A senior American member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) called on Sunday for North and South Korea's joint women's ice hockey team to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Angela Ruggiero, a four-times ice hockey world champion and Olympic gold medallist, told Reuters she would ask others to nominate the team, which included 12 players from North Korea which is still technically at war with the South. It was the first time an inter-Korean team had competed at an Olympic Games. "I would love the team to get the Nobel Peace Prize," Ruggiero, a member of the IOC's executive board said a day after the unified Korean team competed at the Pyeongchang Olympics. "Seriously, the team. Something that is recognising the sacrifice they made to adjusting their competitions," she said. South Korea suggested the formation of a joint team as part of its efforts to use the Games to re-engage with the North and pave the way for talks over the North's weapons programme. North Korea is subject to heavy UN and US sanctions designed to pressure the reclusive, one-party state to abandon its development of nuclear and ballistic missiles. "As someone who competed in four Olympics and knows it isn't about you, your team, or your country, I saw the power of what it did last night," Ruggiero said. The team took to the ice for the first time on Saturday, losing to Switzerland but winning over the crowd as North Korean cheerleaders and South Korean fans roared the players on. The countries are still technically at war since their 1950-53 war ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty. However, South Korea has been more willing to re-engage with the North than its old US war ally, which wants Seoul to keep piling diplomatic and economic pressure on its neighbour. Last month, the North agreed with South Korea to send 22 athletes and a 230-strong cheering squad to the winter Games.
* N.Korean leader invites S.Korean president to visit the North * S.Korea's Moon says ‘let's make it happen’ * Moon, North Koreans watch joint female ice hockey team's match * US VP Pence says South supports ‘extreme pressure’ approach * UN sanctions on N.Korea seen starting to bite North Korean leader Kim Jong Un invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in for talks in Pyongyang, South Korean officials said on Saturday, setting the stage for the first meeting of Korean leaders in more than 10 years. Any meeting would represent a diplomatic coup for Moon, who swept to power last year on a policy of engaging more with the reclusive North and has pushed for a diplomatic solution to the standoff over North Korea's nuclear and missile programme. The recent detente, anchored by South Korea's hosting of the Winter Olympic Games that began on Friday, came despite an acceleration in the North's weapons programmes last year and pressure from Seoul's allies in Washington. The personal invitation from Kim was delivered verbally by his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, during talks and a lunch Moon hosted at the presidential Blue House in Seoul. Kim Jong Un wanted to meet Moon ‘in the near future’ and would like for him to visit North Korea ‘at his earliest convenience’, his sister told Moon, who had said ‘let's create the environment for that to be able to happen,’ Blue House spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom told a news briefing. A Blue House official said Moon ‘practically accepted’ the invitation. ‘We would like to see you at an early date in Pyongyang’, Kim Yo Jong told Moon during the lunch, and also delivered her brother's personal letter that expressed his ‘desire to improve inter-Korean relations,’ the Blue House said. The prospect of two-way talks between the Koreas, however, may not be welcomed by the United States. Washington has pursued a strategy of exerting maximum pressure on Pyongyang through tough sanctions and harsh rhetoric, demanding it give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons first for any dialogue to occur. ‘This is the strongest action yet by North Korea to drive a wedge between the South and the United States,’ said Kim Sung-han, a former South Korean vice foreign minister and now a professor at Korea University in Seoul. Moon asked the North Korean delegation during Saturday's meeting to more actively seek dialogue with the United States, saying that ‘early resumption of dialogue (between the two) is absolutely necessary for developments in the inter-Korean relations as well,’ the South said. It said the two sides held ‘a comprehensive discussion ... on the inter-Korean relations and various issues on the Korean peninsula in an amicable atmosphere,’ but did not say whether the North's weapons programme was mentioned. A visit by Moon to the North would enable the first summit between leaders from the two Koreas since 2007, and would mark only the third inter-Korean summit to take place. EXTREME PRESSURE Pyongyang conducted its largest nuclear test last year and in November tested its most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile that experts said has the range to reach anywhere in the United States. US President Donald Trump and the North Korean leadership traded insults and threats of nuclear war as tensions rose, with Trump repeatedly dismissing the prospect or value of talks with North Korea. US Vice President Mike Pence, also in South Korea for the Olympics, has said the United States and South Korea were closely aligned in their approach to dealing with North Korea. ‘I am very confident, as President Trump is, that President Moon will continue to stand strongly with us in our extreme-pressure campaign,’ Pence told NBC in an interview on Friday, maintaining all options were open to deal with the crisis. ‘Make no mistake about it, the United States of America has viable military options to deal with a nuclear threat from North Korea but, that being said, we hope for a better path,’ he said. Pence said he would seek to counter North Korea's attempt to use the Olympics for propaganda and invited the father of Otto Warmbier, an American student who died last year after being imprisoned in North Korea for 17 months, to the Games in Pyeongchang. Before leaving South Korea on Saturday evening, Pence watched short track speed skating games, with Fred Warmbier seated behind him. Moon, who returned to the Games venue, joined Pence in the arena and sat next to him, turned around to greet Warmbier, according to a White House pool report. Later, Moon watched the joint Korean women's ice hockey team - the first ever combined team at the Olympics - take on Switzerland, joining Kim Yo Jong and Kim Yong Nam, the North's nominal head of state, who is also visiting the South for the Games. North and South Korea are technically still at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty. The United States fought with South Korea and maintains tens of thousands of troops and an ‘ironclad’ agreement to protect its ally. North Korea has spent years developing its military, saying it needs to protect itself from US aggression. SACRED BLOODLINE Moon hoped to use the Olympics to ease tensions and North Korea agreed to send high-profile officials as well as athletes. Pence and the North Korean delegation, who both attended the Games opening ceremony, had no contact with each other. Kim Yo Jong, 28, is the first member of the ruling Kim family bearing the bloodline of the sacred Mount Paektu, a centrepiece of the North's idolisation and propaganda campaign, to cross the border into the South since the 1950-53 Korean War. At the Blue House meeting, the delegations shared a lunch of dried pollack dumpling soup, a regional speciality of the only divided province on the Korean peninsula, and soju, a spirit popular on both sides of the heavily militarised border.