No Need For Talks With US – North Korea

In this picture taken on July 2, 2020 and released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on July 3, 2020 North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) meeting in Pyongyang. STR / AFP / KCNA VIA KNS
In this picture taken on July 2, 2020 and released from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on July 3, 2020 North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) meeting in Pyongyang. STR / AFP / KCNA VIA KNS

 

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.

 

AFP

North And South Mark 70th Anniversary Of Korean War

Actors dressed as a Korean War-era soldiers hold doves to be released during ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War at the Baengmagoji War Memorial in Cheorwon, near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating north and south Korea. – South Korea and the United States on June 25 reaffirmed their commitment to defending “the hard-fought peace” on the divided peninsula as the allies marked the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War. (Photo by Ed JONES / AFP)

 

 

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.”

-AFP

North Korea Blows Up Diplomatic Office Near Border With South

Smoke rise from North Korea's Kaesong Industrial Complex where an inter-korean liaison office was set up in 2018, as seen from South Korea's border city of Paju on June 16, 2020.  STR / YONHAP / AFP
Smoke rises from North Korea’s Kaesong Industrial Complex where an inter-korean liaison office was set up in 2018, as seen from South Korea’s border city of Paju on June 16, 2020. STR / YONHAP / AFP

 

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.

Relations soured

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.”

North Korea Blows Up Liaison Office With South

People watch a television news screen showing an explosion of an inter-Korean liaison office in North Korea’s Kaesong Industrial Complex, at a railway station in Seoul on June 16, 2020. Jung Yeon-je / AFP

 

 

North Korea blew up an inter-Korean liaison office on its side of the border on Tuesday, the South’s Unification Ministry said, after days of increasingly virulent rhetoric from Pyongyang.

“North Korea blows up Kaesong Liaison Office at 14:49,” the ministry, which handles inter-Korean relations, said in a one-line alert sent to reporters.

The statement came minutes after an explosion was heard and smoke seen rising from the long-shuttered joint industrial zone in Kaesong where the liaison office was set up less than two years ago, Yonhap news agency reported citing unspecified sources.

Its destruction came after Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, said at the weekend: “Before long, a tragic scene of the useless north-south joint liaison office completely collapsed would be seen.”

Analysts say Pyongyang may be seeking to manufacture a crisis to increase pressure on Seoul while nuclear negotiations with Washington are at a standstill.

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.

Last week it announced it was severing all official communication links with South Korea.

The leaflets — usually attached to hot air balloons or floated in bottles — criticise North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for human rights abuses and his nuclear ambitions.

“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,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a director of the Sejong Institute’s Center for North Korean Studies.

“It has concluded the South has failed as a mediator in the process.”

The liaison office was opened in September 2018, days before the South’s President Moon Jae-in flew to Pyongyang for his third summit with Kim.

– Relations soured –

Officials from both sides 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.

Its operations were suspended in January because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Since Pyongyang condemned the leaflet launches, Seoul’s 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”.

Earlier Tuesday, North Korea’s army said it was “fully ready” to take action against the South, including re-entering areas that had been demilitarised under an inter-Korean agreement.

The two Koreas remain technically at war after the Korean War hostilities ended with an armistice in 1953 that was never replaced with a peace treaty.

AFP

Britain Closes Embassy In North Korea, Evacuates Diplomats

Britain Flag

 

Britain has shuttered its embassy in North Korea and all its diplomats have left the country, its ambassador said Thursday as Pyongyang maintains strict entry controls to try to prevent a coronavirus outbreak.

The North has closed its borders and insists it has not had a single case of the virus that emerged in neighbouring China late last year and has since swept the world.

The closure was a temporary move and came because Pyongyang’s “restrictions on entry to the country have made it impossible to rotate our staff and sustain the operation of the Embassy”, a Foreign Office spokesperson said.

Ambassador Colin Crooks tweeted: “The #BritishEmbassy in #Pyongyang closed temporarily on 27 May 2020 and all diplomatic staff have left the #DPRK for the time being.”

The Swedish embassy — which remains open — replied that they would miss him and his team “and hope they can return soon”.

The specialist news site NK News said the British diplomats crossed the border into China overland on Wednesday.

