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Stunning fall of Malaysia’s Najib ushers in hopes of reform

Two weeks ago, Malaysia’s Najib Razak was supremely confident of being elected prime minister for a third term. Instead, in a dizzying political drama, he lost an unlosable election and spiraled into ever-deepening disgrace while Malaysians are being feted for advancing democratic values against their global retreat.

In a series of humiliations, the patrician and luxury-loving Najib and wife Rosmah Mansor were banned from leaving the country; truckloads of luggage stashed with cash and valuables as well as hundreds of expensive designer bags were seized from their home and other properties; and anti-corruption police questioned Najib for hours this week about a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal on his watch.

After 60 years of uninterrupted National Front rule, many Malaysians are optimistic they are ushering in an era of reform that echoes the democratic transformation of giant neighbor Indonesia two decades earlier. The difference, they hope, is that it will continue to be accomplished without setting their multiethnic country in flames. A grouping of progressive Southeast Asian lawmakers has hailed Najib’s defeat as a “bright spot amid dark times” of rising authoritarianism across the region.

The May 9 election that turfed Najib and his government despite an electoral system heavily engineered in their favor was a “quiet, dignified but defining revolution at the ballot box,” said Malaysian rights activist and lawyer Ambiga Sreenevasan. “Malaysia has now set the gold standard in Southeast Asia for bringing change peacefully even through a flawed process,” said Sreenevasan, who has been appointed by the new government to a reform panel.

Najib’s ouster was in large part made possible by the return to politics of Mahathir Mohamad, premier for 22 years until 2003. Spurred by anger over the alleged looting of state investment fund 1MDB by associates of Najib, he emerged from retirement and joined with former political enemies to campaign against the ruling coalition.

Despite Mahathir being mocked by Najib for his old age and authoritarian record, his reputation as a statesman who transformed a Southeast Asian backwater into a modern economy helped soothe voters’ fears of possible chaos under a new government. Many Malaysians have been haunted for decades by racial riots in 1969 that killed more than 200 people.

Since he was sworn in as Malaysia’s seventh premier and the world’s oldest leader at 92, Mahathir has wasted no time in setting up his government and tackling the country’s financial problems. Former foes he once jailed have been appointed to the cabinet, including the first ethnic Chinese to hold the powerful finance ministry post in 44 years. Malaysia also now has its first female deputy prime minister.

Mahathir facilitated a royal pardon that freed reformist icon Anwar Ibrahim, who was jailed in 2015 in what he said was a conspiracy by Najib to crush his opposition alliance. Anwar, who is now the prime minister-in-waiting, was sacked by Mahathir in 1998 after a power struggle and jailed for sodomy and corruption. The two men reconciled in 2016, united by their resolve to oust Najib.

Mahathir has said he needs one to two years to restore order before handing power to Anwar.

The top priority is getting to the bottom of the 1MDB scandal.

Najib started the fund when he took power in 2009 but it accumulated billions in debts. U.S. investigators say $4.5 billion was stolen and laundered from 1MDB by his associates, some of which landed in Najib’s bank account and $27.3 million of it used to buy a rare pink diamond necklace for his wife.

A former attorney general and senior anti-graft official, who were on the verge of pressing criminal charges against Najib in 2015 before they, respectively, were sacked and fled in fear of arrest, have been brought back to help investigate. A 1MDB panel has been set up to liaise with foreign countries on how to retrieve the laundered billions.

New Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng said Tuesday that Najib’s government had conducted “an exercise of deception” over 1MDB and also misrepresented the country’s financial situation to parliament. The same day, the anti-corruption commission official who previously led investigations into 1MDB gave a harrowing account of how the probe was suppressed by intimidation during Najib’s rule.

“Malaysia will likely be one of the few Southeast Asian nations to put a former PM in jail,” said Bridget Welsh, political science professor at the John Cabot University in Rome, who was in Kuala Lumpur to observe the polls.

Najib “made the mistake of thinking it was about him rather than the office he held,” she said. Former Philippine President Joseph Estrada was jailed for corruption in 2007.

While the 1MDB crisis will keep officials busy, there are other worries for Mahathir and the new government.

Closer examination of the election results showed many from the country’s ethnic Malay majority still didn’t support Mahathir’s alliance.

The conservative Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party made major gains by winning control of two rural northeastern mainly Malay states. Collectively with the National Front, they hold 43 percent of seats in Parliament.

This could create difficulty for Mahathir’s government on any attempt to pare back a decades-old affirmative action policy that favors Malays in government contracts, business, jobs, education and housing.

