‘The whole country is a prison’: No sign of better rights in North Korea – U.N.

Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea Tomas Ojea Quintana arrives at a news conference in Seoul, South Korea, January 11, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – Despite more than a year of international engagement and promises of economic reform by North Korea’s leaders, the human rights situation in the isolated country remains dire, a top U.N. rights official said on Friday.

Blocked by the government from visiting North Korea, U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in North Korea Tomas Quintana visited South Korea this week as part of an investigation that will be provided to the U.N. Human Rights Council in March.

Noting that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has embarked on an effort to improve living conditions by focusing on economic development, Quintana said his preliminary findings showed those efforts had not translated into improvements in the lives of most people.

“The fact is, that with all the positive developments the world has witnessed in the last year, it is all the more regrettable that the reality for human rights on the ground remains unchanged, and continues to be extremely serious,” he told reporters at a briefing in Seoul.

“In all areas related to the enjoyment of economic and social rights, including health, housing, education, social security, employment, food, water and sanitation, much of the country’s population is being left behind.”

North Korea denies human rights abuses and says the issue is used by the international community as a political ploy to isolate it.

Human rights were noticeably absent from talks between Kim and the leaders of South Korea and the United States last year, over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

But in December, the United States imposed sanctions on an additional three North Korean officials, including a top aide to Kim, for serious rights abuses and censorship.

North Korea’s foreign ministry warned in a statement after the December sanctions were announced, that the measures could lead to a return to exchanges of fire and North Korea’s disarming could be blocked forever.

While noting he had “no specific information” on whether international sanctions were hurting ordinary North Koreans, Quintana said the sanctions targeted the economy as a whole and “raised questions” about the possible impact on the public.

He cited a reference by Kim in his New Year message to the need to improve living standards, saying it was a rare acknowledgment of the economic and social hardships faced by many North Koreans.

Still, the United Nations has confirmed the continued use of political prison camps housing “thousands” of inmates, Quintana said, quoting one source as saying “the whole country is a prison”.

He said witnesses who recently left North Korea reported facing widespread discrimination, labor exploitation and corruption in daily life.

There is also a “continuing pattern of ill-treatment and torture” of defectors who escaped to China only to be returned to North Korea by Chinese authorities, Quintana said.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Robert Birsel)

U.S. and North Korean officials met in Hanoi to discuss second Trump-Kim summit: South Korean newspaper

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walk after lunch at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

SEOUL (Reuters) – U.S. State Department officials recently met multiple times with North Korean counterparts in Hanoi and discussed planning a second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a South Korean newspaper reported on Monday.

U.S. officials discussed the schedule for the second Trump-Kim summit while in contact with North Korean officials in the Vietnamese capital city, fuelling speculation that Vietnam could host the event, the Munhwa Ilbo reported, citing unnamed diplomatic sources in Seoul and Washington.

Vietnam has diplomatic relations with both the United States and North Korea, with North Korea maintaining a diplomatic office in Vietnam, and has the symbolic significance of a communist country that has reformed its economy, the newspaper reported.

A spokesperson for the U.S Embassy in Seoul did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

On Sunday, Trump told reporters in Washington that the United States and North Korea are negotiating a location for a second summit.

“It will be announced probably in the not too distant future,” Trump said. They do want to meet and we want to meet and we’ll see what happens.”

While the two sides had a very good dialogue and the American president had communicated with Kim, Trump said sanctions would be enforced until more progress is made.

In a nationally televised New Year address, Kim said he is willing to meet Trump again anytime to achieve their common goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, but warned he may have to take an alternative path if U.S. sanctions and pressure against the country continued.

“I am always ready to sit together with the U.S. president anytime in the future, and will work hard to produce results welcomed by the international community without fail,” Kim said.

(Reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Michael Perry)

Kim says ready to meet Trump ‘anytime,’ warns of ‘new path’

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un poses for photos in Pyongyang in this January 1, 2019 photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA/via REUTERS.

By Hyonhee Shin and Soyoung Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said on Tuesday he is ready to meet U.S. President Donald Trump again anytime to achieve their common goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, but warned he may have to take an alternative path if U.S. sanctions and pressure against the country continued.

In a nationally televised New Year address, Kim said denuclearization was his “firm will” and North Korea had “declared at home and abroad that we would neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them.”

Kim added that Pyongyang had “taken various practical measures” and if Washington responded “with trustworthy measures and corresponding practical actions … bilateral relations will develop wonderfully at a fast pace.”

“I am always ready to sit together with the U.S. president anytime in the future, and will work hard to produce results welcomed by the international community without fail,” Kim said.

However, he warned that North Korea might be “compelled to explore a new path” to defend its sovereignty if the United States “seeks to force something upon us unilaterally … and remains unchanged in its sanctions and pressure.”

It was not clear what Kim meant by “a new path,” but his comments are likely to further fuel skepticism over whether North Korea intends to give up a nuclear weapons program that it has long considered essential to its security.

In response to the news, Trump wrote on Twitter, “I also look forward to meeting with Chairman Kim who realizes so well that North Korea possesses great economic potential!”

There was no immediate comment from the White House. Asked for a reaction, a U.S. State Department official said: “We decline the opportunity to comment.”

South Korea’s presidential office, however, welcomed Kim’s speech, saying it carried his “firm will” to advance relations with Seoul and Washington.

Kim and Trump vowed to work toward denuclearization and build “lasting and stable” peace at their landmark summit in Singapore in June, but little progress has been made since.

Trump has said a second summit with Kim is likely in January or February, though he wrote on Twitter last month that he was “in no hurry.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made several trips to Pyongyang last year but the two sides have yet to reschedule a meeting between him and senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol after an abrupt cancellation in November.

Pyongyang has demanded Washington lift sanctions and declare an official end to the 1950-1953 Korean War in response to its initial, unilateral steps toward denuclearization, including dismantling its only known nuclear testing site and a key missile engine facility.

SANCTIONS

U.S. officials have said the extent of initial North Korean steps were not confirmed and could be easily reversed. Washington has halted some large-scale military exercises with Seoul to aid negotiations but has called for strict global sanctions enforcement on impoverished North Korea until its full, verifiable denuclearization.

Kim’s reference to pledges not to make nuclear weapons could indicate a first moratorium on such weapons production, although it was not clear if this was conditional. While Pyongyang conducted no nuclear or missile tests last year, satellite images have pointed to continued activity at related facilities.

The U.S. special representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, reiterated last month that Washington had no intention of easing sanctions but had agreed to help South Korea send flu medication to North Korea, saying such cooperation could help advance nuclear diplomacy.

Analysts said Kim’s message sent clear signals that North Korea was willing to stay in talks with Washington and Seoul this year – but on its own terms.

“North Korea seems determined in 2019 to receive some sort of sanctions relief … The challenge, however, is will Team Trump be willing to back away from its position of zero sanctions relief?” said Harry Kazianis of the Washington-based Centre for the National Interest.

“Kim’s remarks seem to suggest his patience with America is wearing thin.”

After racing toward the goal of developing a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the United States in 2017, Kim used last year’s New Year speech to warn that “a nuclear button is always on the desk of my office” and order mass production of nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles.

But he also offered to send a delegation to the 2018 Winter Olympics in the South in February, setting off a flurry of diplomacy that included three summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and the meeting with Trump in June.

This year, Kim said inter-Korean relations had entered a “completely new phase,” and offered to resume key inter-Korean economic projects banned under international and South Korean sanctions, without conditions.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Soyoung Kim and Hyunyoung Yi; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom and David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Stephen Coates and Paul Simao)

Mystery hacker steals data on 1,000 North Korean defectors in South

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 Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – The personal information of nearly 1,000 North Koreans who defected to South Korea has been leaked after unknown hackers got access to a resettlement agency’s database, the South Korean Unification Ministry said on Friday.

The ministry said it discovered last week that the names, birth dates and addresses of 997 defectors had been stolen through a computer infected with malicious software at an agency called the Hana center, in the southern city of Gumi.

“The malware was planted through emails sent by an internal address,” a ministry official told reporters on condition of anonymity, due to the sensitivity of the issue, referring to a Hana center email account.

The Hana center is among 25 institutes the ministry runs around the country to help some 32,000 defectors adjust to life in the richer, democratic South by providing jobs, medical and legal support.

Defectors, most of whom risked their lives to flee poverty and political oppression, are a source of shame for North Korea. Its state media often denounces them as “human scum” and accuses South Korean spies of kidnapping some of them.

The ministry official declined to say if North Korea was believed to have been behind the hack, or what the motive might have been, saying a police investigation was under way to determine who did it.

North Korean hackers have in the past been accused of cyber attacks on South Korean state agencies and businesses.

North Korea stole classified documents from the South’s defense ministry and a shipbuilder last year, while a cryptocurrency exchange filed for bankruptcy following a cyber attack linked to the North.

North Korean state media has denied those cyber attacks.

