North Korea changes constitution to solidify Kim Jong Un’s rule

FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un smiles as he guides missile testing at an unidentified location in North Korea, in this undated image provided by KCNA on August 7, 2019. KCNA via REUTERS

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s parliament has approved changes to the country’s constitution to solidify leader Kim Jong Un’s role as head of state, state media said on Thursday.

The move comes after Kim was formally named head of state and commander-in-chief of the military in a new constitution in July that analysts said was possibly aimed at preparing for a peace treaty with the United States.

North Korea has long called for a peace deal with the United States to normalize relations and end the technical state of war that has existed since the 1950-1953 Korean War, concluded with an armistice, rather than a peace treaty.

Kim’s legal status as “representing our state has been further consolidated to firmly ensure the monolithic guidance of the Supreme Leader over all state affairs,” state news agency KCNA quoted Choe Ryong Hae, president of the presidium of the supreme people’s assembly, or titular parliament, as saying.

The presidium president had historically been the nominal head of state.

But the new constitution said Kim, as chairman of the State Affairs Commission (SAC), a top governing body created in 2016, was the supreme representative of all the Korean people, which means head of state, as well as “commander-in-chief”.

A previous constitution simply called Kim “supreme leader” who commanded the country’s “overall military force”.

Thursday’s constitutional amendments appear to confirm that North Korea’s legal system will now recognize Kim as head of state.

The new constitution authorizes Kim to promulgate legislative ordinances and major decrees and decisions and appoint or recall diplomatic envoys to foreign countries, KCNA said.

“With the amendment, Kim Jong Un is reviving his grandfather’s head of state system,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute. “He has become a de facto head of state.”

In reality, Kim, a third-generation hereditary leader, rules North Korea with an iron fist and the title change will mean little to the way he wields power.

The back-to-back constitutional revision is unprecedented, said Rachel Minyoung Lee, an analyst with NK News, a website that tracks North Korea.

“By further bolstering the SAC chairman’s authority, Kim Jong Un has emerged as the most powerful leader in North Korean history,” she said.

There has been scant progress in the U.S. aim of getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program despite three meetings between President Donald Trump and Kim.

Trump has said he and Kim agreed at their last meeting to resume working-level talks, but these have yet to happen and North Korea has conducted multiple missile tests since while accusing Washington of breaking a pledge to stop joint military exercises with South Korea.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Hyunjoo Jin; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

North Korea fires missiles, derides South Korea’s Moon as ‘impudent’

People visit the statues of former North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il to commemorate the 74th anniversary of the end of the Japanese occupation of Korea, in this undated photo supplied by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on August 16, 2019. KCNA/ via REUTERS

By Josh Smith and Jack Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea launched at least two short-range ballistic missiles on Friday, South Korea’s military said, shortly after Pyongyang described South Korea’s president as “impudent” and vowed that inter-Korean talks are over.

The North has protested against joint U.S.-South Korea military drills, largely computer-simulated, which kicked off last week, calling them a rehearsal for war. It has also fired several short-range missiles in recent weeks.

North Korea fired two more short-range projectiles into the sea off its east coast on Friday morning, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a statement.

Japan’s defense ministry said it did not see any imminent security threat from the latest projectile launch.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said initial information indicated at least one projectile was fired by North Korea and appeared to be similar to the short-range missiles fired in previous weeks. Another official said the United States was consulting with South Korea and Japan.

An official at Seoul’s defense ministry said the latest test involved ballistic technology and detailed analysis was under way with the United States with the possibility that the North fired the same type of missiles it used on Aug. 10.

The missiles were launched shortly after 8 a.m. Friday (2300 GMT Thursday) and flew around 230 kms (142 miles) to an altitude of 30 kms (18 miles), South Korea’s JCS said.

The launches have complicated attempts to restart talks between U.S. and North Korean negotiators over the future of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

Those denuclearization talks have been stalled despite a commitment to revive them made at a June 30 meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Earlier on Friday, Pyongyang rejected a vow by South Korean President Moon Jae-in a day earlier to pursue talks with the North and to unify the two Koreas by 2045.

The loss of dialogue momentum between the North and South and the stalemate in implementing pledges made at an historic summit between their two leaders last year was entirely the responsibility of the South, a North Korean spokesman said.

The unidentified spokesman repeated criticism that the joint U.S.-South Korea drills were a sign of Seoul’s hostility toward the North.

“We have nothing to talk any more with the South Korean authorities nor have any idea to sit with them again,” the North’s spokesman for the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country said in a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency.

