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The digital detectives searching for North Korea’s disappeared

The digital detectives searching for North Korea’s disappeared
The digital detectives searching for North Korea’s disappeared

Lee Han-byeol has a favourite memory of her elder brother.

They were both teenagers in the 1990s, during the famine that devastated North Korea and is estimated to have killed hundreds of thousands of people. Impoverished, tired and hungry, the pair were travelling to pick up rice from relatives. They had been on the road overnight.

Lee’s eyes mist when she recalls how, as they walked through the darkness, Lee Se-il had swung her on to his back. As dawn broke, she clung wearily to his bony shoulders. “He really adored me,” she whispers, clutching a small black-and-white photo of him. By now, the tears are flowing steadily. “I hope I can see his face again.”

Lee, who fled North Korea through China in 1999, is now 38. Speaking in her small office in the northern outskirts of Seoul, South Korea’s capital, she says the last clear sighting of her brother was in 2009, when he was in the custody of the Kim regime after attempting to escape.

China’s security forces had apprehended him in the borderlands and he was transported back to North Korea. The owner of a guesthouse who had briefly harboured him relayed that he was beaten savagely, and that his hands and feet were wrapped in bandages because of acute frostbite.

Lee Han-byeol in a park outside of her home
Lee fled North Korea in 1999; the last sighting of her brother was a decade later © Ashley Crowther

A few years ago Lee attempted to find out more. She made phone calls and sent messages through a network of middlemen in China, and her family still inside North Korea bribed officials for information. The only result was a second-hand glimpse: he was apparently still in a prison camp in North Hamgyong province, near the country’s borders with China and Russia. Since then, no word. If her brother is still alive, he would be in his mid-forties.

As a statistic, Lee Se-il fits into a number of classifications. He is one of thousands of refugees who have escaped from North Korea into China only to be arrested and returned. He is one of hundreds of thousands to be detained in the kwanliso, the Kim regime’s political prison camps. And he is one of an unknown number, possibly millions, who have disappeared inside North Korea and who are feared lost to their families, and to history, for ever.

“There is no way to truly know whether they are alive or not,” Lee says. “I feel so heartbroken.”

Now entering its eighth decade, the “hermit kingdom” of North Korea remains heavily guarded from international observers; even western intelligence agencies struggle to acquire reliable information. Defectors such as Lee Han-byeol, who now spends much of her time working to bring other North Koreans safely to South Korea, are often the best sources, though details are scarce.

But just as North Korea’s disappeared seem on the point of vanishing from memory altogether, technology and the determination of a tireless group of activists are providing something that has evaded the families for years: hope.

In a small, bright office a few hundred metres from the presidential Blue House in Seoul, the Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG) is building a digital database. The ambition of this group of mostly South Korean academics, lawyers, cyber experts and human rights activists is to create an archive of every single person thought to have been detained, abducted or disappeared in North Korea since the 1950s.

The effort involves bringing together tens of thousands of documents, records, images and more. Working slowly and painstakingly, the group is also compiling and mapping other lists: the secret prisons, the execution sites, the mass graves, the identities of perpetrators. The project has been going for three years now; almost 20,000 files are already online and freely available, with an estimated 100,000 more waiting to be processed. It is named Footprints.

One of the early batches of documents loaded into the system included a UN Human Rights Council report that mentioned Lee Se-il. It noted that he had allegedly been “arrested by members of the national security service” after his repatriation. Lee Han-byeol’s hope is that, as the database expands and is used by others, more and more will be revealed. “Anyone can check the database. Someone might know about my brother’s situation,” she says. “It does give me a glimmer of hope.”

The story of North Korea’s mass disappearances dates back to the country’s beginnings. In early August 1945, Tokyo was on the point of surrendering to Allied forces and the question of what to do with Japan’s colonial empire loomed large. Korea had been occupied by the Japanese since 1910; the Americans’ fear was that, once Japanese forces departed, the Soviets would “occupy the entire peninsula and move quickly toward Japan”, as historian Don Oberdorfer has written.

Working late into the evening on August 10, just a day after the bombing of Nagasaki, two young US army officers, using a National Geographic map, proposed a solution: dividing Korea along the 38th parallel, about halfway down the peninsula. The southern zone would be controlled by Washington, the north by Moscow.

