Chinese raids hit North Korean defectors’ ‘Underground Railroad’

Photo sheets of the North Korean refugees helped by the North Korea Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea are displayed in Seoul, South Korea, June 11, 2019. REUTERS/Josh Smith

By Josh Smith and Joyce Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) – A decade after leaving her family behind to flee North Korea, the defector was overwhelmed with excitement when she spoke to her 22-year-old son on the phone for the first time in May after he too escaped into China.

While speaking to him again on the phone days later, however, she listened in horror as the safe house where her son and four other North Korean escapees were hiding was raided by Chinese authorities.

“I heard voices, someone saying ‘shut up’ in Chinese,” said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect her son’s safety. “Then the line was cut off, and I heard later he was caught.”

The woman, now living in South Korea, said she heard rumors her son is being held in a Chinese prison near the North Korean border, but has had no official news of his whereabouts.

At least 30 North Korean escapees have been rounded up in a string of raids across China since mid-April, according to family members and activist groups.

It is not clear whether this is part of a larger crackdown by China, but activists say the raids have disrupted parts of the informal network of brokers, charities, and middlemen who have been dubbed the North Korean “Underground Railroad”.

“The crackdown is severe,” said Y. H. Kim, chairman of the North Korea Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea.

Most worrisome for activists is that the arrests largely occurred away from the North Korean border – an area dubbed the “red zone” where most escapees get caught – and included rare raids on at least two safe houses.

“Raiding a house? I’ve only seen two or three times,” said Kim, who left North Korea in 1988 and has acted as a middleman for the past 15 years, connecting donors with brokers who help defectors.

“You get caught on the way, you get caught moving. But getting caught at a home, you can count on one hand.”

The increase in arrests is likely driven by multiple factors, including deteriorating economic conditions in North Korea and China’s concern about the potential for a big influx of refugees, said Kim Seung-eun, a pastor at Seoul’s Caleb Mission Church, which helps defectors escape.

“In the past, up to half a million North Korean defectors came to China,” Kim said, citing the period in the 1990s when famine struck North Korea. “A lot of these arrests have to do with China wanting to prevent this again.” 

DIVIDED FAMILIES

Kim Jeong-cheol already lost his brother trying to escape from North Korea, and now fears his sister will meet a similar fate after she was caught by Chinese authorities.

“My elder brother was caught in 2005, and he went to a political prison and was executed in North Korea,” Kim told Reuters. “That’s why my sister will surely die if she goes back there. What sin is it for a man to leave because he’s hungry and about to die?”

Reuters was unable to verify the fate of Kim’s brother or sister. Calls to the North Korean embassy in Beijing were not answered.

Activist groups and lawyers seeking to help the families say there is no sign China has deported the recently arrested North Koreans yet, and their status is unknown.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, which does not typically acknowledge arrests of individual North Korean escapees, said it had no information about the raids or status of detainees.

“We do not know about the situation to which you are referring,” the ministry said in a statement when asked by Reuters.

North Koreans who enter China illegally because of economic reasons are not refugees, it added.

“They use illegal channels to enter China, breaking Chinese law and damaging order for China’s entry and exit management,” the ministry said. “For North Koreans who illegally enter the country, China handles them under the principled stance of domestic and international law and humanitarianism.”

South Korea’s government said it tries to ensure North Korean defectors can reach their desired destinations safely and swiftly without being forcibly sent back to the North, but declined to provide details, citing defectors’ safety and diplomatic relations.

When another woman – who also asked to be unnamed for her family’s safety – escaped from North Korea eight years ago, she promised her sister and mother she would work to bring them out later.

In January, however, her mother died of cancer, she said.

On her death bed, her mother wrote a message on her palm pleading for her remaining daughter to escape North Korea.

“It will haunt me for the rest of my life that I didn’t keep my promise,” said woman, who now lives in South Korea.

Her 27-year-old sister was in a group of four defectors who made it all the way to Nanning, near the border with Vietnam, before being caught.

“When you get there, you think you’re almost home free,” she said. “You think you’re safe.”

INCREASE IN ARRESTS

There are no hard statistics on how many North Koreans try to leave their country, but South Korea, where most defectors try to go, says the number safely arriving in the South dropped after Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011.

