Trump tells Putin more steps needed to scrap North Korea nuclear program

President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin talk during the family photo session at the APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam November 11, 2017.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump, who complained last month that Moscow was “not helping us at all with North Korea,” told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday that more needs to be done to scrap Pyongyang’s nuclear program, the White House said.

“President Trump reiterated the importance of taking further steps to ensure the denuclearization of North Korea,” the White House said in a statement about the call with Putin.

In an interview with Reuters last month, Trump accused Russia of helping North Korea evade international sanctions meant to punish Pyongyang for its pursuit of a nuclear-armed missile capable of reaching the United States.

“Russia is not helping us at all with North Korea,” Trump told Reuters.

Moscow denies it has failed to uphold U.N. sanctions.

Trump and Putin spoke after U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, in an interview with the Washington Post, raised the prospect of talks with North Korea.

But Pence, who traveled to South Korea for the Winter Olympics, also said Washington would intensify its “maximum pressure campaign” against Pyongyang until it takes a “meaningful step toward denuclearization.”

Last year, North Korea conducted dozens of missile launches and its sixth and largest nuclear test in defiance of U.N. resolutions.

Russia signed on to the latest rounds of United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea imposed last year, including a ban on coal exports, which are an important source of the foreign currency Pyongyang needs to fund its nuclear program.

But North Korea shipped coal to Russia at least three times last year after the ban was put in place on Aug. 5, three Western European intelligence sources told Reuters.

The North Korean coal was shipped to the Russian ports of Nakhodka and Kholmsk, where it was unloaded at docks and reloaded onto ships that took it to South Korea or Japan, the sources said.

(Reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Eric Walsh and Peter Cooney)

More than 200 companies have Israeli settlement ties: U.N

A construction site is seen in the Israeli settlement of Givat Zeev, in the occupied West Bank December 22, 2016.

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United Nations human rights office said on Wednesday it had identified 206 companies so far doing business linked to illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and it urged them to avoid any complicity in “pervasive” violations against Palestinians.

Israel fears that companies in the U.N. “blacklist” could be targeted for boycotts or divestment aimed at stepping up pressure over its settlements, which most countries and the world body view as illegal.

“Businesses play a central role in furthering the establishment, maintenance and expansion of Israeli settlements,” the U.N. report said.

The settlements alter the demographic composition of the occupied Palestinian territory, seized by Israel in 1967, and threaten the Palestinians’ right to determination, it said.

The majority of the companies, or 143, are domiciled in Israel or the settlements, followed by 22 in the United States, it said. The remainder are based in 19 other countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, France and Britain.

The report, which did not name the companies but said that 64 of them had been contacted to date, said that the work in producing the U.N. database “does not purport to constitute a judicial process of any kind”.

But businesses operating in the occupied area have a responsibility to carry out due diligence and consider “whether it is possible to engage in such an environment in a manner that respects human rights”, it said.

The office’s mandate was to identify businesses involved in the construction of settlements, surveillance, services including transport, and banking and financial operations such as loans for housing that may raise human rights concerns.

Human rights violations associated with the settlements are “pervasive and devastating, reaching every facet of Palestinian life,” the report said. It cited restrictions on freedom of religion, movement and education and lack of access to land, water and jobs.

Israel assailed the Human Rights Council in March 2016 for launching the initiative at the request of countries led by Pakistan, calling the database a “blacklist” and accusing the 47-member state forum of behaving “obsessively” against it.

Israel’s mission in Geneva said on Wednesday that it was preparing a statement responding to the U.N. report. There was no immediate reaction by its main ally, the Untied States.

“We hope that our work in consolidating and communicating the information in the database will assist States and businesses in complying with their obligations and responsibilities under international law,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein.

Zeid’s office deferred the report last February saying it needed more time to establish the database. It is to be debated at the U.N. Human Rights Council session of Feb 26 – March 23.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

60,000 North Korean children may starve, sanctions slow aid: UNICEF

A North Korean flag flies on a mast at the Permanent Mission of North Korea in Geneva October 2, 2014.

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – An estimated 60,000 children face potential starvation in North Korea, where international sanctions are exacerbating the situation by slowing aid deliveries, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said on Tuesday.

World powers have imposed growing sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Last week the United States announced fresh sanctions on nine entities, 16 people and six North Korean ships it accused of helping the weapons programs.

