North Korea reports 6 deaths after admitting COVID-19 outbreak

It’s possible that the spread of the virus was accelerated by a massive military parade in Pyongyang on April 25, where North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took center stage and showcased the most powerful missiles of his military nuclear program. (File/AFP)
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Updated 13 May 2022

North Korea reports 6 deaths after admitting COVID-19 outbreak

  • Some experts say the North’s initial announcement communicates a willingness to receive outside aid
  • North Korea’s claim of a perfect record in keeping out the virus for two and a half years was widely doubted

SEOUL: Six people have died and 350,000 have been treated for a fever that has spread “explosively” across North Korea, state media said Friday, a day after acknowledging a COVID-19 outbreak for the first time in the pandemic.
North Korea likely doesn’t have sufficient COVID-19 tests and other medical equipment and said it didn’t know the cause of the mass fevers. But a big COVID-19 outbreak could be devastating in a country with a broken health care system and an unvaccinated, malnourished population.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said of the 350,000 people who developed fevers since late April, 162,200 have recovered. It said 18,000 people were newly found with fever symptoms on Thursday alone, and 187,800 people are being isolated for treatment.
One of the six people who died was confirmed infected with the omicron variant, KCNA said, but it wasn’t immediately clear how many of the total illnesses were COVID-19.
North Korea imposed a nationwide lockdown Thursday after acknowledging its first COVID-19 cases. Those reports said tests from an unspecified number of people came back positive for the omicron variant.
It’s unusual for isolated North Korea to admit to the outbreak of any infectious disease, let alone one as menacing as COVID-19, as the country is intensely proud and sensitive to outside perception about its self-described “socialist utopia.”
While Kim had occasionally been candid about his worsening economy and other problems in recent years, he had repeatedly expressed confidence about North Korea’s pandemic response and wasn’t seen wearing a mask in public until a ruling party meeting on Thursday where the North announced the COVID-19 infections.
It’s possible that the spread of the virus was accelerated by a massive military parade in Pyongyang on April 25, where North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took center stage and showcased the most powerful missiles of his military nuclear program in front of tens of thousands.
Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at South Korea’s Sejong Institute, said the pace of the fever’s spread suggests the crisis could last months and possibly into 2023, causing major disruption in the poorly equipped country.
Some experts say the North’s initial announcement communicates a willingness to receive outside aid.
The North last year shunned millions of shots offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, including doses of AstraZeneca and China’s Sinovac vaccines, possibly because of questions about their effectiveness and unwillingness to accept monitoring requirements. The country lacks the extreme-cold storage systems that are required for mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna.
The office of South Korea’s new conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol, who began his single five-year term on Tuesday, said his government is willing to provide vaccines and other medical supplies to North Korea and hopes to hold discussions with the North over specific plans.
Boo Seung-chan, a spokesperson in South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said Seoul doesn’t immediately have an estimate on the number of vaccine doses it could offer to North Korea if Pyongyang requests help.
Inter-Korean relations have deteriorated over the past three years amid a stalemate in larger nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, which derailed over disagreements about exchanging the release of crippling US-led sanctions against the North and the North’s disarmament steps.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Thursday that Beijing was offering North Korea help in dealing with the outbreak.
“As its comrade, neighbor and friend, China stands ready to provide full support and assistance to the DPRK in the fight against the epidemic,” Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing, using the initials for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
KCNA said Kim was briefed about the fever outbreak when he visited the emergency epidemic prevention headquarters on Thursday and criticized officials for failing to prevent “a vulnerable point in the epidemic prevention system.”
He said the spread of the fever has been centered around the capital, Pyongyang, and underscored the importance of isolating all work and residential units from one another while providing residents with every convenience during the lockdown.
“It is the most important challenge and supreme tasks facing our party to reverse the immediate public health crisis situation at an early date, restore the stability of epidemic prevention and protect the health and wellbeing of our people,” KCNA quoted Kim as saying.
North Korea’s claim of a perfect record in keeping out the virus for two and a half years was widely doubted. But it was believed to have avoided a huge outbreak until now, in part because it instituted strict virus controls almost from the start of the pandemic.
The strict border closures and other measures further battered an economy already damaged by decades of mismanagement and crippling US-led sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, pushing Kim to perhaps the toughest moment of his rule.
Hours after confirming the COVID-19 outbreak Thursday, North Korea launched three short-range ballistic missiles toward the sea in what possibly was meant to be a display of its strength. It was the North’s 16th round of missile launches this year.
Citing North Korea’s shunning of the COVAX vaccines, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the United States supported international aid efforts but doesn’t plan to share its vaccine supplies with the North.
“We do continue to support international efforts aimed at the provision of critical humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable North Koreans, and this is, of course, a broader part of the DPRK continuing to exploit its own citizens by not accepting this type of aid,” Psaki said Thursday in Washington.
“It’s not just vaccines. It’s also a range of humanitarian assistance that could very much help the people and the country and instead they divert resources to build their unlawful nuclear and ballistic missiles programs.”


