Reopen negotiations or face sanctions, Obama tells North Korea and Iran.

Obama demands cooperation from Iran and North Korea at South Korean summit. Karzai sworn in as president. Peshawar faces further bombing. Yemeni forces claim scalps in battle with Houthi rebels. South African mercenaries training pro-government militia in Guinea. All this and more in today's update.
Josephine Whitaker
19 November 2009

Obama urges North Korea and Iran to change course

On the final leg of his tour of East Asia, US President Barack Obama has used a joint press conference with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to urge North Korea and Iran to change their nuclear stances or face sanctions in the future.

During the joint press conference, both countries were threatened with tougher action if they continue to resist international calls for a more conciliatory approach. Obama urged Iran to accept a recent proposal, put forward by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and backed by the US, Russia and France, to send uranium abroad for processing. Iran has so far failed to accept the proposal.

In relation to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, both leaders emphasised the need to make a break from the earlier pattern of stop-start negotiations in which North Korea periodically provokes the international community, then returns to the negotiating table in a bid to force further concessions. In return for a more conciliatory position on its nuclear programme, Lee and Obama stated that they would be willing to offer extensive economic benefits to the North.

However, should Iran and North Korea fail to alter their behaviour, Obama warned, the US would be working over the next few weeks to develop a package of measures to respond to their apparent intransigence in a more forceful manner.

The openSecurity verdict: Obama’s speech in South Korea today represents the latest development in the long saga of negotiations between North Korea , Iran and powers opposed to their nuclear ambitions led by the US. Today’s comments are, however, some of the toughest language yet from Obama on the subject, and indicate a possible hardening of the American position. There appear to be some differences, however, in the US’s approach to the two countries, inconsistencies that suggest that this change is not as radical as some commentators make out.

On North Korea’s nuclear programme, Obama and Lee strongly emphasised the need to break from the previous pattern of stop-start negotiations, characterised by a provocative action from the North drawing international condemnation, a return to negotiations, followed by the breaking off of negotiations in a bid for further concessions from the international community. However, the emphasis remained very much on the carrot rather than the stick. Not only was Pyongyang offered substantial economic benefits in return for a change in behaviour, Obama also said that his nuclear envoy will indeed be visiting the North in early December, confirming the US’s willingness to engage in direct talks. North Korea has long made direct talks with the US a condition of its return to the six-party talks that it pulled out of in April, while the US has said will only enter into direct talks as a part of the North’s return to multi-party talks.

In contrast, the US line on Iran seems to be hardening. Iran’s continued resistance to US attempts at engagement appear to be pushing the US to take firmer measures. During a visit to the Philippines, Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, rejected suggestions that new sanctions may be imposed, describing them as outmoded and claiming the US are “wise enough not to repeat failed experiences.”

While Obama said at the press conference that he remained hopeful that the Iranians might reconsider the proposal rejected on Wednesday, his language suggests that the US is moving to consider sanctions against Tehran: "Our expectation is that, over the next several weeks, we will be developing a package of potential steps that we could take, that would indicate our seriousness to Iran," he said.

Critics of Obama may be quick to suggest that this latest move is an indication that the much-touted policy of engagement rather than confrontation is failing. However it must be noted that Obama’s language remains extremely cautious. Speaking of “potential steps” for a plan that “would indicate our seriousness to Iran” remains a tentative rather than an outright threat. Obama himself remains confident in the engagement approach, citing the “extraordinary international unity” currently evident in policy towards Iran, in contrast with international positions at the same time last year, as an indication that “we’ve taken the right approach.”

Obama's latest announcements, then, are more an indication of frustration and persistence, rather than an obituary for the new regimes espousal of multilateralism and diplomacy.

Karzai sworn in as Afghan president

Amid a security lock-down in Kabul, Hamid Karzai was sworn in for a second elected term as president of Afghanistan at a ceremony attended by dignitaries from over forty foreign countries.

During his inauguration speech, Karzai committed himself and his government to tackling the corruption that has recently made his administration the target of extensive international criticism, describing it as “a dangerous problem”. Karzai also emphasised the need for his ministers to be “competent and just.” With regard to the ongoing instability in Afghanistan, the president said that he hoped for Afghan security forces to take the lead within three to five years, reducing their dependence on foreign forces. Karzai also pledged to tackle drug production in his impoverished nation, which continues to be a bone of contention between Afghanistan and the West.

The inauguration was overshadowed, however, by the recent 20 August election which was mired in accusations of widespread fraud. A UN-supported inquiry found almost one third of votes cast to be fraudulent, and Karzai was stripped of his initial outright win. The proposed second round run off vote, which sought to give the elected leader legitimacy in the face of these allegations, was cancelled when Karzai’s opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, pulled out of the race, claiming that it would not be free and fair.

