Malaysia further downgrading ties with North Korea a year after airport assassination

Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, who is on trial for the killing of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korea's leader, is escorted as she arrives at the Shah Alam High Court on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia January 22, 2018. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin

By Rozanna Latiff and A. Ananthalakshmi

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – One year after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother was assassinated at Kuala Lumpur’s airport, Malaysia is further downgrading once-close ties with Pyongyang, sources familiar with the government’s plans said.

Kim Jong Nam was assassinated on Feb. 13, 2017 when two women smeared his face with VX nerve agent – which the U.N. lists as a weapon of mass destruction. The women claim they were tricked into believing they were part of a reality show, but U.S. and South Korea say the murder was orchestrated by Pyongyang.

The brazen killing came as North Korea was starting to accelerate its missile tests and countries around the world came under mounting pressure to enforce ever-tightening U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang.

The repercussions from the killing are still being felt.

Malaysia is considering reducing the staff size of the North Korean mission in Kuala Lumpur to four by not renewing requests to replace diplomats when their terms end, according to a diplomatic source and an advisor to the government. Both declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Malaysia is also turning down invitations to participate in North Korean events. A diplomatic source with direct knowledge of the situation said Malaysia declined an invitation to send an envoy to attend last week’s military parade in Pyongyang.

“It’s just too dangerous,” the source told Reuters, referring to the Malaysian diplomats North Korea stopped from leaving the country last year.

The Malaysian foreign ministry declined to comment.

Meanwhile, trade and business ties have all but dried up.

A Malaysian businessman, who until recently imported coal from North Korea, said he stopped buying from Pyongyang – even before U.N. sanctions that banned all trade of North Korean coal – because the purchases were drawing a lot of attention after the Kim Jong Nam killing.

TRAVEL BAN

Ties quickly deteriorated after North Korea’s ambassador to Malaysia questioned the credibility of the police investigation into the assassination, insisting Kim Jong Nam was an ordinary citizen who had died of a heart attack.

Malaysia recalled its ambassador to North Korea, banned its citizens from traveling to the North and canceled visa-free entry for North Koreans.

North Korea retaliated with a travel ban on all Malaysians in Pyongyang, trapping three diplomats and six family members. They were able to fly out only after Malaysia agreed to hand over Kim Jong Nam’s corpse and send three North Koreans wanted for questioning back to North Korea.

Pressure from the United States has been mounting on Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries to cut trade and diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, as President Donald Trump seeks support for tougher action against nuclear-armed North Korea.

Malaysia said last year it was considering permanently closing its embassy in Pyongyang and moving North Korea services to its Beijing mission. It has not been staffed since last April after its diplomats were allowed to leave under the swap agreement.

The cabinet has yet to make a decision on closing the embassy.

“There’s no turning back the clock on relations with North Korea, not after the Kim Jong Nam incident and the near impossibility of having any positive relationship with the country under such severe sanctions,” said Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies.

“I think the sense is that North Korea took advantage of Malaysia’s goodwill and relative openness,” he said.

TRADE HALTED

North Korea benefited from its Malaysian ties — Pyongyang exported everything from coal and medical devices to crabs, cloth hangers and fire extinguishers to Malaysia. Imports, however, came to a grinding halt last year.

Malaysia was also host to hundreds of North Korean workers, who were sent back after the airport killing.

A Reuters report showed how North Korea’s spy agency, the Reconnaissance Bureau, was running an arms operation out of Kuala Lumpur.

The frayed ties have affected Malaysian businesses that used to trade with the isolated country.

“We have been doing business with North Korea for 10 years,” said the Malaysian coal trader who declined to be identified.

“Suddenly it became a big issue because of the murder,” said the trader, adding he was questioned by the police and the foreign ministry over a March purchase.

It’s a sharp contrast from 10 years ago when it was easy for Malaysian businessmen to engage with Pyongyang, he said.

“I met the (North Korean) trade attaché and he arranged a shipment for me. That’s how I started,” he said.

The rocky relationship also remains in the spotlight with the continuing trial of the two women, Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong from Vietnam, in a Kuala Lumpur court on charges of murdering Kim Jong Nam.

The prosecution has built its case on airport video recordings of the killing and VX residue found on the women.

Defense lawyers say the prosecution has not put forward a motive for the killing and argue the two women were merely unwitting pawns in the attack.

The prosecution is not expected to finish presenting evidence until next month.

The women face the death penalty if convicted.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff and A. Ananthalakshmi; Editing by Bill Tarrant)

Awkward diplomacy on show as ‘peace’ Games get underway

General view of performers during the opening ceremony.

