South, North Korea reopen hotlines as leaders seek to rebuild ties

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) -South and North Korea have restored hotlines that Pyongyang severed a year ago when ties deteriorated sharply, and the two countries’ leaders are renewing efforts to rebuild relations, Seoul’s presidential office said on Tuesday.

The decision on the hotlines was made by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un who have exchanged multiple letters since April when they marked the third anniversary of their first summit, said Moon’s press secretary, Park Soo-hyun.

North Korea’s state news agency, KCNA, also said all inter-Korean communication channels resumed operation at 10 a.m. Tuesday (0100 GMT) in line with an agreement between Moon and Kim.

The hotlines are a rare tool to bridge the two Koreas, but it was unclear whether their reconnection would expedite any meaningful restart of negotiations aimed at dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

“The two leaders have explored ways to recover relations by exchanging letters on several occasions, and agreed to restore severed hotlines as a first step for that process,” Park said in a statement. “They have also agreed to regain trust as soon as possible and foster progress on relations again.”

KCNA touted the reopening of the hotlines as “a big stride in recovering mutual trust and promoting reconciliation.”

A senior official of the U.S. administration, which has sought unsuccessfully to persuade North Korea to return to talks over its nuclear program, welcomed the announcement.

“The United States supports inter-Korean dialogue and engagement,” the official said. “Diplomacy and dialogue are essential to achieving complete denuclearization and to establishing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

NUCLEAR STALEMATE

North Korea cut the lines in June 2020 as cross-border ties soured after a failed second summit in February 2019 between Kim and then U.S. President Donald Trump, which Moon had offered to mediate.

Then the North blew up a joint liaison office, launched on its soil in 2018 to foster better ties with the South, plunging relations to their lowest ebb under Moon.

Seoul’s defense ministry confirmed that twice-daily regular communication was resumed via a military hotline on Tuesday.

The Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, also said telephone lines installed at the border truce village of Panmunjom were restored.

Moon had called for a revival of the hotlines and offered a video summit with Kim to avoid the coronavirus, but Pyongyang has previously responded with scathing criticism, saying it had no intention to talk to Seoul.

North Korea has not formally confirmed any COVID-19 outbreaks, but it closed its borders and took strict anti-virus measures, seeing the pandemic as a matter of national survival.

Park said Moon and Kim have agreed to work together to fight the pandemic but did not discuss any possible summit, in-person or virtual.

The exchange of letters came ahead of Moon’s summit with U.S. President Joe Biden in May, where the leaders displayed their willingness to engage the North.

But it still remains to be seen whether Pyongyang was ready to return to negotiations, with Biden’s administration seeking a “reliable, predictable and constructive” way to bring progress.

“It’s just a reconnection of the lines they’d cut unilaterally,” said Moon Seong-mook, a retired South Korean military general who previously led inter-Korean talks.

“North Korea would still wonder what’s the point in talking to the South, as the North wants substantive easing of sanctions, but there’s nothing we can do on that.”

James Kim of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul said Pyongyang might mean to show some willingness to respond to U.S. overtures, but warned against reading too much into the latest move.

“We need to see some seriousness on Pyongyang’s part to move towards denuclearization for us to say that there is genuine progress,” Kim said.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Sangmi Cha and Jack Kim in Seoul and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Christopher Cushing, Gerry Doyle, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Giles Elgood)

South Korea scraps annual government war drill as talks with North go on

FILE PHOTO - South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet in 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

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea said on Tuesday it has decided to scrap an annual government mobilization drill this year as part of a suspended joint exercise with the United States but will carry out its own drills to maintain readiness. The ministers of safety and defense made the announcement at a media briefing on Tuesday. The drill, called the Ulchi exercises, usually takes place every August in tandem with the joint Freedom Guardian military drill with the United States.

Seoul and Washington said in June they would halt the joint exercise after U.S. President Donald Trump pledged to end war games following his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12.

Seoul’s presidential office has said the suspension of the combined exercise could facilitate ongoing nuclear talks between North Korea and the United States.

