Lesser-known North Korea cyber-spy group goes international: report

Binary code is seen on a screen against a North Korean flag in this illustration photo November 1, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas White/Illustration

By Eric Auchard

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – A North Korean cyber espionage group previously known only for targeting South Korea’s government and private sector deepened its sophistication and hit further afield including in Japan and the Middle East in 2017, security researchers said on Tuesday.

Cyber attacks linked by experts to North Korea have targeted aerospace, telecommunications and financial companies in recent years, disrupting networks and businesses around the world. North Korea rejects accusations it has been involved in hacking.

U.S. cyber security firm FireEye said the state-connected Reaper hacking organization, which it dubbed APT37, had previously operated in the shadows of Lazarus Group, a better-known North Korean spying and cybercrime group widely blamed for the 2014 Sony Pictures and 2017 global WannaCry attacks.

APT37 had spied on South Korean targets since at least 2012 but has been observed to have expanded its scope and sophistication to hit targets in Japan, Vietnam and the Middle East only in the last year, FireEye said in a report.

The reappraisal came after researchers found that the spy group showed itself capable of rapidly exploiting multiple “zero-day” bugs – previously unknown software glitches that leave security firms no time to defend against attacks, John Hultquist, FireEye’s director of intelligence analysis said.

“Our concern is that their (international) brief may be expanding, along with their sophistication,” Hultquist said.

“We believe this is a big thing”.

APT37 has focused on covert intelligence gathering for North Korea, rather than destructive attacks or financial cyber crime, as Lazarus Group and other similar hacking groups have been shown to engage in order to raise funds for the regime, it said.

The group appears to be connected to attack groups previously described as ScarCruft by security researchers at Kaspersky and Group123 by Cisco’s Talos unit, FireEye said.

“We assess with high confidence that this activity is carried out on behalf of the North Korean government given malware development artefacts and targeting that aligns with North Korean state interests,” the security report said.

From 2014 until 2017, APT37 concentrated mainly on South Korean government, military, defense industrial organizations and the media sector, as well as targeting North Korean defectors and human rights groups, the report said.

Since last year, its focus has expanded to include an organization in Japan associated with the United Nations missions on human rights and sanctions against the regime and the director of a Vietnamese trade and transport firm.

Its spy targets included a Middle Eastern financial company as well as an unnamed mobile network operator, which FireEye said had provided mobile phone service in North Korea until business dealings with the government fell apart.

FireEye declined to name the firm involved, but Egypt’s Orascom <OTMT.CA> provided 3G phone service in the country via a joint venture from 2002 to 2015, until the North Korean regime seized control of the venture, according to media reports.

Asked for comment, a spokeswoman for Orascom said she had no immediate knowledge of the matter and was looking into it.

(Reporting by Eric Auchard, and Nadine Awadalla in Cairo, Editing by William Maclean)

Public reports ‘clearly show’ Assad’s use of chemical weapons: McMaster

National security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster speaks at the FDD National Security Summit in Washington, U.S., October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

By Idrees Ali and Thomas Escritt

MUNICH (Reuters) – U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said on Saturday that, despite denials, public reports showed that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was using chemical weapons, and added that it was time for the international community to hold the Syrian government to account.

“Public accounts and photos clearly show that Assad’s chemical weapons use is continuing,” McMaster said at a major international security conference taking place in Munich.

“It is time for all nations to hold the Syrian regime and its sponsors accountable for their actions and support the efforts of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons,” he said.

McMaster did not specify which public accounts or pictures he was referring to.

Earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the Syrian government had repeatedly used chlorine gas, but stressed that the U.S. did not have evidence of sarin gas use.

French President Emmanuel Macron has said that “France will strike” if chemical weapons are used against civilians in the Syrian conflict in violation of international treaties, but that he had not yet seen proof this is the case.

The Syrian government has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons and said it targets only armed rebels and militants.

In recent weeks, rescue workers, aid groups and the United States have accused Syria of repeatedly using chlorine gas as a weapon against civilians in Ghouta and Idlib.

Earlier this month, Syrian government forces, who are backed by Russia and Iran, bombarded the areas, two of the last major rebel-held parts of Syria.

Diplomatic efforts have made scant progress towards ending a war now approaching its eighth year, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced half the pre-war Syrian population of 23 million from their homes.

NORTH KOREA

McMaster called on the international community to do more on North Korea.

