California wine country fires leave homeowners struggling

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Construction crews have already put up the frame on Cheri Sharp’s new house, but she still questions whether rebuilding was the right choice after California’s most destructive wildfire took her old home in wine country nearly a year ago.


She’s had to dip into retirement savings to cover a $300,000 shortfall in her homeowner’s insurance coverage.


“We just kind of thought we were taken care of,” Sharp, 54, said about her insurance policy. “If I had to do it over again, I’d probably change my mind and move.”


The wind-whipped wildfire that tore through Northern California in October 2017, killing 22 people and destroying more than 5,500 structures, left many people in Sharp’s position: underinsured and having to scramble for money to build a new home on their property.


Santa Rosa was the hardest-hit city, with entire neighbourhoods burned to ashes. But as of late August, only nine of nearly 2,700 single-family homes lost here had been rebuilt, according to figures from the city’s permitting office. Another 520 or so were under construction.


Many homeowners say they are locked in negotiations with insurance companies for additional money to cover the cost of building a home at the edge of the San Francisco Bay Area, where a technology boom has sent home prices skyrocketing. That, coupled with competition among neighbours for construction crews and materials, has left many homeowners hundreds of thousands of dollars in the red.


For Santa Rosa native Alex Apons, 34, the insurance shortfall on his home in the tidy Coffey Park neighbourhood was $200,000. He and his wife wanted to stay because they had a baby on the way and both have deep family roots in the area. They used every insurance dollar they received to pay off the mortgage of their 4-year-old home that burned. There was nothing left for a down payment on construction.


“We had to drain our bank account,” said Apons, now father to a 5-month-old boy, Etienne. “After everything is built, we’re looking at a monthly payment on that loan that’s $1,000 more than what our mortgage was before.”


Other fire victims are still torn by indecision that has kept them from committing to a rebuild — do they stay and bear the costs or start over elsewhere?


“The idea of leaving California is very hard, but on the other hand, I don’t know if I can recover from all the trauma of it without removing myself from all the stimuli,” said Katherine Gaynor, 67, also a former Coffey Park resident.


Besides the Santa Rosa blaze, several other major wildfires the same month took out thousands of homes elsewhere in Sonoma County and in neighbouring Napa County. As of April, nearly two-thirds of those fire victims wanted to rebuild, but most had yet to settle insurance claims for their property and belongings, according to a survey by United Policyholders, a San Francisco-based non-profit that helps people understand their insurance policies. Two-thirds of respondents reported being underinsured by an average of $317,000.


Insurance industry experts warn that many Californians whose homes have been destroyed in this year’s wildfires also will discover their policies will not cover the cost of a new home, leading to similar rebuilding delays. So far in 2018, wildfires have scorched about 1,000 square miles (2,600 square kilometres) in parts of Shasta, Trinity, Mendocino, Lake, Colusa and Glenn; more than 1,200 homes have been destroyed, and nine people have died.


Insurance companies value homes using factors including their size, purchase price and the price of homes around them. Few homeowners update their policies annually to keep up with inflation, labour and material costs and home upgrades that increase the value. Insurance companies want to keep premiums low to compete with rivals and attract customers.


When Apons’ wife, Heather, called their insurance company this month to request a new homeowners’ insurance quote, the agent provided a figure that would pay them $340,000 less than the current price tag to reconstruct their house. The agent said better coverage would raise their premium considerably, she recalled.


“I’m like, �I don’t care. I don’t ever want to be underinsured again,”� she said.


After massive fires across Southern California over the past decade, the state Department of Insurance found that insurance companies often understated replacement costs to potential customers and omitted or misrepresented fees for permitting, architects, labour and zoning, California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said.


A false sense of security is common among the insured because most rely on insurance companies for details, said Amy Bach, executive director of United Policyholders, an advocacy group for insurance consumers.


“If anything, people suspect they’re over-insured,” she said.


Bach said out-of-town insurance adjusters often fail to properly value homes in the San Francisco area. In Sonoma County, property values increase about 10 per cent every year, according to Pacific Union Real Estate, a leading real estate group in the region.


Jim Whittle, chief counsel for trade group the American Insurance Association, said it’s up to consumers to make sure they have enough insurance. After mass catastrophes, “there’s almost always going to be situations where people don’t have quite what they wanted or expected,” Whittle said.