Map showing North and South Korea

For their puppet, the Russians chose a jowly 33-year-old guerrilla fighter who had waged war against the occupying Japanese forces in Manchuria. His name was Kim Song Ju, but he styled himself Kim Il Sung.

It was always Kim’s ambition to take back control of the peninsula. In June 1950, Soviet-built tanks stormed across the border, through Seoul and further south, igniting the Korean war. The surprise attack was almost successful, driving ill-prepared South Korean and US troops to a small enclave. It was only the bravery of South Korean suicide squads and US general Douglas Mac­Arthur’s daring landing in September that forced a North Korean retreat.

During that months-long occupation by the north, about 90,000 South Koreans are estimated to have been abducted, remaining in enemy hands as they moved back towards Pyongyang. While many were taken as slave labour, others were also targeted for specialist skills and experience.

One of those taken was Lee Seong-hwan, a young factory manager and army interpreter with a wife and two young children, who was snatched from the family home in eastern Seoul by North Korean soldiers. His daughter, Lee Mi-il, was just 18 months old when he was kidnapped; now 72, she still lives in the same neighbourhood and has dedicated her life to finding him and others. “My mother talked about my father a lot,” says Lee Mi-il in a thin rasp. “She believed that he was the greatest person in the world.”

Lee Mi-il in her office
Lee Mi-il photographed in her office; she still lives in the same neighbourhood as when her father was taken prisoner during the Korean war © Ashley Crowther

Lee Mi-il’s father, who was abducted when she was 18 months old
Lee Mi-il’s father, who was abducted when she was 18 months old © Ashley Crowther

The conflict became a brutal war of attrition; about three million Koreans on both sides — one in 10 — were killed, injured or went missing. When an armistice was finally signed in July 1953, the two sides were essentially back where they started, on the 38th parallel, with a demilitarised border zone between them. The agreement included provisions for the repatriation of prisoners of war, but 50,000 South Koreans were never released. Over the years, a small fraction of these PoWs and their families have made successful defections, carrying with them stories of slavery, torture and summary executions.

North Korea has remained in the grip of the Kim dynasty ever since. In 1994 Kim Il Sung was succeeded as supreme leader by his son Kim Jong Il, who in turn handed over to his son, Kim Jong Un, who has ruled for the past decade. An obsession with control and an intense fear of foreign influence have been hallmarks of the Kim ideology.

As Jung Pak, a former CIA officer and now a top adviser to US president Joe Biden, notes, Kim Il Sung began indoctrinating the North Korean people as early as 1955 with the doctrine of juche, or self-reliance, and his position as the suryong, sole leader. Pak writes that “the regime’s opaqueness, self-imposed isolation, robust counter-intelligence practices, and culture of fear and paranoia” make even “some of the most mundane pieces of information” difficult to obtain. International observers’ hopes that Kim Il Sung’s Swiss-educated grandson would prove a reformer have so far proved unfounded.

Photos of those missing after the Korean War on the wall of the Korean War Abductees’ Family Union
Photos of some of those missing after the Korean war on display at the Korean Abductees’ Family Union © Ashley Crowther

From the 1960s to the 1980s, hundreds more foreigners, mostly South Korean and Japanese citizens, were seized, often by North Korean agents. Some were abducted for particular skills: to teach foreign languages to North Korean spies, for instance. Among the most notorious cases was the 1969 hijacking of a South Korean passenger plane with 50 people on board; 11 never returned and their fate remains mysterious.

Others were abducted as brides for the few foreign men in the country; local women, raised on a diet of xenophobic propaganda, were repelled by foreigners. Charles Robert Jenkins, an American soldier detained in North Korea for four decades after drunkenly crossing the demilitarised zone in a brazen attempt to desert in 1965, was required to live with a Japanese woman who had herself been snatched while walking with her mother near her home. Women abducted from Thailand and Romania were forced into marriage with detained American soldiers.

There is also a third class of abductees: North Koreans who have disappeared inside the country into a vast system of labour and prison camps, usually sent there for committing crimes against the regime. Although the precise number is unclear, it is likely to be enormous: of more than 33,000 North Koreans who have managed to defect to South Korea since the late 1990s, nearly one in three has an immediate family member who has suffered this fate, according to surveys.

The void left by these disappearances is stark, and families often spend decades attempting to find some form of closure. Son Myung-hwa was born in North Korea in 1962 to a father who had been abducted by North Korean forces as a prisoner of war and spent his life as a forced labourer in a coal mine near Musan by the Chinese border, eventually dying in his fifties.

