Iran vows to continue missile work, dismisses EU powers’ U.N. letter

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran on Thursday rejected pressure to shelve its ballistic missile program after a European letter to the U.N. Security Council accused Tehran of developing missiles capable of being delivering nuclear bombs.

The British, German and French ambassadors to the U.N. Security Council, in a letter circulated on Wednesday, called on U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to inform the Council in his next report that Iran’s missile program was “inconsistent” with a U.N. resolution underpinning the 2015 nuclear deal reached between Iran and six world powers.

Iran responded defiantly, saying it was determined to proceed with its disputed ballistic missile program, which it has repeatedly described as defensive in purpose and nothing to do with its nuclear activity.

“Iran is determined to resolutely continue its activities related to ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles,” Iranian U.N. envoy Majid Takhte Ravanchi said in a letter to Guterres.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had earlier on Thursday denounced the European powers’ intervention.

“Latest E3 letter to UNSG on missiles is a desperate falsehood to cover up their miserable incompetence in fulfilling bare minimum of their own #JCPOA obligations,” Zarif tweeted, referring to the nuclear deal by its formal acronym. He urged Britain, France and Germany not to bow to “U.S. bullying”.

The European letter surfaced at a time of heightened friction between Iran and the West, with Tehran rolling back its commitments under the deal step by step in response to Washington’s pullout from the pact last year and reimposition of sanctions on the Islamic Republic that has crippled its economy.

A 2015 U.N. resolution “called upon” Iran to refrain for up to eight years from work on ballistic missiles that could be capable of delivering nuclear warheads.

Some states – including Russia, which with four other world powers wields a veto on the Security Council – argue that the language does not make it obligatory.

France said on Thursday that Iran’s ballistic missile activities did not conform with the Security Council resolution and called on Tehran to respect all of its obligations under that resolution.

The Security Council is due to meet on Dec. 20 to weight the state of compliance with the resolution underpinning the nuclear deal, and the European letter “will add to that discussion,” a senior European diplomat told Reuters.

Britain, France and Germany have sought to salvage the nuclear pact, under which Iran undertook to curtail its disputed uranium enrichment program in return for relief from sanctions. But Tehran has criticized the three European powers for failing to shield Iran’s economy from the U.S. penalties.

The United States, Iran’s arch foe, and its allies in the Middle East view Tehran’s ballistic missile program as a Middle East security threat.

(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Tuqa Khalid in Dubai; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Pompeo says North Korea weapons work counter to denuclearization pledge

FILE PHOTO: North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un listens to U.S. President Donald Trump as they meet in a one-on-one bilateral session at the start of their summit at the Capella Hotel on the resort island of Sentosa, Singapore June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By David Brunnstrom

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Less than two months after a landmark U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew back to the city-state on Friday and said North Korea’s continued work on weapons programs was inconsistent with its leader’s commitment to denuclearize.

Pompeo was asked en route to Singapore about his statement in the U.S. Senate last month that North Korea was continuing to make bomb fuel and reports that North Korea, led by Kim Jong Un, was building new missiles.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attends an ASEAN-U.S. Ministerial Meeting in Singapore, August 3, 2018. REUTERS/Edgar Su

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attends an ASEAN-U.S. Ministerial Meeting in Singapore, August 3, 2018. REUTERS/Edgar Su

“Chairman Kim made a commitment to denuclearize,” Pompeo told reporters. “The world demanded that they (North Korea) do so in the U.N. Security Council resolutions. To the extent they are behaving in a manner inconsistent with that, they are a) in violation of one or both the U.N. Security Council resolutions and b) we can see we still have a ways to go to achieve the ultimate outcome we’re looking for.”

Pompeo thanked ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at a meeting in Singapore for their efforts in enforcing sanctions on North Korea.

In a landmark summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12, Kim, who is seeking relief from tough sanctions, committed in a broad statement to work toward denuclearization, but Pyongyang has offered no details as to how it might go about this.