In 2018 about 1,137 North Korean defectors entered South Korea, compared to 2,706 in 2011.

Observers say the drop is partly because of increased security and crackdowns in both North Korea and China.

Over the past year, more cameras and updated guard posts have been seen at the border, said Kang Dong-wan, who heads an official North Korean defector resettlement organization in South Korea and often travels to the border between China and North Korea.

“Kim Jong Un’s policy itself is tightening its grip on defection,” he said. “Such changes led to stronger crackdowns in China as well.”

Under President Xi Jinping, China has also cracked down on a variety of other activities, including illicit drugs, which are sometimes smuggled by the same people who transport escapees, said one activist who asked not to be named due to the sensitive work.

North Koreans who enter China illegally face numerous threats, including from the criminal networks they often have to turn to for help.

Tens of thousands of women and girls trying to flee North Korea have been pressed into prostitution, forced marriage, or cybersex operations in China, according to a report last month by the non-profit Korea Future Initiative.

“SMASH UP NETWORKS”

An activist at another organization that helps spirit defectors out of North Korea said so far its network had not been affected, but they were concerned about networks being targeted and safe houses being raided.

“That is a bit of a different level, more targeted and acting on intelligence that they may have been sitting on to smash up networks,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect the organization’s work.

Y. H. Kim, of the Refugees Human Rights Association, said the raids raised concerns that Chinese authorities had infiltrated some smuggling networks, possibly with the aid of North Korean intelligence agents.

“I don’t know about other organizations, but no one is moving in our organization right now,” he said. “Because everyone who moves is caught.”

(Reporting by Josh Smith and Joyce Lee. Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing and David Brunnstrom in Washington. Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

From Colombia, Venezuelan defectors arm themselves to ‘liberate’ their homeland

FILE PHOTO: People protest at the Simon Bolivar International border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela, on the outskirts of Cucuta, Colombia April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Juan Pablo Bayona/File Photo

By Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta

CUCUTA, Colombia (Reuters) – Wearing camouflage shirts and combat boots, a Venezuelan militia group stands in formation in the Colombian city of Cucuta as their commander, a former Venezuelan army sergeant, outlines plans to seize towns across the border before heading to Caracas to help oust President Nicolas Maduro.

Eight men, who said they were defectors from Venezuelan police, army and intelligence services, had gathered near the two nations’ tense frontier, from where they said they will lead an attack aimed at overthrowing Maduro and handing the reins of power to opposition leader Juan Guaido.

Dubbing their planned offensive “Operation Venezuela,” the ex-army sergeant, Eddier Rodriguez, said there were around 150 men ready to take part with his group. Reuters was unable to independently confirm the status of the eight men or the size of the militia.

“Our goal is to liberate the country,” said Rodriguez, 37, who said he is currently working as a security guard in Bogota. “We’re troops willing to give our lives if necessary, all 150 of us.”

The Venezuelan defense ministry and the information ministry – which handles media inquiries for the government – did not respond to a request for comment about the formation of militias in Colombia.

Victor Bautista, border director for Colombia’s foreign ministry, said any groups who actually took up arms would be considered a paramilitary organization and would be detained by authorities if they were found.

“That would be totally rejected by our government and fully taken up by the appropriate authorities to apply corresponding legal measures,” said Bautista.

A Colombian intelligence official, who asked not to be identified, said the intelligence service had detected an unspecified number of Venezuelan militia groups in the country but could not act against them because they had not yet committed any crimes. Separately, a high-level Colombian government official who asked not to be named said arrestable offences could include illegal possession of weapons and conspiracy to commit a crime.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan military deserters of the National Guard are seen at the Simon Bolivar International border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela, on the outskirts of Cucuta, Colombia April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Juan Pablo Bayona/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan military deserters of the National Guard are seen at the Simon Bolivar International border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela, on the outskirts of Cucuta, Colombia April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Juan Pablo Bayona/File Photo

An estimated 1.2 million Venezuelans have crossed into Colombia in recent years, fleeing a painful recession and hyperinflation in their homeland that has left millions of people suffering from hunger and shortages of basic goods. They include increasing numbers of defectors from the armed forces, some of whom are forming militias with the intention of pushing for the overthrow of Maduro.

