Table of Contents
Here are the stories I have curated for this week:
In International News …
This week, I really wanted to talk about three international stories. One is an old one, but it is worth noting here.
Trump Is Saber-Rattling with North Korea.
Trump and Kim Jung Un have escalated things in the Pacific. As many people have surmised, the recent strikes in Syria were definitely a preamble to a potential disaster with North Korea.
Tensions have been raised ever since the U.S. fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syrian targets on April 6, a move many have speculated sent a message to North Korea. For his part, Trump said that the United States’ policy of “strategic patience” is over.
On Thursday, April 13, reports said Trump said the U.S. was prepared to preemptively strike North Korea should the latter test another nuclear weapon.
However, administration officials flatly denied reports from NBC News that the U.S. was considering a preemptive strike on North Korea. An official said the report was “speculative at best.”
The Pentagon refused to comment, per the agency’s policy on planned military operations and speculation.
While Trump has said he was willing to go it alone (without China’s help), senior officials said they were focusing on a strategy that would avoid military action. Trump’s national security aides said their review of options to curtail the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs include and lean toward economic sanctions and increased pressure on China to rein in its ally. But those aides have not taken preemptive strikes off the table.
Navy Strike Group
On Saturday, Apr. 8, an anonymous U.S. official announced that a Navy strike group called Carl Vinson was being moved from Singapore to the western Pacific near the Korean peninsula. The move was intended to be a show of force in response to North Korean nuclear aspirations and threats.
The Carl Vinson includes a flagship nuclear-armed aircraft carrier and two U.S. Navy destroyers. Those destroys are able to shoot Tomahawk cruise missiles and they are just 300 miles from the North Korean nuclear test site.
In Guam, the U.S. has B-1, B-2, and B-52 bombers.
North Korean officials have increasingly made threats to test a missile with an intercontinental range or something similar. In early April, North Korea tested a liquid-fueled Scud missile but it only traveled a fraction of its range. The big test has been indicated to come on April 15, which is known as the “Day of the Sun” in North Korea.
The Navy’s Third Fleet said the strike group was originally planned to move ports in Australia but it was directed to sail north. However, the fleet did not specify were the strike group was going.
Sun Day is the anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth. He was North Korea’s founding president. April 15, 2017 would have been his 105th birthday.
In the face of a U.S. threat to preemptively strike North Korea, the Democratic Republic of Korea’s vice defense minister, Han Song Ryol, puffed his chest. He said the Trump administration was antagonizing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea’s official name) by making nuclear threats and it was “becoming more vicious and aggressive,” especially in comparison with the Obama administration. Han said his country was prepared to launch a preemptive strike of its own as long as the U.S. threats and escalation continued.
Han cited the military exercises with the U.S. and South Korea, as well as Trump’s tweets and the recent movement of the USS Carl Vinson strike group.
According to senior U.S. intelligence sources, the DPRK is very close to conducting its sixth nuclear test. Some other U.S. sources also say North Korea may have a nuclear device placed in a tunnel. The sources also speculated that device could be deployed around the Day of the Sun.
China is urging all sides to refrain from military action. It opposes Pyongyang’s weapons program and called for a denuclearization of the peninsula. On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Minister Way Yi said, “Military force cannot resolve the issue. Amid tensions we will also find a kind of opportunity to return to talks.”
On Friday, Wang warned against the rising tensions with North Korea and the United States. When talking to reporters in Beijing, Wang said, “We call on all parties to refrain from provoking and threatening each other, whether in words or actions, and not let the situation get to an irreversible and unmanageable stage.”
For its part, China has taken part in economic sanctions against North Korea since February. On Feb. 26, China banned all coal imports from the DPRK under U.N. sanctions (but it remains to be seen when that ban will be lifted). On Friday, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV announced that airline Air China will suspend flights to Pyongyang.
In the meantime, Japan was preparing to evacuate roughly 57,000 of its citizens from South Korea in case war broke out, as well as preparing for a possible influx of North Korean citizens. Japan is also accounting for the possibility that North Korean spies and agents.
On Friday, at least two Russians called for U.S. restraint on the issue of North Korea.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had this to say:
Moscow is watching with great concern the escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula. We call for restraint from all countries and warn countries not to pursue actions that could consist of any provocative steps.
