Gene Drive Explainer

If you have even the foggiest memory of high school biology, you most likely, at some point, were acquainted with Gregor Mandel. He was an Austrian monk and naturalist who had a particular fondness for peas. Ring any bells? If not here’s a refresher: he found that when he crossed a purebred yellow pea plant with a purebred green pea plant, the offspring were all yellow. He then let those offspring self-fertilize and found that for every three yellow plants, there was one yellow one. From this little experiment, he deduced that some traits, like the “yellow” plant color in peas, are dominant over other traits like the “green” plant color. Moreover, he identified that each parent provided a factor (we now call them genes and call the set of their variants, alleles) that determined how the trait would appear in offspring, and that these factors are passed along independently of one another. Here’s a diagram to help make it more clear:


Got it? Good. Well, I’m here to tell you that scientists have been working on technologies that tease and prod the rules of Mendelian inheritance and they’re doing it with a kind of technology called a gene drive. Gene drives bias the inheritance of certain alleles so that those alleles are driven throughout a population.

The idea of building a way to drive a specific gene throughout an entire population is not new, selfish genes, or genes that bias their own transmission, are found throughout nature.

In the 1960s, scientists imagined how we might take advantage of genetics to confer immunity to pathogens in insect pests. The idea of using genetics to manage wild populations gained more interest after Austin Burt in 2003 described the kind tool necessary to make it happen; a kind of “find and replace” for DNA.

In 2012, researchers finally had that tool — CRISPR. CRISPR, and its family of associated proteins (Cas), represent a big step up in how scientists find, cut, and replace genomic DNA. Its easier and more efficient to use than other techniques and is cheaper to boot. CRISPR is found in nature as a way for bacteria to defend themselves from viruses by maintaining short segments of viral DNA, as a sort of memory of infection, to use as a cutting pattern. Scientists can use this system to target and cut virtually any piece of DNA which can then be repaired to include virtually any other piece of DNA.


It’s important not to understate how remarkable it is to engineer a particular trait to be passed along hereditarily and this is true for two critical reasons. The first is that whenever we attempt to alter the genetics of an organism in the wild, the result is almost guaranteed to be less fit than its unaltered counterparts. This is because, fitness, or the ability to successfully compete and reproduce in the wild, is the lever by which natural selection works. The many forms of life we see around us are products of evolution, optimized for a given environment, and thus the winners of a competition that’s been happening since the dawn of life. The second is the biological process that passes on genes from each parent to the offspring happens on an incredibly short time scale. The entire process of finding, cutting and replacing genomic DNA has to be “turned on” at exactly the right time. Too early, and you might cause unintended effects that hurt fitness more, too late, and the window passes for the editing to be effectively inherited.

After reading that you might be wondering: how practical and/or feasible is it that gene drives will get made and released? Well, Gene drives could be very effective in slowing or eliminating the potential of vector-borne diseases spread by insects like Lyme, dengue, Zika, or malaria. As malaria alone is responsible for over 400,000 deaths a year and the mosquitos that are responsible serve no unique niche, there’s a strong incentive to develop the technology. In laboratory settings, scientists have been able to use a gene drive to crash a population of the malaria vector.  For species with long reproductive cycles, like humans, it would take an impractical amount of time, on the order of centuries or millennia. In agriculture, it may be useful to create localized drives to suppress the populations of pests like weeds. That being said, in the case of domesticated livestock, much of the reproductive cycle is already closely overseen by traditional methods and commercial-scale livestock already suffer greatly from a fitness disadvantage because of it.

Genome editing is still in its infancy — there is still much to discovered and discussed about how and when it used. Time will tell if gene drives will live up to the attention they have received.

The shape of the clean meat industry

I made a story about clean meat on Graph Commons that you can check out here. It’s a bit light as an explainer piece as it took me a while to find a decent, online graph maker.

Graph Commons is a relatively intuitive tool to use. While I was excited about the speed at which I could build the graph, I quickly noticed difficulties between what I envisioned and what this tool offered.

  • It’s difficult to create clustering based on your choice of features e.g. food product or investors
  • Nodes have categories, the highest level of grouping, and properties which can provide additional information. You can’t color nodes based on their property.
  • Their story feature is shaped around slides and zooming in on sections of the graph. You can’t have a story where the graph is built (through animation) alongside a main body of text. A good example of this would be where the media supports the text.

Still, Graph Commons may be a good tool to draft a graph and export the data to a more customizable tool.