While such militias are vastly outnumbered in the face of Venezuela’s 150,000-strong military, the men told Reuters they were willing to face any consequence if they can rid their country of Maduro’s government, underscoring the frustration and desperation of many Venezuelan migrants.

Guaido cited the constitution in January to assume an interim presidency, saying Maduro rigged last year’s election. He has appealed to Venezuela’s armed forces to turn against Maduro.

The United States and most Western nations have recognized Guaido as the South American country’s rightful leader. Maduro accuses him of being a coup-monger and so far has retained the loyalty of the bulk of the armed forces.

Rodriguez said his group had been meeting different “resistance” groups in Colombia. He did not provide further details of those groups, or of how they planned to cross the border and launch an attack.

He said they had acquired handguns, easily available along the border, and were seeking to raise funds to buy further weapons, explosives, bullet-proof vests, food and water.

‘MINIMAL BLOODSHED’

Colombian President Ivan Duque has recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful ruler and branded Maduro a dictator. Maduro severed diplomatic relations with Colombia after Duque backed opposition efforts to bring U.S. aid into the country in February, although Duque has ruled out supporting any military intervention.

More than 1,400 members of the national guard and other members of the armed forces have left Venezuela for Colombia since Maduro’s troops violently drove back the aid convoys, according to Colombia’s migration office.

As per an agreement with the Venezuelan opposition, Colombia provides dissident military officials with food and housing, and the right to work.

In an interview in Caracas, Guaido said that if any decided to take up arms that would be due to Maduro’s refusal to agree to free and fair presidential elections.

“This reflects the discontent that there is in the armed forces: soldiers looking for alternatives and solutions because Maduro has shut off the electoral option,” Guaido told Reuters.

He did not immediately reply to a request for comment on Bautista’s assertion that groups who took up arms in Colombia would be detained.

Maduro has said last year’s presidential vote was fair and has branded defecting soldiers as “traitors.”

On April 30, Guaido attempted to rally Venezuela’s armed forces to rise up, but only a few dozen soldiers and one top government official defected. The military top brass reaffirmed their loyalty to Maduro.

Over the years, Maduro – and former President Hugo Chavez – won the loyalty of the armed forces in part by promoting hundreds of officers to the rank of general and rewarding them with lucrative positions in state-run entities, like oil company PDVSA.

Rodriguez’s team said they have made contact with garrisons in Venezuela and many were ready to fight once the operation began. He did not provide details about specific garrisons and Reuters could not independently verify the information.

“They’re waiting for us to enter to make their troops available (to fight),” said Pedro Meneses, an industrial engineer and rights worker who said he managed the militia’s logistics. “We want to do this with minimal bloodshed.”

Former Sergeant Major Efren Fernandez, who deserted to Cucuta in February, told Reuters that he was also ready to fight for Guaido.

“Mr President Guaido, rely on our support,” he said. “Here are your soldiers ready for battle, for combat.”

(Reporting by Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta, Additional reporting by Andres Rojas, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Mystery hacker steals data on 1,000 North Korean defectors in South

FILE PHOTO: A North Korean flag flutters on top of a 160-metre tower in North Korea's propaganda village of Gijungdong, in this picture taken from the Tae Sung freedom village near the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), inside the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – The personal information of nearly 1,000 North Koreans who defected to South Korea has been leaked after unknown hackers got access to a resettlement agency’s database, the South Korean Unification Ministry said on Friday.

The ministry said it discovered last week that the names, birth dates and addresses of 997 defectors had been stolen through a computer infected with malicious software at an agency called the Hana center, in the southern city of Gumi.

“The malware was planted through emails sent by an internal address,” a ministry official told reporters on condition of anonymity, due to the sensitivity of the issue, referring to a Hana center email account.

The Hana center is among 25 institutes the ministry runs around the country to help some 32,000 defectors adjust to life in the richer, democratic South by providing jobs, medical and legal support.

Defectors, most of whom risked their lives to flee poverty and political oppression, are a source of shame for North Korea. Its state media often denounces them as “human scum” and accuses South Korean spies of kidnapping some of them.

The ministry official declined to say if North Korea was believed to have been behind the hack, or what the motive might have been, saying a police investigation was under way to determine who did it.

North Korean hackers have in the past been accused of cyber attacks on South Korean state agencies and businesses.

