‘Missiles like these will start the war’: North Korea tests showcase growing capability

FILE PHOTO: North Korean military conducts a "strike drill" for multiple launchers and tactical guided weapon into the East Sea during a military drill in North Korea, in this May 4, 2019 photo supplied by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA via REUTERS/File Photo

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s second missile test on Thursday signals it is serious about developing new, short-range weapons that could be used early and effectively in any war with South Korea and the United States, analysts studying images of the latest launches say.

Last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un oversaw the first flight of a previously untested weapon – a relatively small, fast missile experts believe will be easier to hide, launch, and maneuver in flight.

Photos released by state media on Friday showed Thursday’s test involved the same weapon.

The tests have increased tensions after the last U.S.-North Korea summit collapsed in February in Hanoi with no agreement over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said late on Thursday the launches seemed like a protest over the failed summit, while North Korea has defended the tests as routine and self-defensive.

Some analysts say the multiple tests show the missiles aren’t only for political show.

“This second test solidifies that these launches are not just to stir the pot and elicit a U.S. response to resume negotiations,” said Grace Liu, one of a team of missile experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) in California. “They are developing a reliable, operable missile that can defeat missile defenses and conduct a precision strike in South Korea.”

DEFEATING MISSILE DEFENSES

The U.S. and South Korean responses to the launches have been muted, with U.S. President Donald Trump and other officials emphasizing the missiles are not the large, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the United States.

But analysts said the military applications of the new missiles should not be underestimated.

“The Trump administration keeps downplaying these missiles because they are not ICBMs, but even though they can’t reach the U.S. mainland, it’s missiles like these that will start the war,” said Melissa Hanham, a weapons expert at Datayo, which tracks international security threats.

“They are small, easy to hide, easy to maneuver and you can’t tell what kind of warhead they are carrying. They could carry a nuclear weapon.”

In a preliminary report on Wednesday, the North Korea tracking website 38 North said the new missile looks similar to Russia’s SS-26 Iskander missile and could exploit gaps in South Korean and American missile defense coverage.

The United States and South Korea field Patriot and THAAD missile batteries designed to shoot down various ballistic and cruise missiles, but their capabilities have been disputed.

While the origin of the North Korean missile remains unclear, a team of analysts at CNS told Reuters that Thursday’s test confirmed the missile is capable of maneuvering to elude defenses and protect its launch crew from detection.

“You can tell from the low apogee that this missile maneuvers a bit in boost to defeat missile defenses and aircraft hunting the launcher,” said Jeffrey Lewis of CNS.

Michael Duitsman, a rocket propulsion expert with the team, said North Korean state media photos of the launch show likely thrust vanes and steerable fins that guide the missile with precision and allow it to maneuver through much of its flight.

While Saturday’s missile was fired from a transporter erector launcher (TEL) vehicle with wheels, Thursday’s test featured a tracked vehicle.

Use of a tracked vehicle, which North Korea has more experience building, suggests it may plan to deploy a large number of the missiles and launchers, said Joshua Pollack, editor of The Nonproliferation Review.

“This seems to be their only mass-production option for highly capable TELs at the moment,” he said.

The missile uses solid fuel, which allows the weapon to be easily moved and fired more quickly than those using liquid fuel, analysts said.

In the end, the new missiles add a new level of unpredictability to an already tense situation, Hanham said.

“If North Korea pulls out (an ICBM) everyone knows it’ll be launched with a nuke,” she said. “These little missiles you don’t know, so it’s hard to be prepared.”

POLITICAL SHOCKWAVES

The new weapon’s maneuverability and low flying has led some South Korean officials to hesitate to label the weapon a “ballistic missile,” a weapon that would likely violate United Nations Security Council resolutions.

“Given its low altitude, more careful analysis is required,” said ruling party lawmaker Ahn Gyu-baek, citing military officials. “One should also be careful to not aggravate the situation with hasty actions.”

Ahn said South Korean military officials had assessed a number of potential political motives behind the missile launches. Those included increasing pressure for sanctions relief, and protesting Seoul’s military buildup including the purchase of new F-35 fighter aircraft as well as joint military drills by the United States and South Korea, which North Korea complained about in statements defending the tests.

The tests also likely held a message for domestic audiences designed to boost support for Kim’s government, he said.

“The Kim regime is determined to fight pressure with pressure,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.”It is threatening to raise regional tensions and create political problems for Moon and Trump if not offered economic concessions it failed to win in Hanoi.”

While Kim may not return to launching ICBMs or testing nuclear weapons immediately, he may seek other provocative ways to break the stalemate, Pollack said.

“Kim Jong Un has given the United States until the end of the year to rethink its approach,” he said. “But if they don’t get a meaningful response to these tests, maybe they’ll try to push the envelope further.”

(Reporting by Josh Smith. Additional reporting by Joyce Lee. Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

North Korea calls for Pompeo to be dropped from talks; tests tactical weapon

By Joyce Lee and Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea said on Thursday it no longer wanted to deal with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and said he should be replaced in talks by someone more mature, hours after it announced its first weapons test since nuclear talks broke down.

The North’s official KCNA news agency quoted senior foreign ministry official Kwon Jong Gun as warning that no one could predict the situation on the Korean peninsula if the United States did not abandon the “root cause” that compelled North Korea to develop nuclear weapons.

The statement came shortly after North Korea announced that leader Kim Jong Un had overseen the testing of a new tactical guided weapon, which KCNA said has a “peculiar mode of guiding flight” and “a powerful warhead.”

It was the North’s first weapon test since talks in Vietnam between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in late February broke down over conflicting demands by North Korea for sanctions relief and by the United States for North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.

KCNA gave no details on the weapon that was tested on Wednesday but “tactical” implied a short-range weapon rather than the long-range ballistic missiles that have been seen as a threat to the United States.

KCNA quoted Kwon, who is in charge of U.S. affairs, as saying the Vietnam summit, the second between the two leaders, showed that talks could go wrong “whenever Pompeo pokes his nose in.”

“I am afraid that, if Pompeo engages in the talks again, the table will be lousy once again and the talks will become entangled,” Kwon said.

“Therefore, even in the case of possible resumption of the dialogue with the United States, I wish our dialogue counterpart would be not Pompeo but other person who is more careful and mature in communicating with us.”

A spokeswoman for the State Department said it was aware of the report about Pompeo and added: “The United States remains ready to engage North Korea in a constructive negotiation.”

Kwon did not elaborate on why North Korea felt compelled to develop nuclear weapons, but North Korea has long spoken of the need to defend itself from what it sees as U.S. aggression.

Kim said last week said the breakdown in talks risked reviving tensions and he gave a year-end deadline for the United States to change its attitude.

Despite the failure of the Vietnam summit, Trump has stressed his good relationship with Kim.

Kwon also said the two leaders were on good terms, even as he castigated Pompeo for “fabricated” stories as part of a “publicity stunt.” He did not elaborate.

Kwon said Pompeo had made “reckless remarks hurting the dignity of our supreme leadership,” apparently referring to him agreeing to the characterization of Kim as a “tyrant” at a U.S. congressional hearing last week.

‘USEFUL REMINDER’

Earlier, Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Seoul, said the newly tested weapon was likely a short-range cruise missile that could be launched from the ground, sea and air.

Kim oversaw the test of an unidentified tactical weapon in November.

Experts said in November Kim wanted to shift the mainstay of the North’s conventional military power from a nearly 1.3 million-strong army to high-tech weapons.

The young leader said last April that he would stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles because the nuclear capabilities of North Korea, which has tested nuclear devices six times, had been verified.

“This does serve as a useful reminder of one critical fact: Chairman Kim Jong Un never promised to stop testing all weapons in his military arsenal, just nuclear weapons and ICBMs that have the potential to hit the U.S. homeland,” said Harry Kazianis of the Washington-based Center for the National Interest.

A U.S. official said that, according initial information, U.S. forces did not detect a missile launch from North Korea. Checks were underway, said the official.

Referring to the test, a White House official said: “We are aware of the report and have no further comment.”

South Korea’s presidential Blue House declined to comment on the test, referring questions to the defense ministry. It said it was analyzing the nature of the weapon and North Korea’s intentions.

Kim’s visit to the testing site came after he visited the North Korean Air and Anti-aircraft Force on Tuesday, according to KCNA.

Kyungnam University’s Kim Dong-yub said the latest test appeared to partly be a message to the United States that North Korea would not bow to sanctions.

“It’s also an internal message to the North Korean people and to the military” to instill trust in their own security by reinforcing conventional weapons, he said.

Satellite images from last week showed movement at Yongbyon, North Korea’s main nuclear site, that could be associated with the reprocessing of radioactive material into bomb fuel, the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the United States said on Tuesday.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said in a Bloomberg News interview on Wednesday the United States needed to see “a real indication from North Korea that they’ve made the strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons” before a third summit between Trump and Kim.