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has invited the South's President Moon Jae-in for a summit in Pyongyang, Seoul said Saturday. The invitation, delivered by Kim's visiting sister Kim Yo Jong, said Kim was willing to meet the South's leader "at the earliest date possible", said a spokesman for the presidential Blue House. An inter-Korean summit would be the third of its kind, after Kim's father and predecessor Kim Jong Il met the South's Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun in 2000 and 2007 respectively, both of them in Pyongyang. After months of silence on whether it would even take part in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in the South, which had their opening ceremony Friday, nuclear-armed North Korea has gone on a charm offensive, dispatching athletes, performers and Kim's sister plus other diplomatic delegates to the South. Moon met Kim Yo Jong and the North's ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam for talks and lunch at the Blue House on Saturday. "Special envoy Kim Yo Jong delivered a personal letter" from her brother stating his "wish to improve inter-Korean relations", said Moon's spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom. She verbally conveyed Kim's invitation to Moon "to visit the North at his most convenient time", he added. Moon has long argued for engagement with the North to bring it to the negotiating table over its nuclear ambitions, but did not immediately accept the offer. Moon called for efforts to "create the right conditions to realise" such a visit, his spokesman said, urging Pyongyang to more actively seek dialogue with the US. "It is absolutely necessary for the North and the United States to engage in talks at an early date," he cited Moon as saying. Washington has long insisted the North must show a willingness to denuclearise before any negotiations -- which Pyongyang says it will never do.
People dressed up as US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un caused a commotion when they appeared in the stands at the Olympic Games opening ceremony on Friday before swiftly being shown out by security staff. "We're getting along great," said the Un lookalike, who declined to give his name. "We wanted to surprise everyone and bring world peace and then we're being escorted out by security guards, which I think is really unfair," he added. "Doesn't everyone want peace?" The ceremony was marked by a show of unity between North and South Korea. Athletes from both countries entered the arena under a flag depicting a unified Korea as American Vice President Mike Pence and Un's sister, Kim Yo Jong, watched on from a VIP box. "Is my sister getting the same treatment?," the Un lookalike said as he was escorted out of the stadium.
A martial arts display by North Korean athletes at the opening ceremony for the 2018 Winter Games was met with silence at the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium, with the only supportive noises coming from North Korean cheerleaders high in the stands. The display of the traditional martial art of taekwon do was part of a joint effort with South Korea as the stadium filled up, and the host nation's segment was accompanied by a pop version of a traditional Korean folk song. The hosts performed a fast-paced routine choreographed to the music, delighting the crowd as they smashed planks of wood in time to the music. But when the North Korean athletes took over, it became a more austere affair. Their display also featured much breaking of wood and the smashing of some concrete blocks, but it was accompanied by guttural shouts from the martial artists as the majority of the crowd looked on in silence. The only support for the North Korean section seemed to come from two groups of red-and-white clad female cheerleaders sitting in orderly rows and waving Korean unity flags, who whooped and cheered loudly during the entire display. Barefoot in the freezing temperatures, some of the athletes needed several attempts to break their objects, but the arena floor was littered with broken timber by the time the South Koreans joined them for a joint finale.
The Pyeongchang Winter olympics opening ceremony got under way in freezing temperatures and a spirit of rapprochement on Friday after the arrival of the highest level North Korean delegation ever seen in the South. Fireworks lit up the sky over the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium, where North Korea's all-female cheering squad were among the crowd, as the gala event started. Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was among the VIPs expected to attend after she became the first member of the ruling Kim dynasty to venture South since the Korean War. South Korean leader Moon Jae-in, US Vice-President Mike Pence and Kim Yong Nam, North Korea's ceremonial head of state, were also expected to attend the opening, along with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. A view of fireworks After a sudden thaw in ties -- following months of rising tensions and North Korean missile tests -- South and North Korean athletes will march together at the ceremony, behind the blue-and-white Korean unification flag. Russian athletes will march under a neutral flag after the Russian team was banned from the Games over systemic doping -- although 168 Russians deemed to be clean of drug use have been allowed to take part.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's sister joined athletes and officials from around the world at the South's Winter Olympics Friday, the first member of Pyongyang's ruling dynasty to set foot in its rival since the Korean War. Kim Yo Jong was part of a diplomatic delegation led by ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam -- the highest-level North Korean official ever to go to the South -- as the Games trigger a diplomatic rapprochement between the rivals. Ahead of the opening ceremony the South's President Moon Jae-in shook hands with Kim Yong Nam at a leaders' reception in Pyeongchang, where the two were to be seated at the top table -- along with US Vice President Mike Pence and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, both of whose countries are regularly threatened by the North. Moon is scheduled to have lunch with the Pyongyang delegation on Saturday. Their white Ilyushin-62 jet, marked in Korean script "Democratic People's Republic of Korea", the North's official name, and its tailfin emblazoned with a Northern emblem, touched down earlier at Incheon airport near Seoul, in a rare direct flight between the two halves of the divided peninsula. The last member of the Kim family to set foot in Seoul was Yo Jong's grandfather Kim Il Sung, the North's founder, after his forces invaded in 1950 and the capital fell. Three years later the conflict ended with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty, leaving the two sides technically in a state of war. Now the North is subject to multiple rounds of UN Security Council sanctions over its banned nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes, while the democratic South has risen to become the world's 11th-largest economy. Kim Yong Nam and Kim Yo Jong, both of them in dark coats with fur collars, were met at the airport by the South's unification minister and other officials, exchanging pleasantries about the cold weather. The leader's sister looked relaxed, smiling calmly as she talked with them, before making her way through the terminal, with four bodyguards surrounding her closely, to take a high-speed train to Pyeongchang. The delegation's trip is the diplomatic high point of a Games-driven rapprochement between the two Koreas, with the dovish Moon pushing a "peace Olympics" that will open a door for dialogue to alleviate tensions and seek to persuade Pyongyang to give up its atomic ambitions. But all eyes are on Yo Jong -- a key member of the Kim dynasty that has ruled the impoverished, isolated nation with an iron fist and pervasive personality cult over three generations. The family are revered in the North as the "Paektu bloodline", named after the country's highest mountain and supposed birthplace of the late leader Kim Jong Il. Many analysts suggest Yo Jong may be carrying a personal message to Moon from her brother. 