Did Kim Jong-un Execute His Uncle to Send a Message to China?
In its characteristically unhinged style, North Korea’s Central News Agency reports that Kim Jong-un’s uncle and mentor Jang Song-thaek, or “despicable human scum Jang,” as they describe him, has been executed.
Jang, accused of disloyalty as well as crimes including gambling, drug use, and womanizing, was removed from his senior leadership position in the Korean Workers' Party and the National Defense Commission, in an unusually public purge a few days ago and has been conspicuously edited out of official images.
Many had speculated that Jang was something of a power behind the throne, so his ouster will probably be read as North Korea’s new leader consolidating his power.
It’s also likely to be viewed with some alarm in Beijing, the North Korean regime’s major patron. Jang had made several official trips to China and reportedly had a good relationship with Chinese leaders. Jang had overseen the development of several special economic zones co-adminstered with China and may have been a supporter of Chinese-style market reforms.
The New YorkTimes notes that “among the crimes that Mr. Jang was said to have committed was selling resources cheaply, an accusation that appears to have been aimed directly at China, the biggest buyer of North Korea’s iron ore and minerals.”
The nationalist Chinese Global Times newspaper speculates that Jang’s downfall probably won’t have a major impact on ties between the two countries but does mean there’s a “decrease of China hands among North Korea's leaders, and the younger generation in the regime lack experience in dealing with China.”
The paper also notes speculation that Kim may move up a planned trip to China next year. With some signs that the Chinese government is growing increasingly impatient with the hermit state to the south, that should be an interesting trip to watch.
Uruguay's Bold Pot Legalization Experiment
On Slate today, Sam Kamin and Joel Warner analyze the regulatory challenges facing Colorado as it prepares to become the first state in the nation to legalize marijuana. This week Uruguay also embarked on a perhaps even more audacious experiment, when its Senate voted to legalize—and nationalize—the growth and sale of marijuana.
Under the law, which is supposed to be implemented within 120 days, Uruguayans will be able to grow up to six plants in their house a year or form smoking clubs to grow up to 99. Consumers over 18—sorry, backpackers, it’s for Uruguayan citizens only—will be able to by up to 40 grams (1.4 ounces) at government-licensed pharmacies each month. This differs from countries like the Netherlands, where the sale of marijuana is legal but producing it is not.
Weed will be sold for about $1 a gram, which is pretty cheap, though given that as Roberto Ferdman points out, Uruguay has the third-highest percentage of pot smokers in the region, the government stands to make a tidy profit, which it says will go toward law enforcement and drug treatment programs.
Geoffrey Ramsey of InSightCrime has a good analysis of some of the obstacles the experiment is likely to face. While President José Mujica has supported the bill and will likely sign it into law soon, Uruguay is holding national elections next year, and since the majority of the population is still against legalization, the law could give ammunition to his opponents.
For the experiment to work, the government has to produce enough marijuana to satisfy demand, while avoiding excess, and prove that it can crack down on and marginalize the drug cartels.
The move has been heavily criticized by neighboring Brazil and Argentina as well as the United Nations. But it’s also being watched closely in a region fed up with years of brutal and seemingly pointless drug violence. Much to Washington’s dismay, Latin American leaders—notably Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala and Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica—have been talking openly about the possibility of legalization. Unless Uruguay’s experiment turns into a complete fiasco, other countries are likely to follow its lead soon.
A Bad Week for Global Gay Rights
All in all, it’s been a fairly grim week for gay rights around the world, starting with Vladimir Putin’s decision to name a notoriously ant-LGBT official to run the country’s new state news agency.
The top court of Australia has struck down the recent legalization of gay marriage in the country’s capital, Canberra, annulling the marriages of 27 couples in the process. The legislation had actually had larger implications as it allowed nonresidents of the city to get married in the capital as well. The court ruled that only Parliament has the power to decide who can get married. Polls show the majority of Australians support same-sex marriage, but a bill legalizing was voted down last year. Parliament also passed a law defining marriage as between a man and a woman in 2004.*
Meanwhile in India, the country’s supreme court overturned a lower-court ruling legalizing gay sex. This means that consensual sex between same-sex adults can once again be punished by a 10-year prison term. As the Wall Street Journal reports, India’s ban on gay sex in a law that predates the country’s independence:
The colonial-era law at the heart of the decision Wednesday has existed since 1860. It prohibits people from engaging in "carnal acts against the order of nature," and was used against same-sex couples.
