North Korea ‘declines’ South Korea media for nuclear site event; China urges ‘stability’

FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in deliver a statement at 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

By Heekyong Yang

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea has declined to accept a list of South Korean journalists hoping to observe the closure of its nuclear test site, South Korea said on Friday, raising new questions about the North’s commitment to reducing tension.

North Korea had invited a limited number of journalists from South Korea and other countries to witness what it said will be the closing of its only nuclear weapons test site at Punggye-ri next week.

The North Korean offer to scrap the test site has been seen as major concession in months of easing tension between it, on the one hand, and South Korea and the United States on the other.

But the remarkable progress appears to have been checked in recent days with North Korea raising doubts about an unprecedented June 12 summit in Singapore between leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, and calling off talks with the South.

The South Korean Unification Ministry, which handles dealings with the North, said on Friday North Korea had “declined to accept” the list of journalists submitted by the South for the test site dismantling.

The ministry did not elaborate but the North Korean decision is likely to raise doubts about its plan for the test site.

Trump on Thursday sought to placate North Korea after it threatened to call off the June summit, saying Kim’s security would be guaranteed in any deal and his country would not suffer the fate of Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, unless that could not be reached.

North Korea had said on Wednesday it might not attend the Singapore summit if the United States continued to demand it unilaterally abandon its nuclear arsenal, which it has developed in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions to counter perceived U.S. hostility.

On Thursday, North Korea’s chief negotiator called South Korea “ignorant and incompetent” and denounced U.S.-South Korean air combat drills and threatened to halt all talks with the South.

Trump, in rambling remarks in the White House’s Oval Office, said as far as he knew the summit was still on track, but that the North Korean leader was possibly being influenced by Beijing.

But he also stressed that North Korea would have to abandon its nuclear weapons and warned that if no deal was reached, North Korea could be “decimated” like Libya or Iraq.

‘PEACEFUL MEANS’

China, responding to U.S. President Donald Trump suggestion that Beijing may be influencing North Korea’s new hardline stance, said on Friday it stands for stability and peace on the Korean peninsula and for settlement of confrontation over its development of weapons through talks.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang, asked about Trump’s comments, said China’s position had not changed and he reiterated that it supported the goal of denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula.

“We are consistently supporting all relevant parties in resolving the peninsula issue through political consultations and peaceful means,” Lu told a regular briefing.

Kim has made two visits to China recently for talks with President Xi Jinping, including a secretive train trip to Beijing in late March, his first known visit outside North Korea since coming to power.

He flew to the port city of Dalian this month.

Both times, Kim’s encounters with Xi were cast by Chinese state media as friendly. They included beachside strolls and Xi saying that previous generations of North Korean and Chinese leaders had visited each other as often as relatives.

The warmth between the two leaders marks a sharp reversal in what had been months of frosty ties, as China ratcheted up sanction pressure on North Korea in response to its relentless missiles and nuclear tests last year.

China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and considers it an important security buffer against the U.S. military presence in region.

What had seemed until this week to be rapidly warming ties between North Korea, on the one hand, and South Korea and the United States on the other, had fueled fears in Beijing that it might be left out of a new deal on the peninsula, according to analysts.

(Additonal reporting by Micheal Martina, in BEIJING; Writing by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Josh Smith, Robert Birsel)

North Korea says won’t hold talks with ‘incompetent’ South unless differences settled

FILE PHOTO: A North Korean flag flutters on top of a 160-metre tower in North Korea's propaganda village of Gijungdong, in this picture taken from the Tae Sung freedom village near the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), inside the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Joyce Lee and Heekyong Yang

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s chief negotiator called the South Korean government “ignorant and incompetent” on Thursday, denounced U.S.-South Korean air combat drills and threatened to halt all talks with the South unless its demands are met.

The comments by Ri Son Gwon, chairman of North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the country, were the latest in a string of inflammatory statements marking a drastic change in tone after months of easing tension with plans for denuclearisation and a summit scheduled with the United States.

Ri criticized the South for participating in the drills, as well as for allowing “human scum” to speak at its National Assembly, the North’s KCNA news agency said in a statement.

“Unless the serious situation which led to the suspension of the north-south high-level talks is settled, it will never be easy to sit face to face again with the present regime of south Korea,” the statement said.

It did not elaborate.

KCNA, in its English-language service, deliberately uses lower-case “north” and “south” to show that it only recognises one undivided Korea.

North Korea on Wednesday said it might not attend the June 12 summit between leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore if the United States continued to demand it unilaterally abandon its nuclear arsenal, which it has developed in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions to counter perceived U.S. hostility.

A South Korean presidential Blue House official said the South intends to more actively perform “the role of a mediator” between the United States and North Korea, but that goal has been cast into doubt by Ri’s comments.

“On this opportunity, the present south Korean authorities have been clearly proven to be an ignorant and incompetent group devoid of the elementary sense of the present situation,” Ri’s statement said.

The statement did not identify the “human scum” by name, but Thae Yong Ho, a former North Korean diplomat to Britain who defected to the South in 2016, held a press conference on Monday at the South Korean National Assembly for his publication of his memoir.

In his memoir, “Password from the Third Floor”, Thae describes North Korean leader Kim as “impatient, impulsive and violent”.