By James Pearson and Hyunjoo Jin

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) – The Winter Olympics sparked to life in a vivid, colorful ceremony of fire and ice in South Korea on Friday, though the diplomacy was tougher to choreograph in the stadium where leaders from nations that are sworn enemies sat close together.

South Korea, which is using the Pyeongchang Games to break the ice with North Korea, seated its presidential couple alongside U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, with two of the North’s most senior officials sitting in the row behind.

President Moon Jae-in, who wants to harness the Olympic spirit to pave the way for talks over the North’s nuclear and missile program, warmly shook hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s smiling sister as well as the North’s nominal head of state.

The South is still technically at war with the North after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, and the United States and North Korea have recently swapped nuclear threats. Pence vowed only this week to tighten sanctions on the North.

Underlining Moon’s efforts to re-engage with the North, the opening ceremony followed the story line of children wandering through a mythical landscape and discovering a world where people live in peace and harmony.

The Olympics have provided some respite from years of tense relations between Seoul and Pyongyang, though just hours before the ceremony hundreds of anti-North Korean protesters scuffled with riot police outside the stadium, burning North Korean flags and pictures of its leader, Kim Jong Un.

South Korea’s frigid February, where temperatures have plummeted to minus 20 degrees Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit) at night, has come as a shock to the system for athletes and visitors alike in the leadup to these Games, prompting concerns about hypothermia at the opening ceremony.

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics – Opening Ceremony – Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium- Pyeongchang, South Korea – February 9, 2018 - Performers during the opening ceremony.

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics – Opening Ceremony – Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium- Pyeongchang, South Korea – February 9, 2018 – Performers during the opening ceremony. REUTERS/Phil Noble

The weather was a little milder than forecast on Friday, but spectators still huddled near heaters, holding hot packs and slurping down steaming fishcake soup to ward off the chills.

Bundled up in a scarf, mask and knitted hat, with hot packs tucked into her knee blanket, office worker Shin Hye-sook said she and her three colleagues were coping with the cold.

“It’s okay unless the wind blows,” said the 60-year-old. “We’re sitting as close as we can and trying not to move a lot to save our energy.”

LONG WAIT FINALLY OVER

Pyeongchang has waited a long time for this moment.

The alpine town first bid for the 2010 Games but narrowly lost out to Vancouver, and suffered similar heartbreak when it was beaten to the 2014 Olympics by Sochi.

After announcing its arrival on the international stage by hosting the 1988 Seoul Olympics, South Korea now wants to show the world just how far it has come over the last 30 years with a Games showcasing its culture and technological prowess.

According to Olympic tradition, the Greek contingent headed the parade of athletes into the open-air stadium, followed by the other delegations in order according to the Korean alphabet.

Pence stood to welcome the U.S. athletes as the Korean pop hit Gangnam Style blared around the stadium, sparking the ‘Horse Dance’ in the crowd and among the volunteers.

The moment failed to elicit even a smile from the two senior North Korean officials in the VIPs box, however, as they sat stony-faced in black fluffy hats and long coats.

Elsewhere in the stadium, a Kim Jong Un impersonator was not made as welcome as the North Koreans in the VIP box and was ejected by security. “Well is my sister getting the same treatment?” he demanded to know.

As the athletes made their way around the track, one of the biggest cheers was reserved for muscle-bound Tongan Pita Taufatofua, who repeated his famed Rio Games entrance by marching in shirtless, oiled up and wearing a traditional skirt — this time in sub-zero temperatures.

Another flag-bearer who eschewed warm clothing was Bermuda’s Tucker Murphy wore the territory’s traditional red shorts.

Samaneh Beyrami Baher blinked back tears at the head of Iran’s four-strong athletic delegation, and minutes later the crowd erupted as athletes from North and South Korea marched together under the unification flag for the first time at an Olympics since 2006.

A contingent of North Korean cheerleaders greeted the athletes by waving a controversial version of the flag depicting disputed islands known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese.

Norio Maruyama, press secretary at Japan’s Foreign Ministry, said he had not seen the flag so he did not want to comment. But he said the Games were a festival of peace and he did not want to undermine that aspect.

(Writing by Peter Rutherford; Additional reporting by Jane Chung and So Young Kim; Editing by Mark Bendeich)

North Korea says no U.S. talks planned at Olympics, Pence vows continued pressure

Members of North Korean cheering squad arrive at a hotel in Inje, South Korea, February 7, 2018.

