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

By Josh Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘THINK WISELY’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

North Korea suspends military action plans against South Korea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“DOSE OF PATIENCE”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

North Korea seen reinstalling border loudspeakers; satellite photos show liaison office standing but damaged

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea is reinstalling loudspeakers blaring propaganda across the border in its latest step away from inter-Korean peace agreements, prompting the South’s military to explore similar moves, a South Korean military source said on Tuesday.

Tension between the two Koreas has risen in recent weeks after the North blew up a joint liaison office on its side of the border, declared an end to dialogue and threatened military action.

North Korea’s military was seen putting up loudspeakers near the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Such systems were taken down after the two Koreas signed an accord in 2018 to cease “all hostile acts,” the military official said.

“We’re also considering reinstalling our own loudspeakers,” he said. “But the North hasn’t begun any broadcast yet, and we’re just getting ready to be able to counteract at any time.”

A spokeswoman at Seoul’s defense ministry declined to confirm North Korea’s moves but reiterated at a regular briefing that Pyongyang would “have to pay for the consequences” if it continues to defy joint efforts to foster peace.

The two countries have for decades pumped out propaganda from huge banks of speakers as a form of psychological warfare. The South aired a blend of news, Korean pop songs and criticism of the northern regime, while the North blasted the South and praised its own socialist system.

Commercial satellite imagery of the liaison office site on Monday showed that the building remained standing, but had been heavily damaged.

Analysts at U.S.-based 38 North, which tracks North Korea, said last week that the explosion “was clearly not a controlled detonation, as the building was not leveled and there was significant collateral damage to the adjacent buildings.”

The North began taking its recent actions as it denounced North Korean defectors in the South sending propaganda leaflets across the border.

Several defector-led groups have regularly sent flyers, food, $1 bills, mini radios and USB sticks containing South Korean dramas and news, usually by balloon or in bottles in rivers.

One group, led by Park Sang-hak, who fled the isolated state in 2000, said on Tuesday it flew 20 balloons containing 500,000 leaflets, 500 booklets on South Korea and 2,000 $1 bills.

South Korea’s government has pursued legal action to stop such activities, citing safety concerns for residents in border towns, but controversy remains over whether it violates the country’s protections for freedom of expression.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry handling inter-Korean affairs issued a statement vowing a stern response to the leaflet launches by Park’s group.

Pyongyang’s state media said on Monday angry North Koreans have also prepared some 12 million leaflets to be sent back.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin. Additional reporting by Josh Smith. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

What you need to know about the coronavirus right now 06-22-20

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

South Korea’s second wave

Health authorities in South Korea said for the first time the country is in the midst of a “second wave” of novel coronavirus infections focused around its densely populated capital.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) had previously said South Korea’s first wave had never really ended.

But on Monday, KCDC director Jeong Eun-kyeong said it had become clear that a holiday weekend in early May marked the beginning of a new wave of infections focused in the greater Seoul area, which had previously seen few cases.

Training an “army”

Europeans are enjoying the gradual easing of coronavirus lockdown measures, but in hospitals they are already preparing for the next wave of infections.

Some intensive care specialists are trying to hire more permanent staff. Others want to create a reservist “army” of medical professionals ready to be deployed wherever needed to work in wards with seriously ill patients.

European countries have been giving medics crash courses in how to deal with COVID-19 patients, and are now looking at ways to retrain staff to avoid shortages of key workers if there is a second wave of the novel coronavirus.

Antibody levels fall quickly

Levels of an antibody found in recovered COVID-19 patients fell sharply 2-3 months after infection for both symptomatic and asymptomatic patients, according to a Chinese study, raising questions about the length of any immunity against the novel coronavirus.

The study highlights the risks of using COVID-19 “immunity passports” and supports the prolonged use of public health interventions such as social distancing and isolating high-risk groups, researchers said.

Health authorities in some countries such as Germany are debating the ethics and practicalities of allowing people who test positive for antibodies to move more freely than others who do not.

Israeli company has high hopes for mask fabric

An Israeli company expects a fabric it has developed will be able to neutralise close to 99% of the coronavirus, even after being washed multiple times, following a successful lab test.

