Tag Archives: Korea

North Korea says it won’t participate in Tokyo Olympics due to COVID-19 concerns

North Korea said it will not participate in the Tokyo Olympics because of the coronavirus pandemic.

A website run by the North’s sports ministry said the decision was made during a national Olympic Committee meeting on March 25 where members prioritized protecting athletes from the “world public health crisis caused by COVID-19.”

South Korea’s Unification Ministry on Tuesday expressed regret over the North’s decision, saying it had hoped that the Tokyo Olympics would provide an opportunity to improve inter-Korean relations, which have declined amid a stalemate in larger nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.

Japanese Olympic Minister Tamayo Marukawa told reporters she was still confirming details and couldn’t immediately comment on the matter.

North Korea sent 22 athletes to the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, along with government officials, performance artists, journalists and a 230-member all-female cheering group.

Politics and sports

At the Pyeongchang Games, the North and South Korean athletes jointly marched under a blue map symbolizing a unified Korean Peninsula, while the red-clad North Korean cheerleaders captivated global attention.

The Koreas also fielded their first combined Olympic team in women’s ice hockey, which drew passionate support from crowds despite losing all five of its games with a combined score of 28-2.

Those games were also much about politics. The North Korean contingent included the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who conveyed her brother’s desire for a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a move which helped it initiate diplomacy with South Korea and the United States.

That diplomacy has stalemated since, and North Korea’s decision to sit out the Tokyo Olympics is a setback for hopes to revive it.

WATCH | Olympic torch begins 121-day journey:

Japanese torchbearer Azusa Iwashimizu, a member of Japan’s women’s national football team, lit the Tokyo Olympic torch to begin the relay in Fukushima, Japan. 0:40

While North Korea has steadfastly claimed to be coronavirus-free, outsiders widely doubt whether the country has escaped the pandemic entirely, given its poor health infrastructure and a porous border it shares with China, its economic lifeline.

Describing its anti-virus efforts as a “matter of national existence,” North Korea has severely limited cross-border traffic, banned tourists, jetted out diplomats and mobilized health workers to quarantine tens of thousands of people who had shown symptoms.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga previously said he expected to invite U.S. President Joe Biden to the Olympics and was willing to meet with Kim Jong-un or his powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, if either attended the Games. Suga, however, did not say if he will invite either of them.

Kim Jong-un in recent political speeches has pledged to bolster his nuclear deterrent in the face of U.S.-led pressure, and his government has so far rejected the Biden administration’s overture for talks, demanding that Washington abandon its “hostile” policies first.

The North ended a yearlong pause in ballistic testing activity last month by firing two short-range missiles off its eastern coast, continuing a tradition of testing new U.S. administrations with weapons demonstrations aimed at measuring Washington’s response and wresting concessions.

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CBC | Sports News

U.S. accuses China of ‘flagrant violation’ of North Korea sanctions

The U.S. State Department on Tuesday accused China of “flagrant violation” of its obligation to enforce international sanctions on North Korea and said Washington would offer rewards of up to $ 5 million US for information about sanctions evasions.

Speaking to Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, Deputy Assistant Secretary for North Korea Alex Wong accused China of “seeking to undo” the United Nations sanctions regime aimed at persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

Wong said China had continued to host at least 20,000 North Korean labourers in violation of UN bans and that in the past year the United States had observed ships carrying prohibited coal or other sanctioned goods from North Korea to China on 555 separate occasions.

“On none of these occasions did the Chinese authorities act to stop these illicit imports. Not once,” Wong said.

He noted that China currently hosted no fewer that two dozen North Korea representatives connected to Pyongyang’s weapons of mass destruction programs or banks.

He accused China of “seeking to undo the UN sanctions regime they themselves voted for in 2006, in 2009, in 2013, in 2016, and in 2017.”

“They are seeking to revive trade links and revenue transfers to the North, thereby ensuring Chinese reach into the North’s economy,” he said.

China insists it abides by UN sanctions requirements on North Korea, although it has also expressed hope, along with Russia, that an easing of those conditions could help break the deadlock in nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang.

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CBC | World News

South Korea sticks to flu vaccine plan despite safety fears after 13 deaths

South Korean officials refused to suspend a seasonal influenza inoculation effort on Thursday, despite growing calls for a halt, including an appeal from a key group of doctors, after the deaths of at least 13 of those vaccinated.

Health authorities said they found no direct links between the deaths and the vaccines.

