Hong Kongers’ voices more influential in UK elections

LONDON — General elections in the United Kingdom will be held on July 4, and thousands of Hong Kongers who are eligible to vote through the British National (Overseas) program, or BNO visa, are expected to make their voices heard.

The program was launched in January 2021 in response to a harsh Chinese security law imposed on Hong Kong seven months earlier. Since then, more than 150,000 Hong Kongers have received visas. The policy allows them to build new lives in the U.K. and gives them the right to vote.

In towns such as Sutton and Wokingham, where many Hong Kongers live, the influence of Hong Kong society is obvious as the election approaches. Candidates seeking to secure their votes are addressing their concerns and needs.

Lucy Demery, a Conservative Party parliamentary candidate for Wokingham, lived in Hong Kong for 17 years and once joined peaceful protests against the strict rule of the Chinese Communist Party.

She told VOA that she wants to make sure that she is “the biggest, strongest advocate for the Hong Kong community here.”

“It’s a priority of mine to make sure that all Hong Kongers in Wokingham feel safe and secure and integrated into the community here. … It’s really a Conservative government that initiated the BNO settlement scheme, which I’m very proud of,” she said.

In Sutton, parliamentary candidates from all parties met with more than 70 BNO Hong Kongers and journalists on Saturday. The event was organized by local community groups Sutton Hong Kongers and Vote for Hong Kong 2024.

The candidates expressed support for integration and providing a safe environment for the Hong Kong people. They also took a firm stance on international issues involving China, emphasizing the importance of human rights and democracy.

Hersh Thaker, a Labour Party candidate for Carshalton and Wallington, said, “This is going to be one of the most remarkable migration stories in British history when you look back at the number of people that have come over from Hong Kong, but actually the contribution that has been made to this country as a result of this has been extraordinary.”

But not all Hong Kongers are eager to participate in the political process.

Richard Choi, Sutton Hong Kongers’ organizer, told VOA, “It’s important for Hong Kongers to feel safe. They are too scared to get involved in politics. They are afraid of speaking out. It’s hard to get feedback from them. Even though their email address, postcode, and data are not required, people still don’t want to get involved. Article 23 [of Hong Kong’s national security law] and the spy incident make it even worse.” 

Last month, the U.K. prosecuted three people under the country’s National Security Act of 2023 for allegedly assisting Hong Kong intelligence agencies to conduct foreign interference activities in the U.K. According to the prosecution, Chung Biu Yuen, the executive manager of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in London, was the suspected mastermind of the activities.

Article 23 of Hong Kong’s national security law has also been used against Hong Kongers in the U.K. The Hong Kong passports of activists Simon Cheng and Nathan Law, who are in exile in the U.K., have been revoked, and their families in Hong Kong have been harassed.

Demery said the U.K.’s strengthened national security law is crucial in protecting the safety of Hong Kong people.

“It was also a Conservative government which strengthened our national security laws in the U.K., which allows us now to be cracking down on some transnational oppression from Hong Kong and China on our territory,” she said.

Bobby Dean, the Liberal Democrats candidate for Carshalton and Wallington, trained democracy activists in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He expressed concerns about China’s threat to the Hong Kong community in the U.K. and called on the government to take a tough stance.

“In the West, for too long, [we] have been too lenient and too concerned about how bad state actors like Russia and China might react to the language and rhetoric that we use, and so, we really soften that,” he said. “China and Russia are looking at the hard calculation, not the tone of what we say.”   

During the event, some Hong Kongers expressed their concerns about higher tuition fees for those who haven’t lived in the U.K. for three years. One BNO passport holder said, “People misunderstand that Hong Kong people are rich. But many of us cannot afford £50,000 [$63,000] a year in tuition fees for our children because we are still classified as internationals.”

Tom Drummond, the Conservative Party candidate for Sutton and Cheam, said he would help solve the problem of expensive tuition fees.

“We need to rebuild trust. We are all standing to make your lives better. I will be your voice in Westminster instead of your voice in Sutton. But I think it’s important to realize that we’re standing, all of us. And whoever’s elected, I’ve got no doubt, they’re going into it for the right reasons,” he said.

Luke Taylor, the Liberal Democrats candidate for Sutton and Cheam, said, “I think I would give you the reassurance that as Liberal Democrats, we have a history of standing on, as a party, the right side of controversial issues. We are not afraid to be contrary to the established view.”

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

Ukraine war transforms roles of women in the workplace

The war in Ukraine is bringing what promises to be lasting changes in the role of women in the workplace. Lesia Bakalets traveled to Ukraine’s Mykolaiv region to hear from women training to drive tractors, a job that until recently was the exclusive realm of men. Camera: Vladyslav Smilianets.

US: Gaza cease-fire can bring Israel-Hezbollah conflicts to an end

WASHINGTON — A cease-fire in Gaza can bring the conflicts along the Israel-Lebanon border to an end, senior U.S. officials said amid worries of an all-out war between Israel and Hezbollah fighters based in southern Lebanon.

Meanwhile, the United States is continuing to review one shipment of bombs for Israel over concerns about their use in the densely populated area of Rafah.

Diplomatic solution

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday that officials are seeking a diplomatic way to end the battles along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon so civilians can safely return to their homes.

“Hezbollah has tied the actions that it’s committing against Israel to Gaza,” Blinken told reporters during a press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. “If we get that cease-fire [in Gaza], I think that will make it more likely that we can find a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in the north.”

