Asia Pacific Focus

South Korean rights group exposes North Korea’s Blood Coal Export scandal
Asia Pacific Focus

South Korean rights group exposes North Korea’s Blood Coal Export scandal

The Seoul-based rights group, Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR) published a report exposing the North Korean regime’s exploitation of political prisoners, including children, who were forced into coal production to help boost its exports. Observers said that the funds earned from exports would eventually be used in fuelling the country’s nuclear and missile programs. The study, titled Blood Coal Export from North Korea, says that Pyongyang has been running a “pyramid fraud-like” scheme using people held in prison camps to produce an extra amount of coal and other goods to push its exports.

The findings highlighted, how Kim Jong Un’s nation has resorted to a shady coal trade in its pursuit to accumulate funds for its nuclear and ballistic missile development program. The NKHR report said: “Quotas of products for export are met through the enslaved labor of men, women, and children in detention camps owned and operated by the secret police.” Joanna Hosaniak, deputy director-general at the NKHR, emphasized that the core motive of the investigation was to unveil North Korea’s “state-sponsored system of slavery” operated by its leader to meet his political and financial ambitions and his long-standing goal of making the country a nuclear power.

It is not the first time that North Korea has engaged in such antics to gather secret funds. Earlier the Asian country used a similar system for commodities export networks but the scandal was busted after human rights agencies reported gross rights violations and abuse in its detention camps. The United Nations responded to the reports and imposed a ban on its commodity exports to indirectly halt Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

The key source of information for NKHR report has been former prisoners who escaped the detention centres and took refuge in its Southern neighbour and other defectors who held inside information about the the country’s secret operations, along with other sources such as satellite images and data from the South Korean and US government agencies.

According to a confidential report compiled by independent UN monitors published in early 2018, North Korea violated UN sanctions to stash away nearly $200m in 2017 from banned commodity exports.  The international agency believed that the nation has held about 200,000 people in its large prison camps run by secret police, many of which are located near mining sites. A UN inquiry report, released in 2014, said the country used its prisoners for commodities export and subjected its captives to torture, rape, forced labor, starvation, and other inhumane treatments to meet the target.

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Besides the commodities trade, North Korea has also been accused of committing cyber crimes for similar motive of gathering millions of funds for its nuclear development programs. The UN alleged the country has stolen virtual assets worth $316.4 million dollars between 2019 and November 2020, to raise ample funds to back its nuclear and ballistic missile programs in violation of international law.

Last week, North Korea’s name was also dragged in a cyber attack supposedly undertaken for extracting information of Covid-19 vaccines, despite invalidating the claims at the start of the pandemic that the country has been hit by a coronavirus. In November, Microsoft claimed that Kim Jong Un’s nation was trying to crack into vaccine makers’ systems, by at times “masquerading as World Health Organisation representatives.” The company added that most of the attempts failed.

Beijing plans major reforms in Hong Kong’s electoral system
Asia Pacific Focus

Beijing plans major reforms in Hong Kong’s electoral system

China has declared that only ‘patriots’ will be allowed to hold key posts in Hong Kong’s government

China is planning to bring significant changes in the administrative and electoral system of Hong Kong to ensure only “patriots” are appointed to key positions in the territory’s government. In a press conference on Tuesday, Erick Tsang Kwok-wai, the secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, announced that the chief executive council has endorsed a bill requiring office-holders to take an oath of loyalty to Hong Kong and China. In addition, those whom China’s Communist Party deems disloyal will face disqualification and a ban from contesting in the polls for five years. With the bill scheduled to be tabled in March, it will further Beijing’s control over Hong Kong’s political landscape. 

The central government wants Hong Kong to be run by “patriots” Xia Baolong, China’s director of Hong Kong and Macau affairs, said on Monday. 

In a strong-worded speech, Xia Baolong outlined Beijing’s plans to not let anti-China leaders hold key posts in Hong Kong’s political and administrative system. He dubbed people standing in opposition to patriots as “destroyers” of Beijing’s one country, two systems principle, maintaining that they should not be allowed to have political power in Hong Kong.