Under United Nations Security Council resolutions, humanitarian supplies or operations are exempt from sanctions, Omar Abdi, UNICEF deputy executive director, said.

“But what happens is that of course the banks, the companies that provide goods or ship goods are very careful. They don’t want to take any risk of later on being associated (with) breaking the sanctions,” Abdi told a news briefing.

“That is what makes it more difficult for us to bring things. So it takes a little bit longer, especially in getting money into the country. But also in shipping goods to DPRK. There are not many shipping lines that operate in that area,” he said, referring to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Sanctions on fuel have been tightened, making it more scarce and expensive, Abdi added.

Reuters, citing three Western European intelligence sources, reported exclusively last week that North Korea shipped coal to Russia last year which was then delivered to South Korea and Japan in a likely violation of U.N. sanctions.

“We are projecting that at some point during the year 60,000 children will become severely malnourished. This is the malnutrition that potentially can lead to death. It’s protein and calorie malnutrition,” said Manuel Fontaine, director of UNICEF emergency programs worldwide.

“So the trend is worrying, it’s not getting any better.”

In all, 200,000 North Korean children suffer from acute malnutrition, including 60,000 with the most severe form that can be lethal, according to UNICEF.

UNICEF had projected 60,000 children would suffer severe acute malnutrition last year, and reached 39,000 of them with therapeutic feeding, spokesman Christophe Boulierac said.

“Diarrhoea related to poor sanitation and hygiene and acute malnutrition remains a leading cause of death among young children,” it said in Tuesday’s appeal to donors that gave no toll.

UNICEF is seeking $16.5 million this year to provide nutrition, health and water to North Koreans but faces “operational challenges” due to the tense political context and “unintended consequences” of sanctions, it said.

It cited “disruptions to banking channels, delays in clearing relief items at entry ports, difficulty securing suppliers and a 160 percent increase in fuel prices”.

“It’s a very close, and tightly monitored intervention which is purely humanitarian in its essence,” Fontaine said.

UNICEF is one of only a few aid agencies with access to the isolated country, which suffered famine in the mid-1990s that killed up to three million people.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Peter Graff)

Exclusive: Despite sanctions, North Korea exported coal to South and Japan via Russia

A cargo ship is loaded with coal during the opening ceremony of a new dock at the North Korean port of Rajin July 18, 2014.

By Guy Faulconbridge, Jonathan Saul and Polina Nikolskaya

PARIS/LONDON/MOSCOW (Reuters) – North Korea shipped coal to Russia last year which was then delivered to South Korea and Japan in a likely violation of U.N. sanctions, three Western European intelligence sources said.

The U.N. Security Council banned North Korean exports of coal last Aug. 5 under sanctions intended to cut off an important source of the foreign currency Pyongyang needs to fund its nuclear weapon and long-range missile programs.

But the secretive Communist state has at least three times since then shipped coal to the Russian ports of Nakhodka and Kholmsk, where it was unloaded at docks and reloaded onto ships that took it to South Korea or Japan, the sources said.

A Western shipping source said separately that some of the cargoes reached Japan and South Korea in October last year. A U.S. security source also confirmed the coal trade via Russia and said it was continuing.

“Russia’s port of Nakhodka is becoming a transhipping hub for North Korean coal,” said one of the European security sources, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of international diplomacy around North Korea.

Asked to respond to the report, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that Russia abided by international law.

“Russia is a responsible member of the international community,” he told reporters on a conference call.

Interfax news agency quoted an unidentified official at Russia’s embassy to North Korea on Friday as saying Russia did not buy coal from North Korea and was “not a transit point for coal deliveries to third countries.”

Russia’s mission to the United Nations told the Security Council sanctions committee on Nov. 3 that Moscow was complying with the sanctions.

Two lawyers who specialize in sanctions law told Reuters it appeared the transactions violated U.N. sanctions.

Reuters could not independently verify whether the coal unloaded at the Russian docks was the same coal that was then shipped to South Korea and Japan. Reuters also was unable to ascertain whether the owners of the vessels that sailed from Russia to South Korea and Japan knew the origin of the coal.

The U.S. Treasury on Wednesday put the owner of one of the ships, the UAL Ji Bong 6, under sanctions for delivering North Korean coal to Kholmsk on Sept. 5.

It was unclear which companies profited from the coal shipments.

