TPM World News

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The rival Koreas took steps toward reducing their bitter animosity during rare talks Tuesday, as North Korea agreed to send a delegation to next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea and reopen a military hotline.

The meeting, the first of its kind in about two years, was arranged after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made an abrupt push for improved ties with South Korea following a year of elevated tensions with the outside world over his expanding nuclear and missile programs. Critics say Kim may be trying to divide Seoul and Washington in a bid to weaken international pressure and sanctions on the North.

During the talks, the North Korean delegation said it would send an Olympic delegation, including officials, athletes, cheerleaders, journalists and others, South Korean Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung told reporters, according to media footage from the border village of Panmunjom, the venue of the talks.

North Korea is weak in winter sports and a pair of figure skaters, Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik, earlier became the only North Korean athletes to qualify for next month’s Pyeongchang Games before the North missed a confirmation deadline. The International Olympic Committee said Monday it has “kept the door open” for North Korea to take part in the games.

Chun, one of five South Korean negotiators, said the South proposed that North Korea send a big delegation and march with South Korean athletes during the Feb. 9-25 games’ opening and closing ceremonies.

He said South Korea also suggested resuming temporary reunions of families separated by war and offered military talks designed to reduce animosities in front-line areas. South Korea also stressed the need to achieve denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, Chun said.

North Korea responded by saying the two Koreas must try to promote peace and reconciliation through dialogue, he said.

The two sides’ chief delegates were meeting Tuesday evening to discuss the wording of a joint statement, the media reports said, but it wasn’t immediately known when the talks would end. Past inter-Korean talks have often continued until late at night.

The countries have a long history of failing to follow through with rapprochement accords. In 2015, negotiators met for nearly 40 hours before announcing a deal to pull back from a military standoff caused by land mine blasts that maimed two South Korean soldiers. But animosities flared again several months later after the North’s fourth nuclear test.

The meeting’s venue, Panmunjom, is the only place on the tense border where North and South Korean soldiers are just meters (feet) away from each other. A North Korean soldier in November defected to the South across Panmunjom amid a hail of bullets fired by his comrades. He was hit five times but survived.

Tuesday’s meeting began in an amicable atmosphere, with chief North Korean delegate Ri Son Gwon saying he hoped the talks would give “a New Year’s first gift — precious results to the Korean nation.” Ri’s South Korean counterpart, Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, said he also hoped they would come up with a “good gift” for people in both Koreas.

Later Tuesday, Chun said North Korea told the South Korean delegation that it restored a military hotline with the South, in the second reopening of a suspended inter-Korean communication channel in about a week.

All major inter-Korean communication channels had been shut down amid animosities over the North’s nuclear program in recent years. But North Korea reopened one of the channels last week as signs emerged of improving ties.

An agreement on the North’s Olympic participation had been widely expected before the talks began, but the Koreas remain sharply at odds over how to improve their overall ties.

North Korea is expected to demand rewards in return for South Korea’s proposal of family reunions and military talks, such as a halt to South Korean propaganda broadcasts and a scaling back or halting of military drills with the U.S., observers say.

Suspension of the military drills would be unacceptable for Seoul because it would seriously undermine its alliance with its chief ally, the United States, which wants to put more pressure on North Korea. The North views the drills as a rehearsal for an invasion.

During an earlier era of inter-Korean detente, athletes from the two Koreas paraded together at international sports events such as the Olympics and fielded a unified Korean team. The government of current South Korean President Moon Jae-in wants the two Koreas to agree to similar reconciliatory steps at the Pyeongchang Games.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday expressed hope for some progress from the talks and said he was open to talking with Kim himself. But U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley later said the U.S. administration isn’t changing its conditions regarding talks with North Korea, saying Kim first needs to stop weapons testing for a “significant amount of time.”

In his New Year’s Day address, Kim said he was willing to send a delegation to the Pyeongchang Games. He urged Seoul to halt the military drills with the U.S. and said he has a “nuclear button” to launch missiles at any target in the United States. Moon welcomed Kim’s outreach and proposed the talks at Panmunjom.

