Joy, disbelief as Korean families separated by war meet after 65 years

North and South Korean family members meet during a reunion at North Korea's Mount Kumgang resort, near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, North Korea, August 20, 2018. Yonhap via REUTERS

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – About 90 families from North and South Korea wept and embraced on Monday as the neighbors held their first reunion events in three years for relatives wrenched apart by the Korean War for more than six decades.

The brief reunions are set to total just 11 hours over the next three days in the North’s tourist resort of Mount Kumgang after the neighbors renewed exchanges this year following a standoff over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed to the reunion events at a summit in April.

About 330 South Koreans from 89 families, many in wheelchairs, embraced 185 separated relatives from the North with tears, joy, and disbelief. Some struggled to recognize family not glimpsed in more than 60 years.

A man selected as a participant for a reunion shows pictures of his deceased mother and little brothers living in North Korea, at a hotel used as a waiting place in Sokcho, South Korea, August 19, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

A man selected as a participant for a reunion shows pictures of his deceased mother and little brothers living in North Korea, at a hotel used as a waiting place in Sokcho, South Korea, August 19, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

“How are you so old?” Kim Dal-in, 92, asked his sister, Yu Dok, after gazing at her briefly in silence.

“I’ve lived this long to meet you,” replied the 85-year-old, wiping away tears as she clasped a photograph of her brother in his youth.

Siblings Kim Gyong Sil, 72 and Gyong Yong, 71, wearing the traditional hanbok dress, colored pale violet, stood nervously staring at the entrance, awaiting their 99-year-old mother Han Shin-ja. They could not speak for minutes, wailed loudly and rubbed their cheeks and hands.

“When I fled home in the war…,” Han said, faltering as she choked with emotion and left her sentence incomplete.

The separated families are victims of a decades-long political gridlock since the 1950-53 war ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty, with ties increasingly strained as Pyongyang rapidly stepped up its weapons programs.

More than 57,000 South Korean survivors have registered for the family reunions, which usually end in painful farewells.

For years, Seoul has called for regular meetings between separated families, including the use of video conferences, but the program often fell victim to fragile ties.

At his historic June summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in June, Kim pledged to abandon his country’s nuclear programs if Washington provided security guarantees, but the two sides have since struggled to agree how to reach that goal.

The reunions should be scaled up sharply, held regularly, and include exchanges of visits and letters, said Moon, himself a member of a separated family from the North’s eastern port city of Hungnam.

“It is a shame for both governments that many of the families have passed away without knowing whether their lost relatives were alive,” he told presidential secretaries at a meeting.

Lee Geum-seom, who has been selected as a participant for a reunion, is helped by volunteers as she arrives at a hotel used as a waiting place in Sokcho, South Korea, August 19, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Lee Geum-seom, who has been selected as a participant for a reunion, is helped by volunteers as she arrives at a hotel used as a waiting place in Sokcho, South Korea, August 19, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

“Expanding and accelerating family reunions is a top priority.”

Ninety-three families from both sides of the border had been initially due to hold a three-day gathering from Monday, but four South Korean members canceled at the last minute because of poor health, the Red Cross said.

From Thursday, 88 more groups of relatives will meet, comprised of 469 individuals from the South and 128 from the North, Seoul’s Unification Ministry says.

For Lee Jong-shik, 81, Monday’s reunion was a hard-won second chance to track down his younger brother, Ri Chong Song, after the failure of a 2009 effort when a different individual showed up, to the dismay of the family from the South.

“I tried so hard, too, searching for you for seven years,” Ri told his brother.

The participants included the families of a prisoner of war and five people abducted by North Korean authorities during the conflict, though the six South Koreans they had hoped to meet had died.

The reunions, which began in 1985, can be a traumatic experience, say survivors, who know they are unlikely to see their relatives again since many are 80 or older and first-timers typically get priority for visits.

About 132,600 individuals were listed as separated families by the end of July. Of the 57,000 survivors, 41.2 percent are in their 80s and 21.4 percent in their 90s, government data show.

The oldest South Korean participant is 101-year-old Baek Seong-gyu, who was reunited with his daughter-in-law and granddaughter.

“Most participants are elderly and many suffer from hypertension, diabetes and have underlying medical conditions,” said physician Han Sang-jo. “Ahead of the reunions, we are thoroughly checking their health.”

Many brought gifts of clothing, medicine, and food for their North Korean relatives since anything deemed extravagant by Pyongyang was unlikely to pass muster.

Moon Hyun-sook, 91, said she put together clothes, cosmetics, and medicine for her two sisters, younger than she is by 12 and 26 years.

