France reverses car tyre sea sanctuary, an environmental flop

VALLAURIS, France: What seemed a like a crazy idea turned out to be just that: a 1980s experiment that saw 25,000 car tyres dumped into the crystal-clear waters of the Mediterranean to create a sanctuary for sealife off the French coast is being cleaned up after it was found to be polluting.

Since the start of last week, divers and a specially equipped boat with lifting gear have been fishing out hundreds of the old loops of rubber about 500m (1,600 feet) from an exclusive coastline between the towns of Cannes and Antibes.

The original vision, backed by local French authorities at the time and fishermen, was that the tyres would become populated by coral and other sea creatures in a conservation area where fishing was off limits.

In France, the idea of a “tyre reef” was tried only here, but a local academic working on the clean-up operation said authorities in other countries, particularly the United States, had tried the same failed idea.

“We hoped (back in the 1980s) that we could restore aquatic life there, but it didn’t work,” the deputy mayor of Antibes, Eric Duplay told AFP. “It turns out that the tyre reef was not a prolific place for biomass.”

Denis Genovese, the head of an association of local fishermen, confirmed that most Mediterranean lifeforms had shunned the idea of living inside mad-made products manufactured out of rubber, resins, oil and other chemicals.

Leaking toxic chemicals

Sedentary creatures such as the local scorpion fish didn’t use them, Genovese said, while “grouper fish, conger eels and sea bream swim around them, but no species really got used to it”.

Worse, a study in 2005 by researchers at the University of Nice showed that the tyres were leaking toxic chemicals into the environment, including heavy metals, which are a threat to human life.

Authorities were also worried that the tyres could degrade further, nearly 40 years after they sank to the seabed, and break up into smaller pieces which would be a risk for nearby seagrass meadows.

In 2015, a first mission to remove 2,500 tyres was undertaken to show that they could be extracted safely, with the work underway at the moment a second and more important phase of the clean-up operation.

Around 10,000 are set to be lifted by the divers and boat crew over the next few weeks, with the remaining 12,500 extracted in the second quarter of 2019.

Regeneration hopes

AFP hopped aboard the vessel last week to watch the progress in action as dozens of a tyres were hauled from the sea, with the luxury holiday villas of the French Riviera visible on the coastline behind.

The Saudi royal family own a huge villa on a small stretch of beach opposite the site, which was the focus of a scandal in 2015 when King Salman tried to privatise the sand for his holiday and caused an uproar among locals.

The fine white sand is a problem for the clean-up team of divers, which struggle with low visibility as they find the tyres and thread them on to wire cables which are then lifted to the surface.

“In the morning, it’s easy, the water’s clear,” crew member Morgan Postic on board the Ocea vessel said. “But as we stir it all up down at the bottom, you can’t see anything and it gets much more complicated.”

The tyres will be sent to the nearby city of Nice and then to recycling centres where they will be broken up into granules that can be used in construction projects.

“After that we’ll leave the seabed to restore itself naturally and we’ll continue to monitor with censors,” said marine scientist Patrice Francour from the University of Nice, who is working on the issue.

Francour said the clean-up would end France’s one and only experiment with a “tyre reef”, but that other countries still had to deal with the legacy of the failed idea, notably the United States.

A million euros (RM4.86 million) has been provided by the French state to finance the French clean-up, while French tyre company Michelin has contributed €200,000. — AFP

Mideast peace hopes at Camp David 40 years ago

PARIS: Four decades ago the leaders of Israel and Egypt reached a deal at an epic summit that led to the first peace treaty between the Jewish state and an Arab nation.

The Camp David Accords, thrashed out over days of talks hosted by then US president Jimmy Carter, were signed on Sept 17, 1978.

Here is a look back at that key moment in history.

Series of wars

In 1973, Egypt and Syria launch a surprise attack on Israel with the aim of forcing it to return territory seized from them in 1967.

Egypt makes a significant advance, even though it is eventually repelled.

Empowered, it agrees to attend a peace conference called in December in Geneva under the auspices of the United States and Soviet Union.

It brings Israelis and Arabs together for direct negotiations for the first time. Syrians and Palestinians do not attend, however, and the meeting adjourns.

First Arab leader in Israel

On Nov 9, 1977 Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat announces — to the general surprise of all — that he is prepared to visit Israel in a bid for peace.

