Global News Blog
Activists in South Korea claimed victory today in their battle to launch tens of thousands of balloons carrying propaganda material to North Korea.
The activists, almost all defectors from North Korea, said they had to skirt South Korean policemen blocking them from their intended launch site and drive to a much less conspicuous site 20 miles south of the border village of Imjingak, the historical tourist area from which they had earlier planned to launch the balloons.
The activists had chosen Imjingak, which includes a Buddhist shrine, a peace bell, and memorials to those who died in the Korean War, because it is a highly visible site where they could obtain maximum publicity. Local residents objected, however, after North Korea promised “merciless strikes” on the area, several miles south of the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.
The alternative site was on Ganghwa Island, at the mouth of the Han River about 30 miles northwest of Seoul. North Korea’s barren countryside is clearly visible on the other side.
The activists said they avoided policemen in their quest for a new launch site, but left the impression that authorities wanted to let them launch their balloons after having put on an appearance of frustrating their first plan. If the police had really wanted to stop them, one analyst noted anonymously, they would have followed them closely and set up new roadblocks.
There were no signs today of any North Korean effort to fire on the site from which balloons laden with about 120,000 leaflets on human rights abuses and dynastic rule under new leader Kim Jong-un were launched. The balloons, wafted northward on wind currents, also dropped off assorted other items – including dollar bills, candy bars, and socks.
Free North Korea Radio, one of several short-wave stations operated by activists that broadcasts from here into North Korea, carried several news stories announcing and then justifying the launch.
“We are keeping our promise to the public,” said a statement on the station’s website. “For the love of our brothers and sisters in North Korea, we cannot postpone this launch.”
Thirteen years ago, on an idyllic summer’s afternoon, I stood by the side of a road in the cheesemaking region of Cantal and watched Lance Armstrong speed by, tucked into the peloton, on his way to his first victory in the Tour de France.
It was 1999. A year earlier the Tour had been in tatters, devastated by a doping scandal that had seen police and judges raiding riders’ hotel rooms in the middle of the night, seizing drugs. Armstrong’s successful arrival on the scene after overcoming cancer “is symbolic of the way the Tour de France is emerging from its own battle against disappearance,” said the tour director at the time.
The world thought that the Cuban missile crisis ended in October 1962 when the United States lifted its quarantine around Cuba and the Soviet Union withdrew its medium-range missiles. However, “the secret crisis still simmered” through November, writes Svetlana Savranskaya in Foreign Policy . Unknown to American intelligence, the Soviets had also delivered almost 100 tactical weapons including 80 nuclear front cruise missiles, 12 nuclear warheads for dual-use Luna short-range rockets, and 6 nuclear bombs for IL-28 bombers.
“Even with the pullout of the strategic missiles, the tacticals would stay, and Soviet documentation reveals the intention of training the Cubans to use them,” writes Ms. Savranskaya, a senior fellow at the National Security Archive.
Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan was tasked with handling the delicate negotiations with Cuba and an angry Fidel Castro, who found out about the US-Soviet agreement on the radio. Savranskaya includes a transcript from the Nov. 22, 1962, meeting between Mr. Castro and Mr. Mikoyan in which Castro expresses his humiliation: “ ‘What do you think we are? A zero on the left, a dirty rag. We tried to help the Soviet Union to get out of a difficult situation.’ ( Continue… )
Russian President Vladimir Putin has finally decided to do something to help relieve Moscow's paralytic, bumper-to-bumper, round-the-clock, city-wide traffic congestion: He's going to drive less and work from home more often.
And that will, in fact, be a really big help, experts say.
"The president is minimizing his meetings in the Kremlin and is preferring to hold them in [his official residence] Novo Ogaryovo to avoid disturbing Muscovites," Mr. Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov told the independent Interfax news agency Wednesday. ( Continue… )
When it comes to bilateral relations, there are a few surefire ways that countries can chalk up some merit points. Australia, dogged by years of mediocre relations with India, a country it desperately craves a deeper relationship with, has put its big guns forward in trying to cement ties.
This week, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has been visiting the Indian capital New Delhi, in what has been billed as her most important foreign visit of the year, and she has used it to make a solid pitch to win over Indian hearts and minds.
Australia's reputation in India was tarnished in 2009 after a spate of violent attacks on Indians studying there left one man dead. Australian officials spent months in damage control, and hope this visit will draw a line under those events.