When Son succeeded in escaping to South Korea in 2005, she spent eight years attempting to get hold of her father’s remains — in the end making a risky trip to China to meet North Korean brokers who had promised to transport them. On July 4 2015, his bones were finally buried in a national cemetery in South Korea. “I had to restore my father’s honour,” she says.

Son Myung-hwa sheds tears as she talks about her father’s case
Son Myung-hwa was born in Korea in 1962 to a father who had been abducted by the regime © Ashley Crowther

Son Myung-hwa shows a picture of her father’s final burial after his remains were returned to his family in South Korea
Son shows a picture of the interment of her father’s remains when they were returned to South Korea © Ashley Crowther

For other families, getting hold of the most basic scraps of information — names, dates, details of disappearances, where bodies are buried — is as much as they can hope for. This is where the Footprints database comes in.

The TJWG, a non-governmental organisation, was set up after a 2014 special inquiry by the UN, which declared that the “gravity, scale and nature” of North Korea’s crimes against humanity “does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”.

With funding from the US government, and other private and public sources, plus technological support from a Geneva-based NGO, the group began by attempting to locate execution and burial sites in North Korea using a combination of eyewitness interviews and satellite imagery. It now employs digital tools including data visualisation and geolocation software, as well as providing secure storage for legal documents (in the hope of future trials) and photos of those who have disappeared. Sources range from public and private archives to new interviews and testimonials from defectors, including former North Korean officials.

A search for “Lee Se-il”, Lee Han-byeol’s brother, produces data such as the date and location of his disappearance, and which victim “type” he falls into: “Forced repatriation of escapee. Current status: unknown.” Another search tells a different story, equally threadbare. “Name: Lee Seong-hwan. Victim type: Korean war abductee. Current status: unknown.”

Lee Soon-geum, 59, an advocate for the families of those taken as prisoners of war, was among the first to record a video testimony for the archive. She says her father, a South Korean soldier, was sentenced to a life spent shovelling coal in mines at Aoji near the Chinese border.

As a child growing up in the mining town, she hated her father for having served in America’s “puppet army”; guilty by association, the family were constantly monitored. “We resented him,” she says. “I thought he should have died in the war.”

His fate was grim: in 1996, he was executed along with her younger brother. Labelled “spies and reactionary scum”, the pair were tortured, possibly for months, before being displayed to relatives, bound and gagged, then shot. Their crime, she believes, was speaking out against the regime. Lee Soon-geum was forced to watch.

“My brother looked down at me and looked into my eyes, and I saw him shedding tears,” she says, her words punctuated by pain-filled sobs. She eventually managed to flee to South Korea in 2004.

Lee Soon-geum in her office
Lee Soon-geum works as an advocate for the families of those taken as prisoners of war © Ashley Crowther

A South Korean flag hangs in Lee Soon-geum’s office
A South Korean flag hanging in her office © Ashley Crowther

First-hand evidence such as this, researchers hope, is a means of pressuring Pyongyang to address human rights issues thought still to be widespread in the country of 26 million people.

By obtaining GPS co-ordinates of hundreds of sites where they believe bodies have been disposed of, and linking them with documents, researchers now think they can track where some kwanliso prison camps are located, as well torture and execution facilities. (For fear of tipping off the authorities in Pyongyang, many of the details they have acquired have not been made public.)

The database also has another purpose: to draw international attention to the plight of the Korean missing. When it comes to writing about North Korea, argue activists, the global media all too often prefer to focus on rocket launches and nuclear tests, oddball haircuts and militaristic parades, rather than the human stories of those who have disappeared. “No one listens to us, no matter how much we shout about it,” says Lee Soon-geum.

Even people in South Korea often have little inkling of their close connection to events. When Daye Yoon, an IT expert, was hired by the TJWG in 2018 to help with data security (including threats from North Korean hackers), she knew little about her own family history — just sketchy details of her paternal grandfather, who died in an incident somehow related to the north. Her parents wouldn’t be drawn on the details.

After chatting in the office, her colleague looked up a list of South Korean fishermen abducted in 1968: among them was her grandfather.

The discovery has persuaded her of the value of the work the TJWG is doing, she explains, but she still can’t bring herself to discuss what happened with her parents. “I don’t want to make them sad,” she says. “But when I started working here, my mother told me that this was probably my destiny.”