RUSSIA URGED “DO MORE” ON SANCTIONS

North Korean coal exports were initially capped under a 2016 Security Council resolution that required countries to report monthly imports of coal from North Korea to the council’s sanctions committee within 30 days of the end of each month.

Diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Russia had not reported any imports of North Korea coal to the committee last year.

The sanctions committee told U.N. member states in November that a violation occurs when “activities or transactions proscribed by Security Council resolutions are undertaken or attempts are made to engage in proscribed transactions, whether or not the transaction has been completed.”

Asked about the shipments identified by Reuters, Matthew Oresman, a partner with law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman who advises companies on sanctions, said: “Based on these facts, there appears to be a violation of the U.N. Security Council resolution by the parties involved.”

“Also those involved in arranging, financing, and carrying out the shipments could likely face U.S. sanctions,” he said.

Asked about the shipments, a U.S. State Department spokesman said: “It’s clear that Russia needs to do more. All U.N. member states, including Russia, are required to implement sanctions resolutions in good faith and we expect them all to do so.”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The independent panel of experts that reports to the Security Council on violations of sanctions was not immediately available for comment.

North Korea has refused to give up the development of nuclear missiles capable of hitting the United States. It has said the sanctions infringe its sovereignty and accused the United States of wanting to isolate and stifle North Korea.

An independent panel of experts reported to the Security Council on Sept. 5 that North Korea had been “deliberately using indirect channels to export prohibited commodities, evading sanctions.”

Reuters reported last month that Russian tankers had supplied fuel to North Korea at sea and U.S. President Donald Trump told Reuters in an interview on Jan. 17 that Russia was helping Pyongyang get supplies in violation of the sanctions.

The U.S. Treasury on Wednesday imposed sanctions on nine entities, 16 people and six North Korean ships it accused of helping the weapons programs.

TWO ROUTES

Two separate routes for the coal were identified by the Western security sources.

The first used vessels from North Korea via Nakhodka, about 85 km (53 miles) east of the Russian city of Vladivostok.

One vessel that used this route was the Palau-flagged Jian Fu which Russian port control documents show delivered 17,415 tonnes of coal after sailing from Nampo in North Korea on Aug. 3 and docking at berth no. 4 run by LLC Port Livadiya in Nakhodka. It left the port on Aug. 18.

The vessel had turned off its tracking transmitter from July 24 to Aug. 2, when it was in open seas, according to publicly available ship tracking data. Under maritime conventions, this is acceptable practice at the discretion of the ship’s captain, but means the vessel could not be tracked publicly.

Another ship arrived at the same berth — No. 4 — on Aug. 16, loaded 20,500 tonnes of coal and headed to the South Korean port of Ulsan in Aug. 24, according to Russian port control documents.

Reuters was unable to reach the operator of the Jian Fu, which was listed in shipping directories as the China-based Sunrise Ship Management. The Nakhodka-based transport agent of the Jian Fu did not respond to written and telephone requests for comment. LLC Port Livadiya did not respond to a written request for comment.

The second route took coal via Kholmsk on the Russian Pacific island of Sakhalin, north of Japan.

At least two North Korean vessels unloaded coal at a dock in Kholmsk port in August and September after arriving from the ports of Wonsan and Taean in North Korea, Russian port control data and ship tracking data showed.

The Rung Ra 2 docked in Kholmsk three times between Aug 1 and Sept. 12, unloading a total of 15,542 tonnes of coal, while the Ul Ji Bong 6 unloaded a total of 10,068 tonnes of coal on two separate port calls — on Aug. 3 and between Sept. 1 and Sept. 8, according to the official Russian Information System for State Port Control.

The coal did not pass Russian customs because of the UN sanctions taking effect, but was then loaded at the same dock onto Chinese-operated vessels. Those vessels stated their destination in Russian port control documents as North Korea, according to a source in Sakhalin port administration who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Reuters has seen the port control documents which state the destination of the coal as North Korea. But the vessels that loaded the North Korean coal sailed instead for the ports of Pohang and Incheon in South Korea, ship tracking data showed.

In Beijing on Friday, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters she did not know anything about the situation but China was clear in its hope that the UN resolutions are followed fully.

China will not allow any Chinese company or individual to do anything that goes against the resolutions and if there is cast-iron proof this is happening, China will handle it seriously and in accordance with the law, she added.

