Proportion of youth with COVID-19 triples in five months: WHO

By Ankur Banerjee and Stephanie Nebehay

(Reuters) – Young people who are hitting nightclubs and beaches are leading a rise in fresh coronavirus cases across the world, with the proportion of those aged 15 to 24 who are infected rising three-fold in about five months, the World Health Organization said.

An analysis by the WHO of 6 million infections between Feb. 24 and July 12 found that the share of people aged 15-24 years rose to 15% from 4.5%.

Apart from the United States which leads a global tally with 4.8 million total cases, European countries including Spain, Germany and France, and Asian countries such as Japan, have said that many of the newly infected are young people.

“Younger people tend to be less vigilant about masking and social distancing,” Neysa Ernst, nurse manager at Johns Hopkins Hospital’s biocontainment unit in Baltimore, Maryland told Reuters in an email.

“Travel increases your chances of getting and spreading COVID-19,” she said, adding young people are more likely to go to work in the community, to a beach or the pub, or to buy groceries.

The surge in new cases, a so-called second wave of infections, has prompted some countries to impose new curbs on travel even as companies race to find a vaccine for the fast-spreading virus that has claimed more than 680,000 lives and upended economies.

Even countries such as Vietnam, widely praised for its mitigation efforts since the coronavirus appeared in late January, are battling new clusters of infection.

Among those aged 5-14 years, about 4.6% were infected, up from 0.8%, between Feb. 24 and July 12, the WHO said, at a time when testing has risen and public health experts are concerned that reopening of schools may lead to a surge in cases.

Anthony Fauci, the leading U.S. expert on infectious diseases, urged young people last month to continue to socially distance, wear masks and avoid crowds, and cautioned that asymptomatic people could spread the virus, too.

Indeed, health experts in several countries have urged similar measures as they report that infected youth show few symptoms.

“We’ve said this before and we’ll say it again: young people are not invincible,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news briefing in Geneva last week.

“Young people can be infected; young people can die; and young people can transmit the virus to others.”

Last month, Tokyo officials said they would conduct coronavirus testing in the city’s nightlife districts, and instructed nightclubs to provide customers with enough space with good ventilation and to ask them to avoid speaking loudly.

In France last month, authorities shut down a bar where people breached hygiene rules and caused an outbreak.

(Reporting by Ankur Banerjee and Vishwadha Chander in Bengaluru and Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Sayantani Ghosh and Bernadette Baum)

Vietnam says every city, province now at risk of coronavirus

By Phuong Nguyen and Khanh Vu

HANOI (Reuters) – Vietnam, virus-free for months, is bracing for another wave of COVID-19 infections after state media reported new cases in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and the Central Highlands linked to a recent outbreak in the central city of Danang.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said the current wave of infections was different to a second wave Vietnam fought in March, and every province and city in the country was at risk, state broadcaster Vietnam Television (VTV) reported.

Thanks to a centralised quarantine programme and an aggressive contact-tracing system, Vietnam had managed to keep its coronavirus tally to just 450 cases, despite sharing a border with China.

With more than 95 million people, Vietnam is the most populous country in the world to have recorded no deaths from the virus, and until now no locally transmitted infections had been reported for months.

That record is now under threat following an outbreak last weekend in Danang, where tens of thousands of domestic tourists were vacationing thanks to discounted travel deals.

The government on Tuesday suspended all flights to and from Danang for 15 days. At least 30 infections have been detected in or around the city.

About 18,000 tourists who had been in Danang have returned to the southern business hub of Ho Chi Minh City, authorities said on Tuesday. Another 21,000 returned to Hanoi, the city’s governing body said on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Phuc said tourist hubs throughout the country had to step up vigilance and that Danang must go under “strict lockdown”, VTV said.

In Hanoi, a worker at a pizza restaurant who had recently returned from Danang had tested positive for the coronavirus and authorities had closed the business for disinfection, state media reported.

The health ministry confirmed that case late on Wednesday, as well as an additional two cases in Ho Chi Minh City and another in the Central Highlands.

IMMIGRATION CRACKDOWN

The source of the infection in Danang, origin of the current wave, remains unclear.

One of the cases, an American citizen in Ho Chi Minh City, first developed symptoms in Danang as early as June 26, the health ministry said.

Vietnamese scientists have said the strain of the coronavirus found there was more infectious than the earlier strain, and this latest strain had also been previously detected in Bangladesh, Britain and Ireland.

The government has not officially linked the new cases to illegal immigration, but Phuc has ordered police to strengthen a crackdown on illegal entries.

State media on Sunday said police in Danang had arrested a 42-year-old Chinese man suspected of heading a criminal group smuggling people across the border from China.

Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh paid a rare visit to Vietnam’s mountainous northern border with China on Wednesday where he asked authorities to “enhance border management”, a government statement said, without elaborating.

In a rare rescue flight, Vietnam repatriated 140 construction workers infected with COVID-19 from Equatorial Guinea on Wednesday. The workers will be treated at a hospital outside Hanoi, a medical official told Reuters.

The health ministry has yet to add the cases from Africa to its coronavirus tally.

