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US Informs South Korea of Plans to Start Talks to Amend Trade Pact

The United States notified South Korea on Wednesday it plans to start negotiating amendments to a five-year-old free trade agreement with Seoul and called a meeting to kick off the talks for next month.

The announcement came months after U.S. President Donald Trump said he would either renegotiate or terminate what he called a “horrible” trade deal.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, acting on Trump’s instructions, said the joint committee under the U.S.-Korea Trade Agreement (KORUS) would meet in Washington next month. No date has been set.

“Since KORUS went into effect, our trade deficit in goods with Korea has doubled from $13.2 billion to $27.6 billion, while U.S. goods exports have actually gone down,” Lighthizer said in a statement.

“This is quite different from what the previous administration sold to the American people when it urged approval of this agreement. We can and must do better,” he said.

Trump, in an interview with Reuters in April, blamed the trade deal on his 2016 Democratic presidential election opponent, Hillary Clinton, who as secretary of state promoted the final version of the agreement before its approval by Congress in 2011.

“It’s a horrible deal, and we are going to renegotiate that deal or terminate it,” Trump said in the interview.

A South Korean trade official told Reuters on Thursday that it will hold the proposed joint committee either in Seoul or Washington, but this does not necessarily mean that South Korea will renegotiate the deal.

“We will meet and discuss mutual interests and concerns. Our stance is that we have not agreed on renegotiation of the deal,” Yeo Han-koo of South Korea’s trade ministry said over the phone.

He said South Korea believes the deal is mutually beneficial, and the two countries need to first establish whether the U.S. trade deficit with South Korea is caused by the trade deal or is a result of other fundamental economic issues.

On July 1, Trump met South Korean President Moon Jae-in and said the United States was renegotiating what he characterized as a “rough” trade deal with South Korea agreed to five years ago by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

KORUS was initially negotiated by the Republican administration of President George W. Bush in 2007, but that version was scrapped and renegotiated by President Barack Obama’s Democratic administration three years later.

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Rare Magnitude 5.8 Quake Strikes Off Coast of North Korea

A rare magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck off North Korea in the Sea of Japan on Thursday, but was unlikely to cause any damage, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

An earthquake of that size is unusual for that area but not unprecedented, USGS seismologist Julie Dutton told Reuters. She said the last large quake in that part of the Sea of Japan was in 1994.

North Korea causes seismic events when it conducts underground nuclear bomb tests, but Dutton said there was nothing to indicate this quake was a man-made event. All of North Korea’s underground nuclear tests have been conducted on land.

A Pentagon spokesman said initial indications showed that the quake did not result from a nuclear test.

The quake, which struck early in the morning on Thursday, was very deep, 334.1 miles (538 km) below the seabed, and unlikely to cause any damage. Its epicenter was 112 miles (180 km) southeast of the North Korean city of Chongjin.

It was initially reported as a magnitude 6.0 but was later revised to 5.8.

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Sri Lanka Says Buddhism Will Remain Paramount in New Charter

Sri Lanka’s prime minister said on Wednesday Buddhism will remain paramount in the bitterly divided island, seeking to head off protests led by the powerful Buddhist clergy against proposed changes to the constitution.

The government announced plans last January to devolve power to provinces including in areas dominated by the country’s ethnic Tamil minority in an effort to address alienation and bury the kind of ethnic tension that led to a 26-year civil war, but Buddhists who make up 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s 21 million people are opposed to any changes in the constitution under which Buddhism is accorded foremost position while allowing people of other faiths to practice.

Sri Lanka has chosen only Buddhists to the post of president and prime minister since independence from British colonial rule in 1948. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said the Buddhist character of the country would not be touched.

“We are in the process of preparing the new constitution … the president and myself have agreed to maintain the priority given to the Buddhism in the constitution as it is,” Wickremesinghe told a group of Buddhist monks in Colombo.

Monks offer warning

More than 75 prominent monks last week warned the government not to change the constitution or it would face consequences.