“I am ready to go to the end of the world if this would prevent the wounding, let alone the killing, of a soldier or an officer,” he says.

After receiving a formal invitation from Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, Sadat arrives in Jerusalem on Nov 19, making the first visit by an Arab head of state to the Jewish nation.

Sadat shakes hands with his foes in the Israeli leadership and calls for a “just and permanent peace” in the entire region.

But it takes 10 more months of tough diplomatic exchange before further negotiations can take place.

Agreement at Camp David

In August 1978, Carter invites Sadat and Begin to meet in the United States.

Their summit gets underway on Sept 5 at Camp David, the presidential weekend retreat 100km from Washington, in a forested area with about 20 chalets.

For 13 days the three talk, surrounded by their diplomatic and military advisors, cut off from the rest of the world.

They sketch out and discuss 23 versions of an eventual peace accord, making countless revisions.

The negotiations continue into the night and at times the summit teeters on the edge of breakdown. Carter is in a constant back-and-forth between Sadat and Begin.

Eventually, it all comes together.

Warm embrace

Sadat and Begin sign the Camp David Accords on Sept 17, a determined Carter pushing negotiations until the very last minute. The two foes embrace, stunning the world.

There are two documents: the “Framework for Peace in the Middle East”, which outlines the basis of a peace settlement between Israel and its Arab neighbours, and “Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel”.

Included are “side letters” confirming that Egypt and Israel remain in disagreement on the status of the holy city of Jerusalem and on the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

From Nobel to assassination

Other Arab nations are enraged with Egypt, believing that the truce agreed by the military and political heavyweight, also the historical leader of pan-Arabism, has upended the regional balance of power in favour of Israel.

They protest that the deal ignores the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the rights of the Palestinian people.

In November, Sadat and Begin win the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts at Camp David.

In Washington on March 26, 1979, they sign the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty, which sets the terms for Egypt recovering the Sinai from Israel in 1982.

Arab countries slam the treaty as a “separate peace” and a betrayal, and break off relations with Egypt, suspending it from the Arab League.

Sadat, also criticised in his own country, is assassinated in October 1981.

In 1994, Jordan becomes the second Arab nation to normalise ties with Israel. — AFP

Mideast peace hopes at Camp David 40 years ago

PARIS: Four decades ago the leaders of Israel and Egypt reached a deal at an epic summit that led to the first peace treaty between the Jewish state and an Arab nation.

The Camp David Accords, thrashed out over days of talks hosted by then US president Jimmy Carter, were signed on Sept 17, 1978.

Here is a look back at that key moment in history.

Series of wars

In 1973, Egypt and Syria launch a surprise attack on Israel with the aim of forcing it to return territory seized from them in 1967.

Egypt makes a significant advance, even though it is eventually repelled.

Empowered, it agrees to attend a peace conference called in December in Geneva under the auspices of the United States and Soviet Union.

It brings Israelis and Arabs together for direct negotiations for the first time. Syrians and Palestinians do not attend, however, and the meeting adjourns.

First Arab leader in Israel

On Nov 9, 1977 Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat announces — to the general surprise of all — that he is prepared to visit Israel in a bid for peace.

“I am ready to go to the end of the world if this would prevent the wounding, let alone the killing, of a soldier or an officer,” he says.

After receiving a formal invitation from Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, Sadat arrives in Jerusalem on Nov 19, making the first visit by an Arab head of state to the Jewish nation.

Sadat shakes hands with his foes in the Israeli leadership and calls for a “just and permanent peace” in the entire region.

But it takes 10 more months of tough diplomatic exchange before further negotiations can take place.

Agreement at Camp David

In August 1978, Carter invites Sadat and Begin to meet in the United States.

Their summit gets underway on Sept 5 at Camp David, the presidential weekend retreat 100km from Washington, in a forested area with about 20 chalets.

For 13 days the three talk, surrounded by their diplomatic and military advisors, cut off from the rest of the world.

They sketch out and discuss 23 versions of an eventual peace accord, making countless revisions.

The negotiations continue into the night and at times the summit teeters on the edge of breakdown. Carter is in a constant back-and-forth between Sadat and Begin.

Eventually, it all comes together.

Warm embrace

Sadat and Begin sign the Camp David Accords on Sept 17, a determined Carter pushing negotiations until the very last minute. The two foes embrace, stunning the world.

