North Korea Update: Internal Trouble for Kim?

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With regards to North Korea, 2019 ended in similar fashion to a season-ending cliffhanger episode of a television series. An ultimatum was given, and threats of a “Christmas gift” were made. And then, just before the 2019 screen went black, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walked into the 5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party and hinted that he might no longer honor the testing moratorium now in place, and told the world it will soon witness a new strategic weapon.

Now its officially 2020. The United States has not responded to the North Korean ultimatum. No Christmas gift has been delivered in the form of a missile, or nuclear test. The concern surrounding North Korea has started to wear thin, and has started to be replaced somewhat by growing curiosity about the timing of Kim’s veiled threats. Since April of 2018 or so, North Korea has received many concessions from the Trump administration. As relations warmed and both sides attempted…unsuccessfully, as it would seem now,….. to reach an agreement on denuclearization, and sanction relief, the US left North Korea alone for the most part. Economic sanctions remained in place, but in some instances the Trump administration looked the other way concerning certain North Korean violations. It appears this bonus concession, intended to nudge Kim ahead in negotiations, was for naught. Negotiations broke down over the sanctions and for the moment US-North Korean relations seem poised to return to the crisis level.

So why has Kim Jong Un gone back to making attention-grabbing, destabilizing statements?

Finding an answer to this question is anything but simple. However, one theory appearing likely right now is that internal pressure is growing and Kim is threatened by it. To the outside world he appears to be in full control of the North Korean state. What most people don’t grasp is the fact that just beneath the surface, there are a number of factions vying for influence and power in the North Korean government. Kim’s failure to obtain full sanctions relief from the US reflects badly on him now. Hence, the bellicose language of the past few weeks. A sop to the members of his government who may be starting to question whether or not “The Marshall” is equipped to lead North Korea into the future.

More than anything Kim Jong Un is a survivor. His recent behavior might seem alarming to the outside world but he is simply taking the necessary steps to ensure the survival of his regime.

Potential 2020 Flashpoints: Kashmir

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Kashmir is a long-established flashpoint and the focal point of Indo-Pakistani hostilities since 1948. 2019 saw the disputed region flare up once again, almost leading to open conflict between India and Pakistan in February. A suicide bombing by a Pakistani-supported terrorist group killed 40 Indian security personnel. Two weeks of rising tension followed, culminating with Indian and Pakistan launching airstrikes on targets in each other’s territory. The situation remained tense and then in August India’s revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s (J&K) special status threatened to spark a major conflict.

Over the past few days the situation along the Line of Control (LoC) has deteriorated with ceasefire violations bringing on cross-border shelling, and raids by Indian and Pakistani troops. The latest bout of fighting comes on the heels of Pakistan accusing India of moving medium-range ballistic missiles into Kashmir, and allegedly removing fencing in areas along the LoC. The Pakistani foreign minister warned India against “any misadventure” at the line, highlighting Pakistan’s concerns about events in the area.

Kashmir will continue to be an area worth monitoring in 2020. As the Modi government continues to project its nationalist-fueled domestic and foreign policies, the prospect of Kashmir erupting in fighting again remains high. Pakistan has relied on diplomacy to challenge India’s actions in Jammu and Kashmir. Unfortunately, those efforts have not forced India to reconsider its designs for J&K and its millions of Muslim residents. The Modi government’s new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is causing headaches on the domestic front. Violent protests, and unrest have broken out across India as opposition to the bill grows. Pakistan is worried India could be thinking about engineering a military conflict somewhere along the LoC to divert attention away from the anti-CAA protests.

As is evident above, the dynamic on the ground in Kashmir is made up of many moving parts. More important is the fact those parts are becoming more brittle as time goes on. Going into the new year, it will not take much to turn the region into a conflagration that could spark a major war, or worse. Bear in mind that both India, and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons.

Potential 2020 Flashpoints: Introduction

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With 2020 just around the corner, the time has come to look ahead and consider what the new year might have in store. 2019 is coming to an end and there’s a large amount of geopolitical uncertainty in the air. Some of the usual-suspect hotspots are simmering, domestic politics in a handful of European nations are causing headaches for the European Union, and a few areas of the world regional powers are making diplomatic, economic, and military moves that can only be described as being hegemonic.

