China vows to boost economic growth by balancing reform, national security

TAIPEI, TAIWAN — China’s ruling Communist Party concluded a highly anticipated party conclave Thursday, promising to boost economic growth through comprehensive reform while reiterating the importance of maintaining national security.

The Central Committee, in a communique at the end of the four-day, closed-door Third Plenum, laid out reform objectives to be completed by 2029, the 80th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.

The party’s top decision-making body also vowed to finish “building a high-standard socialist market economy in all respects” by 2035.

“All of this will lay a solid foundation for building China into a great modern socialist country in all respects by the middle of this century,” the communique said.

To achieve these goals, the communique said China must better utilize market mechanisms and double down on efforts to promote “high-quality development,” which includes prioritizing investment in advanced technologies and facilitating growth through technological and scientific innovation.

“We must deepen supply-side structural reform, improve incentive and constraint mechanisms for promoting high-quality development, and strive to create new growth drivers and strengths,” the communique said.

The key political meeting comes as China’s economic growth slowed to 4.7% in this year’s second quarter, prompting banks such as Goldman Sachs to lower their 2024 gross domestic product growth forecast for China from 5.0% to 4.9%.

Meanwhile, China’s property crisis continues as investment in the sector dropped 10.1% in the first six months of this year compared to a year earlier, and consumer confidence remains weak.

To address these challenges, Beijing promised to implement measures to defuse risks in the property sector while improving income distribution, the job market, social security, and the health care system.

“Ensuring and enhancing the people’s well-being in the course of development is one of the major tasks of Chinese modernization,” the communique said.

As local governments across China face mounting debt resulting from the real estate crisis, the communique stressed the need to roll out fiscal and tax reforms and facilitate better integration between cities and the countryside.

“The Party must promote equal exchanges and two-way flows of production factors between the cities and the countryside, so as to narrow the disparities between the two and promote their common prosperity and development,” the statement said.

As foreign investors closely monitor signals coming out of the plenum, the party said it would remain committed to the state policy of “opening to the outside world” and promised to “expand cooperation with other countries.”

“We still steadily expand institutional opening up, deepen the foreign trade structural reform, further reform the management systems for inward and outward investment,” the communique said.

Some analysts say the communique shows that Beijing is focusing on areas critical to China’s national strength, including technology and advanced manufacturing.

“This isn’t Western-style market liberalization; it’s about reinforcing China’s existing strategy,” Lizzi Lee, a fellow on the Chinese economy at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis, said in a written response to VOA.

“The document cements Xi’s governance approach and his brand of reform, which focuses on consolidating power rather than adopting new liberal economic paradigms, endures,” she wrote.

Balancing reform and national security

In addition to laying out the long list of reform goals, the communique also highlighted the need for the party to balance development and security.

“We will strengthen the network for preventing and controlling public security risks so as to safeguard social stability [and] improve public opinion guidance and effectively deal with risks in the ideological domain,” it said.

The document also reiterated that the party’s top leadership, especially Xi Jinping, remains the “fundamental guarantee” for deepening reforms.

“We must uphold Comrade Xi Jinping’s core position on the Party Central Committee and in the Party as a whole and uphold the Central Committee’s authority and its centralized, unified leadership,” the communique said.

Some experts say the communique’s emphasis on upholding public security and following the guidance of party leadership shows Beijing is trying to tighten control over efforts to reform China’s troubled economy.  

“Tightening control is at the heart of [Beijing’s] dilemma because in order for the reforms to work, they need to loosen control,” Dexter Roberts, a nonresident senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, told VOA by phone.

While other specific reforms are expected to be rolled out in other plenum documents in coming days, Lee said she expects consumer spending in China to remain sluggish and that recovery in the property sector remains slow in the short term.

“The prolonged transition period poses significant risks. It could lead to reduced investments and slower economic growth,” she told VOA, adding that the Chinese government will likely use targeted interventions to boost key sectors.

However, some analysts think that Beijing’s state-led economic growth model is unlikely to yield the results the government hopes for.  

“China’s state-led investment, which concentrates resources on areas such as semiconductors and artificial intelligence, is going to take years to pay dividends, and meanwhile, the economy will continue to fail to deliver growth and jobs,” Andrew Collier, managing director of Orient Capital Research in Hong Kong, told VOA in a video interview.  

He said unless the government takes concrete steps to reduce its involvement in economic reforms, the country’s economic downturn could grow worse in coming years. 

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China’s Third Plenum does nothing to revive economy, observers say

Taipei, Taiwan — China’s ruling party has concluded the Third Plenum of its 20th Central Committee with a communique described as vague and cliché by China watchers, who said it lacks specific measures to address China’s economic difficulties.

Shi He-ling, an associate professor of economics at Monash Business School at Monash University in Caulfield, Australia, said the communiqué was disappointing and that its writers were completely unthinking.

The 5,000-word communiqué, issued on Thursday, touted the Chinese Communist Party’s achievements in “comprehensively deepening reforms” and said the future will be critical for comprehensively advancing “Chinese-style modernization,” building a strong country and rejuvenating the nation.

Shi said that while Chinese President Xi Jinping has set out a new vision of “Chinese-style modernization” to highlight his differences from previous party leaders, the communiqué does not provide any specific definitions that are measurable.

“It does not make macroeconomic adjustments at all but is like a philosophical article, which is basically a cliché,” Shi told VOA.

In addition to “socialist market mechanisms” and “new quality productivity,” the communiqué stressed that national security is an important foundation for the steady and long-term development of Chinese-style modernization; that the modernization of national defense and the armed forces is an important part of it; and that “party leadership” in particular is the “fundamental guarantee” for promoting this policy.

Yeh Yao-yuan, chairman of the Department of Political Science at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, said that under the framework of “Xi Thoughts,” it is difficult for the economic exposition of this communiqué to be new.

Even if the “socialist market economic system” is repeatedly touted, it will not be able to reverse China’s economic decline, he said, adding that Xi’s economic reform is in fact “changing things to their old ways.”

These include forcing the private sector to retreat in order to help the state advance and tightening controls over foreign capital, which will hit the market economy hard.

Ming Chu-cheng,  professor emeritus of political science at National Taiwan University in Taipei, offered a similar assessment on Thursday at a seminar in Taiwan.

Xi “is touting the market economy, but what he really pushes is ‘the people retreat and the country advances,’ which is completely opposite to what he says,” Ming said. “I don’t have great hopes for the Third Plenum. Even if you relax the economic restrictions, you will encounter exactly the same problems in another 20 years because politics is choking the economy.”

The communiqué received more than 100 million views on Weibo and made it to the hot search list hours after its release. However, there was hardly any substantive discussion online among Chinese people in the comment areas. Most just reposted and recited some of the communiqué text to express their concerns.

The personnel changes made at the plenum attracted a lot of attention as the CCP officially approved the removal of its former foreign minister, Qin Gang, from its Central Committee.

Qin, who has not been seen in public since last summer, is no longer a member of the Communist Party leadership. He was dismissed as foreign minister in July last year and removed from the post of state councilor three months later.

His resignation from the top body had been accepted. No further details were provided, and the reasons behind Qin’s disappearance remain unclear. He was allegedly investigated for having an extramarital affair, leaking secrets and endangering national security.

The plenum also confirmed the expulsion of former Defense Minister Li Shangfu. Li Yuchao and Sun Jinming of the People’s Liberation Army’s Rocket Force were also removed from the Central Committee.

Many online comments focused on Qin being called “comrade” in the party’s published decision while others were calling Qin’s ousting a “soft landing.”

After the discussion on Qin’s removal became a hot topic, the Weibo accounts of various media outlets seemed to be alerted and comments were concealed.

Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, said that Beijing dislikes Chinese people arguing online about the CCP’s high-level personnel because comments might call into question the party’s decisions and judgment, especially as Qin was previously Xi’s close confidant and the foreign minister.

“What happened to Qin has not been particularly public so far,” Chong told VOA, “and too many of these discussions [about Qin] will also distract public attention from the economic reform plan the Third Plenum wants to promote.”

Adrianna Zhang, Yang An, Joyce Huang contributed to this story.

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UN agency cites improvements in North Korea’s food security; experts still cautious

washington — The head of the United Nations agency responsible for alleviating world hunger is heaping praise on the government of North Korea after a breakthrough visit to the reclusive country, the first from any official of a U.N. specialized agency since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019.

Qu Dongyu, director general of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), “commended the great achievement made by the DPRK people in agricultural development, food security and the Pyongyang city under the leadership of H.E. Kim Jong Un,” said a statement the agency issued Wednesday.

The assessment stands in sharp contrast with the view of most independent experts, who say North Korea — officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — remains far from able to feed its own people.

The FAO noted in its own report on July 5 that the country’s food security situation was “expected to remain fragile, amid persistent weak economic growth.”

Some analysts told VOA they believed Qu’s praise was intended simply to keep the door open for future visits.

North Korea reopened its borders in August 2023, easing draconian pandemic measures put in place in 2020 that stopped virtually all cross-border activities, including humanitarian aid.

Pyongyang has since allowed some countries such as China, Russia, Mongolia and Cuba to resume their diplomatic presence but has not allowed international aid workers into the country to work there.

A spokesperson for the FAO’s regional office for Asia and the Pacific told VOA’s Korean Service on Thursday that FAO has an office in North Korea with local staff working on projects that never ceased, but “there are no international staff in the country since COVID-19 border closures.”

In a separate statement provided to VOA on Thursday, an FAO spokesperson at its headquarters in Rome wrote that the FAO was “ready to provide more technical expertise and global experience in different areas and encourages the government [of North Korea] to explore new opportunities for collaboration and resource mobilization, together with FAO, for the vulnerable people most in need.”

Qu’s visit included a tour of North Korea’s Kangdong Greenhouse Complex and Central Institute for Vegetables as well as the FAO-sponsored Pyongchon Fish Farm, according to the statement.

North Korea announced the opening of the Kangdong Greenhouse Complex in the outskirts of Pyongyang in March, releasing the pictures of leader Kim Jong Un visiting the complex. It comprises more than 1,050 buildings spread over 260 hectares, according to the Pyongyang Times.

‘Political statement’

William Brown, a former CIA analyst who closely monitors North Korea’s economy, said he believed Qu, who is Chinese, made the remarks flattering North Korea’s authoritarian leader as “a political statement designed to get him back to Pyongyang.”

In reality, Brown said, “so many people in North Korea are going hungry even as we speak,” even though about a third of the population are farmers.

Pointing out a picture of Qu and Chinese Ambassador Wang Yajun taken in Pyongyang on Sunday and released by the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang on Monday, Brown said it was odd that no North Korean official was shown in the photo.

The Chinese “may be trying to throw a counterpunch to the Russians in a mild way of saying, ‘We’re here too,’ ” Brown said.

Growing ties between Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin, especially after their meeting in Pyongyang in June, are believed by analysts to be making China uncomfortable.

In Pyongyang, Qu thanked China for the long-term food support it has provided to North Korea, according to a statement by the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang. China has long been the largest food aid provider to North Korea.

Bradley Babson, a former World Bank adviser and an advisory council member of the Korea Economic Institute of America, said, “It’s not surprising to me that there were over-the-top compliments,” because the FAO wants to “reestablish a relationship.”

Babson continued, “If FAO goes back” into North Korea and works there, it’ll be “a good thing.”

Jerome Sauvage, who served as the U.N. resident coordinator in North Korea from November 2009 to 2013, said the visit suggested North Korea was still not willing to accept humanitarian aid but would take development aid. The FAO is “not a humanitarian organization that delivers urgent aid,” he pointed out.

“North Korea will probably discuss on a case-by-case basis which organizations come to help them with development and technical cooperation, instead of just humanitarian aid,” he said.

Ready to resume aid

Other aid organizations say they are eager to resume their work in North Korea.

Chiara Frisone, communication specialist for UNICEF’s regional office for East Asia and the Pacific, told VOA on Thursday that it was “ready to resume its regular activities” in the country and urged North Korea “to facilitate the earliest possible return.”

UNICEF announced the same day that in partnership with GAVI, the vaccine alliance, and the World Health Organization, it has delivered three vital consignments of vaccines to North Korea that can immunize more than 600,000 children and pregnant women who have not received vaccines since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Steve Taravella, a senior spokesperson for the World Food Program, told VOA on Thursday that “we hope that the visit by the director-general of FAO will lead to greater information about changes to food security in DPRK since the pandemic and pave the way to resumption of access and activities.”

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Wall Street Journal firing shocks chair of Hong Kong journalists group

BANGKOK — The newly elected chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association says she was “shocked and appalled” to be fired by the Wall Street Journal this week, immediately after taking her position.

Selina Cheng says the media outlet terminated her contract Wednesday after she accepted the role leading the association, known as the HKJA.

Speaking with VOA, Cheng said, “I think I would not be terminated if I had complied with their request to not be chair.”

