North Korea is poised to conduct a nuclear test, Seoul and Washington said Thursday, with the United States warning it could come as President Joe Biden visits South Korea this week. Touted as proof of the US "pivot" to Asia, Biden's first trip as president to the region looks set to be overshadowed by an increasingly belligerent North Korea bent on staging a new "provocation". Despite a spiralling Covid outbreak, Pyongyang's "preparations for a nuclear test have been completed and they are only looking for the right time", South Korean lawmaker Ha Tae-keung said after being briefed by Seoul's spy agency. US intelligence says there is a "genuine possibility" that Kim could stage this "provocation" after Biden arrives in Seoul late Friday, his administration said. This could mean "further missile tests, long-range missile tests or a nuclear test, or frankly both" around the time of Biden's trip, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said. Satellite imagery indicates North Korea is preparing to conduct what would be its seventh nuclear test -- which would cap a record-breaking blitz of launches this year, including intercontinental ballistic missiles. "North Korea will want to attract global attention by conducting a nuclear test during President Biden's visit," Cheong Seong-chang of the Center for North Korea Studies at the Sejong Institute told AFP. - Military adjustments - Biden, who will visit some of the nearly 30,000 US troops stationed in South Korea, is ready to make "adjustments" to the US military posture in the region, and Seoul's hawkish new President Yoon Suk-yeol is eager for stronger ties. Sullivan said the security situation regarding North Korea was being "closely" coordinated with South Korea and Japan and that he had also spoken about the issue with his Chinese counterpart on Wednesday. It is likely that Kim is debating what to do, thanks to this US pressure on Beijing -- Kim's sole major ally -- to help rein in Pyongyang's nuclear and ICBM tests, Cheong said. This week, local reports said North Korea sent cargo planes to China for Covid aid after Pyongyang reported nearly two million cases of "fever" among the country's unvaccinated population, despite a rigid blockade. Kim is well aware of the gridlock at the UN Security Council after Russia's invasion of Ukraine -- so it is "highly likely" a nuke or ICBM test will come during Biden's Asia tour, Cheong added. Moscow would likely block any attempt at the UN to impose further sanctions on Pyongyang over a weapons test. - Strategic neglect? - After Seoul, Biden heads to Japan on Sunday for talks with Tokyo's top leaders, before joining a Quad summit -- a grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. Sullivan said Biden is bound for Asia with "the wind at our back" after successful US leadership in the Western response to President Vladimir Putin's now almost three-month-long invasion of Ukraine. The high military, diplomatic and economic cost imposed on Russia is seen in Washington as a cautionary tale for China, given its stated ambitions to gain control over democratic-ruled Taiwan, even if that means going to war. But the fact he arrives in Asia under the shadow of a possible North Korean nuclear test is partly due to his "strategic neglect" of the region since he took office, said Park Won-gon, a professor at Ewha University. Talks between Washington and Pyongyang have been stalled for years, after an extraordinary show of diplomacy between then US president Donald Trump and Kim -- brokered by Yoon's predecessor Moon Jae-in -- ultimately ended in failure. Trump held three headline-grabbing meetings with Kim and claimed that the two were "in love", but analysts say little to no progress was made in dismantling the North's nuclear programmes. At a vast military parade in Pyongyang recently, Kim said he was strengthening his nuclear arsenal "at the fastest possible speed". "In terms of denuclearisation and US-North Korea ties, we have returned to a situation where it's difficult to find any progress," Park said. "There is no way to really stop North Korea now."
• No sign of rigorous testing or treatment campaign • Learn from China’s success in battling Covid: Kim • About 280,810 people being treated with symptoms • Kim offers to donate family’s medical supplies North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said yesterday the spread of Covid-19 had thrust his country into “great turmoil” and called for an all-out battle to overcome the outbreak, as 21 daily deaths were reported among people with fever. North Korea this week acknowledged for the first time a Covid outbreak, imposing a nationwide lockdown. But there was no sign of a rigorous testing or treatment campaign in the isolated country’s rudimentary healthcare system. “The spread of the malignant epidemic is a great turmoil to fall on our country since the founding,” Kim told an emergency meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party, according to state news agency KCNA. “But if we don’t lose focus in implementing epidemic policy and maintain strong organisation power and control based on single-minded unity of the party and the people and strengthen our epidemic battle, we can more than overcome the crisis.” The numbers probably represent a fraction of total cases, given North Korea’s limited testing capabilities, and could lead to thousands of deaths in one of only two countries without a vaccination campaign, experts have said. The outbreak could also deepen a dire food crisis, with the lockdown hampering anti-drought efforts and mobilisation of labour. The Workers’ Party meeting heard reports of about 280,810 people being treated and 27 deaths since a fever of unidentified origins was reported starting in late April, KCNA said. State media did not say whether the new deaths were due to Covid. One death had been confirmed from the Omicron variant, KCNA said on Friday. Since late April, 524,440 people have shown signs of fever including 174,440 new cases on Friday, KCNA said. About 243,630 have been treated but KCNA has not said how many people have been tested or confirmed the total number of Covid cases. North Korea has been testing about 1,400 people a week, according to Harvard Medical School’s Kee Park, who has worked on healthcare projects in the country, not nearly enough to survey the hundreds of thousands of people with symptoms. Kim told the meeting the crisis had been caused by the incompetence and irresponsibility of party organisations but transmission was not uncontrollable and the country must have faith in its battle to overcome the crisis in the shortest possible period. The meeting also heard a report from epidemic control officials that “in most cases, human casualties were caused by negligence including drug overdose due to lack of knowledge of treatment methods”. Kim offered to donate his family’s medical supplies for families experiencing hardship “with his resolution to always share the destiny with the people”, KCNA said. “It is good to actively learn from the advanced and rich anti-epidemic successes and experience already gained by the Chinese party and people in the struggle against malicious epidemic,” Kim was quoted as saying. China and Russia are among countries offering help with vaccines, but Pyongyang has not publicly sought assistance. Kim’s comment will prompt health officials to study China’s zero-Covid policy more closely and possibly reach out to Chinese health authorities, said Cheong Seong-chang, who heads Sejong Institute’s North Korea studies near Seoul.” By natural extension, we can expect the North to ask China for Covid-19 treatment and testing equipment,” he wrote in an analysis. While much of the world is seeking to live with Covid, China continues to enforce zero-Covid policy putting hundreds of millions in dozens of cities under tight movement restrictions. North Korea said that party officials, workers and youth continued to be mobilised for work to prevent drought damage and for rice-planting in different parts of the country, KCNA said. North Korea has not reported on the possible source of the outbreak. A Seoul-based website that reports from sources in North Korea said on Friday some students of a university in Pyongyang had tested positive after participating in an event on May 1. Kim attended the event. The students had relatives who worked in trade with China and may have spread the virus when they subsequently visited their hometowns outside Pyongyang, the Daily NK website said, citing a source in Pyongyang. Reuters could not independently verify the report. North Korea’s border with China was reopened for trade early this year, but in April China suspended freight service between Dandong on its side and North Korea’s Sinuiju due to Covid in China.
