N. Korea says it tested new railway-borne missile system to strike ‘threatening forces’

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) -The missiles fired by North Korea on Wednesday were a test of a new “railway-borne missile system” designed as a potential counter-strike to any forces that threaten the country, state news agency KCNA reported on Thursday.

The missiles flew 800 km (497 miles) before striking a target in the sea off North Korea’s east coast, KCNA said.

On Wednesday, South Korean and Japanese authorities said they had detected the launch of two ballistic missiles from North Korea, just days after it tested a cruise missile that analysts said could have nuclear capabilities.

The North Korean launches came the same day that South Korea tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), becoming the first country without nuclear weapons to develop such a system.

The two Koreas have been in an increasingly heated arms race, with both sides unveiling more capable missiles and other weapons.

The tests by nuclear-armed North Korea drew international condemnation and concern, however, with the United States saying they violated U.N. Security Council resolutions and posed a threat to Pyongyang’s neighbors.

North Korea has been steadily developing its weapons systems, raising the stakes for stalled talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals in return for U.S. sanctions relief.

The North Korean test was conducted by a railway-borne missile regiment that had been organized earlier this year, the KCNA report said.

“The railway-borne missile system serves as an efficient counter-strike means capable of dealing a harsh multi-concurrent blow to the threat-posing forces,” said Pak Jong Chon, a North Korean marshal and member of the Presidium of the Politburo of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, who oversaw the test, according to KCNA.

‘CHEAP AND RELIABLE’

Photos released by state media showed an olive-green missile rising on a column of smoke and flame from the roof of a train parked on tracks in a mountainous area.

South Korea had reported the missiles were fired from the central inland area of Yangdok.

“Rail mobile missiles are a relatively cheap and reliable option for countries seeking to improve the survivability of their nuclear forces,” Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, said on Twitter. “Russia did it. The US considered it. It makes a ton of sense for North Korea.”

Mount and other analysts said the system is likely constrained by North Korea’s relatively limited and sometimes unreliable rail network, but that it could add another layer of complexity for a foreign military seeking to track and destroy the missiles before they are fired.

According to KCNA, Pak said there are plans to expand the railway-borne missile regiment to a brigade-size force in the near future, and to conduct training to gain “operational experience for actual war.”

The army should prepare tactical plans for deploying the system in different parts of the country, Pak said.

It is unusual to see the sheer variety in missile delivery systems and launch platforms that North Korea develops, said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“It’s not very cost effective (especially for a sharply resource-constrained state) and far more operationally complex than a leaner, vertically integrated force,” he said on Twitter.

The railway system displayed on Wednesday could possibly set the stage for developing one capable of launching a larger, nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), Panda added.

He also noted that some of the missile systems displayed by North Korea may be about “technology demonstration,” which may not be fully deployed.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney)

North Korea developing nuclear, missile programs in 2021 -U.N. report

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – North Korea continued developing its nuclear and ballistic missile programs during the first half of 2021 in violation of international sanctions and despite the country’s worsening economic situation, according to an excerpt of a confidential United Nations report seen by Reuters on Friday.

The report by a panel of independent sanctions monitors to the U.N. Security Council North Korea sanctions committee said Pyongyang “continued to seek material and technology for these programs overseas.”

“Despite the country’s focus on its worsening economic travails, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea continued to maintain and develop its nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” the sanctions monitors concluded.

North Korea is formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). North Korea’s mission to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the U.N. report.

The isolated Asian nation imposed a strict lockdown last year amid the coronavirus pandemic that has slashed its trade and aid access, hurting an economy already burdened by international sanctions.

In June, leader Kim Jong Un said the country faced a “tense” food situation and much would depend on this year’s harvests.

“Statements made by DPRK suggested a deepening humanitarian crisis in the country, although the COVID-19 blockade means that the relative impact of sanctions on the humanitarian situation has probably decreased,” the U.N. monitors wrote.

“With trade all but stopped by the blockade, and last year’s harvest badly affected by floods, the current prospects of the wider DPRK population are poor,” they said.

North Korea has been subjected to U.N. sanctions since 2006 over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The Security Council has steadily strengthened sanctions in a bid to cut off funding for the programs.

Among the sanctions imposed are a ban on the export of coal and other commodities and the import of oil.

“Maritime exports from DPRK of coal and other sanctioned commodities continued, but at a much reduced level. The import of oil products reported to the panel fell substantially in the first half of the year,” according to the U.N. report.

