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China's Arctic ambitions take shape in remote Iceland valley

November 16, 2016

LAUGAR, Iceland (AP) — In a remote valley near the Arctic Circle where the wind whips the coarse yellow grass, China and Iceland are preparing to look to the sky — and a shared future. Construction workers are building a research facility to study the Northern Lights, whose spectacular streaks of color light up Iceland's winter skies. Funded by China's Polar Research Institute, the facility will house Chinese, Icelandic and international scientists when it opens next year.

This cement shell is a concrete achievement in the burgeoning relationship between the rising Asian superpower, population 1.37 billion, and this tiny North Atlantic island nation of 330,000 people. It may seem a lopsided friendship, but both countries perceive benefits. Beijing wants an Arctic ally as climate change opens up new sea routes and resource-extraction opportunities, while Iceland seeks heavyweight friends to anchor it against stormy economic waves.

"It is better to be a friend to everyone when you are small than be an enemy to anybody," said Reinhard Reynisson, director of the nonprofit company building the Aurora Observatory. Reynisson speaks with the confidence of a country that has weathered earthquakes, volcanoes, famine and financial meltdown since it was settled by Vikings in the 9th century. But China's growing interest has also aroused suspicions among some Icelanders, who are wary of big powers trying to grab their resources, whether fish, energy or land.

"We are a very small country, we are only 300,000 people, so we don't look at our independence as an automatic thing," said Asgeir Jonsson, an economist at the University of Iceland. "It's something that you have to protect and look after.

"In our history, we have a long story of fighting with the bigger powers around us over fish and the resources that we have. That has left its mark on the population." Iceland was nudged in China's direction by financial calamity. When the global credit crunch hit in 2008, Iceland's banks — whose debts had ballooned to more than 10 times the country's GDP — collapsed. Iceland's currency nosedived, unemployment soared, and Iceland was forced to go the International Monetary Fund and the European Union for bailouts. It also began looking for new economic partners to help it rebuild — and China was willing.

In 2010, the two countries agreed currency swaps between Iceland's krona and China's yuan, and in 2013 they signed a free trade agreement — the first between China and a European country. With Iceland's support, China was granted observer status in 2013 at the Arctic Council, whose core members are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Russia, the United States and Iceland.

It also attends annual Arctic Circle Assemblies hosted by Iceland — gatherings of politicians, officials, scientists and businesspeople to discuss the future of the region. "China's got a broad range of Arctic interests — economic, scientific, political, strategic," said Anne-Marie Brady, editor in chief of the Polar Journal and a global fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington. "But the main thing it wants at the moment would be to make sure it has a seat at any decision-making table and has access to any rights that are up for grabs. So it's great to have a friendly state like Iceland."

Some of the plans discussed by the two countries have been grandly ambitious, such as making a deep-sea port in a northern Iceland fjord to create a major shipping hub on the Northern Sea Route. It remains unbuilt, but the economic relationship between the two countries is growing steadily.

Iceland has granted the China National Offshore Oil Company permission to explore in Iceland's waters, and Beijing has tapped Icelandic expertise in geothermal power, a major industry in volcanic Iceland and a potential source of clean energy for China.

Last year, Chinese automaker Geely — owner of Volvo Cars— announced it was investing $45.5 million in Carbon Recycling International, an Icelandic company that operates the world's first renewable methanol plant. Chinese telecoms giant Huawei is working with Icelandic mobile phone firms and a state-owned Chinese firm has signed a deal to fund a new aluminum smelter in northwest Iceland.

The Chinese Embassy in Reykjavik says bilateral trade, "though still small in terms of volume, is growing rapidly." In the first nine months of 2016, Iceland's imports from China were worth $330 million and its exports $77 million, a year-on-year increase of 12.6 percent.

In an email to The Associated Press, the embassy said China could benefit from Iceland's "cutting-edge technologies in renewable energy, life-science (and) carbon-fiber industries," as well as its fresh fish, meat, dairy products and mineral water. In return, China can provide Iceland with a wide range of Chinese-made goods.

Chinese tourists — whose numbers rose from 26,000 in 2014 to an estimated 60,000 this year— are helping to drive a tourism boom that has been the savior of Iceland's economy since the financial crisis.

Cozying up to Beijing also gets tiny Iceland noticed by much larger nations. Brady notes that Iceland's politicians have become adept at "playing the big powers off each other." "They are getting a lot more attention from the United States in recent years because of their perceived very good relationship with China," she said. "And yet what the ordinary people think about that is often quite different from their government. ... the population has some misgivings about this close relationship."

Those misgivings reached a peak five years ago, when multimillionaire Chinese businessman Huang Nubo tried to buy a 300 square kilometer (120 square mile) chunk of remote northeast Iceland to build an eco-resort. Strong public opposition led the Icelandic government to block the purchase in 2011 — in part because no foreign buyer had ever bought so much land.

Suspicion lingered when the Aurora Observatory was announced for a sparsely populated region 250 miles (400 kilometers) northeast of Iceland's capital, Reykjavik. Pascal Heyman, a former official at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said in 2014 that the Chinese might want to use the equipment to keep an eye on NATO airspace.

Iceland is one of the best places in the world to observe the aurora borealis, or northern lights. The colorful phenomenon is caused when a magnetic solar wind slams into the Earth's magnetic field. Scientists hope the observatory will help them learn about the interaction between the sun and the Earth's magnetic field, which could help predict space weather.

The observatory is behind schedule — in part due to a shortage of building contractors in booming Iceland — but is due to open next fall. It will include a visitors' center, and local people have begun to capitalize on the upcoming economic opportunities, opening Aurora guesthouses and thermal baths.

Reynisson said the initial local skepticism about China's intentions has faded. "Now you might hear someone say, 'They will never finish it' — not that they are spying on us or doing something totally different from what is said to be done," he said. "Why build a station here in the valley to spy on us? Much easier to rearrange some of their satellites to spy on us."

Lawless reported from Reykjavik, Iceland.

In rare step, China bars 2 Hong Kong lawmakers from office

November 07, 2016

BEIJING (AP) — China's top legislature took the rare step Monday of intervening directly in a local Hong Kong political dispute by effectively barring two legally elected separatist lawmakers from taking office, setting the stage for further turmoil in the semiautonomous city.

Beijing moved to deny the two a second chance to take their oaths after being disqualified on their initial attempt last month for using anti-China insults and foul language. But the maneuver circumvented Hong Kong's courts, where the case is currently being heard, raising fears that the city's independent judiciary is being undermined.

The decision, while intended to nip the rise of budding separatism sentiment, has instead raised the specter of enduring political unrest in Hong Kong, two years after huge crowds of mostly young people occupied major streets for 11 weeks. Those demonstrations failed to win greater democracy but spawned an independence movement.

On Sunday, thousands took to the streets to rally against the anticipated announcement by the Chinese government. Police used pepper spray and batons against some umbrella-wielding demonstrators trying to reach Beijing's liaison office after the march ended. Four people were arrested and two officers were injured, police said.

The dispute centers on two newly elected pro-independence lawmakers, Sixtus Leung, 30, and Yau Wai-ching, 25, who altered their oaths to insert a disparaging Japanese expression for China. Displaying a flag reading "Hong Kong is not China," they vowed to defend the "Hong Kong nation." Their oaths were ruled invalid and subsequent attempts have resulted in mayhem in the Legislative Council's weekly sessions as the council's president refused to let them try again until the government's legal challenge is settled.

But Beijing decided to act more quickly. The National People's Congress Standing Committee, the country's top legislative panel, issued a ruling on a section of Hong Kong's Basic Law, or mini-constitution, covering oaths taken by officials.