There are two documents: the “Framework for Peace in the Middle East”, which outlines the basis of a peace settlement between Israel and its Arab neighbours, and “Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel”.

Included are “side letters” confirming that Egypt and Israel remain in disagreement on the status of the holy city of Jerusalem and on the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

From Nobel to assassination

Other Arab nations are enraged with Egypt, believing that the truce agreed by the military and political heavyweight, also the historical leader of pan-Arabism, has upended the regional balance of power in favour of Israel.

They protest that the deal ignores the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the rights of the Palestinian people.

In November, Sadat and Begin win the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts at Camp David.

In Washington on March 26, 1979, they sign the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty, which sets the terms for Egypt recovering the Sinai from Israel in 1982.

Arab countries slam the treaty as a “separate peace” and a betrayal, and break off relations with Egypt, suspending it from the Arab League.

Sadat, also criticised in his own country, is assassinated in October 1981.

In 1994, Jordan becomes the second Arab nation to normalise ties with Israel. — AFP

Perakian father and son walk 1,400km from Johor to Perlis

AFTER reaching Esplanade, Penang, a father and son have 400 km left to go before reaching Perlis on foot by Malaysia Day, while carrying the Malaysian and Perak state flag.

This was the fifth time R. Ragu, 43, had organised such an event and had planned to make it as a tradition every year to celebrate Malaysia Day.

SMK St. Michael student R. Surya, 13, had joined his father in the walk since 2013, but only managed to go for 20 km. This year, he has accompanied with his father throughout the whole trip.

The father of five said the 28-day walk was inspired by his daughter who had first done the walk with a passion to express her patriotism around Malaysia.

He wished that Malaysia’s independence should be celebrated for a longer period rather than just a single day.

“If festivals such as Hari Raya Adilfitri, Deevapali and Christmas can be celebrated for a month, why can’t Malaysia’s independence do the same? People had sacrificed their lives for our country’s independence and I believe that every Malaysians should acknowledge and appreciate that,” he told the reporters today.

He also welcomed the public, especially youngsters, who wished to join him for his future walks, but would require undergoing physical and mental training.

Meanwhile, when asked about the unique encounters they had throughout the journey, Ragu said that the whole trip was uneventful until they crossed over Perak’s border.

He said that he and his son had gone through ups-and-downs, from drivers throwing rubbish at them from vehicles and been called “stupid and crazy” to being invited to strangers’ home for meals and wedding ceremonies, but their most memorable experience was created on Monday night in Esplanade, Penang.

The father and son were accompanied by members of Penang Mountain Bike Association (PMA) at Esplanade and not only did they receive a lot of donations from passer-bys, but had also sang and cheered as buskers played the national song.

“We do not have any sponsor this year for our trip and our total expense was RM21,000, but what happened last night had been a huge moral support for us. Just a few days ago, when my son was being yelled at by the drivers, he was (mentally) broken and I have to keep comforting him along the journey, but last night (at the Esplanade), he could not sleep even until 1am, telling me how Penang was the best while crying tears of joy,” he said.

The event on Monday night was broadcast live on social media in PMA’s Facebook page and had over 3,000 views within 12 hours. — Bernama

Getting high in Laos’ opium-riddled mountains

HOUAPHAN PROVINCE, Laos: In a hut on the top of a fog-licked mountain in northern Laos, Vo Pali is getting high.

His poison is opium, a sap extracted from poppies grown illegally by the poor hill tribes in the Communist state’s rugged, inaccessible uplands.

“I smoke three times a day,” the 60-year-old ethnic Hmong villager says in a barely audible rasp of his 30-year habit.

“It has damaged my life. I have no income. But I get sick without it.”

The talk tails off as he loads up his first hit of the day.

He burns a thumb-sized ball of black resin over the stub of a candle and carefully pokes it into his bamboo chillum.

The flame rolls over the softened mush as Vo Pali takes four, five deep drags.

Smoke squirts from his nose, he wheezes and the drug takes him.

The Hmong have grown and smoked opium as a medicine — and as recreation — for generations.

But no full drug addiction survey has ever been taken in Laos and there is virtually no rehab provision.

Wedged between five countries, Laos has for decades played a starring role in the “Golden Triangle” drug trade.

Its opium became a treasured export in the 1960s and 70s as heroin hit the streets of America and drug money became entwined in the United States’ doomed anti-communist fight.

