Leader of German Social Democrats’ youth wing could be Merkel’s nemesis

Kevin Kuehnert, leader of the Juso youth wing of Germany's Social Democrats SPD party, speaks during a press conference on Thursday at the SPD headquarters in Berlin. (AFP)
Updated 18 January 2018
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Leader of German Social Democrats’ youth wing could be Merkel’s nemesis

BERLIN: On the face of it, a fresh-faced, hoodie-wearing 28-year-old is an unlikely threat to the leader of Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD), let alone to conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Yet before an SPD vote on Sunday on whether to enter formal talks with Merkel, the leader of the party’s Jusos youth wing has struck a chord with members with his campaign against a re-run of the “grand coalition” that has ruled Germany since 2013.
“The chancellor is hanging on a Jusos drip,” wrote the daily Die Welt this week, reflecting a flurry of headlines about Kevin Kuehnert, Jusos leader since November, as a potential nemesis for the upper middle-aged leaders of Germany’s two main parties.
Three days before SPD delegates decide whether to enter formal coalition negotiations with Merkel’s conservatives, Kuehnert, a Berliner, looked serious but relaxed.
“To keep returning to a grand coalition out of fear that everything else is even worse really diminishes the SPD in the long run,” Kuehnert told reporters.
His style brings a breath of fresh air to the somewhat staid world of German politics. In an open-necked black shirt, jeans and trainers, Kuehnert stood in front of a microphone and spoke articulately without notes.
Despite the age difference, some German media have called him Germany’s Jeremy Corbyn, the 68-year-old leftist leader of Britain’s Labour party leader who has galvanized young supporters.
Kuehnert’s clear message and congenial manner have resonated. SPD rank and file are split over the policy blueprint deal that would be the basis for talks with the conservatives.
“I am very optimistic that on Sunday, we have a real chance of winning the vote,” Kuehnert told reporters at SPD headquarters, a venue he said he chose to emphasize solidarity with the party.
The stakes could barely be higher.
If delegates vote against the blueprint agreed with Merkel, SPD chairman Martin Schulz is widely expected to quit.
Moreover, Merkel would have failed twice at forming a coalition after a previous attempt with other parties collapsed in November, putting a big question mark over her own future. The result could be a minority government or new elections.
However, Kuehnert is at pains not to attack Schulz. “After Sunday, I won’t be calling for anyone to resign,” he said.
A soccer fan whose mother works in a jobs center, Kuehnert sought to demolish the argument made by some in the SPD that it must avoid a new election due to its dismal ratings, by saying an election is not inevitable if there is no grand coalition.
In the September election, the SPD saw its support slump to 20.5 percent, its lowest since 1933 and underlining its loss of identity and profile in a coalition that was dominated by Merkel. Now opinion polls put it on at 18 percent.
Kuehnert is adamant that the SPD needs to go into opposition to reinvent itself. “We are looking for a path that will lead the SPD back to being the big left party again,” he said.
Former Jusos leaders include ex-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, whom Merkel defeated to start her first term in office back in 2005, and Andrea Nahles, who is tipped as a possible successor to Schulz.


100s of S. Koreans to enter North to reunite with loved ones

South Korean participants sit to register to take part in family reunions with their North Korean family members at a hotel in Sokcho, South Korea, Sunday, Aug. 19, 2018. (AP)
Updated 31 min 4 sec ago
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100s of S. Koreans to enter North to reunite with loved ones

  • 180 families to be reunited in North's mountain resort
  • More than 57,000 have registered for a reunion

SEOUL, South Korea: About 200 South Koreans and their family members prepared to cross into North Korea on Monday for heart-wrenching meetings with relatives most haven’t seen since they were separated by the turmoil of the Korean War.
The weeklong event at North Korea’s Diamond Mountain resort comes as the rival Koreas boost reconciliation efforts amid a diplomatic push to resolve a standoff over North Korea’s drive for a nuclear weapons program that can reliably target the continental United States.
The temporary reunions are highly emotional because most of those taking part are elderly people eager to see their loved ones once more before they die. Most of these families were driven apart during the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula still in a technical state of war.
Buses carrying the elderly South Koreans attending this week’s reunions arrived at a border immigration office Monday morning. Red Cross workers wearing yellow vests waved at them. Some were in wheelchairs and others were aided by workers as they got off the buses and moved to the South Korean immigration office in the eastern border town of Goseong. After undergoing immigration checks, they were to cross the border by buses and travel to Diamond Mountain.
Past reunions have produced powerful images of elderly Koreans crying, embracing and caressing each other. Nearly 20,000 people have participated in 20 rounds of face-to-face reunions held between the countries since 2000. Another 3,700 exchanged video messages with their North Korean relatives under a short-lived program from 2005 to 2007. No one has had a second chance to see their relatives.
According to Seoul’s Unification Ministry, 197 separated South Koreans and their family members will take part in the first round of reunions that run from Monday to Wednesday. Another 337 South Koreans will participate in a second round of reunions from Friday to Sunday.
South Korea will also send dozens of medical and emergency staff to Diamond Mountain to prepare for potential health problems considering the large number of elderly participants.
Many of the South Korean participants are war refugees born in North Korea who will be meeting their siblings or the infant children they left behind, many of them now into their 70s.
Park Hong-seo, an 88-year-old Korean War veteran from the southern city of Daegu, said he always wondered whether he’d faced his older brother in battle.
After graduating from a Seoul university, Park’s brother settled in the North Korean coastal town of Wonsan as a dentist in 1946. After the war broke out, Park was told by a co-worker that his brother refused to flee to the South because he had a family in the North and was a surgeon in the North Korean army.
Park fought for the South as a student soldier and was among the allied troops who took over Wonsan in October 1950. The US-led forces advanced farther north in the following weeks before being driven back by a mass of Chinese forces after Beijing intervened in the conflict.
Park learned that his brother died in 1984. At Diamond Mountain, he will meet his North Korean nephew and niece, who are 74 and 69, respectively.
“I want to ask them what his dying wish was and what he said about me,” Park said in a telephone interview last week. “I wonder whether there’s a chance he saw me when I was in Wonsan.”
During the three years since the reunions were last held, the North tested three nuclear weapons and multiple missiles that demonstrated a potential of striking the continental United States.
North Korea has shifted to diplomacy in recent months. Leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a son of North Korean war refugees, agreed to resume the reunions during the first of their two summits this year in April.
South Korea sees the separated families as the largest humanitarian issue created by the war, which killed and injured millions and cemented the division of the Korean Peninsula into the North and South. The ministry estimates there are currently about 600,000 to 700,000 South Koreans with immediate or extended relatives in North Korea.
But Seoul has failed to persuade Pyongyang to accept its long-standing call for more frequent reunions with more participants.
The limited number of reunions cannot meet the demands of divided family members, who are now mostly in their 80s and 90s, South Korean officials say. More than 75,000 of the 132,000 South Koreans who have applied to participate in reunions have died, according to the Seoul ministry.
Analysts say North Korea sees the reunions as an important bargaining chip with the South, and doesn’t want them expanded because they give its people better awareness of the outside world. While South Korea uses a computerized lottery to pick participants for the reunions, North Korea is believed to choose based on loyalty to its authoritarian leadership.