The latest data breach comes at a delicate time for the two Koreas which have been rapidly improving their relations after years of confrontation.

The Unification Ministry said it was notifying the affected defectors and there were no reports of any negative impact of the data breach.

“We’re sorry this has happened and will make efforts to prevent it from recurring,” the ministry official said.

Several defectors, including one who became a South Korean television celebrity, have disappeared in recent years only to turn up later in North Korean state media, criticizing South Korea and the fate of defectors.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Growing split in Seoul over North Korea threatens Korea detente, nuclear talks

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands 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/File Photo

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – When Seoul was preparing to open a liaison office in the North Korean city of Kaesong this summer after a decade of virtually no contact with its longtime enemy, South Korean officials had heated debates over whether they should seek approval from Washington.

Some top aides to President Moon Jae-in stressed it was an issue for the two Koreas alone and there was no need to involve their U.S. ally, two people with knowledge of the situation told Reuters.

But to the surprise of several officials at the meeting, Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon argued Washington must be consulted because Seoul’s plans might run afoul of sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.

Two dozen countries including the Britain, Germany and Sweden already have embassies in Pyongyang, and other officials saw the proposed liaison office as a far lower-level of contact with the North.

And they certainly did not expect Cho to be a leading advocate of strict enforcement of sanctions. Cho was Moon’s personal choice to head the ministry, whose prime mission is to foster reconciliation, cooperation and eventual reunification with the North.

Cho, whose 30-year public service history has been inextricably linked to reunification, was even sacked from the ministry in 2008 over his “dovish” stance toward Pyongyang.

At the suggestion of Cho and senior diplomats, Seoul ultimately sought U.S. consent before opening the office in September, one of the sources said.

All the sources spoke to condition of anonymity due to sensitivity of the matter.

Cho declined to comment for this article, but a senior official at the Unification Ministry said it was aware of criticisms of Cho.

“Inter-Korean ties are unique in their nature, but it’s been difficult, and there’s North Korea’s duplicity. It’s a dilemma we face or our fate,” the official said, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

 

CHIEF NEGOTIATOR, OR ROADBLOCK?

The previously unreported debate among Moon’s top officials illustrates a growing divide within South Korea over how to progress relations with the North while keeping Washington on the side.

Some corners of the administration argue Seoul can’t afford to be seen veering from the U.S.-led sanctions and pressure campaign until Pyongyang gives up its nuclear weapons program, while others feel closer inter-Korean ties can help expedite the stalled diplomatic process, several officials close to the situation say.

“If the internal rift leads to moving too quickly with the North without sufficient U.S. consultations, it could pose a setback to not only the nuclear talks but also the alliance and inter-Korean relations,” said Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

After the inter-Korean thaw gave way to reconciliation efforts between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump earlier this year, Trump asked Moon to be “chief negotiator” between the two.

That task has become increasingly difficult as Washington and Pyongyang blame each other for the faltering nuclear talks.

U.S. officials insist punishing sanctions must remain until North Korea completely denuclearises. North Korea says it has already made concessions by dismantling key facilities and Washington must reciprocate by easing sanctions and declaring an end to the 1950-53 Korean War.

“Unlike other advisers, Minister Cho has balanced his staunch desire for peace with an understanding of the importance of retaining a strong South Korea-U.S. alignment,” said Patrick Cronin of the Centre for a New American Security, an Asia expert in close touch with both U.S. and South Korean officials.

“Some alliance discord is inevitable and not worrisome. What would be worrisome would be a clear rupture in South Korea-U.S. approaches for managing North Korea.”

The presidential Blue House declined to comment, but Moon told reporters on Monday the view that there was discord between South Korea and the United States was “groundless” because there is no difference in the two countries’ positions on the North’s denuclearization.

SLOW PROGRESS, MOUNTING FRUSTRATION

A third source familiar with the presidential office’s thinking said there was mounting frustration with Cho within the Blue House and even inside the Unification Ministry amid concerns he worried too much about U.S. views.

“What the president would want from him as the unification minister is to come up with bold ideas to make his pet initiatives happen,” the source said.

During three summits this year, Moon and Kim agreed to re-link railways and roads, and when conditions are met, restart the joint factory park in Kaesong and tours to the North’s Mount Kumgang resort that have been suspended for years.

None of those plans have made much headway, either because sanctions ban them outright, or as in the case of Kaesong, Seoul took time to convince skeptical U.S. officials that cross-border projects wouldn’t undermine sanctions.

