New Zealand diplomat tells US Democrats to organise against Trump or ‘we all die’

Caroline Beresford says ‘please get your shit together’, referring to a potential Sanders/Warren presidential ticket

A senior New Zealand diplomat based in Washington is in hot water over a series of tweets directed at the US Democratic party saying “please get your shit together or we will all die”.

Caroline Beresford, New Zealand’s deputy head of mission to the US and ambassador to Haiti, sent the tweet in response to a post by US politics website the Hill detailing the Democratic party’s plans for the 2020 election and the possible pairing of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as running mates. “A Sanders-Warren ticket could win big in 2020” declared the headline.

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Trump-Kim talks: US signals hardline stance as it scrambles to define position

Donald Trump will take a hardline position at his planned summit with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the White House said on Friday, as US officials scrambled to keep pace with the president after his sudden acceptance of Kim’s offer to talk.

In briefings after the surprise announcement – which would be the first ever meeting of leaders of the two countries – US officials made no mention of possible concessions that Trump might offer, other than saying that severe sanctions would stay in place until North Korea took verifiable steps to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme.

At the daily White House briefing, spokeswoman Sarah Sanders even cast doubt on Trump’s acceptance of the offer of a summit, suggesting it was dependent on preconditions.

“Let’s be very clear. The United States has made zero concessions but North Korea has made some promises. This meeting won’t take place without concrete actions that match the promises that have been made by North Korea.”

Sanders did not specify what actions the US required Pyongyang to take, and whether the demands amounted to more than the requirement of a pause in missile and nuclear testing, which Pyongyang appears to have already agreed to.

The White House later appeared to minimise the impact of Sanders’ remarks, with one official telling the Wall Street Journal: “The invitation has been extended and accepted, and that stands.”

Later, on Friday evening, Trump added to the confusion with a tweet about the meeting in which he added a qualifying phrase: “if completed”.

Donald J. Trump

The deal with North Korea is very much in the making and will be, if completed, a very good one for the World. Time and place to be determined.

March 10, 2018

The speed of events had Trump’s administration scrambling to keep up with the president. Thursday’s announcement appeared to have taken some senior US officials unawares: the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was travelling in Africa, and had told reporters – while the South Korean delegation was in the White House conveying the offer – that talks with the North were a distant prospect.

Tillerson said on Friday that the US had been taken aback at Kim’s “forward-leaning” approach but described the outcome as a success for the US policy of severe sanctions executed by the state department. He said Trump had made the decision himself after determining the time was right for “talks” but not formal negotiations.

The vice-president, Mike Pence, said that Kim’s invitation to suspend nuclear tests and meet the US president proved that Trump’s strategy was working.

The North Koreans “are coming to the table despite the United States making zero concessions and, in close coordination with our allies, we have consistently increased the pressure on the Kim regime”, Pence said in a statement.

“Our resolve is undeterred and our policy remains the same: all sanctions remain in place and the maximum pressure campaign will continue until North Korea takes concrete, permanent, and verifiable steps to end their nuclear program.”


Why does the North Korean regime pursue a nuclear programme?

Much of the regime’s domestic legitimacy rests on portraying the country as under constant threat from the US and its regional allies, South Korea and Japan.

To support the claim that it is in Washington’s crosshairs, North Korea cites the tens of thousands of US troops lined up along the southern side of the demilitarised zone – the heavily fortified border dividing the Korean peninsula. Faced with what it says are US provocations, North Korea says it has as much right as any other state to develop a nuclear deterrent.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un is also aware of the fate of other dictators who lack nuclear weapons.

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Reacting to the announcement of the summit, the Chinese and Japanese governments have echoed the US line that there would be no let-up in the economic pressure on North Korea until Pyongyang began to dismantle its nuclear weapons and missiles programmes.

North Korea must ‘match words with concrete actions’, says South – video

It remained unclear if Kim is prepared to limit his arsenal and what he might require in return for doing so. Pyongyang had not commented officially on the summit plans since they were revealed by a South Korean delegation on Thursday night.

A previous deal, the 1994 Agreed Framework, involved deliveries of fuel oil and the promise to build civilian nuclear reactors for North Korea. But Kim has consistently demanded an end to what Pyongyang calls Washington’s “hostile policies” which involve its military presence on and around the Korean peninsula and joint exercises with its ally, South Korea.

Rex Tillerson, arriving in Djibouti on Friday, appeared to be caught on the hop by news of the North Korea talks as he toured Africa.

