Trump threatens “obliteration” as Iran slams sanctions on Khamenei

FILE PHOTO: Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves his hand as he arrives to deliver a speech during a ceremony marking the 30th death anniversary of the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran, Iran June 4, 2019. Official Khamenei website/Handout via REUTERS

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump threatened on Tuesday to obliterate parts of Iran if the Islamic Republic attacked “anything American”, as Iran said the latest U.S. sanctions had closed off any chance of diplomacy.

“Any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force,” Trump tweeted just days the United States came within minutes of bombing Iranian targets.

“In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration,” the U.S. president tweeted.

Trump on Monday signed an executive order imposing sanctions against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other senior figures. Sanctions against Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are expected later this week.

“Imposing useless sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader and the commander of Iran’s diplomacy is the permanent closure of the path of diplomacy,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi tweeted.

“Trump’s desperate administration is destroying the established international mechanisms for maintaining world peace and security.”

The moves came after Iran shot down a U.S. drone last week and Trump called off a retaliatory air strike minutes before impact. It would have been the first time the United States had bombed Iran in decades of hostility between them.

Trump said last week that he had decided at the last minute that too many people would die.

In a televised address on Tuesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said sanctions against Khamenei would have no practical impact because the cleric had no assets abroad.

Rouhani, a pragmatist who won two elections on promises to open Iran up to the world, described the U.S. moves as desperate and called the White House “mentally retarded” – an insult that other Iranian officials have used in the past about Trump, but a departure from Rouhani’s own comparatively measured tone.

Rouhani and his cabinet run Iran’s day-to-day affairs, while Khamenei, in power since 1989, is Iran’s ultimate authority.

“The White House actions mean it is mentally retarded,” Rouhani said. “Tehran’s strategic patience does not mean we have fear.”

U.S. SANCTIONS

The United States has imposed crippling economic sanctions against Iran since last year, when Trump withdrew from an agreement between Tehran and world powers to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions.

The crisis has escalated sharply since last month, when the Trump administration tightened the sanctions, ordering all countries to halt purchases of Iranian oil.

That has effectively starved the Iranian economy of the main source of revenue Tehran uses to import food for its 81 million people, and left Iran’s pragmatic faction with no benefits to show for its nuclear agreement.

Washington says the 2015 agreement reached under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama did not go far enough because it is not permanent and does not cover issues beyond the nuclear program, such as missiles and regional behavior.

Iran says there is no point negotiating with Washington when it has abandoned a deal that was already reached.

The downing of the U.S. drone – which Iran says was over its air space and the United States says was international skies – followed weeks of rising tensions that had begun to take on a military dimension.

The United States and some regional allies have blamed Iran for attacks on tankers in the Gulf, which Tehran denies. Washington’s European allies have repeatedly warned both sides of the danger that a small mistake could lead to war.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi; Writing by Peter Graff and Kevin Liffey; Editing by Jon Boyle)

Why U.S.-Iran tensions could quickly escalate into a crisis

FILE PHOTO: A Iranian Revolutionary Guard boat is seen near the U.S. aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush in the Strait of Hormuz as U.S. Navy helicopters hover nearby on March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed/File Photo/File Photo

By Phil Stewart and Michelle Nichols

WASHINGTON/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Three years ago, when Iran’s military captured 10 U.S.sailors after they mistakenly strayed into Iranian waters, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif jumped on the phone in minutes and worked out the sailors’ release in hours.

Could a similar crisis be so quickly resolved today?

“No, Zarif said in a recent interview with Reuters. “How could it be averted?”

Zarif and the current Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, have never spoken directly, according to Iran’s mission at the United Nations. They instead tend to communicate through name-calling on Twitter or through the media.

“Pompeo makes sure that every time he talks about Iran, he insults me,” Zarif said.  “Why should I even answer his phone call?”

The open rancor between the nations’ two top diplomats underscores growing concern that the lack of any established channel for direct negotiation makes a military confrontation more likely in the event of a misunderstanding or a mishap, according to current and former U.S. officials, foreign diplomats, U.S. lawmakers and foreign policy experts.

