North Korea called ‘extraordinary threat’ in Trump missile defense review

FILE PHOTO: Intercontinental ballistic missiles are seen at a grand military parade celebrating the 70th founding anniversary of the Korean People's Army at the Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) February 9, 2018. KCNA/via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump is due to unveil a revamped missile defense strategy on Thursday that singles out North Korea as an ongoing “extraordinary threat,” seven months after he declared that the nuclear threat had been eliminated.

“While a possible new avenue to peace now exists with North Korea, it continues to pose an extraordinary threat and the United States must remain vigilant,” the report said in its executive summary, which was reviewed by Reuters ahead of its release on Thursday.

The Missile Defense Review is a sweeping examination of efforts to shield America from missile threats. It singles out concerns about advancing capabilities by North Korea, Iran, Russia and China.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by James Dalgleish)

North Korea envoy headed to U.S. to meet Pompeo, possibly Trump: source

Senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol (R) arrives at the international airport as he leaves for Washington from Beijing, China January 17, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee

By Matt Spetalnick and Joyce Lee

WASHINGTON/SEOUL (Reuters) – A North Korean envoy was headed for Washington on Thursday for expected talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a possible encounter with President Donald Trump to lay the groundwork for a second U.S.-North Korea summit, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Kim Yong Chol, Pyongyang’s lead negotiator in denuclearization talks with the United States, was due to meet Pompeo on Friday, the source said, the first major sign of potential movement in a diplomatic effort that had appeared stalled for months.

The North Korean visit could yield an announcement of plans for another summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who held a first meeting in June in Singapore, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

There has been no indication, however, of any narrowing of differences over U.S. demands that North Korea abandon a nuclear weapons program that threatens the United States or over Pyongyang’s demand for a lifting of punishing sanctions.

Kim Yong Chol boarded a flight in Beijing for Washington on Thursday and was expected to arrive in the U.S. capital in the early evening, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said earlier.

Pompeo had planned to meet his North Korean counterpart to discuss a second summit last November, but the meeting was postponed at the last moment.

Kim Yong Chol was last in Washington in June, when he delivered a letter from Kim Jong Un to Trump that opened the way for the June 12 Singapore summit.

Trump, who has been keen to hold a second summit despite a lack of obvious progress, could meet again with the North Korean envoy. While such an encounter was being discussed, it has not yet been confirmed, the person familiar with the matter said.

“We have no meetings to announce at this time,” a State Department spokesman said when asked about the expected North Korean visit.

“CONCRETE STEPS”

On Wednesday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence acknowledged that efforts to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal had not made headway.

“While the president is promising dialogue with Chairman Kim, we still await concrete steps by North Korea to dismantle the nuclear weapons that threaten our people and our allies in the region,” Pence said in an address to U.S. ambassadors and other senior American diplomats at the State Department.

CNN quoted a source familiar with the U.S.-North Korea talks as saying that Kim Yong Chol would be carrying a new letter from Kim Jong Un to Trump.

Chinese and South Korean envoys on Korean peninsula affairs met in Seoul on Thursday, South Korea’s foreign ministry said. Kong Xuanyou and Lee Do-Hoon were expected to have discussed ways to achieve denuclearization.

In Singapore last year, Kim Jong Un pledged in broad terms to work toward denuclearization of the Korean peninsula but he has resisted any tangible moves in that direction.

Diplomatic contact was resumed after the North Korean leader delivered a New Year speech in which he said he was willing to meet Trump “at any time,” South Korea’s ambassador to the United States, Cho Yoon-je, told reporters last week.

(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Nick Macfie and Phil Berlowitz)

Hours after U.S. troops killed in Syria, Pence says Islamic State defeated

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks to the news media outside the West Wing with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Sen. John Thune (R-SD) after a meeting with President Donald Trump and congressional leadership about the partial government shutdown at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 9, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

By Lesley Wroughton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Islamic State has been defeated in Syria, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Wednesday, hours after Americans were killed in a northern Syria bomb attack claimed by the militant group.

Pence did not mention the attack in his address to 184 chiefs of U.S. diplomatic missions who gather annually in Washington from around the world to discuss foreign policy strategy.

“The caliphate has crumbled and ISIS has been defeated,” Pence told the U.S. ambassadors and other senior American diplomats, referring to Islamic State.

In separate statements later, both the White House and Pence condemned the attack and expressed sympathy for the deaths of the U.S. personnel.

The Pentagon said two U.S. servicemembers, a Department of Defense civilian employee and one contractor working for the military were killed and three servicemembers were injured in the blast in the northern Syria town of Manbij.

An Islamic State-affiliated website said the attack was the work of a suicide bomber.

Trump made a surprise announcement on Dec. 19 that he would withdraw 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria after concluding that Islamic State had been defeated there. His decision led to the resignation of U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who cited policy differences with the president for his departure.

FILE PHOTO: A Syrian national flag flutters next to the Islamic State's slogan at a roundabout where executions were carried out by ISIS militants in the city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria in this April 1, 2016 file photo. Omar Sanadiki/Files/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A Syrian national flag flutters next to the Islamic State’s slogan at a roundabout where executions were carried out by ISIS militants in the city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria in this April 1, 2016 file photo. Omar Sanadiki/Files/File Photo

LACK OF PROGRESS

Despite talks of a second leaders’ summit between Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, Pence acknowledged that efforts to convince Pyonyang to give up its nuclear arsenal had not made headway.

“While the president is promising dialogue with Chairman Kim we still await concrete steps by North Korea to dismantle the nuclear weapons that threaten our people and our allies in the region,” he said.

The vice president also criticized China’s “unfair” trade practices and loans to developing countries that pushed up their debt levels as it tries to gain greater influence in the world.

“The truth is that too often in recent years China has chosen a path that disregards the laws and norms that have kept the world state prosperous for more than half a century,” he said. “The days of the United States looking the other way are over,” he added.

Pence said the administration’s foreign policy was based on Trump’s “America First” agenda. “No longer will the United States government pursue grandiose, unrealistic notions at the expense of American people,” he said.

He acknowledged that Trump’s foreign policy was “different from what the world has come to expect” and that the United States faced different threats than during the Cold War.

“Today we are not up against one superpower but several great powers competing with us for preeminence across the world,” he said, saying the United States faced a “wolf pack” of rogue states including Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Tom Brown and Cynthia Osterman)

‘The whole country is a prison’: No sign of better rights in North Korea – U.N.

Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea Tomas Ojea Quintana arrives at a news conference in Seoul, South Korea, January 11, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – Despite more than a year of international engagement and promises of economic reform by North Korea’s leaders, the human rights situation in the isolated country remains dire, a top U.N. rights official said on Friday.

Blocked by the government from visiting North Korea, U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in North Korea Tomas Quintana visited South Korea this week as part of an investigation that will be provided to the U.N. Human Rights Council in March.

Noting that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has embarked on an effort to improve living conditions by focusing on economic development, Quintana said his preliminary findings showed those efforts had not translated into improvements in the lives of most people.

“The fact is, that with all the positive developments the world has witnessed in the last year, it is all the more regrettable that the reality for human rights on the ground remains unchanged, and continues to be extremely serious,” he told reporters at a briefing in Seoul.

“In all areas related to the enjoyment of economic and social rights, including health, housing, education, social security, employment, food, water and sanitation, much of the country’s population is being left behind.”

North Korea denies human rights abuses and says the issue is used by the international community as a political ploy to isolate it.

Human rights were noticeably absent from talks between Kim and the leaders of South Korea and the United States last year, over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

But in December, the United States imposed sanctions on an additional three North Korean officials, including a top aide to Kim, for serious rights abuses and censorship.

North Korea’s foreign ministry warned in a statement after the December sanctions were announced, that the measures could lead to a return to exchanges of fire and North Korea’s disarming could be blocked forever.

While noting he had “no specific information” on whether international sanctions were hurting ordinary North Koreans, Quintana said the sanctions targeted the economy as a whole and “raised questions” about the possible impact on the public.

He cited a reference by Kim in his New Year message to the need to improve living standards, saying it was a rare acknowledgment of the economic and social hardships faced by many North Koreans.