By Christine Kim and Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL, South Korea (Reuters) – North Korea has no intention of meeting U.S. officials during the Winter Olympics that start in South Korea on Friday, state media said, dampening hopes the Games will help resolve a tense standoff over the North’s nuclear weapons program.

However, the North’s high-ranking delegation, including the younger sister of its leader Kim Jong Un, will meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in and have lunch with him on Saturday.

Such a meeting would be the first such event between a South Korean head of state and a member of the Kim family since a 2007 summit meeting of Kim Jong Il and late South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who has described North Korea as the world’s most tyrannical regime, spoke with Moon on Thursday ahead of the opening ceremony in the mountain resort of Pyeongchang, just 80 km (50 miles) from the heavily armed border with the reclusive North.

Friday’s ceremony will be attended by North Korea’s delegation, including its nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam.

Kim Yo Jong, the sister of the North’s leader, and her entourage, will travel by private jet to Seoul’s Incheon International Airport on Friday, North Korea told the South.

“We have never begged for dialogue with the U.S. nor in the future, too,” the North’s KCNA news agency said, citing Jo Yong Sam, a director-general in the North’s foreign ministry.

“Explicitly speaking, we have no intention to meet with the U.S. side during the stay in South Korea… Our delegation’s visit to South Korea is only to take part in the Olympics and hail its successful holding.”

The United States had not requested talks with North Korea, but Pence left open the possibility of some contact although his message for denuclearisation remained unchanged.

In opening remarks during his meeting with Moon, Pence said the United States would never waver in its goal of getting North Korea to give up its nuclear and ballistic missile program through strong pressure, an aim shared with South Korea.

Pence has said Washington would soon unveil “the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever” while South Korea wants to use the Olympics to re-engage with the North.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters all sides, not just the two Koreas, needed to work hard and dialogue between the United States and North Korea should be expanded for this to happen, Wang said.

“You can’t have it that one person opens the door and another closes it,” he said.

North and South Korea are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The North defends its weapons programmes as necessary to counter U.S. aggression. The South hosts 28,500 U.S. troops, a legacy of the war.

MILITARY PARADE

North Korea marked the founding anniversary of its army with a large military parade in Pyongyang on Thursday broadcast by state media, having last month changed the date of the celebration to the eve of the Olympics.

Kim Jong Un, in a black hat and matching coat, saluted troops while his wife walked beside him, television images showed. One of Kim’s close aides, Choe Ryong Hae, and Kim Yong Nam were also in attendance.

The North’s state media also showed what appeared to be intercontinental ballistic missiles on launchers as thousands of North Koreans filled Kim Il Sung Square, named after Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, in Pyongyang.

“We have destroyed the enemy’s risk-taking provocations at every move,” Kim Jong Un said in a speech. He did not mention the United States, which North Korea considers its main enemy and regularly threatens to destroy in a sea of flames.

Analysts said the parade seemed smaller than those of previous years, but was still focused on the North’s goal of strengthening its nuclear missile capabilities.

Trump has ordered Pentagon and White House officials to begin planning a military parade in Washington similar to the Bastille Day parade he saw in Paris in July, the Washington Post said.

On Friday, before he attends the Olympic opening ceremony, Pence will visit a memorial for 46 South Korean sailors killed in the 2010 sinking of a warship that Seoul blamed on a North Korean torpedo attack.

SEATING COMPLICATIONS

The 28-year-old sister of the North Korean leader will be the first member of the Kim family to cross the border into the South. Kim Yo Jong is a propaganda official blacklisted last year by the U.S. Treasury Department over alleged human rights abuses and censorship.

“By sending key figures like his sister, Kim Jong Un is aiming to send a signal to the South that it is giving more weight to inter-Korean ties while driving a wedge between South Korea and the United States,” said Kim Sung-han, a former South Korean vice foreign minister.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will also attend the ceremony, adding to seating complications for the hosts.

South Korea has asked the United Nations for an exemption to allow a U.N.-sanctioned North Korean official, Choe Hwi, to attend the opening ceremony with Kim Yo Jong.

Pyongyang has yet to mention any change in plans to send him, Seoul said.

The U.N. Security Council, which has slapped sanctions on North Korea for its weapons programmes, imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on Choe last year when he was vice director of the Workers’ Party of Korea Propaganda and Agitation Department.

A group of 280 North Koreans arrived in South Korea on Wednesday, made up of a 229-member cheer squad, taekwondo performers, journalists and the sports minister.