Sonovia’s reusable anti-viral masks are coated in zinc oxide nano-particles that destroy bacteria, fungi and viruses, which it says can help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Tests in the Microspectrum (Weipu Jishu) lab in Shanghai had demonstrated that the washable fabric used in its masks neutralised more than 90% of the coronavirus to which it was exposed, Sonovia said on Monday.

Liat Goldhammer, Sonovia’s chief technology officer, said that in the coming weeks the fabric, which can also be used in textiles for hospitals, protective equipment and clothing, will be able to neutralise almost 99% of the coronavirus.

Dog days for Chinese fair?

China’s annual dog-meat festival has opened in defiance of a government campaign to reduce risks to health highlighted by the novel coronavirus outbreak, but activists are hopeful its days are numbered.

The coronavirus, which is widely believed to have originated in horseshoe bats before crossing into humans in a market in the city of Wuhan, has forced China to reassess its relationship with animals, and it has vowed to ban the wildlife trade.

In April, Shenzhen became the first city in China to ban the consumption of dogs, with others expected to follow.

The agriculture ministry also decided to classify dogs as pets rather than livestock.

(Compiled by Linda Noakes, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

North Korea’s Kim stokes tensions with eye on distracted Trump

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea has been ramping up tensions with South Korea in recent weeks, but the campaign seems aimed at making a renewed push for sanctions relief by recapturing the attention of a U.S. administration that is distracted by domestic issues.

North Korea blew up a joint liaison office on its side of the border last week, declared an end to dialogue with South Korea and threatened military action.

After three historic meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un failed to lead to a denuclearisation deal, U.S. President Donald Trump’s attention is fixed elsewhere, including the coronavirus epidemic, anti-racism protests and the November presidential election.

Kim, however, is facing real-world consequences for the failed talks, with North Korea’s sanctions-hit economy further strained by a border lockdown imposed to prevent a coronavirus outbreak, potentially threatening his support base among the elites and military.

Analysts say one of Kim’s goals in lashing out at U.S. ally South Korea is to remind Washington of the unresolved issues with North Korea, potentially forcing it to intervene.

“Trump could feel the need to talk to the North to manage the situation for now, and publicly claim that he had warded off the possible military provocations that Kim has threatened,” said Chang Ho-jin, a former South Korean presidential foreign policy secretary.

“By raising inter-Korean tensions, North Korea could also be hoping South Korea will push harder to get sanctions exemptions for joint economic projects that have so far been elusive.”

‘LAST-DITCH EFFORTS’

A diplomatic source in Seoul said U.S. officials, including Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun who had led negotiations with North Korea, are willing to make “last-ditch efforts” before the U.S. election.

“There was anxiety among them that they couldn’t just idle away the first half of this year,” the source said, noting Washington would switch to full election mode soon.

But a U.S. source familiar with the matter told Reuters that while Washington is willing to talk with Pyongyang at any time, there will unlikely be any negotiations that lead to a significant breakthrough in the near future, especially if North Korea only offers to dismantle its main Yongbyon nuclear facility.

The source said that sanctions relief is likely far away, as North Korea has been unwilling to discuss abandoning enough of its nuclear programmes for the United States to consider rolling back sanctions.

The pandemic, anti-racism protests and the rise of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden may have changed Kim’s strategy for winning concessions, said Wi Sung-lac, a former South Korean chief nuclear negotiator.

In his New Year address, Kim vowed to unveil a “new strategic weapon,” after Washington ignored a year-end deadline he had set for a restart of talks, but North Korea appears to have fallen off Trump’s agenda as he found himself mired in domestic crises.

“North Korea had been expected to stage a serious provocation such as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test, but COVID-19 and the ensuing U.S. political situation seem to have provided Kim a new calculation,” Wi said.

“With Trump already in trouble, firing an ICBM would only benefit Biden, so he resorted to short-range missile testing as a stop-gap measure and now is targeting the South.”

If Biden is elected, any negotiations would be “much more painful” for Kim as he would take a more principled approach and empower seasoned negotiators without summitry extravaganzas, said Cho Tae-yong, a South Korean lawmaker who previously as vice foreign minister worked with Biden’s foreign policy advisers.

