North Korea accuses U.S. of hurting its image with cyber threat warning

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea accused the United States of smear tactics on Friday after Washington renewed accusations last month that Pyongyang was responsible for malicious cyber attacks.

It was the latest in a series of exchanges underscoring the friction between the two countries after denuclearization talks launched by U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stalled late last year.

“We want to make it clear that our country has nothing to do with the so-called ‘cyber threat’ that the U.S. is talking about,” North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in the statement.

It said Washington was trying to use the allegations as leverage, along with the issues of nuclear missiles and human rights as well as accusations of terrorism funding and money laundering. The aim was to “smear our country’s image and create a way to shake us up”, it said.

The U.S. State Department, Treasury, and Department of Homeland Security Issues, along with the FBI, issued a new warning last month about the threat of North Korean hackers, calling particular attention to financial services.

North Korea is alleged to be behind an ambitious, years-long campaign of digital theft, including siphoning cash from ATMs, stealing from major banks, extorting computer users worldwide, and hijacking digital currency exchanges.

Since 2006, the country has been subject to U.N. sanctions that have been strengthened by the Security Council over the years in a bid to cut off funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

This week, the U.S. Justice Department accused the country’s state-owned bank of evading U.S. sanctions laws and said it had charged 28 North Korean and five Chinese citizens in its latest crackdown on alleged sanctions violations.

(Reporting by Joyce Lee; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

North Korea’s Kim, in first appearance in weeks, vows to bolster nuclear ‘deterrence’

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hosted a meeting to discuss the country’s nuclear capabilities, state media said on Sunday, marking his first appearance in three weeks after a previous absence sparked global speculation about his health.

Ruling Workers’ Party officials wore face masks to greet Kim as he entered the meeting of the party’s powerful Central Military Commission, state television showed, but no one including Kim was seen wearing a mask during the meeting.

Amid stalled denuclearization talks with the United States, the meeting discussed measures to bolster North Korea’s armed forces and “reliably contain the persistent big or small military threats from the hostile forces,” state news agency KCNA said.

The meeting discussed “increasing the nuclear war deterrence of the country and putting the strategic armed forces on a high alert operation,” adopting “crucial measures for considerably increasing the firepower strike ability of the artillery pieces,” it said.

Kim has made an unusually small number of outings in the past two months, with his absence from a key anniversary prompting speculation about his condition, as Pyongyang has stepped up measures against the COVID-19 pandemic.

North Korea says it has no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, but South Korea’s intelligence agency has said it cannot rule out that the North has had an outbreak. [L4N2CO0OL]

U.S.-led negotiations aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have made little progress since late last year, especially after a global battle on the virus began.

The Chinese government’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, expressed hope on Sunday that the United States and North Korea could resume meaningful dialogue as soon as possible, “and not squander away the hard-earned results of (previous) engagement.”

North Korea’s pledge to boost its nuclear capabilities coincides with news reports that the United States might conduct its first full-fledged nuclear test since 1992, noted Leif-Eric Easley, who teaches international studies at Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul.

“The intention in Washington for pondering such a move may be to pressure Russia and China to improve arms-control commitments and enforcement,” Easley said. “But not only might this tack encourage more nuclear risk-taking by those countries, but it could also provide Pyongyang an excuse for its next provocation.”

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Richard Chang and William Mallard)

Ignorance, fear, whispers: North Korean defectors say contacts in the dark about Kim

By Josh Smith and Sangmi Cha

SEOUL (Reuters) – Defectors from North Korea say many of their relatives and contacts were unaware of the international speculation over leader Kim Jong Un’s health or were unwilling to discuss the issue in clandestine calls made from the South.

Two defectors told Reuters their relatives in North Korea did not know that Kim has been missing from public view for almost two weeks, said they didn’t want to discuss the issue, or abruptly hung up when the supreme leader was mentioned.

Kim’s health is a state secret in insular North Korea and speculation about him or his family can invite swift retribution.

Another defector said some people in the North have nevertheless been privately talking of Kim’s whereabouts after he failed to appear at a key state holiday on April 15, but only in very closed circles.