At first glance, the geopolitical situation appears to be quite similar to what it was one year ago on this day. However, there are a number of variables lurking just beneath the surface which can potentially turn a given hotspot into a raging conflagration with the right amount of coaxing, or neglect. North Korea and Iran are the two examples that immediately come to mind but there are others.

2020 could also be the year when the great-power competition shifts into high gear. The US, Russia, India, and China have all been positioning themselves, and making respective preparations in anticipation of a point in the future when moves will be made. Syria is one place where the ambitions of multiple powers have clashed to create a fast-moving conflict with ill-defined goals. Now it seems Libya is on the verge of becoming a smaller version of Syria.

Over the weekend and through Christmas Day we’ll evaluate a handful of potential 2020 flashpoints, and then break out the crystal ball to forecast what might occur over the coming 12 months in areas such as the Eastern Mediterranean, North Korea, the Persian Gulf, and South America.

At 70, NATO Looks Ahead to an Uncertain Future

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The 2019 NATO Summit kicks off in London on 3 December, 2019. The alliance has a host of important discussion topics to choose from. Turkey’s pending veto of NATO defense plans for Poland and the Baltic States is likely the most urgent topic at the moment. The existing fears of US detachment from NATO through the remainder of the Trump presidency is another. It is only fair to point out, however, that those fears have thus far been unfounded. The United States has remained firmly committed to the alliance and engaged in it since 20 January, 2017.

Unfortunately, despite the position of the United States, the future of NATO is somewhat uncertain at the moment thanks in large part to its European members. Inside of NATO there is much debate about what direction the alliance needs to go in. The world in 2019 is markedly different from what it was in 1949 when NATO was founded. It was conceived as a defense against a threatening Soviet military force. The USSR is gone now, but the Russian Federation is now struggling to fill its predecessor’s shoes and challenge NATO militarily and politically. The Russian threat, which appeared so dangerous in 2014 following the annexation of Crimea has failed to materialize and it might never.

NATO has been seeking a mission beyond the boundaries of Europe for some time now, meeting limited success in Afghanistan, and even Syria. 21st Century missions outside of Europe have tested NATO unity and created bitter infighting among members though. With China’s rise, the Western Pacific could be ready for a NATO mission, but the same potential problems would arise.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing NATO’s future at the moment is the European Union. Once heralded as the logical successor to NATO, the EU has endured a rocky last ten years or so. The unity once championed by its supporters no longer exists. Britain is leaving the EU, and there are firm indications the populations of other European nations want to follow suit. The supra-national body is rudderless right now, suffering from a lack of effective leadership at the top. In the eyes of some European politicians the question is no longer: will the EU implode? The question now is: when?

More importantly, what will be the role for NATO if the EU breaks up? Will it acrimoniously dissolve as its members choose sides, or step in to fill the void?

This week in London, NATO’s leaders need to seriously consider what the future of Europe, and the world will be like in the next decade, and then determine what the alliance’s place in that world will be.

Tsipras Handed Another Defeat in Greek Local Elections

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Greece’s New Democracy (ND) conservative opposition party won big in local elections on Sunday, capturing 11 out of 13 regions according to the provisional results. The New Democracy party continued the trend it set in the EE elections last weekend where it won 33% of the vote, almost 10 percentage points more than the ruling Syriza party. Following the EU election, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras acknowledged the heavy defeat of his party and the writing on the wall. He called for snap national elections and the probable date will be 7 July.

The Syriza party was not expected to be as soundly beaten in either the EU contest, or the two rounds of local elections held recently. After announcing the snap elections last week, Tsipras said he believed this past weekend’s local elections in Greece would be a vote of confidence on his government’s policies and actions. The fact that yesterday brought on another wave of conservative victories indicates the Greek political landscape is in flux again. Tsipras had been expected to become the first Greek prime minister to finish out a full term in three decades. By all indicators right now, it doesn’t appear that he will.