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Wild Animals in the Halls of the US Capitol

Wild animal sounds were heard recently in the halls of the U.S. Capitol. But these were not the calls of escaped animals. They were the sounds of endangered animals serving as the animal world’s ambassadors to commemorate “Endangered Species Day.” Their presence in the Capitol was intended to encourage legislators to support efforts to protect endangered and rare animals. But as Veronica Balderas Iglesias reports, conservation and animal welfare appears to be a touchy subject on Capitol Hill.

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For GOP, Immigration a Fraught Issue as Midterms Approach

The chaos among House Republicans this past week on immigration shows how problematic and risky the issue can be for a party that needs unity heading into the elections in November that will decide control of Congress.

GOP leaders thought they had found a way by Friday morning to make the party’s warring conservative and moderate wings happy on an issue that has bedeviled them for years.

Conservatives would get a vote by late June on an immigration bill that parrots many of President Donald Trump’s hard-right immigration views, including reductions in legal immigration and opening the door to his proposed wall with Mexico. Centrists would have a chance to craft a more moderate alternative with the White House and Democrats and get a vote on that, too.

​Farm bill hostage

But it all blew up as conservatives decided they didn’t like that offer and rebelled. By lunchtime Friday, many were among the 30 Republicans who joined Democrats and scuttled a sweeping farm and food bill, a humiliating setback for the House’s GOP leaders, particularly for lame-duck Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

The conservatives essentially took the agriculture bill hostage.

They said they were unwilling to let the farm measure pass unless they first got assurances that when the House addresses immigration in coming weeks, leaders would not help an overly permissive version pass.

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., a leader of the moderates, said his group would try to write a bill that would let young “Dreamer” immigrants in the U.S. illegally stay permanently — a position anathema to conservatives — and toughen border security.

A moderate immigration package “disavows what the last election was about and what the majority of the American people want, and the people in this body know it,” said Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa. He’s a member of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, many of whose members opposed the farm bill.

“It’s all about timing unfortunately and leverage, and the farm bill was just a casualty, unfortunately,” Perry said.

Denham and his allies were also unwilling to back down. He told reporters that the conservatives “broke that agreement,” and his group would pursue bipartisan legislation.

“I’m disappointed in some colleagues who asked for a concession, got the concession and then took down a bill anyway,” Denham said in a slap at the Freedom Caucus. Denham said the concession was a promised vote on the conservative immigration bill by June, though conservatives said they never agreed to that.

Such internal bickering is the opposite of what the GOP needs as the party struggles to fend off Democratic efforts to capture House control in November. Democrats need to gain 23 seats to win a majority, and a spate of Democratic special election victories and polling data suggests they have a solid chance of achieving that.

Republican leaders and strategists think their winning formula is to focus on an economy that has been gaining strength and tax cuts the GOP says is putting more money in people’s wallets.

Immigration is a distraction from that message — and worse.

On one side are conservatives from Republican strongholds, where many voters consider helping immigrants stay in the U.S. to be amnesty. On the other are GOP moderates, often representing districts with many constituents who are Hispanic, moderate suburbanites or are tied to the agriculture industry, which relies heavily on migrant workers.

20 Republicans

A look at the 20 Republicans who have signed a petition by GOP moderates aimed at forcing House votes on four immigration bills is instructive.

Of the 20, nine are from districts whose Hispanic populations exceed 18 percent, the proportion of the entire U.S. that is Hispanic. Denham’s Central California district is 40 percent Hispanic, while five others’ constituencies are at least two-thirds Hispanic.

In addition, 11 of the 20 represent districts that Democrat Hillary Clinton carried over Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

The petition drive, led by Denham and GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo, whose South Florida district is 70 percent Hispanic, is opposed by party leaders because the winning bill probably would be a compromise backed by all Democrats and a few dozen Republicans. That would enrage conservatives, perhaps prompting a rebellion that could cost House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., his goal of succeeding Ryan as speaker.

Long odds to become law

All that trouble would be for legislation that still faces long odds of becoming law.

Even if a formula is discovered that could pass the House, it could run aground in the Senate, where four immigration bills died in February and Democrats can use the filibuster to scuttle any bill they dislike. Those defeats led Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to say he wouldn’t revisit immigration unless a bill arose that could actually pass this chamber.

Trump’s willingness to sign immigration legislation also remains in question after a year that has seen his stance on the issue veer unpredictably.

Audience members hold signs reading “DISAGREE” as U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., speaks during a town hall meeting, March 18, 2017, in Red Lion, Pa. Perry’s event turned contentious in his conservative south-central Pennsylvania district over questions about his support for President Donald Trump’s budget proposal and immigration plans and for undoing former President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.