Ms. Gillard's first step was to announce yesterday that Australia would award its highest civilian honor, the Order of Australia, to India's veteran star cricketer, Sachin Tendulkar. Cricket is played in both countries and is followed with religious fervor in the subcontinent, making Tendulkar one of India’s most popular figures. The decision was questioned at home in Canberra, however it is not the first time Australia has granted the honor to a foreign cricketer.
Next, she launched Oz Fest (www.ozfestindia.com), a $3 million, four-month-long cultural festival that will take Australian artists, musicians, comedians, sportspeople, writers, and more to 18 towns and cities across India, to help convey the notion that Australia is about more than kangaroos and beaches.
Earlier today, Gillard met with her Indian counterpart Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Their talks included the most talked about aspect of the burgeoning relationship: cooperation on a deal for Australia to sell its uranium to India. Australia has an estimated 23 percent of the world's known uranium reserves, and late last year overturned its long-standing refusal to engage with Delhi, a nonsignatory to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty.
The move altered the tenor of the relationship significantly. India has long wanted Australian uranium to power its nuclear ambitions, as it has decided that nuclear is the best way forward to redress its yawning energy deficiency. In 2008 India signed a deal with the US to buy its nuclear technology; a reliable supply of uranium would complete the chain.
The two countries are also working on a free trade agreement, and they are both pitching hard to attract more trade and investment between them. Currently, bilateral trade stands at around $20 billion, and Gillard wants to double that. Australia is rich in natural resources such as LPG and coal, and the country's education and technology industries are also of great interest to the Indians.
The Australian leader also announced a desire for greater military cooperation for the Indian Ocean, which lies between the two countries.
It all points to India's growing importance on the world stage. Australia, a middling power that recently elevated to the world's 12th largest economy, in the past focused primarily on China, but is now looking to diversify with another strong regional relationship. Now, it ranks a relationship with New Delhi as one of its top bilateral priorities, and good economic ties as vital to its future prosperity.
The trip could not have come at a better time for Gillard, who is riding a crest of newfound global popularity as a feminist icon, after making a speech in parliament in which she delivered a stinging smackdown to Australia’s opposition leader Tony Abbott in parliament last week. The video of the speech, in which she brands him as sexist and a misogynist, went viral around the world, prompting the Macquarie Dictionary to update their definition of the word ‘misogyny’, and had even The New Yorker hailing her bravura. The video was played on Indian news channels, helping to raise her profile ahead of her trip.
But just in case Gillard was feeling a bit too superhuman, fate stepped in during today’s visit to the Gandhi Memorial and tripped her up. Spectacularly.
American moviegoers flocked to theaters this weekend to see Ben Affleck's long-anticipated thriller Argo, which has been generating headlines since it was first screened at the Toronto Film Festival last month.
Based on a true story about how the CIA smuggled six American diplomats out of Iran after the 1979 takeover of the US Embassy, the film opened on Oct. 12 and came in at No. 2 in box office sales over the weekend, after "Taken 2" (an action film starring Liam Neeson). By Oct. 15, Argo held the top spot.
But inside Iran, where the decision by a group of Iranian students to storm the US Embassy and hold Americans hostage for 444 days is still controversial and vibrantly debated, the press has paid Argo scant attention. The few comments the film has received are generally negative – Iran's state-run IRNA news agency called Argo "Hollywood’s latest failed attempt to confront the Islamic Revolution" – and replete with complaints that the movie portrays all Iranians as stereotypically aggressive and unrefined and fails to give viewers enough historical context. (Pirated copies of American films typically become available in Iran a few months before the films open in the US, and are easily accessed by the public.)
“Argo makes the people of Iran look like they have no self-determination, and indisputably support violence,” writes Meysam Karimi in a lengthy review for the popular Iran-based film magazine website, Moviemag. “For me, as an Iranian … this makes [the storyline behind] Argo much less believable.”
Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency labels Argo “anti-Iranian" and painted the film as a flop. Citing unidentified "news agencies," it asserted that Argo only managed to reach second place in the US and Canada because the filmmakers artificially boosted sales by purchasing tickets “en masse” and giving them away for free to random people.
Argo “was unable to become a box office hit in spite of considerable advertisement," Fars wrote. “The filmmakers tried very hard and used a variety of methods to increase ticket sales, but they were unsuccessful. … Even though ‘Taken 2’ was in its second week, Argo still couldn’t beat it to first place in the box office … due to a lack of interest among its own [North American] audience.”
