Global News Blog
It was one of the biggest passenger ships to capsize, and it could require a vessel of equally epic proportions to remove the Costa Concordia from the rocky shores off the coast of Tuscany.
The 950 foot-long cruise liner ran into rocks and toppled over in shallow water off the island of Giglio in January 2012, killing 32 passengers. It was raised from its semi-submerged position last month in an ambitious feat of engineering involving a multinational team of 500 specialists.
Now engineers are looking at how to tow the battered, algae-covered cruise ship, which is twice the weight of the Titanic, away from Giglio, part of an archipelago and marine sanctuary.
One of the likely options is that it will be “piggy-backed” on top of the world's heaviest lifting ship, a giant vessel called the Vanguard. The semi-submersible vessel is owned by a Dutch marine salvage company, Royal Boskalis NV, which announced this month that it had won a $30 million contract for the operation.
The Vanguard, which is normally used for moving oil and gas drilling platforms, can carry up to 120,000 tons. The Concordia weighs 114,500 tons, although that has now increased after huge steel boxes were welded to its hull to help pull it into an upright position.
The idea is that the Vanguard would come alongside the Concordia, flood its ballast tanks with water and sink its deck beneath the water line. The Concordia would then be maneuvered to float above the Vanguard, which would be refloated with the cruise ship on its deck.
Having one of the world’s biggest cruise ships on top of the largest lifting vessel in existence would make for a eye-catching spectacle, and an engineer’s fantasy.
Costa Cruises, the Italian company which owns the Concordia, said that using the Vanguard was one of two options being studied.
The other, more traditional method would be to refloat the cruise ship with the aid of the steel compartments welded to its flanks and then tow it away with tugboats.
“The final decision will be taken after we have finished evaluating the damage done to the cruise ship. But at least we know the Vanguard is booked and available should we decide that is the way to go,” said Rosella Carrara, a Costa Cruises spokeswoman.
The successful raising of the Concordia was hailed as a much-needed boost to Italian national pride – despite the fact that the salvage teams came from nearly 20 nations. But the deliberations over where the Concordia will be taken to be cut up for scrap is becoming mired in a familiar mix of political meddling, bureaucratic ineptitude, and squabbling between different parts of Italy.
The nearest port is Piombino but its harbor isn’t deep enough to accommodate the ship and would need to undergo significant dredging and expansion. That work has not even started – even though the Concordia is expected to be removed from Giglio in the spring of 2014.
“They’ll never be able to do it in time,” says one British maritime engineer who was not authorized to talk to the media but who worked for months on the raising of the liner.
Another candidate is Palermo in Sicily, which has a bigger port but is much further away from Giglio.
With time ticking away and no decision yet made, Italy runs the risk of losing out on the contract altogether – the latest suggestion is that the Concordia could be taken all the way to Smyrna in Turkey or even to India to be dismantled.
The ship’s captain is currently on trial for manslaughter and other charges.
For the fifth day in a row Australia’s largest city has been choking from the smoke of the massive bushfires burning just a few miles from its outer suburbs. For any Sydney residents who might not be watching the blanket coverage of the crisis on the nightly news, the dirty gray skies and the blood-red sunsets are reminder enough of the infernos raging to the south and west of the city of 4.6 million.
The fires, which have been labeled the worst since the 1960s, prompted the premier of New South Wales to issue a state of emergency on Sunday, giving the authorities the power to evict residents and demolish fire-affected buildings. Strong winds and heat wave conditions forecast for the next two days have led to warnings that two large fires burning in the Blue Mountains National Park could merge and form an unstoppable mega-fire with a front hundreds of miles long.
The potential threat to the city’s outskirts if such a situation develops means that the fires are no longer an existential threat. A large number of Sydney-siders have weekend homes in the mountains and others have friends or family who have lost their properties or have had to evacuate.
RECOMMENDED: Think you know Australia? Take the quiz
Already nearly a dozen villages have been isolated by the blazes, including Mount Wilson, which was used as one of the filming locations for Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby because of its beautiful gardens.
Of the 220 residents, 60 have decided to stay. Rosie Walsh who owns a bed-and-breakfast in the village said the tight-knit community had organized a roster to feed about 100 firefighters from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
“Mount Wilson has the best bakers. We've made tons of blueberry muffins,” Ms. Walsh told The Sydney Morning Herald.
