The week is off to an active beginning on a host of fronts around the world. From London to Riyadh and further on to Beijing geopolitical screws are turning, a diplomatic crisis is deepening, and the two year anniversary of a conflict has been marked in an explosive manner.
Russian Diplomats Face Being Expelled Across Europe and North America
Dozens of Russian diplomats will be expelled from European nations and the United States as the fallout from the nerve agent poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil continues to expand. Over twenty nations have sided with Great Britain, including the United States and many of its European allies. More than Russian 100 diplomats are being declared persona non grata and formally deported. The consensus among Great Britain’s allies has been that Russia is responsible for the nerve-agent poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury. Russia denies any involvement in the matter and has called the latest expulsions a ‘provocative gesture.’ Moscow also vowed retaliation.
Speculation Places Kim Jong Un In Beijing
Rumors of a senior North Korean delegation, possibly led by Kim Jong Un, broke today when photos of a special North Korean train arriving in Beijing came to light. The train is one used in the past by North Korean leaders for travel around North Korea and beyond. Photos of the train in Beijing were provided by Japan’s Nippon Television. The train was reportedly met at the train station by an honor guard, and line of VIP automobiles.
If Kim is present in Beijing, the timing is interesting. North Korean and South Korean officials are scheduled to meet next week to prepare for a meeting between the leaders of both nations in the near future. Beyond that is the potential meeting between Kim Jong Un and President Trump that is in the works.
Houthi Ballistic Missiles Strike Saudi Arabia
On the second anniversary of the start of the Yemen war, Houthi rebels launched a volley of Iranian-manufactured ballistic missiles against four Saudi Arabian cities. Missile trails, and spectacular explosions lit the night sky over the Saudi capital. Four missiles were intercepted over Riyadh. No vital targets were struck, according to Saudi officials, though one civilian was killed and a handful injured. Missiles were also launched at the southwestern cities of Khamis Mushait, Najran, and Jazan. No damage or casualties were reported there. If the Houthis were hoping for a propaganda victory from the attack they couldn’t be more wrong. The missile strike has been condemned around the world and serves as a shining example of why the Saudi war effort must be continued.
Although the 2018 Winter Olympics in Peyongchang have come to an end, do not expect world attention to be fully removed from the Korean peninsula at any point in the near future. Instead, the focus is going to shift one hundred and eighty kilometers to the northwest, beyond the DMZ to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. After two weeks of basking in the adoration of the global media, and reaping the benefits of its well-orchestrated propaganda, and charm offensive, Kim Jong Un’s regime has returned to reality. The problems facing North Korea and its government before the Olympics began are still there, and appear to be intensifying at a brisk clip.
The Trump administration has unveiled a new round of economic sanctions aimed at the North and its nuclear weapons program. The United States continues to push hard for a stronger global stance on North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile inventories, and programs. The Pentagon, and White House are under no illusions about the primary purposes behind the Kim’s propaganda offensive. Pyongyang needs to path as many obstacles in the path of the US in order to prevent it from launching military action against North Korea. Even more so, the North needs time to bring its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities to the point where Kim Jong Un feels his nation will be invulnerable to US attack. Once a functioning ICBM mated with a nuclear warhead exists in the North Korean arsenal, that’s the ballgame in Un’s eyes. The US will back off, seek ways to coexist with Pyongyang, and, most important, treat North Korea as an equal among nations. In other words, this is Kim’s pipedream fantasy.
On Sunday, a North Korean delegate at the Olympics indicated his nation is open to possible talks with the US. There was no meeting between US and North Korean officials during the games. Before the opening ceremonies though, Vice President Pence was expected to meet with the North Korean representative, but the North cancelled the meeting at the last second. Now, it would appear that Pyongyang is dangling the prospect of negotiations in front of the US in an effort to make it appear to the world that the North Korean government is making a sincere effort to defuse tensions. Seoul is also pushing for US-North Korean talks. The sticking point is the inclusion of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in the talks. The Trump administration has stated the subject must be addressed in any talks with North Korea, while Pyongyang, unsurprisingly, wants the subject to be excluded from future talks with the US.
In other words, North Korea has no intentions of ending its nuclear program, or halting development of an ICBM. Kim doesn’t expect negotiations with the United States to produce anything of value other than to buy more time for his nuclear and ballistic missile programs to reach the next level. And that has been the purpose behind North Korea’s actions for some time now.
Panic gripped Hawaii for a period of forty-five minutes early this morning when an emergency alert warning residents of a ballistic missile attack was accidentally sent to cellphones, transmitted on Twitter, and television stations across the Hawaiian Islands. The message stated: BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. As it turned out, there was no ballistic missile attack. The message was sent because a of human error according to state officials. There was no indication of a ballistic missile track inbound to the Hawaiian Islands at any time, US defense officials later explained. At the time this was unknown to Hawaii’s 1.4 million residents. Between the time the alert was sent, and the all-clear was issued, Hawaiians faced the prospect of a nuclear-tipped missile bearing down on their paradise. Some people panicked, and understandably so, while others reacted calmly and headed to shelters. CBS and CNN ran interviews with a twenty-something vacationer who chose to stand on the beach looking for answers on her cellphone instead of seeking shelter. I can’t fault her for not grasping the severity of the alert right away. Ignorance is bliss, after all.