(Reporting by Phuong Nguyen and Khanh Vu; Writing by James Pearson; Editing by Martin Petty, Simon Cameron-Moore, Gareth Jones and Nick Macfie)

New travel curbs imposed as world tackles second COVID-19 wave

By Stephen Coates and Peter Graff

SYDNEY/LONDON (Reuters) – Nations in Asia imposed new restrictions on Monday and an abrupt British quarantine on travelers from Spain threw Europe’s summer reopening into disarray, as the world confronted the prospect of a second wave of COVID-19 infections.

In the United States, where infection rates have been climbing since mid-June, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien became the most senior White House official to test positive.

Surges were reported in a number of countries previously singled out as places where the virus was under control.

Australia recorded a record daily rise. Vietnam locked down the city of Danang, forcing tens of thousands of visitors to evacuate. Mainland China confirmed the most new locally transmitted cases since early March. Papua New Guinea shut its borders.

Hong Kong banned gatherings of more than two people, closed down restaurant dining and introduced mandatory face masks in public places, including outdoors.

Just weeks after European countries trumpeted the reopening of tourism, a surge in infections in Spain prompted Britain to order all travelers from there to quarantine for two weeks, torpedoing the travel plans of hundreds of thousands of people.

The World Health Organization said travel restrictions could not be the answer for the long term, and countries had to do more to halt the spread inside their borders by adopting proven strategies such as social distancing and the wearing of masks.

“It is going to be almost impossible for individual countries to keep their borders shut for the foreseeable future. Economies have to open up, people have to work, trade has to resume,” WHO emergencies program director Mike Ryan said.

“What is clear is pressure on the virus pushes the numbers down. Release that pressure and cases creep back up.”

NOT LIKE BEFORE

Officials in some of the European and Asian countries where the virus is again spreading say new outbreaks will not be as bad as the original waves that hit earlier this year, and can be contained with local measures rather than nationwide shutdowns.

But countries that have suffered extreme economic hardship from months of lockdowns are also determined not to let the virus get out of control again, even if that means reversing the path to reopening.

Europe has yet to lift bans on travelers from many countries, including the United States where the White House said national security adviser O’Brien presented no risk of infection for Trump or Vice President Mike Pence.

Britain’s announcement of the return of quarantine for Spain was likely to torpedo the revival of airlines and tourism businesses across the continent, which had thought they had survived their biggest crisis in living memory.

Britain accounts for more than 20% of foreign visitors to Spain, where tourism represents 12% of the economy.

Europe’s biggest airline, Ryanair, cut its annual passenger target by a quarter on Monday and warned a second wave of COVID-19 infections could lower that further.

A British junior health minister said more European countries could end up on the “red list” if infections surge.

“If we see the rates going up, we would have to take action because we cannot take the risk of coronavirus being spread again across the UK,” Helen Whately told Sky News when asked if Germany or France might be next after Spain.

In China, which managed to squelch local transmission through firm lockdowns after the virus first emerged in the central city of Wuhan late last year, a new surge has been driven by infections in the far western region of Xinjiang.

In the northeast, Liaoning province reported a fifth straight day of new infections and Jilin province reported two new cases, its first since late May.

Australian authorities who have imposed a six-week lockdown in parts of the southeastern state of Victoria said it could last longer after the country’s highest daily increase in infections.

“The tragedy of COVID-19 is that we know, with the number of new infections that we have seen today, that there will be many further deaths in the days ahead,” Australian Deputy Chief Medical Officer Michael Kidd told reporters.

In Japan, the government said it would urge business leaders to ramp up anti-virus measures such as staggered shifts, and aimed to see rates of telecommuting return to levels achieved during an earlier state of emergency.

“At one point, commuter numbers were down by 70 to 80%, but now it’s only about 30%,” Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said late on Sunday. “We really don’t want to backtrack on this, so we have to explore new ways of working and keep telecommuting high.”

Vietnam is evacuating 80,000 people, mostly local tourists, from Danang after three residents tested positive at the weekend. Until Saturday, the country had reported no community infections since April.

North Korean state media reported on the weekend that the border town of Kaesong was in lockdown after a person who defected to South Korea three years ago returned this month with symptoms of COVID-19. If confirmed, it would be the first case officially acknowledged by Pyongyang.

Papua New Guinea halted entry for travellers from Monday, except those arriving by air, as it tightens curbs against infections that have more than doubled over the past week.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Stephen Coates and Peter Graff; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Vietnam quarantines rural community of 10,000 because of coronavirus

Vietnam quarantines rural community of 10,000 because of coronavirus
By Phuong Nguyen

HANOI (Reuters) – Vietnam has quarantined a community of 10,000 people near the capital, Hanoi, for 20 days because of fears the coronavirus could spread there, two local officials told Reuters on Thursday.

The rural commune of Son Loi, in the northern Vietnameseprovince of Vinh Phuc, 44 km (27 miles) from Hanoi, is home to11 of the 16 coronavirus cases in the Southeast Asian country,including a three-month-old baby.

“Over 10,000 residents of the commune will not be permitted to leave for the next 20 days, starting from today,” the second of the two the officials told Reuters on Thursday.

“As of this evening, we will still allow those who wish to return home to enter but, in the next few days, this place will be totally be sealed,” the official told Reuters by phone.

Both officials declined to be identified citing the sensitivity of the situation.