South Korea would develop a new drill model by incorporating Ulchi and the existing Taeguk command post exercises, which would be aimed at fighting militancy and large-scale natural disasters, the ministers said.

That incorporated exercise would be launched in October when the Hoguk field training drill takes place, the ministers said.

“Our military will carry out planned standalone drills this year and decide on joint exercises through close consultations with the United States,” Defence Minister Song Young-moo said.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Christine Kim; Editing by Paul Tait)

Trump asked South Korea officials to show flexibility in trade talks: Seoul

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korea's President Moon Jae-in hold a joint press conference at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, November 7, 2017. REUTERS/Jung Yeon-Je/Pool

SEOUL (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump asked South Korean officials to show flexibility in trade negotiations with the United States in a phone call with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the Blue House said in a statement on Friday.

South Korea and the United States were scheduled to hold a third round of talks for amendments to an existing bilateral free trade agreement this week in Washington. Trump has repeatedly said the free trade deal with South Korea is “unfair” and has threatened to scrap it altogether on multiple occasions.

(Reporting by Christine Kim; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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)

U.S. warns North Korea against new missile test, plays down talks

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks at UN headquarters in New York, U.S., January 2, 2018

By Rodrigo Campos and Christine Kim

UNITED NATIONS/SEOUL (Reuters) – The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, warned North Korea on Tuesday against staging another missile test and said Washington would not take any talks between North and South Korea seriously if they did not do something to get Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.

Haley told reporters the United States was hearing reports that North Korea might be preparing to fire another missile.

“I hope that doesn’t happen. But if it does, we must bring even tougher measures to bear against the North Korean regime,” Haley said.

South Korea on Tuesday offered talks with North Korea next week, amid a tense standoff over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in a New Year’s Day speech that he was “open to dialogue” with Seoul.

Kim also said he was open to the possibility of North Korean athletes taking part in Winter Olympics South Korea hosts next month.

At the same time, he stressed that his country would push ahead with “mass producing” nuclear warheads in defiance of U.N. sanctions and that he had a nuclear button on his desk capable of launching missiles at the United States.

U.S. President Donald Trump responded to Kim in a Twitter post on Tuesday: “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

Haley said the United States would not take talks seriously if they did not take steps toward banning North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

“North Korea can talk to anyone they want, but the U.S. is not going to recognize it or acknowledge it until they agree to ban the nuclear weapons that they have,” she said.

Haley gave no details of the missile test preparations.

Another U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there were indications that could point toward a potential missile launch “sooner rather than later,” but cautioned that such signs had been seen in the past and no test had resulted.

‘DRIVE A WEDGE’

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said North Korea might be “trying to drive a wedge of some sort” between the United States and South Korea and added that while it was up to Seoul to decide who it talked to: “We are very skeptical of Kim Jong Un’s sincerity in sitting down and having talks.”

Trump, who has led a global drive to pressure North Korea through sanctions to give up development of nuclear-tipped missiles capable of hitting the United States, earlier held back judgment on Pyongyang’s offer to talk, saying on Twitter:

“Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for first time. “Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not – we will see!”

Trump has frequently derided Kim as “rocket man.” The U.S. president said sanctions and other pressures were starting to have a big impact on North Korea.

Kim and Trump have exchanged fiery barbs in the last year and the U.S. president has warned that the United States would have no choice but to “totally destroy” North Korea if forced to defend itself or its allies.

North Korea regularly threatens to destroy the United States, South Korea and Japan and tested its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile in November, which it said was capable of delivering a warhead anywhere in the United States.

South Korea’s Unification Minister Cho Myong-gyon said the offer for high-level talks next Tuesday had been discussed with the United States. Nauert said she was not aware if the matter had been discussed in advance of the South Korean response.

Cho suggested the talks be held at the border village of Panmunjom and said they should be focused on North Korea’s participation at the Olympics, but other issues would likely arise, including the denuclearisation of North Korea.

“I repeat: The government is open to talking with North Korea, regardless of time, location and form,” Cho said.