North Korea itself has been an unpredictable partner. Discussions through the Kaesong office have been few and far between, with Pyongyang’s negotiators often failing to show up for scheduled weekly meetings without notice, Unification Ministry officials say.

Even so, the Kaesong move has caused tensions with Washington.

U.S. officials told Seoul that South Korea’s explanations on the Kaesong office were not “satisfactory,” the South’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told a parliamentary hearing in August.

Washington was also caught off guard when a group of businessmen who used to operate factories in the now-closed Kaesong industrial park were invited for the opening ceremony of the office, a diplomatic source in Seoul said.

The allies launched a working group last month led by their nuclear envoys to coordinate North Korean policy. It was borne out of U.S. desire to “keep inter-Korean relations in check,” the source said.

Asked about the Kaesong office, a U.S. State Department official said: “We expect all member states to fully implement U.N. sanctions, including sectoral goods banned under UN Security Council resolution, and expect all nations to take their responsibilities seriously to help end (North Korea’s) illegal nuclear and missile programs.”

Another State official said the United States endorsed April’s inter-Korean summit agreement during its own summit with North Korea “because progress on inter-Korean relations must happen in lockstep with progress on denuclearization.”

Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Cho in Washington, bluntly warning him that inter-Korean cooperation and progress on nuclear negotiations should “remain aligned.”

FILE PHOTO: South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon walks to board a plane to leave for Pyongyang, North Korea, to participate in the inter-Korean basketball matches, at Seoul Airport in Seongnam, South Korea, July 3, 2018. Ahn Young-joon/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon walks to board a plane to leave for Pyongyang, North Korea, to participate in the inter-Korean basketball matches, at Seoul Airport in Seongnam, South Korea, July 3, 2018. Ahn Young-joon/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

Even as he faced pressure from Washington to hold a tough line, Cho was being criticized for dragging his feet on reconciliation.

In May, the North called off planned talks with the South led by Cho in protest against U.S.-South Korean air combat exercises. When the meeting eventually took place, Cho’s counterpart, Ri Son Gwon, openly blamed Cho for having caused a “grave situation” that resulted in the cancellation of the talks.

At the Kaesong office opening, factory owners pressed Cho to reopen the complex and said they were dismayed at the Unification Ministry for repeatedly rejecting requests to visit the border city to check on equipment and facilities idled since the 2016 shutdown.

“We’ve expressed, directly and indirectly, our complaint that the minister may be too lukewarm about our requests, even though allowing the trip has nothing to do with sanctions,” said Shin Han-yong, who chairs a group of businessmen with plants in Kaesong.

Cho recently told the parliament the delays are due to scheduling issues with the North, adding the ministry “needs more time to explain the overall circumstances” to the international community.

Shin, the expert at Asan, warned any move to undermine sanctions may expose South Korean companies to risks of punishment.

After Moon and Kim’s summit in Pyongyang in September, a senior U.S. Treasury official called compliance officers at seven South Korean banks to warn them that resuming financial cooperation with North Korea “does not align with U.S. policies” and the banks must comply with U.N. and U.S. financial sanctions, according to a South Korean regulatory document.

“Realistically we have no option but to consider U.S. positions, as the top priority is the North’s denuclearization and the United States has the biggest leverage on that,” said Kim Hyung-suk, who served as vice unification minister until last year.

“Without progress on the nuclear issues, there would be constraints at some point in sustaining inter-Korean ties. And Minister Cho knows that.”

(Editing by Soyoung Kim and Lincoln Feast.)

U.S. ratchets up pressure on Iran with resumption of sanctions

FILE PHOTO: Iranian rials, U.S. dollars and Iraqi dinars are seen at a currency exchange shopÊin Basra, Iraq November 3, 2018. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States reimposes oil and financial sanctions against Iran on Monday, significantly turning up the pressure on Tehran in order to curb its missile and nuclear programs and counter its growing military and political influence in the Middle East.

The move will restore U.S. sanctions that were lifted under a 2015 nuclear deal negotiated by the administration of President Barack Obama, and add 300 new designations in Iran’s oil, shipping, insurance and banking sectors.

President Donald Trump announced in May that his administration was withdrawing from what he called the “worst ever” agreement negotiated by the United States. Other parties to the deal, including Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia, have said they will not leave.

Details of the sanctions will be released at a news conference scheduled for 8:30 a.m. EST (1330 GMT) with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

China, India, South Korea, Japan and Turkey – all top importers of Iranian oil – are among eight countries expected to be given temporary exemptions from the sanctions to ensure crude oil prices are not destabilized.

The countries will deposit Iran’s revenue in an escrow account, U.S. officials have said.

