North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sent a congratulatory message to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II as London kicked off celebrations to mark her 70 years on the throne, Pyongyang’s foreign ministry said.
London and Pyongyang established diplomatic relations in 2000 and have maintained their respective embassies, despite North Korea’s worsening ties with the West over its nuclear and other weapons development.
“I send my congratulations to you and your people on the occasion of the national day of your country, the official anniversary of your Majesty’s birthday,” Kim said in the message to the queen, which the foreign ministry said was sent on Thursday.
The British Embassy in Pyongyang is currently closed due to the rigid entry and exit restrictions imposed by North Korea in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Last year, Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency reported that Queen Elizabeth had sent Kim a congratulatory message on the anniversary of the country’s founding, which falls every year on September 9.
“As the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea celebrate their National Day, I send my good wishes for the future,” the queen said in the message at the time, referring to the country by its official name, according to KCNA.
The North has conducted 17 weapons tests this year, including test-firing an intercontinental ballistic missile at the full range for the first time in nearly five years.
Washington and Seoul have both warned that Kim is poised to conduct another nuclear test any day now.
Tens of thousands of people cheered the queen in London on Thursday as the nation began its four-day celebrations for her platinum jubilee.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has repeated his warning that Pyongyang could “preemptively” use its nuclear weaponry to counter hostile forces, state media reported Saturday.
Kim told top military officers that to “maintain the absolute superiority” of North Korea’s armed forces, the country should be able to “preemptively and thoroughly contain and frustrate all dangerous attempts and threatening moves… if necessary,” the official KCNA news agency reported.
Pyongyang should continue to build up its arsenal so that it can have the “overwhelming military muscle that no force in the world can provoke,” Kim said, calling it the “lifeline guaranteeing the security of our country”.
The leader’s comments followed similar remarks at a military parade on Monday when he said he could use his atomic arsenal if North Korea’s “fundamental interests” were threatened.
Kim made his latest comments at a meeting with top brass to praise their work on Monday’s parade, which commemorated the 90th anniversary of the country’s armed forces and showcased its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Despite biting sanctions, North Korea has doubled down on Kim’s military modernisation drive, test-firing a slew of banned weapons this year while ignoring US offers of talks.
Last month Pyongyang test-fired an ICBM at the full range for the first time since 2017, and satellite imagery has shown signs of activity at a nuclear testing site.
The string of weapons tests comes as South Korea prepares for an incoming president, Yoon Suk-yeol, who takes a more hawkish approach to Pyongyang and has not ruled out a preemptive strike if necessary.
Analysts say Kim’s warning shows he is not open to dialogue with Seoul’s new government.
“Kim’s remarks demonstrate no interest in engaging with the incoming Yoon administration in South Korea or restarting denuclearisation talks with the United States,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul.
North Korea’s state media boasted Sunday that its armed forces had “gained invincible power” under leader Kim Jong Un as it prepares for a major army holiday that analysts say could be marked with a military parade or major weapons test.
North Korea on Monday celebrates the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army and the nuclear-armed country has staged military parades in the past to mark key holidays.
Pyongyang has carried out more than a dozen weapons tests this year, including firing an intercontinental ballistic missile at full range for the first time since 2017.
A report by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency listed the history of the country’s military achievements, from its battles against the United States in the 1950-53 Korean War to smaller conflicts.
“All the people of the country are looking back deeply on the history of the 100 victory of our revolutionary armed forces,” it said.
The report added Kim had further propelled the country’s military might with his “genius military ideology, excellent military command and unparalleled courage and guts”.
“Our revolutionary armed forces have gained invincible power that the world cannot ignore,” it said, in an apparent reference to the North’s nuclear arsenal.
Signs that Pyongyang was preparing for its “biggest ever military parade” to mark the upcoming anniversary have been detected, Yonhap news agency reported, citing multiple unnamed government sources.
The parade was likely to take place at midnight, the report said, involving around 20,000 troops and the North’s most sophisticated weaponry including the “monster” Hwasong-17 ICBM as well as hypersonic and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
North Korea had been widely expected to showcase its military strength to mark the 110th anniversary of the birth of its founding leader and Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung on April 15, but instead, the day was celebrated with a civilian parade.
