Tillerson says U.S. ready to talk to North Korea; Japan wants pressure

Tillerson says U.S. ready to talk to North Korea; Japan wants pressure

By David Brunnstrom and Christine Kim

WASHINGTON/SEOUL (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered to begin direct talks with North Korea without pre-conditions, backing away from a key U.S. demand that Pyongyang must first accept that giving up its nuclear arsenal would be part of any negotiations.

Tillerson’s new diplomatic overture comes nearly two weeks after North Korea said it had successfully tested a breakthrough intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that put the entire United States mainland within range of its nuclear weapons.

“Let’s just meet,” Tillerson said in a speech to Washington’s Atlantic Council think tank on Tuesday.

The White House later issued an ambiguous statement that left unclear whether President Donald Trump – who has said Tillerson was wasting his time pursuing dialogue with North Korea – had given his approval for the speech.

“The president’s views on North Korea have not changed,” the White House said. “North Korea is acting in an unsafe way … North Korea’s actions are not good for anyone and certainly not good for North Korea.”

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said China welcomed all efforts to ease tension and promote dialogue to resolve the problem.

China hopes the United States and North Korea can meet each other halfway and take meaningful steps on dialogue and contact, he told reporters.

Ahead of Tillerson’s speech, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to develop more nuclear weapons while personally decorating scientists and officials who contributed to the development of Pyongyang’s most advanced ICBM, state media said on Wednesday.

Kim said on Tuesday the scientists and workers would continue manufacturing “more latest weapons and equipment” to “bolster up the nuclear force in quality and quantity”, the KCNA news agency said.

“PERIOD OF QUIET”

While reiterating Washington’s long-standing position that it cannot tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea, Tillerson said the United States was “ready to talk any time they’re ready to talk”, but there would first have to be a “period of quiet” without nuclear and missile tests.

United Nations political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman, who visited Pyongyang last week, said senior North Korean officials did not offer any type of commitment to talks, but he believed he left “the door ajar”.

“Time will tell what was the impact of our discussions, but I think we have left the door ajar and I fervently hope that the door to a negotiated solution will now be opened wide,” Feltman told reporters after briefing the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday.

Not everyone is ready for talks.

Japan has advocated a strategy of pressuring North Korea through sanctions to give up its nuclear weapons. Tokyo and Washington are in “100 percent” agreement on that stance, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said on Wednesday, when asked about Tillerson’s comments.

A former Japanese diplomat said that, while a diplomatic solution was the “only acceptable solution”, now was not the time for talks.

“We have to see the effects of sanctions on life in North Korea,” the former diplomat, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters.

“I heard that they are having a serious impact on everyday life. Let’s wait and see. If we were to hint anything for dialogue, we’d be losing clout.”

South Korea continued military exercises with the United States to check military readiness, exercises the North describes as preparation for war. The South’s army said separately on Wednesday it conducted a successful air-to-air missile firing drill from Apache helicopters.

U.S. TALKS TO CHINA

Tillerson also disclosed the United States had been talking to China about how to secure North Korea’s nuclear weapons in the event of a collapse of the government in Pyongyang. He said Beijing had been given assurances that if U.S. forces had to cross into North Korea they would pull back across the border into the South.

Chinese spokesman Lu would not directly answer a question about those comments, but said China had always clearly told all its interlocutors on the issue that “There can be neither war nor chaos” on the Korean peninsula.

Tillerson made clear that the United States wants to resolve the North Korea standoff through peaceful diplomacy and, in terms far more tempered than Trump’s recent threats against Pyongyang, offered to hold exploratory talks.

“We can talk about the weather if you want,” he said. “We can talk about whether it’s going to be a square table or a round table. Then we can begin to lay out a map, a road map, of what we might be willing to work towards.”

Tillerson – whose influence has appeared to wane within the administration – said Trump “has encouraged our diplomatic efforts”.

Trump said on Twitter in October that Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man”, using his derisive nickname for Kim.

North Korea, for its part, has made clear it has little interest in negotiations with the United States until it has developed the ability to hit the U.S. mainland with a nuclear-tipped missile, something most experts say it has still not proved.

Tillerson also said the United States was working to tighten enforcement of international sanctions against North Korea, especially further measures that China can apply, and that Washington had a full menu of military options if such a response was needed.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the non-partisan Arms Control Association, said Tillerson’s proposal was overdue but added, “In order to get to such talks going, the U.S. side as well as North Korea must demonstrate more restraint”.