On the general idea of incorporating graphs into storytelling, it’s much more feasible to have it manually authored rather than computer generated. Although the most useful form of the tool might be a browser extension that generates a graph as you read an article, that’s difficult. Automatically generating graph networks based on text is an ongoing (read: unsolved) research field for knowledge representations in artificial intelligence. On the hand, having the author create the graph and its animation alongside the article is a natural extension of curating a story into an article, creating a graphical structure alongside a textual one. The trade-off is that requires more work on the author’s part. This additional work may be offset if the author considers it a valuable tool to use while they’re crafting the story.

The decline of the Arab-Jewish Population

This week, I came across an opinion piece titled “The Moroccan Exception in the Arab World” by Yaëlle Azagury and Anouar Majid. This article focused on the revival and restoration of Morocco’s Jewish heritage through the policies of King Mohammed VI. The authors’ main argument is whether the revival is symbolic or an intentional endeavor by the country to revive its declining Jewish population. Given that the existing Jewish population in Morocco has dwindled from around 250,000 in the 1940s to around 2,400 citizens today, the authors feel that the symbolic aspect of these policies is more dominant.

What are the reasons for this drastic decline?

First, we need to acknowledge that this decline is prevalent in all the Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa. This phenomenon was triggered and accelerated by the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. The aftermath of this war led to significant casualties on both sides, 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled by Israeli forces, and Israel annexed 22% more than the UN Partition Plan had allocated. The strategic losses incurred by the Arab countries involved in the war, the growth of nationalism among Arab nations, and the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state and a homeland for Jewish people were all factors that contributed one way or another to the Jewish exodus from Arab countries.

It is hard to estimate the exact numbers of Arab Jewish citizens who have fled their respective countries, but it is estimated that around one million Jews in North Africa and the Middle East left their homes in the decade after the creation of Israel.

I used several data sources, including the data published by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs to create a visual that gives a better perspective of the exodus of the Arab Jewish citizens between 1948 up until 2005.

The most significant decline in the Jewish population took place between 1948 and 1967. The Six-Day Arab-Israeli War of 1967 was another trigger that made it almost impossible for Arab Jewish citizens to openly identify their religion due to the growing hostility against Israel. Many Arab states utilized their nationalistic agendas to represent the Jewish Arab population as a population that is more loyal to the Israeli Jewish homeland than to their respective countries. Policies were drafted to alienate and isolate the Arab Jewish population. These policies varied across the different Arab states, but they included: imposing specific restrictions on Jewish businesses and associations, limiting religious practices, subjecting the majority of the population to procedural harassment and continuous surveillance.

These circumstances may help us understand the significant decline of the Jewish population in Arab states. Many Arab Jews were also attracted by the prospects of living in a Jewish state that embraces their Jewish identity.

What happened beyond 1967?

The decline between 1948 and 1967 was so severe that the subsequent exodus of many Arab Jews beyond this period may be considered trivial. It has also become extremely hard to identify the Arab Jewish citizens who are still living in Arab countries due to the lack of public census data that identifies them. The remaining Jewish citizens are also less comfortable in publicly identifying their religion due to fear of harassment from both public and state actors.

Restorative Justice and Circle: An Explainer

In response to the United States’ crises of mass incarceration, the “school to prison pipeline,” and the racial disparities that can lead to incarceration, many teachers, academics, and activists are calling for alternative systems of discipline, or alternative systems of addressing harm in the classroom. In that effort, “Restorative Justice” (RJ) has become a popular topic that continues to pop up in legislation, experiments and programs in schools, and within prisons. But you may wonder, what does RJ entail? And how is it different than our current justice system?

In this explainer, I’ll show the difference between retributive (or punitive) and restorative justice, how restorative justice is practiced, as well as its limitations, reach, and impact globally.

A Brief History

At the core of their values, the United States, most Western nations, and victims of colonization and invasion define justice as retributive and punitive. To reach justice, punishment must be administered to the offender. “An eye for an eye” is the mantra of retribution, not a warning against it.

However, it has not always been this way globally. The indigenous peoples of North and south America, Africa, and beyond (evidence of practices reminiscent of Circle are found even in some european indigenous communities remains) respond to  harm done within their communities through restoration, not necessarily retribution, through community dialogue and discussion, one practice of which we call Circle.

The Circle practice the groups in Boston practice is most similar to the Plains Peoples of North America. In the 1990s, in response to experiencing their own incarceration crisis created by the Canadian people, First Nation communities sought alternatives to the punitive justice system of Canada that was disproportionately incarcerating Native people, and brought forward Restorative Justice and Circle practices.

What is the difference between retributive and restorative justice?

