The National Today

Kim Jong-un invites U.S. to table for Koreas summit

A deeper dive into the day's most notable stories with The National newsletter's Jonathon Gatehouse.

The National's newsletter: A deeper dive into the day's most notable stories

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, right, greets a member of the special delegation from South Korea at a historic meeting Tuesday. (Reuters)

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TODAY:

  • A strained dinner last night between North and South Korean officials in Pyongyang made history, marking the first public meeting between Kim Jong-un and the South's government
  • A deal to return close to 700,000 Rohingya refugees to Myanmar seems farther away than ever, with a senior UN official declaring there has been no meaningful progress toward peace
  • A former Russian intelligence officer is in a British hospital in critical condition after falling victim to an "unknown substance," and today Britain's Counter Terrorism Policing network took over the investigation


North Korea's charm offensive

It had the look of a rather uncomfortable wedding reception; a mirrored banquet hall, giant floral arrangements, pink chairs and table cloths, and all sorts of awkward body language.

But last night's strained dinner between North and South Korean officials in Pyongyang made history. It was the first time that Kim Jong-un, the North's dictator, had met publicly with representatives of the South's government.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, centre, dines with members of South Korea's special envoy delegation at Kobangsan Guesthouse in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Tuesday. (EPA-EFE)
It also produced a commitment for a formal summit next month between the Koreas — just the third since the peninsula divided 73 years ago.

And, most significantly, an offer of a North Korean moratorium on missile and nuclear tests if the United States will join them at the table.

Kim expressed his "firm will to vigorously advance the north-south relations and write a new history of national reunification by the concerted efforts of our nation to be proud of in the world," a spokesman for Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, told reporters.

The sudden thaw in relations between the two Koreas started a month before the Pyeongchang Olympics, when the North reversed policy and decided to send a team.

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have exchanged barbs in recent months over North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programs. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press, Korean Central News Agency/Reuters)
It continued with the appearance of Kim Yo-jong, Kim's younger sister, at the Games' Opening Ceremony — a star-making turn even if she did get the cold shoulder from U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence.

But Donald Trump remains leery of the early spring fling.

His first reaction —via social media, naturally -—was "we will see what happens."

Followed by a slightly more nuanced presidential tweet.

The world's most powerful man then moved on to criticizing the Democrats over the lack of a deal on so-called "dreamer" immigrants, and crowing about the "lowest rated Oscars in HISTORY."

Trump's stance on North Korea has evolved as well, however.

It was only last summer that the U.S. President was threatening to rain down "fire and fury" on Kim Jong-un, and just two months ago that he was bragging about the size of his nuclear button.

This photo distributed by the North Korean government shows what was said to be the launch of a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile in North Korea on July 4, 2017, part of the nation's missile development program. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via Associated Press)
At the Gridiron dinner with journalists in Washington this past weekend, Trump brought up the idea of face-to-face negotiations — albeit in a jokey manner.

"I won't rule out direct talks with Kim Jong Un. I just won't. As far as the risk of dealing with a madman is concerned, that's his problem, not mine. It's his problem," the president said to laughter and applause.

In fact, Trump even suggested that preliminary discussions were already underway via phone, saying the North Koreans "called up a couple of days ago and said, 'We would like to talk.' And I said, 'So would we, but you have to de-nuke, you have to de-nuke.'"

Although, as it turns out, the U.S. president was referring to a call from Moon Jae-in, president of the non-nuclear south, as was clarified yesterday by a spokesman for his National Security Council.  

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, right shakes hands with a member of the special delegation from South Korea on Tuesday. Kim expressed his 'firm will to vigorously advance the north-south relations.' (KCNA/via Reuters)
Analysts are divided about the effectiveness of America's foreign policy on North Korea. Some credit Trump's bellicosity for scaring Kim to the table. Others note that the tough talk hasn't really been backed up by biting sanctions — for fear of causing a rift with China by hurting banks and other businesses that have interests in the North.

But now, with Kim and Moon set for direct talks, the question will be whether America can afford not to be at the table.

