma Won-chun, missing from the shots, is believed to have been executed, according to NK News, a Seoul-based website that closely tracks North Korea.

    Kim was reportedly upset that the airport design team "failed to bear in mind the party’s idea of architectural beauty that is the life and soul and core in architecture to preserve the character and national identity,” as NK News detailed from contacts inside the North, but which can't be confirmed. 

    The execution of an architect may be a minor event in the current purges that Kim relies on for his own and North Korea's survival. In November 2013 Kim executed his powerful uncle-in-law and one-time mentor, a man who most importantly controlled trade with China.

    kim jong un

    Yet the show of power as seen in propaganda film and video, as well as Kim’s ability to order executions, may mask serious problems according to views from a variety of analysts and diplomats, some of whom have spent time in the North.

    They say that the young heir to the dynasty founded by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, suffers from an insecurity complex and does not trust even his closest aides.

    Masking insecurity?

    The purges and executions highlight the shaky ground Kim is on as he takes control of a nation, analysts say, without either the authority or charisma of his father or grandfather.

    Far from being "a sign of strength," says Victor Cha, who served on the National Security Council during the presidency of George W. Bush, the purges and executions "are symptomatic of significant churn inside of the system."

    A key reason Asian analysts continue to watch Kim closely is the evident success of his nuclear program.

    As the centerpiece of Kim's drive to impress subordinates and intimidate South Korea and Pyongyang's two major enemies, the US and Japan, North Korea's nuclear program has never been so important as now as a point of pride and power. 

    "Kim Jong-un regards nuclear power and missile forces as the core of his armed forces," says Cheong Seong-chung, director of unification strategy studies at the Sejong Institute, a leading think tank here. "North Korea isn't able to maintain a great air force compared to South Korea but has the missiles and artillery to counter the South."

    Reports given to American officials by Chinese intelligence suggest that the North may now have as many as 20 nuclear devices. It is also at work on three significant missile systems.

    No miniaturized nuke, so far

    While North Korea's short-range Scud missiles threaten all South Korea and portions of Japan, its mid-range Rodongs have the potential to deliver warheads anywhere in northeast Asia. Conceivably, some day, its long-range Taepodong could reach the US.

    At present, scientists and engineers in the North have not figured out how to fix a miniaturized nuclear device on a Rodong. That is now the quest driving Kim Jong-un to order and often witness missile tests. With that capability, North Korea holds a club that it can wield over the entire region – though not yet the US.

    "He's at the point where the 50-year quest is reaching fruition," says Bruce Klinger, a former CIA analyst, now senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "The best estimate is they've got 10 to 16 nuclear devices."

    North Korea has conducted three underground nuclear tests, most recently in February 2013, and is presumably preparing for a fourth – despite warnings from China, its only real ally, the source of half its food, and most of its fuel.

    North Korea missile launch

    The drive for nuclear-missile prowess parallels tumultuous shifts among top aides, most of whom rose up the ranks before his father, Kim Jong-il, died nearly four years ago.

    Most recently, Kim sought to affirm his authority by the execution of Gen. Hyon Yong-chol, minister of the people's armed forces, believed by South Korea's National Intelligence Service to have been executed by anti-aircraft gun after attending a security summit in Moscow.

    General Hyon was photographed dozing while Kim was making a speech, but Mr. Cheong at the Sejong Institute says his real offense was to have remarked to North Korean officials with him in Moscow that Kim was "young" and "inefficient in politics."

    That remark, Cheong surmises, confirmed the view that Hyon represented a hard-line military view in conflict with the political leadership that Kim has emphasized through the ruling Workers' Party.

    Public humiliation

    Hyon's execution was the latest in a series that included, most dramatically, the public humiliation and then the killing of his uncle-in-law, Jang Song Thaek, in December 2013. Mr. Jang, married to Kim Jong-il's younger sister, Kim Kyong-hui, was often described as "regent," the country's second most powerful man. His downfall indicated Kim's desire to suppress "factionalism" tearing the system apart.

    Mr. Cha, now a professor at Georgetown, sees the spate of missile tests as serving "a political purpose" even if "foremost" they "advance their weapons technology."

    Choi Jin-wook, president of the Korea Institute of National Unification, agrees. "He is very serious about nukes and their delivery system," says Mr. Choi. "He thinks it is the most important to his survival. [The] purge is for him to show off his power. He wants to say that I am in charge here by purging his close staffs."

    But how does purging dissidents – or mere recalcitrants – relate to nukes and missiles?

    In the "politics of terrorism," says Kim Tae-woo, a former senior defense official, now a professor at Dongkuk University, "every military officer and high-ranking party cadre freezes in fear and tries to show maximum loyalty."

    Kim may appear "more committed than his father to the whole nuclear program," he says, but actually "is far weaker than his father and grandfather."

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: 11 mindblowing facts about North Korea


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    north korea kim jong un

    SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea's foreign minister says North Korea has staged 70 executions since current leader Kim Jong Un took power in late 2011.

    Yun Byung-se also said Thursday at a forum in Seoul that Kim's "reign of terror" is inspiring North Koreans working overseas to defect to the South. He didn't elaborate or reveal how he got the details, and South Korean intelligence officials didn't immediately return calls seeking comment. Information about authoritarian North Korea is often impossible to confirm.

    Kim has removed key members of the old guard through a series of purges since taking over after the death of his father Kim Jong Il.

    Experts say Kim could be using fear to solidify his leadership, but those efforts could fail if he doesn't improve the country's shattered economy.

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    NOW WATCH: This animated map shows how religion spread across the world


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    RTR4YAUT

    North Korea might have just revealed that it has the capability to produce massive quantities of biological weapons.

    On June 6, a North Korean scientist defected to Finland with 15 gigabytes of electronic evidence that he claims documents how the country is testing chemical and biological agents on its own citizens.

    That same day, North Korea's state media released photos of Kim Jong-un touring what it described as a pesticide factory called the Pyongyang Bio-technical Institute — but experts tell VICE News that that same facility is likely intended to produce massive quantities of weaponized anthrax.

    Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, first discovered the significance of the photos. She provided VICE News with an advance copy of her analysis of the images, released today, in which she concludes that, "given North Korea's known history of interest in biological weapons, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Institute is intended to produce military-size batches of anthrax."

    The multi-million dollar facility is ostensibly intended to produce bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a bacteria commonly used for pesticides.

    "If you're a biological weapons expert, and see a facility for bio-pesticide, you immediately ask yourself: what kind?" Hanham said. "Then when you see packages of Bt, you should know that it's a close cousin of anthrax — it's produced the exact same way."

    RTX1FDF3

    The Pyongyang Bio-Institute was constructed between 2010 and 2011 and is run by Korean People's Army Unit 810. Pictures of the equipment published by North Korean press reveal nearly all the necessary components of a biological weapons program: incubators to grow bacteria, ventilation hoods to safely handle biohazards, fermenters and bioreactors used to grow bacteria, and a spray dryer to transform spores into a fine powder.

    "They messed up," Joel S. Wit, a former State Department official and a senior fellow at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, told VICE News. "If you're a technical expert, it's clear looking at this facility that it can be used for biological warfare, particularly anthrax. The science is not in dispute."

    An independent expert on North Korean military capabilities confirmed to VICE News that the photos most likely show an operational biological weapons facility.

    Pesticide production is "an old and well-used cover for a biological weapons program," Hanham explained. Iraq and the USSR both created dual-use facilities that were used to make pesticides and biological weapons.

    Hanham noted that even if the facility is used to produce the pesticide, "in one day it could be converted to an anthrax facility. All you have to do is sterilize the equipment."

    RTX1FDF2

    The facility might have been developed with help from a foreign agricultural aid organization. In 2005, with funding from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and Chinese equipment, the UK non-profit CABI helped North Korea establish a pilot facility at the country's Plant Protection Institute, located nine miles away from the alleged bioweapons facility, where it trained North Korean scientists in the production of Bt pesticide. The institute "was likely a training ground in preparation for the large-scale facility that Kim Jong-un toured," Hanham writes in her report.

    "Teaching how to make Bt is essentially the same as teaching how to make anthrax," she said.

    She stressed that she does not think that CABI knowingly aided the development of North Korea's bioweapons program. CABI did not respond to requests from VICE News for comment.

    "The problem here is you have tech that can be used for civilian and military purposes," Wit explained. "It's clear that more vigilance is necessary in the future."

    Experts told VICE News that the Pyongyang Bio-Institute likely represents the most revealing glimpse into North Korea's bioweapons capabilities that has been made public — but noted that it remains unclear how the facility fits into North Korea's overall program.

    RTX1FDF0

    "It's similar to their nuclear weapons programs," Wit said. "We can't prove they are doing it, but looking at the facilities, we can make a judgment. That's what this is about."

    "Very little is known about the origin of capability of North Korea's biological program," said Hanham.

    Though many experts believe that the country acquired a sample of anthrax and other epidemiological bacteria from Japan in 1968, it's impossible to verify that it has actually developed a stockpile of the toxic agent. A South Korean government white paper published in 2012 suggested that North Korea is capable of producing a variety of biological weapons, "including anthrax, smallpox, pest, francisella tularensis, and hemorrhagic fever virus."

    It's also difficult to assess to what degree North Korea might be in violation of international protocols that regulate the equipment used to make biological weapons, such asthe Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, to which it is a signatory. But the production of anthrax is not technically banned — the US and its allies regularly produce anthrax for research purposes. A violation occurs only if the agent is stockpiled and intended for military use.

    chemical weapons

    A group of 41 countries known as the Australia Group also regulates the export of equipment that can be used to make biological agents.

    "There's a very complicated network of rules and regulations around bio-weapons," Hanham said. "It's very hard for me to say definitely if a violation has occurred. We don't know where all this equipment came from, and when it arrived in North Korea."

    Nevertheless, she insists the size of the facility should be cause for serious alarm.

    "It's not the biggest in the world, but it's still pretty large," she said. "I've never seen images like these published before."

    SEE ALSO: North Korea says it has a great new airport

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: 11 mindblowing facts about North Korea


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    North Korean leader Kim Jong Un provides field guidance to the Kim Jong Thae Electric Locomotive Complex in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on July 20, 2015. REUTERS/KCNA

    SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea is not interested in an Iran-like dialogue with the United States to give up its nuclear capabilities, the isolated country's foreign ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.

    "It is not logical to compare our situation with the Iranian nuclear agreement because we are always subjected to provocative U.S. military hostilities, including massive joint military exercises and a grave nuclear threat," said the statement, which was carried by state media but attributed to a foreign ministry spokesman.

    "We do not have any interest at all on dialogue for unilaterally freezing or giving up our nukes," it said.

    (Reporting by James Pearson and Seung Yun Oh; Editing by Paul Tait)

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    North Korean singers perform at a hotel in Yanji, in northeast China's Jilin province, on June 26, 2015

    Hunchun (China) (AFP) - Like many Chinese hotels, the Kunlun International hotel has rock bottom prices. It also boasts rooms with round beds and dance poles, and an all-female North Korean rock band who belt out "Anthem of the Worker's Party" and other socialist classics every night.

    Young and good-looking, the seven-piece group bear a striking similarity to the Moranbong band, a North Korean musical phenomenon who have been accorded huge success since their members were hand-selected by leader Kim Jong-Un.

    Now, imitators from Pyongyang are performing in Chinese border towns, looking to provide genuine entertainment rather than the novelty value long offered by North Korean restaurants and bands in Asia -- which provide the diplomatically isolated government with much-needed hard currency.

    At the hotel in Hunchun, sandwiched in a sliver of China between Russia and North Korea, the band -- who have no name of their own -- wore lurid red and were bathed in purple spotlights and clouds of dry ice.

    They delivered ear-splitting renditions of traditional Korean folk songs and patriotic tunes, complete with howling electric guitars, heavy drums and thumping basslines.

