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As the Mystery Around Kim Jong Un’s Health Intensifies, So Do Questions About His Successor

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  • Kim Jong Un has been mysteriously absent from several key events since a rumored heart surgery that left him in “grave danger” earlier this month.
  • Now, Japanese and Hong Kong media have reported that the North Korean leader is in a “vegetative state” or “dead,” respectively.
  • South Korea has denied such claims, saying Kim is “alive and well.”
  • Still, Kim’s potential death has raised questions about who could succeed him, with one possibility being his sister even though North Korea is a highly patriarchal society.

North and South Korea Say Kim is “Alive and Well”

Conflicting reports of Kim Jong Un’s health have continued to swirl in recent days, with media outlets in several countries reporting that the North Korean leader is dead and government officials in other countries denying those claims. 

The latest development came Monday morning when a North Korean state-run newspaper issued a message reportedly from Kim to builders working on a tourism project in the country.

The letter would appear to show Kim alive and well; however, he has not been seen in over two weeks. In fact, Kim has missed more than one major event, including a missile test and North Korea’s biggest holiday on April 15. Notably, he has never missed that holiday—The Day of the Sun—since he took over the country after his father, Kim Jong-il, died in 2011. 

The crux of the rumors is that Kim faced complications following heart surgery days before that national holiday, with the story taking off internationally after CNN reported that he was in “grave danger.”

On Monday, South Korea took that hardline stance on Kim’s wellbeing, with the top foreign policy adviser to President Moon Jae-in telling CNN that Kim is “alive and well.”

This is not the first time South Korea has denied reports that Kim is ill. On Sunday the country’s unification minister called the rumors symptoms of an “infodemic” and said, “Our government has enough information-gathering capabilities to say confidently that there is nothing unusual.” 

According to The New York Times, “it is highly unusual for a senior South Korean official to publicly dispute news reports about what is happening inside North Korea’s secretive leadership. Normally, South Korean officials maintain a neither-confirm-nor-deny policy, at least on the record, for fear of disturbing sensitive relations between the two Koreas.” 

While United States officials have treated the reports seriously and said they’re closely monitoring intelligence on Kim’s health, President Donald Trump on Thursday said he doesn’t believe Kim is ill.

“We have a good relationship with North Korea, as good as you can have,” Trump said. “I mean, we have a good relationship with North Korea. I have a good relationship with Kim Jong Un, and I hope he’s okay. And somebody would say, ‘Oh, that’s terrible. No, it’s not terrible. I hope he’s okay, and I think it was a fake report done by CNN.

Japanese Media Says Kim Jong Un in “Vegetative State”

On Friday, the Japanese magazine Shukan Gendai reported that Kim is now in a “vegetative state” after undergoing emergency heart surgery, 

According to the outlet, earlier this month, Kim clutched his chest then fell to the ground while visiting the countryside. Reportedly, he needed a stent and while the country called in for Chinese medical experts, a North Korean surgeon operated on him following a delay.

The Chinese doctor who spoke to Shukan Gendai told them that the North Korean doctor was nervous and “shaking” because he had never operated on an obese person. 

A different report from a vice director for Hong Kong Satellite Television—a Beijing-backed broadcast network—claiming that Kim was now dead. That statement, made in a post on the popular social media platform, has now been widely shared. 

Alongside these reports last week, China dispatched a team with medical experts to North Korea, though according to Reuters, it’s not known what this trip means for Kim’s health. 

Who Would Succeed Kim?

One of the big reasons the rumors of Kim’s death have persisted is because of fears over what might happen to the country’s nuclear-arms program, especially since that arsenal has grown substantially under Kim Jong Un.

Because of concerns like that, many have wondered who would take over for Kim if reports on his death were true, and how would they rule?

But the answer is that no one really knows for sure. 

Part of that is because the country doesn’t appear to have a formal succession plan in place. Another part is that even though Kim is believed to have three children, the details around them are extremely guarded. 

In fact, it’s actually believed that Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, could rule until his successor is old enough to take over. As Reuters reports, she’s been the most visible presence around Kim in the past two years.

She currently serves as the vice director of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee and as Kim’s unofficial chief of staff.

Still, there are a lot of doubts that she’ll take over since North Korea is a highly patriarchal society. On top of that, no woman has ever run the country. 

That’s why others have speculated that Kim could be replaced by his uncle or his older brother, who was originally passed over when their father died.

If Kim Yo Jong was to replace Kim Jong Un for whatever reason, experts say at least for the first few months, North Korea would likely look inward. This is because she would very likely focus on consolidating her power and showing off her strength. Kim Jong Un demonstrated a similar tactic in 2011 following his ascension. 