Pyongyang also continued to access international financial institutions and North Korean workers continued to earn money overseas for use in state programs, said the U.N. sanctions monitors, adding: “Officials overseas continued to feel pressure to develop revenue streams.”

The monitors said they were continuing to investigate North Korea’s involvement in global cyber activity and collaboration by North Korean academics and universities with scientific institutes abroad, “focusing on studies with potential applications in WMD (weapons of mass destruction) programs.”

The U.N. sanctions monitors have previously reported that North Korea has stolen hundreds of millions of dollars using cyberattacks.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Mark Potter)

South, North Korea reopen hotlines as leaders seek to rebuild ties

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) -South and North Korea have restored hotlines that Pyongyang severed a year ago when ties deteriorated sharply, and the two countries’ leaders are renewing efforts to rebuild relations, Seoul’s presidential office said on Tuesday.

The decision on the hotlines was made by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un who have exchanged multiple letters since April when they marked the third anniversary of their first summit, said Moon’s press secretary, Park Soo-hyun.

North Korea’s state news agency, KCNA, also said all inter-Korean communication channels resumed operation at 10 a.m. Tuesday (0100 GMT) in line with an agreement between Moon and Kim.

The hotlines are a rare tool to bridge the two Koreas, but it was unclear whether their reconnection would expedite any meaningful restart of negotiations aimed at dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

“The two leaders have explored ways to recover relations by exchanging letters on several occasions, and agreed to restore severed hotlines as a first step for that process,” Park said in a statement. “They have also agreed to regain trust as soon as possible and foster progress on relations again.”

KCNA touted the reopening of the hotlines as “a big stride in recovering mutual trust and promoting reconciliation.”

A senior official of the U.S. administration, which has sought unsuccessfully to persuade North Korea to return to talks over its nuclear program, welcomed the announcement.

“The United States supports inter-Korean dialogue and engagement,” the official said. “Diplomacy and dialogue are essential to achieving complete denuclearization and to establishing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

NUCLEAR STALEMATE

North Korea cut the lines in June 2020 as cross-border ties soured after a failed second summit in February 2019 between Kim and then U.S. President Donald Trump, which Moon had offered to mediate.

Then the North blew up a joint liaison office, launched on its soil in 2018 to foster better ties with the South, plunging relations to their lowest ebb under Moon.

Seoul’s defense ministry confirmed that twice-daily regular communication was resumed via a military hotline on Tuesday.

The Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, also said telephone lines installed at the border truce village of Panmunjom were restored.

Moon had called for a revival of the hotlines and offered a video summit with Kim to avoid the coronavirus, but Pyongyang has previously responded with scathing criticism, saying it had no intention to talk to Seoul.

North Korea has not formally confirmed any COVID-19 outbreaks, but it closed its borders and took strict anti-virus measures, seeing the pandemic as a matter of national survival.

Park said Moon and Kim have agreed to work together to fight the pandemic but did not discuss any possible summit, in-person or virtual.

The exchange of letters came ahead of Moon’s summit with U.S. President Joe Biden in May, where the leaders displayed their willingness to engage the North.

But it still remains to be seen whether Pyongyang was ready to return to negotiations, with Biden’s administration seeking a “reliable, predictable and constructive” way to bring progress.

“It’s just a reconnection of the lines they’d cut unilaterally,” said Moon Seong-mook, a retired South Korean military general who previously led inter-Korean talks.

“North Korea would still wonder what’s the point in talking to the South, as the North wants substantive easing of sanctions, but there’s nothing we can do on that.”

James Kim of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul said Pyongyang might mean to show some willingness to respond to U.S. overtures, but warned against reading too much into the latest move.

“We need to see some seriousness on Pyongyang’s part to move towards denuclearization for us to say that there is genuine progress,” Kim said.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Sangmi Cha and Jack Kim in Seoul and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Christopher Cushing, Gerry Doyle, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Giles Elgood)

North Korea warns U.S. misinterpreting signals risks disappointment

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) -The sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un warned the United States on Tuesday not to seek comfort in comments by her brother as this would end in disappointment, while a U.S. envoy met South Korea’s president aiming to revive talks with North Korea.

Kim Yo Jong, who is also a senior official in North Korea’s ruling party, released a statement in state media saying the United States appeared to be interpreting signals from North Korea in the “wrong way.”

She was responding to U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who on Sunday said he saw as an “interesting signal” a recent speech by Kim Jong Un on preparing for both confrontation and diplomacy with the United States.

