‘Historic’ U.S.-Taliban pact to be signed soon, says Taliban leader

KABUL (Reuters) – The Taliban’s deputy leader said the group would soon sign a agreement with the United States to reduce violence for seven days, adding that militant commanders were “fully committed” to observing the “historic” accord.

“That we today stand at the threshold of a peace agreement with the United States is no small milestone,” Sirajuddin Haqqani wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Times, in the first significant public statement by a Taliban leader on the accord for a week-long reduction in violence (RIV).

The agreement in principle, which was struck during negotiations between U.S. and Taliban representatives in Qatar, could lead to a withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.

“Achieving the potential of the agreement, ensuring its success and earning lasting peace will depend on an equally scrupulous observance by the United States of each of its commitments,” wrote Haqqani, who is also head of the Pakistan-linked Haqqani Network.

Clashes between Afghan forces and Taliban fighters have continued, but Afghanistan’s acting interior minister said on Tuesday an agreement to cut violence would be enforced within five days.

Haqqani also addressed fears about Afghanistan becoming once again a springboard for Islamist militants, calling such concerns “inflated.”

Writing about how women’s rights in Afghanistan would look if foreign forces left, Haqqani envisioned an “Islamic system” in which “the rights of women that are granted by Islam — from the right to education to the right to work — are protected.”

The Taliban banned women from education and work and only let them leave their homes in the company of a male relative. Overnight, women disappeared behind the all-enveloping burqa, their activities restricted to their homes.

Haqqani stressed in the piece the need for a complete withdrawal of foreign forces. Officials in Afghanistan and the United States have said a certain number of troops would remain in the country to ensure stability.

The Afghan presidential palace reacted strongly to the article.

“It is sad that the (New York Times) has given their platform to an individual who is on a designated terrorist list. He and his network are behind ruthless attacks against Afghans and foreigners,” Sediq Sediqqi, a palace spokesman, told Reuters.

Meanwhile, recently reelected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad for the second time in 24 hours on Thursday to discuss issues related to peace talks and the details of the RIV, Sediqqi said on Twitter.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul; Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Helen Popper)

When to end the war? North Korea, U.S. at odds over path to peace

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump shows the document, that he and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un signed acknowledging 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. At right is U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – Washington’s reluctance to declare an end to the Korean War until after North Korea abandons its nuclear arsenal may put it at odds not only with Pyongyang, but also with allies in South Korea.

The 1950-1953 Korean War ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty, leaving the U.S.-led United Nations forces technically still at war with North Korea.

Friday marks 65th anniversary of the truce, which will be commemorated by the United Nations Command in a ceremony in the fortified demilitarized zone that has divided the two Koreas since the war. North Korean veterans of the war, which left more than 1.2 million dead, will gather in Pyongyang for a conference.

In their April summit, the leaders of North and South Korea agreed to work this year with the United States and China, which also played a major role in the war, to replace the armistice with a peace agreement.

In June, U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signed a statement saying they would seek “to establish new U.S.–DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity,” using the initials of the North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Kim has broadly committed to the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” if the United States and its allies drop their “hostile” policies and the North has made clear it sees an official end to the state of war as crucial to lowering tensions.

Many experts and officials in Washington, however, fear signing a peace deal first could erode the international pressure they believe led Kim to negotiate. It could also endanger the decades-long U.S. military alliance with South Korea, and may undermine the justification for the U.S. troops based on the peninsula.

“Broadly speaking, one side wants denuclearization first, normalization of relations later, and the other wants normalization of relations first, then denuclearization later,” said Christopher Green, a senior advisor at the International Crisis Group.

North Korea says it has taken steps to halt its nuclear development, including placing a moratorium on missile and nuclear bomb testing, demolishing its only known nuclear test site, and dismantling a rocket facility.

American officials have praised those moves, but remain skeptical. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress on Wednesday North Korea was continuing to produce fuel for nuclear bombs.

A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said while “peace on the Korean Peninsula is a goal shared by the world,” the international community would not accept a nuclear armed North Korea.

“As we have stated before, we are committed to building a peace mechanism with the goal of replacing the Armistice agreement when North Korea has denuclearized,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

DOUBTS ON BOTH SIDES

In recent weeks Pyongyang has renewed calls for a declaration of the end of the war, calling it the “first process for peace” and a key way the United States can add heft to its guarantees of security.

