Erdogan vows action against ‘economic terrorists’ over lira plunge

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan addresses Turkish Ambassadors during a meeting in Ankara, Turkey August 13, 2018. Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS

By Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan on Monday accused “economic terrorists” of plotting to harm Turkey by spreading false reports and said they would face the full force of the law, as authorities launched investigations of those suspected of involvement.

The lira currency, which has lost more than 40 percent against the U.S. dollar this year, pulled back from a record low of 7.24 earlier on Monday after the central bank pledged to provide liquidity, but it remained under selling pressure and its meltdown continued to rattle global markets.

“There are economic terrorists on social media,” Erdogan told a gathering of Turkish ambassadors at the presidential palace in Ankara, adding that the judiciary and financial authorities were taking action in response.

“They are truly a network of treason,” he added. “We will not give them the time of day… We will make those spreading speculations pay the necessary price”.

Erdogan, who gained sweeping new powers following his re-election in June, said rumors had been spread that authorities might impose capital controls in response to the slump in the currency, which tumbled as much as 18 percent on Friday alone.

The interior ministry said it had so far identified 346 social media accounts carrying posts about the exchange rate that it said created a negative perception of the economy. It said it would take legal measures against them but did not say what these would be.

Separately, the Istanbul and Ankara prosecutor’s offices launched investigations into individuals suspected of being involved in actions that threaten Turkey’s economic security, broadcaster CNN Turk and state news agency Anadolu reported.

Turkey’s Capital Markets Board (SPK) and financial crime board have also said they would take legal steps against those who spread misinformation about financial institutions and firms, or reports that the government would seize foreign-currency deposits.

Earlier on Monday, Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, who is also Erdogan’s son-in-law, said Turkey would start rolling out an economic action plan on Monday.

Albayrak stressed the importance of budget discipline and ruled out any seizure or conversion of dollar-denominated bank deposits into lira.

Economists say the lira’s fall is due to worries about Erdogan’s influence over the economy, his repeated calls for lower interest rates, and worsening ties with the United States over the detention of a Christian pastor and other disputes.

Erdogan reiterated on Monday his view that the currency’s crash had no economic basis, saying that U.S. sanctions imposed on Turkey over the terrorism trial of the pastor, Andrew Brunson, represented a “stab in the back” by a NATO ally.

The lira stood at 6.89 against the U.S. dollar at 1511 GMT – after Erdogan’s comments – up from a record low of 7.24 to the dollar reached in early Monday trade.

(Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Dominic Evans and Gareth Jones)

In China, #MeToo escalates as public figures are accused of sexual assault

FILE PHOTO: A woman is reflected in a window of an office in Shanghai. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Pei Li and Ryan Woo

BEIJING (Reuters) – Accusations of sexual assault spread across China’s social media this week as the #MeToo movement took aim at prominent activists, intellectuals, and a television personality.

In a country where issues like sexual assault have traditionally been brushed under the carpet, China’s fledgling #MeToo movement speaks to a changing mindset among the younger generation.

China’s millions of social media users have also ensured that any news, scandals, and grievances spread quickly. The spread of accusations about prominent Chinese figures presents a challenge for the government, which has censored some but not all of the social media posts.

The accusations have stoked heated online debate about sexual misconduct and what constitutes consensual sex or rape. On Friday, “sexual assault evidence collection” was the 2nd-ranked topic on popular social media platform Sina Weibo.

So far this week, more than 20 women have come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct, sparked by an accusation on Monday that has rocked a non-government organization.

Lei Chuang, founder of Yi You, a prominent non-government charity, confessed in an online statement to an accusation of sexual assault. Lei has quit the organization after his confession. Three other activists were embroiled in separate accusations of sexual misconduct by the end of the week.

The most prominent sexual assault allegation this week came from a young legal worker who goes by the pseudonym Little Spirit. The 27-year-old said Zhang Wen – a veteran journalist and online political commentator in China – had raped her after a banquet in May, an allegation that prompted six other women to accuse him of sexual harassment and groping.

Zhang, in a statement Wednesday, denied the rape allegation, saying his affair with the accuser was consensual.

