Plumlee leads No. 2 Duke past UNC, 73-68

DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — With its star big man on the bench with foul trouble, Duke went small to beat its top rival — and one of its smallest players came up big.

The run that propelled the second-ranked Blue Devils to a 73-68 victory over North Carolina on Wednesday night started when Mason Plumlee sat down and backup guard Tyler Thornton warmed up.

"I think the hero for us this game was Thornton," coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "He would not let us lose."

Plumlee finished with his usual big numbers — 18 points, 11 rebounds — while Quinn Cook scored 18 points and Rasheed Sulaimon finished with 13 for the Blue Devils (22-2, 9-2 Atlantic Coast Conference).

But the contributions of Thornton couldn't be overlooked.

Thornton finished with nine points on three 3-pointers — or, as many points as he had in his previous three games combined — and two of those 3s came during the run midway through the second half that completely flipped the game's momentum.

"It's just the heart and the will to want to win," Thornton said. "Especially coming down the stretch, you've got to go all out and leave it on the floor, and I think we did that."

Duke shot 44 percent — 52 percent after halftime — and erased a slow start with that timely run and win its sixth straight this season and sixth in eight meetings in college basketball's fiercest rivalry.

P.J. Hairston matched a career high with 23 points and Reggie Bullock had 15 points with four 3-pointers for North Carolina (16-8, 6-5), which led for the first 26 minutes but went on to lose its second straight.

The Tar Heels were 13 of 23 from the free-throw line and missed 7 of 10 during a critical late stretch while falling to 1-4 this season against ranked opponents.

"If I knew how to fix the blessed thing, I would have fixed it," coach Roy Williams said of his team's struggles at the line. "The bottom line is, we didn't make free throws today. We're not a good free-throw shooting team in games."

Still, they trailed just 65-61 in the final minute and appeared to have gotten a stop by forcing Thornton to miss a long 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down. But Bullock fouled Sulaimon on the rebound, and the freshman hit both free throws with 37.5 seconds left.

Hairston hit a free throw on North Carolina's next possession to cut it to 67-62, but Plumlee countered with two free throws with 30.3 seconds left to make it a three-possession game.

Seth Curry scored 11 points in his sixth straight double-figure performance against North Carolina.

The win was a nice present for Krzyzewski, who was celebrating his 66th birthday.

And an unorthodox move — putting one of the best big men in the nation on the bench, however briefly — wound up putting Duke ahead for the first time in this one.

Plumlee picked up his third foul 31 seconds into the second half and uncorked an untimely 20-foot jumper a few minutes later, prompting Krzyzewski to burn a timeout. He went to a smaller lineup, sitting Plumlee in favor of two power forwards, Amile Jefferson and Josh Hairston.

"I thought he was playing like he had three fouls," Krzyzewski said. UNC's James Michael "McAdoo was just going at him so that McAdoo was either going to score, or Mason was going to foul him."

The move freed up some space for the Duke guards and immediately led to six quick points to start the 19-7 run that put the Blue Devils ahead to stay.

Duke outscored North Carolina 11-3 during the 4-minute stretch with Plumlee on the bench and took their first lead when Curry swished a 3 from in front of the bench to make it 42-41 with 14 minutes left.

Thornton — who had missed 12 of 14 3-pointers during his previous eight games — hit two of them from the same spot in the right corner, capping the spurt with his second that made it 50-45 with 12½ minutes to go.

Curry eventually stretched the lead to 59-51 with another 3 with 5 minutes left.

"They started knocking down shots in the second half, open 3-pointers," Bullock said. "I think our team played great, we played with better sense of urgency, we played with better effort, we were more involved in the game and what's happening. But they started knocking down shots and they started gaining momentum, and we wasn't connecting when we were open."

Dexter Strickland added 14 points but McAdoo was held to nine on 4-of-12 shooting for North Carolina, which came in as a written-off, double-digit underdog after a 26-point loss at No. 3 Miami that marked its worst loss of the season.

But the Tar Heels were aggressive early and methodically built a double-figure lead, the third straight year they came into Cameron and went up by 10. Bullock's third 3 of the half with about 6:45 left put North Carolina up 28-18.

"The intensity tonight was better than it has been all year long," Williams said.

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Obama and Rubio: How did they do?

(CNN) -- CNN asked for views on President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night, which was dominated by domestic issues such as the economy and need to reinvigorate the middle class, gun control, minimum wage, early education and immigration. Afterward, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida delivered the Republican response.

Sutter: A night that offered no hope for the jobless

John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion. He heads the section\'s Change the List project, which focuses on human rights and social justice.

John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion. He heads the section's Change the List project, which focuses on human rights and social justice.

After Barack Obama's speech and Marco Rubio's rebuttal, we should have heard from Kim Peters.

The 47-year-old single mother, who has been more or less unemployed since the start of the Great Recession, wore fuzzy Shrek slippers as she watched the president's State of the Union address Tuesday night from the middle of an empty living room south of Atlanta.

If the country and the president could have peered back at her through her small TV, they would have seen the piles of black trash bags, full of clothes, in the corners of the room. They haven't been unpacked since she was evicted from her last apartment. They would have seen the worry in her eyes -- felt the panic that wakes her up at 3 a.m. and makes her wonder how long it will be before she and her 7-year-old daughter end up homeless. Full story

Granderson: Rubio must have missed the year of the woman

LZ Granderson, who writes a weekly column for, is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN the Magazine and

LZ Granderson, who writes a weekly column for, is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN the Magazine and

You would think that in the shadow of a general election dubbed "Year of the Woman," the last thing any Republican in Washington would want to do is tick off women.

And while the Violence Against Women Act passed in the Senate by a healthy bipartisan majority a few hours before President Obama's State of the Union address, the fact that 22 senators -- all Republicans, all men -- voted against it should be troubling to GOP leaders.

And perhaps the most troubling aspect of that is Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the so-called savior of the Republican Party, was one of those Republican men.

