As food crisis threatens, humanitarian aid for North Korea grinds to a halt

FILE PHOTO - Workers unload food aid from a truck in the Sinuiju region of North Korea in this picture taken on December 11, 2008 from a tourist boat on the Yalu River, which divides North Korea and China. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – Humanitarian aid for North Korea has nearly ground to a halt this year as the United States steps up the enforcement of sanctions, despite warnings of a potential food crisis and improving relations with Pyongyang, aid groups say.

International sanctions imposed over North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs technically do not cover humanitarian activities, and the United Nations recently adopted a U.S. proposal designed to streamline approval for aid shipments.

But strict interpretations of U.N. sanctions curtailing banking and shipping transactions with Pyongyang, as well as a travel ban for U.S. citizens, have effectively shut down the North Korea operations of most relief groups, according to a dozen officials at U.N. agencies and civilian organizations.

A ban on the shipment of any metal objects, from health diagnostic instruments to spoons to nail clippers, makes it nearly impossible to deliver even basic healthcare to North Korea, the officials say. Farm machines, greenhouses and ambulances, meanwhile, are sitting idle without spare parts.

“The sanctions regime is having unintended consequences on humanitarian operations and relief and assistance activities, notably the collapse of the banking channel and delays in moving supplies into the country,” Mazen Gharzeddine, who oversees North Korea operations at the United Nations Development Programme, told Reuters.

Total funding for U.N. and NGO activities in North Korea has dropped from $117.8 million in 2012 to $17.1 million so far this year, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ Financial Tracking Service.

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Philadelphia-based NGO that has run farming projects in North Korea for 20 years, said it had halted its programs this year for the first time because of the inability to ship supplies or travel to the country.

London-headquartered Save the Children, which provided food, healthcare and disaster relief, pulled out in November citing operational obstacles.

Geneva-based Global Fund, which had funnelled more than $105 million since 2010 to fight tuberculosis and malaria, closed its North Korea operations in June. It blamed risks in deploying resources and the lack of access and oversight for the withdrawal.

While exemptions are allowed for humanitarian aid, officials say they have faced delays of more than a year for even basic aid deliveries, as well as months waiting for U.S. government permission to travel to North Korea.

That is hurting efforts to help ordinary citizens in a country where some 40 percent of the population – or more than 10 million people – need humanitarian assistance and about 20 percent of children suffer from malnutrition, according to U.N. estimates.

SANCTIONS, DROUGHT HIT ECONOMY

This month, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said North Korea faces a “full-blown food security crisis” after state media warned of an “unprecedented natural disaster” due to the heat wave.

Another U.S. relief group, which requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said it worried the heatwave could lead to crop damage and loss of life.

However, U.N. agencies and AFSC said it was too early to forecast any impact of the heatwave until the autumn harvest season, and satellite images show crops appear healthy compared to last year.

North Korea experienced a crippling famine in the 1990s when a combination of bad weather, economic mismanagement and the removal of fuel subsidies paralyzed its state-run rationing system, killing up to three million people.

North Korea’s economy contracted by 3.5 percent in 2017, the sharpest rate since the 1990s famine, as international sanctions and drought hit growth hard, South Korea’s central bank said last month.

When asked about sanctions’ impact on aid, a State Department spokesperson told Reuters sanctions will continue “until nukes are no longer a factor,” without elaborating.

U.S. President Donald Trump held an unprecedented summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June in Singapore and quickly declared the country no longer posed a nuclear threat. Despite positive words since from Trump, the two countries have struggled to agree on how to end the North’s weapons programs.

“We are dismayed that, just as there is a thaw in U.S.-DPRK relations, the U.S. government is doubling down on sanctions, effectively shutting down the work of U.S. NGOs working on the ground,” said Linda Lewis, who runs AFSC’s agricultural projects there. The DPRK stands for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official name.

Lewis said when she applied for a special passport to travel to North Korea in October, it took her 10 days, but when she made a second request in May, she had to wait for 56 days.

DEATH BY A THOUSAND CUTS

Lack of transparency and restricted access have long been a hurdle for relief workers in North Korea, even before international funding dried up under Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear and missile development.