Jiang Fangzhou, a prominent fellow writer and deputy editor-in-chief of the Guangdong-based magazine New Weekly, said on her WeChat account that Zhang had groped her at a meal on one occasion.

Among others, the journalist Yi Xiaohe, and Wang Yanyun, a TV personality, said on social media that Zhang had made unwanted sexual advances toward them.

In his statement, Zhang said it was normal for men and women in intellectual and media circles to “take pictures together, hug and kiss each other after consuming liquor”.

On Thursday, an academic at Communication University of China in Beijing was accused by a student of a sexual assault in 2016. The university in a statement vowed to launch an investigation and deal with the matter with zero tolerance if confirmed.

A former professor at the same university, known to be a training camp for China’s future TV personalities, was also accused Thursday of uninvited sexual advances in 2008 by an ex-student.

CENSORSHIP

Accusations that a prominent personality on the state broadcaster CCTV, molested an intern emerged on Thursday but the posts on Weibo were quickly removed.

The personality could not be immediately reached, while CCTV did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

On Friday, the personality’s name was the top censored topic on Weibo, according to Free Weibo, an independent platform that lists and ranks all search phrases blocked on Sina Weibo. “Metoo” and “Me too” ranked 8th and 9th, respectively.

A Beijing-based magazine, Portrait, on Thursday, told its readers in an online article to share their own stories of being sexually assaulted. It said in a subsequent post that it had received more than 1,700 stories in less than 24 hours.

Portrait’s article on Tencent’s WeChat platform has since been removed.

By contrast, the confession of Lei, the charity head, was widely covered by state media, including China Daily.

Men in sports have also been implicated in the #MeToo accusations this week. On Friday, a 17-year old high school student in the eastern city of Ningbo said online that she had been sexually assaulted by two badminton coaches.

The global #MeToo movement was triggered by accusations by dozens of women against U.S. film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct, including rape, triggering a wider scandal that has roiled Hollywood and beyond. Weinstein has denied having non-consensual sex with anyone.

The catalyst for a Chinese #MeToo-style movement came in December last year when a U.S.-based Chinese software engineer published a blog post accusing a professor at a Beijing University of sexual harassment.

In China, the hashtag #MeToo has so far appeared more than 77 million times on Weibo, although the majority of the posts with that hashtag are not viewable.

On Thursday, the state-controlled People’s Daily posted a Ted Talks video about sexual assault on its Weibo account.

“Hope this post won’t be scrubbed,” one Weibo user commented about the video clip.

(Reporting by Pei Li and Ryan Woo; Editing by Philip McClellan)

Majority of Americans think social media platforms censor political views: Pew survey

FILE PHOTO: A young couple look at their phone as they sit on a hillside after sun set in El Paso, Texas, U.S., June 20, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Angela Moon

NEW YORK (Reuters) – About seven out of ten Americans think social media platforms intentionally censor political viewpoints, the Pew Research Center found in a study released on Thursday.

The study comes amid an ongoing debate over the power of digital technology companies and the way they do business. Social media companies in particular, including Facebook Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google, have recently come under scrutiny for failing to promptly tackle the problem of fake news as more Americans consume news on their platforms.

In the study of 4,594 U.S. adults, conducted between May 29 and June 11, roughly 72 percent of the respondents believed that social media platforms actively censored political views those companies found objectionable.

The perception that technology companies were politically biased and suppressed political speech was especially widespread among Republicans, the study showed.

About 85 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in the survey thought it was likely for social media sites to intentionally censor political viewpoints, with 54 percent saying it was “very” likely.

Sixty-four percent of Republicans also thought major technology companies as a whole supported the views of liberals over conservatives.

A majority of the respondents, or 51 percent, said technology companies should be regulated more than they are now, while only 9 percent said they should be regulated less.

(Reporting by Angela Moon; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Facebook says posts with graphic violence rose in early 2018

FILE PHOTO: Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of Facebook logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

By David Ingram

MENLO PARK, Calif. (Reuters) – The number of posts on Facebook showing graphic violence rose in the first three months of the year from a quarter earlier, possibly driven by the war in Syria, the social network said on Tuesday, in its first public release of such data.

Facebook said in a written report that of every 10,000 pieces of content viewed in the first quarter, an estimated 22 to 27 pieces contained graphic violence, up from an estimate of 16 to 19 late last year.