“It seems that the U.S. may interpret the situation in such a way as to seek a comfort for itself,” she said in the statement, carried by the North’s KCNA state news agency.

“The expectation, which they chose to harbor the wrong way, would plunge them into a greater disappointment.”

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has been an intractable problem for Washington for years and in trying to change that, President Joe Biden’s administration conducted a review of policy and said it would seek “calibrated and practical” ways to persuade Pyongyang to denuclearize.

The U.S. special representative for North Korea, Sung Kim, has been visiting South Korea to meet senior officials, including President Moon Jae-in.

Moon told the U.S. envoy he would do his best to get inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea relations back on track and expressed hopes for progress toward denuclearization and peace on the Korean peninsula, his spokeswoman Park Kyung-mee said.

Sung Kim reaffirmed Biden’s support for meaningful inter-Korean dialogue and engagement and said he would “do his best for resumption of U.S.-North Korea talks”, Park said.

On Monday, Sung Kim said he was willing to meet the North Koreans “anywhere, anytime without preconditions” and that he looks forward to a “positive response soon.”

A U.S. official in Washington told Reuters the United States was aware of Kim Yo Jong’s comments and added: “Ultimately, we hope (North Korea) will respond positively to our outreach.

“We will continue to wait to see if these comments are followed up with any more direct communications about a potential path forward.”

The official, who did not want to be otherwise identified, said U.S. policy was not aimed at hostility, but “at solutions and ultimately achieving the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

“The United States is prepared to engage in diplomacy towards that ultimate objective, while working on practical measures that can help make progress along the way.”

‘CLEVER MOVE’

In a sign seen in South Korea as a positive U.S. gesture, the allies discussed scrapping a joint “working group” that analysts say Seoul has seen as an irritant in relations.

Sung Kim and his South Korean counterpart Noh Kyu-duk agreed to “look into terminating the working group,” while reinforcing coordination at other levels, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said.

The working group was set up in 2018 to help coordinate approaches to North Korea on issues such as denuclearization talks, humanitarian aid, sanctions enforcement and inter-Korean relations, amid a flurry of diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang at that time.

The Moon administration has made building ties with North Korea a top priority and a former aide to Moon told parliament last year the working group was seen as an obstacle to that.

“From a South Korean perspective, this was basically a mechanism for the U.S. to block inter-Korean projects during the Trump years,” said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a Korea expert at King’s College London.

“It would be a clever political move for the Biden administration to end the group since consultation between Washington and Seoul will take place anyway.”

North Korea has rebuffed U.S. entreaties for diplomacy since Biden took over from Donald Trump, who had three summits with Kim, but failed to persuade him to give up his nuclear weapons.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Sangmi Cha in Seoul and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel and Howard Goller)

China brands COVID-19 lab-leak theory as ‘absurd,’ Blinken urges transparency

By David Brunnstrom, Tom Daly and Michael Martina

WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed the need for cooperation and transparency over the origins of COVID-19 in a call with Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi on Friday and raised other contentious topics, including China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Yang, China’s top diplomat, expressed to Blinken Beijing’s serious concern that some people in the United States were spreading the “absurd story” about the coronavirus escaping from a Wuhan laboratory, Chinese state media said.

Yang, head of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of China’s ruling Communist Party, also told Blinken that Washington should handle Taiwan-related issues “carefully and appropriately,” state broadcaster CCTV reported.

The call came ahead of a G7 summit in Britain attended by U.S. President Joe Biden that is expected to be dominated by Washington-led efforts to counter China’s growing influence.

The world’s two largest economies are deeply at odds over issues ranging from trade and technology to human rights and the coronavirus. Washington should work with Beijing to put ties “back on track,” Yang said.

Yang, who had a fiery exchange with Blinken in Alaska in March during the Biden administration’s first high-level meeting with its Chinese counterparts, said Beijing firmly opposed what he called “abominable actions” over the pandemic, which he said were being used to slander China, CCTV said.

The State Department said the diplomats also discussed North Korea policy and that Blinken expressed U.S. concerns over the deterioration of democratic norms in Hong Kong and what Washington describes as the genocide of Muslim Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region.

Blinken also called on China to stop its pressure campaign against Taiwan and to release “wrongfully detained” U.S. and Canadian citizens, it said in a statement.

‘RESPECT FACTS AND SCIENCE’

The State Department said the discussion on North Korea – an issue on which the United States is keen for more Chinese action to press its ally and neighbor to give up its nuclear weapons – focused on the need for Beijing and Washington “to work together for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

It said the two diplomats also continued discussions on shared global challenges, including Iran and Myanmar, and the climate crisis.

“Addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, the Secretary stressed the importance of cooperation and transparency regarding the origin of the virus, including the need for WHO Phase 2 expert-led studies in China,” it said, referring to the World Health Organization.

Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States think tank, said that although the agenda included potential areas of cooperation, the conversation appeared dominated by contentious issues.

She said Yang’s call for Washington to work with Beijing to put ties “back on track” indicated China was still putting the onus on the United States for the problems in the relationship.

“That’s a non-starter, but demonstrates that the Chinese are sticking to their tried-and-true diplomatic approaches, even though they are not successful.”

A report on the origins of COVID-19 by a U.S. government national laboratory concluded the hypothesis of a viral leak from a Wuhan lab was plausible and deserved further investigation, the Wall Street Journal said on Monday.

“We urge the United States to respect facts and science, refrain from politicizing the issue … and focus on international cooperation in the fight against the pandemic,” Yang said.

His comments on Taiwan followed a visit to the Chinese-claimed island last weekend by three U.S. senators on a U.S. military aircraft. They met Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and announced the donation to Taiwan of 750,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine, drawing a sharp rebuke from China’s defense ministry.

In addition to coinciding with Biden’s first overseas trip as president to attend the G7 summit, the call comes as Washington has been pushing policies to address challenges from China.

In the past eight days, Biden updated an executive order banning U.S. investment in companies linked to China’s military and rolled out steps aimed at China to shore up U.S. supply chains. His trade representative Katherine Tai held a call with Taiwan, the Pentagon wrapped up a China policy review, and the Senate passed a sweeping package of China-focused legislation.

Eric Sayers, a visiting fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said all that amounted to good timing for the administration to have an exchange with Beijing.

“The White House should feel more confident taking these calls and letting Beijing run down their stale talking points,” Sayers said.

(Reporting by Beijing Newsroom and Doina Chiacu, David Brunnstrom and Michael Martina in Washington; Writing by Tom Daly; Editing by Alex Richardson, Mark Heinrich, Angus MacSwan, Paul Simao and Daniel Wallis)

Biden does not intend to meet with North Korea’s Kim

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden does not intend to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the White House said on Monday.

Asked if Biden’s diplomatic approach to North Korea would include “sitting with President Kim Jong Un” as former President Donald Trump had done, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “I think his approach would be quite different and that is not his intention,” she said.

North Korea launched a new type of tactical short-range ballistic missile last week, prompting Washington to request a gathering of the U.N. Security Council’s (UNSC) sanctions committee, which then criticized the test.

Biden on Thursday said the United States remained open to diplomacy with North Korea despite the tests, but warned there would be responses if North Korea escalates matters.

North Korea on Saturday said the Biden administration had taken a wrong first step and revealed “deep-seated hostility” by criticizing what it called a self-defensive missile test.

Trump had three high-profile meetings with Kim, and exchanged a series of letters, but relations later grew frosty, and the nuclear-armed state said it would not engage further unless the United States dropped its hostile policies.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; writing by Andrea Shalal; editing by Chris Reese and Marguerita Choy)

Blinken warns China against ‘coercion and aggression’ on first Asia trip

By Humeyra Pamuk, Kiyoshi Takenaka and Ju-min Park

TOKYO (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned China on Tuesday against using “coercion and aggression” as he sought to use his first trip abroad to shore up Asian alliances in the face of growing assertiveness by Beijing.

China’s extensive territorial claims in the East and South China Seas have become a priority issue in an increasingly testy Sino-U.S. relationship and are an important security concern for Japan.

“We will push back, if necessary, when China uses coercion and aggression to get its way,” Blinken said.

His visit to Tokyo with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is the first overseas visit by top members of President Joe Biden’s cabinet. It follows last week’s summit of the leaders of the Quad grouping of the United States, Japan, Australia and India.

Blinken’s comments come ahead of meetings in Alaska on Thursday that will bring together for the first time senior Biden administration officials and their Chinese counterparts to discuss frayed ties between the world’s top two economies.

Washington has criticized what it called Beijing’s attempts to bully neighbors with competing interests. China has denounced what it called U.S. efforts to foment unrest in the region and interfere in what it calls its internal affairs.

In the statement issued with their Japanese counterparts, Blinken and Austin said, “China’s behavior, where inconsistent with the existing international order, presents political, economic, military and technological challenges to the alliance and to the international community.”

The two countries committed themselves to opposing coercion and destabilizing behavior towards others in the region that undermines the rules-based international system, they added.