Satellite imagery has also shown continued preparations, with thousands of North Korean troops and scores of vehicles marching in formation at a parade training ground in Pyongyang.
“Typically, troops depart the training ground as soon as the parade is complete, so their presence further indicates an upcoming event,” Martyn Williams, a fellow at the Stimson Center, wrote on the 38 North website.
US and South Korean officials and analysts have also warned Pyongyang could resume nuclear weapons testing for the first time since 2017, citing renewed activity at its key testing site.
Galloping through the forest atop a white horse, Kim Jong Un stars in a new North Korean propaganda video that touts his economic leadership but ignores a recent spate of sanctions-busting missile launches.
Pyongyang started the year by conducting a record seven weapons tests, including firing its most powerful missile since 2017, raising fears Kim could restart long-range or nuclear testing.
But the government-produced documentary released this week highlights Kim’s struggle to right the country’s battered economy, which is reeling from a years-long blockade due to the coronavirus and international sanctions.
“The overriding theme of the documentary is Kim’s devotion to and hard work for the people,” Rachel Minyoung Lee, a non-resident fellow with the 38 North programme at the Washington-based Stimson Center, told AFP.
The video is bookended by footage of Kim riding a white horse, a key symbol of the Kim family’s dynastic rule.
But “I don’t think we should read too much into the horse scenes, much less link them to North Korea’s recent missile launches and North Korea’s missile test plans,” Lee said.
With talks with Washington stalled, North Korea has doubled down on Kim’s vow to modernise the regime’s armed forces, despite reports of soaring food prices and worsening hunger.
The propaganda film makes coded reference to the country’s “worst-ever hardships” in 2021, showing footage of Kim carefully making his way down stairs as a narrator describes how his “body has been completely withered away” by hard work.
This is an attempt to “humanise” Kim, Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, told AFP.
“They are trying to paint him as a leader who very much loves his people and, as a result, is often overworked and gets tired,” Yang said.
North Korea is preparing to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the birth of late leader Kim Jong Il in February as well as the 110th birthday of founder Kim Il Sung in April.
The shots of Kim thundering along on a white horse “are being used to remind viewers that Kim Jong Un is the descendent of Kim Il Sung, who is very much a sacred figure”, Yang said.
Other videos of Kim released this week by the state-run KCTV showed Kim, wife Ri Sol Ju and aunt Kim Kyong Hui attending a theatre event.
Kim Kyong Hui was rumoured to have died following the execution of her reform-minded husband, Jang Song Thaek, only for her to reappear at a public event six years later.
The slew of videos released around the Lunar New Year could be an attempt to highlight Kim’s vitality, Cheong Seong-chang of the Center for North Korea Studies at the Sejong Institute, told AFP.
“The horse-riding scenes, in particular, seem to have been produced to show off his health at home and abroad.”
“It shows his strong determination and motivation for the new year.”
Kim Jong Un personally oversaw the successful test of a hypersonic missile, state media said Wednesday and urged North Korea to press ahead with building more “strategic military muscle” despite international sanctions over its nuclear weapons programme.
Pictures in state media showed Kim using binoculars to observe the second missile launch by the nuclear-armed nation in less than a week.
Hypersonic missiles are listed among the “top priority” tasks for strategic weapons development in North Korea’s five-year plan.
After the launch, Kim said North Korea must “further accelerate the efforts to steadily build up the country’s strategic military muscle both in quality and quantity and further modernize the army”, according to KCNA.
The Tuesday test, which came as the UN Security Council met in New York to discuss Pyongyang’s weapons programme, sparked swift condemnation, with the US State Department branding it a “threat… to the international community.”
It was the third reported North Korean test of a hypersonic gliding missile. The first, which took place four months ago, was followed by one last week.
North Korea’s state news agency KCNA said the most recent test demonstrated “the superior manoeuverability of the hypersonic glide vehicle”. It also claimed it accurately hit a target some 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) away.
South Korea’s military, which had cast doubt on Pyongyang’s initial claims, said the missile launched on Tuesday had reached hypersonic speeds and showed clear signs of “progress” from last week’s test.
