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S Korea, Japan, China fail to set summit date, condemn N Korea

South Korea, Japan, and China have not only failed to agree on a date for a landmark trilateral summit of their leaders, but also in jointly condemning North Korea’s latest illegal satellite launch, exposing the widening gaps in reinvigorating that three-party cooperation. The foreign ministers of the three nations did not hold a joint press conference on Sunday, after their first ministerial talks in four years – a rare occurrence that could signify the differing diplomatic stances among these key Asian geopolitical entities. “The countries have reaffirmed their agreement to hold the summit, the apex of their cooperative framework, at the earliest mutually convenient time,” South Korea’s Foreign Minister Park Jin said in a solo briefing after the trilateral meeting with his Japanese and Chinese counterparts, Yoko Kamikawa and Wang Yi in the South’s port city of Busan. A South Korean government source, who asked for anonymity due to sensitivity of the matter, told Radio Free Asia that the joint press conference did not take place as Wang had pre-arranged plans. The person did not elaborate. According to a separate South Korean government official who spoke to RFA prior to the meeting, the primary goal of the ministerial meeting was to set a date for the trilateral summit. The last trilateral summit took place in 2019 in Chengdu, China. “Efforts will be made to ensure that the summit takes place soon,” Park said, without specifying an exact date. The South Korean minister mentioned his proposal for the three countries to reactivate their intergovernmental mechanism as a means to fortify the framework of trilateral cooperation. However, he did not clarify whether this proposal was agreed upon by all parties. Whether China would want to continue the trilateral summit platform has become questionable as its emergence as a global power has relatively lessened its focus in the region. The increasing collaboration of South Korea and Japan under the trilateral framework with the United States also has been a source of discomfort for Beijing. In fact, with South Korea’s current conservative Yoon Suk Yeol administration, Seoul has been more vocal in criticizing China on the international stage – with concerns ranging from Beijing’s decision to repatriate North Korean defectors back to the Kim Jong Un regime to China’s coercive behavior towards the democratically self-governed island of Taiwan. North Korea The three ministers also failed to issue a joint statement in condemning North Korea’s latest provocation, a departure from previous trilateral foreign ministers’ meetings which usually included a consensus on security issues in the Korean peninsula. “I emphasized that North Korea’s recent so-called military reconnaissance satellite launch, along with its ballistic missile launches and nuclear development, are among the greatest threats to peace and security in the region,” Park said during his solo briefing, without saying what has been agreed with his Japanese and Chinese counterparts.   North Korea launched a satellite last Tuesday, despite international warnings. Rocket technology can be used for both launching satellites and missiles. For that reason, the U.N. bans North Korea from launching a ballistic rocket, even if it claims to be a satellite launch. The lack of a joint statement is a sharp contrast with the trilateral foreign minister meeting among the U.S., South Korea and Japan in San Francisco, in which the three called the military cooperation between Pyongyang and Moscow, including Russia’s technological aid to help the North Korean launch,  a “serious threat to international peace and stability.” Unlike previous occasions, when China’s foreign ministry often expressed its regrets, Beijing refrained from issuing a public criticism of North Korea’s latest launch, as the strategic value of Pyongyang has been raised due to intensifying U.S.-China relations. North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency on Saturday claimed that its satellite passed over Hawaii and observed “a naval base in the Pearl Harbor, the Hickam air-force base in Honolulu,” as well as South Korea’s Busan.

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Foreign ministers wield new brooms in Cambodia and Thailand

Shortly after being appointed Thailand’s new foreign minister in early September, Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara made a telling remark: “We want the Thai people to feel that the foreign ministry is contributing to their lives.”  Sok Chenda Sophea, Cambodia’s new foreign minister, appointed a few days before Parnpree, told his new ambassadors: “All of you should work to represent the nation and enhance the Kingdom’s prestige, especially in areas like diplomacy, economics, food, sports and the arts. These are the focus of the new government’s foreign policy.” The two new foreign ministers bear a striking resemblance. Neither are career diplomats. Parnpree, whose father and grandfather were prominent in the foreign ministry, instead rose through the ranks of the commerce ministry under the Shinawatra sibling’s governments and then became chairman of the state oil company PTT.  Thailand’s Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara arrives at the government house in Bangkok, Thailand, Sept. 5, 2023, to take his oath of office. Credit: Sakchai Lalit/AP Sok Chenda cut his teeth in the tourism ministry in the 1990s. Parnpree served as chairman of the Thailand Board of Investment. Sok Chenda was head of the Council for the Development of Cambodia, the country’s investment board, from 1997 until this year. Parnpree was head of a negotiation team for the creation of a free trade zone with India. Sok Chenda headed the Cambodian Special Economic Zones Board. Parnpree studied public administration at the University of Southern California. Sok Chenda studied economics at the University of Aix en Provence.  Moreover, both are unlike their predecessors. Don Pramudwinai, a career diplomat and foreign minister under the years of Prayut Chan-ocha’s military-run government, was often accused of putting geopolitics, chiefly relations with Beijing, ahead of more balanced, economics-focused policy, as well as for conducting “cowboy diplomacy” over the Myanmar crisis that badly dented ASEAN unity.   Another charge against Don was that, because he was appointed by a junta that had just taken power in a coup, he “spent a large part of his time explaining when, how, and to what extent his country would return, or has returned, to democracy.” As Benjamin Zawacki added, “His tenure has been marked by a conservative and defensive posture rather than one of enterprise or ambition.”  Similar accusations have been leveled at Cambodia’s former foreign minister. Prak Sokhonn, who was quick to lash out against the perceived Western interference in Cambodia’s domestic affairs, was more aligned with Beijing than some officials in the economic ministries liked, and, one hears, not entirely trusted by the former prime minister Hun Sen. Indeed, Hun Sen is believed to have ignored Prak and the foreign ministry by condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  Economics at the center Parnpree and Sok Chenda are new brooms, appointed to refashion their ministries away from a defensive posture on their relations with China and a fixation with stoking geopolitical tensions, and towards a more sustainable, front-foot policy that puts economics at the center. As one Thai newspaper put it, Parnpree is “expected to impart a new momentum to the country’s foreign policy with a strong emphasis on exploring economic dimensions of bilateral and multilateral relationships.”  A Cambodian analyst has argued, “To maintain economic development, Cambodia cannot become subject to US or Western economic sanctions. Maintaining economic development may be Cambodia’s main priority under the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Manet. This appears to be the case with the appointment of Sok Chenda Sophea as the minister of Foreign Affairs.”  These ideas aren’t radical. Surakiart Sathirathai, Thailand’s foreign minister between 2001 and 2005, sought to create “CEO ambassadors”. Surin Pitsuwan, a predecessor, established a “Team Thailand” approach, with diplomats supposed to represent the nation as much as the foreign ministry. But the return to a more stable, stripped-down foreign policy makes sense as Thailand and Cambodia undergo political change.  Hun Sen speaks at a press conference at the National Assembly after a vote to confirm his son, Hun Manet, as Cambodia’s prime minister in Phnom Penh, August 22, 2023. It is said that Hun Sen did not entirely trust his foreign minister, Prak Sokhonn. Credit: Cindy Liu/Reuters Thailand has its first civilian, democratically elected government again for more than a decade. Cambodia has just undergone a once-in-a-lifetime generational succession of its ruling elites, with almost the entire old guard resigning in August to make way for a younger generation, mostly the children of that old guard. Neither Parnpree nor Sok Chenda are big characters. Indeed, they’re rather bureaucratic. And they are on the senior end of the age spectrum. At 66, Parnpree is one of the oldest in the new Thai cabinet. Sok Chenda, aged 67, is the oldest of Cambodia’s important ministers. (He’s 20 years older than the PM.) They are also excellent counterparts to their prime ministers. Srettha Thavisin, the Thai premier, is a businessman at heart.  Although Hun Manet rose through the ranks of the military, he studied economics and played a guiding role in the companies owned by his wife. Parnpree and Sok Chenda appear happy to defer much of the more razmataz foreign policy, such as showing up for international summits, to their prime ministers. Srettha, the self-styled “salesman”-in-chief, clearly likes traveling around the world and meeting foreign leaders, and posing for rather ingratiating and embarrassing selfies with them.  Cambodia’s ruling party obviously wants Hun Manet to be front-and-center of Cambodia’s engagement abroad, a role similar to the one played by his father. As such, having nose-to-the-grindstone foreign ministers makes sense alongside globetrotting premiers.  Experienced foreign policy thinkers In part, too, the two new foreign ministers are also designed to appease the private sectors, especially as Cambodia and Thailand have untested and unsteady governments; Thailand in the form of an odd coalition and Cambodia with its dynastic succession of Hun Manet and almost the entire cabinet. It’s not quite the Biden administration’s evocation of a “Foreign Policy for the Middle Class” but it’s not far off.  How the new foreign ministers translate their briefs into action remains to be seen. In…

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Russian soldier in Ukraine discusses North Korean weapons in video

Video of a Russian soldier in Ukraine talking about ammunition supplied by North Korea surfaced on social media this week, apparently debunking denials by Pyongyang and Moscow that the isolated East Asian country is supplying weapons for the war there. A video titled “Multiple rocket launcher (MRL) extended-range shells kindly provided by North Korean comrades have arrived in the NVO zone,” was shared on Nov. 12 on a Telegram channel called Paratrooper’s Diary, which contains frequent posts from Russian troops fighting in the northern front in Ukraine. The video shows a Russian soldier standing in front of a pile of rockets. “Our friends gave us a new type of ammunition similar to the twenty-second,” the soldier said in a possible reference to the rocket’s designation of R-122. “They travel farther distances and hit the target with higher accuracy. The victory will be ours.”   If the weapons are indeed North Korean, it would be proof that Russia is in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874, which prohibits arms trade with North Korea. The prospect that the rockets were provided by North Korea is very likely, David Maxwell, vice president of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy, told RFA Korean.    “These MRLs are ubiquitous,” Maxwell said. “Since the weapons are so common and so heavily used for indirect fire against tactical Ukrainian targets, the Russians are likely going through their ammunition stocks rapidly and thus need resupply from North Korea.” The rockets in the video were also identified as North Korean by military blogger War Noir on X.  “The rockets appear to be rare R-122 HE-FRAG rockets with F-122 fuzes. These are produced and supplied #NorthKorea/#DPRK,” a Nov. 8 tweet by War Noir, which contained the same video, said.  RFA previously reported that the same blogger had identified North Korean weaponry used by Hamas fighters in attacks on Israel last month.  Russian denials Though both Pyongyang and Moscow have denied that North Korea is supplying Russia with weapons for use in Ukraine, this is not the first time that evidence to the contrary has surfaced. In October, the Ukrainian weapons analysis group ‘Ukraine Weapons Tracker’ released photos showing the Russian military using North Korean-made artillery shells in a tweet on X. But on Tuesday, a spokesman for the Kremlin, Dmitry Peskov, said at a press conference that allegations that Russia was using North Korean weapons were “completely groundless.” “[The allegations] have not been confirmed by anything,” he said. North Korea has also dismissed the idea, calling it an “absurd manipulation of public opinion.” The United States is deeply concerned about “the expansion of military cooperation between North Korea and Russia,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said on Tuesday. “North Korea is providing lethal weapons to Russia.” Meanwhile, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification was also critical of the apparent uptick in military cooperation between Pyongyang and Moscow at a press briefing last month. “North Korea has repeatedly denied arms trade with Russia, but related circumstances are coming to light one after another,” the ministry’s spokesperson Koo Byoung Sam said. “The true nature of North Korea, which has deceived the entire world, is being revealed to the world.” RFA sent a message to the administrator of the Telegram channel to confirm the veracity of the video which is saying that the Russian military received North Korean weapons but did not receive a response. Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

