South African game reserve poisons rhino's horns to prevent poaching
Radical scheme will inject horns with parasiticides and pink dye in bid to safeguard rhino numbers
David Smith in Johannesburg
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 4 April 2013 18.14 BST
A game reserve in South Africa has taken the radical step of poisoning rhino horns so that people risk becoming "seriously ill" if they consume them.
Sabi Sand said it had injected a mix of parasiticides and indelible pink dye into more than 100 rhinos' horns over the past 18 months to combat international poaching syndicates. More than 200 rhinos have been poached so far this year in South Africa, driven by demand in the far east, where horn ground into powder is seen as a delicacy or traditional medicine.
"Consumers of the powdered horn in Asia risk becoming seriously ill from ingesting a so-called medicinal product, which is now contaminated with a non-lethal chemical package," said Andrew Parker, chief executive of the Sabi Sand Wildtuin Association, a group of private landowners in Mpumalanga province.
The "toxification" process involves tranquilising a rhino, drilling a hole in its horn then injecting the dye and parasiticides generally used to control ticks on animals such as horses, cattle and sheep; it is toxic to humans. "It'll make [people] very ill – nausea, stomach ache, diarrhoea – it won't kill them," Parker continued. "It will be very visible, so it would take a very stupid consumer to consume this."
Asked if he had any moral qualms about harming potentially naive consumers, Parker replied: "The practice is legal. The chemicals are available over the counter. We are advertising it, doing a media run now and putting up signs on our fences. If somebody does consume it, they won't die and hopefully word will spread that you shouldn't take rhino horn."
The dye can be detected by airport scanners as well as when the horn is ground into a powder.
Up to 1,000 rhinos will die this year, Parker said, so bold action was necessary. "Despite all the interventions by police, the body count has continued to climb. Everything we've tried has not been working and for poachers it has become a low-risk, high-reward ratio. By contaminating the horn, you reduce the reward and the horn becomes a valueless product.
"If the poacher hacks off the horn, he'll immediately see it's contaminated. We're saying to the poachers: 'Don't bother coming to Sabi Sand. You're wasting your time.'"
But the scheme got a mixed reception from Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network. Tom Milliken, its rhino programme coordinator, said it could act as a deterrent in areas where it is highly publicised but "is impractical in situations involving free-ranging animals in large areas, places like Kruger national park with 20,000 sq km. Thus, like dehorning, it probably has the effect of displacing poaching intensity to other areas, not stopping it altogether."
Milliken, author of a report on rhino-horn consumption in Vietnam, also expressed concerns about the end-user market: "One wonders if unscrupulous dealers in these markets will not simply employ some means to 'bleach' them to back to a 'normal' appearance and continue raking in high profits."
"These dealers are already perpetuating fraud on so many levels in the interest of windfall profits, so it's hard to imagine that they will suddenly be bothered about putting potentially toxic horns into circulation. The prospect of human suffering deters few criminals and that's what we are dealing with here."
South Africa National Parks has backed the initiative but spokesman Ike Phaahla admitted that it would be "virtually impossible" to apply the process to all the rhinos in national parks because of lack of resources.
The government said this week that 203 rhinos have been killed by poachers so far this year, including 145 in Kruger park. Sixty suspected poachers have been arrested.
U.S. agents catch African drug kingpin on high seas
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, April 5, 2013 7:34 EDT
US agents have captured the former head of Guinea-Bissau’s navy, an alleged kingpin in the west African nation’s drugs trade with Latin America, in a sting operation on the high seas, intelligence sources and media said.
Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto was transferred to the United States after being snatched in international waters near Cape Verde in an operation by US and Cape Verdian agents, state TV in the Atlantic island state reported.
Bubo Na Tchuto has since 2010 been on a list of suspected drug barons drawn up by the United States, which has also imposed a US travel ban and asset freeze on him.
He is one of several military figures in the small and notoriously unstable former Portuguese colony alleged to be involved in helping Latin American drug cartels smuggle cocaine into Europe via Africa.
There was no immediate official comment by US officials, but Radio France Internationale said a New York court would later Friday inform Bubo Na Tchuto and four others arrested with him of the charges against them.
The head of Guinea-Bissau national radio, Carlos Gomes Nhafe, a friend of Bubo Na Tchuto, told AFP he had received a phone call from the former navy chief, who has been involved in several failed coups in the impoverished former Portuguese colony.
“He called me this (Thursday) morning from Sal, in Cape Verde, to tell me he had been arrested and that he is en route to the United States,” he said.
No military official in Bissau would comment. But an intelligence officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the ex-rear admiral was “captured by American agents”.
He said US agents had been present in Guinea-Bissau for two weeks and that it was probably these agents who had been involved in the capture.
Bubo Na Tchuto’s wife said she had not seen her husband since Wednesday and that her requests to military high command for information on his whereabouts had drawn a blank.
“He left the house (on Wednesday) as usual in his car to do some shopping in town and he hasn’t been back since,” Cadi Balde told AFP.
The Cape Verde islands lie about 1,000 kilometres (660 miles) west of Guinea-Bissau.
Bubo Na Tchuto was accused of being the leader of a coup attempt in December 2011. He was arrested and later released with 18 others in June last year on orders of the country’s current army chief.
Guinea-Bissau, a country of just 1.5 million people, has suffered chronic instability since independence from Portugal in 1974 due to conflict between the army and state.
Political instability and mismanagement have undermined the legal economy, which is mostly based on primary crops and subsistence agriculture.
Drug traffickers have turned the state, which is sandwiched between Senegal and Guinea where the African continent extends the farthest west toward South America, into a transit point for the cocaine trade.
Guinea-Bissau suffered its latest military-backed coup a year ago, and the current transitional government does not have full international recognition.
The United Nations Security Council last year said that drug trafficking in the troubled state had grown since the junta seized control in April.
Guatemalan president accused of involvement in civil war atrocities
Former soldier tells trial that Otto Pérez Molina ordered soldiers to burn and pillage during 1980s war
Associated Press in Guatemala City
guardian.co.uk, Friday 5 April 2013 08.40 BST
A former soldier has implicated the Guatemalan president, Otto Pérez Molina, in civil war atrocities during the trial of the former US-backed military strongman Efraín Ríos Montt, proceedings that have heard witnesses recount a litany of horrors.
Hugo Reyes, a soldier who was a mechanic in an engineering brigade in the area where atrocities were carried out, told the court that Pérez Molina, then an army major, ordered soldiers to burn and pillage during Guatemala's dirty war with leftist guerrillas in the 1980s.
"The soldiers, on orders from Major 'Tito Arias', better known as Otto Pérez Molina … co-ordinated the burning and looting, in order to later execute people," Reyes told the court by video link.
Pérez Molina, who retired as a general, was elected president for the conservative Patriotic party and assumed office on 14 January 2012. As president, Pérez Molina is protected by an amnesty granted to public officials and cannot be subpoenaed.
The secretary general of the presidency, Gustavo Martínez, called the testimony "poorly intentioned declarations and in bad faith". He said the presidency reserved the right to take action against Reyes.
In line with the gruesome testimony that has marked the trial of Ríos Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, Reyes described what happened in one massacre in the early 1980s.
"The people who were to be executed arrived at the camp beaten, tortured, their tongues cut out, their fingernails pulled out," he said.
Ríos Montt is on trial along with his former head of intelligence in connection with the deaths of 1,771 Mayan Indians during the military dictatorship he led from 23 March 1982 to 8 August 1983, during which he led a US-backed counterinsurgency against guerrillas.
The court also heard testimony from the victims of massacres. Some told the judges about the shelling of villages, beheadings and body parts kicked around like footballs.
"I saw them kill an old woman and officers cut off her head," said Julio Velasco Raymundo, 40, who witnessed one massacre as a child. "Those officers played with the old woman's head like it was a [foot]ball."
He said he saw soldiers dig trenches with earth-movers, then send children to collect rubbish, which the troops threw on to the bodies, soaked in gasoline and set on fire.
He also told the court he saw the Guatemalan army shelling villages full of civilians.
Velasco said his life was saved by a soldier who carried him away from a massacre even though a higher-ranking officer wanted to kill him.
"I remember a specialist [soldier], a man who, in spite of the war and all the things they did, there were good people," Velasco recalled. "One day the specialist put me in a tractor tyre and rolled me away, and that saved my life."
A forensic expert, Mario David García, said the bodies of pregnant women were found among the victims of massacres who were disinterred years later.
The former dictator has remained almost completely silent during the years of proceedings against him, but his lawyers have said there is no clear evidence of his responsibility for the crimes committed by Guatemalan troops.
Animal rights groups slam fox hunting organization after horse dies on first day of meet
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, April 4, 2013 15:55 EDT
LONDON — Animal rights campaigners slammed Grand National organisers after a horse died on the first day of the meeting at Aintree on Thursday.
The world famous National will be staged on Saturday, with the welfare of the horses firmly on the agenda after Battlefront became the 23rd horse to die on the Liverpool course since 2000.
Aintree bosses made significant alterations to the course after last year’s big race was marred by the death of two horses, According To Pete and Synchronised.
That followed two fatalities in the 2011 race, Ornais and Dooney’s Gate.
Old wooden fence frames have been replaced in a bid to make the race easier on the horses.
However, Battlefront was pulled up by jockey Katie Walsh during the fourth race on the course on Thursday.
It came after Walsh defended the sport earlier this week, saying in a magazine interview that the horses were treated better than “many children”.
Battlefront had cleared 10 fences in the John Smith’s Fox Hunters’ Steeple Chase, the first competitive test of significant course changes and new fence frames designed to improve safety.
The cause of his death has not been confirmed but it is thought Battlefront may have suffered a heart attack.
Andrew Tyler, director of Animal Aid, said: “The Aintree authorities and the British Horse Racing Authority have been claiming that major new safety measures and efficiencies would eliminate much of the risk associated with racing on the Grand National course.
“But today’s Fox Hunters’ Chase, in which Battlefront lost his life, was stomach-wrenchingly chaotic from start to finish.
“Several horses fell or were pulled up, tired and potentially injured.
“It was both utterly depressing and served as confirmation that the Aintree authorities have got it badly wrong once again.”
Biofuel breakthrough turns virtually any plant into hydrogen
By Stephen C. Webster
Thursday, April 4, 2013 16:32 EDT
Researchers at Virginia Tech announced Thursday that their latest breakthrough in hydrogen extraction technology could lead to widespread adoption of the substance as a fuel due to its ease of availability in virtually all plant matter, a reservoir previously impossible to tap.
The new process, described by a study in the April issue of the scientific journal Angewandte Chemie, uses a cocktail of 13 enzymes to strip plant matter of xylose, a sugar that exists in plant cells. The resulting hydrogen is of an such a “high purity” that researchers said they were able to approach 100 percent extraction, opening up a potential market for a much cheaper source of hydrogen than anything available today.
“The potential for profit and environmental benefits are why so many automobile, oil, and energy companies are working on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as the transportation of the future,” study author and Virginia Tech assistant professor Y.H. Percival Zhang said in an advisory. “Many people believe we will enter the hydrogen economy soon, with a market capacity of at least $1 trillion in the United States alone.”
The rise of such an alternative fuel could seriously disrupt the pollution-producing industries that run on oil and natural gas, and potentially spark a new industrial emphasis on growing plants with high levels of xylose in their cells. The environmental benefits of that potential future are twofold: the plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping in small part to address the climate crisis, and the resulting portable fuel only outputs water when burned.
Beyond hydrogen fuel cells in cars and industrial equipment, U.S. space agency NASA says that hydrogen in its super-cold liquid form makes an ideal fuel for space exploration due to its low molecular weight and extremely high energy output. If plants could be grown on a space station traveling to a distant solar system some day, it is possible future breakthroughs could lead to an onboard system that actually renders more fuel mid-flight.
