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Storm Kicks off Deadly Floods, Landslides in Philippines

Sun, 12/30/2018 - 17:14
At least 22 people have died because of landslides and flooding triggered by a tropical cyclone that brought heavy rains to central Philippines, a disaster agency official said Sunday. The people, including a 3-year-old boy, were reported dead as of Sunday morning, said disaster agency spokesman Edgar Posadas, after a tropical cyclone barreled through the eastern Visayas and Bicol regions on Saturday. "The wind was not strong but it caused flooding and landslides," Posadas said. The number of casualties could rise as rescue and retrieval operations continue. Local media have reported dozens missing or trapped by the landslides. A regional office of the disaster agency said it was working to confirm the deaths of 38 people in the Bicol region, located south of the main island of Luzon. Thousands of passengers were stranded at seaports, airports and bus terminals as dozens of inter-island trips were canceled. The tropical depression, which has since been downgraded to a low pressure area, left the Philippines on Sunday afternoon. About 20 tropical cyclones hit the Philippines every year.

Trump Trying to Reset Relationship With China

Sun, 12/30/2018 - 17:00
The relationship between United States and China has grown increasingly tense since June, when Washington slapped tariffs on key imports from Beijing, and China returned the gesture. The Trump administration says it is trying to reset the country's economic and strategic relationship with China, to put America first. White House Correspondent Patsy Widakuswara reports on how the administration has confronted China in 2018.

In Letter to Moon, Kim Seeks More Inter-Korea Summits

Sun, 12/30/2018 - 16:10
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sent a letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in Sunday calling for more peace talks between the leaders in the new year following their active engagement in 2018, South Korea’s presidential office said.    Moon’s office said Kim also expressed regret that he couldn’t make a planned visit to Seoul, South Korea’s capital, by the end of December as pledged by the leaders during their last summit in September in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.  The Blue House didn’t fully disclose Kim’s letter.  'Difficulties ahead' Moon later thanked Kim for his “warm” letter in a tweeted message and said without elaborating that Kim expressed strong willingness to carry out the agreements he made this year during a series of inter-Korean summits and a historic June meeting with President Donald Trump.   “There will still be a lot of difficulties ahead,” Moon said in his message. “However, our hearts will become more open if we put in that much effort. There’s no change in our heart about welcoming Chairman Kim (to the South).”    The tweet also included a photo that showed a ruby-colored folder emblazoned with the seal of Pyongyang’s powerful State Affairs Commission and the top part of Kim’s letter, which started with: “Dear your excellency President Moon Jae-in. Our meeting in Pyongyang feels like yesterday but about 100 days have already passed and now we are at the close of an unforgettable 2018.” Summits, goodwill gestures Through three summits between Moon and Kim this year, the Koreas agreed to a variety of goodwill gestures and vowed to resume economic cooperation when possible, voicing optimism that international sanctions could end to allow such activity. The rivals have also taken steps to reduce their conventional military threat, such as removing mines and firearms from the border village of Panmunjom, destroying some front-line guard posts and creating buffer zones along their land and sea boundaries and a no-fly zone above the border.   “Chairman Kim said that the leaders by meeting three times in a single year and implementing bold measures to overcome the long period of conflict lifted our (Korean) nation from military tension and war fears,” Kim Eui-kyeom, Moon’s spokesman, said in a televised briefing.   “Chairman Kim said he will keep a close eye on the situation and expressed strong will to visit Seoul. ... Chairman Kim also expressed his intentions to meet President Moon frequently again in 2019 to advance discussions on the Korean Peninsula’s peace and prosperity and discuss issues on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” the spokesman said.    Moon’s office did not reveal how Kim Jong Un’s letter was delivered or whether he made any comments about his planned second summit with Trump in 2019.  New Year's address  The letter comes days before Kim is expected to address North Koreans in a New Year’s speech that North Korean leaders traditionally use to announce major policy decisions and goals.   Kim used his New Year’s speech a year ago to initiate diplomacy with Seoul and Washington, which led to his meetings with Moon and a historic June summit with Trump. In his meetings with Moon and Trump, Kim signed on to vague statements calling for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula without describing when or how it would occur. Post-summit nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang quickly settled into a stalemate as the countries struggled between the sequencing of the North’s disarmament and the removal of U.S.-led international sanctions against the North. There continue to be doubts about whether Kim will ever voluntarily relinquish his nukes, which he may see as his strongest guarantee of survival.   Kim and Trump are trying to arrange a second summit in early 2019. 