The company removed or put a warning screen for graphic violence in front of 3.4 million pieces of content in the first quarter, nearly triple the 1.2 million a quarter earlier, according to the report.

Facebook does not fully know why people are posting more graphic violence but believes continued fighting in Syria may have been one reason, said Alex Schultz, Facebook’s vice president of data analytics.

“Whenever a war starts, there’s a big spike in graphic violence,” Schultz told reporters at Facebook’s headquarters.

Syria’s civil war erupted in 2011. It continued this year with fighting between rebels and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army. This month, Israel attacked Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria.

Facebook, the world’s largest social media firm, has never previously released detailed data about the kinds of posts it takes down for violating its rules.

Facebook only recently developed the metrics as a way to measure its progress, and would probably change them over time, said Guy Rosen, its vice president of product management.

“These kinds of metrics can help our teams understand what’s actually happening to 2-plus billion people,” he said.

The company has a policy of removing content that glorifies the suffering of others. In general it leaves up graphic violence with a warning screen if it was posted for another purpose.

Facebook also prohibits hate speech and said it took action against 2.5 million pieces of content in the first quarter, up 56 percent a quarter earlier. It said the rise was due to improvements in detection.

The company said in the first quarter it took action on 837 million pieces of content for spam, 21 million pieces of content for adult nudity or sexual activity and 1.9 million for promoting terrorism. It said it disabled 583 million fake accounts.

(Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Facebook suspends 200 apps over data misuse investigation

FILE PHOTO: Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of Facebook logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

(Reuters) – Facebook Inc has so far suspended around 200 apps in the first stage of its review into apps that had access to large quantities of user data, in a response to a scandal around political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.

The apps were suspended pending a thorough investigation into whether they misused any data, said Ime Archibong, Facebook’s vice president of product partnerships.

Facebook said it has looked into thousands of apps till date as part of an investigation that Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg announced on March 21.

Zuckerberg had said the social network will investigate all apps that had access to large amounts of information before the company curtailed data access in 2014.

“There is a lot more work to be done to find all the apps that may have misused people’s Facebook data – and it will take time,” Archibong said.

“We have large teams of internal and external experts working hard to investigate these apps as quickly as possible.”

Facebook was hit by the privacy scandal in mid-March after media reports that Cambridge Analytica improperly accessed data to build profiles on American voters and influence the 2016 presidential election.

The incident led to backlash from celebrities and resulted in the company losing billions in market value. Zuckerberg apologized for the mistakes his company made and testified before the U.S. lawmakers.

The company, however, regained much of its lost market value after it reported a surprisingly strong 63 percent rise in profit and an increase in users when it announced quarterly results on April 25.

Shares of the company were up 0.4 percent at $187.65 in premarket trading on Monday.

(This version of the story corrects share price in last paragraph.)

(Reporting by Supantha Mukherjee in Bengaluru; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty and Arun Koyyur)

Toronto police eye deadly van attack suspect’s ‘cryptic message’

Mourners attend a makeshift memorial a day after a van struck multiple people along a major intersection in north Toronto, Ontario, Canada, April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegr

By Anna Mehler Paperny and Nichola Saminather

TORONTO (Reuters) – The man accused of plowing a rental van into pedestrians on a crowded Toronto sidewalk, killing 10 people in Canada’s deadliest mass killing in decades, left a “cryptic message” on social media before his attack, police said on Tuesday.

Suspect Alek Minassian, 25, was charged with 10 counts of murder and 13 counts of attempted murder in the incident.

One possible clue to his motive emerged on Tuesday as Facebook confirmed Minassian wrote a post before the incident that referenced an “incel rebellion.” The term is shorthand used in some online message boards for “involuntary celibacy”, a loose social media movement of men who blame women for their celibacy.

Canadian authorities have declined to say whether anger toward women had motivated the attack.

A mourner reacts at a makeshift memorial a day after a van struck multiple people along a major intersection in north Toronto, Ontario, Canada, April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

A mourner reacts at a makeshift memorial a day after a van struck multiple people along a major intersection in north Toronto, Ontario, Canada, April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

The post also voiced admiration for a man who killed six college students before taking his own life in California in 2014 and who cited the “cruelness of women” for his virgin status.

