January 05, 2022

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NEED TO KNOW

Mission Impossible

NORTH KOREA

North Koreans were barred from laughing, drinking alcohol or enjoying leisure activities from Dec. 17-28. As Radio Free Asia explained, the enforced misery was part of a mourning period for the late Kim Jong Il, the father of the country’s current ruler, Kim Jong Un.

Kim Jong Il, incidentally, presided over the 1994-1998 famine that claimed more than 200,000 lives. North Koreans called the famine the “Arduous March.”

Such measures reflect the bizarre, surreal life inside the so-called Hermit Kingdom. But the winds of change are nonetheless blowing through the East Asian country.

Speaking to the ruling Workers’ Party politburo recently as he enjoyed his 10th year in power in December, Kim said North Korea had to do more to improve its economy, military and agriculture, according to Al Jazeera.

The county regularly experiences food and energy shortages. Severe flooding and other climate change-related natural disasters have buffeted the economy. While Kim claims the coronavirus has not affected the country, he has closed borders and instituted other restrictions to curb outbreaks.

Kim has crushed all opposition to retain his iron grip on power. But these issues now present him with his greatest challenge yet. He has launched some market-oriented reforms to improve his people’s lives. But he also ramped up his production of nuclear weapons, eliciting crushing sanctions that have straight-jacketed the economy. He’s now in the pickle – either back down on his weapons program or face internal collapse.

“The nuclear weapons program, the economy and the stability of the regime are all interconnected,” Park Won Gon, who teaches North Korea studies at Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul in South Korea, told the Associated Press. “If the nuclear issue doesn’t get resolved, the economy doesn’t get better, and that opens the possibility of disquiet and confusion.”

He appears to be moving in two opposite directions at once in search of an answer.

On one hand, North Korea’s state-sanctioned hackers conduct cyber-espionage operations that hack into banks, steal military information, launch ransomware attacks and launder cash. They’ve cleared perhaps $2.3 billion, Bloomberg noted.

On the other, the country is investigating whether it can open commercial investment banks, the Washington Post added. Formerly viewed as “parasitic and predatory” in the communist country, North Korean analysts now view them as potentially crucial to reinvigorating the economy.

Nobody ever said that absurdity and inconsistency couldn’t exist side by side.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Pricey Relations

CANADA

A Canadian court ruled that Iran should pay about $84 million in damages to the families of six people who died when the Iranian military shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane two years ago, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

In January 2020, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard downed Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 with two surface-to-air missiles and killed all 176 people on board, including 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents.

The downing came as relations between Washington and Tehran took a nosedive following a US drone strike that killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Iraq.

The Revolutionary Guard initially denied involvement in the crash but later publicly apologized and blamed it on “human error,” according to Al Jazeera. It eventually admitted it was responsible, believing the plane was a cruise missile.

Afterward, some of the victims’ families sued Iran, with the Ontario Superior Court calling the Revolutionary Guard’s action an “act of terrorism.”

It is unclear how the plaintiffs will collect the amount but the verdict marks a symbolic victory for the victims’ relatives, who have complained about Iran’s lack of transparency and their inability to seek justice in the country.

Governments are typically immune from civil lawsuits tried in other nations but a 2012 Canadian law limited the legal protection of countries on its list of “foreign state supports of terrorism” – which also includes Iran.

The decision is also expected to further drive a wedge between Canada and Iran amid already tense relations: Canada has closed its embassy in Tehran and expelled Iranian diplomats from the country in 2012.

Fiddling, as a Country Burns

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban issued an order this week to remove the heads of mannequins in all clothing stores, the latest ultra-conservative measure the Islamist group has imposed in Afghanistan following their takeover last year, the Independent reported.

The Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice issued the order in the western province of Herat, saying the mannequins – referring to them as “statues” – infringed Islamic rules. They warned that those who violated the new rule would face harsh penalties.

Even so, many business owners criticized the move. Observers added that the measure will add more strain to local firms trying to stay afloat in the new Taliban regime.