World’s Tallest Empty Hotel Reborn in N. Korean Light Show

Sun, 12/30/2018 - 12:15
The 105-story Ryugyong Hotel has long been a blot on the Pyongyang skyline. The world’s tallest unoccupied building has towered over North Korea’s capital since 1987, a grand but empty pyramid entirely dark except for the lone aircraft warning light at its top. Outsiders saw the unfinished building as the epitome of failure, while people inside the country took care to rarely mention it at all. Light show That is, until light designer Kim Yong Il made the building once again the talk of the town. In a brilliant flip of the script, the Ryugyong has been reborn as a symbol of pride and North Korean ingenuity. ​For several hours each night, the building that doesn’t have electricity inside becomes the backdrop of a massive light show in which more than 100,000 LEDs flash images of famous statues and monuments, bursts of fireworks, party symbols and political slogans. The Ryugyong is still unfinished. There’s no public date when, or if, it will host its elusive first guest. Questions remain over whether the glass-and-concrete hotel is structurally sound. And North Korea’s electricity supply is limited as-is. But never mind all that. Proud designer “I feel really proud,” Kim, the vice department director of the Korean Light Decoration Center, told The Associated Press in a recent interview at the foot of the hotel. “I made this magnificent design for this gigantic building and when people see it, it makes them feel good. It makes me proud to work as a designer.” The display was first lit in April to mark the birthday of the country’s “eternal president,” Kim Il Sung. Designer Kim said the preparations took about five months. He was in charge of the designing and programming the light display, which took him two months. Another specialist was responsible for the physical setup and electrical wiring. Giant LED displays has been used around the world for many years — and on an even bigger building. Japanese designer Yusuke Murakami and a London-based company collaborated in 2016 on an LED animation on Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s largest tower. The 330-meter (1,083-feet) Ryugyong tower has three distinct sides. The main show is displayed on the front, while simpler designs light up the other two. For a conical section at the very top, Kim created the image of the red, white and blue North Korean flag waving in the wind. It is 40 meters tall and visible from any direction. The four-minute main program begins with an animation showing the history of the nation, followed by homages to ideals like self-reliance and revolutionary spirit and a procession of 17 political slogans such as “single-minded unity,” “harmonious whole” and “100 battles, 100 victories.” The lights are connected to a computerized controlling system about the size of a household DVD player. “The whole program can be stored on an SD card and put into the controller,” Kim said. “We can do the diagnostics on a laptop.” Kim Jong Il legacy The Ryugyong is a big part of the legacy of second-generation leader Kim Jong Il, current leader Kim Jong Un’s late father. He ordered it built as part Pyongyang’s preparations for the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students, which it hosted in 1989 as a kind of counterpoint to the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The Ryugyong was supposed to be the world’s tallest hotel, surpassing another in Singapore that was built by a South Korean company, but the building fell by the wayside as North Korea experienced a severe economic crash and famines in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. It languished in limbo until Egypt’s Orascom Group, which established the North’s cellphone system, helped fund the completion of its glassy exterior in 2011. ‘Hope for the future’ Like his father, Kim Jong Un has a penchant for ambitious building projects, including 82- and 70-story residences in the capital’s “Ryomyong,” or “dawn,” district that opened last year and a massive science and technology complex with a main building shaped like a giant atom. “The goal of setting up this light screen is to give confidence and hope for the future to our people,” Kim, the designer, said as he watched people walking by in the light of his massive display. “The response has been great. The national flag at the top of the building is hundreds of meters high and everyone can see it. It fills them with pride and confidence in being a citizen, willing to work very hard.” He declined to guess when the hotel itself might open. “That’s not my field,” he laughed. But he said there’s no plan to turn off the Ryugyong light show, though updates could be in the works. “We could change the content,” he said. “The demands and aspirations of the people and the times change, so we can change the program to reflect that.”

Trump Says 'Big Progress' on Possible China Trade Deal

Sun, 12/30/2018 - 00:08
U.S. President Donald Trump said on Twitter on Saturday that he had a "long and very good call" with Chinese President Xi Jinping and that a possible trade deal between the United States and China was progressing well. As a partial shutdown of the U.S. government entered its eighth day, with no quick end in sight, the Republican president was in Washington, sending out tweets attacking Democrats and talking up possibly improved relations with China. The two nations have been in a trade war for much of 2018 that has seen the flow of hundreds of billions of dollars worth of goods between the world's two largest economies disrupted by tariffs. Trump and Xi agreed to a ceasefire in the trade war, agreeing to hold off on imposing more tariffs for 90 days starting Dec. 1 while they negotiate a deal to end the dispute following months of escalating tensions. "Just had a long and very good call with President Xi of China," Trump wrote. "Deal is moving along very well. If made, it will be very comprehensive, covering all subjects, areas and points of dispute. Big progress being made!" Chinese state media also said Xi and Trump spoke on Saturday, and quoted Xi as saying that teams from both countries have been working to implement a consensus reached with Trump. Chinese media also quoted Xi as saying that he hopes both sides can meet each other half way and reach an agreement that is mutually beneficial as soon as possible. Having canceled his plans to travel to his estate in Florida for the holidays because of the government shutdown that started on Dec. 22, Trump tweeted, "I am in the White House waiting for the Democrats to come on over and make a deal." The Republican-controlled Congress was closed for the weekend and few lawmakers were in the capital. The shutdown, affecting about one-quarter of the federal government including 800,000 or so workers, began when funding for several agencies expired. Congress must pass legislation to restore that funding, but has not done so due to a dispute over Trump's demand that the bill include $5 billion in taxpayer money to help pay for a wall he wants to build along the U.S.-Mexico border.

For Koreas, Will 2019 be ‘Fire and Fury’ or New Era of Peace?

