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South Korea to send high-level officials to North for talks

March 04, 2018

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s president will send a delegation led by his national security director to North Korea this week for talks on how to ease nuclear tensions and help arrange the restart of dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington, officials said Sunday.

They will be the first known South Korean special envoys travelling to Pyongyang in about 10 years. Their trip comes amid a rare moment of good will between the rivals stemming from the recent Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

The 10-member delegation headed by national security director Chung Eui-yong is to fly to Pyongyang on Monday afternoon for a two-day visit that includes talks with unidentified senior North Korean officials. The discussions would deal with how to promote peace on the Korean Peninsula, improve ties between the Koreas and foster an environment to realize the resumption of talks between Pyongyang and Washington, President Moon Jae-in’s office said.

After its Pyongyang trip, the South Korean delegation is to visit Washington to brief U.S. officials about its talks with North Korean officials, senior presidential official Yoon Young-chan said at a televised news conference. He said the South Korean delegation includes National Intelligence Service director Suh Hoon and Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung.

U.S. officials have said North Korea must take serious disarmament steps before talks can restart, and North Korea has insisted it won’t place its nuclear program on a negotiating table. In the past, South Korea sent special envoys to Pyongyang to reach breakthrough deals aimed at reducing animosities and securing higher-level talks. The Koreas’ two past summit talks, one in 2000 and the other in 2007, were both held after ranking South Korean officials went to Pyongyang and worked out details of the summits in advance.

The last known South Korean special envoy to travel to Pyongyang was the country’s intelligence chief, who visited a few months before the 2007 summit. During the Olympics, the Koreas fielded their first joint Olympic squad in women’s ice hockey and had their athletes parade together during the opening ceremony.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un also sent senior officials including his influential younger sister to the start and close of the games, and they met Moon and conveyed Kim’s invitation to visit Pyongyang for what would be the third inter-Korean summit. Those North Korean officials also told Moon that they were willing to restart talks with the United States.

President Donald Trump responded by saying talks will happen only “under the right conditions.” Moon has yet to accept Kim’s invitation to visit Pyongyang. During the Olympics, Moon only said that “let’s not get too far ahead” on a summit and that the Koreas should create an unspecified “environment” for the talks.

Some experts say the North’s outreach over the Olympics was an attempt to use improved ties with South Korea as a way to break out of diplomatic isolation and weaken U.S.-led international sanctions and pressure on the country.


Farewell, Korea: First of three straight Asian Olympics ends

February 25, 2018

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — It began with politics. It ends with … politics. In between, humanity’s most extraordinary feats of winter athletic prowess unfolded, revealing the expected triumphs but also stars most unlikely — from favorites like Mikaela Shiffrin, Shaun White and Lindsey Vonn to sudden surprise legends like Czech skier-snowboarder Ester Ledecka and the medal-grabbing “Garlic Girls,” South Korea’s hometown curling favorites.

Pyeongchang closes its chapter of the 122-year-old modern Olympic storybook on Sunday night with countless tales to tell — tales of North Korea and Russia, of detente and competitive grit and volunteerism and verve, of everything from an uncomfortable viral outbreak to an athlete’s boozy joyride.

And above it all: unforgettable experiences for meticulously trained athletes from around the world, all gathered on a mountainous plateau on the eastern Korean Peninsula to test for themselves — and demonstrate to the world — just how excellent they could be.

“We have been through a lot so that we could blaze a trail,” said Kim Eun-jung, skip of the South Korean women’s curling team, which captured global renown as the “Garlic Girls” — all from a garlic-producing Korean hometown. They made a good run for gold before finishing with runner-up silver.

Other trailblazers: Chloe Kim, American snowboarder extraordinaire. The U.S. women’s hockey team and men’s curlers, both of which claimed gold. And the Russian hockey team, with its nail-biting, overtime victory against Germany.

That these games would be circumscribed by politics was a given from the outset because of regional rivalries. North Korea, South Korea, Japan and China are neighbors with deep, sometimes twisted histories that get along uneasily with each other in this particular geographic cul-de-sac.

But there was something more this time around. Hanging over the entire games was the saga — or opportunity, if you prefer — of a delicate diplomatic dance between the Koreas, North and South, riven by war and discord and an armed border for the better part of a century.

The games started with a last-minute flurry of agreements to bring North Koreans to South Korea to compete under one combined Koreas banner. Perish the thought, some said, but Moon Jae-in’s government stayed the course. By the opening ceremony, a march of North and South into the Olympic Stadium was watched by the world — and by dozens of North Korean cheerleaders applauding in calibrated synchronicity.

