Dozens killed in fire at Miryang hospital

At least 37 dead with toll feared to rise after emergency room blaze at hospital in southern city.

    At least 37 people have been killed and more than 70 injured in a fire at a hospital in southern South Korea.

    The fire started on Friday morning at around 7:30am local time in the emergency room on the first floor of Sejong Hospital, Miryang, some 400km from the capital Seoul.

    It was extinguished in three hours.

    Firefighters expect the number of casualties will rise further, according to South Korea’s official news agency, Yonhap.

    At least nine people were seriously wounded in the blaze, Yonhap reported, adding that the fire was South Korea’s deadliest in a decade.

    The majority of those who lost their lives died of suffocation from toxic smoke, as opposed to burns.

    Local media reported that a doctor and two nurses were among the dead. Most of the victims were believed to have been elderly patients, according to Korea Times.

    The chief of Miryang City’s fire department said that the hospital did not have fire sprinklers, the English-language Korean daily reported. 

    “There was so much smoke that it was hard for people to approach [the building],” a witness told a local television news outlet. “Even from 10 metres away, it was frightening.”

    Al Jazeera’s Cathy Novak, reporting from Seoul, said President Moon Jae-in had called an emergency meeting with his top advisers.

    “He said it was an extremely regrettable situation,” Novak said. “There were around 100 people in the hospital itself at the time, and another 96 people in an adjacent building, which is akin to a hospice.”

    Those 96 patients are believed to be safe, she said.

    “Questions will be asked about the safety at that hospital the cause of this fire,” said Novak.

    She added that a month ago, at least 29 people were killed at a sports centre in the south of the country.


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    Monitor says 450 Yemeni civilians killed in December

    Geneva-based human rights body records 450 civilian deaths, majority of them killed by Saudi-led coalition attacks.

      At least 450 civilians were killed in Yemen during December, according to a new report by a human rights monitor.

      The Geneva-based SAM Organisation for Right and Liberties, in its report published on Wednesday, said the killings were part of 1,937 violations committed throughout the country in December, including physical assaults, violation to press freedom, torture and arbitrary detention.

      The violations were perpetrated by “Houthis militia, Arab Coalition air force, military formations and groups loyal to the legitimate government”, it said.

      “SAM Organization for Rights and Liberties condemn all crimes included in this report which are considered as gross violations of the international humanitarian law and human rights law,” it added.

      Some 279 civilians died as a result of Saudi Arabia-led coalition air raids, in addition to the 121 killed by Iranian-backed Houthi fighters, the report noted.

      Saudi Arabia has been at war in Yemen since March 2015, when a coalition led by the oil-rich kingdom launched a campaign of aerial bombardment, aimed at countering Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and reinstating the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

      The rights monitor urged the Saudi-led coalition to “avoid targeting civilians and to review its rules of combat in accordance with the international laws and conventions”.

      A recent UN report on human rights abuses related to foreign intervention in Yemen documented a number of civilian casualties inflicted by Saudi-led coalition bombing.

      The panel examined 10 air attacks in 2017 that killed 157 people and found that the targets included a migrant boat, a motel and five residential buildings, according to a copy of the report shown to Al Jazeera.

      “Even if, in some cases, the Saudi-led coalition had targeted legitimate military objectives, the panel finds it highly unlikely that the IHL (International Humanitarian Law) principles of proportionality, and precautions in attack were met,” the report stated.

      To date, more than 10,000 people have died in the war in Yemen, according to the UN.

      Yemen’s cholera outbreak, a direct consequence of the conflict, has claimed about 2,000 lives and affected more than one million people since April 2017.

      More than two million people have been displaced since the war began.


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      ECB must avoid 'financial distress' in banks' clean up: top EU lawmaker

      FRANKFURT (Reuters) – The European Central Bank should avoid causing “financial distress” to banks by demanding they provide for their unpaid loans too quickly, senior European Union lawmaker Roberto Gualtieri said on Wednesday.

      Shares in Italian banks fell this week when it was reported by Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore that the ECB’s Single Supervisory Mechanism (SSM) had given them, on average, until 2026 to set aside enough cash to cover for the large pile of soured credit inherited from the last recession.

      That would mean writing off or providing for another 72 billion euros non-performing loans (NPLs), according to Bank of Italy data as June 2018.

      Gualtieri, who chairs the EU Parliament committee that oversees the ECB and helped lead a revolt by Italian policymakers on this issue last year, struck a conciliatory tone on Wednesday but warned about the risk of setting the bar too high.