And if they are, who will be doing the talking?

Joseph Yun, the U.S. State Department's top North Korea expert, resigned his job as special representative late last month.


Spy games and sporting threats

A former Russian intelligence officer who was once jailed as a Western spy is in a British hospital in critical condition after falling victim to an "unknown substance," and today Britain's Counter Terrorism Policing network officially took over the investigation.

Sergei Skripal, a 66-year-old former colonel with Russian military intelligence, was discovered slumped over and unresponsive on a bench outside of a shopping mall in Salisbury, U.K., late Sunday afternoon, alongside his unconscious 33-year-old daughter, Yulia.

Sergei Skripal, seen on a video feed, speaks to his lawyer from behind bars in a courtroom in Moscow on Aug. 9, 2006. (Misha Japaridze/Associated Press)
Both are now in intensive care.

Police in Wiltshire declared a "major incident" following the pair's discovery. They dispatched hazmat teams to hose down the area outside the shopping mall and decontaminate the emergency room at the local hospital.

In August 2006, a Russian court sentenced Skripal to 13 years in jail for "high treason," finding that he had been passing sensitive information to MI6, the British intelligence service, in exchange for cash since the early 1990s.

An image of Yulia Skripal, the daughter of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, from her Facebook account. (Yulia Skripal/Facebook via AP)
He was pardoned by then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in July 2010. Skripal was flown to Vienna, Austria, where he and three other accused spies were swapped for 10 deep-cover "sleeper agents" that the Russians had placed in the United States.

Skripal then moved on to the U.K., where he was debriefed for several weeks by British intelligence. It has since emerged that one of the agents involved in the questioning was Christopher Steele, the former MI6 spy who went on to work as a private investigator, compiling the infamous Donald Trump-Russia dossier.

Skripal was later granted U.K. residency and obtained a house in Salisbury, a sleepy cathedral town near the Stonehenge ruins, about two hours southwest of London. Although it's not clear if he ever changed his identity.

Neighbours in the town have described him as a pleasant and friendly man who lost his wife to cancer a few years ago. And British media is reporting that their 43-year-old son died in a car crash in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2017.

A police officer stands guard on Tuesday near a police tent that covers the spot in Salisbury, England, where former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter were found critically ill on Sunday following exposure to an 'unknown substance.' (Frank Augstein/Associated Press)
Police say they are keeping an "open mind" about Sunday's incident, but have so far refused to speculate whether it was somehow related to Skripal's former job.

Not so much for U.K. foreign minister Boris Johnson, who today warned Russia that it will face a "robust" response if its agents are somehow implicated in Skripal's sudden illness.

Johnson even mused about pulling England's team from soccer's World Cup, which is scheduled to kick off in Moscow on June 14.

"I think it will be very difficult to imagine that U.K. representation at that event could go ahead in the normal way, and will have to think on that," he told the House of Commons.

The British press have shown little hesitation in connecting the dots, drawing a parallel with the November 2006 death of Alexander Litvinenko. The former Russian spy turned Kremlin critic fell ill after going to tea with two other Russians at a central London hotel, dying 23 days later. Doctors concluded that he had been poisoned with highly radioactive and exceedingly rare Polonium 210.

Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, seen here at a news conference March 2, said Tuesday that he would consider pulling England's team from soccer's World Cup in Moscow this summer if Russian agents are implicated in Skripal's sudden illness. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)
In 2016, a public inquiry concluded that Litvinenko had "probably" been murdered on the personal orders of Vladimir Putin. One of the presumed poisoners, Andrei Lugovoi, was later awarded a medal by the Russian president, and is now an elected member of the country's Duma.

There is a lengthy list of Putin critics who have died under mysterious circumstances, including businessman Boris Berezovsky, who was found dead in his Surrey mansion in 2013, hanging in a bathroom. The working theory was suicide, but a coroner's investigation deemed that there was insufficient proof. It later emerged that he had deep ties to both Litvinenko and Lugovoi.