SUMMIT IN DOUBT

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told parliament that North Korea and the United States had differences of views over how to achieve denuclearisation. Trump acknowledged on Wednesday it was unclear if the summit would go ahead.

“It is true that there are differences of opinion between the North and the United States on methods to accomplish denuclearisation,” Kang told lawmakers, according to Yonhap News Agency.

Trump will host South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the White House on May 22.

The Blue House intends to “sufficiently convey (to the United States) what we’ve discerned about North Korea’s position and attitude… and sufficiently convey the United States’ position to North Korea”, thereby helping to bridge the gap, the official said.

Asked if she trusted Kim Jong Un, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang said: “Yes.”

Japan’s Asahi newspaper reported that the United States had demanded North Korea ship some nuclear warheads, an intercontinental ballistic missile and other nuclear material overseas within six months.

The newspaper, citing several sources familiar with North Korea, said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared to have told the North Korean leader when they met this month that Pyongyang might be removed from a list of state sponsors of terrorism if it complied.

The Asahi also reported that if North Korea agreed to complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation at the Singapore summit, Washington was considering giving guarantees for Kim’s regime.

China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, said the measures North Korea has taken to ease tension should be acknowledged, and all other parties, especially the United States, should cherish the opportunity for peace.

Cancellation of the summit, the first between U.S. and North Korean leaders, would deal a major blow to what could be the biggest diplomatic achievement of Trump’s presidency.

This comes at a time his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has drawn criticism internationally and moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem has fueled deadly violence on the Israel-Gaza border.

North Korea defends its nuclear and missile programs as a deterrent against perceived aggression by the United States, which keeps 28,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

The North has long said it is open to eventually giving up its nuclear arsenal if the United States withdraws its troops from South Korea and ends its “nuclear umbrella” alliance with Seoul.

North Korea said it was pulling out of the talks with South Korea after denouncing U.S.-South Korean “Max Thunder” air combat drills, which it said involved U.S. stealth fighters, B-52 bombers and “nuclear assets”.

Speaking to reporters in Brussels on Wednesday, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: “I hope that in the end common sense will prevail, and the summit will take place and it will be successful.”

(Additional reporting by Kaori Kaneko in TOKYO and Michael Martina in BEIJING, and Cynthia Kim, Ju-min Park and Josh Smith in SEOUL; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Trump says ‘We’ll see’ on North Korea summit, to insist on denuclearization

A banner bearing a unification flag hang on a barbed wire fence near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Jeff Mason and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump acknowledged on Wednesday it was unclear if his summit with North Korea would go ahead after Pyongyang threatened to pull out of the unprecedented meeting, a move that could deny him a potentially major foreign policy achievement.

North Korea threw the June 12 summit between its leader Kim Jong Un and Trump into doubt on Wednesday, saying it might not attend if Washington continues to demand it unilaterally abandon its nuclear arsenal. North Korea also called off talks with South Korea scheduled for Wednesday, blaming U.S.-South Korean military exercises.

“We’ll have to see,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office when asked if the summit was still on, though he insisted he would not back down from his demand for North Korea’s denuclearization.

“No decision, we haven’t been notified at all … We haven’t seen anything, we haven’t heard anything,” he said.

Trump’s relatively muted response was in marked contrast to just a few days ago when he exulted over North Korea’s release of three Americans, welcoming them home with praise for Kim and an expression of high hopes that the summit would produce “something very meaningful.”

Trump’s aides – who, according to one U.S. official, were caught off guard by North Korea’s warning – were working on Wednesday to determine whether it was a negotiating ploy by Pyongyang or an attempt to scuttle the summit.

Cancellation of the summit, the first between U.S. and North Korean leaders, would deal a major blow to what would be the biggest diplomatic achievement of Trump’s presidency. This comes at a time when his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has drawn withering criticism internationally and his move of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem has fueled deadly violence on the Israel-Gaza border.

Trump has raised expectations for success at the summit even as many analysts have been skeptical about the chances of bridging the gap due to questions about North Korea’s willingness to give up a nuclear arsenal that it says can hit the United States.

The White House said it was still hopeful the summit would take place, but Trump was prepared for a tough negotiation.

“The president is ready if the meeting takes place,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told Fox News. “If it doesn’t, we’ll continue the maximum pressure campaign that’s been ongoing.”

Sanders said the North Korean comments were “not something that is out of the ordinary in these types of operations.” Pyongyang has a long history of threatening to walk away from international negotiations if it does not get its way.

North Korea’s first vice minister of foreign affairs, Kim Kye Gwan, cast doubt on whether the summit, which is set for Singapore, would be held.

He specifically criticized U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, who has called for North Korea to quickly give up its nuclear arsenal in a deal that would mirror Libya’s abandonment of its program for weapons of mass destruction.

“If the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the … summit,” he said.

North Korea clashed with Bolton when he worked under the Bush administration.

“We shed light on the quality of Bolton already in the past, and we do not hide our feeling of repugnance toward him,” Kim, the vice minister, said.

In an interview with Fox News Radio, Bolton brushed aside the remarks against him as “nothing new” and said odds were still in favor of the summit going ahead, but the United States would not soften its demands.

“I think that’s where the president is; we are going to do everything we can to come to a successful meeting, but we are not going to back away from the objective of that meeting which is complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea.”

Sanders appeared reluctant to endorse the Libya model that the outspoken and hawkish Bolton has touted, most recently on U.S. television on Sunday.