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Trump Jr., Gulf Princes’ Emissary Met in 2016

Donald Trump Jr., the U.S. president’s eldest son, met in August 2016 with an envoy representing the crown princes of United Arab Emirates and Saudi

Arabia. The meeting, first reported by The New York Times on Saturday and confirmed by an attorney representing Trump Jr., was a chance for the envoy to offer help to the Trump presidential campaign, according to the Times.

The newspaper said the meeting, held Aug. 3, was arranged by Erik Prince, the founder and former head of private military contractor Blackwater, who attended the meeting. Joel Zamel, a co-founder of an Israeli consulting firm, was also in attendance.

Alan Futerfas, Trump Jr.’s attorney, said Saturday that nothing came of the meeting.

“Prior to the 2016 election, Donald Trump Jr. recalls a meeting with Erik Prince, George Nader and another individual who may be Joel Zamel,” Futerfas said in an emailed statement.

“They pitched Mr. Trump Jr. on a social media platform or marketing strategy. He was not interested and that was the end of it.”

A company connected to Zamel also worked on a proposal for a “covert multimillion-dollar online manipulation campaign” to help Trump, utilizing thousands of fake social media accounts, the Times report said.

The envoy, Lebanese-American businessman George Nader, told Trump Jr. that the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE were eager to help his father win the 2016 presidential election, the paper said.

Since 1974, the United States has barred foreign nationals from giving money to political campaigns, and it later barred them from donating to political parties. The campaign financing laws also prohibit foreign nationals from coordinating with a campaign and from buying ads that explicitly call for the election or defeat of a candidate.

The Saudi and UAE embassies in Washington did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Mueller team met Zamel

The Wall Street Journal last month reported that investigators working for U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller had met with Zamel, and that Mueller’s team was looking into his firm’s work and his relationship with Nader.

Mueller is investigating whether Russia meddled in the presidential election and whether Moscow colluded with the Trump campaign, as well as whether Trump committed obstruction of justice by trying to thwart the U.S. Department of Justice probe.

Trump has denied any collusion with Russia and has called the Mueller investigation a “witch hunt.”

The Times report said the meetings were an indication that other countries besides Russia might have offered help to Trump’s presidential campaign. Mueller’s investigators have questioned witnesses in Washington, New York, Atlanta, Tel Aviv and elsewhere regarding possible foreign help to the campaign, the report said.

Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller’s team, declined to comment on the report.

Zamel’s attorney, Marc Mukasey, said in a statement to Reuters that his client “offered nothing to the Trump campaign, received nothing from the Trump campaign, delivered nothing to the Trump campaign and was not solicited by, or asked to do anything for, the Trump campaign.”

“Media reports about Mr. Zamel’s engaging in ‘social media manipulation’ are uninformed,” Mukasey added. “Mr. Zamel’s companies harvest publicly available information for lawful use.” 

Kathryn Ruemmler, Nader’s lawyer, told the paper that her client “has fully cooperated with the U.S. special counsel’s investigation and will continue to do so.”

Erik Prince, who is the brother of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, could not be immediately reached for comment.

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Plugged In: Sen. Mark Warner

VOA Contributor Greta Van Susteren talks with U.S. Senator Mark Warner about the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russia’s intervention in the 2016 US presidential election and the controversy surrounding the new director of the CIA. Warner is from Virginia and is the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.

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First Somali-American Legislator Seeks Re-Election

It’s been an unlikely journey from a Somali refugee camp in Kenya to the Minnesota State House of Representatives, but 36-year-old Ilhan Omar’s historic rise as the first Somali American legislator in the United States is a beacon of hope for Muslims – particularly Muslim women – worldwide. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more from St. Paul, Minnesota.

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US Pushes Back on Reports of Fraying Ties With Europe

U.S. officials are pushing back at reports that America’s ties with European allies are frayed over the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

“We agree on more than we disagree,” said State Department Policy Planning Director Brian Hook during a telephone briefing Friday with reporters. “People are overstating the disagreement between the U.S. and Europe.”

“We believe that our shared values and commitment to confront the common security challenges will transcend any disagreements over the JCPOA,” said Hook, referring to the 2015 Iran nuclear accord with major powers.

His remarks come after President of the European Council Donald Tusk lashed out at Washington over a trade dispute and the United States pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal.

When asked about Tusk’s tweet, U.S. President Donald Trump hit back, saying the European Union has been “terrible” with the U.S. on trade.