In Beirut, U.S. special envoy Amos Hochstein urged a de-escalation between Israel and Hezbollah.

Hochstein said earlier on Tuesday that a cease-fire in Gaza “could also bring the conflict across the Blue Line to an end.” He was referring to the demarcation line dividing Lebanon from Israel.

Last week, Iran-backed Hezbollah escalated hostilities on Lebanon’s southern border by launching rockets and weaponized drones at nine Israeli military sites. This was the largest attack by Hezbollah since October, when the group began exchanging fire with Israel in parallel with the Gaza war.

U.S. weapons shipments to Israel

On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Blinken has “assured” him that the Biden administration is “working day and night to remove these bottlenecks” on U.S. supplies of weapons and ammunition to Israel.

The U.S. paused military shipments to Israel in May, including 1,800 907-kilogram (2,000-pound) bombs and 1,700 226-kilogram (500-pound) bombs, because of concerns over Israel’s plan to expand a military operation in Rafah, a densely populated city in southern Gaza, which the United States does not support.

Blinken told reporters the U.S. is still pausing a shipment of heavy bombs to Israel.

At the State Department, Blinken said the U.S. continues to “review one shipment that President Biden has talked about with regard to 2,000-pound bombs” due to concerns about their use in Rafah.

“But everything else is moving as it normally would move” to make sure Israel “has what it needs to defend itself against this multiplicity of challenges,” noted Blinken.

Meanwhile, Israeli national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and strategic affairs minister Ron Dermer are in Washington this week for discussions following the visit of U.S. special envoy Hochstein to Israel and Beirut.

Pentagon press secretary Major General Pat Ryder told reporters on Tuesday that a temporary pier built to deliver aid into the Gaza Strip is expected to be operational again this week. The U.S. military had disconnected the floating pier last week and moved it to the port of Ashdod in Israel because of bad weather.

VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this story.

The oligarch, Russia and the West: The battle for Georgia’s future

Tbilisi, Georgia — On top of a steep hill overlooking Tbilisi, tucked behind the city’s ancient fortress, sits a sprawling, futuristic $50 million mansion that locals call “the glass palace.” A shark tank, private zoo and helipad lie within the heavily guarded compound. Its owner, Bidzina Ivanishvili, reportedly calls it his “James Bond” house.

Ivanishvili is Georgia’s richest citizen by far. The 68-year-old multibillionaire founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party was rarely seen in public for much of the last decade — but he is now pulling the strings of Georgian politics, according to Eka Gigauri, head of the anti-corruption group Transparency International in Georgia.

“Ivanishvili is the real ruler of this country,” Gigauri said. “He owns one-third of Georgian GDP, and he made his fortune in Russia in the late ’90s. He still has the interests in Russia through his offshore companies — and not only him but his family members as well. …

“Is it possible to expect, or is it realistic to expect, from such an individual that he will do everything for Georgia to become the EU and NATO member? I don’t think so,” Gigauri told VOA.

Ivanishvili, for his part, has rarely spoken in public since a brief term as prime minister in 2012-13 apart from a speech in late April in which he defended a controversial “foreign agent” law as needed to prevent foreign intelligence agencies from undermining the government through the financing of nongovernmental organizations.

West vs Russia

Analysts say Georgia is torn between a future aligned with the West or with Russia.

Protests erupted in March this year after the government introduced the “foreign agent” law, which requires any organization receiving more than 20% of its funding from foreign sources to register as a foreign agent. It closely resembles similar legislation in Russia which has forced many nongovernmental and media organizations to close or move abroad.

The protests against the legislation in Georgia have evolved into anti-government demonstrations, as the country prepares for crucial elections in October.

Ghia Nodia, a political analyst at Georgia’s Ilia State University, said, “With this so-called Russian law or foreign agent law, [Georgian Dream] effectively turned its back on Europe, even though they don’t admit to it openly.”

EU aspirations

The Georgian government insists it still wants to join the European Union by 2030, although the bloc has warned that the foreign agent law could derail that process. The EU granted official candidate status to Georgia last year, hoping to set it on the path to democratic reform and Western integration. But the West misread Georgia’s billionaire puppet master, Nodia said.

“The Georgian state has been captured by a specific person — Bidzina Ivanishvili — who is very secretive, whose agenda was not clear for people,” Nodia said. “Some people, including in the West, had illusions that he was maybe a little bit of a strange guy, but ultimately he is also committed to values and norms of Western democracy.

“But they were proved wrong and skeptics were proved right, unfortunately. And it appears that he never had any real kind of commitment to democratic norms,” Nodia told VOA.

 

Protests

The streets of Tbilisi have become a canvas for anti-government graffiti. Alongside EU, U.S., Georgian and NATO colors, protesters have daubed the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag — a show of solidarity as Kyiv tries to resist Russian occupation and domination. One slogan reads “Georgia is Ukraine; Ukraine is Georgia.”

Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine forced Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream party into the limelight, said Nodia.

The invasion “somehow put him on the spot that he had to take sides more clearly. He didn’t want to. But eventually he moved more in the Russian direction, even though Georgian Dream tries to hide it, not to say it openly. Ivanishvili made a strategic decision that Russia is winning this war, so we should stay with the winner, or prospective winner, as he saw it,” Nodia said.

Stoking fear

At a government-organized rally in April aimed at countering the opposition demonstrations, Ivanishvili said a Western “global party of war” was meddling in Georgia, citing a host of conspiracy theories about the role of nongovernmental organizations in the country. His party accuses the West of trying to persuade Georgia to open a new conflict against Russia, without providing any evidence.