The reporter says Wall Street Journal editors had warned her that her HKJA role could be a conflict of interests because the Journal covers press freedom issues in Hong Kong.

Cheng said in a news conference that the Journal’s actions called into question its commitment to press freedom, saying management is blocking employees “from advocating for freedoms the Journal reporters rely on to work, in a place where journalists and their rights are under threat.”

She said the Journal is applying a double standard, noting its advocacy efforts to free American journalist Evan Gershkovich, who is on trial in Russia.

Cheng, who joined the Journal as a full-time employee in 2022, covers the electric vehicle and auto industry.

A spokesperson at Dow Jones, parent company of the  Journal, confirmed to VOA that personnel changes were made in Hong Kong on Wednesday.

When pressed over the reason to terminate Cheng’s role, the spokesperson said, “We don’t comment on specific individuals. This is a newsroom decision.”

The spokesperson added, “The Wall Street Journal has been and continues to be a fierce and vocal advocate for press freedom in Hong Kong and around the world.”

Conflict brewing for weeks

In a statement shared on the social media platform X on Wednesday, Cheng said that about three weeks ago, Wall Street Journal editors learned that she was running for election to be chair of HKJA.

Cheng says that her supervisor, who is based in Britain, then asked her to withdraw.

“She also asked me to quit the board — which I have served on since 2021 —even though the Wall Street Journal approved this when I was hired. This day was the day before our election,” Cheng said in a statement.

When she refused, Cheng says, her supervisor told her the role as chair “would be incompatible” with her job and that “employees of the Journal should not be seen as advocating for press freedom in a place like Hong Kong.”

Cheng told VOA she had been expecting something to happen when she refused to stop her association with the HKJA.

“There didn’t seem to be any room for discussion, and they went straight to threatening to dismiss weeks ago. I’m deeply shocked and appalled by this,” she said.

The journalist said that on Wednesday, Gordon Fairclough, the world coverage chief at the Journal, flew from Britain to Hong Kong to inform Cheng her role had been terminated as part of a restructure.

Cheng said the Journal made layoffs in Hong Kong earlier this year, but that she was kept on.

“Prior to knowing that I was going to run for chair, there wasn’t any indication [of being dismissed],” she told VOA. “In fact, I was a small number of people kept on in the newsroom and my reporting area was highlighted from our editor in chief as being one of the key areas to continue reporting on in Asia.”

Cheng told VOA she had not been asked to relocate to any other of the Journal bureaus.

Cheng has worked in Hong Kong since 2017, reporting on the umbrella protest movement, the removal of books about Tiananmen Square from libraries and a lobbying campaign that sought to revoke the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.

She previously worked at English news website the Hong Kong Free Press and Hong Kong media outlet HK01.

Association is ‘outraged’

The HKJA in a statement said that it was “outraged” by the Journal’s actions. The statement says Cheng is consulting her lawyers about a potential breach of Hong Kong labor law.

“By pressuring employees not to take part in the HKJA, a key advocate for both local and international journalists working in Hong Kong, the WSJ risks hastening the decline of what space for independent journalism remains,” the statement said.

The HKJA said that other elected board members had come under similar pressure.

The HKJA has come under pressure from authorities and criticism from Chinese-state media since Beijing enacted the national security law in Hong Kong four years ago to quell dissent. The association has been criticized for alleged links to activist organizations.

Former HKJA chair Ronson Chan was sentenced to five days in jail in September for allegedly obstructing a police officer.

Chan was an editor at the now-defunct Stand News website, one of several media outlets to close for allegedly conspiring to publish seditious publications. Media executives and journalists from the outlet are on trial, with a verdict expected in August.

Press freedom in Hong Kong and East Asia have seen a decline in the past year, according to media watchdog Reporters without Borders, known as RSF.

Hong Kong ranks 135 out of 180, where 1 shows the best environment. In 2019, the year before the national security law came in, Hong Kong ranked 73.

Since the national security law was enacted, at least 28 journalists and press freedom defenders have been arrested, with 10 still in jail, and over a dozen media outlets have closed.

Aleksandra Bielakowska, an advocacy officer at RSF, says press freedom has “plummeted.” 

“While Reporters Without Borders does not comment on individual employment disputes, we want to express our support for Selina Cheng’s courageous work with the Hong Kong Journalists Association,” she told VOA.

“As press freedom has sharply plummeted in Hong Kong in recent years, and as pressure has grown against foreign and domestic media operating in the territory, independent journalism is more crucial than ever,” she said.

RSF’s World Press Freedom Index lists these countries in East Asia as the most dangerous for media: China, North Korea and Vietnam.

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US says China’s halt of arms-control talks undermines strategic stability

State Department — The United States called China’s decision to suspend nascent arms-control talks with Washington “unfortunate,” noting that China has opted not to engage in efforts to manage strategic risks and prevent costly arms races.

“We think this approach undermines strategic stability. It increases the risk of arms race dynamics. We have made efforts to bolster the defense of our allies and partners in the Indo Pacific, and we will continue to make those efforts in the face of Chinese threats to their security,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters during a briefing on Wednesday.

The Chinese foreign ministry announced on Wednesday that Beijing has decided to hold off on discussions with the U.S. regarding a new round of consultations on arms control and non-proliferation. 

This decision is a protest against Washington’s arms sales to Taiwan, a self-ruled democracy that Beijing claims as its territory.

“China has chosen to follow Russia’s lead in asserting that engagement on arms control can’t proceed when there are other challenges in the bilateral relationship,” Miller added.

On November 6, 2023, officials from the U.S. and China convened for a new strategic risk reduction discussion at the State Department. 

Leading the U.S. delegation was Mallory Stewart, assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Deterrence and Stability (ADS). The Chinese delegation was headed by Sun Xiaobo, director general for arms control at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with other civilian officials also in attendance.

The U.S. has proposed three measures to China aimed at reducing strategic risks related to missile launches or potential missile launches. These include establishing a strategic crisis hotline between their respective Strategic Commands, implementing space deconfliction measures, and adopting missile launch notifications, a practice observed by China with Russia.

China’s decision to halt the new round of strategic risk reduction talks was described as not a significant loss to the U.S., as Chinese officials did not propose any initiatives during the November discussions, according to a source familiar with the matter.

The source also noted that similar talks between the U.S. and China under previous administrations had yielded no tangible results.

“China stands ready to maintain communication with the U.S. on international arms control issues in line with the principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lin Jian on Wednesday. 

“But the U.S. must respect China’s core interests and create necessary conditions for dialogue and exchange,” he said.