“We lost $151 billion last year dealing with the European Union,” Trump told reporters Thursday, referring to the U.S. trade deficit with the 28-nation bloc. “So they can call me all sorts of names. And if I were them, I’d call me names also, because it’s not going to happen any longer.”

Iran deal fallout

Intense diplomacy followed Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran deal, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo making phone calls to his counterparts in Britain, France and Germany. U.S. officials said those conversations were focused on agreeing to a new “security architecture” for Iran.

At the same time, the European Commission is working to prohibit European companies from adhering to U.S. sanctions against Iran, a move to help keep the Iran nuclear agreement intact and to defend European corporate interests.

“We have the duty to protect European companies,” Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said following a meeting of European Union leaders Thursday in Sofia, Bulgaria. “We now need to act and this is why we are launching the process.”

Juncker said the commission will begin the process of activating a so-called blocking statute, which bans EU companies from observing the sanctions and any court rulings that enforce U.S. penalties.

The way forward

On Monday, Pompeo will deliver his first major foreign policy remarks on Iran and the path forward after the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

U.S. officials say Washington seeks a diplomatic outcome with Iran that addresses “the totality of Iran’s threats,” including its nuclear programs and “destabilizing” activities.


“This involves a range of things around its [Iran’s] nuclear program — missiles, proliferating missiles, and missile technology, its support for terrorists, and its aggressive and violent activities that fuel civil wars in Syria and Yemen,” Hook said Friday.

“We see this, the coming months, as an opportunity to expand our efforts and to work with a lot of countries who share the same concerns about nonproliferation, about terrorism, about stoking civil wars around the region, and so we’re very, very hopeful about the diplomacy ahead,” he added.

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Conservative Revolt Over Immigration Sinks House Farm Bill

In an embarrassment for House Republican leaders, conservatives on Friday scuttled a bill that combines stricter work and job training requirements for food stamp recipients with a renewal of farm subsidies popular in GOP-leaning farm country.

Hard-right conservatives upset over the party’s stalled immigration agenda opposed the measure, which failed by a 213-198 vote. Some 30 Republicans joined with every chamber Democrat in opposition.

The vote was a blow to GOP leaders, who had hoped to tout its new work requirements for recipients of food stamps. The work initiative polls well with voters, especially those in the GOP political base.

More broadly, it exposed fissures within the party in the months before the midterm elections, and the Freedom Caucus tactics rubbed many rank-and-file Republicans the wrong way.

“You judge each piece of legislation on its own,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. “You don’t hold one thing hostage for something that’s totally different and has nothing to do with it. I would say that’s a mistake in my view.”

Key conservatives in the rebellious House Freedom Caucus opposed the measure, seeking leverage to win conservative policies an advantage in a debate on immigration next month. Negotiations with GOP leaders Friday morning failed to bear fruit, however, and the unrelated food and farm measure was defeated.

Conservative Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said some members had concerns over the farm bill, but said, “That wasn’t my main focus. My main focus was making sure we do immigration policy right” and “actually build a border security wall.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., took steps to call for a re-vote in the future but it’s not clear when the measure might be revived. A handful of GOP moderates opposed the bill, too, but not enough to sink it on their own.

Reaction from Democrats

The farm bill, a twice-per-decade rite on Capitol Hill, promises greater job training opportunities for recipients of food stamps, a top priority for House leaders. Democrats are strongly opposed, saying the stricter work and job training rules are poorly designed and would drive 2 million people off of food stamps. They took a victory lap after the vote.

“On a bipartisan basis, the House rejected a bad bill that failed farmers and working families,” said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “Republicans wrote a cruel, destructive farm bill that abandoned farmers and producers amid plummeting farm prices and the self-inflicted damage of President Trump’s trade brinkmanship.”

Currently, adults 18-59 are required to work part-time to receive food stamps, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or agree to accept a job if they’re offered one. Stricter rules apply to able-bodied adults 18-49, who are subject to a three-month limit of benefits unless they meet a work or job training requirement of 80 hours per month.

Under the new bill, the tougher requirement would be expanded to apply to all adults on SNAP, with exceptions for seniors, pregnant women, caretakers of children under the age of 6, or people with disabilities.

“It sets up a system for SNAP recipients where if you are able to work, you should work to get the benefits,” said Ryan. “And if you can’t work, we’ll help you get the training you need. We will help you get the skills you need to get an opportunity.”

The measure would have greatly expanded funding for state-administered job training programs, but Democrats and outside critics say the funding for the proposed additional job training would require huge new bureaucracies, extensive record-keeping requirements, and that the funding levels would fall far short of what’s enough to provide job training to everybody covered by the new job training requirements.