The committee manages relationships with the South. The rival Koreas are technically still at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended with a truce rather than a peace treaty.

South Korea’s unification ministry called North Korea’s comments about Moon “not in line” with inter-Korean agreements and unhelpful for developing relations between them.

After an emergency meeting of South Korea’s National Security Council held to discuss the launches, officials reiterated that the joint drills are simply an opportunity to evaluate whether South Korea could eventually assume wartime control of the allied forces on the peninsula.

‘IMPUDENT GUY’

Moon and Kim have met three times since April last year, pledging peace and cooperation, but little progress has been made to improve dialogue and strengthen exchanges and cooperation.

“North Korea makes it exceedingly difficult to build trust when it interprets restraint as weakness and looks to exploit divisions within South Korea,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

Seoul and Washington should continue to seek working-level talks with North Korea but the allies should also prepare new sanctions and renewed military cooperation if Pyongyang continues to violate United Nations resolutions and threaten its neighbors, Easley said.

The South’s Moon said in a Liberation Day address on Thursday it was only through his policy of Korean national peace that dialogue with the North was still possible.

“In spite of a series of worrying actions taken by North Korea recently, the momentum for dialogue remains unshaken,” Moon said in a speech marking Korea’s independence from Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule.

The North’s spokesman described Moon as an “impudent guy” who is “overcome with fright”.

He said Moon had no standing to talk about engagement with the North because of the ongoing military maneuvers.

“His open talk about ‘dialogue’ between the North and the South under such a situation raises a question as to whether he has proper thinking faculty,” the spokesman said.

It was “senseless” to think that inter-Korean dialogue would resume once the military drills with the United States were over, he said.

However, the spokesman left open the possibility of talks with the United States.

Trump and Kim have met twice since their first summit in Singapore last year and said their countries would continue talks. However, little progress has been made on the North’s stated commitment to denuclearize.

(Reporting by Jack Kim and Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Hyunjoo Jin and Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL, Chris Gallagher in TOKYO, and Idrees Ali and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Paul Tait and Michael Perry)

South Korea says it wants U.S. troops to stay regardless of any treaty with North Korea

FILE PHOTO: U.S. army soldiers take part in a U.S.-South Korea joint river-crossing exercise near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Yeoncheon, South Korea, April 8, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Christine Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea said on Wednesday the issue of U.S. troops stationed in the South is unrelated to any future peace treaty with North Korea and that American forces should stay even if such an agreement is signed.

“U.S. troops stationed in South Korea are an issue regarding the alliance between South Korea and the United States. It has nothing to do with signing peace treaties,” said Kim Eui-kyeom, a spokesman for the presidential Blue House, citing President Moon Jae-in.

The Blue House was responding to media questions about a column written by South Korean presidential adviser and academic Moon Chung-in that was published earlier this week.

Moon Chung-in said it would be difficult to justify the presence of U.S. forces in South Korea if a peace treaty was signed after the two Koreas agreed at an historic summit last week to put an end to the Korean conflict.

However, Seoul wants the troops to stay because U.S. forces in South Korea play the role of a mediator in military confrontations between neighboring superpowers like China and Japan, another presidential official told reporters on condition of anonymity earlier on Wednesday.

Presidential adviser Moon Chung-in was asked not to create confusion regarding the president’s stance, Kim said.

The United States currently has around 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea, which North Korea has long demanded be removed as one of the conditions for giving up its nuclear and missile programs.

However, there was no mention in last week’s declaration by Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea. Kim and Moon Jae-in pledged to work for the “complete denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula.

U.S. troops have been stationed in South Korea since the Korean War, which ended in 1953 in an armistice that left the two Koreas technically still at war.

Moon Jae-in and Kim have said they want to put an end to the Korean conflict, promising there will be “no more war” on the Korean peninsula.

(Reporting by Christine Kim; Editing by Paul Tait)

Jordanian protesters at Israeli embassy call for ending peace treaty

Protestors chanting slogans during a demonstration near the Israeli embassy in Amman, Jordan July 28, 2017. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

AMMAN (Reuters) – Protesters gathered near the Israeli Embassy in the Jordanian capital Amman on Friday, angry that an Israeli embassy guard who shot dead a Jordanian had returned to Israel and been granted diplomatic immunity.

A Reuters witness said around 200 people had assembled peacefully in the vicinity of the embassy. Scores chanted, “Death to Israel,” and called for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and scrapping of an unpopular peace treaty with Israel.

A heavy Jordanian police presence had sealed off the area around the embassy so the protesters gathered nearby.