North Korea stole classified documents from the South’s defense ministry and a shipbuilder last year, while a cryptocurrency exchange filed for bankruptcy following a cyber attack linked to the North.

North Korean state media has denied those cyber attacks.

The latest data breach comes at a delicate time for the two Koreas which have been rapidly improving their relations after years of confrontation.

The Unification Ministry said it was notifying the affected defectors and there were no reports of any negative impact of the data breach.

“We’re sorry this has happened and will make efforts to prevent it from recurring,” the ministry official said.

Several defectors, including one who became a South Korean television celebrity, have disappeared in recent years only to turn up later in North Korean state media, criticizing South Korea and the fate of defectors.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Impossible dream? Unification less of a priority as Korean leaders prepare to talk

The shape of the Korean peninsula is seen on the lawn in front of City Hall ahead of the upcoming summit between North and South Korea in Seoul, South Korea April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Si

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – Is unification of North and South Korea the solution or the problem?

The recent detente between North and South Korea has given new life to talk of unification for the two countries divided since the 1950s.

It’s a term that conjours up visions of the Berlin Wall falling, families reunited and armies disbanded.

Both Koreas have repeatedly called for peaceful unification and marched together under a unity flag at the recent Winter Olympics. And when a group of K-pop stars visited the North recently, they held hands with Northerners and sang, “Our wish is unification.”

But on a peninsula locked in conflict for 70 years, unification is a concept that has become increasingly convoluted and viewed as unrealistic, at least in the South, amid an ever-widening gulf between the two nations, analysts and officials say.

The South has become a major economic power with a hyper-wired society and vibrant democracy; the North is an impoverished, isolated country locked under the Kim family dynasty with few personal freedoms.

Unlike East and West Germany, which were reunited in 1990, the Korean division is based on a fratricidal civil war that remains unresolved. The two Koreas never signed a peace deal to end the conflict and have yet to officially recognize each other.

Those unresolved divisions are why seeking peace and nuclear disarmament are President Moon Jae-in’s top priorities in Friday’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, said Moon Chung-in, special national security adviser to the president.

Unification – a key topic at the two previous summits, in 2000 and 2007 – isn’t expected to be discussed at any great length, he said.

“If there is no peace, there is no unification,” Moon Chung-in told Reuters.

In the past, some South Korean leaders have predicated their reunification plans on the assumption the North’s authoritarian regime would collapse and be absorbed by the South.

But under the liberal President Moon, the government has softened its approach, emphasizing reconciliation and peaceful coexistence that might lead to eventual unity, current and former officials say.

 

THREE NOES

Public support for reunification has declined in the South, where 58 percent see it as necessary, down from nearly 70 percent in 2014, according to a survey by the Korea Institute for National Unification. A separate government poll in 1969 showed support for unification at 90 percent.

The economic toll would be too great on South Korea, says Park Jung-ho, a 35-year-old office worker in Seoul.

“I am strongly against unification and don’t think we should unify just for the reason we come from the same homogenous group,” he said. “I just wish we live without the kind of tensions we have today.”

To ease the animosity, “our government should acknowledge North Korea as an equal neighbor like China or Japan,” he said.

Estimates of the cost of reunification have ranged widely, running as high as $5 trillion – a cost that would fall almost entirely on South Korea.

In a speech in Berlin last July, Moon outlined what he called the “Korean Peninsula peace initiative” with three Noes: No desire for the North’s collapse, no pursuit of unification by absorption, and no pursuit of unification through artificial means.

“What we are pursuing is only peace,” he said.

 

“SUPREME TASK”

Both Koreas have enshrined reunification in their constitutions, with North Korea describing it as “the nation’s supreme task”.

Like South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, the North has its own Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, and state media has mentioned unification more than 2,700 times since 2010, according to a Reuters analysis of articles collected by the KCNA Watch website.

North Korea does not make officials available for comment to media inquiries.

A North Korean statement in January urged “all Koreans at home and abroad” toward a common goal: “Let us promote contact, travel, cooperation and exchange between the north and the south on a wide scale to remove mutual misunderstanding and distrust and make all the fellow countrymen fulfill their responsibility and role as the driving force of national reunification!”

North Koreans on both sides of the border appear to be more supportive of unification, with more than 95 percent of defectors polled in the South in favor.

