Seoul, Oct 25 (Xinhua/UNB) -- The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) sent a notice to South Korea offering to discuss the removal of facilities in the DPRK's scenic resort of Mount Kumgang, South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul said Friday.
Kim made the remarks during a meeting with the chief of the National Assembly committee for foreign affairs and unification, according to Yonhap news agency.
With the notice delivered to the unification ministry, the DPRK proposed discussing the removal issue through the exchange of letters.
The notice delivery came after the DPRK's official newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported Wednesday that top DPRK leader Kim Jong Un said he would welcome the South Korean compatriots at any time if they want to come to Mount Kumgang.
Kim ordered the removal of South Korean-built "shabby" facilities in Mount Kumgang in an agreement with the relevant unit of the South Korean side.
The tour by South Koreans to Mount Kumgang has been halted since a South Korean female tourist was shot dead in 2008 by a DPRK soldier after allegedly venturing into off-limit areas.
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said Thursday that tour by South Koreans to the Mount Kumgang resort was not basically subject to the UN Security Council sanctions.
Kang said individuals' tour to the mountain resort was a matter of whether the unification ministry in charge of inter-Korean affairs would grant it or not.
Beijing, Oct 25 (Xinhua/UNB) -- China's agricultural sector expanded steadily during the first three quarters of the year, with a stable increase in farmers' incomes, an official said Friday.
The added value of the country's primary industry hit 4.3 trillion yuan (about 614.3 billion U.S. dollars) during the period, up 2.9 percent year on year, Wei Baigang, an official with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, told a press conference.
Disposable incomes of farmers jumped 6.4 percent year on year to 11,622 yuan.
China's grain output is expected to reach over 650 billion kg for a fifth straight year in 2019, sustaining 16 consecutive years of bumper harvest, he said.
Srinagar, Oct 25 (AP/UNB) — Village council elections were held Thursday across Indian-controlled Kashmir, with the detention of many mainstream local politicians and a boycott by most parties prompting expectations that the polls will install supporters of the central Hindu nationalist-led government that revoked the region's semi-autonomous status in August.
Indian officials are hoping the election of leaders of more than 300 local councils will lend credibility amid a political vacuum and contend they will represent local interests better than corrupt state-level political officials.
Heavy contingents of police and paramilitary soldiers guarded polling stations. At some places, soldiers patrolled streets around polling stations. Police said no violence was reported.
Thursday's elections were boycotted by most political parties, including those whose leaders had been sympathetic to the central government but are now in makeshift jails or under house arrest. India's main opposition Congress party boycotted as well, possibly allowing a clean sweep for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party.
The BJP has a very small base in the Kashmir valley, the heart of a decades-old anti-India insurgency in the region of about 12 million people.
Predominantly Muslim Kashmir is split between India and Pakistan, with both countries claiming the region in its entirety. Insurgents in the Indian-controlled portion demand independence or a merger with Pakistan.
In Thursday's elections, members of more than 300 Block Development Councils formed last year chose the councils' leaders. Each block comprises a cluster of villages across Jammu and Kashmir, a state that India's Parliament downgraded in August to a federal territory, a change that takes effect on Oct. 31.
About 1,000 people ran in the elections. In at least 25 councils, candidates ran unopposed.
Most of the candidates and thousands of council members, the electorate for Thursday's vote, have lived for months in hotels in Srinagar, the region's main city, because of security concerns. In the past, militants fighting against Indian rule have targeted candidates.
Officials tout the councils, which will be responsible for allocating government funds, as grassroots democracy. But observers say the system lacks legitimacy in Kashmir.
Political scientist Noor Ahmed Baba said the exercise, at least in theory, is an "important layer of democracy" but questioned conducting it in "extremely difficult and abnormal times."
"When most people are bothered about their basic freedoms and livelihood, facing crushing restrictions, you've these elections," Baba said. "This is more like completing a formality. It looks more like an artificial exercise."
Council elections held last December were boycotted by separatist leaders and armed rebel groups that challenge India's sovereignty over Kashmir. Both rebels and separatists have called elections in Kashmir an illegitimate exercise under military occupation.
About 60% of the 21,208 village council seats in the Kashmir valley are vacant because no one ran for them. The winners of another 30% were elected unopposed.
Before downgrading Kashmir's status, New Delhi sent tens of thousands of additional troops to the already heavily militarized regions, imposed a sweeping curfew, arrested thousands, and cut virtually all communications.
Authorities have since eased some restrictions, lifting roadblocks and restoring landlines and some mobile phones. They have encouraged students to return to school and businesses to reopen, but Kashmiris have largely stayed home, in defiance or fear amid threats of violence.
The Modi government says removing a constitutional provision that gave Kashmir some measure of autonomy since independence from British rule in 1947 was necessary to give rights afforded other Indian citizens, usher in greater economic development and do away with the sense of separateness that BJP leaders say has cultivated the separatist movement.
But as the crackdown continues, Kashmiris have quietly refused to resume their normal lives, confounding India at their own economic expense.
Shops have adopted new, limited hours of operation in the early morning and evening. Taxi drivers haven't returned to the roads.
Shailendra Kumar, the chief electoral officer, said the government had planned for the polls in June.
Conducting the elections during an ongoing crackdown "could be a discussion point," Kumar said, "but should we delay it for another year? I don't think so. This is a clear-cut system governed by rules, and rules don't ask me to gauge mood and sentiments but to facilitate the process."
Some Kashmiris view the polls cynically as a move to create a new political elite loyal to the Modi government that found its plans widely rejected in the region.
"Every election here is meant to pull wool over eyes of Kashmiris and create a smoke screen that everything is fine here," said Mohammed Abdullah, a college teacher. "It's also meant to convey to the world that India is a democracy and Kashmir is part of this vibrant democracy."
To Abdullah and other Kashmiris still reeling from the changes in the region, Thursday's polls suggest the opposite.
Tokyo, Oct 25 (AP/UNB) — Japan's trade minister resigned Friday a month into his job in a scandal over condolence money, expensive melons and other gifts allegedly offered to election supporters.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he had accepted Isshu Sugawara's offer to resign and replaced him with Hiroshi Kajiyama, formerly the minister in charge of local revitalization and regulatory reform.
"I bear responsibility for his appointment and I apologize to the people for causing a situation like this," Abe told reporters.
Abe said Sugawara tendered his resignation because he did not want to hold up important discussions in Parliament over his scandal.
Sugawara's resignation comes just weeks after Abe added him to the Cabinet in a reshuffling prompted by the July election, in which his ruling coalition secured a comfortable majority.
Sugawara has been grilled in Parliament recently after a magazine reported earlier that he had paid condolence money and sent expensive melons, crab and other gifts to his election district supporters. Such payments are considered donations that are against Japanese elections law.
Another magazine article Thursday provided more details of his alleged giveaways to his election supporters in his constituency in Tokyo, apparently triggering his decision to offer his resignation.
Sugawara denied paying cash to voters but has flip-flopped on other details.
Sugawara told reporters he regretted he had to step down in the middle of his term and leave work unfinished. He said the condolence money was presented to supporters by his aide, and that he will fully investigate and clarify.
Abe took office in December 2012 and is set to be the longest serving prime minister in Japanese postwar history next month. He has managed to shake off various scandals, partly because of an opposition that is divided and unpopular.
Dubai, Oct 24 (AP/UNB) — Dubai has loosened its liquor laws to allow tourists to purchase alcohol in state-controlled stores, previously only accessible to license-holding residents, as the United Arab Emirates saw the first drop in alcohol sales by volume in a decade.
The new laws, which also let visitors to skyscraper-studded Dubai obtain liquor permits themselves for the first time, come amid a widening economic downturn affecting this oil-rich nation on the Arabian Peninsula.
However, the laws also close a long-standing legal conundrum facing imbibing tourists who travel here. Throwing back shots, sipping a beer or indulging in a Champagne-soaked brunch in this city-state technically remains illegal without a drinker holding a permit, though no bartender ever asks to see one before pouring a drink.
"The United Arab Emirates is facing tough challenges, as changes in both consumers' buying behavior and demographics started to have an effect," the market research firm Euromonitor International said in a recent report.
Dubai, home to the long-haul carrier Emirates, draws visitors from around the world to the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, as well as to resorts on beaches along the Persian Gulf. Tourists wander through kilometers (miles) of air-conditioned malls, travel by SUVs into its rolling deserts and enjoy its many restaurants.
Many also have a drink while here. The United Arab Emirates dominates other countries around the Mideast when it comes to drinking, with a per-capita alcohol consumption of 3.8 liters (1 gallon) per person per year, according to the World Health Organization. That's even with Sharjah, one of the UAE's seven emirates, banning alcohol.
Alcohol means big business, especially for the state. There's a 50% import tax on a bottle of alcohol, as well as an additional 30% tax in Dubai on buying from liquor stores. Dubai Duty Free, which is also government owned, sold over $2 billion of goods last year alone to those passing through its airport terminals, including 9 million cans of beer, 3 million whiskey bottles and 1.5 million bottles of wine. Duty-free sales, while limited, never required an alcohol license.
The country's two major liquor store chains are Maritime and Mercantile International, a subsidiary of the government-owned Emirates airline, and African & Eastern. African & Eastern, which did not respond to a request for comment, is believed to be at least partially held by the state or affiliated firms.
Bars and nightclubs in Dubai are almost entirely limited to operating inside of or connected to hotels — even drink receipts at the Dubai International Airport show up as coming from a hotel attached to the airport. But even with those restrictions, alcohol-serving establishments always seem full on Thursday nights, the start of the Emirati weekend.
Slowly, however, that has begun to change. Lower global energy prices, a 30% drop in Dubai's real estate market value and trade war fears have seen employers in the city-state shed jobs. Parking lots don't appear quite as full as they once were as sale signs plaster shop windows.
That downturn appears to have even extended to alcohol. Overall sales of alcohol dropped to 161.5 million liters (42.6 million gallons) in 2018, down from 163.7 million liters (43.2 million gallons) in 2017, according to Euromonitor. However, tourism helped keep retail prices high overall as some consumers also sought higher-priced liquors, it said.
"Travel and tourism will continue to play an important role in the development of alcoholic drinks in the United Arab Emirates, at least until Expo 2020," Euromonitor said, referring to Dubai's hosting of the world's fair next year . "After Expo 2020, sales will be more influenced by in-country demographics and dynamics."
The hereditarily ruled government's Dubai Media Office and the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing did not respond to requests for comment on the new license program.
However, thinking about tourists, authorities have taken steps in recent years to loosen drinking regulations. In 2016, Dubai eased rules prohibiting day-time alcohol sales during the holy month of Ramadan , when observant Muslims fast from dawn to dusk and abstain from anything perceived as sinful behavior. In the next few years, the Islamic lunar calendar will draw Ramadan closer to early spring and winter months, a tourist-packed time in the city before the heat takes hold.
The new procedure on alcohol permits allows tourists to obtain one for free at either African & Eastern or MMI stores after showing their passports and signing a pledge that they aren't Muslim and will follow local law.
The process finally ends the Catch-22 that tourists here found themselves in if they drank. Local newspaper stories involving alcohol and mayhem routinely included police charging tourists for drinking without a license when they wouldn't be able to legally register for one.
Meanwhile, driving after consuming any amount of alcohol remains illegal as does drinking in public. Recently published guidelines say any alcohol purchased in stores can only be drunk "within your hotel room/apartment."
A longtime critic of Dubai's legal system says the new laws can mislead tourists about glitzy Dubai's still-stringent laws on drinking.
"What the new law does is create potential revenue through the granting of licenses, and further mislead people into thinking that they can buy and consume alcohol without any risks," said Radha Stirling of the for-hire advocacy group Detained in Dubai. "But the same risks remain as before."