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Hyun Mi was 13 years old when she fled Pyongyang with her parents and five siblings to escape fighting on the Korean Peninsula. Chinese troops were approaching the North Korean capital and her family planned to hide further south until they passed.

“I thought it would be a week, but that week became 70 years,” said Hyun, now 83.

But now, for the first time since the family fled, Hyun has been able to visit her childhood home — or at least a version of it — using virtual reality technology.

In the absence of real-life family reunions, the South Korean government is hoping a new virtual reality project will provide some comfort to aging North Korean refugees who fear that time is running out.

Fleeing North Korea

Thousands of people like Hyun fled North Korea during the Korean War in the 1950s, across the border into China and Russia. Many ended up in South Korea.

Picture released on December 26, 1950 of Korean civilians escorted by a military police jeep, fleeing to the South Korea. The picture was taken during the Korean War between North and South Korea. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Hyun said many North Korean women stayed behind to guard their houses while men and their children fled, afraid that they would be killed by Chinese soldiers, who were considered less likely to kill a woman.

Her family left her two younger sisters, aged 6 and 9, in the care of their grandmother.

They planned to come back when the fighting eased, but after war ended with an armistice in 1953, North and South Korea erected an almost impenetrable border between the countries, preventing anyone from crossing either side.

Many families like Hyun’s became separated from the places they knew and the people they loved.

In the decades since, North Korea has become increasingly isolated from the world, led by a dynasty of dictators that wants the reunification of the Koreas but under its own terms.

Unlocated picture taken January 18, 1951, shows Korean refugees passing frozen rice fields as they fled to the south.

Unlocated picture taken January 18, 1951, shows Korean refugees passing frozen rice fields as they fled to the south. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

While the two countries have allowed select families to reunite for brief and emotional meetings, most families that were separated during the war have never been able to see their loved ones.

Meetings are conducted by a lottery system based on age and the strength of family ties. Reunions have been canceled in the past when relations between the two countries have deteriorated. The last meetings took place in 2018, when 89 families from South Korea were able to meet with their North Korean relatives. Many who took part were in their 90s.

Reminders of the past

The anguish of separated families prompted South Korea’s Ministry of Unification to ask the country’s Red Cross to create a project to connect them with their hometowns.

The Red Cross worked with Ahn Hyo-jin, the chief executive of Seoul-based VR company Tekton Space, to create VR experiences for North Korean refugees.

“There are many displaced people in Korea and all of them are longing to visit their hometown but cannot due to the circumstances,” Ahn said.

Hyun — a well-known singer in South Korea whose hits include a 1960s song about being separated from loved ones — was the first North Korean refugee to take a virtual tour of her homeland.

A 3D artist's sketch of Pyongyang based on Hyun Mi's memories.

A 3D artist’s sketch of Pyongyang based on Hyun Mi’s memories. Credit: Courtesy Ministry of Unification

It wasn’t easy to recreate places in reclusive North Korea, Ahn said.

His company interviewed Hyun, asking her to recall vivid moments from her childhood. As she spoke, a designer sketched what she described, checking periodically to see if the drawing matched her memories. Those sketches were then turned into 3D designs.

“It was very daunting when we began,” said 3D designer Moun Jong-sik. “What if the thing that I made does not resemble her memories?”

But when Hyun put on the VR headset in September this year, she found she couldn’t stop crying.

“I made it to North Korea!” Hyun exclaimed.

A virtual reality recreation of the market in Pyongyang, North Korea, where Hyun Mi spent her childhood.

A virtual reality recreation of the market in Pyongyang, North Korea, where Hyun Mi spent her childhood. Credit: Courtesy Ministry of Unification

The recreation of Pyongyang wasn’t exactly the same as she remembered, she said, but it was close. As Hyun surveyed a snow-covered recreation of the house where she grew up, she said she kept thinking about her parents, now long dead.

“The faces of my mother, father, sisters and brothers flashed before me,” she said.

