North Korea has told the United States for the first time that it is prepared to discuss the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un meets President Donald Trump, a US official said yesterday. US and North Korean officials have held secret contacts recently in which Pyongyang directly confirmed its willingness to hold the unprecedented summit, the official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity. Until now, Washington had relied mostly on ally South Korea’s assurance of Kim’s intentions. South Korean envoys visited Washington last month to convey Kim’s invitation to meet. Trump, who has exchanged bellicose threats with Kim in the past year, surprised the world by quickly agreeing to meet Kim to discuss the crisis over Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons capable of hitting the United States. But Pyongyang has not broken its public silence on the summit, which US officials say is being planned for May. There was no immediate word on the possible venue for the talks, which would be the first ever between a sitting US president and North Korean leader. The US official declined to say exactly when and how the US-North Korea communications had taken place but said the two sides had held multiple direct contacts. “The US has confirmed that Kim Jong-un is willing to discuss the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula,” said a second US official.
South Korea's disgraced former president Park Geun-hye was jailed for 24 years on Friday for corruption, closing out a dramatic fall from grace for the country's first woman leader who became a figure of public fury and ridicule. The sentence followed a trial lasting more than 10 months which ended with Park being found guilty on multiple criminal charges, including bribery and abuse of power. "The amount of bribery the accused received or demanded in collaboration with Choi amounts to more than 23bn won ($21.7mn)," Judge Kim Se-Yoon said, referring to Park's secret confidante and long-time friend Choi Soon-sil. "I sentence the accused to 24 years in prison and 18bn won in fines." Park, 66, had boycotted most of the trial in protest at being held in custody. She was not present in court for Friday's judgement which, in a rare move, was broadcast live on television. The daughter of assassinated dictator Park Chung-hee, Park took office in 2013 as a conservative icon who cast herself in the role of daughter of the nation -- incorruptible and beholden to none. Supporters of Park Geun-hye hold banners during a rally demanding her release outside the Seoul Central District Court in Seoul on Friday. Less than four years later, she was impeached, stripped of all her powers and ousted from office on the back of months-long mass protests that brought millions onto the streets of Seoul and other cities. The trigger was a snowballing graft scandal involving Park and Choi and accusations of graft, influence-peddling and taking bribes from corporate bigwigs in exchange for policy favours. Much of the public anger was focused on Park's relationship with Choi and accusations that she let her childhood friend -- who held no formal position or security clearance -- meddle in state affairs, including high-level appointments and editing official speeches. A Korean 'Rasputin'? Choi is the daughter of a shadowy religious figure who had served as a mentor to Park for decades until his death in 1994. She was tried separately and sentenced in February to 20 years in prison. Condemned in the media for her "Rasputin-like" influence over Park, Choi was convicted of using her presidential ties to squeeze tens of millions of dollars out of major South Korean businesses, including Samsung -- the world's top smartphone maker -- and retail giant Lotte. The scandal reignited public criticism in South Korea of the cosy and often corrupt ties between top officials and the powerful, family-run conglomerates -- called "chaebol" -- that dominate the world's 11th-largest economy. Park becomes the third former South Korean leader to be convicted on criminal charges after leaving office, joining Chun Doo-whan and Roh Tae-woo, who were both found guilty of treason and corruption in the 1990s. Park's presidential predecessor Lee Myung-bak is currently in custody as prosecutors investigate multiple corruption charges involving him and his relatives. Chun and Roh received presidential pardons after each spent around two years in jail -- a privilege that may elude Park for many years, said Jeong Han-wool, an analyst at the Seoul Hankook Research think-tank. 'No remorse' "Park has denied all charges against her and expressed no remorse or atonement -- legally as well as politically -- for what's probably the most shocking political scandal in our modern history," Jeong told AFP. "Given her attitude and public anger over her scandal that remains raw, it will be difficult to create a political environment in favour of her release anytime soon." Park's left-leaning successor, Moon Jae-in, came to power largely because of the public backlash against her and her conservative party, dimming hopes for a pardon under the current administration, he added. There is some residual sympathy for Park among her core supporters, who have always seen her as a heroically tragic figure who lost both her parents to assassins and devoted her life to the service of her country. The fact that she never married or had children was part of her appeal, given the nepotistic tendencies of many senior officials. "I'm married to the Republic of Korea. I have no children. South Koreans are my family," she once declared. But for the vast majority of Koreans, she has now been permanently disowned, and will go down in history not as the country's first woman president but the first democratically-elected leader to be forced from office.
A South Korean military fighter jet crashed on Thursday, apparently killing both pilots on board, an air force spokesman said. The F-15K Slam Eagle went down in the southern county of Chilgok, in North Gyeongsang province, on its way back to the Daegu Air Base after an hour-long mission. "Bodies were found and we are checking their ID but both pilots are feared dead," the spokesman told AFP. No ground damage was reported, he said. The last crash involving a South Korean F-15K fighter was in 2006 when it fell into the Sea of Japan during a nighttime mission, killing both pilots. Last year, an F-16D fighter crashed in North Gyeongsang but its two pilots ejected to safety. South Korea's air force first introduced the F-15K, made by Boeing, in 2005. It operates more than 60 F-15Ks.
Over 50 top artificial intelligence researchers on Wednesday announced a boycott of KAIST, South Korea's top university, after it opened what they called an AI weapons lab with one of South Korea's largest companies. The researchers, based in 30 countries, said they would refrain from visiting KAIST, hosting visitors from the university, or cooperating with its research programmes until it pledged to refrain from developing AI weapons without ‘meaningful human control’. KAIST opened the new centre in February, with Hanwha Systems, one of two South Korean makers of cluster munitions, saying they would focus on using AI for command and control systems, navigation for large unmanned undersea vehicles, smart aircraft training and tracking and recognition of objects. No comment was immediately available from the university or the company outside of regular business hours about the boycott or the work of their Research Centre for the Convergence of National Defence and Artificial Intelligence. However, in a statement quoted by Britain's Times Higher Education magazine website on Wednesday, KAIST president Sung-Chul Shin said he was ‘saddened’ by the threatened boycott and denied the institution had any intention to work on lethal autonomous weapons systems. ‘The centre aims to develop algorithms on efficient logistical systems, unmanned navigation (and an) aviation training system,’ he was quoted as saying. ‘KAIST will be responsible for educating the researchers and providing consultation.’ Hanwha says on its website: ‘The goal is to accelerate research into the convergence of national defence and AI technology through this industry-university collaborative partnership.’ It was not immediately clear how the boycott would affect KAIST, or how many academic exchanges would be derailed. The boycott was organised by Toby Walsh, a professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. ‘If developed, autonomous weapons will ... permit war to be fought faster and at a scale great than ever before. They will have the potential to be weapons of terror,’ the researchers said, citing effective bans on previous arms technologies. ‘We urge KAIST to follow this path, and work instead on uses of AI to improve and not harm human lives,’ they said. AI is the field in computer science that aims to create machines able to perceive the environment and make decisions. The letter, also signed by top experts on deep learning and robotics, was released ahead of next Monday's meeting in Geneva by 123 UN member countries on the challenges posed by lethal autonomous weapons, which critics describe as ‘killer robots’. Walsh told Reuters there were many potential good uses of robotics and artificial intelligence in the military, including removing humans from dangerous task such as clearing minefields. ‘But we should not hand over the decision of who lives or dies to a machine. This crosses a clear moral line,’ he said. ‘We should not let robots decide who lives and who dies.’
