Syria: Turkey Defiant As US Demands Ceasefire

 

Turkey rebuffed international pressure to curb its military offensive against Kurdish militants in Syria on Wednesday as US President Donald Trump dispatched his deputy Mike Pence to Ankara to demand a ceasefire.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed Turkey’s operation — which has been facilitated by the withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria — would continue.

The only way to solve Syria’s problems, Erdogan told parliament, was for the Kurdish forces to “lay down their arms… destroy all their traps and get out of the safe zone that we have designated.”

But clashes continued across the region, with Kurdish fighters in the border town of Ras al-Ain burning tyres in a bid to blind Ankara’s warplanes and digging in against a ground offensive by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels.

“We are fully prepared to wage battles,” an official from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) told AFP. “The real battle has yet to start.”

Having struck a deal with Damascus over the weekend, Kurdish forces have joined with Syrian troops to take an abandoned US base between Kobani and Ain Issa, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Turkish operation, now in its second week, has triggered a flurry of diplomacy among major powers.

Trump sent Pence along with his top diplomat Mike Pompeo to Turkey amid the greatest crisis in relations for decades between the NATO allies, with talks due in Ankara early Thursday.

Facing a barrage of criticism in Washington for abandoning the Kurds, Trump has slapped sanctions on three Turkish ministers and raised tariffs on its steel industry.

Pence’s office said the US would pursue “punishing economic sanctions” unless there was “an immediate ceasefire”.

But Trump again dismissed the idea that pulling out 1,000 troops — practically the entire US contingent in the region — had been a betrayal of Kurdish militants who bore the brunt of the fight against the Islamic State group in recent years.

“The Kurds are very well protected,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “By the way, they are not angels.”

– Russia steps in –

Moscow has stepped into the void left by the US withdrawal, deploying patrols to prevent clashes between Syrian and Turkish forces.

Russian TV showed its forces alongside Syrian government troops taking up positions in and around the town of Manbij.

The Kremlin said it would host Erdogan for a meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the coming days, to ensure the operation does not turn into all-out war between Turkey and Syria.

The Turkish government can count on widespread support for its operation at home, where decades of bloody insurgency by Kurdish militants have killed tens of thousands of people.

But Western powers fear it will endanger the battle against the Islamic State group. Thousands of IS prisoners are held in Kurdish-run camps in the region.

Europe has taken an increasingly tough line with Turkey and several countries, including Britain, France and Germany, have imposed arms embargoes on Turkey over the operation.

– Battle for border town –

The Kurdish-led SDF has mounted a desperate defence to the east of Ras al-Ain, using tunnels, berms and trenches.

A Syrian fighter serving alongside Ankara’s forces said his forces were trying to cut Kurdish supply lines from nearby Hassakeh to facilitate their advance on the town.

Since launching their assault on October 9, Turkey and its Syrian rebel proxies have secured more than 100 kilometres (60 miles) of border, but Ras al-Ain has held out.

Erdogan, who like Trump faces political difficulties at home, wants to create a buffer zone stretching 30 kilometres (20 miles) from the border into Syrian territory.

He wants to destroy Kurdish hopes of an autonomous enclave that could serve as a launching pad for attacks in Turkey, and to resettle some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees Ankara is hosting.

Erdogan said that once the safe zone was established, “stretching from Manbij to the Iraqi border”, then the operation would have “ended on its own”.

The offensive has left dozens of civilians dead, mostly on the Kurdish side, and displaced at least 160,000 people.

Turkey Faces ‘Big Sanctions’ Over Syria Actions – Trump

US President Donald Trump speaks to the press on the South Lawn of the White House before departing in Washington, DC on August 9, 2019.  Nicholas Kamm / AFP

 

US President Donald Trump warned Monday that Turkey faces imminent sanctions over its incursion into northeastern Syria against Kurdish militia, but also signalled Washington would avoid armed conflict with Ankara.

“Big sanctions on Turkey coming!” Trump said, after Turkish attacks stepped up over the weekend on the Syrian Kurds, who had allied with the US war against the Islamic State group.

But Trump also suggested the Kurds were trying to draw the United States into a broader, alleging they were deliberately freeing some Islamic State prisoners “to get us involved” in the conflict.

“Do people really think we should go to war with NATO Member Turkey?” Trump said, ruing “never ending wars.”