Just think: A few hours before Rubio was to deliver a message reflecting a new Republican Party, he casts a vote that screams more of the same. Full story

Welch: Obama's 'do-something' plan for 'have-nothing' government

Matt Welch is editor-in-chief of Reason and co-author of \

Matt Welch is editor-in-chief of Reason and co-author of "The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America."

The two most memorable lines of President Barack Obama's fourth State of the Union address were the ad-libbed: "Get it done" (which doesn't appear in the remarks as prepared), and the emotional "They deserve a vote," concerning victims of gun violence.

As exasperated appeals for an obstructionist Congress to get off its duff, the exhortations provided emotional catnip for Democrats. For the rest of us, however, they were sobering reminders of what governing liberalism has deteriorated into: content-free calls to take action for action's sake.

Consumers of national governance are within their rights to ask just what we've gotten in return for ballooning the cost of the stuff since 2000. The answer may lie in not just what the president said, but what he has assumed we've already forgotten. Full story

Rothkopf: Obama's message: I'm in charge

David Rothkopf is CEO and editor-at-large of the FP Group, publishers of Foreign Policy magazine, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.\n

David Rothkopf is CEO and editor-at-large of the FP Group, publishers of Foreign Policy magazine, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

It is sometimes said of a great actor that he could hold an audience spellbound while reading a laundry list. This is essentially what President Obama tried to do on Tuesday night. As State of the Union addresses go, his was artless. It lacked inspired phrases or compelling narrative. Save for the energy he gave it at key moments, it was pedestrian.

It was also very important.

It was important because with it, Obama returned in earnest to the work of governing. Having won a clear victory in November, and having spent the intervening months putting out the wildfires our Congress likes to set, he delivered word Tuesday night that he had a clear and full agenda for his second term. Full story

Navarrette: A kinder, gentler, wiser Marco Rubio

Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.

Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.

Sen. Marco Rubio was ready for his close-up, and he got it. Now you know what all the fuss is about.

Rubio, a rising star and possible 2016 GOP presidential hopeful, was picked to deliver the official Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union sddress.

The selection tells you a lot about what the Republican Party has in store for Rubio, and what this 41-year-old son of Cuban immigrants can do for a party that needs to become more user-friendly for Latinos. His remarks were also delivered in Spanish. Full story

Slaughter: Obama dares Congress to get the job done

Anne-Marie Slaughter is a former director of policy planning in the U.S. State Department and a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.

Anne-Marie Slaughter is a former director of policy planning in the U.S. State Department and a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.

The hallmark of the 2013 State of the Union address was progressive pragmatism.

Time and again, President Obama punctuated his proposals with the refrain: "We should be able to get that done." After his call for "bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and helps bring down the deficit," he said: "We can get this done," and later, "That's what we can do together."

When he proposed the addition of three more urban manufacturing hubs and asked Congress "to help create a network of 15 of these hubs and guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is made right here in America," he added: "We can get that done." Full story

Coleman: Where was the foreign policy?

Isobel Coleman is the author of \

Isobel Coleman is the author of "Paradise Beneath Her Feet" and a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

President Obama's State of the Union address predictably focused on his domestic priorities.

Immigration reform, a laundry list of economic initiatives including infrastructure improvements (Fix it First), clean energy, some manufacturing innovation, a bit of educational reform and the rhetorical high point of his speech -- gun control.

As in years past, foreign policy made up only about 15% of the speech, but even within that usual limited attention, Tuesday night's address pointed to few new directions.

On Afghanistan -- America's longest war -- Obama expressed just a continued commitment to bringing the troops home, ending "our war" while theirs continues. On Iran, there was a single sentence reiterating the need for a diplomatic solution, which makes me think that a big diplomatic push is not likely. Full story

Greene: In 2013, democracy talks back about State of the Union

CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include \

CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War."

"To report the state of the union." Within the first few seconds of President Barack Obama's address Tuesday night, he quoted the late President John F. Kennedy, who 51 years ago used those words to describe a president's annual duty.

As Obama spoke, citizens around the country were tapping away at keyboards, posting and sending messages -- public and private -- characterizing their own view of how the union, and its president, are faring.

Obama told the packed House of Representatives chamber: "We can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger." And those citizens around the country, typing away, were in essence saying: We'll be the ones to decide that, thank you very much. Full story

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of the writers.

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Anxiety grows as Chicago Public Schools narrows closing list

After trimming the number of schools that could be closed to 129, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's school administration on Wednesday entered the latest and what is likely to be the most intense phase so far in trying to determine which schools should be shut.

Chicago Public Schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett is expected to pare the preliminary list before unveiling a final one at the end of March. She said administrators will determine which schools are saved in the coming weeks amid a final round of community meetings to hear arguments from parents, teachers and community groups about why their schools should stay open.

If a hearing Wednesday night in North Lawndale was any indication, CPS still has a long way to go to gain the public's trust.

"Our schools don't need to close," Dwayne Truss, vice chairman of CPS' Austin Community Action Council, said in front of hundreds of people packed inside a church auditorium in the West Side neighborhood. "CPS is perpetrating a myth that there's a budget crisis."

CPS initially said 330 of its schools are underenrolled, the chief criterion for closing. Members of a commission assembled to gather public input on the issue told CPS officials earlier this year that closing a large number of schools would create too much upheaval. The Tribune, citing sources, said the commission indicated a far smaller number should be closed than initially feared, possibly as few as 15.

CPS then started holding its own hearings and on Wednesday, while following many of the formal recommendations made by the Commission on School Utilization, said 129 schools still fit the criteria for closing.

The new number and the latest round of hearings sets the stage for the administration to counter questions about the district's abilities to close a large number of schools and the need to do so.

For many who have already turned up to school closing meetings, this final round of hearings will be even more critical. School supporters must show how they plan to turn around academic performance and build enrollment, and also make the case for any security problems that would be created by closing their school.

"We are prepared now to move to the next level of conversation with our community and discuss a list of approximately 129 schools that still require further vetting and further conversation," Bryd-Bennett said. "We are going to take these 129 and continue to sift through these schools."

In the past, political clout has played a role in the district's final decisions. Already this year, several aldermen have spoken out on behalf of schools in their wards.

On the Near Northwest Side, for instance, the initial list of 330 underused schools included about six in the 1st Ward. Ald. Proco "Joe" Moreno helped organize local school council members, school administrators and parents to fight any closing. He also took that fight to leaders in City Hall and within CPS' bureaucracy. Nearly all of the schools in the ward were excluded from the list of 129.

"It is effort and it's organizing and not just showing up at meetings and yelling. Anybody can do that," Moreno said. "Those schools that proactively work before those meetings and explain what they are doing, what they need and that they are willing to accept new students, that's when politics works.

"My responsibility in this juncture was to focus on these schools," he said. "I had to work on the inside, with CPS and with City Hall, and with my schools on the outside."

Most of the schools on the list of 129 are on the West, South and Southwest sides, many in impoverished neighborhoods that saw significant population loss over the last decade. Largely spared were the North and Northwest sides.

In all, more than 43,000 students attend those 129 schools on the preliminary list, according to CPS records.

The area with the most schools on the list is a CPS network (the district groups its schools in 14 networks) that runs roughly from Madison Street south to 71st Street and from the lake to State Street. The preliminary list includes 24 schools in that area.

The Englewood-Gresham network has the second-largest number, 19, while the Austin-North Lawndale network where Wednesday night's meeting was held still has 16 schools on the list.

CPS critics said the preliminary list is still too large to be meaningful and that the district's promise to trim it before March 31 is only a tactic to make the final number seem reasonable.

"They started out with such a far-fetched, exaggerated list of schools, many of which are nowhere near underutilized," said Wendy Katten, co-founder of the parent group Raise Your Hand. "They might appear to be looking like they're listening, but they're not. They have not done a thorough and substantive assessment of these schools."

Following the commission's recommendations, CPS last month removed high schools and schools performing at a high level academically from consideration. On Wednesday, the district said schools with more than 600 students or utilization rates of at least 70 percent have also been taken out of consideration for closing.

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South Korea unveils missile it says can hit North's leaders

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea unveiled a cruise missile on Thursday that it said can hit the office of North Korea's leaders, trying to address concerns that it is technologically behind its unpredictable rival which this week conducted its third nuclear test.

South Korean officials declined to say the exact range of the missile but said it could hit targets anywhere in North Korea.

The Defence Ministry released video footage of the missiles being launched from destroyers and submarines striking mock targets. The weapon was previewed in April last year and officials said deployment was now complete.

"The cruise missile being unveiled today is a precision-guided weapon that can identify and strike the window of the office of North Korea's leadership," ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said told reporters.

North Korea has forged ahead with long-range missile development, successfully launching a rocket in December that put a satellite into orbit.

The North's ultimate aim, Washington believes, is to design an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead that could hit the United States.

North Korea, which accuses the United States and its "puppet", South Korea, of war-mongering on an almost daily basis, is likely to respond angrily to South Korea flexing its muscles.

North Korea, technically still at war with the South after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, carried out its third nuclear test on Tuesday, drawing condemnation from around the world including its only major ally China.

The test and the threat of more unspecified actions from Pyongyang have raised tensions on the Korean peninsula as the South prepares to inaugurate a new president on February 25.

"The situation prevailing on the Korean peninsula at present is so serious that even a slight accidental case may lead to an all-out war which can disturb the whole region," North Korea's official KCNA news agency said.

(Reporting by Ju-min Park; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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Firmer yen boosts Korean shares, underpins Asia stocks

TOKYO (Reuters) - Asian shares outside of Japan rose on Wednesday, led by South Korean exporters as the yen firmed amid conflicting interpretations of G7 comments about the currency's recent weakness.

The MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan <.miapj0000pus> gained 0.9 percent.

Seoul shares <.ks11> outperformed with a 1.5 percent jump while Australian shares jumped 0.9 percent after record first-half earnings from the Commonwealth Bank of Australia boosted sentiment.

The Nikkei stock average <.n225> slumped 1.1 percent as the firming yen prompted investors to take profits on exporters. <.t/>

China, Taiwan and Hong Kong markets remain closed for the Lunar New Year holiday.

European markets will be mixed, with financial spreadbetters predicting London's FTSE 100 <.ftse>, Paris's CAC-40 <.fchi> and Frankfurt's DAX <.gdaxi> would open between a 0.1 percent fall and a 0.4 percent gain. U.S. stock futures were up 0.1 percent to suggest a somewhat firmer Wall Street open. <.l><.eu><.n/>

Investors continued to seek cues from currency markets before a meeting of the Group of 20 finance ministers and central bankers in Moscow on Friday and Saturday, with growing international tensions over exchange rates.

At the center of the debate is Japan, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government has made it clear that it will push for aggressive policies to beat stubborn deflation through drastic monetary expansion. Anticipation of much bolder Bank of Japan monetary policy has sent the yen into a steady decline, helping boost Japanese stocks to 33-month highs.

"The Japanese stock market may have rallied too strongly on expectations alone. I don't believe the Japanese government is manipulating currency rates, but it is maybe time that an equilibrium point may be sought for the yen's level given that some other countries may see weaker currencies as beneficial to their economies," said Yuuki Sakurai, CEO at Fukoku Capital Management in Tokyo.

The yen's respite from heavy selling eased concerns for investors in South Korea.

"The main board's rebound was driven by a break in the yen's weakness, following signs that the won's strength has abated somewhat," said Lim Dong-rak, an analyst at Hanyang Securities in Seoul.

The yen rallied on Tuesday, reversing the previous day's late selloff against the dollar and euro, after an official with the Group of Seven said it is worried about excess moves in the Japanese currency.

G7 governors and ministers reaffirmed their commitment that fiscal and monetary policies would not be directed at devaluing currencies, a statement meant to reassure investors that Tokyo was not aiming to guide the yen lower with its aggressive expansion of monetary policy.