(For graphic on North Korea’s Olympic delegations, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2E1Qa9Q)

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Christine Kim in SEOUL; Additional reporting by Heekyong Yang and Josh Smith in SEOUL, Ossian Shine in PYEONGCHANG, Tim Kelly and Linda Sieg in TOKYO, David Brunnstrom and Matt Spetalnick in WASHINGTON, Michelle Nichols at the UNITED NATIONS and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Writing by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Paul Tait and Nick Macfie)

U.S. general says North Korea not demonstrated all components of ICBM

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gives field guidance at the Pyongyang Pharmaceutical Factory, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang January 25, 2018.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – North Korea’s nuclear program has made some strides in recent months but the country has not yet demonstrated all the components of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), including a survivable re-entry vehicle, the vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said on Tuesday.

Air Force General Paul Selva’s remarks confirm an assessment by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in December that North Korea’s ICBM did not pose an imminent threat to the United States.

“What he has not demonstrated yet are the fusing and targeting technologies and survivable re-entry vehicle,” Selva said, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“It is possible he has them, so we have to place the bet that he might have them, but he hasn’t demonstrated them,” Selva, the second highest-ranking U.S. military official, added.

In November, North Korea said it had successfully tested a new type of ICBM that could reach all of the U.S. mainland and South Korea and U.S.-based experts said data from the test appeared to support that.

Selva said that if conflict were to break out, it was unlikely the United States would be able to get an early indication of North Korean launches.

“It is very unlikely that in a tactical situation, we would get any of the indications and warning that would precede a launch other than if we got lucky and saw the movement of the launch mechanism to the launch platform,” Selva said.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and James Dalgleish)

Nations to consider more North Korea sanctions, U.S. warns on military option

South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Kyung-wha, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland and Japan's Minister of Foreign Affairs Taro Kono are seen during the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada January 16, 2018.

By David Brunnstrom and David Ljunggren

VANCOUVER (Reuters) – Twenty nations agreed on Tuesday to consider tougher sanctions to press North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned Pyongyang it could trigger a military response if it did not choose negotiations.

A U.S.-hosted meeting of countries that backed South Korea during the 1950-53 Korea War also vowed to support renewed dialogue between the two Koreas “in hopes that it leads to sustained easing of tensions” and agreed that a diplomatic solution to the crisis was both essential and possible.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has refused to give up development of nuclear missiles capable of hitting the United States in spite of increasingly severe U.N. sanctions, raising fears of a new war on the Korean peninsula.

The United States and Canada co-hosted the day-long meeting in Vancouver to discuss ways to increase pressure on Kim.

U.S. officials have reported a debate within the Trump administration over whether to give more active consideration to military options, such as a pre-emptive strike on a North Korean nuclear or missile site.

Tillerson brushed off a question about such a “bloody nose” strike, telling a closing news conference: “I’m a not going to comment on issues that have yet to be decided among the National Security Council or the president.”

However, he said the threat posed by North Korea was growing.

“We all need to be very sober and clear-eyed about the current situation … We have to recognize that the threat is growing and if North Korea does not chose the pathway of engagement, discussion, negotiation, then they themselves will trigger an option,” Tillerson said.

“Our approach is, in terms of having North Korea chose the correct step, is to present them with what is the best option – talks are the best option; that when they look at the military situation, that’s not a good outcome for them.”

“It is time to talk, but they have to take the step to say they want to talk.”

The Vancouver meeting pledged to ensure that U.N. sanctions already in place were fully implemented and the participants said in a joint statement they agreed “to consider and take steps to impose unilateral sanctions and further diplomatic actions that go beyond those required by U.N. Security Council resolutions.” They gave no details.

Tillerson said all countries needed to work together to improve interdiction of ships attempting to skirt sanctions and said there must be “new consequences” for North Korea “whenever new aggression occurs.”

He said the meeting had agreed that China and Russia, which did not attend the Vancouver talks and sharply criticized them, must fully implement U.N. sanctions.

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Canada and the United States were demonstrating a “Cold War mentality” that would divide the international community and damage chances of an appropriate settlement on the peninsula.

“Only through dialogue, equally addressing the reasonable concerns of all parties, can a way to an effective and peaceful resolution be found,” Lu added.

U.S. officials say discussion of a military strike option has lost some momentum since North and South Korea held formal talks for the first time in two years this month and Pyongyang said it would send athletes to the Winter Olympics that South Korea will host next month.

‘NOT TIME FOR REWARD’

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said in Vancouver that the world should not be naive about North Korea’s “charm offensive” in engaging in talks with the South.

“It is not the time to ease pressure, or to reward North Korea,” he said. “The fact that North Korea is engaging in dialogue could be interpreted as proof that the sanctions are working.”

