North Korean diplomat defects to South Korea

North Korean diplomat defects to South Korea
The North has been known to maintain silence about such defections in part to avoid highlighting the vulnerabilities of its government. (AFP)
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Updated 26 January 2021

North Korean diplomat defects to South Korea

North Korean diplomat defects to South Korea
  • One of the most senior North Koreans to defect in recent years
  • More than 33,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War

SEOUL, South Korea: A North Korean diplomat who served as the country’s acting ambassador to Kuwait has defected to South Korea, according to South Korean lawmakers who were briefed by Seoul’s spy agency.
Ha Tae-keung, a conservative opposition lawmaker and an executive secretary of the National Assembly’s intelligence committee, said Tuesday he was told by officials from the National Intelligence Service that the diplomat arrived in South Korea in September 2019 with his wife and at least one child.
That would make him one of the most senior North Koreans to defect in recent years. North Korea, which touts itself as a socialist paradise, is extremely sensitive about defections, especially among its elite, and has sometimes insisted that they are South Korean or American plots to undermine its government.
Ha said he was told that the diplomat, who changed his name to Ryu Hyun-woo after arriving in the South, had escaped through a South Korean diplomatic mission but that spy officials didn’t specify where. Ha said spy officials didn’t provide specific details as to why Ryu decided to defect.
The office of Kim Byung-kee, a lawmaker of the ruling liberal party and the intelligence committee’s other executive secretary, said he was also told that Ryu was now living in South Korea. Kim’s aides didn’t elaborate further.
The NIS and South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which deals with inter-Korean affairs, didn’t independently confirm Ryu’s defection when reached by The Associated Press.
Kuwait’s Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A mobile phone number once associated with the North Korean Embassy there rang unanswered Tuesday.
North Korean state media has yet to comment on Ryu’s situation.
The North has been known to maintain silence about such defections — such as the 2018 defection of its former acting ambassador to Italy — in part to avoid highlighting the vulnerabilities of its government.
North Korea has long used its diplomats to develop money-making sources abroad and experts have said it’s possible that diplomats who defected may have struggled to meet financial demands from authorities at home.
The North’s long-mismanaged economy has been devastated by US-led sanctions over its nuclear program, which strengthened significantly in 2016 and 2017 amid a provocative run in nuclear and weapons tests.
The North Korean Embassy in Kuwait City serves as its only diplomatic outpost in the Gulf region. Pyongyang once had thousands of laborers working in Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE before the United Nations stepped up its sanctions over North Korean labor exports, which had been an important source of foreign income for Pyongyang.
In its most-recent letter to the United Nations in March 2020, Kuwait said it had stopped issuing work permits for North Koreans and expelled those working in the country. The UAE said it expelled all North Korean laborers by late December 2019. Oman and Qatar haven’t provided updates since 2019 and 2018 respectively.
In September 2017, the Kuwaiti government expelled North Korea’s ambassador and four other diplomats following Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests. Ryu reportedly stepped in as acting ambassador after that.
It appears Ryu fled months after North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, Jo Song Gil, vanished with his wife in late 2018. Ha and other lawmakers told reporters last year that they learned Jo was living in South Korea under government protection after arriving in July 2019.
Jo was possibly the highest-level North Korean official to defect to the South since the 1997 arrival of a senior ruling Workers’ Party official who once tutored leader Kim Jong Un’s father, late leader Kim Jong Il.
Tae Young Ho, formerly a minister at the North Korean Embassy in London who defected to the South in 2016 and was elected as a lawmaker representing Ha’s party last year, said in a Facebook post that Ryu’s defection would shock members of the North Korean ruling elite because he appears to be the son-in-law of Jon Il Chun, who once oversaw a ruling party bureau that handled the Kim family’s secret moneymaking operations. The Associated Press couldn’t independently verify Tae’s claim.
More than 33,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, according to South Korean government records. Many defectors have said they were escaping from harsh political suppression and poverty, while elites like Tae have expressed resentment about the country’s dynastic leadership.
Tae has said he decided to flee because he didn’t want his children to live “miserable” lives in North Korea and that he was disappointed with Kim Jong Un, who he said terrorized North Korean elites with executions and purges while consolidating power and aggressively pursued nuclear weapons.
North Korea has called Tae “human scum” and accused him of embezzling government money and committing other crimes without presenting specific evidence.


UK launches first study into COVID-19 vaccine for pregnant women

UK launches first study into COVID-19 vaccine for pregnant women
Updated 17 May 2021

UK launches first study into COVID-19 vaccine for pregnant women

UK launches first study into COVID-19 vaccine for pregnant women
  • Scientists hope the assessment will provide more information on the immune response in pregnant women

LONDON: The first COVID-19 vaccine study for pregnant women has been launched in Britain.

It will assess the safety of the Pfizer-BioNTech jab in healthy pregnant women. Some 235 participants will be recruited for the study, which will take place at 11 sites across Britain.

