U.S. still hopes for talks after latest North Korean missile tests

People watch a TV broadcast of a news report on North Korea firing short-range ballistic missiles, in Seoul, South Korea, July 31, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Josh Smith and David Brunnstrom

SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – North Korea’s latest missile launches did not violate a pledge its leader Kim Jong Un made to U.S. President Donald Trump, a senior U.S. official said on Thursday, but efforts to resume denuclearization talks remained in doubt.

Kim oversaw the first test firing of what North Korean state media called a “new-type large-caliber multiple-launch guided rocket system” on Wednesday.

North Korean television showed rockets launching from a vehicle that had been blurred in photos to obscure its features.

U.S. officials said North Korea appeared to have carried out a new projectile launch early on Friday Korea time, adding that initial information indicated the activity was similar to the other recent tests. The officials said it was unclear how many projectiles had been launched in the latest test.

The launches came days after North Korea tested two short-range ballistic missiles on July 25 and despite a meeting between Kim and Trump on June 30 at which the agreed to revive stalled denuclearization talks.

The tests appeared intended to put pressure on South Korea and the United States to stop planned military exercises and offer other concessions and came as diplomats criss-crossed the region this week in the hope of restarting the talks.

“The firing of these missiles don’t violate the pledge that Kim Jong Un made to the president about intercontinental-range ballistic missiles,” U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said in an interview with Fox Business Network.

“But you have to ask when the real diplomacy is going to begin, when the working-level discussions on denuclearization will begin,” he said.

“We’ve been waiting to hear since June the 30th,” Bolton told the network in a subsequent interview. “We’re ready for working-level negotiations. The president’s ready, when the time is right, for another summit. Let’s hear from North Korea.”

South Korea and Japan were concerned by the launches, “because they’re within range, we think, of this particular missile,” Bolton added without mentioning the tens of thousands of U.S. troops based in both countries.

NUCLEAR ARSENAL

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Vipin Narang said the missile tests were part of the North Korean leader’s approach to diplomacy: “He’s saying it will take more than a photo op to get things moving.”

While Trump and his administration have sought to play down the tests, Narang said they were a stark reminder that every day Washington and its allies fail to secure an agreement North Korea continues to improve and expand its nuclear and missile arsenals.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he hoped talks would start soon, though he “regretted” that a highly anticipated meeting with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho would not take place in Thailand this week.

Ri has canceled a trip to an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conference in Bangkok that Pompeo is attending.

“We stand ready to continue our diplomatic conversation,” Pompeo told a news conference in Bangkok, adding that he was optimistic Kim would deploy his team for working-level talks “before too long”.

At the United Nations on Thursday, Britain, France and Germany called on North Korea to engage in “meaningful” talks with the United States and said international sanctions needed to be fully enforced until Pyongyang dismantled its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Their statement came after a closed-door U.N. Security Council meeting on the latest launches.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the launches were a reminder of the need to restart denuclearization talks.

China, North Korea’s neighbor and main ally, welcomed the U.S. readiness to restart working-level talks, top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi said in Bangkok, following talks with Pompeo.

While China has signed up for U.N. sanctions on North Korea, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged Trump in a meeting in Japan last month “to show flexibility and meet the North Koreans half way, including easing sanctions in due course.”

The United States and North Korea have yet to narrow key differences and a summit between Trump and Kim in Vietnam in February collapsed over U.S. demands for North Korea’s complete denuclearization and North Korean demands for sanctions relief.

North Korea has accused Washington of breaking a promise by planning to go ahead with military drills with South Korea this month and has said they could derail dialogue.

It has also warned of a possible end to its freeze on nuclear and long-range missile tests in place since 2017, which Trump has repeatedly held up as evidence of the success of his engagement with Kim.

A senior U.S. defense official said on Wednesday that the United States did not plan to make changes to the drills.

‘FAT TARGET’

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said North Korea had fired ballistic missiles on Wednesday that flew about 250 km (155 miles).

Such launches are banned under U.N. resolutions designed to press North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and missile programs.

North Korean images of the launches appeared to show a type of multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS). Such systems form a major part of North Korea’s conventional arsenal, according to a 2018 assessment by South Korea’s defense ministry.

North Korean media said the tests verified the combat effectiveness of the overall rocket system and Kim predicted: “it would be an inescapable distress to the forces becoming a fat target of the weapon.”

The North Korean military has nearly 5,500 MLRS, along with 8,600 field guns, 4,300 tanks, and 2,500 armored vehicles, the ministry said.

(Reporting by Josh Smith in SEOUL and David Brunnstromin WASHINGTON; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Cate Cadell, Panu Wongcha-um and Patpicha Tanakasempipat in BANGKOK, David Alexanderand Idrees Ali in WASHINGTON, and Michelle Nichols in NEW YORK; Editing by Robert Birsel and Clarence Fernandez)

Who has Kim Jong Un’s ‘nuclear button’ in Pyongyang while he’s away?

FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – When Donald Trump meets North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday for perhaps the most significant nuclear talks since the Cold War, the American president will have his link to the U.S. nuclear arsenal nearby at all times.

As the leader of a newly minted nuclear state, much less is known about how Kim maintains control of his nuclear arsenal while he travels.

Kim began the year by declaring to the world that “a nuclear button is always on the desk of my office,” which was widely interpreted as an allusion to his personal control over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.

Trump fired back in a tweet, saying “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger and more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

When the two meet in Singapore for high-stakes nuclear negotiations, Trump will be accompanied, as always, by a staffer carrying his “button” in the form of the “nuclear football” containing equipment used to authorize a strike.

North Korea is one of the most insular states in the world and command and control of its nuclear facilities is kept within a tight, impenetrable circle.

Additionally, Kim – who came to power in 2011 – has only just begun making trips outside North Korea. He has been to Beijing twice and has briefly crossed the frontier at the Demilitarized Zone with South Korea to meet its president. Singapore will be the furthest he is known to have traveled since taking over.

But analysts who closely watch North Korea believe it is unlikely Kim would have come to Singapore without being confident of the arsenal’s security – and the ability to order its use.

“We don’t know how developed North Korea’s secure communications capabilities are, so whether Kim Jong Un will be within easy reach of his National Command Authority during his stay in Singapore is an open question,” said Andrew O’Neil, a North Korea nuclear policy expert at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia.

“That said, given that most assume… North Korea’s nuclear command, control, communications and intelligence is configured to promote a high degree of centralization in Kim’s decision-making, it beggars belief that Kim would not be within secure reach to authorize a possible launch if required,” O’Neil added.

Kim likely delegated authority to watch over the arsenal to one of a number of trusted North Korean officials who stayed in Pyongyang, including Choe Ryong Hae, one of several senior leaders who saw Kim off at the airport as he departed for Singapore, said Michael Madden, a leadership expert with the 38 North website, which monitors North Korea.

“Kim can authorize or approve a missile strike while he is away,” Madden said. “There’s a protocol for launches.”

Trusted officials would maintain control of fixed telecommunications hotlines in the country, and there is likely a code system to activate the systems involved in launching North Korea’s ballistic missiles.

“There are only certain designated facilities where these communications can be activated,” Madden said

North Korea’s missile program: https://tmsnrt.rs/2t6WEPL

SECURITY CONCERNS

Many questions remain unanswered, however, including whether the North Koreans have robust enough communication systems to make sure no one panics and launches an attack, said Vipin Narang, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program.

“Its command and control structure while Kim is traveling is unlikely to be robust enough for him to be able to reliably issue or stop launch sequences,” he said.

He said that was because North Korea was likely to have configured its nuclear forces to permit rapid authorization to launch in order to offset the risk of a first strike from the United States.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

China to have world’s largest nuclear capacity in 15 years: WNA

Nuclear Reactor in China

By Jessica Jaganathan

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – China is set to overtake the United States to have the world’s largest nuclear capacity over the next 10 to 15 years as it races to build new reactors to combat pollution, the World Nuclear Association (WNA) said on Tuesday.

It will overtake France to have the second-highest number of nuclear reactors by 2020, Agneta Rising, the WNA’s director general, said at an annual energy conference in Singapore.

“For China, the air pollution is a major driver,” she said on the sidelines of the Singapore International Energy Week.

In Asia, 134 operable reactors generated 400 terawatt-hours of electricity in 2015, making up 16 percent of global nuclear generation, the WNA said in a report released on Tuesday.

Another 39 reactors comprising 47.4 gigawatts (GW) are currently under construction in Asia, which comprises nearly two-thirds of global reactor construction. China makes up the bulk with 20 reactors under construction.

“There is history in the region, where you have high-skilled people with very good university education and they have been working on research reactors … so I think there is basis of knowledge,” Rising said. “The big driver (in Asia) is to have electricity for people.”

There are also plans for more than 50 reactors comprising more than 50,000 megawatts (MW) in nine new countries in the region, with most planning to have their first nuclear reactors enter operation before 2030, the WNA said.

Bangladesh looks likely to have the first reactor online among these new countries in six years, Rising said, which would also be the first for the country.

However, many southeast Asian countries are pushing back the timeline for new reactors to come online, including Malaysia and Thailand.

“It’s a combination of cost as it’s a large infrastructure and also there needs to be more groups involved in discussions and have transparency in plans,” she said.

New reactor construction is mostly led by industrializing countries which have enjoyed high levels of economic growth with an accompanying increase in energy demand, the WNA said in the report.

Four countries are expected to account for 70 percent of reactors commissioned in the period to 2030, which are China, Russia, India and South Korea.

(Editing by Christian Schmollinger)