Nearly 20 international civic relief groups were active as of 2010, but that number has more than halved, according to aid workers operating in North Korea.

Only a handful of mostly American NGOs now remain, complementing the work of the WHO, the U.N. Development Programme, U.N. World Food Program and UNICEF.

The U.N. had to stop nutrition support for kindergartens in North Korea in November due to the lack of funding. Its $111 million “2018 Needs and Priorities Plan” is nearly 90 percent under-funded.

After visiting North Korea last month, U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said sanctions are exacerbating humanitarian problems. There was “very clear evidence” of aid needs, but funding was falling short, he added.

Seoul has not yet delivered on its pledge made last September to give $8 million to the WFP and UNICEF to support North Korean children and pregnant women.

South Korea will make a donation “at an appropriate time considering overall circumstances”, Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Eugene said.

Early this month, a U.N. panel that monitors sanctions against North Korea adopted U.S.-backed guidelines designed to facilitate humanitarian assistance to North Korea.

But aid officials say the rules still leave plenty of ambiguity.

For example, one U.S. NGO pointed to a provision that “strongly recommends” shipments be consolidated into one every six months, which it said was unfeasible for many groups.

“If the true intention is not to harm humanitarian efforts, then there should be more will and commitment on the part of every government … to make sure that humanitarian efforts go forth unimpeded,” an official at the agency said, requesting anonymity due to sensitivity of the matter.

“Truly, for humanitarian organizations, it is death by a thousand cuts.”

 

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin. Editing by Soyoung Kim and Lincoln Feast.)

Turkey’s lira weakens 4 percent, Trump says won’t take pastor’s detention ‘sitting down’

A street vendor sells food on a main street in central Ankara, Turkey August 17, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

By Daren Butler, David Dolan and Humeyra Pamuk

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey’s battered lira weakened 3 percent on Friday after a Turkish court rejected an American pastor’s appeal for release, drawing a stiff rebuke from President Donald Trump, who said the United States would not take the detention “sitting down”.

The case of Andrew Brunson, an evangelical Christian missionary from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for two decades, has become a flashpoint between Washington and Ankara and accelerated a widening currency crisis.

The lira has lost nearly 40 percent of its value against the dollar this year as investors fret about President Tayyip Erdogan’s influence over monetary policy.

Heavy selling in recent weeks has spread to other emerging market currencies and global stocks and deepened concerns about the economy, particularly Turkey’s dependence on energy imports and whether foreign-currency debt poses a risk to banks.

Borrowing costs may rise further after both Moody’s and Standard Poor’s ratings agencies cut Turkey’s sovereign credit ratings deeper into “junk” territory late on Friday.

“They should have given him back a long time ago, and Turkey has in my opinion acted very, very badly,” Trump told reporters at the White House, referring to Brunson. “So, we haven’t seen the last of that. We are not going to take it sitting down. They can’t take our people.”

Trump’s comments came after a court in Izmir province rejected an appeal to release Brunson from house arrest, saying evidence was still being collected and the pastor posed a flight risk, according to a copy of the court ruling seen by Reuters.

Brunson is being held on terrorism charges, which he denies. Trump, who counts evangelical Christians among his core supporters, has increasingly championed the pastor’s case.

It was not immediately clear what additional measures, if any, Trump could be considering. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Trump on Thursday that more sanctions were ready if Brunson were not freed.

The United States and Turkey have imposed tit-for-tat tariffs in an escalating attempt by Trump to induce Erdogan into giving up the pastor. Erdogan has cast the tariffs, and the lira’s sell-off, as an “economic war” against Turkey.

The lira last traded at 6.0100 to the dollar at 2159 GMT, 3 percent weaker after tumbling as much as 7 percent earlier. Turkey’s dollar bonds fell, while the cost of insuring exposure to Turkish debt rose.

As the row deepens, Turkey has sought to improve strained ties with European allies. In a telephone call on Friday, Finance Minister Berat Albayrak and his French counterpart Bruno Le Maire discussed U.S. sanctions against Turkey and cooperation between their countries, Albayrak’s ministry said.