She said the model that would be followed in dealing with North Korea was “the President Trump model.”

“He’s going to run this the way he sees fit. We’re 100 percent confident … he’s the best negotiator.”

“MISERABLE FATE”

Kim Kye Gwan derided as “absurd” Bolton’s suggestion that discussions with North Korea should be similar to those that led to components of Libya’s nuclear program being shipped to the United States in 2004.

“(The) world knows too well that our country is neither Libya nor Iraq which have met miserable fate,” Kim said in an apparent reference to the demises of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Iraqi former president Saddam Hussein.

He said North Korea was a nuclear weapon state while Libya had been at the initial stage of nuclear development.

The doubt thrown over the summit comes a week after Trump abandoned the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers.

The North Korean statements marked a dramatic reversal in tone from recent months when Pyongyang appeared to embrace efforts to negotiate.

North Korea had announced it would publicly shut its nuclear test site next week and also improved the mood for a summit by the three detained Americans last week.

Some analysts and U.S. officials believe North Korea may be testing Trump’s willingness to soften the U.S. demand for complete denuclearization.

North Korea could also be trying to capitalize on an apparent gap in messaging between Bolton and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Pompeo, who returned from his second visit to Pyongyang last week with the freed Americans, has stressed the economic benefits, possibly including U.S. investment, that could flow to the country if it agrees to denuclearize.

Kim Kye Gwan’s statement appeared to reject such promises, saying North Korea would never give up its nuclear program in exchange for trade with the United States.

“We have already stated our intention for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and made clear on several occasions that precondition for denuclearization is to put an end to anti-DPRK hostile policy and nuclear threats and blackmail of the United States,” Kim said, using the acronym for North Korea’s official name, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

North Korea defends its nuclear and missile programs as a necessary deterrent against perceived aggression by the United States, which keeps 28,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

It has long said it is open to eventually giving up its nuclear arsenal if the United States withdraws its troops from South Korea and ends its “nuclear umbrella” security alliance with Seoul.

“This statement targets Bolton, and threatens the administration’s entire strategy. Suggests NK has not radically changed its strategy, & econ. inducements will not convince them to denuke,” tweeted Abraham Denmark, former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for East Asia.

North Korea announced it was pulling out of the talks with South Korea after denouncing U.S.-South Korean “Max Thunder” air combat drills, which it said involved U.S. stealth fighters, B-52 bombers and “nuclear assets”.

American stealth F-22 fighters were spotted in South Korea in May, but the U.S. military command in South Korea said no B-52s were scheduled to take part.

A South Korean defense ministry official said the drills would go on as planned.

Speaking to reporters in Brussels on Wednesday, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: “I hope that in the end common sense will prevail, and the summit will take place and it will be successful.”

(Reporting by Josh Smith and Christine Kim in Seoul, Tim Kelly in Tokyo, Philip Wen and Christian Shepherd in Beijing, David Brunnstrom, Phillip Stewart, Tim Ahmann, Matt Spetalnick, Lesley Wroughton and Doina Chiacu in Washington and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by David Brunnstrom and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Alistair Bell and James Dalgleish)

North Korea says may reconsider summit with Trump, suspends talks with South

FILE PHOTO - South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attend a banquet on the Peace House at 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

By Christine Kim and Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea threw next month’s summit between Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump into doubt on Wednesday, threatening weeks of diplomatic progress by saying it may reconsider if Washington insists it unilaterally gives up its nuclear weapons.

The North’s official KCNA news agency said earlier Pyongyang had called off high-level talks with Seoul, which had been due on Wednesday, in the first sign of trouble after months of warming ties.

Citing first vice minister of foreign affairs Kim Kye Gwan, KCNA later said the fate of the unprecedented U.S.-North Korea summit, as well as bilateral relations, “would be clear” if the United States spoke of a “Libya-style” denuclearisation for the North.

“If the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the DPRK-U.S. summit,” Kim Kye Gwan said, referring to the North by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The United States was still hopeful about the summit, scheduled for Singapore on June 12, but also prepared for a tough negotiation process, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.

“We’re still hopeful that the meeting will take place and we’ll continue down that path, but at the same time we’ve been prepared that these could be tough negotiations,” Sanders said in an interview with Fox News.

“The president is ready if the meeting takes place. If it doesn’t, we’ll continue the maximum pressure campaign that’s been ongoing.”

Vice Minister Kim specifically criticized U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, who has called for North Korea to quickly give up its nuclear arsenal in a deal that mirrors Libya’s abandonment of its weapons of mass destruction.

North Korea clashed with Bolton when he worked under the Bush administration, calling him “human scum” and a “bloodsucker”.

“We shed light on the quality of Bolton already in the past, and we do not hide our feeling of repugnance towards him,” Kim said.

The North Korean statement, as well its cancellation of the talks with the South due to U.S.-South Korean military exercises, mark a dramatic reversal in tone from recent months when both sides embraced efforts to negotiate.

North Korea had announced it would publicly shut its nuclear test site next week.

‘THREATS AND BLACKMAIL’

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday the United States would agree to lift sanctions on North Korea if it agreed to completely dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

However, Kim Kye Gwan’s statement appeared to reject that, saying North Korea would never give up its nuclear program in exchange for trade with the United States.

