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Koreas restore regular cross-border traffic

South Korea Koreas Tension

Koreas restore regular cross-border traffic

SEOUL, South Korea – North and South Korea restored regular traffic across their heavily fortified border for their jointly run industrial park Tuesday in the latest sign of improved relations between the two, officials in Seoul said.

The North’s state radio station, meanwhile, quoted leader Kim Jong Il as saying that the U.S. should abandon its “hostile policy” toward the North and sign a peace treaty with the communist nation to reduce tension on the peninsula. His comments echoed statements he has made in the past. Pyongyang Radio didn’t say when Kim made the remarks.

The U.S. fought with South Korea in the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in an armistice, leaving the North and South still technically at war. About 28,500 American troops are stationed in South Korea as deterrence against the North. U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Monday he had no comment on the matter.

The resumption of regular traffic between the neighbors for their joint industrial park in the North was the latest indication of efforts by Pyongyang to reach out to Seoul and Washington, after months of provocations that included nuclear and missile tests.

The North had severely restricted traffic across the border since December. The clampdown affected the flow of goods and personnel to and from the factory park in Kaesong.

The border will open 23 times a day to traffic to and from Kaesong, up from the previous six times, Seoul’s Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo told reporters Tuesday. The number of people and vehicles allowed to cross the border at one time will no longer be restricted, she said.

“I don’t have any sense of uneasiness,” Han Maeng-woo, a 53-year-old South Korean worker, said as he left for the industrial complex. He said his company will be able to resume investment that was suspended during the inter-Korean tensions.

Kaesong is home to some 110 South Korean-run factories that employ about 40,000 North Korean workers. The project is the most prominent symbol of the inter-Korean cooperation that prospered under two liberal South Korean presidents following the Koreas’ first-ever summit in 2000.

The reconciliation process and most joint projects came to a halt after conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office early last year. North Korea protested Lee’s tough policies, such as linking aid to the impoverished neighbor to nuclear disarmament.

But in August, Pyongyang freed two American journalists and a South Korean worker held for more than four months of detention, agreed to resume joint projects and set a date for the reunion of families separated during the Korean War.

Pyongyang also sent an official delegation to Seoul to mourn the death of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during the 2000 Korean summit.

The two sides agreed Friday to hold a new round of family reunions in late September. On Saturday, North Korea released four South Korean fishermen seized in late July after their boat strayed into northern waters.

Kelly said the U.S. is “encouraged by more dialogue between North and South.”

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China quake survivors spend second night in freezing cold

Battling bitingly cold weather and a lack of oxygen, rescue workers clawed with their bare hands through the rubble of homes and schools toppled by the 6.9 magnitude quake that hit Yushu county in Qinghai province on Wednesday.

Officials said medical teams and supplies such as tents and quilts were on their way to the zone, where doctors set up makeshift hospitals to treat victims of the deadliest quake in China in two years.

But thousands spent another night without shelter in freezing temperatures after the quake destroyed almost all the mudbrick and wooden houses in Jiegu, the local capital, and flattened schools.

“I lost my husband and I lost my house,” Gandan, a Jiegu resident, told AFP, her son and daughter at her side. All three were living in a tent with other people, with one bowl of barley to share.

“We don’t know what to do, we have no food,” she said, standing by the tent a stone’s throw from her collapsed mud and brick house.

China quake devastates stunned town

The number who perished rose to 760, including dozens of children, while 11,477 were injured, the official Xinhua news agency said, quoting rescue coordinators.

The death toll is expected to rise further, with 243 still buried, and local officials say they were short of medical supplies and large digging equipment.

“The rescue job in this disaster zone faces many difficulties,” said Miao Chonggang, of the China Earthquake Administration, which is coordinating more than 7,000 rescuers.

President Hu Jintao cut short a Latin American tour and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao postponed a trip to Southeast Asia.

Hu told a news conference in Brasilia the quake was “a huge calamity which resulted in big losses of human life”.

Chinese president calls quake ‘huge calamity’

Wen on Thursday visited the quake zone, an underdeveloped area of the Tibetan plateau known as the “Roof of the World”.

“The top priority is to save people. We will never give up even if there is only a slim hope,” Wen told a meeting at the quake-relief headquarters in Yushu, according to Xinhua.

Soldiers, police and firefighters used shovels, iron bars and bare hands to dig through the mangled piles of concrete and rubble from 15,000 toppled homes.

Foreign governments offered help as international aid officials warned that the priorities would be providing shelter, medical aid, food and water and ensuring sanitation to prevent the spread of disease.

Meanwhile tens of thousands of Internet users have been showing their solidarity with the quake victims by posting virtual flowers in online “mourning halls” and donating to appeals, Xinhua said.

Jiegu lies around 800 kilometres (500 miles) by road from the provincial capital Xining, about 4,000 metres above sea level, meaning rescue workers from outside the region struggled to cope with the lack of oxygen.

The government said electricity and phone links had been restored to dozens of towns but the difficult terrain, including deep canyons, and the bitter cold and remoteness of the area were hampering rescue efforts.

Dazed survivors told harrowing stories of loved ones crushed under their homes.

“There are 10 people in my family and only four of us escaped. One of my relatives died. All the others are buried under the rubble,” Samdrup Gyatso, 17, told Xinhua after his two-storey home crumbled.

Facts on China quake zone

Among the dead were at least 66 pupils and 10 teachers, Xinhua said, quoting local authorities, as grieving parents waited for news near the ruins of the schools, where discarded school books and clothes lay.

Xinhua said a baby boy had been born in a tent near the epicentre shortly after the quake.

“It must be the first life that came to the world after the disaster,” Huang Changmei, a doctor, told the agency.

“The baby brought hope to the ruined place.”

The devastation was reminiscent of the huge quake in May 2008 in Sichuan province, where thousands of children were among 87,000 deaths when their shoddily-constructed schools collapsed.

Schoolbooks strewn in China quake rubble as children perish

Xu Mei, of the education ministry, denied a media report that around 200 children had been buried in the ruins of a primary school in Wednesday’s quake.

In Beijing, Zou Ming, the head of the government’s disaster relief department, said nearly 40,000 tents, 120,000 articles of clothing, 120,000 quilts and food were being dispatched.

Plants shut for lead poisoning in south China; thousands sickened

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Plants shut for lead poisoning in south China; thousands sickened

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WUGANG, China — Hengjiang Village is nestled in the lush mountains of China’s Hunan province, just a few kilometers from the bustling city of Wugang. It is a simple place, where mopeds carrying families of four zoom up and down dirt roads, and villagers drink water from local wells.

Their simple, unassuming way of life was shattered when children started getting sick. A few cases turned into hundreds and parents started to worry. So far, 1,354 children in Hunan province have tested positive for abnormal levels of lead in their blood, authorities say.

Lead poisoning is a devastating side effect of industrial pollution. In Shaanxi province’s Fengxiang County, 851 children recently also turned up with high lead levels along with more than 200 in Yunnan province. All of them live near industrial plants, some only a few hundred feet away.

Local officials say eight factories in Wenping and Simachong, including the plant in Hengjiang, have since been shut down, including coal, manganese and iron smelting plants.

Environmental protection officials from the central government have been dispatched to various locations to conduct factory inspections and environmental evaluations. Authorities say all factories will remain closed until they meet official safety standards.

Two executives at a manganese factory in Wenping have been detained. The general manager was on the run for two weeks but turned himself in on August 27.

“What they did is totally wrong,” Wugang government spokesman Lei Zanning told CNN. “The factory and the boss have violated the production safety standards. This is the result of illegal production and construction.”

Authorities say children living up to 20 kilometers away from factories have been affected, and more were being tested. The government is offering free examinations for children under 14 years old and compensation for affected families.

Although officials have showed remorse and concern, villagers said they have been intimidated to keep quiet. Upon arriving at Hengjiang Village, residents rushed our crew behind homes before we could be seen by local government “spotters” or police. Once they felt safe, one parent after another recounted tales of their sick children. 

“My baby’s been in the hospital for more than 20 days,” said Xiao Aijun, of his 10-month-old daughter Xiao Junmei. “We have to go back in the month. Look at her hair, look at her hair!”

Xiao said Junmei’s hair is not growing properly and his older daughter has lost her appetite. Lead poisoning can cause severe developmental problems in children ranging from anemia to stomach pains and permanent brain damage.

Doctors say the only treatment that is available is incredibly high-risk, and cannot completely rid the body of lead. Lead not only infiltrates the bloodstream, but also the body’s soft tissue and bones and can cause lifelong consequences. According to doctors, pregnant women can also pass lead poisoning on to their unborn children.

“The government hasn’t done anything to take care of pregnant women,” said Liu Yanqun, who is seven months pregnant. “My first child miscarried due to external factors, and this is my second. The government just doesn’t care.”

“Of course, I’m worried about my baby’s future,” Liu added. “Is my baby going to be like these children with lead poisoning, with birth defects?”

A government notice posted in town outlines a compensation plan for families with sick kids, but also warned villagers not to “spread rumors” or cause trouble.

“They’re insulting us,” said one man.

“Yeah, all they want us to do is stop talking,” said another woman.

At the manganese plant down the street from Hengjiang Village, another public notice indicates there was recently a protest there, during which some equipment was damaged. The notice says the government will be lenient to those who turn themselves in. Those who provide information will be rewarded.

Protests in response to industrial pollution are increasingly common in China where health and environmental standards have at times been sacrificed to promote economic development.

According to reports, up to 10,000 villagers recently rioted at a sewage plant in Fujian province, claiming it is responsible for causing cancer. The protesters reportedly clashed with 2,000 police who fired warning shots and tear gas to break up the crowd.

Environmentalists say pollution will continue to be a challenge for local governments that are often poorly equipped to monitor the environmental impact of factories in their areas.

“Local environmental bureaus don’t have much capacity or resources to conduct frequent inspections,” said Steven Ma of Greenpeace China.

Regardless, Ma said, “GDP growth is still like the first priority for a lot of local governments although … the central government is more aware of a necessity for more balanced development.”

In the case of lead and other metals, contamination may be more widespread than many local villagers can anticipate. Lead can remain in the air, water, soil and crops even after the source of contamination is cut off.

“If you don’t reduce the use of heavy metals at the source it’s very difficult to actually treat them after they’re released into the environment,” said Ma. “So it poses a long term threat to environment in China. According to the government, about 10 percent of the nation’s arable land is contaminated with lead, and annually about 12 million tons of food crops are contaminated by lead.”

Children with the most serious cases of lead poisoning in Hengjiang Village and surrounding areas are being treated at local clinics and larger hospitals in nearby Changsha. Parents said hospital officials asked them to sign forms agreeing not to talk to journalists.

However, they defied orders and agreed to meet us outside to tell us their stories. Many of their children are undergoing risky medical treatment that while helpful, cannot completely reverse the damage that has already been done.

“When the manganese plant was built, we didn’t really know the influence it would have on our families,” said mother Luo Meiling, clutching her daughter. “If we knew, we wouldn’t have been living there in the first place. We had no idea the plant would poison our children.”

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