Forget gridlock, Republican win may be better for stock market

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., November 1, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

By Noel Randewich

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump has warned that his favorite measure of success, the stock market, is imperiled if voters favor Democrats in next week’s congressional elections.

While not fully accurate – stocks tend to rise regardless of who controls the government – it does bear out that the market has delivered a slightly stronger performance on average when Republicans dominate in Washington.

A Reuters analysis of the past half-century shows stocks fared better in the two calendar years after congressional elections when Republicans control Congress and the presidency than when Democrats controlled the two branches, and at least as well as during times of gridlock. Many investors are now hoping for a continuation of the Republican agenda.

“There is Trump ‘the person’, who is very controversial,” said Stephen Massocca, Senior Vice President at Wedbush Securities in San Francisco. “And there’s also Trump ‘the agenda’. The Trump agenda, the stock market loves. To the extent it continues, the market will like that.”

Republicans traditionally push pro-business policies such as tax cuts and deregulation, which boost stock prices. The market has, on the whole, given Trump a thumbs-up, with the market rising almost 20 percent during his presidency so far.

Polls show strong chances that the Democratic Party may win control of the House of Representatives in the Nov. 6 midterm elections after two years of wielding no practical political power in Washington, with Republicans likely to keep the Senate.

Trump warned in a tweet on Tuesday that a change in Congress would be bad for the market, saying: “If you want your Stocks to go down, I strongly suggest voting Democrat.”

Investors often favor Washington gridlock because it preserves the status quo and reduces uncertainty.

“Traditionally, gridlock is good for the markets. But I think this election is very tricky; I’m not sure that’s the preferred market outcome because a lot of the benefits of the past two years have come from not being in a gridlock environment,” said Mike O’Rourke, Chief Market Strategist at JonesTrading.

Should his fellow Republicans maintain or extend their grip on Congress, Trump may be emboldened to pursue more of his political agenda, including further tax overhauls.

By contrast, Democratic gains that allow the party to control the House of Representatives, and possibly the Senate, could stifle Trump’s policy aims and perhaps lead to attempts to impeach him. It could also lead to resistance to increasing the government’s debt limit next year.

“Our economists believe that two likely consequences of a divided Congress would be an increase in investigations and uncertainty surrounding fiscal deadlines, which could raise equity volatility,” Goldman Sachs said in a report this week.

Over the past 50 years, gridlock has been the norm rather than the exception in Washington, with the presidency and Congress won by one party in just seven out of 25 congressional election year.

Looking at the two calendar years following each congressional election, the S&P 500 had a mean annual increase of 12 percent under Republican-controlled governments, compared to an increase of 9 percent for Democrat-controlled governments and a 7 percent rise for gridlocked governments.

However, using median averages, which exclude outliers, differences are less clear, with the S&P 500 seeing annual increases of 11 percent under Republican-controlled governments and under gridlock, and 10 percent gains under Democrat-controlled governments.

An analysis by BTIG brokerage of data going back to 1928 also indicates gridlock is not necessarily ideal. It showed U.S. stocks performing better under united governments.

“While government control is by no means the sole determinant of market performance, investors clearly favor a unified regime,” BTIG strategist Julian Emanuel wrote in his report.

Interest rates, economic growth, company earnings and inflation are widely viewed as strong influences on stock prices, making the balance of power in Washington just one of many factors affecting investor sentiment.

Two Democratic presidents – Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – have presided over the strongest S&P 500 performances http://tmsnrt.rs/2jtEpzi since 1952, with gains of 208 percent and 166 percent, respectively.

Wall Street has applauded Trump since he took power in January 2017 and quickly pushed through measures to deregulate banks and other companies. Last December, his Republican party passed sweeping corporate tax cuts that have S&P 500 companies on track this year to grow their earnings per share by over 20 percent, the biggest jump since 2010, according to Refinitiv IBES data.

“Volatility may rise regardless of the outcome, but, based on historical relationships, equities may be more likely to rise if Republicans manage to maintain control of Congress,” Deutsche Bank said in a recent report.

(Reporting by Noel Randewich; Editing by James Dalgleish)

Russia, U.S. clash over INF arms treaty at United Nations

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Ronald Reagan (R) and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty at the White House, Washington, on December 8 1987. REUTERS/Stringer

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Russia failed on Friday to get the U.N. General Assembly to consider calling on Washington and Moscow to preserve and strengthen an arms control treaty that helped end the Cold War and warned that if the United States quits the pact it could raise the issue in the U.N. Security Council.

