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)

Analysis: South Korea sees hope and threat in mixed message from North’s Kim

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean officials have seized on conciliatory comments by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on the weekend as a sign that tension could be easing but also worry the huge number of rockets he showcased is evidence that peace may be elusive.

Kim sent mixed signals as he addressed an unprecedented night-time military parade early on Saturday, wishing the neighboring Koreas would “hold hands” again after the novel coronavirus pandemic is over.

While much of the world was captivated by the appearance of a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), officials in South Korea were far more concerned by the display of new multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) and fast, maneuverable short-range missiles that would be ideal for striking targets in the South.

“The parade revealed not only an advanced ICBM but also MLRS that pose a direct threat to South Korea,” said South Korean opposition leader Kim Chong-in.

“They’ve not changed, their threats have grown even bigger.”

South Korean ruling party leader and former prime minister Lee Nak-yon said he took hope from Kim’s overture to the South as a “positive sign” but worried about what the display of new weapons said about North Korea’s intentions.

“North Korea showed advanced weapons including a new ICBM, which indicated it has not abandoned its resolve to develop weapons of mass destruction, and those weapons can threaten peace on the Korean peninsula,” Lee told a party meeting.

November’s U.S. election is compounding the uncertainty especially as the tone of ties between the two Koreas is often set by the state of North Korea’s relations with its old enemy the United States.

When a landmark summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018 brought an unprecedented easing of tension between those two countries, North Korea’s dealings with South Korea also saw a remarkable thaw.

But relations on the peninsula have been tense since a second summit between Kim and Trump collapsed last year, and they took another blow last month when North Korean troops shot dead a South Korean fisheries official detained at sea.

‘CROCODILE TEARS’

Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy in Seoul, said despite Kim’s conciliatory comments towards South Korea, his main message on Saturday was aimed at the United States.

“By showing a new ICBM, the North suggested they can test it any time if things don’t go well after the election. Inter-Korean ties don’t count to them,” Shin said.

The South Korean government said Kim’s speech would foster better ties but it urged North Korea to stick to agreements preventing armed clashes and accept a request for a joint investigation into the shooting of the fisheries official.

South Korean opposition leader Kim derided a teary display by Kim as he spoke of the sacrifices made by North Korea’s armed forces.

“It was appalling to see him shed crocodile tears after shooting our citizen to death,” he said.

Former South Korean nuclear negotiator Chun Yung-woo, pointing to North Korea’s extensive testing of MLRS and short-range missiles over the past year, while sticking to a moratorium on ICBM testing, said South Korea must not get carried away by hope for peace.

“All the media attention is on North Korea’s new strategic weapons but the most serious threat to our security is solid-fuel, short-range tactical missiles and MLRS that they’ve been madly testing over the past year,” Chun said.

“North Korea showed how it has focused on developing its capability to attack the South while our people have been absorbed in a peace campaign,” he said.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Josh Smith, Robert Birsel)

Companies may be punished for paying ransoms to sanctioned hackers – U.S. Treasury

By Raphael Satter

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Facilitating ransomware payments to sanctioned hackers may be illegal, the U.S. Treasury said on Thursday, signaling a crackdown on the fast-growing market for consultants who help organizations pay off cybercriminals.

In a pair of advisories, the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control and its Financial Crimes Enforcement Network warned that facilitators could be prosecuted even if they or the victims did not know that the hackers demanding the ransom were subject to U.S. sanctions.

Ransomware works by encrypting computers, holding a company’s data hostage until a payment is made. Organizations have often ponied up ransoms to liberate their data.

“It is a game changer,” said Alon Gal, chief technology officer of Hudson Rock, which works to head off ransomware attacks before they happen.

Before, companies could decide whether or not to pay cybercriminals off, he said. Now that those decisions are being brought under government oversight “we are going to see a much tougher handling of these incidents.”

The Enforcement Network’s advisory also warned that cybersecurity firms may need to register as money services businesses if they help make ransomware payments. That would impose a new reporting requirement on a previously little-regulated corner of the cybersecurity industry.

Ransomware has become an increasingly visible threat in the United States and abroad. Cybercriminals have long used the software to loot their victims. Some countries, notably North Korea, are also accused of deploying ransomware to earn cash.