The opposition, led by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, and hardline Buddhist groups have warned the government of nationwide demonstrations if the government went ahead with changes to the charter.

Some opposition members have alleged that the new constitution had been drafted to please Western nations and to dilute the influence of Buddhism.

More than 100,000 people were killed in the civil war that ended in 2009 in a crushing defeat for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam fighting for a separate homeland for the Tamils.

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Indonesia’s President Signs Decree to Ban Radical Groups

Indonesia’s president has signed a decree giving the government the power to ban radical organizations, in a move aimed at outlawing groups behind an apparent rise in the political clout of hard-line Islam.

The measure announced Wednesday by the country’s top security minister follows months of sectarian tensions in the world’s most populous Muslim nation that shook the government and undermined its reputation for practicing a moderate form of Islam.

It amends an existing law regulating mass organizations, allowing the government to sidestep a potentially lengthy court process to implement a ban. It is likely that Hizbut Tahrir, a group that campaigns for Indonesia to adopt Shariah law and become a caliphate, is among the targets of the decree after the government announced in May that it planned to ban the group.

Wiranto, the coordinating minister for politics, security and law, said the decree is aimed at protecting the unity and existence of Indonesia as a nation and not at discrediting Islamic groups. Wiranto, who uses one name, said the decree was signed by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on Monday.

New York-based Human Rights Watch condemned the move, calling it a “troubling violation” of the rights to freedom of association and expression despite it being supported by moderate groups such as Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization.

Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, Andreas Harsono, said the government already has the power to take legal action against any group suspected of violating the law.

“Banning any organization strictly on ideological grounds … is a draconian action that undermines rights of freedom of association and expression that Indonesians have fought hard to establish since the Suharto dictatorship,” Harsono said.

Hizbut Tahrir, along with groups such as the violent Islamic Defenders Front, was behind months of massive protests in Jakarta, the capital, against the city’s minority Christian governor, an ally of Jokowi who was accused of blaspheming Islam. He subsequently lost a bid for re-election to a Muslim candidate and was imprisoned for two years for blasphemy despite prosecutors downgrading the charge to a lesser offense.

Hizbut, a global organization, is estimated to have tens of thousands of members in Indonesia.

Ismail Yusanto, a spokesman for the group in Indonesia, said it plans to seek a judicial review of the decree in the Constitutional Court.

“The move just shows an arbitrary action aimed at disbanding Hizbut Tahrir,” he said.

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Family Planning Summit Overshadowed By US Funding Cut

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has announced a big increase in funding to contraceptive programs. The pledge was made as delegates from across the globe gathered Tuesday for the Family Planning Summit in London. But, as Henry Ridgwell reports, proposed cuts to family planning programs by the U.S. government overshadowed the conference.

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China-Pakistan Corridor Prompts Pakistanis to Study Chinese

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is a group of infrastructure projects currently underway in Pakistan. The aim is to quickly modernize Pakistan’s infrastructure while strengthening its economy. The promise of prosperity has prompted Pakistanis to learn to speak Chinese. Nasir Mahmood reports from Islamabad.

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India Police Warned Weeks Ago of Attack on Hindus in Kashmir

As India’s government on Tuesday blamed separatist rebels for gunning down seven Hindu pilgrims and wounding 19 more in Kashmir before fleeing into the night, rebel groups in the disputed region condemned the rare, deadly attack on civilians and insisted they had no part in it.

A memo that was circulated to regional police, military and paramilitary units two weeks ago indicates Indian security officials had been expecting an attack. The memo, marked “top secret,” warned that a “sensational attack by terrorist outfits cannot be ruled out” in the mostly Muslim region.

The memo, dated June 25 and verified as authentic by The Associated Press, said “terrorists have been directed to eliminate 100 to 150 yatris (pilgrims) and about 100 police.”

It described circumstances eerily similar to what transpired Monday night: “The attack may be in the form of standoff fire on yatra (pilgrimage) convoy, which they (militants) believe will result in flaring of communal tensions throughout the nation.”