The U.S. Treasury on Wednesday included the owner of the Ul Ji Bong 6 under sanctions for delivering North Korean coal to Kholmsk after the sanctions took effect.

It was unclear which companies profited from the coal shipments.

Asked about the shipments, a South Korean foreign ministry official said: “Our government is monitoring any sanctions-evading activities by North Korea. We’re working closely with the international community for the implementation of the sanctions.”

The official declined to say whether the ministry was aware of the shipments reported by Reuters.

The Japanese foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The European security sources said the route via Russia had developed as China, North Korea’s neighbor and lone major ally, cracked down on exports from the secretive Communist state.

“The Chinese have cracked down on coal exports from North Korea so the smuggling route has developed and Russia is the transit point for coal,” one of the European security sources said.

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Jonathan Saul; Additional reporting by Michele Nichols in New York, Oksana Kobzeva and Gleb Stolyarov in Moscow, Hyonhee Shin in Seoul, William James in London, Muyu Xu, Ben Blanchard and Josephine Mason in Beijing, Aaron Sheldrick and Linda Sieg in Tokyo, and Mark Hosenball and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Timothy Heritage, Clarence Fernandez and Sonya Hepinstall)

Tillerson: Evidence sanctions ‘really starting to hurt’ North Korea

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at a news conference during the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, January 16, 2018.

By David Brunnstrom

ABOARD U.S. GOVERNMENT AIRCRAFT (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Wednesday the United States is getting evidence that international sanctions are “really starting to hurt” North Korea, even as he accused Russia of not implementing all of the measures.

U.S. President Donald Trump told Reuters in an interview earlier on Wednesday that Russia was helping North Korea evade international sanctions and that Pyongyang was getting closer every day to being able to deliver a long-range missile to the United States.

Tillerson told reporters the Russian failure to comply with the U.N. measures “primarily” concerned fuel “but some other areas potentially as well.” He did not provide details.

Nevertheless, Tillerson said he was confident the pressure would eventually bring North Korea to the negotiating table over its nuclear and missile programs. Pyongyang has carried out nuclear and missiles tests in defiance of U.N. and other sanctions.

“We are getting a lot of evidence that these sanctions are really starting to hurt,” Tillerson said, citing intelligence and anecdotal evidence from defectors.

He said Japan told a conference on North Korea in Vancouver on Tuesday that more than 100 North Korean fishing boats had drifted into its waters and two-thirds of those aboard them had died.

“What they learned is that they are being sent out in the winter time because there’s food shortages and they are being sent out to fish with inadequate fuel to get back,” he said.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in had attributed North Korea’s recent willingness to talk to South Korea to the pain of sanctions, Tillerson told an event at Stanford University in California.

But he later said he suspected Russia may not only be failing to implement some sanctions but “frustrating” some of the effort to press the North.

“It’s apparent to us that they’re not implementing all the sanctions and there’s some evidence they may be frustrating some of the sanctions,” Tillerson said aboard his aircraft while returning from Vancouver.

CHINESE PRESSURE

China did not attend the Vancouver meeting, where 20 nations agreed to step up sanctions pressure on the North, but Tillerson highlighted Beijing’s role.

“We have never had Chinese support for sanctions like we’re getting now,” he said. “Russia’s a slightly different issue, but the Chinese have leaned in hard on the North Koreans.”

Asked whether there was a humanitarian concern that sanctions were hurting ordinary North Koreans, he said: “That’s a choice the regime’s making. The regime gets to decide how they allocate their available resources.”

“We are not going to take any responsibility for the fact that he (North Korean leader Kim Jong Un) is choosing to make his own people suffer,” Tillerson said.

Asked if he was concerned that South Korea might resume some humanitarian aid to North Korea as part of the resumption of North-South talks this month, thereby weakening sanctions, Tillerson said: “Countries will have to make their own choice, but we would be very skeptical that aid that goes into the country will necessarily relieve the suffering of the people.”

Tillerson said that, while North Korea had a record of seeking to drive a wedge between the United States and its allies through “charm offensives,” Washington was supportive of the North-South dialogue.

Tillerson said of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un: “He knows how to reach me, if he wants to talk. But he’s got to tell me he wants to talk. We’re not going to chase him.”

He said he was confident the sides would eventually get to the negotiating table and he wanted North Korea to know that, when that happened, the United States had “very, very strong military options standing behind me.”

The Trump administration has said repeatedly that all options are available, including military ones, in forcing North Korea to give up its development of nuclear missiles capable of reaching the United States, although it prefers a diplomatic solution.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Grant McCool and Robert Birsel)

Russia: North Korea summit undermines U.N., aggravates situation

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland speak at a news conference during the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, January 16, 2018.

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia hit out on Wednesday at a U.S.-led effort to increase international pressure on North Korea, saying it was making the situation worse and undermining the United Nations.

Twenty nations hosted by the United States and Canada in Vancouver agreed on Tuesday to consider tougher sanctions to press North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has refused to give up development of nuclear missiles capable of hitting the United States in spite of increasingly severe U.N. sanctions, raising fears of a new war on the Korean peninsula.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said top diplomats from Moscow and Beijing had not been invited to the meeting — which was made up of countries that backed South Korea during the 1950-53 Korea War — and that the events were damaging the authority of the United Nations.

“It is an absolutely unacceptable situation, when 17 countries take upon themselves the role of ‘helper’ to the UN Security Council and interpreter of its resolutions, thereby actually putting its authority into doubt,” the ministry said in a statement.

“Such events, conducted hastily and to the detriment of functioning multilateral formats, are not contributing to the normalisation of the situation around the Korean peninsula, but on the contrary, aggravating it.”

North and South Korea began talks last week for the first time in more than two years and agreed on Wednesday to field a combined women’s ice hockey team and march together under one flag at next month’s Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.

(Reporting by Jack Stubbs; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Turkey to end extraditions to U.S. unless cleric is turned over, Erdogan says

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey,

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey will not extradite any suspects to the United States if Washington does not hand over the cleric Ankara blames for orchestrating a failed 2016 military coup, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday.

Ankara accuses U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen of masterminding the putsch and has repeatedly asked Washington for his extradition. U.S. officials have said courts require sufficient evidence to extradite the elderly cleric who has denied any involvement in the coup.

“We have given the United States 12 terrorists so far, but they have not given us back the one we want. They made up excuses from thin air,” Erdogan told local administrators at a conference in his presidential palace in Ankara.

“If you’re not giving him (Gulen) to us, then excuse us, but from now on whenever you ask us for another terrorist, as long as I am in office, you will not get them,” he said.

Turkey is the biggest Muslim country in NATO and an important U.S. ally in the Middle East.

But Ankara and Washington have been at loggerheads over a wide range of issues in recent months, including a U.S. alliance with Kurdish fighters in Syria and the conviction of a Turkish bank executive in a U.S. sanctions-busting case that included testimony of corruption by senior Turkish officials.

On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said ties were harmed by Washington’s failure to extradite Gulen and U.S. support for Syria’s Kurdish YPG militia and its PYD political arm. He said relations could deteriorate further.

“The United States does not listen to us, but it listens to the PYD/YPG. Can there be such a strategic partnership?… Turkey is not a country that will be tripped up by the United States’ inconsistent policies in the region,” Erdogan said.

Last week, a U.S. jury convicted an executive of Turkey’s majority state-owned Halkbank of evading U.S. sanctions on Iran, in a case which Erdogan has condemned as a “political coup attempt” and a joint effort by the CIA, FBI and Gulen’s network to undermine Turkey.

The two countries also suspended issuing visas for months last year over a dispute following the detention of two locally employed U.S. consulate workers in Turkey on suspicion of links to the failed 2016 coup.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Dominic Evans and Peter Graff)

South Korea’s Moon says Trump deserves ‘big’ credit for North Korea talks

South Korean President Moon Jae-in delivers a speech during his New Year news conference at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, January 10,

By Christine Kim and Soyoung Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean President Moon Jae-in credited U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday for helping to spark the first inter-Korean talks in more than two years, and warned that Pyongyang would face stronger sanctions if provocations continued.

The talks were held on Tuesday on the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone, which has divided the two Koreas since 1953, after a prolonged period of tension on the Korean peninsula over the North’s missile and nuclear programs.

North Korea ramped up its missile launches last year and also conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test, resulting in some of the strongest international sanctions yet.

The latest sanctions sought to drastically cut the North’s access to refined petroleum imports and earnings from workers abroad. Pyongyang called the steps an “act of war”.

Seoul and Pyongyang agreed at Tuesday’s talks, the first since December 2015, to resolve all problems between them through dialogue and also to revive military consultations so that accidental conflict could be averted.

“I think President Trump deserves big credit for bringing about the inter-Korean talks, I want to show my gratitude,” Moon told reporters at his New Year’s news conference. “It could be a resulting work of the U.S.-led sanctions and pressure.”

Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un exchanged threats and insults over the past year, raising fears of a new war on the peninsula. South Korea and the United States are technically still at war with the North after the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.

‘BASIC STANCE’

Washington had raised concerns that the overtures by North Korea could drive a wedge between it and Seoul, but Moon said his government did not differ with the United States over how to respond to the threats posed by Pyongyang.

“This initial round of talks is for the improvement of relations between North and South Korea. Our task going forward is to draw North Korea to talks aimed at the denuclearization of the North,” Moon said. “(It’s) our basic stance that will never be given up.”

Moon said he was open to meeting North Korea’s leader at any time to improve bilateral ties, and if the conditions were right and “certain achievements are guaranteed”.

“The purpose of it shouldn’t be talks for the sake of talks,” he said.

However, Pyongyang said it would not discuss its nuclear weapons with Seoul because they were only aimed at the United States, not its “brethren” in South Korea, nor Russia or China, showing that a diplomatic breakthrough remained far off.

North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper said all problems would be resolved through efforts by the Korean people alone.

“If the North and South abandon external forces and cooperate together, we will be able to fully solve all problems to match our people’s needs and our joint prosperity,” it said.

Washington still welcomed Tuesday’s talks as a first step toward solving the North Korean nuclear crisis. The U.S. State Department said it would be interested in joining future talks, with the aim of denuclearizing the North.

The United States, which still has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea, initially responded coolly to the idea of inter-Korean meetings. Trump later called them “a good thing” and said he would be willing to speak to Kim.

Lee Woo-young, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said it was wise of Moon to praise Trump, his sanctions and pressure campaign.

“By doing that, he can help the U.S. build logic for moving toward negotiations and turning around the state of affairs in the future, so when they were ready to talk to the North, they can say the North came out of isolation because the sanctions were effective.”

The United States and Canada are set to host a conference of about 20 foreign ministers on Jan. 16 in Vancouver to discuss North Korea, without the participation of China, Pyongyang’s sole major ally and biggest trade partner.

China would not attend the meeting and is resolutely opposed to it, said foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang.

“It will only create divisions within the international community and harm joint efforts to appropriately resolve the Korean peninsula nuclear issue,” he told a regular briefing on Wednesday.

LARGE OLYMPICS DELEGATION

Pyongyang also said it would send a large delegation to next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Washington agreed with Seoul last week to postpone until after the Olympics joint military exercises that Pyongyang denounces as rehearsals for invasion. But it also said the apparent North-South thaw had not altered the U.S. intelligence assessment of the North’s weapons programs.

The United States has also warned that all options, including military, are on the table in dealing with the North.

“We cannot say talks are the sole answer,” Moon said. “If North Korea engages in provocations again or does not show sincerity in resolving this issue, the international community will continue applying strong pressure and sanctions.”

Seoul said on Tuesday it was prepared to offer financial assistance and lift some unilateral sanctions temporarily so North Koreans could attend the Olympics. North Korea said its delegation would include athletes and officials, among others.

However, Moon said on Wednesday South Korea had no plans for now to ease unilateral sanctions against North Korea, or revive economic exchanges that could run foul of United Nations sanctions.

Moon also said his government would continue working toward recovering the honor and dignity of former “comfort women”, a euphemism for those forced to work in Japan’s wartime brothels.

But historical issues should be separated from bilateral efforts with Japan to safeguard peace on the Korean peninsula, he added.

“It’s very important we keep a good relationship with Japan,” Moon said.

On Tuesday, South Korea said it would not seek to renegotiate a 2015 deal with Japan despite determining that the pact was insufficient to resolve the divisive issue, and urged Japan for more action to help the women.