Sun, 12/30/2018 - 00:00
From “fire and fury” to talks of a new era of peace on the Korean Peninsula, 2018 was a significant year of engagement for the once reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, including multiple meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and a summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore.  But to fully understand the events of the past year, it’s important to revisit key events in 2017 that created the momentum for the detente achieved in the past 12 months. ​‘Rocket man’​ to summit In August 2017, Trump took a harsh stance against Kim for threatening the United States. “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump said. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” The remarks elicited a rebuke from North Korea. “We cannot have a sound dialogue with a senile man who can’t think rationally and only absolute force can work on him,” Pyongyang said. “This is the judgment made by our soldiers of the Strategic Force.” Trump took aim at North Korea again at the 2017 United Nations General Assembly where he proclaimed, “Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully, this will not be necessary.” Which led Kim Jong Un to announce during his New Year’s address that the “entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons,” a statement linked to the successful Hwaseong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile test in November adding, “This is a reality, not a threat.” ​2018 begins with hope Following Kim’s Jan. 1 address, the tone on the peninsula changed. South Korea’s president reached out to Pyongyang to partner with South Korea during the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. North Korea’s high-level delegation to the event included Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong. She attended the opening ceremony, sitting along side President Moon and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and was the first member of the ruling Kim family to cross the border since the 1950-53 Korean War. Yongwook Ryu of the Institute for North Korean Studies commented on the change taking place on the peninsula. “In 2017, we witnessed very high tensions, but beginning from 2018, hopes have been raised that Inter-Korean relations would improve [and that] the U.S.-North Korea relations also would improve,” he said. In April, Moon held the first of three summits with Kim. The pair agreed to work toward denuclearization, ease military tensions, and improve inter-Korean relations. Their third summit in September brought about concrete plans to promote economic ties between the two countries and reduce the chances of skirmishes. In June Trump and Kim met in Singapore. It was the first meeting ever between a North Korean leader and a sitting U.S. president. Significant or window dressing? Ryu calls the April inter-Korean summit and the June Singapore summit two of the most significant events during the past year. He said the Panmunjom Declaration, signed by Moon and Kim in April “was a significant improvement on all the previous inter-Korean summit decorations in terms of making progress in inter-Korean relations with a number of integration projects that seek to develop [the] North Korean economy and invite North Korea to the international community.” However, the Asan Institute’s Seong Whun Cheon downplayed the importance of the summits, criticizing the lack of concrete outcomes and noting Kim Jong Un made his intentions clear during his New Year’s address. “They (the summits) are not big moments … it’s window dressing without substance,” Cheon said. “In order to understand the current issue we’re facing,” he added, “I think we have to read his [New Year’s address] very carefully once again. The first thing he did … was to proclaim that he accomplished his mission of becoming a nuclear weapon [state].” He said that Kim further ordered North Korea to “mass produce” nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles before beginning his economic and cultural engagement policies with the world. Since the third inter-Korean summit in September, North Korea denuclearization talks have stalled and their future remains unknown as 2019 approaches. ​2019 unclear During the September inter-Korean summit, Moon invited Kim to visit Seoul. It was a visit that he had hoped would take place before 2019 arrived, but that looks nearly impossible. The Moon administration is still hopeful a visit could take place in early 2019, but no details have been made public. Likewise, Trump has indicated a willingness to meet for a second time with Kim in early 2019, but details of such a summit remain absent. Cheon would like world leaders to take advantage of the “optimistic moment” and persuade Kim Jong Un to abandon his nuclear weapons, creating a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. “The yardstick to use whether the past year was successful in terms of increasing peace and security on the Korean Peninsula is whether Kim Jong Un has made a full commitment [and] to give up nuclear weapons,” he said. However, in his assessment, Kim has not made such a commitment, and Cheon predicts the current impasse with North Korea will continue for years to come, if not decades. Ryu sees a number of likely scenarios taking place in the forthcoming year. “I think the best scenario for everybody is [for] Kim Jong Un [to change] his mind and become serious about denuclearization,” he said, “If he takes steps towards denuclearization, then South Korea, USA, along with many other countries in the international community would provide economic benefits to his government. And that’s good for him.” But “unless we see an entirely different North Korean society [that] have a different view about nuclear weapons … we cannot change anything,” Cheon said. Cheon believes the key to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula is transforming North Korean society and making the population “believe nuclear weapons are actually harmful” and negatively affect their “personal and their country’s prosperity.” He noted this is not something that can be achieved quickly, but is a “long-term game.” If no real progress is made on North Korean denuclearization, Ryu thinks it may be likely that more pressure may be applied to Pyongyang, and events could return to levels of tension last seen in 2017. Lee Ju-hyun contributed to this report.

Canadian Convicted of Drug Smuggling in China Faces New Trial

Sat, 12/29/2018 - 23:51
A Chinese appeals court on Saturday agreed with prosecutors that a 15-year sentence was too lenient for a Canadian man convicted of drug smuggling.  The court ordered that Robert Lloyd Schellenberg be retried in the city of Dalian, where he was originally tried and sentenced. The decision will likely aggravate already strained relations between Canada and China over what appear to be retaliatory steps taken by China after Canadian authorities arrested a Chinese tech company executive.  Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer for Huawei, was arrested in Vancouver on December 1 on behalf of the United States, which is seeking her extradition over alleged violations of U.S. trade sanctions on Iran.  Following the arrest, China detained two Canadian citizens in China on national security charges.  A third Canadian citizen, a teacher, was also taken into custody this month over issues with her visa but was released and allowed to return to Canada, Global Affairs Canada announced Saturday. Schellenberg could face a much more severe penalty, including death, when he is retried.  The appellate court ruled that the jail sentence handed down by the lower court was "obviously inappropriate" because Schellenberg is accused of "playing an important role" in what may be an international drug smuggling ring, the court's announcement said. In recent years China has executed citizens from several foreign countries, including Britain, Japan and the Philippines, following convictions on drug charges.