Elsewhere, firefighters received help of a different kind when Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott turned up unannounced to help Rural Fire Service volunteers in Bilpin on the eastern edge of the mountains.
It was only after one of the firefighters posted a photograph of Mr. Abbott on Twitter did the news of the prime minister’s 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. weekend shift come out. A trained firefighting volunteer, Mr. Abbott vowed during his recent campaign that he would continue his community activities, which also involve working in remote Aboriginal communities, if elected prime minister.
Meanwhile, police have arrested a 15-year-old boy and charged him with deliberately starting a fire near Port Stephens on the New South Wales central coast. An investigation is also underway to determine whether army explosives training may have been responsible for igniting the worst of the fires near Lithgow.
For now, however, the priority is on saving lives and property.
“It’s remote, its rugged, its spectacular,” says NSW National Parks deputy incident controller, David Crust of the terrain the firefighters are up against. “But what is more challenging is that there’s very limited access and we’ve got settlements in pockets throughout the fire. It’s been a challenge to mange the fires around those communities.”
RECOMMENDED: Think you know Australia? Take the quiz
As air pollution levels in Beijing hovered between “hazardous” and “very unhealthy” according to the US embassy’s monitoring device on Friday, the Beijing city government unveiled a new plan to try to get the capital’s air quality under control.
Cracking the whip, it promised that whenever the authorities foresee three consecutive days of what they call “serious” pollution they will ban half the city’s cars from the roads.
Car exhaust fumes, along with emissions from factories and coal-fired power plants, are a major cause of the heavy pollution that is becoming a serious health hazard for Beijing residents.
RECOMMENDED: How much do you know about China? Take our quiz.
But the news of a crackdown is not as good as it looks. The Beijing municipal authorities have set the bar so high that only when pollution is at its choking, eye-watering worst will they limit traffic.
What China calls “serious” pollution, measuring over 300 on the Air Quality Index, would be called “hazardous” in the United States, where citizens would be warned to “avoid all outdoor activity.”
An AQI of 300 is 12 times higher than the level recommended as safe by the World Health Organization. The US Environmental Protection Agency says such a reading is “extremely rare” in the United States, occurring downwind of forest fires, for example.
So, only when meteorologists expect – for three days in a row – to see pollution so bad that Americans would be told to stay home will a “red alert” kick in here.
That happened only four times even last winter, when pollution reached the highest levels ever measured in Beijing, suggesting that the newly announced measures will only rarely be enforced.
When they are imposed, they will slap alternate-day driving rules on automobiles, ban trucks carrying dirt from the city’s streets, halt work at some factories and some construction sites, and – rather quaintly – prohibit the lighting of barbecues and the use of fireworks. Schools will also be closed.
The government has taken increasing measures in recent weeks to try to stave off a repeat of last winter’s “airpocalypse,” when air pollution reached hazardous levels on 20 days in January. That prompted widespread anger among the city’s residents.
Last month the state-run news agency Xinhua said that in November Beijing will reduce the number of car license plates it issues each month, so as to keep the total number of cars on the capital’s roads below six million by the end of 2017. There were 5.2 million vehicles registered in Beijing at the end of last year, up from three million five years ago.
At a meeting of provincial governments from the worst affected northern part of China in September, Beijing promised to cut its annual output of PM2.5, the smallest and most dangerous particulates, by 25 percent by 2017. But Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli warned at the meeting that the fight against pollution is a “long term, arduous and complicated task.”
RECOMMENDED: How much do you know about China? Take our quiz.
Oct. 9 marked the first anniversary of the shooting of Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai by Taliban extremists while she was sitting in her school bus. But instead of silencing her, the unsuccessful attack has made Malala a world-renowned spokeswoman for education, especially for girls and women. Recovered from her wound, she’s back in school in Birmingham, England.
“The voice of the girl whom the Taliban tried to silence a year ago has been amplified beyond what anyone could have thought possible,” writes Mishal Husain for BBC News Magazine.
“When I ask her what she thinks the militants achieved that day, she smiles. ‘I think they may be regretting that they shot Malala,’ she says. ‘Now she is heard in every corner of the world.’”
A real ‘Breaking Bad’ story
Ross William Ulbricht ran a stealthy website called Silk Road that trafficked in drugs and anything else people wanted to buy without the prying eyes of governments. He was so successful that he may have taken in $80 million in the 30 months the site was active.
But US federal agents finally caught up with Mr. Ulbricht while he was tapping away on his laptop at a library in San Francisco. How they managed to find him is the story told by Nate Anderson and Cyrus Farivar on the tech website Ars Technica.
