Story Summary

North Korea

Since King Jong Un was named supremem leader of North Korea after his father’s death on Dec. 28, 2011, Jong Un has stepped up his rhetoric surrounding longstanding animosities with South Korea and the United States.

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(CNN) — Merrill Newman — the 85-year-old American from Palo Alto, Calif., detained by North Korean authorities more than a month ago — has been “deported,” North Korea’s state news agency KCNA reported early Saturday.

Newman held in N KoreaA senior Obama administration official said soon after the North Korean announcement that U.S. authorities have Newman “in hand in Beijing.”

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf subsequently tweeted that U.S. Embassy officials met “Newman at the airport in Beijing and provided all appropriate consular assistance.”

As of about 6:55 p.m. (9:55 p.m. ET), Newman still hadn’t talked with his relatives in the United States, according to the family.

KCNA report stated that investigators determined that “Newman entered the DPRK with a wrong understanding of it and perpetrated a hostile act against it.”

“Taking into consideration his admittance of the act committed by him on the basis of his wrong understanding (and the) apology made by him for it, his sincere repentance of it and his advanced age and health condition, the above-said institution deported him from the country from a humanitarian viewpoint,” the official North Korean report added.

On Thursday, Harf said American officials had spoken the previous day with relatives of Newman and Kenneth Bae, another American (from Lynnwood, Wash.) being held in North Korea, but added little else.

Hours later, Harf issued a statement saying Washington was “pleased that Mr. Merrill Newman has been allowed to depart the DPRK and rejoin his family.”

“We welcome the DPRK’s decision to release him. This positive decision by the DPRK throws into sharper relief the continuing detention of … Bae,” she added. “… We call on the DPRK once again to pardon and grant Mr. Bae special amnesty and immediately release him as a humanitarian gesture so that he too can return home to his family.”

Coincidence or not, the news of Newman’s release came on the day that Vice President Joe Biden was in South Korea, where he was to lay a wreath at a memorial for veterans of the war that pitted North Korea against its southern neighbor as well as the United States.

Biden told reporters in South Korea that he “played no direct role” in the release. He added that his office offered to let Newman fly home with him on Air Force Two, but State Department officials said he’d take a direct commercial flight to San Francisco.

“It’s a positive thing they’ve done,” said the vice president, who talked Saturday morning by phone with Newman, according to another Obama administration official. “But they still have Mr. Bae, who has no reason being held in the North (and) should be released immediately.”

According to his family, Newman went on a 10-day organized private tour of North Korea in October. From phone calls and postcards he sent, the trip was going well and there was no indication of any kind of problem, son Jeff Newman said.

The day before he was to leave, “one or two Korean authorities” met with Newman and his tour guide, the son added. They talked about Newman’s service record, which left “my dad … a bit bothered,” according to Jeff Newman.

Then, just minutes before his Beijing-bound plane was set to depart Pyongyang in late October, he was taken off the aircraft by North Korean authorities.

For weeks, the Pyongyang government didn’t explain why they were holding Newman.

An explanation came a few days ago, when state media published and broadcast what they described as the Korean War veteran’s “apology.” In fact, that word — “apology” — was written atop the first of four handwritten pages detailing his alleged indiscretions.

In the note — which was dated Nov. 9 — Newman talked about his having advised the Kuwol Unit, part of the “intelligence bureau” fighting against Pyongyang during the Korean War. He detailed how he commanded troops to collect “information” and wage various deadly attacks.

“After I killed so many civilians and (North Korean) soldiers and destroyed strategic objects in the DPRK during the Korean War, I committed indelible offensive acts against the DPRK government and Korean people,” Newman said, according to that KCNA report.

The reported message also touched on his return 60 years later to North Korea, admitting that he “shamelessly … had a plan to meet any surviving soldiers and pray for the souls of the dead soldiers.”

His statement ended: “If I go back to (the) USA, I will tell the true features of the DPRK and the life the Korean people are leading.”

This public apology — which University of California-Berkeley professor Steve Weber characterized as “highly scripted political theater” — left some wondering what would happen to Newman.

Would he join Bae, an American arrested in North Korea in November 2012 who last May was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor after North Korea’s government found him guilty of “hostile acts” and attempts to topple the government? Or would he be released?

SEOUL — It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime for Merrill Newman, a Korean War veteran who had long wanted to go to North Korea.