'Charm offensive' Tensions have been high on the peninsula since last year when the North staged its sixth and most powerful nuclear blast and test-fired intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMS) capable of reaching the US mainland. Leader Kim and US President Donald Trump exchanged threats of war and personal insults, sparking global alarm and fears of a new conflict on the peninsula. But Kim abruptly announced a plan to send athletes and high-level delegates to the Pyeongchang Winter Games in his new year speech, setting in motion a flurry of cross-border talks and trips. The announcement -- following months of cajoling by Seoul -- is seen as a bid to defuse tensions and seek a loosening of the sanctions against it. The North has sent a total of 22 athletes plus hundreds of cheerleaders and artistes for the Olympics and a state orchestra gave one of two planned concerts in the South on Thursday to a packed audience. But Pyongyang also held a military parade the same day, displaying its hulking ICBMs in Kim Il Sung Square in a show of strength, and the diplomatic manoeuvres have met a backlash in the South, with many accusing Seoul of making too many concessions to its wayward neighbour. Conservative activists also accused Pyongyang of "hijacking" the Games and have held angry protests, burning images of Kim Jong Un or the North's national flag. US Vice President Pence -- who has not ruled out a meeting with the North's delegates -- on Friday called Pyongyang "the most tyrannical regime on the planet" as he met defectors at a memorial to the Cheonan, a South Korean corvette that sank in 2010, killing 46 sailors. An international investigation concluded it had been torpedoed by a North Korean submarine, a charge Pyongyang denies. Pence intended to counter "what Prime Minister Abe rightly called a 'charm offensive' around the Olympics" by the North, he said. His objective was "to stand up for the truth", he said, "and to recognise that whatever images may emerge against the powerful backdrop and idealism of the Olympics, North Korea has to accept change."
* N Korea has no plans to use Olympics as political vehicle: KCNA * US officials say tough new sanctions on North Korea coming * Pence will travel to South Korea on eve of Olympics * Kim Jong Un's sister to attend Olympic opening ceremony * Major military parade planned in North Korean capital North Korea has no intention of meeting U.S officials during the Winter Olympics that start in South Korea on Friday, state media reported, dampening hopes the Games will help resolve a tense standoff over the North's nuclear weapons programme. US Vice President Mike Pence, who described North Korea as the world's most tyrannical regime on Wednesday, flies in to South Korea on Thursday ahead of the opening ceremony in the mountain resort of Pyeongchang, just 80 km (50 miles) from the heavily armed border with North Korea. The ceremony will also be attended by a senior delegation of North Korean officials, including the younger sister of leader Kim Jong Un and the North's nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam. The sister, Kim Yo Jong, and other members of her entourage will travel by private jet to Seoul's Incheon International Airport on Friday afternoon, North Korea informed the South on Thursday. However the prospect of talks, which Pence downplayed but left open, appeared slim. ‘We have never begged for dialogue with the US nor in the future, too,’ the North's KCNA news agency reported on Thursday, citing Jo Yong Sam, director-general of the North American department of North Korea's foreign ministry. ‘Explicitly speaking, we have no intention to meet with the US side during the stay in South Korea ... Our delegation's visit to South Korea is only to take part in the Olympics and hail its successful holding,’ Jo said. South Korea wants to use the event to re-engage with North Korea and open the way for talks to resolve one of the world's most dangerous crises, in which US President Donald Trump and Pyongyang have swapped nuclear threats. Pence had said after meeting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on Wednesday that Washington would soon unveil ‘the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever’. He said before departing for Seoul the United States wanted to peacefully dismantle North Korea's nuclear programme but warned Pyongyang not to underestimate US military strength or resolve. In Beijing, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi told reporters that China saw the Olympics as a first step towards ‘everyday, uninterrupted’ dialogue. All sides, not just the two Koreas, needed to work hard and dialogue between the United States and North Korea should be expanded for this to happen, Wang said. ‘You can’t have it that one person opens the door and another closes it,’ he said. MILITARY PARADE North Korea marked the founding anniversary of its army with a large military parade in Pyongyang on Thursday, a government official told Reuters, having last month changed the date of the celebration to the eve of the Olympics. The official asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. Domestic media reports said the parade was smaller than those of previous years. Pence will meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Seoul later on Thursday. On Friday, before he attends the Olympic opening ceremony, he will visit a memorial for 46 South Korean sailors killed in 2010 in the sinking of a warship that Seoul blamed on a North Korean torpedo attack. Pence is taking the father of Otto Warmbier, an American student who died last year after being imprisoned in North Korea for 17 months. Kim Yo Jong, the 28-year-old sister of the North Korean leader, will be sitting in the same stadium as VIP guests along with ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam. She will be the first member of the Kim family to cross the border into the South. Kim Yo Jong is a propaganda official and was blacklisted last year by the US Treasury Department over alleged human rights abuses and censorship. Japan's Abe, whose nation has been within range of North Korean missiles for decades, will also attend the ceremony, adding to seating complications for the hosts. South Korea asked the United Nations on Wednesday for an exemption to allow a UN-sanctioned North Korean official, Choe Hwi, to attend the opening ceremony with Kim Yo Jong. The Unification Ministry in Seoul said no decision had been made yet on Choe Hwi and Pyongyang had not mentioned any change in their plans to send him. A group of 280 North Koreans arrived in South Korea on Wednesday to support athletes from the two sides at the Games. The group included a 229-member cheer squad, taekwondo performers, journalists and the sports minister. Preliminary competition at the Games began on Thursday, with events including curling and ski jumping. Organisers have already been battling some challenges, including a stomach virus that has affected dozens of staff and a fire near the Olympic media village on Thursday that produced thick black smoke but was quickly extinguished.