At least 11 of the 13 dead, including a 17-year-old boy, were part of a campaign to inoculate 19 million teenagers and senior citizens for free, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said.

“The number of deaths has increased, but our team sees low possibility that the deaths resulted from the shots,” the agency’s director, Jeong Eun-kyeong, told Parliament.

South Korea ordered a fifth more flu vaccines this year to ward off what it calls a “twindemic,” or the prospect that people with flu develop coronavirus complications and overburden hospitals in winter.

“I understand and regret that people are concerned about the vaccine,” said Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said, who confirmed the free program would go ahead.

“We’re looking into the causes but will again thoroughly examine the entire process in which various government agencies are involved, from production to distribution.”

Vaccine providers include domestic firms such as GC Pharma, SK Bioscience, Korea Vaccine and Boryung Biopharma, a unit of Boryung Pharm, along with France’s Sanofi.

They supply both the free program and paid services that together aim to vaccinate about 30 million of a population of 52 million.

Of the 13 who died, five received products from SK Bioscience, three from Boryung, two each from GC Pharma and Korea Vaccine and one from Sanofi.

All four domestic firms declined to comment, while Sanofi did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

It was not immediately clear if any of the vaccines made in South Korea were exported, or if those supplied by Sanofi were also being used elsewhere.

Medical association calls for pause

The Korean Medical Association, an influential grouping of doctors, urged the government to halt all inoculation programs for now, to allay public concerns and ensure the vaccines were safe.

Kim Chong-in, leader of the main opposition People Power party, wanted the program halted until the causes of the deaths were verified.

But health authorities have said a preliminary investigation into six deaths found no direct link to the vaccines, with no toxic substances uncovered.

KDCA data on Thursday showed at least seven of the nine people it investigated had underlying conditions.

The free program has proved controversial since it began last month. The launch had been suspended for three weeks after the discovery that about five million doses were kept at room temperature rather than being refrigerated, as required.

Officials said 8.3 million people had been inoculated since the program resumed on Oct. 13, with about 350 cases of adverse reactions reported.

A separate paid program allows buyers to pick from a larger pool of firms that make free vaccines and others.

The most deaths in South Korea linked to seasonal flu vaccinations was six in 2005, the Yonhap news agency said. Officials have said comparisons to previous years are tough, since more people are taking the vaccine this year.

Kim Myung-suk, 65, is among a growing number of South Koreans who decided to pay for a vaccine of their choice, despite being eligible for a free dose.

“Though just a few people died so far, the number is growing and that makes me uneasy,” she told Reuters in the capital, Seoul. “So I’m getting a shot somewhere else and will pay for it.”

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CBC | Health News

North Korea unveils what appears to be new intercontinental missile at military parade

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un warned Saturday that his country would “fully mobilize” its nuclear force if threatened, as he took centre stage at a military parade in which the country unveiled what appeared to be a new intercontinental ballistic missile and other additions to its growing arsenal.

Kim, however, avoided direct criticism of Washington during the event, which celebrated the 75th anniversary of the country’s ruling party and took place less than four weeks before the U.S. presidential election. Instead, he focused on a domestic message urging his people to remain firm in the face of “tremendous challenges” posed by the coronavirus pandemic and crippling U.S.-led sanctions over his nuclear program.

Kim described the country’s continuing efforts to develop its nuclear arsenal as necessary for its defence and said it wasn’t targeting any specific country with its military force.

But “if any force harms the safety of our nation, we will fully mobilize the strongest offensive might in a pre-emptive manner to punish them,” he said.

His speech was punctuated by thousands of goose-stepping troops, tanks, armoured vehicles, rocket launchers and a broad range of ballistic missiles rolled out in Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Square.

The weapons included what was possibly North Korea’s largest ICBM, which was mounted on an 11-axle launch vehicle that was also seen for the first time, and a presumptive new solid-fuel weapon that could be an advanced version of a North Korean missile designed to be fired from submarines.

They highlighted how the North has continued to expand its military capabilities amid a stalemate in nuclear negotiations with the Trump administration, which prompted Kim to pledge in December that he would continue to bolster his nuclear arsenal amid “gangster-like” U.S. pressure and soon unveil a “new strategic weapon to the world.”

Call for denuclearization talks

A senior U.S. administration official called North Korea’s display at the parade “disappointing” and called on the government to negotiate to achieve a complete denuclearization.

Analysts said the missile would be one of the largest road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles in the world if it becomes operational.