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In this regard, Erick Tsang Kwok-wai has stated that several existing laws would also be amended with the aim of improving the current oath-taking arrangements and implementing legal consequences in case a public officer goes against the oath.

Earlier, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam said that political unrest in the territory forced the Chinese government to take measures to ensure that only patriotic officials run the city. Lam added that the reforms are designed to ensure to no one in the government engages in unpatriotic activities against China’s central government. She further declared that these reforms will apply to various institutions of the political structure, including the executive, legislature, judiciary, district councils, and the civil service.

On Tuesday, the Hong Kong government said that it is planning to require district councilors to pledge their loyalty to the city’s administration and China. As of now, the chief executive, executive council members, high officials, lawmakers, and judges have been mandated to take an oath of office. Last month, all civil servants appointed before July 1, 2020, were asked by Hong Kong authorities to sign a declaration demanding them to uphold the city’s laws.

While pro-establishment leaders and local government officials have accepted Beijing’s decree, opposition activists have called out the Chinese government for attempting to influence the city’s electoral politics. In the aftermath of Beijing’s imposition of national security law in June 2020, the city’s authorities have launched a massive crackdown on dissenting and pro-democracy politicians and activists. 

“Trans-Atlantic alliance is back”, UK reiterates Biden’s recent declaration of tackling region’s security challenges
Asia Pacific Focus

“Trans-Atlantic alliance is back”, UK reiterates Biden’s recent declaration of tackling region’s security challenges

 At the conference, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reiterated US President Joe Biden’s recent declaration regarding the formation of a new “trans-Atlantic Quad” to unitedly tackle the security challenges in the region. Of late, while discussing America’s newly adopted multilateral engagement approach Biden said “the trans-Atlantic alliance is back”. His statement hinted at the beginning of a new chapter in the country’s international relations. He emphasized that under the new alliance the US would unite forces with its European allies to cater to the evolving geopolitics, along with hinting at a shift of focus towards Asia.

While chairing the G7 virtual conference from 10 Downing Street, Johnson said, “Britain is working alongside France, Germany and the United States in a trans-Atlantic Quad to address the most pressing security issues, including Iran.” Johnson emphasized that the Quad alliance was the Atlantic version of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the US, Japan, India, and Australia, formed to keep in check China’s rising military expansion in the Asia Pacific region.

Johnson added, “A new world is rising up around us, patterns of trade and commerce are changing, the global center of gravity is moving eastwards, the technological revolution proceeds with blistering speed. But none of us should fear or resent these changes.”

The British premier emphasized that European nations realized the need to join hands with US “to rediscover that far-sighted leadership and the spirit of adventure and trans-Atlantic unity, that made our two continents great in the first place.”

During his Friday’s speech at the Munich event, Biden said that the world was at “an inflection point” where the need of the hour was to bring together like-minded democracies to combat the pressing forces of autocracy in order to tackle the current challenges including COVID-19, the economic crisis and climate change. It was Biden’s way to deal with the rising influence of Russia and China in the region. 

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With regard to the newly formulated Atlantic and Pacific alliance, Biden said that “how the United States, Europe, and Asia work together to secure the peace and defend our shared values and advance our prosperity across the Pacific will be among the most consequential efforts we undertake.”

The efforts of the US leader against China were appreciated by his German and French counterparts, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. Merkel said, “in recent years, China has gained more power on the international stage, and we as trans-Atlantic partners and democratic countries, we need to react to that.”  On the other hand, Macron emphasized that over the last few years the US has shifted its center of focus from Europe towards Asia. “Now the US has become a Pacific power,” he said, so “we must take more of the burden of our own protection”.

Singapore, Indonesia lead ASEAN push to solve Myanmar crisis
Asia Pacific Focus

Singapore, Indonesia lead ASEAN push to solve Myanmar crisis

Singapore, Indonesia are calling for ASEAN support to help resolve Myanmar’s political situation

As military coup continues to persist in Myanmar, Indonesia and Singapore are leading the ASEAN push to resolve the political crisis in the Southeast Asian country. Indonesia and Singapore are calling for a meeting of foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with the aim of helping Myanmar resolve the post-coup situation.