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APEC 2023: Xi heads for US in closely-watched summit with Biden

Even as the world watches keenly as China’s President Xi Jinping meets his American counterpart Joe Biden on Wednesday, expectations of what could transpire in a climate of fraught bilateral relations marred by a tech war and regional tensions are modest. Xi is heading to San Francisco where he is due to meet Biden on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, the first time in a year since the two met in Bali, Indonesia. Some experts, while not anticipating a change in the trajectory of the U.S.-China relationship, are hopeful that the talks will deliver some results such as the formal resumption of military-to-military relations. Diplomatic and commercial dialogues between the two have resumed after the downing of the Chinese balloon earlier this year, pointed out Zhang Baohui, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University.  “The two sides have even begun strategic dialogues on nuclear and maritime issues. However, the U.S. wants to reopen military to military dialogues to prevent inadvertent incidents. This meeting between the top leaders should remove the hurdle for military-to-military exchanges. “If so, this should be a significant development as the world is very concerned by the prospect of military conflicts between the two countries in sensitive areas like the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea,” Zhang said.  To be sure, the White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters on Monday that both sides will discuss strengthening communications and managing competition responsibly so that the U.S.-China relationship “does not veer into conflict” during the summit.  “The way we achieve that is through intense diplomacy,” said Sullivan. He added that there are areas where “interests overlap,” such as efforts to effectively manage competition that could be done by reestablishing military-to-military communications. Incremental outcomes If there were any outcomes to come from the Xi-Biden summit, Ian Chong, a political scientist from the National University of Singapore believes they would be “incremental, but nonetheless important” to maintain the momentum of expanding dialogue. “Such effects will not be seen immediately after the meeting. Rather, they may unfold as more areas come under discussion in the following months to inject more predictability into the U.S.-PRC relationship to avoid unintended escalation, even as competition continues,” Chong said, referring to China’s formal name, the People’s Republic of China. “Xi probably seeks to press the PRC’s case on Taiwan and the South China Sea, while probing the U.S. on trade and technology and seeking more predictably in the bilateral relationship,” he noted.  “Biden will likely reiterate U.S. positions on Taiwan and the South China Sea, while seeking more stability in the bilateral relationship. They may try to gauge each other’s positions on the Israel-Hamas conflict, Russian aggression in Ukraine, climate, and AI.” U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 leaders’ summit in Bali, Indonesia, November 14, 2022. (Source: Reuters) Another area of contention that is expected to be discussed is semiconductors in light of the recent chip export ban by Biden, alongside the push for generative AI in both the U.S. and China, observed James Downes, head of the Politics and Public Administration Programme at Hong Kong Metropolitan University. “The key achievable issues or goals will likely relate to the ongoing tech war between both countries,” said Downes. “The Biden-Xi Summit will be much more successful if both sides focus on economic issues, as opposed to long-term and divisive geopolitical issues.” According to Lingnan University’s Zhang, Xi will no doubt pressure the U.S. to relax technology denial measures against China, but he believes the U.S. is unlikely to yield on this issue.  “Technological competition constitutes a central place in the overall U.S. competition strategy,” he explained. Zhang believes that Xi will try to persuade Biden to return the relationship to cooperation, away from strategic competition, seeking a U.S. commitment that it does not support Taiwan’s quest for independence. Biden, in contrast, will seek to stabilize the competition to prevent “conflict” by pursuing more measures to build “guardrails” for its competition with China, like the resumption of military-to-military dialogues.  “The US will assure Beijing that it will follow the One China principle. Nonetheless, deepening security cooperation between Washington and Taipei will continue to bother Beijing and lead to contentious relations with the US.” Seeking specific outcomes Meanwhile, Sullivan said the U.S. is looking for specific outcomes in the overlapped areas of interests from the summit, which include efforts to combat the illicit fentanyl trade and discussion between the two leaders on critical global issues such as Russia’s war against Ukraine, and the evolving crisis in the Middle East. Given China’s stance on the Middle East conflict, there may be a potential that the leaders may agree-at-large, in expressing the importance of peace in the region. China’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, Geng Shuang, said in New York on Monday that establishing peace in the region was an important task for Beijing.  However, it could be challenging for Biden and Xi to release a joint agreement on criticizing Hamas as Beijing has traditionally shown a less sympathetic stance on Israel, when compared to that of the U.S. This difference in diplomatic approaches may complicate the leaders in reaching a more detailed consensus on the Israel-Hamas war.  In fact, according to Xinhua News Agency, Geng expressed “shock and concern” over statements made by Israeli officials regarding nuclear weapons usage in Gaza Strip, labeling the Israeli remarks as “irresponsible and troubling.” While Geng condemned the idea of using nuclear weapons, largely aligning with the international community and the Non Proliferation Treaty principles, the senior diplomat did not specifically address or criticize the actions of Hamas, which have led to civilian casualties. Edited by Mike Firn and Taejun Kang.

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Israel-Hamas war: How tech, social media spur misinformation

The adage “The first casualty when war comes is truth” remains as relevant today as it did when the U.S. Sen. Hiram Johnson first said it more than a century ago. The recent conflict between Israel and Hamas serves as a reminder of how truth can be overshadowed by falsehoods and propaganda during times of war. In the month since violence erupted, a second invisible battle has emerged online. Both sides are involved in spreading disinformation and fake news. Old images are being passed off as new. Video game footage is presented as reality. Credible news outlets like The New York Times have faced backlash over flawed reporting. While disinformation campaigns are nothing new in war, their efficiency today is unparalleled. Advances in AI have made it cheaper and simpler to generate deceptive, but convincing fabrications. As a result, impartial audiences find themselves grappling with the challenge of distinguishing fact from fiction. Faced with this flood of propaganda, numerous reports have examined its impact on domestic and international audiences. AFCL has reviewed several of these reports, highlighting how technology and social media enable online users and governments to take advantage of religious divides and cultural intolerance by spreading misinformation. The findings paint a troubling picture of truth obscured and tensions inflamed by the digital tools of modern war. AI muddles fact and fiction The weaponization of AI is muddying the waters of truth in the Israel-Hamas conflict. As revealed by Reuters, several viral images purporting to show support for Palestians or Israelis were actually AI-generated fakes, for instance, and these are only a tip of the iceberg.  A widely shared image of Israeli citizens hanging flags off balconies was proven to be generated by AI. (Original image saved by Reuters Fact Check team, annotated by AFCL) Furthermore, advanced “deepfake” technology has enabled the creation of fabricated footage, such as a video of the U.S. President Joe Biden claiming he would send American troops to aid Israel. More dangerous than the false information itself, experts warn these AI fabrications sow doubts about even verifiable facts.  As one AI researcher told The New York Times: “The real power of this technology is how it undermines truth and trust.” In an already polarized conflict, these insidious digital deceptions risk inflaming tensions by making truth itself seem unknowable. ‘Verified users’ lead in spreading misinformation Social media platforms have become hotbeds of misinformation amid the Israel-Hamas war. Services like X, formerly known as Twitter, are rife with unsubstantiated claims and outright falsehoods disseminated by both anonymous and supposedly “verified” users. On these digital battlegrounds, propaganda and lies gain traction faster than truth. One illustrative example comes from X user “Sprinter.” Originally blocked for spreading pro-Russian disinformation, Sprinter was reinstated under Elon Musk’s ownership and granted a blue verification checkmark. The user then falsely claimed the Wall Street Journal had reported that U.S.-made bombs were dropped on Gaza’s AI-Ahli Hospital. Ironically, this false claim received nearly six times more views than the American daily’s genuine tweet about the story earlier that day.  According to internet monitoring group NewsGuard, nearly three-fourths of the 250 most popular tweets containing misinformation in the first week of conflict were posted by verified users.  Jack Brewster, one of the authors of the report, told AFCL that unlike past wars which involved large amounts of automated accounts, he believes “overwhelmingly real individuals” are behind the current wave of disinformation. The X user Sprinter (right), spread misinformation that The Wall Street Journal had reported an attack on a Gaza hospital was conducted with U.S.-made artillery shells. X  afterwards annotated the post to include a rebuttal of the claim by the WSJ itself. (Screenshot/Sprinter’s and official WSJ X accounts) Business model for monetization In their quest to maximize revenue, social media platforms have instituted business models that reward viral lies over verifiable facts, and experts warn these profit-driven decisions fundamentally undermine platforms’ role as trusted spaces for public discourse. NewsGuard cited X’s new business model as an example. X users who subscribe to a premium account can obtain the blue checkmark while also having their posts prioritized in other users’ feeds. The company further announced in July 2023 that premium users with at least 500 followers who received 5 million impressions on their posts within three months would be eligible for ad profit-sharing. Mike Caulfield, a specialist in social media and disinformation at the University of Washington, told AFCL that online misinformation will become more prevalent as long as businesses can profit from it.  Leveraging social media  Beyond the direct combatants, social media users across the world leverage platforms to advance favored narratives about the Israel-Hamas war. Their agenda-driven posts flood networks with biased misinformation. Pro-Hamas voices spotlight Gaza hospital bombings to paint Israel as evil, a disinformation expert told Reuters, while pro-Israel users accuse Palestinians of faking injuries to discredit their suffering. Even supposedly neutral parties take sides online. The Digital Forensic Research Lab, a division of the Atlantic Council, found that at least 25 X accounts claiming to be located in India coordinated posting identical tweets and videos about the conflict at nearly the same time.  Though mostly pro-Israel in content, some accounts bizarrely shared pro-Palestine messages shortly after pro-Isreal messages. By flooding platforms with contradictory claims, these users advance their own agendas, irrespective of consistency or truth.  The Digital Forensics Research Lab found multiple X accounts claiming to be based in India had released coordinated posts containing identical disinformation about the war. (Screenshots taken from The Digital Forensic Research Lab) Despite its large Muslim population, anti-Muslim sentiment among India’s Hindu majority runs high. Islamophobic rhetoric backed by the country’s ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party and current Prime Minister Narendra Modi is creating anti-Palestinian attitudes and a flood of misinformation during the current conflict, according to an Al Jazeera article.  Meanwhile, misinformation coming out of Indonesia is heavily pro-Palestinian. As Voice of America analysis found, the country’s Muslim majority population and widespread pro-Palestine views among Indonesian leaders shape social media narratives…

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Hamas official says North Korea could attack US over Gaza war