(Reporting by Raphael Satter; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Richard Chang)

Exclusive: More than 40 countries accuse North Korea of breaching U.N. sanctions

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) – More than 40 countries accused North Korea on Friday of illicitly breaching a United Nations cap on refined petroleum imports and called for an immediate halt to deliveries until the end of the year, according to a complaint seen by Reuters.

The 15-member U.N. Security Council imposed an annual cap of 500,000 barrels in December 2017 in a bid to cut off fuel for North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

But in a complaint to the U.N. Security Council North Korea sanctions committee, 43 countries – including the United States, Britain and France – said they estimated that in the first five months of this year Pyongyang had imported more than 1.6 million barrels of refined petroleum via 56 illicit tanker deliveries.

The complaint said North Korean vessels continue to conduct ship-to-ship transfers at sea “on a regular basis as the DPRK’s primary means of importing refined petroleum.” North Korea’s formal name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

The countries asked the Security Council sanctions committee to make an official determination that North Korea had exceeded the cap and “inform member states that they must immediately cease selling, supplying, or transferring refined petroleum products to the DPRK for the remainder of the year.”

Similar requests to the committee in 2018 and 2019 were blocked by North Korean allies Russia and China. They are also the only two countries to have formally reported deliveries of refined petroleum to the Security Council sanctions committee.

“China and Russia collectively have reported 106,094.17 barrels of refined petroleum product transfers … January through May,” the complaint said. “The official accounting of the DPRK’s imports vastly under represents the volume of refined petroleum products that actually enter the DPRK.”

The 43 countries also urged the committee to call on states to “immediately exercise enhanced vigilance regarding the DPRK attempting to procure additional refined petroleum products and to prevent illicit ship-to-ship transfers of refined petroleum products to vessels owned, controlled, or acting on behalf of or working in cooperation with the DPRK.”

North Korea has been subjected to U.N. sanctions since 2006 over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. While the Security Council has steadily strengthened sanctions, U.N. monitors reported this year that North Korea continued to enhance its programs last year.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump have met three times since 2018, but failed to make progress on U.S. calls for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons and North Korea’s demands for an end to sanctions.

The complaint to the Security Council committee said: “If the DPRK is able to flagrantly evade international sanctions, it will have little incentive to engage in serious negotiations.”

The North Korean mission to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by David Gregorio)

U.S. envoy arrives in South Korea as North Korea rejects talks

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – A U.S. envoy arrived in South Korea on Tuesday in an effort to renew stalled nuclear talks with North Korea, hours after it issued a statement saying it has no intention of sitting down with the United States and told South Korea to “stop meddling”.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, who has led working-level talks with the North Koreans, landed at a U.S. military base south of Seoul, media reported, and was due to meet South Korean officials on Wednesday and Thursday.

Earlier on Tuesday, Kwon Jong Gun, director general for U.S. affairs at North Korea’s foreign ministry, accused South Korea of misinterpreting a North Korean statement dismissing an “untimely rumor” about another summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump.

North Korea said on Saturday it did not feel the need for a new summit, days after South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who had offered to mediate between Kim and Trump, suggested the two leaders meet again before the U.S. elections in November.

“It is just the time for (South Korea) to stop meddling in others’ affairs but it seems there is no cure or prescription for its bad habit,” Kwon said in a statement carried by the North’s official KCNA news agency.

“Explicitly speaking once again, we have no intention to sit face to face with the United States.”

Trump and Kim met for the first time in 2018 in Singapore, raising hopes for a negotiated end to North Korea’s nuclear program. But their second summit, in 2019 in Vietnam, and subsequent working-level negotiations fell apart.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said Kwon’s statement reflected lingering inter-Korean tension and North Korea’s view that nuclear issues should be discussed only with the United States.

“It also suggested that North Koreans would ditch the past concept of negotiations where the South played a broker role, and won’t return to the table without major U.S. concessions,” Yang said.

Biegun said last week there was time for both sides to re-engage and “make substantial progress” but the novel coronavirus pandemic would make an in-person summit difficult before the U.S. presidential elections on Nov. 3.

The coronavirus complicated Biegun’s visit in a more personal way as well.