The propaganda is part a well-rehearsed autocratic playbook, said Aka Zarkua of the Governance Monitoring Center in Tbilisi, a nongovernmental organization that tracks government spending and communications.

“The main propaganda line right now is that if we [Georgian Dream] are out of power, war with Russia is inevitable. So that is one of the biggest things. And as a country which experienced Russian aggression three or four times in the last 30 years, and a population traumatized by this experience, it is working,” Zarkua said.

“They are trying to portray the West and Western countries — especially the United States and European Union — as some kind of enemy of Georgian traditional interests and family values,” Zarkua said.

The government denies stoking public fear. Fridon Injia, an MP with the European Socialists party who voted for the foreign agent law, told VOA the government is seeking to carve its own independent future.

“The main goal of the Georgian government now is to maintain peace, because we have seen what the war has done to other countries. So, it’s our main goal to maintain peace and for the Georgian government to avoid any kind of provocation that could spark a military conflict,” Injia said.

 

Western mistakes

Since regaining independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia has received financial and political support from the West. In addition to its EU aspirations, Georgia is a close partner of NATO, and the alliance decided in 2008 that the country would become a future member, although no timeline has been agreed upon.

So why has Georgia strayed from its path to Western integration?

“If we’re talking about Western mistakes, the biggest mistake was the overall assumption about the threat of Russia and tyranny — that it was a headache, but not a fundamental threat,” said Giga Bokeria, chairperson of the European Georgia party and the secretary of the National Security Council of Georgia from November 2010 to November 2013.

“Even after the 2008 invasion in Georgia, even after the 2014 invasion in Ukraine, there was no shift in understanding that this is a fundamental battle, and that resetting the relationship [with Russia] was only empowering the heirs of the evil empire of the Soviet Union,” Bokeria said.

“So, it’s a lack of focus, lack of attention, and overall, a misunderstanding that what’s going on in Georgia is part of this bigger confrontation with Russia. But now I think … that after this full-scale invasion in Ukraine we now see an overall turn to a sober understanding of the challenge,” Bokeria told VOA.

Backlash

The Geogian  government was taken by surprise at the strength of the backlash to the foreign agent law, which has politicized younger generations, said analyst Ghia Nodia.

“Some people say that now we are actually more optimistic than we were in February or March before this law was introduced. Because this law and protest woke up the Georgian people. We are kind of facing a precipice,” he said.

While there is optimism that the October election could bring a change of geopolitical direction in Georgia, it’s clear that the government — and its billionaire master Ivanishvili — won’t relinquish power without a fight.

Journalist finally recognized for work combating Russian disinformation

Washington    — The U.S. Embassy in Finland this month presented journalist Jessikka Aro with the Ambassador Hickey Woman of Courage Award. 

The honor — tailored specifically for Aro — comes five years after the U.S. State Department rescinded its courage award because of critical comments the Finnish journalist made about then-President Donald Trump.  

The embassy presented its award in recognition of Aro’s commitment to exposing and combating Russian disinformation campaigns at great personal cost. For a decade, she has been at the forefront of investigating Russian information warfare and pro-Kremlin troll farms. 

“I still can’t believe that I actually got [the award],” Aro told VOA from Finland’s capital, Helsinki. “I felt utterly supported. I felt utterly appreciated. I felt really honored.” 

In 2019, U.S. officials informed Aro that she would receive that year’s International Women of Courage Award. A few weeks later, she was told there had been a mistake and she would not receive the prestigious honor. Back then, Aro reported for Finland’s public service broadcaster YLE. 

At the time, officials publicly denied that Aro’s social media posts about Trump were the reason. But a 2020 report by the State Department’s Office of Inspector General found that officials revoked the award over Aro’s comments.  

The report cited a post on Twitter, now X, in which Aro wrote that “Trump constantly labels journalists as ‘enemy’ and ‘fake news.’” She then cited an article about a Trump supporter who threatened to shoot reporters for The Boston Globe for being what Trump described as “enemies of the people” and “fake news.” 

Throughout his presidency, Trump regularly referred to the media as the “enemy” of the American people. The Trump presidential campaign did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.

In 2020, the Washington-based International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) awarded Aro its own Courage in Journalism Award. The organization also advocated for an investigation into why the State Department backtracked on its award. 

The new award from the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki comes at a meaningful time for Aro. This year marks a decade since she began facing severe online harassment — including death threats — over her coverage of Russian information warfare. The harassment, which mainly comes from Russian and Finnish actors, is ongoing, she said.  

“My work is being attacked, myself smeared. Some of my sources are smeared,” said Aro, who is now the communications director for the Finnish trade union Tehy. “They are spreading these seeds of mistrust against my person and my work.”  

Trolls also attacked her after the State Department rescinded its award, sparking “a massive wave” of harassment, she said.  

Such attacks are consistent with the broader trend of disproportionate online harassment against female journalists, according to Elisa Lees Munoz, executive director of the IWMF. Online attacks against female journalists are often sexualized and can include rape threats and insults about the reporter’s appearance, Munoz said.  

“It leads to symptoms that are very similar to PTSD, and that even though these attacks are happening virtually, they have very serious, real-life impacts,” she said.  

In a 2022 survey by the International Center for Journalists and UNESCO, nearly three-quarters of respondents identifying as women said they had experienced online violence. 