Laos was meant to go opium-free after a 2006 edict by its Communist leadership outlawed the growing of the cash crop.

While the campaign made a big dent, hill tribes kept up cultivation in secret for themselves — and for export, also becoming drug runners for organised crime gangs.

“People who live in these remote borders are very poor,” Onphiuw Khongviengthong, permanent secretary of the LCDC — the Laos drug control authority — told AFP in a rare interview with foreign media.

“They don’t have much education or knowledge about our laws, so it’s easy to trick them and use them for trafficking.”

Opium to arabica

In 2015 around 5,700ha (14,000 acres) of Laos were estimated to be under opium cultivation — more than triple the amount in 2007.

Several major seizures of raw opium and heroin this year in Vietnam couriered by Hmong villagers has renewed scrutiny on the relationship between opium and Laos’ most marginalised people.

“These farmers come from some of the poorest areas of the country, they only have access to low-value crops and very limited access to markets and technology,” says Erlend Falch of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

“They have no real path out of poverty.”

To change the game, the UNODC is leading a coffee cultivation programme across 10 former opium growing villages in Houaphan province, which borders Vietnam.

The fertile upland soil and cool climate that helps opium flourish is also good for coffee shrubs.

The aim is to establish a “luxury” arabica coffee brand that can reach wealthy markets from the US to Korea and Japan.

“Before we had no other option to growing opium,” says Mer Su Vua, a Hmong farmer, knee-high coffee shrubs studding the hillsides around him.

“But we would only make a small amount of money each year … so we have changed to coffee.”

The first small commercial crop at his village of Houayyarm is expected at the tail end of this year.

Incomes should rise each year as farmers grow, process and sell their crop to the market, cutting out the middlemen who have historically controlled the prices of their produce.

“We are trying to build a real commercial cooperative, owned by the farmers,” says Falch.

‘Cash and fast cars’

While opium cultivation could eventually make little economic sense, Laos’ more urgent drug problem is with methamphetamine.

With ungovernable land borders to Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, China and Cambodia, Laos is effectively a free run for the meth barons of Myanmar who are sending record amounts of “yaba” and “ice” through its unguarded frontiers.

Of Laos’ many border entry points, just two have scanners and X-ray machines.

And the resources of the drug gangs dwarf those of the police trying to stop them, says Onphiuw Khongviengthong of the LCDC.

“They use fast, modern vehicles and communications that our police do not have.”

Laos is working with its neighbours to boost crossborder intelligence to fight the drug gangs and there have been successes, including the high-profile takedown of Laos national Xaysana Keophimpa — dubbed “Mr X” — jailed for life this year in Thailand.

But the “big fish” remain out of reach.

In January the US Treasury sanctioned Chinese-businessman Zhao Wei for allegedly running a regional criminal enterprise — including trafficking of wildlife, humans and drugs — through the Kings Roman casino in a Special Economic Zone in the Laotian part of the Golden Triangle.

Zhao Wei is virtually untouchable inside the SEZ, running his own security in an area whose 99-year lease terms bar Laos authorities from intruding.

Curled up — almost childlike — in his shack as the waves of opium strike him, Vo Pali makes an unlikely link in a global criminal chain.

But the cycle of addiction keeps opium farmers in business.

“My biggest regret is that my son is now also an addict,” he says in a moment of clarity, before drifting off cradling his pipe. — AFP

Uruguay’s mate gets a makeover, with cannabis

LAID-back Uruguay has long been synonymous with herb-infused mate tea, and more recently became the world’s first country to legalise cannabis – so now manufacturers are bowing to the inevitable and putting the two together.

Cannabis-infused mate is hitting supermarkets across the South American country this month as marketeers give a new twist to the bitter tasting national beverage.

The move is part of efforts to develop a spin-off industry in the small South American country, where cannabis has been legally on sale since July last year.

As medicinal and recreational cannabis gains traction across the world, Uruguay’s legalisation of weed is attracting the attention of major food groups.

French spirits giant Pernod Ricard said recently it was “looking closely” at the cannabis market.

But competition is about to get a lot hotter.

G7 country Canada is set to follow Uruguay’s pioneering example and become only the second country to legalise pot next month.

Beer-giant Constellation Brands, which owns Mexican brand Corona, last month said it was injecting US$4 billion (RM17 billon) into Canadian marijuana grower Canopy Growth in a bid to corner the world market in cannabis-infused drinks and other products.