 

(Additional reporting by Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL and Michael Martina in BEIJING, Writing by Soyoung Kim, Editing by Paul Tait)

U.S. targets former Venezuela food minister in new sanctions

Rodolfo Marco Torres (C), newly elected governor of Aragua state, is sworn in to the National Constituent Assembly during a ceremony at Palacio Federal Legislativo, in Caracas, Venezuela October 18, 2017.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States imposed sanctions on Friday on four current or former Venezuelan government officials, including an ex-food minister who is accused of corruption and mismanagement of the country’s food supply.

The U.S. Treasury said in a statement that it had put the former food minister, Rodolfo Marco, who is also a former finance minister appointed by President Nicolas Maduro, on its Venezuela sanctions list.

It also listed Francisco Rangel, a former governor of Bolivar state; Fabio Zavarse Pabon, a commander in the national armed forces; and Gerardo Izquierdo Torres, a state minister.

The Treasury action freezes any assets the men have under U.S. jurisdiction and bars U.S. citizens from dealing with them.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

The move is Washington’s latest action targeting individual politicians and security figures for what U.S. President Donald Trump has called an erosion of democracy. Venezuela is reeling from an economic crisis, with millions struggling with food and medicine shortages.

“President Maduro and his inner circle continue to put their own interests above those of the Venezuelan people,” U.S Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in a statement.

“This action underscores the United States’ resolve to hold Maduro and others engaged in corruption in Venezuela accountable.”

Maduro regularly laughs off Washington’s disapproval and blames the U.S. “empire” for Venezuela’s economic woes.

(Reporting by David Alexander and Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Lisa Von Ahn)

South Korea seizes second ship suspected of providing oil to North Korea

The Lighthouse Winmore, a Hong Kong-flagged vessel suspected of transferring oil to North Korea in defiance of international sanctions, is seen in the sea off Yeosu, South Korea December 29, 2017.

By Yuna Park and Hyunjoo Jin

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean authorities have seized a Panama-flagged vessel suspected of transferring oil products to North Korea in violation of international sanctions, a customs official said on Sunday.

The seizure was the second to be revealed by South Korea within a few days, as the United Nations steps up efforts to squeeze essential oil supplies to the reclusive North following its nuclear or ballistic missile tests.

The ship, KOTI, was seized at Pyeongtaek-Dangjin port, the official told Reuters, without elaborating, due to the sensitivity of the issue. The port is on the west coast, south of Incheon.

A marine official also confirmed the seizure, which he said was done “recently”.

The KOTI’s estimated time of arrival at the port was Dec. 19, according to VesselFinder Ltd., a tracking service provider,

The ship can carry 5,100 tonnes of oil and has a crew mostly from China and Myanmar, Yonhap News Agency reported, adding that South Korea’s intelligence and customs officials are conducting a joint probe into the vessel.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed the probe, declining to provide details.

“The government has been in close consultations with related countries and ministries to thoroughly implement the sanctions by the U.N. Security Council,” the spokesman said.

PROPOSED BLACKLISTING

On Friday, South Korea said that in late November it seized the Hong Kong-flagged Lighthouse Winmore, which is suspected of transferring as much as 600 tons of oil to the North Korea-flagged Sam Jong 2.

The U.N. Security Council last month unanimously imposed new sanctions on North Korea for a recent intercontinental ballistic missile test, seeking to limit its access to refined petroleum products and crude oil.

The United States has also proposed that the United Nations Security Council blacklist 10 ships for transporting banned items from North Korea, according to documents seen by Reuters on Tuesday.

The Lighthouse Winmore is one of the 10 ships proposed to be blacklisted. The KOTI does not seem to be included on the list.

On Thursday, China blocked a U.S. effort at the United Nations to blacklist six foreign-flagged ships, a U.N. Security Council diplomat said.

China’s Foreign Ministry, responding to a question from Reuters on the blocking, said Beijing always fully and strictly implemented Security Council resolutions.

“At the same time, any measures taken by the Security Council must have a basis in conclusive and actual proof. China will continue to participate in the work of the relevant Security Council sanctions committee on this principle,” it said in a short statement, without elaborating.

China also denied reports it had been illicitly selling oil products to North Korea in defiance of U.N. sanctions, after U.S. President Donald Trump said he was unhappy that China had allowed oil to reach the isolated nation.

Russian tankers have supplied fuel to North Korea on at least three occasions in recent months by transferring cargoes at sea, breaching U.N. sanctions, sources told Reuters.

(Reporting by Yuna Park and Hyunjoo Jin; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Kim Coghill and Richard Borsuk)