"All these comments are merely stating the obvious and are not to be taken in the context of whether they are endorsing a weaker yen or not," said Yuji Saito, director of foreign exchange at Credit Agricole in Tokyo.

"What is being said is that monetary policy should be used to achieve domestic objectives and Japan is undertaking reflationary policies, not manipulating currency rates, and the result of that is a weak yen. What is asked for from Japan is to explain its policy clearly at the G20," Saito said.

The dollar dropped 0.6 percent to 92.95 yen after marking its highest level since May 2010 of 94.465 on Monday. The euro tumbled 0.6 percent to 125.01 yen, moving further away from its highest since April 2010 of 127.71 yen touched last week.

The BOJ ends a two-day policy meeting on Thursday, with markets expecting no fresh easing steps this time. But expectations are running high that further unprecedented measures will be taken under a new BOJ regime due to start next month after the terms of current top officials end.

"So far, the yen has been weakening on expectations for a bold monetary policy, and from now, Japan has to implement actual policy to justify such expectations," said Naohiko Baba, Japan chief economist at Goldman Sachs.

The euro steadied around $1.3450, keeping overnight gains made after European Central Bank President Mario Draghi said talk of a currency war was overdone, and that Spain was on the right track toward economic recovery.

In his annual State of the Union address, U.S. President Barack Obama proposed on Tuesday to hike the minimum wage by more than 20 percent, invest $50 billion on crumbling roads and bridges and spend $15 billion on a construction jobs program in a bid to boost economic growth.

U.S. crude was up 0.1 percent to $97.60 a barrel and Brent was steady around $118.61.

Palladium extended gains to a 17-month high as supply concerns sparked speculative buying, while gold edged up on demand from jewellers.

(Additional reporting by Joyce Lee in Seoul; Editing by Eric Meijer & Kim Coghill)

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Body slam for wrestling: Sport cut from Olympics

LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — For wrestling, this may have been the ultimate body slam: getting tossed out of the Olympic rings.

The vote Tuesday by the IOC's executive board stunned the world's wrestlers, who see their sport as popular in many countries and steeped in history as old as the Olympics themselves.

While wrestling will be included at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, it was cut from the games in 2020, which have yet to be awarded to a host city.

2004 Olympic Greco-Roman champion Khasan Baroev of Russia called the decision "mind-boggling."

"I just can't believe it. And what sport will then be added to the Olympic program? What sport is worthy of replacing ours?" Baroev told the ITAR-Tass news agency. "Wrestling is popular in many countries — just see how the medals were distributed at the last Olympics."

American Rulan Gardner, who upset three-time Russian Olympic champion Alexander Karelin at the Sydney Games in an epic gold-medal bout known as the "Miracle on the Mat," was saddened by the decision to drop what he called "a beloved sport."

"It's the IOC trying to change the Olympics to make it more mainstream and more viewer-friendly instead of sticking to what they founded the Olympics on," Gardner told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Logan, Utah.

The executive board of the International Olympic Committee reviewed the 26 sports on its summer program in order to remove one of them so it could add one later this year. It decided to cut wrestling and keep modern pentathlon — a sport that combines fencing, horse riding, swimming, running and shooting — and was considered to be the most likely to be dropped.

The board voted after reviewing a report by the IOC program commission report that analyzed 39 criteria, including TV ratings, ticket sales, anti-doping policy and global participation and popularity. With no official rankings or recommendations contained in the report, the final decision by the 15-member board was also subject to political, emotional and sentimental factors.

"This is a process of renewing and renovating the program for the Olympics," IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. "In the view of the executive board, this was the best program for the Olympic Games in 2020. It's not a case of what's wrong with wrestling; it is what's right with the 25 core sports."

According to IOC documents obtained by the AP, wrestling ranked "low" in several of the technical criteria, including popularity with the public at the London Games — just below 5 on a scale of 10. Wrestling sold 113,851 tickets in London out of 116,854 available.

Wrestling also ranked "low" in global TV audience with a maximum of 58.5 million viewers and an average of 23 million, the documents show. Internet hits and press coverage were also ranked as low.

NBC, which televises the Olympics in the U.S., declined comment.

The IOC also noted that FILA — the international wrestling federation — has no athletes on its decision-making bodies, no women's commission, no ethics rules for technical officials and no medical official on its executive board.

Modern pentathlon also ranked low in general popularity in London, with 5.2 out of 10. The sport also ranked low in all TV categories, with maximum viewership of 33.5 million and an average of 12.5 million.

FILA has 177 member nations, compared to 108 for modern pentathlon.

Modern pentathlon, which has been on the Olympic program since the 1912 Stockholm Games, was created by French baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement.

It also benefited from the work of Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., the son of the former IOC president who is a UIPM vice president and member of the IOC board.

"We were considered weak in some of the scores in the program commission report but strong in others," Samaranch told the AP. "We played our cards to the best of our ability and stressed the positives."

Klaus Schormann, president of governing body UIPM, lobbied hard to protect his sport's Olympic status and it paid off in the end.

"We have promised things and we have delivered," he said after Tuesday's decision. "That gives me a great feeling. It also gives me new energy to develop our sport further and never give up."

The IOC executive board will meet in May in St. Petersburg, Russia, to decide which sport or sports to propose for 2020 inclusion. The final vote will be made at the IOC session, or general assembly, in September in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Wrestling will now join seven other sports in applying for 2020, but it is extremely unlikely that it would be voted back in so soon after being removed by the executive board.

The other sports vying for a single opening in 2020 are a combined bid from baseball and softball, karate, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding and wushu, a martial art.

"Today's decision is not final," Adams said. "The session is sovereign and the session will make the final decision."

Wrestling featured 344 athletes competing in 11 medal events in freestyle and seven in Greco-Roman at last year's London Olympics, with Russia dominating the podium but Iran and Azerbaijan making strong showings. Women's wrestling was added to the Olympics at the 2004 Athens Games.

Karelin noted in an interview with Vyes' Sport that Russians and Soviets have won 77 gold medals.

