U.S.’ Blinken calls for global companies to reconsider financial support to Myanmar’s military

By Simon Lewis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday called on international companies to consider cutting ties to enterprises that support Myanmar’s military and he decried its crackdown on anti-coup protesters.

At least 512 civilians had been killed in nearly two months of protests against the coup, 141 of them on Saturday, the bloodiest day of the unrest, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners advocacy group.

Blinken told reporters the violence was “reprehensible” and followed a pattern of “increasingly disturbing and even horrifying violence” against demonstrators opposing military rule, including the killing of children as young as five.

The United States has condemned the Feb. 1 coup that ousted an elected government. Washington has imposed several rounds of sanctions, but Myanmar’s generals have refused to change course.

Blinken said other nations and companies worldwide should look at pulling “significant investments in enterprises that support the Burmese military.”

“They should be looking at those investments and reconsidering them as a means of denying the military the financial support it needs to sustain itself against the will of the people,” he said.

The United States last week placed Treasury sanctions on two military-owned conglomerates, which prevents U.S. companies and individuals from dealing with them.

But some companies, including firms from U.S. regional allies such as Japan and South Korea, still have business relationships with military-owned companies, according to activist groups.

Activists have also called on international energy companies like U.S.-based Chevron to withhold revenues from natural gas projects they operate in Myanmar from the junta-controlled government.

One of Myanmar’s main ethnic minority rebel groups warned of a growing threat of major conflict on Tuesday and called for international intervention against the military crackdown.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis; editing by Grant McCool)

Britain urges citizens to leave Myanmar as violence against protesters mounts

(Reuters) – Britain urged its citizens to leave Myanmar on Friday as security forces cracked down on more protests against the junta, forcing patients out of a hospital in the west of the country and arresting a Polish journalist.

After 12 people were killed on Thursday in one of the bloodiest days since the Feb. 1 coup, the British foreign office warned that “political tension and unrest are widespread since the military takeover and levels of violence are rising”.

Friday’s protests came as South Korea said it would suspend defense exchanges and reconsider development aid to Myanmar because of the violence.

More than 70 protesters have now been killed in the Southeast Asian nation since the military seized power, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) advocacy group said.

Memorials were held for some of them on Friday, including one man whose family said his body had been taken by the security forces and not returned.

A spokesman for the junta did not answer phone calls from Reuters seeking comment.

“Despite repeated demands of the international community, including South Korea, there are an increasing number of victims in Myanmar due to violent acts of the military and police authorities,” South Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

It said Seoul would suspend defense exchanges, ban arms exports, limit exports of other strategic items, reconsider development aid and grant humanitarian exemptions allowing Myanmar nationals to stay in South Korea until the situation improved.

Protests were held in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, and several other towns on Friday, photographs posted on social media by witnesses and news organizations showed. Many were dispersed by security forces.

Poland’s foreign ministry said a Polish journalist was arrested, the second foreign reporter to be detained. A Japanese journalist was briefly held while covering a protest.

Riot police and armed soldiers entered the general hospital in Hakha, in the western Chin state, forcing all 30 patients to leave and evicting staff from on-site housing, said local activist Salai Lian.

Soldiers have been occupying hospitals and universities across Myanmar as they try to quash a civil disobedience movement that started with government employees like doctors and teachers but has expanded into a general strike that has paralyzed many sectors of the economy.

The country has been in crisis since the army ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government last month, detained her and officials of her National League for Democracy party, and set up a ruling junta of generals.

Junta spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said on Thursday Suu Kyi had accepted gold and illegal payments worth $600,000 while in government. He said Phyo Min Thein, a former chief minister of Yangon, who is also in jail, had admitted making the payments.

Adding corruption charges to the accusations facing Suu Kyi, 75, could bring her a harsher penalty. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate currently faces four comparatively minor charges, such as illegally importing six walkie-talkie radios and flouting coronavirus curbs.