Washington has said it will ensure a well-supplied global oil market, with help from ally Saudi Arabia, as Iran oil is cut back. Front-month Brent crude futures, the international benchmark for oil prices, were at $72.53 per barrel on Monday.

The reimposition of the sanctions comes as the United States is focused on U.S. congressional and gubernatorial elections on Tuesday. Campaigning in Chattanooga, Tennessee, late on Sunday, Trump said his “maximum pressure” policy against Iran was working.

“Iran is a much different country than it was when I took office,” said Trump, adding: “They wanted to take over the whole Middle East. Right now they just want to survive.”

Earlier, thousands of Iranians chanted “Death to America” at a rally to mark the anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy during the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The International Monetary Fund said on Thursday that Iran should implement policies to safeguard its macroeconomic stability in the face of sanctions.

Senior Iranian officials have dismissed concerns about the impact to its economy.

“America will not be able to carry out any measure against our great and brave nation … We have the knowledge and the capability to manage the country’s economic affairs,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi told state TV on Friday.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Chattanooga, Tennessee; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

U.S. backs disarmament steps along North Korean demilitarized zone: general

General Vincent K. Brooks, commander of the US Forces Korea (USFK) speaks during the mutual repatriation ceremony of soldiers' remains between South Korean and U.S at the Seoul National Cemetery in Seoul, South Korea, 13 July 2018. Jeon Heon-kyun/Pool via REUTERS

By Josh Smith and Joyce Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) – The outgoing commander of American troops in South Korea voiced support on Monday for controversial measures to reduce military activity along the border with North Korea, as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prepared for talks with North Korean officials on denuclearization and plans for a second leaders’ summit.

Writing in a South Korean military publication, U.S. General Vincent Brooks said recent steps by South and North Korea to disarm areas along the so-called demilitarized zone between the two nations have “the support and agreement of the United States.”

Last week a no-fly zone went into effect along the border, despite private concerns by U.S. officials that the move could restrict training and the ability to monitor the border. Other steps included disarming some areas of the border and removing some landmines and guard posts.

“Together, these activities demonstrate a shared commitment to positive action and work to develop the trust essential to the next steps along the road to a lasting and stable peace,” Brooks wrote.

Pompeo previously expressed “discontent” with the deal that created the no-fly zone, which South Korean sources said became a key sticking point for the United States because it would effectively prevent close air support drills.

Brooks’ comments came as U.S. and South Korean marines conducted military drills under the Korean Marine Exchange Program for the first time in months, according to the South Korean ministry of defense.

The exercises were among the training drills indefinitely suspended in June after U.S. President Donald Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore and promised to end U.S.-South Korea military exercises.

Although larger exercises were suspended, the two countries have continued small-scale drills, the South’s Ministry of National Defence said on Monday, adding that the marines were holding a training round near the southern city of Pohang.

Pompeo, interviewed on broadcaster CBS’s “Face the Nation” program said on Sunday he would be in New York at the end of this week to meet his North Korean counterpart, Kim Yong Chol.

“I expect we’ll make some real progress, including an effort to make sure that the summit between our two leaders can take place, where we can make substantial steps towards denuclearization,” he added.

North Korea has not tested a ballistic missile or nuclear weapon for nearly a year and has said it has shuttered its main nuclear test site and plans to dismantle several more facilities.

In recent weeks, North Korea has pressed harder for what it sees as reciprocal concessions by the United States and other countries.

Over the weekend, Kim hosted President Miguel Diaz-Canel of Cuba – another country under U.S. sanctions – during a lavish visit in Pyongyang, where the two leaders vowed to boost their cooperation.

During a banquet on Sunday, Kim said the “two countries are in the same trench in the struggle for defending sovereignty and dignity of their countries and safeguarding international justice,” according to a state media report.

Diaz-Canel, meanwhile, “voiced his will to meet all challenges by the hostile forces” alongside North Korea, according to the report.

‘NO ECONOMIC RELIEF’

On Friday North Korea warned that it could resume development of its nuclear program if the United States did not drop its campaign of “maximum pressure” and sanctions.

“The improvement of relations and sanctions are incompatible,” a foreign ministry official said in a statement released through state-run KCNA news agency.

“The U.S. thinks that its oft-repeated ‘sanctions and pressure’ lead to ‘denuclearization.’ We cannot help laughing at such a foolish idea.”

South Korea hopes the North and the United States will make “big progress” during the talks set for this week, presidential spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom said on Monday, but declined to comment on the North’s Friday statement.

