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North Korea fires suspected ballistic missile in first launch of 2022

North Korea fired a suspected ballistic missile off its east coast on Wednesday, underscoring leader Kim Jong Un’s New Year vow to bolster the military to counter an unstable international situation.

Japan’s coast guard, which first reported the launch, said it could be a ballistic missile, while the country’s defense minister later said it had flown about 500 kilometer (310 miles).

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“Since last year, North Korea has repeatedly launched missiles, which is very regrettable,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff also reported that nuclear-armed North Korea fired a presumed ballistic missile from an inland location toward the sea.

“Our military is maintaining readiness posture in preparation for a possible additional launch while closely monitoring the situation in close cooperation with the US,” the JCS said in a statement. Recent North Korean missile tests have often featured double or multiple launches.

South Korea’s National Security Council convened an emergency meeting, expressing concern that the launch “came at a time when internal and external stability is extremely important” and calling on North Korea to return to talks.

United Nations Security Council resolutions ban all ballistic missile and nuclear tests by North Korea, and have imposed sanctions over the programs.

In state media summaries of a speech Kim gave ahead of the New Year, the North Korean leader did not specifically mention missiles or nuclear weapons, but said that national defense must be bolstered.

For several weeks North Korean troops have been conducting winter exercises, South Korean military officials have said.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea has become even more isolated, imposing border lockdowns that have slowed trade to a trickle and choking off any in-person diplomatic engagements.

It has also stuck to a self-imposed moratorium on testing its largest intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or nuclear weapons. The last tests of ICBMs or a nuclear bomb were in 2017, before Kim launched a diplomatic overture to the US and South Korea that has since stalled.

But Pyongyang has continued test firing new, short-range ballistic missiles, including one launched from a submarine in October, arguing it should not be penalized for developing weapons that other countries also wield.

“While the readout from North Korea’s recent plenary meetings may have prioritized rural development for the coming year, it doesn’t mean the country will halt its ballistic missile tests,” said Michelle Kae, deputy director of 38 North, a North Korea monitoring program at Washington’s Stimson Center.

MISSILE DEVELOPMENT

Just hours after the North Korean launch, Japan announced its foreign and defense ministers will hold talks with their US counterparts in a “two-plus-two” format on Friday to discuss security issues.

The White House, Pentagon and US State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday’s launch. At a regular news briefing on Monday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price reiterated the US desire for dialog with North Korea. He repeated that Washington had no hostile intent towards North Korea and was prepared to meet without preconditions.

Price declined to comment on Kim’s slimmer appearance in a photo published recently in North Korean state media and on speculation about his health, saying “we don’t want to add to that speculation.”

For the first time in his 10 years of rule, Kim did not publicly appear at any missile tests or military drills last year, according to an analysis https://www.nknews.org/2021/12/kim-jong-un-skips-full-year-of-military-drills-and-missile-tests-for-first-time by NK News, a Seoul-based website that monitors North Korea. Health issues or efforts to minimize attention may have played a role in his official absences, the site said.

Kim’s latest speech made no mention of efforts by South Korea to restart stalled negotiations or offers by the
US to talk, casting doubts on South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s push to achieve a breakthrough before his term ends in May.

North Korea continues to advance its nuclear weapons and missile programs despite United Nations Security Council sanctions and high-level diplomatic efforts, the US government’s Congressional Research Service concluded in a report last month.

“Recent ballistic missile tests and military parades suggest that North Korea is continuing to build a nuclear warfighting capability designed to evade regional ballistic missile defenses,” the report said.

Read more:

North Korea weapons test used submarine-launched ballistic missile: Report

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UN experts alarmed at ‘forced assimilation’ of around million children in Tibet


Around a million Tibetan children have been separated from their families and put through “forced assimilation” at Chinese residential schools, three United Nations experts said on Monday.

The special rapporteurs voiced their alarm at Chinese government policies aimed at assimilating Tibetan people culturally, religiously, and linguistically through the schools system, raising concerns about a reported increase in the number of such schools.

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“We are very disturbed that in recent years the residential school system for Tibetan children appears to act as a mandatory large-scale program intended to assimilate Tibetans into majority Han culture, contrary to international human rights standards,” the experts said in a joint statement.

The special rapporteurs on minority issues, education, and cultural rights said that in these schools, the educational content is built around Han culture, with Tibetans denied access to “traditional or culturally relevant learning.”

“Tibetan children are losing their facility with their native language and the ability to communicate easily with their parents and grandparents in the Tibetan language, which contributes to their assimilation and erosion of their identity,” the experts said.

UN special rapporteurs are unpaid independent experts mandated by the UN Human Rights Council. They do not speak on behalf of the United Nations.

The experts said their information pointed to the “vast majority” of Tibetan children being put through residential schools.

“We are alarmed by what appears to be a policy of forced assimilation of the Tibetan identity into the dominant Han-Chinese ma-jority, through a series of oppressive actions against Tibetan educational, religious and linguistic institutions,” they said.

In the interest of building a socialist state based on a single Chinese identity, “initiatives to promote Tibetan language and culture are reportedly being suppressed, and individuals advocating for Tibetan language and education are persecuted,” the special rap-porteurs said.

Tibet has alternated over the centuries between independence and control by China, which says it “peacefully liberated” the rugged plateau in 1951 and brought infrastructure and education to the previously underdeveloped region.