This development has come after a recent visit of Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi to Singapore. During her visit, Retno held talks with Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan with the aim of building strong support within ASEAN for Myanmar. During their meeting, the two foreign ministers agreed that ASEAN can play a crucial role in boosting constructive dialogue and return to normalcy and stability in Myanmar.

A day before her Singapore visit, Retno met ASEAN Chairman Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah in Brunei, who also expressed his support for an immediate meeting of Southeast Asian leaders. In a statement from Brunei, Retno said that many countries have raised concerns over the ongoing political situation in Myanmar. 

“I continue to maintain communication with my counterparts at ASEAN and foreign ministers from many countries, and the UN envoy on Myanmar,” Retno added. 

Earlier this month, Indonesian President Joko Widodo held talked with Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, calling for a special ASEAN meeting to discuss the political situation in Myanmar. 

Later, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan expressed Singapore’s support to Indonesia and Malaysia’s call for holding a meeting to discuss Myanmar and take urgent steps to de-escalate the situation in the country. He further underlined that the only obstacle in convening an urgent meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers would be difficulty in reaching a consensus among the member states. 

“A meeting among ASEAN Foreign Ministers would be an opportunity for all ASEAN Member States to share their concerns and perspectives given the importance and urgency of addressing recent developments,” he said in parliament.

ASEAN members’ responses to the military coup in Myanmar have been mixed. While Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia have expressed concerns and extended their support to resolve the crisis, other nations including Thailand and Vietnam have maintained that they would not interfere in the internal affairs of the country. Besides these countries, other ASEAN members include Cambodia, Brunei, Laos, the Philippines, and Myanmar.

Meanwhile, Canada and the United Kingdom on Thursday imposed sanctions on the military rulers of Myanmar over the imposition of a coup against the democratically-elected civilian government. As per reports, Canada said that it would take strong action against nine military leaders including Min Aung Hlaing, while the UK is going to impose asset freezes and travel bans on three Generals. 

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On February 1, Myanmar’s military imposed a coup and detained several National League for Democracy (NLD) leaders and government officials, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. After the military declared a state of emergency for one year, widespread anti-coup protests broke across various parts of the country.

N Korea tries to break into Pfizer to get Covid-19 vaccine data, the second time in months
Asia Pacific Focus

N Korea tries to break into Pfizer to get Covid-19 vaccine data, the second time in months

On Tuesday, the South Korean intelligence agency reported about the recent attempt by North Korean cyber forces to hack into US drugmaker, Pfizer’s system. During a closed-door meeting with the country’s lawmakers, Seoul’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) reported that its northern neighbor has been trying to steal the pharmaceutical company’s COVID-19 vaccine data. Pfizer, in tie-up with Germany-based firm BioNTech, co-developed, the first Covid-19 vaccine, which gained approval for emergency use from the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

Ha Tae-Keung, a member of parliament’s intelligence committee, told the reporters that as per the NIS document shown to him, “North Korea stole Pfizer (vaccine information) and attempted to steal (technology) from South Korean vaccine and pharmaceutical firms.” Though Ha’s claims were contradicted by the NIS as the agency said it “reported general incidences of hacking attempts” to obtain coronavirus vaccine information and denied providing any names of pharmaceutical makers, including Pfizer.

“The National Intelligence Service did not say that Pfizer was hacked by North Korea in a Q and A session of the briefing yesterday for the National Assembly Intelligence Committee,” the NIS statement read.

Ha stood by his claims and said that NIS’s mention of Pfizer “was so clear that I didn’t even ask about that verbally”. While sharing a copy of his notes online, which included Pfizer and “vaccine data hacking”, Ha said, “I wouldn’t have been able to take notes about Pfizer if that wasn’t mentioned in the document.” He added that probably the country’s intelligence agency was trying to avoid any direct confrontation with North Korea by putting out a lot of details.