Some former U.S. intelligence officials doubt the effectiveness of ongoing government-to-government engagements and exchanges. They argue that Beijing’s recent suspension of risk reduction talks in response to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan serves as a convenient pretext for China to persist with its internal nuclear arms buildup and external proliferation.

James Fanell, a retired U.S. Navy captain and former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, commented that “talks can and will be held when the Chinese Communist Party changes its nefarious actions and destabilizing behavior.”

In a report mandated by Congress last October, the Pentagon revealed that China was developing its nuclear arsenal more quickly than the U.S. had previously estimated.

As of May 2023, China had more than 500 operational nuclear warheads, with projections indicating they could exceed 1,000 by 2030.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the United States currently has about 3,700 nuclear warheads, fewer than Russia’s estimated 4,500.

The U.S. switched its diplomatic recognition from the government in Taipei to the government in Beijing in 1979.

Since then, the U.S. policy has maintained that differences between the two sides should be settled peacefully and in accordance with the will of the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. The United States acknowledges but has never endorsed Beijing’s sovereignty claim over Taiwan.

Some information for this report came from Agence France-Presse.

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Pacific island leaders agree to enhance Japan’s role in region amid growing China influence

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China policy meeting expected to endorse Xi’s high-tech economy vision

Beijing — China’s ruling Communist Party is wrapping up a top-level meeting on Thursday that is expected to endorse policies aimed at building the country’s technological prowess and fortifying its national security.

The plenary meeting of the party’s Central Committee was held behind closed doors. But analysts expect a major focus to be on strategies for self-sufficient economic growth at a time when China faces tightening restrictions on access to Western advanced technology, such as leading-edge computer chips and artificial intelligence.

Foreign investors and markets were watching to see what the party might do to counter the slump in China’s real estate sector and weak consumer confidence that has hindered China’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Economic growth slowed to 4.7% on an annual basis in the April to June quarter, as investments in real estate and property sales continued to decline despite a raft of measures aimed at encouraging families to buy housing.

Recent reports in state media and earlier government policy statements suggest Beijing will continue to prioritize investing in technologies and encouraging companies to upgrade their equipment and knowhow in line with leader Xi Jinping’s call for “high-quality development.”

“Xi’s recent remarks on reform and opening-up at various major meetings provide a crucial window into the tone of the session, the priority of China’s reform agenda and the overall goal of further deepening reform and advancing Chinese modernization,” the party newspaper Global Times said in a commentary.

It said the meetings would “draw a blueprint for reform on all fronts,” aiming to improve China’s governance and to “resolve deep-seated institutional challenges and structural issues, so as to promote high-quality development and advance Chinese modernization.”

Chinese leaders have repeatedly said China will keep its doors open to foreign investment and improve the business environment, despite ever-extending Communist Party controls over companies, social media, financial regulators and other aspects of life.

“This is opposite to earlier promises and pledged reforms of further opening up of the economy and pro-market policies,” Teeuwe Mevissen, a senior strategist at Rabobank, said in a report.

New incentives for foreign investors are a possibility, he said, as well as moves in line with Xi’s call for a “common prosperity” that enables ordinary Chinese to benefit more from economic growth.

Another priority is relieving the financial squeeze on local governments that have built up huge amounts of debt after a crackdown on heavy borrowing by property developers pushed the real estate industry into crisis, cutting off a vital source of tax revenues from sales of land-use rights.

This week’s meetings are the third plenary session of the 205-member party Central Committee, which began a five-year term in 2022. Delayed from last year, third plenums usually set major economic and policy decisions. Past landmark plenums launched China into its ascent as a world manufacturing and financial power in an era of “reform and opening up.”

Economists say the odds the meeting will announce significant stimulus spending to help boost the economy are low. And details of any decisions may not come for days, if not after the party’s powerful Politburo meets later this month.

But the scale of problems Beijing is facing has upped the urgency for action.

“Historically, the third plenum generally disappoints when it comes to the announcement of significant policy overhauls. However, this time might be different given China’s mounting economic challenges,” Mevissen said.

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Vietnam files UN claim to extended continental shelf in South China Sea

HANOI, Vietnam — Vietnam has filed a claim with the United Nations for an extended continental shelf (ECS) in the South China Sea, a month after regional neighbor the Philippines made a similar move, Vietnam’s foreign ministry said on Thursday.

The submission of the continental shelf beyond the current 200 nautical miles is to exercise the rights and obligations of state parties in accordance to the maritime framework, the foreign ministry said in a statement.

This is Vietnam’s third submission of an ECS, the statement added, including a submission in respect to the North Area of the South China Sea or Vietnam’s East Sea and a joint submission with Malaysia in respect to the southern part of the area in 2009.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, including parts claimed by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. Portions of the strategic waterway, where $3 trillion worth of trade passes annually, are believed to be rich in oil and natural gas deposits, as well as fish stocks.

Vietnam also sent a note verbale to the Secretary-General of the U.N. to state Vietnam’s position regarding the Philippines’ similar submission filed last month, Vietnam’s foreign ministry said.

“Vietnam once again affirms its sovereignty over the Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelagos in accordance with international law,” it added.

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Fire kills 16 people at shopping mall in southwestern China 

Beijing — A fire at a shopping mall killed 16 people in the southwestern Chinese city of Zigong, state media reported early Thursday.

Firefighters and rescuers responded to a fire call shortly after 6 p.m. at the 14-story commercial building, and pulled 75 people to safety, according to the official news agency Xinhua.

Rescue efforts were ongoing. It was not immediately known what caused the fire or how many people were in the building when the fire broke out. The building houses a department store, offices, restaurants and a movie theater.

Social media video posts showed clouds of thick black smoke coming from the windows on the building’s lower levels and engulfing the entire 14-story structure as they rose into the sky. Huge flames were visible, and firefighters fought the fire with water. Local media said firefighters also used several drones.

Fire hazards remain a problem in China, which reported 947 fire fatalities in this year’s first few months ending on May 20, up 19% from the same period of the previous year, said Li Wanfeng, a spokesperson for the National Fire and Rescue Administration.

Li said the number of fires in public places such as hotels and restaurants rose 40% and that the most common causes were malfunctioning in electrical or gas lines and carelessness.

In January, a fire killed 39 people in a commercial building in the southeastern Chinese province of Jiangxi. It was caused by unauthorized welding in the basement.

In February, another 15 people were killed in a residential building in the eastern city of Nanjing, after an attached parking lot that had electric bikes caught fire.