It said talk of independence for Hong Kong is intended to "divide the country" and severely harms the country's unity, territorial sovereignty and national security. It also said those who advocate independence for Hong Kong are not only disqualified from election and from assuming posts as lawmakers but should also be investigated for their legal obligations.

It's the first time Beijing has stepped in to block democratically elected Hong Kong lawmakers from taking office. It's also the first time that Beijing has interpreted the Basic Law before a Hong Kong court has delivered a ruling on a case. In three of four previous interpretations, the NPC Standing Committee has delivered an opinion only after the Hong Kong government or the top court requested it.

"For the young people this is going to definitely create a backlash. This is going to further fuel the independence movement," said Samson Yuen, a politics lecturer at the Open University of Hong Kong. He added that Hong Kong's young people must be feeling helpless because every protest or collective action they've taken "has run into a dead end."

"Rationally for young people the only way out is to fight more radically," he said. At a briefing for reporters in Beijing, Li Fei, a deputy secretary general of the NPC Standing Committee, denied that the central government was escalating its interference in Hong Kong's affairs.

He said the Basic Law stipulates that Beijing holds the legal power to make interpretations, and it is the central government's duty to step in when there is a difference of legal opinion. He also warned that promoting independence was not a matter of freedom of speech.

"Breaking 'one-country two-systems' is violating the law, not voicing a political view," said Li, referring to a principle under which Beijing is supposed to let Hong Kong keep its capitalist economic and political system separate from mainland China's until 2047.

The central government's stance is absolute, he said, adding, "There will be no leniency." Li also directed his comments to the independence movement's core supporters. "The young people, I believe after some time will recognize the true face of those stirring up trouble behind the scenes and learn their lesson," he said.

Ming Sing, a professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said Beijing was making a "disproportionate" response to the threat of a separatist movement, given that polls show an overwhelming majority of Hong Kong citizens do not support breaking away from China or believe it to be realistic. But the harsh rhetoric could backfire and harden frustrations among the mainstream that doesn't support independence but feel increasingly pulled toward anti-mainland positions, he said.

"After today, people feel one step closer toward an authoritarian society, they feel a greater degree of deprivation of a fundamental right to elect their own legislator," he said. "Beijing has indirectly paved the way for a more imaginative, sustainable pro-democracy movement."

Eddie Chu, an independent pro-democracy lawmaker, said Beijing was making a "needless intervention" with its interpretation because Hong Kong's courts could have handled the dispute. "They are trying to create a rhetoric about the independence movement" to deter those who seek greater self-determination for the city, Chu said. "And Sixtus and Yau Wai-ching are the first victims in this new legal net."

Chu, Leung and Yau were among a group of pro-democracy candidates elected for the first time in September who advocate greater autonomy for Hong Kong. Leung and Yau are members of the radical Youngspiration party. They did not respond to media requests for comment Monday.

Hong Kong's Beijing-backed leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, said the government will fully implement the standing committee's interpretation. He told a packed news briefing that the Youngspiration duo had not only advocated independence for Hong Kong, but "even insulted the country and the Chinese people in their words and deeds."

"Their conduct has caused widespread indignation in Hong Kong and across the country," Leung said. Beijing officials struck a similar note in the closing moments of their briefing, which took an unexpected turn as Li, the standing committee official, denounced the oath-takers for using an archaic Japanese term to smear the Chinese people.

Li decried the two as "traitors" and recounted Japanese World War II atrocities in Hong Kong in graphic detail, telling of nurses raped and bodies bayoneted and tossed into the Hong Kong harbor. "I hope the people of Hong Kong won't forget the history of Japanese invaders," he said. "All the traitors who sell out the country never have good endings."

Chan reported from Hong Kong. Associated Press journalists Gillian Wong in Beijing and Josie Wong in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

Thousands in Hong Kong protest Beijing intervention

November 06, 2016

HONG KONG (AP) — Thousands of people protested in Hong Kong on Sunday, demanding that China's central government stay out of a political dispute in the southern Chinese city after Beijing indicated that it would intervene to deter pro-independence advocates. Police used pepper spray and batons to contain some of the demonstrators.

The dispute centers on a provocative display of anti-China sentiment by two newly elected pro-independence Hong Kong lawmakers at their swearing-in ceremony last month. China's top legislative panel said that Beijing must intervene to deter advocates of independence for Hong Kong, calling their actions a threat to national security. The Standing Committee of China's rubber-stamp legislature said in a statement that Beijing could not afford to do nothing in the face of challenges in Hong Kong to China's authority, the official Xinhua News Agency reported late Saturday.

On Sunday, thousands of people marched in downtown Hong Kong to voice their opposition to China's plan to step in, saying the move would undermine the city's considerable autonomy and independent judiciary.

Several thousand people gathered in the evening to protest outside Beijing's liaison office. Police used pepper spray and batons on demonstrators amid some scuffling. Some protesters wore face masks and hoisted open umbrellas in the air — symbols that were reminiscent of student-led pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014 that blocked key Hong Kong streets and attracted global attention.

Helmeted police officers with shields stood in several rows, creating a blockade against the protesters. "Open the road! Open the road!" the demonstrators chanted, as police warned them not to charge.

Demonstrators held signs reading "Defend the rule of law" and calling for the city's Beijing-backed chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, to step down. Some said that if China's top legislative panel issued its own interpretation on oath-taking, it would effectively undermine a Hong Kong court's ongoing review of the case.

"In (the) long run, that will damage our confidence in the court," said Alvin Yeung, a legislator. "That will, in the long run, damage the international investors' (confidence) in Hong Kong's stability and the rule of law, and of course how our court functions."

The legislative panel in Beijing said the words and actions of the two Hong Kong lawmakers — Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching — "posed a grave threat to national sovereignty and security," Xinhua reported.

If such a situation were to persist, the Standing Committee said, it would hurt the interests of Hong Kong's residents and China's progress. "The central government cannot sit idly and do nothing," it said.

The statement followed discussions by the committee on issuing an interpretation of an article in Hong Kong's constitution, known as the Basic Law, that covers oaths taken by lawmakers. Leung, 30, and Yau, 25, who are from the radical Youngspiration party, altered their oaths to insert a disparaging Japanese term for China. Displaying a flag reading "Hong Kong is not China," they vowed to defend the "Hong Kong nation." Leung crossed his fingers, while Yau used the F-word in her pledge.

Their oaths were ruled invalid, but attempts at a do-over have resulted in mayhem in the legislature's weekly sessions. Saturday's comments indicated that the Standing Committee intended to use its interpretation of the article to send a strong message against separatism — and could ultimately lead to the democratically elected lawmakers' disqualification from office.

Such an outcome would be favorable to China's Communist leaders, who are alarmed by the former British colony's burgeoning independence movement, but is also likely to plunge their troubled relationship into fresh turmoil.

Maria Tam, a Hong Kong deputy to the National People's Congress, told reporters in Beijing on Saturday that the Standing Committee has the "final say" on the dispute, and that Hong Kong's highest court would accept the panel's interpretation as binding.

Wong reported from Beijing. Associated Press videojournalist Josie Wong in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

Japan's defense minister visits Yasukuni after Pearl Harbor

December 29, 2016

TOKYO (AP) — Japan's Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, just back from Pearl Harbor, on Thursday visited a Tokyo shrine that honors Japan's war dead, including convicted war criminals. The visit, and one by another Cabinet minister the day before, drew rebukes from neighboring South Korea and China.