North Korea announced 21 new "fever" deaths Saturday and said more than half a million people had been sickened nationwide, two days after confirming its first-ever cases of Covid-19. Despite activating its "maximum emergency quarantine system" to slow the spread of disease through its unvaccinated population, North Korea is reporting tens of thousands of new cases daily. On Friday alone, "over 174,440 persons had fever, at least 81 430 were fully recovered and 21 died in the country," the official Korean Central News Agency reported. North Korea confirmed Thursday that the highly-contagious Omicron variant had been detected in the capital Pyongyang, with leader Kim Jong Un ordering nationwide lockdowns. It was the North's first official confirmation of Covid cases and marked the failure of a two year long coronavirus blockade maintained at great economic cost since the start of the pandemic. "The number of fevered persons totalized from late April to May 13 is over 524,440," KCNA said, with 27 deaths total. The report did not specify whether the new cases and deaths had all tested positive for Covid-19, but experts say the country will struggle to test and diagnose on this scale. "It's not a stretch to consider these 'fever' cases to all be Covid-19, given the North's lack of testing capacity," said Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute. "The actual number of Covid cases could be higher than the fever figures due to many asymptomatic cases," he said, adding that the pace of infection was growing "very fast". - 'Great upheaval' - North Korea held its second Politburo meeting this week, overseen by leader Kim Jong Un, KCNA reported. "The spread of malignant disease comes to be a great upheaval in our country since the founding of the DPRK along with the worldwide spread of Covid-19," he said, referring to North Korea by its official name. The meeting of the country's top officials discussed "supplying reserve medicines" and other ways of "minimizing the losses in human lives", KCNA said. North Korea has a crumbling health system -- one of the worst in the world -- and lacks essential medicines and equipment, experts say. With no Covid vaccines, antiviral treatment drugs or mass testing capacity, North Korea will struggle to handle a massive outbreak, experts warn. - China Model - Kim said Saturday that North Korea would follow the Chinese model of disease management. "It is good to actively learn from the advanced and rich anti-epidemic successes and experience already gained by the Chinese party and people in the struggle against malicious epidemic," he said, KCNA reported. China, the world's only major economy to still maintain a zero-Covid policy, is currently battling multiple Omicron outbreaks -- with some major cities, including financial hub Shanghai, under stay-at-home orders. North Korea has previously turned down offers of Covid vaccines from China, as well as from the World Health Organization's Covax scheme. Beijing said Thursday it would be willing to help Pyongyang, and South Korea also announced Friday it could send vaccines to the North -- if Kim's regime would accept them. Kim's comments suggest the North "will adopt Chinese-style anti-virus response of regional lockdowns," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies. They also indicate Kim "will try getting supplies from China, which has also publicly stated its willingness to provide preventive assistance to the North." - Nuclear activity - Despite its Covid outbreak, new satellite imagery indicates that North Korea has resumed construction at a long-dormant nuclear reactor. "I can't tell you when the reactor will be ready to go, but it is about 10x larger than the existing reactor at Yongbyon," Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute for International Studies wrote in a Twitter thread Saturday. As such, it would produce ten times more plutonium for nuclear weapons, he said, adding: "This would make good on Kim's pledge to increase the number of nuclear weapons." The United States and South Korea have warned that Kim is preparing to conduct another nuclear test -- which would be the regime's seventh -- and that it could come any day now. Analysts have warned Kim could speed up his nuclear test plans in a bid to "distract" North Korea's population from a disastrous Covid-19 outbreak.
At least one person confirmed to have Covid-19 has died in North Korea and hundreds of thousands have shown fever symptoms, state media said on Friday, offering hints at the potentially dire scale of country's first confirmed outbreak of the pandemic. The data represents an unprecedented admission of an "explosive" outbreak in a country that had reported no previous confirmed cases since the pandemic began, and could mark a grave public health, economic and political crisis for the isolated regime. South Korea's new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office this week, plans to provide Covid-19 vaccines and other medical support to North Koreans, and his government would discuss details with Pyongyang, his spokeswoman said on Friday, without elaborating. Experts said that given North Korea's limited testing capabilities, the numbers released so far probably represent a small fraction of the infections, which could lead to thousands of deaths in one of only two countries in the world without a Covid-19 vaccination campaign. About 187,800 people are being treated in isolation after a fever of unidentified origin has "explosively spread nationwide" since late April, the official KCNA news agency reported. Roughly 350,000 people have shown signs of that fever, including 18,000 who newly reported such symptoms on Thursday, KCNA said. About 162,200 have been treated, but it did not specify how many had tested positive for Covid-19. At least six people with fever symptoms have died, with one of those cases confirmed to have contracted the Omicron variant of the virus, KCNA said. Harvard Medical School's Kee Park, who has worked on health care projects in North Korea, said the country has been testing about 1,400 people each week, which is not nearly enough to survey 350,000 people with symptoms. "What is more worrisome is the sheer number of symptomatic people," he added. "Using a conservative case fatality rate of 1% and assuming the surge is due to an Omicron variant of Covid-19, North Korea can expect 3,500 deaths from this outbreak." North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited the anti-virus command centre on Thursday to check the situation and responses after declaring a "gravest state of emergency" and ordering a national lockdown, KCNA said. State media has said the outbreak began in the capital, Pyongyang, in late April, without elaborating on potential causes. The city hosted several massive public events on April 15 and 25, including a military parade and large gatherings where most people did not wear masks. Kim, who attended some of those events, "criticised that the simultaneous spread of fever with the capital area as a centre shows that there is a vulnerable point in the epidemic prevention system we have already established," KCNA said. Kim said actively isolating and treating people with fevers is a top priority, while calling for scientific treatment methods and tactics, and measures to supply medication. In another dispatch, KCNA said health authorities were trying to organise testing and treatment systems and bolster disinfection work. The rapid spread of the virus highlights the potential for a major crisis in a country that lacks medical resources and has refused international help with vaccinations while keeping its borders shut. Analysts said the outbreak could worsen the country's already tough food situation this year, with the lockdown hampering its "all-out fight" against drought and the mobilisation of labour. North Korea said last year it had developed its own polymerase chain reaction (PCR) equipment for Covid tests. But it declined vaccine supplies from the COVAX global sharing programme and China, possibly leaving the vast majority of people in a relatively young society at higher risk of infection. North Korea has so far not publicised any new calls for help in countering the outbreak, but some observers were optimistic that the disclosure was a signal that the government would soon accept vaccines or other aid. Yoon's pledge for support came a day after Kwon Young-se, his nominee to be the unification minister, responsible for inter-Korean ties, said at his confirmation hearing that he would push for humanitarian assistance for the North, including Covid treatment, syringes and other medical supplies. A unification ministry spokesman said on Friday that about 95.4 billion won ($74.1 million) from an inter-Korean cooperation fund was earmarked to facilitate exchanges in the health and medical area. A U.S. State Department spokesperson said it had no plans to send vaccines to North Korea but supported international efforts to provide aid to vulnerable people there, urging Pyongyang to facilitate that work.