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Six killed in China mall fire, people trapped inside 

Beijing — Firefighters in China pulled six bodies from a shopping centre on Wednesday, state media reported, with an unknown number still trapped after a blaze broke out in a 14-storey building.

Footage broadcast by state broadcaster CCTV and shared on social media showed thick black smoke billowing out of the tower, located in Zigong in southwestern Sichuan province.

The blaze started in the early evening in a shopping center at the foot of the building, the channel said.

Around 30 people were rescued from the shopping complex, with the fire extinguished by rescuers around 8:20 pm (1220 GMT), CCTV said.

Later footage provided by a drone operator to AFP showed firetrucks and other first responders blocking off the road late at night, continuing to spray down the charred building.

“Six people have been killed,” CCTV reported, adding that search and rescue operations were continuing with people still trapped.

Zigong’s emergency services department received news about the fire at around 6:10 pm and immediately dispatched firefighters to extinguish the blaze, the broadcaster said.

Other images shared on social media — which AFP could not immediately verify — show people gathered in front of the burning building.

The emergency department has called on the public to “not to believe or amplify rumours” about the fire.

Zigong, some 1,900 kilometers from the capital Beijing, is home to nearly 2.5 million people.

Lax safety

Fires and other deadly accidents are common in China due to lax safety standards and poor enforcement.

In January, dozens died after a fire broke out at a store in the central city of Xinyu, with state news agency Xinhua reporting the blaze had been caused by the “illegal” use of fire by workers in the store’s basement.

At the time, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for lessons to be learned from the disaster to avoid further tragedies.

The same month, a fire in a residential building killed at least 15 people.

That fire came just days after a late-evening blaze at a school in central China’s Henan province killed 13 schoolchildren as they slept in a dormitory.

In June last year, an explosion at a barbecue restaurant in the northwest of the country left 31 dead and prompted official pledges of a nationwide campaign to promote workplace safety.

And in April 2023, a fire in a Beijing hospital claimed 29 lives and forced desperate patients to jump from windows to escape.

 

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Learning center helps prepare young refugees for resettlement

Indonesia has become a temporary home for thousands of refugees from Asia and Africa. Dave Grunebaum reports from Cisarua, Indonesia, on a program that is helping some of them prepare for the lives that lie ahead of them. (Camera: Dave Grunebaum)

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First Myanmar refugees from Thai camps move to US under new resettlement program

Bangkok — The first group of refugees from Myanmar living in Thailand and eligible for a new resettlement program flew out of Bangkok for the United States last week, more than a year after the plan was first announced, U.S. and U.N. officials have told VOA.

Some 90,000 refugees now live in nine sealed-off camps inside Thailand along the country’s border with Myanmar, driven from their homes by decades of fighting between the Myanmar military and a number of ethnic minority armed groups vying for autonomy.

Some have called the camps home since the 1980s, put off from returning to Myanmar by the ongoing fighting and mostly barred by the Thai government from legally and permanently settling in Thailand. Most of the refugees from Myanmar, also known as Burma, are ethnic Karen.

Hoping to give them a viable way out, Thailand, the U.S. government and the UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency, announced a new resettlement program in May 2023, allowing registered refugees in the camps to move to the United States.

“The first group left Thailand for the United States last week,” a U.S. Embassy official in Bangkok told VOA on Tuesday.

“Resettlement operations are ongoing in cooperation with the UNHCR and the Royal Thai government,” the official said. “The United States appreciates what Thailand has done to facilitate assistance.”

The Thailand office of the UNHCR said the group of 25 left the country on Thursday.

Photos posted online by the head of the UNHCR’s Thailand office, Tammi Sharpe, show Thai and U.N. officials at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport to see the group off.

“The value of the program could be felt,” she wrote. “Wishing those who will be on the receiving end my appreciation in advance.”

Aid groups working in the camps welcomed the start of resettlement.

“We are happy for these people because these people have been waiting to go to resettle for a long time, because along the Thai-Burma border … resettlement has been closed for many years,” Khyaw Paw, who chairs the Karen Women’s Organization, told VOA.

A previous resettlement program saw some 100,000 refugees from the camps resettled abroad between 2005 and 2015, according to the UNHCR, most of them in the U.S.

Democratic reforms that started in Myanmar in 2011 had raised hopes that most of the refugees could eventually return home. But a military coup in 2021 set off a full-scale civil war and has dashed those goals for the time being.

“They are not able to go home, and Thailand has not opened up integration within the country, so for many of the refugees who have been here for a long time, it’s a good opportunity,” Khyaw Paw said of the new program.

Refugee advocates say resettlement also can offer relief from what they describe as deteriorating conditions in the camps.

‘Growing sense of despair’

The Karen Women’s Organization says a growing sense of despair among the refugees over their future has been driving up everything from drug use to domestic abuse, gang violence and suicide.

Refugees are not allowed to work or study outside the camps, and they have told VOA of having meager schooling and job opportunities inside. They have little chance to earn a living on their own and must survive on an average of about $9 in food aid per person each month.

Some four decades after the first of the camps was established, most homes still lack running water or electricity and are little more than huts with bamboo walls and thatched roofs.

“The quality of life is very, very bad in my opinion, and I think if they have a chance [to resettle], I think it will be better for them. When I’m talking about the quality of life, I’m talking about health care, I’m talking about … education, I’m talking about crime,” said Rangsiman Rome, a lawmaker for Thailand’s opposition Move Forward Party.

As chair of the House of Representatives’ border affairs committee, he visited some of the camps a few months ago.

“I know the government tries to do good,” he said. “The problem is they don’t have freedom to go anywhere, so for me it’s abuse of human rights and … it’s better that they should have a quality of life better than this.”

Neither the U.S. Embassy nor the UNHCR would say how many of the roughly 90,000 refugees registered in the camps might ultimately be allowed to move abroad as part of the new resettlement program, or at what pace.

Khyaw Paw and Rangsiman both said UNHCR staff told them in meetings in late 2023 that up to 10,000 could be resettled per year. The UNHCR did not reply to a VOA request to confirm or deny the figure.

In any case, refugee advocates suspect the ultimate number resettled per year will be far less and that the refugees also need other options. They would like to see the Thai government let the refugees legally study, work and ultimately settle permanently in Thailand outside of the camps.

Rangsiman said some refugees looking for a permanent home outside of Myanmar may prefer to settle nearby to avoid the culture shock of moving farther afield, and that Thailand, which for the first time recorded more deaths than births in 2023, could use their labor.

“They have a lot of potential, and in Thailand we are an aging society, and we need human resource for our economy,” he said.

“There’s no need to just relocate them to the U.S.; it [Thailand] could be a choice for them,” he added.

Rangsiman said talks with the government were under way on proposals to resume Thai language courses in the camps, where most instruction now is in Burmese and Karen. He said teaching the refugees to speak Thai, as well, would help them transition to higher education and jobs outside the camps, if someday allowed, and to possibly settle in Thailand for good.

Khyaw Paw has voiced hope the refugees will get more rights to study and work outside the camps.

“If we compare [with] the last parliament, no one talked about refugees,” she said. “So, I think there is progress.”

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European experts expect economic measures, military personnel changes from China’s Third Plenary Session

Vienna — European experts watching China’s Third Plenum say this week’s high-level meetings are unlikely to touch on political reform but will likely introduce several measures to reverse the nation’s economic downturn.

“Any measures to be announced on China’s key economic problems will be moderate and gradual, like Chinese medicine, as opposed to a shock therapy,” said Alicia Garcia-Herrero, a senior researcher at the Belgian think tank Bruegel.

The Spanish economist listed eight key problems facing the current Chinese economy: stagnation in real estate; tight local government finances; deflationary pressure; sluggish consumer consumption; an aging population; a decline in foreign investment in non-manufacturing industries; increased social security costs, such as pensions and medical care; and the failure to achieve transformation and upgrading of the manufacturing industry.

The state-run Xinhua News Agency has said decisions on such matters are expected from this week’s Third Plenary Session of the 20th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, which is to address policy matters spanning the next decade.

Garcia-Herrero said China’s possible approaches include providing modest subsidies to low- and middle-income households to stimulate consumption; structural measures to slow down the aging of the population; opening up investment access to attract foreign investment; increasing local government taxes to make up for shortfalls caused by falling land prices; delaying retirement; and reducing government administrative costs to achieve fiscal balance.

Chinese policymakers will need to make some hard choices. A lack of social benefits prompts people to save for future emergencies, which reduces private consumption. Stimulating consumption will require greater government spending, including a better social welfare system, but this will hurt an already deteriorating fiscal position.

It remains to be seen to what extent China’s economic decision-makers agree on establishing a social safety net and carrying out consumption-oriented structural reforms.

Garcia-Herrero said that in the long term, the way to solve China’s economic woes is to expand local fiscal autonomy and develop high-end manufacturing, although neither seems likely in the short term.

The plenum is expected to focus on reforming the fiscal and taxation systems, and specific measures may include transferring consumption tax and value-added tax from the central government to local governments.

President Xi Jinping has stressed the importance of vigorously developing “new quality productivity” and promoting China’s industrial upgrading and “high-quality development.”

Alexander Davey, an analyst at MERICS, told VOA, “The past reforms of investments of vast resources and personnel into modernizing China’s industrial system and promoting scientific and technological innovation will continue.”

But he said it is uncertain whether those investments “will negatively impact the extent to which Beijing can allocate resources for local governments to service health care, education, infrastructure, government employee wages, etc.”

Analysts say the Chinese modernization development model, which relies on high-end manufacturing exports to drive the economy, could exacerbate trade disputes between China and its major export destinations. The United States and Europe have recently accused China of “overcapacity” of electric vehicles and have imposed anti-dumping investigations and tariff measures.

Davey said Chinese-style modernization “could be used as pretext for how Beijing decides to retaliate [against] Brussels’ tariffs on Chinese EVs, among other EU de-risking actions towards China. Beijing may target European imports like brandy, wine, and certain types of cars, framing them as unnecessary luxury goods in its march towards common prosperity, imposing tariffs accordingly.”

The China watchers also said specific plans for personnel changes at the top level of the People’s Liberation Army are expected.

Two former Chinese defense ministers, Wei Fenghe and Li Shangfu, were expelled last month from the party and the military.

Francesco Sisci, an Italian Sinologist, told VOA, “We know the focus will be the PLA and the economy. The domestic economy is not doing well with private consumption shrinking and the military is under immense stress for the unprecedented purge of two ministers of defense. The PLA seems in disarray, which is extremely dangerous.”

Adrianna Zhang  contributed to this report.

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Americans view China’s economic impact negatively, survey finds

A Pew Research Center survey finds most people recognize China’s economic influence in their country, but are divided on whether that influence is good. The poll also finds more people in the U.S. view China’s economic influence negatively compared to other countries. Michael Baturin reports. Camera: Elizabeth Lee.

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Japan-Germany security cooperation troubles North Korea, China

washington — North Korea and China are watching for possible regional impacts from Japan’s recent enhanced security cooperation with Germany.

This weekend, Japan will hold joint drills with Germany around the Chitose Air Base in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island. Spain is slated to join them there, while France will join Japan next week for drills over Hyakuri Air Base in Ibaraki Prefecture bordering the Pacific Ocean.

At a joint press conference in Berlin late last week, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said defense cooperation will be enhanced by the planned visits of German aircraft and frigates to Japan and of a Japanese training fleet to Hamburg this summer.

North Korea slammed the security cooperation as “collusion” that crossed a “red line” and is “reminiscent of the Second World War,” according to North Korea’s state-run KCNA on Monday.

“The defeated war criminal nations are in cahoots to stage a series of war games escalating the regional tensions,” KCNA continued.

Kishida said Japan hopes to work with Germany “to deal with the deepening military cooperation between Russia and North Korea as well as China’s moves related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” according to Nippon.com, a news agency based in Tokyo.

Kishida and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz agreed in Berlin on Friday to boost their security cooperation after attending a NATO summit in Washington. It was Kishida’s first trip to Germany as prime minister.

Pact enters into force

Also on Friday, a military supply-sharing pact that aims to exchange food, fuel, and ammunition between Japan and Germany entered into force. The agreement was signed in January.

Beijing said the cooperation between Japan and Germany should not create tensions in the Asia-Pacific region.

Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, told VOA on Monday that “cooperation between countries, including military and security ties, should not target any third party or harm their interests.”

Maki Kobayashi, Japanese cabinet secretary for public affairs, told VOA’s Mandarin Service during the NATO summit that Japan has been working “very closely” with NATO countries on security issues and joint exercises.

“China has been saying there is an attempt at creating NATO in Asia, which is not correct,” she said.

Rather, she said, Japan has been seeking closer ties among like-minded countries “to share situational analyses and also align some policies” in support of an international order based on the rule of law.

In Berlin, Kishida and Scholz also agreed to enhance economic security including safeguarding the resilience of supply chains for key items such as critical minerals and semiconductors.

Cooperation seen two different ways

In Washington last week, the leaders of NATO and four Indo-Pacific countries, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea, discussed how to ramp up their combined defense capacity.

“A union of defense industrial bases between NATO and IP4 countries would have significant and positive implications for international peace and stability,” said Matthew Brummer, professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

“Japan has recently moved to provide surface-to-air missiles to the United States, which then sends them to Ukraine,” he added.

In December, Tokyo agreed to ship Japanese-made Patriot guided missiles to backfill U.S. inventory after taking a major step away from its pacifist self-defense policies and easing its postwar ban on the export of lethal weapons.

“In general, the NATO-IP4 cooperation is a good thing, since it symbolizes the recognition that both the Indo-Pacific theater and the European theater are linked,” Elli-Katharina Pohlkamp, visiting fellow of the Asia Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations based in Berlin said via email.

However, she continued, “Strengthening NATO-IP4 ties could exacerbate tensions with China and Russia, who may perceive this cooperation as a containment strategy,” and encourage countries like North Korea to align more closely with them.

Adam Xu contributed to this report.

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Forced labor in North Korea cited as possible crime against humanity

geneva — A report by the United Nations human rights office Tuesday accuses the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) of widespread forced labor, which in some instances “may constitute a crime against humanity of enslavement” under international criminal law.

“The testimonies in this report give a shocking and distressing insight into the suffering inflicted through forced labor upon people, both in its scale and in the levels of violence and inhuman treatment,” Volker Türk, U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said in a statement to coincide with the release of the report.

“These people are forced to work in intolerable conditions, often in dangerous sectors,” he said. “They are placed under constant surveillance, regularly beaten, while women are exposed to continuing risks of sexual violence.”

The report is based on various sources, including 183 interviews conducted between 2015 and 2023 with victims and witnesses of forced labor who managed to escape and now live abroad.

“The strength of this report is that it is based on a large amount of first-hand information,” James Heenan, representative of the U.N. human rights office in Seoul, told journalists in Geneva, noting that North Korean officials “are fully aware of our concerns.”

According to the report, people in North Korea are controlled and exploited through an extensive and multi-layered system of forced labor that “provides a source of free labor for the state and acts as a means for the state to control, monitor and indoctrinate the population.”

The report identifies six forms of forced labor, which are “institutionalized” through the country’s prisons system, schools, compulsory state-allocated employment, military conscription, “Shock Brigade deployments” and a system of overseas labor.

“Perhaps the most concerning is the forced labor extracted from people in detention,” Heenan said. “These detainees are systematically compelled to work under the threat of punishment or physical violence under inhumane conditions, with little food or health care and disproportionate work quotas.”

Given the almost total control over the civilian population of detainees, the widespread extraction of forced labor in North Korean prisons may “in some instances reach degrees of effective ownership over individuals which is an element of crimes of inhumanity and of enslavement,” he said.

The report finds that the state assigns every North Korean to a workplace after completing school or military service. It says military conscripts, who must serve 10 or more years, are “routinely forced to work in agriculture or construction,” which is described as “hard and dangerous, without adequate health and safety measures.”

A former nurse who worked in the surgery department of a military hospital during her compulsory service told U.N. investigators that “most soldiers who came to the clinic were malnourished and came down with tuberculosis, since they were physically weak and tired.”

Another state-organized system of forced labor mobilizations comes in the form of so-called “Shock Brigades” — state-organized groups of citizens forced to carry out “arduous manual labor,” often in construction and agriculture.

“These people are very often sent very far away from their homes to complete projects under state supervision. It can go on for months. It can go on even for years during which workers are obliged to live on site, with little or no remuneration,” Heenan said.

“The conditions described in the Shock Brigade are indeed shocking,” he said. “Little concerns for health, for safety. Scarce food, scarce shelter, and punishment for failure to meet quotas.”

The report says citizens who are sent to work overseas and earn foreign currency for the government “lose up to 90 percent of their wages to the state.” It says they also lose all freedom of movement. “They are kept under constant surveillance, their passports are confiscated, and they live under appalling conditions, with almost no time off.”

Heenan said there also is a very worrying, appalling situation of child labor in the country, with “children as young as 10 being drafted into forced labor.”

Authors of the report say children are “requested to volunteer extensive periods of their day” to work on farms and in mines, collect wood in the forests, repair railroads and participate in many other initiatives, “which interfere with their rights to education, health, rest and leisure.”

The U.N. human rights report calls on the North Korean government to “abolish the use of forced labor and end any forms of slavery.” It urges the international community to investigate and prosecute those suspected of committing international crimes and calls on the Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court.

Heenan said North Korean authorities “did not comment” on the report, which was sent to them. However, he added that human rights colleagues in Geneva and other parts of the U.N. system regularly engage with the government. “We do talk to the DPRK.”

“We monitor, we report, but we also engage, and we hope that that engagement will improve some of these issues,” he said.

In his statement, High Commissioner Türk noted that “Decent work, free choice, freedom from violence, and just and favorable conditions of work … must be respected and fulfilled.”

He said, “Economic prosperity should serve people, not be the reason for their enslavement.”

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Six found dead in Bangkok hotel in suspected poisoning 

BANGKOK — Police in Thailand say the bodies of six people were found Tuesday in a luxury hotel in downtown Bangkok and poisoning is suspected. 

Thailand’s Foreign Ministry said in a short statement that the dead were reported to be two Vietnamese Americans and four Vietnamese nationals. They were not identified further. 

The Thai newspaper Matichon showed photos of police at the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel investigating the deaths after being summoned by hotel staff at late afternoon. It said five bodies were found inside a room and one outside. 

Investigators said the bodies were found foaming at the mouth, an officer from the Lumpini police station said on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to release information. 

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin went to the scene in the evening but did not provide any additional information to reporters gathered there. 

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North Korean diplomat in Cuba defected to South Korea in November, Seoul says

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s spy agency said Tuesday that a senior North Korea diplomat based in Cuba has fled to South Korea, the latest in a series of defections by members of the North’s ruling elite in recent years.

The National Intelligence Service said media reports on the defection of a North Korean counselor of political affairs in Cuba were true. A brief statement by the NIS public affairs office gave no further details.

South Korea’s mass-circulation Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported earlier Tuesday that diplomat Ri Il Kyu fled to South Korea with his wife and children in November.

Chosun Ilbo cited Ri as telling the newspaper in an interview that he had decided to defect because of what he called disillusionment with North Korea’s political system, an unfair job evaluation by Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry, and the ministry’s disapproval of his hopes to visit Mexico to treat his neural damage. He said that hospitals in Cuba didn’t have the necessary medical equipment to treat his health problem due to international sanctions.

