North Korea, after harsh 2-year lockdown, slowly reopens border

North Korea, after harsh 2-year lockdown, slowly reopens border
Many experts, however, say it’s more likely that the pandemic’s economic strain is forcing North Korea to explore a phased reopening of its borders that it could quickly close if greater risks emerge. (File/AFP)
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Updated 27 January 2022

North Korea, after harsh 2-year lockdown, slowly reopens border

North Korea, after harsh 2-year lockdown, slowly reopens border
  • The North’s tentative reopening is seen in the apparent resumption of North Korean freight train traffic into neighboring China

SEOUL: After spending two years in a strict lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea may finally be opening up — slowly. The reason could reflect a growing sense of recognition by the leadership that the nation badly needs to win outside economic relief.
The North’s tentative reopening is seen in the apparent resumption of North Korean freight train traffic into neighboring China. But it comes even as Pyongyang has staged several weapons tests, the latest being two suspected ballistic missiles on Thursday, and issued a veiled threat about resuming tests of nuclear explosives and long-range missiles targeting the American homeland.
The apparently divided message — opening the border, slightly, on one hand, while also militarily pressuring Washington over a prolonged freeze in nuclear negotiations — likely signals a realization that the pandemic has worsened an economy already damaged by decades of mismanagement and crippling US-led sanctions over North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles.
According to South Korean estimates, North Korea’s crucial trade with its ally China shrank by about 80 percent in 2020 before plunging again by two-thirds in the first nine months of 2021 as it sealed its borders.
The partial reopening of the border also raises questions about how North Korea plans to receive and administer vaccines following a yearlong delay in its immunization campaign.
“North Korea could end up being the planet’s last battlefield in the war against COVID-19. Even the poorest countries in Africa have received outside aid and vaccines or acquired immunity through infection, but North Korea is the only country in the world without a real plan,” said analyst Lim Soo-ho at Seoul’s Institute of National Security Strategy, a think tank run by South Korea’s main spy agency.
Commercial satellite images indicate that the first North Korean freight train that crossed the Yalu River last week then returned from China and unloaded cargo at an airfield in the border town of Uiju, according to the North Korea-focused 38 North website. The airfield is believed to have been converted to disinfect imported supplies, which may include food and medicine.
China’s Foreign Ministry has said trade between the border towns will be maintained while pandemic controls stay in place. But South Korean officials say it isn’t immediately clear whether the North is fully reopening land trade with China, which is a major economic lifeline.
Some South Korean media have speculated North Korea may have temporarily reopened the railroad between Sinuiju and China’s Dandong just to receive food and essential goods meant as gifts for its people during important holidays, including the 80th birth anniversary of leader Kim Jong Un’s father next month, and the 110th birth anniversary in April of his grandfather who founded North Korea.
Many experts, however, say it’s more likely that the pandemic’s economic strain is forcing North Korea to explore a phased reopening of its borders that it could quickly close if greater risks emerge.
Following two years of extreme isolation and economic decay, Pyongyang’s leadership is looking for more sustainable ways to deal with a pandemic that could last years.
While North Korea has so far claimed zero virus infections, it also calls its antivirus campaign a matter of “national existence.” It has severely restricted cross-border traffic and trade, banned tourists and kicked out diplomats, and is even believed to have ordered troops to shoot-on-sight any trespassers.
Pyongyang’s leadership knows that a major COVID-19 outbreak would be devastating because of North Korea’s poor health care system and may even fan social unrest when combined with its chronic food shortage, experts say.
South Korean officials have said that North Korea established disinfection zones in recent months at border towns and seaports. The World Health Organization said in October that the North had started receiving shipments of medical supplies transported by sea from China through its port of Nampo.
The pandemic is another difficulty for Kim, who gained little from his nuclear disarmament-for-aid diplomacy with former US President Donald Trump. Those talks imploded in 2019.
Kim in 2020 acknowledged that his previous economic plans weren’t working and opened 2021 by issuing a new development plan for the next five years.
But North Korea’s review of its 2021 economy during a December ruling party meeting indicated that the first year of the plan was disappointing, Lim said. A rare piece of tangible progress was a modest increase in food production, which rebounded from a 2020 marked by crop-killing storms and floods.
North Korea’s resumed trade with China will be driven by imports. Most of North Korea’s major export activities are blocked under international sanctions tightened since 2016 after Kim accelerated nuclear and missile development.
The North may focus on importing fertilizer to boost food production. It also needs construction materials for development projects important to Kim. Factory goods and machinery are crucial to revive industrial production, which has been decimated by two years of halted trade.
Experts, however, still expect North Korea’s trade with China to be significantly smaller than pre-pandemic levels.
North Korea can’t immediately purchase a huge amount of goods because the multiyear toll of sanctions and pandemic-related difficulties has thinned out foreign currency reserves.
“Still, it’s clear that North Korea isn’t a country that can survive without imports for two or three years, so it’s certain they will attempt to slowly increase imports within a limited scope,” said Go Myong-hyun, an analyst at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
North Korea has so far shunned millions of vaccine shots offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, possibly reflecting an unease toward accepting international monitors. But the country may still seek help from China and Russia to inoculate workers, officials and troops in border areas as it proceeds with a phased resumption of trade, said Hong Min, an analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification.
North Korea may also be forced to adopt a scaled-back vaccination program by tightly restricting access to border areas and providing regular testing and vaccination for border workers.
“It could take nearly 100 million shots to fully vaccinate the North Korean population of more than 25 million, and the country will never get anything close to that,” Lim said.


