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Pentagon chief says US admin backs Tillerson's North Korea effort
Washington (AFP) Oct 4, 2017

Nuclear accord with Iran in US interest: Mattis
Washington (AFP) Oct 3, 2017 - US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Tuesday that President Donald Trump should consider sticking with the nuclear accord with Iran, which he said is in the US national interest.

Mattis's expression of support for the 2015 agreement curbing Iran's nuclear program was in sharp contrast with Trump's blunt assessment that the deal is an "embarrassment to the United States."

"If we can confirm that Iran is living by the agreement, if we can determine that this is in our best interest, then surely we should stay with it," told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"I believe at this point in time, absent indication to the contrary, it is something that the president should consider staying with," he said.

Asked whether he believed the Iran deal was in the national interest, Mattis replied: "Yes, senator, I do."

Trump must notify Congress every 90 days whether he believes that Iran is abiding by the accord and whether lifting of sanctions against Tehran, as provided for under the agreement, remains in the US national interest.

He has so far certified that Iran is in compliance but has indicated that the next deadline on October 15 will be crucial.

Iran and the other signatories -- China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany -- defend the deal as a guarantee of the peaceful, non-military purposes of Tehran's nuclear program.

But in his speech last month to the UN General Assembly, Trump raised the prospect he might pull Washington out, calling the deal an embarrassment and warning, "I don't think you've heard the last of it."

He later told reporters he had reached a decision, but would not say what course of action he intends to take.

- Risks of not certifying -

Several senior US officials, as well as observers who oppose the deal, have said that if Trump does not certify Iran's compliance it would not necessarily mean either a US withdrawal, or the end of the pact.

In the event of non-certification, the law gives Congress 60 days to decide whether to reimpose on Iran sanctions lifted in 2015 as part of the deal. Washington could use that time to pressure its European allies to reopen negotiations with Tehran.

That would be risky, however.

Iran could interpret US non-certification -- or the imposition of new or renewed sanctions -- as a violation of the deal, and resume its banned uranium enrichment program.

Reimposition of sanctions by the US Congress would spell the demise of the agreement, according to European diplomats.

Neither Tehran nor the other signatories want to renegotiate the deal, although French President Emmanuel Macron has suggested trying to add "one or two pillars" to it as a compromise.

The Americans challenge several points of the agreement, beginning with the fact that the restrictions on Iran's nuclear program gradually fall away beginning in 2025.

They also are demanding that inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency be extended to several military sites.

Beyond that, Washington argues that Iran is violating the spirit of the agreement by pressing ahead with a separate ballistic missile program and with its "destabilizing" activities in the Middle East, including Yemen and Syria.

Pentagon chief Jim Mattis tried to clear up doubts about the US administration's North Korea strategy Tuesday, backing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's effort to find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff.

Defense Secretary Mattis was speaking two days after President Donald Trump appeared to undermine his top diplomat by saying Tillerson was "wasting his time" by maintaining contacts with Kim Jong-Un's regime.

State Department officials insist Trump was not criticizing Tillerson, but pressuring Kim Jong-Un's regime to agree to discuss its disarmament while a diplomatic option remains on the table.

Mattis, in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Pentagon stands four square behind the strategy -- and singled out Tillerson for support.

"The international community... is focused on the destabilizing threat posed by North Korea and Kim Jong-Un's relentless pursuit of nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities," he said.

"The Defense Department supports fully Secretary Tillerson's efforts to find a diplomatic solution but remains focused on defense of the United States and our allies."

Tillerson has explained the strategy as one of using United Nations and US sanctions and diplomatic pressure to convince Kim of his isolation and force him to negotiate nuclear disarmament.

US officials insist publicly that they have military options to counter the threat from Pyongyang if this fails, but admit privately that these are limited and highly risky.

- 'Little Rocket Man' -

So it was hard to square Tillerson's diplomatic push with the Trump tweets that greeted him Sunday as he flew back from meeting Chinese leader in Beijing.

"I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man," Trump wrote, using his dismissive nickname for Kim.