Also watching was an equally extraordinary, if motley, crew. Deployed in a VIP box together were Moon, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s envoy sister, Kim Yo Jong. The latter two, at loggerheads over North Korea’s nuclear program, didn’t speak, and the world watched the awkwardness.

What followed was a strong dose of athletic diplomacy: two weeks of global exposure for the Korean team, particularly the women’s hockey squad, which trained for weeks with North and South side by side getting along, taking selfies and learning about each other.

On Sunday night, the closing ceremony will bookend those politics with U.S. President Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, in attendance as well as Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee and a man suspected of masterminding a lethal 2010 military attack on the South.

There’s no reason to believe that the uneasy VIP-box scene will repeat itself. There’s also no reason to believe it will not. But the outcome could provide a coda to an extraordinary two weeks of Olympic political optics — and offer hints of the Trump administration’s approach in coming weeks as it tries to get Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons and deals with the North-South thaw.

That wasn’t all when it came to these odd games. Let’s not forget Russia — or, we should say, “Olympic Athletes from Russia,” the shame-laced moniker they inherited after a doping brouhaha from the 2014 Sochi Games doomed them to a non-flag-carrying Pyeongchang Games.

But two more Russian athletes tested positive in Pyeongchang in the past two weeks. So on Sunday morning, the IOC refused to reinstate the team in time for the closing but left the door open for near-term redemption from what one exasperated committee member called “this entire Russia drama.”

What’s next for the games? Tokyo in Summer 2022, then Beijing — Summer host in 2008 — staging an encore, this time for a Winter Games. With the completion of the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, that Olympic trinity marks one-third of a noteworthy Olympic run by Asia.

For those keeping score at home: That means four of eight Olympic Games between 2008 and 2022 will have taken place on the Asian continent. Not bad for a region that hosted only four games in the 112 years of modern Olympic history before that — Tokyo in 1964, Sapporo in 1972, Seoul in 1988 and Nagano in 1998. Japan and China will, it’s likely, be highly motivated to outdo South Korea (and each other).

Meantime, the Olympians departing Monday leave behind a Korean Peninsula full of possibility for peace, or at least less hostility. The steps taken by North and South toward each other this month are formidable but fluid. People are cautiously optimistic: the governor of Gangwon, the border province where Pyeongchang is located, suggested Sunday that the 2021 Asian Games could be co-hosted by both Koreas.

It might not happen. But it could. That could be said about pretty much anything at an Olympic Games, inside the rings and out. Corporate and political and regimented though it may be, that’s what makes it still the best game in town for an athletic thrill every other year — and yes, sometimes a political one, too.

Kim’s sister ends Olympic visit, leaving South to mull offer

February 11, 2018

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister headed home Sunday night after a whirlwind three days in South Korea, where she sat among world dignitaries at the Olympics and tossed a diplomatic offer to the South aimed at ending seven decades of hostility.

Kim Yo Jong and the rest of the North Korean delegation departed for Pyongyang on her brother’s private jet, a day after they delivered his hopes for a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during a lunch at Seoul’s presidential palace. It was a sharp, but possibly fleeting, contrast with many months of rising tensions connected to the North’s continued development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

They capped their final day in South Korea by joining Moon at a Seoul concert given by a visiting North Korean art troupe led by the head of the immensely popular Moranbong band, whose young female members are hand-picked by Kim Jong Un.

Accepting North Korea’s demand to transport more than 100 members of the art troupe by sea, South Korea treated the Mangyongbong-92 ferry as an exemption to the maritime sanctions it imposed on the North, a controversial move amid concerns that the North is trying to use the Olympics to poke holes in international sanctions.

South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon hosted the North Koreans for lunch Sunday before Moon’s chief of staff, Im Jong-seok, hosted them for dinner ahead of the concert. Kim Yo Jong, 30, is an increasingly prominent figure in her brother’s government and the first member of the North’s ruling family to visit the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. The North Korean delegation also included the country’s 90-year-old head of state, Kim Yong Nam.

In dispatching the highest level of government officials the North has ever sent to the South, Kim Jong Un revealed a sense of urgency to break out of deep diplomatic isolation in the face of toughening sanctions over his nuclear program, analysts say.

“Honestly, I didn’t know I would come here so suddenly. I thought things would be strange and very different, but I found a lot of things being similar,” Kim said while proposing a toast at Sunday’s dinner, according to Moon’s office. “Here’s to hoping that we could see the pleasant people (of the South) again in Pyeongchang and bring closer the future where we are one again.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Sunday rejected any suggestion that even a temporary warming of relations between the North and South could drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington. It’s too early to say, Mattis said, “if using the Olympics in a way to reduce tension – if that’s going to have any traction once the Olympics are over. We can’t say right now.”