President Donald Trump said on Oct. 20 that Washington planned to quit the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty which Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, and Ronald Reagan had signed in 1987. It eliminated all short- and intermediate-range land-based nuclear and conventional missiles held by both states in Europe.

Washington has cited Russia’s alleged violation of the treaty as its reason for leaving it, a charge Moscow denies. Russia, in turn, accuses Washington of breaking the pact.

Russia had proposed a draft resolution in the 193-member General Assembly’s disarmament committee but missed the Oct. 18 submission deadline. On Friday, it called for a vote on whether the committee should be allowed to consider the draft, but lost with only 31 votes in favor, 55 against and 54 abstentions.

“In a year, if the U.S. withdraws from the treaty and begins an uncontrolled build-up of weapons, nuclear-capable weapons, we will be confronting a completely different reality,” Andrei Belousov, deputy director of Russia’s Department for Nonproliferation and Arms Control, told the committee.

He questioned whether the United States was preparing for a war, asking: “Why is it then … do they want to leave the treaty? Why do they want to build up their nuclear capability?”

Belousov said if the United States follows through on its threat to withdraw, then Russia could raise the issue in the 15-member Security Council. However, such a move would not lead to any action as both countries have veto powers in the council.

U.S. Disarmament Ambassador Robert Wood told the committee Washington had spent some five years trying to engage Moscow on the issue of compliance and that Russia had “denied having produced or tested a ground-launch cruise missile.”

“It’s only recently that they admitted to having produced a ground-launch cruise missile but then maintained that it did not violate the range limits of the treaty,” he said.

“The U.S. has been extremely patient with Russia and our hope is that Russia will do the right thing and destroy that ground-launch cruise missile,” Wood said.

European members of NATO urged the United States on Thursday to try to bring Russia back into compliance with the treaty rather than quit it, diplomats said, seeking to avoid a split in the alliance that Moscow could exploit.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by James Dalgleish)

White House invites Putin to Washington

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they meet in Helsinki, Finland July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Margarita Antidze

TBILISI (Reuters) – The White House has formally invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to Washington, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton said on Friday, returning to an idea that was put on hold in July amid anger in the U.S. over the prospect of such a summit.

President Donald Trump held a summit with Putin in Helsinki, the Finnish capital, and then issued Putin an invitation to visit Washington in the autumn. But that was postponed after Trump faced allegations of cozying up to the Kremlin.

“We have invited President Putin to Washington,” Bolton said at a news conference during a visit to ex-Soviet Georgia, days after meeting Putin and senior security officials in Moscow.

Bolton said he gave Putin an invitation to visit next year during his trip to Moscow, U.S. broadcaster RFE/RL reported.

It was not immediately clear if Putin had accepted the invitation. Putin last held a meeting with a U.S. president on American soil in 2015 when he met Barack Obama on the sidelines of a U.N. General Assembly.

Trump’s earlier invitation to Putin sparked an outcry in Washington, including from lawmakers in Trump’s Republican party, who argued that Putin was an adversary not worthy of a White House visit.

The topic of Putin visiting the United States is a highly-charged one, because U.S. intelligence agencies allege that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election to help Trump win. Russia denies any election meddling.

Trump has said it is in U.S. interests to establish a solid working relationship with Putin.

Trump and Putin plan to hold a bilateral meeting in Paris on Nov. 11 on the sidelines of events to commemorate the centenary of the end of World War One.

Bolton said that the Paris meeting would be brief.

(Reporting by Margarita Antidze, Writing by Tom Balmforth, Editing by Robin Pomeroy, William Maclean)

U.S. Bible museum says five Dead Sea Scrolls fragments fake

FILE PHOTO: A visitor enters an exhibit room during a preview at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, U.S., November 14, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

(Reuters) – The Museum of the Bible in Washington on Monday said five of its artifacts thought to be part of the Dead Sea Scrolls were fake and would not be displayed anymore.

German-based researchers tested the fragments and found five “show characteristics inconsistent with ancient origin and therefore will no longer be displayed,” the museum said in a statement.

Academics have long questioned the authenticity of Dead Sea Scroll fragments sold by antiquities dealers. The museum established by the Green family of Oklahoma, who own U.S. craft-store chain Hobby Lobby, funded research over the past two years into whether its 16 Dead Sea Scroll fragments were genuine.

“Though we had hoped the testing would render different results, this is an opportunity to educate the public on the importance of verifying the authenticity of rare biblical artifacts,” Jeffrey Kloha, chief curatorial officer for the Museum of the Bible, said in the statement.

Scholars and media reports raised questions about the museum’s Dead Sea Scroll fragments last year in the run up to the Green family’s November opening of the $500 million museum.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, composed of hundreds of manuscripts and thousands of fragments of ancient Jewish religious texts, were discovered in the West Bank by Bedouin shepherds in the 1940s. The nearly 2,000-year-old scrolls gave religious scholars a new trove of information on the Hebrew Bible.

Kipp Davis, an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls at Trinity Western University in Canada, was one of several academics who studied the Museum of the Bible’s scroll fragments, prompting the museum to send five for testing.

“My studies to date have managed to confirm upon a preponderance of different streams of evidence the high probability that at least seven fragments in the museum’s Dead Sea Scrolls collection are modern forgeries, but conclusions on the status of the remaining fragments are still forthcoming,” Davis said in the statement.

The museum sent the five fragments to Germany’s BAM institute for analysis of their ink.

Forgers typically write on top of ancient scraps of parchment or leather, making fragments appear authentic until their ink is tested.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; editing by Bill Tarrant and Tom Brown)

Exclusive: Turkey’s Erdogan says court will decide fate of detained U.S. pastor

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Stephen Adler and Parisa Hafezi

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said a Turkish court, not politicians, will decide the fate of an American pastor whose detention on terrorism charges has hit relations between Ankara and Washington.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday he was hopeful Turkey would release evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson this month. The preacher was moved to house arrest in July after being detained for 21 months.

In an interview with Reuters late on Tuesday while he was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly meetings, Erdogan said any decision on Brunson would be made by the court.

“This is a judiciary matter. Brunson has been detained on terrorism charges … On Oct. 12 there will be another hearing and we don’t know what the court will decide and politicians will have no say on the verdict,” Erdogan said.

If found guilty, Brunson could be jailed for up to 35 years. He denies the charges. “As the president, I don’t have the right to order his release. Our judiciary is independent. Let’s wait and see what the court will decide,” Erdogan said.

U.S. President Donald Trump, infuriated by Brunson’s detention, authorized a doubling of duties on aluminum and steel imported from Turkey in August. Turkey retaliated by increasing tariffs on U.S. cars, alcohol and tobacco imports.

The Turkish lira has lost nearly 40 percent of its value against the dollar this year on concerns over Erdogan’s grip on monetary policy and the diplomatic dispute between Ankara and Washington.

“The Brunson case is not even closely related to Turkey’s economy. The current economic challenges have been exaggerated more than necessary and Turkey will overcome these challenges with its own resources,” Erdogan said.

Turkey’s central bank raised its benchmark rate by a hefty 625 basis points this month, boosting the lira and possibly easing investor concern over Erdogan’s influence on monetary policy. Erdogan said he was against the measure.

“It shows the central bank is independent. As the president, I am against high-interest rates and I am repeating my stance here again,” he said, adding that high rates “primarily scare away investors”.

“This was a decision made by the central bank … I hope and pray that their expectations will be met because high rates lead to high inflation. I hope the other way around will happen this time.”

The lira firmed slightly on Wednesday morning after Erdogan’s assurance on the independence of the central bank was published.

IMPROVING TIES

In an effort to boost the economy and attract investors, Erdogan will travel on Sept. 28 to Germany, a country that is home to millions of Turks.

“We want to completely leave behind all the problems and to create a warm environment between Turkey and Germany just like it used to be,” Erdogan said, adding that he will meet Chancellor Angela Merkel during his visit.

The two NATO members have differed over Turkey’s crackdown on suspected opponents of Erdogan after a failed coup in 2016 and over its detention of German citizens.

On Syria, Erdogan said it was impossible for Syrian peace efforts to continue with President Bashar al-Assad in power.

Earlier this month, Turkey and Russia reached an agreement to enforce a new demilitarized zone in Syria’s Idlib region from which “radical” rebels will be required to withdraw by the middle of next month.

But Erdogan said the withdrawal of “radical groups” had already started.

“This part of Syria will be free of weapons which is the expectation of the people of Idlib … who welcomed this step,” he said. The demilitarized zone will be patrolled by Turkish and Russian forces.

Close to 3 million people live in Idlib, around half of them displaced by the war from other parts of Syria.