The Trump administration this month ordered the deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group, bombers and Patriot missiles to the Middle East, citing intelligence about possible Iranian preparations to attack U.S. forces or interests.

“The danger of an accidental conflict seems to be increasing over each day,” U.S. Senator Angus King, a political independent from Maine, told Reuters as he called for direct dialogue between the United States and Iran.

A senior European diplomat said it was vital for top U.S. and Iranian officials to be on “speaking terms” to prevent an incident from mushrooming into a crisis.

“I hope that there are some channels still existing so we don’t sleepwalk into a situation that nobody wants,” said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The rhetoric that we have is alarming.”

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus declined to address how the administration would communicate with Iran in a crisis similar to the 2016 incident, but said:  “When the time to talk comes, we are confident we will have every means to do so.”

The administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran, she said, aims to force its leaders to the negotiating table.

“If the Iranians are willing to engage on changing their ways to behave like a normal nation,” Ortagus said, “we are willing to talk to them.”

TWITTER DIPLOMACY

In 2016, Kerry and Zarif knew one another well from the complex negotiations to reach a 2015 pact to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Three years later, top-level diplomatic relations have all but disintegrated in the wake of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear pact, its tightening of sanctions on Iranian oil, and its recent move to designate part of Iran’s military as a terrorist group.

U.S. military officials cite growing concern about Iran’s development of precise missiles and its support for proxy forces in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and beyond.

In the absence of direct talks, Twitter has become a common forum for U.S. and Iranian officials to trade biting barbs. On Wednesday, an advisor to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani fired off a tweet at Pompeo castigating him for provoking Iran with military deployments.

“You @SecPompeo do not bring warships to our region and call it deterrence. That’s called provocation,” the advisor, Hesameddin Ashena, tweeted in English. “It compels Iran to illustrate its own deterrence, which you call provocation. You see the cycle?”

That followed a Trump tweet on Sunday threatening to “end” Iran if it sought a fight, and a long history of bitter insults traded by Pompeo and Zarif.

Pompeo in February called Zarif and Iran’s president “front men for a corrupt religious mafia” in a tweet. That same month, another official at Pompeo’s State Department tweeted: “How do you know @JZarif is lying? His lips are moving.”

Zarif, in turn, has used the social media platform to condemn Pompeo and White House National Security Adviser John Bolton’s “pure obsession with Iran,” calling it “the behavior of persistently failing psychotic stalkers.”

‘AMERICANS HAVE OPTIONS’

U.S. officials, diplomats and lawmakers said they doubted Zarif would refuse to take a call from Pompeo in a crisis, given the risks for Iran in any conflict with the U.S. military.

In a Tuesday briefing with reporters, Pompeo appeared to dismiss concerns about Washington’s ability to communicate and negotiate with Iran.

“There are plenty of ways that we can have a communication channel,” Pompeo said.

Diplomats say Oman, Switzerland and Iraq are nations with ties to both countries that could pass messages.

“It’s a little bit like the Israelis – when they need to get messages to people, they can get messages to people,” said a second senior European diplomat.

Representative Michael Waltz – the first U.S. Army Green Beret elected to Congress, said he favored the diplomatic freeze as a way to force Iran into serious negotiations.

“If you don’t have diplomatic isolation, you’re having one-off talks, that lessens the pressure,” said Waltz, who is also a former Pentagon official.

But indirect message-passing can be too cumbersome in a fast-moving crisis, said Kevin Donegan, a retired vice admiral who oversaw U.S. naval forces in the Middle East as commander of the Fifth Fleet when the U.S. sailors were captured by Iran.

Such dealings through intermediaries “require time and will not allow an opportunity to de-escalate a rapidly unfolding tactical situation,” said Donegan, now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who added that he was not commenting on current U.S. policy.

Donegan and Waltz both said it would be helpful to have some kind of hotline between the U.S. and Iranian militaries, but Donegan and other experts were skeptical Iran would agree to such an arrangement.