Still, the United Nations has confirmed the continued use of political prison camps housing “thousands” of inmates, Quintana said, quoting one source as saying “the whole country is a prison”.

He said witnesses who recently left North Korea reported facing widespread discrimination, labor exploitation and corruption in daily life.

There is also a “continuing pattern of ill-treatment and torture” of defectors who escaped to China only to be returned to North Korea by Chinese authorities, Quintana said.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Robert Birsel)

U.S. and North Korean officials met in Hanoi to discuss second Trump-Kim summit: South Korean newspaper

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walk after lunch at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

SEOUL (Reuters) – U.S. State Department officials recently met multiple times with North Korean counterparts in Hanoi and discussed planning a second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a South Korean newspaper reported on Monday.

U.S. officials discussed the schedule for the second Trump-Kim summit while in contact with North Korean officials in the Vietnamese capital city, fuelling speculation that Vietnam could host the event, the Munhwa Ilbo reported, citing unnamed diplomatic sources in Seoul and Washington.

Vietnam has diplomatic relations with both the United States and North Korea, with North Korea maintaining a diplomatic office in Vietnam, and has the symbolic significance of a communist country that has reformed its economy, the newspaper reported.

A spokesperson for the U.S Embassy in Seoul did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

On Sunday, Trump told reporters in Washington that the United States and North Korea are negotiating a location for a second summit.

“It will be announced probably in the not too distant future,” Trump said. They do want to meet and we want to meet and we’ll see what happens.”

While the two sides had a very good dialogue and the American president had communicated with Kim, Trump said sanctions would be enforced until more progress is made.

In a nationally televised New Year address, Kim said he is willing to meet Trump again anytime to achieve their common goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, but warned he may have to take an alternative path if U.S. sanctions and pressure against the country continued.

“I am always ready to sit together with the U.S. president anytime in the future, and will work hard to produce results welcomed by the international community without fail,” Kim said.

(Reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Michael Perry)

Kim says ready to meet Trump ‘anytime,’ warns of ‘new path’

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un poses for photos in Pyongyang in this January 1, 2019 photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA/via REUTERS.

By Hyonhee Shin and Soyoung Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said on Tuesday he is ready to meet U.S. President Donald Trump again anytime to achieve their common goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, but warned he may have to take an alternative path if U.S. sanctions and pressure against the country continued.

In a nationally televised New Year address, Kim said denuclearization was his “firm will” and North Korea had “declared at home and abroad that we would neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them.”

Kim added that Pyongyang had “taken various practical measures” and if Washington responded “with trustworthy measures and corresponding practical actions … bilateral relations will develop wonderfully at a fast pace.”

“I am always ready to sit together with the U.S. president anytime in the future, and will work hard to produce results welcomed by the international community without fail,” Kim said.

However, he warned that North Korea might be “compelled to explore a new path” to defend its sovereignty if the United States “seeks to force something upon us unilaterally … and remains unchanged in its sanctions and pressure.”

It was not clear what Kim meant by “a new path,” but his comments are likely to further fuel skepticism over whether North Korea intends to give up a nuclear weapons program that it has long considered essential to its security.

In response to the news, Trump wrote on Twitter, “I also look forward to meeting with Chairman Kim who realizes so well that North Korea possesses great economic potential!”

There was no immediate comment from the White House. Asked for a reaction, a U.S. State Department official said: “We decline the opportunity to comment.”

South Korea’s presidential office, however, welcomed Kim’s speech, saying it carried his “firm will” to advance relations with Seoul and Washington.

Kim and Trump vowed to work toward denuclearization and build “lasting and stable” peace at their landmark summit in Singapore in June, but little progress has been made since.

Trump has said a second summit with Kim is likely in January or February, though he wrote on Twitter last month that he was “in no hurry.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made several trips to Pyongyang last year but the two sides have yet to reschedule a meeting between him and senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol after an abrupt cancellation in November.

Pyongyang has demanded Washington lift sanctions and declare an official end to the 1950-1953 Korean War in response to its initial, unilateral steps toward denuclearization, including dismantling its only known nuclear testing site and a key missile engine facility.

