Coronavirus scare on Singapore cruise ship was false alarm, authorities say

By John Geddie and Chen Lin

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – A suspected COVID-19 case aboard a “cruise-to-nowhere” from Singapore which forced the ship to return to dock and nearly 1,700 guests to isolate was a false alarm, the government said on Thursday.

Passengers on Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas vessel were held in their cabins for more than 16 hours on Wednesday after an 83-year-old man was tested positive for COVID-19 aboard the ship when he sought medical help for diarrhea.

But Singapore’s health ministry said on Thursday the man did not have the virus after three subsequent tests on land came back negative.

While authorities praised the response to the incident, tourism experts said it highlighted testing frailties and the burden that puts on businesses trying to resume operations even in a country that has largely tamed the virus.

“We have to live with less-than-perfect testing kits,” said Michael Chiam, a senior tourism lecturer at Singapore’s Ngee Ann Polytechnic. “This may be costly to businesses.”

The health ministry said close contacts of the guest to would no longer need to quarantine and that it would help review testing processes aboard the ship.

Miami-based Royal Caribbean, which had just started offering the trips after it halted global operations in March due to the pandemic, said in a statement it welcomed the news and that it would work to “refine” its protocols.

The cruises-to-nowhere were part of Singapore’s efforts to revive a tourism industry which has been battered by the pandemic as borders around the world have closed.

Singapore’s tourism board chief Keith Tan said the cruise incident was a learning experience but also a validation of precautions like pre-departure testing and requirements that guests carry an electronic contact tracing device at all times.

The mishap will be closely watched by other firms relying on testing like event venues and airlines, said Sherri Kimes of the National University of Singapore’s Business School.

The city-state, which has reported only a handful of cases in recent weeks, is rolling out rapid antigen tests for large events such as weddings and business conferences.

(Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Cabin fever: Singapore cruise passengers stuck in rooms after COVID-19 case

By Chen Lin and Yi Shu Ng

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – A Royal Caribbean “cruise-to-nowhere” from Singapore confined nearly 1,700 passengers to their cabins in port for more than 16 hours after a COVID-19 case was detected on board, before allowing some to disembark on Wednesday.

All passengers aboard the Quantum of the Seas vessel had cleared a mandatory polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test for the virus up to three days before the four-day cruise began on Monday.

Authorities said close contacts of the COVID-19 patient among the 1,680 guests and 1,148 crew members on board had so far tested negative. The passengers were stuck in their rooms while contact tracing was being conducted.

“I feel relieved, it was obviously a very boring wait,” said Isaac Lung, a 16-year-old student, who had taken the cruise with his parents.

The coronavirus patient, an 83-year-old male, had reported to the ship’s medical center with diarrhea and a subsequent onboard test revealed the infection. He was taken to hospital on Wednesday after the ship returned to port.

Other guests were awoken with the news of the infection in the early hours.

“I was like: ‘there it goes, the worst fear has happened’,” said passenger Melvin Chew, a 31-year-old business development manager, who said he learned about the infected guest via an announcement on the ship’s tannoy around 3 a.m. (1900 GMT on Tuesday).

The Quantum of the Seas returned to Singapore at 8 a.m. local time, and a Reuters witness saw some passengers disembarking at about 8 p.m. All passengers will undergo mandatory COVID-19 testing before leaving the terminal.

The ship’s captain told passengers over the tannoy that the passenger disembarkation process would start around 7:30 p.m. and would take 3-4 hours. The crew will rest overnight and take PCR tests in the morning, he added.

“I am terribly sorry that the cruise ended a day early and ended this way,” the captain said in a recording heard by Reuters.

Royal Caribbean said in an emailed statement it was cancelling its upcoming trip on Thursday “in an overabundance of caution” and plans to resume sailing on Dec. 14.

‘REALITY CHECK’

The “cruise-to-nowhere” by Royal Caribbean is one of its first sailings since the company halted global operations in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The sailing in waters off Singapore is open only to Singapore residents and makes no stops.

