North Korea’s missile tests; Iraq and Syria after Daesh; Obama in Indonesia; Malaysian fraud case. By Hamish McDonald.

North Korea’s missile tests expand horizons

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un observes the testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile this week.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un observes the testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile this week.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had a personalised Independence Day “gift” for United States President Donald Trump on Tuesday, a launch of a missile claimed to have “intercontinental capability” and – according to American experts – just capable of hitting Alaska.

Australian reporters were quick to spot the local angle: twirling the compass showed Darwin would also be in range, should North Korea’s hereditary dictator decide on killing a chicken to scare the monkey, as the old Chinese saying goes.

The missile, inspected by Kim ahead of the launch, landed only 933 kilometres away in the Sea of Japan. But it stayed up 39 minutes by the North Korean count (37 minutes by the US and South Korean measure) and in a flatter trajectory could travel about 6000 kilometres. Whether the North Koreans have mastered the stresses of atmospheric re-entry to enable a nuclear warhead to survive and be guided to its target is another question. But they are working on it.

Not aware of the irony, Trump quickly tweeted “North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?” If Kim was playing with missiles, Trump was spending the July 4 long weekend at one of his golf courses in New Jersey and watching his social media. But he’d also been upping the ante with North Korea. He’d sent a US Navy destroyer on another sail through waters claimed by China in the South China Sea, authorised a $US1.4 billion sale of high-tech weapons to Taiwan, and put sanctions on a Chinese bank and three other entities handling trade with North Korea.

Last Sunday he had a tense phone call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, urging Xi to apply a trade embargo that would force Pyongyang to halt its nuclear weapon and missile programs, and warning him the US might “act on its own” otherwise. China has stopped imports of North Korean coal, previously the major item, but its total trade with the north actually went up in the first quarter of the year. After the North Korean test, Trump tweeted his hope China would “end this nonsense once and for all”. US and South Korean forces held their own missile firings.

Xi met Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday and Tuesday: the two agreed to strive for a solution to the North Korean problem through “dialogue and negotiation” – nothing about tighter sanctions. Confident that Beijing will do nothing much, Kim will keep calling Trump’s bluff.

Trump was heading to Friday and Saturday’s G20 summit in Hamburg, in which he’s meeting both Xi and, for the first time, Putin. Our own Mr Trumble will be there among a host of other big and middle power leaders.

Crumbling caliphate

Elsewhere, Qatar called what it thinks was a Saudi Arabian bluff, refusing to capitulate to a 13-point ultimatum by the deadline on Monday. The Saudis, who’d previously said the offer would not be extended, stretched it until Wednesday.

The FBI, which had been called in by Qatar to investigate the reason the Saudis and their Gulf allies cited for sanctioning the small but rich emirate, was reported to have found that the hacking of the Qatari official website – to put pro-Iran words in the mouth of Qatar’s ruler – was not the work of groups aligned with Russia, but connected to “some [other] countries”, Qatari foreign minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said.

Where the Saudis go from here is yet to be seen. Their delegation at the G20 will be told the Middle East has enough problems without a dust-up among the Gulf states. Attention is now focusing on the post-Daesh scene in Iraq and Syria. The Iraqi government proclaimed the recapture of the city of Mosul this week, after eight months of bloody fighting. American-supported Kurdish and other forces entered the old city in al-Raqqa, the Syrian town declared the capital of the Daesh caliphate.

If it’s “mission accomplished” against Daesh’s stronghold, then US policy on Syria’s future is unclear. On June 27, the White House issued a warning that Bashar al-Assad’s forces were preparing another chemical weapons attack, suggesting his regime was beyond the pale. But about the same time, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was reported to have told United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres that Assad’s future position was in Russia’s hands, seeming to be an acceptance Assad would emerge the ultimate victor in Syria.

Obamas in Jakarta

Indonesia’s Joko Widodo is also at the G20 and could do with some encouragement, after an alliance of Jakarta’s political class with Muslim street thugs got his ally Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese and Christian known as “Ahok”, sentenced to two years’ jail and voted out as the capital’s governor on a spurious blasphemy charge.

Barack Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Jakarta with his American mother and Indonesian stepfather, was in the city last weekend and spoke up for the religious tolerance that used to be the pride of Indonesia. “My stepfather was raised a Muslim but he respected Hindus and he respected Buddhists and he respected Christians,” he noted. “If you are strong in your own faith then you should not be worried about someone else’s faith.

“If we don’t stand up for tolerance and moderation and respect for others, if we begin to doubt ourselves and all that we have accomplished, then much of the progress that we have made will not continue,” Obama said.  “What we will see is more and more people arguing against democracy, we will see more and more people who are looking to restrict freedom of the press, and we’ll see more intolerance, more tribal divisions, more ethnic divisions and religious divisions, and more violence.”

Meanwhile Ahok’s main accuser, Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, leader of the Islamic Defenders Front or FPI, has been on the run from the Indonesian police for the past two months, and is holed up in Saudi Arabia. After social media logs and compromising photos circulated in January showing him in a sexual relationship with a female supporter, a student group got the police to charge him under anti-pornography and net-porn laws. In previous instances, the FPI has been all for applying these laws against exposed adulterers with the utmost rigour, such as stoning to death.

J Low in Hollywood

The wheels of the US Justice Department continue to turn despite the controversies around its boss Jeff Sessions, Trump’s attorney-general. One who must be hoping for some Kuala Lumpur-style interference is Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, also known as “Malaysian Official 1” in the department’s investigation of corruption in the sovereign wealth fund 1 Malaysia Development Bhd or 1MDB.

Documents filed in Los Angeles in mid-June by the department’s Asset Forfeiture Section show an astounding $US4.5 billion worth of loot bought with money allegedly embezzled from the fund while it was supervised by Najib. The money went mostly to Najib, his stepson Riza Shahriz Abdul Aziz, and the young financier Low Taek Jho, who gets around jetsetting circles as Jho Low.

The assets the feds are after include a 91-metre motor yacht, Equanimity, last seen in Myanmar, a Bombardier executive jet, paintings by Van Gogh, Monet and Picasso, luxury properties in New York, London and Hollywood, massive diamonds adorning Najib’s wife, Rosmah, about $US25 million in cash, and various corporate share parcels.

The alleged embezzlers also made film investments that in retrospect seem appropriate, and the feds are attaching all present and future earnings from them. One was The Wolf of Wall Street. Its star, Leonardo DiCaprio, has voluntarily surrendered two gifts from Jho Low, a Picasso and the Oscar statuette Marlon Brando won for On the Waterfront. Another investment was the 2014 sequel to Dumb and Dumber.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 8, 2017 as "North Korea’s missile tests expand horizons".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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