There are growing indications that North Korea is moving forward with plans for its first nuclear weapons test in over four years. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have been on the rise lately, though this has been underreported in light of the war in Ukraine. Last week, Kim Jong Un promised to continue development of its nuclear weapons “at the fastest possible speed.” This has prompted concerns that a test will be scheduled to disrupt the late May visit of US President Joe Biden to South Korea. Chinese and South Korea diplomats met in Seoul on Tuesday with China pledging to play a ‘constructive role’ in attempting to get North Korea to resume negotiations.
South Korea, with a new administration taking power on 10 May, is quite interested in deterring North Korea from escalating the situation. One element that appears to be coaxing the North along the slippery path it’s on at present is Russia. Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin have forged close ties over the years and the North is one of the few nations supporting Russia in its war without misgivings. In exchange for this loyalty, Russia could return the favor by blocking a UN effort to impose severe sanctions on North Korea if it does move forward with a nuclear test.
Having said this, it must be mentioned that the global economic fallout from Russia’s adventure in Ukraine and the recent COVID-19 outbreaks in China could hit the North Korean economy especially hard. Supply chain issues now coming into play will exacerbate food shortages. Inflation will also play a greater role. Food prices in North Korea often mirror global prices. With food prices rising around the world, the North’s prices are expected to do the same in the coming weeks, taking the country’s economic issues from bad to worse in the process.
Forty-six civilians have been evacuated from the Azovstal steelworks plant in Mariupol, according to Russian news reports. Another report from Ukrainian troops defending the plant tells of twenty civilians who were evacuated during a ceasefire. It remains unclear if these two groups are the same or different. However, The UN confirmed today that an operation to evacuate people from the steel plant in Mariupol is under way. According to estimates, there are 1,000 Ukrainian civilians and several hundred soldiers sheltering in the massive plant. According to news updates at 1540 Eastern Time, the UN has announced an operation to evacuate all civilians inside the city will begin on Monday
In eastern Ukraine, fighting has picked up around Kharkov as Ukrainian forces strive to push Russian troops farther away from the nation’s second-largest city. The battlelines around Kharkov have been static since the early days of the war. Russian troops are entrenched in the city’s northern and eastern suburbs. According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, operations carried out by Ukrainian forces have retaken four villages around Kharkov: Verkhnya Rohanka, Ruska Lozova, Slobidske and Prilesne. Those claims have yet to be independently verified.
Germany’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is being criticized (yet again). Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleb told a German newspaper that Berlin’s actions have been hesitant when compared to other European nations. Kuleb said Germany should “take the leading role in Europe, especially in questions of Eastern policy.” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz wasted little time in defending his decisions on Ukraine. “I make my decisions quickly and in coordination with our allies. I am suspicious of hasty action and Germany going it alone.” Scholz has been heavily criticized for not providing weapons and supplies to Ukraine fast enough.
-Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in a telephone discussion with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier this evening, said the next twenty-four hours will be critical for Ukraine. With more Russian columns moving towards Kiev, an assault on the city is edging closer to becoming reality. Great Britain and other European nations are doing all they can to move as much military equipment into Ukraine as possible. The EU is even pushing to start the delivery of combat aircraft from member-states to Ukraine within a matter of hours. These moves come as the tempo of Russian operations has increased over the last twenty-four hours. Ukraine’s general staff even admitted that Sunday was a difficult day for its forces, but failed to go into detail except to point out that friendly forces at Vasylkiv Airbase southeast of Kiev are enduring heavy artillery and rocket attacks.
-Negotiations between delegations of Russian and Ukrainian officials are set to take place at the Belarussian border Monday morning around 10 AM local time. Expectations are low for these talks and the overall perception is that Vladimir Putin will use their failure to increase the pressure on Kiev dramatically in the aftermath of the meeting.
-The UN Security Council voted today to convene an emergency session of the UN General Assembly on Monday to discuss the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Eleven of the fifteen UNSC members voted in favor and only Russia voted against. However, since this was a procedural motion, Russia could not exercise its veto power. China, India and the United Arab Emirates abstained.
Concerted efforts are underway by the North Korean government and the nation’s northern neighbors to stave off disaster as a major food emergency threatens to become worse. The government is now encouraging citizens to consume less food through 2025, the year when the border with China will reopen. The border closed last year as a COVID-19 precaution and caused significant food shortages and turmoil. The absence of imports from China nearly collapsed the North Korean economy and food prices saw significant increases. Right now, it seems unlikely the border will remain closed until mid-decade, considering that freight traffic between the two countries is resuming shortly. North Korea relies on China for 90% of its trade.
The government in Pyongyang has laid blame for the continuing crisis on ‘factors beyond its control’ which prevent the North from achieving food self-sufficiency. Not surprisingly, the continuing economic sanctions by the US and UN are seen as the most significant obstacle. China and Russia are now engaged in an attempt to persuade the UN Security Council to ease sanctions. The draft resolution includes lifting a ban on some North Korean exports such as seafood and textiles, however, the likelihood of the draft finding support among the other security council members. A single veto will resign the draft resolution to the trash heap and send North Korea right back to square one.
By this juncture it has been made abundantly clear that North Korea is unwilling to take the one step that will make the sanctions permanently disappear, and that step is denuclearization. Pyongyang views its nuclear arsenal as the only thing standing between it and complete dissolution. Yet Kim Jong Un seems more ready to continue with the game of chicken at present, with little regard for the future. Kim’s shortsighted thinking could ultimately prove disastrous for North Korea.
The departure of the US military from Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan on Thursday evening effectively brings an end to US operations in that country. For almost two decades Bagram was the centerpiece of the US presence in Afghanistan. Now, with the last US troops having quietly departed the base, the matter of Afghanistan’s future comes into focus. Right now, there are growing doubts about the ability of Afghan security forces to check advances made by Taliban forces around the country, as well as the future of the US commitment to Afghanistan’s government. This commitment seems to be coming to an end given in the midst of a Taliban offensive that threatens to eventually topple the government and bring about a civil war. In fact, the US is updating plans for an emergency evacuation of its embassy in Kabul should the deteriorating security situation threaten remaining US personnel.
Independent central governments have not had a permanent place in contemporary Afghanistan. Following the departure of Soviet forces in 1989, it was not long before the coalition government collapsed, dragging the country into a civil war that saw the rise of the Taliban. Following the ouster of the Taliban in late 2001, a new Afghan government came into being with Hamid Karzai at the helm. This government had significant US and international support, enabling it to begin the rebuilding process. Afghanistan’s economy, healthcare, education, transport, and agriculture were improved, largely with outside help. US and NATO forces trained Afghan security forces to combat the growing Taliban insurgency.
Now the international support is largely removed and it will be up to the Afghan government and its security forces to hold the line. As the situation stands at the moment, there are few observers or analysts expecting them to succeed. Afghanistan has been historically driven by a tribal mentality. The responsibility that citizens have to ensure the continued security and function of a central government run second to the responsibility and devotion to their local tribal rulers. The people running the government in Kabul at any given time are regarded warily. This is the case right now, despite the continued US and Western efforts over the past two decades to change this mindset.
In the coming days and weeks, expect to see the Taliban continue to make gains as the Kabul government struggles to find its footing. Conditions appear to be ripe for a potential government collapse by early September if events continue progressing as they have been recently.