“The adoption of the declaration on the termination of war is the first and foremost process in the light of ending the extreme hostility and establishing new relations between the DPRK and the U.S.,” North Korean state media said in a statement on Tuesday.

After Pompeo visited Pyongyang in June for talks, state media quoted a spokesman for the North’s Ministry of the Foreign Affairs criticizing the U.S. delegation for not mentioning the idea of a peace regime.

“It seems quite obvious that even if North Korea is negotiating sincerely, they aren’t going to be willing to give up their nuclear capacity in the absence of a peace system that gives them regime security,” Green said.

Many officials in Washington appeared concerned that an early declaration of peace could lead to the collapse of the U.S.-South Korea alliance with calls for U.S. troops to leave the Korean peninsula, he added.

OTHER PLAYERS

South Korean leaders in 1953 opposed the idea of a truce that left the peninsula divided, and were not signatories to the armistice. The treaty was signed by the commander of North Korea’s army, the American commander of the U.N. Command, and the commander of the “Chinese People’s volunteers”.

While South Korean officials say they are committed to the full denuclearization of North Korea, they have shown more flexibility in the timing of a peace agreement than their U.S. allies.

South Korea’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said on Tuesday it is possible to declare an end to war this year.

“We are in consultations with the North and the United States in that direction,” he told a parliamentary session, adding that a three-way declaration would be part of an initial phase of denuclearization.

China says it is open to participating in the process.

Meeting North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho in Pyongyang on Thursday, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou said China supported the reconciliation process between the North and the United States, China’s Foreign Ministry said.

China is willing to work hard with all sides to promote the process of establishing a “peace mechanism” for the Korean peninsula, Kong added, without elaborating.

(Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin in Seoul and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Clarence Fernandez)

North Korea seeks ‘complete denuclearisation’, says Moon, as U.S. vows continued pressure

South Korea's President Moon Jae-in is seen during a meeting with Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (not pictured) at the Government Office in Hanoi, Vietnam March 23, 2018. REUTERS/Kham/Pool

By Joyce Lee and Stephanie Nebehay

SEOUL/GENEVA (Reuters) – North Korea has expressed its commitment to “complete denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula and is not seeking conditions, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Thursday, as the United States vowed to maintain “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang.

Moon said big-picture agreements about denuclearisation, establishing a peace regime and normalisation of relations between the two Koreas and the United States should not be difficult to reach through summits between the North and South, and between the North and the United States.

“I don’t think denuclearisation has different meanings for South and North Korea. The North is expressing a will for a complete denuclearisation,” Moon said during a lunch with chief executives of Korean media companies.

“They have not attached any conditions that the U.S. cannot accept, such as the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea. All they are talking about is the end of hostile policies against North Korea, followed by a guarantee of security.”

North Korea has defended its nuclear and missile programmes, which it pursues in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions, as a necessary deterrent against perceived U.S. hostility. The United States stations 28,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War.

North Korea has said over the years that it could consider giving up its nuclear arsenal if the United States removed its troops from South Korea and withdrew its so-called nuclear umbrella of deterrence from South Korea and Japan.

South Korea announced on Wednesday that it is considering how to change a decades-old armistice with North Korea into a peace agreement as it prepares for the North-South summit this month.

Reclusive North Korea and the rich, democratic South are technically still at war because the 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

Moon said he saw the possibility of a peace agreement, or even international aid for the North’s economy, if it denuclearises.

But he also said the inter-Korean summit had “a lot of constraints”, in that the two Koreas could not make progress separate from the North Korea-United States summit, and could not reach an agreement that transcends international sanctions.

“So first, the South-North Korean summit must make a good beginning, and the dialogue between the two Koreas likely must continue after we see the results of the North Korea-United States summit,” Moon said.

U.S. CIA Director Mike Pompeo visited North Korea last week and met leader Kim Jong Un with whom he formed a “good relationship”, U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday, ahead of a summit planned for May or June.

Trump said on Wednesday he hoped the summit would be successful, but warned he would call it off if he did not think it would produce results.

Trump told a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that his campaign of “maximum pressure” on North Korea would continue until Pyongyang gave up its nuclear weapons.

“The United States remains committed to complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation of North Korea,” U.S. Disarmament Ambassador Robert Wood told a news conference in Geneva on Thursday ahead of a two-week conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

“In terms of the pressure campaign, the things we have been very interested in are maintaining the pressure, meaning enforcing sanctions, ensuring that the North is not able to get access to funds that help further its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.”