“We must pressure the Kim regime, using all available tools, to ensure that this cruel dictatorship cannot threaten the world with the most destructive weapons on earth,” he said, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The United States has appeared to endorse closer post-Olympics engagement between North and South Korea with an eye to eventual U.S.-North Korean talks, but has agreed with Seoul that sanctions must be intensified to push Pyongyang to negotiate an end to its nuclear weapons program.

The prospect of negotiations comes after months of tension over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, in which U.S. President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader traded insults and threats, while the U.N. tightened sanctions.

“Nations that evade full enforcement and fail to take these steps are acting irresponsibly, now is the time to do more,” McMaster said, calling on countries to cut off military and commercial ties with Pyongyang.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Thomas Escritt; Editing by Andrea Shalal and Andrew Bolton)

Awkward diplomacy on show as ‘peace’ Games get underway

General view of performers during the opening ceremony.

By James Pearson and Hyunjoo Jin

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) – The Winter Olympics sparked to life in a vivid, colorful ceremony of fire and ice in South Korea on Friday, though the diplomacy was tougher to choreograph in the stadium where leaders from nations that are sworn enemies sat close together.

South Korea, which is using the Pyeongchang Games to break the ice with North Korea, seated its presidential couple alongside U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, with two of the North’s most senior officials sitting in the row behind.

President Moon Jae-in, who wants to harness the Olympic spirit to pave the way for talks over the North’s nuclear and missile program, warmly shook hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s smiling sister as well as the North’s nominal head of state.

The South is still technically at war with the North after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, and the United States and North Korea have recently swapped nuclear threats. Pence vowed only this week to tighten sanctions on the North.

Underlining Moon’s efforts to re-engage with the North, the opening ceremony followed the story line of children wandering through a mythical landscape and discovering a world where people live in peace and harmony.

The Olympics have provided some respite from years of tense relations between Seoul and Pyongyang, though just hours before the ceremony hundreds of anti-North Korean protesters scuffled with riot police outside the stadium, burning North Korean flags and pictures of its leader, Kim Jong Un.

South Korea’s frigid February, where temperatures have plummeted to minus 20 degrees Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit) at night, has come as a shock to the system for athletes and visitors alike in the leadup to these Games, prompting concerns about hypothermia at the opening ceremony.

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics – Opening Ceremony – Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium- Pyeongchang, South Korea – February 9, 2018 - Performers during the opening ceremony.

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics – Opening Ceremony – Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium- Pyeongchang, South Korea – February 9, 2018 – Performers during the opening ceremony. REUTERS/Phil Noble

The weather was a little milder than forecast on Friday, but spectators still huddled near heaters, holding hot packs and slurping down steaming fishcake soup to ward off the chills.

Bundled up in a scarf, mask and knitted hat, with hot packs tucked into her knee blanket, office worker Shin Hye-sook said she and her three colleagues were coping with the cold.

“It’s okay unless the wind blows,” said the 60-year-old. “We’re sitting as close as we can and trying not to move a lot to save our energy.”

LONG WAIT FINALLY OVER

Pyeongchang has waited a long time for this moment.

The alpine town first bid for the 2010 Games but narrowly lost out to Vancouver, and suffered similar heartbreak when it was beaten to the 2014 Olympics by Sochi.

After announcing its arrival on the international stage by hosting the 1988 Seoul Olympics, South Korea now wants to show the world just how far it has come over the last 30 years with a Games showcasing its culture and technological prowess.

According to Olympic tradition, the Greek contingent headed the parade of athletes into the open-air stadium, followed by the other delegations in order according to the Korean alphabet.

Pence stood to welcome the U.S. athletes as the Korean pop hit Gangnam Style blared around the stadium, sparking the ‘Horse Dance’ in the crowd and among the volunteers.

The moment failed to elicit even a smile from the two senior North Korean officials in the VIPs box, however, as they sat stony-faced in black fluffy hats and long coats.

Elsewhere in the stadium, a Kim Jong Un impersonator was not made as welcome as the North Koreans in the VIP box and was ejected by security. “Well is my sister getting the same treatment?” he demanded to know.

As the athletes made their way around the track, one of the biggest cheers was reserved for muscle-bound Tongan Pita Taufatofua, who repeated his famed Rio Games entrance by marching in shirtless, oiled up and wearing a traditional skirt — this time in sub-zero temperatures.

Another flag-bearer who eschewed warm clothing was Bermuda’s Tucker Murphy wore the territory’s traditional red shorts.

Samaneh Beyrami Baher blinked back tears at the head of Iran’s four-strong athletic delegation, and minutes later the crowd erupted as athletes from North and South Korea marched together under the unification flag for the first time at an Olympics since 2006.

A contingent of North Korean cheerleaders greeted the athletes by waving a controversial version of the flag depicting disputed islands known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese.

Norio Maruyama, press secretary at Japan’s Foreign Ministry, said he had not seen the flag so he did not want to comment. But he said the Games were a festival of peace and he did not want to undermine that aspect.

(Writing by Peter Rutherford; Additional reporting by Jane Chung and So Young Kim; Editing by Mark Bendeich)

North Korea says no U.S. talks planned at Olympics, Pence vows continued pressure

Members of North Korean cheering squad arrive at a hotel in Inje, South Korea, February 7, 2018.

By Christine Kim and Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL, South Korea (Reuters) – North Korea has no intention of meeting U.S. officials during the Winter Olympics that start in South Korea on Friday, state media said, dampening hopes the Games will help resolve a tense standoff over the North’s nuclear weapons program.

However, the North’s high-ranking delegation, including the younger sister of its leader Kim Jong Un, will meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in and have lunch with him on Saturday.

Such a meeting would be the first such event between a South Korean head of state and a member of the Kim family since a 2007 summit meeting of Kim Jong Il and late South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who has described North Korea as the world’s most tyrannical regime, spoke with Moon on Thursday ahead of the opening ceremony in the mountain resort of Pyeongchang, just 80 km (50 miles) from the heavily armed border with the reclusive North.

Friday’s ceremony will be attended by North Korea’s delegation, including its nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam.

Kim Yo Jong, the sister of the North’s leader, and her entourage, will travel by private jet to Seoul’s Incheon International Airport on Friday, North Korea told the South.

“We have never begged for dialogue with the U.S. nor in the future, too,” the North’s KCNA news agency said, citing Jo Yong Sam, a director-general in the North’s foreign ministry.

“Explicitly speaking, we have no intention to meet with the U.S. side during the stay in South Korea… Our delegation’s visit to South Korea is only to take part in the Olympics and hail its successful holding.”

The United States had not requested talks with North Korea, but Pence left open the possibility of some contact although his message for denuclearisation remained unchanged.

In opening remarks during his meeting with Moon, Pence said the United States would never waver in its goal of getting North Korea to give up its nuclear and ballistic missile program through strong pressure, an aim shared with South Korea.

Pence has said Washington would soon unveil “the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever” while South Korea wants to use the Olympics to re-engage with the North.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters all sides, not just the two Koreas, needed to work hard and dialogue between the United States and North Korea should be expanded for this to happen, Wang said.

“You can’t have it that one person opens the door and another closes it,” he said.

North and South Korea are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The North defends its weapons programmes as necessary to counter U.S. aggression. The South hosts 28,500 U.S. troops, a legacy of the war.

MILITARY PARADE

North Korea marked the founding anniversary of its army with a large military parade in Pyongyang on Thursday broadcast by state media, having last month changed the date of the celebration to the eve of the Olympics.

Kim Jong Un, in a black hat and matching coat, saluted troops while his wife walked beside him, television images showed. One of Kim’s close aides, Choe Ryong Hae, and Kim Yong Nam were also in attendance.

The North’s state media also showed what appeared to be intercontinental ballistic missiles on launchers as thousands of North Koreans filled Kim Il Sung Square, named after Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, in Pyongyang.

“We have destroyed the enemy’s risk-taking provocations at every move,” Kim Jong Un said in a speech. He did not mention the United States, which North Korea considers its main enemy and regularly threatens to destroy in a sea of flames.

Analysts said the parade seemed smaller than those of previous years, but was still focused on the North’s goal of strengthening its nuclear missile capabilities.

Trump has ordered Pentagon and White House officials to begin planning a military parade in Washington similar to the Bastille Day parade he saw in Paris in July, the Washington Post said.

On Friday, before he attends the Olympic opening ceremony, Pence will visit a memorial for 46 South Korean sailors killed in the 2010 sinking of a warship that Seoul blamed on a North Korean torpedo attack.

SEATING COMPLICATIONS

The 28-year-old sister of the North Korean leader will be the first member of the Kim family to cross the border into the South. Kim Yo Jong is a propaganda official blacklisted last year by the U.S. Treasury Department over alleged human rights abuses and censorship.