A newspaper reported that because of the outbreak, the envoy would not be visiting a Korean chicken soup restaurant that has been a regular stop on previous visits, and instead had arranged for the dish to be prepared at the U.S. ambassador’s residence.

Last month, North Korea abruptly raised tensions with South Korea and blew up a joint liaison office, just on its side of the border, before just as suddenly suspending plans for unspecified military actions.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Chris Reese, Howard Goller and Lincoln Feast)

Divided Koreas mark 70 years since war began, but no treaty in sight

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – Seventy years after the Korean War began, prospects for a peace treaty to officially end the conflict appear as distant as ever, as the two Koreas held low-key commemorations on Thursday amid heightened tension.

The 1950-1953 Korean War ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty, leaving U.S.-led U.N. forces technically still at war with North Korea.

South Korean leaders in 1953 opposed the idea of a truce that left the peninsula divided and were not signatories to the armistice.

South Korean war veterans gathered to commemorate the anniversary, including one event where U.S. President Donald Trump and other international leaders delivered video messages.

“The war isn’t really over and I don’t think peace will come while I’m still alive,” said 89-year-old veteran Kim Yeong-ho, who attended an event in the South Korean border town of Cheorwon. “The nightmares just keep coming back to me every day.”

North Korea released a 5,500-word report blaming the United States for starting the war, committing atrocities and maintaining decades of hostile policies that left Pyongyang no choice but to pursue nuclear weapons of its own.

As long as the United States clings to a “pathological and inveterate hostile policy” towards North Korea, “we will continue to further build up our strength to contain the persistent nuclear threats from the U.S.”, the Foreign Ministry’s Institute for Disarmament and Peace said in the report, which was carried by state media.

Two years ago, a flurry of diplomacy and summits between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the presidents of the United States, South Korea, and China raised hopes that even if the North’s nuclear arsenal was undiminished, the parties might agree to officially end the war.

‘THINK WISELY’

A series of follow-up meetings and working-level talks failed to close the gap, however, and North Korea has taken an increasingly confrontational tone, resuming short-range missile launches, blowing up an inter-Korean liaison office and severing communication hotlines with South Korea.

On Wednesday, North Korea said it had decided to suspend plans for unspecified military action against South Korea, but warned it to “think and behave wisely”.

While South Korea’s military stands ready to counter any threat, Seoul does not wish to force its political or economic systems on the North, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said at an anniversary event.

“We will continuously search for routes that are mutually beneficial for both Koreas through peace,” he said. “Before speaking of unification, I hope that we can become friendly neighbors first.”

Moon oversaw a ceremony in which the U.S. military repatriated the remains of 147 South Korean soldiers who died in the war. The remains were recovered in North Korea in operations dating back to the 1990’s.

Recovering remains of the roughly 5,300 American service members missing in North Korea had been one element of a statement signed by Kim and Trump at a Singapore summit in 2018, but after North Korea handed over the remains of at least 62 Americans, those efforts stalled as tensions rose.

Historians have estimated the war may have caused as many as 1 million military deaths and killed several million civilians. Thousands of families were divided with little contact as the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) cut the peninsula in two.

Despite misgivings from many in the United States, South Korean officials are pushing more forcefully for an end to the armistice arrangement.

“It is time for Korea to take center stage in maintaining its own peace and security…,” South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young said on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Josh Smith. Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin in Seoul, and Chaeyoun Won in Cheorwon.; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

North Korea suspends military action plans against South Korea

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea is suspending military action plans against South Korea, the official KCNA news agency reported on Wednesday, as a report from Seoul suggested North Korean troops were taking down loudspeakers reinstalled at the fortified border.

Political tensions between the rival Koreas had been rising over Pyongyang’s objections to plans by defector-led groups in the South to send propaganda leaflets into the North. Stalled negotiations regarding economic sanctions imposed because of the North’s nuclear weapons program had also fuelled tensions.

It was not immediately clear why North Korea had softened its position, which came after it blew up a liaison office last week and cut off communication hotlines with the South.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presided over a video conference meeting of the ruling party’s Central Military Commission on Tuesday, where members “took stock of the prevailing situation” before deciding to suspend the military plans, KCNA said, without elaborating.

The committee also discussed documents outlining measures for “further bolstering the war deterrent of the country,” KCNA reported.