On Sunday an embassy guard shot dead Jordanian teenager Mohammad Jawawdah as well as the landlord of the house in the compound where the guard lived. Israel said the guard had been defending himself after Jawawdah assaulted him with a screwdriver in a “terrorist attack”.

Jordan’s King Abdullah angrily demanded on Thursday that Israel put the guard on trial.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave the guard a hero’s embrace after Israel brought him home under diplomatic immunity. King Abdullah said Netanyahu’s behavior was “provocative on all fronts and enrages us, destabilize security and fuels extremism”.

(Reporting by Suleiman al Khalidi in Amman; Writing by Lisa Barrington in Beirut; editing by Mark Heinrich)

French Middle East peace conference to be postponed: Palestinian official

Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Palestine President

RAMALLAH/PARIS (Reuters) – France will postpone a proposed Middle East peace conference in Paris to January next year, Voice of Palestine radio reported on Wednesday, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refusing to participate and U.S. attendance in doubt.

France has been trying to persuade Netanyahu, who has repeatedly rejected the conference proposal, to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the French capital to try to revive moribund peace talks between the two sides.

Voice of Palestine radio quoted Palestinian Ambassador to France Salman El Herfi as saying that Paris had informed the Palestinians of its delay to the peace conference until January “to make better preparations”.

It said Herfi would meet French officials on Wednesday to discuss the issue and that he had said that if Israel refused to come in January, the international conference would still go ahead, but without the main protagonists.

Asked to comment on the situation, a spokesman for the French foreign ministry replied: “As of now, France has never officially confirmed any date for this conference. We will do so once we have had the results of our talks with all the parties concerned.”

France has repeatedly tried to breathe new life into the peace process this year, holding a preliminary conference in June where the United Nations, European Union, United States and major Arab countries gathered to discuss proposals without the Israelis or Palestinians present.

The plan was to hold a follow-up conference before Christmas with the Israelis and Palestinians involved to see whether the two sides could be brought back to negotiations.

The conference of foreign ministers was aimed at agreeing on a joint statement that would reaffirm the two-state solution on the basis of pre-1967 borders and according to Security Council resolutions, diplomats said.

The Palestinian mission in Paris was not immediately available for comment.

(Reporting by Ali Sawafta and John Irish; Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Ralph Boulton)

Obama, trying to protect legacy, unlikely to act on Mideast peace

President Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu

By Arshad Mohammed and Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama, keen to preserve his legacy on domestic health care and the Iran nuclear deal, is not expected to make major moves on Israeli-Palestinian peace before leaving office, U.S. officials said on Thursday.

One official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the last word on the president’s failed peace effort might come from Secretary of State John Kerry at an appearance on Sunday at an annual Middle East conference in Washington.

Obama’s aides are wary of being seen picking a fight with Donald Trump at a time when he hopes to persuade the Republican President-elect to preserve parts of his legacy, including the Iran nuclear deal, Obamacare and the opening to Cuba.

While Obama has yet to present his final decision, several officials said he had given no sign that he intended to go against the consensus of his top advisers, who have mostly urged him not to take dramatic steps, a second official said.

“There is no evidence that there is any muscle behind (doing) anything,” said a third official.

Putting new pressure on Israel could be seen as a vindictive parting shot by Obama at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the first official said, noting they have had a testy relationship.

There is concern that Trump, in response, might over-react in trying to demonstrate his own pro-Israel credentials, for example by moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, a step that would enrage Palestinians and create an international furor.

Officials said Obama has weighed enshrining his own outline for a deal in a U.N. Security Council resolution that would live on after he gives way to Trump on Jan. 20. Another idea was to give a speech laying out such parameters.

These options appear to have lost steam.

Kerry, who led the last round of peace talks that collapsed in 2014, appears on Sunday at the Saban Forum conference of U.S., Israeli and Arab officials.

Officials could not rule out that Obama might also talk about Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy before he leaves office. The White House and the Israeli embassy declined comment.

The central issues to be resolved in the conflict include borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state, the fate of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which most nations regard as illegal, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

Israeli officials remain concerned that Obama and his aides have not explicitly ruled out some kind of last-ditch U.S. action, either at the United Nations or in another public forum.

U.S. officials said Obama could also have his hand forced, notably if another nation like France put forward a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity as illegal or illegitimate, daring Washington to veto it as it did a similar French-proposed resolution in 2011.

U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, asked if Washington would again veto a French proposal, told Israel’s Army Radio: “We will always oppose unilateral proposals.”

He added: “If there is something more balanced, I cannot guess what the response will be.”

(Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and James Dalgleish)