US, South Korea open to expanded military drills to deter North Korea

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US President Joe Biden attends a bilateral meeting with his South Korean counterpart Yoon Seok-youl at the People’s House in Seoul on May 21, 2022. (Reuters)
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There’s worry in Seoul that Washington is slipping back to the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” policy of ignoring North Korea until it demonstrates seriousness about denuclearization. (File/AFP)
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Updated 21 May 2022

US, South Korea open to expanded military drills to deter North Korea

  • One mission will be reassuring South Korea about the US commitment to countering North Korea’s Kim Jong Un

SEOUL: US President Joe Biden and South Korea President Yoon Suk Yeol said after meeting Saturday that they will consider expanded military exercises to deter the nuclear threat from North Korea at a time when there’s little hope of real diplomacy on the matter.
Yoon affirmed in remarks at a news conference that their shared goal is the complete denuclearization of North Korea. The US and South Korea issued a joint statement that said they were committed to a “rules-based international order” following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The statement likely sets the stage for how the US and its allies will address any challenges with North Korea.
The statement may draw an angry response from North Korea, which had defended its nuclear weapons and missile development on what it perceives as US threats and long described the U.S-South Korea military exercises as invasion rehearsals, although the allies have described the drills as defensive.
Yet Biden also reiterated his offer of vaccines to North Korea as the coronavirus spreads at a dangerously fast speed through that country. He also said he’s prepared to meet with Kim Jong Un provided the North Korean leader is “sincere” and “serious.”
“Yes, we’ve offered vaccines, not only to North Korea but China as well,” Biden said. “We’re prepared to do that immediately. We’ve gotten no response.”
The division of the Korean peninsula after World War II has led to two radically different countries. In South Korea, Biden is touring factories for computer chips and next-generation autos in a democracy and engaging in talks for greater cooperation. But in the North, there is a deadly coronavirus outbreak in a largely unvaccinated autocracy that can best command the world’s attention by flexing its nuclear capabilities.
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One as Biden flew to South Korea, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the US has coordinated with Seoul and Tokyo on how they’ll respond should the North conduct a nuclear test or missile strike while Biden is in the region or soon after. Sullivan also spoke with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi earlier in the week and urged Beijing to use its influence to persuade the North to cease the tests.
As part of a five-day visit in Asia, Biden spent Saturday developing his relationship with Yoon, who assumed office little more than a week ago.
In advance of the meeting, there have been worries in Seoul that Washington is slipping back to the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” policy of ignoring North Korea until it demonstrates seriousness about denuclearization, an approach that was criticized for neglecting the North as it made huge strides in building its nuclear arsenal.
The US president opened Saturday by laying a wreath at Seoul National Cemetery, wearing white gloves and a somber expression as he also burned incense and then signed a guest book. Biden then greeted Yoon at the People’s House for a nearly two-hour meeting and brief public remarks. The pair will also hold a joint news conference and attend a leaders’ dinner at the National Museum of Korea.
In addition to North Korea, both leaders emphasized economic security and growing trade relations as two Korean industrial stalwarts — Samsung and Hyundai — are opening major plants in the US
Biden faces growing disapproval within the US over inflation near a 40-year high, but his administration sees one clear economic win in the contest with China for influence in the Pacific. Bloomberg Economics Analysis estimates that the US economy will grow faster this year than China for the first time since 1976, a forecast that White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre credited to Biden’s spending on coronavirus relief and infrastructure that led to faster job growth.
The national security event that is galvanizing broader discussions between the two countries has been Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a war that has led to an unprecedented set of sanctions by the US and its allies.
South Korea joined the US in imposing export controls against Russia and blocking Russian banks from the SWIFT payments system. Its participation was key to stopping Russia’s access to computer chips and other technologies needed for weapons and economic development.
At the start of the administration, many White House officials thought that Kim’s nuclear ambitions would prove to be perhaps the administration’s most vexing challenge and that the North Korean leader would aim to test Biden’s mettle early in his time in office.
Through the first 14 months of Biden’s administration, Pyongyang held off on missile tests even as it ignored efforts by the administration to reach out through back channels in hopes of restarting talks that could lead to the North’s denuclearization in return for sanctions relief.
But the quiet didn’t last. North Korea has tested missiles 16 separate times this year, including in March, when its first flight of an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017 demonstrated a potential range including the entire US mainland.
The Biden administration is calling on China to restrain North Korea from engaging in any missile or nuclear tests. Speaking on Air Force One, Sullivan said Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping could hold a phone call in the coming weeks.
Biden has fiercely criticized Beijing over its human rights record, trade practices, military harassment of the self-ruled island of Taiwan and more. And while Biden has made clear that he sees China as the United States’ greatest economic and national security competitor, he says it is crucial to keep the lines of communication open so the two powers can cooperate on issues of mutual concern. North Korea is perhaps highest on that list.
White House officials said Biden won’t visit the Demilitarized Zone dividing the Korean peninsula during his trip — something that’s become standard for presidents during Seoul visits dating back to Ronald Reagan. Biden visited the DMZ in 2013 as vice president. Sullivan said the president’s decision to skip the stop this time wasn’t driven by security concerns.
Instead, Biden on Sunday will visit the Air Operations Center’s Combat Operations Floor on Osan Air Base, south of Seoul. The US sees it as one of the most critical installations in Northeast Asia.


