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With State Dept. depleted, US considers outside help on N. Korea



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There is an ongoing debate in the Trump administration as to North Korea’s intentions in wanting to talk and whether such talks would lead to serious steps toward denuclearization, with two distinct camps pushing their views to the President.
Although officials caution no decisions have been made, the consideration of an outside expert underscores the administration’s lack of depth on what is arguably the world’s most pressing foreign policy challenge.
Trump teeters on the edge of a familiar North Korean trap

The State Department’s roster of senior diplomats dealing with and experienced on North Korea is seriously depleted. The top diplomat dealing with North Korea, Joseph Yun, is departing his post[1] this week and the US has been without a permanent ambassador to Seoul since Trump took office.
The State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asia, in place in an “acting” capacity, still hasn’t been confirmed. Though Susan Thornton has become one of Tillerson’s most trusted aides, her broad Asia portfolio could necessitate a point person who deals just with North Korea, one official said.
The vacancy of the key ambassadorship in Seoul, coupled with the loss of a veteran envoy in Yun, has revived concerns that the US lacks diplomatic experience, a notion that State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert has dismissed.
“The State Department has 75,000 people that work for us around the world,” she said February 27. “To imply that Ambassador Yun is the only one who’s capable of handling North Korea[2] would simply be wrong. We have a deep bench of very experienced people.”
Now, officials say, the administration is considering a search outside the department for the brainpower and experience to maneuver one of the world’s trickiest and most threatening foreign policy problems.
Officials said the outside expert would be called upon to handle technical negotiations before Tillerson would step in to be at the table toward the end of any negotiation. Officials said there’s no sense yet on who might be tapped to fill the role.
The choice of outside expert could indicate which way the administration is leaning in its stance on Pyongyang. There have been conflicting signals, as two camps within the administration have pushed for starkly different approaches.
Loss of key diplomat revives concerns about Trump's North Korea strategy

Tillerson, along with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, has pushed for an approach exerting maximum economic pressure and diplomatic isolation on North Korea. The aim of the squeeze is to to force Pyongyang to the negotiating table.
On Wednesday Mattis said he is “cautiously optimistic” but there has been “optimism before” when asked about the latest developments.
Other voices in the White House, including national security adviser H.R. McMaster, have spoken openly about the need to consider a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea, should it threaten the US or continue to develop its nuclear weapons and missile capabilities.
One indication of where President Donald Trump might be leaning are reports that he met Wednesday with John Bolton, the hawkish Bush administration ambassador to the UN, who argues that a pre-emptive strike on North Korea would not only be legal but also effective at curbing the threat.
The two spent a major part of their time discussing North Korea, according to an administration official familiar with the meeting.
Kim Jong Un wants to 'write new history' on South Korea reunification

One camp of officials within the administration would likely be aligned with Bolton. This group believes that North Korea is not serious about its outreach and is just playing for time to continue its nuclear development — as it repeatedly has in the past under prior US administrations.
One senior administration official compared Pyongyang’s approach to the iconic “Lucy and the football” running gag from the Charlie Brown cartoon, in which the Lucy character always whisks away the football just as Charlie Brown thinks he’s about to land a kick.
While in the past it was possible to test the North Koreans and let the process play out, the official said, the US and its allies are now running out of time as North Korea inches closer to mastering a deliverable nuclear weapon.
After a November ballistic missile test, Mattis said that Pyongyang already demonstrated the ability to hit “everywhere in the world.” The question is whether it has miniaturized a nuclear warhead and mastered a missile’s re-entry phase.
Amid heightened tensions, China proposed a “freeze for freeze,” meaning a freeze in North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing in exchange for a freeze in joint military exercises between the US and South Korea. But the US group of officials who take a hardline approach say that is a nonstarter.
They argue that there can be no meaningful negotiations until North Korea takes some initial demonstrable steps toward denuclearization. That doesn’t preclude “talks” in the interim, they say, as Tillerson has made a distinction between talks and formal negotiations.
On Wednesday two defense officials told CNN that the US has scheduled the annual joint military exercise with South Korea, known as Foal Eagle, for March 31.
The Foal Eagle exercise, which was originally scheduled to take place during the Winter Olympics, involves thousands of US and South Korean troops and is the largest bilateral exercise involving those forces.
The Pentagon officially declined to comment on the scheduling of Foal Eagle.
In contrast to the hawks, another group of administration officials see North Korea’s overture as a good sign, because it will reduce tensions and give diplomacy more time to work. Moreover, they point out that North Korea has put denuclearization on the table[3], which is a shift from the position Pyongyang has previously held.
One senior administration official called it “a quite important turn” that hasn’t come at a large cost to the US. Another positive sign is a “North-South” summit planned for next month between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Another senior official called this a “very significant move” that suggests South Korea is inclined to see how far it can go in improving relations. This official did acknowledge, however, that this detente does leave the US on the margins.
Correction: This story has been changed to reflect China’s role in the “freeze for freeze” proposal.