“We have already stated our intention for denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and made clear on several occasions that precondition for denuclearisation is to put an end to anti-DPRK hostile policy and nuclear threats and blackmail of the United States,” Kim said.

North Korea has always defended its nuclear and missile programs as a necessary deterrent against perceived aggression by the United States, which keeps 28,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War.

North Korea has long said it is open to eventually giving up its nuclear arsenal if the United States withdraws its troops from South Korea and ends its “nuclear umbrella” security alliance with Seoul, though South Korean officials have said the North may be willing to compromise.

The United States has insisted on complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and the facilities needed to build the weapons as soon as possible.

Asian stock markets dipped after North Korea called off the talks with the South. Cancellation of the Singapore summit could see tension flare again even as investors worry about China-U.S. trade friction.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa spoke to Pompeo by telephone and discussed North Korea’s postponement of the talks with the South, the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Pompeo told Kang Washington would continue to make preparations for the U.S-North Korea summit, bearing in mind the recent action by North Korea, it said.

Kim Kye Gwan’s statement came hours after North Korea pulled out of talks with the South after denouncing the U.S.-South Korean “Max Thunder” air combat drills, which it said involved U.S. stealth fighters, B-52 bombers and “nuclear assets”, as a provocation.

American stealth F-22 fighters were spotted in South Korea earlier in May, but a spokesman for the U.S. military command in South Korea said no B-52s were scheduled to take part in the drills.

A South Korean defense ministry official said the drills would go on as planned and were not aimed at any third party.

‘MISERABLE FATE’

Cancellation of the summit, the first meeting between a serving U.S. president and a North Korean leader, would deal a major blow to what would be the biggest diplomatic achievement of Trump’s presidency.

Trump has raised expectations for success even as many analysts have been skeptical about the chances of bridging the gap due to questions about North Korea’s willingness to give up a nuclear arsenal that it says can hit the United States.

Kim Kye Gwan derided as “absurd” Bolton’s suggestion that discussions with North Korea should be similar to those that led to components of Libya’s nuclear program being shipped to the United States in 2004.

“(The) world knows too well that our country is neither Libya nor Iraq which have met miserable fate,” Kim said.

He said North Korea was a nuclear weapon state while Libya had been at the initial stage of nuclear development.

A U.S. government expert on North Korea said Kim Jong Un may also be trying to gauge whether Trump was willing to walk away from the meeting.

Joshua Pollack, of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, said Pyongyang appeared irritated by the U.S. administration’s vow to maintain sanctions in spite of North Korean concessions.

“The North Koreans want a change in tone from the U.S., and at least so far, they’re not hearing one,” he said.

The doubt thrown over the summit comes a week after Trump abandoned the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, under which Tehran curbed its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of most international sanctions.

China said on Wednesday all parties “should show goodwill and avoid mutual provocation” to create a conducive atmosphere for denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula.

The North-South talks had been due to focus on plans to implement a declaration that emerged from an inter-Korea summit last month, including promises to formally end the Korean War and pursue “complete denuclearisation”.

South Korea described the North’s decision as “regrettable”.

(Reporting by Josh Smith and Christine Kim in SEOUL, Tim Kelly in TOKYO, Philip Wen and Christian Shepherd in BEIJING, and David Brunnstrom, Phillip Stewart, Tim Ahmann, Matt Spetalnick and Lesley Wroughton, Doina Chiacu in WASHINGTON; Editing by Paul Tait and Robert Birsel)

Trump, Kim summit in Singapore presents logistical challenges for North Korea

Office workers walk to the train station during evening rush hour in the financial district of Singapore March 9, 2015. REUTERS/Edgar Su/Files

By Jack Kim and Jamie Freed

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s trip to Singapore for talks with U.S. President Donald Trump poses logistical challenges that are likely to include using Soviet-era aircraft to carry him and his limousine, as well as dozens of security and other support staff.

The choice of Singapore as the site of the first-ever meeting of a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader was as much because it was within reasonable flight time and distance from Pyongyang as because of the island state’s political neutrality, a South Korean presidential official told reporters.

Since becoming North Korea’s leader in 2011, Kim has only taken one known overseas trip by air – and that was earlier this week to Dalian in China to hold talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. He flew in his personal Ilyushin-62M jet accompanied by a cargo plane that people with knowledge of North Korean affairs say is believed to have carried his limousine.

“It looks very much like the trip to Dalian was a dry run,” said Andray Abrahamian, a research fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS and formerly with Choson Exchange, a Singapore-based group that trains North Koreans in business skills.

At 4,700 km from Pyongyang’s Sunan airport, Singapore is easily in the range of the Il-62M aircraft. The Soviet-era narrow-body jet with four engines was first introduced in the 1970s and has a maximum range of 10,000 km.

But the Ilyushin-76 cargo plane cannot fly more than 3,000 km without refueling if carrying a full load. It will therefore have to stop off at a friendly location like Vietnam’s capital on the way to Singapore or fly with a reduced load.

The Il-76, originally designed for moving heavy machinery to remote parts of the Soviet Union, is big enough to fit a school bus or two shipping containers inside it, according to passenger and cargo flight operator Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions.

But the cargo plane has had some safety issues. In the latest incident last month, a crash killed 257 people on board after takeoff from an Algiers air base.

Unlike his father Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011 and who traveled by armored train on his rare trips abroad because he feared being shot down, according to a North Korean defector familiar with his security details, the younger leader is not known to be averse to flying.