“The same people who got us into the Middle East mess are the people who most want to stay there!”

Trump over the weekend ordered around 1,000 US troops in northern Syria pulled back from the border region to avoid getting caught in the fighting.

“We have American forces likely caught between two opposing advancing armies and it’s a very untenable situation,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

AFP

US Sanctions Putin’s Ally, Others Over 2018 Elections Interference

Russian president-elect Vladimir Putin takes the oath of office during a ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 7, 2018. PHOTO: Alexander ASTAFYEV / SPUTNIK / AFP

 

The United States on Monday slapped fresh sanctions on a businessman tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin as well as to a disinformation operation accused of conspiring to manipulate the 2018 midterm elections.

The financial sanctions, which target Russian financier Evgeny Prigozhin, some of his assets and the so-called Internet Research Agency, are the first to be taken under an executive order signed last year President Donald Trump seeking to punish foreign actors accused of interfering in US elections.

“Treasury is targeting the private planes, yacht, and associated front companies of Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the Russian financier behind the Internet Research Agency and its attempts to subvert American democratic processes,” US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

The announcement follows shortly after a Washington Post report that Trump told senior visiting Russian officials in 2017 he was not concerned by Russian efforts to sway the 2016 election in his favor.

The sanctions announced Monday marked the third time the US had added Prigozhin’s name to its list of foreign nationals formally barred from the US financial system, a move which freezes him out of much of the global financial system as well.

US prosecutors last year indicted the Internet Research Agency as well as alleged employees, charging them with a broad conspiracy to influence the 2016 elections by spreading disinformation in the United States via social media.

The Treasury said Monday the IRA had announced its intention to do likewise in the 2018 midterms by seeking to discredit candidates it viewed as hostile to Moscow.

There was no evidence they were successful in preventing voting, altered vote counts or disrupted vote tallying, the Treasury said.

Treasury announced it was also designating six IRA members — Dzheykhun Nasimi Ogly Aslanov, Mikhail Leonidovich Burchik, Vadim Vladimirovich Podkopaev, Vladimir Dmitriyevich Venkov, Igor Vladimirovich Nesterov and Denis Igorevich Kuzmi — for acting to interfere in the 2018 elections.

Treasury also announced it was placing sanctions on three aircraft and a yacht belonging to Prigozhin and three entities incorporated in the Seychelles which he used to manage these properties.

Identifying the aircraft and vessels serves as a warning to others, the Treasury said, that by continuing to provide service or landing rights they “may also be subject to future sanctions.”

AFP

Iran: Beijing Condemns US Sanctions On Chinese Companies

(FILES)(COMBO) This combination of file pictures created on April 4, 2017 shows US President Donald Trump in St. Louis, Missouri on October 9, 2016 and China’s leader Xi Jinping in Beijing on December 5, 2012. Ed Jones, Paul J. RICHARDS / AFP

 

 

Beijing voiced “strong dissatisfaction” on Thursday after the United States announced sanctions on Chinese companies for buying Iranian oil.

China, which is embroiled in a trade war as well as myriad other disputes with Washington, is believed to be the biggest foreign buyer of Iranian oil.

Speaking to a pressure group opposed to the Iranian regime on the sidelines of the United Nations, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday the actions were in response to violations of unilateral US sanctions.

He said sanctions were being placed both on the companies and on their chief executives.

“China expresses strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition to the sanctions imposed by the United States on Chinese enterprises and individuals,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular press briefing on Thursday.

“Despite the legitimate rights and interests of all parties, the United States wielded a wanton stick of sanctions, which is a gross violation of the basic norms of international relations,” Geng said.

 

AFP

Trump Announces New US Sanctions On Iran Central Bank

 

President Donald Trump on Friday announced new sanctions on Iran’s central bank, calling the measures the “highest” sanctions ever imposed on a foreign country by the United States.

“We have just sanctioned the Iranian national bank,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, later clarifying that he was referring to the Iranian central bank.

“These are the highest sanctions ever imposed on a country,” he said.

Trump earlier this week announced what he said would be substantial new sanctions against Iran, in response to what US officials say was likely Iranian involvement in an attack on Saudi oil facilities.