South Korea accommodated both the North Korean government officials and members of the art troupe at the Walkerhill hotel in Seoul. The riverside facility is named after late U.S. Army commander Walton Walker, who’s considered a war hero in the South for his battles against the North during the Korean War. It was built in the 1960s under the government of late anti-communist dictator Park Chung-hee as a luxury facility for U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

The North Koreans went through a busy schedule in South Korea as the world watched their every move. They were whisked back and forth between Seoul and the Olympic towns of Pyeongchang and Gangneung. They shared the VIP box with world leaders at the opening ceremony and joined Moon in cheering for the first-ever inter-Korean Olympic team as it debuted in the women’s ice hockey tournament. Saturday’s game ended in a crushing 8-0 loss to Switzerland.

The most important part of the visit, however, came during one of the quieter moments. Invited by Moon for lunch at Seoul’s presidential palace, Kim Yo Jong verbally delivered her brother’s hope for a summit with Moon in Pyongyang, a meeting that she said would help significantly improve ties after an extended period of animosity.

“We hope that President (Moon) could leave a legacy that would last over generations by leading the way in opening a new era of unification,” she said, according to Moon’s office. Though Moon has used the Olympics to resurrect meaningful communication with North Korea after a diplomatic stalemate over its nuclear program, he didn’t immediately jump on the North Korean offer for a summit.

He said the Koreas should create an environment so that a summit could take place. He also called for the need of a quick resumption of dialogue between North Korea and the United States. After arriving in Seoul on Friday, the North Koreans attended a chilly opening ceremony at Pyeongchang’s Olympic Stadium, taking their place among world dignitaries, including U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who seemed to go out of their way to not acknowledge the North Koreans despite sitting just few feet (meters) away.

Analysts say Kim Jong Un’s decision to send his sister to the South reflected an eagerness to break out of diplomatic isolation by improving ties with the South, which the country could eventually use as a bridge to approach the United States. The U.S.-led international community has been tightening the screws on North Korea with sanctions designed to punish its economy and rein in its efforts to expand its nuclear weapons and missile program, which now includes developmental long-range missiles targeting the U.S. mainland.

By also sending a youthful, photogenic individual who would surely draw international attention at the Olympics, Kim might have also been trying to construct a fresher image of the country, particularly in face of U.S. efforts to use the Olympics as an occasion to highlight the North’s brutal human rights record.

Always flanked by thick groups of bodyguards, Kim Yo Jong commanded attention wherever she went, walking among throngs of journalists with a quiet poise and occasionally shooting an enigmatic smile at cameras.

The Koreas previously held summits in 2000 and 2007, both hosted in Pyongyang by Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un’s late father. The previous meetings came after rounds of international talks aimed at eliminating the North’s nuclear program, which eventually failed.

Moon has always expressed a desire to reach out to North Korea. Reviving inter-Korean dialogue is critical for the policies of Moon, who insists that Seoul should be in control in international efforts to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue.

“The fate of our nation must be determined by our own selves — we must not allow the repeat of unfortunate past history where our fate was determined with no regard to our opinions,” Moon said in a speech to South Korean lawmakers in November.

But analysts say it may be more difficult for the South to arrange a summit with the North coming off a year in which Pyongyang test-fired dozens of missiles, including three ICBMs, and conducted its most powerful nuclear test to date.

South Korea may also need to persuade traditional allies the United States and Japan, which have raised concerns that the North is attempting to use its outreach as a release valve for international pressure.

Combined Korean hockey team makes historic Olympic debut

February 10, 2018

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — The Korean women’s hockey team, the first in Olympic history to combine players from North and South, took the ice Saturday night for their debut game in front of a raucous, sellout crowd on another historic night mixing sports and politics on an international stage.

The debut against Switzerland came just 24 hours after an extraordinary opening ceremony a few miles away was marked by signs of unity between the two rivals. Like the ceremony, the game included dignitaries from North and South in close proximity.

The powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Kim Yo Jong, was watching with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, according to Moon’s office. They were joined by North Korea’s nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam.

The two North Koreans are on a landmark visit to the South amid a flurry of abrupt reconciliation steps, and both attended the opening ceremony before having a luncheon with Moon at Moon’s presidential palace earlier Saturday. The North Koreans have invited Moon to visit Pyongyang in what would be the third inter-Korean summit talks since their 1945 division.

