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Sun-Times picks for top nation and world stories of 2018

In this file photo taken on June 11, 2018 President Donald Trump gestures as he meets with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un at the start of their historic US-North Korea summit. | AFP/Getty Images

In this file photo taken on June 11, 2018 President Donald Trump gestures as he meets with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un at the start of their historic US-North Korea summit. | AFP/Getty Images

It was a year of startling, surreal images: an American president shaking hands with a man whose nation he’d threatened to obliterate only months earlier; a subterranean rescue carried out under the worst possible conditions.

There was devastating loss — for those living in the path of the deadly Camp Fire in northern California.

And for others, there was much to cheer about, as the #MeToo movement helped shake up the status quo in American politics.

Here, in no particular order, are the Chicago Sun-Times’ picks for the top nation/world stories for 2018:

Thai soccer players rescued

Much like the Chilean miners’ rescue eight years earlier, the world was riveted by the plight of a team of 12 youth soccer players and their coach, who became trapped deep within a labyrinth of flooded caves in northern Thailand.

Thai cave rescue underway

The operation to rescue the 12 boys and their coach by having them dive out of the flooded cave began with expert divers entering the sprawling complex for the complicated and dangerous mission. | AP

It would be hard to imagine a screenplay with more drama and excitement, starting with the two British divers who ventured into the subterranean darkness — navigating frighteningly narrow passages — and located the lost hikers.

With rain threatening to raise water levels and oxygen supplies running out, it was truly a race against time. Newscasts and newspapers were filled with cross-sections of the harrowing escape route. Miraculously, 18 days after they become lost, the entire team was rescued.

Trump, Kim Jong-un make nice

The two men first lobbed insults at each other: The U.S. president called the North Korean leader “rocket man” and threatened to “totally destroy” his nemesis’ country. In response, Kim Jong-un mocked President Donald Trump, calling him a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”

North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump shake hands at the conclusion of their meetings at the Capella resort on Sentosa Island in Singapore.

President Donald Trump voiced confidence that North Korea’s leader would “honor” his commitment to denuclearize. | AP file photo

That was September 2017. Surely, no one then could have predicted what would happen about nine months later: The two men participating in a historic summit in Singapore — the first ever meeting between a sitting U.S. president a North Korean leader. There were handshakes, smiles, friendly pats on the back. And after it was all over, Trump declared a “special bond” with a dictator reviled throughout much of the world. The leaders signed a document agreeing to work toward complete de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

But by year’s end, there were no concrete signs of the dictator’s vow to eradicate weapons of mass destruction, and stern rhetoric coming from Pyongyang suggested a difficult road lay ahead.


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Camp Fire leaves 88 dead

The inferno swept across northern California in early November, devouring everything in its path.

MAGALIA, CA - NOVEMBER 09: A Cal Fire firefighter monitors a burning home as the Camp Fire moves through the area on November 9, 2018 in Magalia, California. Fueled by high winds and low humidity, the rapidly spreading Camp Fire ripped through the town of Paradise and has quickly charred 70,000 acres and has destroyed numerous homes and businesses in a matter of hours. The fire is currently at five percent containment. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775256258

A firefighter monitors a burning home as the Camp Fire moves through the area on November 9, 2018 in Magalia, California. | Getty Images

Some 19,000 homes and businesses were destroyed, reduced to heaps of ash amid groves of charred evergreen trees. The Camp Fire — the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history — left at least 88 dead, with many more missing.

The town of Paradise was all but erased. Experts blamed the devastation on drought, higher-than-average temperatures and an encroaching population — as well as the likelihood that global warming played a role.

Queen of Soul laid to rest

The funeral in her hometown of Detroit lasted eight hours — a measure, perhaps, both of the respect people had for her and the breadth of her influence.

Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, died in August, after a lengthy struggle with pancreatic cancer. She was 76.

Former presidents and preachers joined a parade of pop stars Friday in a singing, hip-swaying, piano-pounding farewell to Aretha Franklin, remembering the Queen of Soul as a powerful force for musical and political change and a steadfast friend.

A person holds a program during the funeral service for Aretha Franklin at Greater Grace Temple on Aug. 31, 2018 in Detroit. | AP

Among those who paid tribute at her funeral: former President Bill Clinton, Rev. Al Sharpton and Smokey Robinson. Performers included Stevie Wonder, Faith Hill, Jennifer Hudson and Ariana Grande, who belted out Franklin’s 1960s classic, “[You Make Me Feel Like] A Natural Woman.”

Rolling Stone has called Franklin pop music’s “greatest voice,” but the music catalogue of the woman who won 18 Grammys spanned Gospel, jazz, R&B, even opera.

Funerals for McCain, Bush

For some, he was the personification of bravery, having survived 5 ½ years in a North Vietnamese prison camp.

For others, he was the sometimes-cantankerous U.S. senator from Arizona who lost to Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

The casket of Senator John McCain arrives at the Washington National Cathedral for the funeral service for the late Senator John McCain, September 1, 2018 in Washington, DC. | Getty Images

The casket of Senator John McCain arrives at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, DC. | Getty Images

John Sidney McCain III died Aug. 25, after a much-publicized battle with brain cancer. A week of memorials followed McCain’s death, with politicians from both sides of the aisle praising his honesty, patriotism, wit and independent streak. Few will forget the ailing McCain in July 2017 entering the U.S. Senate chamber and casting the deciding vote — with a firm thumbs down — against the partial repeal of Obamacare.