The coronavirus arrived in Vinh Phuc after people from the province who had been in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus was first detected, returned home to Vietnam for the Lunar New Year holiday.

The province is home to factories operated by Japan’s Honda and Toyota.

On Wednesday, state media indicated that Vietnam’s Communist-ruled government could completely seal off the Son Loi commune.

On the same day, a Reuters photographer could see checkpoints manned by police and marked by coronavirus warning signs already in place outside Son Loi. People were still allowed to enter and leave the commune, which has a population of 10,641, according to official data.

Health officials wearing protective suits sprayed disinfectant on vehicles at the checkpoints. Local authorities have set up shops and provided food and face masks for residents there, the first official said.

“Everything is still under control,” said the official. “We are trying very hard to stop the virus spreading to other areas and provinces.”

Vietnam declared a public health emergency over the epidemic on Feb. 1 and banned all flights to and from China, where more than 1,300 people have died from the virus.

The southeast Asia country has made plans to quarantine hundreds of Vietnamese citizens returning from China, including 950 at military camps outside Hanoi, and another 900 at temporary facilities on the Vietnam-China border.

(Editing by John Stonestreet and Barbara Lewis)

UK truck deaths cast spotlight on global trade in humans

UK truck deaths cast spotlight on global trade in humans
By K. Sophie Will

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The discovery of 39 bodies in a truck in London last week cast a spotlight on the global trade in human beings and sparked debate about Britain’s approach to tackling smugglers and traffickers.

A British court heard on Monday that a global crime ring had been involved in smuggling the dead – many of whom appear to have come from Vietnam – as the driver of the truck faced charges of manslaughter and human trafficking.

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc on Saturday told authorities to establish whether Vietnamese citizens were among the dead, and to probe allegations of trafficking.

Unlike trafficking, which is control over a person for the purpose of exploitation, smuggling is merely illegal entry into another country – although the latter can turn into the former.

About 10% of the suspected 7,000 slavery victims found in Britain last year were Vietnamese. Most are trafficked for labour such as cannabis cultivation and work in nail salons.

Globally, more than 40 million people are estimated by the United Nations to be trapped in modern slavery as poverty, conflict and climate change fuel the $150-billion-a-year trade.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation asked six anti-slavery experts about how to prevent such deaths from happening again.

SARA THORNTON, BRITAIN’S INDEPENDENT ANTI-SLAVERY COMMISSIONER

“This is a shocking illustration of the cruel and complex issue that is human trafficking in Britain today.

“Whilst we do not yet know the full details of the journeys that these individuals made, this case bears all the hallmarks of human trafficking.

“As we rethink our migration policies, it is essential that the needs of vulnerable migrants are front and centre.

“We need to ensure that new migration policies are stress-tested to ensure that they do not provide opportunities for the traffickers to exploit very vulnerable people.”

MIMI VU, INDEPENDENT ANTI-TRAFFICKING EXPERT IN VIETNAM

“The government and businesses must look at what the root causes are, realising that people that are less educated are more likely to take these risks because they are poor.

“All the work on this has to be done before anyone leaves, as this all has to be done in-country.

“When you address the root causes, you will convince the Vietnamese that this is not worth the risk.

“They have to believe in very concrete meaningful ways that they have a future in Vietnam.

“But we are losing our people to trafficking and slavery.”

LUCILA GRANADA, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF FOCUS ON LABOUR EXPLOITATION

“We must, of course, investigate and punish those who profit from the desperation of people, but to effectively prevent this from happening again we must recognise the role of Britain in driving people into these dangerous routes.

“It is important to recognise that British immigration policies and border control approach have played a key part in restricting their options.

“With no available regular immigration pathways and the constant threat of detention and deportation in transit and upon arrival, those seeking survival in Britain become easy prey.

“This tragedy exposed one more time that prosecuting individual traffickers is not enough. We need to open safe routes of regular migration and end the hostile environment.”

JUSTINE CURRELL, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF UNSEEN

“Whether people get into the back of a lorry through their own volition or from having been forced or coerced, the ultimate penalty is death.

“Even when trafficking and exploitation is not the primary factor of movement, those entering the country illegally and who lack status become increasingly vulnerable and susceptible to abuse and exploitation.

“Awareness-raising in communities and specific source countries to deter people from putting their lives at risk would help to highlight the pitfalls of taking this dangerous course of action.

“Increased targeted checks at the border may also help to root out such movement and any intervention subsequently made before another disaster occurs.”

PHILIPPA SOUTHWELL, LAWYER AT BIRDS SOLICITORS

“Solving this is not simple, but obviously it’s down to the manning of ports. I know it’s difficult to check each vehicle, and it really is impossible to do one-to-one checking on these vehicles, but we can improve the manning of particular ports.

“Particularly in Asia, people living in poverty are promised a better life and are coming to Britain to work and send money back to their families.

“We need to be looking to build better relationships with these countries, realising what the root problems are there and what can be done.”

NAZIR AFZAL, FORMER CHIEF PROSECUTOR IN NORTHERN ENGLAND

“Human trafficking is organised crime from which criminals benefit.

“Demand has to be reduced through deterrence, the closing down of businesses that engage trafficked people. Simultaneously, authorities need to follow the money and identify it, confiscate it, whilst punishing the offenders.