Fans roared every time a Korean got the puck on her stick and Han Soojin nearly put the team on the board with a shot from the left circle that hit the crossbar early in the first period. North Korean Jong Su Hyon had one of Korea’s three shots in the first.

Still, the Koreans were playing the world’s sixth-ranked team and trailed the Swiss 4-0 early in the second period, with Alina Muller scoring four times. Coach Sarah Murray played three North Korean forwards as required in the deal creating the team; she had to scratch three of her South Korean players for the game.

Dozens of North Korean cheering group members dressed in red were at the Kwandong Hockey Center to root for the Korean team. Earlier, hundreds of spectators lined the streets outside, chanting and waving small “unification flags” amid gusting, chilly winds. One man held up a sign that read, “The peace of all mankind.”

“We have to be unified (with North Korea). Politicians must let the Korean people meet and get together continuously,” said Park Sung-uk, a 48-year-old office worker who attended the game with his family. “I just want the unified team to do well in these Olympics.”

Fielding the joint hockey team was one of the key agreements the Koreas have struck after several rounds of talks at the border on how to cooperate during the Olympics, which run through Feb. 25. Athletes from North and South paraded together during the ceremony in the same white parkas, marching under a single “unification flag” depicting an undivided peninsula to the tune of their shared traditional folk song “Arirang” instead of their respective anthems. It was their first joint march since 2007.

The Korean hockey team is not expected to win a medal; both Koreas are ranked out of the world’s top 20. But its debut against Switzerland, which won bronze in the 2014 Olympics, had historic significance and symbolized fledgling unity between the rivals split along the world’s most heavily fortified border.

The North initially had no athletes coming to the Olympics, but the International Olympic Committee allowed 22 as special entries. Twelve female hockey players joined the 23-person South Korean team. The players have been the subject of intense scrutiny and the team was thrown together only two weeks ago, with limited time to practice. Two players, one South Korean and the other North Korean, appeared on the opening ceremony and climbed stairs together with the Olympic torch that they handed to Olympic champion figure skater Yuna Kim.

There was early criticism in South Korea that the new players would throw off team chemistry and cost South players time on the ice after working together for months to shine on the sport’s biggest stage. The team’s Canadian coach, Sarah Murray, initially expressed frustration over a team assembled so close to the Olympics, but she has recently said she is happy with her new players on a team she says now feels like family.

“They are awesome. I really enjoy having them here,” Murray told reporters after Friday’s training session. “We are excited for the tournament to get started.” The Koreas often use sports to find a breakthrough in their strained relations. The ongoing rapprochement mood flared after Kim Jong Un said in his New Year’s Day address that he was willing to send an Olympic delegation. Moon, a dove who wants to resolve the nuclear standoff diplomatically and peacefully, quickly responded to Kim’s outreach by offering talks.

Many experts say Kim’s overture is intended to use improved ties with Seoul as a way to weaken U.S.-led international sanctions toughened after its series of big weapons tests last year that include its sixth and largest nuclear test explosion and three intercontinental ballistic missile launches. Warming ties between the Koreas could complicate Seoul’s ties with Washington, which wants to maximize its pressures on Pyongyang.

Workers try to shore up tilted buildings after Taiwan quake

February 08, 2018

HUALIEN, Taiwan (AP) — Workers placed steel beams to stabilize a dangerously tilted building while rescuers on the other side try to pull survivors from their residences Thursday morning, more than a day after a deadly quake shook Taiwan’s east coast.

The Yunmen Tsuiti building was one of several damaged by late Tuesday’s magnitude-6.4 quake. At least four midsized buildings in worst-hit Hualien county leaned at sharp angles, their lowest floors crushed into mangled heaps of concrete, glass, iron and other debris. Firefighters climbed ladders hoisted against windows to reach residents inside apartments.

The National Fire Agency reported Thursday that death toll had risen to 10 people. More than 260 people were injured and 58 were unaccounted for. At least three of the dead were tourists from the mainland, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported.

Japan’s Foreign Ministry said nine Japanese were among the injured. Six mainland Chinese were also injured, the Chinese Communist Party-run People’s Daily reported. President Tsai Ing-wen reassured the public every effort would be made to rescue survivors. On her Facebook page, Tsai said she “ordered search and rescue workers not to give up on any opportunity to save people, while keeping their own safety in mind.”

At the Yunmen Tsuiti building, clothes and other personal items were visible on the balconies as the rescue work continued. The shifting of the buildings was likely caused by soil liquefaction, when the ground loses its solidity under stress such as the shaking of an earthquake.

