Kim says outbreak causing ‘great upheaval’ in North Korea

Kim says outbreak causing ‘great upheaval’ in North Korea
North Korea announced its first coronavirus infection more than two years into the pandemic Thursday, as leader Kim Jong Un called for raising COVID19 preventive measures to maximum levels. (AP/File Photo)
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Updated 14 May 2022

Kim says outbreak causing ‘great upheaval’ in North Korea

Kim says outbreak causing ‘great upheaval’ in North Korea
  • Two days after confirming its first cases of Covid-19, the government said more than half a million people had been sickened nationwide
  • On Friday, "over 174,440 persons had fever, at least 81,430 were fully recovered and 21 died in the country"

SEOUL: Leader Kim Jong Un says a Covid outbreak is causing ‘great upheaval’ in North Korea, which announced 21 new “fever” deaths Saturday.
Two days after confirming its first cases of Covid-19, the government said more than half a million people had been sickened nationwide.
Despite activating its “maximum emergency quarantine system” to slow the spread of disease through its unvaccinated population, North Korea is now reporting tens of thousands of new cases daily.
On Friday, “over 174,440 persons had fever, at least 81,430 were fully recovered and 21 died in the country,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported.
North Korea confirmed Thursday that the highly contagious omicron variant had been detected in the capital Pyongyang, with Kim ordering nationwide lockdowns.
It was the government’s first official admission of Covid cases and marked the failure of a two-year coronavirus blockade maintained at great economic cost since the start of the pandemic.
From late April to May 13, more than 524,440 people have fallen sick with fever, KCNA said, with 27 deaths in total.
The report did not specify whether the new cases and deaths had tested positive for Covid-19, but experts say the country will be struggling to test and diagnose on this scale.
North Korea has said only that one of the first six deaths it announced Friday had tested positive for Covid-19.
“It’s not a stretch to consider these ‘fever’ cases to all be Covid-19, given the North’s lack of testing capacity,” said Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute.
“The actual number of Covid cases could be higher than the fever figures due to many asymptomatic cases,” he said, adding that the pace of infection was growing “very fast.”
Kim said Saturday the “crisis” was causing “great upheaval,” as he oversaw a second Politburo meeting in three days to discuss the situation, KCNA reported.
“The spread of malignant disease comes to be a great upheaval in our country since the founding of the DPRK,” he said, referring to North Korea by its official name.
Kim is putting himself “front and center” of the country’s Covid response, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“The language he’s used suggests the situation in North Korea is going to get worse before it gets better,” he told AFP.
“Engagers see this rhetoric preparing the way for international assistance, but Kim may be rallying a population on the verge of further sacrifice,” he added.
The meeting of the nation’s top officials discussed medicine distribution and other ways of “minimizing the losses in human lives,” KCNA said.
North Korea has a crumbling health system — one of the worst in the world — and no Covid vaccines, antiviral treatment drugs or mass testing capacity, experts say.
But the country will “actively learn” from China’s pandemic management strategy, Kim said, according to KCNA.
China, the world’s only major economy to still maintain a zero-Covid policy, is battling multiple omicron outbreaks — with some major cities, including financial hub Shanghai, under stay-at-home orders.
North Korea has previously turned down offers of Covid vaccines from China and the World Health Organization’s Covax scheme, but both Beijing and Seoul issued fresh offers of aid and vaccines this week.
Kim’s comments indicate North Korea “will try getting supplies from China,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
It also looks likely Pyongyang “will adopt a Chinese-style anti-virus response of regional lockdowns,” Yang added.
So far, Kim said Saturday, North Korea’s outbreak was not “an uncontrollable spread among regions” but transmission within areas that had been locked down, KCNA said.
Despite its Covid outbreak, new satellite imagery indicates that North Korea has resumed construction at a long-dormant nuclear reactor.
“I can’t tell you when the reactor will be ready to go, but it is about 10x larger than the existing reactor at Yongbyon,” Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies wrote in a Twitter thread Saturday.
It would produce 10 times more plutonium for nuclear weapons, he said, adding: “This would make good on Kim’s pledge to increase the number of nuclear weapons.”
The United States and South Korea have warned that Kim is preparing to conduct another nuclear test — which would be the regime’s seventh — and that it could come any day now.
Analysts have warned Kim could speed up his nuclear test plans in a bid to “distract” North Korea’s population from a disastrous Covid-19 outbreak.


