Top US envoy begins Asia tour amid North Korea crisis

Agence France Presse
Wed, 2017-03-15

TOKYO: Washington’s top diplomat was to fly into Tokyo on Wednesday to begin a first tour of Asian capitals under the shadow of North Korea’s nuclear posturing.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has promised to take a tough line on Kim Jong-un’s isolated regime as he talks to allies Japan and South Korea and to rival great power China.
The former oilman will also talk commerce, after President Donald Trump’s belligerent campaign rhetoric raised the spectre of a trade war between the United State and China.
But US officials confirmed North Korea’s provocative behavior would be “front and center” as Tillerson meets Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida on Thursday.
After Tokyo, it will be on to Seoul, a city already within range of North Korea’s artillery and rocket batteries, for talks with the acting leader after a corruption scandal saw President Park Geun-Hye ousted last week.
And then at the weekend, there will be his much anticipated trip to Beijing, amid reports that Tillerson will seek to finalize plans for Chinese leader Xi Jinping to visit Trump in April.
Here, he might get a positive response. In a news conference after the annual National People’s Congress parliament meeting on Wednesday, Premier Li Keqiang said “there are bright prospects for China-US cooperation.”
He warned that US investments in China would bear the brunt of any trade war, and argued: “I believe whatever differences we have, we can still sit down and talk to each other and work together to find solutions.”
But Tillerson will also have to broach the topic of North Korea’s progress toward building an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that would be able to threaten US mainland cities or bases in the Pacific.
“He’s going to have an opportunity at every stop to talk about next steps or what we do now, with respect to North Korea,” acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters.
“I mean, it’s obviously the looming challenge over our relations and, frankly, the security of the Korean Peninsula,” he added in a news briefing before Tillerson left Washington.

China is perhaps the last country with significant leverage over North Korea, which has ignored several rounds of UN-backed sanctions targeting its banned nuclear weapons program.
Beijing shares US concerns over Pyongyang’s attempts to build an arsenal of nuclear devices, but has been much more measured in its reaction to the ballistic missile program.
Xi’s government has been reluctant to back any moves that might destabilize Kim’s regime, and is publicly more concerned about Washington’s decision to deploy the THAAD missile defense program in South Korea.
Washington insists THAAD is a defensive system deployed to protect the South and US bases from North Korean missiles, but China fears its advanced radar system undermines China’s nuclear deterrent.
In recent comments, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi implied the United States and North Korea were equally at fault for the latest crisis and moving toward a “head-on collision.”
With apparently little prospect of a breakthrough, some foreign policy hawks in Washington have been pushing for secondary sanctions that would hurt Chinese banks doing business with North Korea.
But US officials played down expectations of any announcement during the trip.
Instead, Tillerson will test Chinese receptiveness to the idea of tougher measures on North Korea, while attempting to calm fears of an imminent trade dispute between the world’s two largest economies.
“Everybody agrees on the challenge, which is: How do you stop North Korea’s bad behavior?” Toner said. “I think part of this trip will be about trying to hone in on some next steps.
“I think he really wants to try to drill down on that challenge for this trip. But let’s not also ignore the other 800-pound gorilla in the room here, which is our trade relations with the region. It’s hugely important.”

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Pirates demand ransom for tanker seized off Somalia — EU Naval Force

Wed, 2017-03-15

NAIROBI: Armed pirates off the coast of Somalia who hijacked an oil tanker with eight Sri Lankan crew on board are demanding a ransom for the release of the vessel, the EU Naval Force said.
The pirates seized the Comoros-flagged Aris 13 tanker on Monday, the first such hijacking in the region since 2012.
“The EU Naval Force … has received positive confirmation from the master of … Aris 13, that his ship and crew are currently being held captive by a number of suspected armed pirates in an anchorage off the north coast of Puntland, close to Alula,” the force said in a statement late on Tuesday.
Puntland is a semi-autonomous northern region of Somalia. Alula is a port town there where pirates have taken the tanker.
EU Navfor said as soon as it received an alert on the ship’s seizure, it sent patrol aircraft from its Djibouti base to try to make radio contact with the ship, and only late on Tuesday did its headquarters in London reach the vessel’s master by phone.
“The master confirmed that armed men were on board his ship and they were demanding a ransom for the ship’s release. The EU Naval Force has now passed the information regarding the incident to the ship’s owners,” EU Navfor said.
The 1,800 deadweight ton Aris 13 is owned by Panama company Armi Shipping and managed by Aurora Ship Management in the United Arab Emirates, according to the Equasis shipping data website, managed by the French transport ministry.
In their prime in 2011, Somali pirates launched 237 attacks off Somalia’s coast, data from the International Maritime Bureau showed, and held hundreds of hostages.
That year, aid group Oceans Beyond Piracy estimated the global cost of piracy at about $7 billion. The shipping industry bore roughly 80 percent of those costs, the group’s analysis showed.
However attacks fell off sharply after ship owners tightened security and vessels stayed farther away from the Somali coast.