But a small Uruguayan company, BCBD Medicinal, has got its nose in front of its competitors in a market that seems set to explode.

Its cannabis-infused mate has already hit the shelves in some parts of Uruguay, with sales going ahead in other areas this month.

Medicinal compound

The government allows only two private companies to produce commercial cannabis, though several others are working on derivatives, particularly for medical purposes.

In BCBD’s greenhouses an hour east of the capital Montevideo, seedlings grow in protected conditions to avoid the austral winter cold.

A portrait of a dreadlocked Bob Marley set among the rows of delicate plants may give the wrong impression: the Jamaican reggae icon helped popularise marijuana, though what BCBD produces is not the high-inducing “recreational” cannabis extract, but the non-psychoactive compound Cannabidiol or CBD.

“Cannabis with recreational or psychoactive use has greater than one percent THC (Tetrahydrocannabidiol) content. Less than one percent, it’s called hemp. That’s the one that has the medicinal – and not so much recreational – effect,” said BCBD chief Rodrigo Puentes.

Boring and medicinal as it may sound, CBD does provide a certain “serenity” for regular mate drinkers, according to Puentes.

Cannabis-infused mate “doesn’t have the secondary effects produced by the traditional herb that can cause discomfort or gastric problems, but in fact CBD eliminates all these symptoms” .

BCBD Medicinal says it has developed 30 cannabis derivatives, mostly food products, and hopes to eventually supply the growing therapeutic market.

The company has orders from Israel, Spain and Germany, while mate itself is experiencing a moment through its use by stars such as Luis Suarez of Uruguay, Argentina’s Lionel Messi or even French World Cup winner Antoine Griezmann.

Many swear by its ability to deliver a gentle pick-me-up without the side effects of coffee, and as a general tonic for pain, fatigue and depression.

“It’s about integrating cannabis into the local culture,” BCBD cultivator Alfonso Vilardo as he moved through the rows of plants.

Marijuana culture is gaining a foothold in Uruguay, but out-and-out pot smoking may still be a tough sell from a marketing standpoint. A union of cannabis and mate has long seemed inevitable, free of social stigma in a country where just about everyone drinks mate.

Gourd, bombilla and thermos

A common sight in Uruguay and neighbouring Argentina are men and women walking down the street with their gourds, sipping through a metal straw called a bombilla, a refill thermos flask of water tucked under their arm. An average drinker thinks nothing of consuming two liters a day.

Uruguay has the highest-per-capita consumption of mate among the South American countries where it’s most popular, Argentina, Paraguay, Chile and Brazil.

The country of 3.5 million also allows cannabis to be grown, distributed and purchased in pharmacies by Uruguayan citizens.

Uruguay grants limited home cultivation for personal consumption and limited-membership clubs can grow their own marijuana.

Almost 27,000 people have registered with pharmacies since the drug went on legal sale in July last year. Nearly 7,000 home cultivators and more than 100 co-operative clubs have been registered since the law was first promulgated in 2013 by Uruguay’s then president, the leftist Jose Mujica.

The so-called marijuana mate contains only about two percent cannabis.

Still, Puentes insists, it can be relied on for that elusive “feeling of wellbeing”. — AFP

Lost at sea: ‘Thousands’ of dead migrants never identified

IN 2006, Khady Dieye’s husband left the family home on Senegal’s northern coast and boarded a dugout canoe in the hope of reaching Spain.

“Since then, we have not had any news of him,” said Dieye, who lives in the small fishing village of Ndiebene-Gandiol near Saint-Louis.

Like many other would-be migrants, he disappeared, leaving his family not knowing whether he was dead or alive, stuck between hope and grief.

With thousands of migrants dying at sea every year across the globe, European and African governments are struggling to keep up with the deaths and identify the bodies, experts told AFP.

“Many migrants’ bodies wash up here because of rip currents,” said the local deputy mayor, Arona Mael Sow, referring to notoriously dangerous coastal areas where river and sea waters mingle.

Despite close collaboration with the police and firemen, “there are always bodies we are not able to identify,” Sow told AFP.

So families like Dieye’s go through the mourning process anyway, observing the proper rituals in this Muslim-majority country.

“We said the Koran and gave the alms five months later,” added the 50-year-old, who lives with her four children on a small plot of land.