BACK CHANNELS THROUGH OMAN, IRAQ & RUSSIA?

On May 3 – after Washington became alarmed by intelligence indicating that Iran might be preparing for an attack on the United States or its interests – it sent messages to Iran via “a third party,” one U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also told Congress on May 8 that messages had been sent to “to make sure that it was clear to Iran that we recognized the threat and we were postured to respond.”

Waltz said Dunford told lawmakers at a closed-door hearing that he had sent a message to Qassem Soleimani – the influential commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force – warning him that Iran would be held directly accountable if one of its proxy forces attacks Americans.

“The message now was: ‘We’re not going to hold your proxies accountable'” if they attack U.S. citizens or forces in the region, he said. “‘We’re going to hold you, the regime, accountable.'”

Another official said the United States had authorized Iraq “to let the Iranians know that there is no plausible deniability about attacks on Americans in Iraq” after U.S. intelligence flagged preparations for a possible attack by Iran-backed militias in Iraq.

Joseph Votel, the now retired four-star general who oversaw U.S. troops in the Middle East until March, noted earlier this year that the U.S. military might be able to indirectly get a message to Iranian forces through an existing hotline with Russia meant to avoid accidental conflicts in Syria.

“The Iranians can talk to the Russians,” he said.  “We have a well-established professional communication channel with the Russians.”

But the prospect of relying on the Russian government to get United States out of a crisis with Iran is hardly reassuring to many current and former officials in the United States.

“That would be a risky choice,” said Wendy Sherman, an undersecretary of state in the Obama administration.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Michelle Nichols; Editing by Brian Thevenot)

U.S. senators say Saudi crown prince has gone ‘full gangster’

Retired four-star Army General John Abizaid testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing to be U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Retired Army General John Abizaid, U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to Saudi Arabia, defended the U.S.-Saudi relationship on Wednesday as lawmakers accused the kingdom of a litany of misdeeds and criticized its crown prince as going “full gangster.”

Senators at Abizaid’s confirmation hearing, Trump’s fellow Republicans as well as Democrats, condemned the kingdom’s conduct in the civil war in Yemen, heavy-handed diplomacy and rights abuses including torturing women’s rights activists and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Abizaid called for accountability for the murder of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, and support for human rights, but repeatedly stressed the importance of Washington-Riyadh ties.

Despite increasing tension between the two countries, the United States has not had an ambassador there since Trump became president in January 2017.

“In the long run, we need a strong and mature partnership with Saudi Arabia,” Abizaid told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It is in our interests to make sure that the relationship is sound.”

Abizaid, a retired four-star Army general, led U.S. Central Command during the Iraq war. Expected to easily win Senate confirmation, he was praised by senators from both parties at the hearing.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of the Riyadh government, was killed at a Saudi consulate in Turkey in October. His death fueled simmering discontent in Washington over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and heavy civilian casualties in Yemen’s civil war, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

The House of Representatives has passed a war powers resolution that would end all U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition, but Abizaid said the Trump administration believes strongly that U.S. support should continue.

“Doing so bolsters the self-defense capabilities of our partners and reduces the risk of harm to civilians,” Abizaid said.

‘FULL GANGSTER’

The measure passed the Senate last year, but must go through the chamber again this year to be sent to the White House, where Trump is expected to issue a veto. However, its support in Congress is considered a strong rebuke of Riyadh.

Lawmakers have been strongly critical of Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful Saudi crown prince. Some blame him for Khashoggi’s killing and other human rights abuses.

Eleven suspects have been indicted in Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s murder, and last month a top Saudi official rejected accusations that the crown prince ordered the killing.

Republican Senator Jim Risch, the committee’s chairman, said Washington needed to send a strong message to Saudi Arabia about actions that he said are complicating the relationship.

“It’s going to have to be addressed by the Saudis and by the Crown Prince,” Risch said.

