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Posts tagged ‘Korean Peninsula’

Koreas agree to improve North’s railways, but work must wait

June 27, 2018

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The rival Koreas have agreed to jointly study ways to improve North Korea’s outdated railways and link them with the South, as they continued to take conciliatory steps amid global efforts to resolve the standoff over the North’s nuclear weapons.

North Korea’s state media on Wednesday acknowledged inter-Korean discussions on “issues arising in reconnecting, updating and using the railways on the east and west coasts,” but did not describe that South Korea would be sending officials and experts to examine the country’s aging rail system.

The agreement Tuesday to start joint inspections of North Korea’s railways on July 24 was apparently as far as the rivals could go at the moment. The vows to upgrade the North’s railways and roads will remain purely aspirational until international sanctions against North Korea are lifted and the South is freed to take material steps.

The talks at the border village of Panmunjom were the latest to discuss ways to carry out peace commitments made by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. During their April 27 summit, when they issued a vague commitment to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, Kim and Moon expressed a desire to modernize North Korea’s railways and roads and reconnect them with the South. The Koreas are to hold another meeting on Thursday to discuss roads.

South Korean officials say better transport would greatly improve North Korea’s economy by facilitating trade and tourism. It may also provide the South with cheaper ways to move goods in and out of China and Russia. However, some experts say updating North Korean trains, which creak slowly along rails that were first laid in the early 20th century, would require a massive effort that could take decades and tens of billions of dollars. It might be impossible to embark on such projects unless North Korea denuclearizes, which isn’t a sure thing.

Here’s a look at the railways the Koreas hope to connect:

THE WEST SIDE

In their summit, Kim and Moon called for “practical steps” toward the “connection and modernization” of railways and roads between South Korea’s capital, Seoul, and North Korea’s Sinuiju, a port town on its border with China, and also along the peninsula’s “eastern transportation corridor.”

During the meeting on April 27, Kim went against the grain of North Korean propaganda by describing the country’s transport conditions as poor and praising South Korea’s bullet train system, clearly communicating an eagerness to improve his country’s rail networks, according to comments provided by South Korea’s presidential office.

In Tuesday’s meeting, the Koreas agreed to start inspections of the North Korean portion of a railway that once connected Seoul and Sinuiju before moving on to railways in the eastern region.

Japan completed a 499-kilometer (310-mile) railway line connecting Seoul and Sinuiju in 1906, mainly to move soldiers and military supplies, before it annexed the peninsula in 1910. The Gyeongui line was separated in 1945 at the end of World War II, when the peninsula was liberated from Japanese colonial rule but also divided between a U.S.-controlled southern side and a Soviet-controlled north. The peninsula remains in a technical state of war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.

The Gyeongui line was temporarily reconnected during a previous era of rapprochement between the rivals in the 2000s. The Koreas in December 2007 began freight services between South Korea’s Munsan Station in Paju and North Korea’s Pongdong Station, which is near the border town of Kaesong. The South used the trains to move construction materials northbound, while clothing and shoes manufactured from a factory park jointly operated by the Koreas in Kaesong were sent southbound.

The line was cut again in November 2008 due to political tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program and the hard-line policies of a new conservative government in Seoul.

THE EAST SIDE

Japan during its colonial rule completed a 193-kilometer (120-mile) rail line between North Korea’s Anbyon county and South Korea’s Yangyang along the peninsula’s eastern coast in 1937. The Koreas temporarily reconnected the cross-border part of the line between 2007 and 2008 to move South Korean tourists in and out of the North’s scenic Diamond Mountain resort. However, the project never advanced beyond a trial run before South Korea pulled out in June 2008 amid worsening ties.

South Korea has ambitions to significantly extend the eastern “Donghae” line so that it connects its southernmost port of Busan with North Korea’s northernmost industrial cities of Chongjin and Rajin. Seoul hopes the line will eventually link South Korea with Russia and the trans-Siberian railway. South Korea also hopes to eventually reopen a railway between Seoul and North Korea’s eastern coastal town of Wonsan which ran through the middle of the peninsula.

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Koreas discuss removing North’s artillery from tense border

June 25, 2018

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The rival Koreas are discussing the possible relocation of North Korea’s long-range artillery systems away from the tense Korean border, the South’s prime minister said Monday, as the countries forge ahead with steps to lower tensions and extend a recent detente.

North Korea has deployed an estimated 1,000 artillery pieces along the border, posing a significant threat to Seoul and the metropolitan area. In a speech marking the 68th anniversary of the outbreak of the 1950-53 Korean War, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon said that “moving (North Korea’s) long-range artillery to the rear is under discussion,” as he explained what types of good-will steps between the sides have been taken in recent months.