      “I’m confident that the SSM shall consider the expectations as the starting point of a supervisory dialogue with the credit institutions, which where appropriate can lead to a revision of the expectations,” the Italian lawmaker told Reuters.

      “I’m also sure that … excessive requirements that might produce financial distress shall be avoided. This is particularly important taking into account the tendency of the markets to frontload supervisory expectations.”

      Intesa Sanpaolo (ISP.MI), UBI Banca (UBI.MI), Banco BPM (BAMI.MI) and BPER (EMII.MI) sought to reassure investors after the newspaper report, confirmed to Reuters by a source, came out, saying they did not see a significant impact from the SSM’s demands.

      The SSM was forced into what seemed an embarrassing climbdown last year when Gualtieri and other senior EU lawmakers, mostly from Italy, accused it of encroaching on the European Parliament’s prerogatives with plans to issue rules on how banks should deal with unpaid loans.

      Eventually, the SSM issued “guidelines” for loans that go unpaid after their introduction.

      But for existing ones, it merely said in July it would issue “bank-specific supervisory expectations” with the “aim … to achieve same coverage of NPL stock and flow over the medium term”.

      This meant some investors when taken aback this week by news the SSM, now led by Italian Andrea Enria, would give banks seven years to provide for their stock of bad loans, seemingly applying the same rule that it had set for new ones.

      “(The SSM) should be fully consistent with the (July) approach as well as with the clear difference between non-binding and non-automatic supervisory expectations on the one hand, and binding targets on the other hand,” Gualtieri said.

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      Chinese social media censors John Oliver

      If you’re looking to post something about John Oliver on Chinese social media this week, chances are you can’t.

      The British television host been censored on China’s biggest social media site, just days after he criticised Chinese President Xi Jinping on his popular US show Last Week Tonight.

      In the show’s latest episode, Mr Oliver highlights the political, human rights and economic issues China is currently facing, and delivers some striking criticisms of the Chinese government.

      Attempts by the BBC to post a status on Weibo – China’s biggest social media platform – with the term “John Oliver” were blocked.

      Instead an error message pops up, informing you that the post violates “relevant laws and regulations”.

      If you try searching for “John Oliver”, it does yield some results, though you won’t find any new posts – the most recent one is from the 12 June, a week before the “Last Week Tonight” episode aired.

      A search for the show’s name in Mandarin also brings up no results.

      What exactly did John Oliver say about China?

      In the 20-minute episode, the host touches on some topics that are known to be controversial in China.

      He mentions China’s removal of presidential term limits, which has essentially allowed President Xi to remain in power for life, adding that Mr Xi has “gone out of his way to form a cult of personality”.

      The removal of presidential terms was highly criticised and online censors had then rushed to block discussion around the topic.

      Mr Oliver also brings up China’s treatment of the Uighurs, a Muslim minority who live primarily in the region of Xinjiang and say they have long faced discrimination.

      The Chinese government blames bloody clashes on Islamist militants and separatists. In recent years China has introduced new restrictions on the Uighur people.

      The TV host also mentions Liu Xiaobo, one of China’s most prominent human rights advocates and a Nobel peace prize laureate.

      Mr Liu, who died in 2017 at the age of 61, had been serving an 11-year prison term for subversion and was branded a criminal by authorities.

      Social media posts about Mr Liu have similarly been censored on Weibo, with Mr Oliver saying himself that: “Chinese media won’t allow mentions of [his] name.”

      His wife, Liu Xia, is still held under house arrest by Chinese authorities, and is said to be suffering from depression after spending years under heavy surveillance.

      “Xi’s crackdown on human rights is apparently the harshest crackdown since Tiananmen square,” said Mr Oliver in his video.

      “[He] has clamped down noticeably on any form of dissident whatsoever.”

      It is not uncommon for whole phrases or terms to be censored on Chinese social media.

      As Mr Oliver points out in his video, the Chinese name for Winnie the Pooh and pictures of the cuddly character were blocked on Weibo after bloggers continually compared him to China’s president.

      China employs millions of people to monitor and censor internet activity and posts deemed to be politically incorrect are routinely deleted.

      Last Week Tonight is not officially available on Chinese television and YouTube remains blocked in China but clips of the show are available on Chinese video hosting platforms.

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      Windy end to January with some warm days expected

      SINGAPORE – The next two weeks are set to be occasionally windy on most days with some warm days, said the Meteorological Service Singapore on Wednesday (Jan 16).