Erdogan said Turkey will continue to buy natural gas from Iran in line with its long-term supply contract despite Trump’s threats to punish countries doing business with Iran.

“We need to be realistic … Am I supposed to let people freeze in winter? …Nobody should be offended. How can I heat my people’s homes if we stop purchasing Iran’s natural gas?,” he said.

Trump pulled the United States out of a 2015 multinational nuclear deal with Iran and in August Washington reimposed sanctions on Tehran, lifted in 2016 under the pact. U.S. sanctions on Iran’s energy sector are set to be re-imposed in November.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Andrew Heavens)

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)

South Korea scraps annual government war drill as talks with North go on

FILE PHOTO - South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet in the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 27, 2018. Korea Summit Press Pool/Pool via Reuters

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea said on Tuesday it has decided to scrap an annual government mobilization drill this year as part of a suspended joint exercise with the United States but will carry out its own drills to maintain readiness. The ministers of safety and defense made the announcement at a media briefing on Tuesday. The drill, called the Ulchi exercises, usually takes place every August in tandem with the joint Freedom Guardian military drill with the United States.

Seoul and Washington said in June they would halt the joint exercise after U.S. President Donald Trump pledged to end war games following his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12.

Seoul’s presidential office has said the suspension of the combined exercise could facilitate ongoing nuclear talks between North Korea and the United States.

South Korea would develop a new drill model by incorporating Ulchi and the existing Taeguk command post exercises, which would be aimed at fighting militancy and large-scale natural disasters, the ministers said.

That incorporated exercise would be launched in October when the Hoguk field training drill takes place, the ministers said.

“Our military will carry out planned standalone drills this year and decide on joint exercises through close consultations with the United States,” Defence Minister Song Young-moo said.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Christine Kim; Editing by Paul Tait)

Trump says top North Korean official headed to New York to discuss summit

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics - Closing ceremony - Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium - Pyeongchang, South Korea - February 25, 2018 - Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party Central Committee, arrives at the closing ceremony. REUTERS/Patrick Semansky/Pool

By Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – A senior North Korean official is headed to New York to discuss an upcoming summit, U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday, the latest indication that an on-again-off-again meeting between Trump and North Korea’s leader may go ahead next month.

“We have put a great team together for our talks with North Korea,” Trump said in a Twitter post. “Meetings are currently taking place concerning Summit, and more. Kim Young (sic) Chol, the Vice Chairman of North Korea, heading now to New York. Solid response to my letter, thank you!”

Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, was scheduled to fly to the United States on Wednesday after speaking to Chinese officials in Beijing, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said, citing an unidentified source.

The talks indicate that planning for the unprecedented summit on curbing Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, initially scheduled for June 12, is moving ahead after Trump called it off last week in a letter to the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un.

A day later, Trump said he had reconsidered and officials from both countries were meeting to work out details.

Kim Yong Chol will be the most senior North Korean official to meet top officials for talks in the United States since Jo Myong Rok, a marshal, met then-President Bill Clinton at the White House in 2000.

Kim Yong Chol, previously chief of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, a top North Korean military intelligence agency, coordinated the North Korean president’s two meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in April and May. He and Kim Jong Un’s sister were the only North Korean officials to attend the first inter-Korean summit in April.

Analysts believe the United States is trying to determine whether North Korea is willing to agree to sufficient steps toward denuclearisation to allow a summit to take place.

North Korean leader Kim’s de facto chief of staff, Kim Chang Son, meanwhile, flew to Singapore, the scheduled site of the meeting, via Beijing late on Monday, Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported.

At the same time, a “pre-advance” U.S. team was in Singapore to meet North Koreans.

In Singapore, a team of U.S. officials was at a hotel on the resort island of Sentosa but declined to comment.

NUCLEAR NEGOTIATIONS

North Korea has faced years of isolation and economic sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs since it conducted its first nuclear test in 2006.

But events have moved quickly since Kim Jong Un made a conciliatory New Year’s address at the end of last year, following months of sharply rising tension and war-like rhetoric between Trump and Kim.

The latest flurry of diplomacy began on Saturday, when Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in held a surprise meeting at the border village of Panmunjom, during which they agreed the North Korea-U.S. summit must be held.

On Sunday, the U.S. State Department said American and North Korean officials had met at Panmunjom. Sung Kim, the former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and current ambassador to the Philippines, led the U.S. delegation, an official told Reuters.