Adapted from Fraser Region Community Justice Initiatives Association

Fundamentally, the difference between a retribution (or punitive) and restoration model is where our community puts the focus after harm has been caused. After some harm in retributive justice, the emphasis of the responding party is placed on the perpetrator: what rule did they break? How do we punish them?

The response focuses on establishing blame and making the community prove the harm happened. Justice then is achieved in the familiar model of trial by jury, establishment of guilt, and then delivering the proper punishment that’s gravity, it seems to those delivering it, fits the crime.

In restorative justice, on the other hand, the person or group responsible for responding will focus on the survivor of the harm and all those affected: what do they need? What does their family need? What will help them overcome this challenge or harm?

Restorative justice does not see harm as simply broken rules, but people hurt and relationships damaged. It inherently looks at the community and the impact of the harm more holistically, where punitive justice can look at only two actors. After understanding the needs of the person harmed, justice is not necessarily sought through proving the person committed the crime, but rather through community dialogue, understanding, and reparation.

Then, justice is seen to be achieved when 1) people take responsibility for their actions,  2) people’s needs are met, or 3) healing of individuals and relationships occurs.

After a more punitive response, it is difficult to attain full acceptance back into one’s family, school, or community without a stigmatized label attached. One mission of restorative responses is to maximize the possibility of full acceptance without that label and with healing for all parties involved.

What does this look like?

So there are these great ideas of other ways to know justice, but it is unclear how to execute them. Luckily, groups like the Suffolk Center for Restorative Justice, the Harvard Divinity School Religion and Practices of Peace program, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, and many others nationwide offer trainings on Restorative Justice Practices, some of which I was lucky enough to attend! And in those trainings, my fellow classmates and I learned to keep Circle.

To begin, there are multiple kinds of Circles, including those to simply build community and trust, and those to address harm. Each Circle is unique and must be adapted and edited to meet the needs of the situation and the group. *As a disclaimer, this is not an endorsement to practice harm Circles, and you should not without training.*

Circle is the process that facilitates community dialogue and understanding that enables  reparations and healing for justice to be reached in a restorative way. To do this, a keeper (or facilitator, the words are used interchangeably), speaks with all parties affected individually. While speaking with the parties (and identifying that no further harm or violence will come from the circle, that the parties all acknowledge wrongdoing in some way, and that all parties are willing to be there), she invites them to circle.

With a group of ideally about 15 sitting in a circle with no tables between them, and a centerpiece (often a circular cloth, a plant, some water, a candle, and rocks to represent earth), the keeper will open the circle. To ceremonially begin sets the tone of the space, grounds the group, and puts the participants into the Circle mindset.

Then, the Circle begins. If is the group’s first circle, they collectively decide on values and guidelines for how the circle goes. The facilitator will then start with prompts she asks the group. She can start and answer the prompt herself, setting the tone for Circle, or pass along the talking piece for someone else to start first. Each Circle has a talking piece, an object that grants the holder the ability to speak. While someone has the talking piece, everyone else listens. This enables each person to feel as if they have a voice that is valued, and that they have the ear of their community who will listen to and absorb their stories and concerns.  

Sometimes (quite frequently), holding the Circle, hearing the person who caused harm admit to causing that harm in front of the community, can be enough for the person who was harmed and their people to be satisfied and require no further action. Other times, the group will come to the conclusion that more action is needed, more Circles must be had, or reparations beyond dialogue are necessary to enable healing.

But aren’t there limits?

When I first began engaging in the restorative justice space, I always believed there to be limits. I would think, “I couldn’t get in a room and hold Circle with someone who killed someone I loved” or “sexual abuse and sexual assault are beyond restoration.” I knew this process was not for all crimes.

However, Sujatha Baliga, the Executive Director of the Restorative Justice Project at Impact Justice (a national innovation and research center focused on justice reform) has built her career on the foundation that there are no limits for the types of acts that can be forgiven, from abuse to murder.  

She tells her own story of experiencing relentless sexual abuse as a young person, moving through life carrying and motivated by a deep anger, and how she experienced transformation through forgiveness in this interview. Initially motivated to lock away all sexual abusers, now she advocates for and deeply believes in the power of restorative justice, Circle, and forgiveness to heal those who have been harmed and those who have harmed.

However, addressing a different restriction, there are limits to what one person can hold. It could be incredibly taxing and emotionally damaging to the facilitator or keeper to listen to trauma and pain on one-on-one discussions over and over. Yet, in Circle, the facilitator is decentralized, and the trauma, pain, and harm expressed is not held by one person, but by the group. This decentralized group listening removes the bulk of the burden from the keeper, and distributes it throughout the Circle in a way that enables healing for all through listening, empathy, and support as well as a strengthened bond through intimate experience shared openly.