"It's understandable that a lot of people didn't like this," Karelin said. "I'm not a supporter of conspiracy theory, but it seems to me that the underlying cause here is obvious."

Tuesday's decision came via secret ballot over four rounds, with 14 members voting each time on which sport should not be included in the core group. IOC President Jacques Rogge did not vote.

Three sports were left in the final round: wrestling, field hockey and modern pentathlon. Eight members voted against wrestling and three each against the other two sports. Taekwondo and canoe kayaking survived the previous rounds.

"I was shocked," said IOC board member Rene Fasel of Switzerland.

"It was an extremely difficult decision to take," added IOC Vice President Thomas Bach of Germany. "The motivation of every member is never based on a single reason. There are always several reasons. It was a secret vote. There will always be criticism, but I think the great majority will understand that we took a decision based on facts and for the modernization of the Olympic Games."

Wrestling was featured in the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896. Along with Russia's Karelin, it has produced such American stars as Gardner, Bruce Baumgartner, Jeff Blatnick and Jordan Burroughs.

U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun also expressed surprise at the IOC decision, citing "the history and tradition of wrestling, and its popularity and universality."

"It is important to remember that today's action is a recommendation, and we hope that there will be a meaningful opportunity to discuss the important role that wrestling plays in the sports landscape both in the United States and around the world," Blackmun said in a statement. "In the meantime, we will fully support USA Wrestling and its athletes."

FILA said in a statement that it was "greatly astonished" by the decision, adding that the federation "will take all necessary measures to convince the IOC executive board and IOC members of the aberration of such decision against one of the founding sports of the ancient and modern Olympic Games."

It said it has always complied with IOC regulations and is represented in 180 countries, with wrestling the national sport in some of them.

The federation, which is headed by Raphael Martinetti and based in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland, said it would meet next week in Thailand to discuss the matter.

Gardner cited wrestling's worldwide popularity and urged a campaign to keep it in the Olympics.

"It just seems like wrestling — if we don't fight, we're going to die," he said. "At this point, it's time for everybody to man up and support the program."

The decision hit hard in Russia, which has long been a power in the sport.

Mikhail Mamiashvili, president of the Russian Wrestling Federation, suggested FILA had not done enough to keep the sport in the games.

"We want to hear what was done to prevent this issue from even being discussed at the board," he said on the Rossiya TV channel.

In comments carried by ITAR-Tass, Mamiashvili added: "I can say for sure that the roots of this problem is at the FILA. I believe that Martinetti's task was to work hard, socialize and defend wrestling's place before the IOC."

Alexander Leipold, a 2000 Olympic champion from Germany and former freestyle German team coach, said he was shocked.

"We are a technical, tactical martial sport where the aim is not to harm the opponent," he said. "Competing at the Olympics is the greatest for an athlete."

Wrestling's long history in the Olympics has featured some top names and moments:

— Karelin won the super-heavyweight gold in Greco-Roman over three straight Olympics — 1988, 1992 and 1996 — until his streak was ended by Gardner, who beat him for the gold in 2000.

— Baumgartner won four Olympic medals, including golds in 1984 and 1992.

— Blatnick overcame cancer to win gold in Greco-Roman at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, bursting into tears after the match. Blatnick died last year at age 55.

— Burroughs emerged as the star of the sport in London, where he won the 74-kilogram gold.

The last sports removed from the Olympics were baseball and softball, voted out by the IOC in 2005 and off the program since the 2008 Beijing Games. Golf and rugby will be joining the program at the 2016 Games in Rio.

Among those in Lausanne were the leaders of the recently created World Baseball Softball Confederation. The two sports agreed last year to merge in a joint bid to return to the games.

Don Porter, the American who heads international softball, and Riccardo Fraccari, the Italian who leads baseball, are working out the final details of their unified body ahead of their presentation to the IOC in May.

A major hurdle remains the lack of a commitment from Major League Baseball to release top players for the Olympics.

Porter and Fraccari said they hope to have another meeting with MLB officials in April in Tokyo.

"The next thing is to sit down with them and see how they can help us," Porter said. "It all depends on the timing, the timing of the season. It's not an easy decision to allow players a week off."


Associated Press writers Lynn Berry in Moscow and Luke Meredith in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this story.

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Obama's chance to lead?


  • John Avlon: President Barack Obama is well-positioned to help solve debt problem

  • He says Obama should avoid temptation favored by some Democrats to put off action

  • Relatively modest changes in entitlements could help ensure their survival, Avlon says

  • Avlon: Obama can rally his party behind deficit cuts that won't hurt economy

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns." He is a regular contributor to "Erin Burnett OutFront" and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team. For more political analysis, tune in to "Erin Burnett OutFront" at 7 ET weeknights.

(CNN) -- "What we have done is kicked this can down the road. We are now at the end of the road and are not in a position to kick it any further. ... We have to signal seriousness in this by making sure some of the hard decisions are made under my watch, not someone else's."

So said President-elect Barack Obama at a Washington Post editorial board meeting in January 2009, just days before taking his first oath of office. He was talking about the importance of dealing with the long-term deficit and debt.

The rhetoric hasn't met the record -- debt has exploded under Obama's watch. Reasonable people can forgive the president for expenses incurred while confronting the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression -- and, let's be honest, alternative paths of austerity have not worked that well across the Atlantic. But now is the time to get serious about reigning in our long-term debt, which now exceeds an unsustainable 70% of gross domestic product.

At this moment of maximum political capital, Obama is perfectly positioned to act on his original impulse in the State of the Union on Tuesday night.

But there is a dangerous bit of hubris sweeping the Democratic Party, which says that dealing with deficits and debt is a sucker's bet, best left to the next Republican president.

Instead, the Keynesians are riding high and arguing that deficit and debt is not a primary concern to most voters and irrelevant to economic growth. And so the pregame expectation setting comes: White House minions told The Washington Post not to expect the president to present "an ambitious new plan to rein in the debt" in the State of the Union.