Pompeo told a Senate committee hearing on July 25 that North Korea was continuing to produce fuel for nuclear bombs in spite of its pledge.

On Monday, a senior U.S. official said U.S. spy satellites had detected renewed activity at the North Korean factory that produced the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States.

The Washington Post reported on Monday that North Korea appeared to be building one or two new liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles at the research facility, citing unidentified officials familiar with intelligence reporting.

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho is also in Singapore and will attend the same regional meeting as Pompeo on Saturday, but the State Department has not said whether the two will meet.

Following his talks with Ri, China’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, said he hoped North Korea and the United States continue to move forward to implement their leaders’ agreement.

“China all along has believed that the consensus reached by U.S. and North Korea’s leaders meeting in Singapore is very precious,” Wang told reporters.

“That is, at the same time as realizing denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, to establish a peace mechanism. This direction is without a doubt correct,” he said.

China is North Korea’s most important economic and diplomatic supporter and fought for the North in the 1950-53 Korean War against the U.S.-led United Nations forces that backed South Korea.

Pompeo, who has led the U.S. negotiating effort with North Korea, visited Pyongyang from July 5-7 for inclusive talks aimed at agreeing a denuclearization roadmap. Pompeo said at the time he had made progress on key issues, only for North Korea to accuse his delegation hours later of making “gangster-like” demands.

Trump hailed the Singapore summit as a success and even went as far as saying that North Korea no longer posed a nuclear threat, but questions have been mounting about Pyongyang’s willingness to give up its weapons programs.

Trump has pointed to North Korea’s freeze on nuclear and missile tests and its agreement to return remains of Americans killed in the 1950-53 Korea War.

The White House said on Thursday that Trump had received a letter from Kim and had responded with a note that should be delivered shortly. But it said no second meeting was currently planned.

(Additional reporting by Christian Shepherd, John Geddie and Jack Kim in Singapore and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Nick Macfie)

North Korea ramps up uranium enrichment, enough for six nuclear bombs a year: experts

Kim Jong Un of North Korea

By Jack Kim and James Pearson

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea will have enough material for about 20 nuclear bombs by the end of this year, with ramped-up uranium enrichment facilities and an existing stockpile of plutonium, according to new assessments by weapons experts.

The North has evaded a decade of U.N. sanctions to develop the uranium enrichment process, enabling it to run an effectively self-sufficient nuclear program that is capable of producing around six nuclear bombs a year, they said.

The true nuclear capability of the isolated and secretive state is impossible to verify. But after Pyongyang conducted its fifth and most powerful nuclear test last week and, according to South Korea, was preparing for another, it appears to have no shortage of material to test with.

North Korea has an abundance of uranium reserves and has been working covertly for well over a decade on a project to enrich the material to weapons-grade level, the experts say.

That project, believed to have been expanded significantly, is likely the source of up to 150 kilograms (330 pounds) of highly enriched uranium a year, said Siegfried Hecker, a leading expert on the North’s nuclear program.

That quantity is enough for roughly six nuclear bombs, Hecker, who toured the North’s main Yongbyon nuclear facility in 2010, wrote in a report on the 38 North website of Johns Hopkins University in Washington published on Monday.

Added to an estimated 32- to 54 kilogram plutonium stockpile, the North will have sufficient fissile material for about 20 bombs by the end of 2016, Hecker said.

North Korea said its latest test proved it was capable of mounting a nuclear warhead on a medium-range ballistic missile, but its claims to be able to miniaturize a nuclear device have never been independently verified. [nL3N1BL1ND]

Assessments of the North’s plutonium stockpile are generally consistent and believed to be accurate because experts and governments can estimate plutonium production levels from telltale signs of reactor operation in satellite imagery.

South Korean Defence Minister Han Min-koo this year estimated the North’s plutonium stockpile at about 40 kilograms.

But Hecker, a former director of the U.S. Los Alamos National Laboratory, where nuclear weapons have been designed, has called North Korea’s uranium enrichment program “their new nuclear wildcard,” because Western experts do not know how advanced it is.

