South Korea’s new president proposes military talks with North Korea

South Korea on July 17 proposed military talks with North Korea, the first formal overture to Pyongyang by the government of President Moon Jae-in to discuss ways to avoid hostile acts near their heavily militarized border. Moon, who came to power in May, has pledged to engage North Korea in dialogue, as well as bring pressure to impede its nuclear and missile programs.

The offer came after North Korea claimed to have conducted the first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile earlier in July and said it had mastered the technology to mount a nuclear warhead on the missile.

South Korea’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon told a news briefing, “Talks and cooperation between the two Koreas to ease tension and bring about peace on the Korean peninsula will be instrumental for pushing forth a mutual, virtuous cycle for inter-Korea relations and North Korea’s nuclear problem.”

The United States, South Korea’s main ally, which had been trying to rally international support for tougher sanctions on North Korea, appeared cool to the proposal. President Donald Trump had stated that conditions must be right for dialogue. When Moon visited Washington after being elected president, he and Trump said they were open to renewed dialogue with North Korea but only under circumstances that would lead to Pyongyang giving up its nuclear weapons programs.

The South Korean defense ministry proposed that talks with the North take place on July 21 at Tongilgak to stop all activities that fuel tension at the military demarcation line. Tongilgak is a North Korean building at the Panmunjom truce village on the border used for previous inter-Korea talks. The last such talks were held in December 2015.

Unification Minister Cho also urged restoration of cross-border military and government hotlines that North Korea cut last year in response to South Korea’s imposition of new economic sanctions after a nuclear test by the North.

South Korea also proposed separate talks by the rival states’ Red Cross organizations to resume a humanitarian project to reunite families separated during the 1950-53 Korean War. The South Korean Red Cross suggested talks be held on August 1, with possible reunions over the Korean thanksgiving Chuseok holiday, which falls in October. The last such reunions were in October 2015.

China, which has close ties to Pyongyang despite its anger over North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests, welcomed the proposal, saying cooperation and reconciliation could help ease tensions. “We hope that North and South Korea can work hard to go in a positive direction and create conditions to break the deadlock and resume dialogue and consultation,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a news briefing.

In the proposal for talks, South Korea did not elaborate on the meaning of hostile military activities, which varies between the two Koreas. South Korea usually refers to loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts by both sides, while North Korea wants a halt to routine joint U.S.-South Korea military drills.

President Moon suggested in July that hostile military activities at the border be ended on July 27, the anniversary of the 1953 armistice agreement. Since no truce was agreed on, the two sides technically remain at war.

North Korea said on July 20 that it was “nonsense” for South Korea to hope to improve inter-Korean ties while taking a confrontational policy against Pyongyang without giving up its dependence on the United States.

North Korea’s state-run daily, Rodong Sinmun, said, “Ditching confrontation and hostility is a precondition for opening the door for the two Koreas’ reconciliation and unity.”

A South Korean ministry official said that President Moon did not see the newspaper’s comment as Pyonyang’s official response to Seoul’s dialogue offer.

Pyongyang had previously said it would not engage in talks with Seoul unless it turns over 12 waitresses who defected to South Korea last year after leaving a North Korean restaurant in China. North Korea says South Korea abducted the waitresses, but Seoul has said they defected of their own free will. Cho said this matter was not included on the proposed talks agenda.

– edited from Reuters, July 17, 2017, and Indo-Asian News Service, July 20, 2017
PeaceMeal, July/August 2017

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North Korean nuclear threats spotlight U.S. missile defense

WASHINGTON DC — As North Korea rattles its nuclear saber, threatening to bomb the United States at “any moment,” a nerve-jangling question hangs in the air: If Pyongyang did launch a nuclear-armed missile at an American city, could the Pentagon’s missile defenses overcome their spotty test record and shoot it down beyond U.S. shores?

The Pentagon has poured at least $84 billion into missile defense over the past decade and is planning to spend another $3.3 billion over the next five years for a single program known as Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD). Its key part is a network of interceptor missiles designed to launch from underground silos, fly into the path of an attacking missile as it arcs through space, and destroy it by smashing into it,.

That system has failed three of its last four intercept tests. The only success in that series was the most recent test in June 2014. The intercept was accomplished in the absence of any decoy.

A congressional watchdog agency, the Government Account-ability Office, said in February that the Pentagon “has not demonstrated through flight testing that it can defend the U.S. homeland against the current missile defense threat.”

Adm. William Gortney, America’s homeland defender as head of U.S. Northern Command, told Congress in March that the nation needs “more capable forces and broader options.” Key improvements are in the works, he said, including a “long-range discrimination” radar for more effective tracking of incoming missiles. A Sea-Based X-Band Radar on which the Pentagon spent $2.2 billion was highly touted to do the long-range discrimination job but turned out to be a flop.