Though it was not the first time North Korea’s name was dragged in a cyber attack to gather information regarding Covid-19 vaccines, despite invalidating the claims at the start of the pandemic that the country has been hit by a coronavirus. In November, Microsoft claimed that Kim Jong Un’s nation was trying to crack into vaccine makers’ systems, by at times “masquerading as World Health Organisation representatives.” The company added that most of the attempts failed.

A month later, Reuters reported that the hackers from North Korea were suspected to be involved in cyberattacks against British coronavirus vaccine developer AstraZeneca, by disguising themselves as recruiters and approaching the pharmaceutical company’s staff with fake job offers, to extract vaccine research-related information.

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The country seemed to have been using its cyber skills to get ahead as a vaccine developer, after using the same tactic to gather millions of funds for its nuclear development programs. The United Nations accused the country of stealing virtual assets worth $316.4 million dollars between 2019 and November 2020, to raise ample funds to back its nuclear and ballistic missile programs in violation of international law.

China’s development projects in Papua New Guinea makes Australia anxious
Asia Pacific Focus

China’s development projects in Papua New Guinea makes Australia anxious

Papua New Guinea (PNG), left Australia nervous about the communist nation’s increasing presence in Oceania. China recently entered a deal with PNG to develop a fisheries facility on Daru, located north of the Australian border in the Torres Strait. As per the small island, the development project would allow it to commercially fish the Torres Strait. 

Former officials and advisors to the current PNG government, Martyn Awayang Namorong said that the Australian government was overreacting over the issue. Speaking about China’s proposed plan of building a $39 billion city on Daru and a comprehensive multifunctional fishery industrial park, Namorong said, “It’s important to note that PNG is heading to an election next year so we have to ask ourselves are these announcements being made to influence voters? It might not be intended for Australia – and Beijing is just laughing at Australia overreacting. It might be only for the local audience … we have to ask these questions as well as the geopolitical questions.”

Australia was quick to react to the China-backed development projects in the region, as the country’s officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the high commission visited PNG in January. The Australian foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, told the Senate last December: “Commercial-scale fisheries would not be considered a traditional activity under the Torres Strait Treaty and would not be permitted.”

Payne’s claim was contradicted by Donald Rothwell, a maritime law expert and Phillemon Mosby, mayor of the Torres Strait Island, which shares border with PNG. Rothwell stressed that as per the Torres Strait Treaty PNG had the right to conduct fishing in the protected zone of the Torres Strait. Hence, it could proceed with the  Chinese-funded commercial fishing boats program,

“The Torres Strait Treaty actually doesn’t make provision for amendment,” Rothwell said, “so the options are rewriting the treaty, which I think is very unlikely and would open up a can of worms for Australia.”

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Mosby, the Island’s Regional Council mayor, backed Rothwell’s justification and said that PNG had sovereign rights to Australian territory. Mosby emphasized, “There needs to be open and transparent dialogue around the investment process… In the spirit of the treaty, we need to look at how these investments are going to impact on us as traditional inhabitants – socially, economically, politically, culturally, as well as the environmental impact.”

He added, “We do not want viable economic investment at the risk of security of our islands, people, and livelihood”.

China: Tianwen-1 mission successfully enters Mars orbit
Asia Pacific Focus

China: Tianwen-1 mission successfully enters Mars orbit

On Wednesday, China successfully landed its spacecraft, Tianwen-1 mission, in Mars’ orbit. It was the first time the Asian giant was able to enter the Red Planet. It was a huge leap for the Chinese spacecraft program, as it was the first time a Chinese mission had successfully reached Mars. The five-tonne spacecraft, which consisted of an orbiter and rover, was launched from the Chinese Wenchang spaceport in July. Tianwen-1, also known as “Questions to Heaven” covered the distance of about half a billion km to reach the neighboring planet.

