Signs of the Times (8/9/17)

U.N. Security Council Imposes Strong Sanctions Against North Korea

The United Nations Security Council on Saturday imposed sharply increased economic sanctions on North Korea worth one-third of North Korea’s annual $3 billion exports in an effort to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile program. China, which holds enormous financial leverage against North Korea, joined the other members of the council in the 15-0 vote. Nikki Haley, ambassador to the U.N. for the United States, which drafted the resolution, said the vote “put the North Korean dictator on notice” and represented a “strong, united step holding North Korea accountable for its behavior.” The sanctions, which target North Korea’s foreign currency earnings, ban its exports of coal, coal ore, iron, iron ore, lead, lead ore and seafood. It also prohibits countries from increasing the number of North Koreans working abroad and bans new joint ventures with the North as well as any new investment in current joint ventures.

North Korea Vows Revenge & Guam Strike

North Korea vowed Monday to strike the U.S. with “thousands-fold” revenge due to the new sanctions. On Wednesday, North Korea threatened to strike Guam with a missle. The remote island paradise of Guam — a 210-square-mile blot of land in the Pacific — is an unlikely place for a ballistic missile crisis. But the island, considered a vacationer’s dream with crystal-clear waters, fabulous sunsets, white beaches, and near-perfect temperatures, has long been an important strategic U.S. military outpost. And that’s likely why North Korea, located roughly 2,100 miles away to the northwest, has selected it as the focal point of a high-stakes war of words with the United States. North Korea’s military said Wednesday that it is considering operational measures to strike near the U.S. strategic military installations in Guam with its intermediate range ballistic missiles, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported. Donald Trump, meanwhile, is threatening “fire and fury” on North Korea. The President has the authority as Commander-in-Chief to defend the country from threats, and the Executive Branch has used that authority in the past for a range of military actions.

U.S. Nuclear Arsenal Potent but Aging

The U.S. nuclear arsenal of 6,800 warheads is very strong, but aging. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, on Wednesday, said, “While our State Department is making every effort to resolve this global threat through diplomatic means, it must be noted that the combined allied militaries now possess the most precise, rehearsed and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on earth,” Mattis said in a statement. “The DPRK regime’s actions will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates. The Congressional Budget Office in February put the price tag of nuclear modernization at $400 billion from now until 2026. The so-called nuclear triad consists of aircraft, missiles and submarines capable delivering nuclear weapons. It underpins U.S. strategy, deterring adversaries from attacking because they would be assured of obliteration. The CBO noted that the Pentagon has not built new nuclear systems since the end of the Cold War, and that the weapons and means to deliver them are nearing the end of their expected life spans. Almost all of them will have to be refurbished or replaced over the next 20 years.

Letting Illegal Immigrants Stay Costs Six Times Deportation

Critics often say it would be far too expensive for the United States to deport all illegal immigrants. But the cost of letting them stay in the country would be much, much higher, according to a new analysis by the Center for Immigration Studies. In fact, it would cost roughly six times as much to allow all current illegal immigrants to live in the U.S. for life than it would to deport them all, the study found. CIS used data from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which reported the average cost of a deportation was $10,854 in fiscal year 2016. This figure includes the cost of apprehension, detention and processing. Meanwhile, the average lifetime net fiscal drain (taxes paid minus services used) for each illegal immigrant is $65,292. This figure was based on fiscal estimates of immigrants by education level from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Deportation Orders Up 31 Percent under President Trump

Deportation orders have jumped 31 percent this year compared to last year, according to numbers released by the Justice Department. The numbers, released Tuesday, are an indication President Trump is carrying out his pledge to get tough on illegal immigrants. From February 1 to the end of July, there were 57,069 illegal immigrants who were either deported or left voluntarily. That’s a 31 percent increase from the same time period last year, when there were 43,595 deportations or self-deportations. At the same time, those allowed to stay in the U.S. declined by 21 percent. The Justice Department also touted that under Trump, the notoriously backlogged immigration court system has improved.

Trump Endorses Merit-Based System to Cut Legal Immigration by Half

President Trump threw his support Wednesday behind a Senate bill that would cut legal immigration in half and impose a merit-based system, giving preference to English-speaking immigrants who demonstrate job skills and curtailing the traditional pipeline that rewarded extended family ties. Meeting at the White House with Republican Sens. David Perdue of Georgia and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, the bill’s sponsors, the president said the legislation would be the biggest change to immigration policy in 50 years. His aides signaled that they expect it to be a major part of the national debate heading into midterm elections next year. Democrats vowed to resist the changes, and immigrant rights groups said Mr. Trump was catering to “white nationalists” with the proposal, which would slash legal immigration over the next decade from about 1.1 million green cards a year to 500,000.

LA County Admits Registered Voters 144% of Resident Citizens of Voting Age

The Election Integrity Project California provides a list of 11 California counties that have more registered voters than voting-age citizens, reports Judicial Watch. In addition, Los Angeles County officials informed the project that the number of registered voters now stands at a number that is a whopping 144% of the total number of resident citizens of voting age. The Election Integrity Project California, Inc. has joined Judicial Watch, Inc., a non-partisan organization in Washington, D.C., in sending a National Voter Registration Act (“NVRA”) Section 8 notice of violation letter to California Secretary of State, Alex Padilla.

Federal Court Forces Pregnancy Center to Pay for Abortions

In a major defeat for pro-life organizations, a three-judge panel of a federal appeals court ruled that a secular pregnancy center must be forced to comply with the Obamacare mandate that forces organizations to pay for drugs that cause abortions. The Supreme Court decisions in the Hobby Lobby and Little Sisters of the Poor cases held that a religious oriented company or organization does not have to comply with the Obamacare mandate and be forced to pay for abortion-causing drugs in their employee health care plans. However, those decisions were limited in scope and did not apply to every kind of pro-life organization or company. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that pro-life organizations that are secular in nature are not entitled to the religious exemption from the mandate even though their consciences compel them to oppose abortion and being forced to pay for abortions.

California Pregnancy Centers Forced to Offer Abortion

Liberty Counsel reports that three California faith-based Crisis Pregnancy Centers are being forced by a new state law to advertise an offer of “immediate free or low-cost… abortion” to their clients. This malicious law, accurately nicknamed the “Bully Bill,” forces them to share a message profoundly at odds with their religious beliefs. The intention of this California law is clearly to promote abortion. But these organizations believe that unborn children are human beings who are sensitive to pain, and deserve life and the opportunity to pursue happiness. “It is an egregious and dangerous overreach of government to demand someone promote the opposite of what they believe. Essentially, the state of California is obligating our clients to participate in the murder of innocents, which should shake every freedom-loving American to the core,” states Liberty Counsel, which is representing these pregnancy centers at no cost. You can contribute to this cause here.

Suicidal Military Members Not Getting Needed Help

Pentagon health care providers failed to perform critical follow-up for many troops diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome who also were at high risk for suicide, according to a new study released Monday by the RAND Corp. Just 30% of troops with depression and 54% with PTSD received appropriate care after they were deemed at risk of harming themselves. The report, commissioned by the Pentagon, looked at the cases of 39,000 troops who had been diagnosed in 2013 with depression, PTSD or both conditions. From 2001 to 2014, about 2.6 million troops have deployed to combat zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. Estimates on how many have been affected by post-traumatic stress vary widely — from 4% to 20%, according to the report. The rate of suicide doubled between 2005 and 2012, according to the Pentagon. It has stabilized but has not diminished. There has been some improvement in mental health care for troops with depression, but more is needed.

Marijuana Use Increases Blood Pressure Death Risk Three-Fold

People who smoke marijuana have a three times greater risk of dying from hypertension, or high blood pressure, than those who have never used the drug, scientists said on Wednesday. The risk grows with every year of use, says the report from the School of Public Health at Georgia State University in the U.S. The results showed marijuana users had a 3.42-times higher risk of death from hypertension than non-users, and a 1.04 greater risk for each year of use. The findings, from a study of some 1,200 people, could have implications in the United States among other countries. Several states have legalized marijuana and others are moving toward it. It is decriminalized in a number of other countries.

Economic News

The Freedom Foundation sued Seattle Wednesday over its controversial new income tax on the rich, which critics call “an assault” on the law that sets a dangerous precedent.  The tax, passed by the Seattle City Council last month, targets high-income earners as part of what local lawmakers describe as “a new formula for fairness.” The tax measure requires residents to pay a 2.25 percent additional Its passage prompted a court challenge from the Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank that considers the tax a slippery slope that could open the door to more taxes in the future.tax if they are a single filer and make more than $250,000 annually or file jointly and make more than $500,000. New York City is also considering a “millionaire’s tax” to pay for upgrades to their crumbling subway system.

The U.S. economy added 209,000 jobs last month, continuing a steady pace of job growth this year. The unemployment rate ticked down to 4.3 percent, compared with 4.4 percent in June, and wages rose by 2.5 percent from the year before. Average monthly jobs gains this year, which are now at 184,000, are basically in line with the average monthly gains of 187,000 in 2016. After accounting for shifts in population, the level of employment has returned to what it was at in November 2007, before the recession decimated the job market.