North Korea fired a ballistic missile from a submarine yesterday, South Korea said, an escalation just before the inauguration of a South Korean president who has vowed to take a hard line against the North and the visit of the US president. South Korean military said North Korea fired what is believed to be a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) into the sea off its east coast on Saturday from near Sinpo, where North Korea keeps submarines as well as equipment for test-firing SLBMs. Japan also said the projectile was a short-range ballistic missile. Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi said North Korea’s recent development in nuclear missile-related technology and repeated launches of ballistic missiles threatened the region and the international community. “This is absolutely unacceptable,” he told reporters, adding that Japan will continue to “strengthen defence capabilities drastically” to protect its citizens from such security threats, in close cooperation with the United States, South Korea and other allies. The launch comes three days before Tuesday’s inauguration of Yoon Suk-yeol as South Korea’s president, and ahead of his May 21 summit with US President Joe Biden in Seoul. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service chief Park Jie-won said North Korea may conduct a nuclear test between the inauguration and the Biden visit, Yonhap news agency reported. Kishi said it is possible for North Korea to complete nuclear test preparations as early as this month, and take further provocative acts. This was also in line with a US assessment that Pyongyang was preparing its Punggye-ri nuclear test site and could be ready to conduct a test there as early as this month. “This is aiming at the (South’s) new administration beginning next week, and applying preemptive pressure to take control of the situation before the US-South Korea summit,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “It also creates tension to strengthen the regime’s internal coherence in the face of circumstances such as prevention of Covid-19 spreading.” Intelligence chief Park told Yonhap that Tunnel No 3 at the Punggye-ri site is designed to test smaller nuclear devices, without elaborating. Analysts and South Korean and US officials have said the North appears to be restoring Tunnel No 3 at the east coast site, which was used for underground nuclear blasts before it was closed in 2018 amid denuclearisation talks with Washington and Seoul. Japan and South Korea estimated yesterday’s missile had flown as high as 50-60km and as far as 600km. The Yoon administration will muster its capabilities as soon as possible for fundamental measures against North Korean provocations and practical deterrence against nuclear missile threats, Yoon’s nominee for national security adviser, Kim Sung-han, said in a statement. On Wednesday, North Korea fired a ballistic missile toward the sea off its east coast, South Korea and Japan said, after Pyongyang vowed to develop its nuclear forces “at the fastest possible speed”. “Instead of accepting invitations to dialogue, the Kim regime appears to be preparing a tactical nuclear warhead test. The timing will depend most on when the underground tunnels and modified device technology are ready,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “A seventh nuclear test would be the first since September 2017 and raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula, increasing dangers of miscalculation and miscommunication between the Kim regime and the incoming Yoon administration.” Last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un pledged to speed up development of his country’s nuclear arsenal. He presided over a huge military parade that displayed intercontinental ballistic missiles as well as what appeared to be SLBMs being carried on trucks and launch vehicles. In October, North Korea test-fired a new, smaller ballistic missile from a submarine, a move that analysts said could be aimed at more quickly fielding an operational missile submarine. Yoon, in an interview with Voice of America released yesterday, said that a meeting with Kim Jong-un is not off the table but would need to have concrete results. “There’s no reason to avoid meeting” Kim, Yoon said. “However, if we are not be able to show any results, or results are just for show and does not have actual outcomes in denuclearisation... it’s not going to help the relationship between the two Koreas progress.”
