North Korea slams door on Japan PM Abe visit, calls him an ‘idiot’

North Korea slams door on Japan PM Abe visit, calls him an ‘idiot’
SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea on Thursday called Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe an “idiot and villain” who should not even dream of setting foot in Pyongyang, in a media commentary laden with insults in response to his criticism of a North Korean weapons test.

North Korea tested what it called “super-large multiple rocket launchers” on Oct. 31, but Japan said they were likely ballistic missiles that violated U.N. sanctions.

Abe condemned the test at an Asian summit this week, while saying he was eager to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “without conditions” to resolve the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by the isolated state, Kyodo news agency reported citing the Japanese government.

“Abe is an idiot and villain as he is making a fuss as if a nuclear bomb was dropped on the land of Japan, taking issue with the DPRK’s test-fire of super-large multiple rocket launchers,” the North’s KCNA state news agency said, citing a statement by Song Il Ho, its ambassador for ties with Japan.

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

“Abe would be well-advised not to dream forever of crossing the threshold of Pyongyang as he hurled a torrent of abuse at the just measures of the DPRK for self-defense.”

The commentary signals a setback for Abe’s hope of resolving the issue of the abducted Japanese citizens. He has vowed to bring all of them and has said he was willing to meet Kim without conditions.

In 2002, North Korea admitted that its agents had kidnapped 13 Japanese from the 1960s to the 1980s. Japan says 17 of its citizens were abducted, five of whom were repatriated.

North Korea has said eight of them were dead and another four never entered the country.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Pyongyang in 2002 and met the father of the current North Korean leader but Abe has never met Kim.

(Reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Robert Birsel)

North Korea breaks off nuclear talks with U.S. in Sweden

By Johan Ahlander and Philip O’Connor

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Working-level nuclear talks in Sweden between officials from Pyongyang and Washington have broken off, North Korea’s top negotiator said late on Saturday, dashing prospects for an end to months of stalemate.

The talks, at an isolated conference center on the outskirts of Stockholm, were the first such formal discussion since U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met in June and agreed to restart negotiations that stalled after a failed summit in Vietnam in February.

The North’s chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Myong Gil, who spent much of the day in talks with an American delegation, cast the blame on what he portrayed as U.S. inflexibility, saying the other side’s negotiators would not “give up their old viewpoint and attitude.”

“The negotiations have not fulfilled our expectation and finally broke off,” Kim told reporters outside the North Korean embassy, speaking through an interpreter.

The U.S. State Department said Kim’s comments did not reflect “the content or spirit” of more than 8-1/2 hours of talks, and Washington had accepted Sweden’s invitation to return for more discussions with Pyongyang in two weeks.

“The U.S. brought creative ideas and had good discussions with its DPRK counterparts,” spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement. North Korea is also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

She said the U.S. delegation had previewed a number of new initiatives that would pave the way for progress in the talks, and underscored the importance of more intensive engagement.

“The United States and the DPRK will not overcome a legacy of 70 years of war and hostility on the Korean peninsula through the course of a single Saturday,” she added.

“These are weighty issues, and they require a strong commitment by both countries. The United States has that commitment.”

North Korea’s Kim downplayed the U.S. gestures.

“The U.S. raised expectations by offering suggestions like a flexible approach, new method and creative solutions, but they have disappointed us greatly and dampened our enthusiasm for negotiation by bringing nothing to the negotiation table,” he said.

Swedish broadcaster TV4 said the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, who led the team, had arrived back at the U.S. embassy in central Stockholm.

The Swedish foreign office declined to give details on the invitation for new talks, or whether Pyongyang had accepted.

Since June, U.S. officials had struggled to persuade North Korea, which is under sanctions banning much of its trade, due to its nuclear program, to return to the table, but that appeared to change this week when the North abruptly announced it had agreed to talks.

On Saturday, negotiator Kim accused the United States of having no intention of solving difficulties through dialogue, but said a complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula was still possible.

It would only happen “when all the obstacles that threaten our safety and check our development are removed completely without a shadow of doubt,” he said, in an apparent reference to North Korea’s desire for Washington to ease economic pressure.

On Sunday, China’s President Xi Jinping and the North’s leader exchanged messages to reaffirm the neighbors’ relationship on the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties. China is the North’s only major ally.

