The World Today for June 18, 2024

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Talking Trash

NORTH KOREA

The French first used balloons in war for reconnaissance during the battles that erupted after the French Revolution in the late 18th century. Now the inflatable devices have become a mainstay of the psychological warfare underscoring the tensions between North and South Korea.

North Korea, for example, recently flew more than 1,000 balloons carrying bundles of garbage and manure – many of which flew back into North Korea – into South Korea in retaliation for South Korea using loudspeakers to blast anti-North Korean propaganda over the border, reported CNN. The messages sought to inform North Koreans about their country’s problems – zero civil rights, autocratic leadership, food insecurity, etcetera – while highlighting the freedoms and prosperity that South Koreans enjoy.

As Reuters explained, South Koreans have also been sending balloons into North Korea. One group of activists called “The Committee for Reform and Opening up of Joson” – Joson being a term for North Korea – has been sending machines on balloons that dispense leaflets and Bibles and blast audio messages criticizing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, including calling him a pig.

Other groups have sent balloons carrying USB sticks loaded with K-pop songs and K-dramas, which are a hit worldwide.

The tit-for-tat balloon battles have escalated since South Korea abandoned a 2018 deal to stop the broadcasts, as well as military exercises, across the border, sparking fears that tensions between the two countries might boil over into another hot zone, as war rages in Ukraine and the Middle East and many fear China might attempt to invade Taiwan. Late last year, Kim ended his country’s official policy of seeking peaceful reunification with the South.

South Korean troops, for instance, recently fired warning shots at North Korean forces that mistakenly crossed the border, noted the BBC. North Korea has been beefing up its defenses in the demilitarized zone that runs between the two countries on the Korean peninsula, too.

These developments are especially scary because North Korea has revamped its nuclear deterrent in recent years, wrote World Politics Review. The so-called Hermit Kingdom can likely hit the continental US with nukes, while the country’s military has also diversified its delivery systems, making them hard to knock out in the event of war.

Analysts don’t see the purpose of the South Korean balloons. Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul​, said they were ineffectual in terms of improving the lot of suffering North Koreans – while the trash-filled balloons presented a real danger to commercial jetliners in South Korean airspace, according to the New York Times.

An analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) notes the more dangerous development has been the deepening of Russian-North Korean relations, because it could enhance North Korea’s WMD and conventional forces and embolden Kim to act more aggressively toward South Korea, especially with the lack of Chinese interest in the issue.

“After decades of working with Washington to control Kim and restrain his nuclear program,” wrote Sue Mi Terry of the Council on Foreign Relations in Foreign Affairs magazine, “Beijing and Moscow have decided to embrace North Korea’s leader, allowing him to act with newfound impunity.”

Meanwhile, North Korea has a history of increasing its provocations during US election cycles, with the CSIS noting that it staged more than four times as many weapons tests than in other years. Analysts say what North Korea does this year will show how emboldened Kim really is.

Still, the most compelling reason for Kim to refrain from launching an attack that would lead to war is internal, according to an analysis by the Economist Intelligence Unit. “The biggest deterrent against North Korea launching a war is the potentially devastating consequences for Kim Jong‑un’s regime … (it) could create opportunities for dissidents and opportunists within the North Korean elite to attempt a coup.”

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Burden of the Crown

ISRAEL/ GAZA STRIP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dissolved his war cabinet Monday following the resignation of its two centrist members, leaving the embattled leader even more vulnerable to the increasing internal and international pressure to stop the war, the Washington Post reported.

The war cabinet was originally established soon after the attack on Oct. 7 in southern Israel by Hamas and its allies that killed around 1,200 people and saw the kidnapping of more than 240 others.

The special cabinet also included moderates Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, both army generals, whose presence was seen to counterbalance the influence of Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners. But the two politicians resigned last week, saying they could not cooperate with the prime minister as long as he refused to commit to a day-after strategy for the Palestinian enclave.

Officials said Netanyahu will now discuss sensitive matters in “smaller forums” with key ministers and military representatives.

But the departure of Gantz and Eisenkot leaves the leader under more pressure from his far-right allies.

Over the nine months of conflict in Gaza, coalition members such as National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich have pressured Netanyahu to reject ceasefire plans with Hamas that could secure the release of 120 remaining hostages. They have also advocated for total victory against Hamas and the reoccupation of Gaza, despite opposition from Israeli defense leaders.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is also facing criticism over the Israeli military’s announcement of daily 11-hour pauses in the fighting in Gaza to allow the delivery of aid, the BBC wrote. Ben-Gvir and Smotrich fiercely criticized the decision, with the former labeling the move as made by someone “stupid and ignorant.”

The Israeli military emphasized that these pauses did not signify an end to operations, particularly in the Gazan city of Rafah, a focal point of the fighting at the moment.

At the same time, Netanyahu’s coalition is facing internal divisions, particularly over issues such as the conscription of ultra-Orthodox Jews, Reuters noted.

Exacerbating tensions are also near-daily cross-border attacks in northern Israel from the Lebanon-based, Iran-backed group Hezbollah. Since the Gaza war began, tens of thousands of civilians on both sides of the border have been evacuated.

Despite achieving significant military objectives against Hamas, Israeli military officials have called for a strategic shift to focus on Hezbollah and to address the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, where according to Gaza’s Health Ministry more than 37,000 Palestinians have been killed.

Meanwhile, the conflict is drawing widespread protests in Israel, with calls for Netanyahu to secure the hostages’ release and end the fighting.

Amid these challenges, Israel’s defense exports reached a record $13.07 billion last year, reflecting the ongoing strength of its defense industry even during wartime.