 Defense Secretary Ashton Carter testified that the Pentagon also is working on a more effective “kill vehicle” — a 5-foot-long device attached to the top of an interceptor, whose internal guidance system steers it into an oncoming missile.

Although officials say they are confident the defenses would work as advertised, the Pentagon acknowledges gaps that North Korea or others might be able to exploit someday, if not immediately. A major vulnerability involves a foe’s countermeasures — decoys carried aboard long-range offensive missiles to fool a U.S. interceptor missile into hitting the wrong target. After more than 30 years, that problem remains unsolved.

No one is predicting a bolt-out-of-the-blue North Korean nuclear attack, but the North Koreans are claiming major advances that have caught Washington’s attention, even if they are exaggerated. Already this year they have claimed a successful H-bomb test, put a satellite into space orbit, and claimed a successful simulated test of the warhead re-entry technology needed for a missile strike on the United States. In March the North claimed to have successfully tested a solid-fuel rocket engine which, if true, would mark a significant further advance that reduces launch preparation time and thus shortens warning time for U.S. defenses.

Of particular concern is a long-range missile under develop-ment in North Korea that the U.S. calls the KN-08. The Pentagon says the KN-08 has a range of more than 3,400 miles, putting it into the category of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Gortney said the KN-08 has “profound implications,” especially if it is deployed as a road-mobile weapon, meaning it could be moved and launched from vehicles that make it less vulnerable to detection. Such mobility, he said, would enable the North Koreans to elude or confound traditional U.S. pre-launch warning systems. While the KN-08 itself is untested, Gortney told a Senate panel March 10 that the North Koreans may have developed the technology to make a nuclear warhead small enough to fit atop a KN-08 missile.

The GMD interceptors designed to stop a long-range North Korean missile are based at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Three years ago, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that the Pentagon would increase the number of interceptors deployed at Fort Greely from 30 to 44. The price tag for that expansion, initially put at $1 billion, has jumped to $1.5 billion. None of the additional 14 interceptors has been deployed yet, but all are to be in place by the end of next year.

– edited from The Associated Press, March 29, 2016
PeaceMeal, May/June 2016

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North Korea H-bomb claims met with skepticism

International skepticism and condemnation have greeted North Korea’s claim to have successfully carried out an underground hydrogen bomb test. If confirmed, it would be North Korea’s fourth nuclear test since 2006 and mark a major upgrade in its capabilities. But nuclear experts have questioned whether the size of the blast was large enough to have been from an H-bomb.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon condemned the test “unequivocally,” calling it “profoundly destabilizing for regional security.” South Korea called the test a “grave provocation” but said it was difficult to believe it was an H-bomb.

Hydrogen bombs are more technologically advanced and powerful than atomic bombs, using fusion of atoms to unleash massive amounts of energy. Atomic bombs use fission — the splitting of atoms.

Bruce Bennett, an analyst with the Rand Corporation, was among those casting doubts on Pyongyang’s test: “The bang they should have gotten would have been 10 times greater than what they’re claiming. “So Kim Jong-un is either lying, saying they did a hydrogen test when they didn’t, they just used a little bit more efficient fission weapon — or the hydrogen part of the test really didn’t work very well or the fission part didn’t work very well.”

The rhetoric from the North Korean media was spectacular, announcing the country had carried out a “world startling event. People of the DPRK are making a giant stride, performing eye-catching miracles and exploits day by day.”

That North Korea is still living with its predictable 1950s post-Korean War world view, where the United States is the prime aggressor, was made clear too: “The U.S. is a gang of cruel robbers which has worked hard to bring even a nuclear disaster to the DPRK.”

Despite the rhetoric, what is not in doubt is the determination of Pyongyang to go down the nuclear path despite widespread condemnation the last time it tested a device.

– edited from BBC News, January 6, 2015
PeaceMeal, March/April 2016

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South Korea, Japan settle deal on wartime sex slaves

SEOUL, South Korea — The foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan said Dec. 28 they had reached a deal meant to resolve a decades-long impasse over Korean women forced into Japanese military-run brothels during World War II, a potentially dramatic breakthrough between the Northeast Asian neighbors and rivals.

Historians say tens of thousands of women from around Asia, many of them Korean, were sent to front-line military brothels to provide sex to Japanese soldiers. In South Korea, there are 46 such surviving former sex slaves, mostly in their late 80s or early 90s.

The deal, which included an apology from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and a 1 billion yen ($8.3 million) aid fund from Tokyo for the elderly former sex slaves, could reverse decades of animosity and mistrust between the thriving democracies, trade partners and staunch U.S. allies.