American officials have remained skeptical of Kim’s commitment to give up his nuclear arsenal, however, and Washington says it will not support easing international sanctions until more verified progress is made.

Pompeo, interviewed on television’s “Fox News Sunday,” said the Trump administration wants a full, verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, adding that Trump insisted on “no economic relief until we have achieved our ultimate objective.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s continuing efforts to engage with North Korea have fanned U.S. concerns that Seoul could weaken pressure on North Korea to give up nuclear weapons.

In Washington last week, South Korea’s defense minister said the two countries would decide by December on major joint military exercises for 2019. Vigilant Ace, suspended this month, is one of several such exercises halted to encourage dialogue with Pyongyang, which has criticized joint U.S.-South Korea exercises in the past.

The biggest combat-readiness war game ever staged in and around Japan has gone ahead, however, with nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan joining Japanese destroyers and a Canadian warship in the ocean off Japan, another key player in the effort to pressure North Korea.

(Reporting by Josh Smith and Joyce Lee; Additional reporting by Richard Cowan in Washington and Soyoung Kim in SEOUL; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Paul Simao)

Two Koreas, U.N. forces agree to remove weapons at border

FILE PHOTO: A North Korean soldier patrols at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 18, 2018. Picture taken on April 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North and South Korea and the U.N. Command agreed on Monday to withdraw firearms and guard posts in the demilitarized zone village of Panmunjom this week, Seoul’s defense ministry said, the latest move in a fast-improving relationship.

The three sides held their second round of talks at Panmunjom to discuss ways to demilitarize the border in line with a recent inter-Korean pact reached at last month’s summit in Pyongyang.

The U.S.-led UNC, which has overseen affairs in the DMZ since the end of hostilities in the 1950-53 Korean War, was not immediately available for comment, but it said on Friday it supports the two Koreas’ efforts to implement their military deal.

The announcement comes amid U.S. concerns that the inter-Korean military initiative could undermine defense readiness and comes without substantial progress on North Korea’s promised denuclearization.

The neighbors are looking to withdraw 11 guard posts within a 1-km (0.6-mile) radius of the Military Demarcation Line on their border by the end of the year.

They also plan to pull out all firearms from a Joint Security Area (JSA) at Panmunjom and cut to 35 each the numbers of personnel stationed there and share information on surveillance equipment.

At Monday’s meeting, the three sides agreed to remove firearms and guard posts from the JSA by Thursday, and carry out a joint inspection over the following two days, the ministry said.

The two Koreas have been removing landmines around the area as part of the agreement and they confirmed the completion of the demining operation at the talks with the UNC.

“We discussed the timeline of the pullout of firearms and guard posts, as well as ways to adjust the number of guard personnel and conduct joint inspections,” the ministry said in a statement.

The agreement also includes a halt in “all hostile acts” and a no-fly zone around the border.

North and South Korea are technically still at war because the 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, but relations have improved considerably in the last year.

After his third summit in Pyongyang, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the North was ready to invite international experts to watch the dismantling of a key missile site and would close the main Yongbyon nuclear complex if Washington took reciprocal actions.

Those actions could include putting a formal end to the 1950-53 war, opening of a U.S. liaison office in North Korea, humanitarian aid and an exchange of economic experts, Moon said.

But Washington demands North Korea takes irreversible steps to scrap its arsenal, such as a full disclosure of nuclear facilities and material.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Nick Macfie)

North Korea’s Kim wants another Trump summit to speed denuclearization: South Korea’s Moon

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walk during a luncheon, in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 21, 2018. KCNA via REUTERS

By Hyonhee Shin and Joyce Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s Kim Jong Un wants a second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump soon to hasten denuclearization, but a key goal is declaring an end this year to the 1950-53 Korean War, the South’s President Moon Jae-in said on Thursday.

Moon said he and Kim spent most of a three-day summit discussing how to break an impasse and restart nuclear talks between Pyongyang and Washington, which are at odds over which should come first, denuclearization or ending the war.

Kim, who recently proposed another summit with Trump after their unprecedented June talks in Singapore, said the North was willing to “permanently dismantle” key missile facilities in the presence of outside experts, and the Yongbyon main nuclear complex, if the United States took corresponding action.

The joint statement from the summit stipulates his commitment to a “verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” of the nuclear programs, and ending the war would be a first U.S. reciprocal step, Moon said.

“Chairman Kim expressed his wish that he wanted to complete denuclearization quickly and focus on economic development,” Moon told a news conference in Seoul, shortly after returning from the summit with Kim in Pyongyang.

