The US Justice Department accused three North Korean military intelligence officials Wednesday of a campaign of cyberattacks to steal $1.3 billion in crypto and traditional currencies from banks and other victims.
“North Korea’s operatives, using keyboards rather than guns, stealing digital wallets of cryptocurrency instead of sacks of cash, are the world’s leading bank robbers,” said Assistant Attorney General John Demers in a statement.
The three created malicious cryptocurrency applications, opening backdoors into victims’ computers; hacked into companies marketing and trading digital currencies like bitcoin; and developed a blockchain platform to evade sanctions and secretly raise funds, the department said.
The case filed in federal court in Los Angeles builds on 2018 charges against one of the three, Park Jin Hyok, who was charged at that time with the hack of Sony pictures four years earlier, the creation of the WannaCry ransomware, and the 2016 theft of $81 million from the central bank of Bangladesh.
The new charges add two more defendants, Jon Chang Hyok and Kim Il, with the allegations saying the three worked together in the North Korean military intelligence hacking group, the Reconnaissance General Bureau.
Among the cybersecurity community, that body is also known as the Lazarus Group and APT 38.
In addition to the earlier charges, the three engaged in operations out of North Korea, Russia and China to attempt to steal $1.3 billion by hacking computers using spearfishing techniques and promoting cryptocurrency applications loaded with malicious software that allowed them to access and empty victims’ crypto wallets, the charges said.
They also allegedly hacked into and robbed digital currency exchanges in Slovenia and Indonesia and extorted a New York exchange of $11.8 million.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has accused top officials of “self-protection and defeatism” and largely blamed them for the country’s economic plight, state media reported Friday.
At a meeting of top cadres, state news agency KCNA said Kim had “sharply criticised” officials responsible for laying out plans for various sectors’ growth this year, saying they did not reflect the “idea and policy” announced at January’s Party Congress.
That Congress, the first of its kind in five years and only the eighth in North Korea’s history, set out a new economic plan.
But it also revealed the extent of the isolated country’s financial woes, with Kim repeatedly apologising for mistakes in economic management and saying the last five years had been the “worst” time.
Wrapping up the four-day meeting, Kim was quoted Friday as slamming officials for their lack of “innovative viewpoint and clear tactics” in solving those issues.
In one example of poor performance, he singled out agriculture officials who had set grain production targets “irrespective of present situation where farming condition is unfavourable and the state is unable to supply enough farming materials”, in an unusually candid account.
Other sectors were lambasted for “absurdly low” production quotas, with officials accused of “trying to find a breather and make pretence of doing work.”
North Korea is under multiple sets of international sanctions over its banned nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes, which have made rapid progress under Kim.
A summit between Kim and then-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.
Nuclear talks have been stalled ever since, while North Korea showed off several new missiles at military parades in October and last month, when Kim pledged to strengthen his nuclear arsenal.
Pyongyang is also under increasing financial pressure as the coronavirus pandemic and floods last summer put its flagging economy under yet more strain.
North Korea is violating international sanctions aimed at curbing its nuclear programme by exceeding a cap on petroleum imports and sending its workers overseas, including a former Juventus footballer, the United Nations said.
Pyongyang is subject to a range of restrictions imposed since 2017 that limit its oil imports and ban exports of coal, fish and textiles.
It has nonetheless continued to develop its nuclear and ballistic missile arsenal, analysts say, despite three high-profile meetings between leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump.
The UN Security Council on Monday said an annual 500,000 barrel cap on imports of refined petroleum products had been broken in just the first five months of 2020.
A report by the intergovernmental panel said deliveries to the authoritarian state “far exceeded” the ceiling, based on “imagery, data and calculations”.
“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and foreign-flagged vessels and their owners continued elaborate evasion practices” to illicitly import oil, UN experts said, using the North’s official name.
The report did not say which countries had been exporting to North Korea but shipments also included luxury cars and alcohol.
China and Russia, Pyongyang’s key allies, dismissed the findings, saying they were “based on assumptions and estimations”.
The UN report said the North “continued to flout Security Council resolutions through illicit maritime exports of coal, although it suspended such exports temporarily between late January and early March 2020”.
Negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington over the North’s nuclear programme are at a standstill over disputes on sanctions relief and what the North would be willing to give up in return.
The report pointed out that professional footballer Han Kwang Song was transferred from Serie A club Juventus to Al-Duhail in Qatar in January in violation of UN resolutions banning North Korean nationals working overseas.
“Although the panel contacted Italy and Qatar on Mr Han’s transfer immediately after the announcement, the transfer has not been cancelled,” the UN report said.
The 22-year-forward was paid approximately $607,000 per year by Juventus between 2018 and January 2020, it added.
He will receive more than $5 million over the next five years from his new team under a multi-year contract.
“The panel reiterated to Qatar the relevant resolutions concerning the case,” the report said.
The UN sanctions require member states to repatriate North Koreans working overseas, with a deadline to do so passing in December 2019.
But the panel said “only around 40” nations had submitted reports on efforts to send back citizens.
Seoul on Saturday said it will demand a further investigation by Pyongyang into the killing of a South Korean official after a rare public apology from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The fisheries official was shot dead by North Korean soldiers on Tuesday, the first such killing of a South Korean civilian in a decade.
In a surprise move, Kim said he was “very sorry” for the “unexpected and disgraceful event”, but South Korea announced it would ask for further investigation.
“We have decided to demand the North carry out a further probe and request a joint investigation if necessary,” the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential office, said in a statement.
It added that South Korea’s own investigation will continue because of “discrepancies” in the accounts of the shooting.
South Korean military officials say the man was interrogated while in the water for several hours and expressed a desire to defect, but was killed after an “order from superior authority”.
They also said North Koreans poured oil over his body and burnt it, calling it an “outrageous act”.
In contrast, Pyongyang said in a letter sent Friday — which contained Kim’s apology — that the official had “illegally entered our waters” and refused to properly identify himself.
It acknowledged that around 10 rounds were fired at the man, and that he was not visible after the shooting.
Troops then set the official’s flotation device — which was covered in blood — on fire in accordance with North Korea’s emergency coronavirus regulations, the letter added.
Apologies from North Korea — let alone attributed to Kim personally — are extremely unusual, and the message came with inter-Korean ties in a deep freeze, and nuclear negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington deadlocked.
There have been no North Korean media reports on the contents of the letter.
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.
North Korea declared its first suspected coronavirus case on Sunday, becoming one of the last countries to do so as the number of people infected worldwide passed 16 million.
The isolated, impoverished state had until now insisted it had not detected a single COVID-19 case — even as the pandemic swept the planet, overwhelming health systems and trashing the global economy.
At least 645,000 people around the world have succumbed to the respiratory disease, with North Korean arch-rival the United States the worst-hit country by far.
“The vicious virus could be said to have entered the country,” leader Kim Jong Un said, according to the official KCNA news agency.
Authorities locked down the city of Kaesong, near the frontier with South Korea, as state media said a defector who left for the South three years ago had returned and was suspected to be infected with the coronavirus.
But experts believe the contagion is likely to have already entered North Korea from neighbouring China, where the new disease emerged late last year.
The pandemic’s spread is still accelerating, with more than five million cases declared since July — a third of the total number of cases since the catastrophe began.
Even in recent days, there has been an alarming uptick in infections, including in places that had appeared to have controlled their outbreaks.
One of those was Australia, which on Sunday suffered its deadliest day since the pandemic began, with 10 fatalities and a rise in new infections despite an intense lockdown effort.
“These things change rapidly, but we have to say these numbers are far too high,” said Daniel Andrews, premier of Victoria state, where the latest outbreak is centred.
Around a quarter of the world’s 16 million confirmed COVID-19 cases are in the United States, which recorded more than 68,000 new infections in the past 24 hours.
After a drop in transmission rates in late spring, the country has seen a virus surge — particularly in California, Florida and Texas, which is also bracing for the first Atlantic hurricane of the year.
Daily US fatalities have exceeded 1,000 for the past four days, rapidly increasing the country’s death toll to more than 146,000.
“I’m still concerned that America doesn’t take it as seriously as the rest of the world,” said British golf star Lee Westwood, voicing his hesitation to travel there despite a new quarantine exemption for professional golfers.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, which also count for a quarter of total cases, governments are not planning a return to normality any time soon.
