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Archive for the ‘Korean Peninsula’ Category

South’s military: North Korea fires unidentified projectiles

March 02, 2020

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea fired two unidentified projectiles into its eastern sea on Monday as it begins to resume weapons demonstrations after a months-long hiatus that could have been forced by the coronavirus crisis in Asia.

The launches came two days after North Korea’s state media said leader Kim Jong Un supervised an artillery drill aimed at testing the combat readiness of units in front-line and eastern areas. Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the projectiles fired from an area near the coastal town of Wonsan flew about 240 kilometers (149 miles) northeast on an apogee of about 35 kilometers (22 miles). It said the South Korean and U.S. militaries were jointly analyzing the launches but didn’t immediately confirm whether the weapons were ballistic or rocket artillery.

North Korea likely tested one of its new road-mobile, solid-fuel missile systems or a developmental “super large” multiple rocket launcher it repeatedly demonstrated last year, said Kim Dong-yub, an analyst from Seoul’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies. Experts say such weapons can potentially overwhelm missile defense systems and expand the North’s ability to strike targets in South Korea and Japan, including U.S. bases there.

Kim Jong Un had entered the New Year vowing to bolster his nuclear deterrent in face of “gangster-like” U.S. sanctions and pressure, using a key ruling party meeting in late December to warn of “shocking” action over stalled nuclear negotiations with the Trump administration.

He also said the North would soon reveal a new “strategic weapon” and insisted the North was no longer “unilaterally bound” to a self-imposed suspension on the testing of nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missiles. But Kim didn’t explicitly lift the moratorium or give any clear indication that such tests were impending and seemed to leave the door open for eventual negotiations.

Japan said it has not detected any projectile landing in Japan’s territory or its exclusive economic zone, and no sea vessels or aircraft had been damaged. “The repeated firings of ballistic missiles by North Korea is a serious problem for the international community including Japan, and the government will continue to gather and analyze information, and monitor the situation to protect the lives and property of the people,” the Defense Ministry’s statement said.

The recent lull in North Korea’s launches had experts wondering whether the North was holding back its weapons displays while pushing a tough fight against the coronavirus, which state media has described as a matter of “national existence.” Some analysts speculated that the North cut back training and other activities involving large gatherings of soldiers to reduce the possibility of the virus spreading within its military.

Kim’s latest show of force is apparently aimed at boosting military morale, strengthening internal unity and showing that his country is doing fine despite outside worries of how the North would contend with an outbreak.

North Korea in previous years has intensified testing activity in response to springtime military exercises between South Korean and the United States while describing them as invasion rehearsals. But the allies announced last week that they were postponing their annual drills due to concern about the coronavirus outbreak in South Korea that infected soldiers of both countries.

The launches were the latest setback for dovish South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who despite the North’s indifference has repeatedly pleaded for reviving inter-Korean engagement. In a speech on Sunday marking the 101th anniversary of a major uprising against Japanese colonial rule, Moon called for cooperation between the Koreas to fight infectious disease amid the COVID-19 outbreak in Asia.

Amid the deadlock in larger nuclear negotiations with the Trump administration, Kim has suspended virtually all cooperation with South Korea in past months while demanding that Seoul defies U.S.-led international sanctions and restart inter-Korean economic projects that would jolt the North’s broken economy.

North Korea has yet to confirm any COVID-19 cases, although state media have hinted that an uncertain number of people have been quarantined after exhibiting symptoms. North Korea has shut down nearly all cross-border traffic, banned tourists, intensified screening at entry points and mobilized tens of thousands of health workers to monitor residents and isolate those with symptoms. South Korea last month withdrew dozens of officials from an inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong after North Korea insisted on closing it until the epidemic is controlled.

Kim and President Donald Trump met three times since embarking on their high-stakes nuclear diplomacy in 2018, but negotiations have faltered since their second summit last February in Vietnam, where the Americans rejected North Korean demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capability.

Following the collapse in Hanoi, the North ended a 17-month pause in ballistic activity and conducted at least 13 rounds of weapons launches last year, using the standstill in talks to expand its military capabilities.

Those weapons included road-mobile, solid-fuel missiles designed to beat missile defense systems and a developmental midrange missile that could eventually be launched from submarines, potentially strengthening the North’s ability to strike targets in South Korea and Japan, including U.S. bases there.

