Missile test propels North Korea to top of Biden’s foreign agenda

Missile test propels North Korea to top of Biden’s foreign agenda
A man watches a television screen at Suseo railway station in Seoul on March 26, 2021, showing news footage of North Korea’s latest tactical guided projectile test. (AFP)
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Updated 26 March 2021

Missile test propels North Korea to top of Biden’s foreign agenda

Missile test propels North Korea to top of Biden’s foreign agenda
  • Joe Biden had previously left North Korea entirely out of his maiden foreign policy speech in February

SEOUL/WASHINGTON: North Korea’s claim on Friday that it had launched a new type of tactical short-range ballistic missile highlighted military advances by the nuclear-armed state and propelled it to the top of new US President Joe Biden’s foreign policy agenda.
The United States condemned Thursday’s launches, which came hours before Biden held his first White House press conference since taking office in January.
When asked if he agreed that North Korea was the top foreign policy issue he faced, Biden replied: “Yes.”
Biden had previously left North Korea entirely out of his maiden foreign policy speech in February, and in outlining eight diplomatic priorities earlier in March, his secretary of state didn’t focus on North Korea except to list it as one of several countries that pose a challenge.
The launches, which were North Korea’s first ballistic missile tests in nearly a year, underscored steady progress in its weapons program since denuclearization talks with the United States floundered under former President Donald Trump.
Biden said the United States remained open to diplomacy with North Korea despite its missile tests, but warned there would be responses if Pyongyang escalates matters.
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in called the missile test “concerning,” saying Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington should not create hurdles for talks.
“Now is the time for the South, the North and the United States to make efforts to continue dialogue. It is never desirable to create difficulties for dialogue,” he told a ceremony commemorating soldiers who fought in clashes with the North in 2002 and 2010.
North Korea had been widely expected to conduct some kind of weapons test in the early months of Biden’s term as a way of signaling its resolve, gaining practical military capabilities, and boosting its leverage should talks resume.
While North Korea’s intentions were not yet entirely clear, Thursday’s tests were relatively restrained, said John Delury, a professor at South Korea’s Yonsei University.
“These tests come some time after Biden’s inauguration, and they are still at a low enough level that it gives the administration breathing room,” he said. “Regardless of North Korea’s intentions, however, the effect is to elevate the significance and move it up the administration’s agenda.”
The State Department said the launches violated multiple UN Security Council resolutions and threatened the region and the broader international community.
The new weapon is based on existing technology that was improved to carry a 2.5-ton warhead, KCNA reported.
“The development of this weapon system is of great significance in bolstering up the military power of the country and deterring all sorts of military threats,” said Ri Pyong Chol, the senior leader who oversaw the test, according to KCNA.
Photos released by state media showed a black-and-white painted missile blasting off from a military launch vehicle.
Missile specialists at the California-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) said it appeared to be a missile that was unveiled at a major military parade in Pyongyang in October.
KCNA said Thursday’s test confirmed the missile’s capability to conduct “low-altitude gliding leap type flight mode,” a feature that makes such weapons harder to detect and shoot down.
The United Nations Security Council North Korea sanctions committee is due to meet on Friday to discuss the missile tests, at the request of the United States.
The move suggests a measured response by the Biden administration, as the sanctions committee is comprised of lower-level diplomats from the 15 council members, rather than the ambassador-level council that convened after North Korea fired ballistic missiles a year ago.
While rejecting American overtures, North Korea has also used measured language, insisting it will only return to talks if the United States drops hostile policies.
Analysts noted leader Kim Jong Un did not appear to attend the Thursday missile tests, with state media instead showing undated photos of him inspecting new passenger busses in Pyongyang.
Kim has vowed to try to improve living conditions for citizens as North Korea’s economy was ravaged by multiple crises, including international sanctions over its weapons programs, natural disasters, and a border lockdown that slowed trade to a trickle in an effort to prevent a coronavirus outbreak.


Biden to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by September 11

Biden to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by September 11
Updated 30 min 30 sec ago

Biden to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by September 11

Biden to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by September 11
  • Biden reached the conclusion that the US will remove its forces from Afghanistan before September 11
  • There are rising fears Taliban could make major gains against Kabul’s internationally-backed government

