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Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Iran-Syria Tanker Run

January 31st, 2013 - 1:35 am

Ship-tracking services show that somewhere off Cyprus right now is a crude oil tanker called the Tour 2, signaling as flagged to Togo. All of which sounds pretty innocuous.

Or is it? Over the past year the Tour 2 has had two different names, sailed under at least four different flags — Malta, Bolivia, Sierra Leone and Togo — and according to the Equasis shipping database, it is now flagged to Iran. In recent weeks, before it began lingering off Cyprus, it sailed from Iran to the Syrian port of Tartous — . And though the ship itself is not on the U.S. sanctions list, some of its previous owners are. Actually, this ship was specifically identified in a report last June by the United Nations Panel of Experts on Iran sanctions, so UN member states would be aware of its connection to a UN-sanctioned shipping company. More on this scene in my article, “A Tale of Iran, Syria and a Busy Oil Tanker.”  

So, are any of those UN member states going to do anything about this?

Let us credit the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, that earlier this month she urged more attention to the hideous human rights abuses in North Korea. Expressing her concern that North Korea’s nuclear ventures and missile-testing projects might steal the spotlight from the “deplorable human rights situation” in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Pillay decried such horrors as North Korea’s record of abducting citizens of other countries, and its gulag, with its system of torture, “summary executions, rape, slave labor, and forms of collective punishment that may amount to crimes against humanity.”

In a statement that has just been quoted by The Telegraph in an article on North Korea’s prison camps, Pillay said she believes the time has come for “an in-depth inquiry into one of the worst — but least understood and reported — human rights situations in the world,” an inquiry she said would be “fully justified and long overdue.”

By all means, let us hope that Pillay enlists the considerable resources of the UN in the worthy cause of exposing the human rights abuses in North Korea. There can’t be too much of that.

But let’s keep a few additional points in mind. First, the human rights abuses and the missile and nuclear proliferation habits are not actually separate issues. They are all part of the apparatus that sustains the totalitarian Kim regime, which depends on repression at home and proliferation, nuclear extortion and assorted criminal rackets abroad. What really has to go is the regime itself, and if the UN wants to make a useful contribution, it could start by kicking out North Korea — which in 1991 received a UN seat it did not deserve, as part of a bizarre UN effort to balance the admission that same year of a thriving and democratizing South Korea.

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When former New Mexican Governor Bill Richardson made yet another of his many trips to North Korea, bringing with him Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, I was skeptical than anything good would come of it. North Korea has a long record of turning to its own advantage any overtures from the Free World, official or not.  From former President Jimmy Carter to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, from Bush Administration envoy Chris Hill to the New York Philharmonic, from the travels of American nuclear physicist Siegfried Hecker to the more than half dozen forays by Richardson himself, these overtures to North Korea have resulted chiefly in American concessions, to which the Pyongyang totalitarian Kim-dynasty regime has replied with such stuff as ballistic missile and nuclear tests,  munitions and missile traffic with Middle East trouble-makers including Iran, a refusal to render up all abducted citizens of other countries, and the continuing grotesque repression of North Korea’s own people.

About the best that can be said, and it is not a happy message, is that when Bill Clinton went to Pyongyang in 2009 — upon the insistence of the Kim regime — North Korea did allow him to bring home two American employees of Al Gore’s Current TV channel (that was before Gore sold out to Al Jazeera) who had been imprisoned and were facing horrific sentences for the blunder of trespassing from China into North Korea. Clinton’s visit, which included posing for a photo-op dignifying the late Kim Jong Il with the company of a favor-seeking former leader of the Free World, was effectively the payment of a ransom demanded by North Korea.

In sum, the visit of yet another high-profile delegation to Pyongyang — whether official or not — did not bode well. If either Richardson or Google’s Eric Schmidt achieved some marvelous breakthrough with this journey, we have yet to hear about it. But this latest Richardson expedition did produce one surprise. — the best thing ever to emerge from a celebrity trip to North Korea. Google’s Schmidt brought with him his teenage daughter, Sophie. She turns out to be a worldly young woman with a flair for photography, keen observation, and wry humor. She has now posted a travelogue,  sophieinnorthkorea, which with photos and commentary, under the caption “It might not get weirder than this,” conveys the kind of gritty reality that most big name delegations don’t tell you about. Starting with the note that the group had no interactions with any non-state-approved North Koreans, and everywhere they went, apart from the bizarre state guest house, it was freezing. The buildings had no heat. They were never far from their two minders “(2, so one can mind the other).” In a leading library, so cold you could see your breath, they were offered a glimpse of some 90 people seated at desks, staring fixedly at computers, and doing… nothing. And Sophie brings us this marvelous summary of some of the developments available to at least some members of the elite, on the tech front: “North Korea has a national intranet, a walled garden of scrubbed content taken from the real Internet.”

