The United States consulted jointly Thursday with South Korea and Japan, allies often at odds with each other, as President Joe Biden reviews how to move forward on North Korea.
Senior US diplomat Sung Kim and his counterparts promised “close cooperation” in a videoconference and “expressed their continued commitment to denuclearization and the maintenance of peace and stability on the Korean peninsula,” the State Department said.
The Biden administration says it is reviewing how to move forward with North Korea after former president Donald Trump held three splashy meetings with leader Kim Jong Un but failed to reach a lasting deal.
The Trump administration argued that it ended a diplomatic logjam and effectively stopped North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, although critics say that Pyongyang nonetheless advanced on the programs.
Biden is expected to take a more low-key approach and his administration has pledged also to raise concerns over cybersecurity, with the Justice Department on Wednesday charging three North Korean intelligence officials over massive hacks.
Trump had strong relationships with both the Japanese and South Korean leaders, but relations between the two neighbours hit new lows during his presidency in disputes linked to the legacy of Japanese colonial rule.
The North is also accused of a huge, $81 million cyber-heist from the Bangladesh Central Bank, as well as the theft of $60 million from Taiwan’s Far Eastern International Bank.
North Korean hackers tried to break into the computer systems of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in a search for information on a coronavirus vaccine and treatment technology, South Korea’s spy agency said Tuesday, according to reports.
The impoverished, nuclear-armed North has been under self-imposed isolation since closing its borders in January last year to try to protect itself from the virus that first emerged in neighbouring China and has gone on to sweep the world, killing more than two million people.
Leader Kim Jong Un has repeatedly insisted that the country has had no coronavirus cases, although outside experts doubt those assertions.
And the closure has added to the pressure on its tottering economy from international sanctions imposed over its banned weapons systems, increasing the urgency for Pyongyang to find a way to deal with the disease.
Seoul’s National Intelligence Service “briefed us that North Korea tried to obtain technology involving the Covid vaccine and treatment by using cyberwarfare to hack into Pfizer”, MP Ha Tae-keung told reporters after a parliamentary hearing behind closed doors.
North Korea is known to operate an army of thousands of well-trained hackers who have attacked firms, institutions and researchers in the South and elsewhere.
Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine, developed jointly with Germany’s BioNTech, began winning approval from authorities late last year.
It is based on technology that uses the synthetic version of a molecule called “messenger RNA” to hack into human cells and effectively turn them into vaccine-making factories.
Pfizer says it expects to potentially deliver up to 2 billion doses in 2021.
The company’s South Korean office did not immediately respond to a request for comment by AFP.
Both it and BioNTech said in December that documents relating to their vaccine were “unlawfully accessed” during a cyberattack on a server at the European Medicines Agency, the EU’s medicine regulator.
The comments came after the Amsterdam-based EMA said it had been the victim of a hacking attack, without specifying when it took place or whether its work on Covid-19 was targeted.
Cyber-heists The allegations come only a week after a confidential UN report seen by AFP said North Korea had stolen more than $300 million worth of cryptocurrencies through cyberattacks in recent months to support its weapons programmes.
Financial institutions and exchanges were hacked to generate revenue for Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile development, the document said, with the vast majority of the proceeds coming from two thefts late last year.
Pyongyang’s cyberwarfare abilities first came to global prominence in 2014 when it was accused of hacking into Sony Pictures Entertainment as revenge for “The Interview”, a satirical film that mocked leader Kim.
The attack resulted in the posting of several unreleased movies as well as a vast trove of confidential documents online.
The North is also accused of a huge, $81 million cyber-heist from the Bangladesh Central Bank, as well as the theft of $60 million from Taiwan’s Far Eastern International Bank.
Pyongyang’s hackers were blamed for the 2017 WannaCry global ransomware cyberattack, which infected some 300,000 computers in 150 nations, encrypting user files and demanding hundreds of dollars from their owners for the keys to get them back.
Pyongyang has denied the accusations, saying it has “nothing to do with cyber-attacks”.
Nuclear talks between it and Washington have been stalled since a summit between Kim and then-president Donald Trump in February 2019 broke down over sanctions relief and what Pyongyang would be willing to give up in return.