It ended, according to his family, with the detention of Newman, 85, when he was pulled off a plane at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport five minutes before it was to depart.

Newman, of Palo Alto, California, has not been seen nor heard from since October 26, the day he and a traveling companion wrapped up a 10-day organized tour of North Korea, his son, Jeff Newman, told CNN.


From CNN

The U.S. State Department declined Thursday to confirm Newman’s identity or whether he had been detained, citing privacy issues. North Korea has not publicly acknowledged that it is holding Newman.

Newman’s son believes the detention is the result of “a misunderstanding.”

“My father is a (Korean War) veteran and wanted to see the country and culture he has been interested in for years,” he said. “He arranged this with a travel agent that was recommended and said was approved by the North Korean government for travel of foreigners. He had all the proper visas.”

For more on this CNN story, click here.

This Morning

Images indicate North Korea tests

WASHINGTON — North Korea more than likely tested a long-range rocket engine late last month, according to analysis of new satellite imagery over the site.

In the photos released by 38 North, a blog run by the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, indicators of a probable test are seen through the presence of a probable rocket stage, propellant tanks, as well as the appearance of burned vegetation around the launch stand.

The photos were taken between August 25 and 30.

North Korea raises missile launcher“These are not in and of themselves indicators that there is going to be a rocket test six months from now,” Joel Wit, a former North Korea specialist at the State Department who is now with 38 North, told CNN about the photos.

It is not clear from the photos, Wit said, whether the test was for the second stage of the Unha-3 rocket, which North Korea used in a successful launch test last December, or whether it was a test for a stage of another larger rocket.

The Sohae launch facility, where the latest photos were taken, is the same facility from which North Korea has conducted previous rocket launches, including last December’s test.

For more on this CNN story, click here.

HONG KONG (CNN) – A mother forced to drown her own baby and a prison camp inmate compelled to eat rodents and lizards just to survive — these are some of the horrific experiences documented by a United Nations inquiry into human rights violations in North Korea.

According to the man who headed up the study, examples of “unspeakable atrocities” collected to date suggest widespread abuses on a scale requiring an international response.

“What we have seen and heard so far — the specificity, detail and shocking character of the personal testimony — appears without doubt to demand follow-up action by the world community, and accountability on behalf of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” Michael Kirby, chair of the three-member commission of inquiry, told the U.N.’s Human Rights Council Tuesday.

The remarks were contained in a draft report updating the council on the work of the commission, ahead of a final report to the U.N. General Assembly slated for March.



Pyongyang has refused to cooperate with the investigation and rejects its validity.

Kirby said the interim findings were based on testimony given at public hearings in Seoul and Tokyo last month, from sources including North Korean defectors, former regime officials, survivors of political prison camps, and the families of Japanese and South Koreans abducted by North Korean agents.

For more on this CNN story, click here.

National & World News

Man killed in swim to North Korea

Seoul, South Korea (CNN) – A man who tried to swim across a river to North Korea was killed by a rain of bullets fired at him by South Korean soldiers, a military official said.

The shooting took place Monday afternoon at the heavily fortified border that separates the two Koreas.

The South Korean man managed to get past a barbed wire fence by the bank of the Imjin River, which flows through part of the Demilitarized Zone between the two countries, and then jumped into the water with a Styrofoam float, Brig. Gen. Cho Jong-sul said Tuesday.


Courtesy of

“We kept warning him verbally to come back to land,” Cho said at a news conference. “The river was only about 800 meters wide where he jumped in. It wouldn’t have taken long for him to swim across with the float. It was a very tense situation.”

When the man failed to heed the warnings, the entire unit of about 30 soldiers began firing at him.

“Several hundred shots were fired,” Cho said.

Asked whether this was a reasonable response, he said, “It is a regulation to shoot anyone who does not respond to the command and tries to escape in the controlled area.”

For more on this CNN story, click here.

 By Chuck Schilken, Los Angeles Times

Dennis Rodman is ready to take basketball diplomacy to the next level.

Fresh off his second controversial trip to North Korea, the flamboyant former NBA star announced plans to stage a pair of exhibition games there in January, featuring a team of fellow ex-basketball players.