China’s Mars mission proved to be successful a day after UAE’s Hope Probe was able to enter the orbit of the Red Planet for the first time. Besides China and UAE, another Mars mission in line is US NASA’s Perseverance, which was launched in July. NASA is expected to put its another rover on Mars next week. All three Mars missions of these three countries were launched during the brief launch window available in July. 

It was China’s second major space mission after December’s lunar project, wherein it was able to successfully retrieve rock and soil samples from Earth’s Moon surface – which otherwise is a very complex project. China’s yet-to-be-named rover on Mars would enable scientists to study the planet’s surface using a mix of its seven remote-sensing instruments. 

The rover is powered with high and medium-resolution cameras, through which it would be able to send clearer pictures of the planet. It also included a ground-penetrating radar which would help in gathering more information about Mars’ geological layers up to the depth of tens meters. The rover which is about 240kg, is packed with fold-out solar panels, a tall mast for the camera, and a navigation device. These additional instruments would help it in assessing the mineralogy of local rocks and explore the existence of water-ice on the planet.

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Unlike UAE, which live-telecasted the entire mission’s journey and shared updates on TV and radio, China waited for the orbit insertion to happen first and then announced its success to the world.

Coronavirus: WHO scientists invalidate claims of virus leak from a Chinese lab, call it ‘extremely unlikely’
Asia Pacific Focus

Coronavirus: WHO scientists invalidate claims of virus leak from a Chinese lab, call it ‘extremely unlikely’

On Tuesday, a team of WHO scientists, who visited Wuhan to investigate the origin of the Covid-19, said that the theory, which claimed that the virus was developed or came out of a lab in Wuhan, was ‘extremely unlikely’. Peter Ben Embarek, the head of the WHO investigation mission, held a news conference, as the team concluded its four-week visit to Wuhan, and said that the possibility of the virus being leaked out of a lab of Wuhan was highly bleak. He added that the investigation had unveiled new information but nothing drastically different from what was already known before. He emphasized that the scientists needed to do more digging and research to identify the source of the origin of the virus.

The international experts who investigated the Wuhan Institute of Virology, home to various virus samples, right away dismissed the theory that the virus came from a laboratory in China. The theory was internationally promoted by former US President Donald Trump without any evidence. Embarek, a WHO food safety, and animal disease expert hinted that the investigation might move its focus towards South East Asia to reach the root cause of the coronavirus pandemic.

Wuhan, in China’s central Hubei province, was where the first few cases of coronavirus were reported in 2019. Since the virus outbreak, over 106 million people got infected and about 2.3 million lost their lives all across the world.

WHO experts believed that the virus could have originated first in animals before being transmitted into humans, but they were not clear on how the transfer happened. Embarek said that their findings pointed to a “natural reservoir” in bats as a cause of origin for the virus, but they were not sure if it happened only in Wuhan. He said, “The findings suggest that the laboratory incidents hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus to the human population.”

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The verdict by WHO scientists brought a big relief to the Chinese government, which has been battling with invalidating the Covid origin theory involving Wuhan for the past year, Liang Wannian, the head of the Chinese team of scientists, who accompanied the WHO experts, also emphasized that the scientist could not find any virus sample in the Wuhan institute. Wannian added that the scientists observed that the virus was found in different parts of the city, other than the market, which implied that the virus could have originated elsewhere.

Myanmar anti-coup protests grow stronger as public defy ban
Asia Pacific Focus

Myanmar anti-coup protests grow stronger as public defy ban

Myanmar anti-coup protests continue for 4th consecutive day even as military warns of action

Myanmar’s junta on Monday declared curfew in the country’s two biggest cities amid growing protests against last week’s military coup. As widespread demonstrations entered the third day, the new military rulers of the country banned public gatherings of more than five people in order to control the protesters. 

However, thousands of people defied the ban on public gatherings to join nationwide protests against the military removal of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Military moved soldiers with water cannons to Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw, Yangon and other major cities in order to disperse the protesters. As soldiers entered to the cities, they blocked roads and forced protesters to retreat. 

Significantly, protesters have also taken over social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to voice their demands for the release of civilian leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi, and the withdrawal of the military from the government. 