The election has strained relations between Afghanistan and the West, and there has been a notable toughening of the US’s position regarding Afghanistan and narrowing of its stated objectives in the country. Both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have made recent public statements condemning corruption. Prior to the inauguration, Clinton claimed they had “done some work on that, but in our view, not nearly enough to demonstrate a seriousness of purpose to tackle corruption." The US has made it clear that the future of both civilian aid and Obama’s decision about whether to dispatch 40 000 extra troops depends in part on whether Karzai is judged able to effectively implement reforms to tackle corruption and re-establish his legitimacy.

In an attempt to bolster his legitimacy, Karzai also used his inauguration speech to invite his defeated rivals to work with the new administration, and to call for a loya jirga, or grand assembly, an institution in Afghan law that can take precedence over all government institutions including the presidency.

Another bombing hits Peshawar

Another bomb blast has rocked the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar during the local morning rush hour. The target this time was the district judicial complex, a court located on the busy Khyber Road.

According to Sahibzada Anees, head of Peshawar city administration, the attack was carried out by suicide bomber, who blew himself up while being searched by security guards outside the court. Official sources say that at least nineteen people were killed in the attack, including three policemen, and more than fifty were injured.

This is the latest in a bloody string of attacks to have hit Peshawar in recent months, the majority of which have been blamed on the Taliban. Recent attacks include a suicide car bomb attack on the office of Pakistan’s infamous national intelligence agency, the ISI, which killed twelve and injured forty last Friday. On 28 October, at least 100 people were killed after another huge car bomb was detonated in the city’s busy Peepal Mandi market.

These attacks come as the Pakistani army steps up its offensive against the Taliban in South Waziristan. Chief Minister of the North West Frontier Provinces, Ameer Haider Khan, vowed that the government would not be dissuaded from its offensive against the Taliban, but warned that this attack was unlikely to be the last.

Yemeni forces claim local victories in continued fighting

Yemeni forces have killed several Houthi rebel leaders fighting in the north of the country over the last few days, and forced their supporters into a retreat, a government website says. According to the website, Ali Alqatwani, Abbas Aaida and Abu Haider have been killed over the last few days, and other leaders have been seriously wounded. The same source claims that government troops have "inflicted massive losses in terms of casualties and equipment," and retaken control of several key towns.

The government stepped up its campaign against the Houthi rebels in August, after five years of sporadic clashes. The rebels, of the minority Zaidi Shi’ite community, claim to suffer from religious, economic and social marginalization at the hands of the government.

In recent weeks, the conflict threatened to spill over into neighboring Saudi Arabia when the rebels staged a cross border raid into Saudi territory. The rebels accuse Riyadh of allowing government forces to use Saudi bases to attack rebel positions, and of providing military support to the Yemeni army – claims which both Sanaa and Riyadh deny. A Saudi counter offensive employed air and artillery strikes to push rebels beyond a 10km buffer zone, leading to the evacuation of 240 villages and the closure of 50 schools, according to aid agencies.

Concern for the plight of hundreds of thousands of displaced people has increased over the last few weeks, as the government offensive continues in the north. Aid agencies have been voicing fears over the plight of civilians trapped by the fighting, and the ever-increasing number of people arriving at refugee camps in the area. The UN estimates that 175,000 people have been displaced by the conflict so far, and warns that strain on the camps is increasing. The population of the al-Mazraq camp has doubled in four weeks to 15,000, with approximately 28,000 more people living on its perimeter, according to UNICEF.

South African mercenaries training Guinean militia

Reports that South African mercenaries have been training supporters of the Guinean military junta were given US backing today in comments made by the deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa, William Fitzgerald. According to Fitzgerald, South African mercenaries have been seen in camp Forecariah close to Conakry, supporting allegations that emerged several weeks ago in the South African press that up to 50 South Africans had been recruited to give armed support to Captain Moussa Dadis Camara’s military junta.

During a press conference in Pretoria on Tuesday, Ayanda Ntsaluba, director general of South Africa’s foreign ministry, told reporters that the government is trying to ascertain the veracity of these reports. While South Africa has strict laws against mercenary activity, government officials are responding cautiously to the allegations.

The allegations come in the wake of the military junta’s vicious crackdown on anti-government protestors in September, in which human rights groups estimate 150 people were killed and women were systematically raped in the streets. When Camara’s junta seized power last December, it did so on an understanding that Camara himself would not run for election. However, it appears that the junta has had a change of heart, and the military leader is preparing to take part in elections scheduled for early next year. Commentators suggest that the mercenaries are training supporters of the regime prior to the upcoming elections and the unrest they may bring.

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