Nuclear, Climate, And Electoral Challenges Create Global Uncertainty

Global Weekly Briefing: New sanctions on North Korea, Hurricane Irma’s aftermath, and Kenya’s electoral limbo

Hurricane Irma as the storm approaches Cuba and Florida after leaving dozens of people dead and thousands homeless on a devastated string of Caribbean islands. — Sept. 8, 2017 (NOAA via AP)

Hurricane Irma as the storm approaches Cuba and Florida after leaving dozens of people dead and thousands homeless on a devastated string of Caribbean islands. — Sept. 8, 2017 (NOAA via AP)

The Caribbean Takes Stock Of Hurricane Irma’s damage

Hurricane Irma was one of the most severe storms the Caribbean has seen in years, and the entire region will be taking stock of losses in the coming weeks. About 36 people are estimated to have died across the island states. Initial damages are estimated at $10 billion (not including the US), though this could rise during reconstruction.

Almost all buildings on the island of Barbuda are destroyed, while the islands of St. Bart’s, St. Maarten, and the Turks and Caicos Islands also suffered extensive damage. Lots of tourism infrastructure, the biggest industry in the region, was heavily damaged, which will harm the islands’ economies throughout the recovery period. Tourist traffic may decrease by as much as 20 percent due to Irma. Another concern is the spread of water borne disease, as well as the ability to bring needed supplies into remote islands.

As discussed in Global Weekly last week, climate change is making natural disasters more devastating. This impacts island states particularly harshly. Natural disasters aside, rising sea levels are causing increasing land erosion, more unpredictable weather, and the destruction of freshwater sources in remote island states who face high import costs as it is. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, this will end up costing Caribbean island nations upwards of $22 billion annually, or about 10 percent of the region’s GDP by 2050. If immediate action is not taken to stem the tide, Paradise Lost will begin to take on a literal meaning in the region.

The UN Security Council Votes For New Sanctions On North Korea

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In a surprise move, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to slap sanctions on North Korea, in response to its latest, and most serious, nuclear test. The new sanctions include a ban on exports of North Korean textiles, a ban on new visas for North Korean workers abroad, and a 30 percent reduction on oil imports to the Hermit Kingdom. In all, the sanctions are estimated to cost North Korea about $1.3 billion in annual revenue, bringing the total cost of all sanctions to $2.7 billion per year. Other measures include clamping down on North Korean maritime smuggling and shutting down joint ventures and other investments with the country.

Russia and China, normally playing foil to the other three veto members, agreed to vote for the sanctions after the US agreed to water down their proposal. The US, under the direction of UN ambassador Nikki Haley, originally wanted to ban all oil imports, among other tougher measures. However, China objected, fearing that this could lead to the collapse of the Kim regime, triggering an unpredictable power vacuum and a potential refugee situation on their borders. Both Russia and China are calling for an end to American military exercises near the Korean Peninsula, as well as the cessation of deployment of American anti-missile systems in South Korea. China, in particular, sees so-called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense systems, or THAAD, as a possible threat given that they employ powerful ballistic missiles, as well as radar which they fear could be used by the US to spy on their country.

North Korea was obviously not happy with the move, issuing the usual threats to destroy its enemies. To boost that claim, they fired a second missile over the airspace of Japan. The sanctions will indeed be damaging to the country, though will probably affect Kim Jong Un and his inner circle only marginally. It is also unlikely to deter Kim from continuing the progress of North Korea’s nuclear program, at least in and of itself.

For one thing, enacting sanctions is not the same as enforcing them. North Korea has been able to evade existing sanctions before, possibly with the help of China and Russia. By one estimate, North Korea has generated more than $270 million exporting banned commodities since February alone. They are involved with a host of other illicit activities, including drug trafficking, which gives them access to vast smuggling networks they can tap into.

They also may receive help from Chinese firms, even if the government isn’t implicitly supporting them. For example, Chinese traders near the border with North Korea have been able to pass off exported North Korean textiles as ones made in China. North Korea also has other markets it can tap into. When China issued a ban on North Korean coal imports earlier this year, countries like Malaysia and Vietnam began importing more of the stuff.

The second reason Kim will not likely be deterred from current proliferation plans is that he has staked his entire sovereignty on it. His entire regime, since his grandfather founded the DPRK, is based on confrontation with South Korea and the US. Moreover, he has seen dictator colleagues like Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein ousted and killed after they abandoned plans to acquire nuclear weapons, and is keen to avoid the same fate.

North Korea has been about as close as any small country ever has to building their own nuclear warhead, and are advancing to this end at a remarkably rapid pace. Most experts did not believe the country will be at the stage where they are currently until at least the end of the decade, but now look like they could build a nuclear bomb with range to hit the US within a year.