Hong Kong Economy Caught in US-China Trade Crossfire

Sat, 12/29/2018 - 17:52
The storm winds of the recent trade war between the United States and China have settled in a truce for now, but the weeks of agitation — of rising tariffs and counter duties — battered one economy close to Beijing: Hong Kong’s. In December, Hong Kong government economist Andrew Au said he anticipated near-term troubles for the territory’s economic forecast. GDP growth — a year after a record high of 341.5 billion — slowed significantly, from 4.6 percent growth in the first quarter to 2.9 percent in the third. The government says the impact of the trade war can be seen in consumer prices, slower spending and lighter trade. Consumer price inflation ticked up 2.8 percent in the third quarter. The government warned that inflation could head upward as local costs rise along with residential rental rates. Kelvin Ho-Por Lam, a former economist with HSBC based in Hong Kong, predicted another problem for Hong Kong from overseas. Double whammy “It’s not just the trade war, it’s facing a double whammy at the moment,” Lam said. “The trade war impacts on this economy, which is showing up in this Hong Kong GDP over the last two quarters. The second impact is from rising interest rates in the U.S.” The Federal Reserve raised rates four times in 12 months. A slower U.S. economy means less buying from China. Adding to the impact is great unease.  “It poses uncertainty on the economic agents in society. Businesses are more concerned going ahead with their investment plans,” Lam said. “They’re shelving their investments and therefore they are not investing in capacity in Hong Kong or in China.” Trade and logistics — the apparatus to move the shoes and dresses and smartphones from Chinese factories to markets worldwide — are central to Hong Kong’s economy. The sector accounts for nearly one-fifth of the city’s GDP, higher than the substantial financial and banking industry here. When tariffs hit, goods cost more to sell in the United States, which means companies decrease stock and consumers buy less. China’s economic growth weakened in the third quarter from a year earlier, its lowest expansion since the global financial crisis in 2008. Consumers wary Clearly consumers are wary. Retail sales in Hong Kong, the semi-autonomous Chinese territory, grew in September at their slowest pace in 15 months. Also hurting the city was substantial damage from typhoon Mangkhut. Favorite shops of mainland tourists — Sa Sa International, Chow Tai Food Jewelry, and Luk Fook Holdings, all posted slowed sales in the third quarter. Hong Kong also saw its economy lag for local reasons. Home prices in what is often called the world’s least affordable market chilled this year as interest rates rose. The number of residential property transactions fell by 24 percent from 18,900 in the second quarter to 14,400 in the third quarter, according to the government. Property sellers saw the slowdown in sales set in this summer, after the residential property market had churned hard for 28 consecutive months. Median home prices dropped by as much as 5 percent from June, agents told the South China Morning Post in October. The city’s rating and valuation Index, which tracks prices of older homes, in August marked the first monthly decline in more than two years. Even the government offered discounts. A 97,300-square-foot plot of the former Kai Tak airport in the city’s Kowloon district sold for $1.03 billion to a unit of China Overseas Land & Investment, nearly 13 percent lower than another Kai Tak sale in November. The market chill began in August after Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, introduced a tax to compel developers to create more housing. Meanwhile, banks raised mortgage rates for the first time in 12 years. That means mortgage holders have less extra money to spend, Kelvin Lam said. He forecast that there will be fewer tourists visiting Hong Kong, perhaps because of the volatility in China. “The Hong Kong economy is very sensitive to these things,” he said. “It will reduce people spending for their own personal consumption.” ​Folded into China's economy Hong Kong produces very little domestically, Kelvin Lam pointed out. Lam said because the territory’s economy is so entwined with China’s, and because the range of products and services are so narrow, the impact of the extra tariffs will be felt on whatever the city acquires from China and re-exports. Hong Kong is likely to suffer more during China’s downturns as the former British colony is folded into China’s economy and as the government plans for a massive technology hub to be rooted in nearby Shenzhen. Andrew Sheng, a distinguished fellow at the Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong, wrote in an email that he didn’t think the city would encounter much inflation, despite the downward pressure coming from lower property prices and a slowing global economy. “The Hong Kong economy will suffer from the trade conflict,” said the former central banker and financial regulator in Asia. “Although it is very resilient to overseas shocks.”

Indonesian Volcano is a Quarter of its Former Size

Sat, 12/29/2018 - 16:26
Indonesian researchers say the volcano that erupted and collapsed a week ago has lost both volume and height since the eruption and the resulting deadly tsunami. Scientists at Indonesia’s Center for Volcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation say Anak Krakatoa is about a quarter of its former size. The researchers have been unable to get close to the mountain because it is still erupting. Instead they have used radar satellite information to make their estimates. The center says Anak Krakatoa has a current volume of 40-70 million cubic meters, after losing 150-180 million cubic meters of volume since the eruption Dec. 22. The crater’s peak was 338 meters high in September, but is now 110 meters high, according to the center. Anak Krakatoa, which means Child of Krakatoa, is a remnant of Krakatoa, the volcano that erupted in 1883 and triggered a period of global cooling.

Earthquake Reported off Philippines; No Tsunami

Sat, 12/29/2018 - 11:51
A strong undersea earthquake struck off the southern Philippines on Saturday, and the head of the country’s quake-monitoring agency advised people in a southeastern province to avoid beaches in case of a tsunami.  No casualties or damage have been reported, and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center lifted its warning for a potential tsunami that could hit coastal areas of the southern Philippine and Indonesia. The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology said that the quake was detected at a depth of 49 kilometers (30 miles) and a magnitude of 7.1 about 162 kilometers (100 miles) off Davao Oriental province. It said that it could generate aftershocks but the agency did not expect any damage. The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake hit at a depth of 60 kilometers (37 miles) and measured 6.9.  Renato Solidum, who heads the quake-monitoring institute, said that a major tsunami was unlikely given the depth of the quake and other factors but advised villagers to avoid the beach in Davao Oriental province and outlying regions for about two hours after the quake struck around noon as a precaution. The quake was felt in some coastal areas, he said. Indonesia’s Meteorology and Geophysics Agency said the quake doesn’t have a potential to cause a tsunami affecting Indonesia.

China Releases Detained Canadian Teacher

Sat, 12/29/2018 - 09:43
Canada's government says a Canadian teacher detained in China over a problem with her work permit has been released.       Albertan Sarah McIver was arrested this month, but Global Affairs Canada spokesman Richard Walker said Friday that she had returned home.      McIver's detention followed the arrests of two other Canadians on allegations they were harming China's national security. China detained Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor separately after Canada arrested a top executive for the Chinese technology company Huawei for possible extradition to the U.S.    Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou is sought by the U.S. for allegedly lying to banks as part of an effort to evade sanctions on Iran.    Both China and Canada had said McIver's case differed from those of Kovrig and Spavor.  

