North Korea has featured a lot recently in global media outlets. Their testing of an inter-continental ballistic missile on Friday prompted strong condemnation across the globe. I recently remarked how after every major terrorist attack there is a similar pattern of condemnation followed ultimately by a shrug of the shoulders.
In the past, that has often been the case with US approach to North Korea. Strongly worded messages delivered through the United Nations or even by the President themselves. Economic sanctions often followed. China typically have a more measured response and seek to mitigate the economic fallout. There was a comfortable familiarity to this process. A mini cold war where all sides knew when they could poke and prod and when to back down. However, this changed in 2011 when Kim Jong-un came to power after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il.
News and reports from North Korea will always be hazy and unreliable but if even twenty percent of the reports are true then Kim Jong-un has little of the political nous of his father, a wily survivor who ruled for seventeen years. He does seem to have excelled in violence against potential rivals. The 2013 arrest and execution of his uncle-in-law by flamethrower was a grisly announcement to the world of his modus operandi. There have been reports of moves against him in recent times but as of today the latest view of most intelligence agencies is that Kim Jong-un is still the boss. His announcement after the missile test on Friday that North Korea can strike the US “at any place and any time” seems brash at best and suicidal at worst.
President Trump's tweet yesterday that China is doing nothing to curb North Korea will invariably draw focus on the Chinese-North Korean relationship and probably leading to a stinging rebuke from China.
Where do China stand here? This is arguably the most challenging aspect of this escalating crisis to speculate on. China is North Korea’s largest trade partner and accounts for approximately 90% of its exports. China has more leverage with North Korea than any other country. Across the globe, particularly in Africa, China has major trade links with a host of countries that have questionable foreign policies etc. China says little about their policies, builds their infrastructure and extracts their resources. However this is different, this is their neighbour openly telling the world's military superpower that they can hit them with a nuclear weapon at any time.
There are a few points to speculate on here. Firstly does China really have the influence to curtail the North Korea regime or is Kim Jong-un so unhinged and disconnected from reality that he doesn’t see the potential results of his words and actions. Secondly does China want this to stop immediately?
On the first point it is hard to believe that China does not have the necessary clout with numerous senior members of the regime. There is a Chinese economic zone just inside North Korea where China uses cheap North Korean labour to import coal and other basic goods. This a valuable source of foreign currency for North Korea. Furthermore many members of both regimes clandestinely benefit from this arrangement financially.
In many ways it is in China’s interest to keep maintain the status quo. I believe they may even have secretly given the North Koreans covert approval to test the foreign policy resolve of Donald Trump. The timing couldn’t be more opportune. Trump is struggling to generate any momentum with his domestic policies and is currently under investigation for illicit ties with Russia. China may want to gain some further leverage with the US and seek some guarantees on the South Pacific and/or trade before reining in the North Koreans. If this is the case they are playing a very dangerous game. Kim Jong-un is a very unpredictable and dangerous character. The more slack he is given now, the more challenging it will eventually be to rein in.
So if this failed to work and things escalate any further we could be facing a very serious situation. The last thing China wants or could tolerate is US airstrikes in North Korea. However before anyone suggest I am predicting WW3, I see another scenario playing out.
With these trade links there must be numerous channels of communication between the Chinese and senior North Korean officials without the knowledge of Kim Jong-un. If things get much more serious I can envisage a Chinese-led coup displacing the Korean leader with a military council who are willing to tone down the missile tests while continuing to publicly condemn the US.
The US will not want this situation to escalate and Trump has so many matters on his mind I believe he will pay a lot for a deal, despite his numerous boasts about his negotiating power. While I believe claims of the US decline are overblown, at this moment the US is a state of limited turmoil and Trump strikes me as a very exacerbated character who can’t comprehend how he is suffering so many setbacks domestically.
Finally I want to mention that if this is the case this is a very, very dangerous game to play. Recent history is littered with examples of major powers initially using regimes for their own aims only to ultimately suffer in the fallout. The US arming the taliban springs to mind. The Chinese obviously believe that they can both rein in North Korean nuclear tests when they want and that that the US will get involved militarily. However if they have miscalculated either factor we could be in a for a very tense and potentially dangerous few years...