“Trafficked people need to be seen as victims first and last. They need to be supported to give their best evidence against the traffickers, not threatened with deportation.”

(Reporting by K. Sophie Will, Writing by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Postcards from a poisoned coast: Vietnam’s people-smuggling heartland

Postcards from a poisoned coast: Vietnam’s people-smuggling heartland
NGHE AN, Vietnam (Reuters) – The countryside in the Vietnamese provinces of Nghe An and Ha Tinh is dotted with billboards for labor export companies advertising jobs or study overseas.

Thousands of people respond to the lure of a better life abroad every year, but many take the underground route – via smugglers and sometimes dangerous journeys by sea and road.

That phenomenon is now in sharp focus after 39 bodies were discovered in a truck outside London last week.

Many are feared to be Vietnamese from Nghe An and Ha Tinh, rice-growing areas in the northern-central part of the country.

Poor job prospects, encouragement by authorities, smuggling gangs, environmental disaster and government pressure on Catholics are all local factors behind the wave of migrants.

“Almost everyone round here has a relative overseas,” said Bui Thac, whose nephew Bui Phan Thang is feared to be among the container dead.

“Almost all households have someone going abroad. Old people stay but young people must find ways to work abroad because it’s difficult to work at home”.

Impoverished rural communities in Nghe An and Ha Tinh have been plunged into despair amid fears that missing loved ones are among those who died in the tragedy.

LABOR “EXPORTS” A PRIORITY

For Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, the benefits of people legally moving abroad to work are clear.

The People’s Committee of Nghe An issued a report on boosting labor exports this September.

“Labor exports are a priority for the Party and the state’s socio-economic development program to promote job creation, poverty reduction, career development and income generation for the People,” the report on Decision No. 274/2009/NQ-HDND reads.

GDP per capita in both provinces is lower than the national average of $2,540. Last year, people in Nghe An and Ha Tinh earned a total of $1,636 and $2,217 respectively.

But remittances from overseas help. Nghe An alone brought in $255 million a year, according to state media.

“Labor exports are one solution to unemployment,” Nguyen Quang Phu, deputy chairman of Thanh Loc Commune, Can Loc district, told Reuters. “Remittances have helped to improve the lives of the people here”.

Despite economic advantages, the tragedy has exposed the limits of the Communist Party’s ability to govern how people are leaving.

Vibrant Catholic communities and people-trafficking gangs both pose headaches to the party, which rules from Hanoi some 300 km (180 miles) to the north.

A toxic spill that poisoned fishing grounds three years ago is a further incentive to go abroad.

GANGS

Among those who once set out from Nghe An to find work abroad was communist revolutionary and founding president, Ho Chi Minh.

Vietnam’s first billionaire, Pham Nhat Vuong, went to the former Soviet Union in the 1990s before returning to build his Vingroup <VIC.HM> conglomerate. His roots are in Ha Tinh.

“People from these provinces have a long history of going overseas to earn money to send back home, especially during the time of the labor export program to the former Soviet bloc countries,” said Mimi Vu, an independent anti-trafficking advocate based in Ho Chi Minh City.

“After decades of this, the people believe that it’s the only way to be successful and support the family with remittances,” Vu said.

Though impossible to quantify, local residents and people-trafficking experts believe many people leave with the help of smuggling gangs in Vietnam, who charge families thousands of dollars to get a relative overseas.

People-smuggling to Britain has persisted for a long time, and London’s National Crime Agency has posted a liaison officer to the British Embassy in Hanoi who helps combat the problem with Vietnamese police, along with handling other issues.

In an opinion piece published last month, Britain’s Ambassador to Vietnam, Gareth Ward, warned of the dangers of believing promises made by the gangs.

“They are not friends. They are criminals.”

POISONED WATERS

Opportunities for local employment have been hampered by environmental disaster.

Sandwiched between thin sandy beaches and herds of buffalo wallowing in rice paddies, the smoking chimneys of the Formosa Steel plant dominate this small corner of Ha Tinh province.

The steel mill, owned by Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics, was blamed by Hanoi in 2016 for causing one of Vietnam’s worst environmental disasters when a chemical leak poisoned coastal waters, unleashing widespread protests and damaging livelihoods.

“We decided to let my husband work abroad in 2016 when the Formosa incident happened,” said Anna Nguyen, whose husband left Vietnam and traveled illegally to Ukraine, France and then the UK to find work in a nail salon.

“We were afraid that the contamination would harm our health and future so we took the risk. But now our life is so hard,” she said.

Ha Tinh’s state-run newspaper said last month that over 40,000 people leave the province annually for work elsewhere, including overseas.

THE PRIEST

Like Anna Nguyen, many of those feared to have died in the container incident had Catholic names.

Northern-central Vietnam is dotted with clusters of small, Catholic communities, a hangover from France’s conquest. Nghe An is home to 280,000 Catholics, according to state media and 149,000 live in Ha Tinh.

At a special ceremony held in the white-walled My Khanh Catholic church in Yen Thanh, Nghe An province, on Saturday night, father Anthony Dang Huu Nam blamed pollution, social difficulties and natural disasters such as floods and drought for the region’s most recent migrant exodus.

Nam’s outspoken sermons and criticism of Vietnam’s government have earned both him and his church extra attention from the police, another factor encouraging some people to look for a new life elsewhere.