* Kim Jong Un snapped photos with K-pop stars after concert * Two Koreas are slated for summit on April 27 * Concert follows recent thaw in relations between two Koreas * Performance coincides with start of US-S.Korea military drills North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, were among the hundreds in Pyongyang on Sunday watching South Korean K-pop singers perform in the North for the first time in more than a decade as tensions between the old rivals thaw. It was the first time a North Korean leader had attended a South Korean performance in the North's capital. Kim was seen clapping in tune to some of the songs and took photographs with the performers after the show. "Our dear leader comrade said his heart swelled and he was moved by the sight of his people deepen their understanding of South Korean popular culture and cheer with sincerity," the North's KCNA state media said. The North Korean audience clapped, cheered, sang along to some of the songs and later presented the South Korean performers with bouquets. "(Kim Jong Un) showed much interest during the show and asked questions about the songs and lyrics," Culture Minister Do Jong-whan told reporters after the show. Sunday's performance coincided with the start of annual joint South Korean-US military drills, which have previously been met with denunciations and missile launches by the North, and were delayed and shortened this year in order not to overshadow the Olympic detente. The recent thaw in relations, which could even lead to a summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump in May, follows months of increased tensions after North Korea conducted missile launches and a nuclear test last year in defiance of United Nations Security Council sanctions. Members of K-pop girlband Red Velvet pose for a photo after a rehearsal. Sunday's concert was held under the title "Spring is Coming" at the East Pyongyang Grand Theatre, performed by an elite lineup of South Korean artists including veteran vocalists Cho Yong-pil, Lee Sun-hee, rock star Yoon Do-hyun and singer Baek Ji-young, as well as K-pop girl band Red Velvet. Like the concert title, the performance had brought a "spring of peace" to the two Koreas, Kim was also cited as saying by the North's central news agency, and expressed wishes for a "prosperous autumn". The North Korean leader's face was slightly flushed in a group photograph with the performers distributed by North Korean state media. He was seen in another directly addressing members of Red Velvet, which commands more than 4.6 million followers on Instagram. North Korean staff were spotted outside the performers' dressing rooms using Japan-made electronic devices to serve coffee and cupcakes, including Western Lavazza and Coffee-mate products, according to a South Korean media pool report. Significant thaw Sunday's two-hour concert in Pyongyang, along with a separate taekwondo performance earlier in the day, came as South Korea's engagement with North Korea has grown since Kim expressed his willingness for more contact between the two countries. Athletes from North and South Korea marched under a unified peninsula flag at the opening ceremony at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February. The significant thaw in the inter-Korean relations has led them to set a date for their first summit in more than a decade on April 27. The two Koreas are technically still at war after the 1950-1953 conflict ended with a ceasefire rather than a peace agreement. The South Korean delegation included artists, concert staff, taekwondo demonstrators, reporters and government officials. They travelled to Pyongyang on Saturday in a reciprocal cultural visit after North Korea sent performers to the South in February, the South's Culture Ministry said. In addition to the concert, a team of South Korean taekwondo demonstrators performed on Sunday at the Pyongyang Taekwondo Hall, drawing more than 2,300 North Koreans, including Choe Hwi, chairman of the National Sports Guidance Committee. Banned media The images of Kim posing and laughing with the young South Korean pop stars and applauding in the stands contrasts with reports from North Korean defectors who say he has overseen a crackdown on foreign media. "North Korean refugees overwhelmingly and consistently report that it has become more dangerous to consume foreign media under Kim Jong Un’s crackdowns," Sokeel Park, the South Korea country director for refugee aid organisation Liberty in North Korea, said on Twitter. A 2015 survey of North Korean refugees conducted by the US government's Broadcasting Board of Governors found that 77% of respondents said it had become more dangerous to listen to foreign radio under Kim. South Korean movies were often reported to be especially taboo compared to Chinese films, according to a report by the InterMedia consultancy group, with North Koreans potentially facing prison time if caught. Seohyun, an actress and vocalist with South Korean girl group Girls' Generation, sang a North Korean pop song called "Blue Willow Tree". She had performed with the North's Samjiyon Orchestra in Seoul in February. Cho Yong-pil, 68, sang a string of hits including "The Cafe in the Winter", "Short Hair" and "Let's Go on a Trip". Cho staged a solo concert in Pyongyang in 2005 - the last concert by a South Korean artist in the North before Sunday's performance. The same South Korean singers will hold a joint concert with North Korean performers on Tuesday at the Ryukyung Chung Ju Yung Gymnasium, a joint project between the North and South named after Hyundai Group billionaire founder Chung Ju-yung, who had long advocated inter-Korean cultural and economic exchanges. Kim had been planning to attend the Tuesday performance but decided to watch Sunday's show due to "political schedules", KCNA and South Korean officials there said.
Top South Korean musical acts including a K-pop girlband are set to hold a rare concert in North Korea on Sunday evening in the latest reconciliatory gesture before a rare inter-Korean summit. Sunday's event -- which will be the first concert by South Korean artists in the North for more than a decade -- comes as a diplomatic thaw quickens on the peninsula after months of military tensions. The 120-member group -- 11 musical acts as well as dancers, technicians and taekwondo artists -- flew to Pyongyang on Saturday to perform concerts on Sunday as well as on Tuesday. South Korean singers held a rehearsal on Sunday afternoon at the 1,500-seat East Pyongyang Grand Theatre where the concert is set to begin at 7 pm, according to South Korean pool photos. The taekwondo athletes are also expected to stage a performance in Pyongyang on Sunday before performing together with the North's practitioners on Monday. The rapprochement was triggered by the South's Winter Olympics, to which the North's leader Kim Jong Un sent athletes, cheerleaders and his powerful sister as an envoy. Kim followed up by agreeing to a summit with the South's President Moon Jae-in, and reportedly to another with US President Donald Trump. The young leader also met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing last week during his first overseas trip. The inter-Korean summit, the third after meetings in 2000 and 2007, will be held on April 27. No date has been set for the US-North Korean summit although it is expected before the end of May. In another sign of eased tensions, annual US-South Korean military exercises which got under way in the South on Sunday will last for just one month compared to some two months normally. This year's drills feature fewer strategic weapons such as a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, Seoul's military has said. The deployment of such powerful weaponry during past drills has frequently drawn an angry response from the North. The most closely-watched group due to perform on Sunday is Red Velvet, part of the South's hugely popular K-pop phenomenon that has taken audiences in Asia and beyond by storm in recent decades. The five-member girlband is known for a mix of upbeat electronic music, stylish fashion and high-voltage choreography. Joy, one of the five members, would miss the trip to Pyongyang due to her TV drama shooting schedule, their agency has said. Despite the North's isolation and strict curbs on unauthorised foreign culture, backed up by prison terms, K-pop has become increasingly popular there thanks to flash drives smuggled across the border with China. Other Seoul stars to join the concerts include Cho Yong-pil, a singer who held a solo sell-out concert in Pyongyang in 2005. Kim's late father and longtime ruler, Kim Jong Il, was known to be a fan of the 68-year-old singer. Another famed singer, Choi Jin-hee, is set to perform for the fourth time in the North and to sing "Maze of Love" -- a pan-peninsula hit and one of the late Kim's favourites. It was unclear whether Kim Jong Un would make an appearance at the concerts. President Moon attended a concert by North Korean singers in Seoul to mark the opening of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February. "I hope that something similar will happen during this concert held in response (to the North's Seoul concert)," Do Jong-hwan, Seoul's culture minister leading the delegation, told reporters in Pyongyang.