Russia’s North Korean ambassador, Alexander Matsegora, warned against a preemptive strike against North Korea. In an interview with RIA-Novosti, Matsegora said:
If Mr. Trump would listen to a Russian Korea expert with 40 years of experience, I would advise him not to do it. Right now we all must stop at the edge of the abyss and not take this fateful step.
South Korea Weighing In … or Not
It seems that most South Korean civilians have a nonchalant attitude about North Korea. This might be a recent thing and it presents a sharp contrast to the views of people in other countries.
In 1994, North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, died. Many South Koreans feared war was just around the corner then.
In 2010, the North shelled Yeonpyeong, South Korea’s border island. In response, many South Koreans stocked up on dried food and can goods.
But now, many South Koreans have become somewhat numb to “the bellicose rhetoric and nuclear bluster in the region.” There is no rush to stock up on storable food items. And on Friday, many singles were focused on “Black Day.*
Others are more concerned about finding work and working hard. In short, South Koreans are just living their lives.
* Black Day is a day for singles in response to the country’s “White Day,” which was celebrated on March 14. White Day is an Asian Valentine’s Day. During Black Day, singles eat “jajanmyeon,” a noodle dish with thick black bean sauce.
What Happened with the Missile Launch
According to U.S. and South Korean sources, a North Korean missile test ended in failure. A prepared missile exploded within seconds of its launch. The news was first reported by the South Korean defense ministry and confirmed by the United States Pacific Command.
This development comes after weeks of North Korean threats, speculation, and rising tensions in the region. Just a few hours prior to the missile launch, the DPRK was celebrating its Day of the Sun in honor of its founded, Kim Il Sung. As part of the celebration, the North Korean military took part in a parade marked by the presence of long-range ballistic missiles.
The U.S. Pacific Command said it had detected a North Korean ballistic missile. One official said it was unlikely that it was an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
The military parade on Apr 15 may have included the display of new intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
Although this test was a failure, it will not deter the DPRK from trying again. It has had noted test failures in the past, as well. The country’s goal is to be a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach targets around the world.
Earlier this month, North Korea conducted another test with a medium-range ballistic missile. It was fired from Sinpo into the Sea of Japan a day before Chinese President Xi Jinping was to meet Trump at the latter’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
North Korea says it has miniature nuclear warheads, but there is no corroborating evidence.
Hundreds of Civilian Deaths Were Reported in Iraq and Syria During March Airstrikes.
There are ongoing investigations into airstrikes conducted by the United States military from in Iraq and Syria in March 16-23, 2017. The United States has been accused of causing the deaths of close to 300 civilians in 3 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria in March of this year. In all instances, the allegations stemmed from local reports and accounts via social media.
Iraqi security forces agree that they need new tactics when it comes to dealing with western Mosul. The area is densely populated and according to the International Organization of Migration, 600,000 people may be trapped there. Additionally, the roads there are smaller, presenting a challenge for targeted airstrikes.
The current investigations involve airstrikes in Mansura near Raqqa, Syria on Mar. 21 and Al-Jineh, in Aleppo province in northern Syria.
A March 16 airstrike in Al-Jiney that was carried out by drones and manned aircraft reportedly killed scores of civilians. According to local reports and social media accounts, the airstrike hit a mosque and resulted in the deaths of over 40 people.
Local activists allege a U.S. airstrike near Raqqa, in Syria, resulted in the deaths of 30 people. According to activists, a school was hit and civilians were taking shelter there.
About 33 people were said to have been killed in the Mansura bombing. There were 49 people who died in the Al-Jineh bombing. Both figures come from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Locals allege those airstrikes resulted in at least 150-200 deaths in Iraq alone.
March 17, 2017
A Mar. 17 strike over Western Mosul is suspected in the deaths of at least 61 people there. According to coalition leaders, a U.S. airplane was instructed to hit a truck in used by ISIS militants, but that truck was laden with explosives and it was parked near a house were people were taking shelter.
The U.S. military acknowledged it carried out a strike near the general area and it was conducting an investigation to review the airstrike.
A team from the Iraqi military said it found a vehicle bomb and detonator in the debris of a destroyed home. The team believes ISIS fighters had the home destroyed.
The Iraqi military also said 25 women and children had been rescued from the area.