“This accusation is the most hilarious joke,” Suu Kyi’s lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said on social media on Friday. “She might have other weaknesses but she doesn’t have weakness in moral principle.”

‘CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY’

Thursday’s dead included eight people killed when security forces fired on a protest in the central town of Myaing, the AAPP said.

Chit Min Thu was killed in the North Dagon district of Yangon. His wife, Aye Myat Thu, told Reuters he had insisted on joining the protests despite her appeals that he stay at home for the sake of their son.

“He said it’s worth dying for,” she said through her tears. “He is worried about people not joining the protest. If so, democracy will not return.”

The bloodshed came hours after the U.N. Security Council had called for restraint from the army.

U.N. human rights investigator Thomas Andrews on Friday dismissed as “absurd” comments by a senior Myanmar official that authorities were exercising “utmost restraint”. Addressing the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, he called for a united approach to “strip away the junta’s sense of impunity.”

The army did not respond to requests for comment on the latest deaths, but junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun said on Thursday the security forces were disciplined and used force only when necessary.

Rights group Amnesty International accused the army of using lethal force against protesters and said many killings it had documented amounted to extra-judicial executions.

Suu Kyi fought for decades to overturn military rule under previous juntas before tentative democratic reforms began in 2011. She had spent a total of about 15 years under house arrest.

The army has justified taking power by saying that a November election, overwhelmingly won by Suu Kyi’s party, was marred by fraud – an assertion rejected by the electoral commission.

The junta has said a state of emergency will last for a year, but has not set a date for the election.

(Reporting by Reuters staff; Writing by Ed Davies and Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Clarence Fernandez and Catherine Evans)

North Korea enslaving political prisoners to fund weapons program: South Korea rights group

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea has been enslaving political prisoners, including children, in coal production to boost exports and earn foreign currency as part of a system directly linked to its nuclear and missile programs, a South Korea-based human rights group said on Thursday.

The Seoul-based Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR) released a study analyzing an intricate connection between North Korea’s exploitation of its citizens, the production of goods for export, and its weapons programs.

The report, titled “Blood Coal Export from North Korea: Pyramid scheme of earnings maintaining structures of power,” said Pyongyang had been operating a “pyramid fraud-like” scheme to force those held in prison camps to produce quotas of coal and other goods for export.

Its findings offered a deeper look into how the camps contribute to North Korea’s shady coal trade network, after the United Nations banned its commodity exports to choke off funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and after human rights agencies reported on gross rights violations within the camps.

There was no immediate reaction from North Korea’s diplomatic mission in Geneva to a request for comment.

North Korea violated United Nations sanctions to earn nearly $200 million in 2017 from banned commodity exports, according to a confidential report by independent U.N. monitors released in early 2018.

The NKHR report cited interviews with former prisoners who escaped to the South and other defectors with knowledge about the dealings, along with other sources such as satellite images, and data from the South Korean and U.S. governments.

The United Nations estimates up to 200,000 people are held in a vast network of gulags run by Stasi-like secret police, many of which are located near mining sites. A 2014 U.N. Commission of Inquiry report said the prisoners are facing torture, rape, forced labor, starvation and other inhumane treatment.

Last December, the United States imposed new sanctions, blacklisting six companies, including several based in China, and four ships accused of illicit exports of North Korean coal.

“Quotas of products for export are met through the enslaved labor of men, women and children in detention camps owned and operated by secret police,” the NKHR report said.

Camp 18, for example, is in the central mining county of Bukchang. Former prisoners interviewed by the NKHR reported at least 8 million tonnes of coal was produced there in 2016.

The secret police, formally known as the Ministry of State Security, handle shipments of goods exported by Bureau 39, a covert secret fund for leader Kim Jong Un’s family, with links to the production of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, the report added.