When Aro first began to face online harassment in 2014, “it actually fueled my will to investigate Russian trolls,” she said. “Even nowadays, on a daily basis, I think of it as proof that I’m doing a great job.” 

Aro admits the harassment has also taken a toll. But she says she’ll never let it get in the way of her work. 

“Investigating Russian information hybrid warfare is a true calling for me,” she said.  

Although it’s five years late, Aro says she feels vindicated. The investigative journalist is currently working on her third book about Russian information warfare, which she expects to be published in 2026. 

Russian involvement in China’s moon exploration divides space research camps

Washington — China aims to mark a new milestone in space exploration next week when its Chang’e-6 probe is expected to return to Earth from the far side of the moon with rock and soil samples.

Scientists involved in the project say the probe is likely to bring back a “treasure trove” of material that will shed light on the differences between the front and back of Earth’s satellite.

James Head is an American planetary scientist and professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences at Brown University.  He has 15 years of experience in cooperating with the Chinese scientific community and participated in the research for the Chang’e-6 lunar landing.

He told VOA in a video interview that the samples brought back by Chang’e-6 from the far side of the moon will be “a treasure chest of fragments of materials, all of which are going to tell us something about why the moon is different on the near side and the far side. It’s just amazing.”

“It’s going to be an international treasure trove of information for space planetary scientists,” he added.

The strength of China’s space science and technology, demonstrated by the Chang’e series of lunar exploration projects, has also attracted the participation of other countries.

The European Space Agency, France, Italy, and Pakistan responded to the “Chang’e-6 Mission International Payload Cooperation Opportunity Announcement” released by the China National Space Administration in 2019.

They were selected to carry out exploration on the lunar surface and lunar orbit.

Head said, “Not every country has the ability to launch rockets to the moon. So, if you can use your capability, then that’s a big deal for international relationships for the countries — essentially the way they’re perceived in the world.”

The mission, which comes 55 years after the U.S. first sent humans to the moon, has attracted the attention and participation of European and American scientists.  However, it also comes at a time when geopolitical tensions are pulling Russia and China closer together to counter Western democracies.  Analysts worry that our lunar exploration and space research are quickly being divided into two camps as well.

As China makes significant progress in its lunar program, it is also actively courting other countries to form a parallel alliance with the U.S.-led lunar exploration program.

China and Russia have been planning to cooperate in building the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) since 2021. On June 12, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law approving the cooperation agreement signed by Russia and China last year on the joint construction of the ILRS.

Countries currently participating in the ILRS initiative also include Venezuela, Pakistan, South Africa, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Nicaragua and a university in the United Arab Emirates.

Namrata Goswami, lecturer in space policy and international relations at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, told VOA, “They’re (China is) actually changing the narrative to tell nations that want to collaborate with them, that their station is like a strategic high ground, and nations that actually collaborate with China will benefit from this particular focus, which is space resource utilization, and they have stated that officially now.”

The Chinese government has said it adheres to the peaceful use of space, but Western analysts have questioned China’s motives for developing the moon.

Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told VOA in an email, “China tends to have a more mercantilist view of the moon that aligns with its authoritarian form of government, which is in stark contrast to the open, transparent, and free market approach of the United States and its partners.”

China has even proposed establishing an Earth-Moon space economic zone and has drawn up a roadmap for it with an annual “total output value of more than US$10 trillion” by around 2050.

Harrison said, “China’s main partner for its lunar research base is Russia, and they have managed to attract a handful of other nations to join them, most of which have no significant space capabilities or financial resources to contribute.”

In contrast, NASA and the U.S. State Department jointly launched the Artemis Accords in 2020, reaching a multilateral arrangement with more than 30 countries, including Australia, Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy, stipulating the principles of civil exploration and cooperation among the contracting parties in outer space.

Neither China nor Russia have joined the agreement initiated by the U.S. Dmitry Rogozin, former head of Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, even said that the Artemis Accords were “illegal” and not in compliance with international law.

“You do see a very clear strategic alignment structure forming, also very long-term clear ambitions as to what each coalition is hoping to do,” said Goswami.

Experts say the lunar exploration race of China and Russia versus the U.S. is about more than just resource extraction.

Harrison said, “This is really about setting precedent for how space commerce will be conducted and establishing norms of behavior for activities on the moon. A key component of this race is building international partnerships with shared values and a shared understanding of how the lunar economy should work for the benefit of all. In this respect, China has fallen behind the United States and the free world.”

For the European Space Agency, the Chang’e-6 may be their last lunar exploration experiment in cooperation with China, according to an interview posted on the website SpaceNews.

“For the moment there are no decisions to continue the cooperation on the Chang’e-7 or -8,” Karl Bergquist, ESA’s international relations administrator, he told SpaceNews.

China plans its next lunar probes in the Chang’e series around 2026 and from 2028.

Bergquist also told SpaceNews the ESA will not be involved in the China-led ILRS.

“ESA will not cooperate on ILRS as this is a Sino-Russian initiative and space cooperation with Russia is at present under embargo,” he said.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the European Union, together with the U.S., has imposed embargoes and sanctions on several Russian industries, including a technical embargo on the Russian space industry. The European Space Agency has also terminated its planned lunar exploration project with Russia.

Meanwhile, China has stepped-up its space cooperation with Russia, including allowing Moscow Power Engineering Institute to open a branch at its newest spaceport on southern Hainan Island.