The program is credited with lifting millions of Malays out of poverty and creating an urban middle class of the ethnic group who account for two-thirds of Malaysia’s 31 million people. But it is also blamed for a racial divide between Malays and minority Chinese and Indians who have long complained about government discrimination.

Many ethnic minorities left Malaysia over the years in search of better opportunities but the vote has revived a sense of nationalism, with social media awash with Malaysians hailing Mahathir as a “hero” and expressing pride in being part of a “reborn Malaysia.”

Anwar, a Malay, told The Associated Press in an interview after his release that the race-based policies should be discarded in favor of a merit program that helps all poor irrespective of race.

Once the election euphoria fades, he said the government has to prove there will be more freedom, good governance and a better life for all Malaysians.

“Conservative forces are still strong,” said Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert and poll observer. “Mahathir has made important steps so far that showcase a reform orientation. Malaysians place a lot of hope in his continued leadership. His harnessing of nationalism is important to overcome more divisive currents.”

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Trump casts doubt on June summit with Kim

“There’s a very substantial chance that it won’t work out,” Trump said in the Oval Office, where he was sitting for critical talks with his South Korean counterpart. “That doesn’t mean that it won’t work out over a period of time, but it may not work out for June 12.”

It was the clearest indication to date that the audacious summit Trump agreed to in March may be at risk. Last week, North Korea adopted a harsh new tone and threatened to withdraw from the meeting, which is due to occur in Singapore.

Hours after Trump spoke, his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to cast a more optimistic view of the talks, appearing for the first time in the State Department briefing room to insist a June 12 meet was still the goal.

“We’re working to make sure that there is a common understanding about the contents of what will be discussed. But I’m optimistic,” Pompeo said. “It could be something that comes right to the end and doesn’t happen. As the President said, we’ll see. And that is the place that we find ourselves.”

Trump also maintained that preparations were “moving along” for the talks with Kim; indeed, advance teams are surveying hotel ballrooms in Singapore as possible venues. But the President suggested there may not be enough time for the two sides to agree on mutually agreeable parameters.

“We’ll see what happens,” Trump said. “If it doesn’t happen, maybe it’ll happen later. Maybe it’ll happen at a different time. But we are talking.”

In his meetings Tuesday with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Trump hoped to gain clarity on North Korea’s nuclear intentions. Moon, meanwhile, was hoping to shore up confidence for the Kim meeting, which he helped to broker.

Some US officials believe Moon oversold Pyongyang’s promises when his government relayed Kim’s invitation to Trump for talks in March. At the time his envoy said North Korea was “committed to denuclearization,” but recent statements from the North have cast doubts on Kim’s willingness to negotiate away his nuclear weapons.

That, in turn, has led to skepticism the summit between Trump and Kim will proceed. White House aides have grown pessimistic in recent days that the talks will occur, and Trump underscored the uncertainty on Tuesday.

He again accused China of meddling in his diplomatic overtures with North Korea, saying Beijing was to blame for the new harsh tone from Pyongyang after Kim met in early May with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“I think things changed after that meeting and I can’t say I’m happy about it,” Trump said.

But he insisted he believed Kim was earnest in his nuclear vows, and suggested Pyongyang had much to gain from striking a deal.

Fate of Trump-Kim meeting uncertain, but there will always be a coin

“We will guarantee his safety,” he said of Kim. “He will be safe, he will be happy, his country will be rich, his country will be hardworking and very prosperous.”

Moon, who has urged a diplomatic path in the belief it could forestall war, arrived in Washington in a bid to bolster confidence that the Singapore meeting will be a success. He met with Kim himself last month to great fanfare along the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a historic encounter that Trump hopes to replicate in his own talks.

Those plans were complicated last week when North Korea issued a series of harsh statements condemning joint US-South Korea military exercises and threatening to pull out of the Trump summit if the US continues to call for nuclear abandonment.

US officials were prepared to press Moon on the recent shift in tone, hoping to determine whether it is a signal of changing intentions or whether the North is simply trying to test Trump’s willingness to negotiate ahead of the summit.

Ahead of the talks, Moon’s representatives projected a positive message.

“We believe there is a 99.9% chance the North Korea-US summit will be held as scheduled,” Chung Eui-yong, Moon’s national security adviser, told reporters on the flight from Seoul to Washington. “But we’re just preparing for many different possibilities.”

US officials declined to offer their own prospects.

“I’m not a betting man. I wouldn’t care to predict whether it would happen, only to predict that we’ll be ready in the event that it does,” Pompeo said.