“Why do so many Vietnamese people have to pay lots of money just to be dead?,” Nam said during the ceremony.

“Why is it that, even though Vietnam is not at war anymore, so many people are forced to leave for another land?”

(Writing by James Pearson; Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Mike Collett-White)

U.S. open to North Korea talks despite missile program activity

FILE PHOTO: Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) are driven past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and other high-ranking officials during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of the country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

By David Brunnstrom and Hyonhee Shin

WASHINGTON/SEOUL (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump is open to additional talks with Pyongyang over denuclearization, his national security adviser said on Thursday, despite reports that North Korea is reactivating parts of its missile program.

New activity has been detected at a factory that produced North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the United States, South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo and Donga Ilbo newspapers reported, citing lawmakers briefed by the National Intelligence Service.

This week, two U.S. think tanks and Seoul’s spy agency said North Korea was rebuilding a rocket launch site, prompting Trump to say he would be “very, very disappointed in Chairman Kim” if it were true.

The reports of North Korean activity raise more questions about the future of the dialogue Trump has pursued with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un after a second summit between the two leaders in Vietnam broke down last week.White House national security adviser John Bolton said on Thursday that Trump was still open to additional talks with North Korea over denuclearization.

“The president’s obviously open to talking again. We’ll see when that might be scheduled or how it might work out,” Bolton said in an interview with Fox News.

He said it was too soon to make a determination on the reports of the North Korean activities.

“We have a lot of ways of getting information,” he said. “We’re going to study the situation carefully. As the president said, it would be very, very disappointing if they were taking this direction.”

The Vietnam summit between Kim and Trump last week collapsed over differences on how far North Korea was willing to limit its nuclear program and the degree of U.S. willingness to ease economic sanctions against the isolated country.

Trump, eager for a big foreign policy win on North Korea that has eluded his predecessors for decades, has repeatedly stressed his good relationship with Kim. He went as far late last year as saying they “fell in love,” but the bonhomie has failed so far to bridge the wide gap between the two sides.

MISSILE FACTORY

Movement of cargo vehicles was spotted recently around a North Korean factory at Sanumdong in Pyongyang, which produced ICBMs.

South Korean spy chief Suh Hoon told lawmakers he viewed the activity as missile-related, the JoongAng Ilbo said. It quoted Suh as saying North Korea continued to run its uranium enrichment facility at the main Yongbyon nuclear complex after a first summit between Trump and Kim last June in Singapore.

The Sanumdong factory produced the Hwasong-15 ICBM, which can fly more than 13,000 km (8,080 miles). After its test flight in 2017, North Korea declared the completion of its “state nuclear force,” before pursuing talks with South Korea and the United States last year.

South Korea’s presidential office and defense ministry declined to confirm the reports on Sanumdong, saying they were closely monitoring North Korea’s activities together with the United States.

The U.S. State Department said it could not comment on intelligence matters.

Separately, U.S. think tanks reported on Thursday that North Korea’s Sohae Satellite Launching Station appeared to be operational again after work that began days before Trump met with Kim in Hanoi.

Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank called the work a “snapback” after North Korea partially dismantled the site, acting on a pledge by Kim to Trump at the Singapore summit.

“The rebuilding activities at Sohae demonstrate how quickly North Korea can easily render reversible any steps taken towards scrapping its WMD program with little hesitation,” it said.

“North Korea&rsquo;s actions constitute an affront to the president&rsquo;s diplomatic strategy (and) demonstrate North Korean pique at Trump&rsquo;s refusal to lift economic sanctions during the meetings in Hanoi.”

The Washington-based 38 North think tank also said the Sohae site appeared now to have returned to normal operational status.

FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un makes his way to board a train to depart for North Korea at Dong Dang railway station in Vietnam, March 2, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un makes his way to board a train to depart for North Korea at Dong Dang railway station in Vietnam, March 2, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

SANCTIONS WARNING

Some analysts see the work as aimed at pressing Washington to agree to a deal, rather than as a definite move to resume tests.

A U.S. government source, who did not want to be identified, said North Korea’s plan in rebuilding the site could have been to offer a demonstration of good faith by conspicuously stopping again if a summit pact was struck, while furnishing a sign of defiance or resolve if the meeting failed.

Imagery from Planet Labs Inc analyzed by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California showed activity at Sohae from Feb. 23 until Wednesday.

38 North said photos from Wednesday showed the rail-mounted transfer building used to move rockets at the site was complete, cranes had been removed from the launch pad and the transfer building moved to the end of the pad.

“But we don’t draw any conclusions from that besides they are restoring the facility,” Joel Wit of 38 North told Reuters. “There is no evidence to suggest anything more than that.”

On Wednesday, Bolton, a hardliner who was argued for a tough approach to North Korea in the past, warned of new sanctions if it did not scrap its weapons program.

Despite the sanctions talk, there have been signs across Asia that Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against North Korea has sprung leaks.

In a new sanctions breach, three South Korean companies were found to have brought in more than 13,000 tons of North Korean coal, worth 2.1 billion won ($2 million) since 2017, by making it out to have been produced in China and Vietnam, South Korea said.

North Korean media has given conflicting signals about its relations with the United States, while appearing to target Bolton as a spoiler.