Joanna Hosaniak, deputy director general at the NKHR, said the investigation was intended to highlight the key role of the “state-sponsored system of slavery” in shoring up Kim’s political and financial power and its nuclear programs, just as U.S. President Joe Biden reviews his North Korea policy.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Kim Coghill)

Analysis: South Korea sees hope and threat in mixed message from North’s Kim

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean officials have seized on conciliatory comments by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on the weekend as a sign that tension could be easing but also worry the huge number of rockets he showcased is evidence that peace may be elusive.

Kim sent mixed signals as he addressed an unprecedented night-time military parade early on Saturday, wishing the neighboring Koreas would “hold hands” again after the novel coronavirus pandemic is over.

While much of the world was captivated by the appearance of a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), officials in South Korea were far more concerned by the display of new multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) and fast, maneuverable short-range missiles that would be ideal for striking targets in the South.

“The parade revealed not only an advanced ICBM but also MLRS that pose a direct threat to South Korea,” said South Korean opposition leader Kim Chong-in.

“They’ve not changed, their threats have grown even bigger.”

South Korean ruling party leader and former prime minister Lee Nak-yon said he took hope from Kim’s overture to the South as a “positive sign” but worried about what the display of new weapons said about North Korea’s intentions.

“North Korea showed advanced weapons including a new ICBM, which indicated it has not abandoned its resolve to develop weapons of mass destruction, and those weapons can threaten peace on the Korean peninsula,” Lee told a party meeting.

November’s U.S. election is compounding the uncertainty especially as the tone of ties between the two Koreas is often set by the state of North Korea’s relations with its old enemy the United States.

When a landmark summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018 brought an unprecedented easing of tension between those two countries, North Korea’s dealings with South Korea also saw a remarkable thaw.

But relations on the peninsula have been tense since a second summit between Kim and Trump collapsed last year, and they took another blow last month when North Korean troops shot dead a South Korean fisheries official detained at sea.

‘CROCODILE TEARS’

Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy in Seoul, said despite Kim’s conciliatory comments towards South Korea, his main message on Saturday was aimed at the United States.

“By showing a new ICBM, the North suggested they can test it any time if things don’t go well after the election. Inter-Korean ties don’t count to them,” Shin said.

The South Korean government said Kim’s speech would foster better ties but it urged North Korea to stick to agreements preventing armed clashes and accept a request for a joint investigation into the shooting of the fisheries official.

South Korean opposition leader Kim derided a teary display by Kim as he spoke of the sacrifices made by North Korea’s armed forces.

“It was appalling to see him shed crocodile tears after shooting our citizen to death,” he said.

Former South Korean nuclear negotiator Chun Yung-woo, pointing to North Korea’s extensive testing of MLRS and short-range missiles over the past year, while sticking to a moratorium on ICBM testing, said South Korea must not get carried away by hope for peace.

“All the media attention is on North Korea’s new strategic weapons but the most serious threat to our security is solid-fuel, short-range tactical missiles and MLRS that they’ve been madly testing over the past year,” Chun said.

“North Korea showed how it has focused on developing its capability to attack the South while our people have been absorbed in a peace campaign,” he said.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Josh Smith, Robert Birsel)

South Korea proposes compromise abortion law after landmark court ruling

By Sangmi Cha

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea on Wednesday proposed allowing abortion up until the fourteenth week of pregnancy as part of a new law designed to comply with a landmark ruling by the constitutional court that struck down a decades-long ban.

South Korea criminalized abortion in 1953 when its leaders wanted to boost the population, but exceptions to the law were introduced in 1973, including when the pregnancy was caused by a sexual crime.

However, the Constitutional Court overturned the ban in April last year, saying it unconstitutionally curbed women’s rights and ordering the government to come up with a new law.

Under the new proposal, abortion would be banned after 14 weeks except in the case of a sex crime, or if the health of the mother is at risk, or if the fetus shows signs of severe birth defects, in which case abortion would be allowed up to 24 weeks, the Justice Ministry said in a statement.

It also allowed the use of the drug mifepristone for performing abortions.