Kim Jong Un is committed to sending North Korean teams to the Tokyo and Beijing Olympics, IOC chief Thomas Bach said Saturday after a rare meeting with the leader of the nuclear-armed regime in Pyongyang. Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, also said the IOC will make a proposal for a ‘potential joint march’ and other shared activities between the North and South Korean teams at the 2020 Games in Japan. Last month's Winter Olympics in South Korea saw competitors from the two countries march together at the opening ceremony and field a joint women's ice hockey team. The Winter Games triggered a fast-moving rapprochement that will see Kim sit down with the South's President Moon Jae-in in late April, with a US summit with President Donald Trump planned for May. Bach told reporters after landing in Beijing that his talks with Kim on Friday had been ‘very open and fruitful’. ‘They announced (to) us that they will definitely participate in the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 as well at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022’ and all editions of the Youth Olympic Games, Bach said. ‘And this commitment was fully supported by the supreme leader,’ he said. North Korea's official KCNA news agency said Kim thanked Bach for helping to bring about a ‘dramatic thawing’ of tensions on the Korean peninsula. Bach arrived in the country on Thursday and his visit, which concluded Saturday, was the result of an invitation extended by Pyongyang in January. The isolated regime rarely hosts foreign dignitaries but recent weeks have seen a flurry of diplomacy, with Kim making his first foreign trip as leader to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping and inviting him to visit Pyongyang. Kim's Olympic overtures follow Japanese media reports earlier this month of Tokyo exploring the possibility of a meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the North Korean leader after the surprise announcement of a proposed summit with Trump. Tokyo has long maintained a hardline position on negotiations with the North, while Pyongyang in turn has threatened to ‘sink’ Japan into the sea and to turn it into ‘ashes’, sending two missiles flying over the country last year. - 'New chapter' - Kim told Bach that the Olympics had ‘opened a new chapter of concord between the north and the south’, KCNA said. ‘He said that the once frozen north-south relations greeted a dramatic thawing season with the Olympics as a momentum and it was totally attributable to the efforts of the IOC which offered an opportunity and paved a path for it,’ the agency reported. Bach told reporters the IOC ‘will continue to support the athletes from DPRK to prepare well’ for the next Olympic Games. ‘The IOC will make a proposal for a potential joint march, for potential other joint activities for Tokyo and maybe also for Beijing, at the appropriate time,’ he said. ‘The joint march of the athletes from the two Koreas in Pyeongchang sent a very strong signal of peace from these Olympic Games to the world’, he said. The two men also held discussions about the development of sport in the North and attended a women's football match. Bach said the IOC would help North Korea with its preparations for sending a team to Sweden for the world table tennis championships starting next month. North and South Korea plan to hold a rare summit on April 27. Trump is then due to meet Kim before the end of May for talks on Pyongyang's denuclearisation.
* North, South Korea to hold first summit in more than a decade * Koreas to hold working talks April 4 before April 27 summit * Announcement comes after N Korean leader's visit to China * Easing in tensions follows threats, insults North and South Korea will hold their first summit in more than a decade on April 27, South Korean officials said on Thursday, after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledged his commitment to denuclearisation as tensions ease between the old foes. South Korean officials, who announced the summit date after high-level talks with North Korean counterparts, said the summit agenda would largely be the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and an improvement of inter-Korean relations. The two Koreas had agreed to hold the summit at the border truce village of Panmunjom when South Korean President Moon Jae-in sent a delegation to Pyongyang this month to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Thursday's meeting was the first high-level dialogue between the two Koreas since the delegation returned from the North. The two sides said in a joint statement they would hold a working-level meeting on April 4 to discuss details of the summit, such as staffing support, security and news releases. ‘We still have a fair number of issues to resolve on a working-level for preparations over the next month,’ said Ri Son Gwon, the chairman of North Korea's committee for the peaceful reunification of the country in closing remarks to the South Korean delegation. ‘But if the two sides deeply understand the historic significance and meaning of this summit and give their all, we will be able to solve all problems swiftly and amicably,’ Ri added. Tension over North Korea's tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile surged last year and raised fears of US military action in response to North Korean threat to develop a nuclear weapon capable of hitting the United States. But tension has eased significantly since North Korea decided to send athletes to the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February. The neighbours are technically still at war after the 1950-53 conflict ended with a ceasefire, not a truce. China commended the two sides for their efforts to improve ties. ‘We hope the momentum of dialogue can continue and that the peaceful situation also can last,’ Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a briefing. 'RESOLVE PROBLEMS' Kim is scheduled to meet US President Donald Trump some time in May to discuss denuclearisation, although a time and place have not been set for that summit. Kim met Chinese President Xi Jinping in a surprise visit to Beijing this week, his first trip outside the isolated North since he came to power in 2011. Even more surprising was Kim's pledge to denuclearise the Korean peninsula. That commitment was reported by Chinese state media, although North Korea's official media made no mention of it, or Kim's anticipated meeting with Trump. A senior Chinese official visiting Seoul on Thursday to brief South Korea on Kim's visit to Beijing, said it should help ease tension and lead to the denuclearisation of the peninsula. ‘We believe his visit will help the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, ensure peace and security of the Korean peninsula and resolve problems regarding the peninsula through political negotiations and discussions,’ Yang Jiechi said in opening remarks during a meeting with South Korea's National Security Office head, Chung Eui-yong. Yang, a top Chinese diplomat, is scheduled to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday. South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myong-gyon told reporters Kim's visit to China was not discussed with North Korean officials in their Thursday talks. Trump and Kim had exchanged insults and veiled threats of war in recent months but the US leader made the surprising announcement this month that he was prepared to meet Kim to discuss the crisis over the North's development of weapons. The North Korean leader's engagement with the international community has sparked speculation that he may try to meet other leaders. Japan's Asahi newspaper said Japan had sounded out the North Korean government about a summit. Japan's Foreign Minister Taro Kono left open the possibility that Shinzo Abe might meet Kim at some point. Kono said in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday that Japan was closely watching preparations for the North-South Korean summit and the Trump-Kim meeting. Chinese President Xi Jinping promised Beijing would uphold its friendship with North Korea after his meeting with Kim. Trump wrote on Twitter he had received a message from Xi late on Tuesday that his meeting with Kim ‘went very well’ and that Kim looked forward to meeting the US president.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was treated to a lavish welcome by Chinese President Xi Jinping during a secretive trip to Beijing as both sides seek to repair frayed ties ahead of landmark summits with Seoul and Washington. On his first trip abroad since taking power, Kim and his wife were met with honour guards and a banquet hosted by Xi, according to state media, which confirmed the ‘unofficial’ visit on Wednesday only after Kim had returned to North Korea. The two men held talks at the stately Great Hall of the People during which they hailed their nations' historic relations, with Kim pledging that he was ‘committed to denuclearisation’ on the Korean peninsula, according to China's Xinhua news agency. ‘There is no question that my first foreign visit would be to the Chinese capital,’ Kim said, according to North Korea's official KCNA news agency. ‘This is my solemn duty as someone who should value and continue the DPRK-PRC relations through generations.’ KCNA said Xi accepted an invitation to visit Pyongyang, which would be his first trip to the North Korean capital since he took power in 2012. The two men had not met since Kim took over after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in 2011, and relations have been strained as China has backed a raft of UN sanctions against Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile tests. But Xi underscored the importance of developing ties, saying it was ‘a strategic choice and the only right choice’ and that he was willing to maintain frequent contact with Kim ‘under the new circumstances’, according to Xinhua. Xi and Kim shook hands and sat across from each other at a long conference table, both flanked by officials, at the Great Hall of the People, according to television images which showed the North Korean leader taking meticulous notes. Later, Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, waved goodbye while Kim and his spouse, Ri Sol Ju, smiled as they left in a black car. Chinese and North Korean state media said the visit started Sunday and ended Wednesday. Analysts said Xi likely wanted to see Kim to ensure North Korea does not cut a deal with US President Donald Trump that hurts Chinese interests during a summit expected to be held in May. Beijing had appeared sidelined by Pyongyang's approaches to Seoul and Washington, but Kim's visit puts China firmly back at the centre of the diplomatic game. ‘It shows that at this crucial juncture, Kim and Xi believed that it was time to seize the opportunity to consult,’ Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told AFP. ‘Both likely concluded that further deterioration in relations would be harmful.’ Deng Yuwen, an independent Chinese international relations scholar, said North Korea needed to turn to its old ally ahead of the US summit, as Kim will be sceptical that Trump will guarantee the security of his regime. ‘North Korea needs the big brother to protect it at a crucial moment,’ Deng said. - Trump informed - Xinhua said Kim expressed his willingness to hold summits with Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. ‘The issue of denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realisation of peace,’ Kim said, according to Xinhua. South Korea said last month after talks with Kim in Pyongyang that he would consider abandoning his nuclear weapons in exchange for US security guarantees, and flagged a halt to weapons tests while talks were under way. White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Trump received a personal note from Xi about Kim's visit on Tuesday. ‘We see this development as further evidence that our campaign of maximum pressure is creating the appropriate atmosphere for dialogue with North Korea,’ Sanders said. Confirmation of the visit ended 24 hours of speculation about the identity of a mysterious North Korean visitor after Japanese media spotted a green train, similar to the one used by Kim's father, arriving in Beijing on Monday and departing the following day. During the news blackout, a heavy police presence at key venues, barricades and mysterious motorcades hinted at his presence. North Korea's official Rodong Sinmun newspaper on Wednesday featured photos of Chinese officials greeting Kim and his wife with flowers at the train station, and his motorcade being escorted by police motorbikes in front of the Forbidden City. - Frayed ties - His visit to China came as a surprise given the state of relations between the Cold War-era allies, which fought together in the 1950-53 Korean War. China chaired six-party talks on North Korea that collapsed a decade ago, but its calls to revive that forum have not been heeded so far and Beijing appeared to be on the margins when South Korea announced that Kim had offered to meet with Moon and Trump. Frustrated by its neighbour's nuclear weapons programme and under pressure from Trump, China has used its economic leverage to squeeze Kim's regime. At the same time, Beijing fears the collapse of the regime in Pyongyang and the instability it would bring, potentially sending waves of refugees into China and the possibility of US troops stationed on its border in a unified Korea. But Kim's visit appears to have put relations appear back on track, with Xi inviting Kim and his wife to visit China again.
* Unconfirmed reports N.Korean leader was in Beijing * South Korea says watching events closely * Possible visit precedes historic Korean, US summits A train believed to be carrying a senior North Korean delegation left the Chinese capital on Tuesday following a dramatic whirlwind visit that some reports said included the country's leader, Kim Jong Un. The conservative South Korea Chosun Ilbo newspaper, citing an unnamed senior intelligence official, said the delegation had included Kim and that he had since left to return to North Korea. South Korea's left-leaning press Hankyoreh also reported Kim had travelled to Beijing for meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday afternoon before leaving for a "third location" on Tuesday. It did not cite specific sources. The Hankyoreh did not specify where the "third location" was but said it could be in China. Hong Kong's South China Morning Post said Kim was on the train that left Beijing, citing two anonymous sources. South Korea said it was closely watching events in Beijing, where a foreign ministry spokeswoman deflected a question on whether Kim, his sister or some other senior North Korean was visiting. South Korea's spy agency declined to confirm the report. "At present I have no understanding of the situation you mention. If there is news we will release it," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular daily briefing. Diplomatic sources in Beijing said a senior North Korean official was in town, but did not know exactly who. Bloomberg, citing three unidentified sources, reported late on Monday that Kim was in Beijing in what would be his first known trip outside North Korea since taking power in 2011. The unconfirmed visit came ahead of planned summit meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump. "The presidential Blue House is watching things in Beijing very closely, while keeping all possibilities open," said the senior official in Seoul, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Improving ties between North Korea, which is pursuing nuclear and missile programmes in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions, and China would be a positive sign before the planned summits, he said. A Reuters reporter saw a convoy leave Beijing's Diaoyutai State Guest House, where senior foreign leaders often stay, and drive north on Tuesday morning. It was unclear where the convoy was headed. Later, a Reuters journalist saw what was believed to be the delegation's train pulling out of a Beijing station. The group was reported to have arrived in China on Sunday after crossing from North Korea in the border city of Dandong. A senior US official who follows North Korea closely said the available evidence suggested that Kim had travelled to Beijing to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping, but stressed that has not been confirmed. Underscoring the mystery, one senior Beijing-based diplomatic source told Reuters simply: "We just don't know." One source with ties to China's leadership said it was possible Kim's younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, was in town. She visited South Korea for the Winter Olympics last month, paving the way for a summit between the two Koreas. South Korean news agency Newsis reported that Kim Yo Jong and the North's ceremonial leader, Kim Yong Nam, were visiting Beijing, citing an unidentified North Korea-related source in Beijing. The pair visited South Korean President Moon Jae-in at his office in Seoul during the Winter Olympics in February. The US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was unlikely Kim Jong Un would have sent his sister on such an important mission, unlike her ceremonial visit to South Korea for the Olympics. On the contrary, the official said, a summit with Xi would underscore Kim's standing as a world leader. "Lot of leverage" Xi and Kim Jong Un had reasons to meet in advance of Kim's meetings with Moon and possibly Trump, the US official said. "Xi has met Trump, and in many respects learned how to deal with him better than some people here do," the official said. "At the same time, despite the recent tensions, he needs to know what Kim has in mind for dealing with the South and the US, and he still has a lot of leverage with the North." Japanese media reported on Monday that a high-ranking Pyongyang official appeared to have arrived by train in Beijing. The Blue House official said South Korea had been aware of "related movements" in North Korea, such as the train, for a few days but he could not confirm whether Kim or another high-ranking North Korean official was visiting China. Beijing is the main ally of secretive and isolated North Korea, as well as its biggest trading partner. China has not confirmed any visit by a North Korean but has not totally censored speculation. There were posts on Chinese social media talking about the possibility Kim Jong Un was in China, some citing family members in Dandong. The rail journey between Dandong and Beijing covers more than 1,100 km (680 miles). It takes at least 14 hours by ordinary service, according to Chinese railway timetables. The North Korean leader is due to hold separate summits with South Korea in late April and the United States in May. "The fact that the summits are being held has been beyond our expectations. Right now, the situation surrounding the Korean peninsula is moving very quickly and it would be inadvisable to think with prejudice," the Blue House official said. Kim Jong Un's father, Kim Jong Il, met then-president Jiang Zemin in China in 2000 before a summit between the two Koreas in June that year. Kim Jong Il was considered at the time to have made the visit to reaffirm close ties with China. "North Korea likely wants to confirm its relationship with China and believes it has some leverage with which it can ask for things from China," said Yoo Ho-yeol, Professor of North Korean studies at Seoul's Korea University. "If North Korea speaks with the United States on its own, it might feel it is at a disadvantage but, if it has China as an ally, Pyongyang may think it will be able to protect its interests and profits during the summits."