“The Crown Prince has launched Saudi Arabia into a devastating war in Yemen, isolated Qatar, threatening Gulf cooperation and coordination against threats from Iran and regional terrorist groups, detained and tortured members of his own family and effectively hoodwinked and intimidated the Lebanese prime minister,” said Senator Bob Menendez, the committee’s top Democrat.

As Abizaid’s hearing continued, at least two Republicans said bin Salman had gone “full gangster.”

One, Republican Marco Rubio, cited a long list of actions including the imprisonment of women’s rights activists and the 2017 detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri.

Abizaid said in prepared remarks that the Islamic State militant group has been “nearly vanquished on the ground,” but remains a “potent threat” to the United States and its allies.

While contradicted by some U.S. military and intelligence officials, Trump has declared that Islamic State has been driven out of all its territory since announcing in December that he would withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. He claimed that U.S.-led forces had succeeded in their mission to defeat the militant group.

Since then, Trump has decided to leave hundreds of U.S. troops in the country over the longer run.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Jeffrey Benkoe)

North Korea releases detained Americans ahead of anticipated Trump-Kim summit

FILE PHOTO: A combination photo shows Mike Pompeo (L) in Washington, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) in Pyongyang, North Korea and U.S. President Donald Trump (R), in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., respectively from Reuters files. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas (L) & KCNA handout via Reuters & Kevin Lamarque (R)

By Makini Brice and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday that three Americans detained by North Korea have been released and are on their way home with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Trump said he will greet Pompeo and the Americans when they land at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington at 2 a.m. EDT (0600 GMT) Thursday morning.

“I am pleased to inform you that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in the air and on his way back from North Korea with the 3 wonderful gentlemen that everyone is looking so forward to meeting. They seem to be in good health,” Trump wrote in a post on Twitter.

South Korea heralded the move as positive for upcoming talks between Trump and Kim and called on Pyongyang to also release six South Korean detainees.

Pompeo had arrived in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, earlier on Wednesday from Japan and headed to its Koryo Hotel for meetings.

The three U.S. detainees being released are Korean-American missionary Kim Dong-chul; Kim Sang-duk, also known as Tony Kim, who spent a month teaching at the foreign-funded Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) before he was arrested in 2017; and Kim Hak-song, who also taught at PUST.

Until now, the only American released by North Korea during Trump’s presidency has been Otto Warmbier, a 22—year-old university student who returned to the United States in a coma last summer after 17 months of captivity. He died days later.

Warmbier’s death escalated U.S.-North Korea tensions, already running high at the time over Pyongyang’s stepped-up missile tests.

The upcoming U.S.-North Korea summit has sparked a flurry of diplomacy, with Japan, South Korea and China holding a high-level meeting in Tokyo on Wednesday.

However, North Korea reminded the United States on Wednesday there still was tension between them, warning it against “making words and acts that may destroy the hard-won atmosphere of dialogue,” the North’s state media said.

“The U.S. is persistently clinging to the hostile policy toward the DPRK, misleading the public opinion. Such behavior may result in endangering the security of its own country,” it added, referring to the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

(Reporting by Makini Brice and Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Ju-min Park and Christine Kim in Seoul; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Paul Tait and Bill Trott)

U.S. envoy for North Korean affairs travels to Japan, Thailand

U.S. envoy for North Korean affairs travels to Japan, Thailand

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. envoy for North Korea will travel to Japan and Thailand next week to discuss how to increase pressure on Pyongyang after its latest ballistic missile test, the U.S. State Department said on Friday.

North Korea, formally called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), last week tested its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), saying the device could reach all of the United States.

Joseph Yun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, will travel to Japan and Thailand Dec. 11-15 to meet government officials “to discuss ways to strengthen the pressure campaign following the DPRK’s latest ballistic missile test,” the State Department said in a brief written statement.

“The United States looks forward to continuing its partnership with both these nations so that the DPRK will return to credible talks on denuclearization,” it added.

Tensions have risen markedly in recent months over North Korea’s development, in defiance of repeated rounds of U.N. sanctions, of nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching the United States.