SEE ALSO: The Monitor's review of "Argo"
Moviemag, the privately owned online film magazine, is more sober in its assessment of the film, acknowledging Ben Affleck’s strong directorial skill and the film’s attention-grabbing story line and giving the film a four out of five star rating.
"If I were to set aside issues [with how Iran is portrayed], I must admit that Argo is one of this year’s best movies, and expect it to be awarded an Oscar for Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Alan Arkin’s role," he writes.
“Without a doubt, a non-Iranian viewer will highly enjoy seeing Argo because the story is strong and keeps the viewer’s attention through to the end,” he adds. “But for an Iranian who counts this subject as part of our country’s history, the view may be a bit different.”
Almost all coverage of Argo also noted that the film’s Toronto Film Festival debut, Sept. 7, is the same day Canada closed its embassy this year in Tehran and announced the expulsion of Iran’s diplomats from Ottawa.
“Perhaps it was a coincidence,” writes Mr. Karimi for Moviemag. “But for [the embassy closure] to take place during the Toronto Film Festival, right when this film was being screened, somewhat undermines the theory that this happened by accident.”
Follow Roshanak Taghavi on Twitter at @RoshanakT.
(This article was updated after first posting to correct the spelling of the capital of Canada.)
The British government today announced that Gary McKinnon, a British hacker with a condition that has been diagnosed as Asperger's syndrome, will not be extradited to the United States. But while the decision is nominally about his human rights, it may also be a byproduct of a longstanding debate over the US-Britain extradition treaty, which British critics say is weighted too much in favor of US interests.
British Home Secretary Theresa May today told the House of Commons that she had withdrawn the extradition order against Mr. McKinnon after determining that extraditing him would violate his human rights, BBC News reports.
Mr McKinnon is accused of serious crimes. But there is also no doubt that he is seriously ill. He has Asperger's syndrome, and suffers from depressive illness. The legal question before me is now whether the extent of that illness is sufficient to preclude extradition.
After careful consideration of all of the relevant material, I have concluded that Mr McKinnon's extradition would give rise to such a high risk of him ending his life that a decision to extradite would be incompatible with Mr McKinnon's human rights.
Ms. May said that it would now be up to the director of public prosecutions to determine whether McKinnon would face charges in Britain.
McKinnon is accused of breaking into nearly 100 NASA and US military computers between 2001 and 2002, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage, and is charged in Virginia and New Jersey on eight counts of computer fraud. Lawyers for McKinnon said that he was merely looking for evidence of UFOs and did not have any criminal intent. The Daily Telegraph reported in 2009 that McKinnon's supporters say he is being made a scapegoat for US failures to secure its computers, which McKinnon has called "ridiculously easy" to hack.
US lawyer David Rivkin, an adviser to the Reagan and Bush administrations, told the BBC that the decision to deny extradition for McKinnon on health grounds was "laughable" and that "under that logic, anybody who claims some kind of physical or mental problem can commit crimes with impunity and get away with it." British solicitor Edward Fitzgerald told The Guardian that he felt McKinnon's case turned on his alleged high suicide risk.
While May said in her statement that the "sole issue" before her was McKinnon's human rights, her decision not to extradite McKinnon comes amid public debate in Britain over the country's extradition responsibilities, particularly those in its treaty with the US.
Critics say that the US-Britain treaty, enacted in 2003, favors US interests over British ones. The Guardian's Owen Bowcott points out that between January 2004 and October 2012, 92 people have been extradited from Britain to the US, while only 43 have made the opposite trip. He also notes, however, that between January 2004 and December 2011, Britain made 57 requests for extradition and 40 extraditions took place, while the US made 134 requests during that same period, and only 75 extraditions occurred.
In announcing her decision on McKinnon, May called the US-Britain treaty "broadly sound," reports The Guardian. But May added that she would introduce a new "forum bar" to the extradition process, which would allow a court to deny extradition if it deemed a British trial more fair to the accused than a trial overseas, reports The Guardian. May also said that she planned to end the home secretary's ability to deny extradition on human rights grounds – the very grounds she used to bar McKinnon's extradition – arguing that such discretion would be better placed in the courts than in the government's hands.
May's proposed reforms to the US extradition process are just part of a broader overhaul by the British government to its approach to international justice. The Washington Post reports that May also announced that Britain would be opting out of more than 100 criminal justice measures with the European Union and reinstating selected measures. The Post writes that the move "appeared aimed at satisfying Conservative lawmakers who have grown increasingly skeptical of the E.U.’s reach in British affairs."
