April 14, 2021
Guess who's ghosting the Supreme Leader of North Korea now?
Watch more PUPPET REGIME!
Guess who's ghosting the Supreme Leader of North Korea now?
Watch more PUPPET REGIME!
Yemen left behind: A virtual pledging event aimed at raising funds for war-torn Yemen raised $1.7 billion, well shy of the $3.85 billion the UN says is necessary to alleviate suffering from years of famine conditions and war. At the session, jointly hosted by Sweden and Switzerland, the US pledged $191 million towards Yemen's humanitarian effort, while the Germans promised $241 million. The UN says the pandemic has limited the ability of wealthy countries to provide humanitarian help for Yemen, where two-thirds of the population rely on food aid to survive after six years of conflict between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led coalition. This development comes as the Biden administration has sought to enforce a ceasefire in Yemen by stopping US support for the Saudi military campaign there and removing the Houthis from the US' State Sponsors of Terrorism list to help open Yemen up to more aid. Meanwhile, the Houthis continue their assault of the city of Marib, now home to millions of displaced Yemenis, exacerbating the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
Eye in the sky on North Korea: Newly published satellite images reveal fresh construction at a site that experts say North Korea uses to store nuclear weapons. It's possible that Kim Jong-un is racing to add to his nuclear stockpile to strengthen his bargaining position before the Biden administration settles on a North Korea strategy. Maybe he's preparing for nuclear tests later this year. It's also possible the DPRK built new structures that it knows the US will photograph and analyze in order to pressure Biden to engage without having to conduct a costly, risky nuclear test. The larger question is what Biden's North Korea strategy will be. Return to the max pressure approach of Barack Obama? Find some way to engage Kim Jong-un directly as Donald Trump did? That approach at least brought a pause to the nuclear tests. We're watching to see how Biden tackles a problem that may have no solution.
Ethnic cleansing in Tigray: The US government believes that Ethiopian government forces are carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Tigray, the northern region where separatists have fought Ethiopian army troops since November. A new Amnesty International report, meanwhile, alleges crimes against humanity committed there by Ethiopian government forces and troops from neighboring Eritrea fighting alongside them. The Ethiopian government calls the reports "misinformation and propaganda." To prove its point, it has recently accredited several international media organizations to report on Tigray, reversing a months-long media blackout. But Addis Ababa has also detained local employees or translators for Agence France Presse, the Financial Times, and the BBC. The crisis in Tigray is already spilling into neighboring Sudan as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee violence and the threat of famine. US president Joe Biden, meanwhile, has pledged to re-engage with Africa, largely neglected by the Trump administration, and we're watching to see how his administration addresses this growing crisis taking place within the borders of one of Washington's regional allies.
What is the number one national security priority that will land on President Biden's desk on January 20th? That was a question Ian Bremmer posed to former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Jonson. Another: What did President Trump do to strengthen the United States' homeland security? Their conversation was part of the latest episode of GZERO World.
North Korea's massive missile: "We will continue to strengthen the war deterrent," North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said at a military parade Saturday as his armed forces paraded a new intercontinental ballistic missile, the largest-ever rolled out by Pyongyang. Observers were quick to weigh in, saying that though the missile had not been tested yet, it was likely more powerful than the North's previous weapons, and could potentially travel further and inflict more damage. As is always the case with the opaque North Korean regime, it's unclear whether this display — set to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the North's ruling Workers' Party — was a blusterous show of strength by Kim amid failed negotiations with the US and a faltering economy, or whether there's something more sinister at play. Either way, analysts agree, the unveiling of the large weapon is a threat to the US' nuclear deterrence capability.
A tenuous truce in Nagorno-Karabakh: A temporary truce that raised hopes of an end to a weeks-long bloodbath between Armenians and Azeris in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region has already been breached, with both sides blaming the other for violating the humanitarian ceasefire. The truce, brokered by Moscow, was supposed to involve the exchange of prisoners with the hope of paving the way for more dialogue. It comes after the recent round of fighting expanded beyond the rugged highland region to civilian enclaves near the border, resulting in scores of civilian deaths on both sides. Meanwhile, around 70,000 people have already been displaced in the latest escalation — the most intense confrontation in the South Caucasus (where Armenia and Azerbaijan are located) since the two sides fought a years-long war in the 1990s that killed 30,000 people. Now, the temperature only seems to be rising despite the nascent truce: Turkey — which backs Azerbaijan — came in hot on Monday, threatening that the Russian-brokered ceasefire was Armenia's "last chance" to withdraw its forces.