WASHINGOTN: President Joe Biden will remove all US troops from Afghanistan before this year’s 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, said a US official.
The move ends America’s longest war around five months later than planned.
Biden has “reached the conclusion that the United States will complete its drawdown — will remove its forces from Afghanistan — before September 11,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
Biden will make an announcement Wednesday that all US forces, in coordination with those of Western allies, will leave other than limited personnel to guard US diplomatic installations, the official said.
Biden will not link the departure to conditions on the ground, where there are rising fears that the Taliban could make major gains against the internationally-backed government in Kabul.
“The president has judged that a conditions-based approach, which has been the approach of the past two decades, is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever,” the official said, calling for a shifting of US priorities.
For Afghans the fighting will likely grind on. The official spoke shortly after US intelligence released a threat assessment report warning that the embattled Afghan government “will struggle” to hold off the “confident” Taliban if the US-led coalition withdraws.
Former president Donald Trump also favored a withdrawal and reached a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 under which all US troops would leave by May 2021 in return for the insurgents’ promise not to back Al-Qaeda and other extremists — the original reason for the 2001 invasion.
The Biden official said that the withdrawal would begin in May and that the delay was largely logistic, with troops possibly out of Afghanistan well before September 11.
The official warned the Taliban of a “forceful response” if they strike US troops on the way out.
“We have communicated to the Taliban in no uncertain terms that is they do conduct attacks against US or allied forces as we carry out this drawdown,” he said, “that we will hit back hard.”
The threat assessment report published Tuesday by the director of national intelligence said the Taliban “is confident it can achieve military victory.”
“Afghan forces continue to secure major cities and other government strongholds, but they remain tied down in defensive missions and have struggled to hold recaptured territory or reestablish a presence in areas abandoned in 2020,” it said.
Afghan civilians, wary of the Taliban’s return to power, have long paid a disproportionate price in the decades of bloody fighting.


Germany opens trial of far-right ‘terrorist’ group

Germany opens trial of far-right ‘terrorist’ group
Updated 49 min 33 sec ago

Germany opens trial of far-right ‘terrorist’ group

Germany opens trial of far-right ‘terrorist’ group
  • The suspects planned to spark ‘a civil-war-like situation’ by carrying out ‘attacks on politicians, asylum seekers and people of Muslim faith’
  • Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has declared far-right extremism the ‘biggest security threat’ facing Europe’s largest economy

STUTTGART, Germany: Twelve alleged far-right conspirators went on trial in Germany on Tuesday, suspected of planning attacks on politicians, asylum seekers and Muslims as part of a plot to overthrow the country’s democracy.
Eleven of the men, arrested in February last year, stand accused of membership of a terrorist organization and weapons law violations. The 12th has been charged with supporting a terrorist group.
The suspects, known as Gruppe S (Group S) after one of the founders, planned to spark “a civil-war-like situation” by carrying out “attacks on politicians, asylum seekers and people of Muslim faith,” according to federal prosecutors.
The group’s eight founding members had the goal of “destabilising and ultimately overthrowing” Germany’s democratic order, they said.
Those on trial, aged 33 to 62 and all German citizens, had an “openly National Socialist attitude,” referring to the Nazi party, and made no secret of their hatred of foreigners, Muslims and Jews, according to prosecutors.
One of them is accused of using an offensive slur against black people and calling them “subhumans, so up for a massacre” in a Telegram chat group.
When talking on the phone, they are said to have used code words for weapons such as “battery” and “bicycle.”
Investigators say the two main ringleaders of the group, named only as Werner S. and Tony E., organized three meetings where members took part in discussions and shooting exercises.
The group is said to have arranged to buy weapons worth 50,000 euros ($60,000) through a handler known to one of the members, and several other weapons were found during raids when the arrests were made.
The group had links to several right-wing extremist networks and are accused of using their connections to recruit members “whom they considered to be fast, clever and brutal fighters.”
They were also planning attacks against politicians including Robert Habeck, one of the co-leaders of Germany’s Green party, according to prosecutors.
The trial in Stuttgart comes as concern grows in Germany over the rise of violent right-wing extremism.
The number of crimes committed by far-right suspects in Germany jumped to its highest level for at least four years in 2020, according to provisional police figures released in February.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has declared far-right extremism the “biggest security threat” facing Europe’s largest economy.
A series of high-profile attacks have also rattled the country.
In January, German neo-Nazi Stephan Ernst was sentenced to life in prison for murdering pro-migration politician Walter Luebcke.
In February 2020, a far-right extremist killed 10 people and wounded five others in the central German city of Hanau.
And in 2019, two people were killed after a neo-Nazi tried to storm a synagogue in Halle on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.
The Gruppe S trial is taking place under high security at Stammheim Prison in Stuttgart and is due to wrap up in August.


Briton jailed for lone-wolf knife attack plot

Briton jailed for lone-wolf knife attack plot
Updated 13 April 2021

Briton jailed for lone-wolf knife attack plot

Briton jailed for lone-wolf knife attack plot
  • Sahayb Abu, dubbed the ‘rapping jihadi,’ sentenced to 19 years
  • Abu had expressed support for Daesh

LONDON: A British-Muslim extremist has been jailed for 19 years after being found guilty of plotting a solo knife attack during the pandemic lockdown.

