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North Korea Unveils New Submarine-launched Missiles

SEOUL: North Korea displayed what appeared to be a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) at a parade on Thursday night, state media reported, capping more than a week of political meetings with a show of military might.

Clad in a leather coat and fur hat, leader Kim Jong Un smiled and waved as he oversaw the parade in Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square, photos by state media showed.

The parade featured rows of marching soldiers, as well as a range of military hardware including tanks and rocket launchers.

At the end, a number of what analysts said appeared to be new variants of short-range ballistic missiles and SLBMs rolled into the square on trucks.

“The world’s most powerful weapon, submarine-launch ballistic missiles, entered the square one after another, powerfully demonstrating the might of the revolutionary armed forces,” news agency KCNA reported.

North Korea has test-fired several SLBMs from underwater, and analysts say it is seeking to develop an operational submarine to carry the missiles.

Photos released by state media showed the SLBM was labelled Pukguksong-5, potentially marking an upgrade over the Pukguksong-4 that was unveiled at a larger military parade in October.

“The new missile definitely looks longer,” Michael Duitsman, a researcher at the California-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), said on Twitter.

Unlike that October parade, Thursday’s event did not showcase North Korea’s largest intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which are believed to be able to deliver a nuclear warhead to anywhere in the United States.

The parade in itself was not intended to be a provocation but was a worrying sign of Pyongyang’s priorities, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

“The economy is severely strained from pandemic border closures, policy mismanagement and international sanctions,” he said. “Despite or perhaps because of this, Kim Jong Un feels the need to devote scarce resources to another political-military display.”

On Wednesday, Kim Yo Jong, the sister of Kim Jong Un and a member of the ruling party’s Central Committee, criticised South Korea’s military for saying it had detected signs of a parade in Pyongyang on Sunday.

North Korean officials have been meeting in Pyongyang for the first party congress since 2016.

UN watchdog confirms another Iranian breach of nuclear deal

VIENA, Jan 14: The United Nations' atomic watchdog agency confirmed Thursday that Iran has informed it that the country has begun installing equipment for the production of uranium metal, which would be another violation of the landmark nuclear deal with world powers.

Iran maintains its plans to conduct research and development on uranium metal production are part of its “declared aim to design an improved type of fuel,” the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said.

Uranium metal can also be used for a nuclear bomb, however, and research on its production is specifically prohibited in the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed with world powers in 2015.

The ultimate goal of the deal is to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, something Iran insists it does not want to do. Iran now has enough enriched uranium to make a bomb, but nowhere near the amount it had before the nuclear deal was signed.

IAEA inspectors visited the Isfahan plant where Iran has said it plans to conduct the research on Jan. 10, and officials were informed by Tehran on Jan. 13 that “modification and installation of the relevant equipment for the mentioned R&D activities have been already started," the agency said.

Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, Kazem Gharibabadi, repeated that in a tweet on Wednesday, adding that “natural uranium will be used to produce uranium metal in the first stage.”

He told Iran's official news agency IRNA that the move will elevate Iran to the level of “progressive nations in production of new fuels.”

It was the latest in a string of violations of the JCPOA that Iran has undertaken since President Donald Trump pulled the United States unilaterally out of the deal in 2018, saying it needed to be re-negotiated.

Tehran has been using the violations to put pressure on the other signatories — Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia — to provide more incentives to Iran to offset crippling American sanctions reimposed after the U.S. exited the deal.

President-elect Joe Biden, who was vice president when the JCPOA was negotiated, has said he hopes to return the U.S. to the deal.

Britain, France and Germany said last week, however, that Iran “risks compromising” chances of diplomacy with Washington after Tehran announced another violation — that it was starting to enrich uranium to 20% purity, a technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%.

The foreign ministers of the three European nations said in a joint statement then that the Iranian activity “has no credible civil justification.” They said the enrichment was a clear violation of the deal and “further hollows out the agreement.”

Germany's Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment Thursday, but the announcement on the production of uranium metal now further complicates trying to get Washington back on board.

WHO Team Arrives In Wuhan For Controversial Coronavirus Origin Probe

WUHAN, Jan 14: A team of experts from the World Health Organization arrived in Wuhan Thursday to probe the origins of the coronavirus more than a year after it emerged, although two members were barred from boarding a flight in Singapore after testing positive for virus antibodies.