  1. ^ is departing his post (
  2. ^ North Korea (
  3. ^ denuclearization on the table (

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Houston Recalls Legacy of George Bush, Its Lone Star Yankee and Senior Booster



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HOUSTON — Inside the airport that bears his name, George Herbert Walker Bush looks, at a distance, as if he’s wearing a cape.

An 8-foot-tall bronze statue at the Houston airport shows Mr. Bush, who , Barbara Bush[4], who died in April at the age of 92. After Mr. Bush’s death on Friday, Houston lost its two most famous residents in the span of seven months.

“George H.W. Bush served with valor and integrity as the 41st president of the United States,” Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, said in a statement. “But to Houstonians he was one of our most esteemed and relatable neighbors. He and his wife, Barbara Bush, were our sports teams’ biggest fans, and boosters for everything Houston.”

This was the man whose most memorable quote in years had to do with men’s hosiery. In 2012, as his fondness for wearing bright eye-catching socks was going strong, he explained that he simply “likes a good sock.” At his wife’s funeral at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Mr. Bush wore a pair of socks with a colorful stack-of-books design, a tribute to Mrs. Bush’s advocacy work for family literacy.

In Houston and its surrounding suburbs, Mr. Bush had not only an airport in his name but a park, a high school and a few more life-size statues. Above Buffalo Bayou, a bronze statue of Mr. Bush looks out into the distance with his hand in his pocket, gazing at, of all things, James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state and Mr. Bush’s tennis partner at the Houston Country Club. The statues of the two close friends face each other in the downtown park, separated by about 100 yards, in Houston’s oddest and longest-running staring contest.

“All I can do now,” Mr. Bush told The New York Times in 2011 about the statue, “is hope that the pigeons will be kind and gentle.”

Charles C. Foster, a Houston immigration lawyer and a longtime friend of the Bush family, came up with the idea for the George H.W. Bush Monument, which was unveiled in 2004. Mr. Foster recalled the day he sat in Mr. Bush’s office at 10000 Memorial Drive and asked for his blessing for the project.

Mr. Bush in 1970, when he was a congressman.CreditAssociated Press

“He looked at me and he sort of looked up at the ceiling,” Mr. Foster said. “He pointed to the ceiling and said, ‘Shouldn’t you wait until I’m up there?’ And then he said, pointing downward, ‘Or perhaps down there?’”

In 1990, Mr. Bush helped turn the eyes of the world to Houston.

As president, he brought thousands of reporters and foreign dignitaries to Houston that summer for the Economic Summit of Industrialized Nations, an annual gathering of the world’s economic powers. The summits had been held in a number of global cities — London, Tokyo, Paris, Venice — and Mr. Bush made the case that his adopted hometown belonged among such world-class company.

Houston was scrappier back then. The city was rebounding from an oil bust in the 1980s that crippled the economy, and it tried hard to present its best, and cleanest, face to the cameras and the visitors, picking up millions of pounds of trash, repaving roads and enlisting the aid of 12,000 volunteers.

“That was huge for Houston,” Mr. Foster said of the 1990 summit. “When the president had a chance, he could have picked some mountain retreat. But he picked his hometown. He was well aware of the chip on our shoulders that we didn’t feel like Houston got the recognition that it should.”

Now, with 2.3 million residents (compared with 1.6 million in 1990), Houston is the fourth-largest city in America, known as much for its diversity as its energy-capital status. George Bush High School, part of the Fort Bend school district, is 43 percent Hispanic, 38 percent black, 12 percent Asian and 4 percent white. More than 90 languages and dialects are spoken in the district.

Early Saturday morning in the upscale Tanglewood area, Houstonians paused at the gates at South Post Oak Lane and North West Oak Drive — the entrance to the gated community where Mr. Bush lived. Someone draped an American flag in the center of the gates, decorated for the holidays with Christmas wreaths.

Shirley Matthews, 66, a lifelong Houstonian who lives nearby, walked up and took a picture of the memorial for her mother. “He was just a good person,” she said. “He wasn’t perfect. But it’s family, and we love each other.”


  1. ^ died at his home here on Friday (
  2. ^ Read the obituary of George H.W. Bush. (
  3. ^ the funeral for his wife (
  4. ^ Barbara Bush (

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A Close Race, a Mysterious Ballot and Control of Alaska’s House at Stake



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With a crucial legislative seat in Alaska teetering toward a tie earlier this month, lawmakers in Juneau braced for the possibility of a coin toss deciding control of the state’s House of Representatives. Then a mysterious extra ballot emerged that threw the process into further disarray.

Amid several counts, the latest coming on Friday afternoon, a single ballot drew scrutiny across the state.