Britain intends to maintain diplomatic relations with the North “and will seek to re-establish our presence in Pyongyang as soon as it is possible to do so”, the Foreign Office said.

READ ALSO: COVID-19: Do Not Cut Health Spending During Downturn, WHO Warns

Early in the outbreak, Pyongyang imposed tight quarantine restrictions on all resident foreigners, including a virtual lockdown in their own premises that Russian ambassador Alexander Matsegora described as “morally crushing”.

Those rules were later eased and dozens of diplomats and other foreigners were allowed to leave the country in March, when several missions in Pyongyang closed, among them the German embassy and France’s representative office — Paris does not maintain full diplomatic relations with the North.

Hundreds of foreigners remain in the country.

Analysts say that the North is unlikely to have avoided infections, and that its ramshackle health system could struggle to cope with a major outbreak.

AFP

Kim Jong Un Makes First Public Appearance In Nearly Three Weeks: State Media

This file photo taken on April 15, 2017 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waving from a balcony of the Grand People's Study House following a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang. ED JONES / AFP
This file photo taken on April 15, 2017 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waving from a balcony of the Grand People’s Study House following a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang. ED JONES / AFP

 

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has made his first public appearance since speculation about his health began last month, cutting the ribbon at the opening of a fertilizer factory, KCNA reported Saturday.

Kim “attended the ceremony” on Friday and “all the participants broke into thunderous cheers of ‘hurrah!'” when he appeared, the Korean Central News Agency said.

He also inspected the facility and was “briefed about the production processes,” the report said.

Kim “said with deep emotion” that his grandfather Kim Il Sung and father Kim Jong Il “would be greatly pleased if they heard the news that the modern phosphatic fertilizer factory has been built,” KCNA added.

Kim has not made a public appearance since presiding over a Workers’ Party politburo meeting on April 11, and the following day state media reported on him inspecting fighter jets at an air defence unit.

Conjecture over his health had grown since his conspicuous no-show at April 15 celebrations for the birthday of his grandfather Kim Il Sung, the North’s founder — the most important day in the country’s political calendar.

A top security advisor to South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in said less than a week ago that Kim was “alive and well,” downplaying rumors that he was ill or incapacitated.

The advisor, Moon Chung-in, told CNN that Kim had been staying in Wonsan — a resort town in the east of North Korea — since April 13, adding: “No suspicious movements have so far been detected.”

Daily NK, an online media outlet run mostly by North Korean defectors, has reported Kim was undergoing treatment after a cardiovascular procedure last month.

Citing an unidentified source inside the country, it said Kim, who is in his mid-30s, had needed urgent treatment due to heavy smoking, obesity and fatigue.

Soon afterwards, CNN reported that Washington was “monitoring intelligence” that Kim was in “grave danger” after undergoing surgery, quoting what it said was an anonymous US official.

US President Donald Trump appeared to confirm that Kim was alive earlier this week.

Trump refused to comment Friday on Kim’s reported re-emergence.

Previous absences from the public eye on Kim’s part have prompted speculation about his health.

The North is extremely secretive, and doubly so about its leadership.

Kim’s father and predecessor Kim Jong Il had been dead for two days before anyone outside the innermost circles of North Korean leadership was any the wiser.

In 2014, Kim Jong Un dropped out of sight for nearly six weeks before reappearing with a cane.

Days later, the South’s spy agency said he had undergone surgery to remove a cyst from his ankle.

 

AFP

Seoul Plays Down Report On North Korean Leader’s Health

 

South Korea played down a report Tuesday that the North’s leader Kim Jong Un was being treated after surgery, as speculation mounted over his absence from a key anniversary.

Pyongyang marked the birthday of its late founder, Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung, on April 15 — by far the most important date in its annual political calendar — but Kim was not seen in attendance.

Daily NK, an online media outlet run mostly by North Korean defectors, said Kim had undergone a cardiovascular procedure earlier this month and was recovering at a villa in North Phyongan province.

“Excessive smoking, obesity, and fatigue were the direct causes of Kim’s urgent cardiovascular treatment,” it cited an unidentified source inside the country as saying.