Australia Strips Citizenship From Suspected Terrorist

Sat, 12/29/2018 - 08:52
The Australian government has stripped citizenship from a man it believes is a top recruiter for Islamic State, Australia’s home affairs minister said Saturday. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said in an emailed statement to Reuters that Melbourne-born Neil Prakash has been stripped of his citizenship. Prakash has been in Turkey on trial for terrorism-related activities since being caught there in October 2016 after leaving Islamic State-controlled territory. He is wanted in Australia on terrorism-related activities, including an alleged plot to behead a Melbourne police officer on Anzac Day. Australian citizenship “My first priority is and always will be the safety and security of all Australians,” Dutton said in his statement. “This government is determined to deal with foreign terrorist fighters as far from our shores as possible.” Prakash, whose mother was Cambodian and father was Fijian Indian, held both Australian and Fijian citizenship through his father. Under Australia’s citizenship laws, a dual national can lose their Australian citizenship if they act contrary to their allegiance to Australia by choosing to be involved in terrorism. Prakash is the 12th person to be stripped of citizenship. Islamic State was declared a terrorist organization in May 2016 for this purpose, the Home Affairs Office said in its statement. “To be in the service of such a terrorist organization, as Mr Prakash was, is to act inconsistently with your allegiance to Australia, and we will do everything we can to ensure he is brought to account for his crimes,” Dutton said. Notified by letter The decision came into effect Dec. 21 when Prakash was notified by letter, and the Fijian government has also been notified according to a source close to the Australian government. Prakash has been linked to several Australia-based attack plans and has appeared in Islamic State videos and magazines. Australia has alleged that he actively recruited Australian men, women and children and encouraged acts of militancy. Australia has been pressing Turkey to extradite Prakash since he was first detained, but the request was rejected in July. It will remain in place until the conclusion of his case and any custodial sentence, The Australian newspaper reported. Canberra canceled Prakash’s passport in 2014 and announced financial sanctions in 2015, including anyone giving him financial assistance, with punishment of up to 10 years in jail.

Rights Activists Fear China's Human Rights Record Will Deteriorate

Sat, 12/29/2018 - 02:00
In China, 2018 has been a year that rights defenders worldwide say was extremely repressive, particularly when it comes to religious persecution. China's communist party leadership has strongly defended its actions amid growing calls that its actions may constitute crimes against humanity. Those actions include the internment of hundreds of thousands - perhaps more than a million - Muslims in Xinjiang, the demolition and shuttering of Christian churches nationwide and the systemic crackdown on dissidents. "2018 has been a year of human rights disasters in China, where all walks of people have paid a dear price over rights abuses. In the past year, China has systemically enforced the most audacious ever persecution policies," said Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exile Germany-headquartered World Uighur Congress. After months of denying their existence, China admitted that the camps do exist and launched a global propaganda campaign defending its interment of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in the western region of Xinjiang. Beijing has yet to confirm how many have been detained and calls the "vocational centers" a necessary part of their fight against terrorism and religious extremism. The reality, rights advocates argue, is that Muslim minorities are being detained and made to work overtime and without pay in factories for so-called job training. China is also reportedly planning Xinjiang-style "re-education" camps in Ningxia  home to the Hui minority Muslims. Such moves highlight the communist party's drastic efforts to wipe out ethnic Muslims and extend control over religious groups, Raxit said. Bob Fu, the founder of China Aid, agrees. His group, based in the U.S. state of Texas, is committed to promoting religious freedom in China. "This is a 21st century concentration camp, like Nazi Germany in 1930s and 1940s, so, the international community should unequivocally condemn and urge the Chinese regime to immediately stop this crime," he said. Call for sanctions Rights advocates have called on governments worldwide to impose sanctions on Chinese officials involved in human rights abuses. U.S. senators including Marco Rubio have denounced Xinjiang's internment camps and other alleged abuses as possible crimes against humanity.  In November, Rubio and a group of bipartisan lawmakers introduced legislation to address the situation and urged American policymakers to be clear-eyed about the global implications of China's domestic repression. The bipartisan bills urge President Donald Trump's administration to use measures including economic sanctions to defend Uighurs and other Muslim minorities. If that happens, China has said it will retaliate in proportion. Intensified persecution It is not just Muslims who have found themselves caught in the communist party's crosshairs. China Aid's Fu said China has also escalated its crackdown on Christian communities. Authorities have torn down houses of worship and in some places, there is a push to ensure that anyone under the age of 18 cannot attend church or be under the influence of religion. China is officially atheist, but says it allows religious freedom. In early December, Chinese police arrested Pastor Wang Yi, along with more than 100 members of his Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, Sichuan. The arrests may have been triggered by his manifesto, titled "Meditation on the Religious War," in which he condemns the communist party and urges Christians to perform acts of civil disobedience. "It's just really the tip of the iceberg of overall religious persecution in China since the president, Xi Jinping, took power," Fu told CNN recently about the case. Political dissidents If convicted, Wang could face a jail term of up to 15 years and he has vowed not to plead guilty or confess unless physically tortured, said Jonathan Liu, a priest with the San Francisco-based Chinese Christian Fellowship of Righteousness. Liu said the pastor's detention serves the dual purpose of suppressing Christians and silencing political dissidents in China as Wang is a follower of Calvinism  a branch of Protestantism that emphasizes social justice. "Deeply affected by Calvinism, he cares for those who are socially disadvantaged or rights defenders. So, his church has formed many fellowships to provide care for those people," Liu said, "In the eyes of the Chinese government, his church has become a hub for [political] dissidents." No prospects for improvement During the United Nations' periodic review of its rights record, China defended itself, arguing that criticism was "politically motivated" with UN members deliberately disregarding China's "remarkable achievements." For critics, the outlook for 2019 isn't promising. "I can see no prospect that there would be any improvement in the coming year. And in fact, the last year, the most horrible thing is to see that the government is openly and fragrantly acting against the law, in total contempt of the [judicial] system they've set up," Albert Ho, chairman of China Human Rights Concern Group in Hong Kong. The fact that rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang is still being held incommunicado proves that China has little respect for its own laws, Ho said. Among more than 300 rights lawyers and activists ensnared in China’s 2015 crackdown, lawyer Wang is the last awaiting trial. After almost three and a half years of arbitrary detention, Wang was finally put on trial in a closed-door hearing in Tianjin on December 26. He reportedly fired his state-appointed lawyer “in the first minute” of his trial,signs of his refusal to cooperate with the authorities. His wife, Li Wenze, and supporters, as well as western diplomats and journalists, were all barred from attending the hearing, which the court said involved “state secrets,” but rights activists denounced as a blatant violation of China’s own judicial principles. The court said on its website that a verdict will be announced on a later date. Rights activists argued that Wang would be a blatant case of political persecution shall he be convicted with a maximum 15-year sentence. Li and three other wives of lawyer victims who have been carrying out a long and loud campaign to secure Wang’s release as well as others, recently shaved their hair to protest his detention for more than three years. “They (the authorities) keep on shamelessly breaking the law. So today we are using this act of shaving our heads in protest, to show they are persistently and shamelessly breaking the law,” Li said.

