Iran supreme leader ups ante in volatile stand-off with U.S.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves during ceremony attended by Iranian clerics in Tehran, Iran, July 16, 2019. Official Khamenei website/Handout via REUTERS

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s supreme leader upped the ante in a volatile stand-off with the United States on Tuesday, warning Tehran would continue removing restraints on its nuclear program and retaliate for the seizure of an Iranian oil tanker.

Tensions have spiked since U.S. President Donald Trump last year abandoned world powers’ 2015 nuclear deal with Iran under which it agreed to curtail its enrichment of uranium in return for the lifting of global sanctions crippling its economy.

European parties to the pact decided on Monday not to trigger the deal’s dispute mechanism in favor of pursuing more talks and avert any U.S.-Iranian military conflict, but took no action to shield Iran against a sanctions clampdown by Trump.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s ultimate authority, accused Britain, Germany and France of failing to uphold obligations under the deal to restore Iranian access to global trade, especially for Tehran’s oil exports blocked by U.S. sanctions.

“According to our foreign minister, Europe made 11 commitments, none of which they abided by. We abided by our commitments and even beyond them. Now that we’ve begun to reduce our commitments, they oppose it. How insolent! You didn’t abide by your commitments!” Khamenei said, according to his website.

“We have started to reduce our commitments and this trend shall continue,” Khamenei said in remarks carried by state television.

IRAN FUMES OVER EU INACTION

He has previously upbraided European powers for not standing up to Trump and circumventing his sanctions noose. Russia and China are also parties to the accord.

But it was the first time Khamenei explicitly pledged to press ahead with breaches of the nuclear deal, spurning European appeals to Iran to restore limits on enrichment aimed at obviating any dash to developing atomic bombs.

“So far, efforts to win gestures from Iran to de-escalate the crisis are not succeeding (as) Tehran is demanding the lifting of sanctions on its oil and banking sectors first,” a European diplomatic source told Reuters. 

Iran has long denied any intent to acquire nuclear weapons and has said all its breaches could be reversed if Washington returned to the deal and its economic dividends were realized. Tehran has accused Washington of waging “economic war”.

“Western governments’ major vice is their arrogance,” Khamenei said. “If the country opposing them is a weak one, their arrogance works. But if it’s a country that knows and stands up against them, they will be defeated.”

IAEA inspectors last week confirmed Iran is now enriching uranium to 4.5% fissile purity, above the 3.67% limit set by its deal, the second breach in as many weeks after Tehran exceeded limits on its stock of low-enriched uranium.

The level at which Iran is now refining uranium is still well below the 20% purity of enrichment Iran reached before the deal, and the 90% needed to yield bomb-grade nuclear fuel. Low-enriched uranium provides fuel for civilian power plants.

European Union foreign ministers, in a meeting on Monday, deemed Iran’s violations not to be “significant”, drawing Israeli accusations of appeasement recalling failed diplomacy with Nazi Germany in the run-up to World War Two.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on Monday Iran remained “a good year away from developing a nuclear bomb”, adding there was still a “small window to keep the deal alive.”

The Europeans are trying to set up Instex, a barter-based trade conduit with Iran but it would initially deal only in items not subject to U.S. sanctions — such as pharmaceuticals and foods. Iran has said Instex must include oil sales or provide substantial credit facilities for it to be beneficial.

“PIRACY”

Khamenei also said Iran would respond to Britain’s “piracy” over the seizure in early July of an Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar.

“Evil Britain commits piracy and steals our ship … and gives it a legal appearance. The Islamic Republic…will not leave this wickedness unanswered and will respond to it at an appropriate time and place,” he said.

Iran has called on Britain to immediately release the vessel, which was detained by British Royal Marines on the suspicion that it was breaking European sanctions by taking oil to Tehran’s close ally Syria.

Washington says it is applying “maximum pressure” on Iran to agree stricter limits on its nuclear capacity, curb its ballistic missile program and end support for proxy forces in a Middle East power struggle with U.S.-backed Gulf Arabs.

