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

By David Brunnstrom, Tom Daly and Michael Martina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘RESPECT FACTS AND SCIENCE’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Humeyra Pamuk, Kiyoshi Takenaka and Ju-min Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘UNWAVERING COMMITMENT’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Hyonhee Shin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Raphael Satter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)