Europe and China’s space technology cooperation will continue at least until the Chang’e-6 probe lands back on Earth. The ESA is offering ground support for the return flight from its Maspalomas space station in Gran Canaria island in Spain.

The probe is scheduled to land at a site in Inner Mongolia around June 25.  

Russia’s Fulbright scholars risk severe repercussions if they return home

In March 2024, the Russian government branded the Institute of International Education, which grants Fulbright scholarships, as an “undesirable” organization, banning it from operating in the country and making association with it potentially illegal. Now, Russian Fulbright scholars who are currently abroad could face repercussions when they return home. Maxim Adams has the story.

Immigrant gay couple finds acceptance in US LGBTQ+ community

June is LGBTQ+ Pride Month in the United States. In Los Angeles, celebrations include a festival and parade that are among the world’s largest LGBTQ+ events. VOA’s Genia Dulot talked to an immigrant couple about their lives in the United States and their struggle for acceptance back home.

Putin to arrive in North Korea, with new treaty in focus

Seoul, South Korea — Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to arrive Tuesday in North Korea, where he is expected to sign a treaty outlining Moscow’s expanded cooperation with Pyongyang, according to Russian state media.

Putin has decided to sign a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during his two-day visit, reported the Russian news agency TASS.

The report provided no details of the document, though earlier the agency quoted a Putin foreign policy aide as saying it would likely cover defense matters.

Earlier Tuesday, Putin vowed to work with North Korea to counter sanctions as both countries expand their “many-sided partnership,” according to a letter published in North Korean state media.

In the letter, Putin said the two countries would develop trade mechanisms “not controlled by the West” and would “jointly oppose illegitimate unilateral restrictions.”

Russia is a long-time supporter of North Korea. Though ties have sometimes been rocky, both countries recently found more reasons to work together, especially following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

U.S. officials say North Korea has provided Russia with 11,000 containers of munitions, as well as ballistic missiles, for use in the Ukraine battlefield. Both North Korea and Russia deny such weapons deals even though a growing number of independent observers have documented North Korean weapons being used against Ukrainian forces.

“Moscow and Pyongyang will likely continue to deny violations of international law but have notably shifted from hiding their illicit activities to flaunting their cooperation,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

Defense ties

U.S. officials have expressed concerns that Russia may provide advanced weapons or other help related to North Korea’s nuclear program.

Such worries intensified last September when Kim inspected numerous advanced Russian weapons while touring several military sites in eastern Russia, including a modern space launch facility.

Though North Korea’s latest satellite launches showed signs of Russian assistance, analysts debate how far defense cooperation would go, noting that Russia does not often share its most advanced military technology.

“These states do not share durable alliance institutions and values; they are only weakly bound together by resistance to the enforcement of international laws and norms,” said Easley.

Treaty history

Analysts will closely parse the language of any new treaty signed by Putin and Kim.

Russia currently has comprehensive strategic partnerships with countries including Vietnam, Mongolia, and some Central Asian nations.

While such documents form the basis for Russia’s “highest type of interstate relations,” they do not amount to alliance treaties, observed former Russian diplomat Georgy Toloraya.

“I don’t think that this treaty would include a clause which directly calls for military assistance, but it will certainly give room to imagine a situation where this could be provided,” he said in an interview with VOA.

In 1961, North Korea and the Soviet Union signed a friendship and mutual assistance treaty that included a provision for automatic military intervention in emergencies.

That deal was abolished after the Soviet Union’s collapse. The two countries signed a new treaty in 2000, but it focused on economic rather than military matters.

According to Putin aide Yuri Ushakov, the treaty being negotiated by Kim and Putin would replace all other bilateral treaties.

Obstacles

If Putin’s letter is any indication, his visit will also likely focus on expanding economic ties, including by ramping up exchanges related to education, culture, and tourism.

However, this plan faces obstacles due to United Nations Security Council resolutions that prohibit a wide range of economic engagement with North Korea.

While Russia says it no longer supports U.N. sanctions on North Korea, it has not formally announced that it will stop observing them.

Instead, Russia may search for what it sees as loopholes that facilitate cooperation even in areas that are subject to U.N. sanctions, such as North Korean laborers earning income abroad.

For instance, North Korean IT specialists could work remotely from their home country without technically receiving income abroad, said Toloraya, a former member of the U.N. Panel of Experts, which was meant to monitor enforcement of the North Korea sanctions.

Russia earlier this year effectively abolished the U.N. panel – one of its boldest steps to unilaterally degrade the U.N. sanctions regime it once supported.

What North Korea wants

For Kim, Putin’s visit is meant to provide a boost in domestic legitimacy, especially amid North Korea’s increasingly public frictions with its main economic backer China, said Kim Gunn, who earlier this year stepped down as South Korea’s top nuclear envoy.

“North Koreans feel nervous about that, because their economy is 99% dependent on China,” said Kim, who is now a member of South Korea’s National Assembly. “Kim Jong Un’s answer is to say, ‘Don’t worry, we still have Russia.”

In the lawmaker’s view, Kim Jong Un also likely hopes that Putin’s visit will give him leverage with Chinese President Xi Jinping, creating a situation where both Russia and China vie for North Korea’s favor.

But, Kim Gunn added, the new Russia-North Korea relationship is likely a “marriage of convenience,” rather than a restoration of Soviet-era ties.

“Russia is not the former Soviet Union,” he said. “And Russia is at war in Ukraine – they are pouring all their energy into this war. There’s not so much room for Russia to do anything with North Korea.”