Trade Obstacles in China Make Vietnam Look Rosy

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 22:30
It is sometimes said Vietnam hates when people say it is like China, like a smaller brother. But what if, instead, China could be a bit more like Vietnam? With all of the trade and political strife that is currently plaguing Beijing’s relations with other countries, foreign officials would hardly be blamed for wishing it could be a little easier to work with their Chinese counterparts -- as easy, say, as it is in nearby Hanoi. China and Vietnam invite obvious comparisons because they each are ruled by a single, communist party; they both put curbs on the internet and internet companies; and they have high, export-led economic growth after beginning privatization in the 1980s, to name a few of the myriad similarities. But in Vietnam it is more common to see foreign partners make progress in their effort to solve bilateral disagreements, and that is the critical difference. And the comparisons between China and Vietnam are not just a theoretical or academic exercise. They affect the real-world decisions that companies are making every day, decisions on where to do business that could mean millions of dollars in trade. What makes Vietnam unique is its willingness to work toward international standards, even when the choice is difficult, said trade consultant Barbara Weisel. “Those policies are what we need to advance, to move to that higher stage of development,” she said at an economic forum this month in Ho Chi Minh City. “And that’s a very important shift that Vietnam made that is very different, and it distinguishes Vietnam from most of the other countries in the region.” She is among many who say Vietnam is benefiting as China loses investors. Firms are switching from China to Vietnam because Washington’s trade dispute with Beijing makes Vietnamese goods cheaper.   And the “country’s close proximity to China makes it a worthy option for manufacturers looking at alternative locations in the Southeast Asia region because the operating cost in China has been continuously increasing in recent years,” real estate firm JLL said in a market analysis. Besides the trade friction, China has been butting heads with foreign nations on multiple fronts this year. It detained two Canadians after Ottawa arrested a Huawei executive in December. It forced Sri Lanka to fork over a port after the island country failed to repay debt as part of China’s One Belt, One Road global infrastructure initiative. And to the dismay of Washington, it continues to be North Korea’s biggest trade partner despite U.S. sanctions. When viewed through that lens, next-door-neighbor Vietnam gives the impression of a country that is more open and amenable to bilateral talks. That ranges from Hanoi’s support for the U.S. push to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, to its entry into one international trade deal after another.  There is less frustration, less banging of heads against walls in order to strike a compromise in Vietnam. While Beijing blocks Facebook and Google, Hanoi has largely given up on doing so. While China requires foreign companies to share technology with locals, Vietnam is removing the 49 percent cap on foreign investment in listed companies. The comparison matters because the two countries diverge today, in spite of sharing so much in common for centuries. China ruled Vietnam for nearly a millennium, a history underlying their similar languages, food, Mahayana Buddhism, Confucian families, holidays, and folk tales. Their communist economies took a turn for capitalism around the same time, in the 1980s, and then folded into the World Trade Organization, in 2001 for China and 2007 for Vietnam. With their modern paths diverging, Vietnam as a smaller country has had less leverage on the world stage than China and relies more on global cooperation. It could be the reason Hanoi officials are willing to go to the bargaining table, even though it sometimes means they give up a little control, as in the choice to allow more labor unions beyond the union run by the government, or to open state-owned enterprises to more competition. In the most controversial policy of recent months, Vietnam plans to enact a cyber law that forces companies to store data domestically and take down online content ordered by the state.  “We are working with the business community here,” Vietnam Deputy Foreign Minister Pham Quang Vinh said at the economic forum. “Even [though] there is a law, but there is an ongoing process of consultations between the government of Vietnam and the business community over here.” In other words, Vietnam has its plans, but it is also listening to opponents.

Thailand Legalizes Medical Marijuana

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 21:49
Thailand - known for its tough anti-drug trafficking efforts - made history this month as Southeast Asia’s first country to legalize medical marijuana. Steve Sandford report on traditions and new developments in the kingdom.