The Hit Squad

INDIA

An Indian national accused of involvement in a plot to kill a Sikh separatist in the US appeared before a New York court Monday, in a case that has the Indian government being accused by Western Allies of ordering the assassination of Sikh separatist figures abroad, NBC News reported.

Over the weekend, authorities in the Czech Republic extradited Nikhil Gupta to the United States to stand trial. Czech authorities arrested Gupta last year following a request by the US Justice Department.

US officials alleged that Gupta is an associate of an Indian government “senior field officer” and that together they helped organize the murder of Sikh separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who is also an American citizen. The plot was thwarted by US authorities.

Pannun is a critic of the Indian government and authorities there have labeled him a terrorist. He has advocated for an independent region in India for its Sikh population.

Prosecutors said that Gupta, claiming to be a drug and weapons trafficker, unknowingly contacted an undercover officer of the US Drug Enforcement Agency posing as a hitman. In June 2023, Gupta offered $100,000 in a murder-for-hire scheme and provided surveillance photos.

It was around the same time as another incident in Canada in which an unknown gunman murdered another Sikh separatist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in the province of British Columbia. Gupta later bragged to the officer that Nijjar “was also the target” and “we have so many targets.”

The extradition is the latest development in a year-long scandal in India: Last year, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused New Delhi of being involved in Nijjar’s murder, sparking a diplomatic row between the two countries.

The Indian government has vehemently rejected the allegations as “absurd” and has launched its own investigation into the matter, the Hindu noted.

Gupta has also denied the accusations and claimed he was “unfairly charged.”

He currently faces charges of murder-for-hire and conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire, both of which carry sentences of up to 10 years in prison.

Puppet Masters

CANADA

Lawmakers in Canada’s Parliament are in uproar over the release of a classified report this month that showed extensive foreign interference by China and India in Canadian democracy, Bloomberg reported.

The report from the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) alleges that some lawmakers accepted money and colluded with foreign officials. It said foreign powers, primarily China and India, have attempted to interfere in Canadian politics, businesses, nonprofits and academic institutions.

The committee has not yet revealed the specific names and actions of the accused, prompting some lawmakers to demand transparency and accountability.

Center-left New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jagmeet Singh called the suspects “traitors” and called for their prosecution. Singh criticized Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for being lenient on foreign interference, citing instances where the government failed to act on intelligence about Chinese meddling in elections.

He also accused Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre of ignoring the issue, despite evidence that Conservative leadership races were also targeted. Poilievre, who has a significant lead over Trudeau in opinion polls, called for the government to name the implicated individuals.

The government countered that disclosing names would compromise sensitive sources and methods, and potentially damage the reputations of lawmakers without due process. Instead, government officials urged opposition leaders to obtain the necessary security clearances to review the unredacted report.

The allegations of foreign interference have prompted widespread debate on how to protect Canada’s democracy. Intelligence agencies have long warned of such threats, but the latest report is the most direct and alarming yet, the Washington Post added.

Trudeau ordered the NSICOP to launch the probe in response to previous reports of Chinese meddling in the 2019 and 2021 elections. The committee confirmed attempts to influence election outcomes, although they said they did not alter the final results.

Despite the gravity of these accusations, the committee noted the challenges in prosecuting such activities due to the need to protect classified information in court.

Analysts suggested that party leaders must take decisive action against implicated legislators to uphold national security and democratic integrity.

DISCOVERIES

The Genome Olympics

Being big and complex doesn’t necessarily translate to having the largest amount of genetic material.

Case in point: A new study has found that a small, humble fern growing in the forests of a South Pacific island has a genome that is 50 times larger than that of humans.

“Who would have thought this tiny, unassuming plant that most people would likely walk past without notice, could bear a world-beating record in genome size,” said Ilia Leitch, a researcher with the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, which conducted the study along with the Institut Botànic de Barcelona.

The study began after researchers Jaume Pellicer and Oriane Hidalgo traveled to New Caledonia to collect samples of the fork fern, or Tmesipteris, a type of plant mainly found in the region, which were then analyzed to estimate the size of their genomes.

They surveyed six fork fern species in New Caledonia and analyzed their cells using a technique called flow cytometry: The researchers extracted cells from the fern leaves and isolated their nuclei, where the genome is housed. They stained the DNA in these nuclei with a fluorescent dye and measured the fluorescence. By comparing the fluorescence levels with those from several plants with smaller genomes, they were able to determine the size of each fork fern’s genome.

Their findings showed that one of the species, T. oblanceolate, has the largest genome ever recorded. Growing to about six inches long, the fern’s genome had a length of 160 billion base pairs – in comparison, humans have around three billion.

The amount exceeds the previous record holder, the Japanese flower dubbed Paris japonica, which has around 150 billion base pairs.

“For a long time, we thought that breaking the previous size record of Paris japonica was going to be an impossible mission,” said Pellicer in a statement, “but once again, the limits of biology have surpassed our most optimistic predictions.”

The team said the findings challenge our understanding of how big genomes can actually be, while also showing that large genomes are not necessarily related to the complexity of the organism.

The study will prompt more investigation into how such large genomes evolve and function, as well as the costs and benefits of maintaining such a large amount of DNA.

“You have to replicate over 100 meters of DNA every time a cell divides,” Pellicer told Science News. “To me, it’s very puzzling.”

Meanwhile, the unassuming plant is now a Guinness World Record holder.

“To think this innocuous-looking fern boasts 50 times more DNA than humans is a humbling reminder that there’s still so much about the plant kingdom we don’t know,” said Adam Millward, managing editor of Guinness World Records, adding, “and that record holders aren’t always the showiest on the outside.”

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