Chinese raids hit North Korean defectors’ ‘Underground Railroad’

Photo sheets of the North Korean refugees helped by the North Korea Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea are displayed in Seoul, South Korea, June 11, 2019. REUTERS/Josh Smith

By Josh Smith and Joyce Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) – A decade after leaving her family behind to flee North Korea, the defector was overwhelmed with excitement when she spoke to her 22-year-old son on the phone for the first time in May after he too escaped into China.

While speaking to him again on the phone days later, however, she listened in horror as the safe house where her son and four other North Korean escapees were hiding was raided by Chinese authorities.

“I heard voices, someone saying ‘shut up’ in Chinese,” said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect her son’s safety. “Then the line was cut off, and I heard later he was caught.”

The woman, now living in South Korea, said she heard rumors her son is being held in a Chinese prison near the North Korean border, but has had no official news of his whereabouts.

At least 30 North Korean escapees have been rounded up in a string of raids across China since mid-April, according to family members and activist groups.

It is not clear whether this is part of a larger crackdown by China, but activists say the raids have disrupted parts of the informal network of brokers, charities, and middlemen who have been dubbed the North Korean “Underground Railroad”.

“The crackdown is severe,” said Y. H. Kim, chairman of the North Korea Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea.

Most worrisome for activists is that the arrests largely occurred away from the North Korean border – an area dubbed the “red zone” where most escapees get caught – and included rare raids on at least two safe houses.

“Raiding a house? I’ve only seen two or three times,” said Kim, who left North Korea in 1988 and has acted as a middleman for the past 15 years, connecting donors with brokers who help defectors.

“You get caught on the way, you get caught moving. But getting caught at a home, you can count on one hand.”

The increase in arrests is likely driven by multiple factors, including deteriorating economic conditions in North Korea and China’s concern about the potential for a big influx of refugees, said Kim Seung-eun, a pastor at Seoul’s Caleb Mission Church, which helps defectors escape.

“In the past, up to half a million North Korean defectors came to China,” Kim said, citing the period in the 1990s when famine struck North Korea. “A lot of these arrests have to do with China wanting to prevent this again.” 

DIVIDED FAMILIES

Kim Jeong-cheol already lost his brother trying to escape from North Korea, and now fears his sister will meet a similar fate after she was caught by Chinese authorities.

“My elder brother was caught in 2005, and he went to a political prison and was executed in North Korea,” Kim told Reuters. “That’s why my sister will surely die if she goes back there. What sin is it for a man to leave because he’s hungry and about to die?”

Reuters was unable to verify the fate of Kim’s brother or sister. Calls to the North Korean embassy in Beijing were not answered.

Activist groups and lawyers seeking to help the families say there is no sign China has deported the recently arrested North Koreans yet, and their status is unknown.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, which does not typically acknowledge arrests of individual North Korean escapees, said it had no information about the raids or status of detainees.

“We do not know about the situation to which you are referring,” the ministry said in a statement when asked by Reuters.

North Koreans who enter China illegally because of economic reasons are not refugees, it added.

“They use illegal channels to enter China, breaking Chinese law and damaging order for China’s entry and exit management,” the ministry said. “For North Koreans who illegally enter the country, China handles them under the principled stance of domestic and international law and humanitarianism.”

South Korea’s government said it tries to ensure North Korean defectors can reach their desired destinations safely and swiftly without being forcibly sent back to the North, but declined to provide details, citing defectors’ safety and diplomatic relations.

When another woman – who also asked to be unnamed for her family’s safety – escaped from North Korea eight years ago, she promised her sister and mother she would work to bring them out later.

In January, however, her mother died of cancer, she said.

On her death bed, her mother wrote a message on her palm pleading for her remaining daughter to escape North Korea.

“It will haunt me for the rest of my life that I didn’t keep my promise,” said woman, who now lives in South Korea.

Her 27-year-old sister was in a group of four defectors who made it all the way to Nanning, near the border with Vietnam, before being caught.

“When you get there, you think you’re almost home free,” she said. “You think you’re safe.”

