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Protests spark virus fears in US; South Korea sees new cases

June 01, 2020

MIAMI (AP) — Protests around the U.S. against police brutality have sparked fears of a further spread of the coronavirus, while South Korea is reporting a steady rise in cases around the capital after appearing to bring the outbreak under control.

The often-violent protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was pinned at the neck by a white Minneapolis police officer, are raising fears of new virus outbreaks in a country that has more confirmed infections and deaths than any other.

The protests come as more beaches, churches, mosques, schools and businesses reopen worldwide, increasing the risk of cross-infections. South Korea has reported 238 cases of the coronavirus over the past five days, most of them in the Seoul metropolitan area, causing alarm in a country that had eased up on social distancing and started to send millions of children back to school. Hundreds of infections have been linked to nightspots, restaurants and a massive e-commerce warehouse near Seoul. The 35 new cases reported Monday include 30 around Seoul.

Protests over Floyd’s death have shaken the U.S. from New York to Los Angeles. Demonstrators are packed cheek by jowl, many without masks, many chanting, shouting or singing. The virus is dispersed by microscopic droplets in the air when people cough, sneeze, talk or sing.

“There’s no question that when you put hundreds or thousands of people together in close proximity, when we have got this virus all over the streets … it’s not healthy,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

The U.S. has seen more than 1.7 million infections and over 104,000 deaths in the pandemic, which has disproportionately affected racial minorities in a nation that does not have universal health care.

In London, thousands of people marched Sunday, chanting “No justice! No peace!” while carrying signs reading “Justice for George Floyd” and “Racism is a global issue.” Britain has had nearly 38,500 virus deaths, the second-most in the world after the United States.

Other protests were held in Berlin and Copenhagen, Denmark. Around 6.1 million infections have been reported worldwide, with about 370,000 people dying, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. The true death toll is believed to be significantly higher, since many victims died of the virus without ever being tested.

China, where the global pandemic is believed to have originated late last year, reported 16 new cases on Monday, all in travelers newly arrived from abroad. Eleven of those arrived in the southwestern city of Chengdu on Friday aboard the same flight from Cairo, the Chengdu city government said in a statement.

With local transmissions having fallen to virtually zero, much of China has reopened for business and Monday saw the further restart of classes in middle and high schools. Kindergartners and fourth- and fifth-graders will be allowed back next week as part of a staggered opening to prevent the further spread of the virus.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa says that China has pledged to make available 30 million COVID-19 testing kits per month to African countries, which are facing a shortage of the materials to test for the disease.

The U.S. has sent to Brazil more than 2 million doses of a malaria drug touted by President Donald Trump as potentially protecting against and treating the coronavirus, despite a lack of scientific evidence. Brazil, Latin America’s hardest-hit country, continues to see a surge in virus cases, and last week Trump announced that the U.S. was restricting travel from the country.

Traffic jams and crowds of commuters are back in the Philippine capital, which shifted to a more relaxed quarantine in a high-stakes gamble to slowly reopen the economy while fighting the coronavirus outbreak.

The situation continues to worsen in India, where 230 new deaths were reported Monday, bringing the country’s total to 5,394, even as it eases restrictions on shops and public transport in more states beginning Monday. Subways and schools remain closed.

Neighboring Bangladesh also restarted bus, train, ferry and flight services Monday. The impoverished country’s government says a gradual reopening is crucial to reviving the economy amid forecasts that economic growth is likely to plunge, leaving millions jobless.

In Saudi Arabia, mosques reopened Sunday for the first time in more than two months, but Islam’s holiest site in Mecca remained closed. In Jerusalem, throngs of worshippers waited outside the Al-Aqsa Mosque before it reopened. Many wore surgical masks and waited for temperature checks as they entered.

In Bogota, Colombia’s capital, authorities were locking down an area of nearly 1.5 million people as cases continued to rise, while Egypt on Sunday reported its highest-ever number of infections and deaths from the virus — 46 over the previous 24 hours, with 1,536 confirmed cases.

In Spain, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said Sunday that he would ask Parliament for a final two-week extension of the nation’s state of emergency that is set to expire on June 7. That allows the government to keep ordering lockdown measures to control its coronavirus outbreak, which has claimed at least 27,000 lives, many of them in overwhelmed nursing homes.