Sharp and her husband, Paul, held hands on a recent morning as they surveyed construction of their new home on the Santa Rosa property where they raised their kids, held backyard parties and enjoyed the sunset. They know their use of retirement savings to fund the project will make it harder to live comfortably and travel as they age.


“Our life from here on out is very different going into our retirement years,” Cheri Sharp said.


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Old cabins demolished at Lake Tahoe’s Cal Neva Lodge

INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — Work crews are demolishing some of the old cabins at the historic Cal Neva (NEE’-vuh) Lodge at Lake Tahoe due to fire and safety concerns.


Andy Chapman, CEO and president of the Incline Village Crystal Bay Visitors Bureau, says the new owners who bought the property on the California-Nevada line in January eventually intend to re-open it as a hotel-casino.


The cabin demolition is expected to conclude this year. Fire officials told the Reno Gazette Journal they’re trying to make the property as safe as possible.


During its heyday in the early 1960s, the hotel-casino owned by Frank Sinatra hosted fellow Rat Packers Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford, and stars like Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio.


Monroe spent her last weekend there before she died of a drug overdose in Los Angeles in August 1962.


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Trademark bullies? Many big colleges fiercely protect brands

Never get between a university and its trademarks.


That’s the lesson dozens of people learn every year when they unwittingly provoke the wrath of big universities and the lawyers they hire to protect their mascots, slogans and logos.


Records gathered by The Associated Press show that some major universities send their lawyers after even slight perceived threats to their brands, sending flurries of letters threatening legal action or trying to block new trademarks deemed too close to their own.


Schools say they’re only defending themselves from merchandise counterfeiters and others looking to exploit their brands for personal gain. But some legal experts say it often amounts to trademark bullying, a term used when bigger institutions use aggressive tactics to overpower their opponents in seemingly frivolous disputes.


And according to some lawyers, it appears to be getting more common. As the biggest universities bring in growing sums of money through licensing deals that rely on their brands, some are becoming increasingly aggressive in their efforts to protect their symbols.


“Universities for many years didn’t even register trademarks or really care about branding,” said David Ludwig, a Virginia trademark lawyer, noting that things changed after a “brand awareness awakening” in the 2000s. “Now a lot of big universities, especially ones in the major sports leagues, are kind of on par with your Coca-Colas in terms of their enforcing.”


The Associated Press reviewed dozens of disputes detailed in records obtained from universities and from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. A look at a few of them:


DUKE UNIVERSITY


Duke this year blocked a small California wine company from getting a trademark on its own name, Duke’s Folly. In a legal filing with the federal trademark office, Duke argued that the name “deceptively and falsely” implied an official tie to the North Carolina school and would cause confusion among consumers.


The family, named the Dukes, disagrees. Kirk Duke, a company spokesman, said it’s “absurd” to think the Duke’s Folly wine would be confused with Duke University. But rather than risk a costly legal battle, the family agreed to a settlement requiring it to drop the trademark claim and tweak the name of the company, to Dukes’ Folly.


Separately, the school is also trying to block trademarks for a Seattle restaurant chain called Duke’s Chowder House (the owner’s name is Duke), a Chicago metal band called Devils (the school’s sports teams are named the Blue Devils), and a boxing equipment company that wants rights to “Put Up Your Dukes” (the owner’s last name is Dukes).


Officials at Duke say they have to prevent other uses that could cause confusion, even if it isn’t intentional.


“We find it’s much easier to proactively prevent confusion than to cure it after it happens,” said Jim Wilkerson, the school’s director of trademark licensing.


NORTH CAROLINA STATE UNIVERSITY


NC State calls its sports teams the Wolfpack — and won’t let anybody else. Armed with a trademark of the nickname, the university has forced at least two other schools to stop using it, including New York’s Keuka College, which now uses the Wolves nickname, and Loyola University New Orleans, which simply shifted to the Wolf Pack.


Records provided by NC State show it has also pressured several businesses to stop using the name. In 2016, it went after a convenience store in Raleigh, North Carolina, called the Wolfpack Mini Mart, which has since closed. Last year, it ordered California beer maker Golden Road Brewing to stop advertising its wolf-themed beers as the “Wolf Pack.” Federal records show both sides reached a settlement, but neither would provide details.


TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY


In 2016, Texas A&M University asked federal trademark officials to cancel a trademark that its own alumni association had registered for the slogan “We Are The Aggie Network.” The school, which owns several trademarks related to its Aggies nickname, argued that it was the “true and rightful owner” of the phrase and that the alumni group never had permission to register it.


After pressing the case for months, the school reached a deal allowing the group to keep the slogan.


The same year, Texas A&M forced a man in nearby Bellaire, Texas, to halt his plans to produce a beer called 12th Can. The school said it was too similar to 12th Man, the school’s trademarked nickname for its sports fans. Records provided by A&M show it paid $6,000 to buy trademark rights “and other considerations” from the man, Erik Nolte. Neither side would provide further details about the deal.


UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA


Youth basketball organizers in Minneapolis had to rename a small tournament called the Spring Jam in 2014 after the University of Minnesota objected. In a letter, the school said it owned a trademark for its own Spring Jam, an annual festival, and worried the tournament would cause confusion with it.


When the University of Tennessee tried getting trademarks for then-football coach Butch Jones’ slogan “Brick By Brick” in 2014, the University of Minnesota sent its lawyers to stop it. In a letter, they noted that Minnesota’s coach, Jerry Kill, had been using the slogan for years, and ordered Tennessee to stop using it immediately. More than a year later, the schools signed an agreement allowing both to use the phrase on merchandise and advertisements, but only if it’s accompanied by their respective school colours.


Last year, Minnesota also ordered the new British liquor company Goldy Gin to stop using the word Goldy and abandon its trademark applications for the name. The problem? Minnesota’s mascot is Goldy Gopher, and the school said consumers would think Goldy Gin products were licensed by the university. The company dropped its trademark application this month. Its lawyer and founder did not return messages seeking comment.


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AP FACT CHECK: Trump’s bent reality: Cohen, clean air, taxes

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is living in an alternate reality when it comes to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and other controversies swirling around him.


He laments the threat of a “perjury trap” in explaining why he’s hesitant to be interviewed by Mueller in the Russia probe, even as Trump’s lawyers assert that Mueller had ruled out trying to indict a sitting president.


Trump also makes the head-scratching claim that the crimes of his ex-lawyer, Michael Cohen, are not criminal and falsely suggests that Paul Manafort, the president’s former campaign chairman, should be viewed as innocent even after being found guilty on several bank fraud and other charges.


The statements came in a week of distorted truth in which Trump also complained about a politician plagiarizing his slogan despite his history of doing the same, wrongly claimed his tax cuts are the biggest ever and defied data in declaring the U.S. is No. 1 in environmental quality.


A look at his rhetoric and how they compare with the facts:


RUSSIA INVESTIGATION


TRUMP, citing concerns of a “perjury trap”: “So if I say something and he (former FBI director James Comey) says something, and it’s my word against his, and he’s best friends with Mueller, so Mueller might say: �Well, I believe Comey,’ and even if I’m telling the truth, that makes me a liar. That’s no good.” — interview with Reuters published Aug. 20.


RUDY GIULIANI, TRUMP’S ATTORNEY: “I am not going to be rushed into having him testify so that he gets trapped into perjury.” — remarks Aug. 19 on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”


THE FACTS: They’re making a disingenuous claim. Both Trump and his lawyers point to a threat of perjury charges, even as Giuliani has maintained that Mueller’s team indicated the special counsel had ruled out the possibility of indicting Trump.


Legal experts generally agree that sitting presidents can’t be indicted. Mueller would presumably be bound by Justice Department legal memos from 1973 and 2000 suggesting that a sitting president is immune from indictment and that criminal charges would undermine the ability of the commander in chief to do the job.


Trump and Giuliani falsely suggest that Mueller would be able to easily bring a perjury indictment based solely on Comey’s contradictory testimony. In fact, perjury charges are often difficult to prove: Mueller would have to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Trump intentionally lied. A conflicting statement from Trump doesn’t rise to a criminal offence if he arguably misunderstood, forgot, misspoke or misremembered information.


Mueller could also prepare a report detailing allegations intended for Congress to act upon as an impeachable offence. But impeachment is a political rather than a legal concept, strongly influenced by whichever party is in control of Congress.


Trump’s assertion of a “perjury trap” comes as he and his lawyers have hedged on an interview amid a months-long negotiation over whether and how investigators can question the president on possible obstruction of justice in the Russia probe. Mueller’s team has put forward questions including about his firing of Comey last year and his public antagonism of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.


