North Korea’s Party Congress: Kim Jong-un’s next steps amidst economic crisis and change of leadership in the US
On 12 January 2021, North Korea ended its week-long 8th Party Congress. At the political gathering, Kim Jong-un addressed members of the Workers’ Party and spoke about the current economic conditions of the country, future economic development goals, Inter-Korean relations, North Korean perception of the US and nuclear and defence policies. Kim called for greater nuclear war deterrence and maximum military power. His closing address, as cited by the country’s official news agency KCNA states: “While strengthening our nuclear war deterrent, we need to do everything in order to build the most powerful military”.
On 9 January, Kim commented on relations with the US and said: “Our external political activities must focus on our arch-enemy and the fundamental obstacle to our revolutionary development, the United States”. On the Inter-Korean relations, he said: “the relations have now returned to the pre-Panmunjom Declaration (2018) state, and the dream of unification is now even further away”.
What is the background?
First, the Party Congress. It is a rare political event that takes place every five years and is attended by over 7000 party members. The last Party Congress took place in May 2016, after 35 years and continued for four days. The Party Congress is considered one of North Korea’s most important political events; domestic policies, foreign affairs and defence strategy for the next five years are determined during this gathering.
Second, North Korea’s Eighth Party Congress held last week has another significance as it is the first political gathering after the pandemic. The country claims to have zero cases of the coronavirus; members who attended the Congress did not take any precautions such as wearing masks or maintaining social distance. The timing is notable considering the change in American politics and the return of the Democrats. This is also the first meeting after the Hanoi Summit failed in 2019 when President Trump and Kim Jong-un broke off all engagements and future denuclearization plans.
Third, the Party Congress emphasized on the US, inter-Korea relations and nuclear deterrence. While proclaiming the US as its biggest enemy, Kim has stated that any progress with it will be possible only when Washington decides to withdraw its hostile North Korea policy. Until such change, North Korea will adopt an “eye for an eye” strategy against the US. Also, there is less urgency on the Inter-Korean relations, as Kim asserted during the Conference that South Korea relations have returned to square one. He accused Seoul of overlooking the warnings against bringing powerful military equipment and stopping the military exercises with the US. He also called for stronger nuclear deterrence and increasing the military prowess, besides giving a detailed portfolio of nuclear weapons to acquire in the coming years. He said North Korea is willing to hold talks with the US but will not negotiate denuclearization. In the closing remarks, Kim has specified that they will strengthen their nuclear deterrence and build the strongest military at the same time.
Fourth, the unanimous election of Kim to the post of General Secretary of the Workers’ Party. The only individuals to hold this title before him were Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung. Kim’s appointment as the General Secretary has solidified his power and authority. In the 2016 Party Congress, Kim was awarded the title of Party Chairman, elevating him from the post of First Secretary. There were also expectations about Kim’s sister, who has also been steadily rising to power, but she was not promoted during the Congress.
Fifth, Kim’s acceptance of domestic failures. During the Party Congress’s opening address, Kim acknowledged that the previous economic development plans were unsuccessful and have underachieved in almost all sectors. At the seventh Party Congress, he identified three sectors that would be key to the country’s development and aimed to make the country self-sufficient in food, energy and consumer goods.
What does it mean?
Kim’s acceptance of the regime’s economic failures can be seen as an attempt to prepare North Korea for the tough and trying times ahead. The country may face another severe famine due to crop failures after the 2020 floods. North Korea may have to depend immensely on international organizations to feed its population.
Following Kim’s statements, the South Korean government has reaffirmed that they are ready to hold talks with North Korea anytime, anywhere and are even prepared to hold virtual meets. The establishment of peace and reunification of the Korean Peninsula is a complicated issue as it involves the two Koreas and the confrontation between the US and North Korea.
The future of the Korean Peninsula depends heavily on the next steps of the incoming Biden Administration. The US will have to deal with challenges on restarting dialogue with North Korea and promoting peace in the region.