INCREASE IN ARRESTS

There are no hard statistics on how many North Koreans try to leave their country, but South Korea, where most defectors try to go, says the number safely arriving in the South dropped after Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011.

In 2018 about 1,137 North Korean defectors entered South Korea, compared to 2,706 in 2011.

Observers say the drop is partly because of increased security and crackdowns in both North Korea and China.

Over the past year, more cameras and updated guard posts have been seen at the border, said Kang Dong-wan, who heads an official North Korean defector resettlement organization in South Korea and often travels to the border between China and North Korea.

“Kim Jong Un’s policy itself is tightening its grip on defection,” he said. “Such changes led to stronger crackdowns in China as well.”

Under President Xi Jinping, China has also cracked down on a variety of other activities, including illicit drugs, which are sometimes smuggled by the same people who transport escapees, said one activist who asked not to be named due to the sensitive work.

North Koreans who enter China illegally face numerous threats, including from the criminal networks they often have to turn to for help.

Tens of thousands of women and girls trying to flee North Korea have been pressed into prostitution, forced marriage, or cybersex operations in China, according to a report last month by the non-profit Korea Future Initiative.

“SMASH UP NETWORKS”

An activist at another organization that helps spirit defectors out of North Korea said so far its network had not been affected, but they were concerned about networks being targeted and safe houses being raided.

“That is a bit of a different level, more targeted and acting on intelligence that they may have been sitting on to smash up networks,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect the organization’s work.

Y. H. Kim, of the Refugees Human Rights Association, said the raids raised concerns that Chinese authorities had infiltrated some smuggling networks, possibly with the aid of North Korean intelligence agents.

“I don’t know about other organizations, but no one is moving in our organization right now,” he said. “Because everyone who moves is caught.”

(Reporting by Josh Smith and Joyce Lee. Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing and David Brunnstrom in Washington. Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

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)

Hundreds of North Korean public execution sites identified: survey

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

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea conducts public executions to incite fear among the public, a rights group said on Tuesday in a report pinpointing at least 323 sites used by the government for capital punishment.

The report by the Seoul-based Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG) is the result of four years of research and interviews with more than 600 North Korean defectors living outside the country.

“Public executions are to remind people of particular policy positions that the state has,” said TJWG research director Sarah A. Son.

“But the second and more powerful reason is it instills a culture of fear among ordinary people.”

Purged members of the elite have been among those executed in public, such as leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, in 2013.

But the most common charges leveled against the condemned ranged from “stealing copper and livestock” to, less commonly, “anti-state” activities and illegally crossing into China, the group said.

The survey of 610 North Korean defectors living in South Korea, included 19 reports of more than 10 people being executed at the same time.

Crowds, often of hundreds of people, and sometimes a 1,000 or more, would gather. The youngest person to witness a public execution was 7 years old, the group said.

The group found that 35 reports of public executions came from one particular river bank, with executions taking place at the unidentified location every decade since 1960s.

Six of the executions were by hanging and 29 by firing squad, the group said.

Reuters was unable to independently confirm any of the accounts in the report.

The group said 83 percent of a sample of 84 surveyed people had witnessed a public execution at some time, but it did not give specific data on how common such executions may be.

Nor did it say if they were getting more or less frequent.

The group warned that the survey sample based on the testimony of defectors was not necessarily representative.

For example, a disproportionate number of the respondents come from northern provinces with the greatest access to the Chinese border for people trying to defect.

Some reports of executions in North Korea have turned out to be untrue, with officials who had been reported as being executed later reappearing.

This month, there have been media reports about the execution of officials involved in nuclear talks with the United States, which collapsed in February at a summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Trump last week appeared to cast doubt on the news reports about the executions.

“I don’t know if the reports are correct,” Trump said. “They like to blame Kim Jong Un immediately.”

North Korean state media has made no comment.

(Reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Don’t try our patience, North Korea tells U.S. a year after accord

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea warned the United States that agreements made between the two countries’ leaders in Singapore last year could be at risk, blaming the United States for undue pressure to denuclearize, state news agency KCNA said on Tuesday.

The statement comes as media reports indicated North Korea punished some members of its team that steered negotiations with the United States before a failed summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi in February.