The state’s review board certified the race, between Kathryn Dodge, a Democrat, and Bart LeBon, a Republican, as a tie earlier this week, with exactly 2,661 votes going to each candidate. The extra ballot, for Ms. Dodge, could have settled the race for the Fairbanks-area district seat.

Later on Friday, the mystery appeared to have been solved — but the standoff over who won the election continued.

Samantha Miller, a spokeswoman for the state elections office, said that workers at Fairbanks’s No. 6 precinct told officials that a woman had come into the polling place to request a special needs ballot on behalf of her husband, who was outside in a vehicle.

The woman came back into the precinct. Her husband had made a mistake, she told the precinct worker, and needed a new ballot. She left behind the one he had already marked, thus making it a spoiled ballot.

The precinct chair told the worker who took the spoiled ballot to put it into a secrecy sleeve, “and that they would deal with it later in the day,” Ms. Miller said.

But instead, the spoiled ballot was put into a compartment with other questioned ballots.

Typically, Ms. Miller said, spoiled ballots are destroyed once they are accounted for. So, because the mystery ballot was found to be spoiled, it will not be counted, she said.

Still, that left the question of what happens if the recount that began on Friday afternoon ends in a tie — again.

Ms. Miller said that both candidates had five days to file a legal challenge to the results. And if the court decided the recount went as it should have, and the race was still a tie?

The prevailing candidate would be determined “by lot,” Ms. Miller said. “It could be a coin toss or some other way of deciding, as long as it’s random.”

It would not be the first time an Alaska race was determined by coin toss.

In 2006, State Representative Bryce Edgmon[1], a Democrat from Dillingham, beat the incumbent, Carl Moses. Mr. Moses’s name was drawn, so he got to make the call: Heads.

The state’s elections director at the time flipped an Alaska Mint medallion — the side with a walrus being heads and the side with the state seal being tails. It landed state seal side up.

Ms. Miller would not speculate about when the recount would be complete, but said both candidates were present, along with observers and officials.

Mr. LeBon did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.

Sara Harriger, a spokeswoman for Ms. Dodge, said in a statement that during Friday’s recount, one additional vote was found for Ms. Dodge and a challenged ballot was allowed for her opponent, Mr. LeBon, which meant that the tally stood at 2,662 apiece. Still tied.

Ms. Dodge said in a statement that she believed every legally cast ballot should be counted. “I just want everyone watching this process to take away a sense of confidence in our democratic system and a commitment to cast their votes in future races,” she said, “and knowing that their votes will matter.”

Ms. Dodge had said earlier on Friday that legal action “unfortunately” seemed probable.

“It’s certainly not what any of us expect when we set out to campaign, to find ourselves in a squeaker of this nature,” she said. “I hope we don’t have a coin toss. I don’t know quite what to say, but it doesn’t feel like it’s an appropriate way to settle an election.”

In Alaska, the repercussions of this race will be felt into the next legislative session, though party control of the House in Juneau will be far from clear-cut.

Political coalitions in Juneau do not always come down to party-line votes like in other state houses. Even if Ms. Dodge wins the race, Democrats would still not have an outright majority, and so members of the House will still be tasked with negotiating a coalition majority.


  1. ^ Bryce Edgmon (

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3 Killed After Pickup Truck Fleeing Border Patrol Hits Tire Spikes and Crashes



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Three people in a packed pickup truck were killed on Thursday afternoon after the driver ran over tire spikes and crashed on a Southern California highway while trying to flee Border Patrol officers, the authorities said.

The officers turned on their vehicle’s emergency lights and began chasing the pickup truck on Interstate 8, near Boulevard, Calif., at around 4:20 p.m., according to the United States Customs and Border Protection. The authorities said they believed that the pickup truck had been illegally driven over the southern border and had crashed through an “iron bar vehicle barrier.” They said they identified it by matching a piece that was missing from the truck to one agents had spotted on the ground near the border, though they did not elaborate.

The pickup truck reached speeds of over 100 miles per hour, weaving between cars and bypassing others on the side of the highway, before it drove over spikes that the Border Patrol had placed on the road, the California Highway Patrol said. About a mile later, the truck spun out of control and flipped over, ejecting the nine people who were riding in the truck’s bed, the authorities said.

A woman inside the truck, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was killed, as were two people riding in the bed, the police said. Seven people who had “multiple serious injuries” were taken to the hospital, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection said.

The driver, a United States citizen whose name was not released, was the only person wearing a seatbelt, the agency said. The California Highway Patrol took the man into custody, but it was not clear whether he had been charged. The identities of the passengers in the truck have not been released either.

“The investigation into the smuggling incident is ongoing,” the spokesman said in an email, “and the Border Patrol is fully cooperating with the CHP in their investigation of the collision.”

About an hour after the crash, the Border Patrol stopped another vehicle that officers believed had crossed over the border with the pickup truck, the agency said. The driver of that car was also arrested.

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