Many Commonwealth countries inherited the Victorian-era law during British colonial rule. Countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, among others, still have some version of it on their statute books, said Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.
Australia, Fiji, Hong Kong and New Zealand are among Commonwealth countries that had the law, but abolished it, she said.
Britain decriminalized consensual gay sex in 1967, but the ban remains on the books in many countries that inheritied the British legal system. A study published last year in the journal Comparative Politics found that 60 percent of the countries where homosexual activity is prohibited by law have common-law systems based on the British model.
*Correction, Dec. 12, 2013: This post originally stated that the Australian Parliament prohibited same-sex marriage in 2002.
Journo for a Journo
China appears to be on the verge of kicking the New York Times and Bloomberg out of the country. Nearly two dozen journalists from the two organizations, which have been at odds with the government since last year over a series of articles about the wealth and connections of senior officials, are waiting to see if their residence visas for next year will be renewed by the end of this month. Vice President Biden raised the issue in recent meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, but as the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone reports, some are calling for stronger action. Several outlets are now going as far as to call for the U.S. to take the unprecedented step of retaliating by denying visas to Chinese reporters.
In a recent editorial, the Washington Post pointed out that “Chinese journalists get an open door to the United States. This reflects U.S. values and is fundamentally correct. But perhaps, if China continues to exclude and threaten American journalists, the United States should inject a little more symmetry into its visa policy.”
In a debate between hosted by the Asia Society website ChinaFile, journalists and scholars seemed about evenly split on whether such measures would be advisable, with some advocates comparing it to the way countries retaliate against exports bans on certain products.
In the ChinaFile debate, veteran journalist Paul Mooney, whose own visa to cover China for Reuters was denied last month, argued:
I’m not in favor of limiting the freedom of expression of Chinese journalists in the United States, but if the U.S. State Department also delayed the approvals of visas for Chinese journalists and media executives trying to work in the United States, there’s no doubt in my mind that Beijing would soon get the message, and that Beijing’s unacceptable behavior would stop.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., has also been pushing for such a policy for a while now.
This strikes me as a dangerous road to go down. China isn’t the only country where this issue comes up. Russia, for instance, appears to be selectively denying certain reporting visas ahead of the Sochi Olympics. If the U.S. sets a precedent that the awarding of journalist visas is politically conditional, other countries may feel much more comfortable playing this game. Just as NSA surveillance revelations have accelerated calls for “cyber-sovereignty,” a media access trade war between the U.S. and China seems like the kind of thing that could set off a race to the bottom.
Given that Chinese state media outlets have ambitious plans for global expansion, including in the United States, it seems like it’s not the worst thing if they at least think this was a possibility. Hopefully the U.S. can find ways to apply pressure on this issue without losing the moral high ground.
U.S. Suspends Aid to Syrian Rebels
The U.S. and British governments say they are suspending nonlethal aid to rebels fighting in Northern Syria due to reports that "[f]ighters from a newly formed Islamist group have taken over warehouses” belonging to the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, reports the BBC:
Fighters from the Islamic Front, a new alliance of rebel groups, ousted FSA-aligned fighters from the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey last week.
The non-lethal aid includes medicine, vehicles and communications equipment.
The US and European countries have been reluctant to supply weapons and ammunition directly to rebel groups in Syria because of concerns that they might end up in the possession of jihadists affiliated to al-Qaeda.
The Wall Street Journal is also reporting that FSA commander Salim Idriss has fled the country, in yet another sign of the group’s waning power.
Unfortunately, suspending aid may also play into the hands of these groups. As Liz Sly of the Washington Post notes:
A growing number of rebel factions, disillusioned by the low level of Western support, have been aligning themselves with Islamist groups that receive more generous funding from Persian Gulf Arab states.
So either way, the ability of Western governments to influence events on the ground is evaporating quickly ahead of peace talks scheduled for January. U.S. officials say they have recently held meetings with the Islamic Front in an effort to get at least some Islamist support for the talks.
One U.S. official argues to the Journal that “I wouldn't say this is the end of the SMC and the end of Gen. Idris," but ahead of talks it seems like it’s getting harder to argue that the U.S. and Europe’s favored rebel group is still the one leading the rebellion.
We're Not Sending Poor Countries the Stuff They Want
A new working paper by Ben Leo of the Center for Global Development is based on the brilliantly simple premise that if we’re going to be giving money to poor countries, we should spend some time looking at what the people in those countries’ want.
The paper looked what people identified as the most pressing problems facing their countries on public attitude surveys from 42 African and Latin American countries. In the case of Africa, Leo found that the overwhelming priorities as “(1) jobs and income; (2) infrastructure; (3) enabling economic and financial policies; and (4) inequality. Since 2002, these issues have steadily accounted for roughly 70 percent of survey responses.” (Notice that health, education, and political instability are not on that list.)
So is this what U.S. aid to Africa has focused on? Not even close. According to Leo, “percentage of US development commitments aligned with what Africans have cited as the three biggest problems has exceeded 50 percent in only two African countries over the last decade.” Those would be Botswana, where PEPFAR programs addressed AIDS, and Burkina Faso, where a Millennium Challenge Corp. grant focused on infrastructure.
Most countries are more like Kenya, where only 6 percent of the $5 billion in U.S. development commitments over the last decade has gone toward the three problems Kenyans consistently identify as the country’s biggest: unemployment, bad infrastructure, and unfriendly economic conditions.
Of course, you can go a bit too far with this logic. To put it bluntly, the majority of people—whether they’re in Africa, the United States, or anywhere else—don’t always know what’s good for them. Smart policies don’t always align with popular opinion, and just because people don’t say they care about public health or education in surveys doesn’t mean these aren’t serious problems donors can help address.
But in a world of finite resources, simply ignoring the priorities of the people you’re trying to help certainly doesn’t seem like a great way to design policy. That could mean a bit less attention on bednets and textbooks and more on roads and jobs.
Which Languages Will Survive on the Internet?
It's not news that we're currently in a period of mass linguistic extinction. One of the world’s languages falls out of use about every two weeks, and about half of those remaining are in danger of extinction this century. But Andras Kornai of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences believes these numbers actually understate what’s happening by failing to account for the fact that very few of the world’s languages are developing any presence online.*
While technically a language only “dies” when its last speaker does, this is usually preceded by a number of factors including falling out of use in commerce or politics, losing prestige in a particular population, or the loss of competence in the language among young people. Komai believes that a language’s failure to be used online—the paper uses the oddly religious-sounding term “digital ascension”—will accelerate all of these factors.
As one example, there are currently active Wikipedias for 287 languages , but proposals for almost twice that many. As Kornai writes, “The need for creating a wikipedia is quite keenly felt in all digitally ascending languages.” Most of these will never get off the ground as, beyond hobbyists and activists, there just isn’t enough interest to maintain a Wikipedia.
Some linguistic groups have clearly recognized the importance of a digital presence. Though Catalan is spoken by fewer than 10 million people, it has the world’s 15th-largest Wikipedia, with about 1,600 active editors. “Viquipedia” is viewed by advocates as a nationalist project to ensure their cultural survival.
Other languages have not fared as well online. Piedmontese, for instance, is still spoken by between 2 million and 3 million people in Northern Italy, but without any significant digital presence, its future could be dubious despite efforts by local authorities to preserve it.
All in all, Kornai’s survey on languages online estimates that at most 5 percent of the world’s 7,000 active languages will be capable of ascending. It’s fair to wonder just how much of a tragedy this really is: While we’re losing some local identity, more people around the world are now able to communicate with one another than ever before. It is safe to say, however, that we’re at something of a key turning point in the history of culture.
*Correction, Dec. 11, 2013: This post originally misspelled scientist Andras Kornai's last name.
The Man Most Likely to Be India's Next Prime Minister Is Banned From Traveling to America
Over the weekend, India’s ruling Congress party was trounced in state elections by the opposition BJP. Heading into national elections this spring—the largest democratic elections in the world—this is obviously a worrying sign for Congress’s Rahul Gandhi, heir to the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty that has dominated the country’s politics since independence. The BJP’s success next year isn’t guaranteed. The BJP also looked strong in 2008* before it lost badly to Manmohan Singh and the Congress party the following year. But if the election were held today, it seems likely that Narendra Modi, BJP leader and chief minister of the state of Gujarat, appears ever more likely to be India’s next prime minister.