In 1993, North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il Sung proposed a 10-point program for reunification, which included a proposal for leaving the two systems and governments intact while opening the borders.

Until the 1970s North Korea – officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – constitutionally claimed Seoul as its capital, and to this day the South Korean government appoints symbolic governors of Northern provinces.

“Reunification ultimately complicates a lot of the more immediate, short-term goals, whether it is denuclearisation or the human rights issue, or even just developing stable communications between North and South Korea,” said Ben Forney, a research associate at Seoul’s Asan Institute.

STUMBLES

The two sides have run into problems on even small-scale cooperation, such as the Kaesong joint industrial park where workers from both sides labored together until it was shut down in 2016 amid a row over the North’s weapons development.

Recently, they failed to agree on a program to allow divided families to communicate with each other.

Mistrust runs deep. Some South Koreans and Americans remain convinced Kim Jong Un has amassed his nuclear arsenal as part of a long-term plan to control the peninsula. And Pyongyang worries the American military presence in South Korea is an invasion force intent on toppling Kim.

When East and West Germany reunited in 1990, some believed it could be a model for the Korean Peninsula.

However, the two Germanies had not fought a civil war and East Germany had a far looser grip on its population than North Korea, former unification ministry official Yang Chang-Seok wrote in a 2016 report.

Chief among the obstacles may be Kim Jong Un himself, who analysts say has little incentive to accept the compromises necessary for peaceful reunification. And South Korea is unlikely to agree to any deal that allows Kim meaningful control.

China also has a vested interest in maintaining North Korea as an independent state and buffer between the U.S.-allied South.

In the long run, abandoning the more strident calls for full unification could allow the two Koreas to mend relations, said Michael Breen, an author of several books on Korea.

“It’s a kind of a contradiction, that unification is seen as a kind of romantic, wholesome, nationalistic dream,” Breen said, “where in fact it’s the source of many of the problems.”

(Additional reporting by Soyoung Kim, Hyonhee Shin, Haejin Choi and Christine Kim in SEOUL; Editing by Malcolm Foster and Lincoln Feast.)

Secrecy, delays surrounded North Korea leader’s slow train to China

FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves from a train, as he paid an unofficial visit to China, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang March 28, 2018. KCNA/via Reuters/File Photo

By Brenda Goh and Sue-Lin Wong

SHANGHAI/BEIJING (Reuters) – For a regime obsessed with secrecy, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s decision to travel to Beijing on a distinctive green armored train was an all-but-dead giveaway that he was making his first journey abroad since assuming power in 2011.

The historic visit sent officials scrambling to obscure the identity of the 21-car train and its occupants as it meandered across roughly 1,100 km (680 miles) of track through northeast China, causing rare delays along the way and triggering a growing frenzy of speculation as it neared the Chinese capital.

The train arrived at Beijing Station on Monday afternoon and left the following afternoon, with the identity of its occupants only announced on Wednesday morning – after it had crossed back into North Korea at the city of Sinuiju.

Clues that something unusual was afoot emerged in the border city of Dandong, just across the Yalu River from North Korea and linked to the isolated country by the Sino-Korea Friendship Bridge. That bridge bears a single rail track which, it turned out, carried Kim’s train into China late on Sunday.

The Daily NK, a Seoul-based website staffed by North Korean defectors, reported that boards supported by scaffolding had been set up on the platform at Dandong’s train station, blocking what is ordinarily an open view, before two trains passed through the station between 10:20 and 10:40 p.m. on Sunday night.

Yao Jun, who sells car parts in Dandong, said the station was locked down again on Tuesday night, an unusual occurrence. Kim returned to North Korea in the early hours of Wednesday.

“Now we know for next time – if the train station is in lockdown then that means Kim Jong Un has come to China,” Yao told Reuters.

At least one Dandong hotel was told by Chinese authorities not to book rooms facing the bridge, while tours from China into the North were canceled on Sunday, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters. A local resident said that a wedding party along the river on Sunday had been told not to set off firecrackers.

By Monday morning sighting rumors and pictures were making the rounds on Chinese social media, before being blocked or deleted by censors, while railway bureaus began warning travelers to expect delays or cancellations on Monday and Tuesday.