But air travel of this distance does pose a significantly greater challenge in transporting communication and security equipment and personnel needed to back up a summit meeting.

 

SUITE FIT FOR A LEADER

Lee Yun-keok, a defector who had worked for the North’s government and now heads the North Korea Strategic Information Service Center in Seoul, said the trip will involve dozens of security personnel and equipment including possibly a personal toilet for the leader.

It will also mean burning a large quantity of jet fuel, a refined oil product sharply limited by U.N. sanctions targeting North Korea’ imports. Kim’s two planes will need around 50 metric tons of jet fuel per aircraft for the flight from Pyongyang to Singapore.

China, the main source of fuel for the North, exported just 3 tons of jet fuel in March and made no official exports the two previous months, according to Chinese customs data.

But the North’s planes can pick up extra fuel when they fly to China and Russia for commercial operations, and international security experts believe the North may have been stockpiling the fuel which it has also used for its missile program.

“The United States had preferred Geneva,” the South Korean presidential official told reporters, requesting anonymity to discuss the arrangements for the summit meeting.

“But Singapore was selected as it was the most realistically viable destination Kim Jong Un could probably travel when considering the travel time and flight distance.”

The two sides initially considered meeting in the Panmunjom truce village straddling the Korean military border, the scene of the third inter-Korea summit attended by Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in last month, the official said. The official said the South did not know the reason why Panmunjom was dropped.

There was no confirmation on the specific location for the meeting between Kim and Trump although there are a number of sites in Singapore that can guarantee security protection, including hotels that have experience hosting high-security events, Singapore media and a Singapore government official said.

The meeting is scheduled for one day on June 12, but if either or both of the leaders decide to stay overnight, there is only one hotel room in all of the city that meets “security protocol” for the U.S. president, according to a source with knowledge of previous U.S. presidential visits.

That is the 348-square meter Shangri-la Suite in the Valley Wing of the hotel of the same name, at a current rate of S$10,000 ($7,500) a night for June 12.

($1 = 1.3348 Singapore dollars)

(Additional reporting by Dewey Sim in Singapore, Christine Kim and Joori Roh in Seoul; Edited by Martin Howell)

South Korea says it wants U.S. troops to stay regardless of any treaty with North Korea

FILE PHOTO: U.S. army soldiers take part in a U.S.-South Korea joint river-crossing exercise near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Yeoncheon, South Korea, April 8, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Christine Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea said on Wednesday the issue of U.S. troops stationed in the South is unrelated to any future peace treaty with North Korea and that American forces should stay even if such an agreement is signed.

“U.S. troops stationed in South Korea are an issue regarding the alliance between South Korea and the United States. It has nothing to do with signing peace treaties,” said Kim Eui-kyeom, a spokesman for the presidential Blue House, citing President Moon Jae-in.

The Blue House was responding to media questions about a column written by South Korean presidential adviser and academic Moon Chung-in that was published earlier this week.

Moon Chung-in said it would be difficult to justify the presence of U.S. forces in South Korea if a peace treaty was signed after the two Koreas agreed at an historic summit last week to put an end to the Korean conflict.

However, Seoul wants the troops to stay because U.S. forces in South Korea play the role of a mediator in military confrontations between neighboring superpowers like China and Japan, another presidential official told reporters on condition of anonymity earlier on Wednesday.

Presidential adviser Moon Chung-in was asked not to create confusion regarding the president’s stance, Kim said.

The United States currently has around 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea, which North Korea has long demanded be removed as one of the conditions for giving up its nuclear and missile programs.

However, there was no mention in last week’s declaration by Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea. Kim and Moon Jae-in pledged to work for the “complete denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula.

U.S. troops have been stationed in South Korea since the Korean War, which ended in 1953 in an armistice that left the two Koreas technically still at war.

Moon Jae-in and Kim have said they want to put an end to the Korean conflict, promising there will be “no more war” on the Korean peninsula.

(Reporting by Christine Kim; Editing by Paul Tait)

North and South Korea start to dismantle border speakers, fulfilling summit pledge

South Korean soldiers move loudspeakers that were set up for propaganda broadcasts near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea, May 1, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Pool

By Joori Roh

SEOUL (Reuters) – North and South Korea began dismantling loudspeakers that blared propaganda across their heavily fortified border on Tuesday, South Korea’s defense ministry said, fulfilling a promise made at last week’s historic summit.

The moves are the first practical, if small, steps toward reconciliation after Friday’s meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the North’s Kim Jong Un.

Moon, meanwhile, asked that the United Nations help verify North Korea’s planned shutdown of its Punggye-ri nuclear test site in a phone conversation on Tuesday with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, a statement from the presidential Blue House said.

Guterres said the requests need approval from the U.N. Security Council, but he wanted to cooperate to build peace on the Korean peninsula and would assign a U.N. official in charge of arms control to cooperate with South Korea, the statement said.

Several days before Friday’s summit, the North surprised the world by declaring it would dismantle the test site to “transparently guarantee” its dramatic commitment to stop all nuclear and missile tests.

The Punggye-ri site, where North Korea has conducted all six of its nuclear tests, consists of a system of tunnels dug beneath Mount Mantap in the northeastern part of the country.