Of course, there are potential downsides to Zhang’s enzyme cocktail, namely in the costs of production on a large scale, questions about disposal of the enzyme goo and remaining carbon, and the likelihood of endless legal battles over who owns patents on which enzymes or combinations thereof. Nevertheless, if the world is to move forward into a renewable energy future, this is still a pretty big step.
In the USA...
Maddow: Senate GOP joins North Korea and Iran in opposition to UN arms treaty
By Eric W. Dolan
Thursday, April 4, 2013 23:29 EDT
MSNBC host Rachel Maddow on Thursday night criticized Republicans in the Senate for believing in a conspiracy theory about the United Nation’s Arms Trade Treaty.
“It seems like Republicans and conservatives and people who voted for Mitt Romney are more susceptible than the rest of America to conspiracy theories, especially about people being out to get them,” she remarked. “And looking at the way the elected Republicans approach governing right now might be a clue as to why Republicans are more susceptible to conspiracies than the rest of us.”
The UN General Assembly on Tuesday approved a treaty to regulate the multibillion-dollar international weapons trade. The first-of-its-kind treaty attempts to prevent tanks, missiles, helicopters, warships, small arms, and other weapons from being sold to human rights abusers or terrorist groups.
But Senate Republicans and a few conservative Democrats plan to oppose the treaty because they believe it is a plot to implement new gun control laws in the United States. The Senate needs a super-majority of 67 votes to ratify the treaty.
“Our country is almost certain to end up on the same side of the issue as… Iran, Syria and North Korea,” Maddow observed.
“Conspiracy theories can be fun, but when they start seeping into the way one of our two political parties approaches basics of governing, they’re less fun. Maybe we should give the lizard people a shot at running things around here?”
Obama ‘very optimistic’ about immigration reform, but not gun control
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, April 4, 2013 19:02 EDT
US President Barack Obama said Thursday he was more upbeat about the prospects of immigration reform making it through Congress than tougher gun control legislation.
“I am very optimistic that we get immigration reform done in the next few months,” Obama told Democratic donors at an event in Atherton, California, a Silicon Valley town south of San Francisco.
“And the reason I’m optimistic is because people spoke out through the ballot box, and that’s breaking gridlock,” added Obama, who seized 70 percent of the country’s Latino vote when he was re-elected last November.
This electoral arithmetic has prompted some Republican lawmakers to support immigration reform. A group of eight senators from both parties recently set the groundwork for agreement on a bill aiming to help some 11 million illegal immigrants emerge from the shadows.
However, “it’s going to be tougher to get better gun legislation to reduce gun violence through the Senate and the House that so many of us I think want to see, particularly after the tragedy in Newtown,” Obama said.
“But I still think it can get done if people are activated and involved.”
In mid-December, 26 people — including 20 children — were gunned down at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, giving fresh impetus to the issue of gun control legislation reforms.
But this endeavor now appears to be in peril, with the legislative language being discussed in Congress slowly sapped of substance due to resistance from lawmakers, including the president’s Democratic allies who balk at the idea of being seen as encroaching on the right to keep and bear arms, as protected by the Constitution.
Seeking to regain momentum, Obama on Wednesday traveled to Colorado, a western state with a strong hunting tradition and frontier spirit, which nevertheless passed new gun laws after a mass shooting in a movie theater killed 12 people last year.
He is now directing his efforts on a plan, opposed by many Republicans, some conservative Democrats and the powerful gun lobby, to require background checks for all gun purchases.
Hillary Clinton to pen ‘ultimate book’ on world affairs
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, April 4, 2013 10:15 EDT
Hillary Clinton, whose every move is being scrutinized for signs that she might make a 2016 presidential run, announced Thursday she’s penning a book outlining her views on the United States’ role in the world.
The ex-secretary of state’s first book since leaving office will be published by Simon & Schuster in the summer of 2014, midway through President Barack Obama’s final term, the publisher said.
“This will be the ultimate book for people who are interested in world affairs and America’s place in the world today,” said Jonathan Karp, publisher of Simon & Schuster Publishing Group, and who is set to edit the work himself.
No title was announced, nor details of how much former president Bill Clinton’s wife would be paid.
The publisher’s CEO Carolyn Reidy said Hillary Clinton would “bring readers worldwide her unique insights into the most dramatic events and critically important issues of our time.”
Topics covered will include the killing of Osama bin Laden, the US pullouts from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring revolts, and the rise of China. Broad issues including the role of women and girls, climate change, and human rights will also be addressed, the publisher said in a statement.
“And she will share her views as to what it takes for the United States to secure and sustain prosperity and global leadership. Throughout, Secretary Clinton will offer vivid personal anecdotes and memories of her collaboration with President Obama and his National Security team, as well as her engagement with leaders around the world,” the statement said.
Clinton has stayed coy about her plans in 2016, but she is seen as a clear frontrunner this time, having lost the Democratic nomination in 2008 to Obama, who went on to become America’s first black president. Polls show that Clinton, who would be 69 in 2016, has strong support among Democrats should she bid to become the first woman elected to the White House.
April 4, 2013
New Gun Restrictions Pass the Legislature in Maryland
By TRIP GABRIEL
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Sweeping restrictions on gun ownership passed the Maryland General Assembly on Thursday, including a ban on new purchases of assault weapons, a 10-bullet limit on magazines and requirements that handgun buyers undergo fingerprinting and target training.
The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat who has made tough gun control one of his top priorities this year and will get a chance to sign a bill very much like what he proposed.
With President Obama’s gun legislation stalled in Congress, Maryland becomes the fourth Democratic-led state to enact restrictions. It follows New York, Colorado and Connecticut, which on Wednesday passed one of the nation’s toughest laws, 3 ½ months after the massacre of 26 children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School there.
Maryland joins seven other states and the District of Columbia in banning new sales of military-style assault weapons, a measure dropped by Congressional gun control advocates because of fierce opposition.
The Maryland bill also includes restrictions on purchases by people with mental illness, barring anyone who has been involuntarily committed for mental health treatment from buying a gun.
Under the bill, handgun buyers must pass a background check, submit fingerprints and undergo training in a classroom and on a target range. They would then be issued a license like a state driver’s license.
Opponents of the bill argued that its restrictions would make it all but impossible for law-abiding residents to buy guns and would not reduce crime or mass shootings. The state already has some of the nation’s toughest gun laws.
“We’ve had thousands of murders over the years and very few are committed by an assault rifle,” said Rep. Anthony J. O’Donnell, the House minority leader, who joined fellow Republicans and some conservative Democrats in opposing the bill. “This is a solution that will have very little effect and I believe it offers false hope in terms of stopping gun violence.”The bill’s progress has been marked since January by impassioned debate both inside and outside the State House. Thousands of gun-rights supporters attended protests, and long-serving lawmakers said they had never seen bigger public turnouts over an issue.
The legislation was adopted much as Mr. O’Malley proposed it. The State Senate sent the bill to the governor on Thursday after accepting minor amendments added by the House on Wednesday.
As debate wound down, Senate Republicans, outnumbered 33 to 14, rose to protest a bill they said would “be a nice little check mark” politically for its sponsors, chiefly Mr. O’Malley, who is thought to have presidential ambitions in 2016. But would not make people safer in homes or on the streets, they said.
The governor said the bill struck a balance “between protecting the safety of law enforcement and our children, and respecting the traditions of hunters and law-abiding citizens to purchase handguns for self-protection.”
But Senator Nancy Jacobs, a Republican, said the bill had already prompted an exodus of state residents who believed their Second Amendment rights were being trampled. “I’m seeing it all over the place, people are moving to Virginia, Tennessee,” she said. “They are leaving the state in droves.”
Most opponents were from rural counties. Supporters were from Baltimore and its densely populated suburbs. New strict licensing procedures were especially popular with lawmakers in high-crime districts.
April 4, 2013
Obama Tells Donors of Tough Politics of Environment
By MICHAEL D. SHEAR
SAN FRANCISCO — Appearing at the home of an outspoken critic of the Keystone XL pipeline, President Obama on Wednesday night told a group of high-dollar donors that the politics of the environment “are tough.”
Mr. Obama appears to be leaning toward the approval of the pipeline, although he did not specifically mention it to the donors. But he acknowledged that it is hard to sell aggressive environmental action — like reducing pollution from power plants — to Americans who are still struggling in a difficult economy to pay bills, buy gas and save for retirement.
“You may be concerned about the temperature of the planet, but it’s probably not rising to your No. 1 concern,” Mr. Obama said. “And if people think, well, that’s shortsighted, that’s what happens when you’re struggling to get by.”
Mr. Obama delivered his remarks to a group that hardly needs to worry economically: Thomas F. Steyer, the hedge-fund billionaire, and his wife, Kat Taylor, along with 100 guests at their home who each paid $5,000 to $32,400. The event was the first of four over two days in Northern California, the president’s first fund-raising drive in hopes of winning a friendlier Congress in 2014.
On Thursday, Mr. Obama wound up his trip with a fund-raiser in suburban Atherton, where he ran through his usual agenda: immigration, gun control and greater investment infrastructure. But his comments about Kamala D. Harris,the California attorney general, drew the most notice on the Internet.
“She is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough. And she is exactly what you’d want in anybody who is administering the law, and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake,” the president said. “She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country.”
As for the pipeline, the State Department, which has jurisdiction over the project because it crosses an international border, will hold a public hearing on an environmental impact statement, on April 18 in Grand Island, Neb. The review process for the pipeline, which would carry heavy crude oil from Alberta’s tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast, is expected to last until summer.
The challenge for Mr. Obama is to find a way to balance the political demands of supporters like Mr. Steyer, who has criticized the pipeline, with the insistence of Republicans, Canadian officials and some unions that the pipeline will create jobs and lower the cost of fuel in the United States. The president also faces pressure from some members of his party who argue that the economic benefits of the pipeline are too important to ignore. Last month, 17 Democratic senators signed on to an amendment backing construction of the pipeline. Included in the group were seven senators from conservative or swing states who are up for re-election in 2014.
In the face of those pressures, at the fund-raiser on Wednesday — and at a second one at the home of the billionaire philanthropists Ann and Gordon Getty — the president sought to reassure his supporters that he would continue to fight for environmentally friendly policies.
“Despite a very aggressive agenda on the other side to block action, we’ve been able to double fuel-efficiency standards on cars,” Mr. Obama said at Mr. Steyer’s home. “We’ve been able to take mercury out of our air. We have been able to reduce carbon emissions in this country and have made not only this a healthier place to live, but have also begun to address in a serious way one of the biggest challenges of our time, and that is the challenge of climate change.”
Later, at the Getty home, the president said the political debate needs to “break out of this notion that somehow there’s a contradiction between us being good stewards of the environment and us growing this economy.”
“They are not a contradiction,” he said. “We can grow this economy fast and faster if we are seizing the opportunities of the future and not just looking at the energy sources of the past.”
Even as he spoke at the second fund-raiser, about 100 opponents of the pipeline protested outside, waving signs and chanting, “What do we want from our president? No pipeline for the 1 percent!” and “When I say pipeline you say kill! Pipeline! Kill!”
Inside, Mr. Obama told the donors that the best way to assure environmental action is to send more Democrats to Washington, returning the House to Democratic control and putting Representative Nancy Pelosi of California back in the speaker’s office.
“If we’re going to deal with climate change in a serious way, then we’ve got to have folks in Congress, even when it’s not politically convenient, to talk about it and advocate for it,” he said.
Earlier in the evening, the president said he was eager to work with Republicans who were willing to compromise. But he said he needed more Democrats to fully achieve an agenda his adversaries were trying to block.
John M. Broder contributed reporting from Washington.