New Year’s Eve celebrations on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro have been cancelled as Brazil grapples with a spiralling virus crisis.
“There is no great reason to celebrate, with more than 80,000 deaths” from coronavirus in Brazil, an official told AFP.
Meanwhile, Europe has reported around three million infections — despite being largely open for summer holidays within the continent.
However, in a snap decision, Britain’s government said passengers arriving from Spain will have to self-isolate for two weeks, after a surge in cases in the Mediterranean country, with health officials pointing to nightlife as a possible culprit.
The move, effective from Sunday, has reportedly caught out its Transport Minister Grant Shapps who is holidaying there.
“Various government ministers would have known in advance there was a possibility of imposing a quarantine on holidaymakers returning from Spain,” tweeted opposition MP Diane Abbot.
“But apparently no-one bothered to tell @grantshapps,” she joked.
It marked another hit to Spain’s tourism industry, which is desperately seeking a rebound after lockdowns and border closures pushed around 13 percent of bars, hotels and restaurants to permanently close.
It mirrors the fiscal pain wrought around the world by the pandemic, particularly in precarious economies where livelihoods are fast crumbling.
In India, for instance, millions of migrant workers who fled cities when COVID-19 hit say they are too scared to return.
Asia’s third-largest economy has reported more than 1.3 million virus cases and is the third worst-hit country behind the US and Brazil.
“We are trying our best to bring back migrant workers, even going to the extent of giving them air tickets, COVID-19 health insurance … (and) weekly checkups by doctors,” real estate developer Rajesh Prajapati said.
Seoul prosecutors have opened an unprecedented probe into North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister over Pyongyang’s blowing up of a liaison office last month, officials said Thursday.
The move is likely to infuriate the nuclear-armed North, which has repeatedly condemned South Korea in recent months, including directing personal insults at President Moon Jae-in.
Seoul Central District prosecutors received a criminal complaint against Kim Yo Jong from a Seoul-based lawyer and had started an investigation, a spokeswoman told AFP.
Last month, Pyongyang blew up an inter-Korean liaison office on its side of the border, days after Kim Yo Jong — one of her brother’s closest advisers — had said the “useless” property would soon be seen “completely collapsed”.
Before the demolition, it had issued a series of vitriolic condemnations of South Korea over anti-North leaflets that defectors send back across the heavily-militarised border — usually attached to balloons or floated in bottles.
It raised pressure further by threatening military measures against Seoul, but later said it had suspended those plans in an apparent sudden dialling-down of tensions.
In his complaint, lawyer Lee Kyung-jae claimed the now-demolished liaison office was South Korean property as it was renovated using South Korean government funds, despite its being located in the North.
Kim “used explosives to destroy” the South’s “quasi-diplomatic mission building that served the public interest”, he said in the complaint.
Lee also filed a complaint against Pak Jong Chon, chief of the general staff of the North Korean military.
Under South Korea’s criminal code, he stressed, damaging property or disturbing the peace using explosives was punishable by death, or a prison sentence of at least seven years.
Capital punishment remains on the statute books in South Korea, although it has not executed anyone since 1997.
In practice, it would be virtually impossible for Seoul officials to punish Kim Yo Jong or Pak, but Lee told the South’s Yonhap News Agency that he wanted to “inform the North Korean people of their leader’s hypocrisy”.
The announcement came a week after a Seoul court ordered Pyongyang’s leader to compensate prisoners of war who spent decades in North Korea, in a move that could set a far-reaching legal precedent on the divided peninsula.
Inter-Korean relations have been strained following the collapse of a summit in Hanoi between Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump early last year over what the nuclear-armed North would be willing to give up in exchange for a loosening of sanctions.
North Korea does “not feel any need” to resume talks with Washington, a senior diplomat for the country said Saturday, days after Seoul called for a summit as it seeks improved ties with Pyongyang.
The statement by the North’s vice foreign minister Choe Son Hui came after former US national security advisor John Bolton on Thursday reportedly said President Donald Trump might pursue another meeting with leader Kim Jong Un in October.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in — who has long backed engagement with the North — on Tuesday also called for another meeting between Kim and Trump, saying the South would be making “utmost efforts” to make it happen.