The proposal drew criticism from both sides of the debate, with women’s rights groups arguing that the law is still focused on punishing women.

Instead, any law should focus on how to safely provide the procedure, the Joint Action for Reproductive Justice in Seoul said in a statement.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea issued a statement opposing the justice ministry decision, saying that children should be protected “from the very moment of conception.”

Ahead of the court’s ruling, opinion polls showed around three-quarters of South Koreans supported dropping the ban.

South Korea has a fertility rate of 1.1 births per woman, the lowest of 198 countries and falling far behind the global average of 2.4, according to the 2020 United Nations Population Fund report.

What you need to know about the coronavirus right now

(Reuters) – Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now:

White House slams “corrupt” WHO

The White House pushed back on concerns expressed by the World Health Organization after a U.S. health official said a coronavirus vaccine might be approved without completing full trials.

The Washington Post newspaper reported that the administration of President Donald Trump would not join a global effort to develop, manufacture and distribute a coronavirus vaccine because of the involvement of the WHO.

About 172 countries are engaging with the WHO’s COVID-19 vaccine plan to ensure equitable access to vaccines, the organization has said.

“The United States will continue to engage our international partners to ensure we defeat this virus, but we will not be constrained by multilateral organizations influenced by the corrupt World Health Organization and China,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement.

India reopens

India’s coronavirus infections rose to almost 3.8 million on Wednesday, as states continued to relax rules on movement despite the surge in cases.

The country reported 78,357 new cases in the past 24 hours, according to federal health data, taking total infections to 3,769,523. Some 66,333 people have died.

India’s total cases lag only the United States and Brazil, which it will overtake in days based on current trends.

Authorities in the capital New Delhi are due to meet to discuss the reopening of the city’s metro, despite fresh cases there sitting at a two-month high.

In Sydney, the show must go on

Australia’s most-populous state reported the biggest daily jump in coronavirus infections in two weeks on Wednesday but said there were no plans to cancel the New Year fireworks show over Sydney Harbor, as new cases nationally also ticked up.

New South Wales state reported 17 new cases, the biggest one-day jump since Aug. 12, while nationally the count rose to 109 cases from 85 a day earlier.

Victoria state remained the hardest-hit region with 90 cases, although this was well down from its daily peak of more than 700 in early August at the height of a second wave of infections.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the state was pushing ahead with plans to host large events such as the New Years Eve fireworks over Sydney Harbor. “I think for a lot of people the fireworks represent hope.”

Elderly drive South Korea case surge

More than 40% of new coronavirus cases in South Korea are being found in people over the age of 60, contributing in part to a surge in the number of COVID-19 patients who are severely or critically ill, health authorities said on Wednesday.

The surge in cases over the past three weeks has depleted medical facilities, with less than 3% of hospital beds – or just nine – available for critical cases in greater Seoul, versus 22% about 10 days ago, the health ministry said.

South Korea is battling a second wave of infection, centered in the capital Seoul and surrounding areas which are home to 25 million people.

Pandemic ignites demand for home appliances

From sanitizing closets to customizable fridges, the coronavirus pandemic has fanned demand for home appliances – so much so that Samsung Electronics is adding warehouses and bringing popular products to more markets.

In particular, consumers have been willing to splurge on products that make their homes cleaner.

In Brazil and other emerging economies, households which once relied on maids are now investing in dishwashers and robot vacuum cleaners, while Samsung says its overseas sales of air purifiers jumped more than five times in January-July compared to the same period last year.

Samsung’s AirDresser, a closet that steam cleans clothes and kills bacteria, has seen a spike in sales. Big fridges have also climbed in popularity as people cooking more often at home seek more freezer space.