UK's COVID mess: As coronavirus cases continue to surge in the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson implemented a new tiered system of lockdown measures, which aims to target coronavirus hotspots with stricter rules while avoiding the uniform lockdowns seen over the spring. Britain, which has one of the highest COVID-19 death rates per capita in the world, has thus far implemented a byzantine lockdown system and inconsistent social distancing guidelines that many Britons have been accused of flouting (including government officials). In recent days, people have rallied against the new measures, suggesting that the country is suffering from what some experts have called "pandemic fatigue." Indeed, part of this can be attributed to Britons' lack of trust in the government's ability to manage the crisis: confidence in the government's handling of the pandemic currently stands at 31 percent, down from 72 earlier in the year (that's the lowest approval of any government polled by YouGov.) Additionally, critics also say that there are no adequate measures now in place to protect laid-off workers. As a result, the country's hospitality industry has threatened legal action against the British government over the latest restrictions.
Watch Ian Bremmer discuss the World In more than 60 Seconds:
What are your takeaways from night one of the RNC?
That the country is incredibly divided. That if you are pro-Trump and you were watching that RNC, you thought it was very powerful. You thought it was a strong message. It reflected interest that you have in the country. And if you can't stand Trump, then you thought it was a dumpster fire and it solidified your preexisting beliefs.
I accept that the RNC is more of a cult of personality around Trump, who occupies all the oxygen in the room, but also just has a far greater reach and following in media than we've seen from other leaders of Republican or Democratic parties in recent history. But I also recognize that there are a lot of people out there, Senator Scott, certainly Nikki Haley, Steve Scalise, others. It's you know, I wouldn't say it's a broad demographic tent, but I do think it is a broad political tent in terms of the ideological orientations of the people that are represented there, as well as the fact that if Trump wasn't president, you would say that there would be a lot of infighting among that group. But there isn't in this environment.
There were a couple of disastrous speeches, certainly, and everyone's making fun of Kimberly Guilfoyle, who really shouldn't be public speaking about issues that matter. But, you know, she's with Donald Trump Jr. and the family is, you know, a very big piece of this.
I will say I'm a little surprised Jared Kushner has not been announced as giving a speech yet. Maybe he will show up over the course of the week, given that every member of the Trump family that likes the president is speaking. But, you know, that's where you have it. The amusing thing, I suppose, is that they're doing so much more of it live and so while the production quality isn't as high, the potential for there to be something of interest, gaffes, something that's more sort of newsworthy and watchable, does go up a bit. But again, completely divided and it's not like there a lot of people that are watching both. Okay, that's it.
Alexei Navalny was poisoned. What is going on?
Well, you know, if you're a Russian opposition member, that has to be one of the most physically dangerous occupations in the world. And the fact that he was poisoned but was not killed and looks like he was poisoned with the same kind of agent that other Russian, you know, double agents and others have been, the Skirpal poisoning, for example, a few years ago in the UK, the same kind of thing. The Russians, of course, denied it. The Russian government said that there was no such poisoning. The doctors in Omsk that were spoken to by the Kremlin said, "no, he definitely wasn't poisoned." Of course, they get him to Germany and the truth actually comes out.
What's extraordinary is that there's almost complete impunity. President Putin in Russia feels like there is nothing that can be done against him, irrespective of what he does to Russian citizens. There is no rule of law. There are no constraints on his power. And it's deeply disturbing that one of the most important countries in the world has a leader that feels like he can act that way. Of course, in China, Xi Jinping. The way that the Uighurs are treated, the way that they've acted in Hong Kong recently, same kind of thing. In the case of Navalny, the German government, both the chancellor and the foreign minister, Merkel and Heiko Moss, had a very strong statement saying that they would not tolerate this. That they demanded a full investigation, that the people responsible must be held to account. But not supported by the EU as a whole. And President Trump is saying no such thing.
So, I mean, the Germans are kind of talking themselves, almost voices in the wilderness, and it increases the sense of impunity that President Putin actually has. It's depressing from a global and human perspective. But boy, it sends a message. I mean, Navalny on this plane and crying out in pain and then in a coma and probably isn't going to die, but, you know, certainly dangers for the rest of his life in terms of, you know, the ongoing health that he has. It's hard to imagine he's going to want to go back to Russia any time soon. It's going to give you second, third, fourth thoughts if you're a member of the opposition in Russia or you're a journalist that wants to write about truth. There is no challenging President Putin at this point or any time in the foreseeable future. And for those that see what's happening in Belarus and say, the Russians, you're next. Even with the demonstrations we've seen in Siberia and the Far East, I just don't see it.
