The World Today for August 28, 2023

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Walking Out


The mother of an American serviceman who sprinted across the border to North Korea last month recently said her 23-year-old son, Travis King, would never seek refuge in the totalitarian country known as the Hermit Kingdom, reported the Army Times.

North Korean officials, meanwhile, wrote the Guardian, said King defected to their country because he was “disillusioned” with the West due to his “inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination” in the US military.

King is one of a handful of foreigners who have allegedly fled to North Korea over the years, explained Channel News Asia. Unsurprisingly, migration flows in the opposite direction are the norm. Almost 34,000 North Koreans have fled their oppressive government and settled in South Korea, a developed democracy and close US ally.

North Koreans have many reasons to flee. Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, the third in his family line to rule the country since its establishment in 1948, forbids freedom of speech, assembly, and countless other human rights.

But the biggest cause of dissatisfaction among the North Korean populace is hunger. In June, amid record food prices and difficulties growing crops, North Koreans told the BBC that food was so scarce that some of their neighbors were starving. The situation recalled the late 1990s when as many as three million North Koreans perished in a famine.

Kim has identified scapegoats for hunger, too. Touring rice paddies destroyed in recent flooding, Kim recently blasted officials he called “irresponsible” for their lack of planning and preparation, Reuters added. They serve at his pleasure, of course.

The supreme leader maintains impressive domestic intelligence and propaganda organizations to counter this discontent.

His sister, for instance, coordinates North Korean protests against American efforts to forge alliances in the region – as the recent summit at Camp David between American, Japanese, and South Korean leaders showed – as well as indignation over American military maneuvers nearby, the Economist wrote.

Those moves included North Korea conducting missile tests during recent drills between the South Korean and US navies, reported Foreign Policy. An attempt soon after to send a spy satellite into space fizzled, however, noted Al Jazeera, turning an anticipated victory into an embarrassing defeat.

During the launch, Kim was at a tractor factory urging the workers to toil harder to make sure the country had enough tractors to produce the food their fellow countrymen desperately need.

Some wondered why he was there.


Rinse and Repeat


Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa won a second term in office following general elections, a vote that was marred by irregularities, delays and allegations of fraud, Sky News reported.

Election officials announced Saturday that Mnangagwa of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) had secured more than 52 percent of the vote. His main rival, Nelson Chamisa of the Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC), won 44 percent of the vote.

Meanwhile, the ZANU-PF won the parliamentary elections held last week with 136 seats, while the CCC garnered 73 seats, the Guardian added.

The Aug. 23 elections were supposed to be held for just one day, but officials extended it for another amid problems with printing ballot papers and other concerns.

Still, international election observers from the European Union and African Union pointed out many issues surrounding the polls, including intimidation against Chamisa’s supporters.

Shortly after the results were announced, the opposition cried foul and rejected the “hastily assembled” results.

Observers said many Zimbabweans are likely to question the tally, raising concerns of potential post-election violence.

The ZANU-PF party has ruled Zimbabwe since it gained independence from white minority rule in 1980. The election results extend their stay in power, but the party failed to gain a two-thirds majority to allow it to amend the constitution, which analysts said could be used to extend presidential term limits.

Mnangagwa came to power after ousting longtime leader Robert Mugabe in a 2017 coup and narrowly won against Chamisa in a 2018 contested election.

However, his five-year tenure has been marked by economic struggles, with persistently high rates of unemployment and poverty. Despite once being a prosperous region, Zimbabwe now faces food insecurity, affecting around 3.8 million people despite official claims of a bumper harvest.

Outlawing ‘Division and Hatred’


Denmark plans to ban the public desecration of the Quran after a series of book burnings in recent weeks prompted outrage from the Muslim world and raised concerns about the country’s security situation, the BBC reported.

The government proposed a bill that would make the improper treatment of Islam’s holy book and other religious texts a criminal offense. Penalties will include a fine and jail sentences of up to two years.