SANCTIONS

U.S. officials have said the extent of initial North Korean steps were not confirmed and could be easily reversed. Washington has halted some large-scale military exercises with Seoul to aid negotiations but has called for strict global sanctions enforcement on impoverished North Korea until its full, verifiable denuclearization.

Kim’s reference to pledges not to make nuclear weapons could indicate a first moratorium on such weapons production, although it was not clear if this was conditional. While Pyongyang conducted no nuclear or missile tests last year, satellite images have pointed to continued activity at related facilities.

The U.S. special representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, reiterated last month that Washington had no intention of easing sanctions but had agreed to help South Korea send flu medication to North Korea, saying such cooperation could help advance nuclear diplomacy.

Analysts said Kim’s message sent clear signals that North Korea was willing to stay in talks with Washington and Seoul this year – but on its own terms.

“North Korea seems determined in 2019 to receive some sort of sanctions relief … The challenge, however, is will Team Trump be willing to back away from its position of zero sanctions relief?” said Harry Kazianis of the Washington-based Centre for the National Interest.

“Kim’s remarks seem to suggest his patience with America is wearing thin.”

After racing toward the goal of developing a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the United States in 2017, Kim used last year’s New Year speech to warn that “a nuclear button is always on the desk of my office” and order mass production of nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles.

But he also offered to send a delegation to the 2018 Winter Olympics in the South in February, setting off a flurry of diplomacy that included three summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and the meeting with Trump in June.

This year, Kim said inter-Korean relations had entered a “completely new phase,” and offered to resume key inter-Korean economic projects banned under international and South Korean sanctions, without conditions.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Soyoung Kim and Hyunyoung Yi; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom and David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Stephen Coates and Paul Simao)

Mystery hacker steals data on 1,000 North Korean defectors in South

FILE PHOTO: A North Korean flag flutters on top of a 160-metre tower in North Korea's propaganda village of Gijungdong, in this picture taken from the Tae Sung freedom village near the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), inside the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – The personal information of nearly 1,000 North Koreans who defected to South Korea has been leaked after unknown hackers got access to a resettlement agency’s database, the South Korean Unification Ministry said on Friday.

The ministry said it discovered last week that the names, birth dates and addresses of 997 defectors had been stolen through a computer infected with malicious software at an agency called the Hana center, in the southern city of Gumi.

“The malware was planted through emails sent by an internal address,” a ministry official told reporters on condition of anonymity, due to the sensitivity of the issue, referring to a Hana center email account.

The Hana center is among 25 institutes the ministry runs around the country to help some 32,000 defectors adjust to life in the richer, democratic South by providing jobs, medical and legal support.

Defectors, most of whom risked their lives to flee poverty and political oppression, are a source of shame for North Korea. Its state media often denounces them as “human scum” and accuses South Korean spies of kidnapping some of them.

The ministry official declined to say if North Korea was believed to have been behind the hack, or what the motive might have been, saying a police investigation was under way to determine who did it.

North Korean hackers have in the past been accused of cyber attacks on South Korean state agencies and businesses.

North Korea stole classified documents from the South’s defense ministry and a shipbuilder last year, while a cryptocurrency exchange filed for bankruptcy following a cyber attack linked to the North.

North Korean state media has denied those cyber attacks.

The latest data breach comes at a delicate time for the two Koreas which have been rapidly improving their relations after years of confrontation.

The Unification Ministry said it was notifying the affected defectors and there were no reports of any negative impact of the data breach.

“We’re sorry this has happened and will make efforts to prevent it from recurring,” the ministry official said.

Several defectors, including one who became a South Korean television celebrity, have disappeared in recent years only to turn up later in North Korean state media, criticizing South Korea and the fate of defectors.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Chinese hacking against U.S. on the rise: U.S. intelligence official

A staff member sets up Chinese and U.S. flags for a meeting in Beijing, China April 27, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee

By Jim Finkle and Christopher Bing

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A senior U.S. intelligence official warned on Tuesday that Chinese cyber activity in the United States had risen in recent months, and the targeting of critical infrastructure in such operations suggested an attempt to lay the groundwork for future disruptive attacks.