The quake also buckled roads and disrupted electricity and water supplies to thousands of households. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said his country was dispatching a rescue team to help in the search effort.

Taiwan has frequent earthquakes due to its position along the “Ring of Fire,” the seismic faults encircling the Pacific Ocean where most of the world’s earthquakes occur. A quake two years ago collapsed an apartment complex in southern Taiwan, killing 115 people. Five people involved in the construction of the complex were found guilty of negligence and given prison sentences.

A magnitude-7.6 quake in central Taiwan killed more than 2,300 people in 1999.

China solar supplier grows in India to avoid trade controls

February 06, 2018

BEIJING (AP) — One of China’s biggest makers of solar panels said Tuesday it will invest $309 million to expand manufacturing in India in a move to guard against what it complained is a rising threat of import controls in the United States and other markets.

Longi Solar Technology Ltd.’s announcement follows the Trump administration’s Jan. 24 decision to impose an extra 30 percent duty on imported solar modules. An Indian regulator says it is considering a “safeguard tariff” of 70 percent on solar panels from China and Malaysia.

Chinese manufacturers dominate global solar panel production. Their explosive growth has helped to propel adoption of renewable energy by driving down costs. But the United States, Europe, India and others complain unfairly low-priced exports hurt their manufacturers and threaten thousands of jobs.

The United States, Europe and other non-Chinese markets account for only 10 percent of Longi’s sales, according to its strategy director, Max Xia. But he said Longi wants to promote global sales of its latest technology this year.

“We think sooner or later anti-dumping and trade protection will be happening in several countries,” said Xia at a news conference. “This is why we choose to do the investment in Malaysia and also in India, because we don’t know when and where it will happen, this kind of anti-dumping. So we prepare to counter it.”

Xia’s comment represented an unusually explicit statement by the Chinese industry that it is moving production to avoid trade controls. Other Chinese producers have set up factories in India and Southeast Asia but usually say they are getting closer to customers or taking advantage of local talent and supply chains.

That migration has complicated efforts by the United States, the European Union and other governments to control imports from China. Some Chinese solar manufacturers responded to earlier U.S. and European trade measures by supplying those markets from factories outside China, avoiding higher tariffs and quotas on Chinese-made products.

Longi already has a solar module factory in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The latest investment will double production there, the company said. Xia repeated warnings by Chinese manufacturers that import controls are hampering efforts to encourage adoption of renewable energy.

“That possibly could start a ‘green energy trade war,'” he said. “That is, with the whole world concerned about climate change, what people who want to solve energy problems and realize green development aren’t willing to see.”

Longi, headquartered in the western city of Xi’an, ranked No. 7 among global solar panel producers by 2017 output, according to PV Tech, an industry journal. The South Korean-German supplier Hanhwa-Q Cells was the only non-Chinese competitor in the Top 10.

India is regarded by the solar industry as one of the most promising markets but low-cost Chinese imports have undercut the New Delhi government’s ambitions to develop its own solar technology suppliers. Government data show imports, mostly from China, account for 90 percent of last year’s sales, up from 86 percent in 2014.

India’s Finance Ministry said Jan. 5 it was considering adding a temporary 70 percent “safeguard tariff” on solar equipment from China and Malaysia to prevent “further serious injury” to the Indian industry. The ministry said Chinese exporters shifted their focus to India in early 2017 after the United States and Europe stepped up import controls.

Heavy snow strands 430 people overnight on train in Japan

January 12, 2018

TOKYO (AP) — About 430 people were stuck on a train overnight in Japan because of heavy snow that blanketed much of the country’s Japan Sea coast, a railway official said Friday. The train started moving again shortly before 10:30 a.m., about 15 hours after it had been forced to stop the previous evening, said Shinichi Seki, a spokesman for the Niigata branch of JR East railway company.

The four-car train departed Niigata city in heavy snow Thursday at 4:25 p.m., more than an hour behind schedule, Seki said. As the snow accumulated, the train’s wheels couldn’t turn anymore, and it stopped between stations about 7 p.m. at a railway crossing.

Officials decided it was too risky to evacuate all the passengers because of the deep snow and darkness, Seki said. The train had electricity and heat and toilets. Five passengers who said they did not feel well were taken off.

Some passengers were allowed to leave the train after sunrise with the help of railroad personnel, if family members had come to meet them. Trains continued to be delayed or suspended on Friday. Seki apologized for the major trouble caused to travelers.

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