Some experts do not rule out a return to ICBM testing if Trump looks increasingly likely to lose in the election, but that would also upset China which has been lobbying for Pyongyang to ease international sanctions.

“Serious provocations like an ICBM test could backfire, so Kim must be thinking hard not to overplay his hand until November,” Wi said.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Josh Smith and Sangmi Cha in Seoul and David Brunnstrom and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Editing by Josh Smith and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

North Korea destroys liaison office on border with South in ‘terrific explosion’

By Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea blew up an office set up to foster better ties with South Korea on Tuesday in a “terrific explosion” after it threatened to take action if North Korean defectors went ahead with a campaign to send propaganda leaflets into the North.

North Korea’s KCNA state news agency said the liaison office in the border town of Kaesong, which had been closed since January due to the coronavirus, was “completely ruined”.

Black-and-white surveillance video released by South Korea’s Ministry of Defence showed a large explosion that appeared to bring down the four-storey structure. The blast also appeared to cause a partial collapse of a neighbouring 15-storey high-rise that had served as a residential facility for South Korean officials who staffed the liaison office.

The office, when it was operating, effectively served as an embassy for the old rivals and its destruction represents a major setback to efforts by South Korean President Moon Jae-in to coax the North into cooperation.

South Korea’s national security council convened an emergency meeting on Tuesday and said South Korea would sternly respond if North Korea continued to raise tensions.

The destruction of the office “broke the expectations of all people who hope for the development of inter-Korean relations and lasting peace on the peninsula”, deputy national security advisor Kim You-geun told a briefing.

“We’re making clear that the North is entirely responsible for all the consequences this might cause,” he said.

Reclusive North Korea, whose nuclear and missile programmes are the subject of stalled talks with the United States, and the democratic South are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a treaty.

Tension has been rising over recent days with the North threatening to cut ties with the South and retaliate over the propaganda leaflets, which carry messages critical of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, including on human rights.

The demolition was “unprecedented in inter-Korean relations” and a “nonsensical act that should have not happened”, South Korean vice unification minister Suh Ho, who co-headed the liaison office, told reporters.

KCNA said the office was blown up to force “human scum and those, who have sheltered the scum, to pay dearly for their crimes”.

North Korea refers to defectors as “human scum”.

‘TRAGIC SCENE’

A South Korean military source told Reuters that there had been signs North Korea was going ahead with the demolition earlier in the day, and South Korean military officials watched live surveillance imagery as the building was blown up.

The first diplomatic mission of its kind, the liaison office was established in 2018 as part of a series of projects aimed at reducing tensions between the two Koreas.

The building had originally been used as offices for managing operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint venture between the two Koreas that was suspended in 2016 amid disagreement over the North’s nuclear and missile programmes.

South Korea spent at least 9.78 billion won ($8.6 million) in 2018 to renovate the building, which stood as a gleaming blue glass structure in the otherwise drab industrial city.

When it was operating, South Koreans worked on the second floor and North Koreans on the fourth floor. The third floor held conference rooms for meetings between the two sides.

When the office was closed in January, South Korea said it had 58 personnel stationed there.

On Saturday, North Korean state media reported that Kim Yo Jong, the sister of the North Korean leader, who serves as a senior official of the ruling Workers’ Party, had ordered the department in charge of inter-Korean affairs to “decisively carry out the next action”.

“Before long, a tragic scene of the useless north-south joint liaison office completely collapsed would be seen”, she was reported as saying.

Representatives for the White House and the State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Russia said on Tuesday it was concerned about the situation on the Korean peninsula and called for restraint from all sides, but so far had no plans for high-level diplomatic contacts.

Earlier on Tuesday, North Korean state media quoted the military as saying it had been studying an “action plan” to re-enter zones that had been demilitarized under the 2018 inter-Korean pact and “turn the front line into a fortress”.

South Korea’s defence ministry called for North Korea to abide by the 2018 agreement, under which both sides’ militaries vowed to cease “all hostile acts” and dismantled a number of structures along the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone between the two countries.