North Korea showed off several new missiles at military parades in October and last month when Kim pledged to strengthen his nuclear arsenal.
Experts suggest it is unlikely, given that the virus first emerged in neighbouring China, its main provider of trade and aid.
The sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has slammed the South’s foreign minister as “impudent” for casting doubt over Pyongyang’s claim that the country has no coronavirus cases, state media reported Wednesday.
Nuclear-armed Pyongyang closed its borders in January, sealing itself off from the outside world in an effort to avoid contamination, and has long insisted that it has had no cases.
Kim himself reiterated the claim at a huge military parade in October.
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told a forum in Bahrain on Saturday that it was “hard to believe” that the North had no coronavirus cases, adding that Pyongyang had been unresponsive to Seoul’s offers to help tackle the disease.
The pandemic “in fact has made North Korea more North Korea — ie more closed, very top-down decision-making process where there is very little debate on their measures dealing with Covid-19”, Kang said.
“All signs are that the regime is very intensely focused on controlling the disease that they say they don’t have.”
Kim Yo Jong, sister and key adviser to the North Korean leader, condemned Kang in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency on Wednesday, calling her comments “impudent” and accusing her of seeking to worsen the already strained inter-Korean relationship.
“It can be seen from the reckless remarks made by her without any consideration of the consequences that she is too eager to further chill the frozen relations between the north and south of Korea,” Kim said.
“We will never forget her words and she might have to pay dearly for it.”
The statement came with discussions between Pyongyang and both Washington and Seoul at a standstill following the collapse of the 2019 Hanoi summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump over what the North would be willing to give up in exchange for sanctions relief.
In June, Pyongyang blew up a liaison office with the South on its side of the border — paid for by Seoul — saying it had no interest in talks.
The North also has yet to comment on the election of Joe Biden as US president, nor has its state media reported the result. Biden has previously characterised Kim Jong Un as a “thug”.
Kim Yo Jong’s statement came with US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, who has led denuclearisation talks with Pyongyang under the Trump administration, currently on a visit to Seoul.
Haishen, the country’s tenth typhoon this year, brought heavy rain, strong winds to areas north of Busan.
Typhoon Haishen made landfall just north of the South Korean city of Busan on Monday morning, cutting power to homes and factories, toppling trees, and forcing trains to be cancelled and flights grounded.
The storm, with heavy rain and powerful winds of as much as 126 km/h (78 mph), made landfall in Ulsan in the southeastern part of the Korean Peninsula at approximately 9am (02:00 GMT) on Monday morning, according to Yonhap news agency.
It knocked out power in some 30,000 homes as well as in factories belonging to Hyundai Motor and Hyundai Mobis, the country’s biggest car parts manufacturer. Across the country, 298 flights were cancelled and wind shear warnings issued.
Typhoon Haishen Japan A landslide site caused by Typhoon Haishen as it passed through southwestern Japan. Local media reported four people missing in Shiiba Town in Miyazaki prefecture [Kyodo/via Reuters] Haishen arrived in South Korea after battering Japan’s southern islands and cutting power to thousands of homes, but not causing major damage or injury.
Some 440,000 homes in the southwestern Kyushu region remained without power on Monday morning after the storm passed through, public broadcaster NHK reported.
It added that 32 people had been injured, including a woman who fell down a flight of stairs in the dark and four people who sustained cuts after the glass windows of an evacuation centre were blown in.
Almost 2 million people had been ordered to evacuate the region, which was still recovering from heavy rains and flooding in July that killed 83 people.
Typhoon Haishen follows just days after Typhoon Maysak smashed into the Korean Peninsula, leaving at least two dead and thousands without power.
The storm is forecast to weaken as it moves up the Peninsula during the day, reaching North Korea around midnight.
North Korea has borne the brunt of both Maysak and Typhoon Bavi, a storm the week before.
Live footage on state television showed trees shaking and waves rising in Tongchon county in Gangwon province bordering the South. The state broadcaster reported that all Tongchon residents had been evacuated.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited coastal areas after Maysak and ordered party members to join the relief effort.