Fears of direct U.S.-Iranian conflict have risen since May with several attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf, Iran’s downing of a U.S. surveillance drone, and a plan for U.S. airstrikes on Iran last month that Trump aborted at the last minute.

In what loomed as another obstacle to trouble-shooting diplomacy, Iran confirmed on Tuesday it had detained French-Iranian scholar Fariba Adelkhah but declined to elaborate, a day after Paris demanded information on her case.

Rights activists have accused Iran of arresting a number of dual nationals to try and extract concessions from the West – a charge the Islamic Republic has repeatedly dismissed.

Iran’s rial currency appears to have stabilized despite the brewing confrontation with the United States, gaining about 13% since early May after a 60% plunge last year.

Analysts said that not only was Iran’s forex market growing used to the tensions but the central bank had propped up the rial through injections of hard cash and steps to ensure the return of dollars earned from exports.

(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Jon Boyle)

Iran supreme leader says he has no intention to make or use nuclear weapons

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meets with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tehran, Iran June 13, 2019. Official Khamenei website/Handout via REUTERS

TOKYO (Reuters) – Iran has no intention of making or using nuclear weapons, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was quoted as saying on Thursday by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Khamenei’s comment, a reiteration of Iran’s stance, comes at a time of increased U.S.-Iranian tension, a year after Washington abandoned an agreement between Iran and world powers to curb its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international financial sanctions.

“Supreme Leader Khamenei made a comment that the country will not and should not make, hold or use nuclear weapons, and that it has no such intentions,” Abe told reporters in Tehran following a meeting with Khamenei.

“Today, I met Supreme Leader Khamenei and heard his belief in peace. I regard this highly as a major progress toward this region’s peace and stability,” said Abe, the first-ever Japanese prime minister to hold talks with Khamenei.

Abe’s comment was broadcast on Japanese public broadcaster NHK.

On Wednesday, Abe warned of unintended clashes in the crisis-hit Middle East after meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Abe was visiting Iran to help ease rising tension between the United States and the Islamic Republic.

Japan is in a unique position to act as a mediator as the U.S. ally has long maintained close ties with Iran.

(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Iran sees no prospect of negotiations with U.S.: foreign ministry

FILE PHOTO: A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives of the U.S., Iran, China, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union during Iran nuclear talks at the Vienna International Center in Vienna, Austria, July 14, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

LONDON (Reuters) – Iran sees no prospect of negotiations with the United States, a foreign ministry spokesman said on Tuesday, a day after U.S. President Donald Trump said a deal with Tehran on its nuclear program was possible.

Washington withdrew last year from a 2015 international nuclear deal with Tehran, and is ratcheting up sanctions in efforts to strangle Iran’s economy by ending its international sales of crude oil.

Trump said on Monday: “I really believe that Iran would like to make a deal, and I think that’s very smart of them, and I think that’s a possibility to happen.”

Asked about Trump’s comments in a news conference in Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency: “We currently see no prospect of negotiations with America.”

“Iran pays no attention to words; What matters to us is a change of approach and behavior.”

Trump also said that United States was not looking for regime change in Iran, adding that “we are looking for no nuclear weapons.”

Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri said on Tuesday the country was not allowed to pursue the development of nuclear weapon as this was banned by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s highest authority.

Tensions have risen between Iran and the United States since Washington deployed a carrier strike group and bombers and announced plans to deploy 1,500 troops to the Middle East, prompting fears of a conflict.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Andrew Heavens and John Stonestreet)

Iran may attack Israel if U.S. standoff escalates: Israeli minister

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz speaks during an interview with Reuters in Cairo, Egypt January 14, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – An Israeli cabinet minister warned on Sunday of possible direct or proxy Iranian attacks on Israel should the stand-off between Tehran and Washington escalate.