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said she hoped the dialogue would continue well beyond the Olympics, but stressed that existing sanctions must be applied more rigorously.

Tillerson said North Korea must not be allowed “to drive a wedge” through allied resolve or solidarity and reiterated Washington’s rejection of a Chinese-Russian proposal for the United States and South Korea to freeze military exercises in return for a freeze in North Korea’s weapons programs.

A senior State Department official said U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis briefed the Vancouver participants over dinner on Monday and stressed the U.S. preference for a diplomatic solution, while keeping a military option on the table.

“It was a chance to raise people’s confidence that we have thought through this, that we definitely prefer a diplomatic solution,” the official said.

Russia and China have been accused of not fully implementing the U.N. sanctions, something they deny.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, speaking on Tuesday in the West African state of Sao Tome, said everyone should cherish the present easing of tension on the Korean peninsula.

But history shows that each time tensions ease, there could be interference or backsliding, Wang added.

“Now is the time to test each side’s sincerity,” he said. “The international community must keep its eyes wide open, and see who is really the promoter of a peaceful resolution to the peninsula nuclear issue and who will become the saboteur who causes a return to tensions.”

A U.S. official said Susan Thornton, the State Department’s senior diplomat for East Asia, would travel to Beijing from Vancouver to brief China on the outcome. He said he expected Tillerson to provide readouts to his Russian and Chinese counterparts.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren and David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Nicole Mordant in Vancouver, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Philip Wen in Beijing and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by James Dalgleish and Lisa Shumaker)

U.S. warns North Korea against new missile test, plays down talks

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks at UN headquarters in New York, U.S., January 2, 2018

By Rodrigo Campos and Christine Kim

UNITED NATIONS/SEOUL (Reuters) – The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, warned North Korea on Tuesday against staging another missile test and said Washington would not take any talks between North and South Korea seriously if they did not do something to get Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.

Haley told reporters the United States was hearing reports that North Korea might be preparing to fire another missile.

“I hope that doesn’t happen. But if it does, we must bring even tougher measures to bear against the North Korean regime,” Haley said.

South Korea on Tuesday offered talks with North Korea next week, amid a tense standoff over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in a New Year’s Day speech that he was “open to dialogue” with Seoul.

Kim also said he was open to the possibility of North Korean athletes taking part in Winter Olympics South Korea hosts next month.

At the same time, he stressed that his country would push ahead with “mass producing” nuclear warheads in defiance of U.N. sanctions and that he had a nuclear button on his desk capable of launching missiles at the United States.

U.S. President Donald Trump responded to Kim in a Twitter post on Tuesday: “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

Haley said the United States would not take talks seriously if they did not take steps toward banning North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

“North Korea can talk to anyone they want, but the U.S. is not going to recognize it or acknowledge it until they agree to ban the nuclear weapons that they have,” she said.

Haley gave no details of the missile test preparations.

Another U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there were indications that could point toward a potential missile launch “sooner rather than later,” but cautioned that such signs had been seen in the past and no test had resulted.

‘DRIVE A WEDGE’

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said North Korea might be “trying to drive a wedge of some sort” between the United States and South Korea and added that while it was up to Seoul to decide who it talked to: “We are very skeptical of Kim Jong Un’s sincerity in sitting down and having talks.”

Trump, who has led a global drive to pressure North Korea through sanctions to give up development of nuclear-tipped missiles capable of hitting the United States, earlier held back judgment on Pyongyang’s offer to talk, saying on Twitter:

“Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for first time. “Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not – we will see!”

Trump has frequently derided Kim as “rocket man.” The U.S. president said sanctions and other pressures were starting to have a big impact on North Korea.

Kim and Trump have exchanged fiery barbs in the last year and the U.S. president has warned that the United States would have no choice but to “totally destroy” North Korea if forced to defend itself or its allies.

North Korea regularly threatens to destroy the United States, South Korea and Japan and tested its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile in November, which it said was capable of delivering a warhead anywhere in the United States.

South Korea’s Unification Minister Cho Myong-gyon said the offer for high-level talks next Tuesday had been discussed with the United States. Nauert said she was not aware if the matter had been discussed in advance of the South Korean response.

Cho suggested the talks be held at the border village of Panmunjom and said they should be focused on North Korea’s participation at the Olympics, but other issues would likely arise, including the denuclearisation of North Korea.

“I repeat: The government is open to talking with North Korea, regardless of time, location and form,” Cho said.

