North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Preparing for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics

Brazil has a typical modern sector adjacent to urban slums

Brazil is a country building in economic strength and international influence. It is one of four countries whose economies, at least from 2005 to 2008, were projected to become new economic powers, creating a broader set of economic centers than that of just the US, Japan, and Western Europe. The new foursome, Brazil, Russia, China, and India, were referred to as BRIC. In the economic slump of the past two years, Russia perhaps has lost much of its economic luster as oil revenues slumped, but the remaining three have powered on.

Often talked less about that the growth and potential of China, and India, Brazil has nonetheless continued its growth and social maturation. It has the world's eighth largest economy, and it is a leader in green transportation fuels processed from sugar cane. Besides being the successful bidder for the 2016 Olympics - a highly sought after status breakthrough - Brazilians recently elected their first female president, Dilma Rousseff, who will take office, January 1, 2011.

Brazilian President-elect Dilma Rousseff

There are a few "issues" to deal with ahead of time however, and the past several days, one such action has brought its own share of attention. From an AP article, "Police and soldiers charged into Rio's most dangerous slum at daybreak Sunday, seizing the bastion of the city's biggest drug gang in a battle to make the seaside metropolis safe for the Olympics and soccer's World Cup.

Soldiers sweep a street in one of Brazil's urban slums

Black-clad officers poured into the Alemao slum complex amid heavy gunfire, with helicopters flying low overhead. But the officers encountered less resistance than expected and they declared victory two hours later, even if many gang members still remained inside.

A Brazilian flag was raised at the shantytown's highest point at midday. It was the biggest victory yet in a two-year effort to drive drug gangs from their strongholds in the hundreds of shantytowns, many draped across the hills around Rio's beaches, a crusade driven in part by the need to make foreign visitors feel secure for the final matches of the 2014 World Cup and for the 2016 Olympics that are meant to be showpieces of Brazil's emergence as growing world force.

Rio de Janeiro Gov. Sergio Cabral said the campaign against gangs will go forward. "We will continue to conquer more territories and give peace to our citizens and the foreign visitors who come here," he told Globo TV. Officials have already imposed order on more than a dozen other former gang strongholds, even encouraging tourism along streets once echoing with gunfire.

The gangs, feeling threatened, reacted violently, mounting mass robberies of motorists on key highways, burning more than 100 buses and cars and shooting up police outposts. The government counterattacked with hundreds of soldiers and thousands of police in armored vehicles, first driving the gangsters from the Vila Cruzeiro slum on Thursday, then neighboring Alemao — their most ambitious target yet — 72 hours later."

Statue of Christ overlooking Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janiero is the home of Carnival, and the famous statue of Christ overlooking the city. While the festering slums have long been a blight on the nation's image and no doubt an ongoing vale of despair and precariousness for its residents), the recent action signaling a will by the government to change the status quo stands in contrast to Mexico's violent, and stalemated war on drug gangs.

Carnival is known around the world

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

North and South Korea - sliding towards war?

Smoke rises from Yeonpyeong Island after North Korean barrage

Today, North Korea fired dozens of shells on to a South Korean island, landing in a civilian zone, damaging more than 60 buildings, killing two South Korean Marines, and wounding 19 civilians. The 50 minute barrage prompted, as the Washington Post described it, "a withering round of return fire from South Korean batteries, the scrambling of the South's air force and concerns that the firefight could spiral into all-out war."
South Korea returned fire

Nations around the world scrambled their diplomatic assets to contain and cool the two countries tensions, but North Korea's mysterious leadership motives made it difficult to see a clear path forward. Western nations condemned the attack, and called on China, the main power with influence on North Korea, to strongly stand against the secretive nation's actions. China did not, merely calling on both sides to show restraint.

South Koreans watch TV account of shelling

North Korea's artillery attack, coupled with its choreographed rollout of a new nuclear program a few days earlier, has presented the United States with a massive strategic challenge in one of the most dangerous corners of the world. Bound by treaty, and with 28,000 troops station on the demilitarized zone between the two countries, the US would defend the South and quickly be drawn into combat.

Other news agencies note that the firing comes after Kim Jong-Un, the little-known youngest son of ailing North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, was officially recognised as his father's eventual successor. "This is an intentional provocation to heighten cross-border tensions," Dongguk University professor Kim Yong-Hyun told AFP.

"The North made a series of gestures but there has been no response from South Korea and the United States. It is now using its brinkmanship aimed at forcing Seoul and Washington to take action and agree to dialogue." Kim said the North would try to use the clash to promote solidarity among its people during the leadership succession.

Maps showing the two Koreas, the island of today's attack, and a recent conflict when a South Korean military ship was torpedoed.