“It is disappointing to see the DPRK continuing to prioritize its prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile program over working toward a brighter future for the North Korean people,” the official said. “The United States … calls on the DPRK to engage in sustained and substantive negotiations to achieve complete denuclearization.”

Soldiers filled Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Square to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party. (KRT via The Associated Press)

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff had said early Saturday that there were signs that the North had mobilized “large crowds and equipment” for a military parade at Kim Il-sung Square during the early morning hours. In the evening, North Korean state television began airing a taped broadcast of the event, which began late Friday.

Troops were seen marching in the streets in front of the brightly illuminated square, as a military band performed while moving in formation, shaping “10.10,” “1945,” and “2020” in honour of the party anniversary.

The performers and tens of thousands of spectators roared as Kim, dressed in a grey suit and tie, appeared from a building as the clock struck midnight. Kim, flanked with senior officials and smiling widely, waved to the crowd and kissed children who presented him with flowers before taking his spot on a balcony.

During his speech, Kim repeatedly thanked his “great people” for overcoming “unexpected” burdens and thoroughly abiding by the anti-virus measures imposed by the ruling party and government to keep the country COVID-19-free, a claim that has been widely questioned by outside observers.

He also extended an olive branch to rival South Korea, expressing hope that the countries could repair bilateral ties once the threat of the pandemic is over. The North had suspended virtually all co-operation with the South amid the stalemate in larger nuclear negotiations with the United States.

Kim Jong-un, centre, watches the parade. (KRT via The Associated Press)

This year’s anniversary comes amid deadlocked nuclear negotiations with the Trump administration and deepening economic woes that analysts say are shaping up as one of the biggest tests of Kim’s leadership since he took power in 2011.

But many analysts believe North Korea will avoid serious negotiations or provocations before the U.S. presidential election, as a change in U.S. administrations could force the country to recalibrate its approach toward Washington and Seoul.

Kim smiles as he leaves the ceremony, which included the unveiling of what appears to be a new intercontinental ballistic missile. (KRT via The Associated Press)

Authoritarian North Korea is keen about anniversaries, and this week’s festivities were earmarked for years in advance as a major event to glorify Kim Jong-un’s achievements as leader.

But there hasn’t been much to celebrate lately as Kim struggles to keep afloat an economy crippled by years of stringent U.S.-led sanctions over his nuclear program and ravaged further this year by border closures amid the COVID-19 pandemic and devastating summer floods and typhoons that will likely worsen chronic food shortages.

The problems, combined with North Korea’s depleting foreign currency reserves, are possibly setting conditions for a “perfect storm” that shocks food prices and exchange rates and triggers economic panic in the coming months, said Lim Soo-ho, an analyst at Seoul’s Institute for National Security Strategy.

That would compound the political burden on Kim, who during a political conference in August showed unusual candour by acknowledging that his economic plans aren’t succeeding.

Kim and President Donald Trump have met three times since embarking on high-stakes nuclear diplomacy in 2018 as the North Korean leader attempted to leverage his nukes for badly needed sanctions relief and security benefits. But talks have faltered over disagreements on disarmament steps and the removal of sanctions imposed on the North.

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CBC | World News

Canadian Doneil Henry settling into life, soccer in South Korea

A Jan. 7 Instagram post shows Doneil Henry sitting on a stacked luggage cart — at Vancouver International Airport en route to South Korea.

The adventure was about to begin.

The 27-year-old defender from Brampton, Ont., is in uncharted territory for a Canadian, playing for the Suwon Samsung Bluewings in the K-League — one of the first soccer leagues around the world to return to action during the pandemic

‘It’s all positive’

“It’s definitely an experience. I am enjoying it … I’m happy,” said Henry, a former member of Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps.

“So far so good. It’s all positive,” he added.

Henry’s new home is Suwon World Cup Stadium, a 43,959-capacity venue known as Big Bird because the cover on one stand — seen from above — looks like a bird stretching its wings.

Suwon hosts Ulsan Hyundai on Sunday in its second league outing of the season. Ulsan blanked Sangju Sangmu 4-0 in its opener.

Henry started in two AFC Champions League games — a 1-0 home loss to Japan’s Vissel Kobe on Feb. 18 and a 2-1 loss at Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim FC on March 3 — before the K-League opener March 8.

The visiting Bluewings lost 1-0 to defending champion Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors on a rainy night in an empty Jeonju World Cup Stadium.

Suwon, down a man when Australian midfielder Terry Antonis was sent off for a harsh tackle, conceded the goal off an 84-minute corner with 41-year-old Lee Dong-gook beating Henry and other defenders to a header off a corner.

The goal celebration was modest with fist and elbow bumps.

Substitutes, off-field officials and photographers wore masks. The Joenbuk players came out to “We are the Champions” as Bluewing players applauded. A giant message saying .CU Soon Stay Strong was spelled out in one empty stand.

“It was almost like a closed-door training [session],” said Henry.

But while the stadium was empty, the contest was shown around the world via TV and social media feeds.

“Although there weren’t people in the stadium, there were people watching,” said Henry.

“Honestly I was just very hungry and couldn’t wait to get back on the pitch and be playing some meaningful games.”

Strict health measures

COVID-19 checks remain strict there. Henry has a fever check the day before and day of a game. Only the 18 players selected for the game are allowed in the stadium with substitutes having to wear masks.

The Bluewings finished eighth at 12-14-14 last season but qualified for the 2020 AFC Champions League group stage as Korean FA Cup winners.

Starting at the heart of the Suwon defence, Henry has been impressed by the level of play in Korea.

“I think that the players are very sharp and technical and very direct. They play very very very fast. That’s something that I’m not used to. I like to slow down the game, taking it in spurts where you can change the tempo of the match. Whereas they are always full out, 100 per cent.”

Comparison with MLS

He says his early take is the K-League is like Major League Soccer but “without some of the DP [designated] players.”

Already Korea is meeting his expectations.

“I want to be valued wherever I play,” Henry said. “I didn’t feel like I was getting that in MLS, so basically it was my time to go. I always had in my head that if anything pops up and I can go back to Europe, I’m gone.

“I just want to go where I’m getting that exposure that I need, because I have a bittersweet taste in my mouth about how everything ended in Europe. Because of lots of injuries, I didn’t get a chance to fully show myself.”

“My vision is still clear when it comes to that kind of stuff.”

Henry was 21 when he signed with West Ham in January 2015 on the recommendation of former TFC manager Ryan Nelsen. The defender had played 70 games for Toronto, with the last matches coming while he was officially on loan from Cyprus’ Apollon Limassol.

He never actually played for the Cypriot side and then-Toronto GM Tim Bezbatchenko took months to announce the mysterious loan deal.

Three surgeries, including a long-term knee injury, in 2 1/2 years delayed Henry’s progress. He saw limited action in Europe with Blackburn Rovers and Denmark’s AC Horsens on loan before joining Vancouver in 2018. He played 39 games for the Whitecaps.

In Korea, Henry is back wearing No. 4. It was his original number with Toronto FC before he ceded it to Michael Bradley in 2014. He has gone on to wear No. 2, 5, 15, 23, 25 and 93.

Initially Henry stayed closed to home in Korea because of the pandemic, not wanting to take chances.

“Even though everything was open, it was like you didn’t want to go outside. Especially for myself, for a lot of time I didn’t know where I should go, what I should do.”

He stuck to his routine, knowing where the nearest grocery store was. “I just had two or three places. I wasn’t really exploring.”

Situation improving in South Korea

But with the situation improving, he has ventured outside more this month — including a visit to Seoul.

While life may be returning to something more normal he says people continue to follow COVID-19 protocols. Masks have been commonplace in Korea for some time, he said.

Seoul closed bars and clubs after another outbreak of the virus. But Henry says most everything is open.

Henry flew back to Canada, arriving early to go through self-quarantine, ahead of a March national team training camp and two friendlies against Trinidad and Tobago in Langford, B.C., Sadly the March 27 and 31 games were called off and Henry had to go through self-quarantine again upon arriving in Korea.

Antonis and fellow Australian Adam Taggert have helped ease his transition with the Bluewings.

“Everything’s been class. Everybody’s been good. The club’s been really good, taking care of us,” said Henry.

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CBC | Soccer News

A lot is riding on baseball in South Korea

This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports’ daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what’s happening in sports by subscribing here.

The 10-team Korea Baseball Organization played the first five games of its delayed regular season on Tuesday — with modifications, of course.

Teams are playing in their regular stadiums, but no fans are allowed. Everyone involved in playing and televising the games gets their temperature checked on the way in, while the umpires and first- and third-base coaches have to wear masks on the field. Players can choose to wear masks too, and some did at times during exhibition games. Spitting is prohibited, which also means no sunflower seeds or chewing tobacco. 

To try and create some semblance of atmosphere in the absence of Korea’s famously boisterous fans, one team put giant banners in the outfield seats with pictures of spectators (wearing masks) on them. Scoreboards showed video messages from fans, players and celebrities thanking health-care workers. Cheerleaders (yes, Korean baseball teams have cheerleaders) did their routines from the stands.

Judging by some video clips from Tuesday’s games, there’s quite a bit of noise from the players when someone hits a home run. So the atmosphere is eerie, sure, but not completely dead. And one key element of Korean baseball remains, thankfully, intact: the gratuitous bat flips. Here’s proof:

The KBO season is starting about five weeks late. It was postponed back in early March, around the time South Korea was reporting about 500 new infections a day. That number was down to three on Tuesday. Only about 250 people have died of COVID-19 in a country with a population around 50 million (Canada is closing in on 4,000 deaths).

South Korea’s outcomes have been credited to the country’s aggressive testing, isolation and contact-tracing measures. It also helps that wearing masks and obeying authority figures is more ingrained in the culture than it is in some other parts of the world. It’s all paying off: physical-distancing measures are being relaxed, and schools will even begin reopening next week. At the moment, South Korea looks like a success story.

It also looks like a good place to be a sports fan. Korea’s pro soccer leagues are scheduled to kick off Friday (also without fans), and the KBO plans to do a full 144-game regular season. If all goes well, the only dates that will be lost are the all-star game (already cancelled) and maybe a few first-round playoff games (that round has been shortened from best-of-five to best-of-three).

WATCH | Baseball begins in South Korea:

The Samsung Lions hosted the NC Dinos to an empty stadium in the Korean Baseball Organization opener. 2:06

The KBO is walking a thin line, though. Its leaders have promised to consider shutting down the entire league for three weeks if any member of a team tests positive for COVID-19 at any point. Interestingly, teams aren’t being required to regularly test their players — something that’s been talked about as a possible prerequisite for sports returning here in North America. ESPN’s Jeff Passan said one Korean team told him it’s simply monitoring its players for symptoms, and will only test if someone shows signs of being infected.

So, here in North America, what should we make of all this? One thing’s for sure: the Western world has never been this interested in Korean baseball before. ESPN senses this: it struck a deal to broadcast six games a week in the United States. Online betting companies probably won’t be far behind. It’s still hard to find wagering on individual games (for now), but several sites have posted odds on which team will win the KBO championship.

No one in Canada has announced plans to broadcast Korean games yet. But there is one Canadian player in the KBO: Jamie Romak, a 34-year-old first baseman from London, Ont., who had a cup of coffee in the majors with the Dodgers and Diamondbacks. Romak now plays for SK Wyverns, which is based in Incheon (close to Seoul), and he’s kind of a star. He tied for second in the league in homers in 2018 with 43, and last year he hit 29. He’s also a married father of two sons — including a newborn — who has had to cope with his family being in Canada and unable to join him. But he also feels he and his fellow players are “in a fortunate spot” having the chance to work and provide for their families.

The only other player I recognized on any of the Korean rosters is Dan Straily, a journeyman pitcher who started his big-league career with Oakland and played for Baltimore last year.

Still, here we’ve got actual, live, televised pro sports (and, potentially, gambling!). It’s good to know these pleasures still exist — even if they’re coming from halfway around the world. So in that sense, the return of Korean baseball is an encouraging sign for us in North America. Maybe we can make this happen in the near future too.

But South Korea is a different place. It seems like we’ve done a decent job of fighting the pandemic here in Canada, but Koreans are just better at this. And things still feel precarious in the U.S., which will have to get its act together in order for our pro sports to come back in a sustainable way.

Everyone is rooting for Korean baseball to succeed right now because, if it fails, we’re left with a pretty dark thought: If they can’t pull this off, what hope do we have?

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China sends team to advise North Korea on Kim Jong-un’s health

China has dispatched a team to North Korea including medical experts to advise on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, according to three people familiar with the situation.

The trip by the Chinese doctors and officials comes amid conflicting reports about the health of the North Korean leader. Reuters was unable to immediately determine what the trip by the Chinese team signaled in terms of Kim’s health.

A delegation led by a senior member of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department left Beijing for North Korea on Thursday, two of the people said. The department is the main Chinese body dealing with neighbouring North Korea.

The sources declined to be identified given the sensitivity of the matter.