The missile flew 700 kilometres (435 miles) at an altitude of about 60 kilometres (37 miles) at Mach 10 speed, Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
Hypersonic missiles travel at speeds of at least Mach 5 — five times the speed of sound — and can manoeuvre mid-flight, making them harder to track and intercept.
“Everything about this test is a reminder that North Korea is all-in on a new military modernization campaign,” Ankit Panda of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said on Twitter Wednesday.
“Kim’s working his way down his 8th Party Congress wish list and is once again personally guiding tests,” Panda said, referring to a recent meeting of high-level North Korean officials.
Russia, the United States, and China have all reported successfully testing hypersonic glide missiles. Russia is generally seen as the world leader in technology.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said the weapon was not ready for deployment.
“Nonetheless, Pyongyang’s ability to threaten its neighbours continues to grow,” he said.
The fact that Kim attended the missile test indicates that North Korea is satisfied with the level of progress, said Lim Eul-chul, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul.
“Since … the test was the final verification, additional tests of hypersonic missiles, at least, are not expected for a while,” Lim said.
– Stalled talks – The tests come as North Korea has refused to respond to US appeals for talks.
At a key meeting last month of North Korea’s ruling party, Kim vowed to continue building up the country’s defence capabilities, without mentioning the United States.
Dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang remains stalled, and the country is under multiple sets of international sanctions over its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
The impoverished nation has also been under a rigid self-imposed coronavirus blockade that has hammered its economy.
The influential sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Friday said it was “admirable” of the South to propose a formal end to the Korean War but demanded Seoul first drop its “hostile policies” towards Pyongyang.
Kim Yo Jong’s remarks, carried by Pyongyang’s official KCNA news agency, were in response to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s recent calls for declaring an official end to the 1950-53 conflict that ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, leaving the two sides technically at war for more than half a century.
In a speech at the UN General Assembly earlier this week, Moon proposed the declaration of an end to the conflict that broke out 71 years ago, stressing such an act would “make irreversible progress in denuclearisation and usher in an era of complete peace”.
Kim, a key policy adviser to her brother Kim Jong Un, said it was an “admirable idea” to propose a formal end to the war but insisted the South should remove its hostile attitude first.
Making such a declaration with “double-dealing standards, prejudice, and hostile policies” still in place “does not make any sense,” she said.
“For the termination of the war to be declared, respect for each other should be maintained and prejudiced viewpoint, inveterate hostile policy, and unequal double standards must be removed first,” she said.
She added making such a declaration would “hold no water and would change nothing” under current conditions.
But the North would be willing to have talks on improving ties with Seoul if the South withdrew hostility “after breaking with the past when it often provoked us”.
Kim Yo Jong last week accused Moon of “slander” after both Koreas carried out missile launches.
North Korea carried out two missile firings this month alone, one involving a long-range cruise missile and the other short-range ballistic missiles.
Moon described Pyongyang’s recent launches as “provocations” when he oversaw a successful test-firing of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) last week, making the South one of a handful of nations with the advanced technology.
That prompted Kim Yo Jong to condemn Seoul’s “illogical attitude that describes their similar behaviour as a legitimate action to support peace, and ours as a threat to peace”.
Communications between the North and South have largely been cut in the aftermath of a second US-North summit in Hanoi that collapsed in February 2019 as then-president Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un couldn’t agree on the terms of an agreement.
President Joe Biden warned North Korea Thursday that the United States will “respond accordingly” if it escalates its weapons testing, after Pyongyang fired two suspected ballistic missiles into the sea in its first substantive provocation of the new US administration.
The nuclear-armed North has a long history of using weapons tests to ramp up tensions, in a carefully calibrated process to try to forward its objectives.
Biden said that the United States was “consulting with our partners and allies,” and warned North Korea that “there will be responses if they choose to escalate. We will respond accordingly.”
“I’m also prepared for some form of diplomacy, but it has to be conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization,” he added.
Pyongyang had been biding its time since the new administration took office, not even officially acknowledging its existence until last week.
But Seoul’s joint chiefs of staff said the North fired two short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan, known as the East Sea in Korea, from South Hamgyong province.