Xi, who has met Kim five times in the past year, said they had “reached a series of important consensuses, leading China-North Korea relations into a new historical era”, the official Xinhua news agency said.

Kim replied the two leaders would “resolutely safeguard the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula and the world,” Xinhua reported.

TENSIONS

The delegation from North Korea arrived in Sweden on Thursday. Analysts have said both countries’ leaders had growing incentives to reach a deal, but it was unclear if common ground could be found after months of tension and deadlock.

The readout from the talks did not sound very promising, said Jenny Town, a managing editor at 38 North, a Washington-based North Korea project.

“I think (North Korea’s) expectations were too high that the removal of Bolton would provide more flexibility on what the U.S. wants as initial steps,” she said, referring to Trump’s hardline former aide John Bolton, abruptly fired last month amid disagreements on how to tackle foreign policy challenges.

“While certainly it removes some pressure for an all or nothing deal, it seems the gap between what the two sides want as a baseline and are willing to reciprocate still has not narrowed,” Town added.

An official at South Korea’s presidential office said the talks in Sweden were nevertheless the beginning of negotiations, and that South Korea hoped the United States and North Korea would keep the momentum of the dialogue.

Only a day after announcing the new talks, North Korea said it had test-fired a new ballistic missile designed for submarine launch, underscoring the need for Washington to move quickly to negotiate limits on Pyongyang’s growing arsenal.

Speaking in Athens on a tour of southern Europe while the talks were still underway, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said he was hopeful of progress.

“We are mindful this will be the first time that we’ve had a chance to have a discussion in quite some time and that there remains to be a lot of work that will have to be done by the two teams,” he told a news conference.

(Reporting by Anna Ringstrom, Johan Ahlander, Simon Johnson, Niklas Pollard and Philip O’Connor in Stockholm; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom and Michele Kambas in Athens, Joori Roh and Ju-min Park in Seoul, Andrea Shalal and Julia Harte in Washington, Huizhong Wu and Hallie Gu in Beijing; Writing by Niklas Pollard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez; Editing by Christopher Cushing)

Two Koreas, U.N. forces agree to remove weapons at border

FILE PHOTO: A North Korean soldier patrols at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 18, 2018. Picture taken on April 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North and South Korea and the U.N. Command agreed on Monday to withdraw firearms and guard posts in the demilitarized zone village of Panmunjom this week, Seoul’s defense ministry said, the latest move in a fast-improving relationship.

The three sides held their second round of talks at Panmunjom to discuss ways to demilitarize the border in line with a recent inter-Korean pact reached at last month’s summit in Pyongyang.

The U.S.-led UNC, which has overseen affairs in the DMZ since the end of hostilities in the 1950-53 Korean War, was not immediately available for comment, but it said on Friday it supports the two Koreas’ efforts to implement their military deal.

The announcement comes amid U.S. concerns that the inter-Korean military initiative could undermine defense readiness and comes without substantial progress on North Korea’s promised denuclearization.

The neighbors are looking to withdraw 11 guard posts within a 1-km (0.6-mile) radius of the Military Demarcation Line on their border by the end of the year.

They also plan to pull out all firearms from a Joint Security Area (JSA) at Panmunjom and cut to 35 each the numbers of personnel stationed there and share information on surveillance equipment.

At Monday’s meeting, the three sides agreed to remove firearms and guard posts from the JSA by Thursday, and carry out a joint inspection over the following two days, the ministry said.

The two Koreas have been removing landmines around the area as part of the agreement and they confirmed the completion of the demining operation at the talks with the UNC.

“We discussed the timeline of the pullout of firearms and guard posts, as well as ways to adjust the number of guard personnel and conduct joint inspections,” the ministry said in a statement.

The agreement also includes a halt in “all hostile acts” and a no-fly zone around the border.

North and South Korea are technically still at war because the 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, but relations have improved considerably in the last year.

After his third summit in Pyongyang, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the North was ready to invite international experts to watch the dismantling of a key missile site and would close the main Yongbyon nuclear complex if Washington took reciprocal actions.

Those actions could include putting a formal end to the 1950-53 war, opening of a U.S. liaison office in North Korea, humanitarian aid and an exchange of economic experts, Moon said.

