North Korea Update: 3 May, 2020

49494404

This has been a busy weekend on the Korean Peninsula. On Friday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made his first public appearance in nearly a month, ending rumors and wide speculation that suggested the Supreme Leader had died as the result of a cardiovascular procedure early in April. Kim’s appearance at the Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory north of Pyongyang has answered many questions, however, it is bound to create a new wave of them as well. Most of these will be about whether or not Kim recently had surgery, and what his present health condition is. The truth of the matter is that very few facts have escaped from North Korea aside from Kim being alive. On the subject of health, how North Korea is holding up in the midst of a global pandemic is unknown. Although the images, and video released on Friday show a relatively normal scene at Sunchon, there is growing concern that North Korea could very well be dealing with thousands of COVID-19 cases behind the propaganda wall put up by state media.

As if these issues weren’t enough to deal with, on Sunday North and South Korean troops exchanged small arms fire along the DMZ. There were no casualties or damage reported on either side. This was the first incident where the two sides exchanged fire since 2017. At the moment Sunday’s brief exchange appears to have been the result of an accident. Its timing though, provides plenty of food for the imagination. Some observers have openly wondered if there is indeed a tie-in between the shooting on the DMZ, and Kim Jong Un resurfacing.

Probably not. Kim Jong Un would probably prefer a more spectacular act of symbolism to show the world he remains in control of North Korea’s military. A ballistic missile test, or barrage of short-range rockets being fired into the waters off of the coast would fit the bill. If either one of those take place in the coming week, it will most likely be a direct message from Kim showing he has retained the control and loyalty of his armed forces.

The US is Placing China in the Crosshairs

33d3wd32d32

As the tide starts to turn on the COVID-1 pandemic in the United States, so too is the tone of the Trump Administration. With the darkest days likely behind us, the focus is being centered on China, and the many unanswered questions about its discreditable efforts to contain COVID-19 in the early days of the Wuhan outbreak. More directly, President Trump continues to stand by his belief that the coronavirus outbreak originated in a Chinese lab. He has repeated the claim publicly in recent days, and at the same time it has become widely known that US intelligence is conducting a deep investigation to determine the origins of the Wuhan coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. According to the president, an investigation is also underway taking a hard look at how the Chinese government dealt with the virus in the early stages of the outbreak.

To make the relationship between the world’s two most powerful nations even more strained, Trump administration officials are beginning to look at possible punishments for China’s handling of the pandemic. The most significant proposal so far is stripping the PRC of its ‘sovereign immunity’ which would give the US government, and victims of the pandemic the ability to sue China for damages. Another proposal being floated is the US cancelling part of its debt obligation to the PRC. This step would be more trouble than its worth, however. Holding off on interest payments would create serious drag for the dollar and with the global economy in flux due to the pandemic, now is not the ideal time for such a move.

In any event, it is clear now that the United States is moving to put the crosshairs on China. It will be interesting to see what the final results of the investigation are, and how the US decides to respond at the end of the day.

Kim Jong Un Update: 25 April, 2020

64648339

There have been no updates or new information from inside North Korea regarding Kim Jong Un and his health condition. The conflicting reports that emerged earlier in the week about the North Korean leader possibly being gravely ill have sparked a new round of international speculation concerning Kim and the state of his health. State-run media has not made mention of him or shown any recent photographs or video. President Trump has stated he does not believe the reports about Kim’s deteriorating health to be true. South Korean government officials have also cast doubt on the reports. So at least publicly, the US and South Korea are singing from the same sheet of music. Behind the scenes, however, they might be singing an entirely different tune.

Earlier this evening Reuters reported that China has sent a team of medical experts, and a larger delegation to North Korea to advise on Kim Jong Un. The sources of the report did not give their identity or expound on the details. It is unclear if the purpose of the team is to advise on Kim’s personal medical condition, or on something else like the COVID-19 pandemic and the affect it is having on North Korea. The contents of the Reuters report have yet to be confirmed Either way, if medical experts have been dispatched to the North from China, it is not a good sign.

South Korean government sources have told Western news agencies that their intelligence information suggests Kim is alive and will be making a public appearance in the future. If he does not appear in public soon, the tone of US and South Korean government officials, and observers will shift, and the world could find itself facing a precariously unpredictable situation in North Korea.

Iran Goes Back to Work

7383933

This coming weekend is expected to see Iran scaling back a number of COVID-19 related restrictions. Even though the virus is still a major threat to Iranians, and a second wave is infections is feared, the health of an already ill economy is taking precedence over the health of the general population. At least for the moment. Before COVID-19 came to Iran, economic collapse had been the driving force behind much of the Iranian government’s policy decisions, and actions both at home and abroad. The nation’s economy was already in a desperate position because of US-imposed economic sanctions. The coming of COVID-19 to Iran, and the global pandemic it touched off have only exacerbated matters. Now, saving the economy is the priority and on Saturday businesses in Tehran will reopen.

Iran has been going back to work in other areas as well. On Wednesday,  Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) boats harassed US Navy and US Coast Guard vessels in the Persian Gulf. US officials claim the IRGC boats crossed the bows and sterns of US warships at dangerously high speeds and angles. Warnings broadcast on ship-to-ship radio, and via the ships’ horns were ignored for an hour. At that time, the Iranian boats departed the area. The incident came 24 hours after IRGC personnel boarded a Hong Kong-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman and redirected it into Iranian territorial waters. It was released later that same day.

The incidents in the Persian Gulf likely mark the end of the lull brought on between the United States and Iran as the global pandemic has spread and affected both nations. Iran is also moving to influence international opinion on the US economic sanctions in place, claiming they are having a detrimental effect on Iran’s ability to fight the COVID-19 virus. This is generally an attempt by the Iranian government to blame the US for its inability to contain the outbreak of the virus. Iran has been one of the nations hardest-hit by COVID-19. For the regime it is important to lay the blame at the feet of the ‘Great Satan’ to demonstrate to its people that the government is not at fault.

Amid the Global Pandemic, Kashmir Flares Up

93033383

COVID-19 is affecting the Kashmir region just as it is practically everywhere else. The difference here is that Kashmir is already one of the most dangerous places on the planet, rife with religious, and national tensions. Actions over the last year, specifically the ambush of Indian security forces by Pakistani-backed militants and the subsequent clash between Indian and Pakistani military forces last February, as well as India’s move to incorporate its Kashmir territories into the greater union have heightened tensions even further.

Over this past weekend, the situation in Kashmir escalated once more when Indian and Pakistani forces exchanged artillery fire across the Line of Control. Civilian areas were apparently targeted by both armies, a violation of the 2003 ceasefire accord. There were civilian casualties on the Pakistani side of the LoC at least. The Pakistani military has accused India with violating the frontier repeatedly since last Friday. Flareups in Kashmir occur from time to time, but with the world’s attention presently focused on the pandemic, and both countries reeling from COVID-19 the chances of a major military confrontation rise considerably with each passing day.

In other conflict zones around the world, attempts to bring about ceasefires during the pandemic have met with some level of success. Syria, and Yemen have quieted down with the respective combatants now more focused on fighting the virus instead of each other. In Kashmir, however, it has been business as usual, so to speak.

Author’s Note: Short update today, apologies. I’ll post again tomorrow and then over the weekend. I hope everyone is staying safe, and sane. 😊 –Mike