The Pyeongchang Winter Olympics are on track though organisers are battling the spread of a virus among staff and preparing to deal with the cold snap at Friday's opening ceremony, Games chief Lee Hee-beom said on Tuesday. Lee said preparations for the first winter Olympics in Asia outside Japan were complete with athletes arriving in the South Korean town. ‘We are fully operational with many of our athletes and officials here and settling into their life in the villages and training is underway at all venues,’ Lee told a news conference. But he said some 1,200 private security staff have been sidelined as fear of a norovirus among some of them has forced organisers to replace them with military personnel pending medical tests. The virus is highly contagious and causes vomiting and stomach cramps among other symptoms. Athletes from several countries were taken ill and some were forced to miss competitions at last year's world athletics championship in London when the virus was found to have spread through one hotel. ‘As a president of POCOG (organising committee), I would like to apologise for this,’ Lee said. ‘Our disease control centre other related government agencies here are now discussing countermeasures and will come up with proper measures and will be announced soon.’ Lee said this would have no effect on security arrangements at the Games, held about 80 kilometres south of the border to North Korea, with whom South Korea is still technically at war since 1953. The cold weather, however, could be an issue for organisers with the opening ceremony in the open-air Olympic stadium expected to be freezing. Temperatures are currently below freezing throughout the day, dropping to as low as minus 21 degrees Celsius at night. Lee said some fans will not attend the opening ceremony despite having bought tickets, while some competitions could be affected. ‘Some have cancelled their ticket for the opening ceremony,’ Lee said. ‘Regarding the potential of the delay due to the weather, the International Olympic Committee and the international federation have strict rules, for example, ski jumping can not take place if there's a strong wind. ‘We are now installing wind screens at the venue. Despite our efforts and if there is a strong wind, the event can be delayed but the decision won't be made by me, it will be made by IOC and the federation.’ Lee said a special bag with hot packs, seatwarmers, a blanket, a hat and a windbreaker would be distributed to spectators in an effort to keep them warm at the start of what could turn out to be the coldest winter Olympics in decades.
North Korea’s ceremonial leader will make an unprecedented visit to South Korea this week, officials said yesterday, as hopes grow for high-level inter-Korean talks during the Winter Olympics that begin in four days. North Korea’s official KCNA news agency confirmed that Kim Yong-nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, would attend the Olympics’ opening ceremony on Friday in South Korea’s alpine resort town of Pyeongchang. Seoul’s Unification Ministry said Kim would lead a 22-strong delegation that was expected to arrive in South Korea on Friday for a three-day trip. Kim’s visit comes as Seoul pins its hopes on high-level talks during the Feb 9-25 Games between not only the two Koreas but also the North and the United States. The South’s presidential Blue House in Seoul said the visit by Kim, the most senior North Korean official to cross the border into the South since the Korean War ended with a truce in 1953, would create “various opportunities” for high-level talks. “(Kim’s visit) shows North Korea’s resolve for improved inter-Korean relations and the success of the Olympics, as well as its sincere, earnest attitude,” Blue House spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom told a news briefing. The Games opening ceremony will also be attended by US Vice President Mike Pence, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other world leaders. South Korean President Moon Jae-in told his US counterpart Donald Trump in a phone call that the momentum of improved North-South relations would continue and that Pence’s visit would be an “important prelude for that”, according to the Blue House. Trump said during a meeting with North Korean defectors that, despite a “very tricky situation”, North Korea’s participation in the Olympics could result in “something good”. However, a White House official has said Pence planned to use his attendance to counter what he sees as Pyongyang’s efforts to “hijack” the Olympics with a propaganda campaign. A North Korean art troupe would also likely travel by ship to perform during the Olympics under an exemption from bilateral sanctions, the South’s Unification Ministry said yesterday. With performances set for later this week, the North proposed that the art troupe use a ferry for transportation and lodging, according to the Unification Ministry. South Korea banned all North Korean ships from entering its ports in May 2010 and cut off most inter-Korean exchanges, including tourism, trade and aid, in response to a torpedo attack by the North on a navy ship that killed 46 sailors. The Unification Ministry said no final decision had been made but it was in consultation with Washington and others to temporarily lift the ban to facilitate the North’s proposal. “We’re seeking to apply an exemption for the May (2010) measures to support a successful hosting of the Olympics,” ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun told a news briefing. The North used the ship, the Mangyongbong 92, for similar purposes during the 2002 Asian Games in the South Korean port city of Busan. The ship now chiefly operates between North Korea and Russia. The North had initially asked that the art troupe be allowed to cross the border by foot via Panmunjom, located in the demilitarised zone where a North Korean soldier staged a daring defection to the South in November. The orchestra is scheduled to perform at Gangneung, near Pyeongchang, on Thursday and in the capital, Seoul, on Sunday. A lawmaker in Seoul said some 36,000 foreigners had been banned from entering South Korea, including people connected with extremist groups such as Islamic State, to ensure security during the Games. Lawmaker Yi Wan-young told reporters of the ban after being briefed by the nation’s spy agency yesterday. Yi said around 60,000 security personnel would guard Olympics venues. Kim is North Korea’s nominal head of state, while the reclusive country is ruled by Kim Jong-un, the third-generation hereditary leader. Kim Yong-nam also attended the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. He is not blacklisted by the United Nations or the United States because he is not involved in the North’s illicit nuclear and missile programmes or associated with related research institutes. In 2014, Pyongyang sent Choe Ryong-hae, a close aide to Kim Jong-un, as part of a high-level delegation to attend the closing ceremony of the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea. Choe is subject to unilateral sanctions imposed by South Korea in 2016. “Kim Yong-nam has little influence in North Korean internal politics, inter-Korean affairs or the nuclear issues, but has mainly been taking charge of summit diplomacy,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at South Korea’s Sejong Institute think tank. “This time, if he gets to meet Moon, he could convey Kim Jong-un’s message or invitation to Pyongyang,” Cheong said.
