International roundup: North Korea will send a delegation to Winter Olympics in South Korea

International roundup: North Korea will send a delegation to Winter Olympics in South Korea

North Korea: Hope?

Well, it happened: North Korea is sending athletes to compete in next month’s Winter Olympics, after high-level talks with South Korea.

  • It’s hard to overstate how important this is after months and months of escalating tensions.
  • The most recent scare came when President Trump, responding to Kim Jong un’s taunting New Year's address, tweeted that “I have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
  • Lost in the nuclear showdown, but possibly more important, was the olive branch Kim appeared to extend to South Korea in his New Year’s address: he declared that “North and South must work together to alleviate the tensions and work together as a people of the same heritage to find peace and stability." He also wished South Korea success in hosting the Winter Olympics, and mused about sending a North Korean delegation to the games.
  • On Wednesday, just two days after the address, North Korea reopened the inter-Korean communication line between North and South (which had been suspended for the last 23 months) and officials from both countries communicated with each other through the line.
  • Crucial to the success of the talks: The US agreed to a request from South Korea to postpone the joint military drills that were slated to take place during the games. The joint-exercises have been one of the main roadblocks to peace talks with the North – Pyongyang sees the exercises as war-gaming to take out the North Korean regime and unify the Korean Peninsula.

At The Atlantic, Robert Carlin and Joel S. Wit argue that Trump could learn a thing or two from Ronald Reagan's "modest initiative" toward North Korea in 1988. 

Elsewhere in Asia:

Starting the new year out on the right foot, China’s ban on the domestic sale and processing of ivory took effect on Sunday.

  • The move is crucial in closing down China’s ivory market, which, along with the US’s, is the largest in the world.
  • The US implemented a similar ban in 2016.
  • From 2007 to 2014, the African elephant population was reduced by one third.

In and around the Middle East: US attempts to meddle in Iran’s domestic affairs backfire at UN Security Council meeting

On Friday, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley called a special session of the UN Security Council to discuss the ongoing protests in Iran and the Iranian regime’s crackdown. Haley and President Trump have been vocal in their support of the Iranian protests, attempting to use the protests as support for canceling the Iran nuclear deal and pushing regime change.

Haley began the meeting by blasting the Iranian government and expressing solidarity with the protesters. However, many members of the security council are weary of the US’s intentions toward Iran and are concerned the US is aiming to throw out the Iranian nuclear deal and pursue conflict with Iran:

  • France’s ambassador, François Delattre, warned against exploiting the protests for personal ends.
  • Russia’s UN Ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, accused Haley of convening the meeting to use the protests to undermine the Iran deal while wondering why the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri that were met with a violent police response were not taken up by the Security Council.
  • Bolivia’s ambassador Sacha Sergio Llorenty said, “It needs to be crystal clear to the international community that the situation in Iran does not belong on the agenda of the Security Council.”
  • Sweden’s ambassador, Irina Schoulgin Nyoni, expressed “reservations on the format and timing of the session.”
  • Iran’s UN Ambassador, Gholamali Khoshroo, was blunt: “The move by the United States to bring to this council protests in Iran by some of our citizens for their legitimate grievances – some exacerbated by none other than the US itself in its dereliction of its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – is an abuse of its power as a permanent member, and an abuse of the council itself.” Iran’s ambassador also delivered “a lengthy history of popular revolt in the United States,” according to the New York Times.

At the American Conservative, Patrick J. Buchanan argues that Haley's performance "exposes a malady of American foreign policy" – our willingness to give our allies a pass for behavior we condemn elsewhere.

While Iran has been dealing with the protests, French President Emmanuel Macron accused the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia of deliberately working toward a war with Iran.

  • Per Macron, “The official line pursued by the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia, who are our allies in many ways, is almost one that would lead us to war.”
  • President Trump has decertified the Iran nuclear deal brokered by former President Obama and increased sanctions on Iran over what he perceives is Iran’s backing of terrorism.

Elsewhere in (and around) the Middle East:

A Turkish banker was found guilty by a US jury on Wednesday for bank fraud and conspiracy in helping Turkey circumvent the sanctions on Iran.

  • Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a deputy general manager at Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank, was convicted after his former co-defendant, Reza Zarrab, a Turkish gold trader, turned on him and decided to start cooperating with investigators. Per his testimony, the sanctions-dodging scheme the men were involved with was approved by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
  • The case, as Nina Agrawal observes at the Los Angeles Times, “could have consequences for Turkey’s economy and worsen deteriorating U.S.-Turkey relations.”

ISIS’s branch in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt released a video declaring war on Hamas and executing an alleged Hamas collaborator in response to Hamas’ crackdowns on Islamic State supporters and their failure to prevent Trump from declaring Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

  • Long considered a terrorist group by the US and Israel, Hamas has controlled the Gaza Strip, one of the two Palestinian territories considered occupied by Israel, since 2007, during which time it has faced a blockade by both Israel and Egypt.
  • From the Post article: “Hamas has been trying to mend ties with neighboring Egypt…and analysts say it has tried to avoid direct confrontation with Israel in recent years.”
  • If ISIS supporters in Gaza launch rockets into Israel, Israel may well respond against Hamas, “which it holds responsible for all military aggression from Gaza.”

