South, North Korea reopen hotlines as leaders seek to rebuild ties

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) -South and North Korea have restored hotlines that Pyongyang severed a year ago when ties deteriorated sharply, and the two countries’ leaders are renewing efforts to rebuild relations, Seoul’s presidential office said on Tuesday.

The decision on the hotlines was made by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un who have exchanged multiple letters since April when they marked the third anniversary of their first summit, said Moon’s press secretary, Park Soo-hyun.

North Korea’s state news agency, KCNA, also said all inter-Korean communication channels resumed operation at 10 a.m. Tuesday (0100 GMT) in line with an agreement between Moon and Kim.

The hotlines are a rare tool to bridge the two Koreas, but it was unclear whether their reconnection would expedite any meaningful restart of negotiations aimed at dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

“The two leaders have explored ways to recover relations by exchanging letters on several occasions, and agreed to restore severed hotlines as a first step for that process,” Park said in a statement. “They have also agreed to regain trust as soon as possible and foster progress on relations again.”

KCNA touted the reopening of the hotlines as “a big stride in recovering mutual trust and promoting reconciliation.”

A senior official of the U.S. administration, which has sought unsuccessfully to persuade North Korea to return to talks over its nuclear program, welcomed the announcement.

“The United States supports inter-Korean dialogue and engagement,” the official said. “Diplomacy and dialogue are essential to achieving complete denuclearization and to establishing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

NUCLEAR STALEMATE

North Korea cut the lines in June 2020 as cross-border ties soured after a failed second summit in February 2019 between Kim and then U.S. President Donald Trump, which Moon had offered to mediate.

Then the North blew up a joint liaison office, launched on its soil in 2018 to foster better ties with the South, plunging relations to their lowest ebb under Moon.

Seoul’s defense ministry confirmed that twice-daily regular communication was resumed via a military hotline on Tuesday.

The Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, also said telephone lines installed at the border truce village of Panmunjom were restored.

Moon had called for a revival of the hotlines and offered a video summit with Kim to avoid the coronavirus, but Pyongyang has previously responded with scathing criticism, saying it had no intention to talk to Seoul.

North Korea has not formally confirmed any COVID-19 outbreaks, but it closed its borders and took strict anti-virus measures, seeing the pandemic as a matter of national survival.

Park said Moon and Kim have agreed to work together to fight the pandemic but did not discuss any possible summit, in-person or virtual.

The exchange of letters came ahead of Moon’s summit with U.S. President Joe Biden in May, where the leaders displayed their willingness to engage the North.

But it still remains to be seen whether Pyongyang was ready to return to negotiations, with Biden’s administration seeking a “reliable, predictable and constructive” way to bring progress.

“It’s just a reconnection of the lines they’d cut unilaterally,” said Moon Seong-mook, a retired South Korean military general who previously led inter-Korean talks.

“North Korea would still wonder what’s the point in talking to the South, as the North wants substantive easing of sanctions, but there’s nothing we can do on that.”

James Kim of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul said Pyongyang might mean to show some willingness to respond to U.S. overtures, but warned against reading too much into the latest move.

“We need to see some seriousness on Pyongyang’s part to move towards denuclearization for us to say that there is genuine progress,” Kim said.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Sangmi Cha and Jack Kim in Seoul and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Christopher Cushing, Gerry Doyle, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Giles Elgood)

North Korea warns U.S. misinterpreting signals risks disappointment

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) -The sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un warned the United States on Tuesday not to seek comfort in comments by her brother as this would end in disappointment, while a U.S. envoy met South Korea’s president aiming to revive talks with North Korea.

Kim Yo Jong, who is also a senior official in North Korea’s ruling party, released a statement in state media saying the United States appeared to be interpreting signals from North Korea in the “wrong way.”

She was responding to U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who on Sunday said he saw as an “interesting signal” a recent speech by Kim Jong Un on preparing for both confrontation and diplomacy with the United States.