(Reporting by Joyce Lee, Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom, Idrees Ali, Jeff Mason and Phillip Stewart in WASHINGTON; Editing by Sandra Maler, Paul Tait, Robert Birsel and Jonathan Oatis)

Don’t take this North Korea guidebook with you, warns publisher

The North Korea Petit Fute touristic guide book is displayed during an interview with Reuters in Paris, France, March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

By John Irish and Noemie Olive

PARIS (Reuters) – A French publisher has produced a rare guide to North Korea, highlighting its history, cultural wealth and beautiful landscapes but advising tourists not to take the politically sensitive book with them.

Tourism is one of the few remaining reliable sources of foreign income for North Korea after the U.N. imposed sanctions targeting 90 percent of its $3 billion annual exports including commodities, textiles and seafood.

Dominique Auzias, co-founder of the Petit Fute French touristic guide book, poses during an interview with Reuters for the launching of their North Korea guide book in Paris, France, March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Dominique Auzias, co-founder of the Petit Fute French touristic guide book, poses during an interview with Reuters for the launching of their North Korea guide book in Paris, France, March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Tensions over North Korea’s tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles spiked on the Korean peninsula last year and there were fears of a U.S. military response to North Korea’s threat to develop a weapon capable of hitting the United States.

“There are a lot of people that are interested in this country be it for nuclear and military reasons, but also economically so … it’s important to provide information,” said Dominique Auzias, president of the Petit Fute, which publishes some 800 guides.

“As it’s a country that’s closed and forbidden everybody dreams of going there,” he said.

Some 400 French tourists visit the country each year with trips costing about 2,000 euros ($2,267).

The reclusive communist state has no official diplomatic relations with France.

Talks in June last year between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un provided a detente even if in recent weeks tensions have once again flared.

North Korean authorities would probably confiscate the printed edition given some of the material, Auzias said.

“You don’t go for adventure, but to discover,” he said.

The guide, which took three years to put together, touches little on where to stay or eat because accessing the country as a tourist can only be done through specific travel agents who determine what visitors see.

In some cases, however, they respond to requests and Auzias said the guide helps people decide what they would like to see.

It makes clear it is imperative to stick to the country’s strict rules or face dire consequences as American student Otto Warmbier did in 2016 when he was sentenced to 15 years of forced labor for trying to steal a propaganda poster in his hotel.

He was returned to the United States in a coma 17 months later, and died shortly after. A coroner said he died from lack of oxygen and blood to the brain.

“The first time I went 10-12 years ago I was proud because I was one of the rare French citizens to get in … but my second moment of happiness was about three weeks later when I left because it was suffocating and mind-boggling,” Auzias said.

(Reporting by John Irish and Noemeie Olive; Editing by Bate Felix and Alexandra Hudson)

Trump and North Korea’s Kim predict success in high-stakes nuclear summit

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands before their one-on-one chat during the second U.S.-North Korea summit at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

By Soyoung Kim and Jeff Mason

HANOI (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump met in Vietnam on Wednesday for a second summit that the United States hopes will persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for promises of peace and development.

Kim and Trump shook hands and smiled briefly in front of a row of their national flags at the Metropole hotel in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, before heading to dinner together.

Trump told reporters he thought the talks would be very successful, and asked if he was “walking back” on denuclearization, said “no”.

At their historic first summit in Singapore last June, Trump and Kim pledged to work toward denuclearization and permanent peace on the Korean peninsula but little progress has been made.

Kim said they had overcome obstacles to hold their second summit and praised Trump for his “courageous decision” to begin a dialogue.

“Now that we’re meeting here again like this, I’m confident that there will be an excellent outcome that everyone welcomes, and I’ll do my best to make it happen,” Kim said.

Trump and Kim held a 20-minute, one-on-one chat before sitting down to dinner with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Trump’s acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Kim’s top envoy, Kim Yong Chol, and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho.

On Thursday, the two leaders will hold a series of meetings, the White House said. The venue has not been announced.

“We’re going to have a very busy day tomorrow,” said a smiling, relaxed-looking Trump, seated beside Kim at a round table with the other four officials and two interpreters.

“Our relationship is a very special relationship.”

Experts said the pair were at pains to show their relationship had improved since their first meeting, with their body language closely mirroring each other.

A child with stickers of the North Korean and Vietnamese flags on her face reacts at the Vietnam-North Korea Friendship kindergarten, founded by North Korean Government in Hanoi, ahead of the North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi, Vietnam February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

A child with stickers of the North Korean and Vietnamese flags on her face reacts at the Vietnam-North Korea Friendship kindergarten, founded by North Korean Government in Hanoi, ahead of the North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi, Vietnam February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

GOOD RELATIONS

Trump said late last year he and Kim “fell in love”, but whether the bonhomie can move them beyond summit pageantry to substantive progress on eliminating Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal that threatens the United States is the question that will dominate the talks.