“Whenever I saw pretty clothes, I always thought how cute they would look in them,” she said.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Joyce Lee in SEOUL, Hyun Young Yi in SOKCHO, and Joint Press Corps; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Clarence Fernandez)

South Korea’s diehard Trump supporters hail ‘guardian of liberty’

A member of a conservative right-wing civic group attends an anti-North Korea and pro-U.S. protest in Seoul, South Korea, August 4, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Jeongmin Kim and Minwoo Park

SEOUL (Reuters) – Every time an image of U.S. President Donald Trump appears on TV in South Korea, 69-year-old Vietnam War veteran Chung Seung-jin solemnly salutes.

The U.S. flag Chung keeps in his home in Seoul gets similar respect every morning.

Vietnam War veteran Chung Seung-jin poses for photographs after an interview with Reuters at his home in Suwon, South Korea, July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Vietnam War veteran Chung Seung-jin poses for photographs after an interview with Reuters at his home in Suwon, South Korea, July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

“I salute President Trump and the U.S. flag every day to show how much I trust him,” Chung told Reuters as he attended a recent anti-North Korea rally in the sweltering summer heat in downtown Seoul.

“I salute to pay respect to Mr. Trump, supporting his reign as the leader of the world and guardian of liberty.”

For many South Korean conservatives who liked Trump’s initial tough talk against North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, his abrupt embrace of the autocratic leader at their historic Singapore summit in June was nothing short of a betrayal.

Trump, who ridiculed Kim as “rocket man” last year, has since called the North Korean leader “funny” and “smart” and even praised his ability to retain his authoritarian grip on power.

“Trump said Kim is an ‘amazing leader’, thus legitimizing him. This makes us, the patriotic citizens, feel betrayed,” said Cho Won-jin, leader of the right-wing Korean Patriots’ Party.

Members of a conservative right-wing civic group attend an anti-North Korea and pro-U.S. protest in Seoul, South Korea, August 4, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Members of a conservative right-wing civic group attend an anti-North Korea and pro-U.S. protest in Seoul, South Korea, August 4, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

But for a colorful handful of Trump supporters who gather regularly on the streets of Seoul to call for aggressive action against North Korea, faith in the U.S. president is unshaken.

“I have saluted Trump today as always with utmost sincerity,” said 76-year-old demonstrator Lee Yoon-jo, nodding at a large picture of a beaming Trump at a demonstration in downtown Seoul.

As he saluted, demonstrators held giant U.S. and South Korean flags in front of the U.S. embassy, alongside banners in Korean and English reading “The United States is a thankful brother country that has been devoted to a free Korea”.

Gratitude for U.S. support in the 1950-1953 Korean War, as well as anti-communist rhetoric used by the South’s military rulers in the 1970s still resonate with many older South Koreans, said analyst Jeong Chan-dae of Sungkonghoe University.

“To these elderly conservatives, the U.S. is more than just an ally and more of a ‘savior’,” he said.

Holding a faded black-and-white photograph from his time he fought alongside American allies in the Vietnam War in 1968, Chung said: “Without the U.S., South Korea would never have been able to exist.”

Trump and Kim met in Singapore in June, where they announced an agreement in which Kim reaffirmed his “unwavering” commitment to denuclearize. Little progress on that front has been made in the weeks since.

A Gallup Korea poll conducted just after the summit found 48 percent of South Korean conservatives thought the meeting went well, compared to 79 percent of progressives.

Standing on a corner in Seoul, surrounded by flags and anti-North Korean banners, the small knot of demonstrators are unfazed by the shift in tone, noting that Trump could still resort to “regime change” if a denuclearisation deal doesn’t pan out.

“President Trump has always masterfully guided and protected South Korea and the free world and always will,” Lee said, again giving a military salute. “Thank you, Mr. President.”

(Reporting by Jeongmin Kim and Minwoo Park; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Pompeo says North Korea weapons work counter to denuclearization pledge

FILE PHOTO: North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un listens to U.S. President Donald Trump as they meet in a one-on-one bilateral session at the start of their summit at the Capella Hotel on the resort island of Sentosa, Singapore June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By David Brunnstrom

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Less than two months after a landmark U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew back to the city-state on Friday and said North Korea’s continued work on weapons programs was inconsistent with its leader’s commitment to denuclearize.

Pompeo was asked en route to Singapore about his statement in the U.S. Senate last month that North Korea was continuing to make bomb fuel and reports that North Korea, led by Kim Jong Un, was building new missiles.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attends an ASEAN-U.S. Ministerial Meeting in Singapore, August 3, 2018. REUTERS/Edgar Su

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attends an ASEAN-U.S. Ministerial Meeting in Singapore, August 3, 2018. REUTERS/Edgar Su

“Chairman Kim made a commitment to denuclearize,” Pompeo told reporters. “The world demanded that they (North Korea) do so in the U.N. Security Council resolutions. To the extent they are behaving in a manner inconsistent with that, they are a) in violation of one or both the U.N. Security Council resolutions and b) we can see we still have a ways to go to achieve the ultimate outcome we’re looking for.”