Sahayb Abu, who was unemployed, was arrested last summer after he bought an 18-inch knife, a sword, balaclavas and body armor online. 

Abu denied the plot, arguing in court that he wanted to use his purchases to be a rapper like Stormzy, who wore body armor on stage at Glastonbury.

But he was found guilty last month, with his defense failing to stand up to evidence produced by the prosecution that he had discussed his terror plans with an undercover police officer on the Telegram app.

It will not be his first stint in prison, having spent two years behind bars for a commercial robbery where he was known to associate with extremists.

Dubbed the “rapping jihadi,” Abu described London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who is Muslim, as a “sell-out,” and talked about murdered soldier Lee Rigby.

Abu said: “I’m trying to see many Lee Rigby’s heads rolling on the ground. Man I shoot up a crowd cos I’m a night stalker. Got my shank, got my guns. Straight ISIS (Daesh) supporter. Reject democracy.”

Many of Abu’s relatives had previous links to violent extremism. His brother, sister and brother-in-law were jailed for collecting and disseminating terrorist documents online.

His half-brothers Wail and Suleyman Aweys traveled to Syria to join Daesh in 2015. They were believed to have been killed while fighting for the terror group.

In his sentencing hearing on Tuesday, Judge Mark Dennis QC told Abu: “You of all people, having seen what befell your two younger brothers when they signed up to join the ISIS cause in 2015, and having seen the course other members of your family have taken … resulting in prison sentences, should have made you, at the mature age of 27, turn your back on the violent extremist cause and promote instead peace and community that underlies the Islamic faith.”

The judge added: “Instead, within weeks of your own release, you joined others committed to joining that same cause. Within no time, you were getting ready to carry out your own act of violence on the streets of this city (London).”

He said he was sure that Abu was prepared for a solo knife attack, and would have carried it out had the police not intervened.

The judge added: “All that remained for him (Abu) to decide was the time and place for him to carry out the act of violence in furtherance of the cause he supported.”


Johnson & Johnson delays vaccine rollout in Europe

Johnson & Johnson delays vaccine rollout in Europe
Updated 13 April 2021

Johnson & Johnson delays vaccine rollout in Europe

Johnson & Johnson delays vaccine rollout in Europe
  • Company decided to proactively delay the rollout of vaccine in Europe
  • Hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses were due to be shipped to Europe in coming weeks

BERLIN: Johnson & Johnson says it is delaying the rollout of its coronavirus vaccine in Europe amid a US probe into rare blood clots.
The company announced the decision Tuesday after regulators in the United States said they were recommending a “pause” in administration of the single-dose shot to investigate reports of potentially dangerous blood clots.
“We have been reviewing these cases with European health authorities,” the company said. “We have made the decision to proactively delay the rollout of our vaccine in Europe.”
Hundreds of thousands of doses of the vaccine were due to be shipped to Europe in the coming weeks.


No increased risk of death from UK COVID-19 variant: Studies

No increased risk of death from UK COVID-19 variant: Studies
Updated 13 April 2021

No increased risk of death from UK COVID-19 variant: Studies

No increased risk of death from UK COVID-19 variant: Studies
  • Scientists found that 36 percent of UK-variant patients became severely ill or died, compared with 38 percent of those with other strains
  • Dr. Claire Steves: We confirmed the increased transmissibility, but also showed that the UK variant clearly responded to lockdown measures

LONDON: New studies suggest that the UK variant of COVID-19 does not increase the chances of death, serious illness or “long COVID.”

Research in The Lancet Infectious Diseases and The Lancet Public Health used data from symptom reports made by 37,000 people to a virus-tracking mobile app and information from patients in hospital.

The first study assessed COVID-19 patients admitted to University College London Hospital and North Middlesex University Hospital between Nov. 9 and Dec. 20.

Scientists compared 198 patients with the UK variant and 143 with other COVID-19 strains. They found that 36 percent of UK-variant patients became severely ill or died, compared with 38 percent of those with other strains. 

The second study used data from people who accessed the COVID-19 app and tested positive between Sept. 28 and Dec. 27.

Researchers at King’s College London (KCL) found that the UK variant did not appear to affect the type or length of symptoms that patients endured.

Dr. Claire Steves, a physician at KCL and the study’s co-leader, said: “We confirmed the increased transmissibility, but also showed that the UK variant clearly responded to lockdown measures and does not appear to escape immunity gained by exposure to the original virus.”