The North in December said it conducted two “crucial” tests at a long-range rocket facility that would strengthen its nuclear deterrent, prompting speculation that it’s developing a new ICBM or preparing a satellite launch that would further advanced its long-range missile technology.

Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi contributed to the report from Tokyo.

S. Korean military decides to discharge transgender soldier

January 22, 2020

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s military decided Wednesday to discharge a soldier who recently undertook gender reassignment surgery, a ruling expected to draw strong criticism from human rights groups.

It was the first time in South Korea that an active-duty member has been referred to a military panel to determine whether to end his or her service due to a sex change operation. South Korea prohibits transgender people from joining the military but has no specific laws on what to do with those who have sex change operations during their time in service.

The army said in a statement that it concluded that the soldier’s sex change operation can be considered as a reason for discharge. The statement said the decision went through due process and was based on a related military law on personnel changes. Army officials cited the law’s provision that allows the military to discharge a member with physical and mental disabilities.

The non-commissioned officer had a male-to-female sex operation abroad late last year. The staff sergeant has since been hospitalized at a military-run facility and expressed a desire to continue serving as a female soldier, according to the army.

South Korea’s state-run human rights watchdog recommended Tuesday the army postpone its decision. The National Human Rights Commission said in a statement that referring the soldier to the military panel would be an act of discrimination over sexual identity and affect the soldier’s basic human rights.

Public views on gender issues in South Korea have gradually changed in recent years. Several gay-themed movies and TV dramas have become hits and some transgender entertainers have risen to stardom. However, a strong bias against sexual minorities still runs deep through South Korean society .

Activists say transgender people are likely to face harassment, abuse and insults, and many suffer from depression and have attempted suicide.

N Korean leader holds party meeting to bolster military

December 22, 2019

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea said Sunday leader Kim Jong Un has convened a key ruling party meeting to decide on steps to bolster the country’s military capability. The meeting came amid speculation that the North could abandon diplomacy with the U.S. and launch either a long-range missile or a satellite-carrying rocket if Washington doesn’t accept its demand for new incentives to salvage faltering nuclear negotiations by year’s end.

The Korean Central News Agency said Kim presided over a meeting of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party. It didn’t say when it took place. It cited Kim as saying the meeting would determine “important organizational and political measures and military steps to bolster up the overall armed forces … as required by the fast-changing situation and crucial time of the developing Korean revolution.”

According to KCNA, the gathering decided on “important military issues and measures for organizing or expanding and reorganizing new units … (and) changing the affiliation of some units and changing deployment of (others).”

KCNA didn’t elaborate. But South Korean media speculated the meeting might have discussed the restructuring of military units over the deployment of new weapons that the North had test-launched in recent months, and what steps it will take in coming weeks.

North Korea is to hold a higher-level Workers’ Party gathering, a Central Committee meeting, later this month to discuss what it previously described as “crucial issues” in line with “the changed situation at home and abroad.”

In Washington, the White House said President Donald Trump discussed “recent threatening statements” by North Korea in a phone call with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The two leaders agreed to continue close communication, it said.

Earlier this month, North Korea carried out two major tests at its long-range rocket and missile engine testing site. Experts said they were engine tests that indicate that North might be preparing for a banned satellite launch or an intercontinental ballistic missile test.

The nuclear diplomacy remains stalled since the second summit between Kim and President Donald Trump in Vietnam in February collapsed after Trump rejected Kim’s calls for broad sanction relief in return for partial disarmament steps.

Envoy for North Korea expected to get No. 2 State Dept. job

October 28, 2019

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, is expected to be nominated as early as this week to be second-in-command at the State Department, officials said Monday. Two Trump administration officials and a congressional aide familiar with the selection process said the White House is expected to nominate Biegun to be the next deputy secretary of state in the coming days. The officials were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Biegun would replace John Sullivan, who has been nominated to be the next U.S. ambassador to Russia. Both positions require Senate confirmation. Biegun has had a prominent role in the delicate negotiations that led to historic meetings between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

A former Ford Motor Co. executive who served in previous Republican administrations and has advised GOP lawmakers, Biegun has led as yet unsuccessful negotiations to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons since being appointed to his current post in August 2018. He is expected to keep the North Korea portfolio if he is confirmed to the new post, the officials said.

