U.S. honors 24 minority veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam

Two dozen U.S. Army veterans received the country's top military honor at the White House on Tuesday for acts of bravery in World War II, Korea and Vietnam as part of an effort to recognize those whose service may have been ignored because of their race or religion.

President Barack Obama awarded the medals recognizing the 24 Hispanic, African-American and Jewish-Americans veterans – the largest group of soldiers to be honored for the award since World War Two.

Just three of the men honored are still living and were on hand to accept the blue-ribboned award from the president. The others either died in combat or later of natural causes. One veteran is still classified as missing, Obama said.

The review was part of a years-long effort to honor service members despite past discrimination, Obama said.

“Here in America, we confront our imperfections and face the sometimes painful past, including the truth that some of these soldiers fought and died for a country that did not always see them as equal,” he said.

“As one family member said, this is long overdue,” Obama told the audience of wives, brothers, sons and daughters who came to accept the awards in a ceremony at the White House.

The awards followed a 2002 law authorizing a review of war records for Americans who are Jewish or Hispanic. As part of the effort, records of other service members who were overlooked have also emerged.

The three living veterans on hand to accept their award were Melvin Morris of Florida and Jose Rodela and Santiago Erevia of Texas.

The ceremony drew singer Lenny Kravitz, whose uncle Leonard Kravitz was honored posthumously for his service in Korea in 1951.

For a list of those honored, visit whitehouse.gov.

Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Peter Cooney and Cynthia Osterman

Jews, Korean-Americans talk human rights in Iran, North Korea

Two organizations of young professionals, two isolated nuclear (or near-nuclear) powers with terrible human rights records, one Beverly Hills living room. 

Those were the ingredients for an Aug. 30 event that brought together experts on North Korea and Iran to address members of Access, the young professionals division of American Jewish Committee, and NETKAL, the Network for Korean American Leaders, to discuss human rights violations being committed, largely out of the public eye, in these two countries. 

Though the words “axis of evil” were not uttered, the obvious similarity between these two countries — their pursuit of nuclear weapons — couldn’t be overlooked. But unlike most foreign-policy wonks, the presenters were focused on the Iranian and North Korean records of human rights violations. 

David Kaye, a professor at UC Irvine School of Law, described how, over the past three years in the wake of the “Green Movement,” Iran has jailed journalists and bloggers, confined opposition leaders to house arrest and pressured activists and their lawyers. Kaye also talked about some of Iran’s longer-standing human rights violations — including restricting the freedom of women to marry or divorce, applying the death penalty “pretty extensively,” and restricting religious freedom. 

But as bad as the situation is in Iran, Adrian Hong’s presentation on North Korea pulled the faces of the 50 or so Korean-Americans and Jewish-Americans in attendance into expressions of shocked disbelief. 

Hong started with chronic hunger. An estimated 1 million North Koreans starved to death because of a famine in the mid-1990s. Today, Hong said, one-third of North Korea’s 25 million citizens are perpetually undernourished, which is why, Hong said, “If you meet a real, live North Korean, no matter how tall you are, they’re shorter than you.” 

North Koreans can’t leave the country, nor are they permitted to travel from one town to another within North Korea without explicit permission. Until recently, women could not wear pants. All radios are built so that they can be tuned only to government frequencies. 

“Every single right that we experience here doesn’t exist there,” said Hong, a managing director of the New York-based strategic planning firm Pegasus Strategies. 

And yet, each for slightly different reasons, the human-rights situation in these countries is hardly even on the agenda of American and other diplomats. When it comes to Iran, Jews around the world are far more interested in discussing whether that country will achieve nuclear weapons capability. And in the case of North Korea, Hong said, by and large, South Koreans and Korean-Americans haven’t engaged with the challenge of advocating for change. 

At least, not yet. Hong founded the nonprofit organization Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), and Hannah Song, the organization’s current president and CEO, was also present at the event. 

Since early 2010, the Torrance-based LiNK has helped 100 North Koreans to escape to South Korea and the United States. During the question-and-answer period, Hong, Kaye and others in attendance urged attendees to stay aware of the human rights challenges facing the citizens of these countries. But afterward, Song pointed to the nascent “marketization” in North Korea — a trend of citizens starting their own trade relationships in a proto-capitalist system that started off as an illegal activity and has since been legitimized by the government.  She said she believes change will likely come from within the country. 

“At the end of the day, that power is not going to come from outside,” Song said. 

U.S.: North Korea agrees to nuclear moratorium

The United States said on Wednesday that North Korea had agreed to a moratorium on nuclear tests and long-range missile launches and to allow nuclear inspectors to visit its Yongbyon nuclear complex to verify a halt to all nuclear activities including uranium enrichment.

The U.S. announcement paves the way for the possible resumption of six-party disarmament negotiations with Pyongyang and follows talks between U.S. and North Korean diplomats in Beijing last week.

“To improve the atmosphere for dialogue and demonstrate its commitment to denuclearization, the DPRK has agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests, and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities,” the State Department said in a statement.