Police said the attack began with gunmen unleashing a hail of bullets on an armored police vehicle and, soon after, on a nearby police patrol. They said that a bus carrying 60 Hindu pilgrims had been passing through the area when the patrolling police and militants were exchanging fire, and that some bullets struck the bus and its passengers.

The police also said that the bus had been traveling at night, despite instructions to avoid the roads after dark. Though security had been increased along the route for the pilgrimage, the thousands of deployed soldiers and police do not patrol overnight.

Several bus passengers who were wounded gave a different version of events, saying the bus had been targeted from three directions during the attack. They said the driver kept driving the bus as it was being struck with bullets near the southern town of Anantnag on the main highway linking Kashmir with the rest of India.

The annual summer pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave shrine, which began June 29 under heavy security, has been targeted in the past. Opponents of Indian rule in Kashmir accuse Hindu-majority India of using the pilgrimage as a political statement to bolster its claim to the disputed region.

On Tuesday, thousands of Hindus continued the religious pilgrimage undeterred, as Indian soldiers and police increased security along the Himalayan route for buses carrying pilgrims to the base camps where they start walking the path to the high mountain cave.

None of the rebel groups fighting to oust India from the mostly Muslim region has claimed responsibility for the attack, and the three top separatist leaders in Kashmir condemned it.

They demanded an independent investigation into the attack.

“This incident goes against the very grain of Kashmiri ethos,” the separatist leaders – Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Mohammed Yasin Malik – said in a joint statement.

Police were searching for the assailants, who they said were from the Pakistan-based rebel group Lashkar-e-Taiba. India also blames the group for a 2008 attack that left 166 people dead in India’s commercial capital of Mumbai. 

“We’re investigating the attack, but we know certainly that the Lashkar has done it. We’ll soon deal with them,” police Inspector-General Muneer Ahmed Khan said.

Lashkar-e-Taiba denied any involvement in the attack, which they called “reprehensible” and “un-Islamic,” according to a statement sent to local media in Srinagar, the main city in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

The group said India was behind the attack, “to sabotage the freedom struggle of Kashmiris” and fulfill “its nefarious agenda” to crush the popular anti-India rebellion.

“No Kashmiri has ever targeted any pilgrims, and this barbarity and atrocity is the trademark of Indian forces,” the group’s statement said.

Residents said they were afraid of a possible backlash by Hindu nationalists and Indian forces against Kashmiris elsewhere in India.

“My two brothers are studying in India,” school teacher Shagufta Kaunsar said. “I don’t know if it’s really safe for them there. We’re already telling them to come back home.”

Omar Abdullah, a former chief minister of Kashmir, asked India’s home ministry to protect Kashmiri students and workers across the nation. “Possibility of backlash can’t be ignored,” he said in a Twitter message.

Most of the pilgrims wounded in the attack were released from hospitals on Tuesday. The bodies of those killed were flown to New Delhi on their way to the pilgrims’ west Indian states of Gujarat and Maharashtra.

The attack sparked outrage across Kashmir and much of India.

In the Jammu region of Kashmir, which is dominated by Hindus, hundreds of protesters shouted angry slogans against the militants and burned a faceless effigy meant to represent both terrorism and Pakistan, which India blames for supporting the rebels. Many shops and businesses were shuttered for a protest strike in Jammu.

Meanwhile, students in the Gujarati city of Ahmadabad gathered for a sit-in to protest all religious violence, while peace activists planned a candlelight vigil in New Delhi on Tuesday night.

The Press Trust of India news agency said the last major attack on Amarnath pilgrims occurred in 2000, when gunmen killed 30 people in the Pahalgam area, including local porters carrying pilgrim’s baggage up the mountain path.

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US Experts Dispute Russia’s Claim That North Korea’s New Missile Not an ICBM

Russia’s assessment of North Korea’s latest missile launch puzzles many U.S. experts, who say the Kremlin “mischaracterized” the nature of Pyongyang’s test, either as a result of technical flaws or possibly for political reasons.

According to Russian state-run media, Moscow’s U.N. mission submitted a letter to the U.N. Secretariat that described the North Korean projectile fired on July 4 as an intermediate-range rocket. That assessment is at odds with U.S., South Korean and Japanese findings that classified the Hwasong-14 as a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

China has not yet commented details of the rocket involved.

“A Voronezh-type radar station deployed in the Irkutsk region monitored the launch of the Hwasong-14 medium-range ballistic missile (IRBM) from North Korea, which flew a distance of 510 km in 14 minutes, reaching an altitude of 535 km, before landing in the Sea of Japan,” the Russian letter stated.

It followed a fierce U.N. Security Council debate last week, during which Moscow challenged Washington’s reference of the missile as an ICBM. This derailed efforts to reach a consensus among 15 council members on a press statement condemning North Korea for the launch.

Describing the use of a long-range rocket launch as “a clear and sharp military escalation,” U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley blasted the Russian claim at the emergency U.N. meeting, telling Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Vladimir Safronkov, “If you need any sort of intelligence to let you know that the rest of the world sees this is an ICBM, I’m happy to provide it.” 

North Korea’s official news agency KCNA identified the launch as the regime’s first test of an ICBM. It said the missile was fired at a steep angle and reached an altitude of 2,802 km and traveled 933 km during its 39-minute flight into the Sea of Japan.

Extrapolating from the North Korean data, many analysts agreed the Hwasong-14 could, if launched at a standard angle, travel up to 8,000 km – a range long enough to reach Alaska. The Pentagon defines an ICBM as having a range greater than 5,500 km.

“This is so baffling that Russia would have such a different assessment of the Hwasong-14 launch,” Mark Fitzpatrick, a scholar at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told VOA’s Korean Service. “It’s almost as though Russia saw a totally different launch or made up the numbers.”

The only possibility for a country geographically close to North Korea to conclude it was a shorter-range rocket would be a technical flaw or “human failure,” said Fitzpatrick, adding: “In either case, it’s actually worrisome that Russia apparently has so badly mischaracterized this launch.” 

Fitzpatrick said it Russian radar may simply have missed the launch, or did not track the missile’s flight completely.

John Schilling, a missile technology specialist with 38 North, a North Korea monitoring website run by Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), brought up another possibility. Given that the Hwasong-14 was a two-stage rocket, Russian monitors may have detected only the rocket used for the missile’s first stage – believed to be a well-known KN-17 liquid-fueled missile – which Schilling said “would have reached the lower altitude and traveled a shorter distance.”

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, also believes the missile’s second stage may have escaped the notice of Russian trackers.

“The second stage separates, fires and goes up to this almost 3,000 km height, but if the Russians didn’t see the second stage for some reason and just saw the first stage, that would only go up to sort of the height that they report,” he said.

Russia’s failure to track the Hwasong-14’s second stage could be explained by a lack of “good sensor systems as close to North Korea as the U.S. does have, presumably in South Korea, that are much closer to the action,” McDowell added.

He said Russia’s early-warning systems to detect missile launches have been deteriorating for several years. “A lot of their early warning satellites have been retired, and their radars, not all of them are in operation, and so this may reflect the aging of the Russian technical capability,” the scientist said. 

Another North Korea expert, Bruce Bennett of the Rand Corporation, said while Russia’s assessment could be a result of technical shortcomings, it seems more plausible that Moscow’s political motivations may have influenced its missile report.

“In theory, Russia could be trying to play down the North Korean assertion that it did happen and that therefore [leader] Kim Jong Un accomplishes his objective,” Bennett said. “So Russia could be taking a position against North Korea … as well as acting against the U.S. It’s kind of a poor play by the Russians.”  

Fitzpatrick shares this view as Russia historically tends to minimize North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities, “so as not to play into what is sometimes an excessive sense of threat perceived by the United States.”  

“I think it’s fair to say that Russia has a political motivation to assess that it was not an intercontinental ballistic missile because Russia does not want the United States to have any further excuse to expand its ballistic missile defense capabilities,” Fitzpatrick said.