Bolton Ouster ‘Clear Sign Of Defeat’ Of US Sanctions – Iran

US National Security Advisor John Bolton addresses a press conference following a meeting with his Russian counterpart at the US Mission in Geneva on August 23, 2018. Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

 

The sacking of US national security adviser John Bolton on Tuesday was a “sign clear” that Washington’s campaign of sanctions against Tehran was failing, an aide to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said 

“Bolton’s marginalisation and his subsequent removal isn’t an accident but a clear sign of the defeat of America’s maximum pressure strategy” against Iran, Hesameddin Ashena tweeted.

“Have no doubt that we have the power to manage the US approach towards Iran and will never back down. The blockade of Iran will break.”

US President Donald Trump announced in a post on Twitter that he had asked Bolton to resign.

Trump had a series of disagreements with the hawkish adviser, most notably on Iran which has been subject to crippling US sanctions since last year.

The sanctions were imposed after Washington unilaterally withdrew from a 2015 deal that gave Iran relief from sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.

Iran Unbowed By US ‘Insults’ – Supreme Leader Khamenei

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei/ AFP

 

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Wednesday that his country remains unbowed by pressure exerted by the United States and its “insults” against the Islamic republic.

“The Iranian nation seeks dignity, independence and progress; that’s why pressures by cruel enemies do not affect Iranians,” Khamenei said in a speech to a crowd in Tehran.

READ ALSO: Pompeo Hails Modi’s Re-Election As India PM

“The graceful Iranian nation has been accused and insulted by the world’s most vicious regime, the US, which is a source of wars, conflicts and plunder,” he said, quoted by his office.

“The Iranian nation won’t give up over such insults,” said Khamenei.

Tehran and Washington have engaged in an escalating war of words following Iran’s shooting down of a US drone last week.

Pressure mounted this week with US President Donald Trump announcing sanctions on Khamenei and other top Iranian officials.

The new measures are the latest against Tehran since Trump last year pulled out of a landmark nuclear accord between Iran and world powers.

AFP

US To Hit Iran With ‘Major’ New Sanctions On Monday – Trump

US President Donald Trump/ AFP

 

President Donald Trump said Saturday that the United States would impose “major” new sanctions on Iran in two days — a move sure to exacerbate tensions with the Islamic republic inflamed by the downing of a US spy plane.

Trump tamped down the threat of military action on Friday when he called off retaliatory strikes at the last minute because the response was not “proportionate” to the drone’s destruction over the Strait of Hormuz.

READ ALSO: Erdogan’s Candidate Concedes Defeat In Istanbul Vote

But he had said military action is still an option and brandished the threat of sanctions ever since.

Now, he has set a timetable for fresh punitive economic measures to heap more pressure on an Iranian economy already reeling from the sanctions in place since Trump withdrew from an international nuclear deal with Tehran.

“We are putting major additional Sanctions on Iran on Monday,” Trump tweeted.

“I look forward to the day that Sanctions come off Iran, and they become a productive and prosperous nation again – The sooner the better!”

Earlier, before heading to Camp David for meetings with his advisors on the situation, Trump said he would be Iran’s “best friend” and that the Islamic republic could be a “wealthy” country if it renounced nuclear weapons.

“We’re not going to have Iran have a nuclear weapon,” Trump told reporters outside the White House.

“When they agree to that, they’re going to have a wealthy country. They’re going to be so happy, and I’m going to be their best friend. I hope that happens.”

“Let’s make Iran great again,” he added, tweaking for the occasion his main domestic political mantra.

Last year, Trump withdrew the United States from the deal designed to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for sanctions relief and reinstated measures designed to choke off Iranian oil sales and cripple its economy.

As part of the spike in tensions, the US has beefed up its military presence in the Middle East and blamed Iran for attacks on oil tankers on the Gulf of Oman. Iran denies any responsibility.

“Everyone was saying I’m a war-monger, and now they say I’m a dove,” Trump said Saturday as he was peppered with questions about the Iran drama.

“I think I am neither if you want to know the truth. I’m a man with common sense, and that’s what we need in this country, is common sense.”

Trump insisted it is up to the Iranian leadership how the current crisis plays out.

“If the leadership of Iran behaves badly, then it’s going to be a very, very bad day for them,” he said.

“But hopefully they’re smart and hopefully they really care for their people and not themselves, and hopefully we can get Iran back on to an economic track that’s fantastic, where they’re a really wealthy nation, which would be a wonderful thing,” he added.