Pompeo thanked ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at a meeting in Singapore for their efforts in enforcing sanctions on North Korea.

In a landmark summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12, Kim, who is seeking relief from tough sanctions, committed in a broad statement to work toward denuclearization, but Pyongyang has offered no details as to how it might go about this.

Pompeo told a Senate committee hearing on July 25 that North Korea was continuing to produce fuel for nuclear bombs in spite of its pledge.

On Monday, a senior U.S. official said U.S. spy satellites had detected renewed activity at the North Korean factory that produced the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States.

The Washington Post reported on Monday that North Korea appeared to be building one or two new liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles at the research facility, citing unidentified officials familiar with intelligence reporting.

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho is also in Singapore and will attend the same regional meeting as Pompeo on Saturday, but the State Department has not said whether the two will meet.

Following his talks with Ri, China’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, said he hoped North Korea and the United States continue to move forward to implement their leaders’ agreement.

“China all along has believed that the consensus reached by U.S. and North Korea’s leaders meeting in Singapore is very precious,” Wang told reporters.

“That is, at the same time as realizing denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, to establish a peace mechanism. This direction is without a doubt correct,” he said.

China is North Korea’s most important economic and diplomatic supporter and fought for the North in the 1950-53 Korean War against the U.S.-led United Nations forces that backed South Korea.

Pompeo, who has led the U.S. negotiating effort with North Korea, visited Pyongyang from July 5-7 for inclusive talks aimed at agreeing a denuclearization roadmap. Pompeo said at the time he had made progress on key issues, only for North Korea to accuse his delegation hours later of making “gangster-like” demands.

Trump hailed the Singapore summit as a success and even went as far as saying that North Korea no longer posed a nuclear threat, but questions have been mounting about Pyongyang’s willingness to give up its weapons programs.

Trump has pointed to North Korea’s freeze on nuclear and missile tests and its agreement to return remains of Americans killed in the 1950-53 Korea War.

The White House said on Thursday that Trump had received a letter from Kim and had responded with a note that should be delivered shortly. But it said no second meeting was currently planned.

(Additional reporting by Christian Shepherd, John Geddie and Jack Kim in Singapore and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Nick Macfie)

U.S. says remains returned by North Korea likely American

United Nations Command Chaplain U.S. Army Col. Sam Lee performs a blessing of sacrifice and remembrance on the 55 boxes of remains thought to be of U.S. soldiers killed in the 1950-53 Korean War, returned by North Korea to the U.S., at the Osan Air Base in South Korea, July 27, 2018. U.S. Army/ Sgt. Quince Lanford/Handout via REUTERS

By Josh Smith

OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea (Reuters) – More than 50 boxes handed over by North Korea to the United States last week appear to hold human remains from the 1950-1953 Korean War and are likely American, according to an initial forensic analysis, a U.S. official said on Wednesday.

A U.S. military transport aircraft on Friday flew the remains from the North Korean city of Wonsan, a first step in implementing an agreement reached at a landmark summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump in June.

“There is no reason to doubt that they do relate to Korean War losses,” John Byrd, director of analysis for the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), told reporters at Osan air base in South Korea, just before the remains were due to be flown to Hawaii for further analysis and identification.

More than 7,700 U.S. troops remain unaccounted for from the Korea War. About 5,300 were lost in what is now North Korea.

Byrd said a single identification “dog tag” was also handed over by the North Koreans. The soldier’s family had been notified, though it was not clear if his remains were among those found, Byrd said.

Experts say positively identifying the decades-old remains could take anywhere from days to decades.

Still, the initial “field forensic review” indicates that the “remains are what North Korea said they were”, Byrd said.

The North Koreans provided enough specifics about where each suspected body was found that U.S. officials have matched them to specific battles fought from 1950 to 1951, though not necessarily individuals, he said.

A U.S. airwoman salutes during a repatriation ceremony for remains transferred by North Korea, at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea August 1, 2018. Jung Yeon-je/Pool via REUTERS

A U.S. airwoman salutes during a repatriation ceremony for remains transferred by North Korea, at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea August 1, 2018. Jung Yeon-je/Pool via REUTERS

“CHERISHED DUTY”

Dozens of American, South Korean and other soldiers and officials from U.N. countries that fought in the Korean War conducted a ceremony with full military honors before the remains were loaded into military transport aircraft for the flight to Hawaii on Wednesday.

The remains had been transferred from the small boxes they arrived in on Friday into full-sized caskets, draped with U.N. flags.

Officials from U.N.-allied nations laid wreaths, a military band played somber music, an honor guard fired a salute and troops saluted as the caskets sat in a hangar just off a runway.