For multimedia cover on North Korea: https://www.reuters.com/north-korea/

(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in WASHINGTON, Michelle Nichols at the UNITED NATIONS, Ben Blanchard in BEIJING and Tim Kelly and Linda Sieg in TOKYO; Writing by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Paul Tait and Clarence Fernandez)

Trump to make final tax push as Republican negotiators near deal

Trump to make final tax push as Republican negotiators near deal

By Amanda Becker and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump will make a final push on Wednesday to shepherd a Republican tax overhaul across the finish line, hosting congressional negotiators for lunch before a speech in which he will make closing arguments for the legislation.

Republican tax writers from the Senate and House of Representatives worked into Tuesday evening to reconcile differences between the separate plans passed by each chamber, as important details, including a final corporate tax rate, remained in flux.

Republican leaders are aiming to vote on the sweeping legislation before Christmas. That timetable became more crucial after Tuesday’s upset win by Democrat Doug Jones over Republican Roy Moore in Alabama’s special U.S. Senate election.

Jones’ victory trims the Republicans’ already narrow Senate majority to 51-49, which could make it more difficult for them to push through legislation.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer on Wednesday will call on Republicans to delay the tax vote until the newest senator can be seated, likely in early January.

Republicans were still trying to finalize important details without increasing the deficit impact of legislation, which could add as much as $1.5 trillion to the national debt over the next decade, according to independent estimates.

Both House and Senate bills proposed slashing the corporate rate to 20 percent from 35 percent, but negotiators were discussing on Tuesday whether to raise that rate to 21 percent in the final bill, lawmakers said.

Tax writers were also still determining a top rate for individual taxpayers and weighing how to best scale back popular individual deductions for mortgage interest and local tax payments that the Senate and House bills treated differently.

“We’re still talking,” No. 2 Senate Republican John Cornyn said late Tuesday of a possible 21 percent corporate rate.

Trump is seeking to sign a tax bill by the end of the year to achieve Republicans’ first major legislative victory since they took control of both chambers of Congress and the White House in January.

After hosting Republican lawmakers for lunch, Trump will deliver his speech on tax legislation alongside five middle class families who would benefit, senior administration officials said.

He was expected to counter claims the Republican tax plan would largely benefit corporations and the wealthy by highlighting how it would also cut rates for lower- and middle-income taxpayers, who could see additional benefits, such as higher wages, result from the corporate rate cut, the officials said.

Independent government analyses by the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, which assists congressional tax writers, and the Congressional Budget Office, which examines the budget impact of legislation, both concluded that wealthier taxpayers would disproportionately benefit from the Republican proposals.

When asked who stands to benefit most from Republican tax legislation, more than half of American adults selected either the wealthy or large U.S. corporations, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Monday.

(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Richard Cowan, Doina Chiacu; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Steve Orlofsky)

FBI officials said Clinton ‘has to win’ race to White House: NYT

FBI officials said Clinton 'has to win' race to White House: NYT

(Reuters) – Senior FBI officials who helped probe Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign told a colleague that Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had to win the race to the White House, the New York Times reported on Tuesday.

Peter Strzok, a senior FBI agent, said Clinton “just has to win” in a text sent to FBI lawyer Lisa Page, the Times reported.

The messages showed concern from Strzok and Page that a Trump presidency could politicize the FBI, the report said, citing texts turned over to Congress and obtained by the newspaper. http://nyti.ms/2AOHylP

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz is investigating the texts in a probe into FBI’s handling of its investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server for official correspondence when she was Secretary of State under former President Barack Obama, the report added.

Strzok was removed from working on the Russia probe after media reports earlier this month suggested he had exchanged text messages that disparaged Trump and supported Clinton.

Strzok was involved in both the Clinton email and Russia investigations.

Republicans, including Trump, have in recent weeks ramped up their attacks on the FBI and questioned its integrity.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller and congressional committees are investigating possible links between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia. Russia denies meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections.

The FBI, the Democratic National Committee and the White House did not respond to a request for comment outside regular business hours.