But Washington demands North Korea takes irreversible steps to scrap its arsenal, such as a full disclosure of nuclear facilities and material.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Trump says expects announcement of new summit with North Korea’s Kim ‘pretty soon’

U.S. President Donald Trump holds a bilateral meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the sidelines of the 73rd United Nations General Assembly in New York, U.S., September 24, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Jeff Mason and David Brunnstrom

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday he expected a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to be announced “pretty soon” but that the location had yet to be determined.

Trump, during a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the United Nations, said: “Chairman Kim has been really very open and terrific, frankly. I think he wants to see something happen.”

Moon met with Kim for a third time last week. He said brought Trump a personal message from the North Korean leader saying he was hoping to meet with the U.S. president again soon.

Trump and Kim met for an unprecedented summit on June 12, and Trump has been keen on a second meeting, even though some U.S. officials and most analysts say Pyongyang has yet to show it is prepared to give up a nuclear arsenal that threatens the United States.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a news briefing earlier on Monday he hoped to travel back to North Korea before the end of the year to make final preparations for a second summit, which he said he was “confident” would happen.

“I expect I’ll be traveling to Pyongyang before too long,” he said.

Asked if that would be before the end of the year, he replied: “Yes. Lord willing, I’ll be traveling before the end of the year.”

Pompeo said he was optimistic that Kim would deliver on his pledge to denuclearize, but this would take time.

“We’re bringing the two senior leaders, the individuals who can actually make the decisions that will move this process forward, bring them together so we can continue to make progress towards what the U.N. Security Council has demanded and what Chairman Kim has promised he would do.

“That’s the effort. There remains work to be done. There will be some time before we get to complete denuclearization for sure.”

At last week’s meeting with Moon, Kim promised to dismantle a missile site and also a nuclear complex – if the United States took “corresponding action.”

However, while appearing to set a positive tone, the commitments fell far short of Washington’s demands for a complete inventory of North Korea’s weapons programs and irreversible steps toward denuclearization.

The mood though is sharply changed from that at last year’s U.N. General Assembly, when Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea and mocked the North Korean leader as “Rocket Man” on a “suicide mission.”

North Korea’s representative to the meeting, Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, responded to Trump’s U.N. remarks last year by calling them “the sound of a dog barking” and warning that North Korea could detonate a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific.

Pompeo has proposed a meeting with Ri at the General Assembly this week. U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said last week the two had agreed to meet but said the meeting could take place later.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and David Brunnstrom; additional reporting by David Alexander and Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Doina Chiacu and James Dalgleish)

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)

White House: Talks with North Korea must lead to ending nuclear program

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics - Closing ceremony - Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium - Pyeongchang, South Korea - February 25, 2018 - Ivanka Trump (L to R), U.S. President Donald Trump's daughter and senior White House adviser, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Yong Chol of the North Korea delegation attend the closing ceremony. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Yuna Park and Roberta Rampton

SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House said any talks with North Korea must lead to an end to its nuclear program after senior officials from Pyongyang visiting South Korea said on Sunday their government was open to talks with the United States.

The North Korean delegation, in Pyeongchang for the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics, met at an undisclosed location with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and expressed a willingness to meet with the United States, Moon’s office said in a statement.

The Pyongyang delegation said developments in relations between the two Koreas and between North Korea and the United States should go hand in hand, according to the statement.

The Olympics gave a boost to recent engagement between the two Koreas after more than a year of sharply rising tensions over the North’s missile program and its sixth and largest nuclear test in defiance of U.N. sanctions.

The United States announced on Friday it was imposing its largest package of sanctions aimed at getting North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile programs.

On Sunday, North Korean state media accused the United States of provoking confrontation on the Korean peninsula with the sanctions.

The White House said its sanctions would continue.

“We will see if Pyongyang’s message today, that it is willing to hold talks, represents the first steps along the path to denuclearization,” the White House said in a statement.

“In the meantime, the United States and the world must continue to make clear that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are a dead end,” it said.

NO INTERACTION WITH IVANKA TRUMP

Moon, the North Korean delegation, and Ivanka Trump, U.S. President Donald Trump’s daughter, were among dignitaries who attended the Olympics closing ceremony on Sunday.