But Pyongyang does “not feel any need to sit face to face with the US”, Choe said in a statement carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.
“Dreamers” had been raising hopes of an “October surprise”, she added.
“The US is mistaken if it thinks things like negotiations would still work on us,” Choe said.
Washington “does not consider the DPRK-US dialogue as nothing more than a tool for grappling (with) its political crisis”, Choe added, using the North’s official name.
Bolton had reportedly said Trump would meet with Kim if it would help his re-election chances.
The North has “already worked out a detailed strategic timetable” to deal with the “long-term threat” from Washington, Choe said.
Talks over Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal have been stalled since a Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim collapsed in early 2019 over what the North would be willing to give up in exchange for sanctions relief.
Recent reports have said US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun is due to visit Seoul next week to discuss talks with North Korea, although the South’s foreign ministry has not confirmed the trip.
Last month Pyongyang issued a series of vitriolic condemnations of the South over anti-North leaflets that defectors send back across the militarised border — usually attached to balloons or floated in bottles.
It also upped the pressure by blowing up an inter-Korean liaison office and threatening military measures against Seoul but last week said it had suspended those plans in an apparent sudden dialling down of tensions.
Choe’s statement comes a day after Seoul’s presidential Blue House appointed as its new spy chief a former lawmaker who played a crucial role in organising the first inter-Korean summit back in 2000.
The move is widely seen as a sign of Moon’s determination to maintain pro-engagement policies despite the North’s abandonment of its nuclear and missile test moratoriums.
North and South Korea on Thursday separately marked the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, a conflict that killed millions of people and has technically yet to end.
Communist North Korea invaded the US-backed South on June 25, 1950, as it sought to reunify by force the peninsula Moscow and Washington had divided at the end of the Second World War.
The fighting ended with an armistice that was never replaced by a peace treaty, leaving the peninsula and millions of families split by the Demilitarized Zone.
In the South, the remains of nearly 150 soldiers repatriated from Hawaii after being excavated in the North were to be formally received at a government ceremony on Thursday evening, themed “Salute to the Heroes”.
It was scheduled to include video messages from the leaders of the 22 foreign nations that made up the UN coalition defending the South, starting with President Donald Trump of the United States, which led the UN alliance.
Earlier, Seoul and Washington’s defence ministers reaffirmed their commitment to defending “the hard-fought peace”.
“On this day in 1950, the US-ROK military alliance was born of necessity and forged in blood,” said US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper and his South Korean counterpart Jeong Kyeong-doo.
Up to three million Koreans died in the conflict, the vast majority of them civilians.
Nearly 37,000 Americans were among the more than 40,000 UN soldiers killed, and Western estimates say China, which backed the North, saw 400,000 fatalities, while Chinese sources put it at about 180,000.
The North has a different history of the period, which it knows as the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War, and insists that it was assaulted first, before it counter-attacked.
In Pyongyang, citizens and soldiers attended a war heroes’ cemetery on the outskirts of Pyongyang to lay flowers before the graves and bow.
“Cede not an inch of ground!” read an inscription on a statue of a machine-gunner.
The official Rodong Sinmun newspaper carried more than 10 stories on the war, including an editorial asserting that a US invasion had turned “the entire country into ashes” but that it had forced the “aggressors” to sign a “surrender document”.
“A ceasefire is not peace,” it said. “The enemy is aiming for the moment that we forget about June 25 and lower our guard.”
The nuclear-armed North, which is subject to multiple international sanctions over its banned weapons programmes, says it needs its arsenal to deter a US invasion.
Negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington have been deadlocked for months, leaving inter-Korean relations in a deep freeze despite a rapid rapprochement in 2018 that brought three summits between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the South’s President Moon Jae-in.
– White doves – At the site of one of the key battlefields in Cheorwon county near the Demilitarized Zone a handful of surviving South Korean war veterans marked the anniversary.
“It is our misfortune that the South and North had to live for nearly 70 years in confrontation because of the war,” a veteran said, before releasing white doves as a symbol of their hopes for a final peace settlement.