April 5, 2013
Obama Budget to Include Cuts to Programs in Hopes of Deal
By JACKIE CALMES
WASHINGTON — President Obama next week will take the political risk of formally proposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare in his annual budget in an effort to demonstrate his willingness to compromise with Republicans and revive prospects for a long-term deficit-reduction deal, administration officials say.
In a significant shift in fiscal strategy, Mr. Obama on Wednesday will send a budget plan to Capitol Hill that departs from the usual presidential wish list that Republicans typically declare dead on arrival. Instead it will embody the final compromise offer that he made to Speaker John A. Boehner late last year, before Mr. Boehner abandoned negotiations in opposition to the president’s demand for higher taxes from wealthy individuals and some corporations.
Congressional Republicans have dug in against any new tax revenues after higher taxes for the affluent were approved at the start of the year. The administration’s hope is to create cracks in Republicans’ antitax resistance, especially in the Senate, as constituents complain about the across-the-board cuts in military and domestic programs that took effect March 1.
Mr. Obama’s proposed deficit reduction would replace those cuts. And if Republicans continue to resist the president, the White House believes that most Americans will blame them for the fiscal paralysis.
Besides the tax increases that most Republicans continue to oppose, Mr. Obama’s budget will propose a new inflation formula that would have the effect of reducing cost-of-living payments for Social Security benefits, though with financial protections for low-income and very old beneficiaries, administration officials said. The idea, known as chained C.P.I., has infuriated some Democrats and advocacy groups to Mr. Obama’s left, and they have already mobilized in opposition.
As Mr. Obama has before, his budget documents will emphasize that he would support the cost-of-living change, as well as other reductions that Republicans have called for in the popular programs for older Americans, only if Republicans agree to additional taxes on the wealthy and infrastructure investments that the president called for in last year’s offer to Mr. Boehner.
Mr. Obama will propose other spending and tax credit initiatives, including aid for states to make free prekindergarten education available nationwide — a priority outlined in his State of the Union address in February. He will propose to pay for it by raising federal taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products.
“The president has made clear that he is willing to compromise and do tough things to reduce the deficits, but only in the context of a package like this one that has balance and includes revenues from the wealthiest Americans and that is designed to promote economic growth,” said a senior administration official, who, like others, declined to be identified confirming details about the coming budget.
“That means,” the official added, “that the things like C.P.I. that Republican leaders have pushed hard for will only be accepted if Congressional Republicans are willing to do more on revenues.”
But just this week, Representative Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia, the House majority leader, reiterated the party’s antitax stance and called for reducing spending by cutting waste and making changes in federal programs. The growth in the so-called entitlement programs, especially for health care, is a main driver behind projections of mounting federal debt as baby boomers age and medical costs rise.
Mr. Obama’s budget was due in February but administration officials said it was delayed by the year-end fiscal negotiations and resulting tax changes. It will arrive on Capitol Hill hours before the president dines on Wednesday evening with a dozen Senate Republicans — his second such parlay in recent weeks.
While the group is likely to also discuss gun-safety and immigration legislation, the timing of Mr. Obama’s budget release is all but certain to make it a prime topic.
Some Senate Republicans have been urging the president to speak out more to Americans about his ideas for reducing the growth of entitlement programs. While the White House posted the offer to Mr. Boehner on its Web site this year, aides previously said that Mr. Obama would not include its provisions in his official budget documents. To do so, some said, would expose him to Democrats’ criticism that he is too quick to compromise and allow Republicans to embrace the proposals for spending cuts, in particular the C.P.I., but ignore those for tax increases.
Neither the president nor senior aides privately hold much hope that Republican leaders — Mr. Boehner and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader — will compromise. So Mr. Obama’s strategy of reaching out to other Senate Republicans reflects a calculation that enough of them might cut a budget deal with the Democratic Senate majority. If that happens, the reasoning goes, a Senate-passed compromise would put pressure on the House to go along.
According to administration officials, the president’s budget plan would reduce projected annual deficits by $1.8 trillion over 10 years, even with the select spending increases. To offset the initiatives’ cost and avoid adding to deficits, Mr. Obama will propose the tobacco tax increase, a limit of $3 million on how much people can accumulate in tax-preferred savings accounts and repeal of a loophole that allows people to collect both disability and unemployment benefits.
Together with the $2.5 trillion in deficit reductions that Mr. Obama and Congressional Republicans have agreed to since 2010, that would bring the total deficit reduction to more than $4.3 trillion over 10 years by the administration’s computations — just over the goal that both parties have set for stabilizing the growth of the national debt.
The deficit, which for this fiscal year is expected to be equal to 5.5 percent of the size of the economy, as measured by the gross domestic product, would decline to 1.7 percent by 2023, according to officials.
Of the more than $2.5 trillion to date in projected 10-year budget savings, nearly 80 percent would result from spending cuts. The rest would derive from tax increases on high incomes that became law on Jan. 1, in the tax agreement that the two parties reached at year-end when the efforts for a broader deficit-reduction deal collapsed.
Mr. Obama’s proposals to reduce deficits $1.8 trillion more over a decade track his offer to Mr. Boehner, adjusted for the roughly $600 billion in higher taxes that became law in January. He will propose more than $600 billion in new revenues — his last offer had called for $1.2 trillion in taxes — mostly by limiting to 28 percent the deductions that individuals in higher tax brackets can claim. Congress has ignored that idea in past years.
Deficits would be reduced another $930 billion through 2023 as a result of spending cuts and other cost-saving changes to domestic programs, and $200 billion more due to reduced interest payments on the federal debt.
Mr. Obama’s proposed spending reductions include about $400 billion from health programs and $200 billion from other areas, including farm subsidies, federal employee retirement programs, the Postal Service and the unemployment compensation system.
In Medicare, the savings would mostly come from payments to health care providers, including hospitals and pharmaceutical companies, but Mr. Obama also proposes that higher-income beneficiaries pay more for coverage.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: April 5, 2013
An earlier version of this article misspelled in one instance the surname of the House speaker. He is John A. Boehner, not Bohener.
April 4, 2013
Obama Administration Seeks to Overhaul International Food Aid
By RON NIXON
WASHINGTON — An Obama administration plan to change the way the United States distributes its international food aid has touched off an intense lobbying campaign by a coalition of shipping companies, agribusiness and charitable groups who say the change will harm the nation’s economy and hamper efforts to fight global hunger.
Proponents of the plan, however, say it would enable the United States to feed about 17 million more people each year, while helping to fight poverty by buying the crops of farmers in poor countries.
According to people briefed on the soon-to-be released fiscal year 2014 budget, the administration is expected to propose ending the nearly 60-year practice of buying food from American farmers and then shipping it abroad.
The administration is proposing that the government buy food in developing countries instead of shipping food from American farmers overseas, a process that typically takes months. The proposed change to the international food aid program is expected to save millions in shipping costs and get food more quickly to areas that need it.
The administration is also reportedly considering ending the controversial practice of food aid “monetization,” a process by which Washington gives American-grown grains to international charities. The groups then sell the products on the market in poor countries and use the money to finance their antipoverty programs.
Critics of the practice say it hurts local farmers by competing with sales of their crops.
The United States spends about $1.4 billion a year on food aid and is the only major donor country that continues to send food to humanitarian crisis spots, rather than buying food produced locally.
In a letter to members of Congress and the Obama administration, more than 60 organizations like the USA Rice Federation and the American Maritime Congress defended the way the program is currently run and called on lawmakers and the Obama administration to resist changing it.
“Growing, manufacturing, bagging, shipping and transportation of nutritious U.S. food creates jobs and economic activity here at home, provides support for our U.S. Merchant Marine, essential to our national defense sealift capability, and sustains a robust domestic constituency for these programs not easily replicated in foreign aid programs,” the groups wrote.
Twenty-one senators from farm states also wrote to the Obama administration last month, after being lobbied by the groups, asking that the food aid program be kept in its current form.
James Caponiti, executive director of the American Maritime Congress, a trade group, said the proposed changes to the food aid program would have a devastating effect on shippers, because the law requires that 75 percent of food aid has to be transported on American-flagged ships.
“We are talking about hundreds of jobs lost,” Mr. Caponiti said. “This is a very, very bad idea.”
David Evans, the American president of the Phoenix-based charity Food for the Hungry, one of several aid charities that signed the letter opposing changes to the food aid program, worries that Congress may cut the food aid budget altogether if federal dollars are used to buy food abroad.
“This sets a dangerous precedent,” he said. “If the money is not supporting the purchasing of U.S. commodities, then it will lose support in Congress. And as a result, $1.5 billion in critical resources will be gone.”
But other charities like Oxfam and CARE support the Obama administration change, saying reform is needed. The groups say that a large percentage of food aid is spent on shipping costs, and as the costs have risen the amount of food the United States has shipped to countries that need it has fallen.
“The current food aid program is not mission driven or about poor people,” said Gawain Kripke, director of policy and research for Oxfam. “It’s about moving product.”
The groups say they are especially glad to see the Obama administration end the practice of giving charities food to sell in local markets to help finance their antipoverty and development programs because the system is plagued with inefficiencies, and it may also hurt some of the very poor people it aims to help.
In 2007, CARE, one of the world’s biggest charities, lost about $45 million a year from its budget when the organization decided to stop taking food from the government to sell and finance its work in developing countries.
“It was a big part of our budget, but we decided that it’s much more efficient to buy products locally and we could reach more people,” said Blake Selzer, a senior policy advocate with CARE.
A 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s investigative arm, also concluded that the system of supplying food to charities to sell for cash was “inherently inefficient.” The G.A.O found that nearly $300 million was lost because of inefficiencies in the program. A report last year sponsored by Alliance for Global Food Security, which is made up of food companies and religious charities, found that supplying food to charities to sell did not harm local markets.
Efforts to reform the food aid program are not new.
In 2007, President George W. Bush proposed similar changes. The proposal, however, also ran into stiff opposition from the potent alliance of agribusiness, shipping and charitable groups, and Congress quickly killed the plan.
But now, amid tight federal budgets, reform proponents say Congress might be more receptive to changing the food aid program.
“From a taxpayers’ and policy perspective, the food aid program is clearly in need of reform,” said Timi Gerson, director of advocacy for the American Jewish World Service, a charity that supports food aid reform. “The only thing getting in the way is politics and special interest.”
Bipartisanship! Democrats and Republicans Agree on Not Enforcing Marijuana Laws
By: Sarah Jones
Apr. 4th, 2013
Fifty-two percent of Americans are in favor of legalizing marijuana, according to aPew Research Center poll released on Thursday. That makes this the first time in four decades — since they started polling on it — that the majority favor legalization. Only 45% say marijuana should not be legal.
Furthermore, we have found the holy grail of elusive bipartisanship on the matter of enforcement. The majority of Democrats and Republicans don’t favor enforcing the federal laws in states where marijuana is legal.
You might think this is just coming from the younger generation. But you’d be wrong. While 65% of those born since 1980 and now are in favor, half of the baby boomers are in favor now. 54% of Gen Xers are in favor, which is another large jump from the 28% of Gen Xers who supported legalization in 1994.
Thirty-two percent think marijuana is morally wrong. Don’t feel bad, it used to be 50% in 2006.
It’s truly the right’s worst nightmare. Gay marriage and immigration reform are high in public approval and now the country is siding with the “hippies” (the right sees everything from the context of the 1950s and 1960s) are winning with pot.
But given the fact that 57% of Republicans and 59% of Democrats think the federal government shouldn’t enforce federal marijuana laws in states where it’s legal, maybe the Republican party is behind their own constituents on this one, too. Republicans don’t favor enforcing the law, but they don’t favor legalization either (sort of like their approach to teenage sex — do it but don’t get caught). Only 37% of Republicans want pot to be legalized. Sixty-four percent of Independents think the law shouldn’t be enforced in states where it’s legal, so that’s a pretty big consensus. Give up the war on pot.