“It seems that the U.S. may interpret the situation in such a way as to seek a comfort for itself,” she said in the statement, carried by the North’s KCNA state news agency.

“The expectation, which they chose to harbor the wrong way, would plunge them into a greater disappointment.”

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has been an intractable problem for Washington for years and in trying to change that, President Joe Biden’s administration conducted a review of policy and said it would seek “calibrated and practical” ways to persuade Pyongyang to denuclearize.

The U.S. special representative for North Korea, Sung Kim, has been visiting South Korea to meet senior officials, including President Moon Jae-in.

Moon told the U.S. envoy he would do his best to get inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea relations back on track and expressed hopes for progress toward denuclearization and peace on the Korean peninsula, his spokeswoman Park Kyung-mee said.

Sung Kim reaffirmed Biden’s support for meaningful inter-Korean dialogue and engagement and said he would “do his best for resumption of U.S.-North Korea talks”, Park said.

On Monday, Sung Kim said he was willing to meet the North Koreans “anywhere, anytime without preconditions” and that he looks forward to a “positive response soon.”

A U.S. official in Washington told Reuters the United States was aware of Kim Yo Jong’s comments and added: “Ultimately, we hope (North Korea) will respond positively to our outreach.

“We will continue to wait to see if these comments are followed up with any more direct communications about a potential path forward.”

The official, who did not want to be otherwise identified, said U.S. policy was not aimed at hostility, but “at solutions and ultimately achieving the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

“The United States is prepared to engage in diplomacy towards that ultimate objective, while working on practical measures that can help make progress along the way.”

‘CLEVER MOVE’

In a sign seen in South Korea as a positive U.S. gesture, the allies discussed scrapping a joint “working group” that analysts say Seoul has seen as an irritant in relations.

Sung Kim and his South Korean counterpart Noh Kyu-duk agreed to “look into terminating the working group,” while reinforcing coordination at other levels, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said.

The working group was set up in 2018 to help coordinate approaches to North Korea on issues such as denuclearization talks, humanitarian aid, sanctions enforcement and inter-Korean relations, amid a flurry of diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang at that time.

The Moon administration has made building ties with North Korea a top priority and a former aide to Moon told parliament last year the working group was seen as an obstacle to that.

“From a South Korean perspective, this was basically a mechanism for the U.S. to block inter-Korean projects during the Trump years,” said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a Korea expert at King’s College London.

“It would be a clever political move for the Biden administration to end the group since consultation between Washington and Seoul will take place anyway.”

North Korea has rebuffed U.S. entreaties for diplomacy since Biden took over from Donald Trump, who had three summits with Kim, but failed to persuade him to give up his nuclear weapons.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Sangmi Cha in Seoul and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel and Howard Goller)

Return the favor: South Korea looks to U.S. for COVID-19 vaccine aid

By Sangmi Cha

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea hopes the United States will help it tackle a shortage of coronavirus vaccine in return for test kits and masks Seoul sent to Washington earlier in the pandemic, the foreign minister said on Wednesday.

The government has drawn fire from the media for not doing enough to secure enough vaccines early, with just 3% of the population inoculated, due to tight global supply and limited access.

“We have been stressing to the United States that ‘A friend in need is a friend indeed,'” the minister, Chung Eui-yong, told reporters at the Kwanhun Club of South Korean journalists.

He said South Korea had airlifted Washington a large volume of coronavirus test kits and face masks in the early stages of the pandemic “in the spirit of the special South Korea-U.S. alliance,” despite tight domestic supply at the time.

“We are hoping that the United States will help us out with the challenges we are facing with the vaccines, based on the solidarity we demonstrated last year.”

The allies were in talks, added Chung, who also flagged South Korea’s potential contribution to preserving a global semiconductor supply chain U.S. President Joe Biden is keen to maintain.