The meeting was held in the “2+2” format with Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi as hosts.

North Korea was in sharp focus after the White House said Pyongyang had rebuffed efforts at dialogue.

The isolated nation, which has pursued nuclear and missile programs in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions, warned the Biden administration against “causing a stink” if it wanted peace, state media said on Tuesday.

Blinken underscored the importance of working closely with Japan and South Korea on the denuclearization of North Korea.

“We have no greater strategic advantage when it comes to North Korea than this alliance,” he said. “We approach that challenge as an alliance and we’ve got to do that if we are going to be effective.”

‘UNWAVERING COMMITMENT’

The ministers also discussed Washington’s “unwavering commitment” to defend Japan in its dispute with China over islets in the East China Sea and repeated their opposition to China’s “unlawful” maritime claims in the South China Sea.

They also shared concerns over developments such as the law China passed in January allowing its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels.

China has sent coast guard vessels to chase away fishing vessels from countries with which it has disputes in regional waters, sometimes resulting in their sinking.

Motegi said China-related issues took up the majority of his two-way talks with Blinken, and expressed strong opposition to the neighbor’s “unilateral attempt” to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas.

In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular news briefing that U.S.-Japan ties “shouldn’t target or undermine the interests of any third party,” and should boost “peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific”.

Blinken expressed concern over the Myanmar military’s attempt to overturn the results of a democratic election, and its crackdown on peaceful protesters.

He also reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to human rights, adding, “China uses coercion and aggression to systematically erode autonomy in Hong Kong, undercut democracy in Taiwan, abusing human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet.”

Motegi said Blinken expressed support during the meeting for the staging of the Tokyo Olympics, set to run from July 23 to Aug. 8 after being postponed from last year because of the coronavirus crisis.

But Blinken sounded non-committal in his remarks to Tokyo-based U.S. diplomats, saying the summer Games involved planning for several different scenarios. But he added, “Whenever and however Team USA ends up competing, it will be because of you.”

The U.S. officials ended the visit with a courtesy call on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is set to visit the White House in April as the first foreign leader to meet Biden.

Both will leave Tokyo for Seoul on Wednesday for talks in the South Korean capital until Thursday.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Kiyoshi Takenaka, Ju-min Park, Antoni Slodkowski, Elaine Lies, Chang-Ran Kim, Ritsuko Ando and David Dolan; Editing by Nick Macfie and Clarence Fernandez)

North Korea enslaving political prisoners to fund weapons program: South Korea rights group

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea has been enslaving political prisoners, including children, in coal production to boost exports and earn foreign currency as part of a system directly linked to its nuclear and missile programs, a South Korea-based human rights group said on Thursday.

The Seoul-based Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR) released a study analyzing an intricate connection between North Korea’s exploitation of its citizens, the production of goods for export, and its weapons programs.

The report, titled “Blood Coal Export from North Korea: Pyramid scheme of earnings maintaining structures of power,” said Pyongyang had been operating a “pyramid fraud-like” scheme to force those held in prison camps to produce quotas of coal and other goods for export.

Its findings offered a deeper look into how the camps contribute to North Korea’s shady coal trade network, after the United Nations banned its commodity exports to choke off funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and after human rights agencies reported on gross rights violations within the camps.

There was no immediate reaction from North Korea’s diplomatic mission in Geneva to a request for comment.

North Korea violated United Nations sanctions to earn nearly $200 million in 2017 from banned commodity exports, according to a confidential report by independent U.N. monitors released in early 2018.

The NKHR report cited interviews with former prisoners who escaped to the South and other defectors with knowledge about the dealings, along with other sources such as satellite images, and data from the South Korean and U.S. governments.

The United Nations estimates up to 200,000 people are held in a vast network of gulags run by Stasi-like secret police, many of which are located near mining sites. A 2014 U.N. Commission of Inquiry report said the prisoners are facing torture, rape, forced labor, starvation and other inhumane treatment.

Last December, the United States imposed new sanctions, blacklisting six companies, including several based in China, and four ships accused of illicit exports of North Korean coal.

“Quotas of products for export are met through the enslaved labor of men, women and children in detention camps owned and operated by secret police,” the NKHR report said.

Camp 18, for example, is in the central mining county of Bukchang. Former prisoners interviewed by the NKHR reported at least 8 million tonnes of coal was produced there in 2016.

The secret police, formally known as the Ministry of State Security, handle shipments of goods exported by Bureau 39, a covert secret fund for leader Kim Jong Un’s family, with links to the production of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, the report added.