This isn’t likely to matter to your Congress, who are so busy taking money from Exxon et al and killing jobs bills that they don’t have time to do the will of the people. Besides, they have a heavy anti-choice agenda this year — gotta get in their digs before the next election season. But it wouldn’t hurt to let them know that you know that there’s a lot of political will behind legalization, and even more behind not enforcing these rather ridiculous laws.
North Carolina GOP Attempts to Violate the Constitution by Proposing an Official State Religion
Apr. 4th, 2013
A lifelong Spanish citizen and wise man raised and educated in the United States, George Santayana, once wrote that “Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them,” and although he only lived in America for 39 of his 89 years, it is quite likely he was talking about America. This month marks the 152nd anniversary of the beginning of America’s Civil War, and across the South there are Republicans who failed to learn the lessons of America’s deadliest conflict and are following the précises steps the Confederacy took prior to seceding from the Union. Over the course of President Obama’s term, several states have threatened to defy federal laws and floated secession and violence against implementation of the Affordable Care Act, gun safety measures, and environmental protections to name a few.
The idea of nullifying federal laws that contradict Republican and conservative policies is gaining momentum with the re-election of an African American man as President, and was proposed as a state law in North Carolina this week. The latest denial of the legitimacy of the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution focuses on the Separation Clause in the 1st Amendment, and is another attempt by theocrats to install Christianity as the state religion. Republicans in the state’s legislature are proposing an official state religion by exempting North Carolina from following the Constitution and several court decisions upholding the separation of church and state. They claim states are sovereign entities free to ignore the Constitution and the framers’ intent that the government is forbidden from “making laws respecting the establishment of a religion.”
The Republican bill is in response to a lawsuit stopping county officials from opening meetings with a Christian prayer, and is troubling because three months ago another Republican introduced a constitutional amendment allowing residents to carry concealed weapons for the sole purpose of “fighting federal tyranny.” The North Carolina bill specifically cites the Tenth Amendment they claim gives the state authority to defy the Constitution, and prohibits the federal government and courts from enforcing the 1st Amendment’s prohibition on state-sponsored religion. In Section 2 of the bill, it says “The North Carolina General Assembly does not recognize federal court rulings which prohibit and otherwise regulate the State of North Carolina, its public schools, or any political subdivisions of the State from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.” It is noteworthy that North Carolina also disqualifies any resident from serving in public office if they do not believe in god, in spite of a 1961 Supreme Court ruling that strictly prohibits Christian-imposed bans on public servants who do not acknowledge the existence of a supreme being.
The idea of repeating the Confederacy’s “nullification” frenzy was the focus of two teabaggers in Mississippi who proposed legislation in January creating a permanent committee to negate federal laws Republicans did not like and refused to follow. The Mississippi law was first discussed as a means to block implementation of the Affordable Care Act in the state, but gained support at the prospect of gun registration that teabaggers claimed was the federal government “telling us we can’t have guns.” In January, Wyoming proposed nullifying federal laws and jailing federal law enforcement agents for five years and a $50,000 fine if they attempted to enforce gun safety laws that Texas, Virginia, Missouri, and Kansas followed with nullification and threats against federal law enforcement officials.
The North Carolina bill is especially troubling because with the rejection at the polls of extremist Christian proposals advocated by Republicans spouting anti-women’s rights rhetoric on religious grounds instilled desperation in the theocratic crowd intent on ruling according to biblical edicts. The religion bill is the first blatant attempt to impose Christianity on a state’s population, and like every other nullification attempt will be struck down in the courts, but the bill’s sponsors and backers claim states, local governments, and school districts have the right to impose Christianity under the Tenth Amendment. One of the bills co-sponsors is the legislator who introduced the “concealed carry” amendment giving North Carolinians the right to use lethal force to “fight federal tyranny” that is code for the Constitution’s Separation Clause.
For the past year, Republican-led states, conservatives, and gun-fanatics have made provocative statements insinuating rebellion, revolution, and Civil War against the federal government unless their demands were met. Just a little over a year ago the Virginia Republican party sent out a newsletter threatening a revolution if President Obama was re-elected in November, and after the massacre in Newtown, gun fanatics grew enraged at the prospect of gun registration laws despite nine out of ten Americans support the proposal. Gun fanatics are dangerous indeed, but religious gun fanatics armed to “fight federal tyranny” on behalf of their right to impose religion on every citizen, including students, should raise red flags and frighten the life out of every American whether they are religious or not. History is riddled with violence, civil wars, and crusades to impose religion on populations, and if any American thinks it cannot happen in the United States, then they too are “failing to learn the lessons of history,” and “are doomed to repeat them” by ignoring a real and present danger in North Carolina that, unfortunately, is not the most religious state in the Union.
With all the threats of secession, violent revolution, and armed citizens to “fight government tyranny,” America is entering a dangerous period that the nation last visited nearly 152 years ago. It is important to note that the so-called government tyranny religious extremists, gun fanatics, racists, and anti-government advocates cite as worthy of nullification, secession, and armed rebellion are legally passed laws, Supreme Court rulings, and Constitutional amendments and nothing resembling tyranny. The Constitution’s Supremacy Clause is quite clear, and the First Amendment’s Separation Clause is unambiguous, but with North Carolina officially proposing the establishment of a state religion, and a constitutional amendment allowing residents to carry concealed weapons for the sole purpose of fighting federal tyranny, it is just a matter of time before well-armed religious maniacs open fire. The Civil War began after several states enacted nullification laws, and with religious gun fanatics infected with racial animus and hatred for non-believers, federal law enforcement agents, and judges for supporting the Constitution, the prospects of a second Civil War demonstrate that not only are conservatives ignoring the lessons of history, it appears they are doomed to repeat them in the name of religion.
Evacuation warnings, missile fears stoke North Korea crisis
By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, April 6, 2013 4:54 EDT
Foreign diplomats in Pyongyang huddled on Saturday to discuss a North Korean evacuation advisory as concerns grew that the isolated state was preparing a missile launch at a time of soaring nuclear tensions.
The heads of all EU missions had agreed to meet to hammer out a common position after Pyongyang warned embassies it would be unable to guarantee their safety if a conflict broke out and that they should consider leaving.
Most of their governments made it clear they had no plans to withdraw any personnel, and some suggested the advisory was a ruse to fuel growing global anxiety over the current crisis on the Korean peninsula.
“We believe they have taken this step as part of their country’s rhetoric that the US poses a threat to them,” a British Foreign Office spokeswoman said in London.
The embassy warning coincided with reports that North Korea had loaded two intermediate-range missiles on mobile launchers and hidden them in underground facilities near its east coast.
“The North is apparently intent on firing the missiles without prior warning,” the South’s Yonhap news agency quoted a senior government official as saying.
They were reported to be Musudan missiles, which have never been tested, but are believed to have a range of around 3,000 kilometres (1,860 miles), which could theoretically be pushed to 4,000 with a light payload.
That would cover any target in South Korea and Japan, and possibly even reach US military bases located on the Pacific island of Guam.
The White House said Friday it “would not be surprised” by a missile test.
“We have seen them launch missiles in the past…. And it would fit their current pattern of bellicose, unhelpful and unconstructive rhetoric and actions,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
The Pentagon warned any such test would be “a provocative act”, with spokesman George Little urging Pyongyang to “follow international norms and abide by their commitments”.
North Korea, incensed by UN sanctions and South Korea-US military drills, has issued a series of apocalyptic threats of nuclear war in recent weeks.
The North has no proven inter-continental ballistic missile capability that would enable it to strike more distant US targets, and many experts say it is unlikely it can even mount a nuclear warhead on a mid-range missile.
Nevertheless, the international community is becoming increasingly skittish that, with tensions showing no sign of de-escalating, there is a real risk of the situation spiralling out of control.
The latest expression of concern came from Communist icon Fidel Castro, who warned the danger of a nuclear conflict erupting was higher than it had been at any time since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
If war broke out on the Korean peninsula, “there would be a terrible slaughter of people”, Castro wrote in a front-page article in Granma, the Cuban Communist Party’s newspaper.
The United Nations said it had no plans to pull staff out after the North Korean warning message to embassies and NGOs in Pyongyang.
Spokesman Martin Nesirky said UN chief Ban Ki-moon was “studying the message,” and added that UN staff “remain engaged in their humanitarian and developmental work” throughout North Korea.
According to the British Foreign office, embassies and organisations were told to inform the Pyongyang authorities by April 10 what assistance they would require should they wish to evacuate.
“Our understanding is that the North Koreans were asking whether embassies are intending to leave, rather than advising them to leave,” the spokeswoman said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was consulting with China over the warning, as well as the United States and other members of the stalled six-party talks on North Korea.
In South Korea, a Navy official told Yonhap that two Aegis destroyers with advance radar systems had been deployed — one off the east coast and one off the west coast — to track any missile launch.
North Korea refused on Saturday to lift a ban on South Koreans accessing their companies in a joint industrial zone on the North side of the border.
Entry to the Seoul-funded Kaesong complex has been barred since Wednesday.
White House would ‘not be surprised’ by North Korea missile test launch
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, April 5, 2013 15:07 EDT
The White House said Friday it “would not be surprised” if North Korean carries out another missile test, after reports that Pyongyang had moved two mid-range rockets to its eastern coast.
“We’ve obviously seen the reports that North Korea may be making preparations to launch a missile, and we’re monitoring this situation closely,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
“We would not be surprised to see them take such an action. We have seen them launch missiles in the past … And it would fit their current pattern of bellicose, unhelpful and unconstructive rhetoric and actions,” he said.
“We urge them to stop with the provocations and to focus instead on meeting their international obligations and feeding their own people. They are only making themselves more and more isolated from the rest of the world.”
The Pentagon declined to confirm reports about the missiles from South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, but warned North Korea that “further provocative action would be regrettable.”
“Missile tests outside their international obligations would be a provocative act. They need to follow international norms and abide by their commitments,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters.
Several UN Security Council resolutions require North Korea to abstain from all nuclear and ballistic missile activities.
Yonhap reported that two intermediate Musudan missiles had been transported by train earlier in the week and loaded on vehicles equipped with launch pads.
The Musudan has never been tested, but is believed to have a range of around 3,000 kilometers (1,860 miles), which could theoretically be pushed to 4,000 if they were to be given a light payload.
That would cover any target in South Korea and Japan, and possibly even reach US military bases located on the Pacific island of Guam.
The Pentagon has said it will send missile-interceptor batteries to protect its bases on Guam, a US territory some 3,380 kilometers (2,100 miles) southeast of North Korea and home to 6,000 American military personnel.
Most experts think the North is not yet capable of mounting a nuclear device on a ballistic missile which could strike US bases or territory.
Tensions have soared on the Korean peninsula since December, when the North test-launched a long-range rocket. In February, it conducted its third nuclear test and drew fresh UN sanctions.
The North also warned this week it would reopen its mothballed Yongbyon reactor — its source of weapons-grade plutonium that was closed in 2007 under an aid-for-disarmament accord.
Little defended a current South Korean-US military drill, which has infuriated Pyongyang, saying “we have been responsible and prudent in how we (have) conducted these exercises,” which run through April 30.
“The North Koreans on their side need to ratchet the rhetoric down, which has been bellicose, overheated and unproductive,” he said.
April 5, 2013
Detecting Shift, U.S. Makes Case to China on North Korea
By MARK LANDLER
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration, detecting what it sees as a shift in decades of Chinese support for North Korea, is pressuring China’s new president, Xi Jinping, to crack down on the regime in Pyongyang or face a heightened American military presence in its region.
In a flurry of exchanges that included a recent phone call from President Obama to Mr. Xi, administration officials said, they have briefed the Chinese in detail about American plans to upgrade missile defenses and other steps to deter the increasingly belligerent threats made by North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong-un.