The cruises are a part of Singapore’s plans to revive its tourism industry, which has been battered due to the novel coronavirus, which has infected more than 68 million people globally and killed 1,554,271​.

Singapore, which has reported just over 58,000 COVID-19 cases and 29 deaths, has been registering less than a handful of daily infections in recent weeks.

Part of the precautions for the resumption of cruises in Singapore involved pre-departure testing within 48 to 72 hours prior to boarding, and for guests to carry an electronic contact tracing device, wear masks and social distance at all times.

Infectious disease experts said there could be many reasons why the patient got through pre-departure screenings.

They said the PCR test may have been a false negative or failed to pick up fragments of an old virus, or the patient may have been incubating at the time or was infected between the test and boarding.

“It is a reality check that the current tests are not perfect,” said Paul Tambyah, president of the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection.

The infected case’s close contacts will be placed in quarantine or health surveillance, Singapore’s health ministry said in an advisory sent to passengers.

Others will need to monitor their health, while continuing regular activities including going to school or work, and undergo a swab test at the end of a 14-day monitoring period.

(Reporting by Chen Lin, Yi Shu Ng, Aradhana Aravindan, John Geddie and Nivedita Balu; Writing by John Geddie and Aradhana Aravindan; Editing by Michael Perry, Raju Gopalakrishnan, Mark Heinrich and Shounak Dasgupta)

Good vibrations? COVID quiet time soothes Earth’s seismic shakes

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – COVID-19 lockdowns worldwide led to the longest and most pronounced reduction in human-linked seismic vibrations ever recorded, sharpening scientists’ ability to hear earth’s natural signals and detect earthquakes, a study found on Thursday.

Vibrations travel through the earth like waves, creating seismic noise from earthquakes, volcanoes, wind and rivers as well as human actions such as travel and industry.

In the study, published in the journal Science and conducted using international seismometer networks, scientists found that human-linked earth vibrations dropped by an average of 50% between March and May this year.

“The 2020 seismic noise quiet period is the longest and most prominent global anthropogenic seismic noise reduction on record,” they wrote. The work was co-led by the Royal Observatory of Belgium and five other institutions using data from 268 monitoring stations in 117 countries.

Beginning in China in late January, and followed by Europe and the rest of the world in March to April, researchers saw “a wave of quietening” as worldwide lockdown measures to slow the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

Travel and tourism were all but halted, millions of schools and industries closed, and many people were confined to their homes.

The relative quiet allowed scientists to “listen in” in more detail on the earth’s natural vibrations, said Stephen Hicks, a seismologist at Imperial College London who co-led the work.

“It has yielded a new window on the natural seismic signals, and could let us see more clearly than ever what differentiates human and natural noise,” he said.

The study said its findings also showed that seismologists can help establish how long people take to react to the imposition and lifting of lockdown measures.

The largest drops in human-induced vibrations were seen in densely populated areas like Singapore and New York City, but drops were also seen in remote areas like Germany’s Black Forest and Rundu in Namibia. Barbados, where lockdown coincided with the tourist season, saw a 50% drop in seismic noise.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Singapore plans wearable virus-tracing device for all

By John Geddie and Aradhana Aravindan

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Singapore plans to give a wearable device that will identify people who had interacted with carriers of coronavirus to each of its 5.7 million residents, in what could become one of the most comprehensive contact-tracing efforts globally.

Testing of the small devices, which can be worn on the end of a lanyard or carried in a handbag, follows limited take-up of an earlier smartphone-based system and has further fuelled privacy concerns about contact tracing technology.

The tiny city-state, with one of the highest COVID-19 caseloads in Asia, is one of many countries trying to use technology to allow them to safely reopen their economies.

Singapore will soon roll out the device, which does not depend on a smartphone, and “may then distribute it to everyone in Singapore,” Vivian Balakrishnan, the minister in charge of the city-state’s smart nation initiative, said on Friday.

The government did not specify whether carrying the device would be mandatory.