They travelled 450 kilometres (280 miles) and reached a maximum altitude of 60 kilometres, the JCS added, and after an emergency meeting South Korea’s National Security Council expressed “deep concern” at the launch.
North Korea is banned from developing any ballistic missiles under UN Security Council resolutions, and is under multiple international sanctions over its weapons programs.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was unequivocal, telling reporters that “North Korea launched two ballistic missiles” which Tokyo said came down outside the waters of Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
It had been a year since the last such incident, he added, saying: “This threatens the peace and security of our country and the region. It is also a violation of the UN resolution.”
Rebukes poured in from Germany, France and Britain which, in addition to Biden, each condemned the tests as violations of UN Security Council resolutions.
Britain’s Asia minister Nigel Adams also warned North Korea to refrain from further provocations and “engage in meaningful negotiations with the US.”
At Washington’s request, the UN North Korea sanctions committee will meet Friday morning behind closed doors, according to diplomatic sources, although no public statement is expected.
– ‘Familiar pattern’ – Biden said Thursday that North Korea was the top foreign policy issue he was watching.
Pyongyang has made rapid progress in its capabilities under North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, testing missiles capable of reaching the entire continental United States as tensions mounted in 2017.
Ex-US president Donald Trump’s first year in office was marked by a series of escalating launches, accompanied by a war of words between him and Kim.
The two then embarked on an extraordinary diplomatic bromance, holding two headline-grabbing summits in Singapore and Vietnam.
The United States pulled back on some joint military exercises with South Korea while the North froze intercontinental ballistic missile tests.
But the February 2019 Hanoi summit broke up over sanctions relief and what North Korea would be willing to give up in return.
Communications then dried up, despite a third encounter in the Demilitarized Zone that divides the Korean peninsula, and no substantive progress was made towards denuclearization.
“North Korea appears to be returning to a familiar pattern of using provocations to raise tensions and garner attention,” said Jean Lee of the Wilson Center in Washington.
Pyongyang carried out a series of weapons tests last year that it called “long-range artillery” but others described as short-range ballistic missiles.
“I suspect the Biden administration will confront any confirmed ballistic missile launches that violate UN Security Council resolutions,” Lee said.
– Asia outreach – Thursday’s launch comes after Pyongyang fired two short-range, non-ballistic missiles in a westerly direction towards China at the weekend, which US officials played down as not violating UN resolutions.
That launch followed joint exercises by the US and South Korean militaries and a visit to the region by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to discuss alliance and security issues.
During their trip to Seoul and Tokyo, Blinken repeatedly stressed the importance of denuclearizing North Korea.
Biden administration officials say they have sought to reach out to Pyongyang through several channels but have received no response so far.
They are now finalizing a strategy that the White House will discuss with Japanese and South Korean security officials next week.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledged to strengthen his country’s nuclear arsenal as he delivered his closing address to a top ruling party meeting, state television showed Wednesday, days before Joe Biden takes office as US president.
Kim is looking to grab the attention of the incoming Biden administration, analysts say, with his country more isolated than ever after closing its borders to protect itself against the coronavirus pandemic.
A nuclear summit between Kim and outgoing US President Donald Trump in Hanoi in February 2019 broke down over sanctions relief and what Pyongyang would be willing to give up in return.
“While strengthening our nuclear war deterrent, we need to do everything in order to build the most powerful military,” Kim told the Workers’ Party congress, footage broadcast on Korea Central Television showed.
Thousands of delegates and attendees — none of them wearing masks — repeatedly rose to their feet in the cavernous April 25 House of Culture venue to interrupt his speech with applause.
Earlier in the eight-day meeting, which has lasted twice as long as the previous gathering in 2016, Kim called the US “the fundamental obstacle to the development of our revolution and our foremost principal enemy”.
Its policy towards the North “will never change, whoever comes into power”, he added, without mentioning Biden by name.
The North had completed plans for a nuclear-powered submarine, he said — a strategic game-changer — and offered a shopping list including hypersonic gliding warheads, military reconnaissance satellites and solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
The North’s weapons programmes have made rapid progress under Kim, and at a parade in October it showed off a huge new ICBM that analysts said was the largest road-mobile, liquid-fuelled missile in the world.
