North Korea says no U.S. talks planned at Olympics, Pence vows continued pressure

Members of North Korean cheering squad arrive at a hotel in Inje, South Korea, February 7, 2018.

By Christine Kim and Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL, South Korea (Reuters) – North Korea has no intention of meeting U.S. officials during the Winter Olympics that start in South Korea on Friday, state media said, dampening hopes the Games will help resolve a tense standoff over the North’s nuclear weapons program.

However, the North’s high-ranking delegation, including the younger sister of its leader Kim Jong Un, will meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in and have lunch with him on Saturday.

Such a meeting would be the first such event between a South Korean head of state and a member of the Kim family since a 2007 summit meeting of Kim Jong Il and late South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who has described North Korea as the world’s most tyrannical regime, spoke with Moon on Thursday ahead of the opening ceremony in the mountain resort of Pyeongchang, just 80 km (50 miles) from the heavily armed border with the reclusive North.

Friday’s ceremony will be attended by North Korea’s delegation, including its nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam.

Kim Yo Jong, the sister of the North’s leader, and her entourage, will travel by private jet to Seoul’s Incheon International Airport on Friday, North Korea told the South.

“We have never begged for dialogue with the U.S. nor in the future, too,” the North’s KCNA news agency said, citing Jo Yong Sam, a director-general in the North’s foreign ministry.

“Explicitly speaking, we have no intention to meet with the U.S. side during the stay in South Korea… Our delegation’s visit to South Korea is only to take part in the Olympics and hail its successful holding.”

The United States had not requested talks with North Korea, but Pence left open the possibility of some contact although his message for denuclearisation remained unchanged.

In opening remarks during his meeting with Moon, Pence said the United States would never waver in its goal of getting North Korea to give up its nuclear and ballistic missile program through strong pressure, an aim shared with South Korea.

Pence has said Washington would soon unveil “the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever” while South Korea wants to use the Olympics to re-engage with the North.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters all sides, not just the two Koreas, needed to work hard and dialogue between the United States and North Korea should be expanded for this to happen, Wang said.

“You can’t have it that one person opens the door and another closes it,” he said.

North and South Korea are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The North defends its weapons programmes as necessary to counter U.S. aggression. The South hosts 28,500 U.S. troops, a legacy of the war.

MILITARY PARADE

North Korea marked the founding anniversary of its army with a large military parade in Pyongyang on Thursday broadcast by state media, having last month changed the date of the celebration to the eve of the Olympics.

Kim Jong Un, in a black hat and matching coat, saluted troops while his wife walked beside him, television images showed. One of Kim’s close aides, Choe Ryong Hae, and Kim Yong Nam were also in attendance.

The North’s state media also showed what appeared to be intercontinental ballistic missiles on launchers as thousands of North Koreans filled Kim Il Sung Square, named after Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, in Pyongyang.

“We have destroyed the enemy’s risk-taking provocations at every move,” Kim Jong Un said in a speech. He did not mention the United States, which North Korea considers its main enemy and regularly threatens to destroy in a sea of flames.

Analysts said the parade seemed smaller than those of previous years, but was still focused on the North’s goal of strengthening its nuclear missile capabilities.

Trump has ordered Pentagon and White House officials to begin planning a military parade in Washington similar to the Bastille Day parade he saw in Paris in July, the Washington Post said.

On Friday, before he attends the Olympic opening ceremony, Pence will visit a memorial for 46 South Korean sailors killed in the 2010 sinking of a warship that Seoul blamed on a North Korean torpedo attack.

SEATING COMPLICATIONS

The 28-year-old sister of the North Korean leader will be the first member of the Kim family to cross the border into the South. Kim Yo Jong is a propaganda official blacklisted last year by the U.S. Treasury Department over alleged human rights abuses and censorship.

“By sending key figures like his sister, Kim Jong Un is aiming to send a signal to the South that it is giving more weight to inter-Korean ties while driving a wedge between South Korea and the United States,” said Kim Sung-han, a former South Korean vice foreign minister.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will also attend the ceremony, adding to seating complications for the hosts.

South Korea has asked the United Nations for an exemption to allow a U.N.-sanctioned North Korean official, Choe Hwi, to attend the opening ceremony with Kim Yo Jong.

Pyongyang has yet to mention any change in plans to send him, Seoul said.

The U.N. Security Council, which has slapped sanctions on North Korea for its weapons programmes, imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on Choe last year when he was vice director of the Workers’ Party of Korea Propaganda and Agitation Department.

A group of 280 North Koreans arrived in South Korea on Wednesday, made up of a 229-member cheer squad, taekwondo performers, journalists and the sports minister.

(For graphic on North Korea’s Olympic delegations, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2E1Qa9Q)

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Christine Kim in SEOUL; Additional reporting by Heekyong Yang and Josh Smith in SEOUL, Ossian Shine in PYEONGCHANG, Tim Kelly and Linda Sieg in TOKYO, David Brunnstrom and Matt Spetalnick in WASHINGTON, Michelle Nichols at the UNITED NATIONS and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Writing by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Paul Tait and Nick Macfie)

North Korea warns against U.S.-South Korea military drills after Olympics

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho departs after addressing the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 23, 2017.

By Christine Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea has warned that if the United States goes ahead with delayed military exercises with South Korea after the Winter Olympics it will not “sit idle”, the North’s foreign minister said in a letter to the United Nations.

North Korea has not tested a missile since late November 2017 and entered into inter-Korean dialogue in January, the first talks in two years, which have eased tensions after a year of escalating rhetoric between the Pyongyang and Washington.

Whenever joint military exercises took place “the peace and security of the Korean peninsula were gravely threatened and the inter-Korean mistrust and confrontation reached the top, thus creating great difficulties and obstacles ahead of hard-won dialogues,” North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said in the letter published by the official North Korean news agency.

“We will make every effort to improve inter-Korean relations in future, too, but never sit idle with regard to sinister act of throwing a wet blanket over our efforts.”

The United States and South Korea have agreed to push back a routine early-year joint military drill until after the South holds the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and Paralympics. The Games begin next week and run until March 18.

In the letter, Ri said the United States was misleading public opinion by claiming its pressure campaign, including “their harshest sanctions,” had brought about the inter-Korean talks, when the “dramatic turning point” was entirely thanks to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

In a commentary on Friday, North Korea’s state media said Washington was attempting to create a “stage of confrontation” at the Olympics by saying that inter-Korean talks and positive results that had stemmed from them could “disappear” after the Games.

Asked to comment, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, Mike Cavey, said: “The United States and our allies and partners in the region have long conducted routine exercises to maintain readiness. These exercises ensure we are trained for combined joint operations.”

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has warned that all options are on the table, including military ones, to resolve the crisis over North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons capable of hitting the United States.

While it has repeatedly said it prefers a diplomatic solution, Trump has exchanged threats with Kim and U.S. officials have said Trump and his advisers have discussed a preventative “bloody nose” strike on North Korea, alarming experts who warn that this could trigger catastrophic retaliation, especially on South Korea.

U.S. officials have said the debate on military action has lost some momentum as a result of the intra-Korean talks, which Trump has called a “good thing” and credited to his tough stance.

Joseph Yun, the U.S. special envoy on North Korea, said on Thursday he did not think the administration was close to triggering military action.

The White House said on Friday that Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke by telephone and discussed an expanded missile defense system and other efforts to boost Japan’s defenses amid the tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program.

Trump also spoke to South Korean President Moon Jae-in about human rights in North Korea and trade between the United States and South Korea, the White House said.

North Korea also criticized U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s pending visit to the Olympics, accusing Washington of halting improvements in inter-Korean relations.

Last month, a White House official said Pence planned to use his attendance to try to counter Kim Jong Un’s efforts to “hijack” the games with a propaganda campaign.

North Korea has agreed with South Korea to send a 230-strong cheering squad to the Winter Olympics, as well as an orchestra and taekwondo performance team.

A joint cultural performance planned in a North Korean mountain resort was called off this week by Pyongyang, which blamed South Korean media for encouraging “insulting” public sentiment regarding the North.

Twenty-two North Korean athletes will compete in the Olympics, including 12 who will play in a unified women’s ice hockey team. The other 10, including a figure skating pair, arrived in South Korea on Thursday.

(Reporting by Christine Kim; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom, Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and James Dalgleish)

President Trump signs Religious Liberty Executive Order on National Day of Prayer

U.S. President Donald Trump signs an Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty during the National Day of Prayer event at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington D.C., U.S., May 4, 2017.

By Kami Klein

On the National Day of Prayer, President Donald Trump and Vice President Pence signed a new executive order focusing on Religious Liberty.  White House officials declared “it is the policy of the administration to protect and vigorously promote religious liberty.”  Today, President Trump made good on his promise to ease a ban on political activity by churches and other tax-exempt institutions.

Many friends of Morningside were already in Washington D.C. for the National Day of Prayer. Prophetic and influential leaders such as Paula White, Jentezen Franklin, Samuel Rodriguez, Pastor Ramiro Pena, Franklin Graham and Anne Graham were there for this historic moment.  Also in attendance were Alveda King, Ravi Zachariah, Rev. Maldonado, Dr. David Jeremiah, Dr. Jim Garlow and Pastor Frank Amedia.

In a signing ceremony at the White House, President Trump said: “We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced any more.”  The President continued by saying, “ No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors.”

This executive order will allow non-profit organizations, hospitals, educational institutions and businesses to deny certain health coverage for religious reasons.  An example of this would be Christian Groups like Little Sisters of the Poor from being forced to pay for abortion or contraception services.

Under the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law sponsored by Lyndon Johnson, organizations that are non-profit, tax exempt status are not allowed to participate in political campaigning or supporting any one candidate for elective office.   Trump’s order guides the IRS to “alleviate the burden of the Johnson Amendment.”

A White House official told Fox News, “I think how the President feels about the Johnson amendment is that politicians and unelected bureaucrats shouldn’t have the power to shut up their critics just because they are church leaders or charities.”

“We don’t have any plans to discriminate, we’re about not discriminating against religious organizations!”

The following is the full text of Trump’s Executive Order :  

 

PROMOTING FREE SPEECH AND RELIGIOUS LIBERTY

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, in order to guide the executive branch in formulating and implementing policies with implications for the religious liberty of persons and organizations in America, and to further compliance with the Constitution and with applicable statutes and Presidential Directives, it is hereby ordered as follows:

Section 1. Policy. It shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom. The Founders envisioned a Nation in which religious voices and views were integral to a vibrant public square, and in which religious people and institutions were free to practice their faith without fear of discrimination or retaliation by the Federal Government. For that reason, the United States Constitution enshrines and protects the fundamental right to religious liberty as Americans’ first freedom. Federal law protects the freedom of Americans and their organizations to exercise religion and participate fully in civic life without undue interference by the Federal Government. The executive branch will honor and enforce those protections.

Sec. 2. Respecting Religious and Political Speech. All executive departments and agencies (agencies) shall, to the greatest extent practicable and to the extent permitted by law, respect and protect the freedom of persons and organizations to engage in religious and political speech. In particular, the Secretary of the Treasury shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law, that the Department of the Treasury does not take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective, where speech of similar character has, consistent with law, not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office by the Department of the Treasury. As used in this section, the term “adverse action” means the imposition of any tax or tax penalty; the delay or denial of tax-exempt status; the disallowance of tax deductions for contributions made to entities exempted from taxation under section 501(c)(3) of title 26, United States Code; or any other action that makes unavailable or denies any tax deduction, exemption, credit, or benefit.

Sec. 3. Conscience Protections with Respect to Preventive-Care Mandate. The Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Labor, and the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections to the preventive-care mandate promulgated under section 300gg-13(a)(4) of title 42, United States Code.

Sec. 4. Religious Liberty Guidance. In order to guide all agencies in complying with relevant Federal law, the Attorney General shall, as appropriate, issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in Federal law.

Sec. 5. Severability. If any provision of this order, or the application of any provision to any individual or circumstance, is held to be invalid, the remainder of this order and the application of its other provisions to any other individuals or circumstances shall not be affected thereby.

Sec. 6. General Provisions. (a) Nothing in this order shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect:

(i) the authority granted by law to an executive department or agency, or the head thereof; or

(ii) the functions of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget relating to budgetary, administrative, or legislative proposals.

(b) This order shall be implemented consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations.

(c) This order is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.

 

Sources:  Fox news, Reuters, CNN, CNBC, Washington Examiner

Mike Pence to tour Asia next month amid security crises

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks about the American Health Care Act during a visit to the Harshaw-Trane Parts and Distribution Center in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S

JAKARTA (Reuters) -U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will visit Japan and Indonesia as part of an Asian tour next month, sources said on Monday, amid concerns the Trump administration is rolling back Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has already withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, which was seen as an economic pillar of the strategy.

A Trump administration official told Reuters: “The vice president is going to Asia next month I believe.”

The tour will include South Korea and Australia, the Nikkei Asian Review reported, with North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs and South Korea’s political crisis likely topics for discussion.

China has been infuriated by South Korea’s plan to deploy a U.S. missile defense system targeted at the North Korean threat. South Korea is also going through political turmoil after a court removed President Park Geun-hye from office over a graft scandal.

Pence is also expected to visit Tokyo for a U.S.-Japan economic dialogue, according to a source familiar with the matter.

The visit will come as North Korea’s latest missile launches and the assassination in Malaysia of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s estranged half-brother add urgency to the region’s security.

It will also follow this month’s trip by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Japan, South Korea, and China.

The TPP had been the main economic pillar of the Obama administration’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific region in the face of a fast-rising China.

Proponents of the pact have expressed concerns that abandoning the project, which took years to negotiate, could strengthen China’s economic hand in the region at the expense of the United States.

Indonesia’s chief security minister said Pence would meet President Joko Widodo to discuss terrorism and other security issues.

Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population and has recently grappled with a series of low-level militant attacks inspired by Islamic State.

“We discussed the planned visit of U.S. vice president Mike Pence to Indonesia and the strategic problems that can be on the agenda to discuss with our president,” chief security minister Wiranto told reporters after meeting the U.S. ambassador to Jakarta.

He added that no dates have been finalized.

In Indonesia, Pence is also expected to discuss a brewing contract dispute between the government and American mining group Freeport McMoRan Inc, said two Indonesian government sources.

Freeport has threatened to take the Indonesian government to court over newly revised mining regulations that have prompted a major scale-back in its operations in the eastern province of Papua.

(Reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa and Kanupriya Kapoor; Additional reporting by Malcolm Foster in Tokyo and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Nick Macfie and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Trump supports free press but will call out false reports

U.S. President Donald Trump takes questions during a news conference at the White House in Washington, U.S.

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump believes in a free and independent press but he will not hesitate to point out flawed reporting, the U.S Vice President Mike Pence said on Monday.

“Rest assured the president and I both strongly support a free and independent press but you can anticipate that the president and all of us will continue to call out the media when they play fast and loose with the facts,” Pence told a news conference at the NATO headquarters in Brussels.

“When the media gets it wrong, President Trump will take his case straight to the American people to set the record straight,” he added.

(Reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek; editing by Philip Blenkinsop)

Pence breaks Senate tie to confirm DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing to be next Secretary of Education o

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s choice of billionaire Betsy DeVos to be education secretary was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, but only after Vice President Mike Pence was called in to break a tie that threatened to defeat her.

The tie-breaking vote, which Senate officials said was unprecedented to confirm a president’s Cabinet nominee, came after two Republicans joined with 46 Democrats and two independents in opposition to DeVos. Critics have called her unprepared to lead the Department of Education.

(Reporting by Rick Cowan; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Trump announces Pence as his running mate

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Indiana Governor Mike Pence wave to the crowd before addressing the crowd during a campaign stop at the Grand Park Events

By Steve Holland and Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republican Donald Trump announced Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his vice presidential running mate on Friday, putting a seasoned conservative politician at his side who could help rally more party loyalists behind his White House bid.

Republican sources said on Thursday that Trump had decided on Pence, but the campaign had not confirmed this until now. Trump had postponed a Friday event to announce his decision following the deadly truck attack in France.

Viewed as a safe pair of hands, Pence, 57, has diverging views with Trump on his proposed Muslim ban and trade, and is more socially conservative. But he could help unify Republicans left divided by Trump’s campaign to win the party presidential nomination for the Nov. 8 election.

“I am pleased to announce that I have chosen Governor Mike Pence as my Vice Presidential running mate. News conference tomorrow at 11:00 A.M.,” Trump said in a tweet.

Trump had faced a midday deadline to announce Pence because the governor had to declare by then whether he would be on the ballot in his home state for re-election.

Trump, a New York businessman who has never held elected office, had chosen Pence from a short list that included two other finalists, former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

In a Fox News interview on Thursday night, Trump said Pence had done a great job in Indiana and that of all the people he had interviewed for the job, “there’s nobody that agrees with me fully on everything.”

His choice was slammed by the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

“By picking Mike Pence as his running mate, Donald Trump has doubled down on some of his most disturbing beliefs by choosing an incredibly divisive and unpopular running mate known for supporting discriminatory politics and failed economic policies that favor millionaires and corporations over working families,” said Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.

Trump said on Thursday he postponed his planned announcement on Friday out of respect for the victims in Nice, France. An attacker in a heavy truck drove into crowds celebrating Bastille Day, killing at least 84 people and injuring scores more in what President Francois Hollande called a terrorist act.

Trump, 70, is set to be formally nominated as the party’s candidate for the presidential election at the convention in Cleveland. Traditionally, the vice presidential choice is used to build enthusiasm among party loyalists.

The Republican National Committee expects the convention to draw 50,000 people to Cleveland and U.S. authorities were preparing for the possibility of violence – whether from demonstrators or planned attacks.

The Cleveland gathering and the Democratic Party Convention the following week in Philadelphia have been given the status of special national security event by the federal government for the first time and security will be heightened, said Republican Party spokesman Sean Spicer.

“They’re just going to make sure that it’s the safest place on Earth for the guests, the attendees, the delegates and the media,” Spicer told CNN.

The Department of Homeland Security will send more than 3,000 personnel to each convention, Secretary Jeh Johnson said on Thursday, speaking before the Nice attack. No specific or credible threat to either gathering has been reported, he said.

(Editing by Bill Rigby and Frances Kerry)