Trump and Kim’s Singapore summit, the first meeting between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader, ended with great fanfare but little substance over how to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

In the run-up to this summit, Trump has indicated a more flexible stance, saying he was in no rush to secure North Korea’s denuclearization. He repeated that on Wednesday, saying while some people believed the talks should be moving more quickly, he was satisfied.

He has also said he would be happy as long as North Korea, which has not tested a nuclear weapon or intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017, maintained that freeze.

Some critics have said Trump appeared to be wavering on a long-standing U.S. demand for complete and irreversible denuclearization by North Korea and risked squandering leverage if he gave away too much, too quickly.

Asked if he would declare a formal end to the Korean War, which North Korea has long called for, Trump said: “We’ll see.”

North and South Korea have been technically at war since their 1950-53 conflict, with the Americans backing the South, ended in a truce, not a treaty.

Evans Revere, a former U.S. negotiator with North Korea, said Trump was under pressure, given the criticism and other domestic problems, and Kim might try to use that.

“Kim may be tempted to push Trump even harder for concessions, knowing how much the president wants and needs that testing pause,” Revere said.

Students from Nguyen Du secondary school hold U.S. and Vietnam flags outside the Presidential Palace, as they wait for wait to greet U.S. President Donald Trump, in Hanoi, Vietnam, February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

Students from Nguyen Du secondary school hold U.S. and Vietnam flags outside the Presidential Palace, as they wait for wait to greet U.S. President Donald Trump, in Hanoi, Vietnam, February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

‘AWESOME’ POTENTIAL

U.S. intelligence officials have said there is no sign North Korea will ever give up its entire arsenal of nuclear weapons, which it sees as its guarantee of national security. Analysts say it won’t commit to significant disarmament unless punishing U.S.-led economic sanctions are eased.

The two sides have discussed specific and verifiable denuclearization measures, such as allowing inspectors to observe the dismantlement of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor, U.S. and South Korean officials say.

U.S. concessions could include opening liaison offices or clearing the way for inter-Korean projects.

Despite little progress on his goal of ridding North Korea of its weapons programs, Trump appeared to be betting on his personal relationship with Kim, and the economic incentive after 70 years of hostility between their countries.

“Vietnam is thriving like few places on earth. North Korea would be the same, and very quickly, if it would denuclearize,” Trump said on Twitter ahead of the meeting.

“The potential is AWESOME, a great opportunity, like almost none other in history, for my friend Kim Jong Un. We will know fairly soon – Very Interesting!”

For Trump, a deal that eases the North Korean threat could hand him a big foreign-policy achievement in the midst of domestic troubles.

While he is in Hanoi, his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen is testifying before U.S. congressional committees, with the president’s business practices the main focus.

Cohen, in wide-ranging testimony he is due to deliver on Wednesday, refers to a comment Trump made to him about avoiding the U.S. military draft for the Vietnam War on medical grounds: “‘You think I’m stupid, I wasn’t going to Vietnam’,” Cohen cited Trump as saying.

“I find it ironic, President Trump, that you are in Vietnam right now,” Cohen said in a draft statement seen by Reuters.

Trump, responding to the statement on Twitter, said Cohen was lying to reduce his prison time. He declined to respond when a reporter asked him about Cohen later.

 

(Reporting by Soyoung Kim and Jeff Mason in HANOI; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin, James Pearson, Mai Nyugen, Ju-min Park, Khanh Vu, Josh Smith in HANOI, David Brunnstrom and Matt Spetalnick in WASHINGTON; Editing by Robert Birsel and Lincoln Feast)

North Korean base serves as missile headquarters: think tank

FILE PHOTO: Intercontinental ballistic missiles are seen at a grand military parade celebrating the 70th founding anniversary of the Korean People's Army at the Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) February 9, 2018. KCNA/via REUTERS

By Katanga Johnson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – One of 20 undeclared ballistic missile operating bases in North Korea serves as a missile headquarters, according to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) published on Monday.

“The Sino-ri missile operating base and the Nodong missiles deployed at this location fit into North Korea’s presumed nuclear military strategy by providing an operational-level nuclear or conventional first strike capability,” said the report co-authored by analyst Victor Cha.

The discovery of an undeclared missile headquarters comes three days after U.S. President Donald Trump said he “looks forward” to another summit to discuss denuclearization with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in late February.