According to Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department official who specialized in the Koreas, who spoke to Time Magazine,  “When North Korea reemerges, their goal would still be the same: to slowly get America to accept them as a nuclear power and lift international sanctions. And that means the same tensions between and Pyongyang and Washington would most likely remain.

Still, it’s incredibly important to remember here that these reports are unverified. Kim Jong Un has gone “missing” for weeks at a time in the past. Some believe he may just be staying behind closed doors because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

See what others are saying: (Reuters) (Time) (New York Post)

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Egypt Seizes Ship That Blocked Suez Canal Until Owners Pay Nearly $1 Billion

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  • Egyptian authorities seized the Ever Given, a mega-ship that blocked the Suez Canal for nearly a week last month, after a judge ruled Wednesday that the owners must pay $900 million in damages.
  • The ship was seized just as it was deemed fit to return to sea after undergoing repairs in the Great Bitter Lake, which sits in the middle of the Suez Canal.
  • The vessel’s owners said little about the verdict, but insurance companies covering the ship pushed back against the $900 million price tag, saying it’s far too much for any damage the ship actually caused.

Ever Given Still in Egypt

An Egyptian court blocked the mega-ship known as the Ever Given from leaving the country Wednesday morning unless its owner pays nearly $1 billion in compensation for damages it caused after blocking the Suez Canal for nearly a week last month.

The Ever Given’s ordeal started when it slammed into the side of the canal and became lodged, which caused billions of dollars worth of goods to be held up on both sides of the canal while crews worked round the clock to free the vessel. An Egyptian judge found that the Ever Given becoming stuck caused not only physical damage to the canal that needed to be paid for but also “reputational” damage to Egypt and the Suez Canal Authority.

The ship’s Japanese owner, Shoei Kisen Kaisha, will need to pay $900 million to free the ship and the cargo it held, both of which were seized by authorities after the ship was transported to the Great Bitter Lake in the middle of the canal to undergo now-finished repairs. Shoei Kisen Kaisha doesn’t seem to want to fight the judgment in court just yet. It released a short statement after the ruling, saying that lawyers and insurance companies were working on the claims but refused to comment further.

Pushing Back Against The Claim

While Shoei Kisen Kaisha put in a claim with insurers, those insurance companies aren’t keen on just paying the bill. One of the ship’s insurers, UKP&I, challenged the basis of the $900 million claim, writing in a press release, “The [Suez Canal Authority] has not provided a detailed justification for this extraordinarily large claim, which includes a $300 million claim for a ‘salvage bonus’ and a $300 million claim for ‘loss of reputation.’”

“The grounding resulted in no pollution and no reported injuries. The vessel was re-floated after six days and the Suez Canal promptly resumed their commercial operations.”

It went on to add that the $900 million verdict doesn’t even include payments to the crews that worked to free the ship, meaning that the total price tag of the event could likely be far more for Shoei Kisen Kaisha and the multiple insurance companies it works with.

See what others are saying: (Financial Times) (CNN) (The Telegraph)

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Treated Radioactive Water From Japanese Nuclear Power Plant Will Be Released Into Ocean

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  • The Japanese government confirmed Tuesday that it will officially move forward with plans to dump millions of gallons of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.
  • The government spent a decade decontaminating the water, only leaving a naturally occurring isotope in it that scientists recognize as safe for people and the environment.
  • Despite the safety claims, protesters took to the streets in Tokyo to show disapproval of the decision. Local business owners, in particular, have expressed fears that more municipalities worldwide could ban Fukushima products, including fish, because of distrust in the water.
  • Meanwhile, officials have insisted that the dump is necessary as the water takes up a massive amount of space, which is needed to store highly radioactive fuel rods from the remaining cores at the now-defunct nuclear facility.

Editor’s Note: The Japanese government has asked Western outlets to adhere to Japanese naming conventions. To that end, Japanese names will be written as Family Name followed by Given Name.

Radioactive or Bad Publicity?

After years of discussions and debate, the Japanese government announced Tuesday that it will dump radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.

Government officials consider the move necessary, but it’s facing backlash from local businesses, particularly fisheries, over potential consequences it could have. Many are especially concerned that the decision will create bad press for the region as headlines about it emerge. For instance, a headline from the Guardian on the issue reads, “Japan announces it will dump contaminated water into sea.”

While the water is contaminated and radioactive, it’s not nearly what the headlines make it out to be. The government has spent the last decade decontaminating it, and now it only contains a trace amount of the isotope tritium. That isotope is common in nature and is already found in trace amounts in groundwater throughout the world. Its radiation is so weak that it can’t pierce human skin, meaning one could only possibly get sick by ingesting more than that has ever been recorded.

According to the government, the decontaminated water at Fukushima will be diluted to 1/7 of the WHO’s acceptable radiation levels for drinking water before being released into the ocean over two years.

Something Had To Eventually Be Done

Over the last decade, Japan has proposed this plan and other similar ones, such as evaporating the water, which the International Atomic Energy Agency said last year met global standards.

The water has been sitting in containers for years, so why is there a push to remove it now? Space and leakage seem to be the primary reasons.

The water containers are slowly being filled by groundwater, and the government expects to run out of space relatively soon. Space is sorely needed, as Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide has pointed out in the past that the government wants to use the space to store damaged radioactive fuel rods that still need to be extracted from the plant. Unlike the water, those rods are dangerously radioactive and need proper storage.

Regardless, Suga reportedly recognizes that removing the water is going to end up as a lose-lose situation.

“It is inevitable that there would be reputational damage regardless of how the water will be disposed of, whether into the sea or into the air,” he said at a press conference last week. As expected, the government’s decision did trigger backlash, prompting many demonstrators to take to the streets of Tokyo Tuesday in protest.

To this day, eleven countries and regions still ban many products from the Fukushima prefecture despite massive clean-up efforts that have seen people returning to the area to live.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (KBS World) (NBC News)

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Greta Thunberg To Skip U.N. Climate Change Conference, Citing Vaccine Inequality

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  • Young environmental activist Greta Thunberg will not attend the U.N.’s climate change conference set to take place in Glasgow, Scotland this November.
  • “Inequality and climate injustice is already the heart of the climate crisis. If people can’t be vaccinated and travel to be represented equally that’s undemocratic and would worsen the problem,” the 18-year-old tweeted Friday, adding, “Vaccine nationalism won’t solve the pandemic. Global problems need global solutions.”
  • Since rollouts began late last year, 40% of vaccines have been administered in wealthy and Western countries, according to The Washington Post.
  • Scientists have warned that the longer the virus continues to circulate widely, the more chances it will have to change and potentially develop vaccine resistance.

Thunberg Points To Vaccine Inequality

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has said she is skipping the UN’s climate change conference.

The COP26 summit is set to take place in Glasgow, Scotland in November, but 18-year-old Thunberg told BBC she won’t attend because she’s concerned about the impact COVID-19 will have on attendance.

In a Twitter thread Friday, she responded to a headline about her plans to miss the summit.

“Of course I would love to attend…But not unless everyone can take part on the same terms. Right now many countries are vaccinating healthy young people, often at the expense of risk groups and front line workers (mainly from global south, as usual…),” she wrote.

“Inequality and climate injustice is already the heart of the climate crisis. If people can’t be vaccinated and travel to be represented equally that’s undemocratic and would worsen the problem.”

“Vaccine nationalism won’t solve the pandemic. Global problems need global solutions,” the teen continued.

Thunberg went on to say that if the summit is delayed, it doesn’t mean urgent action should too.

“We don’t have to wait for conferences nor anyone or anything else to dramatically start reducing our emissions. Solidarity and action can start today,” she added before noting that digital alternatives for the conference would also be insufficient.

“High speed internet connection and access to computers is extremely unequal in the world. In that case we would lack representation from those whose voices need to be heard the most when it comes to the climate crisis,” she wrote.

Data on Global Vaccine Distribution Efforts

According to The Washington Post, nearly 20% of people in the United States are now vaccinated, but many other countries are unlikely to hit that same metric by the end of the year, even with international assistance through the Covax program.

Current projections predict it could be years before developing countries distribute enough doses to come close to herd immunity, which scientists say requires inoculating around 70-80% of a population.

Since rollouts began late last year, enough shots have been distributed to fully vaccinate about 5% of the world’s population, but The Post reported that the vast majority have been administered in wealthy and Western countries.

Around 40% of vaccines have been given in 27 wealthy nations that include only 11% of the world’s population, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker.

That’s pretty concerning because scientists also warn that the longer the virus continues to circulate widely, the more chances it will have to change and potentially develop vaccine resistance.

Thunberg’s comments are a blow for U.K. organizers, who have already postponed the conference once from last November because of the pandemic. Even now, there has been speculation that it could be delayed again this year.

Thunberg would not play a formal role at the conference but her decision not to attend is a significant symbolic moment.

At COP25, the young climate change activist gave a headline speech and she typically attends major climate events of this nature. On top of that, reports say this summit was slated to be one of the most consequential climate conferences since the 2015 Paris accord.

On the agenda for this year’s conference discussions were country-level plans for cutting carbon emissions, along with progress on the Paris agreement and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

See what others are saying: (Insider) (CNBC) (The Washington Post)

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