“We have almost reached safe harbor,” Sánchez said. During a Mass at the Vatican to mark Pentecost Sunday, Pope Francis cautioned people against being pessimistic as they emerge from coronavirus lockdowns.

Italy on Sunday registered 355 new coronavirus cases and 75 deaths, some of the lowest such numbers since the nation’s lockdown against the pandemic began in early March. Two hospitals for coronavirus patients were opened in Istanbul as Turkey’s number of new cases fell to its lowest since the peak of the outbreak.

And at California’s Yosemite National Park, closed to the public for nearly three months, student journalists who put out the Yosemite Valley School newspaper are charming their community with stories of cleaner water and more active and abundant wildlife.

Kirka reported from London and Gorondi reported from Budapest, Hungary. AP reporters from around the world contributed to this report.

Kim reappears in public, ending absence amid health rumors

May 03, 2020

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made his first public appearance in 20 days as he celebrated the completion of a fertilizer factory near Pyongyang, state media said Saturday, ending an absence that had triggered global rumors that he may be seriously ill.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA, reported that Kim attended the ceremony Friday in Sunchon with other senior officials, including his sister Kim Yo Jong, who many analysts predict would take over if her brother is suddenly unable to rule.

State media showed videos and photos of Kim wearing a black Mao suit and constantly smiling, walking around facilities, applauding, cutting a huge red ribbon with a scissor handed by his sister, and smoking inside and outside of buildings while talking with other officials.

Seemingly thousands of workers, many of them masked, stood in lines at the massive complex, roaring in celebration and releasing balloons into the air. A sign installed on a stage where Kim sat with other senior officials read: “Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory; Completion Ceremony; May 1, 2020.”

There was no definite sign that Kim was in discomfort, although there were moments where his walking looked a bit stiff. He was shown moving without a walking stick, like the one he used in 2014 when he was recovering from a presumed ankle surgery. However, he was also seen riding a green electric cart, which appeared similar to a vehicle he used in 2014.

It was Kim’s first public appearance since April 11, when he presided over a ruling Workers’ Party meeting to discuss the coronavirus and reappoint his sister as an alternate member of the powerful decision-making Political Bureau of the party’s Central Committee. That move confirmed her substantial role in the government.

North Korea has said it hasn’t had a single virus case, but the claim is questioned by many outside experts. It wasn’t immediately clear what had caused Kim’s absence. Speculation about his health swirled after he missed the April 15 birthday celebration for his late grandfather Kim Il Sung, the country’s most important holiday, for the first time since taking power in 2011.

The possibility of high-level instability raised troubling questions about the future of the secretive, nuclear-armed country that has been steadily building an arsenal meant to threaten the U.S. mainland while diplomacy between Kim and President Donald Trump has stalled.

“I, for one, am glad to see he is back, and well!” Trump tweeted Saturday. Some experts say South Korea, as well as its regional neighbors and ally Washington, must begin preparing for the possible chaos that could come if Kim is sidelined by health problems or even dies. Worst-case scenarios include North Korean refugees flooding South Korea or China, or military hard-liners letting loose nuclear weapons.

“The world is largely unprepared for instability in North Korea,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “Washington, Seoul and Tokyo need tighter coordination on contingency plans, while international organizations need more resources and less controversy over the role of China.”

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which deals with inter-Korean affairs, confirmed Kim’s visit to the fertilizer factory and said it was part of his efforts to emphasize economic development. The ministry called for discretion on information related to North Korea, saying that the “groundless” rumors of past weeks have caused “unnecessary confusion and cost” for South Korea’s society and financial markets.

South Korea’s government, which has a mixed record of tracking Pyongyang’s ruling elite, repeatedly downplayed speculation that Kim, believed to be 36, was in poor health following surgery. The office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in said it detected no unusual signs in North Korea or any emergency reaction by its ruling party, military or Cabinet. Seoul said it believed Kim was still managing state affairs but staying at an unspecified location outside Pyongyang, the capital.

The KCNA report said workers at the fertilizer factory broke into “thunderous cheers” for Kim, who it said is guiding the nation in a struggle to build a self-reliant economy in the face of a “head wind” by “hostile forces.”