What’s special about this is not so much that there is news to be found in these observations — most of the totalitarian details here, possibly all, have been reported before (though I don’t think I’ve read anywhere else about Kim Jong Il’s beloved 15″ Macbook Pro being displayed beside his embalmed corpse). But this account comes from someone who went not as a lowly reporter, but as a member of a celebrity group whose doings were sure to get plenty of attention — and instead of coming home with canned statements and hedged diplomatic pronouncements, she told it like it was. Good going, Sophie. Here it is again, sophieinnorthkorea. The only thing I’d add is, when you look through it, keep in mind that the government that runs this horror show has also been making and testing nuclear weapons, and ballistic missiles that could be capable of reaching, say, California.

Also read:

Google Bamboozled by North Korea?

Iran’s Aligning of the Non-Aligned Movement

January 13th, 2013 - 1:47 am

The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) hasn’t exactly been high in the western news since Iran took over its three-year presidency last August at a summit in Tehran, attended and praised as as strong partner of the United Nations by none other than UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. But the NAM bears watching. Iran has been toiling away to keep the Non-Aligned Movement focused on such Iranian government interests as pursuing aggressive alignments against Israel. For instance, here’s a recent report from the Palestinian Authority’s WAFA news agency on yet another in the long series of  NAM condemnations of Israel.

This past week, Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi met in Cairo with the Arab League’s Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi, and Iran’s PressTV news service reports that in that meeting Salehi proffered that “Iran, as the rotating president of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)is ready to cooperate with [the] Arab League on Palestine.” In other words, Salehi isn’t merely holding out the hand (or should that be, the fist) of Iran. He is presenting himself as a voice, an envoy, of the entire Non-Aligned Movement. At the UN, this kind of exchange can translate into a a proposal of cooperation not simply between Iran and Egypt, or Iran and the Arab League, but between two hefty voting blocs in the General Assembly, one of those voting blocs headed by Iran.  In similar manner, Salehi invoked the NAM during a meeting last Sunday with the president of Benin, Thomas Yayi Boni, who heads the African Union. According to the Tehran Times, Salehi “said that the consultations between Iran and Benin, as current presidents of the Non-Aligned Movement and the African Union, respectively, may be very constructive.”

It’s no surprise to find Iran using its chairmanship of the NAM as a diplomatic calling card. That was always one of the appalling aspects of Iran taking the helm of the NAM, and it’s high time for any NAM member states that disagree with Iran to simply pull out of the NAM and stop lending legitimacy to Tehran’s diplomatic forays. At the very least, could we start with a little more truth in advertising? Instead of calling it the Non-Aligned Movement, how about renaming it Iran-Aligned Movement?

Google Bamboozled by North Korea?

January 8th, 2013 - 12:51 am

As if there isn’t enough trouble in the world, the executive chairman of Google Inc., Eric Schmidt, has taken it into his head to visit North Korea. Schmidt is touring the world’s leading totalitarian state as a member of a private group led by a former U.S. congressman, cabinet secretary, United Nations ambassador and New Mexico governor rolled into one, Bill Richardson — whose previous trips to North Korea have served mainly to dignify the Pyongyang regime.

Richardson’s current roadshow, with Google’s Schmidt in tow, seems to have generated some excitement at North Korea’s state propaganda organ, the Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA. KCNA has revamped its web site, including a new gmail contact address (though the address apparently doesn’t work) and more colorful variations on the same old propaganda, including a special section on North Korea’s recent ballistic missile test   “Successful Satellite Launch.” The site also features such classics as an account of the launch in Ecuador of the works of third-generation dictator Kim Jong Un, glorifying the revolutionary accomplishments of his late father, tyrant Kim Jong Il, and his grandfather, the Stalin-installed founder of the North Korean state, Kim Il Sung. On this same retooled KCNA web site, the private visit led by Richardson is heralded as “Delegation of Google Corp. of U.S. Arrives.”

Schmidt has been secretive about what exactly he hopes to accomplish on this trip. Richardson, who wants to meet with an American that North Korea, as part of its chronic shakedown racket, is now holding hostage in its prison system, has hinted to the press that Schmidt is tagging along to North Korea because he is “interested in some of the economic issues there, and the social media aspect.”

If anything here sounds like the beginning of some glorious new era in which North Korea is about to throw open its digital gates to the world wide web, and invite the starving inmates of Kim’s gulag to post their personal opinions on Facebook, think again. North Korea’s regime loves technology — but on its own terms, for carefully restricted use, for specially selected purposes, which boil down to keeping the Kim regime in power. North Korean officials are expert at hornswoggling American dreamers who arrive in Pyongyang hoping to promote some peace-loving bargain, from former president Jimmy Carter in 1994, to the New York Philharmonic, which, between North Korea’s 2006 and 2009  nuclear tests, serenaded the Pyongyang elite in 2008.

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