Tokyo, Feb 7 (AP/UNB) — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed Thursday to take a "step-by-step" approach in resolving a territorial dispute with Russia left over from World War II.
Abe told a rally of former residents of four islands seized by Russia in the war's final days and their supporters Thursday that settling the conflict over what Japan calls its "northern territories" was difficult but necessary.
"It is not easy to resolve this task remaining over 73 years since the war. Yet, we need to tackle this," Abe said.
"Keeping in mind your sentiments toward the Northern Territory, we are determined to take a step-by-step approach toward resolving the territorial issue," he said.
Regaining the islands north of Japan's northern main island of Hokkaido has been a priority for Abe and his conservative base. For seven decades, the dispute has prevented Tokyo and Moscow from signing a peace treaty.
In November, Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to accelerate negotiations based on a 1956 Soviet proposal to return two of the islands to Japan.
That suggestion angered Russian nationalists, and last month Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned Japan it must recognize the islands as part of Russia as a starting point for talks.
Abe said the negotiations would continue based on the guidelines agreed to with Putin in order to sign a peace treaty "while people of Japan and Russia strengthen their mutual trust and friendship."
While Abe is keen to make progress on the dispute with Russia and find opportunities to cooperate in developing oil and gas and other natural resources, China is the overriding concern, said James Brown, associated professor at Temple University's Japan Campus.
"There is also the concern that the United States, especially under the 'America First' policy of (President Donald) Trump, is somewhat of a less reliable ally than it was in the past," Brown said.
To avoid facing isolation among "hostile" powers such as China, North Korea and Russia, "it seems that Abe has calculated that of those countries, it would make sense to try and normalize relations with Russia and thereby to draw it away from China," he said.
Beirut, , Feb 7 (AP/UNB) — The leader of Lebanon's militant Hezbollah said Wednesday the organization would defend Iran in the event of war, saying the Islamic Republic would not be alone in a confrontation with America.
Hassan Nasrallah said the Islamic Republic is currently the strongest state in the region, and the so-called axis of resistance led by Iran is the strongest it has ever been. The axis groups the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad with Shiite militias in Iraq and Hezbollah.
Nasrallah was speaking to supporters at a rally marking the 40th anniversary of Iran's Islamic Revolution and the overthrow of the shah.
"If America launches war on Iran, it will not be alone in the confrontation, because the fate of our region is tied to the Islamic Republic," he said.
Speaking via a large screen, Nasrallah said America is set to retreat from the region and has no real option to squeeze Iran except with sanctions.
"We see the struggle in the region may escalate and may take different forms but in all cases, today the Islamic Republic is the strongest state in the region ... and America is headed for more withdrawals and retreats from the region," he said.
Nasrallah spent over an hour extolling Iran and the Islamic revolution's political and economic accomplishments.
The Shiite group was formed in 1982 under the guidance of Iran's Revolutionary Guard to combat Israel. It has been Iran's most successful investment abroad, serving as the Islamic Republic's arm at Israel's doorstep.
The group dominates the political and military landscape of Lebanon and possesses tens of thousands of trained fighters as well as an array of sophisticated armaments. Its intervention in Syria on the side of President Bashar Assad also expanded its influence and reach in the region.
At home, the group remains the unrivalled armed force, also making significant political gains along with allies in the last parliamentary elections. This positioned the group to secure three ministerial posts in the new government, sworn in last week, including the powerful Health Ministry, which has one of the country's largest budgets.
Tokyo, Feb 7 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump used his biggest stage of the year to announce a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Trump said in his State of the Union address that he intends to meet Kim on Feb. 27-28 in Vietnam, saying that although much work remains to be done toward peace on the Korean Peninsula, his relationship with Kim is a good one.
But is Kim really ready to make a deal?
Here's why the stakes will be higher this time around.
Trump's announcement of the summit's timing and location was expected. He had been teasing it for weeks. But he kept his North Korea remarks surprisingly short.
