North Korean nuclear test provokes international condemnation

North Korea provoked international outrage yesterday by testing its second nuclear bomb. Seismic tremors confirmed the nation's claims to have successfully tested an underground device as powerful as that which destroyed Hiroshima in 1945. With little indication that the country was attempting to soften the diplomatic fallout of its nuclear test, North Korea today test fired two short range missiles raising the possibility of a complete nuclear weapons capacity in the near future.

The toD verdict: Despite their obvious international security implications, it has been plausibly suggested that North Korea's missile and nuclear tests are more concerned to secure Kim Jong Il's personal authority following a reported stroke and the looming question of succession. Peter Beck, a Korean specialist at the American University in Washington claims that the "internal domestic dynamic is taking precedence over external factors".

Given these complications, how then is the world to respond? North Korea's test clearly violated UN Security Council Resolution 1718 which followed its first test in October 2006, a point reiterated at the UN Conference on Disarmament convened today. Japan and South Korea, among other nations, condemned the attack, the latter calling for "clear and strong message" to be sent to Pyongyang. The strength and contents of the message remain unclear despite the UN Security Council unequivocally and unanimously condemning the test last night. Russia and China, although having distanced themselves from Pyongyang in recent years, are unlikely to support extreme additional sanctions. North Korea relies on little more from the more hostile West than food and fuel aid for its impoverished population, aid which on humanitarian grounds it would be impossible to withdraw, and the UN may be forced to continue its dependence on meaningless measures such as embargoes on the whisky said to be enjoyed by North Korean party cadres.   

If analysts such as Beck are correct and Korea's accumulating arsenal is just for show, containment rather than confrontation may prove the best option. Since its neighbours are either nuclear powers (China and Russia) or firmly within the US nuclear umbrella (Japan and South Korea) there is little risk of North Korean nuclearisation provoking a domino effect in the region. Having strained China's support, North Korea, although willing to take on the world on the diplomatic stage, is unlikely to do so militarily. The most serious threat posed by the tests is the possibility of the black-market sale of nuclear technologies to other nations or groups, a danger underlined by the past activities of Pakistani nuclear physicist AQ Khan from whom it is thought North Korea originally acquired its own nuclear technology.      

Darfur battle leaves 63 dead

A Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) attack on a Sudanese military base near the Chadian border left 43 rebels and 20 soldiers dead according to army statements. The success of the attack is disputed, with UN observers claims that the rebels had captured the base conflicting with government reports that it remained under military control. Over 400 people took refuge at a UN base during this latest instalment of an ongoing conflict that has displaced two million and claimed 300,000 lives. If UN reports prove correct, it would be the second JEM capture of a military base near the Chadian border in recent days. Khartoum blames the strength of the rebels in these borderlands on covert support from the Chadian government, who in turn have levelled accusations that Sudan supports rebels operating within its own territory.

Violence spreads across Punjab following spiritual leader's assassination

Rioters in the western Indian state of Punjab vented their anger on trains and public buildings yesterday after Sant Rama Nand, a fringe Sikh religious leader, was shot dead in an attack during a visit to a Sikh temple in Austria. Soldiers and armed police were deployed to disperse the rioters, at least one of whom was shot dead by security forces during an attack on a police station.  Nand was a leading figure in the Dera Sach Khand, a minority Sikh sect with a largely Dalit following, the low caste formerly known as "untouchables". The sects increasing assertiveness has angered mainstream Jat Sikh community who accuse them of the misuse of holy texts. Manmohan Singh, India's first Sikh Prime Minister, called for the restoration of "peace and harmony" between the two communities.

Sri Lanka war crimes investigation splits UN

A divided UN Human Rights Council convened today to discuss the controversial possibility of a war crimes investigation into the recent Sri Lankan conflict. India, China and Russia appear likely to uphold the sovereignty of the island nation against European led calls for an investigation into crimes on both sides of the civil war. In spite of the fierce opposition aroused, the motion has been derided as not going far enough by human rights groups since it proposed a Sri Lankan-led, rather than independent, investigation. Yesterday's preliminary hearing found the 47-seat council split evenly with eighteen nations for and eighteen against the motion while nine remained undecided. The divisions, which trace a geographic fault-line between west and east, have permitted Colombo's UN representative Dayan Jayatilleka to blame interference on the mentality of "former colonisers".

Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, the government have rejected further compromise solutions to the conflict. The defeated LTTE raised the prospect of becoming an unarmed democratic party but Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa claimed that "after years of their violent activities" such a transformation was impossible. Continuing their commitment to a military solution to the conflict, the government announced plans to enlist at least 100,000 extra soldiers to guard against any Tamil militant resurgence.     

Swat campaign risks humanitarian disaster

The NGO Human Rights Watch has warned of a pending "humanitarian catastrophe" if the Pakistani Army occupying the Swat Valley does not begin airdrops of food, water and medicine while lifting the curfew currently imposed in the region. Despite army orders to evacuate and the successful flight of around two million people, approximately 200,000 remain trapped in the war zone. Allegations of civilian mistreatment have been levelled at both the Taliban and the army, the former accused of detaining civilians for use as human shields while the latter has come under fire for artillery and aerial bombardment of residential areas.

Abbas presses Obama for settlements clampdown

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will demand Obama pressures Israel to "fully halt settlement activities" when the two statesmen meet on Thursday, a Palestinian Authority spokesman indicated. At Obama's first meeting with Netanyahu ten days ago disagreement on the issue of a two state solution and settlements was obvious; Obama's demand that "settlements have to be stopped" went unanswered with Netanyahu's public statements making no mention of the issue. Reports have since indicated however that Netanyahu would be willing to remove two dozen outposts, the small settlement units deepest inside the West Bank, in a potential deal with the US when Defence Minister Ehud Barak travels to Washington next week. 

Abbas's close ally and his chief negotiator with Israel Ahmed Qureia raised the possibility of Israeli settlers receiving Palestinian citizenship as a way out of the deadlock. Such a radical proposal is unlikely to make much headway.

France opens first military base in Gulf

Sarkozy travelled to Abu Dhabi today to commission the opening of France's first military base in the Gulf region. The base, or "peace camp" as it is officially termed, will house around 500 French troops, an air strip and training camp. The choice of the United Arab Emirates appeals not only for its strategic location, in close proximity to the Straits of Hormuz and Iran, but follows a strengthening of relations between the two countries signalled by French contracts to construct two nuclear power stations in the oil-rich state and the sale of French Mirage fighter jets and tanks to the Emirates' armed forces. Sarkozy told UAE news media he wanted France to "shoulder its responsibilities" in the Gulf, a possible reference to a desire to complement or even rival British and American dominance in the region. France will however have to expand significantly its presence if it is to match the US which has numerous bases in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia.