North Korea warns U.S. of ‘very grave situation’ over Biden speech

North Korea warns U.S. of ‘very grave situation’ over Biden speech

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In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un delivers a closing speech at the Sixth Conference of Cell Secretaries of the Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang, North Korea, Thursday, April 8, 2021. (Korean … more >

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By Hyung-jin Kim

Associated Press

Saturday, May 1, 2021

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Sunday warned the United States will face “a very grave situation” because President Biden “made a big blunder” in his recent speech by calling the North a security threat and revealing his intent to maintain a hostile policy toward it.

Last week, Biden, in his first address to Congress, called North Korea and Iran’s nuclear programs “a serious threat to America’s security and world security,” and said he’ll work with allies to address those problems through diplomacy and stern deterrence. 

“His statement clearly reflects his intent to keep enforcing the hostile policy toward the DPRK as it had been done by the U.S. for over half a century,” Kwon Jong-gun, a senior North Korean Foreign Ministry official, said in a statement.

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“It is certain that the U.S. chief executive made a big blunder in the light of the present-day viewpoint,” Kwon said. “Now that the keynote of the U.S. new DPRK policy has become clear, we will be compelled to press for corresponding measures, and with time the U.S. will find itself in a very grave situation.”

Kwon still didn’t specify what steps North Korea would take, and his statement could be seen as an effort to apply pressure on the Biden administration as it’s shaping up its North Korea policy.

The White House said Friday administration officials had completed a review of U.S. policy toward North Korea, saying Biden plans to veer from the approaches of his two most recent predecessors as he tries to stop North Korea‘s nuclear program. Press secretary Jen Psaki did not detail findings of the review, but suggested the administration would seek a middle ground between Donald Trump’s “grand bargain” and Barack Obama’s “strategic patience” approaches.

Kwon’s statement didn’t mention Psaki’s comments.

After performing a series of high-profile nuclear and missile tests in 2016-17, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un launched summit diplomacy with Trump on the future of his growing nuclear arsenal. But that diplomacy remains stalled for about two years over differences in how much sanctions relief North Korea could win in return for limited denuclearization steps. 

In January, Kim threatened to enlarge his nuclear arsenal and build more high-tech weapons targeting the U.S. mainland, saying the fate of bilateral ties would depend on whether it abandons its hostile policy.

N. Korean diplomats leaving Malaysia after ties are severed

N. Korean diplomats leaving Malaysia after ties are severed

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Kim Yu Song, counselor at the North Korean Embassy to Malaysia, carries his luggage into a bus at the embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Sunday, March 21, 2021. Malaysia on Friday ordered all North Korean diplomats to leave the country within … more >

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By EILEEN NG

Associated Press

Sunday, March 21, 2021

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) – North Korean diplomats vacated their embassy in Malaysia and were expelled Sunday, after the two nations cut diplomatic relations in a spat over the extradition of a North Korean criminal suspect to the United States.

The North Korean flag and embassy signage were removed from the premise in a Kuala Lumpur suburb. Two buses ferried the diplomats and their families to the airport, where they were seen checking in for a flight to Shanghai.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said the expulsion was in response to Pyongyang’s “unilateral and utterly irresponsible decision” on Friday to sever diplomatic ties.

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“This action is a reminder that Malaysia shall never tolerate any attempt to meddle in our internal affairs and judiciary, disrespect our governance system and constantly create unnecessary tensions in defiance of the rules-based international order,” he said in a statement.

Ties between North Korea and Malaysia have been virtually frozen since the 2017 assassination of the estranged half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

Two days after Kuala Lumpur extradited a North Korean man to the U.S. to face money laundering charges, a furious North Korea on Friday announced it was terminating ties with Malaysia. Malaysia denounced the decision and in a tit-for-tat response, gave North Korean diplomats 48 hours to leave.

Kim Yu Song, the chargé d’affaires and councilor in Kuala Lumpur, said Malaysia had “committed an unpardonable crime.” Echoing Pyongyang’s earlier statement, he accused Malaysia of being subservient to the U.S. and being part of a U.S. conspiracy aimed at “isolating and suffocating” his country.

“The Malaysian authority delivered our citizen to the U.S. in the end, thus destroying the foundations of the bilateral relations based on respect of sovereignty,” he said in a short statement outside the embassy, before heading to the airport.

North Korea has called the money laundering charges an “absurd fabrication and (a) sheer plot” orchestrated by the U.S. and warned Washington will “pay a due price.”

Some experts say cutting ties with Malaysia was North Korea‘s way of showing anger with President Joe Biden’s administration, without jeopardizing an eventual return to nuclear negotiations with Washington.

North Korea has insisted it won’t engage in talks with Washington unless it abandons what Pyongyang’s perceives as a “hostile” policy. But experts say North Korea will eventually seek to return to diplomacy to find ways to get sanctions relief and revive its moribund economy.

Malaysia has defended its move to extradite Mun Chol Myong, saying it was carried out only after all legal processes have been exhausted. A top court ruled Mun can be extradited after rejecting his appeal on grounds that the U.S. charges were politically motivated.

Mun, who lived in Malaysia for a decade and was arrested in May 2019, has denied U.S. accusations that he was involved in supplying luxury goods from Singapore to North Korea in violation of U.N. sanctions while working in the city-state. He denied laundering funds through front companies and issuing fraudulent documents to support illicit shipments to his country.

North Korea has long used Malaysia as a crucial economic hub where it handled trade, labor exports and some illicit businesses in Southeast Asia, but their relations suffered major setbacks over the 2017 killing of Kim Jong Nam.

Two women – one Indonesian and the other Vietnamese – were charged with colluding with four North Koreans to murder Kim Jong Nam by smearing his face with VX nerve agent. The four North Koreans fled Malaysia the day Kim died. The two women were later released after a trial.

Malaysian officials never officially accused North Korea of involvement in Kim’s death, but prosecutors made it clear throughout the trial that they suspected a North Korean connection.

North Korea denied the victim was Kim Jong Nam and disputed it had any role in the man’s death. Longtime North Korea watchers believe Kim Jong Un ordered his brother’s killing as part of efforts to remove potential rivals and cement his grip on power.

Kim lays blame at officials for N. Korea’s economic failures

Kim lays blame at officials for N. Korea’s economic failures

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In this photo taken during a four-day meeting held from Feb. 8, 2021 until Feb. 11, 2021 and provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends at a meeting of Central Committee of Worker’s Party … more >

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By KIM TONG-HYUNG

Associated Press

Thursday, February 11, 2021

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ripped into the performance of his Cabinet and fired a senior economic official he appointed a month ago, saying they’d failed to come up with new ideas to salvage an economy in decay.

The report by state media on Friday comes during the toughest period of Kim’s nine-year rule. The diplomacy he had hoped would lift U.S.-led sanctions over his nuclear program is stalemated, and pandemic border closures and crop-killing natural disasters last year deepened the damage to an economy broken by decades of policy failures, including a crippling famine in the 1990s.

The border closure caused trade volume with China, the main source of support for North Korea‘s economy, to drop by 75% in the first 10 months of the year. Raw materials shortages caused factory output to plunge to its lowest level since Kim took power in 2011, and prices of imported foods like sugar quadrupled, according to South Korea’s spy agency.

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Some analysts say the current challenges may set up conditions for an economic perfect storm in the North that destabilizes markets and triggers public panic and unrest.

The current challenges have forced Kim to publicly admit that past economic plans hadn’t succeeded. A new five-year plan to develop the economy was issued during the ruling Workers’ Party congress in January, but Kim’s comments during the party’s Central Committee meeting that ended Thursday were rich with frustration over how the plans have been executed so far.

During Thursday’s session, Kim lamented that the Cabinet was failing in its role as the key institution managing the economy, saying it was producing unworkable plans while displaying no “innovative viewpoint and clear tactics.”

He said the Cabinet’s targets for agricultural production this year were set unrealistically high, considering limited supplies of farming materials and other unfavorable conditions. Targets for electricity production were set too low, he said, showing a lack of urgency when shortages could stall work at coal mines and other industries.

“The Cabinet failed to play a leading role in mapping out plans of key economic fields and almost mechanically brought together the numbers drafted by the ministries,” the KCNA paraphrased Kim as saying.

The KCNA also said that O Su Yong was named as the new director of the Central Committee’s Department of Economic Affairs during this week’s meeting, replacing Kim Tu Il who was appointed in January.

During the January party congress, Kim Jong Un called for reasserting greater state control over the economy, boosting harvests and prioritizing the development of chemicals and metal industries. He also vowed all-out efforts to bolster his nuclear weapons program in comments that were seen as an attempt to pressure the new Biden administration.

To truly revive the economy, analysts say, the country needs to invest heavily in modern factory equipment and technology, and to either import more food or improve farm productivity: a U.N. assessment in 2019 found that 10.1 million people, or 40% of the population, were food insecure and in urgent need of assistance. The border closure has hindered updates on the situation, but output of staple grains had plateaued since surging a few years ago, when farmers were allowed to retain more of their harvests instead of handing them entirely over to the government.

The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that nearly half of North Koreans are undernourished.

The metal and chemical industries are crucial for revitalizing stalling manufacturing, which has been decimated by U.N. sanctions and disrupted imports of factory materials amid the pandemic. However, most experts agree that North Korea’s new development plans aren’t meaningfully different from its previous ones that lacked in substance.

South Korean intelligence officials say there are also signs that the North is taking dramatic steps to strengthen government control over markets, including suppressing the use of U.S. dollars and other foreign currencies.

Such efforts might compel people to exchange their foreign currency savings for the North Korean won. They demonstrate the government’s sense of urgency over its depleting foreign currency reserves, analysts say.

UN experts say North Korea still modernizing nuclear arsenal

UN experts say North Korea still modernizing nuclear arsenal

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In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends at a meeting of Central Committee of Worker’s Party of Korea in Pyongyang, North Korean, Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. Independent journalists were not given … more >

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By EDITH M. LEDERER

Associated Press

Monday, February 8, 2021

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – U.N. experts say North Korea has modernized its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile arsenals by flaunting United Nations sanctions and continues to seek material and technology overseas for use in these programs.

The panel of experts monitoring sanctions on the reclusive northeast Asian nation said in a report sent to Security Council members Monday that Kim Jong Un’s government has also produced fissile material — an essential ingredient for producing nuclear weapons — and maintained its nuclear facilities.

“It displayed new short-range, medium-range, submarine-launched and intercontinental ballistic missile systems at military parades,“ the experts said. “It announced preparation for testing and production of new ballistic missile warheads and, development of tactical nuclear weapons … and upgraded its ballistic missile infrastructure.“

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The Security Council has imposed increasingly tough sanctions on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the country’s official name, since its first nuclear test explosion in 2006. It has banned most of the country’s exports and severely limited its imports, trying to pressure Pyongyang into abandoning its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

But the report’s summary, obtained by The Associated Press, makes clear North Korea remains able to evade sanctions while developing its nuclear and missile programs, illicitly import refined petroleum, access international banking channels, and carry out “malicious cyber activities.”

The arsenal of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un emerged as a major threat to the United States and its Asian allies following tests in 2017 that included a detonation of a purported thermonuclear warhead and flight tests of ICBMs that demonstrated the potential to reach American territory.

A year later, Kim initiated diplomacy with South Korea and U.S. President Donald Trump, but it derailed in 2019 when the Americans rejected North Korea’s demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for a piecemeal deal partially surrendering its nuclear weapons capabilities.