The Liaison Department could not be reached by Reuters for comment by late Friday, and China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

No unusual signs, says South Korea 

Daily NK, a Seoul-based website, reported earlier this week that Kim was recovering after undergoing a cardiovascular procedure on April 12. It cited one unnamed source in North Korea.

South Korean government officials and a Chinese official with the Liaison Department challenged subsequent reports suggesting that Kim was in grave danger after surgery. South Korean officials said they had detected no signs of unusual activity in North Korea.

On Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump also downplayed earlier reports that Kim was gravely ill. “I think the report was incorrect,” Trump told reporters, but he declined to say if he had been in touch with North Korean officials.

U.S. President Donald Trump meets Kim Jong-un in the Military Demarcation Line that divides North and South Korea, June 30, 2019. On Friday, Trump dismissed reports that Kim is gravely ill. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

On Friday, a South Korean source told Reuters their intelligence was that Kim was alive and would likely make an appearance soon. The person said he did not have any comment on Kim’s current condition or any Chinese involvement.

An official familiar with U.S. intelligence said that Kim was known to have health problems but they had no reason to conclude he was seriously ill or unable eventually to reappear in public.

A U.S. State department spokeswoman had no comment. U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, when asked about Kim’s health on Fox News after Trump spoke said, “I don’t have anything I can share with you tonight, but the American people should know we’re watching the situation very keenly.”

Kim’s health a matter of state security

North Korea is one of the world’s most isolated and secretive countries, and the health of its leaders is treated as a matter of state security. Reuters has not been able to independently confirm any details on Kim’s whereabouts or condition.

North Korea’s state media last reported on Kim’s whereabouts when he presided over a meeting on April 11. State media did not report that he was in attendance at an event to mark the birthday of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, on April 15, an important anniversary in North Korea.

Kim, believed to be 36, has disappeared from coverage in North Korean state media before. In 2014, he vanished for more than a month and North Korean state TV later showed him walking with a limp. Speculation about his health has been fanned by his heavy smoking, apparent weight gain since taking power and family history of cardiovascular problems.

When Kim Jong-un’s father,Kim Jong-il, suffered a stroke in 2008, South Korean media reported at the time that Chinese doctors were involved in his treatment along with French physicians.

Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping made the first state visit in 14 years by a Chinese leader to North Korea, an impoverished state that depends on Beijing for economic and diplomatic support.

People watch a large screen showing an image of Chinese President Xi Jinping, second from left, posing with his wife Peng Liyuan, left, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol Ju, June 21, 2019. (Jon Chol Jin/The Associated Press)

China is North Korea’s chief ally and the economic lifeline for a country hard-hit by U.N. sanctions, and has a keen interest in the stability of the country with which it shares a long, porous border.

Kim is a third-generation hereditary leader who came to power after his father Kim Jong-il died in 2011 from a heart attack. He has visited China four times since 2018.

Trump held unprecedented summits with Kim in 2018 and 2019 as part of a bid to persuade him to give up North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. 

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Why South Korea has managed to flatten the COVID-19 curve

South Korea’s first line of defence against COVID-19 now is at the Seoul airport, and it’s an impressive sight. 

Thousands of passengers in orderly lineups, almost all masked, wait patiently to have their temperatures scanned. They pass before many infrared cameras, and then electronic thermometers are held up to their ears. If they show any symptoms, they are immediately ushered to adjacent testing facilities. 

All inbound passengers have to download a cellphone app that allows the government to monitor them for a 14-day quarantine period, during which they are not allowed to leave their homes or hotels. 

Passengers wearing masks to prevent contracting coronavirus walk past a thermal camera upon their arrival at Incheon International Airport in South Korea. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

“They will be communicating with those people twice a day, morning and night, while they are doing self-reporting through the app,” says Lee Hoon-sang, a professor of global health security at Yonsei University. He says the government is now especially worried about the potential for a second wave of the virus that could arrive with passengers from the United States, Europe or China. 

South Korea has an enviable record of handling the outbreak. It has recorded five deaths per million of population, compared to 42 in Canada, 122 in the United States and 437 in Spain. On Sunday, there were just eight new cases reported in South Korea.

Workers wearing protective gear arrive to disinfect the airplane bound for New York at Incheon International Airport in Incheon, South Korea. (Suh Myoung-geon/Yonhap via AP)

Lessons from the past

How did South Korea perform so well? It is a combination of intensive testing and elaborate contact-tracing, Lee says.

In some ways the country experienced a full dress rehearsal for this pandemic back in 2015, when it fought an outbreak of MERS, Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome. 