Should the talks be held, it would be the first such dialogue since a vice-ministerial meeting in December 2015.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in welcomed Kim’s New Year address and asked his government to move as quickly as possible to bring North Korea to the Olympics, but he stressed that an improvement in inter-Korean relations “cannot go separately with resolving North Korea’s nuclear program”.

China, which has persistently urged a return to talks to ease tensions, said recent positive comments from North and South Korea were a good thing.

“China welcomes and supports North Korea and South Korea taking earnest efforts to treat this as an opportunity to improve mutual relations, promote the alleviation of the situation on the Korean peninsula and realize denuclearisation on the peninsula,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.

(Reporting by Christine Kim, Jane Chung and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul, Michael Martina in Beijing, Doina Chiacu, David Brunnstrom, David Alexander and Arshad Mohammed in Washington, and Rodrigo Campos at the United Nations; Editing by Andrew Hay, Alistair Bell and Lisa Shumaker)

South Korea offers talks with defiant North ahead of Olympics

People look toward the north through a barbed-wire fence near the militarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, December 21,

By Christine Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea on Tuesday offered talks with North Korea amid a standoff over its weapons programs, a day after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he was open to negotiations but that his country would push ahead with “mass producing” nuclear warheads.

The offer for high-level talks next Tuesday had been discussed with the United States, the South’s unification minister said, while a decision on whether to push back a massive joint military drill between South Korea and the United States until after the Winter Olympics was pending.

Tension has been rising 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. The North sees the regular war drills between the South and the United States as preparations for war.

“We look forward to candidly discussing interests from both sides face-to-face with North Korea along with the North’s participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics,” Unification Minister Cho Myong-gyon told reporters.

“I repeat, the government is open to talking with North Korea, regardless of time, location and form.”

Cho said he expects the dialogue at the border village of Panmunjom, if it happens, to be focused on North Korea’s participation at the Olympics in February, but other issues would likely arise, including the decentralization of North Korea.

Should the talks be held on Jan. 9, it would be the first such dialogue since a vice-ministerial meeting in December 2015.

The offer landed after a New Year’s Day speech by Kim who said he was “open to dialogue” with Seoul, and for North Korean athletes to possibly take part in the Winter Games, but he persistently declared North Korea a nuclear power.

After welcoming Kim’s address, South Korean President Moon Jae-in had asked his government earlier in the day to move as quickly as possible to bring North Korea to the Olympics.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the recent positive comments from both sides about improving relations, and Kim’s remarks about participating in the upcoming Olympics, were a “good thing”.

“China welcomes and supports North Korea and South Korea taking earnest efforts to treat this as an opportunity to improve mutual relations, promote the alleviation of the situation on the Korean peninsula and realize denuclearization on the peninsula.”

“DEEP BREATH” NEEDED

Chun Yung-woo, a former South Korean national security adviser, said Seoul should have taken more time before reacting to Kim’s comments.

“I regret the government had even lost the flexibility to spend one day or two taking a deep breath and meticulously analyzing Kim Jong Un’s ulterior motive before hastily issuing a welcoming statement,” he said.

“The government will have to strive more to come up with a countermeasure not to get caught in a trap set by Kim Jong Un.”

Choi Moon-soon, governor of Gangwon Province where the Olympics are to be held next month, has proposed South Korea send cruise ships to bring North Korean athletes and officials to Pyeongchang, according to South Korean media.

Choi met North Korean sports official Mun Woong in China on Dec. 18 on the sidelines of a international youth football tournament where North and South Korea soccer teams competed, the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper reported.

The governor did not immediately respond to a request by Reuters for comment.

This week’s exchanges follow a year dominated by fiery threats form Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump who vowed to destroy North Korea if threatened, even as U.S. diplomats pushed for a diplomatic solution.

North Korea, which regularly threatens to destroy the United States, South Korea and Japan, tested its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile in November, which it said was capable of delivering a warhead to anywhere in the United States.

Kim said in a New Year’s Day speech on Monday he would consider sending a delegation to the Olympics.

