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)

Sanctions-hit North Korea warns of natural disaster brought by heat wave

FILE PHOTO: A North Korean flag flutters on top of a 160-metre tower in North Korea's propaganda village of Gijungdong, in this picture taken from the Tae Sung freedom village near the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), inside the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea on Thursday called for an “all-out battle” against record temperatures that threaten crops in a country already grappling with tough international sanctions over its nuclear weapons program.

The resulting drought has brought an “unprecedented natural disaster”, the isolated nation said, warning against crop damage that could savage its farm-reliant economy, battered by sanctions despite recent diplomatic overtures.

“This high-temperature phenomenon is the largest, unprecedented natural disaster, but not an obstacle we cannot overcome,” the North’s Rodong Sinmun said, urging that “all capabilities” be mobilized to fight the extended dry spell.

Temperatures have topped a record 40°C (104°F) in some regions since late July, and crops such as rice and maize have begun to show signs of damage, the mouthpiece of the ruling Workers’ Party said in a front-page commentary.

“Whether the current good crop conditions, for which the whole nation has made unsparing investment and sweated until now, will lead to a bumper year in the autumn hinges on how we overcome the heat and drought,” it added.

Similar past warnings in state media have served to drum up foreign assistance and boost domestic unity.

“I think the message was a precautionary one to minimize any impact on daily life,” said Dong Yong-seung, who runs Good Farmers, a group based in Seoul, capital of neighboring South Korea, that explores farm projects with the North.

But the mention of unprecedented weather, and a series of related articles, suggest the heat wave could further strain its capacity to respond to natural disasters, said Kim Young-hee, a defector from North Korea and an expert on its economy at Korea Finance Corp in Seoul.

The warning comes after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced in April a shift in focus from nuclear programs to the economy, and held an unprecedented June summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore.

Since then, the young leader has toured industrial facilities and special economic zones near the North’s border with China, a move experts saw as a bid to spur economic development nationwide.

“He has been highlighting his people-loving image and priority on the economy but the reality is he doesn’t have the institutions to take a proper response to heat, other than opening underground shelters,” added Kim, the economist.

GOOD CROP CONDITIONS

Drought and floods have long been a seasonal threat in North Korea, which lacks irrigation systems and other infrastructure to ward off natural disasters.

Last year, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation warned of the North’s worst drought in 16 years, but late summer rains and privately produced crops helped avert acute shortages.

There appear to be no immediate signs of major suffering in the North, with rice prices stable around 62 U.S. cents per kg through the year to Tuesday, a Reuters analysis of data compiled by the Daily NK website showed.

The website is run by defectors who gather prices through telephone calls to traders in the North, gaining a rare glimpse into the lives of ordinary citizens.

Crops are good this year because there was little flooding to disrupt the early spring planting season, said Kang Mi-jin of the Daily NK, based in Seoul.

“They say nothing remains where water flowed away, but there is something to harvest after the heat,” Kang said, citing defectors. “Market prices are mainly determined by Chinese supplies and private produce, rather than crop conditions.”

The October harvest would reveal any havoc wreaked by the weather, Kim Young-hee added.

North Korea suffered a crippling famine in the 1990s when a combination of bad weather, economic mismanagement and the demise of fuel subsidies from the Soviet Union all but destroyed its state rationing system.

However, rationing has slowly been overtaken by an increase in foreign products, mainly from China, and privately produced food sold in North Korean markets, a factor experts say U.N. reports overlook.

The neighbors are in talks to help the North modernize its economy, step up disaster response measures and expand forests in a follow-up to April’s historic summit between Kim and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in.

Across the border, temperatures hit 39.6°C (103.28°F) in Seoul on Wednesday, their highest since weather authorities began monitoring in 1907. The heat has caused 29 deaths and injuries to more than 2,350 people, health officials have said.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Editing by Soyoung Kim and Clarence Fernandez)

U.S. has plan to dismantle North Korea nuclear program within a year: Bolton

FILE PHOTO: White House National Security Advisor John Bolton steps from Air Force One upon U.S. President Donald Trump's arrival in West Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File P

By Hyonhee Shin and Doina Chiacu

SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – White House national security adviser John Bolton said on Sunday he believed the bulk of North Korea’s weapons programs could be dismantled within a year, as the United States and North Korea resumed working-level talks.

Bolton told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Washington has devised a program to dismantle North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction – chemical, biological and nuclear – and ballistic missile programs in a year, if there is full cooperation and disclosure from Pyongyang.

“If they have the strategic decision already made to do that and they’re cooperative, we can move very quickly,” he said. “Physically we would be able to dismantle the overwhelming bulk of their programs within a year.”

He said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will likely discuss that proposal with the North Koreans soon. The Financial Times reported that Pompeo was due to visit North Korea this week but the State Department has not confirmed any travel plans.