This would be a pretty awkward scenario for the United States, since, as John Hudson of Foreign Policy wrote yesterday, Modi is banned from entering the United States. The ban is due to his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which about 1,000 people—most of them Muslims—were killed in three days of communal violence. Though he has been cleared of any wrongdoing in court, Modi has been accused by many of failing to stop the riots and even playing a role in provoking them with Hindu nationalist rhetoric. Modi was denied a diplomatic visa in 2005 on the grounds that his actions constituted a threat to religious freedom, and an existing business visa was revoked.
The State Department hasn’t said what it will do about its Modi problem should he be elected, but it seems safe to assume that it will work out a way for the leader of the world’s third-largest economy and an important U.S. ally to visit Washington. It’s worth keeping in mind that the late Nelson Mandela was on a U.S. terrorist watch list until 2008 and needed a special waiver from the State Department to visit Washington, even as president. There are ways around this kind of thing.
Modi has worked hard to rebrand a party known for Hindu nationalism into a voice for the business community and India’s emerging middle class, touting the free-market, small-government “Gujarat model” to an electorate increasingly frustrated with corruption and bureaucracy. In an unlikely transformation, the populist, hardline nationalist son of a tea stall owner has become the darling of the country’s business community. But his tricky legal status in the United States is one factor making it hard for him to shake the ghosts of 2002.
*Correction: The original version of this post inaccurately said that 2008 polls had predicted a BJP victory in the national election.
U.S. Media Still Needs Some Work on Its “Africa” Tropes
Last week the New York Daily News gave us this cringe-worthy lede on its Nelson Mandela coverage:
The lion of South Africa sleeps forever tonight.
Ah yes, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” a South African song from 1939, which became internationally famous after its lyrics were turned into gibberish by white American folkies and whose original writer died in poverty, never having seen a dime in royalties. But, you know ... Africa.
Then on CBS this morning, this happened:
Here we have a song described by its own writer as “a white boy is trying to write a song on Africa, but since he's never been there, he can only tell what he's seen on TV or remembers in the past."
The (Very) Cold War Between Canada and Russia Escalates
Things are looking a bit tense in the Arctic this week. On Monday, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird announced that the country will attempt to extend its territorial claim in the Arctic all the way to the North Pole. This is somewhat beyond the initial claims based on Canada’s continental shelf, reports the Toronto Star:
Baird did not dispute published reports that Prime Minister Stephen Harper stepped in at the last minute to insist that the North Pole be included in Canada’s claim after the scientific assessment put the boundary just south the pole.
The undersea Lomonosov Ridge runs from near Ellesmere Island under the magnetic pole and would be the geological basis for a Canadian territorial claim.
“The reality is the Lomonosov Ridge wasn’t fully mapped in the submissions that my department did,” Baird said. “And frankly we think it’s important when you do this extensive mapping, we wanted to get the entire Arctic map, including on the ridge.”
Continental shelf claims are one of the quirkier aspects of international law. Generally speaking, countries have the right under the U.N. Law of the Sea treaty to their continental shelf, which for legal purposes is defined as 200 miles offshore. In some circumstances, claims can be made past this point based on the angle of the continental slope or the thickness of sediment on the sea floor. Not surprisingly, this leads to some vagueness and overlapping territorial claims, particularly in a sparsely populated but resource-rich environment like the Arctic.
Russia made its own claim on the North Pole in 2007 when a submarine planted a Russian flag on the sea bed 14,000 feet below the surface. Canada’s then-Foreign Minister Peter MacKay dismissed that claim at the time, saying, “This isn’t the 15th century. You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say 'We're claiming this territory.' "
Just a day after Canada made its latest announcement, President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia will be amping up its military presence in the Arctic. According to the National Post, “Putin also said that Russia will restore a number of Arctic military air bases that fell into neglect after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.”
The United States, Norway, and Denmark—which has jurisdiction over Greenland—have also staked claims to parts of the Arctic region, which thanks to global warming now has newly accessible oil and shipping lanes up for grabs. The Chinese government has suggested it wants in on the action as well.