Hyun remembered how crowded their house was with eight siblings around the dinner table, and sneaking into her dad’s store to eat squid without him knowing. She saw a seafood market in Pyongyang where she used to play jump rope, and Taedong River, where she used to swim as a child.

Hyun still lives with the pain of leaving behind two of her sisters. She briefly united with one of them in China 20 years ago, a meeting made possible by a broker with business ties in North Korea. Their meeting was filmed by a documentary crew and later televised. Her sister was just 6 years old when she left, and would live a much tougher life.

“If only I came with you, I could have been a star singer just like you,” Hyun recalled her sister saying at the reunion.

A recreation of Hyun Mi's house in Pyongyang.

A recreation of Hyun Mi’s house in Pyongyang. Credit: Courtesy Ministry of Unification

“She was almost 60 but she still looked the same. I saw how she lost all her hair, all her teeth and toenails, too,” Hyun added.

In the 1990s — around the time Hyun met with her sister — North Korea was hit by a famine that led to an estimated 600,000 deaths, though earlier estimates put the figure much higher.

“Even today when I go to a buffet restaurant, I cry, because there is such an abundance of food,” she said. “It pains me greatly to see any food thrown out because it makes me think of my sisters in the North.”

Future plans for refugees

Although there is no official count on the number of North Korean refugees in South Korea, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification said in its latest statistics released last month that, since 1988, 133,000 people have officially registered to meet their family in the north. But the chances of those reunions are dwindling as the refugees grow old. As of November, there are 49,700 refugees of those registered still alive in South Korea.

Ahn hopes Hyun’s experience is only the start.

The country’s unification ministry has shown interest in expanding the project next year to model other regions where refugees have previously lived, says Ahn. A ministry official said it is currently considering a plan, although they have no timeline yet. But, creating bespoke projects for every refugee will not be possible, he added.

Ahn’s company has interviewed a number of displaced people who, like Hyun, wish they could visit their hometown. They also wish to see their family, but the VR technology can’t help with that — the experience doesn’t include people.

Hyun said while the virtual reality project gave her some comfort, what she really wants is the freedom to see her family members in real life.

“I don’t want a lot — I don’t even want unification. I’d just appreciate if we can visit each other,” she said.

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Pelosi to move forward with impeachment if Pence doesn’t act to remove Trump

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“In protecting our Constitution and our Democracy, we will act with urgency, because this President represents an imminent threat to both,” Pelosi said in the letter to Democrats on Sunday night laying out next steps.

The House will try to pass a measure on Monday imploring Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, through which he and the Cabinet declare Trump “incapable of executing the duties of his office, after which the Vice President would immediately exercise powers as acting president.” If Republicans object, as is virtually certain, Democrats will pass the bill via a roll call vote on Tuesday.

“We are calling on the Vice President to respond within 24 hours,” Pelosi wrote. “Next, we will proceed with bringing impeachment legislation to the Floor.”

But it’s not clear when exactly the Senate will take up the House’s measure. The Senate isn’t scheduled to return until Jan. 19, but will hold pro forma sessions on Tuesday and Friday. In theory, a senator could try to pass the House resolution by unanimous consent, but as of now it appears unlikely that it would pass.

On Monday, multiple House Democrats plan to introduce impeachment resolutions that would become the basis of any impeachment article considered by the House later this week.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who will introduce an article of impeachment against Trump on Monday, said on Sunday that roughly 200 Democrats have co-sponsored the measure.

Currently, 211 voting members (plus three nonvoting members) support Cicilline’s legislation, and they are hoping to reach 217 voting members by Monday morning, enough for the House to impeach Trump, one Democratic source familiar with the matter told POLITICO.

A small number of Democrats have opted not to co-sign the bill, but privately say they will vote to support the resolution on the floor, the source added.