Kim on Wednesday suspended plans for military moves aimed at the South, after the North raised tensions last week by demolishing a liaison office on its side of the border that symbolised inter-Korean cooperation.
Seoul’s relationship with Washington has also been strained by the Trump administration’s demands that it pay more towards the cost of keeping 28,500 US troops on the peninsula to protect the South from its neighbour.
Recent events showed that inter-Korean relations “can turn into a house of cards at any time”, the South’s JoongAng Daily said in an editorial.
The South Korean government has “persistently turned a blind eye” to Pyongyang’s provocations, it said, adding: “We hope the government and defence ministry deeply reflect on the lesson of 70 years ago.”
North Korea blew up an inter-Korean liaison office on its side of the border on Tuesday, triggering broad international condemnation after days of virulent rhetoric from Pyongyang.
The demolition came after Kim Yo Jong — the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — said at the weekend the “useless north-south joint liaison office” would soon be seen “completely collapsed”.
Footage of the explosion released by Seoul’s presidential Blue House showed a blast rolling across several buildings just across the border in Kaesong, with a nearby tower partially collapsing as clouds of smoke rose into the sky.
Analysts say Pyongyang may be seeking to manufacture a crisis to increase pressure on Seoul while nuclear negotiations with Washington are at a standstill.
After an emergency meeting, the National Security Council said it would “react strongly” if Pyongyang “continues to take steps that aggravate the situation”.
“All responsibility for repercussions stemming from this action falls squarely on the North,” it added.
The US, European Union and Russia all called for restraint.
A State Department spokesperson said Washington urges the North to “refrain from further counterproductive actions”, while the Kremlin called the escalation a “concern’ and said it would be monitoring closely.
The EU warned Pyongyang against taking further “provocative and damaging steps”.
The liaison office — in a dormant industrial zone where Southern companies once employed Northern workers — was opened in September 2018, days before the South’s President Moon Jae-in flew to Pyongyang for his third summit with Kim.
Around 20 officials from each side were stationed at the office during subsequent months.
But inter-Korean relations soured following the collapse of the Hanoi summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump in February last year over sanctions relief and what the North would be willing to give up in return.
Operations at the office were suspended in January because of the coronavirus pandemic.
And since early June, North Korea has issued a series of vitriolic condemnations of the South over activists sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets over the border — something defectors do on a regular basis.
Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency said Tuesday the liaison office’s destruction was in line with “the mindset of the enraged people to surely force human scum and those who have sheltered the scum to pay dearly for their crimes”.
Last week Pyongyang announced it was severing all official communication links with Seoul.
“North Korea has started a provocation cycle with stages of escalation,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, calling the destruction of the office “a symbolic blow to inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation”.
“The Kim regime is also signalling the United States won’t have the luxury of keeping North Korea on the back-burner for the remainder of the year,” he added.
Since Pyongyang condemned the leaflet launches — usually attached to hot air balloons or floated in bottles — the Unification ministry has filed a police complaint against two defector groups and warned of a “thorough crackdown” against activists.
On Monday, the left-leaning Moon urged the North not to “close the window of dialogue”.
The two Koreas remain technically at war after Korean War hostilities ended with an armistice in 1953 that was never replaced with a peace treaty.
Last week the North criticised Trump in a stinging denunciation of the US on the second anniversary of the Singapore summit, with its foreign minister Ri Son Gwon accusing Washington of seeking regime change.
US diplomats insist that they believe Kim promised in Singapore to give up his nuclear arsenal, something Pyongyang has taken no steps to do.
The North is under multiple international sanctions over its banned weapons programmes.
It believes it deserves to be rewarded for its moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests and the disabling of its atomic test site, along with the return of jailed US citizens and remains of soldiers killed in the Korean War.
“Nothing is more hypocritical than an empty promise,” Ri said in his statement, carried by the official KCNA news agency.
Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Sejong Institute’s Center for North Korean Studies, said: “North Korea is frustrated that the South has failed to offer an alternative plan to revive the US-North talks, let alone create a right atmosphere for the revival.
“It has concluded the South has failed as a mediator in the process.”