The international team of 13 scientists landed for their much-delayed mission, met by Chinese officials in hazmat suits and given throat swabs on arrival, and were whisked to a hotel where they must complete a two-week quarantine before starting their work.

The virus was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019 and has since billowed out across the world killing nearly two million people so far, infecting tens of millions and eviscerating the global economy.

The WHO says establishing the pathway of the virus from animals to humans is essential to preventing future outbreaks.

But despite painstaking months of negotiations over their remit, the team was blocked from arriving last week -- a sign of the political sensitivity of a virus origin story muddied by recrimination between nations, conjecture and denials.

And the UN health body said Thursday that while most the team had arrived, two members were not allowed to board the flight from Singapore to Wuhan after testing positive for coronavirus antibodies -- the latest twist in a long journey to China for the experts.

The WHO said in a tweet that all members of the team had "multiple negative PCR and antibody tests for COVID-19 in their home countries prior to traveling."

The trip comes as China moves to snuff out fresh clusters of the virus.

More than 20 million people are under lockdown in the north of China and one province has declared an emergency, as the country reported its first death from Covid-19 in eight months.

China had largely brought the pandemic under control through strict lockdowns and mass testing, hailing its economic rebound as an indication of strong leadership by the Communist authorities.

But another 138 infections were reported by the National Health Commission on Thursday -- the highest single-day tally since March last year.

Clusters are still small compared with many countries contending with rampant infections and record numbers of deaths.

But the first Chinese virus fatality in several months -- a woman with underlying conditions in northern Hebei province -- seeded alarm across China.

The hashtag "New virus death in Hebei" quickly ratcheted up 270 million views on Chinese social media platform Weibo on Thursday.

"I haven't seen the words 'virus death' in so long, it's a bit shocking! I hope the epidemic can pass soon," one user wrote.

The last death reported in mainland China was in May last year, with the official death toll now standing at 4,635.

Beijing is anxious to stamp out local clusters ahead of next month's Lunar New Year festival when hundreds of millions of people will be on the move across the country.

As infections have spread, northeastern Heilongjiang declared an "emergency state" on Wednesday, telling its 37.5 million residents not to leave the province unless absolutely necessary.

China is braced for the scrutiny the expert team of WHO scientists will bring to its virus narrative.

Beijing has drip-fed the idea that the pandemic started outside of its borders, preferring to focus on its relatively swift control of the public health crisis.

The WHO have been at pains to cut the political baggage attached to their mission.

Peter Ben Embarek, team lead, said the group would start with a mandatory hotel quarantine.

"And then after the two weeks, we would be able to move around and meet our Chinese counterparts in person and go to the different sites that we will want to visit," he said.

He warned it "could be a very long journey before we get a full understanding of what happened".

Beijing has argued that although Wuhan is where the first cluster of cases was detected, it is not necessarily where the virus originated.

"I don't think we will have clear answers after this initial mission, but we will be on the way," Embarek added.

"The idea is to advance a number of studies that were already designed and decided upon some months ago to get us a better understanding of what happened," he said.

Pakistani court directs authorities to arrest JeM chief Masood Azhar by Jan 18

ISLAMABAD, Jan 9: A Pakistani court has given police officials time till January 18 to arrest Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Masood Azhar, days after directing them to produce the UN-designated terrorist on charges of terror financing.

The anti-terrorism court (ATC) at Gujranwala in Pakistan’s Punjab province had on Thursday issued an arrest warrant for Azhar on the request of the local Counter-Terrorism Department and judge Natasha Naseem Supra had ordered that he should be produced in court on Friday.

The court’s order was the first official acknowledgement of Azhar’s presence on Pakistani soil in recent years. Pakistani officials and leaders have repeatedly said they didn’t have information on his whereabouts.

When the matter came up for hearing in the Gujranwala court on Friday, the judge gave the Counter-Terrorism Department time till January 18 to arrest Azhar, failing which steps would be taken to declare him a fugitive.

“ATC Gujranwala judge Natasha Naseem Supra, during the case hearing on Friday, directed the CTD to arrest JeM chief Masood Azhar by January 18 and present him in the court. In case of failure (to arrest him), the court may begin proceedings to declare him a proclaimed offender,” said a court official.