Reuters was unable to contact Peter Strzok and Lisa Page for comment.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Sunil Nair)

Democrat Jones wins U.S. Senate seat in Alabama in blow to Trump

Democrat Jones wins U.S. Senate seat in Alabama in blow to Trump

By Rich McKay

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (Reuters) – Democrat Doug Jones won a bitter fight for a U.S. Senate seat in deeply conservative Alabama on Tuesday, dealing a political blow to President Donald Trump in a race defined by sexual misconduct accusations against Republican candidate Roy Moore.

The stunning upset makes Jones the first Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate from Alabama in a quarter-century and will trim the Republicans’ already narrow Senate majority to 51-49, opening the door for Democrats to possibly retake the chamber in next year’s congressional elections.

Jones, who cast himself on the campaign trail as the candidate who could reach across the aisle and get things done in Washington, is expected to take office early in January, after the results are certified.

His election was not expected to affect pending votes in Congress on funding the government or overhauling the U.S. tax code, as Republican congressional leaders have vowed action on those bills before Christmas.

With 99 percent of the vote counted, Jones led by 1.5 percentage points over Moore, who refused to concede.

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said it was “highly unlikely” the outcome would change. “The people of Alabama have spoken,” he told CNN.

The ugly campaign drew national attention and split the Republican Party following accusations by several women that Moore sexually assaulted or pursued them when they were teens and he was in his 30s.

Moore, 70, a Christian conservative twice removed from the state Supreme Court in Alabama for ignoring federal law, denied the allegations and said he did not know any of the women involved.

Trump endorsed Moore even as other party leaders in Washington walked away. Jones, 63, a former federal prosecutor, portrayed the campaign as a referendum on decency and promised the state’s voters he would not embarrass them in Washington.

“I have always believed that the people of Alabama have more in common than divides us,” Jones told cheering supporters at his Birmingham victory party.

Trump, who congratulated Jones in a tweet late Tuesday night, on Wednesday tried to cast the win in a different light.

The president had joined establishment Republicans in the primary by backing Luther Strange, who filled the seat when Jeff Sessions left to serve as Trump’s attorney general. After Moore won the Republican nomination, Trump wholeheartedly endorsed Moore.

“The reason I originally endorsed Luther Strange (and his numbers went up mightily), is that I said Roy Moore will not be able to win the General Election. I was right! Roy worked hard but the deck was stacked against him!” Trump said on Twitter.

Network exit polls, however, showed Trump was not a factor in the decision for about half of Alabama voters.

“It had zero to do with Donald Trump,” Republican U.S. Representative Bradley Byrne of Alabama told MSNBC on Wednesday. The race was “a purely weird, unique election” not a harbinger of the 2018 midterm elections.

But U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen, who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, called the victory in one of the most conservative states in the nation “a political earthquake.”

“You see voters who are fed up, and they want to send the message that they don’t like Trumpism,” Van Hollen said on MSNBC on Wednesday. “This was a big rejection of the ugly, divisive politics that Donald Trump has brought to the country.”

Former President Barack Obama, a Democrat, recorded robo-calls for Jones to help turn out African-Americans, who, according to network exit polls, constituted about 30 percent of those voting on Tuesday.

As a U.S. attorney Jones helped win the convictions in 2001 and 2002 of members of the Ku Klux Klan for the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four little girls.

The sexual misconduct allegations against Moore came at a time when many powerful men, including Trump, have faced similar accusations.

John Laine, 65, a retired book editor from Birmingham who backed Jones, said he thought many Republicans crossed over and voted for a Democrat for the first time in their lives.

“The reason is that people just couldn’t stomach any more of Roy Moore,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan in Montgomery, Ala.; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Voters head to polls in Alabama race with high stakes for Trump

Voters head to polls in Alabama race with high stakes for Trump

By Andy Sullivan

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (Reuters) – Voters in Alabama were headed to the polls on Tuesday in a hard-fought U.S. Senate race in which President Donald Trump has endorsed fellow Republican Roy Moore, whose campaign has been clouded by allegations of sexual misconduct toward teenagers.

Moore, 70, a former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice, is battling Democrat Doug Jones, 63, a former U.S. attorney who is hoping to pull off an upset victory in the deeply conservative Southern state.

Polls opened at 7 a.m. (1300 GMT) in the Alabama special election for the seat vacated by Republican Jeff Sessions, who became U.S. attorney general in the Trump administration.

The Alabama contest has divided the Republican Party on whether it is better to support Moore in order to maintain their slim majority in the U.S. Senate or shun him because of the sexual allegations.

Trump has strongly backed Moore but several other Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have distanced themselves from the candidate.

“Roy Moore will always vote with us. VOTE ROY MOORE!” Trump said in a Twitter post in which he criticized Jones as a potential “puppet” of the Democratic congressional leadership.

Moore has been accused by multiple women of pursuing them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s, including one woman who said he tried to initiate sexual contact with her when she was 14. Moore has denied any misconduct. Reuters has not independently verified any of the accusations.

On the eve of Tuesday’s election, Moore was joined on the campaign trail by Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and an executive at the right-wing Breitbart News site. Bannon framed the Alabama election as a showdown between establishment elites and populist power and excoriated Republicans who declined to support Moore.

“There’s a special place in hell for Republicans who should know better,” he said.

COURTING EVANGELICALS

Moore has made conservative Christian beliefs a centerpiece of his campaign and sought to energize evangelicals in Alabama. He has said homosexual activity should be illegal and has argued against removing segregationist language from the state constitution.

Moore told the rally on Monday: “I want to make America great again with President Trump. I want America great, but I want America good, and she can’t be good until we go back to God.”

Without mentioning Moore by name, Republican former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, an African-American who grew up in Alabama, issued a statement on Monday calling the special election “one of the most significant in Alabama’s history.”

She urged Alabama voters to “reject bigotry, sexism, and intolerance.”

A Fox News Poll conducted on Thursday and released on Monday put Jones ahead of Moore, with Jones potentially taking 50 percent of the vote and Moore 40 percent. Fox said 8 percent of voters were undecided and 2 percent supported another candidate.

An average of recent polls by the RealClearPolitics website showed Moore ahead by a slight margin of 2.2 percentage points.

No Democrat has held a U.S. Senate seat from Alabama in more than 20 years. In 2016, Trump won the state by 28 percentage points over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Jones has touted a record that includes prosecuting former Ku Klux Klan members responsible for the 1963 bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four girls were killed.

He spent the past week rallying African-Americans, the most reliably Democratic voters in the state, and hammering Moore in television ads. He has told supporters that his campaign is a chance to be on the “right side of history for the state of Alabama.”

If Jones wins on Tuesday, Republicans would control the Senate by a slim 51-49 margin, giving Democrats momentum ahead of the November 2018 congressional elections, when control of both chambers of Congress will be at stake.

Moore’s campaign has cast Jones as a liberal out of step with Alabama voters, seizing on the Democrat’s support of abortion rights.

Moore, who was twice removed from the state Supreme Court for refusing to abide by federal law, may find a chilly reception in Washington if he wins. Republican leaders have said

Moore could face an ethics investigation if Alabama voters send him to the U.S. Senate.

Democrats have signaled they may use Moore’s election to tar Republicans as insensitive to women’s concerns at a time when allegations of sexual harassment have caused many prominent men working in politics, entertainment, media and business to lose their jobs.

(Additional reporting by Julia Harte and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Caren Bohan; Editing by Peter Cooney and Bill Trott)

Trump Panama hotel owners trying to strip president’s name -report

Trump Panama hotel owners trying to strip president's name -report

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Owners of the Trump International Hotel in Panama City are trying to strip the president’s name from the building and remove his company from management, the Associated Press reported on Monday.

When it was completed in 2011, the 70-floor building was the future U.S. president’s first international hotel venture, a complex including apartments and a casino in a waterfront building that has earned Trump between $30 million and $50 million.

In August this year, Miami-based Ithaca Capital Partners completed its purchase of the hotel amenities and the majority of the units in the Trump International Hotel.

In October, Ithaca proposed removing the Trump Organization’s directors from the hotel board and sending a notice of default to Trump, to begin terminating Trump’s link to the property, after complaints over alleged mismanagement, the AP reported.

“Not only do we have a valid, binding and enforceable long-term management agreement, but any suggestion that the hotel is not performing up to expectations is belied by the actual facts,” the Trump Organization said in a statement.

Ithaca did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Trump licensed his brand to the luxury project and provided hotel management. A Reuters investigation published in November found that alleged fraudster Alexandre Ventura Nogueira had sold between one-third and one-half of the advance sales for the Trump Ocean Club, as the complex including the hotel and apartments is known. (http://reut.rs/2zOaBYo)

The story, reported in conjunction with U.S. broadcaster NBC News, detailed how Nogueira did business with a Colombian money launderer and two criminals from the former Soviet Union.

Nogueira told Reuters and NBC how, in the project’s early days, he had participated in business meetings with Ivanka Trump and that she had endorsed his recommendation to sell the apartments for a higher price.

Ivanka Trump declined to comment on the allegations, while the Trump Organization said it did not remember Nogueira.

Earlier in November, the Trump Organization said it would give up management of the Trump SoHo hotel in New York City by the end of the year.

The Trump Ocean Club Panama Owners Association could not be reached for comment.

(Reporting by Christine Murray, Stefanie Eschenbacher and Ned Parker; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Israeli police resume interview of Netanyahu in corruption probe

Israeli police resume interview of Netanyahu in corruption probe

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli police officers on Sunday questioned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the sixth time in a corruption probe, a police spokeswoman said.

Investigators arrived by car in late afternoon to Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem where past interrogations have taken place, and disappeared behind security gates.

Police said Netanyahu was questioned for several hours at his residence in an ongoing fraud investigation under the oversight of the state attorney, the country’s chief prosecutor, and with the authorisation of the attorney-general.

No charges have been brought against Netanyahu, who has been in power since 2009 and has denied wrongdoing.

He is a suspect in two cases, one involving the receipt of gifts from businessmen and the other related to alleged conversations he held with an Israeli newspaper publisher about limiting competition in the news sector in exchange for more positive coverage.

Police said earlier this month that a top Netanyahu confidant had been questioned as part of a different investigation into a $2 billion submarine deal with Germany.

(Reporting by Dedi Hayoun; Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Mark Potter and David Evans)

U.S. Congress members decry ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Myanmar; Suu Kyi doubts allegations

U.S. Congress members decry 'ethnic cleansing' in Myanmar; Suu Kyi doubts allegations

By Antoni Slodkowski and Yimou Lee

YANGON/NAYPYITAW (Reuters) – Members of the U.S. Congress said on Tuesday operations carried out against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar had “all the hallmarks” of ethnic cleansing, while the country’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi expressed doubts about allegations of rights abuses.

The U.S. Senate members also said they were disturbed by a “violent and disproportionate” security response to Rohingya militant attacks that have driven more than 600,000 people from Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Human rights monitors have accused Myanmar’s military of atrocities, including mass rape, against the stateless Rohingya during so-called clearance operations following insurgent attacks on 30 police posts and an army base.

Myanmar’s government has denied most of the claims, and the army last week said its own probe found no evidence of wrongdoing by troops.

“We are not hearing of any violations going on at the moment,” Suu Kyi told reporters in response to a question about human rights abuses at the end of the Asia-Europe Meeting, or ASEM, in Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw.

“We can’t say whether it has happened or not. As a responsibility of the government, we have to make sure that it won’t happen.”

Nobel laureate Suu Kyi said she hoped talks with Bangladesh’s foreign minister this week would lead to a deal on the “safe and voluntary return” of those who have fled.

Suu Kyi’s less than two-year old civilian government has faced heavy international criticism for its response to the crisis, though it has no control over the generals it has to share power with under Myanmar’s transition to power after decades of military rule.

HALLMARKS OF ETHNIC CLEANSING

While a top UN official has described the military’s actions as a textbook case of “ethnic cleansing”, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on a visit to Myanmar last week refused to label it as such.

In early November, U.S. lawmakers proposed targeted sanctions and travel restrictions on Myanmar military officials.

Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley, who was among the sponsors of the legislation introduced in the Senate, led a congressional delegation that visited Rakhine this week, but was blocked from traveling to the violence-hit north of the state and to Rohingya camps.

The group also traveled to Cox’s Bazar district in Bangladesh, where Rohingya refugees are huddled into makeshift camps and fed by overstretched aid agencies.

“Many refugees have suffered direct attacks including loved ones, children and husbands being killed in front of them, wives and daughters being raped, burns and other horrific injuries. This has all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing,” Merkley told reporters in Myanmar on Tuesday.

“We are profoundly disturbed by the violent and disproportionate response against the Rohingya by the military and local groups,” he said.

The delegation called for Myanmar to allow an investigation into the alleged atrocities that would involve the international community.

“We want to emphasize that the world is watching,” Merkley said, adding that it was important Myanmar allow anyone who wants to come back to return to their homes and their farms.

Merkley said the delegation was “not here today to recommend…what the U.S. government would do or should do,” when asked about the legislation introduced in the Congress.

‘ISOLATION IN CAMPS’

Myanmar officials have so far said they plan to resettle most returnees in new “model villages”, rather than on the land they previously occupied, an approach the United Nations has criticized in the past as effectively creating permanent camps.

“Individuals cannot be coming back…simply to return to camps where there would be continued discrimination, restrictions on full participation in the economy and society,” said Merkley.

He warned that isolating people in camps creates a “two-tier society that is fundamentally incompatible with the future of democracy and it guarantees perpetuation of suspicions and misunderstandings and conflicts.”

Speaking earlier on Tuesday, Suu Kyi said discussions would be held with the Bangladesh foreign minister on Wednesday and Thursday about repatriation. Officials from both countries began talks last month on how to process the Rohingya wanting to return.

“We hope that this would result in an MOU signed quickly, which would enable us to start the safe and voluntarily return of all of those who have gone across the border,” Suu Kyi said.

The Rohingya are largely stateless and many people in Myanmar view them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Suu Kyi said Myanmar would follow the framework of an agreement reached in the 1990s to cover the earlier repatriation of Rohingya, who had fled to Bangladesh to escape previous bouts of ethnic violence.

That agreement did not address the citizenship status of Rohingya, and Bangladesh has been pressing for a repatriation process that provided Rohingya with more safeguards this time.

“It’s on the basis of residency…this was agreed by the two governments long time ago with success, so this will be formula we will continue to follow,” Suu Kyi said.

Earlier talks between the two countries reached a broad agreement to work out a repatriation deal, but a senior Myanmar official later accused Bangladesh of dragging its feet in order to secure funding from aid agencies for hosting the refugees.

(Additional reporting by Thu Thu Aung; writing by Simon Lewis; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Hugh Lawson)

Once inside Kim Jong Un’s inner circle, top aide’s star fades

Once inside Kim Jong Un's inner circle, top aide's star fades

By Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – When Kim Jong Un sat down in September to order the sixth and largest of North Korea’s nuclear tests, Hwang Pyong So sat by his side, his khaki military uniform conspicuous among the suits at the table, photos released by state media at the time showed.

Now Hwang, once one of Kim’s most-trusted advisers, is facing unspecified punishment on the orders of another man who also sat at that exclusive table in September, Choe Ryong Hae, South Korean intelligence officials believe.

Information on North Korea is often difficult to obtain, and with few hard details and no official confirmation from Pyongyang, analysts said it was too soon to draw any firm conclusions from the unspecified punishments.

But the moves, which appear to involve two of Kim’s top four advisers, are being closely watched for indications of fractures within his secretive inner circle, and come as North Korea faces increasing international pressure over its nuclear weapons program.

Having his advisers compete with each other suits Kim just fine, said Christopher Green, an analyst with the Crisis Group.

“It is hardwired into autocracy to have underlings in competition,” he said.

Hwang, a shy, bespectacled general in his mid-60s, is a close confidant of Kim Jong Un and has had an unprecedented rise to the top rungs of North Korea’s leadership in the space of a few years.

In 2014, he became one of the most powerful people outside the ruling Kim family when he was named chief of the General Political Bureau of the army, a powerful position that mobilizes the military for the leader.

His apparent punishment takes on additional meaning as it was orchestrated by Choe who has competed with Hwang in the past and stands to gain from any demotion, according to South Korea’s spy agency.

TEA WITH THE ENEMY

The two men were last seen in public together early last month as they watched a gymnastics gala, according to state media.

Hwang has since faded from public view, whereas Choe was the ranking official who met with a senior envoy from China in Pyongyang last week.

Kim has not shied away from removing or punishing even favored leaders who could become powerful enough to threaten his grip on power, said Michael Madden, an expert on the North Korean leadership at 38 North, a project of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced Studies in Washington.

“Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong So could not have continued in the capacity that he was operating in, without it coming back to bite him,” he said.

Both Hwang and Choe came to South Korea during the Asian Games in 2014 – the highest such visit by North Korean officials to the rival South.

Dressed in a drab, olive army uniform and his large officer’s cap, Hwang, who had been promoted to the No.2 spot behind Kim just one week earlier, had tea and lunch with Choe and South Korean officials and waved to crowds at the games’ closing ceremony.

The trip had been announced just one day in advance and took many South Korean observers by surprise. Some suggested there may have been a power struggle between the two men, neither wanting to yield the high-profile visit to the other.

Choe, who was subjected to political “reeducation” himself in the past, now appears to be gaining more influence since he was promoted in October to the party’s powerful Central Military Commission, according to South Korean officials.

The National Intelligence Service indicated Choe now heads the Organisation and Guidance Department (OGD), the secretive body which oversees appointments within North Korea’s leadership.

‘CLIPPING WINGS’

The punishment represents the first time Hwang has faced any major blow to his standing, said Lee Sang-keun, a North Korea leadership expert at Ewha Woman’s University’s Institute of Unification Studies.

Hwang had a reputation of playing a respectful and careful role around the notoriously unpredictable Kim. Photos released by state media often showed him covering his mouth as he politely laughed with the supreme leader.

The punishment may not reflect any specific mistakes on Hwang’s part but could be part of a wider effort by Kim to ensure that the ruling party retains its control over the military, Lee said.

The moves are part of a sweeping ideological scrutiny of the political unit of the military for the first time in 20 years, according to Kim Byung-kee, a lawmaker on South Korea’s parliamentary intelligence committee.

They could also be an effort to prevent a repeat of a major purge in 2013, 38 North’s Madden said.

Kim’s uncle and second most powerful man in the secretive state, Jang Song Thaek, was executed during that purge after a special military tribunal found him guilty of treason.

Preemptively putting Hwang in his place now meant Kim might prevent him from becoming so powerful he could only be dealt with in a similar way, Madden said.

“What (Kim’s) doing can be described as clipping wings.”

(Additional reporting by James Pearson; Editing by Lincoln Feast)

Appeals court lets Trump travel ban go partially into effect

Appeals court lets Trump travel ban go partially into effect

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court in California on Monday let President Donald Trump’s latest travel ban go partially into effect, ruling the government can bar entry of people from six Muslim-majority countries with no connections to the United States.

A three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals partially granted a Trump administration request to block at least temporarily a judge’s ruling that had put the new ban on hold. Trump’s ban was announced on Sept. 24 and replaced two previous versions that had been impeded by federal courts.

The action means the ban will apply to people from Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Chad who do not have connections to the United States.

Those connections are defined as family relationships and “formal, documented” relationships with U.S.-based entities such as universities and resettlement agencies. Those with family relationships that would allow entry include grandparents, grandchildren, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins of people in the United States.

“We are reviewing the court’s order and the government will begin enforcing the travel proclamation consistent with the partial stay. We believe that the proclamation should be allowed to take effect in its entirety,” Justice Department spokeswoman Lauren Ehrsam said.

The state of Hawaii, which sued to block the restrictions, argued that federal immigration law did not give Trump the authority to impose them on six of those countries. The lawsuit did not challenge restrictions toward people from the two other countries listed in Trump’s ban, North Korea and Venezuela.

U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson in Honolulu ruled last month that Hawaii was likely to succeed with its argument.

Hawaii Attorney General Douglas Chin said the court’s decision tracked what the Supreme Court said in June when it partially revived Trump’s second travel ban, which has now expired.

“I’m pleased that family ties to the U.S., including grandparents, will be respected,” Chin added.

Separately on Monday, a group of refugee organizations and individuals filed a lawsuit in Seattle federal court challenging Trump’s decision to suspend entry of refugees from 11 countries, nine of which are majority Muslim, for at least 90 days.

Trump issued his first travel ban targeting several Muslim-majority countries in January, just a week after he took office, and then issued a revised one after the first was blocked by the courts. The second one expired in September after a long court fight and was replaced with another revised version.

Trump has said the travel ban is needed to protect the United States from terrorism by Muslim militants. As a candidate, Trump had promised “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

Critics of the travel ban in its various iterations call it a “Muslim ban” that violates the U.S. Constitution by discriminating on the basis of religion.

The 9th Circuit is due to hear oral arguments in the case on Dec. 6. In a parallel case from Maryland, a judge also ruled against the Trump administration and partially blocked the ban from going into effect.

An appeal in the Maryland case is being heard on Dec. 8 by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia. The Maryland case was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents several advocacy groups, including the International Refugee Assistance Project.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Additional reporting by Dan Levine in San Francisco; Editing by Will Dunham and Tom Brown)