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N. Korea detainee release positive, but no game-changer

Thursday, 23 October 2014 00:00 Published in Commentary

SEOUL — North Korea’s unexpected release of a US detainee may be aimed at prising open the door to direct talks with Washington, but the road to a genuine dialog remains long and strewn with obstacles, analysts said Wednesday.
Announcing Jeffrey Fowle’s release on Tuesday, the US State Department declined to provide any details of how it was brokered, citing ongoing efforts to secure the return of two other Americans — Matthew Miller and Kenneth Bae — serving hard-labor prison terms in the North.
Given Pyongyang’s repeated rejection of US offers to send an envoy to negotiate the detainees’ release, the sudden decision to let Fowle go took many observers by surprise.
“Usually we see a clear lead-up to this sort of thing, but not in this case,” said Paul Carroll, a North Korea expert and program director at the Ploughshares Fund in San Francisco.
“It could mean the North Korean leadership is interested in exploring what might be possible in terms of picking up a conversation with the US again,” Carroll said.
“In the broader context of the pressure the North is currently under over its human rights record, it might also be Pyongyang trying to show it can be reasonable,” he added.
The European Union and Japan want the UN to consider pressing charges of crimes against humanity over a recent UN Commission of Inquiry report that detailed brutal rights abuses in North Korea.
While Washington welcomed Fowle’s release, it was quick to stress that its focus remained firmly on the plight of Bae and Miller.
Fowle, 56, entered the North in April and was detained after apparently leaving a Bible in the bathroom of a nightclub in the northern port of Chongjin.
The 24-year-old Miller was arrested in April after allegedly ripping up his visa at immigration. He was sentenced to six years hard labor in September.
Bae, 42, is serving a 15-year prison term, having been arrested in 2012 and charged with being a militant Christian evangelist intent on seeking to topple the regime.
North Korea regards unsanctioned missionary work as a crime.
Washington has accused Pyongyang of using the detainees as political hostages, and will be wary of responding to Fowle’s release with any immediate concessions.
“Given the Obama administration’s mantra of no reward for bad behavior, I’m not sure how much momentum this really provides,” said John Delury a Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul.
“It’s a positive sign, especially if it’s followed by the release of the others, but in the end it only removes an irritant. Resuming a dialogue is still many, many steps away,” Delury said.
Together with ally South Korea, the United States has maintained that high-level talks can only take place after the North shows a genuine commitment to abandoning its nuclear weapons program.
“This release doesn’t change that fundamental equation,” said Peter Beck, a senior adviser with the New Paradigm Institute think-tank in Seoul.
“North Korea might now consider the ball in the US court, but it’s unclear if the Obama administration will try to engage — at least before the others are set free,” Beck said.
US domestic politics might also play a role.
With mid-term elections looming in November, any good news regarding the US detainees will be welcome, but it can’t be seen to soften the administration’s stance towards Pyongyang.
North Korea has yet to put its spin, or even comment, on Fowle’s release.
“It’ll be interesting to see what they come up with,” said Delury. “I imagine something to the effect that the Americans regretted Fowle’s actions and said it wouldn’t happen again.”
The North insisted that a US government plane be sent to collect Fowle — lending an official diplomatic element to the release process.
There is no US embassy in Pyongyang and the State Department had stressed the role of the Swedish embassy, which looks after US interests there, in securing Fowle’s release.
It was not clear if any US officials were on board the flight that landed in Pyongyang or if there was any interaction with North Korean officials at the airport.
Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said he expected the other two Americans to be released, but added that Pyongyang would hold out for a high-level US envoy to come and pick them up. 

