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.


Tokyo COVID-19 curbs declared illegal in ‘Kill Bill’ restaurant case

Tokyo COVID-19 curbs declared illegal in ‘Kill Bill’ restaurant case
Updated 57 min 46 sec ago

Tokyo COVID-19 curbs declared illegal in ‘Kill Bill’ restaurant case

Tokyo COVID-19 curbs declared illegal in ‘Kill Bill’ restaurant case
  • The orders, enacted in the capital during various states of emergency, included shortened operating hours and a ban on alcohol sales

TOKYO: Japan’s “Kill Bill” restaurant operator prevailed in a court case on Monday that declared Tokyo’s now defunct COVID-19 infection curbs were illegal.
The orders, enacted in the capital during various states of emergency, included shortened operating hours and a ban on alcohol sales, though there was a compensating government subsidy. Businesses that didn’t comply were subject to fines.
Global-Dining Inc, which runs more than 40 restaurants, defied the restrictions, taking the city government to court over the matter.
The district court said the Tokyo government had not provided a “rational explanation” for the measures. The court determined they had been illegal but it denied Global-Dining’s claim for $0.80 (¥104) in damages.
The restrictions ended in March. Whether this ruling would inhibit the city government in acting against any renewed COVID-19 outbreak is unclear.
In a statement, Global-Dining president Kozo Hasegawa, said the case revealed the “injustice and sloppiness of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.” His company crowd-funded more than 25 million yen to fight the case.
Global-Dining’s Gonpachi restaurant, with a cavernous inner courtyard, inspired the fight scene in Quentin Tarantino’s first “Kill Bill” film. It was the site of a dinner between then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and then US President George W. Bush in 2002.


Indonesia tourist bus smashes into billboard, killing 14

Indonesia tourist bus smashes into billboard, killing 14
Updated 16 May 2022

Indonesia tourist bus smashes into billboard, killing 14

Indonesia tourist bus smashes into billboard, killing 14
  • The bus was returning from a trip to Central Java’s Dieng Plateau, a popular mountain resort

SURABAYA, Indonesia: A tourist bus with an apparently drowsy driver slammed into a billboard Monday on a highway on Indonesia’s main island of Java, killing at least 14 people and injuring 19 others, police said.
The bus, carrying Indonesian tourists from Surabaya, the capital of East Java province, was returning from a trip to Central Java’s Dieng Plateau, a popular mountain resort, when it hit the billboard on the Mojokerto toll road just after dawn, East Java traffic police chief Latief Usman said.
Television news showed police and medical personnel removing victims from the bus, which crashed just 400 meters before the highway exit.
Usman said police are still investigating the cause of the accident, but that the driver reportedly appeared drowsy before the crash.
He said police haven’t yet questioned the driver, who suffered severe injuries. Nineteen people were being treated in four hospitals in Mojokerto, mostly for broken bones.
Road accidents are common in Indonesia because of poor safety standards and infrastructure.


Ukraine says troops defending Kharkiv have reached Russian border

Ukraine says troops defending Kharkiv have reached Russian border
Ukraine says troops defending Kharkiv have reached Russian border. (Reuters)
Updated 16 May 2022

Ukraine says troops defending Kharkiv have reached Russian border

Ukraine says troops defending Kharkiv have reached Russian border
  • Ukraine said troops defending Kharkiv had repelled Russian forces and advanced as far as the border with Russia

KYIV: Ukraine said on Monday troops defending the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, had repelled Russian forces and advanced as far as the border with Russia.
Reuters could not immediately verify Ukraine’s battlefield account and it was not clear how many troops had reached the Russian border and where.
If confirmed, it would suggest a Ukrainian counter-offensive is having increasing success in pushing back Russian forces in the northeast after Western military agencies said Moscow’s offensive in the Donbas region had stalled.
Ukraine’s defense ministry said in a Facebook post that the 227th Battalion of the 127th Brigade of Ukraine’s armed forces had reached the border with Russia, adding: “Together to victory!”
Kharkiv region governor Oleh Sinegubov wrote on the Telegram messaging app that troops of the 227th Battalion had restored a sign on the state border.
“We thank everyone who, risking their lives, liberates Ukraine from Russian invaders,” Sinegubov said.
Ukraine has scored a series of successes since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, forcing Russia’s commanders to abandon an advance on the capital Kyiv before making rapid gains around Kharkiv.
Moscow calls its invasion of Ukraine a “special military operation” to rid the country of fascists, an assertion Kyiv and its Western allies say is a baseless pretext for an unprovoked war.


French city rekindles burkini row with pool rule change

French city rekindles burkini row with pool rule change
Updated 16 May 2022

French city rekindles burkini row with pool rule change

French city rekindles burkini row with pool rule change
  • Burkini seen as a symbol of creeping Islamism by its critics and an affront to France’s secular traditions