The disruptions were noteworthy in a country with a vast rail network that prides itself on its efficiency, with 98.8 percent of trains departing on time in 2016 and 95.4 percent arriving on schedule, and prompted complaints online.

Zhao Jian, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University who researches the country’s railway system, said Kim’s train traveled on the regular track network, rather than on the tracks used by the country’s high-speed trains.

“Passenger and freight traffic would have been affected,” he said.

A person answering the official phone line at Dandong station on Thursday stressed that everything had been “normal” this week, and asked, “who told you the station was closed?”

An official in the international cooperation department of the China Railway Corporation declined immediate comment on Kim’s visit.

MANCHURIA AND THE GREAT WALL

China has not disclosed the route taken by Kim in the train – green with a yellow stripe resembling one used by his late father, Kim Jong Il, on his last visit to China in 2011.

Based on photos from the elder Kim’s visit, the only visible difference between the two trains was a license plate. The younger Kim’s license plate showed DF0002; the plate on the train used by his father displayed DF0001.

North Korean state media showed Kim and his entourage, including his wife Ri Sol Ju, seated on stuffed pink sofas inside the train carriage with Song Tao, the head of the Chinese Communist Party’s international affairs department, during their inbound stop in Dandong.

There are at least two likely rail routes between Dandong and Beijing, and an ordinary service takes at least 14 hours, according to Chinese railway timetables. The route is also covered by China’s high-speed trains, which travel on separate tracks, in just over six hours.

But social media posts made by local railway bureaus and ordinary users on social media suggest a surge in delays around the route from Dandong that heads north to Shenyang, in the region previously known as Manchuria. The route then snakes west along the Hebei province coast towards Beijing.

On Monday morning, Weibo users at rail stations in Tangshan and Tianjin began complaining of unexpected cancellations to regular services bound for Beijing, which they said were made without explanation.

In a Weibo post published at 5:14 p.m. on Monday and since deleted, the Beijing Railway Bureau told travelers waiting at stations in Beijing, Tianjin and Shijiazhuang to expect delays of up to two hours for trains from Shenyang and Qinhuangdao.

On Tuesday evening, a Twitter user with the handle “2018you333” posted a grainy video of a train with a single horizontal stripe hurtling across an empty car underpass, which the user said was taken at the Shanhai Pass area, 300 km east of Beijing and a major pass in the Great Wall of China.

“Let’s guess where this distinguished guest is coming from!”, the post said.

Reuters was unable to verify the authenticity of the video.

(Additional reporting by Michael Martina, Philip Wen and the Shanghai and Beijing newsrooms; Editing by Tony Munroe and Alex Richardson)

North Korean defectors may have been exposed to radiation, says South

A North Korean flag flies on a mast at the Permanent Mission of North Korea in Geneva October 2, 2014.

By Yuna Park

SEOUL (Reuters) – At least four defectors from North Korea have shown signs of radiation exposure, the South Korean government said on Wednesday, although researchers could not confirm if they were was related to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

The four are among 30 former residents of Kilju county, an area in North Korea that includes the nuclear test site Punggye-ri, who have been examined by the South Korean government since October, a month after the North conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test, Unification Ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun told a news briefing.

They were exposed to radiation between May 2009 and January 2013, and all defected to the South before the most recent test, a researcher at the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, which carried out the examinations, told reporters.

North Korea has conducted six nuclear bomb tests since 2006, all in tunnels deep beneath the mountains of Punggye-ri, in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions and international condemnation.

The researcher cautioned that there were a number of ways people may be exposed to radiation, and that none of the defectors who lived had lived in Punggye-ri itself showed specific symptoms.

A series of small earthquakes in the wake of the last test – which the North claimed to be of a hydrogen bomb – prompted suspicions that it may have damaged the mountainous location in the northwest tip of the country.

Experts warned that further tests in the area could risk radioactive pollution.

After the Sept. 3 nuclear test, China’s Nuclear Safety Administration said it had begun emergency monitoring for radiation along its border with North Korea.

And in early December, a state-run newspaper in China’s Jilin province, which borders North Korea and Russia, published a page of “common sense” advice on how readers can protect themselves from a nuclear weapons attack or explosion.