Women’s rights campaigner Marzia Babakarkhail called the mannequin ban “the kind of behavior of children, not of a government leading a country,” adding that the decision showed “who (the Taliban) really are.”

Following their takeover in mid-August, the armed group claimed it has changed: They vowed to respect women’s rights and offer amnesty to their opponents. However, they quickly declared a ban on women taking part in sports and, weeks later, abolished the country’s Women’s Affairs ministry.

Since then, Taliban authorities have mandated new rules including blocking soap operas and dramas from featuring actresses.

They have also banned films thought to infringe “Islamic or Afghan values” and made the hijab – a head covering some female Muslims choose to wear – compulsory for all female journalists who appear on TV.

Extra Cautious

ISRAEL

Tens of thousands of Israelis signed up to get their fourth dose of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine this week, as the country became the first in the world to authorize the distribution of the extra booster shots, the Times of Israel reported.

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said that citizens over 60, medical workers and the immunocompromised will be eligible for an additional dose. Soon after, officials estimated that about 100,000 either got the fourth dose or signed up for one.

The new rollout comes as Covid-19 cases in the country are rising as the new Omicron variant continues to spread. The government hopes that an extra booster shot can protect most of those at-risk, even though officials admitted that there is not enough data about the effectiveness of the additional dose.

The majority of the world has yet to administer a fourth shot due to a lack of solid data, or even a third shot due to capacity and vaccine availability issues.

Authorities noted that it’s still too early to decide if the additional dose should be available to everyone.

Meanwhile, the government is contemplating whether to loosen restrictions following pressure from business owners and others, as well as changes to Israel’s testing regime.

Numerous complaints about long waiting times for test results have prompted some officials to suggest that vaccinated individuals should be allowed to test themselves at home. The more reliable PCR tests, meanwhile, would be reserved for people who are unvaccinated, elderly or have preexisting conditions.

DISCOVERIES

Bird Is The Word

A fossilized dinosaur egg more than 66 million years old revealed there is a link between modern-day birds and the extinct giant reptiles of millions of years ago, USA Today reported.

About 20 years ago, a Chinese mining company found a dino egg in China’s southern Jiangxi province. The egg was later put in storage. Recently, a research team examined it and found the bone remains of an embryo.

Naming it “Baby Yingliang,” scientists said the discovery will “help us answer a lot of questions about dinosaur growth and reproduction with it.”

In their paper, they wrote that Baby Yingliang was an oviraptorosaur, a species closely related to birds and belonging to the theropod group. Theropods were carnivorous dinos that had small forelimbs and walked on two feet – such as the terrifying Tyrannosaurus rex and velociraptor.

But the team also found another connection to birds: The embryo had a very similar tucking position that is only seen in birds before they hatch, marking the first time such a position was seen in non-avian animals.

The position involved having its feet on the side of its head and its back against the shell. Today’s birds stay in that position before hatching – otherwise, they have a higher chance of dying before birth.

Researchers suggested that modern-day birds’ hatching practices could have originated from non-flying dinosaurs but more research needs to be done to understand how the two species are linked.

COVID-19 Global Update

Total Cases Worldwide: 295,273,083

Total Deaths Worldwide: 5,457,882

Total Vaccinations Worldwide: 9,252,826,794

Countries with the highest number of confirmed cases worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*

  1. US: 57,063,456 (+1.55%)
  2. India: 35,018,358 (+0.17%)
  3. Brazil: 22,328,252 (+0.09%)
  4. UK: 13,723,275 (+1.67%)
  5. France: 10,694,804 (+2.41%)
  6. Russia: 10,390,052 (+0.00%)**
  7. Turkey: 9,654,364 (+0.57%)
  8. Germany: 7,320,708 (+0.85%)
  9. Spain: 6,785,286 (+1.77%)
  10. Italy: 6,566,947 (+2.67%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours

**Numbers have been adjusted by affected country



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