Molly Hennessy-Fiske, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times, said she spoke to locals in the area and saw at least 50 dead bodies and body parts sticking out of the rubble. Hennessy-Fiske said the Iraqis in the area had been forced their by ISIS militants. She said the terrorists brought a truck loaded with explosives there days before the airstrike and started shooting at aircraft above theme moments before the explosion happened.
March 22-23, 2017
Bashar al Kiki, the chairman of Nineveh Provincial Council in Iraq, said at least 200 people perished after airstrikes were carried out over the al Jadidah, al Amel, and al Yarmouk neighborhoods in western Mosul. Those airstrikes took place on Mar. 22-23. Al Kiki said the coalition should pause airstrikes until civilian safety could be guaranteed.
Col. Muntathar Al-Shamari is the head of the Iraqi Counterterrorism Unit in Mosul. When talking about the Mar. 17 strike, he said his unit had to the coalition to engage an ISIS vehicle in the area. When speaking about the Mar. 22 strike, he said the report of 200 dead was an exaggeration.
Bashar al Kiki walked back his earlier statements, but he said he got the 200 civilian death toll from multiple locations.
In Iraq, the United States is currently leading a coalition that includes the Iraqi Air Force. Their missions are heavily focused in western Mosul. On Saturday, Mar. 25, the coalition announced it had begun an investigation into airstrikes that were conducted from March 17-23.
The Joint Special Operations Command will conduct an investigation into the March 16 incident. For weeks, the U.S. military denied it had hit civilians and that the mosque was destroyed. Initially, the military said it had hit a building nearby that was suspected to be the setting of Al Qaida members.
The investigations will be conducted in a “15-6” fact-finding mission according to U.S. Army rules. The protocol calls for the investigating officer to question U.S. military personnel and review classified information. The investigating officer will present their findings (and determination of whether civilians were killed) to the head of Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel. Gen. Votel can either accept the finders or send it for further review to military legal officers.
Central Command is also conducting its own investigation into an airstrike in Raqqa using the same process. The military is trying to determine if it hit the correct building and if there were any civilians there beyond U.S. knowledge.
For the Iraqi Government’s Part …
According to a report by Amnesty International, the increased Iraqi civilian death toll in March was due to contradictory orders by the Iraqi government. Iraqi authorities said they told civilians to evacuate western Mosul before its latest campaign against ISIS kicked off there. But the report from Amnesty International cites civilians and witnesses of airstrikes who said the government told people to stay in their homes.
The United States does not have anyone on the ground, so local reports are hard to verify. Furthermore, U.S. officials said the reports “lack the precise detail” the military desires in order to know exactly what happened in each case.
Central Command oversees military operations in the Middle East.
The U.S. soldiers who have been tasked to help with the recapture of Mosul come from the 82dn Airborne Division. This group numbers in the low hundreds and will likely operated out of east Mosul and Qayyarah West Air Base.
ISIS has held all or part of Mosul since 2014. The U.S. coalition in Iraq first made its latest push to take back the city in Oct. 2016. The coalition is now focusing on the western side, called the “Old City.”
The ‘Mother of All Bombs’ Was Used in Afghanistan.
On Thursday evening, the United States dropped a GBU-43 bomb in a mountainous area in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar. The coalition there was targeting an Islamic State stronghold there. The terrorist network was using a network of caves and tunnels that was heavily mined. Afghan defense officials said the strike resulted in 36 terrorist deaths and no civilian deaths.
The bomb was dropped from an MC-130 aircraft in the Achin district of Nangarhar. Nearby residents reportedly felt the ground shake when the bomb was dropped, but buildings seemed to remain intact.
How big is the GBU-43? It is known as “the mother of all bombs” because at 21,600 pounds (9,797 kg), it is the largest bomb in the U.S. arsenal. It had a 20-mile blast radius when it was tested, which is equivalent to 11 tons of TNT.*
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said the military thought it was the “right time” to use the bomb based on military needs. He said the mountain was “the first time that we encountered an extensive obstacle to our progress.”
For the first three months of 2017, the United States has dropped nearly 500 bombs in Afghanistan. (Seventy-nine airstrikes were carried out in Afghanistan in March alone.) During the same period last year, the U.S. dropped 600 bombs.
* By comparison, the smaller atomic bomb dropped on Japan each had a blast that was equivalent to 15,000-20,000 tons of TNT.
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