North Korea seen reinstalling border loudspeakers; satellite photos show liaison office standing but damaged

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea is reinstalling loudspeakers blaring propaganda across the border in its latest step away from inter-Korean peace agreements, prompting the South’s military to explore similar moves, a South Korean military source said on Tuesday.

Tension between the two Koreas has risen in recent weeks after the North blew up a joint liaison office on its side of the border, declared an end to dialogue and threatened military action.

North Korea’s military was seen putting up loudspeakers near the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Such systems were taken down after the two Koreas signed an accord in 2018 to cease “all hostile acts,” the military official said.

“We’re also considering reinstalling our own loudspeakers,” he said. “But the North hasn’t begun any broadcast yet, and we’re just getting ready to be able to counteract at any time.”

A spokeswoman at Seoul’s defense ministry declined to confirm North Korea’s moves but reiterated at a regular briefing that Pyongyang would “have to pay for the consequences” if it continues to defy joint efforts to foster peace.

The two countries have for decades pumped out propaganda from huge banks of speakers as a form of psychological warfare. The South aired a blend of news, Korean pop songs and criticism of the northern regime, while the North blasted the South and praised its own socialist system.

Commercial satellite imagery of the liaison office site on Monday showed that the building remained standing, but had been heavily damaged.

Analysts at U.S.-based 38 North, which tracks North Korea, said last week that the explosion “was clearly not a controlled detonation, as the building was not leveled and there was significant collateral damage to the adjacent buildings.”

The North began taking its recent actions as it denounced North Korean defectors in the South sending propaganda leaflets across the border.

Several defector-led groups have regularly sent flyers, food, $1 bills, mini radios and USB sticks containing South Korean dramas and news, usually by balloon or in bottles in rivers.

One group, led by Park Sang-hak, who fled the isolated state in 2000, said on Tuesday it flew 20 balloons containing 500,000 leaflets, 500 booklets on South Korea and 2,000 $1 bills.

South Korea’s government has pursued legal action to stop such activities, citing safety concerns for residents in border towns, but controversy remains over whether it violates the country’s protections for freedom of expression.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry handling inter-Korean affairs issued a statement vowing a stern response to the leaflet launches by Park’s group.

Pyongyang’s state media said on Monday angry North Koreans have also prepared some 12 million leaflets to be sent back.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin. Additional reporting by Josh Smith. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

After military shake-up, Erdogan says Turkey to tackle Kurds in Syria

: Turkish army tanks drive towards to the border in Karkamis on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern Gaziantep province, Turkey, August 25,

By Dominic Evans and Orhan Coskun

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Days after a reshuffle of Turkey’s top military commanders, President Tayyip Erdogan has revived warnings of military action against Kurdish fighters in Syria that could set back the U.S.-led battle against Islamic State.

Kurdish militia are spearheading an assault against the hardline militants in their Syrian stronghold Raqqa, from where Islamic State has planned attacks around the world for the past three years.

But U.S. backing for the Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria has infuriated Turkey, which views their growing battlefield strength as a security threat due to a decades-old insurgency by the Kurdish PKK within in its borders.

There have been regular exchanges of rocket and artillery fire in recent weeks between Turkish forces and YPG fighters who control part of Syria’s northwestern border.

Turkey, which has the second largest army in NATO after the United States, reinforced that section of the border at the weekend with artillery and tanks and Erdogan said Turkey was ready to take action.

“We will not leave the separatist organization in peace in both Iraq and Syria,” Erdogan said in a speech on Saturday in the eastern town of Malatya, referring to the YPG in Syria and PKK bases in Iraq. “We know that if we do not drain the swamp, we cannot get rid of flies.”

The YPG denies Turkish allegations of links with Kurdish militants inside Turkey, saying it is only interested in self-rule in Syria and warning that any Turkish assault will draw its fighters away from the battle against Islamic State which they are waging in an alliance with local Arab forces.

