- South Koreans face lonely deaths as Confucian traditions fade
- Triple suicide bomb attack targets Afghan government building
- Obama starts second term in low-key White House ceremony
Posted: 20 Jan 2013 08:57 PM PST
SEOUL (Reuters) - When South Korean widow Yoon Sook-hee, 62, died after a bout of pneumonia in mid-January, she joined a growing number of old people in this Asian country who die alone and was cremated only thanks to the charity of people who never knew her.
Once a country where filial duty and a strong Confucian tradition saw parents revered, modern day South Korea, with a population of 50 million, has grown economically richer, but family ties have fragmented. Nowadays 1.2 million elderly South Koreans, just over 20 percent of the elderly population, live - and increasingly die - alone.
Yoon's former husband, whom she divorced 40 years ago, relinquished responsibility after being contacted by the hospital and told of her death. Her only son was unreachable as he had long broken off all contact with his parents.
"There are many elderly people who are incredibly depressed because they don't have a place to put their bodies after they die," said Kang Bong-hee, representative of a federation of funeral directors that manages funerals free of charge for those who are unable to afford their own.
"They collect what little money they have and they come and ask us what to do (with their bodies) after they die."
Kang was one of the volunteers who put together a makeshift funeral for Yoon, with most of the funds coming out of his own pocket.
South Korea is ageing at the fastest pace of all industrial nations, with the proportion of elderly rising to 11.8 percent of the population in 2012, up from 7.2 percent in 2002 and just 3.8 percent in 1980.
A report from the Welfare Ministry published in May last year predicted the ratio would grow to 15.7 percent in 2020 and to 24.3 percent in 2030, thanks to a declining birth-rate that has dropped from six per woman of childbearing age to just one.
POVERTY ADJACENT TO "GANGNAM STYLE"
While South Korea and Seoul were catapulted onto the global map by rapper Psy's "Gangnam Style" hit featuring the affluent suburb south of the Han River, the reality for older people is far less glamorous.
A toilet is the first thing you see when you step into 73-year-old Kong Kyung-soon's tiny apartment. It has barely two square meters of living space despite being adjacent to Gangnam.
Kong, who boils water in a rice cooker to save money, divorced more than 30 years ago after her husband was caught having a string of affairs. A love child, she says, was the final straw.
"If I get sick, it will just be the end for me," she said, adding she pays 360,000 won (214.2 pounds) a month for rent and living costs out of the roughly 500,000 won she gets from government welfare checks and public transportation subsidies.
She is one of 234,000 elderly South Koreans, or 19.7 percent of all those over 65 years old, living alone as of last year, who were living on government welfare. No data is available on what percent of those are female.
When asked why she didn't ask for help from her children, Kong said times have changed and she should care for herself.
"Whenever I tell my sister I want to die, she tells me I can after I make 500,000 won for my funeral expenses," said Kong, wiping tears from her eyes. Her sister, two years her senior, lives with her husband in another neighbourhood.
"I have prayed to the Lord that I will do good if he can spare me just 10,000 won."
The South Korean government tries to help, but in a nation where welfare spending came at second lowest among OECD countries in 2009, resources are limited.
It passed its first wide-ranging law on welfare for the elderly in 1981, focusing on the early detection and treatment of illnesses as well as the well-being of the elderly.
Services that send a caretaker to visit the home of elderly people living alone at least once a week started in 2007. These caretakers usually keep in contact with an average of 30 elderly citizens and are instructed to call them frequently.
Local governments in some areas take a more subtle approach by leaving small bottles of popular yogurt drinks at front doors every day. If unopened bottles start piling up, it's usually a bad sign.
Still, that doesn't address the main problem of the old, Kang said.
"From where I see it, the elderly just want someone to talk to. What's most important about elderly welfare is to prevent them from feeling lonely."
(Additional reporting by Jane Chung; Editing by Elaine Lies)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 20 Jan 2013 08:03 PM PST
KABUL (Reuters) - A coordinated attack involving at least three suicide bombers and a powerful car bomb took aim at the headquarters of the Kabul traffic department on Monday, followed by a clash between at least one insurgent and security forces, police said.
The attack took place just days after six suicide bombers attacked the Afghan spy agency in Kabul, killing two.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for Monday's attack.
"Today at 5 o'clock in the morning (1:30 a.m. British time) a number of mujahideen martyrs entered a government building close to an American training centre... Heavy fighting is ongoing," spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a text message to media.
Police said it was not immediately clear if there were any casualties in the attack, which involved a second bombing, a tactic favoured by Islamist insurgents elsewhere but relatively rare in Afghanistan.
"About an hour after the initial attack (triple suicide bomb attack) a fourth man drove a car to the same compound and detonated another bomb," the head of the Kabul police criminal investigation department, Mohammad Zahir, told Reuters.
Violence across the country has been increasing over the last year, sparking concern over how the 350,000-strong Afghan security forces will be able to manage once foreign troops withdraw by 2014.
(Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Nick Macfie)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 20 Jan 2013 07:48 PM PST
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama took the official oath for his second term on Sunday at the White House in a small, private ceremony that set a more subdued tone compared to the historic start of his presidency four years ago.
Gathered with his family in the Blue Room on the White House's ceremonial main floor, Obama put his hand on a family Bible and recited the 35-word oath that was read out loud by U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts.
"I did it," Obama said as he hugged his wife, Michelle, and daughters Sasha and Malia. "Thank you, sweetie," he told Michelle when she congratulated him.