Kim vowed to work toward denuclearization at his first summit with Trump in June, but there has since been little concrete progress.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

CSIS, which last reported on the 20 missile bases in November, said the Sino-ri base has never been declared by North Korea and as a result “does not appear to be the subject of denuclearization negotiations.”

The report said that missile operating bases would presumably be subject to declaration, verification, and dismantlement in any nuclear deal.

“The North Koreans are not going to negotiate over things they don’t disclose,” said Cha.

“It looks like they’re playing a game. They’re still going to have all this operational capability,” even if they destroy their disclosed nuclear sites.

Located 132 miles (212 km) north of the demilitarized zone, the Sino-ri complex is a seven-square-mile (18-square-km) base that plays a key role in developing ballistic missiles capable of reaching South Korea, Japan, and even the U.S. territory of Guam in the Western Pacific, the report said.

It houses a regiment-sized unit equipped with Nodong-1 medium-range ballistic missiles, the report added.

Satellite images of the base from Dec. 27, 2018 show an entrance to an underground bunker, reinforced shelters and a headquarters, the report said.

In South Korea, the Sino-ri facility has long been known as one of the bases housing the Nodong, also called the Rodong, a medium-range missile based on Soviet-era Scud technology that the North began deploying in the mid-1990s.

“It is a facility we’ve been monitoring with interest, in cooperation with the United States,” Kim Joon-rak, a spokesman for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a news briefing on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Katanga Johnson; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL; Editing by Chris Sanders, Sandra Maler and Darren Schuettler)

France tells Iran to stop ballistic missile work designed for nuclear weapons

FILE PHOTO: A boy holding a placard with pictures of (L-R) President Hassan Rouhani, the late founder of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, poses for camera in front of a model of Simorgh satellite-carrier rocket during a ceremony marking the 37th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, in Tehran February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/TIMA/File Photo

PARIS (Reuters) – France on Friday called on Iran to immediately stop all activities linked to ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear weapons after Tehran said it could put two satellites into orbit in the coming weeks.

“France recalls that the Iranian missile program (does) not conform with U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231,” Foreign ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll told reporters in a daily briefing.

“It calls on Iran to immediately cease all ballistic missile-related activities designed to carry nuclear weapons, including tests using ballistic missile technology.”

Von der Muhll was responding to comments by President Hassan Rouhani on Thursday, who said two satellites would be sent into space using Iran-made missiles.

Tehran responded by telling France to avoid repeating “irresponsible and incorrect” claims about Tehran’s missile work that were made by countries that were against a 2015 deal reached between Iran and six major powers, Iranian state TV reported on Friday.

“Iran’s home-grown defensive missile program is the Iranian nation’s natural right,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying by TV.

“Iran’s missile program is not in violation of U.N. resolution of 2231.”

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai and John Irish in Paris editing by William Maclean)

Exclusive: Iran moves missiles to Iraq in warning to enemies

FILE PHOTO: A display featuring missiles and a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen at Baharestan Square in Tehran, Iran September 27, 2017. Nazanin Tabatabaee Yazdi/TIMA via REUTERS

By John Irish and Ahmed Rasheed

PARIS/BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iran has given ballistic missiles to Shi’ite proxies in Iraq and is developing the capacity to build more there to deter attacks on its interests in the Middle East and to give it the means to hit regional foes, Iranian, Iraqi and Western sources said.

Any sign that Iran is preparing a more aggressive missile policy in Iraq will exacerbate tensions between Tehran and Washington, already heightened by U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

It would also embarrass France, Germany and the United Kingdom, the three European signatories to the nuclear deal, as they have been trying to salvage the agreement despite new U.S. sanctions against Tehran.

According to three Iranian officials, two Iraqi intelligence sources and two Western intelligence sources, Iran has transferred short-range ballistic missiles to allies in Iraq over the last few months. Five of the officials said it was helping those groups to start making their own.

“The logic was to have a backup plan if Iran was attacked,” one senior Iranian official told Reuters. “The number of missiles is not high, just a couple of dozen, but it can be increased if necessary.”

Iran has previously said its ballistic missile activities are purely defensive in nature. Iranian officials declined to comment when asked about the latest moves.

The Iraqi government and military both declined to comment.

The Zelzal, Fateh-110 and Zolfaqar missiles in question have ranges of about 200 km to 700 km, putting Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh or the Israeli city of Tel Aviv within striking distance if the weapons were deployed in southern or western Iraq.

The Quds Force, the overseas arm of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has bases in both those areas. Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani is overseeing the program, three of the sources said.

Western countries have already accused Iran of transferring missiles and technology to Syria and other allies of Tehran, such as Houthi rebels in Yemen and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Iran’s Sunni Muslim Gulf neighbors and its arch-enemy Israel have expressed concerns about Tehran’s regional activities, seeing it as a threat to their security.

