US, South Korea open to expanded military drills to deter North Korea

Update US, South Korea open to expanded military drills to deter North Korea
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US President Joe Biden attends a bilateral meeting with his South Korean counterpart Yoon Seok-youl at the People’s House in Seoul on May 21, 2022. (Reuters)
Update US, South Korea open to expanded military drills to deter North Korea
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There’s worry in Seoul that Washington is slipping back to the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” policy of ignoring North Korea until it demonstrates seriousness about denuclearization. (File/AFP)
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Updated 21 May 2022

US, South Korea open to expanded military drills to deter North Korea

US, South Korea open to expanded military drills to deter North Korea
  • One mission will be reassuring South Korea about the US commitment to countering North Korea’s Kim Jong Un

SEOUL: US President Joe Biden and South Korea President Yoon Suk Yeol said after meeting Saturday that they will consider expanded military exercises to deter the nuclear threat from North Korea at a time when there’s little hope of real diplomacy on the matter.
Yoon affirmed in remarks at a news conference that their shared goal is the complete denuclearization of North Korea. The US and South Korea issued a joint statement that said they were committed to a “rules-based international order” following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The statement likely sets the stage for how the US and its allies will address any challenges with North Korea.
The statement may draw an angry response from North Korea, which had defended its nuclear weapons and missile development on what it perceives as US threats and long described the U.S-South Korea military exercises as invasion rehearsals, although the allies have described the drills as defensive.
Yet Biden also reiterated his offer of vaccines to North Korea as the coronavirus spreads at a dangerously fast speed through that country. He also said he’s prepared to meet with Kim Jong Un provided the North Korean leader is “sincere” and “serious.”
“Yes, we’ve offered vaccines, not only to North Korea but China as well,” Biden said. “We’re prepared to do that immediately. We’ve gotten no response.”
The division of the Korean peninsula after World War II has led to two radically different countries. In South Korea, Biden is touring factories for computer chips and next-generation autos in a democracy and engaging in talks for greater cooperation. But in the North, there is a deadly coronavirus outbreak in a largely unvaccinated autocracy that can best command the world’s attention by flexing its nuclear capabilities.
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One as Biden flew to South Korea, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the US has coordinated with Seoul and Tokyo on how they’ll respond should the North conduct a nuclear test or missile strike while Biden is in the region or soon after. Sullivan also spoke with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi earlier in the week and urged Beijing to use its influence to persuade the North to cease the tests.
As part of a five-day visit in Asia, Biden spent Saturday developing his relationship with Yoon, who assumed office little more than a week ago.
In advance of the meeting, there have been worries in Seoul that Washington is slipping back to the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” policy of ignoring North Korea until it demonstrates seriousness about denuclearization, an approach that was criticized for neglecting the North as it made huge strides in building its nuclear arsenal.
The US president opened Saturday by laying a wreath at Seoul National Cemetery, wearing white gloves and a somber expression as he also burned incense and then signed a guest book. Biden then greeted Yoon at the People’s House for a nearly two-hour meeting and brief public remarks. The pair will also hold a joint news conference and attend a leaders’ dinner at the National Museum of Korea.
In addition to North Korea, both leaders emphasized economic security and growing trade relations as two Korean industrial stalwarts — Samsung and Hyundai — are opening major plants in the US
Biden faces growing disapproval within the US over inflation near a 40-year high, but his administration sees one clear economic win in the contest with China for influence in the Pacific. Bloomberg Economics Analysis estimates that the US economy will grow faster this year than China for the first time since 1976, a forecast that White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre credited to Biden’s spending on coronavirus relief and infrastructure that led to faster job growth.
The national security event that is galvanizing broader discussions between the two countries has been Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a war that has led to an unprecedented set of sanctions by the US and its allies.
South Korea joined the US in imposing export controls against Russia and blocking Russian banks from the SWIFT payments system. Its participation was key to stopping Russia’s access to computer chips and other technologies needed for weapons and economic development.
At the start of the administration, many White House officials thought that Kim’s nuclear ambitions would prove to be perhaps the administration’s most vexing challenge and that the North Korean leader would aim to test Biden’s mettle early in his time in office.
Through the first 14 months of Biden’s administration, Pyongyang held off on missile tests even as it ignored efforts by the administration to reach out through back channels in hopes of restarting talks that could lead to the North’s denuclearization in return for sanctions relief.
But the quiet didn’t last. North Korea has tested missiles 16 separate times this year, including in March, when its first flight of an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017 demonstrated a potential range including the entire US mainland.
The Biden administration is calling on China to restrain North Korea from engaging in any missile or nuclear tests. Speaking on Air Force One, Sullivan said Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping could hold a phone call in the coming weeks.
Biden has fiercely criticized Beijing over its human rights record, trade practices, military harassment of the self-ruled island of Taiwan and more. And while Biden has made clear that he sees China as the United States’ greatest economic and national security competitor, he says it is crucial to keep the lines of communication open so the two powers can cooperate on issues of mutual concern. North Korea is perhaps highest on that list.
White House officials said Biden won’t visit the Demilitarized Zone dividing the Korean peninsula during his trip — something that’s become standard for presidents during Seoul visits dating back to Ronald Reagan. Biden visited the DMZ in 2013 as vice president. Sullivan said the president’s decision to skip the stop this time wasn’t driven by security concerns.
Instead, Biden on Sunday will visit the Air Operations Center’s Combat Operations Floor on Osan Air Base, south of Seoul. The US sees it as one of the most critical installations in Northeast Asia.


Libyan rival officials meet for UN-led talks on elections

Libyan rival officials meet for UN-led talks on elections
Updated 48 min 23 sec ago

Libyan rival officials meet for UN-led talks on elections

Libyan rival officials meet for UN-led talks on elections
  • Two senior Libyan officials from the country's rival camps have begun talks on constitutional arrangements for elections

GENEVA: Two senior Libyan officials began two days of talks Tuesday on constitutional arrangements for elections, the latest UN effort to bridge gaps between the country’s rivals.
Aguila Saleh, the influential speaker of the country’s east-based parliament, and Khaled Al-Meshri, head of the government’s Supreme Council of State, based in the west, in the capital of Tripoli, met at the UN headquarters in Geneva.
According to the United Nations, the talks will focus on a draft constitutional framework for elections after Libya’s rival factions failed to reach an agreement in their last round of talks in the Egyptian capital of Cairo.
Stephanie Williams, the UN special adviser on Libya, said they would discuss “timelines, modalities and milestones to guarantee a clear path to the holding of national elections as soon possible.”
“It is now the time to make a final and courageous effort to ensure that this historic compromise takes place, for the sake of Libya, the Libyan people and the credibility of its institutions,” she said.
The criteria for a presidential candidacy were a contentious point in the talks, according to Libyan media. The Tripoli-based council insisted on banning military personal from running for the country’s top post — apparently a move directed at the divisive commander Khalifa Haftar, whose forces are loyal to the east-based administration.
Haftar had announced his bid in elections slated for last December but the vote was not held because of myriad issues, including controversial hopefuls who had announced bids and disputes about election laws.
There are growing tensions on the ground, and sporadic clashes between rival militias recently erupted in Tripoli. Living conditions have also deteriorated, mainly because of fuel shortages in the oil-rich nation. Tribal leaders have shut down many oil facilities, including the country’s largest field.
The blockade was largely meant to cut off key state revenues to the incumbent Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who has refused to step down even though the vote was not held in December.
Now, Dbeibah and another prime minister, Fathy Bashagha, appointed by the east-based parliament to lead a transitional government, are claiming power. The rivalry has sparked fears the oil-rich country could slide back to fighting after tentative steps toward unity last year.
Libya has been wrecked by conflict since a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. The country was then for years split between rival administrations in the east and west, each supported by different militias and foreign governments.


Belgium busts drug lab on air base housing US nukes

Belgium busts drug lab on air base housing US nukes
Updated 28 June 2022

Belgium busts drug lab on air base housing US nukes

Belgium busts drug lab on air base housing US nukes
  • Two suspects -- not military personnel -- were arrested during the raid
  • Local police had discovered the drug lab on military land on June 22

BRUSSELS: Belgian police raided an illegal lab producing the rave drug ecstasy on an air base that reputedly houses part of the US nuclear arsenal in Europe, investigators said Tuesday.
Two suspects — not military personnel — were arrested during the raid, according to a spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office in the Belgian province of Limburg.
The Kleine-Brogel base in northeast Belgium is best known for housing a stock of US nuclear weapons.
Belgian officials are discreet about the deployment, having briefly confirmed its role in the 1980s, but in 2019 a Green MP told parliament that US forces hold ten to 20 warheads there.
Prosecutors said that local police had discovered the drug lab on military land on June 22 and that it had been dismantled by specialist federal officers.
The lab was found to produce MDMA, a synthetic recreational drug most commonly known as ecstasy.
The Kleine-Brogel air base is often a target of Belgian anti-nuclear and anti-NATO protesters.
It is in a rural area between the port city of Antwerp and the border with Germany’s industrial heartland, an area dotted by labs and hideouts used by international drug gangs.


UK FM fails to say how many British detainees still held by Iran

UK FM fails to say how many British detainees still held by Iran
Updated 28 June 2022

UK FM fails to say how many British detainees still held by Iran

UK FM fails to say how many British detainees still held by Iran
  • Questions raised over Britain’s response to Tehran ‘hostage-taking’

LONDON: UK Foreign Minister Liz Truss has struggled to reveal the exact number of British detainees still being held in Iran.

During a Foreign Affairs Committee meeting, Truss was asked how many detainees are being held hostage by Tehran and what progress the UK government is making in freeing them.

She claimed that the government is “continuing to press Iran on the release of all detainees.”

But concerns have been raised that families of detained individuals may avoid publicizing their cases out of fear of the UK Foreign Office’s reaction.

Pressure from human rights organizations such as Amnesty International was said to be behind the UK government push to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori earlier this year.

During the committee meeting, Conservative MP Alicia Kearns said: “The purpose of the Foreign Office is to keep British nationals safe abroad.”


Japan to host 2023 G-7 Summit in Hiroshima May 19-21

Japan to host 2023 G-7 Summit in Hiroshima May 19-21
Updated 28 June 2022

Japan to host 2023 G-7 Summit in Hiroshima May 19-21

Japan to host 2023 G-7 Summit in Hiroshima May 19-21
  • Japan will hold the rotating presidency of the G-7 major powers next year

MUNICH: Japan will host the 2023 Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima on May 19-21, Prime Minister KISHIDA Fumio said Tuesday.
Japan will hold the rotating presidency of the G-7 major powers next year. Kishida is a lawmaker elected from a constituency in the western Japan city, hit by a US atomic bomb in August 1945 near the end of World War II.
Toward the Hiroshima summit, “we’ll make sure to deepen discussions on realistic measures toward the achievement of a world without nuclear weapons,” Kishida told a news conference in the German city of Munich after attending a three-day G-7 summit in Schloss Elmau, also Germany.
“We want to show the world a powerful commitment never to repeat the horror of nuclear weapons” at the Hiroshima summit, he stressed.
On domestic issues, Kishida said the government will help lower electricity bills by building a framework effective in easing tight electricity supplies and curbing electricity prices.


First Sri Lankan pilgrims depart for Hajj despite skyrocketing travel costs

First Sri Lankan pilgrims depart for Hajj despite skyrocketing travel costs
Updated 28 June 2022

First Sri Lankan pilgrims depart for Hajj despite skyrocketing travel costs

First Sri Lankan pilgrims depart for Hajj despite skyrocketing travel costs
  • 960 pilgrims out of Sri Lanka’s quota of 1,585 will head to Makkah this year
  • Worshippers must pay travel costs in foreign currency amid worsening economic crisis

COLOMBO: The first group of Sri Lankans departed for Hajj on Tuesday despite earlier plans to forgo the pilgrimage as the country confronts its worst-ever economic crisis.

Last month, Sri Lanka’s umbrella association of pilgrimage organizers said that its members would suspend operations because the cost of sending worshippers to Makkah would be too high for the country to bear.

The island nation is struggling to deal with the worst financial downturn since independence in 1948 and has already defaulted on foreign debt repayments.

But earlier in June, the government announced Muslims would be allowed to perform Hajj this year provided they pay their travel costs in foreign currency.

“We are undergoing a huge economic crisis, still we want to respect the values and sentiments of the Muslims, therefore we allowed them to go even under trying circumstances,” Religious Affairs Minister Vidura Wickremanayake told Arab News. 

“We are confident that their prayers will go a long way in getting out of this crisis.”

One of Islam’s five pillars of faith, the Hajj was restricted over pandemic fears to just 1,000 people residing in Saudi Arabia in 2020. The Kingdom limited the pilgrimage to 60,000 domestic participants in 2021, compared with the pre-pandemic 2.5 million.

This year, after lifting most of its coronavirus curbs, Saudi Arabia will welcome 1 million domestic and foreign pilgrims.

Sri Lanka, where Muslims make up almost 10 percent of the country’s predominantly Buddhist population of 22 million, has been allocated a quota of 1,585 pilgrims to perform Hajj. But with inflation now running at 40 percent, the cost is too high for many to bear and only about 960 are expected to travel.

The pilgrimage this year costs five times more than in 2019, according to Ibrahim Sahib Ansar, who oversees Hajj logistics at the Ministry of Religious Affairs.  

“Although the quota is given, the cost of the pilgrimage this year has multiplied five times more than the cost two years ago, which was only 500,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($1,387),” he told Arab News. 

Ansar added that most of the pilgrims from Sri Lanka this year are seniors, who fear that next time they will not meet the official 65-year age limit. 

“I was waiting for this opportunity for the past two years,” said Farzan Huzair, who was among the 50 pilgrims departing from Colombo on Tuesday. ”I was also afraid that I won’t be able to perform Hajj after age 65.”  

Huzair told Arab News that he viewed Hajj as “a golden opportunity,” adding: “I collected the money over the years to fulfill my lifelong dream.” 

Rizmi Reyal, who heads the Sri Lanka Hajj Travel Operators Association, said that he will be praying for his country. 

“All praise is due to Allah for the opportunity given for the Lankan pilgrims to perform Hajj this year,” he said.

“I am going for this year’s Hajj with my wife, solely to pray for my country, which is facing a severe economic crisis.”