* S Korea's Moon says summit with US, N Korea possible * Flurry of diplomatic activity helps ease tensions * Moon hopes for complete end of nuclear issue on Korean peninsula * Talks will overlap with US-S Korean military exercises South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Wednesday a three-way summit with North Korea and the United States is possible and that talks should aim for an end to the nuclear threat on the Korean peninsula. Moon is planning a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un next month after a flurry of diplomatic activity in Asia, Europe and the United States. US President Donald Trump has also said he would meet Kim by the end of May. ‘A North Korea-US summit would be a historic event in itself following an inter-Korean summit,’ Moon said at the presidential Blue House in Seoul after a preparatory meeting for the inter-Korean summit. ‘Depending on the location, it could be even more dramatic. And depending on progress, it may lead to a three-way summit between the South, North and the United States,’ he said. Seoul officials are considering the border truce village of Panmunjom, where Moon and Kim are set for a one-day meeting, as the venue for talks between not only Kim and Moon but also a possible three-way meeting. A Blue House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Moon did not specifically refer to Panmunjom or that a three-way summit had been discussed with Washington before the president spoke. The rush of recent diplomatic contacts began in the lead-up to the Winter Olympics in South Korea last month and helped ease tensions on the Korean peninsula caused by North Korea's pursuit of its nuclear and missile programmes in defiance of United Nations Security Council sanctions. South Korea wants to hold high-level talks with North Korea on March 29 to discuss a date and agenda for the inter-Korean summit and make a formal request to the North on Thursday, Moon's presidential office said. North and South Korean officials should be able to agree on when the summit between Moon and Kim will take place once the officials from both sides meet this month, the Blue House official said. 'CLEAR GOAL' Moon said the series of summits should aim for a ‘complete end’ to the nuclear and peace issues on the Korean peninsula. He said he has a ‘clear goal and vision’, which is for the establishment of a lasting peace to replace the ceasefire signed at the end of the 1950-53 Korean war. It also includes the normalisation of North Korea-US relations, the development of inter-Korean ties, and economic cooperation involving Pyongyang and Washington, he said. However, the United States must also add its guarantee in order for peace to come about, Moon said. ‘Whether the two Koreas live together or separately, we have to make it in a way that they prosper together and in peace, without interfering or causing damage to each other,’ Moon said. The Blue House official said this could mean stopping propaganda broadcasts at the border that are commonly blasted from both sides over loudspeakers. The official could not say whether ‘interference’ also referred to criticism over widely recognised human rights violations in North Korea. South Korea and the United States will resume joint military drills next month, although the exercises are expected to overlap with the summit between the two Koreas. Seoul and Washington delayed the annual drills until after the Winter Olympics, helping to foster conditions for a restart of such talks. North Korea regularly denounces the drills as preparation for war but a South Korean special envoy has said Kim understood that the allies must continue their ‘routine’ exercises. That exchange has not been confirmed. The North's official KCNA news agency said on Wednesday a ‘dramatic atmosphere for reconciliation’ had been created in cross-border ties and there had also been a sign of change in North Korea-US relations. That was ‘thanks to the proactive measure and peace-loving proposal’ made by Pyongyang, not Trump's campaign to put maximum pressure on the country, KCNA said in a commentary. The Blue House official also said earlier on Wednesday South Korea was in discussions with China and Japan for a three-way summit in Tokyo in early May. The three countries have not held such a meeting since November 2015, with relations soured by historical and territorial tensions.
* US-S.Korean military drills to resume on April 1 * Drills resume after flurry of recent diplomatic activity * Tensions eased after contact between two Koreas * Drills held annually, were suspended for Olympics The United States and South Korea will resume joint military drills next month, Seoul and Washington said on Tuesday, exercises that will go ahead despite US President Donald Trump's planned meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Seoul and Washington said in January they would delay the annual exercises until after the Winter Olympics and Paralympics held in South Korea last month, helping to create conditions for a resumption of talks between South and North Korea. The reclusive North routinely denounces the drills as preparation for war. The Foal Eagle field exercise is scheduled to begin on April 1 and go on for a month, while the computer-simulated Key Resolve will be held for two weeks starting in mid-April, a South Korean military official told reporters in Seoul on Tuesday. There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity across Asia, the United States and Europe since the North sent delegations to the Winter Olympics, moves that culminated in North Korea's planned summits with the South and with the United States. The South Korean and US militaries usually stage the two drills in March for about two months but the period of this year's field exercise was cut by half, mainly due to the Olympics, said the South Korean official, who asked not to be identified. The exercises will be of a ‘scale similar to that of the previous years’ and are meant ‘to improve our readiness against various North Korean threats’, the official said. North Korea is pursuing nuclear and missile programmes in defiance of UN Security Council sanctions and has made no secret of its plans to develop a missile capable of reaching the US mainland. Such plans, and the exchange of insults between Kim and Trump, had led to increased fears of confrontation on the Korean peninsula in recent months before the diplomatic contacts. China, North Korea's main ally, says it is happy to see an easing of tensions. 'DEFENCE-ORIENTED' The Pentagon said the North Korean military had been notified about the schedule for the drills by the United Nations Command. ‘Our combined exercises are defence-oriented and there is no reason for North Korea to view them as a provocation,’ Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Logan said in a statement. The South Korean official said consultations were underway over whether US strategic assets such as nuclear-powered aircraft carriers or bombers would be deployed for the drills. Logan said the two joint drills would involve about 23,700 US troops and 300,000 South Korean forces. He said they were not in response to any specific North Korean actions or the current situation on the Korean peninsula. The Key Resolve simulated exercises would likely overlap with a summit between the two Koreas, planned for late April, the South Korean official said. After the postponement of the drills was announced in January, Pyongyang agreed to hold the first official talks with Seoul in more than two years and then sent athletes and officials to the Winter Olympics. Those talks led to a visit this month by a South Korean delegation to Pyongyang for a meeting with the North Korean leader. Delegation leader Chung Eui-yong, South Korea's national security adviser, said Kim committed to denuclearisation and expressed eagerness to meet Trump as soon as possible, an offer the US president quickly accepted. Chung said Kim was expected to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April before meeting Trump by the end of May. The two Koreas held working-level talks on Tuesday at the border village of Panmunjom over Seoul's plan to send an artistic troupe for a concert in Pyongyang. Despite the North's denunciation of past drills, Chung said Kim understood that the allies must continue their ‘routine’ joint military exercises. Pyongyang has not confirmed the exchange and threatened earlier this month to take ‘counteraction’ if the United States and South Korea went ahead with the exercises. The joint drills ran from March 1-April 30 in 2017 and included the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier. A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said no US aircraft carriers would take part this year, which he said was according to plan and not related to the political situation.
