North Korea launches two suspected missiles after warnings to Washington

North Korea launches two suspected missiles after warnings to Washington
By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea fired two suspected missiles into the sea between the Korean peninsula and Japan on Thursday, according to military officials in Japan and South Korea, ending nearly a month-long lull in testing after denuclearization talks stalled.

The launches, which Japanese authorities identified as likely ballistic missiles, were the first since one day of talks between the United States and North Korea ended without an agreement on Oct. 5 in Sweden.

American officials have played down previous missile launches this year, saying they were short-range weapons.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has set an end-of-the-year deadline for denuclearization talks with Washington, however, and in a statement on Sunday North Korea said it would be a mistake for the United States to ignore that deadline.

A U.S. State Department spokesman said: “We are aware of reports of a North Korean missile launch. We are continuing to monitor the situation and consulting closely with our allies in Japan and South Korea.”

Analysts said the launches underscore how tense the situation has become after three meetings between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump – unprecedented top-level contact between the countries – failed to lead to any agreement over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

“Make no mistake, if there is no change in the current trajectory of U.S.-North Korea relations there is only one possible outcome: a long-range missile or nuclear weapons test by Pyongyang that will spark a crisis just like in 2017,” said Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest in Washington.

TWO PROJECTILES FIRED

The first of two “unidentified projectiles” was fired on Thursday at 4:35 p.m. local time (0735 GMT) from South Phyongan Province, in the center of North Korea, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a series of statements. A second projectile was detected at 4:38 p.m. (0738 GMT).

The projectiles traveled an estimated 370 kilometers (230 miles) and reached an altitude of 90 km (56 miles), the JCS said, calling them “short range”.

“Objects that appeared to be ballistic missiles were launched from North Korea,” Japan’s defense ministry said in a statement. “They did not land within our territory.”

An American air base at Misawa, 1,130 km (700 miles) north of Tokyo, posted a “real world missile alert” and urged personnel to seek shelter, before later issuing an “all clear”.

The afternoon launch timing was a departure from this year’s string of tests, which usually took place around dawn.

On Wednesday, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency cited an unnamed military source as saying that movements of transporter erector launchers (TEL), used to fire missiles, had been detected in North Korea.

South Korea’s National Security Council held an emergency meeting after the launch on Thursday, and expressed its concern about what it called “short-range projectiles”.

“Our military is maintaining a readiness posture while tracking and monitoring related developments in preparation for another launch,” the JCS said in a statement after the launches on Thursday.

The JCS called on North Korea to stop the launches because they were “unhelpful” for reducing tensions on the peninsula.

Kim Dong-yup, a former navy officer who teaches at Seoul’s Kyungnam University, said the launches could be a so-called “running test fire” of a recently developed multiple-rocket system, with the aim of fine-tuning the system for full production.

RISING TENSIONS

The launches occurred on the day that South Korean President Moon Jae-in attended the funeral of his mother, who died on Tuesday.

In a message delivered via the border village of Panmunjom late on Wednesday, North Korean leader Kim had expressed “deep condolences” and “consolation” over Moon’s loss, Moon’s office said on Thursday.

Relations between the two Koreas have cooled since a flurry of personal meetings between Moon and Kim last year, and denuclearization negotiations between North Korea and the United States appear stalled.

On Sunday, North Korea said there had been no progress in North Korea-United States relations.

North Korea has tested several new missile designs this year, including a new submarine-launched ballistic missile fired from a platform in the sea on Oct. 2.

It says the missiles are necessary to defend against new warplanes and weapons acquired by South Korea, including the advanced F-35 stealth fighter jet.

North Korea has also accused the United States and South Korea of continuing hostile policies, including military drills.

On Monday, South Korea began its annual Hoguk military exercises, which it says are for self defense.

North Korean state media, however, strongly criticized the drill as practice for invading the North, and said “South Korean military warmongers are driving the situation into an extreme one.”

Experts have said several of the new missiles tested this year by North Korea are designed to potentially evade missile defense systems deployed in South Korea and Japan.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Joyce Lee, and Josh Smith in Seoul, Ritsuko Ando and Tim Kelly in Tokyo, and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Gerry Doyle, Catherine Evans and Frances Kerry)

North Korea leader Kim invited Trump to Pyongyang in letter: report

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un invited U.S. President Donald Trump to visit Pyongyang in a letter sent in August amid stalled denuclearisation talks, a South Korean newspaper reported on Monday, citing diplomatic sources.