      The prevailing north-east monsoon is forecast to continue for the rest of the month, and rainfall for January is likely to be well below normal.

      Low level winds are expected to blow from the north to the north-east.

      A monsoon surge over the South China Sea is expected to bring periods of showers over Singapore and the surrounding region on one or two days over the next week.

      Singaporeans can expect passing showers, mostly during the daytime on a few days during the last week of January.

      On most days in the next fortnight, daily temperatures are forecast to range between 24 deg C and 33 deg C.

      Warmer daily maximum temperatures of around 34 deg C can be expected on days when there is little or no rainfall.

      In the first half of January 2019, daily temperatures ranged between 23.1 deg C and 34.8 deg C, with well below normal amounts of rainfall.

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      China firm completes $1.9 billion Sri Lanka land reclamation

      COLOMBO (AFP) – A Chinese state-owned company marked on Wednesday (Jan 16) the completion of an ambitious land reclamation adjacent to Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo, part of Beijing’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure initiative that has alarmed India and the West.

      “Colombo Port City is an important project of the One Belt, One Road initiative in Sri Lanka, which is one of the key countries along the maritime silk route,” China’s ambassador Cheng Xueyuan said at a ceremony.

      “No matter how the international situation changes, China always facilitates great importance to Sino-Sri Lanka relations and actively implements the consensus of the leaders of the two countries,” he added.

      The US$1.4 billion (S$1.9 billion) Colombo Port City was agreed between China and Sri Lanka’s former president Mahinda Rajapakse, one of several projects to raise fears that the strategically important location was falling into Beijing’s orbit.

      On another, the US$1.4-billion Hambantota deep-sea port also built by the Chinese, China in December 2017 was given a 99-year lease after Colombo said it was unable to keep up with servicing loans made by Beijing to pay for it.

      The nearby Hambantota airport also funded by China and built in Rajapaske’s constituency in the middle of two wildlife sanctuaries has turned into a white elephant, with no scheduled flights.

      Two-thirds of the new 269-ha reclamation project which is envisaged as the site of a new financial district and has worried environmentalists, goes to China on a 99-year lease.

      Patali Champika, the minister in charge of the project, said however that the reclaimed area would not be a threat to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty or undermine the security of regional power India.

      The port of Colombo is a key hub for Indian import-export cargo and the new real estate is situated at the entrance.

      China has also emerged a key political and financial backer of Sri Lanka, dislodging Japan which used to be the biggest funder of infrastructure such as ports in the island nation.

      Finance ministry officials said the Bank of China had offered Colombo a US$1 billion loan to shore up its foreign reserves amid an exodus of foreign capital from Sri Lanka’s bond and equity markets.

      The Chinese funding becomes crucial at a time when three international credit rating agencies downgraded Sri Lanka after a political crisis in late 2018.

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      Singaporean linked to major Russian doping scandal jailed one week for lying to CPIB

      SINGAPORE – A Singaporean businessman has told a court here that he was told to lie, to hide a money trail linked to one of the biggest athletics doping cover-up involving one of Russia’s biggest stars.

      Tan Tong Han, owner of Black Tidings, said that Mr Papa Massata Diack, the son of disgraced world athletic chief Lamine who is wanted by Interpol, told him to give a fake story if he was questioned about certain transactions after news broke about a doping scandal in Russian athletics.

      In that scandal, Liliya Shobukhova – once the second fastest female marathon runner in history – was blackmailed by officials for covering up her doping violations.

      On Wednesday (Jan 16), the 36-year-old Tan was sentenced to a week’s jail for giving false information to a Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) officer who was probing the flow of funds in and out of Black Tidings.

      On March 27, 2014, about $548,000 was transferred to Black Tidings from a Senegal company known as Pamodzi Consulting, owned by former International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) marketing consultant Papa Massata Diack. Tan issued an invoice to Pamodzi for the money, and it gave a generic description of work done. But no such work was carried out.

      The court heard that shortly after the fund transfer, Mr Diack told Tan to transfer $524,000, or about €300,000, to the bank account of Shobukhova’s husband.

      Tan and Mr Diack reportedly became friends in China at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

      It was at the end of 2014 when the athletic world was rocked with revelations that senior figures in the athletic world had extorted money from Shobukhova to cover up violations in her athlete biological passport so that she could continue to compete, including at the 2012 London Olympics Games.

      The scandal led to life bans from the sport for Mr Diack, Mr Valentin Balakhnichev, a former president of the All-Russia Athletics Federation and treasurer of the IAAF, and Russian endurance coach Alexei Melnikov.