The United States has increased economic and military pressure on Iran, with President Donald Trump on Thursday urging its leaders to talk to him about giving up their nuclear program and saying he could not rule out an armed confrontation.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which supports Trump’s hard tack against its arch-foe, has largely been reticent about the spiraling tensions.

Parting with the silence, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said that, in the Gulf, “things are heating up”.

“If there’s some sort of conflagration between Iran and the United States, between Iran and its neighbors, I’m not ruling out that they will activate Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad from Gaza, or even that they will try to fire missiles from Iran at the State of Israel,” Steinitz, a member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet, told Israel’s Ynet TV.

Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad are Iranian-sponsored guerrilla groups on Israel’s borders, the former active in Syria as well as Lebanon and the latter in the Palestinian territories.

The Israeli military declined to comment when asked if it was making any preparations for possible threats linked to the Iran-U.S. standoff.

Israel has traded blows with Iranian forces in Syria, as well as with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian militants. But it has not fought an open war with Iran, a country on the other side of the Middle East.

(Writing by Dan Williams)

Europeans reject “ultimatums” from Iran as it eases nuclear curbs

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Feb. 14 2019. Sergei Chirikov/File Photo

BERLIN (Reuters) – European countries said on Thursday they wanted to preserve Iran’s nuclear deal and rejected “ultimatums” from Tehran after Iran scaled back curbs on its nuclear program and threatened moves that might breach the pact.

Iran announced steps on Wednesday to ease curbs on its nuclear program, in response to new U.S. sanctions imposed after Washington abandoned the deal a year ago.

Tehran’s initial moves do not appear to violate the accord yet, but President Hassan Rouhani said that unless world powers protect Iran’s economy from U.S. sanctions within 60 days, Iran would start enriching uranium beyond permitted limits.

“We reject any ultimatums and we will assess Iran’s compliance on the basis of Iran’s performance regarding its nuclear-related commitments…,” read a statement issued jointly by the European Union and the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany.

“We are determined to continue pursuing efforts to enable the continuation of legitimate trade with Iran,” said the European states, adding that included getting a special purpose vehicle aimed at enabling business with Iran off the ground.

The 2015 nuclear deal requires Iran to curb its nuclear program in return for the elimination of international sanctions. It was signed by the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.

HARDLINERS

The administration of President Donald Trump abandoned the agreement a year ago and imposed U.S. sanctions, which it has ratchetted up this month, effectively ordering all countries to halt all purchases of Iranian oil or face their own sanctions.

The move creates a dilemma for Washington’s European allies which say they share its concerns about Iranian behavior but think the Trump administration’s tactics are likely to backfire.

The European allies have opposed the U.S. decision to abandon the nuclear deal, which they say plays into the hands of hardliners in Iran and undermines pragmatists within the Iranian leadership who want to open the country up to the world.

French President Emmanuel Macron called on Thursday for the nuclear deal to be extended to cover other issues of concern to the West, such as Iran’s regional policies and missile program, rather than jettisoned.

“Leaving the 2015 nuclear agreement is a mistake because it is undoing what we have already done. That’s why France is remaining and will remain a part of it and I deeply hope that Iran will remain,” Macron said.

“We contributed to negotiating this deal. France at the time had even pushed for it to be more demanding than what the United States was ready to accept. It is a good deal and a good base. It needs to be completed,” he said.

European countries have tried to develop a system to allow outside investors to do business with Iran while avoiding falling foul of U.S. sanctions. But in practice, this has failed so far, with all major European companies that had announced plans to invest in Iran saying they would no longer do so.

Iran has always denied that it was seeking a nuclear weapon.

Tehran says it wants to abide by the nuclear deal. A spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation said on Thursday Tehran’s goal was to bring the agreement “back on track”.

But Tehran has also maintained that it will leave the deal, known as the JCPOA unless it receives more economic support.

“We have not left the JCPOA so far, but we have put such a move on our agenda and that would happen step-by-step,” Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi was quoted as saying by state-run PressTV on Wednesday night.