”You worry they are prepositioning against critical infrastructure and trying to be able to do the types of disruptive operations that would be the most concern,” National Security Agency official Rob Joyce said in response to a question about Chinese hacking at a Wall Street Journal conference.

Joyce, a former White House cyber advisor for President Donald Trump, did not elaborate or provide an explanation of what he meant by critical infrastructure, a term the U.S. government uses to describe industries from energy and chemicals to financial services and manufacturing.

In the past, the U.S. government has openly blamed hackers from Iran, Russia or North Korea for disruptive cyberattacks against U.S. companies, but not China. Historically, Chinese hacking operations have been more covert and focused on espionage and intellectual property theft, according to charges filed by the Justice Department in recent years.

A spokesperson for Joyce said he was specifically referring to digital attacks against the U.S. energy, financial, transportation, and healthcare sectors in his speech on Tuesday.

The comments follow the arrest by Canadian authorities of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies, at the request of the United States on Dec. 1. Wanzhou was extradited and faces charges in the U.S. related to sanctions violations.

(Reporting by Jim Finkle and Christopher Bing; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Growing split in Seoul over North Korea threatens Korea detente, nuclear talks

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 27, 2018. Korea Summit Press Pool/Pool via Reuters/File Photo

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – When Seoul was preparing to open a liaison office in the North Korean city of Kaesong this summer after a decade of virtually no contact with its longtime enemy, South Korean officials had heated debates over whether they should seek approval from Washington.

Some top aides to President Moon Jae-in stressed it was an issue for the two Koreas alone and there was no need to involve their U.S. ally, two people with knowledge of the situation told Reuters.

But to the surprise of several officials at the meeting, Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon argued Washington must be consulted because Seoul’s plans might run afoul of sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.

Two dozen countries including the Britain, Germany and Sweden already have embassies in Pyongyang, and other officials saw the proposed liaison office as a far lower-level of contact with the North.

And they certainly did not expect Cho to be a leading advocate of strict enforcement of sanctions. Cho was Moon’s personal choice to head the ministry, whose prime mission is to foster reconciliation, cooperation and eventual reunification with the North.

Cho, whose 30-year public service history has been inextricably linked to reunification, was even sacked from the ministry in 2008 over his “dovish” stance toward Pyongyang.

At the suggestion of Cho and senior diplomats, Seoul ultimately sought U.S. consent before opening the office in September, one of the sources said.

All the sources spoke to condition of anonymity due to sensitivity of the matter.

Cho declined to comment for this article, but a senior official at the Unification Ministry said it was aware of criticisms of Cho.

“Inter-Korean ties are unique in their nature, but it’s been difficult, and there’s North Korea’s duplicity. It’s a dilemma we face or our fate,” the official said, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

 

CHIEF NEGOTIATOR, OR ROADBLOCK?

The previously unreported debate among Moon’s top officials illustrates a growing divide within South Korea over how to progress relations with the North while keeping Washington on the side.

Some corners of the administration argue Seoul can’t afford to be seen veering from the U.S.-led sanctions and pressure campaign until Pyongyang gives up its nuclear weapons program, while others feel closer inter-Korean ties can help expedite the stalled diplomatic process, several officials close to the situation say.

“If the internal rift leads to moving too quickly with the North without sufficient U.S. consultations, it could pose a setback to not only the nuclear talks but also the alliance and inter-Korean relations,” said Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

After the inter-Korean thaw gave way to reconciliation efforts between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump earlier this year, Trump asked Moon to be “chief negotiator” between the two.

That task has become increasingly difficult as Washington and Pyongyang blame each other for the faltering nuclear talks.

U.S. officials insist punishing sanctions must remain until North Korea completely denuclearises. North Korea says it has already made concessions by dismantling key facilities and Washington must reciprocate by easing sanctions and declaring an end to the 1950-53 Korean War.

“Unlike other advisers, Minister Cho has balanced his staunch desire for peace with an understanding of the importance of retaining a strong South Korea-U.S. alignment,” said Patrick Cronin of the Centre for a New American Security, an Asia expert in close touch with both U.S. and South Korean officials.