Apparently, the writers say, Ulbricht felt his illegal operation was really a beacon of “freedom over tyranny,” not a criminal enterprise. The FBI disagreed.
“Ulbricht was actually making sloppy mistakes from the start,” write Mr. Anderson and Mr. Farivar. “And it didn’t take technical back doors to find him; it just took a lot of solid detective work, some subpoenas, and a search engine.”
Assad explains presidential ‘mistakes’
Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine offers an in-depth interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In an article by Dieter Bednarz and Klaus Brinkbäumer, Mr. Assad professes his love for his country and his willingness to consider stepping down from office next year (“If I no longer know that I have the will of the people behind me, then I will not run,” he says.)
The interviewers get him to admit, obliquely at least, to shortcomings. “There were personal mistakes made by individuals. We all make mistakes,” Assad says. “Even a president makes mistakes. But even if there were mistakes in the implementation, our decisions were still fundamentally the right ones.”
Pressed on the biggest question, he remains defiant. “We did not use chemical weapons” on unarmed civilians, including children, he says. “This is a misstatement.”
Keeper of the conservative flame
Love him or loathe him, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is a continuing font of controversial opinions – “either a demigod on stilts or a menace to democracy, depending on which side of the aisle” the observer sits, writes Jennifer Senior prefacing her interview with Justice Scalia in New York magazine.
“Scalia is perhaps more responsible than any American alive for the mainstreaming of conservative ideas” about the law, she says.
But he doesn’t seem to mind drawing fire for his views. “I am something of a contrarian, I suppose. I feel less comfortable when everybody agrees with me,” he tells Ms. Senior. “I probably believe that the worst opinions in my court have been unanimous. Because there’s nobody on the other side pointing out all the flaws.”
The piece is laced with intriguing tidbits. Scalia gets most of his news, he says, not from newspapers or newscasts but from talk radio commentators. And he’s upset by the profanity he hears in movies and on TV.
Fifty years from now, Scalia may be known as “an old fogey” who was “on the losing side of everything,” he says. “And I don’t care.”
I’m sorry for your time, please read this
When in doubt, apologize. Even if it’s not your fault. If you do, people will trust you.
That’s the conclusion of a study reported by Tom Jacobs in the Pacific Standard. “In our minds, anyone who takes note of our misfortune, and expresses dismay over it, is impressively empathetic and thus worthy of our confidence,” writes Mr. Jacobs in explaining the research, which included an experiment in which people at a train station on a rainy day were asked if they would lend their cellphone to a stranger to make a call. If the stranger first said he was “so sorry about the rain!” the cellphone owner was much more likely to lend his phone – even though the rain was no one’s fault.
“By issuing a superfluous apology,” the researchers are quoted as saying, “the apologizer communicates that he has taken the victim’s perspective,
acknowledge[s] adversity, and expresses regret” – which increases the level of trust.
(If this column has displeased you, I apologize.)
Edward Snowden, the fugitive ex-National Security Agency contractor, has hit back at his critics in an interview with The New York Times in which he insists he couldn't have handed any US national security secrets to his Russian hosts because he didn't bring any with him on his flight to Moscow in June.
In the interview, which the Times says took place over several days this month, Mr. Snowden is quoted as saying that he gave all the NSA files he'd fled with to journalists, presumably the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, whom he met with in Hong Kong in June.
"It wouldn’t serve the public interest," to bring such documents to Russia, he said. "What would be the unique value of personally carrying another copy of the materials onward?"
"There’s a zero percent chance the Russians or Chinese have received any documents," he added.
The first direct contact between Snowden and US journalists is yet another sign that he may be ready to step back into the spotlight after remaining virtually incommunicado at his secret retreat somewhere in Russia for more than two months, since walking out of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport with Russian refugee papers that are good for a year.
Last week his father, Lon Snowden, arrived in Moscow for a family visit, and returned to the US this week saying his son is "comfortable, he’s happy, and he’s absolutely committed to what he has done".
As an NSA contract analyst, Snowden covertly copied thousands of top secret documents and spirited them away to Hong Kong, where he turned them over to journalists. Those materials have fueled an ongoing wave of revelations published by newspapers that have been given access to them, including the Guardian, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Four US whistleblowers also visited Snowden last week to give him the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence. The prize is named after a Vietnam-era CIA agent who tried to fight systematic under-estimations of enemy Viet Cong forces within the system, and later expressed regret that he didn't take his information to the public. A biographical review on the CIA's official website says of Sam Adams that, "in his 10-year career as a CIA analyst caused more trouble than any analyst before or since."