South Korea on Tuesday ordered nightclubs, museums and buffet restaurants closed and banned large gatherings in and around the capital as a burst of new coronavirus cases sparked fears of a major second wave.
The country’s “trace, test and treat” approach to curbing the virus has been held up as a global model, but it is now battling several clusters mostly linked to Protestant churches.
Authorities reported 246 new infections on Tuesday, taking South Korea’s total to 15,761, the fifth consecutive day of triple-digit increases after several weeks with numbers generally in the 30s and 40s.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said 12 high-risk business categories, including nightclubs, karaoke bars and buffet restaurants will cease operations from Wednesday in Seoul, Incheon and the neighbouring Gyeonggi province.
All public institutions in the areas, such as museums, will also close, he added, while indoor gatherings of more than 50 people, and outdoor ones of more than 100, will also be prohibited.
Between them, the three areas account for half of South Korea’s population.
If the measures fail to contain the virus, it will bring a “great impact on our economy and people’s livelihood”, Chung said.
All church gatherings had already been banned in Seoul and Gyeonggi since Saturday, while sports events went behind closed doors again and residents were urged to avoid unnecessary travel.
The largest current cluster is centred on the Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul, headed by a controversial conservative pastor who has tested positive himself.
A total of 457 cases are linked to that church as of Tuesday, but health authorities said the current situation was a “much bigger crisis” than South Korea’s initial outbreak, when more than 5,000 people connected to a religious sect were infected.
That cluster was centred on the southern city of Daegu, but reports say that Sarang Jeil’s members live all over the country.
This time, “there is a risk of the virus spreading nationwide”, said Kwon Jun-wook, deputy director-general of the Central Disease Control Headquarters.
“If the spread cannot be contained this week, daily life in the entire country may have to stop.”
On the bridge of one of the world’s biggest container ships, a worker in a grey protective suit installs the compass that will guide the leviathan across the world.
The finishing touches are being put to the HMM St Petersburg at the Samsung Heavy Industries shipyard on the island of Geoje, at the southern tip of South Korea.
Deep in the bowels of the enormous vessel, welders are dwarfed by the giant engines that will propel it at a maximum speed of over 22 knots.
At 400 metres (1,300 feet), the HMM St Petersburg is 100 metres longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall, and 62 metres wide.
It has a capacity of 23,820 TEU (twenty-foot equivalent units, the standard measure of a shipping container), which owner Hyundai Merchant Marine (HMM) describes as enough to carry seven billion choco-pies, a popular Korean snack — one for every human being on the planet.
It is the 12th and last of a new class of 24,000-TEU vessels HMM is putting into service, the largest of their kind in the world and costing 170-180 billion won ($143-151 million) each.
The first of the class to begin operations, the 23,964-TEU HMM Algeciras, made its maiden voyage in April when it set a new world record for shipment volume.
The South’s shipbuilding industry is one of the world’s biggest and was one of the drivers of its decades of economic growth, but in recent years has been hammered by global oversupply and cheaper competition from China.
Similarly, the Korean shipping industry was plunged into turmoil by the collapse of Hanjin Shipping, once one of the world’s top 10 container lines, which was declared bankrupt in 2017.
HMM St Petersburg will be delivered in September and make its maiden voyage to Shanghai and other Chinese ports, before heading through the Suez Canal to Rotterdam, Hamburg, Antwerp, and London.
The journey from South Korea to Europe and back is a 12-week round trip, but despite its size and the distance covered, the vessel will have a crew of just 23.
Jangmi, the season’s fifth tropical cyclone, is expected to hit the southern region bringing more rain on Monday.
At least 30 people have died, and 12 remain missing after 46 days of heavy rains in South Korea, with the country’s longest monsoon in seven years causing more flooding, landslides and evacuations on Sunday.
Close to 6,000 people had also been evacuated as of Sunday, according to the country’s Yonhap news agency, as rains battered the southern part of the Korean Peninsula.
Yonhap also quoted the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters as saying that at least eight people have been injured in the disaster.