Opinion: Obama needs to lay out a plan on climate crisis

This would be a major mistake and a costly lost opportunity.

With an eye toward his legacy, Obama should follow his original instincts and put the power of presidency behind a balanced long-term plan to deal with deficits and debt -- including spending cuts, tax reform and, most importantly, entitlement reform.

This is the time for Obama to pull a Nixon in China.

Just as only a committed anti-communist such as Nixon could establish relations with communist China, Obama is perfectly positioned to do what he knows is necessary to preserve the long-term strength and solvency of the social safety net: Medicare and Social Security.

This does not mean draconian cuts or a voucherization of the existing system as imagined by Rep. Paul Ryan and many House Republicans. But it does mean following through on the president's previous negotiated offers to consider "chained CPI," which would lower inflation-related increases in Social Security benefits, and to raise the eligibility age for Medicare.

Formula adjustments such as these can save billions of dollars over the next 10 years, keeping these popular programs solvent. Other solutions, such as raising the Social Security payroll tax cap to more than the current income cutoff of $110,000, are worth consideration as part of a package. This is an idea that liberals love because it extends the progressivity of the tax code to the wealthiest Americans.

Alternatively, we could means-test Social Security to make sure it serves primarily as a safety net -- or (gasp!) raise the retirement age. When the Bowles-Simpson commission suggested raising the retirement age to 69 in 2075, it was met with howls of outrage from unions in particular. This makes no sense, especially if common-sense exemptions are made for manual labor.

Beltway cynics say that the bipartisan deficit and debt reduction plans that are often cited have no chance of passing Congress. When you look at the pathetic support for Bowles-Simpson when it was actually put to a vote in the House last March -- 16 Republicans and 22 Democrats supported it -- you see why cynicism is always a safe bet in Washington.

But take a step back, and you'll see much broader support among the American people. The Pew Research Center found that the top three issues are "strengthening the economy" (at 86%), "improving the jobs situation" (79%) and "reducing the budget deficit" (at 72%). Crucially, the deficit has shown the biggest increase as an issue over the past four years -- up 19 percentage points from 2009. This is evidence of a pent-up demand for action -- but it will require presidential leadership.

Of course the devil is in the details, and politicos will point out that when confronted with tough medicine to deal with deficits and debt, even alleged tea party supporters balk (hence the classic "Government Get Your Hands Off My Medicare!" sign that I saw at one 2009 rally).

But strengthening America to remain competitive in the 21st century will require getting our long-term debt under control along with other important but less poll-prioritized policies such as comprehensive immigration reform and a public-private infrastructure bank to fund nation-building "here at home."

The State of the Union is a chance for the president to put forward a balanced bipartisan solution that contrasts with radical conservatives who believe that increased tax revenues from closed tax loopholes can't be part of a big deal to bring down our debt. Wall Street lawyers will fight to protect every loophole they embedded in our tax code, but their argument doesn't begin to make sense to people on Main Street.

Obama will probably point out Tuesday night that economic growth is the essential X Factor to reducing long-term deficits and debt. On this point at least, he and some conservatives might agree. But dumb meat cleaver cuts such as the looming sequestration could push our economy back into recession.

That's why a smart balanced alternative plan is necessary. But it will require presidential leadership and putting some Democratic sacred cows on the table.

This doesn't just make practical sense in a divided government (a reality some Democrats seem to forget) -- it makes compelling political sense as well. By seizing the mantle of fiscal responsibility -- in contrast to fiscal conservatism -- Obama will build on his post-election bump among centrists and some independents.

The more Machiavellian Democrats might argue that this outreach could only serve to isolate Republicans more. Nonpartisan strategists might argue that this approach would drive a wedge between reasonable Republicans and the House radicals.

But the real reason for Obama to address the need to reduce long-term deficits and debt directly is because it's the right thing to do for our country -- and he is uniquely positioned to achieve it. Just as Nixon could go to China, a Southern Democrat such as Lyndon Johnson was needed to pass civil rights legislation and Bill Clinton was able to sign welfare reform after decades of Republicans talking about it, Obama can put our country on a balanced path of long-term economic growth and fiscal responsibility.

Bottom line: Obama has the political opportunity, but does he have the political will? We'll all find out in real time if he decides to lead on this issue or just be the latest in a long line to kick the can further down the road.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

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Obama: Work on restoring middle class 'unfinished'

WASHINGTON — In the first State of the Union address of his second term, President Obama tried to breathe new life into his economic agenda, offering measures to spur growth and urging Congress to revive stalled talks over deficit reduction.

Entering his fifth year presiding over a flagging economy, the president declared the restoration of a strong middle class "our unfinished task" and called on a deeply divided Congress to find "reasonable compromise" to solve the nation's lingering fiscal ills.

Obama renewed a series of proposals to boost U.S. manufacturing, aid struggling homeowners and invest in infrastructure. He proposed raising the minimum wage, issued a call for tax reform and vowed to seek a deficit reduction deal that balances tax increases with changes to entitlement programs.

"It is our generation's task, then, to reignite the true engine of America's economic growth — a rising, thriving middle class," Obama told lawmakers gathered in the House chamber.

The hourlong speech largely abandoned the high, hopeful tone and delivery of the president's inaugural address last month, taking instead a wonkier and aggressive turn toward the next fight facing Washington — a standoff over the budget.

Obama and Republicans in Congress are hurtling toward another clash over deep spending cuts scheduled to take effect on March 1. The cuts, which economists think could stall economic growth, were passed as a way to force lawmakers to compromise on a less arbitrary approach to reducing the nation's $16-trillion debt. Obama suggested he would go further than he has in the past toward making changes to Medicare to curb spending, although he was not specific.

"I am open to additional reforms from both parties, so long as they don't violate the guarantee of a secure retirement," Obama said. "Our government shouldn't make promises we cannot keep — but we must keep the promises we've already made."

He touted progress on many fronts since he took office near the height of the recession and amid two wars. "We have cleared away the rubble of crisis," Obama said, pointing to job growth and improvements in the housing market.