    The Chinese tribute to the ruling organisation, "Without The Communist Party, There Would Be No New China" was given the same treatment, in front of a video of a waving Chinese flag.

    Three middle-aged Chinese men raised their arms, crying "Bravo!"

    "North Korea is so impoverished and they really need the open up economically like China did," said tourist Zhao Dongxia.

    "But the band was pretty good. It's the first time I've seen North Koreans. They didn't look that poor."

    kim jong un

    Symbol of Kim's reign

    Pyongyang strictly controls which citizens are allowed to leave the country, and Beijing's policy is to repatriate illegal border crossers –- returning them to an uncertain fate.

    The performers spend almost all their time in the hotel, rarely venturing outside, singer Lim Tae-Jeong told AFP, picking up a Chinese edition of Vogue.

    "I can't read Chinese but I love to look at the pictures, the clothes are very different, very modern," she said in halting Chinese.

    "Of course I love the Moranbong band, although we are not anywhere as good as them," she demurred. 

    South Korea’s pop culture has given Seoul a soft power push in recent years, and singer Psy’s 2012 hit Gangnam Style became a worldwide phenomenon.

    The Moranbong band have not had a similar global impact. But inside North Korea, streets reportedly empty during their concerts and students can sing their repertoire at the drop of a hat.

    All women, they are radically different from previous musical offerings, with fast tempos and disco stylings.

    Pekka Korhonen, a political science professor at Finland's University of Jyväskylä who runs a website dedicated to tracking the group, attributes the traits to Kim's years spent studying and living in Europe.

    "The Moranbong band is incredibly popular, but what does popular mean in North Korea?" he said.

    "The band is a symbol of Kim's new reign, and therefore will be popular until he says otherwise."

    north korea

    'Huge crowds'

    North Korea has been sending workers abroad for decades, working in everything from Russian logging camps to Gulf state construction sites and restaurants in Cambodia.

    According to human rights groups, the bulk of their hard currency salary is confiscated by the state, and the programme has expanded since Kim came to power in late 2011 as a way of subverting sanctions.

    A 2012 study by the North Korea Strategy Center and the Korea Policy Research Center estimated that 60,000 to 65,000 North Koreans were working in more than 40 countries, providing the state with $150 million to $230 million a year.

    Many of the border performers have attended music college, although some shows are little more than glorified karaoke. 

    At one such display in a Hunchun restaurant, three singers doubled as the only waitresses, singing duets with diners for a fee and awkwardly accepting proffered 100 yuan notes -- an unusual sight in a country where tipping is extremely rare. 

    The Ryugyong hotel in nearby Yanji shares its name with a gargantuan 105-floor pyramid-shaped Pyongyang hotel that began construction in 1987 but still stands unfinished.

    Women in red and white uniforms performed a synchronised a tap dancing routine evoking a socialist Riverdance.

    All the artists express deep pride for their country, but musical prominence can be perilous in the North.

    The Unhasu Orchestra, previously the pinnacle of North Korean music, was disbanded in 2013, and according to South Korean intelligence Kim had four members executed by firing squad earlier this year for espionage. Pyongyang has not commented on the issue.

    Ryu Seol-Sin has been in China for nearly two years and has started to think about her return home.

    The 28-year-old is a graduate of Kim Won-Gyun Pyongyang University of Music, reportedly the same alma mater as many Moranbong members.

    "I used to want to work very hard and try to rise to play for huge crowds," she said. "But now I think I want to teach music, I think it's a more stable and safer way to serve my country."

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    russia construction

    Tens of thousands of North Korean laborers are currently working in Russia’s construction industry in what human rights groups claim as a form of "slave labor," BBC reported late Tuesday. Most of the labor is currently working in the eastern part of the country. 

    Supplying labor overseas is one of the few sources of income for the reclusive North Korean economy, which is facing threats of mass starvation, BBC reported.

    North Korean President Kim Jong Un has reportedly increased the number of laborers the country sends abroad amid economic sanctions from several international powers, and fears of food shortage. The Asian country is currently facing the worst drought in a century, North Korean state media reported last month.

    "The worst drought in 100 years continues in the DPRK, causing great damage to its agricultural field," Korean Central News Agency reported in June. "Water level of reservoirs stands at the lowest, while rivers and streams getting dry. Other crops are planted in paddy fields of drought-stricken areas as part of the campaign to reduce damage.”

    The North Korean president doubled the size of the foreign labor program, which brings about $2 billion in revenue annually to Pyongyang and is used for funding several projects in the country, including nuclear projects, ABC News reported on Monday. The report added that of about 90,000 North Korean workers across 40 countries, Russia accounts for about 25,000 workers.

    However, according to another report, nearly 65,000 North Koreans were working in over 40 countries, bringing $150 million to $230 million in revenue to Pyongyang annually. The New York Times published the report in February, citing a study by the North Korea Strategy Center, a group in Seoul that works with North Korean defectors, and the private Korea Policy Research Center.

    north korea“North Korea is exploiting their labor and salaries to fatten the private coffers of Kim Jong Un,” Ahn Myeong-chul, head of NK Watch, a human rights group in Seoul, told the Times, adding: “We suspect that Kim is using some of the money to buy luxury goods for his elite followers and finance the recent building boom in Pyongyang that he has launched to show off his leadership.”

    NK Watch, which has collated the testimony of 13 former North Korean workers living in South Korea, has since asked the United Nations to investigate the so-called “state-sponsored slavery.” Another report by Seoul's Asan Institute for Policy Studies, cited by the Times, stated that the revenue from such work was not sent back to North Korea as remittance but reached the state as bulk cash.

    In a report last year, the U.S. State Department also condemned the North Korean government for its unfair attitude toward laborers and urged it to “end the use of forced labor in prison camps and among North Korean workers abroad.”

    Kim Jong Un “The North Korean government sends laborers to work abroad under bilateral contracts with foreign governments, including a significant number of laborers sent to Russia and China,” the State Department said, adding: “These workers face threats of government reprisals against them or their relatives in North Korea if they attempt to escape or complain to outside parties. Workers’ salaries are deposited into accounts controlled by the North Korean government, which keeps most of the money, claiming various 'voluntary' contributions to government endeavors.”

    SEE ALSO: North Korea may be preparing to launch a new, long-range rocket

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    NOW WATCH: 11 mindblowing facts about North Korea


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    North korea missile military army

    WASHINGTON (AP) — Construction to upgrade North Korea's main rocket launch site now appears complete amid expectations in rival South Korea that a launch could take place in October, a US research institute said Tuesday.

    South Korean officials are predicting the North will mark the upcoming 70th anniversary of the ruling communist party with a "strategic provocation"— possibly a blastoff from the west coast site of Sohae from where Pyongyang launched its first rocket into space in December 2012, drawing international condemnation.

    The US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies says commercial satellite imagery taken July 21 shows Pyongyang has made quick work since spring of constructing a support building on the launch pad where rockets would be prepared.

    It has also apparently completed a moveable structure on rails, several stories high, that would be used to shift rockets or rocket stages to the launch tower.

    But the institute says there's no evidence that launch preparations are yet underway.

    "Despite the fact that the facility is ready after completing a construction program begun in 2013, we still see no sign of preparations at the Sohae facility for an October event," said Joel Wit, a former State Department official and editor of the institute's website, 38 North.

    The North's unpredictable leader, Kim Jong Un, has closely associated himself with the impoverished nation's space program, which it says is peaceful. In early May, state media quoted Kim as saying the North would launch satellites into space at the time and locations chosen by the ruling party.

    DO NOT ALTER north korea nuclear satelliteNorth Korea is barred under UN Security Council resolutions from launching rockets as that technology can also be used to launch ballistic missiles.

    South Korea's Yonhap news agency last week cited unnamed government sources as saying that North Korea has almost completed modifications at Sohae, including an extended launch tower, and that it would be used to fire a long-range missile bigger than the rocket launched three years ago. This would mark the Oct. 10 anniversary of the Workers' Party of Korea.

    DO NOT ALTER  north korea nuclear

    "I'm sure we'll have a grand celebration," North Korean Ambassador to the United Nations, Jang Il Hun, told reporters Tuesday in response to a question about a possible missile test for the anniversary. He added, "We are free to do whatever we want."

    Jang spoke at his country's mission to the UN.

    Satellite imagery expert Tim Brown also notes in the institute's analysis that North Korea has recently completed a 240-meter long shelter to conceal a rail line that would be used to transport equipment to the launch pad. He said it would prevent observation by satellite of missile-related rail cars and shipping containers.

    DO NOT ALTER north korea missile nuclear rail

    DO NOT ALTER nuclear north korea railMuch of the concern over North Korea's development of ballistic missile capabilities is that they could be used to deliver nuclear weapons.

    The North Korean ambassador to China, Ji Jae Ryong, said in Beijing Tuesday that his country has no interest in the kind of nuclear deal that Iran reached this month with the U.S. and other world powers because North Korea is a "nuclear weapons state."

    SEE ALSO: Report: Russia's construction industry is using tens of thousands of North Korean "slave laborers"

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    NOW WATCH: 11 mindblowing facts about North Korea


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    FILE - In this Sept. 1, 2014, photo, a clock hangs on the wall as North Koreans leave an underground train station in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea said Friday, Aug. 7, 2015, that it will establish its own time zone next week by pulling back its current standard time by 30 minutes. Local time in North and South Korea and Japan is the same — nine hours ahead of GMT. It was set during Japan's rule over what was single Korea from 1910 to 1945. The establishment of

    SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea said Friday it will establish its own time zone next week by pulling back its current standard time by 30 minutes.

    Local time in North and South Korea and Japan is the same — nine hours ahead of GMT. It was set during Japan's rule over what was single Korea from 1910 to 1945.

    The establishment of "Pyongyang time" is meant to root out the legacy of the Japanese colonial period, the North's official Korean Central News Agency said. It said the new time zone will take effect Aug. 15 — the 70th anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japanese rule at the end of World War II.

    "The wicked Japanese imperialists committed such unpardonable crimes as depriving Korea of even its standard time while mercilessly trampling down its land with 5,000-year-long history and culture and pursuing the unheard-of policy of obliterating the Korean nation," the KCNA dispatch said.

    The North's move appears to be aimed at bolstering the leadership of young leader Kim Jong Un with anti-Japan, nationalistic sentiments, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. Kim took power upon the death of his dictator father, Kim Jong Il, in late 2011.

    Many Koreans, especially the elderly, on both sides of the border still harbor deep resentment against Japan over its colonial occupation. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans were forced to fight as front-line soldiers, work in slave-labor conditions or serve as prostitutes in brothels operated by the Japanese military during the war.

    South Korea says it uses the same time zone as Japan because it's more practical and conforms to international practice.

    A group of people bow at the base of the giant bronze statue of the state founder and 'Great Leader' Kim-Il Sung in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang February 26, 2008. REUTERS/David Gray

    Seoul's Unification Ministry said Friday that the North's action could bring minor disruption at a jointly-run industrial park at the North Korean border city of Kaesong and other inter-Korean affairs. Spokesman Jeong Joon-Hee said the North's new time zone could also hamper efforts to narrow widening differences between the Koreas.

    The two Koreas were divided into the capitalist, U.S.-backed South and the socialist, Soviet-supported North after their 1945 liberation. They remain split along the world's most heavily fortified border since their 1950-1953 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

    Most time zones in the world differ in increments of an hour and only a small number of countries like Iran and Myanmar use zones that are offset by a half-hour.

    The time zone that North Korea plans to use is what a single Korea adopted in 1908, though the peninsula came under the same Japanese zone in 1912, two years after Tokyo's colonial occupation began. After the liberation, North Korea has maintained the current time zone, while South Korea had briefly used the old zone from 1954 to 1961.

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    Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.

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    Choe Yong Gon

    SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea's vice premier was executed by firing squad this year after showing discontent with the policies of the country's leader Kim Jong Un, a South Korean media report said on Wednesday.