Are there other applications?

Circle does not need to be only held when harm occurs. For example, in this video shown at RJOY’s training, you can see after harm, a young man uses Circle to re-enter school. In another shown by Suffolk Center for Restorative Justice, the process builds community and trust between participants and acts as a apparatus of support. Circle has been even practices among youth as young as kindergarten. The goal is not only alternative forms of justice, but also to enable social emotional learning in students and develop trust and support within a community.

Does it really work?

Yes! New Zealand has found success implementing restorative justice in their juvenile justice system, completely transforming the process, dropping their youth incarceration from over 6000 children and young people yearly to less than 2000. While the US government did not find large reductions in recidivism or expulsion, individual schools have found success with Circle and RJ practice, almost completely eliminating expulsion and greatly reducing suspension rates.

But why does it matter?

As the inspiration for this explainer touches on, the criminal justice system in the United States is horrific, dehumanizing, and racist among many other things. It is unbelievable an institution like this exists and that we stand for it (until I remember the crimes we commit daily, the water in Flint, children in cages, etc…). As we push forward with a retributive justice model as a society, we perpetuate that dehumanization of incarcerated folks, which because of racial disparities as Michelle Alexander explains, ends up looking a lot like a thinly veiled re-incarnation of slavery.

Often an afterthought, juvenile justice in the US looks similarly dismal. The School to Prison Pipeline becomes more deeply ingrained into our society, it is essential to re-assess the values that define the systems we build, and search for and implement other, equitable, restorative-over-punitive systems to transform our justice system, to remember that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Information from Living Justice Press, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth

Explaining West Virginia’s Struggle

The legacy of coal is important in understanding the future of Appalachia. Coal taken from West Virginian (and other Appalachian) mountains almost literally powered building the industrialized United States. While mines were operational, miners largely earned living wages, joined strong unions, and achieved a middle class life. However, coal today makes up a far smaller portion of American energy consumption than 50 years ago, and many of the geographic areas producing coal are now poverty-stricken and suffering from public health crises ranging from opioids to smoking to obesity. In thinking about why this is the case, it is important to keep a few facts in mind:

Most coal mines were located far from established towns, which led miners and mining companies to build towns in more convenient locations. These included cheap homes, a company store, and a church. Rather than bringing the banking system to the miners, mining companies generally paid miners in “coal scrip,” a simplified system in which miners could exchange the scrip tokens for goods at the company store. Though convenient at the time, this system created generations of miners and families that lacked financial literacy and were excluded from the modern financial system.

Coal mining is hard. Ranging from respiratory problems (e.g., black lung) to chronic pain, there is no doubt that miners themselves paid a physical price of walking into mines every day. But coal by itself does not explain the opioid crisis. While true that there is evidence that substandard working conditions can lead to addiction, and over-prescription of opioids should not be overlooked, a more comprehensive view leads to a “disease of despair” explanation for the West Virginia opioid crisis. So we should think about education, obesity, and poverty (to name a few) as part of a system that creates economic and social disadvantage that helps explain the severity of the problems in West Virginia.

Regional differences in West Virginia are important. Coal production in Southern West Virginia decreased approximately 70% (from 130 million tons to 40 million tons) between 2000 and 2017. Yet for Northern West Virginia, production actually modestly increased from just under 40 million tons in 2000 to just over 40 million tons in 2017. To explain this, we can note a few important factors: first, to the extent there is other industry in West Virginia, it is located in the Northern part of the state (primarily logging and shale gas mining). Second, the Northern West Virginia is geographically less remote than the Southern part: the “Eastern Panhandle” arguably benefits from Washington D.C. spillover effects and the “Northern Panhandle” includes suburbs of Pittsburgh (commuters drive for less than an hour). These regional differences manifest in demographic and public health statistics: Southern West Virginia shows worse public health outcomes, has lower median HHI, and lower life expectancy than Northern West Virginia.

West Virginia has historically not invested in public education. Despite modest gains based on the successful 2018 teacher strike that resulted in a 5% raise (and catalyzed teacher strikes in numerous other states), West Virginia remains significantly behind on public education. West Virginia ranks last in percent of population with a bachelor’s degree (a shade under 20%) and 49th in percent of population with an advanced degree (7.9%). West Virginia teachers went on strike again in 2019 protesting a state bill privatizing public education despite the fact that if passed teachers would have gained an additional 5% raise. Structurally, this investment stems at least partially from the lack of education necessary for coal mining jobs: historically, many West Virginians sacrificed formal education to enter the mines.

As an employer, coal has not been replaced. Today, Wal-Mart is the state’s second largest private employer, Kroger the fourth, and Lowe’s the seventh. The rest of the top ten include five hospitals, Mylan pharmaceuticals (generic drug-maker), and Res-Care (Kentucky-based company providing in-home services to people with disabilities). Notably, there is not a single energy company on this list. It is hard to find longitudinal employment statistics, but just since 2005, coal industry employment has dropped approximately 30%. The number since the height of coal production (e.g., 1950) would almost certainly be far more staggering. It is also important to note that West Virginia is not the only state impacted by the decline of coal: of the top ten coal-mining companies in the US ranked by production per year in 2014, the first, second, fourth, and seventh (representing 44.2% of total 2014 coal production) were bankrupt by 2018.

State government has historically promoted pro-business policies that helped coal companies thrive. Specifically with regards to environmental protections, West Virginia has been on the forefront of deregulation. Though a cherry-picked example, it is almost unbelievable that weeks after a chemical spill at a coal refining plant spilled 10,000 gallons of chemicals into the Elk River leaving ~300,000 people without potable water, Democratic governor Earl Ray Tomblin warned the Obama EPA of “unreasonable” protections.

The “scandal of invisibility” as a new priority for international development

What is identification and why is it so important?

The “scandal of invisibility” [1] is the situation of millions of people who are not taken into account in any official statistics, and thus who cannot fulfil the rights enabled by being registered. In most countries, civil registration is a condition to have access to citizenship, property, and also health care, the education system, social protection, among other rights.

Moreover, some studies show that in history, identification has been essential to help countries grow. In particular, it is before the industrial revolution of the 19th Century that Great Britain developed its identification system. This system was crucial in supporting the economic development of these years, especially because it enabled to secure property rights.

The legislative background

The United Nations declared identification at birth a human right in the Article 7 of the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, today, almost half of the world population live out their lives unrecorded by any state or civil registration[1]. The largest unregistered populations live in South Asia and on the African continent (both regions together account for 79% of all unregistered births), where until very recently, national systems of civil registration have not succeeded in recording a majority of births.

Developing countries may have struggled with this issues, and this for various reasons

In Tanzania for instance nearly half of children born in the developing world are not registered. Tanzania has one of the lowest rates of birth registration in the world: only 8% of children have birth certificates. Research[2] shows that lack of birth certificate leads to the social reproduction of poverty from one generation to the next, because identity documents are essential in order to benefit from Tanzanian social rights (health in particular).

In Indonesia[3], research shows that the poorer and rural population is the one who had the lowest registration rate. Some measures have been taken by the government in order to improve access to civil registrations services, and to support the families in the process, but many of them are still not part of the system.

The recent call from the international community

In 2000, the Millennium Development Goals launched at the United Nations already focused on health topics, and relied on data for fertility, mortality and causes of death, and underlined that data and measurement of progress were essential. More recently, in 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals ( also have underlined the need to improve the world’s identification systems (the SDG 16 aims to achieve “legal identity for all, including birth registration” by 2030). The objective is not only to give people access to the basic needs of health, education, etc., but also to take all the populations into account when development progress is measured.

Also, the World Bank launched the Initiative “Identification 4 development” ( aimed at bringing development partners together, and raising funds to help the poorest countries to develop identification system and make sure that the poorest are registered and can access social services.

The new Development Agenda raises awareness on the issue, and set this civic identification as a priority. We can hope that programs and measures that will be implemented will enable the most of us, and especially the poorest in developing countries, to fulfill their basic needs.






[1] Breckenridge Keith, and Szreter Simon, Registration and Recognition: Documenting the Person in World History, 2012, Oxford: Published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 2012

[2] Birth Rights: Birth registration, health, and human rights in Tanzania, Wood, Summer, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses

[3] Sumner, Cate, Indonesia’s Missing Millions: Erasing Discrimination in Birth Certification in Indonesia, Policy File Policy File, Center for Global Development


[1] Setel, Philip W; Macfarlane, Sarah B; Szreter, Simon; Mikkelsen, Lene; Jha, Prabhat; Stout, Susan; Abouzahr, Carla. (2007). A scandal of invisibility: making everyone count by counting everyone. The Lancet, 2007, Vol.370(9598), pp.1569-1577

#AllHairMatters or Nah?

When Sundial, the company behind Shea Moisture brand, released the latest in its #EverybodyGetsLove campaign, the black-owned beauty company made it clear that their new target audience is white.

There was one token black girl – a mixed woman – with long, curly hair. Her and two white women talked about “hair hate.”