“The DPRK has also agreed to the return of IAEA inspectors to verify and monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment activities at Yongbyon and confirm the disablement of the 5-MW reactor and associated facilities,” it said.

The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) is North Korea’s official name.

The State Department said that in return the United States was ready to finalize details of a proposed food aid package of 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance, and that more aid could be agreed based on continued need.

“The United States still has profound concerns regarding North Korean behavior across a wide range of areas, but today’s announcement reflects important, if limited, progress in addressing some of these,” a State Department statement said.

It said Washington reaffirmed that it did not have hostile intentions toward North Korea and was prepared to take steps to improve bilateral ties and increase people-to-people exchanges.

The announcement followed the sit-down negotiations between the United States and with North Korea last week in Beijing, the first such meeting since the death of its longtime leader Kim Jong-il in December.

The U.S. special envoy for North Korea, Glyn Davies, told reporters those talks made some progress on issues including nuclear non-proliferation, North Korea’s demands for food aid and other issues at the heart of regional tension.

The talks are aimed at laying the groundwork for renewed six-party disarmament negotiations with North Korea, whose ties with South Korea have deteriorated, especially after deadly attacks on the South in 2010.

Reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by Anthony Boadle

A 15-year plan for Israel

At its 60th anniversary, Israel needs a new vision that not only will guide its priorities and inform its actions, but also will be relevant to the lives of all Israelis.

This is why the ISRAEL 15 Vision, a Reut Institute plan that calls for Israel to become one of the 15 most developed nations within 15 years, is so compelling. It requires improving the quality of life of all citizens.

Quality of life is a very elusive issue. Its definition changes by geography. The quality of life of a religious and spiritual person is different from that of a secular businessperson.

Notwithstanding, quality of life is also visible and tangible. For example, anyone can tell that the average quality of life in countries like Canada or Australia is higher than in Greece or Spain. Furthermore, although income per capita is an important factor determining life, other public goods such as health, education, employment and social cohesion play a critical role as well.

Israel’s growth of recent years can be intoxicating. However, we often tend to forget that the world economy has experienced significant growth as well in recent years. Hence, impressive rates of growth notwithstanding, Israel didn’t succeed in leapfrogging — catching up with the leading nations of the world.

In contrast, during the first 20 years of the state, Israel’s economy bounced upwards. Israel doubled its well-being relative to the United States, starting with an average income of 30 percent of the U.S. average and reaching 60 percent by the early 1970s. Since then, however, Israel has not been able to bridge the gaps with the richer countries while countries such as Ireland, Singapore and South Korea have made leaps ahead.

The importance of closing the gaps with the richest nations stems from the mobility of people, technology and investment. As these highly mobile resources “choose” which country to go to, nations compete for them. Success in this fierce battle is essential for the future of any country, but is critical for the survival of Israel.

Israel suffers from the largest gap between the level of talent of its population and the quality of life offered its residents. Israel is ranked 28th in the world in quality of life, yet our population is among the most educated and technologically savvy in the world. Indeed, Israel is a leading exporter of talent, with one of the highest levels of brain drain among developed nations.

Becoming one of the 15 leading nations — roughly at the level of Holland, Singapore or New Zealand — requires leapfrogging our socioeconomic performance and growing at an annual pace of 7 percent to 8 percent for at least 10 years. This is a national challenge that will require widespread mobilization of the key sectors of society.

The phenomenon of leapfrogging is different than growth. While the world has established a recipe for stability and growth in the form of a set of accepted principles known as the Washington Consensus, which primarily calls for fiscal and monetary discipline and privatization, there is no such recipe for leapfrogging. In other words, each country charts its own path.

However, the common denominator among the countries that have leaped ahead has been their agenda. They all established an ambitious vision, identified growth engines and exhausted them, benchmarked their performance to other countries, improved the capacity of their government to make decisions and implement them, enhanced collaboration among key sectors of society and invested in human capital.

In addition, nations that leaped ahead contained their unique challenge and tapped into their individual potential. For example, Singapore understood that it was located at a junction between East and West and therefore developed the world’s leading airport, seaport and airline, while Ireland tapped the benefits of its inclusion into the European Union.

We also know that leapfrog happens as a consequence of a combination between top-down leadership by the government and bottom-up mobilization of the key sectors of society. Hence, on the one hand, reforming Israeli governance is key since it is significantly underperforming compared to our business sector.

At the same time, we have to find ways to harness mayors and local governments, businesspeople, philanthropists, nonprofits and world Jewry to the ISRAEL 15 Vision and create the space that allows them to make contributions, as well.

Finally, growth and development have to turn into a national obsession. We have had such passions in the past: greening the desert, redeeming the land or immigration absorption. The challenge for the ISRAEL 15 Vision is to become a household phrase and a framework that inspires for action.

The ISRAEL 15 Vision might be ambitious but it is attainable. Israel already is a world leader in key areas such as research and development, human capital or technology. We have outperformed expectations in the past. There is no reason we cannot do it again.

Gidi Grinstein is the founder and president of the Reut Institute. This article is based on a speech he gave at the 2008 Herzliya Conference.