“He hoped a second summit with Trump would take place in the near future, in order to move the denuclearization process along quickly.”

INSPECTIONS

Moon said Kim was also open to inspection of a nuclear test site in the northwest town of Punggye-ri, which he called the North’s sole existing facility for underground detonations.

While Pyongyang has stopped nuclear and missile tests this year, it failed to keep its pledge to allow international inspections of its dismantling of the Punggye-ri site in May, stirring criticism that the move could be reversed.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday he had invited North Korea’s foreign minister to meet in New York next week and other Pyongyang officials to Vienna for talks with nuclear envoy Stephen Biegun.

Asked on Thursday if those meetings would take place, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said invitations had been sent and added: “We certainly stand ready to meet if they are able to.”

Nauert said Washington looked forward to a formal readout of the North-South talks in meetings with the South Koreans next week, which will include one between Trump and Moon on Monday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

Asked about Pompeo’s statement on Wednesday welcoming plans for the dismantlement of all facilities at Yongbyon in the presence of U.S. and IAEA inspectors, Nauert said Moon and Kim had talked about inspectors.

“Having IAEA inspectors and United States inspectors be a part of anything is really just a shared understanding,” she said.

“Any time you have a nuclear situation like this where there is a dismantlement, the expectation is that the IAEA would be part of that, so that would be just the normal course of doing business. We have that shared understanding with the countries.”

Asked why this detail was not in the document signed by Moon and Kim, Nauert replied: “We have had conversations … with the government of North Korea and that is our mutual understanding; that is also the understanding between (South) Korea and North Korea. That was one of the things discussed, according to my understanding of it, over the past few days.”

Nauert did not respond when asked if the United States was willing to take “corresponding measures,” except to say: “Nothing can happen in the absence of denuclearization; denuclearization has to come first.”

The North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, Kim Song, did not reply when asked by reporters on Thursday if his foreign minister would meet Pompeo on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly next week.

ENDING WAR

Kim pledged to work toward the “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” during two meetings with Moon and his encounter with Trump, but follow-up negotiations on how to implement the vague commitments have since faltered.

Washington calls for concrete action, such as a full disclosure of North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities, before satisfying Pyongyang’s key demands, including an official end to the war and the easing of international sanctions.

The war ended in an armistice, rather than a peace treaty, meaning U.S.-led United Nations forces, including South Korea, are technically still at war with the North.

But there have been concerns in South Korea and the United States that ending the war would ultimately prompt China and Russia, if not North Korea, to demand that the United Nations Command (UNC), which overlaps with U.S. forces in South Korea, be disbanded and leave.

Seoul aims to jointly announce with the United States an end to the war within this year, a measure Moon said he would discuss with Trump when they meet next week at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

An end-of-war declaration would not affect the presence of U.S. troops and the UNC in the South, Moon said, adding that Kim shared his view.

“It would be a political declaration that would mark a starting point for peace negotiations,” Moon said.

“A peace treaty would be sealed, as well as normalization of North Korea-U.S. relations, after the North achieves complete denuclearization.”

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Joyce Lee; additional repotring by David Brunnstrom in Washington and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; editing by Soyoung Kim, Clarence Fernandez and Lisa Shumaker)

North Korea’s Kim agrees to inspections in bid to salvage nuclear talks

South Korean President Moon Jae-in shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un after signing the joint statement in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 19, 2018. Pyeongyang Press Corps/Pool via REUTERS

By Hyonhee Shin and Soyoung Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea said on Wednesday it would permanently abolish its key missile facilities in the presence of foreign experts, in a new gesture by leader Kim Jong Un to revive faltering talks with Washington over his country’s nuclear program.

After a summit in Pyongyang, Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the North was also willing to close its main nuclear complex but only if the United States took unspecified reciprocal action.

The pledges Kim and Moon made at their third summit this year could inject fresh momentum into the stalled nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang and lay the groundwork for another meeting Kim recently proposed to U.S. President Donald Trump.

“I don’t think President Moon got everything he was seeking from these interactions, but Kim Jong Un gave Moon some tangible things for which he can take credit,” said Michael Madden, an analyst at the Stimson Centre’s 38 North think tank in Washington.

“These are good-faith gestures which will likely facilitate further and more substantive negotiations,” Madden said, adding a second summit between Kim and Trump was “highly probable”.

