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 "

Monday, December 31, 2012

An Arctic Ocean sea route opens ...

It is near continual night in the Arctic this time of year, and the ocean is a solid sheet of ice, covered with some snow. In fact, one would not guess of the presence of an ocean if simply looking at the surface.

This may be the brightest hour one sees during much of the winter

But in the summer, when the sun shines much of each 24 hour period (although close to the horizon), the ice loosens and melts, and the waters appear.

Icebreakers can claw their way through, revealing to the casual observer that yes, there is a sea underneath, and several routes that commercial ships can pass.

In fact, the numbers of ships that navigated a sea route across the "top" of the earth last summer was up to 46, a rise from 4 in 2010, and 34 in 2011, according to a recent newspaper article. It is this development that is worth noting.

Click on picture for full image

The commercial possibilities of using a polar sea lane present opportunities for some countries, while posing challenges for the environment. But, according to the article, the increasingly ice-free route runs from Europe to Asian markets through the Bering Strait, which divides Alaska and Russia, and it can be 40 percent shorter than the southern alternative of shipping through the Suez Canal.

Following the red line from left to right, this polar route is so much shorter than the blue line showing the shipping route through the Suez Canal.

The Suez Canal sees 18,000 ships a year passing through, so it will be sometime before Arctic traffic becomes a competitor, however, the key players in the rise of traffic are Russia and China. Russia is seeking to develop its Arctic oil and gas reserves, and China is ready to buy energy. While both talk a good game when it comes to environmental safeguards, this is an opportunity that neither will pass up.

Apparently there are several potential polar sea routes, Alaska development officials were hoping that ones closer to the northern boundaries of the state would win out, creating their own growth. But the Northern Sea Route (NSR) seems to be the front runner.

The Northern Sea Route, hugging the Russian/Scandanavian coasts is shown here in red.

Polar wildlife will be more exposed to potential oil accidents, and debris from civilization - but that seems mainly a concern of Western environmentalists.

Tankers may become a more common sight at the North Pole during the summer months.

Teatree is not sure he'd characterize this increase of sea traffic as progress, but it is certainly more likely.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Timbuktu's ancient Islamic shrines come down

There are relatively few artifacts across much of the continent of Africa that indicate its past - the pyramids of Egypt, and some Coptic churches in Ethiopia come to mind. This week, from reports by the BBC, we read that one of the less familiar, but still "world heritage" class artifacts - Timbuktu's ancient Islamic shrines - are now being taken apart by Islamic extremists.

"Islamists in control of northern Mali began earlier this year to pull down shrines that they consider idolatrous. "Not a single mausoleum will remain in Timbuktu," Abou Dardar, a leader of the Islamist group Ansar Dine, told AFP news agency. Tourist official Sane Chirfi said four mausoleums had been razed on Sunday. One resident told AFP that the Islamists were destroying the shrines with pickaxes."

Timbuktu was a center of Islamic learning from the 13th to the 17th centuries. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) added three mosques and 16 cemeteries and mausoleums to its world heritage list in 1988 . The structures played a major role in spreading Islam in West Africa.

Timbuktu, an ancient centre in Africa's dry Sahel

The most famous Djinguereber Mosque was built in 1327, and had been in the process of being restored and preserved since 2006. In July this year, two tombs on the site were destroyed by the Ansar Dine extremists.

Most of these structures are built entirely of local, organic material - mud (adobe like), stones, and wood. Amazingly well preserved in the dry climate, but unable to withstand picks and axes.

A loss within a greater setback

Covered once before in this blog, the presence of the Ansar Dine extremists in Timbuktu stems from a spiraling of events in 2011-2012 when the Mali government lost control the northern half of the country to an alliance of the Toureg people and the Ansar Dine.

The government itself lost its legitimacy when a group of officers took over in April 2012, forcing the civilian government to flee from the capitol of Bamoko. After negotiations led by the UN and Western countries such as France and the US, the coup officers, led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo handed back power to civilians, but retain influence in the Malian capital, where tensions remain high between their supporters and opponents.