    Yonhap News Agency cited an unnamed source as saying that the 63-year-old Choe Yong Gon, a former delegate for North-South cooperation, was executed, marking another death of a senior official in a series of high-level purges since Kim Jong Un took charge in late 2011.

    The Yonhap report said Choe had expressed disagreement with Kim's forestry policies in May and had shown poor work performance. It provided no further details.

    South Korea's Unification Ministry, which handles the country's ties with North Korea, said in a text message received by Reuters that Choe had not been spotted in public for about eight months, and that it was closely monitoring the situation.

    South Korea's National Intelligence Service declined to comment on the report to Reuters.

    The South Korean spy agency told lawmakers in May that North Korea had executed its defense chief by putting him in front of an anti-aircraft gun at a firing range.

    Choe was appointed vice-premier last year, North Korea's state-run KCNA news agency reported previously.

    Yonhap said the source also said the reclusive state had publicly executed a senior Workers' Party official in September.

    Choe had worked on inter-Korean affairs in 2000s, leading the North's delegation in joint economic cooperation committees with South Korea between 2003 and 2005.

    He attended the 2004 opening ceremony of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a factory park jointly run with Seoul that is the last remaining joint project of the two countries. 

    (Reporting by Ju-min Park; Editing by Tony Munroe and Jeremy Laurence)

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    North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gives field guidance to the construction of the Mirae Scientists Street at his plane, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on February 15, 2015.  REUTERS/KCNA/Files

    SEOUL (Reuters) - His father was afraid to fly, but North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has taken to the skies, building a series of small runways long enough to land light, private aircraft next to some of his palaces, satellite imagery shows.

    Construction on Kim's personal landing strips began in 2014 and some were completed as recently as last month, according to satellite imagery identified by Curtis Melvin of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.

    "These runways are located near Kim family compounds - sometimes within the security perimeters - and next to private train stations that were used by Kim Jong Il," Melvin told Reuters.

    The young leader's father, Kim Jong Il, was famously afraid of flying and traveled everywhere by armored train - including on official state visits to China and Russia.

    But Kim Jong Un has paid much attention to aviation during his three-year rule over the isolated and impoverished country.

    State television has shown him piloting planes - including a small Cessna-like single-engined plane manufactured in North Korea - and sitting in the cockpit of a fighter jet.

    Photos shown at a state concert in April last year showed Kim as a young boy, dressed in a child-sized North Korean air force uniform and saluting. He has hosted two "flying contests" for North Korean pilots since he came to power in late 2011.

    In addition to various titles, Kim also officially holds the rank of Marshal in the North Korean military.

    kim jong un

    Air Force Un

    One of the five new runways, beside a private palace in the eastern port city of Wonsan, was built over a helipad where Kim greeted basketball player Dennis Rodman and his delegation in September 2013.

    The 500-metre-long airstrip is a few hundred meters (yards) from the Songdowon Children's Camp, and a sandy tourist beach open to foreigners.

    The palace area is also home to Kim Jong Un's private yachts, jet skis, and villas he uses to entertain friends and guests.

    Another landing strip identified by Melvin lies a short drive from another sprawling palace complex where Japanese sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto said in his memoirs he spent summers with the late Kim Jong Il.

    In February, state media released photos of Kim Jong Un inspecting Pyongyang construction work from the windows of his private jet - a converted Soviet-era Ilyushin IL-62 named "Chammae-1" after a native species of hawk. The inside is plush, with leather chairs, crystal ashtrays and large wooden tables.

    After inspecting a factory making light aircraft in April, Kim Jong Un "personally conducted" a take-off and landing test.

    "I have to try the airplane as it was produced by our working class," Kim Jong Un said, according to state media.

    (Editing by Tony Munroe and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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    South Korea North Korea

    North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered his frontline troops onto a war-footing today, as military tensions with South Korea soared following a rare exchange of artillery shells across their heavily fortified border.

    The North’s official KCNA news agency said the move came during an emergency meeting late Thursday of the powerful Central Military Commission of which Kim is the chairman.

    During the meeting, Kim ordered frontline, combined units of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) to “enter a wartime state” from 5pm today.

    The troops should be “fully battle ready to launch surprise operations” while the entire frontline should be placed in a “semi-war state,” KCNA quoted him as saying.

    The CMC meeting came hours after the two Koreas traded artillery fire on Thursday, leaving no apparent casualties but pushing already elevated cross-border tensions to dangerously high levels.

    The KPA followed up with an ultimatum sent via military hotline that gave the South 48 hours to dismantle loudspeakers blasting propaganda messages across the border or face further military action.

    The ultimatum expires on Saturday at 5pm.

    The South’s defence ministry dismissed the threat and said the broadcasts would continue.

    The CMC backed the army’s ultimatum and also ratified plans for “a retaliatory strike and counterattack on the whole length of the front”, KCNA said.

    There was no immediate response from South Korea, but the Unification Ministry announced it was restricting access to the North-South’s joint industrial zone at Kaesong.

    Only South Koreans with direct business interests in Kaesong - which lies 10km over the border inside North Korea - would be allowed to travel there, a ministry spokesman said.

    The Kaesong industrial estate hosts about 120 South Korean firms employing some 53,000 North Korean workers and is a vital source of hard currency for the cash-strapped North.

    Restricting access will likely be seen as a thinly veiled threat by Seoul to shut the complex down completely if the situation at the border escalates further.

    Thursday’s artillery exchange in a western quarter of the border came amid heightened tensions following mine blasts that maimed two members of a South Korean border patrol earlier this month and the launch this week of a major South Korea-US military exercise that infuriated Pyongyang.

    Seoul said the mines were placed by North Korea and responded by resuming high-decibel propaganda broadcasts across the border, using loudspeakers that had lain silent for more than a decade.

    The South Korean military said the North side fired first on Thursday and that it retaliated with dozens of 155mm howitzer rounds.

    Direct exchanges of fire across the inter-Korean land border are extremely rare - mainly, analysts say, because both sides recognise the risk for a sudden and potentially disastrous escalation between two countries that technically remain at war.