(Compiled by Linda Noakes; Editing by Alison Williams)

What you need to know about the coronavirus right now

(Reuters) – Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now:

Global records

India reported 78,512 new novel coronavirus infections on Monday, slightly fewer than its record set the previous day when it posted the biggest, single-day tally of infections of any country in the pandemic. On Sunday, India’s total of 78,761 new cases exceeded the previous record of 77,299 in the United States on July 16, a Reuters tally of official data showed.

Despite the surging case numbers, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been pushing for a return to normalcy to lessen the economic pain of the pandemic, having earlier imposed strict lockdowns of the country’s 1.3 billion people.

U.S. cases of the novel coronavirus surpassed 6 million on Sunday as many states in the Midwest reported increasing infections, according to a Reuters tally. While the United States has the most recorded infections in the world, it ranks tenth based on cases per capita.

More than eight months into the pandemic, the United States continues to struggle with testing. The number of people tested has fallen in recent weeks. Public health officials believe the United States needs to test more frequently to find asymptomatic coronavirus carriers to slow the spread of the COVID-19 disease.

Mutation found in Indonesia

A more infectious mutation of the new coronavirus has been found in Indonesia, the Jakarta-based Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology said on Sunday, as the Southeast Asian country’s caseload surges.

The “infectious but milder” D614G mutation of the virus has been found in genome sequencing data from samples collected by the institute, deputy director Herawati Sudoyo told Reuters, adding that more study is required to determine whether that was behind the recent rise in cases.

The strain, which the World Health Organization said was identified in February and has been circulating in Europe and the Americas, has also been found in neighboring Singapore and Malaysia.

Vaccine approval and use underway in China

Sinovac Biotech Ltd’s coronavirus vaccine candidate CoronaVac was approved for emergency use as part of a program in China to vaccinate high-risk groups such as medical staff, a person familiar with the matter said.

China National Biotec Group (CNBG), a unit of state-owned pharmaceutical giant China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm), also said it had obtained emergency use approval for a coronavirus vaccine candidate in social media platform WeChat last Sunday. CNBG, which has two vaccine candidates in phase 3 clinical trials, did not say which of its vaccines had been cleared for emergency use.

China has been giving experimental coronavirus vaccines to high-risk groups since July, though officially it has given little details on which vaccine candidates have been given to high-risk people under the emergency use program and how many people have been vaccinated.

Lighter traffic in Seoul; masks on in Auckland

Private tuition centers shut for the first time and traffic was lighter in South Korea’s capital on Monday, the first working day of tighter social-distancing rules designed to halt a second wave of coronavirus outbreaks.

The decision came after earlier restrictions on movement failed to prevent a second wave of coronavirus infections from erupting at churches, offices, nursing homes and medical facilities.

Meanwhile in Auckland, schools and businesses reopened on Monday after the lifting of a lockdown in New Zealand’s largest city to contain the resurgence of the coronavirus, but face masks were made mandatory on public transport across the country. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she was confident the new measure would be taken up across New Zealand, adding that “a bit of smiling with the eyes behind the mask” and kindness to Aucklanders in particular, would help get the country through the latest outbreak.

(Compiled by Karishma Singh; Editing by Jacqueline Wong)

U.S. envoy arrives in South Korea as North Korea rejects talks

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – A U.S. envoy arrived in South Korea on Tuesday in an effort to renew stalled nuclear talks with North Korea, hours after it issued a statement saying it has no intention of sitting down with the United States and told South Korea to “stop meddling”.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, who has led working-level talks with the North Koreans, landed at a U.S. military base south of Seoul, media reported, and was due to meet South Korean officials on Wednesday and Thursday.

Earlier on Tuesday, Kwon Jong Gun, director general for U.S. affairs at North Korea’s foreign ministry, accused South Korea of misinterpreting a North Korean statement dismissing an “untimely rumor” about another summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump.

North Korea said on Saturday it did not feel the need for a new summit, days after South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who had offered to mediate between Kim and Trump, suggested the two leaders meet again before the U.S. elections in November.

