North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has declared a "quasi-state of war" after convening an emergency meeting of his military leaders, with the Korean People's Army (KPA) "ready to launch surprise operations," the Nort'’s official KCNA agency reported Aug. 21. There are ominous reports that the KPA is preparing a missile strike on the South. Preparations at missile launch sites near Pyongyang were reportedly detencted by South Korean and US military monitors. The escalation comes following an exchange of artillery fire across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) Aug. 20. Tensions have been rising since an Aug. 4 incident that saw two South Korean soldiers severely wounded by a mine explosion along the DMZ, with Seoul and the UN Command claiming North Korea troops intentionally placed the mine on a path known to be used by South Korean patrols. In response, South Korea has renewed anti-DPRK propaganda broadcasts along the DMZ. Media reports in the West are not emphasizing that the esclation also comes amid the joint US-South Korea "Ulchi Freedom Guardian" military exercise. The annual exercise, which runs from Aug. 17-28, involves 30,000 US troops and 50,000 South Korean. According to a statement from the Combined Forces Command (CFC) in South Korea, UFG is "a routine and defense-oriented exercise designed to enhance CFC readiness, protect the region and maintain stability on the Korean peninsula." The exercise was briefly suspended following the artillery exchange, but has now been resumed. (NK News, NK News, Business Insider, Aug. 21; Asia Times, Aug. 20)
An Aug. 12 Public Radio International interview with Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, notes that Iran in 2009 quietly appealed for help from the US in managing a severe water crisis—and suggests that the need for assistance from American hydrologists was the secret lubricants behind the US-Iran nuclear agreement. "The conversation between Iran and the United States over water has extended back more than a decade before 2009," Gleick said. "There have always been contacts at the university level, and at the level of the National Academy of Sciences, between the countries about water efficiency, water conservation, water technologies and how to manage droughts. As the water situation in the Middle East has gotten worse, the interest has gotten higher." Growing usage and an ongoing drought have meant a severe and worsening water crisis for Iran over the past 15 years. Two years ago, a study by the World Resources Institute ranked Iran as the world's 24th most water-stressed nation. (This timeline from The Guardian shows the trajectory of the nuclear talks, which began secretly in early 2013, and were formalized later that year.)
Just weeks before President Obama announced details of his climate change action plan, federal officials approved a deal to allow expanded mining of coal on Navajo lands and its continued burning at the Four Corners Power Plant near Farmington, NM. The deal extends the lease on the plant by 25 years, and allows for an expansion of the Navajo Mine that supplies it. It came less than a month after operators of the Four Corners plant (chiefly Arizona Public Service) agreed to settle a lawsuit by federal officials and environmental groups that claimed plant emissions violated the Clean Air Act. Under the settlement, operators agreed to spend up to $160 million on equipment to reduce harmful emissions, and to set aside millions more for health and environmental programs. The regional haze produced by the plant and others ringing the Navajo reservation has long drawn protest. Under pressure from the EPA, the plant in 2013 shut down the oldest and dirtiest three of the five generating units to help the facility meet emission standards. But many locals are not appeased. "Our Mother Earth is being ruined," said Mary Lane, president of the Forgotten People, a grassroots Navajo organization. "We don't want the power plant to go on. It's ruining all the environment, the air, the water." (Navajo-Hopi Observer, July 21)
The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment this week issued a report on the Obama administration's planned "modernization" of the US nuclear arsenal, finding it could cost $704 billion between 2015 and 2039. The biggest chunk will likely be borne by the Navy to develop a replacement for the Ohio-class nuclear submarines. Together with maintaining the warheads themselves, this will amount to some 70% of the cost estimate. The Air Force will see costs break $4 billion a year between fiscal 2029 and 2031 to bring online the next-generation Long Range Strategic Bomber. (Air Force Times, Aug. 5)
We aren't sure whether to believe it, and it seems not to have been reported elsewhere, but the pro-opposition Syria Mirror website on July 20 says that activists and eye-witnesses have "confirmed" that five buses full of fully armed North Korean soldiers were seen in Damascus, heading towards Jobar and Eastern Ghouta—two suburbs that have been the scene of fierce fighting for months. The account claims Bashar Assad has long maintained a sort of Praetorian Guard of North Korean troops in a special unit dubbed "Tshulima"—supposedly named for a mythical winged horse, although we can find no reference to either the unit or the mythical beast online. The report also notes longstanding claims of North Korean involvement in the Assad dictatorship's nuclear program.
Japan's lower house on July 16 approved legislation that would allow an expanded role for the nation's Self-Defense Forces in a vote boycotted by the opposition. The vote came one day after Prime Minster Shinzo Abe's ruling LDP-led bloc forced the bills through a committee despite intensifying protests. Opposition lawmakers walked out after their party leaders made final speeches against the bills. Abe cited China's growing military presence in the region in support of the legislation. The bills were drafted after his Cabinet last year adopted a new interpretation of Japan's pacifist constitution. Opponents counter that the new interpretation is unconstitutional. A criticism of the reform is that it is unclear what the new legislation actually does, but it is clearly intended to permit Japanese troops to be deployed on combat missions for the first time since the end of World War II. The package will now be passed on to the upper house of the Diet, and could be approved as early as next week.
Negotiations between Iran and six world powers concluded in a nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), on July 14. Under the JCPOA, Iran agrees not to create a nuclear bomb in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will have permanent access to Iran's nuclear facilities to monitor activity, and the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany will continue to meet with Iran's leaders at least every two years to review implementation of the agreement. The European Union sanctions will be lifted either eight years from the date of adoption or when the IAEA verifies Iran's nuclear materials are being used for non-aggressive purposes—whichever is sooner. However, all sanctions will be put back in place if Iran violates the terms of the agreement. Iran must remove two-thirds of its centrifuges, ship all spent fuel from the reactor out of the country, and limit uranium research and development to a single facility. President Barack Obama stated in an address that he plans to veto any legislation from Congress that blocks the implementation of this deal.
Bulldozers backed by Israeli forces destroyed the Bedouin village of al-Araqib in the Negev Desert on July 2 for the 86th time in the last four years. "Israeli bulldozers forced their way into the village under the protection of dozens of Israeli forces," Attia al-Asam, who heads the regional council of "unrecognized" Bedouin communities in the Negev, told Turkey's Anadolu Agency. Israeli forces surrounded the village and displaced the population before demolishing the homes, the local leader added. Saleem al-Wakili, a 57-year-old Bedouin resident, added: "It is the 86th time they destroyed my house and I will rebuild it tomorrow. The Israelis are trying to exile us from our land by demolishing our homes, but they will not succeed."