“Some alliance discord is inevitable and not worrisome. What would be worrisome would be a clear rupture in South Korea-U.S. approaches for managing North Korea.”

The presidential Blue House declined to comment, but Moon told reporters on Monday the view that there was discord between South Korea and the United States was “groundless” because there is no difference in the two countries’ positions on the North’s denuclearization.

SLOW PROGRESS, MOUNTING FRUSTRATION

A third source familiar with the presidential office’s thinking said there was mounting frustration with Cho within the Blue House and even inside the Unification Ministry amid concerns he worried too much about U.S. views.

“What the president would want from him as the unification minister is to come up with bold ideas to make his pet initiatives happen,” the source said.

During three summits this year, Moon and Kim agreed to re-link railways and roads, and when conditions are met, restart the joint factory park in Kaesong and tours to the North’s Mount Kumgang resort that have been suspended for years.

None of those plans have made much headway, either because sanctions ban them outright, or as in the case of Kaesong, Seoul took time to convince skeptical U.S. officials that cross-border projects wouldn’t undermine sanctions.

North Korea itself has been an unpredictable partner. Discussions through the Kaesong office have been few and far between, with Pyongyang’s negotiators often failing to show up for scheduled weekly meetings without notice, Unification Ministry officials say.

Even so, the Kaesong move has caused tensions with Washington.

U.S. officials told Seoul that South Korea’s explanations on the Kaesong office were not “satisfactory,” the South’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told a parliamentary hearing in August.

Washington was also caught off guard when a group of businessmen who used to operate factories in the now-closed Kaesong industrial park were invited for the opening ceremony of the office, a diplomatic source in Seoul said.

The allies launched a working group last month led by their nuclear envoys to coordinate North Korean policy. It was borne out of U.S. desire to “keep inter-Korean relations in check,” the source said.

Asked about the Kaesong office, a U.S. State Department official said: “We expect all member states to fully implement U.N. sanctions, including sectoral goods banned under UN Security Council resolution, and expect all nations to take their responsibilities seriously to help end (North Korea’s) illegal nuclear and missile programs.”

Another State official said the United States endorsed April’s inter-Korean summit agreement during its own summit with North Korea “because progress on inter-Korean relations must happen in lockstep with progress on denuclearization.”

Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Cho in Washington, bluntly warning him that inter-Korean cooperation and progress on nuclear negotiations should “remain aligned.”

FILE PHOTO: South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon walks to board a plane to leave for Pyongyang, North Korea, to participate in the inter-Korean basketball matches, at Seoul Airport in Seongnam, South Korea, July 3, 2018. Ahn Young-joon/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon walks to board a plane to leave for Pyongyang, North Korea, to participate in the inter-Korean basketball matches, at Seoul Airport in Seongnam, South Korea, July 3, 2018. Ahn Young-joon/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

Even as he faced pressure from Washington to hold a tough line, Cho was being criticized for dragging his feet on reconciliation.

In May, the North called off planned talks with the South led by Cho in protest against U.S.-South Korean air combat exercises. When the meeting eventually took place, Cho’s counterpart, Ri Son Gwon, openly blamed Cho for having caused a “grave situation” that resulted in the cancellation of the talks.

At the Kaesong office opening, factory owners pressed Cho to reopen the complex and said they were dismayed at the Unification Ministry for repeatedly rejecting requests to visit the border city to check on equipment and facilities idled since the 2016 shutdown.

“We’ve expressed, directly and indirectly, our complaint that the minister may be too lukewarm about our requests, even though allowing the trip has nothing to do with sanctions,” said Shin Han-yong, who chairs a group of businessmen with plants in Kaesong.

Cho recently told the parliament the delays are due to scheduling issues with the North, adding the ministry “needs more time to explain the overall circumstances” to the international community.

Shin, the expert at Asan, warned any move to undermine sanctions may expose South Korean companies to risks of punishment.

After Moon and Kim’s summit in Pyongyang in September, a senior U.S. Treasury official called compliance officers at seven South Korean banks to warn them that resuming financial cooperation with North Korea “does not align with U.S. policies” and the banks must comply with U.N. and U.S. financial sanctions, according to a South Korean regulatory document.