Some experts and researchers have speculated the most recent – and by far largest – blast in September had rendered the entire site unusable. But Kim said there were two additional, larger tunnels that remain “in very good condition”.

BORDER LOUDSPEAKERS REMOVED

Along the border, South Korea started taking down its loudspeakers on Tuesday afternoon, a defense official said. Activity at several spots along the border indicated North Koreans were doing the same, he said.

For decades, with only a few breaks, the two sides have pumped out propaganda from huge banks of speakers as a form of psychological warfare. The South broadcast a mixture of news, Korean pop songs and criticism of the northern regime, while the North blasted the southern government and praised its own socialist system.

As a sign of goodwill, the South had stopped its propaganda ahead of the summit, and the North followed suit.

The incremental steps come amid speculation about where Kim will meet U.S. President Donald Trump, who said their planned summit could take place in three or four weeks.

Trump tweeted Monday that meeting Kim at the Peace House in the demilitarized zone, where Moon met Kim, would be an excellent venue.

“There’s something that I like about it because you’re there, you’re actually there. Where, if things work out, there’s a great celebration to be had on the site, not in a third-party country,” Trump later told reporters at the White House.

But a senior U.S. official said Singapore was still high on the list of potential sites.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Saturday Singapore had not had any request to host the Kim-Trump meeting.

South Korea’s presidential Blue House seemed to welcome the prospect of hosting the meeting in Panmunjom, the border village where the Peace House is located.

“Panmunjom is quite meaningful as a place to erode the divide and establish a new milestone for peace,” a senior presidential official told reporters, asking not be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter. “Wouldn’t Panmunjom be the most symbolic place?”

(Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Ju-min Park, writing by Malcolm Foster. Editing by Lincoln Feast)

South Korean trust in North jumps after feel-good summit

South Korean President Moon Jae-in shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as Kim leaves after a farewell ceremony at 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

By Hyonhee Shin and Haejin Choi

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean trust in North Korea has surged since last week’s feel-good summit at which their leaders declared an end to hostilities and to work towards denuclearization of the peninsula.

A survey taken on Friday, the day North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met South Korean President Moon Jae-in, showed 64.7 percent believe the North will denuclearize and keep peace. Before the summit, only 14.7 percent of those polled said they did, research agency Realmeter said on Monday.

Many South Koreans were struck by the live TV images during the summit of a smiling and joking Kim. Never before had they seen a self-deprecating and witty side to him, admitting that his country’s train system was inferior and promising he wouldn’t wake up Moon any more with early morning missile launches.

Kim seemed markedly different from former North Korean leaders – his father Kim Jong Il and grandfather Kim Il Sung, people on the street in Seoul said on Monday.

“Denuclearizing is definitely possible,” said 41-year-old Kim Jin-han. The North Korean leader “talked about his country’s weaknesses, such as the infrastructure. He was very open about that. This is very different from the previous leaders. So I think he is ready to wholly give up nuclear weapons.”

Kim’s comments about bringing Pyongyang-style cold noodles to the summit banquet clearly captivated many in the South, prompting some to add his face to the photo of a popular app for a food delivery service, holding a bowl of noodles under his arm.

One social media post getting attention said that with a successful summit, South Korea should brace for an onslaught of North Korean beer as the first wave of “cultural aggression”. A parody showed a South Korean news announcer reporting that Kim complaining about watery South Korean beer compared to Taedonggang Beer featured in the background.

South Korea’s stock market got a boost on Monday, lifted by shares of construction companies and train and steel manufacturers on hopes for joint economic projects.

NEXT SUMMIT

A euphoric mood also enveloped the presidential Blue House on Monday as Moon was greeted by cheers and a standing ovation by scores of aides and staff.

“I am confident a new era of peace will unfold on the Korean peninsula,” Moon told his aides, asking them to quickly follow up on the agreements made in Friday’s declaration.

The two sides are technically still at war since their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a treaty.

Moon’s approval rating after the summit rose to 70 percent, Realmeter said, its highest since mid-January.

Moon also told aides that U.S. President Donald Trump deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to end the standoff with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program, a South Korean official said.

“President Trump should win the Nobel Peace Prize. What we need is only peace,” Moon told aides, according to a Blue House official who briefed the press.

In January, Moon had said Trump “deserves big credit” for bringing about the inter-Korean talks, saying it may have come from “U.S.-led sanctions and pressure.”

Friday’s final declaration, however, leaves many questions unanswered, particularly what “denuclearization” means or how that will be achieved. Much hinges on Kim’s upcoming summit with Trump, who said it could happen in the next three to four weeks.

Any deal with the United States will require that North Korea demonstrate “irreversible” steps to shutting down its nuclear weapons program, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday.

A flurry of diplomacy is unfolding in the lead-up to that meeting, with China saying it will send the government’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, to North Korea on Wednesday and Thursday this week. China is the North’s main ally.

And over the weekend, South Korea’s spy chief visited Tokyo to brief Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

NO MORE SPEAKERS

In initial small steps towards reconciliation, South Korea said on Monday it would remove loudspeakers that blared propaganda across the border, while North Korea said it would shift its clocks to align with its southern neighbor.

South Korea turned off the loudspeakers that broadcast a mixture of news, Korean pop songs and criticism of the North Korean regime as a goodwill gesture ahead of the summit. It will begin removing the speakers on Tuesday.

