(ATTN: UPDATES with background briefing in paras 9-16)
By Chang Jae-soon
WASHINGTON, Feb. 27 (Yonhap) -- South Korea, the United States and Japan agreed Monday to work closely together in responding to the recent killing of the half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, an official said.
Kim Hong-kyun, South Korea's chief envoy on North Korea issues, reached the agreement when he held talks in Washington with his U.S. and Japanese counterparts, Joseph Yun and Kenji Kanasugi, amid mounting evidence that Pyongyang was behind the death of Kim Jong-nam, the leader's estranged brother.
"The representatives of the three countries exchanged views on the killing of Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia and agreed to closely coordinate a response while monitoring the situation," Kim told reporters at a briefing.
The Feb. 13 killing happened at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, and Malaysian police have determined that the lethal nerve agent VX was used. VX is a chemical agent listed as a weapon of mass destruction by the United Nations and its use is banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Eight North Koreans have been named as suspects, but the North has denied its involvement.
"Our side emphasized that Kim Jong-nam's killing is a serious violation of international norms in that a banned chemical weapon was used, and the international community respond strongly to this in light of the fact that it is an inhumane and anti-human rights crime," Kim said.
It was unclear how the U.S. and Japanese officials characterized the killing.
Monday's meeting was a focus of attention as it could reveal for the first time how the U.S. views the death of Kim Jong-nam. Despite the mounting evidence pointing to North Korea's responsibility, the U.S. has refrained from any reaction to the killing.
A senior South Korean official familiar with the talks said that the U.S. didn't say that North Korea's involvement was definite because Malaysia's investigation is still under way, but the discussions took place based on the assumption that Pyongyang was behind the killing.
"North Korea's involvement is almost certain in light of various circumstantial information. So we carried out the discussions based on that premise," the official said on background when asked whether the U.S. also views Pyongyang as being responsible for the killing.
Participants took the killing seriously, especially because a chemical weapon was used, the official said.
"There was a rudimentary exchange of opinions on how to deal with this as this is an apparent act of terrorism," the official said.
The official also said that U.S. officials confirmed the State Department has begun a review of whether to relist North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.
"I believe the U.S. will take into account reactions from Congress," the official said.
The official was referring to growing calls in Congress for adding the North back to the State Department's list of states sponsoring terrorism.
North Korea was put on the U.S. terrorism sponsor list for its 1987 midair bombing of a Korean Airlines flight that killed all 115 people aboard. But the U.S. administration of former President George W. Bush removed Pyongyang from the list in 2008 in exchange for progress in denuclearization talks.
The talks also came after the North test-fired a newly developed intermediate-range ballistic missile powered by solid fuel. Weapons experts say solid-fuel missiles pose greater threats as they require less launch preparation time than liquid-fueled rockets, and can be fired from mobile launchers easy to move around.
The missile adds to the already massive arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles the communist nation boasts after conducting five nuclear tests and a number of ballistic missile launches under its ultimate goal of developing a nuclear missile capable of striking the U.S.
Kim said that the three countries agreed to warn North Korea strongly against additional provocations, sharing the view that the missile launch could be a "precursor" to the North firing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that leader Kim threatened to test-fire.
The sides also discussed ways to ensure full implementation of sanctions on the North, Kim said.
Monday's meeting marks the first such talks since the Trump administration came into office. The three countries have often held such trilateral strategy sessions to fine-tune and coordinate their North Korean policies. The last such meeting took place in December.
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