Speaking of Palestine: last Tuesday, President Trump tweeted threats to discontinue the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid payments given to the Palestinians each year if they continued to reject peace negotiations with Israel.

  • Friday saw reports that $125 million in funding for the UN agency that provides aid to Palestinian refugees had been frozen by the Trump administration, a move that has so far been denied by the State Department. Since Trump’s decision to move the embassy, Palestinian leaders have broken off contact with the US and rejected the US as an honest broker in future peace talks.
  • In response to Trump’s tweets threatening to cut off aid, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Jerusalem is “not for sale.” Still, President Trump plans to forge ahead with his peace plan, the contents of which have not yet been revealed.

Russian forces in Syria appear to have suffered an expensive blow from Syrian rebels after a mortar attack on their Hmeimim Air Base destroyed at least seven planes and killed two Russian servicemen.

  • The report, which appeared in the Russian daily newspaper Kommersant, detailed the seven destroyed aircraft as four Su-24 bombers, two Su-35S fighters and an An-72 transport plane as well as an ammunition depot.
  • A Russian military journalist published photos of damaged Russian warplanes, one of which showed the damaged tail of one jet whose numbering matched a jet shown on Russian State TV as a jet at the air base. Russia’s defense ministry acknowledged the rebel mortar attack but denied that any jets were damaged.
  • Days later, a statement on the Russian military’s Facebook page claimed the base “beat back an attack by 13 armed drones.”

Pakistan: Our on-again off-again relationship with a complicated ally

Following a Twitter attack by President Trump (his first of 2018), the United States froze at least $900 million in military aid to Pakistan on Thursday.

  • State Department officials made the announcement, but refused – or were unable – to identify the exact figure. However, as Reuters reports, the freeze affects two categories of funding: foreign military financing (FMF) and coalition support funds (CSF). Congress authorized “up to $900 million” in CSF for fiscal year 2017, along with $255 in FMF. The FMF funding had already been frozen days earlier – US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley made the announcement, claiming that “Pakistan has played a double game for years.”
  • The decision to cut off aid is apparently driven by Pakistan’s refusal to allow the US to interrogate a captured member of Pakistan’s Taliban-linked Haqqani network.
  • Pakistan’s foreign office did not seem fazed by the announcement – a spokesmen responded, “Pakistan receives a paltry amount in terms of Coalition Support Fund from the US, and if the Trump administration withholds it, it will hardly make any difference to a country of 207 million people”.
  • The State Department also placed Pakistan on a special watch list on Thursday for countries it sees as severe violators of religious freedom.

Pakistan has been one of the US’s main partners in Afghanistan, providing one of the two main supply routes into Afghanistan for the NATO mission there (the other being the longer and costlier supply routes through Russia and Central Asia). However, it is true that they have also lent support to the Taliban and other militant groups. The US has had questions about Pakistan’s commitment to its objectives since 2011, when Osama bin Laden was killed just up the street from the elite Pakistan Military Academy (it’s like West Point).

As the US puts the pressure on Pakistan, China has been moving to build its relationship with the country, announcing plans to build an offshore naval base near Pakistan’s Gwadar Port.

  • China is investing heavily in Pakistan as it seeks to connect the Chinese city of Kashgar with Gwadar through the “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor”. The presence of China certainly weakens the leverage held by US aid sent to Pakistan.

Bonus round:

Russia’s Foreign Ministry has warned the US about meddling in the upcoming Russian presidential election. Seriously. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a Russian lawyer and anti-corruption activist, has been blocked from running in the 2018 elections due to his controversial fraud conviction, which many believe to be part of Russian government efforts to silence him.

  • The comments from Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova came in response to statements made by the US State Department that indirectly spoke out mildly against the measures being used to prevent Navalny from running in the election: “We continue to be troubled by the Russian government’s ongoing crackdown against independent voices, from journalists to civil society activists and opposition politicians.”


200,000 Salvadorans are facing deportation from the US after the Trump administration announced on Monday “that it will terminate [their] provisional residency permits.”

  • The move is part of a systemic effort to strictly enforce border laws, and it’s succeeding: according to the Washington Post, “Trump has slashed the number of refugees accepted by the United States to the lowest level since 1980.”
  • Many of the Salvadorans have been in the US since 2001, when an earthquake devastated El Salvador.
  • Critics of the administration’s decision point to the approximately 190,000 US-born children of Salvadoran TPS recipients, but in a conversation with reporters on Monday, one senior DHS official was unmoved: “We are not going to get involved in an individual family’s decision,” the official said.

header image"handshake - 2 men," flazingo photos / flickr

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