Trump and Moon met in the Oval Office at noon before joining a larger working lunch with aides. There was no joint news conference, and Moon spent only two hours at the White House.

Moon heads to US amid fears for Trump-Kim summit

He did meet with some of Trump’s aides earlier in the day, however, as questions about the administration’s approach to the summit continue to mount.

National security adviser John Bolton, who has been outspoken in his hawkish views toward North Korea, drew Pyongyang’s ire when he suggested Trump use a so-called “Libya model” to rid the country of its nuclear weapons. The US brokered a deal with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in 2003 to abandon his nuclear weapons, but he was overthrown and killed in 2011.

The Libya suggestion raised eyebrows in Seoul, where Bolton’s comments were deemed unhelpful at best and deeply damaging to the potential for diplomacy at worst. Trump later clarified that he wasn’t pursuing the Libya model in North Korea, but speculated things could end poorly for Kim if he doesn’t agree to a deal.

Pompeo has meanwhile adopted a more diplomatic approach, saying an agreement with Kim to abandon nuclear weapons could lead to economic assistance. Pompeo has met Kim twice in North Korea but didn’t emerge with any specific commitments toward dismantling the nuclear program.

He said Tuesday he was open to returning to meet Kim if it was required to keep the summit with Trump on track.

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North Korea allows South Korea reporters to visit nuclear site, official says

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea has accepted a list of South Korean reporters to visit their nuclear testing site after a days-long tug of war with Seoul, South Korea’s unification ministry said on Wednesday.

A man walks past a TV broadcasting a news report on the upcoming dismantling of the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site, in Seoul, South Korea, May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

North Korea invited a handful of media from a number of countries to witness the dismantling of the Punggye-ri testing site to uphold its pledge to discontinue nuclear tests. However, it had declined to take the list of reporters from South Korea after calling off planned inter-Korean talks in protest against U.S.-South Korean air combat drills.

The invitation to witness the dismantling of the Punggye-ri site was seen as an indication that North Korea’s unexpected offer to end its nuclear tests still held despite renewed diplomatic uncertainty.

People watch a TV broadcasting a news report on the upcoming dismantling of the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site, in Seoul, South Korea, May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Reporters from news outlets from the other countries arrived in the North Korean port city of Wonsan on Tuesday, where they are waiting to be guided to the testing site for the event, set for between Wednesday and Friday.

Slideshow (3 Images)

However, South Korean journalists returned home overnight after failing to obtain a visa from Pyongyang in Beijing.

The unification ministry said late on Tuesday the South Korean reporters could fly direct to Wonsan if the North accepted them.

“We delivered a list of eight reporters from two outlets to the North today, and the North accepted it,” the ministry said in a statement on Wednesday.

The ministry did not say when the reporters would leave for the North but said it would arrange support as quickly as possible.

Invited members of foreign media said North Korean authorities told them the weather was “too bad for travel” to the Punggye-ri site but they may in fact be awaiting the South Korean reporters, citing a forecast that shows improving weather.

Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Joori Roh; Editing by Richard Pullin and Paul Tait

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    AFP still has 170kg of silver seized in Panama Papers investigation – politics live | Australia news

    So just further to what Christopher was reporting, Andrew Colvin originally said he wanted no threshold for his officers to be able to ask for your ID at airports. He later changed that to “low” threshold. These are paraphrased quotes from the hearing.

    Nick McKim: You don’t need threshold to have conversation. You’re not asking for lowering of threshold, you’re asking for no threshold.

    Colvin: Correct.

    McKim: So AFP officer can go up to someone and demand they show ID. I think this is unprecedented in Australia’s history to give police the powers to demand ID with no suspicion that someone is committing an offence.

    Colvin: It’s not unprecedented, unusual. There are instances under state legislation.

    McKim: I think this is a step too far down the road to authoritarianism in Australia.

    Derryn Hinch, who supports the regulation change, said he was still worried about racial profiling, basing his concerns on what he sees occurring in the US.

    Colvin: There is a world of difference between our culture and that in the US. Our officers are well trained, and we ensure our officers do not engage in racial profiling.

    Colvin said it is a matter between the government and the airlines about why airlines don’t ask for ID at check in (while they might do it at the desk, they don’t do it at the self-check in stations)

    As for whether we will be heading down the pupil scanning route we are seeing in America, Home Affairs chief Michael Pezzullo said if the threat mandates it, then it will be put in place.

    Basically, Asio provides the intelligence, AFP and Border Force talk about how it would be implemented and then the government would put the policy in place.

    The committee then moved back to what gap the ID check laws filled.