——


2016 ELECTION


TRUMP: “You know, they kept saying I had a problem with the women’s vote; I get 52 per cent in the election.” — remarks Friday in Columbus, Ohio.


THE FACTS: No. Trump appears to be citing a figure pertaining to white women only.


Among all women, about 54 per cent nationally voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to exit polls, compared with Trump’s 41 per cent.


——


COHEN AND MANAFORT


TRUMP: “Michael Cohen plead guilty to two counts of campaign finance violations that are not a crime.” — tweet Wednesday.


THE FACTS: False. The campaign finance violations are crimes. While it’s not a crime to pay someone to keep quiet, the Justice Department says the hush money payments arranged by Cohen to conceal allegations of Trump’s extramarital affairs were actually unreported campaign contributions meant to influence the outcome of the election.


That’s a critical assertion because it makes the payments subject to campaign finance laws, which restrict how much people can donate to a campaign and bar corporations from making direct contributions.


Though some campaign finance experts suggested before the guilty plea that the payments to two women who say they had sex with Trump could have been arranged for other purposes, such as protecting Trump’s personal reputation, Cohen himself acknowledged that the goal was to affect the election and protect Trump’s candidacy.


The $150,000 payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal by National Enquirer publisher American Media Inc. and the $130,000 payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels far exceeded permissible campaign contribution limits.


——


TRUMP: “A large number of counts, ten, could not even be decided in the Paul Manafort case. Witch Hunt!” — tweet Wednesday.


THE FACTS: The jury’s lack of consensus on 10 of 18 counts hardly makes Manafort an innocent man, or supports the notion that Mueller’s investigation is a “witch hunt.” Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, was found guilty on eight counts, including filing false tax returns and two bank fraud charges that will almost certainly guarantee years of prison for him.


On the 10 other counts, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict; they did not acquit him of those charges. Federal prosecutors have the option to try him again on those charges or accept what they’ve got.


Manafort faces another trial in Washington next month on separate charges, including conspiracy to defraud the U.S., money laundering and witness tampering.


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POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS


TRUMP: “Bill DeBlasio, the high taxing Mayor of NYC, just stole my campaign slogan: PROMISES MADE PROMISES KEPT! That’s not at all nice. No imagination!” — tweet Tuesday.


TRUMP: “�Promises Made, Promises Kept.’ They’re copying it now, the Democrats.” — West Virginia rally Tuesday.


THE FACTS: Trump is a slogan copycat himself. His slogan about promises made and kept was used by President Barack Obama in his 2012 campaign. Republican John Engler used it when he ran for re-election as Michigan governor in 1994.


“Make America Great Again” was used by President Ronald Reagan, preceded by “Let’s.”


“Drain the swamp” was a mantra of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi during the 2006 midterm election campaigns, in what turned out to be Democrats’ successful bid to take control of the House.


——


CLEAN AIR


TRUMP: “I want clean air. I want crystal clean water. And we’ve got it. We’ve got the cleanest country in the planet right now. There’s nobody cleaner than us.” — West Virginia rally Tuesday.


THE FACTS: The United States does not have the cleanest air on Earth. Not even close.


The Associated Press consulted five databases and reports. Each showed countries with cleaner air both in dangerous small particles and in ozone, which is smog.


For example, the Health Effects Institute’s state of global air report found 65 countries with less smog when adjusted for season and population. Those include Sweden, Switzerland, France, Germany, Norway, Canada and Venezuela. And in the more dangerous small particles, or soot, eight countries bested the U.S. Among them were Finland, Sweden and Norway.


Yale’s performance index ranks the United States 10th in overall air quality behind Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand and others. But when it comes to dangerous soot exposure levels, the United States ranked 87th, just behind the Philippines.


When it comes to clean water, the data comes close to supporting Trump. Yale’s team took the top countries in the world on drinking water and ranked them all No. 1, including the United States, although there are some technical differences among them.


——


TAXES


TRUMP: “It is the biggest tax cut in the history of our country and you people are benefiting by it.” — West Virginia rally Tuesday.


THE FACTS: This biggest-ever claim has become one of the president’s favourite fabrications.


His tax cuts are nowhere close to the biggest in U.S. history.


It’s a $1.5 trillion tax cut over 10 years. As a share of the total economy, a tax cut of that size ranks a lowly 12th, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.


Are people already seeing benefits from the tax cuts? Companies definitely are.


Economic growth has picked up this year because of the deficit-financed stimulus. Companies are taking their tax savings and buying back stock at a record pace, according to TrimTabs Investment Research.


But so far, the tax cuts haven’t delivered a major shot of financial adrenaline to most families.


One recent estimate by former Treasury Department official Ernie Tedeschi is that the cuts are adding $50 a month to average take-home pay, a figure that falls to $17 a month when higher state and local taxes are included in the estimate.


Nor are the cuts fueling higher wage growth.


The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that wages have dropped in the past 12 months after adjusting for inflation.


——


IMMIGRANTS AND CRIME


TRUMP, praising Immigration and Customs Enforcement: “To hear some of the stories going on with MS-13, you wouldn’t believe it. And they’re doing an incredible job. They’re actually liberating towns.” — remarks Aug. 20.


TRUMP: “A vote for any Democrat in November is a vote to eliminate immigration enforcement, throw open our borders and set loose vicious predators and violent criminals. They’ll be all over our communities. They will be preying on our communities.” — West Virginia rally Tuesday.


THE FACTS: Trump suggests that weak border enforcement is contributing to crime committed by MS-13. But the gang actually has many U.S.-born members at this point — people who by virtue of U.S. citizenship can’t be denied entry based on their nationality, or deported. The government has not said recently how many members it thinks are citizens and immigrants. In notable raids on MS-13 in 2015 and 2016, most of the people caught were found to be U.S. citizens.


More broadly, Trump overgeneralizes about people who arrive illegally in the U.S. Several studies have shown that immigration does not lead to increased crime.


Foreign-born immigrants are less likely to commit crime than native-born Americans, the research found, but crime rates rise for succeeding generations as the children and grandchildren of immigrants become more like native-born Americans.


——


TRUMP: “We have MS-13 on the run. They’ve poured in here with Obama, we have them on the run.” — remarks Tuesday.


THE FACTS: There’s no evidence that MS-13 gangs “poured in” during the Obama administration. The Justice Department has said there are about 10,000 MS-13 members in the U.S., the same number as more than a decade ago.


Trump’s Justice Department has indirectly credited the Obama administration, in its early years, with putting heavy pressure on the gang. It said, “Through the combined efforts of federal, state and local law enforcement, great progress was made diminishing or severely (disrupting) the gang within certain targeted areas of the U.S. by 2009 and 2010.”


——


TRUMP: “The new platform of the Democrat Party is to abolish ICE.” — remarks Friday in Columbus, Ohio.


TRUMP: “Leading members of the Democrat Party have even launched a campaign to abolish ICE. In other words, they want to abolish America’s borders.” — remarks Aug. 20.


THE FACTS: While some Democrats in the House and Senate have raised the prospect of eliminating Immigration and Customs Enforcement, no top Democrats in the House or Senate have called for such a move. Those Democrats who have expressed openness to eliminating ICE have said they would not abandon border enforcement, which is largely carried out by Customs and Border Protection.


——


Associated Press writers Eric Tucker, Chad Day, Josh Boak, Seth Borenstein and Cal Woodward contributed to this report.


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Asian stocks rise, gripped by optimism on Wall Street

SINGAPORE — Asian stocks rose on Monday as a dovish speech by U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell and all-time highs on Wall Street gave markets a breather from trade tensions.


KEEPING SCORE: Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225 index added 0.7 per cent to 22,759.53 and South Korea’s Kospi rose less than 0.1 per cent to 2,293.67. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng jumped 1.9 per cent to 28,191.43. The Shanghai Composite rebounded 1.2 per cent to 2,760.86. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 gained 0.2 per cent to 6,259.90. Taiwan’s benchmark rose and Southeast Asian indexes were mostly higher.


WALL STREET: Major U.S. indexes finished higher on Friday, lifted by strong corporate earnings amid uncertainty from simmering trade tensions between the U.S. and China. The benchmark S&P 500 index closed at an all-time high, adding 0.6 per cent to 2,874.69. It has now finished with a weekly gain in seven out of the last eight weeks. The Nasdaq composite and the Russell 2000 indexes also ended the day at all-time highs. The Nasdaq gained 0.9 per cent to 7,945.98. The Russell 2000 index of smaller-company stocks picked up 0.5 per cent to 1,725.67. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 0.5 per cent, to 25,790.35.


DOVISH FED: U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell sketched a positive picture of the U.S. economy on Friday and said the Fed’s incremental approach to raising rates has so far succeeded. “The economy is strong. Inflation is near our 2 per cent objective, and most people who want a job are finding one. We are setting policy to do what monetary policy can do to support continued growth, a strong labour market and inflation near 2 per cent,” Powell said, at an annual conference of central bankers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The chairman’s measured tone about the economy and his message that the Fed plans to stick with a gradual pace of rate hikes appeared to sit well with investors. The Dow Jones industrial average closed up 133 points — about half a percentage point — and bond prices rose as well.


TRADE TENSIONS: The United States and China have imposed 25 per cent tariffs on $16 billion of each other’s goods including automobiles, factory equipment and other goods. On Thursday, U.S. and Chinese negotiators ended two days of meetings without breaking a deadlock over trade that has unnerved financial markets and disrupted global commerce. Lindsay Walters, a White House spokeswoman, said the delegations exchanged views on achieving a balanced economic relationship, without mentioning further talks. China’s Commerce Ministry said the talks were constructive and the sides would maintain contact, but didn’t give details.


ANALYST’S TAKE: “The lingering theme from last Friday had been the Jackson Hole symposium which was perceivably dovish, enthusing equity markets into the end of the week,” Jingyi Pan of IG said in a commentary. “Still, the watch lies with data as we head into the end of the month while keeping that keen eye on trade tensions after last week’s failed talks,” she added.


ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude fell 13 cents to $68.59 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract gained 1.3 per cent to settle at $68.72 per barrel on Friday. Brent crude, used to price international oils, dropped 9 cents to $75.73 in London.


CURRENCIES: The dollar eased to 111.06 yen from 111.20 yen in late trading Friday. The euro rose to $1.1630 from $1.1625.

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Ostrich skin and Neo-Viagra? A shopping guide to North Korea

PYONGYANG, Korea, Democratic People’s Republic Of — Ostrich skin ready for tailoring, huge flat-screen TVs, “Neo-Viagra” and a cure for cancer?


North Korea’s official shopper’s guide is glossy and full of testimonials from satisfied customers and phone and email contact information for the dozens of companies pitching their latest products — though good luck reaching any of them.


The “2018 Korea Commodities” catalogue, produced by the North’s Committee for the Promotion of International Trade, reflects a side of North Korea often lost in the shadow of its nuclear weapons. Leader Kim Jong Un and many other North Koreans firmly believe their country needs to make more and better consumer goods and sell them to the outside world if it is ever going to have a strong — or even sustainable — economy.


More goods with the “made in North Korea” label are available than ever before, though international sanctions mean most can’t be sold abroad.


Here’s a look at what North Korea sees as some of its most promising products.


——


ENERGY DRINKS AND CHEESE-FlavourED ESKIMO PIES


Coke and other foreign brands are relatively rare and expensive in North Korea.


But the O-Il General Processing Factory has tried to fill the gap.


A surprising amount of shelf space in Pyongyang grocery stores, and increasingly stores elsewhere, has been taken over by sugary soft drinks, much of which is produced by O-Il and other well-known brands. Air Koryo, the country’s flagship airline, also has its own line of drinks.


O-Il, which means May Day, has 12 pages in the 207-page 2018 commodity catalogue introducing its line of nine energy drinks. Two are sold in plastic bottles shaped like barbells. A happy boy is shown lifting them over this head, while a rainbow-colored list of the drinks’ benefits includes the “stimulation of growth in height” and “greater spiritual exertion.”


O-il also produces dozens of yogurt and milk-flavoured drinks, fruit juices, tea, jellies and dozens of flavours of ice cream cones, popsicles and ice cream sandwiches, collectively known here as “Eskimo.” There’s chocolate and strawberry, of course, but also cheese, fermented bean and lactobacilli. One of O-Il’s latest offerings is “Hydrogen Water,” which it calls the “wonder health water of the 21st century.”


“With an antioxidant power 176 times that of vitamin C, 431 times vitamin E and 863 times more than coenzyme Q10,” its ad claims, “the hydrogen water is effective in avoiding mental and physical fatigues, retarding the aging process, neutralizing all kinds of poisons, preventing radioactive and oxidant damages, improving immunity, fighting cancer and treating arteriosclerosis through purification of blood.”


——


MIRACLE CURES FOR CANCER?


Traditional “Koryo” medicines dating to ancient times are widely used in North Korea, in part because of the scarcity of modern Western medicines, and have long been popular with Chinese tourists.


North Korea sees big potential for exports.


Leading the charge is the Pugang Pharmaceutic Co., Ltd, a pioneer both in making health supplements and in using advertising to sell them, a tricky undertaking given that such capitalist practices are still officially frowned upon. Posters for its best-known product — Royal Blood-Fresh — can be seen in department stores in Pyongyang and at souvenir shops catering to foreigners. It’s also featured in infomercials on Air Koryo flights from Beijing.


So what is it?


According to the catalogue, Royal Blood-Fresh is a supplement made primarily from beans that’s recommended for long flights to help prevent or cure deep vein thrombosis. Posters targeting foreign tourists say, “Fly safe with Royal Blood-Fresh” and “Who says you can’t grow younger and cleverer?”


Another heavily hyped supplement is Pugang’s “Kumdang-2 Injection,” a vegetable-based medication its producer says is exported to a dozen countries. It caused a buzz in the Western media a few years ago when it was advertised as an effective treatment for both cancer and tuberculosis, with no side effects, no less.


Some of the best testimonials in the catalogue come from the medicines section.


“When I was diagnosed at the hospital, I knew I had a tumour of 3×4 centimetres in size in the left lung,” reads a testimonial for the Tongbong Anticancer Drug by satisfied customer Ri Kum Jon, identified as a Pyongyang resident. “After I took three cartons for three months my appetite returned to normal — and more — I got weight by 3 kilograms (5 pounds). The tumour was killed … I had cured cancer using the single remedy of Tongbong Anticancer Drug. It is the greatest of the elixirs that brings life back to people.”


——


BOOM BOXES, CEMENT BAGS AND NANODIAMONDS


Sony, Samsung and Huawei don’t need to lose any sleep over it, but North Korea has several brands of electronics.


The Hana Electronics Trading Co., which began in 2003 as a joint venture with Phoenix Commercial Ventures in Britain, is one of the best known. It is promoting karaoke boom-boxes, flat-screen TVs and DVD players. Other well-known brands, like Achim and Pyolmuri, are pitching TVs — 3D compatibility appears to be a hot extra these days — along with laptops and tablets.


It’s unclear if the products are fully produced in North Korea or just assembled and rebranded.


But they do basically work.


Some of the guidebook’s ads — for bags of cement, for example, and medicinal stone tiles for use in saunas — are clearly directed at industrial buyers.


But it also has sections for lipsticks and skin creams by the Pyongyang Cosmetics Factory, lingerie from the Korea Ponghwa General Group, herbal toothpaste, brassware and Neo-Viagra-Y.R., which is touted as “the best sexual function activator at the moment.”


The Kangan Trading Co. is advertising nanodiamonds, useful for quantum computers and for chemotherapy.


Purity: 99-plus per cent.


——


Talmadge is the AP’s Pyongyang bureau chief. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter: @EricTalmadge

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China’s Didi suspends 1 carpooling service after killing

BEIJING — Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing has fired two executives and will suspend one of its carpooling services nationwide starting Monday after a woman was allegedly raped and killed by a driver in eastern China, the company said Sunday.


The moves come as the country’s largest online ride-hailing platform scrambles to address public complaints it isn’t doing enough to ensure the safety of its users who it says book 30 million rides daily.


The killing of the female passenger on Friday was the latest violent crime involving a Didi driver, only three months after another Didi driver allegedly killed a flight attendant.


Police in the city of Yueqing in Zhejiang province said they arrested a Didi driver who admitted raping and killing the 20-year-old woman on Friday. On Saturday, Didi Chuxing apologized, saying it has “inescapable responsibility” for the incident.


The victim had used the carpooling service in the afternoon and after getting into a car had sent a text message to her friends calling for help, police said.


Didi Chuxing will halt its “Hitch” service at midnight on Monday, it said, referring to a carpooling service, one of several ride-hailing options available on Didi’s platform.

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