AFP

UN Blames Worsening Venezuela Crisis On Sanctions

 

Sanctions have worsened Venezuela’s crippling economic and political crisis, the UN human rights chief said Wednesday, as Washington warned it may expand measures targeting President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government.

UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said sanctions had exacerbated the crisis but also slammed Maduro’s “violations of civil and political rights” in her annual report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“Venezuela clearly illustrates the way violations of civil and political rights –- including failure to uphold fundamental freedoms, and the independence of key institutions –- can accentuate a decline of economic and social rights,” said former Chile president Bachelet.

Venezuelans have been battered by an economic meltdown, shortages of food and medicine and a bitter political standoff between Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido — who has been recognized as interim president by more than 50 countries.

READ ALSO: Lion Mauls Czech Breeder To Death

“This situation has been exacerbated by sanctions,” Bachelet said.

Washington, which has recognized Venezuela’s opposition chief Juan Guaido as the country’s leader, imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA last month.

It has also handed Guaido control of Venezuela’s bank accounts in the United States.

The US envoy for the crisis in Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, said Tuesday that Washington was weighing more punitive measures to increase the pressure on Maduro.

Guaido vowed Tuesday to increase pressure on Maduro, who in turn promised to crush a “crazed minority” that wants to remove him from power.

The 35-year-old National Assembly leader returned home to a hero’s welcome on Monday, having defied a ban on leaving the country to embark on a 10-day tour of South American allies. He remains free despite the threat of arrest by the government.

“They thought the pressure had reached its zenith, but it’s only just beginning,” Guaido told reporters.

On Tuesday, a national holiday, he met public sector union leaders.

“Public sector workers have lost practically all their rights, we have no other option but to call for a civic strike,” said Guaido, without giving further details.

Maduro, meanwhile, pressed his supporters to hold “anti-imperialist” marches Saturday to counter fresh protests planned by Guaido.

“Today more than ever, we are victorious against the conspiracy, against blackmail, while a crazy minority continues with their hatred,” he said in his first public comments since Guaido’s return.

When he returned to Caracas — his latest challenge to Maduro’s authority — Guaido announced to tens of thousands of supporters his plans for new protests.

He has vowed to set up a transitional government and hold new elections.

US envoy Abrams said that given Maduro’s low popularity, it would be “a gift” if he decided to run in fresh polls.

“That’s ultimately a decision for Venezuelans to make,” Abrams said.

 ‘Paralyzed public administration’ 

As part of his challenge to Maduro, Guaido is attempting to take control of the state bureaucracy, which he considers having been “kidnapped” through blackmail and persecution.

Unions from the oil industry, basic services, the public bank and local government took part in Tuesday’s meeting, union leader Ana Yanez told AFP.

“The public administration is practically paralyzed. In the town halls, people only go to work three days a week and even then barely half the day,” said Yanez.

Maduro finally made an appearance in the late afternoon to lead a military parade paying tribute to his predecessor Hugo Chavez on the sixth anniversary of the socialist firebrand’s death.

Standing in front of Chavez’s mausoleum, Maduro also called on his supporters to take to the streets on Saturday, to mark “four years since” then-US president Barack Obama first announced sanctions against the socialist government.

Maduro has done this before, calling his own counter-demonstration every time Guaido announces a protest.

Both attract thousands of supporters, but the opposition gatherings usually have the edge in numbers.

Maduro had been active on Twitter earlier in the day, again paying tribute to Chavez.

“Thanks to your teachings and your example we’re continuing the permanent fight against those who tried so many times to extinguish your voice,” wrote Maduro.

During his travels, Guaido met US Vice President Mike Pence and the leaders of Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Chile and Ecuador.

AFP

US Threatens Sanctions Over Russia-Germany Gas Pipeline

 US Ambassador to Germany Richard Allen Grenell stands in front of a military honor guard during an accreditation ceremony for new Ambassadors in Berlin. Odd ANDERSEN / AFP

 

The US ambassador to Germany has warned of sanctions against firms linked to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia, the American embassy in Berlin confirmed Sunday.

A letter envoy Richard Grenell sent to several businesses “reminds that any company operating in the Russian energy export pipeline sector… is in danger under CAATSA of US sanctions,” an embassy spokesman told AFP.

The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) adopted in 2017 targets Iran, Russia and North Korea.

Close Donald Trump ally Grenell’s letter “is not meant to be a threat, but a clear message of US policy,” the spokesman said.