North Korea will rapidly accelerate the development of its nuclear arsenal, leader Kim Jong-un said while overseeing a vast military parade showcasing his most powerful intercontinental ballistic missiles, state media reported yesterday. Despite biting sanctions, North Korea has doubled down on Kim’s military modernisation drive, test-firing a slew of banned weapons this year while ignoring US offers of talks — as analysts warn of a likely resumption of nuclear tests. Dressed in a white military uniform trimmed with gold brocade, Kim watched as tanks, rocket launchers and his largest ICBMs were paraded through Pyongyang late Monday for the founding anniversary of North Korea’s armed forces, state media reported. Kim said he would “take measures for further developing the nuclear forces of our state at the fastest possible speed”, according to KCTV footage of his speech. “The nuclear forces, the symbol of our national strength and the core of our military power, should be strengthened in terms of both quality and scale,” he said. Repeated negotiations aimed at convincing Kim to give up his nuclear weapons programmes have come to nothing, and he warned that he could use his atomic arsenal if North Korea’s “fundamental interests” were threatened. “The fundamental mission of our nuclear forces is to deter a war, but our nukes can never be confined to the single mission of war deterrent,” he said. North Korea had paused long-range and nuclear tests while Kim met then-US president Donald Trump for a bout of doomed diplomacy, which collapsed in 2019. Last month Pyongyang test-fired an ICBM at full range for the first time since 2017, and satellite imagery shows signs of activity at a nuclear testing site, which was purportedly demolished in 2018 ahead of the first Trump-Kim summit. Kim’s messaging on the purpose of his nuclear weapons could be a response to South Korea’s new hawkish, conservative President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol, who takes office May 10, analysts said. “Yoon has threatened a pre-emptive strike on Pyongyang if needed, and Kim seems to be indirectly saying that he may have to respond with nuclear tactics,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies. Kim’s white uniform with a marshal’s star — North Korea’s highest military rank — was also a signal for Seoul, said Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute. “It symbolises his ultra-strong stance to the incoming Yoon Suk-yeol administration,” he said. Kim’s parade speech “suggests that the threshold for North Korea’s use of nuclear weapons can be lowered even further”, he added. Columns of goose-stepping soldiers waving flags and carrying weapons marched through a floodlit square, KCTV footage showed, with North Korea’s famous news anchor Ri Chun Hi announcing each unit. Flanked by his generals, Kim smiled, waved and saluted the troops, North Korean jets in formation flew low, and then huge missiles — from short-range ballistic to hypersonic — on transporters were driven through the square. “This is state-of-the-art equipment with strong striking power that can pre-emptively and thoroughly annihilate any enemy outside of our territory,” news anchor Ri said in a voiceover. KCTV footage showed the parade showcasing the Hwasong-17, the country’s most advanced ICBM that Pyongyang claims to have successfully tested on March 24.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to strengthen the country's nuclear weapons programme during a speech at a high-profile military parade in Pyongyang, state media reported Tuesday. "We will continue to take steps to strengthen and develop our nation's nuclear capabilities at the fastest pace," Kim said, according to a transcript published by the official Korean Central News Agency. According to KCNA, Kim gave the speech late Monday at a parade marking the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People's Revolutionary Army at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang. North Korea is under biting international sanctions over its nuclear weapons programme, and repeated negotiations aimed at convincing Kim to end it have come to nothing. Kim on Monday said the country's nuclear weapons were "a symbol of national power" and should be diversified. "In preparation for the turbulent political and military situation and all kinds of crises in the future... we will further increase our nuclear force at the highest possible speed," he said. Kim added that while the primary role of the country's nuclear weapons was as a deterrent, they could be deployed if North Korea's "fundamental interests" were attacked. The military parade had been widely expected to showcase the North's most sophisticated weaponry including the "monster" Hwasong-17 ICBM as well as hypersonic and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. KCNA said the parade had indeed featured the Hwasong-17, which North Korea claims to have successfully tested on March 24. "The spectators raised loud cheers, greatly excited to see the giant ICBM Hwasongpho-17 which soared into the sky on March 24 to demonstrate the absolute power of Juche Korea and the strategic position of our Republic to the world," KCNA reported. State media has yet to publish images of the parade.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un thanked the South’s outgoing president Moon Jae-in for his efforts to improve inter-Korean relations, Pyongyang and Seoul said yesterday, in an unexpected move following signs the isolated state could resume nuclear testing. The North has carried out more than a dozen weapons tests so far this year, the latest one just last week - a short-range launch that state media claimed would enhance the “efficiency in the operation of tactical nukes”. The dovish Moon held three summits with Kim and helped facilitate talks between former US president Donald Trump and the North Korean leader. But Kim and Trump’s nuclear negotiations ended in failure in 2019 due to disagreements on sanctions relief and what North Korea would be willing to give up in return. Since then, Pyongyang has labelled Moon a “meddlesome mediator”, blown up a $15mn joint liaison office north of the border that was financed by Seoul, and last month test-fired an ICBM at full range for the first time since 2017. But yesterday Pyongyang’s official KCNA news agency said Kim and Moon agreed that inter-Korean ties would improve if both sides “make tireless efforts with hope”, despite “the difficult situation so far”. In his letter, Kim also said his “historic” summits with Moon gave the people “hope for the future”, the KCNA report added. The North Korean leader “appreciated the pains and effort taken by Moon Jae-in for the great cause of the nation until the last days of his term of office”, the report said, adding the duo’s letter exchange was an “expression of their deep trust”. Seoul’s presidential Blue House confirmed the two had exchanged friendly letters, adding Moon told Kim that despite the “disappointing moments”, together they have made a “clear step” in “changing the fate of the Korean peninsula”. Moon also told Kim in his letter that their inter-Korean summits should become the “foundation for unification”, and that he hoped for the swift resumption of the stalled dialogue between North Korea and the United States. The letter exchange comes as experts warn of recent signs of new activity at a key nuclear testing site, while Moon’s hawkish successor, president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol, has vowed to take a harder line against Kim’s provocations. Pyongyang’s “military threats towards Seoul and frequent rejection of engagement efforts reflect poorly on trust and prospects for co-operation between the two Koreas,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, told AFP. But “Pyongyang at least needed to acknowledge the end of Moon’s presidency,” he added, and that the North seems to be “using the occasion to express expectations that Yoon will inherit inter-Korean agreements.” Some analysts said it was “questionable” whether the letter exchange had any substance, given the North’s unprecedented blitz of sanctions-busting military provocations this year. “It would have been meaningful if Moon sent Kim an assertive message that nuclear tests will not be acceptable,” Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the private Sejong Institute, told AFP. “Kim also sent a warm personal letter to President Moon back in September 2020, but it did not lead to improvement in inter-Korean relations.” South Korean officials have said Pyongyang could stage a military parade or carry out a weapons test on or around April 25, the anniversary of the founding of the North Korean army. The conservative president-elect Yoon’s term begins on May 10.
