North Korea abandons nuclear freeze pledge, blames ‘brutal’ U.S. sanctions

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – North Korea said on Tuesday it was no longer bound by commitments to halt nuclear and missile testing, blaming the United States’ failure to meet a year-end deadline for nuclear talks and “brutal and inhumane” U.S. sanctions.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un set an end-December deadline for denuclearization talks with the United States and White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien said at the time the United States had opened channels of communication.

O’Brien said then he hoped Kim would follow through on denuclearization commitments he made at summits with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Ju Yong Chol, a counselor at North Korea’s mission to the U.N. in Geneva, said that over the past two years, his country had halted nuclear tests and test firing of inter-continental ballistic missiles “in order to build confidence with the United States”.

But the United States had responded by conducting dozens of joint military exercises with South Korea on the divided peninsula and by imposing sanctions, he said.

“As it became clear now that the U.S. remains unchanged in its ambition to block the development of the DPRK and stifle its political system, we found no reason to be unilaterally bound any longer by the commitment that the other party fails to honor,” Ju told the U.N.-backed Conference on Disarmament.

Speaking as the envoy from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), North Korea’s official name, Ju accused the United States of applying “the most brutal and inhumane sanctions”.

“If the U.S. persists in such hostile policy toward the DPRK there will never be the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” he said.

“If the United States tries to enforce unilateral demands and persists in imposing sanctions, North Korea may be compelled to seek a new path.”

U.S. military commanders said any new path could include the testing of a long-range missile, which North Korea has suspended since 2017, along with nuclear warhead tests.

“DO THE RIGHT THING”

U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood voiced concern at Pyongyang’s remarks and said Washington hoped the North would return to the negotiating table.

“What we hope is that they will do the right thing and come back to the table and try to work out an arrangement where by we can fulfill that pledge that was made by President Trump and Chairman Kim to denuclearize,” he said.

South Korean Ambassador Jang-keun Lee said there must be substantial progress in denuclearization to “maintain and build upon the hard-won momentum for dialogue”.

“Therefore, early resumption of negotiations between the United States and the DPRK is critical,” he said.

Vesna Batistic Kos, permanent representative of Croatia to the U.N. Office at Geneva speaking on behalf of the European Union, also called on North Korea to stick to the talks.

Pyongyang, slapped with multiple Security Council resolutions and sanctions, has rejected unilateral disarmament and given no indication that it is willing to go beyond statements of broad support for the concept of universal denuclearization.

North Korea has said in previous, failed talks that it could consider giving up its arsenal if the United States provided security guarantees by removing its troops from South Korea and withdrew its so-called nuclear umbrella of deterrence from South Korea and Japan.

Impoverished North Korea and the rich, democratic South are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

The North regularly used to threaten to destroy the South’s main ally, the United States, before rapprochement began after the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Jon Boyle and Nick Macfie)

North Korea says it successfully tested new submarine-launched ballistic missile

What appears to be a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) flies in an undisclosed location in this undated picture released by North Korea's Central News Agency (KCNA) on October 2, 2019. KCNA via REUTERS

By Joyce Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea said on Thursday it had successfully test-fired a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) from the sea to contain external threats and bolster self-defense, ahead of fresh nuclear talks with the United States.

The launch on Wednesday was the most provocative by North Korea since it resumed dialogue with the United States in 2018 and a reminder by Pyongyang of the weapons capability it has been aggressively developing, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, analysts said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “sent warm congratulations” to the defense scientists who conducted the test, state news agency KCNA said, indicating he did not attend the launch as he has at previous tests of new weapons systems.

The new type of SLBM, called Pukguksong-3, was “fired in vertical mode” in the waters off the eastern city of Wonsan, KCNA said, confirming an assessment by South Korea’s military on Wednesday that the missile was launched on a lofted trajectory.

“The successful new-type SLBM test-firing comes to be of great significance as it ushered in a new phase in containing the outside forces’ threat to the DPRK and further bolstering its military muscle for self-defense,” KCNA said.

DPRK is short for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The test “had no adverse impact on the security of neighboring countries,” KCNA said but gave no other details about the launch.

Photos released in the North’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper, whose front two pages featured the test, showed a black-and-white painted missile clearing the surface of the water, then the rocket engine igniting to propel it into the sky.

A State Department spokeswoman called on Pyongyang to “refrain from provocations” and to remain committed to nuclear negotiations.

South Korea expressed strong concern and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe condemned the launch, saying it was a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

North Korea rejects U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban Pyongyang from using ballistic missile technology, saying they are an infringement of its right to self-defense.

