Kim Jong Un rides again as North Korea warns U.S. against using military force

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea said it would take “prompt corresponding actions” if the United States resorts to military force, state media reported on Wednesday, as tensions rise ahead of Pyongyang’s year-end deadline for stalled denuclearization talks.

The statement came just hours after North Korea announced it would convene a rare gathering of top ruling-party officials later this month, and state media showed photos of leader Kim Jong Un taking a second symbolic horse ride on the country’s sacred Mt. Paektu.

U.S. President Donald Trump, in Britain for a NATO summit, said on Tuesday that Washington could use military force against North Korea “if we have to”, though he added he still hoped for talks.

Kim was “displeased to hear” those comments, Pak Jong Chon, chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army, said in a statement carried by North Korea’s state news agency KCNA.

“I clearly state here that if the U.S. uses any armed forces against the DPRK, we will also take prompt corresponding actions at any level,” Pak said, using the initials of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“The use of armed forces against the DPRK will be a horrible thing for the U.S.”

North Korea and the United States are still technically at war and the state of truce could turn into an “all-out armed conflict any moment” even by accident, Pak said.

For the second time in two months, Kim visited Mt Paektu on horseback, this time accompanied by senior military officers, aimed at instilling the mountain’s “indefatigable revolutionary spirit” in the people, KCNA reported.

Kim has warned the United States it has until the end of the year to offer more concessions or North Korea will pursue an unspecified “new path”. Analysts believe that may include a resumption of intercontinental ballistic missile launches or nuclear tests.

Washington has urged North Korea to give up significant portions of its nuclear arsenal before punishing international sanctions are eased, while Pyongyang has accused the United States of “gangster-like” demands for unilateral disarmament.

U.S. officials have called for more talks, while playing down the deadline as “artificial” and warning that it would be a “huge mistake and a missed opportunity” for North Korea to take any provocative steps.

But North Korean state media have carried a steady chorus of statements in recent weeks, saying Washington should not ignore the warning and dismissing U.S. calls for talks as a stalling tactic.

SENIOR LEADERS TO MEET

North Korea announced that a Plenary Meeting of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea would meet sometime in late December.

KCNA said the plenum would discuss and decide on “crucial issues” in light of the “changed situation at home and abroad”.

The timing of this plenum is unusual because it comes before the year-end deadline, as well as before Kim’s expected New Year’s address, said Rachel Minyoung Lee, an analyst with NK News, a website that monitors North Korea.

“That Pyongyang is opting to hold this meeting before the end of the year indicates its strong resolve,” she said. “Taking the party plenum announcement and the Mount Paektu visit together, the ‘resolve’ seems to be that North Korea will not cave in to the U.S., and that it will keep charging on despite the difficulties.”

Kim has often visited Mt. Paektu around the time of major developments in North Korea, including missile launches.

Kim said there was a need to prepare for “the harshness and protracted character of our revolution,” according to KCNA.

Lee said the fact that Kim was accompanied by senior army officers rather than party officials, combined with other recent military-related announcements by state media, suggests North Korea “will likely transition to a more militaristic line”.

While Kim’s plans are still unclear, the signals suggest the window for diplomacy is closing fast, if it is not already shut, said John Delury of Seoul’s Yonsei University.

“The message is ‘buckle up, it’s going to be a big year for us next year’,” he said. “And not a year of diplomacy and summitry, but rather of national strength.”

(Reporting by Josh Smith. Editing by Lincoln Feast and Gareth Jones)

Iran, U.S. tension is a “clash of wills”: Guards commander

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with Iran's Chief of Staff Major General Mohammad Baqeri in Ankara, Turkey August 16, 2017. Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS

GENEVA (Reuters) – The standoff between Iran and the United States is a “clash of wills”, a senior commander of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards said on Thursday, suggesting any enemy “adventurism” would meet a crushing response, Fars news agency reported.

Tensions have spiked between the two countries after Washington sent more military forces to the Middle East in a show of force against what U.S. officials say are Iranian threats to its troops and interests in the region.

FILE PHOTO: Iranian Revolutionary Guards speed boats are seen near the USS John C. Stennis CVN-74 (not pictured) as it makes its way to gulf through strait of Hormuz, December 21, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed/File Phot

FILE PHOTO: Iranian Revolutionary Guards speed boats are seen near the USS John C. Stennis CVN-74 (not pictured) as it makes its way to gulf through strait of Hormuz, December 21, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed/File Photo

“The confrontation and face-off of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the malicious government of America is the arena for a clash of wills,” Iran’s armed forces chief of staff Major General Mohammad Baqeri said.

He pointed to a battle during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war where Iran was victorious and said the outcome could be a message that Iran will have a “hard, crushing and obliterating response” for any enemy “adventurism”.

On Sunday, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!”

Trump restored U.S. sanctions on Iran last year and tightened them this month, ordering all countries to halt imports of Iranian oil or face sanctions of their own.

Trump wants Iran to come to the negotiating table to reach a new deal with more curbs on its nuclear and missile programs.