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Pakistan launches first census in 19 years

Associated Press
Wed, 2017-03-15

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s chief census officer says the country has launched a national census for the first time in 19 years.
Asif Bajwa says the census opened Wednesday and should be completed in two phases by May 15. He appealed to all citizens to cooperate with the census data collection staffers.
He says the survey will also count Afghan refugees, diplomats and, for the first time, transgender people.
Some 200,000 soldiers will accompany the civilian staff to collect door-to-door data for the housing and population survey.
Islamabad last conducted a census in 1998, which recorded a national population of approximately 180 million at that time.
Analysts believe the number has since risen past 200 million.

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South Korea to hold vote on May 9 to pick Park’s successor

Wed, 2017-03-15

SEOUL, South Korea: South Korean prosecutors said Wednesday they plan to question ousted President Park Geun-hye next week over a corruption scandal that removed her from office, as the government announced that an election will be held on May 9 to pick her successor.
Park lost her presidential immunity from prosecution after the Constitutional Court ruled Friday to formally end her rule over allegations that she colluded with a longtime confidante to extort money from businesses and allowed her pull government strings from the shadows.
Prosecutors said they told Park’s lawyer that they’ll summon her next Tuesday as a suspect in the scandal. No further details were provided.
Dozens of high-profile figures including some top Park administration officials and Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong have already been indicted over the scandal.
Park could also face extortion, bribery and other criminal charges, but she has denied any legal wrongdoing and expressed defiance toward her corruption allegations.
“Although it will take time, I believe the truth will certainly come out,” Park said after leaving the presidential Blue House on Sunday.
Park’s comments raised worries about a further deepening of the national divide over her fate. Three people died and dozens were injured in violent clashes between Park’s supporters and police following Friday’s court ruling.
By law, a national vote to find her successor must be held within two months of Friday’s court ruling, and the Ministry of Interior said Wednesday that May 9 would be the election date.
Moon Jae-in, a liberal opposition leader who lost the 2012 presidential election to Park, is the favorite to be the country’s next leader in opinion surveys.
His campaign got a boost Wednesday when Prime Minister and acting leader Hwang Kyo-ahn, considered the potential leading conservative challenger to Moon, said he won’t run.
Hwang told a Cabinet meeting that he decided to focus on managing state affairs and resolving political and economic uncertainties triggered by Park’s ouster until a new president is elected. Hwang would have been forced to resign and let a deputy prime minister serve as another interim leader if he had stood for the election.
South Korean conservatives have been badly hurt by Park’s scandal. In early February, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, also regarded as a conservative candidate, withdrew from consideration amid mounting media speculation over his political competence and corruption allegations.

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Goodbye Old EU, Hello New Multi-Speed Europe

Authored by Peter Korzun via The Strategic Culture Foundation,

Hit by a wave of crises, the European Union is urgently searching a new model of functioning in order to survive in one form or another. The need to balance between unity and diversity is a dilemma faced currently by the bloc. Currencies, politics and interests differ to make a new pattern of European integration a reality.

It is expected that the final decision on the future functioning of the community will be made in December. The coming months are likely to see further turbulence. The EU faces legislative elections in the Netherlands this month, followed by presidential elections in France in April and May. Germany holds legislative elections in September.