Last year, North Korea’s already battered economy decayed further amid the COVID-19 pandemic which led Kim to close the country’s borders. That severely limited the legal and illegal transfer of goods and movement of people, according to the experts.

Now, Kim must start all over again with President Joe Biden, who previously called him a “thug” and criticized Trump for summit spectacles instead of significant nuclear reductions.

In August 2019, the panel said, North Korean cyber experts illegally raised money for the country’s weapons of mass destruction programs “with total proceeds to date estimated at up to $2 billion.”

The panel said it investigated “malicious cyber activities” by North Korea’s primary intelligence agency, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, which is on the U.N. sanctions blacklist. It said those actions included “the targeting of virtual assets and virtual asset service providers, and attacks on defense companies.“

The experts said they also investigated attempted violations of the U.N. arms embargo, including illegal actions of blacklisted companies. They cited the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation, alleged military cooperation by North Korea, and the use of the country’s overseas diplomatic missions for commercial purposes.

The panel said it also investigated “the country’s continued illicit import of refined petroleum, via direct deliveries and ship-to-ship transfers, using elaborate subterfuge.“

It cited images, data and calculations from an unidentified country showing that between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30 last year North Korea received shipments of refined petroleum products exceeding the annual ceiling of 500,000 barrels set by the Security Council “by several times.”

U.N. sanctions ban North Korean coal exports, and the panel said shipments of coal appear to have been largely suspended since late July 2020.

It said that last year, North Korea continued to transfer fishing rights in violation of sanctions, which earned the country $120 million in 2018, according to an unnamed member state.

Under a 2017 sanctions resolution, all North Korean nationals working overseas were to be repatriated by Dec. 22, 2019. The experts said they investigated North Korean workers earning income in sub-Saharan Africa as well as information technology workers dispatched by the Munitions Industry Department.

Demoted? Pushed aside? Fate of Kim Jong Un’s sister unclear

Demoted? Pushed aside? Fate of Kim Jong-un’s sister unclear

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In this Feb. 9, 2018, file photo, Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, arrives for the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool, File) more >

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By Hyung-jin Kim

Associated Press

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — What has happened to Kim Yo-yong, the North Korean leader’s influential sister?

That is a question many who watch the cloistered, nuclear-armed country are wondering after she failed to appear in absolute leader Kim Jong Un’s newly released lineup for the country’s powerful Politburo in recent days.

Some say Kim Jong-un may have demoted his sister over general policy failures. Others, however, believe he could be worried about her rapid rise and increasingly high profile as he tries to bolster his domestic authority in the face of growing economic challenges.

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Rumors that Kim Yo-jong is her brother’s heir apparent could be dangerous because they “raise the issue of Kim’s hold on power and health inside North Korea,” said Oh Gyeong-seob, an analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification. This, he said, is why Kim Jong Un is slowing down her rise in power.

The development is a surprise because Kim Yo Jong, who became an alternate member of the Politburo last year, was widely expected to receive a full bureau membership during a ruling Workers’ Party congress that ended Tuesday. A Politburo membership is viewed as crucial for high-level officials hoping to thrive in Kim Jong-un’s government because he’s made key decisions at bureau meetings, including the 2013 move to execute his powerful uncle Jang Song-taek, and the 2012 purge of military chief Ri Yong-ho.

When the eight-day congress, the first of its kind since 2016, opened last week, Kim Yo-jong, who is thought to be about 32, sat on the leadership podium, standing out amid the often elderly, overwhelmingly male party cadres. But when the congress on Monday announced a list of 30 alternate and full members of the Politburo, including the 37-year-old Kim Jong-un, her name wasn’t there.

Kim Yo-jong hasn’t been purged or forced to quit politics, a fate that some officials have met under Kim Jong Un, and she still retains her membership in the party’s Central Committee, also a high-level body. But when she released a statement criticizing South Korea on Wednesday, state media identified her as a “vice department director” of the party, a lower rank than her previous title of “first vice department director.”

Kim Jong Un is urging his 25 million people to rally behind his leadership to overcome what he has called his nation’s “worst-ever” difficulties. North Korea has faced coronavirus-related economic shocks, a spate of natural disasters last summer and persistent U.S.-led sanctions over its pursuit of illicit nuclear weapons. During the congress, Kim vowed to expand his nuclear arsenal and build a stronger, self-reliant economy.

“The congress’ purpose is to solidify Kim Jong Un’s leadership. If Kim Yo Jong had become a full Politburo member, all eyes would have been on her … and Kim Jong Un likely felt that as a burden,” Ko Young-hwan, a former deputy head of the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank run by South Korea’s spy agency, said during a TV news program Monday.

Previously little known to outsiders, Kim Yo-jong has soared politically since her brother inherited power after their father, Kim Jong-il, died in late 2011.

The current Kims are the third generation of their family to rule North Korea, and their leadership is based on a personality cult established after their grandfather Kim Il-sung founded the country in 1948. Their mythical “paektu” bloodline, named after the North’s most sacred mountain, allows only direct family members to rule the country.

Kim Yo Jong rose to international prominence after her brother’s high-stakes nuclear diplomacy with President Donald Trump and other world leaders in 2018 and 2019. In those meetings, her proximity to Kim Jong Un sparked speculation that she was serving as her brother’s chief of staff.

In South Korea, she built an image as “a peace messenger” after she attended the opening ceremony of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, becoming the first member of the North’s ruling family to visit the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

Last year, however, she abruptly changed course by launching harsh diatribes against South Korea and putting pressure on the United States to make concessions amid deadlocked nuclear diplomacy. North Korea’s state media said she was in charge of relations with South Korea, and outside experts speculated that she might be handing U.S. affairs as well.

In her statement on Wednesday, she slammed South Korea for provoking the North by announcing that it had detected intelligence that North Korea held a military parade or a rehearsal for such a parade this week.

When unconfirmed global rumors about Kim Jong Un’s health rose last year, some observers said Kim Yo Jong was next in line to rule North Korea if her brother became incapacitated. South Korea’s spy agency said later that she was virtually the North’s No. 2 official but hadn’t been anointed as her brother’s heir.

Kim Jong Un likely held his sister responsible for worsened (external) ties, as she had no achievements in relations with the U.S. and South Korea,” said Kim Yeol Soo, an analyst with South Korea’s Korea Institute for Military Affairs.

Whatever the reason for her apparent loss of the Politburo job, many experts say her political clout likely remains unchanged thanks to her direct link to the paektu bloodline. There’s also a feeling that Kim Jong Un could eventually give her another high-profile job.

Oh, the analyst, said Kim Yo-jong is likely the second-most powerful woman in North Korean history after Kim Song-ae, the late second wife of Kim Il-sung.

Kim Yo Jong can meet and talk to Kim Jong Un freely anytime … so we can’t help saying that she has a tremendous influence,” Oh said. “As she gets older, her roles will be bigger.”

But, he added, her rise could end if she covets more power. “She has to be careful about that,” he said.

EXPLAINER: What’s behind N. Korea’s biggest political event

EXPLAINER: What’s behind N. Korea’s biggest political event

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In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, attends a ruling party congress in Pyongyang, North Korea Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021. Kim opened its first Workers’ Party Congress in five years with … more >

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By HYUNG-JIN KIM

Associated Press

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North Korea has opened the first full congress of its ruling party in five years, with leader Kim Jong Un admitting his previous economic development plans have failed. The congress could be crucial, coming as it does amid what some experts see as the most fraught moment of Kim’s nine-year rule.

The Workers’ Party congress, which was revived by Kim in 2016 after a 36-year hiatus, began on Tuesday as North Korea, one of the world’s poorest countries, faces what Kim has called “huge challenges and difficulties” brought on by an economy hammered by pandemic-related border closings, a spate of natural disasters and harsh U.S.-led sanctions meant to stop the country from putting the finishing touches on its illicit nuclear-tipped missile program.

The meeting will also be closely watched by, and may be meant to send a message to, US. President-elect Joe Biden, who will be inaugurated later this month. Biden has called Kim a “thug” and criticized his nuclear summitry with President Donald Trump.

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Here are a few things to know about the biggest political event of the year in North Korea:

___

WHAT IS IT?

The congress is the top decision-making organ of the Workers’ Party.

Kim, the party chairman, determines key day-to-day decisions together with members of his inner circle, but the congress’ responsibilities include the formulation of new policies, reviews of past projects, revisions of party regulations and a reshuffling of officials’ positions.

This year’s congress is the eighth since Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, held the first one in 1945. Kim Il Sung had six congresses before he died in 1994. His son, Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011, never held a congress. Some experts say Kim Jong Il’s “military-first” policy helped undermine the influence of the Workers’ Party during his 17-year rule.

Kim Jong Un revived the congress in 2016 as part of his efforts to increase the party’s authority and cement his grip on power. It was the first congress since 1980, four years before he was born. Kim turns 37 on Friday.

It’s unclear how long this year’s congress will last. The 2016 congress met for four days. In 1980 it was five days, and 12 days in 1970.

___

WHY HOLD IT NOW?

Past party rules required North Korea to hold a congress every five years, but revised guidelines in 2010 don’t specify how often it should be convened. Some experts say Kim needs a big state meeting like this to lay out a new vision for the nation and to strengthen public loyalty at a difficult time in his rule.

North Korea’s yearlong closure of its borders to guard against COVID-19 saw its trade volume plummet with China, its biggest trading partner, by about 80% in the first 11 months of 2020. Typhoons and floods last summer destroyed crops, houses and infrastructure across North Korea. Pyongyang has said that persistent U.S.-led sanctions against its nuclear bomb program are meant to “strangle and stifle” the country.

During a public speech marking the party’s 75th anniversary in October, Kim fought back with tears as he thanked his people for enduring the triple blow to the economy.

“On this planet at present, our country is the only one that is faced with (such) huge challenges and difficulties, like dealing with the anti-epidemic emergency and recovering from the catastrophic natural disasters, when everything is in short supply owing to the harsh and prolonged sanctions,” Kim said.

North Korea, which has a broken medical infrastructure and deep poverty, has taken some of the world’s toughest anti-virus measures, and claims to be coronavirus-free, an assertion widely disputed by foreign experts.

Experts also say that Kim shares a high level of responsibility for the economic woes. Kim has repeatedly told his people that nuclear weapons are a “powerful treasured sword” that are needed because of persistent U.S. hostility. But a string of high-profile weapons tests in past years aimed at acquiring the ability to launch precision nuclear strikes on the American homeland have led to tougher U.S.-led sanctions that experts say are gradually drying up North Korea’s foreign currency reserves.

___

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

During this month’s congress, North Korea has said it will announce new economic developmental goals for the next five years.

State media said Wednesday the congress’ gathering is meant to “discuss and decide on a fresh line of struggle and strategic and tactical policies for making a radical leap forward in the development of the party and socialist construction.” An earlier Workers’ Party statement said its previous “goals for improving the national economy have been seriously delayed.”

Some observers say North Korea may be forced to aim for modest objectives from this congress because it must continue to focus against the coronavirus. Others says North Korea, which recently completed an 80-day “productivity campaign,” might call for more such campaigns to squeeze its people for increased labor.

During several speeches expected at the congress, Kim will likely repeat his commitment to his nuclear development program but may signal a willingness to engage with the incoming Biden administration and rival South Korea. Kim’s state media, which previously called Biden “a rabid dog,” have remained silent over the next U.S. president’s election victory.