Its state television aired a 78-minute documentary late on Wednesday focused on showing a cordial mood between Trump and Kim as the summit ended, indicating Pyongyang was not about to walk away from negotiations, experts say.

It also showed a stone-faced Bolton during a meeting in Hanoi, while Trump and other U.S. participants were all smiles.

In a return to a more usual, strident tone, the KCNA news agency criticized new small-scale military exercises that the United States and South Korea plan to hold instead of a large-scale spring exercise they have called off.

The news agency said the drills would be a “violent violation” of agreements signed between the United States and North Korea as well as between the two Koreas.

The U.S. and South Korean militaries said last week that they would not carry out a large-scale spring joint military exercises, replacing it with smaller-scale ones.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and David Brunnstrom; additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, David Alexander and Tim Ahmann in Washington and Hyonhee Shin and Joyce Lee in Seoul; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Alistair Bell)

Trump and North Korea’s Kim predict success in high-stakes nuclear summit

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands before their one-on-one chat during the second U.S.-North Korea summit at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

By Soyoung Kim and Jeff Mason

HANOI (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump met in Vietnam on Wednesday for a second summit that the United States hopes will persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for promises of peace and development.

Kim and Trump shook hands and smiled briefly in front of a row of their national flags at the Metropole hotel in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, before heading to dinner together.

Trump told reporters he thought the talks would be very successful, and asked if he was “walking back” on denuclearization, said “no”.

At their historic first summit in Singapore last June, Trump and Kim pledged to work toward denuclearization and permanent peace on the Korean peninsula but little progress has been made.

Kim said they had overcome obstacles to hold their second summit and praised Trump for his “courageous decision” to begin a dialogue.

“Now that we’re meeting here again like this, I’m confident that there will be an excellent outcome that everyone welcomes, and I’ll do my best to make it happen,” Kim said.

Trump and Kim held a 20-minute, one-on-one chat before sitting down to dinner with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Trump’s acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Kim’s top envoy, Kim Yong Chol, and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho.

On Thursday, the two leaders will hold a series of meetings, the White House said. The venue has not been announced.

“We’re going to have a very busy day tomorrow,” said a smiling, relaxed-looking Trump, seated beside Kim at a round table with the other four officials and two interpreters.

“Our relationship is a very special relationship.”

Experts said the pair were at pains to show their relationship had improved since their first meeting, with their body language closely mirroring each other.

A child with stickers of the North Korean and Vietnamese flags on her face reacts at the Vietnam-North Korea Friendship kindergarten, founded by North Korean Government in Hanoi, ahead of the North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi, Vietnam February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

A child with stickers of the North Korean and Vietnamese flags on her face reacts at the Vietnam-North Korea Friendship kindergarten, founded by North Korean Government in Hanoi, ahead of the North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi, Vietnam February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

GOOD RELATIONS

Trump said late last year he and Kim “fell in love”, but whether the bonhomie can move them beyond summit pageantry to substantive progress on eliminating Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal that threatens the United States is the question that will dominate the talks.

Trump and Kim’s Singapore summit, the first meeting between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader, ended with great fanfare but little substance over how to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

In the run-up to this summit, Trump has indicated a more flexible stance, saying he was in no rush to secure North Korea’s denuclearization. He repeated that on Wednesday, saying while some people believed the talks should be moving more quickly, he was satisfied.

He has also said he would be happy as long as North Korea, which has not tested a nuclear weapon or intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017, maintained that freeze.

Some critics have said Trump appeared to be wavering on a long-standing U.S. demand for complete and irreversible denuclearization by North Korea and risked squandering leverage if he gave away too much, too quickly.

Asked if he would declare a formal end to the Korean War, which North Korea has long called for, Trump said: “We’ll see.”

North and South Korea have been technically at war since their 1950-53 conflict, with the Americans backing the South, ended in a truce, not a treaty.

Evans Revere, a former U.S. negotiator with North Korea, said Trump was under pressure, given the criticism and other domestic problems, and Kim might try to use that.

“Kim may be tempted to push Trump even harder for concessions, knowing how much the president wants and needs that testing pause,” Revere said.

Students from Nguyen Du secondary school hold U.S. and Vietnam flags outside the Presidential Palace, as they wait for wait to greet U.S. President Donald Trump, in Hanoi, Vietnam, February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

Students from Nguyen Du secondary school hold U.S. and Vietnam flags outside the Presidential Palace, as they wait for wait to greet U.S. President Donald Trump, in Hanoi, Vietnam, February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

‘AWESOME’ POTENTIAL

U.S. intelligence officials have said there is no sign North Korea will ever give up its entire arsenal of nuclear weapons, which it sees as its guarantee of national security. Analysts say it won’t commit to significant disarmament unless punishing U.S.-led economic sanctions are eased.

The two sides have discussed specific and verifiable denuclearization measures, such as allowing inspectors to observe the dismantlement of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor, U.S. and South Korean officials say.

U.S. concessions could include opening liaison offices or clearing the way for inter-Korean projects.

Despite little progress on his goal of ridding North Korea of its weapons programs, Trump appeared to be betting on his personal relationship with Kim, and the economic incentive after 70 years of hostility between their countries.