The Middle East: Trump’s latest move to designate the Houthis as ‘Foreign Terrorists’
On 10 January 2021, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared the Houthis a “foreign terrorist organization”. The designation will come into effect from 19 January, a day before Joe Biden takes charge as the US president. He stated that the “designation is an attempt to achieve a peaceful, sovereign and united Yemen that is free from the Iranian interference and at peace with its neighbours.”
On 14 January, the United Nations and other aid organizations that work in Yemen called the decision as a step backwards in a country that is torn by six years of war and poverty.
On 11 January, Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson denounced the designation and termed it as a move that would end as a failed decision. Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif condemned the decision for reflecting “utter contempt for peace”, and said it will worsen the situation in Yemen.
What is the background?
First, the ongoing war. Yemen, the most impoverished Arab country, is in the midst of a civil war between the government and the Houthi rebels since 2014. While the government is supported by the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and UAE, the rebels are backed by Iran and its militias.
Second, the US role in the Yemen war. The US has been involved in Yemen since the Obama presidency. The US military was directly involved in the airstrikes targeting certain suspected Al-Qaeda terrorists and their camps. According to Airwars, an independent monitoring group, between 2017 and 2018, the airstrikes peaked, which claimed the lives of at least 86 civilians. The Trump administration has mostly depended on and supported the Arab coalition, particularly Saudi Arabia, for achieving its objectives in Yemen.
Third, the US’s internal divide between the White House and Congress over the war in Yemen and the US’s role. Trump has substantially increased the sale of arms to the Arab coalition countries, despite strong demand from the Congress to cut ties with Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, in 2019, the Trump administration managed to circumvent the Congressional review regarding major weapons sales worth USD eight billion, by declaring an emergency over Iran.
Fourth, the Trump administration’s policy against Iran. The decision to designate Houthi militia as a terrorist organization is a part of Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy.
Fifth, the Houthis’s resilience in the civil war began six years ago; they have gained support from Iranian militias, and are no closer to being defeated.
What does it mean?
First, the cascading ill effects. The UN Humanitarian Chief Mark Lowcock addressed the UNSC on 14 January, and warned that the designation is “likely to lead to large-scale famine on a scale that the world has not seen for nearly 40 years.” The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also expressed concerns about the humanitarian crisis that would unfurl due to the US’s move. The Houthis control approximately 70 per cent of Yemen and are a de-facto authority. Several NGOs and aid organizations serving in the country coordinate with the rebels to supply food and basic needs.
Second, the move plays into the expectations of the Arab coalition. The Arab coalition supports the internationally recognized Yemen government against the Houthis and its ally Iran. The GCC welcomed the US move to designate the Houthi militia as a terrorist organization.
Third, the pressure on the Biden administration. Many US lawmakers have called upon Biden to reverse the designation order, citing humanitarian crisis and famine. However, it would not be easy for the Biden administration to reverse it.
Uganda: Museveni wins a sixth term amid politically charged elections
On 16 January, the incumbent president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, won a sixth term with 58.64 per cent of the votes. However, the main opposition candidate, Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine, alleged that the elections were rigged. On the same day, security forces had surrounded Wine’s house.
On 14 January, Uganda held its elections under heavy security presence as political tensions soared high between Museveni and Wine. Apart from complaints of technical issues and delay in the polling process, the election day remained largely peaceful.
On 12 January, Museveni announced a ban on social media. His announcement was in retaliation to Facebook’s decision to suspend several official accounts the previous day. However, the ban on social media extended to an internet blackout subsequently.
On 11 January, Facebook suspended several accounts of government officials and members of the ruling party, alleging that the accounts engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” and “manipulating the public debate.” In response, Museveni’s senior press secretary accused Facebook of attempting to influence the elections.
What is the background?
First, the refusal by authoritarian leaders to step down. Museveni has been in power for 34 years; in 2021, he claimed that his governance expertise would make him the ideal candidate. Till date, Africa has witnessed several authoritarian regimes lasting for decades. For example, in 2020, Alassane Ouattara and Alpha Condé of Ivory Coast and Guinea respectively won their third terms by introducing constitutional amendments favouring them.
Second, Wine’s popularity and volatile election campaigns. His campaign represented the ethnically and economically marginalized communities which made him a popular choice among the youth (under 30) which constitutes around 75 per cent of the population.