Kim’s absence from public ceremonies on the birth anniversary of his grandfather and founder of the country, Kim Il Sung, was unprecedented. That has led to days of speculation in the international community over his health and whether the nuclear-capable state was headed toward instability.

“I talked to my sister and my niece this morning and they had no clue about these reports and rumours about Kim Jong Un’s health,” Lee Soon-hee, 59, told Reuters on Monday. “When I told them, they were so cautious about discussing it. North Koreans have a very limited knowledge of these things.”

Lee defected to the South in 2009.

South Korean officials say they have not detected any “unusual movements” in North Korea, and one foreign resident living in Pyongyang told Reuters that life appeared to be going on as usual.

The South Korean minister in charge of North Korean affairs said on Tuesday fear of catching the coronavirus could have kept Kim away from the April 15 state ceremonies.

Kim Heung-kwang, who defected to South Korea in 2004 and now runs an academic group that researches North Korea, said he spoke to two contacts in North Korea about the speculation.

One, a government official, said that he had been wondering about Kim Jong Un’s lack of public appearances and had noticed an increase in calls from security officials to stay focused on internal policies, Kim Heung-kwang told Reuters.

Another person was not aware of the reports and warned him “not to be fooled by such lies,” Kim said.

Lim Hee-joo, a defector who runs a restaurant in Seoul, said almost no one in North Korea had any idea about Kim Jong Un’s health or whereabouts.

“Not even the people in the central party,” she said. “They are so scared that they don’t even think of looking into it or think about it, to begin with, as they fear they might get arrested.”

North Koreans are keenly aware they could face punishment for discussing the Kim family in any way except to shower them with glowing praise, said Sokeel Park, of Liberty in North Korea, a group that works with defectors.

“That doesn’t mean people don’t take that risk, some people do,” Park said. “But it’s still a super sensitive issue.”

“It’s a little like the pope not showing up for Christmas.” he said of Kim’s absence from the April 15 celebrations.

(Reporting by Josh Smith and Sangmi Cha; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

South Korean officials caution against reports that North Korean leader Kim is ill

By Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean officials are emphasising that they have detected no unusual movements in North Korea and are cautioning against reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be ill or is being isolated because of coronavirus concerns.

At a closed-door forum on Sunday, South Korea’s Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, who oversees engagement with the North, said the government has the intelligence capabilities to say with confidence that there were no indications of anything unusual.

Rumours and speculation over the North Korean leader’s health began after he failed to make a public appearance at a key state holiday on April 15, and has since remained out of sight.

South Korea media last week reported that Kim may have undergone cardiovascular surgery or was in isolation to avoid exposure to the coronavirus.

Unification Minister Kim cast doubt on the report of surgery, arguing that the hospital mentioned did not have the capabilities for such an operation.

Still, Yoon Sang-hyun, chairman of the foreign and unification committee in South Korea’s National Assembly, told a gathering of experts on Monday that Kim Jong Un’s absence from the public eye suggests “he has not been working as normally”.

“There has not been any report showing he’s making policy decisions as usual since April 11, which leads us to assume that he is either sick or being isolated because of coronavirus concerns,” Yoon said.

North Korea has said it has no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, but some international experts have cast doubt on that claim.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in vowed on Monday to step up cooperation to help the North prevent the spread of the coronavirus but made no mention of Kim’s health or whereabouts.

“I will find a path for the most realistic and practical inter-Korean cooperation,” Moon told a meeting with senior aides, marking the second anniversary of his first summit with Kim.

“The COVID-19 crisis could mean a new opportunity for inter-Korean cooperation, and that’s the most urgent and pressing task.”

‘ALIVE AND WELL’

On Monday, North Korean state media once again showed no new photos of Kim nor reported on his whereabouts.

However, they did carry reports that he had sent a message of gratitude to workers building a tourist resort in Wonsan, an area where some South Korean media reports have said Kim may be staying.

“Our government position is firm,” Moon Chung-in, a top foreign policy adviser to South Korean President Moon, said in comments to U.S. news outlets.

“Kim Jong Un is alive and well. He has been staying in the Wonsan area since April 13. No suspicious movements have so far been detected.”