“The accused is alleged to have posted a cryptic message on Facebook minutes before” the attack, Graham Gibson, a Toronto police detective sergeant, told a news conference. The majority of the victims were women, ranging in age from their mid-20s to early 80s, Gibson said.

He said the question of whether the attack was driven by anger against women was “going to be part of our investigation.”

Facebook has since deleted Minassian’s account, a representative said. “There is absolutely no place on our platform for people who commit such horrendous acts,” she said in an email.

Minassian kept his shaved head down during a brief court appearance in Canada’s largest city, speaking quietly with a defense lawyer and stating his name in a steady voice when asked to do so.

The incident had the hallmarks of deadly vehicle assaults by Islamic State supporters. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there was no reason to suspect any national security connection.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Toronto Mayor John Tory visit a makeshift memorial a day after a van struck multiple people along a major intersection in north Toronto, Ontario, Canada, April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Toronto Mayor John Tory visit a makeshift memorial a day after a van struck multiple people along a major intersection in north Toronto, Ontario, Canada, April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Trudeau called on all Canadians to stand united with Toronto as flowers and scrawled messages in multiple languages piled up at a makeshift memorial in the city’s north end, an ethnically diverse neighborhood of towering office buildings, shops, restaurants and homes.

“We cannot as Canadians choose to live in fear every single day as we go about our daily business,” Trudeau told reporters outside of parliament in Ottawa.

The prime minister said the incident had not changed the country’s threat level or security preparations for a G7 summit in Quebec in June.

Minassian had briefly served in Canada’s armed forces in late 2017 but asked to be voluntarily released after 16 days of training, defense ministry spokeswoman Jessica Lamirande said.

The suspect’s two-story red-brick home in a suburb north of Toronto was a crime scene Tuesday, taped off and surrounded by police vehicles. Officers went in and out of the house.

SOUTH KOREANS AMONG VICTIMS

Details about the dead began to emerge on Tuesday, with a South Korean foreign ministry representative saying that two of that country’s citizens were killed and one injured in the attack. The representative spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.

A Jordanian citizen was also killed, said an official at the country’s embassy in Ottawa.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp identified one of the victims as Anne Marie D’Amico, an employee of asset manager Invesco Canada. In a statement, Invesco confirmed that one of its employees had been killed but did not name her.

It could be days before all the victims are publicly identified, said Ontario Chief Coroner Dirk Huyer said, adding that the extent of their injuries was making some identities difficult to determine.

“It ranges from scrapes and bruises to terrible injuries that I won’t get into discussing here,” Gibson added.

The attack shook the usually peaceful streets of Toronto, which recorded 61 murders last year.

The drama started at lunchtime on a warm spring day, when the driver drove his vehicle into the crowds. The street was soon covered in blood, empty shoes and bodies.

Last October, eight people died in New York when a man driving a rented pickup truck mowed down pedestrians and cyclists on a bike path. The Islamic State militant group encourages its supporters to use vehicles for attacks.

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny and Allision Martell; Additional reporting by Andrea Hopkins in Ottawa; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Cynthia Osterman)

Facebook releases long-secret rule book on how it polices the service

FILE PHOTO: A picture illustration shows a Facebook logo reflected in a person's eye, in Zenica, March 13, 2015. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

By David Ingram

MENLO PARK, Calif. (Reuters) – Facebook Inc on Tuesday released a rule book for the types of posts it allows on its social network, giving far more detail than ever before on what is permitted on subjects ranging from drug use and sex work to bullying, hate speech and inciting violence.

Facebook for years has had “community standards” for what people can post. But only a relatively brief and general version was publicly available, while it had a far more detailed internal document to decide when individual posts or accounts should be removed.

Now, the company is providing the longer document on its website to clear up confusion and be more open about its operations, said Monika Bickert, Facebook’s vice president of product policy and counter-terrorism.

“You should, when you come to Facebook, understand where we draw these lines and what’s OK and what’s not OK,” Bickert told reporters in a briefing at Facebook’s headquarters.