Late on Wednesday, KCNA issued another statement by Kim Yong Chol, a senior Pyongyang official, criticizing the South Korean defense minister’s remarks to parliament that the North’s actions must be withdrawn, not suspended.

Kim called the comment “foolish and inappropriate”, warning Seoul should “think and behave wisely” not create a greater crisis.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, citing unnamed military sources, said North Korea’s military was seen removing about 10 loudspeakers near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) on Wednesday, just days after they were seen reinstalling around 20 of the devices.

About 40 such systems had been taken down after the two Koreas signed an accord in 2018 to cease “all hostile acts”.

A spokesman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North, said it was monitoring the situation and had no change in its stance that inter-Korean agreements should be kept.

The ministry also confirmed South Korean media reports that a number of official North Korea propaganda websites had removed some articles critical of South Korea, though the spokesman said it was unclear why.

“DOSE OF PATIENCE”

South Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young said Seoul would continue efforts to prevent escalation, and call for Washington and Beijing to help achieve denuclearisation and peace on the Korean peninsula, which was “made even more distant” by their rivalry.

“Dialogue, steadfast engagement and a healthy dose of patience are the only constructive options for moving forward,” Cho said in a video speech to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Kim Jong Un’s decision to suspend the unspecified military actions may represent a reprieve from weeks of increasingly provocative moves by North Korea.

Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, warned last week of retaliatory measures against South Korea that could involve the military, without elaborating.

The General Staff of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) later said it had been studying an “action plan” that included sending troops into joint tourism and economic zones, reoccupying border guard posts that had been abandoned under the 2018 pact, taking steps to “turn the front line into a fortress”, and supporting plans for the North to send its own propaganda leaflets into the South.

Jenny Town, with the U.S.-based North Korea-monitoring website 38 North, said anti-South Korea rhetoric from the North over the past week had left room for flexibility, but it was still unclear where the latest moves would lead.

“Overall, it doesn’t appear that the North has necessarily wanted to be overly provocative,” she said. “While it seems set on reversing the measures taken in the inter-Korean agreements -in a dramatic fashion – so far, the rhetoric has already been milder since the demolition of the liaison office.”

The KCNA report sent shares of South Korea’s defense-related firms, which have risen during the heightened tensions, into a tailspin early on Wednesday. Victek Co Ltd, Speco and Firstec Co Ltd tumbled more than 20% each, while the benchmark KOSPI and junior KOSDAQ was trading up 1.3% and 0.9%, respectively, as of 0032 GMT.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Jack Kim, Sangmi Cha, Joori Roh and Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall, Lincoln Feast and Alison Williams)

North Korea seen reinstalling border loudspeakers; satellite photos show liaison office standing but damaged

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea is reinstalling loudspeakers blaring propaganda across the border in its latest step away from inter-Korean peace agreements, prompting the South’s military to explore similar moves, a South Korean military source said on Tuesday.

Tension between the two Koreas has risen in recent weeks after the North blew up a joint liaison office on its side of the border, declared an end to dialogue and threatened military action.

North Korea’s military was seen putting up loudspeakers near the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Such systems were taken down after the two Koreas signed an accord in 2018 to cease “all hostile acts,” the military official said.

“We’re also considering reinstalling our own loudspeakers,” he said. “But the North hasn’t begun any broadcast yet, and we’re just getting ready to be able to counteract at any time.”

A spokeswoman at Seoul’s defense ministry declined to confirm North Korea’s moves but reiterated at a regular briefing that Pyongyang would “have to pay for the consequences” if it continues to defy joint efforts to foster peace.

The two countries have for decades pumped out propaganda from huge banks of speakers as a form of psychological warfare. The South aired a blend of news, Korean pop songs and criticism of the northern regime, while the North blasted the South and praised its own socialist system.

Commercial satellite imagery of the liaison office site on Monday showed that the building remained standing, but had been heavily damaged.

Analysts at U.S.-based 38 North, which tracks North Korea, said last week that the explosion “was clearly not a controlled detonation, as the building was not leveled and there was significant collateral damage to the adjacent buildings.”

The North began taking its recent actions as it denounced North Korean defectors in the South sending propaganda leaflets across the border.

Several defector-led groups have regularly sent flyers, food, $1 bills, mini radios and USB sticks containing South Korean dramas and news, usually by balloon or in bottles in rivers.

One group, led by Park Sang-hak, who fled the isolated state in 2000, said on Tuesday it flew 20 balloons containing 500,000 leaflets, 500 booklets on South Korea and 2,000 $1 bills.

South Korea’s government has pursued legal action to stop such activities, citing safety concerns for residents in border towns, but controversy remains over whether it violates the country’s protections for freedom of expression.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry handling inter-Korean affairs issued a statement vowing a stern response to the leaflet launches by Park’s group.

Pyongyang’s state media said on Monday angry North Koreans have also prepared some 12 million leaflets to be sent back.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin. Additional reporting by Josh Smith. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

North Korea’s Kim stokes tensions with eye on distracted Trump

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea has been ramping up tensions with South Korea in recent weeks, but the campaign seems aimed at making a renewed push for sanctions relief by recapturing the attention of a U.S. administration that is distracted by domestic issues.

North Korea blew up a joint liaison office on its side of the border last week, declared an end to dialogue with South Korea and threatened military action.

After three historic meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un failed to lead to a denuclearisation deal, U.S. President Donald Trump’s attention is fixed elsewhere, including the coronavirus epidemic, anti-racism protests and the November presidential election.

Kim, however, is facing real-world consequences for the failed talks, with North Korea’s sanctions-hit economy further strained by a border lockdown imposed to prevent a coronavirus outbreak, potentially threatening his support base among the elites and military.

Analysts say one of Kim’s goals in lashing out at U.S. ally South Korea is to remind Washington of the unresolved issues with North Korea, potentially forcing it to intervene.

“Trump could feel the need to talk to the North to manage the situation for now, and publicly claim that he had warded off the possible military provocations that Kim has threatened,” said Chang Ho-jin, a former South Korean presidential foreign policy secretary.

“By raising inter-Korean tensions, North Korea could also be hoping South Korea will push harder to get sanctions exemptions for joint economic projects that have so far been elusive.”

‘LAST-DITCH EFFORTS’

A diplomatic source in Seoul said U.S. officials, including Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun who had led negotiations with North Korea, are willing to make “last-ditch efforts” before the U.S. election.

“There was anxiety among them that they couldn’t just idle away the first half of this year,” the source said, noting Washington would switch to full election mode soon.

But a U.S. source familiar with the matter told Reuters that while Washington is willing to talk with Pyongyang at any time, there will unlikely be any negotiations that lead to a significant breakthrough in the near future, especially if North Korea only offers to dismantle its main Yongbyon nuclear facility.

The source said that sanctions relief is likely far away, as North Korea has been unwilling to discuss abandoning enough of its nuclear programmes for the United States to consider rolling back sanctions.

The pandemic, anti-racism protests and the rise of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden may have changed Kim’s strategy for winning concessions, said Wi Sung-lac, a former South Korean chief nuclear negotiator.

In his New Year address, Kim vowed to unveil a “new strategic weapon,” after Washington ignored a year-end deadline he had set for a restart of talks, but North Korea appears to have fallen off Trump’s agenda as he found himself mired in domestic crises.

“North Korea had been expected to stage a serious provocation such as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test, but COVID-19 and the ensuing U.S. political situation seem to have provided Kim a new calculation,” Wi said.

“With Trump already in trouble, firing an ICBM would only benefit Biden, so he resorted to short-range missile testing as a stop-gap measure and now is targeting the South.”

If Biden is elected, any negotiations would be “much more painful” for Kim as he would take a more principled approach and empower seasoned negotiators without summitry extravaganzas, said Cho Tae-yong, a South Korean lawmaker who previously as vice foreign minister worked with Biden’s foreign policy advisers.

Some experts do not rule out a return to ICBM testing if Trump looks increasingly likely to lose in the election, but that would also upset China which has been lobbying for Pyongyang to ease international sanctions.

“Serious provocations like an ICBM test could backfire, so Kim must be thinking hard not to overplay his hand until November,” Wi said.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Josh Smith and Sangmi Cha in Seoul and David Brunnstrom and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Editing by Josh Smith and Raju Gopalakrishnan)