North Korea's Kim Jong-un 'open to dialogue' with South

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un says he is “open to dialogue” with South Korea in the New Year, but has warned the US he has a “nuclear button” on his desk to use if threatened.

Tensions escalated on the Korean Peninsula throughout 2017 over a series of missile tests conducted by the North, and Pyongyang’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons programme.

In a televised New Year’s speech on Monday, Kim said improving ties between the North and South is an “urgent issue”.

“It’s a grave matter to which the entire Korean nation needs to put its efforts towards resolving,” he said.

“Contacts and dialogues between the North and the South will expand exchanges and cooperation and we should dispel mutual misunderstanding and distrust, and take responsibility in our role as the main agent for reunification.”

South Korea’s presidential office welcomed Kim’s speech, which included a proposal to send North Korean athletes to Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang next month, the country’s state news agency, Yonhap, reported.

“We welcome that Kim expressed willingness to send a delegation and proposed talks as he acknowledged the need for improvement in inter-Korean ties,” presidential spokesperson Park Soo-hyun said on Monday.

Possible motives

Al Jazeera’s Florence Looi, reporting from Seoul, said South Korea is willing to hold talks “any time, in any form” with Pyongyang.

“But we have to ask ourselves what is Kim Jong-un hoping to gain from this and some analysts have said that he is perhaps hoping to drive a wedge between the US and South Korea because these two are traditional allies,” she said.

“It is also possible that North Korea is trying to buy more time as it tries to improve its nuclear capabilities.”

Kim says improving ties between the North and South is an ‘urgent issue’ [Reuters]

North Korea will continue to focus on on “mass producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for operational deployment” in 2018, Kim said in his address.

He repeated previous claims that the entire US is now within range of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, warning “this is a reality, not a threat”.

Responding to Kim’s comments, US President Donald Trump said “we’ll see, we’ll see” at his New Year’s Eve celebration, held at his Mar-a-Lago residence, in Florida.

‘Atmospheric nuclear test’

Our correspondent said analysts were watching Kim’s speech closely to see if he would mention an “atmospheric nuclear test”.

“Weapons experts believe that North Korea has the capability to strike anywhere on the US mainland using an ICBM but they don’t yet believe that North Korea has yet the technology to miniaturise a nuclear warhead and mount it on a missile that can re-enter earth’s atmosphere intact,” she said.

“To find out whether he has the technology to do so he would have to conduct such a test, but there was no mention of that.”

North Korea said it had successfully launched a new ICBM capable of reaching the US mainland, the third test of its kind in 2017, on November 29.

The missile is the “most powerful ICBM” yet to be tested by the country, according to North Korean state television Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

The UN Security Council imposed a fresh round of sanctions on North Korea in December following the test.

The latest sanctions, proposed by the US to prevent Pyongyang from furthering its nuclear weapons development, were the third set of restrictions imposed in 2017.

The US has said no diplomatic talks with North Korean can take place without a “full cessation” of the country’s nuclear programme.

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DRC: Death toll rises in anti-government protests

Several people have been killed and more than 120 others arrested in the Democratic Republic of Congo as security forces violently dispersed protests by opposition and religious groups calling for the resignation of the country’s president.

At least seven people were killed on Sunday after opposition leaders and Catholic protesters rallied in the capital, Kinshasa, and other localities demanding that President Joseph Kabila step down.

State police and military officials in Kinshasa “repressed peaceful protesters”, a coalition of human rights groups said, leading to deaths, injuries and the arbitrary arrests of individuals who joined the demonstrations.

“If your term is over, give opportunities to others to run. You’re a son of the country, you belong in the senate. Give the others the opportunity to lead; maybe they’ll do it better than you did,” Lotika Nelly, an injured protester, said from a makeshift clinic.

Two men were killed outside Saint Alphonse church in Kinshasa after security forces tried to disperse the protesters, Human Right Watch’s Ida Sawyer said.