Ivanka Trump, a senior White House adviser, did not interact with the North Korean delegation, a senior U.S. administration official said. She met Moon on Friday as part of a weekend trip leading the U.S. delegation to the closing ceremony.

North Korea sent former military intelligence chief Kim Yong Chol, an official accused of being behind a deadly 2010 attack on a South Korean warship, to lead its delegation.

The decision enraged the families of 46 sailors killed in the torpedo attack and threatened the mood of rapprochement that Seoul sought to create at what it called the “Peace Games.”

North Korea has denied its involvement in the sinking.

Moon met Kim in Pyeongchang, where the Olympics were held, before the closing ceremony, the South Korean government said.

Earlier, about 100 conservative South Korean lawmakers and activists staged a sit-in near the border with North Korea, to protest Kim’s arrival and facing off against about 2,500 South Korean police.

The North’s delegation took a different route, prompting the opposition Korea Liberty Party to accuse Moon’s administration of “abuse of power and an act of treason” by rerouting the motorcade to shield it from the protest.

TRUMP WARNING

The North sent Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, to the opening ceremony.

She was the center of a frenzy of attention, especially when she appeared at the opening ceremony and was only a few feet from U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. They did not speak.

Kim Yo Jong and the North’s nominal head of state were the most senior North Korean officials to visit the South in more than a decade. The North Korean leader later said he wanted to create a “warm climate of reconciliation and dialogue.”

The U.S. president, in announcing the new sanctions on Friday, warned of a “phase two” that could be “very, very unfortunate for the world” if the sanctions did not work.

North Korea denounced the sanctions in a statement carried on its state media and said a blockade by the United States would be considered an act of war.

China also reacted angrily, saying on Saturday the unilateral targeting of Chinese firms and people risked harming cooperation on North Korea.

Moon won election last year promising to try to improve relations with the North.

(Reporting by Yuna Park and Christine Kim in Seoul; additional reporting by Yasmeen Abutaleb and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Ending North Korea oil supplies would be seen as act of war, says Russia

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gives field guidance at the Pyongyang Pharmaceutical Factory, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang January 25, 2018.

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The delivery of oil and oil products to North Korea should not be reduced, Moscow’s ambassador to Pyongyang was cited as saying by RIA news agency on Wednesday, adding that a total end to deliveries would be interpreted by North Korea as an act of war.

The U.N. and United States have introduced a wave of sanctions aimed at curbing North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons, including by seeking to reduce its access to crude oil and refined petroleum products.

“We can’t lower deliveries any further,” Russia’s envoy to Pyongyang, Alexander Matzegora, was quoted by RIA as saying in an interview.

Quotas set by the U.N. allow for around 540,000 tonnes of crude oil a year to be delivered to North Korea from China, and over 60,000 tonnes of oil products from Russia, China and other countries, he was quoted as saying.

“[This] is a drop in the ocean for a country of 25 million people,” Matzegora said.

Shortages would lead to serious humanitarian problems, he said, adding: “Official representatives of Pyongyang have made it clear that a blockade would be interpreted by North Korea as a declaration of war, with all the subsequent consequences.”

Last week, the United States imposed further sanctions on North Korea, including on its crude oil ministry.

In his first annual State of the Union speech to the U.S. Congress on Tuesday, President Donald Trump vowed to keep up the pressure on North Korea it from developing missiles which could threaten the United States.

North Korea on Saturday condemned the latest U.S. sanctions. and Russian deputy foreign minister Igor Morgulov said Russia had no obligation to carry out sanctions produced by the U.S.

The ambassador also denied charges by Washington that Moscow, in contravention of U.N. sanctions, was allowing Pyongyang to use Russian ports for transporting coal.

“We double-checked [U.S.] evidence. We found that the ships mentioned did not enter our ports, or if they did, then they were carrying cargo that had nothing to do with North Korea,” he is cited as saying.

Reuters reported earlier that North Korea had shipped coal to Russia last year which was then delivered to South Korea and Japan in a likely violation of U.N. sanctions.

(Reporting by Jack Stubbs; Writing by Polina Ivanova; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

North Korea cancels joint performance with South Korea, blames South media

North and South Korea women's ice hockey athletes stand in a line at a dining hall at the Jincheon National Training Centre in Jincheon, South Korea January 25, 2018

By Christine Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea has canceled a joint cultural performance with South Korea scheduled for Feb. 4 blaming South Korean media for encouraging “insulting” public sentiment regarding the North, South Korea’s unification ministry said on Monday.