Joanna Hosaniak, deputy director general at the NKHR, said the investigation was intended to highlight the key role of the “state-sponsored system of slavery” in shoring up Kim’s political and financial power and its nuclear programs, just as U.S. President Joe Biden reviews his North Korea policy.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Kim Coghill)

North Korean, Russian hackers target COVID-19 researchers: Microsoft

By Raphael Satter

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Hackers working for the Russian and North Korean governments have targeted more than half a dozen organizations involved in COVID-19 treatment and vaccine research around the globe, Microsoft said on Friday.

The software company said a Russian hacking group commonly nicknamed “Fancy Bear” – along with a pair of North Korean actors dubbed “Zinc” and “Cerium” by Microsoft – were implicated in recent attempts to break into the networks of seven pharmaceutical companies and vaccine researchers in Canada, France, India, South Korea, and the United States.

Microsoft said the majority of the targets were organizations that were in the process of testing COVID-19 vaccines. Most of the break-in attempts failed but an unspecified number succeeded, it added.

Few other details were provided by Microsoft. It declined to name the targeted organizations, say which ones had been hit by which actor, or provide a precise timeline or description of the attempted intrusions.

The Russian embassy in Washington – which has repeatedly disputed allegations of Russian involvement in digital espionage – said in an email that there was “nothing that we can add” to their previous denials.

North Korea’s representative to the United Nations did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment. Pyongyang has previously denied carrying out hacking abroad.

The allegations of cyber espionage come as world powers are jockeying behind the scenes in the race to produce a vaccine for the virus.

They also highlight how Microsoft is pressing its case for a new set of global rules barring digital intrusions aimed at healthcare providers.

Microsoft executive Tom Burt said in a statement his company was timing its announcement with Microsoft President Brad Smith’s appearance at the virtual Paris Peace Forum, where he would call on world leaders “to affirm that international law protects health care facilities and to take action to enforce the law.”

(Reporting by Raphael Satter Additional reporting by Christopher Bing in Washington, Jack Stubbs in London, and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Tom Brown and Grant McCool)

Danish filmmaker says he can share evidence on North Korea trying to skirt sanctions

COPENHAGEN/STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – The Danish director of a new documentary that with hidden cameras shows apparent attempts to evade a U.N. ban on arms trading with North Korea said he is keen to share an “enormous” amount of material not included in the film.

“The Mole,” by maverick filmmaker Mads Bruegger, charts what he says was a 10-year undercover operation by a retired Copenhagen chef to infiltrate a network of sanctions-breakers linked to the head of the Korean Friendship Association (KFA), an international group that promotes friendly ties with Pyongyang.

“The material we have is huge,” Bruegger told Reuters on Tuesday, two days after his documentary aired on Danish TV. “I would like to meet with the U.N.’s North Korea expert panel to start a dialogue about what they would be interested in.”

A spokesman at the North Korean Embassy in Stockholm declined to comment. The head of the KFA denied any involvement in attempts to violate the arms embargo against Pyongyang.

In the documentary, the former chef – who has long been fascinated with communist dictatorships – pretends to be a supporter of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and joins the Friendship Association.

After becoming a trusted member, he hires a former French Foreign Legion soldier to play an arms trader and the two travel to North Korea for meetings about possible arms deals, apparently winning the trust of North Korean officials.

They also agree a deal with the North Korean regime to build an underground factory in Uganda to produce weapons and drugs.

The documentary names certain key North Korean officials and shows entire catalogues of North Korean weapons for sale, including tanks, medium-range ballistic missiles and thermobaric explosives.

“If the film in any way can help to slow down North Korea’s tenacity in terms of breaking sanctions and spreading their weapons across in the world, then I would be very happy about that,” Bruegger said.

None of the deals mooted in the film are consummated and eventually, as partners start to demand money, Bruegger makes the ex-legionnaire playing the arms dealer disappear. The filmmakers say their evidence has been presented to the North Korean Embassy in Stockholm, but there has been no response.

The foreign ministers of Sweden and Denmark said following the airing of the film that they would raise the issue of sanctions busting at the United Nations and European Union.

North Korea has been subject since 2006 to U.N. sanctions, which have been strengthened by the Security Council over the years in efforts to cut off funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear arms and ballistic missile programs.

The documentary, filmed over the course of a decade, is a co-production between public broadcasters in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Britain.

(Reporting by Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen and Simon Johnson; Editing by Mark Heinrich)