As the Footprints database reveals more and more of the internal architecture of North Korea’s shadowy apparatus of repression, activists hope that it can help prepare for a future in which the country is no longer a dictatorship but some form of democracy, and in which there might finally be a legal reckoning.

“We are sending a signal to the North Korean elites,” says Ethan Hee-Seok Shin, one of the TJWG’s co-founders. The message is that “one should tread carefully, otherwise you can be subject to a criminal-justice mechanism after the transition”.

The Transitional Justice Working Group in their office
The Transitional Justice Working Group wants to build an archive of every person detained, abducted or disappeared in North Korea since the 1950s © Ashley Crowther

The team in Seoul are following in the footsteps of transitional justice researchers in places such as the former East Germany, where archivists have spent years reconstructing and combing through Stasi files — sometimes piecing together shredded documents by hand — to track the activities of the communist regime and help Germans come to terms with the past.

Another inspiration for Footprints was research done in Guatemala after its civil war, which ended in 1996. Tracking down people who had perpetrated killings, disappearances and other war crimes was difficult: high-ranking officers’ names had often been left off authorisation documents. But researchers were ultimately able to use government records of promotions to ascertain who had been in charge. TJWG interviewers make sure to ask every defector questions about official records, in the hope that one day their locations might be accessed.

Scott Stevens, a Canadian who co-founded the TJWG and is now its communications director, found himself in the field after moving to Seoul in 2012 and working in education. After volunteering with defectors and activists, and visiting North Korea as a tourist in 2013, he became fascinated by the country and its people. Even apparently innocuous pieces of information can be precious, he explains: “Everything from chain of command to responsibility or who’s making these decisions at what level. All of that can be really useful for accountability processes down the line.”

Again, Stevens draws lessons from history: people who worked in Cambodia in the 1990s after the fall of the Khmer Rouge learnt how important it was to locate grave sites as early as possible “so that investigations can proceed more quickly when the opportunity comes”. In the end, more than 20,000 grave sites were uncovered there after the regime’s collapse.

Not everyone believes the TJWG’s approach is the right one. By publicising individual families and stories, there are real dangers that people still living in North Korea might suffer reprisals, say experts.

Figures in South Korea’s foreign policy establishment instead advocate a “trade-off”: try to improve the lives of ordinary North Koreans through engagement and economic interaction, rather than by advocating for human rights. “Once we raised the human rights issues up-front, then North Korea regarded it as a hostile effort to undermine the regime,” says one former senior official in Seoul who has dealt with North Korea. (They asked not to be named.) “I can tell you one thing for sure: ‘megaphone diplomacy’ for human rights will never improve human rights conditions in North Korea.”

There is also a risk that identifying perpetrators and apportioning blame at this stage might undermine efforts from within to encourage reform, says Sokeel Park, a Seoul-based activist who leads a group called Liberty in North Korea that has helped many people escape and build lives elsewhere. Efforts should focus on how, in places such as Egypt under Hosni Mubarak or communist Europe, the wider world signalled to people within those societies that it was in their interests for regime change to happen.

Maps from North Korea used by the TJWG
Maps from North Korea used for research by the TJWG © Ashley Crowther

Powerful people in North Korea must be won over to the cause of change, says Park: “We need to try and make sure that we don’t unwittingly persuade the relevant people inside the country that that transition would be very bad for them.”

Shin isn’t convinced. Activists such as TJWG can’t afford to wait until after the regime collapses, he says, as happened in other countries. Moreover, many people with first-hand knowledge of atrocities are in their final years. “People weren’t ready. Everything was happening so fast and nobody was really prepared in advance,” he says of post-war Germany and Japan. “We want to avoid that kind of scenario by having these records, having the personnel files of the victims and perpetrators ready,” he says, adding, “It is a race against time.”

When South Korea’s national assembly building was constructed in the early 1970s, the architects were given a unique instruction for the fan-shaped debating chamber: leave space so that representatives from the north might one day be included.

These dreams have faded for many: the two countries have travelled such different paths since 1945 that it is hard to see how they might one day be united. But over the past four years, South Korean president Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer and the child of North Korean refugees, has staked his legacy on making reunification a priority.

With the unlikely support of US president Donald Trump, the two sides edged closer. In late April 2018, Moon hosted Kim at a lavish summit at Panmunjom, where the armistice was signed in 1953, and the two leaders embraced. As well as voicing lofty commitments to disarm and denuclearise the Korean peninsula, they agreed to “solve” the reunion of separated families and relatives.

But there has been little practical progress, with Seoul’s Ministry of Unification struggling to negotiate with its counterparts in Pyongyang. In the past 20 years, only about 60 families have participated in brief, temporary state-organised reunions. Now, as Moon reaches the final months of his presidency, reunification appears as far away as ever.

Meanwhile, international attention has waxed and waned. Neither admonishments by the US government nor frequent calls by the UN for North Korea to address the situation of those in prison camps or who have suffered torture have resulted in significant change. Biden has signalled North Korean human rights will be given more prominence under his administration. But analysts expect Kim’s nuclear weapons to remain his focus.

Time is of the essence, and not just politically. In the aftermath of the Korean war, the search for those abducted was led by parents looking for lost children and wives for husbands; later the task was taken on by grown-up children hoping to one day meet parents they never knew. But memories of that era are disappearing fast. South Korean cities are unrecognisable even to those who grew up there in the 1960s and 1970s; young people feel more remote from the past, and from family connections they once had to North Korea.

According to a survey that tracks South Korean attitudes towards “peace and reconciliation” run by the state-backed Korea Institute for National Unification, it is not just interest in the idea of reunification that is fading, but in the topic of the split altogether. People in their twenties and thirties ranked highest on “the division not affecting their lives”.

Leighanne Yuh at Korea University in Seoul says she has been “genuinely surprised” by the pace at which disconnection from North Korea has become mainstream. “There was this affinity with North Korea, and this general sense that we’re all the same people,” she says. “But as more and more time has progressed, that feeling has waned. My students have even expressed that they feel like North Koreans are a different ethnicity — which I found pretty shocking — and the cultural differences, they feel, are also too great.”

Lee Han-byeol holds an image of her brother outside her apartment in Seoul
Lee Han-byeol holds an image of her brother outside her apartment in Seoul © Ashley Crowther

The TJWG is under no illusions about how hard it is to remind people of the past. But the group insists there is progress. Its data have already been deployed in direct questions to the North Korean government at the UN, for example probing Pyongyang’s use of the death penalty. Publicising testimonials from escapees has helped rekindle public attention.

Possibly the most tangible impact is memorialisation, argues Stevens: allowing families the opportunity to mark what has happened to loved ones. Many relatives no longer hope for a family member to be returned or even that they’ll be able to exhume a body, he says: it’s enough for a disappearance to be officially noted. “They were just happy to tell someone and if they’re going to pass away, then maybe this information will be recorded.”

Recording and reminding are Lee Han-byeol’s tasks too. Holding the photograph of Lee Se-il, her lost brother, and talking of the countless others who have gone, she says: “I just hope people remember them by their name, not just as numbers.”

Edward White is the FT’s Seoul correspondent and Kang Buseong is an FT reporter in Seoul

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Beijing official says ‘real enemies’ want Hong Kong to be ‘pawn in geopolitics’

Beijing official says ‘real enemies’ want Hong Kong to be ‘pawn in geopolitics’
Beijing official says ‘real enemies’ want Hong Kong to be ‘pawn in geopolitics’

The main representative of the Chinese government in Hong Kong said on Saturday people trying to turn the city into a “pawn in geopolitics” were the “real enemies” and Beijing was the true defender of the city’s special status.

Luo Huining, director of China’s Hong Kong Liaison Office, told a forum that the financial hub, a former British colony handed over to China in 1997, remained one of the world’s most competitive economies, the South China Morning Post reported.

“Those trying to turn Hong Kong into a pawn in geopolitics, a tool in curbing China, as well as a bridgehead for infiltrating the mainland, are destroying the foundation of one country, two systems,” Luo said, referring to the formula agreed when Britain handed the city back aimed at preserving its freedoms and role as a financial hub.

“They are the real enemies of Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability,” he said, without identifying any people or groups.

Luo said the ruling Communist Party was “the creator, leader, implementer and defender of one country, two systems.”

Despite such assurances, many Hong Kong residents have over recent years become worried about what they see as attempts by Beijing to curtail its freedoms.

China denies that.

The Liaison Office did not answer calls outside normal business hours to confirm the contents of the speech and it did not immediately respond to faxed questions.