How can a black beauty line tangle through the issues of hair hate without talking to black women about the impact European beauty standards have had on them? Black hair has long been treated by societal bias at large as unkempt, dirty and undesirable. Ciara and Alicia Keys wear braids and it’s called urban. Kylie and Kendall do it and it’s claimed the new, chic trend. I think it’s what drives the psychic impulse that has black women spending 80% more on beauty products than other women. Despite that buying power, beauty aisles have very limited haircare selections for black hair.

White women have options on options. So its surprising Sundial felt the need to expand their line. They didn’t put nearly this much effort into launching their Madam C.J. Walker collection last year. Then again, capitalism is capitalism and businesses are meant to grow. But if you built your brand on the scalps of black women, you don’t have to erase them to include white women. You don’t have to find the fairest, most racially ambiguous black girl to tokenize alongside them. Cater to us all, rather than participate in the long practice of erasing black women.

Not different from the Pepsi debacle, a hashtag protest led to immediate shutdown of the ad and a quick apology.

Wow, okay – so guys, listen, we really f-ed this one up. Please know that our intention was not – and would never be –…

SheaMoisture 发布于 2017年4月24日

But if we have the power to shut down ads, shouldn’t we ask for more? It’s not enough to withdraw your money from one capitalist venture and switch to another or quiet down once the ad comes down.

Are we happy to support a black-owned company whose idea of inclusivity isn’t to do the smart thing and simply include white women, but instead it does the American thing and shoves black women aside? When black-owned companies make millions thanks to the support of black buyers, should we not expect them to buy black as well? Had Sundial used a black ad agency, this would have never happened.

And like I said, capitalists are going to be capitalists. But if you have the power to pull ads, why not demand community support. Sundial could be donating money or product to black shelters much like Pepsi should have donated money to #BlackLivesMatter instead of apologizing to Kendall Jenner for paying her a million to insult a civil rights movement. We can’t just smooth this over with a few tweets. We have to comb through the issues.

War games – what you need to know about current North Korea’s nuclear politics

By Dijana Milenov and Mika Kanaya

What is a timeline of five nuclear tests?

1) October 9, 2006

North Korea initiated its first nuclear testing, becoming the eighth country in history.

2)  May 25, 2009

The North Korean official news agency announced that it “successfully conducted one more underground nuclear test…. as part of the measures to bolster up its nuclear deterrent for self-defense in every way.”

3)  February 12, 2013

UN approves fresh sanctions after North Korea stages its third nuclear test, said to be more powerful than the 2009 test.

4)  January 6, 2016

An anchorwoman in the state TV said, “The republic’s first hydrogen bomb test has been successfully performed.” Before the test, North Korean state media said the country “deserved to hold nuclear weapons… to counter nuclear threats by the U.S.”

5)  September 9, 2016

South Korea believes it is the North’s biggest-ever test, raising fears it has made significant nuclear advances. This was the first time North Korea conducted two nuclear tests within the same year.

What is the real issue this time?

Global political situation changed. There is a new president in the U.S., and Pyongyang is trying to reframe their relationship and the power dynamics by pushing the new administration. Despite the international strategies to pressure denuclearization, there is a worry that intercepting missiles could escalate tensions and risk war.

The Japan Times summarized the move as follows:

“Though tensions had been rising dangerously between Washington and Pyongyang in the lead-up to the April 15 anniversary, the biggest holiday of the year in North Korea, the heightened rhetoric and saber-rattling on both sides could begin to cool down — a pattern that has been common in recent years, especially in the spring, when the U.S. and South Korea stage their huge annual war games.

But this year, there is a new issue. In an interview with The Associated Press on Friday, a senior North Korean official said that Pyongyang has determined that Trump is “more vicious and aggressive” than his predecessor, Barack Obama. And Pyongyang is vowing it won’t back down.”[1]

What was a missile which exploded seconds after the launch on Sunday? 

The latest North Korean missile launch may have been of a new and hitherto unknown systems being developed by the leader Kim Jong Un’s regime, a weapons expert said Monday.

The Pentagon has not discussed which missile blew up “almost immediately” after launch early Sunday from near Sinpo on the North’s east coast, and the White House has said only that it was a medium-range device. John Schilling, a weapons expert with the 38 North monitoring group, said the launch failure was indicative of a new systems test.

What type of missiles North Korea owns and what is the real threat? 

North Korea’s big day, the anniversary of the birth of its founding leader, Kim Il Sung, was April 15 and the latest missiles were on display in a military parade. Experts believe the arsenal displayed in Saturday’s parade included a new kind of short-range cruise missile, probably for coastal defenses. North Korea also unveiled its latest submarine-launched ballistic missile and a version of the same missile that can be launched from land-based launchers — both of which use solid fuel and present a far greater challenge to find and destroy before they’re fired off. And it showed off canisters that seemed in line with what would be required for an intercontinental ballistic missile, which is Washington’s major concern.

However, the large and small missiles at the parade was meant to send out a strong message that North Korea is able to “project its power well beyond its own borders”. At the very least, to the U.S. military bases in Japan. At the most, to the U.S. mainland itself.

How does China, a long-term ally of North Korea, handle the situation?

China’s bottom line is that it does not want the collapse of the regime in Pyongyang if that leads to a chaotic power vacuum, possibly filled by the U.S. and its allies. China is also concerned about South Korea’s deployment of an anti-missile defense system (known as THAAD), and by the allies’ annual joint military exercises. So, there is a strong pressure from Beijing on North Korea. They have implemented economic sanctions such as refusing coal shipments and they are talking about cutting off oil shipments. Flights between Beijing and Pyongyang operated by Air China were also suspended on April 17. However, NPR points out tighter implementation of economic sanctions could be challenging.

“Most of China’s giant state-owned enterprises have scant involvement with North Korea; they have too many interests elsewhere to risk getting sanctioned in pursuit of limited profits. Smaller firms more often find smuggling worth the risk, and Beijing often cannot control them, because local authorities protect them.”[2]

President Donald Trump also tweeted on Sunday that Beijing was “working with us on the North Korean problem”. He had stated last week that the U.S. and its allies may “deal with” Pyongyang if China did not.

What was the U.S. response this time?

1) Mike Pence visit to South Korea

U.S. Vice President, Mike Pence on Monday warned North Korea not to test the determination of the U.S. “or the strength of our military forces”. “We will defeat any attack and we will meet any use of conventional or nuclear weapons with an overwhelming and effective response,” Pence said, adding that when it came to North Korea “all options are on the table.”[3]

2) An aircraft carrier group

Last week, President Donald Trump said that an aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was sent to Korean Peninsula as a warning to Kim Jong-Un’s government. However, a Navy photograph over the weekend showed the Carl Vinson in the Sunda Strait near the Indonesian islands, 3,000 miles from Korean Peninsula.

3) Radiation sniffer plane

The U.S. Air Force WC-135C Constant Phoenix Nuclear explosion “sniffer” has arrived in Japan. There are only two aircrafts of this type and one of them is in Japan since April 12.

Future actions? 

Han Song-Ryol, North Korea’s deputy foreign minister told the BBC that Pyongyang would continue to test missiles “on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis”[4]. “All-out war would ensue if the U.S. took military action, he said.”[5]

The Korea Herald reports that the Carl Vinson Strike Group is due to arrive in the region by April 25, the day that North Korea is due to commemorate the 85th anniversary of the founding of its army. Some experts believe that Pyongyang may choose to conduct its sixth nuclear test, or another missile launch, around that date. The U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will be in Hawaii on April 24-25, concluding his 10-day trip to Asia.







Taiwan: When a phone call becomes an issue.

Shortly after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, he took a call from Taiwanese President, Tsai Ing-wen. In doing this he appeared to be ignoring or possibly discarding established US policy on Taiwan, which is that the United States does not have diplomatic ties to the island, which China considers to be its sovereign territory. The phone call sparked much media debate but little explanation about US-Taiwan relations and China-Taiwan relations, yet Taiwan plays a prominent role in a number of issues of vital global importance.

The following is a brief overview of important facts about Taiwan and its importance as well as key initiatives of mainland China that of international significance.

  • Where is Taiwan located?
  • Is Taiwan a democracy?
  • How are Taiwan and China connected?
  • How are the Chinese and Taiwanese governments different?
  • If Taiwan is functionally an independent country, why is there this “one China” policy?
  • Where is the US in this?
  • What happened to Taiwan when the US established formal relations with China (PRC)?
  • What effect does not having official diplomatic status as a nation state have on Taiwan?
  • Taiwan is a small island. How important is it in international affairs?
  • What are some of China’s key interests and initiatives?
  • What is the Belt and Road Initiative?
  • What is the AIIB?

Where is Taiwan located?

Taiwan is an island off the coast of mainland China bordering the South China Sea (SCS). When the Chinese Nationalists (国民党, KMT, Kuomingtang), led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled the Communist Chinese (共产党, CCP, Chinese Communist Party) in the mid-twentieth century, the bulk of the Nationalist army retreated to Taiwan. Other names for Taiwan include Republic of China and Formosa. Taiwan has conflicting claims with China to islands in the SCS.

Is Taiwan a democracy?