Third, stifling traditional and social media. During the election campaigns, journalists covering the Wine campaign were targeted by security forces. In December 2020, the government ordered all journalists to register with the Uganda Media Council; without accreditation from the Council, journalists were not allowed to cover political news. It also requested Google to take down 14 YouTube channels alleging that they fuelled the November violence which left over 50 dead. Authoritarian regimes in Africa feel threatened by mobilization of masses through social media.
Fourth, targeting the opposition. Since the campaigns kicked off in Uganda, hundreds of Wine supporters and his campaign officials were detained on several occasions. Similarly, other opposition candidates were also arrested. In the pretext of COVID-19, the government called for online campaigns, thereby putting those with lower funds at a disadvantage.
What does it mean?
First, Museveni’s win places him along with the long-term rulers in the rest of Africa who came to power as reformists but retained presidency through various means, legal or illegal. However, the victory was not easy; Museveni’s relentless crackdown on Wine’s campaign was an indicator that he underestimated Wine’s popularity, which stems from Uganda’s changing demographics.
Second, Wine previously urged his supporters to reject the early results, which showed a clear lead for Museveni. How the opposition leaders decide to address this dispute — whether they will boycott the results or approach the court — will decide their political standing. In various instances, boycotting the results has only led to the winners staying in power. However, Wine is likely to remain a popular figure in Ugandan politics for the coming years.
Also in the news…
By Akriti Sharma and Lokendra Sharma
East and Southeast Asia This Week
China: WHO team of scientists arrive in China
On 14 January, a WHO team of 13 scientists arrived in Wuhan to probe the coronavirus origin. Two scientists did not board the flight from Singapore as they tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies. The WHO tweeted: “The experts will begin their work immediately during the 2 weeks quarantine protocol for international travelers.”
Hong Kong: 11 people arrested for helping activists in the escape
On 14 January, the Hong Police said that it had arrested 11 people for allegedly helping 12 pro-democracy activists escape through a speedboat in August last year. The boat was intercepted by Chinese authorities and they were sentenced to prison by a Chinese court in December last year. A Hong Kong-based lawyer, who tried helping the activists in the trail, is among the arrested.
South Korea: Vice Foreign Minister visits Qatar, seeks help in tanker crisis
On 13 January, the South Korean Vice Foreign Minister visited Qatar seeking help to secure its oil tanker’s release captured by Iran. This came after the failure of his visit to Iran on 10 January. Iran had captured the tanker on 4 January citing the issue of environmental pollution. However, the seizure came amid the stand-off between both the countries over USD 7 billion of Iranian funds frozen in South Korean banks owing to the US sanctions.
Malaysia: The King declares emergency
On 12 January, the Malaysian King, on PM Yassin’s request, declared emergency until 1 August to check the recent surge in cases of COVID-19. Yassin announced new national lockdown measures a day earlier, warning that the healthcare system was at a “breaking point”. During the emergency period, the Parliament will be suspended, and elections would not be held, helping Yassin stay in power despite a dubious majority.
The Philippines: Emergency approval granted to Pfizer’s vaccine
On 14 January, the Philippines’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech an emergency use authorization. This is the first vaccine approved by the country; it is also the first time Pfizer’s vaccine has been approved in Southeast Asia. Found up to 95 per cent effective in clinical trials, the mRNA technology-based Pfizer’s vaccine is also the first to be approved for emergency roll out by the WHO.
Indonesia: Sriwijaya Air plane crashes into the Java Sea
On 9 January, a Sriwijaya Air Boeing 737-500 plane carrying 62 people crashed into the Java Sea, shortly after taking off Jakarta airport. Indonesia has a history of aviation accidents due to poor regulation, and Indonesian carriers have been banned by the United States (2007-16) and the European Union (2007-18). In 2018, a plane operated by Indonesia’s Lion Air crashed and killed 189 people.