Unease among many Hong Kong residents grew in 2014 when pro-democracy protesters took to the streets to demand universal suffrage. Demonstrations snowballed again in 2019, sparked by opposition to judicial reform that many people saw as a threat to their way of life.

Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the city last June stifling the pro-democracy movement and raising new concerns about the city’s prospects.

The law’s supporters say it has restored order and improved prospects for the city’s economy, which Luo said was among the world’s most competitive despite fears it would deteriorate under Chinese rule.

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Hong Kong democracy activist Agnes Chow released from prison

Hong Kong democracy activist Agnes Chow released from prison
Hong Kong democracy activist Agnes Chow released from prison

Hong Kong democracy activist Agnes Chow was released Saturday from prison on the second anniversary of the city’s huge democracy rallies, with police out in force and protests now all but banned.

Some 2,000 officers have been placed on standby after social media calls for residents to commemorate the failed democracy demonstrations.

Authorities have kept a coronavirus prohibition on public gatherings despite the city recording just three local infections in the last month.

A Beijing-imposed national security has also criminalized much dissent and most of the city’s democracy leaders have been arrested, jailed or fled overseas.

On Saturday morning, one of those figures walked free from prison.

Chow, 24, was mobbed by waiting media but made no comment as she was driven away.

Chow hails from a generation of activists who cut their teeth in politics as teenagers and became an inspiration for those who chafe under Beijing’s increasingly authoritarian rule.

She spent about seven months behind bars for her role in a 2019 protest outside the city’s police headquarters. Fellow youth activists Joshua Wong and Ivan Lam were sentenced in the same case.

Pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow us released from prison Saturday after serving nearly seven months for her role in an unauthorized assembly during Hong Kong's 2019 anti-government protests. | REUTERS
Pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow us released from prison Saturday after serving nearly seven months for her role in an unauthorized assembly during Hong Kong’s 2019 anti-government protests. | REUTERS

Fluent in Japanese, Chow has a sizable following in Japan, particularly on social media and had traveled to the country frequently before her arrest. She often tweeted in Japanese and has been dubbed the “goddess of democracy” by Japan’s media.

Chow’s release comes at a sensitive time.

Two years ago on June 12, thousands of protesters surrounded the city’s legislature in an attempt to stop the passage of a bill that could have allowed extraditions to mainland China’s opaque judicial system.

Riot police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the huge crowds.

Footage of the clashes deepened public anger, and fueled what became an increasingly violent movement calling for full democracy that raged for seven straight months.

Huge crowds rallied week after week in the most serious challenge to China’s rule since Hong Kong’s 1997 handover.

Beijing’s leaders have dismissed the call for democracy, portraying those who protested as stooges of “foreign forces” trying to undermine China.

They have since overseen a sweeping crackdown that has successfully curbed dissent and radically transformed the once outspoken semi-autonomous city.

The spear tip of that crackdown is the national security law.

More than 100 people have been arrested under the new law, including Chow, although she has not yet been charged.

Dozens have been charged, including jailed pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai.

Most have been denied bail and they face up to life in prison if convicted.

Protests have been all but illegal for the last year in Hong Kong but anniversary events can focus attention.

On Friday, two activists from Student Politicism, a pro-democracy group, were arrested on suspicion of advertising an unauthorized assembly.

Last week, authorities banned an annual candlelight vigil to commemorate victims of Beijing’s deadly 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

But many Hong Kongers still quietly signaled defiance by turning on mobile phone lights and lighting candles that evening.

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G7 to counter China’s Belt and Road initiative with infrastructure project

G7 to counter China’s Belt and Road initiative with infrastructure project
G7 to counter China’s Belt and Road initiative with infrastructure project

The Group of Seven rich nations will announce on Saturday a new global infrastructure plan as a response to China’s Belt and Road Intiative (BRI), a senior official in U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration said.

The official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, said the United States would also push the other G7 leaders for “concrete action on forced labor” in China, and to include criticism of Beijing in their final communique

“This is not just about confronting or taking on China,” the official said. “But until now we haven’t offered a positive alternative that reflects our values, our standards and our way of doing business.”

China’s BRI is a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure project launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping involving development and investment initiatives that would stretch from Asia to Europe and beyond.

More than 100 countries have signed agreements with China to cooperate in BRI projects like railways, ports, highways and other infrastructure.