Biden hosts NATO chief ahead of Ukraine-focused summit of security alliance

The White House — President Joe Biden hosted NATO’s chief at the White House on Monday, less than a month before the newly enlarged security alliance convenes in Washington to tackle how allies will continue to support Ukraine as it battles Russia’s invasion.

The aim at the July summit, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, is to “ensure predictable support to Ukraine for the long haul.”

But how to make that a solid and durable reality – amid the political baggage and diverse laws and systems of governance of all 32 NATO members – is likely to be a complex feat. Ukraine badly wants the one thing it most certainly won’t get at this three-day convening: to join.

Among the arguments against Ukraine’s NATO membership are that its fragile and developing institutions need more time to mature, and the fact that the nation is being currently invaded. The alliance’s most important tenet – Article 5 – says that an armed attack against one member is an attack on all. This has been invoked only once before, when members rushed to the U.S.’s defense after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Earlier Monday, VOA asked Stoltenberg how soon Ukraine would get its wish.

“It is difficult, of course, to invite Ukraine when there is a war going on,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s also hard to say that there is no way to do that as long as there is a conflict with Russia, because that (gives) Russia incentive to continue the conflict.

“So what we say is that we are going to move Ukraine closer by helping them to meet all NATO standards to be more and more interoperable with NATO by removing the requirements for Membership Action Plan, and also by deepening political cooperation in the NATO Ukraine Council, and then we will make a decision when the time is right,” Stoltenberg added.

And when pressed for when that time might be, he replied: “I don’t expect any dates. At the end of the day, this has to be negotiated among NATO allies and we are working on that language now. So that will be agreed when we meet in Washington in a few week’s time,” he said. “I expect that we will find an agreement on some language which sends a clear message about Ukraine’s membership perspectives and that Ukraine will become a member of the alliance.”

Biden, in welcoming Stoltenberg, hailed the 75th anniversary and touted what he cast as a victory: a “record number” of members, he said, are meeting NATO’s commitment to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defense.

“I think the lessons we’ve learned then, and about standing together to defend and deter aggression, have been consequential,” he said, seated beside Stoltenberg in the Oval Office. “And we’ve made NATO under your leadership larger, stronger and more united than it has ever been.”

Earlier Monday, Stoltenberg, the former Norwegian prime minister, said NATO allies have given “unprecedented” support to Ukraine. He estimates this will cost the alliance at least $45 billion per year going forward.

“At the (upcoming NATO) summit, I expect other leaders to agree for NATO to lead the coordination and provision of security assistance and training for Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said, speaking at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank. “It is also why I proposed a long-term financial pledge with fresh funding every year. The more credible our long-term support, the quicker Moscow would realize it cannot wait us out and the sooner this war can end. It may seem like a paradox, but the path to peace is, therefore, more weapons for Ukraine.”

Analysts say these discussions set the stage for the major questions of the upcoming summit.

“The main issues, still, are what does the alliance say to Ukraine after pledges of support over the last few weeks? What is the nature of the NATO-Ukraine relationship going forward?” said Dan Hamilton, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “NATO is taking over from the United States the military assistance and coordination of military training for Ukraine. That’s a major step that’s happening right now.”

Last week, Ukraine’s president praised a 10-year security agreement with the U.S., saying he believes it lays a path to NATO membership.

“The issue of NATO is covered through the text of the agreement,” said President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “It states that America supports Ukraine’s future membership in NATO and recognizes that our security agreement is a bridge to Ukraine’s membership in NATO.”

Biden hosts NATO chief ahead of Ukraine-focused security alliance summit

U.S. President Joe Biden hosted NATO’s chief on Monday, less than a month before the newly enlarged security alliance converges in Washington for its annual summit. At the White House, the two leaders spoke of how they will “ensure predictable support to Ukraine for the long haul.” VOA’s Anita Powell reports from the White House.

Washington, Seoul sound alarm over Putin’s visit to Pyongyang

washington — Washington and Seoul have expressed alarm about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s upcoming visit to Pyongyang, while Beijing says it has no intention of interfering with the cooperation between Russia and North Korea.

Putin will pay a state visit to North Korea on Tuesday and Wednesday, the North’s official KCNA news agency announced on Monday. His trip to Pyongyang will be followed by a two-day state visit to Vietnam, where discussions will touch on trade and economic cooperation, the Kremlin said Monday.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry said it opposes Moscow and Pyongyang deepening their military cooperation through Putin’s trip to the country.

“All cooperation and exchanges between Russia and North Korea will need to abide by relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions and contribute toward the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula,” a spokesperson told VOA’s Korean Service on Monday.

Putin’s visit to the country, the first in 24 years, comes amid increased military cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang.

North Korea has transferred approximately 10,000 containers that could hold nearly 5 million artillery shells to Russia to fight against Ukraine, South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik said in an interview with Bloomberg News on Friday.   

All arms exports and imports by North Korea are sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council.

Both Pyongyang and Moscow have denied any arms dealings between them.

Putin’s trip to Pyongyang is expected to increase military cooperation that officially kicked off when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited Russia in September 2023. Kim invited Putin to Pyongyang during his visit to Russia.

“We discourage any government from receiving President Putin,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA’s Korean Service on June 12.

“If he is able to travel freely, it could normalize Russia’s blatant violations of international law and inadvertently send the message that atrocities can be committed in Ukraine and elsewhere with impunity,” the spokesperson said.