Reiterating Iran’s stance, the spokesman for its Supreme National Security Council said on Thursday that “There will not be any negotiations between Iran and America.”

Keyvan Khosravi was also quoted as saying by the state broadcaster that some officials from several countries have visited Iran recently, “mostly representing the United States.”

He did not elaborate, but the foreign minister of Oman, which in the past helped pave the way for negotiations between Iran and the United States, visited Tehran on Monday.

“Without exception, the message of the power and resistance of the Iranian nation was conveyed to them,” he said.

In Berlin, a German diplomatic source told Reuters that Jens Ploetner, a political director in Germany’s Foreign Ministry, was in Tehran on Thursday for meetings with Iranian officials to try to preserve the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and cool tensions in the region.

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London, Editing by William Maclean)

China warns against force as North Korea prepares celebration

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves to people cheering during an opening ceremony of a newly constructed residential complex in Ryomyong street in Pyongyang, North Korea April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

By Michael Martina and Sue-Lin Wong

BEIJING/PYONGYANG (Reuters) – Military force cannot resolve tension over North Korea, China said on Thursday, while an influential Chinese newspaper urged the North to halt its nuclear programme in exchange for Chinese protection.

With a U.S. aircraft carrier group steaming to the area and tension rising, South Korea said it believed the United States would consult it before any pre-emptive strike against the North.

Fears have been growing that the reclusive North could soon conduct its sixth nuclear test or more missile launches in defiance of U.N. sanctions and stark warnings from the United States that a policy of patience was over.

China, North Korea’s sole major ally and benefactor, which nevertheless opposes its weapons programme, has called for talks leading to a peaceful resolution and the denuclearisation of the peninsula.

“Military force cannot resolve the issue,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters in Beijing.

“Amid challenge there is opportunity. Amid tensions we will also find a kind of opportunity to return to talks.”

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While U.S. President Donald Trump has put North Korea on notice that he would not tolerate any provocation, U.S. officials have said his administration was focusing its strategy on tougher economic sanctions.

Trump has diverted the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group towards the Korean peninsula, which could take more than a week to arrive, in a show of force aimed at deterring North Korea from conducting another nuclear test or launching more missiles to coincide with important events and anniversaries.

Speculation about U.S. military action grew after the U.S. Navy fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airfield last week in response to a deadly gas attack.

Wang warned that history would hold any instigator to account.

“Whoever provokes the situation, whoever continues to make trouble in this place, they will have to assume historical responsibility,” Wang said.

South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se told parliament in Seoul he believed Washington would consult Seoul if it was considering a pre-emptive strike. The United States has about 28,500 troops in South Korea.

A Washington-based think-tank that monitors North Korea, 38 North, said satellite images on Wednesday showed activity around the North’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site on the east coast that indicated it was ready for a new test.

South Korean officials said there were no new signs to indicate a test was more likely, although they also said the North appeared ready to conduct a test at any time.

An influential state-backed Chinese newspaper said the best option for North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong Un, was to give up its nuclear programme, and China would protect it if it did.

“As soon as North Korea complies with China’s declared advice and suspends nuclear activities … China will actively work to protect the security of a denuclearised North Korean nation and regime,” said an editorial in the Global Times, which is published by the Communist party’s People’s Daily.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe underscored fears about threats from North Korea, telling parliament in Tokyo that Pyongyang could have the capacity to deliver missiles equipped with sarin nerve gas.

A senior Japanese diplomat said the United States was putting “maximum pressure” on North Korea to resolve issues peacefully while putting responsibility on China to sway its old ally.

“We will watch what action China takes,” the diplomat said.

While Japan did not see a high risk of military action, it expected to be consulted by the United States if it decided to attack. North Korea has about 350 missiles that can hit Japan.

“DAY OF THE SUN”

Scores of foreign journalists gathered in Pyongyang for North Korea’s biggest national day, the “Day of the Sun”, were taken to what officials billed as a “big and important event” early on Thursday.

It turned out to be the opening of a new street in the centre of the capital, attended by leader Kim.

North Korea marks the 105th anniversary of the birth of state founder Kim Il Sung on Saturday. In 2012, it tried but failed to launch a long-range rocket carrying a satellite to mark the date and tested a newly developed intermediate-range missile last year.

North Korea’s official KCNA news agency said early on Thursday that Kim Jong Un had guided training of the army’s special operation forces jumping from aircraft.

On Tuesday, North Korea warned of a nuclear attack on the United States at any sign of American aggression. The North is technically at war with the United States and South Korea after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce and not a peace treaty.

The North regularly threatens to destroy both countries.

U.S. officials said Trump was considering sanctions that could include an oil embargo, banning North Korea’s airline, intercepting cargo ships, and punishing Chinese banks doing business with it.

“There’s a whole host of things that are possible, all the way up to what’s essentially a trade quarantine on North Korea,” one official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters in Washington.

Customs data in Beijing on Thursday showed that China’s coal imports from North Korea had plunged 51.6 percent in the first three months in 2017 from a year ago.

