- Singaporean ship cruises to N. Korea
- More cases of women being molested, many on public transport
- Philippine rescuers search amid fading miracle hopes
GIANT speakers thump out club hits as the deejay bellows: "Everybody get on the dance floor!"
The nightspot is a boarded-up swimming pool on a ship sailing in North Korean waters. The groovers are mainly middle-aged men and women wearing pins featuring pictures of the late North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
Conspicuously missing was the beat of South Korean popstar Psy's Gangnam Style.
"We're not allowed to play that one," explains Danny Tay, the 46-year-old Singaporean who owns the ship.
His Royale Star was the only ship permitted to ply North Korea's first commercial cruise route running between northeastern Rajin port and the scenic southeastern Mount Kumgang resort.
Since getting its licence in February, it has made three trips.
Formerly a gaming ship in Singapore waters, the 138m-long vessel is no luxury liner, but a big improvement on the previous ship approved to ply the same route, the Mangyongbyong, with its bare minimum of amenities.
The Royale Star's bathrooms are functioning, for starters, and all passenger cabins on its nine decks come with bunks, allowing for up to 250 passengers, with room for 250 crew. There's also a karaoke lounge, a duty-free shop, a small casino, a massage parlour and a hair and nail salon.
The Pyongyang government representative overseeing the operations on board told The Sunday Times: "Customers seem happier with the 'Royale Star' than with the ship before, so our government is pleased with its crew and Singaporean management... This cruise is important to developing our tourism, and we want to give more people a taste of North Korea."
So how did a Singaporean and his modest vessel end up promoting tourism in reclusive North Korea? Tay says that he made the first move last year after learning that North Korea had a cruise route.
A primary school dropout who worked his way up the marine industry and who acquired the Royale Star in 2011 under his British Virgin Islands-registered company, Everis Capital Holdings, he approached North Korean officials to pitch his idea and the deal was sealed at the end of last year.
"It's been a dream to venture into North Korea since I was sent to repair a ship's elevators in North Korean waters back in 1996," said Tay.
"I don't speak the language but saw an opportunity and the untapped potential in cruises there."
The cruise was being marketed as a way for foreigners to visit one of the world's most secretive countries.
Several passengers on board during its latest trip at the end of last month had told The Sunday Times that curiosity had indeed prompted their travels.
The five-day, four-night 4,000 yuan (RM2,132) cruise was targeted mainly at foreigners.
Those who want to join the cruise must approach the vessel's management directly, or sign up at the Royale Star booth in Rajin port. — The Straits Times / Asia News Network
THE number of suspects arrested for outraging the modesty of women in Singapore has risen sharply this year, with many cases happening on public transport.
Figures collated from police news releases show that 46 men have been arrested since January in connection with at least 54 cases.
Twenty of the alleged offences took place on public buses or trains, or when the victims were near train stations or busstops.
There were 17 arrests for outrage of modesty during last year.
These figures, however, are just the tip of the iceberg.
For starters, the police do not publicise all arrest cases. Also, many reported cases remain unsolved. In fact, many more incidents go unreported, often because the victims do not want to come forward.
Monthly crime statistics shared by the police on its smartphone app, Police@SG, show an average of between 90 and 100 reports of molestation each month – the highest among the five preventable crimes in Singapore.
Molestation was flagged as an area of concern by the police when they released the 2012 crime statistics earlier this year, after reports of the offence on public transport shot up by more than a third – from 114 in 2011 to 153 last year.
Alvin Yeo, an MP on the Government Parliamentary Committee for Home Affairs and Law, said that the spike in molestation cases could be because there are more commuters and also because more victims are willing to make a report.
"We still need to monitor the situation and certainly, if there is an increase, police should be concerned and take steps proactively to stamp such behaviour out," he said. — The Straits Times / Asia News Network
CEBU, Philippines (AFP) - Philippine rescuers battled rough seas Sunday in a bleak search for 85 people missing in the country's latest ferry disaster, but hopes were fading of finding any survivors.
Thirty-four people have been confirmed killed after the ferry, carrying more than 800 passengers and crew, sank almost instantly on Friday night following a collision with a cargo ship outside a major port in the central city of Cebu.
Stormy weather forced an early suspension of search and rescue operations with a few hours of daylight remaining on Saturday, and similar conditions hampered rescuers on Sunday.
Navy spokesman Lieutenant Commander Gregory Fabic said the weather had prevented divers from reaching the interior of the sunken vessel, where many of those missing were believed trapped. But rescuers would make every effort to get inside.
"It is possible that there are air pockets in its compartments and there might be survivors," Fabic told AFP, adding people could survive for 72 hours in such conditions.
"There is still hope that there might just be survivors there."
The number of people officially listed as missing was sharply reduced on Sunday to 85 from 170 due to tallying issues rather than any fresh rescues.
The number of missing was cut after those involved in the search reconciled their figures, said Neil Sanchez, head of the regional disaster management office in Cebu.
Authorities were unable to say how many people may be in the sunken ship, which is at a depth of about 30 metres (98 feet), raising hope the number of missing could be reduced further.
Divers found the bodies of a man and a woman as they searched the outer reaches of the vessel on Sunday morning, Jaypee Abuan, a navy spokesman aboard one of the patrol craft, told AFP, lifting the known death toll to 34.
But stormy weather and strong currents throughout the day prevented a full-scale dive mission. Abuan said rescuers had been unable to get into the ship's interior by late Sunday afternoon, nearly two days after the accident.
"The time element is crucial. We need to fast-track diving operations to reach the inner compartments," he said.
Meanwhile, navy vessels, coastguard personnel in rubber boats and volunteer fishermen scoured about three square kilometres (1.8 square miles) of water outside the port for anyone who may still be floating.
While saying that all hope had not yet been lost, authorities cautioned that the odds of finding any more survivors were low.
"We are still hopeful, although you have to accept the reality that their chances of survival are very slim," Sanchez told reporters.
Survivors and people with relatives still missing waited at the Cebu ferry passenger terminal and a local hospital on Sunday for news of loved ones.
"I cannot explain what I am feeling. It is painful, but I continue to hope," said Nanette Condicion, 44, who survived by jumping on to the cargo ship but lost her elder sister and 71-year-old father in the chaos.
"I am staying here to wait for them, dead or alive. I am not going to leave unless I see both of them."
The ships collided as they were travelling in opposite directions at a well-known choke point near the mouth of Cebu's port.
Authorities said the St Thomas Aquinas ferry sank within 10 minutes of the crash.
The cargo ship Sulpicio Express 7, which had 36 crew members on board, did not sink. Its steel bow had caved in on impact but it sailed safely to dock.
Government regulator the Maritime Industry Authority said both vessels had passed safety checks and were seaworthy, indicating human error was to blame for one of the ships going into a wrong lane.
Ferries are one of the main forms of transport across the archipelago of more than 7,100 islands, particularly for the millions too poor to fly.
But sea accidents are common, with poor safety standards and lax enforcement typically to blame.
The world's deadliest peacetime maritime disaster occurred near the capital Manila in 1987 when a ferry laden with Christmas holidaymakers collided with a small oil tanker, killing more than 4,300 people.
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