Scientists hope the assessment will provide more information on the immune response in pregnant women, and to confirm if maternal antibodies are transferred to infants.

The participants will initially receive two doses of the vaccine or a placebo with a gap of 21 days between each jab. The placebo will be a saltwater solution, as is standard practice for vaccine trials.

The participants will answer questionnaires about their health and provide blood samples, complete an e-diary and receive extra monitoring throughout the assessment.

Volunteers will need to attend their site four times before their baby is born, and twice after the birth.

Dr. Chrissie Jones, the study’s chief investigator, said: “While we have a large amount of real-world data which tells us that it’s safe for pregnant women to receive approved COVID-19 vaccines, the data gathered from a controlled research study like this is important because it will give us more information about the vaccine immune response in pregnant women.”


UK MP accused of racism over tweet about pro-Palestinian protesters 

UK MP accused of racism over tweet about pro-Palestinian protesters 
Updated 17 May 2021

UK MP accused of racism over tweet about pro-Palestinian protesters 

UK MP accused of racism over tweet about pro-Palestinian protesters 
  • Michael Fabricant described London demonstrators as ‘primitives’ 
  • Anti-racism charity urges Conservative Party to suspend him

LONDON: Tory MP Michael Fabricant has been accused of racism for describing pro-Palestinian protesters in central London as “primitives.”

In a now-deleted tweet, he said: “These primitives are trying to bring to London what they do in the Middle East.”

Hope not Hate CEO Nick Lowles called on the Conservative Party’s Chief Whip Mark Spencer to suspend Fabricant following the tweet.

“Calling British Muslims ‘primitives’ is clearly racist. Implying ‘they’ are from the Middle East simply compounds the offence,” Lowles said.

“The tense situation requires steady leadership from people who want to bring communities together, not hateful racism that stirs up division, as Mr. Fabricant’s comment did.”

Lowles asked Spencer: “Can you reassure me, and all people who want to stamp out racism within mainstream political parties, that you will act by suspending Michael Fabricant from the whip and that you will fully investigate this latest appalling outburst?”

Sunder Katwala, director of the British Future think tank, tweeted: “Anybody who realises that it is racist to hold British Jews responsible for Israeli policy should also be able recognise the racism here in Michael Fabricant’s tweet.”

Fabricant has been tweeting regularly throughout the recent resurgence in violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

On Saturday, in reaction to a video of protesters being interviewed in London, and in reference to Britain’s secondary school qualifications, he tweeted: “Wonder if they have a GCSE between them.” 

Last year, the Conservative Party said it would not take further action against Fabricant for suggesting in a now-deleted tweet that criticism of the party for allegations of Islamophobia would harm “Anglo-Muslim relations.”


Joy for UK pubs and hugs tempered by rise in virus variant

Joy for UK pubs and hugs tempered by rise in virus variant
Updated 17 May 2021

Joy for UK pubs and hugs tempered by rise in virus variant

Joy for UK pubs and hugs tempered by rise in virus variant
  • Prime minister sounded a cautious tone, warning about a more contagious COVID-19 variant that threatens reopening plans
  • Public health officials and government are urging people to continue to observe social distancing

LONDON: Drinks were raised in toasts and reunited friends hugged each other as thousands of UK pubs and restaurants opened Monday for indoor service for the first time since early January.
Yet the prime minister sounded a cautious tone, warning about a more contagious COVID-19 variant that threatens reopening plans.
The latest step in the UK’s gradual easing of nationwide restrictions also includes reopening theaters, sports venues and museums, raising hopes that Britain’s economy may soon start to recover from the devastating effects of the pandemic.
Andy Frantzeskos, a chef at the Nopi restaurant in London’s Soho district, said he felt “a bit of anxiousness ... but more excitement than anything.”
“It’s been a long time coming since lockdown, so we’re all happy to be back and want to cook some good food,” he said.
The government is also relaxing guidance on close personal contact, such as hugging, and permitting international travel, although only 12 countries and territories are on the list of “safe” destinations that don’t require 10 days of quarantine upon return. Thousands of Britons got up early to check in for the first flights to Portugal, which is on the safe list.
But the rapid spread of a variant first discovered in India is tempering the optimism amid memories of how another variant swept across the country in December, triggering England’s third national lockdown.
Public health officials and the government are urging people to continue to observe social distancing, even though the situation is different now because almost 70 percent of the adult population has received at least one dose of vaccine.
“Please, be cautious about the risks to your loved ones,’’ Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a video posted on Twitter. “Remember that close contact such as hugging is a direct way of transmitting this disease, so you should think about the risks.”
Monday’s reopening allows people in England to go out for a drink or a meal without shivering in rainy outdoor beer gardens. Rules were also being eased in Scotland and Wales, with Northern Ireland due to follow next week.
The next phase in Britain’s reopening is scheduled for June 21, when remaining restrictions are set to be removed. Johnson has warned that a big surge in COVID-19 cases could scuttle those plans.
Confirmed new virus cases have risen over the past week, though they remain well below the peak reported in late December and early January. New infections averaged about 2,300 per day over the past seven days compared with nearly 70,000 a day during the winter peak. Deaths averaged just over 10 a day during the same period, down from a peak of 1,820 on Jan. 20.
Britain has recorded almost 128,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest figure in Europe.
Government scientific advisers say the new variant, formally known as B.1.617.2, is more transmissible than the UK’s main strain, though it is unclear by how much. Health officials, backed by the army, are carrying out surge testing and surge vaccinations in Bolton and Blackburn in northwest England, where cases of the variant are clustered.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of trade group UKHospitality, said almost 1 million people were returning to work on Monday, but that businesses were counting on the final step out of lockdown taking place as planned on June 21.
“We’ve already lost 12,000 businesses,” she said. “There’s been an almost 1-in-5 contraction in restaurants in city centers, 1-in-10 restaurants lost over the whole of the country. So these are businesses clinging on by their fingertips, and they have no fuel left in the tank. If those social distancing restrictions remain, they are simply not viable.”
Ian Snowball, owner of the Showtime Bar in Huddersfield, northern England, said it was nice to be inside again, rather than facing the island nation’s unpredictable weather.
“I don’t have to have a hoodie or a coat on any more — it’s great,’’ he said. “And hopefully we don’t have to go back outside again, hopefully this is the end of it now.”
Other Britons couldn’t wait to leave altogether.
Keith and Janice Tomsett, a retired couple in their 70s, were on their way to the Portuguese island of Madeira. They booked their holiday in October “on the off-chance” it could go ahead. They had followed all the testing guidelines and were fully vaccinated.
“After 15 months of being locked up, this is unbelievably good,” Keith Tomsett said. “It was even worth getting up at 3 o’clock this morning.”


Turkey dumping UK plastic waste: Report

Turkey dumping UK plastic waste: Report
Updated 17 May 2021

Turkey dumping UK plastic waste: Report

Turkey dumping UK plastic waste: Report
  • Greenpeace: Turkey is Europe’s ‘largest plastic waste dump’
  • Waste being dumped instead of recycled

LONDON: About 40 percent of the UK’s plastic waste exports were sent to Turkey last year, Greenpeace has revealed.

Investigators from the environmental activist group found that instead of being recycled, some of the 210,000 tons of waste was dumped by roads, in fields and in waterways.

Greenpeace urged the British government to “take control” of the situation, and described Turkey as Europe’s “largest plastic waste dump.”

The group said it had found plastic waste from UK supermarkets at all of the 10 sites it visited across southern Turkey.


COVID-19 vaccines work against Indian variant: Study

COVID-19 vaccines work against Indian variant: Study
Updated 17 May 2021

COVID-19 vaccines work against Indian variant: Study

COVID-19 vaccines work against Indian variant: Study
  • It is less resistant to existing jabs than South African variant: Oxford team
  • Scientist warns slow European vaccine rollout could open door to new variants

LONDON: Approved COVID-19 vaccines are effective against the Indian variant (B.1.617.2), a study by scientists at Oxford University has found.

“It looks like the Indian variant will be susceptible to the vaccine in the way that other (variants) are,” Prof. Sir John Bell, emeritus professor of medicine at Oxford, told Times Radio in the UK.

“The data looks rather promising. I think the vaccinated population are going to be fine. And we just need to pump our way through this.”

The study, led by Oxford’s Prof. Gavin Screaton, looked at two vaccines — Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca — and found that both create sufficient antibodies to neutralize the Indian variant in enough incidences to drastically reduce hospitalizations and fatalities.

It also found that B.1.617.2 is less resistant to vaccines than the South African variant, and is more similar to the Kent and Brazilian variants.

“If you do the lab experiment, which is you take plasma serum from someone who’s received the vaccine and you look to see its ability to neutralize the virus, that’s a highly effective way of telling whether you’re going to be protected or not,” Sir John said.

“It looks OK. It’s not perfect but it’s not catastrophically bad. There’s a slight reduction in the ability to neutralize the virus, but it’s not very great and certainly not as great as you see with the South African variant. It’s rather close to the Brazilian version where the vaccine serum seems to be very effective in neutralizing the virus,” he added.

“The antibodies you’ve made after you’ve had the vaccine, which are floating around in your blood, are good enough to neutralize the virus if you get it.”

But Sir John warned that the lack of vaccinations across Europe and elsewhere means the continent is more susceptible to variants, and the possibility remains that more could emerge due to a lack of immunization and increased transmission.

“There are very broad swathes of Europe that are largely unvaccinated. So they’re pretty vulnerable to new variants — be it Indian or otherwise — sweeping across the continent and leaving very, very high levels of disease,” he added.