Last week’s missile test prompted a U.S. warning that North Korea’s leadership would be “utterly destroyed” if war were to break out. The Pentagon has mounted repeated shows of force after North Korean tests.

The United States has sent mixed signals about its interest in talks with the North, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying that Washington was pursuing such contacts but President Trump tweeting that this was a waste of time.

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Toni Reinhold)

Mattis talks diplomacy on North Korea ahead of Trump’s Asia tour

Mattis talks diplomacy on North Korea ahead of Trump's Asia tour

By Phil Stewart

PANMUNJOM, South Korea (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis emphasized diplomatic efforts to resolve the North Korean missile and nuclear crisis as he stood at the tense and heavily fortified border between North and South on Friday, saying: “Our goal is not war.”

His remarks came before U.S. President Donald Trump – who has threatened to destroy the North if necessary – leaves on his first trip to Asia next week, including a stop in South Korea to meet President Moon Jae-in.

For his part, Moon, after talks with Mattis, said the “aggressive deployment” of U.S. strategic assets in the region, which have included overflights by U.S. bombers, had been effective in deterring the North Korean threat.

Tension between North Korea and the United States has been building after a series of nuclear and missile tests by Pyongyang and bellicose verbal exchanges between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, stoking fears any miscalculation could lead to an armed confrontation.

“North Korean provocations continue to threaten regional and global security despite unanimous condemnation by the United Nations Security Council,” Mattis said in prepared remarks as he visited the demilitarized zone (DMZ).

“As Secretary of State Tillerson has made clear, our goal is not war, but rather the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

Standing alongside Mattis, South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo said: “We together will continue to defend peace through strong will and strong might.”

TRUMP VISIT LOOMS

Ahead of Trump’s visit to Asia, Mattis has emphasized diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful solution to the crisis during his week-long trip to the region.

“That’s really what it was all about – to keep the (North Korea) effort firmly in the diplomatic lane for resolution,” Mattis said earlier this week after three days of meetings with Asian defense chiefs in the Philippines.

At the same time, the U.S. and South Korean militaries are looking for ways to deter Pyongyang and bolster the South’s defenses.

Washington’s top military officer, Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with his South Korean counterpart, General Kyeong Doo Jeong, a U.S. military statement said. Dunford renewed U.S. warnings of retaliation to further provocations.

“(Dunford) reaffirmed that any attack by North Korea would be met with a response that will be overwhelming and effective, using the full range of U.S. military capabilities,” the statement said.

The United States flew Air Force bombers over waters east of North Korea last month in a show of force. The U.S. Navy, in what it says was a long-planned maneuver, will have three U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups in the Pacific in the coming days.

Last week, CIA chief Mike Pompeo said North Korea could be only months away from developing the ability to hit the United States with nuclear weapons, a scenario Trump has vowed to prevent.

U.S. intelligence experts say Pyongyang believes it needs the weapons to ensure its survival and have been skeptical about diplomatic efforts, focusing on sanctions, to get Pyongyang to denuclearize.

The United States on Thursday imposed sanctions on seven North Korean individuals and three entities for “flagrant” human rights abuses, including killings, torture, forced labor and the hunting down of asylum seekers abroad.

In a speech last month at the United Nations, Trump threatened to destroy North Korea if necessary to defend the United States and allies. Kim has blasted Trump as “mentally deranged.”

Despite the rhetoric, White House officials say Trump is looking for a peaceful resolution. But all options, including military ones, are on the table.

“Do we have military options in defense for attack, if our allies are attacked? Of course we do. But everyone is out for a peaceful resolution,” Mattis told reporters traveling with him this week.

“No one’s rushing for war.”

Separately, North Korea released a South Korean fishing boat which had been found to be in North Korean waters illegally, state media said.

The crew of 10 – seven South Koreans and three Vietnamese – were released on Friday evening, a spokesman for South Korea’s coastguard told Reuters. The return of the boat, which had been reported as missing from Saturday, may have eased already strained relations between North and South.

The two sides are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The North regularly threatens to destroy the South and the United States.