The North said it had no choice but to call off the performance, which was to be held in the North Korean territory of Mount Kumgang, as South Korean media continued to insult what Pyongyang called “sincere” measures regarding the Winter Olympics Seoul will host next month, the ministry said.

Early in January, North and South Korea launched rare talks to bring North Koreans to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics after the North’s leader Kim Jong Un said he was willing to open up discussions with Seoul.

The two Koreas had been in discussions regarding final details over the joint performance. They were also talking about a different concert in South Korea by a North Korean orchestra and sending South Korean athletes to train at a North Korean ski resort.

The North added that the agreement on the Mount Kumgang joint performance had come despite conflict with its internal celebrations, the unification ministry said. North Korea has at least two major holidays coming up next month – Kim Jong Il’s birthday and a military founding anniversary.

Seoul said North Korea’s decision to cancel the joint performance was “very regrettable” and stressed Pyongyang should uphold all agreements made between North and South Korea.

President Moon Jae-in’s administration has faced criticism for its response to North Korea’s participation in the Games, especially after it decided to form a combined women’s ice hockey team with athletes from the two Koreas for the Winter Olympics.

Many South Koreans have complained the unified women’s hockey team – the only such joint team to be formed – was unfair to the South Korean players, going so far as creating over a hundred petitions against the unified team on the presidential Blue House’s website.

The controversy has sent South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s overall approval rating below 60 percent for the first time since he took office in May last year, according to a survey released last week by South Korean pollster Realmeter, dropping more than 6 percentage points since the previous week.

(Reporting by Christine Kim; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

North, South Korea agree to resolve issues through dialogue

South and North Korean delegations attend their meeting at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, January 9, 2018.

By Christine Kim and Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North and South Korea on Tuesday agreed on negotiations to resolve problems and military talks aimed at averting accidental conflict, after their first official dialogue in more than two years, as Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program fuels tension.

In a joint statement after the 11-hour talks, the North pledged to send a large delegation to next month’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in the South, but made a ‘strong complaint’ after Seoul proposed talks to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.

South Korea asked its neighbor to halt hostile acts that stoke tension on the peninsula, and in return, the North agreed that peace should be guaranteed in the region, the South’s unification ministry said in a separate statement.

The talks had been closely watched by world leaders keen for any sign of a reduction in tension, as fears grow over the North’s missile launches and development of nuclear weapons, in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

Earlier on Tuesday, Seoul said it was prepared to lift some sanctions temporarily so North Korean officials could visit the South for the Games. The North said its delegation would comprise athletes, high-ranking officials, a cheering squad, art performers as well as reporters and spectators.

South Korea has unilaterally banned several North Korean officials from entry in response to Pyongyang’s ramped-up missile and nuclear tests, held despite international pressure.

However, some South Korean officials have said they see the Olympics as a possible opportunity for easing tension.

Foreign ministry spokesman Roh Kyu-deok said Seoul would consider whether it needed to take “prior steps”, together with the U.N. Security Council and other relevant countries, to help the North Koreans visit for the Olympics.

Working talks will be held soon to work out the details of bringing the North Koreans to the Olympics, the statement said, with the exact schedule to be decided via documented exchanges.

 

FAMILY REUNION

At Tuesday’s talks, the first since December 2015, Seoul proposed inter-Korean military discussions to reduce tension on the peninsula and a reunion of family members in time for February’s Lunar New Year holiday, but the joint statement made no mention of the reunions.

The North has finished technical work to restore a military hotline with South Korea, Seoul said, with normal communications set to resume on Wednesday. It was not immediately clear what information would be transferred along the hotline.

The North cut communications in February 2016, following the South’s decision to shut down a jointly run industrial park in the North.

North Korea also responded ‘positively’ to the South’s proposal for athletes from both sides to march together at the Games’ opening ceremony and other joint activities during the Winter Olympics, Seoul said.

Athletes of the two sides have not paraded together at international sports events since the 2007 Asian Winter Games in China, after relations chilled under nearly a decade of conservative rule in the South.

