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COVID crisis could deepen N.Korea food shortages amid drought warnings

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: People wearing protective face masks commute amid concerns over the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Pyongyang, North Korea March 30, 2020, in this photo released by Kyodo. Picture taken March 30, 2020. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

By Hyonhee Shin and Soo-hyang Choi

SEOUL (Reuters) -North Korea’s coronavirus outbreak threatens to deepen its already dire food situation this year, as a nationwide lockdown would hamper ongoing anti-drought efforts and the mobilisation of labour, analysts said.

The isolated North confirmed on Thursday its first COVID-19 outbreak since the pandemic emerged more than two years ago, declaring the “gravest national emergency” and imposing a national lockdown.

The outbreak came as the country steps up an “all-out fight” against drought, with leader Kim Jong Un warning of a tense food situation due to the pandemic and last year’s typhoons.

State media said last week that factory labourers and even office workers and government officials had been dispatched to help improve farming facilities and secure water resources across the country.

Droughts and flooding have long posed seasonal threats to North Korea, and any major natural hazards could further cripple its reclusive economy.

The pandemic had already slashed trade and international food donations, and in a country heavily reliant on human labour in agriculture and lacking industrial and medical infrastructure, a brewing COVID-19 crisis could further exacerbate food shortages, analysts said.

“In North Korea, economic activity requires a lot of people’s movements, and you can’t expect trade or large aid from China,” said Lim Eul-chul, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University in South Korea.

“But now farming activity could be scaled back and distribution of fertilisers, raw materials and equipment would become difficult,” he added.

U.N. aid agencies and most other relief groups have pulled out of the country amid extended border shutdowns and say it is difficult to gauge exactly how bad the situation is there.

But Ji Seong-ho, a South Korean lawmaker who defected from the North in 2006 and has campaigned for North Koreans’ human rights, said the virus could spread rapidly due partly to the lack of a working medical system.

“The COVID outbreak could hit the ongoing farming season hard, and food security might become really serious this year and next,” he told a parliamentary session.

International sanctions over the North’s weapons programmes restrict broad swaths of its trade, and the country sealed its border in early 2020 to prevent the virus.

A reopening of border trade early this year raised a glimmer of hope, only to be halted in April because of COVID outbreaks in China, which has recently imposed extremely tight restrictions in major cities like Shanghai. Satellite imagery shows goods sitting for weeks or months in quarantine at land and sea port facilities.

Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Sejong Institute’s North Korea studies centre in South Korea, said the North could impose limited measures – unlike China’s sweeping moves – to ensure some activity continues, referring to Kim’s order to keep the lockdowns to the city and county levels.

“But over time, the lack of interregional movement would hurt supply and production, and North Korea might eventually face a serious food crisis and the kind of great confusion that’s been seen in China recently,” Cheong said.

North Korea’s weather agency has warned of prolonged dry spells this month, and state media again on Thursday reported an “all-out fight against drought” nationwide.

In March, the United Nations urged Pyongyang to reopen its borders to aid workers and food imports, saying its deepening isolation may have left many facing starvation.

The World Food Program estimated that even before the pandemic emerged, 11 million people, or more than 40% of the North’s population, were undernourished and needed assistance.

Coronavirus

Democrats warn abortion, voting rights at stake in Pennsylvania governor’s race

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Pennsylvania State Senator Doug Mastriano speaks at a protest against the state’s extended stay-at-home order to help slow the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, U.S., April 20, 2020. REUTERS/Rachel Wisni

By James Oliphant and Jarrett Renshaw

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – After far-right candidate Doug Mastriano won the Republican primary for Pennsylvania governor, Democrats quickly warned voters that he poses a threat to abortion access, voting rights and election integrity should he win in November.

Josh Shapiro, the state’s attorney general and the Democratic nominee for governor, called Mastriano the most extreme gubernatorial candidate in the country.

The Republican supports abortion bans with no exceptions for rape, incest or the health of the mother. He has proposed restrictions on mail-in voting and eliminating ballot drop boxes, and he backs former President Donald Trump’s false claims of election fraud in the 2020 presidential contest.

Shapiro’s campaign said it had raised about $200,000 since the polls closed in the Republican primary on Tuesday night, and the Democratic candidate asked for more donations on Wednesday.

Democrats view the Pennsylvania governor’s race as one of the most critical contests in the country. The current governor, Democrat Tom Wolf, has blocked measures from the Republican-controlled state legislature that would limit abortion and voting rights.

Some Republicans in Pennsylvania are also alarmed by Mastriano, who marched in Washington before the Jan. 6, 2021 siege of the U.S. Capitol. They said they fear Mastriano is all but unelectable and could drag down the party’s entire state ticket with him.

“We are going to lose state house and state senate races,” said Val Biancaniello, a Republican state committee member from Philadelphia’s suburbs. “It is very difficult for someone like me to rally behind Doug Mastriano, who is going to get his butt kicked in November because he is a far-right extremist.”

Mastriano, who was endorsed by Trump the weekend before the primary, disputed that he is a far-right candidate.

“I repudiate that,” he said in his victory speech on Tuesday. “That is crap.”

ABORTION, VOTING RIGHTS AT PLAY

As voters worry about inflation, the coronavirus pandemic and crime, Democrats are looking to leverage the battle over abortion rights to boost turnout among women and young voters, including independents and some Republicans.

Shapiro has vowed to veto any abortion restrictions that come before him as governor.

Mastriano, a state senator, has proposed a so-called “heartbeat” bill that would ban abortions after six weeks. He recently called abortion “genocide.”

The Pennsylvania legislature has introduced a bill that would prevent the state Supreme Court from declaring abortion a right if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns its Roe v. Wade precedent and sends the issue of legalization back to individual states.