“North Korea’s participation in the Winter Games will be a good opportunity to showcase the national pride and we wish the Games will be a success. Officials from the two Koreas may urgently meet to discuss the possibility,” Kim said.

North Korea would focus in 2018 on “mass-producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for operational deployment”.

“The whole territory of the U.S. is within the range of our nuclear strike and a nuclear button is always on the desk of my office and this is just a reality, not a threat,” he said, while emphasizing that the weapons would only be used if North Korea was threatened.

The U.S. State Department did not respond to a requests for comment on Kim’s address, but analysts said it was an attempt to weaken the U.S.-South Korean alliance.

The Commerce Ministry in China, North Korea’s lone major ally, also said it will continue to fully implement U.N. sanctions on North Korea.

Trump said on Twitter last week that China has been “caught” allowing oil into North Korea and said such moves would prevent “a friendly solution” to the crisis.

(Reporting by Christine Kim; Additional reporting by Jane Chung and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul, and Michael Martina in Beijing; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Tougher North Korea sanctions could hit home, analysts say ahead of U.N. vote

People look toward the north through a barbed-wire fence near the militarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, December 21, 2017.

By Hyonhee Shin and Heekyong Yang

SEOUL (Reuters) – Newly proposed sanctions on North Korea could have a significant effect on the isolated country’s already struggling economy, analysts said ahead of an expected U.N. Security Council vote on Friday, which will hinge on support from China and Russia.

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

But U.S. diplomats have made clear they are seeking a diplomatic solution and have proposed a number of new, tougher sanctions designed to ratchet up pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

North Korea regularly threatens to destroy South Korea, the United States and Japan and says its weapons programs 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.

On Friday, a spokesperson for North Korea’s foreign ministry called U.S. President Donald Trump’s recently released national security strategy the latest American policy seeking to “stifle our country and turn the entire Korean peninsula” into an outpost of American hegemony.

He said Trump was seeking “total subordination of the whole world”.

INCREASING PRESSURE

The draft U.N. resolution, seen by Reuters on Thursday, seeks to ban nearly 90 percent of refined petroleum product exports to North Korea by capping them at 500,000 barrels a year and demand the repatriation of North Koreans working abroad within 12 months.

It would also cap crude oil supplies to North Korea at 4 million barrels a year, as well as ban a number of North Korean exports such as machinery, lumber, and other products and resources.

“If they were enforced, the cap on oil would be devastating for North Korea’s haulage industry, for North Koreans who use generators at home or for productive activities, and for (state-owned enterprises) that do the same,” said Peter Ward, a columnist for NK News, a website that tracks North Korea.

The forced repatriation of foreign workers would also cut off vital sources of foreign currency and investment not only for the government but also for North Korea’s emerging market economy, he said.

“If such sanctions were enforced, they would thus impede and endanger North Korea’s economic development.”

Asked about the effects of sanctions before these latest proposals were announced, Michael Kirby, who led a U.N. inquiry into human rights abuses in North Korea, said cutting off fuel imports would be “a very serious step”.

“Cutting off oil, petroleum supplies would obviously have a very big impact on the ordinary population,” he said.

EYES ON CHINA, RUSSIA

China, which supplies most of North Korea’s oil, has backed successive rounds of U.N. sanctions but has resisted past U.S. calls to cut off supplies to its neighbor.

Asked about the proposed new resolution on North Korea, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying called on all sides to exercise restraint and to “strictly implement the current relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions”.

While not directly addressing the new proposals, Hua said that China would maintain communications with all sides and supports measures to “quickly create the necessary conditions to peacefully resolve the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue through talks”.

Any move to curb exports of Chinese fuel to North Korea may have limited impact after China National Petroleum Corp suspended diesel and gasoline sales to its northern neighbor in June over concerns the state-owned company would not get paid.

Business has slowed steadily since then, with zero shipments of diesel, gasoline and other fuel from China in October. November data will be released on Monday.

Russia quietly boosted economic support for North Korea earlier this year, and last week Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov said that Moscow was not ready to sign up to new sanctions that would strangle the country economically.