"Good job, Dad," 11-year-old Sasha told her father. "You didn't mess up."
It was a low-key start to the first African-American U.S. president's second term, which is likely to be dominated - at least at the start - by budget fights with Republicans and attempts to reform gun control and immigration laws.
Obama, 51, will be sworn in publicly on Monday outside the West Front of the Capitol overlooking the National Mall in front of as many as 800,000 people, a much bigger ceremony replete with a major address and a parade.
Downtown Washington was all but locked down with heavy security. Many streets were closed and lined with barricades. Outside the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, an elaborate presidential viewing stand, encased in bullet-proof glass, was set up for Obama and other VIPs to watch the parade.
Sunday's ceremony, shown live on television, was needed because the U.S. Constitution mandates that the president take office on January 20. Planners opted to go with a private ceremony on the actual date and then hold the ceremonial inaugural activities the next day.
At a reception on Sunday night, Obama thanked supporters and joked that he did not want to give too much of a preview of his upcoming address.
"Tonight I'm going to be pretty brief because, you know, there are a limited amount of good lines," he said to laughter.
"What the inauguration reminds us of is the role we have as fellow citizens in promoting a common good," he continued, more seriously. "What we're celebrating is not the election or swearing-in of a president, what we're doing is celebrating each other and celebrating this incredible nation that we call home."
By Monday, Obama will have been sworn in four times, two for each term, putting him equal to Franklin Roosevelt, who won four terms. A second Obama swearing-in was deemed necessary in 2009 when Roberts flubbed the first one. On Sunday, Roberts read the oath carefully from a card and there were no mistakes.
Obama, who won a second four years on November 6 by defeating Republican Mitt Romney after a bitter campaign, opens round two facing many of the same problems that dogged his first term: persistently high unemployment, crushing government debt and a deep partisan divide over how to solve the issues.
This has taken some of the euphoria out of his second inauguration, with TV pundits debating how successful he will be and whether he can avoid policy over-reaching, which often afflicts two-term presidents.
"The newness has already worn off. Last time it was the inauguration for our first black president. Now, four years later it is a bit of old news," Mark Hoye, 52, of Sterling, Virginia said at an inauguration ball at a hotel in Washington.
If the president harboured any doubts himself, there was no sign of it as he attended a rousing service at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington where he and Michelle, who is sporting a new hair style featuring bangs, clapped and swayed to gospel music.
"Forward, forward," shouted Reverend Ronald Braxton to his congregation, echoing an Obama election campaign slogan.
Early on Sunday morning, Vice President Joe Biden was sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, making her the first Hispanic judge to administer an oath of office for one of the nation's two highest offices.
Obama and Biden then joined forces to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in a remembrance of those killed in the line of duty.
Biden's family, about 120 guests and a few reporters witnessed the swearing-in ceremony in the main foyer of his Naval Observatory residence. Biden used a Bible with a Celtic cross on the cover that has been in his family since 1893.
The audience for Monday's ceremony is not expected to be as big as in 2009 when a record 1.8 million people crammed into the National Mall to witness the swearing-in. Turnout is projected at 600,000 to 800,000, with millions more watching on television.
INAUGURAL ADDRESS IS CENTERPIECE
Obama's Inauguration Day speech will set the tone for the start of his second term and gives him a chance to lay out his vision of where he would like to lead the country. He has been drafting the speech on yellow legal pads and working with his speech writers.
Senior Obama adviser David Plouffe told CNN the president would talk about how "our political system doesn't require us to resolve all of our disputes or settle all of our differences," but that it does encourage common ground.
"I think it's going to be a hopeful speech," Plouffe said.
Lately the president has been using a more combative tone against his Republican opponents, a possible foreshadowing of a more aggressive effort at trying to get his way.
After his tumultuous first term during which he achieved an overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system, his second term opens in the midst of a feud with congressional Republicans over taxes and spending.
His top policy goals for the first year, so far, include tightening gun regulations in response to the massacre of 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school a month ago. Obama is also seeking an overhaul of immigration laws and tax reform.
Abroad, he is facing a challenge from a resurgence of Islamist extremists in North Africa exemplified by the recent hostage-taking that turned deadly at an oil facility in Algeria. He is also winding down the war in Afghanistan and dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Obama will save specific policy proposals for his annual State of the Union speech before Congress on February 12.
In his inaugural address, Obama is expected to talk about the need for political compromise where possible, a reminder of the intense battles in his first term that led to paralysis and dysfunction in Washington.
"It'd be great if the inauguration were a unifying moment - though I honestly can't say it will be. But just maybe for a day they can bury the hatchet and celebrate an important day for American democracy," said Brian Hurley, 57, a local salesman.
With the public ceremony falling on the national holiday honouring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Obama will also have a chance to draw historic parallels. While taking the oath on Monday, he will place his left hand on two Bibles - one once owned by Abraham Lincoln and the other by King.
The Obamas will attend two official inaugural balls, far fewer than the number they visited in 2009.
But Obama supporters partied throughout the weekend at many other unofficial balls in Washington. Dancers swung their hips to traditional songs, and some partygoers sported tuxedos with Hawaiian-print cummerbunds as they ate suckling pig at a Hawaii State Society inaugural ball.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Alistair Bell and Christopher Wilson)
Hurry up Mr Vice President, I've got a train to catch
No flubs, no re-dos for Obama and Roberts at swearing-in
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
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