Dieye heads a support group for families of missing migrants with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which posts their pictures online to help with the search.

Another villager, Safietou Ndiaye, said it took her family seven months to accept the probable death of her brother in 2006.

But not all families manage to do so.

“Some keep the hope that their relatives are still alive,” Ndieye said.

Water damage

Earlier this month, a canoe carrying 150 would-be migrants from The Gambia ran aground in Dakar, the Atlantic port city and capital of Senegal.

Similar incidents have multiplied on the coast of Senegal and Mauritania in recent months — sometimes with tragic outcomes.

And rescuing victims from the sea can make identification much harder because “bodies which have been taken out of the water have often started rotting,” a security official in Saint-Louis told AFP.

In such cases, they are buried on the beach, he said.

Across the globe, the number of migrants who have died at sea is “enormous” but the rate at which they are identified remains “very low,” said Jose Baraybar, a Paris-based forensic expert who works for the International Committee of the Red Cross and was addressing a meeting in Dakar.

So local residents have teamed up to do their own investigations.

“We discuss the disappeared, how to identify them from their clothes, watches, faces, identity papers,” Dieye told AFP, saying her village was working with people from another village near Dakar.

Lucky charms

When two local boys died at sea in April, their relatives recognised them through the clothes and lucky charms they were wearing, Ndiebene-Gandiol’s mayor said.

And in the neighbouring village of Pilote-Bar, bracelets and rings were found on corpses which helped with identification, according to Issa Wade, who heads another support group for the families of missing migrants.

But it gets significantly harder when the deaths occur hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

“The main issue is having information about the victims before they die,” explained Baraybar.

“Without knowing who they were, if they were 1.80 metres tall, what they were wearing or whether they were wearing a ring or a bracelet, without having this information from the relatives, it is impossible”.

The puzzle continues for forensic experts in places like Greece or Italy, when bodies are found in the Mediterranean.

In transit countries like Tunisia, “migrants conceal all information about themselves to avoid being sent back to their country” if arrested, said Moncef Hamdoun, who heads the forensic department at Charles-Nicolle hospital in Tunis.

“We have a database for Tunisians,” but not for people from elsewhere, he said.

And when bodies end up in the sea, pictures are of little use, he said. — AFP

Hard truths from one Korean family reunion

SOKCHO, South Korea: What South Korean Park Ki-dong wanted most of all to learn from his Northern siblings was: when did his parents die and where were they buried?

He finally found out this week after decades of ignorance — but was disappointed by what he heard when he met his brother and sister for the first time in nearly 70 years at a reunion this week.

Lines on a map condemned them to a lifetime apart.

When the peninsula was originally divided by the US and Soviet Union along the 38th parallel in the aftermath of the Second World War, the family lived in Hwanghae province, then part of the South.

They farmed an unusually large holding of around nine hectares and Park, the eldest of five, went to school in Seoul, returning at weekends.

But North invaded South in 1950, and when hostilities ceased three years and millions of lives later, their home — along with his parents and two of his younger siblings — was on the other side of the Demilitarized Zone that has divided the peninsula ever since.

Now 82, Park said happily before heading to the reunion at the North’s Mount Kumgang resort: “My heart is filled with a thousand emotions. I’ve waited so long.”

But the actual event was underwhelming.

His brother Pak Sam Dong, 14 years his junior, showed him dozens of family photos, pointing and telling him: “This is you.”

The older man stared at the pictures silently, deep in thought, while his North Korean sister quietly wiped tears from her eyes.

“They were two and six years old when we were separated but now they are old,” Park told AFP after returning to the South.

“They are grandpa and grandma and they looked even older than me,” he added, sighing deeply.

“I thought they would be well off but when I met them, they were just like one of those dark, skinny People’s Army (North Korean) soldiers.”

The family were dependent on North Korea’s public ration system, he added, which aid agencies say is often unreliable.

“The Red Cross told us that we can’t give them more than US$300 (RM1,230.24), so I gave them US$300 each because we can’t break the regulation,” Park said. “I also gave them my gold ring that I was wearing and watches that I bought,” along with four suitcases of clothes.

They had had “plenty of time to talk”, he said, and “all my questions have been answered”.

His parents’ graves, it turned out, were unmarked, dashing his filial hopes of erecting a tombstone for them.