Other possible moves at the congress include Kim getting a new high-profile position, such as “generalissimo,” a title held by his late father and grandfather; his influential sister, Kim Yo Jong, may also be appointed a member of the powerful Politburo in a bid to reinforce the Kim family’s rule, experts say.

Mired in crises, North Korea’s Kim to open big party meeting

Mired in crises, North Korea’s Kim to open big party meeting

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In this Nov. 15, 2020, file photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attends a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party Politburo in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim is facing the toughest challenges of his nine-year … more >

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By Hyung-jin Kim and Kim Tong-hyung

Associated Press

Monday, December 28, 2020

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Coronavirus restrictions that have significantly limited his public appearances. Warning signals for an economy battered by pandemic-related border closings and natural disasters. The impending departure of a U.S. president who said he “fell in love” with him.

As North Korean leader Kim Jong-un grapples with the toughest challenges of his nine-year rule, he’s set to open a massive ruling Workers’ Party congress next month to try to muster stronger public loyalty to him and lay out new economic and foreign policies.

While few question Kim‘s grip on power, there is still room for things to get worse, especially if the world fails to find a quick way out of the COVID-19 crisis. That would prolong North Korea‘s self-imposed lockdown and could possibly set conditions for an economic perfect storm that destabilizes food and exchange markets and triggers panic among the public.

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The congress, the first in five years, is the ruling party’s top decision-making body. At the 2016 congress, Kim put himself in front, reaffirming his commitment to developing nuclear weapons and announcing an ambitious economic development plan. Five years later, experts say Kim doesn’t have many options other than to further squeeze his populace for more patience and labor.

“When we get into the specifics, there’s really nothing new the North could present at the congress in terms of developing its economy,” said Hong Min, an analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification. “The country will continue to close its borders as long as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and the international sanctions will persist, so there’s no visible room for a breakthrough.”

Kim entered this year with a declaration of “frontal breakthrough” against punishing U.N. sanctions after his high-stakes diplomacy with President Donald Trump fell apart in 2019 over a U.S. refusal to offer extensive sanctions relief in return for limited denuclearization measures.

But Kim‘s drive faced an immediate setback. Later in January, North Korea was forced to seal off its international borders, including one with China — its biggest trading partner and aid benefactor — after COVID-19 emerged there.

As a result of the border closure, North Korea‘s trade volume with China in the first 10 months of this year fell by 75%. That led to a shortage of raw materials that plunged the North’s factory operation rate to its lowest level since Kim took power in late 2011, and a four-fold price increase of imported foods like sugar and seasonings, South Korea‘s spy agency told lawmakers recently.

For several months, North Korea also restricted the use of U.S. dollars at markets, only to make its local currency, the won, appreciate sharply, triggering mounting public complaints. Authorities executed a high-profile currency trader in Pyongyang in October as a scapegoat, according to Ha Tae-keung, one of the lawmakers who was briefed by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, or NIS.

Lim Soo-ho, an analyst at an NIS-run think tank, said North Korea likely aimed to reassert government control over markets amid the pandemic. He said such a step is doomed to fail because people are likely to exchange only a portion of their foreign currency savings for won in anticipation that the clampdown will eventually end.

Lim said if the COVID-19 pandemic continues for most of 2021, the North’s economy could face a crisis unseen since a devastating famine that killed hundreds of thousands of North Koreans in the 1990s.

During next month’s congress, North Korea will likely call for another “frontal breakthrough” to bolster its internal strength and build up a more self-reliant economy. But as long as the pandemic continues, the North will have to settle for modest economic goals while focusing on its anti-virus efforts, the Seoul-based Institute for Far Eastern Studies said in a report.

North Korea has steadfastly claimed to be coronavirus-free, though it said it has intensified what it called “maximum” anti-epidemic steps. Outside experts are highly skeptical of the North’s zero-virus case claim but agree the country hasn’t experienced a widespread outbreak.

“Why did they raise their anti-epidemic steps if they really haven’t had any patients? It doesn’t make any sense,” said Kim Sin-gon, a professor at Korea University College of Medicine in Seoul. “But they’ve imposed a higher level of anti-virus steps than any other country, so it’s likely that there aren’t many patients there.”

North Korea‘s public healthcare infrastructure remains in shambles, with many hospitals still using equipment built in the 1960s and 1970s. This keeps North Korean officials vigilant because “they know they’ll suffer tremendous damage if they lower their guard even little bit,” said Kang Young-sil, an analyst at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies.

Since the pandemic began, North Korea has isolated people with suspected coronavirus symptoms, flown out foreign nationals and reportedly locked down one region after another. In some extreme measures detected by Seoul, the North banned fishing at sea, executed an official for violating regulations on the entrance of goods from abroad, and fatally shot and burned a South Korean official found floating on an object in waters near the Koreas’ disputed western maritime border.

“North Korea is very sensitive and nervous amid the pandemic, and it’s making irrational, bizarre moves,” said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at South Korea‘s Korea University.

Kim Jong Un, 36, has been hunkering down. He’s appeared in public 53 times this year to observe weapons tests, visit areas hit by typhoons and preside over high-level meetings, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry, compared to an average of 103 appearances over the past four years.

Despite the deadlocked nuclear talks, North Korea likely hoped for the reelection of Trump, who met with Kim three times, giving him his long-desired legitimacy on a global stage. Trump once said he exchanged “love letters” with Kim and that “we fell in love.”

Instead of the top-down summitry used by Kim and Trump, President-elect Joe Biden will likely want working-level negotiators to sort out details and confirm North Korea‘s denuclearization commitment before he would meet with Kim. North Korea also is probably not an overriding priority for Biden, who faces several pressing domestic issues such as the coronavirus, an economy hammered by the pandemic, and racial disparities.

Some experts say North Korea may opt for its time-honored strategy of conducting missile tests to draw U.S. attention like it did during past presidential transition periods in Washington. Others expect the North to avoid big provocations that could diminish the prospect for early talks with the Biden administration.

Satellite imagery provided by Maxar, a Colorado-based satellite imagery company, shows thousands of people assembled in formation at Pyongyang’s main square on Saturday, likely rehearsing for upcoming celebrations. South Korea‘s spy agency earlier said North Korea would hold a military parade in January in a demonstration of its military strength targeting the Biden administration.

Kim’s government has acknowledged that the sanctions, the pandemic, and the typhoons and summer floods that wiped out crops have created “multiple crises.” But experts say China will help North Korea because it won’t likely let its neighbor suffer a humanitarian disaster that could cause a refugee influx over their border.

Kim has been battered by a one-two punch — the U.N. sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic,” Nam said. “But China is by his side and supporting him.”

S. Korea bans flying of leaflets toward N. Korea by balloon

S. Korea bans flying of leaflets toward N. Korea by balloon

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Police officers collect a ballon carrying a banner with images of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the late leader Kim Il Sung and Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of Kim Jong Un, released by Fighters For Free North … more >

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By HYUNG-JIN KIM

Associated Press

Monday, December 14, 2020

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – South Korea’s parliament on Monday approved contentious legislation criminalizing the flying of propaganda leaflets by balloon toward North Korea, despite fierce criticism that the country is sacrificing freedom of expression to improve ties with the rival North.

The legislation passed with the support of 187 lawmakers, mostly governing party members who support President Moon Jae-in’s policy of engagement with North Korea. Outnumbered opposition lawmakers didn’t attend the vote after their attempt at delaying the balloting with nonstop speeches was foiled by governing party lawmakers and their allies who used their three-fifths supermajority to halt the speeches in a separate vote.

It was the first time that South Korea’s parliament has passed a bill formally banning civilians from floating anti-North Korea leaflets across the tense border. South Korea has previously banned such activities only during sensitive times, and has normally allowed activists to exercise their freedom of speech despite repeated protests from North Korea.

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Activists and defectors from North Korea have for years used huge helium-filled balloons to carry leaflets criticizing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and human rights record, USB sticks with information about world news, and U.S. dollars. Observers say North Korean leader Kim Jong Un likely saw the leafleting as a threat to his absolute rule over his 25 million people, who mostly have little access to outside information.

Lawmakers aligned with Moon say the legislation is intended to avoid unnecessarily provoking North Korea, to ensure the safety of people who live near the border, and to secure stable relations with the North. Opponents accuse Moon of sympathizing excessively with North Korea or yielding to North Korean threats over the leafleting.

“This is a law that will block the flow of South Korea’s great values, the spirit of democracy, freedom and equality, to North Korea,” conservative opposition lawmaker Tae Yongho said during a 10-hour speech. “It’s a law aimed at joining hands with Kim Jong Un and leaving North Korean residents enslaved for good.”

Tae was a senior North Korean diplomat in London before defecting to South Korea in 2016 and was elected to South Korea’s parliament in April.

The bill will take effect three months after being promulgated by the government, which is regarded as a formality. A lawyers’ group in Seoul earlier said it would file a constitutional appeal if the bill is passed.

Under the legislation, anyone flying leaflets, auxiliary storage devices or money toward North Korea without government permission can be punished by up to three years in prison or a fine of 30 million won ($27,730). The same penalty can also be applied to blaring loudspeaker broadcasts or placement of giant billboards at border areas, but no civilians in South Korea are known to have been involved in such activities.

Moon and Kim agreed to halt Cold War-style psychological warfare and lower animosities when they met in April 2018 at the start of now-stalled global diplomacy on North Korea’s nuclear program. Moon’s government says that agreement must be applied to civilian leafleting, but opponents argue the accord didn’t clearly prohibit it.

The bill’s passage came six months after Kim’s powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, responded furiously over what she called South Korea’s inability to halt civilian leafleting and demanded it ban the activity. She called North Korean defectors involved in the leafleting campaign “human scum” and “mongrel dogs.”

Moon’s government responded that it would introduce an anti-leafleting law and press charges against some activists. But an angry North Korea went ahead with a threat to blow up an unoccupied South Korean-built liaison office on its territory, in its most significant provocation in more than two years.

Tensions further rose in September when North Korean troops fatally shot a South Korean fisheries official found on a floating object in the North’s waters. Kim Jong Un later offered a rare apology for the killing.

After weeks of investigation, Seoul police last month requested that prosecutors indict nine leafleting activists for allegedly violating laws on inter-Korean cooperation, pollution and embezzlement.

Among them is Park Sang-hak, a North Korean defector who accused the Moon government of “meanly” passing responsibility for strained inter-Korean ties to him and fellow activists.

“The leaflets that we’ve sent were meant to inform our parents, brothers and sisters that we’ve found after our arrival here that South Korea isn’t a living hell or an American colony like we had been taught there,” Park said. “Is this that wrong?”

In 2014, North Korean troops opened fire at propaganda balloons flying toward their territory, triggering an exchange of fire that caused no known casualties.

It’s unclear whether the bill’s passage might promote ties between the Koreas.

After nuclear diplomacy stalled last year due to wrangling over U.S.-led sanctions, North Korea halted nearly all cooperation with South Korea. It hasn’t responded to a South Korean offer of coronavirus-related cooperation. But observers say North Korea may push for reconciliation with South Korea again when it wants a new round of diplomacy with U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s administration.