SPEED-BUMPS

“Diplomatic negotiations hit speed-bumps and that’s not unusual in these kinds of situations,” said Jay Sekulow, a personal attorney for Trump who is also representing Brunson’s family. “We remain hopeful there will be a prompt resolution. Having said that, we fully support the president’s approach.”

Whatever action the United States takes looks likely to cause more pain for Turkish assets.

People change money at a currency exchange office in Istanbul, Turkey August 17, 2018. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

People change money at a currency exchange office in Istanbul, Turkey August 17, 2018. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

“There has been no improvement in relations with the U.S. and additional sanctions may be on the horizon,” said William Jackson of Capital Economics in a note to clients, adding that the lira could see a downward trend in 2019 and beyond.

Turkey’s banking watchdog has taken steps to stabilize the currency, limiting futures transactions for offshore investors and lowering limits on swap transactions. On Friday, it further broadened those caps.

But some economists have called for more decisive moves.

Turkey and its firms face repayments of nearly $3.8 billion on foreign currency bonds in October, Societe Generale has calculated. It estimates Turkey’s short-term external debt at $180 billion and total external debt at $460 billion – the highest in emerging markets.

Companies that for years have borrowed abroad at low-interest rates have seen their cost of servicing foreign debt rise by a quarter in lira terms in two months.

After each downgrading Turkey by one notch, S&P said it expected a recession next year while Moody’s said a weakening of Turkey’s public institutions had made policymaking less predictable.

Fitch Ratings had earlier said the absence of an orthodox monetary policy response to the lira’s fall, and the rhetoric of Turkish authorities, had “increased the difficulty of restoring economic stability and sustainability”.

DEEP CONCERNS

Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law, told investors on Thursday that Turkey would emerge stronger from the currency crisis, insisting its banks were healthy and signaling it could ride out the dispute with Washington.

Economists gave Albayrak’s presentation a qualified welcome and the lira initially found some support, helped by Qatar’s pledge to invest $15 billion in Turkey.

Deep concerns remain about the potential for damage to the economy, however. Turkey is dependent on imports, priced in hard currency, for almost all of its energy needs.

Erdogan has remained defiant, urging Turks to sell their gold and dollars for lira. But foreign currency deposits held by local investors rose to $159.9 billion in the week to Aug. 10, from $158.6 billion a week earlier, central bank data showed.

Turkish markets will be closed from midday on Monday for the rest of the week for the Muslim Eid al-Adha festival.

(Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay, Tuvan Gumrukcu, and Nevzat Devranoglu in Ankara; Karin Strohecker and Claire Milhench in London; Jeff Mason and Karen Freifeld in Washington; Editing by Catherine Evans and James Dalgleish)

U.S. imposes sanctions on Myanmar military over Rohingya crackdown

Rohingya refugees, who crossed the border from Myanmar two days before, walk after they received permission from the Bangladeshi army to continue on to the refugee camps, in Palang Khali, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 19, 2017. Reuters photographer Jorge Silva: "This picture was taken after a huge group of people crossed into Bangladesh and then had to wait three days and nights for the Bangladeshi Army's permission to continue walking into the makeshift camps. The line of people seemed endless. Long hours moving slowly across the embankments of the rice field. Mothers with babies and pregnant women, elderly people with illnesses, men carrying their entire life on their shoulders. They were safe from violence, but the challenge of surviving was still waiting for them on this side of the river." REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Friday imposed sanctions on four Myanmar military and police commanders and two army units for involvement in what it called “ethnic cleansing” and other human rights abuses against the country’s Rohingya Muslims, the Treasury Department said.

The sanctions marked the toughest U.S. action so far in response to Myanmar’s crackdown on the Rohingya minority which started last year and has driven more than 700,000 people into neighboring Bangladesh and left thousands of dead behind.

But the Trump administration did not target the highest levels of the Myanmar military and also stopped short of calling the anti-Rohingya campaign crimes against humanity or genocide, which has been the subject of debate within the U.S. government.

“Burmese security forces have engaged in violent campaigns against ethnic minority communities across Burma, including ethnic cleansing, massacres, sexual assault, extrajudicial killings, and other serious human rights abuses,” said Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, Sigal Mandelker, using an alternative name for Myanmar.

“Treasury is sanctioning units and leaders overseeing this horrific behavior as part of a broader U.S. government strategy to hold accountable those responsible for such wide-scale human suffering,” Mandelker said.

The sanctions targeted military commanders Aung Kyaw Zaw, Khin Maung Soe, Khin Hlaing, and border police commander Thura San Lwin, in addition to the 33rd and 99th Light Infantry Divisions, the Treasury said.

A Reuters special report in June gave a comprehensive account of the roles played by the two infantry divisions in the offensive against the Rohingya.

Myanmar’s military has denied accusations of ethnic cleansing and says its actions were part of a fight against terrorism.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Tim Ahmann and Makini Brice, David Brunnstrom; Editing by Bill Rigby)

U.S. official warns of more actions against Turkey if pastor not freed

FILE PHOTO: U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson reacts as he arrives at his home after being released from the prison in Izmir, Turkey July 25, 2018. Picture taken July 25, 2018. Demiroren News Agency/DHA via REUTERS/File photo

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is warning more economic pressures may be in store for Turkey if it refuses to release a jailed American pastor, a White House official said on Tuesday, in a dispute that has further strained relations between the NATO allies.

The tough message emerged a day after White House national security adviser John Bolton met privately with Turkish ambassador Serdar Kilic about the case of evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson. Bolton warned him that the United States would not give any ground, a senior U.S. official said.

The White House official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said “nothing has progressed” thus far on the Brunson case.

“The administration is going to stay extremely firm on this. The president is 100 percent committed to bringing Pastor Brunson home and if we do not see actions in the next few days or a week there could be further actions taken,” the official said.

Further actions would likely take the form of economic sanctions, the official said, who added: “The pressure is going to keep up if we’re not seeing results.”

Relations between Turkey and the United States have been soured by Brunson’s detention, as well as diverging interests on Syria. Trump doubled tariffs on imports of Turkish steel and aluminum last week, contributing to a precipitous fall in the lira.

The United States is also considering a fine against Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank for allegedly helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions. Earlier this month, the United States imposed sanctions on two top officials in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s cabinet in an attempt to get Turkey to turn over Brunson.

Brunson is accused of backing a coup attempt against Turkish Erdogan two years ago, charges that he has denied. He is being tried on terrorism charges.

Brunson has appealed again to a Turkish court to release him from house arrest and lift his travel ban, his lawyer told Reuters on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Mary Milliken and James Dalgleish)

U.S. strongly condemns Russia’s poisoning of former spy: White House

By Jeff Mason

BERKLEY HEIGHTS, New Jersey (Reuters) – The White House said on Friday the United States strongly condemned Russia’s use of chemical weapons against a former Russian agent in Britain, two days after the U.S. State Department announced sanctions over the move.

“The attack against Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, United Kingdom, on March 4, 2018, was a reckless display of contempt for the universally held norm against chemical weapons,” said a spokesman for the White House National Security Council in an email.

The spokesman said sanctions that the State Department said it would impose by the end of August fulfilled its legal obligations “after determining a foreign government has used chemical or biological weapons against its own nationals or in violation of international law.”

Skripal, a former colonel in Russia’s GRU military intelligence service, and his 33-year-old daughter were found slumped unconscious on a bench in the southern English city of Salisbury in March after a liquid form of the Novichok type of nerve agent was applied to his home’s front door.

President Donald Trump, who is spending the week at his golf property in New Jersey, did not comment on the recent sanctions when asked about them by a reporter on Thursday. Trump has sought to improve relations with Russia despite U.S. intelligence findings that Moscow had meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

European countries and the United States have expelled 100 Russian diplomats since that attack, in the toughest action by Trump against Russia since he came to office.

Trump and his advisers have often appeared at odds over how strongly to act against Moscow. In the run-up to a summit between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last month, U.S. officials repeatedly called out Russia over its “malign” activities, but Trump did not use such language during a news conference with Putin.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Russia tells Washington curbs on its banks would be act of economic war

The U.S. dollar sign is seen on an electronic board next to a traffic light in Moscow, Russia August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

By Andrew Osborn and Andrey Ostroukh

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia warned the United States on Friday it would regard any U.S. move to curb the activities of its banks as a declaration of economic war which it would retaliate against, stepping up a war of words with Washington over spiraling sanctions.