Nearly a year after Trump and Kim first met in Singapore and signed a four-point joint statement pledging to work toward a new relationship, that agreement could be at risk if the United States does not drop its policy of “only insisting on our unilateral surrender of nuclear weapons”, an unnamed foreign ministry spokesman said in the statement.

North Korea warned that if the United States does not come up with something new “before it is too late”, the joint statement would just turn out to be a “mere blank sheet of paper”.

“The U.S. would be well-advised to change its current method of calculation and respond to our request as soon as possible,” the official said in the statement. “There is a limit to our patience.”

The summit in Hanoi fell apart when Trump said Kim had failed to offer enough nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles in exchange for lifting international sanctions.

However, North Korea said it was willing to continue to abide by the joint statement as long as the United States finds a constructive approach.

(Reporting by Heekyong Yang and Josh Smith; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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)

North Koreans paying bribes to survive: U.N. report

North Koreans are forced to pay bribes to officials to survive in their isolated country where corruption is "endemic" and repression rife, the U.N. human rights office said on Tuesday in a report that Pyongyang dismissed as politically motivated.

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – North Koreans are forced to pay bribes to officials to survive in their isolated country where corruption is “endemic” and repression rife, the U.N. human rights office said on Tuesday in a report that Pyongyang dismissed as politically motivated.

The report said officials extorted money from a population struggling to make ends meet, threatening them with detention and prosecution – particularly those working in the informal economy.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the formal name for North Korea, rejected the report, saying it was “politically motivated for sinister purposes”.

“Such reports are nothing more than fabrication … as they are always based on the so-called testimonies of ‘defectors’ who provide fabricated information to earn their living or are compelled to do so under duress or enticement,” its Geneva mission said in a statement to Reuters.

North Korea blames the dire humanitarian situation on U.N. sanctions imposed for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs since 2006. But the report said that the military receives priority funding amid “economic mismanagement”.

“I am concerned that the constant focus on the nuclear issue continues to divert attention from the terrible state of human rights for many millions of North Koreans,” Michelle Bachelet, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement.

“The rights to food, health, shelter, work, freedom of movement and liberty are universal and inalienable, but in North Korea they depend primarily on the ability of individuals to bribe State officials,” she said.

Four in 10 North Koreans, or 10.1 million people, are chronically short of food and further cuts to already minimal rations are expected after the worst harvest in a decade, a U.N. assessment said earlier this month.

“The threat of arrest, detention and prosecution provide State officials with a powerful means of extorting money from a population struggling to survive,” the U.N. rights office report said.

CASH OR CIGARETTES

Bribery is “an everyday feature of people’s struggle to make ends meet”, said the report, entitled “The price is rights”. It denounced what it called a “vicious cycle of deprivation, corruption and repression”.

It is based on 214 interviews with North Korean “escapees”, mainly from the northeastern provinces of Ryanggang and North Hamgyong, bordering China. They were the first to be cut from the public distribution system that collapsed in 1994, leading to a famine estimated to have killed up to 1 million, it said.

“As my father still had to work at a state firm that could no longer afford giving rations, we survived by selling taffy and liquor my mom made,” Ju Chan-yang, a 29-year-old defector, told a news conference hosted by the U.N. rights office in Seoul on Tuesday.

Ju, who defected to the South in 2011, said she also made a living by selling banned South Korean and U.S. products in the underground economy. Sometimes she had to bribe authorities.

“If you get caught and don’t have bribes to pay, you could get executed, just like my relatives,” she said.

Many North Koreans pay bribes of cash or cigarettes not to have to report to state-assigned jobs where they receive no salary, thus allowing them to earn income in rudimentary markets, the report said.

Others bribe border guards to cross into China, where women are vulnerable to trafficking into forced marriages or the sex trade, it added.

“North Korea is a society where all of its members are involved in corruption because they’re forced to do illegal acts only to survive,” said Lee Han-byeol, who came to the South in 2001 and now runs a group that helps defectors.

Bachelet urged North Korean authorities to stop prosecuting people for engaging in legitimate market activity and to allow them freedom of movement within the country and abroad. China should not forcibly repatriate North Koreans, she added.