Japan's reaction, the nearest economic superpower, was strong, with Prime Minister Naoto Kan calling President Barak Obama and urgently demanding a US-South Korean-Japanese military reprisal.

While the US heads towards its first of two major year-end holidays, the sudden violence will be drawing the attention of most of the Pacific Rim nations over the next few days

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Nigeria's conflicts regarding oil

The notorious Lagos International Airport

Recent news from Nigeria - the kidnapping of oil workers, and their rescue - made headlines last week and prompts a look at this country. In the West, we often associate Nigeria with little more than a "suspect" airport in one of its major cities, Lagos. Travelers' tales of customs corruption, bribery, and poor security which prompts an on/off presence on the list of troubled air links to Europe and the US, abound, but there is much more to the country than this facility.

Nigeria has Africa's largest population, some 150 million and growing, which accounts for 1 out of every six people on the vast continent. It's president has an unusual name, Goodluck Jonathan, and he governs over a fragile nation full of recurring tensions between Muslim populations to the north and Christians and animists to the south, as well as a powerful military that has assumed control of the country on several occasions, only recently returning power to an elected leader.
President Goodluck Jonathan (middle), meets with a provincial governor Emmanuel Uduaghan, and Chief E. K. Clark - both leaders in an oil-rich southern province.

Granted independence from Great Britain in 1960, Nigeria as with many former colonies is a rather "artificial" entity, with arbitrary borders, boundaries, and people groups. The country suffered a civil war just seven years later when Biafra, a province in the south full of oil resources attempted to secede. The conflict proved horrendous for both sides, lasting three years with the loss of an estimated 3 million lives, and festers still today. The three major people groups are the Igbo, about 60-70% of the population in the southeast where the Biafra conflict occurred; the Muslim Hausa-Fulani which is about 65% of the peoples in the northern part of the territory; and the Yoruba, which form about 75% of the population in the southwestern part

Nigeria with Lagos in the Southwest, the troubled but wealthy oil delta region centered around Port Harcourt in the south, the capital Abuja in the center, and the Islamic oriented region of the north

Today, Nigeria is Africa’s biggest oil producer and the fifth- largest source of U.S. oil imports. Shell, Exxon Mobil, Chevron Corp., Total SA and Eni SpA run joint ventures with the state- owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corp., which pumps most of the West African country’s oil.

Nigeria's oil industry a huge revenue producer for the government

The Niger River delta, home to the country’s oil and gas industry, has been hit by a surge in violence in recent months after a period of relative calm following a government amnesty in 2009 and the disarming of thousands of militant fighters. The military ordered an offensive against rebels early November.

In just the past few days, Nigeria’s army arrested more than 60 militants it said were responsible for kidnapping the 19 hostages - 12 Nigerians, two Americans, two Frenchmen, one Canadian and two Indonesians, freed last week, a military spokesman said. Troops raided militant camps Nov. 17 and freed the hostages taken in attacks on the facilities of Exxon Mobil Corp., Royal Dutch Shell Plc’s local unit and Afren Plc, the army said.

Rescued oil workers

The ongoing tensions in Nigeria's southeast is just one example of many countries restive interests, based on ethnicity, poverty or extreme disparities of wealth, or representation.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Financial stress - from South Korea to Ireland

The G20 Summit is on in South Korea.

The Group of Twenty Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors (G-20, G20, Group of Twenty) is a group of finance ministers and central bank governors from 20 economies: 19 countries plus the European Union, which is represented by the President of the European Council and by the European Central Bank. Their heads of government or heads of state have also periodically conferred at summits since their initial meeting in 2008. This year held in South Korea, US President Obama has included a stop while on his South Asian tour.

According to Wikipedia, the G-20 economies collectively comprise 85% of global gross national product, 80% of world trade and two-thirds of the world population. The summit now meeting in South Korea is focusing on sustaining a fragile global economic recovery, expanding trade, and dealing with the threatened default of loans by certain countries.

This summit is marked more by public disagreements than progress. The US is being criticized for injecting $600 billion into its own economy by the Federal Reserve, which has the affect of lowering the value of the dollar for trading. For those countries relying on selling products into the US market, the costs of their products went up, and profits down. For US exporters, a weaker dollar means their products are more attractive to other buyers and therefore they are likely to sell more.

China's currency, the Renimbi, is under attack for being held at an artificial low for the same reasons - so they can sell more product overseas. These are difficult issues. The value of the renimbi is kept low by Chinese policy so that its exports are inexpensive, and sought after around the world.

