China halts oil product exports to North Korea in November as sanctions bite

A North Korean iron ore mine, near the North Korean town of Musan is seen in this general view taken May 11, 2013.

By Ryan Woo and Muyu Xu

BEIJING (Reuters) – China exported no oil products to North Korea in November, Chinese customs data showed, apparently going above and beyond sanctions imposed earlier this year by the United Nations in a bid to limit petroleum shipments to the isolated country.

Tensions have flared anew over North Korea’s ongoing nuclear and missile programmes, pursued in defiance of years of U.N. resolutions. Last week, the U.N. Security Council imposed new caps on trade with North Korea, including limiting oil product shipments to just 500,000 barrels a year.

Beijing also imported no iron ore, coal or lead from North Korea in November, the second full month of the latest trade sanctions imposed by U.N.

China, the main source of North Korea’s fuel, did not export any gasoline, jet fuel, diesel or fuel oil to its isolated neighbour last month, data from the General Administration of Customs showed on Tuesday.

November was the second straight month China exported no diesel or gasoline to North Korea. The last time China’s jet fuel shipments to Pyongyang were at zero was in February 2015.

“This is a natural outcome of the tightening of the various sanctions against North Korea,” said Cai Jian, an expert on North Korea at Fudan University in Shanghai.

The tightening “reflects China’s stance”, he said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she didn’t know any details about the oil products export situation.

“As a principle, China has consistently fully, correctly, conscientiously and strictly enforced relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions on North Korea. We have already established a set of effective operating mechanisms and methods,” she said at a regular briefing on Tuesday, without elaborating.

Since June, state-run China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) [CNPET.UL] has suspended sales of gasoline and diesel to North Korea, concerned that it would not get paid for its goods, Reuters previously reported.

Beijing’s move to turn off the taps completely is rare.

In March 2003, China suspended oil supplies to North Korea for three days after Pyongyang fired a missile into waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan.

It is unknown if China still sells crude oil to Pyongyang. Beijing has not disclosed its crude exports to North Korea for several years.

Industry sources say China still supplies about 520,000 tonnes, or 3.8 million barrels, of crude a year to North Korea via an aging pipeline. That is a little more than 10,000 barrels a day, and worth about $200 million a year at current prices.

North Korea also sources some of its oil from Russia.

TOTAL TRADE LESS THAN $400 MILLION

Chinese exports of corn to North Korean in November also slumped, down 82 percent from a year earlier to 100 tonnes, the lowest since January. Exports of rice plunged 64 percent to 672 tonnes, the lowest since March.

Trade between North Korea and China has slowed through the year, particularly after China banned coal purchases in February. In November, China’s trade with North Korea totalled $388 million, one of the lowest monthly volumes this year.

China has renewed its call on all countries to make constructive efforts to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula, urging the use of peaceful means to resolve issues.

But tensions flared again after North Korea on Nov. 29 said it had tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile that put the U.S. mainland within range of its nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile Chinese exports of liquefied petroleum gas to North Korea, used for cooking, rose 58 percent in November from a year earlier to 99 tonnes. Exports of ethanol, which can be turned into a biofuel, gained 82 percent to 3,428 cubic metres.

 

(Reporting by Muyu Xu and Ryan Woo; Additional reporting by Meng Meng, Hallie Gu, Christian Shepherd and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell and Tom Hogue)

North Korea likely to pursue talks, South says in rosy New Year forecast

South Korean soldiers patrol along a barbed-wire fence near the militarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, December 21, 2017

By Haejin Choi

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea predicted on Tuesday that North Korea would look to open negotiations with the United States next year in an optimistic outlook for 2018, even as Seoul set up a specialized military team to confront nuclear threats from the North.

The U.N. Security Council unanimously imposed new, tougher sanctions on reclusive North Korea on Friday for its recent intercontinental ballistic missile test, a move the North branded an economic blockade and act of war.

“North Korea will seek negotiation with United States, while continuing to pursue its effort to be recognized as a de facto nuclear-possessing country,” South Korea’s Unification Ministry said in a report, without offering any reasons for its conclusion.

The Ministry of Defence said it would assign four units to operate under a new official overseeing North Korea policy, aimed to “deter and respond to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat”.

Tensions have risen over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, which it pursues in defiance of years of U.N. Security Council resolutions, with bellicose rhetoric coming from both Pyongyang and the White House.

U.S. diplomats have made clear they are seeking a diplomatic solution but President Donald Trump has derided talks as useless and said Pyongyang must commit to giving up its nuclear weapons before any talks can begin.

In a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency, North Korea said the United States was terrified by its nuclear force and was getting “more and more frenzied in the moves to impose the harshest-ever sanctions and pressure on our country”.

China, the North’s lone major ally, and Russia both supported the latest U.N. sanctions, which seek to limit the North’s access to refined petroleum products and crude oil and its earnings from workers abroad, while on Monday Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying called for all countries to ease tension.

On Tuesday, Beijing released customs data indicating China exported no oil products to North Korea in November, apparently going over and beyond U.N. sanctions.

China, the main source of North Korea’s fuel, did not export any gasoline, jet fuel, diesel or fuel oil to its neighbor last month, data from the General Administration of Customs showed.

China also imported no iron ore, coal or lead from North Korea in November.

In its 2018 forecast, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it believed the North would eventually find ways to blunt the effects of the sanctions.

“Countermeasures will be orchestrated to deal with the effects, including cuts in trade volume and foreign currency inflow, lack of supplies, and reduced production in each part of the economy,” the report said.

The latest round of sanctions was prompted by the Nov. 29 test of what North Korea said was an intercontinental ballistic missile that put the U.S. mainland within range of its nuclear weapons.

The Joongang Ilbo Daily newspaper, citing an unnamed South Korean government official, reported on Tuesday that North Korea could also be preparing to launch a satellite into space.

Experts have said such launches are likely aimed at further developing the North’s ballistic missile technology, and as such would be prohibited under U.N. resolutions.

The North Korean Rodong Sinmun newspaper said on Monday saying that “peaceful space development is a legitimate right of a sovereign state”.

North Korea regularly threatens to destroy South Korea, the United States and Japan, and says its weapons are necessary to counter U.S. aggression.

The United States stations 28,500 troops in the South, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, and regularly carries out military exercises with the South, which the North sees as preparations for invasion.

(Additional reporting by Muyu Xu and Ryan Woo in Beijing; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Russia says ready to exert influence on North Korea: RIA

Russia says ready to exert influence on North Korea: RIA

By Vladimir Soldatkin

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia has communication channels with North Korea open and Moscow is ready to exert its influence on Pyongyang, RIA news agency quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov as saying on Tuesday.

“We have channels, through which we are conducting a dialogue, and we are ready to deploy them, we are ready to exert our influence on North Korea,” Morgulov was quoted as saying at a conference in Berlin.

He also said that neither Washington, not Pyongyang want a real war “but such scenarios exists”.

The Kremlin has traditionally protected the reclusive state though the latest Pyongyang tests have irked Moscow.

North Korea, which conducted its sixth and largest nuclear bomb test in September, has tested dozens of ballistic missiles under Kim Jong Un’s leadership in defiance of international sanctions.

Morgulov called for other measures than isolation to exercise in dealing with North Korea.

“We believe that the isolation alone…will not work, this won’t take us forward. By doing this, we will only worsen the situation, which is dangerous. We are really on the brink of a real war,” he said.

In Washington, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman said the Trump administration still wanted a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the nuclear and missile threat from Pyongyang but said: “(North Korea) has shown through its actions that it is not interested in talks. We must remain focused on increasing the costs for Pyongyang to continue to advance its WMD programs.”

Morgulov was also quoted as saying that North Korea was seeking a direct dialogue with the United States on its nuclear program, while it was not in need of security guarantees either from China or Russia.

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow and David Brunnstrom in Washington; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Germany withdraws diplomat from North Korea

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Germany is withdrawing a third diplomat from its embassy in North Korea over increasing concerns about Pyongyang’s missile program, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said on Thursday, a day after Pyongyang test fired a new missile.

North Korea said on Wednesday it had successfully tested a powerful new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that put the entire U.S. mainland within range of its nuclear weapons.

Berlin strongly condemned the test as a violation of international law.

Speaking in Washington after meeting U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Gabriel said he had offered support for taking a tough line towards Pyongyang.

“He wants our support for their efforts to pursue a hardline position vis a vis North Korea, and he has it. But it’s our job to decide what we will do in diplomatic channels.”

Two diplomats had already been withdrawn from the German embassy in Pyongyang, and a third was being pulled out now, Gabriel said. Germany was also demanding North Korea reduce its diplomatic presence in Germany.

Gabriel said Washington had not demanded that Germany, one of seven European countries with embassies in North Korea, shut its mission or withdraw its ambassador. It was not Germany’s desire to shut down its embassy, he said, but added: “that doesn’t mean we are ruling it out.”

Gabriel said Germany would discuss North Korea options with fellow European countries to determine “whether it’s necessary to further increase the diplomatic pressure.”

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the United States had called on countries to scale back or cut ties with North Korea as part of an effort to pressure Pyongyang to give up its weapons programs.

“If they would be willing to close their missions in North Korea altogether, that is also something we would be supportive of,” she said, while adding that Tillerson had not specifically asked in his meeting with Gabriel for Germany to recall its ambassador.

Gabriel also told reporters that he had no information about reports that the White House planned to replace Tillerson, noting that he had already scheduled another meeting with Tillerson for next week. U.S. officials said on Thursday the White House had developed a plan for CIA director Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson within weeks.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal and Dalia Fahmy; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Peter Graff and Frances Kerry)

Once inside Kim Jong Un’s inner circle, top aide’s star fades

Once inside Kim Jong Un's inner circle, top aide's star fades

By Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – When Kim Jong Un sat down in September to order the sixth and largest of North Korea’s nuclear tests, Hwang Pyong So sat by his side, his khaki military uniform conspicuous among the suits at the table, photos released by state media at the time showed.

Now Hwang, once one of Kim’s most-trusted advisers, is facing unspecified punishment on the orders of another man who also sat at that exclusive table in September, Choe Ryong Hae, South Korean intelligence officials believe.

Information on North Korea is often difficult to obtain, and with few hard details and no official confirmation from Pyongyang, analysts said it was too soon to draw any firm conclusions from the unspecified punishments.

But the moves, which appear to involve two of Kim’s top four advisers, are being closely watched for indications of fractures within his secretive inner circle, and come as North Korea faces increasing international pressure over its nuclear weapons program.

Having his advisers compete with each other suits Kim just fine, said Christopher Green, an analyst with the Crisis Group.

“It is hardwired into autocracy to have underlings in competition,” he said.

Hwang, a shy, bespectacled general in his mid-60s, is a close confidant of Kim Jong Un and has had an unprecedented rise to the top rungs of North Korea’s leadership in the space of a few years.

In 2014, he became one of the most powerful people outside the ruling Kim family when he was named chief of the General Political Bureau of the army, a powerful position that mobilizes the military for the leader.

His apparent punishment takes on additional meaning as it was orchestrated by Choe who has competed with Hwang in the past and stands to gain from any demotion, according to South Korea’s spy agency.

TEA WITH THE ENEMY

The two men were last seen in public together early last month as they watched a gymnastics gala, according to state media.

Hwang has since faded from public view, whereas Choe was the ranking official who met with a senior envoy from China in Pyongyang last week.

Kim has not shied away from removing or punishing even favored leaders who could become powerful enough to threaten his grip on power, said Michael Madden, an expert on the North Korean leadership at 38 North, a project of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced Studies in Washington.

“Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong So could not have continued in the capacity that he was operating in, without it coming back to bite him,” he said.

Both Hwang and Choe came to South Korea during the Asian Games in 2014 – the highest such visit by North Korean officials to the rival South.

Dressed in a drab, olive army uniform and his large officer’s cap, Hwang, who had been promoted to the No.2 spot behind Kim just one week earlier, had tea and lunch with Choe and South Korean officials and waved to crowds at the games’ closing ceremony.

The trip had been announced just one day in advance and took many South Korean observers by surprise. Some suggested there may have been a power struggle between the two men, neither wanting to yield the high-profile visit to the other.

Choe, who was subjected to political “reeducation” himself in the past, now appears to be gaining more influence since he was promoted in October to the party’s powerful Central Military Commission, according to South Korean officials.

The National Intelligence Service indicated Choe now heads the Organisation and Guidance Department (OGD), the secretive body which oversees appointments within North Korea’s leadership.

‘CLIPPING WINGS’

The punishment represents the first time Hwang has faced any major blow to his standing, said Lee Sang-keun, a North Korea leadership expert at Ewha Woman’s University’s Institute of Unification Studies.

Hwang had a reputation of playing a respectful and careful role around the notoriously unpredictable Kim. Photos released by state media often showed him covering his mouth as he politely laughed with the supreme leader.

The punishment may not reflect any specific mistakes on Hwang’s part but could be part of a wider effort by Kim to ensure that the ruling party retains its control over the military, Lee said.

The moves are part of a sweeping ideological scrutiny of the political unit of the military for the first time in 20 years, according to Kim Byung-kee, a lawmaker on South Korea’s parliamentary intelligence committee.

They could also be an effort to prevent a repeat of a major purge in 2013, 38 North’s Madden said.

Kim’s uncle and second most powerful man in the secretive state, Jang Song Thaek, was executed during that purge after a special military tribunal found him guilty of treason.

Preemptively putting Hwang in his place now meant Kim might prevent him from becoming so powerful he could only be dealt with in a similar way, Madden said.

“What (Kim’s) doing can be described as clipping wings.”

(Additional reporting by James Pearson; Editing by Lincoln Feast)

North Korean women suffer discrimination, rape, malnutrition: U.N.

Women wearing traditional clothes walk past North Korean soldiers after an opening ceremony for a newly constructed residential complex in Ryomyong street in Pyongyang, North Korea April 13, 2017.

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – North Korean women are deprived of education and job opportunities and are often subjected to violence at home and sexual assault in the workplace, a U.N. human rights panel said on Monday.

After a regular review of Pyongyang’s record, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women also voiced concern at rape or mistreatment of women in detention especially those repatriated after fleeing abroad.

North Korean women are “under-represented or disadvantaged” in tertiary education, the judiciary, security and police forces and leadership and managerial positions “in all non-traditional areas of work”, the panel of independent experts said.

“The main issue is first of all the lack of information. We have no access to a large part of laws, elements and information on national machinery,” Nicole Ameline, panel member, told Reuters. “We have asked a lot of questions.”

North Korea told the panel on Nov. 8 that it was working to uphold women’s rights and gender equality but that sanctions imposed by major powers over its nuclear and missile programs were taking a toll on vulnerable mothers and children.

Domestic violence is prevalent and there is “very limited awareness” about the issue and a lack of legal services, psycho-social support and shelters available for victims, the panel said.

It said economic sanctions had a disproportionate impact on women. North Korean women suffer “high levels of malnutrition”, with 28 percent of pregnant or lactating women affected, it said.

“We have called on the government to be very, very attentive to the situation of food and nutrition. Because we consider that it is a basic need and that the government has to invest and to assume its responsibilities in this field,” Ameline said.

“Unfortunately I am not sure that the situation will improve very quickly.”

The report found that penalties for rape in North Korea were not commensurate with the severity of the crime, which also often goes unpunished. Legal changes in 2012 lowered the penalties for some forms of rape, including the rape of children, rape by a work supervisor and repeated rape.

This has led to reducing the punishment for forcing “a woman in a subordinate position” to have sexual intercourse from four years to three years, the report said.

It said women trafficked abroad and then returned to North Korea, are reported to be sent to labor training camps or prisons, accused of “illegal border crossing”, and may be exposed to further violations of their rights, including sexual violence by security officials and forced abortions.

 

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Alison Williams)

 

China says will work with North Korea to boost ties as envoy visits

China says will work with North Korea to boost ties as envoy visits

BEIJING/SEOUL (Reuters) – Traditional friendship between China and North Korea represents “valuable wealth” for their people, China said after its special envoy met a high-ranking North Korean official, but there was no mention of the crisis over North Korea’s weapons.

Song Tao, who heads the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s international department, is visiting Pyongyang to discuss the outcome of the recently concluded Communist Party Congress in China, at which President Xi Jinping cemented his power.

In a brief statement dated Friday but reported by Chinese media on Saturday, the international department said Song, who is there representing Xi, reported to North Korean official Choe Ryong Hae the outcome of the congress.

Song and Choe also talked about relations between their parties and countries, the department said.

“They said that the traditional friendship between China and North Korea was founded and cultivated by both countries former old leaders, and is valuable wealth for the two peoples,” it said.

“Both sides must work hard together to promote the further development of relations between the two parties and two countries to benefit their two peoples.”

The department made no mention of North Korea’s nuclear or missile programs, which are strongly opposed by China.

The North’s official KCNA news agency said Song informed Choe about China’s 19th National Congress “in detail”, and stressed China’s stance to steadily develop the traditionally friendly relations between the two parties and countries.

Song arrived on Friday but it is not clear how long he will be in North Korea.

China has repeatedly pushed for a diplomatic solution to the crisis over North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and missiles to carry them, but in recent months it has had only limited high-level exchanges with North Korea.

The last time China’s special envoy for North Korea visited the country was in February last year.

NO MAGICIAN

Song’s trip comes just a week after U.S. President Donald Trump visited Beijing as part of an Asia tour, where he pressed for greater action to rein in North Korea, especially from China, with which North Korea does 90 percent of its trade.

The influential state-run Chinese tabloid the Global Times said in an editorial that it was unwise to expect too much from his trip, saying his key mission was to inform North Korea about the party congress in Beijing.

“Song is not a magician,” the newspaper said.

“The key to easing the situation on the peninsula lies in the hands of Washington and Pyongyang. If both sides insist on their own logic and refuse to move in the same direction, even if Song opens a door for talks, the door could be closed any time.”

It is not clear whether Song will meet North Korea’s youthful leader Kim Jong Un.

Kim and President Xi exchanged messages of congratulations and thanks over the Chinese party congress, but neither leader has visited the other’s country since assuming power.

Song’s department is in charge of the party’s relations with foreign political parties, and has traditionally served as a conduit for Chinese diplomacy with North Korea.

China’s new special envoy for North Korea, Kong Xuanyou, who took up his position in August, is not believed to have visited the country since assuming the job.

(Reporting by Joyce Lee and Ben Blanchard; Editing by G Crosse, Robert Birsel)

At North Korea’s doorstep, Trump warns of U.S. power while also striking conciliatory note

At North Korea's doorstep, Trump warns of U.S. power while also striking conciliatory note

By Steve Holland, Matt Spetalnick and Christine Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Tuesday warned North Korea he was prepared to use the full range of U.S. military power to stop any attack, but in a more conciliatory appeal than ever before he urged Pyongyang to “make a deal” to end the nuclear standoff.

Speaking on North Korea’s doorstep during a visit to Seoul, Trump said that while “we hope to God” not to have to resort to the use of full U.S. military might, he was ready to do whatever was necessary to prevent the “North Korean dictator” from threatening millions of lives.

“We cannot allow North Korea to threaten all that we have built,” Trump said after talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has supported diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang.

But at times taking a more measured, less confrontational tone, Trump also urged North Korea to “do the right thing” and added that: “I do see some movement,” though he declined to elaborate.

“It really makes sense for North Korea to come to the table and make a deal,” Trump told reporters at a joint news conference with Moon.

Despite Trump’s renewed threats against North Korea, it was a far cry from the more strident approach he has pursued in recent months, including his previous dismissal of any diplomatic efforts with Pyongyang as a waste of time.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has made clear, however, that he has little interest in negotiations, at least until he has developed a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.

Landing earlier at Osan Air Base outside Seoul, the president and First Lady Melania Trump stepped down from Air Force One onto a red carpet as he began a 24-hour visit that could aggravate tension with North Korea.

He then flew by helicopter to Camp Humphreys, the largest U.S. military base in the country, and met U.S. and South Korean troops, along with Moon.

The White House billed Trump’s trip as intended to demonstrate U.S. resolve over a hardline approach to the North Korean nuclear and missile threats.

But many in the region had expressed fear that any further bellicose rhetoric by Trump toward Pyongyang could increase the potential for a devastating military conflict.

TRUMP PRAISE FOR MOON

Trump praised Moon for “great cooperation” despite differences in the past over how to confront North Korea and over a trade pact between the United States and South Korea.

At the news conference, the leaders said they had agreed to renegotiate the trade agreement in a timely fashion.

In formal talks after an elaborate welcoming ceremony outside the presidential Blue House in Seoul, Moon told Trump he hoped his visit would relieve some of South Koreans’ anxiety over North Korea.

Pyongyang’s recent nuclear and missile tests in defiance of U.N. resolutions and an exchange of insults between Trump and Kim have raised the stakes in the most critical international challenge of Trump’s presidency.

At the news conference, Trump said Pyongyang must understand the “unparalleled strength” that Washington had at its disposal.

He cited three U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups that are converging on the Western Pacific for exercises as well as a nuclear submarine he said was also in position.

Trump has rattled some U.S. allies with his vow to “totally destroy” North Korea if it threatens the United States and by deriding Kim as a “Rocket Man on a suicide mission.”

Kim responded by calling Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”

Trump’s senior aides privately have since urged him to avoid “personalizing” the conflict any further, U.S. officials say.

On the second leg of his five-nation trip, Trump toured the sprawling Camp Humphreys garrison, which lies about 100 km (60 miles) from the border with reclusive North Korea, and met commanders and troops.

The base visit gave him a first-hand view of the massive military assets the United States has in place in South Korea, but it also could serve as a reminder of the cost in U.S. military lives – as well as the potential massive South Korean civilian losses – if the current crisis spirals into war.

“MAY YOUR DREAMS COME TRUE”

Trump wrapped up his first day with a dinner hosted at the Blue House, dining on grilled sole, beef ribs and chocolate cake while being serenaded by a K-pop singer with an orchestra in the background.

“Mr President, may your dreams come true,” Trump said to Moon, raising his glass in a toast.

North Korea has not conducted a missile test for 53 days, the longest such lull in testing this year. North Korean state media has not commented on Trump’s arrival in the South.

South Korea’s spy agency said last week that North Korea may be preparing another missile test, raising speculation that such a launch could be timed for Trump’s trip to the region.

U.S. officials have said privately that intercepting a test missile is among options under consideration, though there is disagreement within the administration about the risks.

Trump had previously criticized Moon over his support for diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang – something the U.S. president once called “appeasement” – but both leaders used Tuesday’s news conference to stress common ground.

Moon urged maximum pressure from sanctions against North Korea to force it to negotiate abandonment of its nuclear program, something Pyongyang says it will never give up.

Several hundred supporters and protesters lined the streets of downtown Seoul as Trump’s motorcade passed by en route to the Blue House, waving flags and posters, with some saying, “No Trump, No War, Yes Peace,” while others cheered, “Trump! Trump!”

will deliver a speech on Wednesday to South Korea’s National Assembly expected to focus heavily on his North Korea policy, which has stressed sanctions and military pressure instead of diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang.

The North accuses the United States, which has 28,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean war, of planning to invade and regularly threatens to destroy it and its Asian allies. Washington denies any such intention.

(Additional reporting by Soyoung Kim, James Pearson, Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul, Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali in Washington; writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie)

Airport video shows North Korean embassy official with Kim Jong Nam murder suspects

Indonesian Siti Aisyah who is on trial for the killing of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korea's leader, is escorted as she leaves at the Department of Chemistry in Petaling Jaya, near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – A North Korean embassy official and a manager of Air Koryo, the national airline, met suspects wanted for the killing of Kim Jong Nam shortly after the murder, according to video recordings shown at the trial in Kuala Lumpur on Monday.

Two women, Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong from Vietnam, and four men who are still at large, have been charged in the murder of the half-brother of the country’s leader, using banned chemical weapon VX at Kuala Lumpur airport on Feb. 13.

Defense lawyers have said Siti Aisyah and Huong were duped into thinking they were playing a prank for a reality TV show.

The four suspects, who were caught on airport camera talking to the women before they attacked Kim Jong Nam, were identified as North Koreans for the first time on Monday, a month since the trial began.

Three of them were seen meeting a North Korean embassy official and the Air Koryo official, both unidentified, at the main airport terminal within an hour of the attack, lead police investigator Wan Azirul Nizam Che Wan Aziz told the court.

North Korea has vehemently denied accusations by South Korean and U.S. officials that Kim Jong Un’s regime was behind the killing.

Kim Jong Nam, who was living in exile in Macau, had criticized his family’s dynastic rule of North Korea and his brother had issued a standing order for his execution, some South Korean lawmakers have said.

Footage played in the courtroom showed the Air Koryo official helping the three suspects at an airport check-in counter. He was later seen arranging a flight ticket for the fourth suspect too, Wan Azirul said.

Wan Azirul identified the men as North Koreans Hong Song Hac, Ri Ji Hyon, Ri Jae Nam and O Jong Gil, citing intelligence findings by the special branch of the Malaysian police.

Wan Azirul said he investigated and took statements from both the embassy and the Air Koryo official.

“They explained that the reason they were there was to assist every North Korean individual or citizen who boarded a flight to leave the country,” he told the court.

The North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur did not respond to Reuters’ telephone calls and emails to seek comment.

The sensational murder unraveled once-close ties between Malaysia and North Korea.

Malaysia was forced to return Kim Jong Nam’s body and allow the return home of three North Korean men wanted for questioning and hiding in the Kuala Lumpur embassy, in exchange for the release of nine Malaysians stuck in Pyongyang.

Wan Azirul said police intelligence also provided information on a fifth suspect identified as Ri Ji U, who was also “suspected to have the real name James”, based on images and photographs taken from Siti Aisyah’s phone.

 

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Additional reporting by Joseph Sipalan; Editing by Praveen Menon and Clarence Fernandez)

 

U.S. carrier patrols off Korean peninsula in warning to Pyongyang

The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan conducts joint drills with the South Korean navy at sea October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Tim Kelly

By Tim Kelly

ABOARD USS RONALD REAGAN, Sea of Japan (Reuters) – The USS Ronald Reagan, a 100,000-ton nuclear powered aircraft carrier, patrolled in waters east of the Korean peninsula on Thursday, in a show of sea and air power designed to warn off North Korea from any military action.

The U.S. Navy’s biggest warship in Asia, with a crew of 5,000 sailors, sailed around 100 miles (160.93 km), launching almost 90 F-18 Super Hornet sorties from its deck, in sight of South Korean islands.

It is conducting drills with the South Korean navy involving 40 warships deployed in a line stretching from the Yellow Sea west of the peninsula into the Sea of Japan.

“The dangerous and aggressive behavior by North Korea concerns everybody in the world,” Rear Admiral Marc Dalton, commander of the Reagan’s strike group, said in the carrier’s hangar as war planes taxied on the flight deck above.

“We have made it clear with this exercise, and many others, that we are ready to defend the Republic of Korea.”

The Navy's forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and the forward-deployed Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Stethem steam alongside ships from the Republic of Korea Navy in the waters east of the Korean Peninsula on October 18, 2017.

The Navy’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and the forward-deployed Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Stethem steam alongside ships from the Republic of Korea Navy in the waters east of the Korean Peninsula on October 18, 2017. Picture taken on October 18, 2017. Courtesy Kenneth Abbate/U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS

The Reagan’s presence in the region, coupled with recent military pressure by Washington on Pyongyang, including B1-B strategic bomber flights over the Korean peninsula, comes ahead of President Donald Trump’s first official visit to Asia, set to start in Japan on Nov. 5, with South Korea to follow.

North Korea has slammed the warship gathering as a “rehearsal for war”. It comes as senior Japanese, South Korean and U.S. diplomats meet in Seoul to discuss a diplomatic way forward backed up by U.N. sanctions.

The U.N. Security Council has unanimously ratcheted up sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes since 2006. The most stringent include a ban on coal, iron ore and seafood exports that aim at halting a third of North Korea’s $3 billion of annual exports.

On Monday, Kim In Ryong, North Korea’s deputy U.N. envoy, told a U.N. General Assembly committee the Korean peninsula situation had reached a touch-and-go point and a nuclear war could break out at any moment.

A series of weapons tests by Pyongyang, including its sixth and most powerful nuclear test on Sept. 3 and two missile launches over Japan, has stoked tension in East Asia.

A Russian who returned from a visit to Pyongyang has said the regime is preparing to test a missile it believes can reach the U.S. west coast.

On Sunday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said President Donald Trump had instructed him to continue diplomatic efforts to defuse tension with North Korea.

Washington has not ruled out the eventual possibility of direct talks with the North to resolve the stand-off, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan said on Tuesday.

 

 

(Reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)