Should the talks be held, it would be the first such dialogue since a vice-ministerial meeting in December 2015.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in welcomed Kim’s New Year address and asked his government to move as quickly as possible to bring North Korea to the Olympics, but he stressed that an improvement in inter-Korean relations “cannot go separately with resolving North Korea’s nuclear program”.

China, which has persistently urged a return to talks to ease tensions, said recent positive comments from North and South Korea were a good thing.

“China welcomes and supports North Korea and South Korea taking earnest efforts to treat this as an opportunity to improve mutual relations, promote the alleviation of the situation on the Korean peninsula and realize denuclearisation on the peninsula,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.

(Reporting by Christine Kim, Jane Chung and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul, Michael Martina in Beijing, Doina Chiacu, David Brunnstrom, David Alexander and Arshad Mohammed in Washington, and Rodrigo Campos at the United Nations; Editing by Andrew Hay, Alistair Bell and Lisa Shumaker)

North Korea says ‘breakthrough’ puts U.S. mainland within range of nuclear weapons

North Korea says 'breakthrough' puts U.S. mainland within range of nuclear weapons

By Christine Kim and Phil Stewart

SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – North Korea said it successfully tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile on Wednesday in a “breakthrough” that puts the U.S. mainland within range of its nuclear weapons whose warheads could withstand re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere.

North Korea’s first missile test since mid-September came a week after U.S. President Donald Trump put North Korea back on a U.S. list of countries it says support terrorism, allowing it to impose more sanctions.

North Korea, which also conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test in September, has tested dozens of ballistic missiles under its leader, Kim Jong Un, in defiance of international sanctions. The latest was the highest and longest any North Korean missile had flown, landing in the sea near Japan.

Graphic: Nuclear North Korea http://tmsnrt.rs/2lE5yjF

North Korea said the new missile reached an altitude of about 4,475 km (2,780 miles) – more than 10 times the height of the International Space Station – and flew 950 km (590 miles) during its 53-minute flight.

“After watching the successful launch of the new type ICBM Hwasong-15, Kim Jong Un declared with pride that now we have finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power,” according to a statement read by a television presenter.

State media said the missile was launched from a newly developed vehicle and that the warhead could withstand the pressure of re-entering the atmosphere.

Kim personally guided the missile test and said the new launcher was “impeccable”, state media said. He described the new vehicle as a “breakthrough”.

North Korea also described itself as a “responsible nuclear power”, saying its strategic weapons were developed to defend itself from “the U.S. imperialists’ nuclear blackmail policy and nuclear threat”.

The U.N. Security Council was scheduled to meet on Wednesday to discuss the launch.

Many nuclear experts say the North has yet to prove it has mastered all technical hurdles, including the ability to deliver a heavy nuclear warhead reliably atop an ICBM, but it was likely that it soon would.

“We don’t have to like it, but we’re going to have to learn to live with North Korea’s ability to target the United States with nuclear weapons,” said Jeffrey Lewis, head of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of Strategic Studies.

‘THREATEN EVERYWHERE’

U.S., Japanese and South Korean officials all agreed the missile, which landed within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, was likely an ICBM. The test did not pose a threat to the United States, its territories or allies, the Pentagon said.

“It went higher, frankly, than any previous shot they’ve taken, a research and development effort on their part to continue building ballistic missiles that can threaten everywhere in the world, basically,” U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters at the White House.

Trump spoke by phone with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-In, with all three reaffirming their commitment to combat the North Korean threat.

“It is a situation that we will handle,” Trump told reporters.

Trump, who was briefed on the missile while it was in flight, said it did not change his administration’s approach to North Korea, which has included new curbs to hurt trade between China and North Korea.

Abe and Moon, in a separate telephone call, said they would “no longer tolerate” North Korea’s increasing threats and would tighten sanctions, the South’s presidential office said.

ALL OPTIONS

Washington has said repeatedly that all options, including military ones, are on the table in dealing with North Korea while stressing its desire for a peaceful solution.

“Diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said.

Other than enforcing existing U.N. sanctions, “the international community must take additional measures to enhance maritime security, including the right to interdict maritime traffic” traveling to North Korea, Tillerson said in a statement.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly condemned the launch.

“This is a clear violation of Security Council resolutions and shows complete disregard for the united view of the international community,” his spokesman said in a statement.

China, North Korea’s lone major ally, expressed “grave concern” at the test, while calling for all sides to act cautiously.

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also urged all sides to stay calm, saying this was necessary to avoid a worst-case scenario on the Korean peninsula.

U.S. EAST COAST IN RANGE?

The new Hwasong-15, named after the planet Mars, was a more advanced version of an ICBM tested twice in July, North Korea said. It was designed to carry a “super-large heavy warhead”.

