International roundup: North Korea puts on the charm offensive at the Winter Olympics.

International roundup: North Korea puts on the charm offensive at the Winter Olympics.

Asia: At the Winter Olympics, there are glimmers of reconciliation between North and South Korea

The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea began on Friday, providing the backdrop for a thawing of frozen diplomatic relations between North and South Korea. Several very high-profile North Koreans made the trip south for the games, in fact: the head of parliament (and technically their head of state), Kim Yong-nam, and leader Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, travelled to Pyeongchang for a three-day visit that included the Olympic opening ceremony.

  • Kim Yo-jong’s visit marks the first time a member of the Kim ruling family has been to South Korea since the Korean War, while Kim Yong-nam has become the most senior North Korean government figure to visit the South.
  • During her visit, Kim Yo-jong personally delivered a message from her brother Kim Jong-un to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, inviting him to travel to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang for talks. Moon, under pressure from the United States to rebuff North Korean overtures until they suspend their nuclear program, said he wanted to “create the environment for that to be able to happen.”
  • US President Mike Pence was in Pyeongchang for the opening ceremony as well, although he refused to meet with the North Korean delegation, instead reiterating the US opposition to talks between North and South until the North agrees to enter into negotiations over ending its nuclear weapons program. Pence refused to shake hands with any of the North Korean delegation and skipped a dinner at which he was supposed to share a table with Kim Yong-nam.

Here are some of the other significant stories to emerge from the first five days of the Winter Olympics:

An appeal by 47 Russian athletes and coaches banned from the Winter Olympics over their country’s state-sponsored doping program was denied by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, ending their chances of competing in the games. The 47 athletes included the 28 athletes who had their lifetime Olympic bans overturned by the same court last week. Despite Russia’s ban, 169 Russian athletes are competing as “Olympic Athletes from Russia.”   

20 new cases of norovirus were confirmed on Sunday, a day after Olympic organizers said they believed the virus outbreak to be under control. The norovirus outbreak began in Pyeongchang before the games started and has been a cause of concern for the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Most of the 158 confirmed cases involved South Korean security officers tasked with monitoring the games. In response, 900 military police officers were sent to take the place of the security officers as a precaution against further contagion.

In a show of defiance, Pyeongchang restaurants that serve dog meat are refusing to stop serving what is considered by some to be a South Korean delicacy, despite a request from the South Korean government to do so.

Elsewhere in Asia:

China has moved to completely ban cryptocurrency trading, including bitcoin. The decision has increased the volatility of the already-volatile price of bitcoins, which saw bitcoin prices drop below $8,000 last week after hitting a high of over $18,000 in December.

China has been sending its Uyghur Muslims to political “re-education” centers in an effort to combat a Muslim separatist insurgency in Xinjiang.

  • The Uyghur, who have been facing repression from the Chinese government for decades, are a Turkish ethnic minority. The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is home to the majority of Uyghur Muslims in China.
  • The Chinese government believes the Uyghur people are supporting a Muslim separatist insurgency in the region and have sent an estimated 120,000 of them to these “re-education” centers, which have been compared to prisons.

The de-facto head of Samsung, Lee Jae-yong, who had previously been found guilty of bribery and corruption last August and sentenced to five years in prison, had his sentence reduced to two and a half years. The sentence was also suspended for four years.

  • Lee, who is the son of Samsung’s chairman, had already spent a year in jail. He was originally found guilty of bribing former South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who herself was removed from office following evidence of corruption. Samsung is the largest conglomerate in South Korea. Interestingly, Lee Jae-yong’s father, Lee Kun-hee, has been convicted of corruption on two previous occasions and was pardoned after each conviction.

A 6.4 magnitude earthquake hit near Hualien, Taiwan last Wednesday, resulting in the deaths of at least 17 people and causing extensive damage.

  • Attempts by China to aid its “breakaway province” were rejected by Taiwan’s government, which instead opted to bring in a Japanese Earthquake Rescue team to help locate survivors under the rubble.

In and around the Middle East: the conflict in Syria is now really threatening to destabilize the larger region

The Middle East took a serious step toward a larger regional conflict this weekend, after an Israeli F-16 fighter jet was shot down by Syrian air defenses while carrying out airstrikes against Syrian and Iranian military positions in Syria. The plane, believed to have been hit by a missile, crashed inside Israeli territory. Both pilots survived, with one seriously hurt. The airstrikes, carried out after an Iranian drone crossed into Israeli airspace from Syria, mark the first known instance of direct use of force against Iran by Israel and the first instance of direct combat between Israel and Syria since 1982.

The US also leaned into the Syrian conflict last week, when the military clashed with forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the province of Deir ez-Zour.