In Washington, a U.S. official appeared to back the South Korean government officials’ assessment about Kim as well as their admonition against speculation.

“That’s good advice. The media should take what they’re saying seriously,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters. However, he declined to elaborate on the U.S. view of Kim’s situation.

Kim Byung-kee, a former intelligence official and now a member of South Korea’s parliamentary intelligence committee, also urged caution on speculation and said there is little possibility that Kim is ill and he would make a “surprise comeback soon.”

Satellite images from last week showed a special train possibly belonging to Kim at Wonsan, lending weight to those reports, according to 38 North, a Washington-based North Korea monitoring project.

Although the group said it was probably the North Korean leader’s personal train, Reuters has not been able to confirm that independently, or whether he was in Wonsan.

A spokeswoman for the Unification Ministry said on Monday she had nothing to confirm when asked about reports that Kim was in Wonsan.

Last week, China dispatched a team to North Korea including medical experts to advise on Kim Jong Un, according to three people familiar with the situation.

Reuters was unable to immediately determine what the trip by the Chinese team signalled in terms of Kim’s health.

When asked about the Reuters’ report on the medical team, China’s foreign ministry said on Monday it has no information to offer on Kim.

On Friday, a South Korean source told Reuters their intelligence was that Kim Jong Un was alive and would likely make an appearance soon.

Experts have cautioned that Kim has disappeared from state media coverage before, and that gathering accurate information in North Korea is notoriously difficult.

North Korea’s state media last reported on Kim’s whereabouts when he presided over a meeting on April 11.

Kim, believed to be 36, vanished from state media for more than a month in 2014 and North Korean state TV later showed him walking with a limp.

(Reporting by Josh Smith, Sangmi Cha, and Hyonhee Shin, additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Michael Perry, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Jonathan Oatis)

North Korea media silent on Kim’s whereabouts as speculation on health rages

By Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean state media on Wednesday made no mention of leader Kim Jong Un’s health or whereabouts, a day after intense international speculation over his health was sparked by media reports he was gravely ill after a cardiovascular procedure.

North Korean media presented a business as usual image, carrying routine reporting of Kim’s achievements and publishing some of his older, or undated, comments on issues like the economy.

South Korean and Chinese officials and sources familiar with U.S. intelligence have cast doubt on South Korean and U.S. media reports that he was seriously sick, while the White House said it was closely monitoring the matter.

However, on Wednesday one U.S. government source who had previously played down reports that Kim was seriously ill said it was a possibility that was now being looked at closely.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who held unprecedented summits with Kim in 2018 and 2019 in an attempt to persuade him to give up his nuclear weapons, said on Tuesday the reports had not been confirmed and he did not put much credence in them.

“We’ll see how he does,” Trump told a White House news conference. “We don’t know if the reports are true.”

Speculation about Kim’s health first arose due to his absence from the anniversary of the birthday of North Korea’s founding father and Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, on April 15.

On Wednesday, the main headlines from North Korea’s state news agency, KCNA, included pieces on sports equipment, mulberry picking, and a meeting in Bangladesh to study North Korea’s “juche” or self-reliance ideology.

The official Rodong Sinmun newspaper carried older or undated remarks attributed to Kim in articles about the economy, the textile industry, city development, and other topics.

As usual Kim’s name was plastered all over the newspaper. But there were no reports on his whereabouts.

Official media has however continued to report the sending of routine diplomatic letters by Kim, and KCNA said he sent a reply on Wednesday to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, thanking him for a message to mark the birthday of the North Korean leader’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung.

South Korea’s presidential Blue House said it could not confirm Kim’s whereabouts, or whether he had undergone surgery. It said South Korea had detected no unusual activity in North Korea.

‘EXTENDED SILENCE IS UNUSUAL’

Daily NK, a Seoul-based website, reported late on Monday that Kim, who is believed to be about 36, was hospitalised on April 12, hours before the cardiovascular procedure.

The report’s English-language version carried a correction on Tuesday to say the report was based on a single unnamed source in North Korea, not multiple as it earlier stated.

It said his health had deteriorated since August due to heavy smoking, obesity and overwork, and he was now receiving treatment at a villa in the Mount Myohyang resort north of the capital Pyongyang.