Inada accompanied Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his visit this week to Hawaii's Pearl Harbor, where he offered condolences to those who died in the Japanese attack there in 1941. Japan's Asian neighbors harbor bitter memories of the country's atrocities before and during World War II, when it colonized or invaded much of the region. So visits by top Japanese leaders to the shrine often draw complaints from countries such as China and South Korea that see them as attempts to whitewash that history of wartime aggression.

Abe's visit to Yasukuni in December 2013 caused such an uproar that he has since instead sent gifts of money and religious ornaments. Japan's Kyodo News service reported that Abe, who was golfing outside Tokyo, refused comment when asked about Inada's visit.

The defense minister doffed her shoes on her way into the shrine, and afterward told waiting journalists, "Regardless of differences in historical views, regardless of whether they fought as enemies or allies, I believe any country can understand that we wish to express gratitude, respect and gratitude to those who sacrificed their lives for their countries."

China's CCTV news and its official Xinhua News Agency remarked on the visit's timing. South Korea's Foreign Ministry said it was "deplorable" that Inada had visited a shrine that "beautifies past colonial invasions and invasive war and honors war criminals."

The ministry summoned Kohei Maruyama, a minister at the Japanese Embassy in South Korea, to lodge a protest over the Yasukuni visit. The country's Defense Ministry expressed "serious concern and regret."

Inada's visit was her first since becoming defense minister last summer, though she has regularly visited it in the past. A lawyer-turned-lawmaker with little experience in defense, she is one of Abe's proteges and backer of his long-cherished hope to revise Japan's Constitution.

Inada has defended Japan's wartime atrocities, including forcing many Asian women into sexual servitude in military-linked brothels, and has led a party committee to re-evaluate the judgment of war tribunals led by the victorious Allies.

Her link to a notorious anti-Korea group was acknowledged by a court this year in a defamation case she lost. Inada also was seen posing with the leader of a neo-Nazi group in a 2011 photo that surfaced in the media in 2014. Reports at the time cited Inada as saying she was unaware of his status and did not subscribe to neo-Nazi ideology.

Masahiro Imamura, Japan's disaster reconstruction minister, went to Yasukuni on Wednesday, also drawing criticism from Beijing.

Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.

Japan cabinet approves biggest defense budget

Tokyo (AFP)
Dec 22, 2016

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's cabinet on Thursday approved Japan's biggest annual defense budget in the face of North Korea's nuclear and missile threats and a territorial row with China.

The Cabinet approved 5.13 trillion yen ($43.6 billion) in defense spending for the fiscal year starting in April, up 1.4 percent from the initial budget for the current fiscal year.

It marks the fifth straight annual increase and reflects the hawkish Abe's attempt to build up Japan's military, which since World War II has been constitutionally limited to self defense.

Abe, who is pushing revisions to the constitution, strongly backed new security laws that took effect this year making it possible for Japanese troops fight abroad for the first time since the end of the war.

Japan is on constant alert against neighboring North Korea which has conducted two underground nuclear tests and more than 20 missile launches this year.

Under the new budget, the ministry aims to beef up Japan's ballistic missile defenses, allocating funds for a new interceptor missile under joint development with the United States.

Also reflected in the spending is Tokyo's determination to defend uninhabited islets in the East China Sea -- administered by Japan as the Senkakus but claimed by China as the Diaoyus.

The ministry said it has allocated funds for increased monitoring operations and to maintain mastery of the air and sea to counter attacks against what it euphemistically described as "island areas" - a reference to the disputed territory.

Separately, the Japan Coast Guard will increase security around the islands by allocating a record 210 billion yen, which includes two new patrol ships and the hiring of 200 more personnel.

In August, Tokyo lodged more than two dozen protests through diplomatic channels claiming that Chinese coast guard vessels had repeatedly violated its territorial waters around the disputed islands.

Also in August, Abe appointed Tomomi Inada, a close confidante with staunchly nationalist views, as his new defense minister. She has in the past been a frequent visitor to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo, which South Korea and China criticize as a symbol of Japanese militarism.

Japan has been boosting defense ties with the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations, some of which have their own disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea.

The defense budget earmarks funds to dispatch extra personnel to the Philippines and Vietnam to increase gathering and sharing of information.

Beijing asserts sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea, dismissing rival partial claims from its Southeast Asian neighbors. It also opposes any intervention by Japan.

The defence allocation is part of a record 97.5 trillion yen national budget that will be sent to parliament for debate and approval early next year.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Japan_cabinet_approves_biggest_defence_budget_999.html.

Tokyo gets November snow for first time in 54 years

24 November 2016 Thursday

Tokyo woke up Thursday to its first November snowfall in more than half a century, leaving commuters to grapple with train disruptions and slick streets.

Snow began falling before dawn with the mercury approaching zero as a cold weather system moved south.

The Japan Meteorological Agency said it was the first time snow had fallen in November in central Tokyo since 1962.

Amounts were greater in suburban areas closer to mountains but even central Tokyo saw brief accumulations, which the agency forecast to be as high as two centimeters (one inch).

That was the first November accumulation since records began in 1875, the agency said.

Tokyo, which spreads over a wide area and includes many suburbs, enjoys relatively mild winters compared to some other parts of the country where snowfall is more frequent.

Television footage showed a resident in the western suburb of Hachioji shoveling snow as the pavement, trees and park benches were covered in white powder.

Train and subway services were temporarily suspended or delayed especially in western Tokyo, affecting thousands of commuters during the morning rush hour.

Source: World Bulletin.
Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/todays-news/180606/tokyo-gets-november-snow-for-first-time-in-54-years.

Taiwan tells Beijing to grow up over Trump ceremony row

Taipei (AFP)
Jan 19, 2017

China should not be so "narrow-minded", Taiwan said Thursday, after Beijing pressed Washington to block the island from attending Donald Trump's inauguration.

A former premier will lead Taipei's delegation as foreign dignitaries from around the world descend on the US capital for the president-elect's swearing in.

But Beijing has asked the US to bar the self-ruling island it sees as a renegade province and part of "one China" to be reunified.

"We urge again the American side not to allow any Taiwanese official delegation to attend the US presidential inauguration ceremony and to have any kind of official contact with Taiwan," said Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China's ministry of foreign affairs, at a regular press briefing Thursday.

Former premier Yu Shyi-kun, who is leading Taiwan's delegation hit back.

"Don't be so small," Yu, who belongs to the ruling Beijing-skeptic Democratic Progressive Party, was quoted as saying by Taiwan's state Central News Agency.

"There hasn't been any leader with such a narrow mind in all Chinese dynasties," added Yu, referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Since Trump was elected in November, there have been a series of diplomatic upsets, with China incensed by a protocol-smashing phone call between the billionaire and Taiwan's leader Tsai Ing-wen.

It was further angered by Trump's suggestion that the "one China" policy could be negotiable and demanded Washington ban Taipei from the inauguration.

A Taiwanese delegation has attended in previous years, despite the lack of formal diplomatic ties, but never includes the island's president.

Washington remains Taiwan's most powerful ally and arms supplier even though it switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.

Chiu Chui-cheng, spokesman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council which handles China affairs, called Beijing's rhetoric "unhelpful for the normal development" of relations.

"There is no need for China to restrict or suppress Taiwan's regular interactions and exchanges with the US", he said.

Taiwan's delegation also includes some legislators including pro-independence rocker-turned-politician Freddy Lim of the New Power Party, which is calling for Taiwan to be recognized internationally as a country.

Ties with China have turned increasingly frosty since Tsai took office last year, with Beijing cutting off official communication with her government.

Beijing has recently stepped up military drills -- its only aircraft carrier sailed through the Taiwan Strait last week, and military aircraft passed near Taiwan twice late last year in what was seen as a show of strength.

Source: Sino Daily.
Link: http://www.sinodaily.com/reports/Taiwan_tells_Beijing_to_grow_up_over_Trump_ceremony_row_999.html.

Taiwan begins F-16 upgrade program

Taipei, Taiwan (UPI)
Jan 17, 2017

A $3.4 billion Taiwanese program to upgrade its F-16A/B Fighting Falcons got underway this week with the first four aircraft flown to a plant in Taichung.

The retrofitting of the aircraft to a "V" configuration is being performed by Taiwan's Aerospace Industrial Development Corp. in Taichung with Lockheed Martin, manufacturer of the aircraft.

According to the Taipei Times, the four aircraft will complete the upgrade process by the end of this year. About 25 to 28 planes of the air force's F-16A/B fleet will undergo modernization each year until 2023.

Taiwan has a total of 144 Fighting Falcons.

Upgrades under Taiwan's Phoenix Rising Project includes fitting of the aircraft with active electronically scanned array fire-control radar, which enables F-16Vs to detect stealth aircraft.

The Taiwanese fighters are also to be equipped with advanced avionics, including a new flight management system and a helmet-mounted display system.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Taiwan_begins_F-16_upgrade_program_999.html.

Taiwan ex-premier heading delegation to Trump inauguration

January 17, 2017

BEIJING (AP) — A former premier will represent Taiwan at Donald Trump's inauguration Friday, a visit likely to be closely scrutinized by China for signs the incoming president intends to make good on remarks suggesting a shake-up in relations between Taipei, Washington and Beijing.

Yu Shyi-kun will be joined by lawmakers and local government officials representing both the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and the opposition Nationalists, the Foreign Ministry announced. It said the delegation, which intends to "express the importance our government and people place on close friendly bilateral relations," left Monday.

Along with attending the inauguration, the delegation will hold talks with politicians, academics and overseas Chinese community representatives, the ministry said in a statement on its website. "Taiwan-U.S. relations have a lengthy history and have made significant progress in recent years," the statement said. Congratulating Trump on his election, it said the government would "continue to strengthen Taiwan-U.S. relations in future on the basis of excellent mutual trust and interaction."

The U.S. has no formal relations with Taipei in deference to China, which claims the island as its own. However, the two maintain robust informal ties, while Washington sells Taiwan arms and is legally bound to regard any threat to the island as a matter of grave concern.

Trump upset decades of diplomatic precedent by talking by phone with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen shortly after his victory in November's presidential election. Last week, he said in a newspaper interview that Washington's "one China policy" under which it recognized Beijing in 1979 was open to negotiation, and had earlier questioned why the U.S. should be bound by such an approach without China offering incentives.

On Monday, China's Foreign Ministry said the "one-China principle" regarding Taiwan is not negotiable and any attempt to reconsider the issue would be self-defeating. "Not everything in the world can be bargained or traded off," Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters.

China threatens to use force to assert control over Taiwan and tensions across the Taiwan Strait have risen since Tsai's election last year. Beijing has cut off contacts with her government and is using its diplomatic clout to further isolate the island.

Yu served as premier under former President Chen Shui-bian, who was despised by Beijing for his defiantly pro-independence stance.

Taipei: Chinese aircraft carrier transiting Taiwan Strait

January 11, 2017

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Taiwan's defense ministry said China's sole aircraft carrier on Wednesday was transiting the Taiwan Strait amid heightened tensions between the mainland and self-governing island it claims as its own territory.

A ministry statement said the Liaoning was traveling northwest along the center line dividing the strait, along with its battle group. It said the military was closely monitoring the vessels' passage and urged the public not to be alarmed. Taiwan regularly dispatches planes and ships to keep a watchful eye on Chinese forces' movements around the island, although the ministry statement gave no details about the military's response.

The heavily trafficked 160 kilometer- (100 mile-) wide Taiwan Strait separates Taiwan from southeastern China. The carrier was on its way back from its first journey to the Western Pacific, where it carried out a training exercise.

Based on a Soviet-built platform and commissioned in 2012, the Liaoning earlier this month carried out what Beijing called routine combat drills in the South China Sea which Beijing claims almost in its entirety and has fortified with man-made islands. That followed China's November declaration that the carrier and its complement of J-15 fighter jets was combat ready, setting off jitters in an already tense region.

The Liaoning set off for the Western Pacific last month, passing through the Miyako Strait, south of Okinawa, and then the Bashi Channel separating Taiwan from the Philippines as it entered the South China Sea.

Japanese and Taiwanese surveillance aircraft and ships closely monitored the Liaoning along its journey, seen by some as a sign of how China plans to use the carrier to demonstrate its willingness to back up its territorial claims with military muscle.

China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949 and Beijing has never renounced its threat to use force if it considers that necessary to prevent the island's permanent independence from the mainland. Relations between the sides have deteriorated badly since Taiwanese elected independence-leaning President Tsai Ing-wen last year, and Chinese officials have warned of more turbulence ahead unless she endorses Beijing's view that Taiwan is part of China.

China has been steadily ratcheting-up the economic and political pressure on Tsai, discouraging Chinese tourists from visiting the island of 23 million and intervening to prevent its participation in international forums. That has fueled speculation that Beijing will seek to win away more of the island's dwindling number of diplomatic allies, which now stand at just 21.

"Looking ahead in 2017, the development of cross-strait relations faces increased levels of uncertainty and the challenge of risk has risen," Ma Xiaoguang, spokesman for the Cabinet's Taiwan Affairs Office, told reporters at a bi-weekly briefing on Wednesday.

Ma said he had no information on the Liaoning's passage through the Taiwan Strait and referred questions on the matter to the Defense Ministry, which did not immediately respond. Having been thoroughly overhauled in China, the Liaoning represents a new degree of sophistication in the Chinese armed forces that includes ballistic missile submarines and prototype stealth fighters.

China announced in 2015 that it was building additional carriers entirely with domestic technology.

Taiwan won't cave to Beijing threats, says president

Taipei (AFP)
Dec 31, 2016

Taiwan will not bend to pressure despite China returning to its "old ways" of intimidation, President Tsai Ing-wen said Saturday, following Beijing's protests over her call to US President-elect Donald Trump.

China has stepped up military drills near Taiwan since the call earlier in December, in a move seen as putting on a show of strength as its ties with the self-ruled island and the United States deteriorate.

The call with Trump upended decades of diplomatic precedent in which Washington has effectively ignored Taipei in favour of Beijing, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province to be brought back within its fold.

In her end-of-year address, Tsai urged calm from Beijing and warned that recent actions by China were affecting cross-strait stability.

"Beijing authorities are returning to their old ways of isolating and suppressing Taiwan, and even of threats and intimidation," Tsai said.

"We hope this is not a policy decision by Beijing," she said. "We won't bend to pressure yet we also won't return to the old path of confrontation."

The Taiwanese leader called on Beijing to resume dialogue to find a "reasonable" solution.

China cut off official communications with Tsai's government after it refused to accept Beijing's interpretation of the "One China" concept.

Taiwan's defense minister warned Tuesday that enemy threats were growing daily after China's aircraft carrier and a flotilla of other warships passed south of the island.

Tsai said Saturday that Taiwan was "sufficiently capable" of handling the challenges and changes it was facing, whether they were national defense or economic issues, and that people should not "overly panic".

The two sides split in 1949 after a civil war but Beijing still claims the self-ruling island as part of its territory and has not ruled out using force to bring about unification.

The Taiwan Strait that separates them has been heavily fortified for decades.

"Whether cross-strait relations can be turned around next year depends on our patience and belief," Tsai told reporters.

Tsai is scheduled to transit through the United States when she travels to Central America in January, stopping in Houston and San Francisco.

Beijing has asked Washington to bar Tsai from flying through its airspace.

She did not confirm whether she would be meeting with any officials in Trump's team during her stopover.

Tsai said diplomatic relations with Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador -- the Central American nations she will visit -- were all "considered stable".

The comment comes amid speculation Taiwan may lose more allies after the small African nation of Sao Tome and Principe cut ties with the island in favour of Beijing in late December.

That leaves Taiwan with formal diplomatic ties to only 21 states, including the Vatican, its highest profile supporter.

Source: Sino Daily.
Link: http://www.sinodaily.com/reports/Taiwan_wont_cave_to_Beijing_threats_says_president_999.html.

Taiwan loses diplomatic ally in move welcomed by Beijing

December 21, 2016

BEIJING (AP) — Taiwan on Wednesday condemned the African island nation of Sao Tome and Principe's "abrupt" move to break their diplomatic ties, while rival China welcomed the defection of one of the self-governing island's small number of allies.

Just 21 countries and governments now have official ties with Taiwan. Most of the world and the United Nations do not formally recognize the island as a condition of maintaining relations with China, which considers Taiwan a part of its territory.

Beijing and Taipei have competed for allies for much of the nearly seven decades since the end of China's civil war in 1949, when the defeated Nationalist government fled across the Taiwan Strait. As its economic, military and political clout has grown, China has become more successful in pulling away governments in a bid to diplomatically isolate Taiwan, though some countries, including the United States, maintain strong unofficial ties with Taipei.

Taiwanese Foreign Minister David Lee accused Sao Tome of demanding "an astronomical amount of financial help," though he did not say how much. A Taiwanese foreign ministry statement said Sao Tome had been trying to "gain a higher price by lingering on both sides of the strait."

Taiwan "regrets the Sao Tome and Principe government's abrupt and unfriendly decision, and condemns this action," the statement said. Sao Tome and Principe is an island nation off the coast of central Africa, with a population of almost 200,000. The impoverished former Portuguese colony relies heavily on foreign aid.

China's foreign ministry said in a statement Wednesday that it welcomed the decision to "break the so-called 'diplomatic' ties with Taiwan." China did not say whether it would resume its own diplomatic relationship with Sao Tome, though the Portuguese news agency Lusa reported that Sao Tome would seek to recognize China. Beijing suspended its relationship with Sao Tome in 1997 after the island nation established diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

According to Lusa, Sao Tome's government issued a statement saying its officials faced the "increasingly fierce defense of national interests" by other countries. The government also cited Sao Tome's "transformation agenda and millennium development goals" in making the decision to break with Taiwan.

A spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry, Hua Chunying, would not say Wednesday whether China made a financial commitment to Sao Tome. But Hua said China would consider "friendly and cooperative" relationships with other countries based on its "one-China policy."

"There is only one China in the world," Hua said. She added, "By cutting ties with Taiwan, Sao Tome and Principe is showing its recognition to the one-China principle." Taiwan's remaining diplomatic allies are mostly in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as several Pacific island nations and the Holy See. Just two African nations remain on Taipei's side: Burkina Faso and Swaziland. One former African ally, Gambia, broke with Taiwan in 2013 and established formal ties with China this year.

Longtime observers of China predicted that Beijing might redouble its efforts to pull away Taiwan's allies after a Dec. 2 phone call between Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and President-elect Donald Trump, the first time an American president or president-elect had publicly spoken to a Taiwanese leader since the U.S. ended its formal relationship with Taiwan in 1979.

The call infuriated China, which accused Tsai's government of playing a "trick" and later warned Trump about challenging Beijing on the issue of Taiwan. China's foreign ministry did not mention the call in its Wednesday statement.

Associated Press news researcher Liu Zheng contributed to this report.

At a Pyongyang car dealership, only the logos are local

February 01, 2017

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — Salespeople at Pyongyang's premier car dealership wait patiently beside racks of glossy brochures in a showroom filled with that unmistakable new car smell from a couple dozen Whistle sedans and Cuckoo SUVs — all bearing the distinctive, double-pigeon logo of Pyonghwa Motors, North Korea's only passenger car company.

The streets of Pyongyang are more crowded than ever, but Pyonghwa, whose sole factory just south of the capital was designed to produce as many as 10,000 cars a year, appears to be stuck in neutral. Experts say just about everything its pigeon hood ornaments are attached to these days comes straight from China.

"I am afraid that since November 2012 there has not been any production of a Pyonghwa vehicle," said Erik van Ingen Schenau, an expert on the Chinese automobile market and author of a book documenting North Korean vehicles. "The newer models with the Pyonghwa badges are all Chinese-made."

If any assembly is being done locally, it is likely very small scale — such as putting on tires, inserting batteries or finishing the cars' interiors, he said. Recent satellite imagery on Google Earth shows no cars in the lots around the factory.

North Korea's passenger car market is, at best, nascent. Production and resources have always been focused on military vehicles or trucks rather than passenger cars, which outside of Pyongyang are still few and far between and well beyond the means of all but the most elite citizens. To further complicate matters, U.N. sanctions announced in March last year have made it harder for North Korea to get the parts needed for its assembly lines.

Pyonghwa itself is a remnant of a less-tense time, when South Korean investment aimed at improving ties through economic engagement was encouraged — in this case as a joint venture with the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church.

It was the first and is probably still the only company allowed to use billboard advertisements. "Pyonghwa Motors will take the lead in building a bridge between South and North," former CEO Park Sang Kwon, a Korean-American who spearheaded the effort from the South to create the company, said in a statement on its website, which hasn't been updated since 2012.

The promise of Pyonghwa, which means "Peace" in Korean, sputtered and stalled as relations between Pyongyang and Seoul soured and the North embarked down its path of becoming a nuclear power. Production of a Pyonghwa version of the Fiat Siena began at its Nampo plant in 2002, with 137 vehicles assembled from component "kits" shipped in from abroad. Output peaked in 2011, when the plant assembled 1,820 vehicles, then soon crashed when the South Korean side of the venture pulled out.

A chart showing the release years of Pyonghwa's 12 models is posted on a wall at the dealership — and stops abruptly at 2010. The company displayed 36 cars, trucks and pickups at the Pyongyang Spring International Trade Fair in 2013, but van Ingen Schenau, who is director of the France-based China Motor Vehicle Documentation Centre, said all were Chinese.

"Most of them were made by FAW in Changchun or FAW-Volkswagen," he said. FAW — First Auto Works — is one of China's 'big four" state-owned automakers. With its headquarters in Jilin Province, adjacent to the North, the state-owned FAW Group is particularly well-placed to tap into the North Korean market.

But it's by no means the only player in the game. Private automaker Hawtai Motor Group is one of the most visible, supplying hundreds of cars for the burgundy and gold fleet of "KKG" taxis that began appearing in Pyongyang in 2014. Another Chinese brand, BYD, flooded the city's streets with cars for a competing fleet of green and yellow taxis in 2013.

Locally produced Sungri and Taepaksan trucks increasingly are being replaced by secondhand Chinese Dongfeng, FAW-made "Liberation" trucks and Yuejin vehicles. Two of Pyonghwa's more recently introduced showroom models have been identified as rebranded Beijing Auto products.

The streets of Pyongyang offer some insights into the state of the North Korean economy. Black Mercedes limousines for senior officials and blue Volvos — North Korea famously bought, but failed to pay for, 1,000 of the Swedish cars in 1974 — are a common sight. Trams, some built in the former Czechoslovakia, and trolleys are another. The Pyongyang Trolleybus Works recently introduced the 170-passenger Chollima 091, with Chinese axles.