    Colvin said the current threshold for asking for ID – reasonable suspicion a crime has been committed or will be committed – did not ‘match the situation’ his officers faced.

    So, he said, the AFP put this proposal to the government.

    Asked to provide what countries have these sort of powers by Murray Watt, who asked this same question of Pezzullo earlier in the week, Colvin said all adult passengers in the US have to show ID to travel domestically.

    But the change being proposed here is not the same in the US – because they have constitutionally protection under their bill of rights – which we do not.

    Colvin then corrected the record – the AFP doesn’t want no threshold, just a “lowering of the threshold.”

    But they don’t know what that will look like.

    Penny Wong jumped in, asking “I understand you don’t have the detail of how that will be operationalised, but you must have a sense of what you are asking for.”

    Colvin didn’t answer the question.

    McKim was flabbergasted. “Wow,’ was all he said.

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    Trio of survivors from Cuban plane crash in ‘critical’ condition,

    HAVANA — The only three survivors of Cuba’s worst aviation disaster in three decades were clinging to life Saturday, a day after their passenger jet crashed in a fireball in Havana’s rural outskirts with 113 people on board.

    In the first official death toll provided by authorities, Transportation Minister Adel Yzquierdo Rodriguez said 110 had died including five children. He also announced that a flight recorder from the plane had been located.

    Carlos Alberto Martinez, director of Havana’s Calixto Garcia Hospital where the survivors were being treated, said doctors are always hopeful that their patients will recover, but he acknowledged that the three Cuban women were in extremely grave condition.

    “We must be conscious that they present severe injuries,” Martinez told a small group of journalists. “They are in a critical state.”

    More than 100 killed in fiery Cuban airliner crash near Havana

    Cuban officials identified the women as Mailen Diaz, 19, of Holguin; Grettel Landrove, 23, of Havana; and Emiley Sanchez, 39, of Holguin.

    Martinez said Sanchez was conscious and communicating, Diaz was conscious and sedated and Landrove was in a coma.

    The first secretary of Communist Party in the Cuban city of Holguin, Luis Antonio Torres Iribar (l.) speaks with relatives of the victims of a plane crash, at Holguin airport, after a Cubana Airlines aircraft crashed shortly after takeoff from Havana's Jose Marti International Airport on May 18, 2018. The Boeing 737 crash killed over 100 passengers.

    Cubana Airlines plane carrying passengers in Havana crashes shortly after takeoff

    Landrove’s mother, Amparo Font, told reporters that her daughter is a flamenco dancer and engineering student on the verge of graduation.

    “My daughter is an angel,” Font said. “They have to save her.”

    Meanwhile relatives of the dead gathered at a morgue in the capital, weeping and embracing each other, as investigators tried to piece together why the aging Boeing 737 went down and erupted in flames shortly after takeoff early Friday afternoon.

    Yzquierdo said those on board included 102 Cubans, three tourists, two foreign residents and six crew members, who were from Mexico.

    Maite Quesada, a member of the Cuban Council of Churches, announced that 20 pastors from an evangelical church were among the dead. They had spent several days at a meeting in the capital and were returning to their homes and places of worship in the province of Holguin.

    Relatives of passengers who perished in Cuba's worst aviation disaster grieve as they leave the morgue in Havana on Saturday.

    Relatives of passengers who perished in Cuba’s worst aviation disaster grieve as they leave the morgue in Havana on Saturday.

    Skies were overcast and rainy at the airport at the time of Cuba’s third major air accident since 2010, and state television said the 39-year-old jet veered sharply to the right after departing on a domestic flight to the eastern city of Holguin.

    Eyewitness and private salon owner Rocio Martinez said she heard a strange noise and looked up to see the plane with a turbine on fire.

    “It had an engine on fire, in flames, it was falling toward the ground,” Martinez said, adding that the plane veered into the field where it crashed, avoiding potential fatalities in a nearby residential area.

    Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said a special commission had been formed to find the cause of the crash.

    State airline Cubana, which operated the flight, has had a generally good safety record but is notorious for delays and cancellations and has taken many of its planes out of service because of maintenance problems in recent months, prompting it to hire charter aircraft from other companies.

    The people on the plane included 102 Cubans, three tourists, two foreign residents and six crew members.

    The people on the plane included 102 Cubans, three tourists, two foreign residents and six crew members.

    Mexican officials said the Boeing 737-201 was built in 1979 and rented by Cubana from Aerolineas Damojh, a small charter company that also goes by the name Global Air.