Weather Hampers Efforts to Inspect Indonesia Tsunami Volcano

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 21:28
Bad weather and a massive ash column hampered efforts to assess whether Indonesia's Anak Krakatau volcano island could trigger another deadly tsunami as authorities said Friday the search for victims in the worst-affected province will continue into January. Indonesia's disaster agency said that 426 people died in the Sunda Strait tsunami that struck Sumatra and Java without warning on Saturday. That was slightly lower than previously announced due to some victims being recorded twice. It said 23 are missing and more than 40,000 displaced. High seas, clouds and constant eruptions have hindered attempts to visually inspect Anak Krakatau, the offspring of the infamous Krakatau volcano whose eruption in 1883 caused a period of global cooling. A large part of the volcano collapsed following an eruption Saturday, triggering the tsunami. Authorities have warned Sunda Strait residents to stay a kilometer away from the coastline, citing the potential for another tsunami. Gegar Prasetya, co-founder of the Tsunami Research Center Indonesia, said the severity of another potential tsunami could be less since satellite radar shows the volcano is now much smaller. Saturday's tsunami hit more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) of coastline with waves of 2 meters (about 6 1/2 feet) or higher. “According to the theory and my past research, the severity of the potential tsunami is reduced significantly. This morning we tried to take an aerial photo from the plane to confirm the satellite image but failed due to cloud cover,” Prasetya said. The disaster agency said the emergency period for Banten province in Java ends Jan. 9 and on Friday for Lampung province in Sumatra. About 1,600 people have been evacuated from Sebesi island nearest Anak Krakatau and the remaining residents from its population of more than 2,800 will be transported Friday, the agency said. Sulphur and thick ash from the continually erupting volcano has blanketed the island. Indonesia on Thursday raised the danger level for the island volcano and more than doubled its no-go zone to 5 kilometers (3 miles). Janine Krippner, a New Zealand-born volcanologist at Concord University in West Virginia, said it's hard to assess the risk of another Anak Krakatau collapse and tsunami because authorities don't know how stable its remaining edifice is. “Ideally there would be an assessment of the volcano but it has been constantly erupting, preventing anyone getting close,” she said.  

Mystery Hacker Steals Data on 1,000 North Korean Defectors in South

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 18:25
The personal information of nearly 1,000 North Koreans who defected to South Korea has been leaked after unknown hackers got access to a resettlement agency's database, the South Korean Unification Ministry said on Friday. The ministry said it discovered last week that the names, birth dates and addresses of 997 defectors had been stolen through a computer infected with malicious software at an agency called the Hana center, in the southern city of Gumi. "The malware was planted through emails sent by an internal address," a ministry official told reporters on condition of anonymity, due to the sensitivity of the issue, referring to a Hana center email account. The Hana center is among 25 institutes the ministry runs around the country to help some 32,000 defectors adjust to life in the richer, democratic South by providing jobs, medical and legal support. Defectors, most of whom risked their lives to flee poverty and political oppression, are a source of shame for North Korea. Its state media often denounces them as "human scum" and accuses South Korean spies of kidnapping some of them. The ministry official declined to say if North Korea was believed to have been behind the hack, or what the motive might have been, saying a police investigation was under way to determine who did it. North Korean hackers have in the past been accused of cyberattacks on South Korean state agencies and businesses. North Korea stole classified documents from the South's defense ministry and a shipbuilder last year, while a cryptocurrency exchange filed for bankruptcy following a cyberattack linked to the North. North Korean state media has denied those cyberattacks. The latest data breach comes at a delicate time for the two Koreas which have been rapidly improving their relations after years of confrontation. The Unification Ministry said it was notifying the affected defectors and there were no reports of any negative impact of the data breach. "We're sorry this has happened and will make efforts to prevent it from recurring," the ministry official said. Several defectors, including one who became a South Korean television celebrity, have disappeared in recent years only to turn up later in North Korean state media, criticizing South Korea and the fate of defectors.

Cybersecurity Law: Vietnam Will Censor Internet, Not Close Websites

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 13:52
Expect to get caught if you post anti-government material on the internet in Vietnam or take a phishing trip. From 2019 authorities can build evidence against you from material provided by email services and social media networks including Facebook. Yet the country, mindful of its role in the emerging digital economy, won’t close down websites the way China does. Vietnam has long walked a thin line between a free internet as part of its economic growth and resistance against what market research firm IDC’s country manager Lam Nguyen calls “digital disasters.” The country is getting testier toward online dissent at the same time. A draft Cybersecurity Law decree to take effect Jan. 1 after 18 months in the making will help the communist government reach these goals by ordering service providers to do some of its surveillance work. Despite objections from Google and Facebook, global social media as well as email and e-commerce providers may be asked to store data in Vietnam, according to the Cybersecurity Law. Alternately, they can self-censor, turn over customer profiles and delete certain content, Nguyen said. “It’s like saying OK, as an online service provider with Vietnam users, you do collect data about such users and their online activities, but you are letting users use your platform or services for unlawful activities, so please come to the front of the line (so) that we can keep an eye out for you,” said Yee Chung Seck, partner with the Baker McKenzie law firm in Ho Chi Minh City. Catching up in cybersecurity According to a United Nations index, Vietnam ranked 101 out of 165 countries in exposure to cyberattacks.  “Vietnam has been historically weak when in it comes to cybersecurity,” cyber intelligence analyst Emilio Iasiello wrote in a commentary for the Cyber Research Databank. Domestic websites were hit by more than 6,500 malware or phishing attacks in the first eight months of 2018, Viet Nam News reports. Vietnam does not block the websites of foreign internet services that could spread objectionable content. Vietnam, like much of Asia, is trying to develop a digital economy, but unlike China it lacks easy-to-control homegrown alternates to the major Silicon Valley internet firms. “Obviously, the business and user communities are more likely hoping to avoid censorship of the internet outright, due to the growing digital commerce economy and also wanting a platform where freedom of expressions and opinions are allowed,” Nguyen said. A digital economy gives Vietnam an opportunity to resolve “big issues in its economic development,” the deputy minister of industry and trade was quoted saying in June. The manufacturing-reliant economy has grown 6 to 7 percent per year since 2012. About 70 percent of Vietnam’s 92 million people use the internet, with 53 million on social media sites. Protest from multinational internet content providers After Vietnam’s National Assembly approved the Cybersecurity Law in June, 17 U.S. congressional representatives sent a letter to Google and Facebook. They urged both to avoid storing data in Vietnam, to establish “transparent guidelines” on content removal and to publish the number of requests for removal. Facebook, Google and other foreign internet companies said earlier this month via a lobbying group that requirements to localize data would hobble investment and economic growth in Vietnam. The law also requires firms with more than 10,000 local users to set up local representative offices. Facebook said for this report it “remains committed to its community in Vietnam and in helping Vietnamese businesses grow at home and abroad.” Internet providers also worry the cybersecurity law gives “too much power” to Vietnam’s police ministry and lacks “due process,” Nguyen said. Authorities, they fear, could “seize customer data” and expose a provider’s users, partners or employees to arrest, which goes against privacy protection policies, he said. ​Fear among online activists Vietnam is looking to the cybersecurity law as well to control public criticism of government activity, activist bloggers believe. A string of Vietnamese bloggers was arrested in 2016 and 2017. Authorities will be able to collect user names, profiles and data on their friends, media reports and analysts say. “This law threatens and further curbs freedom to information, infringes (on) personal privacy, and will be certainly used as a tool to give more power to police force, which violates rights, even on behalf of the court on judging on the use of internet,” Hanoi-based internet blogger and human rights activist Nguyen Lan Thang said. Vietnamese activists leaned heavily on internet media to spread information about what they considered slow government reaction to a mass fish die-off in 2016. They use it now to decry corruption. “The Cybersecurity Law will have a huge impact on Vietnam’s dissidents and online activists. It will be a tool to silence dissidents, social commentators, and activists in general,” said Vu Quoc Ngu, a writer in Hanoi and director of the non-profit Defend the Defender. Vu Pham, Michelle Quinn of VOA contributed to this report.

Weakened Bangladesh Opposition Hopes for Change in Sunday's Election

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 13:12
Campaigning for Bangladesh's general election at the weekend ended on Friday after weeks of violence, mainly against workers and officials from an opposition alliance, that has been criticized by the United States and others. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's Awami League is seeking its third straight term in Sunday's election against the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which boycotted the last vote in 2014. The Awami League is promoting its economic record over the past decade but the BNP-led opposition alliance, many of whose leaders have been jailed, has vowed to remove curbs on the media, raise wages and freeze energy prices. "The government has lost moral support," BNP Secretary-General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir told a news conference late on Thursday, urging voters to "restore democracy." "But the people are with us. They want change," he said. The BNP's preparations have been hamstrung by the February jailing of their chairwoman, former prime minister Khaleda Zia, on what they call trumped-up corruption charges. Awami League leaders deny any misuse of power and say they will return to government with an overwhelming majority. Hasina told supporters on Thursday they must "ensure victory of pro-liberation forces", a reference to Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan in 1971 led by her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The Economist Intelligence Unit expects her party to win a third term. The BNP said on Thursday more than 8,200 opposition leaders and activists from a coalition of about 20 parties have been arrested since the election schedule was announced early last month. Four workers were killed and more than 12,300 injured, it said. The Awami League has in turn said the BNP and its partners were behind attacks that killed at least five of its workers over the past three weeks. Police declined to confirm the figures. Mahbub Talukdar, one of Bangladesh's five election commissioners, has said there has not been a level playing field, although other commissioners have said they expected the election would be free and fair. Earl Miller, the U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, said all parties had been victims of violence, including women and minority candidates. "However, it appears opposition party candidates have borne the brunt of most violence," he said in a statement after meeting Election Commission officials on Thursday. Miller said all candidates and voters must be able to take part without "harassment, intimidation, or violence" and that an independent media must be allowed to cover the election. The United Nations has made a similar call for a "peaceful, credible and inclusive poll."

Australia Swelters as Heat Records Tumble

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 12:41
Australia looks set to sweat through one of its hottest Decembers ever, the national weather bureau said Friday, prompting fire bans, health warnings and big crowds trying to cool off at beaches. As the country’s hottest town, Marble Bar in the remote northwest, endured its warmest day ever, forecasters said the heat would spread southeast where the big cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide would endure monthly average temperatures up to 16 degrees Celsius higher than usual. The capital, Canberra, was bracing for its hottest December day on record — 39C (102F) — Saturday. “We’re going to see December records tumbling,” said Diana Eadie, a meteorologist at the Bureau of Meteorology. “We’re definitely not out of it yet, in fact I would say it’s going to be peaking over more populated areas this weekend.” December is the beginning of the Southern Hemisphere summer. January and February can be even hotter. For the four-fifths of Australia’s 25 million people who live on the coast, the summer typically means lazing on the beach, watching cricket or both. ​Hard-hit farmers But the unusually high temperatures add to a sense of exhaustion for a farm economy already reeling from a year of drought. “It adds insult to injury,” said Laureta Wallace, a spokeswoman for the National Farmers’ Federation. “Most farmers would have got some rain prior to Christmas but the benefit of that will have been eroded with this heat wave. Water’s an issue.” The Bureau of Meteorology put the hot spell down to a combination of hot air being blown from the northwest toward the densely populated southeast, where a “blocking” high off the coast was stopping cooler winds from moving it on. The bureau’s “extreme heat wave” warning, its highest category, includes Sydney for the next three days. Sydney’s inland suburbs were forecast to swelter in 40C (104F) heat. Almost the entire state of New South Wales had a “high” or “very high” fire danger, according to the rural fire service. A “low-intensity heat wave” in neighboring Victoria state was expected to spread south almost as far as the second city Melbourne. Health authorities have issued warnings for pregnant women, babies, people older than 65 and people with lung conditions since the heat eroded air quality. Be like a kangaroo The town recognized by Australians as their hottest, Marble Bar, with a population 174, had a reprieve on Friday from its 49.1C (120.4F) record a day earlier, enjoying a relatively comfortable 41.1C (106F) by midday. “You really don’t want to be out digging holes in the middle of the ground, or chasing gold,” Lang Coppin, a former cattle rancher and gold prospector, told Reuters from Marble Bar. “What we’ve always done is do the physical work in the morning and then knock off. Be like the kangaroos and get under the tree.”