North Korea accused of using virus to crack down on rights

North Korea accused of using virus to crack down on rights

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FILE – In this June 3, 2020, file photo, Kim Song Ju Primary school students have their temperatures checked before entering the school in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim Yo Jong, the influential sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, … more >

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By EDITH M. LEDERER

Associated Press

Friday, December 11, 2020

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – Eight mainly Western nations accused North Korea on Friday of using the pandemic “to crack down further on the human rights of its own people,” pointing to reports of an uptick in executions related to the coronavirus and strict controls on movements in and around the capital.

Their statement was read virtually after the U.N. Security Council discussed North Korea’s human rights situation behind closed doors. Germany had sought an open meeting but Russia and China, both neighbors of North Korea, objected. Diplomats said the Germans couldn’t muster the nine “yes” votes needed for an open meeting of the 15-member council.

Seven council members — Germany, Belgium, Dominican Republic, Estonia, France, United Kingdom and United States — joined by Japan said in the statement that North Korea was putting nuclear power and military might over its people.

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The government’s decision “to prioritize its weapons programs over the needs of its people and their isolation from the international community, is inevitably worsening the impacts of the pandemic on the North Korean population,” they said.

North Korea sealed its border with China, its biggest trading partner and aid benefactor, as the coronavirus started spreading in January. Kim Jong Un’s government maintains it hasn’t found a single coronavirus case on its soil, a claim disputed by outside experts.

The country’s closure, along with a series of natural disasters over the summer, dealt a heavy blow to the North Korean economy, which has been under punishing U.S.-led sanctions. A major virus outbreak could have dire consequences because its health care system remains crippled and suffers from a chronic lack of medical supplies.

South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers in late November that Kim had ordered at least two people executed, banned fishing and salt production at sea to prevent seawater from being infected with the virus, and locked down Pyongyang as part of frantic efforts to guard against the coronavirus and its economic damage.

According to a lawmaker, a high-profile money changer in Pyongyang was executed in October after being held responsible for a falling exchange rate and a key official was executed in August for violating government regulations restricting goods brought from abroad.

The statement by the eight nations pointed to “the serious threat posed to international peace and security” by North Korea’s “longstanding, systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights.” It cited the Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the country, which said North Korea commits crimes against humanity and the gravity and scale of its violations “reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

North Korea has repeatedly rejected accusations of human rights abuses. It blames U.N. sanctions for the country’s dire humanitarian situation. The country has been under U.N. sanctions since 2006 over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

Issuing their statement a day after International Human Rights Day, the eight nations urged North Korea “to end its human rights violations, engage credibly with the international community on its human rights record” and allow U.N. human rights experts to have free and unhindered access to the country.

Kim’s sister slams Seoul over questioning zero-virus claim

Kim Jong-un’s sister slams Seoul over questioning zero-coronavirus claim

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In this Sept. 19, 2018, file photo, Kim Yo-jong, right, helps her brother North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sign a joint statement following the summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Paekhwawon State Guesthouse in Pyongyang, North Korea. … more >

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By Hyung-jin Kim

Associated Press

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The influential sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-in lambasted South Korea’s foreign minister for questioning the North’s claim to be coronavirus free, warning Wednesday of potential consequences for the comments.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said over the weekend that it’s hard to believe North Korea’s claim that there has been no virus outbreak on its soil. She added that the North has been unresponsive to South Korea’s offer for cooperation to jointly tackle the pandemic.

The North Korean leader’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, responded in a statement carried by state media.

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“It can be seen from the reckless remarks made by her without any consideration of the consequences that she is too eager to further chill the frozen relations between North and South Korea,” she said.

“Her real intention is very clear. We will never forget her words and she might have to pay dearly for it,” Kim said.

The remarks show how sensitive North Korea is to what it considers any outside attempt to tarnish its image as it steps up its efforts to guard against the pandemic and the economic fallout.

Despite its zero-virus case claim, North Korea’s state media have repeatedly said there is a “maximum emergency” anti-epidemic campaign in which it has closed its international borders, flown out diplomats and isolated residents with suspected symptoms.

North Korea’s border closure with China, it’s biggest trading partner, is wrecking its already fragile economy. The country has admitted it is facing “multiple crises” due to the pandemic, a spate of natural disasters last summer and persistent U.S.-led sanctions imposed over its nuclear program.

Experts have said a major disease outbreak in North Korea could cause a humanitarian disaster because of its broken healthcare system.

Kang, the South Korean foreign minister, told a forum in Bahrain on Saturday that the pandemic had “made North Korea more North Korea – that is, more closed, very top-down decision-making process where there is very little debate on their measures in dealing with COVID-19.”

“They still say they do not have any cases, which is hard to believe,” Kang said. “So, all signs are the regime is very intensely focused on controlling the disease that they say they do not have.”

Also this week, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, the top U.S. official on North Korea, is in Seoul for talks on North Korea and other issues.

South Korea’s spy agency recently told lawmakers that Kim Jong-un had ordered diplomats overseas to refrain from any acts that could provoke Washington because it is worried about President-elect Joe Biden’s expected new approach toward North Korea.

Some observers say North Korea could still do something provocative to try to draw Biden’s attention and create the need to restart stalled nuclear talks in which it could win concessions.

Thousands die in secret North Korea COVID camps: Report

Thousands dying in secret North Korean COVID camps: Report

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In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attends the 21st meeting of the Political Bureau of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang, North Korea Sunday, Nov. 29, … more >

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By Guy Taylor

The Washington Times

Sunday, December 6, 2020

South Korea cast fresh doubt over the weekend on North Korea’s assertions that it has not recorded a single case of COVID-19, while reports swirled of tens of thousands dying in secret quarantine camps run by the ruling regime in Pyongyang.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told the audience at a major security conference in the Middle on Saturday that she finds it “hard to believe” there has been no outbreak in North Korea.

“All signs are that the regime is very intensely focused on controlling the disease that they say they don’t have,” Mrs. Kang said at the annual International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Dialogue in Bahrain.

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“It’s a bit of an odd situation,” she said, according to a report by Channel News Asia.

The comments came a day after a South Korea-based news outlet claimed more than 50,000 people have died in “COVID-19 quarantine facilities” set by the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The web-based publication Daily NK — an outfit run mostly by North Korean defectors known to be highly critical of the Kim regime — claimed nearly 4,200 North Korean military personnel have been among those who’ve died in the alleged camps, many of which the publication claimed are run by the military.

The Washington Times was unable to verify the report, although one respected North Korea analyst said it should be viewed with a mix of skepticism and seriousness.

“We have to be skeptical of these reports but if true we need to be vigilant,” said David Maxwell, a former U.S. Special Forces officer with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.

“These conditions could lead to significant instability inside [N]orth Korea and crisis action decision making by Kim Jong-un,” Mr. Maxwell said in comments circulated via email on Sunday.

The claim about secret quarantine camps coincides reports that North Korea is running an elaborate cyberespionage operation aimed at hacking companies developing COVID-19 treatments and vaccines, including the U.S. pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson.

Sources involved in investigating the alleged hacking say it began in August and September, as the race to develop vaccines gained full steam among American, British, South Korean and other research firms, according to reports by Reuters and The Wall Street Journal.

The Kim regime has not confirmed a single coronavirus case in his isolated nation. However, South Korean and U.S. officials say there is an outbreak of unknown proportions in North Korea, which was engaged in significant trade and cross-border activities with China prior to closing the border between the two shortly after the virus was found to be spreading on the Chinese side in early 2020.

In a related development this week, a report citing Japanese intelligence claimed Mr. Kim and other high-level members of the North Korean regime have been given a COVID-19 vaccine by the Chinese government. The report by the online publication “19FortyFive” claimed two Japanese intelligence sources said Mr. Kim and “multiple other” regime officials were given the vaccine “within the last two to three weeks.”

North Korea unveils new weapons at military parade

North Korea unveils new weapons at military parade

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Delegates head to watch a performance of Samjiyon Orchestra for a celebration of the 75th founding anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea at the Samjiyon Theater in Pyongyang, North Korea Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. (AP Photo Cha Song Ho). more >

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By KIM TONG-HYUNG

Associated Press

Friday, October 9, 2020

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un warned that his country would “fully mobilize” its nuclear force if threatened as he took center stage at a military parade that unveiled what appeared to be a new intercontinental ballistic missile and other weapons.

Kim, however, avoided direct criticism of Washington during Saturday’s event, which celebrated the 75th anniversary of the ruling party and took place less than four weeks before the U.S. presidential election. Instead, he focused on a domestic message urging his people to remain firm in the face of “tremendous challenges” posed by the coronavirus pandemic and crippling U.S.-led sanctions over his nuclear program.

Kim described the North’s continuing efforts to develop its nuclear deterrent as necessary for its defense and said it wasn’t targeting any specific country.

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But “if any force harms the safety of our nation, we will fully mobilize the strongest offensive might in a preemptive manner to punish them,” he said.

Kim’s speech was punctuated by thousands of goose-stepping troops, tanks, armored vehicles, rocket launchers and a broad range of ballistic missiles rolled out in Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square.

The weapons included what was possibly the North’s biggest-yet ICBM, which was mounted on an 11-axel launch vehicle that was also seen for the first time. The North also displayed a variety of solid-fuel weapon systems, including what could be an advanced version of its Pukguksong family of missiles designed to be fired from submarines or land mobile launchers.

The missiles highlighted how the North has continued to expand its military capabilities during a stalemate in nuclear negotiations with the Trump administration.

Kim had previously expressed frustration over the slow diplomacy, pledging in December that he would continue to bolster his nuclear arsenal in the face of U.S. pressure and soon unveil a “new strategic weapon to the world.” He then said the North was no longer obligated to maintain a self-imposed suspension on nuclear weapon and ICBM tests, which President Donald Trump touted as a major foreign policy achievement.

The probable ICBM paraded Saturday was clearly the new strategic weapon Kim had promised to show, said Melissa Hanham, deputy director of the Austria-based Open Nuclear Network. North Korea had already demonstrated a potential ability to reach deep into the U.S. mainland with a flight test of its Hwasong-15 ICBM in 2017, and developing a larger missile possibly means the country is trying to arm its long-range weapons with more warheads, she said.

“North Korea is pushing ahead with its nuclear strategy regardless of the tough year that it has had with regard to diplomatic talks, flooding from typhoons and COVID-19,” Hanham said in a telephone interview. “I also think that this is a message to the United States – he has already declared he no longer holds himself to the moratorium and he has something new as well he may wish to test.”

The celebratory event, which began late Friday, was not broadcast by North Korean state television until Saturday evening, when it aired a taped broadcast.

Goose-stepping troops were seen marching in the streets in front of a brightly illuminated Kim Il Sung Square, as a military band performed while moving in formation, shaping “10.10,” “1945,” and “2020” in honor of the party anniversary.

The performers and tens of thousands of spectators roared as Kim, dressed in a gray suit and tie, appeared from a building as the clock struck midnight. Kim, flanked with senior officials and smiling widely, waved to the crowd and kissed children who presented him with flowers before taking his spot on a balcony.

During his speech, Kim seemed to tear up at one point as he repeatedly thanked his “great people” and military for overcoming “unexpected” burdens and carrying out anti-virus measures imposed by the ruling party and government to keep the country free of COVID-19, a claim that has been widely questioned by outside observers.

He also extended an olive branch to rival South Korea, expressing hope that the countries can repair ties once the threat of the pandemic is over. The North had suspended virtually all cooperation with the South during a freeze in larger talks with the United States.