The death toll did not include the casualties from three capsized vessels at Uiam Dam in Chuncheon, 85 kilometres (53 miles) east of Seoul, which left three dead and three missing on Sunday. It was categorized as a marine accident.
More than 5,900 people from 11 provinces and cities left their homes, and some 4,600 of them remain at temporary shelters following warnings of disasters, according to Yonhap.
An estimated 9,300 hectares (22,980 acres) of farmland were swamped or buried, while 9,500 cases of damage to public and private facilities were reported.
According to Reuters news agency, about 100 metres (109.36 yards) of levee also collapsed at the Seomjin River in the southern edge of the peninsula on Saturday and flooded the area, with about 1,900 people evacuated in the province including about 500 from around the river.
The country’s forestry agency has raised landslide warnings to its highest level in every region except the holiday island of Jeju.
Five homes were buried in a landslide on Friday from a mountain behind a village in Gokseong, South Jeolla province, killing five people. Three people have been rescued.
Twelve local flights were cancelled at the regional Gwangju airport near the southwestern tip of the peninsula after the runway was flooded, according to Yonhap news agency.
The city of Seoul warned people to stay away from basements, valleys and rivers as further torrential rains were expected on Saturday night.
South Korea’s longest monsoon on record was 49 days in 2013. Current weather forecasts predict that this year’s monsoon may last longer.
Jangmi, the season’s fifth tropical cyclone, is expected to hit the southern region of the Korean Peninsula from Monday, bringing about more rain in the flood-hit areas.
Formed early Sunday southwest of Okinawa, the cyclone is moving northeast and expected to pass waters off Jeju Island mid-morning on Monday, according to the Korean Meteorological Administration.
In neighbouring North Korea, state media Korean Central Broadcasting also warned of additional heavy rains in areas already hit by floods, according to Yonhap.
Following leader Kim Jong Un’s flood relief inspection reported on Friday, KCNA said on Saturday that Pak Pong Ju, vice chairman of the state’s highest decision-making commission, inspected damage to submerged fields and crops in southwest regions of the country.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un takes step back after weeks of escalation amid stalled denuclearisation talks.
North Korea has announced it will suspend “military action plans” against South Korea, after a meeting of the governing party’s Central Military Commission presided over by leader Kim Jong Un, the official KCNA news agency said on Wednesday.
The video conference meeting on Tuesday also discussed documents outlining measures for “further bolstering the war deterrent of the country”, KCNA reported.
The committee members “took stock of the prevailing situation” before deciding to suspend the plans, the report said, without elaborating.
Political tensions between the two Koreas have been rising over Pyongyang’s objections to plans by defector-led groups in South Korea to fly propaganda leaflets across the border. North Korea is also suffering under economic sanctions that it wants eased as part of denuclearisation talks that have been stalled for months.
North Korea claims the defectors’ campaigns violate an agreement between the two aimed at preventing military confrontation, and has accused them of insulting the dignity of North Korea’s supreme leadership.
In recent weeks, North Korea has blown up a joint liaison office on its side of the border, declared an end to dialogue with South Korea, and threatened military action.
Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, warned last week of retaliatory measures against South Korea that could involve the military, although she did not elaborate.
The General Staff of the Korean People’s Army later said it had been studying an “action plan” that included sending troops into joint tourism and economic zones, reoccupying border guard posts that had been abandoned under an inter-Korean pact, taking steps to “turn the front line into a fortress”, and supporting plans for North Korea to send its own propaganda leaflets into South Korea.
North Korea suspends plans for military action against the South
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un suspended military action plans against the South, state-run media reported Wednesday, a week after the army threatened to redeploy forces to demilitarized border…
North Korea’s military was seen putting up loudspeakers near the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a military source told Reuters on Tuesday. Yonhap news agency reported on Wednesday that the loudspeakers were being removed.
Yoh Sang-key, spokesman of South Korea’s Unification Ministry, said Seoul was “closely reviewing” North Korea’s report but did not elaborate further. He also said it was the first report in state media of Kim holding a video conferencing meeting.