What's happening in South Korea with the closure of schools?
Well, we have a few hundred cases a day now, which in South Korea is a lot. The South Koreans have had, you know, sort of zero tolerance in terms of trying to ensure that they can control the virus and therefore, lots of contact tracing, extensive testing, and quarantine - shutting things down. Even though they have, you know, almost complete compliance in mask wearing and social distancing in their schools, now that they've seen a few hundred cases coming out of these schools, they're shutting the schools down. Not everything, not higher ed kids that are about to take their big exams. I mean, high schoolers to get into college. But younger kids, they are all going to be virtual for the coming month. And on the one hand, that has improved the popularity of President Moon, who is seen as handling this very effectively by the South Korean people. So, for those of you watching South Korea as a country, that's significant. In the United States, it certainly tells you that as we try to get kids to go back to schools in areas where you have hot zones, where you have lots of cases, likely you're going to have a lot of schools closing down again. I think it's hard to imagine that schools are going to be able to open, you know, feasibly and across the board, at least until next year. That's my view right now. And for all of you parents out there that are like, "please, God, get my kids out of the house, I can't take this. I'm also working. So is my husband. So is my wife." I'm sorry, but I think that's where we're going. It's going to be challenging.
Finally, what do you make of Kim Jong-un rumors of incapacitation?
I've only seen them come out of one news source so far. I don't find them very credible. It's not the first time. Last time around, a couple of months ago, reported widely by the AP and CNN and turned out it was no such thing. We have very little information on what's happening inside North Korea. And, you know, you don't have intelligence that's coming out. You don't have journalists on the ground that have sources that are off the record. So you basically have to deal with accounts that come from people that have left North Korea, who certainly have political agendas and can't really be trusted about what they do and don't know. And whatever you can find, the tea leaves you can read from watching North Korean state television, state media, satellite imagery. That gives you a lot of information when they're preparing, say, a nuclear or ballistic missile tests, gives you very little information when you're talking about whether Kim Jong-un is alive or dead.
The fact that they thought he was in a coma a couple months ago and now they're saying it again, I don't have any particular reason to believe it, nor do I have any reason to believe that North Korea is going to cause much trouble, especially in the run up to US elections. I think they at the very least want to see what's going to happen out of the US before they decide how much they want to orient towards a more friendly engagement, see if they can shake some cash loose or a tougher line policy to see if they can shake some cash loose. Either way, the outcome they're looking for is shaking some cash loose.
We need to do something about... Mali: The leaders of 5 West African countries are in Mali, negotiating a solution to the country's worsening political crisis. It's quite an impressive show of regional mediation force, but will it be enough to force President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to step down? For weeks, thousands of protestors have been saying they are fed up with rampant corruption, election fraud, a military incapable of stopping rising jihadist attacks. The key player in this crisis is Mahmoud Dicko, an immensely popular Muslim cleric who still supports the president — although his followers don't. Dicko says, for now, he would rather Keita stay in power and address the people's grievances. But outside parties like the UN and the powerful Economic Community of West African States are worried that continued unrest in Mali could further destabilize a region where jihadis are gaining a foothold, and they want Dicko to take over and restore stability fast.
China's illegal fishing armada exposed: A "dark fleet" of almost a thousand Chinese fishing boats has been operating illegally in North Korean waters since at least 2017, together catching over $440 million in squid alone, according to satellite data in a new study. If they paid for legit licenses to fish from North Korea, that would be a violation of a UN embargo on most activities that would allow North Koreans to earn foreign currency. Japan and South Korea also have some beef with China here, as the previously unidentified vessels could explain why squid stocks in their own nearby territorial waters have declined over 80 percent since 2003. And to make matters worse, China's "dark fleet" is now also being blamed for chasing away hundreds of North Korean fishing vessels boats that later washed up as "ghost ships" on the coast of Japan, likely after they became stranded and the crews jumped overboard after running out of scarce fuel, facing inclement weather or having engine trouble.
A Turkish kingmaker in Bulgarian politics: After surviving a no-confidence vote in parliament, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has reshuffled his cabinet in hopes of putting an end to the worst anti-government protests the country has seen in almost a decade. Young Bulgarians have recently hit the streets to demand that Borissov step down over graft scandals, including the allegation that he gave Ahmed Dogan, a businessman and political ally, private control of a public beach on the Black Sea. Perhaps it's just a coincidence that Dogan's Movement for Rights and Freedoms, a party that represents ethnic Turks in Bulgaria, is an essential part of the prime minister's coalition. The opposition has pooh-poohed Borissov's new cabinet, arguing that the changes are cosmetic and that the prime minister himself must face the music over Dogan's preferential treatment. Thirteen years after joining the EU, Bulgaria remains the bloc's poorest and most corrupt member state — is there an opportunity to change that now?
First, they stop taking your calls. Then they blow up the house. But this isn't a love affair gone wrong, it's what's happening right now along one of the tensest borders in the world, between North and South Korea. Last week Pyongyang quit answering a daily phone call from the South that was set up in 2018 to keep the peace and further reconciliation. Then, yesterday, North Korea quite literally blew up a building just north of the border which both sides had used for the past two years as a meeting place for officials from the North and the South.
The immediate issue seems to be Seoul's failure to stop North Korean defectors ("human scum" as they're known in Pyongyang's state media) from sending anti-Kim leaflets over the border using balloons and drones.
But there's a larger context. North Korea's economy is suffering under crippling international sanctions tied to its nuclear program, and the coronavirus pandemic almost certainly isn't helping. With nuclear talks largely stalled, there's no relief in sight. Kim is almost certainly looking to refocus the attention of three key players.
First, South Korea. In the two years since a historic meeting between Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in, the North hasn't seen clear benefits from easing tensions with Seoul. Although South Korea is keen on reconciliation for both economic and strategic reasons – North Korean labor is cheap and the North Korean military is scary — President Moon won't advance big economic overtures that violate the "maximum pressure" sanctions policy of his allies in Washington. With President Moon's party fresh off a historic election win, Kim may calculate that now's the time to force the issue again.
And there's China. Beijing is North Korea's indispensable economic and diplomatic partner. China accounts for 95 percent of North Korea's trade, and can ratchet up or down the amount of smuggling that it permits to occur across their shared border. But Beijing has been distracted lately – by coronavirus, by Hong Kong, and now by a surge in border skirmishes with India. Kim knows that to make any fresh progress in nuclear talks he needs to re-engage the attention of his main external patron.
And of course, the US. Détente with the US has provided little for Kim beyond photo ops and the diplomatic stardust of meetings with a US president. Kim still wants immediate sanctions relief in exchange for promises to relinquish his weapons later, but Washington insists that Pyongyang begin verifiably dismantling its nukes first. Talks are deadlocked. Rattling the cage now is almost certainly meant to get Washington's attention, and the clock is ticking: if Kim is worried about Trump's re-election chances, he likely wants to re-engage fast. Joe Biden wouldn't be likely to share any exotic summits or love letters with the North Korean leader.
What comes next?
So far this year, North Korea has conducted about half a dozen weapons tests, though none of them involving long-range missiles or nuclear warheads, redlines for the United States. If Kim feels he is running out of time to get China's attention and to help draw the Trump administration into a pre-election "big splash" deal, then he could revisit more serious weapons tests in the coming months.
If that happens, the soap-opera drama of ignored phone calls and exploding houses could soon give way to a much more serious international thriller.
Ian Bremmer on this week's World In (More Than) 60 Seconds:
Number one: What police reform will result from Trump's executive order?
Well, on the one hand, it is a recognition that very strong and across the board, pretty bipartisan support in the United States for police reform. And so, he has to respond. And he can respond. I mean, the fact is that one of the most broadly supported bipartisan policies in the US that has come out of the Trump administration was penal reform.
That you got really strong progressive left and right wing support that Trump, Jared Kushner, others got done a couple of years ago. Here, we're talking about federal leverage on funding to ensure that there is more training for nonlethal and nonviolent climb-downs, non-escalation with engagement with people. There is talk of ending chokeholds. The thing that I guess concerns me is that there's really nothing that's going to be done from the executive order about police unions. And that is one area that really strangles to use that, any potential of long-term reform, structural reform in the police departments. But again, the message it sends very clearly is that no one, not even the president, can ignore the grassroots support for police reform, the outrage over the treatment of George Floyd and so many others in the United States. And that's going to also put more support for bipartisan reform in Congress, which will be much more substantive and hopefully much more lasting.