Several defector-led groups have regularly sent back flyers, together with food, $1 bills, mini radios and USB sticks containing South Korean dramas and news into North Korea, usually by balloon over the border or in bottles by river.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Josh Smith, and Sangmi Cha; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

South Korea acts to stop defectors sending aid, messages to North Korea

By Sangmi Cha and Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – A day after North Korea suspended communication hotlines with South Korea over defectors who send propaganda and contraband into the North, South Korea said it would take legal action against two organizations that conduct such operations.

North Korea gets enraged when the defectors in the South send material such as anti-North leaflets and rice – usually by balloon over the heavily fortified border or in bottles by sea – and its media has in recent days denounced the “mongrel dogs” who do it.

Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, recently called defectors “human scum little short of wild animals” and said North Korea would cut communication with South Korea because of its failure to stop them.

South Korea, which is trying to improve ties with the North, said on Wednesday two defector-run groups, Kuensaem Education Center and Fighters for a Free North Korea, had violated the Inter-Korean Exchange and Co-operation Act by sending the leaflets, as well as aid like rice and medicine.

The two defector groups “have created tension between the two Koreas and caused danger to the border-area residents’ lives and safety”, said the South’s Unification Ministry spokesman Yoh Sang-key.

One defector, Park Sang-hak, who left North Korea in 2000 and heads the Fighters For Free North Korea, has been sending leaflets about once a month for the last 15 years.

“You can never buy peace with flattery and begging,” he said of the South Korean government’s response to the North Korean criticism.

About 33,000 North Korean defectors live in South Korea.

As part of the effort to improve ties with the North, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration has sought to discourage the leaflet and rice campaigns, and defectors complained of pressure to avoid criticism of North Korea.

On Monday, activists were stopped by residents when they tried to send plastic bottles stuffed with rice by releasing them at sea.

(Reporting by Sangmi Cha and Josh Smith)

Ignorance, fear, whispers: North Korean defectors say contacts in the dark about Kim

By Josh Smith and Sangmi Cha

SEOUL (Reuters) – Defectors from North Korea say many of their relatives and contacts were unaware of the international speculation over leader Kim Jong Un’s health or were unwilling to discuss the issue in clandestine calls made from the South.

Two defectors told Reuters their relatives in North Korea did not know that Kim has been missing from public view for almost two weeks, said they didn’t want to discuss the issue, or abruptly hung up when the supreme leader was mentioned.

Kim’s health is a state secret in insular North Korea and speculation about him or his family can invite swift retribution.

Another defector said some people in the North have nevertheless been privately talking of Kim’s whereabouts after he failed to appear at a key state holiday on April 15, but only in very closed circles.

Kim’s absence from public ceremonies on the birth anniversary of his grandfather and founder of the country, Kim Il Sung, was unprecedented. That has led to days of speculation in the international community over his health and whether the nuclear-capable state was headed toward instability.

“I talked to my sister and my niece this morning and they had no clue about these reports and rumours about Kim Jong Un’s health,” Lee Soon-hee, 59, told Reuters on Monday. “When I told them, they were so cautious about discussing it. North Koreans have a very limited knowledge of these things.”

Lee defected to the South in 2009.

South Korean officials say they have not detected any “unusual movements” in North Korea, and one foreign resident living in Pyongyang told Reuters that life appeared to be going on as usual.

The South Korean minister in charge of North Korean affairs said on Tuesday fear of catching the coronavirus could have kept Kim away from the April 15 state ceremonies.

Kim Heung-kwang, who defected to South Korea in 2004 and now runs an academic group that researches North Korea, said he spoke to two contacts in North Korea about the speculation.

One, a government official, said that he had been wondering about Kim Jong Un’s lack of public appearances and had noticed an increase in calls from security officials to stay focused on internal policies, Kim Heung-kwang told Reuters.

Another person was not aware of the reports and warned him “not to be fooled by such lies,” Kim said.

Lim Hee-joo, a defector who runs a restaurant in Seoul, said almost no one in North Korea had any idea about Kim Jong Un’s health or whereabouts.

“Not even the people in the central party,” she said. “They are so scared that they don’t even think of looking into it or think about it, to begin with, as they fear they might get arrested.”