"Save your energy Rex, we'll do what has to be done!" he added, apparently suggesting that some kind of non-diplomatic option was back on the table.

"Being nice to Rocket Man hasn't worked in 25 years, why would it work now? Clinton failed, Bush failed, and Obama failed. I won't fail."

Kim is 33 years old and came to office in 2011.

But Trump appears to have been referring to previous US efforts to deal with the North Korean dictator's father and grandfather.

While in China, Tillerson had told reporters that he was "probing" whether the North is ready for talks on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

"So stay tuned," he added.

"We have lines of communications to Pyongyang. We're not in a dark situation, a blackout. We have a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang. We can talk to them. We do talk to them."

This revelation appears to have triggered Trump's tweeted response -- which in turn sparked fresh rumors of tensions between the president and his top diplomat.

Critics seized upon the remarks to paint Tillerson as an outsider, scorned by Trump and unable to speak for the United States -- most scathingly in a harsh Washington Post op-ed entitled: "Donald Trump's dog."

Mattis, however, was at pains to insist that the government is working together as one to counter its most urgent threat.

"President Trump's guidance to both Secretary Tillerson and me has been very clearly that we would pursue the diplomatic efforts," he told lawmakers.

"All we are doing is probing, we are not talking with them ... So I don't see the divergence as strongly as some have interpreted it."

"When the Secretary says "probing,' he means: we're keeping our eyes open to see how sanctions, to see how the pressure campaign is affecting that government," a State Department source said privately.

Mattis noted that Trump had sent Tillerson to Beijing to work with Chinese leaders to strengthen the common diplomatic response to the crisis.

"In fact this is part of a whole-of-government, integrated effort that we have under way right now," Mattis said. "And that's what Secretary Tillerson was carrying forward for the president."

Still, dialogue appears distant, on the State Department's end.

"At some point, of course, we would like to sit down and talk with North Korea. But now is not the time to do so; they are doing too many horrible activities," added State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.

N. Korea tension a threat to Asian growth: World Bank
Singapore (AFP) Oct 4, 2017 - The World Bank warned Wednesday that surging tensions over North Korea's nuclear programme could be a threat to robust growth in Asia.

The bank predicted that developing East Asia and the Pacific would expand 6.4 percent this year, 6.2 percent next year and 6.1 percent in 2019, slightly better than their last forecasts in April.

"Developing East Asia and the Pacific is doing better than most other developing regions of the world and is likely to continue to do so," said Sudhir Shetty, the bank's chief regional economist.

He cited "a favourable external environment and robust domestic demand" for the improved picture in the institution's latest report.

But Shetty warned that tensions over North Korea could dent the positive momentum.

Pyongyang has ramped up its weapons programme, conducting its sixth nuclear test and firing two missiles over Japan, and leader Kim Jong-Un has been engaged in a heated war of words with US President Donald Trump.

The tensions "have the potential to affect trade as well as the availability and access to external finance," Shetty said, speaking to reporters via videolink from Bangkok.

"Since one of the channels for their impact is through trade, they will have significant impact on Asia which is reliant on trade and supply chains."

He added that "an intensification of tensions in the region could make capital flows and exchange rates more volatile and raise global interest rates".

Rising protectionism in the US under Trump and uncertainty caused by Britain's looming exit from the European Union were also threats, the bank warned.

China, the world's second-biggest economy, is expected to expand 6.7 percent this year, easing to growth of 6.4 percent next year and 6.3 percent in 2019 as the economy rebalances away from external demand toward domestic consumption, the report said.

Southeast Asia's five biggest economies should see growth of 5.1 percent this year and 5.2 percent in 2018 and 2019, slightly higher than April's forecasts.

Thinking the unthinkable in China: Abandoning North Korea
Beijing (AFP) Oct 1, 2017
North Korea's nuclear antics have rattled its alliance with China to the point that Beijing is allowing the previously unthinkable to be discussed: Is it time to prepare for the renegade regime's collapse? While China's official goal is to bring Washington and Pyongyang to the negotiating table, it is also permitting once taboo debate on contingencies in case war breaks out in the isolated ... read more

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