Erdogan’s comments follow the appointment of three new leaders of Turkey’s army, air force and navy last week – moves which analysts and officials said were at least partly aimed at preparing for any campaign against the YPG militia.

Turkish forces swept into north Syria last year to seize territory from Islamic State, while also cutting off Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria from the Kurdish pocket of Afrin further west. They thereby prevented Kurdish control over almost the whole sweep of the border – Ankara’s worst-case scenario.

Recent clashes have centered around the Arab towns of Tal Rifaat and Minnigh, near Afrin, which are held by the Kurdish YPG and allied fighters.

Erdogan said Turkey’s military incursion last year dealt a blow to “terrorist projects” in the region and promised further action. “We will make new and important moves soon,” he said.

 

“MORE ACTIVE” FIGHT

His comments follow weeks of warnings from Turkey of possible military action against the YPG.

Washington’s concern to prevent any confrontation which deflects the Kurdish forces attacking Raqqa may help stay Ankara’s hand, but a Turkish government source said last week’s changes in military leadership have prepared the ground.

“With this new structure, some steps will be taken to be more active in the struggle against terror,” the source said. “A structure that acts according to the realities of the region will be formed”.

The battle for Raqqa has been underway since June, and a senior U.S. official said on Friday that 2,000 Islamic State fighters are believed to be still defending positions and “fighting for every last block” in the city.

Even after the recapture of Raqqa, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has left open the possibility of longer-term American assistance to the YPG.

The influence of Turkey’s once-dominant military has decreased dramatically since Erdogan came to power nearly 15 years ago. A purge in senior ranks since last year’s failed military coup has stripped it of 40 percent of top officers.

Last Wednesday’s appointments were issued by the Supreme Military Council, a body which despite its name is now dominated by politicians loyal to Erdogan.

“Of course the political will is behind these decisions, Erdogan’s preferences are behind them,” the source said. “But the restructuring of the Turkish Armed Forces and the demand for a more active fight against the PKK and Islamic State also has a role”.

Vacancies in senior military ranks resulting from the year-long purge would not be filled immediately, he said, but would be addressed over time.

While all three forces – air, land and sea – are under new command, focus has centered on the new army chief Yasar Guler. As head of Turkey’s gendarmerie, he was seen to take a tough line against the PKK and the movement of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen blamed by the government for the July 2016 coup attempt.

Ankara considers the YPG an extension of the PKK, which is designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and European Union.

Can Kasapoglu, a defense analyst at the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), said the YPG “remains at the epicenter of Turkey’s threat perception”.

Guler was well-placed to address Turkey’s “transnational counter-terrorism priorities” and lead the campaign against Kurdish forces because of his past roles as chief of military intelligence, head of gendarmerie and postings to NATO.

“There is an undeniable likelihood that Turkey’s new top military chain of command might have to lead a major campaign against the YPG,” Kasapoglu said.

Guler is now favorite to take over from the overall head of the Turkish armed forces, General Hulusi Akar, who is due to step down in two years.

“Guler gets on well with members of Erdogan’s AK Party and is known for his hardline performance against the PKK…and the Gulen movement,” said Metin Gurcan an independent security analyst and retired Turkish military officer who now writes a column for Al-Monitor news website.

For the president, who faces a re-election campaign in 2019, a smooth succession from Akar to Guler would avoid any military upheaval which could send his plans off-course, Gurcan said.

“Until 2023, Erdogan should have smooth sailing without disruption from the Turkish armed forces.”

 

(Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz and Dirimcan Barut in Ankara; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

 

North Korea ready to teach U.S. ‘severe lesson’, says U.N. abused its authority

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho (C) walks toward an escalator during ongoing meetings at the Philippine International Convention Center

MANILA (Reuters) – North Korea is ready to give the United States a “severe lesson” with its strategic nuclear force if it takes military action against it, and will not put its nuclear program or its missiles on the negotiating table, it said in a statement to a regional meeting on Monday.

