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#NorthKorea to send team to Winter Games, South to consider easing bans after talks

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North Korea said during rare talks with the South on Tuesday it would send a delegation to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea next month and Seoul said it was prepared to lift some sanctions temporarily so the visit could take place, write Christine Kim and Josh Smith.

At the first formal talks with South Korea in more than two years, North Korean officials said their delegation to the Games would consist of athletes, high-ranking officials and a cheering squad.

The talks are being closely watched by world leaders eager for any sign of a reduction in tension on the Korean peninsula, amid rising fears over North Korea’s missile launches and development of nuclear weapons in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

South Korea has unilaterally banned several North Korean officials from entry in response to Pyongyang’s ramped-up missile and nuclear tests, held despite international pressure.

However, some South Korean officials have said they see the Olympics as a possible opportunity for easing tension.

Foreign ministry spokesman Roh Kyu-deok said Seoul would consider whether it needed to take “prior steps”, together with the U.N. Security Council and other relevant countries, to help the North Koreans visit for the Olympics.

At Tuesday’s (9 January) talks, the first since December 2015, Seoul proposed inter-Korean military discussions to reduce tension on the peninsula and a reunion of family members in time for February’s Lunar New Year holiday, South Korea’s vice unification minister Chun Hae-sung said.

The North has finished technical work to restore a military hotline with South Korea, he added, with normal communications set to resume on Wednesday. But Chun did not immediately say what information would be transferred along the hotline.

The North severed communications in February 2016, following the South’s decision to shut down a jointly run industrial park in the North.

South Korea also proposed that athletes from both sides march together at the Games’ opening ceremony and other joint activities during the Winter Olympics, Chun told reporters outside the talks.

It would also be the first time since 2005 that the North will send its female cheerleaders, dubbed the “cheering squad of beauty” by the South Korean media.

The meetings continued on Tuesday afternoon after the two sides broke up for separate lunches. Officials began speaking at 10h (1h GMT) in the three-storey Peace House just across the demilitarized zone on the South Korean side of Panmunjom truce village.

“North Korea said that they are determined to make today’s talks fruitful, and make it a groundbreaking opportunity,” South Korea’s Chun said.

Chun also said the South Koreans proposed resuming negotiations over the North’s nuclear programme, but there was no specific response from the North.

However, North Korean officials said during the meeting they were open to promoting reconciliation through dialogue and negotiation, according to Chun.

The head of the North Korean delegation, Ri Son Gwon, said: “We came to this meeting today with the thought of giving our brethren, who have high hopes for this dialogue, invaluable results as the first present of the year ...”

North Korea entered the talks with a “serious and sincere stance”, said Ri, chairman of the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland.

South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon expressed optimism as the meeting began.

“Our talks began after North and South Korea were severed for a long time, but I believe the first step is half the trip,” said Cho. “It would be good for us to make that ‘good present’ you mentioned earlier.”

“Everything feels slightly new as we have not had talks in a while,” he said.

Just before the delegation drove into the demilitarized zone, about 20 South Koreans were seen waving a banner that read: “We wish the success of the high-ranking inter-Korean talks.”

One man was spotted waving a flag with a unified Korean peninsula.

Each side’s delegation consisted of five senior officials.

The North Korean delegation walked over the border inside the joint security area to the Peace House around 0030 GMT, an official from the South’s Unification Ministry told reporters.

The United States, which has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea as a legacy of the 1950-1953 Korean War, initially responded coolly to the idea of inter-Korean meetings, but U.S. President Donald Trump later called them “a good thing”.

Trump has said he would like to see talks go beyond the Olympics. “At the appropriate time, we’ll get involved,” he said.

On Tuesday, China’s foreign ministry said it was happy to see talks between North and South Korea and welcomed all positive steps. Russia echoed the sentiment, with a Kremlin spokesman saying, “This is exactly the kind of dialogue that we said was necessary.”

EU

Amid France-Turkey row, UK calls on NATO allies to defend free speech

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Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called on NATO allies to stand shoulder-to-shoulder on values of tolerance and free speech, in a veiled rebuke to Turkey which has been calling for a boycott of French goods, writes Estelle Shirbon.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has urged Turks to stop buying French goods and has accused France of pursuing an anti-Islam agenda. Britain, France and Turkey are all NATO members.

Erdogan is one of several leaders in the Muslim world angry with France over its response to the murder of teacher Samuel Paty, who showed pupils cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad as part of a lesson on free speech.