The United States called on North Korea this month to “dismantle all political prison camps” and release all political prisoners, who it said numbered between 80,000 and 120,000. North Korea denies the existence of such camps.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL; Editing by Hugh Lawson, Andrew Heavens and Darren Schuettler)

North Korea says “biggest issue” in U.S. ties is impounded ship

North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations Han Tae Song attends an interview with Reuters at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, May 22, 2019. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The U.S. seizure of a North Korean cargo ship is the biggest stumbling block to improving bilateral relations, a senior North Korean official said on Wednesday, warning Washington against using the “logic of strength” against Pyongyang.

The Trump administration must make a “big decision” on lifting sanctions before stalled nuclear negotiations can resume, Han Tae Song, North Korea’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, added in an interview.

“It would be the greatest miscalculation if America thought my country is among the countries where American-style logic of strength or pressure might work,” Han, who is also North Korea’s disarmament ambassador, told Reuters.

North Korea, under U.S. and U.N. sanctions for its nuclear and missile programs, has stepped up a campaign for the return of the ship, which Washington says it seized over accusations it was used for coal shipments in violation of the curbs.

The country has warned Washington that the impounding of the “Wise Honest” ship had violated its sovereignty and could affect “future developments” between the two countries.

“Yes, (it is) the biggest issue,” Han said of the vessel, which U.S. officials say is en route to American Samoa. “It is because it is the infringing upon the sovereignty of our country.”

Han described the seizure as a “wanton violation of international law” and demanded its immediate return.

Han said he had no information on its cargo, but on the consequences of a U.S. failure to return the ship, he said: “We don’t want, the Americans also don’t want and the international community don’t want the situation again worsening.”

At their second summit meeting in February, talks broke down between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, stalling moves toward denuclearization.

Han said his country’s short-range missile tests carried out earlier in May were a “routine checking of our national defense capabilities”, indicating that they would continue.

“WE ARE NOT OBSESSED” OVER MORE TALKS

The U.N. Security Council has unanimously strengthened sanctions on North Korea since 2006 in a bid to choke funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, banning exports including coal, iron, lead, textiles and seafood, and capping imports of crude oil and refined petroleum products.

Asked whether North Korea was ready to resume nuclear negotiations with the United States, Han referred to Kim’s speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly in April.

“If they don’t change their minds, if they don’t make a big decision, we are not obsessed over another round of talks with the USA, out of (being) thirsty for lifting sanctions,” Han said.

“That’s why our leader said that if they made a big decision, there will be another round of talks with America.”

Han said that North Korean grain production was lower last year following drought, leading to a “shortage of food”.

U.N. agencies, including the World Food Programme (WFP), are providing food assistance, from donor contributions, he said.

“If there is food aid, it’s ok. But if there is no food aid, then we have to manage ourselves.”

Asked whether the food shortages were manageable, he replied: “It is manageable, but the problem is U.N. sanctions.

“We can’t transact for importing the food through banking systems, that is the main problem.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Editing by William Maclean)

‘Missiles like these will start the war’: North Korea tests showcase growing capability

FILE PHOTO: North Korean military conducts a "strike drill" for multiple launchers and tactical guided weapon into the East Sea during a military drill in North Korea, in this May 4, 2019 photo supplied by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA via REUTERS/File Photo

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s second missile test on Thursday signals it is serious about developing new, short-range weapons that could be used early and effectively in any war with South Korea and the United States, analysts studying images of the latest launches say.

Last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un oversaw the first flight of a previously untested weapon – a relatively small, fast missile experts believe will be easier to hide, launch, and maneuver in flight.

Photos released by state media on Friday showed Thursday’s test involved the same weapon.

The tests have increased tensions after the last U.S.-North Korea summit collapsed in February in Hanoi with no agreement over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said late on Thursday the launches seemed like a protest over the failed summit, while North Korea has defended the tests as routine and self-defensive.

Some analysts say the multiple tests show the missiles aren’t only for political show.