Talks aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have been stalled since a second summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in Vietnam in February broke down in disagreement over nuclear disarmament.

North Korea fired the missile hours after announcing it would resume talks with the United States by holding working-level negotiations on Oct. 5.

North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Myong Gil, arrived at the Beijing airport on Thursday with other North Korean officials and booked flights to Stockholm, Sweden, Yonhap reported, citing an airport official.

“We’re going for the DPRK-U.S. working-level negotiations,” the negotiator Kim told reporters in Beijing, according to Yonhap. “There’s been a new signal from the U.S. side, so we’re going with great expectations and optimism about the outcome.”

‘NUCLEAR CAPABLE’

The Pukguksong-3 appeared to be a new design that has enhanced range and stability compared with a version tested in 2016, three analysts said.

It was probably launched from a test platform and not a submarine, which would be the final stage of testing, said Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Seoul.

State news agency KCNA released photos and a report in July of leader Kim Jong Un inspecting a large, newly built submarine, but an unnamed South Korean military source said on Thursday that the submarine appears to be still incomplete, Yonhap news agency reported.

Leader Kim Jong Un’s absence at the test is “extremely unusual,” Kyungnam University’s Kim said, probably meant to contain the political fallout that could result in the upcoming talks falling apart before they even start.

On Wednesday, South Korea’s military said the missile flew 450 km (280 miles) and reached an altitude of 910 km (565 miles). It was likely a Pukguksong-class weapon, as the North’s earlier submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) under development were known.

South Korean Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo said the Pukguksong, or Pole Star in Korean, would have had a range of about 1,300 km (910 miles) on a standard trajectory.

North Korea had been developing SLBM technology before it suspended long-range missile and nuclear tests and began talks with the United States that led to the first summit between Kim and Trump in Singapore in June 2018.

The latest version of the Pukguksong may be the longest-range North Korean missile that uses solid fuel and the first nuclear-capable missile to be tested since November 2017, Ankit Panda of the U.S.-based Federation of American Scientists said.

North Korea has been developing rocket engines that burn solid fuel, which has advantages in military use compared with liquid fuel because it is stable and versatile, allowing it to be stored in missiles until they are ready for launch.

(Reporting by Joyce Lee; Writing by Jack Kim. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

North Korea says it is willing to resume nuclear talks with U.S. in late September

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un meet 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 Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea said on Monday it was willing to restart nuclear talks with the United States in late September, but warned that chances of a deal could end unless Washington takes a fresh approach.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed in a June 30 meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump to reopen working-level talks stalled since their failed February summit in Hanoi, but this has yet to happen in spite of repeated appeals from Washington.

In a statement carried by North Korea’s official KCNA news agency, Vice North Korean Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui said Pyongyang was willing to have “comprehensive discussions” with the United States in late September at a time and place agreed between both sides.

Asked for comment, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman said: “We don’t have any meetings to announce at this time.”

On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he hoped to return to denuclearization talks with North Korea in the coming days or weeks.

Choe stressed that Washington needed to present a new approach or the talks could fall apart again.

“I want to believe that the U.S. side would come out with an alternative based on a calculation method that serves both sides’ interests and is acceptable to us,” Choe said.

“If the U.S. side toys with an old scenario that has nothing to do with the new method at working-level talks which would be held after difficulties, a deal between the two sides may come to an end.”

In April, Kim set a year-end deadline for the United States to show more flexibility in talks, which broke down in February over U.S. demands for North Korea to give up all of its nuclear weapons and Pyongyang’s demands for relief from punishing U.S.-led international sanctions.

The end-of-September time frame would coincide with the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York, which Pompeo is due to attend. North Korea’s mission to the United Nations said last week that Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho would not attend “due to his schedule.”

North Korea has demanded that Pompeo be replaced with a “more mature” person in the U.S. negotiating team, while lauding the rapport built between Kim and Trump in three meetings since June 2018.

The U.S. special representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, led working-level talks with North Korea in the run-up to the failed Hanoi meeting.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin in Seoul and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Grant McCool)

Growing split in Seoul over North Korea threatens Korea detente, nuclear talks

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 27, 2018. Korea Summit Press Pool/Pool via Reuters/File Photo

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – When Seoul was preparing to open a liaison office in the North Korean city of Kaesong this summer after a decade of virtually no contact with its longtime enemy, South Korean officials had heated debates over whether they should seek approval from Washington.

Some top aides to President Moon Jae-in stressed it was an issue for the two Koreas alone and there was no need to involve their U.S. ally, two people with knowledge of the situation told Reuters.