Kim Jong-un supervised the test-firing of a new guided weapons system to improve North Korea’s “tactical nukes”, state media said yesterday, capping days of celebrations surrounding the birthday of the country’s founding leader. The launch was the latest in an unprecedented blitz of sanctions-busting weapons-tests this year, which included firing an intercontinental ballistic missile at full range for the first time since 2017. It also came just ahead of US-South Korea military training exercises — which have always infuriated Pyongyang — that were due to begin today. The “new-type tactical guided weapon...is of great significance in drastically improving the firepower of the frontline long-range artillery units and enhancing the efficiency in the operation of tactical nukes,” the North’s official KCNA news agency reported. It said the test was successful, but did not specify when or where it took place. South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said it detected two projectiles fired late on Saturday, which flew 110km at an altitude of 25km, travelling at speeds of around Mach 4. The US was “aware of the North Korean statement that they conducted a test of a long range artillery system”, a Pentagon spokesperson said, adding it was monitoring. Analysts had widely expected Pyongyang could conduct a nuclear test as part of events to celebrate Friday’s anniversary of the 110th birthday of North Korea’s founding leader — and Kim’s grandfather — Kim Il Sung. Expectations were heightened because of indications that Pyongyang had restarted work at one of its known nuclear testing sites. Analysts said the weapon tested over the weekend appeared to be a new short-range ballistic missile — but no less significant. “This is North Korea’s first tactical nuclear weapon delivery system, it would seem,” said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “You don’t have to be particularly imaginative to put this two and two together.” Photos carried by the Rodong Sinmun newspaper showed a grinning Kim — surrounded by uniformed officials — applauding as he watched what it said was the test-firing of the weapon. Kim gave a military research team “important instructions on further building up the defence capabilities and nuclear combat forces,” according to the KCNA report. Kim had also overseen in Pyongyang a series of events to celebrate Friday’s anniversary, including a huge civilian parade, mass dance parties, and fireworks — but no military parade to show off the regime’s new weapons.
Kim Jong-un oversaw a huge public procession to celebrate the birthday of North Korea’s founding leader, state media images showed yesterday, but the anniversary passed without an anticipated show of military strength. Known as the Day of the Sun in the nuclear-armed country, the April 15 birthday of the late Kim Il-sung — grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un — is one of the most important dates in Pyongyang’s political calendar. Analysts and South Korean and US officials had widely predicted a military parade or even a nuclear test, but the celebrations Friday involved a civilian parade, synchronised dancing and fireworks. Photographs released by the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) showed thousands of colourfully dressed people marching through the capital’s Kim Il Sung Square as Kim Jong-un looked on from a balcony. “Columns of workers, peasant dancers and others marched past the square,” carrying banners and boards bearing socialist slogans, and a giant national flag, KCNA said. Three generations of the Kim family have ruled the country since 1948. Kim also visited the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where the bodies of Kim Il-sung and his son and successor Kim Jong-il lie in state. There was a steady drumbeat of celebratory coverage in state media leading up to the day, including the opening of new apartment complexes, light festivals and floral tributes. It was a calculated decision to highlight new apartments and citizens with smartphones taking pictures of flowers, said Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “The Kim regime needs more sources of national pride and legitimacy than military parades,” he said. “So the public commemorations around its founder’s birthday tried to portray an economy that is not only resilient but growing.” The anniversary celebrations came three weeks after North Korea staged its largest intercontinental ballistic missile test ever — the first time Kim’s most powerful weapon had been fired at full range since 2017. That test was the culmination of a record-breaking blitz of sanctions-busting launches this year and signalled an end to a self-imposed moratorium on long-range and nuclear tests. The absence of military activity on the holiday “does not represent a shift away from North Korea’s military build-up”, Easley added. Satellite imagery has shown signs of new activity at a tunnel at the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site, which North Korea said was demolished in 2018 ahead of a summit between Kim and then-US president Donald Trump. South Korean officials have said Pyongyang could still stage a military parade or carry out a weapons test on or around April 25, the anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army.
South Korea said yesterday that it will drop most coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic-related restrictions next week, including a midnight curfew on eateries, as the Omicron surge in cases shows signs of waning, although people will still have to wear masks. From April 18, the midnight curfew on restaurants and other businesses will be scrapped, along with the cap on private gatherings which was set at 10, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum told a coronavirus response meeting. The government will also allow rallies and other events with 300 or more people, while removing a 70% cap on capacity at religious facilities. “Wearing masks is still a very important means to protect ourselves,” Kim said. “It is inevitable to maintain the indoor mask mandate for a considerable period of time.” On wearing masks outdoors, Kim said the government will review whether to lift the existing restriction in two weeks, depending on the virus situation. Much evidence suggests the risk of transmission outdoors is extremely low, and many countries, including the United States, have said that masks aren’t needed outdoors for vaccinated people. As the country seeks a gradual return to normalcy, the government will completely remove the seven-day self-quarantine requirement for Covid-19 patients from late May, according to Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol. The number of coronavirus cases in the country appears to have passed its peak after hovering over 620,000 a day in mid-March, with the daily infections falling to below 130,000 on Friday. South Korea has largely managed to limit deaths and critical cases through widespread vaccinations, and scaled back its once-aggressive tracing and containment efforts. Nearly 87% of the country’s 52mn population are fully vaccinated, with 64% having also received booster shots, according to Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) data. On Wednesday, the government announced its plan to expand the rollout of second Covid-19 booster shot for people over 60. Around 20,000 people in South Korea have died from the coronavirus – a 0.13% fatality rate, which is one of the world’s lowest.
North Korea yesterday conducted what is thought to be its largest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test ever, the South Korean and Japanese militaries said, marking a dramatic end to a self-imposed moratorium on long-range testing. It would be the first full-capability launch of the nuclear-armed state’s largest missiles since 2017, and represents a major step in the North’s development of weapons that might be able to deliver nuclear warheads anywhere in the US. The North’s return to major weapons tests also poses a new national security headache for US President Joe Biden as he responds to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and presents a challenge to South Korea’s incoming conservative administration. “This launch is a brazen violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions and needlessly raises tensions and risks destabilising the security situation in the region,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement condemning the launch. “The door has not closed on diplomacy, but Pyongyang must immediately cease its destabilising actions.” North Korea had put its ICBM and nuclear tests on hold since 2017, but has defended the weapons as necessary for self-defence, and said US diplomatic overtures are insincere as long as Washington and its allies maintain “hostile policies” such as sanctions and military drills. South Korea’s outgoing President Moon Jae-in, who made engaging North Korea a major goal of his administration, condemned the launch as “a breach of the moratorium on ICBM launches that Chairman Kim Jong-un himself promised to the international community”. It was also a serious threat to the Korean peninsula, the region and the international community, and a clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions, added Moon, who is due to leave office in May. The latest missile launch was an “unacceptable act of violence”, Japanese Prime Minster Fumio Kishida said. Yesterday’s ICBM launch prompted South Korea to test-fire a volley of its own, smaller ballistic and air-to-ground missiles to demonstrate it has the “capability and readiness” to precisely strike missile launch sites, command and support facilities, and other targets in North Korea if necessary, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by phone with counterparts in Japan and South Korea after the launch. Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said they had agreed that North Korea’s move represented a clear and grave challenge to the international community.
Conservative South Korean opposition candidate Yoon Suk-yeol was elected president yesterday in one of the closest fought races in recent history which will shape Asia’s fourth-largest economy for the next five years. Yoon, 60, from the main opposition People Power Party, edged out the ruling Democratic Party’s Lee Jae-myung with 48.6% of the vote to 47.8%, with around 99.3% of the ballots counted as of 5am today. Yoon said he would honour the constitution and parliament and work with opposition parties to heal polarised politics and foster unity, calling the election a “victory of the great people”. “Our competition is over for now,” he told a news conference, thanking and consoling Lee and other rivals. “We have to join hands and unite into one for the people and the country.” Lee had conceded defeat and congratulated his opponent. “I did my best, but failed to live up to your expectations,” he told a news conference, blaming his “shortcomings”. “The president-elect, I desperately ask you to overcome divisions and conflicts and open an era of integration and unity.” Despite being a political novice, Yoon shot to fame after spearheading high-profile investigations into corruption scandals engulfing incumbent President Moon Jae-in’s aides. Yoon has pledged to stamp out graft, foster justice and create a more level playing field, while seeking a “reset” with China and a tougher stance towards reclusive North Korea. The unusually bitter election campaign was marred by scandals and smears, but more than 77% of South Korea’s 44mn eligible voters cast ballots to pick their next leader. The policy stakes are high for the country of 5mn with a rising global status, as it has been riven by gender and generational divisions, growing inequality and surging home prices. Yoon also has to tackle challenges including South Korea’s worst wave of Covid-19 infections and North Korea’s evolving nuclear and missile threats.
South Korea deployed thousands of firefighters and issued its highest fire hazard warning yesterday as a large wildfire torn through the country’s eastern coastal region. Some 6,000 people were forced to flee their homes as the fire, which started early Friday on a mountain in the seaside town of Uljin, spread to the nearby city of Samcheok and beyond. Officials issued a “severe” fire hazard warning over the blaze, which has destroyed nearly 15,000 acres (6,000 hectares) of woodland. There were no immediate reports of injuries or deaths. As of Saturday afternoon, authorities had deployed more than 3,000 firefighters, as well as 57 helicopters and 273 vehicles, according to the Korea Forest Service (KFS). The blaze had briefly threatened a nuclear power station and a liquefied natural gas plant Friday, but the facilities were now safe with emergency services deployed on site to keep them protected, officials said. Of the thousands who fled their homes, nearly 700 had been able to return as of yesterday. However, at least 116 homes have been destroyed, KFS said. The national railway operator has suspended one of its train routes in the eastern coastal region.
• Missile launch condemned by S Korea, Japan, United States • S Korea says closely monitoring North’s nuclear sites • N Korea appears preparing for major weapons tests: analysts • S Korea holds presidential election on Wednesday North Korea conducted its ninth weapons test of the year yesterday, firing a suspected ballistic missile toward the sea to the east of the Korean peninsula just days before South Korea’s presidential election. The launch drew condemnation from governments in the United States, South Korea, and Japan, which fear the North is preparing to conduct a major weapons test in coming months. With denuclearisation talks stalled, North Korea conducted a record number of missile launches in January, and after a pause for most of February, resumed tests with a launch on Feb. 27. It appears to be preparing to launch a spy satellite in the near future, and has suggested it could resume testing of nuclear weapons or its longest range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) for the first time since 2017. “The significant pace at which North Korea is developing its missile-launching technology is not something our country and the surrounding regions can overlook,” Japan’s Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi said after the latest launch. In South Korea, where citizens are already casting early votes ahead of Wednesday’s presidential election, the National Security Council (NSC) condemned North Korea’s “unprecedented repeated firing of ballistic missiles” as going against peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. South Korea will “even more closely monitor North Korea’s nuclear and missile-related facilities” including its main nuclear reactor facility at Yongbyon and the Punggye-ri nuclear weapons test side, the NSC said, according to a statement from the presidential Blue House. It was not immediately clear what prompted the increased monitoring of the nuclear sites. On Friday, the US-based 38 North project, which monitors North Korea, said operations at Yongbyon are in full swing, producing fuel for potential nuclear weapons and an expansion of its nuclear production facilities. Punggye-ri has been shuttered since North Korea declared a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear weapons tests in 2018. Leader Kim Jong-un, however, has said he no longer feels bound by that moratorium as denuclearisation talks are stalled. South Korea has reported a series of small, natural earthquakes near Punggye-ri this year, highlighting what experts say is geological instability caused by the last and largest nuclear test in 2017. Experts have also said that instability would not necessarily prevent North Korea from resuming tests at the site. The US State Department condemned the latest launch as a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, which have imposed sanctions on North Korea over its weapons programmes. The launch demonstrates the threat that North Korea’s illicit weapons of mass destruction and missile programmes pose to its neighbours and the region as a whole, a State Department spokesperson said. The South Korean military said Saturday’s launch came from a location near Sunan, where Pyongyang’s international airport is located. The region has been the site of previous tests, including the last launch on Feb 27, when North Korea said it tested systems for a reconnaissance satellite. Kishi said the North Korean projectile reached a height of 550km and flew 300km, similar to the South Korean military’s estimate of 560km height and 270km distance. The launch underscores the challenges facing whoever wins Wednesday’s presidential election in South Korea. Both leading candidates have said they would unveil roadmaps to try to jumpstart stalled talks, but have also raised the prospect of a harder line ranging from more openly calling the North’s missile tests “provocations” to developing more military capacity for preemptive strikes if necessary to counter an imminent threat. Analysts say North Korea could use the upcoming presidential transition in South Korea or a big national holiday on April 15 to launch a satellite or test fire a major new missile or other weapon. “The timing of North Korea’s missile testing may seem odd to us, given the global focus on Ukraine,” Jean Lee, a fellow at the Washington-based Wilson Center, said on Twitter. “But it makes perfect sense in North Korea, where scientists are focused on perfect new weapons for Kim to show off at a big military parade in mid-April.” The United States has said it is open to talks without preconditions, but Pyongyang says talks are only possible after Washington and its allies drop hostile policies.