“This second test solidifies that these launches are not just to stir the pot and elicit a U.S. response to resume negotiations,” said Grace Liu, one of a team of missile experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) in California. “They are developing a reliable, operable missile that can defeat missile defenses and conduct a precision strike in South Korea.”

DEFEATING MISSILE DEFENSES

The U.S. and South Korean responses to the launches have been muted, with U.S. President Donald Trump and other officials emphasizing the missiles are not the large, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the United States.

But analysts said the military applications of the new missiles should not be underestimated.

“The Trump administration keeps downplaying these missiles because they are not ICBMs, but even though they can’t reach the U.S. mainland, it’s missiles like these that will start the war,” said Melissa Hanham, a weapons expert at Datayo, which tracks international security threats.

“They are small, easy to hide, easy to maneuver and you can’t tell what kind of warhead they are carrying. They could carry a nuclear weapon.”

In a preliminary report on Wednesday, the North Korea tracking website 38 North said the new missile looks similar to Russia’s SS-26 Iskander missile and could exploit gaps in South Korean and American missile defense coverage.

The United States and South Korea field Patriot and THAAD missile batteries designed to shoot down various ballistic and cruise missiles, but their capabilities have been disputed.

While the origin of the North Korean missile remains unclear, a team of analysts at CNS told Reuters that Thursday’s test confirmed the missile is capable of maneuvering to elude defenses and protect its launch crew from detection.

“You can tell from the low apogee that this missile maneuvers a bit in boost to defeat missile defenses and aircraft hunting the launcher,” said Jeffrey Lewis of CNS.

Michael Duitsman, a rocket propulsion expert with the team, said North Korean state media photos of the launch show likely thrust vanes and steerable fins that guide the missile with precision and allow it to maneuver through much of its flight.

While Saturday’s missile was fired from a transporter erector launcher (TEL) vehicle with wheels, Thursday’s test featured a tracked vehicle.

Use of a tracked vehicle, which North Korea has more experience building, suggests it may plan to deploy a large number of the missiles and launchers, said Joshua Pollack, editor of The Nonproliferation Review.

“This seems to be their only mass-production option for highly capable TELs at the moment,” he said.

The missile uses solid fuel, which allows the weapon to be easily moved and fired more quickly than those using liquid fuel, analysts said.

In the end, the new missiles add a new level of unpredictability to an already tense situation, Hanham said.

“If North Korea pulls out (an ICBM) everyone knows it’ll be launched with a nuke,” she said. “These little missiles you don’t know, so it’s hard to be prepared.”

POLITICAL SHOCKWAVES

The new weapon’s maneuverability and low flying has led some South Korean officials to hesitate to label the weapon a “ballistic missile,” a weapon that would likely violate United Nations Security Council resolutions.

“Given its low altitude, more careful analysis is required,” said ruling party lawmaker Ahn Gyu-baek, citing military officials. “One should also be careful to not aggravate the situation with hasty actions.”

Ahn said South Korean military officials had assessed a number of potential political motives behind the missile launches. Those included increasing pressure for sanctions relief, and protesting Seoul’s military buildup including the purchase of new F-35 fighter aircraft as well as joint military drills by the United States and South Korea, which North Korea complained about in statements defending the tests.

The tests also likely held a message for domestic audiences designed to boost support for Kim’s government, he said.

“The Kim regime is determined to fight pressure with pressure,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.”It is threatening to raise regional tensions and create political problems for Moon and Trump if not offered economic concessions it failed to win in Hanoi.”

While Kim may not return to launching ICBMs or testing nuclear weapons immediately, he may seek other provocative ways to break the stalemate, Pollack said.

“Kim Jong Un has given the United States until the end of the year to rethink its approach,” he said. “But if they don’t get a meaningful response to these tests, maybe they’ll try to push the envelope further.”

(Reporting by Josh Smith. Additional reporting by Joyce Lee. Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

North Korea says recent rocket drill was “regular and self-defensive”: KCNA

North Korean military conducts a "strike drill" for multiple launchers and tactical guided weapon into the East Sea during a military drill in North Korea, in this May 4, 2019 photo supplied by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA via REUTERS

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s “strike drill” last week at which leader Kim Jong Un oversaw the launch of rockets and at least one short-range ballistic missile was “regular and self-defensive,” the North’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday, according to state media.