Facebook has faced fierce criticism from governments and rights groups in many countries for failing to do enough to stem hate speech and prevent the service from being used to promote terrorism, stir sectarian violence and broadcast acts including murder and suicide.

At the same time, the company has also been accused of doing the bidding of repressive regimes by aggressively removing content that crosses governments and providing too little information on why certain posts and accounts are removed.

New policies will, for the first time, allow people to appeal a decision to take down an individual piece of content. Previously, only the removal of accounts, Groups and Pages could be appealed.

Facebook is also beginning to provide the specific reason why content is being taken down for a wider variety of situations.

Facebook, the world’s largest social network, has become a dominant source of information in many countries around the world. It uses both automated software and an army of moderators that now numbers 7,500 to take down text, pictures and videos that violate its rules. Under pressure from several governments, it has been beefing up its moderator ranks since last year.

Bickert told Reuters in an interview that the standards are constantly evolving, based in part on feedback from more than 100 outside organizations and experts in areas such as counter-terrorism and child exploitation.

“Everybody should expect that these will be updated frequently,” she said.

The company considers changes to its content policy every two weeks at a meeting called the “Content Standards Forum,” led by Bickert. A small group of reporters was allowed to observe the meeting last week on the condition that they could describe process, but not substance.

At the April 17 meeting, about 25 employees sat around a conference table while others joined by video from New York, Dublin, Mexico City, Washington and elsewhere.

Attendees included people who specialize in public policy, legal matters, product development, communication and other areas. They heard reports from smaller working groups, relayed feedback they had gotten from civil rights groups and other outsiders and suggested ways that a policy or product could go wrong in the future. There was little mention of what competitors such as Alphabet Inc’s Google do in similar situations.

Bickert, a former U.S. federal prosecutor, posed questions, provided background and kept the discussion moving. The meeting lasted about an hour.

Facebook is planning a series of public forums in May and June in different countries to get more feedback on its rules, said Mary deBree, Facebook’s head of content policy.

FROM CURSING TO MURDER

The longer version of the community standards document, some 8,000 words long, covers a wide array of words and images that Facebook sometimes censors, with detailed discussion of each category.

Videos of people wounded by cannibalism are not permitted, for instance, but such imagery is allowed with a warning screen if it is “in a medical setting.”

Facebook has long made clear that it does not allow people to buy and sell prescription drugs, marijuana or firearms on the social network, but the newly published document details what other speech on those subjects is permitted.

Content in which someone “admits to personal use of non-medical drugs” should not be posted on Facebook, the rule book says.

The document elaborates on harassment and bullying, barring for example “cursing at a minor.” It also prohibits content that comes from a hacked source, “except in limited cases of newsworthiness.”

The new community standards do not incorporate separate procedures under which governments can demand the removal of content that violates local law.

In those cases, Bickert said, formal written requests are required and are reviewed by Facebook’s legal team and outside attorneys. Content deemed to be permissible under community standards but in violation of local law – such as a prohibition in Thailand on disparaging the royal family – are then blocked in that country, but not globally.

The community standards also do not address false information – Facebook does not prohibit it but it does try to reduce its distribution – or other contentious issues such as use of personal data.

(Reporting by David Ingram in San Francisco. Additional reporting by Jonathan Weber in Singapore; Editing by Greg Mitchell and Neil Fullick)

Malaysia outlaws ‘fake news’; sets jail of up to six years

Commuters walk past an advertisement discouraging the dissemination of fake news at a train station in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 28, 2018. Picture taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysia on Monday approved a law against “fake news” that would allow for prison of up to six years for offenders, shrugging off critics who say it was aimed at curbing dissent and free speech ahead of a general election.

Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government secured a simple majority in parliament to pass the Anti-Fake News 2018 bill, which sets out fines of up to 500,000 ringgit ($123,000) and a maximum six years in jail. The first draft of the bill had proposed jail of up to 10 years.

The government said the law would not impinge on freedom of speech and cases under it would be handled through an independent court process.

“This law aims to protect the public from the spread of fake news, while allowing freedom of speech as provided for under the constitution,” Law Minister Azalina Othman Said told parliament.

The law defines fake news as “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false” and includes features, visuals and audio recordings.

It covers digital publications and social media and will apply to offenders who maliciously spread “fake news” inside and outside Malaysia, including foreigners, if Malaysia or a Malaysian citizen were affected.

Co-opted by U.S. President Donald Trump, the term “fake news” has quickly become part of the standard repertoire of leaders in authoritarian countries to describe media reports and organizations critical of them.

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, had earlier on Monday urged the government not to rush the legislation through parliament.

“I urge the government to reconsider the bill and open it up to regular and genuine public scrutiny before taking any further steps,” David Kaye said in a Twitter post.

OTHERS CONSIDER LAWS

Other countries in Southeast Asia, including Singapore and the Philippines, are considering how to tackle “fake news” but human rights activists fear that laws against it could be used to stifle free speech.

Malaysia is among the first few countries to introduce a law against it. Germany approved a plan last year to fine social media networks if they fail to remove hateful postings.

Malaysia already has an arsenal of laws, including a colonial-era Sedition Act, that have been used to clamp down on unfavorable news and social media posts.

News reports and social media posts on a multi-billion dollar scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) have hounded Prime Minister Najib, who faces arguably his toughest contest in a general election this year that could be called in days.

Najib has denied any wrongdoing in connection with losses at the fund.

A deputy minister was quoted in media last month as saying any news on 1MDB not verified by the government was “fake”.

Lim Kit Siang, a senior opposition lawmaker with the Democratic Action Party, described the bill as a “Save Najib from 1MDB Scandal Bill” which would criminalize news on the affair.

(Reporting by Joseph Sipalan; Writing by Praveen Menon; Editing by Robert Birsel)

U.S. visa applicants to be asked for social media history: State Department

FILE PHOTO - A man is silhouetted against a video screen with a Twitter and a Facebook logo as he poses with a laptop in this photo illustration taken in the central Bosnian town of Zenica, August 14, 2013. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – The U.S. government plans to collect social media history from nearly everyone who seeks entry into the United States, State Department proposals showed on Friday as part of President Donald Trump’s policy of “extreme vetting.”

Most immigrant and non-immigrant visa applicants – about 14.7 million people – will be asked to list on a federal application form all of the social media identities that they have used in the past five years – information that will be used to vet and identify them, according to the proposals.

The State Department will publish the proposals in a notice in the Federal Register on Friday seeking approval from the Office of Management and Budget. The public has 60 days to comment on the requests.

The proposals support President Donald Trump’s campaign pledge in 2016 to crack down on illegal immigration for security reasons and his call for “extreme vetting” of foreigners entering the United States.

The department said it intends not to routinely ask most diplomatic and official visa applicants for the social media information.

If approved, applicants also will be required to submit five years of previously used telephone numbers, email addresses and their international travel history. They will be asked if they have been deported or removed from any country and whether family members have been involved in terrorist activities, the department said.

Courts have struck down the first two versions of Trump’s travel ban and the current one is narrower in scope than its predecessors. The Supreme Court will consider its legality this spring and a decision is expected in June.

(Editing by Bill Trott)

Train believed carrying top North Korean delegation leaves Beijing

Police officers keep watch next to a train at the Beijing Railway Station in Beijing, China March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Le

By Ben Blanchard and Christine Kim

BEIJING/SEOUL (Reuters) – A train believed to be carrying a senior North Korean delegation left the Chinese capital on Tuesday following a dramatic whirlwind visit that some reports said included the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un.

The conservative South Korea Chosun Ilbo newspaper, citing an unnamed senior intelligence official, said the delegation had included Kim and that he had since left to return to North Korea.

South Korea’s left-leaning press Hankyoreh also reported Kim had traveled to Beijing for meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday afternoon before leaving for a “third location” on Tuesday. It did not cite specific sources.

The Hankyoreh did not specify where the “third location” was but said it could be in China.

Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post said Kim was on the train that left Beijing, citing two anonymous sources.

South Korea said it was closely watching events in Beijing, where a foreign ministry spokeswoman deflected a question on whether Kim, his sister or some other senior North Korean was visiting. South Korea’s spy agency declined to confirm the report.

“At present I have no understanding of the situation you mention. If there is news we will release it,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular daily briefing.