“It is just the time for (South Korea) to stop meddling in others’ affairs but it seems there is no cure or prescription for its bad habit,” Kwon said in a statement carried by the North’s official KCNA news agency.

“Explicitly speaking once again, we have no intention to sit face to face with the United States.”

Trump and Kim met for the first time in 2018 in Singapore, raising hopes for a negotiated end to North Korea’s nuclear program. But their second summit, in 2019 in Vietnam, and subsequent working-level negotiations fell apart.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said Kwon’s statement reflected lingering inter-Korean tension and North Korea’s view that nuclear issues should be discussed only with the United States.

“It also suggested that North Koreans would ditch the past concept of negotiations where the South played a broker role, and won’t return to the table without major U.S. concessions,” Yang said.

Biegun said last week there was time for both sides to re-engage and “make substantial progress” but the novel coronavirus pandemic would make an in-person summit difficult before the U.S. presidential elections on Nov. 3.

The coronavirus complicated Biegun’s visit in a more personal way as well.

A newspaper reported that because of the outbreak, the envoy would not be visiting a Korean chicken soup restaurant that has been a regular stop on previous visits, and instead had arranged for the dish to be prepared at the U.S. ambassador’s residence.

Last month, North Korea abruptly raised tensions with South Korea and blew up a joint liaison office, just on its side of the border, before just as suddenly suspending plans for unspecified military actions.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Chris Reese, Howard Goller and Lincoln Feast)

Divided Koreas mark 70 years since war began, but no treaty in sight

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – Seventy years after the Korean War began, prospects for a peace treaty to officially end the conflict appear as distant as ever, as the two Koreas held low-key commemorations on Thursday amid heightened tension.

The 1950-1953 Korean War ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty, leaving U.S.-led U.N. forces technically still at war with North Korea.

South Korean leaders in 1953 opposed the idea of a truce that left the peninsula divided and were not signatories to the armistice.

South Korean war veterans gathered to commemorate the anniversary, including one event where U.S. President Donald Trump and other international leaders delivered video messages.

“The war isn’t really over and I don’t think peace will come while I’m still alive,” said 89-year-old veteran Kim Yeong-ho, who attended an event in the South Korean border town of Cheorwon. “The nightmares just keep coming back to me every day.”

North Korea released a 5,500-word report blaming the United States for starting the war, committing atrocities and maintaining decades of hostile policies that left Pyongyang no choice but to pursue nuclear weapons of its own.

As long as the United States clings to a “pathological and inveterate hostile policy” towards North Korea, “we will continue to further build up our strength to contain the persistent nuclear threats from the U.S.”, the Foreign Ministry’s Institute for Disarmament and Peace said in the report, which was carried by state media.

Two years ago, a flurry of diplomacy and summits between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the presidents of the United States, South Korea, and China raised hopes that even if the North’s nuclear arsenal was undiminished, the parties might agree to officially end the war.

‘THINK WISELY’

A series of follow-up meetings and working-level talks failed to close the gap, however, and North Korea has taken an increasingly confrontational tone, resuming short-range missile launches, blowing up an inter-Korean liaison office and severing communication hotlines with South Korea.

On Wednesday, North Korea said it had decided to suspend plans for unspecified military action against South Korea, but warned it to “think and behave wisely”.

While South Korea’s military stands ready to counter any threat, Seoul does not wish to force its political or economic systems on the North, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said at an anniversary event.

“We will continuously search for routes that are mutually beneficial for both Koreas through peace,” he said. “Before speaking of unification, I hope that we can become friendly neighbors first.”

Moon oversaw a ceremony in which the U.S. military repatriated the remains of 147 South Korean soldiers who died in the war. The remains were recovered in North Korea in operations dating back to the 1990’s.

Recovering remains of the roughly 5,300 American service members missing in North Korea had been one element of a statement signed by Kim and Trump at a Singapore summit in 2018, but after North Korea handed over the remains of at least 62 Americans, those efforts stalled as tensions rose.

