North Korea reports more fevers as Kim Jong Un claims COVID-19 virus progress

North Korea reports more fevers as Kim Jong Un claims COVID-19 virus progress
The outbreak has caused concern about serious tragedies in the poor, isolated country with one of the world’s worst health care systems and a high tolerance for civilian suffering. (File/AFP)
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Updated 21 May 2022

North Korea reports more fevers as Kim Jong Un claims COVID-19 virus progress

North Korea reports more fevers as Kim Jong Un claims COVID-19 virus progress
  • North Korea said more than 2.4 million people have fallen ill and 66 people have died since an unidentified fever began quickly spreading in late April

SEOUL: North Korea said Saturday it found nearly 220,000 more people with feverish symptoms even as leader Kim Jong Un claimed progress in slowing a largely undiagnosed spread of COVID-19 across an unvaccinated population of 26 million.
The outbreak has caused concern about serious tragedies in the poor, isolated country with one of the world’s worst health care systems and a high tolerance for civilian suffering. Experts say North Korea is almost certainly downplaying the true scale of the viral spread, including a strangely small death toll, to soften the political blow on Kim as he navigates the toughest moment in his decade of rule.
Around 219,030 North Koreans with fevers were identified in the 24 hours through 6 p.m. Friday, the fifth straight daily increase of around 200,000, according to the North’s Korean Central News Agency, which attributed the information to the government’s anti-virus headquarters.
North Korea said more than 2.4 million people have fallen ill and 66 people have died since an unidentified fever began quickly spreading in late April, although the country has only been able to identify a handful of those cases as COVID-19 due to a lack of testing supplies. After maintaining a dubious claim for 2 1/2 years that it had perfectly blocked the virus from entering its territory, the North admitted to omicron infections last week.
Amid a paucity of public health tools, the North has mobilized more than a million health workers to find people with fevers and isolate them at quarantine facilities. Kim also imposed strict restrictions on travel between cities and towns and mobilized thousands of troops to help with the transport of medicine to pharmacies in the country’s capital, Pyongyang, which has been the center of the outbreak.
During a ruling party Politburo meeting on Saturday, Kim insisted the country was starting to bring the outbreak under control and called for tightened vigilance to maintain the “affirmative trend” in the anti-virus campaign, KCNA said. But Kim also seemed to hint at relaxing his pandemic response to ease his economic woes, instructing officials to actively modify the country’s preventive measures based on the changing virus situation and to come up with various plans to revitalize the national economy.
KCNA said Politburo members debated ways for “more effectively engineering and executing” the government’s anti-virus policy in accordance with how the spread of the virus was being “stably controlled and abated,” but the report did not specify what was discussed.
Even while imposing what state media described as “maximum” preventive measures, Kim has stressed that his economic goals still should be met, and state media have described large groups of workers continuing to gather at farms, mining facilities, power stations and construction sites.
Experts say Kim can’t afford to bring the country to a standstill that would unleash further shock on a fragile economy, strained by decades of mismanagement, crippling US-led sanctions over his nuclear weapons ambitions and pandemic border closures. State media have portrayed an urgent push for agricultural campaigns aimed at protecting crops amid an ongoing drought, a worrisome development in a country that has long suffered from food insecurity, and for completing large-scale housing and other construction projects Kim sees as crucial to his rule.
The virus hasn’t stopped Kim from holding and attending important public events for his leadership. State media showed him weeping during Saturday’s state funeral for top North Korean military official Hyon Chol Hae, who is believed to have been involved in grooming Kim as a future leader during the rule of his father, Kim Jong Il.
North Korea’s optimistic description of its pandemic response starkly contrasts with outside concerns about dire consequences, including deaths that may reach tens of thousands. The worries have grown as the country apparently tries to manage the crisis in isolation while ignoring help from South Korea and the United States. South Korea’s government has said it couldn’t confirm reports that North Korea had flown aircraft to bring back emergency supplies from ally China this week.
The North in recent years has shunned millions of vaccine doses offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, possibly because of international monitoring requirements attached to those shots. The WHO and UNICEF have said North Korea so far has been unresponsive to their requests for virus data or proposals for help, and some experts say the North may be willing to accept a certain level of fatalities to gain immunity through infection.
It’s possible at least some of North Korea’s fever caseload are from non-COVID-19 illnesses such as water-borne diseases, which according to South Korean intelligence officials have become a growing problem for the North in recent years amid shortages in medical supplies.
But experts say the explosive pace of spread and North Korea’s lack of a testing regime to detect large numbers of virus carriers in early stages of infection suggest the country’s COVID-19 crisis is likely worse than what its fever numbers represent. They say the country’s real virus fatalities would be significantly larger than the official numbers and that deaths will further surge in coming weeks considering the intervals between infections and deaths.
North Korea’s admission of a COVID-19 outbreak came amid a provocative run in weapons tests, including the country’s first demonstration of an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017 in March, as Kim pushes a brinkmanship aimed at pressuring the United States to accept the idea of the North as a nuclear power and negotiating economic and security concessions from a position of strength.
The challenges posed by a decaying economy and the COVID-19 outbreak are unlikely to slow his pressure campaign. US and South Korean officials have said there’s a possibility the North conducts another ballistic missile test or nuclear explosive test during or around President Joe Biden’s visits to South Korea and Japan this week.
Nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have stalled for more than three years over disagreements over how to relax crippling US-led sanctions in exchange for disarmament steps by the North.