How serious is the escalating tension between India and China?
Well, two nuclear powers fighting over a very long and non-demarcated, non-walled border, non-policed border between the two. We now see that that soldiers have been killed. And India is in the middle of a number of border disputes right now that have escalated into skirmishing, not just with China. Also, with Pakistan, also over Tibet. And that is leading Modi, whose approval ratings are very high right now, there over 80%, because of a strong and decisive response to coronavirus, and a level of leadership that's quite supported domestically as a rally around the flag effect, it's going to lead to a lot of xenophobia in India. So, it is something we should, I think, watch out for, not because I think this is going to precipitate World War III, but rather because greater Indian nationalism, as driven by a leader who has shown himself very savvy and capable of using that, could lead to more broad confrontation, strategic confrontation and maybe even realignment between India and the subcontinent that has always wanted to steer clear of broader, great game geopolitics. And the China that is feeling increasingly insecure and besieged by its bad relationship with the United States really doesn't want a very bad relationship with India right now. But it might end up getting one.
What's going on between North Korea and South Korea?
Well, North Korea in North Korean fashion blew up this liaison office, literally exploded it inside North Korean territory. No one in it. Nobody injured or died. But showing very clearly that the North Koreans are not happy with the charm offensive between summitry with the American president. Been there, done that. And a lot of joint cultural exchanges, sports exchanges, others and some economic exchange with South Korea. But they want more. And their feeling is by playing hardball, they can get more humanitarian support. Particularly important for them with the global economy doing badly and therefore trade with China not being what it was a year ago. Having said that, no test of ICBMs, no nuclear tests, nothing that would precipitate a significant response from President Trump himself. And that seems to be the most important point is that North Korea wants me to be answering this question, they want headlines in the news. They've got that. But it does not in any way appear that they're trying to create a real confrontation. And, you know, with President Trump maybe on the ropes, certainly with a tougher election in front of him in November, I think that the North Koreans would like a reset from a period of more diplomatic normalization with either a second Trump term or with Biden. But that's very different from saying they're looking, they're itching for conflict and brinksmanship with the United States. Doesn't seem that way.
The fight against COVID-19 continues. What is the update?
The update is a lot more R or reproduction rate over 1.0. So, exponential in a bunch of US states. That's the bad news. Linked to the opening of the economy and opening in a much more dramatic and immediate way than where we've seen, for example, in Europe. It does seem pretty clear that linked to those openings are a lot more cases. We're seeing that Florida, we're seeing that in Texas, we're seeing that, in fact, across the American South and in some cases in the west as well. 18 states now that have an R 1.0 or higher. So, again, exponential growth of new cases. That's the bad news. The good news is that death rates are still quite low in the United States compared to where they were a few weeks ago. Now, of course, death rates lag new hospitalizations. So, that's a danger. It's still early to say that we're in a better place. I think this is, well, I'm getting more concerned, frankly, that the US economy is going to have a longer hit that comes off of this not second wave but extended first wave that we're still in very much in the United States.
Meanwhile, you've got countries all over the world, developing countries that clearly have people that have been under lockdown. They're not prepared to tolerate much more of it. They're economically much more challenged than the developed world. The governments in terms of relief and bail outs. The people in terms of how much they can sustain not being able to work productively and staying at home. You're seeing that play out in countries like Mexico and Brazil and India and Pakistan. All over the emerging markets. Less so sub-Saharan Africa, where there's not much testing and much younger populations. But that's a real danger. And certainly, you're going to see more explosive cases, both in terms of what we know, but also what we don't know, because they're not testing nearly as much in those countries. They're going to learn to live with and maybe die with coronavirus. So, not the happiest outlook.
One nice piece, it does seem like there is a treatment, coming out of the UK, that does seem to have some success. And they're now planning on rolling it out to those that are hospitalized and have severe symptoms, are on ventilators. And the early testing shows about maybe 10% reduction in the death rate in the UK if everyone had been able to be treated with this drug. And if, that is a steroid, if that's the case and you can get that rolled out broadly, and there's a lot of production that already exists around the world, that would be meaningful good news. Not in terms of a vaccine. But in terms of actual treatment of the disease. First time we might have seen a breakthrough on that scale. So, we'll watch that very carefully.