Kim, in the letter sent in the third week of August, spoke of his “willingness” for a third summit and extended an invitation for Trump to visit the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, the Joongang Ilbo newspaper reported, citing an unidentified source.

Trump on Aug. 9 said he had received a “very beautiful letter” from Kim.

But U.S. officials have not said anything about a second letter in August.

Trump and Kim have met three times since June last year to discuss ways to resolve a crisis over North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, but substantive progress has been scant.

Their first two meetings were formal summits, the second of which, in Vietnam in February, broke down after they failed to narrow a gap between U.S. demands for North Korean denuclearisation and a North Korean demand for relief from sanctions.

They met for a third time on June 30 in the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas and agreed to restart working-level talks but that has not happened.

Since the June meeting, North Korea has several times tested short-range projectiles.

The White House, the U.S. State Department and the North Korean mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the report.

‘THREATS AND HURDLES’

An unidentified director-general for U.S. affairs at North Korea’s foreign ministry said on Monday he hoped a “good meeting” with working-level U.S. officials would take place “in a few weeks”.

But whether a meeting would lead to a “crisis or chance” was up to the United States, the official said, calling for a more flexible approach.

“The discussion of denuclearisation may be possible when threats and hurdles endangering our system security and obstructing our development are clearly removed beyond all doubt,” the official said in a statement carried by North Korea’s official KCNA news agency.

North Korea’s vice foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, said last week Pyongyang was willing to have “comprehensive discussions” late this month.

Trump subsequently said he would be willing to meet Kim at some point this year.

South Korea’s foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, asked about the newspaper report, said there were “detailed explanations about such a letter” but declined to elaborate.

Kang said it could be “too much to expect” that Trump and Kim would meet before any working-level talks.

“No agreement was reached between the two leaders in Hanoi even after working-level negotiations,” Kang told a parliamentary panel.

“For the sake of the success of another summit, their working-level teams should meet and have primary discussions on the outcome of the summit,” Kang said.

(Reporting by Jack Kim and Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in NEW YORK and Arshad Mohammed in WASHINGTON; Editing by Robert Birsel)

North Korea changes constitution to solidify Kim Jong Un’s rule

FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un smiles as he guides missile testing at an unidentified location in North Korea, in this undated image provided by KCNA on August 7, 2019. KCNA via REUTERS

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s parliament has approved changes to the country’s constitution to solidify leader Kim Jong Un’s role as head of state, state media said on Thursday.

The move comes after Kim was formally named head of state and commander-in-chief of the military in a new constitution in July that analysts said was possibly aimed at preparing for a peace treaty with the United States.

North Korea has long called for a peace deal with the United States to normalize relations and end the technical state of war that has existed since the 1950-1953 Korean War, concluded with an armistice, rather than a peace treaty.

Kim’s legal status as “representing our state has been further consolidated to firmly ensure the monolithic guidance of the Supreme Leader over all state affairs,” state news agency KCNA quoted Choe Ryong Hae, president of the presidium of the supreme people’s assembly, or titular parliament, as saying.

The presidium president had historically been the nominal head of state.

But the new constitution said Kim, as chairman of the State Affairs Commission (SAC), a top governing body created in 2016, was the supreme representative of all the Korean people, which means head of state, as well as “commander-in-chief”.

A previous constitution simply called Kim “supreme leader” who commanded the country’s “overall military force”.

Thursday’s constitutional amendments appear to confirm that North Korea’s legal system will now recognize Kim as head of state.

The new constitution authorizes Kim to promulgate legislative ordinances and major decrees and decisions and appoint or recall diplomatic envoys to foreign countries, KCNA said.

“With the amendment, Kim Jong Un is reviving his grandfather’s head of state system,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute. “He has become a de facto head of state.”

In reality, Kim, a third-generation hereditary leader, rules North Korea with an iron fist and the title change will mean little to the way he wields power.

The back-to-back constitutional revision is unprecedented, said Rachel Minyoung Lee, an analyst with NK News, a website that tracks North Korea.

“By further bolstering the SAC chairman’s authority, Kim Jong Un has emerged as the most powerful leader in North Korean history,” she said.

There has been scant progress in the U.S. aim of getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program despite three meetings between President Donald Trump and Kim.

Trump has said he and Kim agreed at their last meeting to resume working-level talks, but these have yet to happen and North Korea has conducted multiple missile tests since while accusing Washington of breaking a pledge to stop joint military exercises with South Korea.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Hyunjoo Jin; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

‘We will make them pay’: North Korea launches missiles, condemns U.S.-South Korea drills

People watch a TV broadcasting a news report on North Korea firing two unidentified projectiles, in Seoul, South Korea, August 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Josh Smith and Joyce Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea fired missiles into the sea off its east coast for the fourth time in less than two weeks, South Korea said on Tuesday, as Pyongyang warned that hostile moves against it “have reached the danger line.”

The North, criticizing the U.S.-South Korean drills and their use of high-tech weapons, has fired a series of missiles and rockets since its leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed at a June 30 meeting to revive stalled denuclearization talks.

North Korea has said it is committed to diplomacy and it will wait until the end of the year for the United States to soften its policy of sanctions and political pressure over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

But if Washington and Seoul disregard North Korea’s repeated warnings, “we will make them pay (a) heavy price,” a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman said in a statement released through state news agency KCNA.

Trump has played down the tests by saying they did not break any agreement he had with Kim but the talks have yet to resume. Analysts believe the tests are designed both to improve North Korean military capabilities and to pressure Washington to offer more concessions.

“Part of what’s happening now is that North Korea is expressing frustrations with a general lack of progress on inter-Korean agenda while increasing leverage in U.S.-North Korea negotiations by demonstrating how its programs could and will continue to advance,” said Jenny Town, managing editor at 38 North, a website that tracks North Korea.

MULTIPLE MISSILE LAUNCHES

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said what appeared to be two short-range ballistic missiles were fired from near Kwail on North Korea’s west coast, about 125 km (80 miles) southwest of Pyongyang, in South Hwanghae province early on Tuesday. They were the fourth set of launches since July 25.

The missiles flew about 450 km (280 miles) and reached an altitude of 37 km (23 miles), the JCS said. U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies deemed they had similar flight characteristics to the short-range ballistic missiles launched by North Korea on July 25, it said.

Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at South Korea’s Kyungnam University, said the latest launch area was significant because the flight path of 450 km meant that all of South Korea was in range of such missiles.

“It becomes difficult to detect the origin of the launch in advance because it is capable of launching a missile from most anywhere in North Korea, targeting all of South Korea,” he said.

South Korea’s defense ministry said on Tuesday the missile launch went against the spirit of easing tension on the Korean peninsula.

A United Nations report said on Monday Pyongyang has continued to enhance its nuclear and missile programs and used cyberattacks to take in $2 billion to fund the development.

The missile tests represent military advances, as well as help Kim strengthen his bargaining power with the United States, said Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official focused on Korea.

“Kim believes he doesn’t need to compromise to get what he wants, doesn’t need to conduct serious negotiations at the working level because he has recourse to Trump, and doesn’t need to restrain any of his missile testing or actions abroad as long as he doesn’t test an intercontinental ballistic missile,” Jackson said.

‘DO US HARM’

The launches on July 25 were the first since Trump and Kim met at the heavily armed Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas on June 30. What was agreed at that meeting is now under scrutiny.

The North Korean foreign ministry spokesman said that the North remained committed to resolving issues through dialogue, but that the United States and South Korea’s joint military drills violate a pledge made by Trump to Kim.

Pyongyang “will be compelled to seek a new road as we have already indicated” if South Korea and the United States continue with hostile military moves, he said.

The arrival of new, U.S.-made F-35A stealth fighters in South Korea, the visit of a U.S. nuclear-powered submarine to a South Korean port, and U.S. tests of ballistic missiles are among the steps that have forced North Korea to continue its own weapons development, the spokesman said.

“The U.S. and South Korean authorities remain outwardly talkative about dialogue,” he said. “But when they sit back, they sharpen a sword to do us harm.”

South Korean media reported that U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises had started on Monday. A senior South Korean official said previously the drills would mainly involve computer simulations.

A JCS spokesman told a regular news briefing on Monday the allies were preparing for a joint exercise in the second half of the year but would not confirm the name of the drill or whether it had already started.

The testing of short-range missiles by North Korea is banned by a 2006 United Nations Security Council resolution demanding that North Korea suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program.