The change of leadership in Washington presents a challenge for Pyongyang: Biden is associated with the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” approach and characterised Kim as a “thug” during the presidential debates.
The North, meanwhile, has called Biden a “rabid dog” that “must be beaten to death with a stick”.
Kim and Trump had a tumultuous relationship, engaging in mutual insults and threats of war before an extraordinary diplomatic bromance featuring headline-grabbing summits and declarations of love by the outgoing US president.
Kim’s latest comments built on his rhetoric earlier in the congress while leaving a door open for dialogue, said Hong Min of the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
“It is a message to the US that it will continue to build up its strategic arsenal unless the US changes its course on North Korea policy,” he told AFP.
“If Washington treats it nicely, it will act nice, but if it treats it harshly, it will act harshly too.”
– ‘Senseless’ – The congress is the top ruling party gathering, a grand political set-piece that reinforces the regime’s authority and can serve as a platform for announcements of policy shifts or elite personnel changes.
At the gathering, Kim was named the party General Secretary, a title previously reserved for his father and predecessor Kim Jong Il, in what analysts said was a move to reinforce his authority.
The official KCNA news agency reported that the congress will be followed on Sunday by a meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the North’s rubber-stamp legislature.
The North’s economy is struggling in the face of its self-imposed coronavirus blockade, chronic mismanagement and sanctions, and Kim repeatedly admitted to the party delegates that mistakes had been made.
And his influential sister and close adviser Kim Yo Jong indicated that a military parade had been scheduled to accompany the congress.
In a statement carried by KCNA, she derided the “idiot” authorities in Seoul for a “senseless” declaration this week by the South’s joint chiefs of staff about a possible military parade in Pyongyang that she said demonstrated a “hostile attitude”.
“We are only holding a military parade in the capital city, not military exercises targeting anybody nor launch of anything.”
Kim Yo Jong had appeared to suffer a demotion at the party congress, not being listed as a party central committee appointee after previously being an alternate member.
But the issuing of a statement in her own name is an indication she remains a key player in the North’s diplomacy, having been behind its destruction of a liaison office on its side of the border last year.
The South’s President Moon Jae-in brokered the talks process between Kim and Trump, and said in his New Year address on Monday that Seoul remained willing to talk to Pyongyang “at any time and any place”, including online.
But since the process with Washington became deadlocked, the North has repeatedly said it has no interest in discussions with the South.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said the United States is his nuclear-armed nation’s “biggest enemy”, state media reported Saturday.
The declaration comes less than two weeks before the inauguration of Joe Biden as US president, and after a tumultuous relationship between Kim and the outgoing Donald Trump.
Kim and Trump first engaged in a war of words and mutual threats, before an extraordinary diplomatic bromance that featured headline-grabbing summits and declarations of love by the US president.
But no substantive progress was made, with the process deadlocked after a meeting in Hanoi broke up over sanctions relief and what the North would be willing to give up in return.
Pyongyang “should focus and be developed on subverting the US, the biggest obstacle for our revolution and our biggest enemy”, Kim told the five-yearly congress of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, the official KCNA news agency reported.
“No matter who is in power, the true nature of its policy against North Korea will never change,” it quoted him as saying, without mentioning Biden by name.
Pyongyang has poured vast amounts of resources into developing its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, which it says it needs to defend itself against a possible US invasion.
The programmes have made rapid progress under Kim, including by far its most powerful nuclear blast to date and missiles capable of reaching the whole US, at a cost of increasingly stringent international sanctions.
The North has completed plans for a nuclear-powered submarine, Kim said — something that would change the strategic balance.
“New planning research for a nuclear-powered submarine has been completed and is to enter the final examination process,” Kim told the congress.
The country should “further advance nuclear technology” and develop small-sized, lightweight nuclear warheads “to be applied differently depending on target subjects”, he added.
The comments came in Kim’s nine-hour work report to the meeting, spread over three days, which KCNA was reporting in detail for the first time.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un issued a rare apology Friday over what he described as the “unexpected and disgraceful” killing of a South Korean at sea, Seoul’s presidential office said.
Apologies from the North — let alone attributed to Kim personally — are extremely unusual, and the message comes with inter-Korean ties in deep freeze as well as a stand-off in nuclear negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington.