North Korea is part of a coalition of countries allied with Hamas and could attack the United States over the war in Gaza, a senior Hamas official said, praising Kim Jong Un as the “only one” capable of carrying out such a strike. “The leader of North Korea is, perhaps, the only one in the world capable of striking the United States. He is the only one,” Ali Baraka said during an interview posted Nov. 2 with a Lebanese YouTube channel Spot Shot, the Washington-based Middle East Research Institute reported.  “The day may come when North Korea intervenes because it is, after all, part of [our] alliance,” he said. With the outbreak of war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, Baraka said that states that frequently experience friction with the United States or who consider Washington to be an enemy are coming together as allies. “All of America’s enemies in the region are consulting and getting closer, and the day may come when they join the war together, and turn America into a thing of the past,” he said, suggesting that the United States would go the way of the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991. Baraka said that Russia is in daily contact with Hamas, and that a Hamas delegation traveled to Moscow and will soon travel to Beijing. He also said that Iran – an ally of Hamas – does not have the capability to strike America, although if it decides to intervene, it could strike Israel or American bases in the region. “Iran does not have weapons that can reach America, but it can strike Israel and the American bases and ships in the region, if the U.S. clearly expands its intervention,” he said.  Last month RFA reported that Hamas appears to have used North Korean weapons in its surprise attacks on Israel, a fact later confirmed by the Israeli military. Palestinian militants carrying what appears to be a North Korean F-7 rocket propelled grenade launcher [with red band] drive back to the Gaza Strip, Oct. 7, 2023. Credit: Ali Mahmud/AP Attack unlikely While Pyongyang has publicly declared its support for Hamas, attacking the United States over the war in Gaza – or any future conflict in the Mideast – is very unlikely, several U.S.-based experts told RFA Korean. “I don’t take these comments very seriously because Kim Jong-Un is not going to risk his own neck to help Hamas,” said Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow of the foreign policy program at The Brookings Institution. David Maxwell, the vice president at the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy told RFA that a combined Hamas and North Korean attack was unlikely and Pyongyang was using the conflict in Gaza to condemn the United States. From North Korea’s perspective this “is part of its normal blackmail diplomacy.” Still, North Korea working with Hamas poses a threat, said Patrick M. Cronin, the Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute. “While [Pyongyang] has little interest in the Hamas agenda of eradicating Israel, it also has few inhibitions about helping enemies of its adversaries should there be something in it for the Kim regime,” he said.  “America and our allies need to be vigilant about possible technology transfer, about opportunistic provocations in multiple regions, and about ensuring our allies know they have our full support, but we also need to find diplomatic opportunities to weaken the natural seams between the members of an axis of evil before it coalesces further.” North Korea expressed its support for Palestine last month through the official state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper, saying that the war between Israel and Hamas was caused by Israel. On Nov. 5, it criticized the United States for its military support for Israel. Kim Jong Un, the country’s supreme leader, also recently ordered to find a way to support Palestinians, including by selling weapons to Middle East militant groups, the Wall Street Journal reported. Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

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Australia and China: Besties again? It’s complicated

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese wrapped up a three-day trip to China Tuesday, calling for the “full resumption of free and unimpeded trade” in a meeting with counterpart Li Qiang. The previous day, he held wide-ranging talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, covering everything from Tasmanian Devils to New Zealand wine, not to mention improving relations with Australia’s largest two-way trading partner in goods and services. In the next step towards mending the previously fraught relations and stabilizing them, Albanese told reporters in Beijing on Tuesday that both sides have agreed on practical steps to advance dialogue in areas of common interests, including climate change, trade and people-to-people links.  He also said he raised the plight of detained Australian writer Yang Hengjun – although he provided no details about his possible release – and human rights issues within China, in a move that highlighted the controversial nature of the trip in Australia. It was the first visit to China by an Australian prime minister since 2016, with the two sides visibly making an effort to reframe a relationship marred by disputes on trade, human rights and the COVID-19 pandemic during the tenure of the previous prime minister Scott Morrison. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese delivers his speech at the opening ceremony of 6th China International Import Expo and the Hongqiao International Economic Forum in Shanghai on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023. Credit: Jin Liwang/Xinhua via AP   “It is wise for Labor to ‘stabilize’ the relationship with China,” Han Yang, a former Chinese diplomat turned political commentator, told Radio Free Asia. Albanese has been the leader of the Labor Party since 2019. “Australia is a middle power. It’s not in Australia’s interest to pick a quarrel with China, a superpower and its largest trading partner. ‘Cooperate where we can and disagree where we must’ is the right mantra to approach the relationship,” Yang said. Chinese misjudgment? Yang pointed out that Canberra did not make major strategic concessions, nor was it simply acting on the orders of the U.S. as some pro-China activists have argued. “It’s worth noting that Australia didn’t concede on any national security strategic goals. AUKUS is pushing on,” he said, referring to the trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States in the Indo-Pacific region. Australia’s ban on Huawei remains, as does its anti-foreign interference law. “What has changed is the tone, and China got the message. “That is why it welcomed Albo with a red carpet,” Yang said, referring to the Australian prime minister’s nickname.  “If you look at the foreign ministry read out, it gives significantly more space to Xi’s speech compared to meetings with other second-tier power world leaders.” Another China watcher Gerry Groot, senior lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Adelaide, told RFA that whatever transpired from Albanese’s meetings with the Chinese leaders was driven more by Australia’s own policy than American interests. “It’s Chinese actions and demands in the South China Sea and South Pacific – Australia’s own backyard – which are so alarming to Australian politicians and defense planners,” Groot said. Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese visits the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China, November 6, 2023. Credit: AAP Image/Lukas Coch via Reuters He said he believed that Chinese strategic analysts had miscalculated the effect of weaponizing economic relations with Australia to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Australia or force more concessions, as well as punish the previous Morrison government for its anti-China stance.. “The grudging concessions on some of these sanctions have come about because the cost to China’s reputation internationally was greater than anticipated and the impact on Australia in economic terms was less, while at the same time driving relations with America closer,” he said. Exiles push back Australia’s relationship with China is made more complex by the fact that it is home to probably tens of thousands of exiles from China who have fled due to human rights violations, ethnic or religious oppression, or personal safety. “I think Albo’s China visit is morally corrupt, economically miscalculated and contradictory to Australia‘s national security interests,” exiled Chinese artist Ba Diucao told RFA. “Morally it is unacceptable to keep doing business as normal with a regime like China amid ongoing genocide against millions of Uyghurs and [while it is] supporting Russia’s invasion in multiple ways. “Also, an Australian citizen Yang Hengjun is still in jail as a political hostage in China,” Ba Diucao added. The writer was detained in 2019 while visiting family and charged with espionage. Some Uyghurs and Tibetans living in Australia, such as Ramila Chanisheff, president of the Australian Uyghur Tangritagh Women’s Association, reject any deals with the “devil.” Chanisheff told RFA that she and Tibetan representatives had petitioned against Albanese’s visit to China in Canberra ahead of the trip. “I think it was when we learned that Albanese was taking 400 trade reps [representatives] to China that it hit us the hardest. One Tibetan colleague of mine said she found it triggering,” she said. “Of course, as Australians, we feel shame at what happened to indigenous Australian youth, forced education etc, but now we’re facilitating a massive state that is doing the same in East Turkestan and Tibet.” Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese meets with China’s President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, November 6, 2023. Credit: AAP Image/Lukas Coch via Reuters Groot added, “While PM Albanese is beaming in his photos with CCP General Secretary Xi, we can only hope it is because the Chinese side has decided that more concessions to Australia are needed and perhaps that Yang Hengjun will be released shortly, rather than the grandeur of the occasion.”  “In the meantime,” he added. “Gordon Ng [an Australian citizen charged with subversion] languishes in a Hong Kong jail on trumped up retrospective charges also.” Edited by Mike Firn and Elaine Chan.