Rex Tillerson, arriving in Djibouti on Friday, appeared to be caught on the hop by news of the North Korea talks as he toured Africa. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/AFP/Getty Images

Tillerson said it will take “some weeks” to arrange the timing for their meeting. US officials said that no time or place had been agreed. Bilateral talks in the past have been conducted in Geneva, New York and Beijing, but those involved diplomats. Kim Jong-un has not ventured outside North Korea since inheriting power from his father in 2011.

A strong possibility as a venue would be the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas, a backdrop that would only add to the drama of an extraordinary encounter.

In the coming weeks, the Trump administration will have to develop a negotiating strategy almost from scratch. Former officials have said that while much time and effort had gone into designing and enforcing sanctions, and planning military options, almost none had been devoted to putting together a plan for negotiation.

The US special envoy for North Korean policy, Joseph Yun, left his post last week, depriving the administration of the single diplomat who had been in contact with North Korea. He had been contemplating retirement for some time, one of his colleagues said, but would have stayed on if he felt the White House had been interested in his efforts.

The state department has been cut out of the loop on several critical moments in the evolution of administration policy on North Korea.

Leadership on Korean policy has shifted to the White House. A likely key figure in the weeks running up to a summit is Allison Hooker, the only official left in the administration with firsthand experience of North Korea.

She travelled there in 2014 when she was director for Korean affairs at the national security council and accompanied the US intelligence chief, James Clapper, to Pyongyang to negotiate the release of American detainees.

Philippine president Duterte needs ‘psychiatric evaluation’, says UN chief

United Nations hits back after Philippines lists special rapporteur on terrorist ‘hit list’

The United Nations and the Philippine government have come to blows over the treatment of human rights investigators, with a UN chief saying that the country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte, needs a “psychiatric evaluation”.

The Philippine government angered the UN after one of its human rights investigators was included on a list of 600 people declared to be communist terrorists.

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Town where nobody’s home: Fukushima communities struggling to survive

Okuma, on Japan’s east coast, used to host a busy community of 10,500 people. But today the houses stand empty.

The town is empty because it is one of the closest to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station and – seven years after the earthquake and tsunami that triggered a triple meltdown – it remains under evacuation orders with decontamination still not finished.

However, Okuma is not totally deserted. It is patrolled by Jijii Butai, or The Old Man squad. A group of hardy retirees who keep watch over their beloved former home.

Tsunemitsu Yokoyama, 65, stands a few metres from a pick-up truck and recalls how he and his friends responded when they spotted a strange person on their streets.

“There was a suspicious person who was walking around the town one day and we noticed this suspicious person and we picked this person up and we put him on the truck,” says the mild-mannered former town hall worker.

“If we notice any suspicious actions or people of course we alert [the authorities].”

Yokoyama is one of six retirees who formed the squad five years ago, partly to allay the concerns of homeowners about potential break-ins and fires. He says the squad members are less worried about radiation exposure than the younger generation because “we don’t have many years ahead of us anyway”.

Tsunemitsu Yokoyama, 65, and other town hall retirees formed the ‘Old Man Squad’ to patrol the evacuated Okuma town and give homeowners peace of mind.

Tsunemitsu Yokoyama, 65, and other town hall retirees formed the ‘Old Man Squad’ to patrol the evacuated Okuma town and give homeowners peace of mind. Photograph: Daniel Hurst for the Guardian

Almost every day, they travel from their new homes one to two hours away and conduct volunteer patrols. Despite the early focus on suspicious activity, they are now more likely to be occupied by keeping the town clean and tidy, looking out for damage caused by wild boars, picking up any rubbish that may have accumulated in the waterways, and clearing away fallen trees.

“We belong to the same generation, we are around the same age, so we can understand each other pretty well in terms of sharing the same goal and also the objective and hope for this town,” Yokoyama says of the bond they’ve formed.

The long road home

The streets are not as quiet as they used to be. In some parts of the town, residents are now allowed to enter to periodically check up on their homes – but they are not allowed to stay overnight.

It’s clear, however, that it will be a long and difficult process to entice them back given they have set up new lives elsewhere.

Even Shuyo Shiga, the leader of the Okuma town recovery project, expects that the rest of his family will stay away once the situation has been put back to relative normality.

For starters, it won’t be a case of simply moving back into their old home: Shiga’s property is part of a parcel of land earmarked to become an interim storage facility for nuclear waste. In addition, he says one of his three children suffered great trauma from seeing their neighbours “swallowed up by the tsunami” as they tried to flee the powerful waters. They are now in their 20s.

“I think a person that has that kind of difficult experience, it’s very hard for them to come back to Okuma,” Shiga says.

“The children said they will not return … and my wife is talking about not returning, so I suppose it will be for me to return to Okuma as a single person – not with my family, not with my wife.”