Analysts said the North was looking to placate its neighbour after the shooting — the first time its forces killed a Southern citizen for a decade — provoked outrage in the South.
The fisheries official was shot dead on Tuesday by North Korean soldiers, and Seoul says his body was set on fire while still in the water, apparently as a precaution against coronavirus infection.
Kim was “very sorry” for the “unexpected and disgraceful event” that had “disappointed President Moon and South Koreans”, rather than helping them in the face of the “malicious coronavirus”, said Suh Hoon, the South’s National Security Adviser.
Suh was reading out a letter from the department of the North’s ruling party responsible for relations with the South.
In it, Pyongyang acknowledged firing around 10 shots at the man, who had “illegally entered our waters” and refused to properly identify himself.
Border guards fired at him in accordance with standing instructions, it said.
There was no immediate confirmation of the contents from the North, whose state media did not mention the incident on Friday.
North Korean defector turned Seoul-based researcher Ahn Chan-il said it was “extremely rare for the North’s supreme commander to offer an apology, especially to South Koreans and their President”.
“I think this is the first since the 1976 Korean axe murder incident,” he said, referring to the killing of two US officers in the Demilitarized Zone that divides the peninsula.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, added: “Kim Jong Un’s supposed apology reduces the risk of escalation between the two Koreas and keeps the Moon government’s hopes for engagement alive.”
It was a “diplomatic move” which “avoids a potential fight in the short-term and preserves the option of reaping longer-term benefits from Seoul”, he said.
– ‘Abominable act’ –
The killing provoked fury in the South, with President Moon Jae-in — a consistent advocate of better relations with Pyongyang — saying it was “shocking” and could not be tolerated for any reason.
In an editorial Friday, the Korea JoongAng Daily said it was “enraged at the North’s abominable act”.
“The act of murdering an unarmed man and burning his body cannot be excused in any way,” it said.
The man — who was wearing a life jacket — disappeared from a patrol vessel near the western border island of Yeonpyeong on Monday, and North Korean forces located him in their waters more than 24 hours later.
South Korean media reports said he was in his forties with two children, but had recently divorced and had financial problems.
Seoul military officials say the man was interrogated while in the water over several hours and expressed a desire to defect, but was killed after an “order from superior authority”.
The North’s letter said his body was no longer visible after the shooting and troops set his flotation device — which was covered in blood — on fire in accordance with national emergency prevention regulations.
North Korea’s crumbling health system would struggle to cope with a major virus outbreak but it has not confirmed a single case of the disease that has swept the world after taking drastic steps to prevent local coronavirus infections.
Pyongyang closed its border with China in January and state media said authorities had raised a state of emergency to the maximum level in July.
Pyongyang put the border city of Kaesong under lockdown in the same month after a defector who had fled South three years ago sneaked back over the heavily fortified border, with he could have carried the disease into the country.
US Forces Korea commander Robert Abrams said earlier this month that North Korean authorities had issued shoot-to-kill orders to prevent the coronavirus entering from China, creating a “buffer zone” at the border.
A typhoon that struck North Korea wrecked nearly 60 bridges and destroyed or inundated more than 2,000 houses, state media reported Wednesday, with leader Kim Jong Un saying the damage had disrupted central planning for the rest of the year.
Typhoon Maysak brought days of heavy downpours to the country’s east coast last week even as the North was still reeling from earlier flooding and typhoon damage, and this week it was followed by Typhoon Haishen.
Maysak “destroyed or inundated” more than 2,000 houses and tens of public buildings in the affected regions, the official KCNA news agency said, while 60 kilometres of roads and 59 bridges collapsed, with over 3,500 metres of railway roadbeds “swept away”.
Natural disasters tend to have a greater impact in the North due to its creaking infrastructure, and the country is vulnerable to flooding as many mountains and hills have long been deforested.
The damage obliged the authorities to “change the direction of our struggle after comprehensively considering the year-end tasks that were underway”, Kim told a top committee of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, according to KCNA.
It did not give specific details.
– Pyongyang march –
Kim has ordered some 12,000 Pyongyang-based party members to help with recovery efforts in affected rural regions, and they attended a rally on Tuesday before being dispatched.