“The only thing that could be considered blackmail in this situation would be the Kremlin having leverage over future gas supplies,” he said.

Construction has already begun on Nord Stream 2, set to double the capacity of an existing pipeline across the Baltic Sea.

Firms including Germany’s Wintershall and Uniper, Dutch-British Shell, France’s Engie and Austria’s OMV are involved in the project.

Combined with the planned TurkStream pipeline across the Black Sea, Nord Stream 2 would do away with the need to transport natural gas to Europe via Ukraine — robbing the country of a factor shielding it from Russian aggression, Grenell said.

The two countries are in conflict over the eastern part of Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia in 2014.

“Firms supporting the construction of the two pipelines are actively undermining the security of Ukraine and Europe,” Grenell wrote.

Washington’s fears about the pipeline are shared by a number of eastern European Union countries including Poland, and the European Parliament last month passed a resolution condemning the construction.

But German Chancellor Angela Merkel, backed by France and Austria, has so far insisted it is a “purely economic project” that will ensure cheaper, more reliable gas supply.

The veteran leader — a key player in Moscow-Kiev peace talks — says Ukrainian interests will be protected as some Russian gas will still be transported via the country once Nord Stream 2 is online.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also weighed in on the transatlantic row last week, saying “European energy policy should be decided in Europe, not in the United States.”

AFP

Nuclear: Kim Warns US Against Sanctions On North Korea

 

Nuclear-armed North Korea wants good relations with the US but could consider a change of approach if Washington maintains its sanctions, leader Kim Jong Un warned in his New Year speech Tuesday after 12 months of diplomatic rapprochement.

At a summit with US President Donald Trump in Singapore in June, the two signed a vaguely worded pledge on denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

But progress has since stalled with Pyongyang and Washington arguing over what that means.

“If the US fails to carry out its promise to the world… and remains unchanged in its sanctions and pressure upon the DPRK,” Kim said Tuesday, “we might be compelled to explore a new path for defending the sovereignty of our country and supreme interests of our state”.

He was willing to meet Trump again at any time, he added, “to produce results welcomed by the international community”.

The North is demanding sanctions relief — it is subject to multiple measures over its banned nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes — and has condemned US insistence on its nuclear disarmament as “gangster-like”.

Washington is pushing to maintain the measures against the North until its “final, fully verified denuclearisation”.

Kim’s speech “expressed his frustration with the lack of progress in negotiations so far”, said former South Korean vice unification minister Kim Hyung-Seok.

The North Korean leader “obviously had certain expectations that the US would take certain steps — however rudimentary they are — after the North blew up a nuclear test site and took other steps. But none of them materialised.

“He is faced with this urgent task to improve his ‘socialist economy’ — which is impossible to achieve without lifting of the sanctions.”

In marked contrast with January 1, 2018, when he ordered mass production of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles, Kim said the North had “declared that we would no longer produce, test, use or spread our nuclear arsenal”, calling for the US to take “corresponding measures”.

The production pledge was a “significant evolution in leadership intent, if true”, Ankit Panda of the Federation of American Scientists said on Twitter, but credibility was an issue.

“All this might offer is a temporary cap on warhead production as long as talks are on with the US — to be withdrawn when sanctions relief doesn’t arrive,” he added.

The line was not included in the first English-language summary of the speech by the North’s official KCNA news agency.

Year of rapprochement 

Kim spoke sitting in a dark leather armchair, in a large office lined with packed bookshelves and paintings of his predecessors, father Kim Jong Il, and grandfather Kim Il Sung.

As he began speaking — in a deep, gravelly voice and wearing a dark suit and blue tie — a clock behind him read at moments after 12.

But at times during the address, it was blurred out and towards the end of the half-hour broadcast it was close to 1, suggesting the speech was recorded in several takes.

The leader’s New Year speech is a key moment in the North Korean political calendar, reviewing the past and setting out goals for the future.

The 2018 address was a crucial catalyst for the developments that followed.

It came after a year of high tensions when the North made rapid progress with its weapons development, carrying out its sixth nuclear test — by far its most powerful to date — and launching rockets capable of reaching the entire US mainland.

The two leaders had traded personal insults — Trump mocked Kim as “Little Rocket Man”, who in turn called him a “mentally deranged US dotard” — and threats of war as fears of conflict rose.