After the speech, Kim waved and watched with binoculars as the military hardware was rolled out in the square. He saluted as fighter jets flew in formation, using fireworks to form the Workers’ Party’s symbol – a hammer, brush and sickle – and the number 75 in the sky.

Earlier Saturday, masked citizens lined up to lay flowers at the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the father of the current ruler, at Pyongyang’s Mansu Hill. A huge street poster read “Best glory to our great party.”

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said residents in Kaesong and other regions who had lost their homes to recent natural disasters marked the party anniversary by moving into newly built houses and that they praised Kim Jong Un for looking after them as “their father.”

This year’s anniversary comes amid deadlocked negotiations with the Trump administration and deepening economic woes that analysts say are shaping up as one of the biggest tests of Kim’s leadership since he took power in 2011.

But many analysts believe North Korea will avoid serious negotiations or provocations before the U.S. presidential election because of the chance that the U.S. government could change.

North Korean leader berates officials over hospital project

North Korean leader berates officials over hospital project

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In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during an enlarged meeting of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang, North Korea Saturday, July 18, 2020. Independent … more >

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By KIM TONG-HYUNG

Associated Press

Sunday, July 19, 2020

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un berated construction managers for unspecified problems in building a showpiece hospital in comments reported Monday that may indicate the country is struggling to secure the supplies amid U.S.-led sanctions and a coronavirus lockdown.

During a visit to the construction site in Pyongyang, Kim lamented that his ambitious project of building a new general hospital was being carried out in a “careless manner” and without a proper budget and ordered all officials responsible to be replaced, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said.

The report said Kim accused construction managers of making a “serious digression” from the ruling party’s policy over the supply of materials and equipment by “burdening the people by encouraging all kinds of ‘assistance,’’’ which apparently indicated rising complaints among people who were mobilized for its construction.

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The KCNA report didn’t say when Kim visited the site and didn’t mention any comments by Kim over stalled nuclear diplomacy with the Trump administration or international sanctions over his nuclear weapons program.

In announcing the plans to build the hospital in March, Kim made a rare acknowledgement that his country lacks modern medical facilities and called for urgent improvements in the country’s health care system.

However, the country hasn’t directly linked the hospital project to the coronavirus pandemic and has steadfastly maintained that no one in its territory has been sickened by COVID-19, a claim many foreign experts doubt.

Experts say the pandemic has hurt the North’s economy, already battered by stringent U.S.-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile programs.

Kim desperately sought sanctions relief during a flurry of diplomacy with the United States in 2018 and 2019. But talks have faltered since his second summit with President Donald Trump in February 2019.

Experts say the COVID-19 crisis likely thwarted some of Kim’s major economic goals by forcing the country into a lockdown that shut the border with China, its major ally and economic lifeline, and potentially hampered his ability to mobilize people for labor.

UN frees up ‘expense’ money for several declared terrorists

UN frees up ‘expense’ money for several declared terrorists

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By KATHY GANNON

Associated Press

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

ISLAMABAD (AP) – The United Nations has freed up “expense” money for several men designated as terrorists at the request of the Pakistani government, including one with a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head.

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday the money will cover basic expenses and doesn’t involve any restoration or unfreezing of bank accounts.

“These exemptions are being enforced and monitored as per law,” the statement said.

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Pakistan put in the request last year in keeping with U.N. regulations, which allows for money to be released – but carefully monitored – from frozen bank accounts belonging to individuals declared terrorists by the world body.

Pakistani officials didn’t reveal how many designated terrorists were on the list sent to the U.N. or how much money was released or the nature of the expenses for which the outlawed individuals required the money.

However, a diplomatic source confirmed Hafiz Saeed, the founder of militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba and alleged mastermind behind the 2008 attack in Mumbai India that killed more than 160 people, was on the list. Saeed is also on India’s most wanted list.

The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media about the details of the request or the U.N. decision.

In 2008, Lashkar-e-Taiba militants carried out a series of attacks that culminated in the siege of a luxury hotel.

A Pakistani anti-terrorist court convicted Saeed in February and sentenced him to 5 1/2 years in jail on convictions of financing terrorism and having links with terrorists. He has appealed his conviction and sentence.

Instead of going to jail, however, Saeed was put under house arrest at his sprawling home in the Johar neighborhood of the eastern city of Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province.

Saeed’s home is in a residential neighborhood protected by steel barriers that stretch across the streets leading to his home, which is guarded by uniformed police.

Saeed’s Lashkar-e-Taiba has been linked to Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence service, although Pakistan has routinely denied any links.

Although Saeed’s group has been linked to attacks outside the region, its activities have mostly been directed at Pakistan’s enemy neighbor India and the dispute in the Himalayan region of Kashmir, a former princely state divided between Pakistan and India and claimed by both.

The nuclear-armed neighbors have twice gone to war over Kashmir. They fought a third war in 1971 over Bangladesh, or what was then East Pakistan.

The two countries have come dangerously close to a fourth war and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan in recent months has launched a political and diplomatic initiative against New Delhi’s crippling restrictions and heavy-handed crackdown on its side of Kashmir, one of India’s only Muslim-dominated regions.

____

Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer reported from New York

Kim Jong-un urges North Koreans to keep up coronavirus fight

Kim Jong-un urges North Koreans to keep up coronavirus fight

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By Hyung-jin and Kim Tong-hyung

Associated Press

Friday, July 3, 2020

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong-un urged officials to maintain alertness against the coronavirus, warning that complacency risked “unimaginable and irretrievable crisis,” state media said Friday.

Despite the warning, Kim reaffirmed North Korea’s claim to not have had a single case of COVID-19, telling a ruling party meeting Thursday that the country has “thoroughly prevented the inroad of the malignant virus” despite the worldwide health crisis, the Korean Central News Agency said.

Outsiders widely doubt North Korea escaped the pandemic entirely, given its poor health infrastructure and close trade and travel ties to China, where the coronavirus emerged late last year.

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Describing its anti-virus efforts as a “matter of national existence,” North Korea earlier this year shut down nearly all cross-border traffic, banned tourists and mobilized health workers to quarantine anyone with similar symptoms to the disease.

Experts say the country’s self-imposed lockdown is hurting an economy already battered by stringent U.S.-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile programs.

The KCNA report said Kim during the politburo meeting of the Workers’ Party “stressed the need to maintain maximum alert without a slight self-complacence or relaxation” as the virus continues to spread in neighboring countries.

The agency said Kim sharply criticized inattentiveness among officials and violations of emergency anti-virus rules and warned that a “hasty relief of anti-epidemic measures will result in unimaginable and irretrievable crisis.”

The North’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper published several photos of Kim at the meeting, which were the first state media images of him in weeks. Neither Kim nor the ruling party officials who participated were wearing masks.

Kim’s recent statement suggests North Korea’s stringent border closure with China, its biggest trading partner and economic pipeline, will likely continue despite the toll that is taking on the already heavily sanctioned economy.

According to Chinese data, the North’s exports to China and imports from it both plunged by more than 90% for two consecutive months in March and April. In May, the North’s trade volume with China increased by about 164% from the month before, suggesting North Korea was trying to restore trade, the IBK Economic Research Institute said in a report.

Cho Hey-sil, a spokeswoman at the South Korean Unification Ministry, told reporters Friday that it remains to be seen whether North Korea’s trade with China will fully resume.

Even before the pandemic, North Korea was grappling with the pain of U.N. sanctions imposed over its nuclear program. Its trade volume with China in 2019 was more than halved compared with 2016 figures, after new U.N. sanctions targeting the North’s major export items such as coal, textiles and seafood were adopted in recent years.

Kim was desperate to win sanctions relief when he engaged in a flurry of diplomacy with the United States, including three summits with President Donald Trump, in 2018 and 2019.

But those efforts have made little headway since the second Kim-Trump summit in Vietnam in February 2019 ended when Trump rejected Kim’s demands for extensive sanctions relief in return for partial denuclearization.

Last year, Kim launched an ambitious five-year national development plan, but experts say the coronavirus crisis likely thwarted some of his major economic goals. Kim in December declared a “frontal breakthrough” against the sanctions while urging his nation to stay resilient in the struggle for economic self-reliance.

In May, South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers that panic buying had taken place in Pyongyang amid skyrocketing prices of imported food such as sugar and seasonings, before authorities clamped down on those cornering the market.

North Korea monitoring groups in Seoul recently said the price of rice and key commodities and foreign exchange rates in markets in Pyongyang remain stable. Ahn Kyung-su, head of the Seoul-based private dprkhealth.org institute, which focuses on health issues in the North, said there could be Chinese aid shipments and unofficial bilateral trade taking place that isn’t reflected in official trade figures.

In its weekly updates to the World Health Organization, North Korea’s Ministry of Public Health said the country has tested 922 people for the coronavirus as of June 19 and that all of the results were negative, according to Edwin Salvador, WHO’s representative to the North.

In an email sent to The Associated Press, Salvador said North Korea told the WHO it has so far released 25,551 people from quarantine and that as many as 255 people remain isolated.

“They are laborers working at the seaport and Sinuiju-Dandong land border,” Salvador said, referring to an area on the North KoreaChina border. “They have been quarantined after handling goods arriving into the country.”

While all borders of North Korea continue to remain mostly closed, goods are being transported into the country through a few channels, including a sea route from the Chinese city of Dalian and the North Korean port of Nampo, Salvador said. He said medical supplies have been prioritized.

South Korean police raid office of anti-North activist

South Korean police raid office of anti-North activist

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By HYUNG-JIN KIM

Associated Press

Friday, June 26, 2020

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – South Korea police on Friday raided the office of an activist whose anti-North Korea leafleting campaign has intensified tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Police said officers visited the Seoul office of Park Sang-hak to confiscate leaflets, account books and other related materials. The Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency said that Park will be summoned soon for an investigation.

Park, a North Korean refugee who has launched balloons carrying propaganda leaflets toward North Korea for years, has been in the spotlight after North Korea abruptly used his campaign as a justification for a series of provocative steps against South Korea. Among them was blowing up an empty liaison office built by South Korea on the North’s territory.

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South Korean officials later demanded police investigate Park for allegedly raising animosities with North Korea and potentially endangering residents living near the border.

Authorities in Gyeonggi province, which borders North Korea, requested a separate investigation of several activist groups, including Park’s, for alleged fraud, embezzlement and other charges over their donation activities.

Park said Monday that his leafleting was only aimed at informing North Korean residents of the truth about their government and that he would keep sending balloons to them.

The pressure on activists has led to criticism that the liberal government of President Moon Jae-in is sacrificing democratic principles to salvage its faltering efforts for reconciliation with North Korea. The governor of Gyeonggi province is affiliated with Moon’s ruling party.

A police agency official involved in the case said officers also raided the office of Park’s brother, Park Jung-oh, who has floated plastic bottles filled with rice toward North Korea across the sea boundary. The official, who requested anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said police plan to summon Park Jung-oh too.

Voice of the Martyrs Korea, a Seoul-based Christian nonprofit group, said in a statement Friday that it flew four balloons carrying an unspecified number of Bibles toward North Korea on Thursday. Seoul’s Unification Ministry expressed regret over the activities and said authorities have already been investigating the organization over its past balloon launches.

