Asia/Africa update: September 2-3 2017



On Saturday, North Korea’s KCNA news agency reported that the country’s nuclear scientists and engineers had developed a hydrogen bomb capable of being fitted into a missile warhead. North Korea watchers kind of shrugged at this–it’s not believed that Pyongyang had ever tested a hydrogen (i.e., thermonuclear or two-stage) bomb, and getting such a bomb packed into a warhead is another matter entirely, but on the other hand North Korea has been routinely surpassing almost everybody’s expectations with respect to where their nuclear and missile programs are. KCNA issued some photos of Kim Jong-un looking at something that looked enough like a hydrogen bomb that there wasn’t really any reason to doubt the announcement.

For example

Then, at noon on Sunday, this happened:

On Sunday, September 3, North Korea detonated an underground nuclear device near its nuclear testing site at Punggye-ri in North Hamgyong Province, marking its sixth nuclear test. The device was detonated at exactly noon local time in North Korea (3:30 UTC) and generated considerable seismic activity.

The United States Geological Service (USGS) recorded a 6.3 magnitude event as a result of the detonation. The China Earthquake Administration (CEA) recorded the same while Japan Meteorological Agency recorded a 6.1 magnitude event. All measurements so far put the detonated device’s explosive yield considerably higher than North Korea’s fifth nuclear test last September.

Hours after the test, North Korea’s Korean Central State Television (KCTV) broadcast a statement claiming that the device tested was a two-stage, thermonuclear bomb designed for use with North Korea’s Hwasong-14 intercontinental-range ballistic missile, which was first tested earlier this summer, on July 4.

There is and will continue to be a lot of uncertainty about what happened on Sunday, in large part because we’re talking about North Korea. In a climate of uncertainty, initial estimates about a test’s yield depend to a great degree on measurements of the seismic activity. For what we know about North Korea’s nuclear testing facilities that puts the yield into the hundreds of kilotons, which is definitely within a comfortable thermonuclear range. The Center for Science and International Studies puts their estimate at 100 kilotons even, could still be within TN ranges, especially for a first test that most likely wouldn’t have gone perfectly and might not have been of a true two-stage (a fission trigger igniting a fusion bomb) device. This test could have been of a “boosted” or (more likely) “layered” atomic bomb rather than a full-on hydrogen bomb.

More information will come from “sniffer” aircraft that the US and/or Japan will fly over the test site, and other kinds of analysis that, hey, if I were a nuclear scientist and could explain all this stuff in detail, I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog. There are reports (based again on seismic readings) that the cavern that was dug out for the test may have collapsed, which could make it easier for analysts to detect what they need to detect to figure out what kind of bomb was tested.

Basically what I’m saying is that at this point nobody really knows what Pyongyang tested on Sunday, and we may never know to any degree of certainty. But there’s no doubt that whatever they tested was much, much more powerful than anything they’ve tested before. And at this point, is anybody still willing to be the skeptic when it comes to North Korea’s claims? They’ve moved faster and farther than most people thought they could. That’s why I would also be reluctant to dismiss them when they say they can put this bomb atop a missile.

So the question is what happens now. The answer, as always with Donald Trump, is ANGRY TWEETING:

Trump saved most of his anger for…South Korea. Wait, what?

Seriously, for some reason President Good Brain is madder at Seoul than he is at Pyongyang. Even before the test, he was talking about scrapping KORUS, the US-South Korea free trade deal, which, I mean, what the fuck are you thinking? I’m not arguing the merits of KORUS, which may not have any for all I know. But I am arguing that the middle of a nuclear crisis in North Korea is not really the appropriate time to talk about blowing up your alliances with North Korea’s neighbors. That’s kind of what Pyongyang wants the US to do. Later on Sunday, Trump tweeted this:

If he’s actually considering this then somebody needs to think about invoking the 25th amendment. Cutting off trade with China alone would risk setting off a global depression and would at the very least collapse the US economy. Of course he’s not actually considering this, it’s just that some mention of new sanctions was the only snippet of his most recent briefing that actually penetrated the thick fog inside his skull. New sanctions are the likeliest outcome of this test, with China on board–Pyongyang’s timing here seems like it was intended to embarrass Beijing, which I’m sure will not go over particularly well.



The Australian military is looking into charges of war crimes committed by its personnel in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016. One case involving the killing of an Afghan boy and subsequent coverup was investigated by Australian media earlier this year and seems to have led to a number of allegations of abuses.