* Lower court jailed Lee for five years for corruption * Bribery trial led to ouster of former President Park A South Korean appeals court on Monday suspended a jail sentence handed down to Samsung Group heir Jay Y. Lee, setting him free after a year's detention amid a corruption scandal that brought down the former president. Seoul High Court jailed Lee for two and a half years, reducing the original term by half, and suspended the sentence for charges including bribery and embezzlement, meaning he does not have to serve time. Lee, 49, heir to one of the world's biggest corporate empires, had been detained since last February. President Park Geun-hye was dismissed in March after being impeached in a case that brought scrutiny to the nature of the ties between South Korea's chaebols - big family-owned corporate groups - and its political leaders. Park, who denies wrongdoing, is standing trial accused of bribery, abuse of power and coercion. A lower court in August convicted Lee for bribing Park for help in strengthening his control of Samsung Electronics, the crown jewel of the country's largest conglomerate and one of the world's biggest technology companies, as well as embezzlement and other charges. The court said Samsung's financial support for entities backed by a friend of Park's, Choi Soon-sil, constituted bribery, including 7.2 billion won ($6.4 million) to sponsor the equestrian career of Choi's daughter. Presiding senior judge Cheong Hyung-sik on Monday called the nature of Lee's involvement in Samsung's monetary support for Choi a ‘passive compliance to political power’. Prosecutors and Samsung did not have an immediate comment. Lee, whose face was noticeably worn, did not show any emotion when the ruling was announced. Prosecutors had sought a 12-year jail term for Lee. The ruling is expected to be appealed again to the Supreme Court, legal experts said. With the end of his year-long detention, which according to local media he adjusted to with physical workouts and reading books, Lee could continue with his existing roles including director of Samsung Electronics. However he has been found guilty of some lesser charges and is prohibited from travelling outside South Korea without a judge's approval, according to law firm Cho & Partners. The lower court ruling in August had said while Lee never asked for President Park's help directly, the fact that a 2015 merger of two Samsung affiliates did help cement Lee's control over Samsung Electronics implied he was asking for the president's help to strengthen his control of the firm. His lawyers had strongly challenged this logic and said that the merger was done for business reasons. Some criminal lawyers had expected Lee to be found innocent of most of the charges, as much of the evidence at the trial has been circumstantial. But although he was set free from detention by the appeals court, the stigma may stick, lawyers say. ‘Public opinion will get riled up and people will keep thinking there was some quid pro quo between Samsung's Lee and the president,’ Lee Jung-jae, a lawyer at law firm Jung said.
North Korea's national flag was raised in the South Thursday for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, organisers said, after an exemption came into force to avoid breaching Seoul's tough national security law. The two Koreas are still technically at war as the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty. Under the security legislation, praise for the North is illegal, punishable by up to seven years in prison, and displaying the country's red, white and blue flag is considered a violation. But in order to comply with International Olympic Committee protocol that all competing countries' emblems are displayed, prosecutors have granted an exemption for Games venues, including award ceremony locations and official athlete accommodation. The exemption came into force on Thursday with the official opening of the athletes' village, organisers told AFP, where the North's flag was duly raised -- a day after all the others went up. From Monday, official ceremonies will be held welcoming each participating country's athletes to their accommodation, when their flags will again be hoisted and their national anthems played. South Korean military honour guards will be mobilised for the events, but civilian volunteers will be used for the North's ceremony on Thursday, organising committee spokeswoman Lee Ji-Hye told AFP. She did not give reasons but Yonhap news agency said it would be improper for South Korean soldiers to salute the enemy's symbol. The North's flag was first hoisted in the South in 2003 when North Korea sent athletes to the Daegu Universiade, and was run up at the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships and 2014 Asian Games, both in Incheon. It was also on display at a women's ice hockey match between the two Koreas last year in Gangneung. A total of 22 North Korean athletes will take part in the Games, including 12 members of a unified women's ice hockey team. The others -- a figure skating pair, two short track speed skaters, three cross-country skiers and three alpine skiers -- were due to arrive later Thursday.
* Customs service has exposed cryptocurrency crimes worth nearly $600 mn * Cryptocurrency crimes include illegal foreign exchange trading * S Korea has banned anonymous account for virtual currency trading to prevent possible crimes South Korea has uncovered illegal cryptocurrency foreign exchange trading worth nearly $600 million, a sign authorities are tightening the regulatory screws on the digital asset that many global policymakers consider to be opaque and risky. The country's customs service said in a statement on Wednesday that about 637.5 billion won ($596.02 million) worth of foreign exchange crimes were detected. ‘Customs service have been closely looking at illegal foreign exchange trading using cryptocurrency as part of the government’s task force,’ it said, underscoring stepped-up efforts by Seoul to crack down on illegal trade in the digital asset. Illegal foreign currency trading of 472.3 billion formed the bulk of the cryptocurrency crimes, Customs said, but gave no details on what action authorities were taking against the rule breaches. South Korea has adopted a tough stance on regulating cryptocurrency trading as many locals, including students and housewives, jumped into a frenzied market despite warnings from policy makers around the world of a bubble. Effective from Jan. 30, authorities will allow only real-name bank accounts to be used for cryptocurrency trading designed to stop virtual coins from being used for money laundering and other crimes. Among other breaches, Customs said there were also cases where investors in Japan sent their yen worth 53.7 billion won to their partners in South Korea for illegal currency trade. It said authorities will continue to monitor for any violations of foreign exchange rules or of money laundering activities. Seoul previously said that it is considering shutting down local cryptocurrency exchanges, which threw the market into turmoil and hammered bitcoin prices. Officials later clarified that an outright ban is only one of the steps being considered, and a final decision was yet to be made. Bitcoin stood at $9,800.00 as of 0502 GMT on the Luxembourg-based Bitstamp exchange. The heightened regulatory scrutiny around the world, however, has seen bitcoin dive about 31 percent so far this month, on track for its biggest monthly decline since December 2013. Cryptocurrencies got another jolt last week after Tokyo-based exchange Coincheck said hackers stole over $500 million in one of the world's biggest cyber heists.