In the background, another European country is facing a looming deadline for paying off the next round of debt come due. Ireland is searching for funds to pay debts, its economy is in shambles with unemployment back up, banks collapsed, and spending down. It is one of those countries that is following the crisis in Greece a few months ago. Right now the European Union is looking at providing an emergency loan to Ireland so that it meets its obligations, while preparing an austere budget for next year. Irelanders are not happy with their government, which is likely to lose the next elections. They consider it responsible for poor fiscal practices (guaranteeing bank loans that were obviously risky) while paying high salaries and benefits to the elected leadership. The question now is, who will pay the new debt - the bank shareholders or taxpayers?

Angry Irish scuffle with police in front of a bank that accumulated bad debt and faces collapse

A massive boom in construction, fueled by almost unending credit from the country’s banks, set Ireland up for its disastrous economic contraction over the last three years. The scale of the problem can be seen at the National Asset Management Agency — a “bad bank” set up to buy construction loans from the industry. NAMA will buy more than €73 billion in loans but is paying significantly less than half their face value because so much of the debt will have to be written off. If it’s going to fight its way back to growth, Ireland will have to fall back on its traditional strength as an exporter. And for that, it will be reliant on a strong recovery for the global economy.
Fancy Wexford Ireland apartments that were built during the housing boom, but have not paid off their loans

However, the key point to these troubling headlines is that there are mechanisms in place: Summits as these to talk directly and negotiate, agreements to followup, larger pooled resources for countries to draw on if their own resources falter. Those are the layers of support that the headlines usually do not follow up on, but that allow attention to be paid to issues over the long term.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A US-India visit

President Obama is on a multi-day visit to India. This is an important visit for both countries, as India is a strategic power in South Asia, one that the US wants as a counterbalance to China, as well as a future trading power.

The Presidential party being hosted under a tent at a state dinner

India views strengthened US ties as important considering its hostile relationship with its neighbor Pakistan, and also for enhancing its own global position.

Besides some initial announcements of enhanced bilateral trade details, India was satisfied to hear President Obama announce his support for India to receive a seat at the UN's permanent Security Council. As one paper tells, "President Barack Obama, in a speech to the Indian Parliament, for the first time publicly backed India's inclusion as a permanent member in the United Nations Security Council.

President Obama addresses the India Parliament

"The just and sustainable international order that America seeks includes a United Nations that is efficient, effective, credible and legitimate," Mr. Obama said. "That is why I can say today—in the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed U.N. Security Council that includes India as a permanent member."

The gesture toward India was long-sought by New Delhi and greeted warmly by the Indian Parliament during the speech. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the move was meant to formalize India's rise as a world and regional power, and Mr. Obama said repeatedly here that he viewed India not as "a rising power" but a power that has already risen."

The position would establish India as a global power, joining the other leaders, US, Britain, France, Russia, and China. It is not an easy path to take on, and immediately, Pakistan and China announced their opposition, one strongly, the other in measured terms. He also said the administration wasn't backing away from Washington's longstanding call for a Japanese permanent seat.

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry criticized Mr. Obama's statement and said the U.S. should "take a moral view and not base itself on any temporary expediency or exigencies of power politics.' China has long opposed a permanent seat for India on the council. Liu Yutang, spokesman for the Chinese mission to the U.N., said the mission "was still reading the news" and that the Foreign Ministry in Beijing would issue a statement.

The UN seat has long been held by the five leading nuclear powers, and India would be the first to take a seat when it has consistently refused to sign a Non-Proliferation treaty. That treaty binds nations from spreading nuclear weapon technology. President Obama's support for India's membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) could have a more immediate impact on global affairs than the Security Council issue, said security experts.

The 46-nation NSG was created in the 1970s by developed countries to more tightly control the spread of technologies used in producing nuclear fuel. Member states initially needed to be signatures to the U.N.'s Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and have no history of abusing global export controls.

India's first nuclear powered submarine

New Delhi has refused to sign the NPT and was sanctioned by the U.S. in the 1990s for conducting a covert nuclear-weapons test. Proliferation experts worry India's potential membership to the NSG could significantly weaken the informal body and diminish fears among aspiring nuclear states that they might face punishment if they subvert global nonproliferation bodies.

"You have to worry where this is all headed," said Henry Sokolski, head of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington think tank. "Will any rules continue to apply?"

First Lady Michele Obama a great hit with students and the press

That aside, India, with this high profile trip from the sitting US President, has signaled to the world that this nation of over 1 billion people, and the world's oldest democracy, has walked out on center stage.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

US mid term election termed a "shellacking" by President Obama

A subdued President Obama walks to address a press conference one day after the mid-term elections.

With US Presidential elections held every 4 years, "mid term" elections take place 2 years in, with all 435 House of Representatives up for grab, an approximate third of 100 US Senators (serving 6 year terms), as well as a steady round of state governorships.

Following what was considered an historic Democratic sweep two years ago, with President Obama elected as well as super majorities of Democrats in the House and Senate, many political observers were openly speaking of an entrenched powerbase that could last for over a decade. However, in just twenty four months, the verdict of American voters was in fact, "a shellacking" of his party said the President, with the BBC coverage terming the outcome as "disastrous" for the Democrats.

65 House seats changed hands from Democrats to Republican, as did 6 Senate seats out of the 36 in play, along with 10 state governors. The House of Representatives is now controlled by Republicans, 30 states out of 50 have Republican leadership, and it appears that the frustration and anger have not dissipated.

Because voting is a rather blunt instrument, the motives of the voters can be (and are) debated, dissected, and interpreted ad nauseum. The Democratic party and sympathetic media say that they did not do well in communicating their accomplishments to the voters, and that in truth, the economy was not producing jobs fast enough. Moreover, historically, the party in power loses some seats in these mid term elections, and finally, that there was an unprecedented amount of money spent on behalf of Republican candidates.

The Republicans, on the other hand, pointed to polls showing that independents had switched en mass towards their party and away from the President and his Party's agenda. They countered that the American public understood all too well the accomplishments of the Democrats in power, and were firmly rejecting the results.

The new health care and its messy process of horsetrading and parliamentary maneuverings, the stimulus bill of early 2009 that borrowed nearly a trillion dollars, and a very large annual budget in 2009 were the issues bringing about the ire of the average American, said Party spokespersons, as well as the vocal contempt poured out by Democrats on the Tea party movement, characterized as "far right," "dangerous" and "ignorant."

What is called the Tea Party movement roughed up conventional thought both in the Democratic and Republican camps

Around the world, various media viewed the powerful return of more conservative elected officials with viewpoints generally ranging from wariness to gloom, yet most commentaries also focused on what possible policy changes might lie ahead towards their own nations and interests.

From two voices most familiar with the US electoral process, it was the UK's Guardian newspaper who noted the stark facts first "Barack Obama woke up yesterday to a changed political landscape. The electoral map was rolled back six years, as Democrats were driven from rural districts and suburbs alike, and almost the entire south. They lost women's votes in droves. A whole generation of grandees was unseated, and one remarkable politician in Nancy Pelosi lost her job as speaker of the house of Representatives." After reciting all the faults and pitfalls of the Republicans, The Guardian concluded, "The fact, however, remains that this was as personal a message as a president in his midterm is likely to get. The audacity of hope had become, for too many Americans, the hubris of overambition."

Nancy Pelosi,Speaker of the House and third in line of the Presidential succession, lost her national post and attendant perks, though retained her elected seat.

Canada's National Post posed the question, "Did Tuesday’s elections redraw the U.S. political map? And answered it, "Partly, Democrats have been driven from office in rural areas, the suburbs and every one of the 11 states of the old Confederacy. They lost an overwhelming number of gubernatorial and Senate races in the South, the Midwest and interior West. Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia, states Barack Obama won in 2008, returned to the Republican fold, while battleground states, like Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania that went Democratic two years ago, elected Republican governors and senators and swept out some House Democrats. Democrats also suffered extensive losses in suburbs clustered around cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, Orlando, Fla., Cincinnati, Columbus, Ohio, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Democrats lost a generation of powerful centrist leaders,... The party’s youngest leaders, first- and second-term House Democrats elected in 2006 and 2008, also took a drubbing in swing states, as did “Blue Dog” Democrats who represented conservative, Republican-leaning districts, generally in the South. As a result, the new Democratic caucus is likely to be more liberal than before. The Republicans’ success generates a similar problem. They now have to grapple with the Tea Party movement, whose members don’t fit the traditional GOP mould. Tea Party activists shun compromise and are bent on shaking up Washington. They will probably introduce a new element of ideological rigidity to the operation of Congress and that could create divisions within the party."

Washington State's Senator Patty Murray retained her seat after a close race - reinforcing the broad concentrations of political leanings, with the Northeast, West Coast, and urban centers as Democratic strongholds.

The Canadian Post continued, "The vote may be more a protest against how Washington functions than a clear declaration of a mandate for a new course of action. The Tea Party, with its calls to cut the size of government, still has to convince people of just where those cuts should take place. While the GOP now has the power to initiate action, it might try to halt the White House agenda. But Obama still has a veto and can scrap any Republican legislation."

The red color depicting Republican majorities and blue for Democrats in 2010 is eerily similar to this 2004 electoral map. What has changed? The move towards a more liberal and smaller Democratic party, and a larger, more conservative Republican Party.

That's the big picture, it now remains to be seen whether the President, the Senate and the House can address the lack of jobs, rising debt, and more open decision making that was absent in the health care legislation, which many believe was the focus of the voting patterns.