Libyan rival officials meet for UN-led talks on elections

Libyan rival officials meet for UN-led talks on elections
Updated 48 min 23 sec ago

Libyan rival officials meet for UN-led talks on elections

Libyan rival officials meet for UN-led talks on elections
  • Two senior Libyan officials from the country's rival camps have begun talks on constitutional arrangements for elections

GENEVA: Two senior Libyan officials began two days of talks Tuesday on constitutional arrangements for elections, the latest UN effort to bridge gaps between the country’s rivals.
Aguila Saleh, the influential speaker of the country’s east-based parliament, and Khaled Al-Meshri, head of the government’s Supreme Council of State, based in the west, in the capital of Tripoli, met at the UN headquarters in Geneva.
According to the United Nations, the talks will focus on a draft constitutional framework for elections after Libya’s rival factions failed to reach an agreement in their last round of talks in the Egyptian capital of Cairo.
Stephanie Williams, the UN special adviser on Libya, said they would discuss “timelines, modalities and milestones to guarantee a clear path to the holding of national elections as soon possible.”
“It is now the time to make a final and courageous effort to ensure that this historic compromise takes place, for the sake of Libya, the Libyan people and the credibility of its institutions,” she said.
The criteria for a presidential candidacy were a contentious point in the talks, according to Libyan media. The Tripoli-based council insisted on banning military personal from running for the country’s top post — apparently a move directed at the divisive commander Khalifa Haftar, whose forces are loyal to the east-based administration.
Haftar had announced his bid in elections slated for last December but the vote was not held because of myriad issues, including controversial hopefuls who had announced bids and disputes about election laws.
There are growing tensions on the ground, and sporadic clashes between rival militias recently erupted in Tripoli. Living conditions have also deteriorated, mainly because of fuel shortages in the oil-rich nation. Tribal leaders have shut down many oil facilities, including the country’s largest field.
The blockade was largely meant to cut off key state revenues to the incumbent Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who has refused to step down even though the vote was not held in December.
Now, Dbeibah and another prime minister, Fathy Bashagha, appointed by the east-based parliament to lead a transitional government, are claiming power. The rivalry has sparked fears the oil-rich country could slide back to fighting after tentative steps toward unity last year.
Libya has been wrecked by conflict since a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. The country was then for years split between rival administrations in the east and west, each supported by different militias and foreign governments.


Belgium busts drug lab on air base housing US nukes

Belgium busts drug lab on air base housing US nukes
Updated 28 June 2022

Belgium busts drug lab on air base housing US nukes

Belgium busts drug lab on air base housing US nukes
  • Two suspects -- not military personnel -- were arrested during the raid
  • Local police had discovered the drug lab on military land on June 22

BRUSSELS: Belgian police raided an illegal lab producing the rave drug ecstasy on an air base that reputedly houses part of the US nuclear arsenal in Europe, investigators said Tuesday.
Two suspects — not military personnel — were arrested during the raid, according to a spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office in the Belgian province of Limburg.
The Kleine-Brogel base in northeast Belgium is best known for housing a stock of US nuclear weapons.
Belgian officials are discreet about the deployment, having briefly confirmed its role in the 1980s, but in 2019 a Green MP told parliament that US forces hold ten to 20 warheads there.
Prosecutors said that local police had discovered the drug lab on military land on June 22 and that it had been dismantled by specialist federal officers.
The lab was found to produce MDMA, a synthetic recreational drug most commonly known as ecstasy.
The Kleine-Brogel air base is often a target of Belgian anti-nuclear and anti-NATO protesters.
It is in a rural area between the port city of Antwerp and the border with Germany’s industrial heartland, an area dotted by labs and hideouts used by international drug gangs.


UK FM fails to say how many British detainees still held by Iran

UK FM fails to say how many British detainees still held by Iran
Updated 28 June 2022

UK FM fails to say how many British detainees still held by Iran

UK FM fails to say how many British detainees still held by Iran
  • Questions raised over Britain’s response to Tehran ‘hostage-taking’

LONDON: UK Foreign Minister Liz Truss has struggled to reveal the exact number of British detainees still being held in Iran.

During a Foreign Affairs Committee meeting, Truss was asked how many detainees are being held hostage by Tehran and what progress the UK government is making in freeing them.