“While I agree that there are changes that need to be made to the SNAP program, this is so clearly not the way to do it,” said Rep. Colin Peterson of Minnesota, top Democrat of the Agriculture Committee. “The bill cuts more than $23 billion in SNAP benefits and will result in an estimated 2 million Americans unable to get the help they need.”

He said it “turns around and wastes billions … cut from SNAP benefits to create a massive, untested workforce training bureaucracy.”

Farm safety-net programs

In addition to food stamps, the measure would renew farm safety-net programs such as subsidies for crop insurance, farm credit and land conservation. Those subsidies for farm country traditionally form the backbone of support for the measure among Republicans, while urban Democrats support food aid for the poor.

On Thursday, supporters of the agriculture safety net easily defeated an attempt to weaken the government’s sugar program, which critics say gouges consumers by propping up sugar prices.

The measure mostly tinkered with farm programs, adding provisions aimed at boosting high-speed internet access in rural areas, assisting beginning farmers, and easing regulations on producers. But since the measure makes mostly modest adjustments to farm policy, some lawmakers believe that the most likely course of action this year is a temporary extension of the current measure, which expires at the end of September.

In the Senate, the chamber’s filibuster rules require a bipartisan process for a bill to pass. There, Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., promises a competing bill later this month and he’s signaling that its changes to food stamps would be far more modest than the House measure.

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In Speech, Pompeo to Call for ‘Broad Support’ Against Iran

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will outline a “diplomatic road map” next week that he hopes will convince European and other allies to apply pressure on Iran and force it back to the negotiating table, a senior U.S. official said on Friday.

Rebuffing appeals from France, Germany and Britain, U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States 10 days ago from a landmark 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six major powers, saying the agreement did not adequately curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions or address Iran’s ballistic missile program and what the Trump administration views as its destabilizing role in the region.

In his first foreign policy speech on Monday, Pompeo will call for broad support to address “the totality of Iran’s threats,” said Brian Hook, senior U.S. policy advisor, adding that Washington is seeking a diplomatic outcome with Iran.

“The goal of our effort is to bring all necessary pressure to bear on Iran to change its behavior and to pursue a new framework that can resolve our concerns,” Hook told reporters.

“We very much want to be, to have a kind of uptempo diplomacy, one that’s very focused and very determined to achieve our national security objectives,” he said, adding: “Our broad approach now that we have been emphasizing is that we need a new, a framework that’s going to address the

totality of Iran threats.”

It was not immediately clear whether Britain, France and Germany would agree to join the U.S. coalition as Washington moves to reimpose sanctions against Iran and they try to salvage economic and trade ties with Tehran that followed the 2015 nuclear deal.

Under the agreement, reached to halt what Western countries long suspected was Iran’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons, Tehran agreed to limits on its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions against it. Iran has denied it sought in the past to develop an atomic weapon, saying its nuclear program has always been for purely peaceful purposes.

Hook said the Iran nuclear accord had given countries a false sense of security and the United States wanted to ensure any new agreement covered not only Iran’s nuclear and missile capabilities, but also curbed its regional activities.

“This involves a range of things around its nuclear program, missiles, proliferating missiles and missile technology and support for terrorists and its aggressive and violent activities that fuel civil wars in Syria and Yemen,” said Hook.

Pompeo had been in discussions with European allies since Trump’s announcement Washington was withdrawing from the deal and Hook said he believed differences could be overcome.

“We have a period of opportunity to work with our allies to try to come up with a new security architecture, a new framework,” said Hook, “I think people are overstating the disagreements between the U.S. and Europe.”

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Trump to Nominate Wilkie to Head Department of Veterans Affairs

President Donald Trump said on Friday he will nominate Robert Wilkie to be secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, replacing David Shulkin, who was pushed out amid alleged ethics problems.

Wilkie, 55, has been acting secretary of the department since Trump fired Shulkin in March over concerns about unauthorized travel expenses.

The Republican president’s first choice to replace Shulkin, Trump’s physician Ronny Jackson, withdrew from consideration last month after allegations that he had been lax with prescription drugs and drank alcohol on the job.

Jackson denied the allegations but faced questions in the Senate confirmation process over whether he had enough experience for the job.

Wilkie successfully went through the Senate confirmation process last year after Trump nominated him to be undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

The veterans agency has long been criticized for the quality of care it provides and the red tape that veterans encounter.

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Key Differences Over Denuclearization Put Trump-Kim Summit in Peril

Although the U.S. stated Thursday that summit preparations are moving forward, North Korea’s threat to cancel the planned talks with the U.S. signals its frustration over Washington’s position on how to denuclearize Pyongyang, said former U.S. officials who dealt with North Korea extensively.