  • Per the US and their Kurdish allies, the strike against government-backed troops was carried out in self-defense in response to a major attack on them by more than 500 government-backed fighters, tanks and artillery. The US claims to have killed roughly 100 of the attackers in the strike.
  • Some context: Deir ez-Zour, located in northeastern Syria, has seen heavy fighting between anti-ISIS forces and now fighting between the US-backed Kurds and the Russian-Iranian-backed government forces.
  • Currently, the US and its allies control the areas in the province east of the Euphrates River, which includes valuable oil and gas fields the Syrian government is eager to regain control of. The government-backed forces, meanwhile, control the western portion of the province.
  • The initial alleged attack by Syrian forces appears to have started once the government-backed troops attempted to cross the Euphrates to seize an oil field, in violation of the existing agreement between the US and Russia that their forces would stay on their respective sides of the river.
  • The Syrian government has called the strike a “war crime” and a “massacre.” Conflicts between the Syrian government and the US, who currently have approximately 2,000 US soldiers stationed in Syria, had been rare until this event.

Smart read: This analysis by Ishaan Tharoor at the Washington Post on the increasing complexity of the conflict in Syria.

Elsewhere in and around the Middle East:

This is a big deal: Israeli police just recommended indicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on corruption charges following the results of two extensive corruption investigations.

  • The investigations concerned gifts received from wealthy benefactors and a deal where Netanyahu allegedly agreed to help an Israeli newspaper by damaging its rival in exchange for favorable coverage.
  • Netanyahu has essentially called the corruption investigations “fake news.” Israel’s attorney general is attempting to delay the release of the investigation results and recommendation until Israel’s Supreme Court rules on a petition by a Netanyahu ally to put a gag order on the investigation details.

As Iranian women continue to protest (and be arrested for) being forced to wear the hijab in public, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani released a three-year-old study showing that half of Iranians are against being forced to wear headscarves in public, instead believing it should be a private choice.

  • President Rouhani’s decision to release the study is an attempt to prompt Iran’s ruling religious establishment to relax parts of the mandatory Islamic dress code instituted after the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

The Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh that was used for months used as a jail in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s anticorruption-probe-cum-financial-shakedown reopened just days ago.

  • The move by “MBS” back in November to hold more than 300 wealthy Saudis has resulted in more than $100 billion recovered by the state.

Smart read: This explainer from WikiTribune on the recent schism of interests between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Yemen.

Europe: The European Union won’t do business with countries that haven’t ratified the Paris Climate Agreement

The European Union is implementing a new policy that’s bound to impact the US: it will no longer sign trade deals with countries that haven’t ratified the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

  • Such a policy will, of course, exclude the US from any future trade deals with the EU, at least while President Trump is in office.
  • Trump famously refused to ratify the Paris Agreement, instead insisting on renegotiating it.
  • Most of the other countries that have ratified the agreement are against any renegotiations.
  • The EU is also demanding compensation from the US for a solar panel tariff recently implemented.
    • The heavy tariff is beginning to effect EU countries like Germany, a major exporter of solar panels.

Elsewhere in Europe:

On Sunday, a Russian passenger plane departing from a Moscow airport crashed shortly after take-off, killing all 71 people aboard.

The government of France is set to ban “buy one, get one” offers for food products in a move to mollify French farmers. Should the legislation pass, supermarkets will no longer be able to offer discounts of more than 34%.

  • Some context: The move comes after country-wide riots over deeply-discounted Nutella became worldwide news a few weeks ago. Other riots, over discounted diapers and coffee, also took place.
  • More context: Emmanuel Macron, the 40-year-old French president who promised “to cut red tape and liberalise the French economy,” on the campaign trail, is now showing “interventionist instincts,” according to Reuters.

Amazon has agreed to settle its tax bill in France by paying roughly $250 million in back taxes.

South America: US Sen. Rubio suggests a coup, but the military’s entanglement with the drug trade complicates the situation

US Senator Marco Rubio suggested on Twitter that Venezuela’s military overthrow President Nicolas Maduro.

  • Some context: The military holds a monopoly on food distribution, which gives it significant leverage in a country ravaged by hyperinflation.
  • More context: some elements of the military are believed to be engaged in large-scale drug trafficking through the “Cartel of the Suns.” The alleged leader of the cartel is Diosdado Cabello, Maduro’s second-in-command.
    • David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, as told to Business Insider: “There is also a perverse logic whereby anybody with an indictment or subject to sanctions suddenly has extremely high exit costs,” in terms of opposing Maduro, since he could have those people extradited to the US to face criminal charges. This makes it less likely that those military leaders who are part of the “Cartel of the Suns” will do anything to endanger their position with Maduro.
  • Rubio has also called for the US to place sanctions on Cabello, who is already being sanctioned by the European Union.

header image: "olympic spirit," tom driggers / flickr

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