Japan’s defense ministry said it did not see any imminent threat to Japanese security from the latest projectile launch by North Korea.

(Reporting by Josh Smith and Joyce Lee; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON and Chris Gallagher in TOKYO; Editing by Paul Tait and Darren Schuettler)

Fire and fury: With missile launch, North Korea shows ire at neighbor

A view of North Korea's missile launch on Thursday, in this undated picture released by North Korea's Central News Agency (KCNA) on July 26, 2019. KCNA/via REUTERS

By Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s blistering criticism of South Korea as he oversaw his latest missile launch this week sparked new questions over the South’s role in mediating a nuclear deal between the North and the United States, analysts said.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been one of the most vocal proponents of engagement with the North, using last year’s Winter Olympics to host its delegations and then meeting Kim at summits filled with feel-good imagery, smiles, and hand-holding.

But Moon has been unable to convince Washington to ease sanctions and allow economic cooperation between the neighbors, nor has he persuaded Kim to take major steps toward giving up his nuclear weapons.

On Friday, North Korea called the previous day’s missile launches a warning to South Korean “warmongers” to stop importing weapons and holding joint military drills, with Kim explicitly urging Moon not to ignore them.

Kim may be impatient with what he sees as South Korea overpromising and underdelivering, said Jenny Town, a managing editor at 38 North, a U.S.-based project that studies North Korea.

“The North Koreans have made several statements challenging Moon to move forward, but obviously the situation has left Seoul unable to do so,” she said.

For his part, Moon said there had been “a lot of progress so far in inter-Korean relations and North Korea-U.S. relations, but we still have a long way to go.”

“I think the biggest challenge is national unity,” he added, in comments to a group of Buddhist leaders in Seoul.

North Korea’s growing frustration with its neighbor culminated in the missile tests as a protest against the South’s acquisition of new weapons, such as U.S. F-35 stealth fighters, and its participation in military drills with the United States.

Kim’s comments showed how skeptical North Korea has become regarding the South’s usefulness in talks with the United States, said Shin Beom-chul of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

“To them, the South Korean government is only a nuisance,” he said. “So the message is either ‘Persuade the United States,’ or ‘Stay out of it.'”

Overseeing Thursday’s launches, Kim Jong Un said the new missiles had to be developed to neutralize the weapons being acquired by South Korea and turn them into “scrap iron”.

South Korea’s acquisition of American F-35 stealth fighter jets, the first of which arrived in March, would force its neighbor to develop and test “special armaments” to destroy the aircraft, the North had warned in mid-July.

While Moon has faced some domestic concern that national security could be affected by his North Korean pacts, from a no-fly zone to fewer guard posts and landmines along the heavily fortified border, he has also pushed ahead with plans to modernize and invest in the South’s already large military.

In January the defense ministry unveiled a plan to boost military spending for the next five years by an additional 270.7 trillion won ($228 billion).

Still, some observers believe Kim Jong Un is leaving space for engagement by focusing on South Korea’s military.

“The state media report shows the North was still willing to maintain inter-Korean ties, as they mostly targeted the military forces, not the whole government,” said Kim Dong-yup, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Far East Institute in Seoul.

An official at Moon’s office said it would not comment on the state media report but the government remained committed to working to revive momentum for nuclear talks.

Poor relations have also prompted a show of reluctance by Pyongyang in accepting 50,000 tons of rice South Korea offered as food aid to its impoverished neighbor.

A South Korean official said the government discussed the plan with the World Food Programme, but Pyongyang had recently showed a “negative” attitude, citing the joint military drills.

Attempts to discuss two South Korean sailors detained by the North have also gone unanswered, the official added.

(Reporting by Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

North Korean leader’s slain half-brother was a CIA informant: Wall Street Journal

FILE PHOTO - Kim Jong Nam arrives at Beijing airport in Beijing, China, in this photo taken by Kyodo February 11, 2007. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un who was killed in Malaysia in 2017, had been an informant for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday.

The Journal cited an unnamed “person knowledgeable about the matter” for the report, and said many details of Kim Jong Nam’s relationship with the CIA remained unclear.

Reuters could not independently confirm the story. The CIA declined to comment.

The Journal quoted the person as saying “There was a nexus” between the CIA and Kim Jong Nam.