    Aviation authorities in Guyana last year stopped the same aircraft from conducting charter flights because of serious safety concerns, including fears about excessive baggage overloading and other issues.

    In November 2010 a Global Air flight originating in Mexico City made an emergency landing in Puerto Vallarta because its front landing gear did not deploy. The fire was quickly extinguished, and none of the 104 people aboard were injured. That plane was a 737 first put into service in 1975.

    Mexican aviation authorities said a team of experts would fly to Cuba on Saturday to take part in the investigation.

    Argentina’s Foreign Ministry said two of its citizens had died in the crash.

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    Rare, brain-damaging Nipah virus spreads panic in India as toll rises

    “We’ve sought the help of private hospitals to tide over the crisis,” said the official, U.V. Jose.

    Gulf News reported that Kerala “is in a state of panic after many cases of the killer Nipah virus were detected.”

    An Indian boy wears a mask as a precautionary measure against the Nipah virus.

    An Indian boy wears a mask as a precautionary measure against the Nipah virus.

    Photo: AP

    The Hindu reported that some ambulance drivers even declined to take a victim’s body to the crematorium for fear that they would contract the illness.

    There is no clear preventive or curative treatment for Nipah, a newly emerging disease spread by bats, pigs and people who have become infected, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organisation.

    The outbreak is suspected to have been spread by infected fruit bats.

    The outbreak is thought to be spread by fruit bats.

    The outbreak is thought to be spread by fruit bats.

    Photo: Supplied

    India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare said on Tuesday that public health crews found numerous bats in a water well that had been used by three family members who were among the victims. The crews have since sealed the well with florescent nets, according to BBC News.

    A nurse who treated some of the victims died on Monday from the disease, according to the BCC.

    In her final days, Lini Puthusheri (which has also been spelled Puthussery) wrote a note to her husband from a hospital isolation ward, asking him to take care of their two children.

    “I think I am almost on my way. I may not be able to see you again. Sorry,” Puthusheri wrote, according to the Associated Press. “Take care of our children.”

    The Nipah virus was first identified in 1999, after farmers and others who had come in contact with infected pigs in Malaysia and Singapore developed severe respiratory problems and inflammation in the brain in 1999.

    Nearly 300 people were diagnosed with the disease, and more than 100 of them died, according to the CDC.

    Symptoms typically present one to two weeks after exposure and can include fever and headache, convulsions, respiratory and neurological problems, according to the agency.

    The virus has a mortality rate of 75 per cent, according to WHO.

    Henk Bekedam, WHO’s representative to India, said the agency is monitoring the outbreak.

    “WHO has been informed about Nipah virus cases being reported in a family from a village in Kozhikode district of Kerala,” he said. “Both the central and the state health authorities have been quick in responding to the situation and have promptly deployed teams and experts to the village to further assess the situation. WHO is in close contact with the teams of experts deployed to the affected areas. We await the assessment reports of the teams to clarify the situation and guide further action.”

    Bekedam said the key to stopping the spread of the disease is identifying any potential victims, testing them and treating them as early as possible. The primary treatment is supportive care.

    Shailaja, the health minister in Kerala, said those who have been in contact with the victims have been put into quarantine.

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    Kim-Trump Peace Talks Are a Tragedy for North Korean People

    In yet another sign of how the international community continues to legitimize the North Korean regime, it emerged Tuesday that the U.S. government has already been minting commemorative coins to mark its planned summit in Singapore on June 12 with “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong Un.

    The excitement continues to build about the possibility of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un coming together to make “peace” on the Korean peninsula—despite uncertainty over whether the meeting will even go ahead. (Pyongyang threatened last week to cancel the summit if the U.S. insists on it unilaterally giving up nuclear weapons.)

    Read more: Are North Korea nuclear negotiations hitting a dead end?

    The goal for Moon and Trump seems to be a gradual denuclearization of the DPRK. For Kim, a deal would mean the normalization of his regime, and a loosening of the sanctions that make it difficult for him and his cronies to make profits.

    The media has created endless hype about these “peace talks” and the possibility of a Nobel Peace Prize for Moon and Trump. But what you very rarely, if ever, hear about are the nightmarish daily lives of 25 million people in North Korea.

    Imagine being a North Korean defector. You risked your life to escape hell on earth, and you miraculously made it to freedom in South Korea. And you watch your new democratically-elected leader, President Moon. But you see that instead of promoting human rights in North Korea and expressing solidarity with your cause, he treats your former tormentor Kim Jong Un to an ostentatious feast while your family starves. You look at the press photos and watch as Moon and his colleagues smile and seem to be so genuinely happy—victorious even—as they try to make amends with a tyrant whose atrocities were compared by a United Nations inquiry to those committed by Nazi Germany in World War II.