“By sending key figures like his sister, Kim Jong Un is aiming to send a signal to the South that it is giving more weight to inter-Korean ties while driving a wedge between South Korea and the United States,” said Kim Sung-han, a former South Korean vice foreign minister.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will also attend the ceremony, adding to seating complications for the hosts.

South Korea has asked the United Nations for an exemption to allow a U.N.-sanctioned North Korean official, Choe Hwi, to attend the opening ceremony with Kim Yo Jong.

Pyongyang has yet to mention any change in plans to send him, Seoul said.

The U.N. Security Council, which has slapped sanctions on North Korea for its weapons programmes, imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on Choe last year when he was vice director of the Workers’ Party of Korea Propaganda and Agitation Department.

A group of 280 North Koreans arrived in South Korea on Wednesday, made up of a 229-member cheer squad, taekwondo performers, journalists and the sports minister.

(For graphic on North Korea’s Olympic delegations, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2E1Qa9Q)

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Christine Kim in SEOUL; Additional reporting by Heekyong Yang and Josh Smith in SEOUL, Ossian Shine in PYEONGCHANG, Tim Kelly and Linda Sieg in TOKYO, David Brunnstrom and Matt Spetalnick in WASHINGTON, Michelle Nichols at the UNITED NATIONS and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Writing by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Paul Tait and Nick Macfie)

North Korea ‘months away’ from ability to hit U.S. with nuclear weapon: U.S. envoy

U.S. Ambassador Robert Wood (R) waits next to U.S. Army Captain Murzban Morris of the Departement of Defense Joint Staff before their address on North Korea to the Conference on Disarmament at the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland August 30, 2017.

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – North Korea is only months away from obtaining the capability to hit U.S. territory with a nuclear weapon and must be disarmed, a U.S. envoy said on Tuesday, dismissing Pyonyang’s diplomatic thaw with South Korea as a “charm offensive” that fooled no one.

In a diplomatic showdown at a U.N.-sponsored Conference on Disarmament, North Korea responded by blaming Washington for escalating confrontation, saying it was deploying nuclear assets including aircraft carriers near the divided peninsula and was considering a pre-emptive strike against Pyongyang.

“North Korea has accelerated its provocative pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile capabilities, and expressed explicit threats to use nuclear weapons against the United States and its allies in the region,” U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood told the Geneva forum.

“North Korean officials insist that they will not give up nuclear weapons, and North Korea may now be only months away from the capability to strike the United States with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles,” he said.

A new U.S. nuclear policy review outlined last week “reaffirms that North Korea’s illicit nuclear program must be completely, verifiably, and irreversibly eliminated, resulting in a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons,” he said.

Asked later what the basis was for the assessment that North Korea would soon be able to hit the United States with a nuclear weapon, he said he had “no new information to share”.

North Korea tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-14, twice last July. In November it tested the Hwasong-15, believed to be capable of reaching the continental United States. It is not yet believed to have the capability to mount a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile.

North Korea is under tightening U.N. Security Council sanctions for its banned nuclear and ballistic missile programs. But recent weeks have seen a thaw with South Korea, after Pyongyang agreed to send athletes to compete in the Olympic Games opening on Feb. 9 in the south.

“CHARM OFFENSIVE”

“What I would call ‘the charm offensive’ frankly is fooling no one,” Wood told the talks.

He also said arsenals in China and Russia were expanding, drawing rebukes from their respective delegations.

“Russia, China and North Korea are growing their stockpiles, increasing the prominence of nuclear weapons in their security strategies, and – in some cases – pursuing the development of new nuclear capabilities to threaten other peaceful nations,” Wood said.

“We are not going to stick our head in the sand, we are going to respond to these growing challenges,” he later told reporters.

North Korea accused the United States of seeking to aggravate the situation on the divided peninsula by “deploying large nuclear assets” nearby, laying the ground for a possible pre-emptive strike against it.

“In view of the nature and scale of U.S. military reinforcements, they are designed to make a pre-emptive strike against the DPRK,” North Korean diplomat Ju Yong Chol told the talks, referring to his country’s official name the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“U.S. officials including the defense secretary and the CIA director repeatedly talked about DPRK nuclear and missile threat to justify their argument for a military option and a new concept of a so-called ‘bloody nose’, a limited pre-emptive strike on the DPRK is under consideration within the U.S. administration,” Ju said.

He said President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ doctrine and U.S. nuclear superiority would endanger global peace and security and “trigger off a new nuclear arms race and could bring the whole world close to a horrible catastrophe”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Peter Graff)

North Korea warns against U.S.-South Korea military drills after Olympics

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho departs after addressing the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 23, 2017.