“We see this as the easiest first step to build military trust,” South Korean defense ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo said. “We are expecting the North’s implementation.”

North Korea will shift its time zone 30 minutes earlier to align with South Korea, starting May 5, state media reported on Monday.

The KCNA dispatch said the decision came after Kim found it “a painful wrench” to see two clocks showing different times on a wall at the summit venue.

The northern time zone was created in 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese rule after World War Two. South Korea and Japan are in the same time zone, nine hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time.

Kim also told Moon during the summit he would soon invite experts and journalists from the United States and South Korea when the country dismantles its Punggye-ri nuclear testing site, the Blue House said on Sunday.

North Korea has conducted all six of its nuclear tests at the site, a series of tunnels dug into the mountains in the northeastern part of the country. Some experts and researchers have speculated that the most recent – and by far largest – blast in September had rendered the entire site unusable.

But Kim said there were two additional, larger tunnels that remain “in very good condition” beyond the existing one, which experts believe may have collapsed.

(Additional reporting by Ju-min Park in SEOUL and Matthew Miller in BEIJING. Writing by Malcolm Foster. Editing by Lincoln Feast and Nick Macfie)

From nuclear weapons to peace: Inside the Korean summit declaration

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un share a toast at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 27, 2018. Korea Summit Press Pool/Pool via Reuter

By Josh Smith and Christine Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – North and South Korea made ambitious promises for peace on Friday, including to formally end the Korean War this year, but made only a vague commitment to “complete decentralization of the Korean peninsula” without specifics on how that key goal would be achieved.

The declaration signed at the historic summit between the leaders of the two Koreas also did not mention several issues that have been prominent in the past, including human rights in North Korea and joint economic projects.

As the focus now shifts to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s expected meeting in May or June with U.S. President Donald Trump, here is a summary of key issues in the agreement:

NUCLEAR WEAPONS

North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs have become central to the conflict, and many observers were hoping the summit would provide more insight into whether Kim Jong Un is truly willing to give up those weapons.

Both South Korea and the United States say they share the goal of forcing North Korea to abandon its nuclear arms, and the Trump administration says there will be no reduction in pressure on Pyongyang until it has completely denuclearized.

Any economic relations between the two Koreas are limited by sanctions imposed over the programs.

In the agreement, the two Koreas “confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete decentralization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula” and “agreed to carry out their respective roles and responsibilities in this regard”.

Such language is similar to past declarations, however, and South Korea offered no additional details beyond saying it would closely cooperate with the United States and the international community on the issue.

“It largely recycles the aspirational language of preceding Inter-Korean documents,” said Daniel Russel, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia. “It falls short of the explicit commitments to decentralization in some past declarations.”

Past efforts to entice Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program have failed in part due to North Korean demands the United States withdraw its troops from the peninsula and remove its “nuclear umbrella” of support for the South. South Korea has said Kim may be willing to compromise on this traditional sticking point, but no new details were announced at the summit.

PEACE DEAL

A concrete goal outlined in the declaration was the formal ending the state of war that has existed since the 1950-53 Korean War was halted with a truce, not a treaty.

South Korea and a U.S.-led U.N. force are technically still at war with North Korea and the idea of an official peace deal to change that is not something that can be resolved by the Koreas alone. So the declaration calls for meetings with the United States and possibly China, which were both involved in the conflict.

South Korean leaders at the time opposed the idea of a truce that left the peninsula divided, and were not signatories to the armistice, which was officially signed by the commander of North Korea’s army, the American commander of the U.N. Command and the commander of the “Chinese People’s volunteers”, who were not officially claimed by Beijing at the time.

North and South Korea have seriously discussed the idea before. In 1992, the two sides agreed to “endeavor together to transform the present state of armistice into a solid state of peace”.

The last inter-Korean summit in October 2007 concluded with a declaration by the two Koreas to “recognize the need to end the current armistice regime and build a permanent peace regime” and “to work together to advance the matter of having the leaders of the three or four parties directly concerned to convene on the Peninsula and declare an end to the war”.

FAMILY VISITS

Reunions between families divided by the war and the border are an emotional issue. The two sides agreed to hold “reunion programs” on Aug. 15, the day both Koreas celebrate their independence from Japanese colonization.

The last family visits were at the end of 2015, but the program fell apart amid souring relations.

After Moon took office last May, his administration quickly asked that the visits resume, but North Korea never officially responded.

North Korean state media implied that the program could be resumed if South Korea sent back a dozen North Korean waitresses who defected to the South after working at a restaurant in China, but that demand appears to have been dropped.

DEMILITARIZED ZONE

The DMZ, which snakes for 240 km (150 miles) along the 38th parallel, was drawn in the 1953 armistice that ended three years of bitter fighting. The zone is 4 km (2.5 miles) wide, and has become an unlikely tourist attraction.

Friday’s declaration said each side would cease propaganda broadcasts, hold regular military meetings, and take other measures to reduce tensions along the border and turn the DMZ into a “peace zone”.

“Demilitarizing” the DMZ could also mean the removal of guard posts and landmines.

INTER-KOREAN COMMUNICATION

After previously establishing a “hotline” between the two presidents’ offices, the two Koreas pledged to increase direct inter-Korean exchanges and dialogue, including between lower-level political officials.

The two Koreas will also set up a communications office in Kaesong in North Korea, although the timing for that was not specified.