Supporters of the nuclear deal, including Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama and European allies, say the pact extends the time it would take Iran to make a nuclear weapon if it decided to do so, and guarantees that it would be caught.

Lifting sanctions would show ordinary Iranians the benefits of cooperating with the world and make it harder for hardliners to roll back reforms, they argue.

The Trump administration argues that the nuclear deal was flawed because it is not permanent, does not address Iran’s missile program and does not punish Iran for what Washington considers meddling in regional countries.

France, led by Macron, says those issues would be easier to tackle in a future agreement if the existing deal is kept in place. Iran has always said its missile program and regional policies are sovereign issues and not negotiable.

Trump’s hardline stance is supported by Israel and by Arab allies of the United States such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which consider Iran a foe and gain leverage over global oil prices from having its exports taken off the market.

(Reporting by Madeline Chambers and Bozorgmehr Sharafedin, Writing by Peter Graff, Editing by William Maclean)

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to meet Putin in Russia on Thursday: Kremlin

A combination of file photos shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attending a wreath laying ceremony at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, Vietnam March 2, 2019 and Russia's President Vladimir Putin looking on during a joint news conference with South African President Jacob Zuma after their meeting at the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Krasnodar region, Russia, May 16, 2013. REUTERS/Jorge Silva/Pool/Maxim Shipenkov/Pool

By Vladimir Soldatkin and Maria Vasilyeva

MOSCOW/VLADIVOSTOK, Russia (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet on Thursday in the Russian Pacific port of Vladivostok to discuss the international standoff over Pyongyang’s nuclear program, a Kremlin official said.

The visit is part of Kim’s effort to build foreign support after the breakdown of a second U.S.-North Korea summit in Vietnam in February meant no relief on sanctions for North Korea, analysts said.

The summit will be the first between Putin and the North Korean leader and the nuclear row, and how to resolve it, would be the main item on the agenda, Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters.

“In the last few months the situation around the peninsula has stabilized somewhat, thanks in large part to North Korea’s initiatives of stopping rocket testing and closing its nuclear test site,” Ushakov said. “Russia intends to help in any way possible to cement that positive trend.”

The North’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said on Tuesday the visit would happen soon, but did not elaborate on a time or location.

Kim’s chief aide, Kim Chang Son, was seen in Vladivostok on Sunday, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

Vladivostok is the closest major Russian city to the short stretch of border that Russia and North Korea share, and can be reached from the border via train, Kim’s preferred mode of international transport.

Russia has for years been involved in efforts to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear program. It was involved in so-called six party talks – along with the two Koreas, Japan, the United States and China – that were last held in 2009.

South Korea’s foreign ministry said it understood the agenda would include Russia-North Korea relations, denuclearisation, and regional cooperation.

“Russia shares our viewpoints such as the achievement of complete denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula and the settlement of permanent peace,” foreign ministry spokesman Kim In-chul said in Seoul.

“I hope that the summit will be an opportunity that contributes to positive progress.”

RUSSIAN PRESTIGE

After the failed Hanoi summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, Kim is probably looking to prove that he is still sought after by world leaders, and that he has more options, said Artyom Lukin, a professor at Far Eastern Federal University.

Kim did not want to look too dependent on Washington, Beijing and Seoul, he said.

“As for Russia, the Putin-Kim summit will reaffirm Moscow’s place as a major player on the Korean Peninsula. This meeting is important for Russian international prestige.”

Putin previously held a summit in Russia with Kim Jong Un’s father and predecessor as North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, in 2002. Kim Jong Il visited Russia again in 2011, when he was hosted by Dmitry Medvedev, the Putin lieutenant who at the time was serving as Russian president.

Online media which monitor North Korea reported that the venue for the summit would be the Far Eastern Federal University, on an island that is connected to the mainland part of Vladivostok by a bridge.

The bridge was built in time for the 2012 Asia-Pacific Cooperation Summit, which took place on the same site that now houses the university.