Earlier this week, Park Sang-hak said his organization covertly launched huge balloons carrying 500,000 leaflets toward North Korea, despite the repeated warnings from both Koreas not to do so. The South Korean government expressed regret over Park’s activities, but it wasn’t independently confirmed whether all his balloons reached North Korean territory. One was later found in South Korea.

Tensions between the Koreas temporarily eased on Wednesday, when North Korea announced it would put off steps to avenge the South Korean leafleting, such as sending its own anti-Seoul flyers, resuming military exercises and reestablishing guard posts at the border in violation of 2018 agreements to reduce tensions.

Some experts say North Korea’s saber rattling is aimed at extracting outside concessions in the face of crippling U.S.-led sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic.

S Korea urges North to uphold deals amid rising animosities

S Korea urges North to uphold deals amid rising animosities

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In this March 2, 2019, file photo, Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un attends a wreath-laying ceremony at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, Vietnam. The powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un … more >

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By HYUNG-JIN KIM

Associated Press

Saturday, June 13, 2020

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – South Korea on Sunday convened an emergency security meeting and urged North Korea to uphold reconciliation agreements, hours after the North threatened to demolish a liaison office and take military action against its rival.

There’s concern that North Korea could turn to provocation to bolster its internal unity and wrest outside concessions as nuclear talks with the United States remain deadlocked. Observers say North Korea desperately needs sanctions relief in the face of harsh U.S.-led sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic.

South Korea’s national security director, Chung Eui-yong, held an emergency video conference with ministers in charge of security and military generals on Sunday morning to discuss the latest situation on the Korean Peninsula and the government’s possible steps, the presidential Blue House said in a statement.

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The Unification Ministry, which handles relations with North Korea, later said that both Koreas must strive to abide by all agreements they have reached. The Defense Ministry said separately it closely monitors North Korea’s military and maintains a firm military readiness.

Both ministries said the South Korean government “views the current situation as grave.”

On Saturday night, Kim Yo Jong, the influential sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, warned that Seoul will soon witness “a tragic scene of the useless North-South liaison office (in North Korea) being completely collapsed.” She also said she would leave to North Korea’s military the right to take the next step of retaliation against South Korea.

North Korea earlier suspended communication lines with South Korea and threatened to nullify 2018 agreements that led the Koreas to halt firing exercises, remove some land mines and tear down guard posts in front-line areas.

The North has linked its recent series of threats to Seoul’s failure to prevent activists from launching propaganda leaflets across their border. But some experts say North Korea is deeply frustrated that South Korea hasn’t done enough to revive lucrative joint economic projects as well as over a lack of progress in its nuclear talks with Washington.

The negotiations have made little progress since a second summit between Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump in early 2019 fell apart because of disputes over how much sanctions should be lifted in return for Kim’s dismantling his main nuclear complex.

Kim later vowed to expand his nuclear arsenal, introduce a new strategic weapon and overcome the U.S.-led sanctions that he said “stifles” his country’s economy.

He also pushed South Korea to resume the operations of the two big inter-Korean projects – a factory park and a tourism site, both in North Korea – but South Korea was unable to do so due to the sanctions.

Kim’s struggle to address economic woes has likely faced setbacks as the coronavirus pandemic forced North Korea to close its border with China, its biggest trading partner. North Korea says it hasn’t reported a single outbreak but foreign experts question that claim and warn a pandemic in the North could be dire due to its fragile heath care system.

Some observers say the end of the 2018 deals could allow North Korea to send ships across the disputed sea boundary, float down mines on a border river or take other provocative steps at the border area. The South Korean Defense Ministry statement said the 2018 deals must be maintained to prevent accidental armed clashes and establish peace on the Korean Peninsula.

But it’s still unclear if the North would go ahead with its threat to destroy the liaison office, which was built at a North Korean border town following a 2018 summit between Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Such a move could deepen anti-Pyongyang sentiments and make it difficult for the North to restore ties with South Korea when needed.

Kim Jong Un’s sister threatens S. Korea with military action

Kim Jong Un’s sister threatens S. Korea with military action

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By KIM TONG-HYUNG

Associated Press

Saturday, June 13, 2020

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – The powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un threatened military action against South Korea as she bashed Seoul on Saturday over declining bilateral relations and its inability to stop activists from floating anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border.

Describing South Korea as an “enemy,” Kim Yo Jong repeated an earlier threat she had made by saying Seoul will soon witness the collapse of a “useless” inter-Korean liaison office in the border town of Kaesong.

Kim, who is first vice department director of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, said she would leave it to North Korea’s military leaders to carry out the next step of retaliation against the South.

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“By exercising my power authorized by the supreme leader, our party and the state, I gave an instruction to the arms of the department in charge of the affairs with enemy to decisively carry out the next action,” she said in a statement carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.

“If I drop a hint of our next plan the (South Korean) authorities are anxious about, the right to taking the next action against the enemy will be entrusted to the General Staff of our army,” she said. “Our army, too, will determine something for cooling down our people’s resentment and surely carry out it, I believe.”

Kim’s harsh rhetoric demonstrates her elevated status in North Korea’s leadership. Already seen as the most powerful woman in the country and her brother’s closest confidant, state media recently confirmed that she is now in charge of relations with South Korea.

The liaison office in Kaesong, which has been shut since January due to coronavirus concerns, was set up as a result of one of the main agreements reached in three summits between Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in 2018.

Moon’s government had lobbied hard to set up nuclear summits between Kim and President Donald Trump, who have met three times since 2018. At the same time, Moon also worked to improve inter-Korean relations.

But North Korea in recent months has suspended virtually all cooperation with the South while expressing frustration over the lack of progress in its nuclear negotiations with the Trump administration.

Over the past week, the North declared that it would cut off all government and military communication channels with the South and threatened to abandon key inter-Korean peace agreements reached by their leaders in 2018.

They include a military agreement in which the Koreas committed to jointly take steps to reduce conventional military threats, such as establishing border buffers and no-fly zones. They also removed some front-line guard posts and jointly surveyed a waterway near their western border in an unrealized plan to allow freer civilian navigation.

In an earlier statement last week, Kim Yo Jong said that the North would scrap the military agreement, “which is hardly of any value,” while calling North Korean defectors who send leaflets from the South “human scum” and “mongrel dogs.”

Her comments on Saturday came hours after a senior North Korean Foreign Ministry official said that Seoul should drop “nonsensical” talk about the North’s denuclearization, and that his country would continue to expand its military capabilities to counter what it perceives as threats from the United States.

In response to North Korea’s anger over the leaflets, South Korea’s government has said it would press charges against two defector groups that have been carrying out border protests.

The South also said it would push new laws to ban activists from flying the leaflets across the border, but there’s been criticism over whether Moon’s government is sacrificing democratic principles to keep alive his ambitions for inter-Korean engagement.

For years, activists have floated huge balloons into North Korea carrying leaflets criticizing Kim Jong Un over his nuclear ambitions and dismal human rights record. The leafleting has sometimes triggered a furious response from North Korea, which bristles at any attempt to undermine its leadership.

While Seoul has sometimes sent police officers to block the activists during sensitive times, it had previously resisted North Korea’s calls to fully ban them, saying they were exercising their freedom. Activists have vowed to continue with the balloon launches.

But it’s unlikely that North Korea’s belligerence is about just the leaflets, analysts say.

The North has a long track record of dialing up pressure on the South when it doesn’t get what it wants from the United States. Its threats to abandon inter-Korean agreements came after months of frustration over Seoul’s refusal to defy U.S.-led sanctions and restart joint economic projects.

Some experts say North Korea, which has mobilized people for massive demonstrations condemning defectors, is deliberately censuring the South to rally its public and shift attention away from a bad economy, which likely has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s unclear what kind of military action the North would take against the South, although weapons tests are an easy guess. Kim Dong-yub, an analyst from Seoul’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies, said North Korea could also be “planning something” near the countries’ disputed western maritime border, which has occasionally been the scene of bloody clashes over the years.

Nuclear talks faltered at Kim Jong Un’s second summit with Trump in Vietnam in February last year after the United States rejected North Korea’s demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.

Trump and Kim met for a third time that year in June at the border between North and South Korea and agreed to resume talks. But an October working-level meeting in Sweden broke down over what the North Koreans described as the Americans’ “old stance and attitude.”

On the two-year anniversary of the first Kim-Trump meeting, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Son Gwon said Friday that the North would never again gift Trump with high-profile meetings he could boast as foreign policy achievements unless it gets something substantial in return.

South Korea to charge defector groups over North leaflets

South Korea to charge defector groups over North leaflets

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South Korea’s Unification Ministry’s spokesman Yoh Sang-key speaks during a briefing at the government complex in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, June 10, 2020. South Korea’s government on Wednesday said it will sue two activist groups that have sent anti-Pyongyang leaflets … more >

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By KIM TONG-HYUNG

Associated Press

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – South Korea’s government said Wednesday that it will press charges against two activist groups that have been floating anti-Pyongyang leaflets and bottles filled with rice to North Korea.

Any action against the groups is likely to trigger a debate over freedom of expression in South Korea, and whether President Moon Jae-in’s liberal government is sacrificing democratic principles to keep alive his ambitions for inter-Korean engagement.

The announcement by Seoul’s Unification Ministry came a day after North Korea said it was cutting off all communication channels with South Korea over its inability to prevent North Korean defectors and other activists from flying the leaflets across the border.

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One of the targeted defector-activists condemned what he described as a “treacherous” move by Seoul and vowed to launch even more leaflets across the border in coming weeks, using not only balloons but also drones.

Yoh Sang-key, the ministry’s spokesman, told reporters the two organizations facing charges had “created tensions between the South and North and brought danger to the lives and safety of (South Korean) residents in border areas.”

The ministry said last week that the government would push new laws to ban activists from flying the leaflets across the border, after the North threatened to end an inter-Korean military agreement reached in 2018 to reduce tensions if Seoul failed to prevent the protests.

Aside from severing government and military communication channels, the North also said it would permanently shut down a liaison office and a factory park in the border town of Kaesong, which have been major symbols of reconciliation.

For years, activists have floated huge balloons into North Korea carrying leaflets criticizing leader Kim Jong Un over his nuclear ambitions and dismal human rights record. The leafleting has sometimes triggered a furious response from North Korea, which bristles at any attempt to undermine its leadership.

In 2014, soldiers exchanged fire after South Korean activists released propaganda balloons across the Demilitarized Zone, but no casualties were reported.

While Seoul has sometimes sent police officers to block the activists during sensitive times, it had previously resisted North Korea’s calls to fully ban them, saying they were exercising their freedom.

Yoh said that the two groups, led by North Korean defector Park Sang-hak and his brother Park Jung-oh, violated a law governing inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation by sending unauthorized materials to the North. The ministry confirmed it was the first time the law, which is designed to prevent South Korean organizations from providing unauthorized goods to North Korea, was being used against defectors’ anti-Pyongyang activities.

Park Sang-hak’s Fighters for a Free North Korea has launched balloons with anti-Pyongyang leaflets for years. Park Jung-oh leads the group Keun Saem, which on Monday unsuccessfully tried to float rice-filled bottles into North Korea from a border town before being blocked by South Korean police.

“Since when has the Ministry of Unification become the ministry of treason?” Park Sang-hak told The Associated Press. “We will respond not with words but with action, by flying even more leaflets to North Korean people.”

Park said he will also try to use drones so that he “could drop the leaflets on Kim Jong Un’s head.” He didn’t say when the launches will happen, but that he was ready “whenever the winds are good.”