Trump and Kim traded bellicose rhetoric and crude insults last year, as North Korea conducted it sixth and most powerful nuclear detonation and three tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

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GENEVA (AP) — Olympics officials say they have “kept the door open” for North Korea to take part in the upcoming Winter Games in South Korea.

The International Olympic Committee has long sought a diplomatic success that could allow the reclusive Communist country to participate in the Pyeongchang Games next month.

IOC spokesman Mark Adams said Monday the registration deadline has been extended and that the Lausanne, Switzerland-based committee supports North Korean athletes in the qualification process, while respecting U.N. sanctions against North Korea.

Last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wished success for the Games and suggested the North may send a delegation. Officials for the two countries are set to meet on Wednesday.

Japanese media reported over the weekend that North Korea’s IOC representative, Chang Ung, was headed to Switzerland.

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The rival Koreas will sit down for their first formal talks in more than two years next week to find ways to cooperate on the Winter Olympics in the South and to improve their abysmal ties, Seoul officials said Friday. While a positive sign after last year’s threats of nuclear war, the Koreas have a long history of failing to move past their deep animosity.

The announcement came hours after the United States said it will delay annual military exercises with South Korea until after the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month. The exercises infuriate North Korea, which claims they are an invasion rehearsal, although South Korea and the United States have repeatedly said they are defensive in nature.

On Friday morning, North Korea sent a message saying it would accept South Korea’s offer to meet at the border village of Panmunjom next Tuesday to discuss Olympic cooperation and how to improve overall ties, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles North Korean matters. Panmunjom is where a North Korean soldier dashed across the border into the South in November. He is recovering after being shot five times by his former comrades.

Unification Ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun said he expects the two Koreas will use a recently restored cross-border communication channel to try to determine who will head their respective delegations next week.

Any dialogue between the Koreas is seen as a positive step. But critics say the North’s abrupt push to improve ties may be a tactic to divide Seoul and Washington and weaken international pressure and sanctions on Pyongyang.

In his New Year’s address Monday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he was willing to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics but he also said he has a “nuclear button” on his desk to fire atomic weapons at the United States. President Donald Trump quickly responded that he had a bigger and more powerful “nuclear button” of his own.

Past breakthroughs to ease Korean tensions have often ended with renewed animosities. It’s likely the North will refrain from provocations during the Games. But tensions could return afterward because the North has no intention of abandoning its weapons programs and the United States will not ease its pressure on the country, analysts say.

China’s foreign ministry applauded news of possible talks between the rival Koreas.

“We welcome the recent positive turn of events in the peninsular situation,” spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular briefing.

Geng expressed hope “all relevant parties” would take advantage of the Games to “bring the issue back to the correct track of peaceful settlement through dialogue and consultation.”

The Trump government on Thursday said its springtime military drills with South Korea will be held from March 8-18 following the Feb. 9-25 Olympic Games. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis insisted the delay was a practical necessity to accommodate the Olympics, not a political gesture.

The White House said Trump approved the postponement in consultation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who said he suggested the drills’ delay to the United States.

Moon, a liberal, has been pushing to improve strained ties and restore stalled cooperation projects with North Korea since his inauguration in May, though he joined U.S.-led international efforts to apply more pressure and sanctions on the North.

Moon’s government wants North Korea to take part in the Winter Olympics. But North Korea is not strong in winter sports and none of its athletes have been qualified to compete in the Games. It needs to acquire additional quotas by the International Olympic Committee to come to South Korea. Baik said North Korea is expected to hold talks with IOC officials next week.

The Trump administration has said all options are on the table to end the North Korean nuclear standoff, including military measures, but Moon has repeatedly said there cannot be another war on the Korean Peninsula. Critics say these differences may have led Kim to think he can drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington as a way to weaken international pressure on the country.