But to the surprise of several officials at the meeting, Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon argued Washington must be consulted because Seoul’s plans might run afoul of sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.

Two dozen countries including the Britain, Germany and Sweden already have embassies in Pyongyang, and other officials saw the proposed liaison office as a far lower-level of contact with the North.

And they certainly did not expect Cho to be a leading advocate of strict enforcement of sanctions. Cho was Moon’s personal choice to head the ministry, whose prime mission is to foster reconciliation, cooperation and eventual reunification with the North.

Cho, whose 30-year public service history has been inextricably linked to reunification, was even sacked from the ministry in 2008 over his “dovish” stance toward Pyongyang.

At the suggestion of Cho and senior diplomats, Seoul ultimately sought U.S. consent before opening the office in September, one of the sources said.

All the sources spoke to condition of anonymity due to sensitivity of the matter.

Cho declined to comment for this article, but a senior official at the Unification Ministry said it was aware of criticisms of Cho.

“Inter-Korean ties are unique in their nature, but it’s been difficult, and there’s North Korea’s duplicity. It’s a dilemma we face or our fate,” the official said, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

 

CHIEF NEGOTIATOR, OR ROADBLOCK?

The previously unreported debate among Moon’s top officials illustrates a growing divide within South Korea over how to progress relations with the North while keeping Washington on the side.

Some corners of the administration argue Seoul can’t afford to be seen veering from the U.S.-led sanctions and pressure campaign until Pyongyang gives up its nuclear weapons program, while others feel closer inter-Korean ties can help expedite the stalled diplomatic process, several officials close to the situation say.

“If the internal rift leads to moving too quickly with the North without sufficient U.S. consultations, it could pose a setback to not only the nuclear talks but also the alliance and inter-Korean relations,” said Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

After the inter-Korean thaw gave way to reconciliation efforts between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump earlier this year, Trump asked Moon to be “chief negotiator” between the two.

That task has become increasingly difficult as Washington and Pyongyang blame each other for the faltering nuclear talks.

U.S. officials insist punishing sanctions must remain until North Korea completely denuclearises. North Korea says it has already made concessions by dismantling key facilities and Washington must reciprocate by easing sanctions and declaring an end to the 1950-53 Korean War.

“Unlike other advisers, Minister Cho has balanced his staunch desire for peace with an understanding of the importance of retaining a strong South Korea-U.S. alignment,” said Patrick Cronin of the Centre for a New American Security, an Asia expert in close touch with both U.S. and South Korean officials.

“Some alliance discord is inevitable and not worrisome. What would be worrisome would be a clear rupture in South Korea-U.S. approaches for managing North Korea.”

The presidential Blue House declined to comment, but Moon told reporters on Monday the view that there was discord between South Korea and the United States was “groundless” because there is no difference in the two countries’ positions on the North’s denuclearization.

SLOW PROGRESS, MOUNTING FRUSTRATION

A third source familiar with the presidential office’s thinking said there was mounting frustration with Cho within the Blue House and even inside the Unification Ministry amid concerns he worried too much about U.S. views.

“What the president would want from him as the unification minister is to come up with bold ideas to make his pet initiatives happen,” the source said.

During three summits this year, Moon and Kim agreed to re-link railways and roads, and when conditions are met, restart the joint factory park in Kaesong and tours to the North’s Mount Kumgang resort that have been suspended for years.

None of those plans have made much headway, either because sanctions ban them outright, or as in the case of Kaesong, Seoul took time to convince skeptical U.S. officials that cross-border projects wouldn’t undermine sanctions.

North Korea itself has been an unpredictable partner. Discussions through the Kaesong office have been few and far between, with Pyongyang’s negotiators often failing to show up for scheduled weekly meetings without notice, Unification Ministry officials say.

Even so, the Kaesong move has caused tensions with Washington.

U.S. officials told Seoul that South Korea’s explanations on the Kaesong office were not “satisfactory,” the South’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told a parliamentary hearing in August.

Washington was also caught off guard when a group of businessmen who used to operate factories in the now-closed Kaesong industrial park were invited for the opening ceremony of the office, a diplomatic source in Seoul said.

The allies launched a working group last month led by their nuclear envoys to coordinate North Korean policy. It was borne out of U.S. desire to “keep inter-Korean relations in check,” the source said.

Asked about the Kaesong office, a U.S. State Department official said: “We expect all member states to fully implement U.N. sanctions, including sectoral goods banned under UN Security Council resolution, and expect all nations to take their responsibilities seriously to help end (North Korea’s) illegal nuclear and missile programs.”

