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North Korea’s vow to shut Punggye-ri nuclear site appears mostly symbolic

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“If reports are true that the tunnels have collapsed, then the test site would be useless for future nuclear tests anyway, so it would just be a symbolic gesture to close it down,” said Duyeon Kim, visiting senior fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum. “It’s not a serious or sincere gesture to denuclearize.”

The possible closure of Punggye-ri was telegraphed by Kim Jong Un nearly a week before his summit with Moon.

“We no longer need any nuclear tests, mid-range and intercontinental ballistic rocket tests, and … the nuclear test site in the northern area has also completed its mission,” the dictator said in a statement on the state-run Korean Central News Agency on April 21.

Kim Jong Un claims to have developed an intercontinental ballistic missile that’s capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.

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In his New Year’s Day address, Kim Jong Un claimed that “a nuclear button is always on my desk” and the “entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons.” However, analysts say that based on the current evidence it’s hard to prove or debunk North Korea’s claim that it could hit targets such as New York or Washington.

If Punggye-ri were shuttered permanently, it may have an impact on North Korea’s ability to conduct further testing in the short term, but wouldn’t substantially impact their existing weapons program.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they are already digging a new test site or if they decide to forego explosive tests” and instead carry out nuclear tests in labs, Duyeon Kim said. “Advanced nuclear states don’t need to conduct explosive tests after a certain point, so Pyongyang might be trying to show it is a part of that nuclear club.”

Image: Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in on April 27, 2018
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (left) meets with South Korean President Moon Jae-in (right) before their summit on Friday.KCNA via KNS / AFP Photo

In September, Punggye-ri was the site of North Korea’s sixth and most powerful test.

Independent experts continue to debate the type and the size of the weapon used during that test, but the U.S. Air Force Technical Applications Center, which monitors and assesses nuclear activity worldwide, reportedly estimated the weapon’s magnitude to have been between 70-280 kilotons.

Such a weapon would be as much as 18 times more devastating than the atomic weapon used to destroy Hiroshima in 1945.

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COVID-19: Israel bans all passenger flights in and out of country | World News

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Israel is banning all passenger flights in and out of the country to tackle the coronavirus pandemic and prevent variants from getting a foothold among its population.

The announcement came as Israeli police clashed in a number of cities with ultra-Orthodox protesters who are resisting the coronavirus safety rules, Associated Press reported.

Authorities are struggling to enforce COVID-19 requirements, including social distancing, in ultra-Orthodox communities throughout the country, contributing to one of the world’s highest rates of infection.

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One-in-five Israelis now vaccinated

The infection rate among the community also threatens to undermine the Israeli government’s successful vaccine campaign, which has seen the country vaccinate over a quarter of its 9.2 million people.

But infection rates remain high, with an average of over 8,000 new cases reported every day.

Late on Sunday evening, the Israeli Cabinet approved measures to close nearly all incoming and outgoing air traffic, with exceptions for humanitarian travel such as for a funeral or for medical patients.

The order still requires parliamentary legislation to be made lawful and will last until the end of January, according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

He said: “Today we are closing Ben-Gurion International Airport. Contrary to what is being said, we are ahead of the whole world. No country has done what we are about to do.

“We are hermetically closing the skies apart from very rare exceptions in order to prevent the entry of mutated viruses and in order to ensure that we will advance quickly with our vaccines operation.

“I would like to emphasise that just this week, in which we are approving closing the skies, we will vaccinate another approximately one million Israelis.”

“We are thereby ensuring that the damage from the mutation, if it enters, and from additional variants, if they enter, will be much smaller, and of course, we will be able to open our economy,” Mr Netanyahu said.

“Until now we have vaccinated approximately 2.5 million Israeli citizens with the first dose of the vaccine. Of these, around one million citizens have received the second dose,” the prime minister concluded.

Experts say that a lack of compliance with safety regulations in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox communities has been a major factor in the spread of the virus.

Despite making up just over 10% of the country’s population, the Orthodox community accounts for more than a third of Israel’s COVID-19 cases.

The country’s police force have been reluctant to confront the community, reported Associated Press, with clashes in one city leading to an officer firing into the air to keep a crowd at bay.

Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives his vaccination
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Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has received a jab

Israel has recorded over 595,000 positive cases since the start of the pandemic and over 4,361 deaths.

The worst unrest on Sunday occurred in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, where large crowds of young men clashed with police and threatened journalists, prompting one police officer to fire his pistol into the air.

Associated Press reported how in Jerusalem police fired tear gas and putrid-smelling water to disperse hundreds of ultra-Orthodox residents outside a reopened school while the demonstrators called the police “Nazis”.

“I expect all citizens of Israel to respect the safety guidelines. That includes all the sectors, including the ultra-Orthodox,” said Mr Netanyahu, who is relying on ultra-Orthodox support in the upcoming elections.

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COVID-19: Joe Biden to reimpose travel ban on UK and European Union – reports | US News

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US President Joe Biden is set to reimpose a number of travel bans that were repealed by his predecessor, according to the Reuters news agency.

Mr Biden is also set to put a travel ban in place to arrivals from South Africa, apparently over fears of the new coronavirus variant discovered in the country.

Donald Trump lifted travel restrictions between the US and Brazil and Europe two days before he left office – a decision Joe Biden will imminently rescind through an executive order.

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Joe Biden makes sombre warning to Americans

Speaking to the Reuters news agency, anonymous sources said the new president will announce the move on Monday, that will stop entry into the US from European Union countries, the UK, Brazil and South Africa.

The move has been confirmed to the news agency by the principal director of the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), Dr Anne Schuchat, who said: “We are adding South Africa to the restricted list because of the concerning variant present that has already spread beyond South Africa.”

She added the agency was “putting in place this suite of measures to protect Americans and also to reduce the risk of these variants spreading and worsening the current pandemic”.

The CDC is concerned that vaccines may be less effective against the COVID-19 variant discovered in South Africa, adding it is up to 50% more infectious than other versions of the virus.

Mr Biden has been seen as taking swift action on COVID-19 in the early days of office, and has already signed executive orders imposing mandatory mask wearing and social distancing on government properties across the US.

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The UK has also been mulling the idea of full border closures as part of the current lockdown, in an effort to limit the introduction of further variants into the country.

At the moment, flights arriving in to the UK from South America and Portugal are banned, with all other arrivals required to quarantine for 10 days.

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Mexico: 19 burned bodies found near town of Camargo on US border | World News

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Nineteen bodies have been found near a Mexican town on the US border which has seen a number of gang-related disputes in recent years.

The bodies, which had been shot and burned, were discovered on a dirt road close to the town of Camargo, across the Rio Grande from Texas, after complaints from locals about a burning vehicle, according to the Tamaulipas state prosecutor’s office.

Officials found two vehicles on fire – one containing 15 bodies and the other containing four.

All the bodies had been shot, but no shells were found nearby, leading authorities to believe they had been killed elsewhere.

An official said that the killings had happened on Friday, but locals had been too afraid to report them.

Camargo has faced high numbers of drug and migrant smuggling incidents in recent years, with gangs trying to win control of large stretches of the border with the aim of making money on items passing through.

Historically, the town has been run by the Gulf cartel, but has faced competition in recent years from the Northeast cartel, which is trying to take over.

In January last year, 21 bodies were found in vehicles close to the nearby town of Ciudad Mier, with the Mexican army killing 11 alleged gunmen days later.

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