South Korea, Mar 3 (AP/UNB) — South Korea and the U.S. are eliminating their massive springtime military drills and replacing them with smaller exercises as part of efforts to support diplomacy aimed at resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis.
The decision announced by both countries Sunday is an olive branch to North Korea. But it will likely raise worries about how the allies will maintain their readiness in the event that military tensions erupt again in the wake of the recently failed summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The Pentagon said in a release the U.S. and South Korean defense chiefs decided to conclude the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle series of exercises.
It said the allies agreed to maintain firm military readiness through newly designed command post exercises and revised field training programs.
Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan and South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo "made clear that the alliance decision to adapt our training program reflected our desire to reduce tension and support our diplomatic efforts to achieve complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a final, fully verified manner," the statement said.
Seoul's Defense Ministry released a similar statement.
Jeong expressed his disappointment at the lack of agreement at the Trump-Kim summit but still hopes that Washington and Pyongyang would continue negotiations, the South Korean statement said.
According to U.S. officials, the new training will be done in smaller drills, tabletop exercises and simulations, and it will involve smaller units, such as battalions and companies rather than massive formations involving thousands of troops, as they had in the past.
Officials said the Pentagon will focus on smaller exercises and mission essential tasks, which include the ability to integrate airstrikes and the use of other weapons systems, drones, surveillance assets, logistics and communications.
Last November, a month before he resigned as defense secretary, Jim Mattis disclosed that the U.S. and South Korea would scale back and tone down the spring exercises. He said the aim was to avoid setting back diplomacy over North Korea's nuclear weapons. He described it as a reorganization of the exercises, not an end to maneuvers on the peninsula.
Trump has long complained about the cost of military drills with South Korea.
After his second summit with Kim ended without any agreement in Hanoi on Thursday, Trump spoke again about the cost of annual military drills. "It's a very, very expensive thing and we do have to think about that, too," Trump told reporters.
Following his first summit Kim in Singapore last June, Trump caught many in the U.S. and South Korea by surprise by suspending the allies' summertime military drills. He called joint drills "very provocative" and "massively expensive."
The U.S and South Korea also have since suspended a few other smaller joint drills.
Trump has also pushed South Korea to increase its financial contribution for the cost of the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in the country as deterrence against North Korea. He previously threatened to withdraw troops from South Korea and Japan if they refused to pay more.
The end of the springtime war games will benefit North Korea, which has described them as a rehearsal for invasion and responded with its own costly military exercises and weapons tests, including firing a new intermediate-range missile over Japan last year.
North Korea's state media on Sunday didn't immediately comment on the drills' cancellation.
After the Hanoi summit, the U.S. and North Korea blamed each other for the breakdown of the talks. But both sides stopped short of pulling out of negotiations.
The Korean Peninsula remains in a technical state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. About 28,500 American soldiers are deployed in South Korea to deter potential aggression from North Korea.
Oxon Hill, Mar 3 (AP/UNB) — In a slashing speech packed with braggadocio and grievance, President Donald Trump denounced Democrats as the party of "the socialist nightmare," relitigated his crowd sizes back to the inauguration and took on "sick," ''lunatic" and "dirty" foes at every turn, earning him the unvarnished adoration of cheering conservatives Saturday.
After a trying week of tumult and setbacks, Trump delivered a stemwinder that extended beyond two hours and hardly left him winded.
Trump let loose against House Democrats, who are broadening their investigations of him, predicted he would win re-election by a greater margin than his 2016 victory, taunted his potential White House challengers and sounded themes that are staples of his rallies. He complained often of getting "no credit" for his achievements as he proudly drifted "off script" at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
His remarks capped a week that saw his nuclear summit with North Korea's leader collapse without an agreement, his former lawyer deliver damaging congressional testimony about his character and business practices and Congress take action to nullify his emergency declaration to secure money for the border wall that lawmakers have denied him.
On the stage, he was a prideful and at times profane figure as he complained that past political appointments had allowed a situation where political foes were trying to take him out with "bullshit."
Trump reached back to old criticisms of his ex-attorney general, mocking Jeff Sessions' Southern accent and calling him "weak and ineffective."
It took him more than an hour to get to the message that Republicans and members of his administration have been emphasizing in recent weeks as they try to brand Democratic policy ideas as socialism.
"America will never be a socialist country," he said. "Socialism is not about the environment, it's not about justice, it's not about virtue." He said it's about "power for the ruling class."
For every prepared line like that, there were multiple improvisations from a president on policy and personality.
"That's how I got elected — by being off script," Trump said early in his speech as the crowd roared its approval.
He took particular delight in going after the Democrats' Green New Deal, brought forward by some liberal Democrats in Congress and backed to varying degrees by several of the party's 2020 presidential candidates.
"I think the New Green Deal or whatever the hell they call it — the Green New Deal — I encourage it," Trump said mockingly as he wound up for a round of exaggeration. "I think it's really something that they should promote. They should work hard on it. ... No planes, no energy. When the wind stops blowing that's the end of your electric. Let's hurry up. Darling, is the wind blowing today? I'd like to watch television, darling."
He returned to the topic again and again, and jokingly kicked himself for doing so, saying it would give the Democrats time to back away from it. He also turned the topic into an attack of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and one of the top Democratic contenders for president.
"I'm going to regret this. This speech should have been delivered one year from now, not now, damn it." Trump said. "I should have saved the Pocahontas thing for another year because that destroyed her political career and now I won't get a chance to run against her. I don't want to knock out all of the good stuff and wind up with somebody who's actually got talent."
Trump also went after Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, essentially accusing him of being a drag on the economy.
"We have a gentleman that likes raising interest rates in the Fed. We have a gentleman that loves quantitative tightening in the Fed. We have a gentleman that likes a very strong dollar in the Fed," Trump said. "...With all of that, we're doing great. Can you imagine if we left interest rates where they were?"
Trump defended his declaration of a national emergency to obtain wall funding beyond the $1.4 billion that Congress approved for border security. He said the order doesn't set a bad precedent for future administrations because Democrats are "going to do that anyway, folks. The best way to stop that is to make sure I win the election."
Trump continued to bask in his 2016 victory and the crowds that attend his events. He talked of how few gave him a chance to win.
"I think we're going to do even better in 2020," Trump said.
When he made his prediction of a second term, the crowd responded with chants of "USA, USA, USA."
He also took a lengthy detour back to the inauguration, claiming that an enormous if not unprecedented crowd showed up, contrary to the thorough video and photo coverage that showed otherwise.
Trump revisited his meeting with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, calling their summit "very productive." He also took another crack at explaining his remarks that he didn't believe Kim knew about or would have allowed the death of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who was held prisoner in North Korea, then sent home in a vegetative state. His remarks were widely criticized and led the Warmbier family to say they held Kim and his regime responsible for their son's death.
"I'm in such a horrible position because in one way I have to negotiate. In the other way, I love Mr. and Mrs. Warmbier and I love Otto. And it's a very, very delicate balance," Trump said.
With special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation seemingly approaching its end, Trump spoke of the "collusion delusion" and lashed out at newly empowered House Democrats who are opening new inquires involving him.
"This phony thing," Trump said of the Russia probe, "looks like it's dying so they don't have anything with Russia there, no collusion. So now they go in and morph into 'Let's inspect every deal he's ever done. We're going to go into his finances. We're going to check his deals. We're going to check' — these people are sick."
House Democrats are undertaking several broad new investigations that reach far beyond Mueller's focus on Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion between Russians and the Trump campaign. So far, Mueller has not brought any public charges alleging a criminal conspiracy between the campaign and Russia; the investigation continues.
Their efforts increased this past week after Trump's former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, appeared before two House committees and a Senate committee. In his public testimony before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Cohen called the president a "con man" and a "cheat" and gave Democrats several new leads for inquiry.
Syria, Mar 3 (AP/UNB) — The ground assault into the last area held by the Islamic State group intensified Saturday as U.S.-backed Syrian fighters made "remarkable progress" amid heavy clashes, including the capture of a hill overlooking a tent encampment for the extremists, officials with the Kurdish-led forces said.
The capture of the last pocket still held by IS fighters in Baghouz village would mark the end of a devastating four-year global campaign to end the extremist group's hold on territory in Syria and Iraq — their so-called "caliphate" that at the height of the group's power in 2014 controlled nearly a third of both Iraq and Syria.
Since the last push by the Syrian Democratic Forces began Friday night, the Kurdish-led force has been advancing slowly on two fronts as the extremists used snipers and booby traps to slow the push on the last area they control, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said. He added that IS tried to detonate a suicide car bomb against advancing fighters but the attempt failed.
Bali tweeted that "heavy clashes" were taking place in the area on the east bank of the Euphrates River. Later in the day, he tweeted that heavy fighting continued at outskirts of Baghouz, adding that "SDF made a remarkable progress since yesterday evening (and) recaptured many positions from ISIS."
Zana Amedi, an SDF commander, told The Associated Press that "an active ground force" is advancing into IS-held territories as the extremists resort to sniper fire and booby-traps.
Another SDF commander who goes by his nom de guerre, Aram, said the assault into the last IS sliver of land intensified later Saturday.
Two helicopters for the U.S.-led coalition were seen circling the area of fighting around noon Saturday. A loud explosion later was heard from a distance and thick black smoke billowed into the sky, apparently a coalition airstrike.
The SDF on Friday evening resumed military operations to liberate the last piece of territory held by IS in the province of Deir el-Zour after evacuating thousands of civilians and hostages who had been besieged inside.
The military campaign to uproot the militants from the eastern banks of the Euphrates began in September, pushing them down toward this last corner in the village of Baghouz, near the Iraqi border. The military operation was halted on Feb. 12 as the SDF said a large number of civilians and hostages were holed up in the territory, which sits atop caves and tunnels where they had been hiding.
By Friday, more than 10,000 civilians had left the IS held area and the extremists released some SDF fighters they had taken prisoner in earlier battles.
"We expect it to be over soon," Bali said.
Another SDF commander, Adnan Afrin, said "there are fierce battles" with IS fighters firing thermal missiles at advancing troops and using drones. Afrin said eight SDF fighters were wounded, some critically.
Afrin said the buffer area between IS and SDF had been closed after the SDF's advance. He said there have been no suicide attacks but that some land mines went off.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said 10 IS gunmen were killed in fighting in the Baghouz area. It added that Syrian government forces and their allies clashed with IS gunmen who tried to cross to the west bank of the Euphrates river leaving seven IS members dead.
Amedi, the SDF commander, said the Kurdish-led force cannot rely on airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition because IS gunmen are trapped everywhere "so if you just rely on airstrikes and then advance on the ground that will cause heavy casualties."
"At least now, we are trying to advance on the ground with rare airstrikes," he said. "Now it's mostly clashes. There are almost no airstrikes this morning. There were few airstrikes in the morning and nothing else after that."
Vietnam, Mar 2 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump said he walked away from his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un because Kim demanded the U.S. lift all of its sanctions, a claim that North Korea's delegation called a rare news conference in the middle of the night to deny.
So who's telling the truth? In this case, it seems that the North Koreans are. And it's a demand they have been pushing for weeks in lower-level talks.
Trump's much-anticipated meeting with Kim, held in the Vietnamese capital Wednesday and Thursday, ended abruptly and without the two leaders signing any agreements. Trump spoke with reporters soon after the talks broke down and said the dispute over sanctions was the deal breaker.
"Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, and we couldn't do that," he said. "We had to walk away from that."
Hours later, two senior members of the North's delegation told reporters that was not what Kim had demanded. They insisted Kim had asked only for partial sanctions relief in exchange for shutting down the North's main nuclear complex. Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said the North was also ready to offer in writing a permanent halt of the country's nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests.
Vice Foreign Minister Choe Sun Hui said Trump's reaction puzzled Kim and added that Kim "may have lost his will (to continue) North Korea-U.S. dealings."
The State Department then clarified the U.S. position.
According to a senior official who briefed the media on condition he not be named because he was not authorized to discuss the negotiations publicly, the North Koreans "basically asked for the lifting of all sanctions."
But he acknowledged the North's demand was only for Washington to back the lifting of United Nations Security Council sanctions imposed since March 2016 and didn't include the other resolutions going back a decade more.
What Pyongyang was seeking, he said, was the lifting of sanctions that impede the civilian economy and the people's livelihood — as Ri had claimed.
The U.N. Security Council has imposed nearly a dozen resolutions targeting North Korea, making it one of the most heavily sanctioned countries in the world. So Kim was indeed seeking a lot of relief — including the lifting of bans on everything from trade in metals, raw materials, luxury goods, seafood, coal exports, refined petroleum imports, raw petroleum imports.
But Kim wasn't looking for the lifting of sanctions on armaments. Those were imposed earlier, from 2006, when the North conducted its first nuclear test.
For Pyongyang, that's a key difference.
While it claims that its nuclear weapons are needed for self-defense, it was offering to at least for the time being accept sanctions directly related to nuclear weapons and missile technology. But the North has always considered the imposition of sanctions on other areas of trade even more nefarious and was singling them out as their negotiation point.
The State Department official said Trump and his negotiators deemed that to be a bridge too far because they had already determined that lifting the post-2016 sanctions would be worth "many, many billions of dollars" for the North and could essentially be used to fund their continued nuclear and missile programs.
So it was definitely a robust demand. But it wasn't, as Trump claimed, all the sanctions.
It also didn't come as a surprise. He said the North had been pushing that demand for weeks in lower-level talks.
Even so, both sides seemed determined to put a good face on the summit, which Trump said was generally friendly and constructive.
In a much softer tone than the officials at the late-night news conference, the North's state-run media made no mention of Trump's decision to walk away without any agreements and indicated that the North was looking ahead to more talks.
"The top leaders of the two countries appreciated that the second meeting in Hanoi offered an important occasion for deepening mutual respect and trust and putting the relations between the two countries on a new stage," it said. "They agreed to keep in close touch with each other for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the epochal development of the DPRK-U.S. relations in the future."
It said Kim expressed his thanks to Trump for making positive efforts for the successful meeting and talks "while making a long journey and said goodbye, promising the next meeting."
Washington, Mar 2 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump says he has asked China to remove its tariffs on U.S. farm products such as pork and beef.
Trump tweets that removing the tariffs "is very important for our great farmers - and me!"
In July, the Trump administration gradually began slapping import taxes on Chinese goods to pressure Beijing into changing policies that hobble foreign competition and threaten U.S. technology.
I have asked China to immediately remove all Tariffs on our agricultural products (including beef, pork, etc.) based on the fact that we are moving along nicely with Trade discussions....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 1, 2019
Trump doesn't mention that the Chinese-imposed tariffs are in retaliation for the actions he took.
The U.S. and China are trying to work out their differences. Trump says he is asking China to immediately remove its tariffs on farm goods because the trade talks "are moving along nicely" and because he didn't go through with a planned March tariff increase on $200 billion of Chinese imports.