There is a considerable flow of long-haul buses, trucks and smaller vehicles that transport people and goods around for a fee. The practice isn't openly approved of by the government, but it's become a commonplace entrepreneurial side-business.

Stiffer pressure on Beijing to clamp down on trade with Pyongyang could crimp the growth in traffic. But if sanctions and political instabilities can be overcome — two very big ifs — Chinese capital could start up where South Korea's Pyonghwa experiment left off.

FAW seemed to be heading in that direction when in 2013 it was widely reported to have signed a memorandum of intent to build a factory in Rason, a special economic zone near the Russian and Chinese borders.

But like many planned projects in the North the status of the plant is uncertain. Company officials were not immediately available for comment. BYD and the Chinese Association of Automobile Manufacturers also had no comment.

S. Korea to form brigade to remove North's leadership in war

January 05, 2017

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea will form a special military brigade this year tasked with removing North Korea's leadership in the event of war as Seoul looks for options to counter its rival's nuclear weapons and missiles, an official said Thursday.

The brigade will aim to remove the North's wartime command and paralyze its function if war breaks out, according to an official from Seoul's Defense Ministry, who refused to be named, citing office rules. The brigade was originally planned to be ready by 2019. The official refused to say whether the brigade will train to execute pre-emptive strikes.

The plan was included in Defense Minister Han Min Koo's policy briefing to Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who became government caretaker upon President Park Geun-hye's impeachment over a corruption scandal.

North Korea conducted two nuclear tests and a slew of rocket test firings last year in attempts to expand its nuclear weapons and missile program. Following the North's latest nuclear test in September, South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff announced plans to strengthen its ability to conduct pre-emptive strikes.

It also said a "Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation" system would use special forces and cruise missiles now under development to destroy areas where North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the rest of the country's decision-makers are located.

S. Koreans to rally for President Park's immediate removal

December 17, 2016

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Large crowds were expected to gather in South Korea's capital again on Saturday to call for impeached President Park Geun-hye to immediately quit and press the Constitutional Court to formally remove her from office.

The massive protests against Park in recent weeks have been peaceful, but there was concern on Saturday about the demonstrators clashing with thousands of Park's supporters who planned their own protest near the court.

South Korea's opposition-controlled parliament last week voted to impeach Park over an explosive corruption scandal that saw millions protest over consecutive weekends. Prosecutors accuse Park of colluding with a longtime confidante to extort money and favors from companies and allowing her friend to manipulate state affairs.

The impeachment suspended Park's powers until the court rules whether she should permanently step down or be reinstated. The court has up to six months to decide, and if Park is formally removed from office, the country will hold a presidential election within 60 days.

Park has apologized for putting trust into her jailed friend, Choi Soon-sil, whose criminal trial begins on Monday, but has denied any legal wrongdoing. On Friday, lawmakers attempted to inspect records at the president's office but were denied entry. The lawmakers had planned to look into allegations that Blue House security officials allowed Choi and her key associates to easily move in and out of the presidential offices and residence.

Park's lawyer, Lee Joong-hwan, said the court should restore Park's powers because there is insufficient evidence to justify her unseating. He and other members of Park's legal team submitted a statement to the court explaining why the case should be decided in the president's favor.

After weeks of protests, crowds celebrate Park's impeachment

December 10, 2016

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Shifting from protests to celebration, large crowds of South Koreans were expected to march near the presidential palace on Saturday to cheer the impeachment of disgraced President Park Geun-hye over an explosive corruption scandal.

Protesters were planning to march to the palace where the notoriously aloof Park will remain mostly alone for up to six months until the Constitutional Court rules whether she should step down permanently.

On Friday, South Korean lawmakers impeached Park, a stunning and swift fall for the country's first female leader. The vote came weeks after state prosecutors accused Park of colluding with a longtime friend to extort money and favors from companies and to give that confidante extraordinary sway over government decisions. Park has apologized for putting trust in her friend, Choi Soon-sil, but denies any legal wrongdoings.

After the vote, parliamentary officials hand-delivered formal documents to the presidential Blue House that stripped Park of her power and allowed the country's No. 2 official, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, to assume leadership until the court rules on Park's fate.

"I'd like to say that I'm deeply sorry to the people because the nation has to experience this turmoil because of my negligence and lack of virtue at a time when our security and economy both face difficulties," Park said after the vote, before a closed-door meeting with her Cabinet where she and other aides reportedly broke down in tears.

Hwang separately said that he wanted "the ruling and opposition political parties and the parliament to gather strength and wisdom so that we can return stability to the country and people as soon as possible."

Once called the "Queen of Elections" for her ability to pull off wins for her party, Park has been surrounded in the Blue House in recent weeks by millions of South Koreans who have taken to the streets in protest.

There was tension Saturday hours before the large demonstration when thousands of Park supporters, most of them in their 60s or older, rallied in nearby streets, waving the country's flags and shouting for Park's "demagoguery impeachment" to be nullified.

Some of them wiggled into a boulevard pass thick lines of police officers and exchanged bitter diatribes with anti-Park protesters, before the officers forced them back out. Similar scenes played out on Friday when scuffles broke out between angry anti-Park farmers, some of whom had driven tractors to the National Assembly, and police. When impeachment happened, many of those gathered — some 10,000, according to organizers — raised their hands in the air and leapt about, cheering and laughing.

The handover of power prompted the prime minister to order South Korea's defense minister to put the military on a state of heightened readiness to brace for any potential provocation by North Korea. No suspicious movements by the North were reported, however.

Park will be formally removed from office if at least six of the Constitutional Court's nine justices support her impeachment, and the country would then hold a presidential election within 60 days. The bill on Park's impeachment was passed by a vote of 234 for and 56 opposed, with seven invalid votes and two abstentions. That well surpassed the necessary two-thirds vote needed in the 300-seat assembly, with the opposition getting strong support from members of Park's party.

Present for the vote were relatives of the victims of a 2014 ferry disaster that killed more than 300 and was blamed in part on government incompetence and corruption; they cheered and wept after the impeachment was announced. Most lawmakers left the hall quietly, though some could be seen taking selfies as they waited to vote.

Lawmakers from both parties faced huge pressure to act against Park, the daughter of a military dictator still revered by many conservatives for lifting the country from poverty in the 1960s and 1970s.

Her approval ratings had plunged to 4 percent, the lowest among South Korean leaders since democracy came in the late 1980s, and even elderly conservatives who once made up her political base have distanced themselves from her.

South Korean lawmakers last voted to impeach a president in 2004, when they accused late liberal President Roh Moo-hyun of minor election law violations and incompetence. The Constitutional Court restored Roh's powers about two months later, ruling that his wrongdoings weren't serious enough to justify his unseating.

South Korean president is impeached in stunning fall

December 09, 2016

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean lawmakers on Friday voted to impeach President Park Geun-hye, a stunning and swift fall for the country's first female leader amid protests that drew millions into the streets in united fury.

Once formal documents are handed over to the presidential Blue House later Friday, Park will be stripped of her power and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn will assume leadership until the country's Constitutional Court rules on whether Park must permanently step down.

The court has up to 180 days to decide. Park will be formally removed from office if six of the court's nine justices support her impeachment, and the country would then hold a presidential election within 60 days.

National Assembly speaker Chung Sye-kyun said the bill on Park's impeachment was passed by a vote of 236 for and 56 opposed, with 9 invalid votes and abstentions. That well surpassed the necessary two-thirds support in the 300-seat assembly. The opposition needed help from members of Park's party to get the needed votes, and it got it.