He even threw out a couple of names on his wish list: Scottie Pippen and Karl Malone. But there’s no word on whether his fellow Hall of Famers will be joining Rodman on his next trip to the repressive state that considers the U.S. a sworn enemy and has sentenced American Kenneth Bae to 15 years of hard labor for alleged hostile acts against North Korea.

More about Bae in a moment, but first more basketball talk.

Rodman said North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has asked him to help train the country’s Olympic team, and that Rodman, in turn, invited his friend for life to attend a New York Knicks game with him.

“And what did he say? ‘That would be amazing,’” Rodman said at a news conference in New York on Monday, sitting in front of a bust of himself.

Rodman said Kim also asked the five-time NBA champion to write a book about him and interview him on television.

While discussing his recent trip, Rodman also apparently leaked the name of Kim’s new baby daughter, Ju Ae, mentioning that he got to hold the child. He referred to Kim as “a good dad.”

Now as far as Bae goes, apparently the topic didn’t come up. “It is not my job to talk about Kenneth Bae,” Rodman told reporters at the Beijing airport on Saturday. “Ask Obama about that, ask Hillary Clinton about that.”

See, what those reporters were forgetting is that though Rodman is certainly a diplomat, he’s a basketball diplomat.

“I’m not a joke,” Rodman said Monday. “Take me seriously.”


Dennis Rodman arrives in Beijing after a five-day trip to North Korea, September 7, 2013 (CNN)

By Los Angeles Times

A North Korean firing squad last week executed a former girlfriend of leader Kim Jong Un and 11 other entertainers for allegedly violating laws banning pornography, a South Korean newspaper reported Thursday.

North Korean leader enjoys soccer gameThe report by Chosun Ilbo, an English-language newspaper of a Seoul media conglomerate, deemed the reported Aug. 20 executions a death blow to expectations that Kim would oversee a transition of his isolated and tyrannized people into a more open era.

Among the dozen performers shot to death while their families and former band members were forced to watch was Hyon Song Wol, a singer Kim reportedly courted a decade ago but was forced to abandon by his dictatorial father, Kim Jong Il.

Hyon was pictured by North Korean state television performing at a concert Aug. 8 in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, less than two weeks before her execution, Chosun Ilbo reported, posting a picture of the singer juxtaposed against one of Kim applauding at the concert.

The 12 members of the Unhasu Orchestra and the Wangjaesan Light Music Band were accused of violating anti-pornography laws by videotaping themselves having sex and selling copies of the tape to North Korean fans and in China.

The South Korean newspaper, which attributed reports of the executions to sources in China, said one also claimed that some of those arrested in the Aug. 17 crackdown were found to have Bibles in their possession. Like most communist countries, North Korea denounces religion as an undesirable foreign influence.

Hyon married a North Korean military officer after Kim’s father forced their breakup, but reportedly continued to see the Pyongyang heir apparent even after her marriage, Chosun Ilbo said.

Kim, 30, is believed to have married Hyon’s fellow band member, Ri Sol Ju, in the last year or so. Ri began showing up with Kim at cultural events in the capital a little more than a year ago, including at a female band concert in July 2012 that featured Western music, mini-skirted violinists and a parade of knock-off Disney characters. The gala raised speculation that Kim would relax longstanding constraints on artistic expression and social behavior imposed by his father and grandfather since North Korea’s emergence as a separate state after World War II.

The performance that dispensed with the usual dour dress and state-mandated repertoire gave rise to “hopes that the young leader is more open to ideas from overseas, but that was apparently  misreading,” Chosun Ilbo concluded.

“Kim Jong Un has been viciously eliminating anyone who he deems a challenge to his authority,” the newspaper said, quoting an unnamed source. The executions “show that he is fixated on consolidating his leadership.”

Kim and his military and political hierarchies provoked new strain in relations with South Korea and the West this year by conducting a prohibited nuclear bomb test and proclaiming as invalid the 1953 armistice that halted fighting in the Korean War. The two sides never signed a peace treaty to formally end the conflict.


N. Korea holds party plenary meeting

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks during a plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang. South Korea’s president told its military to respond powerfully to North Korean provocations, amid heightened tensions on the peninsula. (Photo: KCNA)

By Tom Cohen/Washington (CNN) — Four months ago, North Korea threatened to scrap the 1953 armistice agreement that ended the Korean War and resume hostilities against the United States and South Korea in response to tougher U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang after its latest nuclear test.