Myanmar’s junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing on Monday issued the first televised address since the coup, vowing to hold fresh elections after the year-long state of emergency in the country. He further reiterated his claims of voter fraud in November’s election which was won by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party (NLD) with a landslide majority. 

“We will have a multiparty election and we will hand the power to the one who wins in that election, according to the rules of democracy,” he said.

Justifying the military’s seizure of power, Min Aung Hlaing claimed that the country’s Election Commission did not allow fair poll campaigning by using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse. Calling the coup “unavoidable”, Min Aung Hlaing also asked the protesting public to cooperate with the military for the “good of the country.”

Meanwhile, the electoral body has rebuffed the army leader’s allegations, maintaining that any irregularities in election results would not have changed the overwhelming vicotry of Suu Kyi’s party. Min Aung Hlaing has declared the formation of a new election commission to inspect the voting procedure.

Suu Kyi, along with other senior members of the NLD party and government officials were detained by the military last week. In addition, several legislators and human rights activists have been detained since the coup. 

The military also issued Martial law in a number of cities, warning anti-coup protesters against further demonstrations. The first wave of protests were led by members of the Students Union across various regions, with engineers, teachers and monks joining in later days. Holding posters and banners with portraits of Suu Kyi’s face, thousands of protesters chanted anti-coup slogans while demanding the removal of military and release of detained elected lawmakers.

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After the coup, the army also intermittently blocked internet, mobile data networks, and social media websites to counter dissent across the country. 

Reportedly, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has been reaching out to Asian governments to lead a collective and bilateral action for the reversal of the military coup in Myanmar. 

“The Secretary-General continues to follow the situation in Myanmar closely and with grave concern. He and his Special Envoy have been reaching out to key international actors, including regional leaders, in calling for collective and bilateral action to create conditions for the recent coup in Myanmar to be reversed,” Spokesman for the Secretary-General Stephane Dujarric said on Monday. 

PPP slams Moon administration over its secret plan to aid North Korea in nuclear plant development
Asia Pacific Focus

PPP slams Moon administration over its secret plan to aid North Korea in nuclear plant development

Almost a week after South Korea urged US President Joe Biden to revive nuclear program talks with North Korea, Seoul’s local media disclosed that the ruling Democratic Party of Korea has been working on a plan to unite ties with country’s Northern rival over building a nuclear power plant. It was in late January that government documents, regarding the plan to aid North Korea in its nuclear power plant development, got leaked. 

According to the Seoul Broadcasting System, the groundwork and documentation were laid out during 2018 summits between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which set a tone of reconciliation between the two nations, who otherwise had been at conflicting frontiers.

The revelation shook the political corridors of South Korea, with opposition severely condemning Moon’s move for committing a “shocking act benefiting the enemy.” Ridiculing Moon’s decision in 2017, to remove plans of nuclear power generation in South Korea, including scrapping new construction projects and banning extension running of aging reactors.  Seoul’s conservative opposition People Power Party issued a statement saying, “The Moon administration, while closing nuclear power plants in South Korea, sought to build a plant in North Korea in absolute secrecy.” The party leader’s Kim Chong-in said that the move was “nothing but a shocking act benefiting the enemy and could shake the administration’s fate.”

In response to the allegations, the ruling government slammed the opposition leaders’ accusations as “intolerable.” On February 1, Moon urged the opposition group to “stop inflaming confrontation through holdover-like politics that should be abandoned.” Lee Naik-Yeon, head of the Democratic Party, also touched upon the issue in his speech to the National Assembly the following day. “I was prime minister in 2018 and there was no talk about nuclear power generation at the summit,” Lee said. “The leader of the biggest opposition party crossed the line that must not be crossed, delivering an attack on the president that cannot be overlooked,” he added.

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The authenticity of the accusation is yet not clear. But the opposition proposed if the ruling government wanted to help South Korea in building a nuclear power plant, it should push the latter to adopt denuclearization measures such as readopting to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and work on nuclear agreements with other countries concerned.

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