Indian writers celebrate first International Booker Prize for Hindi novel

Indian writers celebrate first International Booker Prize for Hindi novel
Updated 20 sec ago

Indian writers celebrate first International Booker Prize for Hindi novel

Indian writers celebrate first International Booker Prize for Hindi novel
  • Geetanjali Shree’s ‘Tomb of Sand,’ translated by Daisy Rockwell, won this year’s prize on Thursday

NEW DELHI: India’s literary world celebrated on Friday as Geetanjali Shree’s “Tomb of Sand” became the first book written in an Indian language to win the prestigious International Booker Prize.

The prize is awarded annually to a book that has been translated into English and published in the United Kingdom and Ireland.  

Shree wrote “Tomb of Sand” (Hindi title “Ret Samadhi”) in 2018. It is a family saga set in the shadow of the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, when British India was split into two independent states — India and Pakistan — triggering one of the largest migrations in history, with around 15 million people forced to swap countries in a political upheaval that cost more than a million lives.

The novel follows an 80-year-old Indian woman who travels to Pakistan following the death of her husband to confront the unresolved trauma of her teenage experiences of partition and, while doing so, reevaluates what it means to be a mother, daughter, and woman.

The book was translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, who shares the prize with Shree. It was the first Hindi-language novel to secure a nomination for the prize.

In her acceptance speech in London on Thursday night, Shree said that behind her was a “rich and flourishing literary tradition in Hindi, and in other South Asian languages.”

“World literature will be the richer for knowing some of the finest writers in these languages. The vocabulary of life will increase from such an interaction,” she said.

Writers in India welcomed Shree’s recognition with the same hope.

“It’s an absolutely wonderful achievement,” Arundhati Roy, one of India’s most renowned writers, told Arab News.

Namita Gokhale, director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, India’s largest literary event, said the award will bring a “much-needed understanding of Hindi literature, one of the great world literatures.”

She continued: “It will lead to more and more translation (of Hindi works). There are so many wonderful translations out there, but certainly many, many more need to be done, because there is wonderful writing happening at all levels of contemporary Hindi literature.”

For Hindi novelist Bhagwandass Morwal, Shree’s win was a “matter of great pride.”

“After the Nobel Prize, the Booker is the most recognized award for literature,” he said. “This is one Booker prize. It is the beginning. In the future we will see more.”

“Tomb of Sand” beat out five other shortlisted titles for the prize, including “The Books of Jacob” by Nobel Prize-winning Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk and “Heaven” by Mieko Kawakami, the Japanese author best known for “Breasts and Eggs.”


As springs dry up, Nepalese farmers tap into harvesting raindrops

Residents of Kuinkel Thumka sit next to a conservation pond that supplies them with water during prolonged dry periods.
Residents of Kuinkel Thumka sit next to a conservation pond that supplies them with water during prolonged dry periods.
Updated 20 min 25 sec ago

As springs dry up, Nepalese farmers tap into harvesting raindrops

Residents of Kuinkel Thumka sit next to a conservation pond that supplies them with water during prolonged dry periods.
  • Prolonged dry periods have been more frequent in recent years due to climate change
  • Farmers build soil-cement ponds to store rain and runoff water

KATHMANDU: Water scarcity in Kuinkel Thumka, a mountainous village in eastern Nepal, has for years made life difficult for residents — until a few months ago, when they started to capture excess rainfall during the monsoon season.

Located in the Middle Hills, between the Himalayas and Tarai, the village of 850 people lies in Kavrepalanchok district of Bagmati province, where the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), has introduced soil-cement ponds to store rain and runoff water.

“We built a soil-cement tank in our village eight months ago and started to collect rain,” Gita Kuinkel, a 53-year-old farmer, told Arab News.

“Before this tank, we didn’t have enough water and our lives were hard. It was not enough for our cattle, household chores and irrigation. Now, the water is enough,” she said.

“We don’t have to buy vegetables, we grow and eat vegetables from our own home gardens.”

Cheap soil-cement conservation ponds are constructed in the region with the help of ICIMOD, an intergovernmental research center serving countries of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, and the Center for Environmental and Agricultural Policy Research, Extension and Development (CEAPRED), a leading Nepali developmental NGO.

The ponds capture excess rainfall during the monsoon, making water available during prolonged dry periods, which in recent years have been more frequent, even in the Himalayas, as South Asia is experiencing unprecedented heatwaves due to climate change.

Sanjeev Bhuchar, a water management expert at ICIMOD, told Arab News that more than 80 percent of Nepal’s 13 million population was dependent on mountain springs as the primary source of water. But the springs are drying up.

“In Nepal and other Himalaya-Hindu Kush countries, depletion of springs is one of the major emerging water crises,” he said.

“There is increasing evidence that spring discharge is decreasing, or in some cases, ceasing altogether.”

Within the past three years, more than 400 ponds have been built across the country, according to Kiran Bhusal, project coordinator at CEAPRED.

“Farmers can easily build such tanks because the procedure is very easy. It is built with mixtures of soil, sand and cement,” he said. “It is helping the people so much.”

Kamala Adhikary, another resident of Kuinkel Thumka, said that it cost the village about $160 to build a water conservation pond, and the standard of living has changed ever since.

“We didn’t have enough water for drinking, we had to buy water from other areas,” she said.

“Now we can wash our clothes, use it for our cattle and even we do farming, and earn money because of it. It improved our economic condition. A lot of problems have been solved.”

 


Concerns raised over criminalization, transfer of asylum seekers in UK

Concerns raised over criminalization, transfer of asylum seekers in UK
Updated 27 May 2022

Concerns raised over criminalization, transfer of asylum seekers in UK

Concerns raised over criminalization, transfer of asylum seekers in UK
  • Number being granted refuge hits 30-year high
  • Most enter via small boats or other irregular routes now exposed to risk of prosecution

LONDON: Charities have raised concerns over the potential for asylum seekers to be criminalized or transferred to Rwanda as the number being granted refuge in the UK hits a 30-year high.
The Guardian reported on Friday that Home Office data for the 12 months to March shows 75 percent of asylum claims were granted, with Syrians, Eritreans and Sudanese forming the majority of people making their way from countries with typically high approval rates.
However, most of them entered the UK by small boats or other irregular routes now exposed to risks of prosecution under the Nationality and Borders Act passed last month.
The same dataset also showed an increase in the number of Afghans making their way to the UK via the dangerous English Channel crossing, indicating that the resettlement schemes launched after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban last year are not working.
“The government has said it is giving Afghans a ‘warm welcome,’ but these figures reveal that many have felt they have been left with no option but to take this dangerous route to make it to the UK,” said Marley Morris, associate director for migration at the Institute for Public Policy Research.
“The government’s new plans in response to the Channel crossings could mean that Afghan asylum seekers will be sent to Rwanda.
“Contrary to the government’s claims, there are few safe routes for people forced into small boats to make it to the UK.”


Monkeypox can be contained if we act now, WHO says

Monkeypox can be contained if we act now, WHO says
Updated 27 May 2022

Monkeypox can be contained if we act now, WHO says

Monkeypox can be contained if we act now, WHO says
  • "We think that if we put in place the right measures now we probably can contain this easily," said Sylvie Briand, WHO director for Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness
  • So far, there are about 300 confirmed or suspected cases in around 20 countries

GENEVA: Countries should take quick steps to contain the spread of monkeypox and share data about their vaccine stockpiles, a senior World Health Organization official said on Friday.
“We think that if we put in place the right measures now we probably can contain this easily,” Sylvie Briand, WHO director for Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness, told the UN agency’s annual assembly.
Monkeypox is a usually mild viral infection that is endemic in parts of west and central Africa.
It spreads chiefly through close contact and until the recent outbreak, was rarely seen in other parts of the world, which is why the recent emergence of cases in Europe, the United States and other areas has raised alarms.
So far, there are about 300 confirmed or suspected cases in around 20 countries where the virus was not previously circulating.
“For us, we think that the key priority currently is trying to contain this transmission in non-endemic countries,” Briand told a technical briefing for member states.
Needed measures included the early detection and isolation of cases and contact tracing, she added.
Member states should also share information about first generation stockpiles of smallpox vaccines which can also be effective against monkeypox, Briand said.
“We don’t know exactly the number of doses available in the world and so that’s why we encourage countries to come to WHO and tell us what are their stockpiles,” she said. A slide of her presentation described global supplies as “very constrained.”
Currently, WHO officials are advising against mass vaccination, instead suggesting targeted vaccination where available for close contacts of people infected.
“Case investigation, contact tracing, isolation at home will be your best bets,” said Rosamund Lewis, WHO head of the smallpox secretariat which is part of the WHO Emergencies Programme.


Canada police shoot man in Toronto seen with rifle near school

Canada police shoot man in Toronto seen with rifle near school
Police in Canada’s largest city Toronto on Thursday fatally shot a man armed with a rifle. (Reuters)
Updated 27 May 2022

Canada police shoot man in Toronto seen with rifle near school

Canada police shoot man in Toronto seen with rifle near school
  • Bystanders alerted police to the man’s presence in an eastern neighborhood of Toronto

MONTREAL: Police in Canada’s largest city Toronto on Thursday fatally shot a man armed with a rifle, local media reported, in an incident that forced several schools into lockdown just two days after a deadly assault on a US primary school.
Bystanders alerted police to the man’s presence in an eastern neighborhood of Toronto, and the circumstances of what transpired next were not immediately clear.
But city police chief James Ramer told reporters that the suspect, described as a man in his late teens or early 20s, was dead after he had “confronted” responding officers, without elaborating.
The police force’s Twitter account said that after officers located the man, a “police firearm” was “discharged.”
A spokeswoman for the Special Investigations Unit told the CBC that preliminary evidence showed that two police officers had fired their weapons, and the suspect was pronounced dead at the scene.
It was not clear if the man was holding the weapon when police shot him.
Ramer said he was unable to offer more details, as the incident was under investigation.
“There’s no threat to public safety,” he said.
“Due to the proximity to a school, I certainly understand the trauma and how traumatic this must have been for staff, students and parents, given recent events that have happened in the United States,” the chief added.
On Tuesday, a shooting at a Texas elementary school left 21 dead — 19 children and two teachers.