North Korea has called off a joint cultural performance with artistes from the South ahead of the forthcoming Winter Olympics, Seoul said on Monday, underscoring the fragility of their Games-led rapprochement. The event at Mount Kumgang, a renowned scenic spot in the North, had been due to take place on Sunday as part of a flurry of talks and visits between Seoul and nuclear-armed Pyongyang ahead of the Games in Pyeongchang next month. The moves, triggered by the North's leader Kim Jong-Un in his New Year speech, come after a year in which Pyongyang carried out multiple missile launches and its most powerful nuclear test to date, sending fears of conflict on the peninsula soaring. As well as athletes, Pyongyang is sending hundreds of other delegates to attend and hold parallel events, including cheerleaders and artistes who will mount cultural performances in Seoul and Games venue Gangneung. South Koreans had been due to take part in a reciprocal event at Mount Kumgang this weekend, but Seoul's unification ministry said the North told it the performance had been called off and Pyongyang had taken umbrage at critical media coverage. The North's decision to attend Pyeongchang came after months of entreaties from Seoul to participate in a "peace Olympics", and the two have agreed to form a unified women's ice hockey team, their first such side since 1991. But there has been criticism in the South that Seoul has made too many concessions to Pyongyang to persuade it to participate, and that the unified team will deprive some Southern skaters of their chance to compete on the Olympic stage.
* President says he is hurt by "one tragedy after another" * Officials say at least 37 killed, 151 injured in hospital fire * Hospital did not have sprinkler system South Korean officials rushed to identify 37 victims of a hospital blaze and pinpoint the cause on Saturday as President Moon Jae-in visited the burnt-out building and decried "one tragedy after another" to strike the country. Flames and toxic smoke swept through the Sejong Hospital in the southern city of Miryang on Friday, injuring more than 150 people, just weeks after a fire killed 29 people at a fitness centre. All the hospital victims died from smoke inhalation. Moon visited the fire scene where he spoke to grieving family members and firefighters. "Its tragic, and it hurts me to see this kind of one tragedy after another, even as the government has vowed to make this country safe," Moon said. He ordered a full inquiry and said "utmost government efforts" were needed to support the injured and families of the victims. The government of Asia’s fourth-largest economy, with one of the world's fastest ageing populations, has faced criticism in recent years over poor safety standards, including the Sewol ferry disaster of 2014 in which more than 300 people, mostly schoolchildren, drowned. Hospital director Song Byeong-cheol said the six-storey hospital did not have a sprinkler system and was not large enough to require one under the law. South Korean investigators inspect the scene of the hospital fire in Miryang on Saturday. The opposition Liberal Party was quick to condemn Moon for the disaster. "The Moon administration should have at least kept South Koreans safe, to justify the launch of this government," the party said in a statement, demanding a "master plan" to protect citizens. Moon's ruling Democratic Party said it would "embark on parliamentary discussions to legally support and protect citizens lives and safety", a spokesman said. Ham Eun-gu, a professor at Open Cyber University of Korea, said safety checks at many private hospitals, including Sejong Hospital, were often carried out as a formality and not strictly enforced. "Given that there has been a string of big fire accidents, the Moon administration won't be able to just overlook this and let it go. (The government) will need to toughen fire safety regulations," Ham said. Last month, 29 people were killed in a blaze at an eight-storey fitness centre in Jecheon City, most of them women trapped in a sauna. That disaster fuelled anger over reports of shoddy construction, among other shortcomings. In 2014, a fire at a rural hospital killed 21 people, while a 2008 warehouse fire outside Seoul killed 40. Many survivors of Friday's blaze "walked though fire and smoke" to escape, a city official told Reuters on Friday. Those on upper floors used fire engine ladders and plastic escape slides, while firefighters carried some who could not walk. "I saw elderly patients scrambling out through the windows and had to help," said Woo Young-min, 25, as he stood in his pyjamas outside the hospital. The fire broke out at the rear of the emergency room on the hospital's first floor, fire official Choi Man-woo told reporters. Television broadcast images of black smoke billowing from the windows and entrance. At least 177 patients, most of them elderly, were in the hospital and a nursing home next door when the fire broke out, hospital director Song told reporters. Song said three of the nine hospital staff on duty at the time died - at least one doctor, a nurse and a nurse's aide. Most of those who died were on the first and second floors, said Choi.