Jill Biden tests positive for COVID-19, ‘mild’ symptoms

Updated 59 min 7 sec ago

Jill Biden tests positive for COVID-19, ‘mild’ symptoms

  • She has been prescribed the antiviral drug Paxlovid and will isolate at the vacation home for at least five days

KIAWAH ISLAND, South Carolina: First lady Jill Biden tested positive for COVID-19 and was experiencing “mild symptoms,” the White House announced Tuesday.
She had been vacationing with President Joe Biden in South Carolina when she began experiencing symptoms on Monday. She has been prescribed the antiviral drug Paxlovid and will isolate at the vacation home for at least five days.
Joe Biden tested negative for the virus on Tuesday morning, the White House said, but would be wearing a mask indoors for 10 days in line with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. He recovered from a rebound case of the virus on Aug.7.


Bus falls in gorge in Indian-administered Kashmir, kills six border policemen

Updated 16 August 2022

Bus falls in gorge in Indian-administered Kashmir, kills six border policemen

  • Police said 35 people survived the crash but some were badly injured
  • The bus was carrying members of the Indo Tibetan Border Police Force

SRINAGAR: A bus carrying personnel from India’s high-altitude border police rolled off a mountainous road and fell into a gorge in Indian-administered Kashmir on Tuesday, killing at least six officers, police said.

Kashmir police said on Twitter the injured were being flown to an army hospital in the Himalayan region’s main city of Srinagar, some 90 km (55 miles) from the accident site in Anantnag district.

A police officer told Reuters that 35 people survived the crash but some were badly injured.

The bus was carrying members of the Indo Tibetan Border Police Force, a federal force specializing in high-altitude operations, mainly on the Indo-China border.

Pictures from the site showed mangled remains of the bus by a fast-flowing river.


Taliban add more compulsory religion classes to Afghan universities

Updated 16 August 2022

Taliban add more compulsory religion classes to Afghan universities

  • Minister for higher education said they are adding five more religious subjects to the existing eight
  • Many conservative Afghan clerics in the hard-line Islamist Taliban are skeptical of modern education

KABUL: Afghan university students will have to attend more compulsory Islamic studies classes, education officials said Tuesday while giving little sign that secondary schools for girls would reopen.
Many conservative Afghan clerics in the hard-line Islamist Taliban, which swept back into power a year ago, are skeptical of modern education.
“We are adding five more religious subjects to the existing eight,” said Abdul Baqi Haqqani, minister for higher education, including Islamic history, politics and governance.
The number of compulsory religious classes will increase from one to three a week in government universities.
He told a news conference that the Taliban would not order any subjects to be dropped from the current curriculum.
However, some universities have altered studies on music and sculpture — highly sensitive issues under the Taliban’s harsh interpretation of sharia law — while an exodus of Afghanistan’s educated elite, including professors, has seen many subjects discontinued.
Officials have for months insisted that schools will reopen for girls, swaying between technical and financial issues as reasons for the continued closures.
Abdulkhaliq Sadiq, a senior official at the education ministry, on Tuesday said families in rural areas were still not convinced of the need to send girls to secondary school.
Under the Taliban’s last regime between 1996 and 2001, both primary and secondary schools for girls never reopened.
“We are trying to come up with a sound policy in coordination with our leaders... so that those in rural areas are also convinced,” he said.
Since seizing power on August 15 last year the Taliban have imposed harsh restrictions on girls and women to comply with their austere vision of Islam — effectively squeezing them out of public life.
Although young women are still permitted to attend university, many have dropped out because of the cost or because their families are afraid for them to be out in public in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, without a secondary school certificate, teenage girls will not be able to sit future university entrance exams.
The international community has made the right to education a key condition for formally recognizing the Taliban government.
Despite being in power for a year, no country has so far recognized the government.