This week, the famously reclusive dictatorship welcomed a large Western media contingent, including CNN journalists, to cover the 60th anniversary of the armistice.

Such a shift in public posturing is common for North Korea, which is known for bellicose threats followed by diplomatic overtures intended to wring desperately needed aid and concessions from the outside world.

Fast facts: Korean War

“This is just a recurring pattern. Nothing special,” said Kongdan “Katy” Oh, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who specializes in East Asia.

The outward appearance of possible change in North Korea under young leader Kim Jong Un after decades of secretive dictatorship comes amid strained relations with its powerful neighbor and benefactor, China.

It followed followed Xi Jinping’s ascendancy to power in China, which essentially props up North Korea through its economic ties and aid.

Since Xi became head of the ruling Communist Party last November, Beijing has signaled growing impatience with Pyongyang’s tactics.

In March, less than a week before Xi also became president, China joined the rest of the U.N. Security Council in backing tougher sanctions against North Korea in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear test in February.

Pondering Pyongyang: Beijing’s problem child

The sanctions prompted the war threats by North Korea and test-firing of missiles, raising tension on the Korean peninsula.

Oh explained that China was angry with Kim for a December satellite launch in violation of U.N. resolutions that raised regional tensions during Xi’s transition to power. The February nuclear test further exacerbated China’s anger, she said.

Before Xi headed to the United States for a trip that included a June meeting with President Barack Obama, North Korea sent an envoy to China who got treated “like cold rice,” according to Oh.

Kurt Campbell, who recently served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told CNN before the Xi-Obama meeting that the Chinese “have just about had it with North Korea.

“They recognize that the steps that they have taken — nuclear provocations — are creating the context for more military activities on the part of the United States and other countries that ultimately are not in China’s best strategic interests,” Campbell said then.

However, Oh dismissed any chance that China would use its leverage to try to force reforms in North Korea, saying the history and structure of the military backed dictatorship made it impossible for Kim to undo the legacy of this father and grandfather.

Opinion: What Obama should tell China’s Xi about North Korea

The satellite launch in December and nuclear test in February were Kim’s way of establishing his leadership with the military, on which his power depends, Oh explained. She likened North Korea to an impoverished African dictatorship that happened to have nuclear weapons.

Now, with chronic food shortages exacerbated in the months before the harvest, Kim is putting on what Oh called “an early summer charm offensive” to ensure his regime gets all the aid and economic benefit available from China and others.

That means allowing in the Western media for the armistice commemoration events and reportedly signaling support for resuming long-suspended six-party talks on curtailing North Korea’s nuclear program.

In addition, recent visits from Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and former U.S. basketball star Dennis Rodman have boosted North Korea’s popularity as a travel destination.

Tour operators say a record number of foreigners were coming to this year’s Arirang Festival, a seven-week celebration of gymnastics and music that began Monday at Pyongyang’s May Day Stadium.

To Oh, it amounts to cosmetic changes rather than anything close to real reform.

On Friday, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported that Kim supported China’s call for resuming the six-party talks with the United States, South Korea and others.

According to Xinhua, Kim’s backing for more six-party talks came after he met with Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao, the highest-level Chinese official to visit North Korea since Kim took power in 2011 after the death of his father, longtime dictator Kim Jong Il.

However, a report on Li’s visit by the North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency made no mention of his call for resuming the nuclear talks or Kim’s supporting it.


Courtesy Wikimedia

SEOUL, South Korea – We’re guessing this is going to end up on a lot of “world’s most dangerous ski runs” lists. But probably for a different reason than any of the other entries.

North Korea is building a “world class” ski resort on Masik hill in Wonsan with a range of ski runs and a hotel, according to the North Korean state news agency.

Located in Kangwon Province, Masik hill is 2,520 feet (768 meters) high and typically receives heavy snowfall from early November through early March.

A series of photos of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaking with his staff in front of the ski resort site was released this week.

The accompanying news report from the state-run Korean Central News Agency said the young leader dropped by to get a firsthand report on the progress of construction.

“He was greatly satisfied to learn that soldier-builders have constructed a skiing area on mountain ranges covering hundreds of thousands of square meters, including primary, intermediate and advanced courses with almost 110,000 meters (68.3 miles) in total length and 40-120 meters (131-394 feet) in width,” said the KCNA report.

For more on this CNN story, click here.