A huge fire tore through a South Korean hospital on Friday killing at least 37 people, the government said, in the country's worst blaze for a decade. Around 130 others were hurt in the fire, which comes just weeks before thousands of athletes and foreign visitors are expected in the country for the Winter Olympics. While South Korea has risen to become the world's 11th-largest economy, some of its infrastructure was built rapidly and it has a history of preventable disasters. It was the country's second major blaze in a month, and officials admitted there was no sprinkler system installed at the hospital. Videos posted on social media showed a patient hanging on to a rope dangling from a helicopter above the hospital in Miryang, in the far south, and another crawling out of a window to climb down a ladder. The death toll rose rapidly throughout the morning as some of those initially pulled from the blaze succumbed to their injuries. At one point the presidential Blue House put it at 41, before authorities lowered it to 37, blaming double-counting. Three of the dead were medical staff, officials said. "Two nurses said they had seen fire suddenly erupting in the emergency room," said fire chief Choi Man-Woo. The six-storey structure housed a nursing home as well as the Sejong Hospital, and around 200 people were inside when the fire broke out according to police. All the dead were in the hospital, Choi said. Video footage and pictures showed the building engulfed by thick, dark smoke and surrounded by multiple fire trucks. Firefighters work at the entrance of an emergency room of a hospital building after a fire broke out in Miryang on Friday. Survivors were brought out wrapped in blankets, and firefighters picked their way through the blackened shell of the building after the blaze was extinguished. Jang Yeong-Jae, a surviving patient, said he was on the second floor when nurses screamed "Fire!" in the hallway and urged people to leave through the emergency exits. "But when I opened the exit door, the whole stairway was filled with dark smoke and I couldn't see a thing," he told Seoul's major daily JoongAng Ilbo. "Everybody was running around in panic, falling over and screaming as smoke filled the rooms," he was quoted as saying. Jang tore open window screens and escaped on a ladder erected by firefighters. "There were so many aged patients on other floors... I wonder if they escaped safely," JoongAng quoted Jang's wife as saying. Short-circuits suspected Hospital director Son Gyeong-Cheol admitted there was no sprinkler system in the building. None had been required under fire prevention laws, he told journalists, but the hospital had been planning to install them in the coming week to comply with new regulations coming into force in June. "There were two heating-cooling air conditioners in the emergency room and the fire started in that area," he said. "We suspect electrical short-circuits." Miryang Fire Station chief Choi Man-Woo apologised for "failing to rescue each and every one" of the patients caught in the fire. "When our fast reaction squad arrived at the scene, the building was already engulfed in thick smoke and flames and they were unable to make their way into it", Choi said. South Korean President Moon Jae-In called an emergency meeting with advisers, and demanded an immediate probe into the cause of the blaze. The fire came only a month after 29 people were killed in an inferno at a fitness club in the South Korean city of Jecheon -- a disaster blamed on insufficient emergency exits, flammable finishing materials and illegally parked cars blocking access to emergency vehicles. Friday's fire is South Korea's worst since 2008, when a blaze at a warehouse in the city of Icheon killed 40 workers. The worst fire ever in modern South Korea was an arson attack on a subway station in the southeastern city of Daegu in 2003 that left 192 people dead and nearly 150 injured.
Seoul welcomed confirmation by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that 22 North Korean athletes would compete in next month's Winter Olympics, saying on Sunday it would aid peace and the easing of tensions on the Korean peninsula. In the first of a series of preparatory visits, North Korean music and arts officials arrived in South Korea on Sunday to inspect sites for performances during the Olympics. ‘North Korea's participation in the Olympics will be a catalyst for building peace and easing tensions on the Korean peninsula,’ said South Korea's presidential Blue House in a statement released on Sunday. The visit to the South marks the first by North Koreans since South Korean President Moon Jae-in took office in May last year and sought to re-engage with the North. ‘President Moon has previously stressed that the Pyeongchang Olympics should be an important turning point in solving North Korea's missile issues,’ the Blue House statement said. The seven-member North Korean delegation, led by musician Hyon Song-wol, will check venues for performances by a 140-strong art troupe at the Olympics. The officials are scheduled to spend two days inspecting art centres in Seoul and Gangneung city, which will also host several of the Olympic events. South Korean broadcaster YTN reported the delegation had arrived in Seoul early Sunday under a heavy police presence, then boarded a train to Gangwon province, where the Olympics will be held from February 9-25. Pyongyang said on Sunday it also plans to send another team of sports officials to inspect Olympic venues and accommodations from January 25-27, South Korea's unification ministry said. In a diplomatic breakthrough after a year of escalating tension over the North's nuclear and missile programme, the IOC announced on Saturday that North Korea will send 22 athletes to the Winter Games and compete in three sports and five disciplines. Until the IOC confirmation, a figure skating pair were the only North Koreans to have secured a spot at the Games through the conventional qualifying competition, although they lost their place after failing to register. Sunday's North Korean delegation had been scheduled to visit on Saturday but cancelled just before the visit with no explanation. Officials from both Korea's used a cross-border hotline to quickly reschedule the visit. Also on Sunday, South Korean officials said Pyongyang had accepted proposals for South Koreans to travel to North Korea for joint athletic training at the Masikryong Ski Resort and a cultural event at Mount Kumgang, a once popular tourist area.
After the two Koreas struck a deal for the North to attend the Winter Games in the South, Olympic bosses were meeting Saturday to resolve the devils in the details of the landmark pact. With less than three weeks to go before the Games in Pyeongchang begin, the most momentous decisions have already been made. North and South Korea will march together at the opening ceremony under a unification flag and field a united women's hockey team, while the North has said it will send a 550-member delegation to the Games. North Korea has taken part in seven of the last 12 Winter Olympics, most recently in Vancouver 2010. But its presence in Pyeongchang -- just 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of the demilitarised zone that divides the Koreas -- is a significant diplomatic coup, especially after months that saw nuclear and missile tensions surge to new heights. The International Olympic Committee now has to sign off on the terms agreed by Seoul and Pyongyang -- and try to implement them without tarnishing Olympic rules. IOC president Thomas Bach was hosting closed-door talks with the leaders of the Olympic committees from both Koreas as well Pyeongchang 2018 organisers, and senior government officials from the two countries. Bach told reporters the sides held ‘12 hours of talks and negotiations’ on Friday, voicing hope that the meeting would produce ‘good results’ before they wrap up on Saturday. He appeared before cameras with North Korea's sports minister Kim Il Guk and the South's minister of culture, sports and tourism Do Jong-hwan, with the three exchanging wide smiles and handshakes. The meeting -- where the Olympic movement could be cast as a key player in easing tensions between two nations still technically at war -- will be a welcome reprieve for the IOC. Recent high-profile meetings in Lausanne have not been about peacemaking. Instead, they have been consumed by discussions on how severely Russian athletes should be punished for egregious doping. - Complications - The IOC has conceded that the intra-Korean deal has made its job more complicated. ‘There are many considerations with regard to the impact of these proposals on the other participating (nations) and athletes’, an IOC spokesman said this week. Clearly, some rules will have to be bent. First, no North Koreans are technically qualified for Pyeongchang. Figure skating pair Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik qualified in September, but the North missed the October 30 deadline to register them. And some have raised concerns about allowing two nations to field a joint women's hockey team. ‘The participation of a united Korean team is a good idea politically and diplomatically, but when it comes to fairness in sport it raises some questions,’ Swiss ice hockey federation spokesman Janos Kick told AFP. There is precedent for fielding a joint team in international competition, including at the 1991 football under-20 World Cup, when the two Koreas competed together and even advanced to the quarter finals. The IOC has said it wants to be ‘as flexible as possible’ in maximising North Korean participation at the 2018 Games and has opened the door to some of the country's speed-skaters and skiers competing. Whatever gets decided, the North's military strength is unlikely to be matched by its performance at the Olympics, as the country has only won two medals in the history of the Winter Games, in 1964 and 1992. - UN sanctions - Beyond Olympic competitors, the North has also agreed to send 230 cheerleaders to back athletes from both Koreas as well as a separate 150-member delegation of supporters, athletes, journalists and others to the Paralympics in March. A further complication for Seoul and the IOC is ensuring that while accommodating the North and ensuring that the so-called ‘peace Olympics’ pass off smoothly, neither violates United Nations sanctions. Security Council measures currently in force prohibit cash transfers to the North, while the UN has also drawn up a blacklist of officials tied to the Stalinist Pyongyang regime, individuals whose presence at the Games will create potential stumbling blocks.
South Korea's prime minister apologised on Friday for suggesting the country's women's ice hockey team had no chance of a medal at the Winter Olympics in an unsuccessful attempt to dampen criticism over a unified team with the North. Seoul and Pyongyang agreed this week to field a unified side for the women's ice hockey tournament at the Games, which begin in Pyeongchang next month. It came after Pyongyang agreed to attend what organisers and Seoul have sought to proclaim a "peace Olympics", significantly easing tensions over the nuclear-armed North's weapons programmes. But the proposal has sparked a backlash in the South, with critics saying that the move would disrupt the side and deprive some Southern squad members of their chance to play on the Olympic stage. South Korea qualified for the tournament as hosts, rather than on merit, and Prime Minister Lee Nak-Yon said on Tuesday that the team was out of medal contention, with the South ranked 22nd in the world and the North 25th. "I've heard our team's ultimate goal was to win just one or two games at the Olympics," he said then, adding: "Athletes are also in favour of bringing in a few good players from the North to enhance competence." In the face of widespread public criticism, Lee sought to back down on Friday. "I acknowledge that my remarks had room for misunderstanding," he said at an annual policy briefing by government cabinet ministers. "I apologise to those who were hurt by the remarks," he added. The women's ice hockey team is not the only element of the agreement that is controversial in the South. The two Koreas agreed that their teams would enter the opening and closing ceremonies together behind a unification flag, but a Realmeter poll released on Thursday showed only 40.5% of South Koreans in favour. A larger share -- 49.4% -- supported the two Koreas entering the ceremonies holding up their own national flags. Seoul has suggested expanding the ice hockey team roster to accommodate North Korean players, but other countries are likely to see that as conferring an unfair advantage. The International Olympic Committee, which has the ultimate say on Games matters, is set to finalise the arrangements in talks with both Koreas in Lausanne on Saturday. The North's attendance at the Games will not end security threats on the Korean peninsula, Lee said, but added that it could lead to "an opportunity to help Pyeongchang's success lead to peace".
North Korea is preparing a lavish display of its military strength in a parade on the eve of next month's Winter Olympics in the South, despite a rare sporting detente with Seoul, it was reported Thursday. Pyongyang, which has rattled the international community with its nuclear and missile tests in recent months, has agreed to send athletes to the Games and march with the South under one flag at the opening ceremony. But the North has also vowed to press ahead with commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of its military, with the South's Yonhap news agency reporting that it is planning a major parade on February 8 -- a day before the Olympic opening ceremony. Some 12,000 soldiers, artillery and other weapons will feature at the spectacle in an airfield near Pyongyang, Yonhap said, quoting an unidentified South Korean government source. ‘We believe the North will hold a military parade on February 8th to mark the anniversary of the birth of its regular forces’, the source was quoted as saying. A South Korean defence ministry spokesman said the ministry does not comment on ‘any matters of military intelligence’. While North Korea often holds military parades to mark a variety of anniversaries, the country varies the dates it marks from year to year. In 2017, leader Kim Jong-Un staged a giant spectacle showcasing a range of weaponry, including what appeared to be a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), in an event on April 15 marking the 105th anniversary of the North's founder. Kim, who launched a flurry of missiles and the North's sixth and largest nuclear test last year, mentioned plans for a large celebration of the army's 70th anniversary in his 2018 new year address, urging the military to ‘organise combat drills like real battles’. He also used the speech to offer to take part in the South's Pyeongchang Games, billed by Seoul as a ‘Peace Olympics’, which will be held some 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the heavily fortified border. The outlook for the sporting extravaganza has brightened since North Korea confirmed its participation, easing security concerns over nuclear-armed Pyongyang. The neighbours, which opened long-dormant communications to organise the North's participation, have agreed to field a united team in the women's ice hockey.