The United States, which has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea as a legacy of the 1950-1953 Korean War, initially responded coolly to the idea of inter-Korean meetings, but U.S. President Donald Trump later called them “a good thing”.

Trump has said he would like to see talks go beyond the Olympics. “At the appropriate time, we’ll get involved,” he said.

On Tuesday, China’s foreign ministry said it was happy to see talks between North and South Korea and welcomed all positive steps. Russia echoed the sentiment, with a Kremlin spokesman saying, “This is exactly the kind of dialogue that we said was necessary.”

(Additional reporting by Soyoung Kim and Josh Smith in SEOUL and David Brunnstrom, Jim Oliphant and Steve Holland in WASHINGTON, Writing by Soyoung Kim, Editing by Paul Tait and Clarence Fernandez)

North Korea agrees to talks after U.S., South Korea postpone military drills

Ribbons bearing messages wishing for unification between the two Koreas hang on a barbed-wire fence near the militarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, December 21, 2017.

By Christine Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea agreed on Friday to hold official talks with the South next week, the first in more than two years, hours after the United States and South Korea delayed a military exercise amid a standoff over the North’s nuclear and missile programs.

South Korea said the North had sent its consent for the talks to be held on Tuesday. The last time the two Koreas engaged in official talks was in December 2015.

The meeting will take place at the border truce village of Panmunjom where officials from both sides are expected to discuss the Winter Olympics, to be held in the South next month, and other inter-Korean relations, South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun told reporters.

North Korea asked for further negotiations about the meeting to be carried out via documented exchanges, Baik said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un opened the way for talks with South Korea in a New Year’s Day speech in which he called for reduced tensions and flagged the North’s possible participation in the Winter Olympics.

But Kim remained steadfast on the issue of nuclear weapons, saying the North would mass produce nuclear missiles for operational deployment and again warned he would launch a nuclear strike if his country was threatened.

U.S. President Donald Trump and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in announced on Thursday that annual large-scale military drills would now take place after the Olympics.

The North sees these drills as preparations for invasion and just cause for its weapons programs that it conducts in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions. South Korea and the United States are technically still at war with North Korea after the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.

Trump had earlier called the proposed inter-Korean talks a “good thing” and that he would send a high-level delegation, including members of his family, to the Olympics, according to South Korea’s presidential office.

In a tweet, Trump, who hurled fresh insults at the North Korean leader this week, took credit for any dialogue that takes place.

“Does anybody really believe that talks and dialogue would be going on between North and South Korea right now if I wasn’t firm, strong and willing to commit our total ‘might’ against the North,” Trump tweeted.

North Korea regularly threatens to destroy the United States and its two key Asia allies, Japan and South Korea.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang welcomed North and South Korea “taking positive steps to improve ties”, and said the postponement of the military exercises was “without doubt a good thing”.

China’s Commerce Ministry said it would limit exports of crude oil, refined oil products, steel and other metals to North Korea, in line with tough new sanctions imposed by the United Nations.

Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera sounded a note of caution about the proposed talks.

“I think what is important is to maintain a firm defense posture,” he told reporters in Tokyo.

“North Korea goes through phases of apparent dialogue and provocation but either way, North Korea is continuing its nuclear and missile development. We have no intention of weakening our warning and surveillance.”

The ramped-up momentum for inter-Korean dialogue follows a year of missile and nuclear tests by North Korea as well as an exchange of bellicose comments from Trump and Kim, which raised alarm across the world.

Earlier this week, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Washington had heard reports that Pyongyang might be preparing to fire another missile.

South Korea’s defense ministry has said it had yet to see any evidence of an imminent missile launch.

Analysts with the website 38 North, which tracks North Korea, reported Pyongyang may be preparing to test a rocket engine at a facility in Sohae, North Pyongan province, where all of the North’s satellite launches have taken place since 2012.

Commercial satellite imagery from Dec. 25 showed a rail-mounted environment shelter had been moved away from a test stand, indicating that an engine test may be in the near future, the website said, rather than a new rocket launch suspected in recent media reports.

(Reporting by Christine Kim; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith in SEOUL, Olivier Fabre in TOKYO and Philip Wen in BEIJING and Denis Pinchuk in MOSCOW; Editing by Michael Perry and Nick Macfie)