“We are afraid of nothing,” said Kang Chol Jin, a party member at the event in front of the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the giant mausoleum that holds the bodies of Kim’s grandfather and father, the North’s founder Kim Il Sung and his son and successor Kim Jong Il.
“We firmly confirm our determination to go to the typhoon-afflicted areas and complete our missions as soon as possible,” Kang added.
Residents cheered and waved flowers as the rally participants marched in uniform through the streets of the capital.
Kim stressed the importance of completing the recovery efforts before next month’s commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the Workers’ Party founding on October 10.
Authorities have previously promised to open the Pyongyang General Hospital, currently under construction, on that date, and according to reports preparations are underway for a possible military parade.
It was not clear whether the “change” Kim mentioned was a reference to either of those.
While localised, the typhoon damage is testing the North’s state capacity and resources, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“The political risk to Kim of failing to deliver promised reconstruction may be limited, but an accumulation of economic failures will strain his regime.”
The impoverished country is subject to multiple UN Security Council sanctions over its banned weapons programmes.
North Korea is seizing on the return of a defector from the South to point the finger at Seoul for the arrival of coronavirus in the country after months of denying it had any cases, analysts said Monday.
Pyongyang imposed a lockdown on the border city of Kaesong, saying it had found a suspected COVID-19 infection in a defector who had returned across the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone that divides the peninsula, state media reported at the weekend.
For months the North had denied having any cases of the virus that swept the world after first emerging in neighbouring China — its main diplomatic backer and trade partner — raising scepticism among observers.
And Seoul officials said Monday that the man believed to be the re-defector has never been confirmed as a coronavirus patient in the South, nor a contact of a confirmed case.
The South has carried out more than 1.5 million tests as part of an extensive “trace, test and treat” model that has largely brought the outbreak under control.
Analysts said the North was likely to have already had virus cases, and Pyongyang was looking to blame Seoul for the outbreak, rather than its own longstanding ally Beijing.
“North Korea may try to use the defector’s return to deflect the blame for an outbreak that has already occurred, or for any future quarantine failures,” said former US government North Korea analyst Rachel Lee.
“It could take issue with South Korea’s poor frontline security,” she told AFP. “It could even claim that South Korea purposefully sent the defector back to North Korea to spread the virus there.”
Duyeon Kim, a Korea expert at the International Crisis Group, added that by blaming an imported case from the South, the North “can now legitimately and openly accept” aid from Seoul.
The North could “further send a message about defectors painting them as enemies of the state”, she added in a tweet.
Pyongyang has repeatedly excoriated leaflet-sending defectors and the Seoul government in recent weeks, worsening already frozen inter-Korean ties and culminating in the North blowing up a liaison office on its side of the border.
It is extremely rare for North Korean defectors to return to their original country, where rights groups say they face severe punishment for leaving — the South’s Unification Ministry says only 11 are known to have done so in the last five years.
It is even rarer for them to travel through the Demilitarized Zone, one of the world’s most secure borders, replete with minefields and guard posts.
But the South Korean military said a North Korean defector was believed to have returned to the North from Ganghwa island, on the Han river estuary northwest of Seoul.
He was not officially identified but according to multiple media reports and defectors he is a 24-year-old who defected in 2017, also by swimming across a river.
He is being investigated on rape allegations in the South, they added.
Last month he appeared on a YouTube channel run by another defector, and said it took him more than seven hours to swim across the inter-Korean border when he went south.
Afterwards, he “cried for 10 days, as I kept on thinking about my family” back home, he said in the interview.
Seoul’s health authorities said his name did not appear in the South’s database of confirmed coronavirus cases, nor its list of their contacts.
Two individuals who had contact with the suspected re-defector were tested on Sunday and both tested negative, added Yoon Tae-ho of the Central Disaster Management Headquarters.
The North’s medical infrastructure is seen as woefully inadequate to deal with any epidemic and Pyongyang closed its borders in late January — the first country in the world to do so — in an effort to protect itself against the coronavirus.
The situation in Kaesong “may lead to a deadly and destructive disaster”, official news agency KCNA reported at the weekend.