Diplomatic efforts have not yielded any concrete steps, however, as the talks with Washington are still in an early stage, health ministry official Son Young-rae told reporters.

Opposition lawmaker Park Jin urged more aggressive vaccine diplomacy, calling for the government to invoke its free trade pact (FTA) with Washington to secure pharmaceutical products.

“The government needs to be more proactive,” Park told Reuters.

“The FTA provides us a legal base to demand (vaccines) as it stipulates the two countries’ commitment to promoting the development of, and facilitating access to, pharmaceutical products.”

The U.S. embassy in Seoul did not immediately reply to a Reuters’ request for comment.

About 1.77 million people in South Korea have had their first dose of the AstraZeneca Plc or Pfizer vaccines. The low rate compares with a 40% vaccination rate in the United States, according to Reuters data.

Tuesday’s 731 new coronavirus infections, up from 549 cases a day earlier, took South Korea’s tally to 115,926, with 1,806 deaths.

U.S.’ Blinken calls for global companies to reconsider financial support to Myanmar’s military

By Simon Lewis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday called on international companies to consider cutting ties to enterprises that support Myanmar’s military and he decried its crackdown on anti-coup protesters.

At least 512 civilians had been killed in nearly two months of protests against the coup, 141 of them on Saturday, the bloodiest day of the unrest, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners advocacy group.

Blinken told reporters the violence was “reprehensible” and followed a pattern of “increasingly disturbing and even horrifying violence” against demonstrators opposing military rule, including the killing of children as young as five.

The United States has condemned the Feb. 1 coup that ousted an elected government. Washington has imposed several rounds of sanctions, but Myanmar’s generals have refused to change course.

Blinken said other nations and companies worldwide should look at pulling “significant investments in enterprises that support the Burmese military.”

“They should be looking at those investments and reconsidering them as a means of denying the military the financial support it needs to sustain itself against the will of the people,” he said.

The United States last week placed Treasury sanctions on two military-owned conglomerates, which prevents U.S. companies and individuals from dealing with them.

But some companies, including firms from U.S. regional allies such as Japan and South Korea, still have business relationships with military-owned companies, according to activist groups.

Activists have also called on international energy companies like U.S.-based Chevron to withhold revenues from natural gas projects they operate in Myanmar from the junta-controlled government.

One of Myanmar’s main ethnic minority rebel groups warned of a growing threat of major conflict on Tuesday and called for international intervention against the military crackdown.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis; editing by Grant McCool)

Britain urges citizens to leave Myanmar as violence against protesters mounts

(Reuters) – Britain urged its citizens to leave Myanmar on Friday as security forces cracked down on more protests against the junta, forcing patients out of a hospital in the west of the country and arresting a Polish journalist.

After 12 people were killed on Thursday in one of the bloodiest days since the Feb. 1 coup, the British foreign office warned that “political tension and unrest are widespread since the military takeover and levels of violence are rising”.

Friday’s protests came as South Korea said it would suspend defense exchanges and reconsider development aid to Myanmar because of the violence.

More than 70 protesters have now been killed in the Southeast Asian nation since the military seized power, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) advocacy group said.

Memorials were held for some of them on Friday, including one man whose family said his body had been taken by the security forces and not returned.

A spokesman for the junta did not answer phone calls from Reuters seeking comment.

“Despite repeated demands of the international community, including South Korea, there are an increasing number of victims in Myanmar due to violent acts of the military and police authorities,” South Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

It said Seoul would suspend defense exchanges, ban arms exports, limit exports of other strategic items, reconsider development aid and grant humanitarian exemptions allowing Myanmar nationals to stay in South Korea until the situation improved.

Protests were held in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, and several other towns on Friday, photographs posted on social media by witnesses and news organizations showed. Many were dispersed by security forces.

Poland’s foreign ministry said a Polish journalist was arrested, the second foreign reporter to be detained. A Japanese journalist was briefly held while covering a protest.

Riot police and armed soldiers entered the general hospital in Hakha, in the western Chin state, forcing all 30 patients to leave and evicting staff from on-site housing, said local activist Salai Lian.

Soldiers have been occupying hospitals and universities across Myanmar as they try to quash a civil disobedience movement that started with government employees like doctors and teachers but has expanded into a general strike that has paralyzed many sectors of the economy.

The country has been in crisis since the army ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government last month, detained her and officials of her National League for Democracy party, and set up a ruling junta of generals.

Junta spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said on Thursday Suu Kyi had accepted gold and illegal payments worth $600,000 while in government. He said Phyo Min Thein, a former chief minister of Yangon, who is also in jail, had admitted making the payments.

Adding corruption charges to the accusations facing Suu Kyi, 75, could bring her a harsher penalty. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate currently faces four comparatively minor charges, such as illegally importing six walkie-talkie radios and flouting coronavirus curbs.

“This accusation is the most hilarious joke,” Suu Kyi’s lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said on social media on Friday. “She might have other weaknesses but she doesn’t have weakness in moral principle.”

‘CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY’

Thursday’s dead included eight people killed when security forces fired on a protest in the central town of Myaing, the AAPP said.

Chit Min Thu was killed in the North Dagon district of Yangon. His wife, Aye Myat Thu, told Reuters he had insisted on joining the protests despite her appeals that he stay at home for the sake of their son.

“He said it’s worth dying for,” she said through her tears. “He is worried about people not joining the protest. If so, democracy will not return.”

The bloodshed came hours after the U.N. Security Council had called for restraint from the army.

U.N. human rights investigator Thomas Andrews on Friday dismissed as “absurd” comments by a senior Myanmar official that authorities were exercising “utmost restraint”. Addressing the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, he called for a united approach to “strip away the junta’s sense of impunity.”

The army did not respond to requests for comment on the latest deaths, but junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun said on Thursday the security forces were disciplined and used force only when necessary.

Rights group Amnesty International accused the army of using lethal force against protesters and said many killings it had documented amounted to extra-judicial executions.

Suu Kyi fought for decades to overturn military rule under previous juntas before tentative democratic reforms began in 2011. She had spent a total of about 15 years under house arrest.

The army has justified taking power by saying that a November election, overwhelmingly won by Suu Kyi’s party, was marred by fraud – an assertion rejected by the electoral commission.

The junta has said a state of emergency will last for a year, but has not set a date for the election.

(Reporting by Reuters staff; Writing by Ed Davies and Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Clarence Fernandez and Catherine Evans)

North Korea enslaving political prisoners to fund weapons program: South Korea rights group

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea has been enslaving political prisoners, including children, in coal production to boost exports and earn foreign currency as part of a system directly linked to its nuclear and missile programs, a South Korea-based human rights group said on Thursday.

The Seoul-based Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR) released a study analyzing an intricate connection between North Korea’s exploitation of its citizens, the production of goods for export, and its weapons programs.

The report, titled “Blood Coal Export from North Korea: Pyramid scheme of earnings maintaining structures of power,” said Pyongyang had been operating a “pyramid fraud-like” scheme to force those held in prison camps to produce quotas of coal and other goods for export.

Its findings offered a deeper look into how the camps contribute to North Korea’s shady coal trade network, after the United Nations banned its commodity exports to choke off funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and after human rights agencies reported on gross rights violations within the camps.

There was no immediate reaction from North Korea’s diplomatic mission in Geneva to a request for comment.

North Korea violated United Nations sanctions to earn nearly $200 million in 2017 from banned commodity exports, according to a confidential report by independent U.N. monitors released in early 2018.

The NKHR report cited interviews with former prisoners who escaped to the South and other defectors with knowledge about the dealings, along with other sources such as satellite images, and data from the South Korean and U.S. governments.