The comments today from the UK Minister for Immigration , Brandon Lewis, were blunt and to the point “Free movement of labour ends when we leave the European Union in the spring of 2019. I’ll be very clear about that,”.
He added no caveats and made no mention of Ireland. While we Irish sometimes overestimate our own importance (small country syndrome if you will) it would be a massive blow if Irish citizens no longer had the right to work in the UK. It is a strange quirk that Irish residency in the UK is so taken for granted that I have been told more times that London is the sixth largest French city by population rather than it is the second largest Irish city on the same basis. The chart below illustrates just how crucuial this continued right to work will be.
“There has been a Common Travel Area between the UK and the Republic of Ireland for many years. Indeed, it was formed before either of our two countries were members of the European Union. And the family ties and bonds of affection that unite our two countries mean that there will always be a special relationship between us.
“So we will work to deliver a practical solution that allows the maintenance of the Common Travel Area with the Republic, while protecting the integrity of the United Kingdom’s immigration system.
“Nobody wants to return to the borders of the past, so we will make it a priority to deliver a practical solution as soon as we can.”
Above are the words of Theresa May when questioned on the topic in January. However a lot has changed since then domestically in the UK. Her leadership is no longer "strong and stable".
I do not believe Theresa May will be the British Prime Minister in March 2019 when the UK leaves the European. Ireland may be a victim of the hawkish, pro-Brexit faction of the Conservative party if they gain power in the meantime. If negotiations break down fully between the European Union and the UK then it is very possible that all the talk of ‘special recognition for Ireland’ will fall by the wayside.
It is too early to speculate based on one interview. However it would be prudent for the Irish government to keenly follow every development and statement from the key players in the British government from now until the final Brexit settlement is agreed. Finally as I have mentioned before it would be naive in the extreme to believe the Irish aspect of Brexit is anywhere near being settled...
The Qatar diplomatic crisis continues to generate headlines. I want to very briefly revisit the topic and add a few thoughts.
Firstly it has played out very closely to how I initially envisaged it would here. I had mentioned that Al Jazeera was one of the contentious issues that has greatly irked the Saudi Arabian leadership. I wasn’t surprised when one of the demands from the Gulf countries was that Qatar shut down Al Jazeera. This was a ridiculous demand to make public (in this case Qatar was given a written list of demands so it was always going to reach the public). It would be impossible for the US (often Saudi Arabia’s key ally) to endorse this demand. Qatar has correctly rejected this.
I also believed that Iran would publicly back Qatar and that this blockade would actually push Iran and Qatar closer together. I maintain this has happened. However I underestimated Turkey’s appetite for diplomatic involvement in the Gulf. I think Saudi Arabia did as well. Erdogan’s tour of the Gulf this week may force the Saudi Arabia, UAE and the other states to tone down their demands or even discreetly end the blockade (UAE’s decision to allow Al Jazeera back on the domestic television today could be the first step). Furthermore Kuwait has made public calls for dialogue in a less aggressive manner.
The one prediction I will add is that the increased dialogue between Qatar-Iran and Qatar-Turkey may eventually lead to Qatar becoming the broker in any regional Syrian agreement. There may be enough key players at a negotiating table that involved Russia, Iran, Turkey and Qatar. A Syrian peace accord that excluded the Saudis would be a huge blow to their regional prestige. However this is purely speculative at this time.
Finally I see the crisis ending within the next two weeks. This is not to say that all the restrictions will be lifted within this timeframe. This would be too much of a volte-face for the Saudis. I think there will be a number of steps and discreet announcements until the media interest finally subsides. It really was a poorly thought out decision to try and bully the Qataris into line in such a public and humiliating fashion. As I have mentioned previously diplomacy is the art of subtlety and nuance, not public puffing out your chest and making unrealistic demands. There's quite a similarity to how Madame May et al have started the Brexit talks. The UK was heavily criticized recently for selling arms to Saudi Arabia. It now appears evident they also traded notes on how to alienate yourself and lose friends with foolish demands with little understanding of your current plight or power...