Indonesia: Emergency approval to Sinovac vaccine, a first outside China
On 11 January, the Indonesian drug regulator granted emergency use approval to a vaccine developed by China-based Sinovac Biotech, becoming the first country outside China. The approval came after it was 65.3 per cent effective in a clinical trial conducted in the country. On 13 January, Indonesian President Widodo took the vaccine shot, launching the country’s mass vaccination programme, which eventually aims to inoculate two-thirds of its population.
South Asia This Week
Nepal: Foreign Minister visits India
On 14 January, Nepali Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali arrived in India for a three-day visit. He co-chaired the sixth meeting of Nepal-India Joint Commission with Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. Both sides discussed areas of cooperation including border management and political, economic and security issues. They also discussed cooperation on the COVID-19 vaccine. On 15 January, Gyawali said that the Kalapani boundary issue was also raised during the Joint Commission meeting.
India: Supreme Court stays implementation of the farm laws
On 12 January, the Supreme Court of India stayed the implementation of three contentious farm laws. The court has formed a committee to negotiate with both the sides and submit a report in two months. As the earlier round of talks between both the sides had reached a stalemate, the court said that the committee would work towards finding a fair and equitable solution.
Pakistan: Trilateral meeting with Azerbaijan and Turkey
On 13 January, Islamabad hosted the Pakistan-Turkey-Azerbaijan trilateral meeting. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu signed a deal titled ‘Islamabad Declaration’. The deal includes enhancing cooperation in the areas of mutual interest including culture, economy, political, technology, trade, strategic, peace and security. The ministers also discussed challenges such as terrorism, cyber-security and Islamophobia. “We reiterated our determination to support one another on all issues of our core national interests,” said Qureshi.
Sri Lanka: Revival of port deal with India and Japan
On 14 January, President Rajapaksa announced the revival of the Eastern Container Terminal at the Colombo port with India and Japan. The announcement was made after “reviewing regional geopolitical concerns,” the President’s office said in a statement. In May 2019, the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) signed a Memorandum of Cooperation (MoC) with Japan and India to build the port. However, it was stalled by the Rajapaksa administration due to opposition from various political groups and trade unions. 51 per cent of the port ownership will be with Sri Lanka and the remaining 49 per cent with India and Japan.
Sri Lanka: The first case of new COVID-19 strain reported
On 13 January, Sri Lanka reported its first case of the new variant of COVID-19. An individual who arrived from the UK was found carrying the new COVID-19 variant that is rapidly spreading in the UK,” said the Chief Epidemiologist during a media briefing.
Afghanistan: Indian National Security Adviser visits Kabul
On 13 January, National Security Adviser of India Ajit Doval arrived in Kabul. He held talks with President Ashraf Ghani and the Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah over the Afghan peace process and India’s role in it. Both sides held “extensive conversations on issues of strategic mutual interest, including on synchronizing efforts to combat terrorism and build peace”, said the Office of the National Security Council of Afghanistan in a statement.
Afghanistan: Negotiators meet the US envoy to finalize the agenda of the talks
On 15 January, negotiators from the Afghanistan government and the Taliban met the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad in Doha to finalize the agenda of the second round of intra-Afghan talks that started on 6 January. However, some of the key negotiators from both sides have not yet returned to Doha. Al Jazeera quoted a Taliban spokesperson: “We are ready and prepared for the talks, there is no delay from [us] and no new proposals have been conveyed to us.”
Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa This Week
Kazakhstan: Legislative elections held
On 10 January, elections for the lower house of Kazakhstan’s Parliament were held. The ruling party Nur Otan emerged as the dominant party with 71.1 per cent votes. Ak Zhol and the People’s Party jointly cleared the 7 per cent threshold to secure seats in the Parliament. The nationwide voter turnout was reported as 63.3 per cent.
Kyrgyzstan: Japarov wins presidential elections
On 10 January, Sadyr Japarov won the presidential elections. The Central Electoral Commission said that he had won 79 per cent of the total votes. On the same day, the country also voted for a referendum which provides the president greater power once the new constitution will be passed later in 2021. In October last year, the then President Sooronbay Jeenbekov had resigned after disputed elections, plunging the country into political turmoil.