The countries’ defense officials will meet in May, and Moon plans to visit Pyongyang later in the year for another summit.

Moon and Kim also agreed to hold “regular meetings and direct telephone conversations” and “frequent and candid discussions”.

(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Korean leaders aim for end of war, ‘complete denuclearization’ after historic summit

By Christine Kim and Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – The leaders of North and South Korea embraced on Friday after pledging to work for the “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula”, on a day of smiles and handshakes at the first inter-Korean summit in more than a decade.

The two Koreas announced they would work with the United States and China this year to declare an official end to the 1950s Korean War and seek an agreement on “permanent” and “solid” peace.

The declaration included promises to pursue phased arms reduction, cease hostile acts, transform their fortified border into a peace zone and seek multilateral talks with other countries including the United States.

“The two leaders declare before our people of 80 million and the entire world there will be no more war on the Korean peninsula and a new age of peace has begun,” the two sides.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed to visit the North Korean capital of Pyongyang this year, they said.

Earlier, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un became the first North Korean leader since the 1950-53 Korean War to set foot in South Korea after shaking hands with his counterpart over a concrete curb marking the border in the heavily fortified demilitarized zone.

Scenes of Moon and Kim joking and walking together marked a striking contrast to last year’s barrage of North Korean missile tests and its largest ever nuclear test that led to sweeping international sanctions and fears of war.

Their meeting comes weeks before Kim is due to meet U.S. President Donald Trump in what would be the first ever meeting between sitting leaders of the two countries.

Trump welcomed the Korean talks.

“After a furious year of missile launches and Nuclear testing, a historic meeting between North and South Korea is now taking place. Good things are happening, but only time will tell!” he said on Twitter.

He later added: “KOREAN WAR TO END! The United States, and all of its GREAT people, should be very proud of what is now taking place in Korea!”

China, North Korea’s main ally, welcomed the leaders’ statement and said it was willing to keep playing a proactive role in promoting political solutions. China is wary of being sidelined by a thaw between the two Koreas and by the upcoming summit between Trump and Kim.

Russia said it was ready to facilitate cooperation between North and South Korea, including in the fields of railway transport and energy.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also welcomed the summit and said he expected North Korea to take concrete steps to carry out its promises.

Global markets were lifted by hopes the summit would pave the way for the end of conflict on the Korean peninsula. Shares in Seoul briefly rose more than 1 percent to a one-month high and Japan’s Nikkei share average also gained.

‘BALL IN U.S. COURT’

As part of efforts to reduce tension, the two sides agreed to open a liaison office, stop propaganda broadcasts and leaflet drops along the border and allow Korean families divided by the border to meet.

Days before the summit, Kim said North Korea would suspend nuclear and long-range missile tests and dismantle its only known nuclear test site.

But there has been widespread scepticism about whether Kim is ready to abandon the nuclear arsenal his country has developed for decades, justifying it as a necessary deterrent against U.S. invasion.

“Everything will not be resolved in the blink of an eye,” said Kim Young-hee, a North Korean defector-turned-economist at the Korea Development Bank.

“Kim Jong Un has put the ball in the U.S. court. He declared denuclearization, and promised to halt nuclear tests,” she said. “That tells us he wants the United States to guarantee the safety of his regime … in return for denuclearization.”

It is not the first time leaders of North and South Korea have declared hopes for peace. Two earlier summits, in Pyongyang in 2000 and 2007, failed to halt the North’s weapons program or improve relations in a lasting way.

“We will make efforts to create good results by communicating closely, in order to make sure our agreement signed today before the entire world, will not end as just a beginning like previous agreements before today,” Kim said after the agreement was signed.

FIRST ACROSS THE LINE

Earlier, Moon greeted Kim at the military demarcation line where the men smiled and shook hands.

In an unplanned move, Kim invited Moon to step briefly across into North Korea, before the two leaders crossed back into South Korea holding hands.

“I was excited to meet at this historic place and it is really moving that you came all the way to the demarcation line to greet me in person,” Kim said, wearing his customary black Mao suit.

“A new history starts now. An age of peace, from the starting point of history,” Kim wrote in Korean in a guest book in the South’s Peace House before talks began.

During a private meeting in the morning, Kim told Moon he came to the summit to end the history of conflict and joked he was sorry for waking Moon up with his early morning missile tests, a senior presidential official said.

Moon and Kim released their joint declaration before a dinner banquet.

Later, with their wives, they watched a music performance and held hands as they watched a montage of photos from their summit set to a K-pop song that included the words “be a family again”.

After warm farewells, Kim was driven back to North Korea.

The United States said earlier it was hopeful talks on peace and prosperity would make progress and it looked forward to discussions with South Korea in preparation for the planned meeting of Trump and Kim in coming weeks.

Just months ago, Trump and Kim were trading threats and insults as the North made rapid advances in pursuit of nuclear-armed missiles capable of hitting the United States.

The United States stations 28,500 troops in South Korea as a legacy of the Korean War, which ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The war pitted the South, U.N. and U.S. forces against the communist North, backed by China and Russia.

Kim and Trump are expected to meet in late May or June. Trump said on Thursday he was considering several dates and venues.

(Reporting by the Inter-Korean Summit Press Corps, Christine Kim and Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL and David Brunnstrom and Susan Heavey and Eric Beech in WASHINGTON; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Robert Birsel)