He also announced plans to cut the number of troops in Afghanistan in half over the next year, a significant acceleration of his original timetable. "This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over," Obama said.

In the Republican response, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida complained of what he called Obama's "obsession" with raising taxes and urged him to work with Republicans to encourage economic expansion.

"Mr. President, I don't oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich," Rubio said. "I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors, hard-working, middle-class Americans who don't need us to come up with a plan to grow the government. They want a plan to grow the middle class."

Obama's annual addresses to Congress chronicle the way he has scaled back his legislative ambitions. In 2009, the newly elected president outlined a raft of government responses to the economic "reckoning" facing the country. By 2012, after a year of lurching from one fight to another with a GOP-led House of Representatives and with a reelection on the horizon, he offered only piecemeal executive orders and tougher talk, vowing to "fight obstruction with action."

His speech Tuesday continued in that realpolitik mode. Obama pledged to take executive action on climate change if Congress did not act "soon," and he announced plans to create a commission to review irregularities at polling places, an issue Congress was unlikely to address.

With an eye on his legacy, Obama appeared careful not to trip up negotiations on matters that appear to be moving through Congress. Last month, he laid out his markers on two of his top priorities — gun control measures and immigration reform — and lawmakers are working on legislation behind the scenes. On Tuesday, he avoided heated rhetoric, making emotional, but brief, references to both.

Still, as he stepped into the House chamber, Obama was surrounded by reminders of the human element — and the political difficulties — behind his legislative agenda.

Democratic lawmakers brought victims of gun violence, including some of those affected by the December mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the impetus for the president's gun control push. Citing his call for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, as well as expanded background checks, Obama said Congress owed the victims and their families action on the measures.

"They deserve a vote," Obama said, as Democrats in the chamber chanted, "Vote!"

Republicans, too, issued invitations that underscored their positions. Natalie Hammond, a Sandy Hook teacher who was injured in the shooting, found herself in the same audience as Ted Nugent, the aging rocker and gun enthusiast who declared he'd be "dead or in jail" if Obama won a second term.

In line with recent tradition, First Lady Michelle Obama was accompanied by guests meant to underscore her husband's message. She sat with a Louisville, Ky., man retrained as a machinist, Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook and a Wisconsin brewing entrepreneur. She was also joined by the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, a Chicago teenager who was shot and killed just days after she traveled to Washington to perform in the president's inauguration parade and has become a symbol of the need for tougher gun laws.

Although the speech was largely focused on domestic issues, Obama defended the secretive CIA drone program, which targets suspected militants overseas, including Americans, in foreign countries. He aimed to answer critics, largely from within his own party, who have complained about its secrecy and questioned its legality.

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U.S. says to take lead to contain North Korea

SEOUL (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama said North Korea's third nuclear test, in defiance of U.N. resolutions, was a threat and a provocation and that the United States would lead the world in responding.

North Korea has said Tuesday's test was an act of self-defense against "U.S. hostility" and threatened stronger steps if necessary.

"Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats," Obama said in his State of the Union address, delivered 24 hours after the North's test.

North Korea tested nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009. But despite the three tests and a long-range rocket launch, it is not believed to be close to manufacturing a nuclear missile capable of targeting the United States.

But Washington believes the isolated state's ultimate aim is to design an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead that could reach the continental United States. North Korea says its rocket program is aimed at putting satellites in space.

The latest test has drawn condemnation from around the world, including from China which for years has been the North's only major ally.

The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting at which its members, including China, "strongly condemned" the test and vowed to start work on appropriate measures in response, the president of the council said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the third member of his family to rule, has presided over two long-range rocket launches and a nuclear test during his first year in power, pursuing policies that have propelled his impoverished and malnourished country closer to becoming a nuclear weapons power.

North Korea said the test had "greater explosive force" than those in 2006 and 2009. Its KCNA news agency said it had used a "miniaturised" and lighter nuclear device, indicating it had again used plutonium, which is suitable for use as a missile warhead.


China, which has shown signs of increasing exasperation with the recent bellicose tone of its reclusive neighbor, summoned the North Korean ambassador in Beijing and protested sternly, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said China was "strongly dissatisfied and resolutely opposed" to the test and urged North Korea to "stop any rhetoric or acts that could worsen situations and return to the right course of dialogue and consultation as soon as possible".

Analysts said the test was a major embarrassment to China, which is a permanent member of the Security Council and North Korea's sole major economic and diplomatic ally.

Obama said the test would be a setback for North Korea's economic development.

"The regime in North Korea must know that they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations," he said.

U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said Washington and its allies intended to "augment the sanctions regime" already in place due to Pyongyang's previous atomic tests. North Korea is already one of the most heavily sanctioned states in the world and has few external economic links that can be targeted.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the test was a "grave threat" that could not be tolerated.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged North Korea to abandon its nuclear arms program and return to talks. NATO condemned the test as an "irresponsible act."

South Korea, still technically at war with North Korea after a 1950-53 civil war ended in a truce, also denounced the test. Obama spoke to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Tuesday and told him the United States "remains steadfast in its defense commitments" to South Korea, the White House said.


North Korea's Foreign Ministry said the test was "only the first response we took with maximum restraint".

"If the United States continues to come out with hostility and complicates the situation, we will be forced to take stronger, second and third responses in consecutive steps," it said in a statement carried by the KCNA news agency.

North Korea - which gave the U.S. State Department advance warning of the test - often threatens the United States and its "puppet", South Korea, with destruction in colourful terms.

North Korea told the U.N. disarmament forum in Geneva that it would never bow to resolutions on its nuclear program and that prospects were "gloomy" for the denuclearization of the divided Korean peninsula because of a "hostile" U.S. policy.

The magnitude of the explosion was roughly twice that of the 2009 test, according to the Vienna-based Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty Organization.

U.S. intelligence agencies were analyzing the event and found that North Korea probably conducted an underground nuclear explosion with a yield of "approximately several kilotons", the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said.