The town is starting its recovery with modest ambitions. Residential homes are being built for 50 households – the number that indicated on a questionnaire that they wanted to come back. Eventually, says Shiga, the town plans to build 100 detached houses. But this is just a fraction of the pre-disaster population. It tends to be older residents who wish to return, he adds.

A radiation reading in front of an old school building in the portside area of Ukedo near Namie. This area was hit badly by the tsunami in 2011.

A radiation reading in front of an old school building in the portside area of Ukedo near Namie. This area was hit badly by the tsunami in 2011. Photograph: Daniel Hurst for the Guardian

Elsewhere in Fukushima prefecture, the town of Namie is a stark example of the challenges of getting a former evacuation zone back on track. Authorities lifted the evacuation orders there on 31 March 2017, except for some districts. Compared with Namie’s previous population of 21,000, so far just 490 people have returned.

Yohei Aota, an official with the Namie town government, reveals the figures as he looks out over the portside district of Ukedo – a low-lying area that was swamped by a 15.5-metre wave. His home was one of those destroyed.

Painful reminders

“Of course looking at the scenery reminds me of what happened,” he says from an elevated vantage point where the local elementary students successfully escaped the reach of the tsunami. Now the school building stands empty and most of the homes in the area have been demolished.

“There used to about 1,900 people living here [in Namie’s Ukedo district] but 182 people died unfortunately from the tsunami,” Aota says. “And actually there are still 30 missing persons – no remains, no belongings have been found of these 30 missing persons.”

Fukushima authorities area anxious to say that a lot of progress has been made since May 2012 when the number of evacuees from across the entire prefecture peaked at 164,865. That figure has fallen below 50,000. But people are not exactly rushing back.

Rieko Watanabe, 65, who evacuated from Namie to Minamisoma, says everyone has their own reasons for why they have not returned. She commutes from Minamisoma to run her business called Grandma Kitchen which serves meals and bento boxes to residents and workers.

Watanabe notes that the people in Namie are shy about their plans for the future. “But they often look around and if they notice a friend or an acquaintance or a neighbour returning they might say, ‘oh maybe it’s time for me to return as well and maybe I can do something’. We are praying every day and we are working hard every day so that this trend of people coming back to Namie would be strengthened and can be maintained.”

She adds with a determined smile: “Never give up.”

Billions of pieces of plastic on coral reefs send disease soaring, research reveals

A major new study estimates 11bn pieces of plastic contaminate vital reefs and result in infections: ‘It’s like getting gangrene,’ scientists warn

Spawning coral wrapped in plastic.

Spawning coral wrapped in plastic.
Photograph: Lalita Putchim/Science

Billions of pieces of plastic pollution are snagged on coral reefs, sending disease rates soaring, new research has revealed. The discovery compounds the damage being done to a vital habitat that already faces an existential threat from the warming caused by climate change.

Scientists examined 125,000 corals across the Asia-Pacific region, home to half the world’s reefs, and found 89% of those fouled by plastic were suffering disease. On plastic-free reefs, only 4% of the corals were diseased.

The work is highly significant because it is the first to examine the impact of plastic on disease in any marine organism and also the first to produce a large-scale estimate of how much plastic pollutes the sea floor. Coral reefs in the region are contaminated with 11bn pieces of plastic, the research indicates.

At least 8 million tonnes of plastic are dumped in the ocean every year and it now pollutes even the remotest corners. Microplastics, formed when plastics are broken up, can be mistaken for food by sea creatures and early studies have shown this causes harm.

The scientists who conducted the new study did not set out to research plastic but were confronted by it across the regions they surveyed. The correlation between plastic pollution and high rates of disease was very striking and the researchers think sharp plastic fragments cut the coral organisms, while plastic fabrics smother them and block out light and oxygen.

“Corals are animals just like me and you – they become wounded and then infected,” said Joleah Lamb, at Cornell University in the US, who led the new research, published in the journal Science. “Plastics are ideal vessels for microorganisms, with pits and pores, so it’s like cutting yourself with a really dirty knife.”

During dives Lamb found objects from plastic chairs to baby nappies to a Nike-branded quick-dry towel: “I saw a big white Nike swoosh, right there where the disease was and thought, ‘oh gosh, this is not great’.”

She said that once a coral is infected, disease usually spreads across the colony: “It’s like getting gangrene on your toe and watching it eat your body. There’s not much you can do to stop it. If a piece of plastic happens to entangle on a coral it has a pretty bad chance of survival.”

Coral reefs are not only a wonder of the natural world, home to myriad spectacular creatures, but they are also vital for at least 275 million people who rely on them for food, coastal protection from storms and income from tourism. The scientists said it is “critical” to cut plastic pollution.

Logos from manufacturing giants, like Nike, can be found along the bottom of the ocean.