The report didn’t mention any direct comment toward Washington or Seoul. During his nearly three-week absence, state media reported that Kim was carrying out routine activities outside public view, such as sending greetings to the leaders of Syria, Cuba and South Africa, and expressing gratitude to workers building tourist facilities in the coastal town of Wonsan, where some speculated he was staying.

Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at South Korea’s Sejong Institute, said the video footage of Kim suggested that he is recovering from some sort of medical setback that affected his walking, possibly related to his ankle.

In 2014, Kim vanished from the public eye for nearly six weeks before reappearing with a cane. South Korea’s spy agency said at the time that he had a cyst removed from his ankle. Analysts say Kim’s health could become an increasing factor in years ahead: He’s overweight, smokes and drinks, and has a family history of heart issues.

If he’s suddenly unable to rule, some analysts have said his sister, believed to be around four years younger than her brother, would be installed as leader to continue Pyongyang’s heredity dynasty that began after World War II.

But others question whether core members of North Korea’s elite, mostly men in their 60s or 70s, would be able to accept a young and untested female leader who lacks military credentials. Some predict a collective leadership or violent power struggles.

Following an unusually provocative run in missile and nuclear tests in 2017, Kim used the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea to initiate negotiations with Washington and Seoul later that year. That led to a surprising series of summits, with Kim and Trump meeting three times.

But negotiations have faltered in recent months over disagreements in exchanging sanctions relief and disarmament steps, raising doubts about whether Kim would ever fully deal away an arsenal he likely sees as his strongest guarantee of survival.

South Korea maintains Kim Jong Un health rumors are untrue

April 27, 2020

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A top South Korean official said his country remains confident there have been no “unusual developments” in North Korea, suggesting that rumors about the possible ill health of leader Kim Jong Un are untrue.

Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul told a closed-door forum in Seoul on Sunday that South Korea has “enough intelligence to confidently say that there are no unusual developments” in rival North Korea that would back up speculation about Kim Jong Un’s health, according to his ministry.

The minister said he would not reveal what specific intelligence led to that conclusion, but stressed that it had undergone a complex analysis. The rumors about Kim’s health began to swirl after he missed the April 15 commemoration of the 108th birthday of his grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung. Kim Jong Un is the third generation of his family to rule North Korea, and he hadn’t missed the event, one of the most important in the North, since assuming power after his father Kim Jong Il’s death in late 2011.

The unification minister’s comments are a reiteration of earlier South Korean statements that Kim Jong Un appeared to be handling state affairs normally and that no unusual activities had been detected in North Korea. Those comments failed to dispel the rumors about Kim, which have been fed by the silence of North Korea’s state media about their leader’s whereabouts.

As the absolute leader of a country with a nuclear weapons program, Kim’s health is matter of intense interest both regionally and globally. If something were to happen to Kim, some experts say it could lead to instability in North Korea.

South Korea’s presidential office earlier said it has information that Kim has been staying out of Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, and that there had been no emergency readiness order issued by the North’s military or the ruling Workers’ Party that likely would have been made if Kim were truly in serious condition.

On Monday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in repeated an offer to conduct some inter-Korean cooperation projects such as a joint anti-coronavirus quarantine campaign. Moon also said he will strive for mutual prosperity “based on confidence between Chairman Kim and me and our firm resolve to (achieve) peace.”

Monday is the second anniversary of Moon’s first summit with Kim at the Korean border village of Panmunjom. Satellite photos released Saturday by 38 North, a website specializing in North Korea studies, showed that a train likely belonging to Kim has been parked at his compound on the country’s east coast since last week.

“The train’s presence does not prove the whereabouts of the North Korean leader or indicate anything about his health, but it does lend weight to reports that Kim is staying at an elite area on the country’s eastern coast,” 38 North said.

NKorea silence on Kim’s health raises succession speculation

April 22, 2020

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — With North Korea saying nothing so far about outside media reports that leader Kim Jong Un may be unwell, there’s renewed worry about who’s next in line to run a nuclear-armed country that’s been ruled by the same family for seven decades.