The United States stations about 30,000 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War that ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. North Korea has cited the U.S. military presence and its regular drills with South Korea as proof of American hostility that compels it to pursue nuclear weapons.

Last year, North Korea carried out its sixth and most powerful nuclear test and test-launched three intercontinental ballistic missiles as part of its push to possess functioning nuclear missiles capable of striking the U.S. mainland. The repeated weapons tests earned the North toughened U.N. sanctions, and Kim and Trump exchanged threats of nuclear war and crude personal insults.

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Iran charged Wednesday that the U.S. “has crossed every limit” in international relations by expressing support for Iran’s anti-government protesters and said President Donald Trump’s “absurd tweets” have encouraged disruption.

In a letter to U.N. officials, Iranian Ambassador Gholamali Khoshroo complained that Washington was intervening “in a grotesque way in Iran’s internal affairs.” He said Trump and Vice President Mike Pence were personally stirring up trouble.

“The President and Vice-President of the United States, in their numerous absurd tweets, incited Iranians to engage in disruptive acts,” the ambassador wrote to the U.N. Security Council president and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

The U.S. didn’t immediately respond to the letter, which maintains that Washington “has crossed every limit in flouting rules and principles of international law governing the civilized conduct of international relations.”

At least 21 people have been killed and hundreds arrested in Iran during a week of anti-government protests and unrest over economic woes and official corruption. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people took part in counter-demonstrations Wednesday backing the clerically overseen government, which has said “enemies of Iran” are fomenting the protests.

Trump has unleashed a series of tweets in recent days backing the protesters, saying Iran is “failing at every level” and declaring that it is “time for change” in the Islamic Republic.

“Such respect for the people of Iran as they try to take back their corrupt government,” he tweeted Wednesday. “You will see great support from the United States at the appropriate time!”

Trump’s U.N. envoy, Ambassador Nikki Haley, called Tuesday for an emergency Security Council meeting on Iran, saying the U.N. needed to speak out in support of the protesters.

As yet, no meeting has been scheduled.

Guterres is following the developments in Iran with concern, deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said earlier Wednesday. He said the secretary-general urged respect for free-expression rights and stressed that any demonstrations should be peaceful.

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reopened a key cross-border communication channel with South Korea for the first time in nearly two years Wednesday as the rivals explored the possibility of sitting down and talking after months of acrimony and fears of war.

The sudden signs of easing hostilities, however, came as President Donald Trump threatened Kim with nuclear war in response to his threat earlier this week.

In his New Year’s address Monday, Kim said he was willing to send a delegation to next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea. But he also said he has a “nuclear button” on his desk and that all U.S. territory is within striking distance of his nuclear weapons, comments Trump latched onto Tuesday when he boasted of a bigger and more powerful “nuclear button” than Kim’s.

The two leaders exchanged crude insults last year, as the North received new U.N. sanctions over its sixth and most powerful nuclear test explosion and a series of intercontinental ballistic missile launches.

The recent softening of contact between the rival Koreas may show a shared interest in improved ties, but there’s no guarantee tensions will ease. There have been repeated attempts in recent years by the rivals to talk, but even when they do meet, the efforts often end in recriminations and stalemate.

Outside critics say Kim may be trying to use better ties with South Korea as a way to weaken the alliance between Washington and Seoul as the North grapples with toughened international sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs.

Kim’s latest announcement, which was read by a senior Pyongyang official on state TV, followed a South Korean offer on Tuesday of high-level talks with North Korea to find ways to cooperate on next month’s Winter Olympics in the South and discuss other inter-Korean issues.

Ri Son Gwon, chairman of the state-run Committee for the Peaceful Reunification, cited Kim as welcoming South Korea’s overture and ordering officials to reopen a communication channel at the border village of Panmunjom. Ri also quoted Kim as ordering officials to promptly take substantial measures with South Korea out of a “sincere stand and honest attitude,” according to the North’s state TV and news agency.

