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US stresses allied cooperation with S. Korea and Japan in face of N. Korea threats

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with her counterparts from South Korea and Japan on Wednesday, emphasizing the US commitment to defend its allies and trilateral security cooperation to confront an accelerating nuclear threat from North Korea.

The latest top-level meetings between the countries came as North Korea apparently presses ahead with preparations for its first nuclear test explosion in nearly five years, which US officials say could occur in the coming days.

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After a meeting in Seoul, Sherman and the South Korean and Japanese vice foreign ministers issued a joint statement condemning North Korea’s provocative streak in weapons demonstrations this year and pledging closer security cooperation to curb the growing threats.

The statement said Sherman reaffirmed “steadfast” US commitments to the defense of South Korea and Japan, including “extended deterrence,” referring to an assurance to defend its allies with its full military capabilities, including nuclear.

“The United States, the Republic of Korea and Japan are fully and closely aligned on the DPRK,” Sherman said in a news conference, using the initials of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Sherman noted that North Korea since last September has significantly increased the pace and scale of its ballistic launches, posing a “serious threat” to security in the region and beyond, and urged Pyongyang to cease taking “these provocative and destabilizing actions and to commit to the path of diplomacy.”

Jolting an old pattern of brinkmanship, North Korea has already set an annual record in ballistic launches through the first six months of 2022, firing 31 missiles over 18 test events, including its first demonstrations of intercontinental ballistic missiles since 2017.

The unusually fast pace in testing activity underscores authoritarian leader Kim Jong Un’s dual intent to advance his arsenal and pressure the Biden administration over long-stalled negotiations aimed at leveraging its nukes for economic and security concessions, experts say.

Sherman’s visit to Asia came after North Korea in its biggest-ever single-day testing event launched eight ballistic missiles into the sea from multiple locations on Sunday, prompting the US and its Asian allies to respond with tit-for-tat missile launches and aerial demonstrations involving dozens of fighter jets.

A nuclear test would further escalate North Korea’s pressure campaign and could possibly allow the country to claim it acquired the technologies to build a bomb small enough to be clustered on a multi-warhead ICBM or on Kim’s broad range of shorter-range weapons threatening South Korea and Japan.

South Korean and U.S. officials have said the North has all but finished preparations for a detonation at its nuclear testing ground in the remote northeastern town of Punggye-ri, an assessment backed by the International Atomic Energy, which says there are indications that one of the site’s passages has been reopened. The site had been inactive since hosting the country’s sixth nuclear test in September 2017, when it claimed it detonated a thermonuclear bomb designed for its ICBMs.

North Korea will likely time the test to maximize political effect and some analysts say it could take place around a major conference of the ruling Workers’ Party that has been vaguely scheduled for the first half of June.

North Korea’s state media said on Wednesday that Politburo members met a day earlier to discuss the agenda for an upcoming plenary meeting of the party’s Central Committee that has been called by Kim to review major state affairs, including national efforts to slow a COVID-19 outbreak. He may also use the meeting to address his nuclear weapons ambitions and external relations with Washington and Seoul, experts say.

Kim’s absence from Tuesday’s preparatory meeting suggests that he’s focused on supervising preparations for North Korea’s seventh nuclear test and drafting his speeches for the plenary, said analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at South Korea’s Sejong Institute.
The North Korean party’s previous plenary in December lasted for a record five days and saw Kim repeat his vow to boost his country’s military capabilities and order the production of more powerful and sophisticated weapons systems.

Nuclear talks between the US and North Korea have stalled since 2019 because of disagreements over an easing of crippling US-led sanctions in exchange for North Korean disarmament steps, which underscored Kim’s unwillingness to give away an arsenal he sees as his strongest guarantee of survival.

Kim’s government has so far rejected the Biden administration’s offers of open-ended talks, and is clearly intent on converting the dormant denuclearization negotiations into a mutual arms-reduction process, experts say.

Read more: North Korea could conduct nuclear test ‘any time’: US envoy

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US: Bodies of two of three missing kids found in Minnesota lake

The bodies of two young children have been recovered from a Minnesota lake, and searchers are still looking for a third they fear may have been intentionally drowned.

Meanwhile, the father of the children died at a different location hours earlier, and their mother is missing. Names have not been released.

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The chain of events began Friday morning when the father was found dead at a mobile home park in the town of Maplewood, near Minneapolis. Police determined that the woman had left with the children, and a search began.

Maplewood Police Lt. Joe Steiner said the woman’s car was found near Vadnais Lake around 4 p.m. Friday. The shoes of the children were found on the shore.

A search of the lake found one child’s body Friday evening. A second body was found overnight. Searchers from several organizations were busy Saturday looking for the third, as well as the mother.

Authorities believe all three children were under the age of 5.

“There’s nothing more tragic than the loss of young children,” Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher said at a news conference on Friday. He called the deaths a “likely triple homicide.”

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Foreign firefighters arrive in Greece for summer wildfire season

Several dozen Romanian and Bulgarian firefighters took up their posts in Greece on Saturday, the first members of a European force being deployed to the country to provide backup in case of major wildfires during the summer.

More than 200 firefighters and equipment from Bulgaria, France, Germany, Romania, Norway and Finland will be on standby during the hottest months of July and August in Greece, where a spate of wildfires caused devastation last summer.

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A group of 28 Romanian firefighters with eight vehicles, and 16 firefighters from Bulgaria with four vehicles, were the first to arrive for the two-month mission, financed and coordinated under the European Union’s civil protection mechanism.

“We thank you very much for coming to help us during a difficult summer for our country, and for proving that European solidarity is not just theoretical, it’s real,” Greek Civil Protection Minister Christos Stylianides said on Saturday as he welcomed the members of the Romanian mission in Athens.

“When things get tough, you will be side by side with our Greek firefighters so we can save lives and property.”

The Bulgarian firefighters have been stationed in Larissa, in central Greece.

Last summer’s wildfires ravaged about 300,000 acres (121,000 hectares) of forest and bushland in different parts of Greece as the country experienced its worst heatwave in 30 years.

Following sharp criticism of its response to the fires, the Greek government set up a new civil protection ministry and promised to boost firefighting capacities.

In Greece’s worst wildfire disaster, 102 people were killed when a blaze tore through the seaside town of Mati and nearby areas close to Athens during the summer of 2018.

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One killed, six injured in shootout between migrant groups in Serbia

One migrant was killed and at least six others, including a teenage girl, were injured Saturday in a shootout between migrant groups in Serbia near the Hungarian border, the state-run RTS television reported.

The 16-year-old girl sustained life threatening injuries in the incident that occurred in a forest in the outskirts of Subotica, some 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Belgrade, where the injured were hospitalized, RTS reported.

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Police, who made no immediate comment, blocked access to the forest where the incident took place, only around a kilometer from the Hungarian border.

Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin rushed to the scene.

The injured, aged between 20 and 30, have no documents, Subotica mayor Stevan Bakic told local media.

It is not known what triggered the incident, he added.

Local media reported that the shootout occurred between Afghan and Pakistani migrants most likely over human trafficking from the area to European Union member Hungary.

Serbia lies on the so-called Balkans route used by migrants heading towards Western Europe as they flee war and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Although the route is nowhere as busy as it was during Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015, tens of thousands of illegal migrants still cross the region annually.

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