“It does look like something is going on, based on the repeated absences of last week,” said Chad O’Carroll, CEO of the Korea Risk Group, which monitors North Korea.

“A health issue seems to be the most logical explanation for all this, but whether or not it’s cardiac-related seems to be too early to tell.”

On Tuesday, CNN reported an unidentified U.S. official saying the United States was “monitoring intelligence” that Kim was in grave danger after surgery.

However, two South Korean government officials rejected the CNN report. China, North Korea’s only major ally, also dismissed the reports.

Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, told Fox News on Tuesday that the White House was monitoring the reports “very closely”.

“There’s lots of conjecture going around,” a senior Trump administration official said on condition of anonymity late on Tuesday when asked if there was confirmation of the reports.

North Korea experts have cautioned that hard facts about Kim’s condition are elusive but said his unprecedented absence from the celebrations for his grandfather’s birthday signalled that something may have gone awry.

Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean deputy ambassador to Britain who defected to South Korea in 2016, said state media’s extended silence was unusual because it had in the past been quick to dispel questions about the status of its leadership.

“Every time there is controversy about (Kim), North Korea would take action within days to show he is alive and well,” he said in a statement.

His absence from the April 15 anniversary ceremony, in particular, was “unprecedented”, Thae said.

Kim is a third-generation hereditary leader who rules North Korea with an iron fist, coming to power after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in 2011 from a heart attack.

(Reporting by Josh Smith, Sangmi Cha, and Hyonhee Shin; addtikonal repotrng by Mark Hosenball and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Alistair Bell)

U.S. monitors reports of North Korean leader’s illness; South Korea, China doubtful

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean and Chinese officials on Tuesday cast doubt on reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is ill after media outlets said he had undergone a cardiovascular procedure and was in “grave danger,” while U.S. officials said they were closely monitoring the situation.

Daily NK, a Seoul-based speciality website, reported late on Monday, citing one unnamed source in North Korea, that Kim was recovering after undergoing the procedure on April 12. The North Korean leader is believed to be about 36.

Two South Korean government officials rejected an earlier CNN report citing an unnamed U.S. official saying the United States was “monitoring intelligence” that Kim was in grave danger after surgery but they did not elaborate on whether Kim had undergone surgery. South Korea’s presidential Blue House said there were no unusual signs coming from North Korea.

Bloomberg News separately quoted an unnamed U.S. official as saying the White House was told that Kim had taken a turn for the worse after the surgery.

“We’re monitoring these reports very closely,” U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, told Fox News in an interview on Tuesday.

Asked about how any political succession would work in North Korea, O’Brien said, “The basic assumption would be maybe it would be someone in the family. But, again, it’s too early to talk about that because we just don’t know what condition Chairman Kim is in and we’ll have to see how it plays out.”

Kim is a third-generation hereditary leader who rules reclusive, nuclear-armed North Korea with an iron fist, holding the titles of head of state and commander in chief of the military since late 2011.

In recent years Kim has launched a diplomatic offensive to promote himself and his country as a world leader, holding three meetings with Trump, four with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and five with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Trump has described Kim as a friend but the unprecedented engagement by a U.S. president with a North Korean leader has failed to slow Kim’s nuclear weapons program, which now poses a threat to the United States.

Kim is the unquestioned leader of North Korea and the sole commander of its nuclear arsenal. He has no clear successor and any instability in the country could present a major international risk.

North Korea’s official KCNA news agency gave no indication of the whereabouts of Kim in routine dispatches on Tuesday, but said he had sent birthday gifts to prominent citizens.

Speaking to Reuters, an official at the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department, which deals with North Korea, expressed the belief that Kim was not critically ill. China is North Korea’s only major ally.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing was aware of reports about Kim’s health, but said it does not know their source, without commenting on whether it has any information about the situation.

Daily NK said Kim had been hospitalized on April 12, just hours before the cardiovascular procedure, as his health had deteriorated since August due to heavy smoking, obesity and overwork. It said he was now receiving treatment at a villa in the Mount Myohyang resort north of the capital Pyongyang.