China removes some COVID-19 test rules on travelers from US

China removes some COVID-19 test rules on travelers from US
Updated 8 sec ago

China removes some COVID-19 test rules on travelers from US

China removes some COVID-19 test rules on travelers from US
  • Previous requirements on antibody tests before flights will be removed as well

BEIJING: Travelers flying to China from US cities including Los Angeles, New York and San Francesco from May 20 will no longer need a RT-PCR test seven days before flights, notices issued late on Tuesday by the Chinese embassy and consulates showed.
Previous requirements on antibody tests before flights will be removed as well, the notices said.
Travelers still need to do two RT-PCR tests within 48 hours or 24 hours of their flights — depending on which airport they are flying out of — plus another antigen test, those notices showed.


US-Taliban deal biggest factor in collapse of Afghan forces, watchdog says

US-Taliban deal biggest factor in collapse of Afghan forces, watchdog says
Updated 34 min 37 sec ago

US-Taliban deal biggest factor in collapse of Afghan forces, watchdog says

US-Taliban deal biggest factor in collapse of Afghan forces, watchdog says
  • Withdrawal ‘destroyed’ the morale of the Afghan military as it was dependent on US military support

WASHINGTON: The biggest factor that led to the collapse of the Afghan military in August last year was the US decision to withdraw forces and contractors from Afghanistan through an agreement with the Taliban signed by the Trump administration and executed by the Biden administration, a US watchdog report concluded.
The withdrawal “destroyed” the morale of the Afghan military as it was dependent on US military support, according to an assessment by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, which was made public late Tuesday.
“SIGAR found that the single most important factor in the ANDSF’s (Afghan National Defense and Security Forces) collapse in August 2021 was the US decision to withdraw military forces and contractors from Afghanistan through signing the US-Taliban agreement in February 2020 under the Trump administration, followed by President Biden’s withdrawal announcement in April 2021,” the report said.
Under US President Joe Biden’s Republican predecessor Donald Trump, the United States made a deal with the Islamist Taliban to withdraw all American forces.
After the signing of the deal, the US military support to Afghan forces came down, which also included a drop in air strikes in 2020 after a record high level in the previous year, the report added.
“Limiting airstrikes after the signing of the US-Taliban agreement the following year left the ANDSF without a key advantage in keeping the Taliban at bay,” John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said.
The Taliban overran Afghanistan in August as the former Western-backed government collapsed with surprising speed and the last US troops withdrew.
Biden had argued the war in Afghanistan needed to be brought to a close after 20 years of fighting that had cost American lives, drained resources and distracted from greater strategic priorities.
The US Congress created the office of SIGAR to provide an oversight of reconstruction projects and activities during the war in Afghanistan.
“Many Afghans thought the US-Taliban agreement was an act of bad faith and a signal that the US was handing over Afghanistan to the enemy as it rushed to exit the country,” Sopko said.


Finland, Sweden submit application to join NATO

Finland, Sweden submit application to join NATO
Updated 18 May 2022

Finland, Sweden submit application to join NATO

Finland, Sweden submit application to join NATO
  • Sweden and Finland were both neutral throughout the Cold War
  • Ratification of all 30 allied parliaments could take up to a year

BRUSSELS: Finland and Sweden formally applied to join the NATO alliance on Wednesday at allied headquarters, a decision spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and setting in motion an accession process that is expected to take only a few weeks.

Sweden and Finland were both neutral throughout the Cold War, and their decision to join NATO is one of the most significant changes in Europe’s security architecture for decades, reflecting a sweeping shift in public opinion in the Nordic region since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion.

“This is a historic moment, which we must seize,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said at a short ceremony in which the Swedish and Finnish ambassadors to the alliance handed over their application letters, each in a white folder embossed with their national flag.

“I warmly welcome requests by Finland and Sweden to join NATO. You are our closest partners, and your membership in NATO will increase our shared security,” Stoltenberg said. The alliance considers that the accession of Finland and Sweden would hugely strengthen it in the Baltic Sea.