Relatives of the victims from a 2014 ferry disaster that killed more than 300 and was blamed in part on government incompetence and corruption, who were in the parliament observing the vote, cheered and clapped after the outcome was announced. Most lawmakers left the hall quietly, though some could be seen taking selfies as they waited to vote.

Once called the "Queen of Elections" for her ability to pull off wins for her party, Park has been surrounded in the presidential Blue House in recent weeks by millions of South Koreans who have taken to the streets in protest. They are furious over what prosecutors say was collusion by Park with a longtime friend to extort money from companies and to give that confidante extraordinary sway over government decisions.

Her approval ratings had plunged to 4 percent, the lowest among South Korean leaders since democracy came in the late 1980s, and even elderly conservatives who once made up her political base have distanced themselves from her. An opinion survey released Thursday showed about 78 percent of respondents supported Park's impeachment.

South Korean lawmakers last voted to impeach a president in 2004, when they accused late liberal President Roh Moo-hyun of minor election law violations and incompetence. The court restored Roh's powers about two months later, ruling that his wrongdoings weren't serious enough to justify his unseating.

The chances of the court reinstating Park are considered low because her charges are much graver. However, some legal experts say the court might need more than a couple of months to decide. This is because Park's case is much more complicated than Roh's, and because her lawyers will likely press the court not to uphold the impeachment unless the suspicions against her are proven.

Friday's vote was a remarkable fall for Park, the daughter of slain military dictator Park Chung-hee who convincingly beat her liberal opponent in 2012. Park's single, five-year term was originally set to end Feb. 24, 2018.

The political turmoil around Park comes after years of frustration over a leadership style that inspired comparisons to her father's. Critics saw in Park an unwillingness to tolerate dissent as her government cracked down on press freedom, pushed to dissolve a leftist party and allowed aggressive police suppression of anti-government protests, which saw the death of an activist in 2016.

She also was heavily criticized over her government's handling of the 2014 ferry sinking, a disaster partially blamed on official incompetence and corruption. Park has repeatedly apologized over the public anger caused by the latest scandal, but has denied any legal wrongdoings. She attempted to avoid impeachment last month by making a conditional offer to step down if parliament comes up with a stable power-transfer plan, but the overture was dismissed by opposition lawmakers as a stalling ploy.

Talking with leaders of her conservative ruling party on Tuesday, Park said she would make "every available effort" to prepare for the court's impeachment review. In indicting Park's longtime friend, Choi Soon-sil, and two former presidential aides last month, state prosecutors said they believed the president was "collusively involved" in criminal activities by the suspects. Choi and the two former aides were accused of bullying large companies into providing tens of millions of dollars and favors to foundations and businesses Choi controlled, and enabling Choi to interfere with state affairs.

Park's lawyer has called the accusations groundless and said she would only cooperate with an independent probe led by a special prosecutor. Park first met Choi in the 1970s, around the time Park was acting as first lady after her mother was killed during a 1974 assassination attempt on her father. Choi's father, a shadowy figure named Choi Tae-min who was a Buddhist monk, a religious cult leader and a Christian pastor at different times, emerged as Park's mentor.

The Choi clan has long been suspected of building a fortune by using their connections with Park to extort companies and government organizations. Choi's ex-husband is also a former close aide of Park's.

S. Korean president faces possible last day in power

December 09, 2016

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean President Park Geun-hye entered what could be her last day in power Friday, as lawmakers geared up for what's widely expected to be a successful impeachment vote amid a corruption scandal that has left her isolated and loathed.

The opposition feels confident that they'll get an impeachment Friday, the last day of the current parliamentary session, because dozens of members of Park's ruling party have said they'll vote against the woman who was once their standard bearer.

It's possible that the vote could be delayed or fail, but lawmakers from both parties face huge pressure to act against Park, the daughter of a military dictator still revered by many conservatives for lifting the country from poverty in the 1960s and 1970s.

On Friday morning, as lawmakers began to arrive at the parliament, hundreds of protesters, some of whom spent the night on the streets after traveling from other cities, rallied in front of the National Assembly's main gate and urged impeachment. The crowd was expected to grow as the vote neared.

A group of anti-Park farmers who tried to roll into the capital on tractors and trucks scuffled with police overnight in Suwon, just south of Seoul, before they left most of the vehicles behind and headed to Seoul on buses.

Once called the "Queen of Elections" for her ability to pull off wins for her party, Park has been surrounded in the presidential Blue House in recent weeks by millions of South Koreans furious over what prosecutors say was collusion with a longtime friend to extort money from companies and to give that confidante extraordinary sway over government decisions.

Her approval ratings have plunged to 4 percent, the lowest among South Korean leaders since democracy came in the late 1980s, and even elderly conservatives who once made up her political base have distanced themselves from her. An opinion survey released Thursday showed about 78 percent of respondents supported Park's impeachment.

If the impeachment vote happens Friday and passes, the country's Constitutional Court will have up to 180 days to determine whether to formally end Park's presidency. During that time Park would be suspended as president but not removed, with her duties, including commander in chief of South Korea's 630,000-member military, temporarily transferred to the prime minister until the court reaches a decision on whether her impeachment is constitutional.

Park's confidante, Choi Soon-sil, and two former presidential aides allegedly linked to the scandal have been indicted. Park, who has immunity from prosecution while in office, has refused to meet with prosecutors investigating the scandal.

Park, South Korea's first female president, would be the country's second leader to face an impeachment vote. In 2004, lawmakers impeached then President Roh Moo-hyun on allegations of incompetence and election law violations. But the impeachment led to a big public backlash, and the Constitutional Court reinstated Roh two months later. Roh left office in early 2008 after serving out his single five-year term. In 2009, he killed himself amid a high-profile corruption investigation of his family.

Park has publicly apologized over the scandal three times and acknowledged that she received help from Choi in editing her speeches and with unspecified "public relations" matters. But she denies involvement in Choi's alleged criminal activities.

About 160 lawmakers affiliated with the two main opposition parties said Thursday that they would resign en masse if parliament does not approve Park's impeachment, but that might be just symbolic because the parliamentary speaker won't likely approve the resignations out of worries about further political chaos.

Park's father, Park Chung-hee, ruled the country for 18 years until his 1979 assassination. Choi is a daughter of Choi Tae-min, a purported cult leader who served as a mentor for Park Geun-hye until his death in 1994. Park, whose mother was assassinated in 1974, described Choi Soon-sil as someone "who helped me when I had difficulties" in the past.

Park's ties with Choi Tae-min, who was mired in corruption scandals, have long dogged her political career. Many here criticize her for maintaining ties with the Choi family and for what's seen as a lack of transparency on the key decisions she has made.

Park, whose term is to end in early 2018, tried to fend off impeachment by saying she would stand down if parliament arranges a stable power transfer. Her liberal opponents called the overture a stalling tactic to buy time and find ways to survive the scandal.

AP writers Hyung-jin Kim and Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this story.

South Korean opposition struggles for clear impeachment plan

November 30, 2016

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean President Park Geun-hye's conditional resignation offer appears to be causing cracks in what previously had been a strong push for her impeachment, with opponents now struggling to set a date for a vote to strip her of power.

Park offered Tuesday to leave office if parliament arranges a safe transfer of power, triggering an immediate backlash from opposition parties, which called the overture a stalling tactic to help the president navigate through a huge political scandal involving her shadowy confidante.

Leaders of the country's three main opposition parties met Wednesday and agreed to stick with their plan to try to vote on an impeachment motion as early as Friday. But they also said they'd meet again if that plan does not work, meaning they're bracing for the possibility that a Friday vote might not take place.

Much of their hesitation to pick a clear date is due to the fact that there are not enough opposition lawmakers to pass an impeachment through parliament, and they would need help from dissenters in Park's ruling Saenuri Party.