Three months after McCain’s death, the nation lost its 41st president, George H.W. Bush. He was 94 and died at his home in Houston, Texas.

Bush — a World War II aviator — served as president from 1989 to 1993, and was perhaps best known for leading the coalition that forced then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. During his long political career, Bush served in the U.S. Congress, was president Gerald Ford’s CIA director and also was President Ronald Reagan’s vice president for two terms.

George H.W. Bush casket

The flag-draped casket of former President George H.W. Bush is carried by a military honor guard during a State Funeral at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. | AP photo

Judge Kavanaugh’s bitter confirmation battle

Perhaps no single event in 2018 conveyed the nation’s deep divisions better than the battle over Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court.

As a Trump pick, the Washington D.C. U.S. Court of Appeals judge’s nomination was always going to be controversial.

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, left, and Christine Blasey Ford, right, testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. (Jim Bourg/Pool Photo via AP/Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP)

Brett Kavanaugh (left) and Christine Blasey Ford, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. | AP

But when a California professor of psychology told the Washington Post that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her at a high school party, the stage was set for one of the most bitter, emotional confirmation battles in the court’s history.

Her voice quavering, Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on live TV that she was absolutely certain it was Kavanaugh who had assaulted her.

When he took the stand, Kavanaugh was equally adamant that he had done nothing wrong. He angrily defended himself, at one point saying: “This confirmation process has become a national disgrace.”

Following a one-week FBI investigation into sexual assault and misconduct allegations against Kavanaugh, the U.S. Senate voted by the narrowest of margins, 50 to 48, to put Kavanaugh on the bench.

Mueller probe heats up

The president has called it a “rigged witch hunt.”

Robert Mueller | AP

Robert Mueller | AP

The hunt gathered pace in 2018, with indictments and guilty pleas in the Robert Mueller investigation into Russian interference of the 2016 presidential election.

Some of highlights:

• Charges brought against 13 Russians linked to the 2016 election interference.

• A federal jury in northern Virginia convicts former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort of tax and bank fraud.

Michael Cohen | Getty Images

Michael Cohen | Getty Images

• Former Trump attorney Michael Cohen pleads guilty in August to eight counts of financial crimes and campaign violations. In November, he pleads guilty to lying to Congress about a planned Trump Tower in Moscow. In December, a federal judge sentences Cohen to three years in prison. Cohen, at his sentencing, says he broke the law out of a duty to conceal Trump’s “dirty deeds.”

Deadliest high school shooting, worst attack on Jews in U.S. history

The year brought two grim milestones.

The deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history — surpassing even the Columbine massacre — occurred when 17 students were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Feb. 14.

Anti-gun violence advocate and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez (R) is comforted at the "End of School Year Peace March and Rally" in Chicago, on June 15, 2018. A boisterous Chicago rally and march kicked off a national gun-reform tour on Friday by students from Parkland, Florida, site of one of the worst US school shootings. The students-turned-activists have become powerful national voices with their "March For Our Lives" campaign pushing for reforms of gun laws, following the February 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which killed 17 students and school staff. / AFP PHOTO / JIM YOUNGJIM YOUNG/AFP/Getty Images

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez | Jim Young/Getty Images

In October, one of the deadliest attacks on Jews in U.S. history — 11 people killed — occurred at Tree of Life Congregation synagogue in Pittsburgh.

In both cases, investigators found the accused gunmen — both later arrested and charged — had previously posted hateful comments on social media, including this from 46-year-old Robert Gregory Bowers, the alleged Pittsburgh shooter: “HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, right, of Tree of Life hugs Rabbi Cheryl Klein, left, of Dor Hadash Congregation and Rabbi Jonathan Perlman in the aftermath of the deadly shooting. | AP

Dems win back House in midterms

The midterm November elections were widely seen as a referendum on the Trump presidency.

In re-taking the House, Democrats flipped 43 seats and ended up with a 40-vote majority. Across the U.S., the Democrats picked up seven governorships and flipped hundreds of state legislative seats. Republicans gained two seats in the U.S. Senate. While some said the results marked a “blue wave,” others said the results were mixed.

Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., left, and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich. were the first and only Muslim women elected to Congress in 2018. | AP

Likely spurred by the “#MeToo” movement, the midterms saw a record number of women contenders and candidates of color.

The House is getting its first two Muslim women, while Massachusetts will seat its first black congresswoman.

Uproar over murder of Saudi journalist

For weeks, Saudi Arabia denied knowing anything about the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in early October.

Saudi state-run media is reporting that prosecutors in the kingdom believe Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in a quarrel.

Jamal Khashoggi | AP file photo

But then the story changed, with Saudi authorities saying the journalist, a critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, had been killed by a team from within the kingdom.

As of November, U.S. officials concluded the crown prince himself ordered the killing — something the Saudi government has denied.

Contributing: AP