Yes. Taiwan has a free press, rule of law-based system of governance, independent judiciary, and democratic elections. It also maintains its own military. Taiwan was governed under martial law by the KMT (the party of Chiang Kai-shek) until July 14, 1987 but then successfully transitioned to a democratic system of governance.

How are Taiwan and China connected?

The governments of both China and Taiwan have their roots on the Chinese mainland. Chiang Kai-shek inherited the leadership of the KMT from Sun Yat-sen, who is regarded by both the KMT and CCP as the father of the Republic of China (1918-1937).

A civil war (the 1949 Communist Revolution) between the Chinese Nationalists and Chinese Communists ended in the defeat of the Nationalists. Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist (KMT) army retreated to Taiwan.  Chiang Kai-shek did not acknowledge the Chinese Communists as the legitimate government of the China. Over time the two countries established separate systems of governance, but the PRC has not given up its claims to Taiwan, which it refers to as a “rogue province,” and Taiwan still officially refers to itself as the “Republic of China.”

How are the Chinese and Taiwanese governments different?

China is a single party state under the control of the Chinese Communist Party. Taiwan has developed a two party political system and holds democratic elections. Taiwan has two main political parties–the independence leaning DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) and the KMT.

If Taiwan is functionally an independent country, why is there this “one China” Policy?

In pragmatic terms, the “one China” policy preserves a status quo where China and Taiwan avoid armed conflict and issues related to Taiwanese independence. Countries must choose to have diplomatic relations with either Taiwan or the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan’s official name is still the “Republic of China.” China-Taiwan relations are also referred to as “Cross-Strait Relations.” China has stated that it will invade Taiwan if the island declares independence.

Where is the US in this?

The short answer is that the United States supported Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT over competing warlords in the early twentieth century and later over the Chinese Communists. China was invaded by Japan in 1937 and joined the Allied Powers when the United States entered World War II. The dynamics of armed conflict in China during the twentieth century are complex. The United States maintained diplomatic ties with the “Republic of China” under the KMT until 1976.

What happened to Taiwan when the US established formal relations with China (PRC)?

The United States switched its official diplomatic ties to the PRC in 1979 following then President Richard Nixon’s landmark 1972 visit to the Chinese mainland. The PRC replaced Taiwan in the United Nations and on the UN Security Council in 1971. The United States continues to maintain strong economic ties with Taiwan, its fourth largest trading partner, and also sells defensive armaments to the island per the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.

What effect does not having official diplomatic status as a nation state have on Taiwan?

Lack of official status puts Taiwan in a difficult position internationally. It operates independently of mainland China, but cannot claim the rights and privileges of an independent nation state. As the PRC grows in power, it has taken steps intended to bring the island under the control of Beijing.

It is difficult for Taiwanese representatives to participate in international organizations and decision making bodies, including academic conferences, model UN meetings, and the Olympics. Recently, China has pressured a number of countries to deport Taiwanese passport holders to the PRC, claiming them as “Chinese citizens,” and arrested a pro-democracy activist who is a Taiwanese national.

Taiwan is a small island. How important is it in international affairs?

As China gains international strength and prominence, it also grows in international influence. Taiwan is one of many areas in Asia that maintain democratic systems of governance, and its political system is affected by Chinese influence. In some senses, Taiwan is a bellwether for how democracy and democratic institutions in Asia are responding to China’s growing influence.

Hong Kong is another such case. As a former British colony that returned to mainland China in 1997, the city is supposed to operate under an autonomous and democratic system of government for the next 30 years; however, there are signs that Hong Kong’s democratic institutions are being eroded. Other Asian democracies–Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and India among them–must negotiate their own strategic interests with an increasingly powerful Chinese state.

What are some of China’s key interests and initiatives?

China has initiated economic initiatives, including the “Belt and Road” and established the AIIB as a competitor and possibly alternative to the World Bank. It has acted to assert claims to the South China Sea, which is an area of importance in terms of commerce and natural resources.

What is the Belt and Road Initiative?

The Belt and Road initiative is also known as One Belt, One Road (OBOR) (一带一路). The Belt and Road initiative is the PRC’s strategic economic initiative to develop a southern “maritime Silk Road” and land-based Silk Road or “belt” through Central Asia and extending into Europe.

What is the AIIB?

The AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) is an organization spearheaded by mainland China as an effective alternative to the World Bank, which it views as an institution dominated by the United States and other western countries. The United States, while invited to join the AIIB, has not done so. China has attracted the participation of AIIB countries by offering incentives, such as investment in the infrastructure of participating countries. AIIB strategically advances China’s economic interests and complements its Belt and Road (一带一路) initiative.