Indian officials have said the Pakistani court’s actions are clearly linked to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) beginning the process to review Islamabad’s efforts to counter terror financing and money laundering during key meetings this month and in February.

JeM was among the groups specifically named by FATF for terror financing in its reports in the past two years. India has already provided evidence on JeM and Azhar’s role in the 2019 Pulwama attack, in which 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troopers were killed. The attack had brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war.

The Counter-Terrorism Department had earlier arrested six JeM terrorists – Muhammad Afzal, Muhammad Amir, Allah Ditta, Muhammad Iftikhar, Muhammad Ajmal and Muhammad Bilal Makki – on terror-related charges and sought an arrest warrant for Azhar in the same case even though he wasn’t named in the original chargesheet, people familiar with developments said.

Azhar was last believed to be in his stronghold of Bahawalpur in Punjab province. There was no information on whether Pakistani authorities had launched efforts to trace him.

Pakistan was placed on FATF’s “grey list” in June 2018 for failing to counter terror financing. The multilateral watchdog had given it time till February this year to implement an action plan to curb the raising of funds by terrorists after it missed several deadlines for complying with FATF’s recommendations.

The UN had designated Azhar a “global terrorist” in May 2019, when China lifted its hold on a proposal to blacklist the Pakistan-based JeM chief, a decade after New Delhi approached the world body for the first time on the issue.

North Korea's Kim Jong Un Admits Mistakes As Party Opens Rare Congress

Seoul, Jan 6: North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un admitted the country's economic development plan had fallen short in "almost all areas" as he opened a rare congress of the ruling Workers' Party, state media reported Wednesday.

The gathering is the first of its kind in five years, only the eighth in the nuclear-armed country's history, and comes weeks before US President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

Relations with Washington have been deadlocked since talks between Kim and President Donald Trump stalled over sanctions relief and what Pyongyang would be willing to give up in return.

At the same time the North is more isolated than ever after closing its borders last January to protect itself against the coronavirus that first emerged in neighbour and key ally China.

The congress opened on Tuesday in the capital, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.

Pictures in the Rodong Sinmum ruling party newspaper showed 7,000 delegates and attendees packed into the cavernous hall, none of them wearing masks.

On the first day of his work review, Kim said the results of the last five-year economic development strategy "fell extremely short of our goals in almost all areas", KCNA reported.

The plan was quietly scrapped ahead of schedule last year.

"We intend to comprehensively analyse in depth... our experiences, lessons and the errors committed," added Kim, who wore a black suit and a lapel badge of his father and grandfather.

KCNA's transcript did not specify any of the mistakes, and gave no indication Kim mentioned either Washington or Seoul in his speech, which is expected to continue Wednesday.

The coronavirus pandemic has added to the pressures on the North, with Pyongyang blockading itself far more effectively than even the most hawkish backer of sanctions could ever hope to achieve.

Trade with key ally China is at a tiny fraction of the usual level, while many foreign embassies have closed or drastically reduced their representations.

Pyongyang insists that it has not had a single case of the disease -- observers doubt the claim -- but summer floods put further strain on its finances.

Analysts say the congress will largely focus on domestic issues, reaffirming the importance of "self-reliance" and proclaiming a new economic plan.

The Rodong Sinmun on Sunday called for unwavering loyalty to Kim, saying that a "united spirit" was necessary to ensure a "victorious" year.

The congress is the top ruling party meeting, a grand political set-piece that reinforces the regime's authority and is closely followed by analysts for signs of policy shifts or elite personnel changes.

Kim's sister and key adviser Kim Yo Jong was among the officials elected to the presidium of the congress, in a sign of her increasing standing.

The last congress in 2016 -- the first in almost 40 years - cemented Kim Jong Un's status as supreme leader and the inheritor of his family's dynastic rule, which spans seven decades.

The current gathering reflected the "urgent need for internal solidarity", said defector-turned-researcher Ahn Chan-il of the World Institute for North Korea Studies in Seoul.

"The party congress has to serve as a spark to restore faith for the frustrated public."

The run-up to the congress saw the entire country mobilised in an 80-day drive to boost the economy, featuring extra-long work hours and additional duties for many.

The event comes ahead of Biden's January 20 inauguration and analysts say the North will look to send Washington a message, while treading carefully; the incoming US president has characterised Kim as a "thug", while Pyongyang has called him a "rabid dog".