Justice Minister Peter Hummelgaard explained that the draft law will not affect freedom of expression in the country, saying it is “a cornerstone of Danish democracy,” the Associated Press added.

But Hummelgaard said the burning of religious texts only creates division and hatred.

The bill will be added to a section of the criminal code that bans public insults of a foreign state, its flag or other symbols. The government will present it to parliament next month.

The proposal follows Quran burnings in Denmark and neighboring Sweden of late: Danish officials said the country has witnessed 70 demonstrations in recent weeks, including the burning of copies of the Quran in front of foreign embassies.

The issue has caused an uproar in Muslim-majority nations, with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation urging its members to take appropriate action against countries where the Quran was being desecrated.

The two Scandinavian countries initially hesitated to respond to the burnings because of their strong protections of freedom of expression. But that stance shifted after intelligence officials from both nations warned that the Quran burnings were compromising public security.

Sweden earlier this month raised its terror alert to the second-highest level of “high” after intelligence officials reported heightened threats from militant groups, the Associated Press reported.

While Sweden does not plan a similar bill, officials are considering amending a law that bans gatherings threatening the country’s security to forbid such protests.

Canal Jams


The Panama Canal will extend transit restrictions for cargo ships because of drought-induced low water levels, Panamanian authorities announced this week, a move that could cause further disruptions to global supply chains, Al Jazeera reported.

Earlier this year, canal officials issued a series of restrictions on the vital passageway – through which six percent of the world’s maritime commerce travels. But on Thursday, they announced that these restrictions will be extended for at least 10 more months, further increasing the backlog of vessels waiting to cross.

The backlog currently sits at about 115 vessels, according to official data.

The new restrictions come as the 50-mile passage experiences an unusually dry season, leading to lower water levels. The situation has already forced many ship owners to lighten their cargoes or find alternative routes.

The Panama Canal plays an integral role in worldwide maritime transport by allowing ships to cross with relative ease between the Atlantic and Pacific. It relies on water from neighboring freshwater lakes for its operations, but low rainfall has led to a decrease in water levels.

Analysts told CNN that with the El Niño weather phenomenon intensifying, there are concerns about prolonged dry conditions in the region.

Waiting times to enter the canal used to range from three to five days, but now are up to 11 days on average.

Observers said that while the situation will presently have little impact on US manufacturers and consumers, a prolonged disruption will affect companies’ ability to restock inventories ahead of the holiday season.


‘The Taste of Summer’

Antarctica is currently experiencing its winter period that is marked by subzero temperatures and almost perpetual darkness.

Still, these factors did not stop Russian scientists at the Vostok Station in Antarctica from successfully growing watermelons on the frozen continent, the Washington Post reported.

Agricultural researchers planted the large fruits at a station greenhouse as a part of an experiment to grow plants in Russia’s polar regions.

Because they had no proper soil and sunlight, they grew the watermelons using a combination of soil substitutes, fertilizers and special lighting. They also had to pollinate the plants by hand because there were no bees or other pollinators to do the job.

After planting the watermelon seeds in early April and pollinating them in late May, the first fruits grew by July.

The research team explained that the watermelons’ “taste and aroma are not worse than” domestic ones. The eight fruits that emerged were up to 5.11 inches in diameter and the heaviest one weighed around 2.2 pounds.

“Naturally, all polar explorers were happy to remember the taste of summer,” said Andrey Teplyakov, a geophysicist at the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, which runs Vostok Station.

Teplyakov and his colleagues have already grown other plants, such as tomatoes and peppers, at the station. They hope to plant other crops in special greenhouses, including berries and cucumbers.

Meanwhile, the farming experiments are also intended to test the potential of agricultural production at future outposts in space.

Clarification: On Friday’s The World, Briefly section, we wrote in our “New Blood” item that six countries will join the BRICS grouping. We only mentioned Saudi Arabia, Iran and Argentina, but would like to clarify that the list also includes Egypt, Ethiopia and the United Arab Emirates.

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