The issue of former Korean sex slaves, euphemistically known as “comfort women,” had been the biggest source of friction in ties between Seoul and Tokyo, with animosity rising precipitously since the hawkish Abe’s 2012 inauguration.

Many South Koreans feel lingering bitterness from the legacy of Japan’s brutal colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910-1945. But South Korean officials have also faced calls to improve ties with Japan, the world’s No. 3 economy and a regional powerhouse, not least from U.S. officials eager for a strong united front against a rising China and North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear-armed missiles that could target the American mainland.

Japan appeared emboldened to make the overture after the first formal leaders’ meeting between the neighbors in 3 years in November, and after South Korean courts recently acquitted a Japanese reporter charged with defaming South Korea’s president and refused to review a complaint by a South Korean seeking individual compensation for Japan’s forceful mobilization of workers during colonial days.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and his South Korean counterpart, Yun Byung-se, made the announcement after their closed door meeting Monday. Yun said the agreement is final and irreversible as long as Japan faithfully implements it promises. “Abe, as the prime minister of Japan, offers from his heart an apology and reflection for everyone who suffered lots of pain and received scars that are difficult to heal physically and mentally,” Kishida told the same news conference.

Better relations between South Korea and Japan are a priority for Washington. The two countries together host about 80,000 U.S. troops and are members of now-stalled regional talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear ambitions in return for aid.

– edited from The Associated Press, December 28, 2015
PeaceMeal Jan/February 2016

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North Korea offers to suspend nuclear tests in return for end to U.S. drills

North Korea said on January 10 it was willing to suspend nuclear tests if the United States agreed to call off annual military drills held jointly with South Korea, saying the exercises were the main reason for tension on the Korean peninsula. The proposal, which the North’s official KCNA news agency said was conveyed to Washington through “a relevant channel,” follows an often-repeated demand by Pyongyang for an end to the large-scale defensive drills by the allies.

North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests, the last in February 2013, and is under layers of U.N. sanctions for defying international warnings not to conduct such tests in pursuit of a nuclear arsenal, which Pyongyang calls its “sacred sword.” It often promises to call off nuclear and missile tests in return for comparable steps by Washington to ease tensions. It reached such a deal in February 2012 with the United States for an arms test moratorium only to scrap it two months later.

The United States and South Korea have stressed that the annual drills, which in some years involved U.S. aircraft carriers, are purely defensive in nature, aimed at testing the allies’ readiness to confront any North Korean aggression.

Tension peaked on the Korean peninsula in March 2013 when the North ratcheted up rhetoric during the annual drills, with Pyongyang threatening war and putting its forces in a state of combat-readiness.

– edited from Reuters, January 10, 2015
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2015

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North Korea crimes evoke Nazi era, Kim may face charges

GENEVA – North Korean security chiefs and possibly even Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un himself should face international justice for ordering systematic torture, starvation and killings comparable to Nazi-era atrocities, United Nations investigators said on February 17. The investigators told Kim in a letter they were advising the U.N. to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC), to make sure any culprits “including possibly yourself” were held accountable.

The unprecedented public rebuke and warning to a head of state by a U.N. inquiry is likely to further antagonize Kim and complicate efforts to persuade him to rein in his isolated country’s nuclear weapons program and belligerent confrontations with South Korea and the West.

Referral to the International Criminal Court is seen as unlikely, given China’s probable veto of any such move in the U.N. Security Council. Michael Kirby, chairman of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, said, “Another possibility is establishment of an ad hoc tribunal like the tribunal on the former Yugoslavia.”

North Korea “categorically and totally” rejected the accusations set out in a 372-page report, saying they were based on material faked by hostile forces backed by the United States, the European Union and Japan.

The findings came out of a year-long investigation involving public testimony by defectors, including former prison camp guards. The independent investigators cited crimes including murder, torture, rape, abductions, starvation and executions.

Kirby said the crimes the team had catalogued were “strikingly similar” to those committed by Nazis during World War II. “Testimony was given ... in relation to the political prison camps of large numbers of people who were malnourished, who were effectively starved to death and then had to be disposed of in plots, burned and then buried ... It was the duty of other prisoners in the camps to dispose of them,” he said.

Human Rights Watch said it hoped the report would open the U.N. Security Council’s eyes to the scale of atrocities. “By focusing only on the nuclear threat in North Korea, the Security Council is overlooking the crimes of North Korean leaders who have overseen a brutal system of gulags, public executions, disappearances and mass starvation,” said executive director Kenneth Roth.

– edited from Reuters, February 17, 2014
PeaceMeal, March/April 2014

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