At the university campus on Tuesday, the sports complex had been closed and workers were seen bringing in pieces of furniture, a Reuters TV crew at the site reported. A white tent had been erected next to the sports complex.

At the entrance to the campus, security guards were stopping vehicles as they drove in, and searching them. There were no signs of preparation at Vladivostok railway station.

But at Khasan, a Russian settlement where the train line crosses the border, the state flags of Russia and North Korea were fluttering from the station building on Tuesday. A set of mobile steps for alighting from a train was positioned on the platform edge.

(Additional reporting by Joyce Lee and Josh Smith in SEOUL; Maxim Rodionov in MOSCOW; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

South Korea sees signs North Korea restoring part of missile launch site: Yonhap

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un inspects artillery launchers ahead of a military drill marking the 85th anniversary of the establishment of the Korean People's Army

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – South Korean intelligence agencies have detected signs that North Korea is restoring part of the Dongchang-ri missile launch site it tore down, Yonhap News Agency reported on Tuesday.

Specifically, Yonhap said the closed-off country, under pressure for years to discontinue its nuclear program, is putting back a roof and a door on the facility.

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service also said during a briefing for the National Assembly’s intelligence committee that “the U.S. information is the same as ours,” according to Yonhap.

A second summit on denuclearization between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last week broke down over differences on how far North Korea was willing to limit its nuclear program and the degree of U.S. willingness to ease sanctions on the country.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday he was hopeful the United States would send a delegation to North Korea in the coming weeks.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in called for officials to try to find a way to restart talks between the North and the United States.

The breakdown of the summit was a blow for Moon, who had hoped eased U.S. sanctions would help lead to a restart of inter-Korean projects including a factory park, key to his vision for a pan-peninsula economic community.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Writing by Nick Zieminski; Editing by David Gregorio)

Facing new sanctions, Iranians vent anger at rich and powerful

FILE PHOTO: Iranian rials, U.S. dollars and Iraqi dinars are seen at a currency exchange shopÊin Basra, Iraq November 3, 2018. Picture taken November 3, 2018. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

GENEVA (Reuters) – More Iranians are using social media to vent anger at what they see as the corruption and extravagance of a privileged few, while the majority struggles to get by in an economy facing tighter U.S. sanctions.

The country has been hit by a wave of protests during the last year, some of them violent, but as economic pressures rise, people are increasingly pointing fingers at the rich and powerful, including clerics, diplomats, officials and their families.

One person channeling that resentment is Seyed Mahdi Sadrossadati, a relatively obscure cleric who has amassed 256,000 followers on his Instagram account with a series of scathing posts aimed at children of the elite.

In one recent post, he blasted the “luxury life” of a Revolutionary Guards commander and his son, who posted a selfie online in front of a tiger lying on the balcony of a mansion.

Openly criticizing a well-known member of the powerful military unit that answers to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is in itself an unusual act of defiance.

“A house tiger? What’s going on?” Sadrossadati wrote. “And this from a 25-year-old youth who could not gain such wealth. People are having serious difficulty getting diapers for their child.”

The Iranian rial currency has hit 149,000 to the U.S. dollar on the black market used for most transactions, down from around 43,000 at the start of 2018, as U.S. President Donald Trump vowed to pull out of the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers aimed at curbing its nuclear program.

That has sent living costs sharply higher and made imports less accessible, while the threat of financial punishment from the United States has prompted many foreign companies to pull out of Iran or stay away.

The situation could get worse, as additional sanctions come into force this week.

“SULTAN OF COINS”

Wary of growing frustration over the relative wealth of a few among the population of 81 million, Khamenei has approved the establishment of special courts focused on financial crimes.

The courts have handed out at least seven death sentences since they were set up in August, and some of the trials have been broadcast live on television.

Among those sentenced to death was Vahid Mazloumin, dubbed the “sultan of coins” by local media, a trader accused of manipulating the currency market and who was allegedly caught with two tons of gold coins, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA).