The impeachment effort in the House is likely to be bipartisan, with Democrats expecting at least one GOP lawmaker — Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — to sign on. A handful of other House Republicans are seriously weighing it, according to several sources, though those lawmakers are waiting to see how Democrats proceed, and some are concerned about dividing the country even further.

Among the GOP members whom Democrats are keeping an eye on are Reps. John Katko of New York, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Fred Upton of Michigan, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington.

Across the Capitol, at least two Republicans — Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have called on Trump to resign. On Saturday, Toomey told Fox News, “I do think the president committed impeachable offenses,” but told CNN the next day that he does not believe there is enough time to impeach.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has also said he would consider articles of impeachment.

Another option has emerged among some Republican and moderate Democratic circles — censuring Trump — though it remains highly unlikely to advance.

A censure resolution would gain far more support in the GOP than impeachment. Some Republicans have privately been pushing for that route and are trying to get Biden on board, according to GOP sources. That group of Republicans is also warning that impeachment could destroy Biden’s reputation with Republicans.

But censure is considered a nonstarter in an incensed House Democratic Caucus, where members see it as a slap on the wrist that gives Republicans an easy out.

The Democrats’ enormous step toward impeachment on Sunday comes after Pelosi and other top Democrats held a private call on Saturday night in which they discussed the potential ramifications that a lengthy impeachment trial could have on Biden’s presidency.

Democratic leaders discussed several options to limit the political effects on Biden’s first 100 days, with one option — floated by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) — for the House to delay the start of an impeachment trial in the Senate by holding on to the article of impeachment.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sent out a memo to senators explaining that the Senate could not take up impeachment until Jan. 19 at the earliest, absent unanimous consent.

A final decision has not been made, and House Democrats will discuss the matter on a 2 p.m. caucus call on Monday.

Lawmakers are already privately expressing concerns about returning to the Capitol for multiple days this week, worried about both a potential coronavirus outbreak and whether the building is secure, given how easily an armed pro-Trump mob invaded on Wednesday.

The Capitol physician urged House lawmakers and staff to get tested in a memo Sunday, saying they might have been exposed to someone who had the virus while huddling for safety in a large committee room for hours on Wednesday. During the hourslong lockdown, several Republican members refused to wear masks despite being offered them by Democrats worried about the spread of the deadly virus.

Melanie Zanona, Olivia Beavers and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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Matt Hancock Scraps “Unnecessary Training Modules” Blamed For Slowing Vaccine Rollout

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Matt Hancock has agreed to remove some of the training modules required for volunteers to sign up to deliver the Covid-19 vaccine (PA)

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Matt Hancock said people will no longer need to undertake training including an anti-terrorism course to give the coronavirus jab after MPs said “bureaucratic rubbish” was delaying mass vaccination.

It comes as MPs called for the government to produce targets for the number of people given immunity before lockdown can be lifted.

The health secretary said a series of “unnecessary training modules” are being scrapped to speed up the process of getting people qualified to deliver the jab.

Speaking in the Commons, Sir Edward Leigh said he was shown by his fellow the Tory MP, a qualified GP, the “ridiculous form” he had filled out to start delivering the vaccine.

“When he’s inoculating an old lady, he’s not going to ask her if she’s come into contact with Jihadis or whatever, so the Secretary has got to cut through all this bureaucratic rubbish,” he said.

In response Mr Hancock said: “I am a man after Sir Edward’s heart and I can tell the House that we have removed a series of the unnecessary training modules that had been put in place, including fire safety, terrorism and others.

“I’ll write to him with the full panoply of the training that is not required and we have been able to remove, and we made this change as of this morning and I am glad to say it is enforced.

“I am a fan of busting bureaucracy and in this case I agree with him that it is not necessary to undertake anti-terrorism training in order to inject vaccines.”

Dr Fox had earlier challenged Boris Johnson to drop the “bureaucracy” and “political correctness” of the forms vaccine volunteers must fill out.

He told MPs: “As a qualified but non-practising doctor, I volunteered to help with the scheme and would urge others to do the same. 