The United Nations estimates up to 200,000 people are held in a vast network of gulags run by Stasi-like secret police, many of which are located near mining sites. A 2014 U.N. Commission of Inquiry report said the prisoners are facing torture, rape, forced labor, starvation and other inhumane treatment.

Last December, the United States imposed new sanctions, blacklisting six companies, including several based in China, and four ships accused of illicit exports of North Korean coal.

“Quotas of products for export are met through the enslaved labor of men, women and children in detention camps owned and operated by secret police,” the NKHR report said.

Camp 18, for example, is in the central mining county of Bukchang. Former prisoners interviewed by the NKHR reported at least 8 million tonnes of coal was produced there in 2016.

The secret police, formally known as the Ministry of State Security, handle shipments of goods exported by Bureau 39, a covert secret fund for leader Kim Jong Un’s family, with links to the production of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, the report added.

Joanna Hosaniak, deputy director general at the NKHR, said the investigation was intended to highlight the key role of the “state-sponsored system of slavery” in shoring up Kim’s political and financial power and its nuclear programs, just as U.S. President Joe Biden reviews his North Korea policy.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Kim Coghill)

Analysis: South Korea sees hope and threat in mixed message from North’s Kim

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean officials have seized on conciliatory comments by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on the weekend as a sign that tension could be easing but also worry the huge number of rockets he showcased is evidence that peace may be elusive.

Kim sent mixed signals as he addressed an unprecedented night-time military parade early on Saturday, wishing the neighboring Koreas would “hold hands” again after the novel coronavirus pandemic is over.

While much of the world was captivated by the appearance of a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), officials in South Korea were far more concerned by the display of new multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) and fast, maneuverable short-range missiles that would be ideal for striking targets in the South.

“The parade revealed not only an advanced ICBM but also MLRS that pose a direct threat to South Korea,” said South Korean opposition leader Kim Chong-in.

“They’ve not changed, their threats have grown even bigger.”

South Korean ruling party leader and former prime minister Lee Nak-yon said he took hope from Kim’s overture to the South as a “positive sign” but worried about what the display of new weapons said about North Korea’s intentions.

“North Korea showed advanced weapons including a new ICBM, which indicated it has not abandoned its resolve to develop weapons of mass destruction, and those weapons can threaten peace on the Korean peninsula,” Lee told a party meeting.

November’s U.S. election is compounding the uncertainty especially as the tone of ties between the two Koreas is often set by the state of North Korea’s relations with its old enemy the United States.

When a landmark summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018 brought an unprecedented easing of tension between those two countries, North Korea’s dealings with South Korea also saw a remarkable thaw.

But relations on the peninsula have been tense since a second summit between Kim and Trump collapsed last year, and they took another blow last month when North Korean troops shot dead a South Korean fisheries official detained at sea.

‘CROCODILE TEARS’

Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy in Seoul, said despite Kim’s conciliatory comments towards South Korea, his main message on Saturday was aimed at the United States.

“By showing a new ICBM, the North suggested they can test it any time if things don’t go well after the election. Inter-Korean ties don’t count to them,” Shin said.

The South Korean government said Kim’s speech would foster better ties but it urged North Korea to stick to agreements preventing armed clashes and accept a request for a joint investigation into the shooting of the fisheries official.

South Korean opposition leader Kim derided a teary display by Kim as he spoke of the sacrifices made by North Korea’s armed forces.

“It was appalling to see him shed crocodile tears after shooting our citizen to death,” he said.

Former South Korean nuclear negotiator Chun Yung-woo, pointing to North Korea’s extensive testing of MLRS and short-range missiles over the past year, while sticking to a moratorium on ICBM testing, said South Korea must not get carried away by hope for peace.

“All the media attention is on North Korea’s new strategic weapons but the most serious threat to our security is solid-fuel, short-range tactical missiles and MLRS that they’ve been madly testing over the past year,” Chun said.