North Korea must show that it is “serious about getting rid of its nuclear weapons programme” and take “concrete steps”, Wood said, adding: “But we’ve got a long way to go”.

China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular press briefing in Beijing that China supported ending the state of war on the Korean peninsula.

“China supports ending the war state on the peninsula at an early date,” she said. “As a party involved in the peninsula issue, China is willing to play an active role.”

Ahead of next week’s summit, Seoul and Pyongyang will also complete the instalment of a telephone hotline between the two leaders on Friday, directly connecting the South’s presidential Blue House and the North’s State Affairs Commission, the South’s presidential spokesman said.

Six top South Korean officials will accompany Moon to the summit, including his chief of staff, spy chief, national security adviser and unification, defence and foreign ministers, the spokesman said.

North Korea meanwhile will hold a plenary meeting of its ruling party’s central committee on Friday, state media KCNA said on Thursday.

The meeting was convened to discuss and decide “policy issues of a new stage” to meet the demands of the current “important historic period”, KCNA said.

(Additional reporting by Heekyong Yang and Soyoung Kim in SEOUL and Michael Martina in BEIJING; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Timing of Trump peace plan depends on Palestinians: Pence

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence touches the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City January 23, 2018.

By Jeff Mason

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday the timing of a long-awaited U.S. Middle East peace initiative depended on the return of Palestinians to negotiations.

President Donald Trump’s advisers have been working on the outlines of a plan for some time. But Palestinians ruled out Washington as a peace broker after the U.S. president’s Dec. 6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“The White House has been working with our partners in the region to see if we can develop a framework for peace,” Pence told Reuters in an interview in Jerusalem on the last leg of a three-day Middle East trip. “It all just depends now on when the Palestinians are going to come back to the table.”

Trump’s Jerusalem move angered the Palestinians, sparked protests in the Middle East and raised concern among Western countries that it could further destabilize the region. Palestinians see East Jerusalem as capital of a future state.

A White House official told reporters he hoped the plan would be announced in 2018.

“It’ll come out both when it’s ready and when both sides are actually willing to engage on it,” said the White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official acknowledged that the United States and the Palestinian leadership had not had any direct diplomatic contact since Trump’s Jerusalem declaration.

Pence said in the interview that he and the president believed the decision, under which the United States also plans to move its embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, would improve peacemaking prospects.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official at the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), said the Trump administration had dealt a death blow to any prospect for peace.

“The extremist positions of this U.S. administration and the biblical messianic message of Pence not only disqualified the U.S. as a peace broker but created conditions of volatility and instability in the region and beyond,” Ashrawi said in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Pence discussed the Jerusalem issue during talks with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Saturday and Jordan’s King Abdullah on Sunday. He said the two leaders had agreed to convey to the Palestinians that the United States was eager to resume peace talks.

“We want them (the Palestinians) to know the door is open. We understand they’re unhappy with that decision but the president wanted me to convey our willingness and desire to be a part of the peace process going forward,” Pence said.

Asked if the Egyptians and Jordanians had agreed to pressure the Palestinians to return to talks, Pence said: “I wouldn’t characterize it as that.”

SUPPORTER OF NETANYAHU

The Palestinians want to establish an independent state in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and in the Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in a move not recognized internationally. It says the entire city is its eternal and indivisible capital.

Pence said the U.S. State Department would spell out details in the coming weeks about a plan to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem by the end of 2019.

Israeli media have speculated that a 2019 embassy move could help Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu win reelection in a vote scheduled for November of that year.

Pence said he admired Netanyahu’s leadership and appreciated his friendship. Asked if he hoped for the prime minister’s reelection, Pence said: “I’m a strong supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu, but I don’t get a vote here.”

Pence toured Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial with Netanyahu on Tuesday before visiting the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites. He stood solemnly with his hand on the wall and left a note, as people who pray there traditionally do.

The vice president also pressed European leaders to heed Trump’s call to forge a follow-up agreement to the Iran nuclear deal established under President Barack Obama’s administration.

“At the end of the day, this is going to be a moment where the European community has to decide whether they want to go forward with the United States or whether they want to stay in this deeply flawed deal with Iran,” he said.

Asked if he thought the United States would succeed in getting that kind of agreement with its European allies, Pence said: “We’ll see.”

Trump said earlier this month the United States would withdraw from the agreement unless its flaws were fixed.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Maayan Lubell and Ralph Boulton)