The World Today for March 05, 2024

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NORTH KOREA

North Korea’s tourism industry shut down during the coronavirus pandemic. Around 100 Russian tourists who recently visited the so-called Hermit Kingdom might help revive it, though.

“When you look at North Korea you realize that your grandma and grandpa were living like they do here,” travel blogger Ilya Voskresensky told CNN. “It’s a teleport into the past. There are absolutely no advertisements in the city. The only thing on display are party slogans, flags, and so on.”

Voskresensky and his fellow travelers were one among many signs of the closeness between Russia and leaders in the capital of Pyongyang.

Another sign of that is how North Korea has shipped millions of artillery shells in 6,700 containers to Russia since July to assist Russian President Vladimir Putin in his war with Ukraine, reported Al Jazeera. In exchange, Russia shipped food and other essential goods to North Korea, where preventable famines have decimated the population in the past.

Many of these artillery shells are duds, Newsweek wrote, citing Ukrainian sources. Still, these close ties auger North Korea’s participation in the Russia-Iran-China axis that has signaled close cooperation through a variety of channels, especially as the West has lined up in support of Ukraine and, arguably, Israel. “As the war grinds on, the world is left to grapple with ever-deepening ties between Pyongyang and Moscow,” wrote 38 North, a publication that covers North Korea.

Writing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies described how these two sides are now in tension on a global scale. Other experts further worried that this collaboration might embolden Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un to become more aggressive and potentially reckless on the Korean Peninsula and in northeast Asia.

World Politics Review, for example, warned that North Korea has continued to develop its nuclear capabilities – despite Kim meeting with President Donald Trump in 2018. Now North Korean missiles can reach any part of the continental US, for example. Such capabilities would be a serious deterrent to American forces who might attempt to respond to North Korean aggression.

Kim has every incentive to spark international discord to divert his people’s attention from their country’s serious domestic problems, too. Infrastructure, for example, is crumbling in the country amid power shortages, noted University of Baltimore global affairs professor Nusta Carranza Ko in the Conversation. A train wreck in December, for instance, thought to have possibly killed hundreds of Koreans, occurred when power outages caused the train to overturn as it climbed a hill. The regime’s oppressive control of information can suppress this news, but it still spreads.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Careless Whispers

GERMANY

Germany on Monday scrambled to respond to the reactions of its allies – and Russia – to a leaked recording involving top officers in the German army discussing the Ukraine war – a severe security breach that followed a display of disagreement among Western nations over military support to Ukraine, the Guardian reported.

In a call two weeks ago, the head of Germany’s air force, Ingo Gerhartz, suggested the use of German Taurus missiles to destroy the Kerch Bridge that connects mainland Russia with the occupied Crimean peninsula. He and his officers then discussed the participation of German troops to train Ukrainians to deploy the missiles, the Associated Press reported.

The 38-minute recording of the conversation was released on Friday by the editor of Russian state media channel Russia Today, and declared authentic by German authorities.

It also featured information about British troops being “on the ground” in Ukraine to help fire long-range Storm Shadow missiles up to 150 miles into Russian territory.

This detail twisted the knife in the wound after NATO allies last week showed division over comments by French President Emmanuel Macron that sending Western troops to Ukraine could not be ruled out. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was among the leaders who rushed to oppose Macron’s statement.

Scholz had surprisingly added that he would not provide Taurus missiles to Ukraine, saying that such a move would make Germany “a participant in the war.”

Asked to react to the leak on Monday, he reiterated his stance on the missiles, while his government promised an inquiry into the interception of the call.

Former British defense ministers expressed frustration at the leak, which the Sydney Morning Herald called one of Germany’s worst security breaches since the Cold War. The leaked call was hosted on the relatively insecure platform Webex, the Guardian noted.

Meanwhile, Russian officials described the leak as proof that Germany was preparing for war against Russia – a claim rejected by Berlin, Politico wrote. The Kremlin said it summoned the German ambassador to Moscow on Monday.

Nonetheless, one analyst told the outlet that the recording would only be a propaganda tool for Russia to use in order to destabilize the German government.

Tobias Ellwood, a former junior defense minister in the United Kingdom, suggested that Moscow was probably already aware of the British presence in Ukraine through intelligence.

In or Out

SOUTH KOREA

South Korea’s government on Monday began acting on their threats of suspending the medical licenses of thousands of striking junior doctors who failed to meet an ultimatum to return to work, as the walkouts have impacted the country’s healthcare sector, the Associated Press reported.

More than 7,000 trainee doctors face having their licenses suspended, two weeks after they vacated their posts to protest a government plan to increase the number of admissions at medical schools. The large-scale movement has caused hundreds of surgeries to be canceled.

Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo urged the doctors “to return to patients by not ignoring the pains of patients hovering between life and death – and their families.” Empowered by South Korea’s medical law, Seoul had ordered them to return to work by Feb. 29, citing risks to public health.

Striking junior doctors dismissed the government’s call, leading to Monday’s decision to begin steps toward suspending licenses for at least three months.

The government started sending officials to hospitals to formally attest to the doctors’ absence. Striking doctors will then be notified of the expected suspension of their licenses and will get a chance to respond. Park explained the process could take weeks.

In addition to suspending licenses for up to a year, striking doctors who fail to comply with back-to-work orders face a three-year jail sentence or a $22,500 fine.

The strike was triggered by an announcement last month that medical schools would host an extra 2,000 students on top of their current 3,058 placements, starting next year. Seoul argued the measure was aimed at tackling South Korea’s fast-aging population, the shortage of physicians outside of cities, and its low doctor-to-population ratio – one of the lowest in the developed world.

However, doctors have warned this would disrupt the quality of the education delivered by medical schools and increase competition, leading to higher public expenses.

Nonetheless, critics of the strike have said a core cause for the anger was the doctors’ worry that their incomes would decrease.

The Right Balance

SWITZERLAND

A referendum in Switzerland this week resulted in voters refusing to push back the retirement age and giving themselves an extra month’s pension each year, a rare victory for trade unions in the wealthy country, the BBC reported.

The Swiss were asked two questions at the federal level: to raise the retirement age from 65 to 66 and to enact a 13th monthly installment for pensions. While 75 percent of voters said ‘no’ to the first proposition, 60 percent endorsed the second – an unexpectedly large popular majority, coupled with majorities in most of Switzerland’s 26 cantons. This double plebiscite allows the measures to pass according to Switzerland’s rules of direct democracy.

In Switzerland, pensioners can receive up to $2,760 per month. However, many say this is not enough to deal with the cost of living in the Alpine country, which has some of the highest living costs in the world.

Making ends meet is especially difficult for women taking a hiatus to raise children, and immigrants working low-paid jobs. Many work beyond the legal retirement age because the pension is not enough.

The extra installment would align the pensions with Switzerland’s salary system, which features a double payment in November to help with Christmas expenses and tax bills. Pensions also get taxed.

The ruling coalition, parliament, and businesspeople had opposed the measure, saying it would be too expensive to fund.

Meanwhile, the referendum was a venue for the Swiss to vent their frustration at the government’s handling of public money, the local Le Temps wrote. Billions were spent on Covid-19 and supporting war-torn countries such as Ukraine, breaking from a centuries-long tradition of political neutrality. Recently, the government announced budget cuts for all but the military.

This laid the ground for trade unions to propose a pension increase – and succeed, defeating the federal government for the first time in a referendum on economic matters.

Federal Interior Minister Elisabeth Baume-Schneider said she would table a proposal at the Federal Council, the executive body, to find the $4.6 billion necessary to fund the extra pension installments. In her first brainstorming, she mentioned increasing value-added taxes.

DISCOVERIES

Expedited Process

Bacteria could hold the key to rapidly mineralizing carbon dioxide (CO2) underground, according to new research, potentially aiding in more durable storage of greenhouse gases, New Scientist reported.

Researchers from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology isolated Geobacillus bacteria from a compost pile in Washington state. The microbe is known for withstanding the extreme temperatures and pressures found deep underground.

In lab experiments simulating underground conditions, the science team compared the rate at which CO2 mineralized when dissolved in water with and without the bacteria.

They found that without the microbes the process could “take forever.” But water with Geobacillus accelerated CO2 mineralization and formed mineral crystals, at temperatures of 176 degrees Fahrenheit and under high pressure, in just 10 days.

The team explained that this rapid process was possible because of an enzyme called carbonic anhydrase produced by the bacteria.

While this enzyme is typically produced by surface-dwelling microbes, the latter struggle to survive in harsh underground environments.

“It’s a hard life at 5,000 feet below ground,” said co-author Bret Lingwall.

The researchers presented their findings at the American Geophysical Union’s annual conference in San Francisco in December.

They are now planning to test Bacillus bacteria from deep mine shafts, as well as genetically modified strains, to determine which microbes have the best performance.

However, challenges remain, including ensuring the microbes’ resilience, nutrient supply, and containment, especially if genetically modified.

“There are open questions around the resilience of these organisms, the food source of these organisms, their turnover rates and their ability to work in different alkaline environments,” noted Greeshma Gadikota from Cornell University, who was not involved in the study.

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