The government’s earlier TraceTogether app encountered problems, especially on Apple <AAPL.O> devices where its operating system suspends Bluetooth scanning when the app runs in the background. Balakrishnan said repeated discussions with Apple failed to resolve the problem.

The pivot to wearables is a signal that Singapore has no immediate plans to adopt contact-tracing technology from Apple and Google rolled out last month, which has several restrictions designed to protect users’ privacy.

Michael Veale, a lecturer in the law on digital rights and regulation at University College London who has been involved in developing contact-tracing apps, said Singapore’s move into wearables presented “accountability and privacy concerns.”

“Users will likely find it hard to scrutinize what the device is actually doing, or what information the back-end server uses or links,” Veale said.

Singapore has said data collected through its earlier app is encrypted and stored locally in the user’s phone, and will only be transferred to authorities if the individual is confirmed to be infected with COVID-19.

Some businesses have already adopted wearables for contact tracing in locations where smartphone usage is restricted, while governments like Bahrain and Hong Kong have used them for monitoring people under quarantine.

Vendors pitching wearables include Accent Advanced Systems, Kerlink, Microshare Inc and TRACEsafe Technologies Inc, though the companies have declined to comment on potential customers.

David Su, CEO of wireless chips firm Atmosic, said he expected “multiple governments, if not all governments in Asia” to adopt wearables because they are an affordable and reliable way to ensure widespread automated contact tracing.

A simple wristband with a Bluetooth chip, battery and some memory could cost about $10, or possibly less, according to vendors.

(Reporting by John Geddie and Aradhana Aravindan in Singapore; Paresh Dave in San Francisco and Douglas Busvine in Frankfurt; Editing by Robert Birsel, Toby Chopra and William Mallard)

Residents take coronavirus surveillance into their own hands

By Thin Lei Win and Beh Lih Yi

ROME/KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A week after Malaysia ordered a partial lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus, construction supervisor Hafi Nazhan saw residents in his affluent Kuala Lumpur neighbourhood jogging outside.

He took photos of people flouting the stay-at-home order and published them on Twitter, receiving hundreds of shares. Hafi’s followers informed the police, who subsequently arrested 11 joggers in his neighbourhood.

They were charged with violating the movement restriction order and each fined 1,000 ringgit ($230) in court.

“I was upset some people did not take this stay-at-home order seriously. These are well-educated people,” Hafi, 26, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that police were spurred into taking action after his tweets went viral.

As governments around the world urge citizens to stay indoors to contain the deadly virus, concerned communities are taking surveillance matters into their own hands, reporting alleged breaches of quarantine and questioning anyone they deem suspicious.

The respiratory disease – which emerged in China late last year – has infected roughly 1.2 million people and killed about 65,000, according to a global tally by Johns Hopkins University.

In Singapore, a Facebook post by a man sharing a photo of himself enjoying a bowl of bak kut teh – pork rib soup – in a restaurant when he should be self-quarantining at home was so widely circulated that officials stepped in.

Singapore’s law minister ordered an investigation and the immigration authorities told local media the man was likely to be charged, although they did not respond to requests seeking comment.

In New Zealand, which is under a one-month shutdown, a police website set up to allow residents to report their neighbours who break isolation rules crashed hours after going live.

The website has received about 14,000 reports in less than a week since its March 29 launch, New Zealand police said in an email. They reportedly include people playing frisbee and holding parties.

In Italy, which has been under lockdown for weeks, fraying tempers have led to people being insulted from balconies or photographed and put on social media.

In Spain, locals have also begun posting videos of people going for a run, walking in the park, riding a bike – all prohibited activities – on social media.

HEALTH VS. PRIVACY

Such tip-offs and videos have sparked a debate over digital ethics with some arguing that normal privacy rules do not apply in a health emergency because the information is in the public interest.

“When we are all threatened with the risk of catching a lethal, incurable disease I see no reason why individuals should not report their legitimate concerns to the authorities,” said David Watts, former privacy commissioner for Australia’s Victoria state.

“There is not much point having privacy rights when you are dead,” added Watts, who now teaches information law and policy at Melbourne-based La Trobe University.

For David Lindsay, law professor at the University of Technology Sydney, privacy is “not an absolute right and must always be balanced against other rights and interests”.

“The balance struck obviously depends upon circumstances, and a global pandemic is an extreme event,” he said.

Still, both Watts and Lindsay said the balance between privacy and surveillance should be reset when the pandemic is over.

Others, like Joseph Cannataci, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to privacy, fear surveillance measures ranging from facial recognition to phone tracking could outlast the current crisis.

“Dictatorships and authoritarian societies often start in the face of a threat,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation this week.

STIGMA AND FEAR

Community surveillance could also end up being used “in a malicious way, particularly to replicate prejudice or bias”, warned Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia policy director at digital rights group Access Now.

“Often the people who might be reported on will be the least privileged, or might be belong to, in the case of India, lower caste communities or people who have to work outside,” he said.

Human rights experts worry that the tens of thousands of migrant workers who returned to Myanmar after a shutdown in neighbouring Thailand’s left them jobless will come under intense scrutiny.

In a village in central Myanmar, locals would not allow a young man who returned from Thailand to stay in his home, said Khin Zaw Win, a Yangon-based political analyst.

Foreigners have also been targeted on social media, with a Facebook video showing agitated residents in a neighbourhood in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city, who described barging into a building after seeing Chinese visitors coughing.

Filmed Tuesday night, it has received more than 1 million views and 10,000 shares.

“The public is being very sensitive at the moment … when the key in this kind of situation is that you should help each other,” said Khin Zaw Win.

“Some of it have to do with the narrative that (coronavirus) was brought here from abroad. I think the panic is even scarier than the virus,” he added.

Myanmar so far has about 20 confirmed cases of the virus, with the health ministry warning of a “major outbreak” after the return of migrant workers from Thailand.

Officials have also reminded the public that failure to report people suspected of being infected could lead to jail sentences of up to a month.

“From the point of view of public health, surveillance and tracking is essential. The faster and the more effectively you can enforce it, the better,” said Sid Naing, Myanmar country director for health charity Marie Stopes International.

“But it should not be done in a way that breeds hatred and fear. It should be done based on understanding and support,” he said.

“At the moment, the state cannot provide full surveillance so people started doing it themselves because they are terrified … but there are stigma and discrimination behind the fear and those are the problems.”

(Reporting By Thin Lei Win @thinink and Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, additional reporting from Sophie Davies in Barcelona, editing by Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

‘Pervasive’ digital sexual violence against women skyrockets in Singapore

By Beh Lih Yi

KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – From online stalking to revenge porn, cases of digital sexual violence have spiked sharply in Singapore, women’s rights campaigners warned on Monday as they called for reforms to clamp down on the emerging form of crime.

The tech-savvy nation has seen several high-profile cases this year, including a university student who was filmed in the shower and several arrests made over the distribution of nude photos on an online chat group.

Such abuse cases – aided by technology – nearly tripled to 124 last year, up from 46 in 2016, according to figures compiled by Singapore’s gender equality advocacy group AWARE, based on cases that it has assisted.

More than half of the 2018 cases involved images, including illicit filming, distribution of nude photos and upskirting – the surreptitious filming or taking of photographs under girls’ and women’s clothes – it added.

“New factors – such as the widespread availability of recording technology, and our 24/7 channels of communication – make these actions all the more pervasive and damaging today,” said Anisha Joseph, head of the Sexual Assault Care Centre at AWARE.

Singapore’s home affairs ministry said it did not track sexual violence cases that used technology.

Parliament in May has passed new laws targeting online sexual abuse, including voyeurism, upskirting and unsolicited intimate images, or “cyber flashing” – with maximum jail sentences ranging from two to five years.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam has previously said these reforms would help ensure Singapore be a “safe home” for women.

From Britain to Germany and South Korea, there has been a flurry of cases in recent years using the advancement and easy access to technology to sexually assault women.

France outlawed upskirting in 2018 while Britain followed suit this year. Germany also said it would enact a similar law.