One of the US whistleblowers who met with Snowden last week, former Department of Justice ethics counselor Jesselyn Radack, detailed the visit in this week's The Nation. She says they found Snowden happy, healthy, in good spirits and concentrated on completing his mission to "restore the democracy he once knew" by reining in the surveillance state through public disclosure.
She said that Snowden follows the news media closely and "is pleased with reform-minded reactions to his revelations, both in America and abroad."
Snowden is also deeply worried about his own personal security, she added.
"The issue of his security is paramount.... As for who is providing for his security – WikiLeaks? FSB? – this question is borne not out of a concern for his safety, but rather a US desire to perpetuate a false narrative that Snowden is being controlled by the Russians. I can say with certainty: Edward Snowden is not being controlled by the Russians, or anyone for that matter," Ms. Radack writes.
In his own interview with the Times, Snowden disputes the main criticism of his actions offered by President Obama and other US officials, that he ought to have remained in the US and tried to correct the alleged abuses he had uncovered through internal channels.
He said the system of internal checks within the NSA "does not work.... You have to report wrongdoing to those most responsible for it." If he had tried to do that, he said, he would have been "discredited and ruined."
Snowden added that morale within the NSA is poor. "There’s a lot of dissent – palpable with some, even." People are kept silent through "fear and a false image of patriotism," which he called, "obedience to authority," according to the Times.
He added that he has never considered defecting, either to Russia or China, and insisted that he was not under Russian state control and was free to move around.
Any time Michelle Obama appears in a new dress, it sells out within days. But not all designers appreciate the free advertising they get when the political classes don their products.
In Belgium, a far-right party used the famed stilettos of a French shoe designer in one of their provocative, anti-Islam campaigns. And so the designer, Christian Louboutin, opened a case that rested on questions of whether legally purchased goods can be used as they want, even for a political purpose. A court this week sided with Mr. Louboutin, who claimed the campaign tarnished his image, according to the BBC.
The party, Vlaams Belang, or Flemish Interest, used a photo of the leg of Anke Van dermeersch, a former Miss Belgium who is now a senator of the party. She wears the iconic red-soled stiletto designed by Louboutin. And up the side of her leg is a list of words that starts on the bottom with “Sharia compatible” at the foot to “stoning” at the upper thigh.
RECOMMENDED: Think you know Europe? Take our geography quiz.
The group was ordered to take down the posters within 24 hours by a court in Antwerp this week. Ms. Van dermeersch, who reportedly showed up in court wearing Louboutin's shoes, called the ruling the equivalent of mandating a political dress code. She said, according to New York Magazine:
Are politicians still allowed to dress the way they want? It seems that not only Islam is intolerant … A legal judgment on a dress code for politicians would be a surreal precedent. Apart from the absurd argument concerning reputational damage, there is no legal basis for such a dress code.
Vlaams Belang quickly published a new advertisement on Twitter, with the same message and nearly identical stilettos – this time, however, with yellow soles.
One fashion website notes that Louboutin's motive to protect his red soles in imagery, as he has done before, is "undoubtedly a move to protect business in the Middle East – with luxury sales in the region projected at $7.69 billion, it’s the 10th biggest luxury market in the world and growing, according to Arabian Business."
But such provocations against Islam expand beyond the market, becoming potentially socially explosive. Remember the brutal murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in Amsterdam, after his controversial movie "Submission," which included an image of the words of the Quran written across the naked body of a Muslim woman.
The move comes as anti-immigrant parties on the fringes have gained increasing footholds across Europe. On Monday, French newspapers were dominated by the victory of the anti-immigrant National Front (FN) candidate in southern France. Last year the FN won 18 percent of votes in first-round presidential elections in France. Marine Le Pen, who heads the FN, said over the weekend the most recent local results show "a real desire for change by the French."
Ms. Le Pen and Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party (PVV) in the Netherlands are in talks to form an alliance ahead of European elections next May, though Vlaams Belang, which has been on the front-lines against the “Islamization” of Belgium, has reportedly rejected such an alliance, as have other far-right groups. (Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misstated the election date.)