    South Korean troops were placed on maximum alert, while President Park Geun-Hye chaired an emergency meeting of her National Security Council and ordered a “stern response” to any further provocations.

    The CMC meeting in Pyongyang insisted that the situation would only de-escalate if South Korea turned off the propaganda loudspeakers.

    According to the KCNA report, military commanders were despatched to the frontline to prepare “to destroy the means for psychological warfare... and put down possible counter-actions.”

    The United States and United Nations both said they were following the situation on the Korean peninsula with deep concern.

    The US State Department urged Pyongyang to avoid provoking any further escalation and said it remained “steadfast” in its commitment to defending ally South Korea.

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    korea dmz

    SEOUL (Reuters) — North and South Korea reached an agreement early Tuesday after more than two days of talks to end a standoff involving an exchange of artillery fire that had pushed the divided peninsula into a state of heightened military tension.

    Under the accord reached after midnight Tuesday morning, North Korea expressed regret over the recent wounding of South Korean soldiers in a landmine incident and Seoul agreed to halt anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts, both sides said.

    North Korea also agreed to end the "quasi-state of war" it had declared. The two sides will hold follow-up talks to discuss a range of issues on improving ties, the joint statement said.

    "It is very meaningful that from this meeting North Korea apologized for the landmine provocation and promised to work to prevent the recurrence of such events and ease tensions," Kim Kwan-jin, national security adviser to the South Korean president, told a televised news briefing.

    Pyongyang has previously denied laying the landmines, and in the statement did not explicitly take responsibility for them.

    korea mapThe marathon talks at the Panmunjom truce village inside the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas began Saturday, shortly after Pyongyang's deadline for the South to halt its propaganda broadcasts or face military action.

    Seoul and Pyongyang have remained technically in a state of war since the 1950-53 Korean war ended in a truce, rather than a peace treaty.

    The recent escalation in tensions began early this month, when landmine explosions in the DMZ wounded two South Korean soldiers.

    Days later, the South began blasting anti-Pyongyang propaganda from loudspeakers along the border.

    The standoff reached a crisis point Thursday when the North fired four shells into the South, according to Seoul, which responded with a barrage of artillery fire. Neither side reported casualties.

    Pyongyang then made its ultimatum that Seoul halt the broadcasts by Saturday afternoon or face military action, but on that day the two sides agreed to hold talks between top level aides to the leaders of the two countries.

    (Written by Tony Munroe. Edited by Jack Kim and Gareth Jones)

    SEE ALSO: I visited North Korea and snuck out these eye-opening photos

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    crystal methWe already know that North Korea has nuclear weapons, an insecure and possibly unstable leader, and a habit of lashing out with borderline-insane threats whenever it feels threatened. Now it has a crystal meth crisis. This can’t end well.

    The recent admission of a British citizen that he had participated in a plan to move 100 kilograms of high-purity crystal methamphetamine from the hermit kingdom of North Korea to the U.S. raises all sorts of questions. But for most people, the first one that pops up is, “Wait, North Korea has a crystal meth problem?”

    It turns out it does, and it’s pretty serious. According to reporting done by a number of international news organizations, the movement of crystal meth over the country’s northern border and into China reached epidemic levels earlier this year, causing a brutal crackdown by the government on one of the very few elements of the nation’s economy that the government doesn’t control.

    The official response was not widely advertised, no doubt because the official line out of leader Kim Jong Un’s government is that there is absolutely no drug use in North Korea.

    Reports in South Korean media, however, relying largely on the stories of defectors, tell a very different story. In a country where food is often scarce, crystal meth has in recent years become so abundant that a serious addiction problem has taken hold.

    The crackdown is a recent phenomenon, but the production of crystal meth in North Korea has been known, if not widely discussed, for years. Last year, Vice News highlighted the country’s struggle with the problem, which apparently emerged from the government’s attempt to find new ways of raising funds in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    Kim Jong Un The Vice report relied heavily on a study by Dr. Sheena Chestnut Greitens, a Senior Fellow at the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution and an Academy Scholar at Harvard University’s Academy for International and Area Studies. The report, Illicit: North Korea’s Evolving Operations to Earn Hard Currency, was sponsored by the Washington-based Committee on Human Rights for North Korea.

    Among other things, Greitens presents evidence suggesting that the production of crystal meth, as well as heroin, was originally directed by the North Korean government and conducted in government-run facilities.

    Over the space of decades, North Korea became notorious in the diplomatic community for sending abroad “diplomats” who would use their privileged legal status to smuggle contraband across borders. In later years, according to Greitens, the drugs began moving through connections with organized crime syndicates from outside the country.

    However, the problem with state-directed industrial-sized manufacture of illegal drugs is that it requires a substantial number of people trained by the state to make the drugs to bring that knowledge home with them and begin cooking meth in their own basements.

    That is evidently what happened in North Korea, leading not just to addiction among the vast number of the country’s poor, but the adoption of crystal meth as a weight-loss aid by the country’s tiny minority of wealthy individuals.

    It’s unclear how effective the crackdown will be, though the government’s near-complete control over the population creates the ironic possibility that a country so beset by problems that most advanced nations have largely conquered – like famine – might be able to conquer one that has bedeviled its more advanced neighbors: drug addiction.

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    Kim Jong Un

    Three people were shot to death in North Korea last month when they were caught watching South Korean television dramas on their mobile phones, according to a report in the Daily North Korea, a Seoul-based publication run by North Korean defectors.

    They were killed to send a message to others about what happens when people "get caught up in corrupt and depraved ideologies and go against the party to watch such video content," a source claimed, citing a party official.

    It was a private execution, but the news spread around the prison state.

    Single-source reports about North Korean executions cannot be verified for obvious reasons, but regardless of whether the triple execution happened as described, the report of it sent the desired message: No outside media would be tolerated.

    The news of the execution caused widespread anxiety, according to Daily North Korea — probably because many North Koreans have picked up a foreign broadcast on illegal free-tuning televisions and radios, or slipped a pirate movie into a cheap Chinese DVD player.