Ratification of all 30 allied parliaments could take up to a year, diplomats say.

Turkey has surprised its allies in recent days by saying it had reservations about Finnish and Swedish membership. Stoltenberg said on Wednesday that he thought the issues could be resolved.

“We are determined to work through all issues and reach rapid conclusions,” Stoltenberg said, noting strong support from all other allies.


Half a million Indians flee floods in northeast brought by rain

Half a million Indians flee floods in northeast brought by rain
Updated 18 May 2022

Half a million Indians flee floods in northeast brought by rain

Half a million Indians flee floods in northeast brought by rain
  • One of the world’s largest rivers, the Brahmaputra, burst its banks in Assam over the last three days, inundating more than 1,500 villages

GUWAHATI, India: More than 500,000 people have fled their homes in India’s northeastern state of Assam to escape heavy floods triggered by pre-monsoon rains that drowned seven, authorities said on Wednesday, as they warned the situation could worsen.
One of the world’s largest rivers, the Brahmaputra, which flows into India and neighboring Bangladesh from Tibet, burst its banks in Assam over the last three days, inundating more than 1,500 villages.
Torrential rains lashed most of the rugged state, and the downpour continued on Wednesday, with more forecast over the next two days.
“More than 500,000 people have been affected, with the flood situation turning critical by the hour,” Assam’s water resources minister, Pijush Hazarika said, adding that the seven drowned in separate incidents during the last three days.
Soldiers of the Indian army retrieved more than 2,000 people trapped in the district of Hojai in a rescue effort that continues, the state’s health minister, Keshab Mahanta, said.
Water levels in the Brahmaputra were expected to rise further, national authorities said.
“The situation remains extremely grave in the worst-hit Dima Hasao district, with both rail and road links snapped due to flooding and landslides,” said Assam’s revenue minister, Jogen Mohan, who is overseeing relief efforts there.
Cities elsewhere in India, notably the capital, New Delhi, are broiling in a heat wave.


Australian election polls show race tightening in final campaign stretch

Australian election polls show race tightening in final campaign stretch
Updated 18 May 2022

Australian election polls show race tightening in final campaign stretch

Australian election polls show race tightening in final campaign stretch
  • Prime Minister Scott Morrison describes the pre-polling trends as ‘really encouraging’
  • Opposition leader Anthony Albanese blames government mismanagement for the slow rise in wages and inflation shock

SYDNEY: Australia’s national election has become too close to call, polls out on Wednesday showed, as the ruling conservative coalition narrowed the gap with the main opposition Labour Party, three days before the country decides on a new government.
Center-left Labor’s lead over the Liberal-National coalition has shrunk to 51-49 percent on a two-party preferred basis from 54-46 percent two weeks ago, a poll done for the Sydney Morning Herald showed. A Guardian poll indicated Labor’s lead had dipped to 48-46 percent from 49 percent-45 percent two weeks ago.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison described the pre-polling trends as “really encouraging,” while Labor acknowledged the election would be “incredibly close.”
With Australia going to the polls on Saturday, rising living costs have dominated the final stretches of the campaign with voters rating it as the most critical issue in some polls.
Australian wage growth ticked up by only a fraction last quarter, data out on Wednesday showed, even as a tightening labor market and record vacancies heightened competition for workers.
But consumer price inflation has risen twice as fast as wages, keeping real income in the red.
“I have been very candid with Australians about the economic challenges we’re facing ... Labor has no magic bullet on this, they have no magic pen or magic wand,” Morrison told reporters from the marginal Labor-held seat of Corangamite in Victoria.
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese blamed government mismanagement for the slow rise in wages and inflation shock.
“Australian workers are paying the price for a decade of bad policy and economic failures while Scott Morrison says he should be rewarded with another three years because he is just getting started,” Albanese said.
Nearly 6 million voters out of an electorate of 17 million have already cast their ballots through postal votes or early in-person voting, official data showed.
An additional 1.1 million postal votes have been received so far versus the 2019 election. The Electoral Commission has flagged a clear winner may not emerge on election night if it is a close contest due to time required to count all postal votes.