News reports about the European Union nowadays do not give much reason for celebration. Greece is on the brink of economic collapse, other European countries are also in severe economic troubles, and shrinking solidarity is going hand-in-hand with reviving stereotypes. Yes, the European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize last week, but this news was quickly met with cynical comments.
Nevertheless, the EU today kicked off a week of celebrations, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the single market, which allows Europeans and their goods to move around all 27 member states without borders or barriers. The Single Market Week encompasses events all around Europe, with various “opportunities to discuss the main achievements of the Single Market.” Some of these include “cheaper calls abroad,” “safer toys,” and “more rights for travelers,” according to documents handed out to attendees of the launch event of the Single Market Week at the European Parliament in Brussels.
The celebration comes at a time when citizens' trust in the European Union is at an all-time low, according to the most recent survey by Eurobarometer. Only 31 percent of EU citizens say they trust the European Union (mind you: they trust their national governments even less). Also, 28 percent have a flat-out negative view of the EU – almost double the figure of six years ago.
According to some of the speakers today, the European Union doesn't always receive the credit it deserves. “Citizens don't attribute their cheaper mobile phone bills to the single market,” said Malcolm Harbour, a member of the European Parliament for the British Conservative party, during a meeting with journalists. “Sometimes we forget how much has been achieved. The free movement of people, students studying abroad – citizens take that for granted.”
Mr. Harbour has a point. I arrived here in Brussels yesterday from the Netherlands, without realizing that my train didn't have to stop at the border. The only reason I brought my passport was to show it at the security check of the European Parliament. And it is not just free movement of journalists and other Europeans. If I want, I can buy as many Belgian waffles as I want without having to declare them at the border.
As European Commissioner Michel Barnier said: “Our lives have been made easier.” But as with most advancements, we quickly take them for granted. So how to make the people more aware of these things? Mr. Barnier's answer was simple: “We have to talk about it.” And that's what EU representatives will be doing this week.
It prides itself as the birthplace of the pizza and the global benchmark for Italy’s most famous culinary export.
So when Naples heard this week that the latest edition of Italy’s most respected restaurant guide had nominated a pizzeria in faraway, foggy Verona as the best in the country, there was spluttering outrage. Worse than that, not a single one of Naples’s estimated 2,000 pizzerias had made it into the 2013 edition of Gambero Rosso, Italy’s bible for foodies.
Indignant “pizzaioli,” as pizzamakers are known, staged noisy demonstrations in some of Naples’s most famous pizzerias to rail against what they saw as an injustice and a humiliation.
For the guide to judge the pizzeria near Verona, in the northeast of Italy, as the finest in the country was a snub not just to pizzamakers in Naples, but to the entire city, they said. Francesco Borrelli, a Neapolitan politician, went further – it was, he said, no less than an example of “culinary racism.”
"This is the umpteenth example of hostility towards our city and our traditions. The fact that Gambero Rosso did not find a single Neapolitan pizzeria to include is shameful,” he said.
Neapolitan newspapers tried to salvage some pride by poking fun at Verona for its culinary peculiarities – among them a horse meat stew known as “pastissada” and a bone marrow dish called “peara” – and said the city of Romeo and Juliet should stick to making polenta, not pizza.
The original pizza
Naples was the undisputed birthplace of the pizza, said Sergio Miccu, the president of the Neapolitan association of pizzamakers, even if it has now become a dish known around the world. “Its origins are in Naples – it was Neapolitans who taught the art of pizzamaking to other countries,” he said.
Once they’d stopped choking on their Quattro Stagioni, the pizzamakers in the Mediterranean port went on the offensive, inviting the food critics from Gambero Rosso to put their pizzas to the test so they could at least be included in the next guide.
“If they want to be our guests here in Campania, we will offer them an exquisite pizza in a different restaurant every day,” said Salvatore Trinchillo, the president of a Neapolitan commercial association.
Naples has campaigned for years to be recognized as the spiritual home of the pizza.
Legend has it that pizza was invented there at the beginning of the 18th century and the famous Margherita version was created in 1889 and named after Queen Margherita of Savoy.
Its ingredients reflected Italy’s national colors – red tomatoes, white mozzarella, and green basil leaves.