    Nearly half of defectors and refugees of North Korea interviewed in 2010 and cited in a 2012 report by Intermedia, a research group for global development, said they had watched illegal foreign DVDs while still in the country. Around 25 percent had picked up foreign television and radio broadcasts.

    North Korea is the second most-censored nation in the world, as rated by the NGO Committee to Protect Journalists. But beneath the tarpaulins of semi-legal market stalls, all over the country people can buy a free-tuning radio for a few dollars or a DVD player for $13. MP3 players are popular among the young who swap South Korean K-pop tunes with their friends at school, according to the report.

    The three executed people were victims of a crackdown by the authorities in an attempt to warn people of accessing outside media. But despite periodic arrests, overall less people are being punished for these offenses and enforcement is irregular.

    "We can pretty confidently say that people are not informing on each other the way we have heard they did in Kim Il-sung's day," Intermedia researcher Nathaniel Kretchun told Vice News.

    north korea

    "Due to the inconsistent, and at times arbitrary nature of who is arrested when, it would be hard to do the math on how many folks are getting arrested compared to how many are paying their way out of trouble," he added.

    Foreign radio "occupies a unique space in North Korea's media environment," says Intermedia's report, because it is the only real-time source of information about the outside world and because it is the only form of media produced specifically for a North Korean audience.

    There are currently three stations penetrating the mists of censorship that hang over the clandestine kingdom: the American-backed Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, and a conglomeration of South Korean media agencies known as the Unification Media Group.

    The Kim Jong-un regime has taken a dim view of their efforts, recently slamming UMG as an "anti-Republic clown show of provocation," according to a report in the Daily North Korea.

    As well as news and music, RFA offers defector-based programs, like "interviews with former North Korean residents who are living in the South talking about their lives and journey to freedom," service director Max Kwak told Vice News. "The content focuses on issues such as human rights, democracy, and freedom."

    North Korean radios can only pick up local broadcasts, but simple alterations allow the devices to receive foreign stations. Just over a quarter of the people surveyed by Intermedia in 2010 had listened to foreign radio broadcasts, a finding the organization says has remained relatively consistent over the years.

    Market traders are among the most avid listeners of foreign radio.

    "News from the outside sends key [business] information," Sehyek Oh, a North Korean refugee living in Seoul, told Vice News. "Such as foreign-currency exchange rates, commodity prices … and foreign-aid arrivals, which can influence food prices."

    Members of the elite are the other group most likely to tune in to foreign radio because world news may affect their jobs and businesses.

    North Korea

    Consuming foreign media has an effect on how North Koreans view the outside world, according to Intermedia. Those who are exposed to it tend to have a more favorable attitude to South Korea and the United States.

    Moreover, "broader and deeper exposure [...] appears to be counteracting some of the core messages of the North Korea propaganda apparatus and may be providing some basis for the development of counter-narratives in the minds of North Koreans," says the report.

    The BBC World Service radio station might soon join RFA and the others if proposals released by the corporation go ahead. A 10-year plan announced earlier this month includes a proposal to broadcast a daily news program to North Korea on shortwave radio.

    The announcement by the BBC, which came earlier this month, was welcomed by British Parliament member Fiona Bruce, cochair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea.

    "This is a hugely positive development," Bruce said in a statement.

    But whether or not the plan becomes a reality depends on the BBC getting permission from the UK government. Analysts say that is highly unlikely, as it could seriously jeopardize relations with the so-called rogue state, with which the UK operates a "critical engagement" diplomatic policy.

    The Foreign Office has the proposal under consideration.

    The Kim regime has not yet responded to the BBC's announcement, but its reception is unlikely to be much friendlier than the hail of bullets they fired at balloons floating across the border from South Korea last year. To be fair, anti-Pyongyang leaflets were attached to the balloons.

    "Of course, North Korea doesn't welcome anyone sending information into the country," Casey Lartigue, a director at Seoul-based think tank Freedom Factory, told Vice News. "That would be like Dracula allowing you to build windows in his home."

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    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The US government believes North Korea has the capability to launch a nuclear weapon against the US homeland and stands ready to defend against any such attacks, a high-level US military official said on Wednesday.

    Admiral Bill Gortney, commander of US Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, said he agreed with US intelligence assessments that North Korea had nuclear weapons, as well as the ability to miniaturize them and put them on a rocket that could reach the United States.

    "We assess that they have the capability to reach the homeland with a nuclear weapon from a rocket," Gortney told an event hosted by the Atlantic Council think tank.

    Gortney said it was very difficult to predict the behavior of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un but the US military was prepared to respond if he were to use a nuclear weapon.

    "We’re ready for him, and we’re ready 24 hours a day if he should be dumb enough to shoot something at us," Gortney said.

    "I'm pretty confident that we're going to knock down the numbers that are going to be shot."

    North Korea's space agency said last month Pyongyang was building a new satellite and readying it for launch, with any use of a long-range rocket suggesting that the secretive state has made advances developing a ballistic missile.

    North Korea says its rocket launches are part of a legitimate space program aimed at putting satellites into orbit. It has in the past conducted missile tests in defiance of international warnings and sanctions.

    The US Missile Defense Agency said in March North Korea could achieve the ability to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile this year.

    On Wednesday, Gortney said the US military was investing to modernize its current missile defense system, add new sensors and radars to better identify potential missile launches, and drive down the cost of defending against such attacks.

    He warned that the failure of the US Congress to pass a budget for fiscal year 2016, or a resumption of mandatory budget cuts, could jeopardize the funding needed for such efforts. 

    (Editing by Paul Tait)

    SEE ALSO: North Korea executed 3 people for watching South Korean soap operas

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    Hyeonseo Lee who came to South Korea in 2008, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Seoul, in this May 29, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Files

    UBUD, Indonesia (Reuters) - The girl with seven names is finding it hard these days to contact relatives in Stalinist North Korea on the underground mobile phone link defectors have used for years.

    Hyeonseo Lee is also increasingly worried about her personal security since the July publication of the best-selling memoir about her escape from North Korea, "The Girl with Seven Names".

    Defectors living in South Korea contact relatives in the North through Chinese mobile phones that are smuggled across the border. They communicate through transmission towers on the Chinese side of the border.

    It's all arranged through brokers on the Chinese side, who also help smuggle money from the defectors to their relatives.

    North Korea, however, has been cracking down on this lifeline, using phone signal detectors and interference devices, Lee said in an interview on the sidelines of the Ubud Writers and Readers festival. The signals can reveal the location of the speaker if the conversation lasts much longer than a minute.

    Lee arranged for many of her family members to join her in exile after her own escape in 1998, but she still talks to an aunt there.

    "Right now the signal is not so good. I can't hear their voice clearly ... And my aunt says after a minute, oh my god, we have to turn off the phone now we're being monitored."

    South Korea North KoreaThe aunt was sent to a labor camp for a few months last year, accused of trying to escape. "She was reported by her best friend. That's how this regime works," Lee said.

    Sending money across the border - or private communications of any kind with the North - is also illegal in South Korea.

    The money from defectors goes into North Korea's increasingly established rural markets, which sprouted up during the famine years when the state food distribution system broke down. The markets are thriving hot spots of commerce, where people can buy or barter for things, including smuggled Hollywood and South Korean movies.

    Despite the occasional crackdown, the government has been unable to shut down the markets and now basically tolerates them, Lee said, despite the fact they have become the thin edge of the wedge for Western influences.

    North Koreans have been brainwashed since the country was founded at the end of World War Two into thinking they truly live in a "workers' paradise", she said.

    "But the famine came, and then movies from Hollywood and South Korea became available in the black market. From the videos, we realized that South Korea was a heaven. The secret is out and is being shared widely.

    "Now the brainwashing is much less (effective), and the loyalty is less. For Kim Jong Un it is much more difficult to rule than his father."

    north koreaThe regime tolerates the markets because they do provide material goods for people who can see from the movies how their neighbors live, she said.

    "North Korea is changing, yes. There's more cellphones, more fashion, the markets. But many things have not changed: the public executions, the labor camps, people are still starving. The people who don't know how to make money in the markets, they are the ones starving."

    Lee grew up in Hyesan, next to the Chinese border. She had a close family with an array of colorful relatives including "Uncle Opium" who smuggled North Korean heroin into China.

    Family life took place beneath the obligatory portraits of North Korea's revered founder Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il, father of the current ruler Kim Jong Un, which hung in every home.

    Her father's job in the military meant they were relatively well off. Her world turned upside down when her father was arrested by the secret police. He was later released into a hospital. He had been badly beaten and died soon afterwards. The circumstances remain unclear. Her book chronicles her escape to China at 17 and the hardships that followed.

    The book, and her criticisms of the North, have made Lee a target, she said. South Korean intelligence told her in August that North Korea had sent a letter to its embassies abroad about her and warned Lee she could face an abduction attempt.

    She lives in Seoul with her American husband.

    SEE ALSO: What it's like to use a computer in North Korea

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    kim jong un north korea wife

    In the latest bizarre news to come out of North Korea, citizens are reportedly being ordered to replicate leader Kim Jong Un's "ambitious" hairstyle. 

    According to the Chosun Ilbo, sources in Pyongyang say men are being ordered by authorities to ensure their hair grows no longer than 2cm in length while replicating the supreme leader's bizarre bouffant hair, which he debuted in February of this year, much to the shock and amusement of media around the world

    The reports have not been confirmed.

    However, even though the legitimacy of the claims isn't certain, it's not beyond the realm of possibility considering that the isolated state released images of 28 "state-sanctioned" haircuts in 2013.

    Kim's hairstyle is clean-shaven on the back and sides, leaving a strip of hair perched atop of the leader's head. 

    North Korea is apparently so serious about the enforced homage that university student monitors are "cutting off the hair of offenders," the Chosun Ilbo reports. 

    kim jong un

    It's not just the men whose hair is being dictated, either. Women are allegedly being told to style their hair in a bob in homage to Kim's wife, Ri Sol Ju.

    Barbershops in Pyongyang are reportedly experiencing rushes of customers as citizens rush to comply with the new guidelines. 

    Kim's iconic hairdo is thought to be a tribute to his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who sported a similar look and is considered the founding father of North Korea.

    Kim Il Sung ruled from 1948-1972, a period that saw his country fight a brutal war with South Korea.

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    North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks at the KPA's (Korean People's Army) 7th military education convention, which was held on November 3 and 4, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang November 5, 2015. REUTERS/KCNA

    SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea appeared to conduct a submarine-launched ballistic missile test on Saturday but it ended in failure with no indication that the missile successfully ejected from the vessel and took off, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported.

    The test, if confirmed, follows a test-launch in May of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), which Pyongyang boasted as a success but has not been independently verified.

    "There is no identification of a missile taking flight and only fragments of a safety cover was observed so it's highly likely that the launch was a misfire," a South Korean government source was quoted as saying by Yonhap.

    South Korea's Defence Ministry declined to confirm the report citing its policy of not commenting on intelligence matters.

    The North's May test launch of an SLBM fueled alarm in South Korea and the United States about the possibility of advances in the military capabilities of a state that is pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

    But a high-ranking U.S. military official and private rocket experts questioned the authenticity of photographs released by the North of the May launch saying they were likely modified.

    The missile was likely launched from a specially designed submerged barge and not from a submarine and that the North is years away from developing such technology, some experts have said.

    But South Korea said it believed the rocket was fired from a submarine and flew about 150 meters out of the water.

    North Korea has defied U.N. sanctions for its missile and nuclear tests and is believed to be developing a nuclear device small enough to be mounted on a ballistic missile but it is believed to be some years away from perfecting the technology.

    North Korea is technically still at war with the South after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. About 28,500 U.S. troops are based in South Korea in combined defense with the South against the North.

    (Reporting by Jack Kim and Ju-min Park; Editing by Dominic Evans)

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