No confirmation of the report was immediately available.

But it triggered widespread speculation, with CNN citing a US official saying that Washington was “monitoring intelligence” that Kim was in “grave danger” after undergoing surgery.

In a statement, a spokesman for the South’s presidential Blue House said: “We have nothing to confirm and no special movement has been detected inside North Korea as of now.”

The South’s Yonhap news agency, meanwhile, cited an unnamed government official saying that reports Kim was seriously ill were “not true”.

But there were no explicit denials that Kim, who is in his mid-30s, had had some kind of procedure.

Previous absences from the public eye on Kim’s part have prompted speculation about his health.

READ ALSO: US Oil Bounces After Crash But Stocks Suffer Big Losses

In 2014 he dropped out of sight for nearly six weeks before reappearing with a cane. Days later, the South’s spy agency said he had undergone surgery to remove a cyst from his ankle.

“No-one knows what’s going on inside North Korea,” said Martyn Williams, who is affiliated with the 38 North research website.

“Kim Jong Il had been dead several days before it was announced and it took everyone by surprise,” he tweeted.

“Kim Jong Un has been ‘missing’ before, and has always reappeared. That said, his absence this week was more notable.”

– Closely guarded –

The North Korean leader has not made a public appearance since presiding over a meeting of the Workers’ Party politburo on April 11.

His powerful sister Kim Yo Jong was named as an alternate politburo member and the meeting called for stronger measures against the coronavirus pandemic.

Pyongyang has closed its borders and imposed tight restrictions to protect itself from the virus that emerged in neighbouring China and has since swept the world, and insists it has had no cases.

On April 12, the North’s official news state media KCNA reported that Kim had inspected drills by fighter jets at an air defence unit.

There were no state media reports of any drills after the South said two days later that Pyongyang had launched a series of short-range cruise missiles.

But analysts have said his absence from the April 15 commemorations suggested he could be looking to emphasise his own authority over his family’s legacy.

China is the North’s key diplomatic backer and main provider of trade and aid, but Beijing declined to be drawn on Tuesday’s developments.

In response to questions, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said he did not know the source of the reports and added: “China and North Korea are friendly neighbours connected by mountains and rivers.”

Reporting from inside the isolated North is notoriously difficult, especially on anything to do with its leadership, which is among its most closely-guarded secrets.

Thae Yong Ho, a former senior North Korean diplomat who last week became the first defector ever to be directly elected to the South’s parliament, expressed doubts over the reports.

“The movements and personal affairs of the Kim family are national top secret issues which are little known to not only ordinary people but also high-ranking officials,” he said in a statement.

Kim’s father Kim Jong Il died on December 17, 2011 but even two days later it was still business as usual at the North’s foreign ministry, Thae recalled, adding that “everyone was caught by surprise” when the announcement was made.

AFP

North Korea Fires Two Ballistic Missiles Into Sea Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

A woman watches a television news broadcast showing a file image of a North Korean missile test, at a railway station in Seoul on March 21, 2020. Jung Yeon-je / AFP
A woman watches a television news broadcast showing a file image of a North Korean missile test, at a railway station in Seoul on March 21, 2020. Jung Yeon-je / AFP

 

North Korea fired what appeared to be two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast on Saturday, the latest in a series of such launches by Pyongyang as the world struggles with the coronavirus pandemic.

The South Korean military condemned the launches as “extremely inappropriate given the difficult situation the world is experiencing due to COVID-19… We urge them to stop immediately.”

North Korea has not reported any cases of the coronavirus, which has turned into a major crisis with more than 11,000 deaths and over 250,000 infections worldwide.

There has been widespread speculation, however, that the virus has reached the isolated nation, and health experts have warned that it could devastate the country given its weak medical infrastructure and widespread malnutrition.

Japan’s defence ministry also confirmed the North Korean launches.

For decades, North Korea’s leadership has faced international criticism for prioritising spending on its military and nuclear weapons programme instead of providing for the population — even during times of famine.

Pyongyang considers its military development necessary for security in the face of what it describes as American aggression. North Korea is under multiple sets of punishing sanctions over its nuclear and missile programmes.