* Liu He to be a vice premier, Yi Gang to be PBOC chief * Zhong Shan stays as commerce minister, He Lifeng as NDRC chief * Liu Kun to be new finance minister China elevated a key confidante of President Xi Jinping to one of the top positions in government on Monday as Beijing cracks down on riskier financing and a debt build-up that may pose systemic risks to the world's second-largest economy. The endorsement of Liu He as a vice premier by the country's largely rubber-stamp parliament also comes as the United States presses China to cut its trade surplus by $100 billion. Harvard-educated Liu, 66, was the most prominent envoy to visit Washington recently to prevent the outbreak of a trade war. While most of the personnel changes on the government's economic team were widely anticipated, the choice of Yi Gang as the new head of the People's Bank of China (PBOC) was unexpected. Yi is a vice governor of PBOC and a protege of outgoing chief Zhou Xiaochuan. His appointment is seen as pointing to continuity in monetary policy even as one of the world's biggest central banks is gaining considerable new regulatory powers. Yi will have a weighty first test - the US Federal Reserve is expected to raise interest rates on March 21, a day after China's annual parliament ends, and markets are keen to see if the PBOC follows with a modest move of its own. The head of a newly merged banking and insurance regulator is also expected to be announced on Monday. Reform-minded Guo Shuqing, 61, the current chair of the China Banking Regulatory Commission, is viewed as the leading candidate. Liu He is expected to help improve supervision and coordination among regulators and the central bank to fend off financial risks, as head of the cabinet-level Financial Stability and Development Commission (FSDC). That would put Liu on a similar standing with former economic tsar Zhu Rongji, known for his tough handling of hyperinflation and the economic chaos in the 1990s. Zhu held both the posts of vice premier and central bank governor simultaneously from 1993 to 1995, and went on to become China's premier in 1998-2003. As Xi begins his second five-year term as president, Beijing is streamlining regulators and ministries to reduce inefficiencies while expanding the remit of others such as the central bank to boost their policymaking powers. Xi has also promoted top graft-buster Wang Qishan, a major ally, to the post of vice president. ‘China's ministries are giant, nationwide siloes and fiefdoms that never talk to one another. Hence, in order to accomplish anything major, the command must come from the top down; only they can get ministries to work together,’ Cliff Tan, east Asian head of global markets research at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, said in a note. ‘Such a setup nearly guarantees the continuation of power that is never devolved, otherwise nothing would get done.’ Liu has a deep understanding of the country's economic issues, and was elected last October into the 25-member Politburo, the second-highest tier in Beijing's political power structure after the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee. Liu won a top Chinese economics study award in 2015 for his research on the global financial crisis, and is widely seen as masterminding Xi's supply-side reforms which are cutting excess factory capacity and pivoting the economy away from low-value industries. Liu, who speaks fluent English, gained a master's degree in public administration at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in 1995. He had been the head of the General Office of the ruling Communist Party's Central Leading Group for Financial and Economic Affairs and a vice minister of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) - China's top economic planner. ZHOU'S PROTEGE US-educated Yi Gang, 60, has been vice PBOC governor since 2008. He is seen as instrumental in steering monetary and currency policy, including the landmark devaluation of the yuan in 2015 and more recently a tightening in capital controls. The PBOC and other regulators are trying to rein in risks from an increasingly complex financial system and a rapid build-up in debt without jolting markets or hurting economic growth. ‘The main task right now is to implement prudent monetary policy, push forward financial sector reform and opening up, and keep the financial sector stable,’ Yi told reporters on the sidelines of Monday's parliament session. But Yi is not regarded as a heavyweight like his boss Zhou, and he may play a supportive role with Liu overseeing the economy and finance sector on the whole, some economists say. Yi's nomination is ‘a bit unexpected as he holds a relatively low political ranking as the alternative member of CPC Central Committee,’ said Tommy Xie, China economist at OCBC Bank in Singapore. The committee is the largest of the party's elite decision-making bodies. ‘In terms of implication, we see policy continuation as Yi will support Liu He to drive economic reform. Both are the main driver to China's reform in the past few years,’ Xie said. Yi, one of the highest-ranking ‘sea turtles’ - a colloquialism for Chinese returning from overseas - has a PhD in economics from the University of Illinois. He was also the head of the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) from 2009 to 2016. With Yi's background and his reputation of being pro-reform, his nomination would be good news for foreign investors, Xie said. Zhou, 70, who is China's longest-running central bank head, having taken the job in 2002, is expected to announce his retirement soon. Separately, Liu Kun, head of the budget office of parliament, was picked to be the new finance minister, replacing Xiao Jie. Liu was formerly a vice finance minister. Zhong Shan kept his portfolio as the commerce minister. He Lifeng was also chosen to stay as the head of NDRC.
North Korea is in talks with the US and Sweden to release three Americans held in the North, reports said, as diplomatic activities gathered pace ahead of Pyongyang's planned summits with Washington and Seoul. The release of the three Korean-Americans -- all held in the North after being separately charged with unspecified ‘hostile acts’ against the regime -- is under discussion through multiple channels almost two weeks after President Donald Trump agreed to meet the North's Kim Jong Un, reports said. While Pyongyang has yet to confirm it even made the summit offer -- relayed by Seoul envoys who had met Kim in Pyongyang -- the stunning announcement has triggered a race to set a credible agenda for what would be historic talks between the two leaders. Seoul-based MBC TV station reported Sunday that Pyongyang and Washington had ‘practically reached’ a final agreement on the release of Kim Hak-song, Kim Sang-duk and Kim Dong-chul. ‘They are hammering out details over the timing of the release,’ it quoted an unnamed South Korean diplomatic source as saying. The negotiation was held through the North's mission to the United Nations and the US State Department -- an unofficial avenue of communication dubbed the ‘New York channel,’ the source said. CNN said the prisoners' release was also discussed at three-day talks in Stockholm between the North's Foreign Minister Ri Yong-Ho and Swedish counterpart Margot Wallstrom that ended Saturday. Sweden represents Washington's interests in talks with the North. It raised the issue of American detainees to ‘move things in the right direction,’ CNN quoted one source as saying. ‘Any movement on the issue of these detainees would be a huge deal for the US,’ said the source. Kim Dong-chul, a South Korea-born American pastor, has been detained by the North since 2015 when he was arrested for spying. He was sentenced to 10 years of hard labour in 2016. Kim Hak-song and Kim Sang-duk -- or Tony Kim -- were both working at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, founded by evangelical Christians from overseas, when they were detained last year on suspicion of ‘hostile acts.’ - Diplomatic flurry - Reports on the detainees' possible release come amid a flurry of diplomatic activities involving Pyongyang, Seoul, Washington and its allies. During a visit to Pyongyang by Seoul's envoys earlier this month, Kim reportedly offered to meet Trump, with the US president subsequently agreeing to talks by May although no specific time or venue has been set. Kim also agreed to hold a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in next month -- the third ever between the two Koreas -- according to the envoys. South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said in an interview aired Sunday that Kim was ‘taking stock’ after Trump's surprise decision to accept the invitation, but that a channel of communication had been established. The Stockholm talks overlapped with another meeting among the top national security advisors of the US, South Korea and Japan. US National Security Advisor HR McMaster, the South's Chung Eui-yong and Japan's Shotaro Yachi met in San Francisco over the weekend and vowed ‘close policy coordination’ for the weeks ahead, Seoul's presidential office said. They agreed that peace on the flashpoint Korean peninsula hinges on the success of the two planned summits, vowing ‘not to repeat the failure of the past,’ it said in an apparent reference to previous botched nuclear disarmament negotiations with the North. Also on Sunday, a senior North Korean diplomat arrived in Finland for talks on peninsula issues with former officials and academics from the US and South Korea. The sudden rapprochement comes months after the North staged its most powerful nuclear test and test-fired missiles capable of reaching the US mainland. Kim and Trump traded colourful threats of war and personal insults, which heightened global concerns of another conflict on the peninsula once brought to ruins by the 1950-53 Korean War.