China and Russia on Thursday asked for more time to consider a U.S. proposal to blacklist 10 ships for transporting banned items from North Korea, diplomats said. It was unclear how much more time would be given.

Even if the proposed sanctions have an economic effect, it’s not clear whether that would push Pyongyang to negotiate or stop its weapons development, said Kim Sung-han, a former South Korean vice foreign minister.

“We have had numerous – sometimes so-called toughest – sanctions against North Korea over the past 25 years,” he said. “Almost none have worked effectively to halt the regime’s military and nuclear ambitions.”

OLYMPIC DREAMS

The additional sanctions would come as South Korean President Moon Jae-in seeks to ease tensions ahead of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February. He has proposed delaying annual joint military drills with the United States, which North Korea sees as a preparation for invasion, until after the Games.

A foreign ministry spokesperson declined to comment until after the Security Council vote on the resolution on Friday, but an official at South Korea’s Unification Ministry said Seoul supported global efforts to rein in North Korea even as it tries to use the Olympics as a catalyst for peace negotiations.

“The North should have its own thinking about whether or not to participate in the Olympics (regardless of sanctions),” the Unification Ministry official told Reuters. “If it were to come, it would make a decision at the last minute. Until then we will continue to wait and see.”

Seoul has also sought to repair relations with China, which were damaged when Beijing complained over the deployment of an American anti-missile system in South Korea.

Officials at foreign ministries in both Seoul and Beijing have denied reports by travel agents that some Chinese tour groups are still begin blocked from traveling to South Korea.

“As far as I am aware, according to the information I have before me, these reports are not in accord with the facts,” Hua said on Friday.

While Trump and North Korean leader Kim have publicly derided negotiations as useless without major policy shifts by the other side, Seoul has continued a slightly softer approach, while still supporting international pressure.

“If we get to meet the North side, we are willing to have frank, active discussions on various issues that are of North Korea’s interest, without any preconditions,” South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon told reporters in Seoul.

“Next year, we would pursue our policy in a more proactive manner than this year, making use of various opportunities, including the Pyeongchang Olympics.”

(Additional reporting by Christian Shepherd in BEIJING; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Nick Macfie)

South Korea warns North not to repeat armistice violation

South Korean Defence Minister Song Young-moo looks around a spot where a North Korean collapsed wounded by gun shot by North Korean soldiers while crossing the border on November 13, at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone, South Korea, November 27, 2017.

PANMUNJOM, South Korea (Reuters) – North Korea violated an armistice agreement with South Korea this month when North Korean soldiers shot and wounded a North Korean soldier as he defected across their border and it must not do so again, South Korea’s defense minister said on Monday.

The defector, a North Korean soldier identified only by his surname, Oh, was critically wounded but has been recovering in hospital in South Korea.

The incident comes at a time of heightened tension between North Korea and the international community over its nuclear weapons program, but the North has not publicly responded to the defection at the sensitive border.

South Korean Minister of Defence Song Young-moo issued his warning to the North while on a visit to the border where he commended South Korean soldiers at a Joint Security Area (JSA), in the so-called Truce Village of Panmunjom, in the demilitarized zone, for rescuing the defector.

A North Korean border guard briefly crossed the border with the South in the chase for the defector on Nov. 13 – a video released by the U.N. Command (UNC) in Seoul showed – a violation of the ceasefire accord between North and South at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

“Shooting towards the South at a defecting person, that’s a violation of the armistice agreement,” Song said.

“Crossing the military demarcation line, a violation. Carrying automatic rifles (in the JSA), another violation,” he added as he stood near where South Korean soldiers had found Oh, collapsed and bleeding from his wounds.

“North Korea should be informed this sort of thing should never occur again.”

Since the defection, North Korea has reportedly replaced guards stationed there. Soldiers have fortified a section of the area seen aimed at blocking any more defections by digging a trench and planting trees.

As Song was speaking 10 meters away from the trees North Korean soldiers planted, four North Korean soldiers were spotted listening closely.

