NORTH KOREA: NEW THREAT, POSSIBLE NUCLEAR TEST
We can never really divine the plans or intentions of the North Korean regime - but today a top military chief in Pyongyang announced his country is armed with "powerful modern weapons" capable of defeating the United States. That bluster comes amid speculation that the country is ready to conduct a nuclear test - which our Jake TAPPER and Martha RADDATZ report may be just days away. Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho emphasized the importance of strengthening the military against threats North Korea sees from the U.S. and South Korea. He called his nation a nuclear and military power and praised new leader Kim Jong Un as a "military strategist" who has been giving the army guidance for years. "The Korean People's Army is armed with powerful modern weapons…that can defeat the (U.S.) imperialists at a single blow," he told a meeting to mark the 80th anniversary of the army's founding. The U.S., Britain and others have warned the North against any provocation that would further heighten tensions. North Korea is believed to have some nuclear weapons but not the technology to put them on long-range missiles. Two weeks ago North Korea launched a long-range rocket in a failed attempt to put a satellite into space - and the U.S. answered by halting a plan to provide Pyongyang with much-needed food aid in exchange for a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests.
PAKISTAN TESTS NEW MISSILE
From Muhammad LILA in Islamabad: Raising the stakes in this region's nuclear rivalry, Pakistan has successfully launched an upgraded ballistic missile, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. The Hatf IV Shaheen is an intermediate ballistic missile, believed to have a range of 3,000 to 5,000km - and was launched into the sea this morning. It's a huge advance over their previous version, which could fly up to 2,000 km (yet still hit anywhere in India). The test comes just days after archenemy India conducted its own missile test.
IRAN AND THE BOMB
An interview published today puts Israel's most senior soldier at odds with the country's political leadership on the Iranian issue. From Alex MARQUARDT: Israel's military chief said he does not believe Iran will decide to produce an atomic bomb, describing its leadership as "very rational". Iran, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz told Haaretz, "is going step by step to the place where it will be able to decide whether to manufacture a nuclear bomb. It hasn't yet decided whether to go the extra mile…I believe [Ayatollah Khamenei] would be making an enormous mistake, and I don't think he will want to go the extra mile."
SYRIANS PLEAD WITH UN
MARQUARDT again: Violence continues to spike after U.N. observers leave certain areas of Syria, Kofi Annan told the Security Council. "If confirmed, this is totally unacceptable and reprehensible," he said. Meanwhile - we've seen video of a Homs activist begging (in English) the U.N. observers to stay. "When you come, shelling stops," he says. "When you come killing stops. Please stay." U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice says observers are trying to stay in Homs and Hama. She also said Syria is rejecting observers from "Friends of Syria" countries and called for a speeding up of observer deployment.
THE MURDOCHS: RUPERT SAYS, "I NEVER ASKED A PRIME MINISTER FOR ANYTHING"
-RUPERT TESTIFIES… News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch is being grilled on his relationship with British politicians at the country's media ethics inquiry. As Jeffrey KOFMAN reports, Far from being the doddering old man who appeared before a British parliamentary committee last Fall, the 81-year-old Murdoch was sharp, focused and calm under examination. He did get a little testy when pushed by what the inquiry counsel called subtle "sinister inferences" about his relationship with senior Conservative politicians in Britain. "I'm afraid I don't have much subtlety in me," Murdoch responded. Murdoch went on to say that he wanted to "put some myths to bed": "I've never asked a prime minister for anything…We've never pushed our commercial interests in our newspapers" and "I had a great respect for the British public."
-UK MINISTER UNDER FIRE…As KOFMAN adds, more than 170 pages of James Murdoch's e-mails show that Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt's political staff were repeatedly giving confidential information to James Murdoch's lobbyist during critical negotiations over News Corps £7.5 billion efforts to take over BSkyB, Britain's powerful satellite broadcaster. Publicly Hunt had insisted that was acting independently and impartially, but the smoking gun appears to be in an e-mail sent by Murdoch's lobbyist the day before Hunt was to give a key speech in parliament about the takeover. The lobbyist wrote to James Murdoch: "Managed to get some infos on the plans for tomorrow (although absolutely illegal…!)" The email goes on to give accurate information about what the minister would be saying - a day later. A serious breach of parliamentary privilege in Britain and explicit proof that the Murdochs were working inside the Cameron government.
MADDIE MCCANN STILL ALIVE?
U.K. police say it's possible missing girl Madeleine McCann is alive. McCann went missing on a family vacation in the Algarve coast in Portugal in May 2007. She vanished shortly before her fourth birthday. Investigators released an image intended to show McCann as she would look today. From Scotland Yard: "As a result of evidence uncovered during the review they now believe there is a possibility Madeleine is still alive…Officers are now methodically going through that material. We are working on the basis of two possibilities here. One is that Madeleine is still alive; and the second that she is sadly dead."
AFTER MAD COW SCARE, SOUTH KOREA BANS U.S. BEEF
South Korean retailers are suspending sales of U.S. beef following the discovery of mad cow disease in a U.S. dairy cow. Lotte Department Store and Home Plus said they halted sales of U.S. beef to calm worries among South Koreans.
SECRET SERVICE CAVORTING: IT'S HAPPENED BEFORE
The Washington Post and NYTimes note that what the secret service agents are alleged to have done in Cartagena is not unprecedented, recalling incidents in Brazil and Buenos Aires that involved hard-partying agents and local women. Yesterday, Defense Secretary Panetta recalled an episode that involved Marines and one embassy staff member in Brazil who were disciplined and sent home late last year after they became embroiled in a dispute with a prostitute at a Brasília night club. Today Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee - long-ago-scheduled appearance now expected to focus on the scandal.
CHAVEZ APPEARS ON TV
Venezuelan President and cancer patient Hugo Chávez appeared on television for the first time in 10 days today, chatting with aides and relatives to show supporters that he remained vigorous despite his cancer treatment in Cuba. The video, shown on Venezuelan television, showed Chávez playing a Venezuelan game similar to lawn bowling.
CHINA'S INTERNET CRACKDOWN
From the WSJournal: China has stepped up its campaign to clamp down on the Internet, which has emerged as a virtual town square for exchanging information about the Bo Xilai scandal and the nation's biggest political upheaval in years. The popular Twitter-like microblogging service Sina Weibo on Tuesday deleted the accounts of several users, including that of Li Delin, a senior editor of the Chinese business magazine Capital Week, whose March 19 post helped fuel rumors of a coup in Beijing. The service announced the move to many of its more than 300 million user accounts, thereby turning it into a public lesson in the consequences of rumor mongering.
AFGHAN GIRLS DEFY THE TALIBAN
A great story from the Washington Post: Every morning in the mountain village of Spina in eastern Afghanistan, four dozen girls sneak through a square opening in a mud-baked wall, defying a Taliban edict. A U.S.-funded girls school about a mile away was shuttered by insurgents in 2007, two years after it opened. They warned residents that despite a new government in Kabul and an international aid effort focused on female education, the daughters of Spina were to stay home. For a while, they all did. Then two brothers, among the few literate men in the village, began quietly teaching math, reading and writing to their female relatives in a living room on the edge of town.
FROM THE TSUNAMI: NOW, A VOLLEYBALL AND ITS OWNER FOUND
From Akiko FUJITA in Tokyo: A few days after David Baxter tracked down the owner of a soccer ball that washed ashore in Middleton Island, Alaska - the girl who owned a volleyball he found has also come forward. 19 year-old Shiori Sato says she first learned about the discovery, in an e-mail from her home. When she saw the photos broadcast on the news, she knew the ball belonged to her. Sato says the ball was given to her by friends, when she graduated from elementary school. She was living in the village of Tanohata, and was weeks away from high school graduation, when the earthquake and tsunami hit. Like Misaki Murakami, the owner of the soccer ball, Sato's home was washed away - her family lost everything. Baxter, his wife, and 3 sons are planning to visit Japan in May and June to personally deliver both balls to Sato and Murakami.
NUCLEAR PLANT ON AN ACTIVE FAULT
FUJITA again: Japan's nuclear watchdog is calling for additional inspections at a nuclear plant in Tsuruga (on the western coast) after learning that two of its reactors could be sitting on an active fault. The discovery could mean the idle plant may never resume operations, further straining Japan's power supply. The Nuclear and Industrial Safety agency says their survey found the suspected faults under the reactors could move in conjunction with a nearby active fault that's already been confirmed.
A MARATHONER'S FINAL GIFT - UPDATE
From Jeffrey KOFMAN: The charity fund set up by Claire Squires, the runner who died during the last mile of the London marathon has now passed the $1 million mark. More than 54,000 people have contributed - most in donations of £5 and £10. A huge outpouring of public support. She ran the marathon with £500 in sponsorship for a suicide prevention line.
WORLD MALARIA DAY
From Bazi KANANI in Nairobi: On this World Malaria Day, Doctors Without Borders points to the continued challenge to control one of the world's oldest diseases. The Guardian reports on the aid organization's work in the Democratic Republic of Congo where malaria deaths are on the rise, killing an estimated 300,000 young children each year.
WILL & KATE TO ATTEND FILM PREMIERE
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will attend the film premiere of "African Cats" in London today. Prince William will make a short speech after the film.