Lee’s comments appear to be Seoul’s first official confirmation of media reports that South Korea demanded that the North reposition its forward-deployed artillery pieces during inter-Korean military talks this month. Seoul’s Defense Ministry, which has denied those reports, said it had no immediate comment on Lee’s speech.

A 2016 South Korean defense white paper described the North’s long-range artillery as one of the country’s biggest threats, along with its nuclear and missile programs. Seoul, a capital city with 10 million people, is about 40-50 kilometers (25-30 miles) from the border.

South Korean media speculated that during the June 14 military talks, the North likely demanded that South Korea and the United States withdraw their own artillery systems from the border as a reciprocal measure. About 28,500 U.S. soldiers are deployed in South Korea.

Also Monday, military officers from the two Koreas met to discuss how to fully restore their military hotline communication channels, according to the South’s Defense Ministry. The results of the talks were expected later Monday.

The talks came a day after Seoul said it would “indefinitely suspend” two small-scale annual military drills with the United States. The drills involving marines from the allies were supposed to occur from July to September, according to a statement from South Korea’s Defense Ministry. It said South Korea is willing to take unspecified additional measures if North Korea is continuously engaged in “productive” negotiations.

Last week, South Korea and the United States announced the suspension of their larger, annual military exercises called the Ulchi Freedom Guardian, part of their efforts to increase the chances of successful nuclear diplomacy with North Korea. Some experts say the drills’ suspension could weaken the allies’ combined defense posture against North Korea.

Kim Jong Un visits China to discuss next steps on nukes

June 19, 2018

BEIJING (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is making a two-day visit to Beijing starting Tuesday in which he’s expected to discuss with Chinese leaders his next steps after his nuclear summit with U.S. President Donald Trump last week.

Kim’s visit to Beijing, while expected, is one way for China to highlight its crucial role in U.S. efforts to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. The U.S. has long looked to China to use its influence with North Korea to bring it to negotiations, but the visit comes as ties between Beijing and Washington are being tested by a major trade dispute.

Chinese President Xi Jinping “is exerting a lot of influence from behind the scenes,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Glaser said it was predictable Xi would want to be briefed by Kim directly about the North Korean leader’s talks with Trump.

“I expect they will talk about the path going forward and where priorities should lie,” Glaser said. Those priorities, from China’s perspective, would be to ensure that Beijing is included in any peace treaty talks and in creating an environment on the Korean Peninsula that will make it unnecessary for U.S. troops to remain.

Security was tight Tuesday morning at the Pyongyang airport, where another flight was unexpectedly delayed, and later at the Beijing airport, where paramilitary police prevented journalists from shooting photos. A motorcade including sedans, minibuses, motorcycles and a stretch limo with a golden emblem similar to one Kim used previously was seen leaving the airport.

Roads near the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, where senior Chinese officials meet with visiting leaders, were closed and the same motorcade was later seen heading into the compound. A ring of police vehicles and black sedans surrounded the perimeter of the guesthouse, where Kim stayed on his first visit earlier this year.

A similar convoy of vehicles was seen leaving the state guesthouse in the direction of the Great Hall of the People in central Beijing on Tuesday afternoon. Kim’s presence in Beijing and the schedule of his visit, including any meetings with Xi, have not been confirmed.

Kim was diplomatically isolated for years before making his first foreign trip as leader in March to meet with Xi in Beijing. This is his third visit to China, North Korea’s main ally and key source of trade and economic assistance. Following his summit with Trump, Kim was expected to meet with Chinese leaders to discuss progress in halting his country’s missile and nuclear weapons programs in exchange for economic incentives.

China’s foreign ministry refused to provide details on Kim’s visit other than to say that Beijing hopes it will help deepen relations between the countries. Geng Shuang, a ministry spokesman, said at a regular briefing Tuesday that the visit would “strengthen our strategic communication on major issues to promote regional peace and stability.”

Geng said Beijing supported Russia’s calls last week for unilateral sanctions on North Korea — ones that aren’t imposed within the United Nations framework — to be canceled immediately. “China always stands against the so-called unilateral sanctions outside the Security Council framework. This position is very clear and we believe sanctions themselves are not the end,” Geng said.

While Beijing and Moscow have supported U.N. restrictions, they bristle at Washington imposing unilateral sanctions to put pressure on North Korea. The Singapore meeting resulted in a surprise announcement of a U.S. suspension of military drills with its South Korean ally, a goal long pursued by China and North Korea. That move is seen as potentially weakening defenses and diplomacy among America’s Asian allies, while bolstering China and Russia.