A man watches a TV news program reporting about North Korea’s missile launch at the Seoul Train Station in Seoul, South Korea. — Feb. 12, 2017. (AP/Lee Jin-man)

A man watches a TV news program reporting about North Korea’s missile launch at the Seoul Train Station in Seoul, South Korea. — Feb. 12, 2017. (AP/Lee Jin-man)

The biggest advancement is in its missile technology, which has allowed it to make huge leaps in the range of its missiles. Up until last year, the country was failing most of its missile tests, yet has been able to successfully test two intercontinental ballistic missiles within the last few months. Michael Elleman of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, per the Economist, believes the North may have gotten its hands on former Soviet rocket technology from either Russia or Ukraine. How close they are to perfecting the rest of the technology needed for a fully functioning warhead is debatable, but few are eager to underestimate their progress now.

Whatever the case, diplomats cannot rest on the laurels of the new sanctions. More talks are key to stymieing Kim’s plans; not just with his regime, but also among Security Council members, South Korea, Japan, and other governments with relations to North Korea. Effective sanctions enforcement will require cooperation between all parties involved, and North Korea will never agree to any concessions without pressure from China specifically.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s lack of diplomatic skills is perhaps the biggest impediment to a positive outcome. Ms. Haley has displayed relative competence in Security Council negotiations, but individuals with more expertise in the region are needed to push a cohesive strategy forward. Aside from Susan Thornton, the acting Assistant Secretary and current point person on North Korea, the State Department boasts no such people. There are still no confirmations on an Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, or for ambassadorships to South Korea or Russia. President Trump himself has also not helped matters, lambasting the South Korean president for pursuing talks with the Kim regime. Fomenting divisions among the US’ allies plays right into the North’s plans.

Kenya’s Electoral Mess

Kenyans will be going to the polls for a second time in just over two months in October after their Supreme Court annulled the results of the August 8th election. The incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta, had been declared the victor with 54% of the vote over Ex-Prime Minister Raila Odinga. On September 1st, the Court cited irregularities with the electoral commission’s transmission of results, though did not find any evidence of wrongdoing by Mr. Kenyatta (who accepted the ruling), as Mr. Odinga’s party claimed in its legal filing with the court. The court declared a new election must be set up within 60 days.

This move is unprecedented in African politics, seen as a triumph of institutional checks and balances by many. It is also remarkable for Kenya specifically. The 2013 elections was also a contest between Messrs. Kenyatta and Mr. Odinga and was won with a slim margin by the former, in an election international monitors deemed flawed. Odinga then contested the election in court, but the results were upheld in favor of Kenyatta.

The annulment also puts the country on a path of renewed uncertainty and unease as the new election looms on October 17th. Mr. Odinga has vowed not to stand unless there are major changes to the electoral commission, including the removal of the current head. This has prompted infighting within the commission and a threat from Mr. Kenyatta to impeach Mr. Odinga if the latter ends up winning. Officials are rushing to prepare for the new election, slated to cost $117 million, on top of the $413 million the last one cost; no chump change for a relatively poor country. There are worries that there will not be enough time to prepare for the election. All aspects of Kenya’s elections have grown to be increasingly scrutinized; the last election saw a court battle over the right to print the ballot papers.

The main worry for most Kenyans, however, is for increased violence, which has happened at almost every election in the country since the advent of multiparty democracy in the early nineties. Kenya generally votes along ethnic lines. Mr. Kenyatta belongs to the Kikuyu tribe, who makes up the biggest share of the population and have traditionally held most political positions, while Mr. Odinga is from the Luo tribe. After the 2007 elections, inter ethnic violence claimed more than 1,100 people lives. Mr. Kenyatta (then a Deputy to the winner) was charged by the International Criminal Court for inciting electoral violence (the charges were later dropped.) The August election claimed 24 lives, but some fear that number could rise if the election is close again.

Events in Kenya have regional impacts. The country is bordered by two failed states (Somalia and South Sudan) and a de-facto dictatorship (Uganda). It has been impacted by terrorist attacks from Al-Shabab and also boasts a huge refugee population from Somalia. Successful democratic governance in Kenya, of which a clean and fair election is the most basic tenet, is therefore crucial not just to ensuring stability in the country itself. Given that other African countries deal with similar circumstances, Kenya also serves as a barometer for democracy for the continent, a sign of hope for those pursuing democratic progress in their respective nations. Here’s hoping Messrs. Kenyatta and Odinga keep that in mind.

News // Climate Change / North Korea / World