Kim pledged to work toward the “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” during his two meetings with Moon earlier this year and at his historic June summit with Trump in Singapore.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in attends an unveiling ceremony of the commemorative tree in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 19, 2018. Pyeongyang Press Corps/Pool via REUTERS

South Korean President Moon Jae-in attends an unveiling ceremony of the commemorative tree in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 19, 2018. Pyeongyang Press Corps/Pool via REUTERS

But discussions over how to implement the vague commitments have since faltered. Washington is demanding concrete action towards denuclearization, such as a full disclosure of North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities, before agreeing to key goals of Pyongyang – declaring an official end to the 1950-53 Korean War and easing tough international sanctions.

Trump‏ welcomed the latest pledges, saying they were part of “tremendous progress” with Pyongyang on a number of fronts, and hailed the “very good news” from the Korean nations’ summit.

“He’s calm, I’m calm – so we’ll see what happens,” Trump told reporters at the White House, referring to Kim. “It’s very much calmed down.”

But the United States is likely to be concerned economic cooperation plans announced by the two Korean leaders that could undermine U.S.-driven United Nations sanctions against North Korea.

Speaking at a joint news conference in Pyongyang, the two Korean leaders agreed to turn the Korean peninsula into a “land of peace without nuclear weapons and nuclear threats.”

Kim said he would visit Seoul in the near future, in what would be the first-ever visit to South Korean capital by a North Korean leader. Moon said the visit was expected to take place by the end of the year.

The leaders also announced a series of steps to deepen bilateral exchanges in the economy, culture and sport.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, first lady Kim Jung-sook, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Sol Ju visit Taedong River Seafood Restaurant in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 19, 2018. Pyeongyang Press Corps/Pool via REUTERS

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, first lady Kim Jung-sook, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Sol Ju visit Taedong River Seafood Restaurant in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 19, 2018. Pyeongyang Press Corps/Pool via REUTERS

VERIFICATION

Kim’s latest promises come days before Moon meets Trump in New York at the U.N. General Assembly next week. South Korean officials hope Moon will be able to convince Trump to restart nuclear talks with Pyongyang, after he canceled a trip by his secretary of state to North Korea last month, citing lack of progress.

Though North Korea has unilaterally stopped nuclear and missile tests, it did not allow international inspections of the dismantling its main nuclear test site in May, drawing criticism that its action was for show and could be easily reversed.

As a next step, North Korea will allow experts from “concerned countries” to watch the closure of its missile engine testing site and launch pad in the northwestern town of Dongchang-ri, according to a joint statement signed by Moon and Kim.

The facilities were a key test center for North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles designed to reach the United States.

The North also “expressed its readiness” to take additional measures, such as a permanent dismantlement of its main nuclear facilities in Yongbyon should there be unspecified corresponding action from the United States, according to the statement.

Those U.S. steps could include an end-of-war declaration, South Korea’s national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, told reporters.

The neighbors remain technically at war because the Korean War ended in armistice and not a peace treaty.

North Korea has consistently refused to give up its nuclear arsenal unilaterally, and stressed that the United States should first agree to a formal declaration ending the war.

Satellite images and other evidence in recent months have suggested North Korea is continuing to work on its nuclear program clandestinely.

Seo Yu-suk, a research manager at the Institute of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said the facilities at Dongchang-ri and Yongbyon were “almost obsolete” and the North has mobile missile launchers that are easier to use and harder to detect, while there are likely covert sites elsewhere.

SANCTIONS BUSTING?

At the summit, the two Koreas agreed to begin construction to reconnect railways and roads linking the countries within this year. They will also work to restart a joint factory park in the North border city of Kaesong and tours to the North’s Mount Kumgang resort, when conditions are met.

Some experts worry those projects could constitute a violation of U.N. Security Council sanctions aimed at drying up resources for Pyongyang’s weapons programs, and upset Washington.

The two Koreas also agreed to pursue a bid to co-host the 2032 Summer Olympic Games, and actively work together in other international competitions including the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Later on Wednesday, Moon was scheduled to watch the North’s signature “Brilliant Fatherland” Mass Game, with a formation of glowing drones, lasers and stadium-sized gymnastics shows designed to glorify the country.

On Thursday, the last day of his three-day visit, Moon plans to visit Mount Baektu in North Korea with Kim before returning home.

North Korea says Kim’s grandfather and father were born at Mount Baektu, a centerpiece of the North’s idolization and propaganda campaign to highlight the ruling family’s sacred bloodline.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Joyce Lee, Soyoung Kim and Joint Press Corps; Additional reporting by Jeongmin Kim, Haejin Choi and Ju-min Park in Seoul, and Roberta Rampton and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Alex Richardson and Alistair Bell)