Father and son linked to murders of Muslims, including two Pakistanis, in New Mexico

Updated 16 August 2022

Father and son linked to murders of Muslims, including two Pakistanis, in New Mexico

  • Police charged Afghan Muhammad Syed with two  murders, linked four killings to personal grudges
  • Son Shaheen Syed was arrested last week on federal firearms charges for providing a false address

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico: Police believe the son of the prime suspect in the killings of four Muslim men may have played a role in the murders, which have shaken the Muslim community in New Mexico's largest city.

Cellphone data shows Shaheen Syed, 21, was in the same "general area" of Albuquerque as his father at the time of the Aug. 5 killing of 25-year-old trucking entrepreneur Naeem Hussain, according to a filing by federal prosecutors for a Monday detention hearing during which Syed was denied bail.

Syed's attorney John Anderson said the allegations were "exceedingly thin and speculative."

Police last week charged Shaheen Syed's father, Muhammad Syed, 51, with two of the murders and linked the four killings to personal grudges, possibly fueled by intra-Muslim sectarian hatred. Shaheen Syed was arrested last week on federal firearms charges for providing a false address.

"Law enforcement officers also have recently discovered evidence that appears to tie the defendant, Shaheen Syed, to these killings," the filing said.

Agents believe Shaheen Syed observed Naeem Hussain leaving an Aug. 5 funeral service for two of the murdered Muslim men, based on FBI analysis of cell tower data. He then followed Hussain to the area of a parking lot where he was shot dead.

"Telephone calls between Muhammad Atif Syed and the defendant (Shaheen Syed) would be consistent with quick surveillance calls, both before and after the shooting," the filing said.

Prosecutors did not provide evidence on the other shootings.

Imtiaz Hussain said he believed at least two people were involved in the Aug. 1 murder of his brother Muhammad Afzaal Hussain.

A pistol and rifle were used to shoot Afzaal Hussain, a city planning director, 15 times in around 15 to 20 seconds, according to police records and Imtiaz.

“For one suspect it is difficult to use two weapons in that short an interval,“ said Imtiaz Hussain.

The victims Naeem Hussain and Afzaal Hussain were not related.

Muhammad Syed, an Afghan refugee, has been charged with killing Afzaal Hussain, who was from Pakistan, and cafe manager Aftab Hussein, 41, who had ties to Afghanistan and Pakistan. A fourth man, supermarket owner Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, was shot dead on Nov. 7, 2021.

Police have said they are working with prosecutors on potential charges for the murders of Naeem Hussain and Ahmadi.


Blasts, fire hits military depot in Russian-annexed Crimea

Updated 16 August 2022

Blasts, fire hits military depot in Russian-annexed Crimea

  • Russia blamed the blasts at an ammunition storage facility in Mayskoye on an “act of sabotage”
  • Plumes of black smoke also rose over an air base in Crimea's Gvardeyskoye