Based on its trajectory and distance, the missile would have a range of more than 13,000 km (8,100 miles) – more than enough to reach Washington D.C. and the rest of the United States, the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists said.

However, it was unclear how heavy a payload the missile was carrying, and it was uncertain if it could carry a large nuclear warhead that far, the nonprofit science advocacy group added.

Minutes after the North fired the missile, South Korea’s military said it conducted a missile-firing test in response.

Moon said the launch had been anticipated. There was no choice but for countries to keep applying pressure, he added.

“The situation could get out of control if North Korea perfects its ICBM technology,” Moon said after a national security council meeting.

“North Korea shouldn’t miscalculate the situation and threaten South Korea with a nuclear weapon, which could elicit a possible pre-emptive strike by the United States.”

The test comes less than three months before South Korea hosts the Winter Olympics at a resort just 80 km (50 miles) from the heavily fortified border with the North.

North Korea has said its weapons programs are a necessary defense against U.S. plans to invade. The United States, which has 28,500 troops in South Korea as a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean war, denies any such intention.

Last week, North Korea denounced Trump’s decision to relist it as a state sponsor of terrorism, calling it a “serious provocation and violent infringement”.

Trump has traded insults and threats with Kim and warned in September that the United States would have no choice but to “totally destroy” North Korea if forced to defend itself or its allies.

(Reporting by Christine Kim and Soyoung Kim in Seoul, Linda Sieg, William Mallard, Timothy Kelly in Tokyo, Mark Hosenball, John Walcott, Steve Holland and Tim Ahmann in Washington, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Michael Martina in Beijing and Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow; Writing by Yara Bayoumy, David Brunnstrom and Lincoln Feast; Editing by Nick Macfie)

North Korea calls terror relisting ‘serious provocation’ by Trump: state media

North Korea calls terror relisting 'serious provocation' by Trump: state media

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea denounced on Wednesday U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to relist it as a state sponsor of terrorism, calling it a “serious provocation and violent infringement”, North Korean state media reported.

Trump put North Korea back on a list of state sponsors of terrorism on Monday, a designation that allows the United States to impose more sanctions and risks inflaming tension over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.

In North Korea’s first reaction to the designation, a spokesman for the foreign ministry denied in an interview with the state media outlet KCNA, that his government engaged in any terrorism.

He called the state sponsor of terrorism label “just a tool for American style authoritarianism that can be attached or removed at any time in accordance with its interests”.

The U.S. designation only made North Korea more committed to retaining its nuclear arsenal, the official said.

“As long as the U.S. continues with its anti-DPRK hostile policy, our deterrence will be further strengthened,” he said, referring to North Korea by the initials of its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“The U.S. will be held entirely accountable for all the consequences to be entailed by its impudent provocation to the DPRK.”

The designation came a week after Trump returned from a 12-day, five-nation trip to Asia in which he made containing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions a centerpiece of his discussions.

Announcing the designation, Trump told reporters at the White House: “In addition to threatening the world by nuclear devastation, North Korea has repeatedly supported acts of international terrorism, including assassinations on foreign soil.”

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Once inside Kim Jong Un’s inner circle, top aide’s star fades

Once inside Kim Jong Un's inner circle, top aide's star fades

By Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – When Kim Jong Un sat down in September to order the sixth and largest of North Korea’s nuclear tests, Hwang Pyong So sat by his side, his khaki military uniform conspicuous among the suits at the table, photos released by state media at the time showed.

Now Hwang, once one of Kim’s most-trusted advisers, is facing unspecified punishment on the orders of another man who also sat at that exclusive table in September, Choe Ryong Hae, South Korean intelligence officials believe.

Information on North Korea is often difficult to obtain, and with few hard details and no official confirmation from Pyongyang, analysts said it was too soon to draw any firm conclusions from the unspecified punishments.

But the moves, which appear to involve two of Kim’s top four advisers, are being closely watched for indications of fractures within his secretive inner circle, and come as North Korea faces increasing international pressure over its nuclear weapons program.

Having his advisers compete with each other suits Kim just fine, said Christopher Green, an analyst with the Crisis Group.

“It is hardwired into autocracy to have underlings in competition,” he said.

Hwang, a shy, bespectacled general in his mid-60s, is a close confidant of Kim Jong Un and has had an unprecedented rise to the top rungs of North Korea’s leadership in the space of a few years.

In 2014, he became one of the most powerful people outside the ruling Kim family when he was named chief of the General Political Bureau of the army, a powerful position that mobilizes the military for the leader.