“Realistically we have no option but to consider U.S. positions, as the top priority is the North’s denuclearization and the United States has the biggest leverage on that,” said Kim Hyung-suk, who served as vice unification minister until last year.

“Without progress on the nuclear issues, there would be constraints at some point in sustaining inter-Korean ties. And Minister Cho knows that.”

(Editing by Soyoung Kim and Lincoln Feast.)

North Korea’s Kim inspects newly developed ‘tactical’ weapon, releases U.S. prisoner

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects a constructions site of Yangdeok, in this undated photo released on October 31, 2018 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA/via REUTERS/File Photo

By Joyce Lee and Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s leader publicly inspected a new weapon for the first time in nearly a year, state media reported on Friday, while it also decided to release a U.S. prisoner, sending conflicting signals at a time of sensitive negotiations.

Kim Jong Un’s visit to the test site of a new “tactical weapon” threatened to sour the diplomatic atmosphere as negotiations between his country and the United States appear to have stalled.

“This result today is a justification of the party’s policy focused on defense science and technology, another display of our rapidly growing defense capabilities to the whole region, and a groundbreaking change in strengthening our military’s combat capabilities,” Kim said.

In Washington, in response to the North Korean announcement, a U.S. State Department spokesman said, “We remain confident that the promises made by President Trump and Chairman Kim will be fulfilled.”

The official was referring to an unprecedented summit in June between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim in Singapore, where they agreed to work toward denuclearization and peace on the Korean peninsula and establish new relations.

But the agreement was short on specifics, and negotiations have made little headway since.

In a possibly conciliatory gesture, however, North Korea also announced on Friday it was releasing an American citizen detained since October after “illegally” entering North Korea from China.

North Korea has often held previous American detainees for more extended periods.

‘STEEL WALL’

The military test was successful and the weapon could protect North Korea like a “steel wall”, its KCNA news agency said, adding that Kim had observed “the power of the tactical weapon”.

The only picture released by state media showed Kim standing on a beach surrounded by officials in military uniforms, but no weapons were visible.

International weapons experts said the officials around Kim included a leader of the artillery corps of the Korean People’s Army.

South Korea’s defense ministry said it did not have an immediate comment but was analyzing the North Korean weapon test.

Friday’s understated announcement was more likely aimed at reassuring the North Korean military rather than trying to torpedo diplomatic talks, however, said Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

“North Korea is trying to show its soldiers that they are becoming high-tech and keeping a certain level of military capability while trying to eliminate dissatisfaction and worries inside its military,” he added.

The test may also have been a response to recent joint military drills by the United States and South Korea, which North Korea said violated recent pacts to halt to “all hostile acts”, said Yang Uk, an analyst at the Korea Defence and Security Forum.

Kim said the weapons system tested was one in which his father, Kim Jong Il, had taken a special interest during his life, personally leading its development.

Kim’s last publicized military inspection was the launch of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Nov. 29 last year, though he engaged in at least eight other military-related activities this year, the South’s Unification Ministry said.

STALLED TALKS

Kim this year declared his nuclear force “complete” and said he would focus on economic development.

North Korea has continued to showcase its conventional military capabilities, including at a large military parade in its capital, Pyongyang, on Sept. 9.

But any testing of new weapons threatens to raise tension with Washington, which has said there will be no easing in international sanctions until North Korea takes more concrete steps to abandon its nuclear weapons or long-range missiles.

North Korea has increasingly expressed frustration at Washington’s refusal to ease sanctions and recently threatened to restart development of its nuclear weapons if more concessions were not made.

“They’re trying to signal that they are willing to walk away from talks and restart weapons testing,” said Adam Mount of the Federation of American Scientists. “It is the most explicit in a series of escalating statements designed to send this message.”

A meeting in New York planned this month between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korea’s Kim Yong Chol, a senior aide to Kim, was postponed.

On Thursday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said Trump planned to meet Kim again in 2019 and will push for a concrete plan outlining Pyongyang’s moves to end its arms programs.

(Reporting by Joyce Lee and Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Jeongmin Kim in Seoul, and Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Clarence Fernandez)