Questions about Kim’s health flared after he skipped an April 15 commemoration of the 108th birthday of his grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung. It’s North Korea’s most important event, and Kim, 36, hadn’t missed it since inheriting power from his father in late 2011.

North Korea’s state media on Wednesday said Kim sent a message thanking Syria’s president for conveying greetings on his grandfather’s birthday, but didn’t report any other activities, while rival South Korea repeated that no unusual developments had been detected in the North.

Kim has been out of the public eye for extended periods in the past, and North Korea’s secretive nature allows few outsiders to assert confidently whether he might be unwell, let alone incapacitated. Still, questions about the North’s political future are likely to grow if he fails to attend upcoming public events.

Kim is the third generation of his family to rule North Korea, and a strong personality cult has been built around him, his father and grandfather. The family’s mythical “Paektu” bloodline, named after the highest peak on the Korean Peninsula, is said to give only direct family members the right to rule the nation.

That makes Kim’s younger sister, senior ruling party official Kim Yo Jong, the most likely candidate to step in if her brother is gravely ill, incapacitated or dies. But some experts say a collective leadership, which could end the family’s dynastic rule, could also be possible.

“Among the North’s power elite, Kim Yo Jong has the highest chance to inherit power, and I think that possibility is more than 90%,” said analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea. “North Korea is like a dynasty, and we can view the Paektu descent as royal blood so it’s unlikely for anyone to raise any issue over Kim Yo Jong taking power.”

Believed to be in her early 30s, Kim Yo Jong is in charge of North Korea’s propaganda affairs, and earlier this month was made an alternate member of the powerful Politburo. She has frequently appeared with her brother at public activities, standing out among elderly male officials. She accompanied Kim Jong Un on his high-stakes summits with U.S. President Donald Trump and other world leaders in recent years. Her proximity to him during those summits led many outsiders to believe she’s essentially North Korea’s No. 2 official.

“I think the basic assumption would be that maybe it would be someone in the family” to replace Kim Jong Un, U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien told reporters Tuesday. “But again, it’s too early to talk about that because we just don’t know, you know, what condition Chairman Kim is in and we’ll have to see how it plays out.”

The fact that North Korea is an extremely patriarchal society has led some to wonder if Kim Yo Jong would only serve as a temporary figurehead and then be replaced by a collective leadership similar to ones established after the deaths of other Communist dictators.

“North Korean politics and the three hereditary power transfers have been male-centered. I wonder whether she can really overcome bloody socialist power struggles and exercise her power,” said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University in South Korea.

A collective leadership would likely be headed by Choe Ryong Hae, North Korea’s ceremonial head of state who officially ranks No. 2 in the country’s current power hierarchy, Nam said. But Choe is still not a Kim family member, and that could raise questions about his legitimacy and put North Korea into deeper political chaos, according to other observers.

Other Kim family members who might take over include Kim Pyong Il, the 65-year-old half-brother of Kim Jong Il who reportedly returned home in November after decades in Europe as a diplomat. Kim Pyong Il’s age “could make him a reasonable front man for collective leadership by the State Affairs Commission and regent for the preferred next generation successor,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “However, elite power dynamics and danger of instability might make this an unlikely option.”

North Korea fires barrage of missiles from ground and air

April 14, 2020

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A barrage of North Korean missiles fired from both the ground and fighter jets splashed down on the waters off the country’s east coast on Tuesday, South Korea’s military said, a major show of force on the eve of a key state anniversary in the North and parliamentary elections in the rival South.

The back-to-back launches were the most high-profile among a series of weapons tests that North Korea has conducted recently amid stalled nuclear talks and outside worries about a possible coronavirus outbreak in the country.

North Korean troops based in the eastern coastal city of Munchon first launched several projectiles — presumed to be cruise missiles — on Tuesday morning, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.

The weapons flew more than 150 kilometers (93 miles) off the North’s east coast, a South Korean defense official said. If confirmed, it would be the North’s first cruise missile launch since June 2017, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.

Later Tuesday, North Korea launched several Sukhoi-class fighter jets that fired an unspecified number of air-to-surface missiles toward the North’s eastern waters, the defense official said. The official said North Korea has recently appeared to be resuming its military drills that it had scaled back due to concerns about the cornovirus pandemic. He said other North Korean fighter jets also flew on patrol near the border with China on Tuesday.

In recent weeks, North Korea has test-launched a variety of missiles and other weapons amid deadlocked nuclear negotiations with the United States. Tuesday’s launches came a day before North Korea marks 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.

It’s unusual for North Korea to launch cruise missiles. Most of the weapons it had tested recently were ballistic missiles or long-range artillery shells. Some experts say North Korean cruise missiles target U.S. naval assets that would be be reinforced in the event of an armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

All the recently tested missiles were 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 soil. 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.

Preparation, quick action aid Germany, SKorea virus fight

April 23, 2020

BERLIN (AP) — Derided by many economists for years for insisting on a balanced budget and criticized for a health care system seen as bloated and overly expensive, Germany has found itself well equipped now to weather the coronavirus pandemic.

Already applauded for early actions such as social-distancing regulations and aggressive testing seen as helping keep the death toll comparatively low, Europe’s largest economy has had the financial flexibility to launch a massive rescue plan to help businesses and keep workers paid.

As the country moves to relax some restrictions this week, Chancellor Angela Merkel is pointing to the example of South Korea, which relied on its experience fighting a different coronavirus five years ago to combat COVID-19, as the way forward.

Meantime in the U.S., some protesters have taken to the streets — supported by President Donald Trump’s tweets — to demand an end to virus-related shutdowns to help the faltering economy, which has caused tens of millions to lose their jobs, even if it could lead to an increase in deaths as the health care system struggles.

“This is a crisis which, on the one hand, has probably hit the U.S. where it is most vulnerable, namely health care,” said Carsten Brzeski, ING bank’s chief Eurozone economist. “While at the same time it has hit the German economy where it’s the strongest.”

Brzeski was among those who argued for Germany to spend more to stimulate the economy as growth ground toward stagnation, but concedes now the country is in a fortunate position. For years, balanced budget proponents argued it was prudent during good economic times to bring Germany’s house in order to be prepared for a crisis. So in announcing a 1 trillion euro ($1.1 trillion) rescue plan for the country’s 83 million people last month, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz was able to assure there was more money available, if needed.

And while Italy and Spain were faced at the height of the crisis with having to decide whether to allocate precious ICU beds to elderly patients with the most urgent need or to younger patients with the greatest chance of survival, Germany has never had a shortage and has even taken in patients from other European countries.

“They had the means, but then they also had the political will, and also the very good analytical insights to use the means,” Brzeski, said, noting Merkel was a scientist before entering politics. “I can’t imagine any government better than Angela Merkel’s to deal with this.”

Germany is now taking baby steps to ease restrictions, allowing smaller shops to reopen this week while sticking to strict social-distancing guidelines and requiring face masks on public transport and in stores. The effect will be analyzed after two weeks to see whether infections have again started to significantly climb.

“We must not overwhelm our health care system,” Merkel said, warning restrictions could be snapped back. “The best path is one that is careful, and not taken light-heartedly.” The far-right Alternative for Germany party has criticized Merkel’s go-slow approach as “ruining our country,” but the chancellor’s popularity has been steadily rising and Germans overwhelmingly see her government’s crisis management positively.

Opening her Berlin toy store Wednesday for the first time in over a month, Galina Hooge said she had already received government aid and the process was “surprisingly quick and uncomplicated.” She said it only covered the store’s rent and bills, but she felt relatively secure thanks to Germany’s universal health insurance and strong social safety net.

“The main thing is that everyone stays healthy and the situation doesn’t become like America,” she said, referring to the large number of cases and deaths in the United States. Besides help for small businesses, Germany’s aid package is designed to keep the unemployment rate down and allow workers to return quickly when possible. While Washington is sending out one-time stimulus checks to Americans, the German government plan pays at least 60% of the salary of employees who are on reduced or no hours.

As restrictions are eased, Merkel has pointed to South Korea as an example of how Germany will have to improve measures to “get ahead” of the pandemic with more testing and tracking of cases to slow the infection rate.

Experts say one reason South Korea has managed to avoid lockdowns or business bans was because of its aggressive testing and contact-tracing program that draws from its experience of fighting a different coronavirus — MERS or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome — in 2015.

