Happy Thursday! North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was reportedly moved to pity recently after hearing his soldiers had been complaining about hard labor, short rations, and shorter haircuts.
Nothing’s changed on the first two, but the troops can now have hair as long as 30 whole millimeters. Kim’s not like the other dictators—he’s a cool dictator.
Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories
- The death toll from Monday’s earthquake in Turkey and Syria passed 16,000 and will continue rising as rescue workers excavate more rubble and displaced people endure winter cold. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan visited a tent city in the affected area Wednesday and acknowledged criticisms over the government’s failure to swiftly deploy rescue teams and equipment, leaving people trapped longer.
- Russia’s Ministry of Finance reported this week the country’s budget deficit had increased from about $2 billion last year to about $25 billion this January, reflecting the costs of both the country’s invasion of Ukraine and the Western sanctions it elicited. The country’s oil and gas revenues dropped about 46 percent year-over-year, while military costs reportedly drove government spending up 59 percent. The Kremlin’s finance ministry did claim, however, that Russia still has about $150 billion in its national wealth fund.
- United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Wednesday the U.K. will train Ukrainian pilots on NATO-standard fighter jets as part of a program the prime minister’s office said could take up to five years—opening the door for Ukraine to receive such planes in the long-term, but likely not immediately. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday also didn’t rule out eventually sending Ukraine fighter jets, but suggested such a move might not happen for a while given the need for maintenance capabilities and training.
- The Commerce Department reported this week the United States’ trade deficit—the excess value of imports over exports—rose about 12 percent last year to a record $948.1 billion, about 3.7 percent of the gross domestic product. Growing trade deficits with individual countries including Mexico, Canada, and India suggested manufacturers were seeking alternative sources for foreign products, possibly reflecting supply constraints and tensions with China. At the same time, however, the U.S. trade deficit with China also grew by about 8 percent, to $382.9 billion.
- Department of Labor Inspector General Larry Turner told Congress Wednesday that—largely because of unemployment benefit fraud—the estimate of wrongfully distributed COVID-19 aid may be $30 billion more than previously assessed, bringing the total to about $191 billion. The government has been prosecuting fraud and recovering a fraction of the lost money, and President Joe Biden called for more such efforts in Tuesday’s State of the Union address.
- In a Wednesday interview with PBS’ NewsHour, President Joe Biden sought to downplay his classified documents scandal, claiming the material discovered in his D.C. office and at his Delaware home was mostly “stray papers” from the 1970s. He attributed his possession of the documents—reportedly dating to both his time as vice president and as a U.S. senator—to people packing his offices not doing “the kind of job that should’ve been done” to carefully separate personal and official papers. Biden also maintained last week’s spy balloon incident won’t damage relations between China and the United States. “We’re going to compete fully with China,” he said. “But we’re not looking for conflict.”
- The House voted 227-201 on Wednesday—with seven Democrats joining all present Republicans—to pass a bill that would end the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement for most foreign visitors entering the United States. The legislation would also ban any such future restrictions and the use of federal funds to enforce them, but it’s unclear if the Senate will consider the bill, and the White House on Tuesday formally opposed the measure.
Devastation in Turkey and Syria
Night had fallen in rebel-held Idlib, Syria, on Tuesday, as a crowd gathered around a small opening in a pile of rubble. Framed by pieces of rebar sticking out at odd angles and some still-intact pieces of concrete, a rescue worker knelt in the small cavern, a headlamp strapped to the white helmet marking him as a member of the Syrian Civil Defense. He was used to digging people out of buildings toppled by missile strikes or barrel bombs—common in the country’s civil war that’s raged since 2011. This time, however, the devastation was entirely natural, caused by two massive 7.8- and 7.5-magnitude earthquakes that shook Turkey and Syria on Monday, leveling much of the impacted region.
Suddenly, there was movement in the opening and shouts from the crowd. Another White Helmet lifted a little girl in dusty pajamas out of the rubble. Her eyes were wide, but she was seemingly unharmed despite being buried for almost 40 hours. The crowd chanted Allahu akbar—“God is most great”—as she was passed along a human chain away from what remained of her home.