Deepening cooperation between Russia and North Korea poses concern for the Korean Peninsula as well as for Ukraine as it defends its “freedom and independence against Russia’s brutal war,” the spokesperson added.

After the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Putin in March 2023 for Russia’s alleged war crimes in Ukraine since its unprovoked invasion of the country in February 2022, Putin is limited in his international travels to allied countries.

Since his new presidential term began in May, Putin has visited Belarus, China and Uzbekistan.

In the meantime, Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, told VOA on Thursday that “China has no intention [of] interfer[ing] with the exchange and cooperation between two sovereign countries.”

He said, “Both DPRK and Russia are China’s friendly neighbors.” North Korea’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

China and Russia, both veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, have supported North Korea at council meetings held in the past several years by opposing new U.S.-led resolutions condemning North Korea’s ballistic missile launches banned by the U.N.

In March, Moscow vetoed a resolution granting the annual extension of a U.N. panel of experts that monitors sanctions on North Korea while Beijing abstained.

Michael Kimmage, who served on the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning staff on Russia and Ukraine from 2014 to 2016, said, “Putin wishes to forge a long-term relationship with North Korea, and this would be reflected” in his visit to Pyongyang.

“Not only does North Korea supply Russia with weaponry to use in its war against Ukraine, but a more radical North Korea will pin the resources of Russia’s archenemy, the United States, in East Asia, helping to create a third zone of difficulty for Washington, in addition to Europe and the Middle East,” Kimmage said.

Kimmage, currently the chair at Catholic University of America’s history department, added that Russia’s other partner, China, may not want Pyongyang to be more provocative and may not be pleased with deepening ties between Moscow and Pyongyang.

Earlier this month, Putin threatened to arm the West’s adversaries with long-range missiles that could target the West in response to NATO members, including the U.S., allowing Ukraine to use Western-supplied weapons to target inside Russia.

Evans Revere, a former U.S. State Department official with extensive experience negotiating with North Korea, said Putin’s meeting with Kim in Pyongyang “could reveal the details of Russian support for North Korea.”

“Pyongyang is reportedly interested in missile guidance, engine and fuel technologies, avionics upgrades for its aircraft and assistance with its nuclear program,” he said.

Revere added, “Russia has a significant strategic and tactical interest in complicating the security calculus of the United States and its allies in Northeast Asia. Putin’s visit will soon demonstrate how far Moscow is prepared to go in pursuing that interest.”

VOA’s Soyoung Ahn contributed to this report.

Russia and the West battle for Georgia’s democratic future

The European Union granted official candidate status to Georgia last year, but analysts say that led by the country’s richest man, the government has turned toward Russia following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Critics warn that Georgia’s democratic future is at stake in October’s elections. Henry Ridgwell reports from Tbilisi.

Railway ordered to pay Washington state tribe nearly $400M for trespassing

seattle — BNSF Railway must pay nearly $400 million to a Native American tribe in Washington state, a federal judge ordered Monday after finding that the company intentionally trespassed when it repeatedly ran 100-car trains carrying crude oil across the tribe’s reservation. 

U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik initially ruled last year that the railway deliberately violated the terms of a 1991 easement with the Swinomish Tribe north of Seattle that allows trains to carry no more than 25 cars per day. The judge held a trial earlier this month to determine how much in profits BNSF made through trespassing from 2012 to 2021 and how much it should be required to disgorge. 

The company based in Fort Worth, Texas, said in an email it had no comment on the judgment. The tribe, which has about 1,400 members, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. 

The tribe sued in 2015 after BNSF dramatically increased, without the tribe’s consent, the number of cars it was running across the reservation so that it could ship crude oil from the Bakken Formation in and around North Dakota to a nearby refinery. The route crosses sensitive marine ecosystems along the coast, over water that connects with the Salish Sea, where the tribe has treaty-protected rights to fish. 

Bakken oil is easier to refine into the fuels sold at the gas pump and ignites more easily. After train cars carrying Bakken crude oil exploded in Alabama, North Dakota and Quebec, a federal agency warned in 2014 that the oil has a higher degree of volatility than other crudes in the U.S. 

Last year, two BNSF engines derailed on Swinomish land, leaking an estimated 3,100 gallons (11,700 liters) of diesel fuel near Padilla Bay. 

The 1991 easement limited rail traffic to one train of 25 cars per day in each direction. It required BNSF to tell the tribe about the “nature and identity of all cargo” transported across the reservation, and it said the tribe would not arbitrarily withhold permission to increase the number of trains or cars. 

The tribe learned through a 2011 Skagit County planning document that a nearby refinery would start receiving crude oil trains. It wasn’t until the following year that the tribe received information from BNSF addressing current track usage, court documents show. 

The tribe and BNSF discussed amending the agreement, but “at no point did the Tribe approve BNSF’s unilateral decision to transport unit trains across the Reservation, agree to increase the train or car limitations, or waive its contractual right of approval,” Lasnik said in his decision last year. 

“BNSF failed to update the Tribe regarding the nature of the cargo that was crossing the Reservation and unilaterally increased the number of trains and the number of cars without the Tribe’s written agreement, thereby violating the conditions placed on BNSF’s permission to enter the property,” Lasnik said. 

The four-day trial this month was designed to provide the court with details and expert testimony to guide the judge through complex calculations about how much in “ill-gotten” profit BNSF should have to disgorge. Lasnik put that figure at $362 million and added $32 million in post-tax profits such as investment income for a total of more than $394 million. 