#RDC: Deux hommes tués par balle devant l’église Sainte Alphonse à Matete à Kinshasa pendant que forces de sécurité dispersent manifestants pacifiques, exigeant départ de Pres Kabila. Fort déploiement des militaires à travers la capitale; accès à l’internet et SMS coupé

— Ida Sawyer (@ida_sawyer) December 31, 2017

Security forces also arrested clergy members and altar boys, and fired tear gas into churches.

A video shared on social media showed a female parishioner fainting in the aisle of a church in Kinshasa, as others threw water on their faces to try to counter the effects of the tear gas being fired outside by security forces.

Serge Mutumbo, a Catholic protester, told Al Jazeera that the protesters “have come … in order to pray, to pray for our nation”.

Term expired

Tensions have been high in the DRC since Kabila refused to relinquish power after his second term as president expired in December 2016. Anti-government protests at that time led to at least 40 deaths and hundreds of arrests.

The president made an agreement with opposition leaders last year, brokered by the Catholic church, to hold elections some time this year. Signed in October 2016, the Saint Sylvestre Accord stipulated that presidential, legislative and provincial elections would be held “in December 2017 at the latest”.

Kabila now says he will stay in power until December 2018 to account for delays in voter registration.

The election is scheduled for December 23.

Martin Fayulu, an opposition leader, said on Sunday that Kabila must step down.

“We are telling everybody, all over the world, this guy has to go. This guy doesn’t like Congo. This guy has nothing to do with Congo and his time is up,” he told Al Jazeera.

A spokesperson for United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, meanwhile, expressed concern about reports that security forces had violently dispersed the protests.

“The secretary general calls on the government and national security forces to exercise restraint and to uphold the rights of the Congolese people to the freedom of speech and peaceful assembly,” Stephane Dujarric said in a statement.

Dujarric said the secretary general urged all political parties to remain committed to the 2016 agreement, which he said is “the only viable path to the holding of elections, the peaceful transfer of power and the consolidation of stability in the DRC”.

Internet, SMS blocked

The protests come after the country’s telecommunications ministry ordered a countrywide shutdown of internet and SMS services ahead of the anti-government rallies.

It was not the first time the government has cut internet and SMS access amid opposition protests. The services were interrupted in January 2015 following protests opposing Kabila’s government.

The same thing happened in August when opposition leaders sought to pressure the state to publish an election schedule.

“Every time problems arise, [the government cuts] the internet without thinking of the consequences,” said Henri Christin Longendja of Collectif 24, a group that promotes the right to information in the DRC.

“It’s not acceptable because what we hide from the population today will always end up being revealed tomorrow. It’s foolish to keep cutting the internet at any time for political reasons,” Longendja said at the time, according to local news outlet Actualite.

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Hasina foresees further progress, development in 2018

“This is the English New Year,” Hasina said at the inauguration of the 23rd Dhaka International Trade Fair on Monday.

“Let me say to everyone, Happy New Year! It is my hope that the New Year will bring progress and development.”

Hasina’s cabinet colleagues, members of parliament, top government officials, leading exporters and business leaders and local and foreign representatives attended the event at the Bangabandhu International Conference Centre.

A documentary film on Bangladesh’s development was shown at the start of the event.

Commerce Minister Tofail Ahmed, Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Ministry of Commerce Chairman Tajul Islam Choudhury and Commerce Secretary Subhasish Basu and Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry President Md Shafiul Alam also delivered speeches.

Export Promotion Bureau Vice Chairman Bijoy Bhattacharjee gave the introductory speech.

The Dhaka International Trade Fair is to run from Jan 1 to Jan 31 from 10am to 10pm. The entry fee is fixed at Tk 30 for adults and Tk 20 for minors.

This year’s fair has a total of 589 pavilions and stalls, with 112 large pavilions and 77 mini-pavilions.

Forty-three companies from Thailand, Iran, Turkey, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Nepal, China, Malaysia, Vietnam, the US, the UK, India, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Mauritius and South Korea will take part.

The trade fair is to be held at a permanent location at Purbachal New Town from 2020.  

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