Your Tuesday Briefing

We’re covering what to know about Omicron, and a North Korean spy drama.

Israel, Morocco, Japan and South Korea closed off foreign travel. European nations shut their borders specifically to travelers from southern Africa. A U.S. governor declared a state of emergency, without cases having been reported in the country.

Nations are responding to the Omicron variant in a vacuum of conclusive evidence, and in the piecemeal fashion that has defined, and hobbled, the global response to Covid-19.

A three-day special session convened by the W.H.O. is underway to discuss a treaty that would ensure prompt sharing of data and technology and equitable access to vaccines. The U.S. has balked at a proposal that the treaty be legally binding.

Biden sought to reassure the nation on Monday, saying the variant was “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.” He said he would outline a plan on Thursday to fight Covid with vaccines and testing, not with more lockdowns. He also implored other leaders to increase their shot donations.

China is developing advanced weapons, leading U.S. officials to push for the first nuclear talks between the two countries. Biden administration officials say the issue has taken on more urgency than has been publicly acknowledged.

Beijing’s recent moves, such as building new missile silo fields and testing new types of advanced weapons, suggest China may now be interested in developing a nuclear first-strike capability, not just the minimum deterrent. Biden raised the possibility of “strategic stability talks” with Xi Jinping, China’s leader, during a virtual summit this month.

Meanwhile, Biden’s aides are deep into an examination of American nuclear strategy that will be published in coming months. The review, which every new administration is required to undertake, will contain key decisions — including whether to go ahead with a trillion-dollar modernization plan.

Iran: After five months, negotiations on restoring the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran resumed, but with a harder line from the new Iranian government, which has demanded an immediate removal of sanctions.

Related: European countries are turning to nuclear power to reach ambitious climate goals. Not everyone is buying the idea.


A North Korean duck farm worker-turned-spy fled to South Korea. There, she was arrested for being part of an effort to lure North Korean defectors back home. She denies being part of such a scheme and says that she only helped North Korean secret police to avoid being sent to a prison camp.

The case of Song Chun-son, who was sentenced to three years in prison last week, offers a rare look at the covert battle the rivals are waging over North Korean defectors living in the South, whom the North tries to lure back. A judge dismissed Song’s appeal, saying that she had helped the North Korean secret police for personal gain as well.

Tens of thousands of North Koreans have defected to the South in recent years; in the last decade, at least 28 have mysteriously returned. North Korea has used the returnees for propaganda, arranging news conferences where they describe escaping the “living hell” they found in the South.

Quotable: “When I came to South Korea, I confessed to what I did in the North to make a fresh start in the South,” Song said in an August letter she sent from jail to her sister, also a North Korean defector in the South. “I was coerced to do what I did — but they say that doesn’t erase the crime.”

Asia Pacific

Art Basel returns to Miami Beach this week. The annual event, which also has shows in Switzerland and Hong Kong, is a big deal: ARTnews calls it “the world’s most important modern and contemporary art fair.” The area will host hundreds of galleries, along with satellite art fairs, pop-up shows and celebrity-studded private dinners.

Miami’s moment: The area’s art scene is thriving, Brett Sokol writes in The Times. Several new museums are in the works, and gallery sales boomed as collectors and tech entrepreneurs left the Northeast and West Coast during the pandemic.

A new era: Expect “clear skies with a virtual storm of NFTs,” The Miami Herald writes. There will be an array of gatherings centered on the emerging technology of non-fungible tokens, including a daylong conference, NFT BZL. (At one interactive exhibit, visitors will be able to make an A.I. self-portrait and take it home as an NFT.)

If you’re in the area: Time Out has a roundup of public works on display this week, including a “massive, multisensory labyrinth.”

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