Historians have estimated the war may have caused as many as 1 million military deaths and killed several million civilians. Thousands of families were divided with little contact as the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) cut the peninsula in two.

Despite misgivings from many in the United States, South Korean officials are pushing more forcefully for an end to the armistice arrangement.

“It is time for Korea to take center stage in maintaining its own peace and security…,” South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young said on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Josh Smith. Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin in Seoul, and Chaeyoun Won in Cheorwon.; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

North Korea suspends military action plans against South Korea

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea is suspending military action plans against South Korea, the official KCNA news agency reported on Wednesday, as a report from Seoul suggested North Korean troops were taking down loudspeakers reinstalled at the fortified border.

Political tensions between the rival Koreas had been rising over Pyongyang’s objections to plans by defector-led groups in the South to send propaganda leaflets into the North. Stalled negotiations regarding economic sanctions imposed because of the North’s nuclear weapons program had also fuelled tensions.

It was not immediately clear why North Korea had softened its position, which came after it blew up a liaison office last week and cut off communication hotlines with the South.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presided over a video conference meeting of the ruling party’s Central Military Commission on Tuesday, where members “took stock of the prevailing situation” before deciding to suspend the military plans, KCNA said, without elaborating.

The committee also discussed documents outlining measures for “further bolstering the war deterrent of the country,” KCNA reported.

Late on Wednesday, KCNA issued another statement by Kim Yong Chol, a senior Pyongyang official, criticizing the South Korean defense minister’s remarks to parliament that the North’s actions must be withdrawn, not suspended.

Kim called the comment “foolish and inappropriate”, warning Seoul should “think and behave wisely” not create a greater crisis.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, citing unnamed military sources, said North Korea’s military was seen removing about 10 loudspeakers near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) on Wednesday, just days after they were seen reinstalling around 20 of the devices.

About 40 such systems had been taken down after the two Koreas signed an accord in 2018 to cease “all hostile acts”.

A spokesman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North, said it was monitoring the situation and had no change in its stance that inter-Korean agreements should be kept.

The ministry also confirmed South Korean media reports that a number of official North Korea propaganda websites had removed some articles critical of South Korea, though the spokesman said it was unclear why.

“DOSE OF PATIENCE”

South Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young said Seoul would continue efforts to prevent escalation, and call for Washington and Beijing to help achieve denuclearisation and peace on the Korean peninsula, which was “made even more distant” by their rivalry.

“Dialogue, steadfast engagement and a healthy dose of patience are the only constructive options for moving forward,” Cho said in a video speech to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Kim Jong Un’s decision to suspend the unspecified military actions may represent a reprieve from weeks of increasingly provocative moves by North Korea.

Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, warned last week of retaliatory measures against South Korea that could involve the military, without elaborating.

The General Staff of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) later said it had been studying an “action plan” that included sending troops into joint tourism and economic zones, reoccupying border guard posts that had been abandoned under the 2018 pact, taking steps to “turn the front line into a fortress”, and supporting plans for the North to send its own propaganda leaflets into the South.

Jenny Town, with the U.S.-based North Korea-monitoring website 38 North, said anti-South Korea rhetoric from the North over the past week had left room for flexibility, but it was still unclear where the latest moves would lead.

“Overall, it doesn’t appear that the North has necessarily wanted to be overly provocative,” she said. “While it seems set on reversing the measures taken in the inter-Korean agreements -in a dramatic fashion – so far, the rhetoric has already been milder since the demolition of the liaison office.”

The KCNA report sent shares of South Korea’s defense-related firms, which have risen during the heightened tensions, into a tailspin early on Wednesday. Victek Co Ltd, Speco and Firstec Co Ltd tumbled more than 20% each, while the benchmark KOSPI and junior KOSDAQ was trading up 1.3% and 0.9%, respectively, as of 0032 GMT.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Jack Kim, Sangmi Cha, Joori Roh and Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall, Lincoln Feast and Alison Williams)