Iran: IAEA confirms Tehran working on Uranium metal-based fuel
On 13 January, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed Iran has started working on Uranium metal-based fuel for a research reactor breaching the nuclear agreement. On 4 January, Iran announced that it has started enriching the Uranium from about 5 per cent to 20 per cent purity. According to an IAEA statement: “Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi today informed IAEA Member States about recent developments regarding Iran’s plans to conduct R&D activities on uranium metal production as part of its declared aim to design an improved type of fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor.”
Syria: Israeli fighter jets bomb the northeastern parts
On 13 January, Israeli fighter jets carried out airstrikes on Iran-backed militia positions to disrupt the militia supply chains, advanced weaponry and weapons depots. The airstrike targeted Deir Ezzor province which is dominated by the militias and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fighters. 57 people were killed in the airstrikes. According to a Syrian Observatory member for Human Rights: “This is the largest death toll from Israeli raids in Syria.”
East Africa: FAO warns of locust migration
On 10 January, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said locust swarms migrate southwards from their breeding areas in eastern Africa. The migration is happening from eastern Ethiopia and central Somalia to southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya. The FAO has alarmed the countries to maintain the necessary survey and control operations to control migration and breeding.
Madagascar: WFP appeals for aid to fight hunger
On 12 January, the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) appealed for an emergency aid of USD 35 million to fight hunger in southern Madagascar. According to a WFP statement: “Some 1.35 million people are projected to be food insecure – 35 per cent of the region’s population.” Due to the economic impact of COVID-19, the levels of malnutrition and hunger have increased alarmingly in the region.
Europe and the Americas This Week
Italy: Italia Viva withdraws support from the ruling coalition
On 13 January, former PM Matteo Renz announced withdrawing his Italia Viva party from the ruling coalition, due to objections over current PM Giuseppe Conte’s plans for the EU recovery aid. This leaves the coalition of Five Star Movement and Democratic Party short of a majority in the Parliament, plunging the country into political turmoil amid the pandemic.
The UK: Brexit leads to disruptions in trade with the EU
On 11 January, The Guardian reported that car and truck drivers from the UK are being stopped at the Dutch border and officials are seizing ham sandwiches from the drivers. Bringing food items of animal origin including meat and dairy to the EU from the UK is not allowed under the new rules that kicked in from 1 January 2021 after the Brexit transition period ended. On 14 January, the Guardian reported the losses incurred by the Scottish seafood companies as they struggled to export to the markets in France and Spain. Their exports are getting delayed due to customs paperwork like obtaining health certificate and issues with the IT system.
Brazil: Clinical trials data show Sinovac’s vaccine as 50.38 per cent effective
On 12 January, researchers from the Butantan Institute in Brazil released a statement that the Sinovac’s vaccine candidate had a 50.38 per cent “overall efficacy rate in the clinical study conducted in Brazil”. However, the vaccine had an efficacy of 78 per cent “for mild cases” and 100 per cent “for moderate and severe cases.” Despite the low efficacy rate, the vaccine still meets the WHO’s 50 per cent requirement. Indonesia has found the vaccine 63.5 per cent effective while data from Turkey suggest an efficacy rate of 91.25 per cent.
The US: Biden announces USD 1.9 trillion relief package
On 14 January, President-elect Joe Biden announced a USD 1.9 trillion relief package, days before assuming the presidency on 20 January. The package, which aims to combat both the pandemic and the economic downturn, includes USD 160 billion for vaccine and testing and USD one trillion for economic relief to those under distress.
The US: President Trump impeached by the US House for the second time
On 13 January 2021, the US House passed a vote (232-197) with ten Republicans joining the Democrats to impeach President Trump. Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, was quoted stating: “We know that the president of the United States incited this insurrection, this armed rebellion, against our country…He must go. He is a clear and present danger to the nation that we all love.” Earlier on 12 January 2021, the House formally asked Vice President Mike Pence to use the 25th Amendment, which the latter refused; the 25th Amendment has a provision to remove the President on the ground that he “incapable of executing the duties of his office.”
The US: Social Media accounts of Trump banned
On 12 January, YouTube suspended President Trump’s account, “in light of concerns about the ongoing potential for violence.” Twitter and Facebook have also suspended the accounts of Trump.