Rohingya tragedy; Kenya back to polls; Submarine corruption arrests in Israel; Timor Sea breakthrough. By Hamish McDonald.

North Korea’s H-bomb threat

Rohingya refugees walk to shore after crossing the Bangladesh–Myanmar border by boat this week.
Rohingya refugees walk to shore after crossing the Bangladesh–Myanmar border by boat this week.

Kim Jong-un again called Donald Trump’s bluff last Sunday with the explosion of a device claimed to be thermonuclear, having just days earlier sent a missile over Japan into the Pacific Ocean.

The explosion was several times larger than any conducted so far by North Korea, suggesting at least some enhancement of the bomb with tritium, if not an actual H-bomb. At the same time, Pyongyang released pictures of its leader Kim inspecting a metal fabrication that experts said was in the shape of a hydrogen bomb small enough to fit into a missile.

The test rattled Chinese cities in Manchuria, just to the north. It also seemed designed to rattle cages in Washington and Beijing. After the missile test, United States President Donald Trump had been warning of more sanctions and military pressure. On the day of the nuclear test, Chinese President Xi Jinping was hosting the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa in a summit of the so-called BRICS rising economic powers. Kim seemed out to rub home the impotence of both leaders in the Korean crisis.

The US asked the United Nations Security Council to put an oil embargo on North Korea, and Malcolm Turnbull joined the call, forgetting perhaps that oil embargoes can have unexpected results, such as Pearl Harbour. But Canberra was alarmed when Trump suggested the US should be “stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea”. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said a US–China trade war was not in Australia’s interests. Trump’s UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, said Kim was simply “begging for war” but seemed to want one herself by suggesting the US pulls out of the Iran nuclear agreement.

Saner strategic analysts tended to see Kim pursuing a coolly rational realpolitik, with Trump the “madman” in the picture – consciously or not. It seemed Xi’s turn to call Trump’s bluff, urging him to talk with Pyongyang rather than pull down the global economy or engulf East Asia in war.

The consequences of living with a nuclear-armed North Korea are starting to be worked out. South Korea’s leftish new government dropped its inhibitions about THAAD anti-missile batteries and asked for several more. Some in South Korea say the US should return tactical nuclear weapons there and even that Seoul should get its own deterrent. Trump hadn’t helped reassure Seoul of his support by suggesting, a day before the North’s explosion, that he might scrap the US–South Korea free trade agreement, and then, a day after, deriding Seoul’s “appeasement” of the North.

Kevin Rudd wrote that the diplomatic approach might not necessarily be managing the status quo, suggesting a “grand bargain” whereby the great powers guaranteed security for both North and South, in return for the North scrapping its nuclear capability and the US gradually withdrawing forces from the South. No doubt Rudd would volunteer to be the Talleyrand, Metternich or Bismarck orchestrating this Concert of Asia. But it’s a good idea.

Rohingya flashpoint 

A human atrocity in Myanmar, meanwhile, threatens to split the Association of South-East Asian Nations into two parts, the majority Buddhist member states of the Asian mainland and the Muslim and Christian majority states of the archipelago.

By midweek, the UN was reporting 146,000 refugees had crossed into Bangladesh from Myanmar’s neighbouring Rakhine state since August 25, when Myanmar’s army or Tatmadaw and Buddhist vigilante groups started a sweep against Rohingya communities. Mobile-phone video showed villages burning. Refugees said the attackers had killed men, women and children. About 150,000 more Rohingya were likely to seek protection, the UN said. Foreign observers are barred from Rakhine.

The sweep started after a little-known Rohingya armed group attacked army and police posts, killing 12 security men. This has followed years of discrimination and harassment of the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim people with Bengali ethnicity who are not accepted by Myanmar authorities as authentic citizens, despite generations of settlement and intermarriage.

Demonstrations grew against Myanmar’s embassies in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. Indonesia’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, went to Myanmar to seek a humanitarian solution. Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was urged to speak out or hand back her Nobel peace prize. Under the constitution written by the previous military junta, she has no powers over the army or police. But she could stop her staff depicting the Rohingya as aliens and describing armed retaliation against security forces as “terrorism” when the word is not used when Kachins, Shan, Karen and other insurgents do the same.

Kenya back to polls

In Kenya, a six-justice bench of the Supreme Court declared the elections that returned President Uhuru Kenyatta on August 8 to be “invalid, null and void” and ordered new elections within 60 days.

It found the electoral commission had not properly collated the results of voting. Christopher Chege Msando, supervisor of the new electronic voting system that uses fingerprints for identifying voters, was abducted and killed a few days before the election.

Kenyatta said the court was going against the will of the people, but said he would accept the decision. He and his opponent, Raila Odinga, who had petitioned the court, called on supporters to remain peaceful. The court ruling and its acceptance by the incumbent leader are a first for Kenya and Africa.

Sub plot thickens

In Israel, police carried out a wave of arrests early this week in connection with investigations of corruption in the purchase of submarines and missile boats from Germany.

Among the five arrested was David Sharan, who was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff from late 2014 to 2016, when the submarines were ordered.

Netanyahu’s personal lawyer and in-law, David Shimron, who represented the Israeli agent for the German shipbuilder, ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, was arrested earlier in the case after the agent, Michael Ganor, turned state’s witness. No evidence has emerged that Netanyahu knew of any dodgy deals, but if they are proved it would reflect badly on his capacity in office, and reliance on the individuals involved. Netanyahu is a suspect in two separate cases of alleged bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

On the boundary

In Copenhagen, the conciliation commission appointed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration announced on September 1 that the latest round of talks between Timor-Leste and Australia about their maritime boundary had achieved a “breakthrough”.

No details were given, and talks now turn to formalising the agreement and “addressing a number of remaining issues and points of detail”. Until then, it’s secret. But the panel’s chairman, Peter Taksøe-Jensen of Denmark, said it’s “an equitable and balanced solution that benefits both Timor-Leste and Australia”. This suggests Timor’s chief negotiator, Xanana Gusmão, has moderated his claim to the entire Greater Sunrise gas field, which Dili needs to be producing before its revenue runs out in 2026.

Imperial measures

Our history wars are nothing compared with those in India, judging from the message of visiting politician and writer Shashi Tharoor this week, who is saying British conservatives have to do a fair bit of revision and apologising if they expect to rebuild the “Empire 2.0” in their post-Brexit trade arrangements.

Among the gestures he suggests is an apology on bended knee, by the British monarch or at least Prince Charles, at the site of the 1919 Amritsar massacre of Indian civilians by British troops, on the approaching centenary. Even then, London could not expect the terms of trade it imposed on its imperial subjects.

But revisionism of a different kind is afoot in Washington. Erik Prince, of the notorious Blackwater mercenary army, is pushing for the US military presence in Afghanistan to be privatised. “We’ve fought for the last 15 years with the First Infantry Division model,” he recently told Fox News. “Now we should fight with an East India Company model … If you look back in history, the way the English operated India for 250 years, they had an army that was largely run by companies – and no English soldiers. So cheap, very low cost.”


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 9, 2017 as "Kim huffs and bluffs with H-bomb threat".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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