South Korea quickly welcomed Kim’s decision and later confirmed that the two Koreas began preliminary contacts on the channel. During their 20-minute communication, liaison officials of the two Koreas exchanged their names and examined their communication lines to make sure they were working, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry.

Since taking office last May, South Korea’s liberal President Moon Jae-in has pushed hard to improve ties and resume stalled cooperation projects with North Korea. Pyongyang had not responded to his outreach until Kim’s New Year’s address.

Relations between the Koreas soured under Moon’s conservative predecessors, who responded to the North’s expanding nuclear program with hard-line measures. All major rapprochement projects were put on hold one by one, and the Panmunjom communication channel had been suspended since February 2016.

Moon has joined U.S.-led international efforts to apply more pressure and sanctions on North Korea, but he still favors dialogue as a way to resolve the nuclear standoff. The Trump administration says all options are on the table, including military measures against the North. Moon has repeatedly said he opposes any war on the Korean Peninsula.

Some observers believe these differences in views may have led Kim to think he could drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington as a way to weaken their alliance and international sanctions.

Talks could provide a temporary thaw in strained inter-Korean ties, but conservative critics worry that they may only earn the North time to perfect its nuclear weapons.

After the Olympics, inter-Korean ties could become frosty again because the North has made it clear it has no intention of accepting international calls for nuclear disarmament and instead wants to bolster its weapons arsenal in the face of what it considers increasing U.S. threats, analysts say.

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TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iranian state media on Wednesday aired pro-government demonstrations in cities across the country after a week of protests and unrest over the nation’s poor economy — a move apparently seeking to calm nerves amid clashes that have killed 21 people.

The protests, the largest seen in Iran since its disputed 2009 presidential election, began Dec. 28 in the city of Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest, over the weak economy and a jump in food prices. They have since expanded to cities and towns in nearly every province. Hundreds have been arrested, and a prominent judge warned that some could face the death penalty.

The English-language broadcaster Press TV broadcast Wednesday’s pro-government rallies live, saying they were to “protest the violence that has taken place over the last few nights in cities.”

Demonstrators waved Iranians flags and signs supporting Iran’s clerically overseen government.

According to state TV, the demonstrations took place in at least 10 cities, including Ahvaz, the capital of the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, the Kurdish town of Kermanshah in the country’s west and Qom, the religions capital of Shiite Islam in Iran.

The rallies come after Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday blamed days of protests across the country on meddling by “enemies of Iran.”

“Look at the recent days’ incidents,” Khamenei said. “All those who are at odds with the Islamic Republic have utilized various means, including money, weapons, politics and (the) intelligence apparatus, to create problems for the Islamic system, the Islamic Republic and the Islamic Revolution.”

Khamenei avoided identifying any foreign countries, although he promised to elaborate in the coming days. Undoubtedly high on his list is the United States, where President Donald Trump has tweeted his support for the protests for several days.

Iran’s government has since shut down access to Telegram and the photo-sharing app Instagram, which now join Facebook and Twitter in being banned, in an attempt to slow the unrest.

The Trump administration called on Iran’s government to stop blocking Instagram and other popular social media sites. U.S. Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein said Instagram, Telegram and other platforms are “legitimate avenues for communication.”

The head of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court also reportedly warned that arrested protesters could potentially face the death penalty.

“Obviously one of their charges can be Moharebeh,” or waging war against God, Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted Mousa Ghazanfarabadi as saying. Moharebeh is punishable by death in Iran.


Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan fired back Tuesday after President Donald Trump accused it of harboring terrorists, calling his New Year’s Day tweet “completely incomprehensible.”

The government summoned the U.S. ambassador to complain but stopped short of demands by protesting Islamic groups to expel the envoy.

The latest round of tit-for-tat attacks between the two reluctant allies, neither of whom trusts the other, was ignited by Trump’s tweet on Monday. He said the U.S. had “foolishly” given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid in the last 15 years and had gotten nothing in return but “lies & deceit.”