The coup in Bamako led to the fall of north Mali into the hands of armed Islamic group (the most prominent being Ansar Dine) linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The group applies strict Islamic sharia law including summary executions, stonings, amputations and beatings as punishments.

Much is ahead

Last month a United Nations Security Council resolution paved the way for an international military intervention in Mali. With the Mali army and troops from the Economic Community Of West African States (Ecowas) fighting on the ground and the US and the EU providing logistical support and training.

The coup leader, Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, remains in the army, and leads the Junta, which considers itself to have retained power but is overseeing a one year interim power sharing arrangement with new civilian leaders - an election is scheduled within the year.

Interim Mali President Dioncounda Traoré, currently leading the country after pressure from the UN and the West led to the ceding of power by Captain Sanogo.

So much is going on. Elections for a return to pre-coup civilian leadership, the loss of half the country (the size of France alone), and preparations for the deployment of a 3,300-strong West African force to retake the northern half back from Islamic and Toureg control.

The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and the African Union have been tasked to submit a detailed and costed plan for the military offensive. Again, from the BBC, "No-one is under any illusion that the restoration of government authority over northern Mali will be easy. Reports of jihadist fighters from Sudan and Western Sahara arriving to reinforce the radical Islamist rebels controlling northern Mali will add new urgency to international debates over military intervention to help the government restore its authority and reunite the country."

The Touregs call northern Mali, Azawad, and show their flag here.

However, Azawad, whatever the Toureg's vision of their land was at one point, is now a place oppressed by harsh Islamic law.

This image shows the geographic and climatic separateness between the more humid and vegetated southern Mali, and the arid Sahel with its different peoples and cultures.

Not a rosy picture ahead for Mali for 2013.

And it is Christmas ...

Once again, so far from this West African region full of sorrow and grief, Christmas 2012 seems a world apart, yet with peace so elusive in so many parts of the globe. Teatree's own personal favorite song (from an innocent early time when he learned verses 1,2,6,7), composed in 1863 by the American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow himself wrote the poem soon after he had lost his wife in an accidental fire, and his oldest son lay severely wounded from a battle in the then-raging US civil war:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and mild and sweet The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

Monday, December 17, 2012

Japan elects 7th Prime Minister in six years

Japan, intertwined with the geopolitics of its neighbors - China, and the two Koreas.

On Sunday, Japanese voters re-elected a former prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to the highest post by giving the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), a landslide victory. After three years in opposition, the LDP won 293 seats in the 480-seat lower house of parliament. As leader of the LDP, Abe, who was Prime Minister for one year in 2006-2007, will take up the reins again.

Mr. Shinzo Abe in ...

According to the Japan Today news agency, "The results were a sharp rebuke for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s ruling Democratic Party of Japan, reflecting widespread unhappiness for its failure to keep campaign promises and get the stagnant economy going during its three years in power."

Mr Yoshihiko Noda out ...

As to possible consequences of the election, one likely change in agenda stems from the LDP being the most pro-nuclear power party in Japan. After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami which crippled a nuclear power station and spread radiation across a swath of the landscape, Japan's government was planning to move away from nuclear power. That direction may now be reviewed.

Also, incoming Prime Minister Abe "is talking tough toward China, and the LDP platform calls developing fisheries and setting up a permanent outpost in the Senkaku/Daioyu islands, a move that would infuriate Beijing."

The article goes on to note that the "LDP will stick with its long-time partner New Komeito, backed by a large Buddhist organization, to form a coalition government, party officials said. Together, they will control more than 320 seats, NHK projected - a two-thirds majority that would make it easier for the government to pass legislation ..."

Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of the New Komeito party, may find his own visibility rising.