“But, can I ask the Prime Minister why I’ve been required to complete courses on conflict resolution, equality, diversity and human rights, moving and handling loads and preventing radicalisation in order to give a simple Covid jab?”

Mr Johnson said he had been “assured by the Health Secretary that all such obstacles, all such pointless pettifoggery has been removed”.

The government has been attempting to recruit thousands of volunteers to help with a mass vaccination programme, and with the recent approval of the more easily deliverable Oxford/AstraZeneca version has today revealed the location of seven mass vaccination centres set to open next week.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told journalists at a briefing they would be at Robertson House in Stevenage, the ExCel Centre in London, the Centre for Life in Newcastle, the Etihad Tennis Centre in Manchester, Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey, Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol and Millennium Point in Birmingham, and it is expected they will be run with a combination of NHS staff and volunteers.

But so far the government has not said how many people need to be inoculated before it has an impact on the coronavirus restrictions.

Mr Hancock was asked by a number of MPs if the measures could be eased once the top few tiers in the vaccine priority list had been clear.

Former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper said once the top four groups, which includes care home residents and staff, frontline NHS workers, the clinically extremely vulnerable and everyone over 70 “we’ve taken care therefore of 80% of the risk of death”.

Adding: “What possible reason is there at that point for not rapidly relaxing the restrictions that are in place on the rest of our country?”

The health secretary replied: “We have to see the impact of that vaccination on the reduction in the number of deaths, which I very much hope that we will see at that point, and so that is why we will take this – an evidence-led move down through the tiers, when we’ve broken the link, I hope, between cases and hospitalisations and deaths.”

The ex-Tory minister and another doctor, Andrew Murrison, said: “The logic of anticipating what is going to happen in two or three or four weeks’ time from the number of cases we are getting at the moment is that we can do the same in reverse.

“That is to say, when we have a sufficient number of people vaccinated up we can anticipate in two or three or four weeks’ time how many deaths have been avoided. 

“That means, since it cuts both ways he will be able to make a decision on when we should end these restrictions.”

Mr Hancock replied: “The logic of the case that Dr Murrison makes is the right logic and we want to see that happen in empirical evidence on the ground.

“This hope for the weeks ahead doesn’t take away, though, from the serious and immediate threat posed now.”

The Cabinet minister said the challenge for the government is to increase the amount of doses available, claiming “the current rate-limiting factor on the vaccine rollout is the supply of approved, tested, safe vaccine”.

He added: ”We are working with both AstraZeneca and Pfizer to increase that supply as fast as possible and they’re doing a brilliant job.”

But Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for the government to ramp up its vaccination programme to six million doses a week.

He told the Commons: “The Prime Minister has promised almost 14 million will be offered the vaccine by mid-Feb. That depends on around two million doses a week on average.

“Both [Mr Hancock] and the Prime Minister have reassured us in recent days that it’s doable based on orders.

“But in the past ministers have told us that they had agreements for 30 million AstraZeneca doses by September 2020 and 10 million of Pfizer doses by the end of 2020.

“So, I think people just want to understand the figures and want clarity. Can ministers tell us how many of the ordered doses have been manufactured?”

Mr Ashworth added: “Two million a week would be fantastic but it should be the limit of our ambitions, we should be aiming to scale up to three, then five, then six million jabs a week over the coming months.”

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How South African police are tackling pangolin smugglers


Quiet, solitary and nocturnal, the pangolin has few natural enemies, but researchers believe it is the most trafficked mammal in the world. The tough scales covering its body are sought after for use in Chinese medicine, in the erroneous belief that they have healing properties.

The animal has also been of interest to researchers during the coronavirus pandemic. Related viruses have been found in trafficked pangolins, though there is continued uncertainty around early theories that pangolins were involved in the transmission of the virus from animals to humans.

After South African police seized a pangolin from suspected smugglers, BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding witnessed how vets tried to save the animal’s life.

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