South Korean military officials pointed out two bullet holes in a metal wall on a South Korean building, from North Korean shots fired at Oh as he ran.

Oh has undergone several operations in hospital to remove bullets. His lead surgeon, Lee Cook-jong, told Reuters his patient has suffers from nightmares about being returned to the North.

In South Korea, six soldiers, three South Korean and three American, were given awards by the U.S. Forces Korea last week in recognition for their efforts in rescuing the defector.

After inspecting the site on Monday, Song met troops stationed there for lunch and praised them for acting ‘promptly and appropriately’.

South Korea has been broadcasting news of the soldier’s defection towards North Korea via loudspeakers, according to the South’s Yonhap news agency.

South Korean military officials have declined to confirm that.

 

(Reporting by Do-gyun Kim; Writing by Christine Kim; Editing by Soyoung Kim, Robert Birsel)

 

South Korea fears further missile advances by North this year in threat to U.S.

A flag is pictured outside the Permanent Mission of North Korea in Geneva, Switzerland, November 17, 2017.

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea may conduct additional missile tests this year to polish up its long-range missile technology and ramp up the threat against the United States, South Korea’s spy agency said on Monday, adding that it was monitoring developments closely.

North Korea is pursuing nuclear weapons and missile programs in defiance of U.N. Security Council sanctions and has made no secret of its plans to develop a missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland. It has fired two missiles over Japan.

The reclusive state appears to have carried out a recent missile engine test while brisk movements of vehicles were spotted near known missile facilities, Yi Wan-young, a member of South Korea’s parliamentary intelligence committee which was briefed by Seoul’s National Intelligence Service, said.

No sign of an imminent nuclear test had been detected, Yi noted. The third tunnel at the Punggye-ri complex remained ready for another detonation “at any time”, while construction had recently resumed at a fourth tunnel, making it out of use for the time being.

“The agency is closely following the developments because there is a possibility that North Korea could fire an array of ballistic missiles this year under the name of a satellite launch and peaceful development of space, but in fact to ratchet up its threats against the United States,” the lawmakers told reporters after a closed-door briefing by the spy agency.

North Korea defends its weapons programs as a necessary defense against U.S. plans to invade. The United States, which has 28,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean war, denies any such intention.

Pyongyang is also carrying out a sweeping ideological scrutiny of the political unit of the military for the first time in 20 years, according to Kim Byung-kee, another lawmaker in the committee.

The probe was led by the ruling Workers’ Party’s Organisation and Guidance Department and orchestrated by Choe Ryong Hae, who once headed the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army himself until he was replaced by Hwang Pyong So in May 2014.

As a result, Hwang and Kim Won Hong, who Seoul’s unification ministry said was removed from office in mid-January as minister of the Stasi-like secret police called “bowibu”, had been punished, the lawmaker said. He did not elaborate.

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

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

“Under Choe’s command, the Organisation and Guidance Department is undertaking an inspection of the military politburo for the first time in 20 years, taking issue with their impure attitude toward the party leadership,” the lawmaker, Kim, said.

Separately on Monday, South Korea approved a request by a South Korean to attend an event in the North marking the anniversary of the death of his mother who formerly led the Chondoist Chongu Party, a minor North Korean political party.

The son, identified only by his surname Choi, will be the first South Korean to visit the North since liberal President Moon Jae-in took office in May.

He is scheduled to arrive in Pyongyang via China on Wednesday and return on Saturday, according to Seoul’s unification ministry.

A senior Chinese official wrapped up a four-day visit to North Korea on Monday, apparently without meeting the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un.

Song Tao, head of the international department of the Chinese Communist Party, met senior officials from the Workers Party of Korea and “exchanged views on the Korean peninsula issue”, China’s official Xinhua news agency said.

“The ruling parties of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on Monday pledged to strengthen inter-party exchanges and coordination, and push forward relations,” it added, using North Korea’s official name.

Song had been in Pyongyang to discuss the outcome of the recently concluded Chinese Communist Party Congress in Beijing.

 

(Additional reporting by Christine Kim, and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Nick Macfie and Clarence Fernandez)