Karachi blast suspect received orders from Iran-based commander, says Pakistan

Updated 19 May 2022

Karachi blast suspect received orders from Iran-based commander, says Pakistan

  • Allah Dino, killed by police in a gun battle on Wednesday, was trained in Iran, says Counterterrorism Department
  • Iran and Pakistan regularly accuse each other of harboring militants that launch attacks on the neighboring country

KARACHI: Counterterrorism authorities in Pakistan said on Thursday that a suspect in an attack in the port city of Karachi last week had been trained in Iran and was receiving instructions from the Iran-based commander of a Pakistani separatist group.

One person was killed and several were injured in a bomb blast late on May 12 in the Saddar neighbourhood of Karachi. The assault was claimed by the little-known Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army (SRA), a dissident faction fighting for independence in the province of Sindh.

The attack came two weeks after a female suicide bomber killed four people, including three Chinese nationals, in an attack on a minibus carrying staff from a Beijing cultural program at Karachi University.

In a press release on Thursday, the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) for Sindh said special investigation teams formed in the wake of the latest spate of attacks were able to identify a number of suspects through intelligence sources and the use of technology.

Police used intelligence gathered from the investigation teams to trace three suspects from the Saddar attack on Wednesday as they traveled by motorcycle to transport explosives in Karachi on the instructions of what the CTD said was an Iran-based SRA commander called Asghar Shah.

In a gun battle with the three suspects, two identified as Allah Dino and Nawab Ali were killed while a third suspect fled the scene.

“The accused (Allah Dino) had been taking instructions from Asghar Shah, who operates his group (of the SRA) from Iran,” Syed Khurram Ali Shah, a senior CTD official, told reporters on Thursday.

“The eliminated terrorist Allah Dino was a master of bomb-making and he got his military training from neighbouring country Iran,” the CTD press release said.

Iran and Pakistan regularly accuse each other of harboring militants that launch attacks on the neighboring country. Both nations deny state complicity in such attacks.


Biden cheers Finland, Sweden NATO plans as Turkey balks

Updated 19 May 2022

Biden cheers Finland, Sweden NATO plans as Turkey balks

  • "Finland and Sweden make NATO stronger," Biden said
  • Turkey has expressed strong opposition to the Nordic countries' ascension