North Koreans are keenly aware they could face punishment for discussing the Kim family in any way except to shower them with glowing praise, said Sokeel Park, of Liberty in North Korea, a group that works with defectors.

“That doesn’t mean people don’t take that risk, some people do,” Park said. “But it’s still a super sensitive issue.”

“It’s a little like the pope not showing up for Christmas.” he said of Kim’s absence from the April 15 celebrations.

(Reporting by Josh Smith and Sangmi Cha; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

South Korean officials caution against reports that North Korean leader Kim is ill

By Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean officials are emphasising that they have detected no unusual movements in North Korea and are cautioning against reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be ill or is being isolated because of coronavirus concerns.

At a closed-door forum on Sunday, South Korea’s Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, who oversees engagement with the North, said the government has the intelligence capabilities to say with confidence that there were no indications of anything unusual.

Rumours and speculation over the North Korean leader’s health began after he failed to make a public appearance at a key state holiday on April 15, and has since remained out of sight.

South Korea media last week reported that Kim may have undergone cardiovascular surgery or was in isolation to avoid exposure to the coronavirus.

Unification Minister Kim cast doubt on the report of surgery, arguing that the hospital mentioned did not have the capabilities for such an operation.

Still, Yoon Sang-hyun, chairman of the foreign and unification committee in South Korea’s National Assembly, told a gathering of experts on Monday that Kim Jong Un’s absence from the public eye suggests “he has not been working as normally”.

“There has not been any report showing he’s making policy decisions as usual since April 11, which leads us to assume that he is either sick or being isolated because of coronavirus concerns,” Yoon said.

North Korea has said it has no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, but some international experts have cast doubt on that claim.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in vowed on Monday to step up cooperation to help the North prevent the spread of the coronavirus but made no mention of Kim’s health or whereabouts.

“I will find a path for the most realistic and practical inter-Korean cooperation,” Moon told a meeting with senior aides, marking the second anniversary of his first summit with Kim.

“The COVID-19 crisis could mean a new opportunity for inter-Korean cooperation, and that’s the most urgent and pressing task.”

‘ALIVE AND WELL’

On Monday, North Korean state media once again showed no new photos of Kim nor reported on his whereabouts.

However, they did carry reports that he had sent a message of gratitude to workers building a tourist resort in Wonsan, an area where some South Korean media reports have said Kim may be staying.

“Our government position is firm,” Moon Chung-in, a top foreign policy adviser to South Korean President Moon, said in comments to U.S. news outlets.

“Kim Jong Un is alive and well. He has been staying in the Wonsan area since April 13. No suspicious movements have so far been detected.”

In Washington, a U.S. official appeared to back the South Korean government officials’ assessment about Kim as well as their admonition against speculation.

“That’s good advice. The media should take what they’re saying seriously,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters. However, he declined to elaborate on the U.S. view of Kim’s situation.

Kim Byung-kee, a former intelligence official and now a member of South Korea’s parliamentary intelligence committee, also urged caution on speculation and said there is little possibility that Kim is ill and he would make a “surprise comeback soon.”

Satellite images from last week showed a special train possibly belonging to Kim at Wonsan, lending weight to those reports, according to 38 North, a Washington-based North Korea monitoring project.

Although the group said it was probably the North Korean leader’s personal train, Reuters has not been able to confirm that independently, or whether he was in Wonsan.

A spokeswoman for the Unification Ministry said on Monday she had nothing to confirm when asked about reports that Kim was in Wonsan.

Last week, China dispatched a team to North Korea including medical experts to advise on Kim Jong Un, according to three people familiar with the situation.

Reuters was unable to immediately determine what the trip by the Chinese team signalled in terms of Kim’s health.

When asked about the Reuters’ report on the medical team, China’s foreign ministry said on Monday it has no information to offer on Kim.

On Friday, a South Korean source told Reuters their intelligence was that Kim Jong Un was alive and would likely make an appearance soon.

Experts have cautioned that Kim has disappeared from state media coverage before, and that gathering accurate information in North Korea is notoriously difficult.

North Korea’s state media last reported on Kim’s whereabouts when he presided over a meeting on April 11.

Kim, believed to be 36, vanished from state media for more than a month in 2014 and North Korean state TV later showed him walking with a limp.