South Korea yesterday began early voting for a presidential election in the shadow of the pandemic, as up to a million people with Covid-19 are expected to cast ballots during a spike driving one of the world’s highest caseloads. Election workers have been deployed in protective equipment including full-body suits and safety glasses, and voters with Covid or exposed to the virus will spray hand sanitisers and wear gloves before casting ballots, according to the national election commission. With more than 800,000 under home treatment for the coronavirus and nearly 800 in hospital intensive care, the government and health officials have sought to accommodate infected voters, including revising the election law last month. People infected or in quarantine can walk in or take taxis or ambulances provided by local offices to the polling stations to vote in isolated booths. They are allocated an hour at the end of the second day of early voting and an hour-and-a-half on the final day on Wednesday. South Korea had early success in containing outbreaks and surges with aggressive testing and contact tracing. Although the government’s pandemic management was not a major campaign focus, the Omicron spike of the past week is affecting the voting as it drives cases to record highs. Yesterday it broke another record of daily cases and deaths. Voters are choosing a replacement for liberal President Moon Jae-in, who cannot run for re-election due to term limits. Yoon Suk-yeol got a boost on Thursday when a fellow conservative dropped out and threw his support behind Yoon, in a move that could tip the balance of the closely fought election away from the ruling liberals. Moon’s ruling party is represented by Lee Jae-myung. The race has focused on seeking a leader to clean up polarised politics and corruption, and tackle the runaway housing prices and deepening inequality that have dogged Asia’s fourth-largest economy. Yoon has encouraged people with Covid or isolating to vote, saying they could amount to millions out of more than 40mn eligible voters. Yoon and his rival Lee, as well as President Moon all cast their votes yesterday morning. While the pandemic did not prevent big campaign rallies, leading presidential runners have run “contact-free” campaigns.
North Korea fired a ballistic missile Sunday, Seoul said, resuming a weapons-testing blitz after a month-long lull during the Beijing Winter Olympics, with the world's attention now focused on Ukraine. The Sunday launch is Pyongyang's eighth so far this year, including test-firing its most powerful missile since high-profile negotiations between leader Kim Jong Un and then US president Donald Trump collapsed in 2017. Diplomacy has languished ever since. And despite biting international sanctions, Pyongyang has doubled down on military development, threatening last month to abandon a self-imposed moratorium on firing long-range and nuclear weapons. Analysts had widely predicted Pyongyang would seek to capitalise on US distraction over Russia's Thursday invasion of Ukraine with new tests. South Korea's military said Sunday it had detected a ballistic missile fired towards the Sea of Japan at 07:52 local time (2252 GMT Saturday) from Pyongyang. "The latest ballistic missile has a range of around 300 kilometres and an altitude of around 620 kilometres," it added. Japan also confirmed the launch. South Korea's presidential Blue House expressed "deep concern and grave regret", and criticised the timing "when the world is making efforts to resolve the Ukraine war". South Korea has said it will join international economic sanctions against Russia and, as a key US security ally, is closely watching Washington's response to Moscow's aggression. Pyongyang, on the other hand, is "seizing the opportunity" to conduct weapons tests while "the US interest shifted to Europe over the Ukraine crisis and the UN Security Council unable to function," Shin Beom-chul, a researcher at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, told AFP. North Korea sees this as a perfect moment to "continue its development of necessary weapons and to strengthen its nuclear arsenal", with a view to being recognised as a nuclear power, he added. Ukraine, which emerged from the Cold War with sizeable Soviet-era nuclear weapons stocks of its own, gave up its arsenal in the 1990s. North Korea this weekend accused the United States of being the "root cause of the Ukraine crisis" saying in a statement on the Foreign Ministry website that Washington "meddled" in the internal affairs of other countries when it suited them but condemned legitimate "self-defensive measures". North Korea is reeling economically from biting sanctions over its weapons programmes and a lengthy coronavirus blockade, but continuing its "ambitious schedule of military modernisation" is a top priority, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. "The Kim regime's strength and legitimacy have become tied to testing ever better missiles," he added in emailed comments. The pause in testing during the Beijing Winter Olympics was seen as a mark of deference to key diplomatic ally and economic benefactor China. The latest launch also comes as South Korea gears up to elect its next president on March 9. Outgoing South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who repeatedly pursued peace talks with the North during his five-year term, has warned that the situation could easily escalate. "If North Korea's series of missile launches goes as far as scrapping a moratorium on long-range missile tests, the Korean Peninsula may instantly fall back into the state of crisis we faced five years ago," he said in a written interview with international press, including AFP, this month. Under Trump's successor Joe Biden, the United States has repeatedly declared its willingness to meet North Korean representatives. Pyongyang has dismissed the offer. Domestically, North Korea is preparing to celebrate the 110th anniversary of the birth of late founder Kim Il Sung in April, which experts say Pyongyang could use to carry out a major weapons test. Recent satellite images suggest that the North may be preparing a military parade to showcase its weapons to mark the key anniversary. "North Korea will be prudent about testing an intercontinental ballistic missile since it's the last remaining card that can put pressure on the United States," Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean Studies at Ewha Womans University, told AFP. "Such a card is only meaningful when you're holding it in your hand."