In a transcript of a statement by Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, which was distributed to media in Manila, Pyongyang called new U.N. sanctions “fabricated” and warned there would be “strong follow-up measures” and acts of justice. It said the resolution showed the United Nations had abused its authority.

It said its intercontinental ballistic missile tests in July proved that the entire United States was in its firing range, and those missiles were a legitimate means of self-defense.

It was not immediately clear whether the statement was read to the ASEAN Regional Forum on Monday.

 

 

(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales and Manolo Serapio Jr; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Nick Macfie)

 

U.S. policy of ‘strategic patience’ with North Korea over: Tillerson

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) speaks as South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se looks on during a news conference in Seoul, South Korea March 17, 2017. REUTERS/JUNG Yeon-Je

By Ju-min Park and James Pearson

SEOUL (Reuters) – A U.S. policy of strategic patience with North Korea has ended, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in South Korea on Friday, adding that military action would be “on the table” if North Korea elevated the threat level.

Tillerson began his first Asian visit as secretary of state in Japan on Wednesday and will travel to China on Saturday with a main focus on finding a “new approach” on North Korea after what he described as two decades of failed efforts to denuclearize the insular nation.

“Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended. We are exploring a new range of security and diplomatic measures. All options are on the table,” Tillerson told a news conference in Seoul.

He said any North Korean actions that threatened the South would be met with “an appropriate response”.

“If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action, that option is on the table,” Tillerson said when asked about military action.

Tillerson also called on China to implement sanctions against North Korea and said there was no need for China to punish South Korea for deploying an advanced U.S. anti-missile system aimed at defending against North Korea.

China says the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system’s powerful radar is a threat to its security.

“We believe these actions are unnecessary and troubling,” Tillerson said, referring to what South Korea sees as Chinese retaliation in the form of business restrictions in response to the deployment of the missile system.

“We also believe it is not the way for a regional power to help resolve what is a serious threat for everyone. So we hope China will alter its position on punishing South Korea.”

“We hope they will work with us to eliminate the reason THAAD is required.”

North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests and a series of missile launches since the beginning of last year.

Last week, it launched four more ballistic missiles and is working to develop nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the United States.

South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se told the joint news conference the missile system was only intended to defend against North Korea, not any other country.

FACING OFF AT THE DMZ

Earlier, Tillerson visited the Demilitarized Zone, and looked across the heavily fortified border at armed North Korean guards, staring back. He met some of the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

Tillerson also met South Korean Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who is also acting president.

The latest bout of tension with North Korea comes at a time of political turmoil in South Korea. President Park Geun-hye was ousted last week after being impeached in a corruption scandal and an election for a new president will be on May 9.

A liberal opposition politician, Moon Jae-in, who has raised questions about the THAAD deployment, is leading in the opinion polls.

Tillerson, a former oil executive with no prior diplomatic experience, said he expected a new government would “continue to be supportive” of the deployment, adding it was also intended to protect U.S. troops in South Korea.

China resents U.S. pressure to do more on North Korea and says it is doing all it can but will not take steps to threatened the livelihoods of the North Korean people.

China has urged North Korea to stop its nuclear and missile tests and said South Korea and the United States should stop joint military exercises and seek talks instead.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying reiterated that talks were the best way to resolve the problems of the Korean peninsula.

“As a close neighbor of the peninsula, China has even more reason than any other country to care about the situation,” she told a briefing.

Hua also said the THAAD would “upset the regional strategic balance”. Its radar, with a range of more than 2,000 km (1,250 miles), meant it could cover a large part of China, far outside the scope of the threat South Korea faces, Hua said.

“We do not oppose South Korean taking necessary measures to protect its security, but these measures cannot be based upon harming the security interests of South Korea’s friendly neighbor, China,” she said.

(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING, Christine Kim in SEOUL; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)