      Separately, in 2015, the CPIB started investigations. On Nov 5 that year, when Tan was asked to explain the transfers, he claimed the incoming sum was for work Black Tidings had done for Pamodzi for the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing. Tan claimed this included making sure sponsor logos were printed correctly, setting up displays, organising press conferences and arranging transport.

      As for the outgoing payment, Tan claimed he had been tricked by a John Pierre Bonor into making the transfer.

      On Nov 20, he admitted he had lied, that Black Tidings did not do any work for Pamodzi and that John Pierre Bonor was a fictitious person.

      Black Tidings has also been linked to allegations that the vote to hand the upcoming Olympics in 2020 was rigged. It is accused of receiving US$2 million (S$2.71 million) from the Tokyo team, money which the French authorities suspect was meant to bribe delegates.

      Part of the money is believed to have gone to Mr Diack, whose father, an International Olympic Committee member at the time of Tokyo’s bidding, held considerable sway over African Olympic votes.

      The allegations continue to cast a shadow over Tokyo’s preparations for the Olympics, despite the Japan Olympic Committee (JOC) having cleared its officials in 2016. It said the payment to Black Tidings was legitimate and had been made in return for consulting services.

      Last month, JOC head Tsunekazu Takeda was placed under formal investigation in Paris for corruption. On Tuesday (Jan 15), he faced the cameras back home, denying the accusation. “I will fully cooperate with the French authorities in investigating this matter and do my utmost to prove my innocence,” he said.

      Tan, who was represented in court by Ms Diana Ngiam, meanwhile will start his jail term on Feb 20 after being allowed to defer it because of the Chinese New Year holiday.

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      Bank of England sees UK current account risk from Brexit

      LONDON (Reuters) – The Bank of England warned on Wednesday that Britain’s large current account deficit remained a big risk ahead of Brexit, and that a jump in sterling after parliament crushed Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan should not give too much comfort.

      A senior BoE official said foreign investors in speculative assets had plugged much of the balance of payments shortfall last year, a reliance which left Britain vulnerable at a time of deep uncertainty about how it will leave the European Union.

      Financing Britain’s current account deficit, the biggest of any major economy, hinges on providing a predictable business environment, BoE Governor Mark Carney said.

      Carney and his colleague Alex Brazier were addressing British lawmakers a day after May suffered a historic defeat in parliament on her Brexit plan, 10 weeks before Britain is due to leave the EU.

      “We are reliant, as I think the governor said a few years ago, on the kindness of strangers,” Brazier, the BoE’s executive director for financial stability, told parliament.

      He said 60 percent of inflows of foreign capital came from investment in British commercial real estate and leveraged loans issued by companies with already-high levels of debt, in a shift away from previous investment in plant and machinery.

      “It’s not difficult to imagine a number of things both external and internal that could change that risk appetite,” Brazier said.

      If British trade flows were affected by new trade barriers – something that could happen it the country crashes out of the EU without a deal – the country would not be able to sustain its existing current account deficit, he said, and this would lead to “a painful adjustment” of less investment and a weaker pound.

      “Ultimately the UK has the mechanism, a flexible exchange rate, to make that adjustment, but getting from A to B is not straightforward,” he said.

      The BoE has said Britain could suffer greater damage to its economy than during the 2007-09 global financial crisis under a worst-case, no-deal exit from the EU.

      In a report in November, the BoE said the “disorderly” exit scenario – involving severe delays at UK borders and financial markets losing confidence in British institutions – could lead to sterling falling to almost the same value as the dollar, 6.5 percent inflation and a 30 percent fall in house prices.

      Carney said sterling’s rise after May’s Brexit blueprint was rejected in parliament by a record margin on Tuesday evening suggested investors now see less risk of a no-deal Brexit, or that the process would be extended.

      “I’m not giving my view, I’m giving the markets’ initial take,” Carney told the lawmakers at a regular hearing in parliament. “I wouldn’t put much weight on these very short term moves. The market is waiting.”

      The British pound rallied to its highest in nearly two months against the euro on Wednesday. Against the dollar GBP=D3, the pound was broadly flat at $1.2850 after jumping by nearly a cent following Tuesday’s vote.

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      Leveraged loans echo pre-crisis subprime crash: BoE's Carney

      LONDON (Reuters) – Bank of England Governor Mark Carney on Wednesday likened the $2 trillion leveraged loan market to subprime mortgages that defaulted 10 years ago and triggered a global financial crisis, in a warning to British lawmakers.