Naples lobbying the UN
Neapolitans have even lobbied UNESCO to include the dish on its “intangible cultural heritage” list of cultural and culinary traditions.
The list is run in parallel with UNESCO’s better-known register of World Heritage sites, such as castles, temples, and historical city centers.
The indignation of Neapolitans might seem a bit of an overreaction.
The row pitched southerners against northerners in a country that was only unified 151 years ago and where regional rivalries remain intense.
The city’s pizza aficionados muttered darkly about a northern “political plot” to besmirch the reputation of Naples.
But it was confirmation, if it was needed, that aside from football and family, few things arouse passions in Italy as much as food.
Mr. Diamond writes that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s “moral authority has grown through personal suffering and sacrifice” after decades of house arrest and persecution under the military junta in Myanmar, where a fledging democracy is now beginning to take hold.
But it is Aung San Suu Kyi’s “spirit of pragmatism and dialogue” that holds a relevant lesson for American politics. As she told her fellow Burmese in the audience during her American tour, “We must learn to compromise without regarding it as humiliation.”
When Aung San Suu Kyi was asked if she aspires to rule her country, Diamond noted that “rather than shying away from politics, she embraced it. ‘You should think of me as a political party leader. I was a politician before I was a ‘democracy icon.’ ”
Diamond concludes, “At a time of rampant cynicism about parties and politicians in the United States, it is invigorating to have a ‘democracy icon’ remind us that politics can be a noble calling – and an indispensable means for advancing the public good.”
Google Earth and a long road home
Commentators have done plenty of hand-wringing over the Internet’s corrosive effects on civil society. But not to be neglected are the triumphs of the digital realm – and its sometimes life-changing human impacts.
Vanity Fair’s David Kushner found one such story in the incredible saga of Saroo Brierley. As a 5-year-old in India, he was separated from his older brother at a train station, and through a series of dramatic turns, found himself lost among the poor and homeless on the streets of Calcutta. Taken in by an orphanage, he was eventually adopted by Australian parents.
Mr. Brierley adjusted well to his new life, but after graduating from college in 2009, he hit a rough patch: “After years of ignoring his past, it finally came crashing back – the desire to find his roots, and himself.”
Enter Google Earth. Brierley used the program’s satellite imagery to search for his home village in India – whose geographic location and name he did not know. “All he had was a laptop and some hazy memories, but Saroo was going to try.”
Brierley used strategies from an applied-mathematics course to narrow his search, and after months of scouring aerial photos, researching leads, and networking on Facebook, he pinpointed his hometown.
Armed with the encouragement of his adoptive parents, Brierley flew to India. “With every step, it felt like two films overlaying, his wispy memories from his childhood and the vital reality now.”
Spoiler alert: Brierley found his biological mother. A tearful reunion was followed by 11 days of family reintroductions.
A profile in Egyptian courage
Yasmine Fathi, writing for Al Ahram, the English-language Egyptian paper, pays tribute to Mina Danial, a revered 19-year-old Christian activist a year after his death. Mr. Danial was one of 27 Coptic protesters killed by Egyptian security forces in the Maspero massacre on Oct. 9, 2011. The piece captures not just the brave ethic of a young revolutionary but the struggles of post-Mubarak Egypt, strained by sectarian tensions.
The recollection is framed largely through the lens of Danial’s unlikely friendship with Salafist Tarek El-Tayeb, forged in “Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square” during the uprising. Though the two “became like brothers,” Mr. Tayeb “still struggled to overcome his discomfort at having a Christian friend.” Eventually he says the “emotions I felt towards him destroyed all of these shackles.”
“Despite being heartbroken over the deteriorating situation for Christians in Egypt, friends say, [Danial] did not have sectarian tendencies. He always believed that the Christian problem was part of the bigger Egyptian problem.”
Saudi Arabia, the next revolution?
Bruce Riedel, in a book review in Al-Monitor, a website of news and commentary from the Middle East, notes that the “greatest international challenge the next US president could face is a revolution in Saudi Arabia.”
In his review of “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines and Future,” by Karen Elliot House, he details a “country seething with internal tensions and anger” – a stratified society, with high poverty rates, a glut of foreign workers, “regional racism,” gender discrimination, a largely unemployed youth bulge, Al Qaeda undercurrents, and an aging royal family facing an “unprecedented succession challenge.”
The stark takeaway: “Revolution in Saudi Arabia is no longer unthinkable.”