“My understanding is that he had been struggling (with cardiovascular problems) since last August but it worsened after repeated visits to Mount Paektu,” a source was quoted as saying, referring to the country’s sacred mountain.

Kim took two well-publicised rides on a stallion on the snowy slopes of the mountain in October and December.

Speculation about Kim’s health first arose due to his absence from the anniversary of the birthday of its founding father and Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, on April 15.

KIM’S HEALTH KEY TO STABILITY

Authoritative U.S. sources familiar with internal U.S. government reporting on North Korea questioned the CNN report that Kim was in “grave danger”.

“Any credible direct reporting having to do with Kim would be highly compartmented intelligence and unlikely to leak to the media,” a Korea specialist working for the U.S. government said on condition of anonymity.

Reporting from inside North Korea is notoriously difficult, especially on matters concerning the country’s leadership, given tight controls on information. There have been false and conflicting reports in the past on matters related to its leaders.

Kim’s potential health issues could fuel uncertainty over the future of North Korea’s dynastic rule and stalled denuclearisation talks with the United States.

With no details known about his young children, analysts said his sister and loyalists could form a regency until a successor is old enough to take over.

Kim was the first North Korean leader to cross the border into South Korea to meet Moon in 2018. Both Koreas are technically still at war, as the Korean War of 1950-1953 ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.

Kim has sought to have international sanctions against his country eased, but has refused to dismantle his nuclear weapons programme.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Additional reporting by Josh Smith and Sangmi Cha in Seoul and Lisa Lambert, Susan Heavey, Steve Holland and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Jack Kim, Michael Perry, Paul Simao and Will Dunham)

North Korean leader absence from anniversary event fuels speculation over health

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s absence from an important anniversary event this week rekindled speculation over his potential health problems, analysts said on Friday.

North Korea on Wednesday marked the anniversary of the birthday of its national founder and Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, as a national holiday known as the Day of the Sun.

Senior officials paid tribute to the embalmed body of Kim Il Sung enshrined in the Kumsusan Palace of Sun, state media KCNA said on Thursday. But did not mention Kim as part of the delegation, unlike the past. He was also absent from photos released by party mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun.

His purported absence triggered speculation among experts that Kim, who is aged 36 and overweight, might be having health problems.

A spokeswoman at Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which handles North Korea affairs, said on Thursday it was aware that state media has not reported on Kim’s visit but declined to provide any analysis.

Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at South Korea’s Sejong Institute, said it was the first time in decades Kim’s visit to the palace on that holiday was not reported state media since he took power in late December.

“He has been going there on the birthdays of his grandfather and father to flaunt his royalty to them and sacred bloodline,” Cheong said.

“It is possible that there was a problem with his health or safety even if temporary, though it is difficult to assess how the situation might be.”

Pyongyang fired multiple short-range missiles on Tuesday which Seoul officials said was part of the celebration. Such military events would usually be observed by Kim, but there was no KCNA report on the test at all.

Kim was last publicly seen presiding over a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s politburo last Saturday.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

North Korea abandons nuclear freeze pledge, blames ‘brutal’ U.S. sanctions

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – North Korea said on Tuesday it was no longer bound by commitments to halt nuclear and missile testing, blaming the United States’ failure to meet a year-end deadline for nuclear talks and “brutal and inhumane” U.S. sanctions.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un set an end-December deadline for denuclearization talks with the United States and White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien said at the time the United States had opened channels of communication.

O’Brien said then he hoped Kim would follow through on denuclearization commitments he made at summits with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Ju Yong Chol, a counselor at North Korea’s mission to the U.N. in Geneva, said that over the past two years, his country had halted nuclear tests and test firing of inter-continental ballistic missiles “in order to build confidence with the United States”.

But the United States had responded by conducting dozens of joint military exercises with South Korea on the divided peninsula and by imposing sanctions, he said.

“As it became clear now that the U.S. remains unchanged in its ambition to block the development of the DPRK and stifle its political system, we found no reason to be unilaterally bound any longer by the commitment that the other party fails to honor,” Ju told the U.N.-backed Conference on Disarmament.

Speaking as the envoy from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), North Korea’s official name, Ju accused the United States of applying “the most brutal and inhumane sanctions”.