Reporting from Seoul in South Korea, Media personnel said the North’s actions follow a now-familiar pattern of “increase in tensions with a lot of vitriol, rhetoric and threats only for it all to be dialled down”.
“It seems North Korea has achieved its interim objective, in terms of getting international attention and reminding the United States where the Korean Peninsula is. It has certainly unnerved South Korea – that may lead to more humanitarian aid, which South Korea can give despite international sanctions,” he said.
“This has been important also for the individuals involved. We’ve had Kim Yo Jong coming to the fore and increasing her stature on the Korean Peninsula and the world stage. It has allowed Kim Jong Un, in his first statement in all of this, to appear as the voice of reason and dial things down – really doing a kind of good-cop bad-cop routine, with Kim Jong Un emerging as a good cop on the day before an important anniversary.”
Thursday marks 70 years since the start of the Korean War. The fighting ended in 1953 with an armistice. A formal peace treaty has never been signed.
South Korea said on Saturday that it would use electronic wristbands on people who violated self-isolation rules to better contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said the country would make self-isolation violators wear electronic wristbands since the number of cases of people breaching the self-quarantine in recent weeks has raised concerns.
“After deep consideration, the government has decided to put electronic wristbands on people who violate self-isolation rules, such as going outside without notice and not answering phone calls,” Chung said during a meeting of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters in Seoul.
“We have listened to quarantine experts and gathered opinions from various communities,” he added..
Health authorities said they planned to start using the wristbands within two weeks but would ask the violators’ permission before actually strapping such a device to their wrist since there was no legal ground to force people to wear it.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said it expects active cooperation from self-quarantined people.
If people under self-isolation break quarantine rules, such as going outside without notice and not responding to health check calls, they will face legal actions and will be asked to wear the wristbands for the rest of their quarantine period, according to the KCDC.
Health authorities said they had already finished testing of the wristbands and can produce 4,000 of them a day.
The device, which the KCDC likes to call a “safe band,” will interconnect with the government’s mobile application for self-isolators.
If a person damages the device, it will automatically send a notification to health authorities.
In a recent survey of 1,000 adults nationwide, commissioned by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, 80.2 per cent of people supported the idea of using electronic wristbands to keep track of those under self-quarantine.
However, some have pointed out that such a measure could be subject to potential human rights violations.
As of Thursday, more than 54,000 people were under self-quarantine.
So far, more than 160 people have been caught violating self-isolation rules.
North Korea fired what appeared to be two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast on Saturday, the latest in a series of such launches by Pyongyang as the world struggles with the coronavirus pandemic.
The South Korean military condemned the launches as “extremely inappropriate given the difficult situation the world is experiencing due to COVID-19… We urge them to stop immediately.”
North Korea has not reported any cases of the coronavirus, which has turned into a major crisis with more than 11,000 deaths and over 250,000 infections worldwide.
There has been widespread speculation, however, that the virus has reached the isolated nation, and health experts have warned that it could devastate the country given its weak medical infrastructure and widespread malnutrition.
Japan’s defence ministry also confirmed the North Korean launches.
For decades, North Korea’s leadership has faced international criticism for prioritising spending on its military and nuclear weapons programme instead of providing for the population — even during times of famine.
Pyongyang considers its military development necessary for security in the face of what it describes as American aggression. North Korea is under multiple sets of punishing sanctions over its nuclear and missile programmes.
Hopes for a thaw after meetings between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump were dented as they failed to produce any substantial progress on denuclearising the Korean peninsula, and Pyongyang has since continued to refine its military capabilities, analysts say.
With the latest launch Pyongyang “continues an international strategy of trying to normalise its missile tests”, Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said. NobleReporters learnt
Shortly before the launch, North Korea’s official news agency KCNA reported that the rubber-stamp parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly, would convene on April 10.
The event would involve gathering nearly 700 officials in one place, analysts said. Such events have been banned in many parts of the world to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
“North Korea would not risk holding such a large-scale national political event if the regime was not confident about preventing or containing the spread of the virus,” NobleReporters gathered
Earlier this month, Kim Jong Un sent a letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in offering “comfort” as Seoul battled what was the worst outbreak of the virus outside China at the time.