South Korea said it would ease pandemic restrictions, even as the country’s daily caseload crossed 100,000 for the first time, with officials citing economic concerns over social distancing measures. The country reported a record 109,831 new infections for Thursday, with health experts warning this number could rise to 270,000 new cases a day next month. Despite the spike in cases, Seoul officials said they would ease restrictions by allowing cafes and restaurants to stay open an extra hour till 10pm starting Saturday. “Considering the deepening difficulties of the people’s livelihood and economy, we have concluded that the minimum adjustment was inevitable,” Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said. The country will also drop its requirement that businesses including restaurants and cafes maintain handwritten visitor logs to allow for contact tracing, officials said. The vast majority of South Korea’s eligible population has been vaccinated and boosted, and despite the record number of infections in the country of 52mn people, death rates remain very low. “We are focusing on high-risk groups when it comes to epidemiological investigation and contact tracing management,” said Lee Ki-il, a health ministry official. “Extensive contact investigation is now proving to be somewhat ineffective,” they added. Seoul abandoned its vaunted “trace, test and treat” programme earlier this month, as a dramatic surge in Omicron cases threatened to overwhelm its healthcare system. Instead of mass testing and aggressive contact tracing, the government is now asking patients with mild or moderate symptoms to look after themselves at home. Authorities are also prioritising PCR testing for people aged 60 or older. The government has been facing strong backlash from small businesses and self-employed Koreans, who say Covid restrictions — including the mandatory 9pm curfew — were pushing their businesses to the brink.
South Korea’s presidential candidates formally began campaigning yesterday in what is set to be the tightest race in 20 years between its two main parties, dominated by scandals that have allowed a third challenger to potentially play the role of kingmaker. Polls say voters are looking for a president who can clean up polarised politics and corruption and tackle the runaway housing prices and deepening inequality that have dogged Asia’s fourth-largest economy. Curbing North Korea’s weapons tests and resuming talks would be a plus, but even a record month of missile testing by Pyongyang in January hasn’t made foreign policy a key issue for the March 9 vote in South Korea. But the major issues named in the polls have been overshadowed by scandals and petty controversies. Fourteen candidates have signed up since official registration opened on Sunday, with Lee Jae-myung, the flag-bearer of the ruling Democratic Party, facing off against Yoon Suk-yeol, from the conservative main opposition People Power Party. Dubbed the “unlikeable election” due to high disapproval ratings and smear campaigns waged by both sides, Lee and Yoon are neck and neck in polls, although Yoon has maintained a slight lead in recent weeks. A survey released on Sunday by Realmeter showed 41.6% of respondents favoured Yoon and 39.1% picked Lee, while Southern Post put Yoon just 0.5% ahead with 35.5%. That would contrast with the last three presidential elections, which were largely predictable. The upcoming contest could be the closest since 2002 when an opposition challenger lost to former President Roh Moo-hyun by a 2.33% margin, or 570,980 votes. “This is the foggiest election we’ve seen in a while, it’s very rare that a likely winner had yet to emerge just three weeks before the vote,” said Bae Jong-chan, a political analyst who runs the Insight K think tank. A former governor of Gyeonggi province, Lee shot to prominence through his aggressive handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his advocacy of universal basic income. Yoon is a political novice, but has gained popularity thanks to his image as a staunch prosecutor-general who steered high-profile investigations into corruption scandals engulfing aides to former president Park Geun-hye and current President Moon Jae-in. But growing frustration over mainstream politics and controversy involving both candidates’ families have been a fillip for Ahn Cheol-soo, a renowned software mogul and doctor who is a minor opposition contender. Ahn formally offered on Sunday to merge campaigns with Yoon, saying it would expedite a “overwhelming victory” and national unity. His latest ratings hovered between 7-8% after peaking at 15%. Polls indicated a convincing victory if Yoon and Ahn unite, although it was not clear if all Ahn’s supporters would automatically follow him on a combined ticket. Some officials from Yoon’s campaign have also called for a merger, floating the idea of forming a coalition government and appointing Ahn as prime minister. Yoon said he would give the proposal “positive consideration” but said he was not entirely happy about Ahn’s call to use a poll to pick which of the two men would lead the ticket. A Yoon aide said his campaign would prefer a negotiation between the candidates to determine the flag-bearer. Ahn said he was open to talks but would not accept unilateral demands for him to step down. Ahn’s rise has come amid deepening voter disgust over controversies involving the families of both Lee and Yoon. Lee, who has apologised over his son’s illegal gambling, faces a possible criminal investigation over allegations that he illegally hired a provincial government employee to serve his wife as a personal assistant, and let her misappropriate government funds through his corporate credit card. Lee and his wife have apologised for causing public concern and said they would co-operate with any investigation. Yoon, meanwhile, has apologised for his wife’s inaccurate resume when she applied for teaching jobs years ago, and denied accusations from Democrats that a shaman who is close to his wife was deeply involved in his campaign. Lee’s campaign raised new allegations on Sunday that Kwon Oh-soo, chairman and the largest shareholder of Deutsch Motors Inc, a BMW car dealer in South Korea, sponsored Yoon’s wife’s company in a bid to evade investigations while Yoon worked as a prosecutor. Kwon was arrested last year on charges of manipulating his firm’s stock prices. The ruling Democratic Party also criticised Yoon at the weekend for putting his feet on a train seat without taking off his shoes as lacking a sense of citizenship and public etiquette. Yoon’s campaign hit back, accusing the Democrats of levelling groundless allegations even after Lee vowed to cease negative campaigns.
South Korea extended Covid-19 social distancing rules on Friday for an additional two weeks as Omicron variant infections soar, including a 9 pm curfew for restaurants and a six-person limit on private gatherings. The restrictions were due to end on Sunday but Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said the extension was necessary to slow the spread of Omicron amid fears the Lunar New Year holiday, which ended on Wednesday, may have fuelled infections. "Slowing the pace of the Omicron's spread, which is heading to its peak day after day, is a priority in this difficult circumstance," he said at a televised government response meeting. New daily cases have tripled over the past two weeks, but the number of deaths and serious infections have remained relatively low in the highly vaccinated country. South Korea reported a record daily increase of 27,443 new Covid-19 cases, with 24 new deaths, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said on Friday. Nearly 86% of the country's 52 million population are fully vaccinated, with 53.8% having received booster shots. To handle the surge in cases, the government has rolled out a new testing regime under which only priority groups take a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests while others can get a rapid antigen test at a clinic for faster initial diagnosis. It also reduced the mandatory quarantine time for vaccinated people who test positive from 10 days to a week, and allowed more people with few or no symptoms to be treated at home. Overall South Korea has reported 934,656 Covid-19 cases, and 6,836 deaths since the pandemic began.