China’s President Xi Jinping offered encouragement for South Korea’s initiative to nurture peaceful engagement with North Korea, and Russia also expressed support, the South Korean official leading diplomatic efforts said yesterday. During the past week, National Security Office head Chung Eui-yong briefed officials in Beijing and Moscow following his dramatic success in arranging summits between the North Korean, South Korean and US leaders. “Xi Jinping offered a Chinese phrase that says ‘once hard ice melts, spring comes and flowers bloom’ to describe the situation on the Korean peninsula and expressed his willingness to support the current situation,” Chung told reporters on his return to Incheon International Airport. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un told the South Korean delegation led by Chung that he was open to addressing denuclearising with the United States, an offer that led to US President Trump agreeing to meet Kim for a summit expected to happen sometime in May. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is set to hold a summit with the North’s Kim by the end of April. The flurry of diplomatic activity comes after a year-long verbal spat between Kim Jong-un and Trump, with tensions exacerbated by multiple missile and nuclear tests by the North which has said it will forge on with its nuclear programme to protect its regime. “China and Russia agreed to continue co-operation to uphold the peace that has been created, as well as the momentum for stability through close communication,” Chung said. North Korea has friendly ties with both Beijing and Moscow, and China is by far its biggest trading partner. Chung said China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi will visit Seoul early next week for talks with security officials here. Pyongyang has remained silent over its agreement for the summits since Chung returned from the North, although officials in Seoul have said they expect to continue working talks soon to work out details for the inter-Korean summit. South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho was seen in Beijing Capital International Airport yesterday and speculated that he was on his way to Sweden. Swedish media reported last week that Ri would visit soon to meet Sweden’s Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom. Their talks, according to Japan’s Kyodo News Agency, could touch on three Korean Americans currently detained in North Korea. Sweden’s embassy in Pyongyang represents US diplomatic interests in North Korea in the absence of US diplomatic relations with the country. There is speculation that the summit between Trump and Kim could take place in either Sweden, Switzerland or a South Korean village in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the frontier with the North, where a truce was signed in 1953 to halt fighting in the Korean War.
Two South Korean envoys left for Washington yesterday to brief US officials on their landmark visit to Pyongyang and the North’s offer to talk about giving up its nuclear arsenal. Chung Eui-yong, head of Seoul’s National Security Office, will meet top US officials including National Security Adviser HR McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Yonhap news agency said. “We have a separate message from North Korea for the US,” Chung told journalists after revealing details of his meeting with the North’s leader Kim Jong-un. In a surprising turnaround, Kim said – as relayed by Seoul – that the North wanted to talk to the US and would not need nuclear weapons if the country’s security was guaranteed. The two Koreas also agreed to hold a third inter-Korean summit in late April at the southern side of the border truce village of Panmunjom. Chung was accompanied by Suh Hoon, the chief of South Korea’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, who was also part of the delegation to Pyongyang. After Washington, Chung will later visit China and Russia to brief officials, while Suh will travel to Japan. The three countries, along with the US, are involved in six-party talks on ending North Korea’s nuclear drive which have stalled since 2008. US President Donald Trump welcomed this week’s developments as “very positive” and said the North’s talks offer appeared to be “sincere”, adding: “We’ll soon find out.” The Dong-A Ilbo newspaper quoted an unidentified senior official of the presidential Blue House saying that Kim had not made any specific “give-and-take style” demands concerning dialogue with the US. “He is apparently drawing a big picture,” the official was quoted as saying. “Kim has expressed his willingness to make his country a normal state” instead of a pariah state under sanctions, he added. Analyst Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute said the landmark visit to Pyongyang had provided “key momentum” to contain the North’s nuclear and missile threats, prevent conflict on the Korean peninsula and and start building trust. “However, the path toward denuclearisation will be very rough,” he said, forecasting that the North would continue missile production this year even if it stops nuclear and rocket tests. And he added: “Even if an agreement is reached on freezing the North’s nuclear programmes, complete verification would be next to impossible.” China wants US, N Korea to hold talks ‘sooner rather than later’ China wants the United States and North Korea to engage in dialogue “sooner rather than later” and move toward establishing a peace mechanism, the country’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said yesterday. “The Korean Peninsula issue has finally taken an important step in the right direction,” Wang told journalists on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress, China’s annual parliamentary session. On Tuesday, the South Korean government announced President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are set to hold a summit in April. It will be just the third time in history that the countries’ leaders have met. China “fully commends and supports” the steps taken by the two countries and calls on the US and North Korea “to engage in dialogue sooner rather than later” and move to set up a peace-establishing mechanism, Wang said. The easing in the Korean conflict shows that China’s “suspension-for-suspension” plan has worked, Wang said. China has been proposing that the US and South Korea halt their war games, directed at the North, in exchange for Pyongyang suspending its nuclear and missile programmes. Nevertheless, the diplomatic process “will be clouded by various interferences,” according to Wang. “All must demonstrate political courage and make a political decision,” Wang said. “We must not let the opportunity slip by.” Regarding a potential trade war with the US, Wang said it “is never the right solution,” however, Beijing is prepared to administer “the necessary and justified response.” The world’s two largest economies “should strive to be partners in cooperation,” Wang said. Last week, US President Donald Trump drew criticism from Beijing after he promised to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium imports.