French President Francois Hollande hosted his counterparts on March 6 in Versailles, near Paris, to prepare for a larger EU meeting in Rome on March 25. France, Germany, Italy and Spain used the occasion to express support for a multi-speed Europe in a joint effort to cushion the impact of the Brexit. «Unity does not equal uniformity», French President Francois Hollande told reporters ahead of a working dinner with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Italy’s Premier Paolo Gentiloni. «For this reason I support new forms of cooperation», he said at a joint press conference with the other leaders. Some EU member states could «go more quickly» and «further in areas such as defence and the eurozone, by deepening the economic and monetary union, and by harmonizing fiscal and social policy», the French president said. Other EU members could choose to opt out of measures intended to deepen integration, he added. Hollande also emphasized the need for a European defense that would operate in coordination with NATO.

He was backed by his German counterpart. «We must have the courage to accept that some countries can move forward a little more quickly than others», German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. She insisted that other member states should be able to join the more advanced ones when they are ready. «A Europe of different speeds is necessary, otherwise we will probably get stuck. If Europe gets stuck and doesn’t develop further, then this work of peace may run into danger faster than one might think», Merkel noted. The chancellor was one of the first to mention this solution in February at the informal EU summit in Malta.

The concept allows some member states to press ahead with integration faster than others. Those in the «slow lane» would restrict themselves to participation in the single market and co-operation on foreign and security policy.

Besides Germany and France – the European Union’s «engine» – the concept of multi-speed Europe is supported by Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg and several other rich EU nations. The Baltic States are likely to back it too.

In the preparation for the EU summit in Rome on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, the European Commission unveiled on March 1 new ideas to keep the bloc unified. The White Paper on the Future of Europe foresees five possible scenarios for the continent by 2025: to carry on as usual; function as a single market only; do less but be more efficient; allow groups of member states to advance at their own pace; or do far more together. Thus, the EU’s executive branch is passing the buck to the member states to decide in which direction the EU should be heading.

The Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, argued in the European Parliament that a multi-speed Europe was the best solution. EU leaders are now considering Juncker’s options ahead of the Rome summit, where they will make their own declarations about the way forward after Britain’s expected departure in 2019.

The implementation of the multi-speed Europe concept would see some EU countries grow more united on economic and defense matters while allowing other states to catch up later. The «core» EU states could move faster and further in deepening the eurozone and harmonizing their fiscal and social policy.

The idea presupposes breaches in the basics of European integration, such as the single market, or the four freedoms of movement, capital, goods and services. In a nutshell, it all boils down to EU integration in subgroups, which is already de facto happening.

Today, the EU is divided into clubs, at times overlapping mini-coalitions based on shared geography or interests. Some countries belong to the Eurozone, some belong to the Schengen Zone, and some EU members strengthen cooperation within the European Patent Network. Germany, Sweden, Belgium the Netherlands and Austria consider the idea of creating a «mini-Schengen» and collectively close off their borders to the rest of Europe to halt the flow of refugees into their countries.

Last September, Greece organized a summit of Southern European countries – the so-called Club Med. They are prone to support more protection measures and want Brussels to give individual governments more leeway to spend and borrow as they see fit.

There is the Visegrad Group of emerging Central European powers – Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic (V4). There are the tiny Baltics who share much in common. And there is the Nordic Council (whose members include non-EU Norway and Iceland). Actually, Scandinavia is already a bloc within a bloc. These nations are historically close to make them natural bedfellows. The Nordic Council’s activities never hit media headlines, but this union already exists to aid the Northern European international governance.

The Visegrad countries have refused to take asylum seekers and migrants despite EU demands for solidarity.

Hungary’s leader Viktor Orban wants to build an «illiberal democracy« and the Polish government is under EU monitoring over alleged constitutional violations. On March 2, a day after the White Paper came to light, the Visegrad group members issued a joint declaration to the effect that find the idea of a multi-speed Europe unacceptable. They look upon a multi-speed Europe as a sign that they will be treated as poor relatives or second-class citizens.

Multi-speed Europe would create rival blocs and perpetuate divisions, with France and Germany setting the rules with others left to catch-up. Countries outside the core will be marginalized being kept outside of the decision making process. The EU is to become a loose alliance, a patchwork of blocs within blocks.

Calling a spade a spade, the EU is a bloc on the verge of destruction. The process of disintegration has started and it is unstoppable. A multi-speed Europe is merely recognition of the reality. This is the time to say goodbye to the EU we once knew. A patchwork of clubs is emerging instead to change the European political landscape once and for all.

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