Israeli officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the missile transfers.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday that anybody that threatened to wipe Israel out “would put themselves in a similar danger”.

MISSILE PRODUCTION LINE

The Western source said the number of missiles was in the 10s and that the transfers were designed to send a warning to the United States and Israel, especially after air raids on Iranian troops in Syria. The United States has a significant military presence in Iraq.

“It seems Iran has been turning Iraq into its forward missile base,” the Western source said.

The Iranian sources and one Iraqi intelligence source said a decision was made some 18 months ago to use militias to produce missiles in Iraq, but activity had ramped up in the last few months, including with the arrival of missile launchers.

“We have bases like that in many places and Iraq is one of them. If America attacks us, our friends will attack America’s interests and its allies in the region,” said a senior IRGC commander who served during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

The Western source and the Iraqi source said the factories being used to develop missiles in Iraq were in al-Zafaraniya, east of Baghdad, and Jurf al-Sakhar, north of Kerbala. One Iranian source said there was also a factory in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The areas are controlled by Shi’ite militias, including Kata’ib Hezbollah, one of the closest to Iran. Three sources said Iraqis had been trained in Iran as missile operators.

The Iraqi intelligence source said the al-Zafaraniya factory produced warheads and the ceramic of missile molds under former President Saddam Hussein. It was reactivated by local Shi’ite groups in 2016 with Iranian assistance, the source said.

A team of Shi’ite engineers who used to work at the facility under Saddam were brought in, after being screened, to make it operational, the source said. He also said missiles had been tested near Jurf al-Sakhar.

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon declined to comment.

One U.S official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Tehran over the last few months has transferred missiles to groups in Iraq but could not confirm that those missiles had any launch capability from their current positions.

Washington has been pushing its allies to adopt a tough anti-Iran policy since it reimposed sanctions this month.

While the European signatories to the nuclear deal have so far balked at U.S. pressure, they have grown increasingly impatient over Iran’s ballistic missile program.

France, in particular, has bemoaned Iranian “frenzy” in developing and propagating missiles and wants Tehran to open negotiations over its ballistic weapons.

Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Thursday that Iran was arming regional allies with rockets and allowing ballistic proliferation. “Iran needs to avoid the temptation to be the (regional) hegemon,” he said.

In March, the three nations proposed fresh EU sanctions on Iran over its missile activity, although they failed to push them through after opposition from some member states.

“Such a proliferation of Iranian missile capabilities throughout the region is an additional and serious source of concern,” a document from the three European countries said at the time.

MESSAGE TO FOES

A regional intelligence source also said Iran was storing a number of ballistic missiles in areas of Iraq that were under effective Shi’ite control and had the capacity to launch them.

The source could not confirm that Iran has a missile production capacity in Iraq.

A second Iraqi intelligence official said Baghdad had been aware of the flow of Iranian missiles to Shi’ite militias to help fight Islamic State militants, but that shipments had continued after the hardline Sunni militant group was defeated.

“It was clear to Iraqi intelligence that such a missile arsenal sent by Iran was not meant to fight Daesh (Islamic State) militants but as a pressure card Iran can use once involved in regional conflict,” the official said.

The Iraqi source said it was difficult for the Iraqi government to stop or persuade the groups to go against Tehran.

“We can’t restrain militias from firing Iranian rockets because simply the firing button is not in our hands, it’s with Iranians who control the push button,” he said.

“Iran will definitely use the missiles it handed over to Iraqi militia it supports to send a strong message to its foes in the region and the United States that it has the ability to use Iraqi territories as a launch pad for its missiles to strike anywhere and anytime it decides,” the Iraqi official said.

Iraq’s parliament passed a law in 2016 to bring an assortment of Shi’ite militia groups known collectively as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) into the state apparatus. The militias report to Iraq’s prime minister, who is a Shi’ite under the country’s unofficial governance system.

However, Iran still has a clear hand in coordinating the PMF leadership, which frequently meets and consults with Soleimani.

(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Jonathan Landay in Washington; editing by David Clarke)

North Korea newspaper blasts ‘double-dealing’ U.S. after Pompeo’s trip canceled

People and soldiers gather to offer flowers to the statues of state founder Kim Il Sung and former leader Kim Jong Il on the Day of Songun at Mansu hill, Pyongyang, North Korea, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on August 26, 2018. KCNA via REUTERS

(Reuters) – North Korea’s state-controlled newspaper on Sunday accused the United States of “double-dealing” and “hatching a criminal plot” against Pyongyang, after Washington abruptly canceled a visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Negotiations have been all but deadlocked since U.S. President Donald Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June.

Pompeo has pressed for tangible steps toward North Korea’s abandonment of its nuclear arsenal while Pyongyang is demanding that Washington first make concessions of its own.

North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper said U.S. special units based in Japan were staging an air drill aimed at “the infiltration into Pyongyang”, citing a South Korean media outlet.

“Such acts prove that the U.S. is hatching a criminal plot to unleash a war against the DPRK and commit a crime which deserves merciless divine punishment in case the U.S. fails in the scenario of the DPRK’s unjust and brigandish denuclearisation first,” the paper said.

“We cannot but take a serious note of the double-dealing attitudes of the U.S. as it is busy staging secret drills involving man-killing special units while having a dialogue with a smile on its face,” it noted.

A spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul said he had no information on the drill alleged in the newspaper. The U.S. military spokesman in South Korea was not immediately available to comment.

The editorial, which did not mention the Pompeo visit, urged Washington to give up the “pointless military gamble” and implement the Singapore agreement, in which the leaders pledged to work towards a complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Since the summit, the two sides have struggled to narrow differences over the North’s nuclear weapons program.

Pyongyang is calling for a declaration of peace as part of security guarantees designed to encourage it to abandon its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, while the Trump administration says a peace deal and other concessions will only come after more progress on denuclearization.

In part to reassure North Korea, Trump canceled or delayed joint military drills with South Korea, but smaller exercises continue.

Trump partly blamed China for the lack of progress with North Korea and suggested that talks with Pyongyang could be on hold until after Washington resolved its bitter trade dispute with Beijing. China expressed “serious concern” about Trump’s comments, which it called “irresponsible”.

(Reporting by Hayoung Choi, Josh Smith; Editing by Alison Williams)

U.S. identifies North Korea missile test site it says Kim committed to destroy

FILE PHOTO: A North Korean long-range rocket is launched into the air at the Sohae rocket launch site, North Korea, in this photo released by Kyodo February 7, 2016. Mandatory credit REUTERS/Kyodo

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The missile engine test site that President Donald Trump said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had committed to destroy is a major facility in the western part of the country that has been used for testing engines for long-range missiles, according to a U.S. official.

Trump told reporters after their June 12 summit that Kim had pledged to dismantle one of his missile installations, which would be North Korea’s most concrete concession at the landmark meeting in Singapore.

However, the president at the time did not name the site.

A U.S. official identified it on Wednesday as the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground, saying North Korea “has used this site to test liquid-propellant engines for its long-range ballistic missiles.”

Pyongyang has said its missiles can reach the United States.

“Chairman Kim promised that North Korea would destroy a missile engine test stand soon,” the official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

There was no immediate word on the exact timetable, and North Korea has not publicly confirmed that Kim made such a commitment.

CBS News was the first to identify the site, which is the newest of North Korea’s known major missile testing facilities.

Although Trump has hailed the Singapore summit as a success, skeptics have questioned whether he achieved anything, given that Pyongyang, which has rejected unilateral nuclear disarmament, appeared to make no new tangible commitments in a joint written declaration.

The U.S.-based North Korea monitoring group 38 North said in an analysis at the end of last week there had been no sign of any activity toward dismantling Sohae or any other missile test site.

The U.S. official said: “The United States will continue to monitor this site closely as we move forward in our negotiations.”

LITTLE-KNOWN SITE

What little is known about the Sohae site, located in Tongchang-ri, has been pieced together from analysts’ assessments and the North Korean state news agency KCNA.

It was reported to have been established in 2008 and has research facilities nearby for missile development as well as a tower that can support ballistic missiles. The site is mainly used to test large Paektusan engines built for long-range missiles such as the Hwasong-15.

North Korea has spent considerable effort and resources to develop the site as a “civilian space program” facility, denying that it has a military application, said Jenny Town, a research analyst at the 38 North.

“Presumably, if North Korea does destroy the Sohae facility, they are also signaling that they are willing to stop satellite/rocket launches this time around as well, a point that has derailed negotiations in the past and is a significant new development,” she said.

North Korea has other missile testing facilities but the shutdown, if it happens, would be significant, analysts said.

“The missile testing is not just done in Tongchang-ri so it does not necessarily mean all ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) will be disabled. But the most well-known one is this, so there is a great symbolic meaning if this is shut down,” said Moon Hong-sik, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Strategy in South Korea.

North Korea announced ahead of the Singapore summit the suspension of its ICBM testing and also closed its nuclear bomb test site. U.S. officials, however, have cautioned that such actions are reversible.