PAKISTAN CONNECTION

Jeffrey Lewis of the California-based Middlebury Institute of International Studies said North Korea had an unconstrained source of fissile material, both plutonium from the Yongbyon reactor and highly-enriched uranium from at least one and probably two sites.

“The primary constraint on its program is gone,” Lewis said. Weapons-grade plutonium has to be extracted from spent fuel taken out of reactors and then reprocessed, and therefore would be limited in quantity. A uranium enrichment program greatly boosts production of material for weapons.

The known history of the uranium enrichment project dates to 2003, when the North was confronted by the United States with evidence of a clandestine program to build a facility to enrich uranium with the help of Pakistan.

Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said in his memoirs that A.Q. Khan, the father of that country’s nuclear program, transferred two dozen centrifuges to the North and some technical expertise around 1999.

“It was also clear that the suspected Pakistani connection had taken place, as the centrifuge design resembled Pakistan’s P-2 centrifuge,” Hecker said in a report in May.

Hecker reported being shown around a two-story building in the Yongbyon complex in November 2010 that a North Korean engineer said contained 2,000 centrifuges and a control room Hecker called “astonishingly modern.”

By 2009, the North had likely acquired the technology to be able to expand the uranium project indigenously, Joshua Pollack, editor of the U.S.-based Nonproliferation Review, has said.

North Korea has not explicitly admitted to operating the centrifuges to produce weapons-enriched uranium, instead claiming they were intended to generate fuel for a light water reactor it was going to build.

Despite sanctions, by now North Korea is probably largely self-sufficient in operating its nuclear program, although it may still struggle to produce some material and items, Lewis said.

“While we saw this work in Iran, over time countries can adjust to sanctions,” he said.

(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Agency urges nations to ratify bans on nuclear bomb testing

PARIS (Reuters) – North Korea’s recent nuclear test shows a ratification of an international ban on nuclear bomb tests is more urgent than ever, the head of the Vienna-based organization tasked with enforcing the ban said on Monday.

Negotiated in the 1990s, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) enjoys wide global support but must be ratified by eight more nuclear technology states – among them Israel, Iran, Egypt and the United States – to come into force.

“We must act urgently,” Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) told reporters in Paris after meeting with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

Tension rose in East Asia last month after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, this time of what it said was a hydrogen bomb.

“The only way to stop that is for the CTBT to come into force,” said the head of the organization, which is independent but linked to the United Nations.

Zerbo said the nuclear deal agreed between Iran and six other nations last year could help speed up the process, which “has been dragging on for 20 years”, and that he hoped to organize a meeting at the ministerial level in Vienna in June.

The CTBTO hopes the eight nations that have not ratified the treaty could agree to a roadmap in June, that would include a moratorium in the Middle East, a discussion with North Korea to “bring it toward a moratorium” and a trust agreement between China and the United States.

Zerbo said a U.S. ratification was a priority for President Barack Obama but that “his hands are tied because he doesn’t have a majority in the Senate.”

(Reporting by Marine Pennetier; Writing by Michel Rose; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

Pressure grows on China to rein in North Korea; South launches propaganda barrage

SEOUL/BEIJING (Reuters) – South Korea unleashed an ear-splitting propaganda barrage across its border with North Korea on Friday in retaliation for its nuclear test, while the United States called on China to end “business as usual” with its ally.

The broadcasts, in rolling bursts from walls of loudspeakers at 11 locations along the heavily militarized border, blared rhetoric critical of the Pyongyang regime as well as “K-pop” music. North Korea later responded with its own broadcasts.

Wednesday’s nuclear test angered both the United States and China, which was not given prior notice, although the U.S. government and weapons experts doubt Pyongyang’s claim that the device it set off was a hydrogen bomb.

China is North Korea’s main economic and diplomatic backer, although relations between the Cold War allies have cooled in recent years.

China’s Foreign Ministry urged North Korea to stick to its denuclearization pledges and avoid action that would make the situation worse, but also said China did not hold the key to resolving the North Korean nuclear issue.