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden met with the leaders of Finland and Sweden at the White House on Thursday to offer robust US support for their applications to join NATO.
Meanwhile Turkey threatened to block the Nordic nations from becoming members of the alliance.
Biden, who has rallied the West to stand up to Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, joined Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö in a sunny White House Rose Garden bedecked with their countries’ flags in a show of unity and support.
“Finland and Sweden make NATO stronger,” Biden said. “They’re strong, strong democracies, and a strong, united NATO is the foundation of America’s security.”
Biden said his administration was submitting paperwork to the US Congress for speedy approval once NATO members gave the two countries a green light.
“They meet every NATO requirement and then some,” the president said. “Having two new NATO members in the high north will enhance the security of our alliance and deepen our security cooperation across the board.”
Turkey has expressed strong opposition to the Nordic countries’ ascension, pressing Sweden to halt support for Kurdish militants it considers part of a terrorist group and both to lift their bans on some arms sales to Turkey.
All 30 NATO members need to approve any new entrant. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said in a video posted on Twitter on Thursday that Turkey had told allies it will reject Sweden and Finland’s membership.
The Finnish president said at the White House that his country was open to discussing all Turkey’s concerns, and pledged to “commit to Turkey’s security just as Turkey will commit to our security” as a NATO ally.
“We take terrorism seriously,” Niinistö said.
Sweden and Finland have for decades stood outside the Cold War era military alliance designed to deter threats from the Soviet Union, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has heightened security concerns.
The situation in Ukraine “reminds us of the darkest days of European history,” Andersson said. “During dark times it is great to be among close friends.”
Conversations between Sweden, Finland and Turkey have taken place to address Ankara’s concerns, with the United States involved in the effort. US national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Wednesday that US officials were confident Turkey’s concerns can be addressed, and Biden told reporters “I think we’re going to be okay” on the issue.
Biden’s unabashed support put a firm, deliberate US stamp of approval on Finland and Sweden’s applications. He squeezed in the meeting just before departing to Asia and gave both leaders speaking time in the Rose Garden, underscoring that support.
Biden’s remarks also sent a signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin. On Monday Putin said there was no threat to Russia if Sweden and Finland joined NATO but cautioned that Moscow would respond if the alliance bolstered military infrastructure in the new Nordic members.
Biden said on Thursday that new members joining NATO is not a threat to any nation. “It never has been,” he said.


Indian court convicts Kashmiri rebel leader of terrorism

Updated 19 May 2022

Indian court convicts Kashmiri rebel leader of terrorism

  • Mohammed Yasin Malik has been charged with terrorist acts, illegally raising funds and sedition
  • Malik dismisses charges against him as politically motivated while calling himself freedom fighter

NEW DELHI: An Indian court on Thursday convicted a top Kashmiri separatist leader in a terrorism-related case that carries a maximum sentence of the death penalty or life imprisonment.

Mohammed Yasin Malik had been charged with terrorist acts, illegally raising funds, being a member of a terrorist organization, and criminal conspiracy and sedition.

Judge Praveen Singh set May 25 for hearing arguments from both sides on sentencing, the Press Trust of India news agency reported. The judge also directed Malik to provide an affidavit regarding his financial assets.

During the trial, Malik protested the charges and said he was a freedom fighter.

“Terrorism-related charges leveled against me are concocted, fabricated and politically motivated,” his organization, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, cited him as telling the court.

“If seeking Azadi (freedom) is a crime, then I am ready to accept this crime and its consequences,” he told the judge.

The Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front was one of the first armed rebel groups to come into existence in Indian-administered Kashmir. It supported an independent and united Kashmir. Led by Malik, the group gave up armed rebellion in 1994.

An insurgency broke out in Indian-administered Kashmir in 1989 with fighters demanding an independent Kashmir or its merger with Pakistan. India accuses Pakistan of arming and training rebel groups to fight Indian forces, a charge Pakistan denies. Islamabad says it provides only moral and diplomatic support to insurgents.

Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since British colonialists granted them independence in 1947. Both claim the region in its entirety and have fought two of their three wars over control of Kashmir.