By Christine Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea has warned that if the United States goes ahead with delayed military exercises with South Korea after the Winter Olympics it will not “sit idle”, the North’s foreign minister said in a letter to the United Nations.

North Korea has not tested a missile since late November 2017 and entered into inter-Korean dialogue in January, the first talks in two years, which have eased tensions after a year of escalating rhetoric between the Pyongyang and Washington.

Whenever joint military exercises took place “the peace and security of the Korean peninsula were gravely threatened and the inter-Korean mistrust and confrontation reached the top, thus creating great difficulties and obstacles ahead of hard-won dialogues,” North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said in the letter published by the official North Korean news agency.

“We will make every effort to improve inter-Korean relations in future, too, but never sit idle with regard to sinister act of throwing a wet blanket over our efforts.”

The United States and South Korea have agreed to push back a routine early-year joint military drill until after the South holds the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and Paralympics. The Games begin next week and run until March 18.

In the letter, Ri said the United States was misleading public opinion by claiming its pressure campaign, including “their harshest sanctions,” had brought about the inter-Korean talks, when the “dramatic turning point” was entirely thanks to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

In a commentary on Friday, North Korea’s state media said Washington was attempting to create a “stage of confrontation” at the Olympics by saying that inter-Korean talks and positive results that had stemmed from them could “disappear” after the Games.

Asked to comment, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, Mike Cavey, said: “The United States and our allies and partners in the region have long conducted routine exercises to maintain readiness. These exercises ensure we are trained for combined joint operations.”

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has warned that all options are on the table, including military ones, to resolve the crisis over North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons capable of hitting the United States.

While it has repeatedly said it prefers a diplomatic solution, Trump has exchanged threats with Kim and U.S. officials have said Trump and his advisers have discussed a preventative “bloody nose” strike on North Korea, alarming experts who warn that this could trigger catastrophic retaliation, especially on South Korea.

U.S. officials have said the debate on military action has lost some momentum as a result of the intra-Korean talks, which Trump has called a “good thing” and credited to his tough stance.

Joseph Yun, the U.S. special envoy on North Korea, said on Thursday he did not think the administration was close to triggering military action.

The White House said on Friday that Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke by telephone and discussed an expanded missile defense system and other efforts to boost Japan’s defenses amid the tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program.

Trump also spoke to South Korean President Moon Jae-in about human rights in North Korea and trade between the United States and South Korea, the White House said.

North Korea also criticized U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s pending visit to the Olympics, accusing Washington of halting improvements in inter-Korean relations.

Last month, a White House official said Pence planned to use his attendance to try to counter Kim Jong Un’s efforts to “hijack” the games with a propaganda campaign.

North Korea has agreed with South Korea to send a 230-strong cheering squad to the Winter Olympics, as well as an orchestra and taekwondo performance team.

A joint cultural performance planned in a North Korean mountain resort was called off this week by Pyongyang, which blamed South Korean media for encouraging “insulting” public sentiment regarding the North.

Twenty-two North Korean athletes will compete in the Olympics, including 12 who will play in a unified women’s ice hockey team. The other 10, including a figure skating pair, arrived in South Korea on Thursday.

(Reporting by Christine Kim; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom, Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and James Dalgleish)

Me and my crutches – a North Korean defector’s story

North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho, currently a law student at Dongguk University, holds up his crutches during U.S. President Donald Trump's State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. January 30, 2018.

By Seung-Woo Yeom

SEOUL (Reuters) – Ji Seong-ho, 35, a North Korean defector who appeared at President Trump’s State of the Union address this week, is from Hoeryong, near the border with China. He told Reuters last year about the wooden crutches that he left North Korea with in 2006.

This is an edited translation of his story:

North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho, 35, poses for a photograph leaning on the crutches he used when he defected, in Seoul, South Korea, August 13, 2017

North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho, 35, poses for a photograph leaning on the crutches he used when he defected, in Seoul, South Korea, August 13, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-ji

“I lived as a child beggar in North Korea. I was stealing coal from a train when I fell off and lost my leg and my hand.

I had to bring the crutches with me. If I didn’t have them, I wouldn’t have made it here. The state doesn’t help you in North Korea, and people who need crutches make their own. Mine are therefore not factory-made so they’re not perfect and break easily.

I had several pairs of crutches but they all broke, and this was the last pair. I used these crutches for 10 years, until I was 25, when I arrived in South Korea.