“The recent drill conducted by our army is nothing more than part of the regular military training, and it has neither targeted anyone nor led to an aggravation of the situation in the region,” an unidentified ministry spokesperson said in a statement to the state-run KCNA news agency.

Saturday’s drill was the first test of a ballistic missile by North Korea since it launched a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile in November 2017.

It came in the wake of talks with the United States and South Korea stalling in February, and raised alarms in both countries, which have been seeking to entice the North into abandoning its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

Seoul responded on Saturday by calling on its northern neighbor to “stop acts that escalate military tension on the Korean Peninsula.”

In a second statement carried by KCNA on Wednesday, a spokesman for the North Korean office in charge of military engagement with South Korea lashed out at Seoul over any suggestion that the rocket drills had violated an inter-Korean agreement aimed at reducing military tension.

“The South Korean military should take a close look at the inter Korean military agreement and recall what it has done itself before talking nonsense that it was against the spirit of the agreement,” the spokesperson said, according to KCNA.

The second statement also criticized last week’s test of a U.S. Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) by the U.S. Air Force out of California over the Pacific, saying South Korea was in no position to criticize North Korea.

“The South Korean military has no right to say a word to its fellow countrymen when it acted like a mute who ate honey when the United States fired a Minuteman ICBM which threatens us,” the military spokesman said.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has met with Kim twice, said he was still confident he could have a deal with Kim, and South Korean officials have subsequently played down the test.

North Korea’s foreign ministry statement hit back at “spiteful remarks” about the tests from unnamed critics, warning that “baseless allegations” might “produce a result of driving us to the direction which neither we nor they want to see at all.”

The ministry spokesperson said there was a double standard, with South Korea and the United States carrying out military drills with little criticism.

“Only our regular and self-defensive military drill is branded as provocative, and this is an undisguised manifestation of the attempt to press the gradual disarmament of our state and finally invade us,” the spokesperson said. “We think this is very much unpleasant and regrettable, and we sound a note of warning.”

After meeting with Kim for the first time in June last year, Trump abruptly announced he was cancelling all large-scale military exercises with South Korea.

Smaller exercises have continued, however, drawing regular criticism from Pyongyang.

North Korea had maintained a freeze in nuclear and ballistic missiles testing in place since 2017, a fact Trump has repeatedly pointed out as an important achievement from his engagement with Pyongyang.

Denuclearization talks with North Korea have stalled, however, after Trump and Kim met in February for a second summit but failed to reach an agreement.

North Korea balked at the extent of the demands made by American negotiators, and Trump said he ended the summit early because Kim was asking for nearly all major sanctions to be lifted while offering little in return.

The U.S. special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, arrived in Seoul on Wednesday for talks with South Korean officials.

He did not respond to questions from journalists, but his agenda is expected to include the missile test, as well as other aspects of talks with North Korea, including plans for possible humanitarian aid.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Minwoo Park. Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Hugh Lawson)

Trump supports plan for humanitarian food aid to North Korea

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives at an event to celebrate the anniversary of first lady Melania Trump's “Be Best” initiative in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 7, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – South Korea said that U.S. President Donald Trump supports the country’s plan to provide humanitarian food aid to North Korea, Yonhap reported on Tuesday.

Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in spoke for 35 minutes earlier on Tuesday, during a call in which the two leaders also discussed ways to continue dialogue with Pyonyang, the South Korean news agency reported.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Asked by reporters in April whether he was prepared to ease some sanctions on North Korea, Trump said he and Moon were discussing “certain humanitarian things” and the possibility of South Korea helping North Korea with food.

Nearly half of North Koreans suffer from severe food insecurity and meager official rations are expected to be cut further after dry spells, heat waves and flooding have led to the worst harvest in a decade, the United Nations said on Friday.

Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have met twice, but talks between the two leaders have stalled. On Saturday, North Korea fired projectiles off its coast, but Trump and his administration have played down the weapons tests.

(Reporting by Makini Brice; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu)