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News Brief: Kim Jong Un In China, Gerrymandering At The Supreme Court


So a mysterious foreign visit really is not that mysterious anymore.


Yeah. Last night, Chinese and Korean media confirmed reports that North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, secretly traveled to Beijing this week to meet with China's president, Xi Jinping. Now, this is really big for a couple reasons. It's the first time that Kim is known to have visited another country since he took power in 2011. Second, it happened in the run-up to what could be another historic meeting for Kim with President Donald Trump in May. And all of this is happening as tensions are growing between the U.S. and China over trade. So what are we learning about this secret visit?

GREENE: Well, as much as we can. And let's go to Beijing now and NPR's Anthony Kuhn, who's on the line. Hi, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey there, David.

GREENE: So you didn't actually know this trip took place until it was over, right?

KUHN: Well, everybody knew something big was going on in Beijing yesterday. There was a lot of heavy security. There was a big motorcade zipping through the city. But the government said they knew nothing about it. Then, this morning - Wednesday, local time - China and North Korea's official news agencies reported the visit after it was finished.

So this actually goes back to the way North Korean leaders have done this for a long time. Kim Jong Un's father and grandfather traveled to China many times in these big, green, armored trains. And the news that they were there only went out after they rolled back over the border. So it harks back to the way things were for decades between China and North Korea when the leaders of China's Communist Party and North Korea's Worker's Party called each other comrade and spoke of socialist solidarity.

GREENE: And that's why people thought something was happening potentially because this big, armored train just doesn't roll into Beijing every day of the week (laughter).

KUHN: Sure does not.

GREENE: Was - why was this visit so significant?

KUHN: Well, basically, North Korea has been in a standoff with the rest of the world since 2009 when they said they were going to hang on to their nuclear weapons, and they've been testing them since then. Now, this month, North Korea indicated it was willing to abandon its nukes, but this is the first time that Kim Jong Un has actually said that in person to a foreign head of state.

What he said to Xi Jinping is if South Korea and the U.S. play along and they create a stable and peaceful atmosphere on the peninsula, then we can resolve this nuclear issue. In a way, it's not unexpected. It's sort of like a second shoe dropping. North Korea had already promised to hold talks with Seoul and Washington, so it was highly unlikely that it could leave out its main neighbor and ally. That doesn't mean, of course, at the end of the day, that Pyongyang will give up its nukes. We'll just have to see what happens if the talks get off the ground.

GREENE: OK. So this could've been China just wanting to get into the game of the diplomacy that President Trump has been talking about. But things are also kind of tense right now between Beijing and Washington. Is that tied into this visit somehow?

KUHN: Yeah, I think so. I mean, they're tense over the sort of brewing trade war that's going on. The Trump administration is beefing up ties with Taiwan and there are continued disputes over the South China Sea. And that makes it a good time for China to say, hey, remember that North Korea is our ally. But there's also coordination going on. China informed the White House about Kim's visit. And tomorrow, they'll send a top diplomat to Seoul to fill in the South Koreans about it.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beijing. Anthony, thanks a lot.

KUHN: You're welcome.


GREENE: All right. So today, the Supreme Court is going to be hearing arguments on a divisive issue.

KING: Yes, a literally divisive issue, David. This case is about partisan gerrymandering, which means cutting up congressional districts to favor one political party over another. And this particular case comes out of Maryland. But the outcome could change the way that state politicians operate all across the country.

GREENE: All right, Marcia Coyle is with us. She's the chief Washington correspondent for The National Law Journal. Thanks for coming on.

MARCIA COYLE: It's a pleasure, David.

GREENE: So what exactly are the justices being asked to decide in this Maryland case?

COYLE: They're being asked, did Maryland Democratic lawmakers violate the First Amendment rights of voters in the 6th Congressional District when they rejiggered the district's lines during redistricting to shift it from a safe Republican district to a Democratic district?

GREENE: Now, that is known as partisan gerrymandering. And my knowledge of all of this is not all that great, but I thought that lower courts have often struck down maps when there's been racial gerrymandering.

COYLE: Yes, they have.

GREENE: But the Supreme Court usually allows partisan gerrymandering. They've never struck that down. Now we have this case in Maryland. We also have a Supreme Court case - well, a case in front of the Supreme Court in Wisconsin. So are things changing? Could this actually radically change the way courts treat partisan gerrymandering?