“Several former U.S. officials said the half brother, who had lived outside of North Korea for many years and had no known power base in Pyongyang, was unlikely to be able to provide details of the secretive country’s inner workings,” the Journal said.

The former officials also said Kim Jong Nam had been almost certainly in contact with security services of other countries, particularly China’s, the Journal said.

Kim Jong Nam’s role as a CIA informant is mentioned in a new book about Kim Jong Un, “The Great Successor,” by Washington Post reporter Anna Fifield that is due to be published on Tuesday. Fifield says Kim Jong Nam usually met his handlers in Singapore and Malaysia, citing a source with knowledge of the intelligence.

The book says that security camera footage from Kim Jong Nam’s last trip to Malaysia showed him in a hotel elevator with an Asian-looking man who was reported to be a U.S. intelligence agent. It said his backpack contained $120,000 in cash, which could have been payment for intelligence-related activities, or earnings from his casino businesses.

South Korean and U.S. officials have said the North Korean authorities had ordered the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, who had been critical of his family’s dynastic rule. Pyongyang has denied the allegation.

Two women were charged with poisoning Kim Jong Nam by smearing his face with liquid VX, a banned chemical weapon, at Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017. Malaysia released Doan Thi Huong, who is Vietnamese, in May, and Indonesian Siti Aisyah in March.

According to the Journal, the person said Kim Jong Nam had traveled to Malaysia in February 2017 to meet his CIA contact, although that may not have been the sole purpose of the trip.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un have met twice, in Hanoi in February and Singapore last June, seeming to build personal goodwill but failing to agree on a deal to lift U.S. sanctions in exchange for North Korea abandoning its nuclear and missile programs.

(This story has been refiled to correct “Ki’s” to “his” in paragraph 8)

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball and David Brunnstrom; Writing by Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Sandra Maler)

North Korea executes envoy in a purge after failed U.S. summit: media

FILE PHOTO - North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and Kim Yong Chol, Vice Chairman of the North Korean Workers' Party Committee, attend the extended bilateral meeting in the Metropole hotel with U.S. President Donald Trump and his delegation during the second North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi, Vietnam February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

By Hyonhee Shin and Joyce Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea executed its nuclear envoy to the United States as part of a purge of officials who steered negotiations for a failed summit between leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, a South Korean newspaper said on Friday.

Kim Hyok Chol was executed in March at Mirim Airport in Pyongyang, along with four foreign ministry officials after they were charged with spying for the United States, the Chosun Ilbo reported, citing an unidentified source with knowledge of the situation.

FILE PHOTO - Kim Hyok Chol, North Korea's special representative for U.S. affairs, leaves the Government Guesthouse in Hanoi, Vietnam, February 23, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

FILE PHOTO – Kim Hyok Chol, North Korea’s special representative for U.S. affairs, leaves the Government Guesthouse in Hanoi, Vietnam, February 23, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

“He was accused of spying for the United States for poorly reporting on the negotiations without properly grasping U.S. intentions,” the source was quoted as saying.

The February summit in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi, the second between Kim and Trump, failed to reach a deal because of conflicts over U.S. calls for complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and North Korean demands for sanctions relief.

Reuters was unable to independently confirm the report. Previously, North Korean officials have been executed or purged only to reappear with a new title, according to media reports.

A spokeswoman at South Korea’s Unification Ministry declined to comment. An official at the presidential Blue House in Seoul said it was inappropriate to comment on an unverified report.

The United States is attempting to check on the reports of the envoy’s execution, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during his visit to Berlin on Friday

When asked about reports of a “shakeup” of Kim Jong Un’s negotiating team in a May 5 interview with ABC News, Pompeo said it did appear that his future counterpart would be somebody else “but we don’t know that for sure.”

A diplomatic source told Reuters there were signs Kim Hyok Chol and other officials were punished, but there was no evidence they were executed and they may have been sent to a labor camp for re-education.

The newspaper reported that other officials had been punished, but not executed.

Kim Yong Chol, Kim Jong Un’s right-hand man and the counterpart to Pompeo before the Hanoi summit, had been sent to a labor and reeducation camp in Jagang Province near the Chinese border, the Chosun Ilbo reported.

Officials who worked with Kim Yong Chol have been out of the public eye since the summit, while seasoned diplomats who appeared to have been sidelined, including vice foreign minister Choe Son Hui, were seen returning to the spotlight.