The U.S. has stationed combat troops in South Korea since the Korean War, in which China fought on North Korea’s side and which ended in 1953 with an armistice and no peace treaty. South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Kim’s visit to China highlights the “constructive role” Beijing could play in disarming North Korea.

Ministry spokesman Noh Kyu-duk said Seoul and Beijing share a “strategic goal” in achieving the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula and that progress in nuclear diplomacy has been facilitating high-level contacts between North Korea and its neighbors.

Noh also downplayed concerns that improving relations between China and North Korea could result in loosened Chinese sanctions against North Korea, saying that Beijing has repeatedly stated its commitment to U.N. Security Council resolutions against the North.

Chinese state media’s treatment of Kim’s visit departed from past practice of not announcing his travels until Kim returned home. Analysts said Beijing appeared to be trying to normalize such visits. Cheng Xiaohe, an associate professor at Renmin University’s School of International Studies in Beijing, said that unlike previous visits, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV announced Kim’s visit before his departure.

“This is an improvement. This shows that China is moving toward a healthier and more normal direction in relations with North Korea,” Cheng said. He added that the frequency of Kim’s visits was “unprecedented.”

Yang Mu-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said Kim’s repeated visits to Beijing this year show that the recent chill in the two countries’ ties over Kim’s development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles had fully lifted.

“I believe that indicates that the blood alliance between the North and China has been completely restored,” Yang said. The visit comes as a dispute over the large trade imbalance between China and the U.S. has been escalating, straining ties between the world’s two largest economies and moving them closer to a potential trade war.

Trump recently ordered tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese goods in retaliation for alleged intellectual property theft. The tariffs were quickly matched by China on U.S. exports, a move that drew the president’s ire. On Tuesday morning China woke to news that Trump had directed the U.S. Trade Representative to prepare new tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese products, a move swiftly criticized by Beijing.

A trade war with the U.S. could make it less attractive for China to use its influence over North Korea to help the U.S. achieve its objectives of denuclearization. “The potential comprehensive trade war will make the cooperation between China and U.S. in North Korea’s nuclear issue more complicated,” Cheng said. “There will be a big question mark over whether China and the U.S. will continue this cooperation.”

Associated Press journalists Gillian Wong and Shanshan Wang in Beijing, Adam Schreck in Pyongyang, North Korea, and Kim Tong-hyung and Yong Jun Chang in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.

North Korea lauds, and basks in, Kim’s summit performance

June 13, 2018

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — The series of photos on the front page of the ruling workers’ party newspaper showed something North Koreans never would have imagined just months ago — their leader Kim Jong Un warmly shaking hands with President Donald Trump.

The priority treatment of what even Pyongyang is calling the “historic” meeting between Kim and Trump in Singapore underscores just how much of a propaganda coup the North saw in Tuesday’s unprecedented summit.

Dubbing it the start of a new relationship between their countries, which are still technically at war, Pyongyang’s first reports Wednesday stressed to the North Korean people that Trump agreed at Kim’s demand to halt joint military exercises with South Korea as long as talks toward easing tensions continue and suggested that Trump also said he would lift sanctions as negations progressed.

“President Trump appreciated that an atmosphere of peace and stability was created on the Korean Peninsula and in the region, although distressed with the extreme danger of armed clash only a few months ago, thanks to the proactive peace-loving measures taken by the respected Supreme Leader from the outset of this year,” said a summary of the leaders’ summit by the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency.

The summit capped a swift and astonishing turn of events that began on New Year’s Day with a pledge by Kim to reach out to the world now that his nuclear forces have been completed. His focus on diplomacy, including earlier meetings with the leaders of China and South Korea, is a sharp contrast with his rapid-fire testing of long-range missiles and the fiery exchanges of threats and insults last year that created real fears of a war on the Korean Peninsula.

Kim has framed the switch as a natural next step now that he has what he stresses is a credible and viable nuclear arsenal capable of keeping the U.S. at bay. The framing that he went into the summit as an equal and from a position of strength is crucial within North Korea, after enduring years of tough sanctions while it pursued its nuclear ambitions.

Kim’s vows to denuclearize were reported by state media Wednesday within that context — that Pyongyang would respond to easing of what it sees as the U.S. hostile policy against it with commensurate but gradual moves toward “the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

“Kim Jong Un and Trump had the shared recognition to the effect that it is important to abide by the principle of step-by-step and simultaneous action in achieving peace, stability and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” KCNA reported.