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What’s behind the latest corruption trial in Hanoi?

On October  23, Vietnamese prosecutors began a second corruption trial against fugitive businesswoman Nguyen Thi Thanh Nhan. Given her alleged ties to Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, this is no run of the mill fraud and bribery trial. Elite political infighting is clearly at play as the jockeying for power ahead of the 14th Congress intensifies. Nhan, 54, is the former chairwoman of the Advanced International Joint Stock Company (AIC), a trading company established in 1994, which has been involved in the import of any number of things, from corporate electronics, medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, auto parts, alcohol, machine tools, and farm equipment. Nhan who was tried in absentia along with 35 other defendants in December 2022 for a $6.3 million bid rigging and bribery case involving 16 hospitals in Dong Nai province. She allegedly paid some $1.8 million in bribes to local officials to secure inflated contracts,  Nhan was convicted and received a 30-year sentence in January 2023. Also convicted was Tran Dinh Thanh, who had been the provincial party chief at the time for accepting bribes.   The current case is similar to her first conviction, and involves six instances of bid rigging in the sale of medical equipment to state hospitals in the northeastern province of Quang Ninh, as well as bid-rigging at a medical lab in Ho Chi Minh City.  Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh meets with U.S. President Joe Biden (not pictured) in Hanoi, Sept. 11, 2023. Credit: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters The fraud involved in this case is only VND50 billion ($2 million). There are 15 other defendants including AIC’s accountant and Nhan’s brother. The latter had fled but returned to Vietnam to face justice.  But what makes the case so sensitive is that the Quang Ninh’s provincial party chief from 2011-2015, was Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh. The former Ministry of Public Security intelligence official was given some of his first management experience as he was being groomed for senior government service.  Nhan is rumored to be Chinh’s former mistress. But even if that is an unfounded rumor, Nhan clearly benefited from her close relationship with the prime minister and other leaders. She had a pattern of cultivating ties with provincial leadership where she sought contracts.   AIC’s webpage also notes that the firm serves as a consultant to the powerful Ministry of National Defense. Nhan as the middlewoman In addition to dealing in medical supplies, she allegedly became Vietnam’s intermediary for weapons procurement from Israel. Israeli defense firms reportedly secured some $1.5 billion in sales in the past decade as the People’s Army sought to modernize and lessen their dependence on Russian arms. Israel has been negotiating some $2 billion in additional sales to Vietnam, including surface-to-air missiles and other weapons systems, with Nhan as the middlewoman. In 2018, Vietnam entered into negotiations with Israel Aerospace Industries about procuring the Ofek-16 spy satellite, which would give Vietnam their first independent overhead imagery.  The deal was worth $550 million, but Nhan allegedly tried to get the Israeli manufacturer to significantly increase the price to secure a larger commission. Israeli officials were angered that the corruption scheme has potentially upended the sale, and at the very least delayed its implementation. An Ofek-16 spy satellite blasts off from the Palmachim air base in central Israel, July 6, 2020. Credit: Israel Ministry of Defense Spokesperson’s Office via AP Nhan has never been charged for anything involving military procurement, which probably reflects a fear of shedding light on the sensitive issue of the military’s procurement practices. Prosecutors have focused on her medical industry dealings, much the way that investigators may be focusing on tycoon Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao’s other business dealings, rather than her conglomerate SOVICO, which has an extensive history of brokering weapons imports from Russia. Madame Nhan has been a fugitive since the Ministry of Public Security issued a warrant for her arrest in April 2022.  Her December 2022 trial came as CPV General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s “Blazing Furnace” campaign brought down two deputy prime ministers, Politburo-member Pham Binh Minh and Vu Duc Dam, and two months later President and Politburo member Nguyen Xuan Phuc. At the time, Prime Minister Chinh appeared to be the next target. Chinh is reported to have gone through a self-criticism session and has held onto his job. But arguably what really saved him was not his innocence, but the lack of an obvious replacement. None of the new deputy prime ministers are on the Politburo and there’s an overall dearth of economic management experience on the top decision-making body.  Nhan is reportedly hiding in Germany, which rejected a formal extradition request from Vietnam. Indeed, Berlin issued a very stern warning to Hanoi to not repeat the abduction of the former executive of the state-owned PetroVietnam Construction, Trinh Xuan Thanh, in 2017. After his illegal rendition, allegedly through Slovakia, Thanh was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to life in prison; a trial that also saw Politburo member and former chief of PetroVietnam, Dinh La Thang, sentenced to 13 years. Germany expelled two Vietnamese diplomats and has convicted two people for the abduction, but wants to deter a similar operation. New targets Nhan’s trial could be another attempt to weaken the prime minister as jockeying for leadership positions heats up ahead of the Communist Party of Vietnam’s 14th Congress expected to be held in January 2026.  RFA’s Vietnamese Service has reported that the vice chairman of the Quang Ninh People’s Committee and two former vice chairmen have been investigated and officially reprimanded for their management shortcomings and oversight of the AIC deal. It’s just more unwanted pressure on the Prime Minister. Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam was one of the high-ranking officials recently removed from their positions. Credit: Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP file photo The Politburo continues to have just 17 members, as both the 7th and 8th Central Committee Plenums in May and October, respectively, failed to garner sufficient consensus to elect new members following the ouster of Minh and Phuc. …