I would steal coals from moving trains and fall off, destroying my crutches. Or I would get beaten up by the police and they’d take and then break my crutches. When they broke, I would make new ones. When I had new ones, I could go back outside.

When I first arrived in South Korea I thought about throwing them out.

South Korea’s intelligence agency gave me a prosthetic leg. My friends said I should throw the crutches out and not think about North Korea. They said I should show Kim Jong Il I was living a new life in South Korea and throw out everything I had from the North. Some asked if I got upset when I saw my crutches.

But I couldn’t just throw them out. To make my crutches, my friends had given me some wood that they had bought, and someone I knew in North Korea who had carpentry skills had made them. It was my father who added the final touches.

There is a lot of love from my North Korean friends and family in these crutches. So I didn’t throw them out. The South Korean government gave me some new crutches because the wood from my North Korean ones is hard and painful. But I still keep them, so as not to forget those memories.”

(Translated and written by Heekyong Yang and James Pearson Edited by Sara Ledwith)

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)

South Korean hospital blaze kills at least 37, fleeing patients brave flames

Smoke rises from a burning hospital in Miryang, South Korea, January 26, 2018.

By Christine Kim

MIRYANG, South Korea (Reuters) – Once famous for an award-winning film of the same name, the South Korean city of Miryang became a scene of horror on Friday as flames and toxic smoke swept through a hospital, killing at least 37 people and injuring more than 140.

South Korea’s deadliest fire in almost a decade followed one last month that killed 29 people, reviving concern over safety standards, as the hospital director said current law did not require the building to have a sprinkler system.

“So many lives were sacrificed and the people of our city, as well as those throughout the country, have fallen into deep grief,” the city’s mayor, Park Il-ho, told reporters, appearing visibly distressed.

Many patients “walked though fire and smoke” to escape from the Sejong Hospital as the main exit was on the first floor, which was ablaze, a city official told Reuters.

Those on upper floors used ladders and plastic escape slides to flee, while firefighters carried some who could not walk.

“I saw the elderly patients scrambling out through the windows and had to help,” said Woo Young-min, 25, as he stood in his pyjamas outside the hospital.

The presidential Blue House initially said the number of dead was at least 41, but deferred to a toll of 37 from the fire chief of Miryang, which is about 270 km (170 miles) southeast of Seoul, the capital, and home to about 108,000 people.

Fire officials posted a list of at least 26 victims outside the hospital, their ages ranging from 34 to 96 years, with at least a score over 70.

Families crowded round a handwritten list of names and hospital rooms that officials had scrawled on a wall at a nearby funeral home.

The fire broke out around 7.30 a.m. (2230 GMT) at the rear of the emergency room on the hospital’s first floor, fire official Choi Man-woo told a televised news briefing.

The street outside the hospital featured in the 2007 South Korean drama “Miryang,” or “Secret Sunshine,” which garnered awards at Cannes and other film festivals.

But on Friday, witnesses described scenes of chaos in the sub-freezing temperatures, as nearby residents rushed to take portable hotpacks to shivering victims.

Woo said he was walking home after working a graveyard shift when he saw the fire and patients trying to escape the blaze.

“The firefighters were shouting at us not to go inside the building, so I stayed and helped others bring the patients down the slides.”

Television broadcast images of black smoke billowing from the windows and entrance of the hospital as flames flickered.

At least 177 patients – most of them elderly – were at the hospital and an adjacent nursing home when the fire broke out, hospital director Song Byeong-cheol told reporters.

Song said three of the nine hospital staff on duty at the time died, including at least one doctor, a nurse, and a nurse’s aide, all killed on the second floor.

Most of those who died were on the first and second floors, said Choi, but added that there were no deaths from burns.

Seven people were critically injured, while 126 had less serious wounds, officials told a Friday evening briefing.

The injured were treated at 14 regional hospitals.

By Friday afternoon, police had cordoned off the burnt-out hospital, as forensic investigators combed the smoke-blackened building. Charred debris and shattered glass littered the ground outside.

NO SPRINKLER SYSTEM

Asia’s fourth-largest economy, with one of the world’s fastest ageing populations, South Korea has faced criticism in recent years over inadequate safety standards.

Song said the six-storey hospital did not have a sprinkler system and was not large enough to require one under the law.

The nursing home annexe, where no patients died, is covered by a new law, however, and Song said the hospital had planned to begin installing a sprinkler system there next week.

Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said the government would consider changing the law.