KYIV, Ukraine: Massive explosions and fires hit a military depot in Russia-annexed Crimea on Tuesday, forcing the evacuation of more than 3,000 people, the second time in recent days that the Ukraine war’s focus has turned to the peninsula.
Russia blamed the blasts at an ammunition storage facility in Mayskoye on an “act of sabotage” without naming the perpetrators. As with last week’s explosions, they led to speculation that Ukraine may be behind the attack on the peninsula, which Russia has controlled since 2014.
Separately, the Russian business newspaper Kommersant quoted local residents as saying that plumes of black smoke also rose over an air base in Crimea’s Gvardeyskoye.
Ukraine has stopped short of publicly claiming responsibility for any of the fires or explosions, including last week’s at another air base that destroyed nine Russian planes. If Ukrainian forces were, in fact, responsible for any of the explosions, they would represent a significant escalation in the war.
Crimea holds huge strategic and symbolic significance for Russia and Ukraine. The Kremlin’s demand that Kyiv recognize the peninsula as part of Russia has been one of its key conditions for ending the fighting, while Ukraine has vowed to drive the Russians from the peninsula and all other occupied territories.
Videos posted on social media showed thick plumes of smoke rising over raging flames in Mayskoye, and a series of explosions could be heard in the background. The Russian Defense Ministry said the fires at the depot caused damage to a power plant, power lines, rail tracks and some apartment buildings. It said in a statement that there were no serious injuries.
Earlier, Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti reported a fire a transformer substation after “a loud thump sound” in what appeared to be a result of the blasts at the depot.
The Dzhankoi district, where the blasts happened, is in the north of the peninsula, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Russian-controlled region of Kherson in southern Ukraine. Kyiv has recently mounted a series of attacks on various sites in the region, targeting supply routes for the Russian military there and ammunition depots.
Last week’s explosions at Crimea’s Saki air base sent sunbathers on nearby beaches fleeing as huge flames and pillars of smoke rose over the horizon. Ukrainian officials emphasized Tuesday that Crimea — which is a popular destination for Russian tourists — would not be spared the ravages of war experienced throughout Ukraine.
Rather than a travel destination, “Crimea occupied by Russians is about warehouses explosions and high risk of death for invaders and thieves,” Ukraine presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter, though he did not claim any Ukraine responsibility for the blasts.
Crimea’s regional leader, Sergei Aksyonov, said that two people were injured and more than 3,000 evacuated from the villages of Mayskoye and Azovskoye near Dzhankoi following the munitions depot explosions.
Because the explosions damaged rail tracks, some trains in northern Crimea were diverted to other lines.
The Russian military blamed last week’s blasts at the Saki air base on an accidental detonation of munitions there, but it appeared to be the result of a Ukrainian attack.
Ukrainian officials at the time stopped short of publicly claiming responsibility for the explosions, while mocking Russia’s explanation that a careless smoker might have caused the ammunition to catch fire. Analysts also said that explanation doesn’t make sense and that the Ukrainians could have used anti-ship missiles to strike the base.
A British Defense Ministry intelligence update said vessels in Russia’s Black Sea Fleet “continue to pursue an extremely defensive posture” in the waters off Crimea, with the ships barely venturing out of sight of the coastline.
Russia already lost its flagship Moskva in the Black Sea and last month the Ukrainian military retook the strategic Snake Island outpost off Ukraine’s southwestern coast. It is vital for guaranteeing sea lanes out of Odesa, Ukraine’s biggest port.
The Russian fleet’s “limited effectiveness undermines Russia’s overall invasion strategy,” the British statement said. “This means Ukraine can divert resources to press Russian ground forces elsewhere.”
Meanwhile, in the Donbas, which has been the focus of the fighting in recent months, one civilian was killed in Russian shelling, and two others wounded, according to the Ukrainian governor of the Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko.
In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, one civilian was killed and nine others were wounded by Russian shelling, regional governor Oleh Syniehubov said. He added that the overnight attack on the city was “one of the most massive shelling of Kharkiv in recent days.”
Officials in the central region of Dniprotpetrovsk also reported shelling of the Nikopol and the Kryvyi Rih districts.
Amid the explosions and shelling, one good piece of news emerged from the region, with a United Nations-chartered ship loaded with 23,000 metric tons of Ukrainian grain setting off for the Horn of Africa.
It’s the first shipment of its kind, and the United Nations’ World Food Program called it “another important milestone” in a plan to assist countries facing famine. Ukraine and Russia reached a deal with Turkey in July to restart Black Sea grain deliveries, addressing the major export disruption that has occurred since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
The worst drought in four decades in the Horn of Africa has led thousands of people across the region have died from hunger or illness this year.
That deal not only protects ships exporting Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea but also assures Russia that its food and fertilizer won’t face sanctions, safeguarding one of the pillars of its economy and helping ease concerns from insurers and banks.