In South Korea, tens of thousands of women took to the streets last year to protest against so-called “spycam porn”, the illicit filming in toilets or changing rooms and selling the footages online later.

Monica Baey, who was filmed by a man during her shower inside a university hostel earlier this year, said the law needed to change to treat the crime more seriously in Singapore, where eight out of 10 residents are internet users.

The man who filmed her was given a police warning and suspended from the university for a semester.

“It’s a case of sexual assault even though there is no physical contact,” the 23-year-old student told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Singapore, adding she was “traumatised” over the incident.

“It’s not something that can be seen as less serious just because it was committed through a mobile phone,” she said. “The victims still face a lifelong trauma.”

(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi; Editing by Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

North Korea’s Kim says summit with Trump stabilized region, sees more progress

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wave during a car parade in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 18, 2018. Pyeongyang Press Corps/Pool via REUTERS

By Hyonhee Shin and Joyce Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said on Tuesday his “historic” summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore stabilized regional security, and that he expected further progress at an inter-Korean summit aimed at reviving stalled nuclear diplomacy.

Kim thanked South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in for bringing about the Singapore meeting in June as the two leaders began their third round of talks in Pyongyang.

“Thanks to that, the political situation in the region has stabilized and I expect more advanced results,” Kim told Moon, referring to the Singapore gathering, at the start of their talks.

The Kim-Moon summit will be a litmus test for another meeting Kim has recently proposed to Trump, with the South Korean president seeking to engineer a proposal that combines a framework for the North’s denuclearization and a joint declaration ending the 1950-53 Korean War.

Moon expressed gratitude for Kim’s “bold decision to open a new era”.

The first session of the talks, which lasted for two hours, were held at the headquarters of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee, with party vice chairman Kim Yong Chol and Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong, as well as South Korea’s national security adviser Chung Eui-yong and spy chief Suh Hoon in attendance.

LIMOUSINE PARADE

Earlier, the leaders paraded down the streets of Pyongyang in Kim’s black Mercedes limousine to loud cheers from nearly 100,000 North Koreans who waved flowers and chanted “Motherland!Unification!”

Kim greeted Moon with hugs and handshakes as the South Korean leader landed in the North’s capital with a mission to rekindle momentum in faltering talks between Washington and Pyongyang over denuclearization and a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War.

As Kim escorted Moon to the Paekhwawon State Guest House, where Moon will stay during his three-day visit, Kim said he wanted to produce a “bigger outcome at a faster pace” than the two leaders have achieved so far.

Moon, himself the offspring of a family displaced by the war, has met Kim twice this year at the border village of Panmunjom.

“You Mr. President are traveling all around the world, but our country is humble compared with developed nations,” Kim told Moon. “I’ve been waiting and waiting for today. The level of the accommodation and schedule we provide may be low, but it’s our best sincerity and heart.”

Moon said it was “time to bear fruit” and thanked Kim for his hospitality, which included a massive welcome ceremony at Pyongyang International Airport featuring a large, goose-stepping honor guard and a military band.

During their motor parade through Pyongyang’s landmark Ryomyong Street, a new residential district launched last year under Kim’s initiative to modernize the city, Kim and Moon briefly stepped out of the vehicle to greet and take flowers from members of the crowd.

“CHIEF NEGOTIATOR”

Trump has asked Moon to be “chief negotiator” between himself and Kim, according to Moon’s aides, after Trump canceled a trip to Pyongyang by his secretary of state last month.

Washington wants to see concrete action toward denuclearization by North Korea before agreeing to a key goal of Pyongyang – declaring an end to the 1950-53 Korean War.

The conflict ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving U.S.-led U.N. forces including South Korea technically still at war with the North.

South Korea is pinning high hopes on Kim’s remarks to Moon’s special envoys earlier this month that he wants to achieve denuclearization within Trump’s first term in office ending in early 2021.

“If North Korea-U.S. dialogue is restarted after this visit, it would have much significance in itself,” Moon said before his departure.

Underscoring the challenges ahead, North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun said on Tuesday “the responsibility falls squarely on the United States” for the stalled nuclear discussions.

“It is due to its nonsensical, irrational stubbornness that other issues can only be discussed after our country has completely verifiably, irreversibly dismantled our nuclear capabilities… without showing the intention to build trust including declaring the end of war,” the newspaper said in an editorial.

On Wednesday, Moon and Kim plan to hold a second day of official talks after which they are expected to unveil a joint statement, and a separate military pact designed to defuse tensions and prevent armed clashes. Moon will return home early Thursday.

Traveling with Moon are South Korean business tycoons, including Samsung scion Jay Y. Lee and the chiefs of SK Group and LG Group. They met North Korean Deputy Prime Minister Ri Ryong Nam, who is in charge of economic affairs, although Seoul officials said they did not expect any specific joint economic projects to be agreed given extensive international sanctions.

The United States is pressing other countries to strictly observe U.N. sanctions aimed at choking off funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

North Korea says it has destroyed its main nuclear and missile engine test site and has halted atomic and ballistic missile tests, but U.S. officials and analysts believe it is continuing to work on its weapons plans covertly.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley accused Russia on Monday of “cheating” on U.N. sanctions on North Korea.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Joyce Lee, Soyoung Kim and Pyongyang Press Corps; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Alex Richardson)

South Korea’s diehard Trump supporters hail ‘guardian of liberty’

A member of a conservative right-wing civic group attends an anti-North Korea and pro-U.S. protest in Seoul, South Korea, August 4, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Jeongmin Kim and Minwoo Park

SEOUL (Reuters) – Every time an image of U.S. President Donald Trump appears on TV in South Korea, 69-year-old Vietnam War veteran Chung Seung-jin solemnly salutes.

The U.S. flag Chung keeps in his home in Seoul gets similar respect every morning.

Vietnam War veteran Chung Seung-jin poses for photographs after an interview with Reuters at his home in Suwon, South Korea, July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Vietnam War veteran Chung Seung-jin poses for photographs after an interview with Reuters at his home in Suwon, South Korea, July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

“I salute President Trump and the U.S. flag every day to show how much I trust him,” Chung told Reuters as he attended a recent anti-North Korea rally in the sweltering summer heat in downtown Seoul.

“I salute to pay respect to Mr. Trump, supporting his reign as the leader of the world and guardian of liberty.”

For many South Korean conservatives who liked Trump’s initial tough talk against North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, his abrupt embrace of the autocratic leader at their historic Singapore summit in June was nothing short of a betrayal.

Trump, who ridiculed Kim as “rocket man” last year, has since called the North Korean leader “funny” and “smart” and even praised his ability to retain his authoritarian grip on power.

“Trump said Kim is an ‘amazing leader’, thus legitimizing him. This makes us, the patriotic citizens, feel betrayed,” said Cho Won-jin, leader of the right-wing Korean Patriots’ Party.

Members of a conservative right-wing civic group attend an anti-North Korea and pro-U.S. protest in Seoul, South Korea, August 4, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Members of a conservative right-wing civic group attend an anti-North Korea and pro-U.S. protest in Seoul, South Korea, August 4, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

But for a colorful handful of Trump supporters who gather regularly on the streets of Seoul to call for aggressive action against North Korea, faith in the U.S. president is unshaken.

“I have saluted Trump today as always with utmost sincerity,” said 76-year-old demonstrator Lee Yoon-jo, nodding at a large picture of a beaming Trump at a demonstration in downtown Seoul.

As he saluted, demonstrators held giant U.S. and South Korean flags in front of the U.S. embassy, alongside banners in Korean and English reading “The United States is a thankful brother country that has been devoted to a free Korea”.

Gratitude for U.S. support in the 1950-1953 Korean War, as well as anti-communist rhetoric used by the South’s military rulers in the 1970s still resonate with many older South Koreans, said analyst Jeong Chan-dae of Sungkonghoe University.

“To these elderly conservatives, the U.S. is more than just an ally and more of a ‘savior’,” he said.