Cartoon illustrations of ways to dispel radioactive contamination were also provided, such as using water to wash off shoes and using cotton buds to clean ears, as well as a picture of a vomiting child to show how medical help can be sought to speed the expulsion of radiation through stomach pumping and induced urination.

(Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Nick Macfie)

South Korea’s new government proposes military talks with North Korea

A South Korean security guard stands guard on an empty road which leads to the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) at the South's CIQ (Customs, Immigration and Quarantine), just south of the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, February 11, 2016. The Korean characters on the gateway reads "Inter-Korean Transit Office".

By Christine Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea on Monday proposed military talks with North Korea, the first formal overture to Pyongyang by the government of President Moon Jae-in, to discuss ways to avoid hostile acts near the heavily militarized border.

There was no immediate response by the North to the proposal for talks later this week. The two sides technically remain at war but Moon, who came to power in May, has pledged to engage the North in dialogue as well as bring pressure to impede its nuclear and missile programs.

The offer comes after the North claimed to have conducted the first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) earlier this month, and said it had mastered the technology to mount a nuclear warhead on the missile. South Korea and the United States, its main ally, dispute the claim.

“Talks and cooperation between the two Koreas to ease tension and bring about peace on the Korean peninsula will be instrumental for pushing forth a mutual, virtuous cycle for inter-Korea relations and North Korea’s nuclear problem,” the South’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon told a news briefing.

The South Korean defense ministry proposed talks with the North on July 21 at Tongilgak to stop all activities that fuel tension at the military demarcation line.

Tongilgak is a North Korean building at the Panmunjom truce village on the border used for previous inter-Korea talks. The last such talks were held in December 2015.

Cho also urged the restoration of military and government hotlines across the border, which had been cut by the North last year in response to the South imposing economic sanctions after a nuclear test by Pyongyang. In all, the North has conducted five nuclear tests and numerous missile tests.

The South also proposed separate talks by the rival states’ Red Cross organizations to resume a humanitarian project to reunite families separated during the 1950-53 Korean War in closely supervised events held over a few days.

The South Korean Red Cross suggested talks be held on Aug. 1, with possible reunions over the Korean thanksgiving Chuseok holiday, which falls in October this year.

The last such reunions were held in October 2015 during the government of Moon’s predecessor under a futile push for reconciliation following a sharp increase in tension over border incidents involving a landmine blast and artillery fire.

 

BEIJING IN FAVOR

China, which has close ties to Pyongyang despite Beijing’s anger over North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests, welcomed the proposal, saying cooperation and reconciliation between the two Koreas was good for everyone and could help ease tensions.

“We hope that North and South Korea can work hard to go in a positive direction and create conditions to break the deadlock and resume dialogue and consultation,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a daily news briefing.

The proposals come after Moon said at the G20 summit in Hamburg earlier this month that he was in favor of dialogue with the North despite the “nuclear provocation” of its latest missile test.

When Moon visited Washington after being elected president, he and U.S. President Donald Trump said they were open to renewed dialogue with North Korea but only under circumstances that would lead to Pyongyang giving up its weapons programs.

“The fact that we wish to take on a leading role in resolving this (North Korean) issue has already been understood at the summit with the United States and the Group of 20 summit meetings,” Cho said on Monday.

In the proposal for talks, South Korea did not elaborate on the meaning of hostile military activities, which varies between the two Koreas. South Korea usually refers to loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts by both sides, while the North wants a halt to routine joint U.S.-South Korea military drills.

Moon suggested earlier this month hostile military activities at the border be ended on July 27, the anniversary of the 1953 armistice agreement that ended the Korean War. Since no truce was agreed, the two sides remain technically at war.

When asked if South Korea was willing to “be flexible” on military drills with the United States should North Korea be open to talks, Cho said the government had not discussed the matter specifically.

Pyongyang has repeatedly said it refuses to engage in all talks with the South unless Seoul turns over 12 waitresses who defected to the South last year after leaving a restaurant run by the North in China.

North Korea says the South abducted the 12 waitresses and the restaurant manager and has demanded their return, but the South has said the group decided to defect of its own free will. Cho said this matter is not included on the talks agenda.

In an act to rein in the North, the United States is preparing new sanctions on Chinese banks and firms doing business with Pyongyang possibly within weeks, two senior U.S. officials said last week.

 

(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)