His nomination has been expected since mid-September, but its timing has been unclear amid turmoil in the State Department over the House impeachment inquiry into the administration’s policy toward Ukraine.

Sullivan was nominated to be envoy to Moscow in September although his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was just set for Wednesday, making Biegun’s nomination to fill the soon-to-be vacant No. 2 spot at the State Department more urgent.

Sullivan’s confirmation hearing is likely to be dominated by questions from committee Democrats about Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and his role in Ukraine policy. Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testified to impeachment investigators earlier the month that Sullivan was the official who informed her that she had lost Trump’s confidence and was being recalled early from Kyiv. Democrats are expected to use Wednesday’s confirmation hearing to press Sullivan on the extent of his involvement in Ukraine and why the department bowed to a campaign to oust Yovanovitch spearheaded by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

South Korea shows its US-made F-35 stealth jets for 1st time

October 01, 2019

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea on Tuesday displayed some of its newly purchased U.S.-made F-35 stealth fighter jets for the first time during its Armed Forces Day ceremony, a development that will likely infuriate rival North Korea.

Under its biggest-ever weapons purchase, South Korea is to buy 40 F-35 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin by 2021. The first few batches of the aircraft arrived in the South this year. North Korea has sharply reacted to the deliveries, calling them a grave provocation that violate recent inter-Korean agreements aimed at lowering military tensions.

On Tuesday, President Moon Jae-in reviewed military planes including an F-35, missiles and artillery systems that were displayed on the ground at the start of the ceremony at an air base in southeastern South Korea.

Moon and other top officials later watched three F-35s and other warplanes flying in close formation one after another. In a televised speech during the ceremony, Moon said he felt “secure about the might of our military armed with new equipment such as F-35As that we disclosed for the first time.” He said South Koreans would also be “very proud” of the military capacity.

South Korea previously publicized photos of its F-35s, but it was the first time the aircraft were shown at an official event since the first two of the planes were delivered here in March, according to the state-run Defense Acquisition Program Administration.

Moon, a liberal who espouses greater reconciliation with North Korea, was behind a flurry of North Korea-U.S. diplomacy on the North’s nuclear program. During his third summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang last September, the two Koreas struck a set of agreements meant to ease military animosities such as halting front-line live-fire exercises and dismantling guard posts along their border.

Many conservatives in South Korea have said the deals greatly undermined South Korea’s national security because North Korea’s nuclear threats remain intact. Moon said during Tuesday’s ceremony that strong national security would support dialogue and cooperation with North Korea and an effort to build a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Nuclear diplomacy largely remains stalled since the second summit between Kim and President Donald Trump in Vietnam in February collapsed due to disputes over U.S.-led sanctions on North Korea. Kim and Trump held a brief, impromptu meeting at the Korean border in late June and agreed to resume diplomacy.

Japan’s move to lower South Korea trade status takes effect

August 28, 2019

TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s downgrading of South Korea’s trade status took effect Wednesday, a decision that has already set off a series of reactions hurting bilateral relations. Japanese manufacturers now must apply for approval for each technology-related contract for South Korean export, rather than the simpler checks granted a preferential trade partner, which is still the status of the U.S. and others.

Since Japan announced the decision about two months ago, South Korea decided to similarly downgrade Tokyo’s trade status, which will take effect next month. Seoul has also canceled a deal to share military intelligence with Japan.

South Korea has accused Japan of weaponizing trade because of a separate dispute linked to Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. Japan denies retaliating and says wartime compensation issues were already settled.

“Relations between Japan and South Korea continue to be in an extremely serious situation because of South Korea’s repeated negative and irrational actions, including the most critical issue of laborers from the Korean Peninsula,” Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga told reporters.

Suga was referring to South Korea’s Supreme Court ruling last year that said the wartime compensation deal, signed in 1965, did not cover individual rights to seek reparations and ordered Japanese companies to compensate victims of forced labor.

Suga said Japan will continue to try to talk to South Korea. The wrangling has dented what had been a thriving tourism and cultural exchange between the neighboring nations, including Japanese becoming fans of Korean pop music and movies. Some South Koreas are boycotting Japanese goods or joining street protests to denounce Japan.