Louboutin is apparently not the only person miffed by the Belgian campaign. The Canadian artist whose works inspired the image that the court has ordered removed has started a Facebook campaign to rally "artists who have been ripped off everywhere."
According to the New Statesman, which ran a piece titled, "What happens when a piece of feminist artwork is turned into anti-Islamic propaganda?", the campaign was inspired by Rosea Lake, who as a feminist protest, had shown a bare leg with words ranging from “matronly” at the ankle to “whore” at the upper thigh.
[Rosea] Lake, who intended her original work to promote tolerance and discussion, says that she does not have the means to pursue legal action against Vlaams Belang or Anke Van dermeersch.
Copy editors the world over can empathize (and cringe) with this mistake.
The Vatican issued a recall this week because about 6,000 commemorative coins spelled the name "Jesus" as "Lesus."
The medallion celebrating Pope Francis includes a Latin phrase that reportedly once inspired the new pope to become a priest.
In English, the phrase reads: "Jesus therefore sees the tax collector, and since he sees by having mercy and by choosing, he says to him, follow me.”
The BBC reports that these medals are struck when every new pope is elected and they provide a useful source of income for the Vatican, which is undergoing a major spending review under the leadership of Pope Francis.
The bronze, silver, and gold coins were priced at $108, $135, and $203 respectively.
But as a coin dealer told The New York Times, the flawed coins could be highly sought after by collectors.
“Regardless of what the Vatican decides to do now, it’s an interesting purchase for a collector,” Francesco Santarossa, owner of a numismatic and philatelic shop near St. Peter’s Square in Rome, said in a phone interview. “I don’t think they ever made such a mistake in the 600-year-long history of papal medals.”
Of course, the Vatican copy editors aren't the first to miss a typo. There are many other famous mistakes throughout the history of Christian printing.
For example, the 1631 printing of the King James Version Bible has been dubbed the "Wicked Bible." As one peruses the 10 Commandments, one will notice that Exodus 20:14 reads "Thou shalt commit adultery."
England's King Charles 1 and the Archbishop of Canterbury were not amused. Most copies of that bible were burned. The printers were fined 300 pounds (a large sum at the time) and lost their printing license. Only 11 copies of the "Wicked Bible" are known to exist today. The New York Public Library and The British Library in London each have copies.
And there's the 1612 King James edition of the "Printer's Bible," which famously rewrites Psalm 119: 161 "Printers have persecuted me without a cause" rather than "Princes have persecuted me..." Speculation is that a typesetter, disgruntled with his publisher, introduced this error.
There are many more examples of "bible errata,"often amusing in retrospect but scandalous in the day. For example, A KJV printing in 1611 became known as the "Judas Bible." It replaced "Jesus" with "Judas" in the passage from Matthew 26:36 "Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder."
A newly discovered painting by Vincent van Gogh went on display last month. “Sunset at Montmajour,” painted in 1888, spent a century trapped in an attic. Now, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has embraced the work as genuine, turning what was long considered to be a fake into a potential multimillion-dollar find.
In the early 1900s, the painting changed hands from Van Gogh’s sister-in-law to a Paris art dealer and then on to Norwegian industrialist Christian Nicolai Mustad. Mustad “purchased it in 1908 as a young man in one of his first forays into art collecting, but was soon told by the French ambassador to Sweden that it was a fake,” writes Toby Sterling in a feature for The Associated Press. “Embarrassed, Mustad banished it to the attic.”
This year, the Van Gogh Museum confirmed its authenticity through a combination of chemical analysis and researching the letters of Van Gogh, who described both the painting and the landscape it depicts.
Saving endangered languages
The same technology that allows Apple’s Siri to recite movie times could also save dying languages. Of the 6,000 languages on earth, close to a third are in danger of disappearing.
“Some of them may only have a few hundred speakers – could be wiped out by a volcano, say, and that’s happened before,” says David Teeple in a video by The Verge. Mr. Teeple is a linguist for the text-to-speech software company Nuance.
The company hires voice actors to record lines that are then broken down into their phonetic parts and reassembled into any English word. Teeple says the same software could also record the speakers of endangered languages, digitally protecting their culture.
Nobody likes a snoop
This year, leaked classified documents revealed that the National Security Agency has secretly collected the online communications of foreigners. The PRISM program has gathered data from nine American tech companies, including Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. Setting aside the legal and moral arguments against such a program, Glenn Derene writes in Popular Mechanics that spying on foreigners could hurt the US economy.