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Uyghur artist wins prize at prestigious art exhibit in Italy

Lékim Ibragimov was well into his career as an artist when he visited the Kizil Thousand-Buddha Caves in Xinjiang in the 1990s.  It was a seminal experience that would shape his already renowned work and earn him a special commendation at one of the most prestigious exhibitions for contemporary art, the Florence Biennale in Florence, Italy. The series of rock-cut grottoes, each containing murals of Buddha, sometimes surrounded by other figures, date from the 5th to 14th century and sit on cliffs near Kizil township in Aksu prefecture.  The caves, reputed to contain the most beautiful murals in Central Asia, were an important medium for Buddhist art at a time when Buddhism prevailed in Xinjiang for more than a thousand years until it was replaced by Islam around the 13th century. Now they are a source of pride and symbol of desired freedom for Uyghurs who live in the region and abroad. Ibragimov, a Uyghur graphic artist and painter who lives in Uzbekistan, explored the regional capital Urumqi and the town of Turpan. But when he went to the caves, the ancient murals and their historical richness deeply moved him.  “I was particularly inspired by the Kizil Thousand-Buddha Caves [near] Kucha,” he told Radio Free Asia. “These paintings can’t be found anywhere else in the Turkic world. They are the epitome of Uyghur paintings, encapsulating the history and art of the Uyghurs. I found myself captivated.” One of the five works of Uyghur artist Lékim Ibragimov displayed at the 2023 Florence Biennale contemporary art exhibition in Florence, Italy, October 2023 Credit: Courtesy of Lékim Ibragimov Now 78, Ibragimov said he has dedicated more than 40 years to studying the cave murals and incorporating their style into his work.  “Over the years, I introduced these artworks to the world with support from prominent artists who encouraged me to continue,” he said. “Through art, I paved a way for the Uyghur people. I became an academic in Russia, a national-level artist in Uzbekistan, and received many awards. I am delighted to have made this artistic contribution for the Uyghur community.” Cave frescoes Lékim Ibrahim Hakimoghli, as the artist is known among Uyghurs, has incorporated the style and colors of the cave frescoes into his abstract, surreal artwork that combines drawing, painting and calligraphy. His paintings earned him widespread recognition in Russia, Germany and other European countries after the 1990s as well as numerous awards, including the special commendation in the painting category at this year’s Florence Biennale, an event that has been held every two years since 1997.  The five pieces Ibragimov presented at the exhibition were among 1,500 works by over 600 artists from 85 countries at the Oct. 14-22 event. Three of his works were of Turkic figures, outlined and accented by muted colors against a light brown background in the style of the frescoes at the Kizil, also known as Bezeklik, Thousand-Buddha Caves. Another one depicting a neighing steed trying to break free of its tether resembles a Chinese ink-and-water painting, while his rendering of an ancestral angel is reminiscent of the style and motifs of Belarussian-French artist Marc Chagall. All the works were created between 2008 and 2020. Piero Celona, the vice president and founder of the Florence Biennale, who is knowledgeable about the cave paintings in Xinjiang, expressed admiration for Ibragimov’s work.    “Germany and other European countries have preserved and respected Uyghur culture, and he noticed the similarities [to the cave murals] in my paintings,” Ibragimov told RFA. “He commended my work and emphasized the Uyghur people’s yearning for freedom, predicting a brighter future for them.”  Chinese suppression The award comes as the Chinese government is repressing Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples living in Xinjiang and trying to Sinicize the vast northwestern region in part by destroying Uyghur culture.  Beijing has denied committing severe human rights violations in the region, despite credible reports, witness accounts and growing condemnation by Uyghur advocacy groups and the international community. One of the five works of Uyghur artist Lékim Ibragimov displayed at the 2023 Florence Biennale contemporary art exhibition in Florence, Italy, October 2023. Credit: Courtesy of Lékim Ibragimov Marwayit Hapiz, a Uyghur painter who lives in Germany and is well-acquainted with Ibragimov’s works, said the inclusion of his paintings in the Florence Biannale was a significant achievement for Uyghur art. “Lékim Ibrahim’s selections for this exhibition were a rare distinction among Turkic ethnicities,” she told RFA. “He is the sole Turkic artist to have earned this recognition.”   Hapiz, who first met Ibragimov in Urumqi in 1991, calls him one of the leading artists in the field of contemporary Uyghur fine art, whose works in the style of the cave murals highlight the traditional art of Uyghurs. “I wouldn’t hesitate to call him the foremost artist in Uyghur arts,” Hapiz said. “In Europe, whenever someone inquires about painters of symbolic Silk Road paintings, his name comes up.” “Lékim Ibrahim’s paintings emanate the spirit of Uyghur art from the era of the Uyghur Buddhas,” she said. “Our Uyghur artistic legacy essentially originates from these stone wall paintings.” Narratives Through extensive research, Ibragimov developed a deep understanding of the narratives and tales depicted in the cave wall paintings and incorporated them into his creative spirit, Hapiz said. “He innovatively adapted their expression and aesthetics, establishing a unique method of painting,” she said. Ibragimov has played a pivotal role in introducing Uyghur art to the world, alongside other renowned Uyghur painters Ghazi Ehmet and Abdukirim Nesirdin, she added. “He stands as a distinctive artist from the Silk Road and Asia primarily due to his ability to reflect the ancient paintings,” said Hapiz. Other artists familiar with Ibragimov’s work took to social media to offer their congratulations and praise. The special commendation certificate and medal presented to Uyghur artist Lékim Ibragimov at the 2023 Florence Biennale contemporary art exhibition in Florence, Italy, October 2023. Credit: courtesy of Lékim Ibragimov Gulnaz Tursun, a Uyghur artist from Central Asia, who like Ibragimov, serves as a mentor…