Nuclear experts have described the previous two tests as puny by international standards. The yield of the 2006 test has been estimated at less than 1 kiloton (1,000 tons of TNT equivalent) and the second at some 2-7 kilotons, compared with 20 kilotons for a Nagasaki-type bomb.

Initial indications are that the test involved the latest version of a plutonium-based prototype weapon, according to one current and one former U.S. national security official. Both previous tests involved plutonium. If it turns out the test was of a new uranium-based weapon, it would show that North Korea had made more progress on uranium enrichment than previously thought.


When Kim Jong-un, who is 30, took power after his father's death in December 2011, there were hopes that he would bring reforms and end Kim Jong-il's "military first" policies.

Instead, North Korea, whose economy is smaller than it was 20 years ago and where a third of children are believed to be malnourished, appears to be trapped in a cycle of sanctions followed by further defiance.

"The more North Korea shoots missiles, launches satellites or conducts nuclear tests, the more the U.N. Security Council will impose new and more severe sanctions," said Shen Dingli, a professor at Shanghai's Fudan University.

"It is an endless, vicious cycle."

Options for a response from the international community appear to be few. Diplomats at the United Nations said negotiations on new sanctions could take weeks since China is likely to resist tough new measures for fear they could lead to further retaliation by the North Korean leadership.

Significantly, the test comes at a time of political transition in China, Japan and South Korea, and as Obama begins his second term.

The North's longer-term game plan may be to restart international talks aimed at winning food and financial aid. China urged it to return to the stalled "six-party" talks on its nuclear programme, hosted by China and including the two Koreas, the United States, Japan and Russia.

(Additional reporting by Jack Kim, Christine Kim and Jumin Park in SEOUL; Linda Sieg in TOKYO; Louis Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols at the UNITED NATIONS; Fredrik Dahl in VIENNA; Michael Martina and Chen Aizhu in BEIJING; Mette Fraende in COPENHAGEN; Adrian Croft, Charlie Dunmore and Justyna Pawlak in BRUSSELS; Mark Hosenball, Paul Eckert, Roberta Rampton, Tabassum Zakaria and Jeff Mason in WASHINGTON; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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Yen off lows vs dollar, Asian shares ease in subdued trade

TOKYO (Reuters) - The yen recovered from lows against the dollar and Tokyo stocks jumped closer to a 33-month high on Tuesday after markets took comments from a U.S. official as approval for Japan to pursue anti-deflation policies that weaken the yen.

U.S. Treasury Undersecretary Lael Brainard said on Monday the United States supports Japanese efforts to end deflation, but she noted that the G7 has long been committed to exchange rates determined by market forces, "except in rare circumstances where excess volatility or disorderly movements might warrant cooperation.

"Her (Brainard's) comments gave confidence to the market. It was surprising, and was taken as the Obama Administration giving a green light to 'Abenomics'," said Takuya Takahashi, a market analyst at Daiwa Securities.

Japan has faced some overseas criticism that it is intentionally trying to weaken the yen with monetary easing, but talk of a so-called currency war was dialled back ahead of a Group of 20 meeting in Moscow on Friday and Saturday.

G20 officials said on Monday the Group of Seven nations are considering a statement this week reaffirming their commitment to "market-determined" exchange rates.

European Central Bank council member Jens Weidmann also said the euro was not overvalued at current levels.

The dollar fell 0.4 percent to 93.94 yen after marking its highest level since May 2010 of 94.465 on Monday . The euro shed 0.6 percent to 125.68 yen after rising over 2 percent on Monday. It hit its highest since April 2010 of 127.71 yen last week.

"I think the yen's weakening is a function of (playing)catch-up," and not Japan resorting to deliberate devaluation of its currency, said Andrew Wilkinson, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak & Co. in New York. "It's the market's way of saying:'We're convinced there is a movement afoot to reinflate Japan.'"

The yen is pressured by anticipation that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will endorse a far more dovish Bank of Japan regime when the current leadership's term ends next month, although the BOJ is expected to refrain from taking fresh easing steps when it meets this week.

Share trading was subdued with many regional bourses shut for holidays. Encouraging trade data from China late last week was lending support to sentiment but non-Japan markets lacked momentum as investors awaited key events such as the U.S. president's State of the Union address for trading cues.

European markets are seen inching lower, with financial spreadbetters predicting London's FTSE 100 <.ftse>, Paris's CAC-40 <.fchi> and Frankfurt's DAX <.gdaxi> would open down 0.2 percent. A 0.2 percent drop in U.S. stock futures also suggested a soft Wall Street start. <.l><.eu><.n/>

The MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan <.miapj0000pus> fell 0.1 percent, with Australian shares closing flat ahead of corporate earnings due this week.

The weaker yen in turn hoisted the Nikkei stock average <.n225> to close 1.9 percent higher on improving earnings prospects for exporters. <.t/>

Trading resumed in Japan and South Korea but markets in Singapore, Hong Kong, mainland China, Malaysia and Taiwan remained closed.


Currency and equities markets were also looking ahead to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address later on Tuesday night, for any signs of a deal to avert automatic spending cuts due to take effect March 1.

"We believe that the G20's take on currency wars, Mr. Obama's upcoming state of the union address, and data on the current condition of the U.S. economy should help markets assess where the global recovery stands and where we are heading," Barclays Capital said in a research report.

U.S. and Chinese data last week lifted the tech-focused Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> to a 12-year closing high and the Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> to a five-year peak on Friday.

Financial markets showed a muted reaction to the news that North Korea has conducted a nuclear test.

"The test was not something that makes your heart pound as much as a pressing situation between Iran and Israel," said Kaname Gokon, research manager at brokerage Okato Shoji, referring to the threat of possible military action to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

U.S. crude futures edged down 0.1 percent to $96.92 a barrel while Brent steadied around $118.15.

Spot gold stayed near a one-month low.

(Additional reporting by Ayai Tomisawa, Lisa Twaronite and Osamu Tsukimori in Tokyo; Editing by Edwina Gibbs and Eric Meijer)

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