Interior ministry guidelines published in December 2016 suggest sprinklers for all buildings of six or more storeys.

Officials said they were still investigating the cause of the fire, but were looking at a possible short circuit in the emergency room’s heating and cooling system.

“According to an initial eyewitness, fire broke out where there are two air-conditioning and heating devices in the emergency room,” Song said.

“Others said an electric spark occurred on the ceiling of the emergency room and then fire spread quickly.”

The hospital had regular safety inspections and was built to government standards, with fire exits and extinguishers, many of which were used during the fire, he added.

President Moon Jae-in held an emergency meeting with top aides and urged “all necessary measures” to help survivors.

Interior Minister Kim Boo-kyum, who visited Miryang to apologise for the fire, promised government help for victims, Yonhap news agency said.

In December, 29 people were killed in a blaze at an eight-storey fitness centre in Jecheon City, most of them women trapped in a sauna by toxic fumes. The event fed anger over reports of shoddy construction, among other shortcomings.

In 2014, a fire at a rural hospital killed 21 people, while a 2008 warehouse fire outside Seoul killed 40.

(Reporting by Christine Kim; Additional reporting Yuna Park, Dahee Kim and Hyonhee Shin; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Clarence Fernandez)

Exclusive: Despite sanctions, North Korea exported coal to South and Japan via Russia

A cargo ship is loaded with coal during the opening ceremony of a new dock at the North Korean port of Rajin July 18, 2014.

By Guy Faulconbridge, Jonathan Saul and Polina Nikolskaya

PARIS/LONDON/MOSCOW (Reuters) – North Korea shipped coal to Russia last year which was then delivered to South Korea and Japan in a likely violation of U.N. sanctions, three Western European intelligence sources said.

The U.N. Security Council banned North Korean exports of coal last Aug. 5 under sanctions intended to cut off an important source of the foreign currency Pyongyang needs to fund its nuclear weapon and long-range missile programs.

But the secretive Communist state has at least three times since then shipped coal to the Russian ports of Nakhodka and Kholmsk, where it was unloaded at docks and reloaded onto ships that took it to South Korea or Japan, the sources said.

A Western shipping source said separately that some of the cargoes reached Japan and South Korea in October last year. A U.S. security source also confirmed the coal trade via Russia and said it was continuing.

“Russia’s port of Nakhodka is becoming a transhipping hub for North Korean coal,” said one of the European security sources, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of international diplomacy around North Korea.

Asked to respond to the report, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that Russia abided by international law.

“Russia is a responsible member of the international community,” he told reporters on a conference call.

Interfax news agency quoted an unidentified official at Russia’s embassy to North Korea on Friday as saying Russia did not buy coal from North Korea and was “not a transit point for coal deliveries to third countries.”

Russia’s mission to the United Nations told the Security Council sanctions committee on Nov. 3 that Moscow was complying with the sanctions.

Two lawyers who specialize in sanctions law told Reuters it appeared the transactions violated U.N. sanctions.

Reuters could not independently verify whether the coal unloaded at the Russian docks was the same coal that was then shipped to South Korea and Japan. Reuters also was unable to ascertain whether the owners of the vessels that sailed from Russia to South Korea and Japan knew the origin of the coal.

The U.S. Treasury on Wednesday put the owner of one of the ships, the UAL Ji Bong 6, under sanctions for delivering North Korean coal to Kholmsk on Sept. 5.

It was unclear which companies profited from the coal shipments.

RUSSIA URGED “DO MORE” ON SANCTIONS

North Korean coal exports were initially capped under a 2016 Security Council resolution that required countries to report monthly imports of coal from North Korea to the council’s sanctions committee within 30 days of the end of each month.

Diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Russia had not reported any imports of North Korea coal to the committee last year.

The sanctions committee told U.N. member states in November that a violation occurs when “activities or transactions proscribed by Security Council resolutions are undertaken or attempts are made to engage in proscribed transactions, whether or not the transaction has been completed.”

Asked about the shipments identified by Reuters, Matthew Oresman, a partner with law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman who advises companies on sanctions, said: “Based on these facts, there appears to be a violation of the U.N. Security Council resolution by the parties involved.”

“Also those involved in arranging, financing, and carrying out the shipments could likely face U.S. sanctions,” he said.

Asked about the shipments, a U.S. State Department spokesman said: “It’s clear that Russia needs to do more. All U.N. member states, including Russia, are required to implement sanctions resolutions in good faith and we expect them all to do so.”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The independent panel of experts that reports to the Security Council on violations of sanctions was not immediately available for comment.