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China urges ‘fair’ investigation into Baltic pipeline damage

China has said it will stand “ready to provide necessary assistance” to the investigation into Finland’s claims a Hong Kong vessel may have damaged a natural gas pipeline. Finnish police said on Tuesday the Balticconnector pipeline between Finland and Estonia was likely damaged by an anchor as “on the seabed, a 1.5 to 4 meter-wide dragging trail is seen to lead to the point of damage in the gas pipeline.” The investigators said they found the anchor just a few meters from the gas pipeline damage point. They said the anchor may have belonged to the Chinese container vessel Newnew Polar Bear which was sailing through the area at around 1:20 a.m. local time on Oct. 8, 2023 when the pipeline was reported damaged. The police focused their suspicion on the ship as until now, they “could not visually confirm that both front anchors of the vessel were in their place.”  Newnew Polar Bear is a Chinese-owned and Hong Kong-registered commercial ship.   The vessel “was contacted several times, but they were not willing to cooperate,” they said, adding that help is needed from the Chinese authorities for the investigation to continue. A graphic obtained by Reuters on October 13, 2023, shows where the Balticconnector pipeline between Finland and Estonia was damaged on October 8, by an unknown reason. Credit: NORSAR/Handout via Reuters In Beijing, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said China maintains “unimpeded communication with parties including Finland” over the incident, which is still under investigation, and “stands ready to provide necessary assistance in accordance with international law.” Mao Ning told reporters on Wednesday that the Chinese government hopes “relevant parties will follow the principles of being objective, fair, just and professional and find out what happened soon.” Earlier this week, Mao said the Chinese vessel was “sailing through relevant waters normally when the incident occurred. Due to the rather bad conditions at sea, it didn’t detect anything abnormal.”  Finland’s National Bureau of Investigation has published a photo of the broken anchor that investigators retrieved from the seabed.  The next step would be to confirm that it came from the Chinese container vessel and determine if the damage was an accident or intentional, said Carl Schuster, a retired U.S. Navy captain turned maritime analyst. “If evidence of the Newnew Polar Bear’s involvement surfaces, then the captain will try to claim it was an accident but that is not likely unless the evidence is conclusive,” Schuster told RFA. Cable cutting The Estonian government has said it is investigating two incidents that might also be linked to the Newnew Polar Bear, in which a telecoms cable connecting Finland and Estonia and another between Sweden and Estonia, were damaged. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas was quoted in the domestic media as saying that there are reasons to believe that the three incidents are related, but “it is too early to reveal sensitive information.” Some observers recall that Chinese ships were accused of damaging communications cables before. In April, Taiwan’s National Communications Commission blamed two Chinese ships for cutting two undersea internet cables connecting Taiwan island and the outlying islands of Matsu, leading to 50 days of no, or very limited internet access, there. The same cables have been damaged 27 times since 2017 by Chinese sand dredging and fishing boats, some cut by ships’ anchors, Taiwanese authorities said. RFA analyzed automatic identification system data provided by ship-tracking website MarineTraffic and found that at around 1:00 a.m. on Oct. 8, the Newnew Polar Bear was approaching the site of the Balticconnector pipeline.  During the course of one hour or so, the Newnew Polar Bear slowed down to under 11 knots before picking up again, but did not stop.  Besides the Chinese ship, a Russian flag bearer – the nuclear-powered cargo ship Sevmorput – was also seen at the scene, sailing at a higher speed. Norwegian seismology institute NORSAR reported blast-like waves near the pipeline at the time. What does Russia say? NewNew Polar Bear was renamed and registered in Hong Kong in June. Immediately prior to this, the ship sailed under the name Baltic Fulmar flying the Cypriot flag. Newnew Polar Bear and four other ships owned by China’s Hainan Yangpu Newnew Shipping Co. began transporting cargo between Russia and China using the Northern Sea Route along Russia’s Arctic coast in July. The route was previously not operational because of the ice. The Newnew Polar Bear made a port call in Baltiysk, Russia, on Oct. 6. Credit: Anton Alikhanov’s Telegram Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom is believed to assist the Chinese shipping line with nuclear-powered icebreakers, reducing the transit time between Russia’s St Petersburg and China’s Shanghai to less than a month, compared to 45-50 days if using the route through the Suez Canal. Sevmorput is part of the Rosatom-owned nuclear icebreaker fleet, the only such fleet in the world. The Northern Sea Route is one of the strategic priorities of cooperation between the Russians and the Chinese, and Newnew Polar Bear reflects this close collaboration.  But Russian netizens have posted photos of the vessel flying the Russian flag at port calls, such as on Oct. 6 in Baltiysk, Kaliningrad’s region. This left watchers puzzled. “It is not legal under international law for the ship to fly a Russian flag unless its registration was changed to Russia. There is no evidence it has changed its registration,” said maritime analyst Carl Schuster.  “A commercial vessel must fly the flag of its country of registration although it may have a logo of its country of ownership painted on its superstructure,” he added, So far, as the suspicion is not directed at Russia, Russian official channels have yet to comment on the case.  Yet on social media platforms, Russian analysts and observers have been talking about what they call “the West attempting to block traffic from China to Russia and Europe.” “Perhaps the West understands that this traffic can increase massively in the near future – both from the Baltic and along the Northern Sea Route,” one…

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