    People watch a screen showing images of South Korea's president Moon Jae-in, U.S. president Donald Trump, China's president Xi Jinping, and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un at a railway station in Seoul on May 11, 2018.

    People watch a screen showing images of South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in, U.S. president Donald Trump, China’s president Xi Jinping, and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un at a railway station in Seoul on May 11, 2018.

    Kim Sue-Han—AFP/Getty Images

    So far, we have read countless op-eds and heard dozens of takes about how “hopes are high” for the talks. It is strange to see so many prominent individuals who typically like to reason and make decisions with evidence—on issues ranging from climate change to how best to lift people out of poverty—throw that data-driven sensibility completely out the window when it comes to the Koreas.

    At this point in 2018 we have two decades of strong evidence to suggest that the Kim dictatorship manipulates peace talks to strengthen and cement its brutal rule. Sometimes, like in the case of the inter-Korean summit in 2000—a result of the former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung’s ‘Sunshine Policy’ of engaging with the North—these talks can even rescue and bail out the regime when it is at a moment of internal weakness. Many forget that the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to South Korean president Kim Dae-jung in 2000 for bringing the Koreas together came after a payment of approximately $186 million to Pyongyang from Seoul when the Kim regime was close to economic collapse.

    What’s more, the “peace talks” that we’ve seen in 2000, 2007, and now today are essentially a misnomer. They don’t aim to end the real conflict on the Korean peninsula—which unfolds north of the demilitarized zone (DMZ)—where the Kim dynasty wages an incredibly violent war against its own people every day.

    We need to support the South Korean people – especially South Korean women – as they continue to wage a brave and admirable struggle for their justice and freedom. But we must acknowledge that – statistically speaking – virtually all state murder and violence committed on the Korean Peninsula during the past 25 years has taken place in North Korea. The Kim family dynasty has killed millions of people over the past two decades, and still keeps hundreds of thousands of North Koreans in concentration camps, while waging a nation-wide campaign of torture, rape, and murder.

    But this is not a war that global powers are interested in ending; rather, the leaders of South Korea, the United States, Russia, China, and of course North Korea are all hoping to preserve the status quo. Perhaps most shocking yet to North Korean refugees and defectors is that beyond Kim traveling across the DMZ, the only tangible outcome so far from the Panmunjeom Declaration in April has been a crackdown on human rights activism in South Korea.

    According to Kang Chol-hwan, author of Aquariums of Pyongyang and founder of the North Korea Strategy Center, the Moon administration has slashed funding for his Seoul-based organization and other defector groups. Moon has also stopped the peaceful and creative advocacy of defectors as they attempt to float leaflets with news from the outside world into North Korea via balloons, and he has dismantled speakers on the DMZ that were blasting information to the North Korean army on the other side.

    For the DPRK, the peace talks are part of a broader strategy to legitimize its rule by distracting the world from its crimes through participation in high-profile international events like the Olympics.

    Those pushing for a “lasting peace” on the peninsula should know that right now, their activism is being used by Pyongyang to continue terrible violence against its people. If you were a North Korean, would you want a permanent truce between your dictator and the South Korean government? Or would you want freedom and economic opportunity? The hard truth is that there will be no end to violence and no end to inequality on the Korean peninsula until the Kim family is gone and the North Korean gulags abolished.

    If you can see how peace talks might be a mechanism for the Kim regime’s survival, and you consider (like me) an international conflict to be the worst possible outcome, then you might ask—what else can we do?

    There is another option: to flood North Korea with information. The Human Rights Foundation does this with its Flash Drives for Freedom campaign, and there are many ways to get involved. The strategy is to get enormous amounts of technology and information into the hands of the North Korean people.

    If enough North Koreans watch films, reads books, and consume news coming in through black markets on the Chinese border via USB sticks and smartphones, the regime’s brainwashing strategy will eventually fail. Our goal is to put the future of North Korea into the hands of its people. One possible outcome could be that the military and political elite surrounding the Kim family realize the full extent of the lies they are fed every day and say enough, deposing him and creating a new regime that might actually open the gulags and negotiate honestly with the outside world.

    At this time of tension, the optimism surrounding the peace talks is understandable. But we can’t let it blind us to the reality that hundreds of thousands of North Koreans face each day in their concentration camps and torture chambers.

    Rather than put your faith in Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, consider believing in that flash drive sitting at home in your desk drawer. Loaded up with information, it could very well help open a window to the outside world for North Koreans, and pave the way to real, lasting peace and prosperity for everyone on the Korean peninsula.