But many exiled Tibetans accuse China’s ruling Communist Party of repression, torture, and eroding their culture.

Read more: China slams US sanctions over alleged human rights abuses in Tibet

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Swiss neutrality on the line as arms-for-Ukraine debate heats up


Switzerland is close to breaking with centuries of tradition as a neutral state, as a pro-Ukraine shift in the public and political mood puts pressure on the government to end a ban on exports of Swiss weapons to war zones.

Buyers of Swiss arms are legally prevented from re-exporting them without Swiss permission, a restriction that some representing the country’s large weapons industry say is now hurting trade.

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Calls from Switzerland’s European neighbors to allow such transfers to Kyiv have meanwhile grown louder as Russia’s assault intensifies, and parliament’s two security committees recommended that the rules be eased accordingly.

Lawmakers are divided on the issue.

“We want to be neutral, but we are part of the western world,” said Thierry Burkart, leader of the center-right FDP party, who has submitted a motion to the government to allow arms re-exports to countries with similar democratic values to Switzerland.

Under Swiss neutrality, which dates back to 1815 and is enshrined by treaty in 1907, Switzerland will not send weapons directly or indirectly to combatants in a war. It operates a separate embargo on arms sales to Ukraine and Russia.

Third countries can in theory apply to Bern to re-export Swiss weapons they have in their stocks, but permission is almost always denied.

“We shouldn’t have the veto to stop others helping Ukraine. If we do that, we support Russia which is not a neutral position,” Burkart told Reuters.

“Other countries want to support Ukraine and do something for the security and stability of Europe… They cannot understand why Switzerland has to say no.”

Increasing numbers of Swiss voters agree. A survey by pollsters Sotomo published on Sunday showed 55 percent of respondents favor allowing weapons re-exports to Ukraine.

“If we had asked this question before the war…, the response would have probably been less than 25 percent.

Talking about changing neutrality was a taboo in the past,” Lukas Golder, co-director of pollsters GFS-Bern, told Reuters.

Money talks?

The government – under pressure from abroad after rejecting German and Danish requests for permission to re-export Swiss armored vehicles and ammunition for anti-aircraft tanks – said it would not prejudge parliamentary discussions.

Bern “adheres to the existing legal framework.. and will deal with the proposals in due course,” said a spokesman for the Department of Economic Affairs, which oversees arms-related trade issues.

Burkart said he had received positive signals on a law change from other parties in the fragmented legislature.

The left-leaning Social Democrats say they are in favor of changes, as are the Green Liberals, although the Greens remain opposed.

Meanwhile the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the lower house’s largest party and traditionally staunch defenders of neutrality, now appears divided.

“Allowing arms shipments to a country involved in an armed conflict is … destroying the basis of peace and prosperity in our country,” said SVP lawmaker David Zuberbueler.

SVP member Werner Salzmann, who sits in the upper parliamentary house, disagrees, raising concerns in the Aargauer Zeitung daily about collateral damage to a Swiss defense industry that also backs the campaign for a law change.

The sector, which includes multinationals Lockheed Martin and Rheinmetall, sold 800 million Swiss francs’ ($876 million) worth of armaments abroad in 2021 according to government data, putting it in the global top 15 of exporter nations.

Having a strong arms industry has gone hand in hand with the tradition of neutrality, but the balance of this duality may now be under threat, industry association SwissMem said.

“Some of our members have lost contracts or are no longer investing in Switzerland because of the current restrictions,” said SwissMem director Stefan Brupbacher.

“Our current situation weakens our security policy…, hampers the credibility of our foreign policy and damages our companies,” he said. “It’s time to change.”

Read more: US reverses course, will send 31 M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine

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Beirut blast judge postpones interrogations over dispute


The Lebanese judge leading the investigation into the deadly 2020 Beirut port explosion said Monday he has postponed questioning of officials over a dispute with the country’s top prosecutor.

Judge Tarek Bitar resumed his probe last month after a 13-month hiatus amid vehement political and legal pushback, which now threatens to derail the investigation once again.

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Reopening the case, he had charged several senior former and incumbent officials, including Prosecutor General Ghassan Oueidat.

Oueidat retaliated by charging the judge with “usurping power” and insubordination, and slapped Bitar with a travel ban.

Bitar told reporters on Monday he has postponed all interrogations planned for February due to the “lack of cooperation” from the prosecutor’s office, without setting new dates.

“There are charges accusing me of usurping power that must be resolved,” he said from his office in the Lebanese capital.

If these charges “are proven, then I must be held to account, and if the contrary happens, then I must continue the investigation,” Bitar argued.

One of history’s biggest non-nuclear explosions, the blast on August 4, 2020 destroyed much of Beirut port and surrounding areas, killing more than 215 people and injuring over 6,500.

Authorities said the mega-explosion was caused by a fire in a portside warehouse where a vast stockpile of the industrial chemical ammonium nitrate had been haphazardly stored for years.

The arm-wrestling between Bitar and Oueidat is the latest in Lebanon’s mounting woes, facing dire economic and political crises.

Observers fear the spat over the blast probe could lead to the outright collapse of the judicial system — one of the country’s last fully functioning state institutions.

Read more: Bitar needs to hold nerve and hold Hezbollah to account

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