“Collecting vast quantities of user data from American-based multinational companies could end up poisoning their reputations and harming their business,” he says. It forces foreign firms to question whether they want to work with American companies, and raises national security questions for other governments thinking about contracting US firms.
The irony here is that PRISM is effective because American companies dominate information technology. By snooping around in their servers, could the government have ruined the companies’ competitive edge – and its own?
From a floating tire to the Ivy League
“The first time he arrived in the United States, three-year-old Juan Cerda ... was on a truck tire floating across the Rio Grande river,” writes Yanan Wang in the Yale Daily News. “All in all, Cerda has spent just four years of his life in Mexico – three as a toddler, and one as a child waiting for his mother to receive cancer treatment. But for almost all of the 16 years he has lived in America, Cerda has had no permission to live in this country.”
Mr. Cerda now attends Yale University as part of the class of 2015. Ms. Wang’s article, titled “Undocumented but Unafraid,” tracks Cerda’s remarkable journey from that floating tire to the Ivy League, and where he wants to head next.
Our friend, the Google search engine
Google is not making us dumber – the truth is much stranger than that, says Clive Thompson in Slate. Mr. Thompson argues that humans have never been good at holding on to details. A study from 1990 – well before the Web supposedly rotted our brains – asked participants to read and recall several sentences. About an hour later, the subjects could pretty much recite the lines verbatim. When asked again four days later, however, most of them remembered the gist of each sentence, but could not recall the specific wording. There is one exception, though: When people are passionate about a subject, they retain far more details.
Now, research suggests that in order to compensate for our leaky brains, many people start creating networks of shared memory between spouses, colleagues, and friends. “They’re passionate about subject X; you’re passionate about subject Y,” writes Thompson. “So you each begin to subconsciously delegate the task of remembering that stuff to the other, treating one’s partners like a notepad or encyclopedia, and they do the reverse.” You remember our bank account numbers and how to program the TiVo; I’ll remember our relatives’ birthdays and where we keep the spare light bulbs.
In other words, a search engine isn’t a modern crutch, he says. It’s a close friend that just happens to be passionate about everything.
On the 28th floor of Samsung’s headquarters here is a door marked “Restricted Access,” the warning emphasized by two slashing diagonal red lines.
It does not guard the company’s plans for a next-generation smart phone, however, nor any other commercial secrets. Instead, the shelves and filing cabinets behind the door are filled with North Korean government work reports, recent editions of the ruling party’s daily newspaper, and other publications from Pyongyang.
That is forbidden fruit to ordinary South Koreans, who are banned from reading them. Scholars at Samsung’s Economic Research Institute, which holds the small archive, need special clearance from South Korea’s intelligence agency to be able to consult the documents.
RECOMMENDED: Kim 101: How well do you know North Korea's leaders?
“And every night, I have to lock this room up,” says Dong Yong-sueng, a researcher at the institute.
South Korea’s National Security Act, a draconian law passed in 1948 that outlaws anything that might praise or promote North Korea, is a striking illustration of just how nervous this country is about its mysterious and threatening northern neighbor.
Some recent events underline the fears. Three weeks ago, for example, South Korean soldiers shot dead a man in civilian clothes who was trying to enter North Korea from the south. It was not clear why the man was trying to make the unusual journey north across the Imjin river.
Earlier this year a Seoul court sentenced a man to two years’ imprisonment because 18 years ago he made an unauthorized trip via China to North Korea and during his visit was known to have bowed to a statue of the hermit-state’s founder, Kim Il-sung.
The man then lived in Germany until he returned home last December, whereupon he was arrested for having violated the National Security Act. An appeals court last week acquitted him, ruled that the bow did not constitute a threat to South Korea’s national security.
Another appeals court last August came to the rescue of Park Jeong-geun, who had been given a 10 month prison term for re-tweeting material from North Korea’s official Twitter account. The court accepted Mr. Park’s argument that he had been lampooning the North Korean authorities; a lower court had found that he had been “supporting and joining forces with an anti-state entity.”
The last South Korean government, under hard-line President Lee Myeung-bak, made liberal use of the National Security Act; new cases under the law rose from 46 in 2008 to 90 in 2011, according to official figures. By the end of 2011 the authorities had closed 178 websites for posting “pro-North Korean” material.
It is unclear whether the new government led by Park Geun-hye, who became president in February, will pursue this approach, which earned criticism earlier this year from UN special rapporteur on human rights Margaret Sekaggya as a “seriously problematic” challenge to freedom of expression.