“The UK stands in solidarity with France and the French people in the wake of the appalling murder of Samuel Paty,” Raab said in a statement. “Terrorism can never and should never be justified.

“NATO allies and the wider international community must stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the fundamental values of tolerance and free speech, and we should never give terrorists the gift of dividing us.”

Paty, a teacher at a state-run school in the far outskirts of Paris, was beheaded on 16 October by a man of Chechen origin. The teacher had been criticised by some in the local community for showing his pupils the cartoons because Muslims view images of the prophet as blasphemous.

The French government, backed by large numbers of citizens, saw the beheading as an attack on free speech and said they would defend the right to display the cartoons.

President Emmanuel Macron called Paty a hero and pledged to fight what he described as Islamic separatism, saying it was threatening to take over some Muslim communities in France.

The reaction to Paty’s murder has caused widespread anger in Muslim countries, where there have been anti-French demonstrations and calls for boycott. France has warned its citizens in several Muslim-majority countries to take extra security precautions.

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EU

Customs Union: Commission proposes new ‘Single Window' to modernize and streamline customs controls, facilitate trade and improve co-operation

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The European Commission has proposed a new initiative that will make it easier for different authorities involved in goods clearance to exchange electronic information submitted by traders, who will be able to submit the information required for import or export of goods only once. The so-called 'EU Single Window Environment for Customs' aims to enhance co-operation and co-ordination between different authorities, in order to facilitate the automatic verification of non-customs formalities for goods entering or leaving the EU.

The Single Window aims to digitalize and streamline processes, so that businesses will ultimately no longer have to submit documents to several authorities through different portals. The proposal is the first concrete deliverable of the recently adopted Action Plan on taking the Customs Union to the next level.

It launches an ambitious project to modernize border controls over the coming decade, in order to facilitate trade, improve safety and compliance checks, and reduce the administrative burden for companies. Economy Comissioner Paolo Gentiloni said: “Digitalization, globalization and the changing nature of trade present both risks and opportunities when it comes to goods crossing the EU's borders.

"To rise to these challenges, customs and other competent authorities must act as one, with a more holistic approach to the many checks and procedures needed for smooth and safe trade. Today's proposal is the first step towards a fully paperless and integrated customs environment and better cooperation between all authorities at our external borders. I urge all member states to play their part in making it a true success story.”

The proposal, the press release, the Q&A and the factsheet are available online.

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coronavirus

Merkel plans circuit-break lockdown as German virus cases surge

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Chancellor Angela Merkel pressed regional leaders on Wednesday (28 October) to agree to a partial lockdown in Germany which would see restaurants and bars closed but keep schools open, a draft document seen by Reuters said, write and

The drastic measures, to take effect from 4 November, are aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus in Europe’s biggest economy as the number of new cases hit a record high.

Under the planned new restrictions people would only be able to go out with members of their own and one other household. Fitness studios, discos and cinemas would close, as would theatres, opera houses and concert venues.

Restaurants would only be allowed to offer takeaways, the document said. Shops could remain open if they implement hygiene measures and limit customer numbers.

Merkel will hold a virtual conference with the country’s 16 state premiers later to try to agree the nationwide rules and ditch a confusing patchwork of regional measures.

Almost all regions of Germany face an exponential increase in infection rates, said the document to be discussed, and local health authorities can no longer trace all infections.

“The aim is to interrupt the dynamic of the infection fast so no far-reaching limits on personal contact and economic activity are needed over the Christmas period,” it said.

Germany was widely praised for keeping infection and death rates below those of many of its neighbours in the first phase of the crisis but is now in the midst of a second wave. Cases rose by 14,964 to 464,239 in the last 24 hours, the Robert Koch institute for infectious diseases said on Wednesday.

Deaths jumped by 85 to 10,183, fuelling fears about the health system after Merkel warned on Tuesday it could hit breaking point if infections continue to spiral.

“If we wait until intensive care is full, it is too late,” Health Minister Jens Spahn, who last week tested positive for the virus, told broadcaster SWR.

The government has long insisted it wants to avoid a second blanket lockdown after an initial one this year hit economic growth, with the economy shrinking by a record 9.7% in the second quarter.

While economists expect a rebound for the July-Sept period, they warn that a further lockdown could wipe out growth in the last quarter. Third quarter data is due on 30 October.

Under the plans, the government aims to provide aid to firms hit by closures, including the cultural event sectors.

Only necessary overnight stays would be allowed, according to the document. Brothels, swimming pools, beauty and tattoo studios would close but physiotherapists and hairdressers could stay open. The steps would run until the end of November but are subject to review.

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