GRENOBLE, France: The Alpine city of Grenoble is set to reignite one of France’s recurring summer debates on Monday when it votes to authorize the “burkini” in state-run swimming pools.
The all-in-one swimsuit, used by some Muslim women to cover their bodies and hair while bathing, has become almost as topical as ice cream and sun hats during the holiday season in recent years.
Seen as a symbol of creeping Islamism by its critics and an affront to France’s secular traditions, many right-wingers and some feminists would like to ban it outright.
It is prohibited in most state-run pools — for hygiene, not religious reasons — where strict swimwear rules apply to all, including men who are required to squeeze into tight-fitting trunks.
Grenoble’s city council, dominated by the EELV green party, is set to scrap its bathing dress code on Monday, effectively authorizing long body coverings, beach shorts and topless bathing.
“Our intention is to remove all of the abnormal clothing restrictions,” mayor Eric Piolle said recently. “The issue is not being for or against the burkini specifically.”
Opponents see it differently, including the influential conservative head of the wider Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region, Laurent Wauquiez, who has promised to withdraw funding from the city.
“I am convinced that what Mr.Piolle is defending is a dreadful dead end for our country,” Wauquiez said at the beginning of May, accusing him of “doing deals with political Islam” to “buy votes.”
The regional spat has put the burkini back in the headlines nationally, animating French talk shows and the political class ahead of parliamentary elections next month.
The issue of how people dress for the pool touches on highly sensitive topics in France, including fears about the influence of Islam and threats to the country’s cherished secularism.
The right to worship freely is constitutionally protected, but the French state is also bound by law to be neutral in religious matters, including inside institutions.
“The burkini aims, purely and simply, to impose Islamist values at the heart of bathing areas and public leisure pursuits,” an open letter written by opposition councillors in Grenoble said last week.
Attempts by several local mayors in the south of France to ban the burkini on Mediterranean beaches in the summer of 2016 kicked off the first firestorm around the bathing suit.
The rules, introduced after a string of terror attacks in France, were eventually struck down as discriminatory.
Three years later, a group of women in Grenoble caused a splash by forcing their way into a pool with burkinis, leading the prime minister at the time to insist that the rules should be followed.
French sports brand Decathlon also found itself at the center of a similar row in 2019 when it announced plans to sell a “sports hijab” enabling Muslim women to cover their hair while running.
Monday’s vote in Grenoble “is an important moment for everyone concerned and their allies, but also in the fight against Islamophobia and control over women’s bodies,” local campaign group Citizens’ Alliance wrote on its Facebook page.
Demonstrations supporting and opposing the move are also planned in the city following the council meeting where mayor Piolle is expected to succeed in pushing through the change.
French feminists are split, with some seeing the burkini as a symbol of male oppression and others such as Caroline De Haas writing that “no one should be stigmatized in a pool because of their choice of swimwear.”
Grenoble would not be the first to change its rules, however.
The northwestern city of Rennes quietly updated its pool code in 2019 to allow burkinis and other types of swimwear.
The debate about the burkini comes as French Muslim women footballers are battling to overturn a ban on the wearing of religious symbols during competitive matches.
The French Football Federation currently prevents players from playing while wearing “ostentatious” religious symbols such as the Muslim hijab or the Jewish kippa.
A women’s collective known as “les Hijabeuses” launched a legal challenge to the rules in November last year.


Kim Jong Un orders North Korean military to stabilize supply of COVID-19 drugs

Kim Jong Un orders North Korean military to stabilize supply of COVID-19 drugs
Updated 16 May 2022

Kim Jong Un orders North Korean military to stabilize supply of COVID-19 drugs

Kim Jong Un orders North Korean military to stabilize supply of COVID-19 drugs
  • Last week brought Pyongyang’s first acknowledgment of an ‘explosive’ outbreak
  • Kim: Drugs procured by the state were not reaching people in a timely and accurate way

SEOUL: Leader Kim Jong Un has ordered North Korea’s military to stabilize distribution of COVID-19 medicines in the capital, Pyongyang, in the battle on the country’s first confirmed outbreak of the disease, state media said.
Last week brought the North’s first acknowledgment of an “explosive” outbreak, with experts warning it could wreak devastation in a country with limited medical supplies and no vaccine program.
Drugs procured by the state were not reaching people in a timely and accurate way, Kim told an emergency politburo meeting on Sunday, before visiting pharmacies near the capital’s Taedong River, state news agency KCNA said.
Kim ordered immediate deployment of the “powerful forces” of the army’s medical corps to “stabilize the supply of medicines in Pyongyang City,” it added.
Although authorities had ordered distribution of national reserves of medicine, pharmacies were not well-equipped to perform their functions smoothly, Kim added, the agency said.
Among their shortcomings were a lack of adequate drug storage other than showcases, while salespeople were not equipped with the proper sanitary clothing and hygiene in their surroundings fell short of standards, the leader said.
He criticized the “irresponsible” work attitude, organization and execution by the cabinet and the public health sector, it added.
Neighbouring South Korea will spare no effort to help the North fight its outbreak, President Yoon Suk-yeol told parliament on Monday, saying it was ready to provide COVID-19 vaccines and other medical support if Pyongyang agrees.
South Korea’s unification ministry has offered to hold working-level talks with North Korea on offering support for its neighbor, which is battling its first confirmed outbreak of COVID-19, the ministry said on Monday.
The ministry, charged with maintaining relations between the two nations, said it had expressed willingness to provide medicines, from vaccines to test kits, as well as technical co-operation, based on the South’s experience with quarantine.

North Korea’s tally of the fever-stricken stood at 1,213,550, with 50 deaths by Sunday, after KCNA reported 392,920 more cases of fever, and eight more deaths. It did not say how many suspected infections had tested positive for COVID-19.
The North has blamed a large number of the deaths on people who were “careless in taking drugs” because of a lack of knowledge about the omicron variant of coronavirus and its correct treatment.