“For the warrior, this is a cherished duty, a commitment made to one another before going into battle and passed on from one generation of warriors to the next,” said U.S. General Vincent Brooks, top commander of U.S. and U.N. forces in South Korea. “And for all in attendance, this is a solemn reminder that our work is not complete until all have been accounted for, no matter how long it takes to do so.”

DPAA deputy director Rear Admiral Jon Kreitz said he saw the remains transfer as an important step that will lead to more recovery operations in North Korea.

DIPLOMATIC GESTURE

The pledge to transfer war remains was seen as a goodwill gesture by Kim at the Singapore summit and was the most concrete agreement reached by the two sides so far.

While it has taken longer than some had hoped, a U.S. State Department official said the process had so far proceeded as expected, and the handover rekindled hopes for progress in other talks with North Korea aimed at its denuclearization.

Friday’s transfer of the remains coincided with the 65th anniversary of the 1953 armistice that ended fighting between North Korean and Chinese forces and South Korean and U.S.-led forces under the U.N. Command. The two sides remain technically at war because a peace treaty was never signed.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on July 15 that Washington and Pyongyang had agreed to recommence field operations in North Korea to search for the missing Americans.

The Pentagon said it was “absolutely” considering the possibility of sending personnel to North Korea for this purpose.

The United States and North Korea conducted joint searches from 1996 until 2005, when Washington halted the operations, citing concerns about the safety of its personnel as Pyongyang stepped up its nuclear program.

More than 400 caskets of remains found in North Korea were returned to the United States between the 1990s and 2005, with the bodies of some 330 other Americans also accounted for, according to the DPAA.

The U.S. State Department said on Tuesday it expects Pyongyang to keep its commitment made at the June summit to give up its nuclear arms which it had developed for years in defiance of U.N. Security Council sanctions.

Questions have arisen over Pyongyang’s commitment to denuclearize after U.S. spy satellite material detected renewed activity at the North Korean factory that produced the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Nick Macfie)

U.S. detects new activity at North Korea factory that built ICBMs

A satellite image shows the Sanumdong missile production site in North Korea on July 29, 2018. Planet Labs Inc/Handout via REUTERS

By David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. spy satellites have detected renewed activity at the North Korean factory that produced the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States, a senior U.S. official said on Monday, in the midst of talks to compel Pyongyang to give up its nuclear arms.

Photos and infrared imaging indicate vehicles moving in and out of the facility at Sanumdong, but do not show how advanced any missile construction might be, the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity because the intelligence is classified.

The Washington Post reported on Monday that North Korea appeared to be building one or two new liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles at the large research facility on the outskirts of Pyongyang, citing unidentified officials familiar with intelligence reporting.

According to the U.S. official who spoke to Reuters, one photo showed a truck and covered trailer similar to those the North has used to move its ICBMs. Since the trailer was covered, it was not possible to know what, if anything, it was carrying.

The White House said it did not comment on intelligence. A senior official at South Korea’s presidential office said U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies are closely looking into various North Korean movements, declining specific comment.

The evidence obtained this month is the latest to suggest ongoing activity in North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities despite talks with the United States and a June summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Trump declared soon afterward that North Korea no longer posed a nuclear threat. Kim committed in a broad summit statement to work toward denuclearization, but Pyongyang has offered no details as to how it might go about that and subsequent talks have not gone smoothly.

It was not the first time U.S. intelligence clashed with the president’s optimism.

In late June, U.S. officials told U.S. media outlets that intelligence agencies believed North Korea had increased production of fuel for nuclear weapons and that it did not intend to fully give up its nuclear arsenal.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that North Korea was continuing to produce fuel for nuclear bombs despite its pledge to denuclearize. But he insisted the Trump administration was still making progress in its talks with Pyongyang.

Joel Wit, a former State Department negotiator and founder of 38 North, a North Korea monitoring project, said it was unrealistic to expect North Korea to stop its programs “until the ink is dry on an agreement.”

That was the case with U.S. negotiations with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and more recently with Iran, “which continued to build more centrifuges capable of producing nuclear material even as it negotiated with the United States to limit those capabilities,” Wit said.

The Sanumdong factory produced two Hwasong-15 ICBMs, North Korea’s longest-range missiles, but the U.S. official noted that Pyongyang still had not tested a reliable re-entry vehicle capable of surviving a high-velocity trip through the Earth’s atmosphere and delivering a nuclear warhead.

It is possible, the official said, that any new missiles the North is building may be for further testing of such vehicles and of more accurate guidance systems.

“They seem to have figured out the engines, but not all the higher-tech stuff, and that might be what this is about,” the official said.

“What’s more, a liquid-fueled ICBM doesn’t pose nearly the threat that a solid-fueled one would because they take so long to fuel, and that’s something we almost certainly could see in time to abort a launch, given our assets in the vicinity.”

(Additional reporting by David Alexander and Joyce Lee; Writing by Mary Milliken; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Trump thanks Kim as North Korea transfers remains of missing U.S. soldiers

A soldier carries a casket containing the remains of a U.S. soldier who was killed in the Korean War during a ceremony at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Pool

By Joyce Lee and Eric Beech

SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – North Korea transferred 55 small, flag-draped cases carrying the suspected remains of U.S. soldiers killed in the Korean War on Friday, officials said, a first step in implementing an agreement reached in a landmark summit in June.

The repatriation of the remains missing in the 1950-53 conflict is seen as a modest diplomatic coup for U.S. President Donald Trump as it was one of the agreements reached during his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore aimed primarily at securing the denuclearization of the North.

“After so many years, this will be a great moment for so many families. Thank you to Kim Jong Un,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

A White House statement earlier said: “We are encouraged by North Korea’s actions and the momentum for positive change.”

A U.S. military transport plane flew to an airfield in North Korea’s northeastern city of Wonsan to bring the remains to Osan air base in South Korea, the White House statement said.

Soldiers in dress uniforms with white gloves were seen slowly carrying 55 small cases covered with the blue-and-white U.N. insignia, placing them one by one into silver vans waiting on the tarmac in Osan.

A U.N. honor guard carries a box containing remains believed to be from American servicemen killed during the 1950-53 Korean War after it arrived from North Korea, at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, Friday, July 27, 2018. Ahn Young-joon/Pool via Reuter

A U.N. honor guard carries a box containing remains believed to be from American servicemen killed during the 1950-53 Korean War after it arrived from North Korea, at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, Friday, July 27, 2018. Ahn Young-joon/Pool via Reuters

Straight-backed officers looked on next to the flags of the United States, South Korea and the United Nations.

A formal repatriation ceremony would be held at Osan on Wednesday, the White House said.

The remains would then be flown to Hawaii for further processing under the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the U.N. Command said in a statement.

The transfer of the remains coincided with the 65th anniversary of the 1953 armistice that ended fighting between North Korean and Chinese forces on one side and South Korean and U.S.-led forces under the U.N. Command on the other. The two Koreas are technically still at war because a peace treaty was never signed.

Kim paid tribute to the North’s Korean War “martyrs” and to Chinese soldiers killed in the conflict, state media said.

More than 7,700 U.S. troops who fought in the Korean War remain unaccounted for, with about 5,300 of those lost in what is now North Korea.

U.S. soldiers salute to vehicles transporting the remains of 55 U.S. soldiers who were killed in the Korean War at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Pool

U.S. soldiers salute to vehicles transporting the remains of 55 U.S. soldiers who were killed in the Korean War at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Pool

GOODWILL GESTURE

The pledge to transfer war remains was seen as a goodwill gesture by Kim at the June summit and, while it has taken longer than some U.S. officials had hoped, the handover will rekindle hopes for progress in nuclear talks.

Kim committed in a broad summit statement to work toward denuclearization but Pyongyang has offered no details.

South Korea welcomed the return of the remains, calling it “meaningful progress that could contribute to fostering trust” between Pyongyang and Washington.

The two Koreas agreed to hold general-level military talks on Tuesday to discuss ways to implement their own summit in April in which they vowed to defuse tensions, Seoul’s defense ministry said on Friday.

South Korea also said it plans to cut the number of troops from 618,000 to 500,000 by 2020 and the number of generals from 436 to 360 as part of military reforms.

The plan comes amid a thaw in relations between the two Koreas and days after the South pledged to reduce guard posts and equipment along the demilitarized zone on its border with the North.

It would spend 270.7 trillion won ($241.8 billion) on the reforms from 2019-23, which translates into a 7.5 percent rise in its annual defense budget, the ministry said in a statement.

Pyongyang has renewed calls for a declaration of the end of the Korean War, calling it the “first process for peace” and an important way Washington can add heft to security guarantees it has pledged in return for North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons.

The U.S. State Department says Washington is committed to building a peace mechanism to replace the armistice when North Korea has denuclearised.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a Senate hearing on Wednesday North Korea was continuing to produce fuel for nuclear bombs despite of its pledge to denuclearize, even as he argued that the United States was making progress in talks with Pyongyang.

Pompeo said North Korea had begun to dismantle a missile test site, something Kim also promised in Singapore, and called it “a good thing, steps forward”. However, he said Kim needed to follow through on his summit commitments to denuclearize.

The U.N. Security Council has unanimously boosted sanctions on North Korea since 2006 in a bid to choke off funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, banning luxury goods said to include recreational sports equipment.

The United States has blocked a request by the International Olympic Committee to transfer sports equipment to North Korea so its athletes can participate in the Olympic Games, United Nations diplomats said on Thursday.

