April 28, 2018

Politics 'Korean War to End!' Trump Hails 2 Koreas' Deal to Pursue Denuclearization

U.S. President Donald Trump hailed Kim Jong Un’s effort to end his country’s seven-decade war with South Korea and pursue the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula. “KOREAN WAR TO END!” Trump tweeted Friday. “The United States, and all of its GREAT people, should be very proud of what is now taking place in Korea!” Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in embraced after signing the deal during a historic meeting on their shared border, the first time a North Korean leader has set foot on the southern side. They announced plans to formally declare a resolution to the war and replace the 1953 armistice that ended open hostilities into a peace treaty by year’s end. [Source]

April 27, 2018

(CNN) - With a single step, Kim Jong Un broke with decades of hostility and distrust to become the first North Korean leader to cross into South Korean territory since 1953.

It marked the beginning of a landmark summit, the first meeting of the leaders of North and South Korea in over a decade, with broad implications for the world.

Shaking hands with Moon Jae-in, while standing in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) dividing the two countries, Kim told the South Korean President he felt the weight of meeting at "such a historic location."

"It was a very courageous decision for you to come all the way here," Moon replied.

The highly-choreographed summit is the result of months of diplomatic talks between the North and the South and every moment has been laden with symbolism and history by organizers.

But in a rare unscripted moment right after their first meeting on the demarcation line, Kim invited Moon to step into the northern side of the DMZ. "Maybe this is the right time for you to enter North Korean territory," Kim said to Moon, who took him up on the invitation.

South Korean viewers in Seoul erupted at the warm greeting between Kim and Moon, with residents gathered around television screens across the city applauding and cheering.

"I didn't think I would be able to see such things happening in my life. I am happy to be witness to history in the making," local resident Kwak Eun-jung told CNN.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, shakes hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in Friday.

'Why was it so difficult to get here?'

Before the talks started, North Korea's young leader said he wanted to write a new chapter in Korean relations.

"As I walked over here, I thought 'why was it so difficult to get here?' The separating line wasn't even that high to cross. It was too easy to walk over that line and it took us 11 years to get here," Kim told Moon and the gathered officials.

Moon praised Kim's "courageous and bold decision" to sit down for talks during their morning meeting. "Over the past seven decades we weren't able to communicate, so I think we can talk the whole day today", Moon said, drawing laughs from Kim.

Kim received a full red-carpet welcome at the DMZ, including a military band in traditional dress which played the Korean folk song "arirang," well known in both North and South Korea.

Signing a visitor's book upon entering the Peace House, where negotiations took place, Kim wrote "a new history begins now" and "an age of peace, at the starting point of history."

The summit is the result of lengthy and determined negotiating on the part of Moon, a longtime advocate of peace between the Koreas. It will also set the stage for the first meeting between a sitting US president and North Korean leader when Donald Trump and Kim meet in late May or June.

Denuclearization, peace treaty discussed

At the Peace House, Moon and Kim convened around a specially-designed table on the second floor of the Peace House.

To the left of Kim, sat his sister Kim Yo Jong, who led the Pyongyang delegation to the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics and has been playing a more visible role in North Korean politics.

During almost two hours of talks in the morning, Kim and Moon discussed denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula as well as the possibility of a permanent peace agreement, South Korean government spokesman Yoon Young-chan said.

Every moment of the summit has been carefully planned. In the afternoon, Kim and Moon planted a tree using soil and water from significant sites in North and South Korea before taking a private stroll in the DMZ.

In the evening, the two leaders' wives were expected to join them for the dinner.

In a White House statement issued on Friday morning, the Trump administration said it hoped the talks "will achieve progress toward a future of peace and prosperity for the entire Korean Peninsula."
In Beijing, the Chinese government said it "applauds" the leaders of the two countries for taking a "historic step" towards peace.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying finished her regular briefing with a quote from an ancient Chinese poem. "'Disasters are never powerful enough to separate real brothers, and a smile is all they need to eliminate the hard feelings'," she said.

'Peace, a new start'

The grand ceremony of the day began early when Moon's motorcade left Seoul for the DMZ, tracked the entire way by helicopters live-broadcasting the journey.

Crowds of supporters, holding signs calling for denuclearization, waved off the South Korean President as he set off on the hour-long drive north.

The meeting had been highly anticipated in South Korea as a possible opportunity to discuss a peace treaty between the two countries.

Although hostilities for the Korean War finished in 1953, with the signing of the armistice, no official agreement ending the war was ever signed.

Huge banners have been displayed across the South Korean capital of Seoul proclaiming "Peace, a new start" amid speculation the two leaders could discuss signing an official peace treaty finally ending the Korean War.

The North Korean leader would "open-heartedly discuss" all the issues with Moon, and was entering talks with the hope of "achieving peace prosperity and reunification of the Korean Peninsula," North Korean state media KCNA said.

South Koreans watch the summit from a train station in Seoul on Friday.

However, stakes are high and some observers are doubtful the two sides can bridge the gap created by more than 60 years of antagonism and suspicion.

Just last year, Kim was an international pariah, denounced for his weapons tests and dire human rights record, including what the US and South Korea say was the murder of his own half brother Kim Jong Nam, in Malaysia.

In the past three months, the North Korean leader has gone to great lengths to cultivate an affable and diplomatic image, making his first trip abroad to Beijing last month and just this week was photographed comforting the Chinese victims of a bus crash.

But experts said the outcome of the summit in the long term will depend on how willing Kim is to stick to its agreements. Observers have warned that the regime has a track record of extracting concessions without giving much in return, in order to ensure the survival of the Kim family dynasty.

"The success of this summit will not be known today but will depend on the reactions from Washington and Pyongyang over the coming days and weeks. North Korean cheating and US ambivalence has caused the collapse of all previous openings," Adam Mount, senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, told CNN.

Kim's arsenal

Officials around the world, especially in the United States, will be paying closer attention to any specific agreements by Kim relating to his nuclear arsenal.

Kim and Moon Jae-in pose for photos in front of Bukhansan Peace House for the Inter-Korean Summit on April 27.

Japan's Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said the North Koreans needed to make clear commitments on its nuclear and missile programs. "I would like to keep close eyes on ... this summit and find out if it is leading to concrete action," he said on Friday morning.

Less than a week ago, North Korea announced it had suspended its nuclear and weapons testing programs, which it proclaimed were "complete."

But while Kim has in recent weeks publicly endorsed denuclearization, what exactly he means by the term and how it would take place has been left extremely vague.

Trump Says He Refused to Approve $1 Billion Jerusalem Embassy

New embassy, angering Palestinians, to open next month

April 27, 2018

[Bloomberg] - President Trump says he rejected plans to build a new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem for $1 billion.

President Donald Trump said he rejected a proposal to build a new U.S. embassy to Israel in Jerusalem for $1 billion, and instead the U.S. will spend less than half a million dollars to open the facility next month.

“The papers were put before me to sign an application for more than $1 billion to build an embassy,” Trump said Friday at a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House. “I had my name half-signed and I noticed the figure and I never got to the word ‘Trump.”’

The president said he called the ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and asked about the expenditure. Friedman, Trump said, told him “I can build it for $150,000” by renovating part of an existing U.S. property in Jerusalem, and “instead of 10 years from now, we can open it up in three months.”

Trump said he authorized spending $300,000 to $400,000. “It’s going to be beautiful and it could be somewhat temporary,” he said.

“But that’s the way government works,” he said. “They were going to spend a billion dollars and we’re going to spend much less than half a million dollars.”

Trump announced late last year that the U.S. would move its Israel embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognizing the city as Israel’s capital. The announcement infuriated the Palestinian Authority, which responded by breaking off U.S.-brokered talks on a potential new peace deal with Israel.

Trump said he may travel to Jerusalem to attend the opening of the new embassy.

April 14, 2018

Editorial on Illinois Exodus: When Living Here No Longer Makes Financial Sense

Chicago taxpayers have paid a heavy price. They’ve been hit with $1.2 billion in property tax increases for police, fire and teacher pensions; a 29.5 percent tax on water and sewer bills to save the Municipal Employees pension fund and a 56 percent and 28.2 percent increases in the monthly tax tacked on to telephone bills — on cellphones and land lines — for the Laborers Pension fund.
After the election, Chicago homeowners and businesses face yet another property tax increase for police and fire pensions in 2020 — and another hike the following year in the tax tacked onto water and sewer bills to save the Municipal Employees pension fund. Following five-year “ramp-up” periods, additional increases will be needed to honor the city’s statutory promise to keep all four city government pension funds on the road to 90 percent funding by 2048. By the city’s own estimate, police and fire pension costs will rise by $297.3 million, or 36 percent, in 2020. The Municipal and Laborers plan costs will grow by $330.4 million, or 50 percent, in 2022. [Chicago Sun Times, April 26, 2018]

April 13, 2018

(Chicago Tribune) - If the state of Illinois kept score on millennials it poached from surrounding states, it could have counted Sara Niedzwiecki — temporarily. A Wisconsin native, she moved near Chicago shortly after college, envisioning city life as it’s portrayed in the movies: hip, adventurous, welcoming. Not for her, it turned out.

As part of a series on the accelerating exodus from Illinois, we’re tracking down expatriates (and potential expats) and telling their stories. From millennials to retirees, their narratives follow the same thread: Illinois is losing its promise as a land of opportunity. Government debt and dysfunction contribute to a weak housing market and a stagnant jobs climate. State and local governments face enormous pension and other obligations. Taxes have risen sharply; many Illinois politicians say they must rise more.

People are fleeing. Last year’s net loss: 33,703. Among those who’ve left in recent years:

Sara Niedzwiecki, now 30, moved to the suburbs in 2010 just as millennials began to accelerate their departure. In two waves between 2011 and 2015, millennials led age groups in out-migration to other states, according to Internal Revenue Service data compiled by the Illinois Policy Institute, a right-leaning think tank. Illinois ranked second-worst in losing millennials and their dependents, behind New York.

Niedzwiecki, an accountant fresh out of college, worked in Libertyville for several years and then at a downtown location. Sure, it would have been nice to live in Lakeview or Bucktown with other 20-somethings, but she couldn’t afford it. So she endured a daily commute from the suburbs and tried to build a life.

It never happened. After years of watching her paycheck get sapped by rising rent and taxes, and after exploring options to buy a house and realizing she couldn’t afford that either, she moved back to Wisconsin. She got a better-paying job, left her $850-per-month basement apartment in the suburbs and bought a $148,000 two-bedroom condo in Madison with parking and a washer and dryer. Her property taxes are about $2,800 annually.

“I just felt like I was never going to get ahead in Illinois,” she said. “Six years of living there proved that.”

She grew up in Door County with her twin sister. Both women lived in Illinois before moving back to Wisconsin. A handful of their friends left Illinois, too, for Florida, California, Texas and Wisconsin. “I was super excited about trying something new and getting out of my small town,” she told us. “But Illinois was not feasible for me.” Instead, she has an affordable life in Madison. She hasn’t looked back.

Donald Felz, a lifelong Illinoisan who retired from a utility company in 2016, says a sinking home value and taxes drove him and his wife, Debi, out of Illinois. The Woodstock home they built in 2006 for $390,000, into which they put another $35,000, was losing value. This was to be the house where the Felzes would host grandchildren and putz in the yard. Instead, rather than put their retirement finances in further peril, they sold it in 2016 for $310,000. The property tax bill had climbed from $7,658 in 2007 to $8,340 in 2015. That’s not a huge rate of increase. But had their housing value remained at the purchase price, the taxes would have been nearly $12,500. A falling Illinois home value kept a high Illinois tax bill from rising higher.

The frustration, Felz said from his current home in Windsor, Colo., was more than taxes. It was how those dollars were spent: “If I could have seen some incremental improvement that followed the increases, then OK. I get it. I see it. But the roads were not getting fixed. The schools were still struggling. I couldn’t figure it out. The money was going somewhere.”

In Colorado, taxes on their home, valued at $510,000 and climbing, are about $4,000 a year.

Earlier this year, Felz returned to Illinois to visit his father. They spent evenings on the sofa watching TV and digesting the constant scroll of campaign ads from candidates running in the March primary election. That gave Donald Felz one more reason to appreciate his new home in Colorado: “We have term limits.”

Russia, U.S. Near Brink in a Syrian Standoff With Nuclear Risks

April 14, 2018

(Bloomberg) - Russia has spent years testing state-of-the-art products of its defense industry in Syria. Now it’s warning that some of those weapons could be turned against the U.S., as tensions between the powers reach new heights.

U.S. President Donald Trump is threatening to strike Russia’s Syrian ally in response to an alleged chemical attack -- and Russia is threatening to retaliate if its forces there suffer harm. While both sides have dialed back the brinkmanship in the last couple of days, they remain locked in what could be the most dangerous standoff between nuclear-armed countries for decades.

Tensions have erupted out of the Syrian battlefield, where the U.S. and Russia back opposing sides and forces from Iran, Turkey and Israel have also been sucked in. Delivering a somber address to an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council early Friday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres drew a Cold War parallel -- and said the threat could be even more acute now.

“The mechanisms and the safeguards to manage the risks of escalation that existed in the past no longer seem to be present,” Guterres said. “This is exactly the risk we face today -- that things spiral out of control. It is our common duty to stop it.”

Trump told Moscow on Wednesday to “get ready” for an American missile strike in Syria, after a Kremlin diplomat said that any rockets aimed toward Russian forces there -- as well as any plane or ship that fired them -- would be targeted.

Since then, hopes of averting a direct confrontation have risen. Trump put his attack on pause as he consulted allies, and a senior Russian official said the envoy’s threats had been misinterpreted. Still, Western diplomats in Moscow say the situation remains unpredictable.

Russia doesn’t expect the U.S. to abandon its proposed strikes on Syria, according to Alexander Golts, an independent defense and security expert in the Russian capital. Its threats of retaliation are part of a strategy that seeks to limit the scale of American action, and ensure that Moscow receives advance warning, he said: “Russia is raising the stakes in an effort to de-escalate on its terms.”

That’s what happened a year ago, when Trump ordered cruise-missile attacks to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for another alleged use of chemical weapons -- while forewarning the Russians so they didn’t suffer casualties.

‘Out of Control’

But there’s no guarantee of a repeat. And if the two countries do end up clashing directly, even the worst outcomes can’t be ruled out, said Golts. “Russia has what it takes to strike back at the American warships,” he said. “What would happen next is hard to say. It could fairly quickly escalate to a nuclear level.”

In Washington on Thursday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was delivering a similar warning to Congress. Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee that while it’s important to “stop the murder of innocent people,” his greatest fear about a strike on Syria is that the conflict could “escalate out of control, if you get my drift.”

President Vladimir Putin boasted last month about a new generation of “invincible” nuclear arms -- including high-speed underwater drones, and hypersonic weapons capable of dodging U.S. defenses at 10 times the speed of sound.