Abe himself was sober as he talked with the press on Monday. "Abe told a packed news conference ... that Japan is facing a series of crises - from the weak economy to security issues to reconstruction after the tsunami disaster. "Our mission is to overcome these crises," he said. He said his party's victory was less a vote of confidence from voters and more a repudiation of the "mistaken leadership" of the Democrats. "The public will be scrutinizing us."

Part of that public scrutinizing the new leadership will be the aging population - Japan's demographics are somewhat unique in that the component of its population 60 and over is as high as any nation on earth. From wikipedia, "Japan's elderly population, aged 65 or older, comprised 20% of the nation's population in June 2006,a percentage that is forecast to increase to 38% by 2055."

So, we'll watch Japan over the next several months. It has the 3rd largest economy in the world, behind the US and China, and a major player along the Pacific Rim.

By Japan's annual Cherry Blossom festival - in March 2013 - the world will see how Abe has formulated new directions for this nation.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Is there a Pashtun in our world's future?

Ethnic groups have commonly found themselves on opposites of modern nation-states borders. Some make the case these boundaries have been set deliberately to divide groups, or at the least, boundaries have been set arbitrarily with little concern for natural groupings of people. Kenya's border with Tanzania for example has a wiggle in it so that each European ruler could "have" a high mountain peak in their colony.

"The irregular shape of the border here was created in 1881 when Queen Victoria gave Mount Kilimanjaro to her grandson, then the Crown Prince of Prussia and later Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, as a wedding present. Consequently, the border was adjusted so that Kilimanjaro fell within the boundaries of the German colony of Tanganyika instead of the British protectorate of Kenya." (from (Oh, this story is not universally agreed on by historians and scholars. A variety of cases can be made, though motives are difficult to unearth and reasons stated on legal documents are often meant to obfuscate others.)

Myth or not as to the reasons, the border between these two East African nations jogs around a mountain. Kenya is to the north of Tanzania, shown here in emphasized topographic relief.

Then there are the Kurds

The Kurdish people have been much more in the news the past decade as the modern nations making up their homeland are several, all restive, some bellicose and in conflict. Still, the 20-30 million or so Kurds without a homeland of their own is a fine entryway into discussing an even larger disconnect in this modern world of 193 recognized nation states.

Sizeable numbers of Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and smaller numbers elsewhere.

The Pashtuns - a major ethnic group straddling two warring neighbors

The point of this post - finally - is to note one much larger group which for the past decade has also been at the center of much of the world's attention, though rarely discussed in its own ethnic terms. The Pashtun people, with a much-debated population of around 60-70 million, is mainly divided between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Is this people's moment of recognition a possibility in the near future?

Click on map for full picture

The particular focus around this group stems from their location being precisely aligned with the chaotic, lawless and conflicted regions of these two countries. The Afghani landbase is currently occupied by NATO forces fighting Taliban elements as well as specific ethnic tribes and ideological Islamic oriented extremists ... On the Pakistani side, the region has long been left to its own devices.

While it is unlikely that Afghanistan or Pakistan would ever formally cede territory for a Pashtun homeland, there is a very good possibility that a de facto homeland could be the result of a power vacuum when NATO forces are scheduled to leave Afghanistan in 2014.

The website accompanying this picture of Pashtun women in some sort of a parade is actually advertising learning the Pashto language. The rather abrupt plug reads, "Learn Pashto Language at Indiana University - ONLY AT INDIANA UNIVERSITY! Seize This Unique Opportunity – Learn Pashto! You’ve heard about them in the news and in movies like Charlie Wilson’s War, the Pashtuns: a brave and proud people who defeated both the British and Soviet invaders."

Pashtun people and the Islamic Taliban are not synonymous. Pashtuns are the common population, and the Taliban are a cultural/ideological subset.

This iconic picture of a young Pashtun woman - taken by a National Geographic photographer in 1985 - shows the green eyes and fairer skin reflecting a unique genetic history of the Pashtun people

For an interesting read, try an article by a journalist Jonathan Kay, in an article carried by Canada's National Post ...

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Egypt swirls, Syria sinks - and a corruption index?