“North Korea showed how it has focused on developing its capability to attack the South while our people have been absorbed in a peace campaign,” he said.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Josh Smith, Robert Birsel)

South Korea proposes compromise abortion law after landmark court ruling

By Sangmi Cha

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea on Wednesday proposed allowing abortion up until the fourteenth week of pregnancy as part of a new law designed to comply with a landmark ruling by the constitutional court that struck down a decades-long ban.

South Korea criminalized abortion in 1953 when its leaders wanted to boost the population, but exceptions to the law were introduced in 1973, including when the pregnancy was caused by a sexual crime.

However, the Constitutional Court overturned the ban in April last year, saying it unconstitutionally curbed women’s rights and ordering the government to come up with a new law.

Under the new proposal, abortion would be banned after 14 weeks except in the case of a sex crime, or if the health of the mother is at risk, or if the fetus shows signs of severe birth defects, in which case abortion would be allowed up to 24 weeks, the Justice Ministry said in a statement.

It also allowed the use of the drug mifepristone for performing abortions.

The proposal drew criticism from both sides of the debate, with women’s rights groups arguing that the law is still focused on punishing women.

Instead, any law should focus on how to safely provide the procedure, the Joint Action for Reproductive Justice in Seoul said in a statement.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea issued a statement opposing the justice ministry decision, saying that children should be protected “from the very moment of conception.”

Ahead of the court’s ruling, opinion polls showed around three-quarters of South Koreans supported dropping the ban.

South Korea has a fertility rate of 1.1 births per woman, the lowest of 198 countries and falling far behind the global average of 2.4, according to the 2020 United Nations Population Fund report.

What you need to know about the coronavirus right now

(Reuters) – Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now:

White House slams “corrupt” WHO

The White House pushed back on concerns expressed by the World Health Organization after a U.S. health official said a coronavirus vaccine might be approved without completing full trials.

The Washington Post newspaper reported that the administration of President Donald Trump would not join a global effort to develop, manufacture and distribute a coronavirus vaccine because of the involvement of the WHO.

About 172 countries are engaging with the WHO’s COVID-19 vaccine plan to ensure equitable access to vaccines, the organization has said.

“The United States will continue to engage our international partners to ensure we defeat this virus, but we will not be constrained by multilateral organizations influenced by the corrupt World Health Organization and China,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement.

India reopens

India’s coronavirus infections rose to almost 3.8 million on Wednesday, as states continued to relax rules on movement despite the surge in cases.

The country reported 78,357 new cases in the past 24 hours, according to federal health data, taking total infections to 3,769,523. Some 66,333 people have died.

India’s total cases lag only the United States and Brazil, which it will overtake in days based on current trends.

Authorities in the capital New Delhi are due to meet to discuss the reopening of the city’s metro, despite fresh cases there sitting at a two-month high.

In Sydney, the show must go on

Australia’s most-populous state reported the biggest daily jump in coronavirus infections in two weeks on Wednesday but said there were no plans to cancel the New Year fireworks show over Sydney Harbor, as new cases nationally also ticked up.

New South Wales state reported 17 new cases, the biggest one-day jump since Aug. 12, while nationally the count rose to 109 cases from 85 a day earlier.

Victoria state remained the hardest-hit region with 90 cases, although this was well down from its daily peak of more than 700 in early August at the height of a second wave of infections.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the state was pushing ahead with plans to host large events such as the New Years Eve fireworks over Sydney Harbor. “I think for a lot of people the fireworks represent hope.”

Elderly drive South Korea case surge

More than 40% of new coronavirus cases in South Korea are being found in people over the age of 60, contributing in part to a surge in the number of COVID-19 patients who are severely or critically ill, health authorities said on Wednesday.

The surge in cases over the past three weeks has depleted medical facilities, with less than 3% of hospital beds – or just nine – available for critical cases in greater Seoul, versus 22% about 10 days ago, the health ministry said.

South Korea is battling a second wave of infection, centered in the capital Seoul and surrounding areas which are home to 25 million people.