He also reiterated longstanding allegations that Pakistan gives “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.”

A statement issued after a National Security Committee meeting, which was attended by Pakistan’s prime minister and the powerful army chief of staff, said the U.S. was scapegoating Pakistan for its own failure to bring peace to Afghanistan after 16 years of war.

Pakistan and Afghanistan have long accused each other of harboring militants, and have exchanged lists of wanted terrorists they want apprehended and returned. Afghanistan has also provided what it says are the locations of militant camps inside Pakistan.

Pakistan denies supporting militants, pointing to its own war against extremist groups battling to overthrow the government. It blames the burgeoning insurgency in Afghanistan on runaway corruption, infighting that has paralyzed the Kabul government and record drug production. Pakistan says the chaos next door has spawned a proliferation of insurgent groups, including an Islamic State affiliate that has attacked it from hideouts in Afghanistan.

The National Security Committee statement said Pakistan is among the countries hardest hit by terrorist attacks, having lost thousands of civilians and soldiers to the violence that has convulsed the region since the Sept. 11 attacks.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Tuesday to expect more details on specific actions against Pakistan over the next day or two.

“In terms of Pakistan, as I said, our goal is that we know that they can do more to stop terrorism and we want them to do that. That seems pretty simple,” she said. “In terms of specific actions, I think you’ll see some more details come out on that in next 24 to 48 hours and we’ll be sure to keep you guys updated on that front.”

Defense analyst and retired Pakistani Gen. Talat Masood said vilifying Pakistan won’t bring stability to the region and belittles the losses Pakistan has suffered.

“The people of Pakistan, the government of Pakistan (has) been really seriously affected and its consequences are felt every day,” said Masood. “America needs Pakistan. Without the help of Pakistan, it can never have stability in the region.”

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Wilson Center’s South Asia program, said withholding aid to Pakistan is unlikely to deter Pakistani support for insurgents it sees as necessary to protect its security interests. Pakistan has long supported Islamic militants battling India in the disputed Kashmir region, and has close ties to the Afghan Taliban.

“If the US truly had leverage, then one would have expected all the arms and money it’s sent to Pakistan over the years to have had happier results for the United States,” he said in an email interview. “It would take a whole lot on the part of Washington, and certainly more than threats and aid cuts, for Pakistan to agree to alter its immutable interests.”

The contradictions at the heart of U.S.-Pakistani relations were on display Tuesday, when the Jamaat-ud-Dawa movement held protests in Lahore calling for the expulsion of the U.S. ambassador.

The group is headed by Hafiz Saeed, who also founded the militant group blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The State Department has offered a $10 million reward for Saeed, who is wanted on terrorism charges, but he lives openly in Pakistan and frequently appears at public rallies.

Pakistan recently placed Saeed under house arrest for 11 months, but a court released him, citing lack of evidence.

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BEIJING (AP) — The United States should look within to cut down demand for opioids which are fueling its deadly drug crisis rather than stressing unsubstantiated claims that China is the major source of these chemicals, a top Chinese drug enforcement official said Thursday.

China and the U.S. have worked to build a close working relationship to fight global flows of illicit synthetic drugs, but their collaboration remains fraught.

Yu Haibin of the China National Narcotics Control Commission told reporters there was little evidence showing China was the source of much of the chemicals used in the production of the powerful opioid fentanyl. President Donald Trump in November blamed a “flood of cheap and deadly” fentanyl made in China for the deadliest drug epidemic in U.S. history.

“China doesn’t deny that shipments to the U.S. happen, but there isn’t the proof to show how much — whether it’s 20 percent or 80 percent,” said Yu, adding that U.S. authorities have only sent him information about six shipments from China in the past year.

In October 2016, the AP identified 12 Chinese companies willing to export carfentanil around the world for a few thousand dollars a kilogram (2.2. pounds), no questions asked. Carfentanil is 100 times more powerful than fentanyl and is legally used as an anesthetic for elephants and other large animals.