A South Korean businessman returned then from a trip to Bahrain and quickly developed a cough and fever. He made his way to several medical clinics in search of a diagnosis.

Finally his condition was correctly assessed at the Samsung Medical Centre in Seoul, but by that time he had infected many other patients in waiting rooms and others he encountered along his path. A slow response from the Korean Centre for Disease Control (KCDC) meant there were eventually 186 infections and 36 deaths, and was heavily criticized at the time.

“After 2015, there was a massive revamping of the Korean CDC,” says Lee. “A new testing method was prepared out of that experience, which was very helpful when COVID-19 came to Korea.” 

The Korean government partnered with many private bio-medical labs on medical testing, and that public-private partnership quickly generated millions of test-kits shortly after China publicized the new virus’s genome in January.

A medical staff member in protective gear prepares to take samples from a visitor in a car at a ‘drive-thru’ testing center at the Yeungnam University Medical Center in Daegu. (Reuters)

Over 500 testing facilities were established across the country, starting in February. Many of them are drive-thru, so that Koreans with families can be checked for the virus without having to hire babysitters or bring their children to a hospital. 

Perhaps more astonishing is the system of contact-tracing. Infected people are asked to recall everyone they have encountered in recent days. Then their memories are checked with credit card information and cellphone location-tracking data. 

An acceptable trade-off

Privacy laws were changed after the MERS outbreak to allow this intrusion only in the case of a national medical emergency. “They can use big data and AI [Artificial Intelligence],” says Lee, “So in 10 minutes all that information can be gathered automatically and the contact-tracing time has been drastically reduced.”

Koreans now receive multiple notifications every day on their cellphones advising them that they may have crossed paths with an infected person at a particular store or restaurant. They are encouraged to seek testing if they experience any symptoms. 

While citizens in many in Western countries would see this as an outrageous infringement of privacy, Yeong-seon Kim, a journalist with the Korean public broadcaster KBS, says the public has accepted it.

Some streets in Seoul have been closed to vehicle traffic in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

“First, the government keeps the balance between protecting public safety and protecting private information. The information made public does not include any private information that allows people to identify whose information they are receiving. You know it only says male or female and their age, that’s all. So you cannot tell who he or she is.

“Second, the people understand extraordinary measures are necessary during an extraordinary time. I feel like that too, and I think the government is doing the right thing, right now.”

On March 2, schools were closed and work from home protocols went into place. People were told to stop seeing relatives and friends and to avoid large gatherings. 

Masks are not mandated, but they are recommended and people are often shamed if they appear in public without wearing them.

While the Korean public has been largely compliant with all the new health policies, there was one glaring exception.

In mid-February, a 61-year-old woman belonging to a religious sect called the Shincheonji Church of Jesus resisted advice to self-isolate after she developed symptoms of COVID-19. She attended a wedding, a funeral and other large religious services in the southern city of Daegu.

By the time she was tested and diagnosed, she had passed the disease to over 5,000 people. Then the church refused to co-operate with medical investigations of the “super-spreader.” 

Lee Man-hee, the 88-year-old leader of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, bows during the press conference in Gapyeong, South Korea. (Kim Ju-sung/Yonhap via AP)

“This church keeps their followers’ identity secret,” says Kim. “Initially they were reluctant to hand over the list of their followers to the authorities. That’s why the Korean people were so mad at this church, because they were not willing to share this list of their followers.”

Faced with a wave of public rage and widespread demands to have the church disbanded, church leader Lee Man-hee quickly reversed course. He passed over the membership list, apologized profusely and even prostrated himself before TV cameras at a press conference on March 2. 

A poll worker, wearing a mask and gloves, hands out a voting pass for the parliamentary election held last week. (Heo Ran/Reuters)

Korea has been so successful in containing coronavirus that the country never had to close bars and restaurants, and a few days ago the government even proceeded with a national election. There were elaborate sterilization precautions and every voter was issued a pair of disposable plastic gloves. There were even separate polling stations for infected persons. 

Before the outbreak, the scandal-ridden government of Moon Jae-in was expected to do badly in the elections. As it turned out, the public was apparently pleased with his party’s handling of the pandemic. Koreans turned out in record numbers and gave Moon’s party an increased majority. 

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North Korea fighters fire missiles off North’s east coast, says South Korea military

South Korea says North Korean fighter jets have fired missiles off the North’s east coast.