The tough sentences have not been enough to quell frustration, however, with high profile officials and clerics in the firing line.

“Because the economic situation is deteriorating, people are looking for someone to blame and in this way get revenge from the leaders and officials of the country,” said Saeed Leylaz, a Tehran-based economist and political analyst.

Washington is likely to welcome signs of pressure on Iran’s political and religious establishment, as it hopes that by squeezing the economy it can force Tehran to curb its nuclear program and row back on military and political expansion in the Middle East.

Public anger among Iranians has been building for some time.

Demonstrations over economic hardships began late last year, spreading to more than 80 cities and towns and resulting in at least 25 deaths.

CLERICS

In addition to his written contributions, Sadrossadati has posted videos of debates between himself and some of those he has criticized.

In one, he confronted Mehdi Mazaheri, the son of a former central bank governor who was criticized online after a photograph appeared showing him wearing a large gold watch.

In a heated exchange, Sadrossadati shouted: “How did you get rich? How much money did you start out with and how much money do you have now? How many loans have you taken?”

Mazaheri, barely able to get in a reply, said he would be willing to share documents about his finances.

Children of more than a dozen other officials have been criticized online and are often referred to as “aghazadeh” – literally “noble-born” in Farsi but also a derogatory term used to describe their perceived extravagance.

High-profile clerics have also been targeted.

Mohammad Naghi Lotfi, who held the prestigious position of leading Friday prayers at a mosque in Ilam, west Iran, resigned in October after he was criticized on social media for being photographed stepping out of a luxury sports utility vehicle.

Facebook posts labeled Lotfi a hypocrite for highlighting ways that ordinary Iranians could get through the economic crisis during his speeches. The outcry was a major factor in his decision to resign from a post he had held for 18 years.

“The hype that was presented against me in this position … made me resign, lest in the creation of this hype the position of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution be damaged,” Lotfi told state media after stepping down.

“The issue of the vehicle … was all lies that they created in cyberspace,” he added.

He was one of at least four clerics in charge of Friday prayers who have resigned in the last year after being accused on social media of profligacy or financial impropriety.

(Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Rouhani warns U.S. over preventing Iran from exporting oil: ISNA

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Monday cautioned the United States about pursuing hostile policies against Tehran, saying preventing Iran from exporting oil would be “very dangerous”, but he did not rule out talks between the two countries.

“Imposing sanctions on Iran to prevent us from selling our oil will be very dangerous … If (U.S. President Donald) Trump wants to talk to Iran, then he first should return to the (2015) nuclear deal first,” the ISNA news agency quoted Rouhani as saying in a meeting with senior editors of foreign media in New York.

Rouhani is in New York for the annual United Nations General Assembly.

In May, Trump pulled out of the international nuclear deal with Iran and announced sanctions against the OPEC member. Washington is pushing allies to cut imports of Iranian oil to zero and will impose a new round of sanctions on Iranian oil sales in November.

Under the accord, most international sanctions against Tehran were lifted in 2016 in exchange for Iran curbing its nuclear program.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; editing by Grant McCool)

Joy, disbelief as Korean families separated by war meet after 65 years

North and South Korean family members meet during a reunion at North Korea's Mount Kumgang resort, near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, North Korea, August 20, 2018. Yonhap via REUTERS

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – About 90 families from North and South Korea wept and embraced on Monday as the neighbors held their first reunion events in three years for relatives wrenched apart by the Korean War for more than six decades.

The brief reunions are set to total just 11 hours over the next three days in the North’s tourist resort of Mount Kumgang after the neighbors renewed exchanges this year following a standoff over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed to the reunion events at a summit in April.

About 330 South Koreans from 89 families, many in wheelchairs, embraced 185 separated relatives from the North with tears, joy, and disbelief. Some struggled to recognize family not glimpsed in more than 60 years.