Hawaii has been on edge for a while. Air raid and ballistic missile drills have been run periodically ever since President Trump and Kim Jong Un started trading nuclear threats. The residents there understand that they’re in the North Korean crosshairs. Pearl Harbor, and Hickam Air Force Base are critical bases to US defense efforts in the Pacific. If the North ever does decide to take the gloves off, an early strike against Hawaii is definitely within the realm of possibility.
Today’s false alert inadvertently keeps North Korea in the US public’s psyche when Pyongyang is attempting to play nice and score diplomatic points. The 2018 Winter Olympics begin next month and North Korea will be sending a small delegation of athletes. Talks between the two Koreas will be taking place Monday to iron out the details. The fact that North Korea is talking to its neighbor provides hope that a peaceful resolution to the US-North Korean nuclear crisis can eventually be reached. However, what happened in Hawaii today reminds us all that North Korea remains a threat to the United States and should be regarded as such.
Given today’s events in northeast Asia it is safe to assume the shell game that has been going on between the United States and North Korea for years now will become a standoff or worse in the near future. The North Koreans broke its two month moratorium on ballistic missile tests in bold fashion today by test firing an ICBM. The missile was launched from a site in South Pyongan province and flew in an eastward direction for roughly 50 minutes, covering 620 miles before falling into the Sea of Japan.
North Korea had been quiet for some time and hope was building that Pyongyang might be signaling that it is open to dialogue. Experts have pointed to similar lulls in North Korean missile testing in the past, leaving open the possibility that the slowdown in tests is part of the routine. This could very well be the case, however, with the direction events are moving in now it’s rather meaningless to speculate on what brought on the lull. What’s more important now for the United States is to determine the intent behind today’s test and planning an appropriate military response. A US military response at this point should not ruled out or considered implausible. The risks attached to military action are considerable, but economic and political measures have failed to deter Pyongyang from continuing to pursue a workable ICBM. Furthermore, there are few non-violent tools left in the box for the US to use against North Korea.
*Author’s Note: Short update for the evening. Apologies, time is very limited. I’ll follow up tomorrow with a more thorough update.*
The world is still coming to terms with Saturday’s events in Riyadh and what the political, economic, and social ramifications will be for the Middle East, and the rest of the world. The Saudi Arabian political purge has so far had a greater impact than the failed Houthi missile strike on Riyadh or the Lebanese PM’s resignation. Today oil prices hit a fresh two year high, the upward surge stemming from uncertainty about what is happening in Riyadh. There are questions, and concerns about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed’s intentions following a weekend that saw him consolidate and expand his control over the Saudi government. With the approval and support of his father King Salman, the Crown Prince’s newly unveiled anti-corruption committee swooped down on Riyadh, arresting, and detaining scores of princes, ministers, and high ranking government officials. The men being held now represent a cross section of Saudi Arabia’s elite including Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the world’s richest Arab, who was one of those arrested on corruption charges.
MbS, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan is known, has pushed to initiate political and social reforms throughout the kingdom. Those moves were resisted by many in the Saudi Royal Family and government. These anti-corruption arrests come as part of an ambitious powerplay by MbS to remove the men most stubbornly resisting reform. In the process, MbS is paving the way for the time when he will succeed his father on the throne. Events this weekend have led many to wonder if King Salman intends to abdicate in the near future. He has virtually handed executive power to MbS already and given his blessing for his son to launch a complete rebuilding of the governance system in Saudi Arabia.
The failed Houthi missile attack on Riyadh has not been lost in the shuffle. The Saudis have placed blame for the attack squarely on Iran’s shoulders. The Saudis denounced the attack and labeled it a potential ‘act of war,’ pointing to Tehran’s oversight and control of the Houthis. Even though Iran denies it, the Houthi rebels are an Iranian proxy. The possibility that they launched the missile on their own, not on orders from Tehran, is minimal. The Saudis see the Iranian fingerprints on the attack clearly.
In Yemen, the war between the Saudi-led coalition, and Iranian supported Houthi rebels continues on with no end in sight. The conflict has been an occasional flashpoint, most notably when Houthi anti-ship missile strikes were launched against United States warships operating off the Yemeni coast last year. For the most part, the conflict ebbs and flows at regular intervals, serving a purpose as an arena in the great game being played out by Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional dominance. How Saturday’s events will affect the Saudi-Iran competition, Yemen, the Qatari crisis, and other geopolitical endeavors of the kingdom remain to be seen. The region, and the world will not have to wait very long to find out though.