A South Korean defence official says the North launched several fighter jets after it conducted suspected cruise missile tests on Tuesday morning. The official says the North Korean fighter jets fired an unspecified number of air-to-surface missiles toward the North’s eastern waters. 

The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.

The launches, the latest in a slew of weapons launches by the North despite worries about a possible coronavirus outbreak in the country, came on the eve of the 108th birthday of North Korea’s late founder, Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un.

They also came a day ahead of South Korean parliamentary elections.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that the projectiles — presumed to be cruise missiles — were fired from the North’s eastern Kangwon province on Tuesday morning before flying toward the country’s eastern sea.

Talks with U.S. stalled

It said South Korea’s military was monitoring possible additional launches, but gave no further details, such as exactly how many projectile were launched or what type of projectiles they were.

In recent weeks, North Korea has carried out a series of short-range missile and other weapons tests amid stalled nuclear talks with the United States.

Most of the weapons tested were ballistic missiles or long-range artillery shells, and it’s unusual for North Korea to launch a cruise missile.

All the tested weapons were still short-range and didn’t pose a direct threat to the U.S. mainland. A test of a missile capable of reaching the U.S. homeland would end North Korea’s self-imposed moratorium on major weapons tests and likely completely derail nuclear diplomacy with the United States.

Some experts say North Korea likely used the latest weapons launches to bolster its striking capability against South Korea, which has been introducing U.S.-made stealth F-35 jets and other sophisticated conventional weapons systems in recent years. Others say the latest weapons tests were also aimed at shoring up internal unity in the face of U.S.-led sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic.

North Korea has repeatedly said there has been no coronavirus outbreak on its territory. But many foreign experts are skeptical of that claim and have warned that a coronavirus outbreak in the North could become a humanitarian disaster because of the country’s chronic lack of medical supplies and fragile health care infrastructure.

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North Korea says Pompeo’s ‘reckless remarks’ made them lose interest in talks with U.S.

North Korea said Monday that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo undermined its willingness to restart stalled denuclearization talks, criticizing his recent remarks on sanctions on Pyongyang.

After a teleconference with G7 foreign ministers last week, Pompeo had said that all nations must remain united in calling for North Korea to return to negotiations and applying diplomatic and economic pressure over the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

That comment highlighted that the United States cannot reverse its hostile policy toward North Korea “no matter how excellent and firm the relationship” their two leaders have, state media KCNA said, citing an unnamed foreign ministry official responsible for the negotiations.

“Hearing Pompeo’s reckless remarks, we dropped the interest in dialogue with further conviction, but have become more zealous for our important planned projects aimed to repay the U.S. with actual horror and unrest for the sufferings it has inflicted upon our people,” the official was quoted as saying.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump have boasted of rapport they have built during three meetings and an exchange of multiple letters since 2018.

But little progress has been made on dismantling Pyongyang’s weapons programs, with a last round of working-level talks in October falling apart.

North Korea has not confirmed any cases of the coronavirus, but KCNA said Trump had sent a letter to Kim carrying a “sincere aid plan” to help prevent an outbreak, only to be followed up soon by Pompeo’s “slander” against the country.

Pyongyang has touted the letter as a sign of “the special and very firm personal relations” between the two leaders despite recent frictions.

“This makes us misjudge who is the real chief executive in the U.S.,” the diplomat said.

Weapons test

In an earlier dispatch on Monday, KCNA said Sunday’s test of super-large multiple rocket launchers had been a success.

North Korea fired what appeared to be two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast on Sunday, the latest in a flurry of launches that South Korea decried as “inappropriate” amid the coronavirus pandemic.

KCNA said the launch was aimed at examining the strategic and technical features of the launchers, which has been tested multiple times since last August, and overseen by Kim, ahead of deployment.

KCNA did not mention Kim’s attendance at the latest test, led by ruling party vice-chairman Ri Pyong-chol and conducted at the Academy of National Defense Science.

North Korea fired what appeared to be two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast on Sunday, the latest in a flurry of launches that South Korea decried as ‘inappropriate’ amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service)

“The operational deployment of the weapon system of super-large multiple rocket launchers is a crucial work of very great significance in realizing the party’s new strategic intention for national defence,” Ri was quoted as saying during the test, without elaborating.

“The test-fire was conducted successfully,” KCNA added.

It marked the fourth round of tests this month since North Korea staged military drills and resumed missile launches following a three-month break.

The move indicated the progress of Pyongyang’s weapons development while denuclearization negotiations with the United States remain in limbo.

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