His apparent punishment takes on additional meaning as it was orchestrated by Choe who has competed with Hwang in the past and stands to gain from any demotion, according to South Korea’s spy agency.

TEA WITH THE ENEMY

The two men were last seen in public together early last month as they watched a gymnastics gala, according to state media.

Hwang has since faded from public view, whereas Choe was the ranking official who met with a senior envoy from China in Pyongyang last week.

Kim has not shied away from removing or punishing even favored leaders who could become powerful enough to threaten his grip on power, said Michael Madden, an expert on the North Korean leadership at 38 North, a project of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced Studies in Washington.

“Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong So could not have continued in the capacity that he was operating in, without it coming back to bite him,” he said.

Both Hwang and Choe came to South Korea during the Asian Games in 2014 – the highest such visit by North Korean officials to the rival South.

Dressed in a drab, olive army uniform and his large officer’s cap, Hwang, who had been promoted to the No.2 spot behind Kim just one week earlier, had tea and lunch with Choe and South Korean officials and waved to crowds at the games’ closing ceremony.

The trip had been announced just one day in advance and took many South Korean observers by surprise. Some suggested there may have been a power struggle between the two men, neither wanting to yield the high-profile visit to the other.

Choe, who was subjected to political “reeducation” himself in the past, now appears to be gaining more influence since he was promoted in October to the party’s powerful Central Military Commission, according to South Korean officials.

The National Intelligence Service indicated Choe now heads the Organisation and Guidance Department (OGD), the secretive body which oversees appointments within North Korea’s leadership.

‘CLIPPING WINGS’

The punishment represents the first time Hwang has faced any major blow to his standing, said Lee Sang-keun, a North Korea leadership expert at Ewha Woman’s University’s Institute of Unification Studies.

Hwang had a reputation of playing a respectful and careful role around the notoriously unpredictable Kim. Photos released by state media often showed him covering his mouth as he politely laughed with the supreme leader.

The punishment may not reflect any specific mistakes on Hwang’s part but could be part of a wider effort by Kim to ensure that the ruling party retains its control over the military, Lee said.

The moves are part of a sweeping ideological scrutiny of the political unit of the military for the first time in 20 years, according to Kim Byung-kee, a lawmaker on South Korea’s parliamentary intelligence committee.

They could also be an effort to prevent a repeat of a major purge in 2013, 38 North’s Madden said.

Kim’s uncle and second most powerful man in the secretive state, Jang Song Thaek, was executed during that purge after a special military tribunal found him guilty of treason.

Preemptively putting Hwang in his place now meant Kim might prevent him from becoming so powerful he could only be dealt with in a similar way, Madden said.

“What (Kim’s) doing can be described as clipping wings.”

(Additional reporting by James Pearson; Editing by Lincoln Feast)

Democrats want a law to stop Trump from bombing North Korea

Democrats want a law to stop Trump from bombing North Korea

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democratic U.S. senators introduced a bill on Tuesday they said would prevent President Donald Trump from launching a nuclear first strike on North Korea on his own, highlighting the issue days before the Republican’s first presidential trip to Asia.

The measure would stop Trump, or any U.S. president, from launching an attack on North Korea, or spending any money on a military strike, without congressional approval, unless North Korea has first attacked the United States.

Tensions between Washington and Pyongyang have been building after a series of nuclear and missile tests by North Korea and bellicose verbal exchanges between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The CIA has said North Korea could be only months away from developing the ability to hit the United States with a nuclear weapon, a scenario Trump has vowed to prevent.

“I worry that the president’s enthusiasm will not be checked by the advisers around him,” Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, the legislation’s lead sponsor, told reporters on a conference call.

Some Republicans have also expressed concern about Trump’s rhetoric, but none co-sponsored the bill, which is backed by seven Democrats and Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent.

Republicans control majorities in both the Senate and House, and there has been no indication that congressional leaders would allow a vote. Similar measures introduced earlier this year have also failed to advance.

However, backers said they might try to pass it later this year by introducing it as an amendment to legislation such as a as a must-pass spending bill.

“I have confidence that if this came to a vote on the floor of the Senate, it would prevail,” Murphy said.

Lawmakers have been trying to take back more control over foreign policy from the White House.

Congress passed a bill in July barring the president from lifting sanctions on Russia without lawmakers’ approval, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Monday held a hearing on a new authorization for the use of military force, or AUMF, to exert some authority over the campaign against Islamic State and other militant groups.

At that hearing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said Trump does not have the authority to use force against North Korea without an imminent threat, but they did not define what such a threat would be.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)