That doesn’t seem to pin the North down to the concrete and unilateral measures Trump said he would demand going into the talks and it remains to be seen what significant changes could occur now that they seem to be moving toward more peaceful relations. Both sides promised to push the process forward quickly, and Trump and Kim exchanged invitations to each other to visit their nations’ capitals.

Interestingly, the North made no secret of China’s behind-the-scenes presence at the summit. A flurry of media coverage the day Kim arrived in Singapore showed him waving from the door of the specially chartered Air China flight that brought him from Pyongyang.

That is another key to what lies ahead. Kim’s biggest task in the months ahead will most likely be to try to push China, his country’s key trading partner, to lift its sanctions and to entice South Korea to start once again offering crucial investment in joint ventures and infrastructure projects.

In the meantime, however, the North appears to be basking in it leader’s new found status as the most popular kid on the block. “Singapore, the country of the epoch-making meeting much awaited by the whole world, was awash with thousands of domestic and foreign journalists and a large crowd of masses to see this day’s moment which will remain long in history,” KCNA noted.

Japan to cancel evacuation drills for NKorean missile threat

June 21, 2018

TOKYO (AP) — Japan plans to suspend the civilian evacuation drills it started last year while North Korea was repeatedly test-firing missiles near and over Japanese islands. Nine drills to prepare residents in Japan for possible missile attacks were to be held later this year.

The Cabinet Secretariat in charge of crisis management said Thursday the official announcement of the suspension was underway and that recent diplomatic developments meant the prospect of strikes from North Korean missiles has subsided for now.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un promised at his summit with President Donald Trump to work toward a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. The planned suspension surfaced Thursday after officials in Tochigi prefecture confirmed a drill there next Tuesday had been called off at Tokyo’s request.

Elite Gurkhas from Nepal deployed to secure Trump-Kim summit

June 12, 2018

SINGAPORE (AP) — To protect one of the highest-profile diplomatic events so far this century, Singapore has enlisted the help of its fearsome Nepalese fighters whose large curved knives, according to custom, must “taste blood” whenever they’re drawn.

Wearing brown berets and equipped with body armor and assault rifles, the elite Gurkha police officers are a conspicuous part of the enveloping security force Singapore has deployed for Tuesday’s summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The meeting, which could prove to be a crucial moment in the global diplomatic push to resolve the nuclear standoff with Pyongyang, has sent the highly manicured city-state into security overdrive. Trump and Kim have brought their own personal security personnel and heavily armored limousines; Kim’s bodyguards have been seen running in formation alongside his massive Mercedes.

Selected among young men from impoverished Nepal, Gurkhas have been part of Singapore’s police force since 1949. There are reportedly about 1,800 Gurkha officers in Singapore, and they are a regular presence at high-security events. On Monday, they were seen standing guard at the heavily fortified St. Regis Singapore, where Kim arrived Sunday afternoon.

“This is a moment of pride to see the Gurkhas responsible for guarding such an important event,” said Krishna Kumar Ale, who served for 37 years in the British army before retiring back home in Nepal. “It shows that we Gurkhas have reached a point where we are trusted with the security of two of the most important people in the world.”

In 2015, during the Shangri-la Dialogue, a Singapore summit that includes defense ministers and top security officials from around the world, a Gurkha officer shot and killed a driver after his car breached a series of roadblocks outside the summit’s venue. The incident turned out to be drug-related, not an attack.

When asked about the scale of security operations for the summit, Singapore’s Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said Sunday that more than 5,000 police had been deployed. The Gurkha Contingent is a special police unit inside the force.

“I think the fact that it had to be put together in two weeks … added tremendously to the pressure and logistics, the demands. But I think the officers have worked around the clock, we are quietly confident that they have put in place the preparations,” he said.

Singapore is not new to hosting high-profile events, including International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group meetings, and Association of Southeast Asian Nations summits in 2007 and 2018. Gurkhas, whose name derives from the Nepalese hill town of Gorkha, have been deployed in major conflicts and wars since becoming part of the British army in the 19th century. More than 200,000 Gurkhas fought in the two world wars, where they won admiration for their combat skills and bravery, living up to their traditional motto “It’s better to die than to be a coward.” Gurkhas also fought in the Falklands conflict, the Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.

The British experienced Gurkhas’ fierceness firsthand after suffering heavy losses during their invasion of Nepal. A peace deal signed by the British East India Company in 1815 allowed Britain to recruit troops from Nepal.