And, he went on, “because we spent decades apart, their ideology and way of thinking was too different”.

“For example, they were saying that our meeting was due to the benevolence of the dear leader,” he explained.

“But all our farmland had been confiscated and they were expelled and living poorly in another part of the country.” — AFP

Drugs and late nights: micro-engraver carves out niche

BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom: Using Botox, beta-blockers and the stillness of the night, Graham Short produces miniature engravings like nobody else.

Often dubbed “the world’s smallest engraver”, he hand-carves phrases and symbols onto the tiniest of surfaces, from pinheads to the edge of a razor blade.

Selling for increasingly large sums, the master craftsman goes to “ridiculous lengths” to achieve the required precision.

Short takes beta-blockers to slow his heartbeat to get the steadiest possible hand, and injects his eyelids with Botox to relax their muscles.

The 72-year-old works from midnight to dawn to minimise vibrations from outside.

“I know it’s a bit extreme … I’m so obsessed with it,” he told AFP at his home-studio in the suburbs of Birmingham, central England. “I don’t think anybody else would go to these lengths.”

He claims he’s the only person doing miniature engraving and says “that’s what drives me on.”

Once complete, often after months of work, his pieces are displayed in a lit case under a microscope, illuminating intricacies invisible to the naked eye.

They are typically bought by art investors with one piece, a collection of works fusing English, Arabic and calligraphy, fetching £200,000 (slightly more than RM1 million).

He sold an engraving of Queen Elizabeth II’s head on a piece of gold lodged in the eye of a needle to a Scottish dairy farmer for £100,000.

He also engraved “nothing is impossible” on the sharp edge of a razor blade, which sold for £50,000 to a gallery in northern England.

‘Love’ on a grain of salt

Short left school aged 15 with no academic qualifications, but got an apprenticeship with an engraving company before starting out on his own.

He spent decades as a stationary engraver for clients including the royal family and department store Harrods.

In his spare time he tried his hand at miniature engraving, first working under two magnifying glasses and now using a microscope.

His first project, carving the Lord’s Prayer onto the head of a two-millimetre-wide gold pin, took decades to complete as he juggled his business and family life.

“When I finished that I couldn’t stop looking at it,” the father-of-two recalled. “It had taken over my whole life.”

As traditional engraving work dropped off in the digital age, Short began to devote himself entirely to his miniature craftsmanship.

He has created 48 works over the last 15 years, he estimates, some made to order.

Among the most eye-popping was engraving the word “love” onto a grain of salt, which was then balanced on an eyelash plucked from the eye of the client’s wife.

The customer, a Russian oligarch in London who wanted a novelty Valentine’s Day gift, had made his fortune in the salt mines of Siberia.

Harry Kane’s face

Short rose in prominence in Britain after engraving miniature portraits of “Pride and Prejudice” author Jane Austen onto four £5 banknotes in 2016.

He gave them away in a Willy Wonka-style treasure hunt, spending the notes randomly across the country.

One of them was later auctioned for £6,000, while two others were kept by their finders and another remains in circulation.

“I couldn’t believe the interest, to be honest,” he said.

Short repeated the stunt this summer, carving England’s World Cup goal-scoring hero Harry Kane onto six more £5 banknotes.

Four are still waiting to be found, another will be presented to the Football Association and he wants to give the sixth to the player himself.

“They’ve asked me to go to a football match in London and present it to him,” Short said.

’20 beats a minute’

Short pushes himself to engrave on ever-smaller surfaces, hitting the limits of the human body.

“The smaller I go, the stiller I need to be. I need to be absolutely motionless,” he explained.

He tried meditation and breathing techniques but found them insufficient, so he turned to a regime of exercise — swimming 10,000 metres daily — and beta-blockers.

“When I’m working, I eat them like sweets and I can get my heart rate down to 20 beats a minute,” he said.

“Then I try to engrave when I’m absolutely dead-still between heartbeats.”

A normal resting heart rate for adults is 60 to 100 beats.

Short injects his eyelids with Botox every three months to ensure there is “no distraction from eye nerves and muscles”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he does not enjoy creating his artworks but revels in the outcome.

“The best part for me is when it’s finished and it’s in the gallery under the microscope and somebody comes in … and they’re absolutely knocked out,” he said.

“I absolutely love it, because I know I’ve done something that no-one else can do.” — AFP