Following that outbreak, which killed 36 people and sickened around 200, South Korea rewrote its infectious disease law to allow health authorities quick access to a broad range of personal information to fight infectious diseases.

Amid criticism from privacy advocates, authorities have fully exercised such powers during the COVID-19 pandemic, aggressively tracing virus carriers’ contacts with tools such as smartphone GPS tracking, credit card records and surveillance video. People’s movements before they were diagnosed are published on websites and relayed via smartphone alerts to inform others whether they have crossed paths with a carrier.

The government is also using smartphone tracking apps to monitor the tens of thousands of people placed under self-quarantine at home and plans to use electronic wristbands on people who defy quarantine orders.

South Korea on Wednesday reported 11 new cases of the coronavirus, the 21st day in a row that the daily jump in infections came below 100. The approach has meant South Korea has managed to slow the spread of the virus without imposing massive lockdowns or banning nonessential businesses, so there has never been any debate over “reopening” its economy.

In the U.S., there has been growing impatience over virus-related shutdowns that have led tens of millions to lose their jobs, and the U.S. Senate on Tuesday approved nearly $500 billion in new aid for businesses, hospitals and testing, on top of a $2.2 trillion package passed last month in the country of some 328 million.

Trump’s administration has issued guidelines advising relaxation of restrictions only after prerequisites, like a two-week downward trajectory of cases, are met. Trump himself, however, has grumbled “our country wasn’t meant to be shut down” and has tweeted support for anti-shutdown protests, and some states are moving ahead with plans to begin reopening as early as this week.

The U.S. has registered more than 825,000 infections and 45,000 deaths so far, including some 15,000 fatalities in New York City alone. Often at odds with Trump, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has warned against relaxing restrictions too early and risking a new spike in infections, no matter how badly the economy is faring.

“We’re not going to accept a premise that human life is disposable,” Cuomo said. “And we’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life.” Germany has registered some 150,000 infections, not far behind the worst-hit European countries of Italy, with more than 180,000 cases, and Spain with about 205,000. But where around 5,000 people have died in Germany, Spain’s toll is nearly 22,000 and Italy’s has passed 25,000.

At the height of the crisis in Spain and Italy the sheer numbers overwhelmed their health care systems, and painful decisions had to be made on who to treat. Domenico Arcuri, Italy’s extraordinary commissioner for the COVID-19 crisis, told reporters Tuesday that for the first time during the pandemic the nation now has more respirators than patients in ICU beds, and lamented the “anguish” officials faced deciding who to treat in the early weeks.

“Each night, we had to decide where to send these instruments, which, in the end, save lives,” he said. “I’ll keep that with me for all my life, and I wouldn’t wish anyone else to experience” the dilemma of choosing which hospital received them.

With the numbers of new infections now stabilizing, Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte confirmed Tuesday that Italy can start reopening on May 4, but he doused any hopes of a total loosening of some of the strictest lockdown measures in a Western democracy.

Spain, which has turned hotels into makeshift hospitals and converted a Madrid skating rink into a morgue, has not yet announced plans on relaxing restrictions, with Health Minister Salvador Illa saying it will hinge on advances made in treatment and vaccines to “ensure there’s no second wave.”

Spain is “still in a difficult place, with some hard weeks ahead,” he said Tuesday. In announcing a tentative easing of restrictions in the Netherlands, allowing elementary schools to reopen with reduced class sizes starting May 11, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he had faced “devil’s dilemmas” in trying to decide how to move forward.

The Netherlands was projected to have a budget surplus of 3.4 billion euros in 2020, however, and Rutte said the government could afford to take a cautious approach as he ordered bars and restaurants to remain closed until at least May 19.

“Thanks to the government’s good financial position, it can offer first aid to companies, independent business owners and affected sectors,” his government said.

Frank Jordans in Berlin, Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea, and reporters around the world contributed.

South’s military: North Korea fires unidentified projectiles

March 02, 2020

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea fired two unidentified projectiles into its eastern sea on Monday as it begins to resume weapons demonstrations after a months-long hiatus that could have been forced by the coronavirus crisis in Asia.