(Reporting by Josh Smith, Sangmi Cha, and Hyonhee Shin, additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Michael Perry, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Jonathan Oatis)

North Korea media silent on Kim’s whereabouts as speculation on health rages

By Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean state media on Wednesday made no mention of leader Kim Jong Un’s health or whereabouts, a day after intense international speculation over his health was sparked by media reports he was gravely ill after a cardiovascular procedure.

North Korean media presented a business as usual image, carrying routine reporting of Kim’s achievements and publishing some of his older, or undated, comments on issues like the economy.

South Korean and Chinese officials and sources familiar with U.S. intelligence have cast doubt on South Korean and U.S. media reports that he was seriously sick, while the White House said it was closely monitoring the matter.

However, on Wednesday one U.S. government source who had previously played down reports that Kim was seriously ill said it was a possibility that was now being looked at closely.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who held unprecedented summits with Kim in 2018 and 2019 in an attempt to persuade him to give up his nuclear weapons, said on Tuesday the reports had not been confirmed and he did not put much credence in them.

“We’ll see how he does,” Trump told a White House news conference. “We don’t know if the reports are true.”

Speculation about Kim’s health first arose due to his absence from the anniversary of the birthday of North Korea’s founding father and Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, on April 15.

On Wednesday, the main headlines from North Korea’s state news agency, KCNA, included pieces on sports equipment, mulberry picking, and a meeting in Bangladesh to study North Korea’s “juche” or self-reliance ideology.

The official Rodong Sinmun newspaper carried older or undated remarks attributed to Kim in articles about the economy, the textile industry, city development, and other topics.

As usual Kim’s name was plastered all over the newspaper. But there were no reports on his whereabouts.

Official media has however continued to report the sending of routine diplomatic letters by Kim, and KCNA said he sent a reply on Wednesday to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, thanking him for a message to mark the birthday of the North Korean leader’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung.

South Korea’s presidential Blue House said it could not confirm Kim’s whereabouts, or whether he had undergone surgery. It said South Korea had detected no unusual activity in North Korea.

‘EXTENDED SILENCE IS UNUSUAL’

Daily NK, a Seoul-based website, reported late on Monday that Kim, who is believed to be about 36, was hospitalised on April 12, hours before the cardiovascular procedure.

The report’s English-language version carried a correction on Tuesday to say the report was based on a single unnamed source in North Korea, not multiple as it earlier stated.

It said his health had deteriorated since August due to heavy smoking, obesity and overwork, and he was now receiving treatment at a villa in the Mount Myohyang resort north of the capital Pyongyang.

“It does look like something is going on, based on the repeated absences of last week,” said Chad O’Carroll, CEO of the Korea Risk Group, which monitors North Korea.

“A health issue seems to be the most logical explanation for all this, but whether or not it’s cardiac-related seems to be too early to tell.”

On Tuesday, CNN reported an unidentified U.S. official saying the United States was “monitoring intelligence” that Kim was in grave danger after surgery.

However, two South Korean government officials rejected the CNN report. China, North Korea’s only major ally, also dismissed the reports.

Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, told Fox News on Tuesday that the White House was monitoring the reports “very closely”.

“There’s lots of conjecture going around,” a senior Trump administration official said on condition of anonymity late on Tuesday when asked if there was confirmation of the reports.

North Korea experts have cautioned that hard facts about Kim’s condition are elusive but said his unprecedented absence from the celebrations for his grandfather’s birthday signalled that something may have gone awry.

Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean deputy ambassador to Britain who defected to South Korea in 2016, said state media’s extended silence was unusual because it had in the past been quick to dispel questions about the status of its leadership.

“Every time there is controversy about (Kim), North Korea would take action within days to show he is alive and well,” he said in a statement.

His absence from the April 15 anniversary ceremony, in particular, was “unprecedented”, Thae said.

Kim is a third-generation hereditary leader who rules North Korea with an iron fist, coming to power after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in 2011 from a heart attack.

(Reporting by Josh Smith, Sangmi Cha, and Hyonhee Shin; addtikonal repotrng by Mark Hosenball and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Alistair Bell)