Hopes for a thaw after meetings between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump were dented as they failed to produce any substantial progress on denuclearising the Korean peninsula, and Pyongyang has since continued to refine its military capabilities, analysts say.

With the latest launch Pyongyang “continues an international strategy of trying to normalise its missile tests”, Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, told AFP.

‘Draconian restrictions’

Shortly before the launch, North Korea’s official news agency KCNA reported that the rubber-stamp parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly, would convene on April 10.

The event would involve gathering nearly 700 officials in one place, analysts said. Such events have been banned in many parts of the world to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

“North Korea would not risk holding such a large-scale national political event if the regime was not confident about preventing or containing the spread of the virus,” Rachel Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst at specialist website NK News, told AFP.

Earlier this month, Kim Jong Un sent a letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in offering “comfort” as Seoul battled what was the worst outbreak of the virus outside China at the time.

South Korea has since largely brought the contagion under control.

KCNA said Saturday Kim oversaw an “artillery fire competition” among combined units of the army on Friday, releasing photos of him along with military officers — none of them wearing face masks.

But despite North Korea’s decision to go ahead with its parliament session, Pyongyang’s “draconian restrictions on movement, mask-wearing propaganda, public punishment of ‘corrupt’ elites violating quarantine efforts, and rush to build medical facilities suggest COVID-19 has penetrated the country,” Ewha University’s Easley said.

“Pyongyang is likely struggling with a coronavirus crisis on a national scale.”

With fears swirling about an outbreak in North Korea, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights Tomas Ojea Quintana earlier this month called for Pyongyang to provide access to outside medical experts and humanitarian assistance.

The UN Security Council said last month that it would make humanitarian exemptions to sanctions on North Korea to help it fight the coronavirus.

AFP

North Korea Fires Two ‘Ballistic Missiles’ Despite Coronavirus Outbreak

This picture taken on March 20, 2020 and released from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on March 21 shows an artillery fire competition between large combined units of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) on the western front. STR / KCNA VIA KNS / AFP

 

North Korea fired what appeared to be two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast on Saturday, the latest in a series of such launches by Pyongyang as the world struggles with the coronavirus pandemic.

The South Korean military condemned the launches as “extremely inappropriate given the difficult situation the world is experiencing due to COVID-19… We urge them to stop immediately.”

North Korea has not reported any cases of the coronavirus, which has turned into a major crisis with more than 11,000 deaths and over 250,000 infections worldwide.

There has been widespread speculation, however, that the virus has reached the isolated nation, and health experts have warned that it could devastate the country given its weak medical infrastructure and widespread malnutrition.

Japan’s defence ministry also confirmed the North Korean launches.

For decades, North Korea’s leadership has faced international criticism for prioritising spending on its military and nuclear weapons programme instead of providing for the population — even during times of famine.

Pyongyang considers its military development necessary for security in the face of what it describes as American aggression. North Korea is under multiple sets of punishing sanctions over its nuclear and missile programmes.

Hopes for a thaw after meetings between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump were dented as they failed to produce any substantial progress on denuclearising the Korean peninsula, and Pyongyang has since continued to refine its military capabilities, analysts say.

With the latest launch Pyongyang “continues an international strategy of trying to normalise its missile tests”, Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, told AFP.

 ‘Draconian restrictions’ 

Shortly before the launch, North Korea’s official news agency KCNA reported that the rubber-stamp parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly, would convene on April 10.

The event would involve gathering nearly 700 officials in one place, analysts said. Such events have been banned in many parts of the world to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

“North Korea would not risk holding such a large-scale national political event if the regime was not confident about preventing or containing the spread of the virus,” Rachel Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst at specialist website NK News, told AFP.

Earlier this month, Kim Jong Un sent a letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in offering “comfort” as Seoul battled what was the worst outbreak of the virus outside China at the time.

South Korea has since largely brought the contagion under control.

KCNA said Saturday Kim oversaw an “artillery fire competition” among combined units of the army on Friday, releasing photos of him along with military officers — none of them wearing face masks.