According to a Refinitiv database, as of mid-last year, more than 2,600 projects at a cost of $3.7 trillion were linked to the initiative, although the Chinese Foreign Ministry said last June that about 20% of projects had been seriously affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March, Biden said he had suggested to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is hosting the three-day G7 leaders’ summit in southwest England, that democratic countries should develop their own rival plan.

The U.S. official said until now, the West had failed to offer a positive alternative to the “lack of transparency, poor environmental and labor standards, and coercive approach” of the Chinese government that had left many countries worse off.

“So tomorrow we’ll be announcing ‘build back better for the world,’ an ambitious new global infrastructure initiative with our G7 partners that won’t just be an alternative to the B and I (Belt and Road),” the official said.

In talks, Biden will also press the other leaders to make clear that they believe forced labor practices were an affront to human dignity and “an egregious example of China’s unfair economic competition” to show that they were serious about defending human rights.

“We’re pushing on being specific on areas like Xinjiang where forced labor is taking place and where we have to express our values as a G7,” the official said of the final communique to be issued at the end of the summit on Sunday,

There were no specifics on how the global infrastructure plan would be funded. The plan would involve raising hundreds of billions in public and private money to help close a $40 trillion infrastructure gap in needy countries by 2035, the official said

The aim was to work with Congress to supplement existing development financing “with the hope that together with G7 partners, the private sector and other stakeholders we soon be collectively catalyzing hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure investment for low and middle income countries that need it.”

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Elections won’t solve Iran’s terror finance problem

Elections won’t solve Iran’s terror finance problem
Elections won’t solve Iran’s terror finance problem

More than a year after the anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing watchdog Financial Action Task Force (FATF) blacklisted Iran as a “high-risk jurisdiction” subject to a call for action, debate on the ratification of FATF-related bills has been rekindled in Tehran.

Reformists are blaming conservatives for stonewalling the normalization of the country’s banking and trade relations with the outside world – an issue that will indirectly factor in the June 18 presidential election where a conservative candidate will almost certainly win.

Headquartered in Paris, FATF is an intergovernmental body set up by the G7 in 1989 to draw up binding regulations to combat money laundering. In 2001, its mission was broadened to develop policies to counter terror financing.

Once a country is placed on the FATF’s blacklist, other jurisdictions are urged to exercise caution and in most cases enforce counter-measures in dealing with them to shield the international financial system from money laundering and terror financing.

At present, only two countries are blacklisted by the FATF: Iran and North Korea.

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China’s sea-level rise raises threat to economic hubs to extreme

China’s sea-level rise raises threat to economic hubs to extreme
China’s sea-level rise raises threat to economic hubs to extreme

Economic impact of sea-level rise in Shanghai and surrounding areas. Map and charts showing 2019 purchasing power parity GDP exposure ($m, 2015) in areas affected by local sea level rise plus the added height of a local annual flood in 2100 under a business as usual scenario

Trillions of dollars of economic activity along China’s east coast, including $974bn in Shanghai alone, are exposed to oceans rising as a result of climate change this century, according to Financial Times analysis of unpublished data.

When fine-grained gross domestic product and population data is mapped against projections of rising oceans for the year 2100, it shows that some of China’s most important commercial hubs could suffer from higher tides and annual flooding, unless drastic cuts are made to greenhouse gas emissions.

The analysis combines sea-level estimates by Climate Central, a US-based non-profit, with unpublished data from researchers in Finland that breaks down 2019 purchasing power parity GDP per capita and uses population density to work out grid-by-grid estimates of growth.

The economic might of Shanghai, the leading Chinese financial centre built between the Yangtze River estuary and Hangzhou Bay, is most exposed to sea-level rise, with an estimated $973.7bn of 2019 GDP at risk.

Two cities within 100km to the west of Shanghai — Suzhou and Jiaxing — were ranked second and third out of the 34 cities in the data set, with $330.4bn and $128.8bn of 2019 GDP exposed respectively.

Beyond the densely populated metropolitan centres, other critical pieces of China’s industrial supply chains and high-tech research and development zones also face similar risks.

Among industrial landmarks found in the highly exposed areas are the headquarters of Alibaba; China’s largest ecommerce platform in Hangzhou city; the Suzhou industrial park that is home to Panasonic’s new China headquarters; and Tesla’s Shanghai gigafactory.

