January 06, 2020

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NEED TO KNOW

NORTH KOREA

False Alarms

An American military base near the North Korean border mistakenly sounded air raid sirens rather than Taps, the traditional bugle call that marks the end of the day, in late December. Someone pushed the wrong button, VICE reported.

The snafu occurred around the same time that Japanese broadcaster NHK incorrectly reported that North Korea had fired a missile that landed in waters east of Japan. US spy planes plied the skies over North Korea amid the heightened tensions, Popular Mechanics wrote.

Relations between the US and the Hermit Kingdom are precarious. “At this particular moment, a false alarm like this can start a war,” MIT political scientist Vipin Narang tweeted.

North Korean leaders warned officials not to keep journals that might result in leaked state secrets at the tense time, reported United Press International.

Then North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made his bombshell announcement, saying during a party gathering on New Year’s Day that the country would lift its moratorium on nuclear tests and tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could reach the US mainland.

“Under such condition,” said Kim, according to the BBC, “there is no ground for us to get unilaterally bound to the commitment any longer, the commitment to which there is no opposite party, and this is chilling our efforts for worldwide nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.”

Kim had given President Donald Trump an end-of-the-year deadline to change his stance in the stalled negotiations over denuclearizing North Korea, or else the talks would end, Reuters explained. The North Korean leader particularly wanted the US to lift sanctions that have crippled the country’s already weak economy. The White House wasn’t budging on those issues.

A flurry of diplomatic activity occurred as Kim’s deadline approached. China called on the US to take concrete steps to reach a deal. But the US was compromising. The New York Times reported that Trump again blocked the United Nations Security Council from discussing human rights abuses in North Korea even as the abuses continue.

It’s impossible to tell what Kim and his cohorts are planning, said Washington Post Beijing Bureau Chief Anna Fifield, author of a book on Kim, in an interview with World Politics Review. Chillingly, Reuters wrote that North Korean scientists have had time to work on new designs for faster rockets with more warheads.

It’s hard to know how to best respond while the stakes grow steeper by the day.

WANT TO KNOW

IRAQ & IRAN

Lighting the Fuse

Lawmakers in Iraq voted Sunday to expel United States troops from the country following a US drone strike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in the Baghdad airport on Friday, the New York Times reported.

Iraq’s Shiite-majority Parliament voted in favor of the draft bill, but Sunni and Kurdish factions did not show up for the vote, as a sign that they oppose the withdrawal of US troops.

The vote came as hundreds of thousands of mourners rallied in the streets of Iran to pay their respects to Soleimani, the most powerful figure in the country after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The killing of Soleimani was condemned by Iraq and Iran and has sparked a wave of uncertainty in the Middle East.

Iranian officials vowed to retaliate and attack “US military targets,” while also announcing they will no longer abide by any of the restrictions imposed by the 2015 nuclear deal, according to the BBC.

European leaders, meanwhile, have been urging restraint following the recent developments, but so far have not criticized US President Donald Trump’s decision to launch drone strikes.

MONTENEGRO

Canceling Christmas

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said over the weekend that he is canceling an upcoming visit to Montenegro amid a dispute over a new Montenegrin religious law that Serbs say discriminates against the Serbian Orthodox Church, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.

Vucic planned to visit Serbian churches in Montenegro during Orthodox Christmas next week, but Montenegrin officials warned that his visit might exacerbate existing tensions in the tiny Balkan nation.

Montenegro’s parliament passed a law last month requiring religious communities to prove property ownership from before 1918.

Serbs in Montenegro worry that the new law will lead to the impounding of Serbian Orthodox Church property in the country and have organized daily protests demanding the law be revoked.

Last week, Serbian ultra-nationalists and soccer hooligans threw flares and attempted to set fire to the Montenegrin flag during protests in front of the Montenegrin Embassy in Belgrade, in Serbia.

Montenegrin officials, meanwhile, denied that the law would impound properties and criticized the attack against their diplomatic mission.

HONG KONG

A Tougher Stance

China replaced its top representative in Hong Kong with a high-ranking Communist party official, signaling that Beijing is taking a tougher stance against the protest-wracked semi-autonomous city, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Luo Huining, a former province leader, replaced Wang Zhimin as director of the Chinese government’s liaison office in Hong Kong.

The replacement came after Communist party officials showed displeasure at Wang’s handling of the seven-month protests that have gripped Hong Kong. Pro-Beijing politicians were also defeated by a landslide in local district elections in November.

Unlike Wang, Luo has no experience in Hong Kong policy. His appointment shows that Beijing wants to impose its will on the city, instead of appeasing protesters.

Protests in Hong Kong began in June over a now-scrapped extradition bill, but soon turned into pro-democracy rallies against China’s interference.

Officials in Beijing and Hong Kong have refused to accede to more demands beyond pulling the extradition bill.

DISCOVERIES

Keeping the Holiday Spirit

Decembers in Russia are generally cold and snowy, but last month the capital, Moscow, experienced one of its warmest Decembers since 1886.

The lack of snow during the New Year celebrations forced authorities to put fake snow in Moscow’s streets for the festivities, NBC News reported.

Over the weekend before New Year’s Day, city officials trucked in “snow” – residue from ice cut at local skating rinks – and dumped it in several landmark areas, including the famous Red Square.

Muscovites have been complaining about the “lack of holiday spirit,” as snow is viewed as an important element during the New Year and Orthodox Christmas holidays.

Residents were quite shocked at the sight of artificial snow, with many quipping at over-the-top funding the capital gets in comparison to other Russian cities.

“With the Moscow budget you can buy anything,” one person posted on Twitter. “Even winter.”

Authorities assured citizens that the effort wasn’t costly, but the warm winter has caused some concern about the effects of climate change in Russia.

The warming weather is damaging the sea-ice habitats of polar bears in the Russian arctic, while the thawing permafrost is threatening infrastructure in affected regions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said last month that climate change poses a serious threat to Russia, stressing that action needs to be taken.

Moscow’s budget might not be enough.