A man selected as a participant for a reunion shows pictures of his deceased mother and little brothers living in North Korea, at a hotel used as a waiting place in Sokcho, South Korea, August 19, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

A man selected as a participant for a reunion shows pictures of his deceased mother and little brothers living in North Korea, at a hotel used as a waiting place in Sokcho, South Korea, August 19, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

“How are you so old?” Kim Dal-in, 92, asked his sister, Yu Dok, after gazing at her briefly in silence.

“I’ve lived this long to meet you,” replied the 85-year-old, wiping away tears as she clasped a photograph of her brother in his youth.

Siblings Kim Gyong Sil, 72 and Gyong Yong, 71, wearing the traditional hanbok dress, colored pale violet, stood nervously staring at the entrance, awaiting their 99-year-old mother Han Shin-ja. They could not speak for minutes, wailed loudly and rubbed their cheeks and hands.

“When I fled home in the war…,” Han said, faltering as she choked with emotion and left her sentence incomplete.

The separated families are victims of a decades-long political gridlock since the 1950-53 war ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty, with ties increasingly strained as Pyongyang rapidly stepped up its weapons programs.

More than 57,000 South Korean survivors have registered for the family reunions, which usually end in painful farewells.

For years, Seoul has called for regular meetings between separated families, including the use of video conferences, but the program often fell victim to fragile ties.

At his historic June summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in June, Kim pledged to abandon his country’s nuclear programs if Washington provided security guarantees, but the two sides have since struggled to agree how to reach that goal.

The reunions should be scaled up sharply, held regularly, and include exchanges of visits and letters, said Moon, himself a member of a separated family from the North’s eastern port city of Hungnam.

“It is a shame for both governments that many of the families have passed away without knowing whether their lost relatives were alive,” he told presidential secretaries at a meeting.

Lee Geum-seom, who has been selected as a participant for a reunion, is helped by volunteers as she arrives at a hotel used as a waiting place in Sokcho, South Korea, August 19, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Lee Geum-seom, who has been selected as a participant for a reunion, is helped by volunteers as she arrives at a hotel used as a waiting place in Sokcho, South Korea, August 19, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

“Expanding and accelerating family reunions is a top priority.”

Ninety-three families from both sides of the border had been initially due to hold a three-day gathering from Monday, but four South Korean members canceled at the last minute because of poor health, the Red Cross said.

From Thursday, 88 more groups of relatives will meet, comprised of 469 individuals from the South and 128 from the North, Seoul’s Unification Ministry says.

For Lee Jong-shik, 81, Monday’s reunion was a hard-won second chance to track down his younger brother, Ri Chong Song, after the failure of a 2009 effort when a different individual showed up, to the dismay of the family from the South.

“I tried so hard, too, searching for you for seven years,” Ri told his brother.

The participants included the families of a prisoner of war and five people abducted by North Korean authorities during the conflict, though the six South Koreans they had hoped to meet had died.

The reunions, which began in 1985, can be a traumatic experience, say survivors, who know they are unlikely to see their relatives again since many are 80 or older and first-timers typically get priority for visits.

About 132,600 individuals were listed as separated families by the end of July. Of the 57,000 survivors, 41.2 percent are in their 80s and 21.4 percent in their 90s, government data show.

The oldest South Korean participant is 101-year-old Baek Seong-gyu, who was reunited with his daughter-in-law and granddaughter.

“Most participants are elderly and many suffer from hypertension, diabetes and have underlying medical conditions,” said physician Han Sang-jo. “Ahead of the reunions, we are thoroughly checking their health.”

Many brought gifts of clothing, medicine, and food for their North Korean relatives since anything deemed extravagant by Pyongyang was unlikely to pass muster.

Moon Hyun-sook, 91, said she put together clothes, cosmetics, and medicine for her two sisters, younger than she is by 12 and 26 years.

“Whenever I saw pretty clothes, I always thought how cute they would look in them,” she said.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Joyce Lee in SEOUL, Hyun Young Yi in SOKCHO, and Joint Press Corps; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Clarence Fernandez)