S Korea agency says N Korea executed people, shut Pyongyang

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered at least two people executed, banned fishing at sea and locked down capital Pyongyang as part of frantic efforts to guard against the coronavirus and its economic damage, South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers Friday.

Kim’s government also ordered diplomats overseas to refrain from any acts that could provoke the United States as it’s worried about President-elect Joe Biden’s possible new approach on North Korea, lawmakers told reporters after attending a private briefing by the National Intelligence Service.

One of the lawmakers, Ha Tae-keung, cited the NIS as saying Kim is displaying “an excessive anger” and taking “irrational measures” over the pandemic and its economic impact.

Ha said the NIS told lawmakers that North Korea executed a high-profile money changer in Pyongyang last month after holding the person responsible for a falling exchange rate. He quoted the NIS as saying that North Korea also executed a key official in August for violating government regulations restricting goods brought from abroad. The two people weren’t identified.

North Korea has also banned fishing and salt production at sea to prevent seawater from being infected with the virus, the NIS told lawmakers.

North Korea recently placed Pyongyang and northern Janggang province under lockdown over virus concerns. Earlier this month, it imposed lockdown measures in other areas where officials found unauthorized goods were brought in, Ha cited the NIS as saying.

North Korea also made an unsuccessful hacking attempt on at least one South Korean pharmaceutical company that was trying to develop coronavirus vaccine, the NIS said.

The agency has a mixed record in confirming developments in North Korea, one of the world’s most secretive nations.

The NIS said it couldn’t immediately confirm the lawmakers’ comments.

North Korea has maintained it hasn’t found a single virus case on its soil, a claim disputed by outside experts, though it says it’s making all-out efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. A major outbreak could have dire consequences because the North’s health care system remains crippled and suffers from a chronic lack of medical supplies.

The pandemic forced North Korea to seal its border with China, its biggest trading partner and aid benefactor, in June. The closure, along with a series of natural disasters over the summer, has dealt a heavy blow to the North’s economy, which has been under punishing U.S.-led sanctions.

The North’s trade with China in the first 10 months this year stood at $530 million, about 25% of the corresponding figure last year. The price of sugar and seasoning has shot up four times, Ha quoted the NIS as saying.

North Korea monitoring groups in Seoul said that the North Korean won-to-dollar exchange rate has recently fallen significantly because people found few places to use foreign currency after smuggling has largely been cut off in the aftermath of the closure of the China border.

According to the NIS briefing, North Korea ordered overseas diplomatic missions not to provoke the United States, warning their ambassadors of consequences if their comments or acts related to the U.S. cause any trouble in ties with Washington.

North Korea’s government remains silent over Biden’s election victory over President Donald Trump, with whom Kim Jong Un held three unprecedented summits in 2018-19 over the future of the North’s nuclear arsenal. While diplomacy eventually stalled, the meetings still helped Kim and Trump build up personal ties and stop crude insults and threats of destruction they had previously exchanged.

Lawmaker Kim Byung-kee cited the NIS as saying that North Korea is displaying anxiety as its friendly ties with Trump become useless and it has to start from scratch in dealing with the incoming Biden administration.

Experts have been debating over whether North Korea would resume a major missile test soon to try to get Biden’s attention. During past government changes in the U.S., North Korea often conducted big weapons launches to increase its leverage in future negotiations with a new U.S. administration.

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