Sung Kim will meet North Korean Foreign Ministry official Choi Sun Hee again on Wednesday on the border, Yonhap reported, citing a diplomatic source, adding that the agenda for the Trump-Kim summit would be roughly worked out.

While likely substantive, those discussions could be upstaged by any talks between Kim Yong Chol and officials in the United States, said Evans Revere, a former senior diplomat who dealt with North Korea under U.S. President George W. Bush.

The future of North Korea’s nuclear program, which has been a source of international tension for decades, U.S. security guarantees and coordination for a Trump-Kim summit are likely to be at the top of the agenda, analysts said.

“The most important agenda item would be the method of denuclearisation,” said Moon Sung-mook, a former South Korean military official who negotiated with Kim in the past. “We can expect that Kim (Yong Chol) is visiting the U.S. in order to do final coordination ahead of the June 12 summit.”

In Kim Jong Un and Moon’s first meeting on April 27, they agreed to seek the “complete denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula but did not define what that meant or how that would proceed.

Since then, North Korea has rejected U.S. demands for it to unilaterally abandon its nuclear program, which experts say could threaten the United States.

North Korea also demanded the United States stop military exercises with South Korea if it truly wished for talks with North Korea, the North’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper said.

South Korea’s Defence Ministry said it did not have plans to change exercise schedules with the U.S. military.

North Korea defends its nuclear and missile programs as a deterrent against what it sees as U.S. aggression. The United States stations 28,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

SENIOR VISIT

Kim Yong Chol has played a central role in the recent thaw in relations between North Korea and South Korea, as well as the United States.

The United States and South Korea blacklisted him for supporting the North’s nuclear and missile programs in 2010 and 2016, respectively, so a visit to the United States would indicate a waiver was granted.

During his tenure as a senior intelligence official, Kim was accused by South Korea of masterminding deadly attacks on a South Korean navy ship and an island in 2010. He was linked by U.S intelligence to a cyber attack on Sony Pictures in 2014.

North Korea denied any involvement in the attack on the ship and on Sony Pictures.

When Kim Chang Son was asked by a reporter at Beijing airport if he was flying to Singapore for talks with the United States, he said he was “going there to play”, according to Nippon Television Network.

Choe Kang Il, a North Korean Foreign Ministry official involved with North American issues, also was spotted at Beijing airport, according to Yonhap.

China said it had no information to offer on any North Korean officials traveling to the United States via Beijing.

(Additional reporting by Christine Kim and Jeongmin Kim in SEOUL, Doina Chiacu in WASHINGTON, Michael Martina in BEIJING, Kaori Kaneko, Malcolm Foster and Tim Kelly in TOKYO, Fathin Ungku in SINGAPORE; Editing by Robert Birsel and Bill Trott)

U.S. returns thousands of smuggled ancient artifacts to Iraq

A man photographs artifacts on display, as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hosts an event to return several thousand ancient artifacts to the Republic of Iraq, at the Iraqi ambassador's residence in Washington, DC, U.S., May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – About 3,800 artifacts, including Sumerian cuneiform tablets dating to 2100 B.C., that were illegally smuggled to retailer Hobby Lobby Stores Inc were returned to Iraqi officials in Washington on Wednesday.

U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials signed over the artifacts to Iraqi Ambassador Fareed Yasseen at his Washington residence, with some of the artifacts laid out on a table.

“We will continue to work together to prevent the looting of antiquities and ensure that those who would attempt to profit from this crime are held accountable,” said ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan.

Hobby Lobby, the Oklahoma City-based arts-and-crafts retailer, agreed in July to surrender the antiquities it received and pay $3 million to settle civil proceedings brought by the U.S. Justice Department. Shipping labels on the packages the artifacts arrived in described them as “tile samples,” federal prosecutors said.

The company had purchased more than 5,500 artifacts, according to court documents. It agreed that if it receives any of the remaining antiquities or learns where they are, it must notify the federal government, according to court documents.

Hobby Lobby’s president, Steve Green, is the founder of the Museum of the Bible, which opened in Washington in 2016. Privately held Hobby Lobby has said the seized artifacts were not intended for the museum. It has not said what it planned to do with them.

The forfeited packages included tablets with cuneiform script, one of the earliest systems of writing in ancient Mesopotamia. Many of the tablets come from the ancient city of Irisagrig and date to 2100 B.C. through 1600 B.C. primarily, known as the Ur III and Old Babylonian periods.