North Korea has refused to give up the development of nuclear missiles capable of hitting the United States. It has said the sanctions infringe its sovereignty and accused the United States of wanting to isolate and stifle North Korea.

An independent panel of experts reported to the Security Council on Sept. 5 that North Korea had been “deliberately using indirect channels to export prohibited commodities, evading sanctions.”

Reuters reported last month that Russian tankers had supplied fuel to North Korea at sea and U.S. President Donald Trump told Reuters in an interview on Jan. 17 that Russia was helping Pyongyang get supplies in violation of the sanctions.

The U.S. Treasury on Wednesday imposed sanctions on nine entities, 16 people and six North Korean ships it accused of helping the weapons programs.

TWO ROUTES

Two separate routes for the coal were identified by the Western security sources.

The first used vessels from North Korea via Nakhodka, about 85 km (53 miles) east of the Russian city of Vladivostok.

One vessel that used this route was the Palau-flagged Jian Fu which Russian port control documents show delivered 17,415 tonnes of coal after sailing from Nampo in North Korea on Aug. 3 and docking at berth no. 4 run by LLC Port Livadiya in Nakhodka. It left the port on Aug. 18.

The vessel had turned off its tracking transmitter from July 24 to Aug. 2, when it was in open seas, according to publicly available ship tracking data. Under maritime conventions, this is acceptable practice at the discretion of the ship’s captain, but means the vessel could not be tracked publicly.

Another ship arrived at the same berth — No. 4 — on Aug. 16, loaded 20,500 tonnes of coal and headed to the South Korean port of Ulsan in Aug. 24, according to Russian port control documents.

Reuters was unable to reach the operator of the Jian Fu, which was listed in shipping directories as the China-based Sunrise Ship Management. The Nakhodka-based transport agent of the Jian Fu did not respond to written and telephone requests for comment. LLC Port Livadiya did not respond to a written request for comment.

The second route took coal via Kholmsk on the Russian Pacific island of Sakhalin, north of Japan.

At least two North Korean vessels unloaded coal at a dock in Kholmsk port in August and September after arriving from the ports of Wonsan and Taean in North Korea, Russian port control data and ship tracking data showed.

The Rung Ra 2 docked in Kholmsk three times between Aug 1 and Sept. 12, unloading a total of 15,542 tonnes of coal, while the Ul Ji Bong 6 unloaded a total of 10,068 tonnes of coal on two separate port calls — on Aug. 3 and between Sept. 1 and Sept. 8, according to the official Russian Information System for State Port Control.

The coal did not pass Russian customs because of the UN sanctions taking effect, but was then loaded at the same dock onto Chinese-operated vessels. Those vessels stated their destination in Russian port control documents as North Korea, according to a source in Sakhalin port administration who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Reuters has seen the port control documents which state the destination of the coal as North Korea. But the vessels that loaded the North Korean coal sailed instead for the ports of Pohang and Incheon in South Korea, ship tracking data showed.

In Beijing on Friday, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters she did not know anything about the situation but China was clear in its hope that the UN resolutions are followed fully.

China will not allow any Chinese company or individual to do anything that goes against the resolutions and if there is cast-iron proof this is happening, China will handle it seriously and in accordance with the law, she added.

The U.S. Treasury on Wednesday included the owner of the Ul Ji Bong 6 under sanctions for delivering North Korean coal to Kholmsk after the sanctions took effect.

It was unclear which companies profited from the coal shipments.

Asked about the shipments, a South Korean foreign ministry official said: “Our government is monitoring any sanctions-evading activities by North Korea. We’re working closely with the international community for the implementation of the sanctions.”

The official declined to say whether the ministry was aware of the shipments reported by Reuters.

The Japanese foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The European security sources said the route via Russia had developed as China, North Korea’s neighbor and lone major ally, cracked down on exports from the secretive Communist state.

“The Chinese have cracked down on coal exports from North Korea so the smuggling route has developed and Russia is the transit point for coal,” one of the European security sources said.

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Jonathan Saul; Additional reporting by Michele Nichols in New York, Oksana Kobzeva and Gleb Stolyarov in Moscow, Hyonhee Shin in Seoul, William James in London, Muyu Xu, Ben Blanchard and Josephine Mason in Beijing, Aaron Sheldrick and Linda Sieg in Tokyo, and Mark Hosenball and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Timothy Heritage, Clarence Fernandez and Sonya Hepinstall)