(Additional reporting by Christine Kim and James Pearson; Writing by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie)

Exclusive: Trump says ‘major, major’ conflict with North Korea possible, but seeks diplomacy

U.S. President Donald Trump looks out a window of the Oval Office following an interview with Reuters at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 27, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Stephen J. Adler, Steve Holland and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday a major conflict with North Korea is possible in the standoff over its nuclear and missile programs, but he would prefer a diplomatic outcome to the dispute.

“There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely,” Trump told Reuters in an Oval Office interview ahead of his 100th day in office on Saturday.

Nonetheless, Trump said he wanted to peacefully resolve a crisis that has bedeviled multiple U.S. presidents, a path that he and his administration are emphasizing by preparing a variety of new economic sanctions while not taking the military option off the table.

“We’d love to solve things diplomatically but it’s very difficult,” he said.

In other highlights of the 42-minute interview, Trump was cool to speaking again with Taiwan’s president after an earlier telephone call with her angered China.

He also said he wants South Korea to pay the cost of the U.S. THAAD anti-missile defense system, which he estimated at $1 billion, and intends to renegotiate or terminate a U.S. free trade pact with South Korea because of a deep trade deficit with Seoul.

Asked when he would announce his intention to renegotiate the pact, Trump said: “Very soon. I’m announcing it now.”

Trump also said he was considering adding stops to Israel and Saudi Arabia to a Europe trip next month, emphasizing that he wanted to see an Israeli-Palestinian peace. He complained that Saudi Arabia was not paying its fair share for U.S. defense.

Asked about the fight against Islamic State, Trump said the militant group had to be defeated.

“I have to say, there is an end. And it has to be humiliation,” he said, when asked about what the endgame was for defeating Islamist violent extremism.

XI ‘TRYING VERY HARD’

Trump said North Korea was his biggest global challenge. He lavished praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping for Chinese assistance in trying to rein in Pyongyang. The two leaders met in Florida earlier this month.

“I believe he is trying very hard. He certainly doesn’t want to see turmoil and death. He doesn’t want to see it. He is a good man. He is a very good man and I got to know him very well.

“With that being said, he loves China and he loves the people of China. I know he would like to be able to do something, perhaps it’s possible that he can’t,” Trump said.

Trump spoke just a day after he and his top national security advisers briefed U.S. lawmakers on the North Korean threat and one day before Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will press the United Nations Security Council on sanctions to further isolate Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programs.

The Trump administration on Wednesday declared North Korea “an urgent national security threat and top foreign policy priority.” It said it was focusing on economic and diplomatic pressure, including Chinese cooperation in containing its defiant neighbor and ally, and remained open to negotiations.

U.S. officials said military strikes remained an option but played down the prospect, though the administration has sent an aircraft carrier and a nuclear-powered submarine to the region in a show of force.

Any direct U.S. military action would run the risk of massive North Korean retaliation and huge casualties in Japan and South Korea and among U.S. forces in both countries.

‘I HOPE HE’S RATIONAL’

Trump, asked if he considered North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to be rational, said he was operating from the assumption that he is rational. He noted that Kim had taken over his country at an early age.

“He’s 27 years old. His father dies, took over a regime. So say what you want but that is not easy, especially at that age.

“I’m not giving him credit or not giving him credit, I’m just saying that’s a very hard thing to do. As to whether or not he’s rational, I have no opinion on it. I hope he’s rational,” he said.

Trump, sipping a Coke delivered by an aide after the president ordered it by pressing a button on his desk, rebuffed an overture from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, who told Reuters a direct phone call with Trump could take place again after their first conversation in early December angered Beijing.

China considers neighboring Taiwan to be a renegade province.

“My problem is that I have established a very good personal relationship with President Xi,” said Trump. “I really feel that he is doing everything in his power to help us with a big situation. So I wouldn’t want to be causing difficulty right now for him.

“So I would certainly want to speak to him first.”

Trump also said he hoped to avoid a potential government shutdown amid a dispute between congressional Republicans and Democrats over a spending deal with a Saturday deadline looming.