The warning, from Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, reflects Russian fears over the impact of new restrictions on its economy and assets, including the rouble which has lost nearly six percent of its value this week on sanctions jitters.

Economists expect the economy to grow by 1.8 percent this year. But if new sanctions proposed by Congress and the State Department are implemented in full, something that remains uncertain, some economists fear growth would be almost cut to zero in future.

In a sign of how seriously Russia is taking the threat, President Vladimir Putin discussed what the Kremlin called “possible new unfriendly steps by Washington” with his Security Council on Friday.

Moscow’s strategy of trying to improve battered U.S.-Russia ties by attempting to build bridges with President Donald Trump is backfiring after U.S. lawmakers launched a new sanctions drive last week because they fear Trump is too soft on Russia.

That, in turn, has piled pressure on Trump to show he is tough on Russia ahead of mid-term elections.

On Wednesday, the State Department announced a new round of sanctions that pushed the rouble to two-year lows and sparked a wider sell-off over fears Russia was locked in a spiral of never-ending sanctions.

Separate legislation introduced last week in draft form by Republican and Democratic senators, dubbed “the sanctions bill from hell” by one of its backers, proposes curbs on the operations of several state-owned Russian banks in the United States and restrictions on their use of the dollar.

Medvedev said Moscow would take economic, political or other retaliatory measures against the United States if Washington targeted Russian banks.

“I would not like to comment on talks about future sanctions, but I can say one thing: If some ban on banks’ operations or on their use of one or another currency follows, it would be possible to clearly call it a declaration of economic war,” said Medvedev.

“And it would be necessary, it would be needed to react to this war economically, politically, or, if needed, by other means. And our American friends need to understand this,” he said, speaking on a trip to the Russian Far East.

Pedestrians walk by an electronic board showing currency exchange rates of the U.S. dollar against Russian rouble in Moscow, Russia August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Pedestrians walk by an electronic board showing currency exchange rates of the U.S. dollar against Russian rouble in Moscow, Russia August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

FEW GOOD RETALIATORY OPTIONS

In practice, however, there is little Russia could do to hit back at the United States without damaging its own economy or depriving its consumers of sought-after goods, and officials in Moscow have made clear they do not want to get drawn into what they describe as a mutually-damaging tit-for-tat sanctions war.

The threat of more U.S. sanctions kept the rouble under pressure on Friday, sending it crashing past two-year lows at one point before it recouped some of its losses.

The Russian central bank said the rouble’s fall to multi-month lows on news of new U.S. sanctions was a “natural reaction” and that it had the necessary tools to prevent any threat to financial stability.

One tool it said it might use was limiting market volatility by adjusting how much foreign currency it buys. Central bank data showed on Friday it had started buying less foreign currency on Wednesday, the first day of the rouble’s slide.

The fate of the U.S. bill Medvedev was referring to is not certain.

The full U.S. Congress will not be back in Washington until September, and even then, congressional aides said they did not expect the measure would pass in its entirety.

While it was difficult to assess so far in advance, they said it was more likely that only some of its provisions would be included as amendments in another piece of legislation, such as a spending bill Congress must pass before Sept. 30 to prevent a government shutdown.

(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth in Moscow and Patricia Zengerle in Washington Writing by Andrew Osborn Editing by William Maclean)

U.S., Turkey agree to try to resolve disputes after relations dive

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives at Royal Malaysian Air Force base in Subang, Malaysia August 2, 2018. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin

By David Brunnstrom

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu agreed on Friday to try to resolve a series of disputes, after relations between the NATO allies sank to their lowest point in decades.

Their meeting in Singapore followed Washington’s imposition on Wednesday of sanctions on two Turkish ministers over the case of Andrew Brunson, a U.S. pastor on trial in Turkey for backing terrorism.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert described their conversation on the sidelines of a regional ministers’ meeting as constructive. “They agreed to continue to try to resolve the issues between our two countries,” she said.