Justice Department officials have said Hobby Lobby’s 2010 purchase of $1.6 million in ancient artifacts through dealers in the United Arab Emirates and Israel was “fraught with red flags,” saying the company had ignored warnings that the items could have been looted from archaeological sites in Iraq.

When the company disclosed its settlement with the Justice Department in July, Green said Hobby Lobby should have “carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled.”

A representative of the company did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Hobby Lobby and the Green family drew headlines in 2014 when the Supreme Court ruled the craft store chain and Conestoga Wood Specialties of Pennsylvania could refuse to cover contraceptives in their employees’ health insurance due to its owners’ religious beliefs.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; editing by Scott Malone, Bill Trott and Jonathan Oatis)

France’s Macron visits Trump as Iran nuclear deal hangs in balance

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump meets French President Emmanuel Macron in New York, U.S., September 18, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron arrives in Washington on Monday for a state visit likely to be dominated by differences over trade and the nuclear accord with Iran.

As Macron headed west, the Iranian government urged European leaders to convince U.S. President Donald Trump not to tear up the 2015 deal between Tehran and six world powers. Allies also spoke out in support of it.

Macron said on Sunday there was no “Plan B” for keeping a lid on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

He is on something of a rescue mission for what is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which Trump has said he will scrap unless European allies fix what he called “terrible flaws” by mid-May.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called on European leaders to support it.

“It is either all or nothing. European leaders should encourage Trump not just to stay in the nuclear deal, but more important to begin implementing his part of the bargain in good faith,” Zarif wrote on his Twitter account.

The deal reached between six powers – all of whom but Germany are nuclear-armed – and Tehran put curbs on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Macron said on Fox News Sunday that it would be better to protect the deal instead of to get rid of it as there was no other plan.

“Is this agreement perfect and this JCPOA a perfect thing for our relationship with Iran?  No. But for nuclear — what do you have? As a better option? I don’t see it,” he said.

CHARM OFFENSIVE

Macron’s visit is the first time Trump has hosted a state visit since he took power in January 2017. While the French leader has tried to develop a close relationship with Trump since he took office in May, he has so far seen little tangible results on issues from Iran to climate politics.

The two men will get a sense of their two countries’ shared history during an evening meal on Monday night at Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, the first U.S. president and Revolutionary War commander whose alliance with France was critical to victory over the British.

Working meetings will be held at the White House on Tuesday before Macron addresses Congress the following day, the anniversary of the day that French General Charles de Gaulle addressed a Joint Session of Congress in 1960.

Trump and the 40-year-old French leader began their friendship a year ago in Belgium with a jaw-clenching handshake. While some other European leaders have kept a certain distance from Trump, Macron has worked hard to remain close to the U.S. president and the two leaders speak frequently by phone.

TRADE TALKS

Highlighting the difficulties Macron will face reversing Trump’s mind on Iran, U.S. non-proliferation envoy Christopher Ford said Tehran presented a very real long-term challenge.

“Iran (is) a country that for years illegally and secretly sought to develop nuclear weapons, suspended its weaponization work only when confronted by the potentially direst of consequences without ever coming clean about its illicit endeavors,” he told a non-proliferation conference in Geneva.

Iran has long maintained that its nuclear programme was for peaceful purposes.

Macron also wants to persuade Trump to exempt European nations from metal tariffs that are part of the U.S. president’s plan to reduce chronic trade deficits with countries around the world, chiefly China.

His visit comes at a time of mounting alarm in Europe over the knock-on effect that U.S. sanctions on Russia will have on their own manufacturing industries.

French officials said Paris and other European governments were coordinating efforts to persuade Trump to ease sanctions on Russia, including measures against Russian aluminum producers.

“There are concerns raised by the extraterritoriality effects of the new sets of sanctions,” a French finance ministry source said. “Europeans…have jointly warned the US Administration about the economic impact and consequences and the need to find solutions.”

The official said France, Germany, Italy and Ireland were working together on the matter. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will hold talks with Trump in Washington later in the week.

Macron and Trump are also due to discuss Syria, less than two weeks after the United States, France and Britain launched airstrikes in Syria in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack that killed dozens in Douma, Syria.

Macron said last week that he believed he had persuaded Trump to keep U.S. troops in Syria, though Trump has been insistent on bringing them home.

(Reporting By Steve Holland in Washington, Michel Rose and Richard Lough in Paris, Tom Miles in Geneva and Parisa Hafezi in Ankara; Editing by Richard Balmforth)