More recently, suspicions were raised by the deaths of a half-dozen high-profile Russian diplomats as the probe into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election unfolded.

But Skripal was not known as an outspoken Putin critic, and has been on the sidelines of the spy game for quite some time.

Last night, police were sweeping an Italian restaurant where Skripal and his daughter were believed to have eaten shortly before falling ill.


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No rest for the Rohingya

A deal to return close to 700,000 Rohingya refugees to Myanmar seems farther away than ever.

Members of the Muslim minority fled northern Rakhine state last summer after police and government troops responded to attacks by pro-independence guerrillas with a brutal campaign of rapes, arsons and murders.

Newly arrived Rohingya refugees rest on the roadside in Teknaf on Feb. 22 after fleeing to Bangladesh from Myanmar. (Suzauddin Rubel/AFP/Getty Images)
Today, a senior United Nations official declared that there has been no meaningful progress toward restoring peace in the region.

"The ethnic cleansing of Rohingya from Myanmar continues," Andrew Gilmour, the UN's assistant secretary-general for human rights, told reporters after touring refugee camps in Bangladesh.  

Rohingya refugees collect relief material next to a settlement near the 'no man's land' area between Myanmar and Bangladesh in Tombru on Feb. 27. (Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images)
"The nature of the violence has changed from the frenzied bloodletting and mass rape of last year to a lower-intensity campaign of terror and forced starvation that seems to be designed to drive the remaining Rohingya from their homes and into Bangladesh."

The governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh struck an agreement to start repatriating the refugees in mid-January, but it quickly fell apart due to concerns over safety and logistics.

Gilmour said it is "inconceivable" that such a deal will go ahead.

UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Andrew Gilmour, at the 2017 Global Citizen Festival in New York. He says violence in Myanmar has become a 'campaign of terror and forced starvation' against the Rohingya. (Noam Galai/Getty Images for Global Citizen)
"The Government of Myanmar is busy telling the world that it is ready to receive Rohingya returnees, while at the same time its forces are continuing to drive them into Bangladesh," he said.

Last week, Myanmar deployed troops and heavy weapons along its side of the border, drawing protests from the Bangladesh government.

It is estimated that more than 10,000 Rohingya have died in the violence, 1,000 of them under the age of five.


Quote of the moment

"The finder is requested to send the slip in the bottle to the German Naval Observatory in Hamburg or the nearest consulate for the return to the same agency after filling in the information on the back."

- The rather bureaucratic request inside a bottle found on a remote Australian beach 132 years after it was dropped off a German sailing ship. The message in a bottle was one of thousands deployed during a 69-year experiment to map global ocean currents.

The bottle found on a remote Australian beach 132 years after it was dropped off a German sailing ship. (Kym Illman/Western Australian Museum)

What The National is reading

  • Canada will meet climate targets despite emissions gap, feds say (CBC)
  • Why Vietnam welcomes America's return (Asia Times)
  • 'Pharma Bro' Shkreli ordered to forfeit assets; could include Wu Tang album (Fox News)
  • More than 20 migrants presumed drowned in Libya to Italy crossing (CBC)
  • U.K. military vets offered bursaries to retrain as teachers (Independent)
  • SpaceX successfully launches 50th Falcon 9 mission (TechCrunch)
  • WWE to host 'Greatest Royal Rumble' event in Saudi Arabia (Daily Mirror)
  • Iceland is growing new forests for the first time in 1,000 years (National Geographic)

Today in history

March 6, 1994: Canadian companies scoop up U.S. competition

Cross-border trade wasn't always Trump, threats and tariffs. Back in 1994, Canadian businesses were actually gobbling up their U.S. counterparts at a pretty healthy clip. This Venture report looks into the post-Free Trade boom times and the would-be moguls, including a less bald, not nearly as well-dressed Kevin O'Leary.

Kevin O'Leary makes an appearance as Venture reports on a surprising cross-border shopping trend: Canadian companies buying American ones. 6:10

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About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

Jonathon Gatehouse

Has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, including seven Olympic Games and a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey.