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Monday, October 12, 2009

NKorea missile tests breach UN resolutions: Seoul

SEOUL — South Korea accused North Korea Tuesday of flouting a United Nations ban with its latest short-range missile tests, amid reports the communist state is planning more launches.

The North Monday launched five missiles off its east coast despite making a series of peace overtures since August.

Military experts said the launches could be part of routine exercises, but may also be a show of firepower for political purposes.

The North is under pressure to return to six-nation nuclear disarmament talks, which it quit in April.

The South's Yonhap news agency said there were signs the North was preparing later Tuesday for more launches, this time off the west coast.

Japan's coast guard said the North had warned of "firing exercises" day and night until October 25 in the Yellow Sea.

Pyongyang nevertheless agreed Tuesday to Seoul's request for talks on various issues.

They will meet Wednesday to discuss flood prevention in a cross-border river, and on Friday for talks on humanitarian issues including family reunions, according to Seoul's unification ministry. Related article: SKorea may resume food aid to North

The North on September 6 released millions of tonnes of water from a dam across the Imjin river, sweeping away six South Koreans camping or fishing downstream.

Navy Chief of Staff Admiral Jung Ok-Keun told South Korean lawmakers the KN-02 missiles fired Monday have a range estimated between 130-160 kilometres (80-100 miles), greater than the 120 kilometres previously believed.

The foreign ministry said the launches breached UN Security Council resolutions banning ballistic missile tests, and urged the North not to repeat them.

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama told reporters in Tokyo that if the launch reports were correct, "I think it's very regrettable."

Regional tensions rose in April when the North fired a long-range Taepodong-2 rocket. When the UN censured the exercise, the North quit the six-party nuclear talks and staged its second atomic weapons test.

Monday's missile tests were the first for over three months. They came a week after leader Kim Jong-Il expressed conditional willingness to return to the six-party talks.

But Kim insisted on first holding direct negotiations with the United States to improve "hostile relations".

Washington has said it is open to bilateral talks but only in order to bring the North back to six-party negotiations, which are hosted by China and also group the two Koreas, the United States, Russia and Japan.

The latest launch operation appears part of regular military exercises but also has a political motive, said Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies.

"It is designed to take the upper hand in future negotiations with the US, not South Korea," he told AFP.

The North in recent weeks made conciliatory gestures both to Washington and Seoul after months of fiery rhetoric and rising military tensions.

It freed five South Korean detainees, eased curbs on the operations of a joint industrial estate and sent envoys for talks with President Lee Myung-Bak.

It also resumed a reunion programme for families separated by the 1950-53 war, after a lapse of two years. Hundreds of separated relatives held tearful and brief reunions two weeks ago.

A media report said the South was considering resuming food aid, which was suspended as ties soured.

Chosun Ilbo newspaper, quoting an unidentified government official, said Seoul was mulling providing its hungry neighbour with up to 30,000 tons of food -- much smaller than annual shipments in previous years.

The unification ministry said no decision would be made before the results of the inter-Korean talks later this week were studied.

Obama didn't choose himself for peace prize

It was just a small reminder that we live in interesting times in regards to the 44th president of the United States.

Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize last week and almost nobody thought to congratulate the guy! As my mother would say: "Where are your manners?"

According to the Nobel Prize Committee, Obama was chosen "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples."

Or, as other pundits put it, he won mainly for not being George W. Bush.

If you spent any time talking politics to co-workers or friends last Friday, Obama's Nobel Peace Prize probably came up. Soon after the announcement became public, there was an explosion of opinions - some would call it a meltdown - on the Internet.

(Best Twitter line: "The committee decided to give him the Nobel peace prize after he called Kanye West a jackass.")

Loud protests were heard from many of the same folks who have been proclaiming for months that Obama was the absolute worst president in the history of modern America. They thought he was so dangerous, he shouldn't be allowed to speak to the nation's schoolchildren. The same folks criticized Obama for "losing" the 2016 Olympic Games for Chicago and called it a sign he had no respect from the international community.

And then he goes and wins the Nobel Peace Prize! (Is it any wonder Rush Limbaugh can't stand this guy?)

Many readers who discussed this subject on my Raising Kane blog on expressed surprise and more than a little confusion as to what Obama had actually done to deserve it. Even White House officials reportedly thought they were being "punked" before confirming the information.

After all, it's the same prize won by Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Elie Wiesel, Lech Walesa, Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter. Last year, former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari was the winner for his efforts resolving international conflicts. If you can't remember much hoopla about it, that's not surprising.

Most people doing real work for peace usually go unrecognized.

Obama appeared appropriately humbled during his acceptance speech last week, freely admitting he didn't feel he deserved to be included in the pantheon of names who have won the award in the past. Actually, he also seemed pretty shell-shocked at the prospect of suddenly becoming a Nobel Peace Prize winner who is also commander in chief of the U.S. military during an ongoing war.

How is that supposed to work exactly?

The Nobel Peace Prize probably looks great on the mantel, but getting chosen as this year's "American Idol" registers way higher on the popular culture scale for many Americans. Obama's prize might not seem appropriate based on his track record to date, but sometimes the Nobel committee has grand designs in mind that aren't necessarily tied to any single accomplishment as much as sending an international message.

If you don't agree, your beef isn't with Obama; it's with the Nobel committee. I don't think he can give it back.

Winning the Nobel Peace Prize this early in his presidency places a heavy burden on Obama, but since he's already the first black president of the United States, how much more pressure can it be?

So let me take this opportunity to offer my congratulations to our president; he didn't really seem to get much last week.

us healthcare overhaul poised for big step forward

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama's push for sweeping healthcare reform was poised to clear a key Senate hurdle on Tuesday, opening a new phase in the raging debate over his top domestic priority.

The Democratic-controlled Senate Finance Committee will consider its plan to cut healthcare costs, regulate insurers and expand coverage at a meeting starting at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT), with a vote a few hours later.

If approved as expected, the bill would be merged with the Senate Health Committee's version over the next few weeks and moved to the full Senate, setting off an eventual floor battle with Republicans who call it too costly and a heavy-handed government intrusion.

The Finance Committee vote will be closely watched to see if Senator Olympia Snowe, a moderate from Maine, becomes the first Republican in Congress to back a health reform bill and if any of Obama's fellow Democrats defect on the issue.

Snowe's support could give Democrats a crucial swing vote as they try to hold the 60 Senate votes needed to overcome procedural roadblocks. Democratic defections would create a major threat to passage in the Senate, where the party controls only 60 seats and has no margin of error.

Two weeks of panel debate left the key elements of Chairman Max Baucus's plan intact. Support was strengthened by last week's estimate from nonpartisan analysts that it would cost $829 billion -- well below Obama's target of $900 billion -- and meet the president's goal of reducing the budget deficit.

The insurance industry launched an attack on the measure on Monday, releasing a report it commissioned that charged the bill would drive up costs and insurance premiums. The White House dismissed the report as "self-serving."

The Finance Committee bill requires all U.S. citizens and legal residents to have health insurance and provides subsidies on a sliding scale to help them buy it.

It would create state-based exchanges where individuals and small businesses shop for insurance and would bar insurers from refusing to cover people with pre-existing conditions or dropping those with serious illnesses.

The bill does not include a government-run "public" insurance option backed by Obama and liberal Democrats as a way to create competition for insurers. Republican critics say that approach would undermine the private insurance industry.

The other Senate bill, passed by the Health Committee, includes a public insurance option and supporters have vowed a floor fight over the issue in the Senate.

Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives have been trying to meld three versions of a healthcare bill. Last week they submitted a single bill to budget analysts for cost estimates that included three different versions of a public insurance option.