A South Korean lawmaker told Reuters in April that Kim Yong Chol had been removed from a key party post.

RISE AND FALL

Kim Hyok Chol was seen as a rising star when he was appointed to spearhead working-level talks with U.S. nuclear envoy Stephen Biegun weeks before the Hanoi summit.

However, little was known about his expertise or his role in the talks. The four executed alongside him included diplomats working on relations with Vietnam, the Chosun report said.

“This is a man who might provide some tactical advice to the leader but is otherwise a message bearer with little negotiating or policymaking latitude,” said Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership expert at the Washington-based Stimson Center.

“Instead, they put in someone like Kim Hyok Chol to insulate Choe Son Hui and more substantive diplomatic personnel, to a certain degree he is expendable and his superiors are not.”

The penalized members of Kim Yong Chol’s team included Kim Song Hye, who led the preparations, and Sin Hye Yong, a newly elevated interpreter for the Hanoi summit. They were said to have been detained in a camp for political prisoners, the newspaper said.

The diplomatic source said Kim Song Hye’s punishment seemed inevitable because she was a “prime author” of the North’s plan to secure sanctions relief in return for dismantling the Yongbyon main nuclear complex.

The idea was rejected by the United States which demanded a comprehensive roadmap for denuclearization.

Kim Song Hye had also worked closely with Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader’s younger sister and a senior party official whom Kim Song Hye accompanied to South Korea for the Winter Olympics last year.

Kim Yo Jong was also lying low, the paper reported, citing an unidentified South Korean government official.

Madden, however, said Kim Yo Jong’s status was unchanged as Kim Jong Un’s top aide, citing her attendance at key party meetings in April and appearance in state media reports.

Sin Hye Yong was charged with making critical interpretation mistakes that included missing an unspecified “last-minute offer” the North Korean leader supposedly made as Trump was about to walk out, Chosun reported.

‘TWO-FACED’

North Korea’s official party mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun warned on Thursday that “two-faced” officials would face the “stern judgment of the revolution”.

“It is an anti-Party, anti-revolutionary act to pretend to be revering the leader in front of him when you actually dream of something else,” it said in a commentary.

Hong Min, a senior fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said it was possible Kim Hyok Chol and other officials faced some penalty but further verification was needed.

“Executing or completely removing people like him would send a very bad signal to the United States because he was the public face of the talks and it could indicate they are negating all they have discussed,” Hong said.

(Reporting by Joyce Lee and Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in BERLIN and Hyunjoo Jin in SEOUL; Editing by Paul Tait, Lincoln Feast and Darren Schuettler)

Malaysia frees Vietnamese woman accused of killing North Korean leader’s half-brother

FILE PHOTO: Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, who was a suspect in the murder case of North Korean leader's half brother Kim Jong Nam, leaves the Shah Alam High Court on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 14, 2019. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin

By Rozanna Latiff

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – A Vietnamese woman who spent more than two years in a Malaysian prison on suspicion of killing the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was freed on Friday, her lawyer said.

Doan Thi Huong, 30, was charged along with an Indonesian woman with poisoning Kim Jong Nam by smearing his face with liquid VX, a banned chemical weapon, at Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017.

Malaysian prosecutors dropped a murder charge against Huong last month after she pleaded guilty to an alternate charge of causing harm. Huong will return to Vietnam later on Friday, her lawyer, Hisyam Teh, told Reuters.

In a handwritten letter, Huong thanked the governments of Malaysia and Vietnam, as well as those involved in her trial and imprisonment, for “all the support”.

“I’m very happy and thank you all a lot. I love you all,” Huong said in the letter shown by her lawyers at an airport press conference before her flight.

Huong’s whereabouts were not known, but Teh said immigration officials would escort her to the plane.

She will be accompanied by her lawyers and embassy officials on the flight to Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, Teh said.

“The case has come to a complete end, as far as Doan is concerned,” he said, using Huong’s surname.

Huong’s co-accused, Siti Aisyah, was freed in March after prosecutors also dropped a murder charge against her.

South Korean and U.S. officials have said the North Korean regime had ordered the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, who had been critical of his family’s dynastic rule. Pyongyang has denied the allegation.

Defense lawyers have maintained the women were pawns in an assassination orchestrated by North Korean agents. The women said they thought they were part of a reality prank show and did not know they were poisoning Kim.