Before Friday’s transfer of remains, the United States and North Korea had worked on so-called joint field activities to recover Korean War remains from 1996-2005. Washington halted those operations, citing concerns about the safety of its personnel as Pyongyang stepped up its nuclear program.

More than 400 caskets of remains found in North Korea were returned to the United States between the 1990s and 2005, with the bodies of some 330 other Americans also accounted for, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

Pentagon officials have said discussions with North Korea have included resuming field operations in the North to recover remains.

The program helped bring in vital hard currency to North Korea, which has been under U.S.-led sanctions for decades. However, reviving it could complicate U.S. efforts to persuade countries around the world to maintain economic pressure on Pyongyang over its ballistic and nuclear programs.

(Reporting by Eric Beech and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON and Joyce Lee in SEOUL; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL; Editing by Mohammad Zargham, Paul Tait and Nick Macfie)

When to end the war? North Korea, U.S. at odds over path to peace

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump shows the document, that he and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un signed acknowledging the progress of the talks and pledge to keep momentum going, after their summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore June 12, 2018. At right is U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – Washington’s reluctance to declare an end to the Korean War until after North Korea abandons its nuclear arsenal may put it at odds not only with Pyongyang, but also with allies in South Korea.

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

Friday marks 65th anniversary of the truce, which will be commemorated by the United Nations Command in a ceremony in the fortified demilitarized zone that has divided the two Koreas since the war. North Korean veterans of the war, which left more than 1.2 million dead, will gather in Pyongyang for a conference.

In their April summit, the leaders of North and South Korea agreed to work this year with the United States and China, which also played a major role in the war, to replace the armistice with a peace agreement.

In June, U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signed a statement saying they would seek “to establish new U.S.–DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity,” using the initials of the North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Kim has broadly committed to the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” if the United States and its allies drop their “hostile” policies and the North has made clear it sees an official end to the state of war as crucial to lowering tensions.

Many experts and officials in Washington, however, fear signing a peace deal first could erode the international pressure they believe led Kim to negotiate. It could also endanger the decades-long U.S. military alliance with South Korea, and may undermine the justification for the U.S. troops based on the peninsula.

“Broadly speaking, one side wants denuclearization first, normalization of relations later, and the other wants normalization of relations first, then denuclearization later,” said Christopher Green, a senior advisor at the International Crisis Group.

North Korea says it has taken steps to halt its nuclear development, including placing a moratorium on missile and nuclear bomb testing, demolishing its only known nuclear test site, and dismantling a rocket facility.

American officials have praised those moves, but remain skeptical. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress on Wednesday North Korea was continuing to produce fuel for nuclear bombs.

A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said while “peace on the Korean Peninsula is a goal shared by the world,” the international community would not accept a nuclear armed North Korea.

“As we have stated before, we are committed to building a peace mechanism with the goal of replacing the Armistice agreement when North Korea has denuclearized,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

DOUBTS ON BOTH SIDES

In recent weeks Pyongyang has renewed calls for a declaration of the end of the war, calling it the “first process for peace” and a key way the United States can add heft to its guarantees of security.

“The adoption of the declaration on the termination of war is the first and foremost process in the light of ending the extreme hostility and establishing new relations between the DPRK and the U.S.,” North Korean state media said in a statement on Tuesday.

After Pompeo visited Pyongyang in June for talks, state media quoted a spokesman for the North’s Ministry of the Foreign Affairs criticizing the U.S. delegation for not mentioning the idea of a peace regime.

“It seems quite obvious that even if North Korea is negotiating sincerely, they aren’t going to be willing to give up their nuclear capacity in the absence of a peace system that gives them regime security,” Green said.

Many officials in Washington appeared concerned that an early declaration of peace could lead to the collapse of the U.S.-South Korea alliance with calls for U.S. troops to leave the Korean peninsula, he added.

OTHER PLAYERS

South Korean leaders in 1953 opposed the idea of a truce that left the peninsula divided, and were not signatories to the armistice. The treaty was signed by the commander of North Korea’s army, the American commander of the U.N. Command, and the commander of the “Chinese People’s volunteers”.

While South Korean officials say they are committed to the full denuclearization of North Korea, they have shown more flexibility in the timing of a peace agreement than their U.S. allies.

South Korea’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said on Tuesday it is possible to declare an end to war this year.

“We are in consultations with the North and the United States in that direction,” he told a parliamentary session, adding that a three-way declaration would be part of an initial phase of denuclearization.

China says it is open to participating in the process.

Meeting North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho in Pyongyang on Thursday, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou said China supported the reconciliation process between the North and the United States, China’s Foreign Ministry said.

China is willing to work hard with all sides to promote the process of establishing a “peace mechanism” for the Korean peninsula, Kong added, without elaborating.

(Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin in Seoul and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Clarence Fernandez)

Trump’s U.N. envoy: ‘Every day I feel like I put body armor on’

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley addresses a United Nations General Assembly meeting ahead of a vote on a draft resolution that would deplore the use of excessive force by Israeli troops against Palestinian civilians at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., June 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump came into office disparaging the United Nations and appointed politician Nikki Haley as the ambassador to carry out his disruptive agenda, but she has also shown Trump how the world body serves his purposes, specifically on North Korea.

The U.N. Security Council’s unanimous adoption of tougher sanctions three times last year that put pressure on Pyongyang to enter talks on scrapping its nuclear weapons program is the example Haley gave Trump in a phone call in June.

In an interview with Reuters, Haley recalled telling Trump: “We would not be in the situation we are with North Korea without the U.N. because that was the only way to get the international community on the same page.”

The United States and other countries believe the sanctions helped to bring North Korean leader Kim Jong Un around to meeting with Trump at a historic summit in Singapore in June.

Haley said Trump asked her what she thought of the United Nations, then 17 months into her post and after the United States became the first country to quit the U.N. Human Rights Council. She said she rattled off a litany of complaints.

“Unbelievably bureaucratic, it wastes a lot of money, it has some real biases against Israel, against us at times, it ignores a lot that’s going on that needs attention.”

Haley’s relay of their phone call illustrates how she guides the president who shuns the international forums and pacts the United States has helped build over decades. When Trump took office, he called the U.N. “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.”

Some diplomats have said they see the former South Carolina governor as the stable face of U.S. foreign policy. When Trump leaves them confused, some say they look to her for interpretation.

“My job is to give clarity to everything the administration’s doing so that no one wonders where we are. I always wanted to make sure there was no gray. That it was black and white,” Haley said in the interview during a trip last month to India, the country from which her parents emigrated to the United States.

Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, described Haley’s job as selling the “administration’s anti-U.N. positions to the public.”

“That annoys other diplomats,” Gowan added.

RUSSIA TENSIONS

Haley has long taken a tougher public stance on Russia than her boss. In May she described Russian expansionism in Ukraine as “outrageous” and said the U.S. position “will not waver.”

Days later, however, Trump urged the Group of Seven countries to reinstate Russia, booted out for its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Two weeks before Trump’s July 16 summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Haley told Reuters that “basically what the president is saying is it’s better for us to have communication than not.”

But then the summit turned into a nightmare for the White House when Trump, at the joint news conference, sided with Putin’s denials of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election rather than the conclusions of his own intelligence agencies.

A political outcry in Washington drowned out Trump’s message that the two nuclear powers should improve their relations, which are at a post-Cold War low.

Haley has not responded to Reuters’ requests for comment on the summit.

Differences over Russia also caused rare public friction for Haley within the administration when she announced in April that Washington was going to sanction Moscow over its support of Syria’s government. Trump then decided not to go ahead.

“The president has every right to change his mind, every right,” Haley said. Trump never raised the incident with her, she said.

Her U.N. counterparts describe her as charming and yet very tough. She sees herself as a fighter.

“I don’t see (my role) as pushing an ‘America First’ policy, I see it as defending America because every day I feel like I put body armor on. I just don’t know who I’m fighting that day,” Haley said.

Haley carved out a high-profile role within the Trump administration from the moment she was offered the job, telling the president she would only accept it if she was made a member of the Cabinet and the National Security Council.

“She’s got an eye and ear for where the politics of an issue are,” said a senior Western diplomat, who, like all those consulted at the United Nations, would only speak on condition of anonymity.

Those kinds of instincts have helped put the 46-year-old mother of two on the list of possible Republican presidential candidates. She dismisses the presidential chatter and said it has never come up with Trump, who intends to run again in 2020, “because he knows he doesn’t need to raise it.”

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)

Pompeo says North Korea must take ‘concrete actions’ before sanctions eased: U.N. envoy

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told United Nations Security Council envoys on Friday that there needs to be “concrete actions” by North Korea before an easing of sanctions on Pyongyang can be discussed, said Dutch U.N. Ambassador Karel van Oosterom.

“The secretary made very clear we need concrete deeds, concrete actions and only then we can start the discussion,” van Oosterom told reporters after Pompeo informally briefed envoys from the 15-member council, Japan and South Korea behind closed doors at the South Korea U.N. mission.

It was not immediately clear if Pompeo elaborated on what “concrete actions.” Van Oosterom chairs the Security Council’s North Korea sanctions committee.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

South Korea says sanctions shrank North Korean economy at sharpest rate in 20 years

FILE PHOTO: A North Korean man is photographed from the Chinese side of the border near the town of Changbai, China as he rides a bicycle along the Yalu River in the North Korean town of Hyesan, November 23, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

By Cynthia Kim and Hayoung Choi

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s economy contracted at the sharpest rate in two decades in 2017, South Korea’s central bank estimated on Friday, as international sanctions and drought hit growth hard, with signs living conditions were beginning to deteriorate.