Germany strips Schroeder of official perks over Russia ties

Updated 19 May 2022

Germany strips Schroeder of official perks over Russia ties

  • The parliament's decision to strip Schroeder of an office and paid staff follows a lengthy effort to get him to turn his back on President Vladimir Putin
  • EU lawmakers separately called in a non-binding resolution on the bloc to slap sanctions on Schroeder

BERLIN: Germany on Thursday removed perks accorded to former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, assessing that he has failed to uphold the obligations of his office by refusing to sever ties with Russian energy giants.
The parliament’s decision to strip Schroeder of an office and paid staff follows a lengthy effort to get him to turn his back on President Vladimir Putin, which spiked after Russia invaded Ukraine.
EU lawmakers separately called in a non-binding resolution on the bloc to slap sanctions on Schroeder and other Europeans who refuse to give up lucrative board seats at Russian companies.
“The coalition parliamentary groups have drawn consequences from the behavior of former chancellor and lobbyist Gerhard Schroeder in view of the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” the parliament decided.
“The office of the former chancellor shall be suspended,” it said, noting that Schroeder “no longer upholds the continuing obligations of his office.”
German media have put the annual cost of Schroeder’s office and employees paid for by taxpayers at around 400,000 euros ($421,000).
Schroeder, Germany’s chancellor from 1998 to 2005, has been under fire for refusing to quit his posts with Russian energy giants Rosneft and Gazprom following Moscow’s war in Ukraine.
He condemned the invasion as unjustified but said that dialogue must continue with Moscow.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who like Schroeder is from the Social Democratic Party, has also repeatedly and publicly urged the former leader to give up his Russian jobs, but to no avail.
Schroeder, 78, is chairman of the board of directors of Russian oil giant Rosneft, and also due to join the supervisory board of gas giant Gazprom in June.
The gas group is behind the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia, which has been halted by Scholz in one of the West’s first responses to the war in Ukraine.
Schroeder himself signed off on the first Nord Stream in his final weeks in office.
In fact, he took a job with Gazprom as chairman of the shareholder’s committee at its subsidiary Nord Stream in 2005, just days after leaving office and parliament in 2005.
Schroeder has always cut a controversial figure.
Schroeder was born on April 7, 1944 in Mossenberg, western Germany but lost his father in the war in Romania six months later.
Recalling his childhood, he said they “really didn’t have a cent — that is something that marks you for life.”
He joined the SPD at 19 and worked a variety of jobs to fund night classes to earn his high school diploma at age 22.
Schroeder qualified as a lawyer before becoming a radical left-wing activist, only later developing a taste for cigars, bespoke Italian suits and Mercedes cars.
His rise through the official ranks began in 1990 when he became premier of the state of Lower Saxony at his second attempt, before taking Germany’s top job in a coalition with the Greens in 1998.
Germany was the “sick man of Europe” with high joblessness. Schroeder is credited for his so-called Agenda 2010 reforms which restored the country’s economic competitiveness and turned it into an export giant.
But many in his blue-collar party saw the painful cuts as a betrayal of their ideals, and reviled him for pushing through the plans that widened the country’s wealth gap and left it with millions of working poor.
He became the first postwar leader to back Germany’s economic muscle with military might when he deployed combat troops abroad for the first time since World War II: to Kosovo and Afghanistan.
However, despite pressure from US president George W. Bush, he declined to commit German troops to Iraq, causing a rift between Berlin and Washington.
The “bromance” with the Kremlin chief would mark his post-chancellorship years, as Putin made headlines as a prominent guest at Schroeder’s 70th birthday party.
When the Russian leader held his inauguration in 2018, Schroeder was in the front row.
Asked in 2004 if Putin was a “flawless democrat,” Schroeder said he was “convinced that he is.”


UK police end Downing Street party inquiry, 126 fines issued

Updated 19 May 2022

UK police end Downing Street party inquiry, 126 fines issued

LONDON: British police said on Thursday they had ended their investigation into COVID-19 lockdown parties held at Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Downing Street office, saying they had issued a total of 126 fines.
“Our investigation was thorough and impartial and was completed as quickly as we could, given the amount of information that needed to be reviewed and the importance of ensuring that we had strong evidence for each FPN (fixed penalty notice) referral,” London Police Acting Deputy Commissioner Helen Ball said.
“This investigation is now complete.”