But despite North Korea’s decision to go ahead with its parliament session, Pyongyang’s “draconian restrictions on movement, mask-wearing propaganda, public punishment of ‘corrupt’ elites violating quarantine efforts, and rush to build medical facilities suggest COVID-19 has penetrated the country,” Ewha University’s Easley said.

“Pyongyang is likely struggling with a coronavirus crisis on a national scale.”

With fears swirling about an outbreak in North Korea, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights Tomas Ojea Quintana earlier this month called for Pyongyang to provide access to outside medical experts and humanitarian assistance.

The UN Security Council said last month that it would make humanitarian exemptions to sanctions on North Korea to help it fight the coronavirus.

AFP

North Korea Fires Ballistic Missiles Amid Coronavirus Fears

This picture taken on February 28, 2020 and released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on February 29 shows artillery being fired during a Korean People's Army joint strike drill at an undisclosed location. STR / KCNA VIA KNS / AFP
This picture taken on February 28, 2020 and released from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on February 29 shows artillery being fired during a Korean People’s Army joint strike drill at an undisclosed location. STR / KCNA VIA KNS / AFP

 

North Korea fired what appeared to be two short-range  ballistic missiles on Monday, the South’s military said, weeks after Pyongyang threatened to demonstrate a “new strategic weapon” and its deadline for Washington to offer sanctions relief expired.

The launch was the nuclear-armed North’s first for more than three months and came as nuclear negotiations with the United States remain at a standstill.

The two devices were fired eastwards over the sea from the Wonsan area on the east coast and flew 240 kilometres (150 miles) at a maximum altitude of 35 kilometres, the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

They were “believed to be short-range ballistic missiles,” a JCS official said.

South Korea’s security ministers expressed “strong concern” the North was “carrying out actions giving rise to military tensions”, the presidential Blue House said.

Japan’s defence ministry said there was no indication of anything coming down in its waters or exclusive economic zone, but added: “Recent repeated launches of ballistic and other missiles by North Korea are a serious issue.”

The launch came as Pyongyang battles to prevent a coronavirus outbreak and days after the one-year anniversary of the collapsed Hanoi summit between leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump.

Negotiations have since been deadlocked over sanctions relief and what the North would be willing to give up in return, despite a high-profile June meeting in the Demilitarized Zone that divides the peninsula.

Pyongyang carried out a series of weapons tests late last year, the last of them in November, often describing them as multiple launch rocket systems. It also carried out static engine tests, most recently in December.

At a party meeting at the end of that month, Kim declared that Pyongyang no longer considered itself bound by its moratoriums on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests, and threatened to demonstrate a “new strategic weapon” soon.

North Korea has a long history of seeking to demonstrate its military capability to try to obtain concessions.

“March is pretty reliably missile-testing season for North Korea,” tweeted Ankit Panda, senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists.

“Looks like COVID-19 hasn’t changed that (or Pyongyang is determined to make it appear as if it hasn’t),” he added.

Former State Department official Mintaro Oba said: “Coronavirus dominates our attention at the moment, but this is a reminder that North Korea continues to advance its nuclear and missile programmes.”

It would “look for ways to gain leverage and reclaim the initiative as we get closer to the US presidential election”, he added.

Joint exercises

North Korea has not reported a single case of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 3,000 people and infected over 88,000 in dozens of countries since it emerged in neighbouring China.

But state media have said around 7,000 people have been quarantined in three provinces alone.

Seoul and Washington last week said they will postpone forthcoming joint military exercises after South Korea — which has more than 4,000 infections — declared its highest “severe” alert level over the coronavirus.

The United States has 28,500 troops in South Korea to protect it against the nuclear-armed North, many of them based south of Seoul at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek — Washington’s biggest overseas military facility.

The security allies have previously scaled back annual joint military exercises significantly to facilitate nuclear talks with Pyongyang — which condemns such drills as preparations for an invasion — but a command coordination exercise had been planned for this spring.

In the past Pyongyang has fired missiles capable of reaching the entire US mainland and has carried out six nuclear tests, the last of them 16 times more powerful than the Hiroshima blast, according to the highest estimates.

It is under multiple sets of sanctions over its weapons programmes from the United Nations Security Council, US, the South and other bodies.

