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.
Psaki gave little indication of what kind of diplomatic initiative this could entail, but suggested that Biden had learned from the experience of previous administrations, who have struggled for decades to deal with the dictatorship in North Korea or, in recent years, its growing nuclear arsenal.
She said Washington would not “focus on achieving a grand bargain,” apparently referring to the kind of dramatic over-arching deal that Donald Trump initially suggested was possible when he met with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un.
Neither would the White House follow the more standoff approach called “strategic patience,” espoused by Barack Obama, Psaki said.
In April, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who is due to visit the White House on May 21, urged Biden to engage directly with Kim on denuclearization.
Moon told the newspaper he favored “top-down diplomacy.”
North Korea threatened a further military build-up on Saturday in response to Joe Biden’s condemnation of this week’s missile launches, a weapons test that marked Pyongyang’s first substantive provocation since the US president took office.
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.
Pyongyang had been biding its time since the new administration took office in Washington, not even officially acknowledging its existence until last week.
But on Thursday it launched two weapons from its east coast into the Sea of Japan, known as the East Sea in Korea.
Following the launch, Biden labelled the test a violation of UN resolutions and advised the isolated state against ramping up military testing, warning that “there will be responses if they choose to escalate.”
Ri Pyong Chol, a leading official in North Korea’s missile programme who supervised the test, said the president’s comments had revealed his “deep-seated hostility” to the regime.
“Such remarks from the US president are an undisguised encroachment on our state’s right to self-defence and provocation to it,” Ri said in a statement published by state media outlet KCNA.
Ri said Pyongyang was expressing its “deep apprehension over the US chief executive faulting the regular testfire, (an) exercise of our state’s right to self-defence, as the violation of UN ‘resolutions.'”
“If the US continues with its thoughtless remarks without thinking of the consequences, it may be faced with something that is not good,” he added, warning that North Korea was prepared to “continue to increase our most thoroughgoing and overwhelming military power.”
The comments came at a time when Washington is in the final stages of a policy review on North Korea, with signals of a firm line on denuclearisation, sanctions, and human rights.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said Ri’s remarks were “essentially a threat that North Korea will respond to the US policy review with more tests”.
“Pyongyang is implementing a premeditated strategy of advancing military capabilities and raising tensions,” he added.
– ‘Tactical guided projectile’ –
Pyongyang has made rapid progress in its capabilities under leader Kim Jong Un, testing missiles capable of reaching the entire continental United States as tensions mounted in 2017.
North Korea has reported that the Thursday launch, its first substantive affront since Biden came to office, was a test of a new “tactical guided projectile” with a solid-fuel engine.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called the two weapons launched from North Korea’s east coast ballistic missiles, which it is banned from developing under UN Security Council resolutions.
A UN sanctions committee focused on nuclear-armed North Korea has asked its experts to investigate the test and European members of the Security Council have requested an urgent meeting to discuss North Korea.
The North is already under multiple sets of international sanctions for its banned nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes.
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.
Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, told AFP that the Biden administration may seek to impose “additional sanctions against Pyongyang” if the North continues with its military provocations.
“From now, one can expect more weapons tests from the North, and very stern responses from the US,” he said.
– International resolve –
Thursday’s launch, and an earlier test of short-range, non-ballistic missiles at the weekend, came after 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.
During their trip to Seoul and Tokyo, Blinken repeatedly stressed the importance of denuclearising North Korea and urged Beijing — the North’s key ally — to convince Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.
Biden’s approach so far demonstrates a change of tone from his predecessor Donald Trump, who engaged in an extraordinary diplomatic bromance with Kim and last year repeatedly played down similar short-range launches.
Officials of the administration say they have sought to reach out to Pyongyang through several channels but have received no response so far.
“Kim Jong Un intends to use provocations to demand concessions but may end up increasing international resolve for North Korea’s denuclearisation,” Easley told AFP.
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 Korea fired two short-range missiles just days after a visit to the region by the top US defense and diplomatic officials, but President Joe Biden said they were not a serious provocation.
It was nuclear-armed North Korea’s first launch since his inauguration — Pyongyang has been biding its time since the new administration took office, not even officially acknowledging its existence until last week.
Washington is reviewing its approach to Pyongyang after a tumultuous relationship between president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which went from trading insults and threats of war to a diplomatic bromance and several meetings, but made no substantive progress towards denuclearization.
North Korea on Sunday fired two short-range, non-ballistic missiles, US administration officials said Tuesday, but downplayed them as “common” military testing and said they did not violate UN Security Council resolutions.
South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said they appeared to be cruise missiles and were fired over the Yellow Sea, known as the West Sea in Korea — so towards China, rather than US ally Japan.
The launches followed joint exercises by the US and South Korean militaries earlier this month and came just days after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Tokyo and Seoul to discuss alliance and security issues in the region, with the North seen as a central threat.
But it was an unusually restrained response by Pyongyang, which has so far not announced them in state media.
Asked by reporters about the tests, Biden said: “According to the Defense department, it’s business as usual. There’s no new wrinkle in what they did.”
A senior US administration official told reporters the launches were “on the low end” of the spectrum of North Korean actions, and nothing like the nuclear weapon tests or intercontinental ballistic missile launches with which Pyongyang has previously provoked Washington.
“It is common practice for North Korea to test various systems,” an official added. “We do not respond to every kind of test.”
– Reigniting talks – While Blinken and Austin were in Seoul on March 18, North Korean first vice foreign minister Choe Son Hui accused the United States of a “lunatic theory of ‘threat from North Korea’ and groundless rhetoric about ‘complete denuclearization.'”
President Joe Biden’s two-month-old administration hopes to reignite negotiations with the Kim regime on its nuclear arsenal after Trump’s headline-grabbing efforts stalled.
Initial outreach from Washington to Pyongyang has turned up empty, but US officials are hopeful they can reconnect, while working in coordination with allies Japan and South Korea.
Trump held two summits with Kim, in Singapore and Vietnam, and the United States pulled back on some joint training activities with South Korea’s military while North Korea froze ballistic missile tests.
But their February 2019 meeting in Hanoi broke up over sanctions relief and what the North 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.
Biden officials are now finalizing a strategy to restart talks that the White House will discuss with Japanese and South Korean security officials next week, an administration official said.
“We have taken efforts and we will continue to take efforts” to communicate, they added.
But they said that Pyongyang cannot expect concessions — such as cutting back on bilateral military exercises — from Biden.
“Some of the efforts that were taken previously to turn off necessary exercises were actually antithetical to our position.”
– Coronavirus blockade – North Korea is more isolated than ever after imposing a strict border closure to protect itself from the coronavirus, blockading itself more effectively than any sanctions regime.
The move has hit its already moribund economy and analysts say its authorities are likely to be focused on those domestic issues.
Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, told AFP: “We shouldn’t identify every North Korean missile test as a provocation since the South also carries out such tests in regular military exercises.”
But he added: “Pyongyang could elevate the intensity of missile tests from short-range to medium-range in the months ahead if it thinks Washington is doubling down on punitive policy against it.”
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.