Four North Korean men were also charged but they left Malaysia hours after the murder and remain at large.

Malaysia was criticized for charging the two women with murder – which carries a mandatory death penalty in the Southeast Asian nation – when the key perpetrators were still being sought.

Huong’s father, Doan Van Thanh, said he and her brother would be in Hanoi to welcome her home.

“I am so happy now, my whole village is happy now,” Thanh told Reuters by telephone.

“We will hold a party on Sunday and anyone can come and join the party. We will slaughter some pigs for the party. My daughter particularly likes fried fish, so we will prepare that too,” he said.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Additional reporting by Khanh Vu in HANOI; Writing by Joe Brock and Joseph Sipalan; Editing by Paul Tait and Darren Schuettler)

North Korean leader warns of a return to tension, blames U.S. ‘bad faith’

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok, Russia in this undated photo released on April 25, 2019 by North Korea's Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA via REUTERS

By Joyce Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un told Russian President Vladimir Putin peace and security on the Korean peninsula depended on the United States, warning that a state of hostility could easily return, North Korean media said on Friday.

Kim’s remarks, at talks with Putin in Vladivostok on Thursday, will likely add to pressure on the United States to be more flexible on a North Korean demand for an easing of international sanctions.

A second summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in Vietnam in February collapsed with no progress on a U.S. demand that the North give up its nuclear program and a North Korean demand for an easing of sanctions.

The North Korean leader has said he would wait until the end of the year for the United States to be more flexible.

“The situation on the Korean peninsula and the region is now at a standstill and has reached a critical point where it may return to its original state as the U.S. took a unilateral attitude in bad faith at the recent second DPRK-U.S. summit talks,” North Korea’s KCNA reported Kim as saying.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is North Korea’s official name.

“The DPRK will gird itself for every possible situation.” KCNA quoted Kim as saying.

The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for a comment.

William Hagerty, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, told a Washington think-tank that Kim’s contact with Russia and China was part of an effort to seek relief from international sanctions.

“The fact you see Kim Jong Un meeting with Vladimir Putin underscores the fact that the sanctions are working and the sanctions are putting extreme economic pressure on the North Korean regime,” Hagerty said.

“What we see is an outreach to try to find a way to deal with it. There is a much simpler way to deal with it and that is to denuclearize,” he said.

He said it was important the international community enforced U.N. sanctions against North Korea that were imposed because of its nuclear and missile programs.

SECURITY GUARANTEES

On Friday, Kim joined officials to lay a wreath at a navy memorial at Vladivostok bay.

The first face-to-face talks between Putin and Kim, held on an island off the Russian Pacific city, did not appear to yield any major breakthrough.

The two discussed ways to promote strategic communication and tactical collaboration in the course of ensuring peace and security on the Korean peninsula and beyond, KCNA said.

Putin said he thought a deal on North Korea’s nuclear program was possible and the way to achieve it was to move forward step by step to build trust.

But any U.S. security guarantees to North Korea might need to be supported by other nations involved in previous six-way talks on the issue, Putin said.

Russia was for years a participant in six-party talks aimed at persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear program. The talks, which included the two Koreas, the United States, China and Japan, have not been held since 2009.

“They only need guarantees about their security. That’s it. All of us together need to think about this,” Putin told reporters after talks with Kim, referring to North Korea.

Such guarantees would have to be international, legally binding, and vouch for North Korea’s sovereignty, Putin said.

Russia and North Korea agreed to increase cooperation in various areas and Kim invited Putin to visit North Korea, and he accepted, KCNA said. No date was announced.

“North Korea seems to be trying to expand its negotiating position with the U.S.,” said South Korea’s ambassador to the United States, Cho Yoon-je, according to the Yonhap news agency.

“The U.S. continues to send a message to North Korea through channels at every level that it is open to dialogue … The expectation seems to be that the North may respond once the Chairman Kim Jong Un’s diplomatic schedule is completed.”

(Reporting by Joyce Lee; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON, Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL and Maria Vasilyeva in VLADIVOSTOK; Editing by Jack Kim, Robert Birsel)

‘A target on the back’: North Korea embassy raid thrusts shadowy group into the spotlight

FILE PHOTO: A Spanish National Police car is seen outside the North Korea's embassy in Madrid, Spain February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Sergio Perez/File Photo

By Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – A shadowy group seeking to overthrow North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been thrust into the international spotlight after a Spanish court investigating a break-in at North Korea’s embassy in Madrid named apparent members as suspects.