The ministry didn’t say whether it was planning to take similar legal action against another group led by Lee Min-bok, also a North Korean defector who has been flying leaflets into the North for years.

Experts say North Korea’s move to cut off communication channels was likely more than just about leafleting as it comes after months of frustration over Seoul’s unwillingness to defy U.S.-led sanctions and resume inter-Korean economic projects that would breathe life into the North’s broken economy.

North Korea has suspended virtually all cooperation with South Korea in recent months amid a stalemate in larger nuclear negotiations with Washington. The talks faltered last year with the Americans rejecting the North’s demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.

South Korea’s government and military said officials tried to contact their North Korean counterparts via several channels after the North’s announcement on Tuesday but got no answer. Yoh said Wednesday his ministry will stop trying before the Koreas agree to resume the channels.

The liaison office in Kaesong has been closed since late January after the Koreas agreed to temporarily shut it until the COVID-19 pandemic is controlled.

North Korea, South Korea exchange gunfire after Kim Jong-un reemerges

Pompeo: ‘Accidental’ shots led to gunfire exchange between North, South Korea

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In this Friday, May 1, 2020, photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, center, visits a fertilizer factory in South Pyongan, near Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim made his first public appearance in 20 days as … more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Updated: 5:08 p.m. on
Sunday, May 3, 2020

North and South Korean military forces traded gunfire Sunday in what U.S. officials believe started with an “accidental” shot from the northern side of the border, increasing tensions between the two nations just as reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong-un emerged from a mysterious three-week absence from the world stage.

South Korean military leaders said the brief exchange began after North Korean forces fired several shots at a guard post across the Demilitarized Zone separating the two nations. South Korean troops then fired 20 rounds of warning shots before issuing a warning broadcast, officials in Seoul said.

While no one was injured, the incident cast a spotlight on the delicate situation along the border and served as a warning of how any miscalculation along the DMZ can quickly turn violent.

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Trump administration officials say they believe the gunfire began with an accidental shot fired by North Korean forces. There were reports of heavy fog in the area at the time of the exchange, possibly contributing to the brief exchange.

“A handful of shots that came across from the north — we think those are accidental,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday ABC’s “This Week.” “South Koreans did return fire. So far as we can tell, there was no loss of life on either side.”

Sunday marked the first time the nations, which technically are still at war, fired on one another since November 2017, when North Korean forces shot at a defector fleeing across the border.

The latest incident came just a day after Mr. Kim reappeared in public after a nearly three-week absence that fueled speculation he was gravely ill or perhaps had died. His failure to appear at key public events, including an April 15 ceremony honoring the birthday of his late grandfather, Kim Il-sung, raised questions about whether the 36-year-old Mr. Kim had contracted COVID-19 or had undergone surgery for another health issue.

But North Korean media over the weekend showed images of Mr. Kim attending a ceremony to mark the completion of a fertilizer factory near Pyongyang, and U.S. officials later concluded that those images appeared to be genuine.

“It looks like Chairman Kim is alive and well,” Mr. Pompeo said.

President Trump, who has met with Mr. Kim several times amid his administration’s ongoing push for a denuclearization deal on the Korean Peninsula, shared the North Korean photos on his Twitter feed Saturday.

“I, for one, am glad to see he is back, and well!” Mr. Trump tweeted.

Earlier last week, Mr. Trump suggested to reporters that he knew the reasons for Mr. Kim’s sudden disappearance, though he offered no details.

“I do have a very good idea, but I can’t talk about it now,” Mr. Trump said. “I hope he’s fine. I do know how he’s doing, relatively speaking. We will see. You’ll probably be hearing in the not-too-distant future.”

Denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang broke down early last year during a meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim in Vietnam, after both sides seemingly had made progress on an agreement earlier.

Pyongyang insisted that the U.S. begin lifting sanctions before North Korea would begin to dismantle its nuclear program; the White House stood firm that economic relief would come only after verifiable steps toward denuclearization.

North Korea earlier this year conducted several provocative missile tests, though they garnered relatively little attention as the U.S. and other world governments focused on the coronavirus pandemic.

Kim Jong-un makes first public appearance in three weeks; Trump has no comment

Kim Jong-un makes first public appearance in three weeks; Trump has no comment

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In this Friday, May 1, 2020, photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, center, visits a fertilizer factory in South Pyongan, near Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim made his first public appearance in 20 days as … more >

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By Dave Boyer

The Washington Times

Friday, May 1, 2020

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made his first public appearance in 20 days on Friday, and President Trump didn’t want to discuss it with reporters.

“I’d rather not comment on it yet,” Mr. Trump said as he departed the White House Friday afternoon for a working weekend at Camp David. “We’ll have something to say about it at the appropriate time.”

Mr. Kim, who was rumored to be near death or dead, made a public appearance at the opening of a fertilizer factor Friday, according to state media and Korean Central Radio.

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The 36-year-old didn’t attend public celebrations of his grandfather’s birthday on April 15, leading to speculation that he was gravely ill.

Officials: US seeks indefinite UN arms embargo on Iran

Officials: US seeks indefinite UN arms embargo on Iran

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The empty chair of Iran’s Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, is pictured prior to the start of the IAEA board of governors meeting at the International Center in Vienna, Austria, Monday, March 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak) more >

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By EDITH M. LEDERER and MATTHEW LEE

Associated Press

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – The United States has circulated a draft U.N. resolution that would indefinitely extend a U.N. arms embargo on Iran set to expire in October, a move almost certain to spark opposition from Russia, which has made no secret of its desire to resume conventional weapons sales to Tehran, U.S. officials and U.N. diplomats said Tuesday.

The draft document, which as of Tuesday had been circulated only to a small number of Security Council members, would strike the expiration of the arms embargo from the council resolution that endorsed the 2015 nuclear deal between six major powers and Iran, according to Trump administration officials and U.N. diplomats, who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The U.S. officials said the aim is to present the resolution for a vote in May when Estonia, a NATO member and close U.S. ally that is not party to the nuclear deal, holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council.

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The arms embargo was not a part of the landmark 2015 accord, but Iran has long sought its removal and its expiration was included in the council resolution as a reward for Iranian compliance with the agreement’s nuclear restrictions. Since Iran is admittedly no longer complying with several elements of the nuclear deal, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the administration believes it has a case to make that the embargo should not be lifted, the officials said.

Still, any attempt to extend the embargo will likely face stiff opposition from Russia and China, two veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council who have argued it should be removed and want to resume arms sales to Iran. Russia has been more outspoken on the matter and has derided U.S. attempts to bring the matter up for discussion, criticizing President Donald Trump for withdrawing the U.S. from the nuclear deal in 2018 and re-imposing tough American sanctions on Iran.

Despite that opposition, which is almost certain to see the American effort fail, the U.S. officials said the administration is not planning at this point to raise the controversial matter of “snapback” – or restoring all U.N. sanctions against Iran that had been lifted or eased under the terms of the 2015 deal.

Although the administration pulled out from the deal two years ago, the U.S. maintains that it retains the right to invoke a sanctions snapback that the deal envisaged in the event of “significant non-performance” by Iran.

That position rests on a novel State Department legal argument that was first presented in December and asserts that although the U.S. is no longer in the nuclear deal, it remains an original “participant” under the terms of the Security Council resolution that enshrined it. That resolution does, in fact, list the parties to the 2015 agreement by name, but numerous diplomats have said the American argument is specious because the Trump administration has made such a point about no longer participating in the deal.

The U.S. risks sparking a diplomatic war and throwing the already damaged credibility of the Security Council into further jeopardy should it decide to invoke snapback because it is unlikely that either the Chinese or the Russians, and possibly other members, would go along with the re-imposition of U.N. sanctions or enforce them.

The Chinese, Russians and many other council members have lamented the impact that the unilateral U.S. sanctions have had on Iran, crippling its oil exports and badly damaging its economy.

And, although the U.S. sanctions include exemptions that allow Iran to import humanitarian goods, critics have complained that they are hurting Iran’s ability to combat the coronavirus pandemic by discouraging companies and banks from doing business with Iran out of fear they will be hit with American penalties.

___

Lee reported from Washington

Kim Jong-un could be isolated due to coronavirus fears, say South Korean officials

Kim Jong-un could be isolated due to coronavirus fears, say South Korean officials

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In this undated file photo provided by the North Korean government on April 12, 2020, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects an air defense unit in the western area of North Korea. Kim Jong-un’s two-week absence from public view has … more >

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By Lauren Meier

The Washington Times

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

It is possible that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been out of public sight in an effort to protect himself against the coronavirus, South Korean officials said Tuesday.

Reports that Mr. Kim could be gravely ill after undergoing cardiovascular surgery have surged since April 15, following his surprising absence from festivities that day celebrating the birthday of his grandfather Kim Il-sung, founder of the family’s communist dynasty and dictatorship.

“It is true that he had never missed the anniversary for Kim Il-sung’s birthday since he took power, but many anniversary events including celebrations and a banquet had been canceled because of coronavirus concerns,” South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul said during a parliament hearing.

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Officials in South Korea have repeatedly cautioned against reports that Mr. Kim is ill and say they have not seen new or unusual movements within the isolated country.

U.S. and regional intelligence sources over the weekend rejected speculative international media reports regarding Mr. Kim’s health condition, including a rising number that claim he is dead.

The unification minister cautioned that it would not be “particularly unusual” for the 36-year-old to remain isolated amid the coronavirus pandemic, which experts have warned could hit North Korea particularly hard.

However, North Korea has not reported any confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, despite its shared border with China.

A look at past disappearances of North Korean leaders, officials

A look at past disappearances of North Korean leaders, officials

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In this May 21, 1987, file photo, then North Korean President Kim Il-sung, center, and then Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang make their way through a crowd of well-wishers at the train station in Beijing. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s … more >

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By Kim Tong-hyung

Associated Press

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — While Kim Jong-un’s two-week absence has inspired speculation and rumors that he is gravely ill, he is not the first member of North Korean’s ruling elite to disappear from public view.

Some absences were caused by real trouble, including deaths, illness or purges. But frequently the so-called disappearances have simply shown the disconnect between insatiable curiosity about what’s happening inside the isolated, nuclear-armed nation and the thick cloak of secrecy surrounding its leadership.

A look at past cases of missing North Korean officials and when reports about the demise of leaders were premature:

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___

KIM IL-SUNG

Before his death in 1994, there was arguably no person South Koreans hated and feared more than North Korea’s state founder Kim Il-sung. His forces launched a surprise attack on the South in June 1950, triggering a devastating war that drew massive intervention by the United States and China and killed and injured millions of people before an armistice halted fighting three years later.

He also dispatched commandos in a failed attempt to assassinate the South Korean president in 1968 and sent agents to plant bombs that killed 21 people, including several South Korean cabinet ministers, during a presidential visit to Myanmar in 1983.

When South Korean newspapers reported him as dead in November 1986, the public, at least for a few hours, was overwhelmed with euphoria but also panic about instability on the border.

The reports began circulating on Nov. 16 when the Chosun Ilbo published a short story by its Tokyo correspondent who reported rumors in Japan that Kim Il Sung had died. Things took a strange turn the next day when South Korea’s military spokesman announced that the North Koreans used loudspeakers on the mine-strewn border to announce that he was shot to death.

Chosun released an extra edition to report the story on Nov. 17 – a Monday when newspapers hadn’t usually published – before using seven pages to describe Kim Il Sung’s assassination on Nov. 18, under the now infamous front-page headline “Kim Il Sung shot dead.”

Other newspapers wrote similar stories, adding to a frenzy that abruptly ended hours later when Kim Il Sung appeared alive and well at an airport in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, to greet a visiting Mongolian delegation.

Chosun, South Korea’s biggest newspaper by circulation, never published a correction. But it formally apologized over the story last month while marking the 100th anniversary of its founding.

The newspaper also apologized over a 2013 report that said North Korean singer and senior ruling party member Hyon Song Wol had been executed. Hyon reappeared in public in May 2014 and is now considered as one of the most powerful women in North Korea, accompanying Kim Jong Un to several international summits.

___

KIM JONG-IL

Kim Jong-il, the famously reclusive father of the current ruler, also was the subject of countless reports and rumors about his demise.

In 2004, a massive explosion at a North Korean train station on its border with China inspired rumors of an assassination attempt as he had passed through hours earlier on his way back from Beijing. The collision of two fuel-carrying trains reportedly killed and injured thousands of people, but a link to the leader’s travel was never confirmed.

Chatter about Kim Jong-il’s death following his 2008 stroke became so frequent that it prompted South Korea’s financial regulator in 2009 to investigate whether the rumors were being deliberately spread to manipulate stock markets.

When Kim Jong Il did die in December 2011, following years of deteriorating health and diminishing public appearances, the outside world had no clue until the North’s state media announced it two days later.

His once-powerful sister, Kim Kyong-hui, has had her own share of premature reports about her death. CNN on May 2015 cited a North Korean defector to report that Kim Jong Un had her poisoned to death. The 73-year-old made her first public appearance in about six years in January, sitting near her nephew during a concert.

___

KIM JONG-UN

Conflicting reports over the past week have said Kim is either “gravely ill,” “in a vegetative state” or “perfectly fine” following heart surgery that may or may not have happened.

In 2014, Kim vanished from the public eye for nearly six weeks before reappearing with a cane. South Korea’s spy agency said he had a cyst removed from his ankle.

In 2016, South Korean media quoted intelligence officials as saying Kim had had a former military chief executed for corruption and other charges. But months later, North Korea’s state media showed Ri Yong Gil alive and serving in new senior posts.

Kim Jong-un was last seen in public on April 11 when he presided over a ruling party meeting on coronavirus prevention. He even missed the April 15 birthday celebration for his late grandfather Kim Il Sung for the first time since taking power in 2011. State media have since reported his engagement in routine, but non-public activities. They say he’s sent greetings to the leaders of Syria, Cuba and South Africa and expressed gratitude to citizens of merit, including workers building tourist facilities in the coastal town of Wonsan, which is where some speculate he is staying.

While it’s possible that Kim could pop up anytime, continuing a family tradition of media resurrections, some experts say that his health will become an increasing factor in years ahead, considering his weight, smoking habits and other supposed health problems.

South Korea not ready to declare victory in coronavirus fight

South Korea not ready to declare victory in coronavirus fight

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A buddhist believer hangs a paper note wishing to overcome the COVID-19 outbreak at the Chogyesa temple in South Korea. The country has been winning high praise for its massive mitigation response to flatten the coronavirus infection curve. (ASSOCIATED PRESS) more >

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By Madison Hirneisen

The Washington Times

Sunday, April 26, 2020

South Korean health officials say the world has a lot of learn from how the country contained a vicious early outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, but told a Washington audience last week South Korea itself has a long way to go before even thinking about declaring victory.

Initially one of the hardest-hit epicenters of coronavirus infection, Seoul has been winning high praise for its massive mitigation response to flatten the infection curve and a testing and tracking regimen to identify and contain new outbreaks.

What once was a rate of infection that reached more than 900 confirmed cases on a single day has now plummeted in a matter of weeks to a daily infection rate in the single digits. On April 23, the nation saw just eight new confirmed cases, and just 89 across the country in previous seven days.

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Despite reporting its first cases in early February, South Korea has recorded just 10,708 confirmed cases nationwide, with 8,501 recovered patients. Just 240 deaths — in a nation of 51 million people — are attributed to the virus, fewer than the number in U.S. states such as North Carolina and Wisconsin.

In a teleconference hosted by George Washington University Thursday, Director-General of the Republic of Korea’s Ministry of Science International Cooperation Bureau Hee-Kwon Jung cited the government’s focus on expansive testing, experimental treatment and advanced data collection as key factors in diminishing the virus’ spread soon after it peaked in late February.

“In the case of Korea, test kits [were] a very important factor in how to handle this COVID-19,” Mr. Jung said. “Because COVID-19 is an unknown virus, it was very important how quickly we developed the test kits.”

South Korean researchers began developing possible test prototypes before the virus was confirmed in the nation in mid-January, with the government of President Moon Jae-in fast-tracking the regulatory process for approvals.

Using artificial intelligence techniques, South Korean companies were able to mass-produce effective tests in a matter of weeks. These tests, Mr. Jung said, can detect COVID-19 infection in “a matter of seconds,” allowing doctors to test thousands of patients each day with results in real-time.

The Korean government also instituted a tracking system through a “self-quarantine safety app,” which allowed residents to monitor their own symptoms and self-isolate if necessary. Those who tested positive for the virus were asked to share information about their recent whereabouts, aided by cell phone GPS tracking and credit card transactions.

These details enabled the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue alerts to the public about possible places of exposure while keeping the identity of those infected anonymous.

After weeks of self-isolation, residents in Seoul South Korea flocked to crowded cafes and picnicked in public parks Saturday, all while wearing face masks and practicing social distancing. This picture of outdoor festivities and crowds is in stark contrast with cities in the US and Europe, where strict lockdowns have turned once bustling cities into ghost towns.

Moran Ki, a professor in the Department of Cancer Control and Population Health at South Korea’s National Cancer Center, said officials learned a harsh lesson about the importance of preparedness from a previous outbreak in the peninsula.

After the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak of 2015, South Korean’s public health commissioner ordered a review of all systems should a future epidemic threaten the nation again. These changes, Ms. Ki said, shifted the capacity of the national health system to handle an outbreak of large proportion.

Ms. Ki says the South Korean virus “preparedness” was not perfect, but the expanded capacity — especially the ability to treat patients of varying severity in different facilities — contributed to the nation’s low mortality rate, which is hovering around 2%.

“I think in other countries if their goal is to decrease case fatality rate, at first, they should prepare separation based on the severity of the patient,” Ms. Ki said.

Although South Korea’s virus count has significantly curbed since February, Ms. Ki says experts are proceeding with caution.

Ms. Ki said residents of the Korean peninsula should not expect life to ever fully return to “normal.”

“I think we cannot go back to the before-COVID-19 era,” Ms. Ki said. “I think we have to live with COVID-19 forever, so we have to change our lifestyle and our work style and our health system to live with the virus.”

China sends team of medical experts to advise on condition of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un: Report

China sends team of medical experts to advise on Kim Jong-un’s condition: Report

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In this April 27, 2018, file photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signs a guestbook next to his sister Kim Yo Jong, right, inside the Peace House at the border village of Panmunjom in Demilitarized Zone. (Korea Summit Press … more >

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By Lauren Meier

The Washington Times

Saturday, April 25, 2020

China on Friday sent a team of experts, including several medical professionals, to North Korea to provide guidance on the health condition of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Reports surfaced last week that the secretive Mr. Kim was gravely ill following emergency heart surgery.

The Chinese delegation, led by a senior member of China’s International Liaison Department, the agency that handles relations with their southeast neighbor, left for North Korea on Thursday, Reuters reported, citing sources familiar with the trip.

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Speculation of Mr. Kim’s condition has mounted since his surgery.

A senior official told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency last week the report was simply “not true,” and Kang Min-seok, a spokesman for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, said there had been “no unusual signs have been identified inside North Korea.”

Trump administration officials have said only that Washington continues to monitor the reports, while analysts noted that speculation tends to swirl about North Korea because of its notoriously authoritarian controls on information — especially regarding the ruling Kim family.

Officials and experts alike have cautioned the health of the 36-year-old North Korean leader, who is known to have prior medical conditions, could be precarious.

The South Korean internet news outlet Daily NK, which focuses on news about North Korea, first reported that Mr. Kim had undergone surgery at Hyangsan Medical Center, said to be an exclusive hospital for the Kim family. The surgery was performed by a team of the country’s top doctors, who had traveled to Pyongyang for the procedure, the outlet said, citing only an unnamed source inside North Korea.

Trump: U.S. administered 5 million COVID-19 tests, more than other countries

Trump: U.S. administered 5 million COVID-19 tests, more than other countries

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President Donald Trump speaks after signing a coronavirus aid package to direct funds to small businesses, hospitals, and testing, in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, April 24, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) more >

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By Alex Swoyer

The Washington Times

Saturday, April 25, 2020

President Trump shared a tweet Saturday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, telling people to go to their medical provider if they think they need to be tested for COVID-19, touting the number of tests administered thus far.

He said the nation has passed five million tests, more than any other country.

“Many testing sites are, and have been, open & available. Just passed 5 Million Tests, far more than any other country in the world. In fact, more than all other major countries combined! Don’t believe the Fake News!” the president tweeted Saturday.

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He also shared another tweet from the CDC, warning people to read the labels on disinfectants before using them after the president faced blowback for suggesting disinfectant and sunlight should be studied for medical use in treating COVID-19 patients.

Media pundits criticized the president for suggesting disinfectants could be used to treat people sick with the coronavirus.

B-1 zooms through Pacific to remind U.S. foes of ‘lethal’ force, test crews’ rapid response skills

B-1 zooms through Pacific to remind U.S. foes of ‘lethal’ force, test crews’ rapid response skills

Gen. Tim Ray: 'We can provide overwhelming force anywhere, anytime'

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AIR FORCE – B-1B Lancer is a four-engine supersonic variable-sweep wing, jet-powered heavy strategic bomber used by the United States Air Force (USAF). It was first envisioned in the 1960s as asupersonic bomber with Mach 2 speed, and sufficient range … more >

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By Douglas Ernst

The Washington Times

Friday, April 24, 2020

The Air Force’s iconic B-1B Lancer returned to the Pacific for the first time since 2018 to send a message to America’s adversaries while also testing crews’ response to sudden deployments.

Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown Jr., head of Pacific Air Forces and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, discussed the exercise — a 30-hour round-trip flight to Japan that originated at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota — on Friday.

“From confronting invisible threats of a global pandemic to addressing military aggression and coercive activities, we remain a lethal, innovative and interoperable force focused on a shared vision of upholding a free and open lndo-Pacific,” he said in a press release, Military.com reported.

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The 28th Bomb Wing’s “Dynamic Force Employment” skills testing also required six U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons, seven Japan Air Self Defense Force F-2s and eight JASDF F-15s over Draughon Range near Misawa, the website added.

Gen. Tim Ray, head of Air Force Global Strike Command, echoed Gen. Brown Jr.’s message.

“This mission is a demonstration to our friends throughout the region: We will continue to remain fully predictable in our commitment to ensuring peace, while also demonstrating that we have the ability to operate from numerous locations across the globe, even during the global pandemic,” Gen. Ray said.

Correction: Ellsworth Air Force Base is located in South Dakota.