Another State official said the United States endorsed April’s inter-Korean summit agreement during its own summit with North Korea “because progress on inter-Korean relations must happen in lockstep with progress on denuclearization.”

Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Cho in Washington, bluntly warning him that inter-Korean cooperation and progress on nuclear negotiations should “remain aligned.”

FILE PHOTO: South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon walks to board a plane to leave for Pyongyang, North Korea, to participate in the inter-Korean basketball matches, at Seoul Airport in Seongnam, South Korea, July 3, 2018. Ahn Young-joon/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon walks to board a plane to leave for Pyongyang, North Korea, to participate in the inter-Korean basketball matches, at Seoul Airport in Seongnam, South Korea, July 3, 2018. Ahn Young-joon/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

Even as he faced pressure from Washington to hold a tough line, Cho was being criticized for dragging his feet on reconciliation.

In May, the North called off planned talks with the South led by Cho in protest against U.S.-South Korean air combat exercises. When the meeting eventually took place, Cho’s counterpart, Ri Son Gwon, openly blamed Cho for having caused a “grave situation” that resulted in the cancellation of the talks.

At the Kaesong office opening, factory owners pressed Cho to reopen the complex and said they were dismayed at the Unification Ministry for repeatedly rejecting requests to visit the border city to check on equipment and facilities idled since the 2016 shutdown.

“We’ve expressed, directly and indirectly, our complaint that the minister may be too lukewarm about our requests, even though allowing the trip has nothing to do with sanctions,” said Shin Han-yong, who chairs a group of businessmen with plants in Kaesong.

Cho recently told the parliament the delays are due to scheduling issues with the North, adding the ministry “needs more time to explain the overall circumstances” to the international community.

Shin, the expert at Asan, warned any move to undermine sanctions may expose South Korean companies to risks of punishment.

After Moon and Kim’s summit in Pyongyang in September, a senior U.S. Treasury official called compliance officers at seven South Korean banks to warn them that resuming financial cooperation with North Korea “does not align with U.S. policies” and the banks must comply with U.N. and U.S. financial sanctions, according to a South Korean regulatory document.

“Realistically we have no option but to consider U.S. positions, as the top priority is the North’s denuclearization and the United States has the biggest leverage on that,” said Kim Hyung-suk, who served as vice unification minister until last year.

“Without progress on the nuclear issues, there would be constraints at some point in sustaining inter-Korean ties. And Minister Cho knows that.”

(Editing by Soyoung Kim and Lincoln Feast.)

Lawyer urges Trump to press Iran on jailed U.S. father and son at nuclear talks

Lawyer Jared Genser and Babak Namazi, the brother and son of two prisoners in Iran, who hold both U.S. American and Iranian citizenship and who have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms in Iran, address the media in Vienna, Austria, April 25, 2017. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

VIENNA (Reuters) – The lawyer of an American-Iranian father and son jailed in Iran called on U.S. President Donald Trump to get his officials to press for the men’s release at nuclear talks with Tehran on Tuesday.

An Iranian court sentenced 46-year-old Siamak Namazi and his 80-year-old father Baquer Namazi to 10 years in prison each in October on charges of spying and cooperating with the United States.

The Namazis’ lawyer, Jared Genser, said he had traveled to the nuclear talks venue in Vienna with Siamak’s brother, Babak, to encourage Washington’s delegation to press the case, adding that he was worried about the detained men’s health.

The lawyer said a senior administration official in the U.S. delegation had told him on Monday that the case would be raised directly during the talks on the implementation of a deal reached in 2015 to shrink Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.

A State Department spokeswoman did not comment directly on the case, but said: “We continue to use all the means at our disposal to advocate for U.S. citizens who need our assistance overseas.”

Iran has not commented on the Namazis’ prison conditions but has repeatedly said that political prisoners are kept under standard condition in Evin prison with full access to medical care.

“In our view, something happening to the Namazis would be devastating not just to one side but to both sides,” Genser told reporters in a hotel near the venue.

“For either or both of the Namazis to die on (Trump’s) watch would be a public and catastrophic failure of his negotiating skills,”

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps detained Siamak Namazi, a businessman, in October 2015 while he was visiting family in Tehran, relatives said.

The IRGC arrested his 80-year-old father, Baquer Namazi, a former Iranian provincial governor and former UNICEF official in February lat year, family members said.

Soon after the sentencing and days before he won the presidential election, Trump said on Twitter: “Iran has done it again … This doesn’t happen if I’m president!”

(Reporting By Shadia Nasralla; Editing by Andrew Heavens)