COYLE: Absolutely. More than a decade ago, the court had a partisan gerrymandering case out of Pennsylvania. And they essentially threw up their hands, saying, look, we can't find a standard or a test to determine when partisan politics goes too far in redistricting. And they didn't touch it then until this term when they took the two cases. The hope is - at least the challengers in - to the Maryland and Wisconsin districts - the hope is that the court now is ready to come up with some kind of test or standard that lower courts can apply when they're faced with challenges based on partisan gerrymandering.

GREENE: So this could potentially set precedent and really open the floodgates for challenges and mean that there will be much less partisan gerrymandering if any at all in the future.

COYLE: That's very possible. There's a belief by a lot of political organizations - bipartisan belief, by the way - that partisan gerrymandering is happening all around the country and has gone too far.

GREENE: And, Marcia, could these decisions actually affect the congressional elections in this midterm election year right now?

COYLE: It's hard to tell. I mean, certainly for the Maryland and Wisconsin cases, whatever the court decides would have an impact on those two states and the midterm elections. We just have to wait to see. We have to find out, you know, what the court actually says and directs the lower courts to do.

GREENE: Marcia Coyle is the chief Washington correspondent for The National Law Journal. We appreciate your time this morning. Thanks.

COYLE: It's a pleasure. Take care.

GREENE: You too.


GREENE: OK, let's turn now to some exclusive reporting from NPR. This involves thousands of Americans who made a crucial career decision to help pay for their education, and some of them are now saying that the government has betrayed them.

KING: Yeah, this story is about teachers who agreed to work in low-income school districts as part of a federal grant program. Now the deal was, in exchange, they would be eligible to get thousands of dollars to help them pay for college or a master's degree. But some of these teachers say they saw their grants change to loans without any notice. And this may have happened to as many as 12,000 teachers in the program, according to a new report obtained by NPR.

GREENE: And it was obtained by NPR's Cory Turner, who co-reported this story that is just out this morning. Cory is with us. Hey there, Cory.


GREENE: So maybe it would be most helpful if you introduced us to one teacher - just a personal story to help us understand exactly what's happening here.

TURNER: Yeah, you bet. One of the teachers we met is Maggie Webb. She's an eighth grade math teacher in Chelsea, Mass. And you know, much of her problem and the problem for lots of other teachers in this story really boils down to paperwork. See, once participants in this TEACH Grant Program start teaching, they have to send in a form every year proving that they're meeting the program's requirements or at least certifying that they intend to. So if you don't fill it out right or you miss the ultimate deadline, they can convert your grant to a loan, even though, technically, folks have eight years to make good on this commitment.

Now, Maggie Webb says the company the Ed Department hired to manage her grant never sent her this form. So she reached out to the department. She got the form. She sent it in. The company didn't get it. She sent it in again. By then, it was too late. Her grant had been converted. Let's take a listen.

MAGGIE WEBB: It just made me angry because I was working in a low-income school and I still am. And I don't know why I'm being punished for that. This is something to help teachers. And instead, they're just kind of targeting them.

TURNER: And, David, Maggie Webb is one of many teachers now who's suing the Department of Education about this.

GREENE: Yeah, I mean, you're talking about thousands of teachers in this position who felt that they were going to teach in low-income districts, get this grant. And now, they actually, instead, owe money. I mean, what - is there something they can do about it now?

TURNER: Well, so this is the really interesting thing about it. I mean, according to this new study, which was commissioned by the Ed Department of the program - it found that of the people who had had their grants converted to loans - and this is actually the majority of the people in the program - 1 in 3 of those folks said on a survey that they had either already met the requirements - the teaching requirements of the program - or they felt like they were likely to. And again, the review found that nearly two-thirds of everyone in the TEACH Grant Program - that they studied anyway - had essentially failed out. They'd been converted - had their grants converted into loans.

GREENE: That's extraordinary. I mean, does the Department of Education actually explain why these conversions are happening?

TURNER: So it - well, it is complicated. There are a number of reasons. And to be fair, a lot of these conversions are justified because not everyone who says in college, look, I want to be a teacher, give me a grant. Not all of them go on to become teachers. And obviously, some may, but maybe they don't teach in a school in a low-income community or maybe they're not teaching a high-need subject like math or science.

But it is clear that paperwork is really hanging up a lot of these teachers. And the Ed Department said in a statement the results are concerning...

GREENE: All right.

TURNER: ...And they're going to review what they can do about it.

GREENE: Cory Turner, thanks.

TURNER: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.