South Korea has since largely brought the contagion under control.
KCNA said Saturday Kim oversaw an “artillery fire competition” among combined units of the army on Friday, releasing photos of him along with military officers — none of them wearing face masks.
But despite North Korea’s decision to go ahead with its parliament session, Pyongyang’s “draconian restrictions on movement, mask-wearing propaganda, public punishment of ‘corrupt’ elites violating quarantine efforts, and rush to build medical facilities suggest COVID-19 has penetrated the country,” Ewha University’s Easley said.
“Pyongyang is likely struggling with a coronavirus crisis on a national scale.”
With fears swirling about an outbreak in North Korea, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights Tomas Ojea Quintana earlier this month called for Pyongyang to provide access to outside medical experts and humanitarian assistance.
The UN Security Council said last month that it would make humanitarian exemptions to sanctions on North Korea to help it fight the coronavirus.
A South Korean church went down with coronavirus after 46 members including the pastor and his wife were infected with the virus.
According to reports gathered by NobleReporters, they were infected after an official failed to wipe a saltwater spray bottle they sprayed inside their mouths as they thought it would help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Surveillance footage from the River of Grace Community Church in Gyeonggi Province, south of Seoul, shows a church official sticking the spray bottle deep into the mouth of one follower after another, during a prayer gathering attended by ‘100 followers’ on March 1 and March 8.
“It’s been confirmed that they put the nozzle of the spray bottle inside the mouth of a follower who was later confirmed as a patient, before they did likewise for other followers as well, without disinfecting the sprayer,” said Lee Hee-young, co-chief of the Gyeonggi Province COVID-19 Emergency Response team,
“This made it inevitable for the virus to spread,” he said. “They did so out of the false belief that saltwater kills the virus.”
The church has since been closed and all its believers who attended the prayer sessions are being tested.
The church’s pastor, identified as Kim, has apologized for the mass infection of his church members.
‘I feel deeply sorry about what has happened. I will take all the blame and responsibility,’ Kim told Yonhap News Agency, indicating his intention to retire after the ongoing crisis is over.
This comes a month after more than half of 4,000 coronavirus cases in South Korea was linked to Shincheonji cult, a secretive church
South Korea’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reported 74 new cases on Monday, bringing its total tally to 8,236.
Buses and subways in Seoul, the normally crowded South Korean capital, were unusually quiet on Monday, and social media was filled with posts with the hashtag “work from home.” South Koreans work some of the longest hours in the world, and companies tend to frown on allowing employees to telecommute.
This drastic departure from the conventions of corporate culture are a sign of how the country is scrambling to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, reports time.com.
The country’s public health authorities have for the past several days reported drastic increases in the number of cases here, with 231 new cases on Monday, bringing the total number to 833, with more than 11,600 people undergoing diagnostic testing. Seven South Koreans infected with the virus, called COVID-19, have died. The country of 51 million people now has the highest number of coronavirus cases outside mainland China.
At a briefing Monday afternoon, Jung Eun-kyeong, chief of South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called on South Koreans to limit any outdoor activities and refrain from inter-city travel.
She and other South Korean officials are remaining outwardly calm, but there is a growing sense of fear that, with each of the past several days bringing a sharp increase in the number of cases, the outbreak of COVID-19 may be reaching epidemic levels, with the government having missed the opportunity to contain it.
While most cases in South Korea are concentrated in the southeastern city of Daegu, 150 miles from the capital Seoul, Sunday also brought the troubling news that cases have also been reported in Gwangju, a city in the southwest, and the island of Jeju off the south coast, raising fears of a broader spread of the virus.
On the streets of South Korean cities, the scent of disinfectant hangs in the air, as crews circulated—spraying chemicals meant to kill pathogens. Nearly all stairwells, subway stations and coffee shops now make hand sanitizer available at entrances. The few people plying the subway are nearly all clad in masks and moving with a sense of jittery urgency.
At the center of the outbreak is Shincheonji Church of Jesus, an eccentric religious group based in Daegu. More than half of South Korea’s coronavirus cases are linked to Shincheonji members, and more 9,000 members are in quarantine, the government has said.
