Your Tuesday Briefing

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

Japan announced plans to bar all new foreign travelers over the Omicron variant.Credit…Philip Fong/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The frantic approach to Omicron is familiar

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.

The science: Experts have said that it could be two weeks or longer before more lab data emerges about how well vaccines fight the variant. The W.H.O. warned that the variant’s “high number of mutations” made it concerning. Moderna and Pfizer were preparing to reformulate their shots if necessary.

The spread: Here’s where the Omicron variant has been detected.

Markets: After dropping on Friday, stock markets rose on Monday as investors reconsidered the unknowns of the Omicron variant. Overall, Covid-related market drops are getting milder and shorter.

Here are the latest updates and maps of the pandemic.

In other developments:

  • The Dutch military police arrested a couple on Sunday who fled quarantine and boarded a plane.

  • Milos Zeman, the president of the Czech Republic, tested positive for the coronavirus last week and appointed the new prime minister while sitting inside a transparent cube.

  • Portugal detected 13 cases of the Omicron variant tied to a soccer team.

  • Antiviral Covid pills are coming, but they require timely testing to be effective.

Chinese military vehicles at a parade for the 70th anniversary of the country’s Communist Party.Credit…Ng Han Guan/Associated Press

U.S. hopes for nuclear talks with China

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 photo of Song Chun-son, who is in prison on espionage charges, being displayed by her sister, Song Chun-nyo. Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

A spy drama between the Koreas

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

Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, at a press conference for the new government in Kabul, Afghanistan.Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times
  • The Taliban and the families of Sept. 11 victims are fighting for the billions of dollars in Afghanistan’s central bank account that are held, and are currently frozen, at the Federal Reserve in New York.

  • An episode of “The Simpsons” that ridicules Chinese government censorship appears to have been censored on Disney’s newly launched streaming service in Hong Kong.

  • Albatrosses usually mate for life. But climate change may be driving more of the birds to “divorce.”

Around the World

Jack Dorsey was replaced by Twitter’s chief technology officer, Parag Agrawal.Credit…Alfonso Duran for The New York Times
  • Jack Dorsey will step down as Twitter’s chief executive.

  • After flooding, British Columbia is trying to pick up the pieces.

  • The U.K.’s attempts to attract foreign truck drivers do not seem to be working.

  • Xiomara Castro, the opposition candidate in Honduras’s presidential election, was leading in initial results. She would be the first woman to lead the country.

  • Last week, Magdalena Andersson became Sweden’s first female prime minister. Seven hours later, her coalition collapsed. On Monday, Parliament narrowly re-elected her.

  • The trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, the longtime partner of Jeffrey Epstein, began.

A Morning Read

The Kasulo cobalt mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo.Credit…Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times

Dangerous mining conditions plague the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to the world’s largest supply of cobalt, a key ingredient in electric cars. A leadership battle threatens reforms.


The artist Carlos Betancourt, who will have work at Art Basel Miami Beach, at his home with his piece “Golden Pond Wishes” (2013-2017).Credit…Ysa Pérez for The New York Times

Art Basel, back on the beach

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.”


What to Cook

Credit…Johnny Miller for The New York Times

Make midnight pasta with roasted garlic and chile.

What to Watch

“Drive My Car,” directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, is about grief, love, work and the soul-sustaining power of art. Manohla Dargis calls it a “quiet masterpiece.”

What to Read

In his novel “Harsh Times,” the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa examines power and conspiracy at a crucial point in Latin American history.

Now Time to Play

Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Instruction on a door (four letters).

And here is today’s Spelling Bee.

You can find all our puzzles here.

That’s it for today’s briefing. See you next time. — Melina

P.S. The Times Book Review is announcing the 10 best books of 2021 in a live event for subscribers at 9 a.m. E.S.T. on Tuesday.

The latest episode of “The Daily” is about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.

Claire Moses wrote the Arts and Ideas. You can reach Melina and the team at

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