The three opposition parties and anti-Park independent lawmakers have a total of 172 seats in the 300-seat National Assembly. A passage of an impeachment motion requires at least 200 votes in favor. About 40 ruling party lawmakers have expressed their willingness to vote to oust Park.

But after Park's resignation offer Tuesday, made in an address to the nation, anti-Park lawmakers gathered and agreed it would be best for Park to resign in April, after the installation of a neutral Cabinet that can help ensure a stable power transfer until a new president is elected, according to the office of Hwang Young-cheul, one of the lawmakers who attended the meeting.

They said they would still take part in a possible impeachment vote on Dec. 9 if details for an April resignation aren't worked out through negotiations, Hwang's office said. Opposition parties have previously said a vote on Park's impeachment would take place either on Friday or Dec. 9, because parliamentary plenary sessions are already scheduled on those days.

"It's true that some cracks have taken place at anti-Park forces in the Saenuri Party after her speech," said an official at the main opposition Democratic Party, formerly known by its Korean-language name, Minjoo.

The official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media, said opposition parties are using unofficial, backroom channels to see if they can still secure enough Saenuri lawmakers who would align with their impeachment drive.

If impeached, Park's presidential powers would be suspended until the Constitutional Court makes a ruling on her fate. The court would have 180 days to deliberate. Park, in her Tuesday speech, continued to deny accusations by prosecutors that she colluded in the criminal activities of her longtime friend Choi Soon-sil, who, despite having no official role in government, allegedly had a say in policy decisions and exploited her presidential ties to bully companies into giving large sums of money to businesses and foundations that Choi controlled.

Prosecutors have indicted Choi, two ex-presidential officials and a music video director known as a Choi associate for extortion, leaking confidential documents and other charges. The scandal has sparked mass protests every Saturday in Seoul. About 30,000 anti-Park demonstrators gathered in the city's downtown area on Wednesday, according to protest organizers.

Park, who has immunity from prosecution while in office, has refused to meet with prosecutors. She has, however, agreed to undergo questioning by a special prosecutor. On Wednesday, she picked a special prosecutor among the two candidates recommended by opposition parties. The special prosecutor has 120 days to lead an independent investigation into the scandal.

"I will only focus on truth as I investigate," Park Young-soo, the special prosecutor, told reporters. "I will not be distracted by the circumstances and thoroughly investigate (the case) based on law and principle."

Park Geun-hye is the daughter of late dictator Park Chung-hee, whose 18-year rule ended after he was gunned down by his own intelligence chief in 1979.

Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.

S. Korean opposition parties agree to impeach President Park

November 30, 2016

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea's three main opposition parties agreed Wednesday to stick to their plans to impeach President Park Geun-hye, dismissing as a stalling tactic her offer to resign if parliament arranges a safe transfer of power.

Park's conditional resignation offer Tuesday came as she faces nosediving approval ratings and massive street rallies calling for her ouster amid a huge political scandal involving her and a longtime shadowy confidante.

"The people of South Korea do not want to enter the new year with Park Geun-hye as president," Choo Mi-ae, leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, said at the start of the meeting. "There is only one way under our constitution to halt a term of a president and that's an impeachment motion."

After the meeting, the three parties told a joint news conference that Park must step down immediately without setting any conditions and that their push for her impeachment remains unchanged. The opposition parties agreed to put an impeachment motion to a vote as early as this Friday or meet again if this plan doesn't work, according to Yonhap news agency. The Democratic Party, formerly known by its Korean-language name, Minjoo, couldn't immediately confirm the report.

The opposition have previously said they would try to impeach Park either this Friday or on Dec. 9, when a parliamentary plenary session is scheduled. Support from two-thirds of the 300-member parliament is needed to impeach Park. The three opposition parties and anti-Park independent lawmakers have a total of 172 seats, meaning they need help from dissenters in Park's ruling Saenuri Party.

It was unclear how much Park's overture could divide those who earlier supported her impeachment. But some in the Saenuri Party have already raised the need to review whether to try to impeach her or come up with other ways for her departure.

If impeached, Park's presidential powers are immediately suspended until the Constitutional Court makes a ruling on her fate. The court has 180 days of deliberation. Park, in her Tuesday speech, continued to deny accusations by prosecutors that she colluded in the criminal activities of her longtime friend Choi Soon-sil, who, despite having no official role in government, allegedly had a say in policy decisions and exploited her presidential ties to bully companies into giving large sums of money to businesses and foundations that Choi controlled.

"If the ruling and opposition parties discuss and come up with a plan to reduce the confusion in state affairs and ensure a safe transfer of governments, I will step down from the presidential position under that schedule and by processes stated in law," she said. Park refused to take any question from journalists after her comments.

Prosecutors have indicted Choi, two ex-presidential officials and a music video director known as a Choi associate for extortion, leaking confidential documents and other charges. Park, who has immunity from prosecution while in office, has refused to meet with prosecutors. Her lawyer says the prosecutors' accusations are groundless.

Park is the daughter of late dictator Park Chung-hee, whose 18-year rule ended after he was gunned down by his own intelligence chief in 1979.

Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.

Mass rally planned in Seoul calling for Park's ouster

November 12, 2016

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Tens, and possibly hundreds, of thousands of South Koreans were expected to rally in Seoul on Saturday demanding the ouster of President Park Geun-hye in what would be one of the biggest protests in the country since its democratization about 30 years ago.

Police anticipate about 170,000 people to turn out near City Hall and an old palace gate, while the protest organizers estimate as much as a million participants. It will be the latest of a wave of massive rallies against Park, whose presidency has been shaken by suspicion that she let a shadowy longtime confidante to manipulate power from behind the scenes.

Park's friend, Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a late cult leader who emerged as Park's mentor in the 1970s, is also suspected of exploiting her presidential ties to bully companies into donating tens of millions of dollars to foundations she controlled.

Despite rising public anger, opposition parties have yet to seriously push for Park's resignation or impeachment over fears of negatively impacting next year's presidential race. However, they have threatened to campaign for resignation if she doesn't distance herself from state affairs.

The protest on Saturday was expected to be the largest in the capital since June 10, 2008, when police said 80,000 people took part in a candlelight vigil denouncing the government's decision to resume U.S. beef imports amid persisting mad cow fears. Organizers then estimated the crowd at 700,000.

In the summer of 1987, millions of South Koreans rallied in Seoul and other cities for weeks before the then-military government caved in to demands for free presidential elections. In an attempt to stabilize the situation, Park on Tuesday said she would let the opposition-controlled parliament choose her prime minister. But opposition parties say her words are meaningless without specific promises about transferring much of her presidential powers to a new No. 2.

Prosecutors have arrested Choi, one of her key associates and two former presidential aides who allegedly helped Choi interfere with government decisions and amass an illicit fortune at the expense of businesses.

Prosecutors also on Friday summoned the chairman of steelmaker POSCO over allegations that Choi and her associates tried to forcibly take over the shares of an advertisement company previously owned by the steelmaker.On Tuesday, they raided the headquarters of smartphone giant Samsung Electronics, the country's largest company, which is under suspicion of spending millions of dollars illicitly financing the equestrian training of Choi's athlete daughter.

Under South Korea's criminal litigation law, which requires suspects to be either indicted or released within 20 days of their arrest, prosecutors have until Nov. 20 to formally charge Choi. There is also a possibility that prosecutors will eventually investigate Park, who in a televised apology last week said she would accept a direct investigation into her action. The president has immunity from prosecution except in cases of treason, under South Korean law, but she can be investigated.

Park has 15 months left in her term. If she steps down before the end of it, an election must be held within 60 days.