      Leveraged loans are made to companies that are highly indebted, and growth has been driven by investment funds and collateralized loan obligations (CLOs) linked to the loans.

      “We are concerned just because the pace of growth has been quite rapid for some time,” Carney told the lawmakers.

      “The subprime analogy… isn’t perfect, but it’s on the road to ‘no doc’ underwriting which happened 11 years ago.”

      ‘No doc’ refers to the lack of affordability checks on subprime home loans in the United States before the crisis.

      Last year the BoE tested British banks’ exposure to leveraged loans by applying shocks that were greater than those seen during the financial crisis, Carney said. All the banks passed.

      The BoE first made similar warnings to Carney’s in its November Financial Stability Report, which was the subject of Wednesday’s hearing in the Treasury Select Committee in parliament.

      London is Europe’s center for leveraged loans, boosting profitability of banks and bringing in foreign capital to help Britain fund its current account deficit.

      “My personal sense is the market is undergoing an adjustment, there is greater focus on underwriting,” Carney said.

      Richard Sharp, a member of the BoE’s Financial Policy Committee, said leveraged lending needed to be better managed, not banned.

      “It’s not just all bad. It’s a source of major employment and profitability here. It lowers the cost of capital for investment,” Sharp said.

      Debt based on U.S. subprime mortgages was tucked away in “shadow banks” in the run-up to the financial crisis, making it harder to assess exposures, said Alex Brazier, BoE executive director for financial stability.

      Exposures at UK banks to leveraged loans is among the lowest in the world, accounting for about 1 percent of global stock of CLOs, and 1.5 percent of the major banks’ core capital buffers, BoE data showed.

      “That is one of the big differences with subprime. Even if the growth rates look the same, the underwriting standards have some disturbing similarities… there is none of this shadow banking activity,” Brazier said.

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      'Baby Shark' driving you crazy? Its creator warns penguins are next

      SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) – “Baby Shark (Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo)” is the YouTube sensation that’s been viewed more than two billion times and made the Billboard Hot 100 chart for a second straight week.

      The jingle has also become such an earworm that late-night show host Jimmy Kimmel proposed throwing those responsible in jail for life.

      Love or hate it, the South Korean company behind the one-and-a-half minute song about a family of sharks is now seeking to capitalise on the success by expanding its kid-oriented entertainment business.

      Seoul-based SmartStudy’s Pinkfong is planning to release short videos via Netflix, a cartoon series and a musical in North America this year, one of the company’s founders said in an interview this week.

      The start-up, which has recently signed various merchandising deals, may also develop games that work with Amazon’s Alexa and Alphabet’s Google Home voice assistants, he said.

      The popularity of the sing-along builds on South Korea’s emergence as an entertainment powerhouse.

      Korean pop, or K-pop, has grown into a US$5 billion industry thanks to the success of the likes of boy band BTS, which has signed commercial deals with big companies from Hyundai Motor to Barbie-maker Mattel, and Psy, whose Gangnam Style is at more than three billion views and counting.

      “We’ve added the ‘K-pop factor’ into our songs, such as very trendy beats and upbeat rhythms,” said Seung-kyu Lee, who’s also chief financial officer at SmartStudy.

      “If you’ve ever heard of ‘Baby Shark,’ you might feel the importance of community. In a group, we should walk or swim together.”

      Unlike BTS, SmartStudy has found its niche with kiddie pop, targeting children aged between one and four with addictive, dance-along videos. It was established in 2010 by three former online gaming employees.

      Lee, 44, who formerly worked at game-maker Nexon’s marketing department, said the trio wanted to pursue opportunities in the growing market for educational content in smartphones by using their expertise in attracting and keeping users to make money.

      Lee said the Korean educational app-to-video maker’s early days were tough but that its business grew fast after the Baby Shark video went viral.

      Revenue at closely held SmartStudy is expected to have increased to 37 billion won last year from 27.2 billion won and net income probably more than doubled to about five billion won, according to Lee.

      Digital sales account for about 70 per cent of its total business, with the rest mainly coming from physical sales such as merchandising, he said.

      Others are benefiting too. Samsung Publishing, which owns 25 per cent of SmartStudy, surged by the 30 per cent daily limit to a record high in Seoul on Wednesday (Jan 16). The stock has gained 83 per cent this year.

      For its next act, Lee says the company will be developing content for older children – aged five to eight – and that he’s looking beyond sharks by closely examining penguins.

      “I really liked Madagascar,” Lee said, in reference to the DreamWorks Animation films that featured some penguins.

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