Holding a faded black-and-white photograph from his time he fought alongside American allies in the Vietnam War in 1968, Chung said: “Without the U.S., South Korea would never have been able to exist.”

Trump and Kim met in Singapore in June, where they announced an agreement in which Kim reaffirmed his “unwavering” commitment to denuclearize. Little progress on that front has been made in the weeks since.

A Gallup Korea poll conducted just after the summit found 48 percent of South Korean conservatives thought the meeting went well, compared to 79 percent of progressives.

Standing on a corner in Seoul, surrounded by flags and anti-North Korean banners, the small knot of demonstrators are unfazed by the shift in tone, noting that Trump could still resort to “regime change” if a denuclearisation deal doesn’t pan out.

“President Trump has always masterfully guided and protected South Korea and the free world and always will,” Lee said, again giving a military salute. “Thank you, Mr. President.”

(Reporting by Jeongmin Kim and Minwoo Park; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Cyber-attack on Singapore health database steals details of 1.5 million, including PM

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Manila, Philippines November 14, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron Favila/Pool

By Jack Kim

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – A major cyber attack on Singapore’s government health database stole the personal information of about 1.5 million people, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the government said on Friday.

The attack, which the government called “the most serious breach of personal data” that the country has experienced, comes as the highly wired and digitalized state has made cybersecurity a top priority for the ASEAN bloc and for itself.

Singapore is this year’s chair of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) group.

“Investigations by the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore (CSA) and the Integrated Health Information System (IHiS)confirmed that this was a deliberate, targeted and well-planned cyberattack,” a government statement said.

“It was not the work of casual hackers or criminal gangs,” the joint statement by the Health Ministry and the Ministry of Communications and Information said.

About 1.5 million patients who visited clinics between May 2015 and July 4 this year have had their non-medical personal particulars illegally accessed and copied, the statement said.

“The attackers specifically and repeatedly targeted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s personal particulars and information on his outpatient dispensed medicines,” it said.

A Committee of Inquiry will be established and immediate action will be taken to strengthen government systems against cyber attacks, the Ministry of Communications said in a separate statement.

It did not provide details about what entity or individuals may have been behind the attack.

Lee, in a Facebook post following the announcement, said the breach of his personal medical data was not incidental and he did not know what information the attackers were hoping to find.

“My medication data is not something I would ordinarily tell people about, but there is nothing alarming in it,” he said.

(Reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Michael Perry)

Explainer: What will it cost for complete denuclearization of North Korea?

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore in this picture released on June 12, 2018 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency. KCNA via REUTERS/File Phot

VIENNA (Reuters) – At a summit in Singapore in early June with U.S. President Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un pledged to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”.

Follow-up talks between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean officials are due to be held, and Trump said last week, “It will be a total denuclearization, which has already started taking place.”

Assuming denuclearization of North Korea does take place, what would it look like and how much would it cost?

WHAT DOES DENUCLEARIZATION MEAN?

That is far from clear and may have different meanings for each side.

The exact form denuclearization takes will depend on negotiations. North Korea may seek to continue some nuclear activities with possible civilian uses like uranium enrichment, as Iran is able to do under its deal with major powers.

For Washington, however, denuclearization means at least eliminating the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons. That requires removing or dismantling existing weapons, shutting down the program that makes them, and limiting or eliminating Pyongyang’s ability to enrich uranium and produce plutonium, another key ingredient in atomic bombs.

It would also most likely require restricting or eliminating North Korea’s ballistic missile programs.

KNOWN AND UNKNOWN UNKNOWNS

To complicate matters further, much remains unknown about North Korea’s nuclear activities, its weapons program and its ballistic missile capabilities. These are among the most secret activities in a highly secretive state that foreign intelligence services have struggled to penetrate.

North Korea has carried out six increasingly powerful nuclear tests since 2006 and surprised foreign governments with a series of missile tests showing rapidly improving technology and increasing range.

Pyongyang tested an intercontinental ballistic missile in December that governments and experts said appeared to bring all of the continental United States within range, though many believe it has yet to fully develop the re-entry vehicle in which the warhead returns to the Earth’s atmosphere as it approaches its target.

BEATING HEART

Historically the Yongbyon complex north of Pyongyang has been at the heart of North Korea’s nuclear program. It houses a reactor that produces spent fuel from which plutonium is reprocessed, and an experimental reactor that analysts observing satellite imagery say is close to being completed.

Yongbyon is also widely thought to house a uranium enrichment plant, though many experts say one or more larger enrichment sites are likely to exist outside Yongbyon.

By pursuing plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment, North Korea has developed the two tracks to obtaining the fissile material for nuclear weapons.

While Yongbyon is closely watched by satellites and was monitored by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors before they were expelled in 2009, far less is known about facilities elsewhere in the country.

Nuclear analyst David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security has quoted an anonymous “official source” as saying that about half of North Korea’s nuclear facilities are outside Yongbyon and the site where it has carried out nuclear tests.

FEW PRECEDENTS

There are few cases in which a country has voluntarily given up nuclear weapons. Those that have did so in particular circumstances, and provide imperfect analogies.

South Africa shut down its nuclear weapons program and dismantled its weapons shortly before the 1994 end of apartheid. Several former Soviet republics gave up their weapons after the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union. Of those, Ukraine had the most, roughly 5,000, and it held onto them the longest.

South Africa kept its nuclear weapons program secret until after it had dismantled its six atom bombs and destroyed many of the documents relating to them, meaning the cost is not known. The weapons were dismantled in just months.

In Ukraine, which had ground-based strategic weapons with roughly 1,250 nuclear warheads, a Defence Ministry official said the United States paid around $350 million to dismantle the silos from which those missiles would have been launched.

At its peak Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal was the third biggest in the world. North Korea’s is much smaller – its exact size is not known but several analysts estimate it has around 30 weapons.

SO, HOW MUCH?

Given the uncertainties involved, most analysts are reluctant to be more specific than to predict costs for denuclearization running into billions of dollars.

“I think it would be fair to say that dismantling and cleanup of a substantial part of the North Korean nuclear complex (not even considering the missile complex) would cost many billions and take 10 years or so,” said Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear scientist and Stanford University professor who visited Yongbyon in 2010.

The U.S. Congressional Budget Office in 2008 estimated at $575 million the cost of dismantling the reactor at Yongbyon and two nearby plants that made fuel rods and separated plutonium from spent fuel, plus shipping its spent fuel out of the country and reprocessing it. It said that should take four years.

North Korea’s nuclear activities and stockpiles have increased significantly since 2008. There is now a second reactor at least near completion at Yongbyon, and the CBO estimate did not cover uranium enrichment, weapons facilities, missile technology or sites like uranium mines.

VERIFICATION

For the whole process to work, Washington will need to be convinced North Korea has declared all its relevant sites and activities. Verification is likely to play an important role.

Any doubt over whether North Korea has declared all its activities could lead to a dispute like the one over whether Iraq had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction before the U.S.-led invasion of that country in 2003. A balance will have to be struck between transparency and intrusiveness.

The cost of IAEA safeguards activities for Iran, where the agency is policing the country’s 2015 nuclear deal, was 15.8 million euros ($18.42 million) last year, according to a confidential IAEA report obtained by Reuters.

But the IAEA was already inspecting Iran’s declared nuclear facilities before the deal was reached. Starting essentially from scratch in North Korea will be much more expensive.

“If you take the annual cost of IAEA verification and monitoring in Iran and multiply it by roughly three or more, you might get a rough estimate for the annual cost for North Korea after any denuclearization deal,” Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said.

“North Korea’s nuclear program is more secretive than Iran’s and, in terms of nuclear weapons, far more advanced.”

(Reporting by Francois Murphy in Vienna, Pavel Polityuk in Kiev, Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam, Ed Cropley in Johannesburg, Joyce Lee, Joori Roh and Heekyong Yang in Seoul; Writing by Francois Murphy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)