“Vietnam is thriving like few places on earth. North Korea would be the same, and very quickly, if it would denuclearize,” Trump said on Twitter ahead of the meeting.

“The potential is AWESOME, a great opportunity, like almost none other in history, for my friend Kim Jong Un. We will know fairly soon – Very Interesting!”

For Trump, a deal that eases the North Korean threat could hand him a big foreign-policy achievement in the midst of domestic troubles.

While he is in Hanoi, his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen is testifying before U.S. congressional committees, with the president’s business practices the main focus.

Cohen, in wide-ranging testimony he is due to deliver on Wednesday, refers to a comment Trump made to him about avoiding the U.S. military draft for the Vietnam War on medical grounds: “‘You think I’m stupid, I wasn’t going to Vietnam’,” Cohen cited Trump as saying.

“I find it ironic, President Trump, that you are in Vietnam right now,” Cohen said in a draft statement seen by Reuters.

Trump, responding to the statement on Twitter, said Cohen was lying to reduce his prison time. He declined to respond when a reporter asked him about Cohen later.

 

(Reporting by Soyoung Kim and Jeff Mason in HANOI; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin, James Pearson, Mai Nyugen, Ju-min Park, Khanh Vu, Josh Smith in HANOI, David Brunnstrom and Matt Spetalnick in WASHINGTON; Editing by Robert Birsel and Lincoln Feast)

North Korea warns U.S. skeptics as Kim heads for summit with Trump

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves from a train as he departs for a summit in Hanoi, in Pyongyang, North Korea in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on February 23, 2019. KCNA via REUTERS

By Jack Kim and Josh Smith

HANOI (Reuters) – North Korea warned President Donald Trump on Sunday not to listen to U.S. critics who were disrupting efforts to improve ties, as its leader, Kim Jong Un, made his way across China by train to a second summit with Trump in Vietnam.

The two leaders will meet in Hanoi on Wednesday and Thursday, eight months after their historic summit in Singapore, the first between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader, where they pledged to work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

But their vaguely worded agreement has produced few results and U.S. Democratic senators and U.S. security officials have warned Trump against cutting a deal that would do little to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

The North’s KCNA state news agency said such opposition was aimed at derailing the talks.

“If the present U.S. administration reads others’ faces, lending an ear to others, it may face the shattered dream of the improvement of the relations with the DPRK and world peace and miss the rare historic opportunity,” the news agency said in a commentary, referring to North Korea by the initials of its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The Trump administration has pressed the North to give up its nuclear weapons program, which, combined with its missile capabilities, pose a threat to the United States, before it can expect any concessions.

But in recent days Trump has signaled a possible softening, saying he would love to be able to remove sanctions if there is meaningful progress on denuclearization.

Trump also said he was in no rush and had no pressing schedule for North Korea’s denuclearization, hinting at a more gradual, reciprocal approach, long favored by Pyongyang.

The North also wants security guarantees and a formal end of the 1950-1953 Korean War, which ended in a truce, not a treaty.

Trump said on Sunday that he and Kim expect to make further progress at this week’s summit and again held out the promise that denuclearization would help North Korea develop its economy.

He also said Chinese President Xi Jinping has been supportive of Trump’s meeting with Kim. “The last thing China wants are large scale nuclear weapons right next door.”

TRUMP SCOFFS AT CRITICS

Trump scoffed at critics of his handling of North Korea.

“So funny to watch people who have failed for years, they got NOTHING, telling me how to negotiate with North Korea. But thanks anyway!” he said in a tweet.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told “Fox News Sunday” that North Korea has yet to take “concrete” steps on denuclearization and said another summit might be needed beyond the one in Hanoi, but that he hoped for substantial progress this week.

“The alternative to giving up his nuclear weapons is remaining a pariah state, remaining a nation that is unable to trade, unable to grow, unable to take care of its own people,” Pompeo said of Kim in an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union.”

In a letter to Trump last week, three Democratic chairmen of key committees in the House of Representatives accused the administration of withholding information on the negotiations with North Korea.

“There are ample reasons to be skeptical that Chairman Kim is committed to a nuclear-free North Korea,” the lawmakers wrote.

U.S. intelligence officials recently testified to Congress that North Korea was unlikely to ever give up its entire nuclear arsenal.

The New York Times reported on Sunday that Pompeo has conceded in private discussions with Korea experts that he would be lucky if North Korea agreed to dismantle 60 percent of what the United States has demanded, although he added that it would still be more than any other administration had achieved.

The State Department declined to comment on the report.

KCNA, referring to U.S. fears of the North’s weapons, said if this week’s talks ended without results, “the U.S. people will never be cleared of the security threats that threw them into panic”.

Few details of Kim’s trip to Vietnam were announced until early on Sunday, when North Korean state media confirmed he had left Pyongyang by train, accompanied by senior officials as well as his influential sister, Kim Yo Jong.

RED CARPET SEND-OFF

In rare, revealing coverage of Kim’s travel, the North’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper featured photographs of the leader getting a red-carpet send-off on Saturday afternoon and waving from a train door while holding a cigarette.

He was joined by top officials also involved in the Singapore summit, including Kim Yong Chol, former spy chief and Kim’s top envoy in negotiations with the United States, as well as senior party aide Ri Su Yong, Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and defense chief No Kwang Chol.