Hiroshige Seko, minister of economy, trade and industry, said earlier this week that the trade status review was needed for proper checks on exports because of concerns about what could be used for military purposes.

Japan has never specified the security concerns further, or how they originated. Seko also denounced South Korea’s scrapping the military intelligence agreement, called the General Security of Military Information Agreement, or GSOMIA, arguing the trade decision was not directly related to military cooperation.

The intelligence-sharing agreement remains in effect until November. Japan and South Korea have shared information about North Korea’s missile launches, the latest of which happened Saturday.

S. Korea, Russia differ over warning shots fired at jets

July 23, 2019

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean air force jets fired 360 rounds of warning shots Tuesday after a Russian military plane twice violated South Korea’s airspace off the country’s eastern coast, Seoul officials said in an announcement that was quickly disputed by Russia.

South Korea said three Russian military planes — two Tu-95 bombers and one A-50 airborne early warning and control aircraft — entered the South’s air defense identification zone off its east coast before the A-50 intruded in South Korean airspace. Russia said later that two of its Tu-95MS bombers were on a routine flight over neutral waters and didn’t enter South Korean territory.

South Korea said it was the first time a foreign military plane had violated its airspace since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. According to South Korean accounts, an unspecified number of South Korean fighter jets, including F-16s, scrambled to the area and fired 10 flares and 80 rounds from machine guns as warning shots.

Seoul defense officials said the Russian reconnaissance aircraft left the area three minutes later but later returned and violated South Korean airspace again for four minutes. The officials said the South Korean fighter jets then fired another 10 flares and 280 rounds from machine guns as warning shots.

But the commander of Russia’s long-range aviation forces denied both that the planes had violated South Korean airspace and that shots were fired. “If the Russian pilots had identified such a threat to themselves, they would have immediately given an appropriate response,” Lt. Gen. Sergei Kobylash said, according to Russian news agencies.

He said South Korean military planes escorted the Russian planes over neutral waters, which he called “aerial hooliganism.” South Korea’s presidential national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, told top Russian security official Nikolai Patrushev that South Korea views Russia’s airspace violation “very seriously” and will take “much stronger” measures if a similar incident occurs, according to South Korea’s presidential office.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Russian military analyst, told The Associated Press he believed the incursion could have been a navigation mistake. He also suggested the incident would not have serious consequences because “South Korea right now is not very interested in pressing this into a kind of long-term worsening of relations.”

The former Soviet Union supported North Korea and provided the country with weapons during the Korean War, which killed millions. In 1983, a Soviet air force fighter jet fired an air-to-air missile at a South Korean passenger plane that strayed into Soviet territory, killing all 269 people on board. Relations between Seoul and Moscow gradually improved, and they established diplomatic ties in 1990, a year before the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The airspace that South Korea says the Russian warplane violated is above a group of South Korean-held islets roughly halfway between South Korea and Japan that have been a source of territorial disputes between the two Asian countries. Russia isn’t part of those disputes.

Japan, which claims ownership over the islets, protested to South Korea for firing warning shots over Japanese airspace. South Korea later countered that it cannot accept the Japanese statement, repeating that the islets are South Korean territory. Japan also protested to Russia for allegedly violating Japanese airspace.

South Korea said the three Russian planes entered the South Korean air defense identification zone with two Chinese bombers. South Korea said the Chinese planes didn’t intrude upon South Korean airspace.

The Russian statement accused South Korean aircraft of trying to hamper the flights of Russian jets before “a vague missile defense identification area” that it said South Korea unilaterally defined. Russia said it had raised its concerns about the zone before.

Before their reported joint flights with the Russian planes, the Chinese warplanes entered South Korea’s air defense identification zone off its southwest coast earlier Tuesday, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said. Seoul says Chinese planes have occasionally entered South Korea’s air defense identification zone in recent years.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry and Joint Chiefs of Staff registered their official protests with Beijing when they summoned China’s ambassador and defense attache. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she was not clear about the situation but noted that the air defense identification zone is not territorial airspace and others are entitled to fly through it.

She took issue with a reporter’s use of the word “violation” to ask about China’s reported activity in South Korea’s air defense identification zone. “I feel that given China and South Korea are friendly neighbors, you should be careful when using it, because we are not clear about the situation,” she said.

Associated Press writers Jim Heintz and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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