She claimed that the government is “continuing to press Iran on the release of all detainees.”

But concerns have been raised that families of detained individuals may avoid publicizing their cases out of fear of the UK Foreign Office’s reaction.

Pressure from human rights organizations such as Amnesty International was said to be behind the UK government push to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori earlier this year.

During the committee meeting, Conservative MP Alicia Kearns said: “The purpose of the Foreign Office is to keep British nationals safe abroad.”


Japan to host 2023 G-7 Summit in Hiroshima May 19-21

Japan to host 2023 G-7 Summit in Hiroshima May 19-21
Updated 28 June 2022

Japan to host 2023 G-7 Summit in Hiroshima May 19-21

Japan to host 2023 G-7 Summit in Hiroshima May 19-21
  • Japan will hold the rotating presidency of the G-7 major powers next year

MUNICH: Japan will host the 2023 Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima on May 19-21, Prime Minister KISHIDA Fumio said Tuesday.
Japan will hold the rotating presidency of the G-7 major powers next year. Kishida is a lawmaker elected from a constituency in the western Japan city, hit by a US atomic bomb in August 1945 near the end of World War II.
Toward the Hiroshima summit, “we’ll make sure to deepen discussions on realistic measures toward the achievement of a world without nuclear weapons,” Kishida told a news conference in the German city of Munich after attending a three-day G-7 summit in Schloss Elmau, also Germany.
“We want to show the world a powerful commitment never to repeat the horror of nuclear weapons” at the Hiroshima summit, he stressed.
On domestic issues, Kishida said the government will help lower electricity bills by building a framework effective in easing tight electricity supplies and curbing electricity prices.


First Sri Lankan pilgrims depart for Hajj despite skyrocketing travel costs

First Sri Lankan pilgrims depart for Hajj despite skyrocketing travel costs
Updated 28 June 2022

First Sri Lankan pilgrims depart for Hajj despite skyrocketing travel costs

First Sri Lankan pilgrims depart for Hajj despite skyrocketing travel costs
  • 960 pilgrims out of Sri Lanka’s quota of 1,585 will head to Makkah this year
  • Worshippers must pay travel costs in foreign currency amid worsening economic crisis

COLOMBO: The first group of Sri Lankans departed for Hajj on Tuesday despite earlier plans to forgo the pilgrimage as the country confronts its worst-ever economic crisis.

Last month, Sri Lanka’s umbrella association of pilgrimage organizers said that its members would suspend operations because the cost of sending worshippers to Makkah would be too high for the country to bear.

The island nation is struggling to deal with the worst financial downturn since independence in 1948 and has already defaulted on foreign debt repayments.

But earlier in June, the government announced Muslims would be allowed to perform Hajj this year provided they pay their travel costs in foreign currency.

“We are undergoing a huge economic crisis, still we want to respect the values and sentiments of the Muslims, therefore we allowed them to go even under trying circumstances,” Religious Affairs Minister Vidura Wickremanayake told Arab News. 

“We are confident that their prayers will go a long way in getting out of this crisis.”

One of Islam’s five pillars of faith, the Hajj was restricted over pandemic fears to just 1,000 people residing in Saudi Arabia in 2020. The Kingdom limited the pilgrimage to 60,000 domestic participants in 2021, compared with the pre-pandemic 2.5 million.

This year, after lifting most of its coronavirus curbs, Saudi Arabia will welcome 1 million domestic and foreign pilgrims.

Sri Lanka, where Muslims make up almost 10 percent of the country’s predominantly Buddhist population of 22 million, has been allocated a quota of 1,585 pilgrims to perform Hajj. But with inflation now running at 40 percent, the cost is too high for many to bear and only about 960 are expected to travel.

The pilgrimage this year costs five times more than in 2019, according to Ibrahim Sahib Ansar, who oversees Hajj logistics at the Ministry of Religious Affairs.  

“Although the quota is given, the cost of the pilgrimage this year has multiplied five times more than the cost two years ago, which was only 500,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($1,387),” he told Arab News. 

Ansar added that most of the pilgrims from Sri Lanka this year are seniors, who fear that next time they will not meet the official 65-year age limit. 

“I was waiting for this opportunity for the past two years,” said Farzan Huzair, who was among the 50 pilgrims departing from Colombo on Tuesday. ”I was also afraid that I won’t be able to perform Hajj after age 65.”  

Huzair told Arab News that he viewed Hajj as “a golden opportunity,” adding: “I collected the money over the years to fulfill my lifelong dream.” 

Rizmi Reyal, who heads the Sri Lanka Hajj Travel Operators Association, said that he will be praying for his country. 

“All praise is due to Allah for the opportunity given for the Lankan pilgrims to perform Hajj this year,” he said.

“I am going for this year’s Hajj with my wife, solely to pray for my country, which is facing a severe economic crisis.”