After dramatically asserting that if he hadn't been elected president, the U.S. and North Korea would be fighting a major war now, he acknowledged that much work remains to be done. That's quite a shift from his claim right after his June summit with Kim in Singapore that the nuclear threat from the North was over.
The president's tune changed in other ways as well.
The word denuclearization was nowhere to be found. Neither was anything specific about what he achieved in Singapore or what specifically he intends to get out of another meeting.
Trump is smart to give himself a lot of wiggle room.
U.S. intelligence chiefs believe there is little likelihood Kim will voluntarily give up his nuclear weapons or missiles capable of carrying them.
Nevertheless, efforts to nail down the logistics and an agenda for the summit do appear to be on track. Just before Trump spoke, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, reportedly flew to Pyongyang to try to flesh out summit logistics and an agenda.
Good reason for caution
After a year of heightening threats, and in sharp contrast with the standoffish policies of President Barack Obama, Trump got a lot of credit for simply being willing to open a dialogue with the North and to meet directly with Kim.
Trump's claim that he has played a big role in calming things down is also true, though he helped raise those tensions to begin with through his inflammatory rhetoric and policy of "maximum pressure" to further squeeze the North's economy and isolate it from the global financial system.
But now that the ice has been broken, just sitting down with Kim won't likely win Trump more kudos.
Previous presidents refused to meet with Kim and his predecessors because they did not want to legitimize them or bolster their status. Kim got all that and more in Singapore.
Trump needs to prove his relationship with Kim has a purpose that goes beyond photo ops. In his speech, Trump stressed that the North has returned Americans who had been jailed and has not launched any long-range missiles in 15 months.
Kim announced all of that before the Singapore summit, however.
There's a real risk this time around that if Trump can't nail down a significant win on the denuclearization front, he could find himself working in direct opposition to his own main objective. Instead of getting Kim to give up his nukes, any tacit acceptance of the status quo could embolden Kim to dig in further as the leader of the world's newest nuclear power.
Kim's multiple targets
In the hope of getting sanctions relief and possibly a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, Kim has offered Trump some goodies. He has suggested he is willing to dismantle some nuclear and missile-related facilities, and as Trump pointed out, has maintained his self-proclaimed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing.
But he has been careful not to put all his eggs in Trump's basket.
Rebuilding ties with South Korea and China is the cornerstone of Kim's bigger strategy. He has already met Chinese leader Xi Jinping four times and South Korean President Moon Jae-in three times.
Kim has an immediate interest in wooing the Chinese and South Koreans. He wants investment and trade to bolster his economy and help fund infrastructure projects. Beijing and Seoul are already suggesting they believe sanctions against the North should be eased sooner rather than later, despite the Trump administration's stance that denuclearization must come first.
Weakening Seoul's security alliance with Washington is another of Kim's goals.
He scored big in Singapore when Trump agreed to put off joint military exercises with the South, and again when Trump started publicly questioning the value of such exercises and demanding Seoul pay a bigger share of the cost of its own national defense.
Seoul just agreed to boost its share, so that's a win for Trump. But the reportedly rancorous process appears to have also undercut the South's confidence in Washington.
The biggest annual U.S.-South Korea exercise, meanwhile, is normally held in March or April. It was postponed and scaled down last to year to ease tensions during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
U.S. officials have said it will likely be scaled down this year as well.
Ankara, Feb 7 (AP/UNB) — Turkish officials say one more person has been found dead in the rubble of a collapsed eight-story building in Istanbul, raising the death toll to at least three.
Istanbul Gov. Ali Yerlikaya told reporters early Thursday that rescue teams working overnight pulled 12 people out of the rubble with injuries. Three of them were in serious condition, Yerlikaya said.
It was not immediately clear how many people were still trapped in the debris of the building on the Asian side of Istanbul in the mostly residential Kartal district.
The building, with 43 people living in 14 apartments, collapsed on Wednesday. The cause was under investigation but authorities said the top three floors had been illegally built.
United Nations, Feb 6 (AP/UNB) — North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs "remain intact" and its leaders are dispersing missile assembly and testing facilities to prevent "decapitation" strikes, U.N. experts said in a new report.
The experts' report to the Security Council, seen Tuesday by The Associated Press, says the country continues to defy U.N. economic sanctions, including through "a massive increase in illegal ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products and coal."
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea — the country's official name — also continues to violate an arms embargo, a ban on luxury goods and financial sanctions, the experts said.
And the panel said it investigated "the DPRK's sophisticated cyberattacks" against multiple countries "to evade financial sanctions."
The report was sent to council members as U.S. President Donald Trump is preparing for a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. At their June summit in Singapore, Trump promised "security guarantees" to Pyongyang and Kim recommitted to the "complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."
But there were no signs in the experts' report that Kim has taken any steps toward eliminating his nuclear arsenal or intercontinental ballistic missiles, which he boasted could reach the U.S. mainland.
"The Democratic People's Republic of Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs remain intact," the experts said.
"The panel found that the DPRK is using civilian facilities, including airports, for ballistic missile assembly and testing with the goal of effectively preventing 'decapitation' strikes," the report said. It also "found evidence of a consistent trend on the part of the DPRK to disperse the assembly, storage and testing locations."
The experts said they are continuing to investigate companies, entities and individuals in Asia that are on the U.N. sanctions blacklist and "clandestinely procured centrifuges for the DPRK's nuclear program" — and that attempted to sell "a wide range of military equipment to armed groups and governments in the Middle East and Africa."
The panel painted a picture of continuing wide-ranging efforts by North Korea to evade U.N. sanctions.
A huge increase in ship-to-ship transfers "render the latest United Nations sanctions ineffective by flouting the caps on the DPRK's import of petroleum products and crude oil as well as the coal ban imposed in 2017 by the Security Council in response to the DPRK's unprecedented nuclear and ballistic missile testing," the experts said.
One unnamed country said North Korea obtained more than the cap of 500,000 barrels of refined petroleum products in 2018, but another unnamed country questioned the figure, the experts said.
They also said that "global banks and insurance companies continue to unwittingly facilitate payments and provide coverage for vessels involved in ever-larger, multimillion-dollar, illegal ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products, as well as an increasing number of ship-to-ship coal transfers and attempted trans-shipments."
The panel said ship-to-ship transfers involve "increasingly advanced evasion techniques." These include ship identity theft," false Automatic Identification System transmissions, physically disguised North Korea tankers, illegally changed vessel names, night transfers, and the use of additional vessels for trans-shipment of prohibited items, it said.
The panel said it inspected seized vessels engaged in prohibited coal trading and documented "ship identity laundering."
In addition, it said, "the world's largest container shipping line continued to unwittingly transport prohibited items" seized by unnamed countries.
As for the arms embargo, the experts said North Korea attempted to supply small arms, light weapons and other military equipment via foreign intermediaries to Libya, Sudan and Houthi Shiite rebels in Yemen.
The experts said they also investigated North Korean involvement in gold mining in Congo, construction of a military camp in Sierra Leone, the sale of fishing rights in waters surrounding the country, and other activities around the world banned under U.N. sanctions.
"Financial sanctions remain some of the most poorly implemented and actively evaded measures of the sanctions regime," the panel said.
Individuals acting on behalf of North Korean financial institutions are operating in at least five countries "with seeming impunity," it said. The Reconnaissance General Bureau, the North Korean intelligence agency that conducts clandestine operations, continues to transfer funds from closed accounts in the European Union to those in Asian financial institutions, the panel said.
The experts said the global operations of the companies Glocom and MKP continued despite the panel's past reporting on their illegal activities, "and show the ongoing use of overseas companies and individuals to obfuscate income generating activities for the DPRK regime."
They said that "DPRK diplomats continue to play a key role in financial sanctions evasion" along with representatives of companies and other entities on the sanctions blacklist, including by controlling accounts in multiple countries and using the names of family members and front companies.
"DPRK diplomats continue to travel under false accreditation in their passports," the panel said, "and have also facilitated the country's efforts to illegally export large quantities of coal through trans-shipment to disguise the origin."