Diplomatic sources in Beijing said a senior North Korean official was in town, but did not know exactly who.

Bloomberg, citing three unidentified sources, reported late on Monday that Kim was in Beijing in what would be his first known trip outside North Korea since taking power in 2011.

The unconfirmed visit came ahead of planned summit meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Paramilitary police officers stand guard outside the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, where foreign dignitaries usually stay, in Beijing, China March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee

Paramilitary police officers stand guard outside the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, where foreign dignitaries usually stay, in Beijing, China March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee

“The presidential Blue House is watching things in Beijing very closely, while keeping all possibilities open,” said the senior official in Seoul, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Improving ties between North Korea, which is pursuing nuclear and missile programs in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions, and China would be a positive sign before the planned summits, he said.

A Reuters reporter saw a convoy leave Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guest House, where senior foreign leaders often stay, and drive north on Tuesday morning. It was unclear where the convoy was headed.

Later, a Reuters journalist saw what was believed to be the delegation’s train pulling out of a Beijing station. The group was reported to have arrived in China on Sunday after crossing from North Korea in the border city of Dandong.

A senior U.S. official who follows North Korea closely said the available evidence suggested that Kim had traveled to Beijing to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping, but stressed that has not been confirmed.

Underscoring the mystery, one senior Beijing-based diplomatic source told Reuters simply: “We just don’t know.”

One source with ties to China’s leadership said it was possible Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, was in town. She visited South Korea for the Winter Olympics last month, paving the way for a summit between the two Koreas.

South Korean news agency Newsis reported that Kim Yo Jong and the North’s ceremonial leader, Kim Yong Nam, were visiting Beijing, citing an unidentified North Korea-related source in Beijing.

The pair visited South Korean President Moon Jae-in at his office in Seoul during the Winter Olympics in February.

The U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was unlikely Kim Jong Un would have sent his sister on such an important mission, unlike her ceremonial visit to South Korea for the Olympics.

On the contrary, the official said, a summit with Xi would underscore Kim’s standing as a world leader.

Security personnel take position along Beijing’s main east-west thoroughfare, Changan Avenue, in Beijing, China March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

“LOT OF LEVERAGE”

Xi and Kim Jong Un had reasons to meet in advance of Kim’s meetings with Moon and possibly Trump, the U.S. official said.

“Xi has met Trump, and in many respects learned how to deal with him better than some people here do,” the official said.

“At the same time, despite the recent tensions, he needs to know what Kim has in mind for dealing with the South and the U.S., and he still has a lot of leverage with the North.”

Japanese media reported on Monday that a high-ranking Pyongyang official appeared to have arrived by train in Beijing.

The Blue House official said South Korea had been aware of “related movements” in North Korea, such as the train, for a few days but he could not confirm whether Kim or another high-ranking North Korean official was visiting China.

Beijing is the main ally of secretive and isolated North Korea, as well as its biggest trading partner.

China has not confirmed any visit by a North Korean but has not totally censored speculation.

There were posts on Chinese social media talking about the possibility Kim Jong Un was in China, some citing family members in Dandong. The rail journey between Dandong and Beijing covers more than 1,100 km (680 miles). It takes at least 14 hours by ordinary service, according to Chinese railway timetables.

The North Korean leader is due to hold separate summits with South Korea in late April and the United States in May.

“The fact that the summits are being held has been beyond our expectations. Right now, the situation surrounding the Korean peninsula is moving very quickly and it would be inadvisable to think with prejudice,” the Blue House official said.

Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, met then-president Jiang Zemin in China in 2000 before a summit between the two Koreas in June that year.

Kim Jong Il was considered at the time to have made the visit to reaffirm close ties with China.

“North Korea likely wants to confirm its relationship with China and believes it has some leverage with which it can ask for things from China,” said Yoo Ho-yeol, Professor of North Korean studies at Seoul’s Korea University.

“If North Korea speaks with the United States on its own, it might feel it is at a disadvantage but, if it has China as an ally, Pyongyang may think it will be able to protect its interests and profits during the summits.”

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING and Christine Kim in SEOUL; Additional reporting by Heekyong Yang in SEOUL and John Walcott in WASHINGTON; Editing by Paul Tait and Nick Macfie)