Cheollima Civil Defense, also known as Free Joseon, first went public in 2017, when it said it was protecting the family of Kim Jong Un’s half brother Kim Jong Nam, who was murdered in a Malaysian airport.

Spanish authorities unsealed court documents on Tuesday accusing at least 10 individuals of storming into the embassy, restraining and beating some staff members and holding them hostage for hours before fleeing with stolen computers and hard drives. Such an action would be one of the most militant operations ever carried out by activists opposed to North Korea’s government.

“Parties seeking to ‘out’ those in Madrid have painted a target on the backs of those seeking only to protect others,” Cheollima Civil Defense said in a website post, apparently acknowledging for the first time its involvement in the raid. “They have chosen to side with Pyongyang’s criminal, totalitarian rulers over their victims.”

It disputed police allegations that weapons or violence were used in the break-in.

Lee Wolosky, an American attorney who represents Free Joseon, said in a statement that the Spanish court “purported to reach conclusions without any input from representatives” of the group.

“There are a number of statements attributed to the judge in media reports that do not accurately reflect what happened in Madrid,” he continued, without elaborating. “It was, in any event, highly irresponsible to disclose publicly the names of people who are working in opposition to a brutal regime that routinely and summarily executes its enemies.”

Of the 10 suspects, the documents listed the names and birth dates of seven, including citizens of Mexico, the United States, and South Korea. All but one are under 30 years old.

The identification of at least some of the individuals in the group may have undermined their cause and perhaps endangered their lives, analysts and activists said.

“It was too risky,” said one South Korean human rights activist who previously worked with one of the suspects. “Now that their identities are known, they won’t be able to carry out activities as before.”

NORTH KOREA ACTIVIST

The Mexican national named by Spanish authorities as one of the embassy raid’s leaders, Adrian Hong, is a longtime activist who helped found the refugee aid organization Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), and later led an organization preparing for an “imminent, dramatic change” in the country, analysts said.

Spanish court documents said Hong played a leading role in the break-in, and that after fleeing to the United States he contacted the FBI to offer information that had been stolen.

Hong could not be reached for immediate comment.

Hong was among several LiNK activists who were arrested and deported from China in late 2006 as they were trying to help a party of North Korean refugees escape.

In a statement on Tuesday, LiNK said Hong had not been involved in any way with the group for more than 10 years and LiNK had no information on his current activities.

Hong told a newspaper in the United Arab Emirates in 2011 that the Arab Spring uprisings then unfolding were “a dress rehearsal for North Korea”.

Kang Cheol-hwan, a defector and founder of the North Korea Strategy Centre in Seoul, said Hong went so far as to travel to Libya to research the aftermath of Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster.

FREE JOSEON

Cheollima Civil Defense takes its name from a winged horse commonly featured in East Asian mythology. Free Joseon, meanwhile, references the last Korean dynasty, and a name that North Korea still often uses to refer to itself.

On its website, the group used soaring language to declare itself the “a provisional government” of Free Joseon as “the sole legitimate representative of the Korean people of the north.”

The website also began to sell “post-liberation blockchain visas” that can be bought with cryptocurrency, and on March 11 it claimed responsibility for defacing the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

North Korea has not publicly commented on the Madrid break-in, nor filed a complaint with Spanish police.

The group’s brazen actions led some to speculate that there could be serious dissent against Kim Jong Un taking shape. But other analysts were more skeptical, and say there are lingering questions over possible ties to foreign intelligence agencies.

“I’m still inclined to believe there was some professional involvement because taking over a foreign mission is not an easy operation,” said Korea Risk Group director Andrei Lankov.

“They took computers and hard disks, but if you don’t have highly specialized capabilities for breaking the codes, it’s probably not going to be useful to anyone but major intelligence agencies.”

Cheollima Civil Defense said on Tuesday that no governments were involved or were aware of the embassy operation beforehand. It said it had shared “certain information of enormous potential value” with the FBI at the agency’s request, but that agreements of confidentiality “appear to have been broken”.

The U.S. State department said on Tuesday the U.S. government was not involved in the raid.

(Reporting by Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin; Jonathan Landay contributed from Washington; Editing by Alex Richardson and Jonathan Oatis)