Unfortunately, if one is attempting to note "the news," the chaotic Middle East is hard to ignore. Once again, Egypt and Syria dominate the more dramatic detail developments - though the general trend of what and why is drearily well-known.

Syria, left to its own devices, continues to disintegrate. Fighting has now spread to the capital Damascus. The capital city's airport has been closed periodically, the country's internet service has likewise been shut down and restarted, etc. Reports are that Western countries - in lieu of anything more direct - are pushing the "opposition" to take stronger form and become more "legitimate" in order for the West to be ready to deal with a new Syrian government should the current one collapse.

Significant fighting in Sunni neighborhoods of Damascus itself is becoming commonplace ...

In parts of Northeast Syria no longer controlled by Assad, Syrian Kurdish women integrate into defensive units.

The Kurds - some 25-30 million strong - are one wild card in the region, bringing in larger governance concerns in Turkey and Iran, as well as Iraq where some degree of autonomy for the ethnic group has been formally recognized.

At the same time, warnings from the West continue to stream along. The latest concern voiced is again over Syria's (ie. President Bashar al Assad's regime) stockpile of chemical weapons. There are unsubstantiated reports that canisters of these chemicals have been loaded into bombs, though the bombs have not been weaponized (activated) or attached to fighter jets or helicopters, etc.

Sporadic clashes continue as spillover into Lebanon, Turkey has been promised defensive missile batteries by NATO, and there is relative silence from Iran and Hezbollah - Assad's unabashed supporters.

Egypt , already attempting to broker negotiations between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Israel, has its own crisis. Egyptian President Morsi, by declaring dictatorial power for himself - though he insists it is temporary and only to allow the revolution to continue - has roused anger on the Egyptian street.

Over 100,000 protestors at Tahrir Square on December 4, miles from the palace itself where tens of thousands are also camped out. Nearly three months ago, Egyptians were breaching the US Embassy on 9/11, now it is their own government which is the target

Rocks fly, protestors converge, and at one point in the past few days the presidential palace was facing such large numbers of protestors that the President might have been evacuated by his security forces to prevent any awkward encounters. Egyptian judges have organized one-day boycotts of their own legal work as a protest against the Morsi decrees, and in some cases have postponed their work indefinitely.

Egyptian tanks now deployed in defense of the Presidential palace

Arab Spring at least in these two countries has not gone as envisioned by the West.

Corruption Index

As Ynet news summarizes, "The Global Corruption Report, produced by the Transparency International (TI) organization, ranks the world's countries according to perceived levels of public corruption. The ranking is based on interviews with businesspeople and politicians inside and outside the reviewed country, and surveys conducted by research institutes, economic institutions and universities worldwide.

A country or territory’s score indicates the perceived level of public sector corruption on a scale of 0-100, where 0 means that a country is perceived as highly corrupt and 100 means it is perceived as very clean."

The 2012 report was issued December 5, and Denmark, Finland and New Zealand tie for first place with scores of 90. These high scores are derived by confidence among the nations' respective business and political leaders, "helped by strong access to information systems and rules governing the behavior of those in public positions."

Sweden ranks fourth with a score of 88, followed by Singapore (87), Switzerland (86), Australia and Norway (85), and Canada and the Netherlands (84). In the Middle East, Israel has a score of 60, Jordan a score of 48, Egypt with its score of 32 falls to 118th place in the 170 nations ranked, while Lebanon is in 128th place (30), and Syria in 144th place (26).

Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia once again are found at the bottom of the index with tied scores of 8.

Click on image for full picture
The full index and discussion can be found at The US ranks 19th with a score of 79, Japan has a score of 73, China has a score of 39, Russia ranks 133rd with a score of 28. Pakistan has a score of 27.