Other senior officials, such as his de facto chief of staff, Kim Chang Son, and Kim Hyok Chol, negotiations counterpart to U.S. envoy Stephen Biegun, were already in Hanoi to prepare for the summit.

Both sides are under pressure to forge more specific agreements than were reached in Singapore.

The two leaders are likely to try to build on their personal connection to push things forward in Hanoi, even if only incrementally, analysts said.

“They will not make an agreement which breaks up the current flow of diplomacy. (President Trump) has mentioned that they’ll meet again; even if there is a low-level agreement, they will seek to keep things moving,” said Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

Few details of summit arrangements have been released.

Some lamp posts on Hanoi’s tree-lined streets are decked with North Korean, U.S. and Vietnamese flags fluttering above a handshake design, and security has been stepped up at locations that could be the summit venue, or where the leaders might stay.

It could take Kim at least 2-1/2 days to travel to Vietnam by train.

(Additional reporting by Joyce Lee, Ju-min Park, Soyoung Kim, Hyonhee Shin, James Pearson, and Ginger Gibson in Washington; Editing by Robert Birsel and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Trump won’t rush North Korea on denuclearization; peace deal possible

A person walks past a banner showing North Korean and U.S. flags ahead of the North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, February 25, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Hyonhee Shin

HANOI (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un will hold a second summit this week with no real expectation of a final deal on ridding the North of nuclear weapons but raised hopes on Monday for an official peace on the peninsula at long last.

The two leaders are due to meet in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, on Wednesday and Thursday, eight months after their historic summit in Singapore, the first between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader.

At the time, they pledged to work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, but their vague agreement has produced few results. U.S. Democratic senators and security officials have warned Trump against cutting a deal that would do little to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

Trump, speaking in Washington on the eve of his departure for Vietnam, said he believed he saw eye to eye with Kim and that they had developed “a very, very good relationship”.

In a tweet on Monday, Trump stressed the benefits to North Korea if it gave up its nuclear weapons.

“With complete Denuclearization, North Korea will rapidly become an Economic Powerhouse. Without it, just more of the same. Chairman Kim will make a wise decision!”

Vietnamese police leave their headquarters to patrol ahead of the upcoming North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi, Vietnam February 25, 2019. Doan Tan/VNA via REUTERS

Vietnamese police leave their headquarters to patrol ahead of the upcoming North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi, Vietnam February 25, 2019. Doan Tan/VNA via REUTERS

A South Korean presidential spokesman told reporters in Seoul the two sides might agree to a formal end of the 1950-1953 Korean War, which the North has long called for as a major step towards normalizing ties.

“The possibility is there,” the spokesman, Kim Eui-kyeom told a briefing in Seoul when asked if an end-of-war declaration was on the agenda.

In a speech on Sunday night, Trump appeared to play down any hope of a major breakthrough, saying he would be happy as long as North Korea maintained its pause on weapons testing.

“I’m not in a rush. I don’t want to rush anybody,” he said. “I just don’t want testing. As long as there’s no testing, we’re happy.”

Trump is expected to leave for Vietnam at about 12:30 p.m. EST (1730 GMT).

North Korea conducted its last nuclear test, its sixth, in September 2017. It last tested an intercontinental ballistic missile in November 2017.

Before that freeze, the North conducted a series of tests that it says has given it powerful nuclear bombs and missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.

The United States has for years demanded North Korea’s complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization before any concessions will be granted. North Korea denounced that stance as unilateral and “gangster-like”.

But in recent days, Trump has signaled a possible softening, saying he would love to be able to remove tough sanctions if there was meaningful progress on denuclearization.

Trump said he and Kim expected to make progress at the summit. He scoffed at critics of his handling of North Korea, and added that Chinese President Xi Jinping has been supportive of U.S. efforts.

A man walks past a banner depicting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump ahead of the North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, February 25, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

A man walks past a banner depicting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump ahead of the North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, February 25, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

LIMITED DEAL?

Speculation that the Trump administration is open to a limited deal at the summit has raised expectations the two sides might finally declare an end to a technical state of hostilities that has existed on the Korean peninsula since the Korean War ended with an armistice, not a truce.

In return, North Korea could allow international inspectors to observe the dismantlement of its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, analysts say.

The United States could also agree to opening U.S.-North Korea liaison offices and allow some inter-Korean projects, provided the North takes steps toward denuclearization.

South Korea&rsquo;s President Moon Jae-in, who supports opening up North Korea, praised both Trump and Kim in comments in Seoul, and said those opposed to better ties on the peninsula, and between North Korea and the United States, should “discard such biased perspectives”.

Trump is scheduled to arrive in Vietnam on Tuesday evening, Vietnam’s foreign ministry said. On Wednesday morning, Trump is set to meet Vietnam President Nguyen Phu Trong, who is also general secretary of the ruling Communist Party, the ministry said.

Vietnam has released few details about arrangements for the summit including its specific venue or timing.

Kim is making his way to Vietnam by train and passed through the Chinese city of Hengyang at about 3.30 p.m. (0730 GMT), South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.

That means he would be due to arrive in Vietnam early on Tuesday. No official details of his travel have been released.

(Additional reporting by Mai Nguyen and Josh Smith in HANOI and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Bill Berkrot)