“Achieving denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and safeguarding the peninsula’s peace and stability accords with all parties’ mutual interests, is the responsibility of all parties, and requires all parties to put forth efforts,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a news briefing.

The North agreed to end its nuclear program in international negotiations in 2005 but later walked away from the deal.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday that he had told Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that China’s approach to North Korea had not succeeded.

“APPROACH HAS NOT WORKED”

“China had a particular approach that it wanted to make, that we agreed and respected to give them space to implement that,” Kerry told reporters after the phone call. “Today, in my conversation with the Chinese, I made it very clear that has not worked and we cannot continue business as usual.”

In a call on Friday with his South Korean counterpart, Yun Byung-se, Wang said talks on the issue should be resumed as soon as possible, China’s Foreign Ministry said.

South Korea’s nuclear safety agency said it had found a minuscule amount of xenon gas in a sample from off its east coast but said more analysis and samples were needed to determine if it came from a nuclear test.

The head of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), which uses monitoring stations around the world to detect atomic tests, said only “normal” levels of xenon had been detected, at a site in Japan.

“Xenon readings at 1st station downwind of #DPRK test site RN38 Takasaki #Japan at normal concentrations. Sampling continues,” the CTBTO’s executive secretary, Lassina Zerbo, said on Twitter on Friday evening.

The presence of xenon would not indicate whether the blast was from a hydrogen device or a simpler fission explosion.

Seismic waves created by the blast were almost identical to those generated in North Korea’s last nuclear test in 2013, Jeffrey Park, a seismologist at Yale University, wrote in a post on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists website, adding to scepticism about the hydrogen bomb claim.

Meanwhile, South Korea resumed its frontier broadcasts, which the isolated North has in the past threatened to stop with military strikes.

The last time South Korea deployed the loudspeakers, in retaliation for a landmine blast in August that wounded two South Korean soldiers, it led to an exchange of artillery fire.

The sound can carry 10 km (6 miles) into North Korea during the day and more than twice that at night, the South’s Yonhap news agency reported.

BORDER PROPAGANDA

A male announcer could be heard from South Korea telling North Koreans that their leader Kim Jong Un and his wife wear clothes costing thousands of dollars. Another message said Kim’s promises to boost both the economy and the nuclear program were unrealistic.

The North’s broadcasts were not clearly audible from the South and appeared intended to drown out those from the South, Yonhap said, citing a South Korean official.

As North Korea boosted troop deployments in front-line units, the South vowed to retaliate against any attack on its equipment, raised its military readiness to the highest level near the loudspeakers, canceled tours of the Demilitarized Zone on the border, and also raised its cyberattack alert level.

In Washington, the North’s actions appeared to have forged rare unity in the House of Representatives between Republicans and Democrats on tightening sanctions against North Korea.

Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, told reporters that Democrats would support a North Korea bill likely to be brought for a vote by Republicans next week. A congressional source said it was expected as soon as Monday.

But it is unclear how more sanctions will deter North Korea, which has conducted four nuclear tests since 2006.

The United States and South Korea are limited in their military options. Washington sent a pair of nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers over South Korea in a show of force after North Korea last tested a nuclear device in 2013.

North Korea responded then by threatening a nuclear strike on the United States.

A South Korean military official said Seoul and Washington had discussed the deployment of U.S. strategic weapons on the Korean peninsula, but declined to give details. Media said the assets could include B-2 and B-52 bombers, and a nuclear-powered submarine.

(Additional reporting by James Pearson, Se Young Lee, Christine Kim, Jee Heun Kahng, Ju-min Park and Jack Kim in SEOUL, Dagyum Ji in GIMPO, Patricia Zengerle, Roberta Rampton, Doina Chiacu and Arshad Mohammed in WASHINGTON, Tim Kelly in YOKOSUKA and Francois Murphy in VIENNA; Writing by Tony Munroe; Editing by Paul Tait and Kevin Liffey)