Finding out about the British Brexit referendum result was one of the most surreal moments of my life. I was following the Irish football team around France and we had taken a small detour to Ghent. We had found a barge to rent on AirBnb and when we arrived there it was huge. It was soon turned into the flagship of the joint Irish/Lebanese Naval Force (there was a Sean, Cathal, Abdallah, Jad and Maher aboard). When Abdallah announced first thing in the morning they had voted to leave I literally couldn’t believe it. We had drunkenly gone to sleep pretty early the night before, after a long day’s drive, confident that the polls were all correct in suggesting a Remain win. I immediately viewed it as a watershed moment for Western politic and have maintained a healthy distrust of polls since.
Trump being elected was a lot less shocking. I do concur with the view that there was a similar pattern of middle class voters disillusioned with mainstream politics who viewed drastic change as a positive. I didn’t believe he would ultimately win but I advised my brother (who enjoys a punt) to back him at 3/1 a few days before the election ( this was before James Comey came out and said that Hillary Clinton was still under investigation by the FBI - a moment many think had a major impact on the final result).
These two results could have marked the beginning of epochs of change in their respective countries. Brexit, in particular, was seen as a dramatic departure that would change the face of the European Union forever. I may be guilty of engaging in a little hyperbole here, but not more so than the British press in the days following the election.
However in recents months both Trump and Brexit momentum have definitely stalled. The key question in this article is which will collapse first. There is still a major chance that Trump will successfully complete his term as President and may even get re-elected if he chooses not to return to the simpler task of selling golf holidays to wealthy pensioners. Similarly Brexit may turn out to be unheralded success that Nigel Farage has crowed about for a number of years. I don’t think this is likely.
Trump came to power on a wave of radical promises, including the memorable ‘drain the swamp’. However the swamp is fighting back. It looks to me like Trump has sent the last twenty years surrounding himself with sycophants and yes men. He seems to have a very binary view of the world and has so far proven himself to be very incapable of subtlety and nuance. These are two qualities that are crucial when you are the leader in a democratic country. The emphasis here is definitely on democratic. He is a self professed admirer of Putin and seems to wonder why he can’t simply sign off on laws the way Vladimir can.
The allegations of collusion with a foreign government are mounting. Every day it seems a new accusation or piece of evidence comes to the attention of the public (and the potential prosecutors). His supporters scream ‘fake news’ any time there is a major story from a broad variety of media outlets. They saying goes there is no smoke without fire and currently the Trump administration, in particular a number of his key clientele, are suffocating. I predict Trump will ultimately survive these allegations after lengthy, multiple investigations but his administration will suffer greatly. To be a little bolder I predict he will not get the backing of the Republican party (and will either announce his intention not to run again before this goes public) or run as the first ever incumbent, Independent Presidential candidate (someone may correct me if this isn’t legally possible).
Brexit is stumbling on without a clear mandate. I have no doubt that if the Referendum was re-run Remain would win. The Conservatives, and Theresa May in particular, are living on borrowed time. There may even be an early election called if the DUP pull the plug. This could result in a Labour minority government or the Brexit doves gaining the upperhand in the Conservative party. I think a very diluted Brexit will take place with the freedom of movement and access to the market intact albeit with a different title and an added layer of political spin. There may be a few caveats to please the hawks and this will be gained through some sort of divorce bill that is a lot lower than the sixty billion pounds that has been bandied about.
Events are moving so swiftly on both sides of the Atlantic that predictions can’t remain static but in the end I see Trump and Brexit being constrained by Realpolitik to the extent that little changes substantially. This would be quite appropriate for two campaigns that were distinctly lacking in substance. Maybe the real lesson we can take from the last year is that vision and bringing people together leads to lasting change, not divisive soundbites...
ps if anyone is interested I’ve posted a picture of the finest Irish/Lebanese vessel the world has ever seen….