Just last week, Freedom House, a Washington-based watchdog, rated South Korea only “partly free” and 20th out of 60 countries in its Internet freedom report because of the way prosecutors have used the National Security Act to clamp down on online activities.
Security officials say Seoul has to keep its guard up against threats from the North, which is still technically at war with the South since the two have signed only a truce. Last month the police arrested a left wing member of parliament on charges he had plotted an armed rebellion to overthrow the South Korean government in the event of war with Pyongyang.
Young South Koreans scoff at the restrictions on their freedom of information, and laugh at suggestions that North Korea’s shrill propaganda would win anybody here over to its cause.
“These kinds of bans are the last thing that would keep South Korea safe from the North,” agrees Dr. Dong, who says the sort of newspapers and magazines he has to keep under lock and key are scarcely likely to foment Communist revolution in Seoul.
But he would be reluctant to see the law changed, he says. “The North Korea we are confronting is still stuck in a previous era,” he points out. “Times have changed, but perhaps we still need to defend ourselves in old fashioned ways because they are old fashioned.”
RECOMMENDED: Kim 101: How well do you know North Korea's leaders?
The steady gaze and beatific smile are reminiscent of the world’s best known painting, the Mona Lisa.
Those clues, along with carbon dating and other scientific tests, have led Italian experts to claim that they have found the holy of holies of the art world: a previously unknown Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece.
Experts believe that the newly discovered painting is the full-blown, oil version of a pencil sketch drawn by Leonardo of a Renaissance noblewoman, Isabella d’Este, which now hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
RECOMMENDED: Think you know Europe? Take our geography quiz.
Leonardo completed the sketch when he was staying in the city of Mantua, in the northern Lombardy region, in 1499 or 1500.
Pleased with her portrait, the Marquesa d’Este then sent letters asking him to produce a new, more elaborate version in colored oils. According to historical records, she never received a reply.
Art historians speculated that the Renaissance master had moved on to grander, more lucrative commissions, including the Mona Lisa, which is believed to be a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the young wife of a rich Florentine merchant.
Now, it appears, Leonardo did indeed paint the oil portrait, perhaps when he met d’Este, one of the most influential female figures of her day, in Rome in 1514.
The oil painting was discovered recently in a Swiss bank vault, part of a collection of 400 works owned by an Italian family who have asked not to be identified.
Measuring 24 inches by 18 inches, it bears a striking resemblance to the Leonardo sketch held by the Louvre – the woman’s posture, her hairstyle, her striped dress, and the way she holds her hands are almost identical.
“There are no doubts that the portrait is the work of Leonardo,” Carlo Pedretti, a professor emeritus of art history and an expert in Leonardo studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Corriere della Sera newspaper on Friday. “I can immediately recognize Da Vinci's handiwork, particularly in the woman's face."
Scientific tests have shown that the type of pigment in the portrait was the same as that used by Leonardo, as was the primer used to treat the canvas. Carbon dating, conducted by a mass spectrometry laboratory at the University of Arizona, has shown that the portrait was painted between 1460 and 1650.
Professor Pedretti, a recognized expert in authenticating disputed works by Da Vinci, said more analysis was required to determine whether certain elements of the portrait – notably a golden tiara on the noblewoman’s head and a palm leaf held in her hand like a scepter – were the work of Leonardo or one of his pupils.
But as with any new-Leonardo-da-Vinci-discovered story, doubts were expressed by some eminent experts.
Martin Kemp, professor emeritus of the history of art at Oxford University, and one of the world’s foremost authorities on da Vinci, said if the find was authenticated it would be worth “tens of millions of pounds” but raised doubts about whether the painting was really the work of Leonardo.
The portrait found in Switzerland is painted on canvas, whereas Leonardo favored wooden boards, he said.
And Leonardo gave away his original sketch to the marquesa, so he would not have been able to refer to it later in order to paint a full oil version.
It was more likely to have been produced by one of the many artists operating in northern Italy who copied Leonardo’s works. "They'd take a Madonna head from one work and then pick the figure of John the Baptist from another, and produce a sort of pastiche. It was a sort of early version of Photoshop," he says.
Only around 15 works have been reliably attributed to Leonardo, including the Mona Lisa, which is also hangs in the Louvre.
If these latest claims are backed up by other leading da Vinci experts, that number has just jumped to 16.