    Learn more about HRF’s efforts to send information into North Korea at FlashDrivesforFreedom.org.

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    Giant predatory worms invaded France, but scientists just noticed them

    When Jean-Lou Justine received the first photograph of a giant worm with a head like a shovel, the biologist was astounded.

    Hammerhead flatworms, which grow to a foot or more in length, do not belong in European vegetable gardens. “We do not have that in France,” said Justine, a professor at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. The predatory worms are native to Asia, where they happily gobble up earthworms under a warmer sun.

    The gardener who took the first photo, an amateur naturalist named Pierre Gros, emailed Justine a second picture a week later. It was of a completely different species of giant worm. When Gros sent a third photograph, of a third species, Justine thought the images must be a prank: “The man is bringing back worms from his travels, and he pretends he finds them in his garden!”

    But Gros was neither prankster nor international worm-smuggler. Gros and Justine, co-authors of a new report published Tuesday in the journal PeerJ, had stumbled upon an alien predator in the soil beneath their feet. For the better part of two decades, several species of flatworm have made a home in metropolitan France.

    “The species are cryptic and soil-dwelling so can be easily overlooked, which often explains their inadvertent shipment round the world,” said entomologist Archie Murchie of Britain’s Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, who was not involved with the study. Worms like these are spreading and will continue to spread, he warned, especially “with increased global trade.”

    Biologists knew that smaller worms, which eat escargot snails, had made their way to France. But until recently, Justine, an expert in parasites and worms called nematodes, had no idea France was under a hammerhead invasion. In fact, in a study five years ago, he had dismissed the worms as nothing more than exotic greenhouse pests. He’s revised his conclusions. “That was completely erroneous,” he said.

    Justine and his colleagues put out a call, through local news stations and online solicitations, for images of large worms with broad heads. Photos of leeches, caterpillars, slugs and other invertebrates tubular and sticky flooded his inbox.

    Sifting through the pictures, it became apparent that French citizens had known something was amiss in their yards for years. They just had no idea what they were looking at.

    The oldest sighting was a home video from 1999, made by a family who kept the VHS tape for so long because the creatures on it were so bizarre. Justine put their mystery to rest: flatworms. In 2013, a group of terrorized kindergartners claimed they saw a mass of writhing snakes in their play field: Again, flatworms. All told, these citizen scientists made 111 observations of large flatworms between 1999 and 2017.

    In a handful of cases, people caught the worms and sent the preserved invertebrates to Justine for examination. He analyzed three species in France, including Bipalium kewense, first described in the British Kew Gardens where it had invaded. Many sightings were in the south of France, where, Justine hypothesized, the summers are wet and the winters mild enough for the animals to survive, at least in a burrow.

    Hammerhead flatworms were also spotted overseas in French territories, including a brilliant blue type of worm that is probably a newly discovered species, he said.

    Just as hammerhead sharks cruise through lagoons, hammerhead flatworms hunt through soil. Their soft bodies are chemical factories; they produce small amounts of a substance called tetrodotoxin to immobilize prey. What they lack in physical defenses, they make up in a cocktail of disgusting bodily juices. A colleague once tried to put a flatworm in his mouth, Justine recounted. The man still describes it as “one of the worst experiences of his life.”

    But most flatworms do their damage to humans indirectly. Murchie has studied how invasive New Zealand flatworms devour earthworms in Ireland and Scotland, eating so many that yields of agricultural grass in affected areas shrank by about 6 percent. Smaller flatworms also have invaded Florida, where they, too, feed on earthworms.

    It is unclear how the hammerhead flatworms have altered French biodiversity. Justine and the other researchers did not study the soil ecology. But the creatures are “dangerous predators” to many helpful soil critters, and that’s what has biologists worried.

    “Invasive flatworms can have a major impact on other soil fauna,” Murchie said. “The authors are rightly cautious about the potential impact of the hammerhead flatworms.”

    What set this discovery of alien flatworms apart, in Justine’s eyes, was not just the size of the predators or the duration of the hidden invasion, but where it all happened. “It is France! It is supposed to be a developed country. We have a lot of scientists, we have universities everywhere,” he said. And yet the worms escaped identification until now.

    They are there to stay. As Justine noted, “We have scientific proof from citizen scientists that they are infesting gardens year after year after year.”

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    Resume of professor picked to be Italy’s premier scrutinized

    Giuseppe Conte, a bureaucracy-allergic law professor, is hardly a household name in Italy. Yet the 53-year-old academic is the candidate two rival political leaders have chosen to head what they hope will be the country’s first populist government.

    Say the name “Conte” and the one who comes to the mind of many ordinary Italians is Antonio Conte, the former coach of the Azzurri, Italy’s national soccer team. The front page of Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera carried an editorial cartoon Monday playing on the possible premier’s lack of a comparable profile.

    “For sure, if he were the ex-trainer of the Azzurri, he’d also have some international experience,” the cartoon read along with a caricature of a puzzled-looking Italian President Sergio Mattarella,

    Conte also has international experience, but it’s academic, not political. His resume lists brief periods of study or research at Yale and New York University in the United States, Cambridge in Britain and the Sorbonne in France, as well as teaching positions at public, private and Catholic universities in Italy.

    The resume’s lack of specificity regarding his time abroad at the foreign universities led to speculation in the Italian media Tuesday that Conte had inflated his affiliations with the elite institutions.

    The 5-Star Movement stood by Conte, saying he “had never boasted” of earning degrees from the universities outside Italy, but “stayed abroad to study, enrich his knowledge and perfect his juridical English. For a professor of his level, the opposite would have been strange.”

    Until 5-Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio and League leader Matteo Salvini announced him as their pick to take the helm of Italy’s next government, the accomplishment of Conte’s most Italians might remember hearing about was a kind of “MeToo” achievement.

    An expert in civil and commercial law, Conte has served on a government administrative justice council. In that role, he presided over a commission that ousted a public administration official who had demanded that female students in his law course for aspiring magistrates wear mini-skirts to class.

    The professor’s background features aspects that could please both Di Maio’s 5-Star Movement’s base, which includes many disgruntled former supporters of the center-left Democrats, as well as Salvini’s right-wing constituency.

    Dear to the hearts of both Salvini and Di Maio, who rail against the strangling effect of the often byzantine bureaucratic rules Italian businesses and citizens must follow, Conte has declared that given the opportunity, he would slash hundreds of such “useless laws.”

    When, a few days before the election, the 5-Star Movement presented Conte as the ideal person to be minister for public administration, the professor said the laws needing elimination number “many more than the 400 ones indicated by Luigi Di Maio.”

    Conte is “an expert of simplification, de-bureaucratization and streamlining the administrative machine, that’s what so many businesses want,” Salvini said Monday night.

    Conte also has pushed for stronger safeguards against corruption, which often finds fertile ground among those trying to circumvent government bureaucracy.

    What Salvini might have had to swallow for the price of putting his League in power is Conte’s past political affinity for the left.

    “In the past, I voted for the left. Today, I think that the ideological schemes of the 20th century are no longer adequate,” Conte said earlier this year, when Di Maio was touting him for a Cabinet post. “I believe it’s more important to evaluate how a political force works, in terms of its positions on its respect for rights and fundamental liberties. And on its ability to elaborate programs useful for citizens.”

    In a recent TV program, he put it more succinctly: “My heart has traditionally beat toward the left.”

    Conte isn’t a member of Parliament, but that’s not a requirement to be premier. Matteo Renzi, a former Florence mayor, served nearly three years as premier as leader of the Democratic Party and without holding elected office.

    Earlier in the haggling between Di Maio and Salvini to cobble together a governing coalition, each man boasted the right to be premier.

    Di Maio heads Parliament’s largest party after the Movement captured some 32 percent of the votes cast in the March 4 parliamentary election. Salvini’s League was the biggest vote-getter in a center-right coalition that together clinched 37 percent.

    But after shedding his campaign coalition partners, which included former Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right party, Salvini alone commands far fewer seats in Parliament than rival Di Maio.

    Each eventually agreed to “take a step aside” and quit demanding the premiership for himself. But with Di Maio aware he would lose his party’s base if he agreed to a deal that would put the 5-Stars in government for the first time but without a loyal cheerleader as premier, the choice of Conte made sense.

    Born in Volturara Appula, a town of 467 residents near Foggia, in the region of Puglia, Conte is the son of a retired city hall office worker and an elementary school teacher.

    His southern roots might please the electorate that helped propel the 5-Stars into power. The Movement’s popularity has soared in the south, where its campaign pledge for a guaranteed basic monthly income of 780 euros (then some $950) resonated in a region where youth unemployment tops 50 percent.

    Despite his lack of name recognition, Conte has a reputation for being a dapper dresser. When he appeared with Di Maio before the election, Conte was turned out in a three-piece suit with his tie tucked under a button-down gilet and a handkerchief neatly poking out of a breast pocket.

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