After Indian independence in 1947, Britain, Nepal and India reached an agreement to transfer four Gurkha regiments to the Indian army. Former British colonies Singapore and Malaysia have also employed Gurkhas for their police and army, respectively.

In Nepal, getting picked to serve as Gurkha soldiers and officers overseas is seen as a ticket out of poverty. According to Nepal’s Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen Organization, over 10,000 applicants try out every year for about 260 places in the British army’s Gurkha units. Many train for months for the selection process, which includes a grueling “doko” race, which involves carrying 25 kilograms (55 pounds) of sand while running a steep 4.2-kilometer (2.6-mile) uphill course.

Along with their modern weapons, Gurkhas still carry the traditional “kukri,” a long curved knife which tradition says must “ragat khaikana” — taste blood — once it is drawn. “That is no longer the current practice … mostly,” said the Gurkhas Australia website.

Kim reported from Seoul, South Korea. AP writer Binaj Gurubacharya in Kathmandu, Nepal, contributed to this report.

S. Korea relieved about Trump-Kim summit revival efforts

May 26, 2018

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea on Saturday expressed cautious relief about the revived talks for a summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un following a whirlwind 24 hours that saw Trump canceling the highly-anticipated meeting before saying it’s potentially back on.

The statement by Seoul’s presidential office came hours after Trump welcomed North Korea’s conciliatory response to his Thursday letter withdrawing from the summit with Kim and said that the meeting might be getting back on track. Trump later on Saturday tweeted that the summit, if it does happen, will likely take place on June 12 in Singapore as originally planned.

“We see it as fortunate that the embers of dialogue between North Korea and the United States weren’t fully extinguished and are coming alive again,” Seoul’s presidential spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom said in a statement. “We are carefully watching the developments.”

South Korea, which brokered the talks between Washington and Pyongyang, was caught off guard by Trump’s abrupt cancellation of the summit citing hostility in recent North Korean comments. South Korean President Moon Jae-said Trump’s decision left him “perplexed” and was “very regrettable.” He urged Washington and Pyongyang to resolve their differences through “more direct and closer dialogue between their leaders.”

Moon and Kim held a historic summit in April where they announced vague aspirations for a nuclear-free peninsula and permanent peace, which Seoul has tried to sell as a meaningful breakthrough to set up the summit with Trump.

Trump’s back-and-forth over his summit plans with Kim has exposed the fragility of Seoul as an intermediary. It fanned fears in South Korea that the country may lose its voice between a rival intent on driving a wedge between Washington and Seoul and an American president who thinks less of the traditional alliance with Seoul than his predecessors.

Early this month, North Korea canceled a high-level meeting with Seoul over South Korea’s participation in regular military exercises with the United States and insisted that it will not return to talks unless its grievances are resolved.

Trump’s decision to pull out of the summit with Kim came just days after he hosted Moon in a White House meeting where he openly cast doubts on the Singapore meeting but offered no support for continued inter-Korean progress, essentially ignoring the North’s recent attempts to coerce the South.

In his letter to Kim, Trump objected specifically to a statement from senior North Korean diplomat Choe Son Hui. She referred to Vice President Mike Pence as a “political dummy” for his earlier comments on North Korea and said it was up to the Americans whether they would “meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown.”

North Korea issued an unusually restrained and diplomatic response to Trump, saying it’s still willing to sit for talks with the United States “at any time, (in) any format.” “The first meeting would not solve all, but solving even one at a time in a phased way would make the relations get better rather than making them get worse,” North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan said in a statement carried by Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency, which mainly targets external audience.

Notably, the statement did not appear in Saturday’s edition of Rodong Sinmun, the official mouthpiece of the North’s ruling party that’s widely read by North Koreans. The newspaper instead focused on Kim Jong Un’s visit to the coastal town of Wonsan to inspect the construction of a beachfront tourist complex. Kim ordered the complex to be finished by April 15 next year to mark the birthday of his late grandfather and North Korea founder Kim Il Sung. Kim Jong Un’s comments published by the newspaper did not include any mention of his potential meeting with Trump.

Analysts say Kim’s diplomatic outreach in recent months after a flurry of nuclear and missile tests in 2017 indicates he is eager for sanctions relief to build his economy and the international legitimacy the summit with Trump would provide. But there’s also skepticism whether Kim will ever agree to fully relinquish his nuclear arsenal, which he likely sees as his only guarantee of survival.

Comments in North Korea’s state media indicate Kim sees any meeting with Trump as an arms control negotiation between nuclear states, rather than a process to surrender his nukes. The North has said it will refuse to participate in talks where it would be unilaterally pressured to give up its nukes.

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