In reality, the judge wrote, BNSF made far more than $32 million in post-tax profits, but adding all of that up would have added hundreds of millions more to what was already a large judgment against the railway.

EU countries approve landmark nature law after delays

BRUSSELS — European Union countries approved a flagship policy to restore damaged nature on Monday, after months of delay, making it the first green law to pass since European Parliament elections this month. 

The nature restoration law is among the EU’s biggest environmental policies, requiring member states to introduce measures restoring nature on a fifth of their land and sea by 2030. 

EU countries’ environment ministers backed the policy at a meeting in Luxembourg, meaning it can now pass into law. 

The vote was held after Austria’s environment minister, Leonore Gewessler of the Greens, defied her conservative coalition partners by pledging to back the policy — giving it just enough support to pass. 

“I know I will face opposition in Austria on this, but I am convinced that this is the time to adopt this law,” Gewessler told reporters. 

The policy aims to reverse the decline of Europe’s natural habitats — 81% of which are classed as being in poor health — and includes specific targets, for example to restore peat lands so they can absorb CO2 emissions. 

The move by Austria’s minister angered Chancellor Karl Nehammer’s conservative People’s Party, which opposes the law. The OVP minister for EU affairs, Karoline Edtstadler, said Gewessler’s vote in favor would be unconstitutional. 

Belgium, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency and chairs meetings of ministers, said the Austrian government dispute would not affect the legality of the EU ministers’ vote. 

EU countries and the European Parliament negotiated a deal on the law last year but it has come under fire from some governments in recent months amid protests by farmers angry at costly EU regulations. 

Finland, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Sweden voted against the law on Monday. Belgium abstained. 

EU countries had planned to approve the policy in March but called off the vote after Hungary unexpectedly withdrew its support, wiping out the slim majority in favor. 

Countries including the Netherlands had raised concerns the policy would slow the expansion of wind farms and other economic activities, while Poland on Monday said the policy lacked a plan for how nature protection would be funded.

Stoltenberg: Record number of NATO allies hitting defense spending targets during war in Ukraine

Washington — A record more than 20 NATO member nations are hitting the Western military alliance’s defense spending target this year, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday, as Russia’s war in Ukraine has raised the threat of expanding conflict in Europe.

The estimated figure is a nearly fourfold increase from 2021 in the number of the 32 NATO members meeting the alliance’s defense spending guideline. Only six nations were meeting the goal that year, before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“Europeans are doing more for their collective security than just a few years ago,” Stoltenberg said in a speech at the Wilson Center research group before meeting with President Joe Biden later Monday at the White House.

NATO members agreed last year to spend at least 2% of their gross domestic product on defense. The surge in spending reflects the worries about the war in Ukraine.

Some countries also are concerned about the possible reelection of former President Donald Trump, who has characterized many NATO allies as freeloading on U.S. military spending and said on the campaign trail that he would not defend NATO members that don’t meet defense spending targets.

Stoltenberg’s visit is laying the groundwork for what’s expected to be a pivotal summit of NATO leaders in Washington next month. The mutual-defense alliance has grown in strength and size since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine two years ago, with both Sweden and Finland joining.

Defense spending by many European countries fell after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to neutralize what was then the prime security threat to the West.

But after Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, NATO members unanimously agreed to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defense within a decade. The full-scale invasion that Putin launched in 2022 spurred European countries newly on the front line of a war in the heart of Europe to put more resources into meeting that target.

Much of the focus of the summit is expected to address what NATO and NATO member governments can do for Ukraine as it faces unrelenting air and ground attacks from its more powerful neighbor. They so far have resisted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s appeals to take his country into the bloc as long as the war is still on.

Stoltenberg pointed to efforts to bolster Ukraine in the meantime. That includes NATO streamlining the eventual membership process for Ukraine, and individual NATO nations providing updated arms and training to Ukraine’s military, including the U.S. giving it F-16s and bringing Ukrainian pilots to the U.S. for training on the advanced aircraft.

“The idea is to move them so close to membership that when the time comes, when there is consensus, they can become a member straight away,” Stoltenberg said.

However Russia’s offensive concludes, only taking Ukraine into the alliance will dissuade Putin from trying again in the future to conquer Ukraine, the NATO chief said.

“When the fighting ends, NATO membership” for Ukraine “assures that the war really ends,” he said.

The prospect of Ukraine joining NATO has long been anathema to Putin, and it was one of his stated motivations for seizing Crimea. He offered last week to order an immediate cease-fire if Ukraine renounced plans to join the alliance, an offer that was dismissed by Ukraine.

A weekend conference held in Switzerland was billed as a first step toward peace and ended with pledges to work toward a resolution but had few concrete deliverables. It was attended largely by Western nations and Russia was not invited. China sat it out and then India, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Mexico did not sign the meeting’s final document Sunday.

Kyiv’s outgunned and outnumbered forces are battling to hold back the bigger Russian army, which has taken over chunks of territory after pollical squabbles led to delays in delivering U.S. and European military aid. Ukraine has been short of troops, ammunition and air defenses in recent months as the Kremlin’s forces try to cripple the national power supply and punch through the front line in eastern parts of the country.

Homesick refugees risk return to Ukraine despite war

Nearly 6.5 million – that is the number of Ukrainian refugees the United Nations counts in the third year of Russia’s full-scale invasion. According to the world body’s latest report, most of them hope to return home one day. Lesia Bakalets talked to Ukrainians who have already done so. VOA footage by Vladyslav Smilianets.

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