Other South Korean media outlets carried similar reports later Tuesday.

Ri defected before South Korea and Cuba established diplomatic ties in February, an event that experts say likely posed a political blow to North Korea, whose diplomatic footing is largely dependent on a small number of Cold War-era allies like Cuba.

The Chosun report said Ri had been engaged in efforts to block Cuba from opening diplomatic ties with South Korea until his defection. The report said Ri won a commendation from leader Kim Jong Un for his role in negotiations with Panama that led to the release of a ship detained in 2013 for allegedly carrying banned items like missiles and fighter jet parts. The report said Ri was then a third secretary of the North Korean Embassy in Cuba.

The South Korean government says the number of highly educated North Koreans with professional jobs escaping to South Korea has steadily increased in recent years. But it’s still unusual for a member of the North’s ruling elite to come to South Korea.

About 34,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea to avoid economic hardship and political suppression since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. A majority of them are women from the North’s poorer northern regions who arrived in South Korea since the mid-1990s, when North Korea suffered a devastating famine that was estimated to have killed hundreds of thousands of people.

In 2016, Tae Yongho, then a minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, defected to South Korea. He told reporters in Seoul that he decided to flee because he didn’t want his children to live “miserable” lives in North Korea and he fell into “despair” after watching North Korean leader Kim execute officials and pursue development of nuclear weapons.

North Korea has called him “human scum” and accused him of embezzling government money and committing other crimes. Tae was elected to South Korea’s parliament in 2020.

In 2019, North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, Jo Song Gil, arrived in South Korea. Also in 2019, North Korea’s acting ambassador to Kuwait arrived in South Korea with his family. In 2021, lawmakers cited the NIS as telling them the diplomat changed his name to Ryu Hyun-woo after arriving in South Korea.

South Korea’s unification and foreign ministries said they couldn’t confirm reports about Ri’s defection.

The highest-level North Korean to seek asylum in South Korea is Hwang Jang-yop, a senior ruling Workers’ Party official who once tutored Kim Jong Un’s late father, dictator Kim Jong Il. Hwang’s 1997 defection was hailed by many South Koreans as an intelligence bonanza and a sign that the North’s political system was inferior to the South’s. Hwang died in 2010.

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Nickel hub ‘apocalyptic’ for uncontacted Indonesia tribe, say NGOs

Jakarta, Indonesia — Deforestation at one of Indonesia’s largest nickel processing hubs is threatening an Indigenous group that is among the country’s last uncontacted tribes, rights groups allege.

Nickel is a key component in the batteries of electric vehicles, and Indonesia is both the world’s largest producer and home to the biggest known reserves globally.

The government is keen to boost output, but there are growing concerns about the environmental consequences and impact on local residents.

Two NGOs told AFP that mining operations in North Maluku province are endangering the O’Hongana Manyawa people by stripping forests and pumping pollution into surrounding waters.

The Weda Bay nickel mine on Halmahera island — by some estimates the largest in the world — has left the Indigenous group encircled, said Syamsul Alam Agus, an advocate at the Association of Indigenous Peoples’ Defenders.

“They are surrounded… their territory is controlled,” he told AFP.

While some of the community have settled over decades, an estimated 300-500 people from the group maintain a nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence isolated from outsiders.

As they lose more land and sources of food, they are being forced into more human contact, potentially exposing them to novel diseases, experts said.

“The world has become apocalyptic for the O’Hongana Manyawa,” said Callum Russell, an advocacy officer at Indigenous rights NGO Survival International.

They are being “forced to essentially surrender” their lifestyle and “often come out to beg for food,” he told AFP.

‘This is our home’

Apparent encounters between the tribe and mine workers have recently circulated on social media, sometimes going viral in Indonesia.

In one, two men hold spears as they apparently face off against workers and a bulldozer. Another shows a man and two women appearing to approach mine workers to ask for food.

AFP could not immediately verify the videos but Dewi Anakoda, a local environmentalist who describes herself as a “companion” of the O’Hongana Manyawa, confirmed they are authentic.

“It’s not them entering the concession area but Weda Bay Nickel that entered their area,” she told AFP.

“They have always lived in the forest. They say, ‘this is our territory, this is our home. We never bother you, why do you disturb us?'”

Weda Bay began operations in 2019, with the deposits being developed by Indonesian company PT Weda Bay Nickel.

The firm is majority-owned by Strand Minerals, whose shares are divided between French mining giant Eramet and Chinese steel major Tsingshan.

According to Eramet, about 6,000 hectares of Weda Bay Nickel’s 45,000-hectare concession will be mined over a 25-year period.

It says around 2,000 hectares have been “exploited,” including for a nickel plant part of the sprawling Indonesia Weda Bay Industrial Park (IWIP).

NGO Climate Rights International (CRI) this year found that around 1,400 hectares of forest had already been lost inside Weda Bay Nickel’s concession.

Citing interviews with local residents, it alleged “people living near IWIP have had their land taken, deforested, or excavated by nickel companies and developers without their consent.”

It said sampling of local rivers and coastal waters found contamination from heavy metals believed to be linked to mining.

Deforestation

Weda Bay Nickel, Tsingshan, Indonesia’s Investment Coordinating Board and its Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Eramet told AFP it is aware of the O’Hongana Manyawa and understands the “critical importance” of responsible mining and the well-being of Indigenous people.

It also touted the project’s economic benefits, including the creation of 14,000 direct jobs and more than $1.52 million in “community investment spending.”

Deforestation is a longstanding problem in Indonesia, and primary forest loss jumped 27 percent in 2023 after falling for several years from a peak in 2015-2016, according to the World Resources Institute.

Much of that is linked to fires or palm oil and wood pulp plantations, but mining-related deforestation accounted for the loss of about 10,000 hectares of primary forest last year, according to conservation start-up The TreeMap.

Concerns about Weda Bay’s environmental cost prompted a campaign urging German firm BASF to abandon plans with Eramet to build a nickel-cobalt refinery project in the area.

The $2.6 billion project was scrapped last month, though both firms said the decision was motivated by changing market conditions. The move does not affect existing operations.

NGOs have called on the government to set up protected areas for the O’Hongana Manyawa.

Dewi warned the development poses a threat to wildlife as well as humans.

It’s “not only the O’Hongana Manyawa tribe, there are Halmahera’s endemic birds, other birds, other habitats,” she said.

“I think in less than 20 years our forests will be completely cleared and we will feel the lasting ecological impact.”

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