Russia And South Korea Aggressively Courting Kim Jong Un and the North.

Since its invasion of Ukraine in February, Russia’s international clout has dropped tremendously. Many nations Moscow considered to be friendly have jumped ship and disavowed having any sort of relationship with Russia, whether economic, diplomatic, or military. Except for China, Cuba and a handful of other staunch allies, Russia is very much alone. North Korea is not one of the nation-states shunning Russia however, and its loyalty is being rewarded. In a letter to Kim Jong Un for Korea’s Liberation Day, Vladimir Putin said closer ties between Moscow and Pyongyang are in both countries’ interests and will help strengthen the security and stability of the Korean peninsula and the Northeastern Asian region. Kim replied with his own letter, reminding Putin of the long friendship shared between North Korea and Russia. The burgeoning relationship really caught the world’s attention in July when North Korea officially recognized two Russian-backed breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine as sovereign nation-states.

Russia is not the only power competing for North Korea’s attention. South Korea is also trying to entice Pyongyang into closer relations as well as eventual denuclearization. Today South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on Monday offered comprehensive economic assistance to North Korea if it abandons its nuclear weapons program.

Pyongyang has been quiet over the summer. The underground nuclear test many analysts were expecting never came about. With numerous crises going on simultaneously around the world, Kim Jong Un has been operating under the radar for the most part. With Seoul and Moscow now visibly courting the North, expect this to change in the coming weeks and months. North Korea will be back on the world’s radar scopes for better or worse by late September.

Scholz Pushes New Pipeline Initiative

With Germany in the midst of a deepening energy crisis German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is now calling for the construction of a pipeline which would reach from Portugal to Central Europe. Naturally, the goal of such a pipeline would be to reduce Germany’s dependence on Russian gas. Even though Germany and other European nations have made strides to shrink their dependence on gas shipments from Russia, it has become clear that reliance will not diminish before the winter season arrives. Scholz has broached the topic of a pipeline with the officials from Portugal, Spain, France and the European Union. Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa has been pushing for the pipeline proposal to be examined by the EU since the early days of Russia’ invasion of Ukraine. Germany and other nations with a heavy reliance on Russian gas paid the issue little mind.

Now Germany appears intent to push the matter, even publicly admitting regret that a sincere effort was not made earlier. Of course, the geopolitical situation has changed. Now that Germany is anxiously seeking other sources for natural gas supplies, a pipeline from Portugal to Central Europe suddenly seems to be an ideal solution.

Unfortunately for Berlin, the energy troubles confronting Germany are not strictly limited natural gas. Water levels on the Rhine River dropped to a critical low on Friday. This will affect barge traffic on the river and subsequently restrict the flow of essential commodities to inland Europe even more. Not exactly welcome news and a firm indication that the energy crisis facing Europe is a long way from being brought under control.

The Most Recent Gaza Conflict

Between Taiwan and personal obligations, I’m just getting caught up with what has been going on in other parts of the world over the past week. On the surface, the weekend conflict in Gaza seems to have had the earmarks of conflicts in the past. Dozens of civilian casualties, residents and businesses damaged or destroyed, and militant Palestinian leaders killed. Yet on closer examination, the weekend’s clashes between Israel and Palestinian militants was distinctively different in one way which could change the dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship in the future. Hamas largely remained on the sidelines while Islamic Jihad handled the bulk of the fighting. Hamas serves as the de facto civilian government in Gaza. By not joining the fight and allowing Islamic Jihad to take the lead, Hamas will undoubtedly score points among a Palestinian population exhausted by years of rocket attacks that lead to heavy and destructive Israeli military responses. Israel’s policy of issuing more work permits to Palestinian residents in recent months appeared to have played a major part in Hamas restraining itself in the latest round of fighting. There is hope that this trade off, and the overall more pragmatic relationship forming between Israel and Hamas will reduce the likelihood of more violence in the future.

Of course, there is also talk of a possible rift having formed between Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It’s unclear if there is any truth to this. On the surface, both groups share the same ideology and goals. But their priorities have become divergent. Islamic Jihad is concerned with violent opposition to Israel. It has little taste for joining the political structure of the Palestinian state, and this is where the group differs from Hamas. Hamas is a social and political movement as much as it is a militant one. This is evident from the roles it has played in both Palestine and Lebanon. Therefore, Hamas needs to pay close attention to public opinion in Gaza and conform its actions and priorities to prevent a wedge from developing between it and the people it serves. Right now Israel’s economic incentives are a valuable tool in this regard and Hamas appears dedicated to using them to its advantage.

It does not mean the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is over or that Hamas is seeking a permanent rapprochement with Israel.

Western Pacific Update 7 August, 2022

PLAN and PLAAF exercises in Taiwan Strait are concluding today. China is apparently honoring the exercise schedule, which allows the region to breath a sigh of relief for the time being. This is not the end of drama in the Strait, however. As the PLAN exercises conclude, Taiwanese naval vessels are maintaining a close watch and keeping the Chinese honest. There will be more exercises in the future, though. According to China, the People’s Liberation Army Navy will conduct regular exercises east of the median line.

As the exercises conclude, attention is turning to the intentions of the US Navy over the coming days. The White House announced last week that Seventh Fleet warships, as well as US Navy and USAF aircraft will conduct freedom of navigation (FON) exercises in the Strait in the future. Although the US was not clear about exactly when the FON exercises will begin. If they do not start for another week or longer, there’s potential damage to US credibility in the region. Beijing can say the US was deliberately waiting until China concluded exercises and its warships returned home before moving its own assets into the Strait. Selective power projection, for lack of a better term.

With the Strait temporarily quieting down, I plan to take an opportunity to look over some other global hotspots on Monday and Tuesday. The war in Ukraine continues on and tensions flared up between Israel and Gaza over the last few days leading to rocket attacks on Israeli cities and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes against targets in Gaza. We’ll circle back a bit and see what’s going on over there now.

Western Pacific Update 5 August, 2022

  • Tensions remain on the rise in the Western Pacific as Chinese naval and air exercises in and around Taiwan continue ramping up. Today, 68 aircraft and 15 surface vessels were involved in maneuvers. Some Chinese aircraft and ships even crossed the median line. Today saw the largest number of Chinese aircraft operating over Taiwan straits in a 24 hour period ever. Taiwanese government officials have warned again that China’s increasingly aggressive actions are threatening the stability of Taiwan Strait and the region.
  • Yesterday, the White House summoned China’s ambassador to the United States. The purpose of the meeting was for the Biden administration to condemn China’s military exercises that began in the wake of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. China has halted military and climate change dialogue with the US in response to her visit as Beijing is showing no restraint in adopting a hardline stance.
  • The Pentagon has ordered the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and her escorts to remain in the region to monitor Chinese operations in and around Taiwan. US Navy warships and aircraft are expected to begin operating in Taiwan Strait waters next week or sooner. It is not clear if they will begin operations during Chinese maneuvers, which are scheduled to end on Sunday.