Asia/Africa update: January 8 2018



The trial of two Reuters journalists accused of revealing state secrets under a colonial-era law is set to begin this week. The use of regressive laws to stifle the press is not going over well with activists:

Critics and rights groups say that in some respects, press freedom in Myanmar is more restrictive now than it was during the previous quasi-civilian administration, which bridged the former military government to the current civilian one. Suu Kyi’s government, which has been in power for two years, has done nothing to change laws that create barriers to a free press.


“Nearly two years later, we have been gravely disappointed by the lack of progress on legal reform and the new clampdown on journalists under Suu Kyi’s rule,” said Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.


That Iranian oil tanker that collided with a Chinese vessel in the East China Sea and burst into flames over the weekend is, well, still on fire. There are growing concerns that it could explode and sink, which would significantly add to the environmental damage already done. This already looks like it might be the worst oil spill in a couple of decades, but a real assessment can’t be made until the fire is out. The body of one crew member has already been found on the ship and there’s no expectation that any of them have survived.


Representatives from North and South Korea will meet Tuesday to begin negotiations on North Korea’s potential participation in the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang next month. The talks, the first between the two countries in two years, offer the possibility of a reduction in tensions on the Korean peninsula beyond the issue of the games themselves.

The cybersecurity firm AlienVault says it’s found software that appears to mine a cryptocurrency called Monero and sends the proceed to North Korea’s Kim Il-sung University:

“Crypto-currencies may provide a financial lifeline to a country hit hard by sanctions, and as a result universities in Pyongyang have shown a clear interest in cryptocurrencies,” the California-based security firm said in a release, adding that the software “may be the most recent product of their endeavors.”


The company added a caveat that a North Korean server used in the code does not appear to be connected to the wider internet, which could mean its inclusion is meant to trick observers into making a North Korean connection. Kim Il Sung University, however, plays host to foreign students and lecturers, not just North Koreans.

Now, I don’t pretend to understand anything about cryptocurrencies, but that seems like a fairly substantial “caveat” to me. Maybe I’m wrong.

Folks, I don’t suppose it’s any secret that there are a lot of bad foreign policy takes out there. I tend to ignore most of them in these updates because I’m trying to be informative and these updates would become unmanageable if I used them to argue with every awful thing I see on any given day. But sometimes there comes a take so white-hot that I just can’t help but point it out. This is one of those times:

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Nothing can be known about this week’s talks between North and South Korea other than their likely outcome. As in every previous encounter, South Korea will almost certainly reward North Korea’s outrageous misconduct by handing over substantial sums of money, thus negating long-overdue sanctions recently imposed by the United Nations Security Council. Meanwhile, the North will continue to make progress toward its goal of deploying several nuclear-armed, mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles, having already tested nuclear-explosive devices in October 2006, May 2009, February 2013, January 2016, September 2016, and September 2017.


Each test would have been an excellent occasion for the United States to finally decide to do to North Korea what Israel did to Iraq in 1981, and to Syria in 2007 — namely, use well-aimed conventional weapons to deny nuclear weapons to regimes that shouldn’t have firearms, let alone weapons of mass destruction. Fortunately, there is still time for Washington to launch such an attack to destroy North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. It should be earnestly considered rather than rejected out of hand.

Edward Luttwak brought you the amazing 1999 Foreign Affairs piece “Give War a Chance,” so at least he’s consistent. But on its face this is only a very hot take. What ratchets it up to thermonuclear is Luttwak’s dismissal of the likelihood of an extremely deadly North Korean retaliation against Seoul:

It’s true that North Korea could retaliate for any attack by using its conventional rocket artillery against the South Korean capital of Seoul and its surroundings, where almost 20 million inhabitants live within 35 miles of the armistice line. U.S. military officers have cited the fear of a “sea of fire” to justify inaction. But this vulnerability should not paralyze U.S. policy for one simple reason: It is very largely self-inflicted.

Successive South Korean governments, you see, haven’t taken Edward Luttwak’s advice to move their capital further south and relocate all the people living in Seoul, so it’s really OK if America does an airstrike on North Korea that ends with 20 million or so South Koreans dead. To put it another way:

Or, if you prefer:

Edward Luttwak is “a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies,” which is an influential DC national security think tank. He’s not, as you might understandably think, a borderline personality plucked off the street to write an op-ed for Foreign Policy. People actually read what this man writes and listen to what he says, and if I weren’t an atheist this is the part where I’d say “God help us.”

UPDATE: No, wait, the part where I’d say “God help us” would be at the news, from the Wall Street Journal, that actual people working in the actual US government are considering plans for a targeted “message” strike on North Korea that they don’t think would escalate to a full/nuclear war. What these people think is a pretty fucking weak basis on which to risk millions of lives, you know?



One protester was killed on Sunday in Darfur amid demonstrations all over Sudan over rising food prices caused by austerity policies. Khartoum has decided to simultaneously cut bread subsidies and restrict wheat imports to save money, and the result, surprise surprise, is that people are having to pay considerably more for their food. Many bakeries have reportedly even shut down for lack of flour.

Meanwhile, Giorgio Cafiero has more on the mounting tensions between Sudan and Egypt. The two countries are at odds on border issues, on the distribution of Nile waters (and particularly over Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam, which Egypt opposes but Sudan seems to favor), and the Saudi-Qatar dispute–Egypt is clearly on team Saudi but Sudan has charted a neutral course.


One protester was killed on Monday in the town of Tebourba, west of Tunis, in clashes with police during a protest over–three guesses–austerity. The Tunisian government is raising prices and taxes on a number of basic goods and services at a time when inflation is high and unemployment is ticking up. That’s a combustible mix to say the least.


Nigerian officials say that at least 83 people have been killed so far in 2018 in communal violence between predominantly Christian farmers and predominantly Muslim and Fulani herdsmen in Nigeria’s “Middle Belt” (the frontier between the country’s mostly Muslim north and the mostly Christian south). Most of the recent violence has been happening in Benue and Taraba states in the eastern part of the country.

This map of Nigeria’s states might help


Leading opposition figure Morgan Tsvangirai–who is suffering from colon cancer–is hinting that he may resign from his leadership position in the Movement for Democratic Change and retire from electoral politics. That raises the possibility that Zimbabwe’s presidential election this year will include neither of the two men (Tsvangirai and ousted ex-President Robert Mugabe) who have been on the ballot in every Zimbabwean presidential election since 2002.


The African National Congress’s executive committee meets this week, which could be noteworthy in that there’s expected to be some intrigue about the fate of South African President Jacob Zuma. Zuma can remain in office until the 2019 election in theory, but the party could force his resignation, and indeed Zuma led a successful effort to do that to his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, in 2008. New ANC boss Cyril Ramaphosa is mouthing nice bromides about party unity in public but he and his loyalists are believed to be working behind the scenes to push Zuma out before his corruption scandals can further taint the party.

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