"With Trump gone, North Korea will reaffirm its traditional hostile stance against the US with a hint on the type of its next provocation," said Go Myong-hyun of the Asan Institute of Policy Studies.

Satellite imagery showed that "preparations for a parade appear to have stepped up a pace", according to the respected 38North website, just months after Pyongyang showed off by far its biggest missile yet.

A parade also accompanied the 2016 party congress, a meeting that lasted four days.

Kim's father and predecessor Kim Jong Il never held a party congress during his rule but the current leader appears to be following a regular five-year timetable.

"Kim Jong Un is seeking regime stability and normalisation of the party," said Shin Beom-chul of the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy. "Holding the congress in 2016 and then in 2021, that's normalisation."

British PM Boris Johnson calls off India visit

LONDON, Jan 5: Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday spoke to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and expressed his inability to visit India, where he had been invited to be the chief guest at the Republic Day parade.

A Downing Street spokesperson said: “The Prime Minister spoke to Prime Minister Modi this morning, to express his regret that he will be unable to visit India later this month as planned”.

“In light of the national lockdown announced last night, and the speed at which the new coronavirus variant is spreading, the Prime Minister said that it was important for him to remain in the UK so he can focus on the domestic response to the virus”.

“The leaders underlined their shared commitment to the bilateral relationship, and to continuing to build on the close collaboration between our countries – including in response to the pandemic”.

“The Prime Minister said that he hopes to be able to visit India in the first half of 2021, and ahead of the UK’s G7 Summit that Prime Minister Modi is due to attend as a guest.”

The Johnson government has been grappling with continuing surge of Covid-19.

China flies choppers over Lhasa in military drill to tame Tibet

NEW DELHI, Jan 5: China has carried out an aerial drill over the Tibet’s capital of Lhasa, a preemptive move designed to remind Buddhists scattered across the vast Himalayan plateau about the communist party’s military might that last crushed an uprising by young Tibetans ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The aerial drill comes days after the United States enacted the Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020 that reaffirmed the right of Tibetans to choose a successor to their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan government-in-exile based in Himachal Pradesh’s Dharamshala had described the US legislation as historic.

A China watcher in New Delhi said the drill could be only one part of the continuing effort by President Xi Jinping to sinicise Tibet that would pick up pace in view of the new US law.

“China wouldn’t want anything to happen in Tibet that reflects support for the US law… The military drill was a preemptive move and would be followed by other steps to stem any potential dissent,” he said.

Sinicisation is an attempt to wipe out religious and ethnic identities by increasing the influence of Chinese, or the culture of the majority Han community, on non-Chinese ideas and entities within China.

According to photos that have emerged from Tibet, at least a dozen military choppers were deployed in the military drills that were carried out over the Potola Palace.

According to photos that have emerged from Tibet, at least a dozen military choppers were deployed in the military drills that were carried out over the Potola Palace.

President Xi Jinping has talked about sinicising religions in China since taking over the Communist Party of China leadership in 2012. Three years later, Xi spoke about sinicising the five major religions practised in China: Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Buddhism and Daoism.

For the last few years, China has been working on a plan to redefine the practise of Islam and align the beliefs of Muslims with the communist party. Xinjiang has been a focus area where the communist regime has implemented tactics that it has practised in Tibet for years.

Xi sees the sinicisation of Tibetan Buddhism as part of a four-point programme that he unveiled at an August meeting last year to build, what he called, an "impregnable fortress" to maintain stability in Tibet that is so important to Beijing because of its long border with India. That Buddhist Tibetans, despite decades of Chinese rule, still worship the Dalai Lama as a living god, has long been considered a threat by the communist party.

This is why China views the US law that supports letting Tibetans decide the Dalai Lama such a risk and wants to shape his succession, and claims that the Buddhist reincarnations must “comply” with Chinese law.

This compliance, however, is not unique to Buddhist Tibetans. A new rule that kicked in on 1 February last year requires all religions in China to look up to the ruling communist party for leadership and promote its policies.

Analysts believe that China could order a fresh crackdown in Tibet if the communist party assesses that there is even the slightest possibility of unrest in Lhasa. Rights activists who tracked Beijing’s response to the 2008 uprising said dozens of Tibetans were killed by the military to stop the protests against China.

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