Logos from manufacturing giants, like Nike, can be found along the bottom of the ocean. Photograph: Dr. Joleah Lamb/Science

The international team of scientists examined corals spread across 159 reefs off the coasts of Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar and Australia between 2011 and 2014. They found plastic snared on a third of the individual specimens, with the problem much worse on Indonesian reefs than on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, where plastic waste is better managed.

The diseases particularly associated with plastic were skeletal eroding band disease, white syndromes and black band disease. Corals with complex branching structures, which provide crucial “nursery” niches for young fish, were eight times more likely to have entangled plastic.

The scientists were only able to record items of plastic more than 5cm in length, so did not assess the impact of microplastics. Lamb also warned: “There are a lot of other pollutants [such as toxic chemicals] in the water that are probably just as bad as plastic – you just can’t see them.”

Prof Terry Hughes, at James Cook University in Australia and not part of the study team, said: “I’d never thought of bits of plastic as a vector of disease spread from the slime that coats them, but the study shows convincingly that corals entangled in plastic are 20 times more likely to be infected.”

Earlier in January, a team led by Hughes published work warning that repeated bleaching events are now “the new normal” due to global warming and pose a fatal threat to reefs. “The new study shows that remote reefs have much less plastic and disease. Unfortunately, there’s nowhere to hide from global warming, and even the most pristine reefs are vulnerable to bleaching,” he said.

Debris lining the beach in Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Debris lining the beach in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photograph: Dr. Joleah Lamb/Science

Prof Alasdair Edwards, at Newcastle University, UK, and also not involved in the new study, said the combined impact of plastic-related disease and climate change could be very serious: “Warming oceans are still the major threat to corals, but this paper shows that in areas more affected by humans, as exemplified by plastic debris, the chance of corals recovering from mass-bleaching and mortality events may be severely compromised. Corals need all the help they can get.”

Lamb said the one hopeful aspect of the plastic pollution problem was that people can take direct action: “The take-home message for individuals is to be more considered about the amount of single-use plastics you are using and think about where your plastic goes. These little things do matter.”

The researchers also estimated that the plastic pollution tarnishing coral reefs in Asia-Pacific will soar by 40% by 2025 to 16bn pieces, unless action is taken. The true number is likely to be higher, as China and Singapore were not included in the analysis.

Weather hampers efforts to contain oil tanker fire off China coast

Bad weather has hindered efforts to contain a tanker fire and oil spill off the coast of China, as environmental groups warned of a potential catastrophe.

The body of one sailor had been found and 31 others were missing after an Iranian-owned tanker collided with a container ship about 160 nautical miles east of Shanghai on Saturday evening. The Sanchi was carrying 136,000 tonnes of light crude oil or about 1m barrels.

However, strong winds, rain and waves up to four metres high were impeding efforts to contain the fire, locate the missing crew members and limit environmental damage, China’s transport ministry said. Rescuers onboard 13 vessels were searching an area of 900 sq nautical miles (3,090 sq km).

The tanker “is in danger of explosion and sinking, and the toxic gas … is very harmful to rescue workers on the scene”, officials said.

The Sanchi was loaded with condensate, a form of oil that only remains in liquid form under specific conditions and is more volatile compared with crude oil.

Nearly three days after the collision, as fires continue to burn, environmental concerns are ing.

“We are extremely concerned about the potential environmental impact of the collision and fire,” said Rashid Kang, a campaigner at Greenpeace. “Condensate oil contains much higher proportions of soluble and toxic chemicals. We are not expecting to see the kind of devastating thick oil slick associated with crude oil spills, but are worried about the toxic pollution that could be caused from leaks of condensate.”

Another concern is the impact on local wildlife. “The environmental impact of this disaster could be catastrophic,” said Dave Tickner, a freshwater adviser at the World Wide Fund for Nature. “The consequences will be far more severe if it affects a wide area of ocean or the Yangtze estuary, which is hugely important for wildlife, including significant numbers of migratory birds and a range of fish species. We need urgent action to clean up the spill and ensure the environmental consequences are limited.”

Chinese authorities were investigating the cause of the crash. The Sanchi, a Panamanian-flagged vessel owned by the National Iranian Tanker Company, was sailing to South Korea from Iran when it collided with a Hong Kong-flagged cargo ship, the CF Crystal, carrying 64,000 tonnes of grain. The Crystal’s 21 Chinese crew were rescued.

Coming of age ceremony in Yokohama – in pictures

Coming of Age Day is a Japanese holiday held every January to celebrate people who have reached 20 – the country’s official age of adulthood. Yokohama, with almost 37,000 people turning 20 in the past year, is holding one of the largest events in the country