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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.

Coronavirus

China slashes COVID quarantine time for international travellers

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2/2

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: People line up at a nucleic acid testing station, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Beijing, China, June 16, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo

2/2

BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China on Tuesday slashed the quarantine time for inbound travellers by half in a major easing of one of the world’s strictest COVID-19 curbs, which have deterred travel in and out of the country since 2020.

Quarantine at centralised facilities has been cut to seven days from 14, and subsequent at-home health monitoring has been reduced to three days from seven, the National Health Commission said.

The latest guidelines from the health authority also eased quarantine requirements for close contacts of people who have tested positive for the new coronavirus.

China has cautiously eased its COVID curbs on cross-border travellers in recent months, with health officials saying the shorter incubation period of the Omicron variant allows for an adjustment of quarantine periods.

The Chinese capital Beijing in recent months has already reduced the quarantine period at centralised facilities to 10 days from 14.

China, last month, also removed some COVID-19 test requirements for people flying in from countries such as the United States.

“We believe that today’s announcement will be welcomed by the American business community,” the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai said on its official WeChat account.

The quarantine adjustment will make it easier for companies to bring staff to China, and for Chinese companies and their executives to visit the United States, AmCham said.

Stock markets rose in Hong Kong and the mainland, with the Hang Seng Index reversing losses and ticking up roughly 0.4% and the CSI300 Index gaining 0.7%.

Shares in mainland tourism companies jumped more than 5%.

China’s aviation regulator said this month it had been in touch with some countries to steadily increase the number of flights in the second half of 2022.

IN THE CLEAR

Beijing and Shanghai reported on Tuesday no new local COVID infections, the first time both cities were in the clear simultaneously since late February, after months of fighting their worst-ever outbreaks.

The milestone for the two cities, achieved on Monday, came after their daily caseloads dropped to single digits over the past week, allowing Shanghai to gradually resume eating in at restaurants and Beijing to reopen some leisure venues including the Universal Beijing Resort.

Shanghai Communist Party chief Li Qiang declared on Saturday that authorities had “won the war to defend Shanghai” against COVID-19.

The Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) Co’s Shanghai Disney Resort said on Tuesday that it would reopen the Disneyland theme park on June 30; it had been shut for more than three months.

Authorities, however, were adamant the government’s so-called dynamic zero COVID policy, which aims at blocking flare-ups from spreading as they crop up, remains in place.

Beijing would “fight against any new outbreaks at the outset and with speed and resolutely break their transmission channel”, Cai Qi, the city’s top Communist Party chief, was quoted as saying in a report by the party-backed Beijing Daily.

Earlier on Monday, the Beijing Daily apparently misquoted Cai as saying the city would maintain its COVID control effort for “the next five years”.

The newspaper afterwards removed the reference and its chief, Zhao Jingyun, said it was an error but that did not prevent some suspicion among the public.

“Surely it wasn’t a mistake! It’s meant to gauge public opinion!” said a user of the Weibo (NASDAQ:WB) social media platform.

Another Weibo user said even if it was a mistake, “at least the higher-ups are now aware of how helpless we all feel and how we detest the current counter-epidemic policies”.

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Coronavirus

Beijing, Shanghai both free of new local COVID cases for first time in months

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: People line up at a nucleic acid testing station, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Beijing, China, June 16, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo

BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China’s capital, Beijing, and the financial hub of Shanghai reported on Tuesday no new local COVID infections, the first time both cities were in the clear at the same time since late February, after months of fighting their worst-ever outbreaks.

The milestone for the two cities, achieved on Monday, came after their daily caseloads dropped to single digits over the past week, allowing Shanghai to gradually resume eating in at restaurants and Beijing to reopen some leisure venues including the Universal Beijing Resort.

Shanghai Communist Party chief Li Qiang declared on Saturday that authorities had “won the war to defend Shanghai” against COVID-19, following a crushing two-month citywide lockdown that was finally lifted in early June.

Authorities, however, remained wary and were adamant that the government’s so-called dynamic zero COVID policy, which aims at blocking flare-ups from spreading as they crop up, remains in place.

Beijing would “fight against any new outbreaks at the outset and with speed and resolutely break their transmission channel”, Cai Qi, the city’s top Communist Party chief, was quoted as saying in a report by the party-backed Beijing Daily.

The city would build “a solid virus barrier”, Cai was quoted as saying on Monday.

Earlier on Monday, the Beijing Daily apparently misquoted Cai as saying the city would maintain its COVID control effort for “the next five years”.

The newspaper afterwards removed the reference and its chief, Zhao Jingyun, said it was an error but that did not prevent some suspicion among the public.

“Surely it wasn’t a mistake! It’s meant to gauge public opinion!” said a user of the Weibo (NASDAQ:WB) social media platform.

Another Weibo user said even if it was a mistake, “at least the higher-ups are now aware of how helpless we all feel and how we detest the current counter-epidemic policies”.

Despite easing COVID restrictions in Beijing and Shanghai, their combined 47 million residents have been told to go through COVID testing every few days, to maintain access to public spaces and transport.

Elsewhere in mainland China, a total of 22 domestically transmitted infections were reported for June 27, including five in the southern technology hub Shenzhen.

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Coronavirus

U.S. appeals court vacates federal vaccine mandate pending additional hearing

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A resident over 50 years old and immunocompromised receives a second booster shot of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine in Waterford, Michigan, U.S., April 8, 2022. REUTERS/Emily Elconin

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court panel said on Monday it would convene a full panel to reconsider President Joe Biden’s executive order requiring civilian federal employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and set aside the order pending that hearing.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which is based in New Orleans, had reinstated the vaccine order in April by a 2-1 vote after it was blocked by a district court judge in January. [L2N2W530Z]

The court said on Monday that it would reconsider the case en banc, which means it will be heard by a larger panel of judges. No date was given for the hearing. Pending that hearing, the court said it would vacate the April ruling, which means that Biden’s order cannot be enforced.

Biden said in September he would require about 3.5 million government workers to get vaccinated by Nov. 22, barring a religious or medical accommodation, or face discipline or firing. Despite the legal fight, more than 90% of federal workers were vaccinated by December, the White House said last year.

The president’s vaccine and mask mandates have faced stiff opposition, led by Republicans, which have turned public safety measures endorsed by disease experts into a political and legal battle in the United States.

The United States passed the milestone of 1 million dead from the coronavirus in May. More than 250 people still die of the disease daily, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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