“If the U.S. persists in such hostile policy toward the DPRK there will never be the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” he said.

“If the United States tries to enforce unilateral demands and persists in imposing sanctions, North Korea may be compelled to seek a new path.”

U.S. military commanders said any new path could include the testing of a long-range missile, which North Korea has suspended since 2017, along with nuclear warhead tests.

“DO THE RIGHT THING”

U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood voiced concern at Pyongyang’s remarks and said Washington hoped the North would return to the negotiating table.

“What we hope is that they will do the right thing and come back to the table and try to work out an arrangement where by we can fulfill that pledge that was made by President Trump and Chairman Kim to denuclearize,” he said.

South Korean Ambassador Jang-keun Lee said there must be substantial progress in denuclearization to “maintain and build upon the hard-won momentum for dialogue”.

“Therefore, early resumption of negotiations between the United States and the DPRK is critical,” he said.

Vesna Batistic Kos, permanent representative of Croatia to the U.N. Office at Geneva speaking on behalf of the European Union, also called on North Korea to stick to the talks.

Pyongyang, slapped with multiple Security Council resolutions and sanctions, has rejected unilateral disarmament and given no indication that it is willing to go beyond statements of broad support for the concept of universal denuclearization.

North Korea has said in previous, failed talks that it could consider giving up its arsenal if the United States provided security guarantees by removing its troops from South Korea and withdrew its so-called nuclear umbrella of deterrence from South Korea and Japan.

Impoverished North Korea and the rich, democratic South are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

The North regularly used to threaten to destroy the South’s main ally, the United States, before rapprochement began after the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Jon Boyle and Nick Macfie)

North Korea’s leader promises ‘new strategic weapon,’ leaves room for talks

By Hyonhee Shin and Sangmi Cha

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s leader plans to further develop nuclear programs and to introduce a “new strategic weapon” in the near future, state media said on Wednesday, although he signaled there was still room for dialogue with the United States.

Kim Jong Un presided over a four-day meeting of top Workers’ Party officials this week amid rising tensions with the United States, which has not responded to his repeated calls for concessions to reopen negotiations. Washington has dismissed the deadline as artificial.

Kim said there were no grounds for North Korea to be bound any longer by a self-declared moratorium on testing nuclear bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), according to a statement on the results of the policy meeting carried by the official KCNA news agency.

At times smiling or striking the podium with his hand as he made remarks during the meeting, Kim accused the United States of making “gangster-like demands” and maintaining a “hostile policy”, such as by holding continued joint military drills with South Korea, adopting cutting edge weapons and imposing sanctions.

He pledged to continue bolstering his country’s nuclear deterrent but said the “scope and depth” of that deterrent will be “properly co-ordinated depending on” the attitude of the United States.

“The world will witness a new strategic weapon to be possessed by the DPRK in the near future,” Kim said, using the initials for North Korea’s official name – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“We will reliably put on constant alert the powerful nuclear deterrent capable of containing the nuclear threats from the U.S. and guaranteeing our long-term security.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said it would be “deeply disappointing” if Kim reneges on denuclearization commitments and Kim would hopefully “choose peace and prosperity over conflict and war.”

In his latest comments on Tuesday in the United States, President Donald Trump said he had a good relationship with Kim and thought the North Korean leader would keep his word.

“He likes me, I like him. We get along. He’s representing his country, I’m representing my country. We have to do what we have to do.

“But he did sign a contract, he did sign an agreement talking about denuclearization,” Trump told reporters at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry in charge of inter-Korean affairs said large-scale joint military drills with the United States had been halted and it would be unhelpful for negotiations if North Korea took action to introduce what it called a new strategic weapon.

There were no official reports as of early afternoon on Wednesday in South Korea that Kim had delivered an annual New Year’s address.

‘STRATEGIC WEAPONS’

Kim had previously said he might have to seek a “new path” if Washington failed to meet his expectations. U.S. military commanders said Pyongyang’s actions could include test firing an ICBM alongside nuclear warhead tests. North Korea last test fired an ICBM in 2017.

Jeffrey Lewis, a non-proliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, said it was difficult to predict North Korea’s next move. But it might involve firing a solid-fuel ICBM and an atmospheric nuclear test, he said.

However, Jeong Han-beom, who teaches security policy at Korea National Defense University in Seoul, said North Korea would not immediately stage such a provocative act as an ICBM or nuclear test because it could risk derailing negotiations.

Tension had been rising ahead of the year-end as North Korea conducted a series of weapons tests and waged a war of words with Trump.

The nuclear talks have made little headway despite three meetings between Kim and Trump since 2018. Working-level talks in Stockholm in October broke down, with a North Korean chief negotiator accusing U.S. officials of sticking to their old stance.

Kim said there will “never be denuclearization on the Korean peninsula” if Washington adheres to what he calls its hostile policy.

We “will steadily develop necessary and prerequisite strategic weapons for the security of the state until the U.S. rolls back its hostile policy towards the DPRK and lasting and durable peace-keeping mechanism is built,” Kim said.

He called for North Koreans to brace for an “arduous and prolonged struggle” and foster a self-reliant economy because of a delay in the anticipated lifting of sanctions.

“The present situation warning of long confrontation with the U.S. urgently requires us to make it a fait accompli that we have to live under the sanctions by the hostile forces in the future, too, and to strengthen the internal power from all aspects.”

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said the party assembly results made clear Kim wants U.S. security guarantees before taking substantial action toward denuclearization.

“And he is suggesting that he will take the bull by the horns to achieve that goal, while promoting self reliance at home and still being open to talks depending on how Trump handles ‘hostile policy,'” Yang said.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Jack Kim and Sangmi Cha; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington and Jeff Mason in Palm Beach, Florida; Editing by Grant McCool and Neil Fullick)

North Korea’s Kim to unveil ‘new path’ in New Year speech after U.S. misses deadline

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is set to make a closely watched New Year address on Wednesday which is likely to offer a glimpse of a “new path” he has vowed to take if the United States fails to meet his deadline to soften its stance over denuclearization.

The New Year address is expected to touch upon a wide range of issues from foreign affairs and military development to the economy and education.

In his 2019 speech, Kim said he might have to change course if Washington sticks to its pressure campaign and demands unilateral action, while stressing a “self-reliant” economy, a drive he has launched amid tightening sanctions.

The United States was on track to ignore a year-end deadline set by Kim, which Washington has downplayed as artificial, to show more flexibility to reopen talks aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

The upcoming speech is expected to be the culmination of an ongoing meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s 7th Central Committee, a key policy-making body, which Kim convened on Saturday. It was still under way on Tuesday, state media said.

Discussions at the gathering remain largely unknown, but official media KCNA said on Tuesday that Kim spent seven hours during a Monday session discussing state, economic and military building. On Sunday, he called for “positive and offensive measures” to ensure the country’s security.

“The Central Committee plenary meeting is meant to legitimize the process behind the policy decisions Kim Jong-un will announce in his New Year speech,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

“This meeting is to provide political justification for the economic and security policies Pyongyang will pursue in 2020.”

North Korea has provided few hints for what the “new path” may involve, but U.S. military commanders said Pyongyang next move could include the testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which it has halted since 2017, alongside nuclear bomb tests.

U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien warned Washington would be “extraordinarily disappointed” if North Korea tests a long-range or nuclear missile, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he hoped it would choose peace over confrontation.

“We still maintain our view that we can find a path forward to convince the leadership in North Korea that their best course of action is to create a better opportunity for their people by getting rid of their nuclear weapons. That’s our mission set,” Pompeo told Fox News on Monday.

The U.S. Air Force flew an RC-135 surveillance plane over South Korea on Monday and Tuesday, according to military flight tracker Aircraft Spots.

Despite mounting speculation over a potential military provocation, any restart of an ICBM test would risk a personal relationship with Trump, which Pyongyang has repeatedly touted while denouncing Pompeo and other aides, analysts say.

Cho Tae-yong, a former South Korean deputy national security advisor, said Kim had few options that can leave the Trump ties intact.

“In any case, North Korea would add a lot of caveats before and after testing to make sure they’re not intent on destroying the negotiating table and it was the Americans who betrayed them,” Cho told Reuters.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Michael Perry)