“With our fundamental rights on the line, we must work harder than ever to ensure that an anti-choice extremist like Doug Mastriano never holds the governor’s office,” said Ally Boguhn, a spokesperson for NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Mastriano also has championed Trump’s stolen election claims, proposing a state audit of the 2020 results.

A retired Army colonel, Mastriano was seen outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump supporters breached the building. He has said he peacefully participated in a pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” rally that day but left before the siege.

Some influential Republicans in the state, such as Sam DeMarco, a Republican Party committee chair in Pittsburgh, warned ahead of the primary that Mastriano was unelectable, pointing to survey research that predicted swing voters would shift to Shapiro in large numbers if Mastriano won the nomination.

Analysts say Shapiro, a candidate who has won statewide and went unchallenged in the Democratic primary, has the edge in the race. Heading into the primary, Mastriano had about $800,000 in his campaign account, while Shapiro was sitting on a war chest of more than $18 million.

Mastriano “needs to start showing how he’s going to appeal to moderate Republicans and independent voters,” said Charlie O’Neil, a veteran of Republican campaigns in Pennsylvania. “You don’t win Pennsylvania by winning the Republican base.”

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U.S. warns North Korea could greet Biden with nuclear, missile tests

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walks next to what state media reports is the “Hwasong-17” intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on its launch vehicle in this undated photo released on March 25, 2022 by North Korea’s Korean Cen

By Alexandra Alper, David Brunnstrom and Josh Smith

WASHINGTON/SEOUL (Reuters) -U.S intelligence shows there could be a North Korean nuclear test, or a long-range missile test, or both, before, during or after President Joe Biden’s trip to South Korea and Japan starting this week, the U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan, said on Wednesday.

The White House said Biden would not visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides North and South Korea during his visit to South Korea, which begins on Friday, having said last week he was considering such a trip.

“Our intelligence does reflect a genuine possibility that there will be either a further missile test, including long-range missile test, or a nuclear test, or frankly both, in the days leading into, on, or after the president’s trip to the region,” Sullivan told a White House briefing.

“We are preparing for all contingencies,” he said.

Sullivan said the United States was coordinating closely with South Korea and Japan and he had also discussed North Korea with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi in a phone call on Wednesday.

Biden’s May 20-24 trip will be his first to Asia as president. It will include his first summit with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office on May 10 and has vowed a harder line against North Korean “provocations.”

Sullivan said the United States was prepared to make both short- and longer-term adjustments to its military posture as necessary “to ensure that we are providing both defense and deterrence to our allies in the region and that we’re responding to any North Korean provocation.”

Earlier, U.S. and South Korean officials said North Korea appeared to be preparing to test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) ahead of Biden’s trip to South Korea, even as it battled a big COVID-19 outbreak.

South Korean Deputy National Security Adviser Kim Tae-hyo said such a test appeared imminent and a U.S. official said it could happen as soon as Thursday or Friday.

Kim Tae-hyo said a “Plan B” had been prepared in the event of a small or large North Korean “provocation,” which could involve altering the summit schedule.

A weapons test could overshadow Biden’s broader trip focus on China, trade, and other regional issues, and underscore the lack of progress in denuclearization talks with North Korea, despite his administration’s vow to break the stalemate with practical approaches.

North Korea has conducted repeated missile tests since Biden took office last year and this year resumed launches of ICBMs for the first time since 2017. After each launch, Washington has urged North Korea to return to dialogue, but to no response.

Meanwhile, U.S. efforts to encourage tougher international sanctions have met Russian and Chinese resistance.

Analysts say that while China’s view on sanctions might alter with another nuclear test, Russian support appeared unlikely after the campaign of U.S.-led sanctions over Moscow’s Ukraine intervention.

Yoon is expected to seek greater assurances from Biden that Washington will strengthen “extended deterrence” against North Korea – a reference to the U.S. nuclear weapons umbrella protecting its allies.

Yoon’s administration has asked Washington to station more nuclear-capable “strategic assets,” such as long-range bombers, submarines, and aircraft carriers in the region.

Kim said the chances of North Korea conducting a nuclear test this weekend appeared low, but if it staged any major provocation, such assets were ready to be mobilised.

A nuclear test could complicate international efforts to offer Pyongyang help to deal with its COVID crisis.

Yoon has offered to help North Korea with this issue, and analysts expect Biden to endorse this effort, even though his administration has said it has no plans to send vaccines directly to North Korea and Pyongyang has persistently refused help though the global vaccine initiative.

The rising case load and a lack of modern care for COVID-19 in North Korea worries World Health Organization officials that an unchecked spread could give rise to deadlier new variants.

North Korea sent aircraft to China to pick up medical supplies days after it confirmed the outbreak, media reported on Tuesday.

A new report by Washington’s Center for International and Strategic Studies said commercial satellite imagery showed work continuing at North Korea’s main nuclear site, where underground testing tunnels were shuttered in 2018 after leader Kim Jong Un declared a moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests.

He has since said he is no longer bound by that moratorium because of a lack of progress in talks with the United States. While North Korea has resumed ICBM testing, it has not tested a nuclear bomb since 2017.

North Korea has also resumed construction at a long-dormant nuclear reactor that would increase its production of plutonium for nuclear weapons by a factor of 10, researchers at the U.S.-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies reported last week, citing satellite imagery.

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U.S. health secretary tests positive for COVID on trip to Berlin

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to discuss reopening schools during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at Capitol Hill in Washington, D.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday while on a trip to Berlin ahead of G7 meetings of health ministers, a spokesperson said.

Becerra, who is fully vaccinated and boosted, is experiencing mild symptoms and will work in isolation, she said. Becerra had last visited the White House a week ago and President Joe Biden is not considered a “close contact” as defined by U.S. health authorities, she added.

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