The experts said North Korea’s threat could increase the chance for delaying or even canceling the summit. Christopher Hill, a chief U.S. delegate who negotiated with North Korea during the George W. Bush administration, said, “I would read the chances of a summit right now as well under the 50 percent.”

North Korea expressed its discontent over what it considers to be a “unilateral” nuclear demand by the U.S. through its state news agency KCNA on Wednesday, stating that it must rethink the summit, which is scheduled to take place in Singapore on June 12 between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump.

“If the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the [North Korean]-U.S. summit,” said North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan.

Kim also expressed Pyongyang’s dissatisfaction over National Security Adviser John Bolton’s mention of using the so-called Libyan model on North Korea, calling it an “awfully sinister move” to compare Libya’s nascent nuclear weapons program from 2003 to North Korea’s program that has already produced a significant nuclear arsenal. Libya’s nuclear weapons program was completely dismantled and destroyed in 2003.

North Korean officials have said that after Libya gave up its nuclear program, a foreign military intervention toppled that nation’s leader, Moammar Gadhafi, who was killed by rebels. 

The U.S. responded to Pyongyang’s threat to cancel the summit by stating Thursday that preparations for the summit will move forward. “At this point if North Korea wants to meet, we’ll be there,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders at a regular news briefing.

Following the news briefing, Trump said North Korea will get strong security protections and that the U.S. will not use a Libyan-style denuclearization process toward North Korea.

Former U.S. officials warned on Thursday that the key differences on denuclearization between Washington and Pyongyang might have put the rare opportunity for the summit in peril.

“I think there was a disappointment after Pompeo’s visit,” said Hill, referring to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent trip to Pyongyang to prepare for the upcoming summit.

“I think they realized that after Pompeo visited Pyongyang, there was no willingness to work out sanctions step-by-step” along with a denuclearization process, Hill said, adding that North Korea is trying to say Trump is “essentially giving nothing for the summit. There is no sanctions relief, no security issues.”

The U.S. has said that North Korea must take concrete steps toward denuclearization before any sanctions can be relaxed.

Alexander Vershbow, who served as an ambassador to South Korea during the George W. Bush administration and now is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, thinks Pyongyang’s threat to cancel is “a very serious setback” that raises a question “whether the summit in Singapore can take place.”

Dennis Wilder, senior director for East Asian Affairs at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, does not think the summit will be canceled, but said that “it is possible that the U.S. will decide it’s not the time yet for the summit.”  

Wilder said North Korea, in essence, is pushing for an incremental approach toward denuclearization.

“Their position is that this has to be action-for-action, step-by-step,” Wilder said. “So, I think they are trying to warn Mr. Trump that that is not a way to negotiate, that that would not be successful.”

Vershbow said North Korea is attempting “to define the agenda in their own terms” by disagreeing with the U.S. demand on complete denuclearization. 

“It sounds like North Korea is trying to go back to the kind of old way of doing business in terms of incremental approach to denuclearization rather than the CVID approach that the administration is looking for,” Vershbow said, referring to complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) that the Trump administration has been demanding from Pyongyang.

Gary Samore, a former White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction under the Barack Obama administration, thinks Pyongyang is raising an issue on certain language in the terms of denuclearization that Washington is putting on the table.

“The Trump administration is probably asking for language in the summit declaration that the North Koreans find unacceptable. For example, the deadline for completing disarmament or specific language about steps North Korea has to take to achieve disarmament,” he said.

Wilder believes North Korea’s threat to cancel the summit signifies that it gained a position of leverage over the U.S. after renewing rapprochement with Beijing. He said putting pressure on China will be significant going forward, as he speculates Pyongyang could have received an economic reward from Beijing for closing Punggye-ri nuclear test site, which is close to the Chinese border. 

“There are a lot of things going on between the Chinese and the North Koreans that suggests to me that the Chinese are rewarding the North Koreans for closing the nuclear test site,” Wilder said.

Earlier in the week, hours before Kim threatened to cancel the summit, North Korea canceled a high-level inter-Korean meeting scheduled for Wednesday over Max Thunder, joint military drills by South Korea and the U.S. North Korea called the military exercise a rehearsal for invasion through KCNA. The two-week Max Thunder drill began last week, involving about 100 warplanes and 1,500 U.S. and South Korean military personnel.

On Thursday, North Korea vowed to boycott the talks with South Korea unless Seoul stops joint military exercises with the U.S.

Soyoung Ahn contributed to this story, which originated in the VOA Korean Service. 

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