Heightened tensions in 2017 were followed by two years of nuclear diplomacy between Pyongyang and Washington, including three meetings between Kim and US President Donald Trump, but little tangible progress was made.

‘Serious Consequences’ Await If Coronavirus Reaches North Korea – Kim

This undated picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on February 29, 2020 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attending a meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea.  STR / KCNA VIA KNS / AFP
This undated picture released from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on February 29, 2020 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attending a meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea. STR / KCNA VIA KNS / AFP

 

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un warned top party officials of the “serious consequences” of failing to prevent an outbreak of the new coronavirus in the country, state media reported Saturday.

The impoverished nation, with a weak and ill-equipped healthcare system, has closed its borders to prevent the spread of the disease into its territory.

Kim told a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea that the fight against the virus was a “crucial state affair for the defence of the people” that required maximum discipline, according to the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

“In case the infectious disease spreading beyond control finds its way into our country, it will entail serious consequences,” KCNA quoted Kim as saying.

Two senior officials — party vice-chairmen Ri Man Gon and Pak Thae Dok — were sacked, and a party unit disbanded for corruption, the report said, indicating that they may have been involved in graft linked with the anti-epidemic measures.

“No special cases must be allowed,” he added, and ordered officials to “seal off all the channels and space through which the infectious disease may find its way”.

Pyongyang has not reported a single case of COVID-19, which has killed more than 2,800 people and infected over 84,000 people in dozens of countries since it emerged in neighbouring China.

North Korea has banned tourists, suspended international trains and flights and placed hundreds of foreigners in quarantine to prevent an outbreak. It has also reportedly postponed the new school term.

With loudspeakers blaring hygiene messages, ambassadors locked in their compounds, and state media demanding “absolute obedience”, North Korea’s anti-coronavirus measures have been described as “unprecedented” by diplomats.

South Korea, meanwhile, is battling a major outbreak of the virus with more than 2,300 cases — the highest number outside mainland China.

Germany’s ambassador to the United Nations has said the Security Council would adopt humanitarian exemptions to the sanctions imposed on Pyongyang over its weapons programmes, and allow the export of equipment to help North Korea fight the coronavirus.

But “the problem is that right now the North Koreans closed the borders,” Christoph Heusgen said Thursday after a closed-door Security Council meeting about the reclusive state.

The members of the Security Council called on North Korea “to allow this equipment in. So the population can be protected,” he added, without elaborating on the type of equipment.

 

AFP

North Korea Cancels Pyongyang Marathon Over Virus Scare

This undated picture released from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on February 15, 2020, shows people in protective suits spraying disinfectant at an undisclosed location in North Korea, amid concerns of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. PHOTO; STR / KCNA VIA KNS / AFP

 

North Korea has cancelled the Pyongyang Marathon — its biggest tourist money-spinner of the year — because of the novel coronavirus outbreak, tour companies said on Friday.

Beijing-based Koryo Tours, the official partner of the marathon, said on its website it had “received official confirmation today that the Pyongyang Marathon 2020 is cancelled.”

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“This is due to the ongoing closure of the North Korean border and COVID-19 virus situation in China and the greater region,” it added.

Young Pioneer Tours, which specialises in budget trips to the isolated country, issued a similar statement.

The annual marathon is held in April as part of the anniversary commemorations for founder Kim Il Sung’s birth in 1912 and attracts curious foreigners eager to run through the streets of the tightly controlled city.

Almost 1,000 Westerners took part last year, according to organisers, paying entry fees of up to $150 to do so.

North Korea has put itself into self-imposed isolation to protect itself from the outbreak raging in neighbouring China, which has infected more than 75,000 people and killed over 2,200.

Pyongyang has suspended flights and train services, banned tourists, and imposed 30 days of quarantine on resident foreigners.

North Korea is subject to multiple international sanctions over its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes and its medical infrastructure is weak, with chronic shortages of medicines and equipment.

As a result, an outbreak would wreak havoc, analysts say.

It has taken similar measures before: it banned tourists for more than four months from October 2014 to keep out the Ebola virus, even though no cases had been reported in Asia.

North Korea clamped down for six months during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2002-03, which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong.

AFP