Yu urged the U.S. to share more data and police intelligence with Chinese authorities and said rampant over-prescription of pain medication and lax cultural attitudes toward drugs had fueled massive demand for opioids in the U.S.

Insufficient drug education and the trend in some states of legalizing marijuana have hurt drug enforcement efforts, he said.

“As many states decriminalize marijuana, the public’s attitudes and trends of thinking toward drugs will also have a bad effect” on the fight against hard drugs, Yu said.

Chinese officials have been eager to tout their collaboration with American counterparts on drug enforcement as a bright spot in the occasionally rocky relationship.

Though Beijing has said U.S. assertions that China is the top source of fentanyls lack evidence, the two countries have deepened cooperation as the U.S. opioid epidemic intensifies. Beijing already regulates fentanyl and a number of related compounds, even though they are not widely abused domestically.

Since 2016, China has arrested dozens of synthetic drug exporters, destroyed several illegal labs and seized tons of new psychoactive substances, according to the Office of the National Narcotics Control Committee.

Officials in Beijing said Thursday they busted a fentanyl factory in November and seized 4.7 kilograms (10.36 pounds) of the substance thanks to a tip-off from U.S. Immigration and Customs about a major online purveyor named “Diana” that turned out to be a front for a 19-person drug ring scattered across China.

China wanted to work more closely with U.S. law enforcement, as well as authorities in Mexico, a transshipment point, Yu said.

China has backed a successful U.S. proposal this year to add several fentanyl precursors to a U.N. list of controlled substances. China has listed the two chemicals, NPP and 44-ANPP, under domestic drug laws, officials said.

More than 66,000 people in America died of drug overdoses in the year ending May 2017, a jump of 17.4 percent from the year before, according to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC reports most cases of fentanyl overdose are linked to illicitly produced batches of the substance.

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MOSCOW (AP) — The explosion at a supermarket in Russia’s second-largest city was a terrorist attack, President Vladimir Putin said Thursday, adding that another attack had been thwarted.

At least 13 people were injured Wednesday evening when an improvised explosive device went off at a storage area for customers’ bags at the supermarket in St. Petersburg. Investigators said the device contained 200 grams (7 ounces) of explosives and was rigged with shrapnel to cause more damage.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Putin made his comment Thursday at an awards ceremony at the Kremlin for troops who took part in Russia’s Syria campaign but did not offer any details. He also said another terrorist attack had been thwarted in St. Petersburg but did not elaborate.

Putin has portrayed Russia’s operation in Syria as a pre-emptive strike against terrorism at home. He said the threat of attacks at home would have been much worse if Russia had not intervened in Syria.

“What would have happened if those thousands (of terrorists) that I have just spoken about, hundreds of them had come back to us, trained and armed,” he said in comments to Russian news agencies.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov would not say what led authorities to declare the attack an act of terrorism, but he said the fact that the bomb was rigged with shrapnel proved it “was a terrorist attack anyway.”

Earlier this month, Putin telephoned President Donald Trump to thank him for a CIA tip that helped thwart a series of bombings in St. Petersburg, Putin’s hometown.

The Federal Security Service said seven suspects linked to the Islamic State group were arrested in connection to the alleged plot. The Kremlin said the suspects had planned to bomb Kazan Cathedral and other crowded sites.

In April, a suicide bombing in St. Petersburg’s subway left 16 people dead and wounded more than 50. Russian authorities identified the bomber as a 22-year old Kyrgyz-born Russian national.

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway will be the first foreign leader to call on President Donald Trump in the new year.

The White House announced Tuesday that Trump will welcome Solberg to the White House on Jan. 10. The White House says Trump looks forward to exchanging views with Solberg on relations between the U.S. and Norway, as well as on how to make progress on regional and global security issues and economic prosperity.

The leaders also plan to discuss defense and security goals within NATO and the coalition aligned against the Islamic State group, along with trade matters.

The White House announced the visit while Trump was in Florida for the holidays.

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