Diplomats in North face price hike

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Diplomats in North face price hike

North Korea has unilaterally raised rental fees for offices of foreign embassies and international agencies by 20 percent this year, at the same time that it tightens its grip on communications at the establishments, sources said.

A source privy to North Korean affairs said last week that the North Korean Foreign Ministry sent notices to the foreign offices last October and the increase took effect at the beginning of this year. The source also said commodity prices in markets specifically set up for foreigners have soared.

“Following the currency reform last November, the North may have wanted to earn some foreign currency by raising the rents and commodity prices,” the source said. “As far as I know, diplomats and their families are angry that the North has violated diplomatic protocols.”

Pyongyang has diplomatic offices for 25 nations, plus the office for World Food Program among other the United Nations agencies. Most rent out space in buildings owned by North Korea.

Pyongyang-based diplomats have also been asked to celebrate North Korean holidays by purchasing flowers or writing congratulatory messages.

“On Kim Jong-il’s 68th birthday last month, the North asked the diplomats to buy wreaths, made up of ‘the Kim Jong-il flowers,’ and write messages praying for Kim’s health under the ambassador’s name,” one source explained. The source did not know if the diplomats complied.

North Korea is also cracking down on the flow of information within foreign missions and agencies. The North rejected a request by a UN agency to use the Internet to send documents to UN headquarters. When diplomats make international phone calls, North Korean interpreters are there to listen in on the conversation, sources said.

“The North may want to block any details on Kim Jong-il’s health, disruption after the currency reform or other domestic affairs from reaching the outside world,” a South Korean government official said.

One Western diplomat, asking for anonymity, recently complained to a South Korean government official that diplomats in Pyongyang can’t talk to each other freely for fear of others listening in, and that they only vent their frustration when they’re out of North Korea.


By Lee Young-jong [jeeho@joongang.co.kr]

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