Cavusoglu said he had repeated Turkey’s message that “the threatening language and sanctions does not achieve anything”, but added that he and Pompeo would take steps to resolve their differences when they returned home.

“Of course you can’t expect all issues to be resolved in a single meeting,” he told Turkish television channels. “But we have agreed to work together, closely cooperate and keep the dialogue in the coming period,” he added, also describing the talks as very constructive.

Washington imposed sanctions on Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, accusing them of playing leading roles in organizations responsible for the arrest and detention of Brunson, an evangelical Christian who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades. The move sent the Turkish lira to record low.

Within hours Turkey vowed to retaliate ‘without delay’ but since then the tone of comments from Ankara has moderated and so far it has taken no such step. Finance minister Berat Albayrak, who is President Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law, also said relations with the United States would never break down, despite the temporary escalation.

Pompeo told reporters the United States had put Turkey on notice “that the clock had run and it was time for Pastor Brunson to be returned”.

“I hope they’ll see this for what it is, a demonstration that we’re very serious,” he said of the sanctions. “We consider this one of the many issues that we have with the Turks.”

“Brunson needs to come home. As do all the Americans being held by the Turkish government. Pretty straightforward. They’ve been holding these folks for a long time. These are innocent people,” he said. “We are going to work to see if we can find a way forward; I am hopeful that we can.”

The United States has also been seeking the release of three locally employed embassy staff detained in Turkey.

ATTEMPTED COUP

Brunson is charged with supporting a group Ankara blames for orchestrating an attempted coup in 2016. He denies the charges but faces up to 35 years in jail.

He was accused of helping supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based cleric who Turkish authorities say masterminded the coup attempt in which 250 people were killed. He was also charged with supporting outlawed Kurdish PKK militants. Gulen denies the allegations.

Turkey has been trying to have Gulen extradited from the United States for two years.

Finance Minister Albayrak said on Thursday the sanctions would have a limited impact on the Turkish economy, although investors’ deepening concern over ties with the United States, also a major trading partner, sent the lira to record lows.

On Friday, the currency fell to 5.1140 against the dollar. The sell-off also hammered Turkish stocks and debt risk profile.

Brunson was in a Turkish prison for 21 months until he was transferred to house arrest last week. On Tuesday, a court rejected his appeal to be released altogether during his trial.

Washington and Ankara are also at odds over the Syrian war, Turkey’s plan to buy missile defenses from Russia and the U.S. conviction of a Turkish state bank executive on Iran sanctions-busting charges this year.

Brunson’s case has resonated with President Donald Trump and particularly with Vice President Mike Pence, who has close ties to evangelical Christians. Pence has been pressing behind the scenes for action, aides said.

(Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Istanbul; Editing by Nick Macfie, Paul Tait and David Stamp)

Pompeo says North Korea weapons work counter to denuclearization pledge

FILE PHOTO: North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un listens to U.S. President Donald Trump as they meet in a one-on-one bilateral session at the start of their summit at the Capella Hotel on the resort island of Sentosa, Singapore June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By David Brunnstrom

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Less than two months after a landmark U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew back to the city-state on Friday and said North Korea’s continued work on weapons programs was inconsistent with its leader’s commitment to denuclearize.

Pompeo was asked en route to Singapore about his statement in the U.S. Senate last month that North Korea was continuing to make bomb fuel and reports that North Korea, led by Kim Jong Un, was building new missiles.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attends an ASEAN-U.S. Ministerial Meeting in Singapore, August 3, 2018. REUTERS/Edgar Su

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attends an ASEAN-U.S. Ministerial Meeting in Singapore, August 3, 2018. REUTERS/Edgar Su

“Chairman Kim made a commitment to denuclearize,” Pompeo told reporters. “The world demanded that they (North Korea) do so in the U.N. Security Council resolutions. To the extent they are behaving in a manner inconsistent with that, they are a) in violation of one or both the U.N. Security Council resolutions and b) we can see we still have a ways to go to achieve the ultimate outcome we’re looking for.”

Pompeo thanked ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at a meeting in Singapore for their efforts in enforcing sanctions on North Korea.

In a landmark summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12, Kim, who is seeking relief from tough sanctions, committed in a broad statement to work toward denuclearization, but Pyongyang has offered no details as to how it might go about this.

Pompeo told a Senate committee hearing on July 25 that North Korea was continuing to produce fuel for nuclear bombs in spite of its pledge.

On Monday, a senior U.S. official said U.S. spy satellites had detected renewed activity at the North Korean factory that produced the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States.

The Washington Post reported on Monday that North Korea appeared to be building one or two new liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles at the research facility, citing unidentified officials familiar with intelligence reporting.

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho is also in Singapore and will attend the same regional meeting as Pompeo on Saturday, but the State Department has not said whether the two will meet.

Following his talks with Ri, China’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, said he hoped North Korea and the United States continue to move forward to implement their leaders’ agreement.

“China all along has believed that the consensus reached by U.S. and North Korea’s leaders meeting in Singapore is very precious,” Wang told reporters.

“That is, at the same time as realizing denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, to establish a peace mechanism. This direction is without a doubt correct,” he said.

China is North Korea’s most important economic and diplomatic supporter and fought for the North in the 1950-53 Korean War against the U.S.-led United Nations forces that backed South Korea.

Pompeo, who has led the U.S. negotiating effort with North Korea, visited Pyongyang from July 5-7 for inclusive talks aimed at agreeing a denuclearization roadmap. Pompeo said at the time he had made progress on key issues, only for North Korea to accuse his delegation hours later of making “gangster-like” demands.

Trump hailed the Singapore summit as a success and even went as far as saying that North Korea no longer posed a nuclear threat, but questions have been mounting about Pyongyang’s willingness to give up its weapons programs.

Trump has pointed to North Korea’s freeze on nuclear and missile tests and its agreement to return remains of Americans killed in the 1950-53 Korea War.

The White House said on Thursday that Trump had received a letter from Kim and had responded with a note that should be delivered shortly. But it said no second meeting was currently planned.

(Additional reporting by Christian Shepherd, John Geddie and Jack Kim in Singapore and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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. pastor appeals for release, lifting of travel ban: lawyer

FILE PHOTO: U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson reacts as he arrives at his home after being released from the prison in Izmir, Turkey July 25, 2018. Demiroren News Agency, DHA via REUTERS

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – A Christian American pastor standing trial in Turkey on terrorism charges has appealed to a Turkish court to release him from house arrest and lift his travel ban, his lawyer told Reuters on Monday.

Relations between Turkey and the United States have spiraled into a full-blown crisis over the trial of pastor Andrew Brunson, who was in custody for 21 months in a Turkish prison until he was transferred to house arrest last week.

President Donald Trump last week threatened to impose “large sanctions” on Turkey unless it frees Brunson, who is accused of helping the group Ankara says was behind a failed military coup in 2016. Brunson faces up to 35 years in jail if found guilty of the charges, which he denies.

FILE PHOTO: Ismail Cem Halavurt, lawyer of pastor Andrew Brunson, arrives at Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Ismail Cem Halavurt, lawyer of pastor Andrew Brunson, arrives at Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan/File Photo

The appeal document seen by Reuters said although Brunson was freed from jail, the pastor was still deprived of his freedom and was unable to return to his normal life and carry out his religious duties.

Brunson’s lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt said it would take the Turkish court in Aegean province of Izmir, where Brunson stood trial, three to seven days to make a decision on the appeal request.

His next hearing as part of the trial is scheduled for October.

Brunson was accused of helping supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based cleric who Turkish authorities say masterminded the coup attempt against President Tayyip Erdogan in which 250 people were killed. He was also charged with supporting outlawed PKK Kurdish militants.

Gulen denies any involvement in the coup attempt.

Speaking to reporters during his trip to South Africa, Erdogan said Turkey would stand its ground in the face of Trump’s sanctions threat.

It was not clear what would be the nature of sanctions threatened by Trump but Washington was already working on bills related to Turkey.

The U.S. Senate has demanded a block on sales of F-35 jets to Turkey unless Trump certifies that Turkey is not threatening NATO, purchasing defense equipment from Russia or detaining U.S. citizens.

(Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun; Writing by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Dominic Evans and Alison Williams)