The launches came two days after North Korea’s state media said leader Kim Jong Un supervised an artillery drill aimed at testing the combat readiness of units in front-line and eastern areas. Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the projectiles fired from an area near the coastal town of Wonsan flew about 240 kilometers (149 miles) northeast on an apogee of about 35 kilometers (22 miles). It said the South Korean and U.S. militaries were jointly analyzing the launches but didn’t immediately confirm whether the weapons were ballistic or rocket artillery.

North Korea likely tested one of its new road-mobile, solid-fuel missile systems or a developmental “super large” multiple rocket launcher it repeatedly demonstrated last year, said Kim Dong-yub, an analyst from Seoul’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies. Experts say such weapons can potentially overwhelm missile defense systems and expand the North’s ability to strike targets in South Korea and Japan, including U.S. bases there.

Kim Jong Un had entered the New Year vowing to bolster his nuclear deterrent in face of “gangster-like” U.S. sanctions and pressure, using a key ruling party meeting in late December to warn of “shocking” action over stalled nuclear negotiations with the Trump administration.

He also said the North would soon reveal a new “strategic weapon” and insisted the North was no longer “unilaterally bound” to a self-imposed suspension on the testing of nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missiles. But Kim didn’t explicitly lift the moratorium or give any clear indication that such tests were impending and seemed to leave the door open for eventual negotiations.

Japan said it has not detected any projectile landing in Japan’s territory or its exclusive economic zone, and no sea vessels or aircraft had been damaged. “The repeated firings of ballistic missiles by North Korea is a serious problem for the international community including Japan, and the government will continue to gather and analyze information, and monitor the situation to protect the lives and property of the people,” the Defense Ministry’s statement said.

The recent lull in North Korea’s launches had experts wondering whether the North was holding back its weapons displays while pushing a tough fight against the coronavirus, which state media has described as a matter of “national existence.” Some analysts speculated that the North cut back training and other activities involving large gatherings of soldiers to reduce the possibility of the virus spreading within its military.

Kim’s latest show of force is apparently aimed at boosting military morale, strengthening internal unity and showing that his country is doing fine despite outside worries of how the North would contend with an outbreak.

North Korea in previous years has intensified testing activity in response to springtime military exercises between South Korean and the United States while describing them as invasion rehearsals. But the allies announced last week that they were postponing their annual drills due to concern about the coronavirus outbreak in South Korea that infected soldiers of both countries.

The launches were the latest setback for dovish South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who despite the North’s indifference has repeatedly pleaded for reviving inter-Korean engagement. In a speech on Sunday marking the 101th anniversary of a major uprising against Japanese colonial rule, Moon called for cooperation between the Koreas to fight infectious disease amid the COVID-19 outbreak in Asia.

Amid the deadlock in larger nuclear negotiations with the Trump administration, Kim has suspended virtually all cooperation with South Korea in past months while demanding that Seoul defies U.S.-led international sanctions and restart inter-Korean economic projects that would jolt the North’s broken economy.

North Korea has yet to confirm any COVID-19 cases, although state media have hinted that an uncertain number of people have been quarantined after exhibiting symptoms. North Korea has shut down nearly all cross-border traffic, banned tourists, intensified screening at entry points and mobilized tens of thousands of health workers to monitor residents and isolate those with symptoms. South Korea last month withdrew dozens of officials from an inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong after North Korea insisted on closing it until the epidemic is controlled.

Kim and President Donald Trump met three times since embarking on their high-stakes nuclear diplomacy in 2018, but negotiations have faltered since their second summit last February in Vietnam, where the Americans rejected North Korean demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capability.

Following the collapse in Hanoi, the North ended a 17-month pause in ballistic activity and conducted at least 13 rounds of weapons launches last year, using the standstill in talks to expand its military capabilities.

Those weapons included road-mobile, solid-fuel missiles designed to beat missile defense systems and a developmental midrange missile that could eventually be launched from submarines, potentially strengthening the North’s ability to strike targets in South Korea and Japan, including U.S. bases there.

The North in December said it conducted two “crucial” tests at a long-range rocket facility that would strengthen its nuclear deterrent, prompting speculation that it’s developing a new ICBM or preparing a satellite launch that would further advanced its long-range missile technology.

Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi contributed to the report from Tokyo.

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