South Korea media reported on Sunday that Sung Kim, the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, met with North Korean officials on Sunday at the border village of Panmunjom within the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas to coordinate an agenda for Pompeo’s next visit to North Korea.

Kim’s delegation delivered Pompeo’s letter to Kim Yong Chol, a top Pyongyang official who met Pompeo and U.S. President Donald Trump ahead of last month’s historic summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, Yonhap news agency said, citing an unnamed diplomatic source.

Some experts disputed Bolton’s optimistic time frame for decommissioning the North’s weapons.

“It would be physically possible to dismantle the bulk of North Korea’s programs within a year,” said Thomas Countryman, the State Department’s top arms control officer under President Barack Obama.

“I do not believe it would be possible to verify full dismantlement within a year, nor have I yet seen evidence of a firm DPRK decision to undertake full dismantlement.”

North Korea is completing a major expansion of a key missile-manufacturing plant, the Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday, citing researchers who have examined new satellite imagery from San Francisco-based Planet Labs Inc.

Images analyzed by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California show North Korea was finishing construction on the exterior of the plant around the time Kim Jong Un held a summit with Trump last month, the report said.

The Chemical Material Institute in Hamhung makes solid-fuel ballistic missiles, which could allow North Korean to transport and launch a missile more quickly, compared to a liquid-fuel system that requires lengthy preparation.

Last week, 38 North, a website run by the Johns Hopkins University, said satellite imagery showed the North had been upgrading its Yongbyon nuclear complex.

“None of this activity technically violates any agreement Kim may have made,” said Vipin Narang, an associate professor at MIT’s security studies Programme.

“What it suggests is that Kim has no intention of surrendering his nuclear weapons.”

Kim agreed at the June 12 summit to “work toward denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula,” but the joint statement released after the meeting gave no details on how or when Pyongyang might forsake its nuclear and missile programs.

As negotiations progress, the North could try to trade sites and technology that have relatively low values in exchange for sanctions relief, while covertly operating facilities required to advance key capabilities, Narang said.

“It is perfectly rational for North Korea to shift the emphasis to developing solid fuel missiles now that it already has a suite of liquid fuel missiles to deter an attack,” he said.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (L) arrive to sign a document to acknowledge the progress of the talks and pledge to keep momentum going, after their summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore, June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un (L) arrive to sign a document to acknowledge the progress of the talks and pledge to keep momentum going, after their summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore, June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

TRUST BUT VERIFY

Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear scientist and Stanford University professor, has predicted it would take around 10 years to dismantle and clean up a substantial part of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear site.

U.S. intelligence is not certain how many nuclear warheads North Korea has. The Defense Intelligence Agency is at the high end with an estimate of about 50, but all the agencies believe Pyongyang is concealing an unknown number, especially smaller tactical ones, in caves and other underground facilities around the country.

The U.S. intelligence agencies believe North Korea has increased production of fuel for nuclear weapons at multiple secret sites in recent months and may try to hide these while seeking concessions in nuclear talks with the United States, NBC News quoted U.S. officials as saying on Friday.

The Washington Post reported on Saturday that U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that North Korea does not intend to fully give up its nuclear arsenal and is considering ways to hide the number of weapons it has. It also reported Pyongyang has secret production facilities, according to the latest evidence they have.

Bolton refused to comment on intelligence matters but the United States was going into nuclear negotiations aware of Pyongyang’s failure to live up to its promises in the past.

“There’s not any starry-eyed feeling among the group doing this,” he said. “We’re well aware of what the North Koreans have done in the past.”

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu in WASHINGTON and Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom, Lindsay Dunsmuir, Howard Schneider, John Walcott, Soyoung Kim; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Nick Zieminski, Michael Perry and Lincoln Feast.)

Trump, Pompeo positive ahead of North Korean summit; officials meet to close differences

U.S. President Donald Trump flanked by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly attend a lunch with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and officials at the Istana in Singapore June 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Jack Kim and Steve Holland

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday his historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore could “work out very nicely” as officials from both countries sought to narrow differences on how to end a nuclear stand-off on the Korean peninsula.

But U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo injected a note of caution ahead of the first-ever meeting of U.S. and North Korean leaders on Tuesday, saying that it remained to be seen whether Kim was sincere about his willingness to denuclearize.

Last-minute talks between the two sides were held in the tropical city-state aimed at laying the groundwork for the summit between Trump and Kim, a meeting almost unthinkable just months ago when the two were exchanging insults and threats that raised fears of war.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shake hands during a meeting at the Istana in Singapore June 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

U.S. President Donald Trump and Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shake hands during a meeting at the Istana in Singapore June 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

But after a flurry of diplomatic overtures eased tension in recent months, the two leaders are now headed for a history-making handshake that U.S. officials hope could eventually lead to dismantling of a North Korean nuclear program that threatens the United States.

Offering a preview to reporters on the eve of the summit, Pompeo said it could provide “an unprecedented opportunity to change the trajectory of our relationship and bring peace and prosperity” to North Korea.

However, he played down the possibility of a quick breakthrough and said the summit should set the framework for “the hard work that will follow”, insisting that North Korea had to move toward complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.

Pyongyang, though, has shown little appetite for surrendering nuclear weapons its considers vital to the survival of Kim’s dynastic rule.

Sanctions on North Korea would remain in place until that had happened, Pompeo said. “If diplomacy does not move in the right direction … those measures will increase.”

“North Korea has previously confirmed to us its willingness to denuclearize and we are eager to see if those words prove sincere,” he said.

The White House later said discussions with North Korea had moved “more quickly than expected” and Trump would leave Singapore on Tuesday night, after the summit. He had earlier been scheduled to leave on Wednesday.

Kim is due to leave on Tuesday afternoon.

Trump arrived in Singapore on Sunday after a blow-up over trade with other members of the Group of Seven major industrialized nations in Canada,

The escalating economic clash between Washington and some of its closest global partners cast a cloud over Trump’s efforts to score a major foreign policy win in nuclear talks with North Korea, long one of America’s bitterest foes.

People gather outside the Istana in Singapore June 11, 2018. REUTERS/Edgar Su

People gather outside the Istana in Singapore June 11, 2018. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Although gaps remain over what denuclearization would entail, Trump sounded a positive note in a lunch meeting with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

“We’ve got a very interesting meeting … tomorrow, and I just think it’s going to work out very nicely,” Trump said.

It was a far cry from last year when Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” and mocked Kim as “little rocket man,” Kim denounced the U.S. president as the “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”

Kim, who also arrived on Sunday, remained ensconced in the heavily guarded St Regis Hotel, where he is staying. There was also no sign of his sister, Kim Yo Jong, who has accompanied him to Singapore.

Some people were grumbling in the wealthy city-state because of traffic jams caused by the summit and the cost of hosting two leaders with massive security needs. Lee has said the summit would cost Singapore about S$20 million ($15 million), more than half of which would go on security.

“Thanks PM Lee for spending $20 million of taxpayers’ money, which can … help a lot of needy families in Singapore to survive,” posted one Facebook user. Others complained about the traffic jams downtown.

Lee said the cost was worthwhile.

“It is our contribution to an international endeavor which is in our profound interest,” he told reporters on Sunday.

‘NEW ERA’

Trump and Kim are staying in separate hotels in the famous Orchard Road area of Singapore, dotted with high-rise luxury apartment blocks, offices and glittering shopping malls. Traffic was held up in the steamy midday sun and scores of bystanders were penned in by police when Trump went to meet Lee.

Similar scenes were seen on Sunday when Kim and Trump arrived in the city, and when Kim went to meet Lee. Their hotels are cordoned off with heavy security.

Commenting for the first time on the summit, North Korea’s state-run KCNA news agency said the two sides would exchange “wide-ranging and profound views” to re-set relations. It heralded the summit as part of a “changed era”.

Discussions would focus on “the issue of building a permanent and durable peace-keeping mechanism on the Korean peninsula, the issue of realizing the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and other issues of mutual concern”, KCNA said.

In the lead up to the summit, North Korea rejected any unilateral nuclear disarmament, and KCNA’s reference to denuclearization of the peninsula has historically meant that Pyongyang wants the United States to remove its “nuclear umbrella” protecting South Korea and Japan.

Many experts on North Korea, one of the most insular and unpredictable countries in the world, remain skeptical Kim will ever completely abandon nuclear weapons. They believe Kim’s latest engagement is aimed at getting the United States to ease the crippling sanctions that have squeezed the impoverished country.

A Trump administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. side was entering the talks with a sense of optimism and an equal dose of scepticism given North Korea’s long history of developing nuclear weapons.

“We will not be surprised by any scenario,” said the official.

The official said Trump and Kim would hold a one-on-one meeting on Tuesday that could last up to two hours. He described it as a “get to know you plus” meeting.

Later, they would be joined by their respective negotiating teams for discussions that could last another hour.

The summit’s venue is the Capella hotel on Sentosa, a resort island off Singapore’s port with luxury hotels, a Universal Studios theme park and man-made beaches.

Trump initially touted the potential for a grand bargain with North Korea to rid itself of a nuclear missile program that has advanced rapidly to threaten the United States.

But he has since lowered expectations, backing away from an original demand for North Korea’s swift denuclearization.

He has said the talks would be more about starting a relationship with Kim for a negotiating process that would take more than one summit.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Soyoung Kim, Dewey Sim, Aradhana Aravindan, Himani Sarkar, Kim Coghill, Robert Birsel, Miral Fahmy, Joyce Lee, Grace Lee, Matt Spetalnick, David Brunnstrom; Christine Kim in SEOUL; Writing by Matt Spetalnick; and Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Neil Fullick)