China, which has been deeply suspicious of the American desire to reassert itself in Asia, has not protested publicly or privately as the United States has deployed ships and warplanes to the Korean Peninsula. That silence, American officials say, attests to both Beijing’s mounting frustration with the North and the recognition that its reflexive support for Pyongyang could strain its ties with Washington.
“The timing of this is important,” Tom Donilon, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, said in an interview. “It will be an important early exercise between the United States and China, early in the term of Xi Jinping and early in the second term of President Obama.”
While administration officials cautioned that Mr. Xi has been in office for only a few weeks and that China has a history of frustrating the United States in its dealings with North Korea, Mr. Donilon said he believed that China’s position was “evolving.”
Judging whether China has genuinely changed course on North Korea is tricky: Beijing has appeared to respond to American pressure before, only to backtrack later. China, the North’s only strong ally, has long feared the United States would capitalize on the fall of the North Korean leadership by expanding American military influence on the Korean Peninsula.
Nor has China given clues about its intentions in its public statements, voicing grave concern about the rising tensions while being careful not to elevate Mr. Kim’s stature.
Chinese analysts say there are internal debates within the Communist Party and the military about how to deal with Mr. Kim, and how strongly to enforce the United Nations’ economic sanctions that China signed on to last month.
The White House said it was encouraged by how swiftly China had supported the sanctions, which followed a North Korean nuclear test and a missile launch. But some diplomats and analysts say China has dragged its feet in enforcing them.
In a meeting with two senior American officials who traveled to Beijing two weeks ago to try to persuade China to enforce new banking restrictions on North Korea, Chinese banking leaders showed little sign of compliance, said Marcus Noland, an expert on North Korea at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.
“But I wouldn’t expect them publicize it,” even if they did move ahead, Mr. Noland added.
Many analysts say the sanctions cannot succeed without China’s cooperation, since it has close trade ties with North Korea and has in the past chosen to keep its government afloat by providing fuel and significant aid.
China continues to say economic sanctions will not work. A Chinese diplomat who is involved in policy on North Korea said recently that he thought China would enforce the new United Nations sanctions to a point but would not go as far as the Obama administration wanted.
Even if China does cooperate, it is unclear how far North Korea might bend; North Korea ignored China’s entreaties not to conduct the nuclear test in February that set off the latest conflict with the United States and South Korea.
In the coming weeks, the White House will send a stream of senior officials to China to press its case, starting with Secretary of State John Kerry, who will travel to Beijing next Saturday, on an Asian tour that will also take him to South Korea and Japan.
In the short run, officials said, the administration wants the Chinese to be rigorous in customs inspections to interdict the flow of banned goods to North Korea. More broadly, it wants China to persuade Mr. Kim to cease his provocations and agree to negotiations on giving up his nuclear program.
On Friday, North Korea stoked tensions further by advising Russia, Britain and other countries that they might want to evacuate their embassies in Pyongyang in case of hostilities, according to Russian and British officials. Analysts dismissed the warning as a ploy to frighten the United States and its allies, perhaps to finally force concessions.
In Beijing, officials said Mr. Kerry also wants to reinvigorate the dialogue with China on climate change. And the United States is pushing the Chinese leadership to crack down on the proliferation of cyberattacks on American government and commercial interests originating in China.
Making progress on those issues will be easier if Washington is in sync with Beijing over North Korea. A week after Mr. Kerry’s visit, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will spend four days in China to try to improve communication between the American and Chinese militaries. Any problem there is especially dangerous now, officials say, given China’s expanded military ambitions and the intensified American activity in the region.
Mr. Donilon plans to visit Beijing in May. Part of the heavy rotation of diplomacy, officials said, is to compensate for the fact that Mr. Obama is not scheduled to meet Mr. Xi until September.
Based on their meetings with Mr. Xi so far, administration officials said they believed he viewed Beijing’s relationship with Pyongyang more pragmatically than his predecessor, Hu Jintao, whose reluctance to act against Pyongyang so frustrated Mr. Obama that in 2010 he accused the Chinese of “willful blindness” toward North Korea.
Last month, Mr. Xi spoke by phone with the new president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, telling Ms. Park how much China prized its ties with South Korea and offering China’s assistance in the “reconciliation and cooperation” of the two Koreas. Such sentiments, analysts said, would have been inconceivable from President Hu.
By contrast, there has been little high-level contact between Mr. Kim and Chinese officials, which American officials cited as evidence of growing irritation on the part of the Chinese.
“What we have seen is a subtle change in Chinese thinking,” Kurt M. Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, said in a speech Thursday at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The Chinese now believe North Korea’s actions are “antithetical” to their national security interests, he said.
That thinking has also surfaced in recent articles by Chinese scholars that have called into question China’s policy. Deng Yuwen, the influential deputy editor of a Communist Party journal, wrote in The Financial Times that “Beijing should give up on Pyongyang and press for the reunification of the Korean Peninsula.”
And yet Mr. Deng has since been suspended from his job, which underscores how little China’s attitude has changed.
Some voices are urging China not to be rattled by the crisis. A hawkish major general in the People’s Liberation Army, Luo Yuan, who often writes in the Chinese state-run news media, appeared unperturbed by the actions of Mr. Kim or by the dispatch of American ships and planes in support of South Korea.
When the current American and South Korean joint military exercises end this month, he wrote in a blog post on China’s social media site, Sina Weibo, North Korea will calm down and return to the status quo of “no war, no unification,” which remains in China’s favor.
Jeffrey A. Bader, a former Asia adviser to Mr. Obama, said he believes that any change will be subtle. The Chinese, he said, “will continue to use similar language, and their public demeanor will be similar, but quietly, they will be much more aggressive, much more fed up and much more prepared to treat North Korea differently than in the past.”
Jane Perlez contributed reporting from Beijing, and Neil MacFarquhar from the United Nations.
04/05/2013 06:14 PM
Crisis in Korea: Obama Must Change US Approach to Stop Kim
A Commentary by Andreas Lorenz
North Korea's most recent irrational behavior has made clear the government's indifference to sanctions. Some believe China is the only country that can talk Pyongyang into toning down its rhetoric. In reality the United States can do much more to calm the situation.
Soldiers run into ice-cold water to be close to their beloved leader. He stands on the bow of a small boat and waves to those back on the beach.
The scene from the recent screenplay about the Cold War in East Asia was carefully orchestrated. Its message: The young leader Kim Jong-un is just as popular among the people as was his father, Kim Jong-Il. And the military is ready for anything.
Kim and his military leaders are alarming the world once again with threats and saber-rattling, and the world has reacted with condemnation. US President Barack Obama has ordered a missile defense system, stealth bombers and cruisers into the region. All are hoping that the war games don't accidentally devolve into a bloody battle that could easily set back Asia by decades. In contrast financial markets are hardly blinking, and the streets of Seoul, just a few kilometers away from the border with the North, are filled with dismissive calm.
As irrational as the North Korean military and its leader may seem, their threats are calculated. The message is both for domestic and foreign audiences: Kim must prove to his comrades that he is in no way inferior to his father, who died in late 2011, or his grandfather and founder of the nation, Kim Il-Sung. In recent months, he and his powerful relatives have deposed several high-ranking officers, perhaps even having them killed. Now Kim Jong-un has to show that he too can be a calculating commander.
At the same time, he wants to attract the attention of the Americans. Kim wants to look like more than just a pariah of the international community -- he wants to be seen as a worthy opponent in war, and to be treated as such by Obama. When Kim recently received US basketball star Dennis Rodman in Pyongyang, the message was clear: "We want to talk with you."
Regime Change is the Goal
How should such a regime be approached? The Americans have officially argued for years that the North Korean government must comply with all international obligations and treaties. Only then could dialogue take place.
As with his predecessor George W. Bush, the goal of Obama's strategy is that of regime change. It's hoped that eventually the starved North Koreans will grow sick of the constant calls to war and throw out the Kims and their military cronies. Problem solved.
But it hasn't yet come to that, and the world is still looking at North Korea unsure of what to do. The Kim dynasty has continually broken treaties, given politicians the runaround and forgotten promises. Politicians wring their hands and demand that China, North Korea's closest ally, finally get Pyongyang under control.
"The key to success... lies in Beijing," German parliamentarian Bijan Djir-Sarai said in a radio interview on Friday shortly after returning from a visit to North Korea. "That means that it's important that the Chinese urgently persuade the North Korean leadership to tone down the rhetoric and actions."
China Will Not Abandon Ally
But Djir-Sarai and all others who see Beijing as the miracle healer are hoping in vain. Little can be expected of Beijing for many reasons. For one, China's influence on the North Koreans is overstated. Pyongyang conducts its foreign policy alone.
In addition, the new Chinese leadership under President Xi Jinping cannot allow North Korea to fall. If the country collapses because Beijing cuts off oil and food supplies, a crisis could ensue, also threatening China's economic boom. If a civil war breaks out, millions of refugees could flood across the border. And if North Korea implodes, who will secure the nuclear weapons?
One also shouldn't forget the role China's military plays in the country's foreign policy. The People's Liberation Army provided hundreds of thousands of soldiers to aid their Communist brothers and sisters in the 1950s Korean War. Such solidarity is eternal in the eyes of the Communist Party. Their allies will not be abandoned, no matter how irrationally they behave today.
So if Beijing is unable or unwilling to ease tensions, who can? The answer is the United States. The American government has to reconsider its approach if it wants to eradicate the hotspot in the Far East.
US Must Offer Incentives
For starters it should shorten the current maneuvers with South Korean forces as a sign of good will. The exercise accomplished its goal: America has proved anew that it is powerful and cannot be intimidated, and that it will support South Korea in case of war.
A second step would be to agree on a common path forward with China, Russia, South Korea and Japan, then to start talks with North Korea without preconditions. And all parties have to give up the goal of trying to force North Korea to get rid of its nuclear weapons.
Because Kim and his military will never consider such a thing. Their logic is that nuclear weapons protect them from attacks. If Iraq's Saddam Hussein or Libya's Moammar Gadhafi had had them, they would still be alive today.
Rather than pursuing futile goals, the Americans should try to try to prevent North Korea from selling material and know-how for the construction of nuclear weapons to Iran or other governments. A peace treaty and food aid could serve as a carrot.
If North Koreans' lives improve and the image of the United States as an enemy disappears, regime change could happen much quicker than expected.
April 5, 2013
South Koreans at North’s Edge Cope With Threat of War
By MARTIN FACKLER
MUNSAN, South Korea — As Lee Jae-eun retrieved her squirming twins from day care and loaded them into a two-seat stroller, she barely glanced up at the olive green Blackhawk helicopter that swept overhead, just above the high-rise apartment buildings.
Even in peaceful times, low-flying military aircraft are a common sight in this residential community near the heavily fortified border that separates capitalist South Korea from the communist North. But these are not placid times, and the roaring helicopters are one more reminder of rising tensions wrought by North Korea’s recent barrage of war threats.
Still, said Ms. Lee, a 34-year-old homemaker, residents have resigned themselves to living with the constant risk, and occasional tantrums, from their bellicose northern neighbor.
“Sure, our radar is up to new danger,” she said, holding one of her year-old daughters and surrounded by other mothers picking up their children. “But living here makes you used to it. It’s not such a big deal.”
In recent weeks, the heavily armed North’s cherub-faced young leader, Kim Jong-un, has threatened South Korea and the United States with nuclear attack, declaring that a “state of war” exists on the Korean Peninsula. Refusing to be cowed, South Korea’s newly elected president, Park Geun-hye, the democratic nation’s first female leader, responded by ordering her generals to strike back if provoked.
Despite the steady drumbeat of war talk, life seems to go on as usual in most of South Korea, the industrial powerhouse that lifted itself from the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War to become one of Asia’s economic success stories. Nowhere is the determination to hold on to the South’s hard-won middle-class living standards more apparent than in Munsan, a distant suburb of the South Korean capital of Seoul that sits on the edge of the tense border: the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, which lies where the fighting stopped 60 years ago.
Once a collection of farming villages known for their local delicacy of tasty eel, Munsan was transformed into a boomtown of tall white apartment buildings and neon-lighted shops a decade ago during an era of political rapprochement with the North and soaring property prices in the fast-growing South. More recently, development has slowed after the global financial crisis hurt the South’s export-driven economy and new tensions with the North have scared away some prospective buyers.
Some of the 47,000 residents who live here now say they have learned to accept the helicopters’ near-constant rattling of their windows, and the columns of tanks that sometimes block roads during training exercises, making their children late for school. They say they have also learned how to ignore the rows of concrete bunkers and guard towers along the highway they use every morning to commute to Seoul, 35 miles to the south.
They just tune out the dangers and focus on enjoying their daily lives.
“Korea is the most dangerous place in the world, but we are numb to it,” said Song Hyun-young, an employee in the real estate department of Paju city hall, which has jurisdiction over the town of Munsan. “If something happens, we will all die together, so I don’t really think about it.”
When pressed, many residents admit to feeling anxiety about the intensity of the North’s most recent threats, and the fact that its nuclear arsenal is controlled by an untested, unpredictable leader. Some also partly blame their own country for imposing sanctions on the North, a closed and impoverished country.
“To be honest, the talk of nuclear attack is much scarier this time,” said Ms. Lee, the mother of the twins. “I think North Korea is cornered, and anyone who is cornered will strike back.”
Responding to such concerns, Paju city employees held an evacuation drill last week with the police, firefighters and the army. In the event of an attack, residents would be led to one of nine underground bomb shelters that the city built after the North’s last violent provocation, the artillery bombardment of a South Korean island three years ago that killed two civilians. The shelters have been freshly stocked with flashlights, medicine, gas masks and first-aid kits, officials said.
But most residents have not taken similar precautions. None of the more than half-dozen residents interviewed said they were stockpiling food or supplies. Many said they were optimistic that such preparations were unnecessary. They were confident, they said, that the bonds of shared ethnicity between the two Koreas would prevail over political differences, and prevent the North from following through on its apocalyptic threats.
“The world thinks we are on the brink of war, but we are fine,” said Gong Soon-hee, 55, a real estate agent whose small office was filled with wall-size maps showing a checkerboard of privately owned plots that abruptly end at the edge of the DMZ, just a few miles away. “Koreans are good people, kind people, not stupid people who would just start a war suddenly.”
Despite the tensions, Ms. Gong said, new homebuyers continue to trickle in, lured by prices that have dropped to less than one-tenth of those in central Seoul. Most give no sign of noticing a formation of helicopters flying overhead as they check out apartments, she said.
“I guess we could hide in an underground parking garage if the shells start falling,” she said, “but we don’t bother with escape plans.”
Others said the current standoff cast a spotlight on the fact that in the face of the North’s threats, the South was in the weaker position because it had so much more to lose. Some said South Korea’s biggest vulnerability was its unwillingness to sacrifice its much higher living standards, a sentiment that would make essentially buying off the North an easier option.
“If this is just going to continue until we give aid, then let’s just give them some aid,” Park Soon-yi, a 44-year-old homemaker, said with a laugh. But she was only half-joking, as she shopped in the upmarket Hillstate high-rise condominium and retail complex. “Then they’ll be quiet, and leave us in peace.”
Su Hyun Lee contributed reporting.
April 5, 2013
North Korea Events Complicate Nuclear Talks With Iran
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN and RICK GLADSTONE
ALMATY, Kazakhstan — North Korea is more than 2,500 miles from the resumed nuclear negotiations that got under way here Friday between Iran and the six big powers, but North Korea’s nuclear-arms bombast and the cautious foreign response are hanging over the negotiations in unsettling ways.
For the first time since Iran and the six powers restarted their dialogue a year ago after a long lapse, North Korea, which had held similar talks in the 1990s that collapsed in betrayal and mistrust, is simultaneously demonstrating an outcome that Iran may find enviable, nonproliferation experts said. North Korea’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, however small, has nonetheless emboldened it to challenge the United States and other nuclear-armed powers, which have responded with caution and — from North Korea’s vantage point — some degree of respect.
“I do feel as if Iran has inevitably been drawing lessons from how the world is dealing with North Korea,” said Valerie Lincy, executive director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, a Washington-based research and advocacy group. “I would imagine the lessons they’re drawing are not the ones the Western powers would like: That you can weather sanctions, and renege on previous agreements, and ultimately if you stand fast, you’ll get what you’re looking for.”
Cliff Kupchan, an Iran specialist at the International Crisis Group, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that works to resolve conflicts, said that while Iran does not want to be viewed as an “irrational cult state” like North Korea, it also sees the conspicuous absence of talk about regime change by North Korea’s adversaries in the current episode of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
“These guys are smart, and they’re shrewd,” Mr. Kupchan said of Iran’s leaders. “They’re well aware of what North Korea has gotten away with. They see that North Korea elicits fear and significant geopolitical ballast because it has nuclear weapons.”
Expectations for this latest round of negotiations have been modest at best, with little sign that the Iranian government was ready to accept an offer made by the six powers at the last round of talks in February: restrictions on its supply of dangerous enriched uranium in exchange for an initial modest easing of international sanctions, to be followed by further trust-building measures.
The Iranian delegation said as talks resumed that it had put forward a “comprehensive proposal” that it hoped would “establish a new bedrock for cooperation.” But negotiators representing the group of six powers said they had not seen anything new, suggesting they may have already hit a roadblock.
The talks were to continue on Saturday between Saeed Jalili, the lead Iranian negotiator, and Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief. She represents the so-called P5-plus-1, which are the five permanent members of the Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — plus Germany.
Michael Mann, a spokeswoman for Ms. Ashton, told reporters as the talks opened that “the confidence-building measure has to come from Iran.”
But in what could be a sign that Iran’s position has basically remained unchanged, Mr. Jalili began his visit to Almaty on Thursday with a speech to university students in which he insisted on his country’s unfettered right to develop a civilian nuclear program, and accused the larger powers of hypocrisy because they have nuclear arms.
In the speech, Mr. Jalili suggested that his counterparts must simply “accept the inalienable rights” of Iran, specifically the right to enrich uranium, as part of any solution.
Throughout the dispute, the Iranians have asserted that their uranium enrichment activities are for civilian purposes and that AyatollahAli Khamenei, the supreme leader, issued a religious decree banning nuclear weapons in the country. Iran has also repeatedly argued that because it signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, its activities are by definition peaceful and legal.
At the same time the Iranians have refused to comply with Security Council demands that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment until unresolved questions about its nuclear intentions are answered, including indications that it has done work on triggers for atomic bombs.
Ms. Lincy, of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, said she believed Iran may be primarily interested in the negotiations in order to achieve some relief from the sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union, which have been causing increased economic pain — but to do so without sacrificing its ability to make nuclear fuel.
Again, she drew a parallel to North Korea’s negotiations more than two decades ago, when it negotiated a step-by-step deal for food and fuel assistance from the United States in exchange for promises to not to make nuclear weapons. That deal collapsed in 2002, when the Americans accused North Korea of secretly building a facility to enrich uranium.
In some ways, she said, the P5-plus-1 group’s offer to Iran is similar in structure to that failed North Korea agreement — initial moves by Iran, followed by eased sanctions, followed by further steps.
Gary Milhollin, executive editor of Iranwatch.org, a Web site published by the Wisconsin Project, said in an article before the latest talks had even begun that such an approach could be a mistake. “The lesson from North Korea is that an interim agreement of this kind won’t work,” he wrote. “Before making any halfway deal, U.S. and European diplomats should insist that Iran remove itself from the path that North Korea so easily followed.”
Others said the Iranians — like the North Koreans — had shown a great tenacity for enduring economic sanctions regardless of their severity, calling into question their value in any negotiation strategy.
In a study released before the latest round of talks, the National Iranian American Council, a Washington advocacy group that opposes the sanctions, said they had actually strengthened the Iranian government’s resolve. “Capitulation is seen as a greater threat to the regime’s survival than even a military confrontation with the United States,” the study said.
Some experts said they believed Iranian leaders were viewing North Korea’s nuclear belligerence with some measure of alarm, however. In their view, the United States and others could use it as justification for even more ostracism of Iran, which has a brotherly military relationship with North Korea and has adopted some of its missile and weapons technology. The two countries, along with Syria, were the only ones that opposed passage of the Arms Trade Treaty on conventional weapons at the United Nations this week, for example.
“If the North Koreans really started a war, Iran will be subject to intense international pressures,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a professor of political science at Syracuse University. He said many people would fear “the Iranians are as crazy as those guys and therefore we should contain them.”
David M. Herszenhorn reported from Almaty, and Rick Gladstone from New York.
April 5, 2013
China Escalates Its Response to Outbreak of Avian Flu
By ANDREW JACOBS
BEIJING — With confirmation that a sixth person has died from a mysterious avian-borne virus, Chinese officials escalated their response on Friday, advising people to avoid live poultry, sending virologists to chicken farms across the country and slaughtering more than 20,000 birds at a wholesale market in Shanghai where the virus, known as H7N9, was detected in a pigeon.
News of the outbreak dominated China’s main Internet portals. There were photographs of workers in white coveralls carrying out the culling in Shanghai and recommendations that people take banlangen, a popular herbal cold remedy. Anxious residents have been crowding emergency rooms at the first sign of respiratory problems. And at a KFC restaurant in Beijing, employees stood idle as mounds of fried chicken went largely unsold.
“They say it’s O.K. to eat cooked chicken, but I’d rather not take the chance,” Zhang Minyu, 41, said as she coaxed her young son to order a soft-serve ice cream instead.
Roughly 10 years after severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, began here and spread across the globe, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing nearly 800, the deadly influenza outbreak is testing a government known for its lack of transparency and reluctance to divulge damaging news. The timing has not helped: The Chinese public has already been outraged by record levels of air pollution this year, and have been frustrated by the government’s apparent inability to determine the source or cause of deaths of more than 16,000 pigs found floating last month in the river that supplies drinking water for Shanghai.
Although some critics have asked why it took so long to publicly announce the outbreak of the H7N9 virus, public health experts have so far commended the government for responsiveness and transparency in the five days since officials identified the first victims.
“It was the Ministry of Health and Family Planning that first came to us and volunteered the information,” said Gregory Hartl, a spokesman for the World Health Organization in Geneva. “Their response has been excellent.”
Health officials around the world are monitoring the outbreak, which has killed nearly half of the 14 people in whom the virus has been diagnosed. What they fear most is that the disease will mutate so that it can spread from human to human; there has yet to be a confirmed case of transmission between humans. However, the state news media on Friday reported that Shanghai officials had placed in quarantine a person with flulike symptoms who had contact with a victim of H7N9.
Experts say the virus appears to respond to existing influenza medications like Tamiflu and Relenza. In the United States, federal health officials on Thursday said they had begun working on a vaccine for H7N9.
At the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s first news conference about the H7N9 outbreak, its director, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, said close cooperation between his organization and its Chinese counterpart had helped enable China to post the sequence of the new virus on a public database. He said Americans planning to go to China should still go, but follow longstanding recommendations to avoid birds and other animals.
John Oxford, a professor of virology at Queen Mary, University of London, warned of a potential pandemic should H7N9 undergo a mutation that allows human-to-human transmission. “On my earthquake scale, I’m quite concerned because influenzas have a greater history of emerging and spreading,” he said.
His worries were heightened, he said, by the relatively high fatality rate and the virus’s apparent spread through poultry without any evident signs of illness. Referring to another avian virus, one that since 2003 has decimated poultry stocks in Southeast Asia and killed more than 300 people, he said, “If a flock of chickens or ducks gets H5N1, it will kill them and set off alarm bells, but this virus seems to be a bit more tricky.”
Even the government acknowledges that SARS was a public health debacle. The Chinese authorities tried to conceal the outbreak, hiding sick patients from the World Health Organization, whose members were barred for five weeks from visiting Guangdong Province, the outbreak’s epicenter. The secrecy, experts agree, allowed the virus to spread within China and across the globe.
Writing on his microblog account, Yu Shenghai, a researcher at the China Economic Research Center, warned the authorities against hiding information about the current outbreak. “I hope the government won’t be self-deceiving and mislead ordinary people,” he wrote. “We learned a lesson from SARS with a cost of blood. A nation is hopeless if it doesn’t recall its past, and a government is incompetent if it doesn’t reflect on its history.”
Shi Da contributed research from Beijing. Donald G. McNeil Jr. contributed reporting from New York.
April 5, 2013
U.S. and Japan Agree on Returning Okinawa Land
By MARTIN FACKLER
TOKYO — The United States and Japan agreed Friday on a new timetable for the return to Japan of a Marine airfield and other military bases on Okinawa, moving to solve a long-festering issue that has bedeviled America’s ties with its largest Asian ally.
By agreeing to a clear timetable for the return of 2,500 acres, both nations are hoping to entice Okinawans to drop their opposition to the air base, which Washington and Tokyo want to move to another part of the island but which many Okinawans want to move off the island. Fierce local opposition has kept Japan from being able to follow through on a deal originally made in 1996 to allow the base and its noisy aircraft to be relocated to a less populated area of the island.
Japan’s hawkish new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has been trying to revive the long-stalled deal at a time of increasing tensions with China that have led many Japanese to support strengthening the alliance with the United States, Japan’s longtime protector. The deal on Friday could help Mr. Abe politically, by making clear what Okinawans stand to gain by agreeing to keep the base.
It could also help the Obama administration if it finally leads to the end of an impasse that has left the future of the important air base in limbo, and that has undermined the Obama administration’s strategic “pivot” to Asia.
Announcing the new agreement in a room filled with American and Japanese flags, Mr. Abe called it a significant step toward reducing the huge American military presence on Okinawa, a legacy of the United States’ occupation of that tropical island after World War II. The base relocation is the centerpiece of a broader deal to eventually move some 9,000 Marines to bases in Guam, Hawaii and Australia.
“We are able to make progress in reducing Okinawa’s burden in a visible manner,” Mr. Abe said, joined by a dozen American and Japanese officials. “I am extremely glad that everybody could sit down together today and reach a conclusion on this intractable issue.”
Friday’s agreement tries to restart that plan by setting a target date of returning the Futenma base, in the center of the city of Ginowan, by as early as 2022, provided the replacement air base is operational. It also lays out a timetable for handing over five other American bases also in the crowded southern half of the island by the late 2020s.
Under the timetable, the first parcel — an access road and surrounding land totaling 2.5 acres — would be turned over to Japan this year.
In a bid to increase transparency and accountability, the new timetable also includes flowcharts outlining which government agencies in both countries need to take what steps for the land to be returned on schedule. American and Japanese officials said this was to prevent the deal from getting bogged down in murky bureaucratic proceedings, as happened in the past.
For the Obama administration, the agreement is meant not only to shore up one of America’s most important security relationships in Asia, but also to demonstrate to other regional allies, as well as rivals, that the United States has the willpower to maintain its security presence despite its budget difficulties and fatigue from wars in the Middle East.
“This sends a clear signal to the region that we are committed to making hard choices to keep our force posture in Okinawa,” said Mark Lippert, assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs, who visited Tokyo to complete the agreement.
For Mr. Abe, restarting the relocation plan would fulfill a campaign pledge to improve ties with the United States as his nation faces a growing challenge from China over disputed islands near Okinawa. Becoming a fuller military partner of the United States has been a centerpiece of the prime minister’s bid to reverse his nation’s declining stature in the region after years of economic stagnation and its relative eclipse by China’s rise.
However, he is also taking a political risk on an agreement that may fail to appease Okinawans’ anger over what they see as an unfairly onerous American base presence.
The Abe government has been trying to whittle away at Okinawans’ opposition with offers of generous financial aid and other efforts to court the island’s governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, a base opponent who is a member of Mr. Abe’s conservative governing party. In a sign the government’s tactics may be working, Mr. Nakaima offered uncharacteristic words of praise Friday, though he warned that the central government still had to win over other local leaders.
“I think it is extremely good that the government is buckling down to deal in concrete terms with the return of bases,” Mr. Nakaima told reporters in Naha, the Okinawan capital. “But it is hard to evaluate the plan until I have had a chance to consult with mayors of the affected communities.”
One sticking point might be the timetable for moving the base, which is now pushed back another nine years. Under an earlier version of the deal in 2006, it would have been relocated next year. The original agreement to move the base was reached in 1996 after the gang rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by American servicemen.
Women hit back at India's rape culture
A self-defence group in Lucknow have a simple message to the men who make their lives a misery – stop it, or else
Gethin Chamberlain in Lucknow
The Observer, Saturday 6 April 2013 11.55 BST
The male tormentor of the young women of the Madiyav slum did not spot the danger until it was too late. One moment he was taunting them with sexual suggestions and provocations; the next they had hold of his arms and legs and had hoisted him into the air.
Then the beating began. Some of the young women lightly used their fists, others took off their shoes and hit him with those. When it was over, they let him limp away to nurse his wounds, certain that he had learned an important lesson: don't push your luck with the Red Brigade.
Named for their bright red outfits, the Red Brigade was formed in November 2011 as a self-defence group for young women suffering sexual abuse in the northern Indian city of Lucknow, 300 miles south-east of Delhi. Galvanised by the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old medical student in Delhi last December and the nationwide protests that followed against a rising tide of rapes, they are now gaining in confidence.
From a core membership of 15, ranging in age from 11 to 25, they now have more than 100 members, intelligent and sassy and with a simple message for the men who have made their lives a misery: they will no longer tolerate being groped, gawped at and worse. Their activities are a lesson in empowerment.
Men who fall foul of the Red Brigade can first expect a visit and a warning. Sometimes the Red Brigade will ask the police to get involved, but if all else fails they take matters into their own hands. Their leader, 25-year-old teacher Usha Vishwakarma, has her own experience of the daily danger faced by many young women in the country. She was just 18 when a fellow teacher tried to rape her. "He grabbed me and put his hands round me and tried to open my belt and trousers," says Usha, sitting in the bare-brick front room of her small house. "But I was saved by my jeans because they were too tight for him to open, and that gave me a chance to fight, so I kicked him in the sensitive place and pushed him down and ran out of the door."
No one at the school took her accusations seriously, telling her to forget it and stop causing trouble. The experience left her traumatised and for two years she did nothing. But little by little her confidence came back. In 2009 she set up her own small school for local girls in an outbuilding next to her family home. Yet all around her, she says, she saw more and more young women suffering the same abuse she had faced. And it was threatening to wreck the chances of her young female students.
"Parents were telling girls to stay in their homes so there would be no incidents. They said, 'if you go to school, boys will be troubling you, so stay home and there will be no sexual violence'," says Vishwakarma. "But we said no, and we decided to form a group to fight for ourselves. We decided we would not just complain; we would take a lead and fight for ourselves." They bought red kameez (shirts) and black salwar (trousers) and began to plan the fightback. "We chose red because it means danger and black for protest," says Vishwakarma.
There is much to fight back against. "It is in the minds of men that girls are objects and it has been like that always," says Vishwakarma. "Religion shows women as very powerless and that whoever is strong can do anything."
Other members of the group drift in and join her, sitting on the bed along one wall of the front room. At the other end of the room is a table laden with the placards they carry with them when they go out to protest on the 29th day of every month. The demonstrations mark the date of the Delhi bus rape and murder on 29 December. Their slogans read: "Stop rape now" and "We want safety".
"In the electronic era there are pictures everywhere of women and girls being treated like objects. It is now very simple to see pornography and it is feeding the hunger for sex. The men think that if you are looking sexy, then you want sex," says Vishwakarma.
They have started martial arts training so that the men do not have a physical advantage over them. Pooja, Vishwakarma's 18-year-old sister, laughs as she recalls the reaction of the boy they grabbed in the street when his taunts became too much. "We all stopped and turned round and we surrounded him and grabbed his arms and legs and he thought it was a joke, but we were not kidding and four of us lifted him in the air and the others started to hit him with their shoes and fists," she says.
The rough justice the Red Brigade metes out might seem extreme to western sensibilities, but many Indian women are making it clear that they are no longer prepared to put up with endemic abuse. That much is clear from the crime figures: reports of molestation in Delhi are up 590% year on year and rape reports by 147%. The rape cases have hit tourist numbers, which were down 25% in the first three months of the year – 35% fewer women are travelling to India.
The Red Brigade say sexual abuse is a part of daily life for young women like them. They all have stories of abuse, attempted rapes and daily harassment. "This is what happens in India," says 16-year-old Laxmi, one of Vishwakarma's lieutenants. "These things happen all the time. All of us know this, so don't let anyone say otherwise. This is why we have formed the Red Brigade."
Seventeen-year-old Preeti Verma nods in agreement. Her family are too poor to have a toilet in the house, so she has to go out into the fields, she says. Every time she went out, the man in the neighbouring house threw stones at her to try to scare her into jumping up. "He wanted to see my body," she says. "I told him: 'What are you doing? You are shameless, don't you have a mother and sister in your house?' But he replied that his mother is for his father, his sister is for her husband and that I was for him." She told Vishwakarma, and the man received a visit from the Red Brigade and another from the police. She has had no trouble from him since.
"We've caught a lot of men recently," says 17-year-old Sufia Hashmi. "I joined up because men always used to pass comments on me and touch my body, but now we beat them the men cannot do anything and they run away. You feel powerful and you feel good."
The next day, they gather on the roof of a gym across the city to run through their moves, a mixture of kicks, punches and throws. An instructor shows Pooja how to use a wooden stick to keep a boy at bay. She holds it against his assistant's throat and the boy looks terrified. The others gasp and giggle.
Yet it is not just the young men of the neighbourhood that the Red Brigade must overcome. Many of the members are very young and, although some of their parents are supportive, others are convinced they are wasting their lives. "The attitude of my parents is very demoralising," says 16-year-old Simpi Diwari, a tiny young woman who a few moments ago was kicking away the legs of one of her colleagues. "I want to be like Usha, fighting against the cruel things, I want to be a teacher and a motivator too, but I am fighting with my parents just to be allowed out of the house."
On the way back to the slum, the rickshaws pass a public park and for a moment these tough young women show themselves for what they really are – children forced to grow up fast. They beg and plead to stop. "Please, please," they say, their eyes gleaming in excitement. Shrieking gleefully, they race off towards the swings, slides and roundabouts. Later they stroll back through the market, eating ice-creams, heading for their homes. The sun is low in the sky, the shadows long. The men watch sullenly as they pass, like wolves who have just discovered the sheep are armed. No one risks a word.
Pakistan officials bar candidates using rarely used religious rule
Anger as election candidates barred under article in constitution that demands each is a 'good Muslim of integrity and honesty'
Jason Burke, south Asia correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Friday 5 April 2013 19.05 BST
Dozens of candidates, including the former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, have been excluded from some constituencies in the coming Pakistani elections after being subjected by officials to a rigorous test of their religious credentials and "moral character" under a rarely invoked constitutional clause.
Musharraf, who ruled Pakistan between 1999 and 2008, returned to the country last month after nearly four years in self-imposed exile in a bid to relaunch his political career.
The exact reasoning behind the election commission's decision to bar him from the polls in Kasur in Punjab province was unclear last night. However, Musharraf remains a deeply divisive figure, detested by many conservatives and lawyers. The former commando also faces a variety of serious criminal charges against him, including murder, and could now face disqualification in the three other constituencies where he plans to run.
As well as those already blocked, hundreds more candidates face rejection as the verification process, run by judges appointed as electoral officials, continues. The test is being seen as a new clash between elected representatives and an activist judiciary, as well as a further contest between religious conservatives and relative moderates.
"It is creating a rift … though there is some support for the judges there is growing anger," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, Professor of Political Science at Lahore University of Management Sciences.
Articles 62 and 63 of the constitution demand that a candidate be a "good Muslim of integrity and honesty" who practises Islam and is knowledgeable about the religion.
"They were passed by [military dictator General] Zia ul Haq in 1985 to convince the religious right he was serious about Islamicising Pakistan. They have not been purged since because everyone thought they were impossible to implement," Rais said.
Another high-profile figure to have been disqualified is Ayaz Amir, a newspaper columnist who hoped to stand for re-election from the constituency of Chakwal in the eastern Punjab province. Amir was rejected on the basis of articles which were deemed to have encouraged consumption of alcohol, forbidden in Pakistan. He is to appeal.
Aspirant candidates have been seen on national television stumbling over answers to questions about their knowledge of the Koran. Election officials are also probing the finances of potential candidates. One has been barred for excessive water use on his agricultural estates.
The elections are crucial for the nuclear-armed state of 200 million people, which is wracked by sectarian violence and a long-running insurgency as well as economic and environmental problems. It is hoped the outgoing national assembly, elected in polls which followed the assassination of ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, will be the first since Pakistan gained independence in 1947 to survive a full five-year term and hand power to a new freely-elected parliament.
The Pakistan People's party has led a coalition government throughout the term, though polls show that power shortages, the ailing economy and continuing security concerns have sapped support. Asif Ali Zardari, its joint leader and Benazir Bhutto's widower, will seek a second term as president later this year.
Bilawal Bhutto, the former prime minister's son, launched his own campaign on Thursday. Fears of an extremist attack led to the cancellation of a planned rally. Bhutto, 24, addressed a group of party workers instead. Violence is expected to increase as the campaign intensifies.
For around half of its existence Pakistan has been under military rule. However, the army has kept away from overt political involvement in recent years.
The rigorous implementation of Articles 62 and 63 of the constitution is believed to have been ordered by Iftikhar Chaudhry, the chief justice. He has told returning officers to strictly implement the requirements for qualification.
A requirement in 2008 elections for parliamentarians to be graduates, later revoked, provoked a spate of forgery of degree certificates. Several have now been jailed.
Former health official admits to illegal organ harvesting from living donors
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, April 5, 2013 18:00 EDT
A former top Kosovo health ministry official on trial for organ trafficking on Friday admitted that illegal kidney transplants were carried out at a Pristina clinic, but denied covering them up.
Ilir Rrecaj told an EU-led panel of judges that the “transplants happened, but there was no licence for (them)” at the Medicus clinic.
But Rrecaj — one of seven co-accused in the trial — rebuffed charges that he had provided the clinic with a legal cover to carry out an illicit trade in kidneys.
The prosecution has accused Rrecaj of “abusing his official position” by “falsifying official documents” and providing Medicus with a licence for kidney transplants.
According to the indictment, at least 30 illegal kidney removals and transplants were carried out at the Pristina clinic in 2008.
The donors were recruited from poor Eastern European and Central Asian countries who were promised about 15,000 euros ($19.500) for their organs, while recipients would pay up to 100,000 euros each.
Confronted with a letter Rrecaj wrote to the clinic in May 2008 saying the health ministry “approved in principle the possibility” of transplant from a living donor, the accused countered that “it was a memo, a correspondence, not approval, decision or a licence.”
Rrecaj’s testimony came after another defendant in the case, Driton Jilta, on Wednesday pleaded guilty to charges of abusing his official position or authority and the unlawful exercise of medical activity.
The trial, which opened in 2011, is set to draw to a close by the end of the month.
The Kosovo clinic was raided by police in 2008 after a Turkish man collapsed at Pristina airport waiting for a flight back to Istanbul after having had a kidney removed.
The indictment describes Israeli national Moshe Harel as the mastermind of a network for recruiting donors and finding recipients, while Turkish doctor Yusuf Sonmez is said to have performed organ removal surgeries at the clinic.
But the two are not among those being tried in Pristina as they did not make themselves available to the court.
The case is being tried by EULEX, the European rule of law mission in Kosovo, set up to help the local judiciary to handle sensitive cases after the territory declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
Europeans slammed by austerity measures now enraged by political corruption
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, April 5, 2013 15:11 EDT
A wave of corrosive political scandals at a time of economic woe is exacerbating the outrage of European citizens, who are channelling resentment into street protests or at the polls.
Italy, Spain and Greece have all been hit by fraud or graft cases allegedly involving the top brass. France joined the ranks of scandal-hit nations this week after its former budget minister was charged with tax fraud.
“Everything is coming together to reinforce populist theories — the theory that ‘they’re all rotten’,” said Eddy Fougier, a researcher at the Paris-based IRIS think tank, which analyses international issues.
In France, outrage over the budget minister scandal has yet to erupt into popular protests.
But in some countries of southern Europe, which for several years have been hit by austerity measures more severe than in France, fury has coiled into potent blowback.
Italy, for instance, is currently in the midst a major political impasse triggered in part by voter discontent over a string of scandals.
Ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is involved in tax fraud, sex-for-money and other cases.
Fed-up Italians registered their anger en masse in February general elections, giving former comedian Beppe Grillo’s new anti-corruption, anti-austerity party — the Five Star Movement — 25 percent of the votes.
That led to a three-way split between the parties of Grillo, Berlusconi and a centre-left party run by Pier Luigi Bersani. The result was a failure to form a new government in the eurozone’s third-largest economy.
“No political party must be under any illusion. Even if they did not all act in the same way, there is rage against them,” said Giacomo Marramao, a professor of political philosophy at Roma Tre University.
A series of scandals has also sparked anger in Spain, where citizens brandish drawings of envelopes — a reference to hiding wads of cash in a symbol of graft — in street protests and on the Internet as a sign of their disgust.
“In Spain, people have never really forgiven the act of pocketing money, and if it coincides with a period of general crisis, then it spawns incredibly hostile feelings,” said Emilio de Diego, professor of contemporary history at the Complutense University of Madrid.
The country’s ruling Popular Party, in power since the end of 2011, has been rocked by two separate probes.
It has been accused of using a slush fund to make secret payments to senior members, including Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy — a claim he denies — and is also involved in a corruption scandal related to awarding state contracts.
The royal family has also been drawn into the storm, with a Spanish judge naming Princess Cristina as a suspect in a graft case centred on allegations of embezzlement and influence-peddling against her husband and his ex-business partner.
In Greece, where tax evasion is widespread, thousands have over the months taken to the streets to denounce the “thieves” sitting in parliament, in protest against tough austerity measures.
A scandal involving more than 2,000 prominent Greek politicians, media and industry moguls with Swiss bank accounts has also made waves.
The scandal is based on a list of names originally sent from Paris in 2010 but kept buried for two years and under two successive governments. It recently resurfaced in the press, with calls to use it in the battle against tax evasion.
Even in northern Europe, the crisis has exacerbated public anger over abuse of power and corruption.
In Belgium, the creation in late 2012 of a private foundation by Queen Fabiola sparked a public uproar, as it was widely perceived as a way to avoid paying the country’s 70 percent inheritance tax.
The 84-year-old has since dissolved the charitable vehicle, and her annual income from the state has been reduced from 1.4 million euros ($1.8 million) to around 900,000 euros.
04/05/2013 02:53 PM
Tax Haven Revelations: German Offenders Face Tough Road Ahead
By Florian Diekmann
German officials are demanding details on hundreds of alleged tax cheats uncovered by the "Offshore Leaks" report this week. With tighter laws in place, anxious violators probably won't get off as easy as before.
The large-scale secret tax haven dealings exposed this week are of an enormous scope, covering the transactions of more than 100,000 individuals, including many Germans.
Several hundred, in fact, according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, which along with German public broadcaster NDR was among the network of journalists who analyzed some 2.5 million leaked documents from tax havens that detailed dubious dealings with offshore accounts and shell companies.
So far, the only German to be named is the late society playboy Gunter Sachs, who was briefly married to Bridget Bardot in the 1960s. But the Süddeutsche has announced it plans to reveal more names in the coming days. The revelations, first published on Thursday, sparked immediate demands from German politicians and officials for further details to aid in their fight against tax evasion. Both the German Finance Ministry and the finance minister in the country's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, said they expected relevant documents to be handed over promptly.
But justice officials, including state prosecutors in Bochum und Düsseldorf, have said they don't yet see cause to launch new investigations. They would prefer to wait until individual names are released before finding out whether these people have evaded paying taxes or engaged in money laundering.
Still, the "Offshore Leaks" revelations, which include 130,000 people from more than 170 countries, could trigger an avalanche of legal cases. Those under suspicion are likely to be worried. In Germany, tax evaders can face up to 10 years behind bars, and anyone who hides funds exceeding €1 million is excluded from the possibility of a suspended sentence.
'The Really Big Fish'
Criminal tax lawyer Wolfgang Joecks, who is also a constitutional judge in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, says the investigations could be complicated because they are also likely to involve international tax law.
At the same time, he says: "I can imagine that the search will be very fruitful." That's because those under suspicion are likely to confess quickly, thus providing investigators with tips and clues for further probes. "Then I'd recommend that those in question pack their toothbrushes in a suitcase and prepare for pre-trial detention," he adds.
But this case is quite different from those in recent years that saw German officials purchase CDs containing data on tax cheats from sources in Switzerland or Luxembourg, Joecks says. "Offshore tax havens aren't usually dealing with the kind of people who drive to Luxembourg to make a deposit, but with complex constructs and networks that are set up to conceal capital flows," he says. "To put it colloquially, this is about the really big fish."
Indeed, the sums of money bunkered in tax havens around the world could be enormous. Thomas Eigenthaler, the head of the country's DSTG union of financial administration workers, told daily Bild that Germans allegedly have some €400 billion ($516 billion) in untaxed money hidden abroad.
Still, that doesn't necessarily mean that all of these offshore accounts are illegal. "Accounts in tax havens can also take advantage of legal room for maneuver," says Thilo Schaefer, a tax expert at the Cologne Institute for Economic Research. This activity also isn't always about tax evasion, but simply favorable investment opportunities, or spreading financial risks. "The general suspicion that every arrangement in a tax haven is illegal just isn't appropriate," he adds.
Self-Indictments Won't Be Easy
However, those who have engaged in tax evasion can still get off scot free if their activity exceeds the statute of limitations, though this will likely apply in very few cases, says tax lawyer Joecks.
Investigators will probably focus not just on rich private individuals, but also companies whose activities have been uncovered. That's because businesses often transfer bribes through secret accounts in tax havens. Or, perhaps they have evaded corporate tax, which would not only have to be paid back, but would also require criminal prosecution of the executives responsible for the decision. Another scenario could involve company owners hiding capital gains, which is also a criminal offence.
While tax evaders in recent years have sometimes been offered immunity for turning themselves in, this time it won't be that easy, because lawmakers have since significantly tightened the rules against offenders. Suspects must provide exact details of their finances for each year, and when this information is found to differ from the reality by even 5 percent in a single year, the entire self-indictment is void, Joecks says.
"Because of the nature of these complex structures and high sums, most of the suspects won't be able to manage this before someone turns up for them," he adds.