The point one might make is this - do corruption and instability correlate, or as one astute Pacific Northwest observer notes on another matter, "Coincidence?? I don't think so"

Saturday, December 1, 2012

New President in Mexico begins 6 year term

Enrique Pena Nieto, 46, began his as Mexican president on Saturday. He leads the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which has governed Mexico from 1929 continuously (71 years) until it lost power for two terms (12 years)in 2000 to Vicente Fox of the conservative Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), then Nieto's predecessor, Felipe Calderon under the same party banner.

Enrique Pena Nieto, Mexico's new President

Reuter's captures much of the situation in Mexico with this observation, "Telegenic and married to a popular actress, Pena Nieto promises to restore calm after more than 60,000 people were killed in violence between drug gangs and security forces during the six-year term of his conservative predecessor."

Nieto's family. Nieto's first wife died in 2007 leaving him with three children. He remarried in 2010 to an actress Angélica Rivera. The reports are that there are six children in all - presumably some are Rivera's - in a blended family.

The Drug War

The violent drug wars have seen the electorate casting for some leader who would be able to gain effective control of the country - both Fox and Calderon did not, now it is back to the PRI leader to have a go at it.

From Wikipedia, we read, "Mexico is a major transit and drug-producing nation: an estimated 90% of the cocaine smuggled into the United States every year moves through Mexico. Fueled by the increasing demand for drugs in the United States, the country has become a major supplier of heroin, producer and distributor of ecstasy, and the largest foreign supplier of marijuana and methamphetamine to the U.S.'s market. Major drug syndicates control the majority of drug trafficking in the country, and Mexico is a significant money-laundering center.

After the Federal Assault Weapons Ban expired in September, 2004 in the United States, the Mexican President Calderon decided to use brute force to combat some drug lords and in 2007 started a major escalation on the Mexican Drug War. Mexican drug lords found it easy to buy assault weapons in the United States. The result is that drug cartels have now both more gun power, and more manpower due to the high unemployment in Mexico. Drug cultivation has increased too."

Mexico's security forces battle well-armed drug cartels, along with maintaining integrity within their own organizations which are constantly being infiltrated by cartels with ready cash and bribes.

Being neighbor to a lone world superpower is not easy - US domestic and international foreign policies weigh in heavily on how Mexico fares economically and politically. Along with the drug-fueled blood letting, illegal immigration will be an issue that re-elected US President Obama, and newly elected Nieto will tackle.

Illegal Immigration and Economic Health

In January 1994, Mexico became a full member of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), joining the United States and Canada. Trade with the United States and Canada has tripled since the implementation of NAFTA. As a result, Mexico has a free market economy that recently entered the trillion-dollar class. It contains a mixture of modern and outmoded industry and agriculture, increasingly dominated by the private sector. Recent administrations have expanded competition in sea ports, railroads, telecommunications, electricity generation, natural gas distribution, and airports. However, per capita income is one-quarter that of the United States and income distribution remains highly unequal.

Mexican presence in the US

The border is a challenge for drug running, illegal immigration, and economic trade.


From a CNN article, we read, "Mexico, one of the largest suppliers of oil to the United States, has a big problem: Its production of crude is falling fast. In 2008, the country's production peaked at 3.2 million barrels a day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Last year, it didn't even produce 3 million a day.

The reason: aging oil fields and years of underinvestment. Industry experts say Mexico could revive production if it allowed more investment from international oil companies. But under current policy, EIA says Mexico will have to start importing oil by 2020. For the United States, the decline in Mexico's oil industry means it will likely be buying more oil from Canada and Saudi Arabia, the No. 1 and No. 2 sources of U.S. oil imports. Mexico is now third."

Mexico faces declining oil production rates as its fields age and the state oil company, PEMEX, still has a monopoly on the business - but one in which reinvestment has not been maintained at sufficient levels.

Mexico has a population of over 112 million, nearly 4 times that of Canada.

A few days before President-elect Nieto's swearing in, he met with re-elected US President Obama.

Let's hope that wise leadership on both sides of the porous border will prevail. Canada, the other major US neighbor, has long maintained peaceful and prosperous relations, and much is to be gained by the same by Mexico.