After remaining mostly silent since the outbreak, Shincheonji posted a video response to its website on Sunday. In the video, a man identified as Kim Shi-mon said the church is doing everything possible to limit the spread of the virus, including suspending operations at its churches. He asked that individuals and media outlets refrain from disseminating false or unconfirmed information on the church.
“We, along with other Koreans, are victims of this outbreak,” Kim said.
In the aftermath of the outbreak, Shincheonji came under intense scrutiny, as a woman that South Korean media are now calling a “super spreader” reportedly refused to be tested for COVID-19, despite having shown symptoms. The church has been a subject of lurid fascination in South Korea since at least 2007, when a major broadcaster ran a documentary on the group and its practices, including claims by Shincheonji’s leader, Lee Man-hee, to be immortal.
The combination of the group’s opacity and custom of gathering for crowded, enthusiastic worship services, could make containing the virus more difficult, experts have said.
“Shincheonji members hide who they are so that their friends and even their family members do not know they belong to the church. Now the government is unable to contact hundreds of Shincheonji members who attended the Daegu church,” said Ji-il Tark, a professor of theology at Busan Presbyterian University.
“It might be painful and difficult to disclose they are Shincheonji members because that means they lied to their loved ones so that there is a possibility they could stay in danger of infection, which is the most scary scenario,” Ji told TIME.
The teachings of Shincheonji may also make members less likely to exercise caution in seeking to prevent the spread of the virus. “The group is quite secretive and deceptive. They certainly believe their leader is immortal and they’re pretty much promised eternal life,” said Peter Daley, an English instructor at a university in Seoul and tracker of unconventional religious sects.
As the outbreak worsens, a growing chorus of critics have decried the South Korean government’s handling of the virus, accusing the administration of President Moon Jae-in of not recognizing the danger posed by the coronavirus.
“The coronavirus situation spun out of control as the president was mired in optimism, saying that the outbreak wouldn’t last long,” the right-wing Chosun Ilbo newspaper wrote in an editorial, adding, “If we can’t block the virus, the whole country will be in danger.”
Kim Seung-dong, an opposition politician in Daegu, held a public protest on Friday, brandishing a sign that read, with some hyperbole, “Everyone in Daegu is dying of the ‘Moon Jae-in Virus.’”
“This administration must be held accountable for failing to respond early to the coronavirus,” Kim wrote on his Facebook page.
Much of that criticism has honed in on the government’s decision to not ban all Chinese nationals from entering South Korea. A petition to do just that on the website of the presidential office currently has more than 760,000 signatures. It calls on the South Korean government to follow the example of North Korea and seal off its borders.
China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, and some critics have accused Moon of failing to protect public health due to fears that a comprehensive entry ban would displease the Chinese government. By contrast, Taiwan has banned nearly all travelers from mainland China, while Hong Kong has suspended most border crossings with the mainland.
On Sunday, Moon raised South Korea’s public alert to its highest level, and urged public officials to take the strongest measures to contain the outbreak.
A major reason for the rapid surge in confirmed coronavirus cases is the relative openness and transparency of South Korean society. “The number of cases in South Korea seems high at least in part because the country has high diagnostic capability, a free press and a democratically accountable system. Very few countries in the region have all those,” said Andray Abrahamian, a visiting scholar at George Mason University Korea.
On Saturday, the State Department raised its travel advisory for South Korea to Level 2, recommending U.S. nationals “exercise increased caution” in the country, by avoiding contact with sick people and frequently sanitizing their hands. In late January, the State Department raised its advisory for China to the highest level, “Do not travel.”
Those already in affected areas of South Korea have little choice but to adapt. Jung Tae-min, a resident of Daegu, had the start of his first year of university delayed due to concerns over the virus, and his orientation day was cancelled. “My friends and family are talking about the virus constantly, and not a lot of people on the streets in general,” Jung tells TIME.
“Everyone who is outside is wearing a mask, stores are limiting their sales of masks, or they’re out of stock, and some large department stores are closed but everything else is pretty much normal.”