China suspended issue of permits for coal imports from North Korea on Feb. 18 as part of its effort to implement U.N. sanctions.

Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke by telephone on Wednesday, just days after they met in the United States for the first time, underscoring the sense of urgency about North Korea.

Trump said on Twitter his call with Xi was a “very good” discussion of the “menace of North Korea”. He said later on Wednesday the United States was prepared to tackle the crisis without China, if necessary.

GRAPHIC: The Carl Vinson Strike Group http://tmsnrt.rs/2p1yGTQ

(Additional reporting by Natalie Thomas in PYONGYANG, Ju-min Park and James Pearson in SEOUL, Christian Shepherd in BEIJING, Linda Sieg in TOKYO, and Matt Spetalnick, David Brunnstrom and Jeff Mason in WASHINGTON; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel)

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards position for power

Iran's Revolutionary Guards

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Iran’s Revolutionary Guards look set to entrench their power and shift the country to more hardline, isolationist policies for years to come following the death of influential powerbroker Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Former president Rafsanjani long had a contentious relationship with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is both the strongest military force in Iran and also has vast economic interests worth billions of dollars.

With a presidential election in May and a question mark over the health of Iran’s most powerful figure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, analysts say the Guards will soon have opportunities to tighten their grip on the levers of power.

Rafsanjani, who died on Sunday aged 82, had criticized the Guards’ expanding economic interests, which range from oil and gas to telecommunications and construction, their role in the crackdown on protests after disputed 2009 presidential elections and the country’s missile program which the Guards oversee.

Rafsanjani was a high-profile member of the Assembly of Experts that selects the Supreme Leader. Though he favored an easing of security restrictions on Iranians at home, opening up to the West politically and economically, he was a respected go-between who could balance the influence of hardliners.

During mourning ceremonies this week, senior Revolutionary Guards commanders appeared on state TV to praise Rafsanjani, a companion of the Islamic Republic’s founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and one of the pillars of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

But analysts say many are quietly celebrating the departure of one of their biggest domestic critics.

“They’re going to be very happy,” said Ali Ansari, director of the Institute of Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews. “They’re shedding a lot of crocodile tears.”

ABSOLUTELY PIVOTAL

With Rafsanjani out of the picture the Guards can play a crucial role in determining who becomes the next Supreme Leader by steering Assembly members toward a candidate more sympathetic to their interests, analysts say.

“All of the candidates you hear about who could replace Khamenei are much more hardline and have more radical views,” said Mehdi Khalaji, a former seminarian from Qom who is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The hardline camp in Iran has defined itself by a deep distrust of Western governments and rigid opposition to internal political reform, whereas Rafsanjani was the leading force behind moderate President Hassan Rouhani’s election win.

The 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and Western powers was also anathema to hardliners and they have often used the deal, and the economic openings it offered Western companies, to criticize Rouhani’s government.

The question of who could replace Khamenei, 77, was first raised in earnest when he was hospitalized in 2014.

State TV showed Khamenei, who became the Islamic Republic’s second Supreme Leader in 1989, in a hospital bed with a string of officials visiting. Analysts said this was done to help the public recognize that a change at the top was inevitable.

In the event of Khamenei’s death, the Assembly of Experts’ 88 members will hold a closed-door session to push for the candidate of their choice before a final vote is taken. Analysts expect the Revolutionary Guards to play a significant role.

“They’ll be absolutely pivotal,” said Ansari.

PIECES IN PLACE

The Revolutionary Guards first secured an economic foothold after the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s when Iran’s clerical rulers allowed them to invest in leading Iranian industries.

Their economic influence, authority and wealth grew after former guardsman Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005 and has increased since, leading some analysts to say the next Supreme Leader is unlikely to wield the same power as Khamenei.

“They have been putting all the pieces in place for a very forceful show of force if Khamenei passes away,” said Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University.

“They’re seizing every day one more lever of intelligence power, financial power, police power. Clearly they’re putting their forces in play,” Milani said.

While there is no clear single candidate for the role of Supreme Leader, there are a handful of top contenders.

One possible candidate is Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, 68, a former head of the judiciary who is now deputy head of the Assembly of Experts.

Shahroudi is favored by Khamenei, experts say, and, crucially, is thought to have the backing of the Revolutionary Guards.

Another candidate is Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, the 55-year-old current head of the judiciary who has twice been appointed to the position by Khamenei.

Larijani comes from a family of political heavyweights – one brother, Ali, is parliament speaker and another has served in government – but Sadeq is not regarded as a senior cleric and is unlikely to muster much support among the old guard.

A third possible candidate is Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, a hardline stalwart who has tussled with reformists for years. Mesbah-Yazdi did not get enough votes to keep his seat in the Assembly last year and, at 82, his age will likely be an issue if he is being considered for the top position in the country.

Some analysts say, however, that given the increasing power of the Revolutionary Guards it is perhaps less significant who actually becomes the next Supreme Leader.

“The individual is no longer important,” said Khalaji at the Washington Institute. “When I get asked who’s going to replace Khamenei, I say it’s the Revolutionary Guards.”

(Editing by David Clarke)