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.

Iranian-Backed Militia Attacks US Embassy in Baghdad

Iraqi mourners storm US embassy in Baghdad after deadly strikes

Crowds of protesters in Baghdad attempted to storm the US embassy this morning. Reports are still unclear about the extent of the damage caused, or the current situation. Earlier, Iraqi government officials reported the US ambassador, diplomatic staff, and other employees had been evacuated from the embassy. The US State Department, however, refuted the claim and stated that the staff is still in the embassy compound in a fortified area. US Ambassador Matthew H. Tueller is currently out of the country on a pre-scheduled vacation. Video from the scene has revealed that US guards and employees are still at the embassy. The troops went into action using tear gas to keep the protesters at bay. Iraqi security forces later intervened and the situation, although still tense, has not escalated.

The US embassy in Baghdad is located in the heavily fortified Green Zone.

The Trump administration wasted little time blaming Iran for orchestrating the action. Many of the protesters appear to be members of the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia. Over two dozen militia members were killed in US airstrikes on Sunday that came in retaliation for the rocket attack on a base in Kirkuk which killed one US defense contractor, and wounded several US troops.

The crowd now gathered outside the US embassy now appears to be setting up for a long-term protest and siege of sorts. Tents are being erected, and the number of protesters appears to be increasing. A Kataib Hezbollah spokesman said the militia plans to remain encamped outside of the embassy until it closes and all US personnel leave Iraq.

More information on the situation in Iraq will be posted later in the day.

US Suspects Iran Could Be Planning Military Action

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In the last twenty-four hours signs have appeared indicating Iran could potentially be planning a military move somewhere in the Persian Gulf region. The indicators started coming to the surface shortly after it was revealed that a US Navy warship seized a major shipment of Iranian arms headed to the Houthi rebels in Yemen last week. Since then, US military and intelligence officials have been closely analyzing the information coming out of the region and are concluding that Iranian action is possible.

It appears that Iran is using the chaos in Iraq as a cover to secretly move additional short-range ballistic missiles into the country. From points just outside of Baghdad these missiles can be launched against targets in Israel and Saudi Arabia respectively. The appearance of missiles in Iraq is not a new development. US intelligence has been warning of their presence since last year, and Israel launched airstrikes to destroy the hidden weaponry. The threat from the short range ballistic missiles is increasing as their numbers have been increasing lately.

Earlier in the week, the Trump administration has hinted that it could be sending additional troops to the Persian Gulf as tensions with Iran continue to rise. The size and make up of the new deployment remains to be seen, however, as the week has gone on, it seems certain that new US forces will begin moving to the Gulf in a matter of days in an attempt to strengthen US military options in the region should Iran decide to move.

The Iranians appear to be reacting to the prospect of more US forces in the area. According to reports from media sources, and from inside of the Pentagon, Iran has started moving additional air defense units to Bushehr, site of its sole nuclear reactor, and also the location where a new reactor is under construction. Obviously, the air defenses are being strengthened there to deter the US from launching air and cruise missile strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Rise in Iranian Fuel Prices Spark Protests

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The US economic pressure on Iran has been having a decisive effect for some time now. Unfortunately, this reality has been largely ignored by the Western media, and papered over by Tehran. This week the Iranian government ran out of paper mache and has been forced to face the grim reality that US sanctions are quickly moving the country towards the brink of economic collapse. On Thursday, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani admitted Iran is facing a major deficit, the number covering roughly two-thirds of its annual budget. Today, the government announced a 300 percent increase in fuel prices, as well as a strict rationing system. Within a few hours protests broke out across the country. Angry crowds in a number of towns and cities have called for the removal of Rouhani from power.

Since the Trump administration tightened the screws on Iran, protests have occurred periodically with some being violent. On the surface, the economic anxiety brought on by US sanctions appears to be the root cause of the Iranian people’s anger and frustration. However, the root cause, as has been the case for years, is the government, and its policies. With that in mind, it came as no surprise to learn that Friday’s protests have taken on an anti-government tone.

The timing of the fuel policy revisions could’ve been better. Popular unrest in Iraq, Lebanon, and many other locations around the world over economic conditions, and government neglect might provide an impetus for the Iranian citizenry to challenge the government in a similar fashion. It is a moot point now though. The prices have been raised, the people are responding, and the Iranian government now has another major problem to contend with. As if it didn’t have enough already.

For the United States, today’s developments in Iran are concrete proof that the Trump administration’s hardline policy on Iran is working perfectly.

Venezuela Rising on the International Agenda

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Over the summer as tensions in the Middle East have dominated the attention of the world, Venezuela fell between the cracks of the international agenda. On Wednesday, President Trump moved to remedy this at the UN General Assembly. In a meeting with Latin American leaders who do not recognize Nicolas Maduro as the rightful leader of Venezuela, Trump reaffirmed the US commitment to Venezuela and pushed back against perceptions that US concern about the political unrest, and economic distress in that country has waned. The US, and nearly sixty other nations around the world support opposition leader Juan Guaido and consider him to be the rightful leader of Venezuela. Unfortunately, Guaido’s international status was hurt somewhat by the abortive coup the opposition launched in the spring, which accomplished nothing. Maduro remains in power, bolstered largely by Cuban, and to a far lesser extent, Russian support.

Meanwhile, as the meeting at the UN played out, Nicolas Maduro was in Moscow for discussions with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Russia has been a strong supporter of Maduro and his government, providing generous loans, and assistance for Venezuela’s military, and petroleum industry. There’s little chance of the two leaders coming to an agreement on additional loans or material support in this meeting. However, Maduro will return to Russia for another meeting with Putin early next month during the Valdai Club meeting in Sochi.