Pandemic ignites demand for home appliances

From sanitizing closets to customizable fridges, the coronavirus pandemic has fanned demand for home appliances – so much so that Samsung Electronics is adding warehouses and bringing popular products to more markets.

In particular, consumers have been willing to splurge on products that make their homes cleaner.

In Brazil and other emerging economies, households which once relied on maids are now investing in dishwashers and robot vacuum cleaners, while Samsung says its overseas sales of air purifiers jumped more than five times in January-July compared to the same period last year.

Samsung’s AirDresser, a closet that steam cleans clothes and kills bacteria, has seen a spike in sales. Big fridges have also climbed in popularity as people cooking more often at home seek more freezer space.

(Compiled by Linda Noakes; Editing by Alison Williams)

What you need to know about the coronavirus right now

(Reuters) – Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now:

Global records

India reported 78,512 new novel coronavirus infections on Monday, slightly fewer than its record set the previous day when it posted the biggest, single-day tally of infections of any country in the pandemic. On Sunday, India’s total of 78,761 new cases exceeded the previous record of 77,299 in the United States on July 16, a Reuters tally of official data showed.

Despite the surging case numbers, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been pushing for a return to normalcy to lessen the economic pain of the pandemic, having earlier imposed strict lockdowns of the country’s 1.3 billion people.

U.S. cases of the novel coronavirus surpassed 6 million on Sunday as many states in the Midwest reported increasing infections, according to a Reuters tally. While the United States has the most recorded infections in the world, it ranks tenth based on cases per capita.

More than eight months into the pandemic, the United States continues to struggle with testing. The number of people tested has fallen in recent weeks. Public health officials believe the United States needs to test more frequently to find asymptomatic coronavirus carriers to slow the spread of the COVID-19 disease.

Mutation found in Indonesia

A more infectious mutation of the new coronavirus has been found in Indonesia, the Jakarta-based Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology said on Sunday, as the Southeast Asian country’s caseload surges.

The “infectious but milder” D614G mutation of the virus has been found in genome sequencing data from samples collected by the institute, deputy director Herawati Sudoyo told Reuters, adding that more study is required to determine whether that was behind the recent rise in cases.

The strain, which the World Health Organization said was identified in February and has been circulating in Europe and the Americas, has also been found in neighboring Singapore and Malaysia.

Vaccine approval and use underway in China

Sinovac Biotech Ltd’s coronavirus vaccine candidate CoronaVac was approved for emergency use as part of a program in China to vaccinate high-risk groups such as medical staff, a person familiar with the matter said.

China National Biotec Group (CNBG), a unit of state-owned pharmaceutical giant China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm), also said it had obtained emergency use approval for a coronavirus vaccine candidate in social media platform WeChat last Sunday. CNBG, which has two vaccine candidates in phase 3 clinical trials, did not say which of its vaccines had been cleared for emergency use.

China has been giving experimental coronavirus vaccines to high-risk groups since July, though officially it has given little details on which vaccine candidates have been given to high-risk people under the emergency use program and how many people have been vaccinated.

Lighter traffic in Seoul; masks on in Auckland

Private tuition centers shut for the first time and traffic was lighter in South Korea’s capital on Monday, the first working day of tighter social-distancing rules designed to halt a second wave of coronavirus outbreaks.

The decision came after earlier restrictions on movement failed to prevent a second wave of coronavirus infections from erupting at churches, offices, nursing homes and medical facilities.

Meanwhile in Auckland, schools and businesses reopened on Monday after the lifting of a lockdown in New Zealand’s largest city to contain the resurgence of the coronavirus, but face masks were made mandatory on public transport across the country. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she was confident the new measure would be taken up across New Zealand, adding that “a bit of smiling with the eyes behind the mask” and kindness to Aucklanders in particular, would help get the country through the latest outbreak.

(Compiled by Karishma Singh; Editing by Jacqueline Wong)