The U.S. dollar on Wednesday hit its lowest level against the euro in more than 2-1/2 years on uncertainty over the path of interest rate hikes for the Federal Reserve this year and expectations for European Central Bank hawkishness, Reuters reported. Tepid U.S. inflation along with political turmoil in Washington has lessened the possibility of another Federal Reserve rate hike this year. Improving data in other major economies has also served to push the greenback down nearly 11 percent from January highs, conversely benefiting commodities and emerging markets. President Donald Trump is continuing to proclaim his dislike of a strong dollar, breaking with the traditional practice of presidents not commenting on the American currency. “I like a dollar that’s not too strong,” he said, according to a Wall Street Journal interview transcript.

Toyota and Mazda have announced plans to build a $1.6 billion manufacturing plant in the United States that will create as many as 4,000 jobs. The Japanese automakers said in a statement Friday that the facility would be operational by 2021, but did not specify where it would be built. Mazda plans to build new crossover vehicles for the U.S. market at the plant, while Toyota will produce its Corolla model there. The move is likely to be seen as a win for President Trump, who attacked Toyota earlier this year over its plans to build a new factory in Guanajuato, Mexico. He threatened to slap a “big border tax” on Toyota cars if the plant isn’t built in the U.S.

Terrorism Update

The suspected driver who rammed a vehicle into a crowd of soldiers, injuring six of them, in a Paris suburb was arrested Wednesday after he was wounded during a brief standoff with policeThe condition of the man, who was not immediately identified, is unknown at this time. He was arrested hours after a driver rammed a car into a crowd of soldiers, leaving at least three of the six with serious injuries — though they are believed to be non-life threatening.

Twin terror plots, one involving the bombing of a passenger plane and the other a potential poison gas attack, have been described by police as the “most sophisticated” ever attempted on Australian soil. A senior ISIS commander sent parts — including weapons-grade explosives — by air cargo from Turkey with the express aim of constructing an improvised explosive device. The other scheme involved a plan to release a toxic gas in public.

In a weekend attack in Minneapolis, an explosive shattered windows and damaged a room of the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in suburban Minneapolis as worshippers prepared for morning prayers. No one was hurt in the blast, which happened around 5 a.m. Saturday. Windows of the imam’s office were shattered, either by the blast or by an object thrown through them. “This is an act of terrorism. This is against the law in America,” Gov. Mark Dayton said at a news conference afterward.

Middle East

The Israeli Air Force (IAF) pounded Gaza overnight Wednesday in response to a rocket attack aimed at the southern city of Ashkelon. The rocket from Gaza landed in an open area in the Hof Ashkelon Regional Council. There were no injuries. No group has yet claimed responsibility. However, Israel holds Hamas, which rules Gaza, responsible for any missiles of other attacks emanating from the Strip. Reports indicate there were at least three injuries caused by the IAF strike, in which recently acquired F-35 stealth fighter jets were reportedly used, according to the Jerusalem Post.

North Korea

Hyeon-soo Lim, the Korean Canadian church leader sentenced to life in prison with hard labor, was freed, Aug. 9, “on sick bail,” says a North Korean state news agency. Convicted in Dec. 2015 by the country’s Supreme Court of numerous charges, including an attempt to overthrow the government, he had been detained in North Korea since February 2015. His release comes weeks after 22-year-old American student Otto Warmbier died at home, a week after he had been belatedly freed after his 15-month detention for stealing a small flag from his Pyongyang hotel. This still leaves three Korean-Americans detained in North Korea, two of whom taught at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. Another was involved with work in orphanages.

Afghanistan

As the United States winds down the Afghan war — the longest in American history, and one that has cost half a trillion dollars and more than 150,000 lives on all sides — regional adversaries are muscling in, reports the New York Times. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan remain the dominant players. But Iran is also making a bold gambit to shape Afghanistan in its favor. Over the past decade and a half, the United States has taken out Iran’s chief enemies on two of its borders, the Taliban government in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Iran has used that to its advantage, working quietly and relentlessly to spread its influence. “In Iraq, it has exploited a chaotic civil war and the American withdrawal to create a virtual satellite state. In Afghanistan, Iran aims to make sure that foreign forces leave eventually, and that any government that prevails will at least not threaten its interests, and at best be friendly or aligned with them.”

Two U.S. service members were wounded Thursday night in a suicide attack that left one Georgian soldier dead and three Georgians and an Afghan interpreter wounded in Qarabagh District, in Kabul Province. In addition, two Afghan civilians were killed and seven were wounded in the attack. It was the second deadly attack last week against U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. On Wednesday an attack in Kandahar killed two U.S. Army soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division. Four other U.S. Army soldiers were wounded in the same blast.