In last year’s speech, Kim warned “the nuclear button is on my office desk all the time”, but also offered to send a team to the forthcoming Winter Olympics in the South.

That opened the way for the South’s dovish President Moon Jae-in to play the role of peace broker.

Seoul and Washington are in a security alliance and the US stations 28,500 troops in the South to protect it against its neighbour.

A rapid sequence of developments followed, with athletes and a senior delegation led by Kim’s powerful sister going to the Pyeongchang Games in February, before Kim met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing ahead of the Singapore summit with Trump.

Kim also met Moon three times in 2018 — twice at the border truce village of Panmunjom and once in the North’s capital — and at the weekend vowed to meet Moon “frequently” this year.

South Korea on Tuesday reacted positively to Kim’s speech, which came after Seoul and Pyongyang have pursued several reconciliation initiatives in recent months.

These include projects to upgrade the North’s outdated rail infrastructure and reconnect it with the South.

“We welcome Kim’s reaffirmation… for complete denuclearisation and permanent peace of the Korean peninsula as well as the improvement in North-South ties,” Seoul’s unification ministry said in a statement.

Much of Kim’s speech Tuesday focused on North Korea’s moribund economy, saying that improving people’s lives was his top priority and tackling energy shortages was an urgent task.

AFP

North Korea Condemns US Sanctions, Issues Fresh Warning

 

Nuclear-armed North Korea condemned the United States over its latest sanctions measures, warning Washington’s approach could “block the path to denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula forever”.

After a rapid diplomatic rapprochement this year that culminated in the Singapore summit in June between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump, progress has stalled in talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal.

In Singapore, the two men signed a vaguely-worded statement on denuclearisation, but have since disagreed on what it means.

Now Pyongyang is demanding sanctions relief and condemning US insistence on its nuclear disarmament as “gangster-like”, while Washington is pushing to maintain the measures against the North until its “final, fully verified denuclearisation”.

Washington last week added three senior North Korean officials to those subject to sanctions over human rights abuses, including Choe Ryong Hae, who has been considered a right-hand man to Kim.

In a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency, the North said Trump had repeatedly expressed his desire to improve relations with Pyongyang, but the US State Department was “bent on bringing the DPRK-US relations back to the status of last year which was marked by exchanges of fire”.

DPRK is the acronym for the North’s official name.

In recent months high-ranking US politicians including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had “almost every day slandered the DPRK out of sheer malice”, added the Sunday statement by the policy research director of the foreign ministry’s Institute for American Studies.

Using sanctions and pressure “to drive us into giving up nuclear weapons” would be the “greatest miscalculation”, it added, and would “block the path to denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula forever”.

A second summit between Trump and Kim — who exchanged personal insults and threats of war throughout 2017 — is expected to be held next year, with the US leader facing criticism over the planned talks since North Korea has taken few concrete steps to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

Death anniversary 

Pyongyang has long said it needs the weapons to deter a possible US invasion, and has spent decades developing them, at a heavy cost in both resources and the imposition of multiple sets of UN, US, EU and other sanctions.

But on Monday its nuclear assets were conspicuous by their explicit absence from coverage of the seventh anniversary of the death of Kim’s father and predecessor Kim Jong Il, on whose watch Pyongyang carried out its first two nuclear tests.

Alongside extensive coverage of commemorative events across the country, the Rodong Sinmun newspaper, the mouthpiece of the ruling Workers’ Party, published a lengthy editorial lauding Kim Jong Il’s efforts to secure a “firm military assurance for peace and prosperity”.

A year earlier, the same newspaper praised his “immortal feat” in building a “Juche nuclear power state”.

Its front page was dominated by a large picture of soldiers and officials including Kim paying their respects at his father’s mausoleum, a sprawling palace on the outskirts of the capital.

It was the leader’s first public activity in two weeks after visiting a shoe factory in Wonsan earlier this month.

Trump played down hopes Friday for any imminent deal to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear arsenal but he also expressed optimism, saying North Korea’s economy has “wonderful potential” and that Kim “sees it better than anyone and will fully take advantage of it for his people”.

In actions required by Congress, his administration said last week it would seize any US assets of the three officials for suppressing freedom of speech.

Such restrictions may have little effect on individuals in one of the world’s most closed countries but have a symbolic impact as North Korea seeks greater acceptance by the United States.

AFP