Pervez Musharraf says he is definitely for sure no doubt going to get back to Pakistan to face those “fabricated” charges that he conspired in the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto…ah, as soon as he feels better. He’s been a little bit sick, you see, and medically he probably shouldn’t do anything too stressful, but you better believe that just as soon as the doctors give him the go ahead he’ll be right there, you just wait and see.


Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena says he won’t allow human rights groups to “touch” his former ambassador to South America, Jagath Jayasuriya. Several rights groups filed criminal complaints against Jayasuriya in various South American courts, triggering his recall to Sri Lanka, just because Jayasuriya commanded the Sri Lankan military during the last phase of the country’s 1983-2009 civil war and maybe/probably committed a few war crimes along the way. The nerve of these guys. It’s been more than eight. years and the Sri Lankan government has steadfastly refused to live up to its obligations to investigate and prosecute war crimes stemming from that conflict.


The Cambodian government has arrested Kem Sokha, the leader of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, on treason charges. While the arrest of a top opposition figure in the run up to an election is always a sign of a healthy democracy, in this case for some reason people think it means that Prime Minister Hun Sen, who’s held that job for almost 20 years so he must be really good at it, is consolidating his already substantially consolidated power.


The Myanmar government’s push to ethnically cleanse the country of Rohingya is back on in full force. As of early Sunday, the most recent round of violence–which began on August 25–had driven 73,000 Rohingya out of Myanmar and into Bangladesh according to the United Nations. The reports they’re bringing with them are startling. Myanmar forces are reportedly raiding and burning Rohingya villages and–this part is new compared with past government attacks on the Rohingya–killing fighting-age men indiscriminately. They’re presumably doing so because of the rise of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, an insurgency whose attacks on police facilities across Rakhine state on August 25 set off this new chain of violence. It would be tempting to blame the ARSA for the violence that followed their attacks, but of course the Rohingya were under assault from Myanmar Buddhists and the government for years, even decades, before ARSA was formed, and ARSA isn’t the first time groups of Rohingya have taken up arms against their persecutors, though it may be the most extreme Rohingya militant group yet.

The risk of the Rohingya genocide becoming part of a wider regional conflict are escalating, with Indonesia sending its foreign minister to Myanmar to warn the government to ease up.


Malaysian authorities arrested eight suspected members of the Philippine-based Islamist group Abu Sayyaf on Sunday, including one of its alleged leaders, Hajar Abdul Mubin AKA Abu Asrie.


That Malaysian story segues nicely into this next one. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte plans to speak with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Indonesian President Joko Widodo about the formation of a regional counter-terrorism task force that could have permission to operate across borders as needed. The three nations have already agreed to share intelligence gathering and naval patrols, so this would simply build on those arrangements.

Meanwhile, the fighting in Marawi continues, and although it says there are only a few dozen Islamist fighters left in the city, the Philippine military has no idea when the city might finally be clear.



Doctors Without Borders is calling on Libya’s Government of National Accord to stop detaining migrants and asylum seekers in what it calls “squalid detention conditions” in facilities in Tripoli. While conditions in those facilities could be improved with funding, which the European Union says it will provide, that’s not really the point, and MSF is right to note that it’s the arbitrary detention itself that’s the real issue.


Boko Haram fighters carrying knives killed 18 people in the northeast Nigerian town of Banki late Friday night.


It was probably too much to ask that things not get nasty in Kenya after the country’s Supreme Court overturned the August 8 election results, but they are getting nasty. Though he continues to promise that he will abide by the ruling and hold new elections within 60 days, President Uhuru Kenyatta apparently can’t help but take shots at the court in his public statements, saying on Saturday that “we have a problem [with the judiciary] and we must fix it.” It’s unclear who “we” is though I’m sure Kenyatta would like to think that it’s all Kenyans. In response, the Kenyan Magistrates and Judges Association issued a statement late Saturday condemning Kenyatta’s “veiled threats” against the judges, and on Sunday the head of the country’s trade union association urged Kenyatta to get treatment for his alcoholism (!), which is apparently an open secret in Kenya and particularly surfaces when the president is mad about something.

Meanwhile, two Kenyan police officers were killed Sunday by gunmen, presumably from al-Shabab, who attacked a church in the southern town of Ukunda.


Al-Shabab fighters attacked a Somali military base near the city of Kismayu on Sunday. There’s been no official word as to casualties–al-Shabab says its men killed 26 Somali soldiers, but their figures are (unsurprisingly) usually a far bit higher than the ones the government releases.

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