Yemen

Peter Mauer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) returned from a trip across war-torn Yemen last month, telling Fox News he is “profoundly concerned for the plight of its people.” “This outbreak is manmade. It is a direct consequence of more than two years of warfare. People are dying from easily treatable chronic diseases,” he said. “Key services like garbage disposal have ceased to function.” Maurer also stressed that thousands of people have been detained by parties to the conflict, languishing in prison unable to contact their loved ones. “The suffering of its people only grows in intensity. I’ve met families forced to make impossible choices about whether to buy bread, water or medicine for their children.”

Venezuela

Venezuela remained a powder keg on Sunday as authorities said they had quelled an anti-government paramilitary attack at a military base that led to the deaths of two people. Sunday’s incident came amid daily anxiety in the South American nation, where the economic hardship and bloody political turmoil that had roiled the country for months came to a head last week when the Constituent Assembly was voted into office, taking the place of the opposition-led National Assembly. Authorities said the early-morning rebellion, which took place at a military base in Valencia, about 95 miles west of Caracas, was swiftly contained. The Trump administration recently hit Venezuela with sanctions and threatened more if Maduro goes through with rewriting the constitution.

Venezuela’s newly elected constitutional assembly convened Friday. Critics say it will be used by President Nicolas Maduro to impose authoritarian rule. Maduro, who faces a worsening economic crisis despite Venezuela’s enormous oil reserves (largest in the world), sought the new assembly as a friendly body that would bypass the opposition-controlled Congress and rewrite the country’s 1999 constitution. The Assembly held its first session Saturday. In its first order of business, the assembly unanimously fired Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz. Her removal from office happened after she said she would open an investigation into fraud allegations surrounding last Sunday’s election. But Ortega, speaking Sunday at Caracas’ Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, sloughed off the exercise. “I will continue being the attorney general of this country,” she told reporters.

Earthquakes

A powerful 6.5 magnitude earthquake killed at least 19 people and injured 247 in central China. The tremor struck one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions – a national park in a mountainous region. Crews continued to dig through rubble with their hands and detectors to search for remaining survivors, but the task was made more difficult by power outages and phone networks knocked offline by the Tuesday night quake. Many of the deaths and injuries were in Zhangzha township, not far from Jiuzhai Valley National Park, known for towering waterfalls and karst formations attractive to both visitors from China and elsewhere. President Xi Jinping called for rapid efforts to respond to the disaster, which struck a quake-prone region bordered by Sichuan and Gansu provinces. The area is on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

Wildfires

Just two weeks ago, the Mount Jefferson area was expected to be among Oregon’s most popular places to view the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.  But with the Whitewater Fire continuing to expand, U.S. Forest Service officials on Monday closed a large swath of land surrounding Oregon’s second tallest mountain through eclipse day. The closure includes almost 185 square miles of roads, trails and mountains in and around the Mount Jefferson Wilderness. Tens of thousands of backpackers were expected to visit the Jefferson and Detroit Lake areas because they are smack in the middle of the eclipse’s path of totality. The Whitewater Fire was at almost 9 square miles Tuesday and is expected to continue growing, perhaps to the north or southwest, officials said. None of it has been contained.

Weather

Tropical Storm Franklin gained strength Wednesday to become a Category 1 hurricane — with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph. The first Atlantic hurricane of the season, Franklin is expected to make landfall Wednesday night in the Mexican state of Veracruz, according to the National Hurricane Center. It was in the Bay of Campeche, in the far southern Gulf of Mexico, when it was classified as a hurricane Wednesday afternoon. Earlier, when it was still a tropical storm, Franklin made landfall on the eastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The storm battered Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula with heavy rain and strong winds.

Parts of New Orleans saw widespread flooding over the weekend after heavy rainfall overwhelmed the city’s pump stations. City officials said Sunday that some neighborhoods saw between 8 and 10 inches of rain over a few hours Saturday. With more heavy rain predicted for Monday afternoon, the city’s pumping capacity could be overwhelmed again.

A relentless heat wave that has been dubbed “Lucifer” has gripped parts of Europe this week, killing at least 2 people in Romania. Temperatures soared to record highs for several days. Unprecedented heat in parts of France, Italy, Spain and the Balkans has sparked dozens of wildfires and damaged crops. Authorities issued traffic restrictions in some areas and banned outdoor work during the hottest part of the day as temperatures soared to over 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Red alerts, which are issued when conditions are considered “very dangerous,” were issued for parts of Italy, Switzerland, Croatia and Poland. Orange alerts were issued for Spain, southern France, Greece and much of the Mediterranean.

Rescuers in Vietnam have recovered 16 more bodies over the past three days, bringing the death toll from floods in four northern provinces to 23. According to the Central Natural Disasters Committee Sunday, floods have destroyed 228 houses, damaged roads, crops and irrigation system. Nearly 5,000 soldiers, police and residents have been mobilized to search for the missing. Vietnam is prone to floods and storms, which kill hundreds of people each year.

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