Asked on Wednesday whether North Korea has done anything toward denuclearization since the summit, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters: “No, I’m not aware of that. I mean, obviously, it’s the very front end of a process. The detailed negotiations have not begun. I wouldn’t expect that at this point.”

Yang Uk, senior research fellow at the Korea Defence and Security Forum, agreed that a shutdown of the Sohae testing site would be a symbolic gesture rather than a move to technically disable its missile capabilities.

“Sohae has technically been used as an ‘engine’ testing site. North Korea has already finished developing (the) Baekdu Engine, so there would be no problem running ICBM missile programs even if they close down the Sohae site,” Yang said.

The move will only be significant if North Korea takes more than cosmetic steps to fully shutter the site, not just the test stand, said Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the James martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

“It’s only a good deal if they dismantle all the facilities at Sohae and re-employ the scientists in something civilian,” she said.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in WASHINGTON and Christine Kim, Josh Smith, and Jeongmin Kim in SEOUL; Editing by Lisa Schumaker and Darren Schuettler)

Merkel defends nuclear deal, Iran says won’t ‘surrender’ to U.S.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during the 2018 budget debate at the lower house of parliament Bundestag in Berlin, Germany, May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

LONDON (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed back on Wednesday against Washington’s rejection of the Iran nuclear deal, saying the accord helped outside powers worried about Tehran’s regional role to pursue their concerns with the Islamic Republic.

Iran reiterated it would not surrender to U.S. pressure and would resist U.S. “plots”, following President Donald Trump’s abandonment of the 2015 agreement last week.

Repudiating the result of more than a decade of diplomacy, Trump complained that the deal does not cover Iran’s ballistic missiles, its role in regional wars or what happens after the pact begins to expire in 2025.

Major European countries share Trump’s concerns but argue that the nuclear deal is the best way to stop the increasingly influential regional power from obtaining an atomic weapon.

Merkel reasserted a defense of the deal in remarks to lawmakers in the Bundestag lower house of parliament.

“The question is whether you can talk better if you terminate an agreement or if you stay in it … we say you can talk better if you remain in it,” she said.

“This agreement is everything other than ideal, but Iran is, according to all the knowledge of the international nuclear authorities, sticking to the commitments of the agreement.”

The deal between Iran and six world powers lifted most international sanctions in 2016 in return for Tehran curbing its nuclear program, under strict surveillance by the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

Trump last week announced he planned to reimpose an array of sanctions lifted by the accord, and the U.S. Treasury on Tuesday imposed sanctions on Iran’s central bank governor, three other individuals and an Iraq-based bank.

Iran meanwhile said the new U.S. sanctions were an attempt to derail efforts to save the deal.

“With such destructive measures, the American government is trying to influence the will and decision of the remaining signatories of the JCPOA (nuclear agreement),” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying by Fars news agency.

Iran has described the sanctions as illegal and has warned that if talks to rescue the accord fail, it would ramp up its nuclear program to a level more advanced than before.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Trump expected Tehran to leave the deal after the U.S. withdrawal, but Tehran had refused to follow that plan by trying to save the deal with its remaining signatories.

“Trump played his first card, but miscalculated the second move,” Rouhani was quoted as saying by the ISNA agency.

GUARANTEES

He also said Iran would not surrender to U.S. pressures.

“They think they can make the Iranian nation surrender by putting pressures on Iran, by sanctions and even threats of war… The Iranian nation will resist against the U.S. plots,” Rouhani was quoted as saying by ISNA news agency.

However the top advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said he doubted Tehran’s talks with European nations to save the deal would be successful.

“I doubt that the talks with the Europeans will be fruitful. I hope we see good results, but …. we should become self-sufficient,” Ali Akbar Velayati said, Fars news agency reported.

European powers this week vowed to shore up the deal by trying to keep Iran’s oil and investment flowing, but admitted they would struggle to provide the guarantees Tehran seeks.

British, French and German foreign ministers met in Brussels on Tuesday to see how they can save the nuclear deal without the United States, but appeared hard-pressed over how their companies could continue doing business with Iran once Washington begins to reimpose sanctions.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said his meeting with European Union officials in Brussels had been a good start, but he wanted to see guarantees materialize.

The Europeans and Iranians have tasked experts to come up with measures quickly and will meet again in Vienna next week.

Reuters reported on Wednesday that a senior Iranian official has met Chinese oil buyers this week to ask them to maintain imports after U.S. sanctions kick in.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafed, additional reporting by Michelle Martin in Berlin, Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, William Maclean)