Beijing’s focus on coal lost in haze of smog: experts

Thursday, 23 October 2014 00:00 Published in Commentary

BEIJING — The soaring, grimy chimneys of the coal-fired power station have belched the last of their choking fumes into Beijing’s air, authorities say — but experts doubt the plan will ease the capital’s smog.
The 50-year-old Gaojing facility is one of four enormous generating plants authorities promised to close after the city was repeatedly blanketed by acrid haze.
Levels of PM2.5 particulates, the smallest and most dangerous, rose to 16 times World Health Organization recommended limits across Beijing over the past week, the toxic smog forcing hundreds of athletes to don masks for Sunday’s annual marathon.
World leaders including presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin are due to descend on the city for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit next month, when temporary industrial closures and a public sector holiday have been declared.
Around a quarter of the capital’s electricity is produced from coal, and in the long term municipal authorities aim to switch to cleaner energy sources.
A pristine gas-fired plant that became operational earlier this year, the Beijing Northwest Thermoelectric Centre, stands near the Gaojing facility, its shiny steel structure glistening in the sun.
But at the same time China is opening a new coal-fired power plant every week, according to environmental campaign group Greenpeace, with 159 under construction and another 337 in the pipeline.
The Gaojing plant’s shutdown was announced earlier this year, but a month later clouds of steam still emerged from its cooling towers and staff were unconcerned that they might lose their livelihoods.
“We are going to work at other power stations,” said Cheng Mengxiong, one of scores of workers at the site. “There will be a newly built coal power station in Hebei,” the province neighbouring Beijing, he added.
PM2.5 levels soared to almost 40 times the maximum recommended limit during a heavy bout of pollution last year, sparking widespread anger among the capital’s 21 million population.
In response Beijing authorities announced plans to slash coal consumption by 9.2 million tonnes before 2016.
Premier Li Keqiang declared a nationwide “war on pollution” in March, officials talk of “green cities,” and the central government has repeatedly pledged to cut the proportion of electricity generated from coal.
But it shies away from promising to reduce the total amount consumed, and observers say the plant closures’ overall effect on the Beijing environment will be limited.
“Smog comes into the city, as well as being produced by the city itself, so it may actually have zero net effect and we may not notice anything different than before,” said Richard Brubaker, professor in sustainability at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai.
“We are talking about four power plants from about 2,200 to 2,300 across China,” he added. “There are many people out there saying that by cutting these four power plants Beijing’s smog is going to go away, which is anything but.”
China will need as much as 400 percent more energy by 2030 to power its developing economy, currently the world’s second-largest, Brubaker said.
Increasing urbanisation will see cities’ energy footprint “absolutely explode,” he added.
Writing in the Lancet last year, former Chinese health minister Chen Zhu cited studies showing air pollution caused up to 500,000 premature deaths a year in the country.
“It is very clear that China needs to start economic reform to not have only a better environment but also a more healthier economy,” said Huang Wei, Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner in Beijing.
“The public is paying a lot of health ‘burden’ to live in such kind of environment and the economy is facing a lot of problems because of the huge over-capacity of steel, cement and glass industries.” 

Abduction, dirty cops are open secret in Mexico

Wednesday, 22 October 2014 00:00 Published in Commentary

TELOLOAPAN — Two years ago, Manuel was kidnapped by a drug gang in southern Mexico and held and beaten for eight weeks before reappearing in another city, his clothes torn to rags.
He is one of the few survivors of the disappearances that have become almost commonplace in the state of Guerrero but are under increased scrutiny since 43 students went missing from the city of Iguala on Sept. 26.
Mexican authorities say police shot at the students’ buses before detaining them and handing them over to a drug gang, a tale of violence and corruption that has outraged the country and sparked fiery protests.
But in Guerrero, which has the highest homicide rate in Mexico — 63 per 100,000 residents last year — such stories have long been an open secret.
Manuel was kidnapped by drug traffickers who thought he was an informant for a rival gang.
Abducted with 15 others, he was held blindfolded with his hands tied and forced to sleep outside in the rain.
“The first week they beat us every day until we lost consciousness,” said Manuel, a solidly built middle-aged man whose name has been changed to protect him.
He told AFP he was set finally set free when his captors, satisfied that he was not an informant, saw his health was failing.
That was a stroke of rare good luck in Guerrero, where scores of people are officially missing and more than 80 bodies have been found so far this year.
“I don’t understand why the government is suddenly afraid now with the case of the students. We’ve already lived through a nightmare here,” said Manuel, who is still reluctant to go out in the street.
Maria Guadalupe Orosco’s son was less fortunate than Manuel.
He was 32 years old when he and five friends disappeared after a party in 2010.
According to Orosco, witnesses say the army kidnapped the six victims.
She has been demanding the authorities to act ever since.
“Is the pain supposed to stop just because it’s been a long time since they disappeared?” she asked tearfully.
She grew angry when she spoke about the government’s recent handling of a mass grave with 28 bodies initially thought to be those of the missing students.
After DNA tests were carried out, Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said last week that there was no match with the students — but gave no further information on those buried.
“Those people had names and families, too,” Orosco said bitterly.
Since Mexico launched a military crackdown on drug trafficking in 2006, 22,322 people have officially gone missing.
The real figure may be higher, since stories of police colluding with drug gangs deter some victims’ families from speaking out.
Their fears are not unfounded.
Since the students went missing, the federal government has stripped local police in Iguala and 14 nearby towns of their guns and taken them in for questioning over suspected links to organized crime.
Thirty-six officers have been arrested, and federal security forces sent in to take over policing.
In Cocula, a small town whose streets are empty by 8 p.m., residents tell horror stories of struggling to come up with ransoms of up to $15,000 to free their loved ones.
“Whose hands are we in?” asked a man whose niece was kidnapped — a crime that was never reported.
Residents welcomed the federal police takeover but said the move came too late.
“They should have acted here years ago so we wouldn’t be mourning today,” said Cocula Mayor Cesar Penaloza, who survived an assassination attempt last year.
Just up the road in Teloloapan, Mayor Ignacio Valladares said much the same.
“It’s great that they’re here and terrible it’s because of these deplorable events in Iguala,” said Valladares, who has 11 bodyguards around the clock.
More than 10 murders have been reported in the past 15 days in the city of 50,000 people, some of whose inhabitants have nicknamed it “Hell.” 

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