Gross domestic product (GDP) in North Korea last year shrank 3.5 percent from the previous year, marking the biggest decline since a 6.5 percent drop in 1997 when the isolated nation was hit by a devastating famine, the Bank of Korea said.

North Korea does not publish economic data, and comprehensive public figures on social conditions are nonexistent.

However, analysts believe wider sanctions last year are likely to make the economic deterioration in 2018 worse than 2017, which could add to humanitarian need in the politically isolated state.

“The sanctions were stronger in 2017 than they were in 2016,” Shin Seung-cheol, head of the BOK’s National Accounts Coordination Team said.

“External trade volume fell significantly with the exports ban on coal, steel, fisheries and textile products. It’s difficult to put exact numbers on those but (export bans) crashed industrial production,” Shin said.

Both Seoul and Washington argue that increasingly strict international sanctions imposed over North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile program have been instrumental in leader Kim Jong Un’s decision to impose a ban on weapons testing and to negotiate with international leaders.

North Korea has called the sanctions “vicious” but rejects suggestions that the pressure led them to pursue diplomatic talks.

The situation also worsened last year with international experts fearing North Korea was facing the worst drought in 16 years, though late summer rains helped avoid acute food shortages.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in April vowed to switch the country’s strategic focus from the development of its nuclear arsenal jump starting his economy, but analysts say that will be difficult while sanctions remain in place.

“As long as exports of minerals are part of the sanctions, by far the most profitable item of its exports, Pyongyang will have no choice but to continue with its current negotiations with the U.S.,” said Kim Byeong-yeon, an economics professor at the Seoul National University who specializes in the North Korean economy.

U.S. President Donald Trump has said that sanctions won’t be lifted until Kim moves to give up his nuclear and missile arsenal.

INDUSTRY TAKES A HIT

North Korea’s coal-intensive industries and manufacturing sectors have suffered as the UN Security Council ratcheted up the sanctions in response to years of nuclear tests by Pyongyang.

Industrial production, which accounts for about a third of the nation’s total output, fell 8.5 percent. That marked the steepest decline since 1997 as factory production collapsed on restrictions of flows of oil and other energy resources into the country. Output from agriculture, construction industries fell by 1.3 percent and 4.4 percent, respectively.

China, its biggest trading partner, suspended coal purchases last year which cut North Korea’s main export revenue source while its suspended fuel sales into to country sparked a surge in gasoline and diesel prices, data reviewed by Reuters showed earlier.

Since then, however, fuel prices have stabilized and even dropped in recent weeks, according to a report published last week on the North Korean Economy Watch website.

“My best guess is that it’s a combination of increased smuggling, perhaps aided by China’s declining vigilance in enforcing sanctions and restrictions against illicit trade across the border,” analyst Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein wrote in the report.

North Korea’s black market, or Jangmadang, has grown to account for about 60 percent of the economy, according to the Institute for Korean Integration of Society.

“Shrinking trade first hits the Kim regime and top officials, and then later affects unofficial markets,” said Kim at Seoul National University, noting the squeeze would also be felt in household income and private consumption.

China’s total trade with North Korea dropped 59.2 percent in the first half of 2018 from a year earlier, China’s customs data showed last week.

The BOK uses figures compiled by the government and spy agencies to make its economic estimates. The bank’s survey includes monitoring of the size of rice paddy crops in border areas, traffic surveillance, and interviews with defectors.

HUMAN TOLL

Prices for food staples like rice and corn have remained stable under changing sanctions, and there are signs that a growing number of North Koreans have access to electronic appliances, often powered by solar panels, according to data gathered by the DailyNK website.

North Korean defectors in the South, however, say they hear reports of increased suffering.

“The economic status in Hamgyong area was very bad, according to my sources within North Korea,” said Kim Seung-cheol, a defector who heads the NK Reform Radio station in Seoul, referencing an area near the border with China.

“In South Hamgyong, some people died of hunger. Since trade with China fell significantly, foreign traders in the border area are suffering from poverty.”

The United Nations’ top aid official visited the country last week and said there was “clear evidence of humanitarian need.”

Other U.N. officials warn that aid groups face difficulties accessing international banking channels, transporting goods into the North Korea, while rising fuel prices hinder aid delivery.

North Korea’s Gross National Income per capita stands at 1.46 million won ($1,283.52), making it about 4.4 percent the size of South Korea’s, the BOK said.

Overall exports from North Korea dropped 37.2 percent in 2017, marking the biggest fall since a 38.5 percent decline in 1998, the BOK said on Friday, citing data from the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.

($1 = 1,137.5000 won)

(Additional reporting by Cynthia Kim,; Editing by Sam Holmes)