Economic impact of sea-level rise in Guangzhou and surrounding areas. Map and charts showing 2019 purchasing power parity GDP exposure ($m, 2015) in areas affected by local sea level rise plus the added height of a local annual flood in 2100 under a business as usual scenario

China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment did not respond to a request for comment about the FT’s analysis.

Although tides are unlikely to rise to levels that would submerge infrastructure for decades, researchers warn that intensifying floods, storm damage and soil erosion, as well as reduced fresh water supplies, threaten to undermine economic growth far before then.

Separate estimates have also underscored the high levels of exposure for major Chinese commercial and manufacturing centres.

Guangzhou and Dongguan, both in southern Guangdong province’s Pearl river delta, sit at the top of a global ranking of flood-vulnerable cities from Maplecroft, a research firm based in Bath, UK.

The low-lying nature of the delta means that “even conservative sea level rise projections have serious implications for the region’s economy”, with about a fifth of Guangzhou’s urban area classified as high or extreme risk, Maplecroft wrote last year.

Global sea levels continue to rise. Chart showing annual change in global ocean mean sea level (cm) since 1993. In 1993, the annual change was less than one centimetre, by 2020 it had increased to more than 9cm

Despite the high degree of exposure, the effect of sea-level rise on economic growth has traditionally received little public attention in China.

China’s ocean administration releases annual reports tracking sea-level rise and storm surge. Chinese cities have built thousands of kilometres of seawalls and dykes in areas such as the Pearl river delta.

But neither the Chinese government nor researchers have as yet released global public estimates of rising sea levels for the coming decades. Officials have in the past rejected international projections, including those from Climate Central. 

Attention to the issue may be shifting, however, after President Xi Jinping elevated climate change mitigation by pledging China would reach “carbon neutrality” by 2060.

The annual blue book published by China’s National Climate Center in August 2020 said that, from 1980 to 2019, the average sea-level rise along China’s coasts was 3.4mm per year — 0.2mm per year above the global average.

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South Korea’s opposition picks Harvard graduate to lead push to power

South Korea’s opposition picks Harvard graduate to lead push to power
South Korea’s opposition picks Harvard graduate to lead push to power

South Korea’s main opposition party picked a 36-year-old who has never served in parliament as its leader, turning to a reform advocate as it tries to reclaim the presidency next year.

The People Power Party voted Friday to select Lee Jun-seok as its leader, making the Harvard University graduate the youngest person to control the post for the main conservative bloc. He received 44% of the vote, ahead of the nearest contender, Na Kyung-won, a former parliamentary floor leader, who garnered 37%, according to the party.

Lee is seeking to appeal to younger people who feel the system favors the rich and connected, crucial swing voters who may decide who leads the country after President Moon Jae-in’s single five-year term ends in May. The new PPP chief has vowed to introduce “qualification tests” for would-be lawmakers, including testing their ability to use basic computer programs.

“Through this change, we will reform and we will win,” Lee said after the vote. “I am fully aware that there are people worried about my ideas, but the Korean people would see our moves as our fierce attempt and willingness for a change.”

Lee is too young to seek the presidency, with the South Korean constitution requiring a person be at least 40 years of age. PPP lawmakers said the group was look to entice the country’s former top prosecutor, Yoon Seok-youl, to run under their banner.

Moon handpicked Yoon to lead his charge against corruption, but the top prosecutor later faced backlash from Moon for launching graft probes into the president’s administration. Yoon is at the top, or near the top, of several polls to replace the president.

The rising star for the ruling progressives is Gyeonggi province Gov. Lee Jae-myung, who is the leading candidate for the ruling party in opinion polls with his signature policy of a universal basic income.

The conservative bloc has been trying to reform its image after Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye — conservatives who served back-to-back as presidents — were imprisoned for corruption. New PPP leader Lee joined the conservatives under Park and later became a prominent critic of her as she faced criminal allegations.

Conservatives made a rare apology for the corruption of their past presidents in December. The gesture was aimed at luring back swing voters who lost faith in the group, often seen as closely tied to big business and the military-backed government that suppressed civil rights until the late 1980s.

The PPP trails the ruling Democratic Party by about four percentage points, according to a Gallup Korea weekly tracking poll on Friday. But 57% of recipients who identified as “swing voters” disapproved of Moon’s presidency, the Gallup poll said, compared with 38% who approved.

“Our top priority is to win the presidential election next year,” Lee Jun-seok said. “During that process, I will reform this party, where various presidential candidates and their supporters may coexist.”

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