South Korea vowed on Thursday to strengthen laws against sexual assault and implement measures to reduce harassment as the #MeToo campaign sweeps the country and sparks calls for meaningful action to tackle sexual abuse. Allegations of sexual assault against a rising star in the ruling Democratic Party, levelled by an aide in a dramatic television interview earlier this week marked a new high for the #MeToo movement in South Korea. An Hee-jung, who had been seen as a future candidate for the presidency, quit his post as a provincial governor and announced his retirement from politics having taken responsibility in a Facebook post for actions which police are now investigating. His is the latest and most high profile in a lengthening list of scandals involving politicians and prominent figures from the country's religious community, and entertainment and literary worlds. ‘We all had a big shock, and there's a higher consciousness now that women cannot experience such terrible things anymore,’ Chung Hyun-back, Minister of Gender Equality and Family Chung Hyun-back told a press conference on International Women's Day. Chung credited the #MeToo campaign against sexual assault and harassment for bringing the issue to the surface in a South Korea's male-dominated society. ‘The #MeToo movement is an event where boiling rage has finally erupted against gender-biased power relations and gender inequality, which have been a long, deep-rooted evil of our society,’ the minister said. In response to mounting public outrage, the government said it plans to extend the statute of limitations for power-based sexual abuse cases, and the labour ministry would set up a process for victims to anonymously report sexual harassment at their workplaces. The government was also considering toughening criminal punishment for employers found negligent in addressing sexual misdeeds, the ministry of gender equality said in a statement. ‘We are focusing on sexual harassment and violence based on power relations,’ Chung said.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in sounded a note of caution Wednesday over the North's offer of denuclearisation talks, saying it was "too early to be optimistic", even as US leader Donald Trump welcomed the development. President Trump welcomed Pyongyang's breakthrough declaration -- as relayed by Seoul -- that it wanted to talk to the US and would not need nuclear weapons if its security was guaranteed as positive and apparently sincere. It followed months of tensions, threats and personal insults between him and the North's leader Kim Jong Un, before the Winter Olympics in the South triggered a flurry of diplomacy. Moon and Kim will sit down for a summit on the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone next month, Seoul said after its envoys returned from a historic trip to Pyongyang. Kim said the North would halt provocative missile and nuclear tests while talks are under way, it added. But Moon told party leaders: "We are only at the starting line and it's too early to be optimistic." "Inter-Korean talks won't be enough to achieve peace," he said, stressing the importance of Seoul maintaining close co-operation with its security guarantor Washington and adding there would be no let-up in sanctions or pressure purely as a result of inter-Korean dialogue. There have been two previous inter-Korean summits, in 2000 and 2007, both of them in Pyongyang -- although it later emerged the North had been paid $500 million ahead of the first meeting, prompting critics to denounce it as a bribe. Moon denied there had been any behind-the-scenes agreement with Pyongyang in return for it coming to the negotiating table, adding: "There will be no such a thing as a gift to the North." Trump was upbeat on the news from Seoul, crediting Washington's "very, very strong" sanctions push, as well as "big help" from China, for the potential diplomatic breakthrough. "We have come a long way at least rhetorically with North Korea," Trump said. "We are going to do something, one way or the other, we are going to do something and not let that situation fester." But he signalled the threat of military action remained on the table should talks fail to make headway, and his administration said it would press ahead with potentially provocative joint war games with South Korea. China's foreign ministry praised the "positive outcomes" of the meeting in Pyongyang, urging both sides to "seize the current opportunity" to promote the denuclearisation of the peninsula. But Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said there was no change in Tokyo's policy of imposing "maximum pressure" on the North over its nuclear and missile programmes. Past talks and deals with the North had failed to result in its denuclearisation, he pointed out, after defence minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters: "We still don't know clearly North Korea's intention." Munich Agreement The North's offer divided opinion in the South Wednesday, with newspapers cautiously welcoming it but the main opposition party drawing parallels with the Munich Agreement that allowed Hitler to annex parts of Czechoslovakia. "There are positive points in this agreement," the South's conservative Chosun Ilbo daily said in an editorial. "However, a question mark still hangs over the key issue -- whether the North is genuinely willing to negotiate away its nuclear arsenal," it said. Hong Joon-pyo, the head of the conservative main opposition Liberty Korea Party, lambasted the talks as akin to the 1938 deal British prime minister Neville Chamberlain negotiated with Adolf Hitler -- and proclaimed as "peace for our time" -- agreeing to Nazi Germany's annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. "The agreement reminds me of the 1938 Munich Agreement," Hong wrote on his Facebook page. "Only fools would be cheated twice," he added. The pro-business Joongang Ilbo daily said an inter-Korean summit would be meaningless unless it led to the North's denuclearisation. The independent Hankyoreh daily was more enthusiastic, welcoming the agreement as "an achievement with great significance that went beyond all expectations". But the North's state media made no mention of the developments, with the Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the ruling Workers Party, instead leading on messages of congratulation sent to Kim for the 70th anniversary last month of the founding of the North's military. In a commentary the paper said that Pyongyang's possession of a nuclear arsenal was justified. "It was a shining victory for us in our struggle to achieve a parity in power with the US that we have come to develop hydrogen bombs and ICBMs," it said. "There was no other alternative for us in the highly confrontational situation where we alone have to face the US, the world's largest nuclear-armed state, with our own means."
The United States formally concluded Tuesday that North Korea murdered Kim Jong Un's half-brother with the banned VX nerve agent, blasting Pyongyang for deploying a chemical weapon in a packed international airport. Kim Jong Nam died in February last year, shortly after two women sprayed his face with a liquid as he walked through Kuala Lumpur airport. The brazen daylight assassination unleashed diplomatic shockwaves and widespread condemnation of North Korea. The two women, an Indonesian and a Vietnamese national, are currently on trial in Malaysia where they are accused of using a nerve agent to murder Kim Jong Nam, who lived in exile in China and was seen as a potential rival to his younger half-brother. The two women say they were recruited to take part in what they thought were prank TV shows but were instead tricked into becoming inadvertent assassins, in an elaborate plot by a group of North Korean agents who then fled country. On Tuesday, Washington announced it had formally concluded that VX -- an extremely powerful nerve agent -- was used to conduct the slaying and that North Korea was to blame. "The Government of North Korea used the chemical warfare agent VX to assassinate Kim Jong Nam, in the Kuala Lumpur airport," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement. "This public display of contempt for universal norms against chemical weapons use further demonstrates the reckless nature of North Korea and underscores that we cannot afford to tolerate a North Korean WMD program of any kind," she added. The statement gave no details or evidence on how the US had come to their conclusion. New sanctions The finding triggered another layer of US economic sanctions against Pyongyang, just as South Korea reported that the regime is ready for talks to end a nuclear standoff. Under US law, when a country or leader violates its ban on chemical and biological weapons, an import ban is imposed on its products, but North Korea is already under severe US and UN sanctions, and Tuesday's decision will have little impact. Kim Jong Un's older half-brother had once been seen as their father Kim Jong Il's natural heir, and some reports had suggested that China might be grooming him to replace the younger man in the event of a crisis. The ongoing trial in Malaysia heard testimony that Kim Jong Nam expressed fears for his life months before his death. He spent much of his time in the Chinese gambling hub of Macau and it is not clear why he may have left the relative safety of China's protection to travel to Malaysia if he thought his life was at risk. The State Department's conclusions on the use of VX nerve agent come as anti-terror police in Britain investigate a potential poisoning of a former Russian spy in the sleepy town of Salisbury. Sergei Skripal, a former military intelligence colonel who was convicted in Russia of spying for Britain and later released in a spy swap, was found unconscious on a bench in the English town alongside his daughter. Both are in critical condition. The case immediately drew comparisons to Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-spy who died of radioactive polonium poisoning in London in 2006. A British inquiry ruled in 2016 that Putin "probably approved" the killing.
North Korean athletes and delegates arrived in the South Wednesday to take part in the Winter Paralympics, as part of an Olympics-driven detente between the two neighbours. Two competitors -- both of them taking part in cross-country skiing -- along with four observer athletes and 18 officials crossed the land border north of Seoul before heading for the venues. Their journey came a day after Seoul announced plans to hold a historic summit between the North's leader Kim Jong Un and the South's President Moon Jae-in -- the latest fruit of their Olympics-fuelled diplomacy. Moon sought to use the February 9-25 Pyeongchang Winter Games to try to broker dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang in a bid to ease the nuclear standoff between them. The North mounted a charm offensive by sending hundreds of cheerleaders and Kim's sister to the opening ceremony of the Games, during which athletes from the two Koreas marched together under a neutral "unification flag". Seoul responded by sending Moon's special envoys -- including his spy chief -- to Pyongyang this week, where leader Kim told them he was willing to discuss denuclearisation with the US. The North Korean athletes -- Kim Jong Hyon and Ma Yu Chol -- may march with their counterparts from the South during Friday's opening ceremony for the Paralympics, which run until March 18. The pair made their international debuts in a tournament in January in Oberried, Germany. It is the first time the North, which has often faced criticism for its cruel treatment of disabled people, has taken part in the Winter Paralympics. Pyongyang had previously sent athletes to the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London and the 2016 edition of the games in Rio. Craig Spence, a spokesman for the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), said the athletes had been given "bipartite" slots for the games, meaning they had not been able to meet the full qualification criteria. "They have bipartite invitations from us due to their circumstances. They have not been travelling around the world and have not been able to take part in all the qualifying events," he told AFP.