But he said if a shutdown takes place, it will be the Democrats’ fault for trying to add money to the legislation to “bail out Puerto Rico” and other items.

He also defended the one-page tax plan he unveiled on Wednesday from criticism that it would increase the U.S. deficit, saying better trade deals and economic growth would offset the costs.

“We will do trade deals that are going to make up for a tremendous amount of the deficit. We are going to be doing trade deals that are going to be much better trade deals,” Trump said.

(Editing by Ross Colvin)

Trump greets Egyptian-American freed from Egyptian detention

Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian-American woman detained in Egypt for nearly three years on human trafficking charges, meets with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Friday welcomed back to the United States Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian-American charity worker whose release from jail in Egypt was sought by Trump when he met Egypt’s president early this month.

Trump and his aides had engaged in behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts to gain her freedom after attempts by the previous Obama administration failed.

She was released from jail on Tuesday after nearly three years of detention on human trafficking charges. Aides said Trump had personally requested her release in a meeting April 3 with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi but had done so privately and made no public mention of her case.

Hijazi, 30, sat next to Trump in the Oval Office for a meeting that also included Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, her husband, Jared Kushner, and Dina Powell, the top White House aide who accompanied her home on a U.S. military jet on Thursday. Ivanka Trump and Kushner are top advisers to the president.

“We are very happy to have Aya back home and it’s a great honor to have her in the Oval Office, with her brother,” Trump said, declining to answer questions about her case. Hijazi was accompanied by her brother, Basel.

Hijazi, an Egyptian who holds U.S. citizenship, was acquitted by a Cairo court on Sunday along with seven others who had worked with street children.

Hijazi, 30, was flown to Joint Base Andrews, the U.S. military airfield near Washington. She founded Belady, a non-governmental organization that promotes a better life for street children.

She had been in custody for 33 months in violation of Egyptian law, which states that the maximum period for pretrial detention is 24 months.

U.S. officials had raised Hijazi’s case with Egypt soon after Trump took office on Jan. 20, aides said.

Pressed on how Trump managed to gain her release when President Barack Obama had not, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said he would leave it to others “to look at the different strategies to see why the president was successful” and Obama was not. Critics had accused the Obama administration of indifference to her case.

Since toppling President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in mid-2013, Sisi’s government has cracked down on the opposition, killing hundreds of Brotherhood supporters and jailing thousands. The net has widened to include liberal and secular activists.

Two Republican U.S. senators, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, called on the Egyptian government to take more steps to improve human rights.

“We urge the Government of Egypt to build on this important first step by releasing all those who have been wrongly imprisoned, upholding its international human rights obligations, and respecting the Egyptian people’s right to freedom of expression and rule of law,” they said in a statement.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, additional reporting by Mohammed Zargham; Editing by Alistair Bell)

South Korea warns of risk North may abduct citizens abroad

Flags of North Korea and China

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea said on Monday it was on guard for the possibility North Korea may try to snatch its citizens abroad or conduct “terrorist acts” after the North accused it of abducting North Korean workers from a restaurant in China.

“All measures of precaution” were in place for the safety of South Koreans abroad including an order to beef up security at diplomatic missions, said the South’s Unification Ministry, which handles issues related to the North.

“We are on alert for the possibility that the North may try to abduct our citizens or conduct terrorist acts abroad,” ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee told a briefing.

The two Korea’s have been fierce rivals since the 1950-53 Korean War and tension on the peninsula has been high since January when North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test. It followed that with a string of missile tests in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

South Korea said in April 13 North Korean workers at a restaurant run by the North in China had defected. North Korea accused the South of a “hideous abduction”.

North Korea proposed sending family members of the 13 to South Korea for face-to-face meetings but the South rejected the suggestion.

About 29,000 people have left North Korea and arrived in the South since the Korean war, including 1,276 last year, with numbers declining since a 2009 peak. In the first quarter of this year, 342 North Koreans arrived in the South.

(Reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Robert Birsel)

North Korea sentences U.S. student to hard labor, Washington condemns punishment

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s supreme court sentenced American student Otto Warmbier, who was arrested while visiting the country, to 15 years of hard labor on Wednesday for crimes against the state, a punishment Washington condemned as politically motivated.

The U.S. State Department called the sentence “unduly harsh” and White House spokesman Josh Earnest said it was “increasingly clear” that North Korea sought to use U.S. citizens as pawns to pursue a political agenda.

Warmbier, a 21-year-old University of Virginia student, was detained in January for trying to steal an item bearing a propaganda slogan from his hotel in Pyongyang, North Korean media said previously.

“The accused confessed to the serious offense against the DPRK he had committed, pursuant to the U.S. government’s hostile policy toward it, in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist,” the state-controlled KCNA news agency reported, using the acronym for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Japan’s Kyodo news agency published a picture of Warmbier being led from the courtroom by two guards, with his head bowed, but visibly distressed.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner called on North Korea to pardon Warmbier, a student from Wyoming, Ohio, and release him immediately on humanitarian grounds.

Speaking at a regular news briefing in Washington, Toner said the case underscored the risks associated with travel to North Korea, and added: “The Department of State strongly recommends against all travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea.”

Toner said a representative of the Swedish embassy, which looks after U.S. affairs in North Korea, had visited Warmbier in prison and was present at the sentencing.

“We’re going to remain in very close coordination with the Swedes on this matter. It’s my understanding that he was in reasonable health,” Toner said.

The United States has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, a country with which it remains technically at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty.

Human Rights Watch also condemned the sentence. “North Korea’s sentencing of Otto Warmbier to 15 years hard labor for a college-style prank is outrageous and shocking, and should not be permitted to stand,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW’s Asia division, said in an emailed statement.

Warmbier’s defense attorney said the gravity of his crime was such that he would not be able to pay even with his death but proposed to the court a sentence reduced from the prosecution’s request of a life sentence, KCNA said.

Last month, Warmbier told a media conference in Pyongyang that his crime was “very severe and pre-planned.”

Warmbier’s parents could not immediately be reached.

A spokesman for the University of Virginia said the school was in touch with Warmbier’s family, but declined further comment. Warmbier majors in economics with a minor in global sustainability, according to his social media profiles.

Warmbier was at the end of a five-day New Year’s group tour of North Korea when he was delayed at airport immigration before being taken away by officials, according to the tour operator that had arranged the trip.

Warmbier’s sentencing comes as North Korea is increasingly isolated over its nuclear weapons program. This month the U.N. Security Council imposed tough new resolutions month following a North Korea nuclear test in January and a long-range rocket launch last month.

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama issued an executive order imposing “robust new sanctions” on North Korea after its Jan. 6 nuclear test and Feb. 7 rocket launch that used ballistic missile technology, the White House said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said this week that the country would soon test a nuclear warhead and ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, in what would be a direct violation of U.N. resolutions.

North Korea has a long history of detaining foreigners and has used jailed Americans in the past to extract high-profile visits from the United States.

North Korea is also holding a Korean-Canadian Christian pastor it sentenced to hard labor for life in December for subversion, a Korean-American and three South Koreans.

It has previously handed down lengthy sentences to foreigners before freeing them.

In 2014, North Korea released three detained Americans.

Ohio Governor John Kasich, who is also a Republican presidential candidate, called on North Korea to release Warmbier, saying his detention was completely unjustified.

Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who had previously traveled to North Korea, met the North’s ambassador to the United Nations on Tuesday to press for Warmbier’s release, the New York Times reported.

“I urged the humanitarian release of Otto, and they agreed to convey our request,” Richardson was quoted as saying.

While most tourists to North Korea are from China, roughly 6,000 Westerners visit annually, although the United States and Canada advise against it. Most visitors are curious about life in the reclusive state and ignore critics who say their dollars prop up a repressive system.

(Additional reporting by James Pearson and Ben Klayman in Detroit and Doina Chiacu, Jeff Mason, Timothy Garder and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Frances Kerry and James Dalgleish)